Monday, December 31, 2012

spiritual homelessness 3

Some of you may have read the following portion.  It's appeared, in slightly different form, here.
Part II:  What is my vocational calling?

Another story.  This past August I was coming home from seeing my counselor when I drove past an older woman on the opposite side of the road, taking a photograph of the geese who hang out at one of the local restaurants.  She had several knapsacks, so I figured her to be traveling.  I swung around at a gas station and pulled up and rolled down my passenger window. "Sister," I said, "Can I offer you a ride somewhere?"

She was about my age, maybe a little older. She wore glasses that looked small on her big face, braided her long hair streaked with grey in a ponytail down her back.  She wore an ankle-length denim skirt, high-top sneakers, and a flannel shirt rolled up to her elbows.  She giggled when she answered.  She said, "I was just taking pictures of the geese.  You never know when you'll see something like this again."

She asked where I was going.  I said, "Well, I'm heading home, but where are you going?"  She said, “Minneapolis,” and asked how far it was and I told her it was about an hour.  "Oh," she said.  "I guess I'd have a long walk."  She asked again how far I was going and in that moment I could have told the truth and said I was heading about 20 miles further (I did need some dog food there) and then dropped her off at the Minnesota border without an ounce of guilt.  Instead, I said, "Sister, I'll take you to Minneapolis." 

She tossed her things in the back seat and got in and we exchanged names.  Hers was Cora or it might have been "Coral.”  It’s not unusual, when on the road, to name yourself something that reflects how you think of yourself.   I was facing north when I picked her up and she was surprised when I turned around and headed back to the interstate:  "Isn't Minneapolis that direction?" she said, pointing back the way she'd been walking.

"No," I said. "It's west of where we are."  

"Oh, I would have had a very long walk and gotten nowhere!" she said. 

Almost immediately she told me she was a street preacher who ministered to the homeless, and that God had told her to leave her home a year and a half ago and take to the road.  I said I was also a preacher.  We asked what each other was.  She was "just Christian," she said, "Just Jesus out of the book."  She had heard of Unitarian Universalists and had met a few and been impressed by them.  She filled up nearly every second of our drive with talk and questions and confessions. 

She left her abusive husband, she said, about 5 years ago back outside Denver.   She had begun this trip 3 days before at a truck stop in South Dakota.  She was resting between rides and had been approached by a Jamaican woman whose husband was a trucker and who asked if she'd come home with them to help the Jamaican woman get herself together.  But then this woman had stopped taking her meds, Cora told me, and progressively got more and more aggressive, yelling and berating her, finally literally throwing her bags out of the truck when they'd stopped for gas at the station where I turned around.  Cora camped for two nights in the woods nearby, to pray and settle herself, before heading back out.  The night before she attended midweek services at a Lutheran church not far out of town—I know the place, it's a few miles from my house—and she'd heard from people there that there are a lot of homeless people in Minneapolis.  So Cora decided to head there next but apparently hadn't a very good idea of where it was in relation to that part of Wisconsin.  I told her she'd likely traveled through Minneapolis riding with the trucker and his wife. 

She had been born in Alsace-Lorraine, she said, but couldn't speak more than rudimentary French and German, and her mother was long dead.  Her father was ungodly, she said, and dead to her.  She'd grown up somewhere out west, she was very vague about where, and mentioned a daughter who was married.  I tried on occasion to ask about her family but it was like trying to blow into a whirlwind.  She was a talking machine, sometimes punctuating sentences with "Praise God!" and "Lord, that's your way!" and sometimes girlish giggles.  

She was attending an online bible college out of Australia run by an evangelical couple that delivered two types of courses, free and paid for.  She was taking the courses for free so she wouldn't get a degree but she didn't think that was important for the ministry she was doing.  She had no idea where she was going or what she would do when she got there except to preach the word to people as she could and if they'd listen and rely on their goodness.  She said that God and Jesus had kept her safe and healthy all her time on the road.  She didn't care much, she said, of what anyone else's opinion of her was, she would just be as crazy as Jesus wanted her in order to do his work.  I told her she was a fool for Christ.  She allowed she'd never heard that phrase but she thought it suited her perfectly, and she repeated the phrase several times during our ride.

She asked me about Unitarian Universalism and I gave her a short answer about no one knowing about an afterlife but we know we have this one and it's important how we treat each other here.  She thought that was wonderful and wanted to experience a UU service so I told her where the nearest congregation was in the area where I would drop her off.  She mentioned her reliance on libraries several times so I told her the perfect spot I could think of was at one end of Nicollet Mall by the county library.  She said that sounded perfect.  When we got there I pulled off to the side of the street and helped her unload and then shoulder everything, We exchanged hugs and "God bless you”s, and I watched her waddle around the corner before driving off and heading back home.

Later, my wife would ask me "Do you think she was crazy?" and I'd answer, "Yes."  Cora mentioned having refused to take mental health exams in order to receive social services, claiming that Second Timothy says you can't be both crazy and a Christian, and since she was Christian she wasn't crazy.  I failed to find this suggestion in Second Timothy or anywhere else in the Bible. 

But on a larger, communal scale, did I think she was a danger to herself or other people?  Not for a second.  She seemed to have a solid understanding of her life on the road and what it entailed, and if she didn't have it when she started, by this time she had.  She seemed to know how to stay safe—she told me she'd never been physically harmed by anyone and I believe her—and when to recharge her energies.  After all, she'd spent a couple nights alone in order to pray and "get herself together."  She didn't seem too concerned about getting anywhere in particular or about getting something done.  She wasn't upset when she found she'd been heading in the wrong direction.  She seemed content to drift along, going where her God sent her and doing what she thought her God wanted her to do.

From what she told me what her God wanted from her isn't very different from what my God wants from me:  Serve people andhelp them be as human as possible.  She didn't want anyone to stop doing anything he or she wasn't interested in stopping, just maybe to think about doing something else and offering to be with them while they went about their lives.  She seemed extraordinarily happy and she said she wasn't on any medications—since she was not crazy—and didn't do drugs or alcohol or smoke.  She just liked people, she said. 

I have known many preachers in my life, and many of them I would model myself after, but Cora’s way of being with people seems the most satisfying for me.  It was on meeting her I began to have first thoughts about shifting what I have always assumed is my calling—that of a parish minister who spends much time on the streets and opens the church to local homeless and troubled—to a minister whose parish is the streets among the homeless and addicted.  It’s a subtle but informed shift as it moves my perspective from bringing others inside with me to being outside with them. 

Saturday, December 29, 2012

spiritual homelessness 2

Part I:  What is my understanding of the church and its mission?
I tell stories in order to make sense of life.  That’s also the impetus behind all scripture.  I’d like to believe in a personal God, a God who cares about me as an individual or even as a member of humanity.  I envy evangelicals and Pentacostals their experience of a relationship with an outside force interested in their well-being.  My experience has been what Keith Russell[1] describes as the Peterine, a home for the homeless.  It often seems there’s no one home but there’s the need for a home. The God I’ve experienced displays little sympathy for the poor and oppressed and helpless, doling out greater and harsher conditions on them, while offering people like me better and warmer conditions than we deserve.  Such a God shruggingly kills and disappears nearly a thousand people in the aftermath of a typhoon inthe Philippines while caring enough to shift the course of a tropical storm to avoid a political gatheringin Tampa.
            What’s the purpose of worship for such a God?  Is it to placate, to ameliorate God’s anger?  It might seem so if the only reason people got together was to celebrate such a God.  But it’s obvious this God doesn’t take comfort from the worship of people in one of the most religious regions, southeast Asia, or the power of prayer would have had a greater effect on Typhoon Bopha.  “For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering,” the Psalmist tells us.  “’The multitude of your sacrifices--what are they to me?…I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats,’” exclaims the Isaiah writer.
The purpose of church, in my experience, is to provide an indwelling for comfort and succor to people by people.  “Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind.  Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called—that you might inherit a blessing... [Who] will harm you if you are eager to do what is good?  But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed,” the writer of 1st Peter tells us. While I may not recognize a personal God, one that’s got anyone’s interests at heart, I see plenty to indicate a force that binds us together.  It is a connective spiritual tissue that, like a holy game of “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,” provides a conduit for nurturing the spark that brings me in greater relation with you. 
            When I came to United Seminary, and for most of the time I’ve been here, it’s been with the intention that I would serve a congregation that practiced that ideal, one where the Peterine work of being a home to the homeless was the reason to get together each week.  After all, I had already served as pastor to several congregations where, while everyone knew it was hard work to bring about what Unitarian Universalists call the Beloved Community, they also knew it would be ultimately rewarding and where, while most refused making the difficult changes that we knew could result in what we wanted, they nonetheless paid lip service at least to the need for those changes.  My intent was that if I kept at them, they would make the changes. Incrementally. 
            But as I’ve been here and as I’ve studied and watched the changes in congregationallife, not only in my own faith but in other faiths, I’ve come to realize this:  It is too late for those changes to make a difference.  Of course, congregations aren’t going away in the immediate future—and in the long run, something like what we’ve come in the past couple centuries to see as the common experience of communal gathering will remain in some form—but they are dying as swiftly as their eldest members.  This isn’t a bad thing.  Like Spanish becoming the most-spoken language in the US or the surge of minorities eventually overtaking white people as the dominant Americans, it is simply how things are. 
            But a question I asked several weeks into this class and based on our study of DianaButler Bass’ Christianity After Religion has stuck with me:  As churches are changing, as congregations become less “religious” and more “spiritual,” require fewer experts and authorities to imbue what rituals remain with holiness, what reason will they have to hire ministers?  After all, if it’s true, as Butler Bass articulates, that “Everyone is in the same situation:  a religious bear market.  Indeed, the first decade of the twenty-first century could rightly be called the Great Religious Recession,”[2] then is it any wonder seminaries find themselves in terrible fiscal straits and mainline, otherwise well-to-do denominations must ask their executives toresign if the money just isn’t coming in? My faith has retained a lot of its Christian roots, including its predilection for ministers, but many Unitarian Universalist congregations are proudly independent of regular ministerial oversight, and while there remains the assumption that a congregation that chooses to call a full-time minister has made it, many staunchly refuse to or at best look for someone part-time.
            I’ve had two previous professional horses shot out from under me—first as a bookseller and then as a professor—and don’t look forward, in my early 50s, to having it done a third time.  There’s the money aspect, of course, but there’s also the sense of being a part of something larger and greater than myself, which is why I choose to serve in the first place.  I’ve studied this situation a lot—I’ve even written sermons about it—and none of the answers I can come up with suggest the long-term fiscal viability of parish work.  It’s for this reason I’ve chosen to seek another option.

[1] Russell, Keith.  In Search of the Church:  New Testament Images for Tomorrow’s Congregations.  Alban Institute.  1994.
[2] Butler Bass, Diana.  Christianity After Religion:  The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening.  New York; Harper Collins.  2012:  20.

Friday, December 28, 2012

spiritual homelessness 1

I've been busy writing this past semester, although little of it has ended up here.  But as a final requirement I've taken a course called final integrative seminar which is meant to pull together many of the threads of my years at seminary.  The exam for this course is what's called a "statement of ministry," and while it may be precocious to call it that--I don't have much of a statement to make about something unless I've been directly involved in it for a long time--it's somewhat accurate.  I'll publish it in 4 sections starting today.

Spiritual Homelessness

My Statement of Ministry

Introduction:  What is my understanding of God?

Like all stories about God, this is a story about loss.  I knew an artist named John Wolfe back east in the 80s.  He was one-legged, had had the other blown off in Vietnam, had a family, a wife, a little girl, and an awfully big talent.  One of the few New Paltz artists to have his own studio, separate from where he lived and not on campus.  He worked in oils primarily.  He didn’t want an artificial leg but hobbled around on two metal canes that ended in cuffs on his forearms, his good right leg, and his stump. 

            He told me a story that took place in the 70s.  He’d just gotten out of the service a few years before, after losing the leg, and was down and out New York.  He couldn’t take it anymore, he said, drinking all the time, angry as hell, in pain when he wasn’t high.  He was sick of people, sick of life, and sick of people in his life, so he decided one night to just get out. 

            “I wanted,” he said between puffs from his Marlboro, “I wanted to be away from people, but not away from people.  You know what I mean?  I was tired of civilization or tired of the people in it.”  He took another drag and stared off into the distance, even though all he could see across the street was the library and the bar.  “People shot at me, they took my leg.  I didn’t blame people, I blamed civilization, or what civilization done to them.  I hated that.” 

            He stubbed out the Marlboro and shook another from the pack into his mouth.  He was fair-haired, wispy bangs blown across a boyish face that was too trusting to live for long on the streets.  His eyes pincered up.  “I got together a lot of money, I don’t know, couple hundred.  Be honest, I don’t remember where I got it from.  Saved it, borrowed it.  Might have stolen some, who remembers back then?”

            He lit the Marlboro, took a long drag, and handed it to me.  I took a single toke—that’s all I did with cigarettes—and gave it back.  He stubbed it back in his mouth and talked around it.

            “I’d heard about this place, down on the Yucatan Peninsula.  Tiny town, no one goes there.  I took a flight to Mexico City, took another flight east to another town.  Had to rent a burro take me up to another town where I caught another flight.  Caught a helicopter from there, one of those passenger things, got a fat belly and room for thirty.  Picked me up from one mountain top and took me across to another mountain top.” 

            He was off in another world by then, watching people come in and out of the library and either head for their cars or the bar next door.  We were sitting in front of the bank, the nicer one in town, but the people inside had never seemed to mind anyone leaning against their wall so we leaned.

            “Whole other air up there.  I could feel like, like my lungs were filling up with something else, something I’d never breathed before.  Something people were really supposed to breathe.  I couldn’t wait for them to open the door.”

            A guy we knew came out of the bar and waved at us.  We shrugged back.  “I was standing on the ledge when the dude opens the door.  What do I see directly across the tarmac?”

            I grinned.  I knew it wouldn’t be good.

            “McDonald’s arches.”  John took a final drag like he’d sucked all the bitterness out of the Marlboro and flicked it in the street. 

            “Did you stay anyway?”

            “Course I did.  I’d put a lot into this place or what I thought it was going to be.  But it ended up it wasn’t nothing.”  He grabbed his cuffs and we headed up the street.  “I came back, started doing some reading, some meditating.  That’s when I started reading Buddhism.  Started painting.  That was the only way I could find that place.”

            John’s canvases were landscapes or cityscapes, sometimes abstractions.  He took life drawing classes on occasion to keep his hand in, but his real work was depopulated, places where people had been and gone.

            I said, “No people?” 

            “No civilization.  People I can handle.  It’s what being around other people does to them I don’t like.”

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

johnny thunders died for your sins!

I don't remember where or when it was that I first heard this song--I suspect it was when I heard about the death of Kristy MacColl--but "Fairytale of New York" is now one of those songs I need to rehear every Xmas season.  It's a reminder, as some of us need it, that there is always another Christmas others experience.

Monday, December 24, 2012

god is nancy lanza

this is a short essay that appeared a few days ago on one of the websites I visit daily--in fact, since I've started cutting much of the stress out of my life, the only political website I visit daily--and I thought it was very good.  What fascinated me, however, is the number of vicious comments posted responding to it.

I suppose I'm wrong in conceiving that, whatever guilt might ultimately be hers, we could join together in wishing Nancy Lanza a peaceful afterlife (whatever that might be), but the comments suggest I am not only wrong about that assumption, but I damn the children and adults killed by wishing it.  Maybe it's only religious people--and by that I mean people who study religion and not people who call themselves religious, although the 2 groups are often joined--who can conceive of people who do evil things but are nonetheless forgiveable, especially on their deaths.  I don't want to seem glib about that; I am myself unforgiving toward Ronald Reagan for the evil he perpetrated while president, so I'm not making myself a whitehat in this situation. 

But as I said a week ago, God is Adam Lanza.  God is also his mother Nancy.  We still know painfully little about why Lanza committed the act he did and we haven't any further clue why his first victim was his mother.  Equally, we don't know what she hoped to accomplish by teaching him how to fire automatic weapons or how avidly she followed the "prepper" subculture she joined.  All we have are fantasies of her involvement and her guilt and those can't be substituted for unknowns.  We do not only Lanza's victims, but Adam and Nancy Lanza themselves, and ultimately God and reality itself, a disservice by parceling out blame like porridge.  All we know is that Adam Lanza killed his mother with her own guns and then killed other people and children and finally himself.  We may never know anything more than that and to speculate about his mother's invovlement in his act is wrong.  It's to try to tie a vivesected animal back together with a pretty bow and so pretend this is how the original product looked.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

santa in the rain

There are things you encounter out here on the rim you might expect only to see elsewhere.  One of them is a fellow silently standing along one of the overpasses to the interstate in a Santa costume with an American flag beside him.  That seems only the sort of thing you'd see, say, in the midst of the hub.

But he's been there a couple years at least, and when I passed him--twice--on Sunday--the first time at 9 and then again as I returned at 1:30--I recognized him for the first time as a local example of a mashup of memes we'd grown accustomed to here.  It was raining at that point, a mist steadily pouring out of the fog that surrounded us, and then it gradually tapered off to a dry patchy fog that seemed to coat everything with that odd texture of the chemical we used to spray on Xmas decorations to simulate snow.

Where I was going to and coming home from was the UU church I serve sometimes in the hub.  I'd had a conversation with my wife, who is interning with a UCC church north of there, and we'd agreed that after the shooting on Friday, I ought to be with the people who look to me for spiritual help.  It's one of the most important, non-aligned, quiet thing I think I do as a minister:  simply to be present with people when something difficult happens.

They had scheduled a talk by a local organic farmer, Atina Diffley, whose book, Turn Here Sweet Corn, chronicles the 30 years she's been a part of a farm that began a century ago with the family of her partner.  Her speech, and I don't think she'd planned it this way but how can you avoid drawing a connection with it, turned out to be a good example of the sort of hope and work for change we can take part in to make a difference in the face of overwhelming resistance.

Other people have noted the nearly irresistible force which the National Rifle Association has been--and when I was growing up, it was still only becoming that--and most of us take it as a given that attempts on the order of the Brady Center.  I admit to bias:  I want guns removed as much from our public places as possible.  There are too many opportunities for wrongful use and accident to convince me otherwise.  I don't want them completely removed from society--there's a place for weapons whose only purpose is to kill in our culture--but that place is neither in schools nor bars nor malls.

I'll be the 1st to admit I am scared shitless by guns.  Pistols, shotguns, semiautomatic rifles:  they all have the same effect on me.  They make my skin itch.  I understand they don't do that for others--my wife grew up in a gun-friendly culture and she's expressed her wish to inherit her dad's hunting rifle, the one he taught her to shoot with, when he dies and maybe display it.  I eat venison supplied to me by the brothers-in-law and nephews and nieces whose joy is their annual hunt together.  When I was a kid I had multiple BB guns and loved shooting targets (I won't say I got very good at it) and in high school I remember a gun-repair course that was one of the options in shop.  You signed up, got your parents' permission, and brought your malfunctioning weapon to school to learn to fix it.  That's probably led to a pretty good hobby or calling for some of those guys.

Neither do I begrudge the neighbor who collects guns or the cop who has to carry one to keep the peace.  But I'll admit I don't feel safe around them.  I don't think they'll turn them on me but they might.  It's been known to happen.  And unlike a lot of people who aren't in the military or involved in crime I've been shot at.  I know already what my response is when faced with a person shooting at me.  It is to piss my pants.  I don't think 30 years have changed much about that reaction.

That digression aside, Atina's talk was mainly about engaged optimism, a term coming from British eco-philosopher Rob Hopkins, a transitional culture idea which is  "a bottom-up approach to the creation of community resilience; the ability to withstand shocks at the local level. It [is] a solutions-focused and positive response.." to the problems communities face. It is, she suggested, this "sitting with" the problem and with the people who are involved in finding the solutions to it that mark the engagement as likelier to be positive rather than harmful to anyone concerned.  There will be inconvenience--that can almost never be avoided or there wouldn't be a conflict about the solution in the first place--but there should not be harm.

I don't know how this might work in relation to the shootings in Newtown.  We are only now learning that things we understood initially might not be quite right.  That rather than being involved with the school, Lanza and his mother had cut their ties to it when he was younger.  That his mother may have been involved in fringe "prepper" culture that many of us are only now learning about.  What is most disturbing to us, in this culture of near-instant communication and information, is that we simply don't know, and may never really know, why he did what he did.  This explains why so many crazy ideas about his motivation or why it "really happened" are floating around.  Ignore them or, if you must, read them and pass on.  

Stick to what is important.  Noticing things--like Santa Claus in the rain, like what is happening in your community--and pay attention because you love one another.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

God isn't only the rose and not the thorn

I may read too many political and news blogs.  The past 30 hours have been a blur to me of information, speculation, frustration, anger and righteousness.  There is an appalling amount of what we don't know about the killing of children and adults in Newtown, CT.

Here is what little we do know:  Around 9:30 a.m. Friday morning, a young man eventually identified as Adam Lanza of Newtown and "forced his way"--as yet police haven't explained what that means--into the elementary school.  Apparently, he began immediately shooting indiscriminately with a high-powered rifle.  According to the BBC, the shooting only took a few minutes and then stopped abruptly.  Adam Lanza apparently took his own life after killing 27 people, more than 2/3 of them children, most of them girls, between the ages of 6 and 7.  All the adults killed were women.

The most frustrating word in the above is "apparently," but it's a very apt word because we don't really know, in this age of 24/7, microdetailed news, exactly what has happened.  We are more certain about what we don't know.  Why did Adam Lanza carry his older brother's identification card, which is why he was originally misidentified?  Why did he kill his mother, who may or may not have been a substitute teacher at the school, at their home before going to the school, which act, maddeningly, we are assuming?  Why did he target the local elementary school and, once there, target small children?  Why was he armed with both the rifle and 2 handguns, which he did not fire?

This is a particularly disturbing fact:  Dr. Wayne Carver, the medical examiner who reported his findings to news organizations and who did autopsies on several of the children, said that at least 2 of them were shot at close range, and that many of them had been hit between 3 and 11 times.

At least among my Facebook friends, the primary emotion, after shock, has been despair.  Why has something like this happened, they ask, and why is someone so obviously unhinged been allowed to have access to such murderous weapons?  We also don't know the answers to either of these questions, although it's very possible, in relation to the second question, that Lanza may have never shown any sign of being mentally ill.  The guns were his mother's.

Many of my friends are also insisting that this is the time to enact major gun control legislation, a perspective with which I'm in sympathy, but another friend who's a gunowner's rights advocate has pointed out that, short of making any gun purchase illegal, no control would have had an impact on this incident.  So far as we know, Lanza's mother bought the weapons legally and may have had them locked away safely.  I think he's right about that, too.  We don't know how Lanza got access to them.

However, I am convinced now is the time to have the argument, fierce and angry and costly as it will be, we keep putting off about gun control.  As someone else has pointed out, the perfect time for this conversation was before this incident happened; now is the second most perfect time.  But we also need to have a theological conversation.

Many of my Facebook friends are seminarians and rabbis and ministers and chaplains.  We link one another to articles and advice lists about how to talk about this with children and with each other.  The despair we feel is a consequence of a very real sense we have that god is somehow absent from the events, although how that can be, while god is also somehow involved in all situations, fucks with our heads.  Ecological theologian Sallie McFague has argued that religion has two primary criteria:  "It has to make sense and it has to make a difference."  It also has to take into account the painful, unnecessary deaths of children.  This isn't that religion.  

Theodicy has a long, storied history among monotheisms.  But it isn't only Christians and Jews and Muslims who are asking "Where was God?" in Newtown.  For an agnostic Unitarian like myself who sees everything related, there is no comfort to be had in the recognition that, whatever god is, god was there and involved.   In my cosmology, god is the teachers who shielded their students with their bodies, and god is the children whose bodies were defiled.  God is the school that Lanza forced himself into and god is the person who made the 911 call and the police and EMTs who responded to it.  God is Dr. Wayne Carver and other M.E.s who have to examine the broken bodies of children.

But god is also the bullets that flew, 6 per second, from that powerful rifle.  God is also the .223 Bushmaster assault weapon, a gun developed specifically for combat and has no other use, that Lanza used.  God is also Adam Lanza.

This isn't very comforting, I'll admit.  It's not a theology that says, "It's all for the best, they're with Jesus now," or "If only we'd done something different it would have never happened," both of which are a false comfort at best.  But I don't think god is about comfort, at least not for most people.  God is about living and dying, sometimes painfully.  God is about reality and the real experiences people have which can involve having a gun pointed at them and being the one pointing the gun. If we accept that god is real in the world then we have to accept that god is everything real in the world.  God isn't only the rose and not the thorn.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

thanksgiving wedding homily

Without a doubt my favorite ministerial activity is marrying people.  For me it is more than simply the ritual and the single day of joining them together; I delight in the months of planning, the meetings and getting to know the couple, their histories together and apart, their concerns and hopes.  There is little more exciting than sitting together with them over coffee and talking about why they've decided to make their union an official and legal one, why they choose one another.  Then the sitting down part, writing the homily.  Below is my most recent, written for a couple whose male half I've known since teenagerhood.  Each of them has had issues and difficulties they've had to process and, after confronting their problems alone, have realized another person will meet them with them.  I've often said it's an honor to be with someone as she dies; it's equally an honor to be with people as they come together.

Marriage Homily
There is a symmetry to marrying a day before Thanksgiving.  Doing so ensures that in the future you will never be able to celebrate the one without thinking about the other. Both of you have celebrated other thanksgivings in the past with other families—your families of origin, families of friends, and for both of you, families composed of other partners.  But from today forward you will celebrate this time of year with a new family composed of the members you are responsible for having brought together.  The two of you plus your children you bring to this union. 
How similar this is to the legend of the First American Thanksgiving.  We’re all familiar through repetition of it in school and in popular culture.  How the Wampanoag tribe, neighbors of the early settlers, took pity on their starving neighbors and showed them better and more efficient crop-planting procedures, and how the grateful Pilgrims repaid that kindness with a huge shared feast.  Whether or not this is accurate is beside the point:  it makes for a good story.  Sometimes a good story is better than history. 
In the future you will tell other people similar good stories.  The story of visiting the bar with friends where the other was DJing and realizing the two of you were the only sober people in the place.  The story of your little week away from the world in Amsterdam where you decided to betroth to one another but not to tell anyone else.  You may have had some indication as you grew closer that your growing relationship would become this melding of two separate tribes, a sort of contemporary Brady Bunch.
But like the coming together of the English and Dutch Pilgrims and the Native Wampanoag, you will have periods of discord and fights.  As all tribes come together there are problems.  You are two individuals who have made your own ways in the world, raised children on your own, lived your own lives.  You are too strong to submerge all your choices and opinions in favor of the other.  As you’ve put it, you don’t feel a need to front for each other.  You recognize your own selfishness for your time together.  Sometimes that selfishness will require you to have some of that time apart.  That’s as it should be.  You’re like two trains that have come cross-country separately, each with your own complement of baggage cars, and now are joining to make the rest of the trip together.  Such a union is expected to have creaks and groans and periods when nothing fits.
But if there is one thing I would wish for you it would be that you always remember it’s better to be happy than to be right. In the future I hope you give thanks for the blessings of relationship and love.  Human beings long to be in community, yearn for companionship, but keeping it is never easy.  In the years ahead there will be times of conflict and sometimes of trial.  That is as it should be.  There will also be times of joy and exultation.  That is also as it should be.  I hope for you that the joys will outnumber the trials.  The two of you are become a union.  The six of you are become a union.  Keep your union strong. 

Friday, November 23, 2012

teach naked


I've no clue where this quote came from--I've done a cursory background search and, aside from this quote, there seems no information on Alexandra K. Trenfor otherwise--but that doesn't diminish from the truth of what she, or someone who attributes it to her, said. 
Similarly, I'm rereading Parker Palmer's Healing the Heart of Democracy, and came across the following wisdom:  "No educational task is more important than helping students reflect on realities larger than their own egos."  This was always, although I never articulated it the way Palmer has, the impetus behind my teaching and I hope that came through to most of my students.  I'm learning to translate this now to everyday life; that's harder and less often rewarded, I've found, but no less rewarding.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

it is time for us to be prophets

I am an unabashed liberal.  I have been reading in a number of places and hearing from a number of people that now, on the other side of political victory, it is time to lead our nation to heal, to draw us back together into a single community. 

It is not. 

No, it is time to press our advantage for all it is worth and remind our opponents--by which I don't mean Romney-supporters but supporters of hurtful policies and beliefs who may have supported Romney or not but certainly supported the losing side--that they are finally, undeniably, irrecoverably wrong.

We should model ourselves on the prophets of the Older Testament who did not suggest that the way to save the Hebrew people was for everyone to get over their differences and see one another's point of view.  Deborah reminds the general Barak(!) that victory comes to the one who takes presses a situation's advantage.  Amos directs his angry words at the "fat cows" who "oppress the poor and crush the needy."  Jeremiah railed against the false prophets and their followers, "They were not even ashamed at all; They did not even know how to blush...I will pour out their own wickedness on them." 

It is time for us to be prophets, to tell them that they are wrong.  Those who believe Fox News tells them the truth; they are wrong.  Those who are convinced the president was born in a foreign country and is an illegitimate leader; they are wrong.  Those who behave as if "God helps he who helps himself" is a Biblical teaching; they are wrong.  Those who are certain that a ring and pledge of purity will somehow keep teen pregnancy at bay; they are wrong.  Those who think that their casual racism is somehow protected self-expression; they are wrong.  Those who feel themselves "taxed enough already"; they are wrong.  It is time to stop being humble about our views, as if they are somehow less-realistic, less-rigorous, less-accepted by the American people. 

We won and we won big.  We saw more clearly where the country is headed and what people are concerned with.  We must not be embarrassed by our having been right.  We are the ones with vision and we are the ones who have been proved right.  We may not be right in the future--in fact, about some things we are as certain to be wrong in the future as we are right now.  But we are right today.  Own that. 

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

homily in a time of soul-stirring victory

I have a number of friends and acquaintances who are conservative, both politically and religiously, and many of them crossed party and denominational lines to return President Obama to office and to overturn some poor legislation that limited others' rights.  For them, the benefit to other people trumped their own views of sound economic policy or morality.

This is hope of my faith, that when it comes down to the edge of the knife, I will do what helps rather than hurts another person.  The point of a faith or a moral code is to help you learn to live a better life, and most say the way to do that is through providing a better life for others.  In very practical, desert-island-type terms, we have nothing if not one another.

Most people understand this.  It's why they vote in the first place.  I'm convinced the policies of the Obama Administration are beneficial to the majority of American people, even if, in the words of the Reagan soundbite, I'm worse off than I was four years ago.  Bad as things are for me, they aren't all that bad.  I'm voting to help the people worse off than I am. 

A lot of people don't see it that way and that's all right.  To paraphrase something from my tradition, we don't have to vote alike to love alike.  A lot of those people are hurt and bruising this morning, the  same way me and my friends were hurt and bruising in 2004.  It's part of our faith, not just as social and religious liberals but as people who care about other people, to be kind to them.  That does not mean we don't point out to them they're wrong because everyone, all the time, needs to give what he and she believes a thorough airing-out, especially after a resounding public defeat.  But it does mean we don't rub their faces in it or taunt them.  It's hard not to do that; I'm already guilty of it myself.  It's a human response to celebrate victory over an opponant especially when that opponant has led you a hard race.  So while we need to get that out of our systems, we can't let it become our sole response to this victory.  We learned something from the way the president responded to his victory, tweeting, not a snide dismissal of the opposition or a glorification of himself, but the words "four more years"--no emphasis--and a photo of he and his wife embracing.  That is what an election ought to be about: embracing one another.  There's a time for celebration--we've earned it--and then there's work. 

If you were on the victors' side, take this opportunity to cheer.  Cheering is good for the lungs.  If you were not, be as gracious in defeat as you would have expected of us.  And then smile, embrace, and get to work.  We have a hell of a lot to do.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

alternatives to church

My wife is interning at a United Church of Christ near the hub and this past Sunday they hosted Allan Law, founder of the 363 Days Food Foundation, a group devoted to helping to feed the homeless.  Law is an interesting guy, a retired teacher who has for years spent his nights driving around giving out sandwiches that would otherwise be tossed out from convenience stores to people he saw on the streets.  Now he spends his days coordinating efforts by groups, usually church affiliated, to make thousands of sandwiches which he then delivers to the folks he serves.

I had the opportunity to spend Sunday listening to a Unitarian minister from Transylvania, a sister group to American Unitarian Universalism, but very different (European Unitarianism remains staunchly a Christian faith).  That would have been more than fascinating, I could have drank her words for hours, I'm sure, and friends of mine who did attend her service praised it highly.  But I'm happier I spent the half hour bagging sandwiches.  I felt part of something larger, part of feeding people I'll probably never see or know, but whose gratitude I feel (as I hope they feel my gratitude for their allowing me to do this for them).  While I was in a church doing this, I was serving something outside the church's provenance, something more like the larger fellowship of which I like to feel a part.  It's a little thing, putting handmade sandwiches into a bag to be frozen for future distribution; but its effects are not so little.  Someone is fed.  It may be akin to the "feeling" of nature or god  when an acorn drops to the ground.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

a new direction

The vocation of ministry is a holiness and a gift; it is being a voice for justice for those who have no voice; it is a calling to compassion and service; it is directed to the healing of the wounded, the finding of the lost, the binding up of the broken, and the nurturing of all in justice; it is the work of scholarship and proclamation and teaching; it is the constant struggle against the abuse of power, the resistance to the temptation of false ministry, and the surrender of one's life to trust in God; it is a life lived in prayer and the strong word of God; it is a life marked by servanthood.

I've operated the past years in seminary under the assumption that what I was working toward has been parish ministry.  That's been because I'm familiar with it, having already served as the spiritual leader for a congregation and having attended churches and temples and mosques and synagogues for decades (even when there were large stretches between visits).  But recently, probably because I'm nearing graduation and the insistent tug to get serious about how I want to serve people, I've begun to see the way parish work is morphing into something else, and I'm not entirely certain there's a place for me in it as it changes.

I love being a preacher, writing sermons, visiting people, being a leader.  But I'm also realizing that that isn't the only way I can serve people effectively, especially the people I want to serve, and maybe won't have the opportunity to do so anyway.  As a result, I've decided to shift my attention to chaplaincy.  My clinical pastoral experience was not bad by any stretch of the imagination, and while I did it without once thinking it would become what I wanted to do, having come to that decision in the past few days has been very quieting.  I think my service is better when focused directly on one or two people at a time (although I thrill to large crowds and don't think I'll ever give up giving sermons or performing weddings and funerals).  

I've had a difficult time dropping the image of myself primarily as a teacher but as time passes by and I am not in front of classes, I'm finding it--not exactly easy, but less painful, less a sense of loss.  I'm feeling much the same about church work.  I don't think what I'm meant to do is to start a new church or new way of being together, which is what I think needs to be done by pastors in the future.  I'm best at making peoples' lives as solid as possible, to remind them they aren't alone.  This is my ministry.

Monday, October 22, 2012

predictions for unitarian universalism

While I was writing my sermon for Sunday on the changes I see in the offing for churches, I went off on a two page tangent of predictions for Unitarian Universalism.  I really have no basis for these beyond my observations, trends, some knowledge of history, and my understanding of human behavior.  Thus, there isn't anything to link to in order to make anything clearer or to inform anyone of what I'm thinking.  They're the written equivalent of doodling.

If I had to offer up predictions based on history and the trends I see, they would be at best educated guesses. No one could have seen the development of UU into what it is fifty years ago and likewise no one can guess what our grandchildren will make it. But if I had to these are my guesses.

For our faith: I suspect we’ll either disappear almost completely, except for a couple thousand adherents scattered among big cities or we’ll be subsumed back into liberal Christianity. The disappearance would likely be for the same reasons as the disappearance of the Universalists, that our basic premise of treating each other well in the here and now, irrespective of an afterlife or a deity, will have become so ubiquitous that there won’t be a reason for something exclusively devoted to it. Alternatively, we could find ourselves needing to merge with another religious group in order to continue and the ones I suspect we would have the most points of contact with would be the United Church of Christ or the Disciples of Christ, although both of those groups might also find themselves in the same straits we would be in.

For our corporate body, if we continue on our own: I’m pretty certain there will be no brick-and-mortar UU fellowships or churches, again with the exception maybe of some of the larger congregations in big cities like Boston or St. Louis where the membership might still number a thousand or more. But the rest of us will likely meet through the auspices of something like the Church of the Larger Fellowship, an umbrella group that prepares and delivers services, probably over Skype or something like it. We tend to like to be together physically and we like to eat so we might return to the early Christian church tradition of gathering as an eating society. Imagine that, an entire denomination whose worship revolves around potlucks. I suspect we’ll be one of the first groups to give up Sunday morning services as that is proving to hold a lot of congregations back: worship and Sabbath, which were exclusively single-day events, are religious concepts that are proving most vulnerable to the need for individual rather than group definition. If I had my druthers services would be more like AA meetings in bigger cities: there’d be one happening somewhere in an area three or four times a day and you attend the one closest to the time you’re free and you attend as many during a week as you feel you need.

Our ministers: Not so long ago one of the professors in my UU polity class mentioned in passing that at the current time there are only roughly 700 UU ministerial jobs available. By that I think he meant parish jobs, full and part time, and only in the US, so if we include chaplains and congregations in Canada and Australia and other commonwealths, that’s likely to add a few hundred more. But the point is clear: there are fewer positions to be split among greater numbers of people. Places like United and Union, Starr King and Meadville Lombard, are no more likely to cut back their graduate recruitment efforts than any other graduate school. We’re fast approaching a glut on the UU ministerial market similar to the one on the English teacher market. Ministerial work will continue but it’ll look less I think like Protestant ministerial work—parish-focused—and more like the Catholic orders—socially focused, working with addiction and the homeless and the elderly and children in crisis. If I’m wrong about the coming ubiquity of UU principles in mainstream religions I think we’ll be needed in these positions more than ever.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

where are we going? who will we be?

I was surprised to find on Thursday of last week that I was preaching today, and so came up with a quick sermon based on a topic I've been giving a lot of thought to lately, how churches, and especially Unitarian Universalism, is changing and what will come after the current iteration of "church" falls by the wayside, as it must.  It's a topic I intend to cover in greater depth and at greater leisure in the future.

A Sermon Delivered to DUUC
October 21, 2012,

            Last week was witness to the change in fortunes of a singular institution that, while some people might argue its glory days were in the past, remained a force on the landscape of culture, valued for its pronouncements on events and personages, its predictions for the future, and its history for having contributed to the zeitgeist that has been America for nearly the whole of what was not too far in the past called the American Century.
            I’m talking, of course, of the decision by Newsweek not to publish a print edition any longer.
            I joke, but as with almost everything that happens nowadays, it is a facet through which we can view a lot of what’s going on and see almost the same things.  The newswasn’t delivered in the most recent issue but on Newsweek’s website.  Does anyone even read Newsweek any longer?  Under Tina Brown, who made such major shifts to the New Yorker in the 80s and the revived Vanity Fair in the 90s, it has gone from an interesting way of catching up with what was important last week to a throwaway on the order of the Enquirer or the Weekly World News, talked more about for its controversial covers and headlines than for its content. 
            But that isn’t entirely Brown’s fault or Newsweek’s for that matter.  Technology has jumped over the magazine’s 80 year history, from a point when here in the Midwest learning about what was important in the past month in New York and Washington and London and Berlin was a miracle of communication, to the wonders of radio where Walter Winchell could report to Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea what happened in last week’s battles, and to the staggering TV images of Vietnam battles in our living rooms, to CNN’s coverage of SCUD missiles as they landed, to our following live Twitter feeds of Syrian rebels between blasts of gunfire.  In such a brave new world, last week’s news, no matter how much analysis a writer can bring to it, remains, well, last week’s news.
            It’s not just Newsweek.  We’re long past the point of lamenting the death of daily newspapers and free weeklies and network evening news.  The 24/7 newscycle and that it operates and relies on a constant stream of novelty and publicity is both a given and a cliché now.  A newspaper whose subscribers number in the tens of thousands—and Newsweek’s base of 1.5 million subscribers not only buries that of all but the top names of daily newspapers like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, or the London Times, but used to be an indicator of great health for a magazine, certainly showing it would continue in the black for some time to come—can’t keep pace with something like the Huffington Post, a news aggregator that relies on its unpaid bloggers linking their commentary to stories at other news sources for its reputation as the go-to place for up-to-date information on, say, the eight people killed by a Beirut car bomb or whether Britney Spears was on meth when she shaved her head.
            A painting by Paul Gaugin has the resonant title Where Do We Come From?  What are We? Where are We Going?  Many theorists would argue these are the questions religion attempts to answer and I would even suggest they’re the official questions of UU.  I’m not the first to say it but the idea that we are damned by the ancient Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times,” gains traction every year.  Every generation experiences change, of course, but it seems we are enmeshed in change that metastasizes like a cancer just as we begin to acclimate to it.  We had only begun to understand phone technology when we started using cordless phones, and then car phones, and then cell phones, and then phones that could take pictures, phones that could connect with the internet, iphones, smartphones. And this new technology brought new languages, often abbreviated words or condensations of words or acronyms or the use of pictograms.  Last year I taught a very good book called EverythingBad is Good for You by Steven Johnson, whose thesis is that, “Where pure problem-solving is concerned, we’re getting smarter…It’s not the change in our nutritional diet…it’s the change in our mental diet.”
            Johnson goes on:
Think of the cognitive labor—and play—that your average ten-year-old would have experienced outside of school a hundred years ago:  reading books when they were available, playing with simple toys, improvising neighborhood games like stickball and kick the can, and most of all doing household chores—or even working as a child-laborer.  Compare that to the cultural and technological mastery of a ten-year-old today:  following dozens of professional sports teams; shifting effortlessly from phone to IM to email in communicating with friends; probing and telescoping through immense virtual worlds; adopting and troubleshooting new media technologies without flinching…Their classrooms may be overcrowded and their teachers underpaid, but in the world outside of school, [the contemporary ten-year-old] brains are being challenged at every turn by new forms of media and technology that cultivate sophisticated problem-solving skills.
Obviously, per Johnson, the news is not all bad.  In fact, I argue that it’s not bad at all.  But it is confusing. 
            In the current issue of UU World, we read how the official number of American UUs hit an alltime high in 2008 of nearly 165,000 but has dropped since then to a rough plateau hovering around the 162,000 mark.  Over the decade from 2001 to 2011, “22 percent of congregations…shrunk by 20 percent or more.”  Congregations with fewer than 60 members were hit worst; nearly half of them saw a 10 percent loss.  But, you might say, that drop to 162,000, that’s only a loss of 3000 people over 3 years, hardly a rush for the exits.  Such a drop can be attributed to membership death. 
            Perhaps.  It also suggests 1000 more people died than joined our faith annually.  As Bob Dylan so eloquently put it, he not busy being born is busy dying.  There are unquestioningly many things at which we UUs are busy but being born is not among them. 
            It isn’t only UUs, of course.  It’s a common theme in the conversations of seminarians and religious people in general that churches, no matter their denominations, no matter their social policy, no matter their political affiliation, are in the process of dying.  An article in, yes, Newsweek from 2009 notes the concerns of R. Albert Mohler Jr., the president of Southern Baptist Theological, that “the number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation has nearly doubled since 1990, rising from 8 to 15 percent.”  Diana Butler Bass, a kind of religious membership authority, makes note of the following:
[Between 2000 and 2010,] new surveys and polls pointed to an erosion of organized Christianity in nearly all its forms, with only “nondenominational” [mostly Pentecostal and fundamentalist in outlook] churches showing a slight numerical increase…All sorts of people—even mature, faithful Christians—are finding conventional religion increasingly less satisfying, are attending church less regularly, and are longing for new expressions of spiritual community…”People just don’t come to church anymore,” pastors told me.  “It doesn’t really matter what we do or how solid our community is”…Many people are just bored.  They are bored with church as usual, church-as-club, church-as-entertainment, or church-as-work.  Many of my friends, faithful churchgoers for decades, are dropping out because religion is dull, the purview of folks who never want to change…[I]n the first decade of the twenty-first century even the most conservative Christian churches have stopped growing.  Membership gains have slowed to a crawl, and in some cases membership is dwindling…New megachurches spring up and are successful for a time—until they are forced to close down and sell their buildings.  Even the Catholic Church has barely maintained its share of the population…The old argument that liberal churches are in decline and conservative ones are growing is not true…Everyone is in the same situation:  a religious bear market.  Indeed, the first decade of the twenty-first century could rightly be called the Great Religious Recession.
It’s not only UUs and Christians who see these declines.  One researcher of contemporary synagogue attendance estimates that only one out of every fifty Jews attends services weekly.  Conversely, Islam has been a growth industry in the US, seeing an advance in reported membership between 2000 and 2011 from 2,000,000 to 2,600,000.  Much of their growth is attributable to new immigrants and native conversions.  It’s very possible that, as a relatively new religion to the US, novelty may be a contributing factor in Islam’s growth, as it was for Buddhism in the 50s, and given time may fall back to similar low numbers as other, more established religions.
            Is this a good thing or a bad thing?  I don’t think either of those words apply legitimately.  It is like the coming predominance of Spanish as the US’s most-spoken language or the decline of “white” as its dominant ethnicity or the preponderance of food service jobs over other employment in the near future.  There’s nothing “good” or “bad” about it; it simply is the way things will be, the path our choices have led us to.
Well, what of it, we might legitimately ask?  Let organized religions dissipate.  It looks as if we will go the same way, maybe a little earlier, but really, there’s nothing much to lose there, is there?  After all, as UUs we’re already convinced it doesn’t take a single authority, God or the Bible or Allah or the Torah notwithstanding, to tell us the proper way to behave with one another.  We know it’s possible, maybe even preferable, to conduct ourselves morally without having to look forward to a better afterlife or without the threat of condemnation to hell or some other punishment.  Maybe the disappearance of supernaturally-based religions is an indication that our faith, reason-focused, committed to social justice, is effective and taking root.
It might happen.  But nearly everyone in the early part of the twentieth century who studied religions recognized then that it would soon dissolve into a puddle under the weight of its own self-righteousness and focus on groupfeel and we see how that turned out.  Don’t mistake what I’m saying.  I’m not suggesting that religions or denominations or even churches as brick-and-mortar structures are going away anytime soon.  Those seem too ingrained in our psyches to be in any great danger of disappearing. And the information I’m giving you seems exclusive to the US.  In Central America, in Africa, in Asia, religion remains almost exactly as it’s been for the past century, if more conservative and reactionary than we’ve usually seen it on a national scale.  What I mean to suggest is that in the near future American religions will undergo a change such that we might not recognize them as what we grew up with or the way we’ve always experienced religion. 
Just as the English we speak is different from the English our grandparents or our grandchildren speak—different words, different emphases, different intent and forms of address—but still recognizable as English, so will UU be different from what we currently practice.  It won’t be better or worse than what we currently call UU but it can’t help but be different.
Butler Bass writes that our religious future relies, rather than on the certainties and dogmas it’s been heir to for the past centuries (and again, this is only in the US she’s writing about), on what she calls believing, behaving, and belonging.  She quotes social theorist Harvey Cox as explaining, “What I see…is that people frequently want to refer to themselves now as not really ‘religious’ but ‘spiritual’…What I think it really means is that people want to have access to the sacred without going through institutional and doctrinal scaffolding.  They want a more direct experience of God and Spirit.” 
She sees Christianity as “moving from being a religion about God to being an experience of God.”  She writes that post-WWII,
External authorities gave way to internal ones, as we moved away from conformity to social structures toward the authentic self in society.  Whether the switch is good or bad is beside the point.  This revolution has happened…[and] questions of meaning and purpose have become supremely important. ..Whereas [once] religious behavior was largely a matter of how [we do things], spiritual practice entails the inner experience of what [we do] and why [we do them] as people must intentionally choose their actions and vocations.  After a choice is made, then we craft a new way of faith…Choice, meaning and practice interlace to open us to purposeful ways of being in the world.
            Sadly most churches, including our own, despite their mission statements and their intentions, are not very good at being communities.  She writes, “Just putting a bunch of people together in a church building doesn’t make them a community.  Community is about relationships and making connections.  That’s spiritual work…[that] may or may not happen in a church.”  The community isn't only the people we see on a regular basis—the people we work with constitute that—but is composed of a set of relationships that extend beyond other human beings and what we consider God or Ultimate Reality into all our surroundings, trees and buildings and fish and rabbits and boxelder bugs and is dependent on the way we are with them.  As our Unitarian name suggests, everything is one.  Everything is connected.  Our spirituality involves our experience of all our relationships, with everyone and everything.  That sounds mystical, doesn’t it?  Relationship and community is about as ethereal as you can get. 
            Change is the only constant.  People die, buildings go away, trends rise and fall, technologies evolve.  Nothing stays the way it was.  Our Christian, Jewish and Muslim cousins might say only the fidelity of God remains the same, but if that’s the hub around which the rest of the universe wheels certainly the way we respond to it changes too.  As Walt Whitman wrote, “There is no object so soft but it makes a hub for the wheeled universe…Everything goes onward and outward, nothing collapses…Nothing endures but personal qualities.” 
            If this last is true, that who we are is what endures, then we need to move beyond who we are now—the ones not busy being born but busy dying—to who we will be.  It isn’t easy, of course, nothing worth doing is.  But it is as necessary as taking our next breath.