Wednesday, May 27, 2015

When There's Nothing Intelligent to Say

I’ll never forget a conversation I had with my dad many years ago. It was right after my grandfather--my mother's father--told me that he felt that my father dismissed him. The situation was this: My grandfather had lost his wife a couple months earlier and often came to tears. When my my grandfather teared up around my dad, my father looked away and didn’t say anything, and my grandfather interpreted this as my father thinking that he was crazy. 

When my parents and I were having lunch, my mom shared that her father felt that my dad just didn’t see him or understand him. My dad responded, “I don’t know why he’d think that!” So I explained the conversation I had with grandpa Carlson, that when he came to tears, my dad’s silence and looking away caused him anguish. My dad responded, “But there’s nothing intelligent to say.” 

Yes, in the face of human suffering, there is nothing intelligent to say. But this doesn’t mean there isn’t a response. Gestures of compassion and kindness are called for when we encounter another in pain or sorrow. 

Since that conversation, my father has become much more aware of people who are suffering with loss. But this takes practice and this takes unstuffing our own grief. Every encounter with someone in sorrow is an opportunity for connection, connection not only with others but our own deeper selves! 

We naturally avoid pain and seek to distance ourselves from it. It is discomforting to encounter someone in acute pain or sorrow to the extent we carry unresolved grief. But avoiding the pain that others feel leaves us distant from them--and ultimately from our true selves. 

The same goes for what’s happening in the world that is awful. When we witness suffering or oppression or negligence, we are liable to look away and not say anything--and push what’s real away from our own consciousness. When faced with how our planet is becoming inhabitable to many species and is changing because of the excessive use of fossil fuels, we are liable to look away, not say anything, and convince ourselves everything is okay. In the face of injustice and oppression and environmental degredation, there is nothing intelligent to say, only the response. Gestures of compassion and love, which may appear to many as righteousness and anger. But if we approach our justice work with attention, with care, and with a strategic vision, our responses can make a tremendous difference. 

Sometimes, what happens in the world is so awful, there isn't anything intelligent to say. There's only the response, affirming human dignity and standing with others who share our commitment to seeking compassionate witness and resistance in the face of the unspeakable.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

A Time for the Art of Remembering

What have you been forgetting these days? What small gestures or tasks or people have been overlooked? If you forget to pay your bills, there will be reminders, and painful penalties for late credit card payments. But what if you forget to call a friend or a relative? or share a goodnight kiss with your beloved? Its hard to forget to put on shoes, but so easy to forget to send a card to the grieving neighbor or friend. Forgetting is a common experience. 

In the typical rush of American life, we are prone to forgetting to take moments to touch deeply with what really matters. When we forget what is truly important in life, we lose some of our humanity. A core task of loving with courage is to intentionally take the opportunity to remember what is truly important. 

As I child, I went to a Unitarian Universalist congregation. There was no minister and no director of religious education. But every Sunday we sang hymns. And back then, we sang out of homemade song sheets. There were no notes, only words, but fortunately the melodies were usually pretty easy. The fellow who played the piano usually hit the right notes, but when he didn’t no one seemed to mind. 

There was one song that seemed to be sung more than any other: This is My Song, sung to the tune of Finlandia: 

This is my song, O God of all the nations, 
a song of peace for lands afar and mine. 
This is my home, the country where my heart is, 
here are my hopes, my dreams my holy shrine, 
but other hearts in other lands are beating 
with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine. 

My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean 
and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine,
but other lands have sunlight too, and clover,
and skies are everywhere as blue as mine.
O hear my song, though God of all the nations,
a song of peace for their land and fir mine.

This song captured the soul of that small congregation, a core kernel of faith. That song conveyed a profound degree of poignancy that we were articulating something truly sacred. I felt religious every time I sang it. You know what? I still do. 

Now this song doesn’t say the word love, but it is about love, agape love, the kind of love that Jesus talked about in his most difficult teaching, his teaching to love thy enemy. It is one of the most important teachings of Jesus to remember, and it is weaved into the origins of the holiday we celebrate this weekend.  

The history of Memorial Day goes back to communities in the south following the Civil War and their custom of decorating the graves of those who died in combat. In Columbus, Mississippi, the town’s cemetery contained the graves of soldiers from both the South and North. The women of the town decided to decorate all the graves, not just those from their side. It was a gesture of reconciliation to make no distinction between the political loyalties of the dead. Other towns followed suit. Soon the practice spread throughout the country and Memorial Day was made a national holiday. 

Those southern women who chose to honor all of the Civil War dead did so simply because these soldiers' lives were cut short by a willingness to put their lives on the line for something greater than themselves. The act of reconciliation of these women was blind to who was a winner or a loser, right or wrong, but instead they demonstrated an essential realization that if peace is to prevail, there must come a time when we all must move on together. We all must begin again in love.

Theologian Mary Daley, when she writes the word "remember," puts a hyphen between the "re" and the "member" to express the idea of knitting back together what had been torn apart, relearning a way of being in our body-minds, integrating knowledge that we had forgotten.

Our culture suffers from amnesia regarding the costs of war. Unitarian Universalist theologian Rebecca Ann Parker in Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering and the Search for what Saves Us (co-written with Rita Nakashima Brock) writes about a pastoral visit she made to the home of one of her parishioners, Maxine. Maxine tells Rebecca the story of her brother Lyle Gruntenmeyer and when he returned from combat in WWII. This is Parker's retelling of what Maxine told her:

"In 1945, Lyle came home from the war, the only veteran to return alive to the small town in Iowa he'd left to go to the Western front. The day he arrived home, the whole town came out to meet him. When the train pulled into the station, the band played. Family and friends waved and cheered, and the mayor stood ready to greet him. But the man who climbed off the train was not the cheerful, high-spirited boy who had gone off to war. The man who climbed off the train was a ghost. In response to the music and cheers, he stared back, mutely. His blank face did not register recognition of anyone -- not his mother, sister, or friend.

They took [Lyle] home to the farm. He sat in the rocker in the parlor. He wouldn't speak, he wouldn't sleep, and he would barely eat. No one in that town knew what was wrong. They just knew that Lyle's soul was lost somewhere.

Maxine told me she decided to keep her brother company. Whenever she could, she'd sit in the parlor with him and talk. She'd tell him the news from the hardware store in town, or about the potluck at church, who was there, which dress each young woman wore. She'd tell him how the clean laundry had blown off the line and into the tomatoes that morning. When she ran out of things to say, she'd just sit with him quietly, snapping beans or mending socks. Lyle was like a stone. No expression on his face. Rocking.

It went on like this for days that flowed into weeks and into months. Then one night, late, after everyone else had gone to bed, Maxine was sitting with Lyle, quietly knitting, when the eyes in Lyle's still face filled with tears. The tears spilled over and began to run down his face. Maxine noticed. She got up and put her arms around her brother. Held in his sister's embrace Lyle began to cry full force, great gusts of sobbing, and Maxine held him. Then he began to talk. He talked about the noise, the cold, the smoke, the death of his buddies. And then he spoke of the camps, the mass graves, the smell. He talked all night. Maxine listened.

When the morning light came across the fields, she went to the kitchen and cooked him breakfast. He ate. Then he went out and did the morning chores.

Maxine touched her Bible. "Weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning."

Memorial Day is a day for remembering. Remembering the ideals on which this country was founded, ideals of equality, freedom, ideals worthy of sacrificing for. Remembering those who have lost their lives in the service of these ideals. And remembering just how awful war really is, for everyone who participates. 

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Finding Purpose in Life

I don’t expect to be presented with the deepest questions of life by a newspaper columnist. Yet this is what David Brooks of the New York Times has done so adeptly. Over the last few weeks, he has published a couple columns that are worthy of not only poignant reflection but also personal response. 

On April 11, “The Moral Bucket List” blew my socks off. He started off expressing appreciation for people with a generosity of spirit and depth of character that many who enjoy career success, like himself, never achieve.
He then distinguishes between the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. “The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral--whether you were kind, brave, honest, or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?”

Brooks then acknowledges that although we are aware which are more important, our culture lulls and seduces to pursue the more pragmatic and often crass ones. And so he has sought to discover “how deeply good people got that way.” He concludes they are made, not born. That there is a “moral bucket list” of experiences that he seeks to deepen his own life.

He articulates this so well, I've got to share a little bit about each of them. Though I hope this will be enough of a teaser that you will reach through his elaborations on each!

The Humility Shift - “[A]ll the people I’ve deeply admired are profoundly honest about their own weaknesses. They have identified their core sin, whether it is selfishness, the desperate need for approval, cowardice, hardheartedness or whatever. ...”

Self Defeat - “[C]haracter is built during the confrontation with your own weakness. ...”

The Dependency Leap - “[P]eople on the road to character understand that no person can achieve self-mastery on his or her own. ... People on this road see life as a process of commitment making. Character is defined by how deeply rooted you are. ...”

Energizing Love - The kind of love that “decenters the self. It reminds you that your true riches are in another.” Brooks uses the example of Dorothy Day discovering this kind of love after the birth of her baby, before which she was so miserable and directionless that she had attempted suicide. But with this like of love, she made unshakable commitments in all directions.

The Call Within the Call - “[S]ome people have experiences that turn a career into a calling. These experiences quiet the self. All that matters is living up to the standard of excellence inherent in their craft.”

The Conscience Leap - “In most lives there’s a moment when people strip away all the branding and status symbols ... They leap out beyond the utilitarian logic and crash through the barriers of their fears.

I agree with Brooks that people “on the road to inner light do not find their vocations by asking, what do I want from life? They ask, what is life asking of me? ... Their lives often follow a pattern of defeat, recognition, redemption.” Moments of pain and suffering will lead us, if we are open, to radical self-understanding. “The people on this road see the moments of suffering as pieces of a larger narrative. They are not really living for happiness, as it is conventionally defined. They see life as a moral drama and feel fulfilled only when they are enmeshed in a struggle on behalf of some ideal.

A fabulous description of so many of us who seek to love with courage!

Then on May 5, Brooks published the Op-Ed column “What is Your purpose?” where he begins: “Every reflective person sooner or later faces certain questions: What is the purpose of my life? How do I find a moral compass so I can tell right from wrong? What should I do day by day to feel fulfillment and deep joy?”

At the end of the column he invites readers to respond to him about the following: “Do you think you have found the purpose to your life, professional or otherwise? If so, how did you find it? Was there a person, experience or book or sermon that decisively helped you get there? 

I had to respond. This is what I sent him:

The purpose of my life is to bring forth the vision of the Beloved Community as Martin Luther King expressed it--to foster justice, equity, and compassion in human relations. I believe we are here to learn how to love and love courageously. I strive to embody this conviction and invite/inspire others to do the same.

Twenty-two years ago, I was 24, longing to discern my life’s calling. I was on my way to medical school to become a child psychologist when I had the epiphany: “I don’t have to go to medical school.” After I got up the guts to shout this out loud, a knowing suddenly descended that I would pursue the Unitarian Universalist ministry and seek to bring forth prayerful commitments to healing both lives as individuals and the wider community in which I live.

I had been attending the First Unitarian Church of Oakland where the minister had grown up Jewish in Hyde Park, Chicago. I was hooked by his vision of racial reconciliation and promoting compassion, equity, and justice in human relations. His capacity to pray openly opened up a sense of great possibility. His stories, convictions, and clarity coupled with his honest reflections on the challenges of acting on these convictions was not only thrilling but inviting of ordinary little me to travel this journey.

My call to the ministry has never faded, though I regularly question whether I am capable of rising to the challenges at hand. 

I speak, teach, blog, and preach on where my own faith is challenged and where I struggle. I strive to create spaces for deep listening, honest sharing, and transformational ways of working with one another. I do all this for the sake of bringing forth the beloved community that fosters justice, equity and compassion in all human relations. 

Thursday, May 7, 2015

A video: Love with Courage

Love with Courage is usually only a click away.  Here is the first video! Check out   

So much is possible if we get to know one another and act together on our common commitments!