Monday, December 15, 2008

The Cheesy Sermon Title I Had to Pick 6 Weeks Before I Wrote It: "The Gifts That Keep On Giving"

Sorry I haven't posted in a while--this church internship business is a lot of work! Below is the sermon I preached December 14th, 2008 at my church. Happy Holidays!

One of the most exciting, as well as one of the most exhausting, things that I get to do as a minister is officiate at weddings. When I have the honor of marrying people who are close personal friends, the weddings tend to be particularly exciting, as well as particularly exhausting. You see, when I know the couple, I am more than the minister—I’m an old friend, sometimes a family friend, one of the girls ready to go out and get her nails done with the rest of the bridal party. I’m there for set-up, and clean-up, and peace negotiations between neighboring family members…well, you get the idea.

While I have only officiated at half-dozen weddings or so, I’ve begun to form some conclusions. One of my conclusions is, that it is hard enough to be yourself when you are by yourself. It can be incredibly difficult to be honest with ourselves about the challenges we face, the strengths we bring, the vulnerabilities we feel, and the aspirations about which we dream. When the expectations of our friends, our family, and society at large are heaped on top of the stress of a major life transition, such as a wedding, even the most easygoing, well-grounded, centered people, can lose their minds. All of a sudden, the color of wedding cake frosting or a misplaced corsage can literally become a crisis situation.

I’ll never forget one of the brides I worked with and her mother. The daughter and mother had never been close—the daughter was always closer with her father. Believing that this would be an excellent chance to bond with her daughter, the mother insisted on making her daughter’s wedding dress. Now, I’m sure, there have been mothers and daughters for whom this was a magical and beautiful experience. But in this particular situation, it was a really bad idea.

One of the biggest disagreements the two had centered on their expectations for what a wedding dress should look like. The mother believed the wedding dress should be more traditional with a large, full skirt. The daughter wanted the dress to be as practical as possible—she wanted to be able to go to the bathroom on her own, and to dance the night away unencumbered by a great deal of fabric.

This ongoing dispute came to a head during one of the fittings. The mother was holding a crinoline, which is this very full skirt that you would wear under a dress or skirt to make it flare out, and she was thrusting it towards her daughter saying with increasing volume, “the dress won’t look right without it!” The bride was pushing the crinoline back towards her mother, and with her own increasing volume was saying, “I don’t want to be a puffy bride!”

It went back and forth like this, “it won’t look right without it,” “I don’t want to be a puffy bride,” “it won’t look right without it”… And the whole time, the family’s dog is sitting there, watching this dispute go back and forth, and becoming more and more anxious and upset the longer the fight continued.

Now, it’s not that I don’t think this issue is important. I think feeling comfortable and confident in what you’re wearing on your wedding day is very important. What amazed me was the ferocity with which these two usually levelheaded, easygoing women argued. They were about to come to blows over ruffles under a skirt. The sheer energy of the argument was staggering.

Author Anne Lamott examines the stress and the beauty of weddings in her essay entitled “Flower Girl.” She writes,

"Everyone was more joyful and excited and mentally ill as the wedding day approached. That’s what’s so touching about weddings: Two people fall in love, and decide to see if their love might stand up over time, if there might be enough grace, and forgiveness and memory lapses to help the whole shebang hang together. And the ceremony adds so much hope to it all, but also so much more discomfort, and expense, and your only hope is that on the big day, all that energy will run through the lightest elements and the heaviest, the brightest, the dullest, the funniest, the most annoying, and the whole range will converge within a ring of celebration."

While I have been speaking up until this point about weddings, I am firmly convinced that it is not just weddings that can cause people to feel stressed, or overwhelmed, or not quite themselves. Feelings of panic, dread, or reactivity can happen at any rite of passage—funerals, birthdays, pregnancy, retirement, even holidays, family vacations, reunions. Whenever we are thrown together with people we do not normally spend such concentrated amounts of time with, who we were when they knew us best, who we are, and who they believe us to be all begin to jostle against one another.

Long ago abandoned or buried identities can resurface. We are once again the overly dramatic uncle, the long-suffering big sister, or the awkward middle schooler. No matter how successful we feel, how wise we have grown, how mature we act in our daily lives, the old dynamics can kick in, and it can become an uphill battle.

On Thanksgiving Day a few weeks ago, I received a call from an old friend, who was pacing and chain-smoking behind her garage, trying to work up the courage to tell her mom that she is quitting her job and going back to grad school. She is a smart, successful, 45 year-old businesswoman who has been supporting herself for 25 years, but she told me she still feels like a naughty 13 year-old girl, doing something her mother would find totally financially irresponsible.

So how do we do it? How do we navigate the pitfalls, the miscommunications? How do we have the difficult conversations? How do we make it through the holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, sharing what is important to us? What feels fundamental to us? Especially if we are with people who just don’t understand?

One of the things I have found helpful is to talk about things before they become an emergency—especially the hot topics. This church, and the Unitarian Universalist denomination, makes this commitment in its philosophy about religious education. For example, that commitment is the reason why this church teaches a comprehensive sexuality program for the youth, entitled Our Whole Lives, or OWL for short. This program helps participants make informed and responsible decisions about their sexual health and behavior. It equips participants with accurate, age-appropriate information, and it is one of the most thoughtful and thorough curriculums I have ever seen.

We are one of the few religious denominations taking this approach to sexuality education for our youth, and we are an active and strong leader. We do this because we believe that if we can have a conversation ahead of time about things that may feel difficult or awkward for youth to talk about, we can help reduce the amount of crisis decision making our youth do, and we can provide them with resources, both in written form and in the form of their adult church mentors and teachers, to turn to if they are dealing with difficult things.

The same thing goes for the hot topic of money. For example, if we can talk honestly about a budget, be it the budget for the church, the family, our workplace, before the budget deficit, before we are having a crisis, we are able to think more clearly and calmly. When we are not driven by panic, we can be more creative problem solvers. I am delighted to see that this church is doing this, carefully reviewing and taking its budget very seriously even part way through the fiscal year.

Some of the most difficult conversations I have seen families and friends engage in are conversations that acknowledge our mortality. For many, conversations about wills, or advanced healthcare directives, or what kind of care someone would want if they were no longer able to make their own decisions, are conversations we would rather avoid. I’ve talked to a lot of people who say, “yeah, I keep meaning to do one of those,” or “those forms have been sitting in a drawer at home for a while, and I just haven’t felt up to filling them out.” Conversations about organ donation or life support or feeding tubes can seem morbid, can seem like we’re tempting fate.

Honestly, it’s one of the greatest gifts we can give to one another. When we talk about what quality of life means to us—not to a doctor, or a social worker, or a judge, but to us. What makes life worth living? What gives life meaning and purpose? When does life lose meaning?

I talked to a woman at a church I used to attend, and she is making some very difficult decisions about her mother’s care. Her mother’s health is declining, and her mother no longer has the mental faculties to make clear and informed choices about her medical treatments.

As hard as this time has been for both the mother and the daughter, the daughter has found some comfort in a conversation they had a few years ago. My friend’s grandmother battled lung cancer and spent years on and off a respirator, and for both my friend and her ailing mother, seeing the daily realities of respirators made them adamant that they never wanted to be on one. They defined quality of life as being able to breath on their own, as being able to have conversations, and they were both clear that a respirator, while a wonderful lifesaving device, was too constrictive for them.

While this is a still a difficult time, there is comfort in remembering that conversation. This woman’s mother gave the gift of making healthcare decisions for herself, taking some of the burden off of her daughter.

I feel so strongly about the significance of these conversations that I have asked Dr. Alan Forker, a medical doctor and a member of this church, to co-facilitate a religious education class with me on Advanced Healthcare Directives. We will spend a Saturday morning [I gave out the date and times during the sermon and told them the class was listed in the newsletter as well] helping people begin to have this conversation, and if this is something that you’ve been meaning to do, or a topic you feel like you need to address in your own life or the life of someone you care about, we welcome your presence at the class.

In thinking about this topic, about the gifts that we give one another when we have these difficult conversations, I was thinking about other difficult conversations that we have with one another. A story came to mind, of a woman who would invite her parents out to brunch whenever she had something to share that was difficult to talk about with them.

The first time she invited them to brunch, she told them that she was bisexual. It was a surprise to them, but they came to accept it. A year later, she invited them out to brunch to tell them she had come to realize that she was a lesbian. Once again, her parents took some time to really think about what she had revealed, and they slowly came to accept it.

The third time she asked them to brunch, she revealed that she was going into the military. Her parents were concerned, but once again, they came to accept this news. The fourth time she invited them out to brunch, she revealed that she had been studying with a Sufi Muslim Sheik, and that she was converting. Once again, her parents took some time to come to terms with what she had told them.

While her parents have slowly come to accept much of their daughter’s life, they have also developed a real anxiety about brunch. A few weeks ago, she asked them to brunch, and they immediately became nervous and concerned, asking, “Why? Why? Why do you want to go to brunch? Just tell us, whatever it is, now.” She replied, “Actually, I just really like this place’s eggs.”

When I was doing research for this sermon, I talked to Wendi Born, a professor of Psychology at Baker University and a congregant of this church. She has extensive experience in conflict mediation, and often counsels people on how to have conversations about difficult subjects. I asked her what sort of advice she gives.

Wendi first asks the person she is working with to think about possible consequences of the conversation. What could happen? Is it worth the risk? For example, it might be less risky to come out as a lesbian to your parents when you are not relying on them to pay your college tuition. Is this the right time, for you, to have this conversation with the other person?

Also, it is important for us to think about our expectations entering into this conversation. Are those expectations unfair? We may have been thinking about this for a while, but this information may be brand new to the person with whom we are talking. If our expectation is instantaneous and total acceptance, we may be lining ourselves up for disappointment.

It also helps to think about what we really want from this conversation. Do we want to feel accepted? Do we want to feel like the other person really heard what we said? Do we want a hug? The more honest and direct we can be about what we want, the more likely we are to get it. It can be difficult to reveal what we really want. By doing so, by revealing what we really desire to a person who has the power to grant or deny it, we can feel vulnerable. However, when we’re really honest and direct with someone, it can also feel liberating.

Wendi also spoke about trying to mentally prepare for what the reaction of the other person might be. To have a real conversation with someone, to really work through something, if we expect acceptance of who we are, then we have to, on some level, accept whatever their reaction is. This doesn’t mean we have to like it. This doesn’t mean it’s what we want. This does mean that it’s the point from which we negotiate; it’s the starting place for this person in future conversations. If we want them to recognize where we’re coming from, we have to recognize where they are coming from.

I’ll never forget a story my friend Matt told me about himself and his family. Matt came from a conservative, Catholic family in the Midwest. Growing up, he was always close with his mother, and they shared a very special bond. When Matt was 18, he decided that he wanted to join a Catholic religious order and become a Monk. His mother was overjoyed and very proud of him. People would tell him how much they admired the sacrifices he was making, and he would reply, quite honestly, that it didn’t feel like that much of a sacrifice. That for him, marrying a woman was much less important than serving God.

Matt joined the religious order and was very happy. He loved the camaraderie with his peers, and he focused his energy and talents on music. A few years in, Matt began to have doubts. He began to question whether he would want to marry a woman even if he was allowed. He slowly came to realize that he was gay, and when he fell in love with another man, he realized that he did not want to be in the religious order anymore. He wanted to leave and to build a life with this man.

Matt decided that he needed to tell his mother, and that he wanted to be completely honest with her. He wanted to tell her everything, and he wanted to tell it all to her at the same time. As I tell you how the conversation went, it’s okay to laugh. It’s quite the conversation.

He sat down with his mother, and he said, “Mom, there’s something I need to tell you.” She looked concerned, and asked “what is it Matt?”

“Well,” he began, “I’ve decided to leave my religious order.”

His mother put her hand to her chest and gasped in surprise.

“Um, there’s more. You see, I fell in love.”


“With a man.”


“Who is a Muslim.”


“And a vegetarian.”


And then, Matt’s mother went to bed for a week and refused to speak to him.

While the initial conversation between Matt and his mother was very difficult, the story does have a happy ending. Matt was grieving the loss of their relationship, but he was, for the first time in his life, truly happy. The secret that he had been harboring for so long was finally out in the open, and he was able to start living his life openly and honestly. Matt moved to upstate New York with his new partner and began working as a music director at a church.

A few months later, his mother couldn’t handle the silence any longer. She missed her son, and she missed the conversations that they used to have. One day, she called him up. With a tone that was a little cold and distant, she said, “Your Aunt Sharon had to go to the doctor the other day, I just thought you’d like to know.” Matt replied, “oh no! Is it serious?”

His mother paused for a moment. Then, she said with a much warmer, enthusiastic and conspiratorial tone, “Actually, it’s just bunions. But the way that woman carries on, you’d think she has the plague! It’s just like last Christmas, when she made such a fuss…” Matt’s mother launched into conversation the way she used to before Matt came out to her.

Midway through that conversation, his mother heard a siren in the background on his end of the phone line. She said with protective concern, “Is that a siren? Is THAT a siren? What sort of a neighborhood do you boys live in?!? I’m sending your father and brother up to check on you and make sure you’re safe!” She leaned away from the phone and yelled to Matt’s father, “WALTER, get the car!”

Before Matt knew it, his brother and father were up visiting, checking out the neighborhood. Matt and his mother began to reestablish their relationship, and a year later, his perpetually involved mother had become the president of the local chapter of PFLAG, Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.

While difficult conversations do not always end in the way that we would like, stories like Matt’s are a reminder to me that they can lead to ultimately positive and liberating results.

In this holiday season, which can be filled with such joy as well as such sorrow, may we stay in communication with each other, forever working to be more open, to finding ways of putting ourselves in each other’s shoes. To giving the gift that keeps on giving—namely, being ourselves, our whole, pure, true selves. For we are the greatest gifts we could give to one another.

May it be so, and Amen.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Ten Feet In Either Direction and We'd Be Friends

This is the sermon I delivered on October 26th, 2008 at my church.

Growing up, my older sister Jenny was…annoying. Being four years older, she got to do everything first, and oh did she remind me of this on a daily if not hourly basis. She went to high school first, she got her driver’s license first, and she had a boyfriend first. She was also one of those really great students to whom all future siblings are compared. Every year when I’d meet my new teachers for the first time, they’d say, “Oh, you’re Jenny’s sister, we love her, she was such a good student! She got straight ‘A’s, I hope you follow in her footsteps!”

I think my sister also really missed her calling as an actor. She had an amazing sense of timing. She could rile me up to the point of reacting and would push me over the edge right as our mom walked in. She would just poke at me and poke at me, and as soon as I stood up to react, she would fall to the ground and moan, as if I’d been beating her. And then I’d get in trouble. Again.

You can imagine my surprise when, after so many years of sisterly treachery (all, of course, perpetuated by her, as I was a sweet and perfect angel *smile*), you can imagine my surprise when as an adult, Jenny turned out to be pretty great. Her cutting wit, when not directed at me, is actually quite funny. And I’m so proud of her for all the things she’s accomplished and done in her life, such as getting a PhD in Biochemistry, and building a home with her wonderful husband.

And while we are very different people—I assure you, you will never see her behind a pulpit—we also have more in common than I thought we did as a child. She is the only person in the world who grew up in the same city, in the same house, with the same parents, going to the same schools, and being taught by the same teachers. There are things that she understands about me, and things that I understand about her, that no one else does in quite the same way. That’s been…pretty great.

I’ve also found that this lesson transfers to other relationships as well. Even when I believe that someone is totally different from myself, I often have more in common with them than I realize, or than I want to admit.

When I first moved to the Kansas City area, people began telling me stories about the local area. I was so intrigued by these stories, particularly those about Missouri and Kansas during the build-up to the Civil War, that I began doing research and visiting local history museums to learn more. I found out that Missouri became the 24th state in the Union on August 10th, 1821. Although this was roughly 40 years before the Civil War, there was already tension building between pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces. People were concerned that some states would leave the Union, so there were attempts to maintain a tenuous balance.

Missouri became a state under the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Statesman Henry Clay designed a plan for Missouri to enter the Union as a slave state and Maine to enter the Union as a free state, thus keeping the number of slave non-slave states equal at 12 each. Despite this balancing act, tension continued to grow in the Union.

Concerns grew over whether Kansas, then a territory acquired during the Louisiana Purchase, would be a free or a slave state when it came into the Union. The New England Emigrant Aid Company sent settlers to Kansas to secure it as a free territory. By the summer of 1855, approximately 1,200 New Englanders, including many of our own Unitarian ancestors, had made the journey to the new territory literally armed to fight for freedom. The abolitionist minister Henry Ward Beecher furnished settlers with Sharps rifles. He would put the rifles into a container, and then cover them with Bibles so the shipment would make it to Kansas. They became known as “Beecher’s Bibles.”

The influx of so many New Englanders made Missourians uneasy, and soon raiding parties began crossing the border into Kansas. They went to intimidate and coerce the settlers into supporting slavery in Kansas, and they spilled into the territory on voting days in an attempt to sway popular opinion and vote illegally in elections.

Even along State Line Road, a road that runs right through Kansas City, there was tension and even violence. Neighbors who had lived literally across the street from one another for years believed so strongly in their positions that they would shoot at their neighbor across the road. If the road, a completely made-up boundary, was 10 feet to the east or west, these neighbors would have been on the same side. As it was however, they felt they were worlds apart.

Ultimately, the abolitionists won in Kansas. Kansas joined the Union as a free state on January 29th, 1861. While the decision about slavery in Kansas was answered, the years preceding had taken a hard toll on Kansas. The violent years leading up to their statehood became known as “Bleeding Kansas.”

Now, I have to admit, I’d love to make this a cut and dry period in history. I’d love to think that these groups of people were totally different; that the slave-holding Missourians were morally bankrupt, and that the freedom loving, Unitarian ancestors of Kansas were morally superior. However, history is never simple or clear cut.

Missourians themselves were torn over issues of slavery. The state ultimately remained in the Union, but some of its citizens chose to fight for the confederacy. Neighbors, friends, and families were torn apart. It was a devastating time.

And while Kansas became a free state, its citizens did not necessarily choose this because they believed slavery was wrong. It was a decision swayed by economics, as many decisions are. The small family farmers in Kansas who could not afford slaves had trouble competing with the large, slave owning plantations. Small farmers believed they could gain a stronger foothold in the market if Kansas was a free state.

As a young state, Kansas also faced pressure to become, and I quote, “civilized.” In that quest, they broke treaties with local American Indian groups including the tribe for which this church is named [I said the name in my sermon, but don't want to publish it on the internet]. The tribe was sent on a trail of tears to less hospitable environments, such as Oklahoma, where the remaining people still live today.

These neighbors in Kansas and Missouri, these people who farmed the same land, who lived a few feet away from one another, who were attempting to feed their families and survive the same war, felt disconnected from one another. There was such a sense of “us” versus “them,” and “they” were responsible for the world’s problems. The sense of separation, of difference, was so strong that people were willing to shoot at one another across a made-up boundary.

Almost 150 years has passed, and I find myself asking what has changed, and what has remained the same? Kansas City is still, in many ways, a city divided. There is still tension between Kansas and Missouri. And our larger society is still plagued with the dehumanizing rhetoric of an “us” versus “them” sensibility.

I hear this polarizing language when people talk about their political parties. Now, I sincerely love my political party, yet they do not always make the best decisions. They do not have all the answers. While I would much rather demonize other political parties, at some point I must concede that mine contributes to the problems we face in this country.

I hear this “us” versus “them” mentality when people talk about immigration. There is a tendency in our national dialogue to point the finger at the newest kids on the block and blame them for all that is wrong with this country. I find this particularly troubling, as the vast majority of our families were, at some point, immigrants in this country.

I see this trend within myself, as I seek to distance myself from other colleagues in my field. I am ashamed to say that I have on several occasions introduced myself by saying, “I’m a minister…but I’m not one of those scary ministers! I’m a progressive, loves my lesbian mom sort of minister!” I am so quick to distance myself even before the other person has said a word. I strive to make sure the other person knows that I am part of “us,” and not one of “them.”

At times, what or whom we demonize is not clearly defined. In this country, we are currently fighting an amorphous “War on Terror.” I’ve struggled with that. I’m not sure what it means to be at war with a concept, or an idea. I am not sure what the boundaries of that war entail. I believe the country has struggled with this as well.

So why do we do it? How do we get stuck in this finger-pointing mentality? How do we distance ourselves so concretely from one another?

In my own personal theology, I believe that we all have a spark of he Divine within us. I think we all contain the Holy. To phrase it in terms of the larger UU faith, we all have inherent worth and dignity. Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his 1841 essay entitled “Over-Soul,” writes,

We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within man [or each individual] is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related, the eternal ONE. And this deep power in which we exist and whose beatitude is all accessible to us, is not only self-sufficing and perfect in every hour, but the act of seeing and the thing seen, the seer and the spectacle, the subject and the object, are one. We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are shining parts, is the soul.

I believe it is when we lose sight of these things, when we no longer see the divine spark, the inherent worth and dignity, the over-soul of all, that we do our worst, that we participate in war, famine, homelessness, hunger, lack of healthcare. It is when the "other" ceases to be human, that we become inhumane.

Why is it so difficult to acknowledge the divine spark, the inherent worth and dignity, the over-soul, of all? It’s hard because…it’s hard. When I feel passionately about something, when I am locked in my stance, the last thing I want to do is to see this person or this group of people with whom I disagree as people. I do not want to think that they are trying to do what they believe is best, that they are trying to help their families, that they are coming from a place of woundedness, or fear, or hope.

Looking at a situation or a relationship as more than cut and dry—looking at it as complex, looking at it as messy, is hard. It is much easier to believe that the Missourians of old were morally bankrupt and the Kansans were morally superior. It is easier to dismiss another political party rather than work through problems and find compromises. It is easier to pin the world’s problems on the newest immigrants rather than acknowledge the larger issues. It is easier for me to take pot shots at other faiths rather than to sit, talk, and reason through the disagreements.

It is much more challenging to say that while I do not agree with much Catholic theology, I have great admiration for the denomination's work building hospitals, and homeless shelters, and for their stands on worker justice.

It is easier to go numb to war, to think of loss in terms of faceless “casualties,” than to think of the deaths of fathers and sisters and grandparents, and children… It is much harder to put a face to such a staggering amount of death and pain. And yet, it is only when we humanize loss that we find our humanity as well. I think we can do better.

In this time of division, of political factions, of war, may we find our humanity. May we stay awake to the world around us. May we seek out the divine spark, the inherent worth and dignity, the piece of the over-soul in one another. For it is when we are awake, when we are curious, when we are not clear cut but messy, that we are truly alive.

May it be so, and Amen.

Monday, October 13, 2008

I Get By With A Little Help From My Friends

I had a bit of a frustrating week. My personal laptop died right when I moved to Missouri, and the laptop I was borrowing from my supervisor died this week. Granted, my laptop was 4 years old, and his laptop had just gotten back from the shop for doing the very same thing it ended up doing with me (in other words, I'm not in trouble for breaking anything), but it was really hard to be a broke grad student without a computer. I need a computer to write sermons, answer congregant's e-mails, figure out where hospitals are so I can make visits, and of course check my facebook account...

Anyway, just as I was starting to feel sorry for myself, three miraculous things occurred. One, my roommate Kent let me use his computer while he's at work or doing other things around the apartment, and I've been able to get by. Two, my dad and stepmom sent me a check to help cover the costs of a new laptop. And three, my friend Damienne sent me the following obituary, which made me laugh. A lot. In other words, just when I was feeling alone and cut off from the world, I realized that I wasn't alone at all. That's a pretty good feeling.

Without further ado, the obituary...

As we gather here to mourn the passing of our friend Anne's computer, let us call to mind all of the times shared... the good times, the bad times, the viruses, the lame emails, the occasional weird porn pop-ups when searching for something about sugar or babies... Eternal Computer Friend... be with Anne as she seeks to find meaning and comfort ... surrounding her loss - and alleviate any anxiety she might have about retrieving data... be with her as she travels the road of researching a new computer and figures out how to pay for it... and most of all, dance with her in her joy as she discovers the blessings of upgrades since her life was last enriched by the acquisition of her current, yet now deceased computer. We call upon the trinity of Microsoft, Apple and PC to surround our sister with knowing she has plenty of support - technical, information or emotional. Help her Obi Wan, you are her only hope...

Sunday, September 21, 2008

A Call To Worship

This is the call to worship I wrote for today's church service, which was about forthrightness and truth telling.

As we enter into worship, may we be loving towards ourselves, and towards each other, ever mindful of the myriad of ways in which we are connected.

May we be wise, and think through our actions, conscious of how our actions affect not just ourselves, but our church, our families, our communities, our planet.

May we be bold, willing to work through our fear, our anxiety, the things keeping us from fulfilling our potential.

May we be willing to take risks, to stretch and grow outside of our comfort zones, knowing that in the lottery of life, you must buy a ticket to win

May we tell the truth, for there is insight in the oft-quoted phrase, "We are only as sick as our secrets,"

May we silence the voices, telling us we need to have a cleaner house, a pricier
car, a more influential resume, the perfect parenting style, for this is a community of compassion and welcoming. You only need to bring yourself, and you do not have to pretend perfection to earn the love contained within these walls.

And, May we step on each others toes on a regular basis, for if we don't, we are not dancing, we are merely shuffling

Come, let us worship together.

Monday, September 8, 2008

My Newsletter Article

The following will appear in my church newsletter in October.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about “transitions,” and how we’re all perpetually in one. It seems like every time I turn around someone is transitioning from one job to another, from summer break to a school year schedule, from one apartment to another, or even from one mindset to another. The fall seems to be particularly rife with change as even the leaves on the trees begin their next phase—multicolored compost.

This fall the stakes are even higher as this country is about to transition from one President to another, and both major candidates have tried to bill themselves as change-makers. John McCain’s website places the quote “Country First: Reform, Prosperity, Peace” front and center, and Barack Obama embraces the slogan “Change You Can Believe In.”

As a church, I know that this congregation has faced quite a few transitions, from the loss of beloved congregants to changes in polity and church structure, as well as the new experience of having an intern minister. While some of these transitions have been exciting and positive, others have been heart wrenching and overwhelming. Regardless of the effect, change always comes with some grief for what was.

I must admit that part of my preoccupation with transition is that I recently went through several pretty big ones, leaving my friends, colleagues, and church community on the west coast to begin a new life and new ministry here. Usually a pretty easy-going person, I found myself anxious and preoccupied straddling two different cities, two sets of roommates, and two jobs. Even my cats were anxious, finding a way to hyperventilate through 6 states on the move from San Francisco to Kansas City.

While transitions seem pretty constant and inevitable, they also expose a pretty powerful asset in our human toolbox—each other. Even before I arrived in Kansas City, I was receiving dinner invitations and a “Welcome to Kansas” package from my internship committee. The effect was striking. While I was leaving one home, I knew that I was going to another. Imagine what the world could be like if we all felt so welcomed, so connected, so appreciated. Imagine the worldwide community that could be built. Imagine the hope and trust that could come from hospitality, from feeling connected even when we’re thousands of miles apart.

We’re all transitioning, all the time. We transition personally, as a church, as a country—the list in endless. It can be hard, liberating, ridiculous, exhilarating, and overwhelming. What seems to make the difference, what makes transition that much easier, is when we find a way to support each other through it. No matter what happens in the next month, the next year, the next 20 years, may we find ever-deepening ways to connect, to support, to ease our way through transitions. Change is constant, may connection and community be as well.

Friday, July 18, 2008


I met “Jeffrey,” an African American Baptist man in his mid 60s, on the Skilled Nursing Facility floor one grey, San Francisco afternoon in January. Jeffrey had come to the hospital because of complications from diabetes. His blood sugar level had been rising and falling too quickly, the wound from his leg amputation below the knee was not healing well, and he had just gone completely blind in one eye.

At first, Jeffrey was very formal with me. He smiled and told me he was “doing just fine.” Feeling there was a discrepancy between “doing fine” and “being in the hospital with a degenerative illness that was causing blindness, reduced mobility and independence, and dietary restrictions,” I decided to joke around with him a little in the hopes that he would be able to relax and share his story.

I found my chance when Jeffrey balled up a kleenex and tossed it easily into a trash can across the room. I replied, “For not having sight in one eye, your depth perception is pretty darn good.” Jeffrey paused for a moment, the statement surprising him. Then, he began to laugh. It was one of those deep belly laughs, and he laughed so hard tears began sliding down his face, stating, “Yes, yes, I can still make a basket!”

We began to talk about his long battle with Type II Diabetes, and how it had really caused him to make a lot of changes in his life. When I asked him what he looked forward to, what his future entailed, he began to speak of his neighborhood.

Jeffrey lives in a predominantly African-American neighborhood in San Francisco. Having lived there his whole life, he remembers looking to the male elders in the neighborhood for help and guidance, saying: “I remember when I was a boy, and I looked up to all the old folks. Now, all the old folks are gone. It’s just me, now I’m the old folks!” Looking around himself now, he realized that he was one of the elders. He realized that diabetes was becoming rampant in his medically underserved neighborhood, and that it was his turn to step up as one of the wise leaders in his community. Jeffrey spoke of his neighbors, men in their 30s and 40s with young children at home, who were already dealing with diabetes and its effects. Jeffrey realized it was time to intervene.

Jeffrey was grieving for his lost eyesight, for his independence, for times when he did not have to check his blood sugar several times a day. However, by connecting his loss with the losses faced by his larger community, Jeffrey was finding a purpose and a calling. He was finding that he had wisdom to share, and that it was his turn to be a prophet. Jeffrey took the strength he found from his community, and turned it into a quest to help his community. This calling, this feeling that his work was not done in this world, made all the difference in the world.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Thankfulness, In Perspective

A man decided to die today. He is not, by many standards, a remarkable man. In his 60s, he looks to be in his 80s. He is rough and grizzled from being HIV positive and homeless in San Francisco. He is too weak to speak very clearly, or loudly, or for very long.

He is one of those high-maintenance patients. He is restless, anxious, unable to keep still. Even after the nurses gave him anti-anxiety medication, he kept trying to stand and walk, teetering with his low blood pressure. He was restless not just being in the hospital, but being in his own body as well.

We breathed deeply together. He rejected guided meditation, unable to let his guard down enough to close his eyes or relax. He was a spring, tightly wound and ready to snap if he let go of his vigilance.

Afraid to be alone, he asked me to sit with him for a while. We sat, and I would lean forward to catch his ragged voice wheeze out a few more words. A few times, we prayed. He hoped for courage, that he might overcome the obstacles he needed to overcome. We were vague on the shape of the obstacles, as he could be trying to overcome impediments to his health…or impediments to his death.

He asked me to help him write a letter to his family. It began, “I sit here, unsure of what the eternity of morning will bring.”

It hit me then, a chilly breeze down my spine, how much this man and I have in common. While we are from different places in the world, practice different religions, are different ages, know none of the same people, and will likely never see each other again, I also sat there, unsure of what the eternity of morning would bring. We are all, on some level, unsure. We are all just making guesses, believing our own end so distant that we needn’t think about it too early, or too clearly.

When the man decided to refuse the surgery, the medical staff was unsure of what to do next. Their job is to help others heal. While watching others deteriorate into death is also part of the job, it is not as popular amongst the medical staff.

He talked of chances he wished he’d taken. The opportunities seemed like nothing at the time. It is only with hindsight, when ongoing illness makes the possible becomes impossible, and the unthinkable the daily reality, that such thoughts have a tendency to linger.

I heard a speaker recently talk about forgiveness. He said something to the effect of, “When we can’t forgive, it is not that we have seen too much suffering, it is that we haven’t seen enough." While our hurts and vulnerabilities can feel endlessly distressing, they are often quite minor compared to the hurts and the vulnerabilities of the world. The speaker gave the example of driving in rush hour traffic—it becomes much less stressful and overwhelming when we realize that we’re lucky enough to have a car when millions of people don’t even have food. It is when we put our problems into context that a mountainous obstacle becomes nothing more than a small hill, and a small hill is much easier to climb.

In the moment the man decided to die, it occurred to me how most of my problems are, in comparison, minor inconveniences. So I need to pack up my house and move cross country—I’m horrible at organization and pre-planning in stressful situations, but by the end of September it will be over. So I have student debt from seminary—I’ll get a job and pay it off over time. So I have errands to run, or bills to pay, or phone calls to make. All of the little things on my mind, all the decisions I’ve had to make today, pale in comparison to this man’s decision to die.

“I sit here, unsure of what the eternity of morning will bring.” Life? Death? Sunshine or fog? A phone call from an old friend? A piece of friendly gossip, whispered behind a hand? In what will I be disappointed? In what will I find grace, and thankfulness? What will the morning bring?