Here is a picture I drew when I was a hospital chaplain and was in intimate contact with the suffering of others every day. Mine was the hand reaching as far as I could across the barriers that separated the sufferer from sustenance, choice, connection, hope, from self and life. Where the fingertips of the pink hand penetrate the bricks and wire and fence pickets, they lose their color, drained by the depth of the sufferer’s despair. Suffering is like that. We’ve all been both the sufferer and the caregiver.
A recent op-ed article (Susan Silk and Barry Goldman, “How Not To Say The Wrong Thing,” LA Times, 4/7/13) suggested a “ring theory” for caregiving. The one good thing about being the sufferer in the center of the circle is that you can react in an uncensored way to any aspect of your experience. Caregivers can also freely express their reaction to the suffering, but only to people in larger rings. If you want to talk about your shock or discomfort with what you see; lament all the comparable terrible things you’ve experienced; say to the sufferer “It’s not just about you!” that's fine. Those are perfectly normal responses. Just say those things to someone in a bigger ring.
When you are talking to a person in a ring smaller than yours, someone closer to the center of the crisis, the goal is to help. Listening is often more helpful than talking. But if you're going to say something, ask yourself if what you are about to say is likely to provide comfort and support. If it isn't, don't say it. Don't, for example, give advice. People who are suffering from trauma don't need advice. They need comfort and support. So say, "I'm sorry" or "This must really be hard for you" or "Can I bring you a pot roast?" Don't say, "You should hear what happened to me" or "Here's what I would do if I were you." And don't say, "This is really bringing me down." Comfort IN, dump OUT.
The fact that suffering is hard to touch doesn’t mean you stop reaching in, stop bringing water and bread, wings and warmth to the starving, the thirsty, the cold and the trapped. Sufferers feel the vibration of love long before they dare to open their eyes to see the gifts love brings.
Love matters most. One day it will be you who will open your eyes after days in the dark to see a hand reaching out through the barriers that isolate you in your suffering. Sufferers: Hold on to hope, reach out, drink deep of the love that comes to you. Caregivers: Comfort IN, dump OUT, support one another in the challenge and grace of loving others well.
Loving you all (I hope well),
Circulation sustains life. Lots of things circulate. The first things I noticed circulating in my life were knowledge and stories. Everywhere I looked on the college campus on which I was raised, I saw people sending stories, old and new, into the flow of information that was maturing a new set of young adults every year. What they sent out (and, paradoxically, also kept) came back to them in a new and equally nourishing form. Everyone on campus, not just our professor parents, was a node of knowledge on the web we all lived together there.
Later I learned how water circulates through our biosphere—the body of our Earth, how the nutrients that roots take in are drawn up the whole length of a tree to the leaves and buds and developing fruit, how every entity takes what it needs and gives in exchange what others in its community need. As a nurse taking care of people recovering from cardiac surgery, I learned about the circulation of blood. I saw what happens when the pump muscle weakens or the channels are blocked or leaking or the organs that collaborate with the heart fail to hold up their end. We had to act fast to repair the damage, to restore flow, to balance the intake and output in the whole intricate system.
As a minister who deeply respects the power of ritual, I have learned that spiritual energy circulates too. In order for a ritual to accomplish its end, everyone in the circle must risk serving as an open and generous channel through which the energy we are raising can flow. Every person absorbs some and creates some as the group energy moves them as it moves through them. If the flow is blocked anywhere in the circle, the whole group can become depleted and the ritual purpose defeated.
When you have your pledge card in hand and are thinking about how much to pledge for 2013-14, think about how everything circulates, even money. Money is, after all, just another form of the energy it takes to get things done. The money you give teaches, nourishes and grows us all as it circles back to you. And what you get back is so much the richer for the work it has done and the change it has catalyzed along the way. Now that is money well spent: money that pays us back in caring and attentive community, in ethically and spiritually grounded young people, in a world made a little safer and fairer by our collective ministrations, in lives deepened by belonging, focus, practice, commitment and risk.
We are beginning an exciting new chapter in the history of the Fellowship. A year of visioning awaits us. A heart-y infusion of financial gifts right now will give us so much more choice about how we want to live that vision. Please give as generously as you are able.
97.5% of a 70% quorum of the UUFSB voting membership cast “YES” ballots on Sunday, January 13th, to call me as your settled minister. Board President Rich Hall asked me “Do you?” and I said “I do.” And then I stood in the wind of your applause and didn’t know what to do except clap along with you, open my arms in a big embrace and put my hands together in the mantra that means namaste—“the sacred in me recognizes the sacred in you.” This is how I want it to be with us for a long time: exuberant celebration, abiding affection and mutual respect that honors our spirits’ source.
Thank you for the strength of your call, for your confidence and commitment, for the fabulous post-vote cake and the party Joan threw later on, and for the many excited messages and loving congratulatory cards. Thank you for being both the people that need what I have to offer and the people that offer what I need! The 13th was yet another UUFSB day that my family and I will remember for a long, long time.
Three years ago, Consulting Minister Carol Wolff’s “transition team”—Gil Hanson, Joanne Hammer, Marie Baltz, Shelly Psaris and John Williams—was charged by the Board of Trustees to respond to her desire to stand for a vote to call. Their challenge was not one for the faint of heart. They had already supported congregation and ministers through an unsuccessful search process, two interim ministries and 18 months of Carol’s consulting ministry. Hire-to-call consulting ministry was a new phenomenon in the Association, so they were really inventing a process about which even the UUA was unclear. The team addressed their charge with a high level of integrity and determination, accepting with complete faith some not-so-helpful advice from outside “experts,” and handling the unexpected consequences with patience, compassion and resilience.
The process that culminated in the vote to call me as settled minister was deeply informed by the experience of Carol’s transition team. Please take a minute to thank them next time you see them for their devoted and difficult service to the Fellowship.
At 4:30 p.m. on Sunday, October 20, 2013, we will gather for the Service of Installation, the public ceremony in which we formally covenant together as partners in ministry. We’ll be joined by local interfaith clergy, regional UU clergy, and officials from the UUA and District. Afterwards, of course, we will party in the presence of good food. Be sure to mark your calendars now. You won’t want to miss it.
Congratulations and love to you all, my Congregation,
For five summer days in 2008, I served on the Unitarian Universalist Trauma Response Ministry Team that responded to the shooting at our congregation in Knoxville, TN. Jim David Adkisson had entered the sanctuary during a Sunday morning children’s performance of Annie Jr., taken a 12-guage shotgun out of his guitar case and opened fire. Two adults were killed and six wounded, but all 25 kids survived uninjured.
President Obama, in his statement at the 12/16 prayer vigil in Newton, CT, named “love for our children” as the ultimate value we fail to honor when we permit the conditions that make terrible massacres like this possible. (See Rev. Tom Schade’s blog, http://www.tomschade.com/2012/12/barack-obama-liberal-theologian.html)
“There's only one thing we can be sure of, and that is the love that we have – for our children, for our families, for each other. The warmth of a small child's embrace – that is true. The memories we have of them, the joy that they bring, the wonder we see through their eyes, that fierce and boundless love we feel for them, a love that takes us out of ourselves, and binds us to something larger – we know that's what matters. We know we're always doing right when we're taking care of them, when we're teaching them well, when we're showing acts of kindness. We don't go wrong when we do that.”
Our faith calls us to stand on the side of this “boundless love…that binds us to something larger.” I wrote the poem below for the vigil held at the Unitarian Church in Westport after the Knoxville shooting. May it inspire you, inspire us, to do all we can to reverse this horrifying trend in American life.
You Have the Strength
Sometimes there is no warning, or none that you are likely to notice.
Suddenly it just happens and it can be very bad,
Bad, bad beyond any reckoning.
And there you are, in that small body of yours.
Your eyes see. Your ears hear and your heart breaks,
knowing this horror cannot be undone,
only met head-on and grappled with fiercely.
In that moment between comprehending and responding,
you will know that I am with you.
I am Life, the power of the atom and the star,
the bone and breath and pounding heart of earth’s being.
Call me what you will – I have many names,
as many as I have detractors and disciples.
But right now, my name is your name, because
as your faith demands,
you have, over and over again, called me, honored me, claimed and rejected me, damned me, wrestled with me, sung me, studied me, worshipped me.
As your faith demands, you have become me.
And because you have become me,
you have the strength to stop the bullet on its path,
to throw down the shooter, to see to the wounded,
to keep the unharmed safe, to call for help,
to comfort the grieving and frightened,
to make the meals, plan the service, change the laws,
to be there, just be there, listening and watching,
no matter what happens next.
When there is no warning and you must act, must choose, must speak,
know that you are neither alone nor helpless.
The whole of Life flows through you. Together we are One –
Together wise, strong, courageous, compassionate, capable.
Together we can make what is broken whole again.
Standing with you on the Side of Love in this New Year,
Every year for the holidays I offer a favorite recipe, hoping you will find it useful as you plan your own festive meals this fall and winter. This recipe is an old Moosewood Restaurant recipe from Molly Katzen’s first book, the Moosewood Cookbook, published in 1977. My copy of this vegetarian kitchen classic is held together with tape, the pages marked up with the dates on which I made different recipes and what I thought of them. The Moosewood cookbooks were my primary cooking teachers when I was a young adult. The recipes are basic, but not boring, illustrated with pen and ink drawings, logically laid out and well-explicated, just great for beginning cooks.
Cranapple-Walnut Cake (makes one very moist 9 x 13 cake)
You can make this cake with brown sugar or with honey. I have always made it with brown sugar.
1 ¾ cups light brown sugar
[or 1 cup honey plus 2 tablespoons orange juice concentrate]
½ cup vegetable oil
2 cups flour (you can use ½ whole wheat pastry flour)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups sliced cooking apples
½ cup walnut pieces
½ lb. fresh whole raw cranberries
[If you use honey, whip it first at high speed, for about 10 minutes or until it turns white and opaque.] Cream together oil and brown sugar [or whipped honey and orange juice concentrate]. Add eggs and vanilla and beat well. Sift together the flour and dry ingredients. Add to the first mixture and stir until thoroughly combined. Stir in apples, cranberries and nuts. Bake in a well-greased 9 x 13 pan, 45-50 minutes at 350 degrees.
Happy baking to you, my friends, and a safe and joyful holiday season!
Here, for example, is what I mean when I say that this congregation has a special wisdom about how to cultivate the Spirit of Life as a community. You created a fiftieth anniversary celebration that will be a lasting congregational memory—neither a small effort nor a token one. You went all out. You reached out to the community around you, let them know what was about to happen and invited everyone to come on down. You reached out to the denomination, our interfaith neighbors, other Long Island UU congregations and local government officials. You provided a way for children and families to have fun, contribute, learn about themselves and the Fellowship. You brought together a cadre of young adults who had gone through RE together years ago. You welcomed curious strangers. You gave us all opportunities to grieve the loss of beloved friends who have died or moved away.
You worked your ministry of music at every single venue all weekend, from the Friday night opening event—the musical tour of Fellowship history through the 5 decades—to a children’s song circle during the Open House, to the Saturday night classical concert and the dance that followed, to the Unicorn Singers’ “Build Ye More Stately Mansions” with choir, violin, oboe, flute, cello, and piano and Claudia, Dan and Greg’s “All God’s Creatures,” “What Must Be Done” and “This Little Light of Mine.” Your music connected the dots.
On that Sunday morning, fifteen past presidents of the congregation, representing 37 years of strong congregational leadership, processed together down the sanctuary aisle. Your Minister Emerita and Director of Religious Education emerita stood proudly before you in the storm of your applause, living witnesses of your history of faithful collaboration with the religious professionals who have served you. The children came through the singing crowd from the RE wing, carrying the stories of our families on foamboard photo-collages, to share with the congregation the chalice lighting and “Principles Song” they use in their own weekly worship.
Between and before and after these events, your scene-changing magic happened. All the chairs got removed and set up and rearranged and the tables went up and down, the tablecloths and flowers and flyers and displays flew on and off them. The rooms and walls got cleared and filled with our art, our history, our faces. All the mikes and monitors and amplifiers and wiring got stacked and snaked and taped and labeled and synched and then they got disappeared. A dance formed in the aftermath of the concert and then yielded the room to Sunday morning chairs in rows. The snacks and hot drinks and raspberry bars and cookies and Sunday lunch-baskets and children’s mac & cheese and champagne and a hundred other yummy things to eat and drink got made and delivered and set out and consumed and cleaned up. All this in the hyper-organized, logistic-sheet guided, rain-plan-savvy, total pitch-in way you always do things. There is no way we can offer enough thanks to Edith Hull and Joanne Hammer and the 50th Anniversary Committee who spun this whole ephemeral world out of the void—three years of work, incrementally escalating in intensity!
I hope you all feel really, really good about yourselves. You strutted your stuff and it was deeply good. I felt proud, a glad witness to the Spirit of Life you are, you raise, you empower, you honor and you bequeath to those who will celebrate the 75th and the 100th anniversary year. Congratulations, my friends, on a fabulously successful anniversary weekend!