Sunday, May 22, 2011

sermon - "Models of Mercy"

Models of Mercy
All this month we have been talking about mercy from different UU angles. This Sunday I thought I thought it would be nice to cast a wider net on the topic, to explore some of the variety of ways different traditions celebrate the value of mercy.
To start out with, it’s helpful to get on the same page of what mercy is. We’ve talked about it a bit, saying that it takes a variety of forms as we care for one another with the tools that we have, and mercy starts with understanding and accepting a person where they are in their life. But before we dive into other religious traditions, I thought it would help to look at a secular definition.

According to the dictionary, Mercy is compassionate treatment of or attitude towards an offender or adversary, who is in one's power or care. Another definition describes mercy as the discretionary power of a judge to pardon someone or to mitigate punishment.

There is an element of power in mercy that we haven’t really talked about yet. It’s not just about being compassionate, it’s about exercising one’s power over another person in a compassionate way. And that’s just the way that most religious traditions talk about it.

I chose this morning’s hymn, “Amazing Grace” because it speaks so robustly about the type of mercy that Christianity embodies. The core of Christian theology is the idea of salvation from sin by the sacrifice and teachings of Jesus Christ. It’s all about God having mercy for humans. Christianity is about mercy.
Admittedly, it’s a little difficult for some of us to see the mercy in such a set up. The sin, damnation, and judgment doesn’t quite fit with our understanding of the world or ourselves. Most of us don’t accept the premise of original sin or eternal damnation.
But what if we did. Pause with me for a minute to explore a different world view. If in fact we were all sinners in the very core of our being, if in fact that would necessarily condemn us to Hell FOREVER. If in fact God gave his beloved son, Jesus to suffer a terrible death of torture to pay the price for our sins, Then that would be just about the most merciful thing in the world.
This is the great thing about looking at different religions. You don’t have to accept ever detail of the theology to be able to embrace the values that it represents. The core story of salvation through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ is a story of mercy. The very mechanics of Christian theology hinge on the mercy of God.
And mercy arises in Christianity in another important way, a way that might be more accessible to us as Unitarian Universalists. Throughout his ministry, Jesus lived as a model of mercy. Encounter after encounter he spoke about and lived this value. I think the most prominent moment of mercy involves throwing stones. You all know this story.

John 8:1-11
1But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. 3The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group 4and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.
But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. 7When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
9At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. 10Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
11“No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

Jesus taught about mercy. He taught that none of us are perfect, and our mutual imperfections, our brokenness, must lead us to mercy on one another. Whether with tax collectors, adulterers, the diseased or disenfranchised, Jesus sat at their side as a model of mercy.

But Jesus was not the only model of mercy. Islam is a religion of submission to the one true god, Allah. In fact Muslim loosely translated means one who submits. We shouldn’t be surprised that one of the key aspects within the faith is mercy. And like in Christianity, the value of mercy is both embedded in the actual theology of the faith, as well as exemplified in it’s rich stories.
We know that the Holy Quran is the sacred text of Muslims. It reads somewhat differently from the Christian Bible, in that it is not a continuous story of a people. Rather the Quran is composed of distinct and separate chapters.
Each chapter except for one begins with one phrase, the same phrase. You have probably heard this before if you have heard any readings of the Quran or any Muslims reciting prayer. Each chapter of the Quran opens with basmala, in English it is the phrase, “In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.” It’s worth keeping in mind that not only is the Quran a sacred text, it is also considered by many to be a book of legal code for Muslim society. We are familiar with sharia, or Muslim law and the way it has been portrayed in the West. Let us remember the next time we hear a description of sharia, that every single chapter, every single law is introduced with the phrase, “In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.”

One of the other pieces of Muslim life that is often familiar to us is the practice of prayer. Muslims pray five times each day. These aren’t extemporaneous prayers like you or I might think of, the Hey, God, how’s it going. Thanks for xyz, and by the way, I could use some help with this or that issue. No. When Muslims pray, it is a recitation of particular passages of the Quran. It is prescribed that they pray five times each day. This means each worshipper repeats the attribute of mercy in the phrase “in the name of Allay, Most Gracious, Most Merciful,” sixty-eight times each day. That’s a whole lot of mercy.

I said that the Quran is not a story or collection of stories. But, there is another source of stories in the tradition. Hadith are stories that are given great importance within Islam as the tradition is learned and laws are interpreted. According to a Hadith, the Prophet Mohammed told this story.

"A man was traveling along a road when he was very thirsty. He found a well, so he went down into it to drink. As he came up he found a gasping dog that was apparently so thirsty to the extent that he licked the dust. The man thought, 'this dog is now as thirsty as I was a short while ago'. Therefore, he went down the well again and filled his shoe with water. Holding it in his mouth, he came up and gave the water to the dog to drink. Allah rewarded him for his action by forgiving him.
“The Prophet’s audience asked: "Messenger of Allah, are we to be rewarded for kindness to animals?"
He answered: "You get a reward for every kindness you do to any living creature."

If you have ever been to my house, you have met my amazing beautiful, and quite nearly perfect dog, Lucy. I love dogs, but I didn’t write this story. Every story comes out of a particular context. It’s important to understand how Muslims, particularly in this timeframe felt about dogs. Muslims generally cast dogs in a negative light because of their ritual impurity, like pork. Some say Muhammad explicitly did not like dogs, and that angels do not enter a household that has a dog. Still today most practicing Muslims do not have dogs as pets. They are only kept for work, work, such as guarding the house or farm, or when used for hunting purposes.

This charming story from the lips of Muhammed encourages follows to show mercy to all creatures, even the most lowly and dirty ones. “The man thought, 'this dog is now as thirsty as I was a short while ago'. Therefore, he went down the well again and filled his shoe with water. Holding it in his mouth, he came up and gave the water to the dog to drink.” What a lovely story of mercy.

Before we come back to our own tradition, I want to look at one more. Buddhism is actually the first example that came to my mind on this topic. You have heard me speak a great deal about the role of compassion in Buddhism. That’s at the core of Buddhism as the Buddha originally shared it.
The Buddha’s teachings are not really theological, but practical, a lifestyle to ending the constant sense of longing in our lives. The Buddha taught people how to end their suffering by becoming more enlightened. And anyone can become a Buddha, anyone can become enlightened with the enough practice and mindfulness.
Or, one can become a Bodhisattva. Loosely translated, a Bodhisattva is a person who has achieved enlightenment, but who has not yet enjoyed Nirvana. Remember in Buddhism, the goal, Nirvana is basically an elimination of the self and all it’s karmic baggage. Nirvana is an end of one’s existence. So a bodhisattva is an enlightened being who focuses his or her energy on sharing enlightenment with other people. In much of Buddhist theology, it is thought nobler to become a bodhisattva, than to reach Nirvana. It’s better to reach enlightenment and stick around to share that knowledge with others, than it is to achieve Nirvana and essential check out from this world.
The best metaphore I can think of is the oxygen masks on airplanes. You know how they tell you, if you are traveling with a child or other person who needs assistance, you should first secure your own oxygen mask before helping those around you. Well Buddhism takes the opposite view. Once a being has achieved enlightenment, it’s best to help others to achieve enlightenment before you enjoy Nirvana yourself.
That certainly speaks to the kind of mercy we heard described earlier, using one’s position of power to show kindness and compassion to others. The bodhisattva then becomes the model of mercy within Buddhism. The bodhisattva is one who forsakes his or her own perfected state to help others out.

As we wrap up our month of mercy, I want to take a moment to address the place of mercy in our own religious tradition, in Unitarian Universalism.

The long and deep history of Unitarianism and Universalism is occasionally summed up by one witty saying. It is said that Universalists believed that God was too good to condemn them to Hell, and Unitarians believed that they were too good to be condemned by God. That’s what separated them from the rest of Christians. In a very, very small nutshell, that’s the history of these traditions.

We still largely hold true to those beliefs. The first our of seven principles is about the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Rather than embracing the idea of original sin, we believe the people are inherently good. And, although we have some variety of belief about the existence of God, as a religious tradition we tend to agree that the Universe we live in is a beautiful, wonderful magnificent place. And the creative force that is responsible for it, be it evolution, God, or something in between is pretty darn amazing. God, or what have you, is good.
We’re good; God is good. Well I don’t know about you, but I’m glad we’re all good. I’m glad we wrapped that little problem up. It’s all good, You and me and God and life, good, good, good.

Please excuse my sarcasm. I do believe that people are inherently good and that the world we inhabit is amazing. But there’s more to it than that. In the real world, some people make mistakes. And it’s no secret that some people have more power than others. Power to change lives.
But sometimes we’re afraid to talk about those realities. In a perfect world, mercy isn’t necessary because no one needs it. Perhaps that’s why mercy isn’t found anywhere in Seven Principles of the UUA. There is “compassion”, and “equality”, and “justice.” But mercy never comes up. I think we would do well to add mercy to the list. Of course that would require being honest that some people have power over others. It would require admitting that sometimes we make mistakes and need to be forgiven.
As a religious tradition, we still need mercy in our theology. Whether it is bringing water to lowly thirsty dog, or recognizing our own flaws match the flaws of others. Whether it is in the form of a committed spiritual teacher, for our tradition to be all it can be, we need to make room to think about, manifest mercy.


Monday, May 16, 2011

Sermon - "When Bootstraps are Broken"

“When Bootstraps are Broken”
I want to start in an unusual way. I want to share with you the obituary that was written not long ago. This is about a person who many of the Laguna Beach residents knew well. But you don’t have to have known him personally to understand this description of a man troubled by addiction and homelessness. The obituary says:

“There were two cowboys on the streets of Laguna. One – the laughing, joking, talkative guy. The other- the lonely, sad, unsteady, elderly man. We knew them both.
We loved them both-most of the time, and this week we cried for both and we prayed for both because Charles Reginald Conwell III has died a sudden and violent death surrounded by lights, vehicles, and people in uniform.
Cowboy was part of such action many times, but not this finish-death. But our Cowboy will live on, in the hearts of us all- his long time friends. Goodbye for now, Cowboy, til we meet again, joyfully- in that better place.”

-Author Unknown-

Like I said, many of the members of this congregation knew cowboy well. He was a bit of a local character. I have to admit that I only knew him from the beach. But this obituary sort of says it all. “There were two cowboys on the streets of Laguna. One – the laughing, joking, talkative guy. The other- the lonely, sad, unsteady, elderly man. We knew them both.

This is not a unique story of homelessness. Many people without the wherewithal to maintain regular housing have two sides, a whole side, a whole person of inherent worth and dignity. A human being that is easy to love, whose stories you or I could relate to in an instant. And they also have a broken side. Often involving addiction or mental illness, this brokenness is a scary but real flip side of life. This is the side that scares many of us away.

There were two cowboys, One – the laughing, joking, talkative guy. The other- the lonely, sad, unsteady, elderly man. There were two cowboys, one broken, and one whole. His story isn’t unique to the homeless community, and his story isn’t unique to the human community. His brokenness was just a little more difficult for the world to know how to deal with.

Just like Cowboy, you and I and everyone we know, we are also both broken and whole. We are loveable beings of inherent worth and dignity, with fundamental and permanent flaws. We are broken and whole.

Both fundamentally broken and whole at the same time. It is a paradox, two different realities, existing at the same time. Neither one more important or more true, both broken and whole. It is that precarious paradox that rests deeply in religious life. This is a core of my understanding of the world, and my understanding of my brothers and sisters. In the midst of the miracles and the mayhem. In the undulations between the mightiest love and the most terrifying hate, rests all people. Each and every one of us is broken and whole, just like this chalice.

This broken and whole chalice is one of the most important symbols from my own religious life. It serves as an anchor to challenging questions like homelessness and mercy.
This chalice is not a chalice of our Unitarian Universalist tradition, at least it wasn’t originally. This broken and whole chalice is from a Christian community, where they use one like this every week to serve communion.
That church is called Community of Hope. It started in the late 90s as a United Methodist mission to care for people living with AIDS. A very dedicated minister, a mentor of mine actually, along with five other families, some gay and some straight, began to worship together.
Their mission was to serve those most marginalized by society. They fed the homeless regularly. They taught GED courses to inmates. They traveled to Guatemala to help build houses. They provided housing for low-income families. And they dove into the HIV/AIDS crises, head on. At one point, this congregation conducted an average of two funerals a month for people who died of AIDS.
They knew deeply the reality of brokenness in the world, but they also knew that in the midst of that brokenness, each person who walked through their doors, each person that they served was whole. Each person was sacred. At their very first worship service together, the chalice like this one became their primary symbol, a chalice that is both broken and whole. And that chalice has become a symbol of my own life and my own theology. It’s the way that I understand the complexity of humanity. Like our first of the Seven UU Principles talks about, every person has inherent worth and dignity. Every person has inherent worth and dignity. But it is also true that every person, in some area of their life is broken with feelings of hurt, anger, loss, inadequacy, disabilities, addictions or a slew of other challenges. We are both broken and whole.

Laguna Beach Homeless Situation

There were two cowboys, One – the laughing, joking, talkative guy. The other- the lonely, sad, unsteady, elderly man. This dual reality is more than a theological concept. It’s part of who we are and how we live our lives. It’s a reality that we haven’t quite caught up with in our efforts to care for the homeless here in Laguna Beach, or in the country for that matter.
The usual model for reaching out to the homeless is what you might call the “teach a person to fish” model. We all know the proverb. Give a person a fish and he eats for a day. Teach a person to fish and he eats for a lifetime. Nearly every conversation about homelessness revolves around this idea that homeless people need a respite, some job training, and they’ll be back to working full time and on their own.
For many people that’s true. But for a large portion of the homeless population, the challenge is much, much deeper than updating your job skills. For many people, the way in which they are broken, makes it impossible for them to pull their lives together, at least within the opportunities that our society provides. Sometimes teaching a person to fish isn’t enough.

A respected organization, the National Alliance to End Homelessness estimates that Twenty-three percent of homeless people are chronically homeless. A person who is "chronically homeless" is a homeless individual with a disabling condition like substance abuse, serious mental illness, developmental disability, or chronic physical illness. They have either been continuously homeless for a year or more, or had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years.

Twenty-three percent of the homeless population isn’t going to be learning to fish any time soon. They are broken in ways that make it impossible to organize their lives in a stable way. This is the part of the story that few want to tell. Sometimes teaching people to fish isn’t enough. Sometimes people, like cowboy, are not able, and most likely will not be able to make ends meet in our society.

If we are to take homelessness seriously, then we need to take into account the needs of that community. There are many people who will tell you that the homeless in our city need a place to stay for a few nights, and they need some job skills and they will be on their way. These are the same people who are willing to invest a little bit of money to provide temporary shelter to the homeless, as a step toward sending them on their way. This is the approach that the city has taken thus far.

But there is another approach that is on the rise in Laguna Beach. Friendship Shelter is developing a plan to provide 40 long-term housing units, studio apartments, for people who would otherwise be chronically homeless. A part of that shelter would be a small temporary shelter, where people can stay for a short time in crisis. But the main thrust, is providing long-term stable housing for those most in need. In addition to the housing, the facility would provide mental health resources, a social worker, and other necessary services. This project is still in developmental stages. We have seen blueprints at the Interfaith Council meeting and funding sources are being explored. Hopefully we can bring more news about developments to UUFLB soon.

You see having mercy is more complicated that teaching people how to help themselves. In a universe where everyone is born equal, where everyone is able bodied and of right mind, that would make sense. But mercy demands more of us. Mercy demands that we meet people where they are, in both their wholeness and their brokenness. Mercy demands more than a fishing lesson.

Strangely enough, this isn’t a sermon isn’t really about homelessness. This is a sermon on mercy and helping people where they are. All this month we are talking about mercy here at UUFLB. We talked about caring for our loved ones through the aging process, and we talked about the tremendous variety of ways that mothers show their love.

But this week, I want us to see that mercy is first about meeting someone where they are. Mercy is about taking someone in all of their wholeness, and all of their brokenness to offer what you can to help. I don’t mean that we have to give up on the possibility that someone can change, or that they might one day overcome their challenges. But, to really show mercy, to really help anyone in a compassionate way, we have to first start where they are, not with some cleaned up version of who they could be or should be.

We often think of mercy as sweetness and kindness, and that is true to some extent. But there’s more to it than that. Mercy is a strangely brave thing. It takes tremendous courage to accept the painful reality of some people’s situation. Any one of us can write a check or sign a letter to help the world. Anyone can do a political analysis of the social ills of our time, or write a few emails. But I think that mercy is something different. Mercy takes much more courage. It’s courage that is rare.

I sometimes find glimmers of it in myself, but they are fleeting. It’s just so much easier to not listen to the real challenges that someone faces, the real brokenness that rests inside. But that’s what mercy is. It’s having the courage to face both the brokenness and the wholeness of someone, and to offer help that respects both of these realities.
Mercy isn’t just helping a person. It’s helping a person as they are. It’s helping a real person with all their complexities, all their baggage. Mercy demands more of us.

In closing, I want to remind you of the hymn that we sang as today’s meditation. Voice still and small

Voice still and small,
deep inside all,
I hear you call, singing.
In storm and rain,
sorrow and pain,
still we’ll remain singing.
Calming my fears,
quenching my tears,
through all the years, singing

In our religious lives, or maybe you want to call it spiritual or philosophical. In our deeper lives, we celebrate that still small voice from within. It is our conscience, and it is often a source of comfort. Through storm and rain, sorrow and pain, still we’ll remain, singing.
But there’s more to this little song. It is the recognition that each person, each beautifully whole and broken person possesses their own still small voice. And that voice deep within us, that voice of passion and freedom and concern, that still small voice is in each of us, resonates with the voice within our brothers and sisters.
As we endeavor to share our mercy with the world, to meet people where they are in all their glory and their despair, let us remember that their wholeness matches ours, and their brokenness does as well. Let us remember that mercy means meeting people where they are.


Monday, May 9, 2011

Sermon - "Thanks Mom"

Thanks, Mom

“Thanks, Mom.” I’ve said these words countless times. For clean clothes for a meals, for sage advice, for encouraging words, a good laugh or silent company. “Thanks, Mom.” I imagine I’m not the only one with this phrase seared into their brain, like automatic response. I’m sure many of you have said it frequently, and some of you hear it, a lot.
It’s bit like the mantra of my childhood or of my relationship with my mother. “Thanks, Mom.” I have said it so many times, and will probably say it until the day I day. But there’s only one problem with mantras. When you say something enough times, it can lose it’s meaning. Hail Mary full of grace… Our father who art in heaven… when you say something enough times, the words lose their meaning. Rather than a sentence or phrase, you find you are simply repeating a set of sounds in order.
So rather than another “Thanks, Mom.” Maybe we can spend some time today talking about what it is we are thankful for, and what we can learn from all the different kinds of mothers who have shown us support through out lives.

Mother’s Day can get a pretty bad wrap these days. It is one of the most commercial holidays around. According to the New York Times, American’s are projected to spend $1.9 Billion on flowers for mothers day this year. That’s a whole lot of flowers.

But it’s worth remembering that Mother’s Day actually has a remarkable history. The holiday is rooted in on Unitarian woman’s personal campaign to end war. In 1870 Julia Ward Howe wrote the Mother’s Day proclamation. Although we have read it in years past, I want to share these powerful words with you again.

Arise, then, women of this day!

Arise all women who have hearts,
Whether your baptism be that of water or of tears
Say firmly:

"We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands shall not come to us reeking of carnage,
For caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of
charity, mercy and patience.

"We women of one country
Will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs."

From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with
Our own. It says, "Disarm, Disarm!"
The sword of murder is not the balance of justice!
Blood does not wipe out dishonor
Nor violence indicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plow and the anvil at the summons of war.

Let women now leave all that may be left of home
For a great and earnest day of counsel.

Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.

Let them then solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means
Whereby the great human family can live in peace,
Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar,
But of God.

In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask
That a general congress of women without limit of nationality
May be appointed and held at some place deemed most convenient
And at the earliest period consistent with its objects
To promote the alliance of the different nationalities,
The amicable settlement of international questions.
The great and general interests of peace.

This holiday was serious business for Julia Ward Howe. It was a deeply sincere and political point. For her, the experience of being a mother led to intense political action and public debate.

She saw some of the worst effects of the Revolutionary War -- not only the death and disease which killed and maimed the soldiers. She also worked with the widows and orphans of soldiers on both sides of the war. She saw the economic devastation of the Civil War, the economic crises that followed the war, the restructuring of the economies of both North and South. All of this set Julia Ward Howe on a mission to bring together the voices of women to end the blight of war.

In addition to her public struggle for women’s rights and against war, Howe was a deeply committed abolitionist. She was ridiculed for both causes. Especially painful was the way many White women criticized her abolitionist work, as if she were being disloyal to her sisters by advocating for the rights of Blacks as well.

It’s important that we remember Julia Ward Howe, not just to talk about the roots of this holiday. But, to talk about the way a mother’s love manifests itself in the world in a variety of ways. Howe’s love for her children, and for all people, lead her to be an outspoken political activist. I can’t tell you if she could bake a cake or sing a lullaby, but I know that she did everything in her power to make the world a better place for her children.

Not for lack of effort, eventually the original concept of Mother’s Day faded away. The funds dried up for cities to celebrate the holiday. Her version of Mother’s Day didn’t quite take off, but Julia Ward Howe planted the seed that would later become what we know as Mother’s Day today. Years later, A West Virginia women’s group led by Anna Reeves Jarvis began to celebrate an adaptation of Howe’s holiday. They celebrated to re-unite families and neighbors that had been divided between the Union and Confederate sides of the Civil War. The group held a Mother’s Friendship Day.

When I read about the roots of this holiday, I am struck by the difference between the Hallmark cards today, and those women who boldly engaged in outspoken political action. Julia Ward Howe was not Betty Crocker. Yet we celebrate her as a mother, who did everything within her power to make the world a better place for those that she loved.

The point is, whether it is through political action or chocolate chip cookies, mothers, and all of us show our love in different ways. Today we remember mothers, and all people who have acted out of love to make the world a better place for future generations.

There is a concept that’s very popular in couples counseling these days. It’s the idea of “love languages.” We all express our love in different ways. For some people, the little things are what really count. For other’s it’s all about having a formal commitment that tells the world that you are a couple. Some people need time alone with their partner to feel like their relationship is validated while others feel especially appreciated when they receive gifts.

The idea is that we all feel appreciated in different ways. We all have a love language. It’s a pretty easy concept to get a grasp of in navigating the labyrinth of romantic relationships. The more we know about what makes our partner tick, the better we can show them we appreciate them.

But it occurs to me that the same thing is true for familial love. The ways we are nurtured are different from one person to the next and from one generation to the next. While Julia Ward Howe felt compelled as a mother to be a political activist, other women have felt compelled to create a loving environment at home, or nurture their children’s education, or to bring home the bacon. The ways mothers support their children is a deeply complicated and personal decision. It’s rooted in what they think their family needs, and it’s rooted in their time and culture.

I say it’s a choice, but the truth is that many woman don’t have a choice about how they will mother. The circumstances of women often dictate the “love language” that they have access to. For a very long time some women were prevented from working. The only appropriate avenue to nurture their children was in the home, in domestic ways. They were deeply limited. Ironically, during that same period, another class of women, working class women, had to work six days a week to feed their families. They had no choice but to show their love through making money to make ends meet, often leaving their children home alone.

Maybe, being a mother doesn’t mean being one thing in particular. Maybe, being a mother means having to make some incredibly tough choices about how to express your love. Every mother, every one of them here, and every one of our mothers has found a unique way of expressing her caring. And maybe that’s what Mother’s Day ought to be about. Not idealizing one particular kind of mother, but pausing, so say a collective “Thanks mom,” for making the incredibly hard decision to show your love the way that you did.

There are a million and one ways in which mothers show their love. And although it’s difficult to talk about, sometimes the most caring thing that a mother does, is let go of a child that she know she can’t support. Letting go is one of the unspoken, deeply noble ways that women express their love. Letting go is a choice that we also embrace this Mothers day.

The loving act of letting go is a big part of my own story, and part of the way that I have come to understand Mother’s Day. Many of you know, because I have preached about it a few times in the past, that I was adopted. I was adopted at birth by my amazing family. It something I always knew and felt okay with. It’s just a part of my family’s story. But, starting about three years ago, about the same time that I came to this congregation as your minister, I have been in contact with my biological parents. At first it was about exchanging information, and reassuring them that everything has turned out all right. My family, the family I grew up with, is amazing and I wouldn’t trade them for the world. Being adopted by them has filled my life with as much love and support as anyone could ask for.

But this past year I have come to know my biological parents on a somewhat deeper level. They were high-school sweethearts who couldn’t support a child and weren’t ready to get married yet. In getting to know them better, I have gotten a glimpse of the way their love and support took form through some very tough choices. As I build a deeper relationship with my birth parents, I understand more and more what a painful and loving decision it is to let go. At that time, in that place, the best way to love, the only way to love was to let go, and pray for the best.

Doing the right thing can look radically different for different mothers. Choosing the right thing, the loving thing is a tremendous task. And today we celebrate all mothers, all people who do their best to care for the people they love. Throughout our lives, each one of us, men and women make those difficult choices about the best way to care for our loved ones.

We know the unfortunate uncertainty of that gift. Whether we are mothers or not, we know the struggle of aiming to support another person with what little resources we have. Whether it’s little time, little money, a finite human attention span. Maybe we don’t feel like we have the right words to offer comfort. We are faced with the challenge every day. “Is this the right choice, the right way to be supportive? “

But this Mother’s Day, I want to offer a gift, to mothers and everyone else. The gift is a respite from the worry of doing the right thing. Let’s set that worry aside, and have a little faith in the power of love. There is no guarantee that what we choose is the best way to nurture our children. There’s no guarantee that we will use the right love language every time.
There is no guarantee. But for this mothers day, I want you to join me in a small leap of faith. Join me in a faith that when we give a gift of love, it is eventually received. When we act out of our hearts, it transcends those limitations of not enough time, not enough money. Eventually, in the long view, in the broad picture, when we care for the people in our lives and do it from the heart, it is enough.

This Mother’s Day, let the power of love that resounds in our hearts, sing a louder song of life than the echoes of doubt. This Mother’s Day, let us have faith in the power of love.


Monday, May 2, 2011

Sermon - "Compassionate Companions"

"Compassionate Companions"

There are certain advantages to being a young minister. And there are some disadvantages as well. One of them being that my life experience does not include many of the things that older people experience and deal with. I just haven’t been down that road yet.
This Sunday we are talking about caring for loved ones through illness and the aging process. This isn’t something that I have a great deal of experience with, certainly not the kind of experience that many of you have. But, it is far too important of a subject for this community to shy away from. Most of you have already had some experience like this. Nearly all of us will at some time in our lives car for another aging person. And I can guarantee that each one of us will be the recipient of this kind of care. So I want to talk a little about how we might do it gracefully.
Like most of my sermons, this isn’t intended to offer that last word on a topic. Quite the opposite, I hope that this worship service serves as a conversation starter, something to mull over and discuss. Because we’re all learning together. There’s no one right or perfect way of being a compassionate companion.

This past week I heard a description of hope that I thought was particularly helpful for our discussion today. It was that hope isn’t something that you have or don’t have. Hope is something that comes into being, sort of like a path across a meadow. It’s something that gets made slowly over time. It takes shape by putting one foot in front of the other, over and over again. Until finally a way is worn, a way that seems like the normal way that anyone would go.

Being a companion on the journey of aging reminds me a lot of this. I’m sure there are stages, moments, when the future is completely uncertain. It’s unclear how you will make it through. But somehow, a path gets made. It seems daunting, impossible maybe at first. But then you find your way. One foot in front of the other, one step at a time as you journey with your companion.

Companion seems to be the best word for this type of caring relationship. Because it’s not just about caring for your spouse. It may be a parent or a grandparent. It may be a good friend. But the relationship is the same. And while we are talking mostly about aging today, often in life this type of long term care is needed for someone impacted by illness at any age. It may be a friend, or even a child that we companion along this journey of uncertainty. It doesn’t matter who the person is that you are caring for. It’s about being present with someone you care about through a change in their life. It’s a bit of a journey that you go on together. Neither one in the lead necessarily, but companions exploring a new territory.

Of course this type of change happens throughout our lives. We move into a new phase. Not to diminish the fear and pain that often accompany aging, but it may help to remember that some of those other transitions are scary as well. Going to school for the first time, going to college, entering the reality of the working world and paying the bills. Lives certainly change when children come along. Talk about daunting. Then there is retirement and aging.
Over and over again in our lives we shift to a different way of being a different reality. We find that there is a new normal, and we adjust to it. Some of those ways of being normal, we never anticipated, and couldn’t have imagined until they become our lives.
A new normal can bring out a person you never expected. A person hiding inside that you never knew existed. The tremendous new normal that came out of nowhere when my grandmother first got sick, was how my older brother suddenly became a caregiver. At the hospital, when everyone else was a wreck, he was able to be there and be calm. When everyone else taking a grim picture of the future, he was able to see through the mess, take one step at a time, and literally make sure everyone was eating and sleeping. While my brother is an amazing father now, this was the first time I had seem anything resembling a care taker in him. As he took charge seemingly out of the blue, I realized for the first time that he would be a great parent. He found a new way of being, a way that none of us expected in that moment.

When my grandmother was debilitated by that stroke, my whole family found a new normal. This was the same grandmother who had been the regular babysitter for my younger cousin and who cared for the older people in the apartment community where she lived.
My how the tables turned over night. After her stroke my grandmother was in a nursing home, a place we all knew she dreaded going. Her life changed, and so did my mom’s. For the next three years, my mother spent two or three hours a day at the nursing home. She was there nearly every day. In an effort to find hope in the situation, she put one foot in front of the other and did what she thought was right for her. This new normal changed her life, and frankly the rest of us had a hard time understanding that. What was normal to her meant a pretty big change for us as well. For the rest of us who only visited occasionally, the idea of spending hours there every day just seamed so strange. Not to mention our mother, my dad wife, has a completely new and defining focus of her life and time.

A good friend of mine is going through a very similar situation with his own parents. His parents are living together and his father is extremely ill. His cancer has consumed their lives and transformed their family home into one giant hospital room. My friend, a dear compassionate person couldn’t handle visiting every day. So he goes every other week, and still doesn’t know how is healthy mother does it.
“It’s like a morgue over there. I don’t know how she can stand it.” He tells me. That’s because he hasn’t been the one there putting one foot in front of the other day after day. Life changes; what we consider normal changes, sometimes into something we never would have recognized as our own life. And for those who are not an immediate part of the change, it can seem sudden and bizarre. But for those in the midst of it, those companions on the journey, finding a new sense of normal is just what happens.
While caring for a loved one can deepen that particular relationship beyond measure, it doesn’t do very good things for the rest of your relationships. It can often lead to major isolation. But I want you to know that you are not alone. Those of you who have been companions through aging and illness, and those of us who will be, you are not alone. Since the beginning of history, humans have done this for one another. It is sacred timeless work. It’s what makes us who we are. While some people may not understand the hours given or the limitless commitment, you are in good company with other companions, who are doing the same thing for the people who are so special in their lives.

I’m reminded of the Buddhist prayer concept of metta. We have done it several times here. It’s a way to stretch and strengthen one’s own compassion. You start by feeling your own experiences of suffering in the world. Knowing they are unpleasant, you feel compassion for yourself. Then reaching out, you see the suffering of those you love. Knowing that their suffering is unpleasant and not a choice, you feel compassion for them. Then more broadly, reaching out with your heart, perhaps to strangers, or to people you particularly have problems with. Recognizing that they too have suffering in their lives, you offer compassion, knowing that no one chooses to suffer. It’s a tremendously helpful spiritual discipline in life. But I point it out because the base of this isn’t being a perfect person with a heart of gold. The base is a very logical step beyond being in touch with your own suffering and difficulty in life. Don’t ignore it. Let it be a tool to better understand your brothers and sisters in need. Let the very real difficulty of the situation be a step toward deepening compassion.

Being a compassionate companion can be isolating. And eventually it can wear you down. But everyone needs some slack. I’m sure that even Mother Theresa has her off days, days of short temper and annoyance. No one is asking caregivers to be super-human, or to be any more than they already are.
These days in my life there are a lot of friends who are first time parents. Just last week for Easter we had a one-year old over for four hours and I thought I was going fall over by the time she left. What I see from these new parents is that they deeply love their children, and they are absolutely exhausted. They are occasionally angry and impatient. And the need their friends to say AMEN, and not judge them as bad parents. Just the same, companions, caregivers have taken on a tremendous commitment that undoubtedly leads to frustration and exhaustion. That’s okay. No one is going to judge you for that. It’s okay to say this is difficult, or I’m tired. Because what you are already doing is heroic.

Probably for most people being a companion through the aging process isn’t a choice. It’s just something that you do, like putting one foot in front of the other. There is no other option. But I want to pause, to say thank you, to those of you who have and who continue to provide long-term care for someone in need. You are heroes. You may not have chosen this path, but somehow it became your new normal. You never aimed to be a rescuer, but here you are. Well whether you chose it or not, I want to say thank you. Caring for our loved one’s is part of the glory of being alive. You are part of the beauty of what it means to be human beings.

In closing, I hope you will join me with a short visualization. It’s nothing difficult. Just join me in your mind’s eye seeing a meadow of tall, thick grass, gently blowing in the breeze on a warm day. In that meadow is a walking path. Not wide, but deep enough that the dirt has been packed down, deep enough that walking it, the way would not be lost.
For those of you who have already worn this path of hope, those compassionate companions, remember when all you had was a field of uncertainty. Remember when you didn’t know how you would possibly do this much caring. We thank you for putting one foot in front of the other, and for sharing with us a path of hope.
For those of us who haven’t had that duty yet, may we remember that step by step, one foot in front of the other is the only way to get there. When our patience is tapped, when we feel lost in the wilderness, let us remember that we journey where others have tread before. And they made it, one step at a time.

Whether we have been there or not, we are all going to need someone to walk gently with us. We will all need the support of compassionate companions at some point in our lives. May a way of hope and grace be found as we walk the journey together.