A Lenten Season for All…

Siblings in faith, I deliver these words in the spirit in which I pray they are received; in a spirit of life and love emanating from that which you find most holy.

Growing up Catholic, my family paid close attention to the passing of the seasons. Not just the transition of winter to spring and summer to fall, but the movement of the liturgical seasons of the Christian Church. Like the natural seasons, they moved from birth to death to rebirth. A spiritual cycle marking the steps toward the kingdom of God. One of my favorite holy times, that is, time set apart from the ordinary, is the season of Lent.

Lent is the liturgical season of sacrifice, preparation and repentance. It begins on Ash Wednesday, roughly forty days before Easter Sunday. We would begin this season by coming forward and being marked with the ashes of burned palms gathered the year before. The priest would say the words found in Genesis chapter 3 of the Hebrew scriptures, “Remember, thou art dust, and unto dust you shall return.” Reminding us of our mortality and our origin in and of the earth. He would dip his thumb in soot, and then make a cross on our foreheads.

The ashes were a physical marking of sin and repentance. And tradition calls for Catholics to fast in preparation for the celebration of Easter. As a child this would usually manifest in actions like giving up candy or refraining from TV, and as a teenager I remember giving up swearing or talking-back to my parents. To be honest, I was never good at the fasting.

But as I came into adulthood, I found that Lent called to me in a way that other parts of church life didn’t. It was a time of reflection. Of turning inward. Of apologizing. Of asking for forgiveness. It was an invitation into forty days of intentional transformation.

Womanist theologian and activist bell hooks writes: “Forgiveness and compassion are always linked: how do we hold people accountable for wrongdoing and yet at the same time remain in touch with their humanity enough to believe in their capacity to be transformed?” I eventually found Lent to be a seasonal spiritual practice of holding myself accountable for wrongdoing along with the audacious hope that come Easter Sunday, when the community would gather at dawn, I would, like Jesus, share in a kind of death and resurrection. Now an adult, my fasting took the forms of sacrificing time at the food pantry or shelter, or using money I would spend on takeout or happy hour and investing it in organizations like Kiva or Heifer International. But while my sacrifices in Lent had evolved, my idea of sin hadn’t.

It took a long time to move away from my Catholic notion of sin; that of an angry God living into those famous Police lyrics: “Every breath you take, every move you make, I’ll be watching you.” My notion of sin reflected my spiritual anthropology. I was a fallen, broken human being in need of mercy, grace and forgiveness for everything from skipping church on Sunday because I was too lazy to go, to being sexually attracted a woman, or even more egregious, a man. There was nothing I could do to be perfect enough for this god of judgement; but at least Lent gave me a season of trying. Year, after year, after year.

Now in the Unitarian Universalist tradition, I have changed my relationship with god and my notions of sin. The Christian god of my parents was eventually too small for what was calling my spirit. My understanding of sin moved from the acts of disobeying god and His commandments, toward integrating what it means to break covenant with community and creation. My journey into our liberal religion shifted my anthropology toward inherent worth and dignity where I was no longer broken from the time of my conception.

However, in my conversion I still haven’t changed my honoring the tradition of Lent. Unitarian Universalism emerged out of liberal Christianity, I emerged out of Christianity, and I believe we Unitarian Universalists have a right to claim this spiritual season because it holds something we yearn for as a religion: an intentional call to accountability and transformation.

And just as my understanding of sin moved away from god toward community and creation, I also shifted my understanding of accountability. It became more than just the dictionary definition of “an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility for my actions.” It now comes with a commitment to pay reparations forward. To commit myself to the difficult work of education, relationship and transformation so that my sin, whether it is in my complicit destruction of the holy environment of the Earth or my entrenchment in and support of racist and prejudiced systems like gentrification and police violence.

I understand accountability as not just my willingness to say what I mean and mean what I say in the words “I am sorry.” It requires the painful and abrasive act of conversion of spirit; the sanding down of the cracks and ruptures in relationships that my sin has caused so they may be repaired. The sandpaper being my sacrifice of time and resources, a commitment to listening to and learning from the individuals and communities with who I have broken covenant, and a letting go of comfort and privilege.

And just as accountability works outwardly into the world, it also turns inward in the forms of grief, mercy and healing. The spiritual season of Lent isn’t about sin. It is about repentance. Author and prophet Aldous Huxley writes: “Chronic remorse, as all the moralists are agreed, is a most undesirable sentiment. If you have behaved badly, repent, make what amends you can and address yourself to the task of behaving better next time. On no account brood over your wrongdoing. Rolling in the muck is not the best way of getting clean.”

For this season of Lent, the internet actually produced something useful. In a blog by Emma-Claire Martin titled “What Happened When I Gave Up Self-Harm for Lent.” I read about a nuanced kind of repentance. Instead of the old giving up of chocolate, and in addition to doing the outward work of paying it forward, what if Lent was used for letting go of the ways in which I hurt myself?

Instead of getting up in the morning and looking in the mirror and thinking “I’m too fat” or “I look horrible,” thanking my body for giving me another day to live and move and breathe in the way I am able. Instead of giving into destructive thoughts of being an imposter, and fearing the discovery of my actual incompetence, I begin practicing a gentleness? Of seeing myself as wonderful and fabulous and beautiful and worthy of friendship and love. A living into an idea of myself as “enough.”

Lent could be forty-plus days of eating enough food, getting enough sleep, and learning how to say “no.” Of actually practicing self-care, and committing to learning healthy boundaries in work, school and family. This spiritual season could be set aside for learning how to listen to my body, with all its aches and pains, and remembering what it was like before “imperfect” became part of my vocabulary. A catalyst for a true conversion of heart; healing my brokenness so that it is transformed before it is transmitted out into the world. The act of repentance and redemption is not just outward works, but truly is also an inward grace.

Which is why I believe the season of Lent can speak even to Unitarian Universalists. It is a special time set aside for doing the hard work of transformation. It asks for an engagement with the self and with the world. It demands accountability. And it inspires action. Which is everything I fell in love with when I first learned about this faith. With its powerful love and principled freedom, its constant call to holy covenant with each other and with creation, where we believe in one love, and that nobody is left behind in this love.

Siblings in spirit, we are still a few weeks away from Easter Sunday. I invite you all to consider in these last days of lent, how you might live into this season of repentance and transformation? What are the ways of love and justice that call you to live in gratitude, into the world and into your heart? For those who come from Christianity, I invite you to reclaim this time if you are called. If this is not your tradition, do not be afraid, for it is part of our communal inheritance as human beings. Lent is certainly a most holy season, a time set apart, that only asks that we cultivate our most authentic human selves; to ourselves, to each other, to creation, and to that which we find most holy. Amen.

In loss; in solidarity

Recently, two beloved friends lost a parent each. Both played important roles in holding me together after my dad died. In the process of plans and plane tickets and memorials and house-selling and moving, life was senseless. I wish I was present for you the way you were for me. I know you don’t require reciprocation. I am so sorry you know this moment.

The death of my father has had a unique, mercurial identity. An ever-present emptiness. A film of metaphysical opacity. Life has taken on a daily both/and; I am happy and I am hurting. I am present at my work and I am distracted by grief. I laugh with my son and I want to cry. In death, impossible contradictions are the only things that make sense.

Well-meaning others acknowledge the death of my father. Have advice and condolences. Some of whom have lost somebody, or many bodies. And still nobody knows it in its visceral, aching intimacy. My grief is wholly personal; as I imagine is yours. I won’t pretend to know your experience. And I am in solidarity with your being in the midst of it.

My grief has been an animal with wiry hair and sharp claws. It scurries around too fast for me to catch it. It’s good at hiding. It whispers from dark corners and screams when the light gets in. Sometimes it will be a song on the radio. A picture that pops up unexpectedly. An anniversary on the calendar. A simple question of “How are you doing?” Then the animal devours the moment, leaving a bloody trail of psychospiritual viscera. And the moment passes, life continuing on with its internet memes, news stories of atrocity, and mundane conversations about the weather.

I have noticed a few truths. It helps me to write about the experience. To sit in solitude and consider my mental, emotional and physical health. I am compelled into more honesty and vulnerability with people in my life. My survival demands that I get help where and when I can. A spirit of life and love invites me to live the practice of letting go of everything that does not bring light into my life. Because the animal inside needs darkness. And it will eat me alive if I let it.

To my friends and loved ones who can only nod and say “I know.” I see you. I hear you. And I love you. We do this alone, and we do this together.

A good friend gave me this. And now I give it to you:

Giving masculinity The Works

I want to break free from your lies, You’re so self satisfied I don’t need you…

I came across Gillette’s new ad a few days ago. It’s the kick off of a re-branding campaign. No longer “The Best a Man Can Get,” the Proctor & Gamble subsidiary is now saying, “The Best Men Can Be.” They are using their power and privilege to send a message that men can be the better angels of our nature. And to sell shaving products. I watched the video. I cried.

I cried because I’ve been that guy in the video. And that kid. Because I remember the hurt and anger on my father’s face when I told him in my sophomore year that I didn’t want to play football anymore. I remember the pain I felt inside by believing my identity and worth depended on me playing football. I remember the ostracization from peers after I quit. I remember being afraid.

I remember being afraid of my father’s anger. His physical size. His violence. Of being a small boy running down the hallway fearing that my father would break me with a patada. Even after it had become a family joke. And while my father never did hurt me or abuse me, and I remember his life with love, in death his anger scares me. Because his anger is inside me.

I cried because I remember using homophobia as a weapon. I used words like “gay” and “fag” and “queer” with hate. I buried my emotions deep inside. Everyone, including myself, forced me into a script I never knew I had the option of rejecting. I wore a mask every day of my life. And for years I internalized the shame in hating myself by being attracted to men as well as women.

I cried because I never had the courage to publicly say that I was attracted to men as well as women.

I cried because I’ve hurt women and I’ve been hurt by men. That I will spend the rest of my life transforming the toxicity in all the identities I carry as someone who walks through this life being seen as a “man.” And knowing that my truth underneath layers of propaganda is fluid and flexible and loving and fabulous.

I cried because I have a son who told my partner and my mother last night, “One day I’m going to be strong like daddy.” And I knew he meant my physical size and strength. Not my compassion. Or my vulnerability. Or my ministry. Or my love.

I want my son to look at me and internalize that strong means more than big muscles. That the word means believing survivors of abuse. It means confronting abuse in the moment. It means refusing to accept a culture that centers supremacy of any sort. It means resisting and loving and working and bending the arc of history toward justice.

I want my son to learn that being strong means getting out of bed in the morning to make the world a more just, loving and compassionate place for all people. To do what daddy does in the hospital: show up to help. And to know in the depths of his heart that “masculinity” and “femininity” are only old and outdated stories, and that he gets to write his own story. Just as I work on rewriting mine.

I want to be free. I want release.

Joshua trees

I want to tear down the walls that hold me inside…

I feel like a Joshua tree today. Reaching toward the sky, rooted in sand; prickly. I’m ready to survive my forty days and forty nights. Even if it’s a different kind of desert. Sinai and Mojave would have a lot to talk about over drinks.

Toby recently said that he missed “Papa.” I wasn’t there when he said it. But I agree. I wonder what he misses. Maybe a laugh that would shake the house? Or sitting in the recliner wrapped in long arms of copper skin and copper tubing? Perhaps it’s just the general feeling that something in life is missing and when feelings are bigger than a tiny forty pound body can hold, those are the only words you can say?

I look at Toby and see my my father. I look in the mirror and see my father. My sister, my nephew, Facebook; pictures are everywhere. Like photocopies reproduced one too many times. Everything is a little blurry around the edges. “Did you know your grandfather could make it rain by dancing in the backyard? When I was your age…” I think dad would agree with the apocrypha.

I imagine Joshua trees dancing along the old sixty-six. Waving their spines at the heavens. Waiting for a window to open and let in some rain. Not being disappointed when it’s another day of wandering through the desert. Yucca have the patience and faith of prophets. Eventually the drops will come.

There always has to be a release.

Man in motion

All I need is a pair of wheels…

Part of my graduate degree involves classes in psychology and therapy. These skills are important for working with people who are in psychospiritual distress. I’m not of the notion that human beings are inherently broken. I also experience my own woundedness. I am not someone who needs to be fixed. I am looking for support.

The path through psychospiritual trauma is an individual journey made in the context of caravan. My father is dead. My heart is broken. For now I am engaged in grief. Nobody else can do this for me. And I am not alone.

There is a dynamic tension between my need for growth and my taking time with my transition toward wellbeing. I come to church because I want community: nurturing, support, a sense of mutuality and interconnectivity that inspires me to live into the best of my humanness. And I hope that I am held, in the moment, as I am. Which for now means fragility.

I do not sit with woundedness easily. I don’t know too many people who would describe me this way. For the last six weeks I’ve shown strength, love, and resilience. And I secretly know that I am holding it all together with masking tape. I am internally distracted. I have two papers due that I haven’t been able to start. I look back to before November 27th, and wonder where that person is, because it’s not who I see in the mirror.

Two schools of thought: “Just get over it,” and “Just be who you need to be right now.” They both feel insufficient. How do I just get over losing somebody who I loved deeply, who was here one day and gone the next? I am not so heartless. And I don’t want to sit with this pain any longer than I have to; my life has to continue because that is what life does – it moves on.

I am left with just living well in this tension. Which means being broken and being strong. In community. I find comfort with Rumi’s wisdom:

“Come, come, whoever you are. Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving. It doesn’t matter. Ours is not a caravan of despair. Come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times. Come, yet again , come , come.”

Perhaps in this caravan, I can safely experiment with release.

Never surrender

Just a little more time is all we’re asking for…

I know I’m not promised another minute. My experience is one of rebellion. A denial of a universe that moves whether or not I agree with its motives. Most of the time I don’t mind feeling small in the face of creation. But right now I want it to notice me. To provide answers that my work has taught me don’t exist. To provide concise data, not that it would change the outcome. How does one yell at boulders? Or expect windmills to care?

At least I find a comfort in their enormity; they are big enough to take it. Trees and rain absorb everything I’m willing to throw at them. The Mountain promises to be here whenever I need her. This landscape’s wisdom and solace just waits for me to wring myself out. The squeezing is the hard part.

My anger isn’t because my father is dead. It’s because things didn’t go how I imagined they would. We all thought he would live to be a hundred. He probably did too. We were the only ones who cared about things like that. Life had other plans. Sackcloth and ashes aren’t for the dead but the living; it makes no difference to the old gods. It’s up to me to learn something from all of this.

“No one has a right to sit down and feel hopeless. There is too much work to do.” Dorothy Day has no time for my bullshit. But I’m not hopeless. There is a difference between surrender and release. The woods tell me letting go isn’t closure. It’s acceptance. I need to remember to walk in them more often in these days.

Never surrender. Release.

Lose my Illusion

Cause nothin’ lasts forever, even cold November rain…

There is a funny thing about illusions. When uninterrogated they exert gravity. When dissected, the integrity becomes a choice. Like pretending my father is still alive. The thought experiment is sanguine. Lots of coulds and woulds and shoulds. Saying goodbye in a “proper” way. Or just thinking, “I haven’t called home in a few weeks…”

The real real always wins.

I find grief holds plenty of illusions. I wake up, go to the gym, shower, come home, make coffee, then realize: my father is dead. I remember the hospital room. His body. His face. The tubes. The machines. The goddamn TV blaring in the background on Fox News.

“Dad would have hated that.” Past tense.

There’s a quip we use at the hospital: “cannot be unseen.” Reality crashes in like the Cool-Aid Man; uninvited, destructive, terrifying. And offering a sweet cold drink on a hot summer day. My illusions are born of holding onto an old normal. The transition is made up of two competing narratives; one a little less painful than the other. The new normal isn’t habit yet. Life is pretty thin on this rainy Seattle day.

A breathing exercise my therapist taught me. Hold my grief, anger, sadness, frustration, pain. For a second. One breath. And release. Didn’t work? Try it again. Breathe deeply because one second is relative and for a moment the emotions are bitter sweet and delicious and seductive. Maybe I’m not ready and this is what it feels like to fight against reality. These emotions are the strings attached to the illusion.

And suffering is born from attachment. One breath. Release.