21 11 / 2013
The holiday season is almost upon us. Soon, many of us will be rushing around wondering how we will ever have time to put up all the decorations. Or, how we can afford the presents our children or grandchildren have their hearts upon (that the media has been so generously urging them to get since September!)? We worry about traffic, the crowds, and the long lines at stores. And we get anxious about the prospect of spending time with our families or being alone.
When I was growing up, my mother, had a refrain that drove me up the wall. Whenever I would ask for something, running shoes or a cricket bat or a bike, she would say, “Do you really need it?” I learned the hard way to be more temperate about my requests. Perhaps we should ask such questions during the holiday season. Is this shopping trip necessary? Is this (one more) present necessary? Is this (one more) party necessary? Is this level of expenditure, exertion, and stress necessary? Is going into debt necessary? Do they contribute to the spiritual growth and loving-kindness of our family, and to my own peace of mind?
The consumer culture that we are enveloped in packages our needs so tidily that they are barely recognizable. Love gets packaged as a diamond ring; adventure gets packaged as a sports car; passion gets packaged as a vacation at some exotic locale; and, concern for our families gets packaged as a home security system.
The holiday season is a good time to rethink our basic values and take a stand toward simpler living even if it’s hard to do. It is an invitation to each of us to let ourselves imagine the greatest gift we could receive. What’s in that box for you? What do you want to find when you peel away all the trappings and wrappings?
These days, time is often the greatest gift we can give. Time for our spouses, partners, and families. Time to walk together, read together, sing together, pray together, go to church together, play together. Time for ourselves to rest, reflect, and refresh our spirits. When we get lost in holiday mania, we rob ourselves and each other of time.
So if you’re trying to think of the perfect gift, don’t forget time. Consider making a gift of a day, an afternoon, a weekend together. A massage. A movie. A poem. Help with a special project. No traffic, no crowds, no online forms to fill out. Visa, Master Card, Discover, or American Express not accepted.
It will be a gift to yourself, to your family, and to us all.
21 11 / 2013
By coincidence, I am spending much of this Thanksgiving season teaching a number of pastoral care workshops and, thus, thinking about presence. Considering the nature of Thanksgiving, this makes sense as this holiday is centered on people physically being together – gathering, reuniting, connecting, either across the street or across the country. People being present in person to one another.
Presence is such a difficult thing to describe but I imagine that most of us know it when we experience it. As providers of pastoral care, we are called, above all, to offer presence. We are called to connect with another person in such a way that they feel companioned in their experience - be it happiness, pain, fear, sorrow or confusion - but not so connected that the person receiving care feels eclipsed by the connection. A Buddhist might describe offering “presence” as being “mindfully in the moment.”
As we officially enter “the holiday season,” I invite all of us to practice presence – being present to ourselves and our loved ones and offering presence to those around us. Entering the holiday season means confronting a yearly paradox. We are invited into celebrations of gratitude, anticipation, miracle and joy through sometimes excessive experiences of traveling, eating, spending, drinking and socializing. How can we feel our gratitude, give voice to a sense of wonder with all this spiritual noise around us? How can we live “mindfully in the moment” with all these distractions?
In the spirit of these questions, I close my reflections with an abridged version of a prayer, written by one of our returning Pastoral Visitors:
As we look forward to the season of gratitude, we recall that the greatest gift is the gift of life. Each of us is born in uniqueness; no one like us has ever been before, and no one like us will be again. Each life is a story, and each story must have a listener. We are the listeners. So be it.
May we be present to each other’s unique story and may we receive loving witness to our own in this season. Blessed be.
20 11 / 2013
A candid reflection about Cedar Lane’s worship service and coffee hour from fellow UU, Kat Hussein Liu
By Kat Hussein Liu
Visited the Cedar Lane UU church today and here is my “review”:
1. *Several* people approached me before and after service to talk to me. Believe it or not, that does not happen in all UU congregations. Approaching strangers is always a little risky. I, for example, am an introvert, and don’t particularly like talking to strangers. But I was also a visitor, with my “visiting UU congregations critic” cap on, and in my book, Cedar Lane did great in the welcoming strangers category.
2. After service, during the “coffee hour,” visitors were encouraged to grab a yellow mug so that folks know that you’re visiting. Another plus, in my book. (I suppose that if you don’t want anyone to talk to you, you can grab a different color.)
3. During coffee hour, older youth were selling donuts as some sort of fundraiser. I didn’t buy one so I don’t know what the money goes for, but I really liked that they were there. It automatically made the space more intergenerational than many congregations I’ve been to. (And if you wanted a donut to go with your coffee, they were available. ) The mugs and spoons were real (not single-use disposable), which means the congregation is committed enough to organize volunteers to wash dishes.
4. The congregation was very white, even among the kids from what I could see. (Usually, there is a little more diversity in RE). But Abhi Janamanchi is now the senior minister there (just started recently), and he spoke of multiculturalism (and social justice) from the pulpit, and ultimately it isn’t about the color in the pews so much as what the congregation does in its community.
5. I visited on a weird day in that the congregation is in the middle of fund-raising (which every congregation has to do), so the service and sermon were geared more towards members than visitors, but even still, Abhi was able to make the sermon relevant to non-members. It was a good sermon (which I discuss elsewhere.)
6. The atmosphere in the sanctuary is very relaxed. Not only can you drink coffee during service, but you can even eat. *For me*, this is not a plus. I am “old-school” that way in that during the time for prayer I don’t want to hear a potato chip bag rustling. And the “moment of silence” was ten seconds long, at most. I almost wondered why bother even having one. That said, I know that not everyone cares about those things as much as I do. (And I’m sure that there are things I do during service that bug other people - for example, crocheting and tweeting.) And some folks will find the relaxed atmosphere much more inviting.
Over all, personally, I still prefer an urban congregation, but I really enjoyed my visit to Cedar Lane - the building is surrounded by beautiful trees - I felt welcomed there - folks were nice - there was a very positive, excited energy - and I look forward to another visit in the future.
28 10 / 2013
Some people tend to think of gratitude as a consequence of happiness, that we will feel gratitude only when we are happy. And happiness arises when we do not have problems in our life - when we have a decent job, make a lot of money, live in a good house, drive a good car, have a lot of stuff, take vacations to nice places, etc. Losing some of that makes people feel as if the rug has been pulled from underneath their feet.
In reality, it is happiness that follows gratitude. Some of the happiest people I’ve met in my life are ones who have endured terrible pain, loss, and suffering. These are not people who live in denial but are grateful and happy despite all that. Why? Because they have learned that joy and happiness come from cherishing and sharing what they have rather than complaining about what is missing from their lives.
Gratitude is a recognition that we are alive and that we are connected to other living beings and the earth. It is a reminder that all that comes to us is not so much something we deserve, as it is something that comes to us by grace. It is a recognition of the fullness of life, not just the things that make us happy, but the totality of living. It is an openness to what life is bringing us, and an openness to the lessons we can learn from it.
To practice gratitude is to develop the mental habit of appreciation rather than depreciation, acceptance rather than criticism, abundance rather than scarcity.
American Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield writes in The Wise Heart: “Gratitude is a gracious acknowledgement of all that sustains us, a bow to our blessings, great and small. Gratitude is the confidence in life itself. In it, we feel the same force that pushes grass through cracks in the sidewalk invigorates our own life. In Tibet, the monks and nuns even offer prayers of gratitude for the suffering they have been given: ‘Grant that I might have enough suffering to awaken in me the deepest possible compassion and wisdom.’ Gratitude does not envy or compare. Gratitude receives in wonder the myriad offering of rain and sunlight, the care that supports every single life. As gratitude grows it gives rise to joy.”
So this Thanksgiving, may we be truly grateful for every gift of life which we have received. And may we have companionship to carry us through life’s challenges, over those rough places where we struggle to be thankful, that our lives might be filled not with despair and loneliness, but with the possibility of grace and life.
24 10 / 2013
I remember having a conversation with a Cedar Lane member a couple years ago as he prepared to testify on behalf of a bill to strengthen the rights of transgender people. This member was not transgender himself. He was a “cisgender ally,” a non-transgender person motivated to stand in solidarity with those in the transgender community.
This member asked me a provocative question, “What could I, as a cisgender person, say to promote protection of the worth and dignity of transgender people?” I heard in this question an understanding that personal experience with a social issue often lends authority to an advocate’s stance.
I thought about this question and replied in a way that, perhaps, my friend did not expect. I replied with a question of my own. “Have you ever had an experience where you felt unsafe or ostracized because of your gender expression? Have you ever been given the message that you are not ‘man enough?’”
I asked this question as all of us are affected by society’s adherence to a belief in two genders – male and female – and two types of gender expression – masculine and feminine. Science teaches us that there are actually multiple genders and we also know that gender expression falls on a broad continuum. Yet, if someone dares to live outside of binary ideas of “male” and “female,” if they “throw like a girl” or “look like a man,” they can be subject to shame, harassment or physical harm.
However, for those who choose to transition, to go through the painful, arduous and expensive steps of living as the gender at the heart of their identity when their body is another sex, the risk is even greater. By one count, a transgender person is murdered through a hate crime every three days because of their gender expression.
In response to the devastating rates of homicide, suicide and violence in the transgender community, in 1998 Gwendolyn Ann Smith organized the first Transgender Day of Remembrance. Held every year on or close to November 20th, these services give the trans community and their allies an opportunity to grieve and to gather strength towards taking positive action.
A Cedar Lane member, Susan Staff, was the organizing force behind Montgomery County’s first Transgender Day of Remembrance (or TDOR) in 2011. I attended this powerful service, held at the New Creation Church in Wheaton and was grateful to be a planner and participant in the service held in 2012 at the Bethesda United Church of Christ.
This year the Montgomery County TDOR will be held at the Twinbrook Baptist Church on November 16th at 6:00 pm. While it is an interfaith service, I and a number of other representatives from Cedar Lane have been long at work in its creation.
We invite all members and friends of our community to attend this service of memory and hope, to witness to the truth that no one should be targeted for violence because of their gender identity or expression. (As part of our vision of living as a Welcoming Congregation to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, the TDOR service will be held at Cedar Lane in 2014.)
We all come into this world, called to be no one other than ourselves. Through our prayers, our witness and our actions, may we work together to make the world safe for all those seeking to live out their identity with integrity.
19 9 / 2013
On Monday morning, thirteen people, including the shooter, were killed and several others wounded in a shooting rampage at the Navy Yard in our nation’s capital, yet another act of wanton gun violence that has become a common aspect of American life.
We remember those who were killed and extend our deepest condolences to their loved ones. May they remember that their love is in the sharp, searing pain of their loss.
We remember the courage of the police officers who arrived at the scene whose swift actions surely prevented the tragedy from being much, much worse. We remember those who survived who will carry the scars on their spirits for the rest of their lives.
I remind myself that those who were killed were someone’s children; someone’s spouse or partner; someone’s mother or father; someone’s brother or sister; someone’s friend or coworker, not just the latest victims of wanton gun violence, so that I don’t become inured and callous.
What will it take for the national political leadership in DC to stand up to the NRA, the gun manufacturers and sellers, and pass sensible gun laws that will prevent such tragedies from occurring in the future? What will it take for them to commit to protecting children, youth, and adults over their reelection to office? What will it take to do everything possible to keep guns out of the hands of people who may harm themselves or others?
What more is it going to take for us to recognize that it is way past time for people, especially religious people, to act?
May we strengthen our resolve to speak clearly and act with love against all those who speak and perpetuate violence in our lives.
12 9 / 2013
It will not surprise anyone when I affirm that ministry can be a challenging profession. The hours are long, the work is often ambiguous or seemingly impossible and there are many tasks that seem far afield from what first called a minister into a life of religious service.
Yet, there are moments – regular moments – that call me back to what two ministers have named “this odd and wondrous calling.” I was blessed this past Sunday to experience one of these moments. And, as we are now back to two services, I experienced it twice!
At the end of our water ceremony, members of the community formed a circle around the room. At Abhi’s invitation, we looked around this great space and took in each other’s presence. For this brief moment, the whole community was able to see what I so often see from my chair on the chancel - the astonishing beauty of each other’s faces. Perhaps now you can see why I describe my seat as “the best seat in the house.”
I couldn’t help but to think of the reading in our hymnal by Kathleen McTigue: “We come together this morning to remind one another to rest for a moment on the forming edge of our lives, to resist the headlong tumble into the next moment, until we claim for ourselves awareness and gratitude, taking the time to look into one another’s faces and see there communion: the reflection of our own eyes. This house of laughter and silence, memory and hope, is hallowed by our presence together.”
Our Board of Trustees has a practice of beginning its meetings by each person answering this question: “How has Cedar Lane moved your spirit in this past month?” When I posed this question to another group within the church, a member referred back to this opportunity to look at one another at the end of the water ceremony. “I was so surprised,” she said, “when I looked around the room and realized how many connections I had with people in our community.”
A Christian colleague once challenged me on McTigue’s reading, affirming that the traditional understanding of “communion” is one of transcendence, not self-discovery. My experience on Sunday reminds me that when we look into someone else’s eyes, we see the familiarity of our shared human nature but also a gateway towards seeing beyond our narrow world. Recognition and transcendence.
Whether your experience at Cedar Lane is defined by long-time connections or your first days of exploring our liberal religious community, it is my hope that you, too, have this experience of communion, this ability, through our connections with one another “to resist the headlong tumble into the next moment, until we claim for ourselves awareness and gratitude.” May it be so.
07 8 / 2013
Greetings from beautiful Rockville, where my wife, Lalitha, our two boys, Abhimanyu and Yashasvi, our beloved golden retriever Teddy, and I, and our many, many boxes arrived safely on July 19. As you can imagine we are still trying to get unpacked and oriented. So far we have managed to locate our bank, the Hindu temple in Lanham, Costco, Trader Joe’s, plus the Silver Diner, Joe’s Noodle House, and the Madras Palace. All is well!
In one of his prayers, Kierkegaard suggests that to be moved is at least as significant as moving. Well, I am deeply moved: by the help and support of Clearwater church members who helped us pack and move, by the loving embraces of dear friends who said goodbye as we drove off, by the tears of beloved church members who I may never see again, by the warm memories of our home in which our children grew up, by the wonderful welcome extended to us upon our arrival by Cedar Lane members, and by the hopes and dreams for our new ministry together.
And so we begin … .
There is much to do after I began my ministry on August 1. I have met with some of our lay leaders and staff to learn more about congregational programs and issues. More meetings are on the horizon over the next few weeks.
What promises will we make to ourselves, to each other, to our faith, and to the larger community? What are we called to be? Whose are we? And what if it all comes true?
I imagine us arriving in September excited and somewhat anxious, anticipating which hopes and dreams might blossom in the light of the new day. Nervously trying to say and do the right thing even as we know it is all good.
We will be the faith community and the ministry that we have been called to be - together. We will laugh and cry and argue and celebrate and grieve and cherish and make mistakes and triumph - together. And we will be there for each other, for the larger community, and for ourselves - together. And we will be generous, and selfless, and welcoming - together. And we will build the beloved community - together.
And so we begin …
25 7 / 2013
As I write this note, I am enjoying the view outside my patio door - the trees rustling, the birds and squirrels exploring the feeder (much to the cat’s delight.) Today we are enjoying some much-needed relief from the relentless heat. In life, it is often the small things that bring contentment.
I have spent much of the summer looking out my patio door as I have been recovering from surgery to correct a bunion on my left foot. As I have shared with some, I feel like the past month has not been a “stay-cation” but more a “stay-treat,” a retreat at home. While there have been moments of discomfort and boredom, it has been a gift to get caught up on my reading, to nap, to spend time with my animal family and to indulge in the pop culture television programs I don’t usually have time to watch. I hope you, too, have found the opportunity for rest and renewal this season.
Approaching my surgery, I anticipated this time as an internship of sorts, an opportunity to learn the experience of people with mobility challenges first hand. Indeed, I now have greater awareness of how hard it can be to navigate in this fast-paced world, with many stairs and obstacles, first on crutches and then in an orthotic shoe. I also have learned how hard it can be to rely on public transportation on a regular basis, something that I, as someone with enough resources to own a car, do not always appreciate. My “internship” has taught me both the physical and social difficulties of navigating through the world with fewer privileges.
My recovery period has also taught me something else. I have learned first-hand how kind and generous the Cedar Lane community can be. While I acknowledge that ministers often attract more attention because of our unique role in the community, I have been moved by the many cards, meals and offers of assistance that have come my way. You are a generous people, generous in heart and in spirit. I often say that my mission at Cedar Lane is not to provide pastoral care to each individual but more to cultivate a culture where many are engaged in caring for one another. My experience suggests that such a culture is alive at Cedar Lane. My prayer is that each one of us, no matter what the life challenge, receives these expressions of care and compassion during difficult times, from our faith community and beyond.
And speaking of providing pastoral care, I wish to publically thank our Pastoral Visitors team, who has taken greater ownership of our pastoral care ministries during my time of study leave/convalescence and limited mobility. Along with demonstrating tremendous commitment to members of our community dealing with loss and medical challenges, a number of our Visitors have been carrying their own personal burdens, finding ways to reach out to others while they are tending their own souls. Serving in this delicate balance is a sign of great generosity and spiritual maturity. We should all be grateful that such a remarkable circle of pastoral care providers is part of our congregation.
I return to Cedar Lane on a full-time basis on August 1, around the same time that Rev. Abhi begins his ministry with us. Besides a week of vacation at the end of August, I will be spend much of the month preparing for what I anticipate will be a rich and busy church year. As Cedar Lane begins its new chapter with our new Senior Minister, it would be wise for the congregation-at-large to engage in some preparation.
As our Membership Coordinator Allison Cox names here it will take all of us to warmly welcome the newcomers who are likely to visit Cedar Lane this fall (and hopefully beyond.) This is just one way in which we are called to do something new – to create more space, to do things differently, to stretch. Visitors may come out of curiosity about a new Senior Minister but, in the end, it’s the connections they make with fellow members of the community which will let them know they have found their spiritual home. And, for these connections to be made, we are all called to reach out, to get to know our newest members and friends. Experience suggests that this will be not only meaningful to the newcomer but will remind long-time members of what remarkable people find their way to Cedar Lane. It is never too late to create a new friendship at church.
Rev. Janamanchi will preach his first sermon as our settled Senior Minister on August 11. I hope to see many of you there and to hear stories about your summer, whether you traveled to faraway places or, like me, spent much of the time, resting on the couch and watching the suburban wildlife through the window…Many blessings to you this season!
18 4 / 2013
On June 12, 2005, I was ordained into the Unitarian Universalist ministry by the Arlington Street Church, a historic congregation “gathered in love and service for justice and peace” at the corner of Arlington and Boylston streets in downtown Boston. It was in this community that I discovered Unitarian Universalism and, in time, where I first heard the call to serve our liberal faith.
As many know, on April 15, 2013, Boston’s Copley Square – just a few blocks from the sacred space of Arlington Street Church - was the site of a terrorist bombing, killing three, wounding more than 140 and causing unspeakable suffering and pain. Arlington Street Church responded by organizing an interfaith vigil in the wake of the attack:
I would like to think that if I were still part of that congregation, I would also participate in working to heal the city. I know for certain that I would have attended that vigil, with my heart and mind full of confusion, pain, anger, disbelief that we are facing another act of senseless violence in our nation, a sense of helplessness and, in my strongest moments, a deeper commitment to a life of promoting peace. Perhaps your heart and mind have been full of these feelings too.
As I am now at a geographic distance from Boston, I have thought of how I – how we – can act in loving solidarity with those who have been emotionally, physically and spiritually wounded by this attack - those who have lost loved ones, those who are facing a long road of rebuilding their bodies and their lives, those who have been on the front lines of fostering healing and safety. In this spirit, by the authority of our Social Justice Council, Cedar Lane will donate one half of our plate collection THIS SUNDAY (4/21) to OneFundBoston. This fund was created by leaders in Boston almost immediately after Monday’s attack. You may learn more at http://onefundboston.org/
We are giving 50% of the plate to OneFundBoston as we have already dedicated the yearly allocation of two full plate donations to worthy recipients, the survivors of Hurricane Sandy and Cedar Lane’s Scholarship Fund. However, this 50% donation will be matched by the Ministers’ Discretionary Fund up to $1,000 to further expand our positive impact. I plan to give at least $100 from my personal resources.
No matter how much or how little we donate on Sunday, every penny is a symbol of our solidarity with the people of Boston and a prayer towards a world of “justice and peace.” No amount of money can undo the suffering that erupted this past Monday but our investment in human healing is a testament to all the good that lives in our hearts.
This Sunday, April 21, 2013 our candidate for Senior Minister, the Rev. Abhi Janamanchi, will lead a service reflecting on how Unitarian Universalist can be “A Religion for Our Time.” Sadly, we have been reminded this week of how “our time” is both a time of gifts and opportunity but also great evil and suffering. It will be good to be together, to draw strength from one another’s company, to remind ourselves of our values and the ways we may serve these values in the days and years to come.
Come to Cedar Lane and worship this Sunday so we, in our own way, may “gather in love and service for justice and peace” and – if you are moved to do so – to contribute towards the health and healing of the great city and people of Boston. Until then, I invite all of us to take extraordinary care of ourselves, care of one another and care of all those we encounter in these difficult and challenging days.
Associate Minister and Minister for Pastoral Care