Resurrection… Now what?

The spring holidays are such a time of preparation.

Though Passover is still several weeks away, many Jews are cleaning their houses of the forbidden chametz—grains and leavened breads considered unkosher for the duration of the holiday. One friend recalls the tremendous efforts her otherwise secular family would undertake each year—religious ritual fused with the itch for spring cleaning—so that by the time the Pesach table was laid, everything gleamed, everything felt lovely and fresh in their home.

Christians of all denominations are preparing for Easter, in ways both somber and spectacular. Rafts of daily pleasures have been forgone for Lent. Meditation and reflection—and even, in a newer variation, yoga and tai chi—are being renewed and embraced for Lenten practices. Families busily are planning Easter Sunday gatherings and meals, pulling out favorite recipes and testing new ones from local papers or recipe sites. Many of us embark on a purposeful shopping spree, so come Easter morning, our children are outfitted in dresses or suits befitting a meeting with royalty (and we ourselves will be feeling regal and remade in our new Sunday best).

On or about March 21st, Iranians worldwide will celebrate Nowruz, the New Year (or, literally, “New Day”). This Muslim holiday layered over ancient rites of venerating light and welcoming the vernal equinox. We recognize this holiday in our household, as my spouse was born and raised in Tehran. Last week, we began the khaneh tekani (spring cleaning), stocking up on Rose water, and preparing for the Haft Seen with sabzeh (growing sprouts).

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Haft Seen (image from US Institute of Peace)

So after all this preparation, “Now what?” I wonder…

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Modern life proceeds, for the most part, in linear fashion—a steady and ceaseless ticking off of moments and days in a way that is supposed to always lead forward, always on to new and (hopefully) better things.

The seasons incessantly circle round, bringing more light after less, warm air after colder, new growth after dormancy. Year after year, we spin through the cycles, imagining that each year pushed us further along—or further ahead—and often failing to notice the ways we wind up, time and time again, exactly where we started.

Not just according to the weather or the length of days, but according to the state of our hearts and spirits. According to the state of our love.

We feel high, then low, at work. We resolve old family feuds, swing through a season of enjoying each other’s company, then lock down in our battle positions once more. We pull ahead in our budgets only to have a life-changing roll of the dice move us back to “Go” and not collecting $200.

We fight for and win new rights, then watch them become embattled and erode. We fight harder, inch further along, then wonder what has been gained. We rise and fall, by turns, in states of promise and despair.

We put (we think) whole rhetorics of hate away for good, mark them as unwelcome and forbidden to the public sphere, only to watch them reemerge with startling clarity—and to find ourselves, once again, baffled by the plus ça change of human affairs.

 

 

 

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Back yard at spring. (Portland, ME, May 2011)

Whatever the name, whatever their vision—of resurrection or liberation or newness or fecundity or forgiveness or light—I believe there is deep and universal human need embedded in the holidays of spring.

These holidays are moments of pause, moments of possibility, studded like little gems in the ceaseless, grinding calendar of modernity.

Each one offering the opportunity to begin anew—and to get it right this time.

A savior is risen to eternal life.

A people are freed from slavery.

Spring has come.

But again, I wonder:

Now what?

After all, few among my friends or fellow Unitarian Universalists (or, for that matter, among the folks who might take time to read this blog) truly believe in a sentient God who dictates the course of our lives and world events. Most of us take a decidedly modern/postmodern approach to spirit and faith. We view scriptures not as books handed down by God(s), but as repositories of human wisdom, sources of inspiration, essential points of access to symbol and myth. We engage in continual acts of translation, seeking to understand the relevance of ancient teachings to our contemporary lives.

Personally, I am rooted in the Christian scriptures, and the Easter story holds a particular power for me. But it is not, for me, a literal account. Each year I read:

“The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many.  When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, ‘Truly this was the Son of God!’”—Matthew 27:52-54

But I do not imagine the saints, brought back to life in their caskets, clawing their way out of ground to speak to the people of the holy land!

Instead, each year I see and feel the overwhelming promise that a better world is possible. One where the most righteous among us finally becomes the ones most listened to. Where the quality of love gains so much strength, it seems as real as anything we can touch. Where the warriors of the world are shaken to the core by something like compassion.

I also know, though, it is no good marking time at Easter basking in the promise of a better world unless it is something we are willing to build ourselves.

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So, what is the one thing you will do to make good on the spring holidays’ promise of a better life and world?

The Move: Making Big Change with Less than Perfect Grace

pcs-tape-600Dear Tina Fey, why haven’t you made this movie yet?

I call it, The Move.

Loving, middle class couple makes big cross-country move with two kids—let’s say, ohhh, a 5-year-old and an infant… Every Single Freaking Thing that could possibly go wrong goes wrong. And despite truly exceptional communication skills (ahem), the couple spirals into a kind of seething hostility until, on the first night in their brand-new home, their brand-new neighbors feel compelled to call the police.

The police arrive to find the couple in the kitchen, ankle-deep in packing peanuts, looking as disheveled and sleep-deprived as war refugees. One is using a stained pizza box as a shield, while the other brandishes an industrial packing-tape dispenser as if were a gun.

(Coda during closing credits: it is one week later; the books are on the shelves; the kitchen is spotless; soup is bubbling on the stove. The couple has resumed life as loving partners and parents—all acrimony forgotten. The camera pulls back from their new home to a great height, rapidly pans across the country, and zooms into another kitchen, where another loving couple has started to argue about how to pack the silverware…)

* * * * * * * * * * *

You got it. For the New Year we made The Move: Oceania to US East Coast.

New house, new schools, new jobs, new community, new life.

And yes, save for acute danger to life or limb, Every Single Freaking Thing that could go wrong…did.

So, ok, no one had to call the police on us. Count us one step ahead of the movie plot? But we did have to call the EMT our first night here, which made for an interesting introduction to our new neighbors the next day…

We were, to put it mildly, forcefully reminded how tough a family move can be. All the personal angst and uncertainty of starting over, distilled into arguments over how to label boxes and handle the pets. Anyone who has lived through a move with a spouse and children knows how stupidly fast even the most trivial of disagreements can escalate.

I leave it to the psychologists to figure out how to strengthen your marriage while moving cross country.

But I can share the thing that (more or less) saved me from unraveling.

And why it didn’t, not completely.

And what I learned.

* * * * * * * * * * *

For a couple dozen years I’ve been an ardent fan of this bit of Taoist wisdom:

      Fire cools; water seeks its own level.

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Every fire consumes its fuel and burns itself out. Every flood abates as water settles and seeks its own level. Calm always returns. Equilibrium is always restored.

So for the past two and a half months—as we sorted and packed and planned (and planned and planned) and argued—I sat dutifully every night, meditating to the phrase:

      Fire cools; water seeks its own level.

My orders change the very day we ship our car from Hawaii to the mainland?

      Fire cools; water seeks its own level.

The movers botch the paperwork and send all our worldly possessions to some guy in Seattle?

      Fire cools; water seeks its own level.

Our very first night in Virginia, both kids fall ill at once, and we find ourselves headed to the ER at 0-dark-30 in a time zone our bodies have yet to comprehend?

      Fire cools; water seeks its own level.

You get the idea.

Moving Van

But the more the move went on, the less it helped. After decades of practice, meditation became an exercise in mind frenzy. Lists, complaints, barriers, missteps, frustrations…none of these were willing to step aside while I breathed.

     Fire cools; water levels. Fire cools; water levels. Fire cools; water levels. Fire cools; water levels.

“QUIET DOWN ALREADY!” screamed my brain, which wasn’t buying the Taoist line, not for a second.

I called one of my bluntest but most unflaggingly supportive friends for a little advice. “‘Fire cools; water settles.’ What’s that supposed to mean?” I could hear her rolling her eyes. “It sounds like a fancy-schmancy way of saying, ‘This too shall pass.’ How’s that going to help you now when you’re right in the middle of all the sh*t?”

As I say: blunt.

But helpful. She made me realize that I’d been treating this piece of Taoist wisdom in the most superficial of ways. I wanted my “this too shall pass.” I wanted to squelch all the disorientation of moving cross-country with my family—and jump ahead to the part with the tunnel’s end and all the happy, reassuring light.

I’m pretty sure that’s not what the Taoist passage is supposed to suggest.

Fire and flood aren’t just events that pass. They are events that burn and roil and rush and take their toll before equilibrium is restored. They change the landscape, sometimes beyond recognition.

But they do abate, leaving a new kind of peacefulness in their wake.

They give rise to something new.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Here in American, we talk about “newness” as if it were the same thing as “escape.” As if every new job and new address offered a fresh start, a blank slate.

In reality there’s never a brand new start—only cycles of transformation. Cycles of loss and resilience and renewal.

We don’t begin again with something brand spanking new: we begin with something changed.

      Fire cools; water seeks its own level.

In the military we’re used to movement and change. It comes with the territory (and our territory is, as I’ve blogged, wherever the military decides to send us).

Nor was this move about hardship. So, ok, maybe I left a few claw marks on the Gate 6 jet bridge at the Honolulu United Terminal as we departed? But we looked forward to my new assignment and our new home. We are grateful to be back on the East Coast, closer to friends and family. We are grateful for the chance to embrace a new community. I am grateful for the chance to minister in new ways.

Still, leaving a place where I’ve put down roots feels a good bit like watching a fire rage. The sense of being there, of having my bearings, of being in a community—all suddenly curling into smoke and rising away, never to be recaptured in the same way. Like a forest fire, a serious move leaves the ground fertile and ready for something new, but it also leaves the landscape barren-seeming and forlorn.

No wonder packing the boxes becomes such an issue.

Moving Box

* * * * * * * * * * *

There are things we could have done differently on this move. There are ideas I’d like to try next time.

One friend suggests “adult milk and cookies”—20 minutes every night, after the kids have gone to bed, to relax with your spouse, eat some cookies, and laugh about the day.

Another friend suggests taking “meltdown turns”: every time a new hurdle arises, one partner gets to freak out, the other has got to hold it together. Come the next crisis, you switch.

Mostly, however, I think I need to give up on the fantasy that we can rip up our lives and start again and make it look like a video by Martha Stewart. The fantasy that this could have been easy if we’d just planned hard enough…or meditated hard enough…or labeled the boxes ourselves…or kept the right perspective all the damn time.

Before it burns out, fire burns.

Before they find their level, floodwaters wreak havoc.

To put it in Old Testament terms: the Children of Israel had to wander in the desert before they reached the Promised Land. And despite all the manna and tambourines, that desert period was a total mess.

But deep down I suspect that when I give up the fantasy of making life transitions easy, I am not left with something less fantastic.

I’m simply left with my one true—and wild and precious—life.

Tina+Leaves+Admission+Set+Jdnyzg1gmBclMade even more wild the day Tina Fey calls to say she’d like to interview me for inspiration for this lead role in which she recently was cast for a movie about a loving, middle-class couple making another big cross-country move with two kids…

 

Let There Be Light

Winter 2015 is a season of gathering darkness in far more than the customary sense of shorter days.

It is everywhere.

Mass shootings in our places of study and work and play. Terror attacks abroad, terror attacks at home. Wars that are underway—and wars that seem impending but only dimly understood, so that we barely know how to protest or avert them.

Then there are the mounting choruses of hate.

Slurs about Syrians and Muslims. Fears of allowing refugees and immigrants into the US. Supporters of an US Presidential candidate shouting “Sieg Heil! ” as security dragged off a Black Lives Matter protester.

This last one—Americans parroting the slogans of a fascist regime my parents’ generation sacrificed so much to defeat—is horrifying.

Yet, according to traditions old and young, this season is one for festivals of light. Christmas. Chanukah. Kwanzaa. Diwali. Loi Krathong. And the varied pagan and solstice traditions—observed in their own right, or mixed and blended with more recent ones.

Having been born and raised Christian in the US, I am aware how easy it is to run roughshod over other people’s winter celebrations, flattening them into our Christmas preoccupations. (“Yeah, but you light those candles for the baby Jesus!” I once heard a Christian child inform a Jewish one at Chanukah!)

Still, there is a reason so many peoples and cultures celebrate a world of light as darkness gathers.

At the best, most meaningful margins, we learn and grow stronger by tending to the light that other customs spread.

Last week, when I passed those few homes with lit Chanukah candles in the window, I felt warmed and fortified. The Chanukah story is a tale of triumph by an oppressed and outnumbered group. It also is a story of hope, community, faith, and the triumph of light—light that lasted much longer than the Jews of Assyria had fuel to burn.

From “the other side,” a Jewish friend recalls the sense of joy he gained from belting out Christmas songs in grade school. He honored his roots the best way he knew how, going silent on words like “Savior” and “Christ. ” Still, he says, the music filled him with authentic wonder; to this day, O Holy Night moves him to tears.

We are not “all the same.” But we recognize the sameness of the light within one other and in each other’s winter rites.

The light of compassion and love.

The strength to persist in dark times, which is itself an eternal human flame.

* * *

The first time I had to respond as a religious leader to a mass shooting was here in Hawaii on November 2, 1999.

Early that morning, a worker at the Xerox offices opened fire and killed seven coworkers. He fled the scene, then staged a standoff with police outside a nature center just mountainside of Waikiki. School children were effectively trapped inside until his surrender. The entire island was affected, whether we knew the victims or not.

I reached out to other Unitarian Universalist ministers around the nation, seeking advice and solace. But at the time, only one colleague had experience with such an event. His name was Joel Miller, who served as minister to the UU congregation in Columbine, Colorado.

Now, 16 years later, many of my colleagues have responded to school or workplace killings. They responded to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and to the destruction of lives and families wrought by the wars that followed. They responded to police shootings and to the shooting of protestors speaking against police brutality.

It makes me realize what a funny relationship to violence we have in the US. There are so many kinds of violence we refuse to see or feel touched by. Rape is treated as a source of shame, a prod to silence. We turn away from domestic violence and child abuse, as if we were made safer by not noticing. And for decades, white communities have chosen not to notice the systemic violence brought against people of color by the very institutions meant to keep us safe.

Many in this country glut themselves on violent television shows, violent movies, violent music, violent games, then easily speak of how all that violence is mere fantasy. Meanwhile, for so many years, we have dwelled in a bubble of seeming national invulnerability, believing that war and terrorism are things that happen elsewhere.

Perhaps that is why we find it so difficult to cope with our new realities?

We are not simply scared that we (or loved ones) could fall prey to acts of random barbarity. We are scared that our sense of safety was never as secure as we made it out to be.

And the response? Somehow, instead of pulling together, Americans are turning on each other with a terrifying ferocity. Sometime “just” with words—but also, increasingly, with fists or knives or guns.

It is a season of eating our own.

* * *

“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy,” wrote the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

These last words have been passed around so often as meme, it can be easy to overlook their awesome might.

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

Light preached as the only response to encroaching darkness. By a man who was called to understand the darkness of hate better than any of us should ever be.

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Christmas Eve 2013

* * *

We speak of light as a force for good so often and so casually, I fear we forget to wonder what is special about that feeling of light in the first place.

Perhaps that is the universal reminder the winter holidays bring?

Light is special because when we locate that spark of love and hope within ourselves, we feel stronger. We feel steadier. We see the future more clearly by its glow. And we feel more clearly our power to shape it.

Light is special because, when we nurture that spark within our own selves, we see it more readily in others. Sometimes in quick and fleeting ways: that brief smile shared with a stranger that communicates more goodwill than eons of sermonizing could ever do. Sometimes in more durable ones: the knowledge that we can return to friends and family and be embraced, be made stronger, be rekindled.

And light is special because it connects to a force beyond us. Whether we call it God or Goddess or Nature or Creation or the Divine—there is a force that magnifies the light we find within ourselves.

That force is the star in the sky so bright that it draws people of light and goodwill to one another in a sacred space. It is the candles of pagan ritual that make a brilliant place of wonder and delight within the darkest and most precarious corners of life. It is the unseen energy that lets oil enough to burn for one night instead burn strong and steady for eight.

This is a time of darkness in the world, though it need not be a season of despair.

May this year’s season be one of connection and magnification. A time we locate again the spark within ourselves, no matter how fragile. A time we recognize the flame of every courageous heart, of every beautiful and ennobling rite, and feel our own hope grow stronger by their lights.

A season when we welcome in anew the force that carries light into existence, allowing it to fan our collective sense of will, making it stronger than we thought possible—and letting love and hope prevail against the growing human night.

Honolulu Christmas Lights

Delivering Our Children: A Mothers’ Day Reflection

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Holding Hands. (Portland, ME, 13 September 2010)

Swapping birth stories with a friend (what could be more appropriate for Mother’s Day?), she reported what she calls the “Frogger Effect.” 

The first time she took her infant daughter out in the car, the roadways seemed transformed into a giant video game. Rather than orderly traffic, other cars became massive objects whizzing towards her at unreal speeds. Danger was everywhere.

“I was crouched down over the wheel, checking my mirrors constantly. It felt like the whole world was trying to prevent me from getting this one baby, my baby, safely to the other side of town.”

The image of my friend, her hair all in disarray, her shirt stained with baby spit up, hunched down over the steering wheel of her car, fearing that she and the baby could be flattened at any moment just like the Frogger frog, as she navigated the placid roads of her suburban town, cracked me up and made me feel for her.

But also? The Frogger Effect started me thinking about motherhood can seem like a constant task of delivering one child, your child, to the next point of safety in a dangerous, fast-moving world.

From those first anxiety-filled weeks, from one developmental milestone to the next, making sure your child gets what he needs—the right nutrients, the right toys to stimulate her brain, the safe surfaces to crawl on, the right shoes to support his feet as he starts to wobble and walk. Then into toddlerhood, and gradeschool, and middle school, and beyond… Day by day, year by year, overflowing with love and stress, trying to ensure this child gets to the next secure place. Trying to anticipate and neutralize the unpredictable objects whizzing by on the screen.

There is a way in which motherhood—parenthood—all too often does feel like an extended game of Frogger.

It’s a real frame, but an isolating one.

Motherhood bonds us each to our own. It provokes the deepest sense of commitment many of us will ever feel—a commitment to ensuring our unique, irreplaceable children, make it through the maze of obstacles and threats we understand the world to be.

However, it also has the capacity to bind us to something greater, to universal cycles of birth and love and growth, to the near-universal urgency of wanting one’s children to survive and flourish—and the near-universal sense of pain when they are in jeopardy.

These qualities are not limited to the human world. Elephant babies walk underneath their mothers until they are big enough to walk in the herd without being trampled. Mothers touch their babies over and over with their trunks as they travel, reassuring them, keeping them on track. They nurse their children for several years, and tend them closely until they are teens. The mother-child bond can last for decades, and an elephant mother whose baby dies will trail behind the herd, grieving her loss.

3 Generations. (Mt. Prospect, IL, May 1968)

“Honor thy father and mother” is the Fifth of the Ten Commandments. As a Unitarian Universalist minister, I am not often caught citing the Book of Exodus. But the Commandments are a fundamental expression of the attempt to order the world—and it is noteworthy that honor thy father and mother takes spot Number 5.

The first four commandments speak to humans’ duties before God: affirming God’s greatness, establishing God’s singularity; forbidding idolatry; and sanctifying the Sabbath.

Commandments six through ten tell us how to behave toward one another: no murdering; no adultery; no stealing; no lying; no coveting.

There in the swing position, in spot number 5, is honor thy father and mother. The implication seems to be that Commandment Five is both about honoring our unique, individual parents, and honoring God as the parent above all parents. It refers to the particular and universal, the earthly and the divine.

This bit of ancient wisdom is worth remembering on Mother’s Day, though perhaps with a more modern, less patriarchal rendering: behind our individual families are infinitely larger forms of connectedness and belonging.

To truly deliver our children to the next safe space, to truly vouchsafe their futures, we need to care for the fates of children in ever wider circles, to build a world where justice and health and safety and opportunity are the norm.

To truly honor our mothers, we need to honor mothers everywhere, to recognize their own hopes for their children and recognize their particular sources of grief.

We need to honor the elemental forces that give life and call out the fiercest feelings of love and devotion that any of the species seem to know.

(Portland, ME, October 2010)