Being Honest About It All

Part 1
Before I took the position here in 2013, and began officiating Sunday services weekly, I had officiated far more memorials than I did worship services. I was a hospice chaplain and memorials were often part of the gig. 

I’ve done my fair share of memorials in my role here too. Four of the most difficult sermons I’ve done, were done in the past few years here. Fred, then Stuart. Of course, little Veronica Gaignard. And then Ward.
In practically all of the memorials and graveside services I’ve done, one scripture is essential and constant. That is the 23rd Psalm.
Many of us know it by heart. It is simply put a mainstay for Jews and Christians. It is the Amazing Grace of scriptures. We even have a Sunday in the lectionary year devoted to it. And this is that Sunday. Good Shepherd Sunday.
The first five words of the 23rd Psalm say a lot in just a little. 

"The Lord is my Shepherd."

Maybe you don’t know, but in the days these words were written, they were revolutionary. God as my shepherd – this was not the way the culture surrounding David saw God. God being akin to one of the lowliest jobs around. God being akin to garbage collectors of their day. God being akin to a person doing the thankless work of a poor sheep-herder. This was not the way people in ancient Mesopotamia understood God. God then and there was akin to a warrior God. More Goliath than David. More King than shepherd. More angry than forgiving. More distant than present. More fear-worthy than trustworthy. More dictatorial than gentle guide. So David saying the Lord is like a Shepherd really stood in contrast, and purposely so I believe, to the understandings of God in his day. Something remain the same.
In Psalm 23 we have a God that is void of pride and bravado. Void of power-trips and thronish narcissism. Void of a mentality focused on dominating and winning and lording over people. In Psalm 23 we have a God who is shepherd. Selfless. Humble. Diligent. Present with his sheep. Caring. Watchful. Comforting. A midwife, a caregiver, a protector, a peacemaker – the oil mentioned in Psalm 23 used to grease male sheep’s horns so a locking of horns was close to impossible and the ending of conflict highly likely.
Thankfully, in this day and age of might makes right, greed is good, and wealth is health, we have the vision of a God that belies all of this. We have a God whose gentleness marks His reality, a God whose selflessness and giving marks His truth, a God whose healing is free.
Not only that, we have a teacher and friend, we have a master who is like God is a Good Shepherd. All those things we read about in Psalm 23, that is Jesus for Christians.
Jesus is our shepherd. Jesus fleshed out what David meant. Jesus put flesh and bone, words and deeds to the shepherd in real time. Jesus turned the screenplay of Psalm 23 into the film we might call, “how the good shepherd loves his sheep.”
Many people ask this vital question – who is God or what is God like? If you want to ask that question, look at Jesus. Jesus shows us what the Shepherd God as a metaphor looks like as real, living, breathing, and even dying shepherd-savior.
Let us read together how Jesus himself envisioned it.

READING: John 10:10-16
“I am the good shepherd, who is willing to die for the sheep. When the hired man, who is not a shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees a wolf coming, he leaves the sheep and runs away; so the wolf snatches the sheep and scatters them. The hired man runs away because he is only a hired man and does not care about the sheep. I am the good shepherd. As the Father knows me and I know the Father, in the same way I know my sheep and they know me. And I am willing to die for them. There are other sheep which belong to me that are not in this sheep pen. I must bring them, too; they will listen to my voice, and they will become one flock with one shepherd.

Part 2
The reason I mentioned the fact that Psalm 23 has been included in practically every memorial I’ve ever done is this: I’ve been thinking a lot about the memorials I’ve done, especially in the past 4 years. Maybe "thinking a lot about" isn’t quite what I mean. I’ve been coming to terms with the sadness I’ve experienced and am experiencing. The minister grieves too. While doing it publicly is not optimal, being silent about it isn’t either.
Thursday, I met with the minister of the Goodwin Memorial AME Zion Church in Amherst. It is a historic Black church in Amherst. Joining the minister was what the AME Zion church calls the pastor’s steward. Basically, the pastor’s steward is the pastor’s right hand man. Pastor Carthon asked me if we have something like this role in our church. Of course, the person that immediately came to mind was Ward. No, he wasn’t called the pastor’s steward. But he certainly fulfilled that role for me. The job was less lonely and isolating because he was always here doing his work caring for the church. My job was easier in almost every way because he was here. When I park here in the mornings I am here, I miss that simple yet meaningful, “Hi Don, how a-ya?” He was my pastor’s steward for the first four years here.
I must be honest, my work since his passing hasn’t been the same. And as I mentioned, it wasn’t just Ward’s passing. It was the accumulation – Fred, Bob who I was just getting to know and already liked, Stuart, the two little girls Leena and Victoria. Then there is my son’s difficulty. Ward was the huge wave in the hurricane of loss. I’ve been in sort of a fog since December. And I know its effected my work. I feel I’m just coming out of the fog.
What does Jesus as the Good Shepherd teach me?
“Yeah though I walk through the dark valleys, I shall not fear… for thou are with me.”
What is the meaning of fear in this passage? The kind of fear in Psalm 23:6 is not merely a low-grade kind of fear. It is not your everyday fear of what someone will say or of the fear of not being able to lose weight. The fear here is the kind that strikes and keeps you down, paralyzes you, leaves you speechless and in awe at its power, repels you. It is the kind of fear parents know when they contemplate just the thought of losing their child.
Now, if there is any such thing as a legitimate, fearing evil seems to be it. It is hard not to fear evil. However, even evil is something we don’t have to fear because God is with us.
We also do not have to fear grief. And we don’t have to fear being honest about it.
In being honest about it, even as a minister, the healing is quickened. Our honesty and our voicing of our own pain and grief is part of the ingredients in the Balm that the Bible talks about, the Balm of Gilead.
So I express to you Ward’s passing and the accumulation of losses as a hospice chaplain and these past several years here as your minister, including the sense of loss experienced in the wake of an Autism diagnoses, have left me these days tired and weary. Sometimes angry. Sometimes floundering. Sometimes lost in the wilderness. I have not always been my best. Especially not lately.
But I tell you today, my eyes are again beginning to see the glory of the coming of the Lord. Reviving my soul. Revitalizing my spirit. Moving me forward.
As Dr. King once preacher-sang in a sermon long ago,
"Some times I feel discouraged,
And think my work’s in vain,
But then the Holy Spirit
Revives my soul again.

There is a balm in Gilead

To make the wounded whole;
There is a balm in Gilead
To heal the sin-sick soul."

Now, that balm and the ingredient we are talking about in that balm, honesty about our grief, doesn’t take away the wound. Even Jesus’ wounds from the cross weren’t resurrected away. Wounds will leave scars. And we all have them, don’t we? But the balm of God’s love makes the wounded whole. The balm of God’s love heals the soul. With God in our hearts moving with us, walking with us, grieving with us, the process of the wound becoming a scar is made easier, and the wound a little less ugly and calloused and a whole lot more compassionate.
I close reciting the 23rd Psalm as our sacred prayer: 
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

Unitarian-Universalism & the Bridge Home

The Universalist faith teaches us that in the end, we will all be together. Remember that Billy Joel song about the Vietnam War. We’d all go down together. Well, Universalism says, we will all rise together. All will be reconciled to God, to the Ground of Being, to Love in the realm of heaven
What this means is we’ll all not only be reconciled to God, we will all be reconciled to one another. Enemies will be reconciled. Estranged friends and families will be reconciled. Bygones will no longer be bygones, but friends together. As prophet Isaiah put it, “In that day the wolf and the lamb will live together; the leopard will lie down with the baby goat. The calf and the yearling will be safe with the lion, and a little child will lead them all.”
All of the conflict we now know, all the divisions, all the disputes and blood-feuds, all our tribalisms, will end in the presence of God, in the realm of godly love.
Now, justice will need to be realized. Facing the consequences of injustice and harmfulness does not end with the last breath. Our wrongs and our bad habits and our moments of harmfulness will be worked through. We will all be refined by God’s tender yet tenacious burnishing light.
However, the end is love, which is at the basis of real justice. The end is union with God, a recreation of Eden’s garden where we will all be Adams and Eves redeemed.
The question is what do we do in the meantime as we endure disputes and division and discontentment. What do we do with the estranged relationships in our lives? What do we do in our bygones versus bygones day and age?
I’d like to look at these question by looking at a time in my life when I was enduring a dispute and the beginnings of estrangement from my family.

I became a Buddhist in 1997 after a time of studying and practicing the tradition with a monk in North Carolina. Excited about this new development in my life, I decided I'd "come-out" and tell them of my new life. So on a visit home, I lightly informed my parents. But it was not light enough, I suppose. 

The fallout was immediate. Everyone was upset with me. My mom especially. She was heartbroken. My father, well, he didn’t say much. But he was very hurt too.
For some reason, I thought it would go better. I could not have been more wrong.
There is a term in the psychological study of human development. The term is “differentiation.” It refers to an important point of development in adolescence which can last into your early 20's. Differentiation is the point where we as young people step away from our parents and say I am different than you. We often see it as immature acts of rebellion. But they are in fact crucial to our maturing into adulthood. When we differentiate from our parents, we are taking our first steps into the scary world of independence and autonomy. It is necessary.
Some young people differentiate by getting mohawks and dying the hair remaining purple. Some young people differentiate by taking on the exact opposite political worldview of their parents. Some young people differentiate by dating a person they know mom and dad will hate – think a fancy, high-class prep school student from a high class family dating a guy from the neighboring town who drives an old pick-up truck with a gun rack and a confederate flag bumper-sticker who likes to listen to Outlaw Country while squirrel hunting. Could be love. Maybe it is. Most likely an example of differentiation as well.
I've done none of these things. I was a "good kid." A little lost and lonely. Quiet and reserved. Full of a lot of angst underneath the surface. But I went to church, was faithful, liked Bible studies, I didn’t do drugs. I have never, not once, smoked pot. I adhered to that silly mantra – "Don’t drink, smoke or chew or go with girls that do." Rock music could have been a form of rebellion but my parents were pretty easy going about music.
My differentiation came in the form of leaving my town as soon as I could and eventually leaving my family’s faith, then taking a faith as different as could be from the Evangelical faith I was raised-in.
Now, this is not to say my interest and devotion to Buddhism was fake. It wasn’t. It was real and beautiful. An important thing to remember about differentiation is that it is often unconscious. It was for me. Buddhism was real for me. However, it was also an unconscious way for me to make a stand of autonomy and independence from my family. I am me; not just part of you, Erickson family.

Part of the process of becoming a mature adult is rounding those rough edges and corners of your differentiation. This process is called integration. With integration, you take your differentiation, your act of declaring yourself different, independent, autonomous from your family, and then find your way back in as part of the family in the ways you can. Integration means saying, yes, I am different, I am my own person, but I am also part of this family and need to be part of this family.
After the fallout with my family over my immersion in the Buddhist faith, I could have accepted it and remained separate from them. I could have become so ardent in my faith that I declared their faith null and void and condemned my past devotion to that faith. I could have furthered my estrangement from them. Thankfully, I didn’t. Thankfully, I was able to integrate my autonomy and my being part of my family. 

Part of the integration process for me, a pivotal part, my bridge back home, was Unitarian-Universalism. Unitarian-Universalism was the only faith tradition I knew that honored my Christian past and my understanding of Jesus in the present as well as my Buddhist practice and approach. 

At the same time, the history of the UU tradition pointed me to a more progressive view of Jesus, a view that had been around a longtime. The radical stance of the early Unitarians and Universalists made clear to me that there was a new yet ancient way of seeing the Christian tradition. 

See, I went from Evangelical Christianity straight to Buddhism, without ever knowing about the diversity within the Christian tradition. The first Unitarians and their positive view of humanity as not sinful in nature but divine-like in nature, humans being created in the likeness of God; the first Universalists rejection of the notion of a hell reserved for those who believe and practice faith differently – these were radical departures from the traditional view of things. They mirrored my own view of things. But I didn’t know they existed.
I felt belonging in the UU tradition. And it showed me a different kind of Christian understanding, that I was not crazy and my so-called heresy was not without precedent. The UU tradition showed me that you can be different yet still part of the Jesus lineage.
Unitarian-Universalism was my bridge home. Unitarian-Universalism helped me to find reconciliation with my family. 

I am still the black sheep of the family. My Buddhist-Christian way of being still produces a weird look on my family members’ faces. They still don’t really get it or fully accept it or me. But at least we can meet on the beauty and power of Jesus and his teachings.
The UU tradition helped me to accept that I am different and to see nothing wrong with that. But it also helped me, through its example early in its history, to find points of harmony and belonging within my family. 
I do worry if the UU as a tradition has ever fully integrated - found peace and some semblance of a healthy relationship - with the family from which it sprung, the Christian tradition. This lack of integration in this regard effects the tradition's well-being and has tentacles, in my opinion. But that is a discussion for another day.
Ten years ago I would not have taken kindly to being labelled a Christian.  Even Buddhist-Christian was hard for me to accept. But in the process of taking on the UU faith, I was able to accept that label without a fight either internal or external. Yes, few would call me a traditional Christian. Evangelicals would not call me a Christian at all. However, if you want to call me a Christian, I am fine with that. If you can’t call me a Christian, I am fine with that too. I am content with myself and my spirituality. I’ve made peace with my family, have reconciled with my family, have reconciled their faith and mine.

So what does this teach us about how we find reconciliation in the larger world, how we find reconciliation with those who are different, estranged, or in conflict with us?
We need to look for bridges. We need to look for bridges that take us, even if in snippets, to who we are created to be – divine-image carriers living together in God’s garden kingdom. 
If we can’t find bridges, we need to build them, even if it means internalizing different ways of seeing things or different language we are not used to.
And as a church, we need to be a bridge that unites people. We need to be a church that seeks reconciliation among those divided, estranged, and in conflict. A church that is satisfied with its own self-enclosed camaraderie and culture misses out in the work of being a bridge. And the church is called to such work.
So let us voice gratitude for the Universalist truth that we will all be reconciled to God and in the end experience the eternal love and light of God. Until the point of our hope is made real, let us together and as individuals do the work of reconciling one to another. Let us as a church be a bridge that brings people together and leads us to the beloved community. And let the hope of the Universalist gospel – that all in the end will be reconciled to God and to one another – be the model for the reconciliation of all those divided. And mirroring what is to be, may we sit with God as we sit together, seeing each other’s pain with open and forgiving hearts, healing together in the warmth and wisdom of God’s Love and Light.

Climate Change Doubting Thomases

Thomas not only needed proof. He not only needed to believe what he was seeing. He needed to touch the obvious. He needed to experience with his sense of touch the truth of the matter – that this was Jesus risen right before him, alive despite crucifixion, alive despite death, alive despite the law of nature that says there is no coming back after death.

I ponder our reading from the Gospel of John this morning. A day after Earth Day, a day after the March for Science, knowing Climate Change is real but hundreds of thousands of people, many if not most of them religious, doubt and deny the science.

When approaching scripture, the tendency for the preacher is to find corollaries for today, to find easy ways to apply what the scripture says and the reality here and now. 

Initially, the parallel between doubting Thomas who doubts what he senses with his eyes and needs to verify it with another sense, his sense of touch, and those who doubt the science when it comes to climate change seems clear. Climate change deniers are doubting Thomas in the story. Thomas doesn’t believe what is clearly reality – that it is resurrected Jesus in front of him.

However, if we delve a little differently into the story, we see that Thomas is actually being a good scientist. He has heard the hypothesis – Jesus is alive. However, he wants to confirm it himself with a couple material experiments. Look and touch. Test and verify the test. Thomas sees what he sees, yes. But sometimes what we see isn’t always so obvious. Our eyes can play tricks on us. There are numerous examples of optical illusions that trick our brain into seeing something that in reality isn’t there. Grief has been known to produce visions and experiences that our material world cannot explain.

So Thomas wants to test the hypothesis. Is this really Jesus. So he asks to touch the wounds of Jesus. Jesus allows this.

And what happens? Thomas asserts that, yes, Jesus is Lord. His tests verify that Christ is risen.

Thomas was a doubter. But he was not a denier. What's more, his doubt led to trust. He came to trust his eyes and his heart and the reality before, and in the end, says, yes, it is true. And Thomas acted accordingly, becoming one of the greatest apostles of Jesus, taking Christianity all the way to India, and eventually becoming a martyr for his discipleship.

How can we stem the tide of doubting thomases becoming denying thomases? What did Jesus do that effectively prevented Thomas from falling deeper into doubt and eventually denying reality?

The answer to this I think can help us speak to folks among us who deny that the climate is changing and that human activity are primarily effecting that change.

First of all, Jesus does not judge Thomas as he is talking to him about his doubts. It would have been easy for Jesus in the story to have said, come on Thomas, don’t be a fool. It is me. All the others are not doubting it! Why do you have to be the party-pooper? Why do you always have to be the sole killjoy?

No, Jesus is pretty matter fact about it. Why? Because he knows Thomas. Thomas himself is a Joe Friday kind of guy – just the facts ma’am.  

That brings us to the second point. The first point when it comes to talking to folks who may deny the reality of climate change is “do not judge.” The second point is “get to know the other.”

In John 14, Jesus experienced the same Thomas. Thomas in John 14 doubts Jesus, doubts his knowledge of Jesus and of what Jesus is about. Jesus says I am going to prepare a place for you in the realm of God, and explains to Thomas and the other disciples that they know the way. This is what the passage says:

“I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”

So Jesus had a relationship, an intimate one, with Thomas. He knew how he ticked. Knew his propensity to doubt and to question and to need proof when it came to things he did not want to face.

The question is how well do we know what makes climate change deniers tick?

Yesterday, in Washington and other cities throughout the country, there was a March for Science. That it was on Earth Day made the point pretty clear – scientists are on the side of the Earth and those who deny science are on the other side.

However, this is not an effective way to approach a climate change doubter.  A March 
for Science will never convince a doubter of anything. A relationship will. Listening will. Speaking their language will.

In the case of climate change, the following is mostly true – liberals believe climate change is real and that human actions have played a primary role; conservatives either do not believe it is real or they believe climate change is real but that it is due to natural changes in the earth and not human actions.

Because there is disagreement, action to deal with climate change and the earth warming is never taken, even with so much is at stake.

The approach of liberals for the most part is to try to convince the doubters of the science. One hears over and over again that 99% of scientists agree that the earth is warming and that humans are primarily responsible for this warming. But it falls on deaf ears.

Why? Because conservatives and liberals simply approach the world differently. Conservatives are from mars and liberals from venus in many ways. To see that the earth is treated responsibly we must first know where conservatives and liberals are coming from.

A few months ago a really interested article in the Atlantic Monthly appeared. It talked about this very thing. Conservatives and liberals value different things. They come at politics from a different psychology framework. Based on psychological and sociological studies, it has been shown that conservatives, more than anything else, value “loyalty, patriotism, and purity.” Liberals’ highest values are “fairness, justice, and no-harm.”

So when it comes to environmental issues, liberals will say, “we are harming the earth when we should be loving and nurturing the earth.” Conservatives don’t respond to this kind of language. Now, we can say, well, they all should. But they don’t.

They do respond to this approach – we are degrading and dirtying God’s creation – and I highlight God’s creation - when we should be cleaning and keeping it pure.

All of this is to say, when it comes to climate change, climate scientists and liberals who care about this issue need to tweak their message. They need to find God in a sense. Or at least they need to seek rapport with those who claim God and feel more comfortable using religious language.

Here is an example of that language. It comes from the Evangelical Environmentalists Network, a group of Evangelicals who back climate science and think we need to do something to stem the tide. Here is their declaration on the care of creation:

“As followers of Jesus Christ, committed to the full authority of the Scriptures, and aware of the ways we have degraded creation, we believe that biblical faith is essential to the solution of our ecological problems.

Because we worship and honor the Creator, we seek to cherish and care for the creation.

Because we have sinned, we have failed in our stewardship  of creation. Therefore we repent of the way we have polluted, distorted, or destroyed so much of the Creator's work.”

I realize many scientists and secularists would cringe at those words, but unless we become more comfortable with them, unless we in fact learn to use this language more, the political divide that now exists will prevent action and lead to further destruction and degradation of the land.

Simply put, learning the Evangelical language of stewardship and creation is pivotal. Yes, it amounts to scientists turning to language art and cultural studies and in a sense learning a second language. However, if it is the language hundreds of thousands of Americans use and it could help stem the tide of our climate change crisis, why not learn that language, the people who use it, and seek relationships, unity, and healing.

Scientists right this moment need to be teaming up with groups like the Evangelical Environmentalists Network to learn the language and speak to climate change doubting thomases among us. We cannot afford to be monolingual.

I close with words I share with climate change deniers:

Maybe you are right. Maybe scientists are overestimating the effect humans have on climate change. But what if you are wrong? For the sake of your children and grandchildren, for the sake of God’s creation and the beauty of America’s land, skies, and waters, isn’t it better to be safe than sorry? Isn’t it better to use less, reuse more, recycle as much as we can just in case the world is in danger of overheating? If your car is running hot in the middle of the desert and you’re not sure why, isn’t it smart to turn off the AC, drive slower and steadier, and stop along the way to let the car cool? Isn’t it better that we protect the air, the waters, the land from pollutants and chemicals, even if it cost a company some extra money, even if it means we have to retrain so we can get a job in the growing industry of renewable energy? Aren’t our children and their children and our towns’ worth being cautious and protective and conservative with how we manage things in this warming world?

What if Jesus was right and prophetic when he said these words: Blessed are the gentle – blessed are the mild, blessed are those who leave a light footprint in the world, for they shall inherit the land.