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:

A Theology of Resiliency: A Reflection

When distilled into its finest pieces our universe has no mechanics to ground the depth of human experience. Powerful emotions, such as love, or existential desires, like justice, have no elementary particle. There are no atoms of hate or quarks of mercy. Yet human beings have evolved into creatures of symbol and creativity that participate every day in acts of spiritual creation; namely, a will to meaning which elicits a physical difference in creation. Facing a clockwork universe, “I rebel, therefore we exist.”[1]

In the context of a spiritual humanist theology, when I choose to wake up in the morning motivated by a radical agape impacting others, I take the invisible (love) and make it visible (charity). This does not happen through magical or miraculous intervention, but through a recognition of and participation in an interconnected reality.[2] My caritas emerges as a holy act that shifts the course of the universe: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, forgiving the enemy – none of which makes sense in a mechanistic reality. This is at the core of spiritualities like the Christian call to love my enemy and do good to those who hate me.[3]

And it is the root of a spiritual humanist theology of resiliency. It is a panentheism of participation where the ground of being exists in all creation and is at work in active partnership through all creation. When my belief and faith in justice bends the arc of history, I engage with the holy. Because through my will for justice (which exists in concept) I have breathed new life into the world (by creating justice). I become a conduit for an underlying divinity that isn’t outside of space and time but intimately connected to it. God is in and of the machine.

Neurologist Victor Frankel, who survived the holocaust, wondered how some human beings held hope in the depths of the worst of suffering. He found it was rooted in an unwillingness to give into despair. That despite even the horror of a concentration camp, “We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed.”[4] A refusal to accept the terms of the universe and rather create something new.

Human resiliency then is a psychospiritual practice, rooted in our DNA and cultivated in community.[5] It resists passive and active events of oppression and harm. It grounds powerful prophetic action, like Rosa Parks refusing to relinquish her bus seat in Montgomery, Alabama sparking the civil rights movement in the United States. And Sophie Cruz, who at five years old had the courage (and community) to deliver a letter to Pope Frances in his visit to the White House, advocating for a change in immigration law and becoming a face of the immigration reform movement.[6] It embodies a range of spiritually motivated events of resiliency, even from the smallest of decisions like waking up in the morning committed to being a force for good in the world.

Because it is only through my actions that good, or love, or justice, or mercy, will ever take place in the world. They will not emerge from a metaphysical beyond, or be captured in a neoplatonic form made manifest. My actions exist as a sacrament: an outward symbol of an inward grace. Grace being my recognition of my own existence and inheritance as undeserved and unearned, which inspires from me a stance of gratitude paid forward into the world. A theology of resilience recognizes the worth and dignity of all, inspires empathetic action in the face of suffering, and is grounded in the psychospiritual power found in all creatures of symbol and creativity that will benevolence into existence.


[1] Camus, Albert, and Anthony Bower. The Rebel An Essay on Man in Revolt. Vintage Books, 1956.

[2] King, Martin Luther, and James Melvin Washington. A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: HarperOne, an Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2006.

[3] Luke 6:27, NRSV

[4] Frankel, Man’s Search for Meaning

[5] Levine, Saul. “Psychological and social aspects of resilience: a synthesis of risks and resources” Dialogues in clinical neuroscience vol. 5,3 (2003): 273-80.

[6] The Washington Post, “Meet Sophie Cruz, 5-year-old who gave the pope a letter because she doesn’t want her parents deported,” September 23, 2015. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/local/wp/2015/09/23/meet-the-5-year-old-who-gave-the-pope-a-letter-because-she-doesnt-want-her-parents-deported/?utm_term=.c823f004272d

Life isn’t (un)fair…

universe-hd-photo95-JPGA long time ago I stopped believing in a fair universe. From everything I’ve observed, life is a mix of intentionality, chance and inevitability. I have a small amount of agency; I work hard and pay my taxes and volunteer all of which come with their own rewards. But for the most part, life is just as likely to kick me in the balls as it is to let me win the lottery. Nature has no sense of justice outside of its laws of cause and effect. It is up to me to create fairness from an otherwise apathetic life.

When I believed God was in charge of everything, I had mantras like “it’s all part of God’s plan” or “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle” to fall back on whenever undeservedly bad things happened to good people. (let’s be honest, bad people deserve it, right?) Eventually they all became platitudes. Because as more curses and blessings stacked up, most of which without any catalyst, God’s plan began to look like trying to read tea leaves and God had a funny sense of what people could handle vs. what they should have to handle. In the end I was forced to reject the notion of a just God because a just God wouldn’t stand idly by in the face of so much injustice.

free-willNot just the kind of injustice that people intentionally cause; not crime or war or corporate greed or any of the millions of ways we dehumanize each other. I’m talking about the stupid everyday injustice, like car accidents and slipping on a patch of ice and breaking your leg. Accidents with horrible consequences. The butterfly effect of causality that reaps human life. I can’t even buy into the “free will” answer: God doesn’t intervene because he loves our free will more than he loves starving children. It’s bullshit, because that’s not love or justice, that’s an excuse. Therefore, I was left with either rejecting my preconceptions about God or believing in a lie.

Recently, my father-in-law passed away. While he was not perfect, he lived a good and clean life. He didn’t smoke. He drank less than occasionally. He was a runner. He attended church, was married more than 30 years and was an overall good man. He was diagnosed with throat cancer, which spread to his brain and eventually to the rest of his body. The doctors originally gave him 6 months to live. He fought for over 4 years until May 11th, 2015. There it is; blessings and curses all wrapped up in a whole ball of intentionality, chance and inevitability. If a just God did exist, this wouldn’t have happened.

BristleconeThe ironic part is I wish I still believed in a just God because right now I could really use something to blame. I want to look God in the eye and say “You are wrong! You did this! This is your fault and how dare you proclaim love and justice and mercy and compassion when you let good men suffer and die!” I am angry because Andy didn’t deserve to die. Not this way; not like this. He deserved better from his God than he received. There are millions of other people in the world who are more deserving than he was to die of cancer. This is a horrible statement but right now I feel horrible and selfish and hurt and confused and broken. And tired.

Right now I am just. So. Tired. Because what is the point? Why should I work so hard for ideals that go against the very fabric of the universe? Why should I care? In a just universe I’d be able to look at my son and tell him that life will be kind. But right now all I can tell him is that he will never know his grandfather; that he was robbed of having a good man in his life because life isn’t fair.

Life just is.

It is a hard lesson and I’m left with one lonely realization; if there is going to be justice in this world then I’m going to have to be the one making it happen. It’s up to me to create justice where it doesn’t exist. Because that is what I want to do. The responsibility has been passed from God to me and it’s a heavy load. 11238228_10153338843751934_1951030714927036305_nFortunately I know a whole lot of other people who are working to lighten that load. I know miracle workers on the margins of society who squeeze justice from life like blood from stone and I want to be just as strong and powerful and tireless as them. And maybe if I can just keep trying, keep believing in love and justice, I can make my father-in-law’s death mean something.

Because I think that’s what he would have wanted. And it’s what I want. Rest in love Andy. I’ll keep working on the justice.

Celebrating a time of thin-ness…

EquinoxAutumn is my favorite season. I love the crispness in the air, trees changing color and how nature begins to slow down. It seems to me that the world is responding deeply, as if letting out a long breath that has been held since the arrival of spring. The days grow shorter and colder. Yet nothing is ready to give up the joy of summer.

Speculaaskruiden_mThere is an urgency to get ready; to prepare. In the same moment, there is time to celebrate. Embracing the harvest, life says thank you to the sun for heat and growth and innocence. I begin to make my heavy beer and cider. Heather begins to can and bake. It is the time for strong flavors. Clove, cinnamon, licorice, nutmeg… these are the mellowing agents that ease the cutting air and early sunsets. They spice my coffee, chocolate, wine and whisky. They are the soft glowing embers that somehow remain long after warm liquids are consumed.

Today is the Autumnal equinox. Today for Mabon I am encouraged to reap what I’ve sown. To give thanks for blessings and to offer penance for sins. Because in three months, winter will come. In three months, we will be in darkness. In three months, my son will be born.

48899a6a49d91b417310cd3e07552089There is a term called “thin places” where supposedly the boundaries between the physical and spiritual become permeable. Perhaps there is a wisdom here, as a day that marks both balance and transition can draw the mind towards contemplation. Today is a “thin day;” a day for giving thanks, for letting go of regrets, for forgiveness and for friendship. Truly, it is a special day as much as any day which has the gift of meaning and intentionality.

So to embrace the thin-ness of the fall equinox, I am giving thanks for my bounty! A life full of richness and wealth, love and life. I am thankful for my time and place, opportunity and situation. I acknowledge that I only had a part in my blessings. That everything I have was helped along by friends and family and church and coworker and taxes and infrastructure and institution. My blessings are not an island, so I give thanks for the help I’ve been given.

autumn-leaves-wallpapers-photosI ask for forgiveness from my parents, for not calling as often as I could and for not being as appreciative of them as I should. I ask forgiveness from my friends for not giving you as much time, love, support or attention as you deserve. I ask forgiveness from the homeless man on the corner for not looking him in the eye. I ask forgiveness from my dog for choosing Netflix over walks, and laziness over dog-park time.

Green Man autumnI celebrate the food we’ve grown in our backyard! For the 18 pounds of raspberries and countless tomatoes and potatoes and peppers and kale. I celebrate the land for its soil, the rain for its water, the sun for its energy and life for giving food to eat.

Today I celebrate Autumn.

Why I go to church…

collapse-michael-ceraWorking at a peace and justice non-profit is an emotional double-edged sword plowshare. It is emotionally fulfilling to have a small part in making the world a better place. It is emotionally crippling because every day I am confronted with the injustice and inhumanity of human trafficking, war, ecological destruction, greed and corrupt power. Compassion fatigue is real; I can only watch/read/research so much before the pictures/videos/stories become numbers/statistics/calculations instead of real people.

My symptoms include bypassing petitions instead of filling them out; deleting email action-alerts instead of reading them; turning the radio station from KUOW to KEXP when a challenging story comes on; binging on Netflix instead of keeping up with current events. If I let the fatigue persist it would be easy to just give up. Heck, sometimes giving up looks pretty damn attractive. It would be much easier to just give in and become just another consumer who doesn’t give a f*#k about anybody but myself. But I don’t want to be this person. I choose to fight the good fight. Therefore, I go to church.

giphyWhen I announced I was becoming a Unitarian Universalist, some of my atheist friends questioned why I just didn’t give up on religion all together. They all have very good reasons; as an institution religion has been as much a problem of the world as a solution to the world’s problems. Why would an atheist or agnostic attend a church service? Those are places for believers. My answer is simple: To stay a sane, healthy man of peace, I need religion.

Religion provides me with a community, sanctuary and covenant that is focused on peacemaking. It reminds me that I am not alone in working to build a more just world. It cures my compassion fatigue because it restores my faith in people. When peace and justice work becomes too heavy, it is my church that lightens the load. In a space filled with atheists, believers, agnostics, questioners and religious refugees, our attendance shouts to the universe: “We will continue the work! We will not give up! We crave peace!”

rocky-training-oIn order to do the work I do, to continue to read the stories, watch the videos, and look at the pictures; to keep on filling out the petitions, contacting the representatives, and raising awareness; I have to feel like I’m not alone. And every Sunday, along with other justice-seekers, it is in singing our doxology that I am spiritually renewed to keep on fighting the good fight:

“From all that dwell below the skies,
let songs of hope and faith arise!
Let peace, goodwill on earth be sung
through every land, by every tongue.”

May it be so. Amen.

Easter for a (former) Christian…

wine and matzah...
wine and matzah…

On Monday Heather and I went to a Passover Seder. Even though I’m not Jewish, I found it powerful to be in solidarity with my friend, her culture, her friends and others around the world in remembering slavery, hardship, and the promise of a brighter future. She used a special haggadah (telling) focused on social action and solidarity with love and justice. I learned from various guests about differences in the Jewish community, their faith and family traditions, and shared (non)traditional food and drink. It was amazing!

Last night we went to a Maundy Thursday communion service held at our church. It was sparse; only a few dozen people. We listened to biblical readings, commemorated the Last Supper through wine and bread, and stood in solidarity with the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. It was solemn and intimate; such a stark contrast to the rowdy Seder we experienced only a few days before. But the Christian holy week is supposed to be muted. We walk with a man sentenced to death because his beliefs challenged those in power.

circle-wise-women-full-lighted-KE-12096After the communion service, we attended a candlelight vigil for a young woman who was hit by a car in our neighborhood. Her story is tragic. It was a senseless accident which robbed a father of his only daughter. They lived just a few blocks away from us and we felt we should stand silently with the Nepalese family. Once again, we were reminded that this week especially is a time of mourning and remembering. It is a time where community comes together because life has become too much.

Even though I no longer qualify as a Christian, I would be dishonest to not participate in this religious time of year. Christianity is a part of my history, my journey, and will remain part of my future. The Judeo-Christian tradition holds powerful truths; its essays and stories of humanity struggling with identity, definition, relationship and the unknown are timeless. It is also controversial, especially in a Unitarian Universalist congregation.

One love; nobody left behind...
One love; nobody left behind…

My church is filled with religious refugees. A lot of my brothers and sisters have been hurt by Christianity. They were kicked out of their homes for being gay; they were told they were going to hell because they didn’t read the bible the same way; they were told they were evil and sinful for just being human. Of course only a few of us would show up to a Holy Thursday communion service. For many, this time of year is too painful. For others, it is meaningless.

Yet for me, the communion service was powerful. The Seder was powerful. This time of year is powerful. I’ve heard more than one person describe this as a “thin” time where spiritual life and daily life become intertwined and we have the opportunity to better interact with god/nature/earth/spirit. Because of my history, I have no choice but to sink into this thinness and let myself steep in the spirit of Jesus, the Hebrew prophets, the saints and the apostles. By participating in these Jewish/Christian days, I commemorate where I came from. I mourn for what I have lost. I am reminded of why I changed. I embrace where I have set my spiritual future.

Easter blessings...
Easter blessings from Seattle…

Many people in my church wouldn’t agree with my Easter experience; but almost all of them would support it. I found a community which can say “beyond our ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing, there is a field. Let us walk there together.” Nothing says more about this time of year than that.

Why I (still) believe in miracles…

That's right... I married into a clan of Scots...
That’s right… I married into a clan of Scots…

I have two families. The one I was born into and the one I married into. I know plenty of people who don’t get along with their in-laws. I’m one of the lucky few who not only get along with them, but love them deeply. They’re genuinely kind, overwhelmingly generous and welcomed me into the Ferguson/Marty clans with open arms. When Heather and I married, I truly gained another Mother and Father.

Having two fathers is a blessing. Both are men of deep faith, conviction and kindness. Neither are perfect, but they don’t have to be. Whatever flaws they have, they overcome them with courage and forgiveness. Which is why my heart broke when, just after Thanksgiving, I learned that my father-in-law was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. Doctors give him 6 months to 2 years to live.

Who else can get away with this? Not me!
Who else can get away with this? Not me!

Mr. Ferguson Andy has pretty much done everything right. He has a healthy prayer life, exercises regularly, doesn’t smoke and drinks only sparingly. He just recently retired with my mother-in-law after a lifetime of service to our national parks. He lives in his dream house in his dream community. He lived life in accordance to the laws of God and man. If anything can be called premature, horrible and utterly unfair, it’s this diagnosis.

His response has been shockingly simple: listen to the doctors, follow the treatments, continue living life with integrity and purpose, and most importantly “God’s will be done.” It almost sounds absurdly zen, especially for a man who would be justified in being confused, angry and in crying out:  “As surely as God lives, who has denied me justice, the Almighty, who has made my life bitter…” (Job 27:2) Yet this is who Andy is; “God’s will be done.”

Generosity abounds!
Generosity abounds!

As the son-in-law, my role in all of this is to be the supporter; the solid foundation for Heather. She’s the one losing her biological father. I’ve only been able to call Andy “father” for 7 years. Which has been much too short; but I’ll continue to take what I can get. So I smile and love as much as I possibly can for both of my families.

The truth is, I’m hurting inside. I’m barely holding my grief in check. Like a little boy, I want to be selfish and cry and tell life to get the hell away; to tell death to stay away from both my fathers. To cry out and say “THIS IS UNFAIR! I WANT MORE TIME!”

But I’m not a little boy. I’ve learned a few things from the men in my life. The strength I have right now comes from what my fathers have taught/shown me:

Listening to sage advise or talking about girls. Can't remember which...
Listening to sage advise or talking about girls. Can’t remember which…

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

I also know a little secret. I’ve experienced a certain amount of serendipity in my life and Andy has a track record of beating the odds overcoming obstacles. He was in a serious motorcycle accident years ago, was told he may never walk (much less run) again; he ran anyways. He has already beaten cancer twice while finding time to work on his house, never mind the chemo treatments. He is a man of no excuses. If ever a man can defy the odds through strength of character or will of God, it is my father-in-law.

I love you dad.
I love you dad.

Which is why I still believe in miracles. Just being part of this family; my being married to Heather; my privilege in having more than I deserve… they are all small miracles, and they exist. Therefore, there’s hope. Always hope…