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Following the River Way

Can you coax your mind from its wandering and keep to the original oneness?

Can you let your body become supple as a newborn child’s?

Can you cleanse your inner vision until you see nothing but the light?

Can you love people and lead them without imposing your will?

Can you deal with the most vital matters by letting events take their own course?

Can you step back from your own mind and thus understand all things? 

Tao Te Ching #10

 

One of the American interpreters of Taoism, Alan Watts, says, “The Tao is the course, the flow, the drift, or the process of nature.”  He calls it “the watercourse way” because the flow of water was used as its principle metaphor.  I like to call it the River Way.  The image of the river helps me to imagine letting go of my moorings, and yielding to the great flowing River that is life.  There are times for steering and times for being like a leaf on the water, trusting to go wherever it goes. The River always finds the way to where it is going.

 

As we enter the season of summer on June 21st, I will enter a time of spaciousness that is a great gift—two months of summer study and vacation, and then four months of sabbatical time.  I go into this time with simple intentions—to let go of work and goals and busy days, and to be open to the River Way.  I hope to tune into the present moment and also to the long view, the overarching story.  What an amazing opportunity—to dive deeply into the flow of the river in my soul, to see what light is there.  To follow a meandering journey of gentle unhurried curiosity, to see what truth is there.  Another passage of the Tao Te Ching (#27) says:

A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent upon arriving.

A good artist lets his intuition lead him wherever it wants.

A good scientist has freed herself of concepts, and keeps her mind open to what is.

                                                                                               

And that is how I am looking forward to these days ahead.  But in the final days before our leave-taking, I am also feeling a sense of sadness as I say goodbye to people at A2U2 for this six month period.  I will miss you.  It is especially hard to say goodbye to those who are going through a hard time right now.  Yet I know how well you will care for each other, and how tender and compassionate are the bonds between you.  I trust you will be well.

 

On June 21st, we will make a ritual of leave-taking, and I will take off my stole—the symbol of my ministry with you—and give it over into the care of the congregation.  This means that you will hold the ministry of our church in my absence, and I will have a time when I am not “the minister” but am just “Myke,” in my own spiritual journey.  When I come back in January, you will give the stole back to me, and we will carry the ministry together once again.  Thank you for this opportunity to rejuvenate my energy and to deepen my understanding of the beautiful winding River we follow.  I am also leaving you with a bowl of polished river stones to carry in your pocket—just in case you need a reminder now and then of the River that carries us all. 

 

Please remember that if you have a pastoral concern, you can call the church at 797-7240, extension 13, and leave a one-minute message.  One of our Pastoral Care Team members will give you a call back.  In the event of an emergency, they can also contact one of our back up support ministers, and will know how to be in contact with me, when that is appropriate.

Love and blessings, Myke

Beauty and suffering

The beauty of the spring and the difficulty of the economy in people’s lives are clashing in my heart today.  I am thinking of how vulnerable we are to disruptions beyond our control.  I feel so sad and helpless when someone I love loses their job or income, or can’t find work.  And yet, when I go outside, there is such beauty and abundance—the flowers are everywhere, and the colors are a feast to my eyes.  The songs of the birds fill my soul.  The earth gives me strength.

 

I know the earth is vulnerable too.  I hope for the day when human beings can be in a mutually beneficial relationship with this wonderful planet.  I believe that when we find that kind of relationship with the earth, our economy will be grounded and sustainable as well.  It is all connected.  So I am very happy about a learning opportunity I will have at the very beginning of summer.  On June 21st, after our last service of the church year, and our end of the year picnic, I will be driving up to Unity, Maine to attend an Earth Activist Training. 

 

As described by the teachers, “an Earth Activist Training can show you how to save the world.  Green solutions are sprouting up all around us, but permaculture shows us how to weave them together into systems that can meet human needs and regenerate the natural world.”  The two week intensive will include a basic, internationally-recognized 72 hour permaculture curriculum with an additional focus on social permaculture, organizing tools, and spirit.  (This is during the time I usually go to General Assembly, but I decided I would rather spend the money on this professional development opportunity.)  I’ll be excited to share about it when I return.

 

Each summer I take some time for vacation, and some time for study opportunities, while the church continues with lay-led worship services, and pastoral volunteers.  This summer is just the same, but will feel a little different because it leads into my four month sabbatical in the fall.  I know the church has been feeling some anxiety about my being away, and that’s to be expected.  But I have seen the wisdom and dedication of all of our members here, and together we are preparing lay-led systems to handle the duties that usually belong to me.  You can find out more about the details in the new Sabbatical brochure that has just been completed. (And soon to be posted on the church website.)  This is a church with strong lay leadership, and I know all will be well. 

 

I am also happy to announce the creation of a Pastoral Care Team at A2U2, to be chaired by Ruby Parker.  “Pastoral care” isn’t just something that ministers do.  Pastoral care means being present to someone during a time of need in their lives.  The Pastoral Care Team is a group of church members who have training or experience in compassionate listening, and who are willing to be available to other members who are experiencing illness, bereavement, or other stressful challenges.  At A2U2, much compassionate listening happens informally between members and friends, and in the context of other church groups.  But the Pastoral Care Team will respond more intentionally to help our church live out its mission of caring.  The Team will be responsible for pastoral care during my summer leave and autumn sabbatical, and will also continue beyond that time to expand the support and care we offer our members. 

 

The truth is we can’t solve all the hardship that enters the lives of the people we care about.  But we can be compassionate listeners during times of vulnerability—and that listening presence will be a source of strength, just like the earth is a source of strength.  Blessed be!   

Myke

Walking out to the rocks

I walked out to the rocks in the woods at church today.  The sun was shining, and though there is still a chill in the air, the crocuses were bright outside the door, and a few daffodils were blooming.  I was thinking about our dreaming and planning for a new sanctuary, and trying to imagine where it might come to be situated on the land.  Our architects had been quite taken with the rock ledge in the woods, and I remember how that space was shown to me in my first grand tour of the church.  It is a really special spot. 

In our future landscaping plans there is talk of making that space more integral to our common life—as a garden with a walkway perhaps, or a space for meditation.  And it came to me that we don’t have to wait for our building to take shape to do some of that now.  The future footprint of an expanded building will not infringe on those rocks, so we could give them some tender loving care in the closer future.  They have suffered a bit from being an occasional hangout for unidentified teens.  A suggestion was made that if we put more energy into that space, it might discourage vandalism.  Even today, I found myself picking up broken glass, and imagining how nice it would be to plant some shade-loving perennials.  I would leave the details to our amazing landscaping volunteers… but I encourage you to visit the rocks if you haven’t seen them yet.

Later this spring we’ll see some new plans from the architects, and have a chance to vote on a design.  And our marvelous and hard-working facilities planning committee will have brought us to the completion of Phase One.  I wanted to take a moment to say a really big thank you for all the creativity, hard work, listening, meeting, research, and shepherding that group has done.  Thank you Dan Chase, Jerry Freeman, Terri Grover, Rick Kimball, Trudy McNulty, Ann Packard, and Shane Smith!  And thanks to everyone who suspended disbelief in these uncertain financial times, and shared your ideas and dreams and concerns and hopes. 

Our financial planning committee is even now plotting about what our next steps will be, and most certainly in that mix will be a financial feasibility study, so we can think realistically as well as imaginatively. But I am reminded of a piece of wisdom I learned from somewhere—that nothing can be created in reality without the imagination to see it first in fantasy.

And on that note, I also wanted to send forth a vision.  Sometime in the near future, I see myself conducting many weddings—some in our current sanctuary, maybe some near the rocks in the woods—weddings for same-sex couples who have finally won the right to legal marriage equality in Maine.  There is a lot of hard work still to do, but I can imagine it!  Can you?  Blessed be LD1020!

 

Myke

A great day for Equality!

Myke and clergy April 22 hearing.jpgWednesday, April 22, Margy and I were with thousands of supporters at the Public Hearing for LD 1020, a bill to extend the legal institution of civil marriage to same-sex couples in Maine.  I am writing in red, because red was the color of the day.  Supporters were asked to wear red, and entering the Civic Center, I saw a literal sea of red across the room.  Newspaper reports said that supporters outnumbered opponents by a margin of 2 to1, some said even 4 to 1. It was incredibly moving to be with thousands of people, of all ages and orientations, in support of full equality for all people and all families.  It was wonderful to see many many people from our church throughout the day--and I am sure that there were others I didn't see--volunteering behind the Freedom to Marry table, wearing red, filling out comment forms, testifying, or helping others to testify.  I know that many had been working long hours as well in preparation for this event. 

 

I was there with the Religious Coalition for the Freedom to Marry in Maine.  We began the day in our clergy garb, lining the entryway, being a visible sign of religious support for same-sex couples.  So many people stopped to thank us for being there.  One person said he was thanking every single one of us, it was that important to him.  And it was important.  Later on, everyone had to listen to so much testimony from the opposition, claiming that God condemned homosexuality, and called people sinners, and much worse that I won't even repeat.  We were there to bear witness to the love of God, and the holiness of love!  We were there to say that all people, and all families, are worthy of equality and respect.  There were about forty of us clergy there between 7 and 9 a.m. and many more arrived later.

 

The way the hearing was organized, testimony was divided into half hour segments, first from proponents at one microphone, and and then from opponents at another.  Each person had only 3 minutes to speak.  Written testimony was also being accepted by the committee.  Knowing that there wouldn't be time for all of us to speak, many of us in the Religious Coalition had prepared and submitted written testimony, and planned for our oral testimony to be given by clergy from diverse faith traditions.  In the morning, my colleague, Rev. Deborah Davis Johnson, minister of Immanuel Baptist in Portland, talked about how Baptists believe that each person must interpret the Bible for themselves, and that Jesus taught love for all people. 

 

After lunch, we had our official testimony from the Religious Coalition, with Rev. Mark Worth, minister of the UU Congregation of Castine, speaking on our behalf.  When he came up to the microphone, all of us lined up behind him across the entire front of the room--estimates were that there were from 70 to 100 of us at that point.  The crowd erupted in a standing ovation before he even began to speak.  We represented clergy and other religious leaders from 17 religious denominations, and all areas of the state of Maine, uniting in one voice to support equality in marriage for same sex couples.  We submitted our Declaration in Support of the Freedom to Marry, with 166 signatures, along with other written testimony.  After Mark finished speaking, there was another extended ovation.  Then we heard from Rev. David Gaewski, Conference Minister of the Maine Conference of the United Church of Christ, standing with thirty UCC ministers.  In that same half hour, we also heard from Heidi Shott, standing with a group of Episcopal clergy, reading testimony from the Episcopal Bishop Stephen Lane of the Diocese of Maine; Our other speakers were Rev. Don Rudalevige, speaking with Methodist clergy, and Rabbi Hillel Katzir, speaking with other Jewish rabbis.  It was profoundly uplifting.  Hopefully the full testimony will be able to be posted on our Religious Coalition website.

 

Margy and I stayed at the hearing until the very end.  By then the crowd was much smaller, though we were still sitting within a sea of red.  Near the end, it was obvious that not everyone standing in line would be able to testify.  And the opposition had the last scheduled half hour.  I decided to stand in line at that point, since I had prepared oral testimony, even knowing it was unlikely there would be time.  For me it was a way to continue to bear witness to the religious support for equality in marriage.  As the time passed 8 p.m., Senator Larry Bliss, who was moderating the proceedings, said that the committee had decided, given that so many people had waited so long, to allow anyone currently standing in line--and no one else was allowed to join the lines--to give one-minute testimony before they closed the hearing for the day.  What a great surprise!  Our line was twice as long at that point, so they heard from half of us, then the opposition line, and then the last several people, including me, gave our testimony.  I was the third to the end of the line.

 

Later, Margy told me that my words became something like a benediction for the end of the day.  Here is what I said, in my one minute:

"My name is Mykel Johnson.  I am the minister of the Allen Avenue Unitarian Universalist Church in Portland, Maine, and I live in North Yarmouth.  My faith teaches that everything in creation reveals the beauty and love of God.  As human beings, we can hardly begin to imagine the depth and the height, and the width and the breadth of God's love.  God is love, and all who abide in love, abide in God, and God in them.

 

"I first began to care about equal marriage for same sex couples because of two women in my previous congregation.  These women had been loving partners for thirty-three years.  Everyone in my church was inspired by their commitment and affection.  When I observe the love between two such people, I see the love of God shining in our midst.  My faith tradition joyfully celebrates their union as a holy marriage.  I know that not every religious tradition blesses or honors this love.  But in the face of such religious disagreements, in our common civic life, a wide definition of inclusion and fairness must prevail.  Please vote yes!"

Sabbatical Planning

            Many people have started asking me what I am planning to do during my sabbatical next fall.  I thought I would take this opportunity to fill you in on how it is evolving—since it is an evolving process.   A sabbatical has the purpose of renewal and revival.  What I bring to the sabbatical are deep questions—questions that are part of my everyday ministry, but that I don’t have a chance to fully explore in the hubbub of congregational life.  During this time of preparation, I am discerning what my deep questions are, and how I might explore them.  Not surprisingly, they relate to the areas that are at the center of my calling as your minister: spiritual growth, leadership and community, and social responsibility.

            During my sabbatical time, I hope to go back into the laboratory of my own spiritual journey, and take time for exploring the mystery of my own spiritual path.  Where is spirit leading me in this moment in my life?  I know for some UU’s “spirituality” is a nebulous concept, but to be a minister to our diverse congregation, it is important for me both to cultivate a knowledge of diverse spiritual practices that fit our values, and also to journey deeply into a path that grows my own soul.  Since my spiritual path is closely related to the earth, I imagine that part of this time will be spent connecting more with this beautiful land of Maine—which is still a relatively new home for me.  I am looking for retreat experiences as well, and the guidance of spiritual teachers.  Time for meditation and stillness.

Another spiritual question relates to the “hubbub” of church leadership.  Ministry is about the best work I can imagine, but the demands of ministry bring one very close to the edge of burnout.  During my sabbatical, I want to explore the question of sustainability and wholeness-- How can this calling of ministry be a sustainable and life-giving path?  I have found an intriguing opportunity in this area of leadership and community.  I will be participating in a two-part Leadership in Ministry training, which uses concepts from family systems theory to explore how to increase one’s effectiveness and durability as a congregational leader.  As it turns out, the first part of the training is a three-day workshop in May, and then I will continue to explore the topic on my own, leading up to the second three-day workshop in October.  It includes work on the emotional processes present in congregations, and how those relate to emotional processes in our families.  So it involves deep personal work, and well as collegial conversations about congregational dynamics.

            In the area of social responsibility—I see so much happening in our world today, great crises really, and it seems that many changes loom on the horizon—with the environment, the economy, and competing religious perspectives.  As a spiritual leader, I need to understand what is going on—so that I can offer guidance to our community as we seek to navigate in these uncharted waters.  And not just what I can glean from the daily newspaper (if newspapers survive at all), but what I might learn from reading many books, and talking to visionary people and great thinkers.  I need to connect with other UU ministers, too, and tap into our collective wisdom.  One opportunity for this will be our UU Minister’s Convocation in November—we gather like this every seven years—in Ottawa Canada.  I am exploring what other possibilities exist, from travel to workshops to thinking about who I might like to talk to.

            As you can see, even the process of preparing for a sabbatical is quite a journey.  I don’t expect there to be a detailed road map before it begins, but perhaps my musings will give you a clue as to which direction I am setting out towards.  Many people tell me it is also important to leave open spaces for rest and fun and family time and surprises.  So I will!

We Are the Ones

            Poet June Jordan tells the story of a group of South African women who, upon being told by the apartheid government that they must carry passbooks, said to each other—no one else will come to save us—we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.  They decided to throw their passbooks into the fire in protest.

            We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.  That is what we also believe here at Allen Avenue.  If the world is going to change, if the world is going to hold compassion, equality, and freedom, we must do it—we must be the heroes—not alone, but together.  We must be the ones to build a community that transforms lives through the power of love.

            There is an old story about a certain monastery that had fallen on hard times, so its abbot sought advice from a rabbi.  The rabbi said, “I don’t know the answer to your problems, but one among you is the Messiah.”  When the abbot shared that news with the brothers, they all began to wonder, and to treat each other with such reverence and appreciation, that the monastery was transformed and flourished again.

            We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.  Whatever our congregation becomes is up to all of us and each of us.  Sometimes we call this “shared ministry.”  Sometimes we call it “stewardship.”  In March, we once again renew our commitment to A2U2: we are asked to make a pledge of our money and our talents and our time for the next church year.  We are invited to wonder about how we want to contribute to our common life and our common mission, what gift waits in our hearts to take root and bear fruit here.

            This is a joyful process—in the midst of a worried world, we remember that we have something to offer.  We can do it—no matter what we face in the unknown future, we can be a force for good.  There is a synergy here—the church is more than the sum of its parts.  As each of us gives our best selves, our best offerings, we create a shining whole, a beacon of hope and joy.  That is what we ask of ourselves—to give our best, to become our best.  And if each of us gives our best, A2U2 will prosper, and will be a gift to the world.

            We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

Hope is in the air!

            I am writing this just a few days before the inauguration of Barack Obama as our new president, and a few days after participating in a press conference announcing a legislative initiative to bring marriage equality to same-sex couples in Maine.  Hope is in the air.  I was so proud of A2U2 member couples who stood up to represent all of those who would benefit from the rights and protections of legal marriage: Cecelia Burnett and Ann Swanson were there, and Tamiko Davies and Terry Guerette with their children Cameron and Sooki.  (See http://mainefreedomtomarry.org for ways you can help.)

            Unfortunately, the opposition has also been vocal.  I get so angry when the Bible is used as a weapon against the dignity of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people.  I am sure we will see a lot of that in the months ahead.  How do I answer those who say the Bible forbids homosexuality?  Did you know that the Bible also forbids eating lobster? 

            When we read the Bible, we must remember that the beautiful and deep wisdom it contains is embedded in the cultural understandings and limitations of its time.  We have to exercise discernment about what is timeless and what is no longer of moral use to us.  We no longer condone the biblical customs of slavery and polygamy and the genocidal slaughter of one’s enemies. 

            But the central theme of the Bible is God’s work of lifting up the lowly and bringing dignity and hope to the outcast and the poor.  I believe we are doing God’s work when we work for the full equality of all people.  The Bible also says that God is Love and those who abide in love abide in God, and God in them.  I see that godly Love in the lives of same-sex couples, just as much as in the lives of straight couples.  We all have to work at living in love—it doesn’t come without a struggle. That is the true biblical challenge.  So don’t let the opposition get you down!

            And in our own beloved community, after a busy fall of interviews and hiring, we now have a full and expanded staff with a total of three new people on board.  I am happy to welcome Anne Mann as our new full-time Director of Religious Education.  Anne brings her experience as a DRE from two other UU churches, as well as time working on conferences at Ferry Beach; already I’m enjoying our conversations about church and young people, and the wonderful (and sometimes wacky) work of serving a UU congregation.  Kim Sprague has been remarkable as a warm and friendly presence on Sunday mornings during the last three months, and is bringing great energy and enthusiasm to our mission of welcoming newcomers and helping them find their niche at A2U2.  And, it’s been great getting to know Pam Rowe, who is behind the scenes hard at work on our finances and always brings a cheerful smile to the day—stop by sometime on a weekday afternoon to get acquainted. 

            It’s a good time to say thanks to everyone who has helped to bring this staff expansion into reality.  First of all, I want to say a heartfelt thank you to Sally Moon, who will soon be ending her term as our part-time temporary Religious Education Assistant. Sally has kept our religious education program functioning smoothly during a challenging transition—along with Cathy Walsh and the other members of the RE Committee.  All together they made our program strong and healthy and fun. 

            I also want to thank the members of the search and hiring committees for each of our new staff positions.  The DRE Search Committee included Tina Veilleux, Cathy Falwell, Angie Dierks, and Jennifer Tingle.  The Membership Coordinator Hiring Committee included Jon McNulty, Diane Oberbeck, Rick Grover and Tirrell Kimball.  The Administrative Assistant Hiring Committee included Sue Malcolm, Lynne Russell-Johnson, John Sartorius, and Leslie Bayers.  Thanks for your thoughtful and dedicated attention to our staffing needs.  And finally, thanks to all the members and friends whose financial investment and personal commitment to our congregation truly make it all possible. 

                                                                           Myke

 

P.S.  I will be away on retreat from Feb 10-16th.

Renewal

            I am writing two days after power was restored to our house, following a three day black out caused by the ice storm.  When the power goes out you start to really notice the light and the dark.  Daylight means being able to do and see things—you can go outside to get wood, wash dishes, or read a book or the newspaper.  When night falls the small flames of candles and the little glow of a battery powered lantern are not really enough even to read by. 

            Friday seemed easy—it was my day off and when the power went out at 9 a.m. the house was warm.  We drove over to LL Bean and purchased a little storm radio.  That night we went out to dinner and saw an inspiring movie about Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to public office.  We cuddled up under a thick comforter for a long winter’s night.  Saturday morning we fired up our wood stove—we are neophytes to its use, so we followed the manual and the temperature gauge that told us when to open or close the damper or how to adjust the air flow so the fire was hot enough but not too hot.  We were able to cook our meals on it, and began to pay attention to the food that was warming up in our refrigerator or thawing in the freezer.  We hauled our coolers out of the basement and filled them with ice from outside.

            Meanwhile, our phone still worked.  I was hearing about the escapades of our loyal building and grounds volunteers because the power at the church had also gone out.  They were trying to pump out the basement which had flooded, and keep things warm enough so the pipes didn’t freeze.  No heat and no power in the building helped us decide to cancel services for Sunday morning.  I must admit I felt relieved because it was a lot of work for Margy and I just to keep up with stuff at home.   

            But there was a simple joy in our time, too.  At night the moon was full and bright, and the shadows of tree limbs crisscrossed over the white ground.  During the day the ice sparkled from every blade of grass and the birds were flocking around our back slider door where Margy had scattered sunflower seeds for them to eat.  There was something very restorative about attending to the basics of food and warmth, and following the rhythms of light and dark.  I bring a much deeper appreciation of the turning from dark to light in the Solstice.

            This month, I was planning to tell you about my upcoming sabbatical time, which will be occurring next autumn from September to December.  A sabbatical is a time of renewal for ministers so that we might bring new energy and inspiration to our service in our congregation.  This coming June 20th will be the tenth anniversary of my ordination.  I have been working fulltime for those ten years, first in Brewster, Massachusetts for six years, and now here at Allen Avenue since 2005.  The Unitarian Universalist Association recommends that ministers receive one month of sabbatical time for every year that they serve a congregation.  I did not have a chance to take a sabbatical at my last church, so when I first came to A2U2 we agreed that after four years here, I would take a four month sabbatical. 

            During the next several months, you’ll be hearing more details of how the church will function during my absence.  We have already begun discussing it in the Committee on Ministry.  But for now, I just wanted to share with you a little of its purpose.  A sabbatical time is not so different from that time during the power outage—it is an extended interruption of my usual schedule, a time to turn inward to the care and nurture of my own soul.  It is a time to tend to its food and warmth, follow its inner rhythm of light and dark, in order to deepen the well from which I draw to offer sustenance to the spiritual growth of this beloved community. 

            So, more on that later, but in the meantime, I wish all of you a joyful new year! 

                                                                                  

 

Entering the Season of Darkness

            The winter holidays are almost upon us, in the midst of a season filled with profound fiscal anxiety.  The economic news seems to be all bad news: job losses, the failure of corporations, the decline of retirement savings, and questions about bailouts and bankruptcies.  I say to myself, however, that none of this should be a complete surprise to us.  We have been hearing about the concept of sustainability for quite a while, and many environmental activists have warned that our current economic system is not based on a sustainable model. 

           

            Our economy is based on continued fiscal growth: the expansion of markets, the expansion of productivity, the expansion of investments—more and more expansion—and it is based on promoting greed and consumption.  But the natural environment is cyclical and seeks to maintain a balance.  It is based on giving and receiving in an interconnected web of life.  We humans can’t keep using more and more energy extracted from declining fossil fuels; we can’t keep filling up the atmosphere with greenhouse gases; we can’t keep developing land by cutting down trees—and still expect to continue to have oxygen to breathe, water to drink, and fertile soil to grow our food.  On a limited and interconnected planet, we are coming to the edges of what expansion can do for us.

           

            It has often been pointed out that the Chinese character for crisis also means opportunity.  I think, realistically, that our only fiscal hope is to reframe our economy toward a sustainable future—to create drastic changes in how we do business.  Others have said, for example, that we could create millions of new jobs by retro-fitting houses for energy efficiency.  Hopefully, there are people with creative ingenuity who are even now imagining new possibilities for a future that works. We need to be open to the possibility that things will change in large and small ways.

 

            It is difficult to make wise choices in the midst of anxiety.  There is an enormous pressure to turn the winter holidays into an orgy of spending and consumption and debt.  But I believe we would be better served by a surplus of stillness and dreaming—the kind of dreaming that opens our minds and hearts to transformation.  

 

            Our wonderful A2U2 celebrations of the Winter Solstice remind us of the dying of the old year and the birth of all that is new.  They remind us of the ever-turning cycles of nature.  We need these celebrations right now.  We need to enter that deep darkness where new ideas are born, where possibility and hope rise up like the dancing flames of the burning log from last year’s Yule, or the candles floating in an ice chalice. 

 

            My wish for us and for our children is that we can make the link between our holiday celebrations and our hopes for a sustainable future.  May we discover the wisdom to thrive in these changing times, and never stop singing, dancing, and caring for each other. 

Peace & Joy!  

           

A Voice for Equality

Today I was honored to be a part of the unveiling of a new voice in Maine's public life.  There were four simultaneous press conferences at 11 a.m., in Portland, Bangor, Auburn/Lewiston, and Hancock/Ellsworth, to announce the formation of the Religious Coalition for the Freedom to Marry in Maine.  Four of us spoke in Portland: Rev. Deborah Davis-Johnson of Immanuel Baptist Church, Rev. Don Rudalevige, retired United Methodist minister, Rev. Ron Baard, UCC minister and professor at Bangor Theological Seminary, and myself.  This is the statement I presented:

There are times when religious leaders need to step outside of our pulpits and pastoral duties, and speak in a prophetic voice to our wider communities about justice and injustice in our midst.  We believe this is one of those moments. 

 

We are joining together as religious leaders from many different faith traditions to call upon the state of Maine to affirm the equality and freedom of all of our people by opening the institution of legal marriage to same sex couples.

 

As religious people, we are called to stand for justice for all people in our common civic life.  After the necessities of food, clothing and shelter, the right to affection and the supportive love of another human being is considered a vital part of human dignity and fulfillment.  Equally important is the right to form family bonds, to share economic resources, and to provide care and support to loved ones in sickness and in health. 

 

Yesterday, the state of Connecticut began granting marriage licenses to same-sex couples.  Next week will mark the fifth anniversary of when Massachusetts affirmed the civil right to marriage for all its citizens.

 

We believe this is a moment for us, as religious leaders across the state of Maine, to speak on behalf of fairness and to raise our voices for the human rights and dignity of all people.  Denial of the status of marriage to same-sex couples creates legal, economic, and social hardship and is inherently a form of discrimination.  

 

Therefore, we are announcing the creation of a Religious Coalition for the Freedom to Marry in Maine.  At this time we include over 120 leaders from fourteen different religious traditions across the state of Maine.  We expect that others will join us as we go forward.

I first began to care about this issue because of two women in my previous congregation.  These women had been loving each other for thirty-three years.  They were kind, generous, pillars of our church.  They wanted to get married so that they could be assured of taking care of each other as they grew old together.  So that, for example, if one of them died, the other would not lose the home they had worked so hard to build together, or be deprived of the retirement income they had saved together.  Everyone in my church was inspired by their commitment and affection.  My faith tradition calls their love holy. 

I recognize that not every religious tradition would bless and honor that love.  Religious freedom is a hallmark of our democracy.  We honor the important and legitimate right of each religious tradition to sanctify marriages according to their own diverse beliefs and practices.  But there is a distinction between the religious blessing of marriage and the legal recognition of marriage.  No religious ceremony is required to validate a legal marriage.  In our common civic life, and in our common legal institutions, a wide definition of inclusion and fairness must prevail.  No one should be denied the freedom to legally marry the person they love. 

 

Therefore, as religious leaders, we commit ourselves to public action, education, and mutual support in the service of the right and freedom to marry.

 

 

The Great Correction

Everyone tied to the turnin’ wheel,

Everyone hidin’ from the things they feel

Well the truth’s so hard it just don’t seem real

The shadow across this land…

It’s the bitter end we’ve come down to

The eye of the needle that we gotta get through

But the end could be the start of something new

When the great correction comes

                                                                        (from Eliza Gilkyson’s “The Great Correction”)

 

Perhaps only Eliza Gilkyson could make a spiritual anthem out of an economic term for a “necessary downturn” in the market.  As the leaves fall from the trees in their great and mesmerizing beauty, the paper wealth of the stock market floats down and down, and becomes as ephemeral as the color on the forest floor.  I must admit, I am no economist, and I never fully understand the ups and downs of Wall Street.  But I know that many, many people are facing new financial hardship.  And our nation is facing some big questions about what direction we will take as we go forward.

 

What can we do, as individuals and as a church community?  Do our values have anything to say about our economy?  Eliza’s song came out of a monthly gathering in Austin, Texas, in which people would get together to face with honesty the deepening economic, political, cultural, and ecological crises.  “We wanted to provide a place to discuss, grieve, and mull over our future without having a need for an immediate solution other than the comfort of each other’s presence.”  (This info is from on-line Yes! Magazine.)

 

That is something we can do as a church—we can be a place to discuss, grieve, mull over, and dream.  It can happen is in our Spiritual Enrichment Groups.  It can happen in our Social Action Groups.  Anyone who wants to start a new group can do that, too.  In fact, any place we gather, we can go deeper than small talk.  We need lots of big talk—real talk—about what is most important in our lives, what is going on in our world.  What struggles are we facing in our own families’ finances?  What help might we offer each other?  What kind of economy do we hope to live in?  What kind of world do we want to create for our children? 

 

There are many things that we cannot control—but we can choose to take action in whatever ways we can.  We can vote on November 4th.  We can campaign for candidates who share our values and hopes.  We can live our lives in ways that reflect our values.  Live as if it were possible.  This month, our town started doing pay-per-bag trash pick-up, and curbside recycling.  No towns would recycle if a few people hadn’t started recycling on their own, and connecting with other people who believed in recycling.  Change starts from the bottom up—from new ideas and old ideas and people talking about it and starting some small action together.

 

Eliza Gilkyson sings: Poets and sages all throughout history say the light burns brightest in the darkest times.  Let our little lights shine!

Pastoral Care

            One of the things that our church does well is the caring that people give to each other during times of stress and suffering.  It is not always visible, since it is often covered over by the gentle blanket of privacy and confidentiality.  But I have seen its traces in small and large ways.   

            It happens in our Spiritual Enrichment Groups, where people have a chance to form trusting connections through sharing and listening in small groups.  It happens in our Caring Connection, through rides to doctors and meals during illness, and the intangible comfort of a card or visit or phone call during a time of need.  (And through the much appreciated receptions provided after memorial services!)  It happens through our Pastoral Visitors, lay volunteers who are each matched with an elder, and visit once a month or more often, just to offer and experience a friendly connection.  It happens with our Summer Pastoral Volunteers, who respond to phone calls during the summer.  It happens in my office, when someone takes the risk to talk to me about some struggle they are facing in their life journey.  And it happens informally among friends and colleagues, in meetings, on retreats, over lunch and potlucks, almost anywhere in our A2U2 networks.  It is amazing and wonderful.

            Because of the size of our congregation, more of it happens between members rather than with the minister.  The experts say that once you have more than 150 or so members, it is really impossible for the minister to be the listening pastor to each member most of the time.  A2U2 is too big to be a “pastoral” sized church, which is focused on the minister.  We are a “program” sized church, which is focused on programs that connect people to each other and thrives because of its lay leadership.  Our caring happens because of the dedication of all of you.

            Perhaps the shadow side of this caring congregation is that we create an atmosphere which nurtures people’s hopes for support, but sometimes can disappoint those hopes, if a person doesn’t have the connections that might provide it.  It takes time to build those connections, but struggles come on their own timetable.  And so, we are always challenged to weave new strands of caring, and offer more opportunities for connection.

            This year, I would like to see us create a Pastoral Care Team, to expand our capacity for responding to each other in times of struggle.  A Pastoral Care Team would be a group of church members who have some training or experience in compassionate listening, and are able to offer time to other members who are experiencing stressful transitions, illness, or other challenges.  As I said, much of this already happens informally, but the members of a Pastoral Care Team would reach out to people who might otherwise fall through the cracks, or who need a little bit more time than other groups can offer, or who are too new to have formed strong connections.  A Pastoral Care Team could also explore new possibilities for living out our mission of caring.

            Pastoral care is not psychological analysis or therapy—it doesn’t try to solve problems or save anyone from the struggles of their own life journey.  Pastoral care is about compassionate and respectful listening.  And surprisingly, that can make all the difference in the world.  If you think you might have a gift for listening that you’d like to share, or if you’d like to learn how to be a better listener, send me an email through the a2u2.org website.  We will be conducting a training that we call LAMP 101, through our Leadership and Ministry Program, on November 15th – 16th (It’s Sat & Sun, 1:30-5:30—Sign up will be on the Adult Education bulletin board, or through churchdb.)  And thank you for all that you do for each other!

Riding the Rapids

            I am thinking of some words from an old song by Cris Williamson.

When you open up your life to the living

All things come spilling in on you

And you’re flowing like a river, the Changer and the Changed,

You’ve got to spill some over, spill some over, over all…

 

            I have called my messages, “Water from the Well,” but this one works better as “Riding the Rapids.”  There are times when water is deep and cool and reflective, and there are times when it is rushing and frothy and foaming.  In September, our community comes back together—those who have been away with those who have been meeting in our summer services.  As we gather again in our larger circle, we are facing new changes and challenges. 

 

            Most of you know that Robin Lea, our Director of Religious Education, has given her resignation, because of allergy and health concerns in our building.  She is working behind the scenes this month, but won’t be with us in our building and our worship and our children’s programs.  We will miss her!  Our Board is working with the Religious Education Committee for a smooth opening to our Children and Youth Programs for the fall, and has begun the process of planning for the future.  We know that all will be well.  But in the meantime, sadness falls like a rainy day, and our anxieties are bound to increase during this time of transition. 

 

            Sadness and anxiety are also lingering in our hearts because of the tragedy at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville July 27th.  A gunman opened fire during a Sunday service/youth performance and killed two people and wounded others, before being subdued by courageous church members.  He said he targeted the church because of its liberal values, and we also know that he was a deeply troubled person.  But such an act of violence has caused at least a few of us to wonder, could it have happened to us? 

 

            I have a greeting card that I saved many years ago—it reads:  “What shall I carry today?  Will it be faith or fear?”  Really, I think we must carry both—fear is natural part of living as human beings in a risky and vulnerable world.  But will we also carry faith?  Will fear cause us to close our doors and close our hearts, or will we open up our hearts each day to life, “open up our life to the living.”  Louise Erdrich, in her novel The Painted Drum writes:  “Life will break you.  Nobody can protect you from that… You have to love.  You have to feel.  It is the reason you are here on earth.  You are here to risk your heart.”

 

            Many years ago one of my sisters closed her doors to me because of my liberal values.  This summer, she asked for my forgiveness, and shared a visit with Margy and me at my parents’ home, with her husband and five children.  I have hope because she and I risked our hearts, and started a process of healing.  I have hope because one evening she trusted me to take care of her baby, whose name is Grace.  I have hope because the Grace I believe in is large enough to hold both me and my sister, even when we couldn’t hold each other.  May that Grace bless this coming season, and help us to keep our hearts open.