Gratitude as Joyful Resistance

Originally delivered to Edmonds Unitarian Universalist Church on 11/29/2020 as part of the Thanksgiving weekendYou can watch the service on the EUUC Facebook page HERE.

Good morning Edmonds Unitarian Universalist Church. I appreciate being with you all on this Sunday after Thanksgiving. Our national holiday set aside to give thanks for the blessings of harvest and relationship. So important now as the themes of life and bounty take on a much more intimate importance. My hope is that you are all safe, and well, and are held in love. And that your celebrations and thanks giving were talismans warding off worry and despair.

Speaking of talismans, I’ve noticed something new in my neighborhood. Having lived in Seattle for almost ten years, I’ve never seen so many lights up on houses so early. There seems to be a deep yearning for the holiday spirit. A return to old traditions that remind us of better times; more simple times. Aside from nostalgia and mistletoe, I know we can offer more. I want to invite us all into a holiday season of gratitude as joyful resistance against a news cycle and ongoing quarantine of worry and despair.

A good way to begin this spiritual practice is by recognizing today as the first Sunday of Advent. The word Advent emerging from the Latin ad venire, meaning “to come; arrival.” The tradition began in the first centuries of Christianity as a time of fasting and preparation for the Christ-mass. We Unitarian Universalist set aside this first Sunday to remember the necessity of hope. Which according to Merriam-Webster, means “to cherish a desire with anticipation; to want something to happen or be true.” We hope for an arrival of vaccination. A new administration. We hope for the arrival of an ending of this time and the beginning of a better tomorrow.

An important component for our practice in gratitude is hope. I’ve learned hope is necessary for resilience. It is what led Viktor Frankl on his search for meaning after experiencing the concentration camps of World War II. He found hope in those places which for many would seem impossible. Yet Frankl witnessed that those who resisted despair seemed to have an internal fortitude. An ember of hope to curl around that no Nazi could touch. He writes in his seminal work: “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”

As a chaplain I witness this human capacity almost daily. A quadruple amputee who holds the hope of playing with his grandchildren while struggling to learn how to use his prosthetics. A veteran with a long history of addiction and mental illness hoping that this time, the medications will help with the demons of war. A COVID patient struggling to breathe, hoping that their body can keep going for just one more day. A common thread for each was a shift from the despair of an outward locus of control toward a spark of hope in their human spirit.

Yes, each of them experienced pain and suffering. And still, they hoped. Many asked, “Why is God doing this to me?” To which I don’t have an answer. I do not believe in a transcendent being as source of malevolent punishment. Often I will reply, “I wonder if God isn’t doing this; perhaps God is with you in it as a source of hope?” Some patients will then throw me out of the room, because my statement seems to diminish God’s omnipotence. However, more often than not, they will stop and grow silent. A particular patient said, “You know, that young physical therapist really inspired me today. Showed me a new way to use these legs. I stood up. I can’t tell you the last time I stood up on my own. Maybe that’s where God was today.”

Hope seems to come from an inner source. And yet it becomes stronger when it resonates with the hope from another; a friend, a lover, a colleague, or in this time a video of Italians singing from their balconies. Human words and actions often invite a different way of being in the world. And something in me responds in gratitude. Two years ago, this last Friday, my father passed away suddenly. Which shifted my whole experience of this season; pushing me further into Frankl’s words: “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” This year, amid all that 2020 has offered, my mother and I along with my partner and child gathered in our little pod to make five dozen tamales, as a picture of my father looked on in supervision. There was grief and gratitude. I can not change the reality that my father is dead. I can honor my grief with gratitude.

Which does not mean ignoring or diminishing the reality of psychospiritual pain. Modern neuroscience is beginning to show the toxicity of the “suck it up” model. We have a right, and even a need, to our grief and sorrow and anger. We have all lost something this year; maybe more than in years past. We have had to say goodbye to loved ones. Abandon our places of worship. Give up on support groups. Teach our children through screen time. Live in isolation. And this is in addition to the normal wear and tear of everyday life. My grief and pain are real. Your grief and pain are real. Our grief and pain are real. And we are more than our grief and pain; we are also people of joy, thanksgiving, gratitude and hope.

We have this amazing human capacity to feel complex emotions. This last Wednesday, the night before Thanksgiving, I accompanied a family in saying goodbye to their 41 year old mother and partner. As her 9 year old held her tight and sobbed, saying, “Thank you for being my mom. I love you.” Her 13 year old held her hand until her final breath. Her partner and spouse holding them both. And each of them said, “thank you” to her. Thank you for fighting as long as she could. For years of memories, road trips and karaoke and game nights and hard lessons. She was able to say “thank you” in return. She died with Bob Marley playing in the background, all of us singing, “Don’t worry, about a thing. Cause’ every little thing is gonna be all right.” It was one of the patient’s favorite songs.

If someone were to ask me where was God in that unfair and unjust moment, I would say, “God was in the nurses making sure their patient had dignity. In the doctors who helped extend her life, giving her family a little more time. In the love and grief of children being able to say goodbye. God was in the bonds of relationship of an entire community who struggled and fought for a human life.” This family was my teacher for this Thanksgiving. A reminder of what Frankl saw. Not only did we cry. We also laughed – hard, abdominal muscles burning laughs as I invited them into stories of good and joyful moments. In the end, pulling into my driveway at just after 11pm, I felt held in grief AND gratitude.

Emily Dickenson wrote:
“Hope” is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops – at all
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm
I’ve heard it in the chillest land
And on the strangest Sea
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

Entering into this holiday season with a theme of “hope” is connected to our spiritual practice of gratitude. For Dickenson, hope is a living song that perches in our being. Never asking for anything; always available for those who cultivate a capacity for listening. Perhaps this song of hope is an awareness that nothing in my life is promised to me. Each day, each moment, a gift. I imagine it is no coincidence that the title of Bob Marley’s famous song is Three Little Birds. “Hope” is the thing with feathers, singing “Don’t worry, about a thing. Cause every little thing is gonna be all right.”

I notice that Bob Marley does not sing, don’t fear. Don’t cry. Don’t be angry. Don’t grieve. No. He sings, don’t worry. The word comes from the West Germanic origin meaning “to strangle; to slay or kill by biting and shaking by the neck.” And isn’t this what my worry does? This emotion can have a reductive effect on my capacity for hope. Which may be why this time in human history feels so full of anxiety. More and more my capacity for hope has been constricted, squeezed and shaken by gale and storm of dictators and fascists, pandemic and recession. If hope is a song then it requires me to breathe.

We can still be afraid and hold onto hope. Because courage can only exist alongside fear; choosing to risk vulnerability not knowing the outcome. We can still cry and hold onto hope. Because our tears are rooted in our capacity to feel deeply, which is why we cry only in times of great emotion. We can still be angry and hope. Because anger provides energy and fuel for action. It tells us that the world can and should be otherwise than it is. We can still be grieving and hope. Because it is the price of love. Dostoevsky wrote: “The darker the night, the brighter the stars, The deeper the grief, the closer is God!”

I believe gratitude resists worry. It is the source of hope and cultivates joy. It seems to be both a verb and a noun; a practice. What does it mean to be grateful? Gratitude has its roots in Latin: gratus meaning “thankful.” And related to the word “grace” from the Latin gratia. Both words conveying the sentiment of “mercy, favor, and virtue.” Gratitude requires an expansion of being which is in natural opposition to the contraction of worry.

I am grateful, or another way of speaking, full of grace, when I practice mercy. Showing compassion and forgiveness when it is in my power to punish and harm. Mercy is related to justice, asking for accountability and restoration; we find this in our work for police and criminal justice reform. I am full of grace when I practice favor, which is giving out of my abundance and leaning into kindness. We find this in our work for economic equity and equality. I am full of grace when I practice virtue, which is living out my spiritual and religious values in the world. We find this in our Unitarian Universalist principles and sources which help guide us into covenant. Binding us together in powerful love and human experience.

Being full of grace only asks one thing of me; to let go and listen. In my chaplaincy ministry, I have been drawing heavily from the serenity prayer, written by theologian and ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr:

God, give me grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.

I have found that when I can let go of control over the things I cannot change, my worry and anxiety relax. I have the space to consider a third way outside of either/or thinking. I begin to consider both/and as options. Which is the doorway to joy. If life is suffering, and suffering comes from attachments, what would it be like to let go of the expectations I attach onto my intentions? Is it possible to experience joy in the midst of grief? Yes, it is.

 On Thanksgiving day, as I placed the masa on the table, along with corn husks, salsa, and olives, I looked up and saw the picture of my father. I felt that deep ache from inside my chest and a welling up of memories of prior Thanksgivings. Which was both beautiful and sorrowful. I longed for his deep laugh; his booming voice. And then, Fleetwood Mac started playing on the radio. My son scooped up a handful of olives and ran away with my mom laughing at him telling him to put them back. My partner poured drinks and sat down at the table. And all of a sudden, I knew my father was with me. Because my father was me, years ago. And I felt a deep joy; and I gave thanks. I was full of grace; happy to have this moment in time. Not because I earned it, but because it happened. Because it could have been otherwise.

Siblings in faith, this is what I mean by gratitude as joyful resistance. Often when I hear the word “resistance” I think of hard power. Marching in the streets and occupying space. Which is part of our long religious history and tradition. However, gratitude seems to exist as a soft power. The kind of power that allows water to carve out canyons. A spiritual practice of awareness of grace, shifting the understanding of control, and listening for that feathery creature that sings of hope. On this first Sunday of Advent, when congregations and churches around the world celebrate the theme of “hope,” I raise it up as a prayer for us all. An intention for this season that we cultivate together. And with it, may we breathe deeply in gratitude, and while breathing out, sing along with that little bird, “Don’t worry, about a thing. Cause every little thing, is gonna be all right. I said don’t worry, about a thing. Every little thing is gonna be all right.” And it will be; together. May it be so; in deep gratitude for you all and for this time we share. May all your spiritual practices be fruitful this season. Happy holidays. Amen.

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.