Roll Away the Stone, Rise Up, and Go Out Into the World: An Easter Sermon

Easter. The holiest day on the Christian calendar. The culmination of holy week. The end of the season of Lent. Here in America, Easter is usually all of that or Easter eggs, bunnies, baskets full of toys and candy, and pictures of terrified children with giant bunnies that may or may not be demons. Or was that just my 80s experience with the mall Easter bunny?

Easter, like Christmas, is a rather complicated holiday in America. Confusing if you have no idea what it’s about. It’s a mix of the secular and the religious. Christian and pagan. And for many people it truly is both. Going to church and then running around with other kids looking for hidden eggs and toys in Easter egg hunts.

While I’ve been really excited to do this service for months, I really struggled on how to approach it with you. Easter can be approached in a lot of ways. I consider myself to be a UU Christian. I am a member of the UU Christian Fellowship. UU Christians are still UUs and we have a lot of diverse beliefs. I am also an agnostic who does not know anything for sure and it feels arrogant if I try to think in absolutes. I spend a lot of time thinking and reading about theology and theological opinions, but I’m horribly indecisive by nature and I want options for everything.

A few weeks ago Adam asked me “So what DO you believe about the resurrection?” And I’ve been considering my answer ever since, thinking I might have something more coherent by now. Well, I don’t.

Did Jesus die on the cross and then rise three days later? Did he or angels appear to his friends and family and give them their marching orders? I don’t know. But I do think that something happened. I believe that the followers of Jesus experienced something that renewed their hope and their spirits after witnessing the worst thing ever: the brutal execution of their savior. Something happened. Now, I know how legends and myths work. I get how Christianity came to be this stew made from the many ideas and concepts floating around the Ancient Near East at the time. What my professor calls The River of God because rivers pick up all sorts of things that become part of the river. But there’s often some truth to legends. I refuse to outright dismiss the fantastic from the story of Jesus for the sake of hard logic or science.

I knew I wanted to tell an Easter story about Jesus. I wanted to keep Jesus in Easter. This is his story. But there are a lot of ways to tell his story. I was once reading The Watch Tower, which is a religious tract that Jehovah’s Witnesses publish. There was a question on the back of that particular issue. It asked the reader who was Jesus to them. The options were: the baby, the martyr on the cross, or the triumphant king. I thought about it and realized that while those are all legit Jesus evolutions, like Pokemon Jesus, none of those were MY Jesus. When I think of Jesus, I picture a man with kind eyes and gentle hands and a salty and sassy disposition. I think of the man that people followed and traveled far and wide to listen to. The man who said bring all the children to him. The man who healed and comforted. The man who stood up to the powerful for the powerless. The man who gave people hope. The man who was so awesome we are still talking about him over 2000 years later.

So Easter is a story we tell every year to remember it. The story is of life conquering death; it’s a story of a man who fought the system and seemingly lost that fight, but actually won. In Jesus, the oppressed had a champion and then he made us all champions. He ran the race and then passed the torch to us.

The death of Jesus was not the end of his story or his ministry. Oh no. The Roman Occupiers and the ruling classes tried to silence him because they were afraid of his message, but all they ended up doing was giving him a bullhorn and a platform. To quote a modern day Jesus figure, Neo, Jesus didn’t come to tell us how the story was going to end, he came to tell us how it was going to begin. Easter is Jesus in the phone booth at the end of The Matrix. He warns the system that is lying to us and using us and oppressing us, the Matrix, that he is going to open the eyes of the people and show them the real world, as it really is. And once people see, once they know The Way, they are going to remake the world.

Jesus said, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Lent is the 40 period Christians spend in reflection and mindfulness of sacrifice, endings, death, and loss. Then there is Holy Week which starts with Jesus’ triumphant arrival in Jerusalem, known as Palm Sunday, includes Maundy Thursday which is a commemoration of the last supper, Good Friday when Jesus was crucified, and Easter vigil on Saturday with lots of light. Then there’s Easter. Today. Today is a celebration. Today is a joyful day. The most joyful day.

The four gospels tell the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection slightly differently. Which is typical of the gospels. But each one is important and beautiful. In the book of Matthew, Jesus leaves the tomb at some point, then appears to the Marys after some angels tell them that Jesus has risen like he promised. He tells the Marys to gather the other disciples and he gives them all their final marching orders. He tells them to make disciples of all the nations and teach people what he taught them. The very last thing he says to them is “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Jesus tells his followers that he is with them always, even when he is no longer physically with them. His love and his faith in them, in us, is everlasting. I don’t think it matters if you do not believe in the resurrection.  But do you believe in this kind of love? The kind that can transcend death?

In the book of Mark, the Marys are again the first to know of the risen Jesus. Once again, he sends Mary Magdalene out to tell the others. In this version they don’t believe her, typical, but Jesus chews them out later for not believing her. The text says he “upbraided them for their lack of faith and stubbornness.” Typical Jesus. One last scolding of the disciples for the road.

Jesus tells the disciples “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to all of creation.” What IS the Good News? The Good News is that the Kingdom or kin-dom of heaven is real and it’s here. Already. Paradise is right here under our feet.

Okay, it doesn’t look that way to us right now, because the earth is covered in trash and carbon emissions, violence, war and death, eroded top soil and people who do not know the way. All sorts of pain that creation can feel, and is wounded by, because I think that God suffers with us. The universe hurts when we inflict pain upon each other and the earth. Life itself is crying and begging for mercy. We are all so traumatized. And tired. And angry. It’s too much, and also not enough. But it’s not the end of this story.

The Good News is that the light of love and hope can never be extinguished.

In all the gospels, Mary is deeply grieving for Jesus. Her world is shattered. Hope is gone for her. Mary doesn’t even recognize Jesus when he is standing in front of her. She assumes he is a gardener. Her eyes are full of tears and darkness is all she can see. Jesus has to shout her name to get her to see him. To see light again. He has to prove that he knows her before she knows him.

In the book of Luke, two angels ask Mary, who is in the tomb looking for Jesus, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” We spend so much time looking for the wrong thing in the wrong place. We look for love in the wrong places, happiness in the wrong places, fulfillment in the wrong places, meaning in the wrong places. We often confuse what is truly good with what we think is good. I’m not sure it’s our fault. We are drawn to what seems good. The light was the first thing there was. God called it “good.” It was the first Good thing. We turn our faces to the good like flowers towards light. And whether it’s sunlight or artificial light, the flower will hope for the best.

Let me talk about sin for a moment. We are talking about good and I am purposely trying to shy away from “dark” as a contrast to “light.” Dark IS a contrast to light as a non-value judged reality, but dark isn’t BAD. I’m not using dark as a synonym for “sin.” To UUs, sin is not something related to identity. It’s not something we are born with. No original sin. We are all born in the image of the creator and so we cannot be born as anything but good. Because creation is good. Sin, to us, is a transgression against what is good. Sin is what we do to other people. It’s not a sin to be a certain race or religion or sexual orientation or class or nationality. That’s who you are. But it IS a sin to hurt people and animals, to exploit people and our resources, to abuse, to withhold lifesaving resources and tools, to value the unimportant over what is actually important.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul lists what he believes are the marks of a “true Christian.” He says, “Your love must be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to each other with mutual affection. Excel at showing respect for each other. Never be lazy in showing such devotion. Be on fire with the Spirit. Serve the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in trouble, and persistent in prayer. Supply the needs of the saints. Extend hospitality to strangers.

Bless those who persecute you. Keep on blessing them, and never curse them. Rejoice with those who are rejoicing. Cry with those who are crying. Live in harmony with each other. Do not be arrogant, but associate with humble people. Do not think that you are wiser than you really are.

Do not pay anyone back evil for evil, but focus your thoughts on what is right in the sight of all people. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live in peace with all people. Do not take revenge, dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath. For it is written, “Vengeance belongs to me. I will pay them back, declares the Lord.” But “if your enemy is hungry, feed him. For if he is thirsty, give him a drink. If you do this, you will pile burning coals on his head.” Do not be conquered by evil, but conquer evil with good.

I think piling burning coals on a head means killing with kindness.

To the Univeralists, good is what endures, not evil. Not sin, but justice. There’s a Universalist slogan from like the 19th century that says “death and glory!” It sounds like a wrestler’s catch phrase or something, but it means we die, then we get glory. There is no hell. The love of God is too big, too rich, too pure, to condemn any of creation to an eternity or afterlife of damnation. All are saved. That’s what universalism means.

For a lot of UUs today, this idea of salvation or hell isn’t one that resonates with their core beliefs. Many consider ourselves to be post-Christian or our primary belief system is something very different from Christianity like Buddhism, paganism, humanism and so forth. But we retain the idea that people and creation are fundamentally good at the core. We put enormous faith in people. We rail against systems and corporations and governments and ideologies and, yes, people but we believe that they can be fixed or saved or rebuilt. THIS is a deeply hopeful faith. We try not to throw things away because everything has intrinsic value. Our 1st and 7th principles honor the worth and interconnectedness of all things. To condemn others is to in some way condemn yourself. We’re all the same starstuff. That’s the sort-of Good News.

I say sort of because Jesus told us The Way isn’t easy. This isn’t going to be easy. Let’s throw stones, and point fingers, and be done with all that mess, right? But what if we push a little harder? Try again? Stay a little while longer? Do it one more time? Listen more deeply? Love with everything we have? What if we commit ourselves to doing as Jesus says, Jesus who died for this, and bring the Good News, which is hope, to all the nations? We could, as the UU Christians say, truly love the Hell out of this world. See what we did there?

Incipit Vita Nova is the motto of my undergraduate college, Scripps College. It means “enter into a new life” or “thus begins a new life.” It is etched on a stone archway you walk through to enter the campus from the front. When you step through that archway, you are beginning a new life. It really was like that for me.

Easter is the story of new life. It was a new life for Jesus and his followers. For many of us, the church is a new life. Many of you left other faith traditions to come to UUism and begin a new life. Many of you went from non-believers to Unitarian Universalists. Many of you are standing right now on the cusp of a new life or identity or version of yourself.

Don’t be afraid. Roll back the stone and step into the light. Let your eyes adjust to the brilliance before you. See us, recognize us. Your friends and blood family and church family. Let us join hands and walk into the world together. Perhaps on different paths, but not alone. Never alone. Like Jesus, we are with you always, to the end of the age. There’s an entire world to save and we, Easter people, are the ones to do it.

May it be so, Blessed be, shalom and amen.



God Loves a Cheerful Giver– 5/18/14 Sermon on Gratitude and Generosity

This is a sermon I gave at the Universalist Unitarian Church of Riverside on 5/18/14 on generosity and gratitude.


Last Sunday, I was in a parking lot when a man approached me as I was heading to my car. He asked if I had some spare change so that he could get some food. He offered to wash my windows. I told him that I would give him some change, but he didn’t have to wash the windows. It was freely given and I don’t ask for or expect people to “earn “my generosity. He begged my pardon but said he came from a working class family and would much prefer to wash the windows and do what he could. While he washed my windows, he told me a bit of his life. He turned 60 on that Saturday before. He’s been in and out of the hospital with health issues. He’s on SSI and would get more money if he could hold out until 65, or even 62, but he has 4 ruined discs in his back and he’s broken his neck in the past. I was feeling really bad for him by this point, when he said that he feels blessed because he “could have woken up in a 3rd world country today.” Now at that point I was thinking to myself, ‘Oh, no, what is he going to say next’ because you usually have to brace yourself with those sorts of openings. But he continues and says, “half the world woke up without clean water today. Half the world woke up without food. I wake up every day and think about that. Despite all this, I can still walk and do something. I’m blessed. That’s what keeps me going.” He then thanked me for the change and went on his way with his napkins and Windex in an old water bottle. I just stood there, overcome with awe and affection. 

One of the reasons why this encounter made me pause, physically and spiritually, is because our theme for this month is gratitude and I have been having a really hard time lately finding anything to be particularly grateful for. Because the thing is, when we are usually told to count our blesses or be grateful, there’s an assumption, a judgment sometimes, that you have all these good things in your life that you are just taking for granted and how dare you not recognize that. But sometimes, maybe often times, there are seemingly no good things in your life to be grateful for. Or they are especially hard to see through your tears and pain. We all know that there are, generally speaking, those less fortunate than we are; we just sometimes want our moment to think of ourselves as that person once in awhile. And I think that’s okay. But in the story I just related to you, I think the universe put me directly in the path of one of those ‘less fortunate’ people in the flesh, not as a statistic or a hypothetical, but as a Teacher. When the student is ready, the teacher appears, right? This man had practically nothing, and was in pain, but he was grateful just for life and felt sorrow for those that had even less.

In Matthew 6:25, Jesus says, “Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what will you put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?” It has been my experience that some of the most grateful and hopeful people are those that have the least. Some of you know that you have to sometimes lose everything to learn the value of what you had. And have. In that same section, Jesus goes on to say, “…do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”  Basically, take it one day at a time.

I don’t have much right now, but I was able to give that man what I could. People have been put in my life who have been able to give me what they could, when they could.  And I, admittedly, like a lot of you, have trouble accepting people’s generosity. I am often too proud and I feel guilty for needing help, because maybe if I made better choices, I wouldn’t be in this situation, even as I know that most of that isn’t true. It’s so hard to admit that you need help and then to take it when offered. Recently, a friend offered to help me with money after hearing some of my troubles. I turned her down, politely, because I know some of her troubles, too. She doesn’t always have steady work and these last few years have not been the easiest for her. But she said ‘No. I have a few gigs right now and I’m kinda steady for the moment. I’ll gladly share the little I have with you’. Learning how to take someone’s outstretched hand is an act of the deepest faith, I think. To trust that they aren’t going to snatch it back at the last minute or later lord it over you.  To believe that people just want to pay it forward and help where they can. Trust falls of faith is a thing we need to practice.

“So let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver” 2nd Corinthians 7. So many of you are “cheerful givers”! I have a book called “Dancing with God: Americans Who Have Been Touched By The Divine.” A man, a photo-journalist I suppose you could call him, Steve Wall, travels across America, mostly in the Deep South, and talks to people about their experiences with the divine or a spiritual “other”—which covers a lot of definitions and experiences and takes pictures.  Most of the people he encounters are poor, have had tragic lives and have, to quote a favorite song of mine called “Cry Ophelia,” ‘come to a little wisdom through a whole lot of failure.’ In the first story, Mr. Wall talks about going undercover in a homeless shelter to see what the experience is like and how the people who rely on those services feel about life in general. He has a not only completely dehumanizing experience dealing with apathetic staff, poor conditions and inadequate supplies, but it’s a genuinely terrifying one as he experiences how the world sees him and treats him when he’s perceived to have nothing. And yet. And yet he meets some of the most generous people in the truly homeless he meets. Men who offer him their little bit of money for bad coffee because it’s cold outside. Who offer him a place to stay because they can.  Even though they just met him a couple of hours ago. One of the men he meets is “crazy” Little Willis, who is like a guardian angel to these men and who has a knack for getting the other homeless what they need, be it medicine or a coat in the winter. Steve Wall asks him why does he do these things for the others and Little Willis says, “I ain’t no man of the cloth, no nothing like that. I be just a plain child of the Almighty. We’s all God’s children, and I just gotta do what the Almighty expects outta me. Makes no difference what all the reverends say ‘bout heaven someday. That’s holy talk. Peoples gotta have a little help from time to time in the here and now. The rest the Almighty’ll take care of. These men are my family, man.” Steve later walks into an upscale, suburban church, still pretending to be homeless, and has yet another terrifying  and eye-opening experience.  As soon as he walks in, he becomes an example, a teachable moment for really bad theology, and a project to the “good” church folk as they try to blame his lack of means on his perceived lack of faith. Later, in the car with his partner, after he’s literally run out of the service, his friend has a revelation and says, “For them, you weren’t a Christian because God blesses those who follow Jesus. You were poor and dirty. You were homeless. God doesn’t let that happen to His people. In their mind God was not listening to you, so you must not have been one of His own. Otherwise, you would have earthly material goods. They didn’t want anything to do with you,’ cause they didn’t want any of you to rub off on them. I call it ‘bump-and-run Christianity.’ It was real easy to run up and shove God in your face, try to get you ‘saved.” And when you wouldn’t, they could clear their conscience with, ‘Well, I’ve done my part.”  

I want to contrast that religious community with ours. So many of you open your homes to stray animals and people in need; you give a dollar when you only have two; you volunteer 10 minutes  when you only had 5 to spare; you offer your whole hearts and hold nothing back. Why? What makes you all so generous?  Reverend Tom Owen-Towle says in his book “Theology Ablaze: Celebrating the 50th Anniversary Year of Unitarian Universalism that, “the sensibility of gratitude” and I would say generosity because they are two sides of one coin, “is bedrock to stoking the flame of our liberal religion.” We UUs are gracious people.  This is built into our faith and our faith communities. It’s no accident that so many of us are in “helping” professions. You are: counselors, teachers, social workers, nurses, caretakers etc. Rev. Owen-Towle points out that “[n]one of us asked to be born. There’s no special merit involved with our arrivals. We didn’t earn the privilege of life. We were lucky. Whether we look at existence scientifically or religiously, it’s a miracle, a wonder, a gift of grace.” So why give? “The Hebrew religion says that we do genuinely good deeds out of neither guilt nor fear, neither to impress our neighbors nor gain heaven, but we lead moral lives mainly because we hanker to say thank you to God, to the Creation, to Life itself for our very existence, for being freed from all sorts of slaveries, and for being loved ongoingly. “ Our faith calls us to take stock of what we have, to be grateful for it, then to share that generously with others. The flame of our chalice is to be used to light paths in dark places and to be used to light other candles. You don’t diminish a flame by sharing it. You just increase light, exponentially.  So let us hold, in our left and right hands, that we must have gratitude and generosity. We must experience both to be fully human. Giving with one hand and accepting with the other is a spiritual and sacred act that we should consider ourselves lucky to be able to do.  So may it be so today and all our days to come.

The Wonder of Love

As told from the pulpit of the Universalist Unitarian Church of Riverside on April 13th, 2014:

“Love is a form of work or a form of courage”: This is the quote that was in our Wayside Pulpit this week. I was walking through downtown Riverside this past Sunday, heavy of heart and chastising myself for never seeming to know when to let go of something or when to surrender. I was also wondering if those two things are actually the same thing—surrendering and letting go. As I was thinking about this, I walked by the church and saw that quote. The truth of it struck me, hard. “Love is a form of work or a form of courage.” What a powerful truth. And exactly what I needed to hear in that moment. Well played, Universe, I thought. Personally, I think it’s an ‘and/or/both’ thing. Love is a form of work and a form of courage/love is a form of work or a form of courage/love is *both* a form of work and a form of courage. That got me to thinking about love and our theme this month of wonder. There are so many things in this world that are wondrous, so many, but one of the most wondrous things is love. Love in all its forms.

The ancient Greeks gave names to four different types of love: Agape (spiritual love), eros (romantic love), phillia (mental love-love of community/virtuous love) and storge (family love). Love is one of the surest things that make us human. Has anything been more written about, talked about, sung about, lived about than love? Of love, the poet Maya Angelou, who just celebrated her 86th birthday, says “In the flush of loves light we dare be brave/And suddenly we see that love costs all we are and will ever be. Yet, it is only love which sets us free.” We’re going to come back to this idea in a minute.

It’s been my experience that love is the hardest emotion to feel, the hardest to express. Especially on any kind of grand scale. Hate is easy, anger is easy, apathy is easier still. It’s really easy for us to give into negative emotions. But Love? Love is hard. Love is the emotion that leaves us most vulnerable. The things we do for love. The compromises we make, the bargains we strike, the things we sacrifice, lengths we’ll go to, what we can achieve! For love.

I’m reading a book right now called “The Demon’s Surrender” by Sarah Rees Brennan. It’s the third book in a young adult trilogy. In one scene, one of the main characters says something really profound about love that stuck with me. Before I tell you what he says, let me give you a little of context. In this series, this young man, Alan, has spent his entire life protecting his little brother, Nick, who’s actually a demon in a human body (just go with it) from the world. Mainly from magicians who are always trying to kill them. For several reasons. He’s always been on the run and has had to become a really dangerous person with no other relationships in order to protect his brother. He was disabled in an attack and he’s lost all his other family. Love has cost him literally everything. In a scene where he has just been tortured, another character remarks that the price he had to pay to keep his brother alive, this torture, was too high a price to pay. Especially for a “brother” that is a demon and he has no blood ties to. In response, Alan, the young man, then says, “Love always costs more than you can afford to pay. “ But then he says, “And it is always worth the price.” Let me repeat that.*repeats* Imma let that sink in for a second.

A show of hands: How many of you have loved someone who can’t or won’t love you back? How many of you have felt that love was a burden? How many of you have wished that you didn’t love something or someone? How many of you have loved something it hurt to love? Or someone? How many of you have had to walk away from something or someone *because* you loved it? Think of that saying about if you love something, you have to set it free. Now, taking all that into consideration, how many of you loved anyway? Fully. Knowing it would hurt, knowing it would change you, for better OR worse, knowing that it would not be returned, or maybe not in the same way. Knowing it would cost more than you could afford to pay? Or, conversely, pay back. And yet who among you would still love, and gladly, and think that it was worth it—even if it cost you everything? I thought so. And isn’t that wondrous? Isn’t that a miracle?

The Christian Bible says that we humans love because God loved us first. That’s said explicitly in 1 John: 4. God, in the Christian religion our faith claims as one of our sources of truth and meaning, loves us when we are wayward, when we hurt each other, when we are not being our best selves. We are hard beings to love, we humans, and yet we are told that our Creator, if that is what you believe, loves us anyway—always. Even though we are imperfect and continuously fall short. Maybe even because of that. In fact, the Bible claims that one cannot be of God or know the divine unless one has love and extends it to others:

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the “soothing” for our sins. 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.

18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. 19 We love because he first loved us. 20 If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot[a] love God whom he has not seen. 21 And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother

Love terrifies me. “It is a form of work and a form of courage”, remember. So I am grateful when it is extended to me for free with no strings attached. I think we all need love, and we all deserve love. But that’s hard to believe about ourselves sometimes, right? We think all of our flaws and our past mistakes make us unworthy of love, think maybe love is not something we deserve. Or maybe someone has told us that we are not worthy of love. Or that we are unlovable. And we believed their lies. And they are lies. We deserve it because we live. Because we are human. That’s all. We are part of the story of creation and all things and that alone means we should love ourselves and each other. All of us are walking wounded. We all hurt sometimes. Let us remember this today and all our days to come so that we can pay it forward, all that love we didn’t have to earn or win, to someone else. Someone who is in pain and just trying their best to simply live and who maybe falls a little short like we all do sometimes. This is what our faith calls us to do. To love. Even when it’s hard. Especially when it’s hard. When it hurts is when you have to push forward, not retreat. You have to believe that love is worth it. That you are worth it. That WE are worth it. Do you believe? I said, Do. You. Believe? Good. Than go forth and love this entire broken world with all your heart and let this world love you back. Because we are ALL worth it. Amen and blessed be.


4 People, 4 Acts of Faith Based Courage

In the past two days I have met four remarkable people. I met them in two very different religious settings. One was a mosque, one was my UU church. All of these people awed me with their courage and bravery. As I was thinking about them today, I realized that not many people associate faith with courage. At least not most people I know/see. Faith and religion are often seen as a “weakness” and a lack of strength. The misconception is that someone is letting some imaginary “sky daddy” dictate morality for them and refusing to face reality (or something0. I’m sure we are all familiar with the idea of religion being the “opiate of the masses.” But the truth is that while this can be true for some, for others faith takes a tremendous amount of courage. To trust, to believe, to put your faith into something Other and More is *hard*. Harder than most know if they haven’t tried it. It also takes tremendous courage to walk away from the only faith you’ve ever known. Or to choose something different. Especially when you are doing it alone.

The first two people I met were at a local mosque I visited last night. I was invited to an “Iftar” (the breaking the fast service/dinner) during Ramadan) hosted by the women’s auxiliary group. This particular mosque is mostly Pakistani. What’s really interesting is that this sect of Islam is persecuted and seen as not legit by some due to the fact that they believe the Messiah/messenger has come. So many of the people there had fled their home countries when their interpretation of Islam was declared to be illegal.. Like I said, most of the people there were Pakistani, but I met two women that aren’t. One was an older black woman and the other was a middle-aged white woman. Both were converts. They greatly stood out from everyone else. I sat next to the older woman and found her to be like  may of the older black women I’ve known: forthright, funny, sassy and earthy. I asked her at one point if any of her family were going to be joining us. She told me “no” and said that she was the only Muslim in her family. I thought of how hard this must have been for her. And what courage it took to fully embrace a new faith.

The black community is overwhelmingly Christian. Our culture is strongly rooted in Christianity. The faith of our oppressors turned out to be one of our greatest tools of survival. The black community is also very much communal. Church is definitely a family/group affair.I knew exactly what converting must have meant to her.

It’s worth mentioning that converting to Islam is NOT like converting to Christianity. If you are an American, even a non-believing one, there’s a very good chance that you are so steeped in Judea-Christian culture that you would have not much trouble learning the ropes’, as it were, of Christian church life. The Holy Book is familiar as are the holidays, the language and the rituals. None of this is true for most Americans and Islam. I think converts to Judaism also undertake a very similar ordeal. Compared to becoming  a Christian, becoming a Muslim or a Jew is like the Iron Man (competition) of faith.

As for the other woman, I imagine she had a similar struggle. She mentioned that she was married and that her husband was not a Muslim. She converted after many years of marriage. She said that it was a struggle, but that it felt so “right” to her and was totally worth it. She was so at peace with herself.

I wondered how it felt for these women to be a part of a community where they are very much ethnic and racial minorities. A sad fact of our society is that our houses of worship are just as racially segregated as many of our neighborhoods, clubs and so on. Not uniformly, but overwhelmingly so. My church has around 125 members. I am one of about 4 black members. My faith is overwhelmingly white. Of my family that is religious, all of them attend black churches. My Latino friends attend mostly Latino churches. And so on. I recall being pleasantly surprised at how much a part of the community these women were. I also recall being immediately shamed by that thought. I mean, why wouldn’t they be? But, again, this is the world we live in. People not being jerks is still something that surprises.

Today at church I met two young adults. A man and a woman. Both were ex-Mormons. The first I had personally ever met. I went to high school in an area with a large Mormon population, but all the Mormons I knew/know are currently Mormon, so I was eager to speak with these two about led to them our UU church. Both of these individuals really moved me with their stories and bravery.

The man is an academic currently writing his dissertation for his PhD at the local UC. He left the church because he’s gay. He told me that there is only so much anti “you” stuff that one can listen to every Sunday. That eventually it gets to you and starts to break you down. So he left. But that meant leaving everything. His whole family is Mormon. He is the oldest of 9 siblings. His sister is getting married next month and he can’t even attend. Non-Mormons are not allowed into such ceremonies. He’ll go to the party afterward, but it’s not the same. Both of these people found thriving Mormon communities online for “rebels” like themselves. They spoke of them like lifelines.

The woman is a young therapist. She left the church over her burgeoning feminist identity. She spoke passionately of her “awakening” to the patriarchy of the Mormon church. Particularly, she gradually realized that women don’t have much of a presence or a voice in the Church. They are not allowed official positions of power or authority. Everything is from a man’s point of view. She spoke of being flooded by things she had always just accepted, but never questioned. At one point she exclaimed, “I couldn’t be a party to my own oppression anymore!” For me, that was a “woah” moment. Watching a baby feminist take flight is exhilarating. That said, she was also being torn in two. Her husband is still a Mormon. In fact, he and her young child were attending services while she was at our church. We asked how that was working out for them and she said it was, “Hard.” I could hear how much so in her voice. She told us how she had to sit her husband down and tell him that she wanted to not only pursue higher education but that she wanted to use it. As she said, “I was already not using one degree, I wasn’t going to get another and do the same.” Such a badass.

I admit to thinking that both of my new friends were absolutely adorable. Mr. Academic told me how his nieces and nephews think he’s totally the cool uncle because he isn’t married, doesn’t have kids, left the Church and…now drinks coffee. His parents think he is negatively influencing his siblings with such scandalous behavior. Both of them were like every other Mormon I have ever known: Polite, earnest and kind. Clearly with backbones of steel, though. In our church we always make sure visitors know that we know how much courage it took for them to walk though our doors. I told my new friends that they were in good company here. Our church is full of incredibly strong people who took a literal leap of faith. Our service today was on finding Eden in the here and now. I think faith warriors, like the folks I met, will lead us there.

Taking 32 Years To Answer My Call: Interlude

At the end of my last post, Taking 32 Years To Answer My Call: Part 2, I said that I would devote the next part to my mother and how her death further shaped my spiritual path. That was two weeks ago. I’ve been trying to write this post for two weeks. It is still not written.

Thirteen years have passed since my mother died and I am still not ready to do this. What is “this,” you ask. Well, that’s a hard question to give a clear answer to. Part of it is that I am still not ready to talk about my mother’s death and what I see as my failings as her daughter. So many negative emotions are still part of my memories of that time. Feelings such as regret, shame, anger and longing. It’s funny how the platitudes that are expected to bring the most comfort are often the most insensitive and angering. I can recall being told that “time heals all wounds.” What a crock. Time gives distance and sometimes perspective, but it does not always heal. I can testify to that.

I recall a favorite scene from a favorite television series. In an episode of Xena: Warrior Princess, Xena is trying to tell Gabrielle, her friend/sidekick/soul mate, why she dedicates her life to trying to atone for who she was in the past. They are standing by a lake. A stone is thrown into the lake as a metaphor for the damage Xena has caused. Gabrielle notices that the lake eventually becomes smooth again but Xena points out that it is permanently changed now. The rock is still there under the surface. Deep pain is like that. You learn to live with it, maybe even push it to the edges of your consciousness, but it’s still there.

I do wonder what mama would think of this journey I am going to undertake. I think she would not understand. She was not a religious person. She wasn’t even an atheist. If she believed in a God, she hated him/her/it. One of the (many) things that sent me into a blind rage at her funeral was the statement by the officiating minister that my mother had “accepted” Christ on her deathbed. A lie. I wonder how many non-believers and believers of other Truths get re-Christened like this when they pass and can no longer object to such distasteful practices.

I think this is one of the things that planted the seed of my call to chaplaincy. My mother and I did not share the same belief system but I wanted hers to be respected. What she felt was legitimate. It was real. It was her right to feel that way. I understood her anger at God. And I think God would have as well. God doesn’t need people to white wash or sugarcoat the truth of things. Maybe the people left behind need that, but this is not about them. It is about the inherent worth and dignity of a person. I want to empower people to feel what they feel and believe what they believe without apology or fear. Even at the end. Especially at the end. Because if not then, when?

This is not the story I planned to tell. But. It’s the story that I *can* tell. At least right now.

Taking 32 Years To Answer My Call: Part 2

This is a continuation of my first post on this topic.

Taking 32 Years To Answer My Call: Part 1

The last post was mostly about my decision to pursue ministry and the specific type of ministry I would like to do. This post is going to go back to the beginning. To my childhood, that is, and explore my faith journey from there to here. Hmm. Maybe I should subtitle this entry There And Back Again–A Faith Seeker’s Tale.

My childhood experience with religion and faith is quite a bit different than the experiences of a lot of people I know. For one thing, I was never forced to go to church. My family is traditionally Apostolic Christian, but that was really in my great-grandmother’s generation. My grandmother HATED being forced to go to church and broke her own family away from it when she had children. My mother, aunt and uncles grew up in a non-religious setting–as did I.

That said, I was always drawn to the church as a child. I yearned for whatever it was that I thought church and religion was. I went to church quite often–on my own. If anyone invited me to go with them to church, or to visit their church, I was there. I even recall dragging my mother with me a time or two. I find it funny that most kids had to to be dragged kicking and screaming and I eagerly went (most of the time).

I wasn’t drawn to a particular faith. I wanted to experience them ALL. As an adult, I can clearly see where my interests in interfaith work stems from. I loved the differences of various denominations and churches. How one dressed, the music played, the size of the congregation, how one listened to the Word was all different depending on where you went to worship. It was all so fascinating.

I never had a bad experience with faith as a kid. That’s important. Everyone was so nice and welcoming to me. So pleased and happy that I wanted to learn more about them and their idea(s) of God. It was always especially impressive to them that I was a youth and would come on my own (without family support). In my later years of high school, I carpooled to school with my very devout neighbors. They were a true patchwork American family! Black father, white mother and a gaggle of multiracial kids–biological and adopted. Everyday, while waiting for their kids to get ready (I was always on time 😉 ), I would read this Bible for teens their middle daughter owned. It was called “God’s Word For Students.” I really liked it. It was very accessible to teens and was full of daily lessons for guidance. Of course, the parents noticed my interest and got me my own copy as a graduation gift. That and a little stuffed graduation owl. I was so pleased. It was the second Bible I had been given as a gift. The first one was from a friend’s mother. I would go to her mostly all-Spanish speaking Apostolic church several times a month. She gave me an adorable Precious Moments Bible with my information lovingly written in her beautiful, almost calligraphic handwriting. I cherish both gifts. They truly came from the hearts of the givers.

Now, I should make it clear that I did not always actually agree with what was being said in all these churches I visited. These were often quite conservative congregations and denominations, especially my friend’s Apostolic church. This eventually created quite a conundrum for me. On the one hand, I LOVED the communities I was welcomed into. Like I said before, everyone was so warm and genuinely welcoming and loving. But. I couldn’t always make myself agree or not question certain beliefs and teachings. This was especially true as my feminist identity emerged in high school and college. This conflict didn’t make me angry or bitter, but it did make me feel deeply disappointed. I tried so very hard to reconcile what I felt with what I was being taught.

I can recall being in college and joining a Bible study group for young adults. The young men and women were so nice. I really liked them. Problem was, I was really having a hard time at this point with what I saw as rampant misogyny in the Bible. My devout friends explained to me that saying the man was head of the household, for example, was NOT an invitation for a husband to rule like a tyrant. In fact, it was the opposite. He was supposed to “rule” benevolently with wisdom and kindness. They were sincere in their beliefs.And the men were very kind. But, again, I could not reconcile what they told me with what the text actually said. So I told them that some things I could never accept (from the Bible) and they told me, not unkindly, that I would have to in order to be a Christian. This was devastating. I felt like such a failure. I wanted so badly to believe, to be a “good” Christian, but I could not push myself that final step.

Later in college I did my work-study hours with Claremont’s Office of the Chaplains. This is the religious center of the Claremont Colleges. There are three chaplains that serve the religious needs of the students, faculty and staff of the five undergraduate colleges (5Cs): a protestant minister, a Jewish rabbi and a Catholic priest. It’s a great example of three mainline faiths coming together in harmony. This experience was incredibly important to my developing religious views. First, it was wonderfully interfaith. Second, it exposed me to nothing but positive experiences with these three faiths.

I often tell people that the Catholic priest who was there at the time, Father Wayne, single-handedly redeemed the Catholic faith for me. He was one of the best men I have ever known. He was extremely warm, very funny and a true activist. Totally anti-war AND pro-choice! I knew a faith couldn’t be all bad if Father Wayne was a willing member. When he eventually lost his decades long fight with cancer, the entire community mourned deeply. We all knew that something precious and unique was now gone. His family spent their time not mourning the passing of their son, brother, uncle and so on, as one would expect, but hanging out with his colleagues and the people he served. They brought photo albums with them and told us stories of Father Wayne’s life. They were so pleased to see how much he had been loved and the impact his life had made on others. That’s what I thought ministry was. I could imagine no higher calling. To be trusted with a person’s soul is such a precious thing and such a huge responsibility.

I met many people, many young people, of deep faith at the Claremont Colleges. Considering how liberal the colleges in general are, it was of no surprise that these young people were also liberal and progressive. There was no conflict for them! They were feminists, activists, QUEER and faithful. They brought their whole selves to the table and were welcomed. It hurts me to see so many people damaged by the Church and faith. Religion is about all-caps ACCEPTANCE and HOPE and LOVE. If your creator can’t accept you, than who can?? In my experience, the people who have walked the hardest roads in life are often those with the most faith.

When I was a kid, I almost always had my head in the clouds. This hasn’t changed. I’m a spacey person. I have an insanely active and HUGE inner life. My dreams-waking and sleeping-are larger than life. I easily adjust my worldview when needed and I am always open to new possibilities. I think I have always been close to The Spirit. To me, faith isn’t about rules and dogma or restrictions; it’s about freedom and possibility and potential.

I think my next post will be on how I “lost” my religion when my mother died and how I found it again, years later.



Taking 32 Years To Answer My Call: Part 1

This post is inspired partly by a friend’s post explaining her Call to ministry. Her story is very different from mine and is a good example of the multiple roads that can lead people to ministry. Sarah’s Call:

My Call

Some people know this and some do not, but after a lot of deep thought, soul searching and observation, I have come to the conclusion that I want to be an ordained minister. I  specifically want to to do interfaith chaplaincy with sexual assault and domestic abuse survivors.

So. why ministry?

Since graduating from college in 2005 with my degree in sociology, I have pondered many post-graduate paths. I considered social work, counseling, therapy and other career paths, all with the intention of working with the same groups: survivors. I could work with survivors in any of the fields I considered, but I want to work with the mind, heart and soul.

I am a volunteer advocate with my area’s local rape crisis center. In that capacity, my job is to advocate for the rights and dignity of sexual assault survivors. I sit with them while they are in the hospital getting treatment, testing and/or a rape kit done. I am there on what is often the worst day of the person’s life with the intention of making it a little easier to bear. That might be with a sandwich, a warm blanket, a teddy bear or just someone to listen or distract them with meaningless chatter. Whatever the person needs from me. I am part of the S.A.R.T (Sexual Assault Response Team) group.

Everyone on the team has a specific and precious role to play: the S.A.R.T nurse collects physical evidence for a possible trial, the police investigate the crime, the hospital social worker takes care of things like getting the survivor into a shelter if needed or arranging transportation from the hospital to a safe location, and the advocate gives referrals, comfort and looks out for the survivor’s best interests and wishes.

A lot of what I personally do is what I think of as “soul work.” It’s very important for me to use the little time I have with a survivor (usually a few hours) to put their injured soul on the path to healing. Their body will heal–it’s amazing like that–but the flame in their soul can be extinguished. I try to make sure that this precious light does not go out. Sometimes it’s with a touch, a smile, or a word. It doesn’t take much to make a small difference. The last survivor I met with (before going on a hiatus with the center) was a young woman. She told me that I was the first person to tell her that she wasn’t at fault and didn’t deserve what had happened to her. She sobbed when I told her that she was courageous, strong and worthy. Worthy of safety, of love, of respect, of kindness, of happiness.

It hurts my heart to think of all the souls that do not know this fact. I want to walk around and give smiles to those that need them the most. I want to tell people that they are AMAZING and compliment their choice of shoes and listen to the people who are not heard. I want to look into the eyes of all the people I can and tell them, like I told a mentor of mine, that I see God in them. I believe because they exist. How could so simple a thing change the world? I want to find out.

Now, it may seem like I’ve always known or wanted this calling.


It hit me  with the force of a blow. And it may not have happened at all if not for friend and mentor Rev. David Helfer who saw in me what I did not (yet) dare to see in myself.

Several years ago, David and I were at a District Assembly in Pasadena, listening and interacting with a delightful gentleman who was expressing his gratitude to the local church for taking care of him when his mother died. This man clearly had some mental challenges and was very, very chatty. He was the kind of person that society overlooks everyday.

In the little bit of time we had, I gave him my full attention and consideration. He was the center of my world for ten minutes. Afterward, David turned to me and said, “I see a minister in you.”

I was shocked. His observation shook me to my core. I spent the next couple of years coming back to that simple statement. It took awhile before I could see a minister in myself.

Was I always destined for this path? Maybe.

Is this what I really want? Yes.

Is it going to take me another 32 years to get to the point of my title??

…I hope not.

In my next post, I’ll explain how I found my faith as a youth, lost it as a young adult, found it again in a way I didn’t expect, and what it means to me now.