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Archive for the ‘faith’ Category

Guest Post by Ben Soule

The day after the Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly ended my wife Deb and I were still in New Orleans. Most of the other delegates had already flown out and Deb was scheduled to be in meetings with some of the remaining UUA leaders, so I had some time to myself. Finding that the museum I intended to visit was closed on Mondays, I decided to take a long walk through my favorite city instead.  I took out my cell phone, opened Google Maps, dropped a pin in the middle of the Bywater District, hit the start button, and set off.

I was glad for this chance to get out of the hotel room, out of the GA bubble, and stretch my legs.  I was also glad to be able to have a chance to reflect on all that had happened in the past five days.  I thought back on all of the mind- and soul-stretching workshops I had attended, working to understand where I fit in the seismic shift in Unitarian Universalism that this year’s Assembly has signaled.  In addition, I had set out on my own quest to answer some questions for which I could find no ready answers, such as:

~ What is the cultural origin of the word ashé? 
~ Why have “indigenous people” been given a separate category from the larger category of people of color? 
~ How did the phrase “white supremacy” come to be the default term for that which we are working against?  
~ And my last and only unanswered question of the week: How do we wrestle with the issues raised by the brutal attack on two UUA staff members in the French Quarter on Saturday night, in light of all we had learned in recent days?  I was working hard on that one.

My route took me around much of the crescent for which the old city was nick-named.  As I crossed Bienville I recalled the news report from that morning saying that the attack took place on “the 200 block of Bienville.”  I glanced to my left and wondered.  I continued past Jackson Square, past the French market, through the industrial end of the Marigny district and into the Bywater.  The Bywater is a pleasant neighborhood that appears to have come a long way since Katrina, and shows signs of the mixed blessing of gentrification.  I walked along Rue Dauphine past many brightly painted houses as well as some that clearly needed to be worked on.  I came to a corner with a Mom and Pop market and a flower and bookshop where my GPS told me I had another 100 feet to my destination.  I walked the last few steps, stopped and looked around, hoping that there would be  something there, something significant, something that I was supposed to find.  But there wasn’t. Just some well-kept houses on a quiet street shaded by lime trees. 

So I turned back the way I had come to that last street corner.  It was mid-afternoon on a warm New Orleans day and I was glad to be able to buy something cold to drink at the market.  I stepped past a few people sitting in the shade of the sidewalk awning and entered the dimly lit market.  I exchanged a few pleasantries with the woman behind the counter as I bought a bottle of fruit juice and had a few gulps.  I stepped out onto the sidewalk and looked across the street at the book and florist shop I had passed earlier. 

And then I knew why I was there.  I crossed and went into the tiny florist’s but no one was there.  I called up the stairs where the books must have been.  No answer.  As I turned to leave, a young woman appeared in the doorway.  I recognized her from the group across the street.  “Do you work here?” I asked.  “Yes, can I help you?,” she said.  I asked for a small mixed bouquet for a sick friend.  She went to the tinier back room and returned with a lovingly assembled splash of colors and look of sympathy in her eyes.  I asked for a card to write a note, jotted a few words and tied it with the yarn around the brown paper bundle.  I paid her the $13.20, thanked her, asked for the most interesting route back to the Quarter, and set off.

On Burgundy I passed a carefully restored Esso station with a sign saying “No gas today.”  On Elysian Fields I saw a circle of rust brown statue-people facing defiantly outward.  On Rue Royal I was greeted with a “How y’all doin’” by a young man, and I saw a young woman retrieve an electronic recorder for a UPS driver that had fallen from his truck.  Everything seemed to have meaning to me in the hyperaware state I was in because my GA experience. 

I was nearly all the way across the Quarter when I drained the last of the now-warm juice, and saw the sign for Rue Bienville up ahead.  My heart was pounding as I turned left toward the river.  I passed the 400 block and crossed North Peters.  I seemed to be out of what I thought of as the French Quarter but I kept on. Ahead was a single four-story brick building surrounded by parking lots.  I realized that the flowers’ brown paper wrapper was soaked through with my own sweat as I took the bouquet with my right hand from the crook of my left arm and approached the building.  It was marked number 208.

There was a man setting up a power washer.  The intake hose was in a drainage ditch of an adjacent building project.  As he started the washer I saw that his job was to wash away the sand that was strewn on the sidewalk.  My realization that I had found the right place was confirmed when, as he cleaned away the top layer, I saw the caked red sand beneath.

209 NOLAI placed the flowers in a nook in the front of building and left the man to his task. As I walked away I wondered why I had done this thing.  It was not my typical behavior.  I didn’t do it for myself, and I knew it would make little difference to the victims.  I had no expectation that the flowers would be there more than 10 minutes after I left.  But I understood I was the only person in that place and at that time who could make that gesture, who could bear witness, as Deb phrased it later.  I understood that no matter how difficult we find the road that we travel together, no matter how long it takes to hear and to know each others’ deepest stories, how painful it is to create a welcome place in our movement for all who wish to join, we must stand together.

Clearly I had felt a call from my deep life-long connection to Unitarian Universalism.  I am grateful to have been awake and aware enough to heed that call.

Ben Soule is a lifelong Unitarian Universalist.  He resides in Lexington, MA and is a member of First Parish in Lexington.

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I guess there is one thing that I can be grateful for on this Inauguration Day:  Donald J. Trump got me back into blogging.  After weeks of feeling increasingly ill, after nights of tossing and turning and waking up way too early with an impending sense of doom descending on me – here I am, back at the keyboard after a hiatus of more than three years.

It isn’t that I don’t like to write, of course:  I do it a lot and enjoy it.  It isn’t that I didn’t have ideas…I have too many of them.  But busy?  Oh jeez.  Nevertheless, I’m back and sitting here as the news plays in the background, sharing images of the new First Family headed to a worship service, then to the White House to have coffee with the First Family of my Heart For All Time, and then on to the swearing-in.

I won’t be watching it;  I’ll be at the church I’m serving, in the sanctuary with parishioners, lighting candles, sitting in meditation and prayer, at high noon.  I’ll be thinking, in this town where the American Revolution began, about the country that has been my home and that of my parents and their parents.  This is the land that was built from struggle and love and visions of a place where immigrants could arrive and find – with hard work and dedication – a better life … and it’s where this drama is unfolding, as a large part of the nation holds its collective breath.

So yes, I thank you, Mr. President-Elect.  For this, I am grateful.

I am also grateful for my daughters, they who are from Gen Y and Millenial cohorts, and their belief in a life which can be more fair, more just, for all; one where women are valued for their contributions and their minds and are paid equally and not subjected to groping and denigrating remarks.  I am grateful that one of my daughters, surrounded by friends from her high school, from Star Island, from Tulane and Loyola, are now traveling to Washington to be part of the Women’s March.  I am grateful that pretty much everyone I talk to is engaged in planning and action to change the direction the almost-president is embracing.

I’m grateful for a spouse who has a deep love of country and the history that made this nation what it is, who is here to travel the road with me, hold me at night when I’m wondering where this all will go, and share conversations with me around how we live into an uncertain time.  I’m grateful to be part of communities of faith that embrace resistance and action.  I’m grateful for the brilliant Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, who night after night, helps us understand the news we’re reading and receiving.  She is brainy and literate and she is pure gold.  I’m grateful for my progressive clergy and religious educator colleagues who are working hard to put all that people are feeling into words and action and teachable moments.

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Morning star rising over the Chapel on Star Island

And I’m grateful to remember that, for a very long time, the sun has continued to rise and set; the morning star has risen, and life has gone on.  Last summer, my beloved former neighbor said, as we stood and looked on our gardens, “Maybe this is what people mean by the end-times.”  Interesting thought:  maybe it’s not that the world ends with a bang, but with a whimper…with society caving in and conversations devolving into brags about acts of violence and hate perpetrated on the vulnerable.

On the other hand, I am now choosing to view this not as an end, but a beginning:  Even this new kind of leader probably won’t end this nation  (although I do worry…) and while the light fills the morning sky, I’ll keep praying that our nation, and our world — now more complex than ever — endures and maybe even becomes better as a result of our steadfast witness to values of love, justice and hope.  May it be so, today and in all the days to come.

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What’s amazing is that it feels like it was just yesterday.  It makes me wonder what it would be like to be a real time traveler, to be able to go forward or back in time by decades or more, and wake up and know where you are because you’ve lived it all before.  That’s how I’m feeling about the anniversary, tomorrow.  I’m the cajillionth in a line of people talking about this anniversary (and I won’t talk that much, I promise).  But I keep shaking my head, because the memories are SO present.

I remember not only what I was doing, but what it felt like to be on the school bus coming home, to see my mother crying when I walked in the door, to spend the wierdest Thanksgiving ever, with my aunt and uncle in a smoke-filled den, watching Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather, for hours on end.

There were breaks for food, breaks for the adults to make drinks, breaks to get more tissues, and the sense that this was some bizarre drama in which we were the bit players. No one could remember when the last time was that this had happened;  all they could do was talk about Lincoln’s assassination, “Camelot,” and the beautiful young widow and the two small, adorable children in blue coats.  All I could do was watch them, and watch the TV.

And it was the end of some kind of innocence for me, and probably for many other pre-teens of my generation:  the time when it all seemed to go a little whacky, when the young hero I’d stood and waved to in Hyannisport the previous summer had been ‘disappeared’; the start of the time when people decided that if they didn’t like someone, they’d blow them away to make their lives better and fulfill some promise in their minds about how to change the world.

I started writing slogans that I found inspirational, writings from Anne Frank and Shakespeare and Aldous Huxley even, on the bedroom shades.  I’d lie there in the half-dark, looking at those words, wondering how they had been moved to write those things and wondering if I’d ever be a writer or a great thinker, or how one survived tragedy and disappointment so deep it hurt in my heart.

I started peppering my childhood minister, Rev. Wayne Shuttee, with questions about how there could be a loving God in the face of insanity and rage.  About why there was a world where such bad things happened. About how people find courage and strength to carry on in the face of such stuff.  Wayne answered some, helped me struggle some, and — with my church youth group — helped me believe that together, we could find the resources inside us to carve a new path… so that our lives, and maybe those of our children, wouldn’t be etched with the violence that wiped out those we looked up to and adored (even though we’d never really known them).

All that is hopelessly idealistic, of course.  And it was unfulfilled:  the men who wiped out Martin, Bobby, and a string of lesser heroes made sure we learned that lesson, again and again. Yet, we endure.  We continue to believe, with undying hope, that our world might be different some day.  Which brings us back, in some ways, to the unfulfilled promises of the young man who died fifty years ago.

Tomorrow, I’ll be the kid on the bus again, walking in the door and seeing my mother crying and trying to understand why the world had gone mad.  Just like yesterday.

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I walked in the door a few hours ago with hope in my heart and alive with the possibility — the just-maybe feeling that I don’t get all that often anymore — that maybe our country, our world, has a chance to find its goodness and center again.

It’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and that’s part of it.  Yesterday I put my professional chef skills to work and volunteered my services to make a lunch for all the folks in my congregation — and VIP’s in our town — who were headed for the town’s annual CommUNITY MLK celebration.  The fact that there was a huge pan of food left, and that we arranged to have some volunteers take it to the food pantry in the next town, was even better. Feed our people, feed the hungry, and pass it on.

I headed to Boston to join my congregation’s Coming of Age youth (high schoolers in 9th and 10th grade), who were on retreat discussing our faith’s call to social action, how they can make a difference, and what our faith teaches about reaching out to others.  We talked, we cooked together, we walked around Boston (oh yeah, we watched the Patriots lose a Very Important Football Game too) and I watched these amazing young women who are part of this year’s All-Girl Coming of Age class, talk about their dreams, their aspirations, and why they are Unitarian Universalists.

Then today we headed to an urban K-8 school to be part of the MLK Day of Service projects going on in Boston and throughout the country.  I met folks from all over greater Boston, made Rainbow Fish craft kits for disadvantaged kids, watched others from our group make quilts for lower income babies, cuddle toys for homeless children, cards for service men and women who are protecting our country, scarves for people living in shelters.  We cheered each other — all of us joining together to give back, even a little — and left feeling lifted up.

When we got home I switched on the television and watched our President and his First Lady walk down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the White House following the inauguration.  And this evening I finally got to sit and watch the inaugural speech, in which this man stood and delivered, talking about the promise of this country and its challenges and opportunities — which must be open, with equality, to all of us.

There have been so many days when the news has been ugly.  When I’ve sat here, shaking my head, wondering what kind of country I live in; when I’ve wondered whether the country that my grandparents dreamed of living in and emigrated t, will ever live up to the vision that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had for it.  And then, I talk to my daughter in college in New Orleans.  I hear her sharing her excitement over voting in her first presidential election – realizing that she is a part of this great experiment called democracy.  I talk to the 10th grade Coming of Age participant who spent months working for Massachusetts’ now-Senator, Elizabeth Warren…a girl who now dreams of working to support the campaign of Rep. Ed Markey as he runs for election to John Kerry’s Senate seat and who thinks about running for elective office some day.

I see in the eyes of these bright young women the promise of tomorrow; the vision that they carry with them for a country that will offer equality, opportunity, and excellence in education.  The singers who are part of Sweet Honey in the Rock once sang of what we need to do “if we want hope to survive”:  March on.  Teach on.  Walk on.

Inspired by our children, called by our President, reminded of the legacy of Dr. King, and ever-hopeful, I remain ready to keep on in this struggle.

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Last night, in one of those interesting confluences of events, I found myself at my church, helping to mentor a group of 9th and 10th grade students who are part of our Coming of Age class.  This program, one of the crown jewels of the Unitarian Universalist religious education program, guides high school students as they contemplate their personal ethics, morals, faith, and vision for themselves, both now and in the future.  And, in an ironic and timely coincidence, the evening’s theme was on good and evil.

Is there inherent good in the world, we were asked?  Or inherent evil?  Or does it take people for either, or both, to exist?  Why do people do good things, and have you ever experienced them?  And why is it that evil occurs?  The youth, and we, their advisers and mentors, wrestled with those very big questions, all in light of the tragedy that had occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT.

After class was over, Ben and I went on to meet our nephew and niece at the movie theater to escape the weekend’s headlines.  There, we watched “The Hobbit:  An Unexpected Journey,” and I was pulled in once again to the story of Gollum, the tormented creature who engages Bilbo Baggins in riddles and struggles with his inner selves…part good, part evil…unsure which way to go.

Face of Gollum

Gollum, who struggles with good and evil in Tolkien’s stories.

I do believe — have always believed — that it takes people to cause good in the world, that good exists because of what we do, because of how we experience it through our eyes.  And I also believe that people cause evil to exist in the world.  The sick or twisted mind loses its way, causes pain and suffering and hatred to be visited on others.  If a tree falls in the forest, it must be witnessed in some way to be known.

So while Gollum, alone on his island imagines what he might do to feed his lost soul, it requires the presence of another — in this case, Baggins — to push him to action.  And, returning to the realities of our own nightmarish existence of the last several days, it seems clear that Adam Lanza’s warped sensibilities sought out the lives of innocents to carry out his mission in the horrible, desperate way that he did on Friday.

In the Coming of Age class on Sunday night, the question was asked:  “What have you done that was good?”  People thought hard as they struggled to answer that question.  My own response was pretty simple:  This weekend I wrote a letter to a very good friend who lives in Newtown, telling her that I was thinking of her.  And at church yesterday, I sought out a woman — with two beautiful children of her own — who teaches kindergarten in our town, and thanked her for what she does.

Someone I know wrote, in an email to others, that we might not be able to do much right now for the people of Newtown, but that we can be kind to one another.  True, we can sign online petitions to the White House, the National Rifle Association and public interest lobbies — and that is important.  We can write to our elected representatives and the President of the United States, and that is required, I think.  But if we do those things and we are pushed, in a moment of anger, to scratch the door of someone at the parking lot because they parked too close, or to cut someone off in traffic, or push to the front of the line at the movie theater, we might have missed the bigger point.

Child lighting candle Make no mistake:  I am no Pollyanna.  As my friends — and some who are not — will tell you, I have been known to proclaim someone an ass—e on plenty of occasions, and I certainly don’t get it right every time in my life.  But long ago, I resolved to try to treat people with kindness; to live out what I held on to when I was a teenager, about the same age as these kids who I now seek to mentor:  I chose to believe that people are, as Anne Frank once said, really good at heart.  And that we should try to treat one another with kindness and do good where we can, even in small ways.

Right now, as we thread our way through the thorns and blossoms that reside next to one another in the garden of good and evil, that seems like it might be a pretty important goal — and the one that we can all work toward, no matter where we are on our society’s power ladder.

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It’s less than two weeks before Christmas, a time when the pressure on parents to think about how they can fulfill their children’s wishes and dreams mounts apace.  It’s a time of holiday parties, of too much to do and too little time, of baking treats, visiting with friends and — in our house, anyway — thinking about the arrival home of our adored younger child, whose face we last saw (at least, without the aid of Skype) on August 29 as we drove away from New Orleans.

She’s had a good first semester at Tulane, and we’ve survived empty nest syndrome reasonably well.  And now, it’s time for a reunion.  And while my head has been filled with all the things we might do when she comes home — all the things I’ll cook for her, the Zumba class we’ll go to together, picking out the Christmas tree and decorating it, with eggnog in hand — the illusion was shattered today.

I’m from Connecticut, you see.  A dear friend lives in Newtown;  I know where Sandy Hook is.  More than that, the elementary school where our younger child was educated is right down the street from us.  Many days, Ben or I would walk her there, say goodbye as she went in the door, wave to the principal, thank her teachers for all they offered her.  So I really can not imagine what nightmare the parents of Newtown are living through right now.  How in the world could you have been planning for the holidays with your five- or eight-year-old one minute and find out, in the next, that the child has been blown away by a gunman?

What do we say, collectively, to those parents?  What do we say to the families of those who have lost a loved one…those families of educators who devoted themselves to our children, so that they would have the opportunity to grow and contribute and flower in their lives?  And why, in the name of all that is valuable in life, do we continue to believe that — because of this country’s struggle for liberty and the value of individual rights — we must have the right to bear firearms, allowing this catastrophe to happen over and over again?

By heaven’s grace, it wasn’t either of my children who died today.  By heaven’s grace, it wasn’t my nephew, who teaches in a charter school, or an extended family member’s second grade son, or my cousin, who is a school librarian.  But it could have been.  And it should not be.  Not ever.

We proudly proclaim that, as a country, we are the most powerful nation on earth.  And then, people who suffer from mental illness or who have lost their way in life use the rights we continue to proudly claim, to buy firearms and in one horrible moment, blow away the lives, the futures, of twenty small children and the teachers who cared for them.

Too often, we take our lives and our existence for granted, take our privileges as citizens of this country as ‘inalienable rights’ that can lead us astray.  There must be another way.  Because, for those good people of Newtown and for us as a nation, life as we know it will not be the same.  And we owe it to the memory of those children and teachers to make sure that the gun laws in this country are different so that this sad drama does not keep repeating.

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Yesterday, I had the opportunity to share with my congregation my thoughts regarding Massachusetts’ proposed ballot initiative (known as Question 2) which asks voters whether the Commonwealth shall permit physicians to prescribe a lethal dose of medication to terminally ill individuals who request such assistance.  My perspective on this is deeply personal.

It was in July, 1993 that I got the phone call from my father.  After months of mysterious muscle weakness, stumbling, falling, thinking that it was the result of a fall off a ladder the previous year that had resulted in cervical fractures, he had received a diagnosis of ALS, or Lew Gehrig’s disease.  A death sentence for most people – the question was when, and how.

I was pregnant with Abby.  My mother was overwhelmed with trying to care for my father, and I have no siblings.  Dad asked whether Ben and I could talk to his doctors and find out if they would write a prescription for a lethal dose of medication that would allow him to end his life.  Ben and I talked about it, as I recall for a while, but not for long.  Because we knew we would do what Dad asked.

We got in the car and drove to New Haven, having made appointments with Dad’s primary care physician and neurologist.  We prepared ourselves for a fight.  We had all the arguments at hand about why this was the humane thing to do, the thing that would fulfill the wishes of the person who would never recover from his disease.  We had done our homework:  Rev. Ralph Mero, the Unitarian Universalist minister who had led the effort to pass a death with dignity law in Oregon, had provided us with information on options, given us some talking points, and had offered compassionate, sensible help to us at every step of the way.

We arrived at the doctor’s offices on the Yale campus, and began our meetings.  We were astonished to find no argument coming back from either physician.  Were these my father’s wishes, they asked?  We asserted that they were.  Then yes, of course they would write the prescriptions.

We were stunned that it had not taken an argument, and we were deeply grateful.  Our next visits were with my father’s best friend, an eminent psychiatrist at Yale.  He confirmed that he would be there, with my father and mother, while my father took his last breaths.  Steve Fleck would not fail, we knew, and we were deeply appreciative of his courage and strength.  Finally, we saw my parents’ minister.  She confirmed that she, too, would be there and would support the decision.  We felt that we had a plan.  The prescription was filled at a local pharmacy and picked up.

The last part was administering the medication.  My Dad had lost the ability to feed himself, to move his arms more than a little.  So administering the medication was a real concern.  I didn’t want to ask my mother to do this, and after considering the question, I decided that I was prepared to act.  Helping someone you love to spend the last part of their life in as dignified a manner as possible is high on my list of promises I will keep.  I was ready to drive to New Haven and feed my father the medication.

Abigail Soule was born in the early morning hours of October 5, 1993.  Three weeks later, we brought her to Connecticut to meet her grandfather, so that he could pronounce her ‘perfect’ and be at rest, knowing that this great wheel of life had turned once more.

On October 30, with his breathing growing more difficult as fluid built up in his lungs, my father developed a bladder infection which we had decided we would not treat with antibiotics.  He announced that he was ready for the medication:  life was just not fun anymore, and even his quips and jokes were not enough to keep him going.  Pneumonia set in.  He saw the next door neighbor’s children in their Halloween costumes on October 31 as they came to the house to Trick or Treat, and then, on November 1, he passed, as he had said he would, “quietly into the night.”  As sometimes happens in these situations, fate had intervened before action was required.

In the face of such difficult decisions, our family was lifted up:  by the compassionate physicians who were willing to support my father’s request; by the friend of decades who was willing to stand by; by the minister who – while acknowledging her own belief in the value of life until the last breath is taken – was willing to honor my father’s last wish.  We were lucky.

I hope that Question #2 passes on November 6 — because I don’t want people to have to be lucky about having the nerve to ask the difficult questions we asked, relying on the compassionate physicians, ministers, friends who we were fortunate enough to have, or be left to hope that a family member would have the guts to administer medication to a family member if she or he couldn’t lift up the medication to their lips.  We don’t need luck, we need a law that will help to ensure that people have as good a death as possible.

My father died on All Saints Day, a day of remembrance and celebration honored in different ways in Christian, Celtic and pagan communities. A hymn that we sing in our Unitarian Universalist congregations, “For All the Saints,” says, “Thy name most holy, be forever bless’d,” in speaking of the departed.  I would offer that same praise and blessing for those who have stepped forward, in different times and places, to compassionately help those who we love exit this life in dignity and peace.

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