What Love Says

Ten years ago, I was ordained into the Unitarian Universalist ministry. In our religious tradition, it is the congregation that calls an individual out of the laity and into the company of the people we call Reverend. First Unitarian Church of Dallas did that for me. The speakers at the service included, among others, the President of the Unitarian Universalist Association at that time, the Rev. Bill Sinkford, and the Senior Minister of All Souls Church in Kansas City, the Rev. Kendyl Gibbons.

I had asked Rev. Sinkford to preach my ordination sermon, which I felt was quite appropriate since I was the Golden Boy in his campaign to grow Unitarian Universalism. I had been hired straight out of seminary (in 2003) to be the Lead Minister in what was called the UUA’s Rapid-Start Large Church Project which was hugely controversial. Essentially, the idea was to understand and copy the success of Christian megachurches which had started at zero but had gone straight to thousands of people in under three years. Unitarian Universalism wanted to get in on the action too. And why not? What we have is amazing. But, it was becoming increasingly clear that our ways of starting congregations hadn’t been very effective. They very rarely grew beyond 75 people, and if they did grow beyond that, it took decades. Rev. Sinkford, together with his group of visionaries, raised a million dollars to fund the Rapid-Start Large Church Project, and they hired me to lead it. This wet-behind-the-ears, just-graduated-from-seminary, not-even-ordained-yet minister.

So Rev. Sinkford preached my ordination sermon, and I remember not one word of it.

What I DO remember are the words that the Rev. Kendyl Gibbons shared in her Charge to the Minister, which came later in the service. This is what she said in front of God and everybody:

My dear Anthony, I bring you the greetings, congratulations, and bemused sympathy of some 1,500 of your colleagues. Make no mistake—if it feels as though you have jumped into the deep end of our Association’s political swimming pool, it’s because that is exactly what you have done. The splash reverberates around the Unitarian Universalist Minister’s Association. Any number of more experienced swimmers than you, my friend, have come to grief in the riptides and undertows of this particular stretch of water. If you don’t yet think that you are in over your head, it’s because you haven’t fully grasped the reality of your situation. And yet, I promise you that for the most part, we wish you well. It is high time that our liberal religious community learned to do this kind of work, and to get it right.

How I wish I could have seen Sinkford’s face when she said all this! Maybe he smiled knowingly. Of course. He was the UUA President. He knew all about the deep ends of swimming pools.

Soon enough, I would too.

**

While I was mulling over the job offer for the UUA’s Rapid-Start Large Church Project, I came across this poem by Rainer Maria Rilke:

I believe in all that has never yet been spoken.
I want to free what waits within me
so that what no one has dared to wish for

may for once spring clear
without my contriving.

If this is arrogant, God, forgive me,
but this is what I need to say.
May what I do flow from me like a river,
no forcing and no holding back…

When I heard these words, it felt like it was Love speaking to my heart. I DID want to free what waits within me. I DID want it to flow from me like a river.

And what was it? What was there?

It started to come clear one day, when I was stuck in traffic. Later I wrote down my insight, and here is the journal entry:

I cut my finger—painful! Nothing else to do but clean it, keep it clean and protected. I kept on going back to it, looking at it—it was like a red smile on the tip of my index finger, so sore.

A watched pot never boils, though, so I tried to forget about it, and did eventually, and then, a couple days later, while driving, traffic at a standstill, I suddenly remembered it. What I discovered was that the red smile was faded, almost gone. My body was healing itself; it knew exactly what it was doing…

In that moment of standstill traffic, my mind shot forward, thought, If my body has this internal power for healing, why not my spirit? As a spiritual being having a human experience, is not my purpose to learn as much as I can, or better yet unlearn bad habits, so I don’t block this inner healing power and let it do its natural work?

In particular, as one called out into the professional ministry, is not my purpose to use all the ways and means and resources of my profession to do just this? To magnify the Spirit of Life that’s always already active in our lives and in our gathered communities of faith?

That’s what I wanted to flow from me like a river. This vision of what it means to be a spiritual being having a human experience. This vision of a natural power within and among us that spontaneously takes us in a Good Orderly Direction towards healing and wholeness. This vision of how a bunch of random individuals can become a true community that magnifies the vision, and feels it, and is changed by it, and is called to change the world because of it.

I wanted that to flow from me like a river….

I wanted it, even as I knew that the reality of congregations can often be completely otherwise, can be just like a game of Marco-Polo. We’re all in the swimming pool together, we’ve all closed our eyes, the professional minister (or someone) is IT, he or she calls out MARCO, he or she is trying to find the others, and the others call back POLO, and I know you know that the game is a version of tag, and the intended goal is for everyone to stay the heck away from the one who’s IT. That’s how it can be in our congregations, and that’s why they stay small in all the ways that count, if not in numbers then in spirit and creativity and generosity and joy. That’s why they stay small. Someone is calling out the vision of changing lives and the others just don’t allow themselves to get engaged, they think someone else will do it, they don’t see there’s no one else but them, they just swim the other way, no one wants to be IT. Congregations can be just like a game of Marco-Polo.

Sermon_marco polo

I knew it. But I still believed.

**

Ten years ago, my ministry began with the Rapid-Start Large Church Project. It felt insane. I had seven other potential job offers to choose from. I talked to everyone. Should I do this? It was so risky…. But lots of people said heck yes—you are exactly the right entrepreneurial leader for the job. One in particular also counseled me to be careful: the UUA is a repeat offender in the category of overpromising. The seminary professor I loved and respected above all sort of waffled in his counsel to me—and then, after I took the job, we lost contact, and I heard later that he felt that, by accepting the job, I had compromised myself. This broke my heart.

He had been the one who had taught me that the universe is such that it can take even our most flawed actions and turn them into some good. He had taught me that. How the wrong train can take us to the right station. He was the one.

We just do the best we can as we make our difficult decisions, and we face the consequences.

Life handed me the Rapid-Start Large Church Project, and with my beautiful staff and beautiful congregants I transformed that Project into a living Church, and I named it because it was my baby I gave birth to, and the name was Pathways.

When I spoke about my vision for Pathways, I always used BIG METAPHORS. The vision flowing from me like a river—the vision Love was whispering in my ear—could allow for nothing less.

So I am unsurprised as I look through my old sermons from the time and discover one in which I talk about “growing spiritual redwoods.” Some years back, I say, I had been traveling in California and found myself at Redwood National Park. I had heard things about redwood trees before, how they live an average of 600 years and some up to 2000 years. How, from something as small as a tomato seed, they can grow to heights of up to 370 feet and widths of 22 feet at the base. I had heard all this, but hearing and seeing are different things. The face-to-face reality blew me away. It was amazing. Humbling. Overwhelming. The hugeness of the redwood trees was sparking something huge within me, a song in the heart, coming from deep inside, answering back with a YES and a WOW and an AMEN.

That’s when my message turned to the spiritual redwood within. The part in me that the YES and the WOW and the AMEN came from. The spiritual redwood within all people, or at least the seed of it, the seed that itches to burst open and grow, that ultimately wants nothing less than peace like a river, joy like a fountain, love like an ocean, pain like an arrow, tears like the raindrops, strength like a mountain. People are talking about the spiritual redwood within when they say, “I’m not religious, I’m spiritual.” They are saying, “Enough with abstract dogma. Enough with complacency and country-club church. Enough with merely belonging. I am on a quest for a personal destiny and a higher calling. I hunger, I thirst, I yearn. I am restless and I need something that money can’t buy. There’s got to be something more than this. Life’s got to mean something more than this.”

We are all spiritual redwoods waiting to happen.

But it’s not a done deal, I go on to say. Without intentionality and resolve, it won’t happen. It won’t happen without a struggle. Because we have to keep our spiritual yearning on the right track. To make sure it’s not twisted or co-opted to serve destructive ends. For it surely can be. We’ve seen too many times recently how people’s hunger for more meaning and more life can, ironically, be transmuted into dealing out more death and more horror. People killing for God. For God, destroying whole lands and peoples and cultures, oppressing women, despising gays and lesbians and others. For God—freezing out the mind, putting away all questions and doubts, enforcing spirituality by formula….

From the very beginning, I knew that religion has always been a two-edged sword, like all the most important things in life. It’s why I always said to the people at Pathways that we need to do it right. Why bring into the world yet another Marco-Polo congregation, when there are already so many? Let’s dare greatly. Let’s dream boldly. Let’s create something truly beautiful and unique and needed for this time and this place. Let’s do THAT.

**

Now why am I bringing up ancient history? My ordination was ten years ago. Pathways was years ago. I have been your Senior Minister for seven years now, since 2007. My beautiful congregants for quite some time now have been and are you.

Well, for just this reason: I want you to know me. The experiences that have shaped me. Where my ministry is coming from.

When you look at me, I want you to see someone who has been nothing less than the Golden Boy of a denomination and then the bottom fell out. The goal of the Rapid-Start Large Church was for there to be an average of 465 attendees at worship after only six months of opening our doors. After 18 months of worship, there was to be an average of 808 folks every Sunday. Now, I was hired with the explicit message that we had never done something like this before, so my job was to discover the right approach through trial-and-error. (In fact, that’s why they felt ok about hiring me straight out of seminary—I hadn’t learned any bad habits yet.) But then, as in a classic bait and switch, when my discoveries weren’t yielding enough Sunday worship attendees fast enough, the denomination pulled its funding, no apologies. We were failures. Nothing mattered but numbers. If congregations can suffer bleeding chest wounds, Pathways did; and I was the MASH unit to put it back together and keep it going. When I went to the annual meeting of the UUA that year, I hung my head in shame while I slunk around the conference rooms and the hallways, painfully aware of all the people staring. I was *that* minister. The Golden Boy who was now just something smelly at the bottom of a shoe.

We all have our stories of adversity, stories of growing up. This is one of mine.

But when you look at me, I also want you to see how I still believe. A broken heart healed is even stronger than before. Tactics are one thing, but vision is something else entirely. We need to pay careful attention to tactics. We need to attend to systems and processes and nuts & bolts and spreadsheets and timelines. I know this in spades. But I also know that we need to do it only so that the vision can live. “If you want to build a ship,” says writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery, “don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

Let us long for the endless immensity. I believe.

Spiritual redwoods ARE just waiting to happen. A Spirit of Life natural power stirs within us RIGHT NOW and wants to spontaneously take us in a Good Orderly Direction towards healing and wholeness. A bunch of random individuals REALLY CAN become a true community that magnifies the vision, and feels it, and is changed by it, and is called to change the world because of it. A Marco-Polo way of doing things is NOT an inevitability.

Denominational politics suck. But as for Unitarian Universalism, our religious way? It is still the sweetest honey, it is still a path to beauty, it is still a gift to the world, and we need to keep inviting as many people as possible into this, so they can receive the gift too.

I still believe.

Someone once said that “any old fool can tear any sermon apart in seconds if they want to, so it must take an exceptionally committed fool to decide to write one.”

This here is one exceptionally committed fool.

Because what Love says is that we are the people, and now is the time.

sermon_forest-river

It’s Enough

It’s Enough
for Nancy

1.
Of course sunsets are beautiful
but then there is this one, on this beach:

no Hallmark abstraction,
not someone else’s story,

but real with colors so vivid
they press into your eyes,

they dazzle, they make you come alive,
you want more,

more and more,
but the earth keeps relentlessly turning,

it gets darker and darker
until the shadows overwhelm. Beauty flows

then goes. Hold on
and it’s like your fingers carefully trying

to cup precious water
which leaks out anyway….

2.
How do the things we can’t change
change us?

How do we endure
the constant burning

of missing what we love
impossible to carry forward from the past?

I paced the beach, ruminating, sad,
too upset to see the gorgeousness

unveiled behind me….
But then a finger tapped,

I turned to see an old man,
and with not one word

he gave me a tiny cracked shell
like a Zen koan answer….

In my hand: the sunset.
Enough, and more than enough.

Nov. 18 2012

sermon_long-bay-beach-sunset

Maybe this is what Spring feels like

leaf

Maybe this is what Spring feels like:
a sadness in the heart.

Steady summer is not here yet.
The skies turn from grey to blue and back
on a dime.

There is no easy release from Winter.
There is no clean break.

But sadness softens everything.
Sadness opens up the tough bud.
Sadness draws forth the green.

Sadness is a kind of resurrection,
though it doesn’t feel like it.

Savoring and Saving the World: Essentials of Unitarian Universalism, Part 6

Today’s message represents the completion of our year-long sermon series on Unitarian Universalist essentials. We are already busy with our religion—we are worshipping, studying, serving, giving, meditating, celebrating, changing lives in here and in the larger world, all this and more—but this does not necessarily mean our minds are fully connecting with our faith. This does not necessarily mean we are clear on why we are who we are.

Now I know that some days it’s just like herding cats; I know that when people use the phrase “organized religion” we feel tempted to laugh at the oxymoronic phrase and the equally oxymoronic speaker. But despite this, there really are certain beliefs we all hold in common. There really is a core to our Unitarian Universalism. Here it is:

1. The Sacred Heart of Reality is fundamentally a Mystery and always bigger than any beliefs about it;

2. The sources of truth about the Sacred are many (at least Six), and drawing from diverse sources makes for an exciting and rewarding path;

3. Spirituality is best seen as a lifelong journey in which we never stop learning. Mistakes are allowed. We can know we’ve encountered truth when it changes our lives in line with our Seven Principles;

4. A powerful way of supporting people’s growth over time in community is through the practice of covenant, not creed;

5. There is a pure sweet gospel that comes to us from our Unitarian and Universalist ancestors, and it is just as relevant now as it was hundreds of years ago: Love is where we all come from, and Love is where all we’re going.

But today, as I’ve said, comes the completion of the list of core convictions. I would even describe it as the capstone, the culmination. I say this because it characterizes the HOW of our being religious, as well as defines what spiritual growth means to us.

In essence, this: we want to save the world, but we also want to savor it.

The eagle in us wants to soar, but the hippopotamus who is also in us just wants to wallow in the sweet slippery sticky sensational mud…

Nervous Newborn Hippo

It DOES make it hard to plan the day—as writer E. B. White said.

But why are we Unitarian Universalists torn between the two? What anchors us in the middle of this tension of seeming opposites?

Human nature, for one thing! But our distinctive religious history has an important role to play also.

From our Unitarian side comes “salvation by character,” the beautiful idea that people are full of God-like potentials, and it is a main purpose of life to realize those potentials. At the same time, the world is full of broken places; and it puts those broken places within us. So our job is to heal the world and make it a place where as many people as possible can be themselves fully, can actualize the God-given potentials within. That is salvation, and salvation is something you work at. You work at developing all the public institutions that affirm human dignity; you work at developing all the personal traits that evidence good character. THIS is what saves. If you don’t, well, people won’t get to Love. Love won’t happen. That’s what the Unitarians said.

Which invited a backlash from the Universalists. They saw “salvation by character” as a case of inflated self-importance, and they countered it with a slogan of their own: “salvation irrespective of character.” See how cheeky they were, to echo the phrasing from the Unitarians even as they were subverting it? “Salvation irrespective of character” means that no one is going to be left out of Love. Everyone is going to get to Love no matter what. Yes, people need to work to make the world a better place. Of course. But don’t think it’s all on you. Martin Luther King Jr. was channeling the Universalists when he spoke of “a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us,” he says, “realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

And that’s it. Save the world, and savor it—both are in our spiritual DNA. Work to actualize your potentials, absolutely. Don’t dare think that there’s no work to do. God doesn’t have hands; we do. That’s what we are for. But even so, to think that EVERYTHING depends on us is equally wrong. The world is larger than our egos can possibly comprehend. The world is fundamentally Mystery. So: don’t push the river. Don’t thrash and drown. Lie easy, and let the river hold you.

Trust God but tie your camel
Trust God but lock your car
Trust God but row for shore
Trust God but make an annual pledge

I could go on and on. You get my point. Save the world, savor the world. Eagle, hippopotamus. Our Unitarian Universalist heritage puts us right in the middle of that tension. So it’s our task to learn how. To make the tension creative.

And it’s a struggle. We heard a little about that earlier, in today’s reading from the Rev. Dick Gilbert, which is a contemporary classic:

To savor the world or save it?
God of justice, if such there be,
Take from me the burden of my question.
Let me praise my plenitude without limit;
Let me cast from my eyes all troubled folk!

In other words, I just want to be a hippopotamus and wallow in muddy goodness! But:

No, you will not let me be.
You will not stop my ears
To the cries of the hurt and the hungry;
You will not close my eyes
To the sight of the afflicted.
No, you will not!

What is that you say?
To savor one must serve?
To savor one must save?
The one will not stand without the other?
Forgive me–
In my preoccupation with self,
In my concern for my own life
I had forgotten.

Ultimately, Dick Gilbert’s poem envisions the save/savor tension as a conflict between public issues that call for our intervention and private satisfactions that can stop up our ears to the cries of the hurt and hungry. It’s so easy, he suggests, to get caught up in being private hippos in our private mud pits. But don’t forget what the eagle is calling us to. Get up out of that mud, and fly! Live so that your corner of the universe is better than when you first found it.

It’s all true. How can anyone not say amen to this?

sermon_eagle

And yet there’s a wrinkle to consider. When I read Dick Gilbert’s piece, I am led to think of people who hear the call of the eagle and respond to that and they give their lives to work and community and public service—but they do this in big part because they are trying to escape their private lives. They don’t know what to do with the hippo waiting for them at home. It’s the weekend and they can’t relax, they can’t take off the suit. In explicit social justice terms, they go to protest after protest at city hall because, well, they don’t know how to resolve the conflict with their partner at home.

As I say all this, I think of my father. He was such an eagle, of the medical variety! Medical school taught him how to do incredible things that saved thousands of lives. But it never taught him how to wallow very well. And I needed that from him. What an amazing joy it is for children to see their parents just being silly. Enjoying themselves in healthy ways. Oh, I wanted to see him savor his life more! I needed it! His friends needed it! He needed it!

This is the wrinkle to consider. Dick Gilbert says, don’t get so caught up in the private that you forget the public. Absolutely—but don’t serve the public because you are trying to escape the private. There must be a balance. It’s a sad thing if, at your memorial service, all the world cries except your own children, who never knew you.

Both eagle and hippopotamus ask certain things of us, and we must do justice to both.

Makes it not easy to plan the day…

But now let’s go even deeper into the tension between saving and savoring. Consider a different way of framing it: as happiness vs. meaning. “Over the past few weeks,” says New York Times writer David Brooks, “I’ve found myself in a bunch of conversations in which the unspoken assumption was that the main goal of life is to maximize happiness. That’s normal. When people plan for the future, they often talk about all the good times and good experiences they hope to have. We live in a culture awash in talk about happiness. In one three-month period last year, more than 1,000 books were released on Amazon on that subject.” “But,” David Brooks goes on to say, “notice this phenomenon. When people remember the past, they don’t only talk about happiness. It is often the ordeals that seem most significant. People shoot for happiness but feel formed through suffering.”

I was pleased to see this article, because I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. If laughter is “carbonated holiness,” as writer Anne Lamott puts it, then happiness is holy. Laughter that’s easy and free. Living that’s in the moment, silly and sweet, full of friends and fun. Maybe exactly the sort of thing that comes to mind when we think of that hippopotamus wallowing in his mud…

But as for meaning…. Meaning is the eagle who is not so much living in the present but reflecting on the past with all its pains and losses. Also thinking about the future with all its potential threats. Meaning is the eagle working through dissapointment and grief so as to understand the big picture, so as to learn the lessons, so as to bring greater compassion and wisdom to life.

People shoot for happiness but feel formed through suffering.

We have all been lost, at least in the geographic sense. It is so unsettling. You feel so vulnerable. You don’t know where you are, you don’t know what might happen. Take this and crank up the intensity 100 fold, 1000 fold, we’re talking emotional lostness and spiritual lostness. You lose your job. You lose your health. You lose your love. You don’t want this, but it happens anyhow.

It’s terrible. No one wants this. Who can accept this?

Hippo, come close. Eagle, stay the hell away.

Ugh.

But listen to more of what David Brooks has to say: “[S]uffering drags you deeper into yourself. The theologian Paul Tillich wrote that people who endure suffering are taken beneath the routines of life and find they are not who they believed themselves to be. The agony … smashes through what they thought was the bottom floor of their personality, revealing an area below, and then it smashes through that floor revealing another area.”

David Brooks also says that people in the midst of suffering also eventually learn that “They are not masters of the situation, but neither are they helpless. They can’t determine the course of their pain, but they can participate in responding to it. […] It means seeing life as a moral drama, placing the hard experiences in a moral context and trying to redeem something bad by turning it into something sacred. […] Recovering from suffering is not like recovering from a disease. Many people don’t come out healed; they come out different.”

Oh, we want our happiness. And why not? It is a worthy aim of life. Don’t tell me that carbonated holiness is not a worthy thing! Process theology teaches us that through our own pleasure we can feel the very pleasure of God. It is part of what makes life worth living.

But—as Christianity explicitly teaches through the figure of Jesus—the only way to Easter Sunday resurrection is Good Friday crucifixion. Go through a Good Friday episode in your life, and by Easter Sunday time, believe me, you are … different.

What Unitarian Universalism calls us to is an ability to hold it all together. To appreciate tears as much as carbonated holiness. To allow room for the inevitable moments of lostness as much as to moments when we know exactly where we are. To dance when it is time to dance. To mourn when it is time to mourn. To be large enough for all of it. To reject none.

That in fact is the true measure of spiritual growth for Unitarian Universalists, and I close with this insight. It comes from process theologian and Unitarian Universalist Bernard Loomer. He was a member of the First Unitarian Church of Berkeley, and as the frequent leader of adult religious education courses, he would often ask his group, “What is the size of your soul?” “I mean,” he’d say, “the volume of life you can take into your being and still maintain your integrity and individuality, the intensity and variety of outlook you can entertain in the unity of your being without feeling defensive or insecure. I mean the strength of your spirit to encourage others to become freer in the development of their diversity and uniqueness. I mean the power to sustain more complex and enriching tensions.”

Exactly like the tension between eagle and hippo.

What is the size of your soul today?

Can you both savor and save?

Can you live within that tension well?

I promise you, planning the day gets easier, the bigger your soul is.

AMEN

Sermon_hippo-and-eagle

Theology OUT of the Box

Summers in high school, I used to teach Vacation Bible School. We used popsicle sticks to create little Noah’s Arks. We played Pin-the-Animal-to-the-Ark. We ate a snack of animal crackers. It might not have looked like it, but we were doing theology. We were reinforcing a certain understanding of our big picture relationship to the world and to each other. That’s what me and the kids were doing, those sweet summer days….

It all comes back to me, all these years later, as I reflect on how, just this past week, I went to my local Lefont Theater, got buttered popcorn, got gummy bears, got chocolate, got water, found my seat and prepared my meal of goodies, ate too much of it while I endured ages of previews, and then, finally, saw the main event: Daniel Aranofsky’s movie Noah.

It is by sheer contrast that the Vacation Bible School memory comes back to me. Because there is nothing sweet in that movie. What you have instead is a graphically-depicted world that has turned morally depraved. You have a God who is all-powerful, who could have intervened in the ages before Noah to prevent the world from ever turning bad, but He does not. He chooses to intervene in Noah’s time, when the world is way past the tipping point, and his intervention takes the form of an apocalypse. Lots of screaming in that movie. Practically all life destroyed through a massive flood. You also have human beings, Noah and his family, who suffer each moment of the story as it unfolds, but God is above all that suffering, God is like the grey sky churning with clouds that Noah in the movie lifts his eyes to continually, pleading for help, pleading to understand, but there is no answer. The mysterious grey skies just churn away. God is above it all. God has a plan.

This is what I call theology IN the box. I was in the box during those sweet Vacation Bible School days, but didn’t really know it. I started to, however, when my Dad died and I lifted up my eyes to the same churning grey skies that Noah might have lifted his eyes to, and I pled for help and pled for understanding like Noah might have, and none of it came my way. God could have intervened so that my Dad didn’t die when he was just 60 fricken years old, but God did not intervene; he, with all his ultimate power, was a greedy miser, a Scrooge, a Grinch.

You see, this is the problem with the God of Vacation Bible School, the God of the movie Noah, the God that pervades the Western world, the God that so many of us imagine when the word “God” is spoken: the traditional God. This God is erratic. This God is demonic. Theologian Robert Mesle puts it like this: “In the Bible, and in much of Christian thought, God has been described as directly willing and causing great evils: war, slavery, plague, famine, and even the hardness of human hearts. At the very best, God has been depicted as standing by and allowing needless suffering that ‘He’ could easily have prevented.” Robert Mesle goes on to say, “To defend our ideas of God, we are driven to turn our ideas of good and evil inside out to explain why it is really good for God to allow such great suffering.” Here’s one specific example of that which animates so much of politics today. God doesn’t eradiate poverty? Well, it must mean that it’s all a part of God’s plan, and who are we to fight against God? So let’s all vote for politicians who support public policies that rob from the poor and give to the rich.

See what I mean? That’s what theology IN the box is all about. Right and wrong turned inside out.

I am tired of theology IN the box. Aren’t you?

And in fact, a lot of us are. A couple years back, New York Times writer Eric Weiner used the opportunity of the oncoming Christmas holidays to raise the question of what he called “the sad state of our national conversation about God.” “For a nation of talkers and self-confessors,” he writes, “we are terrible when it comes to talking about God. The discourse has been co-opted by the True Believers, on one hand, and Angry Atheists on the other. What about the rest of us?”

That’s another consequence of theology IN the box. It’s polarizing. True Believers who refuse to question the Vacation Bible sweetness of their God concept, and the Angry Atheists who are equally committed to the Vacation Bible God concept but reject it absolutely.

But what about the rest of us? “The rest of us,” says Eric Weiner, “turns out to constitute the nation’s fastest-growing religious demographic. We are the Nones [N-O-N-E-S], the roughly 12 percent of people who say they have no religious affiliation at all. The percentage is even higher among young people; at least a quarter are Nones. Apparently, a growing number of Americans are running from organized religion, but by no means running from God. On average 93 percent of those surveyed say they believe in God or a higher power; this holds true for most Nones.”

And then Eric Weiner says this, which takes us closer to our topic for today of theology OUT of the box: “Nones [he says] don’t get hung up on whether a religion is ‘true’ or not, and instead subscribe to William James’s maxim that ‘truth is what works.’ If a certain spiritual practice makes us better people—more loving, less angry—then it is necessarily good, and by extension ‘true.’ (We believe that G. K. Chesterton got it right when he said: ‘It is the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it.’)”

Couple things here. First, the idea of “truth is what works.” When we talk about being in search of a God idea that is better than the traditional one, yes, the “truth is what works” maxim is helpful. If a God concept confuses your sense of right and wrong, if turns you into a True Believer or an Angry Atheist, if it walls you off from your life rather than helps you engage it more creatively, then that God concept is going in the wrong direction, the direction of falsehood. But if a God concept illustrates the true meaning of love and compassion, if it turns you into someone who has Holy Curiosity, if it brings you into true abundance and hopefulness in your life—well, that’s what I call, “it works.”

It also works if you can joke about it. Just like G. K. Chesterton said.

Here’s a joke that immediately introduces us to theology OUT of the box. It’s called, “God will save me.” A big storm approaches. The weatherman urges everyone to get out of town. The priest says, “I won’t worry, God will save me.” The morning of the storm, the police go through the neighborhood with a sound truck telling everyone to evacuate. The priest says, “I won’t worry, God will save me.”
The storm drains back up and there is an inch of water standing in the street. A fire truck comes by to pick up the priest. He tells them, “Don’t worry, God will save me.” 
The water rises another foot. A National Guard truck comes by to rescue the priest. He tells them, “Don’t worry, God will save me.”
The water rises some more. The priest is forced up to his roof. A boat comes by to rescue the priest. He tells them, “Don’t worry, God will save me.” 
The water rises higher. The priest is forced up to the very top of his roof. A helicopter comes to rescue the priest. He shouts up at them, “Don’t worry, God will save me.”
The water rises above his house, and the priest drowns. 
When he gets up to heaven he says to God, “I’ve been your faithful servant ever since I was born! Why didn’t you save me?”
And God replies “First I sent you a weatherman, then I sent the police, then I sent a fire truck, then the national guard, then a boat, and then a helicopter. What more do you want from me!!??”

That’s the joke, and before I show how it illustrates what theology is like when you get OUT of the box, I better do my job and tell you the name of this particular theology. It’s called “Process Theology.” Historically, much of it is home-grown; it emerges out of Unitarian Universalist thinkers like Ralph Waldo Emerson, who spoke of the “deep power in which we exist, [how] when it breaks through our intellect, it is genius; when it breathes through our will, it is virtue; when it flows through our affections, it is love.” Then there is the great Unitarian Universalist theologian of the 20th century, Charles Hartshorne, who titled one of his books as follows: Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes (Are you getting a sense of where we are going yet? How we’re moving away from the idea that God’s power is a power to supernaturally intervene in history?) And then there is the thinker who is considered to be the father of Process Theology, not a Unitarian Universalist but, says Wikipedia, a “friend”: Alfred North Whitehead.

Listen to something Whitehead once said: “When the Western world received Christianity, Caesar conquered, and the received text of Western theology was edited by his lawyers… The brief [vision of humble and patient love that came from Jesus] flickered throughout the ages, uncertainly … but the deeper idolatry, the fashioning of God in the image of the Egyptian, Persian, and Roman imperial rulers, was retained. The church gave unto God the attributes which belonged exclusively to Caesar.”

That’s exactly why the priest in the joke does what he does. Why he constantly refuses help. Why he’s so upset at God in the end. God is supposed to barge into history like an imperial, all-powerful Caesar, to intervene supernaturally. That’s the kind of power the priest is convinced God has. Hard power to force things. Hard power that is coercive and violates natural laws and others’ freedom. The priest is stuck on this idea of power—even though, as Whitehead suggests, Jesus himself offered people a completely different sense of divine power: Power that is persuasive and patiently but steadfastly calls people to a better vision of life, which they can follow, but only if they choose to do so.

The joke takes the side of Jesus. And Whitehead.

The priest never got it. But we can.

I won’t speculate on how Jesus came to this conclusion about God. But as for Whitehead, he came to it in big part because of the findings of the most successful and battle-tested theory in all of contemporary science: quantum mechanics. The fundamental particles that make up everything, says the genius physicist Werner Heisenberg, “are not real; they form a world of potentialities or possibilities rather than one of things or facts.” In other words, it’s only when Noah chooses to build the Ark that a certain direction into the future begins to be born, and with each subsequent choice, the world of actualities expands…. But there is never a point where any being could know everything past-present-future. It’s impossible. A being COULD be able to envision all possibilities. That would be God. But even God cannot know what the actualities will turn out to be. Actualities require choices and choosers. That would be us. That’s what history is for.

The problem with the priest in the joke—and with people who are still IN the theological box—is that they conceive of God as some kind of super person whose hands are just like ours but bigger and stronger. We use our hands to pick our kids up when they have fallen, and God uses God’s hands to send all the animals, two of every kind, into the Ark. Think like this, and you will drown. You will wait for God to come save you. All sorts of real help will come on by, but you’ll ignore it. And you will drown.

We’ve got to turn from that, and turn to theology OUT of the box.

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Process theology: here are the basics:

First: everything is in God. The world is God’s body. This is just so beautiful. I just want to repeat it like a mantra. The world is God’s body. “For me,” writes Herman Hesse, “trees have always been the most penetrating preachers.” Of course. Because trees are a part of God’s body, and so are stars, and so are rivers. Humans are too, but Process Theology is not human-centered. Everything is a part of God, everything needs to be honored and cared for, not just people.

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Second: even though the world is in God, it has creative independence ands freedom, just like your own body does when it gets sick. Your mind doesn’t want it to be sick, but it gets sick anyhow, and you have to cope. Same thing with God. God doesn’t want the world to be sick, and yet the world has creative independence. God simply can’t enter into the world supernaturally, like a bull in a china shop, and stop this and start that.

Third: God is more than the world. God is the knower. Part of this includes possibility. God knows every possibility there is to know. There is no possible world that God is ignorant of. But as for what God knows about actuality or facts: only the ones that have happened. God is as constrained by the laws of quantum mechanics as we are. God can be disappointed. God can be delighted.

But here is the other side of God’s supreme power of knowing. This side is particularly interesting, because it goes against that image of God as some kind of imperial Caesar who is supposed to be supreme and worthy of worship because nothing bothers him, nothing moves him, he is permanently unchanged and unchanging. But process theology envisions a God that is worthy of worship because God is affected by everything. Every pain and pleasure ever felt is felt by God. God is absolute in empathy and rapport. God, writes Carter Heyward, “will hang on the gallows.”

God will inspire, fill, overwhelm Handel with power and splendor.
God will be battered. . .
God will have a mastectomy
God will experience the wonder of giving birth.
God will be handicapped.
God will run the marathon.
God will win.
God will lose.
God will be down and out, suffering, dying.
God will be bursting free, coming to life, for
God will be who God will be.

For me personally, it means that, when I am frustrated, I hesitate not an instant to cuss up a blue streak when I pray to God. God understands. God is not a prim, self-satisfied moralist who doesn’t know what it’s like to screw up, who is judgmental, who hasn’t a clue about what real confusion feels like, or hurting others, or being hurt. This is not a Vacation Bible School God. This is a God for real, adult life.

The world is in God, the world has creative independence from God, God is more than the world. And then also this, number four: In every moment, in every place, constantly, God calls us towards the better possibilities of life. God does it because God is love; and God is uniquely suited for it because God knows how life feels, knows everything about us, is far more compassionate about our flaws and limitations than we ever could be.

The question is never, God, are you with me? The question is always, Am I with God? Am I using my freedom to position myself in a way where I can feel God’s constant, faithful call? “When it breaks through our intellect, it is genius; when it breathes through our will, it is virtue; when it flows through our affections, it is love.” God’s call to us is to become more than we ever thought possible. But we must choose to align ourselves to it. We must learn how to listen.

And when we hear it—well, sometimes it can scare us to death. We are called to go out from the place we are completely familiar with but it no longer serves our highest good and that of the world’s. We are stuck. But God calls us out. And it can scare us to death. And so therefore we deny, we delay. But God is not some imperial Caesar. God won’t force us. God just keeps showing us the vision of what is possible. God longs for it, and we can feel that longing….

Sing it with me, this song from the pen of James Weldon Johnson, number 149 in your hymnal. Just the first verse.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MyS3HPInHtI

Lift ev’ry voice and sing,
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the list’ning skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.

Do you feel that? That deep feeling of desire for a better world? Process theology would say that you are feeling the feelings of God right in this moment. It’s one reason why music is precious—it can tap us straight into God. And here, what we feel is God’s thirst for justice. How God sees all the ways in which the world could be better, could be healed, and God wants it. God wants it.

But there are no hands but our hands. God doesn’t have hands. We do. That’s what we are for.

This never crosses the priest’s mind, that priest from the joke. That the weatherman, the police, the fire truck, the national guard, the boat, and also the helicopter all represent ways in which people responded to the call to serve and protect, which is about love, which comes from God. Never crosses his mind. The priest wants a God who waves a magic wand and makes it all better.

But that is theology IN the box. There are no magic wands.

What we have instead is this. The world is in God. The world has creative independence from God. God is more than the world and knows every possibility and feels everything. And God loves us, wants our healing and our wholeness, sings to us every day, every night, every moment, sings us forward into greater things, sings love, sings courage.

And it is up to us to listen, and to sing back.

Parenting the Unitarian Universalist Way

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nFbvBJULVnc

That’s a powerful video. It’s a segment from Anderson Cooper’s special 360 report entitled “Kids on Race: The Hidden Picture,” and while we will definitely want to address its findings about “implicit racial bias” (we’ll get there in a moment), to begin with just think about what it’d be like to be Mikayla’s parents, to sit in the hot seat with them, to be under the bright lights being interviewed by Anderson Cooper and you know that millions of people are gonna see your kid in action, and therefore, inevitably, you are gonna be exposing your parenting to the judgment of millions of people.

Boy that sounds like fun! Woo hoo!

We’re talking about parenting this morning, and parenting is really hard. Part of what makes it really hard is the impression out there that parenting is some kind of exact science with definite formulas for what works, and it doesn’t matter who the kid is or what the situation is, you just follow exactly what Dr. Phil says and things are gonna turn out fine. And if things don’t turn out fine, well, blame comes on fast and easy. The parent or parents did not follow the exact science protocols with all the exact definite formulas which are all obvious and easy to do and so they must either be stupid, or lazy, or malicious, or all three.

It’s in the eyes of strangers, watching, where we can sense this judgmentalism so intensely.

Says Nancy Samalin in her amazing book Love and Anger: The Parental Dilemma, “One mother told the story of the day she took her two-year-old to the bank. The child was cranky, whining as she sat in her stroller, and the mother felt tense because the line was long. Suddenly, a fly started buzzing around the child’s head, and angrily the child flicked it away and said very loudly, ‘FRICKING FLY!” [The kid did NOT say “fricking.”] The mother felt her face redden as all conversation in the line stopped. She could just imagine what people were thinking. Her first impulse was to slap the child. But instead she went with her second impulse. She looked at her son and said in a very loud voice, ‘Wait until I tell your mother what you just said!’”

I’ll bet that Mikayla’s parents from the Anderson Cooper video were tempted, momentarily, to say something just like that. Just like that. “Wait until I tell your parents about how biased you are towards people of a different skin color! Just wait!”

Parenting is hard. Given the tens of thousands of messages that bombard our children each year through music, the Internet, magazines, TV, billboards, ads, video games, and social interactions with peers, it can make any sane person wonder just how much influence a parent can have on a kid. And then there’s the reality that each child is different, each situation is different, and so what’s successful for one might fall short for another. Which means the inevitability of trial-and-error, on-the-job learning, which means making mistakes. And doing all this in concert with a team of people (often a spouse, and for sure teachers and relatives) in which you hope that folks are on the same page but too often they’re not, the kids are confused by mixed messages and you feel undermined.

Parenting is hard. I could go on. But let me tell you about a picture I have. One of those pictures that captures a moment that is priceless. It’s of me holding my daughter, Sophia, who is 22 now. In the picture I am 24. Sophia has just been born. I am holding her so very carefully in my arms, so careful to be sure her head is supported, and for that brief moment in the picture, I’m looking up, and what you see in the young man’s eyes is sheer amazement, and reverence—the eyes of one who is standing on Holy Ground. What you see in the young man’s eyes is also resolve, and responsibility. That young man who is me will love this child as best as he knows, take care of her, no matter what. I already knew back then that parenting is hard. I already knew that things would happen to hurt her—that I myself would bring things into her life that would be challenging—but my primary job would not be to protect her from pain but to teach her how to be resilient, how to learn something good from anything, how to believe in herself in the face of any adversity. In the picture, this is what you see. Me at 24, who has just become a parent, standing on Holy Ground.

That’s what all parents stand on. Holy Ground. That’s why, despite all, even as the eyes of strangers watch and judge, we jump right in. We dive in deep.

But now the question becomes, What if you are a Unitarian Universalist parent? Does Unitarian Universalism provide guidance for jumping right in? WHERE to jump in? WHAT to emphasize?

And the answer is a most affirmative YES! All year long, in my Unitarian Universalist Essentials sermon series, we’ve been looking at our core affirmations and values as a religious people, and we can easily apply them in this context. Parenting the Unitarian Universalist way means parenting in alignment with our theology and vision.

Start with this core affirmation: that the Sacred (whatever it is, whatever you want to call it) is fundamentally Mystery and Wonder, and when we’re plugged in, we are transformed. Our spirits are renewed. Therefore, parenting the Unitarian Universalist way means supporting children’s natural sense of connection to Mystery and Wonder. Helping them plug in and stay plugged in, in a way that makes sense to them.

Writer Meg Cox, in her book The Heart of a Family, illustrates exactly what I mean in putting the emphasis on “making sense to them.” The story is about the Siegel family of Alexandria, Virginia. They “had started to eat dinner one night when two year old Rebecca, sitting in her high chair, suddenly got very quiet. Tears rolled down her cheeks, while her confused parents and older sister frantically tried to figure out what was wrong. She didn’t seem sick or in pain. The food on her plate was something she liked. What could be missing? What had they done differently? Suddenly, it came to them. They had forgotten to sing grace.” So they held hands and sang the grace their family used. As they began to sing it, Rebecca’s crying had escalated into loud sobs, but then subsided quickly as she heard the familiar tune that began their meals. She calmed down and ate her dinner.

The family never forgot grace again.

Unitarian Universalist parents come from all sorts of religious backgrounds. For some, it was not necessarily bad but fuzzy and undefined, with scattered traces of this and that but nothing coherent or grounded or articulate. For others, the background was much stronger but was ultimately rejected as limiting or irrelevant or downright dangerous. For still others, who might have been raised Unitarian Universalist, they might have lived through the years when our faith was not the fully pluralistic and holistic faith it is now but was rather far more head-centered and humanistic. You might relate to the Rev. Kendyl Gibbons, where she says, “As a young Unitarian Universalist in the 1960s, I was educated about human sexuality in a relatively open fashion; human religious experience, in contrast, was a closed book. I discovered my spirituality in much the same way that my peers raised in more conservative faiths discovered their sexuality—accidentally, furtively, without guidance, moved by overwhelming inner tides, and with some sense of shame.”

Whatever your background, today, the way of Unitarian Universalist parenting leads us to honor (without shame!) the “overwhelming inner tides” of our children’s spiritual lives and to give them the concrete tools and the means to express them. This topic is huge; there are so many ways to do this—and not just at the dinner table. But a great place to begin is to remember the lesson of Rebecca’s crying and sobbing. Ritual feels good to a child. Ritual makes a child feel connected to their depths and included in something important. Religious ritual at dinner becomes an opportunity to say thank you and in this way magnify a feeling that is essentially religious: gratitude.

But now we turn to a second core affirmation that guides Unitarian Universalist parenting: Everyone has inherent worth and dignity. Everyone has amazing potentials which are just waiting to become known, and the job of religion is to make it so. Make those potentials actual. The nineteenth century Unitarians called it “salvation by character.” Therefore, parenting the Unitarian Universalist way means developing children’s character. It means guiding them in ways that develop self-esteem, helping them become life-long learners, enabling them to manage their emotions and tolerate discomfort. This work is ongoing. The work is, in a word, discipline.

Now that’s an uncomfortable word for some. Discipline. Setting limits. And it’s challenging. A recent U. S. News and World Report article says, “It would be hard to find a parent who doesn’t agree that setting and enforcing rules are an essential part of the job description. Yet faced with whining, pouting, and tantrums, many parents cave. ‘The limited time you have with your kids, you want to make it ideal for them,’ says Rex Forehand, a professor of psychology at the University of Vermont… ‘As a result, we end up overindulging our kids.’” Whatever our reason for shying away from discipline, the facts are clear. The article goes on to say: “Paradoxically, not having limits has been proven to make children more defiant and rebellious, because they feel unsafe and push to see if parents will respond. Research since the 1960s on parenting styles has found that a child whose [parent or parents] are permissive is more likely to have problems in school and abuse drugs and alcohol as teenagers. ‘Parents ask their 1-year-olds what they want for dinner now,” says Jean Twenge, an associate professor of psychology at San Diego State University and author of Generation Me. ‘No one ever said that a generation or two ago.’”

Parenting is about growing people who can act responsibly and effectively in our world. People who are ethical. People who, when they make mistakes, can pick themselves up off the ground, dust themselves off, learn from what happened, do better next time. This doesn’t happen by chance. I always go back to figure skating as my favorite analogy. It is simply absurd to strap skates on a kid and say, OK, get on out there and figure out for yourself how to do an axel (which is a kind of jump, you launch yourselves forward into the air, rotate one-and-a-half times). You’ve got inherent worth and dignity, we say to them. The ability to do an axel: it’s inside you. So make it happen. This is ridiculous. This is abandonment, not empowerment.

Becoming a human with good character is far more difficult than figure skating, yet so often, our children are left to figure it out for themselves. We don’t want to be dictators, we don’t want to be punitive. But the solution is not to go to the other extreme. We must find the middle way, which is firm and respectful. “But why can’t I have that new doll?” says the kid. “Because I’m not ready to buy that today,” says the parent. “Why can’t I stay up late to watch the show?” says the kid. “Because that’s the rule in our house,” says the parent. We can draw the line in a neutral manner, without criticizing anyone. “Seat belts must be worn in the car and put on before we start.” “In this home, we use words: we don’t hit.” Fred Gosman, author of How To Be a Happy Parent … In Spite of Your Children says, “Kids won’t come out and thank you each and every time you make a decision they aren’t totally fond of….But in their hearts kids know you’re doing your job, just like they are doing their job by arguing.”

Some of my favorite books on firm and respectful discipline include: Love and Anger: The Parental Dilemma by Nancy Samalin; Setting Limits With Your Strong-Willed Child by Robert MacKenzie, and ScreamFree Parenting, by Hal Edward Runkel. The titles say it all, don’t they? But remember: it’s about living out our faith in the inherent worth and dignity of our children. We want them to have the kind of structure that will support their growth into becoming all they can be. That’s what we want.

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But now, let’s turn to the third core affirmation that guides Unitarian Universalist parenting: everyone belongs to love. No one left out. “Give them not hell, but hope and courage!” The Universalist side of our heritage proclaims this most loudly. Our purpose in life is to build beloved community in which everyone feels like they belong and they DO belong. Therefore, parenting the Unitarian Universalist way means teaching our kids how to notice differences and value them. Teaching cultural appreciation skills. Diversity skills.

Not the opposite, which is unconsciously conveying unconscious racial bias. Of course, when we’re talking diversity, we’re talking all kinds. Class, gender, sex, ability, and on and on. But I want us to focus on race right now. I want us to go back to the video we saw earlier. Anderson Cooper and his 360 report, “Kids on Race: the Hidden Picture.”

It’s eye-opening. The reality of “subconscious racial bias,” which we saw in the white girl Mikayla, which is “a bias that kids pick up on–from messages they hear at school, at home, the characters in the TV shows they watch, what they see online. These are not overt feelings of racism, but rather the things that we’re not aware of, the things that we do when we don’t realize it.” I’m quoting here from Dr. Melanie Killen, Anderson Cooper’s go-to expert, and she goes on to observe something even more important and fascinating: “What was really interesting about the study,” she says, “was that the young African-American kids are just much more positive about the potential for friendship. When they’re looking at a picture card of a white child and a black child and you ask them, well, can these two be friends? They’re much more likely to say—in fact, the majority of them will say—yes, they can be friends. Whereas we found a different finding for the white kids. Much less likely to say that they could be friends. It really makes you think about why is that and what goes into that.”

Sharp guy that he is, Anderson Cooper then asks, “So why are young black children more positive about race than young whites?” Dr. Killen’s response? The misperception from some parents that kids are color blind has a lot to do with it. “African-American parents are very early on preparing their children for the world of diversity and also for the world of potential discrimination. In contrast, what we find is that a lot of white parents, they sort of have this view that if you talk about race, you are creating the problem.” When, to the contrary, the real problem is not talking race.

Parenting the Unitarian Universalist way, when we are in alignment with our historic affirmation that “everyone belongs to Love,” means that we have to talk about race. Kids are not colorblind. Not talking about something that is so obvious to them means: it’s bad. That’s how they interpret the silence. When they don’t see different races interacting and getting along—when they are familiar with only one race (theirs)—the default conclusion is, I can’t trust people who have a different skin color. Not good. Stay away.

That’s subconscious racial bias, and I am here to tell you in no uncertain terms that it is positively as un-Unitarian Universalist as you can get. Yet it is here among us. It is.

But I am excited today to say that the solution is related to the fourth and final core Unitarian Universalist affirmation: that we are powered not by creed but covenant. We come together not to believe the same things but to learn how to love. We come together. It means that Unitarian Universalism is the opposite of lone-rangerism. It means that you can’t be a Unitarian Universalist all by yourself. It makes no sense. The Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed puts it like this: “The religious community is essential, for alone our vision is to narrow to see all that must be seen, and our strength is too limited to do all that must be done. Together, our vision widens, and our strength is renewed.”

Therefore, parenting the Unitarian Universalist way means that we are going to rely on our spiritual community to help us talk about race—how to notice differences without falling into full-blown stereotyping. We are going to rely on our spiritual community to take the lead in showing us how Beloved Community naturally evolves in the direction of something more multiracial and multicultural. It’s a journey. It’s a good thing. It’s what our Unitarian Universalist faith calls us to. And we just don’t have to figure it out all by ourselves, in the tight confines of our nuclear families.

Parenting the Unitarian Universalist way also means that we can join with fellow parents in figuring the whole discipline thing out, or how to support the spiritual lives of our children. Our covenant group program could be a great place for this. Groups of between 7 to 10 people in which participants can grow in relationship even as they enhance their parenting skills. One that comes to mind is called “Mindful Parenting,” and it’s led by one of our Lay Ministers, Rebecca Kaye. Check out our website for more information. Look for “Small Group Ministry” in the drop-down box. Check it out.

Ultimately, parenting the Unitarian Universalist way is something all of us do. Even if we don’t have kids. If we are part of this community, we need to see ourselves as guardians of our young. We need to find ways to love the mothers and fathers among us and support them as they stand on awesome Holy Ground. We all stand on it. Holy Ground.

It’s what the words of our child dedication ritual are trying to say. Are trying to reach towards.

We dedicate children to the personal and spiritual journey that lies ahead for them, calling them to a future filled with love and courage.

We dedicate the family and the larger faith community to the vision of covenant, in which we all promise to support each other in times of struggle as well as gladness.

We dedicate ourselves to a deeper awareness of the sacred mystery of life, evident in the passages of birth, of growth, and of death. We reaffirm that every stage of life has inherent worth and dignity, and we commit ourselves to a greater trust of the journey as it unfolds.

Let us do that. Dedicate the children. Dedicate ourselves.

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Mother Body

1. Words of Love

For now, no more blood
will you shed in sympathy
with the pull of the cool night’s moon.

I grow inside your womb,
am soothed by your heart’s beating
like the thrum of river waters rising.

In this Eden I begin
as when the world itself began
immediately at your words of love.

Underneath your touch
I ripen like the fruit of Life
swelling out to stretch your golden skin.

2. The Sharpest Thorns and Cruel Pains

What have I done?
What have I done?
Suddenly my bones
burn, they
dislocate, they
spear my heart
as I hang, as I’m crammed
inch by inch
down a serpentine
way, and
you are screaming too….
How can I feel so apart
within you?
O will my eyes ever
open? Will I
die? Eden’s gone,
it is gone and there’s no one
to remember
me. What have I done?

3. The First Revelation

In whom we are endlessly born
Out of whom we shall never come

mother body of grace
mother body of pain

mother body of degradation
mother body of redemption

Eden lost and found and lost again,
eternal round of You

and me the tiny body born
again and again and again

(1997)

This poem was originally inspired by my reading of the 14th century Christian mystic Julian of Norwitch. In her book Showings, she spoke of God as a mother, as well as Christ. To this, I brought my sense of personal and spiritual growth as a process of birthing–being born and reborn again, together with all its pains and joys.

Julian of Norwitch is probably best known for her saying, “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” So may it be.

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