MLK Day 2012!

Kevin co-chaired the Martin Luther King Day of Service at Unitarian Society of Germantown again. We had more than 300 volunteers, spread across 20-od locations, from South Philly to Norristown, performing acts of service. It was a great day, if tiring. Kelly took part, helping with a massive painting project at the CW Henry school in East Falls. Virginia had a project of her own, at Carson Valley Children’s Aid, where they cleaned up the agency library.

It was a great day, and now we all need a rest!

Pete has a conference hoem game Tuesday. Kelly got a buzz cut tyat has made him happy, and mortified his mother. He also had his cast removed today, so he’s rediscovering the joy of having two hands.

 

 

Chasing Heaven

Delivered Sunday, Aug. 15, 2010, at Thomas Paine UU Fellowship, Collegeville, Pa.

I was at a cousin’s wedding four months ago. Fun time. Saw all my cousins, and many of my nieces and nephews. If you have a family flung over even a few states, you’re familiar with the fact that family only gathers for very big joys and very big sorrows—weddings and funerals. And the occasional family reunion.

So this was a joyful time. And we came to the point where my closest cousin, who also served as best man, toasted his younger brother’s marriage. And during that he referred to his parents, both of whom had died in the previous two years. And my cousin Bob used a very familiar formulation. “Mom and dad are looking down on us tonight and they’re really happy and proud.”

And that got me thinking about Heaven. So that’s the subject for today—what people have thought about heaven over time, and what you and I as courageous, hopeful, faithful people might make of heaven as both a spiritual and practical matter.


Let’s get started. And first off, let’s define heaven. In her aptly titled book, Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife, religion writer Lisa Miller offers that Heaven is actually several ideas: it’s the place where God lives; it’s the place our spirits go after we die; it’s the place where our body and spirit will be reunited at the end of time. A lot of our imagery of heaven comes from the Christian New Testament, especially from the Book of Revelations. The idea that St. Peter is waiting at the pearly gates with a Santa Claus-like list of who’s been naughty and nice? That comes from the Gospel of Matthew, where Jesus tells Peter, “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.” The pearly gates comes from Revelations, as do a lot of our ideas of thrones and palaces and gold and such.

How do modern Americans imagine Heaven? In a 2002 Newsweek poll, 19 percent of Americans view Heaven as a garden, 13 percent as a city.

And part of the modern definition includes the idea that Heaven exists concurrently with this world, and that the two inevitably intersect—for example, when we feel the presence of one who has passed. A recent study found 3 in 10 of us believe they get “definite and specific” answers to prayers on a monthly basis. Some believe in more institutional intersections: Think of the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, where the angel Clarence is sent to assist a suicidal George Bailey. Think of the belief that a resurrected Jesus will return to Earth.

What I take from all of this is the idea of the Sacred or the Divine inserting itself into our everyday lives, of an intermingling of this reality and a Next One, which is better, and literally higher. If you have any question of how deeply this idea of a Place Above is embedded in our culture, ask a child where Heaven is. They know.

The 10-minute history of heaven starts, as much of our religious history does, with Judaism. The important distinction here is that, for most Jews over time, Heaven is the place where God resides, with angels (think “administrative staff”; in the Book of Job, for example, Job’s plight begins with a rather cruel bet between God and Satan, who at this point in the Jewish narrative is not opposed to God at all—instead, he proposes that God bring ill fortune on one of his most righteous to see if he will curse God). But people don’t go to Heaven. Instead, the tradition revolved then, and to a large degree still does today, much more around the idea that we live on through our children, tied together in a great chain of being. Read the Jewish Bible and the focus is on re-covenanting with God in this world, not the next.

With the birth and death of Jesus, Heaven becomes central to the spiritual narrative. In his provocative book, God Is Not One, professor Stephen Prothero offers a prescriptive understanding of the world’s largest religions, an exercise in problem-and-solution.

With Christianity, Prothero says, the problem is “sin.” We as people are born with it, and it separates us from God. The solution is “salvation.” And so the purpose of a faithful life becomes to gain access to a close relationship to God in Heaven, which is now open to believing people.

“In my father’s house are many rooms,” says Jesus in John 14:2. “I am going there to prepare a place for you.” With his death and ascension to Heaven, as reported in the New Testament, a path is blazed and a process set: faithful belief in Jesus, now the Christ, is the sole path to Heaven and eternal salvation.

Other than the Book of Revelations, there isn’t a lot of talk about what Heaven’s like in the New Testament. In Corinthians, Paul says of Heaven, “no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.”

Now most Christians in America don’t give much thought to the theological details of Heaven, though 87 percent of all Americans believe in something awaiting them after death. Their expectation is that they will die and go to “there,” where they will be in close relationship with God and their loved ones who died previously—and their pets. Forty-two percent believed they would be reunited with a beloved pet after death.

Looking for details on the Christian Heaven? There is a thriving subgenre of religious literature—mostly by Protestant, evangelical authors—that fills in the blanks on what heaven will be like. Not a part of that movement, but interesting nonetheless, the conservative Catholic priest Father Richard Neuhaus imagined Heaven as something like his hometown Manhattan, though he thought that “those who in this life did not like NYC would have another place to go.” It’s a theme I think you’ll recognize over and over—that people imagine a Heaven stitched together from the things they love and value.

Islam offers a version of Heaven, called Paradise in the Koran, which reached many Americans’ consciousness for the first time in the aftermath of 9/11, when the hijackers’ expectations of a paradise teeming with nubile virgins was shared as proof of how different they were from everyone else. But Islam is not all that different—there’s Paradise and Hell. What differs is the Koran’s vision of Heaven: a religion born in a desert, Paradise is marked by fountains and rushing rivers. There are four rivers in the Muslim Paradise: one each of milk, honey, wine and water. Food is abundant, and it does not spoil. You can drink the wine but will not get drunk. There are silk robes and fine couches and houris—dark-eyed, full-breasted spirit women who provide sensual pleasure of every sort.

An interesting aside here: Fully 1 in 4 Americans, across all faith traditions, believe in the idea that they will be reincarnated back into this world. The numbers are similar in Europe. This includes a sizable number of Christians. Miller offers this really startling insight: that life has become so good in the West that many folks WANT to do it again, that their lives are not so insufferable as to dissuade them retracing their mortal steps. And that they think they could do better on the next try.

Another is the disintegrating belief in a resurrection of the earthly body. If you’re looking for proof, consider the fact that nearly 50 percent of Americans are considering cremation of their bodies after death. If you thought you were going to need that body in a couple thousand years, you’d probably take a little better care of it—even after you’ve died.

It’s really fascinating stuff.


So let’s turn to you and me and Unitarian Universalism.

As UUs, given that one-half of our name refers to universal salvation, the idea that God will grant all people entrance to heaven, it may surprise you to know that comparatively few current UUs believe in heaven. In 1966, a survey found that just 10 percent of UUs believed in life after death. I’d bet the number is higher today, but not THAT much higher.

Now, I get that we are a rational, skeptical people and that Heaven is an idea beyond the rational. It requires a “leap of faith.” But I think we would be wrong to just dismiss it. Because in that dismissal is a touch of denial.

And what we are denying is one of the great questions of religion. Now bear with me. As my friend Jonathan Black, a former member here, reminded me last weekend, there are three questions that drive us as religious people.

  • Where do I come from?
  • Where will I go?
  • What should I do with my time here?

I’m going to leave alone where we come from. But as a UU, the last two are inextricably bound together.

Because ultimately, we believe that life matters. We believe that what we do and how we do it and how we think about it carries us forward. Each of us has moral and figurative weight and momentum. My actions, your actions, our collective actions, will be felt in this world for years—even after we’re no longer alive. Much like our Jewish friends, we are tied to the past and the future in a great cord of Being. Being mindful of that, it’s not a reach to say that the Divine—Heaven, if you will—cracks open on this day and this time, if only we allow it.

The father of American universalism, John Murray, famously said, “Go out into the highways and byways of America.  Give the people something of your vision.  You may possess only a small light but uncover it, let it shine, use it in order to bring more light and understanding to the hearts and minds of men and women.   Give them, not hell, but hope and courage.”

As UUs, let’s be honest—we’re awful at this. We don’t talk about what we believe, we don’t bring friends to church with us on Sunday mornings. That said, I offer these thoughts about what I’d expect on the other side of the Pearly Gates.

I’m with Paul on Heaven. I think that whatever goes on after my death is beyond my current ability to conceive it. I think that all our human conceptions, by nature of where and when and by whom they are conceived, fail to comprehend Heaven. As somebody said, and I just can’t find it in my notes, the person says that when we get to Heaven, we’ll think, “Well, of course, this is exactly how Heaven should be.”

So, though I don’t think I can ever get the details right, I do believe that the sacred pokes its head into this world and our existence, that revelation remains unsealed, available, that we can be in communion with the Divine, even while here on earth—especially while here on earth. I believe we can find the Kingdom of God in our everyday world, if only we will put ourselves in position to recognize it. As the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn says in his book, The Art of Mindful Living, “You don’t need to die in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. In fact, you have to be truly alive in order to do so.”

To be alive to the Kingdom, I need to be present. I need to cultivate compassion and curiosity. I need to love deeply and radically. I need to live in an abundant mindset.  And I need to acknowledge that I live in grace—that the bounty and fullness of my life is an unearned blessing

These are the values of my Heaven—and maybe yours. And this is a calling to my Unitarian Universalist faith that is both practical and transcendent. And it lives in the present. Here. Now.

Accessing the present isn’t easy. My son Kelly answers almost all requests for his presence with a variation on “later.” He’ll say “in a couple minutes” or “as soon as I finish this chapter of my book.” And the truth is, he often doesn’t get to where his presence was requested. And I worry that he’ll always put off things—and that opportunities and experiences will pass him by without his knowing it. I want him to live a life of presence—with a sense of urgency. This world—and Heaven, too—is here, right now, in this room, if only we take the leap of faith to experience it.

How do we experience it? Through regular spiritual practice. It need not be something crazy-hard or long or complicated. Just open the door when you have the opportunity. Here’s what I’m trying to do every weekday. On my drive to work, I’ll turn off the radio and the iPod for 5 minutes and I’ll follow my breathing. I will breathe in “mountain” and breathe out “solid.” I will breathe in “flower” and breathe out “fresh” (which makes me smile). I will remind myself that there is so much in my life that deserves my gratitude, reminding myself of the Rev. Forest Church’s admonition to “want what you have” [The rest of his mantra: “Be who you are. Do what you can”].  I will search for the kindness in my heart and ask myself to live it. I’d like to think that I am aligning myself with the divine, with Heaven.

Some days are good; some I fail. But the point is, I’m aiming myself at compassion and a loving faith. I encourage you to do the same. And not to expect too much. As Thich Nhat Hahn says, travelers for thousands of years have set their course by the North Star, but they have never expected to reach it. That’s not what the North Star, sitting high in the sky, is for. And maybe when we speak of Heaven, we are best not to speak of what it is or is not. That’s not what it’s for. Instead, use Heaven as a compass to the things you value most: love, compassion, presence, inquiry, creativity, whatever those things are for you.

Because for all this talk of Heaven, we can’t know what happens after we die. Instead, we can use it to understand our values and to make decisions about what we value and what we make happen in our lives, in this very moment. And when we reach the end of our natural lives, whatever may be in the offing, may we share Mary Oliver’s sentiments:

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it is over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

Blessed be.

Coming of Age, at Any Age

A talk delivered in 2010 at Thomas Paine Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, in Collegeville, Pa.

ººº

Credo.

The goal of each child in our Coming of Age class this year is to craft a credo by the end of the school year, around May. But what in the world does that mean?

Well, credo is most often translated from Latin as “I believe.” And from that, the most straight-forward way to see a credo is as a statement of belief.

But here’s the thing. If you dig beyond “I believe,” the Latin is more closely translated to “what I set my heart to.”

”What I set my heart to.”

Now, this is something that I find more useful to people, both young and old.

Because “what I believe,” to me, sets up an argument.

Stephanie: “This is what I believe.”

Kelly:  ”Well, this is what I believe.”

Stephanie: “They’re not the same. One of us is wrong.”

Or a narrative, full of details.

Kelly: “I think that when we die we go to a place where we sit down and watch a movie, like in the movie Defending Your Life. And after watching it, a jury decides whether we go to heaven or if our life wasn’t satisfactory and we’re sent back to earth to try again.”

And I’m not saying that arguments and narratives are unimportant. Take them out of this place and this group and there wouldn’t be a whole heck of a lot of sound here at coffee hour.

But argument and narrative are not what we set our hearts to. I’ve told our students this already, but they’ll have to hear it again: I don’t care nearly as much about what they believe as I want to know what they value. I want to know the things that they live for. Things like:

  • Compassion for others.
  • Loyalty to friends
  • Creativity in meeting the difficulties and challenges they face.
  • Gratitude for the abundance of their lives.
  • Justice for the stranger.
  • Kindness for ourselves, for others, for pets, for grandparents.

And I ask you the same question I ask them. What do you value? What are you willing to live for? Because credo-making is not something you do in 7th grade and place in a folder to pull out for a convenient refresher. Viewed as “what do I value, and what do I do about it,” your credo is the most living of documents. Done right, your credo is a blueprint to the life you construct. It’s how others know you, and how you know yourself.

So I ask you, what is your credo? What is it that you set your heart to?

ººº

Now some folks may be balking at the word credo. It’s pretty close to creed. And as you all know, UUs are  noncreedal. That means we don’t accept that there’s one book or revelation that explains and holds fast our worldview. Instead, we are covenantal. That means that we are in relation:

  • to each other;
  • to the world;
  • to our histories.

We see the world through lenses of our particular position in the world, of our family and personal history.

And if that’s true, then one of the most important things we do is understand the relationships and obligations that define us. As the theologian Rebecca Parker said in a 1998 address to the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly, “Covenant-making must begin with the question. ‘What have we been given? What is the covenant we are already in?’ ”

And so we asked you all to reflect on your past. In other exercises with the students, we’ve asked them to build a timeline of their lives, to sketch out a family tree and put name to the various identities in their family’s pasts. We’ve asked them to name those who have had the most influence, for good or for bad, on their lives.

If you’ve got 20 minutes some day, it’s not a bad use of the time.

Because a credo isn’t conceived in a moment, any more than it is lived in a moment. It breathes in your chest, it bursts forth from you, each morning when you wake, each time you step out in to the world. But that is most likely to happen if we are intentional—if we spend time summoning it, beckoning it.

Covenant making must begin with the question. ‘What have we been given? What is the covenant we are already in?’

It’s a lesson the adults in this room should be heeding now as we work on a different covenanting process, one in which we are called to create a vision statement for our community.

I suggest as you think about your vision for this community, much like we are asking each of these young people—and each of us—to craft a vision of their faith life, to consider this: Your vision shouldn’t be about 250 members or 100 kids, it’s not about the building or the number of parking spaces we have. Write a credo for Thomas Paine. Don’t tell me how big or multifaceted it is. Tell me: What does it value? Who does it serve? What does this community sets its heart on? What does it live for? What would it be willing to die for? Answer that, and you’ll have your vision. And a path forward.

ººº

That said, our path forward as a class is to start on the next piece of our journey together. And there might be a place for you in this. We will be tackling some of the big theological subjects —god, death, why bad things happen to good people—over the next few months, and then turning toward a reckoning with our credos. And we could use some help. The students will be asked at our next meeting to think about selecting an adult mentor, someone outside the class whom they’d like to work with on their credo. So if one of these young people approaches you in the next week or two, say “yes.” Engage them on it. And do them this great favor: Share what you live for, the things you value, and, as much as you’re comfortable, the things that get in the way of living up to your values. A credo is the distillation of one person, but it is fed—like our faith—from many streams. The same as our community.

And that brings me to my final plug of the day. Tomorrow is Martin Luther King Day and our Coming of Age class—and a goodly number of the leadership of this fellowship—will be participating in a Day of Service at the Unitarian Society of Germantown. If you would like to join us, let me know right after service or go to mlkphillyuus.org to sign up for a project. We are known by our works, and this day is a way to affirm the values of Dr. King. We invite and welcome you.

Blessed be. And let’s sing together a song Dr. King would approve of—When the Spirit Says Do, #1024 in your Teal book.

A Question of Trust

This Sunday talk was shared on April 10, 2010, at Thomas Paine Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.

It’s good to be with you all this morning.

This talk started a couple months ago, at work, where I’m an editor for Men’s Health magazine. I was back-reading an article “Why Men Fail,” by Mike Zimmerman. In it, he writes this:

Real success, any way society measures it—money, fame, happiness, family—cannot be achieved in the presence of cynicism.

And then he goes on to quote Matthew McConaughey, of all people, who says:

“Cynics love to put their finger on disease before they put it on health. It’s the easy way to go. Play the blame game: ‘I got screwed, that should’ve been mine.’ They’re all dead-end answers. For me, ‘Just keep livin’,’ as a creed and a compass, is about making the evolving choice, the forward-moving, life-giving choice.”

First, I gagged. Then I scoffed, Matthew McConaughey! Please! Had a little laugh. Finished the article.

About 15 minutes later, I couldn’t get the thought out of my head. Success cannot be achieved in the presence of cynicism.

So here’s where we’ll start. Unitarian Universalism is a skeptics’ faith. Right there in our principles and purposes we covenant to affirm and promote “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” We are explicitly noncreedal. There is no one-size-fits-all faith.

I teach a class here—Neighboring Faiths, in which we take 5th and 6th graders to the nearby homes of other faith traditions. And if you want to see someone screw up their face and really decide that you are from another planet, tell them that as a faith we don’t believe the Bible, the Torah, or the Koran is the sole valid interpretation of the divine. Tell them you think that all those books have their place, along with Gandhi’s Autobiography, and All I Ever Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, by Robert Fulgham (a UU minister, by the way). Expect them to say that they’re praying for you.

As a faith perspective, we are questioners.

Look around you, and you’ll find a lot of skeptics—professional skeptics, even (doctors, lawyers, scientists). I’m a journalist. The most important lesson I ever received was from a mentor who said, “Your mother says she loves you, check it out.” And then, for emphasis, he repeated, “Your mother says she loves you …. check … it …. out.”

Importantly: Most of the people here were not born into this faith, but came here after asking a question or a series of questions about their religious identity and finding the answers lacking. Can I get an amen?

I would consider skepticism a question-powered search for truth and meaning. But there’s a related word: cynicism. Cynicism is questioning, but with a different goal. It’s the negation of finding answers. It is, in fact, a hiding from answers. Cynics can be funny, but arguing with one can be a frustrating affair, because a cynical exchange doesn’t get at the truth of the matter.

You’d think that one tactic for overcoming the cynic would be belief, but indeed, as we all know, there are “true believers” who are completely cynical.

So when I first thought about this message, I had skepticism and cynicism on one side of a rhetorical divide, and belief on the other. But that’s not right. Let’s do it like this: skepticism and belief on this side; cynicism on the other. The choice we make is not between questioning and believing. At our best, we shape belief through questioning. The more interesting question, to me, is one of trust.

Skepticism and belief are built on a trust that the answers can be ascertained. Cynicism, on the other hand, is a by-product of dis-trust.

I become a cynic when my trust in the assumptions I make about life is compromised. I become cynical about my job when I distrust that the people who run my workplace are invested in the well-being of everyone that works there. I become cynical about my government when I do not trust that it is working or can work for the Common Good.

And when that happens I get political theater the likes of which we’ve all watched for a decade or more. And those events have an effect, a souring of belief in the ability to solve problems, in this case as a country. The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press spoke to people on their opinions of Congress. 86 percent were negative, 4 percent positive, and 10 percent too polite to say what they were really feeling. The most-used words to describe Congress were: dysfunctional, corrupt, selfish, inept, confused, incompetent, ineffective, lazy, bad, sucks, poor, crooks, lousy, terrible.

Now, I’m no fan of Congress. But short of a true cataclysm in Washington, these numbers do not seem so much a measure of the effectiveness of our legislature as a measure of something else we feel toward the representatives that we ostensibly sent to Washington.

The question is when do we move from critique to condemnation.

Is it wrong to be cynical? Sometimes, like with the current political climate, it may feel as if it is the only road forward. But here’s my question to you: Where does this road lead? And do you want to travel it?

Even in love, Roberts and Owen are constantly suspicious that each is going to betray the other. And—spoiler alert here: if you want to see this movie, shut your ears for the next 30 seconds, though, honestly, the plot is so confusing that you’ll never remember what I say as you wade through the thing—they steal the “secret” only to find out that they, in fact, have been played by other actors in the drama. They end up only with each other—which, again, means Julia Roberts and Clive Owen. Weep not for either of them.

And so the lesson of Duplicity is you reap what you sow—look for deception, look for dis-trust, it will find you. In spades.

Mike Zimmerman—remember him? the writer of the original article— had a term for the kind of communication that thrives amid dis-trust. He calls it a “bitch spiral,” an ever-quickening descent into blame, recrimination and passivity. “Why even bother? She’ll screw it up anyway.” “I’d love to do that, but I know the boss wouldn’t let me.” “What a joke!”

Even worse, bitch spirals are hard to resist; they rarely pull down just one person. It’s something to think about next time you’re sitting around a table and somebody begins their familiar litany of complaints about the Same Ol Somebody or Something. Do I really want to go where this is leading?

The Rev. Kent Matthies, the minister at the Unitarian Society of Germantown, and I were talking about trust. And he said to me that a golden rule of congregational health is that if you have a problem with trust or respect between the leadership and the minister, you’ll go nowhere. When you can’t agree to trust, you certainly cannot commit to a shared vision of where you want to go together.

And while Kent was speaking specifically about congregational leadership, I’d re-cast that as a challenge to everyone in our community, because at our best we are surely ministers to each other.

Reminds me of a movie from last year – Duplicity. Anybody see it? I’m sure some of you did, though I’d challenge anybody to recount the plot. Easier to remember its stars – Julia Roberts and Clive Owen, a little eye candy for everyone. Anyway, in the movie Roberts and Owen are first rivals and later lovers despite working for competing corporate espionage squads. They conspire to steal a prize product – a cure for male pattern balding. As an editor at Men’s Health, I’m pretty sure that would be a big deal.

And we are at an important time in our congregational life. Two weeks from now, we’ll gather to articulate a vision of what we want this community to be. For those who have been here for some time—more than 5 years, say—this is a pretty familiar drill. If you’re newer, you probably will find this a novel idea. If you grew up Catholic, for example, the parish priest never asked you to help envision the Church’s next 5 years (though, honestly, it wouldn’t hurt for that church to try now; it’s never good when the two things that come to mind about a church are creepy pedophilia and obstructionism; if ever there was a time and place to look for fresh thinking, now and the Catholic Church would be a good place to start).

But back to Thomas Paine: The business of creating a shared vision requires first that we build a shared trust—a safe area in which we can share thoughts that might stray far from where we are now; that allow for possibilities that perhaps aren’t apparent to all of us; a place where we can hear, discern, and then react.

And this place needs to be large enough to accommodate all of us. My wife Virginia and I have a term for the 33 or so people in this community who invariably show up for events like church visioning sessions—”The Usual Suspects. Well, “rounding up the usual suspects” is no path to a shared vision. We need new suspects. If you are in this room, we need your perspective, your energy.

If our first principle calls us to respect the worth and dignity of each person, then we need each of those people in our community to take part in shaping our shared vision—and in making it a reality. There is no greater incentive to become involved than to have been there at its creation.

And we will not succeed unless all the people in this community articulate a vision, wrestle with it, embrace it, and commit to it.

Some Sunday mornings, I sit in my seat, about halfway back on the right side there, and we sing a song together, and I can feel the strength of this community building around me. This began before Rev. Bryant joined us, but it’s certainly strengthened in the past nine months. We’re at a time brimming with excitement and potential.

We’ve been here before; previously, not much changed. Why? Because we clung to what we were instead of what we could become. We tried to make new realities confirm to old assumptions, rather than challenge those old assumptions.

We sit at that same point again. And we will need all the courage and trust we can muster to imagine a vibrant and loving community with room enough for all those folks who we know live around here without a faith community, but who would find our perspective affirming and maybe even life-changing.

What could we become? I have ideas, and I know you do, too. Bring them here two weeks from now. Share them. Listen. Listen some more.

And think about these questions: How do I build a culture of trust around me? How do I exhibit trust in others? And how do I live up to the trust others put in me? Because the surest way to breed cynicism is to fail to follow-through on what you say you will do.

We often quote Margaret Mead around here: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

It’s time for this “small group of thoughtful, committed citizens” to change its world. Matthew McConaughey would be proud.

That’s a joke. And a closing. Blessed be.

Gwen’s message

I met Gwendolyn Donnigan on Wednesday and worked on her house on and off through the rest of the week. She was listed as the “picky” homeowner, a touch difficult to please. She met us with a big smile and a “let’s get this puppy started” opening.

Ended up all she wanted was to do the job right.

Over the next three days, we got to know each other a little better. We got her house in good enough shape that she can go to Chicago, where her sister lives and she has an apartment, comfortable that her NO home is coming along.

I asked Gwendolyn what people who don’t live in NO need to know. Here’s her cautionary answer …

In New Orleans

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Roy and Kevin, originally uploaded by kevdonahue.

Virginia and I are in New Orleans, helping with the reconstruction in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Unbelievably, 3 years later, there’s still an unimaginable amount of work to do.

I’m here with Roy, whose house we helped paint on Tuesday and Wednesday. We helped with other stuff over the last three days, and took a tour of the city Sunday. Photos are here.

Change, Whether You Want It Or Not

This is from January 2007, during a service on the Roman god Janus and the spirit of change …

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I don’t know about you, but when asked to speak in public I will entertain ideas, consider ways in and out of the topic. If you’re unfortunate enough to live with me, you’ll even have to listen to me do this out loud.

So when Virginia asked me to say something about change and this time of year when the past and future meet, I noticed that my thoughts turned toward some helpful aphorisms, a few tips about how to handle change. A sort of rah-rah talk: Life takes its best shot at us, but we can overcome it, we can win, if you will. It just takes a mindset, a toughness, a posture of thinking and being.

And I was surprised, because, truthfully, that’s not my take on change. There’s a prayer that gets much closer, that is associated with people facing desperate change but that resonates with me universally.

 God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change,
courage to change the things we can,
and wisdom to know the difference.

Some change is personal and directed. I changed jobs recently. I absolutely meant to, it happened and I’m thankful. Here at Thomas Paine, look around you, we’ve changed—with hard work, some joy and a little pain. More power to all of us and our ability to effect change.

But that kind of change is in the minority, I think. Most change is beyond our control. It is impersonal. It is neither enemy nor friend. It simply is. Change—with a bang—ushered in existence. The end of change will mark the death of that existence.

Change doesn’t care if I’m up for it or not. Change is a wave that will break across my bow over and over again.

And while, at 42, I still cling to a certain cloak of invincibility, here’s a truth I know: change can break me, like a boat in high seas. In fact, change will break me. And it will break you. There will come a time when life will give us more than we can bear alone.

Virginia and I learned a little about impersonal change this year. At the tail end of a pleasant vacation, change whacked us like a 2-by-4 to the side of the head.

Kelly, one of our two heretofore perfectly healthy kids, was in the hospital, severely anemic, with a bloody colon and no real good answer as to why. This wasn’t change we welcomed, nor anything that we had any real control over. And so we spent six long days in a hospital.

And I learned a couple things:

  • That my back, especially, doesn’t like sleeping on benches, But I can do it.
  • That I had a certain chauvinism about my healthy kids, a false pride that I had no right to—and correspondingly, a whiff of superiority regarding families where the kids had illnesses. It was one of the uncomfortable realizations of the year.
  • That I love my son with a depth and doggedness that I’d assumed but that isn’t always apparent in the normal day-to-dayness of life. And that I could not stop his suffering.
  • That Virginia and Peter and Kelly and I are blessed with so many people that care for us that it boggles the mind—and the heart.
  • That I believed it would all turn out alright.

Now, four months later, it has and it hasn’t.

Kelly is home and pretty much the kid he’s always been—the Charlie Browniest in the whole world. (I loved that line from the holiday pageant earlier this month.) And he most likely has Crohn’s Disease, he’ll most likely battle it his entire life, it will be unpleasant at times. It could cause him pain. He might need surgery. It might keep him from doing things that he otherwise might have done.

And, somehow, and I know this is a little crazy, it’ll turn out alright. Because that, I believe, is how it happens—first, you must imagine it. That is the irrational magic of the world.

And how do I reconcile that against the reality of impersonal change? I don’t know and, to a degree, I don’t care.

So, Janus, who looks back and looks forward, is a great god for this time of year, when we take stock of where we’ve been and where we’re going. But me, when I look back, I realize that my challenge is to look right in front of me, right here and right now. That is where I must meet change – on the front lines, as it happens, in the moment. Too often I’m everywhere but where I am. It’s pervasive: These things – and the gadgets our kids huddle over for hours each day – I’m not suggesting we lose them, just that we realize they are obstacles to being present.

So …

When I am with Kelly in the hospital and he is suffering, be there. When my wife needs my counsel or my sympathy or merely a wisecrack, be there. When a friend is moving, help. When I’m here, be here.

And, this is a hard one for guys, allow others to be here for me. Because isn’t that why we’re here? Because we know that truth about change – that we’re not up to it alone, that we can’t do it by ourselves, that we need communities of love and support.

That’s the bedrock of my faith life. It’s why I’m here. So my hope for the new year is that we are there for each other. Blessed be.