Monday, September 30, 2013


Every Wednesday on the highest point in Charlottesville there is a labyrinth.  (That just happens to be where Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist is located.)  This weekly walk is led by one of our other ministers (Leia Durland-Jones, our Director of Religious Education). But to call this "a labyrinth walk" is perhaps a bit misleading.  "Worship Experience" is probably more accurate.

Each week we arrive (11:45 am on Wednesdays) to discover a new way to engage with the labyrinth and our own lives.  This past week, for example, the theme was balance.  Before entering the labyrinth we were each encouraged to physically explore balance as we walked.  We were also given a piece of paper on one side of which we were invited to write down places in our lives in which we feel we have this whole "balance thing" down pretty well.  On the other, we were invited to make note of places where we want or need more balance.  When we arrived in the center, we were encouraged to light a candle and to select a card (some of which had a word or phrase on it, some of which had only a photo).  That's the card I selected on the left.

To be honest, the two sides of my paper were a little . . . unbalanced.  The first side, the one where I was to have listed the places in my life that felt in proper balance, didn't have too much on it.  I'm not saying that there are no such places in my life, but for sure I am much more conscious of the places where balance is lacking.  (First thing I put on the second side, "I wish I had a more balanced awareness of where I am, and am not, in balance.")

That out-of-balance side, though . . . let me count the ways.  But I noted a pattern developing:

work/family life

Anybody else see what I saw?  And can anybody else relate?  A few years ago I read an article about a group of Catholic monks whose order has always worked outside of the monastery.  In order to keep up with these outside jobs the monks had taken to carrying pagers and cell phones.  And their rate of job-related stress had been skyrocketing.

There is a traditional monastic model of spending one-third of one's day in work, one-third in prayer and study, and one-third in rest and recreation.  (Note that recreation is also re-creation.)  I'm nowhere near such a balance.  How about you?

I don't know what needs balancing in your life, but I wish you well.  And I invite you, if you're in the C'ville area, to come by TJMC on a Wednesday (11:45-12:15).  You might well find your way to something you needed to see.

Pax tecum


Thursday, September 26, 2013

Being Something to Someone

I don't know if he was the first person to say it, but he is certainly one of the most famous.  In his first letter the the people in the congregation he'd help to start in the town of Corinth, Paul of Tarsus said, "I have become all things to all people."  Here it is, over two thousand year later, and people are still trying to replicate his feat.

And not just individuals.  Institutions -- like, o let's say like churches -- often try to be "all things to all people."  Sometimes it's in an attempt to attract folks who aren't yet a part of the community; the church tries to figure out who these people are, what they want and need, and then tries to give it to them.    And sometimes it's because the people who are already among "the faithful" have so many wants and needs themselves; the church tries to hold on to these folks by "giving them what they want."  Either way, though, the result is most often the same -- the faith community that tries to be "all things to all people" usually ends up not really being particularly good at anything for anybody.

I know of a congregation which used a lot of nautical imagery to describe themselves.  Their church wasn't their home -- it was their sailing ship.  They did a lot to make sure that they were sea worthy.  The spoke of their ordained minister as their captain, and their lay leaders were the crew.  You get the idea.

Now this was in the days before Blue Boat Home hit the scenes.  I wonder how often they sing that hymn today?  Maybe not too often.  I actually wouldn't be surprised if they were using a whole other set of metaphors to describe themselves these days.  Because one day their captain said to them that he thought it might be an awfully good idea if this great sailing ship might consider leaving port once in a while.  What good is being on a ship, he asked, if that ship's always moored in protected waters?

I don't like the minister-as-captain metaphor myself.  I've always said that I think we ordained clergy are really more like the navigators.  The laity, the congregation, is really the captain and crew.  (And this ain't no pleasure cruise.  Everyone has a job to do --whether on board or at one of our ports of call!)  My job, as I understand it, is to hear where it is you want to take the ship and then, after consulting the charts and going up on deck to test the winds and check the weather, I can help you figure out the best way to get where you're wanting to go.  I'm not the one to decide the destination, but I do know something about laying in a course.  I can help in figuring out how to get from here to there.

This Saturday morning -- from 8:30 'till around noon -- the congregation I serve will be kicking off its year-long process of "strategic planning."  I know that some people's eyes glaze over when they hear those words, but I can honestly say that I'm tremendously excited.  I think you should be, too.  The Board has made this process its number one priority for the coming year, and it's at the top of my list as well.

This is the beginning of my third year of mutual ministry with the people of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church -- Unitarian Universalist.  We've gotten to know each other a bit.  We've run a few drills -- including a few fire drills, to be sure.  We've started to learn each other's rhythms.  We don't know yet everything that there is to learn about each other -- thank God, because we'll need something to talk about on those long nights at sea -- but we know each other well enough that we should probably be getting down to raising anchor and going . . .

Well, that's the thing now, isn't it?  Just where is it that TJMC wants to go?  With its current contingent of officers and crew, where of-all-the-possible-journeys-there-are do we want to set out for now?  That's what this strategic planning process is all about.  Nothing short of clarifying our sense of direction.

Now we could try to be all things to all people.  We could, in other words, try to go in every direction at once which would no doubt have the effect of creating the illusion of movement while we're really safely tied up back in the harbor.  Oh, the wind might be in our sails and the ship might be rocking with the waves, but we really won't be going anywhere.  And I think we want to be going somewhere.  I think that we'd really prefer to be something to someone than nothing to anyone

So come to church on Saturday -- this Saturday, Saturday September 28th.  Plan to spend some time with your crew-mates discovering just how it is we're planning on deciding where we want to be going on this leg of our voyage.  We will -- as we've done with the past several Fall Leadership Retreats -- have both a "talk track" (for people who like to process with words) and a "do track" (for people who like to process in other ways).  Children, youth, young adults, older adults, seniors, long-time members, newcomers . . . everyone is really encouraged to attend because while we might not want to be all things to all people, we sure do want to be a place where all people are welcome.

One last thought.  To prepare, folks might want to consider a question.  If you think I'm going to say "What it is that you most want and need?" or "What it is that you think others most want and need?", you'd be wrong.  This isn't the first time this faith community has engaged in such a discernment process, and out of one of the past efforts there came this statement:
The TJMC-UU Mission Statement
  • Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church is a church of the liberal tradition rooted in the heritage of Unitarian Universalism and dedicated to the belief that in every individual there are extraordinary possibilities.
  • We are committed to the individual and collective pursuit of spiritual growth, social justice, and life-long religious education and understanding.
  • We foster an open and free community in which we share our gifts, care for one another, and honor our differences.
  • We seek to have a lasting influence on local, national, and global programs that promote equity and end oppression.
 So . . . if this is our mission (and I have to say that that last line in particular really inspires me and could be a mission statement all on its own!) . . . if this is our mission, where does this mission want to take us?  That is what I hope will guide our discussions on Saturday, and in the coming months.

Pax tecum,


Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Life After Death . . .

One of the great things about being an ordained clergy person, especially one serving in a parish setting, is that you get to spend at least a portion of your days thinking about cool things.  (Most people imagine that we actually spend a whole lot more of our time doing that than we actually do -- phones calls, e-mail, and scheduling meetings takes up quite a chunk, truth be told.)  The best part, though, is that not only do we get to spend at least a portion of our days thinking about cool things, but that this is multiplied because quite often when a member of the church finds herself or himself thinking about cool things they send a link along.

This happened the other day when a wonderful member of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church read this quite provocative piece in the Opinionator of the New York Times:  The Importance of the Afterlife.  Seriously.  The author, Samuel Scheffler, explores the notion that what really matters to most of us most of the time is not our own survival, nor even necessarily the survival of our loved ones, but the more nebulous notion of the survival of our species.  One of my favorite lines is, "Although some people can afford not to depend on the kindness of strangers, virtually everyone depends on the future existence of strangers."

I think that this is just such an extremely interesting notion to consider -- what would it mean to you, to how you live your life, if you knew that the human species was not going to survive much past your own demise?  If you knew that, after you, there just weren't going to be any new people coming along?

So . . . thanks, Bob, for sharing this with me.  I hope everyone else finds it as interesting as we did.

Pax tecum,


Monday, September 23, 2013

The Other Side of the Mountain

My recent post about depression stirred up a number of responses in folks.  Like most bloggers I have folks leave comments here on the site, and others comment on the links I post on FaceBook.  Since I'm a rather public blogger, that is since I also have a public role as the lead minister of a church, people come up to me on a Sunday morning, or at some point mid-week, to tell me what they think of what I've written.

And there are all sorts of reactions to a post like that.  Some call it "brave."  Others say, "TMI."  The vast majority of reactions I got to this one were positive -- it's amazing how many people suffer silently and who are grateful whenever anyone helps them to remember that they're not alone.  There were also, not surprisingly, a few voices who thought that such revelations about my struggles are not appropriate for someone in my public role.  These folks would like to be able to look up to their minister in the pulpit and see someone who's got it all pretty much together.  (Or, at least, perhaps more together than they do!)

Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his address to the graduating class of Harvard Divinity School of 1838, said that the preacher's calling is to give people "life pass through the fire of thought."  (I've always maintained that it's also to offer "thought passed through the fire of life," but that's probably a post for another time.)  I can also remember a preacher at a friend's ordination saying that a traditional term for our profession is "parson," and that etymologically what this means is that we are called to be "persons."  Professional persons.  To live our life fully and authentically.  And when I put these two ideas together I feel that that has to include those "too dark" or "too much light" experiences like the one of the other day.

Still, that's not the only reality.  Not for me; not for anyone.  As the Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh says, "life is full of suffering, but to suffer is not enough."  And, so, today I offer this other message:

Pax tecum,

Monday, September 16, 2013

When Horrors Come Home

This is the sermon I preached at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist in Charlottesville, Virginia on September 15th, 2013.  You can listen to the podcast to get the aural experience.

The Opening Words for the service were taken  an article in The Atlantic written by Andrew Cohen It is titled, “TheSpeech That Shocked Birmingham The Day AfterThe Bombings.”  We read the second paragraph of Cohen's introduction and then read nearly all of Charles Morgan, Jr.'s speech.  It is worth it to read the article in it's entirety -- Cohen does a masterful job of weaving Morgan's speech with his own contextualizing commentary.  A very powerful piece.

* * * * *

This isn’t going to be a particularly cheery sermon this morning.  I want to warn you in advance.  Not a lot of laugh lines in it; I know it’ll make some of us squirm.  It did me as I researched and wrote it.  Cried some, too.  Might still.  I just want you to be prepared.
Let’s say that it’s 9:00 in the morning.   People of all ages are coming in the Edgewood Lane door, but it’s largely families with kids.  And let’s say that it’s the morning of a youth-led service, so the energy is particularly high.  Parents are feeling proud; kids are excited.  It is, in short, a pretty ordinary morning.
And then an explosion rocks the building.  It’s like an earthquake, but bigger and louder.  The hall and the sanctuary almost immediately fill with smoke and dust.  All of the windows shatter.  That wall, right over there, collapses, and we can see that the Edgewood Lane door is gone.  So is part of the parlor.  And the steps outside.
We quickly learn that four of our children were killed in the blast.  Another lost one of her eyes.  Another twenty were injured.  In time we learn that one person – and as many as four people -- had planted up to fifteen sticks of dynamite in the bushes by those stairs.  They’d known that families used that entrance.  They’d wanted to kill our kids.
What would you do?  If that happened here, what would you do?  Where would you go?  Who would you be looking for in that chaos?  What would you be feeling?  What would you do?  What would you want to do in response?
Fifty years ago today that scene played out almost exactly at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.  It was 10:22 in the morning.  It was a youth Sunday, and the children were coming up from their Sunday School classes preparing to lead the adult congregation in an exploration of the theme, “The Love That Forgives.”  Not all of the windows shattered – a stained glass window showing Jesus leading a group of children survived.  But it was damaged.  Jesus’ face had been blown out.
And four little girls lay dead.  This morning, in churches and other places of meeting all over this country their names are being read aloud:  Addie Mae Collins (age 14), Denise McNair (age 11), Carole Robertson (age 14), and Cynthia Wesley (age 14).  (Addie Mae Collins’ younger sister, Sarah, was the child who lost one of her eyes.)
This was not the first act of violence in Birmingham.  The city had earned for itself the nickname “Bombingham,” because of the number of times African American institutions had been bombed since World War I, and one neighborhood in particular --  made up almost exclusively of upper-middle class, African American homes -- had been dubbed, “Dynamite Hill.” 
Nor was this the first church to be bombed in Birmingham.  On Christmas in 1956, dynamite was placed where the Bethel Baptist Church and its parsonage connected.  The minister, the Rev. Frederick Lee Shuttlesworth, had his bed in that corner of his bedroom, and although the blast destroyed much of his home, he emerged unscathed.   When told by a policeman who’d responded to the scene, and who was also himself a Klansman, that he, Shuttelesworth, should leave town, the Reverend replied that he hadn’t been saved so that he could run.
A year latter, Shuttlesworth and his wife Ruby attempted to integrate the previously all-white public school system by enrolling their own children.  A mob of Klansmen attacked them.  The police never responded.   One of the men who attacked the Shuttlesworths was Bobby Frank Cherry, who six years later would place the dynamite under the steps of the 16th Street Baptist Church. The mob beat Shuttlesworth with chains and brass knuckles in the street, and somebody stabbed his wife . Shuttlesworth drove himself and Ruby to the hospital where he told his kids to always forgive.
The theme, 50 years ago today:  “The Love That Forgives.” 
The 16th Street Baptist Church was the headquarters, if you will, of what came to be called the Birmingham Campaign, that spring and summer in 1963.  It was conveniently located across the street from Kelly Ingram Park, and made for an easy walk to downtown for nonviolent action.  Kelly Ingram Park, some will remember, is where Commissioner of Public Safety Eugene “Bull” Connor issued his infamous order to turn fire hoses on protestors – protestors who included young, elementary-aged children, and fire hoses that were set on a pressure that could strip bark from a tree and pull bricks out of their mortar.  The thousands of young people who participated in the so-called Children’s Crusade met up at the 16th Street Baptist Church.
It was the Rev. Jim Bevel, who at the time was the Director of Direct Action and Director of Nonviolent Education for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, who had had the brainstorm to actively involve young people in the campaign.  After the bombing at the church, and the deaths of Collins, McNair, Robertson, and Wesley, Bevel said that he thought the intent of the bombing was to say (and I’m paraphrasing here), “If you’re going to use your kids against us, we’ll use your kids against you.”  He’s gone on record as saying that he gave serious consideration to leaving the movement after the bombing – not because he’d been frightened off, or had become demoralized, but because he’d wanted to hunt down the people who were responsible and kill them himself.
If that happened here, what would you do?  What would you be feeling?  What would you want to do in response?
This week also saw the anniversary of another heinous terrorist attack – the attacks of September 11th, 2001.  Nearly three thousand people died when madmen turned planes into bombs, bombs packed with human shrapnel.  And on Wednesday, those names were read.  Over the years I’ve read them myself from pulpits I’ve served – carefully recalling the name of each and every one.  It takes hours.
And one of the things that made those attacks so horrible was that they came quite literally out of the blue.  No one expected such a thing to happen, and that morning had been so beautiful.  I looked it up yesterday and it seems that it was lovely here that day; I know that it was one of those days that you could hardly help feeling good on where I was that morning in Maine; and my friends in New York have all said the same.  We were all feeling so good . . . until we weren’t.
And that’s I’m sure how the folks at the TennesseeValley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee were feeling on July 27, 2008, as they watched 25 of their kids performing the musical Annie, Jr.   That is, until a man who declared that he wanted to kill “liberals and Democrats” pulled a 12-gauge shotgun out of a guitar case and opened fire, killing two -- Greg McKendry and  Linda Kraeger – and wounding seven others.
And that’s how people’d been feeling a year earlier prior to the rampage in which a gunman killed 33 on the campus of Virginia Tech, and how it was in that movie theater in Aurora, Colorado just before 12 were killed and 70 injured. 
And less than six months later it was just an ordinary day-like-any-other day until 20 children, six teachers, and a gunman’s mother were killed in Sandy Hook, Connecticut.
What would you do if that happened here?  What would you want to do in response?
I told you I wasn’t going to be my usual ebullient self in this sermon.  How can I be?  History is littered with the rubble of far too many example of places that should have been safe havens being turned into slaughterhouses.  “If this could happen in a church,” they said in ’63, or a college campus, or a movie theater, or an elementary school for God’s sake, or in a street in the heart of New York City under a sky that was heartbreakingly blue . . .  If this could happen there . . .
What can any of us do?
Believe it or not, I have an answer.  I’m still Methodist and Presbyterian enough to think I know a few things, but don’t worry – I’m Unitarian Universalist enough to be clear that you don’t have to agree with me.  But here’s what I know.
We’ve also recently seen another anniversary.  September 5th was the 5,774th anniversary of the first Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and yesterday was the 5,774th anniversary of the first Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  Every year over those millennia these High Holy Days have reminded the Jewish people that none of us lives a blameless life, that all of us are at least in some ways culpable for the sins of our own lives and those of the wider world around us.  And these Days of Awe, year after year, century after century, reinforce the idea that the only way to make a real difference in the way things are is to make a real difference in the way we are.

That’s what Charles Morgan, Jr. did with his speech on September 16th, 1963, right?  That speech was an act of atonement.  That’s what, I think, our own Rev. Roy Jones was trying to do through his act of draping this church in black crepe in mourning fifty years ago.  That’s what I hope we’re ever learning better how to do in our Jefferson Legacies initiative as we strive to find ways to atone for the “sins of our fathers.”  That’s what I think each of us, and all of us, are called on to do . . . again and again and again . . . each time we are shown that the world has not yet become the Beloved Community we dream about.

The Russian writer and activist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote in his book The Gulag Archipelago:

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

Fifty years ago today four little girls were murdered by hatred and fear.  And each and every year, each and every day, each and every moment we have the opportunity to search our own lives, to acknowledge the ways in which we contribute to their continued ascendency in our world, and then to make the conscious choice to act, to act for love.
May it be so.
Pax tecum,
Rev Wik


Sunday, September 15, 2013

Four Girls Jubilee

As I was preparing for this morning -- September 15th, 2013, the fiftieth anniversary of the bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama -- I discovered that I was not alone in wanting to mark and honor this memorial.  There is, I learned, a nation-wide movement to not only remember this event but to again be spurred to action by it.  The name of this movement is the Four Girls Jubilee.
One of the responses is this lovely video by Mecca Burns. 
Her poem is worth reading on its own:
In the Jubilee time...

I will tame the wild forces of nature~ fire, water, earth, and air~
The powers that once would drown me, burn me, bury me, blow me away.

To the fire that sparks and spreads from one heart to another, bent on destruction: 
Let me be the kind of flame
That never flickers with the changing times
Steady and strong, wide, and willing to turn hate into love
Let me be that fire.

To the water that once overcame me:
Let me be the kind of water
That flows like justice and righteousness.
Let me be that mighty stream.

To the earth that buried secrets, buried whole neighborhoods:
Let me be the kind of earth
That is shaped and sculpted
To give shelter and sustenance.
Let me be that earth.

 To the winds of hate that tore through the sky:
Let me be lifted by the winds of change
That bring news of love and mercy to distant lands
Let me be that wind.
Water, you will not drown me now.
Instead, you will teach me how to slake my thirst for freedom.
Earth you will not crush me. 
You will teach me how tenderly to hold all the children in my arms.
Wind you will not sway me.
Instead you will carry me great distances.
Fire, you will not burn me now.  
Instead I will be the flame that purifies with its passion.

Mecca Burns
Thanks to Stewart Burns for history:,
Camisha Jones for poetic guidance, Bernard Hankins and Anthony Amos for vision

 Pax tecum,


Thursday, September 12, 2013

I've Been to the Mountaintop

I have a chronic illness.  At times it's debilitating.  Since it effects my brain some folks would want to label it a mental illness, yet since the brain is an organ of the body I'm not sure how helpful that distinction really is.  But as there is such a stigma around having a "mental illness" I'm willing to claim that terminology.

I struggle with depression.  My psychiatrist is exploring whether "Bipolar Type 2" would be a better diagnosis, but my struggle is with depression.  And for the past I'm-not-quite-sure-how-long I've been in what I call a depressive funk.  Oh, I'm able to muster the energy to push on through, to muscle through when I need to -- when my kids absolutely need my attention, say, or it's Sunday morning and the church needs its preacher. 

I realize that I'm actually pretty lucky to be able to do this.  Some people can't make it up from the mat even when they're needed.  Some people are so depressed -- pushed down, crushed under the weight of it -- that they can't do anything while in one of these funks.  But I usually can.  Usually.  Trouble is . . . after pushing through like that I usually have nothing left.  When I have the strength, the focus, to read my e-mail I don't have the wherewithal to respond.  I can't check voicemail.  For the past couple of days I stayed at home, and yesterday I couldn't even get up the energy to eat junk food or watch TV. 

This isn't anything new for me.  As I said, this is a chronic illness.

I'm writing all of this as a way to come at an idea I recently had.  The metaphors people use to describe depression -- both those who know it from the inside and those who've observed it from the outside -- are fairly common and well known.  You're stuck in a hole.  You're in a dark place.  There's no light.

A while back I read a fascinating piece about how violent some common metaphors are -- "to kill two birds with one stone," for instance.  We even use "bullets" when trying to make a point.  Having heard this, I've made a conscious effort to try to change the way I talk.  I now "feed two birds with one block of tofu" (making a nod to my vegan friends), and my "bullet list" is now . . . well . . . just a list.

Much has been said by others about how some of our other metaphors play into stereotypes about race.  "Dark" things are generally regarded as negative; "light" things are almost invariably positive.  So I was thinking about this whole "stuck in a dark hole" thing and had an idea:  what if depression could be described not as too much darkness, but as too much light.

So what if being depressed is like being on the top of a mountain?  The sun is blaring down on you and there's no shade to hide in.  You feel so vulnerable; so exposed.  You're being buffeted by the winds, and the sides are so steep that there's no way down.  You're trapped.  And from this vantage point you have a commanding view, but it all looks like fetid swamps and industrial parks.

So I haven't been in a hole for the past however-long.  I've been on the mountaintop.  I hope to be bak in the valley soon.

Pax tecum,


Sunday, September 01, 2013

Life, Observed

If you're looking for a new blog to read, I can highly recommend O Wonderful, Wonderful.  It's written by a woman we used to live next to, Adrienne Kim Bird.  Her three wonderful kids were the first people my children met when we landed in Peacock Hill two years ago.  They were at our house to give the new kids they'd heard about a tour of the neighborhood even before the moving truck had finished unloading.  There were many, many times when our two backyards became one communal playground.

When I went to add Adrienne's blog to my Feedly account it asked me what category to put it under.  I didn't yet have one for the kind of things she writes, so I created a new category -- Life, Observed.  Check it out.  (The photo here, by the way, is from her blog and is of her then 3-year old daughter, Tatiana, reading Friedrich Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil.  As Adrienne says, a little light reading.)

Pax tecum


PS -- I am finally realizing that at least half the fun of blogging is reading blogs by other people and, so I'm having tremendous fun exploring the blogosphere.  I'll keep you posted about some of the great places I find.  Feel free to offer me directions to some of your favorite spots, too!