Monday, May 14, 2012

hello, again.

Hi there. It's been a while since we last visited. Many miles have been traveled, lots of water under the bridge/over the dam and all that. It seems that the google blogspot people have reconfigured the page when I'm creating a new post. I think I don't like it, but get the feeling that it's probably an old change and if I complain now it will be like complaining about that stupid timeline thing over on the Book of Face. Meh. I'll let it be.

So, since last we spoke, I have done well enough in school. I got an A and a B+ and a Pass and a Sat(isfactory) last semester, garnering me a grade point average of 3.66 for the term. I got an A in Systematic Theology I, and the B+ in Justice Matters. I passed my Field Ed class and got the Sat in Spiritual Practices for Healing and Wholeness, which was an absolute bear. Crying for credit, we called it. Urf.

At some point in December, I got the brilliant idea to quit taking my supplements (all that stuff is so much powdered hooey!) and drinking my herbal menopause tea stuff made by my herbalist back in Maine. By Christmas I was having hot flashes about every 12 minutes while I was awake, and being woken six or eight times a night (that I remembered) with either night sweats or freezing cold because I had kicked off the blankets a few minutes earlier. I was a damned wreck. And then, during January break, I took a class called "When Home is a War Zone: Pastoral Care in Situations of Domestic Violence." Oh, hells bells it was awful. Thank goddess I audited the class and didn't have to write all the papers, but the readings and class discussion was brutal, and coupled with sleep deprivation from the hot flashes, I was a puddle of goo. Long around the first week of January, my friends suggested that maybe I start taking that powdered hooey again and drinking that dirt tea I used to complain about, and after a couple of weeks, the world evened out again.

This semester, I did NOT make that same mistake. I learned a lot in the fall semester, both academically and personally. I learned that if I put too much stuff off, I went nuts at the end of the term and did work that was not my best nor was I proud of it. I also let my reserve tanks get to absolute zero and that was not healthy for me or helpful for the people who depended on me. I was blessed to have good people at my field placement who quietly told me to go home and sleep for a couple weeks, and I did, to great benefit.

This spring semester I took some great courses: the second half of my field education thing, Systematic Theology II, Pastoral Care for GLBTQ Persons, and Leadership in the Historic Faith Community. I did really well in the Queer Class (shocker, I know!) and I think I aced Systematic again. I know I passed my field ed course, and I think I did pretty well in the leadership class. Although, I gotta say, it was taught by our academic dean, a woman who is incredibly energetic and intense and takes no small amount of evil delight in demanding nothing less than excellence from her students. The final was a nightmare of epic proportions. Students all over campus were howling and cursing and wailing about that miserable thing. It was awful. If I get one grade this semester less than an A, it will be because of that jeezly exam. Bah.

So, update sort of done. I've got more exciting news for the summer that I'll post about later this week, but for now I want to share a sermon with you that I preached earlier this spring. I have no idea how the formatting is going to look with this new setup, but I'm hoping it won't be too hard to follow. And I have faith that my readers (thank you, both of you!) are smart enough to figure it out. I look forward to any comments you might have to offer.

"Connecting with the Divine"
Preached 2.19.12

“And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”

So reads the first chapter of the Gospel according to Mark, beginning a tradition of asceticism and fasting that has lasted longer than two millennia. Scripture is not generally where I tend to start sermons, but there’s a lot of talk about Lent during this time of the year, and I think it’s worth exploring. One need not be a Christian, or even a theist, to spend time being mindful and intentional in an effort to connect with the divine. 

The 40-day period of Lent begins this week on Ash Wednesday and ends on Easter, in April. Here at the UU Church of Haverhill, we mark this period with weekly Lenten Vespers services which offer opportunity for contemplation and community. The Christian Holy Week begins on Palm Sunday, includes Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday and finally, Easter Sunday. The rituals of Lent are familiar to many of us. Fasting on Friday, or perhaps no meat – growing up we always had fish on Fridays. I was never clear about how or why baked haddock was supposed to bring us closer to God, but I grew up in a Catholic tradition that did not encourage questions. “Because that’s what the church says” was sufficient for my grandmother, so we ate fish.

For Christians, Lent is a period of penitence and preparation for the commemoration of Holy Week, culminating with Jesus’ crucifixion and faith-proclaimed resurrection on Easter. We, as Unitarian Universalists, are not Christians by creed, but our history, as both Unitarians and as Universalists, is rooted deeply in Christianity and a belief in Jesus and the gospels that tell the story of the man and his works. Whatever one thinks of the gospels, they – like any holy text – contain some truths, some legends, and some wisdom within their pages. Much of Jesus’ message was about treating one another with kindness and compassion, recognizing the worth of each person, even tax collectors, prostitutes and undocumented immigrants. Somehow, that seems like something we should be able to handle.

Traditionally, the penitential aspect of Lent has been the focus of the time. As a young Catholic, I was encouraged to deprive myself of something I loved so that I might be reminded of the suffering of Jesus. I was encouraged to choose a thing that I really loved – chocolate, for instance – something that I wanted every day and often had, and give that up so that I might be reminded that Jesus suffered much worse on my behalf. Even as a child, I was skeptical of that connection, but dutifully gave up chocolate for Lent and indulged in obscene fashion on chocolate bunnies and eggs in my Easter basket when it was done. If there was any lesson to be learned, it was that of delayed gratification sometimes being associated with gastric distress, not anything related to pious suffering and redemption.

Over the years, the tradition of Lent has called people to give up everything from all food to chocolate, sex, facebook, and, in the case of one seminary colleague, new purchases of high heeled shoes and lingerie. Hey, everybody comes to the divine in different ways, I suppose.

While asceticism was the common practice for centuries, modern people are less inclined to fast for multiple days or engage in painful rituals to heighten their religious experience. Understanding of Lenten practices today more commonly run the line of “getting closer to the divine,” which seems, after all, to be the main reason for religious tradition in the first place. Church is about bringing us closer to god, however we understand god to be.

On Mondays, UU students at Andover Newton gather for lunch and fellowship followed by UU worship in the Wilson Chapel. Conversation last week included consideration of Lent. Some do not observe Lent at all, while others are being especially mindful of the season, joining our Christian colleagues in a tradition that is meaningful to them in a way that is accessible to us. What is Lent, after all, if not an opportunity to spend some time getting closer to the divine? Our understanding of the tradition and ritual is not that of asceticism for asceticism’s sake. Recreational suffering is not generally our thing, nor do we typically engage in behavior that we don’t think honors our dignity and worth. Hair shirts are out, as is a 40-day fast.

A word about the 40-day thing. Instances of 40 are scattered throughout the Bible, in both Christian and Hebrew canons. Jesus was tempted for 40 days. Moses wandered in the desert for 40 years. It rained on Noah and his menagerie for 40 days and nights. Why 40? Was there some kind of calendar based on the number 40? Not really. Scholars have come up with a marvelously simple and accessible – and NON-theological – answer. Forty simply meant “A WHOLE LOT.” People had ten fingers and ten toes. That makes 20, which is quite a lot of almost anything. 40 means you and your friend used up all your fingers and toes to count that many, and that was deemed A WHOLE LOT. It was a generic term, not unlike the more modern phrase “a month of Sundays” is used to describe a long time. So, 40 days does not necessarily mean 40 actual days. It means a length of time that was longer than we’d really care to count accurately, thanks. A long time.

So now the UU seminarians are contemplating Lent. Aside from the occasional irreverent comment, most are very serious about this tradition that has its roots in the same place as the roots of our Unitarian and Universalist heritage. While we do not necessarily ascribe to the idea of substitutive redemption or that of the inherent sinfulness of humanity, most agree that an exercise that improves our spiritual health is not a bad thing. Much talk has revolved around not just the giving something up for Lent, but of the practice of taking something on, as a way to intentionally draw closer to god.

Getting closer to the divine is a noble ambition, and certainly the sort of thing that seminarians ought to be considering. But I would argue that such contemplation is not the exclusive realm of those devoting their lives to ministry or those who are otherwise devout in their religiosity. Many of us could benefit from a closer relationship with the divine, however we understand it.

One way to get closer to god is to simply become more mindful about our relationship with god. Some pray more often, or change the manner of their prayers. Some meditate, some invoke ancient and beautiful rituals honoring the four directions of the Pagan wheel. But one thing is nearly universal in this effort. Something must be abandoned in order to make room for the new practice. Something must be peeled away that gets in the way of our relationship with the divine. Something must be removed to allow our inner selves to be waited upon by angels.

Every one of us has things that obscure us, that interfere with our own divinity. What is it that separates you from your own inner divinity? What is getting in the way of your connection with that which you consider holy? How much of what is in the way can you let go of, maybe for a day, maybe for a couple days (or 40) that will allow you to reveal your inner divinity and get in touch with god?

Benjamin Hoff tells us “The first thing we need to do is to recognize and trust our own Inner Nature and not lose sight of it.” As Unitarian Universalists, we believe in the inherent worth and dignity of each person. We believe that the divine exists in each of us in some way, and that it can be found and celebrated.

There is a story about a sculptor who chisels beautiful angels from massive blocks of stone. Asked once how such magnificent sculptures were possible, the artist replied “I saw the angel and simply removed all the parts that were not it.” To me, this is part of what Lent calls us to do – to remove those bits that do not serve us, to remove those bits that do not allow us to have authentic experiences, to remove the things that obscure the divine within.

During this season, one of my UU colleagues has decided to swear off Facebook for the period of Lent, and instead is going to focus his time and energy on improving his relationships with people IRL (in real life). Another colleague is shutting off her television and renewing her dedication to reading the Gospels and deepening her relationship with Jesus. My friend who has vowed to curtail her shoe and lingerie shopping until after Easter is also pledging to drop negative self-talk from her everyday life and replace it with positive and affirming words and thoughts about herself.

What is it that I can do? What is it that comes between me and the divine? Self-care is probably on that list. I need to eat better, exercise more, and sleep on a schedule that resembles something sane. So I stand before you this morning to say that I will commit to those three things each day. What will fall away to make room for those things? Well, unhealthy foods will have to drop out of the way to make room for more vegetables. Facebook time will make way for more walks, and better time management will be necessary to create and keep a reasonable sleep schedule. That is my commitment during this Lenten season.

This is not about penance. This is not about asceticism or self-inflicted suffering. It is about leaving off the bits that are not the angel, of letting go of the things that do not serve me, of making room for the divine in my life.

Now I ask you: what is it that gets between you and the divine? What comes between you and serenity? What is in your life that does not serve you? What is not part of the angel within the block of stone? What is it that you can let go of, to allow it to transform from negative into positive, to go from stumbling block to stepping stone? What is it that you would do during this coming month? Remember, I am not asking that you do MORE than you already do, but to exchange something that does NOT serve for something that does. Let us think this week about what those things are and how we might come in closer relationship with the divine, both within and without.
Blessed be. Namaste. Amen.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Room at the inn?

I preached this morning. Hit it out of the park, I think. Noticing that the more exhausted I am after church, the better -- generally speaking -- the whole thing was. I think it goes to the Hokey Pokey principle. You know, "you put your whole self in..." Yeah. Like that. Whole self in = whole-hearted worship. Works for me.

Is there room in the inn?
Dawn Fortune
Universalist Unitarian Church of Haverhill, Mass
11 December 2011

They arrived at the drop-in center downstairs after a week on the road. I’m not sure when they last showered. Apparently not all shelters and hostels have safe or functioning showers between Texas and here. They both hear voices. Maria says several members of her family hear voices. She says they are the voices of angels sometimes, and sometimes God. A doctor once gave her some medicine, but she can’t afford the prescription and doesn’t like the way it makes her feel, so she stopped taking it. Besides, she doesn’t mind the voices. They tell her she’s special. Jose refused to talk to us about his auditory hallucinations.

This couple triggered a lot of judgments that come naturaly for many of us. She’s young – 16 or 17, and he’s my age – mid 40s. She’s pregnant, he’s not the dad, but they’re devoted to each other and determined to stay together. They’ve been on the road for a week, taking Greyhound bus trips by day and sleeping in hostels and shelters each night, travelling from east Texas, where Jose has work in construction. He’s from this area, originally, and through some kind of nightmare of government bureaucracy, he was required to show up in person to pay some kind of fee and retrieve his identity paperwork. He’s a citizen, but there was some kind of screw-up with his license after his wallet got stolen, so he had to come back in person to handle it. Maria can’t sleep on the moving bus, so they’ve had to ride during the day and find a shelter at night. Her feet and ankles are swollen from the pregnancy, which appears close to the end of its duration, and from the long hours sitting in a cramped bus seat. They’ve been staying with friends in Texas, saving for their own place, so when Jose had to come east to handle things, Maria did not feel comfortable staying in Texas without him.

We took their information, such as it was, and tried to get them hooked up with services while they’re here. Jose knows the area a little, but moved when he was pretty young and no longer has contacts that could help them find a place to stay. They don’t have money to afford a hotel room for the night. Not if they want to be able to get back home to Texas when Jose’s business is concluded.

The area shelters are all full, particularly at this time of year. We called all over, trying to find a place for them, but nothing panned out. Some shelters wouldn’t accept Maria because she is not yet 18, even though she is emancipated from her parents. The other shelters did not have any beds. A shelter for women who have been abused had a bed, but Maria didn’t qualify, was too young, and that would have left Jose out in the cold. We tried everything. Nada. Perhaps on Monday they might be able to get general assistance at the municipal office to get a cheap motel room, but there’s no guarantee, and by then they’re due to be headed south again.

I talked to the drop in center staff on the phone Friday. Someone in the drop in center let the couple stay in a defunct minivan. It doesn’t run, but it doesn’t leak either. It’s not heated, but they’ve got some blankets and each other, so they’re ok.

Baby Jesus was born last night in the back of the minivan.

OK, so that’s not exactly true. In fact, the details of this story have been stitched together from the stories of the dozens of people I have met in the three months I’ve been working at the drop-in center. There is no Maria and Jose, at least not in the exact way I have described them to you today. But the situation I described is not exceptional. People are transient and/or homeless or nearly so every night, right here, in this city. Their circumstances are rarely dignified, and rarely simple. Life is complicated and messy, and life on the edges of society is all that raised to a debilitating degree.

The story I just told you is thousands of years old. It is my 21st-century adaptation of the story told in the Gospel of Luke of Joseph and Mary traveling from Nazareth to Bethlehem for a census. Mary is pregnant and they’re travelling by donkey, which can’t be comfortable in the 39th week of pregnancy. But then again neither is walking, and those were the options, so what should have been a four-day journey lasted them at least a week. They arrived tired and dirty to a town that was already full up. Resources were low and the only place they could find to sleep was in a barn with the cows and donkeys.

If that story were to take place today, the players and circumstances might look a lot like I described them. Would any of us recognize them? And more to the point, would any of us let them sleep in our spare room?

I’ve been spending one morning a week at the center since I started in September, and I have to tell you, it is both eye-opening and intensely gratifying work. The drop-in center serves anywhere from 40 to 150 people in a day. Some people come for a cup of coffee and a bowl of cereal and leave, while others stay from the moment the doors open at 8 a.m. until they close at noon. All manner of people come through that humble space. Gifted artists, construction workers, parents, grandparents, young adults struggling to make a life, all finding themselves somehow in need of a safe place to be in the morning.

Some of the clients have homes but need a place to be. Some have been staying at one of the area shelters for extended periods of time – I can think of one client who has been at the shelter for over three years.

Many are hamstrung by forces beyond their control. Many are struggling with mental illness, others are battling addiction, some are overwhelmed by the all too often deadly combination of both. Some have criminal records that make it difficult to get housing or employment, some have invisible disabilities that go undiagnosed and untreated and that prevent them from getting the services that would help. Once hooked into the social services network, things can go along relatively smoothly, provided one has some pretty humble expectations around housing, electricity and grocery needs. Addiction and mental illness compound the problems when they affect the behavior and decision-making of clients who are free and independent agents. People refuse assistance sometimes. People accept help, but then reject it later, only to later request it again. There is no point – nor should there be – when a person is simply cut off from assistance programs for such behavior. It just makes it frustrating for the staff who really want to help.

Pat Dennehey is the director of the drop-in center. A formidable woman, she manages miniscule resources and stretches every donation until it squeaks from the stress. She knows every client, their story, their history, their family situation, their drug, their drink, their diagnoses and their chances. She provides advocacy and resource referrals and management. Some clients have asked her to manage their funds, so she is their “payee” and she pays their rent and bills and disburses their money (usually from a disability check) so that they don’t run out before the end of the month. She supervises a small staff of paid workers, volunteers, and two students. She doles out groceries, frozen chickens, tooth brushes and bars of soap. She does what she can to counsel clients to lay off the booze, to put down the crack pipe, to stop buying scratch tickets, and she does so with an amount of grace that leaves none of them humiliated when it’s done. Sometimes she can help people, and sometimes she can’t. And while she’d probably deny it in public, the little victories and moments of tenderness can reduce her to tears. Pat and I get along just fine.

This is the time of year when we talk a lot about sharing what we have, about opening our hearts and our checkbooks to help those less fortunate than ourselves, and I think it is worth asking how open we actually are.

Knowing our boundaries and limitations is valuable. Priorities vary among us. A parent’s first job is to provide for and protect their children. A pastor’s job is to serve and lead their church. Like the flight attendants say, when the cabin pressure drops and the oxygen masks drop out of the ceiling, put yours on your own face before you help your neighbor.

Not everyone has what it takes to bring Jose and Maria into their homes to sleep in the spare room, or even the garage. I get that.

But what might we be doing that we’re not already doing? What could we be giving that might make a difference? Do we give just that portion of our resources that does not really make an impact on our comfort, or do we share things that make us wince just a bit? Do we clean our closets of old clothes we no longer want and donate those, or do we go out and pick up some new things to donate so someone will have a shirt that’s never been worn by anybody else? Giving our trash to someone hardly counts as virtue in my book, save perhaps its relative value as an effort to recycle. But like Hosea Ballou said about intention – if our desires are not pure, our hearts are not pure and we cannot claim virtue from good behavior done for disingenuous or self-serving reasons.

So I challenge us this week to examine our giving habits. Without crossing into the realm of codependent self-abuse, are we giving all that we could? Are we sharing as much of ourselves as we can? Is there room in the inn of our hearts for those less fortunate than us? Can we make welcome those who are difficult to welcome – the unwashed, the mumbling, stumbling masses?

In 1883, New York poet Emma Lazarus composed a sonnet called The New Colossus, inspired by America’s acceptance of immigrants from around the world. The words will be familiar to some, and new to others.

The New Colossus

Not the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Those words were inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty when it was dedicated and unveiled in 1886. This is what the world thought of America then – that we were able to welcome the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. We, as Americans, often pride ourselves on our generosity. So now I challenge each of us. In this season of holidays and holy days, let us push ourselves to give as much of ourselves as we can, and to see how it makes us feel, about ourselves and the world around us.

Blessed be and amen.

Monday, November 7, 2011

surrender, god, and letting go

I am back from my workshop weekend and faced again with theology, or rather theological writing, here in this space. I can get a handle on step two as I discussed Friday - I came to believe that a power greater than myself can restore me to sanity. I believe that. I believe that nature can balance me, that nature, or the universe, or whatever it is out there that makes gravity work and the tides do their thing is certainly more powerful than me and can restore me to balance (sanity). I'm good with that.

Step three is a bigger, scarier step. "Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of god as we understood god."

That's not exactly how it reads in conference-approved literature, but I think it'll be ok. Conference-approved literature capitalizes "God" and uses the male pronoun "Him" at the end of the sentence. My gut is the conference folks who oversee this stuff won't mind if I change the language to reflect my theology and gender issues.

The biggest issue here is made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of god as we understood god, not idiosyncratic language. Can I do that? Can I turn my will and my life over to the care of god as I understand god? It's a big, scary step. And actually, it does not require me to do the turning over, but merely make a mindful decision to do so. 'Made a decision to turn..." does NOT say "turned our wills and lives..."

So now the question is: can I make a decision to turn my will and my life over to the care of my higher power, however I envision that higher power to be? In the course of this workshop weekend, I found myself a couple of times in a position to choose a partner or join/form a group for one exercise or another. Sometimes I was purposeful and pro-active in the selecting process, and sometimes I was more passive, allowing myself to be open (while still at choice to refuse) to what opportunities might present themselves. When I was open to what might present itself to me, I found that the experience provided me with surprising richness of experience, and when I chose, with some agenda in mind, or some idea of what I might or could or should learn from a particular grouping, it never went quite as well. Now this might all be coincidence, and it may be Monday morning hindsight/quarterbacking, but it seems to be true now as I look back at my experience and assess how it all went.

I am faced now with a decision. Can I make the decision to turn my will and my life over to the care of my higher power? Can I turn my will and my life over to something so nebulous? Can I trust that great force of energy and love that has no name, no face, no form? Can I even address it with a request for help? This is where Unitarian Universalists are said to run onto problems when we pray. "To whom it may concern: There are some things in my life here that would benefit from your attention..." How do I do that? And can I do it every day?

The idea, I think, is to try to stop running things, to let go of the ego and step into the mystery and trust that the world will keep spinning without my supervision. I don't know how successful I am at such a letting go, or even at making a decision to do so. I guess maybe I can decide to give it my best shot. I can decide to do my best to turn my will and my life over to the care of god as I understand god. I can decide to trust the universe. I'm ok with that. Not sure about the whole letting go thing right now -- that's still pretty scary -- but I think I can lean back into the mystery of things and trust that the universe won't drop me.

Today I make the decision to turn my will and my life over to the care of god as I understand god. The details of what that letting go will look like will become apparent as I move through the next steps. This is a decision step. The following steps are how that decision becomes action and reality. Today I can make that decision. I can decide to turn my will and my life over. I can do that. Today, I decide. Yes. Tomorrow, I may have to decide again, but that's ok. I'll get there as I get there. Today I set the intention. Yes.

Friday, November 4, 2011

came to believe

I am discussing the divine, how I understand god and how it fits with my 12-step recovery and spirituality program. In recent months, my theology has developed to a place where I do not believe in God as a person, a guy, an entity with human personal traits like wants, desires, an agenda, arms, etc. I see god as that divine that lives in the relationship of beings, the hope in a hopeless situation, the kindness in hell. That to me is god. So how does that work in my steps? I'm not sure.

Step two says "Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity."

Now the funny part is that I had the words mixed a little in my memory, and when I checked my book for accuracy, I found that there is nothing here that requires me to have a god that is a person or that looks like one. When I got sober, I had a pretty firm belief in God. Now, almost three decades later, my beliefs are not so sure or so simple. But the bottom line question here is this: do I believe that a power greater than myself can restore me to sanity? And my answer to that is a qualified yes. Yes, I believe that a power greater than myself can restore me to sanity. I believe that nature seeks balance and balance to me represents the sanity I seek, the place where I feel personally, emotionally, spiritually secure, where I am able to approach my day from a place of abundance seeking to share instead of from a place of scarcity where I feel the need to get my share and a little extra just in case.

I need to be mindful here not to get ahead of myself. This is step two, not any other step. There is no call for submission or action, merely coming to believe that a power greater than myself can restore me to sanity. I can do that.

Now I am heading off for a weekend. One of those HAI things again. I am looking forward to it enormously. I will post again come Monday, hopefully about step 3 at that time. See you then.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

getting personal

For the past week or better, I have been doing some theological reflection about how I understand the divine. I came to the conclusion that I don't seem to have a god that has a personality or personhood. That seemed fine until Friday night when I was lying on the deliciously cool tile floor of my bathroom, wishing I had a god I could pray to who would ease my suffering. When the realization struck me, I did giggle. But only briefly, cause it hurt.

Now in my 12-step program, there is a very clear concept of a higher power, and that higher power is very much a person-type entity. God is someone to be prayed to who can and will relieve our suffering. So how does this new theology of mine mesh with that concept? In conversations with some folks this week, it came to me to explore that notion here, and in particular to go through the steps as a way to do it. So let's start at step one. I'll do the others in order as we go.

1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol -- that our lives had become unmanageable.

Sounds easy enough. No mention of god, the divine or anything holy there. There is surrender, but it is surrender to a reality, to an understanding, more than to a deity. We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol. Some people get tweaked about the powerless part. I don't have much trouble with it these days. I didn't like it much when I first came into meetings, but after clearing my head a bit and taking a look at my behavior when I was drinking ... well, let's just say it's not a point I am willing to argue any more. I am powerless over alcohol. And my life is unmanageable, or at least it was when I was drinking. I planned things that never happened. I vowed not to do things that I always ended up doing, screw-ups followed me around. It was rough. And messy.

Today my life is far more manageable, but I notice that the less time and effort I put into managing things -- to trying to orchestrate the grand symphony of my life -- the easier my days are and the less stressful they are. But that's another discussion.

So I am powerless. I can do that. The first step does not require me to have a god or a higher power, just to admit that I'm NOT one. I'm good with that. I am powerless. Over alcohol and lots of stuff. I am powerless over how people act and feel and what they say and how they behave. I can respond or react, and I am responsible for my part in that stuff, but I am powerless over how someone else behaves. I am powerless over alcohol and drugs and what they do to others as well. I am powerless over addiction and how it beats people up. I don't like it, but I am powerless over that. I get it.

OK, now I'm going to end with something I don't often do, which is a prayer. Oh, I can pray in a group, I can lead a prayer and I can participate in a prayer, but I don't seem to spend a lot of time on my own devoted to prayer. This is the simple version of the Serenity Prayer:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; Power to change the things I can; and Wisdom to know the difference.

God, whatever that might be, please grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change. That means all the people, places and things in my life that might not be running the way I like them, that I think might go better if I were in charge; those people who ought to do this or that in order to be healthy and meet a standard of life and health that I deem appropriate. God grant me the serenity to accept the world as it is, and my place in it, for today. Tomorrow I can charge the castle with pitchforks, but for this morning, I'd like to accept things as being where they are supposed to be for this moment.

God grant me the strength to change the things I can, which mostly means me: my thoughts, my behaviors, my feelings, my words. God, please make my words tender and gentle and without sharp edges, so that if I have to eat them later it won't hurt so badly. Grant me the strength to work for justice without working for my own greater glory and good. Help me to take baby steps instead of trying to find a cure for cancer before I've had breakfast. Help me to change the things I can.

And please, god, who ever or what ever form you might take, guide me to the wisdom to know the difference between what I can change and what I cannot. Grant me the wisdom to know where I can be helpful and where I'm more likely to get in the way of actual progress and healing. Help me to stay right-sized. Blessed be. Amen.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

November and more on the divine

It is November 1, beginning of that NaBloPoMo thing I've done in the past. I have not signed up to do it this year, but I have signed up to do this thing every morning, examining what I know of god and the divine and my relationship with it all and it's relationship with me. They tell me that's theology. I don't know what I call it yet.
What I mentioned only as a post script yesterday was that I spent more than 8 hours of quality time Saturday in the emergency room with some kind of gastric upset thing. I was in some pretty harsh pain on Friday afternoon/evening and it wasn't all that better by noon Saturday, so a friend took me and sat shiva while I was poked, prodded, x-rayed, scanned, drained from various places and otherwise examined. Turns out I had some kind of thing they're not sure about. It may well have been the world's most expensive nap.
This goes in with some of the discussion we've been having in my Systematic Theology course on the purpose of suffering and evil. Why does it exist? Who thought it would be a good idea for us and what kind of twisted logic came up with that notion? There are some who say that evil is not god's doing at all, but that of a bad element - Satan or the devil, and god doesn't have much to do with it. Others say it comes from human's abuse of the freedoms that the divine has given us, and others still say it serves some kind of useful purpose, either as an educational tool, or as I heard when I was growing up "it builds character."
I'm not so sure I need any more character, and I am disinclined to think there is a bad guy with horns and a pointy tail running around causing havoc in the world, nor am I inclined to think that Saturday's exploration in pain was offered to me as an educational opportunity -- a spiritual field trip, if you will. Nor am I inclined to think that it is a result of my failure to pray appropriately or recycle my tin cans. It might have something to do with my gall bladder and diet, which can be seen as an outgrowth of an abuse of freedom, I suppose, but still. All of these things speak to a god that is punitive and cruel. I can't buy that. I can accept that bad stuff happens as a part of nature and that life is unfair, but I don't see suffering as a cosmic morality tale visited upon my GI tract to impart some kind of lesson about my place in the universe and relationship to the divine.
The trip to the hospital did offer me some time to observe how people come into such a place and how they behave while there. I got to sit in my own little curtained room and hear the comings and goings of nurses and technicians and patients and loved ones. I got to hear some kind of suturing being done on a not terribly pleased person across the way, and then a cast was put on. I got to hear a guy get treated for what was probably the clap, a young woman was treated for a sprained ankle after she fell down some stairs the night before ("I was sober, really!") and a woman came in with her husband and was seeking drugs and attention. It was a microcosm cross-section of society at its most vulnerable. All walks of life come through Beth Israel's ER, and I got to listen to them all. I also got a clear idea that I am not ready for chaplaincy yet. I think I'll try for that next fall as opposed to over the summer. I am not even ready to try for this summer yet, and the application process is already underway.
So, why suffering, then? I'm not sure. When I am hale and healthy, I tend to offer a smart remark like "pain is what lets you know you're alive," but that's more bullshit than anything else. What purpose pain? What can possibly be gained by the suffering of an infant born diseased and dying in a place wracked by famine and AIDS? What purpose does that serve? To offer some kind of morality lesson to the mother? To the infant? What kind of sick fuck would set up that with a purpose? That can't be god. It can't be. But what, then? And where is god in that? Where is the divine in that situation? I am inclined to think that the doings of this earth are the doings of this earth and that suffering and what we call "evil" are the normal diseases and infections that any organism has and fights in the course of its lifespan.
It's a lame explanation, but it's what I have this morning. Perhaps more on it tomorrow.

Monday, October 31, 2011

the veil is thinnest today

This is all Hallows Eve, All Souls Day, the Day of the Dead and Samhain, the Celtic festival of the dead. It is the time of the year when the veil between the realm of the living and the realm of the dead is the thinnest it ever gets. Pagan traditions tell us that today is when we can call the names of our beloveds and they can hear us, that if we gaze at the mist in just the right way we might be able to see those who are gone from us. It is a time to say goodbye, to remember and to let go.

At church yesterday, we did a bunch of stuff about remembrance and loss and mourning and saying goodbye. We lit a lot of candles and we spoke many names into the darkness of the sanctuary. (The power and heat were out at the church because of the snowstorm that hit overnight, so the candles were necessary and welcome for a variety of reasons.)

Rituals such as this are for the living, I understand that. They are so we can have something to do that allows us to let got of loss and pain that we've been carrying around. I was in a weird place, though. My father died in June. The pain is still accessible should I think about it all too much, but Sunday is not the place for me to do that. At least that's not my understanding. It is the time for clergy to lead worship, not necessarily speak the name of our own departed and lost. Although my supervising minister spoke some names. I heard him do it. I don't know what to do with that. I will ask him this week. The service on Sunday is about me serving the divine and the congregation, not about me getting my own spiritual needs for healing met. I wonder if maybe I was more healed from this loss if I would have been better able to speak my father's name and let it go than I am now. Now I think I would have cried still. There's a lot of healing I have left to do.

The day of the dead thing does not exactly fit with my theology. I don't believe that we can see from the realm of the living into the realm of the dead, nor that anyone there can hear if we call out their name to say goodbye. I understand that it is a ritual through which we get healing, but I don't see it as literally true. I think the imagery is good and helpful as a meditative guide to the emotional release, but theologically, I am still a tad confused. Where is god in this? Where is the divine? I think god is in the healing, in the release, in the lifting of the burden of mourning and sadness. I think god is in the ritual where we stand together and hold space for each other's pain and support each other as we let it go. Is god a thing that we can pray to in this moment to relieve suffering? I suppose. But I am not inclined to believe that the divine works like that. I tend to think that the divine exists in the love and compassion we share with each other. Still thinking. More tomorrow.

Post Script:
I ended up in the Emergency Room at Beth Israel in Boston Saturday afternoon. I spent 8+ quality hours there getting poked and prodded and scanned and x-rayed only to be told that nobody's exactly sure what happened, but I seemed better so go home and get some rest. Even with my new insurance from school, I may have just spent a full day accomplishing what amounts to a $30,000 nap. We'll see what's covered and what's not and I'll let you know. Making an appointment with a regular doc today to follow up.