Upon Acquisition of Even More Technology (prayer)

I am hardly a Luddite.

Yes, I raised my children without cable and without commercial television. Though this may seem “out there” to you, dear reader, there are countless people where I live, in our church community and in our hippy-dippy charter school community, who choose that lifestyle.

(That is not to say that we didn’t watch television. Let me tell you, I raised my children right! We watched Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Their first television series was Star Trek: The Next Generation, followed by Buffy the Vampire Slayer. All on DVD.)

I have a desktop computer at home and a laptop that travels with me between home, work, and school. Last summer, I invested in an iPad buoyed by the rationale that I was flying often to the West Coast to attend to my aging mother: carrying the weight of the laptop was burdensome. Plus, the uses of the iPad as a nursing home chaplain were myriad.

Yet, I have resisted acquiring a smartphone. Nowadays, most people I know have one; it does not seem to depend on class/socio-economic lines. I know a few people who, like me, have not made the shift. I used to know a handful of people who did not have any cell phone, but that number has dwindled to more or less none.

I have held firmly onto my dumbphone. It was enough for me a few years ago to manage the shift to texting with a QWERTY keyboarBest-Qwerty-keyboard-phone1-300x164d, rather than the outdated press the number three button three times to get the letter “f.”

Today I can no longer say that I have a dumb phone. I have joined the ranks of so many of you. Though it was not in the original plan, it was a wholly volitional act.

Despite its inconsequential heft in the palm of my hand, it is weighing heavily on me.

It weighs heavily because it is yet another way I do not live lightly on the earth.

I am apprehensive because I know that I will be enticed to join the legion of people who, instead of feeling mildly awkward in communal social situations, focus their eye gaze on the magic screen in their hands, rather than at the sunset or the swoosh of the oncoming train or at another mildly awkward nearby human being who holds vast sums of Unknown and Mystery and Delight and Angst and Possible Kindred.

It will tempt and taunt me with its aural and visual alerts that swear their utmost need of my attention *RIGHT NOW* though their allegiance is suspect. I am pretty darn sure that it is not to my betterment or wholeness, but is on the side of consumption and distraction.

Of course, my new smartphone is an inanimate object. It has no loyalties. Though every buzz and tremble associated with all the cool apps I can download are connected to some enterprise intent on making a profit and involving me (or at least my personal data) in that process, they are not sentient.

They hold no power over me that I do not give them.

It is like what a wise friend wrote on my Facebook wall, after I had shared my confusingly deep dismay for my new toy tool. She wrote,

I like my smart phone and use it a lot for work. I got rid of our land line. Now, when I come home, instead of checking messages, etc, I get the snail mail, I hang up car keys, I hug my child, rub my dogs ears and take off for a walk! My smart phone is an alarm clock, a calculator, etc. but it knows its place!

It knows its place. My guess is the power comes not from it knowing its place, but from my friend knowing its place. May I, too, know the proper place of this powerful device.

For it is powerful. And it can be used for righteous means. As my friend and colleague, Theresa, reminded me, there are people, sick and disabled, for whom “those alerts are about access and connection. The phone itself serves as a communication platform in several ways….sometimes those phones are making a physical actual difference for people.”

A Prayer for Skillful Use of a Smartphone

May I know the good fortune that comes from possession of such an elegant, complex machine that fits in the palm of my hand.

May I show humility in the face of all that it can do.

May I appreciate all the good it makes possible and all the ways it enriches lives.

May I be wary of all the time it doth suck.

May I use this device to tap into and strengthen the interconnected web of all existence, rather than to add to its unraveling.

May I demonstrate the discipline to know when to disconnect, that it not lead to my ignoring other people, Nature, or my own heart’s true needs.

May I never check an alert while eating a meal, talking with a loved one, or during a movie at the cinema.

May this device increase my access to the Black Twitterverse and other forms of emerging social activisms that let me know the fuller truth and more complete reality.

May I regularly express my deep appreciation for the renewal of lapsed friendships and the establishment of new associations yet to be embodied facilitated by this medium.

May I never share a post without first going to Snopes.

May I always use these superpowers for good.

Thank you Facebook friends – Heather, Molly, and John/JP – whose ideas were incorporated into the above prayer with their permission.

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Begin Again in Love (sermon)

March 15, 2015

First Parish Church of Groton

Karen G. Johnston

Candidate for the Unitarian Universalist Ministry

Intern Minister

 (for audio version of sermon click here)

O, Oracle of Wikipedia! I beseech thee! I am unknowing and seek your wisdom: pray tell me, what meaneth “Ides of March”?

It turns out that in long-ago days before the Roman Republic became the Roman Empire, on the earliest calendar, before even the Julian calendar in which March is the third month, the Ides of March would have been the first full moon of the new year. So whether you knew it or not, today – well, a today of millennia ago – marks the new year.

lion-dance-653734_1280Which is good, since we have the Lion dancers with us, for they, too, mark the new year, though it is a different kind of new year, but still one based on the calendar of the moon. This lion dance is a ritual that has been observed by Taoists and Buddhists and others for over a thousand years. Typically, it marks the Chinese New Year, which was when they were originally scheduled to be here, about a month ago, but sometimes, new starts are postponed.

The lunar calendar gifts us with the fluid movement of dates Jewish new year, Rosh Shoshanah, and the Muslim new year, Muharram, both of which dance around our standard calendar year – January 1 to December 31.

And while you might be wondering how today’s hymns – both of which hearken to spring given the white OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAthat we see out the windows, spring is nearly upon us and officially comes on Friday, so we sing these hymns, as a sign of new life, new lease on life, rebirth, the start of the new seasonal cycle.

Not to mention we are a few short weeks away, with Easter soon upon us, from a new beginning that had its start with a rather heart-breaking ending.

So many new beginnings in any given passage of 365.25 days!

And what about those fiscal years, like the federal government with its October 1st start? And those which begin July 1 – like the Commonwealth of Massachusetts or October and this beloved place?

Then there’s September, which starts off the academic year. And the unique UU church year, with a start the first Sunday after Labor Day (unless you are on Nantucket or Martha’s Vineyard).

On the radio just the other day, I heard of another new beginning close to home: the story of Groton’s own Blood Family Slaughterhouse that after their devastating fire, they are starting again, too. The public radio reporter described this local business, known to treat the animals with compassion and respect before meeting their end, is held with affection by their wider community, and supported as they make their new start.

Beginning and ending, ending and beginning, all mixed up, distinct, but inseparable. The words of T.S. Eliot from our earlier reading echo here:

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.

There are always transitions in our lives: something ends, something begins. Sometimes there is warning, some ability to anticipate and at other times, it just knocks us flat on our backsides. Something we thought was starting, peters out. Something we longed for to end, just keeps on going.

Life is messy, curious, tragic, startling that way. Beginnings and endings, endings and beginning, all mixed up into one vibrant, turbulent, creative mix. It always will be; it seems the nature of things, for it turns out, it always has been, too.

Our Puritan ancestors made a new start in the so-called New World. Not just a new year, but a new life. And a new church.  Or a new kind of church.

Perhaps you remember this from your high school history class. Or perhaps it is new information to you: back in England in the 1600s, disallowed from listening to the new and creative preachers who were being precluded from serving their own churches, but were preaching in town squares and giving Thursday evening lectures, the Puritans either decided to leave in order to create new churches – ones without bishops.

They came to this continent, not wanting a change in theology, but a change in authority and a change in how the church, which they understood to be the body of Christ, was structured. They wanted to create a church – free (they hoped) from the hypocrisy of hierarchical leadership and censorship that they experienced in England.

They called it a free church.

Many of these churches were formed by people who knew each other back in England and who had already spent time figuring out what it is they wanted to create in this new beginning. Perhaps, after this service is over, one of you can tell me if that was true of the folks who settled this parish back in 1666.

First Church and Parish, Dedham, MA (Unitarian Universalist)

First Church and Parish, Dedham, MA (Unitarian Universalist)

In Dedham, Massachusetts, about forty miles from here, people gathered nearly thirty years earlier than the Grotonites. They gathered to create a new church and did not know each other so well – they came, as the record shows, from “divers parts” of England. Since they were starting anew, creating a free church without a blueprint from the Old Country, they spent time – lots of time – imagining the church.

They talked – lots of talk – developing their vision. One member, John Allin, kept copious notes. Though other churches forming in that era might have gone through a similar process, the records that Allin kept are, to say the least, ample, and have survived.  So what we know, we know about Dedham.

I want to express my modern day gratitude for these Dedham ancestors. Not only for this thoughtful, considered process, but also for the other thing for which they are perhaps more famous: they are that church where the “Dedham Decision” was made, which led, eventually in 1833, to the separation of church and state.

From their history, we can tell that the good people of Dedham talked for months and months in the years 1637 and 1638. Anticipating the needs of his future spiritual descendants, Allin wrote a narrative of the efforts of his people in building an animated, relevant religious community. He thought that such a project would not end, but would continue, and that future people – that’s us – might benefit from knowing what came before us.

For those of you whose thankless responsibility it is to take notes at all our various meetings, may you be gladdened that your efforts may serve future folk of this congregation and others. And for those of us who do not take minutes, but benefit from them, let us be sure to express our thanks to those who do.

In the very first paragraph of the narrative, Allin wrote of why he was recording for posterity’s sake. It is in “old speake” so I will translate afterwards:

“for future ages to make use of in any case that may occur wherein light may be fettched from any examples of things past, no way intending hereby to bind the co’science of any to walke by this patterne or to approve of the practise of the Church …”

He did not record his church’s decisions that we might stay loyal in letter.  He was not trying to grasp with an iron fist from the past into the future. His gift is one offered as an act of affection.

I remember when I first learned that we Unitarian Univeralists are descended ~ particularly through the first U ~ from the Puritans. It made no sense to me. Those people, as best as I could remember from my high school history class (which was on the West Coast, so did not give the topic the same kind of due it is given here in Massachusetts) were dour and theologically conservative. In modern parlance, we might call them “judge-y.” Weren’t they responsible for the Salem Witch trials? (The answer is yes, but that is another sermon.) It was hard, and still is, to see the family resemblance.

I’m pretty sure that if any one of them, including our new friend John Allin, were to be alive today and see what has happened with their congregations they would feel similarly.

This is where the brilliance of UU minister and historian, Alice Blair Wesley, comes in. She combed through all the historical documents related to the founding of the church in Dedham and ~ you might have to take my word on this ~ presents them in a way that is enjoyable to read.

For example, she discovered that even though we might suppose “our 17th century free church ancestors talked mostly about original sin, predestination and hellfire” she found that “not one of those topics is even mentioned in the record of the founding of the Dedham Church.”

Ah! The inkling of a resemblance: theology – traditionally defined as what we believe about the nature of god – may well be important, but it is not the central measure for why we gather.

She goes on to note that they elected their officers – a snub to those bishops back in England – and so we see ourselves again in this historical mirror: we choose our leaders, not leaving it to some outside hierarchy.

This was a whole new beginning.

As Wesley culled those ample historical records, she noticed that there was much use of “these words: reason, reasons, reasoned, reasoning, …” So we see the beginning of the inclusion of reason, not just tradition, as the authority for making religious decisions.

We take this for granted now, but there was a time when reason was not the primary tool within religious communities, be they Catholic or Protestant. Tradition. Scripture. Not reason. But here it is beginning to show itself. Another new beginning.

The biggest surprise of all? The most-used word by these judge-y, conservative, Original-sin infused peoples, appearing 32 instances within the first 24 pages?

Love. And affection.

They, too, began again in love. They laid the groundwork so that we, and other Unitarian Universalist congregations across the land, might rightfully claim,

Love is the spirit of this church,

and service is its law.

This is our great covenant:

To dwell together in peace,

To seek the truth in love,

And to help one another.

These words by James Vila Blake, which you will find in the grey hymnal (#473), are so resonant with our past, our present and our hopes for the future, that many UU congregations across the continent claim this not just as their birthright, but recite it as a part of weekly worship.

Those lay folk (and possibly a few ministers ordained in England and needing to be re-ordained in the new free church) in Dedham began anew, began in love.

With the end of old church must come some new way to accomplish the worthy tasks of being a religious community – they knew they needed a new way to structure their church, but they also knew that it could only be true, only be authentic, could only be real, if they began anew in love.

So may it be true for all of our endeavors.

May we begin again in love.

Amen.

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Out of the Mouths of Babes

This photograph is from the Carol M. Highsmith Archive at the Library of Congress.

This photograph is from the Carol M. Highsmith Archive at the Library of Congress.

It was a Sunday of worship when those gathered were paying homage to the efforts and sacrifices of the civil rights movement. It could have been the Sunday before the MLK Jr. holiday. It could have been the fiftieth anniversary of an important milestone in the civil rights struggle: the March on Washington or crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Maybe it was a Sunday in February, when our nation tries to squeeze all the history of a magnificent peoples into the month with the fewest days.

The choir had sung We Shall Overcome, which holds great resonance for the adults, given its holy purpose to encourage and console those who laid their bodies on the line for freedom. Even if they had been taught to sing it for Black history month in school, such the history behind the song is largely lost on these littlest ones.

Knowing this, the minister had decided to talk with the children about the song during worship. Because she knew children are smart, but aren’t always knowledgeable, she risked asking the gaggle what the title meant.  Her voice gentled, “What does it mean, ‘We Shall Overcome’?”

hands-220163_1280Little bodies became restless and hands stuck straight up in the air. A couple spoke ideas that did not hit the mark so well. One offered a response with which most adults would concur. Then, a six-year-old offered a different perspective.

Do you know that moment when you hear a word or a phrase, but you are actually mishearing it, but you don’t know it yet? Still, whatever imprecise thing that you hear turns out to have an unforeseen ring of truth?

This six-year-old child, to answer the minister’s question, said it means we shall overcalm.

Overcalm.

Can you hear how those two words, depending on where you grew up and what your accent is, might sound similar?

Overcalm.

The thing is, that child got it right.

For those foot soldiers practicing non-violence in the face of Southern racist brutality – biting dogs, water hoses, Billy clubs, tear gas – they had to be overcalm – hyper-peaceful – in order to overcome.

Photo credit: Charles Moore, 1963 — in Birmingham, AL

Photo credit: Charles Moore, 1963 — in Birmingham, AL

President Obama recently reminded the nation in his glorious speech at the foot of that infamous bridge in Selma, still ignobly named for a KKK grand dragon, that before crossing that metal and concrete span, the marchers were schooled in the reality of what they would face: how tear gas affects the body. They learned how to protect internal organs from mortal damage during a beating. They learned how to stay calm in the midst of a violent onslaught.

The philosophy behind and underneath and throughout Dr. King’s non-violent approach to freedom was based on Gandhi’s vision and strategy of Satyagraha. A Sanskrit word, Gandhi developed this in his non-violent campaigns in both South Africa and India. According to the folks at The Metta Center for Non-Violence,

Satyagraha can be understood as the vast inner strength or “soul force” required for nonviolent acts. Gandhi never defined nonviolence as passive resistance because he saw nothing passive about what he was doing. He believed that a dedicated gsatadherent to nonviolent resistance by taking authentic action to represent truth and working to uphold a just cause would inevitably reach the heart of the oppressor. Satyagraha is a positive and spiritually based form of resistance that starts in the heart of the resister and inevitably produces creative action.

In the 1950s and 60s, Satyagraha was refined for an American context using the power and wisdom of the Black church. Like its South African and Indian versions, American non-violence adherents are required to connect to a deep peacefulness in the face of violence. That deep peace is wider and more immense than any one individual can attain or create on their own. It is a peacefulness that is co-created by those who practice it at any one time, and across time, fueled by the holy spark of Mystery that surrounds us at all times.

Oh, how I wish that overcalm had been available to these police officers who keep shooting unarmed Black and Brown men – unarmed anybodies. Oh, how I lament that Darren Wilson did not access some overcalm so that he could have seen an unarmed 18-year-old man in front of him, instead of a demon, when he shot and killed Mike Brown in Ferguson that hot day last August.

In fact, I do believe it is available. I believe it is available to all of us. Available to you and available to me. I believe it is available even to Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo (who killed Eric Garner) and George Zimmerman who killed Trayvon Martin and…this list goes infuriatingly and tragically on.

It’s actually not my belief, or a belief, but fact. There is a new study with evidence that mindfulness, another concept from the same realm where Satyagraha and overcalm resides, might hold a key to interrupting the split-second process in the human mind that leads someone from first seeing a person and then, without realizing it, beholding a demon. The study explores what is called “implicit bias.”  It asserts that

Mindfulness meditation caused an increase in state mindfulness and a decrease in implicit race and age bias.

Though this doesn’t impact systematic or structural racism, which desperately needs dismantling, this is still powerful news. This says there is an available strategy to increase our capacity to notice when we are “othering” people – turning them into non-entities upon which we can project our insecurities and fears, the ground of which racism and sexism and other oppressions grow like noxious weeds, and from which lethal violence springs.

One of the most powerful shifts in perception that has come to me in the past half year or so is that the eruptions in our nation are not originally about Black rage, though that is present as a response.  At its root, it is about White rage against progress, as Carol Anderson so powerfully describes in this OpEd piece from the Washington Post:

Protests and looting naturally capture attention. But the real rage smolders in meetings where officials redraw precincts to dilute African American voting strength or seek to slash the government payrolls that have long served as sources of black employment. It goes virtually unnoticed, however, because white rage doesn’t have to take to the streets and face rubber bullets to be heard. Instead, white rage carries an aura of respectability and has access to the courts, police, legislatures and governors, who cast its efforts as noble, though they are actually driven by the most ignoble motivations.

White rage recurs in American history. It exploded after the Civil War, erupted again to undermine the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision and took on its latest incarnation with Barack Obama’s ascent to the White House. For every action of African American advancement, there’s a reaction, a backlash.

As a white person, I don’t have a say about how people of color choose or do not choose to respond to the injustices in their lives.  I am a huge fan of non-violence and compassion, but I am also aware that in this struggle, my role is to listen and is to support.

I do, however, have ~ pun intended ~ skin in the game when it comes to how white privilege and white supremacy get played out and how they get stopped.  If there is a strategy ~ like mindfulness ~ that would interrupt microaggressions and use of lethal force, then we must recognize this, spread the word, practice it in our own lives and increase access to others (especially  people with guns in their hands — because it’s not just cops who kill unarmed people of color — think Renisha McBride).

Out of the mouth of babes comes such necessary wisdom, the deep meaning of overcalm:   to exercise an inner peacefulness that connects us to a great source not of our making, available to all and especially available to those seeking justice on behalf of those treated unjustly, especially for moments and movements like this, especially for those seeking to create the Beloved Community.

Let us listen to children.  Let us all cultivate overcalm.  Let there be peace, but first let there be justice.

May it be so.

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For Someone in Deep Pain Who Does Not Yet Pray (prayer)

Let me begin by setting aside my skepticism,

my sarcasm, my doubt, my intellectualized judgment,

my clever snarky attitude that wants to

shut me up and keeps me shut down.

I do not release it completely,

for it serves me well in other circumstances,

but I let go my tight grasp,

leaving room for something more.

Let me say these words:

dear god,

and not choke, not giggle,

nor fill with fear.

If I cannot bring myself to say,

dear god,

let the sweetest voice I know,

someone who loves me deeply,

unconditionally,

let their voice, be the voice that says,

dear god.

And if my pain is so loud,

(which it is too many days)

that I cannot hear the voice of a loving friend;

if my mind so full of hurt and shame,

that I cannot remember anyone

who loves me without end,

let me imagine someone,

someone soft, and kind,

whom I’ve not yet met,

whose name I give as Phred,

(yes, it is okay to laugh,

laughter is a salve),

Phred will bathe you

in the light of love.

It will be Phred’s voice,

cooing to you, this prayer:

dear god, I am in pain.

dear god, I fear this pain will consume me.

dear god, I try to hide from others

how big this pain is,

but I think some can see it

on my face,

in how I walk,

in how I run away.

I pray that there is something in me,

that is not this pain;

I pray that there is something in me,

that is not this shame;

I pray that there is something in me,

that is not this darkness.

dear god, I don’t always believe that.

I ask you to, when I cannot.

dear god, I don’t even believe in you,

dear god, I don’t know if I believe in you,

still I ask for this immense thing:

let me find the strength to repeat these words:

There is something in me that is not this pain.

There is something in me that is not this shame.

There is something in me that is not this darkness.

dear god, whom I am not at all sure exists,

dear god, whose name I am saying only to please a friend,

give me the strength, to say these words, too:

There is something in me that is worthy;

there is something in me that is true;

there is something in me that is whole.

Amen.

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Prayer on the 50th Anniversary of Selma

(labeled for non-commercial reuse)

(labeled for non-commercial reuse)

audio version here

Dearest God, Sweet Divine Spark,

we call out now,

in hope that all Creation will hear.

This planet, Oh God, is reeling.

The nations, Dear Lord, are suffering.

The peoples, Tender Mercy, are full of pain.

There is violence and injustice,

racism and oppressions,

both far and near.

People we do not know are hurting.

People we do know are hurting,

Dear God, we are hurting.

We feel the weight of history and its brutality.

We hear the call of the future and its possibilities.

Earth Spirit, we wonder about hope:

its promise, its turbulance, its endurance.

Spirit of Life, we pray: let us not confuse

hoping with wishing,

hoping with waiting.

Abiding Source, on the road of hope,

let us run and not grow weary,

let us walk and not grow faint.

hope-393239_640Holy One, God of Many Names and None,

forgetting not the cruelties and silences of our own history,

nor the acts of magnificent generosity and courage,

let us choose again and again

to be agents of transformation.

Gracious God, let us choose hope.

Posted in Hope, Prayers, Standing on the Side of Love, Unitarian Universalism | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Winning His Battle with Brain Cancer: A Good Man Has Died

Mark Green

Mark Green

Yesterday, my friend Mark Green died.  We knew each other in college.  In our first year, we narrowly avoided a one-night stand without loss of dignity or friendship.  In later years, at mutual friends’ wedding, our girls turned out to love to play together.  I last spoke to him in December, as his mind turned toward his own memorial service.

As someone more intimate with Mark wrote, he “won” his battle with brain cancer.

Clearly, this definition of winning is different than what we usually hear. It is, I believe, a much braver one.

This tumor-thing, once it fully insinuated itself, always meant the end of body sensations: the circulation of blood, the exhalation and inhalation of breath, the prickle of goose bumps, the voluntary and involuntary shedding of tears, the under-production of saliva, the what-have-you. The when and the where were unknown, though as February arrived, it became clearer.

Yet winning did not mean staying alive in body. That would have been magnificent, but strangely, secondary.

It meant staying alive in spirit.

Not ceding humor, or kindness, or playfulness, or generosity.

That would have been the more tragic death.

It meant facing death, not turning away. For Mark, this meant blogging with courage, humor, and a frank quality that only those facing death can articulate.  He wrote about the utter inconvenience of seizures when it comes to writing.  Learning the fine art of keening as only wailing could approach the grief and lament this disease brought.  How he chose laughter in the face of his muddled brain misleading him to destroy the door to his garage.  Plus, usually some video clip of music without which the message would not have been whole.  He even wrote for Huffington Post.

It meant gathering people together, seeking them out or bringing them together.  Taking joy and delight in their company, accepting their support and their presence, and I imagine, sharing each others’ grief for the muddled, pained thing it was.

It meant opening to whatever might be the unexpected company of this cancer.   Opening to insights – old or new or ones that didn’t use to be true, but are now. Truths against which one need no longer defend; now an appreciative eye and a gesture that says, “Sure, you can sit here with me. I don’t mind. Tell me what you have to say. I’m listening.”  Seeing gifts where others might see tragedy.

It meant casting his fiercely loving lot with the organization, Accelerate Brain Cancer Cure, working not only for his own benefit, but also for the treatment and survival of others facing similar versions of this disease.

There is a concert happening March 28, 2015, to raise money to support funding research for brain tumors, which gets little to no public funding. Organized by Karin Mallory, it is a community effort and a community response. A band called the Steel Wheels will be performing, along with others. The concert will take place in Bellows Falls, Vermont but you don’t need to be there. It will be livestreamed so you can watch, rock out, and most importantly, DONATE.

Watch the video below to learn more (and to see Ken Burns, and Carly Simon, and Tom Bodet, and a host of other folks who want you to see this concert and support this cause). Mark is the devilishly handsome, utterly-kind bald guy with the round glasses at about 1:40.

Mark’s Facebook wall has become a community of grief and celebration.  There, I found this quote from Mark, which came from this interview, recorded in August, 2014.  I think this is yet another way that Mark redefined what it means to win:

thanks, Alex Case (source)

thanks, Alex Case (source)

May we all know what it is to win in the way that Mark has shown us in life and in death.

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Reading Life Into Failing Bodies: The Chaplaincy of Eros and Thanatos

A third of my summer chaplaincy internship was spent at a nursing home. It was quite a contrast from the pace of chaplaincy work at the hospital, each with much to commend it.

At the hospital, I liked the pastoral-care-as-extreme-sport, the showing up at the ER in the middle of the night because someone really, really needed you. I discovered that I have a gift for ministering to angry-men-about-to-explode-from-grief. Most relationships were short in duration and yet, I was still able to develop genuine affection for real people I will likely never see again.

At the nursing home, the pace was much slower. Much. Instead of a pager blaring the need for middle-of-the-night be-here-a-minute-ago, at the nursing home there was the announcement over the P.A. system a full half hour in advance of Bingo starting, because it took  t  h  a  t     l  o  n  g  for the residents to walk the hallway.

At the nursing home, I was able to develop longer-term relationships, ones filled with appreciation, curiosity, delight, and affection:

The woman with early-onset Alzheimers who blasted music in her room.

The woman whose body folded in upon itself.

The woman whose stroke left her communicating by pointing to a letter board, often ignored due to the effort it took to communicate with her.

The man who gave me his Tehillim (Jewish book of psalms), which I cherish to this day.

The woman who was so so lonely, wishing to be at the end of her life, but resigned that it was not yet time.

The one who had not yet given up that her chronic pain might one day cease.

“Bart” was literally twice my age. Plus one year. I cannot tell his story here to protect his confidentiality, but it is a particularly poignant one, which added to my intrigue and enjoyment of our visits together.

Bart flirted shamelessly with me. All the time. Every pastoral visit.

I didn’t quite know what to do with this flirting. It left me flustered. Surprised. Unsure. Uncentered. Not sure what to do with this particularly strong energy.

Now, being an Our Whole Lives trainer, I know that…

…”old people” are sexual beings…

…”old people” have sexual feelings…

…”old people have sex”…

(…and not necessarily safer sex, as it turns out: the rates of sexually transmitted infections among our elders are high and growing.)

Not that long ago, the Daily Beast published an article titled, “Sex and the Senior Citizen: How the Elderly Get it On,” by Barbie Latza Nadeau. In it, the author notes a British study that reveals that nearly one third of men aged 80-90 are still masturbating or having sex (compare this to 14% of women in the same age range).

For Americans, the numbers are slightly different, but we are still getting some action:

https://i2.wp.com/flowingdata.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/Sexual-health-table.png

from the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior

I just learned about Unitarian Univeralist minister, Rev. Hugo “Holly” Holleroth who recently published a book, called “The Naked Truth about Aging.”  Worth a look?  I’m certainly going to check it out.

Even though I knew that we all are sexual beings our whole lives;

Even though I knew there is a strong connection between Thanatos (death, and in this case, aging) and Eros (erotic love, life force);

Even though I knew nothing inappropriate or untoward was going to happen;

It’s something to “know” a thing and it’s something different to experience that energy focused insistently, if respectfully, on me. Bart’s flirting rattled me.

I was out of my depth. So I explored these pastoral visits frankly with my supervisor — after an initial bout of timidity, our discussions flourished with spiritual and intellectual curiosity about this powerful dynamic. I reflected on transference and counter-transference; on the emotional and spiritual power that elderly Bart might be experiencing as he expressed this part of himself often is often invisible or unrecognized, perhaps even discouraged; on my discomfort, on my own sexual powers, and on pastoral authority that might be derived from that source. I was deeply thankful for a supervisor and a level of trust strong enough that we could do this depth of supervision.

As a chaplain, I wanted to honor this natural, beautiful, primal, essential impulse in this awesome human being as best as I could and as much as my role as a chaplain would allow. It was not easy. I leaned heavily on those supervision sessions.

In the end, I chose to ignore some flirtations, redirect others as necessary, and without shaming him or feeling embarrassment myself, engage some — as appropriate, even trying to use them as a way to get at deeper, existential questions for this man. Meeting him where he was at – a cardinal rule of chaplaincy.

Life.

Aging.

Sex and life.

Sex and aging.

Sex and edging toward death.

Sex and life and aging and death.

One gorgeous, edgy, voluptuous cloth.

Bart asked me, and I chose, to step outside any box of comfort previously known to me. I’d like to think that I am a better person and better minister because of it.

Thank you, Bart.

P.S. The title of this post comes from a line of one of my poems, which you can find here.

Unitarian Universalists have a long history of courage in tackling issues around human sexuality—from campaigning for human rights, to pioneering innovative work in the Our Whole Lives sexuality curriculum… join #UUs this month for a discussion of sex–the challenging parts, the beautiful parts, the spiritual parts, and even the downright goofy parts. UU or not, everyone is welcome to join in the conversation this month at #sexUUality

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