Finding the Sacred in the Everyday: Part I – the Self

This is the first of two-part sermon series given to a Unitarian Universalist congregation earlier this spring. The second week’s sermon, which I will post tomorrow, focuses on finding the sacred in our justice-oriented connections with the world around us. 

We’re talking today about the everyday sacred. First let me say that I’m not going to define sacred here. I’m not going to try to tell a group as spiritually diverse as you what ‘sacred’ or ‘holy’ means to each of you, though I’m certainly glad to talk to folks about that later if you want. But I’m going to trust that most of you have a sense of what sacred means for you – and it’s probably why you’re here – in this particular place rather than out on the lake or over at the Baptist church on this fine Sunday morning.

Now our reading, which comes from Father Greg Boyle, who happens to be a Jesuit priest in Los Angeles. This is not a Jesus sermon – I do those elsewhere – but some of you may have heard of his long-term community-building and job creation efforts in gang-dominated areas of Los Angeles. They’ve built a group of enterprises called Homeboy Industries.  So hear these words –

“If the intent is to save people, or even to help people, then . . . you’re going to be depleted. But if the task is allowing yourself to be reached by people, can you receive people? Can you be anchored in the here and now and practice the sacrament of the present moment? if you can do that, then it’s all delight and it’s all amazement and it’s all awe. . . Our choice is always the same: save the world or savor it. And I vote for savoring it. And, just because everything is about something else, if you savor the world, somehow – go figure – it’s getting saved.”

Let’s talk for a minute about getting depleted. Anybody here ever feel depleted? Like you’ve given all you’ve got to give? Frustrated? Angry? Weary? Anybody ever despair of the state of the world?

Yeah. We’ve been there. Maybe you’re there now.

We are surrounded by avoidable death. Every time I turned around this week I read about people getting shot. How many endless wars are happening on our planet?  Avoidable death and Donald Trump and mass incarceration and anti-LGBTQ legislation. We lost Prince this week – he sang much of the best of the soundtrack of my high school years – and he’s not the only cultural icon who has died recently.

We celebrate Earth Day while we can’t seem to do a thing to interrupt climate change and wanton ecosystem destruction. We blame the poor, the immigrant, and the mentally ill for our problems. We starve Medicaid but legislate bathroom use.

And in our own lives we contend with stacks of bills, dozens of errands, and overflowing e-mail inboxes. We try to help but there’s always another cause, always another person, always another wrenching image, always another hand, always another word we’ve got to speak against. It never ends – and it’s entirely possible it never will.

Some days we’re up to here. That, my friends, can seem mighty bleak.

But here’s the grace moment – it’s right here in Boyle’s words – Can you be anchored in the here and now? Can you practice the sacrament of the present moment?

(and he not the first one to use that phrase but we’re going to stick with his context this moment)

Last August I had a detached retina in my right eye. Pretty scary stuff, but the surgery to repair it went well. But I found for a time that I could not read comfortably. I ordered a basic Kindle Fire from Amazon because I learned they had a text-to-speech feature that would enable them to read books to me. It’s pretty mechanical, not like a real audiobook though the technology for these things has improved.

As my eye slowly healed, I was able to keep up with much of my reading by having the device read to me. So it’s reading a book to me that quotes from the Bible and you know how scripture is set up chapter and verse, right?  – so chapter 6, verse 30. Six colon thirty. Well, my kindle read that like it that – and I heard it like clock time. I heard 6:30. Like clock time.

And I went ‘Hunh.’

Ever have something just click for you? You’re there one minute and something just shifts? Well, that happened to me when I heard that.

And instead of thinking about sacred texts (the actual reference), I got started thinking about sacred time. And the more I thought about it, the more it seems like we are capable of seeing all time as sacred time. Not just the moments when we are gathered here in church – or those precious moments of birth and death and marriage and other milestones. We can choose to see time as sacred.

So let’s hold that for a moment – imagine that – all time is sacred.

For us to filter time like that, for us make that one lens through which we encounter the world, we have to make it a part of us. We have to take that sense of sacred-ness and know that it’s part of who we are. It’s something internal to us – and if it’s internal to us, it’s internal to all – so we hold the sacred within us, as do we all.

But here’s the thing – it’s already there. The sacred is already there in you and already all around you. However, it is mighty easy for it to get covered over by all the mess of our material culture and all the busy-ness of our routines.

We have to make the deliberate choice to see it that way. We have to CHOOSE to see the moments of our daily lives as sacred – both the monumental and the mundane, the joyous and the sorrowful moments. All of it.

Can you do it? Some of you may already do so. Most people don’t. Our lives obscure it most of the time. It becomes a muddy smudge except in special moments. But it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s there, if only we decide to see it.

All time is sacred time.

Can you see it that way?

Nothing has changed. And yet everything has changed.

Then here’s our next step. We are moving through this sacred time. We are always on the go, right? There’s stuff and stimulation of all sorts. What happens? For this we turn to some of the great wisdom passed down from Buddhist teachers. We see the sacred in all things around us, we do what we can do, and then we let it go.

Because nothing, my friends, is permanent. We can try to hold onto joys, but we can’t. We can try to push away pain, but we can’t. Sometimes we hold onto our pain – and that works for a time though it’s miserable. But we find if we fill ourselves with any one thing, then we are unable to greet what comes next.

When we see time as sacred, we experience the moment – the fullness of the moment – we do what we can in that moment, as skillfully as possible – and then we let it go so that we are prepared to face the next sacred moment.

We are called to do all that we can, but not more than that. We can only do what we can do. By acknowledging the sacred within us, we can work through that sacredness in all that we do. And that is bound to help us do what we do better.

I am going to give you a small example. And I don’t actually know if this guy framed his time as sacred or not. But he sure acted like he did. Some of y’all may remember there used to be a Quiznos in downtown Homewood. I used to go in there from time to time back.

One day I was in a crummy mood because I was having a crummy day.

The man behind the counter – this man who took my order, made me a sandwich, and took my money? He was an instrument of perfect grace. He simply did everything he was supposed to do in the kindest manner possible.

It stopped me and my bad day in my tracks. And I realized that I did not have to go through my time like that. Friends, that was probably 10 years ago. And I can still remember that moment.

Do you change the world by making a sandwich? That man – and I don’t know a thing about him. I never even got his name – he changed my world. I learned a great deal about the everyday sacred from a man who made me a sandwich. This ordinary thing was turned into an extraordinary gift.

We can see and use our time as sacred moments. Time that enables us to touch the sacred in ourselves and to honor it in others.

Back to our quote – But if the task is allowing yourself to be reached by people, can you receive people? Can you be anchored in the here and now and practice the sacrament of the present moment? if you can do that, then it’s all delight and it’s all amazement and it’s all awe. . . Our choice is always the same: save the world or savor it. And I vote for savoring it

So here is the savoring part: we see the sacredness of all things. The joys and the sorrows – both are real and both are true. We see it and we savor it. We hold it for the moment. We discern in that moment what we can do and what we cannot do. And we let. it. go, doing what we can and not doing what we can’t.

Friends in that moment, we have touched what is real. And we have blessed from our deepest capacity to do so.

Savor that. It is a moment. And then we move on. But the next moment is sacred too.

Let’s be real. Everybody is going to get tired. There is no way around it. There are times when our outrage overwhelms us – and rightly so. But we must remember that both the joy and the sorrow are true.  We hold them in tension.

What are some things that help to make this a sustainable practice? Just like I can’t define sacred for you, I can’t tell you what is going to make the most sense for you. I know some things that work for some people, some possible ingredients in the mix:

creative expression, generosity, kindness, meditation, music, rest, humor, sharing food, love, forgiveness of both the self and others, silence, worship, solitude, relationship, compassion, giving and also receiving, wisdom.

That’s hardly an exhaustive list.  You do not have to do any of those things. You do not have to do or believe anything I’ve said. You can go right on seeing the world exactly as you have done and I will wish you nothing but blessings and a lovely journey.

But I offer this to you – humbly – as a notion – as a person who works at the intersections of different faiths and different issues and different people. Consider how we might come to see time as sacred, how in the process we might find it possible to savor the world, and in so doing, perhaps we will find new ways to save it.

I’ll close with a bit of a poem by the Jewish poet, Marge Piercy. It’s a nod to the indisputably sacred moment, the celebration of Passover, which we’re in the midst of now – and very much in keeping with our day –

But the discipline of blessings is to taste
each moment, the bitter, the sour, the sweet
and the salty, and be glad for what does not
hurt. The art is in compressing attention
to each little and big blossom of the tree
of life, to let the tongue sing each fruit,
its savor, its aroma and its use.

Attention is love, what we must give
children, mothers, fathers, pets,
our friends, the news, the woes of others.
What we want to change we curse and then
pick up a tool. Bless whatever you can
with eyes and hands and tongue. If you
can’t bless it, get ready to make it new.

 

 

 

 

Measuring Education for Living

It’s the season of grades and graduations and celebration by students and teachers alike at the end of a long school year. I’ve been reading about honors accumulated, understandable parental pride, and the amount of scholarship money earned by graduating senior classes.

I join in the rejoicing at the transitions that mark  new life chapters and the beginning of summer.

However, I’m also reflecting today on what we laud as worthy educational achievement. Thought I might suggest some additional alternative measures for our educational institutions – I’d like to know how many of your students:

are genuinely kind?

can pay bills on time, shop for groceries and prepare meals, rent an apartment, and file their own taxes?

can balance ambition with human connection, work with the other stuff of living?

see value in the process or journey as well as the end product?

understand the complexities of the governance system in our country and how to participate in it?

engage with respect and sincerity across differences, especially where differential power is involved?

are dedicated to devising creative solutions to care for the earth and halt the rush of climate change?

can drive a car without putting themselves or others at risk of either physical danger or road rage?

can competently care for another living thing, whether that’s a plant or an elder or a pet or a child?

understand that vocational choices need to be made in the context of a realistic assessment of what day-to-day life in that field actually consists of rather than idealized images of any given profession?

know to treat people below them in society’s food chain with respect and dignity as well as those above them?

can locate a reliable auto mechanic, plumber, tailor, dentist, worshiping community, primary care provider, and mental health practitioner?

can identify the ways in which they are always vastly interdependent with the rest of the world?

These things are difficult to measure, you say?

Well, sure they are. But we presume to measure intelligence, aptitude, and achievement as if they were single, easily quantifiable constructs. I don’t think we get that right either, so why should that stop of us from attempting to grade our schools on their capacity to do teach these essential life skills?

Or better yet, forget about measuring them altogether and just teach them as a priority, as a requirement for dignified, decent, and capable human living in the 21st century.

Why can’t we do that?

 

The Work of Creation: Judges 5: 3-7

We have a lot to do tonight.

That fits, right?

Tonight we are staring at the role of women in our lives and we come to a point of saying, ‘There is a whole lot to do. ‘

And we’re going to get it done.

That sound like any woman you know?

Plenty to do.

And it’s going to get done.

Let us start with the recognition that today is Mother’s Day and that every soul in this room was born of a mother.

Sometimes that relationship went well from there. And sometimes not.

For those who can wholly celebrate their mothers’ enduring presence and wisdom in their life, we gathered here – we celebrate that with you.

This is not a competition. The world may teach us that we are supposed to be better than everybody else, that for somebody to win, somebody else has to lose, that if you are all happy, I am going to be talking about you behind your back.

You know what I say about that?

I say that is from Hell. Those are the world’s values. Those are not God’s values. That is not love of my neighbor. So I look on Facebook or I look around this room and I see that you have an incredible relationship with your wonderful mother and y’all had brunch together today and it is all so happy.

For those you who have great relationships with your mothers and great relationships with your children and all or any of the things that are supposed to make this a great day, I say blessings on you for your joy.

But that may not be the relationship that you have – or had – with your mother. Or maybe your mother was wonderful, but she’s gone. Maybe gone earlier from your life. Or maybe, excruciatingly, just recently.

So maybe you look at the fact of Mother’s Day and your heart hurts. You look at all those blasted sappy Hallmark cards and you look all those smiling brunch pictures and your heart hurts.

But you know what we are going to do tonight?  We are going to celebrate. We are going to be happy that we were born onto this Earth of a woman who – for whatever was going on in her life – did what she could do. For some of us that was grand and wonderful and perfect. And for those of you among us, those people who know this day as a joyful one, we rejoice with you.

Even as we grieve our own losses. What was. What was not. What could never be. What has been lost to us.

We rejoice with you. You acknowledge our pain. That is the compassion born to you.

Together we are healed. Together we look upon the faces of women in this world and we give thanks and we know and release our pain and we forgive.

We can say the same for the mothering we have or have not done. We who have given birth to a child may rightly rejoice on this day. Thank God for our children. But at the same time it is no less true that there are hearts which are broken – hearts to whom a child was denied. Or lost. The suffering. Oh my God. Women who for whatever reason wanted a child that was denied to them. Or bore a child who could not be the child they dreamed of. Or who didn’t want a child and somehow felt the judgment of the world. Or maybe there are no words.

It takes a village, my friends. No truer words have ever been said. Somehow all of us have to come to this moment in our lives.

This evening, you know what we do? We celebrate. We celebrate all the good mothering that happens in this world. That good mothering happens through biological mothers and through incredible women who offer that into the world because that’s what they do.

Thank God for all the mothering that happens in this world. Thank God that we do not have to rely on some single chain of biology for us to give or for us to receive.

While I tend to shy away from describing God as a Father or as a Mother because I believe that God is way, way, way beyond our human conceptions of gender and role, let us fully assert in this moment that in our life – no matter who we are separated from in this earthly realm, no matter what – we are wholly immersed in the love of God.

Whatever the best love that you got from your mama or that you didn’t get for but yearned for from your mama? That? That is the love that God wraps you in every minute of every day. And whatever love that you have to give? The love that you would give to a child? God calls upon us to offer that back into the world.

Because the world so desperately needs it.

You get to decide what that looks like.

Know that the world needs a mother’s love. And that you – whether or not you are anybody’s biological mama – and in the unlikely event that you are a man and sure ain’t going to be anybody’s biological mama – the world and its people still need that kind of love. And you, my friends, by the nature of being here, by the nature of listening to the call of God can consider yourself summoned to provide it.

The world needs the kind of love we are supposed to learn from our mamas. If you received that kind of love in your life, excellent! Turn around and share it. If you didn’t, well then, you know what you missed. Help make sure no one goes without it.

Now let’s turn to our Scripture to teach us something about what it means to do this work in the world.

Women’s work, that is.

We look tonight at the story of Deborah, kept deep in the book of Judges – which is not a book we preach from too much in our tradition because it’s hard. These are not for the most part the easy stories of morality, our legacy of ethics and tradition.

Judges is a brutal book, the story of the Israelites, finally settled in Canaan, getting it wrong over and over again and finding themselves accountable to God for that fact. The Israelites have spent their time wandering in the wilderness under Moses and Aaron. They’ve followed Joshua in gaining control of their promised land. They occupy this territory now and they are trying to figure out how to live.

Brutal, bloody stuff. This is not a pretty story, but it is a powerful one.

In the Hebrew Bible, judges are not judges quite like we think of them today. We’re not talking formal courts and appointed or elected legal arbiters. The judges of this book are respected leaders. They are the folks that others turned to for wisdom and direction.

And of all things the amazing thing in this incredibly patriarchal society? One of them was a woman. Her name was Deborah.

Deborah was a prophet and a wise woman. Under her leadership, the people of Israel defeated those who were attempting to conquer them. And under Deborah the Israelites lived and prospered and stayed faithful – those folks had a real hard time with false idols sometimes – but they stayed faithful for 40 years.

That’s pretty amazing. This text tonight is a part of the song that affirms their victory. And we hear Deborah named as a mother in Israel.

A mother in Israel?

We don’t know if Deborah was the biological mother of children. We don’t know the story of her family life. But we do know here that through her wisdom and skill, she gives birth to something very, very important – 40 years of peace and faithful living on this land.

Let’s think about this for a moment – she gives birth to peace in the land. She is a woman called to do important work and she does it seriously.

On this Mother’s Day, we celebrate the literal births – the wonders of children and family. But I also put to each of you – what do you want to give birth to?

It may be children – literally. Precious beings you guide in this world.

For you, it might be a community of nurturing and care for other people’s children. Or other people’s mothers. Or for people who have no family of their own.

Deborah does not do this work alone She’s faithful to God and she works with others. She summons Barak and together they lead an army. And through her prophecy, Deborah knows that the courage of yet another woman will bring them a key victory – a bold woman named Jael who single-handedly killed the Canaanite general Sisera to secure the peace.

What can you give birth to?

Maybe you give birth to a great idea, something that makes a difference not only in your own life but in the lives of those around you.

Ella Baker gave birth to a powerful grassroots organizing tradition in the Civil Rights movement. Dorothy Day gave birth to the Catholic Worker Movement in New York City during the Great Depression, Jane Addams gave birth to the Settlement House Movement for immigrant welfare in early 20th century Chicago. Rachel Carson gave birth to the modern environmental movement.

Toni Morrison and Alice Walker and Adrienne Rich and Mary Oliver and Sandra Cisneros and Denise Levertov and Barbara Kingsolver have given birth to words in the shape of poems and stories and essays and novels, words that move us and teach us and change us, words that will endure for centuries.

In the country of Myanmar, Aung Sung Suu Kyi gave birth to a non-violent revolution that ended decades of military dictatorship.

I know dozens of women – some of them in right here in this room – who have given birth to communities of love and care, where people find connection and friendship and prayers and support. Women who mother children and grown children who are not theirs by birth all the time.

Thank God for that. It sure enough takes a village to raise any child or even to live in this world – and we give birth to and sustain that village for one another each and every day.

Sixteen years ago a group of women – and men –  gave birth to this church. Today we all tend it, nurture, keep it growing with a deeds and our wisdom.  Who says you even have to be a woman to give birth to the stuff of a better world? This is a message for us all.

In 1971 in East Harlem, New York, a former Black Panther named Afeni Shakur gave birth to Tupac. I have great respect for hip hop and hip hop culture, but I don’t claim it as my own. But of course I know Tupac and appreciate his work and his genius. As some of the friends in my Facebook feed began to call the name of Afeni Shakur on Monday morning and to mark her sudden passing, I started to pay attention.

Afeni Shakur was a mother – a mother who grieved the tragic death of her gifted son – a mother who grieved for and fought the sins of the world, its systemic evils of racism, sexism, and economic disparity. Even before Tupac was born, Afeni helped give birth to a chapter of the Black Panther Movement, nurturing along others in the struggle for a world of freedom and equality for black people. Later, in her sorrows about the world, Afeni mired herself in the awful clutches of drug addiction. She became dependent on crack cocaine. And then she gave birth to a new life for herself. She got clean and stayed that way, even after Tupac’s devastating murder. She gave birth to a foundation from his earnings, reaching out to people in need and good causes all over this country and indeed around the world. She continued this work up until the time of her death this week.

In that time, she also gave birth to this wisdom, which I share with you this evening –

In this speech, she’s been talking about the example of the great Sojourner Truth, the 19th century former slave, herself a mother of enslaved children, who fought men to gain rights for women and white people to gain rights for blacks during the post Civil War Reconstruction and the ugly early grip of Jim Crow and the lynch law.

Afeni Shakur instructs us – “Things are worse that you think. Worse, much worse, than you think. But remember Sojourner. Don’t make no difference how bad they are. It is our responsibility to look it square in the face and say ‘What should I start with? Where shall I begin?’ You hear what I’m saying? That is what it is that all of us must do.”

Afeni Shakur stared at the face of her own pain, the irreconcilable loss of a child and she tells us – and this is a quote “You can do this thing. You can turn that garbage, that pain, that awfulness, you can turn it into something else. We must challenge each other to do that. . .  [we must ask ourselves] What can I do different with this pain? I am not asking you to do something that I didn’t do.”

Look around you at how messed up this world is. Look at your own pain – whatever its source, I know it’s there. Look at the example of Deborah, a mother of Israel, who in the middle of a society that viewed women as property made her way to leadership and gave birth to 40 years of peace and faithfulness among the Israelites. Look to Afeni Shakur and know that though there is pain, there is also life. We can live life and we can give and nurture life. Whether it’s a biological child or the hopes and dreams of child that’s not our own or an idea or a poem or a way to save the world.

So we have this day.

What do you rejoice in?

What must you grieve?

What you might you give birth to?  In ways traditional or something altogether new.

What will you do?

Amen.

 

On What is Required of Us

My grandmother quoted many things to me when I was a child, but one of the most oft-cited sayings came from Luke 12:47, which in the NRSV reads “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required.”

While I appreciate the inclusive language here, older texts use a (masculine generic) pronoun, suggesting that this is not a general, easily dismissed “everybody” but indeed an actual individual person. That’s how Grandmama said it and that’s the mandate I heard.

I believe she set this passage before me regularly to sing into my soul a dual sensibility: that I was blessed in many ways and that I in turn needed to share those blessings with others.

The communal responsibility of us all, one for another, is so clear in this verse. I suppose you can hear it as a endorsement of individual ambition, but such an interpretation does not do justice to the Gospel message.

I’ve spent my life not only trying to live up to that call, but also continuously refining my understanding of how to do so skillfully. Good intentions are a necessary but not sufficient condition. The desire to love the world and to be a blessing in it requires not only intent, but knowledge, insight, and relationship. It’s always an ongoing journey.

However, I often see in our culture – then, in my childhood, and now – a refusal on two counts.

The first is of the very idea that we are responsible one for another, that in what we have been granted in this world (and yes, that for which we have worked very hard), we are called to share and love and give, to carry each other along. And that our responsibility increases proportionately with our blessings and freedom.

The second involves going beyond the good intention – so that as we take seriously the requirement to care one for another, we pay attention to the vast web of complex structural forces in play in our culture. We will all make mistakes – and there has to be room for that – but we can at least do our best to treat people not as objects (even as objects of our care and concern), but as subjects in their own lives and deserving of our respect as such.

It’s a start. I think we can do better on both counts. I really do.

My South

Southern states – and most especially Southern state legislatures – are rightly getting a lot of negative attention these days because of a series of regressive moves. Those stories feed the caricature that serves as the popular image of our region. The reality  is more complex, as realities always are. The South belongs to the rest of us too – and we belong to it. So I add this portrait of my South in this moment to the mix.

My South has –

  • dogwoods in bloom outside my window as I write this.
  • people fighting to protect Medicaid for our most vulnerable low income residents.
  • awesome Mexican/Vietnamese/Southern/Chinese/haute cuisine/chain restaurant/meat & 3/Waffle House food. We have boiled peanuts and grits and barbecue and farmers markets with watermelon and tomatoes and sweet corn.
  • excellent art museums and public gardens and small & community theaters and opera and dance  and poets and essayists and novelists – all a part of an artistic community with incredible vision and unparalleled talent.
  • one hell of an ugly history of racial oppression – and it’s not just history, it’s now – systemic and individual-level racism are horrifically real.
  • black and brown and white people doing our damndest to rid the world of racial oppression – (and yes, even when we are really trying, we white folks still get it wrong, time and again, because we are so soaked in this from the time we are born. But some of us are determined to get beyond that and will keep at the work of addressing systemic racism at its white source until we either succeed or breathe our last breath).
  • gay bars and LGBTQ+ community centers and Pride fests and passionate, powerful QTPOC (queer & trans people of color) who might yet succeed in teaching us all how to live without crushing the souls of others.
  • plenty of money for prisons, but never enough for teaching children or ensuring access to healthcare or making sure that no one goes hungry.
  • churches – tons of churches – a church home for you no matter what you believe or how high church or Spirit-breathing you’re looking for – (and a whole bunch of sincere, God-loving LGBTQ+ Christians – we are faithful people too).
  • not just churches – we have mosques and synagogues and temples and meditation centers – there are people practicing their faith in myriad ways and Sunday brunch and picnics in the park for the humanists, agnostics, and atheists among us. In my South, we practice live and let live and we learn and work together.
  • no frickin’ public transit to speak of – it’s a shame.
  • music in all forms and venues – songs worth singing and musicians worth listening to – music that moves the soul and the body.
  • undocumented people in indefinite detention in harsh conditions and a general climate of suspicion toward people for whom English is not their first language – and committed, multi-ethnic coalitions of activists working to change that.
  • the most incredible ecodiversity and stunning beauty – these ecosystem treasures that we often don’t even realize are there until after we’ve destroyed them.
  • people who will come get you in the middle of the night when you’re stuck on the side of the road – even if you disagree with them on about absolutely everything.
  • coffeehouses and craft beer and public libraries and parks and bookstores and cafes.
  • far too many people who do not understand the conditions of their own oppression and who thus consistently speak, act, and vote against their own interests.
  • Alabama football – Roll Tide!
  • activists staring at the evils of environmental racism and organizing to overcome it.
  • some of the most assbackward corrupt politicians on the face of the planet, looking after their own power and profit rather than the true public good.
  • my people – blood kin and family of choice and (some of) the friends I’ve made across a lifetime – and an incredible community that cares about all of the above.

This my South.

Communion, Room 304

“Are you my sister?”
asked the white-haired
woman stretched out
in bed as I
stepped
from the harsh
light of the noisy
hallway to
her side.

Blinds drawn tight.
A pair of highback
wheelchairs parked
on hard tile
against the doors
of dark
wooden
closets,
set as out
of the way
as they
could be.

“No ma’am
I’m from
the church.
I came
to visit.”

She smiled then
returned to
some distress
I could
not see.

Moving a chair
beside her bed
I tried to
reassure.

We spoke of the
sleeping woman
in the
bed next to
her own.

“Maybe she’s
my sister.”

“Maybe
I want
something
to eat.”

“I brought
communion but
that might not
be enough?
We’ll see
I guess.”

I dipped the
dry wafer in
the juice and
placed it in
her mouth.

She chewed
silently for one
moment, then
another.

“How about we pray?”
I asked.

She touched
my hand.
“Your hands
are cold”
she said.

“Yes. I’m sorry.”

“So cold. Let me
warm them.”

She took
my hands
and cradled
them in
hers.

That
was
our
prayer.

On Awkward Grief

era march

July 9, 1978 – March for the Equal Rights Amendment, Washington, DC
That’s me in the yellow shorts, just shy of my 9th birthday. Beth stands to my right in the white shirt and blue skirt.

Last week a longtime friend of my first stepmother, Beth, called to tell me that Beth had died after a long period of poor health and a short acute illness.

The news left me surprised and sad and casting about for what to do with what I’ve termed awkward grief.

Born in a small town in the mountains of East Tennessee, Beth became the most cultured person I knew. I lived among smart people, but she was a true intellectual. She modeled feminism, the creative impulse, and dry wit, none of which was everyday currency in other parts of my 1970s childhood.

She and my father were together from the time I was 3 until I was 13. Their marriage crumbled in acrimony, which I was there to witness. She never remarried and had no other children, but we stayed in touch. I would stop by her Tennessee home and spend a few days at least once a year. She sent packages with art, clothes, and books. She was delighted when my daughter was born and doted on her during early visits.

But when I came out as a lesbian and my ex-husband and I split, somehow he got Beth in the divorce. In some ways that was okay. I had more supportive people around me than he did – and in spite of the contentiousness of our own parting, I genuinely wished him well. Beth was a steady and gracious soul, a good person to have in one’s life and I was glad of that for him.

On another level it was a peculiar rejection, particularly from someone who spent her later life in the close companionship of women. She was just gone from my life and it was both sudden and unexplained.

At her memorial service yesterday, she was remembered as caring and compassionate, conscientious, giving, and dependable. It was noted that she had lived a life of service through a career in non-profit work and that she was always “concerned with excellence in living.” All of these accolades captured Beth’s presence. Except with me. She disappeared from my life for reasons I can only guess at and that seem inconsistent with the generous and caring spirit she brought to the rest of her living.

Thus the awkward grief.

We don’t deal very well with grief in general in our society. And we certainly don’t know what to do with grief that doesn’t fit neatly into boxes. I share this story and these reflections here because I know I’m not the only person who has experienced such emotions.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far –

I’m helped by having already done a part of the necessary grieving. I started it years ago when I realized that Beth was effectively gone from my life. I mourned the relationship we had, which was never perfect, but was important to both of us. I mourned the relationship we might have had.

I had thus made some peace long before her death. I had forgiven her in large part, even while I wondered (and still do) if she needed to forgive me. While reconciliation is now beyond this realm, I find comfort in the active work of loving forgiveness that I’ve been engaged in for years.

Grace and forgiveness are important tools for this work.

There will always be people in our lives with whom we have fractured relationships. They have been important to us and we to them. We loved them. They have shaped us. But something crucial is broken in our connection. Though it can take many forms, the essential fact is that they are here and one day they are not. Or perhaps they are still in our lives, but not in the way we would want for them and for ourselves.

The task given to us is to acknowledge the gift of their presence, the fact of their absence, and the meaning of their significance. And then we must let go. No good comes of refusing to acknowledge the realities of a given situation or relationship. We can wish something was different, that something had been different. But our own healing can only begin when we cease to cling tightly to our vision of how things should/could/would be.

That is simple, but not easy.

I will mourn Beth’s loss to the world – and I will continue the work of grieving her loss in my life. I will acknowledge that this grief will always feel awkward. I will pay tribute to what I learned from her. I will wonder at what I might have done differently. I will accept that things are not always made right. And I will let go – and let go again – and let go again.

 

 

Crucify Whom?

Today is Good Friday.

Whose bodies will we crucify today?

Black bodies?

Transgender bodies?

Undocumented immigrant bodies?

Muslim bodies?

Poor bodies?

Disabled bodies?

Lesbian bodies?

Addicted bodies?

Refugee bodies?

The body of the earth and its non-human living things?

Whose bodies will we crucify today?

 

On Why It’s Hard to Be a Christian in Today’s World

It’s hard being a Christian – because otherwise I could retreat into my little bubble of middle-class privilege and really not give a damn about the suffering of poor people and the ways in which our economic system benefits the very few at the expense of the many.

It’s hard being a Christian – because otherwise I and my white self could hide behind some vague notion of colorblindness and ignore the very real violence being done to black and brown bodies in this country and around the world. I could refuse to see and refuse to change a system that feeds on fundamental inequities in the distribution of power and wealth, that enshrines racism as a means of divide-and-conquer.

It’s hard being a Christian – because otherwise I could skip the outrage at our ravaging of the planet for the sake of human profit, our disregard of life beyond our own, our denial of our complicity in past, present, and future environmental disasters.

It’s hard being a Christian – because otherwise I could tell homophobic people – all of them – to just fuck off rather than to continue to work toward mutual relationship and meaningful dialogue.

It’s hard being a Christian – because otherwise I could stare at people with disabilities and think there was something wrong with them instead of with a culture that denies their full individual humanity and refuses to embrace them for their diversity and their contributions.

It’s hard being a Christian – because otherwise I could think that people who disagree with me are stupid rather than working to value them as fellow precious children of God.

It’s hard being a Christian – because otherwise I could stereotype, judge, and dehumanize Muslims and Jews and Buddhists and Hindus and people of any other faith or no faith at all and do my best to keep my distance from them.

It’s hard being a Christian – because then I could see people dying across the globe from preventable wars, preventable diseases, and preventable hunger and thirst without losing sleep over it. I could see those problems as some fault of their own rather than of a global system that has for centuries robbed entire nations of their assets and their autonomy, often with the approval and even the assistance of the Christian church.

God, it is hard to be a Christian in today’s world.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Christianity – or any religious perspective – is not the only reason people care about these things. I’m not saying that at all. I’m just talking about where I come from. I fully affirm the idea that non-Christians and non-religious people can have grounded and nuanced ethics. If that’s you, all props to you and peace and strength to you for your work.

And there are certainly Christians who disagree with what I’ve said here – to y’all, I say . . . I say . . . I say that you are my family in this faith and I hope we can be in conversation about what living out that faith looks like in our contemporary world. I will listen to you with an open heart. I hope you will receive me in the same spirit (Spirit).

Globalization and the Value of Life

I’ve been thinking about an interview I heard the other day on the radio with a union worker who, defying his union leadership, supports Donald Trump (note: this is NOT a post about a particular candidate – this is a systemic problem and that’s what I want to emphasize).

His rationale was that illegal immigration is the cause of the weak job market. He believes that Trump is the man to fix that and thus restore us to an economy filled with well-paying working class jobs.

That this gentleman blames immigrant workers rather than globalization for the gutting of the earned wage economy in this country points to a central problematic narrative – one which is expertly manipulated – in our national discourse.

If this gentleman’s analysis did extend to globalization, it’s not unlikely that he would blame fellow workers around the globe rather than the system that pits his labor against theirs to detriment of both (and the planet) and for the enrichment of the people who created the system.

Modern globalization of world capital really began with the establishment of the General Agreement on Tariff and Trade (GATT) in 1948. It was further fertilized by the Uruguay Round of negotiations that took place from 1986-1994, resulting in the creation of the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Look at those years – that’s Reagan, HW Bush, and Clinton. This is a BIPARTISAN doing. The Doha round of negotiations began under W Bush and continues to this day under Obama. NAFTA started under HW Bush and was signed by Clinton. CAFTA has been signed (and almost certainly the TPP will be) on Obama’s watch.

The result is the concentration of wealth through the accumulation of capital by the very few. In the process, many of the rest of us have been literally invested in the system enough (think 401Ks over pensions) to have a stake in its preservation, but we should be under no illusion that we are its real or intended beneficiaries.

And the rest of the people – the millions of people in this country who will never have a decent paying job and who have no accumulated wealth to fall back on and the billions of people around the world whose national economies have been violently stripped of any residual capacity they had to be self-sustaining in the wake of colonialism – those people are desperate and in the cold light of globalization, they are disposable.

The majority of the world’s population has value only to the extent that they are consumers (whether they earn, borrow, receive, or steal the funds to support their consumption habit). And our ecosystems have value only as economic commodities.

This represents the height of dehumanization and crushing mechanism of environmental destruction. It is a political problem, an economic problem, and an environmental problem. It is a moral, cultural, and theological problem.

We cannot address if we do not see it for what it is.