Veterans’ Day Prayer in a Time of War

Light a candle to name this hollow sadness,
to name the fear, and the tendrils of despair.
Watch the fragile light flickering there, and promise
in the name of all that is holy
that you will shelter within yourself an answering flame:
the call of peace, the insistence on peace,
setting other lights ablaze for as long as it will take.

Pray for the soldiers of our country,
warriors who battle in our name.
They are so young, these sons, these daughters.
They are afraid they will be killed,
afraid they will do grievous harm.
They are frightened of failure, and of what they must do
to succeed.
Pray for the safety of their bodies and the wholeness
of their spirits;
pray for some comfort to touch the ones who love them.

Pray for the soldiers of our enemy,
whose names are shaped by a foreign tongue.
Pray for their safety and wholeness as well.
Pray to remember that these are our brothers:
they bleed when they are wounded,
their hearts break in sorrow.
Like us, they long for a gentler day
when they might wake to the morning in peace
and know themselves to be safe.

Light a candle in a time of war.
Do not hide from the truth of what unfolds now
on the far side of the sweetly spinning earth.
Remember: swords do not shape themselves
into plowshares.
That work is in our hands.                                                                                                From Shine and Shadow, Kathleen McTigue, 2011 Skinner House Books

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Welcome! What Are You Doing Here?

This post is a reiteration of a recent “Faith Matters” column in the New Haven register, which a number of folks missed and wanted to read:

The Catholic priest Henri Nouwen lived for many years in Toronto, serving as the resident pastor in a community home for mentally disabled adults. He liked to recall what he learned from the way he was greeted by two of the residents there. Each day, a woman smiled at him as if seeing him for the first time and said, “Welcome!” And a man looked at him quizzically and asked, every day, “What are you doing here?”

Nouwen said he came to think of these two members of his group home as angels who brought him important messages each day: the assurance that he is welcome here, and beloved;  and the challenging reminder to ask himself what he is doing with his life on the earth.

This anecdote is one that crystalizes the purpose of a faith community — a place in which we should hope and expect to find both embrace and challenge.  The message of embrace is simple: Welcome! You are welcome here, with your rough patches and flaws, your uncertainties and doubts. Your religious home is meant to be a place where connection and intimacy flourish, where love and respect bind people together across all their differences.

The message of challenge is more complicated, and just as important. What are you doing here?  Behind this question we can hear, as Nouwen did, the implication that we are all still works in progress. Though we are welcome and beloved just as we are, we also have some growing to do in order to be as kind, compassionate and open-hearted as we are called to be. We have some work to do — both on ourselves, and out in the wounded world.

The two messages of embrace and challenge are both essential. Through an open-hearted welcome, we recognize that we are all one people, we human beings — whatever our faith, culture, language or color, whatever lines and walls might divide us. Through our challenge to ourselves, we recognize that we are called endlessly to the task of growing into the kind of people we truly want to be. We’re called to ask: What are we doing here, on this fragile little planet, to bring peace and to ease suffering?

Surely this is the core question for people of every faith — a question by which we build our lives, and bind ourselves to one another.

Once and For All

As I mentioned in my last post, my father-in-law died last month. This is an essay I wrote about him more than two years ago, as part of my coping with his Lewy Body Dementia.

My father-in-law, Dan Nyhart, is a man of bright wit and tender heart. He is only seventy-five years old, but for five years he has been fading away from us into dementia. It’s like watching someone we love sailing off in a little boat on a very still lake, slowly gliding away and away, alone, while we stand on the shore and wave farewell. The movement toward the horizon is relentless but incremental, the waving and the ache of saying goodbye seem endless.

With considerable effort last August we were able to bring both my parents-in-law to Maine with us, but by then Dan had declined so much in his mental state that he couldn’t be left alone. One afternoon I took my turn sitting with him in front of the cabin where he could look out at the inlet and islands he has known for so many years.

The precise spot where we sat is the gravitational center of the family camp. Five generations of Nyharts have hauled their rickety chairs off the porch and into the afternoon sun, to rub bare toes in the low-growing cranberries that invade the spotty lawn and watch the blue water flow in or out of the tidal marsh. From this place we see the terns in their acrobatic dives, or the gulls as they drop mussel shells to crack on the rocks. We hear the high ospreys as they whistle to each other and teach their fledglings to fly, and sometimes a bald eagle soars massively right over our heads. This is where we always sit as the sunlight begins to tilt and shift to gold and orange. We linger over a congenial cocktail and easily count our blessings.

On this particular August afternoon with Dan, I was immune to the blessings and saturated with sadness. So much has been lost, and there is so much to grieve in the losing. I long for the old personality, the days of repartee and humor, the many threads of exchange that have shaped our relationship over time. Now even a simple thought grows tangled for him as he tries to put it into words, and the words themselves seem to flutter away like bright birds, just out of reach.

I turned to look at Dan sitting next to me, tremors jiggling his arms. He falls asleep easily and often, and then his mouth goes slack and pulls his beloved features into the dreaded blankness we have seen so often in nursing homes. But just then he was awake, looking out at the inlet with a little half-smile.

Dan’s particular illness is dementia with Lewy bodies, which brings with it not only memory loss but hallucinations. The twilight shadows are the worst, sometimes giving rise to terrifying glimpses of men skulking in the trees with machine guns, but there are fanciful dream images he sees in broad daylight as well: a dancing elephant, a new Volkswagen skimming along on the waves, acrobats balancing on the telephone wires. So there was no telling what exactly he was “seeing” as we sat there: the wash of light and wind on waves, or something completely different.

“Dan, where are you when we’re just sitting here like this, not talking?” The question sounded a little desperate to my own ears: what in the world could the poor man make of it? But I had nothing more to say or to ask, and yielded without warning to an almost childish need to have him back, to hear some whisper of soul still retrievable among the fragments this illness has made of his mind. I wanted the existential answer to my question: Where are you now? Where have you gone?

There was a long pause as the question wound down into his mind and the response struggled up, intrepid messengers traversing a shadowed and winding trail. Finally he raised both hands up and said, “Well, it’s caught up in all of this”, waving at the sun, the water, the wind.

“You mean just sitting here and enjoying it?”

Very emphatically he corrected me: “Not enjoying: being in it. Being in it.” I was surprised and impressed by what seemed a burst of theological clarity.

“Dan, that’s very Zen of you!”.

“Hmmph. I never have understood Zen.”

We both laughed, and though I found myself crying at the same time, as I so often do these days, there was a shift in my load of sorrow. I felt myself cracked open at last to that sliver of a moment, and came home to the landscape, the afternoon light, the wind on the water.

Henry David Thoreau wrote, “A single gentle rain makes the grass many shades greener. So we could be blessed if we lived in the present always, and [received] every accident that befell us, like the grass which confesses the influence of the slightest dew that falls on it.” Lovely words of wisdom, Henry, but it is so much more easily said than done. To receive every accident that befalls us is a tall and terrible order. Yet what else can we do, when what happens to us lies outside all our powers to change it? This is the way we move through our fragile lives: we receive what befalls us, which includes, after all, the accidents of sun and sweetness, joy and love, the lucky accidents of people we cherish and receive so truly into ourselves that like the grass soaking up the rain, we are made something else because of them.

We can’t go back to what was before. Once those we love have gone from us we don’t get to touch a cheek or say what we meant to say, or hear that laughter rippling out again in the way that so delighted us. And yet it isn’t just metaphor to say that we carry them with us and remain bound to them, and they to us. Because we are more like the waters of the earth than we know: rain and snow and mist, ocean, lake and river, seep and puddle, falling and rising and falling and rising again in so many different forms. And nothing is ever lost.

Published in the Fall 2007 issue of the UU World.

Take a Deep Breath

May you live in interesting times.

The phrase is supposed to be an English translation of an ancient Chinese curse, though it’s probably of much more recent (and western) origin. Whatever its roots, on first hearing it sounds like more of a blessing than a curse. After all, who would really want to live in boring times? But its meaning as a curse is clear to anyone whose life has been turned upside down by the large forces that can unravel whole nations and cultures: war, plague, hunger or economic upheaval. They make people wish for the stability and certainty that might not seem very interesting in historical retrospect but are in fact much more pleasant to live through.

We are now officially living in interesting times. Today the stock market fell by almost 800 points in reaction to Congress balking at the mind-blowing price tag of a bailout. Why would anyone think this debt-ridden and greed-driven economy could go churning on forever? My current favorite quote on the topic sounds as though it comes from some irate curmudgeon shaking his fist at the current news: “The budget should be balanced; the treasury should be refilled; public debt should be reduced; and the arrogance of public officials should be controlled.” In fact, it’s from Cicero, who lived 106-43 B.C.

It’s a weird time to be living through, since we have no idea at all how far the unraveling will go. Maybe in a few weeks everyone will dust themselves off and carry on as though nothing much has happened, but I doubt it. And wherever we collectively land, it is a time of high anxiety. People are losing their homes, and tent cities are already springing up in some towns. People without a job watch their chances dwindle, and a lot of others whose jobs seemed secure a month ago are waking up at night in a cold sweat. People who thought they could live comfortably on retirement savings can see those savings evaporate into thin air. And as the economy tanks, it’s pretty easy to predict that what’s left of the safety net for the most vulnerable will just disappear.

Those of us in parish ministry are each at the center of a little circle of stress, as our troubled people turn to one another and to us for a word of comfort. There’s not much that we or our congregations can do to impact a global economic crisis (but for God’s sake VOTE FOR CHANGE!). But there is a whole lot we can do to sustain one another in an age of anxiety. We can remind each other to take a deep breath, and look up at the sky so we can see that it isn’t falling. We can gather in worship, and in our smaller circles of study or support, sociability or labor, remembering to speak a calming word or add an extra kindness to what we’re doing. We can bind ourselves solidly to a particular small ship and its crew, in the faith that together we will work out ways to weather the storm. We can stay centered, sane and peaceful in our spiritual practices. And one day we will look back together from a safe distance, and shake our heads as we remember how interesting the times were back then…

When Hate Walks Into the Sanctuary

Within many different faiths, people name our halls of worship as “sanctuaries”. The word carries ancient connotations of safety, peace and contemplation – the qualities we hope to nurture when we turn our attention to prayer and devotion.

Last Sunday there was no sanctuary for those of my own faith gathered for worship in the Unitarian Universalist congregation in Knoxville, Tennessee. Instead, as 200 members and guests watched their children begin a musical performance, a stranger walked in and opened fire with a shotgun. Two people were killed, and five more were seriously injured.

The gunman, Jim D. Adkisson, told police that he targeted the church “because of its liberal leanings and his belief that all liberals should be killed because they were ruining the country”. Adkisson was particularly disturbed by the inclusive nature of the congregation and of Unitarian Universalism itself, which welcomes people from all religious backgrounds and explicitly affirms equal rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

My own congregation is hundreds of miles from Knoxville, yet the ripples of shock and grief touch us deeply. Like the Knoxville church, our congregation is proudly public about our liberal religion and the social justice commitments to which it leads us. We have openly affirmed our commitment to equal rights regardless of sexual orientation, and our members are involved in many progressive peace and justice issues.

So along with our compassion for the victims and families in our sister congregation, we are vulnerable to the anxious question that arises from any hate crime: could something like this happen to us?

The simplest answer is ‘yes, it could’. Whenever people stand up for justice and equality there are others who react with anger, and sometimes the reaction becomes violent. But there is a better question to ask, one that tips us away from our anxiety and fear and back toward strength: what does our faith offer us, when hatred walks into our sanctuary?

Both the Unitarian and Universalist strands of our modern religion are rooted in a Christianity that has been at odds with the mainstream for centuries. Our ancestors studied scripture carefully and critically, and the conclusions they drew were sometimes radical. In Jesus, they found a spiritual teacher whose life was more important than his death: who consistently walked with the poor, the outcast and the reviled, and who insisted that we do likewise. They found a God who was not merely liberal but profligate in the love He promised: a love so universal that there could be no room for hell. They found a creation that was inherently good, laden with diversity and mystery that was there to be embraced and understood, not feared or rejected.

This is the large-hearted faith in which we are grounded, and it can sustain us even in the face of murderous violence. Our faith reminds us of the deep well of human goodness, evident in the outpouring of compassion and support for the Knoxville congregation from people of all religions. It insists on the challenge to cultivate compassion rather than anger toward the killer, recognizing in him a heart filled not only with hatred, but with profound pain and despair. And our faith calls us to courage rather than fear, reminding us that through the centuries of our history, many thousands of men and women before us have been steadfast in their religious and political convictions despite the threat of even mortal violence. They believed to their core in the healing power of love and justice. So must we.

Baby on the Doorstep

Remember the old movie cliché about a baby left in a basket on someone’s doorstep? The camera would pan in on the basket and show a cherubic baby, warmly swaddled in blankets, and this moment of hopeful abandonment would form the central tale around which the movie revolved. When I was a a little kid, I thought it would be thrilling beyond words to hear the doorbell and be the one to find the baby on our doorstep – a perfect baby, and of course I would be allowed to keep it for my own, and naturally it would prove to be a far more satisfying sibling than my actual baby brothers.

Last week I got a mini-version of this story, delivered by Mother Nature and the gods of irony. It was on a night when I was feeling crabby about the degree to which my own children’s activities have landed me the full-time job of Chief Chauffeur. As I opened the front door at 10:00pm to do the final pick-up for that particular night, I was probably complaining (perhaps even whining) about how much I would prefer to climb into bed with a good book. I took one step out the door and then found myself locked in the solemn gaze of a baby robin, standing in the pool of light right outside the door.

It was a very cold and blustery night, and fledglings like this routinely die if they’re caught out of the nest on nights like this (not to mention the predatory stray cats we’ve recently spotted, crouching hopefully directly under the bird feeder). There were no signs of frantic parental robins searching for their darling, and this little one had probably been blundering around in the dark for a long time hoping they’d show up. In their absence, he found and followed our light all the way up onto the porch, driven by the baby bird version of a last hope. He was so worn out he didn’t move at all as I came closer and then scooped him up. But as I held him, he looked at me intently with his shiny black eyes and then gave a loud cheep! and opened his mouth wide, apparently deciding that I would make a perfectly acceptable step-mother.

Well, what else could I do? I put him in a box with plenty of rags on top of a heating pad turned low, and made sure he was shut away from our curious (indoor, but still murderous) cats. In the morning, following baby bird instructions found online, I got some canned dog food down his hungry gullet. And then came the moment of decision: should I put him outside, despite the stiff breeze and chilly temperature, and hope that his real parents would come back in time? Or should I continue as foster mother, knowing that if I kept him longer, it would be highly unlikely that his birdbrain parents would even remember his existence?

I opted to turn him loose to the universe, despite all the dangers and uncertainties. Wild baby birds are very hard for humans to raise, no matter how good our intentions; and although I might be able to manage the feeding schedule (internet instructions: every ten minutes!!!), I have no idea how to teach a baby robin how to hunt for his own worms as he approaches adulthood, nor how to break the bad news that we’re actually different species.

So I set him out in the warmest place I could find, said a little prayer and turned him loose, resolutely climbing into the car and heading out to work. It wasn’t so easy — somehow, finding a baby on the doorstep has a way of making us feel we’re responsible, singled out for this duty. Who’s to say what is really the right thing to do? But it did make me think a little differently about my own fledglings, for whom I really am responsible. Sam has just graduated from the University of Chicago, an excellent and mature young man now, but still clueless about what comes next. This next one won’t be my flight to make, but his — whatever the direction he chooses, whatever the dangers of the storm. I resolved to complain a little less about these years as Chief Chauffeur for the two still at home. All too soon will come the moment to turn these fledglings loose to the universe as well, with all its glories and perils — on little but a wing and a prayer.

Finding God in the Clothesline

It’s a really small gesture, I know: finally getting an outdoor clothesline so I can abandon my electric dryer. I should have done it years ago; I have plenty of space in the yard, and it’s not as though it’s news that we should be looking for every way possible to reduce our gigantic carbon footprints.

I have no excuse for why it took me so long, but finally last month I went online and ordered one of those umbrella-type clotheslines, the kind with a tall pole in the middle and lines strung around it in a square. I had to mix and pour concrete for the first time (something the average six-year-old could do, but who knew?), and used a level to get it straight in its hole. I waited patiently for the required setting time, and then waited again for the rain to stop, and ever since then — for the last thirty loads of laundry or so — I have been hauling the wet clothes out to my line and pinning them up, one shirt or sheet or pair of socks at a time.

What I anticipated in making this shift was a mix of one part relief (finding another thing to do to cut energy consumption), one part hassle, half a cup of stress because of the time it takes to pin up all the clothes and take them down again, and a scant teaspoon of self-righteousness.

What I have found instead is pure pleasure. I had forgotten how wonderful clothes smell when they’ve been dried by the wind and sun. I had not realized how meditative each of those ten or fifteen minute spans could be when I stand there, feeling the sun on my face and being saturated by birdsong as I offer the clothes to the breezes or receive them back. I find myself filled with new awareness and therefore gratitude for this partnership — the natural energies of the earth’s air and heat moving through the mundane offering of my family’s clothing. It is swift, functional, easy; it is also grace and blessing.

A friend sent me this poem in response to my laundry epiphany. I guess I’m not the only one who finds God in the clothesline…

Laundry
by Ruth Moose
All our life
so much laundry;
each day’s doing or not
comes clean,
flows off and away
to blend with other sins
of this world. Each day
begins new skin,
blessed by the elements
charged to take us
out again to do or undo
what’s been assigned.
From socks to shirts
the selves we shed
lift off the line
as if they own
a life apart
from the one we offer.
There is joy in clean laundry.
All is forgiven in water, sun
and air. We offer our day’s
deeds
to the blue-eyed sky, with
soap and prayer,
our arms up, then lowered
in supplication.