Sermon Archive

Give Your Heart Away to a Myth

Living a religious life is a like playing a sport. You can't just read a manual and memorize the rules and consider yourself a player. You have to play the game. Religion is all about myths. For a religious person, it is not about which myth you believe in, but how you get off the sidelines and allow that myth to transform who you are and how you act. Service led by Rev. Susan Maginn.

"Give Your Heart Away to A Myth"

Rev. Susan Maginn

Wy'east Unitarian Universalist Congregation

November 15, 2009


Like fresh water, we seek it out.

Perhaps you are seeking it today, hoping to be lifted on the waves of joined voices and give your heart away for a moment and see anew the spark of the divine that is within all - even you, even now.

All around the world on this very morning and throughout human history, houses of worship have been the place where people look for transcendence. Shared silence, shared meals, candles, incense, song, movement, ritual, tradition, prayer and mythology: all of these are the elements that can help us to awaken our senses, so that we can be oriented beyond the mundane and toward the ecstatic.

But that does not mean that we religious types have a corner on the spiritual marketplace. I wish I had a nickel for every time I heard someone say, "I'm spiritual but not religious," meaning that they seek out ecstatic experiences but for a variety of reasons they don't find it in houses of worship.

I can understand why. Ecstasy has to do with surrendering our certainty and losing our stand in our ordinary life. Our ego is transcended and for that moment we are awake. It is no wonder that people would need to look beyond religion to find it. Religious faith has become so much about certainty, about finding answers, rather than keeping our eyes open.

But we human creatures will still wade through the mire of all this to find moments of ecstasy, and if not in religion then we will find it in dance, or in music, poetry, art, sports, sex, drugs, rock and roll. There are countless ways. My sister does sky diving and scuba diving. Now how's that for seeking out the highs and lows of human experience?


Making love is probably the ecstatic experience that most human beings have in common. In this heightened state we see something about our true selves. And yet this state of being, no matter how blissful, is not meant to replace our daily reality. These experiences are to be for a particular moment in time and may even leave us a bit transformed. Like a parent lifting a child to see through a high window, most ecstatic experiences lift us up for just a moment to see the world from a new perspective and then deliver us back down to the ground, returning us to daily life.

I have a friend that has just started Alcoholics Anonymous and so I am reminded that this search for ecstasy has a dark side. When the pain of our daily life is not one that we want to return to, then addiction can emerge. For people who are suffering so deeply in their daily reality, a blissful moment of new perspective is just not enough. You do not want to be delivered back to daily reality, no matter what. You will try to find ways to make ecstasy replace the pain through the use of alcohol, drugs, sex, food, gambling. But ecstasy is not in our control and when we try to control it, we are playing with fire. Ecstatic experiences can become a destructive force instead a creative one.

This is why I am in organized religion (the more organized the better as far as I am concern!) and not just off being spiritual on my own - because I want to explore this yearning for transcendence grounded a tradition that will continually call me back toward the creative and away from the destructive. You can't get this calling of community when you are just bouncing from one spiritual high to the next.


Mythology is one of the elements that commonly brings human beings into the ecstatic realm. These stories become words, imagines and characters that people return to again and again. When the faithful give their hearts to a story, it is as if the story gives something in return.

But in our secular world the word myth has become synonymous with the word lie. For the religious, a myth is simply a truth that cannot be told any other way. These are the stories that spark our imagination and point us on our way to transcendence.

Most of us don't live by mythology though. No, our daily sacred text is really our 'to do' lists and our calendar. That is what we live by. So myths can give us mere mortals some help - an immediate access through the material toward the transcendent.

Myths can guide us from 'what is' to the land of 'what could be'. When you are in conversation with a myth, the story can guide you to imagine possibilities beyond what is here now. You can imagine growth that has yet to emerge and even imagine words that have yet to be given voice.

Just as Adin Ballou took the stories of Jesus and when he looked at the world through the lens of Jesus' teachings he saw the possibility of a world without violence and began to imagine ways that he could actually create such a world.

It is the imagination that has the power to dislocate you from the ego's destructive side toward understanding the life of another being. It is the imagination that can bring you to your knees to pray or bring you singing in the rain with gratitude for the beauty of your life, even though it might not be how you thought it would be.

You might imagine the story of Orpheus when his love Eurydice is forever lost to the underworld. You might imagine what it was like for Mary to accept that she would become pregnant with the messiah. You might imagine the Buddha renouncing his palace, his wife and child and following one painful religious path after another until he gives up; he eats and rests and sits to meditate under the Bodhi tree and sees the middle way, the heart of Buddhism.


When I was in acting, I would call this process "getting the words off the page." It is the process of studying the play so intensely that the character becomes real and the lines become second nature. Through the weeks of rehearsal, the more familiar I became with the character, the more easily the lines would be committed to memory. I knew that if I was struggling to learn the words, then I must be struggling to know the character - to fully inhabit their world, to empathize with the character's fears and joys, to imagine with compassion what was insurmountable in this world and what was taken for granted.

For religious readings of mythology the purpose is to ask: What do these mythological characters have to teach you about your life? How can you get the words off the page?

It is only in recent centuries that myths have been flattened down under the weigh of modern literal thinking which tends to be distrusting of anything that can be learned through the imagination. With the advent of modern science, there came a new way to analyze ancient mythology such as the Hebrew and Christian scriptures: to judge whether or not these words are an accurate historical account.

And you guessed it: the Bible has failed miserably. Biblical writings and other ancient stories just are not true, in the scientific sense. But we need to realize that historical accounts were not even a literary form in the ancient world. Historical accounts are a completely modern creation. Ancient storytellers had no interest in using mythology to document literal facts about people and places.

And yet fundamentalist Christians and Unitarian Universalists alike love to argue about whether or not these scriptures are factual! Fundamentalists say that they are factual, that the world was actually created six thousand years ago, etc. While many Unitarian Universalists, in our more ungraceful moments, will even mock the scriptures - citing that the stories are fabrications and therefore useless. Both views - the fundamentalist embracing and the UU mocking - are complete misunderstandings of mythology's intentions.

Myths are intended to point beyond history toward what is timeless, what is infinite, what is yes. So judging the merit of mythology based on whether or not it is factual is completely missing the point. We moderns are the ones who need the scientific truth. The ancient writers were not interested in a description of an event, but rather a way to understand the meaning behind the event.



Modern religion is all about thinking and formulating concepts about what you believe. But in the ancient understanding of religion it mattered how you entered into the myth, how you gave your heart to the myth and let the myth change you and teach you about how you live your life.

And not just one story in one moment. For example for Jews, there is the reading of the same stories in the Torah for your entire life. The story of Abraham taking Isaac up to Mt. Moriah will resonate differently as you read it throughout your life. If you read it as a young person you might empathize with the terror of Isaac to have a father that is willing to kill him, but as you age and you return to the story you might grapple with what this story means about the nature of God's expectations and about what kind of person Abraham is to do this.

If we just read the stories and don't let our imagination get involved then the story is just a fairy tale and we are missing out on the fun. If we don't allow the story to truly speak to our life right now, then it is like reading the rules of a board game. It is completely boring unless we put down the words and play the game. It is like seeing your favorite sport being played and yet we insist that we stay on the sidelines.

You may think that you do not have a myth, but a popular myth in Unitarian Universalism is a story that would be called: 'We Are on Our Own.' Giving our imagination to this story leaves us with a strong sense of responsibility- whether it is in relation to God or in relation to the planet and other human beings, we feel the responsibility for what is and what will be. When we put our faith in the myth that 'we are on our own', then it is imperative that we create justice and conserve the planet. There is no one else who will do it. No superpower is going to swoop in and save the day. And we awaken by reading the stories of history and biography.

So I am not so concerned about what myth you live by or what tradition it emerges from, but rather how that myth is one of your many ways of realizing your truest and deepest self.

All myths are open to our imagination. But there is only one dangerous myth that we all fall prey to at one time or another. It is the myth that encourages us to think that we are the best. You know you are on this slippery slope of superiority when you get jazzed up about other people or other religions being 'lesser' than we are. This way sows the seeds of fear and the sin of religious intolerance and self-righteousness.

So the question for us to ask here at Wy'east is: How big is your myth? Is your myth so small that it focuses you only on your superiority? Or is your myth so big that it calls you to seek the depths of silence and stillness? Is your myth so big that it has you risk your own comfort for the well-being of a total stranger?

Choose well and let the seasons' magic unfold.



Sunday, November 15, 2009

Is There a God Worthy of Your Worship?

Classical theology, with its heaven, hell, sin and salvation, can be pretty troubling for most UUs. Yet some of us still yearn for a nuanced understanding of God that fits with who we are as people who care for the environment, equal rights for women, the GLBT community and modern science. Process theology is an interpretation of God that has emerged in recent years, capturing the imagination and faith of many liberal religious people. Service led by Rev. Susan Maginn.

"Is There A God Worthy of Your Worship?"

Rev. Susan Maginn

Wy'east UU Congregation

October 18, 2009


Many of us have stories about God.

A college student once told me how he asked questions about God in his childhood church and the leaders did not know how to answer. He decided that God must not be real.

A woman told me that all she knew about God was the passages that her mother would quote from Leviticus and Romans - passages meant to shame her for being a lesbian.

A friend from high school had a grandfather who was in a concentration camp during the Holocaust. He could never fully answer: How could there be a God who would allow this to happen to my family and millions of others?

I feel confident that these or similar wounds are real for many of us in this room and I would never encourage someone to ignore such wounds.

Whether we have a direct understanding of God or not, we all have the right to a religious life. That is why I am a Unitarian Universalist minister, because I know that religious life is bigger than any one scripture, any one culture and certainly religious life is bigger than any one word.


Today I am going to share with you my own spiritual biography which starts with a childhood understanding of God, goes to an adolescent, teen and young adult abhorrence of God, and how just in the past year, I have been surprised to have a life-changing experience of God.

What do I mean by God? For me, God is Love - all acts of Love are the stuff of God and all acts of bigotry and violence have nothing to do with God.

There is a movement in liberal religious circles to consider how God is a force that is ever-present, that evolves, grows, morns and even suffers losses. How God can honor all that I know to be true about modern science, protecting the earth and the right to equality for people who are gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgendered. How God is not an old man in the sky that controls the world like a puppet on a string, but rather God is a force that only has the power to call us toward Love.

That is it. Without our partnership, without our agreement, God is powerless. If we do not respond to the call and walk in the ways of Love, God is waiting and calling and waiting and calling.


When I was a child, I knew God to be a being that walked to school with me whenever I asked for company.

I knew God to be awake before anyone else in the earliest minutes of dawn.

I knew God to be a being that liked beautiful places. Every Sunday we went to God's house, and it was very beautiful. The exalted ceiling, the echoing minor chords, the colors that seemed to project from a window and dance on my hand, the painted faces whose expression told the story of something that could somehow be wild and comforting all at once.


The mystical faith of my childhood ended rather abruptly during my adolescent years when a series of tragedies happened in my family. Within a couple of weeks, the innocent magic of my childhood seemed far away.

God was not in any houses. Wondering about God seemed like a luxury and a waste of time compared to the desperate needs of the moment, especially since my understanding of God had not matured beyond seeing God as a superpower who was in control of everything. I mean, if God was in control of everything, why was my life such a mess?

I was on my own, whether I wanted company or not.


As a young adult, I was drawn toward religious communities and religious practices - although they were almost always connected with Buddhism or Hinduism. I had a growing distain for anyone who had superstitions about God's power to control events and condemn certain people. Much of religion just seemed like a construction used to empower the worst of human nature: our self-righteous ignorance and childish xenophobia.

I found what I understood to be the best of religious life: Facing reality and finding a way to live gracefully. I found a home in Unitarian Universalism, went to seminary, started my family, started working as a minister and then, when I least expected it, it happened.

God showed up in my life like a stray dog, sweet and determined, begging for food every morning, noon and night until I finally put a bowl of food on the porch.



I did not call it God at first. Long before it was a word, it was just a powerful experience - an experience like I was being accompanied through every moment of every day, into my dreams and as sleep faded into awakening, it was still there. I was full to overflowing with elation and with fear of the power of this force sitting close to me, comforting me, watching me, and even holding me.

What I noticed over the months is that this presence was not passive. I noticed that it had (for lack of a better word) an intelligence, a sense of direction. I sought understanding in ancient prayers and psalms. It seemed to me that the people who wrote these prayers must have had the same delightful and yet disorienting experience that I was having. I began to see a spiritual director who helped me to understand that while what I was experiencing was sacred, it was far from unique.

I did not just reconnect with the ancient psalmists but also with our religious ancestors and our founding documents. Both of these have references to Jesus, which I am not particularly tied to, but will keep in tact as they are in the original documents. This is from the Winchester Profession, the 1803 Universalist profession of faith.

We believe that there is one God, whose nature is Love, revealed in one Lord Jesus Christ, by one Holy Spirit of Grace, who will finally restore the whole family of mankind to holiness and happiness.

We believe that holiness and true happiness are inseparably connected, and that believers ought to be careful to maintain order and practice good works; for these things are good and profitable unto men.


I also found comfort in the 1853 American Unitarian Association Statement of Beliefs:

We desire openly to declare our belief as a denomination, so far as it can be officially represented by the American Unitarian Association, that God, moved by his own love, did raise up Jesus to aid in our redemption from sin, did by him pour a fresh flood of purifying life through the withered veins of humanity and along the corrupted channels of the world, and is, by his religion, forever sweeping the nations with regenerating gales from heaven, and visiting the hearts of men with celestial solicitations.

And we gave this up for the principlesÉ

I found a joy in re-claiming the word God. I know full well how empty and lonely the word is, how inadequate the three letters are for the infinite expanse that it represents. But I feel a joy to be in conversation, in a strange harmony with those voices from long ago, those who I imagine felt this same thing and called it God. I could feel how much effort I have put into resisting God and those who would profess faith in God. I could feel the weight of this baggage that I thought I had left behind.



And then, slowly, the presence faded. It was not gone for good, but it did feel farther away. When I pray or meditate, I can still feel that presence, but instead of feeling immersed in the presence and even overwhelmed by it, I find that I need to remember to notice it. It is as if I was learning to ride a bike and it took me many months. During those months some force was behind me, holding on to the seat, running along with me, being sure that I did not fall. And then when I start to push the wheels and get my balance, God lets go and stops running along side me but is still watching from the corner.

God is a practice for me now. I think this is true for so many people. Occasionally God dumps awakening down upon us. But more often than not, knowing God is a daily practice of remembering - remembering the loving center within us, a daily practice of returning to our source armed with questions, reverence, praise, and yearning.



Unitarians and Universalists have always had a healthy skepticism of the humans who would use the word God to justify judgment of other people or use the word God to justify violence. Both Unitarian and Universalist traditions were created in the shadow of the oppressive Calvinist theology of the 18th century, which was so sure that God was hateful and ready to send most people into the eternal fires of hell.

We can be proud and inspired that in this oppressive climate, our religious ancestors were asking very brave questions about God.

Early Universalists wondered if God was far from a force of hate, but actually a force whose very nature is Love. Who has the power to eventually restore us, not just a few of us, but each and every one of us, with happiness and holiness.

Early Unitarians wondered if God can really be contained - whether in a church, or in a ritual like communion, or even in a singular religion. Maybe God transcends all of these man-made constructions, they wondered.


Over the decades and centuries, wondering about the nature of God has all but been lost in Unitarian Universalist pulpits. We have retreated into our personal search and retreated away from the messy public interfaith conversation about the nature of God.

Why don't we want to talk about God? I bet many of you saw the title for today's sermon and thought, "Wow. She is going to talk about God." Some people probably saw the title and even stayed home saying, "Yeesh, I don't want to hear about that!" Why is God such a big deal?

Well, there are some very good reasons why God is a big deal. Perhaps rather than reinterpret the old theologies that once hurt us, we would rather just forget it altogether and move on. Perhaps we have so valued our sense reason that we have become suspicious of anything else.

It is a good question: Why even bother with God?

After all, it really is far more important to ease the suffering in the world and to preserve the planet than it is to ask heady questions about the nature of God. But given that our view of God can affect how and why and if we are compelled to act for justice in the world, it seems a worthy of consideration - especially at church.

I yearn for a liberal religious understanding of a divine force to make sense of the world and my place in it mainly because of one simple conviction:

I am sure that I do not make my own goodness. More and more I understand the moment that I am able to transcend my own ego and awaken to compassion as being something that is within me, but is also a force that is larger than anything I control. That force is worthy of my worship.



When I was going through this experience with God, I was really going through a crisis. During this most formative moment of my spiritual development, I was not sure if I could turn to my religious home, to Unitarian Universalism. As a tradition we have grown in such a defended way, so sure of what we are not, so committed to the search that we have become skeptical of those who have found.

As a minister I have the ability and perhaps even the responsibility to work through these things and eventually bring them to the pulpit and talk about it. But I wonder how many people in our pews have had similar awakenings and felt that they needed to go elsewhere to really receive the encouragement they needed to fully integrate this experience into their life. So in their hour of greatest need and greatest spiritual insight, they have just silently faded away from our congregations to find a place where they can praise and call it by name and feel called by their name.


I want our congregations to be places where people worship with the fullest expression of their being and never need to feel embarrassed by their faith, especially when it is grounded in Love.

And I'm not stopping with the pews. After years of happily surrendering "God talk" to other pulpits in other traditions, I now see how the work of blessing the world with Love could be greatly served by Unitarian Universalists reclaiming our roots, reclaiming our place at the interfaith table, reclaiming our right and our responsibility to interpret the bible, to interpret today's struggles for justice and give voice for the eternally loving ways of God.

Let's not be just another voice in the American culture war to debate these ideas - there are plenty of people doing this perfectly well from a political and intellectual perspective.

We can go beyond being a faith of ideas to reclaim our own religious heritage, to reclaim our own hearts and listen for the God that is waiting and calling and waiting and calling - us - toward Love.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Living the Questions

Most of us measure progress as moving from one resolution to the next. We find an answer and have a sense of moving forward. But what about all those questions that will never have an answer? What about the injustice that lingers with no righteousness in sight? Today we will consider what it means to live with radical acceptance. Service led by Rev. Susan Maginn.


"Living The Questions"

Rev. Susan Maginn

Wy'east UU Congregation

August 23.2009



Island where all becomes clear.

Solid ground beneath your feet.

The only roads are those that offer access.

Bushes bend beneath the weight of proofs.

The Tree of Valid Supposition grows here

with branches disentangled since time immemorial.

The Tree of Understanding, dazzlingly straight and simple,

sprouts by the spring called Now I Get It.

The thicker the woods, the vaster the vista:

the Valley of Obviously.

If any doubts arise, the wind dispels them instantly.

Echoes stir unsummoned

and eagerly explain all the secrets of the worlds.

On the right a cave where Meaning lies.

On the left the Lake of Deep Conviction.

Truth breaks from the bottom and bobs to the surface.

Unshakable Confidence towers over the valley.

Its peak offers an excellent view of the Essence of Things.

For all its charms, the island is uninhabited,

and the faint footprints scattered on its beaches

turn without exception to the sea.

As if all you can do here is leave

and plunge, never to return, into the depths.

Into unfathomable life.

~ Wislawa Szymborska ~


It is possible, I suppose that sometime

we will learn everything

there is to learn: what the world is, for example,

and what it means. I think this as I am crossing

from one field to another, in summer, and the

mockingbird is mocking me, as one who either

knows enough already or knows enough to be

perfectly content not knowing. Song being born

of quest he knows this: he must turn silent

were he suddenly assaulted with answers. Instead

oh hear his wild, caustic, tender warbling ceaselessly

unanswered. At my feet the white-petalled daisies display

the small suns of their center piece, their -- if you don't

mind my saying so -- their hearts. Of course

I could be wrong, perhaps their hearts are pale and

narrow and hidden in the roots. What do I know?

But this: it is heaven itself to take what is given,

to see what is plain; what the sun lights up willingly;

for example -- I think this

as I reach down, not to pick but merely to touch --

the suitability of the field for the daisies, and the

daisies for the field.

~ Mary Oliver ~


Let it be known that I have little to no direct experience in formal scientific method. Other than coach Hopper's 10th grade biology and I would hardly call that formal training.

However, that will not stop me from venturing to hypothesize the following grand claim. Good science and good religion have the same foundation and that foundation is: good questions.


Now I'll acknowledge that our religious tradition is particularly drawn toward the asking of questions - perhaps more so than other religious traditions. After all, we are bound by covenant, a way of being together and so the answers that any one of us finds about religious truth is not what connects us. Rather, we are connected by how we are together, by our commitment to walk together in the ways of love, as best as we know them now.

Barbara Brown Taylor is an Episcopalian priest who has published The Luminous Web on the connection between science and religion, she has a definition of faith that is a good one for us: "Faith is radical openness to truth. Regardless of what it may turn out to be. "

That is my favorite definition of faith going, for sure. Faith is radical openness to truth. Regardless of what it may turn out to be....


She talks about how if the similarity between science and religion are the questions asked, then the main difference between science and religion seems to be about how answers are found. Both rely on reason and experience to create theories or theologies. However, in science, truths are sought and observed, theories are confirmed or disputed.

While in religion, there is the surprise factor. Some might call it: the woo woo factor. Truth comes through revelation and through insight. There is the receiving of knowledge from the spirit and source of life.

Well, I know I am often surprised by the truths I learn and how I learn them and when I learn them. Truth usually arrives when I least expect it - when I am walking my dog or when I am doing dishes after dark after everyone else has gone to sleep. And as I am walking through my day, I am always surprised that the delivery person of truth does not look like whatever I expect a truth delivery person to like. You just never know...

Unlike science, the truth that is revealed in religious life is rarely about what we can observe, but rather it is about how we observe it, how we perceive what we observe. It is about that unseen force bringing us into deeper relationship with what we observe, and also bringing us into deeper relationship with the quiet of our soul and with that force that is beyond us yet luring us along.


I want to acknowledge what a luxury it is to ask questions about life's meaning. There are other kinds of questions I could be asking. I could have it be in question where my next meal is coming from or question whether my family is safe. If I am so concerned with questions of survival, then I probably won't have the luxury of asking questions about my life's meaning.

I also want to acknowledge that questions are not always that great, even the luxurious ones.

Anyone who has parented a three year old knows about living the questions. Kids love the luxurious questions. They will ask you 'why' over and over.

The comedian Louis CK has a great sketch called 'Why?' And it is all about this ability that kids have to ask questions. His daughter asks:

Why can't we go outside?

Because it is raining, he says. (obviously not from Pacific NW) Why?

Because there is water falling out of the sky. Why?

Because it was in a cloud. Why?

Well, clouds form when water has evaporated into the sky. Why?

I don't know. I don't know any more things. Those are all the things I know. Why?

Because I didn't pay attention in science class. Why?

Because I was going through a tough time at home. Why?

Because my parents were all messed up doing the best they could, but it was a mess. Why?

I'll stop here and spare you how this evolves.


But basically if you are so silly as to think that you should honor your child's curiosity and answer all their questions, then I promise that you will find yourself seeking answers about things you know nothing about until all the world is a deconstructed wreck and you don't know who you are anymore. It might sound something like this:

Because some things are and some things are not. Why?

Because things that are not can't be. Why?

Because then nothing wouldn't be. You can't have nothing isn't and everything is. Why?

Because then we would have everything - ants dancing with top hats - we don't have room for all that!


Perhaps all these 'Whys' are our children's first search for truth. Perhaps they are venturing out of Symborska's island of Utopia with all its certainty because it is an uninhabitable place. Even at aged three, they are sensing that humans cannot exist on answers alone and that we would rather go into the unfathomable depths than to live in such a place. Or maybe they are just little scientists themselves experimenting with what exactly will push their parents to the edge of sanity.


Remember the Mary Oliver poem? She said it is heaven itself to take what is given, to see what is plain, what the sun lights up willingly. "To take what is given." This is an acceptance that can be an amazing teacher, to accept what is before us whatever it is: the daisy and the weed, the new job and the pink slip, the health that is so good you take it for granted and the illness, the autumn, the rain, the spring, the daisy.

How do we get to a place of being able to truly accept something into our lives as repulsive as a job loss or an illness or some unanswered injustice?

I'm not sure, but I know I have met many people who have been faced with the worst that life has to give. Some cling to a façade of acceptance, perhaps out of fear, as if the façade of acceptance will be a guard against the rising tide of grief, fearing that if they start to cry they might not stop.

But I've also met people who found acceptance almost immediately, and not as a façade but almost as a practice it seemed. Some had experience with past tragedies, so maybe that is it. Maybe since they had been through some dark valleys in the past, they knew they could get through it.

Or maybe these are people who probably started accepting daisies a long time ago, so that when the really big stuff comes toward them, they don't have to learn what acceptance feels like. They already know, because they started small. They have been taking what is given and seeing what is plain; what the sun lights up willingly. They started with daisies a long time ago. So they don't have to start from scratch, but they do have to learn how to open their hearts wider than they ever have.


Even though questions can be luxurious and also a cornerstone of our religious lives as Unitarian Universalists, I think most of us yearn for answers more than we yearn for questions. Saying, 'You know, thanks for the luxury but I just want to know where the next island of certainty is so that I can hold onto it for dear life!' Right?

This reminds me of a story from when I was in my late 20s. I was acting in New York and wondering if this was what I really wanted to be doing. I was making a living filming commercials. Now for those of you unfamiliar with the vagaries of acting life you need to know that this is something I had worked hard to be able to do - really hard. I spent years training in a conservatory, years waiting tables (badly, but still...) and now, by some standards, I had made it. I was signed with one of, if not the top commercial agency in the country. I had accomplished what few actors in NY get to accomplish. But it wasn't sitting well. I trained for many years to be an artist and now I was just being one of the many faces that helped make more money for corporate America. Heck, I didn't even own a TV to watch the commercials I made.


While I was going through this time of discernment, I got involved in a fund raising effort to support women who owned and operated micro-businesses in Africa. This was not connected with a job and had nothing to do with acting. While I was in the middle of this project, I was really stuck and not sure how to raise a significant amount of money for these women.

One day I was really feeling the stress of this project and I was talking with a savvy business friend of mine. And in that moment, as I was furrowing my frustrated brow, it hit me: Hey, these are problems worth having! It is worth struggling to figure out how to get a whole mess of money to these mothers in Africa. These are the kinds of questions I want to loose sleep over!

I realized that it wasn't a matter of just asking questions. Oh my, I was asking plenty of questions - Should I stop acting once and for all? Should I leave my agent? Should I? Should I? Me, me, me? What I needed to learn was how to ask good questions, Rather than being self absorbed and just wondering about the state of my career and my place in the world, I needed to take on something bigger than myself to realize just how big the questions can get and how big my spirit can get in the face of those questions.

So if there is a moral to this story it is: if your questions are too small, then ask bigger questions and, like the farmer, in the process of taking on something big you might have a new appreciation for what is there already and a new strength to take on more than you imagined, joyfully plunging into the unfathomable depths.

And if your questions are too big for you, if you have heard the news about the unexpected diagnosis or the job loss, if the question is so big you don't know how to hold it much less answer it, then it might be time to start small.

It might be time to return to the daisies and find a radical openness to the truth, regardless of what it may turn out to be.



A prayer from George Kimmich Beach:

(Let this be my prayer)

Let me be patient with all these feelings that drive me hither and yon.

May I be at peace, more patient with myself.

Let me live within the questions that promise no answers, but only signal the mystery that gave them birth.

Let me turn from pettiness of heart, willing to see and accept that the world does not revolve around me.

Let the grief, the pain, and the nameless trouble that overcomes me also open me to feel what others have felt.

Giver of being and freedom, unbind my compassion for all beings about me, and again set free the child of grace within me.


Benediction by Kendyl Gibbons:

There is, finally, only one thing required of us;

that is, to take life whole, the bright and dark together;

to live the life that is given us with courage and humor and truth.

We have such a little moment, out of the vastness of time, for all our

wondering and loving.

Therefore, let there be no half-hearted-ness;

rather, let the soul be ardent -

in its pain, in its yearning, in its praise.

Then shall peace enfold our days, and glory shall not fade from our lives.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

What Wy'east Means to Me

Being a part of Wy'east means different things to each of us - and many things to all of us. How has this community made a difference in your life? What does Wy'east mean to you? Tim Mohler began coming to Wy'east a little over a year ago and became a member last fall. He helps to plan services as a member of the Worship Committee, and frequently serves as Lay Leader.

"What Wy'east Means to Me"

Tim Mohler

Wy'east Unitarian Universalist Congregation

July 12, 2009

Call to Worship

What brings you here today?

Whatever it may be - know that you are welcome.

Know that we are here for you - know that you are welcome.

Know that whoever you are, whatever you seek -

Whatever your hurts, your hopes, your doubts, your dreams -

Know that you are welcome here.

Come, let us Worship Together!


Birds make great sky circles of their freedom.

How do they learn that?

They fall.

And falling, they are given wings.

~ Rumi


Good morning! I'm Tim Mohler, and I'm really happy to be your speaker today.

For those of you who don't know me, I started coming to Wy'east just a little over a year ago, and I've been a member since last fall. I'm on the Worship Committee, so I get to help plan and coordinate a lot of our services. And since back in March of this year, I've also had the privilege of serving as Lay Leader for our services each week.

So as you've probably noticed in your Order of Service, the title of this little talk today is "What Wy'east Means to Me." It might be better framed as a question - "What does Wy'east mean to me?"

But before I start telling you my answers to that question, I have a question for you - What Does Wy'east Mean to YOU?

What does it mean to You, to be able to come here Sunday mornings, or maybe even just this one particular Sunday morning - to somehow be a part of what we do here, to be a part of this Congregation, this Community, to be among the people who you see, all around you, here today?

And if you're new here - as I was new, just a year ago - if, like me back then, you've maybe just walked through that door for the very first time, not really knowing what to expect - wondering who we are, what we might have to offer, whether this is what you're looking for, whether you even know for sure what you might be looking for - if you're new here, then here's your question:

What would you LIKE Wy'east to mean to you? What MIGHT it mean, what COULD it mean, if it was everything you wanted? Think about it. Tell us, if you like - we'd love to hear your thoughts. But tell yourself, for sure.

Oh, and by the way, those are actually pretty good questions for ALL of us - whether you've been a member for years, or today is your very first day. What would you LIKE Wy'east to mean to you? What MIGHT it mean, what COULD it mean, for you?

OK - enough with all the questions. We started off the service today with a another question: "What brings you here today?" And to understand what Wy'east means to me, you'll need to know a little bit about what brought me here, back when I first came.

I first walked through the doors of Wy'east just a little over a year ago - it feels like a lifetime now, but it was only June of last year. I'd walked by before, and thought of maybe stopping in, but I'd somehow always talked myself out of it, never had enough reason to push myself to go through the door and take a chance on finding out what went on inside.

And even on that day in June, when I did finally set foot through the door and when I certainly did have reasons - we'll get to those in a minute - even then, I did so with a fair amount of uncertainty and trepidation. Even as I was walking toward the door, I remember saying to myself, Well, you can always leave, if you don't like it.

So I did set foot through the door, and, not knowing what to expect, I walked up to the first person I saw inside and said "Hi, I'm Tim - I'm new." And that's all it took.

That first person I saw inside the door that day was Susan Maginn, our regular minister, the wonderful Rev. Susan. Or maybe it was Mabel Pool, wonderful Mabel, who used to be our Greeter in Chief - I can't really say for sure. I do know that I met the two of them in very short order, right inside the door, and within about a minute and a half I somehow knew that I was going to feel very comfortable here.

I filled out a visitor's card, I stayed for the service - I felt at home. I can't say why, for sure, except - it was the people. There was something special about the people, and there still is. They made me feel welcome, they made me feel at home - and they still do.

I mentioned that there were reasons for my finally stepping into Wy'east that day. What I didn't tell anyone that first Sunday was that just two days before, I had found out that I was going to need Open Heart Surgery sometime in the next few months, to replace a valve and a really big chunk of my aorta - pretty scary stuff.

I had no family in Portland, and hardly any close friends who I saw much anymore - no one I could really turn to, to help me through this ordeal - and, to be honest, I was completely terrified.

But here was a place where it seemed like maybe I could feel at home, feel safe, and feel a little bit less scared. So I came back to Wy'east the very next week after my first visit, and during Joys & Sorrows I got up and said some words that I still remember to this day.

I said "I'm Tim, this is my second week here, and I have a joy, and a sorrow, and another joy. The first joy is that I found this community and that you've made me feel so welcome already. The sorrow is that I've got this little open heart surgery thing that I'm gonna have to go through sometime soon, and I would welcome any support that you can give me for that. And the second joy is that somehow, even though I'm scared to death, I just have this gut feeling that this surgery is going to be one of those "unwanted" experiences that turns out to be "the best thing that ever happened to me" - in other words, somewhere, deep down, I just have this sense that this is going to be Life-Transforming in some way - even though I'm sure I don't know how."

I said all that, and then I sat down.

Well - I won't go into all the details, but the support and caring and concern that came to me from this Community from that moment forward, in the months leading up to the surgery, and during the surgery, and while I was in the hospital, and in the weeks afterward, and still to this day, was absolutely astounding.

I couldn't possibly begin to list all the kindnesses that I received, but please know that I will be eternally grateful to each and every one of you who were here back then, for every last one of them.

But there is one particular kindness that I simply have to mention, because it was so especially wonderful and powerful for me - and that is the Laying on of Hands Ceremony that Susan led for me.

I had told Susan from the beginning that for some reason what was scaring me most about the surgery was the moment just before going under the anesthetic, the moment before leaving consciousness, the moment of being alone.

It wasn't so much a fear of dying - I was pretty sure I'd come out of this OK, physically - but rather something about those moments just before, that I knew would feel like dying.

I wrestled with this all summer. And then finally, just weeks before the surgery, I realized something important. This is part of what I wrote to Susan:

I see now that the point, the lesson, the blessing, the hope, is that it will be a kind of dying, a dying of my old life -- a threshold moment, a soul moment, a step into the unknown darkness from whose depths I want to emerge into the light on the road to a new life. ... I want this to be a moment of rebirth. I want to go into that very moment not dreading, not fearing, not resisting, but welcoming, opening, looking forward to what my life can become and will become on the other side of it. And for that I think I'd really like to have some sort of Ceremony - a Blessing, a Sending Forth.

So - a "Ceremony of Transformation," if you will - that was a lot to ask for from a minister who'd known me all of two, maybe three months at that point! But somehow Susan - our Rev. Susan - did this, she gave this to me.

After the service the last Sunday in October, two days before the surgery, she gathered all those who wanted to participate and she led a beautiful, powerful, Laying on of Hands ceremony. If you've ever seen or been a part one of these, you may have some sense of what I experienced. If not, I will try to describe it for you:

I knelt, and those nearest me put their hands on my head and my arms and my shoulders, and those behind them reached out and put their hands on them and on me, and so on, until all the power and all the energy and all the blessings and good will of all those people, of all those hands, flowed into me while Susan said a beautiful prayer of protection and blessing and sending forth - and I felt truly, truly blessed.

(And THAT, in case you've ever wondered, is what this congregation, and this minister, can do!)

So - OK. We'll skip over all the doctor and hospital details that came next - suffice to say that I had the surgery, everything basically went well, and, as I said before, the outpouring of support and help from everyone here was simply awesome - as far as I'm concerned, that has to be one of the things that this Community does best!

But fast forward to today - What about now? Is my life really different? Did the surgery, or coming here, "transform" me, like I thought it might a year ago?

What was I looking for back then, when I first came here? Support. Community. Friendship. Help. Whatever I could find. What the World had to offer, if I would only ask. So I showed up at Wy'east - What can I say? Whatever it was that I was looking for, I found all that, and more.

What I found, in fact - quite aside from all the support that I got for the surgery - was everything that I'd been missing in my life for a long, long time but hadn't known where to look for or how to find. I found comfort, and friendship, and belonging. In short, I found a Home.

Before all this happened, before there was any inkling of impending surgery, I had very slowly, over the course of years, allowed myself to turn away from people, from family and friends, from failed relationships, and, without even realizing it, I had become pretty isolated from the world.

It was as if I had become a dried-up little seed lying on the ground, going nowhere, connected with hardly anyone - and then this storm came up, this Surgery - and it blew me through the door of Wy'east. But once inside - I found water and sunlight and Aliveness and Life that I had forgotten even existed. I began to become Myself again!

So yes, I do feel transformed - or rather, in the process of transforming, into what I can become, into what I have it inside myself to be. It's a long slow process, and there aren't a lot of guideposts, and it sometimes feels more like being lost in a fog than being inexorably guided toward some dazzling final destination.

But it's happening - I'm not the same person I was when I first came here, and I'm definitely growing into becoming something more. What exactly that something more will be - who knows? It's happening, and that's what matters.

It helps that I can come here and allow myself to be that person I'm becoming, that I can feel welcomed and supported and encouraged as I struggle to find who I can be.

It helps that I can come here and be part of worship services that offer Depth and Wonder and Meaning in so many different ways, that put us in touch, as Susan says, with How the Spirit is Moving in Our Lives.

So - What Does Wy'east Mean to Me? Here is some of what I wrote in an open letter to everyone last fall. It still holds true today, every word of it:

You have welcomed and supported and encouraged me in too many ways to count, and awakened in me more than I could ever have imagined. The amount of genuine warmth, caring, authenticity, honesty, friendship, support and open-heartedness that I have found here is incredible. I feel like I belong here, that this is what I've been looking for, that this is where I'm meant to be.

To simply walk through a door one day and find this in my life - this amazes me. I still can't get over it - the Grace and Blessing of it all.

So that is at least a part of all that Wy'east means to me. But the real question, the one I hope you'll think about some more after we leave here today, is the one we started out with - What About You? What does Wy'east mean to You?

Closing Reading

I'd like to close today with a poem that's very close to my heart - it's almost a prayer. It has a special meaning for me partly because it's one of the poems that Susan read from in that wonderful Laying on of Hands ceremony that I told you about.

But, even beyond that, of everything I've heard or read since I came to Wy'east, this still, for me, comes closest to capturing the essence of what this Congregation, this Community, is all about. In other words - this might just be "What Wy'east Means to Me."

This is by Theresa Novak, and it's called "Saved"

Come into this place

There are healing waters here

And hands with soothing balm

To ease your troubled days.

Bring your wounds and aching hearts

Your scars too numb to feel.

Your questions and complaints,

All are welcome here.

Rest awhile.

Let the warmth of this community

Surround you,

Hold you,

Heal you.

When you feel stronger,

Just a bit,

Notice those that need you too.

They are here.

They are everywhere.

Weep with them

Smile with them,

Work with them,

Laugh along the way.

Pass the cup,

Drink the holy fire.

Take it with you

Into the world.

We are saved -

And we save each other -

Again, again, and yet again.


Closing Words

May this special place, this community, this church, this home, be always here for all of us - and may it always mean, for each of us, as much as it has come to mean to me. May it be so. Amen.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Coming of Age


By Jon Biemer

Words presented to the Wy'east Unitarian Universalist Congregation on May 24, 2009

Think about a young person, say between the ages of five and fifteen: your son or daughter or someone else's, within or outside the congregation. These words will be more meaningful if you keep that person in mind. If no one comes to mind, think of yourself as a child and your coming of age experiences.

Example Coming of Age Ceremonies

While there are rites of passage associated with every stage of life, I will focus on puberty or adolescent coming of age experiences.

Some say one becomes a "soldier of Christ" as a result of the Catholic sacrament of Confirmation. This is a ceremony I sought out for myself at the age of seventeen. You might say I am absent without leave since I no longer attend a Catholic church. Or you could say that I am carrying on Jesus' work as a social activist.

At the age of thirteen my Jewish friend Larry studied for his Bar Mitzvah. Boys are considered responsible to follow the Jewish commandments and laws after the Bar Mitzvah. For girls a related Bat Mitzvah occurs at the age of twelve

In Navajo mythology Changing Woman was the first human who could bear life. The Kinaalda ceremony honors a girls taking on that role at first menses. The girl runs toward the Sun as far as she can each morning for four days. She makes a corn cake in the traditional way. She is "molded" by her mother without being touched. In turn, the young woman helps little ones stand straight and offers a healing hand to the elders. Linda, a member of my writer's group, arranged a modified Kinaalda for her daughter.

The indigenous people of Pentecost Island invite young men to jump off a seventy-five foot bamboo tower with ankles tied with vines - the original bungee jumping. The community looks on with approval. Some pay very close attention to the health and length of those vines. After the Land Jump a young man is considered ready for marriage.

The Boy Scout Eagle Scout service project is worthy of a man. Bron, a man I used to climb mountains with, helps young men complete trail building Eagle projects and frames a collage of awards the boy has received.

Wy'east co-hosted coming of age ceremonies with a Unitarian Universalist focus for two years. These ceremonies involved mentorship with a member of the congregation, four hours in the woods by one's self, and a speech in front of the congregation. The young person was asked to consider and profess what he or she believed, a difficult challenge for most of the young people.

Let us not discount spending quality time with an elder. The movie On Golden Pond depicted a boy spending the summer with grandparents. The book English Creek Ivan Doig tells of a boy who spends time with a disgraced forest ranger. In the Earnest Hemingway story "Indian Camp" Nick's father, a doctor, takes him on a rural house call to witness a cesarean birth. These were all coming of age experiences.

The Grand Canyon

As I describe my son Will's coming of age experience, think about the steps and the people involved. Can you see yourself in one of these roles?

I first thought seriously about a coming of age ceremony for my sons when my mother sent me a transcript of a Robert Bly interview. Bly asserted that without a coming of age ceremony a boy might fail to learn the discernment and self-control needed to say "no" to say no to drugs and alcohol. If he has not overcome a great challenge, he might turn to war to prove his manhood.

I figured that the Grand Canyon would offer a good coming of age experience Will. I had mountaineering experience, and I had been to the Canyon as a graduate student. I was pleased that Will agreed to go. I told him it would be hard.

He said, "I know."

Upon hearing my intentions a men's group friend, Michael, suggested I contact a Southern Paiute by the name of Benn who lives north of the Canyon. Benn and I corresponded, and he welcomed the opportunity to accompany Will and I into the Canyon.

October is the best time to do the Canyon, before the winter snows on top and after the summer heat on the bottom. Willow, my wife, met with my son's eighth grade teacher. Ms. Kennedy said, "Sure he can take a week off from school, if he writes a report about the trip." I would have let it go at that, but Willow said, "No, this is a spiritual ceremony." That extra effort, that treating of our undertaking as sacred, was a wonderful blessing.

The Park Service denied my application for back-country permits, even though I applied months in advance. Will and I took the trip to see Benn anyway. Maybe there would be another place where we could do a coming of age experience. It turned out Benn convinced a ranger in the Park Service that this was a ceremony - worthy of a permit to Deer Spring, twelve miles and five thousand vertical feet from the canyon rim.

It also turns out that Benn had had a terrible second day on the way down, especially with the afternoon heat in a desolate area called Surprise Valley. Benn lagged behind. He was out of water. I asked him if we should turn back. He said, "No, I want Will to see the place where my people came from." Will checked in with Benn regularly and gave him the rest of his water.

The spring when we reached it was wonderful, pouring water right out of the canyon wall. The stream valley was a Garden of Eden. There were petro glyphs on the walls. But we did not have the luxury of being tourists.

The next morning I asked Will to carry some of Benn's load for the hike out. I would carry extra water and hike slowly with frequent rests. I was pleasantly surprised that we made it through Surprise Valley before noon. Neither Will or Benn complained. We were able to ascend the Red Wall and reach some potholes with water by four in the afternoon. I felt relieved and celebratory. We immediately started filtering the water and using iodine tablets to disinfect it.

However, after an hour's work, the water in our canteens was still green. Benn called it "swamp water". Will said, "We have some water cached further up."

"That's four more miles."

"Can we do it?" Will asked.

Will led Benn and I on a "death march" to reach that water. I had to ask him to slow down several times. He followed trail cairns like a true trekker, even though this was his first backpack. We had clear water that night - and an easy hike out the next day.

I would like to say that Will became a man as a result of that adventure. The reality is that he had a lot more growing up to do. He barely graduated from high school -- with lots of help from wise counselors, benevolent teachers, and persistent parents. Will's attempts at college did not work out well either. And yet, now at the age of twenty-six, he makes his living as a successful computer consultant.

To prepare for this talk, I asked Will how the Canyon experience affected him over time. He said, "When I get into a deep hole, I know I have got to get out." The company he consults for just agreed to supply furniture to a multi-billion dollar retailer. Will's job is to establish the ordering, billing and inventory computer interfaces. It was supposed to be a ten day job. The project is now well into its second month, and they are up against another major technical barrier. "Do I figure out how to do it, or do I hire someone who has done this before -- for $20,000? It is not a question of whether we will do it." Will added, "The Canyon trip was a trial. That will always be there with a trip that large. You learn what you need to learn on your own, things that can't be taught. For me the two strongest parts of a project are the very beginning and the very end. The middle is hard. The first quarter of the second half is treacherous. You need to keep going."

Will plans to marry this coming August. I am optimistic. He looks forward to taking his children on coming of age adventures.

Coming of Age Guidelines

I am not advocating that everyone her take their child to the Grand Canyon. Nor am I recommending that Wy'east host a Unitarian-Universalist flavored coming of age program. I am advocating that every child in our congregation be given an intentional l coming of age experience. And I advocate that we all take some weight for it.

Here are some guidelines, mostly from my experience.

Recognize that our society provides some standard coming of age experiences. These range from going to high school and college and military service to obtaining a drivers license and falling into - and out of - love.

Some family adventures qualify as coming of age adventures. I know one family that took a year to travel around the world. I count the deer hunting trip with my grandfather and uncle when I was thirteen as a coming of age experience. My older son, Kwanza, says Thompson Peak, the 12,000 foot mountain we climbed when he was twelve, helped him learn to be independent-much to his parents' consternation.

Some people come of age as a result of harsh circumstances. I am thinking of those who have suffered a major illness or have lost a limb. War and natural disasters subject many young people to fierce coming of age experiences. After the Nazi invasion of Norway children smuggled gold from the Norwegian treasury on their sleds to waiting boats. The Germans thought they were playing. But the children had to be deadly serious. I hope someone helped them process their experience.

Let the adventure be what it is. The phrase "now you are a man" makes no sense to me. A person may need several coming of age experiences. Kwanza passed his GED exam at the age of sixteen, after Thompson Peak and a trip into Hells Canyon (which I intended to be his coming of age experience). We needed to arrange a home-style graduation ceremony so he could emotionally let go of high school.

Conversely, a female's first menses is a ceremony, a new stage of life. It happens. The question is, will the young lady will feel good about herself, or will she be annoyed or ashamed? I know of a single father who asked a women friend to arrange a ceremony for his daughter. The Women of the Fourteenth Moon ceremony, that Willow talked about earlier, is also a way maidens can be welcomed into womanhood.

Before we can really support our children, we need to appreciate the value of coming of age experiences ourselves. This is not talked about much in our culture. It takes permission and effort and time to put together a full-scale undertaking. There are risks. Unexpected things happen - which is where the deepest experiences lie. It is good to talk with a child years in advance; help him or her be prepared. It may not be a matter of choice for the child. Adults may need to trust that the young person will later appreciate the experience.

Coming of age programs have their place, including programs Wy'east sponsored in the past. They can initiate the young person into the group and impart certain teachings. However, I am more interested in what will best serve the young person.

Nature is a good teacher. Meeting an animal guide can be powerful. A tree can be a teacher. But it cannot be forced. Four hours sitting in the woods is not enough. It took four days and a Grand Canyon for Will to learn what he needed to know.

It may work to invite the young person into your adult world. That is essentially what I did in taking my sons to mountains and canyons. The singer Harry Chapin took his son to his concerts. Your son or daughter or niece or nephew may get to know you in entirely new ways.

Consider tailoring a coming of age experience for each young person. If a child is interested in singing, take her to the Opera - in San Francisco or New York. If Mary wants to save the world, ask your state representative if she'd like a shadow. If Johnnie does not want to come home for dinner, buy him a Greyhound bus ticket and send him to stay with someone who you trust. More than one child has been taken in by a new family during his teenage years.

Of course there are things you to avoid. Benn, our Indian friend, discouraged me from asking Will to spend a night alone in the wilderness. The Spirits, as Benn put it, might be too strong. It might be best to avoid making your first backpack a coming age experience for your child. That would be your ceremony. On the average though, I think we limit ourselves too much.

Finally, reach out; lend a hand. The experience will enrich you as much as the child. Talk with other members of the congregation about specific children. There seems to be an assumption that coming of age is the parent's responsibility. In the old days, the parents had little to do with coming of age ceremonies. Parents often have a complicated a relationship with the child. Sometimes they are overwhelmed just keeping food on the table. Life is better when the whole village raises the child.

As individuals and as a community, let us find within our hearts the energy and wisdom needed to serve our young people well. Let us find ways to discover their true spirits, their future strengths. Let us honor their journey from childhood to adulthood.


The song we just sang says, "We'll build a land of people so bold..." What role can you see for yourself in helping our children be bold? Will you support someone's vision of doing a coming age ceremony for his or her child? Will you ask some else for help? Will you be flexible as Ms. Kennedy and the park ranger were in the stories I have shared. Do you have a gift to share with a young person? Then make it known. Maybe you understand ceremonies well enough to help others, like Linda and Willow and Benn. Whatever role you see for yourself, play it well. As Garrison Keeler says, "Nothing you do for children is ever wasted."

Go in peace.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Re/Presenting God

"Re/Presenting God"

Marcia Stanard

Wy'east Unitarian Universalist Congregation

May 10, 2009

Last spring, I began Clinical Pastoral Education, or CPE. CPE is a requirement for the ministry in our tradition, and it basically involves 12 or 13 weeks of working as a chaplain in a hospital, prison, or other such facility. It also involves working with a group of peers, and looking at your interactions with the patients or residents of the facility you're working at. Basically, CPE helps you figure out what is going to push your buttons, and teaches you how to work through that, before you become a minister.

Once last spring, I was paged to go be with two young adults as their mother was being removed from life support. We talked and laughed and cried together. At one particularly difficult point, I asked if they would like me to pray with them. The daughter said, "I can't imagine what we would pray for. She's dying." I said, "yes, but I was thinking that I'd pray for you two."

This was obviously a new concept in prayer. If there is nothing to ask for, why pray? If there are no miracles to be had, what would one pray for? I am reminded of the words of Meister Eikhart, "If the only prayer you ever said was Thank You, that would be enough." In this case, I prayed thank you, for the life of this woman, for her children's lives, and the chance that they had to say good-bye, and know that they were loved. I prayed for strength for them, as they faced life without their mother, and prayed for compassion for them, as they comforted each other, and were supported by their friends.

As I was talking with my supervisor afterwards, I said that it felt good to be there, and that my presence seemed to bring some comfort. Just being a listening presence was helpful I thought. Carolynne said to me-no. She said, "You weren't just another person in there. You were representing God. And you, I would say, re-presented God to them."

I've been fascinated by that idea ever since. The idea of re-presenting God.

Now I know that here, and in many Unitarian Universalist congregations, we hesitate to talk about God. We tend to use broader terms, like Spirit of Life or Love. And each of us has our own definitions for these terms, or terms like God. But in the hospital, working with a broad array of patients, God is the common term to use. It often means something slightly different to me than it does to my patients, perhaps. To me, God is a creative force in the universe found in trees and mountains and water-and in relationships between people. Carter Heyward, a lesbian feminist Episcopal priest says "to Love is to God." And to many of my patients, God is a tangible force, an omnipotent supernatural being who holds our fates in the palm of His hand. And, that no matter how rough life down here may get, many people believe that after death, they will be reunited with God and their loved ones in heaven, and the cares of this world will fall away.

Now, I know that there are some, perhaps many Unitarian Universalists who are uncomfortable with the generic hospital chaplain. Will they understand our faith, we wonder? Will they pray in a way that makes us uncomfortable? Will they talk about God and Jesus in a way that doesn't make sense to me? And most of all, perhaps, will my lack of a conventional religious viewpoint make the hospital view me differently?

I try hard to be aware of these possible attitudes when I see patients in the hospital. I'm aware how many times people make assumptions about me, as a chaplain when I walk into the room. I tend to hear things people think I want to hear, like "well, we're not really churchgoers, but we don't drink!" " How many souls have you saved for the Lord?" (sorry, that's not part of the job description, and expressly forbidden, actually.) And my personal favorite-- "Well, I don't go to church, but I hate evolution. That's just wrong."

Our job, as hospital chaplains, is to meet each person wherever they are spiritually, and to help them access their own resources within themselves. We are not the church police. We don't care if you drink, or smoke, or believe that the earth was created 6000 years ago. We are here to help you access your own resources. Maybe for you that takes the form of a church community, or a sense of spirituality; maybe it means we just listen to what's on your mind.

But in my view, the most important thing we do, is to accompany people just a bit in those incredibly difficult times. And this, to me, feels like sacred work. And this is where we get the chance to re/present God. For many people in this country, God is the supreme deity. Granter of Life and Death. If you believe that everything that happens is part of a greater plan, you may find that comforting. But for many folks, who believe that prayer is a literal form of petitioning, and if your faith is strong enough, God will answer your prayers, where does that leave you when your child dies?

I can't answer the why question for people. I have no idea why evil exists, or why children get cancer. But what I can do is to sit with someone who is going through unimaginable pain, and just be. It doesn't make it better. But just maybe, a person who believes in God can see God's loving presence in me.

Kate Braestrup is a Unitarian Universalist minister who works as chaplain to the Warden Service for the state of Maine. It's her job to be with the families when a person is missing in the woods, or out doors, and the wardens are looking for him or her. When the wardens have a difficult recovery, or situations that hit a little too close to home, she is the one they talk to.

Rev. Braestrup sees people who are often not expecting to need a chaplain. She encounters people who were out hiking in the woods, when suddenly their child goes missing. Or people who are snowmobiling when a machine flips over. Or simply at home; and they hear bad news about a loved one. And in an instant, pleasure turns to tragedy. And waiting time becomes exquisitely painful. These are the times when a chaplain comes in handy. Whether you are religious or not, having someone whose sole job it is to be with you as you wait is a tremendous gift.

Sometimes, the connection the chaplain has with God and religion can be especially helpful. Braestrup writes of a woman who walked into the woods to commit suicide. The woman's brother asks Braestrup a question about whether God could accept someone who had committed suicide into heaven, and tells of how his sister went to church two weeks before she died, and listened to a preacher say that suicide is the one sin that God can never forgive. Braestrup looked at this woman's brother, summoned up all her ministerial authority, and said "The game wardens have been walking in the rain all day. Walking through the woods in the freezing rain trying to find your sister. They would have walked all day tomorrow, walked in the cold rain the rest of the week, searching for Betsy, so they could bring her home to you. And if there is one thing I am sure of-it is that God is not less kind, less committed, or less merciful than a Maine game warden. "

Look for the love, our reading today told us. If you want to find where God is in a story, look for the love. God is not in the shooting, not in the drowning in a swimming pool, not in the car accident. God is in those who work to heal the sick. God is in those who comfort, and bring casseroles. God; in brownies and babysitters and Tuna Noodles.

I want to warn you. I'm about to tell you something that may make some of you sad. Last summer, my long-time partner Jill and I separated. But there is a powerful lesson that's come out of this for me. My image is that the container that my family was in crumbled, like an old clay pot. That loss is difficult. But what I've realized is that there is a much larger pond that is holding me and my family. Over the last several months I've had friends, old and new offer to let me stay with them, offer help financial or practical or emotional. I don't have to do this alone. The pond supports me. Lets me float. This is where God is in this story. Jill and I are doing our best to continue making a home for our children. That's where God is in this story.

Peter Mayer has a song called Holy Now. He sings of how, when he was a boy, he would go to church where the priest read the holy word, and consecrated the holy bread and wine. Now, as an adult, he sees holiness everywhere; in a sunrise, or a child's face.

"Used to be a world half there, Heaven's second rate hand-me-down.

Now I walk it with a reverent air, Cause everything is Holy Now."

Mayer writes of that attitude switch that can happen between looking for miracles and simply noticing all those present in the world around us. While he's writing of nature and creation, miracles are present everywhere if we can see them in that way.

Kate Braestrup writes of the biblical story of Jesus and the 10 lepers. Jesus healed all 10, but only one returned to say thank you. She writes that "all 10 were made clean, but only one received a miracle. A miracle is not defined by an event. A miracle is defined by gratitude."

"Anything could happen, but only one thing will. If it is what we desire, what we long for so badly we feel it burning in our bones, if by chance this is given, we will fall on our grateful knees, praise God, and call it a miracle, And we will not be wrong."

A miracle is the combination of a favorable outcome and gratitude. Miracles are temporary. No one lives forever, life is inherently "nasty and brutish and short". But like Peter Mayer says, if we look for the miracles, for the holiness inherent in life, we will find it in the most unlikely places.

Elie Wiesel writes of the time the concentration camp he lived in as a child was liberated. As an American officer entered the place, and witnessed the ovens, the prisoners starved, he began cursing and screaming. In his righteous anger, Wiesel writes, humanity re-entered the camp. Having someone else witness our pain, cry or keen on our behalf, can be profoundly affirming. Where is God in the Holocaust? Not in the genocide or the cruelty surely, but in the moments of humanity that were present.

Re-Presenting God can take many forms. It can take the form of righteous anger that lets us know humanity is still present. It can catch us when we fall, cushioning the inevitable blow. It can walk us through the darkest hours of our lives, accompanying us on the journey.

For those of us who have come out of more conservative religious traditions, Re-Presenting God can take the form of changing the omnipotent man in the sky God of our childhoods and re-imagining God as parental, or nurturing, or comforting. It can re-imagine God as not God at all, but spirit, or mystery or Love. It can eliminate God altogether, trusting instead in the nurturing embrace of community, or in the reason of science, or in the goodness of humanity.

For the people that I encountered in the hospital, re-presenting God may take the form of adding something to that image of the deity prayed to who is heartlessly denying the fiercest petitions of our hearts. For people who believe in the power of petitionary prayer, to have their deepest longings and pleadings denied can leave them not only broken-hearted at the death or decay of their beloved one, but wondering about the very nature of God. I believed, I prayed fiercely, and my prayer was not answered. What does this say about me? What does this say about my relationship to God? What do I make of this? If I believe that God can heal everyone, what does it do to my faith to have my prayers not answered?

Does this mean that God can't heal? Is there some bigger picture that I'm not seeing? Most frightening, does God not love me anymore?

This is the time that having a chaplain present can be helpful. Not because we have any different or better answers. Not because we can restore faith, or heal the sick, or even offer such hope about the afterlife that we make people feel better about their loved one's passing.

But chaplains can be helpful because we represent God in the hands that hold those of someone in pain. We represent God by being present with people in their times of greatest need. We represent God by showing up, being present, and speaking the truth in Love.

Last Fall, I baptized an infant that had been still born at 35 weeks. Now, baptism is not an important part of my own faith tradition, but it was important to these parents, that this baby that they had planned for, and loved before she was born, was baptized. To me, this was a simple pastoral care issue. If I could do anything to make this incredibly difficult time in their lives just a tiny bit easier, I'm happy to do that. I found it fascinating that my CPE group found themselves in a deep theological argument about the ethics of baptizing an infant that never really was alive. But to me, that part didn't matter at all. In a room with a couple who must have wondered why God took their child away from them before she was ever born, I got to go in and re/present God. God was not the one who took their daughter away. That's not where God is in this story. God is in the sacrament of baptism, which these parents believe will ensure that their child enters heaven. God is in the photographer from the hospital, who ensures that they will have pictures of their child. God is in the people who came and sat with them and listened to their sorrow and their stories.

Sometimes, miracles happen. Sometimes our loved ones are healed and we rejoice. Sometimes everyone is in the right place at the right time and those we love are brought back from near death, the lost are found. And we are grateful.

And sometimes fate conspires in ways that make us heartsick. Our child drowns; our spouse gets cancer. A young woman goes missing and is found murdered. God doesn't make these things happen. I don't believe there is a master plan that includes genocide and murder and children dying anywhere.

But I do believe in miracles, and love, and in the power of gathered community. I believe in mothers and fathers and grandparents and aunts and uncles biological or chosen. I believe that accompanying someone on the journey is Holy work, no matter who or what you believe in. I believe in the healing power of love and grace and tuna casseroles.

If you want to know where God is in a story, look for the love. The Holy moves in mysterious ways. There's a bumper sticker I see often: Be the Change you wish to see in the world. I would ask us to be the love we wish to see in the world. No matter if you call it God, or Spirit or Love, Let it move through us. Let our hands be the hands that God or Grace or Goodness has to do work in the world. May it be so. Amen.

© 2009 Marcia Stanard

Sunday, May 10, 2009