Thursday, December 18, 2014

In My Father's House There are Many Mansions...

In John 14:2, the Christian Bible reads "My Father's house has many rooms." This verse, actually a prooftext for Trinitarian Christianity, is not one you'll hear often in UU selections from the New Testament. And, actually, upon study of the Greek, a closer reading would be, My father's house has many mansions...

How can a house have mansions? The writer, alleged to be John, was trying to express an idea of the afterlife, where all souls would be compensated for their earthly faithfulness. When I read this passage, I hear a loving Jesus taking words from the Hebrew texts to comfort his followers about his imminent demise. I am going to be with our Father, and soon we will be together again.

Unitarians and Universalists don't focus upon the afterlife, so I'm going to take these words a bit differently. I've been living in my own father's house since August, the one he bought in about 1950 when he and his brother were both bachelors.

Let me just say that in this house there are many mansions with many, many rooms full of memories both wonderful and dreadful, and that all of them have been swirling about me in these past months, living here again after forty years of living in other places.

This is my room.. it used to to be my older brother's room. He read, a lot, and now he's an English professor. I won't talk about his memories, because they are his own, but I will say that my mother died in this room when my twin sister and I were 5 and our brother was 7.

This screened porch is the place where I read so many books as a young girl. There's a wisteria outside that my dad planted. I sometimes slept out on this porch in summer.

Nearby is a park now. I walk there frequently, and think about things. I marvel about getting older, time passing, and how different it would have been if that park were there when I was young. A place to go with my thoughts and dreams and wonderings.
Places: New Jersey has its own culture, and I never even realized this until I was away. Diners, drive-ins, fresh seafood, real pizza, lots of authentic Italian food, a certain attitude, the way people drive, a great directness and loyalty about the people. I never even knew how much I missed it. Part of me never wants to leave again.

This is my home. 

Most of all, these are my people.

There's even a Jazzercise less than 2 miles from my father's house! Remarkably, the house and our 4 acres is pretty much the same, but the surrounding community has grown, so I can access almost anything I want. Still, it feels pretty rural, and within a short drive, I'm back in the Pinelands.

Make new friends, but keep the old. This is Julie, I LOVE her! She's just the greatest woman I've met in Kentucky, and I've lived there fifteen years. 
Julie reminds me of the friends I had when I was a young mom, and had to move away from.. so smart & wise and thoughtful and authentic. So interested in ideas and not what she has or how she looks (although se is very lovely anyway :)


Back in New Jersey, I'm getting to spend time with some of my oldest and most wonderful friends. This is Linda, and no, were were not at Downton Abbey,  just at an exhibit in Delaware. I don't know whether it was me, or Kentucky, but I never had woman friends that I just hung out with and did things with. Here I've been out to breakfast and dinner and the movies, making cookies, and lots more with my old friends. And I'm looking forward to connecting with more of them. I asked myself what all of my most beloved friends had in common. Absolutely, all of them are people who love to learn, are interested in life and people, and who don't judge, who are genuine and whose hearts and  intentions are sincere. I have been so blessed to have such friends!

This Thanksgiving, we were all here at my father's house. All except my oldest son Casey. I've had a chance to reconnect with my stepmom as she struggles with early dementia, and with my younger sister. I've been closer to my daughter who is in Massachusetts. 

Best of all. I've had the space and the time to wander through the many mansions in my father's house. There are locked doors, long, dusty corridors, beautiful courtyards, quiet nooks, and disturbing haints. It's a good time to do this wandering, and wondering, and the mansions are vast.

Thursday, December 04, 2014


I don't know.

I thought it was me. I spent one whole day reading everything. I trolled Facebook and read all the recommended articles (granted, my friend list has pretty much narrowed itself down to liberals and progressives). I even watched TV (msnbc).  I listened to NPR as I drove to and from my interim ministry an hour away. I read comments and online conversations of colleagues in ministry. I lay around contemplating and wondering, praying and just trying to absorb it all, just letting my heart expand to take it in. I couldn't stop watching, and reading, and listening. I cried.

What I didn't do was have conversations with any actual live people. 

I think I just didn't feel that I could take it if they said something awful, or disparaging about Ferguson, or about the protesters. I didn't expect anyone in my congregation to do this. I believe, in fact I know, that they have done and are doing the work. They are actively working to become anti-racist. I feel confident that I can speak to them this Sunday without fear or anxiety. That is not how all my colleagues, even in our very liberal Unitarian Universalist churches, feel about this issue. Many have already been questioned, maligned, and verbally assaulted for speaking out and speaking up. So I know that I am blessed and that I have been blessed in the congregations I have served. And: I take some credit as well. I don't ever let racism go un-addressed.

That's Melissa Harris-Perry. You know that. I saw her in Lexington, KY last year with my daughter. I'm holding her book, Sister Citizen.  Until this week, I hadn't read it. It was up at Smith College with Marjorie. She tackles every topic related to women of color, power, politics, and black motherhood... a fabulous piece of work. She writes at length about Michelle Obama, some complimentary, some not so much.

This is a bit off track, but simply the fact that this very week someone had the nerve to criticize his teenage daughters for what they wore and their expressions as if they were somehow common trashy people... just shows the way that people have treated the Obama family from day One. It amazes me that the President and Mrs. Obama have endured it with so much grace and elan.

But Melissa H-P is writing about women, and how they respond to racism, both personal and institutional. As I read her words, it came to me that I would address the Brown decision (and then, as I wrote my homily, the Garner case hit the news) through the lens of a mother's eyes.. a white mother who has evolved slowly to feel deeply the pain and suffering of women and mothers of color. I would talk about my own decades long journey, one I am still on.

So, interestingly, the first live person with whom I discussed the events of the past few weeks, other than my kids, was my dear friend of 40 years, Brenda. We have known each other through marriages and divorce (mine), 7 kids and one grandchild, illness and health, and across the miles have remained close. That is all because she is such a wonderful person.

I am not a great one for keeping in touch! Funny that I'm a writer, because I'm "one poor correspondent," as the song says. She, on the other hand, is faithful and always thoughtful... never forgets an occasion or fails to make time for a visit when I'm in town if she is at home.

There are so many examples of synchronicity in our friendship. Even the way we met, working at a restaurant at the shore, then met up again when our husbands were in a wedding together, and then, after many more decades, ran into one another at STONEHENGE (see picture) when neither of us even knew the other was traveling to the UK... in fact, we were on the same very small tour of 6 people who went out to Stonehenge together.

After Eric and I adopted Seth, Brenda was so supportive. She'd always sent Marjorie little gift packages at holidays and now Marj was grown, but she resumed doing so with Seth. She has an Autistic nephew, so she knew just how to please him and make him feel welcomed and relaxed when ever we visited New Jersey. During the years that we went through his "I want to be a girl" phase, she even gave him a Barbie doll. So... wonderful friend.

Our religious beliefs are somewhat different, as she is more of an orthodox Christian, but I could see as years went by that she became more and more open to understanding and accepting all the different ways people had of approaching God and of being in touch with what they understood to be holy. I recall that once she told me she'd gone to Buddhist meditation at a nearby monastery. 

So, really, I should have been prepared for what she told me today.

I hadn't seen her since I've returned to New Jersey, so we had breakfast and talked for two hours! At that, we could have talked longer. But it was she who brought up Ferguson. She said that it was just weighing upon her so heavily and that she and her husband had been discussing it. She spoke about her sister, who has been a police officer in Texas for decades, and how she had just been thinking so much about all of it and all the way back to slavery.

And then she said, I just feel that we have to pay Black people. We have to make reparation for slavery. Just like what was done for victims of the Holocaust. For Vietnam. It will never begin to be right until we go back and get that right.

I was just flummoxed. Here I am, reading Facebook posts from UU ministers who have people in their congregations who don't even agree that we should be saying #blacklivesmatter and my beautiful, loving, compassionate friend, whom I thought was a little bit conservative, is talking about the MOST radical idea, thank you very much: reparations.

We talked some more. I shared with her my ideas for my sermon: how I had come to see that even though my early years were very much passively racist in that there was no exposure to persons of color until I went to high school, and my father especially made it clear that African American people were unwelcome in our home. I told her how it was literature that first opened my eyes and heart. In fact, it was a short story by Eudora Welty called A Worn Path. There came a huge shift in my consciousness that day.

She then shared with me that when she was in college, she made a collage of happy faces. A Black woman sitting next to her asked her why there weren't any black faces in her collage. She replied that she guessed there weren't any in the magazines she read. She went on to ruminate about this. For both of us, these were moments which shattered the white world we had walked in. I suspect they are given to every white person. The difference is that some of us allow them to awaken us. This moment, as we shared these memories, was so profound. I pray that every Caucasian person have such a conversation.

I went to Trader Joe's. I went to Shop Rite. I took my stepmom to the bank. I saw Black people and I felt like I could look them in the eye. I felt so much love, such an open, open heart. It was real.

And so the world spins on. Don't count anyone out. We're all marching toward love. We're going to get there. Let's keep pulling one another along, however we can. 

Monday, November 24, 2014


Last Thursday, I had the opportunity to volunteer at a Food Bank in Atlantic City.

The irony of it all was not lost upon me as I drove the few short miles from the congregation I am serving in Galloway, NJ across the causeway to the home of huge casinos, ticky-tacky shops, and block upon block of urban poverty. There are probably few places where affluence and need rub elbows so conspicuously. The last time I was in AC was decades ago. I barely remember the evening, but I know it was during my first marriage, and we drove in to see a show and then left.

So, my work that day may have helped a few people, but it had the biggest impact on me.

This relatively modest food bank, housed at St. Andrews Lutheran Church, had prepared almost 200 sets of bags to give away. As I arrived at eight AM, I had to walk past a line of several dozen folks waiting patiently for thee doors to open... at TEN AM. Yes. People arrived and stood outside for more than two hours, a very cold morning, to be sure they got two grocery bags of canned and packaged food, and a small portion of eggs, meat and produce.

At the very front of the line sat an elderly gentleman in a wheelchair, who caught my attention as I passed the folks, most of whom greeted me with a "Good Morning." He held out an empty water bottle and asked whether I could fill it for him. I asked him to wait a moment, and upon entering, I introduced myself to the pastor who was already in the front office, and repeated the request. "Normally the answer would be no. But just do it so everyone doesn't see, or we'll have to get water for everybody." The man was so grateful. All I did was fill a small bottle with water.

For the next six hours, we worked steadily to fill and distribute bags. I counted food items, passed bags to the front, took IDs and helped folks adjust the bags for transport. Many of the clients had carts for carrying the bags, a few said they had a ride or a vehicle, but some had nothing except their own two arms to carry away two very heavy bags filled with cans of beans, bags of rice, frozen meat, and produce. Those in wheelchairs had to somehow attach the bags to the chair so they could maneuver the food back home. Not everyone took the frozen meat. Hundreds of AC's casino workers live in run-down hotels where they have nothing except a microwave to prepare food.

Our clients were amazingly cheerful and courteous. It was clear that they were accustomed to the drill: wait for hours and then go through a screening to make sure you are who you say you are (people have to be registered, and can only do so by showing ID, household bills, etc), then show your ID again as you pick up the food. For anyone who still thinks the poor are lazy, this would be a wonderful antidote. It seemed to me much more challenging and demeaning than any job.

Still, I loved being there. The volunteers were instructed to treat each guest kindly and to welcome them warmly, and we did. Even a shred of respect and dignity seems to brighten the day for these folks. That evening, a sea of faces swam before me as I drove home. I couldn't easily dismiss the images of indigence I had encountered. I understood the headlines now. Atlantic City casinos have closed down in swift succession this fall, each time leaving thousands of people without work. The situation of AC's poor has worsened dramatically, as more and more folks compete for scarce relief. Hence, the long lines at this, and I assume, all food banks.

There are hundreds of food banks in New Jersey. Hundreds of thousands of people do not have enough to eat. This includes children and the elderly and infirm. The need is appalling when set beside the affluence that is the world of the casinos and wealthy patrons.

I spent some time looking at food bank activity in my home state, Kentucky.The  church I served in Lexington always gave money and food donations to God's Pantry. 

Still, I had never visited their website, nor had I made an effort to find out who the hungry are. Our church was located in a suburban part of town, and it didn't occur to me to do so. Most of the poorest and neediest folks in Kentucky live in the eastern counties, in Appalachia. It's entirely possible to navigate life without encountering these folks. And, many of us do. One has to make an intentional effort to meet them. And there is no single profile.... the poor in KY are mostly white, while at least 90% of those I served on Thursday were people of color: African American and Hispanic. Appalachia has always been poor, but the closing of mines in past decades, combined with the elimination of federal and state programs, has spurred a situation of dire need.

People of faith are commanded to help the poor:

Christian texts and Hebrew alike call for giving to the poor. Sadly, many have used the quote from the gospels ("The poor will always be with you..") to justify a complacency: If there will always be poverty, why try to fix it? But the original text, which Jesus referenced, is clear. In Deuteronomy, Moses gives the command of God thus:
You shall generously give to him, and your heart shall not be grieved when you give to him, because for this thing the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in all your undertakings.11"For the poor will never cease to be in the land; therefore I command you, saying, 'You shall freely open your hand to your brother, to your needy and poor in your land.'

Plenty of us feel we've done our part by donating money or food. Can we do more? Of course. Others (and I've heard this plenty from liberals) use the phrase "a hand up, not a hand out."

But just one day at a food bank will convince you that the "hand up" approach will never reach everyone. Circumstances of birth, mental illness, chronic ailments, and so many other factors combine to keep millions from being able to even take that hand. Meanwhile, we are called upon to feed them.

I think we must  make caring and compassion a priority, regardless of our faith or beliefs. 
We can start by examining how much food we waste and our own consumption.

Absolutely, we must work to change the system to minimize hunger.

But accepting that there will always be those who are poor must  never lead to complacency. The Buddhist teachings include a command to "sustain the gaze." This means to not look away when confronted with suffering. I believe many, many, otherwise compassionate and generous folks do not volunteer at food banks and missions because they care  and hence are unable to simply give to some without feeling guilty or compelled to fix everything. For me, sustaining the gaze means making an intentional effort to be in contact and solidarity with those who are in need, suffering, or otherwise afflicted. I also feel impelled to make sure my children learn this, and aren't sheltered from the need. It ought to be a part of their spiritual upbringing.

Do I do so? Not nearly often enough. So what I have written is for me as well as you.