Growing in Generosity

unnamedStory “The Gift” 

Sermon “Growing in Generosity” 

In her book, Packing for Mars, Mary Roach shares that in the very first space station,
the engineers realized they wouldn’t need tables.  Because, no gravity meant you couldn’t sit down, and the food and the plates would be floating everywhere; it would just be – a mess.  So, they decided, no tables.

But then, after the first mission, the astronauts came back and told them it was a complete mistake. It had been awful without tables, regardless of the whole gravity situation.  They didn’t like not being able to eat and gather as a group.  Put straps on the them, but don’t skip them. Without tables, they just didn’t feel fully human.

This is why I love Thanksgiving.  It’s a whole holiday, where the main practice is all about sitting at tables, and eating.  Eating and being grateful, and being with people you love, sharing freely, and…eating, and giving thanks.

There’s a bunch of readings, as we get closer to Christmas, about how much Christmas is needed in the world – I’ve preached on them. They talk about how we need hope in a struggling world, the light of a distant star….you’ve heard them…. “Come Christmas!”

These are all good, but this year, I’ve been thinking how much we really need Thanksgiving.

Because this year, it feels to me like everyone everywhere is in a bad mood. Like, the whole world has gone to a special place my family growing up used to call “crank city.”
People are unusually short-tempered, as if everyone is in that place where the next thing that goes wrong will be the “last straw” and they’ll really lose it.

It’s unusual to experience this in Fort Collins, our happy town, but I think it has something to do with our growth. The rising cost of living, the packed roads, the disappearing open space, and the ways that so many long time residents are retiring in Loveland, or Windsor. It’s not that far away, but still there’s this cumulative grief, and disorientation. Things are changing.

Maybe even more, I’ve been feeling the impact of being in year two of this chaotic and often inhumane presidency and its ripple effects.

A year ago, there was a collective sense of shock, but also we shared a powerful desire and drive for resistance, and organizing. A year later, we’re realizing what a long haul it all is, how deep the fractures are, how exhausting the daily shocks can be– how many times will we have to fight for these small scraps of a health care policy? ….and most of all, it’s sinking in how some of our long-held practices of powering through are not going to cut it if we’re going to make it.

We need Thanksgiving.

We need a chance to sit together around a table, and share the stories of our lives.  We need to linger too long over mashed potatoes while sharing the stories of the people who’ve had our backs, the places we’ve gone to feel better, and maybe even more, confessing the ones who didn’t, and our struggle to find that sense of home.

We need to pass the cranberries and the stuffing, and feel ourselves sharing, and giving, receiving and breathing, to find again, this connecting thread of life.

In this dehumanizing time, we need this to gather around a table, and remember what it means to be human, together.

Although I spoke earlier about that whole cranky-bad-mood-state as if it was about everyone else…I confess this general bad mood state was exactly where I was last Thursday as I drove to Denver for a 2-day training. I was irritated that I’d be gone all day, short tempered at all the traffic, and I was cranky about time – how impossible it felt that I’d ever be able to crack open this whole idea of generosity for this sermon that was fast approaching…especially when I needed to be in a training for two.whole.days.

How would it even be possible, I wondered, for people to feel generous right now, I mean
when the world is so freaking irritating….This training was actually something I’d been looking forward to – it was for progressive faith leaders on how to share our good news and the story of our work with the media….but….you know how trainings go – usually you’re happy if you get one small bit of new info, or you feel affirmed in what you’re already doing….

I figured, best case: I could sneak in a little work, take in some of the training–
you know, multi-task. Win-win.

So I show up and it’s a… table! with 30 faith leaders from all across the Front Range around it…the task, the trainers told us – for the day, and for the media more generally –
was to hear each other’s story and know ourselves as partners in this work, to claim a collective story. Which meant, to start, turning off tech so we could really be present…
which meant, multi-tasking, was a no-go. And thank God.

It didn’t take long for the tightness in my gut to break loose, as each person shared about their work, the impact their communities were having.

More than their incredible stories, though, what really did it was their messes. They asked us to share our biggest failures– and that shared vulnerability, and the laughter became generative, and connective – instead of depletion and defensiveness, I suddenly was feeling open, and maybe even…generous.

But it wasn’t til the second day that I realized just how connected this all was to this question I’d been struggling with on generosity.

The teacher had us pair up and share our answers to those four questions that I had us explore earlier today – and by the end, everyone was just like we were here – filled with so much energy, and joy.

It was easy to imagine how we would not just survive but thrive together in these times –
how we’d be ok, and even more, how we already were ok.

Every person in that room – and their communities – are doing so much good – they are all such brave leaders, leading brave communities stepping up for justice, gathering around tables in places that make them and whole communities feel better, dancing and singing along to joyful music, and generously unleashing courageous love in so many different ways, all across the front range. It was….it is….glorious.

All this was already true of course before any of us showed up in that room cranky and short tempered (I was not the only one), but we had been keeping it to ourselves,
striving on our own, struggling with our heads down.

It’s funny how even the most miraculous things can become mundane when you keep them to yourself – how you can get used to beauty so much it becomes – like, oh yeah, there are those mountains…whatever….I see them every day, it’s like, boring, even – how its impact can feel so – limited, isolated, tentative.

But then, someone asks a question, asking you to tell them a story of hope in the community you serve, a story of generosity, and you realize, your only issue is in choosing which one to tell….

Food Bank, or One Village One Family;
Faith Family, or Sanctuary;
Climate Justice or our caring team;
small groups or our campus ministry;
our relationships with our neighbors, our partnerships with other organizations –
or the way that a stranger told me recently that our church by way of our signs out on Drake, had really changed the whole city, for the good?

Suddenly in our sharing, the precious jewel we each were carrying became so clear. The only thing that had been missing was giving it away. And in the giving, I realized, it wasn’t actually just our story, the Foothills story, that I had to offer, and everyone else wasn’t just offering their stories, it was all, all of ours there in the room, our gifts, our treasures already – because it was all parts of this bigger story we were all a part of – our shared, connected, interdependent life.  And the only way we could really feel this
connectedness, this one ness – was in the sharing, the giving away, the opening up,
and the letting go.

Buddhist writer Sharon Salzberg reminds us that this is what generosity actually is.
It is an active choice to let go.

To let go of our attachments and to release ourselves – realizing that in holding on, and hoarding, we uphold a dualistic notion of life – a sense of division between ourselves, and others. But in the giving away, we live into a deeper reality that everything is everyone’s, that nothing is truly just “ours,” that there is so much more power and joy; hope, and strength made possible in the sharing.

There was one story of hope, and generosity that I didn’t tell that day because I saved it to share with you today.

A couple of months ago, at the end of the summer, a terrible thing happened.  White supremacists marched openly with torches, protesters chanted Nazi slogans and
stormed the streets of Charlottesville. Pain welled up across our nation, and the sense grew again that perhaps everything is lost.

I was in my office, we were in the final stages preparing for the sanctuary vote, when one of you came to see me. You were heartbroken at Charlottesville, the way that hatred and just plain evil were gaining power. You wanted to do something. You’d been thinking about it.

Not too long before, your family had received a gift, you found yourself with an unusually large sum of money….$100,000 to be exact. You’d never had that kind of money, and you’d probably never have it again. Like most of us, I’m sure you had all sorts of ideas about what you’d like to spend that money on.

But this thing happened in Charlottesville, and it would’ve been so easy to just take it all as evidence that the world was doomed, and you should, hunker down, close off…. But you didn’t do that.  Instead, just like the woman in the story, you realized, that this money was a precious stone, that would only really find its worth when you gave it away.

And so you came to see me. Because when you thought about the best way to make the biggest difference – to have the most impact on all these unleashed forces of hate, you realized, that would be here, in this congregation, where our whole mission is to unleash courageous love.

And most of all, you confessed, the whole idea of giving this money to this church, it would just feel good, joyful, happy.

So friends, this is the story I bring to you today.  It’s a true story of generosity, and hope.
And it’s our story.  One among you, received something surprising, and precious, and when there was this moment, they decided to let it go, to give it away to support our mission and our partnership here.

It was given freely, without strings, with just two hopes:

The first:  to use it to make an impact – as directly as possible – to further our mission and magnify our ministry; to remove some of our longstanding barriers, and set a foundation for our next leap forward. The Board, in collaboration with the staff, and the finance team, has already been crafting a plan to align with these hopes.

And second: they hoped we’d use it to inspire others to discover their own generosity – which of course is why I decided to share this story with you today – in hopes that it will inspire everyone to consider their own precious stone that they have been holding on to,
or that might arrive suddenly – and to invite them to imagine that they could simply give it away.

It’s powerful, right? To take this story in. To take in what it means for this community,
and our mission, to be worthy of this kind of generosity, to be THE thing that feels like it has the most hope of countering those forces.

Because what I realize is that if it wasn’t already true – if we weren’t already giving of ourselves and being there for each other and the community in all the ways I listed and so many more, if we weren’t already generous, then this gift wouldn’t have happened.

An ungenerous people does not inspire more generosity – generosity grows generosity;
joy inspires joy; delight grows delight.  So this gift is delight, in response to all of this delight.

And also let’s just take in that the source of this gift is here, among us. Not some fancy donor with a foundation.  Not even some closet billionaire that’s been slyly flying under the radar. Just a regular person who loves this place, who is committed to our mission,
and who received a gift, and decided to give it to this church.

So I want you to once again, look at the person right next to you, again, not a person you came with. Imagine that they are the person who gave this gift.

And then, imagine it’s you. Imagine that you received this money, and then you decided to just share it.

Breathe in this generosity this hope that is everywhere – this huge energy, and joy.

What’s powerful in all this is that “they” didn’t give a big gift. We did.
There’s no “they.”

And there’s no “them” to receive it.  We receive it.  It’s all here, it’s all our story.

We together create what is possible, what joy, what goodness we are willing to share, and receive; what divisions we’re going to refuse by our continued and growing generosity.

As we gather around tables in this coming week, my hope is that we’ll each be generous with each other. Ask generous questions, offer generous responses, let laughter overtake us.  Be not afraid of tears. Feel ourselves already filled with this richness, this deliciousness, these precious jewels of life.

For all of the blessings we receive, and see – let us hold them all close, and when the time is right, let us turn to our hungry, aching world, and let it all go. Giving thanks, as the joy grows.

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A/Part: God as Presence, Partner, and Process

Last Sunday, Sean ended his sermon on Humanist Becoming by remind us of this picture.


It is the image that Carl Sagan describes as the pale blue dot of earth.

“Look at that dot.” He says.
“That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.
The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization,
every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there— on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

It is a reality both terrifying and reassuring – clarifying, and mind-boggling. Astronauts looking back on the earth from space describe their first glimpse of our pale blue dot as a transformative experience –  so much so they have a name for it, they call it the “overview effect.”  It is an experience of mental clarity,  they say, when you are
“overwhelmed and awed by the  fragility and unity of life on our blue globe.”

They say that when they look back and see the earth as a unified whole, just floating there in space, they realize how absurd it is that there remains such inequity – how ridiculous it is that we would not all be working together, caring for each other –
because we are all so clearly in this rare shared experience on this one small speck
in the midst of this vast universe.

I know Sean keeps telling us that the secular age is a world disenchanted, but when I see this, I am awestruck – and mystified. It is more magical and enchanting than anything else I could imagine.

What greater marvels could there ever be?


Scientist Mike McHargue had been already on a long journey of faith by the time he tells about his first encounter with this powerful image.

He had been a faithful Southern Baptist, and also a dedicated scientist. He’d done his work to reconcile these things, and it had been work. But somehow despite the arguments thrown his way from fellow scientists evangelizing atheism, and even from friends who challenged him to read Richard Dawkins (and he did), still he maintained a sense that God existed.  And he meant God in a classical sense – as Isaac Newton would have put it – God as a “Being who governs all things as Lord above all.”

When he went looking for Carl Sagan, he imagined that if anything, what he found in his insights would help him strengthen this faith, that he would find an even deeper understanding of God.

But instead, he says, it became his faith’s undoing.

“Nothing ever had shifted my perception of reality so violently,” he writes. Reading Sagan’s words and seeing this image – he felt “wrecked.” His beliefs were “wrecked.”

“‘For God so loved the world’” he writes, “seems absurd from the Voyager’s vantage point. Earth is a waterlogged pebble, one planet among countless others. What possible significance does the salvation of human kind hold?”


In my Methodist seminary,  filled predominantly, as I told you a few Sundays ago, with Christian pastors-to-be, here was an almost universal appreciation for the topic that Diane asked me to preach on today – process theology.  And just as universal, was the acknowledgment that it is nearly impossible to preach on process theology.

Thanks Diane.

There are probably many reasons why my fellow seminarians – and given how infrequently most lay folks seem to have heard about it, most clergy people – feel this way.  Not the least of which is process theology’s struggle to meet McHargue’s crisis of faith – which I’d call, a longing to experience transcendent love.  Traditional notions of God are built to respond to that longing.  But process theology can feel…well, as Stephen Dunn acknowledges in his poem, “At the Smithville Methodist Church,” it’s hard to tell your child, “evolution loves you.”

Process theology is not simply about evolution, of course, but as I describe it, you will see that there are similar challenges. Process theology arose out of liberal theological impulses seeking to make sense of the idea of God given new scientific discoveries – an impulse to understand God in our secular age.

Alfred North Whitehead, an English mathematician, turned his attention to philosophy in the early twentieth century. His most significant work, Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology, came out in 1929, and is not, let me be clear, light reading – which is another reason I’m guessing pastors have been reluctant to preach it. They first had to get through it.

Whitehead acknowledged that new scientific understanding made it impossible to imagine the universe in a mechanical, linear paradigm with a God entirely external and superior – all powerful, never changing – the way Newton had.

In place of this old paradigm, Whitehead proposed that we understand God, and the universe, and life itself not as objects, but as events. Instead of life and God being nouns, Whitehead imagined them as verbs – dynamic and interactive and interrelated energies and actions– constantly changing but also creating and recreating by way of their interchange.  Whereas we had come to understand each element in life, each person, each animal – everything – all as independent entities, Whitehead asserted that there was no such thing – there is no way to understand any portion of life without considering, as he says “the way in which it is interwoven with the rest of the universe.”

This is the process in process theology – although it wasn’t really until the arrival of Charles Hartshorn that Whitehead’s work turned from philosophy to theology – as Hartshorn made the claim that the whole of Whitehead’s creative interchange – is God – which is a reality that contains all of us, but is larger than any of us.  I am a part of God, in this system, and God is a part of me – you are a part of God, and God is a part of you.  And God is a part of everything, and everyone, past, present, future – the whole Universe.

Which is not to say that all of these parts are equally endowed with agency and awareness, but that all parts, to some degree or another, participate in the creative and dynamic interchange of life.

As that incredible quote from Annie Dillard goes “We are here to abet creation.”
Abet – as in, aiding and abetting.  We are here to assist creation, facilitate it – we are responsible for it. Not to stand separate, but to join in partnership with all of it, and with all the other forces, or events.

God is not just in this partnership – God is the partnership. God is the acting, the exchanging, the becoming – the energy and the novelty, the discovery – this is God not as love the noun, again, but as love, the verb.

If you wondered last week, what Sean meant when he spoke about a non-supernatural theism process theology is a great example.  There’s nothing supernatural in this God – “God is in the cosmos,” and God is also more than the cosmos.

Which doesn’t mean that process is simply a re-enchanted materialism. It just means that there is more to the universe than than simply a bunch of lifeless particles.

Our universe is – as Unitarian Universalist minister Gary Kowalski says,  “an ensemble of interrelated and dynamic happenings – from the energy that maintains a simple chemical bond – to the complex flow of information through a termite mound, or a coral reef – all of these are in constant change and interaction with all the others.”  And in all of these events, God is the link. The event in all events.  “Amid a multitude of partial and imperfect relationships,” Kowalski says, “God is the one to whom we are all perfectly related.”

It’s hard to overstate just how radical Whitehead, Hartshorn, and eventually John Cobb, and Henry Nelson Weiman, and all the other process theologians – how radical this understanding of God was – and is, still.

For example, in process theology, God is no longer omniscient, or all knowing.
God can’t be – because in process, novelty is the whole point – we are co-creators, as Diane said in her chalice lighting, God is creating us, and we are creating God.
God is the source of constant creativity, constant possibility – as scripture says it, “Behold, God is doing a new thing.” Except, using process framing, we might instead say “God is the doing of the new thing, the creating of the new thing.” Remember – verbs, not nouns.

Perhaps even more radical, in process, God is no longer omnipotent, or all powerful.
Because the whole process has power, and it is not directed by God – the exchange is something beyond anything we could call God’s intent.  Which isn’t to say that process doesn’t allow for God to have a will. It’s just that God’s will is expressed not in the classical sense – hierarchically, or patriarchally, but rather through persuasion, and relationship, co-creation. God is that energy that lures life toward the good through relationship – it is that force that moves through life by way of partnership, and co-discovery, in service of the greater and greatest common good.


When Mike McHargue’s faith was wrecked by Carl Sagan, he didn’t stop attending his Southern Baptist church, or stop teaching Sunday school. He became instead a closet atheist – epitomizing that quote from Julian Barnes, “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.”

In place of religious transcendence, however, he instead leaned into that once-devastating image from Carl Sagan, and towards astronomy more fully.  As he says, “when church lost its meaning, my cathedral became the night sky, my chosen worship instrument, a telescope.”

Along the way, he started to realize his prior notions of God and his desire to believe had been hampering his understanding of more advanced scientific concepts, as he’d been trying, subconsciously for the most part, to make sure it all could fit together. Newly freed by his unbelief, he immersed himself in quantum theory, and physics, and the greatest mysteries of our universe.

In McHargue’s recent book, the title of which – Finding God in the Waves, gives away the end of this story he starts his tale by quoting quantum theorist Werner Heisenberg, who says, “The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass, God is waiting for you.”

Just as he dove most deeply into what he calls his “nerdom” of space, and astronomy, McHargue found – not God – at least not right away – but NASA.  They’d been following his writing and observations, and they invited him to come and have a private tour one of their research centers in Los Angeles.

And on this trip he found himself, to his own great surprise, trying to pray – for the first time since he’d become an atheist.  He was out on the beach, it was the middle of the night, and he was feeling still confused, and the longing he’d felt back in his crisis of faith had not gone away – if anything it was stronger.

He prayed like this – almost like the atheist prayers Sean has offered: “God, I don’t know who or what you are.  I don’t know anything about you. [I don’t know if you exist.] I can’t unlearn all the things that made me believe you aren’t real.”

He kept praying, and then, suddenly, as he tells it, it was like time stopped.  “The waves seemed to stand still, and I felt God with me, in me, and through me.  I felt connected to the source of life, and the source of all. I felt connected to everyone else, and all of humanity. And to all life on Earth.”

He goes on to say that all these words are insufficient to describe what the experience was actually like. It was the most powerful experience of his life.

While the scientist in him longed to argue himself out of it, try to rationalize, for this one moment, this one time, he just didn’t.  He just sat with it, without trying to name it, or give it meaning.  He says, even many years later, thinking about it, it still brings tears to his eyes, as he can feel once again that sense of connectedness, to everything, and this profound sense of peace, and comfort – clarity, and calm.


There is so much loneliness in this life, especially in these days, so much fear. Too many of us carry stories of loss, and grief; uncertainty and suffering without any real sense of companionship, or true comfort. Even with the presence of good friends, or family, there can still remain an existential sense of isolation as we navigate the tragic gap between life’s possible beauty and its relentless brokenness.

But then, sometimes, through the haze, a presence breaks through, or tries to.
And by a presence, I do not mean simply-the presence of human hands or thoughts, or words – these are important, but insufficient. I mean something beyond the material –
some greater partnership, and process beyond objects. I mean a process and partnership that strengthens us  and pulls us out of ourselves and into the flow of it all – so that we feel both a part of everything, and yet that everything is so much more than us.

Maybe it comes, as it did for Mike, while walking along the beach in a state of confusion and longing, or maybe it comes through the telescope as we marvel at early morning meteor showers. Or maybe, it comes in that moment – even though there is no clear path for where it will all go, or how it all will work – when a community acts to offer shelter, and sanctuary for a mother and her children, and to simply trust, that this is enough.

However it is that it breaks through, this presence connects us to that reality as Albert Einstein put it, that although we experience ourselves “as something separated from the universe,” this is “a kind of optical delusion of consciousness.”

Like the “overview effect,” when this experience grasps us, even if only for a brief moment, we know, deep down, we are never truly alone.

It is not required, of course, that we name these sorts of experiences – these glimpses of our ultimate connectedness as God.

I often don’t.

But, process theology gives us one way to refuse to choose between the secular, and the sacred.  To instead knit these things together into a transcendent whole, instead of becoming immediately skeptical of these experiences, or preventing them from ever finding their way into our hearts in the first place – process theology invites us to claim them, trusting that somehow the pale blue dot – and everything that’s ever been contained on it – could be part of a whole dynamic reality that is, as Rebecca Parker says – “supreme not in knowing everything, but in receiving everything, not in controlling everything, but in imagining everything.”

If we imagine God as an entirely separate object – like Aristotle’s “unmoved mover” then it’s true, like Mike McHargue put it, “’For God so loved the world’ [can] seem absurd,” but if instead God is the life force moving through it all – the creativity and the process of our dynamic interchange, then God is the most moved – supreme in compassion, in intimacy, in understanding, in holding complexity and paradox, in manifesting still yet more possibility.

So even though we still can’t say “evolution loves you,” we can still allow ourselves to feel connected to a love, and a luring, a partnership.  To feel not separate but a part of it all, enchanted by all we are creating together.

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The Gifts of A/theism

The Gifts of A%2Ftheism Worship Meme.pngThis sermon was offered in two parts, starting with….

Part 1:  The Gifts of Atheism

I don’t remember precisely when things started to fall apart, but we should probably blame feminism.  Or the arts….definitely the gays.  I’d been a dedicated Catholic up until then – confirmed, twice a week, rosary-praying, devout Catholic.  But then, somewhere around my second year of college, as theologian Paul Tillich would say, all the myths broke, and suddenly the church, God, all of it, felt empty, meaningless.

I wasn’t angry, and I wasn’t against religion, or against the idea of God – although I did harbor some resentment at the ways these things had been weaponized against queer bodies and lives, women and people on the margins, and had been co-opted to serve the needs of capitalism and the state.

Other than that, I was pretty neutral.

My atheism was not – however – primarily about something missing, or what wasn’t – about a lack.  It was about what was, and what IS.  I was a young theatre artist, and the theatre had become my church.  And although I would have easily described what we were doing as sacred, and holy, there was no need for God talk.  We were present, alive, discovering, creating, struggling, changing, becoming.  The world was to us, tragic, and beautiful, and we were alive in it.  This reality, this life, was more than enough.

One of my seminary professors used to remind us that there is no “Christianity,” only “Christianities.”  Just as there is no Buddhism, or Islam, only Buddhisms, and Islams.
In the same way, there is no atheism, only “atheisms.”

Atheist-humanist and the author of Good without God Greg Epstein gives this overview: “The most popular kind [of atheism] is ‘ontological’atheism, a firm denial that there is any creator or manager of the universe.  There is [also] ‘ethical’ atheism, a conviction that, even if there is a creator of the world, [they do] not run things by rewarding the good and punishing the wicked. There is ‘existential’ atheism, a nervy assertion
that even if there is a God, [they have] no authority to be the boss of my life. There is ‘ignostic’ atheism, which claims that the word “God” is so confusing that it is meaningless. [And then] there is ‘pragmatic’ atheism, which regards God as irrelevant to ethical living.”

This list doesn’t even get to the 8% of atheists who say that they still believe in God,
which is interesting, and probably it leaves out a whole bunch of other atheisms.

Despite this great variety, I’ve noticed that certain atheists get a little more press than others.  Search “atheism” on youtube, and you’ll discover the most outrageous, demanding, and fundamentalist atheists, often going head to head with the most outrageous, demanding and fundamentalist Christians.

This is the inherent danger in any belief claim – that it fails to make space for doubt – and atheism is no exception.  It’s a great irony how often atheists flee from one sort of dogma only to embrace another,  and how frequently I hear atheists painfully describe how judgmental they found their past religious communities, only to go on to a long rant about the foolishness, stupidity and even childishness of anyone who affirms a belief in God.

I’ve wondered if this inclination comes out of injury – as in, that saying from Richard Rohr, “pain that is not transformed is transmitted.”  Because there was perhaps a time when there was a longing to believe, to get the “God thing,” and it just wasn’t there.  And so instead of hope and comfort, the idea of God became a source of shame, or pain, or self-doubt.

It doesn’t help that at least in the US, prejudice towards atheism remains pretty strong.

As Unitarian Univeralist humanist Kendyl Gibbons reminds us, “atheists consistently rank lower” in people’s opinions than “Muslims, recent immigrants, or gays and lesbians, or any other minority group.” No wonder atheists often feel the need to be on the defensive.

When I applied to seminary, a decade or so after the myths had broken – knowing these sorts of prejudices….The first question I asked the admissions counselor was whether or not it would be ok, that I didn’t really get “God”.

She laughed and said, well, seminary is a process of deconstruction, and then reconstruction, so where you are starting is where many of the more traditional students will end up by the end of their first year.  So, the important question isn’t whether this place can hold what you don’t believe.  The important question is if you are willing to discover here what you do.

Atheism is growing in the United States – there are roughly double the number of people who’d call themselves atheists now than there were a decade ago, and many of them are young.  Whereas the general public might find this idea disturbing, I find it hopeful. Or at least, I do if this growing group of atheists can do what that wise admissions counselor advised me to do – discover and claim a positive, which is to say, not-reactive, not-demeaning, not judgmental, but rather accessible, wonder-filled, imaginative, and constructive faith.  A faith that is grounded not in belief, but in values, and vision;
not in certainty, but in possibility and wonder; not in the need for some other world,
but with gratitude and amazement at this world that is right here, and now.

Because just like I felt back in my theatre days, atheism at its best cherishes what is.  It doesn’t need to hold out hope for another world, it takes this one at face value, and is astonished by it a lot of the time….studies show that atheists are extremely likely – more likely than any other belief group – to experience a sense of wonder in the universe.

Of course, atheism knows there’s a lot about life that isn’t right, but it doesn’t require a big huge explanation about why, or some great master plan. Atheism recognizes there are limits on what humans can know.  So atheists will say plainly:  Life’s terrible sometimes.  And there’s no savior coming to fix it. So let’s all just do what we can to make it just a little better.

To help with all this, atheism turns to science, even while trying not to turn it into an idol….yes, even atheists can commit idolatry.

Atheism at its best puts (back) at its center what can it can sometimes miss, but was actually its original impulse – doubt, and it maintains a general orientation that I call “ICBW.”  It’s like the atheist’s WWJD.  ICBW: I could be wrong.

In her brilliant piece, “no-god wears comfortable shoes,” Unitarian Universalist Liz James reminds us that most of all, the gift of atheism is that “there is not a God to love us – which means that we need each other to the do the job.   And we don’t need to worry about whether we can do it because the truth is we can do nothing else.”

And so for this gift, and this chance to be for each other, this much love, and for this our only life,
we can only say thank you.

Part 2:  The Gifts of Theism
In the years leading up to seminary, I started to get more and more curious about the idea of God.

I had no renewed inclination towards belief, but I wanted to know about people who did.  What was it like? Did they really mean it?

Writer Salman Rushdie – a self-described hard-line atheist – says that atheists are obsessed with God, and I guess in some ways, I was no exception. 

What I knew for sure however, was that I could not ask these questions in my Unitarian Universalist church.  Whereas a century earlier, the so-called “Great Agnostic” of the civil war era, Robert Ingersoll had described atheism as a joyful embrace of free inquiry,
I was finding it to be exactly the opposite.  In my primarily atheistic congregation,
rather than feeling like my mind and heart were free to explore in all the ways of love, and truth, I was getting the clear message that there were certain sections of religion and human life that were off-limits.  Specifically: the G word.

Which is perhaps why, when they asked incoming students to describe our mission statement for our time at seminary, I knew what had to be at the top of the list:
“I want to know people mean when they say God. I want to listen to their stories, and meet them there without defensiveness, just listen.”

It’s a dangerous thing, listening.  More vulnerable than we often realize.  Just as vulnerable as sharing our own, it takes courage to let another’s story in.  To take it for what it is, to let it change you, and your assumptions.  To let yourself feel connected to it.

We have a lot of examples these days, and a lot of practice at not-listening,
at self-defense, at suspicion – as if hearing another’s truth is inherently an attack on your own, as if in the hearing we must immediately begin formulating our counter-attack.  But listening to understand, especially to someone sharing something you sincerely don’t understand, something that at times has been used against you, and your family….it was terrifying.  And transformational.

Of course it helped that asking people in seminary to tell me about God was like asking a new grandparent to tell me about their grandchild – just, fewer pictures.  They’d eagerly start off with the usual words, the ones you say when you’re applying to be a Protestant minister. But before long, if I asked more, and listened more, they’d tell me in real words,
words I could understand.

I was shocked to discover – and I’m embarrassed to admit just how shocked I was – that in most cases, they did not actually believe that God was a man in the sky.  Despite the caricature portrayed by George Carlin, or Bill Maher, they didn’t actually believe in God as a celestial peeping Tom. They described instead – a feeling, a knowledge, a mystery.  They spoke of God as the creative process, or the hope of justice, or the will to change.

The Lutherans told me about God as revealed in Jesus on the cross, by which, I learned, they meant, God as unconditional, relentless love for everything, and everyone,
and God who knows suffering, and suffers alongside us.  God as companion, and partner.

One of my earliest friends, and someone I really admired, told me how he believed that God answers prayers.  I thought about that for four months before I had the courage to ask him what he meant.  Turns out, he meant exactly what he said, but just didn’t believe we could or should know how.   It’s not one-for-one, like a drive-up window.  It’s not a wish list.  It’s a mystery, and we’re not always supposed to know how it works, but to trust that it does.

This is one of the great gifts of theism: to know that you are in need, to ask for help, to trust that help will come.

As with atheism, there so many different theisms.  Some theists are committed to all the omnis – God as omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent – all knowing, all powerful, and everywhere.  Some find only one, or maybe none of these important.  Some, like the ontological atheists in reverse, are committed to God as the actor in a creation event.
This is not, despite again the caricatures, necessarily incompatible with an affirmation of the big bang, or evolution.   It is God as what comes before – as in our story:  God the initiator, the energy, the spark.

How and if that creative force participates in human history is one of the big questions for theists. Much of Christian thought is shaped  by the promise of God’s possible intervention,especially on behalf of the marginalized and oppressed.  For a while I found this idea troubling as in, disempowering – for the humans.  But then my friend, a PhD candidate focused on the black church, reminded me that when there’s nothing on this earth that seems capable of making things right, you better hope there’s a power somewhere else that might just break through.

Lately, I get this.

Each of these conversations was powerful, connective, and in their own ways, beautiful.  Even when what they said was almost entirely confusing,  I still loved them in their truth, and their willingness to share it with me.

Conversations about God (even for atheists) are ultimately conversations about what matters the most, what means the most, the how, and the what, and the who of our whole lives, in the biggest possible sense.

Theism gifts us a framework for these big questions, it provide language, and some great stories…it imagines that somehow, all of this, could have meaning, and even a purpose.

Even more, theism reminds us that figuring all this out, isn’t all on us. Because most of all, the gift of theism is the promise that we’re not alone, that there is a love that is the sort of love that would meet us right where we each are, and companion us in a way that feels just right for US, that would feel supportive in and loving in a way that we need, healing in a way that truly heals – and that our only need,our only task, is to receive, and to be grateful.

By the time I finished my first year of seminary, I was starting to feel cheated.  Why weren’t these big and varied stories a part of my Unitarian Universalist church?  We claimed theological diversity, but more often than not, what it seemed we meant was,
“don’t ask, don’t tell.”

It’s been over ten years since I first started seminary, and in many ways, Unitarian Universalism has changed in this past decade. And in our shared ministry, we have made real efforts to welcome to all theological orientations, and all the big questions, G word included. I think we’re doing pretty well, even though sometimes it can be scary,
and sometimes still we have moments of defensiveness, or pain that hasn’t been transformed ruling the day. Me included.

But in our world today, there aren’t that many examples of people really making a go at this – really figuring out how to – as our mission statement says – embrace diversity.
Not just tolerate, or talk around it, but listen for it, lean into it, remain curious, and listen for – and embrace all the gifts – each of our ways of seeing and knowing, as gifts.  And so mostly, the gift here – in our a/theism, is that we are trying. That we are trying to welcome in all the gifts we each bring, and the gifts that are possible in the ways we are changing, and bravely, becoming, together.  And for all of these gifts, we can only say, once again, thank you.

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Lost and Found – Sermon Sept 17 2017

Lost and Found.pngReading, from A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit

Sermon, Lost and Found  

It was early 1996, and Kate Braestrup and her husband Drew had a good life, and a plan in the works for an even better one.  See, Drew was going to retire from the Maine State Police force in the next fifteen years, and then start a second career as a Unitarian Universalist minister, while Kate would continue her work as a writer.  The kids would be grown by then.  As she says, “it would have been a fine life.”

That life, however, was not meant to be. One afternoon in April that year, Drew was killed in a car accident, and Kate found herself a widow raising four children.

Many of us have heard, and I’ve even taught about the so-called “stages of grief,” which sound orderly, and civilized.  There’s some comfort in this idea – that there could be orderly steps, and if you just go through them, one by one then at the end of them, you’ll be done – although mostly I think it’s comforting for people who are watching others grieve.   Those who are grieving already know that grief is anything but orderly.

I’ve decided grief is more like having a bully hang out with you, all the time, just waiting there, threatening to take over and cloud whatever else might be going on, demanding your attention, reminding you by its obnoxious presence of what is starkly absent.

The writer William Bridges writes about the experience of transitions – which is another way of talking about grief and loss – as a transition.  He says that there are five aspects of any ending – again, “aspects” sounds too tidy, but stay with me, I find this a little more on point than the “stages” idea.

Bridges’ five aspects are dis-engagement, dis-mantling, dis-identification, dis-enchantment, and dis-orientation.  I appreciate that all of these start with “dis” because it reminds us that endings are about taking-away.  They are about what isn’t, about lack.  Dis-engagement, Dis-mantling, Dis-identification, Dis-enchantment, and Dis-orientation. Especially dis-orientation, especially about the future, as it had been imagined, and will no longer be.

This is how Kate Braestrup was feeling when her husband and father of her four children was just suddenly – gone.  Dis-oriented, confused, lost – in the vast landscape of grief, and heartbreak. The imagined future, dissolved.And in its place….nothing, yet.

All of us will come to this moment, at one point, likely many points in our lives.  To be alive is to be at risk for heart break, if it’s not already a done deal – it’s in the works.   The question is not if our hearts will break – but more, how they will break, and how we will live in the midst of that brokenness. Will our hearts break, as Parker Palmer says “into a thousand shards that become an unresolved wound that we carry with us for a long time, or, will they be ‘broken open’ into a greater capacity for empathy and tending  to the suffering of others.”

We can stay lost in all sorts of ways – or the experience of being lost can lead us to discovering in a new way what it means to be found.  Discovering – even more of who we are, and what our life is calling us to be, and do.

A year after her husband died, her husband who had, remember, hoped to retire from policing to be a minister – a year later, Kate Braestrup enrolled in a nearby seminary with the intent of becoming herself a Unitarian Universalist minister.  She’d tell people when they’d ask about why she’d enrolled: I’m here because Drew isn’t.

As she describes it, “Mine is a sweet little story, one that has what my journalist-father used to call a ‘great hook.’  When local newspapers run human-interest pieces about me, they inevitably tell the tale of a plucky widow taking up her husband’s standard and bravely soldiering on.”

It was a sweet story, but it was not entirely true.  More than just picking up Drew’s calling, she was following her own.  Drew’s death stirred up something in her, a sort of brokenness and disorientation that created in her a new longing.  So that when she said she was “there because Drew isn’t,” it wasn’t actually just a note about his absence – not just dis-orientation any more, instead, it was cause and effect.  Because Drew had died, a new calling had been born in her.  Because she had been so lost, she was also newly found.

A few weeks ago, I mentioned how my son Josef is named for the youngest brother in a story in Genesis where Joseph becomes the ruler in Egypt – you might know this story, even if you aren’t familiar with the stories in Genesis. It’s the basis of the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat.  It’s kind of like that, except a few less songs.

So, Joseph becomes a ruler, after his brothers try to kill him and sell him into slavery.  At the end of the story, his brothers come to see him, and Joseph forgives them, and he tells them, “what you meant for evil, God used for good.”  Which, let me translate if these words don’t work for you – he’s saying even if something starts out as terrible, or with a very bad intent,  it can actually end up being a great gift, something you are grateful for.

Which, I need us to promise, we will never, ever say to anyone when they are in the middle of feeling lost.  We’re going to promise together, right here, that we are never, ever going to say to each other, or to our friends, or even to people we don’t like that much,when they are in the depths of despair: “maybe you’ll be grateful for this someday.” Promise?

Because – like William Bridges says, “disorientation is meaningful, but it’s not enjoyable. It is a time of confusion and emptiness, when things that used to be important don’t seem to matter.  We feel stuck, dead, lost in some great dark non-world.”  In the midst of this lost feeling, it’s never helpful to say anything resembling “I’m sure this all has a purpose,” or, “It’ll all turn out to be for the good.”  It might have a purpose, it might turn out for the good.  But also, it might not.  And all we do when we try to push for it to be already and inevitably good is discount the lost-ness, which is all there can be, until there’s something else.

And also, let’s agree, that just because pain and loss can be redeemed into goodness, does not mean that pain and loss are in and of themselves good.  I call that bad theology – which in my book, by the way, bad theology, is not a matter of truth, it’s just a matter of what kind of life does it allow us to live.

So, the fact that pain and loss can be redeemed into good does not make them good – it only means that humans are amazing, resilient alchemists – capable of taking bitterness, and destruction – and creating something beautiful, and unexpected, and life-giving.  Or at least, we are a lot of the time, when grace shows up, and some mysterious magic meets us there in the midst of it all, and when courageous love does its work on our bruised and embattled hearts– then that “something else” can begin to take shape. Then, we can start to learn the street names and the mountain ranges that will orient us and give us a new sense of direction in this new land.

Which is also to say, sometimes the mess doesn’t transform, sometimes the magic doesn’t happen – and I wish I could tell you there was a formula to make sure it works.  But, the stages aren’t a formula, remember, and the aspects aren’t either, and there is a piece of being found, and then lost, and then found again that is out of our hands. Anyone who has ever loved, or been, an alcoholic or an addict who keeps returning and returning and returning to their addiction knows what I’m talking about. And as theologian and addictions specialist Gerald May says, we are all in our own ways, addicted.

Rebecca Solnit’s was obsessed with a question from the ancient greek philosopher, Meno, or at least attributed to him: “How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?”

Her obsession with this question with this question that led her to write her book, A Field Guide for Getting Lost. She realized that if we are to become what we are not yet (which is what she believes that question is trying to get at – and a quest which she describes as the heart of life) we need to travel to places where we have never been, places that we may not even yet know exist.  There is no map that we can follow for the most important journeys of life because if we knew how to get there, we wouldn’t need to go.  “How will you go about finding that thing, the nature of which is totally unknown to you?”

With cell phones and GPS today, it’s harder than it used to be to get lost, but at least it’s easier now to concede when it happens.  For better or worse, my children will likely never know how it feels to sit in the back of the car, with your parents arguing in the front about whether or not they are lost, and whether or not it’s time to pull into the nearest gas station and ask for help.

I’ll let you guess which parent in my family wouldn’t pull over (ok it was my dad).  But I’ll confess my sisters and I did not always help the situation – we’d yell out from the back – YES, We’re lost! We’ve been driving in circles.  We’re totally lost! 

We were a family that spent a lot of time being lost, or at least arguing about being maybe-lost.

I used to think that my parents didn’t have a great sense of direction, but I’ve come to realize that this was likely because they didn’t have a lot of practice.

My dad spent most of his growing up years in the small town where he met my mom when they both attended the local junior college.  My mom was raised in the even smaller town an hour away, which, at least in that direction, was the next nearest town.
After a couple of years at the University across the state, they returned to that small town where they met, and lived for the next 25 years.

Having a “good sense of direction” requires the opposite of my parent’s proclivity for the familiar. It requires becoming comfortable with the mysterious, and learning how to make new markers when the old ones have disappeared.

Solnit points out that even though “getting lost” describes where you are in space, it is fundamentally related to time – because when you’re on a tight schedule – what might otherwise feel like you’re “figuring it out,” instead can become a crisis of dis-orientation. She says that, for example, being off course for a few days or a week wasn’t a disaster to the travelers of the nineteenth century – even though they did not have maps, let alone cell phones.  But the pace of their life imagined this as regular and expected. In order to find your way, you knew you would at one point or another lose your way.  Being lost was part of being found.

This is a good reminder for anyone experiencing being lost, literally or emotionally – that finding your way in space requires taking more time, slowing down so that we can really see the new scenery, feel the new possibilities, allow this new world we’ve discovered to become a part of us, and us a part of it.

Although it’s true what I said earlier – that it’s often a mystery how anyone moves from a state of dis-orientation into clarity, and creativity – there are a few things that can make the way-finding more likely – a few ways that the heart might more likely break open instead shattering. Things like I said – taking time, and slowing down, doing things that might stir up joy, or, faking it til you make (that’s a real thing).

But all of these start with the most important thing…which is to be a lot more like my sisters and I in the back of the car screaming “we’re lost!” than the parent in the front confident that we are JUST FINE.

Rebecca Solnit says that even though we worry most about children becoming lost, they actually better at it than most adults, because they accept earlier that they are lost, and so “they don’t stray far, they curl up in some sheltered place at night, [and] they know they need help.”

My dad is not dumb, for the record, and he’s not even the most stubborn person I know. But he does believe that he is the sort of person that figures stuff out – he’s an architect afterall – and he believes he’s good at directions, and like most of us, he doesn’t like being wrong, or having his self-image challenged.  And so acknowledging that he doesn’t in fact have it all under control, that he might indeed, be lost, especially in front of his wife, and his children was not an easy thing.

Only once things got really, really bad – sometimes to the point of having driven an hour or more in the wrong direction (sorry Dad) would he finally give in.  As Gerald May says “surrender does not come easily.  It has long been treated as a noxious concept in our society.  We are taught to never give up, never to allow ourselves to be determined by anyone or anything other than our own self-will.”  We are taught that when things are going wrong, we should try harder, do more – even if you’re going in the wrong direction, at least you’re going.

But what we knew on those family drives, and what is true in life today – is that just because you refuse to BELIEVE you are lost does not alter the fact that you ARE LOST.  It just delays your capacity to receive the universe’s grace in the form of a magical gas station attendant or some other form, which also means delaying the getting back on your way, onto that journey that is already new because you are making it, the calling that is already being created even in the midst of everything you knew falling away.

Which brings me to the state of the world.  I’d never tell you that the chaos and dis-orientation we are experiencing is all for the good, that we should be grateful.  Because, we promised.  But I do believe that somewhere in the rubble, there are already the seeds of who we are called to become.   And if we can acknowledge with clear eyes and full hearts, that so much of the time, we feel dis-engaged, dis-mantled, dis-identified, dis-enchanted and dis-oriented.

If we can accept together that we are lost, instead of numbing or burying these feelings, we can move as Parker Palmer says, “directly into the heart of it,” then we might able to “learn what [this moment] has to teach us, and come out the other side.” Only then might we discover the new calling that is already emerging, the new life that is uniquely possible only because of what has been lost, and only then might we and our world be found, already changed and made glorious by the journey.

These are either in the sermon, or were influential:

Here if You Need Me by Kate Braestrup

The Broken Open Heart by Parker Palmer 

A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit 

Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes by William Bridges 

Will and Spirit by Gerald May

Addictions and Grace by Gerald May

When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron 

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Queering Gender

I was only seven, and already I got that it made no sense.  More than anything that year, I wanted to carry the cross up the center aisle, or at least a candle – I wanted to go in front of the priest, and behind the lay leader, I just wanted to be there, walking in that processional that opened Sunday mass. I wanted to wear the white robe, and the rope around my waist, and I wanted to sit beside the priest, up there in the special seat. I wanted to help swing the silver container back and forth, you know that one that makes everything smell holy, like Jesus after the Magi visited.  It didn’t have to be Sunday. I would’ve settled for a weekday mass.

But it didn’t matter, there was no day of the week when girls could be altar boys.  Boys – those stinky, greasy, goof-offs, none of whom could recite the rosary by heart.  Boys got to sit in the special seat.  Boys got to open the book of prayers, and see up close the flat stale wafer turning magically into Jesus’ body.  Boys could be altar boys, not girls….

No matter how many books I read, or extra classes I took or how well I demonstrated my serious devotion and heart of service – there was nothing I could do about it.  Because I was a girl.

Being the proto-feminist and proto-Unitarian Universalist that I was, I decided to write a letter to the person I figured was in charge of such decisions, my Archbishop. I explained in rational, reasonable terms just how ridiculous these rules were, and how capable I was. I left out the part about the boys being stinky.

I guess I didn’t really think he’d write back – which, he didn’t.  And I didn’t really think he’d change the rules (I was a senior in high school when that happened).  I wrote to him because I wanted him to know that someone was paying attention. Someone saw the truth.  Even if it was a seven year old in a small town in rural Washington, I wanted him to know that someone realized, these rules made no sense.   We could do so much better.

We learn gender early, and then throughout our lives.  We learn the rules – religious and relational, professional and proper.  We learn how gender goes along with sex – sex parts, I mean, though the other, too.  Gender is not the same as anatomy, but we learn it “should” be, it “normally” is.

Boys have a penis; girls have a vagina – and boys and girls each have roles, and behaviors, and outfits to go along with these parts.

I was probably 12 or 13 when I realized, I was too big for a girl, and I don’t just mean my body. I took up too much space, talked too loudly, wanted to win too badly, enjoyed it too much when I did.  Like the mom from our reading describes – up to a certain point, a girl who has some “boy” qualities is acceptable, appreciated even, but there’s a line.  No one told me that I’d crossed it, but I knew.

For most of us, and for much of our lives, these sorts of gender-learning moments remain subconscious.  We learn gender mostly by osmosis, it seeps in, without us even realizing, like race, and class, and all sorts of other cultural norms. We don’t realize how much we’re learning and teaching and reinforcing and performing, until we’re all experts in a language that doesn’t yet have words, hardly even knowing what we know.

If you came of age sometime after 1990, we’ve come to the point in the sermon you’ve likely been anticipating ever since you heard I’d be preaching on gender.  The part where I talk about Judith Butler.

The rest of you, depending on just how engaged you are in gender theory or feminist philosophy, may not have realized just how inevitable it was that at some point I’d say the name, Judith Butler.

She is the author of the book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, which was published in 1990, and almost immediately altered the whole conversation around gender and gender identity – so much so that it would be downright negligent to preach a sermon called “queering gender” that didn’t at least mention her and her work.

Gender Trouble is an incredibly dense and gorgeous piece of academic writing that I’m going to try to sum up in three short bullets:

1) Gender isn’t a fixed binary set at birth, it’s a continuum, and may or may not correspond to your biological sex;

2) Gender isn’t something you are, it’s something you do – gender is “performative”; and finally

3) The habitual way we perform gender in turn creates expectations and sets and re-sets norms around gender.  To put it another way, gender is culturally/socially constructed.

Judith Butler was on my mind when I first started watching the TV Series Mad Men, which tells the story of ad executives in New York in the 1960s.  And by ad executives, I mean ad men, thus the wordplay in the title.  The whole first season, I was sure that it had to be exaggerated – overly performed. Gender roles couldn’t ever have been that prescribed and pronounced…could they?

I asked this question out loud to my mother in law one day, because I knew she had watched it, and she was a young adult in the 60s, she was like, oh yeah. It was just like that.
My mouth dropped.
That’s for real? Men said that stuff to women, and it was ok?
She said, we didn’t really even think about it.

From my perspective, you know, someone who was 7 in 1983 and appalled that girls couldn’t be altar boys….there is no way that being a girl or a woman in the way Mad Men prescribes could happen “without even thinking about it.”   It would take a LOT of performance, like, Oscar-level.

But incredibly, for many of those growing up in the 50s and 60s, they didn’t really think about it.

And that’s one of the amazing tricks about gender – it’s so culturally prescribed, and profoundly variable based on the where and the when – and yet somehow it gets conveyed to us as if it is eternal and biologically pre-destined.  Like the air we breathe.
This is what Butler means by gender being “performative,”not that we consciously “perform” gender. But more, that we are trained, and re-trained, consciously and subconsciously, what it means to be a boy, or a girl – so much that we don’t even totally realize it’s happening.  Or at least, many of us don’t.

The late great peace activist, Dr. Vincent Harding, one of my professors in seminary, used to look over a room of predominantly white students and invite them to think about race.  Not someone else’s race, but their own.  He’d ask them to think about those moments when they first learned “race.”   The rules around race – who hangs out with whom, and why, and assumptions about behaviors, and roles.

For the people of color in the room, the stories were easy, and life-long.  For the white folks, it took a while. To push through what had been a “given” for most of their lives – the privilege of not having to think about race.

But soon enough, it happened.  Stories started to spill out.  Stories of little children realizing they couldn’t, shouldn’t be friends with that child.  Sneers both obvious and subtle from grandparents, neighbors, the tv news.  People were able to trace their lives by these stories – even white people: eager, open-hearted children becoming rule-bound, race-bound, rigid, fixed; and then as adults, attempting to unlearn, relearn, break open once again.

Our stories of learning gender aren’t exactly the same as race – but there’s a parallel.  Because for some of us, like my mother in law, we hardly think about it – there’s enough synergy in our genuine sense of self and what is culturally prescribed to keep these “lessons” subconscious.

But then for others of us, the rules of gender are a daily awareness of being at best, as Sean said last week – a gender spy.  Of course some spies pass more easily as natives than others, Some of us must learn to live in bodies that are not so easily disguised and therefore, dangerous.

Between these two ends of the spectrum, there’s all sorts of in between, and also variations across all of our lifetimes.  Most of us will have at least one experience when gender is barely a consideration, and at least another where gender and gender norms hit us and our spirit like a brick wall, stopping us in our tracks – Too often, we don’t do what I did as a 7 year old and think that the rule itself makes no sense, but rather more like what I did at 12– we think we must be the problem.

It isn’t until we are offered a whole new story – a new paradigm of possibility for gender expression, for life liberation – if by then our hearts aren’t too closed up in closets of shame, then we start to imagine it isn’t something in us that’s broken or bent, but that as Butler said, gender is much more complicated, that is to say, beautiful, and need not be restricted by labels, or boxes, pronouns or prior performance.

I was 18 when I first saw her, I said something embarrassing, something she’d tease me about endlessly for the next 23 years, and probably longer, we’ll see.  I didn’t know what to make of her, with her androgynous features, her intensity, and her girlfriend.  It was 1993, but I hadn’t read Judith Butler yet, I was just trying to wake up, trying to become, trying to tell the truth.

Except I didn’t even know what the truth was, which is not to say, it already existed, and I just had to do my best Christopher Columbus impression, and “discover” it.  That’s not how self-hood works, at least not in my observation, or experience.   The journey of self-discovery is not just a journey to understand, but also one that creates, so that when you go looking for your true self, it’s already changed, simply by your beginning.

The woman I met my freshman year in college – I didn’t even know that women could look or act like she did, not on purpose….it was like my brain exploded, and I was both terrified, and thrilled. My mom, bless her heart, used to ask me if my friend wanted to be a man, or to look like a man – “was she the man?” I used to get so irritated at her. But really, it is confusing – once gender gets “troubled,” once the lines are blurred – and in the past few decades, gender has been incredibly troubled, or queered, if you will.
I think about Mad Men, or watch the early 20th century women’s fashion scene in Wonder Woman (go see it, it’s fabulous), and then compare it to our world today…it’s amazing how much has changed.

You may have seen the Time Magazine cover story in March that explored how children and youth in the US today are claiming a great variety of labels to describe their gender – beyond male, or female, or even “trans”.  There’s also agender, gender fluid, gender queer, two-spirit, non-binary…. Just this past week, the state of Oregon officially added a third gender option for drivers’ licenses so that you can register as male, female, or non-binary – which is nothing compared to the gender options on Facebook – 50, last I checked.

The article in Time arrived a couple months after an even more in-depth consideration of gender printed in National Geographic and titled, “Gender Revolution.”  The cover shows a girl-presenting kid, maybe 9 or 10, whose story mirrors the story Marlo Mack tells about in her podcast How to Be a Girl.  A kid who feels not like a boy who likes “girl” things, but says insistently, I am a girl.

In our own congregation, we have had at least three of our youth come out as trans, and you’ll see the gender queer display in the foyer features one of our members, Kindra.
As National Geographic editor Susan Goldberg says, “everywhere we look, in the US and around the globe, individuals and organizations are fighting to redefine traditional gender roles, [and many people are] reject[ing] binary boy-girl labels [to] find their true identity elsewhere on a gender spectrum.”

While I certainly agree with her, what I appreciate most about Goldberg’s description is the word “fighting.”  Much has changed.  Gender has become in many ways less prescriptive and restrictive, but gender justice remains an active question, an ongoing struggle – a fight.

As a personal example, while I’m grateful to be serving in a denomination where women can process up the aisle…maybe not with a cross…we are in fact the only denomination in the US with majority female ministers.  It is not a simple thing to be a female-identified clergy person.  I am always aware that most of the world, even in our progressive community – holds an explicit or implicit understanding that ministers are male.  Not that many people say it of course – only a few have been so bold to remind me that although I’m a fine minister, and they like me, they just really prefer a man.

You may have noticed that on most days, I don’t try to fool you – as I told one member who asked me my first year why I always wear dresses – I like to push on the boundaries of what a minister looks like, and to be clear that not only can a minister be female, but also femme.

Last week Sean said that his goal was like Harvey Milk – to recruit you – and I’m no less evangelical in my aim.  Because it is a fight.  In fact, with the rise of Donald Trump, the forces of sexism, and misogyny, and gender policing have received a boost of renewed legitimacy. Which sounds like it’s a problem for women, but seriously, doesn’t it seem like the box for “acceptable male behaviors” just keeps getting smaller and smaller? It’s a problem for all of us.  And Time magazine covers not withstanding, check the statistics and stories about the violence, harassment and likelihood of suicide for gender non-conforming people and you’ll quickly realize that for many of our neighbors, it’s not simply a fun Sunday morning exercise to play with gender, it’s dangerous, and even life-threatening.

Which is why it’s time that we who affirm the inherent worth of all people, the inherent beauty of all gender expressions, and the free and ongoing search for our truest selves – it’s time for us to rise up, and like I try to do with ministerial expectations…. push back.  It’s time for us to remember, and share our stories where we learned gender, policed gender, struggled or rejoiced with gender; it’s time to come out about the ways we long to break gender norms in big or small ways; and it’s time to listen to all the kids out there writing letters and living lives trying to say once and for all: these rules make no sense.

And unlike my archbishop, let’s be people who use the power we have to make real and life-saving change.  Let us build a world where we all can be this free.

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Re-Creation and Reconciliation – Easter Sermon 2017

Re-creation & Reconciliation (2)Reading – from Louise Erdrich’s The Painted Desert  

Sermon – Re-Creation and Reconciliation – Easter Sunday 2017

Perhaps it is predictable that my favorite part of the Jesus story is the moment that many orthodox preachers would call his “moment of temptation.”

It’s near the end of his life, when Jesus begins to realize that things are not going to end well.
He’s in the garden of Gethsemane, with his friends all around him, though they are sleeping. He is angry, and afraid, so he starts praying – a prayer of Help. He prays that something else – anything else – could happen instead of what he realized was going to happen. He prays that he won’t have to die, that there could be a different ending.
After all, he had plans, and he loved his friends, and he still had more to do to make the world right, to make right the human heart. It was too soon – please, he prayed, let my story be different.

Anyone who is attached to Jesus as God, and God as all-knowing and all-powerful would find this moment problematic, to say the least….that Jesus is praying and pleading, and
and yet is unable to effect his requested change – that’s a problem, theologically….But for those of us who focus on Jesus as a human being – then this moment simply feels right – and familiar.

After all, most of us know all too well this experience where the story we thought we were living in, or the family, or career we thought we were building, or the nation we thought we were a part of – when our sense of any of these, or of life on the whole -reveals itself as faulty, or fragile – as if our whole world has been built on a house of cards, about to come tumbling down – we all know the instinct to fall to our knees begging that everything can just BE.OK.

This is what Jesus was doing in the garden. Realizing that it wasn’t – that it wouldn’t ever BE OK. He wouldn’t survive to experience the glory he’d been fighting for, the overturning of the powers of injustice. In his helplessness, he cried out in shock and despair, and gave voice to a broken-heartedness that we all can we relate to –
expressing grief for what was, and for what never would be.  And he cried out as a plea –
that somehow his brain, and his heart could catch up to this new dawning reality he was facing, before he missed the few moments he had left.

For most of us, this reconciling and re-creating work of letting go of one way we thought life was headed, and then accepting a new reality – is slow, difficult, and often painful work. It requires the help of friends and therapists – a determined attention, and a great discipline of time and effort, and ideally a routine spiritual practice that can connect in with a greater sense of Truth (capital T) even as our personal truth (small t) has been shaken.

This process takes this kind of time, and effort, because actual brain-re-wiring must happen – new synapses and nodes must be built in order for the brain to truly make sense of this “new world.”

I find it a relentlessly reassuring to know that this neuro-biological process can take up to three years. Three years after a big loss, or other major life change – even when it’s something we think of as positive – like the addition of a new baby or a new marriage –
it can take three years for the brain to reconcile life as it previously thought it was,
with how it actually is, and will be.

By which I mean to say, be patient with yourself. You’re not just being stubborn. It’s biological. It’s ok not to have it all figured out yet. It’s ok to still feel turned upside down, inside out, still having moments where you forget that everything has changed – even though you know….It’s ok. Three years.

Of course, try telling that to the 24 Hour News Cycle, or your social media feed, I know.
In our world today it can feel like a new reality is placed in front of us to try to integrate and make sense of multiple times every day. Stuff that more readily requires multiple years to come to terms with, instead we are given multiple….hours. This is one of the reasons back in January, and as a part of our practice circles ever since, we have talked about taking up the practice of Sabbath – because in the midst of all these new stories and changed worlds, we need time to just let things process, to try to come to terms with it all, to sort everything, and ourselves out – without the constant additional input.

This Sabbath practice was exactly what Jesus’ closest friends were attempting the day after his death.  After he died, there was a long night, and then a long day,
and then another night – I imagine them all in their homes, trying to take in what had just happened – trying to reconcile their experience of the past – their teacher, his promises, their dreams – with the future that was now in front of them – all while still trying to come fully into the present.

After the Sabbath, Mary Magdalene goes first to the tomb – some accounts say she went by herself, others make her one of a few. While it was still dark she, or they, came bearing spices, that they might perform the ritual tasks – these motions of tender care
that we say are for the dead, but actually do their work on the living, helping us to accept, to create this new reality, to build these new connectors in our brains.

Mary Magdalene had loved him, her life had been changed by him; he was gone.

He was different, he could fix things, fix people, overthrow the forces of injustice, instill the ways of peace; he was gone.

They had all of these plans, to do all of this together; he was gone.

I’ve been trying to imagine, when and how Mary Magdalene first realized what Jesus knew in the garden – that he was to die. Who told her, and how did she respond? Did she bargain, or deny, or did she – see it coming? Was she strangely serene, and accepting – after all, she knew about life not going according to plan.

The others, the men, they could go back to their fishing, their lives as they were before, but what would happen to her? For her, there could be no going back. There was no starting over. She was already a new person, no matter what.

And so, she came with her spices, to tend to her friend, to try to make sense of it all….but by the time she arrived, the tomb was empty.  She thought his body had been stolen, another indignity.   So she calls the male disciples to come and see, and they do come,
but they just run away after they confirm the tomb is empty.

Mary stays – still weeping, wondering what was going on – what reality her brain should start creating connections for….and then….Jesus himself appears.

“Mary,” he says.  She goes to embrace him, but he pulls away.

Her brain must’ve been a wild mess- twisting and turning – and her heart…Filled with confusion, and joy, and disbelief, shock, fear….

Or at least, this is the way it goes in the gospel of John.  According to another version,
the Gospel of Mark, when they arrive at the empty tomb, Mary Magdalene and two other women meet a young man who tells them Jesus is no longer there, he’s been raised.  He tells them to go tell Peter and the other disciples.  Mary and the others freak out,
run away, and say nothing to anyone.  And that’s the end of the gospel of Mark.

Mark was the first gospel to be written, and even then it was about 70 years after Jesus had died. By then, lots of synapses had been formed, whole generations of them, so much so that the story has taken on a life of its own. And yet still it takes until the gospel of John, written 30 years later, to see an attempt at saying what all this might’ve meant….

I’ve heard people use the gospels’ late authorship – to dismiss these stories – saying that so much time means they must be fictional. But this suspicion misunderstands these stories and their intent.

The bible is not journalism, afterall, attempting to recall a literal truth. It’s better understood as what religious scholars call kerygma – or, proclamation.  These stories, and their authors, hope to proclaim a core truth that was passed on, across generations.
So many years later, they, and we, don’t know for sure the literal facts of what happened,
but we can listen to these stories as they are being offered, knowing there is something within them that intends to proclaim a nugget of wisdom, this good news that survived through it all – this gem of truth passed age to age, now over 2000 years later.

Which brings me back to the moment in the garden, with his friends sleeping around him, and Jesus yearning for his life to somehow be different. Because, by the time we get to John, this moment doesn’t happen.  100 years out, those few days before he is going to die, Jesus doesn’t pray for a different story – instead he wonders if he should ask for something else, but then answers himself – no. This is the reason I have come.
I have come to love, to feel, it is the reason I am on this earth. To love, to taste all I can, to offer myself extravagantly.

In the middle of our mixed-up world today, where so often we don’t know which reality to believe, or to try to integrate, where too often we long for a different ending – the story of Easter offers us this dual affirmation.

That yes, life will break you – break us. For all the many ways this story gets retold,
no one ever tries to erase this. In all the versions, Good Friday comes every year,
asking us to live out this acknowledgment, this painful truth that everything can and will fall to pieces – not even Jesus could stop it – because this is what it means to be alive.  And sometimes, for a while – we don’t know how long – three days, three hours, three years, three centuries – this is all we have.

And yet Easter doesn’t leave it there. Because what Easter also invites, is this possibility that this risk of living, this betrayal, need not take away life’s tender sweetness – that even after the worst has happened, the story can keep going, that although sometimes it’s too soon to make sense of all that has happened, to find reconciliation- it’s never too late. That even now, thousands of years and cultures away from that empty tomb there could be all of these still-struggling humans, still trying to put the pieces together, still trying to get to the Truth of it all, still longing to be a part of life’s re-creation, and even, resurrection.

So that even as we fall to our knees, wishing that we might be relieved of life’s pain, we will answer ourselves: no. I have come for this. To love, to feel, to risk my heart, to taste all the sweetness, to let none of it go to waste.LouiseErdrichQuote

Amen, Blessed Be, and Happy Easter.


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True Things – Sermon March 12 2017

TRUETHINGS.pngReading, from Adrienne Rich’s “Lies, Secrets, and Silence” 

Sermon, “True Things” – part 1 of 3 part series “Real Life” 

Today’s my mom’s birthday, and so I’m going to start by sharing a classic my-mom story.

She’d just come back from the doctor, and was sharing with me and my sisters. It wasn’t a huge deal, but it was kind of embarrassing, at least to her.

As she went on, she grimaced with dread.

What, mom? We asked.

She said, Well, I just hate that I have to tell Jane.

Jane was her best friend since they were both in kindergarten. Over fifty years later they still talked every day.  You know mom, I offered, gently, if you don’t want to tell Jane, you don’t have to.

And then less gently, my sisters and I burst into laughter.

But my mom didn’t really get the joke. Even if it was embarrassing, how could she not tell Jane? It was a true thing that was going on in her life.

My mom, I’ve learned over the course of my life, has a high willingness-verging-on-compulsion – to share things that others would decide to keep tucked away.  The upside of this is you never wonder what’s going on with my mom, how she feels about you, or about anything.  She is literally who she says she is – as she says most everything.

The downside, on the other hand, is that…well… the things that are true about her, when you’re her daughter, often have a lot to do with you…and it turns out I’m not quite so willing or eager to share everything.

Over the years, I’ve come to realize that most people are not like my mom, and are actually more like me.  Most of us have things about ourselves that we keep hidden, sometimes very hidden, even from ourselves.  This is what psychologists call “denial,” which is a coping technique that can be helpful in surviving immediate crises, but dangerous and even deadly if clung to for too long.

Today we kick off a new sermon series, what we’re calling “Real Life.” We thought of it because we realized we have spent a number of Sundays in the recent weeks talking about courageous love and its call for justice, and the good news of our Universalist faith that proclaims we are all in this together….but we hadn’t really dealt with how all this plays out in real life in the here and now.  We wondered if we were enabling a kind of denial ourselves – one that wasn’t picking up the issues we face in the every day, the moments of living that make up our lives.

It’s such a Unitarian Universalist temptation, after all, to talk about faith in the generic sense, or about courageous love as it applies to a theoretical whole. But how does courageous love apply to how much credit card debt we’re carrying, or how often we’re visiting the liquor store – or here in Colorado, the pot store – or to the fights we have with our kids, or our partners, what does it have to do with the judging voice in our heads, or the grief everyone thinks we’re already over,
or the hurts we caused, maybe even on purpose?

How does our faith apply to the loneliness and longing we feel when things are quiet,
or even how much we try to fill that emptiness with food, or sex, or gambling….or how much we try to punish it out of ourselves through exercise, or not-eating, or overwork….?

When I think back to the UU services that I’ve been a part of, I’m kind of amazed to realize that not too many of them tackle these real life sort of questions. It is as if our own kind of denial – like, nope, not here. Here we’re fine, we’re good. We’ve got everything totally under control. Right?

It’s fascinating – but not that uncommon – in Unitarian Universalism, and in life, more generally. You may have heard about the new podcast with Nora McInerny called “Terrible, Thanks for Asking.”  McInerny has had some pretty awful things happen to her, and was frustrated by the ways that still when people asked how she was, she’d say “I’m fine.” And she realized that was what everyone did.  Denial, it turns out, is carefully taught!

And yet this deception – of ourselves, of others –keeps us isolated and disconnected in ways that prevent us from healing the exact struggles we’re trying to keep hidden.
Human nature is not always the smartest, I think.

But we do have our reasons.

In the case of our faith community, most of our these I am prepared to blame on William Ellery Channing.  Channing is considered the founder of American Unitarianism by way of his sermon in 1820, Unitarian Christianity.  His concept of “Salvation by Character” became the rallying cry for Unitarianism throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.  On the one hand, his ideas were empowering – especially in light of the prevailing Calvinism of the time – it was so hopeful to imagine that salvation could lie in our hands, that we could strive towards perfection, and be well on our way – through our own choice, our own intent, our own will.

But on the other, these same ideas left little room to talk about our struggles, doubts, and even failures – let alone our incompetence, helplessness, or surrender. Which has meant over the years, that we have created our own version of “keeping up appearances,” which mostly I find, takes the form of not being able to ask for help.

If to be a Unitarian Universalist is to be “striving towards perfection,” and well on our way, then if we are struggling, or hurting, or caught in a life we didn’t intend – then we must be the only ones, right?  We worry that if we share what’s really going on in our lives, we’d be a total bummer on the UU happy party, or worse, the juicy gossip in the otherwise perfectly perfect show.  We don’t want to be judged, or remembered always for the thing that’s going on right now.  Better just to play along, to keep these more vulnerable parts of ourselves hidden, and hopefully, forgotten.

This subtle messaging of our faith came to me most clearly one evening, it was before I went to seminary, and our good friends were struggling with a likely upcoming divorce, and with some real challenges with their sometimes violent and grief-stricken 8th grader.  Their family was so fragile, and vulnerable.

They were members of their local UU church, and they invited us one night to come to an event that was about creating community around their 8th grader and recognizing them as they come of age. I remember so vividly the moment when it hit me how much this church and the program they were running –  a UU-standard program – assumed an intact family that had mostly stable parent-child relationships and a stability and health in the adults themselves.

Given that none of this was the case, my beloved friends, and their beloved child tried so hard to answer the questions, but they literally made no sense. After words, each of the other tables got up to share their answers, so perfectly conveyed. My friends gave their answers, but I knew, it was mostly make-believe.

I was so angry at that church, and at our faith that night. Because that kid, he needed that support – they needed that support – and they were promised they’d get it – a circle of community around his time of coming of age. It’s just that his coming of age didn’t look like a straight line, it had some real struggle in it. And probably he wasn’t the only one, they weren’t the only family. But that program told anyone who might be struggling – don’t tell your church – we don’t have people like you here.

What’s especially ironic to me about all of this, however, is that if you know or Channing’s biography, you know he struggled immensely with his public vs. private self, and the question of which parts of himself were acceptable, worthy, and enough.  Channing was obsessive in his work, and self-punishing in his sleeping and eating habits, mostly because he was trying to overcome “what he described as his effeminacy and his unwanted sexual fantasies.” For all the talk of human capacity and will,
from what I can tell, our Unitarian theological inheritance is also shaped by denial, and shame.

Which brings me to today’s good news. Denial, and shame, as researcher Brene Brown teaches us, can be overcome, by coming clean.  It’s counter-intuitive of course, but the way to stop feeling like we have to hide, is to stop hiding.

Taking the risk of stepping out and sharing those things we are afraid make us unlovable – this movement towards the light allows us to create a container for a new truth to emerge – in our own lives, and in our faith.

For only in sharing the broken parts of our lives are we able to engage more fully the beauty, the sacred, the real. As long as we are siphoning off parts, there remains something make-believe in all of life, a depth we can’t quite touch, a possibility left unknown.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that we must all become my mom.

But more, it invites us to unburden ourselves from the shaping and the shielding, the secret-keeping and the story-telling, these things that withhold the real healing power of our community, and our faith – this promise that there is a love, holding us, right here, as we are.

To imagine that we can take it, even if it’s hard, that the truth can make us stronger, more courageous, and more capable of being the church and the people we long to be.
“Most of the time we are eager, and longing for the possibility of telling” the truth. “These possibilities may seem frightening, but they are not destructive.”

To seek the truth in love – as the words of our covenant promise – could bring us into more life, rather than less.

With this in mind, I invite you to call to mind now whatever may be going on in your life, or in your heart, that you mostly keep shielded – whatever the reason.

Maybe it’s a question you are wondering about….Maybe it’s something you love about yourself, but you worry others won’t.

What are those true things that feel you can’t speak?

For all of these that are on your hearts now, I offer this prayer and blessing:


For all of these true things, we give thanks.
May we believe that every part of us is worthy of love.
May we remember that change is always possible, that life is still doing its work upon us, and through us.
Into this wide world of brokenness and beauty, we offer ourselves, as we are, knowing that the healing and truth we seek in the world starts in our own hearts.
May we be released us from shame and liberated into real life. For us all.
Amen, and blessed be.

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