Saturday, April 24, 2010

Freedom Prayer

The following is a prayer/meditation I offered last night during the Opening Worship service of our Pacific Southwest District Assembly of Unitarian Universalist congregations following a wonderful keynote by the Rev. Dr. Mark Morrison-Reed.

Great Spirit, Source of all Life,

We get lost sometimes, in the space between freedom from and freedom for, freedom to.
We imagine freedom as a single note sometimes, and indeed sometimes that note is stillingly, thrillingly clear – but freedom is not a single note, but a chord – and freedom itself lies not in the notes themselves but in the spaces between them.

Because we are all in bondage of one sort or another we often focus one the first step of freedom – freedom from:

Freedom from dogma, from authority, conformity from oppression and sometimes even restraint of every kind. We’ve even been known to invade other countries to bring our sisters and brothers the precious gift of “freedom.”

Oh beating heart, it is complicated! Freedom is not like opening a door.

To be free of emptiness does not automatically fill us up,
To be free of dogma does not automatically make us spiritually rich,
To be free of want does not automatically still our wanting.

To be free from bondage of any kind is only the beginning, not the end, of freedom’s journey. To be free from is only the first big step, setting the stage, clearing space for us to go further.

After we are free from, then we must decide what it is we are free for – what do we do with our hard won freedom.

Are we free for, free to: consume, to gratify ourselves in the endless marketplace that surrounds us?

Are we free to do what we want, to build castles around ourselves, regardless of its effect on the great web that enmeshes us?

Great Spirit, help us use our freedom wisely. Help us go deep to discover what our freedom is for.

May we be free to love, to dream, to pray, to serve, to touch, to reach, to kneel.

May we be messengers of freedom, inward and outward, freedom from all the shackles that bind our people under the sun and the stars so that we may one day walk together in the orchard of freedom – living wholly and holy lives.


Great Spirit?

Last week one of you asked a very interesting question that no one had ever asked me before:

“Every week when we enter meditation you always begin by saying, “Great Spirit.” Who or what is this Great Spirit? Whom are we talking to?”

A very good question!

But in that moment all I could think of to say is, “Well, I’m not entirely sure – but I’m pretty sure it isn’t me.”

Even that isn’t quite right. Sigh. Words are so inadequate sometimes.

Most days I’m a pantheistic (or maybe panentheistic) humanist. Which is really just a fancy way of saying that for me, the totality of existence in all its constituent parts (+ consciousness) is where I find divinity. The sacred. It’s where I find god.
I cannot prove this belief to be true, nor do I feel any need to do so. I am content with simply living as if it is so, and treating the rest of creation accordingly. Similarly I cannot prove that every human being is born with inherent worth and dignity – and yet I choose to live my life as if we are.

So when I invoke a “Great Spirit”, “Source of Love”, “Boundless Universe”, “Holy Creation” or any of the many names that stumble from my lips as I struggle to name that which is beyond names, indeed beyond all words – I do not really know who or what I am addressing. Maybe it’s a kind of cosmic “to whom it may concern.”

I do know that whatever it is I am reaching for – it is more than me. It is more than me and yet I am part of it. It’s whatever I am responsible to, accountable to – my home base, a flag on a mountain, an ancient spring, a distant star a forgotten song…it is that which is beyond me and yet paradoxically at my core. It is whatever calls me always a little further than I thought I could go, whatever I cry out to when my heart breaks and the song my heart sings when I hear a new baby laugh.

Call it what you will: Higher Power, True Self, Animus, Highest Values, Universe, Mother, Father, Ancestors, Truth, Silence, Mystery, Spirit, God, god, gd…

I don’t know who or what I am addressing on Sunday mornings, but I know it’s not me – and I know it’s not you – and yet in some ways it is I and Thou and more than that.
Maybe I don’t need to know, definitively, what it is I am reaching for, what it is in this life that fills me with wonder and awe. Maybe I don’t need to know definitively, what it is I am searching for – or even if it is “real” in the way carbon, iron or shrink-wrap is real.

Maybe I don’t need to name it. I know I don’t need to prove it. But I do need to do it – to reflect, to still, to meditate, to pray – to practice.

As for you, call it whatever you will, translate however you want – just do it. Sit quietly, still the tinkle and roar of your Self – and listen.

Washing Feet

The following is a blessing I wrote for the WillBridge Interfaith Footwashing for the Homeless on April 1, Maundy Thursday, just a few days before Easter. It was a great experience, one of the holiest parts of Holy Week.

Great Spirit,
We touch the world primarily through our feet.

It is on these delicate, unassuming, and yet deceptively resilient pins of skin and cartilage and bone that we propel ourselves through life – one step at a time.
It is on these feet that we take our first steps, dance our first dance, leave home, or maybe lose our home and, if we are lucky, find home once more.

As we get older we rarely go barefoot. We quickly learn that the world is not covered with soft green grass that tickles our feet. We discover, most of us, that many of the roads we must tread are hard-paved, rough-paved, sharp-paved – and yet walk them we must.

Our shoes wear down first, over and over again and our socks, which wear thin at heel and toe – and it’s worse when they get wet and there’s no place to dry them. Then our feet suffer and complain; dreaming of warmth, dryness, fresh cotton and a vacation no matter how brief, from carrying our weight.

This is why we are here today; this is why we wash the feet of the people we love. This is why we wash the feet of strangers, sometimes, on special days like today. In this simple act we are reminded of our shared humanity, a sister-brotherhood born of our common experience walking the hard and wondrous roads of life, diverse as they may be.

There are few acts more intimate, more loving or more connective than holding the vulnerable and road-weary feet of another human being, to hold them, to soak, soap, wash and dry them. To do this is to hold someone’s humanity, their very life, in your two hands.

This is a kind of communion; an act of love, a holy act. This is what the Rabbi Jesus was trying to show his disciples when he washed their feet on that first Maundy Thursday so long ago – that the sacred enters the world through simple acts of love.
And so may your hands be gentle and sensitive to the inherent worth and dignity of everyone they touch, and may they honor the lives they will hold today, calluses and all.

May your feet find rest and safety in the simple comfort of being held. May they relax with a sigh into warm water and fresh clean socks, and through this, remember that they (and you) are loved. May they delight in the unaccustomed sensation of sunshine and cool breeze.

May the source of all that is good be in us, through us and all around us today, and everyday – no matter what roads we must travel tomorrow.


For more information (or better yet, to get involved) go here:

The Sermon of Nasruddin

This story was collected and translated by Idries Shah, who helped introduce Sufism to the Westerm world in the 1960s. They are part of a vast collection of teaching stories about the Wise Fool, the Mulla Nasrudin, dating back at least five hundred years.

Nasrudin stories like the one below have been told all over the world for centuries now. While he most likely lived in what is now Turkey, he is a folk hero in Greece, Sicily, Spain and the former USSR.

Idries Shah writes, “The Sufis, who believe that deep intuition is the only real guide to knowledge, use these stories almost like exercises. They ask people to choose a few which especially appeal to them, and to turn them over in the mind, making them their own. Teaching masters of the dervishes say that in this way a breakthrough into a higher wisdom can be effected.

One day the villagers thought they would play a joke on Nasrudin. As he was supposed to be a holy man of some indefinable sort, they went to him and asked him to preach a sermon in their mosque.

He agreed.

When the day came, Nasrudin mounted the pulpit and spoke:
“O people! Do you know what I am going to tell you?”

“No, we do not know,” they cried.

“Until you know, I cannot say” said the Mulla, overcome with indignation. He descended from the pulpit and went home.

Slightly chagrined, a deputation went to his house again, and asked him to preach the following Friday, the day of prayer.

Nasrudin started his sermon with the same question as before.

This time the congregation answered in one voice:

“Yes, we know.”

“In that case”, said the Mulla, “there is no need for me to detain you longer. You may go.” And he returned home.

Having been prevailed upon to preach for the third Friday in succession, he started the address as before:

“Do you know or do you not?”

The congregation was ready.
“Some of us do and some of us do not!”

Excellent,” said Nasrudin, “then let those who know communicate their knowledge to those who do not.”

And he went home.

In Praise of Jell-O-Salad

I’ve been researching Jell-O-salads for the past few days in preparation for a church auction event Eliza and I are helping to organize. The theme is “Wisconsin Winterfest.”

So we’ve got brats, squeaky fresh Wisconsin cheese curds (and cheese-head hats) and…you guessed it – Jell-O-salad. You see no Wisconsin social event, especially not a church event, can be authentic and complete without at least one or two Jell-O-salads. Don’t ask me why – thems just the rules.

I volunteered to take care of this crucial part of the festivities, but having only memories of Jell-O-salads past to guide me, I called my parents. They have strong views on what makes a particularly good salad, as do many of my old Wisconsin friends on Facebook – all of whom were quick to email me their favorite recipes.

Other friends, less well disposed toward salads-salads, wrote back with witty comments like, “Do you mean Lutheran Church-Basement Salad?”

To which my answer was simple – “YES!”

This one was my favorite as a child, and I was allowed eat wiggly helping after helping because it was a “salad” after all (it does have carrots in it!):
Carrot-Pineapple Jell-O

1 small can crushed pineapple
1 c. carrots, grated
1/4 tsp. salt
1 small package lemon Jell-O
2 tbsp. lemon juice
1/2 c. sugar

Drain the pineapple and add enough water to the juice to make 1 1/2 cups. Heat to
boiling. Add Jell-O and stir until dissolved. Stir in sugar, salt, and lemon juice. Chill until
slightly thickened. Add pineapple and grated carrots. Chill until firm.

These salads are definitely not very nutritious, nor are they vegetarian-friendly – and I’m not even sure if I will still care for the carrot/pineapple/orange Jell-O salad I so adored as a child – but I am excited to find out.

It’s all about tradition, you see. For me, nothing says, “home” quite like a folding table heavily laden with rich cheesy casseroles and Jell-O-salads, dishes most often named (on handwritten index cards next to the dish) after their inventor, someone’s mom, grandma or great-grandma.

Even in the toughest of times, the bright colors of Jell-O (often set in fanciful molds; turkeys, footballs, Santas) conjured immediate festivity no matter how tight the budget and made those old canned fruits and vegetables not only edible, but scrumptious.

Laughter, paper plates, orange soda, lazy summer afternoons and seasonal sweatshirts accompany my memories of Jell-O-salad. My memories of Jell-O-salad are suffused with the feeling that everything is going to be just fine – and with the childlike feeling of being safe and loved.

Until I started looking through these old recipes I had no idea…I had forgotten.
And so, here I stand, a proud and protective Jell-O-apologist ready to lift a wobbling green spoonful in gratitude and solidarity with the Midwestern picnics and potlucks of yesterday, today and tomorrow.

What are your food traditions? What are the tastes and smells that transport you across miles and decades? What is your Jell-O-salad? As always, I welcome your stories, and in this case – your recipes.

Bon appetite!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

September was a big month in this country. The nation was flooded, it seemed, by venomous shouting matches at town hall meetings about health care reform. So when our Representative Lois Capps held a town hall meeting here in Santa Barbara, I was one of a good number of local clergy who turned up and scattered ourselves through the hall to help keep things as civil as possible. Fortunately there turned out to be little need of us, as the meeting (mostly) went smoothly. I was, however, shocked back to reality when someone handed me a flyer as I was leaving. On the flyer was a picture of a Nazi concentration camp with President Obama’s face superimposed on it. Oh, what crazy days these are!

Soon after that I found myself on a plane to Washington D.C. where I was part of a clergy delegation lobbying Congress (especially the Senate) in support of sweeping reform of our nation’s workers rights laws. We visited with Members and staff of both Houses, and by the time we were done we had managed to personally cover a big chunk of our California Congressional Delegation. My feet still hurt just thinking about it – Capitol Hill is a big place and everything seems to be made of the most unyielding marble – but I digress…

The highlight of the trip was our visit with Rep. Lois Capps. While we were on the Hill focusing primarily on worker’s rights, it proved impossible to separate that discussion from other critical issues, especially healthcare reform. We had a very good conversation with Rep. Capps and we encouraged her not only to continue supporting these key reforms, but to step up and lead on them wherever possible. I gave her the hundreds of postcards that my congregation filled out at our Labor Day service, and she was excited to see so many personal notes. Being a Santa Barbaran herself, she recognized quite a few of the names and made sure that I would take back her greetings as well as assurance of her ongoing support.

After that I flew back to Santa Barbara to celebrate our annual InGathering at church, and then flew right back to the East Coast, to Pittsburg, for the fall meeting of the Interfaith Worker Justice Board of Trustees. Our meeting was designed to coincide with President Obama’s visit, and I hoped against hope that I might be able to meet him in person, but it was not to be. We did, however, get to see Hilda Solis, the Secretary of Labor, Sen. Arlen Specter and Caroline Kennedy, among others, and we did get to see the President speak in person, which was quite an experience.

I was also interviewed, along with Ted Smukler, the Director of Public Policy for Interfaith Worker Justice, by a Pittsburg radio station about the connection between faith and justice work. It was a fun experience, but a little nerve-wracking to speak live to a radio audience without the ability to edit myself in the moment...

All that said, I am glad September is over and life can return to normal (more or less)!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

USSB Clean/Green Initiative on FOX News

Yesterday I got a call from a T.V. news reporter who had read the story about our Clean/Green Fund project in the Daily Sound. She came right over to do interview me and Geoff Green from the Fund for Santa Barbara (our collaborator on this project). When we were done with the interviews the reporter wanted to go up on the roof to get some shots of the panels, but when she saw how high the ladder was, her fear of heights took over. I was already up there, however, so she passed the rest of the equipment up to me, told me how to use it step by step from below - and then I shot the rooftop footage myself!

I have to say that never in a thousand years did I expect to contribute camera work to the evening news! :)

Anyway, see below for the finished product. To the right of the text is a link to the video newscast: