For Valentine’s Day: A Love Letter to My Friend

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Love leaf. (Oahu, Hawaii, May 2014)


My dear friend, colleague, and comrade,

I have been thinking about you. I was in a drugstore a few weeks ago and saw it festooned with Valentine’s Day items. When did that happen?!

Ever since our New Year’s move to the east coast, I have been feeling like I need a seasonal-holiday reboot. Like I have a sort of jet lag that put me off by months instead of hours. We all but missed Christmas and New Year’s entirely. We were so mired in lists of Things to Do, and pretty much just drowning in stress. (Did I tell you how I nearly lost all of the boys’ Christmas gifts?)

Now, suddenly, the drugstore aisles are chock full of red hearts and white doilies and the worst candies known to creation…

In short, the gods of the drugstore say it is time to think about love.

And I have been thinking of you.

It was a few months ago the last time we really talked. You confessed how deeply lonely you feel, how terribly you have been wishing for the presence of a partner. Someone to come home to. Someone to face all the craziness with. Someone to embrace you after a tolling day, horrible commute, or wondrous occurrence.

I felt the pain of your loneliness myself. That specific, empty ache, as if something essential were missing from inside my own chest.

You spoke of leaving your ministry path in hopes that a more reasonable setting might leave space for finding love. I doubt I gave you even half the friendship you needed at that moment. I admit I was a little paralyzed. All I could think is how much wonderful, world-healing work you do in your current ministry. How desperately I need you as a colleague, here in the spiritual trenches. The selfish part of me was locked in combat with the nurturer. At best, I probably mumbled something as useless as the Indigo Girls song promising how love would come when the time was right, and yada yada yada.

Now Valentine’s Day is upon us. And really, I have to wonder: whose miserable idea for a holiday was this? Don’t get me wrong—I am right there with you in loving love. I can be an absolute, love-struck sap. But A Day? For lovers to prove to themselves and the world how positively freaking love-besotted they are? For roses to double in price and suitors to compete tooth-and-claw for table reservations?

A day for all who are uncoupled to feel less than?

Did you know the Catholics have a patron saint of the lonely: St. Rita of Casica. Poor Rita wanted to be a nun from the time she was a little girl, but it being the 14th century and all, her family married her off to an abusive brute. Eventually he was killed in a fight, freeing her to live out her life as an Augustine sister and work wonders of healing and peace.


Rita of Cascia: saint of lost causes, widows, and lonely hearts.

Her day is May 22. Do you think we could market that?

In all earnestness, I have been thinking how helpless I feel when it comes to loneliness. Helpless to proffer advice, helpless to offer comfort that works. Mourning the death of a loved one is tough. Yet when I minister to someone grieving, I can directly look into their eyes and say with absolute certainty that time will ease their grief and make their losses easier to bear.

Not so with loneliness. Especially not the romantic sort. Who can say when that tall, dark stranger (or short, fair one) will stumble into one’s life? Time doesn’t heal when one is hoping for love. Often, time feels like the enemy.

I see this too even among married folks. Recently, another dear colleague/friend shared with me his loneliness in heart-breaking terms. His marriage is hollowed out; he and his spouse resigned themselves to a sort of relationship limbo. They forge on as a couple, as a family, but unable to reach one other anymore. In many ways, he is very much like you: intelligent, successful, kind, admired by all of us who know or have met him. Yet beneath his full, productive life, there is a constant, gnawing sense of being-all-alone that he fears will never end.

Not too long ago, I was where you are, feeling so alone that every night in bed it felt like I had to nurse my loneliness to sleep before I could drift off. The absence was so acute it seemed like a whole, demanding being of its own. During the day, I could send it off to forage for itself. At night, though, there was no way out: loneliness was my insistent partner.

During that period, a spiritual mentor asked me, “How is your prayer life?”

The hurting part of me resented her at that moment. I wanted to bonk her right on her caring, pastoral nose. Here I was, trapped in one of the most profoundly human dilemmas—a human aching for human comfort—and she was talking to me about God and prayer.

“Not very good at this time.” I said. “Sun-up to sun-down is so busy, most days I just make it through.”

“Then,” she said, “this is a time you need others to pray for you.”


I don’t know if you know this about me, but back in divinity school, I wrote my thesis on the healing power of prayer—in particular, praying for others. Might sound like a wacky choice for a Unitarian Universalist, who at that point in my life, hesitated even to use the word “God” in my ministry, let alone arrange for intercessory prayer. Many of us UUs, to whatever extent we do believe in a higher power, believe in some sort of force or Spirit. Nothing like a man with a beard and an omniscient brain. (I have since evolved, or more accurately, revolved, and fully embrace traditional theistic language and call that “force” God.)

Many of us UUs also are firmly rooted in science and, as you probably well know in your own ministry practice, the science of prayer is intriguing. There is evidence that patients heal more quickly when others pray for their wellbeing. In some studies this holds true, even when the prayer is remote and patients have no idea whether or not they are in the “prayed-for” group. Other studies suggest that even remotely prayed-for plants more readily flourish.

Despite the skeptics of such studies, I wondered, “What could make this so?” I didn’t then and don’t now believe in the kind of God that helps football teams win games. I imagine prayer’s efficacy has something to do with the essential ways we are all, cosmically, connected. After all, the presence of others is healing, even for creatures as small and blissfully unphilosophical as mice. (Researchers found that mice experience pain more readily when they see their mouse friends in pain—and they experience pain less acutely when surrounded by healthy, happy mice!)

Perhaps this same kind of empathy and connection flows along quantum, quizzical routes. I am fully willing to believe there are levels of reality that connect us across vast distances, through love and thought. And maybe in the end this is what I most mean when I speak of God.

Which is not to say to you, with an obligatory pastoral head-tile, “My friend, I’m praying for you!” (Though I genuinely do lift you up in my prayers at times.)

It is to say that the mysteries of love are manifold, as are the forms it comes in.

I know friends cannot fill the role a lover does. And as for God? My aunt used to say, “Sometimes you just need God with skin on it.” I love that description. Sometimes we need that mystical reassurance that comes from being so close and quiet with another human being, we can listen to their beating heart and feel time slow down around us.

As for your career discernment, I support you fully, whatever life choices you make. Remaining here in the spiritual trenches or getting out to find other forms of fulfillment and joy. Whatever your choices, whatever your path, please know—if not remember—that you are, already, well and truly loved, by friends near and far. We see you for who you are: an extraordinarily beautiful and gifted person. We may not be able to fill completely that aching, empty space you talk about…but please do take our love to heart.

You need not feel more alone than you are.

It seemed that is what my spiritual mentor addressed in her own canny way, by suggesting she would have strangers pray for me.

I think she was telling me, really: “Let your heart feel every beautiful strand of love and care that travels to it, even from odd or far off destinations.”

Maybe, in a better world, that is what Valentine’s Day would be about? Not celebrating romantic love with awful candies, but remembering love in all its forms—remembering to send and share it in ever wider and widening circles.

Because, with all due respect to the vocal stylings of Whitney H., I am not one bit sure that learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all. I am still stuck on the idea that learning to love one another is. And learning to hold our hearts open, to really feel and collect all the love and Spirit that travel our way.

So whether we are looking at our own face in the mirror—or into the face of our One True Beloved—we see reflected there all the strength and love and care that fill us from so many different quarters.

Yours lovingly, at Valentine’s Day,




My first born, then 6 months, naturally understands. (Mandalay Bay, Las Vegas, NV, April 2011)


The “Stuff” of Life

January is always a time for taking stock, but this year, the personal pull to reflect has ramped up to the power of a starship-worthy tractor beam. I entered 2015 with the news that I was carrying my second child, due in August, a sibling to my four-year-old child. Then, two weeks into the new year, my father died.

The Universe could not be more in-my-face about the cycles of life, the need to take the bitter with the sweet, the yin and yang of it all.

My father’s death was lingering, and I took nine days’ leave—flying out to Arizona to be with him and my siblings, then staying afterward to begin the process of winding up family affairs. My mother died 10 years ago and there is nowhere left to lodge the remnants of our family home, the accumulated boxes of high school trophies, grade school report cards, Halloween costumes, homemade pot holders.

For several days after my father’s death, sorting, stacking, selling, and casting off became my constant form of meditation.

It is said that few on their deathbed say, “I wish I had spent more time working.” I doubt there are few children after a death who say, “I wish my beloved, departed parent had saved more stuff.” Sorting the remnants of a middle class American life can be enough to transform the most stubborn hoarder into a committed minimalist.

It also pushes me to think hard about what is left that truly matters.

Because that is the bottom line question, isn’t it: what is left that matters, after we go? What is it our lives come down to?

Having just sent decades’ worth of belongings to family, friends, charity, and recycling, I can say for sure it isn’t the stuff.


Presenting the Next of Kin the National Ensign. (Arlington National Cemetery, 2004)

While serving as the Chaplain at Arlington Cemetery about eleven or twelve years ago, a middle aged man chatted me up in an airport. He had been waiting for someone with “spiritual credentials” to turn up. It wasn’t hard to conclude he was in the thick of a midlife “crisis,” bursting with ideas as to what it all came down to, what would be left after he was gone.

Intriguingly, his personal answer was that it all came down to FUN (and he hinted broadly that the debauched forms of fun can win you something like extra game points at life’s end). “I finally realized that’s all that matters,” he said, then rapidly began to name the exotic travels he’d been having since making this discovery. “Our experiences. That’s what we leave behind.”

“So,” I asked with genuine curiosity, “how is it that we ‘leave behind’ the fun we have? Don’t our experiences more or less die with us?”

He looked at me steadily for a moment, then said, “I’m not a theologian. I’m just telling you what I’ve learned.”

I have nothing against fun. Yet there are good reasons that so few philosophers and theologians have put their money on fun as the measure of a life. Honestly, the man in the airport hardly seemed convinced himself. It felt more like he was desperate to believe that FUN was the answer.

Still, he had an answer. Meanwhile, here I am venturing into my own middle-life. No crisis as such in sight, but a lot of sorting to do, both literal and otherwise.


Standard experience with all the military moves…

In the process of going through my parents’ accumulated stuff—sorting and stacking, reminiscing and bundling, deciding which things to keep and which things to send on (and where they could find a new home)—I found myself thinking back to the writings of Gershon Scholem, a scholar of Jewish mysticism.

Scholem offered one idea of the purpose of live that I’ve never been able to shake. It has to do with a certain strand of mystical thought, according to which creation of the world was a destructive act that caused vessels of divine light to be shattered. Sparks of divine light scattered everywhere in creation, lodging inside us, inside other animals, in rocks and earth. As humans do good deeds, as they carry out the commandments of the Torah, they help lift these sparks from themselves and the world around them; they liberate sparks to return to the divine source.

On this take, doing good acts restores the Divinity, restores the universe to balance.

My own path never took me further into the study of Kabbalah than reading Scholem, and I have no interest in claiming—or mangling—a tradition that is not my own. But as pure metaphor, as a way of explaining why our wise and loving acts matter, this idea makes sense: creation as destruction with divine sparks awaiting their return.

It isn’t just that God helps us to make good and wise choices.

It’s that our good and wise choices help to make God complete.

Every good act furthers the singular mission of restoring the Universe to peace.

North Beach at sunrise. (MCBH, 2014)

North Beach at sunrise. (Marine Corps Base Hawaii, 2014)

My child and I returned home to Hawaii on a Friday afternoon. In military terms, nine days is a lot of time to take off, no matter what the cause. I was anxious; I planned to drop him at daycare on the way from the airport to my office.

There was just one hitch: Friday is show-and-tell day at the daycare and my child desperately wanted to share his crocodile puppet. The crocodile puppet was at home—which was not en route to the daycare.

“Tick tock,” went the voice inside my head, “time to get back to work.”

Meanwhile, there was my child, in the backseat, not crying, not having a tantrum, just looking sad and tired.

Looking the way I felt.

He hadn’t understood much about my father’s death, though after the last several days in Arizona with no Papa in sight, he had come to sense that a serious wait was involved. That he wouldn’t see his grandfather again for a very long time. Something like resignation had settled in—an adult sort of emotion I’d never seen him register before. It made my own heart heavy to see.

Right or forward when I drive on base?

Right to work.

Forward to home.

The future of the world does not turn on whether toddlers get their prized toys to show off at preschool. Still, like so many things, the show-and-tell puppet wasn’t just about the puppet or about show-and-tell. It was about restoring a sense of joy to my toddler son, reminding him in a visceral way that he always is loved.

It was about choosing who to be at that moment—Captain* or Reverend or Mother. Choosing which “me” could make the most good happen right then, with that one small, choice.

It was about emulating my father, who lived a quiet life but a loving one. Whose constant, daily, loving acts created small ripples of peace within a world that sorely needs more of it.

I went forward to home and got the puppet.

Work could wait another 30 minutes.


My child, then age 2.5, with his favorite toy: the crocodile puppet. (March 2013)