Pentecost Sunday: Gifts of the Human Spirit

This sermon was delivered via Zoom with Community Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasco, WA on 5/31/2020.

Good morning Community Unitarian Universalist Church and thank you for inviting me to share in word and worship with you all. I say these words with the spirit in which they were written: in the spirit of life and love. Siblings, today Christian churches throughout the world are celebrating Pentecost Sunday. And as Unitarian Universalism emerges out of the Christian tradition, we too share in this day that marks the closing of the Easter Season. A season focused on rebirth, renewal, and hope. Which have been difficult to hold onto over the last three months. As scenes of anger, hurt, rage and pain play out across our country, I am called back to our siblings of the first century.

Translated from the Greek Pentekoste, meaning “fiftieth,” Pentecost became a Christian celebration 50 days after Easter Sunday. Derived from its Hebrew roots marking the “Feast of Weeks,” fifty days after Passover, Shavout is a day of remembrance of Yahweh gifting the Torah to Moses. Both feasts mark how a Holy Spirit of Life and Love inspired humanity into new ways of being as their worlds seemed to crumble beneath them.

As we heard in the story for all ages, Pentecost is a retelling of how the Holy Spirit granted the disciples and friends of Jesus of Nazareth with remarkable gifts: of language, interpretation, understanding and communication. All necessary gifts for compassion and empathy, helping bring an emerging religious tradition into the world; one with a focus on love of God and love of neighbor. A beginning that was marked with hiding in isolation after the state execution of the disciple’s teacher and friend. For centuries Christian communities would have to gather in small groups; huddled in their homes, afraid to go out in public.

Millennia later we too find ourselves hunkered down in isolation, wondering what the future may bring, and not knowing when an end to the hiding will come. These times are heavy not just with COVID and a failing economy, but reminders of the price of oppression on communities of the margins, with the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. Amid the tumult of our world, we need powerful spiritual gifts more than ever. And like the Apostles of the first century, who were also afraid for their lives, we Unitarian Universalists have holy gifts to face crisis and oppression with a gospel of love and justice. In these difficult times I wonder; what gifts of the human spirit are emerging for you?

As a chaplain working at the VA and Harborview medical center, patients and clinicians have been asking me “Why is this happening?” and “Where is God?” I recall holding the hand of a COVID patient gasping for air from a ventilator, and a nurse asking, “When will this end?” They are looking for answers that our current systems fail to give. In fact, it is because our systems are failing that we find ourselves grasping for meaning and security. The answer I give to these existential and theological questions is a reframing: “How are you getting through this?”, “How is God showing up for you right now?” and “What hope are you holding on to?”

We know that when fear and anxiety rise, and human beings feel unsafe, we can react with fight, flight, or freeze. A gift from our primordial origins to help us survive. And we are no longer in caves against a frightening and unknowable universe. We know we are not our fear. We are human beings experiencing fear. We have a choice in how to respond. Which I believe is a gift of the Human Spirit.

The question of “What did I do to deserve this?” becomes “What will I do with this?” Which allows all our emotions, like Rumi wrote, to be guests in the house of our being, giving us access to new ways of responding and learning. There is nothing wrong with your sadness. Or pain. Or anger. They are gifts of your being asking to be noticed. Today, my heart is broken and I am scared, for myself, my partner and my son. How might I choose life and love today? Courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is choosing to act even while experiencing fear. However, the gift of agency is not enough.

Holocaust survivor and neurologist Viktor Frankl noticed that in the concentration camp, he could predict who would give in to despair based on the person’s capacity for resiliency. Resiliency being “the ability to recover quickly from crisis and trauma.” He found that lack of meaning in crisis could create an “existential vacuum” which then devastates a human experiencing extreme stress and despair.

Siblings, what grounds you in this moment? For some, it is the belief in a loving and powerful God. For others, it is the human will to live and flourish. For myself, I refuse to live in a universe or society devoid of love or justice. I may not be able to find a quark of compassion or an atom of empathy; that does not mean I cannot imagine these qualities into being. Therefore, another gift of the Human Spirit is our capacity for creativity – being able to make our hopes and dreams a reality. Not only can we choose powerful love, but we can also manifest it where it does not seem to exist.

Which points to the human ability to hold multiple truths at one time. I can be both heartbroken and hopeful. Our faith tradition is rooted in an ethos of “both/and” rather than “either/or.” A good example of this is through the research of sociologist Brené Brown. Her data reveals there is an intimate connection between the ability to be psychospiritually strong and our capacity to be vulnerable. She defines vulnerability as “experiencing uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure” and that is it the source of courage, love, empathy and belonging.

In this time of uncertainty, can we choose vulnerability? It seems counterintuitive. When under assault we want to build our walls and raise our drawbridges to protect us from suffering. However, as we know, walls only serve to disconnect us from one another. As Pink Floyd sang: “All alone, or in two’s, The ones who really love you, Walk up and down outside the wall. Some hand in hand and some gathered together in bands. The bleeding hearts and artists make their stand. And when they’ve given you their all some stagger and fall, after all it’s not easy banging your heart against some mad bugger’s wall.”

Our Unitarian Universalist principles provide a path to choosing vulnerability, allowing us to not only consider our own experience of dignity and worth, but put ourselves into the experience of another human being. When we take off our armor, we are open to com-passion: the capacity to suffer-with another. And only vulnerability will allow us access to this miracle. Because when we recognize our own suffering in the suffering of our sibling, we can choose to meet it with belonging. And research has shown that a key to easing the suffering of addiction, homelessness, mental illness, racism, sexism, greed and hate is in human connection.

On this Pentecost Sunday, we are reminded of the gifts of the human spirit; of agency, creativity and vulnerability. The sources of courage and compassion. Yesterday as I witnessed protests around our country, many of our Unitarian Universalist siblings were there. Choosing to show up and support communities of color and speak out against injustice and oppression. Filled with the human spirit of agency, creativity and vulnerability while marching in the belief that Black Lives Matter. Friends, as you go into the world this week, how might you use your gifts of the human spirit?

You woke up today worthy just as you are; what will you choose to do? Outside of the typical routines and reactions, what creative response of courage and compassion can you dare to imagine that will ground you in this moment? And how might you show up with family, friends, the stranger beneath the bridge and the person of color on the street, in intentional vulnerability, laying your heart open? We all have this power every second of every day.

Therefore, in this time of trial and suffering, you have the right to your joy. To your sadness. To both find hope in the flowers of Spring and cry over weeks of isolation. You have permission to breathe. To love. To look at yourself in the mirror and say, “I am worthy of belonging.” You are wonderfully and beautifully made in a universe open to your gifts. And nothing can take that from you. Because that is the foundation and vision of our faith; a faith of agency. A faith of creativity. And a faith of vulnerability. A human faith in which we covenant with one another to grow in gifts of the human spirit. May we go out into the world, like the disciples of old, filled with the fire of powerful love, a light that shines in the darkness which will never be overcome. May it be so. Amen.

Weathering the COVID19 storm in Seattle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three Simple Words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

What are we waiting for? (Advent & Waiting)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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.