Dearest dear ones,

Last night was a hard night.  Today is a confusing day.  The rhetoric in this election became so very intense that for many of us, the election felt like a referendum on basic human rights.  People of color, LGBTQ folks, differently abled folks, non-Christians and economically disadvantaged individuals are literally afraid for their lives.  I’m hearing that some people feel as traumatized as they did post 9/11.

First of all, take a deep breath.  Our nation does not belong to one person.  Our community is strong and resilient.  Love will bat last, to paraphrase Annie Lamott.  Your neighbors are still your neighbors.  Regardless of who they voted for, if you get sick, they will bring you soup.  That’s who we are.

The temptation to catastrophize is strong.  However, we don’t know for sure what happens next.  What we do know is that we will have work to do, regardless.  Let’s not waste precious energy worrying about things that are still uncertain.  Let’s marshal our spirits and fortify our hearts, so that when we ARE called into action to defend our values, we have the resources to do so with grace and generosity.

It has helped me to remember that the vast majority of people who voted for Donald Trump did so IN SPITE of the things that terrify me about his candidacy, not BECAUSE of them.  We must try not to demonize, blame, shame or further divide our country.

Perhaps not today, but eventually, we will need to acknowledge the pain and fear behind the pro-isolationist, anti-establishment votes.  We will need to listen, and let go of whatever arrogant assumptions we might hold.  Trump voters are not universally stupid, uneducated, bigoted, or unkind.  I have to believe that most of them are fundamentally good people with different perspectives and priorities than I have.  They have a variety of reasons for voting the way they did, and if we can’t hear those reasons, then our country won’t be able to heal.

Today, though, if you need to grieve, grieve.  If you need to process, I am here.  The Sanctuary will be open all afternoon, with prayer flags to decorate, candles to write, and someone to talk to. Reach out, and keep reaching out, especially to people who you know are feeling more vulnerable because of their identities.  Ask for what you need.  Go for walks.  Drink in the beauty of this beautiful place we call home.  Read things that are uplifting.  Sing.  Cook.  Eat.  Love, and love some more.

There will be a vigil at the church this evening at 5:30 pm.  Come be together; bring your friends, even the ones who aren’t ‘churchy.’  We need to be together right now…need to see how much love there is surrounding us.  Love trumps hate…even today…and ever more.

Yours in faith,

Elizabeth

 

  • The woman that Brock Turner raped behind a dumpster in Palo Alto courageously published her story, and ignited a fire.  Woman after woman, sharing stories of sexual abuse, rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment.  The ‘statistics’ say that one in four of us are survivors of assault.  My personal experience indicates that the true numbers are much higher than that.

There are a number of reasons that the statistics aren’t remotely accurate.  Sometimes, our brain shuts down and we don’t remember what happened.  Sometimes, we don’t realize that what happened to us was rape until long after the fact.  Sometimes, we know right away, but don’t tell anyone because we feel ashamed or embarrassed.  Sometimes, we tell people, but they don’t believe us, or urge us not to report.  Sometimes we tell people, they urge us to report, and the police decline to pursue the matter.  Sometimes, the police build a case, which feels like another violation, and it settles out of court.  Sometimes, we go to court, put up with our morals, clothing choices, and character being ripped to shreds, and the rapist gets off.  Sometimes, the rapist is found guilty, but is only given a slap on the wrist.  (I’m talking about you, Brock Turner.)

There are so few stories that have fair and just endings to them.  Sharing them would seem to only cause us more pain.  But this week, we’ve been shown, quite remarkably, that there is a point to speaking up.   While the two Swedish students are heroes, so is the woman who, without flinching, told her story from start to finish and shared it with the world. In the face of that kind of bravery, others of us are inspired to speak, and a feeling of solidarity starts to spread.  A righteous rage builds in the hearts of survivors, all women, and male allies.  We find the courage to rise up, to speak truth to patriarchy, to claim our power to DEMAND change.

We are not faceless, nameless statistics, we whose bodies have been violated.  We are human beings, facing irreversible consequences, and our lives and our stories matter.  I have read every account I’ve come across, opening my heart to the pain, the shame, the fury that results.  And I offer my story in solidarity.

I was raped at the age of 15 at a Unitarian Universalist youth conference.  I didn’t call it rape at first, because when I refused to have intercourse because he didn’t have birth control, he ‘allowed’ me (i.e. forced me) to perform oral sex instead.  When it was over, I wanted to die.  This was my introduction to sexuality, and it’s colored and limited every relationship I’ve had since.

Typically, when I tell people what happened to me, they tell their stories in return.  These stories, though buried deep, are often festering.  They burst out when it becomes clear that I am a survivor, too- and so won’t minimize, shame, or further harm the person I am listening to. Yet I’ve also been censured, admonished that it’s not appropriate to force people to face the ugliness of what I endured.  So many of us are so very attached to the illusion that the world is a safe place for women, who will be romanced and revered and respected.  I get it.  I want that world, too.

But the only way to create that world is to  let go of the illusion and forge the reality, with our rage and our tears and our deep, desperate hope that our daughters might not have to live through what we did.  We must teach our children about consent.  We must teach our children how to accept responsibility for their actions.  We must expose the rape culture to the light of day.

I’ve come to believe that Patriarchy rests at the core of many of the world’s most difficult challenges.  Patriarchy drives war.  Patriarchy enables environmental degradation, because it places ‘man’ above ‘nature.’  Patriarchy trains some human beings to see themselves as ‘better’ than other human beings, making them vulnerable to racism and heterosexism and trans-phobia and other forms of oppression.

If we want the world we are longing for, we have to shatter the patriarchy.  We women need to claim our stories and our power.  We need to claim our righteous rage and our deepest dreams.  We need to rise, together, hands joined, to say, “no more.”  Whether it’s ‘one in four’ or I am right and it’s far, far more, even one in four million would be one too many.

 

Dad’s Final Lessons

May 20, 2016

For the last month, my primary focus has been my Dad’s death.  He went onto Hospice at the end of April.  He died on May 14th.  I was his caregiver and next-of-kin, held his power of attorney, and had the responsibility for packing up his things.  Though I have supported many people- congregants, family members and friends- through this process, it was my first time moving through it personally.  I predicted that I would learn a great deal, and I have.  I understand that every person’s experience is unique, yet share some of the things I learned, hoping that there might be points of connection or possibilities for conversation.

The first and most lovely lesson I received revolves around the outpouring of love and support, from the congregation I serve and from my wider community.  There were the congregational leaders who looked at me as if I were nuts when I suggested I might need to negotiate some unpaid leave, saying simply, “Do what you need to do, and let us know how to support you.” There were the folks who stepped up and stepped in, giving me the time I needed to be with Dad.  There were the cards and the emails and the calls and the Facebook messages and the thoughts and the prayers.  There were the caregivers at the assisted living facility who took such gentle care of Dad.  There were the amazing hospice workers and volunteers who responded to every phone call with kindness and competence.  Words can’t adequately express my gratitude for all of it. I felt held, ever so tenderly, by a great and broad network woven of love and generosity.  I am so very blessed.

Another lesson I learned centers on forgiveness.  It’s no secret that my Dad struggled in his life and in his relationships.  Alcoholism eroded him over time, carving away his physical, emotional and spiritual health little by little.   His inner core of self-loathing led him to lash out at the people who loved him most.  All of his children bear emotional scars from his abuse, and some of us carry physical scars as well.  One path to forgiveness involves the one who caused harm accepting responsibility for their actions.  That path wasn’t open to us with Dad.  He never admitted he was an alcoholic.  He never apologized.  However, in recent months, I discovered a different path to forgiveness.  It might not have worked if I hadn’t spent a fair amount of time in therapy, but somehow, seeing him vulnerable and afraid as he neared the end of his life woke up a deep compassion that allowed me to forgive him unconditionally.  I understood that the pain he caused grew out of his own scars.  I came to believe that he did the best he could.  My heart broke for him, enabling deep healing.

Just a few days before Dad went on hospice, I remember saying as part of a conversation about end-of-life issues that when my own death approached, I would take matters into my own hands and either swim out into the ocean and not turn around or lie down and go to sleep in the snow.  I was afraid of being helpless and undignified.  I agreed with those who said, “I’m not afraid of death, but I AM afraid of dying.”  The third lesson came as a true gift, then.  Watching Dad die, I realized that dying is an important and holy part of the human experience, one I want for myself.  Meanwhile, caring for him was just as important and holy, an experience I want to offer my children (or whoever winds up caring for me at the end.)  My fear of dying melted away.  Whatever fate waits for me at the end of my own life, I think I will be able to meet it with acceptance and curiosity, all because Dad trusted me to be with him at the end of his.

I loved my Dad.  I love him still.  I am profoundly grateful for these final lessons.  I am profoundly grateful for the love and the lessons he’s offered me over the course of my entire life.  I know I am still near the beginning of the grief process, and I believe more lessons may be forthcoming.  May I remain ever open and willing to learn.  May I remain ever open and willing to love.

Ugh. Politics.

March 17, 2016

I have voted in every election I have been eligible for my entire adult life.  I vote even when there is nothing on the ballot I am particularly passionate about, and even when, statistically, I know my vote won’t make a difference.    I consider it a sacred responsibility.

I’m not at all shy about sharing my perspective, and as a result, people generally can guess where I fall on the political spectrum.   However, as a minister, I have an obligation to protect my church’s non-profit status.  That means I can talk about issues, but not candidates, at least from the pulpit.  I interpret the rules a little more strictly than some of my colleagues, and refrain from sharing my personal preferences, attending fundraisers or rallies where I know congregants will be present, or posting on social media in support of or opposition to any particular candidate.

I do talk about my deep commitment to civil discourse and cooperation.  The partisan divide in our nation breaks my heart.  I long for a time when statesmen look for middle ground, for the compromise that is the best possible fit for a diverse nation.

Needless to say, that time is not now.  Am I the only one who feels overwhelmed by the manipulation and fear mongering on both sides of the aisle?  Some of this comes from the media, but some of it comes from us, from the citizens who understandably feel that the stakes are very high in this presidential election.  There’s an intensity to people’s defense of their candidate and their rejection of other candidates that I find disconcerting.

The intensity is familiar.  I am still terrified by the moment, twelve years ago, when I almost yielded to the temptation to rear-end a truck with a political bumper sticker I found offensive.  That is not who I am or who I want to be in the world.  My faith teaches me to respect the inherent worth and dignity of everyone…no exceptions.

 

So here are a few truths I will be holding on to:

  • Voting is a complex decision, based on many different factors.
  • People have multiple perspectives, opinions, and priorities.
  • What seems true and obvious to me depends on my personal experience.
  • Multiple points of view are healthy and necessary.
  • We don’t have to think alike OR vote alike to love alike.
  • We can disagree without denigrating or dismissing one another.
  • The intensity, on all sides, comes out of a deep sense of patriotism.
  • Our government is set up with checks and balances.
  • Anyone who is over the age of 40 has already survived at least 8 years of living under the opposing regime.
  • The requirements of citizenship don’t stop at the voting box.  Rather, that’s where they begin.

The caucus for Idaho Democrats is less than a week away.  I find myself feeling caught between a rock and a hard place.  There is no way to avoid having congregants see which candidate I prefer.  I can’t deny that there’s a tightness in my chest.

I will breathe through that tightness.  I will trust my good folks to be accepting and to manage their anxiety.  I will manage my own anxiety.  I will beam love and compassion across the room.  I will remember the most important truth of all:  we are all in this together.

What helps, what doesn’t

November 14, 2015

How do we process and respond to the stream of tragedies we bear witness to, day in and day out? This week, it is the terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut that have captured our collective attention and broken our hearts.  But every week, there’s something.  How do we stay awake and aware, without succumbing to compassion fatigue?  For those of us who are religious leaders, how do we support people whose lived experience is that things are bad and getting worse?

When the trauma is acute, it helps to turn off the tv, the radio, the computer.  It helps to connect with the real people who are nearby, to remind ourselves of the love and beauty in our lives.  Later, it helps to look at the root causes and educate ourselves on the events leading up to the tragedy.  It helps to find concrete ways to contribute, whether sending money or attending a vigil or just saying a silent prayer.  It helps to take a long view, to step back and realize that people who are good and caring and responsible outnumber those who are hate-full and violent by several orders of magnitude.  It helps to pay attention to the outpouring of love and support that inevitably follows each tragedy.  Yes, Mr. Rogers, it helps to “Remember the Helpers.”

It doesn’t help to jump to assigning blame.  It doesn’t help to watch bloody footage over and over again, imprinting traumatic images on our brain.  It doesn’t help to chastise people for their way of responding to the tragedy; each person is entitled to their own reactions and responses.

It helps me to practice tonglen meditation.  I visualize breathing in the world’s suffering, transforming it, and breathing out love and peace.  But there are other individual practices that can help…walking meditation, lighting candles, expressing solidarity through images or art or music.  These days, we all need our ‘go to’ post-traumatic spiritual practices.

It helps us all, collectively to come together and lament as a community.  In the wake of every tragedy, attendance at churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship tends to increase.  When we are hurting, we need one another more than ever.

As religious leaders, our job is to set the pace and the tone of communal mourning.  We need to be sensitive to the level of trauma in our congregations. Sometimes, our folks need us to be prophetic, to open their eyes and hearts to something they might rather ignore.  Sometimes they need us to be pastoral, to soothe and uplift.  Sometimes they need us to just acknowledge the feelings of pain, helplessness, and loss; to sit with them in the midst of the turmoil and to acknowledge how hard it is to be human just now.

These are challenging times, but they are also rich with potential.  As hard as it is to bear witness to the stream of tragedies sometimes, our broken hearts connect us in a way that has never occurred before, a way that is desperately needed.  I have unlimited faith in the resilience of the human spirit.  Together, we will figure out how to weave a web of compassion that embraces the whole human family.

What We Owe Our Veterans

November 9, 2015

Reading:  Used by permission

A message to my children’s teachers on Veteran’s Day
Will Hopkins, US Army Infantry, Iraq 2004-2005

When I am thanked for my “service” I cringe
I asked my stepdaughter
What she wanted to be when she grew up, she said
“An animal rescuer, or a veteran.”

She would choose those images, and the guilt

I was a tool of evil men
A foreign invader killing men defending their homeland
For oil, territory, politics, whatever

I was a murderer-am a murderer
A killer

“An animal rescuer, or a veteran.”

I don’t want to be recognized, as the hero you are tasked to paint me
I don’t want to be recognized, as the monster I allowed myself to become

I want you to teach my children peace
That the men defending their homeland from me, were as real and human as me
And that their children, starving, barefoot, now parentless
Are as real as they are
As human as they are
As worthy of living safe from war,
and going to school,
and playing on the playground

That that woman who stepped out in front of our humvee was as real as you
As real as your student’s own mothers

I won’t be attending your ceremony

And I have a request, as a parent on this Veterans Day, as a veteran on this Armistice Day
Please, please, please
Teach my children peace.

In a couple of years, my other daughter will come through your doors
Let her tell me
“An animal rescuer, or a doctor.”
“An animal rescuer, or a teacher.”
“An animal rescuer, or a firewoman.”
“An animal rescuer, or anything.”

I am no hero, and the world has had enough war
If we can teach our children peace can the world not see its last veteran?

Sermon

On Wednesday, Veteran’s Day, people will wear flag pins.  Fox news will take swipes at President Obama for not being at the right cemetery to observe the holiday or not saying the right words or looking at the camera funny.  There will be a lot of talk about ‘heroes’ and ‘sacrifice,’ patriotic music, parades and the like.

And all of that is well and good.  (Well, maybe not the swipes at our President.  But the rest of it is all well and good.)  But if this Veteran’s Day is anything like most of the other Veteran’s Days I’ve lived through, what there won’t be is serious conversation about what our Veterans need from us, what they deserve.

No one will point out that the transition to an all-volunteer military means that enlisted men and women who are low-income or come from marginalized communities are more over-represented than ever.  No one will talk about the fact that multiple deployments, which are becoming ever more common, lead to exponentially higher rates of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome.

In some places, folks might read the names of the men and women who were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan this year.  But I doubt anyone will point out that we’ve likely crossed the ‘grim milestone’ of one million non-fatal injuries.  The Department of Veterans Affairs has stopped releasing those numbers.

And I especially doubt that anyone will mention that Veterans’ organizations suspect that the rate of suicide among veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan is something like 5-7 times the rate of combat casualties.

No one will talk about the far higher than average rates of drug abuse, divorce, and domestic violence.  No one will mention the high percentage of Veterans who are unable to find stable employment after leaving the military.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average unemployment rate for veterans has risen to more than 12.1 percent in the past year. For the youngest veterans, aged 18 to 24, the jobless rate was 30.4 percent in October of this year and a striking 48.0 percent for young black veterans. (http://www.dailykos.com/story/2012/01/05/1051926/-What-Do-We-Owe-Our-Returning-Vets)

I would venture a guess that some folks will talk about how important it is to defend ourselves against ISIS.  But I suspect that no one will be brave enough to say what one Veteran of the Iraq war said in an article on the Daily Kos:

The U.S. media has relentlessly driven home the point that our soldiers protect our freedoms but the truth is the War was a misguided attempt to stabilize oil prices. Bin Laden and other “Islamo-terrorists” never broadly threatened U.S. shores.  They were surprised as much as we were that jets could bring down large skyscrapers.

As my brother put it after returning from Iraq, “I knew when I signed up that I was putting my life on the line.  I just thought I would be fighting to defend civilians, not to maximize Halliburton’s profits.”

So.  I’m saying it all now.  I know that it’s hard to hear.  It’s easy to get all goopy and patriotic.  It’s a lot harder to pay attention to the actual experience of today’s veterans.

Today, though, I’d challenge us to do just that, and to ask ourselves, what do we really owe our Veterans?  Let’s start with one of our own.  Donal?

I was an 18 year old senior in high school with a low G.P.A. and with no connection with how more academics were going to make my life better.  My father made it clear that I would be paying rent to live at home after graduating high school in the tiny town I lived in.  I wanted out.  After a brief failing attempt to get into the Merchant Marine Academy (I wanted to captain a tug boat) I went to the recruiter’s office. He took one look at my ASVAB score, 94 out of 99, and I could almost see him salivating.

(Your ASVAB scores determine what jobs you will qualify for in the military.  It’s very comprehensive, testing language, math, reasoning and scientific thinking skills.)

The recruiter went right to work selling me electronics for the nuclear program.  Five months later I graduated and was ready to be care free for the next few months of my life before being shipped off to boot camp.  Not once did I think about the moral issues or political repercussions of joining the military.  Reagan had not started a nuclear war with the Soviet Union yet, and there was no other “war” going on.  After all, I was a Deadhead. 

I went into the navy conservative by birth, even though I was a Deadhead.  Over the course of the four years I spent in the Middle East and North Africa spying on Russians, training the Taliban in their war with the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, bombing Libyans, and manipulating geopolitics worldwide I became liberal.  It didn’t happen overnight, but rather a result to what I saw we were doing to people, for oil companies, and in the name of the citizens of the United States.

I re-entered the “real” world on October 26, 1989, with 4.0 evaluations, and assurance from the navy that I would fail and re-enlist within a month.  They offered me a $60,000 re-enlistment bonus because of my 4,000 hours of school and $300,000 security clearance that was three levels above top secret – higher than our president. But I was done.  I was done with my government, done with electronics, but not done with world politics.  The navy made me an activist for world peace.  “No one prays for peace more than the soldier, for it is the soldier who must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.”  General Douglas MacArthur

I became a full time peace activist during the first gulf war.  I volunteered to help conscientious objectors file their paperwork to avoid military service.  It wasn’t long before the folks at the San Jose Peace Center and the Bay Area Peace Center in San Francisco figured out they had a gold mine in this passionate former navy spy who they could use as their media spokesperson.  I spent the next year doing assemblies at high schools, T.V. and newspaper interviews, and speaking at many large protests.  I researched who we recruited, who fought our wars, and at what cost. 

Immigrants and the poor fight our wars, and they have in every war since the American Revolution.  You won’t find many senators or representatives children in the military.  Our politicians send the most desperate patriots into battle for the benefit of large corporations; oil, and companies who fuel the military industrial complex, and then businesses like Halliburton and Bechtel to go in a rebuild what we destroy.

I am a veteran.  My heart was in the right place.  I wanted to defend my country for my family and friends.  I wanted to honor the blood, sweat and tears of my ancestors all the way back to the Mayflower.  I didn’t get to do that.  I was on the offense. I was a spear point for big American corporations to increase their profits for more wealthy Tories who were stockholders.  I feel like it is important to honor people who had the best of intentions to serve those that they love to protect their freedom.  That should not be tainted by the motivations of the politicians who send our young men and women to war.

Thank you.

I want to acknowledge that every veteran’s experience is different.  Many never see combat directly.  Some who do are able to heal and go on to live productive and happy lives.  I know a lot of veterans who are proud of their service, satisfied that they did the right thing, and delighted to be remembered and honored.

But I agree with the authors of our first reading when they say:

We owe it to (our veterans) and to ourselves to do our best to support their recovery…we must be willing to engage the same intense moral questions that veterans undertake about our own responsibility as a society for having sent them to war. 

If we are really to take responsibility for having sent young people, precious men and women with inherent worth and dignity, to war, we can’t yield to the limitations of our political system.  I wonder sometime if the fact that enlisted people are overwhelmingly people of color or poor people makes it easier for our leaders to forget?  Easier to discount their loss?

I will say this for the draft- when the draft was in place, everyone knew someone who was away at the war.  Everyone knew someone, personally who had died or who had lost a child, a spouse, a sibling, a friend.  These days, it’s rarer.  But not as rare as we might think.  How many of you know and love someone who is a veteran?

When my brother says he doesn’t want to be honored for his service or recognized at school assemblies, I listen.  When he says that what he does want is for all of us to teach peace, I listen to that, too.

But teaching peace- it doesn’t feel like quite enough.  Teaching peace doesn’t help the Veterans who have come back broken.  It doesn’t help their families who are forced to live with their absence or their anger.  I’m haunted by the memory of one former congregant who, on his way to his FIFTH deployment, said to me, simply, “I’m not fit for anything else anymore.” Sure, we taught his daughter peace in her Sunday School class, but what I really wanted to do was to somehow get her Dad back for her.

We owe our service members more than our efforts to teach peace to our children, our society, and our government.  We owe them love and support, healing, and companionship on their road back to wholeness.

I am so grateful to and proud of our UU military chaplains.  They are really cool.  I have two close friends and a number of acquaintances who answered the call to serve in the armed services.  I want to share with you something my friend, Susan Maginn, a chaplain for the Marines wrote as she prepared to lead worship for her 3000 ‘congregants.’

Tomorrow’s lectionary themes are about how to keep yourself undefiled and unstained by the world. Which is lovely, but I’m preaching to warriors-in-training who are preparing to get pretty dirty in the world, preparing like those sheepdogs who are bred and trained to protect the herd.

Tomorrow’s take away:

In ancient cultures, warriors wore masks into battle to scare their enemies and to keep their souls ‘undefiled and unstained’ by war. So right now, while you are training, right here in boot camp, build a spiritual mask for yourself. Make it fierce and intimidating. Make it your most precious piece of gear. Take it with you. Wear it as you run into combat, and do exactly as you are trained to do. When the fight is over, remember you are wearing that mask. Weeks, months or even years may pass, but remember you are the one who built that mask and you are the one who knows exactly how to take it off. And when you do, God’s love rushes in.

We can be the ones who help Veterans take their mask off.  Or, to use a more fitting metaphor on this Quilt Sunday, we can wrap these beautiful, lovingly crafted quilts around them, like a blanket fort.  We can help them stitch their experiences together into a coherent whole- even the parts that are still ragged or stuffed in a pocket or left behind on a battlefield.

I’m reminded of the little cartoon- I think it was the Oatmeal- where someone walks up to a person in obvious distress and says, “What’s wrong?”  He answers, “I don’t know.”

“How can I help?”  “I don’t know.”

Then the first person goes off and makes a blanket fort, comes back and says, “I made you a nest.  Do you want to come?”  “Ok.”

“Does that help?”  “Yes.”  “Are you ever coming out?”  “No.”  “Okay.”  And he crawls into the blanket fort with his friend and holds his hand.

We who may or may not believe in God can nevertheless embody what Susan calls “God’s love”- that unconditional, healing love that accepts and doesn’t judge, that meets people where they are and wraps them up in as many quilts as they need.  We can SEE our veterans.  We can LOVE our veterans.  Above all else, that’s what we owe them.

There is a class by the UUA that looks at how we can make our congregations more welcoming and supportive of service members.  It’s called the “Military Ministry Toolkit.”  It’s comprised of six two-hour sessions, and it would lead us through a process of reflecting and then planning, sort of like the Green Sanctuary program, except with a lot less work and no need for certification.  Would anyone like to work on this with me?

One more quote from Susan:

Last Sunday. Me leading worship with 2000 Marine Corps recruits. The final praise song, wherein they are all yelling and dancing in the aisles, has just finished. Benediction time.

Me: Eyeballs!

The 2000: Yes, ma’am. (They snap their heads toward me)

Me: Ears!

The 2000: Yes, ma’am. (They are silent)

Me: I’m going to bless you now!

The 2000: Yes, ma’am. (They close their eyes)

God help me if I ever lead civilian worship again.

(Such a powerful image.  You know, if it weren’t for her also writing about hilly, thirteen-mile pre-dawn runs, I might be tempted to follow her into military chaplaincy.)

This Veteran’s Day, in addition to respect and thanks, I believe we owe our service members a commitment to remain active in the political process and informed about our country’s military strategies.  Until every one of their lives is seen as precious, we need to be advocates for their well-being.  We need to do everything in our power to make sure that our government doesn’t go to war lightly.  We need to do everything in our power to make sure that when they come back, our Veterans have access to the health care and support they need.

Above all, we owe them welcome and love and blessing.  My heartfelt prayer is that we wrap every Veteran who comes through our doors in our strong, beautiful, integrated, unconditional love.

A prayer…

September 6, 2015

The picture of the dead baby on the beach in Turkey brought me to my knees.  We already knew that there was a nasty war going on in Syria, that the hopeful spirit that permeated the so-called “Arab Spring” triggered a vicious crackdown, followed by an armed rebellion that turned into a godawful mess of a war.  I honestly haven’t followed it closely…just filed it away in my brain under “Heartbreaking situations far away:  nothing much I can do.”

But that picture- which was everywhere this week- online, on the front page of the paper, on television- demanded that I open the embarrassingly thin file, and dig a little deeper into the heartbreaking situation.  I learned that almost a quarter of a million people, half of whom are civilians, have been killed so far.  I learned that the international bodies that I trust to work on my behalf- the US government and the United Nations- have not been terribly effective, hampered by the danger and the complexity of the situation.  Sure, sanctions have been imposed- by the US, the UN, and even, in a historic first, by the Arab League- but they haven’t been successful.  11 million people have fled the country.  An estimated 7.6 million are internally displaced.  Consider that Syria’s pre-war population was only 23 million- 18.6 out of 23 million are displaced.  Over 80 %.  Those are huge numbers.  It’s hard to wrap our heads around them.

But we can wrap our hearts around a dead baby on a beach- a dead baby who could be our baby…child, grandchild, niece, nephew.  It breaks us open.

All of us are powerless in the face of huge numbers.  What moves us, what changes the world, are personal connections.  Stories.  Relationships.  Images that break our hearts forge bonds between us.  If we let it in, the compassion and empathy we feel for that one small human and his family transforms us, and we, in turn, help to transform the world.

But only if we ask ourselves, “what can we do?”  What can we do that is real? And helpful?  Only if we learn.

It may be that we’ll see more compassion toward undocumented immigrants here in the US as a result of this one photo.  It may be that people’s natural compassion for this family will cause them to reconsider their stand on immigration reform; to soften it if they are hard liners, to firm it up if they are in favor of compassionate reform.  (Even Trump knows better than to rant and rave about those ‘furiners’ who are ‘trying to steal our jobs’ right now.)

Maybe, just maybe, this is a moment of evolution for our species, as we all come to consensus that standing by while refugees drown trying to get to safety is completely unacceptable, and collectively find the will to do something about it.

My faith teaches me that God speaks in every human heart.  No one person has a monopoly on truth; rather, each of us has the responsibility to listen for the still, small voice, within.

And so when an individual or a couple comes to me for counselling around an unwanted or unsafe pregnancy, my role is not to judge or condemn, but to support them in discerning what to do.  Let’s be honest:  often, all three options are tragic and difficult.  People need to be held in love and encouraged to make the decision that is right for them.

I am so grateful for Planned Parenthood.  Firstly, the health care they provide means that these difficult situations are rarer.  Secondly, they walk with people regardless of which of the three paths they choose. Thirdly, they support the long term health of all women with cancer screenings and reproductive health care.

The current campaign to discredit Planned Parenthood is riddled with factual mistakes and inconsistencies.  Abortion accounts for less than 4% of the work Planned Parenthood does, and not a single tax dollar goes to paying for it.  Nor is donating fetal tissue for research purposes “selling body parts.”

I support the right of other religious leaders to have their own opinions, beliefs and perspectives.  However, it’s wrong to impose those beliefs on the entire population.  Closing Planned Parenthood would do a great deal of harm and very limited good.  Abortion would not go away; women’s access to a safe and survivable abortion would be severely compromised.

This is a difficult and complicated issue. Regardless of where people stand, I pray for civil discourse and mutual respect.  As for me,

I Stand with Planned Parenthood.

Broken Hearts are Messy

August 10, 2015

I’ve said before that change and progress on Big Complex Issues require letting our hearts break.  This is true of stopping climate change; to find our way forward, we need to feel and learn from the heartbreak of looking at our beautiful planet and acknowledging all the damage that has been done.  It’s also true of eradicating racism.  The reality of our history- that this country was built on the bodies of Native Americans and African slaves- is beyond heartbreaking.  The reality of our present is equally difficult to swallow. Yet we must take it in, must be present to this heart-breaking reality, if we are to have a hope of finding our way to wholeness.

Taking it in breaks our hearts, and broken hearts hurt.  Our reluctance to feel pain all too often keeps us from facing reality.  We numb ourselves.  We build homes in denial instead of just using it as it is meant to be used- a way station on our way to deeper acceptance and greater wisdom.

This week, though, we’re being reminded that not only does that necessary heartbreak hurt, it makes a godawful mess.  When we are feeling those difficult feelings, we can’t always access our best and most graceful communication techniques.  We can’t always maintain open minds and hearts when our hearts are in pieces on the ground at our feet.  We can’t always avoid trampling on or rolling over pieces of other people’s hearts when they’re all over the place, like legos after a kindergarten play date.

This is why we need to try to be gentle, kind, and forgiving with friends who are having a hard time on this heartbreak-and-healing journey.  Like the people who are responding with anger and defensiveness to the action at Bernie Sander’s rally in Seattle last week.  Like the people who committed acts of violence in Ferguson last night.  Like me.  Like all of us.

At the same time, we need to hold ourselves and one another accountable; it’s not fair to ask other people to clean up our broken-heart messes.  We need to be patient; if we tidy everything up too quickly, we compromise our ability to learn from the mess.  We need to be aware of privilege, need to remember that the ability to live in denial is a privilege in and of itself.  People who are living in black or brown skin can’t take even short breaks in the imaginary land of “we are a post-racial society.”

No one said it would be easy.  Progress has never been a smooth, straight path.  Can we let the bumps in the road be just bumps- and not turn them into mountains?  Can we let the unexpected twists and turns be part of the adventure, not proof that we don’t know where we’re going?  Can we let the mess be…messy?

The other thing I like to say is that when we let our hearts break, and then heal, they will be bigger and stronger and more resilient.  This has been my experience.  When I’m brave enough to feel the fullness of the grief, despair, and pain, on the other side of the feelings I’ve found peace, acceptance, and a willingness to change.  While my ego longs for tidiness and control, my soul longs for justice, and the only way to get there is to embrace the pain and the messiness of my broken heart.

The work of unravelling racism takes time and happens on many levels.  Justice requires systemic changes to our criminal justice system, symbolic shifts like taking down the Confederate flag, building community coalitions and more.  The unraveling happens on an individual level, as well.  Every time that we kindly but persistently call our racist Uncle so-and-so on outrageous comments, we are doing the work.  Every time we examine our own heart and expand our awareness of the ways racism has shaped us, we are doing the work.

We are making progress these days.  Policies are shifting and hearts are opening.  Sadly, one of the ways we know this is that the backlash has been horrific.  Nine religious leaders were killed at a prayer meeting in Charlestown, SC.  At least seven historically black churches in the South have been set afire.

It’s no coincidence that the black church has borne the brunt of the backlash.  It has historically been a center of resilience and resistance in the black community.  People of faith and people of conscience are called to stand, now, in solidarity and support of these black churches.

Letters of condolence can be mailed to Mother Emmanuel AME church in Charleston (the address is Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, 110 Calhoun St, Charleston, SC 2940).  A fund has been organized to support the rebuilding of the churches that have been burned down (donate online at https://cccathedralstl.dntly.com/campaign/2571#/ or send a check to Rebuild the Churches, c/o Christ Church Cathedral, 1210 Locust Street, St. Louis, MO 63103).

Let’s show the world that here in the Palouse, Black Lives Matter.  Let’s work together to unravel racism.  We build the beloved community one act of compassion at a time.

Rev. Elizabeth Stevens, Unitarian Universalist Church of the Palouse

Moscow, ID