A House Which Becomes a Home

I want to tell you about a meeting that happened recently at UUCA. Five people and myself in the conference room, meeting with the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Director of Ministerial Transitions, the Rev. Keith Kron. He came all the way from Headquarters in Boston, because it was important. We were talking about our next settled Associate Minister, the person who will succeed Rev. Thickstun and hopefully stay for years, stay with us and grow with us for a good long while.

With me in the room: people all well-respected in this congregation, representative of key diversities relevant to the nature of the position, and keenly committed to our vibrancy: Rebecca Kaye, Chair of the Children’s Ministry Team and also a Lay Minister. Tony Stringer, Lay Minister and member of UUCA’s Inclusivity Ministry called EnterCulture. Mary Ann Oakley, Lead Lay Minister and Chair of the recent Long Range Plan Task Force. Karen Martin, current Board member and a go-to lay leader in our Religious Exploration program for something like 15 years. Lyn Conley, two-term Board President, who likes to call herself a “church lady” and what it means is that her heart is big for this place and she knows practically everything and still has a sense of humor. All these people, which I called together to partner with me in the search (because I’m not going to do it alone, top-down—not my style); all these awesome people, me, and Keith Kron in the room, and the room is buzzing, we are energized, we are talking possibilities, we are filling up the whiteboard with lists and charts and arrows, we are talking timeline, we are talking what needs to happen now, what needs to happen next, as we enter into this exciting time of search.

Exciting especially because of the kind of minister for whom we go in search: The Associate Minister of Lifelong Learning and Growth. The express purpose of the job is to “hold and fulfill the vision of a congregation that nurtures people’s spiritual health, growth, and healing from cradle to grave.” This language is from the formal job description, and here’s a little more: “The Minister of Lifelong Learning and Growth is fully conversant in the psychological, developmental, interpersonal, and spiritual issues and challenges of people across the lifespan. Based on this, the Associate Minister works with staff and volunteers in sustaining and enhancing our Pastoral Care and Religious Exploration programs which, combined, support people’s wellness and wholeness in holistic, integrated, and innovative fashion.”

That’s a lot of words. I know it. But they are also aspiring words which leap up off the page and become a vision in our minds. A compelling vision. A vision of our collective future and where it’s taking us, why it’s so important we go, why we want to do all we can to make it happen.

That’s what I want to talk about today. The vision. The spirit of Unitarian Universalism alive and well and stirring among us.

One place we can feel that Spirit is in our UUCA Ends Statements and Long Range Plan Aspirations (which are both readily available on UUCA.org). Through such statements, the congregation has spoken. What it sees this Unitarian Universalist community creating in Atlanta. And as your Senior Minister, I’m listening very carefully.

A vibrant faith community for spiritual seekers that worship together, embracing lifelong religious learning and respecting different spiritual journeys.

A loving community that provides support and care for others through both the best and the most difficult of times.

A safe and welcoming community where all are valued.

Children and youth, centered in the values of our religious community and nurtured in love, who are compassionate leaders in seeking justice and peace.

That’s not all of the UUCA Ends Statements, but these are the ones that the work of the Minister of Lifelong Learning and Growth is most in alignment with, most in sync with. The very name of the position borrows from the language of the first Ends statement: “A vibrant faith community for spiritual seekers that worship together, embracing lifelong religious learning…”

Your Senior Minister is listening. Also to a more recent expression of the wisdom and will of this congregation: the Vision 2016 Long Range Plan. “We will be among the most engaging and enriching congregations in Atlanta,” says the first of four main aspirations; and underneath it, we have several more specific goals areas including these:

EXTENDING educational offerings for congregants and the larger community;

NURTURING fellowship among congregants and providing pastoral care; and

OFFERING opportunities and experiences that nurture the spiritual growth of each congregant.

Again and again, I am hearing the hope for—the commitment to—people’s spiritual health, growth, and healing. Again and again, I hear how we want the span of this to be lifelong, from cradle to grave.

And so comes the basic vision for the Minister of Lifelong Learning and Growth. It comes from us.

So we should not be surprised when I say that, like the overachievers we tend to be, this position will shine a bright light on some places where the escalator is broken, and we need to get off and move on to something better. It’s going to challenge us to be bold.

Here’s what I mean.

Take the “cradle to grave” focus of the position. It flies in the face of what the current pattern in UU congregations is, says Karen Bellavance-Grace, the 2013 Fahs Fellow for Innovation in Multigenerational Faith Formation. Some of you might have come out to hear her speak when our Interim Director of Religious Exploration, Mr. Barb Greve, invited her to Atlanta. I was there. She’s one of the wisest and most respected voices in Religious Exploration today, and she said, “Our curricula and Religious Education ministries have been largely created and supported with a goal of helping children and youth grow into Unitarian Universalist adults. At the same time, we know that an excellent indicator of youth and young adult religiosity is the consistent religious practice of their parents.” Which would imply that, at the very least, for the sake of the kids, we want our adults to be on the religious exploration journey too. But we are not set up for that, not really. Says Karen Bellevance-Grace, “Most of the explicit Adult Faith Formation opportunities favor a traditional teach/learn paradigm, and privilege academic learning styles and preferences. By and large, we have not treated the faith formation of parents and other adults with the same priority as the faith formation of children and youth.”

I am particularly struck by how Karen Bellevance-Grace puts her finger on the “traditional teach/learn” paradigm of our usual adult religious exploration fare. In other words, adult RE classes are very often structured like graduate school seminars. This is exactly what another UU leader, concerned about the state of adult faith formation in our movement, picks up on: the Rev. Christine Robinson, Senior Minister of the UU Congregation of Albuquerque, a sister large congregation. Listen to what she says: “We have to help people understand that the tools of college debate teams and scientific laboratories are fine for those enterprises, but they are problematic around matters of faith and spirit. It’s hard enough to put the largely wordless spiritual life into words. The shy, wild soul doesn’t respond well to being chased, questioned, hounded, and there is still too much scorn in our discourse about faith.” Isn’t that interesting? How can we create adult learning spaces that are more welcoming to the shy, wild soul? If we did better at that, would more adults participate more regularly?

It’s critical that they do. Most if not all of us know the procedure on an airplane. If it’s a time of distress and the oxygen masks appear, adults need to put their masks on before helping children or others in their care. If the caregiver runs out of oxygen, he or she cannot assist others. If the caregiver is exhausted, hungry, anxious, or spiritually empty and depleted, they suffer and the children suffer.

This is just one reason why the “cradle to grave” vision is key. Religious exploration programs that focus mainly on the children and youth aren’t effective. But the tendency is nevertheless to focus just on the children and youth. Adults don’t think it’s relevant to them. The programming for adults is not where it needs to be.

It’s just like the video.

We’re on the escalator, things seem to be moving on and up.

But then we come across the statistic of the high percentage of adults who grew up Unitarian Universalist but eventually left because they didn’t feel Unitarian Universalism in their heart and soul…

That’s when the escalator goes GLNK!

“Whoa,” we say, “that’s not good”

We say, “Oh, I don’t need this! I’m already late”

We say, “Anybody out there!”

“Somebody!”

“Hello!”

“There are two people stuck on the escalator, and we need help. Now, would somebody please do something!”

Well, we are doing something. We’re getting off that stuck escalator. The Associate Minister of Lifelong Learning and Growth is going to be a part of the solution, with the focus on “cradle to grave.” Lifespan. Challenging the sense that adults don’t need to be integrally involved as learners themselves. Increasing the different kinds of opportunity for being involved; ensuring that it’s easy to get involved; ensuring care for our shy, wild souls.

The elevator is stuck, and we need to get off.

Here’s another stuck place. Keeping Pastoral Care and Religious Exploration programs separate, siloed off from each other.

Now to me, conceptually, that makes no sense. To me, Pastoral Care is about spiritual health in the crisis care mode, whereas Religious Exploration is also about spiritual health, but in the prevention mode. What I have in mind here is the public health model, which the Centers for Disease Control folks in the room will immediately get. Religious exploration is about growing in Unitarian Universalist faith which is about growing in spiritual resilience which is ultimately about the prevention of pastoral care crises, as far as possible. Don’t wait until you’re sick to seek help. Far less expensive, far less trouble, to practice all the good things that keep your soul healthy and resistant to all the yucky spiritual bacteria out there. That’s what our Religious Exploration programs are doing when they support our natural spiritual feelings and teach us how to celebrate our lives and help us understand our religious heritage and help us develop and act on our values and help us affirm our differences and help us affirm the inherent worth and dignity of all. They help us. They naturally partner with Pastoral Care programs, which cover the other side of things, when we’re not feeling so good, and we need crisis care.

But, again, this is not the way things are now. As far as I know, the two programs have never been led by the same person. What I’ve seen is that a great deal of the pastoral care for children, youth, and families has been provided within the RE program, whereas pastoral care for the rest of the congregation has happened through our Lay Ministry program. When Pat Kahn was our Director of Religious Exploration, just a little under three years ago, I saw her out there pastoring all the time. It just goes together. You can’t keep Pastoral Care and Religious Exploration separate.

So why not bring them together more intentionally, more intelligently? A Minister of Lifelong Learning and Growth represents an opportunity for UUCA to improve Pastoral Care support for its children, youth, and families while, at the same time, enriching its Religious Exploration programs by grounding them more fully in an understanding of the psychological, developmental, interpersonal, and spiritual issues and challenges people across the lifespan face.

When congregations don’t have that in place, people fall through the cracks. Listen to the voice of one person for whom this is true, as she speaks about her struggle with her Mom’s mental illness and how church didn’t help, made things harder. “My family,” she says, “has always been very involved in church … but we did not receive the help and support we needed…. Like other families, we were affected by stigma and a sense of shame that kept us mostly silent about our problems. And church leaders who wanted to help us, for the most part, didn’t know how to help. I don’t blame them for this; they must have been as confused and uncertain as most people are when it comes to mental illness. In my own experience, what churches have done wrong is mostly remain silent—just ignore mental illness altogether. As a young teenager, I would have been helped tremendously by discussion of mental illness within the church and even within the context of my youth group. My whole family would have benefited from extensions of friendship and offers to help when we were at our lowest. Instead, we felt pressure to pretend as if everything were fine and to put on our best face at church” (Amy Simpson)

Let me say it like this: Robin Williams is here among us, and are we able to love him and his family the way they all need? Of course we want to; but can we? Are staff configured in such a way to support programs and people who could provide real help? Religious Exploration programs are key places where the needs of the children and the family will be most evident, but do we have the kind of leadership and vision in place that can meet this need and so many others?

The escalator is stuck.

“Anybody out there!”

“Somebody!”

“Hello!”

And we’re answering back. Getting off, and moving on.

You know, when an escalator breaks down, it’s pretty clear what’s going on. But when things break down in more complex systems, or are close to breaking down, you don’t necessarily know. Frogs in slow-boiling kettles don’t know. The signs can seem ambiguous. Or we interpret them through biased lenses and bend the meaning in a way that satisfies our agenda but is not faithful to the truth. How else to explain the millions of people who have been witnessing the event of Ferguson, Missouri and they still don’t see the racism, they still don’t get it. How else to explain that?

Perhaps the most controversial claim coming from Karen Bellevance-Grace—that wise and respected voice in UU Religious Exploration circles—is that with the changing patterns of family life today, the amped up speed and stress and time crunch, we may need to reimagine in radical ways how we do Religious Exploration. What the programs will need to look like if they are to thrive.

The status quo is an experience focused around Sunday morning. In sheer terms of exposure time to classroom activities and discussions and crafts and whatever else is going on, we are talking a maximum of 30-40 touch points per year. Factor in absences for illness and other family obligations, and what our religious educators end up with is around 40 hours of opportunity, per year, to impact the spiritual growth and development of our children.

40 hours out of a total possible 5,110 waking hours per year.

Eight to eighteen-year-olds spend on average seven hours a day, seven days a week plugged in to their smart phones, the Internet, video games, TV, music, and other forms of media. That’s 2,555 hours per year.

The picture is this: 40 hours of dedicated soul-deepening experiences vs. 2,555 hours of who knows what.

Just that is enough to make us pause. Is the standard way of doing Religious Exploration like the stuck elevator? Is it?

Karen Bellevance-Grace says yes. She is by no means alone.

Listen to this—a rather extended quote but all good:

“We know from research,” she says, “that family religiosity can be a powerful predictor for youth to remain religious themselves as they enter adulthood. We know that Unitarian Universalists who come to our churches as adults have had little, if any, exposure to our religious education curricula, theology, or history. We know that a number of writers in the mainstream Christian community identify a focus on Family Ministry as one faithful response to 21st century realities. In light of all this, incorporating an intentional strengthening of family ministry seems a faithful direction to lean.”

“Family Ministry identifies the role of the church as a chief support in the spiritual development of congregants of all ages. With particular respect to children and youth, the congregation’s role is to provide support and partnership to parents, who own the primary responsibility for their children’s spiritual growth. It requires us to live into a belief that our religious education programs are supplemental faith formation programs and not intended to be the sole system of delivery.” And then she says, “Changing the Sunday School-centric model of religious education creates space for our churches and religious professionals to intentionally and explicitly equip parents to be their children’s first and most consistent religious educators all week long.“

The question essentially is: How do you make a house into a home?

How do you infuse bare walls and spaces it with love and hope and forgiveness and courage?

This is just not about parents. This is about all of us, trying to keep on showing up to our lives with an open heart, with continued curiosity and hopefulness no matter what. But we know that kids are going to struggle if the adults aren’t modeling this. Religion is a thing more caught than taught. So how do we support our parents in their awesome task? How to help them put the oxygen mask on themselves, first? The parents, who on average are with their kids 3000 hours each year, and so they have plenty more opportunity to influence their children than the 40 hours per year of church classes. So how can congregations like ours truly prove their relevance and worth by guiding and strengthening the adults for their awesome work?

I want us to collectively wonder about this. Is more of the same truly going to take us in the direction of UUCA’s Ends Statements and Long Range Plan priorities? Or does more of the same amount to staying put on the broken escalator?

Saying, “Anybody out there!”

“Somebody!”

“Hello!”

“There are two people stuck on the escalator, and we need help. Now, would somebody please do something!”

But WE are the somebody we’ve been waiting for…

All I know is that I see the Associate Minister of Lifelong Learning and Growth ministering with and among us as we figure out what’s next. What’s next, friends, is critical. We cannot afford a sagging, lagging, sappy, unhappy Religious Exploration program. In the wake of that, everything becomes saggy and laggy and sappy and unhappy.

So join me and join the Task Force I’m partnering with in our excitement and resolve. Stay tuned to our progress—we’re going to keep you regularly informed. And when stewardship time rolls around and you are asked to make your annual pledge, go above and beyond. We must be able to afford the best. You can’t build a bold and bright future on the cheap.

On of my favorite poets, Rumi, says,

Why do we stay in prison
when the door is so wide open?

Why indeed.

Let’s walk on through.

Instant Happiness

Pro Infirmis is a Swiss organization for people with disabilities, and as today’s video shows, part of their work is expanding a sense of acceptance in society for difference, as well as for self-acceptance in people who carry the weight of such differences. One has scoliosis, another is in a wheelchair, a third lacks a limb, and so on. All had mannequins made to perfectly reflect their body shape, which would then be displayed in a major department store on Bahnhofstrasse, Zurich’s main shopping street. Passers-by were intrigued, delighted—getting the message that there is no one ideal body shape, that all belong to our world, all have their own kind of beauty.

Lots of amazing moments in that video. In particular I’m thinking about the moment when each person returns to the warehouse to see the mannequin that mirrors his or her own body shape. The mannequins are hidden under a sheet. The person approaches, they circle, the sheet comes off, and can you just imagine what it must have felt like? Shock, astonishment, admiration. They had no idea. One of them says, “It’s special to see yourself like this, when you usually can’t look at yourself in the mirror.”

I watch this video, and it is instant happiness. I find myself taken to a place where I am more open and relaxed, I find myself more aware of the positive possibilities of life, and maybe you too. More beauty, more justice, more hope, more pleasure, more laughter, more love, more forgiveness, more energy, more creativity, more connection.

Happiness is a good orderly direction.

And the opportunities to go there instantly are endless. One reason why is because we each come to the present moment bearing a lifetime of experience. Then something in the moment happens—we smell a certain unforgettable smell or something tastes a certain way or feels a certain way or looks a certain way or sounds a certain way—and it’s like, eureka! You feel plugged in. You feel it all coming together.

The other day I was making a dinner of pork tenderloin, and while it was baking away in the oven, I was preparing a vegetable side dish of mirepoix which is a mixture of chopped celery, carrots, and onions. Mirepoix is often the flavor base for soups and stews and sauces but I like it just in itself. Colorful to look at and very tasty.

I like to start with sautéing the chopped onion, and here’s where the real story unfolds. In my frying pan, the little white cubes of onion deliciousness are sizzling away in butter and the heat causes a release of this most amazing aroma. Ohhhh it makes me happy. Instantly. Not just because the aroma tends to lift me several inches above the ground, but also because the smell takes me back to a time long ago. Doesn’t smell do that for us? This most powerful physical sense of ours? The smell takes me back to memories of my grandmother on my mom’s side. Baba cooking Christmas Eve dinner. She’s like Captain Kirk and her kitchen is the Starship Enterprise. In one memory scene, I’m just trying to stay out of everyone’s way. Baba is calmly issuing commands to her husband (my grandfather) and her daughters (my mother and my aunt). The actual dinner, when the house will be overrun with a horde of hungry people ready to gobble up traditional Ukrainian fare, is just hours away. She’s at the stove and I smell that lovely onion smell. I also see her flabby arms flapping away as she’s agitating whatever’s in the pan, and I am not seeing her through the cruel eyes of a society that will not let women rest unless they have a certain body shape. She is my Baba and I love that her flabby arms flap away as she stirs the pot. She is part of my family. I am part of her family. I belong.

The smell of sautéing onions is: I belong.

Instant happiness.

We’re talking about this today because it opens up the door to what I take to be the essence of any truly meaningful religious way: how it connects us to thoughts and behaviors and people and history and whatever other resources that help keep us fluid and flowing through all the changes and challenges of our lives. This is the direction we want to be going in. Staying curious, because every moment the Mystery unfolds. No matter what, never ceasing to show up with an open, compassionate heart because we don’t want to miss a thing.

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise.

Wings can be broken. But we can still learn to fly.

Let me tell you another story. It’s about the trench warfare of World War 1. Did you know that the emperors and generals who ordered their men to war in August 1914 thought in terms of weeks, not months, let alone years? “You will be home before the leaves have fallen off the trees,” said the German Kaiser to his troops in early August…. But he was wrong. The leaves would fall off the trees four times before the war would be done. Four times, four long years. The grinding, catastrophic, cruel years of World War I.

So there they are, the soldiers, in the cold, in the muck, mud sucking at their boots, miserable in trenches…. It’s Christmas Eve, the darkness of night surrounds them. And then suddenly, along various areas of the British-German front, it happens without forethought, without any central planning: love takes human form: Christmas trees go up, a spontaneous upsurge of singing: Silent Night, Oh Christmas Tree, O Come All Ye Faithful. Something other than cruelty and death and madness happening across No Man’s Land. Harmonizing! Harmony. All this happening independently, mind you, in various areas of the British-German front, as much as two-thirds of it, thousands of soldiers singing, each side singing to the other instead of shooting.

It led the soldiers to actually get out of the safety of their trenches, to finally meet face to face. The Christmas Truce of 1914. It’s one of the most remarkable incidents of World War I, perhaps in all of military history.

Now, one hundred years later, trench warfare of a sort is still with us. Today’s headlines scream

Israel Strikes Gaza After Militants Resume Rocket Fire
How Israel Brought Gaza to the Brink of Humanitarian Catastrophe
Lines in the Sand: Deadly Times in the West Bank and Gaza
Why Are the Arab Gulf Countries Silent on Gaza?
Everything You Need to Know About the Israel-Gaza Conflict

One thing we DO need to know is that this conflict is longstanding and messy beyond belief. In my detailed exploration of this from March 25, 2012 entitled “The Bronze Bull: Understanding the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” I wrote: “The solution is courage which is restraint in the presence of shrill voices from people and from the press and from leaders who perceive an enemy and push for a fight by any means necessary. The solution is a willingness to be genuinely curious about the supposed enemy, willingness to walk in their shoes for a time, willingness to start over, begin again. The solution is refusal to label this kind of empathizing as anti-Israel or anti-Palestinian.” That’s a piece of what I wrote then, and it is all so general. Nothing specific. Sounds good, but how to make it happen? How do we make it happen internationally when, right at home, we can be stuck in the trenches of our own private, individual wars? How to let go, how to forgive?

The Christmas Truce of 1914 comes as instant happiness to me, and maybe to you, because it suggests how even the most desperate situation can shift. Not in planned ways, nothing that is foreseen. But the possibility is always there. We never stop working towards a solution, for sure: but we also know that the world is a Mystery and there’s a lot more going on than meets the eye. I know: nothing in this mere attitude can now directly prevent further deaths. But this does not mean it is impractical. Show me a statesman or stateswoman who is hopeless and I’ll show you a conflict that keeps grinding and grinding away.

Never let go of hope. Whatever helps us stay hopeful and engaged: give us more of that! Whatever helps us stay in the game.

Sometimes it’s just plain silliness. You may already be aware of the story told about Dr. King in the hours before he was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel. Do you know what he was doing? Pillow fight. Civil rights icons like Andrew Young and Ralph Abernathy: smacking each other upside the head. Dr. King being smacked and smacking away.

The world must not be allowed to take our silliness away. Save the world, yes, but savor it too. Let your soul be large enough for both. That is our Unitarian Universalist spiritual way.

So go on out there and watch some cat videos on the interwebs.

One word: karaoke.

Have you heard about the new movie Guardians of the Galaxy? How many of you have already seen it? “I am Groot.”

Maybe you have Braves Fever, or Falcons Fever, or Fever for some other sports team. Go for it!
(For myself, I have crazy figure skating fever—don’t get me started!)

All of these things, and more: they get us excited, they get us laughing, they get us pumped up, they keep us sane in a world that can be way too heavy sometimes….

Consider yet another example of blessed silliness. Here are some foreign words with no direct English equivalent:

Kummerspeck (German):
It means, excess weight gained from emotional overeating. Literally, it means “grief bacon.”

Shemomedjamo (Georgian):
When you’re really full, but your meal is just so delicious, you can’t stop eating it. The word literally means, “I accidentally ate the whole thing.”

Tartle (Scots):
The word for that panicky hesitation just before you have to introduce someone whose name you can’t quite remember.

Iktsuarpok (Inuit):
That feeling of anticipation when you’re waiting for someone to show up at your house and you keep going outside to see if they’re there yet.

Gigil (Filipino):
The urge to pinch or squeeze something that is irresistibly cute.

Do you feel it? Instant happiness!

You know, silly doesn’t need a reason. But there’s still depths there to know. The foreign words name behaviors that come out of our fragility and humanity and remind me I am and none of us are divine beings and that the perfectionism of our cruel inner (and outer) critics completely misses the point of living. The word “human” shares the same root with humus, humility, humor. It fills me with relief: the insight that they all go together, and I’m a part of it, with all my grief bacon eating and the times I tartle and the moments when I want to gigil something.

It’s happiness. Instant.

Even more instant happiness can come from the ideas we choose to dwell on. Some ideas make us clench up inside, others make us relax. Let’s try an experiment with idea pairs: each idea in the pair should send you in different directions. Close your eyes, allow the words I am about to say to wash over you, and pay close attention to your physical reaction to them. Ready? Here we go:

Idea pair number one:
The unpleasant situation you are in right now will last forever.
Now redirect your focus on a different idea: this too shall pass.

Next idea pair:
You are completely and utterly alone in what you are experiencing.
And now to redirect: the way you are on has been travelled by others; you are NOT alone.

How’s it going? Are you experiencing how the different ideas send you in different energy directions?

Try this next idea pair:
When other people hurt me, they know exactly what they are doing. They have it all figured out. The impact of what they’ve done to me was something they actually calculated ahead of time down to the details and they still gave their actions the go-ahead. What they did had everything to do with me and nothing whatsoever to do with their own lack of awareness or issues or problems or whatever.
Now redirect: Other people have good intentions. It’s not personal.

Is it not a source of instant happiness to know that the ideas we habitually dwell on are ultimately up to us? That even our mental ruts can, with consistent mental effort and focus, be reshaped to reflect something more positive and more accurate and truthful about the real world we live in?

Several weeks ago, I attended the memorial service of a child who was just a little over one year old. She had been born with spinal muscular atrophy and it is a fatal genetic disease. From the moment the diagnosis was made, the parents knew that their child would never grow up. They would never have the “traditional” parenting experience.

Just imagine yourself in their shoes.

Before the actual memorial service started, when picture after picture of the child was being projected onto the screen in the sanctuary, I found myself thinking unworthy thoughts but insistent thoughts nonetheless. What good can come from such a flawed life? What value can there be in such a temporary relationship? In all the pictures, the child is just lying there. She was never able to use her limbs, as far as I know, or even move her head. A big tube snaking out of her nose, down and away. Machines, wires.

And then the memorial service began, and I heard some things. I heard her caretaker saying that she had one of the biggest personalities she’s ever known. Personality booming out of wide-open, very intelligent and aware eyes. Red cheeks and huge smiles and squeals of laughter. How she loved being outside. How she had “eyelashes reaching all the way up to heaven.”

This is what her parents had decided to do. They had decided to live life to the fullest while they had her. Her mother regularly painted her fingernails and toenails, always dressed her up beautifully. They took her all sorts of places. They took her to the swimming pool and gave her the delicious experience of being in the water. They took her to the aquarium to see the whales and the sea lions and the sharks. There were pictures from these trips, and some were taken from the child’s perspective, as a way of trying to get into her world and see it how she might be seeing it. They were curious. They cared.

Lots of pictures of cuddling, of holding her close, kissing her.

The parents said that they had never loved more deeply or been loved more deeply, than with this child who lived just a little over a year. And that was the substance of their nontraditional parenting experience.

I left the memorial service knowing that not everything truly valuable has to last forever, or even for a while.

I left that place knowing that not everything truly valuable needs to be without flaws or complications or shortcomings or endings.

I left that place knowing that life despite all is good, and that sweetness is everywhere, if we but have eyes to see it.

Take these broken wings and learn to fly.

MOM Upside-Down is WOW

MOM upside-down is WOW. Or WoWoWoWoWoWoW.

But what DOES that mean, other than sounding awesome?

For me, the WOW is all about mother energy. Mother energy is like sunlight, and it fills the green leaves of our lives with joy, and we are filled with the juice of joy, and all we can do in response is grow. We grow, and it feels right. We grow in confidence and there is no apology. We are soothed in our pains, we are increased in our gladness. We know who we are, because the sunlight has streamed through our green leaves and it has known us more intimately than anything else and we are shining together, we shine together, we shine together, we shine.

green-leaves-and-sun

That’s what I call WOW. WoWoWoWoWoWoW.

Some of us got this in full measure while growing up. If it was with our biological mother, maybe we got it from her. This sunlight. Or maybe it was a father who loved you like this, with maternal affection. Maybe you have two dads. Maybe it is a mom, but she adopted you at some point, or she’s a stepmom. Fact is, mother love is not tied to any specific biology or family structure. No one owns sunlight. Sunlight shines free. And if you got this in full measure growing up, today’s a day you want to stand up and cheer.

Unless you’re grieving. She or he is lost to you somehow, through death or dementia or in some other way.

Or perhaps the one you imprinted as “mother” was not sunlight to you. She was a complex mixture of sun and shadow, or perhaps nothing at all but shadows….

There is a picture on the wall of my older brother’s home, of me smiling, and one of my teeth is missing because I’m six, and my hair is blond, and it’s carefully combed. Unless you are me, you would never know how deeply that boy in the picture felt like an orphan, felt awkward in his life, had gotten used to grim sadness and loneliness. You would never know that he lived a compromised life in which a part of him still hoped to be cherished by his mom but another part of him, a harder part, knew he needed to be practical and needed to acknowledge reality. So he went to school everyday, he went through the motions, he allowed himself to get caught up in his life, and gradually, over the years, he lost his feeling for the other part of him that was soft and soaring and never stopped hoping for cherishment and was full of tears, tears like an ocean….

IMG_7339

She was all shadow to him. To me.

Mom died in 2007, while I was interviewing for my job here. Lots of grieving, lots of healing since then. I have come to know directly how deeply a child yearns for mother love—perhaps the only mystical experience I have ever had. To realize that an infant’s body may be tiny, but inside that tiny body is an entire universe of need for sunlight because otherwise it is all complete darkness and despair and the feeling that you are being annihilated.

But mother love saves.

I have also come to know how fragile real moms are, as channels of WOW. My mother. Sexual abuse, mental illness, drug addiction. She wanted to stand up in her life but could never see a way to get up off of her knees.

Some of us today just don’t want to cheer. We want to boo. I completely get that. But I don’t want to boo. I feel gratitude that my mom was the door through which my spirit and my body entered this world, and she has been a profound teacher to me. Hard lessons.

Maybe all this is why my colleague the Rev. Becky Edminston-Lange says that “the minister who thinks she or he can deliver the perfect Mothers Day sermon probably needs their medications adjusted.” The issue of mothers is complex. Cheers. Boos. And everything in between.

And moms themselves know it. Do they ever.

From almost 4000 years ago–ancient Egypt–we hear this ode to mothers: “Thou shalt never forget thy mother and what she has done for thee… For She carried thee long beneath her heart as a heavy burden, and after thy months were accomplished she bore thee. Three long years she carried thee upon her shoulder and gave thee her breast to thy mouth, and as thy size increased her heart never once allowed her to say, ‘Why should I do this?’” Clearly a man wrote that. Because, yes, mothers can feel ambivalent about mothering. You get pregnant and it’s like an alien force has taken over your body and it’s upsetting, at the very least. And then you feel guilty for feeling upset, because a “good mother” would never have anything but good feelings about her kid, no matter what.

Above all, mothers know full well the profound need for mother love and how fragile a vessel they are for that.

Listen to this story that comes from blogger Renee Trudeau. “I have a visceral recollection,” she says, “of the day, ten years ago, when my husband returned to work after being home with me and our newborn for two weeks. Sitting in our dark, quiet kitchen, holding my baby boy, listening to the kitchen clock tick, and blanketed in a postpartum haze, I thought, ‘This is it. I’m all alone.’ It was a frightening and devastating realization, and I have never felt the absence of maternal nurturing more than I did then. But then, I heard a comforting voice whisper from within, ‘Renee, it’s time to start mothering yourself.’ That moment was a catalyst for me and the beginning of my journey to learning to both nurture and nourish myself.”

This is why, today, we are turning MOM upside-down to get to the WOW. Whatever your history has been, however full of shadows, whether or not you are yourself a mom, we all need mother love.

Green leaves never stop yearning for the sun.

And while an infant experiences the vast universe inside its skin as devoid of light and cries out to be nourished by a mother’s closeness, as adults, our experience can be totally different. Inside each of us is our own sun. The infant does not know that but we can know that. We can generate mother love for ourselves. We can nourish ourselves.

At first, when I realized this, it made me sad. It just felt like more of having to slog through my lonely life. More of always having to work so hard because all I got from my mom was shadows.

But then I thought about the literal kind of eating. As a baby, your arms just aren’t capable of lifting spoon to mouth. You really do need someone to feed you. But physical growth always takes a baby beyond this to a place where they can feed themselves and so they become responsible for monitoring their own hunger and then satisfying it. It’s a good thing. Who knows us best but ourselves? So if this is the case with our physical hungers, why not our emotional hungers? There is no shame, I said to myself, in taking care of one’s own heart. It’s not a sign of abandonment, in the same way that feeding yourself is not a sign of abandonment.

And so yesterday I was trying to get to my daughter’s college graduation, held at the Georgia Dome. I’m on 285 and running late and it’s Saturday morning, you’d think traffic on a Saturday morning is going to go smoothly, but no, we’re slowing down, now I see the sign, the two left lanes are closed ahead for construction, and now I see another sign saying that the far right lane is closed for construction too, and I need to get to the Avondale Estates Marta station and I’m coming in all the way from Dunwoody, and I’m supposed to meet up with everyone at 11:30am, and I don’t know if I’m going to make it, and my heart is pumping like crazy in my chest because I’m silly like that, and I’m starting to think and say un-pastor-like things to the people in the other cars, and it’s not pretty. But then I stop myself. Suddenly I see how I’m just like a child about to have a temper tantrum. I need some mother love to comfort me, calm me down. I put my hand on my heart, rub it for a while. Take some big deep breaths. It felt good. And the rest of the story is that I had hurried up—risked life and limb–only so that I could be at the Marta station with the family, milling about, waiting an hour for the train to arrive…

Such is life. So it goes.

But it goes better if you know how to tap into the inner sun, experience some of that WOW power for yourself.

Do it yourself. Feed yourself. Learn how to soothe difficult feelings without relying on anything that’s destructive, like alcohol, or shopaholism, or workaholism, or other kinds of addictions that distract you, take away the pain, yes, but they steal from you too. Self-mothering soothes without stealing anything. It’s just sunlight on green leaves…

Other ways of self-soothing come from life coach Cheryl Richardson:

You give yourself a nap or put yourself to bed before you feel overtired.
You prevent stomachaches (and negative self-talk) by stopping yourself from overeating when you feel full.
You take a “time out” when you feel frustrated, angry, or impatient so you can settle down and think clearly.
You speak gently to yourself when you’ve made a mistake.
You reassure yourself that everything will be okay when you get scared or when you feel lonely.
You remind yourself to be kind, not only to others, but also more importantly, to yourself.

Somehow, many of us got the idea that self-criticism is an effective motivator. It was BAD mothering. BAD fathering. So we come to believe that harshness towards ourselves gets the job done. Really?

Fearing failure and losing faith in yourself: YAY!

Maybe you do accomplish great things, but you feel completely miserable. HOORAY!

Self-compassion is the better way.

That’s part of what self-mothering is all about. Another part is learning how to generate good feelings for oneself. It’s about having a life, doing things that give you rich experiences, being OK in yourself no matter what else might be happening in your world.

“In my own worst seasons,” writes Barbara Kingsolver, “I’ve come back from the colorless world of despair by forcing myself to look hard, for a long time, at a single glorious thing: a flame of red geranium outside my bedroom window. And then another: my daughter in a yellow dress. And another: the perfect outline of a full, dark sphere behind the crescent moon. Until I learned to be in love with my life again. Like a stroke victim retraining new parts of the brain to grasp lost skills, I have taught myself joy, over and over again.”

This is what I mean by good self-mothering, in the mode of generating good feelings for yourself. Not waiting for it to be done unto you. Do it yourself.

And, yes, at times we have to force ourselves to look hard at a single glorious thing. There are so many ways to get caught up in suffering. A classic newspaper cartoon suggests one way that families well know. “For Better or for Worse.” In one episode, the first three segments show a mother tossing and turning in her bed, worrying about her ten-year-old son, Michael. She says, “Are we too tough on Michael? Are we not tough enough? Do we give in too often? Too seldom? Do we listen? Do we understand? Maybe I nag too much. Am I a good parent? Where are the answers? How does one know what to do?” In the last segment, there is the child that the mother has been angsting over. He lies in his bed and he’s awake too. Except this is what’s going through his mind: “The trouble with grown-ups is they think they know everything.”

FACT! Water can be chemically synthesized by burning rocket fuel!
FACT! Water is one of the primary ingredients in herbicides and pesticides.
FACT! Over consumption of water can cause excessive sweating, urination and even death.
FACT! Water is the leading cause of drowning.
FACT! 100 percent of all serial killers, rapist and drug dealers have admitted to drinking water.
FACT! 100 percent of all people exposed to water will die.

What is your focus today? Because of your focus, do you make a perfectly innocent thing like water guilty?

But it can be otherwise. Just as Barbara Kingsolver says, “Like a stroke victim retraining new parts of the brain to grasp lost skills, I have taught myself joy, over and over again.” We can do that too. Send yourself outside to play in the fresh air and sunshine on a regular basis. Give yourself regular treats like an afternoon movie or a game with friends. Pay attention to what inspires your enthusiasm and generates vitality, and do more of that.

Play in the water, rather than blame it.

Whatever your history has been, however full of shadows, whether or not you are yourself a mom, we all need mother love. We all need to feel soothed in our pains and increased in our gladness. And we can do it ourselves.

Sunlight streaming through our green leaves.
Sunlight, that knows us more intimately than anything else.
We shine together, we shine together, we shine together, we shine.

WoWoWoWoWoWoW.

Becoming Minimalist

Less is more. AMEN. [sit down.]

minimalism-birds-background

Blame Leslie Freymann—she put me up to that. She’s the UUCA member who won the Sermon-of-Your-Choice item at the Fun For Funds Auction this past November, and her passion is minimalism. She says, “I’ve always been into having a clean, mostly clutter-free house (from outward appearance anyways) but a year or so ago I learned there was a name for how I was feeling and a community of thousands already doing it and I started to read blog posts about it, with tips and suggestions and inspirations for taking it to the next level….”

This sermon is for Leslie, but it’s for all of us too because minimalism preaches.

**

Just consider the timing. What’s happening as this sermon takes flight.

With Nepal’s earthquake we have thousands dead and thousands more suffering. With the events in Baltimore and the murder of yet another African American man by police, we are painfully reminded of how far we have to go in fighting racism. With the Supreme Court hearing arguments for and against same-sex marriage, we hold our collective breath and hope the cause of justice will prevail. With the United States Senate this past Wednesday voting to reject the scientific consensus that humans are causing climate change, we are rolling our eyeballs so far up into our heads they may get stuck there. There is just so much in this wide world to save, and the question is: Are we free enough that we are able to show up, do the saving work that is ours to do?

On the other hand, this afternoon at 4pm is UUCA’s lovely Floralia Farm Dinner which celebrates good food and good friendship all in interdependency with the earth. It is not by accident that it happens close to May 1 and the pagan celebration of Beltane, which in agricultural times affirmed the fertility of the fields and the promise of a bountiful harvest. As the UUCA website says, “Chef Philip Meeker of Bright Seed (and formerly of Kimball House) will cook a meal to reflect his holistic approach to cuisine that will wow omnivores and vegetarians alike.” There is so much in this wide world to savor, and again the question: Are we free enough that we are able to show up, to be foodies, to enjoy things, to take pleasure in the cycles and rhythms of a sensuous earth—work (of a sorts) which is also ours to do?

For what is a good life anyway, but one which balances savoring the world with saving it? And always the question is: Are we free enough to show up? Or does clutter of one sort or other get in the way?

This question about clutter is particularly hot for me right now, right this very instant, because I am in process of moving from my current apartment to another one. The big burly movers come tomorrow. I look upon my things, and the clutter literally pains me. The Ouija board from the 1950s that I bought for five dollars 15 years ago because I thought it was tres cool, but through several moves it’s always lived in a dark places, shoved underneath other stuff. The ten shirts that I don’t feel great in but they aren’t horrible so I keep them but I never wear them. The extra set of dishes that are stacked like a crazy ziggurat and I struggle taking them to Goodwill because I say to myself, “I could use them.” That’s the minimalist’s forbidden phrase, you should know, which justifies never throwing or giving anything away. I have become infamous with local liquor store clerks because I’ve been haunting them, asking for boxes, boxes which are ideal for books because they are durable and not too big. How many do I have now? 60? 70? Because I can’t get rid of books. I can always use a book, if not for a sermon now, then for some sermon later…

What I’m saying is that there’s nothing like a move to get someone thinking seriously about minimalism.

To all my crapola I’m saying: good riddance!

**

It’s the signature battle-cry of our times. Pamela Druckerman in The New York Times writes, “Clutter is having its moment in part because we’ve accumulated a critical mass of it. The cascade began 25 years ago, when China started to export huge amounts of cheap clothes, toys and electronics. Cut-rate retailers and big-box stores encouraged us to stockpile it all. And we did.” So now, she says, “Everyone I meet seems to be waging a passionate, private battle against their own stuff, and they perk up as soon as you mention it. […] A New Yorker on a de-cluttering bender explained: ‘There’s too much in my head, there’s too much stuff in my house, too.’ Another friend said that when his girlfriend got angry, she called him the clutter of her life.”

Clutter is not just about material objects. It’s also about people you bring into your life, images and information you invite into your mind, emotions that you let live in your heart. To this kind of clutter, writer Edward Hallowell speaks powerfully. In his book entitled Crazy Busy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap, he says, “Living life today can seem like riding a bike no-handed while reading a book and juggling six eggs…” “This world,” he says, “is a new mother lode…. We can now mine a volume of accessible information that gives to every individual mind the power of what it used to take hundreds of minds to do. We can work with an ease and speed of communication that makes the dead time called ‘waiting’ obsolete, or at least unnecessary.” “The energy that flashes through our electronics,” says Edward Hallowell, “has leapt into most of our bloodstreams and brains.”

But does this energy charge us up, or does it burn us out?

Try this experiment: Watch CNN for 24 hours straight. Get your Wolf Blitzer on. Is this going to help us live out our Seven Unitarian Universalist Principles in saving the world? What do you think? It just burns us to a crisp. Trouble and pain from all parts of the world, sucking us dry like an energy vampire. Powerful images—but hopefully we are savvy enough to know that the media loves controversy and highlights the 100 people in Baltimore who rioted and completely ignores the thousands who protested peacefully and also cleaned the mess up afterwards. Hopefully we know this, which means that in addition to being brought low by the suffering of an entire world, we feel sick to our very souls because of mistrust and cynicism.

And again, in all this sturm und drang, nothing gets saved. We want to make a difference, but it’s hard to find the work that’s ours to do when we feel depressed, frazzled, ineffective.

But minimalism preaches. Minimalism is about less life energy tied up with what drains us and more life energy available for the work of saving and savoring. Leslie Freymann puts it like this: “It doesn’t mean you can’t have nice things and spend money on luxuries and things you love. In fact, to me it is about quality vs. quantity. It is about being very conscious of what I bring into my life and continually evaluating whether items, events and people are truly worthy of the space they consume – either in my house or in my schedule or even just in my brain. It is also about letting go of the past and not holding on to ‘stuff’ simply because you don’t want to deal with it. Minimalism can help you start your own therapeutic journey; it can free you and give you the space and time to think and reflect—and that freedom can be scary, which is why many people never even get started.”

I found this last insight to be especially profound. It brings me back to something my therapist Shirley once said. Preserving all confidentiality, of course, Shirley had mentioned a client from years past whom she’d invited into a visualization exercise. “Visualize the hurt that you’ve not yet forgiven as heavy in your heart, a tar-like mass. Reach your hand in and pull it out, pull all of it out.” She did, and she reported feeling amazed at the difference, how all the heaviness was gone, replaced by a lightness and a fluidity of feeling. But soon enough, her smile faded. Things felt too good, she didn’t know what to do with that, she didn’t know who she was anymore. And so she went back to the visualizing. She imagined herself reaching for that heavy tar-like gunk, and she re-inserted it into in her heart. She couldn’t tolerate the freedom.

All I can say to this is that I’d rather carry the pain of ambiguity than the pain of clutter. “And the day came,” says writer Anais Nin, “when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

The pain of clutter is the pain of living an absurd life. Columnist Ellen Goodman hits the nail on the head when she calls it “normal,” and says, “’Normal’ is getting dressed in clothes that you buy for work, driving through traffic in a car that you are still paying for, in order to get to the job that you need so you can pay for the clothes, the car and the house that you leave empty all day in order to afford to live in it.”

The pain of clutter is the pain of living a mediocre life. Very often, we are choosing not between “absolutely vile” and “wonderful” but between “just good” and “wonderful.” Opportunities that are just good knock on our doors all the time—and unless we are clear about who we are and what feeds our souls, we’ll marry them and pass over the ones that make our hearts sing, that feel like home, that charge us up to be all that we are called to be. So we’ll end up not singing but mumbling; not at home but drifting; not called to be all we can be, but restless. We did not choose what was wonderful—we chose what was just good instead.

That is what I call painful—so give me the pain of ambiguity instead. The pain of emptiness that is absolutely necessary because room must be available for what is different and better. For truly wonderful, worthy things, there must be space.

So how do we do it? How to become minimalist?

Short answer: be willing to be transformed. That happens to be the worship theme of the month and, as you may know, with each worship theme comes a “happiness challenge.” Take a look at your worship bulletin. Below the “Order of Service,” below the “Supporting Community Today,” we see it: “Theme-Based Worship + Happiness Challenge = Fun.” There you will find seven beginner steps for living more lightly upon the earth.

Write it down
Discard the duplicates
Declare a clutter-free zone
Travel lightly
Dress with less
Eat similar meals
Save $1000.

Take the worship bulletin home with you, try these minimalist life hacks out, as a way to get started…

As Leslie Freymann suggested earlier, there’s lots of folks practicing minimalism, there’s tips and suggestions and inspirations galore for taking it to the next level. Josh Becker is someone to look into. Check out his blogsite at becomingminimalist.com. Also look into Lara Blair’s blogsite at theextraordinarysimplelife.com. “I’m not going to covet other minimalists’ lives anymore,” she writes. “I don’t travel the world with a single backpack. I haven’t packed up my family to travel across the country in an RV for a year. I am not a single woman with a futon, a suitcase and a laptop. I didn’t choose 600 square feet of dwelling space with a hobby farm ‘round back.” Then she says that while all these extraordinary people and situations have things to teach, there’s just not “one formula for choosing a simple life…it is not a one-size-fits all T-shirt.”

Absolutely so. But when you practice minimalism, you will most likely experience certain things that other minimalists will immediately resonate with. Leslie swears that there is instant, positive karma in giving away the stuff that clutters your house. You are constantly surprised by all the amazing things that find their way to you, just because you opened up a space to receive.

Minimalists experience instant positive karma, and also this: people’s incredulity. Brooke McAlary illustrates with a blog post entitled “The Problem With Free,” in which she basically says that freebies are not free. They cost money to produce, first of all, and second of all, do we really need the beer glasses and the key rings and the pens and the T-shirts and on and on? “At some point,” she says, “you will have to pick [that stuff] up and decide where to store it or how to rid yourself of it. And to be honest, I think your time is more important than that. So next time you’re offered something for free,” she says, “try saying no. See how it feels. That’s what I did recently when I was buying some make up, and the result was… interesting.” Here’s the exchange she found herself in with a shop assistant:

Shop Assistant: “And you get a really nice tote bag for free.”
Brooke McAlary: “Oh, no thanks. I don’t need another bag.”
Shop Assistant: “But…it’s free.”
Brooke: “Oh, I know. But I don’t need it. Thanks though.”
Shop Assistant: “But… it doesn’t cost you anything. I can give it to you right now. You could give it to someone for a gift. It’s actually really nice. And it’s free.”
Brooke: “Uh, no, thanks.”
Shop Assistant: [Stunned silence]
Brooke: “Can I have my make-up now?”

In addition to receiving instant positive karma and other people’s incredulity, minimalists commonly report having leaps of innovative thought. It was Albert Einstein who once said, “The significant problems we face cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.” It means that if we’re living Edward Hallowell’s book entitled Crazy Busy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap, the solution will not be found in learning how to go faster but, rather, in knowing who we are, what our values are, and in saying no to what’s out of line with all of that.

It means that if we are drowning in possessions, the solution will not be found in bigger containers or through silver bullet organizational tips and tricks but, rather, in de-owning. “At its heart,” says Josh Becker, “organizing is simply rearranging.” Organizing stays at the same level of thinking that created the original problem. We have to go to the next level. We need higher insight.

Lots of experiences that minimalists share, as they seek out ways to liberate energy for abundant living. The last one I’ll mention here is just an attitude of being done with impoverishment. Accepting fool’s gold and pretending it’s real. Listen to how writer Adrienne Pieroth puts this, speaking for women everywhere and I say this can speak for men too:

She was done not fully being herself.

She realized she was the only self she could be—and not being unapologetically true to herself was a disservice to her soul and the world.

She was done listening to the noise of the world. She realized the quiet voice of her own soul was the most beautiful sound.

She was done questioning her motives, her intentions, the call of her soul. She realized questions seek answers, and maybe she already knew the answers.

She was done striving, forcing, pushing through and staying on the hard path. She realized toughing things out might be a sign to pick another path.

She was done with friends that admonished her to be more light and breezy. She realized they didn’t understand she swam in the deep waters of life, she felt at home in their dark depths and died if she lived on the surface.

She was done with the distractions, the denials, the small addictions that pulled her away from the true desires of her soul. She realized that strength of character came from focus and commitment.

She was done not following the desires that yelled out in her soul every day. She realized if she did nothing about them, they died a quiet death that took a piece of her soul with them.

She was done
We are done
I am done

As I pack all my worldly possessions, and transition from old apartment to new, I will make it a kind of meditation. The Ouija board from the 1950s, the ten shirts that are just eh, the extra set of dishes stacked like a crazy ziggurat, even my beloved books: to keep before me the resolve that I am done with clutter, that it’s not enough that I could perhaps maybe possibly use a thing (even though I haven’t for years). To de-own such things as an act worthy in itself but also symbolic of something larger: how I am done with all the self-undermining habits and unhelpful attitudes and distorted ideas that clutter my heart and mind and soul and are untrue to me and cut me off from abundant living….

Let that be my meditation
Let that be our meditation

Muslims say, “Take one step towards God and God takes seven steps towards you.”

Becoming minimalist can be that one step.

How Can I Know I Am Growing?

It’s just like what happens in Flatland. You are a square, a circle, a triangle, and what you know is how to scurry about doing your flat business in your flat world. You know left-right and you know forward-back. What you DON’T know—what you can’t even imagine—is up-down. Until a sphere comes, crashes your life. Wake-up call from the third dimension. From that moment forward, nothing can ever be as it was….

And so it was for me when I was in high school and early college. Faith—which is and shall always be a positive activity of trusting that the world is meaningful and worthwhile—had, at that time in my life, a particular style to it. Faith for me then was a matter of relationships, of fitting in. That’s what my church community taught: power in unity. Preachers laid down the law and I accepted it; authority was outside me. If you asked me why I believed as I did, I would have experienced this as a threat, not a friendly attempt to engage.

Left-right, forward-back. Flat business in a flat world. But then, one evening in the library of my church, I had a Bible shoot-out with a Disciples of Christ believer who was all of ten years older than me. He had a beard and I did not. He had a car and a girlfriend and I did not. But what I had was the truth as my Church of Christ preacher preached it, and I laid it on thick. One verse after another proving to him why, if you weren’t Church of Christ, you weren’t going to heaven. But he was laying it on thick too. He was giving as good as he got. At one point, while I was gabbing away, a part of me stepped back to survey the big picture unfolding and I was just disgusted. This is true religion? This is “love one another”?

A sphere was crashing my Flatland naivete…

Although I don’t want to give the impression that the transformation of my faith style into a different one—my progress towards greater spiritual maturity—was instantaneous. Other stuff nudged at me too, over the course of years. How my Church of Christ preacher said that my beloved Baba was going to hell because she had been baptized through sprinkling rather than full immersion. Really? God is that much of a ritualistic stickler—the God of Jesus, who happened to flout ritual and purity laws all the time?

That was another huge nudge, and so was reading the Koran and the Tao Te Ching and the atheistic work of Albert Camus, The Plague. So were the entire religion and psychology and occult sections of my neighborhood used book store. I was that irritating customer who sits right in front of the shelf you’re trying to look at and hogs the space with his nose stuck in a book. I read about quantum mechanics and complexity theory. I read about Esalen and transpersonal therapies. I read about shamanism and Tarot and witchcraft. I read everything by Alan Watts and felt so good swimming in Zen.

All of these, nudging me to a place where faith was not so much an experience of unity with other like-minded folks as it was an experience of integrity. I had been a spiritual conformist; now I was a critic. I would come home to my parents during the weekend and announce that God was dead. At least the God I used to believe in. That God was dead and so was the Bible and so was Jesus. There was just so much to reject, and it felt GOOD. It felt like I was finally coming into my own.

This was around the time I switched my college major to philosophy and entered the stream of that tradition. I took a graduate degree in it and then taught college myself. But the experience that most reinforced my integrity-based faith stance was the Unitarian Universalist congregation that I started going to soon after my daughter was born. My wife at the time and I wanted Sophia to grow up in a community that practiced positive values like the Seven Principles. We wanted her to grow up in a community that drew wisdom from all lands and all times. Above all, we wanted her to grow up in a community that used its communal power to nurture not conformism but individuality. Don’t just give me left-right or forward-back for my spiritual life. Give me up-down too. Open up a third dimension.

Open things up!

And I thought that things were incredibly opened up! Until I went to Unitarian Universalist seminary and realized, for one thing, that I was incredibly rigid in my attitude towards Christianity. I mean, give me shamanism and Tarot and quantum mysticism but NOT the Bible! I was still a Biblical literalist but in reverse: all the claims which, when taken literally, are absurd, I took as evidence of the Bible’s worthlessness. I was apparently unable, at the time, to understand that you can take something seriously without having to take it literally. I was apparently unable to see as the mystic sees: beneath appearances to the essence, where all the different images and stories from all the different world religious traditions (including Christianity) come together as one core teaching about LOVE.

It was in Unitarian Universalist seminary when I discovered that there was more transformation in store for my faith style. Spiritual maturity didn’t end with integrity. There was more than left-right, back-forward, and even up-down.

I realized this in spades during a worship service at the mother of all contemporary Christian megachurches: Willow Creek Community Church, right outside of Chicago. I was there doing homework. I had been hired right out of seminary by the Unitarian Universalist Association to do a new thing: to create a new kind of Unitarian Universalist congregation for a new day. They wanted me to take an especially close look at what was going on with megachurches. How do they get so big? What are they doing that we could do too, without compromising our values?

It was there when I realized the extent to which the Unitarian Universalists I had known up to that point in time read ahead in the hymnal while they sang, just to be sure nothing was sung that violated personal integrity. I started seeing how this reflects a scrupulosity that gives too much value to surface appearances and misses the Spirit that is just waiting to be unleashed. That day, 12 years ago, I felt a Spirit wash over me in that worship space which I had never before felt in a Unitarian Universalist setting. I felt something real that day, and guess what? I didn’t feel one whit less a Unitarian Universalist for liking it, even though I was not in control of it or could not command it rationally.

In fact, it was then I realized how the faith stance of integrity, which is aggressively critical, works against an experience of the Spirit. It’s just as Parker Palmer says. The Spirit is like a wild animal. It is “tough, resilient, resourceful, … and self- sufficient.” Yet the Spirit is also shy: “Just like a wild animal, it seeks safety in the dense underbrush, especially if other people are around. If we want to see a wild animal, we know that the last thing we should do is go crashing through the woods yelling for it to come out. But if we will walk quietly into the woods, sit patiently at the base of a tree, breathe with the earth… the wild creature … might put in an appearance. We may see it only briefly and only out of the corner of an eye—but the sight is a gift we will always treasure as an end in itself.”

the spirit

That visit to the Christian megachurch—it made me one hungry Unitarian Universalist, hungry for the Spirit.

From there I went on to found Pathways in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, and from the start, the mission was to invite people into the Mystery. Our emphasis was to draw on (in radically open fashion) all Six Sources of Unitarian Universalist faith (including Christianity) not just because diversity is cool but because a diversity of perspectives is simply what it takes to get as much of a sense of the Mystery as possible. Every tradition (including that of science) is limited in certain ways, yes; but this doesn’t mean worthless. From every tradition, understood in context and within its proper sphere, good things can be learned.

I had become less a critic and more a mystic. And the kind of community power I wanted to harness through my new UU congregation for a new day affirmed integrity, you bet, but even more so it affirmed wisdom. It affirmed both head and heart. Don’t just read books, but practice meditation, practice prayer, practice generosity. Embody your faith. If your faith does not make you laugh or cry beyond just understanding something, if it does not connect you in a real and visceral way to the Life that is larger than any of us can know, it is falling short.

Do you know what the word “maturity” comes from? It comes from the Latin word maturus meaning “ripe, timely, early,” and this is related to mane meaning “early, of the morning.” All of this is to show how maturity comes as a result of waking up, but it’s not a one-time waking up. That’s one of the real findings in my personal spiritual growth story. The road runs ever on. Faith as unity became faith as integrity and then faith as integrity became faith as wisdom. Faith–which is and shall always be a positive activity of trusting that the world is meaningful and worthwhile—occurs in stages, and each moment of transformation is like a sphere crashing Flatland. Every time, the wake-up call feels just like that.

From another perspective, however, the whole progression is predictable. It’s not unique to me but descriptive of just what happens as any human spirit ripens. This is affirmed by the scholarly work of Dr. James Fowler, who was Professor of Theology and Human Development at Emory University before he retired in 2005. Looking back at my life through the lens of his theory, what seemed chaotic in up-close mode is actually quite orderly.

If you should look back at your life through this same lens, what would you see?

Let’s briefly recap his theory. The way people make meaning in their lives runs through discernable stages. Children 2-7 years of age demonstrate a faith style that is innocent, magical, unrestrained by logical thought. Feelings are more powerful than reasoning could ever be, and children in this faith stage fantasize unendingly. But children grow, and as they do, they move into a second kind of faith style that is no longer fuzzy. It’s sharp-edged, dependent as it is upon authority figures who define the rules and then the rules are upheld literally. “My teacher says….” “If I am good, God will give me what I want…”

Beyond this, you have stage 3 faith, which is the stage I was in during high school and early college. It’s the stage in which meaning-making is tied up with a sense of belonging to a community. You believe what the community believes. Power in unity. James Fowler once said that many adults never transition out of this faith stage and that, in fact, traditional churches work best if most of the folks in the pews stay in this stage! Megachurches are primarily made out of stage 3 folks…

Now, before I say anything about stages 4, 5, and 6, you want to know that, on the one hand, Fowler’s theory is descriptive. It’s not leveling judgment against any of the stages. It’s exactly as the Hindu teacher Vivekananda once taught. “Would it be right,” he asks, “for an old man to say that childhood is a sin or youth is a sin?” The answer is of course NO, and then Vivekananda says, “To the Hindu, man is not traveling from error to truth, but from truth to truth, from lower to higher truth.” And that’s what’s on the other hand of Fowler’s theory. The higher the faith stage, the more effective and more inclusive it is in incarnating Love. Love our one source; Love our one destiny; no one left out. That’s the mission; and the higher the faith stage, the more of the mission we can accomplish.

So on to stage 4 faith, faith as integrity, faith as taking a personal stand against what one doesn’t believe. James Fowler says that most people never get there, which is hard to imagine when you think of all the inconsistencies that trouble traditional/conservative religion, or when you just think of mid-life crisis and how it turns everything upside down. Nevertheless, that’s what Fowler has found, and maybe you too—maybe you feel like an ugly duckling with all your questions and doubts and you feel surrounded by people who just can’t join you there.

But here is where you find your people. That’s right: lots of Unitarian Universalists are in stage 4. Here, you are no ugly duckling. You are a swan.

But the road runs ever on, and this is one big reason for the creative ferment in our congregations. You may remember my sermon called “Soul Foodie” where I talked about how some of us are spiritual omnivores and we will eat veggies, we will eat steak, we will eat anything? On the other hand, others of us are stricter in our spiritual diet; we are vegetarian, we are vegan. Put a juicy steak on our plate and it makes us gag. And yet, as Unitarian Universalists we dare to believe that, amid all our diversities, we can sit at the same soul food table. We can worship together and we can serve together. “We need not think alike to love alike.”

It’s very much a stage 5 ideal. At stage 4, people are solidly rooted in integrity. “I can’t participate unless I understand it or like it.” But at stage 5, the wisdom stage, you realize that yes you can participate even if you don’t understand it or like it, because you don’t get stuck on surface appearances, you have a mystic sensibility, you know that the Love that unites us is deeper than all that. You can sing the heck out of all those Easter hymns that go on and on about Jesus’ literal physical resurrection from the dead even though that couldn’t have possibly happened because you realize it to be symbolic, and powerfully symbolic at that. Physically dead people stay dead. But dead hearts and dead communities can rise again, and they do. A mythological creature like the Phoenix doesn’t have to literally exist for us to appreciate what it means and even welcome it as the symbol of this very congregation….

Let me tell you a story about this congregation, and with this I’ll close. When I first came here, bringing my stage 5 faith, I encountered a story that was pure faith stage 6. You see, every faith stage has a growing edge. Faith stage 4, the integrity stage, can be rigid and struggles to be emotionally open and receptive to the Mystery. As for faith stage 5, the wisdom stage, here the struggle is showing up and putting your life on the line for justice. Stage 5 folks are painfully aware of the gap between reality and the vision of a world made fair with all her people one. They are painfully aware of the gap, and they can feel overwhelmed, they can feel so vulnerable to what justice demands.

And this is where the three-dimensional sphere descends, once again, upon Flatland. The wake-up call this time is an opportunity to put your wellbeing on the line, in sacrifice to the greater good. Do that, and you are at the Boddhisattva faith stage, and Dr. King is right there with you, and so is Ghandi, and so is Jesus. Every time you give and it’s scary but you give anyhow, the Boddhisattva heart within you strengthens and you are living into stage 6 faith. Every time.

Here is the faith stage 6 story I encountered, back in 2007. It begins with death. This congregation died in 1951 because it refused to accept an African American into membership. The Board voted no. Why? Probably because of fear. Fear can cause nice people to turn their backs on justice. So the vote was no, and immediately, the minister at the time resigned. The national bodies with which the church was affiliated—the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America—blacklisted the congregation and urged that no minister step in to serve while it was segregationist. Then, in 1951, the American Unitarian Association, which owned the building and practically everything else because the congregation was a cheap bunch, sold the building out from under them—to the Bible Research Foundation, headed by Finis J. Dake, a fundamentalist preacher. Add insult to injury.

The United Liberal Church (what this congregation was called back then) died. And it had to happen, because the church turned its back on justice.

But just one year later, in 1952, the American Unitarian Association commissioned the Rev. Glenn Canfield to create a Phoenix miracle and bring back the United Liberal Church. The commitment, unequivocal and right from the start, was to human and civil rights. “Our fellowship includes all people, regardless of race, color, nationality, or station of life. We believe in the essential unity of humanity and that only together can we work out successful ways of living in happiness and peace.” That is what you would read in the congregation’s order of service.

And this makes history. The United Liberal Church, reborn, is Atlanta’s very first integrated congregation. Says Jesus, “No one can see the Kingdom of God, unless they are born again.” We know the truth of that directly.

So it’s the early 1960s, and Coretta Scott King is the leader of the youth group at Ebenezer. Our congregation and theirs have a joint Sunday evening program, alternating back and forth between them, so young people, black and white, can get to know one another and learn with each other. But one day the Klan calls. It threatens violence at the next Sunday evening meeting. Congregation officials consult with Mrs. King regarding the options and she says to go ahead with the meeting. All the parents are called to give them the option of keeping their children home. Not one parent holds back. And then, that evening, while inside the church the youth are building up Beloved Community, outside are the fathers, who ring the building, they are forming a visible wall of protection, they are part of the power to make a way out of no way, which is a Boddhisattva power, a power that evil can never overcome.

How can I know I am growing? How can you know?

Bring awareness to the faith stage you are currently at.

Interpret what irritates you not as a statement about someone else’s stupidity but your own strengths and limitations.

Strive to stretch yourself. The mission of “love our one source, love our one destiny, no one left out” urges you never to be satisfied with where you are and to crash every Flatland you find yourself in.

Life is constantly challenging us to make a way out of no way.
The need to put our bodies on the line and ring the building is not just a 1960s thing. It is a today and tomorrow thing.

Live in gratitude.
Live in wonder.
Live in love and courage.

This is how you can know you are growing.

Robert Fulghum’s Faith

He has a lullaby voice and a great booming laugh.

He carries a French horn case instead of a briefcase.

At motels he sometimes registers as “representing” Mother Earth or the Cutting Edge of Reality.

If a Seventh Day Adventist comes to the door, he whips out his stopwatch and says “O.K., but I get equal time.”

As the minister of Edmonds Unitarian Church, in Seattle, where he served 19 years, from 1966 until 1985, he presided at hundreds of weddings, funerals, hospital rooms and mortuaries—he saw a lot of life and a lot of death. Once, while distributing someone’s remains from 2,000 feet over Bellingham Bay, Wash., in a Cessna, he had the ashes fly back in his face. “How do you brush off those ashes?” he asks. “Do you go like this?” (polite dusting gestures) “Or like this?” (frantic pawing).

These days, as a bestselling author of eight books—16 million copies of them, published in 27 languages in 103 countries—you have to be careful when you ask for his autograph. Once, at lunch in Seattle, several people came up and asked for it. One man said the autograph was for his wife, Susan. ”Hi Susan!” the famous author wrote. ”Met your husband at this porno movie house. Nice man!”

He has written a parody of his most famous book, which was immediately suppressed by his publisher, and he called it ”All I Really Wanted to Know I Learned in the Alley Behind My House.’’

Robert Fulghum.

He is like drinking the wine of life.

Robert_Fulghum

He has described All I Really Wanted to Know I Learned in Kindergarten as a highly condensed version of a 300-page credo statement, written many years earlier while he was a seminarian—and I have been one of those too. As a seminarian, you enter into the vineyard of Unitarian Universalist tradition and for three or four years basically what you do is pick grapes off the living vine, you gather to yourself the heros of the faith: Faustus Socinus and Hosea Ballou and John Murray and William Ellery Channing and Margaret Fuller and Theodore Parker and Olympia Brown and Ralph Waldo Emerson and so many more. You gather all these beautiful grapes because you want to make your own wine of faith and so you crush them with your hands and you stomp on them with your feet and you filter out the dross and you bottle the juice and you let the magic happen through your thinking and feeling and living.

That’s how the wine of his faith happened, which we now taste whenever we read his books or hear him speak.

It is so sweet. Wine of Unitarian Universalist faith, Robert Fulghum-style.

Why this is important is suggested by a fascinating fact: how his books bridge traditional publishing categories. They can be found next to I’m O.K., You’re O.K. in the self-help section, or in “inspirational” with Rabbi Harold Kushner (of Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People fame). You can find them in Christian bookstores and in New Age natural-food co-ops.

The message is precious and universal. It can speak volumes to anyone. Therefore, how tragic if we are not ourselves evangelists of this message. How tragic, also, to lose sight of the specific origins of the message which people had to fight and even die for. How tragic, above all, to take in the message superficially and not see the essential radicalism in it that would most assuredly shake people up if only it was spelled out explicitly for them.

So that’s what I’m going to do. Get explicit.

The world is sacred Mystery.
The sources of truth are many.
Spirituality is a life-long journey in which we never stop learning.

These are three distinctively Unitarian Universalist beliefs, and Robert Fulghum’s faith—which is our faith—trusts in their truth.

Start with the world as sacred Mystery.

Millions of people have believed otherwise. They have affirmed a sharp dualism of sacred vs. profane, filled with God vs. empty of God, inherent worth vs. inherent evil or just inherent nothing.

Emerson spoke of this in his “Divinity School Address” from back in 1838, which Fulghum would have thoroughly absorbed in his studies. Jesus, says Emerson, “spoke of miracles; for he felt that man’s life was a miracle, and all that man doth, and he knew that this daily miracle shines, as the character ascends. But the word Miracle, as pronounced by Christian churches, gives a false impression; it is Monster. It is not one with the blowing clover and the falling rain.” Emerson here is sharply critical of the conservative Christian view that sees Jesus as uniquely God and the sacred as something strange that has to break into our world from the outside and jar the natural course of events. He is adamant that Jesus’ true teaching about himself was that he was a man God-inspired, as much as any person could be ”as their character ascends.” He was insistent that nature is already full of miracles and we would know that if we could learn how to see. Keep our eyes closed, and what happens instead is a focus on things like virgin births and the parting of the Red Sea and that’s what’s monstrous.

“That is always best which gives me to myself,” Emerson says. “That which shows God in me, fortifies me. That which shows God out of me, makes me a wart and a wen.” (A “wen” is a painful cyst on one’s face or scalp.)

Emerson says all this—and he paves the way for Robert Fulghum who says, almost 200 years later, “Be aware of wonder.” “Remember the little seed in the plastic cup? The roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why. We are like that.”

“And then remember,” he says, “that book about Dick and Jane and the first word you learned, the biggest word of all: LOOK! Everything you need to know is there somewhere.”

“Most of what I really need to know about how to live, and what to do, and how to be, I learned in kindergarten.”

Do you see the connection? The biggest word of all is LOOK because the world is sacred Mystery with sacred endless depths and therefore there is something to look at and something to find. You can learn all the essentials in kindergarten because all the essentials are there already; it is as sacred a site as the peak of the highest holy mountain.

On the other hand, if someone says that the world is empty of God and needs to be filled up, then why LOOK? What is there to look at? The last place you’d go looking for wisdom is a kindergarten—far better to go to your chosen guru or chosen set of sacred scriptures which you insist contains all the God power that ever was, ever is, and ever will be. Ugh. This line of belief makes of us all warts and wens.

Miracle becomes monster.

Only certain beliefs keep the monster away and support wonder. Only certain beliefs make it sensible to remember the little seed in the plastic cup, and to say of this miraculous thing, “We are like that.”

Beliefs matter.

Here is the next: The sources of truth are many. This is very different from saying, There is one and only one source, which millions of people say.

But not us. Not Fulghum. And not Emerson. Here’s how Emerson lays it out, and again, we are drawing from his “Divinity School Address,” where he describes the “capital secret” of the minister’s profession: “namely, to convert life into truth.” “The true preacher can be known by this,” says Emerson, “that he deals out to the people his life, — life passed through the fire of thought. But of the bad preacher, it could not be told from his sermon, what age of the world he fell in; whether he had a father or a child; whether he was a freeholder or a pauper; whether he was a citizen or a countryman; or any other fact of his biography.”

This is what got pounded into my head in seminary, and the same thing goes for Fulghum; and it is, in fact, something that all of us need to be engaged in, preacher or not. “I’m sorry,” says Fulghum, “but I think we have a lot better, richer lives that we often think we do. It’s just a matter of saying, ‘Did you ever notice this?’ and if you did notice this then you wouldn’t feel your life was so poverty stricken.”

We can be just like bad preachers if we don’t LOOK at the experiences coming into our lives and mine them for the truth and wisdom that’s there. All we need is eyes to see and ears to hear.

The true preacher and the true Unitarian Universalist can be known by this, that they pass the raw materials of their lives through the fire of thought.

That’s why, when we read Fulghum, we see him extracting philosophy from such subjects as the shoe repairman who leaves cookies in the shoes he can’t fix, the homely Indian who becomes beautiful when he dances, in the small deaf boy who wants to rake leaves.

That’s why Fulghum sometimes hops into his car, sets the odometer at 100 miles and drives. When it dwindles to zero, he steps out and talks to anyone he encounters. Because he has faith that whatever happens, God is in it and there are depths of meaning to discern and it’s going to be one of countless sources of truth and meaning in his life.

He’s a good preacher. He shows the way to being a good Unitarian Universalist.

The third and final belief we look at today is, Spirituality is a life-long journey in which we never stop learning. Here again, millions think otherwise. They think God is just waiting for a soul to screw up, so He can throw that soul into Hell. There’s no room for experimentation, there’s no room for trial-and-error, there’s no room for mistakes in a spiritual universe like this, so your salvation is belief in a way of life that has everything figured out ahead of time. Certainty up front.

That’s not us.

We don’t live in that kind of punishing universe.

Listen to Fulghum:

“The first time I went tango dancing I was too intimidated to get out on the floor. I remembered another time I had stayed on the sidelines, when the dancing began after a village wedding on the Greek island of Crete. The fancy footwork confused me. ‘Don’t make a fool of yourself,’ I thought. ‘Just watch.’ Reading my mind, an older woman dropped out of the dance, sat down beside me, and said, ‘If you join the dancing, you will feel foolish. If you do not, you will also feel foolish. So, why not dance?’ And, she said she had a secret for me. She whispered, ‘If you do not dance, we will know you are a fool. But if you dance, we will think well of you for trying.’”

The way to richness in life is risky. Sometimes we must disappoint others in order to come alive ourselves; sometimes we must do the thing that scares us to death. We just don’t want to make fools of ourselves. Yet, life leads us to the sort of tango dance Fulghum talks about again and again. Because life wants abundance for us. Life wants to be felt and known fully. Life wants us to LOOK.

This is the world we live in. Not an evil one, but a complex one, a confusing one, one that can hurt us terribly, one that can feel like the depths of winter—but never forget the invincible summer that lies within our hearts. With what we have, we must do the best we can.

Part of the best we can: to stop trying so hard. “Think,” Fulghum says, “of what a better world it would be if we all, the whole world, had cookies and milk about 3 o’clock every afternoon and then lay down with our blankets for a nap.”

Part of the best we can is also about how we treat each other. “Share everything. Play fair. Don’t hit people. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess. Don’t take things that aren’t yours. Say you are sorry when you hurt somebody. Wash your hands before you eat. Flush.” “No matter how old you are, when you go out in the world, it is best to hold hands and stick together.”

All I Really Wanted to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. I really did. You too.

Do you know the story of how this publishing phenomenon came to be?

Bi-weekly church columns, mostly written between 1960 and 1984. Columns, mimeographed and sent by church members to out-of-town friends and relatives. In 1984, Republican Senator Daniel J. Evans got a hold of a copy and had it read into the Congressional Record. The Kansas City Times printed “Kindergarten” in November 1985. It was picked up by the radio commentator Paul Harvey, the Rev. Robert Schuller, former Representative Barbara Jordan and the singer-activist Pete Seeger. Dear Abby and Reader’s Digest published abridged versions.

Then, one day in 1987, a Connecticut kindergarten teacher tucked “Kindergarten” into the children’s knapsacks to take home. One mother it reached also happened to be a New York literary agent. Patricia Van der Leun tracked down the mysterious minister, who said, “I’ve been writing this stuff for 20 years—how many boxes do you want?”

Van der Leun sold “Kindergarten” to Villard Books for $60,000 and within three weeks it was on The New York Times best-seller list.

But listen to this. “The story of my books is unique,” says Fulghum. “I was sort of shutting down my life. It was like being at a poker game at 11:30 at night and I’m about ready to go home. And all of a sudden I get four aces, and I figure God’s on my side, so I can’t go home. And now it’s about 3:30 in the morning and I’m still at the table, and the cards are still coming up and I’d be a fool not to take this as far as it goes.”

Don’t ever say you have it all figured out. Don’t ever say you’re shutting things down because you’ve seen it all and there’s no more surprises in the world for you.

The world will prove you wrong.

This world is a sacred Mystery.
This world is full of sources of truth.
The spiritual journey goes on and on and never stops.
So LOOK and LOOK and keep on LOOKING.

That’s our sweet UU faith, Robert Fulghum-style, the sweetest-tasting wine.

Why Bother?

We’re talking Easter this morning, and right off the bat I want to say that the essential story is bigger than Christian tradition can contain. The essential story, larger than Christianity and longer-lasting than any religious tradition, is that of the underdog triumphing. It’s crabgrass bursting through concrete. It’s the lily blooming out from a foot of snow. It’s the ugly duckling who turns out beautiful. It’s the little engine that not just could but does.

We already know this story. And it’s so good, every time.

Tell it again and again.

Easter is this essential human story—told in concentrated form.

And perhaps the concentrated nature of it is the reason why it’s an especially challenging variant of the “underdog triumphs” motif. Some stories are fairly mild, like your basic Publix variety green pepper. But then you have stories which scorch like the pepper called Trinidad Scorpion Butch T, one of the hottest peppers on the planet, with a Scoville rating of 1,463,700 SHUs. I’m not even going to explain what an SHU is. I think you get the picture.

The Easter story is like that, for Unitarian Universalists.

It’s why the Rev. Steve Cook says, “It’s a tough holiday for UUs, probably the toughest.” The Rev. Forrest Church calls it “an awkward holiday.” “UU churches just can’t win on Easter,” says the Rev. Jane Rzepka. And religious educator Michelle Richards titles a recent article, “What’s a UU Family to Do On Easter?”

There’s an old joke that says if you drive through town on Easter Sunday you can always tell the UU church apart. All the other churches have signs proclaiming “Hallelujah! Jesus is Risen!” The Unitarian Universalist sign, on the other hand, announces, “Hooray! Flowers are pretty!”

If you are new among us this morning, or new to Unitarian Universalism, I know. It sounds like a whole lot of hand-wringing.

In part, it’s because UUs tend to be overachievers. We tend to be perfectionistic. The Universalist side of us reassures us that God loves us just as we are, warts and all, but the Unitarian side of us has long spoken of “salvation by character” and encourages us to max out our potentials, be all we can be. Shun complacency.

On the Unitarian side of the spiritual family, there are no couch potatoes.

So we can be hard on ourselves. Where this connects with Easter is simply the fact that Easter is challenging for everyone. For everyone, it’s like a Trinidad Scorpion Butch T pepper. Doesn’t matter what tradition you’re from. Christmas is easy. Everybody loves babies. Everybody loves Christmas gifts and the star of Bethlehem. But Easter? There is no Easter without Good Friday, first of all, and that means crucifixion. There’s nothing cute about crucifixion, just a whole lot of excruciating violence and blood. Then there’s the part of the story when Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome go to the tomb where Jesus’ body is supposed to be, but it’s not there, no one knows what’s happened, perhaps some kind of miracle called “resurrection” but no one’s sure, and it is all so terrifying that the women flee from the area because (as the Gospel of Mark says) they are “seized with trembling and bewilderment.” They talk to no one because “they were afraid.”

empty_tomb1

Yay Easter. Gimme some excruciating violence and blood, with a side of trembling and bewilderment and fear. Gimme something called “resurrection” that stretches credulity to the point of breaking.

Wee!

No wonder millions of people have pretty much secularized the holiday, and for them it’s just an occasion to dress up and be a family together at church (but it’s more about FAMILY TOGETHERNESS than church), then, afterwards, a nice meal, then the kids running around the yard hunting for Easter eggs, some of which have been stuffed with chocolate, others stuffed with single dollar bills, and then the prize egg stuffed with a $50 dollar bill, and before you know it, the Easter egg hunt has devolved into the Easter egg melee and then the Easter egg war and this is all miles away from the crucifixion and the women who loved Jesus fleeing the tomb in sheer fright.

Easter is just tough.

But on top of this, yes, there really is additional toughness for Unitarian Universalists. There is rhyme and reason behind all the hand-wringing.

Part of this has to do with our diversity as a religious community. “Our UU churches just can’t win on Easter,” writes the Rev. Jane Rzepka, because of the mutually exclusive desires of the people who come to services. They come, she says, “To hear familiar, traditional, Easter music. To not hear familiar, traditional, Easter music. To be reminded of the newness of the spring, the pagan symbols of the season, and the lengthening days, without a lot of talk about Jesus and resurrection. To be reminded of Jesus and His resurrection, without a lot of talk about the newness of spring, the pagan symbols of the season, and the lengthening of days. To participate in a family service, where children delight in discovering the many roots of our religious tradition. To participate in a dignified service, where adults celebrate the undeniably Christian holiday, Easter…”

In the quantum world, particles are waves and waves, particles. But worship is not a quantum world. When we have mutually exclusive desires, some are met and some are not met. And then what?

We love our diversity—we believe that there’s nothing else like diverse community to support a search for truth and meaning that is free and creative and open and, ultimately, one characterized by integrity. But, clearly, diversity poses its own challenges.

As for the other reason why Easter is especially tough for Unitarian Universalists. It’s because UUs take the Bible seriously without taking it literally. For us, the resurrection is figurative in significance only. It wasn’t ever a concrete historical happening. It never WAS, but (as a metaphorical reality of the human condition) it always IS. Pain and suffering and evil need never be the last word. Addiction can give rise to sobriety. Bitterness can give rise to blessing. Tragedy can give rise to wisdom. The phoenix will rise from the ashes….

But our specific spin on the resurrection puts us at odds with a great deal of Christian America, which believes that Jesus was literally, physically resurrected. It’s “an awkward holiday,” writes the Rev. Forrest Church, because “the trumpets sound, we all sing, and Jesus is not [literally] resurrected. […] So what are we doing here? Why even bother?”

“What’s a UU Family to Do On Easter?” says religious educator Michelle Richards because she knows full well that the kids at school are having conversations during recess and the Unitarian Universalist kids are trying to explain their point of view which is way subtler than the conservative black and white views of their friends.

“It’s a tough holiday for UUs, probably the toughest,” says the Rev. Steve Cook, because, ironically, Easter can cause us to doubt ourselves and our communal wisdom. Taking the Bible seriously and not literally does not lead to the same sort of black and white certainties that our conservative religionists bandy about so obnoxiously—and we can envy their swagger. We can envy their “old time religion.” What is such a strength for us, we can see as a weakness. We are too much in our heads, we say. Too much head, not enough heart.

Oh Easter.

What ARE we doing here? Why bother?

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Here’s why Unitarian Universalists should bother with Easter, even though it can taste like a Trinidad Scorpion Butch T pepper…

If Easter is special in the way it brings out mutually exclusive desires in people, as the Rev. Jane Rzepka says—and I think she’s exactly right—then Easter invites us to think more carefully about what Unitarian Universalist diversity means and how to manage it well.

Easter comes, and you better believe, we very quickly become aware of a special form of diversity in this place: varying comfort levels with Christianity. Some people are fine with God-talk and fine with the traditional songs and imagery. “In Jesus name we pray,” is not offensive but comforting. And then there are those who are like vegetarians being offered a juicy steak. Traditional songs and imagery that smack of Christianity are jarring and unwelcome—real turn-offs.

Unitarian Universalism is part of the problem here—and it is ALL of the solution.

I say “part of the problem” because Unitarian Universalism is just a little over 50 years old. (Yes, Unitarianism as a separate tradition is positively ancient, and so is Universalism as a separate tradition—but they married in 1961 and the marriage created something completely new. That’s why I’m saying we’re just a little over 50 years old.) And, from the perspective of other world religions, 50 years old is miles away from maturity. Miles away from adulthood. We’re more like a teenager whose very real dependence upon his elders can at times feel utterly humiliating. “Mom!!” whines Unitarian Universalism at its Christian roots. “Mom, stop embarrassing me!” The reason is developmentally appropriate and understandable: we are trying to stand on our own two feet, as the independent post-Christian, more-than-Christian religion we are becoming. We are busy establishing our own traditions and rituals and stories and symbols and on and on. But we can go overboard in our quest for independence. We can think everyone else has wisdom for us, but not Mom. Not Dad. No way!

That’s the problem I’m talking about, and it’s a good problem, it’s the problem of growing up and figuring out who we are.

As for Unitarian Universalism being ALL of the solution, what I mean is how our faith calls us to bring compassion to our self-understanding and to the understanding of others. Each of us has a past. Each of us has a story. Our spiritual preferences reflect this. For a long time I could not say the word Jesus without choking, because I was in recovery from being a part of an abusive fundamentalist church growing up. I was allergic to Christianity. Highly. Some of you are right there. Now, when I start to talk about Jesus, pretty soon I’m brought to tears because I love him so. He is beautiful and noble. The allergies have all been worked out. Some of you are right there. And others of you grew up with good experiences, so you’ve never had to heal any allergies. Still others of you are in a different place, and Jesus and God and the Bible are just interesting and you want to know more and all the talk about allergies is actually off-putting for you….

If we can’t bring compassion to this Beloved Community and our shared religious venture, then we are not really Unitarian Universalist at all. Or we’re just bad UUs. As a people of covenant, our diversity works because we make a basic promise to each other: to give up a sense of entitlement, that everything that happens in worship or anywhere else has to satisfy me all the time in all ways. We make a promise to give that up. We also promise to be generous. When we are our best UU selves, and something happens and it’s like we’re vegetarian and someone offers us a steak, of course we don’t eat it, but we also don’t grumble grumble grumble, because we know that someone else in our Beloved Community needs that steak and delights in it. Knowing that is what makes it all OK. That’s what feels good. That’s what Beloved Unitarian Universalist Community is all about.

And so we bother with Easter. We brave Easter even though it brings up mutually exclusive desires. Covenant helps bring us through and take us to something that’s beautiful.

We also bother with Easter even though it puts us at odds with millions of others who read the Bible literally and not figuratively, not as a poetry of the spirit. For them, resurrection is about Jesus literally coming back to life after he was definitively destroyed; resurrection is about this specific miracle. Understandably so, since it was Paul in the Christian scriptures who declared that if this kind of resurrection did not happen, then all of the Christian faith is folly.

But we part ways with Paul. Christianity is not folly, even though Jesus died and stayed dead. That’s what my Unitarian Universalism leads me to, and in fact it tells me that the literalistic conception just confines the resurrection, makes it too small, makes it actually irrelevant to regular human beings here on planet earth who are constantly experiencing tragedy and pain and constantly feeling burned up like the phoenix and we can taste those ashes in our mouth and we cry out to God to be born again and we don’t know how to manufacture that miracle for ourselves, it just has to happen in its own good time…

We need to get the resurrection right. You do know what the symbol of our congregation is? The phoenix. Resurrection is who we are.

Go back to the old story. Jesus enters Jerusalem for the last week of his life. His disciples actually thought that he was finally going to take possession of his rightful power as the Messiah. They actually thought he was going to go in like Rambo and crush the Romans and take over. Did you know that? But he didn’t. The most vigorous thing he did was argue with the moneylenders in the Temple and turn a table over. Mostly, what he did was preach love to God and love to man. He sat around praying. That’s pretty much it.

When he was arrested by the Romans (because they too thought he was going to go all Rambo on them), that was the last straw for the disciples. It shattered all their illusions about who he was. In disgust. they started to drift away, one by one. Peter, his closest follower, denied him three times. We all know what the infamous Judas did—but now stay with me. This is Judas ISCARIOT we are talking about, and “Iscariot” comes from he word “sicaroi” which refers to a group of Jewish terrorists who violently resisted Roman rule. In other words, it’s likely that Judas was so frustrated at Jesus’ nonviolence that he turned on him. Love became rage, in the blink of an eye.

Now we’re getting into the heart of the real Easter story, the real story of resurrection. It’s not about what happened to Jesus’ body. It’s about what happened to Peter and the disciples who survived those turbulent days of death, and beyond. It’s about what happened to the women who went to the tomb, discovered it empty, were “seized with trembling and bewilderment” and then ran away from the scene, talking to no one, because “they were afraid.”

That’s what I call the phoenix all burned up, all ashes. The underdog who seems like he’s always going to stay under and it’s NEVER going to get better. The ugly duckling that seems he’s always going to be ugly. The little train that seems like he can’t.

But we know what happened. Death did not defeat Love. Death did not conquer it. Death only changed it. That’s the miracle. Jesus’ words and Jesus’ spirit came alive in his followers and they realized that the whole Rambo-obsession was completely misguided, that what this world needs is less Rambo and more Beloved Community. Gandhi realized that too. So did Dr. King. What this world needs is less obsession with impossible miracles and more focus on the sort of miracles that really can happen.

We bother with Easter because we get to say that. Unitarian Universalism gets to say, “The resurrection and the life is not at all supernatural. It’s not about a dead body coming to life. It’s about broken hearts made whole, love transformed into beauty and strength and community. Against all odds, the underdog does triumph. It happened to the followers of Jesus, after everything they endured. And it can happen to us today. Humans are that resilient. Have hope. Keep hope alive.”

We get to say that.

That’s why we bother with Easter.