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The sky has one more guiding star today

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Yesterday we lost a great man.  My uncle Gene died.  And when I say my uncle I really mean my husband’s uncle but in this chosen family of mine I was happy to call him uncle.  And, I think, he was happy to call me niece.  The reality is we had kind of lost him a long time ago.  He had Alzheimer’s and it had slowly sapped him of the thing that was him.  I and my family are glad that he is not suffering any longer.  And we will choose to remember him as he was just a few short years ago.

The picture above is of 4 generations of Navias men and one of my favorite. The photo seems to capture just each of their spirits.  Gene is the man in the blue striped shirt.

When I met my, as not yet, husband he at one point told me that his uncle was a Unitarian Universalist minister.  I being a UCC minister at the time laughed.  At the time I thought the idea of a UU minister was funny – how can one be a minister without a God.  How can you have a religion without a creed?  UUs to me were people who just could not commit.  And this is what the Karma fairy taught me – be careful what you laugh at.

My, as not yet, husband graciously did not respond to my pomposity.  For he knew that I would meet his uncle and I would understand.  He learned a lot of his graciousness from his uncle.

The man I met, who would end up marrying Geoff and I, and dedicating our two children, was a man formed in the UU faith.  He taught me so much about what it meant to be welcoming.  When I came to this faith and was greeted with some very sharp anti-Christian sentiment (much of it earned but still hard for a Christian like me who does not identify with the reactionary part of Christendom) it was Gene who could talk to me about it.  It was he who knew the history and had seen the shifts and changes.  He could connect the dots for me.  And he could lift up our Universalist heritage that has sometimes been so not heard.  He showed me what it means to be radically hospitable and hold your ground at the same time.

As an example I share this story.  When Geoff and I were first living together we hosted the family for Thanksgiving.  It was a wonderful exhausting experience.  All the family members contributed food and took turns cooking and cleaning.  Gene and his partner Stan took us all out for dinner one night (what a gracious reprieve from all the prep and cleaning).  I in my innocence  asked him, “So how did you and Stan meet?”  His eyes twinkled and he smiled at me – if you knew him you know that look – and he said “Well that can be quite a question to ask a gay male!  You never know what kind of answer you might get and if it can be shared in a setting like this.  But in this case it can Stan and I met at a meeting of folks who had a family connection with South Africa.”  He said this in a way that was warm and caring, not pejorative or finger wagging.  He answered my question and gently let me know that the way I asked the question belied my hetero-normative assumptions and privilege.  And he loved me in spite of it, or maybe because of it, or maybe both.

He was a wonderful support to me as I went through the process of becoming fellowshipped as a minister with the Unitarian Universalists.  He respected and affirmed all that I was my Christian faith and my desire to broaden that faith experience.  He never in any way expected me to leave some part of me at the door in order to be a UU.  And for me that is one of the powerful cores pieces of this faith of ours.  Each of us is welcome in our totality – we are not expected to hide some part of us.  We do not need to leave some part of ourselves at home.  We can be who we are fully.  And that is hard because sometime the person who I fully am does not like or get along with the person who you fully are.  Uncle Gene taught me that it isn’t about liking or agreeing, it isn’t about competition, winning or losing.  He taught me that it is about looking beyond our differences, looking beyond our similarities to the spirit of love that resides in each one of us.

In my own small way I hope I can carry on some part of that loving hospitable presence that Gene had.  He is missed.  But he lives on when we practice that open hospitality that Gene so easily shared.

What Church is for me

(A disclaimer to this post – I grew up going to church.  I went with my father.  And some of my earliest memories are sitting on his lap, wrapped in his arms, playing with his thumbs, smelling his aftershave and  the detergent my mom used on the wash, while listening to the music.  Church for me was first, and foremost a place of safety, of warmth, of love.  And I have never really lost that feeling completely.  I know that this is not true for many, many people.)

As of late there is a phrase I hear a lot, “spiritual but not religious.”  That is how people often describe themselves to me.    It makes sense that I hear that phrase a lot, first of all I am a minister in a Unitarian Universalist congregation.  A place filled with folks who are spiritual but not religious.  But also people tend to get a bit defensive about themselves around me.  They often seem to act as if they somehow need to explain themselves to me, as if I am going to immediately judge them for who they are or what they do.  It has taken me a long time to realize that I am not that kind of person, and I am not that kind of minister.  By and large, I meet people where they are.  I don’t hold up a lot of standards defined by categories like “If you are a Christian then you must behave this way, or if you are a UU then you must behave this way.”  I think that I recognize that we come in all shapes, sizes and variations.  That we are all trying our best and most days most of do do our best and most days a few of us don’t and most days one or two of us will really screw up.  But then I know tomorrow is another chance to do a bit better.

I used to like the phrase spiritual but not religious a lot.  It seemed to me that it described a person who was  a free thinker and feeler, perhaps less constrained by the negativity of institutional religion (of which there is a lot!)  I used to connect it with folks who were more interested in connecting with the positive loving force (who I call God) of the universe.  Perhaps I have just heard the phrase too much and I am getting a bit jaded.  Now I am beginning to be concerned that the phrase is beginning to become code for “I don’t want to be judged by you about why I don’t participate in church.”

I guess I would have to say that in some strange way I am not so interested in why people don’t come to church, specifically why they don’t come to the church I work at.  I am way more interested in why the people who are here, do come to our congregation.  I am way more interested in what makes us who we are in a positive way, what are our strengths.  I am way more interested in building on those.

If someone chooses not to come to this place, it may be our loss, it may be their loss, but I completely respect that choice.  Let us each find our own place of spiritual nurturance.  Let us each find the well from which we each can draw.

That being said I have a hard time understanding “Spiritual but not Religious.”  I accept  it and I respect it.  I am not asking anyone to change I just don’t get it, I can’t see me explaining myself that way.

I do get that there are times to be by oneself.  I write this column after taking some extra efforts to be outside on the balcony of my church building so that I can absorb the spring sun, watch and hear the creek, listen to the birds and watch the bees chase each other.  Each summer I spend a lot of time at a lake nearby just watching.  I watch the sunrise, I watch the sunset.  I watch the blue heron, the beavers, the kingfishers, the neighbors.  I watch the sun filter through tree leaves, and watch dark and light play together.  It is my sacred space and I go there often.

I have a neighbor at the lake I hang out at who says his dock is his church.  If I ever had the nerve to engage him on that one here is what I would say:

This dock is not your church.  It is your sacred space.  It is where you are most at home with yourself, and where you can touch that which is larger than yourself.  It is your sacred space and it should be – every square inch of it.  It is where you go to let go of the effect of the work a day world that eats away at you.  It is where you go to restore yourself.  It is your sacred space.  And you deserve it.

But church is where you go to be with other people.  It is where we bring ourselves with all our quirks and shortcomings where we will be accepted, affirmed and appreciated.  It is where you come when you know where you are going and when you don’t know where you are going.  Church is where you go to share yourselves with others and they with you.  Sometimes you go there so that folks can hold you up when you are to tired to go on your own and sometimes you go there so that you can hold someone else up.  Church is where people bring you food when there is a tragedy in your life, or when there is a celebration.  Church is where people are imperfect and cranky and sometimes mean and they are loved anyway, and hopefully reminded that maybe tomorrow they could take a deep breath and try again, a bit better.  Church is where you go to meet with and be with folks who are authentically themselves warts and all.

We come to church, with who we are, imperfect, a little or a lot broken and we are loved.  There is no entry exam to church, no application process.  It is not a club, or a training center.  It is a place to be yourself.

And I would even go so far as to say that if your church (if you participate in one) is not that, or if that has not been your experience of church then maybe you might try somewhere else.  Don’t bang your head against the wall just try to find a doorway to a different kind of place.

Maybe I have been lucky enough to find religious communities that are particularly inclusive and accepting.   Maybe I have been lucky enough to make that choice over and over again.  If someone is particularly close minded or judgmental I don’t spend a lot of time hanging out with them.  My life is too short for that.  I hope I am not disrespectful or mean.  But in the journey that is my life iI would much rather hang with folks who can laugh at their own foibles, love foibles in others, and who work hard to try to improve the world around them. My nineties but still my life is too time limited to spend it gossiping and judging others.

The Most Astounding Thing

Sometimes when I can’t sleep I watch science shows.  They are interesting informative but there are not gunfights or car chases that get the blood pumping and so it is easier to fall back asleep.  But the real reason I like watching them is that if a different vocation could pick me (and I would get all the requisite skills like higher math) I long to be a theoretical astrophysicist.  Although it may be that I would not make a good astrophysicist because the immensity and beauty of the universe as we can see it right now leaves me speechless.

Last Sunday I wrote a story, and told it, at the time for all ages about the big bang and creation.  What inspired the story is what Neil DeGrasse Tyson is talking about here, where we come from and our place in the universe.  Really at its simplest we are all stardust.  Stars are like the oven of the universe cooking up atoms of matter that then coalesce into new solar systems and some of those atoms eventually became you and me and all that we see.

Take a look at this video, say a prayer or reflect on how lucky we are to be here at this time.

Then if you have a moment take a look at the comments under the video.  Like most comments under youtube videos they are what they are some vapid some interesting.  But what intrigues me is that almost immediately the word God is introduced.  I don’t think what Tyson is saying proves or disproves God.  But I do know that when we humans consider how wonderous we are and how wonderous this universe is our feelings go to the largeness of it all, and to the sacredness to it all.  Some call that God, some call that Life.

What I call it is important.  It is important to take a moment and consider the largeness of you and me and all that is around us.  Perhaps I will treat this world a little better today, perhaps I will treat the humans around me a little better today when I consider that they are, and I am stardust.

If you are interested you can read my story here: the big bang

Being with Each Other is Just Plain FUN

This coming Sunday September 25 is opening RE Sunday for Religious Education at May Memorial Unitarian Universalist Society in Syracuse, NY.  There are still a lot of details to take care of, emails to write, phone calls to make.  Last Sunday was opening RE Sunday for many many UU congregations.  Our congregation does something really wonderful and a little different (which is exactly how I would describe the congregation itself).  Each fall two weeks after Labor day weekend we rent out a UU camp not too far from us and about 60 adults, teens and children hang out together for the weekend.  Yep that’s right we just hang out.  Some of us go hiking.  A couple of brave souls actually went swimming in the lake.  This is late September in the Adirondacks yikes!!!  Some of us sit by the fire.  The teens hang out; the children run all over the woods.

Mostly we cook together, eat together, play together.  For me the real beauty of this weekend is that there is no programming.  This is not a weekend retreat for the Board to set its goals and vision for the year.  It is not a weekend for us to learn more about our UU identity.  The video above represents about as much programming as we are likely to do.  For me as Associate Minister I just don’t get that many opportunities to just be with folk.  We are a busy place.  I think just hanging is pretty special for all of us.  The picture below tells you why there isn’t much programming.  There is nothing I could think up to do, say or create that can compete with this.  Sometimes you just need to sit down, close your mouth and soak in the beauty.

So for those of you who are interested in being part of community that really values being a community enough to actually take some time and be with each other; if you would like to be part of a place where we really enjoy each other; if you would like to be part of a group that values the questions more than the answers, if you would like a place where you can bring your kids and they are likely to have some fun and feel valued then you might want to consider visiting us.  You can visit our website at www.mmuus.org.