New Year's Revolutions

Originally given as a sermon at Edmonds Unitarian Universalist Congregation on Sunday, Dec 29, 2019. A link to the sermon audio recording can be found HERE.

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 last Sunday of 2019, a rollercoaster of a year with tremendous highs and devastating lows; it certainly lived up to that ancient blessing, or perhaps curse, of “May you live in interesting times.” For the time we share together, here in this space and in this place, I am happy to be with you all at Edmonds Unitarian Universalist Congregation. Thank you for welcoming me to your church of beloved community and common-union.

In just a few days, we enter a new decade: the 20’s. Which sounds strange to my ears. When I think of the 20’s, I am reminded of the “Roaring 20s”. A time in the 20th century marked with prosperity and abundance following the Great War. We received many blessings in the decade; the advent of Jazz, the height of Art Deco. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby which embodied the generation’s decadence, idealism, and struggle with cultural and societal change. Automobiles, radio, telephones, movies, and aviation blossomed, changing our world forever.

Now, almost one hundred revolutions around the sun later, we are facing our own 20’s. The 1920s were ushered in after four years of World War. Our own 2020s are marked after four years of intense political and cultural war in our country. We see the rise of artificial intelligence, a new interest in space travel, and miracles of medicine. With an election looming, and a world in environmental crisis, I wonder what we will choose as a people and a faith in 2020? Will we roar like the last century, or will we aspire to be different? Remember, the roaring 20’s ended in collapse. So maybe… just maybe… our story can be different. Friends, I invite you to the revolution!

A spiritual revolution. Which may sound strange for a religion that holds our powers of reason as a source of our living tradition. However, I experience no dissonance between my human capacity of reason and my intrinsic human spirit. I reject any kind of cartesian dualism that divides the realms of spirit and matter. I believe the human spirit is found not in some magical essence but in our unique ability to transcend our incarnate limitations. A capacity to reject either/or lines drawn in the sand and find new ways of becoming in the world through gifts of agency, empathy and compassion.

The Islamic mystic Rumi writes about this capacity in his poem A Great Wagon: “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about. Ideas, language, even the phrase ‘each other’ doesn’t make any sense.” Rumi understood the transcendent human experience as one of interconnection, interdependence, both/and rather than either/or. This season before the New Year is filled with traditions that call us into that field beyond division. The season leading up to the New Year invites people of good faith and good will into a new-ness after a period of spiritual hibernation.

For Christianity, the season marks the celebration of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, who represents a healing between the sacred and the mundane and offered the world another way to respond to violence and persecution, not with an eye for an eye, but with non-violent resistance. The winter solstice offers sacred imagination reminding us that darkness cannot last forever, and that just as the sun will rise in the morning, our own days can become longer and filled with light.

Hanukkah responds to oppression and destruction with a celebration that honors the mutual work of God and human beings in keeping our sacred fires burning even when it seems impossible. Kwanza with its own seven principles is a creative response to holiday consumerism and colonialism, calling communities of color into a remembrance of family, tradition, and interdependence. So many religious and spiritual traditions mark this time as “sacred” – set apart from the mundane.

A time to contemplate and encourage our capacity of agency in transcending “what is” in order to achieve “what can be.” All rooted in our ability to choose even when it seems there are no more options. As a hospital chaplain, I’ve found that a key to resiliency when facing the unfaceable is in finding options. At the bedside with a patient who is dying of cancer, questions can shift from “Why is this happening?” to “This is what I need to die well.” It’s a pivot of perspective; from fear to hope. Claiming responsibility. Part of my ministry is working with patients in realizing they have agency no matter what cards are dealt. Which is very hard to do when overwhelmed by pain and suffering. Fear can be paralyzing. And so can despair.

The powers and principalities of the world really do create an illusion of powerlessness. I struggle with a newsfeed of dystopic narratives wondering what I can do about the world’s pain and suffering. I am just one small person. Yet I cannot forget that I am an individual with inherent dignity and worth, empowered by my own agency. Regardless of the systems surrounding me, I have choices: over my thoughts, feelings and responses.

Holocaust survivor and psychologist Victor Frankl lifted this capacity up as a unique gift of the human spirit which even the Nazis could not crush – he found that those human beings who could hold onto a spirit of hope and transcendent connection could survive the horrors of concentration camps. I have seen this first hand. When I am with incarcerated children at our own juvenile detention center, I work with them in developing the resiliency Victor Frankl wrote about.

I remember one thirteen year old boy incarcerated for murder with a gun, with a life marked by abuse, addiction, homelessness, and violence. He had reached out to jail chaplains because he had hit what so many incarcerated youth talk about, as “rock bottom.” That place of choosing between life away from the hustle and death on the streets. He asked me if he could still be loved. Could he still be forgiven. Was he damned to the life he was given in punishment for his sins?

In my own social location of power and privilege, I have no concept of what this child had gone through. In front of me was not just a lost child of color, but the human result of generational systems of oppression in which I am a part. I believe he was asking me: “After what we have done to each other, can you love me? And can I love you?” At thirteen years old, facing life in prison, a question of love was his only hope.

My response came from my Unitarian Universalist theology and Roman Catholic upbringing, where the God of Jesus responds to sin with forgiveness and mercy. I told this child that I believed in one powerful source of love in which, regardless of deed, no one was unworthy. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote about this love in his speech Where do We Go from Here? “Power without love is reckless and abusive and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”Powerful love is always an option; and often the hardest choice. Because it means being changed ontologically; becoming a new being in the world.

Together, the child and I explored how we usually use our lives as excuses, giving up our power to the powers that be. I can’t change his life of poverty because I’m powerless; I’m not rich or connected, a lawyer or a judge. He can’t change his life of violence because he struggles daily to find food, water, and shelter. In our excuses, we could come away from our encounter unchanged; only feeling guilty as I return to my warm home and he returns to his 10×10 cell.

We then explored how we can use our life narrative through the lens of sacred imagination. Is it possible to take our excuses and transform them into reasons? Reasons to change? Reasons for hope? Reasons to choose something different? There are reasons for our social locations and how we ended up across the table from one other in a juvenile detention facility. And we can choose to no longer let our excuses define our lives. For me, the meeting with this child was transformative, because we explored beyond what we were given and entertained something new: the possibility of redemption. Committing to waking up in the morning and asking ourselves: “What will I do different today?”

Siblings in faith, this is the difference between the sacred and the mundane. While the mundane is ordinary, dull and routine, the sacred always overflows the barriers and boundaries holding it at bay. Our key to accessing the doors of the sacred is found in our own capacity to reject excuses of either/or and to recognize our sacred power to invite both/and. The sacred always connects; the mundane maintains; and therefore the profane divides. And in our own time and place we are overwhelmed by profanity. Not the childish words that middle schoolers snicker in the back of the classroom. I am talking about the profanity of hate.

A hate in which I am guilty. These last four years of concentration camps on our southern borders, mass shootings in our high schools, white supremacists in the white house and rapists on the supreme court has had me so fearful and angry that I have broken bonds of family and friendships. It has felt so good to be “us” versus “them.” So confident that I am on the right side of history, I have forgotten the sacred command to love my neighbor as I love myself.

My favorite example of this is found in the Christian gospel of Luke the Evangelist. This is where we get the phrase of “Good Samaritan.” Which has become saccharine in its “niceness” of going out of our way to help people. However, the original story of a Samaritan helping a Jew on the bloody pass between Jerusalem to Jericho was a holy reminder that we are all neighbors; even to those who we hate. This is from Luke 10:25-37

Behold, a certain lawyer stood up and tested Jesus, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? How do you read it?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

He said to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this, and you will live.”

But he, desiring to justify himself, asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus answered, “A certain man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who both stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead. By chance a certain priest was going down that way. When he saw him, he passed by on the other side. In the same way a Levite also, when he came to the place, and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he travelled, came where he was. When he saw him, he was moved with compassion, came to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. He set him on his own animal, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. On the next day, when he departed, he took out two denarii, gave them to the host, and said to him, ‘Take care of him. Whatever you spend beyond that, I will repay you when I return.’ Now which of these three do you think seemed to be a neighbor to him who fell among the robbers?”

The lawyer said, “He who showed mercy on him.”

Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

It is our capacity to be merciful which transcends fear and anger. Remember, the profane divides, while the sacred unites. The sacred will always challenge and reject hate, and any other power that demands division. It is not democrats OR republicans. Progressives OR conservatives. White supremacists OR anti-fascists. My capacity for empathy and compassion cannot be drawn between group lines, not if I want to maintain my humanity. If I want this world to be a better place for my 5 year old son, than I have to model for him kindness and compassion to all people, not just the ones I like. In surrendering my hate, I regain control over my own story.

I am learning how to choose that field beyond wrongdoing and rightdoing. It has taken sitting with veterans in the mental health unit at the VA, children at the detention center, and gunshot wound victims at Harborview, to soften my heart. Where I can hold the hand of a dying man with a MAGA hat and pray with his family for love and forgiveness. Where a black child is offered a chance at freedom despite jail cell walls. And where a person with a swastika tattoo can find a presence who will listen to his grief over his mother who had just passed away. Because empathy does not equal endorsement.

Siblings in faith, our Unitarian Universalist faith calls us into the world as bearers of a sacred light of truth. Which is why I propose that for this new year into a new decade, we commit not only to the tried and true resolutions of a healthy lifestyle, weight loss, less screen time and more vegetables, but to a powerful and transcendent love: a New Year’s revolution. A spiritual revolution in which we commit to reject our mundane excuses and instead embrace our sacred human capacity of agency. A commitment to respond to brokenness with curiosity and compassion. A commitment to be transformed by each human connection. A decade of change, where every day we wake up and ask: “What will I do today that is different?”

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.

If we’re going to be friends, your vote really does matter…

45485641_1746095872183715_6350298731287412736_oNow that we’re in an election cycle, there’s an image floating around the interwebs advocating for friendship across politics. On the surface, this is a great idea when candidates relatively agree on similar end goals: like freedom or upward mobility, but perhaps not in the means – progressive vs regressive taxes. I may not like the other candidate, or their political party. But we’re all trying to build a better society for ourselves and our children. We’re both adults. We can agree to disagree and still be friends, because our friendship is more important than politics.

Except when your candidate wants to, say, remove my citizenship because my grandmother was from Mexico. Or wants to deport my uncle because he’s Muslim. Or wants to take away my sister’s right of choice. Or wants to erase my partner because they’re transgender. Or wants to disenfranchise my brother because he’s Native American. Or wants to segregate my father because he’s African American. Or wants to kill my cousin because they’re Jewish.

When your vote comes at the cost of significant human life, we’re not friends anymore.

“But I don’t believe in any of that! I’m not racist! We’ve been friends for years and you’re brown!” you say. “I just voted for the guy because I agree with his economic policy. You’re being really petty and judgmental.”

Sure friend. I hear what you’re saying. We can totally agree to disagree on economic policy. But you also voted for a racist/fearmonger/bigot/misogynist/homophobe. Which is a deal breaker. What you just demonstrated was that you put politics ahead of our friendship, and that while you may not be any of those hateful qualities, you’re willing to let them slide because they benefit you. If we’re going to be friends, and adults, then we are supposed to have a relationship that supports one another. That cares for one another. That will show up for one another when we really need help. And you voted for the guy who wants to kill people like me, all because you wanted lower taxes. Which tells me that we were never friends in the first place.

You see, friend, how you vote doesn’t just tell me about your politics. It tells me about what kind of person you are. What the foundation of your ethics and morals looks like. And when you vote “pro-life” and at the same time ignore the racism, the hate, the bigotry, the violence, and the death, you tell me all I need to know. That we were never friends. Because politics and party really were more important to you than my wellbeing; and my actual life.

Being an adult means having healthy boundaries which sometimes requires removing people from my life who are toxic and destructive. It means having firm ethics and morality rooted in empathy and compassion. It means choosing to hold people’s worth and dignity above petty politics and disagreements; in seeing your humanity and loving you and showing up for you when things get hard. Being an adult is having the courage to say: “No more!” to evil, even at great cost. Being an adult means making hard choices, like say, voting against your party when their candidate supports putting immigrant children in cages at internment camps.

But I don’t hate you. I’ll still show up for you if you need help. I’ll say hello at work and if we run into each other during the holidays. I’ll still uphold your dignity and worth, even when you don’t uphold mine. Because that is what myself, as an adult, am called to do; be kind to the people who hate me. And to know when to walk away.

Walking the pro-(choice/life) line…

It just makes for a bigger headache...
It just makes for a bigger headache…

I can tell it’s around the anniversary of Roe v Wade by the amount of pro-whatever debates I hear on the radio. Which is a good thing. We need to continue to struggle with issues of life and death in the U.S. I just wish it were a bit more intelligent. Usually it’s one person pulling the Jesus card and the other person pulling the “I do what I want” card. It’s another example of the polarization of our politics and how unwilling we are to just listen to another point of view. Then there are people like myself who are both pro-life and pro-choice.

It's all about the dignity of life... right?
It’s all about the dignity of life… right?

I’m pro-life because I believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every human person and I believe as a society we should respect the miracle and preciousness of ALL life. Which is why I have a problem with 99% of the pro-life camp. They’re really not about life; they’re about birth. My impression is that the pro-life camp just wants babies to be born but could care less about how they end up. Once the kid pops out, pro-lifers wash their hands of the issue and call it another day at the office. There is little mention about the quality of life for the child. What if it’s born into an abusive household? Or horribly handicapped and deformed because of drugs and/or alcoholism? What about issues of poverty, nutrition and education?

Yeah... about that...
Yeah… about that…

These are all LIFE issues. If people want to call themselves pro-life, then it’s all or nothing. You’re going to have to care about and share in the responsibility for every man, woman and child. If you’re pro-life, you better be working to address issues like economic disparity, education, workplace inequality, racism, food deserts and access to medical care that make life hard for the 50 million Americans in poverty. If you’re one of those assholes who scream about babies being slaughtered but tell your representative to cut welfare, you are doing it wrong.

One, of many, reasons...
One, of many, reasons…

I’m pro-choice because I believe if we’re going to live in a free, democratic country than we have the responsibility to provide access to safe and quality health care to ALL our citizens. It’s an issue of justice which includes women who need to have an abortion. Because let’s be honest, nobody WANTS to have an abortion. It’s not something a woman looks forward to with her morning coffee. It’s a damned hard decision that will have repercussions and ramifications for the rest of a person’s life. This is why it’s up to the individual woman, and not the state, to choose. It’s the kind of life decision where judgment and necessity exist ONLY within the person making it.

How is that iPod I helped make working for ya?
How’re you enjoying that iPod I helped make?

“But if you’re pro-life, how can you support murdering babies?” You know what, I don’t support murdering babies. Just like I don’t support children dying of starvation; yet I still have a full three-square meals a day. You can’t make abortion illegal because it kills babies and not outlaw obesity at the same time. We are ALL complicit in abortion, just like we are with child slaves mining the minerals to go in our electronics and the impoverished hands that make our clothing. We’re ALL part of the problem.

stckr-Better-futureI am NOT pro-abortion. I don’t think anybody is. However, I believe its legality is necessary for freedom, health and quality of life. But just because it’s necessary doesn’t mean I can’t work to make it an uncommon practice. Abortion will always be a part of human society and it’s not a single action removed from all the other issues of our time. To address it, I have to continue to work hard to build a better society that furthers the arc of history as it bends towards justice. Abortion isn’t about pro-life/choice. It’s about pro-justice.