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?


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

After Lamentation

June 19, 2015

My colleague, Ron Robinson, posted on Facebook today that ‘after lamentation’ he feels moved to work on mentoring young the white men and boys in his neighborhood.  While I was impressed by his clarity and transparency, my heart responded, with a great surge, to those two words.  After lamentation…

When something horrible happens…for instance, the shooting of nine innocent people who had gathered to pray…we have an emotional response.  Grief.  Shock.  Horror.  Lamentation is both a corporate and a personal act of expressing those emotions.

Sometimes, I find myself wanting to skip over lamentation, and jump right into problem solving mode.  Sometimes I get stuck in lamentation.  Ron’s words reminded me that lamenting is a necessary stage through which we must pass if we are to arrive at right action.  We grieve, and then we pick ourselves up and we find a way to make the world a better place.

It’s been just over five months since we here in Moscow experienced our own horrible happening.  A young man shot four people, killing three, one of whom was his mother.  You would be hard pressed to find anyone in our little community who wasn’t close to at least one of the victims.  This is one of those cases where I may be a little ‘stuck’ in the lamenting stage.  Grief takes as long as it takes, and I’m still grieving.

However, this latest tragedy has pushed me to start thinking, again, about what needs to come after lamentation.

With regards to the Charleston shooting:

  • Continued focus on racism and discrimination here, in the local community
  • Continued focus on systemic racism in our country
    • self-education (listen, listen, listen– especially to the voices of the oppressed)
    • constructive dialog (help keep white folks I know ‘moving forward’)
    • Be an ally (listen and respond to requests, like that from the NAACP to petition SC government to stop flying the Confederate flag.)
  • Talk about the violence culture, be active in supporting gun control measures

With regards to the shooting in January, the third item, above, plus:

  • Work to increase the number and quality of resources for people with Mental Health issues locally
  • Continue to provide pastoral care for everyone impacted by the shooting.

My current wild and crazy idea is to require not just a criminal background check, but two ‘recommendations’ from family members, clergy, or mental health professionals before anyone is allowed to buy a gun.

I have to be honest…I’ve got a case of lamentation fatigue.  It’s too much.  I figured after Newtown, for sure, we’d have some reasonable legislation passed.  Enough is enough.  As a nation, we need to figure out what steps we might take ‘after lamentation.’

Love for the Long Haul

February 16, 2015

Last Sunday, I shared part of what, for me, has been a rich conversation about long term relationships.  I asked several couples in my congregation to share their thoughts on what enabled them to maintain long and happy marriages.  I asked several colleagues what helped them sustain long term ministries.  And then I asked the entire congregation to share their answers to two questions:  What are some of your richest and most long-standing relationships?  And what have these relationships taught you about love, life, and being human?

Here are their answers.  And below those answers are the answers from the folks I asked ahead of time, with some ‘bonus material.’  Enjoy!

Our richest and most long-standing relationships are with…

Griff…geo…cats…Jane…books…nature…art…crows…night skies and bright dawns…an inclusive community…my amazing, strong, resilient and inspiring mother…my beloved partner in life and love…my husband, our children and grandchildren, to whom I am bound in a unique way…my sister, who has known me all my life…my second marriage in which I am loved always, unconditionally, and the always evolving relationships with our grown children…my dear younger brother Xavier…John, my husband…Janet, my friend…my mother…my children…friends near and far…my spouse…Nagars (serpents, snake-beings, magical dragons)…my most important relationship is that with my wife….siblings..nieces and nephews…my children…ongoing friendships…former romantic partners…my husband…my friend Nell…my sister Rosia…Yoga…my sister who was given up for adoption by my parents, at birth (I met her when I was 37)…myself.

These relationships have taught us…

Fragility and strength, hope and dreams, kindness and beauty.  In the black wings of crow there is iridescent light, graceful flight, and trust.  The importance of selflessness and of giving to others.  To be fully, unashamedly, authentically myself.  That we only get this one life, and to live it with joy and gratitude every day. How very reciprocal these relationships are and have to be.  Over decades, we support and are supported, give and receive, annoy and are annoyed by, amuse and are amused by.  Whatever happened, our love prevailed.  I discovered that the power of our love can overcome most of our weaknesses.  Our love is power and helps give us the strength to keep on going, battling our inner demons.  Love brings us relief where we thought there was no more.  Faithfulness.  Caring.  Acceptance.  Love can disappoint, because it never is what you hope it to be.  Love can surprise, too, because it doesn’t leave you even if those you love most may die or become distant.  Nagars are challengers and supporters for being human.  They often help, sometimes challenge.  In many ways, they are humanity’s loyal opposition party.  Loving because they’re loyal.  Challenging because they’re in opposition.  Everyone has someone they know who is a nagar or nagi (female nagar), although they might not see it.  Love needs work.  I have learned that I don’t respond well to conflict,and so always must strive to reach out.  With every encounter (even when there’s friction, we share insights, encouragement, warmth and hope.  Humor and optimism, tenderness, eternality, humility, growth.  Love can happen immediately on meeting so you feel like you’ve always known and always loved.  My sister makes it OK to be me when I’m with her.  She validates me and introduces me to new ways of thinking, new perspectives.  Mary has always made me feel that because she is, I’m not so weird after all.  I’ve learned that even when I’m alone, I don’t need to be lonely, because I’m supported and surrounded by love.


#1:  Married 48 ½ years:

We think our relationship has lasted because:

 We laugh a lot. You don’t notice the bumps much if you are laughing.

 We are compatible: We enjoy many of the same things and both like having adventures and variety.

  We agree on financial decisions and try to live within our means.

  We leave each other space but go in the same direction. We have always nurtured our own identities but do things together too.

 We try to overlook lapses in judgment, realizing that we are all imperfect.

 We celebrate each other’s accomplishments.

 We honor our marriage commitment and work out problems when they arise, realizing that there is no perfect relationship.

 We share work and make decisions together. It helps that we share core values. We continue to share parenting tasks (and yes, they continue even with adult children).

 We get through sorrows and focus on the many joys of our life together.

 Attitude is probably the greatest tool for sustaining relationships—and life in general. Focusing on what’s working and the good things makes for a more contented life. No relationship is perfect, and no life is perfect but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t always things to celebrate.

#2:  Married 49 years

Is there a magic formula for a successful long term relationship?  We don’t have one and different couples probably find different paths.  Of course loving each other is vital, but it also takes respect, support and being best friends. We were lucky in that we have the same values on the important concerns like religion, money, raising children etc., issues which are often causes of conflict in a relationship.  We even have similar tastes, so that designing and building a house together was one of our most satisfying experiences, not a cause for disagreements. But we don’t sweat the small stuff.  It’s really easy to go along happily with what your partner wants on most things.  The only problem is when you are both trying to defer to the other’s wishes.  We do share many interests like travel and dancing, but still maintain our separate activities.

 #3:  Married 49 years 

For a Long and Happy Marriage 

 We began with and continue to share many attitudes and perspectives.

  •  We both came from mainstream protestant families, have evolved together toward a tolerant humanist atheism. 
  • Doing the right thing is very important to both of us. 
  • We both believe that political involvement and especially voting are a civic obligation. We discuss politics freely.  We have voted in almost every election that we have been eligible for, and we probably voted the same way in almost all cases.
  • We share an appreciation for the local community.  That means don’t complain – get involved and help preserve what is good and change what needs changing.  We take seriously the adage to think globally, but act locally.
  • We have always been comfortable with joint accounts and joint financial decision making.  We’ve always had enough money, partly because we spend conservatively. We have always saved for the future, and we’re lousy shoppers.  We are willing to use our money support good causes, especially local ones.
  • We had the advantage of seven years of marriage to get to know each other before the children arrived.  While children can certainly dominate a family, those seven years as a couple helped us avoid total domination by the kids. 
  • Food and family meals. We share a passion for good food. We also believe that families should sit down together for around a table preferably several times a day for good food and conversation.


We could both have probably made more money and achieved more career distinction if we had made other career choices along the way.  However we have both loved our professional careers and neither of us is much prone to regret over what might have been.  The choices we did make have turned out well for both us as a couple and us as a family.

  • We are each our own persons. We both have hobbies and activities we do alone or with friends, but we also share many hobbies and interests that we like to do together. We are interested in each other’s projects but don’t need to participate in all of them.
  • We are true partners in our life together. Sure, there is a division of labor in the tasks of everyday living, but we can pinch hit for the other if it is necessary.
  • We both love travel. We can and do travel on our own on occasion, but are happiest traveling together.
  • Neither of us were particularly focused on having kids, but now can’t imagine not having them in our lives. We are very proud of our sons and their own families, and happy to see evidence of their lives growing up with us in the way they are making their own family lives.
  • We both have an appreciation of nature and outdoor activities – gardening, hiking, walking, snowshoeing, mushroom hunting, time on the river – and really feel lucky to live in such a beautiful place.
  • We both like to learn new skills and are always willing to try something new. This has resulted in a lot of clutter in our house, but it’s OK because it’s our clutter.

 Take the long view, live and let live, pick your fights, consider the alternatives – in nearly 50 years, there is bound to be something that irritates you once in a while. Life may not be perfect, but it’s pretty darn good. I think every day I feel lucky that we found each other and have had the good fortune to create such a happy and interesting life together.

The Long Haul: A Marriage Trip with Rebecca and Theresa – February 13, 2015

 Some of you may have heard the joke already – “What does a Lesbian bring along on the second date? – a U-haul.”  This is of course a reference to the stereotype that Lesbians –  being the mathematical equivalent of Women times 2 – have an intense “urge to merge” and so they begin a lived life together ASAP!!! 

 For Theresa and me, the desire to merge was pretty much like that, but we both had good rental situations at the time we met, so it wasn’t until about 6 months later when Theresa jumped on an opportunity to buy a small house that I ended up moving in with her, merging our stuff, as well as our lives.

 Now it has been over 23 years.  We have pulled that proverbial U-haul around to a few different physical locations in Moscow over that period of time, settling for the last 12+ years in our big house on the east edge of town as our longest-time, likely life-time, living destination, being quite happy here.  But don’t think the metaphorical U-haul of our relationship hasn’t had its share of wibble-wobbles along the way, hitting a few ruts here and there, and even careening off the road for a short spell some years back. 

 Yet we know we are in it for the Long Haul, and here are a few things (spiritual practices!) we have figured out along the way that have helped us stay together and grow stronger:

 First, the usual – humor, openness, honesty, appreciation, respect, conversation, listening, faithfulness…

 Things we like to do – have fun times together, respect each other’s interests & growth, do nice things for each other, say thank you (often), appreciate our independence from each other…

 Things we try to do/not do –  never go to bed angry, don’t take each other for granted, “rescue” each other when needed,  keep talking when we want to run, listen, listen, listen, be the first one to reach out instead of waiting for the other, do not diminish or embarrass each other in public even in joking…

 What’s kept us strong through the years? – Loving friends, family, and being part of a larger, loving, stable, embracing community (UUCP).  Having this kind of supportive safety net where people believe in you and your relationship makes a big difference.

 And so, the journey continues. We are thankful to have found each other, and for everyone that has been, and will be, a part of it.

40-year friendship

We had different childhoods- her parents were wild and mine were rigid. So I know I liked her house for the lax rules where she liked mine for the structure. We have always communicated our likes and dislikes about each others lives and choices. We shared many fun childhood adventures, sleepovers, sledding in the sump, hanging out in the local game room. Shared our first boy experiences. Having different lives that change over time to share some of the same pains and troubles. Our paths have been separated by distance but when it truly counts we are there for each other. She lives in Montana but came to NY when mom passed. We choose to stay in touch. We ask for guidance and help from each others strengths. Every long term relationship has ebb and flows but it is a choice to keep it going…the become a part of you a new family.


Rick Davis, Salem, OR, 22 years:

Until I came to Salem over 22 years ago, I had moved around a great deal in my life.  Likewise, the congregation in Salem had had ministers come and go, none settling in for long.  The longest ministry before mine was that of William Ellery Copeland (named after William Ellery Channing) who served about seven years at the end of the 19th century before ill health forced him to retire to a utopian socialist commune up in the Olympic Peninsula.

 So, we (the congregation and I) were both primed to try something radically different – to see how a long term commitment might play out.  There’s plenty enough coming and going in our world, and, yes, it is true that everything changes, but finding some stability and a deep sense of loyalty still has its place.  This relatively long time we’ve been together has given our affections a chance to deepen and grow.  I’ve officiated at the weddings of those I once knew as little children, and I’ve often wept as we’ve said goodbye to so many beloved, sometimes quirky, wonderful members at memorial services.

 We all understood from the beginning that change would be a constant part of the equation.  At the moment we’re trying to get used to two Sunday services again.  There has been some conflict and misunderstanding, but we have been always been willing to sit down and work through that and get to the other side with no lingering residue of bitterness or misunderstanding. 

  They say that you should never enter into a relationship with an eye toward changing the other – that you accept what you get or you shouldn’t get in at all.  We accepted one another as we were.  Paradoxically, it is such acceptance that has created opportunities for growth.

 As long as this has lasted, we know that it won’t last forever, although we don’t really talk much about that.  I’m still learning and growing and still feel called to stick to my post.  We have some ways to go before we hand the torch to those who will come after.  It’s good that we have gotten to bear it together this good length of time.

Dennis Hamilton, 27 years, Carrollton, TX

I retired after 27 wonderful years serving the Horizon UU Church in Carrollton, Texas.  I say the ministry has made me a better person than I really want to be.  It has called me to be more patient, more loving, more understanding than I would have been if I were not called to be a minister.  It helped me to think about the fact that I was serving as a representative of all the ministers who came before me, who bore the same burdens and experienced the same joys.  It called me to a deeper understanding of people, to a generosity of spirit and heart that is its own reward.  We grew together.  The congregation forgave me many mistakes, slights, incompetence and bloopers.  But I was faithful to them.  I never betrayed them or took them for granted.  It was a privilege to serve them, to love them and to live a life in the ministry.  It was worth the effort. 

Roger Berchausen, 25 years, Fox Valley UU Fellowship, Appleton, WI

For me one of the keys has been keeping it fresh and interesting. Growth in numbers has helped that happen: I’ve been able to serve in a small, mid-sized and large congregation all in the same place. This has forced me to reinvent my ministry on the fly. But more than anything I feel like I’ve been really blessed that my congregation mostly lives by their covenant to provide their ministers and lay leaders with steadfast love. Not always like (though mostly). But love. I hope I’ve been able to give that gift back.

Elizabeth Greene, 25 years, Boise, ID

A genuine test of love:  commitment, as often as possible, putting the relationship above (or at least equal to) the individual needs; spiritual practice, with a deep respect for each other’s theological/spiritual positions; lots of laughter and tears; from my 12-step practice, a life of rigorous honesty, taking inventory of the self(ves) constantly; for the minister, a certain amount of humility, saying you’re sorry every time you’re even remotely in the wrong—immediately, without reservation;  for the congregation, realizing we are all humans in this together, ready to walk in each other’s shoes, to forgive and be forgiven, over and over and over; sharing ministry, which means that the professional minister needs to step aside frequently and act as a catalyst and/or observer, while the laity understands its profound responsibility to keep the place running in an open, loving, as-organized-as-possible way.

I see a lot of people making the assumption that participating in #BlackLivesMatter protests shows a lack of respect or support for law enforcement personnel.  NYC mayor Bill de Blasio asked that the protests stop until the two officers tragically slain by Ismaaiyl Brinsley are buried.  The Police Union in Cleveland demanded an apology from their football team for wearing t-shirts supportive of the movement.

In less public moments, this dynamic plays out when folks (mostly white folks) respond to comments or postings on the issue by pointing out what a dangerous job it is to be a police officer.  I’ve also seen police officers who attempt to support the movement accused of being ‘traitors.’  This attempt to polarize the issue, to create a ‘for and against,’ confuses me.

Here’s the thing:  to kill an unarmed person is to go against the fundamental instinct to preserve life.  It creates a soul wound.  The refusal of ‘the system’ to hold police officers accountable for this tragic mistake…dare I say, this sin…compounds the wound.  When a human being makes a mistake, the path to healing leads through accepting responsibility to apologizing to restoring relationship.

The kind of people that we want policing us are the kind of people who take their responsibility and their power seriously– the kind of people who would be devastated should their fear drive them to kill someone needlessly.  Any work that we are able to do to address systemic racism and create accountability will ultimately help them, too.  So while- of course- the primary reason to do the work is to prevent tragic deaths from happening in the first place, one also hopes that it will help to protect the integrity and soul-health of law enforcement officers.

Following up on the Forum

December 16, 2014

Last Thursday, I participated on a forum called ‘Lessons from Ferguson.’  My co-panelists included Moscow Police Chief David Duke, U of I journalism professor Steve Smith, and Vivi Gonzales, director of diversity at the ASUI.  Over a hundred people attended and the Daily News wrote an extended article that appeared on the front page the next day.  I shared the story of my trip to Ferguson.  Professor Smith talked about the good, the bad, and the ugly in media coverage of the events in Ferguson and beyond.  Chief Duke talked about the problems in policing that are generating so much heat across the country, and shared the ways he tries to keep those problems out of the Moscow police force by focusing on ethics and diversity.  Ms. Gonzales spoke of the bad reputation that Northern Idaho has due to the white supremacist organization that used to be in Coeur d’Alene.  She also shared a heartbreaking story of her own brother being subjected to racial epithets at a soccer game.  We can do better, Idahoans!

Three of the panelists and most of the people who asked questions were white.  That’s not going to work going forward.  We need to step back and make (safe) space for people with stories of discrimination and oppression to share them.  If my I can use my privilege as a white clergyperson to help establish and enforce ground rules that make the space safer, I’m happy to do so.  Otherwise, I’ll just sit and listen and support the effort in whatever way I am asked.

There was a ‘teachable moment’ that we missed.  A woman named Sharlese (sp??) shared that she doesn’t like people asking her where she’s from.  She’s like people to get to know who she is rather than trying to fit her into a category.  A little while later, an older, white male with an accent stood up and claimed he ought to be able to ask people where they’re from; the group laughed it off and asked him where he was from.  But truthfully, his question was defensive.  We’ve got to be willing to listen WITHOUT getting defensive.  We need to be teachable, and I wish I had been quicker on the uptake and able to say so in a way that he could hear.

The most important thing about the forum was that it showed that there is considerable energy around unraveling racism here in the Palouse.  Here is my prayer:  May that energy be converted into truth-telling, and transformation, and healing. And my promise:  I’ll do whatever I can to help!


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