One day at a time.

One day at a time.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Wasabi and Other Spiritual Truths

I love my mother.  In part, because she's such a good sport when I include embarrassing, funny, sometimes awkward family stories in my sermons and blog.  So with permission given from a nearly saintly mother with a life turned public, here is a recent story that has some relevance for the season...

Over Thanksgiving, my parents came to visit me in my new home in Charlotte, NC.  Somehow, I mentioned that I like antique furniture a whole lot because of the character, imperfections, and stories it carries.  My parents nod their head in agreement and my mom points to a dresser in an antique store window we were perusing.

"Exactly," she says pointing to a missing handle on the dresser.  "Some people see this as a flaw, but really you can replace all the handles.  Mix and match.  It doesn't have to be perfect.  In fact, I was just reading an article about how to bring the Japanese art of imperfection into your life-- the art of wasabi," my mother says smiling brightly.

I scrunched up my nose and furrowed my eyebrows.  Wasabi?  I mean I guess that little pea colored ball of spice added to my sushi plate isn't perfect, but an art of imperfection?  I had images of wasabi sculptures in art-deco museums in Tokyo alongside wall mountings of ginger.  They would serve sake in these museums and admire the wasabi sculptures while sushi bars awaited at the museum's exit.

"Really, wasabi?" I ask.

My mother looked a mixture of amused and embarrassed.  "Oh, no! Not wasabi,  I mean, wabi-sabi."

When I stopped laughing, I learned a bit about wabi-sabi.  It's the practice of looking at imperfection from chips to cracks, as the universe's symbol of wisdom.  Wabi-sabi reminds us that perfection is not possible, nor is perfection worth seeking. In this season of decking the halls, it's easy to get lost in that picture perfect Christmas.  You know the image.  It includes family gathered, fireplace lit, tree adorned, table set and presents waiting.  I don't know anyone with a perfect Christmas.  Someone is late, something burns, a gift forgotten, travel delayed with snow and ice and then there are the Christmas tree lights that won't work because a single bulb is out.  You can lose days trying to find that bulb!

I know I've said this before and even blogged it before but it bares repeating (if not just for myself).

Yet, in truth the real beauty of Christmas is often in all the imperfect details: a baby born in a barn, no room at the inn, unprepared parents, and a host of unexpected guests.  The Christmas story is far from a perfect story, but rather a reminder of all the hope that can be had when we let go of the picture as we would have it, and embrace the imperfections as part of the beauty in this world.  Hope lies in that makeshift manger not a perfectly created cradle. The picture of Christmas is simply made holy in the surrender to all that is imperfect.

So I am wishing you all a very wasabi Christmas...hmmm.....

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Mental Nutrition

Someone recently forwarded me a video of a man named Narayanan Krishnan, a well regarded and talented chef.  Krishnan returned home for a visit one day and saw a man so destitute that he was eating his own waste for food.  It was a moment that changed Krishnan's life.  He left a well paying job as an executive chef to return to his home in Madurai, India.  He began feeding the poor, mentally ill, and destitute.  Krishnan is now the founder of the Akshaya Trust, which to date has served over 1.2 million meals.  For more information see the following CNN article.

It would be enough if the Akshaya Trust was just about feeding people.  It would be enough if Krishnan was just a kind man, but there is much more to this story.  His work is also about transforming social class.  A member of the Brahmin, Krishnan was raised with the belief that his class of people should not look at or even touch the destitute-- let alone feed and bathe them.  His organization calls us all to a higher recognition of what it means to be human, and what is possible if we call our hope into action.

There's a lot of talk about December being the season of hope.  Hope takes on the image of a Christmas miracle with bells ringing and presents appearing underneath trees.  The wonder-filled faces of children become the images stamped on each commercial, carol and shopping mall.

And maybe, that classic image of the child who believes isn't so off the mark from the spirit of Christmas.  Remember when you believed in something?  Really, believed in an idealistic way that you might make the world a better place? We tend to lose our inner child as we get older.  Life is complicated and overwhelming.  We forget that we don't have to settle for the world as it is.  Krishnan reminds us that a little hope, a little belief, can change lives.  That kind of hope goes to the heart of the nativity-- a story that is still changing lives.

Friday, December 3, 2010

A Holiday Mantra: Kindling Kindness

Let's be kind.  Not because Santa's watching.  Or even because God may be watching.  Not even because the neighbors are watching or because anyone is keeping a tally on kindness.  Let's be kind because it's the spirit of something greater.  It's the spirit we need in the flurry, the rush, the panic of commercialized Christmas.

I worry about the Christmas cards going out and the menorah being lit each night.  I try to get the tree up in time, the leaves raked and the greens hung around every corner.  I try to make the plans and the reservations.  To get the right holiday cheer into music, food, clothing, presents, gift wrap, phone calls, emails, presents, and adornments (not to mention ornaments), and presents.  Did I mention presents?

But what if I just let the hot cocoa get a little cold?  Let the pies burn and the yard look unkempt and untidy?  What if all that energy into being cheerful was actually used to rekindle kindness: the greatest cheer of all? What if I committed to being here with you and offering you kindness?

I think we are getting better at this.  At least this year, there weren't any deaths during black Friday shopping as parents vied for the last Tickle Me Elmo (or whatever is big this year).  And we've at least moved away from (however slowly) demanding a birth certificate from our President.  But we are still here; throwing spitballs in the Senate (while the jobless rate hits 9.8%), screaming obscenities at LeBron James for a team trade, and giving hell to TSA officials who surely aren't enjoying the pat down anymore than we are.

There are a lot of reasons for the season.  Perfection isn't a single one of them.  It feels so easy to get pulled into the frenzy and become biting and impatient.  So in the rush and the worry this year and all the excitement, which undoubtedly causes some anxiety, I am going to be kind.  I am going to take in a deep breath and be kind to myself, to my neighbor, to my loved ones and church.  It won't be perfect.  Not everything will be complete.  But there will be kindness; soul cheerfulness.  And perhaps, maybe, hope may return to us all, for a moment,  and for however brief, eclipse fear and hate.

In the meantime, I wrapping up kindness in all sorts of ways.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

I’m Betting on the Bug


As I drove home yesterday, there was a little bug on my windshield.  It looked like a green stinkbug, with wings, which I am pretty sure doesn’t exist.  Anyhow, this little bug was holding on for his dear life.  You see I drive some on the highway to get home.  And there he was, right in the middle of the windshield.

As I approached 45 miles per hour, he was still planted with his little legs clamped down.  Then 60 miles and I thought for sure he was going to fly right off.  After all, sometimes you’re the windshield and sometimes you’re the bug.

But he held on.  Shook quite a bit, but held on.  I drove another ten miles until I reached my exit and finally pulled into the driveway.  I was sure he would be dead: stuck on the windshield but gooey and sad.  I imagined a little bug funeral with a Windex-salute and one final goodbye before I would squeegee him off into the ether—or at least off the windshield.

But no, he just stood up.  Looked around with his little head and crawled off the car.  Flew off into my front yard.

Now, I know you must thinking:  flying stinkbugs aren’t real.

It might seem small but really it gives a little hope in these times of bad news and warning, that maybe I can hold on too even when our political rhetoric, unemployment rates and the environmental crisis seem to be spinning out of control.  I mean even the stinkbug is holding on.  Isn’t this in a Psalm? Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself.” (Psalm 83:4)

I guess I won’t be buying that self-sustaining farm in New Zealand—not yet anyway.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Truth: A Plea for Pluralism and the Spirit of Democracy

There's a lot going around now about the truth.  Perhaps, because it's election season folks feel compelled to find the truth.  Commercials, news stories, civic leaders all promising to tell us the truth.  Heck, even us religious folks weigh in on this elusive and supposedly apparent quality of the good life.

But is the search for truth all that useful?  Well, it depends.  If we are talking about facts such as the number of working poor in our community, then yes.  But if we are seeking an absolute moral truth about God's favor or disfavor of the working poor, then I would say no.  If we are searching for the cure to a disease, then yes.  But if we are seeking a moral reason why people have that disease, then no.  If we are seeking facts about our neighbor's religious practices, then yes.  But if we are seeking to prove our neighbor's beliefs about a higher power to be good or bad, then no.  Here's why:

In searching for THE TRUTH we narrow our scope.  We tend to ignore paradox, mystery, and diversity.  If there is one answer, then suddenly we have no use for pluralism and the diversity of human experience, which are, as near as I can tell, qualities of reality.  We live in a diverse, multifaceted, pluralistic world.  And persons who would try to eradicate such diversity largely become proponents of violence in one form or another.

But, can you not lay claim to THE TRUTH and still live a moral life?  Sure.  We've done it for ages in democratic societies.  I can believe in one god.  You can believe in no god.  Our neighbor can believe in many gods.  And we can still eat at the same table agreeing on moral principles apart from religious beliefs.  This isn't new.  We've lived this way for centuries.  Even the Roman Empire recognized some pluralism.  Shouldn't we be able to do better in the 21st century?  I hope so.

But the current veracity of morally dualistic thinking would seem to suggest otherwise.  We are constantly choosing between what is presented as "right and wrong."  In this framework, we become morally constricted.  Creative problem solving and moral reflection is deadened.  This is a frightening trend in a contemporary world so desperately in need of thoughtful, expansive moral reasoning.

In the words of Holly Near,

Rise up to your higher power
Free up from fear, it will devour you
Watch out for the ego of the hour
The ones who say they know it
Are the ones who will impose it on you.


The "it" in this case would be THE TRUTH; absolute, unchanging, invisible and imposable.  I am not saying we shouldn't stop believing and speaking from our truths (notice small t ) but that this endless goose chase for THE TRUTH tends to divide, harm and devour.


We recognize this as Unitarian Universalists when we affirm in our principles, "the right of conscience and the use of democratic process."  It's not just about voting for our Board, calling our ministers, or holding annual meetings like General Assembly.  The democratic process is also about a spiritual yearning for pluralism and a religious belief that without such diversity, we would be morally impoverished.

So, please, let's stop slinging THE TRUTH at each other because it really only distracts us from sitting together at the table.  This is the only way we can possibly begin the ministry of alleviating the world's suffering and bringing about a compassionate, equitable and just world.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Tornadoes and Crickets

This evening there were tornado warnings for some of the counties surrounding my new home in Charlotte.  Aside from the winds, and perhaps rain after this post is published,  all seems quiet now on my little patch of the Piedmont.  There is a lamp on the corner of my street.  In its soft glow at this late hour, I can see leaves being gently blown from the branches of a willow tree.  It looks like an autumnal snowfall.

 It's still warm.  The crickets are chirping, even at midnight.  They don't seem too worried.  The dog seems to disagree.  She's pacing.  I am weighing the promise made in their chirping against the odd glow of the sky.  Tornadoes and crickets.

It's a little like life these days.  Polls and news stories predict doom, offering ominous warnings in the sky.  And then there are those people, who just by virtue of living their lives seem to emulate hope.   Their steady words and actions give cause for believing again, and connecting with a deep love for this world.

The Rev. Mary Harrington was one such soul.  She passed away today.  I only met her once in New Orleans.  Rev. Mary was the co-founder and president of Gulf Coast Volunteers for the Long Haul.  Even in that one meeting, I was aware of the grace, inspiration and depth of spirit that Mary brought to ministry and life in general.

Mary had an incredible ability to pay attention, particularly to the natural world.  Her blog "Duck Dreams" is a testimony to this great gift she brought as she wrote about the world around her.  From the simple sights in nature, she drew an eternal wisdom.

In honor of Mary this evening, I am paying a little more attention to the world outside these walls and windows.  Tornadoes and crickets.  I think I'll side with the crickets tonight.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Spiritual Improv

I recently went to a comedy improv show.  After the show ended, I spent some time talking to one of the comedians who told me  that improv shows had nothing to do with being funny.  In fact, according to this performer, if you tried to be funny you'd likely mess the whole thing up.  The challenge was to be in the moment and listen to what the other performers were saying.  If you were trying to put together your response, then you would likely lose the humor in the moment.  You had to be willing to live in the moment and respond with anything that was on your mind at any given moment.  You also couldn't try to steal the show by working up to a big joke.  Just in the moment, be yourself, and be brave.

The dog with her "ball"

Yesterday morning when I let the dog out I threw her ball for fetch.  She returned with a very large stick, which could perhaps also be called a small branch.  Spiritual improv.  You run out looking for the ball, which maybe you can't find because it rolled underneath the deck but the important thing is you found this great stick.  A really wonderful new toy.  So, you change ideas mid-run because hey it's no big risk to drag this four foot branch across the yard.  Just in the moment, be yourself and be brave.



Theoretically, Unitarian Universalists have a great deal of room theologically to be spiritual adaptive and to find in life opportunities to transition meaning by living in the moment.  In practice, I am sure it is no easier for UUs than most.  Living in the moment is challenging to say the least.  With multitasking and time conservation veritable demigods, pausing to appreciate the slightest change in tone and tenor is not appreciated or valued.

So here is my attempt to live out my vocation for this week, a little mantra if you will: just in the moment, be myself and be brave.

Let's give it a try.  It might just lighten things up a little and help us see the world with creative spirits.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Silent No More: Standing of the Side of Love


Yesterday was National Coming Out Day.  Today is the 12th anniversary of Matthew Shepard's death, the young man whose death brought national attention to hate crimes.

Twelve years after Matthew's death, I wish we could say that hate crimes are no longer a frightening reality in this country for many LGBT citizens.  But recent news tells us otherwise.  Bullying and beatings continue.  In recent months, the country grappled with the suicides of six youths largely attributed to homophobic bullying.  Justin Aaberg.  Asher Brown.  Raymond Chase.  Tyler Clementi.  Billy Lucas.  Seth Walsh.  These are not just names.  These are young men who had dreams, friends, and families.  Our world is poorer for not having seen them into adulthood and known the gifts they would bring us as adults.

Then on Sunday, news spread quickly of two teenagers and a man who were attacked by a gang in the Bronx for being gay.  The young men were tortured for hours.  This on the heals of reports of another man being attacked at the famous Stonewall Inn.

Having served as a Partner in Peace at the recent Charlotte Pride Festival, I can assure you that the religious voice rallying against the LGBT community is still out there.  Using the right of free speech as a shield to slew hateful words and threats, these protestors demonstrate a dangerous ethos in the American public.  This is not about politics, or free speech.  This is about the insidious nature of hate to hide behind any excuse justifying violence.

Religious persons who would condemn love in any form have lost the essence of faith.  From 1 Corinthians 13:1-3,  "1If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing."  Without love, we gain nothing.  Without love, sermons and prayers fail.   Without love, we've lost religion.

We have seen in recent months that hate speech is not just a few words shouted in the air but serves as emotional weapons assaulting the LGBT community.  Enough is enough.

We, the progressive people of the Piedmont and beyond, must pledge to be silent no more in the face of hate crimes.  Silent no more when politicians pander to discrimination like Carl Paladino.  Silent no more when religions hide behind misguided interpretations of scripture to support state and church sponsored bigotry.  

I am proud to be the minister of one such church who served as partners in peace at the Pride Festival, ensuring that pride attendees had safe passage into the festival past the protestors.  Yesterday evening, a vigil was held in Charlotte for the youth who committed suicide.  Faith communities were in attendance. This is a critical step toward breaking the silence.  We, progressive persons of faith, must continue to overcome the tidal wave of hatred.

And if you should be a LGBT youth reading these words, please know that you are not alone.  Please hold onto the knowledge that there are communities outside the bullies and religious rhetoric; communities who love and support you.  Please, hold on for the world will change for the better.  

May love be the legacy left in the wake of these recent deaths.  May love spur us to speak in the tremor of silence.  May love call our hearts beyond fear and into the vision of diversity, straight to the heart of the prophetic promise held in each rainbow.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Take a Deep Breath...

If you are in Charlotte, North Carolina then you just breathed in air from the country's 10th smoggiest city, according to the American Lung Association accounting of our ozone.  Yikes!

Most of us have read the news about the effects of the climate crisis in terms of large scale natural disasters as well as changes in icebergs and polar conditions.  We've read about the destruction of our oceans and extinction of vital species.

Yet, the truth is that the climate crisis is already affecting our families and children here in our homes.  You don't need to seek out large scale natural disasters but rather look to the insidious effects of pollutants impacting our daily air quality.   In Charlotte, for example we have 56,000 pediatric cases of asthma.  The cause, you might ask.  In part, because of our hot summers but also attributed to the fact that so many Charlotteans commute to work with cars, which contribute to our air pollution.  And then there is the problem of our energy source--the coal fired power plants.  While our own Duke Energy is considering closing seven power plants (likely in part because of the cost to adhere to new environmental standards, see Article on Duke Energy), they still are nearing the end of construction for the Cliffside plant in Rutherford County which promises to increase our demand on coal energy.

So, climate change is already in our own backyard as pollutants threaten the safety of the air we all breathe.  It's not only a question of cinematic images of tidal waves, but also a much-less-media-captivating image of diminished air quality.

Fortunately, North Carolina is blessed with community activists and faith leaders who have not only protested the Duke coal plant but also continue applying pressure on Washington to end mountaintop mining (another way pollutants can be released, not to mention the immediate ecosystem impact).  For more information see the Washington Post article on Mountaintop protest in D.C.  We are blessed in North Carolina with some excellent organizations that help combat the air crisis as well as mountaintop removal.  I encourage you to check out Clean Air Carolina and Repower North Carolina as well as Appalachia Rising(not local to North Carolina, but a critical group in this work).  None of us has to reinvent the wheel to have impact.

We are fast approaching 10/10/2010 the "Global Work Party" created by 350.org, an organization begun by Bill McKibben (author of the 1989 global warming book The End of Nature).  350.org is creating a global movement seeking solutions for the climate crisis.  The number 350 signifies the safest limit, 350 parts per million, for CO2 in the atmosphere.  We're currently at about 390.  The "Global Work Party" is a chance to join millions around the world in seeking solutions for climate change.  I encourage you to check out 350.org and find an event near you to join.  No matter how small, you can have an impact.  The world is changed by the transformation of one heart at a time into one action at a time.  It's possible to preserve this earth for our generation as well as the next.

This really isn't just about air particles, coal plants, and mountaintops, though any one of those would suffice for a global movement.  It's about living a life of faith grounded in the belief that we are connected to this earth from the air we breathe, the ground we walk upon and the water we drink. We are pieces of a much larger communion of life: the interdependent web of existence.  We each play a salvific role in that web when we become conscious of our connection and decide to act in accord with all that is our life.

Amen, and Happy Global Work Party Day.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Belief, Reconsidered

Could you live without explaining your beliefs?  Really, in a world of constant tug and pull on your moral compass, would it be possible to not concern yourself with getting the beliefs straight and still be religious?

I sure hope so.

In a recent submission for Quest entitled "Religion Beyond Belief" Peter Morales, President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, contends that "belief is the enemy of religion."  Given that I've spent quite a good portion of my life studying belief, I was intrigued.  Morales argues that conversations about what we believe generally move us away from the heart of religion, which he defines as "faithfulness to what we love."

"Faithfulness to what I love" helps me get closer to the transformative religion I seek.  Instead of debating with people, suddenly sharing what I love helps me move toward people and toward transformation.

But how are we faithful to what we love?  It's easy to feel overwhelmed by the shear mass of commitments, calls, and cascade of news.  There is so much to do sometimes.  I've been feeling a little overwhelmed lately watching the news about the economy, immigration rights controversy, poverty rates, wars, hurricanes, floods,... do I really need to go on here? I would bet you've felt overwhelmed at times too.

Jon Stewart surprised me recently by offering the most powerful salve to those feelings of powerlessness.  Well, actually it was Arianna Huffington.  During her interview on the Daily Show, she explained that she is astounded by all that average Americans are doing in the midst of the unemployment crisis.  It's not just the elections and big rallies, but also the daily steps, Huffington reminded the audience.  Like creating networking sites for unemployed Americans to barter services or how neighbors are trading skills in the absence of money.

It's not just the big leaders and big events that make changes, but it is the daily acts that compose a life well-lived.  It is the daily acts that ultimately bring about the shift in consciousness we need.  It's those little acts, which give us the courage and resolve to take the big steps, sign the petitions, and stand in the public square.  In the words of Forrest Church, "Begin small. Dream possible dreams. Set out to climb a single hill, not every mountain. Soul work needn’t be strenuous to be high impact. You can begin transforming your life with a single phone call. Or by writing a kind letter. Or by opening your blinds to let the sun flood in. Don’t say it’s nothing. It’s everything. For you have now begun."

So when you wake up tomorrow, sit up tomorrow, and step with your feet on that floor for what will you stand?  What is the one step you will take to be faithful to what you love?

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Keep Daydreaming, Doctors Advise (And This Minister)

It seems Einstein was wrong.  Well, at least on one accord.  Einstein is often attributed as saying “necessity is the mother of invention.”  Not so, some historians and sociologists tell us.  Recent thought (see New Yorker Article by Adam Gopnik) suggests that invention and advancement also come from times when societies have institutional dreamers.  That is, when a culture promotes exploration for the simple sake of exploration.  When our basic needs were met, it is not out of necessity but rather daydreaming when great inventions and creations arose. 


Take flying-- a home grown invention in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.  The Wright brothers often credited their final first successful aeroplane with an early toy they had played with in childhood.  This toy helicopter would eventually lead them to discover one of the single greatest inventions of the 20th century.  The aeroplane would forever change travel, international relations, and our relationship to the great expanse of sky.


From a simple siesta in the afternoon to rocking porch traditions, dreaming flows throughout many cultures.  It turns out it's not just simple resting, but an active way to form vision for the world and renew the spirit.  An interesting article was passed along to me by a newcomer at our church.  Worth checking out.  Written by Robert Lee Hotz, this article argues that daydreaming helps develop and nurture neural connections leading to great insight.  See Effect of Daydreaming on the brain article


If we look out across great inventors and thinkers from Dante to Martin Luther King, Jr,. we find that their visions, which changed the world, were born in a life of dreaming and exploring.  Dream they tell us.  Dream bigger than your heart’s desire and your mind’s limitation.  Dream the impossible.  Dream beyond this world.  And then from those dreams what may come is just the vision to transform the world.  


So, go look at those clouds!