Celebrating Life and Light!

This sermon was given at Shoreline Unitarian Universalist Church on 6/21/20 in celebration of the Summer Solstice and Father’s Day.

Good morning friends in faith. Thank you for inviting me to celebrate this Summer Solstice and Father’s Day with you all. As we enter this longest day of the year, let us heed the words of William Shakespeare: “Summer’s lease hath all too short a date.” Because after this point, our mother Earth begins her slow pivot moving the northern hemisphere away from the Sun. Summer in the Pacific Northwest seems to have an urgency to pack in as much life and light as possible. Under normal circumstances, every Shoreline summer day would bring a festival, a celebration, a bike ride and an embrace of water and forest.

However, these times are abnormal. This Summer season carries a darkness and hesitancy unnatural to its condition. In many ways it has felt like Winter; huddled inside. Hesitant to venture too far from the safety of the home. A heaviness from systems stretched to the breaking point unleashing generations of trauma. For our Unitarian Universalist faith, focused on love and justice in the world, Summer is usually a time of slowing down and instead we are called to ramp-up. This is a Summer Solstice of contradiction; and a summer in which we must remember to pack in as much light and life as possible. Because the joy of light and life will be the resource carrying us through the darkness.

There can be a common misconception that in order to be in solidarity with the suffering of the world I must suffer deeply as well. It is a partial truth. My capacity for compassion can deepen from my experience of trauma. I found that the death of my father two years ago, and my experience of pain and suffering, has made me a better chaplain. I remember a patient at the VA who declined quickly after a cancer diagnosis. At the bedside with his children, the pain in my heart aligned with their grief, and together we experienced solidarity. With their permission we walked through the pain together and were able to manifest what many would call “a good death.” In which love, reconciliation, and saying goodbye were possible.

My own pain was a resource for this family. However, what allowed me to access this resource are spiritual practices of gratitude and joy. In the space between the death of my father and the death of their father, I was held in community. I felt the resilience of church. I cried with my partner. I went to therapy. I spent time walking around Green Lake listening to R.E.M and Leonard Cohen. When my spiritual tank was running on fumes, I filled it up with life and light.

            At the beginning of my grief I wondered if joy was somehow a betrayal. If I allowed myself to laugh, have fun, distract myself with a party, maybe I was not honoring my father through deep mourning. It was either grief or joy. But in chaplaincy we are taught to look beyond dichotomies for new ways of being. I found that I could be both grieving for my father AND enjoy the laughter of my son playing in the backyard. In that embrace of both I found a deepening of heart. An immense gratitude for both my father and my son. Which became holy fuel for my work with pain, suffering, death and dying.

            Prophet and poet Mary Oliver writes these lines in her work Wild Geese:

“You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. Meanwhile, the world goes on…”

This poem reveals a spiritual practice of deep abiding love informing my capacity for empathy. “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.” While the true etymology of the word compassion is to “suffer with,” what gives me the energy to hold suffering and not lose my joy? Because suffering, as we see in the world today, can lead to anger, fear and hate. Catholic priest and mystic Richard Rohr says “brokenness untransformed will be brokenness transmitted.” Hurt people hurt people. My commitment, as a Unitarian Universalist, is to interrupt this cycle of violence. And I can’t do it from suffering alone.

So when I am feeling overwhelmed by our time and place, more suffering isn’t going to get me to the protest. Or the ballot box. Or the bedside. What I need is joy. I need for a moment to remember that “no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to my imagination.” Which is the place of joy and gratitude in meeting the trauma of the world. I was only able to sit with the deep broken hearts of a patient’s family because I was working on transforming my broken heart into a catalyst for healing.

“You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” In the beginning of our summer time, what is it that the soft animal of your body wants to love? Especially right now with black bodies hanging from trees, police systems killing the communities they swore to serve and protect, a mad king twittering from his bunker. What love do you need to transform your brokenness into holy fuel for resistance? On this Summer Solstice, creation is offering up its bounty. Inviting us into imagination and celebration. That Holy Spirit of Life and Love is calling out and all I have do is say, “Yes!”

One thing the soft animal of my body loves is a damn fine cup of coffee. Which is not the normal grind the night before with a timer set on the coffee maker. It’s the intentionality of pouring the water into the kettle and remembering gratitude for clean and abundant water. As it is boiling, holding gratitude for clean hydroelectric energy along with an awareness that this energy comes with a price to nature in the terms of dams along waterways. I take out the coffee beans I chose because of commitments to fair trade and ethical sourcing and say a prayer for the black and brown hands and communities who cultivated and harvested it for market.

Grinding the beans, I close my eyes and smell deep notes of chocolate, earth, vanilla and give intentional breath. Breathing in, I breathe in peace. Breathing out, I breath out love. The water is finished boiling and I pour the coffee into the French-press, watching closely as the coffee tumbles and bubbles in the glass, releasing its promise of caffeine and antioxidants. Steam rises with more smells of caramel and berries and I begin to stir the water gently, bathing the grinds in a hot bath, creating an infusion that turns beautifully black and powerful. I note the time and set a five minute meditation. Breathing in, I breathe in peace. Breathing out, I breath out love.

I take a ceramic mug out of the cupboard, giving thanks for a home with heat, shelter, food and love. The cup has a picture of the buddha on it with a note about “compassion” that was given to me by my father-in-law. My heart breaks a little as I remember preparing his body and placing it into the coffin, with his cowboy boots, blue jeans and dress shirt. I offer gratitude for his love and for my partner and for my son, all of whom are symbols of his life and love.

I take this mug, and I fill it slowly with coffee, remembering my own father and how he enjoyed a good cup of coffee in the morning. I remember him opening the paper and handing me the comics and he read about national politics. I am filled with love. I bring the cup up to my nose and I breathe in, peace. When I breathe out, I breathe out love. I sip the hot coffee and taste its delicious bitterness and complexity. I feel it begin to warm my body. I start waking up a little more. The birds are outside in the garden looking for meals. The bees are bouncing between the flowers. I sit with my cup of coffee, and meanwhile, the world goes on.

Friends, I don’t know if you enjoy a damn fine cup of coffee, or if your deep joy is tea, or hot chocolate or even just a cold glass of water. I do know that this whole Summer is open to your imagination and your gratitude. And it can, if you let it, fill you with holy fuel for the day ahead. I never knew a cup of coffee could be a spiritual practice. Yet, as a human being, I hold this amazing power of meaning-making. And I invite you into meaning-making, harvesting the gifts of Summer that make your world joy-full.

This is just one example of choosing joy along with the suffering of the world. In many ways, Father’s Day is a good example of this complexity. Not all fathers were like my own and my partner’s. In my work with incarcerated youth and in the hospital, I carry many stories of pain, abuse and suffering fathers have inflicted on their children. Often because their own brokenness and suffering were overflowing and never transformed. Fatherhood is going through its own reckoning along with many of our other institutions and systems.

As a father myself, I am informed and affirmed in my role by the principles and sources of our faith. To remember my inherent worth and dignity, and that of my son and partner. Living and teaching justice, equity and compassion to our children. Accepting and affirming all our pursuits of truth and meaning, not just mine. Listening and learning from Tobias and Heather and being willing to dialogue across our disagreements. Committing to a life of peace, liberty and justice and knowing my own family is one among a vast web of interconnected living and loving beings. And an injury to one is an injury to all.

For all those who take on the identity of “father,” may we draw deeply from the wellspring of fathers who have come before us who opened us up into new ways of being. And for those who carry pain and trauma from fathers who failed, I am committed to transforming this role with the goal that no child ever suffer from the hands of broken men.

Today, as I love and worship the holy Sun in the sky, I choose to see it as a symbol of joy and gratitude in the world that provides life and abundance. A powerful provider and beacon of light in a world that needs as much holy fuel it can get. Perhaps even an image of Fatherhood as life on this planet was birthed from the womb of Earth and developed in the steady blaze of our star. The Summer Solstice and Father’s Day are days created by human beings for human beings. How may you draw life and light from them to transform brokenness into love and justice?

I plan on celebrating my partner’s birthday. My son’s graduation from preschool. My own graduation from Seattle University. Father’s day. The Summer Solstice. And all the abundance that makes these celebrations possible. Because, for me, the joy and gratitude they provide reminds me what kind of world I am committed to creating. Because tomorrow, I go back into the hospital to be at the bedside of a COVID patient. Go down to the Capitol Hill Organized Protest to provide spiritual care to #BlackLivesMatter activists. Join a Zoom call from the Poor People’s Campaign to work on systemic poverty and inequity. The list is long. Which is why I need today.

I take heart from French philosopher Albert Camus, who participated in the French Nazi resistance and returned to his devastated North African home in Tipasa, Algeria after the war. He writes:

In order to keep justice from shriveling up like a beautiful orange fruit containing nothing but a bitter, dry pulp, I discovered once more at Tipasa that one must keep intact in oneself a freshness, a cool wellspring of joy, love the day that escapes injustice, and return to combat having won that light. Here I recaptured the former beauty, a young sky, and I measured my luck, realizing at last that in the worst years of our madness the memory of that sky had never left me. This was what in the end had kept me from despairing. I had always known that the ruins of Tipasa were younger than our new constructions or our bomb damage. There the world began over again every day in an ever new light. O light! This is the cry of all the characters of ancient drama brought face to face with their fate. This last resort was ours, too, and I knew it now. In the middle of winter I at last discovered that there was in me an invincible summer.

Siblings in faith, what is your cool wellspring of joy? What memories do you keep to remind you of what we struggle for and provide a foundation on which to ground your being? Today, I invite you all to look up into the sky, clouds or not, and cry out, “O light!” And find within your spirit an invincible summer. A celebration of life and light that will stand against powers and principalities that only wish to extinguish its flame. Today, let yourself be an incarnation of Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun, and run, jump and play. Taking in the holy fuel of joy and gratitude that will power our holy movement of faith out into the world.

For all the people in our community and in our lives who take on the sacred responsibility of “Father,” may the light of our Sun guide you, energize you, and fill you with capacity for gentle warmth and compassion. For those who have been hurt by a distorted and damaging Father, may your trauma and hurt continue to heal under the gentle warmth and compassion of the Sun and this community. For the Sun in the sky filling it with light from 5:11 this morning until 9:11 this evening, we offer praise and gratitude for your light, warmth and constant companionship.

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
   So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
   So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

May this day be our holy celebration of life and light! May it be so, Amen.

Weathering the COVID19 storm in Seattle

Every day this week, my bus has been on time and I’ve arrived to work early. Only a pandemic like COVID19 could ease the Seattle traffic to pleasant levels. It’s a silver lining that I’ve held onto given the strange quarantine which has gripped the city. My bus has been deserted. I suspect that the only people on board at 6am are healthcare workers. My route: to the Veterans Administration of Puget Sound. I am a chaplain.

It seems all the dystopian literature I’ve consumed over the years has prepared me for these times. Compared to the nightmare scenarios of 1984 and 12 Monkeys, the current reality is difficult and not unmanageable. In my community, with school and library closures, event cancellations and struggling small businesses, neighbors are offering childcare, meal and medication delivery, and resource sharing. Local businesses are stepping up through free meals, services and hiring temp workers. It’s like Fred Rogers said, “Look for the helpers.”

As a chaplain it’s my vocation to offer psychospiritual triage in every crisis. This morning at two different coffee shops filled with tech workers, exasperated parents with school aged children, and college students studying for finals, I asked baristas and patrons how they were holding up. I received wide eyes. Glances at the floor. Frustration at the disruption of life. And a begrudging acceptance of reality. In all the conversations was fear. In response I acknowledged their fear and offered solidarity. “I see you. You’re not alone. We’re in this together.” For a few the words brought tears. For most, a smile and a nod.

Chaplains are strange creatures. We’re a blend of mentor, councilor, therapist, spiritual advisor and preacher. Most of us are public theologians. As such, I wonder how to respond to quarantine and social distancing with creativity and the unexpected. The sacred always resists boxes. In conversation with my peers at the Veterans Administration, my supervisor shared this quote from CS Lewis (On Living in an Atomic Age, 1948):

In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. “How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation.

Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.

Yes, we are afraid. And it is possible to hope even while experiencing fear. So much in life can and will break our bodies. Every time I get behind the wheel of a car I invite destruction. I minister to too many accident casualties to truly feel “safe” on the road. And yet I choose to live life, perhaps more mindful of the need to be, as I tell my son, “kind, loving and listening.” I buckle my seatbelt. I put my phone down. I pay attention. I try not to speed. I commit to kindness on the road. Because we’re all in this together.

I am reminded of a story in the Christian scriptures (Mark 4: 35-41):

That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side.” Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm. He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”

Jesus’ friends wonder (and are more than annoyed) at his apparent calm in the face of certain destruction. For Christ’s sake, how can somebody sleep at a time like this!? (I imagine many in our moment are losing sleep) As a prophet Jesus knows the reality; that storms run their course. What is important is that they were together in the boat. Perhaps the disciples missed the point. It wasn’t about the power of control and domination over the elements. It is the faith that together we weather the storm. Siblings, where is your faith? What grounds you in this moment against the storm?

Every day of this outbreak I have woken up, gone to the gym, and come into the hospital. Because there are people alone in their hospital rooms, with cancer and infections and injuries and illness, who are better when we are together. COVID19 is dangerous and precautions are followed. There is a long road ahead. Yes I am afraid. I’ve read this story; I know the potential endings. I just believe in my ability to choose how to respond to the fear. And my choice is to show up. Because what dominates my mind is not to hoard toilet paper and hand sanitizer. It is knowing that I can make a difference. We all can. Every day.

Siblings of Seattle and around the world, I see you. You’re not alone. We’re in this together. You all woke up this morning already enough for this day. You were created with inherent dignity and worth. Today is an opportunity to live. And as St. Mary Oliver wrote in The Summer Day: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Three Simple Words

This homily was delivered at University Unitarian Church on Sunday, January 26,2020 as part of a rededication of the congregation’s #BlackLivesMatter banner. An audio recording of this homily (and others) can be found HERE.

Siblings in faith, I speak these words with the spirit in which they were written, in the spirit of life and love. Black Lives Matter. Three simple words that began with a Facebook post by Alicia Garza on July 13th, 2013: “Black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter.” This love letter was shared on Twitter by friends and activists with the hash tag #BlackLivesMatter. Garza, a queer black social justice activist, was responding to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin. It wasn’t until the killing of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson on August 9th, 2014 that the movement grew rapidly.

My ministerial journey was also born in the Summer of 2014 and has been deeply impacted by Black Lives Matter. As a chaplain and public theologian, and because I am Unitarian Universalist, I choose to read Garza’s letter as scripture. A brief epistle written to family and community because of compassion – she suffered with her people. Black Lives Matter are prophetic words from within the Black community to remember their own inherent worth and dignity. To remember that they are worthy of love. “Black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter.” So I ask myself: what must it feel like for my life not to matter?

I bring this question with me into my Chaplaincy ministry: sometimes with a homeless veteran, a gunshot victim, a person dying of cancer, a child in a jail cell, a spouse losing a partner, a child losing a parent, and each and every time I somehow end up saying those same words when the pain of the world is too big to hold alone: “Javier. Sheena. Mr. Brown. Ms. Wilson. I love you. Your life matters.” I understand Black Lives Matter as a deeply Unitarian Universalist theological and ontological statement. Theological because our worthiness of love is attached to our very existence. Ontological because we are born to matter and to belong.

When the walking wounded walk into our community, I want them to hear: “I love you. Your life matters.” I believe all our principles and sources boil down to these words. They are about potential, not purity. Therefore, whatever the powers and principalities have made Black Lives Matter mean in the six years since it emerged, I understand it through its original context. A response of powerful love from deep pain and grief.

When I see the banner on the side of our church building, this is what I believe: “Black people. Brown people. White people. People without housing. The hungry. The poor. The oppressed. The marginalized. The undocumented. The refugee. The immigrant. The discriminated. The displaced. The sick. The dying. To mother Earth herself. We love you. We love us. Our lives matter.” When the least among us get free, we all get free.

Our banner challenges us to get out of our seats and into the streets and live our principles and sources into the world. Unitarian Universalism is a religion that aspires to create a world in which all life matters while recognizing that humanity as it is does not value the inherent worth and dignity of all lives and all life. We move beyond thoughts and prayers into action. If we don’t, we’re no better than the vipers and hypocrites who send only their thoughts and prayers. But that is not us.

Siblings in faith, Black Lives Matter is a commitment to love. A mantra. A yearning hope and an eschatological vision. A reminder for me to wake up. To love myself. To love my neighbor. And to love the Earth. It is who I believe we can be as a people of faith. Three simple words: I love you. Three simple words: Black Lives Matter. May we all be transformed by their power. Amen.

What are we waiting for? (Advent & Waiting)

What Are We Waiting For? was given as a sermon on December 15th, 2019 at Shoreline Unitarian Universalist Church.

Siblings in faith, I deliver these words in the spirit in which they were written; in the spirit of life and love. Welcome to the third Sunday of Advent, known in many Christian communities as Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete is a Latin word meaning: Rejoice! In many Unitarian Universalist communities, our own advent wreaths are lit on this Sunday with the theme of “JOY!” And here we are, together in this space, in this time and in this place, to rejoice together: to feel and show great joy and delight in our community and in our common-union. Thank you for welcoming me to Shoreline Unitarian Universalist Church.

Advent has a very special place in my heart. I grew up Roman Catholic, the son of a mother coming from a long line of German and Irish immigrants, and a father whose parents immigrated to the United States from Mexico in the early 20th century. Most of my life revolved around the interwoven celebrations of Irish Catholics and Mexican Catholics, who in my experience know how to both lament deeply and celebrate ridiculously. For my family, Advent was and is a time for preparation and expectation for transformation in the world.

Being raised in a high liturgical tradition, the year flowed differently from secular society. The Christmas season didn’t start on Black Friday (or as I know now, after Halloween). It started on Christmas eve at midnight mass. The four Sundays before Christmas marked the Advent season. They shifted from the green colors of “ordinary time” to the purple colors of “transition time.” In the Catholic church, there is another liturgical shift like this, marking the observation of Lent leading up to Easter Sunday. Both Lent and Advent are 40 days long; both are a time of turning inward; a time for reflection, repentance, forgiveness, and hope.

The definition of the word Advent is “the arrival of a notable person, thing or event.” For Christianity, the season of Advent is the celebration of the arrival of Jesus of Nazareth into the world. For Unitarian Universalists, it can be a time of multiple meanings: all of which involve some kind of waiting. Waiting for the Winter Solstice. Waiting for Hanukkah. Waiting for Kwanzaa. Waiting for the New Year. Waiting for the Capitalist Consumerist Industrial Complex to come to an end.

We all know that waiting is not an easy behavior for human beings. I am the father of a 5-year-old, and as he loves to remind my partner and me: “Ugh, I hate waiting!” I empathize with him. As a child my home would gently change through December with garland and lights, nativity mangers and ornaments; I would see presents begin to gather beneath the tree. Bright paper with bows and ribbons, every day was more excruciating than the next. Because all I wanted to do was find out what was in those presents.

Advent calendars, with tiny chocolate treats for each day of the season, added to the excitement. Every day came with a little bit of sweetness, with the knowledge that underneath each panel there was more chocolate. And for some reason to my own 5-year-old experience, that was never enough. I wanted it all now! The practice of waiting stretched me mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Now in my 40s I am thankful for learning the lessons of waiting, though I admit I am still learning when I am stuck in traffic on I-5.

For northern hemisphere pre-Christian cultures, there was a waiting in fear and hope that the fading sun and long nights would shift their course and light would come back into the world once again. Winter was not only coming, but it would leave, marking a transition back into daylight and abundance. Festivals like the Roman Saturnalia and Germanic Yule, with their focus on rejoicing, were about bringing light back into the world at its darkest moments. As Christianity spread throughout Europe it is no wonder that Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, the “Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun”, became the celebration of the birth of the Son of God, who came according to the gospel writer John, as the “light of the world” and whoever followed him would “never walk in darkness.” (John 8:12)

My experience of Christianity is as a religion about waiting. With its eschatological focus, a focus on a future time, when Christ returns, and all creation is reconciled with the Creator. At its best, this waiting is marked in spiritual lives dedicated to “loving neighbor” as one loves themselves. (Luke 10:25-37) In a people who “turn the other cheek”, “go the extra mile” and who live a Christmas spirit year-round.

Advent, with its concentration on waiting, can have a spiritual effect of stretching time and space “thin.” In the Celtic tradition, thin time and space marks when the veil between life and death, sacred and mundane becomes permeable. Like in Unitarian Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, it is a time when spirits can manifest and challenge the living. And for Unitarian Clement Clarke Moore in ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, it is a time when jolly old elves fly through the air on sleds pulled by reindeer and where saints can slip down chimneys to deliver abundance to those of good hearts and deeds. I resonate with these authors sense of wonder: the Advent season was for me a season of miracles: when our United States culture somehow magically shifts from “God helps those who help themselves” to a spirit of generosity, compassion, and charity. A “Christmas Spirit.”

Listening to our story for all ages, it reflects so many of our cultural Christmas parables about the Spirit of Christmas. A moral play regarding the poor who despite poverty and abuse rejoice in the small blessings of a suffering life and who demonstrate almost impossible contentment. Little Gretchen, despite her grandmother’s admonishments, refused to give up her hopes and dreams, praying to the stars for a miracle. And then accepting Christmas day as it came; thankful for what is rather than for what was lacking. For Gretchen, Christmas day was about the blessings of the now. This is the innocence of a child that Jesus spoke to in the Gospel of Matthew: “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” (Matt 19: 14)

There is also a shadow side to this narrative; an insidious darkness which I witness played out in our own time. If a life is dedicated to a silent waiting of prayer and hope, like our poor Gretchen and her Grandmother, living in poverty, what changes? For Gretchen, it was the miracle of life and love that made Christmas day. Where were her friends? Her community? Her church? In many ways the Christmas story distorted can be a message of “be happy with your lot in life”; be happy with your poverty. Be happy with your slavery. Be happy with your disenfranchisement. Make do with the seasonal generosity of Merry Gentlemen of wealth and privilege. Better things are coming; just wait and see.

It is this part of the Christmas narrative that I preach against. Because as Unitarian Universalists, we are not a people waiting for a God to do the hard work for us. We are not children learning how to wait; we are a mature faith who, having learned the counter-cultural lessons of delayed gratification, can know the wisdom of both patience and action. We are a sacred faith, free from the dualistic thinking of “either/or.” We are a people of “both/and.” We look to a future beloved community AND commit to the hard work of the transformation of the now. We believe in the salvation and redemption of all people regardless of their wickedness AND we work to dismantle the systems and structures of evil in the world.

In our readings for today, we are reminded of the generational struggle between waiting and acting. For the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, he came to embody a spirituality of both/and in his activism. At the time of the Letter from a Birmingham Jail, many of his liberal white peers were advocating for him and his movement to “stop and wait.” He says, “For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’” He recognized that there was a time for both waiting AND a time for action. He refused to wait for a Christmas miracle; he decided to be the miracle.

Advent is a powerful time for waiting AND a time for action. The power in waiting comes from its seasonal focus on our inward work. As the days grow shorter and nights colder, creation invites us into the restoration found in spiritual hibernation. An invitation to reconsider our capacity for charity, for volunteering, for advocacy and for our relationships. It is a time to hope and pray with each other in solidarity, facing the darkness of climate change and fascism with the chalice light of community. Advent is a powerful time for action because at its end, we are forced to ask: “What are we waiting for?”

As President Barack Obama said in our second reading, “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek. … We are the hope of the future, the answer to the cynics who tell us our house must stand divided, that we cannot come together, that we cannot remake this world as it should be.” We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

Advent for Unitarian Universalists is an opportunity to tap into the strength and resiliency with which to act in the world. Our waiting is a spiritual exercise in accessing the powerful resource that theologian and civil right icon the Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman writes about in his book Meditations of the Heart: “It is the insistence of religion that the God of life and the God of religion are one and the same. Implicit in the struggle which is a part of life is the vitality that life itself supplies. To affirm this with all of one’s passionate endeavor is to draw deeply upon the resource available to anyone who dares draw upon it. The aliveness of life and the power of God move through the same channel at the point of greatest need and awareness.”

Our season doesn’t begin with the waiting, just as Christmas doesn’t begin with Advent. Our season begins on the day we emerge into the world, filled with a Holy Spirit of life and love for prophetic work and transformative change. We do not do it for ourselves alone. We do it because we have inherited the success and struggle of our ancestors. We do it because that arc of history which bends toward justice has never bent itself. We do it for my child and our children and our children’s children.

Which is no surprise. Advent and Christmas has always been about children; and the dynamic tension between our desire to wait and their desires for now. We hope that they learn patience and they hope we remember urgency. Which is why this Advent song has always been my favorite:

Said the night wind to the little lamb
Do you see what I see
Way up in the sky little lamb
Do you see what I see
A star, a star Dancing in the night
With a tail as big as a kite
With a tail as big as a kite

Said the little lamb to the shepherd boy
Do you hear what I hear
Ringing through the sky shepherd boy
Do you hear what I hear
A song, a song High above the trees
With a voice as big as the sea
With a voice as big as the sea

Said the shepherd boy to the mighty king
Do you know what I know
In your palace wall mighty king
Do you know what I know
A child, a child
Shivers in the cold
Let us bring him silver and gold
Let us bring him silver and gold

Said the king to the people everywhere
Listen to what I say
Pray for peace people everywhere
Listen to what I say
The child, the child
Sleeping in the night
They will bring us goodness and light
They will bring us goodness and light

In this song, written during the Cuban Missile Crisis as a challenge to both war and consumerism, creation and humanity call us into Advent. We are called to arrive. If we are the ones we’ve been waiting for, we are the stars dancing in the night, it is our voices as big as the sea, we are the wisdom of shepherds who speak truth to power and transform the hearts of kings, and it is our children who will bring us goodness and light: because there are other children like shivering in the cold. Immigrants like my grandmother in detention centers. Mad leaders playing with our lives. There is a world on fire threatening our very existence. We can not just wait. We must arrive!

Siblings in faith, with so much darkness in the night it can be hard to rejoice. A Christmas Spirit seems almost impossible. And that is why we have Advent. Why we have a special season dedicated to waiting and healing; family and friends; gift giving and tree trimming. Which is why we light our chalice on Gaudete Sunday. Which is why we come together in this time and in this place. To hold each other tight. To tell the stories that kindle miracle and mystery in our children and rekindle our own sacred imagination. And when our children ask, “What are we waiting for?” We will tell them, we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

Amen.

A blessing on Samhain

Siblings, we embrace Samhain as a thin time and thin space, between those of today and those of before.
We choose now to evoke memory of our sacred bonds; to call on our ancestors.

Spirits of my life and love, mi casa es su casa.
You are with me always, protecting me, guiding me, this is your holy day.
Your blood is my blood, your spirit is my spirit, your memories are my memories.
While your bodies have returned to the earth, your being continues on, within me, within our family, and within our family’s family.
You are honored and blessed.
Please accept my offerings of food and drink, meal and memory as thanks given.
May I live into the future with gratitude and charity for your gifts of life and love.
May it be so, amen.

Resiliency in the End Times…

Siblings in faith, I deliver these words in the spirit in which they were written; in the spirit of life and love. There is an ancient curse that is translated as: “May you live in interesting times.” And while every generation has its share of turbulence, certainly our generation feels urgent; terrifying; and overwhelming. It seems that everywhere we turn, conversations and media are focused on the suffering of the world. Environmental collapse. Racism. Sexism. Economic inequity. Gun violence. Extremism. Fascism. Conflict. War. The world is so big. We are so small. Certainly there is a temptation to say, “The end is near!”

Humanity has a long history, and tradition, of proclaiming the end of the world. When asking my parents about the cold war, they recall the fear of nuclear Armageddon, hiding under school desks in fallout drills. For my grandfather who fought in World War II, there was the fear that the whole world was going to descend into fighting and chaos. For my great-grandparents, they saw crops fail in the dust bowl and markets crash in the great depression. For my great-great-grandparents, they saw their country fall into civil war and the social upheaval of reconstruction. Each of their generations had to overcome adversity. And there is one thing all predictions of the end have in common: they were all wrong.

This isn’t to say that our problems aren’t ridiculously critical; with human suffering in our face every day. But what each generation also had were everyday people who held onto hope. Who held onto faith. Who believed in love, whether it was rooted in a transcendent humanity or in a benevolent God. People who showed up, responding to adversity with audacity. And who kept making the choice to not give into despair.

And I will be honest, I have deeply felt despair at my doorstep. I’ve helped prepared the bodies of my grandfather, my father in law and my own father; I’ve sat with dying children in hospital rooms and frightened teens in detention center cells. But more powerful than despair is my commitment to hold sacred space for hope, faith, and love. I believe we are all called to create this sacred space for each other and our world. Our spiritual and religious communities hold a powerful possibility to be bastions of resilience against a universe of trauma.

Because the Buddhists are right; life is suffering. There will always be trauma and all I can do is choose how to respond to it. Yes, we are working toward the kingdom of god; that beloved community where we all share in a universal respect of the worth and dignity of each person and the interdependent web of life in which we are all a part. I truly believe in the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s pragmatism that “the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice.” And I also know that our vision will always be a ‘becoming’; forever responding to the trauma of creation.

Because I understand that the universe was created in trauma, regardless if it was a good word or an accident of fate. It was an explosion that ripped possibility into space and time. As beautiful as it was, my son was born in the trauma of blood, sweat and tears from his mother. We all entered this world crying. Even keeping my physical body healthy required some trauma; because no pain, no gain. In many ways trauma is positive and beneficial. Without some adversity, I wonder if we would have the arts, or music, or even religion? Philosopher Albert Camus writes: “This is what in the end had kept me from despairing. […] In the middle of winter I at last discovered that there was in me an invincible summer.” It took adversity to actualize resiliency.

But however beneficial trauma can be, that makes no concession for causing pain and suffering in the world. I am negligent if I sit with a patient who has just lost a loved one to gun violence and say, “Don’t worry, God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.” As if the Spirit of life and love would break our hearts in order to test us. No, this trauma rooted in pain, fear and hate; the human made atrocities that we face every day. They are the evils we dedicate our lives to addressing. Because we refuse to accept a world where they must exist.

As much as I refuse to believe in hell or the concept of original sin, there is ample evidence of the depths of trauma human beings are capable of inflicting on each other and on the Earth. It is this trauma that forms the core of our wrestling with the balance of hope and despair; a struggle with theodicy; why do bad things happen to good people? Where is god? Why must I suffer? How do I make sense of a traumatic universe? These questions are common, and they are normal.

Which is why I believe religion and spirituality will never become obsolete; and why I believe our spiritual leadership is so necessary. Not to answer the questions of theodicy. Not to take suffering away. Or even somehow magically remove all trauma from existence. But to respond to theodicy with another question: “What will we do now?”

Our call is a wakeup call that we are not alone; that we are not powerless; that we have choices; and that we will show up. We show up to remind our culture what it means to be a human; and to demand justice and love be made manifest in a universe of trauma. Theologian and civil right icon the Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman writes: “It is the insistence of religion that the God of life and the God of religion are one and the same. Implicit in the struggle which is a part of life is the vitality that life itself supplies. To affirm this with all of one’s passionate endeavor is to draw deeply upon the resource available to anyone who dares draw upon it. The aliveness of life and the power of God move through the same channel at the point of greatest need and awareness.”

What will we do now? Do we dare draw upon the Spirit of Life and Love? Because surely with the eschaton approaching, we are coming upon our greatest need and are painfully aware. Siblings in faith, we have a choice. Do we dare? And yes, this is frightening. Author and theologian C.S. Lewis wrote about what we face: “Is God safe? Certainly not! But God is good.”

And this is the truth; we are not called to be safe. We are called to be good. And perhaps this is what that looks like. There is a story in the Christian scriptures: “A person came to Jesus and said, ‘Teacher, what must I do to achieve eternal life?’ And the answer was, ‘Keep all the commandments.’ But Jesus, I pay my taxes. I’m kind to people. I don’t cheat or steal. I volunteer. I recycle. ‘What am I still missing?’ Jesus answers, ‘If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and come follow me.’”

Truly there is freedom from suffering, and it is letting go of attachments. That is the 8-fold path. To have the right view, right resolve, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right spiritual practice. And the only way to achieve these things is to drink from the font of life and love. It is a daunting challenge.

And a real one. Because for the challenges and trauma of our ‘interesting time,’ perhaps the answer is found in exactly that radical call to dare to be transformed. Because what does real economic equity demand? What does real sustainable care of all of creation demand? What does dismantling systems of white supremacy and heteropatriarchy demand? What does access to food, water, shelter, health care and education for all people demand? Perhaps giving up my known ways of being, and daring to choose something radical, vulnerable and audacious.

And I can no longer depend on my siblings at the margins to agitate me into change; for centuries black and brown bodies have been bending that arc of justice. No, the work is mine. And it is ours. To survive our times, we need daring communities and congregations. No more playing it safe. We do not have the luxury of time to continue to ignore the big questions and big issues. Thankfully there is hope.

Children’s educator Fred Rogers said, “Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we are not alone.” And trauma is always healed in community.

Beloved, we are trusted with the important talk. We are asked to hold the space of trauma. We are called to be daring and to create the spaces of faith, hope and love that keep the despair at bay. In our interesting time; in our challenging time; we are presented with the font of the Spirit of life and love. It is always there; beckoning; inviting; challenging us. Do we dare? Amen.