Thursday, January 31, 2013

T- Minus 1. . .

So . . . tomorrow's the big day.  The official launch of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church's Health and Wholeness Initiative with the showing of the film Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead and the beginning of a month-long juice fast.  (We'll be showing the movie again next Tuesday, February 5th, and will be giving folks who'd like to try a juice fast -- but don't want to try going a whole month -- an opportunity to join the effort part-way through beginning on Wednesday, February 13th.)

I could have titled this post "Be Prepared," because that's what I want to look at -- preparation.  How does somebody prepare for something like going without solid food for an entire month?  Here are a few thoughts . . .

1)  Recognize that this will probably be pretty hard.  Lots of people find the first day pretty easy -- excitement, enthusiasm, endorphins.  Some people find the first day incredibly difficult, but lots of folks find it easy.  Perhaps deceptively so.  The second and third days, though, most people report as challenging.  There are a lot of changes going on -- physiologically as well as psychologically.  For lots of folks there's actual withdrawal going on.  So things start to get tough.  But usually by sometime around day seven -- but maybe as late as the tenth day -- things begin to turn around.  You start to feel incredible.  Energy increases.  Hunger and cravings (not always the same thing!) have really decreased.  If you can get to this point, you're usually pretty much good to go for the duration.

2)  Perfectionism can hinder progress.  Another, and more well known, way to say this is, "the perfect is the enemy of the good."  Some people, especially after seeing Joe Cross' movie, think that a strict regimen of vegetable and fruit juicing is the only way to go.  And it's got to be sixty days or it's worthless.  Neither is true.  The whole purpose of something like a juice fast is to give your system a chance to "reboot" itself.  The long-term goal, of course, is to make real and lasting change.  So if you want to/need to modify the reboot a bit, that'll be better than doing nothing.  So if "juice only" seems too austere, try adding in a smoothy or two.  Some people find the added substance (not to mention the inclusion of more insoluble fiber) helps tremendously.  Other people find that they can be successful when they juice for part of the day and then eat one healthful meal each day -- maybe a hearty vegetable soup or a serious salad.  And perhaps it should go without saying that not doing a fast for thirty-days is not the end of the world.  It's not failure.  (That's why at TJMC we're giving an opportunity for folks to join the fast "already in progress" at the halfway point.)  There's a scene in the movie in which Joe addresses this very thing, saying that if you succeed at juicing for ten days, or a week, well . . . in his Australian accent  . . . "good on you."

3) Falling is not the same as failing.  Some people feel that if they "slip" at some point during their fast, if they give in to their cravings and eat something, then they have failed.  I can speak from personal experience of how easy it is to start thinking, "Oh, well, I've proven that I can't do this so I might as well give up."  But there's a great Taoist saying that the definition of success is:  fall down seven times, get up eight times.  So . . . you succumbed to temptation and ate some of the veggies you were getting ready to juice . . . or you took a taste of the food you were making for your family . . . or you broke down and went through the drive-through.  Okay.  Not great, but not the end of the world.  Pick yourself up and have another juice.  Remember, the juice fast, in and of itself, is just a step on a much longer journey -- a lifelong journey of improving your health -- and as another Taoist saying puts it, "even stumbling steps lead not backwards."

4)  Have a plan.  Leonard Bernstein apparently once remarked that the way to accomplish great things is to have a plan and almost enough time.  For us, the plan part means to have your juicer and know how it works.  Have some recipes in place.  Go shopping so that you have the ingredients you'll need.  (Make sure to get lots of kale, carrots, apples and ginger!)

5)  Remember that you're not alone.  One of the reasons for offering this opportunity to the TJMC community is so that we can do it together.  And throughout the month (or half-month) we'll be able to check in with one another, and keep each other inspired (and honest!), and remind each other that this really is worth doing -- that the health of our bodies is as important as the health of our spirits and our minds.

So . . . for those who can make it, see you tomorrow night, February 1st, at 6:30 pm.

In Gassho,


Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Movie Review: Super Size Me

This is a movie I resisted seeing for a long time.  I'd heard about it when it came out.  I thought about watching it then.  It was a movie I thought I should see.  But I just couldn't bring myself to do it.  That changed while I was going through my first "reboot" juice fast in May 2012.

Back in 2004, independent filmmaker Morgan Spurlock undertook a challenge -- to eat McDonalds food, and nothing but McDonalds food, for 30 days.  For breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  Every day.  Ninety meals at Mickey Ds.

His rules were fairly simple.  He could consume anything that McDonalds sold as food, and nothing from outside of McDonalds.  (The water he drank was bottled water he bought at McDonalds.)  He had to eat each item on the menu at least once.  He had to clean his plate.  And if he were asked if he wanted to "supersize" his meal, he had to say "yes."

At the beginning of the film we see him being checked out by three physicians -- a cardiologist, a gastroenterologist, and a general practitioner -- as well as a nutritionist and a personal trainer.  All agree that he is in fairly good health, and all predict that there will probably be some adverse reaction to this experiment but that nothing overly dramatic should occur.  Instead, he shocked them all.  Over this 30-day period Sprulock gained 24½ lbs. -- which represented a 13% increase in his body mass -- his cholesterol level shot up to 230, and he experienced profound mood swings and sexual dysfunction.  He also developed a fatty liver.  When the experiment was over, it took him more than a year to return to his previous condition.

While watching Spurlock's deterioration we are treated to other disturbing material -- the film shows how intentional the fast food industry has been in making its foods both unhealthful and addictive.  It also draws a rather convincing analogy with the tobacco industry which also consciously manipulated its ingredients to increase the addictiveness of its product, and then attempted to escape any suggestion of culpability when people suffered the inevitable negative consequences.

The film has drawn its share of criticism -- as well as a really wonderful send-up on The Simpsons -- yet it is a dramatic way of demonstrating something that should really be quite obvious:  fast food really isn't very good for you.  (Some of the experts interviewed for the film say that no one should eat any fast food ever; others say that an occasional meal at McDs shouldn't kill you.  All note that this three-meal-a-day regimen should definitely be avoided!)

I've written before about my own compulsive eating.  Think "alcoholism" but with food.  And my "drink of choice," if you will, is all-American fast food.  I'll cop to having had periods -- never 30 days long, thankfully -- when I'd eat fast food for at least two-out-of-three meals.  Sometimes all three.  And I've been known to "supersize" even without being asked.  And, in fact, when I did fall back into old habits after my successful vegetable and fruit juice fast last year it was at least in part, as a friend recently said, "because I remembered where McDonalds was."

This should hardly be surprising.  In recent years scientists have been discovering the myriad ways the fast food industry has "enhanced" their products -- much as the tobacco industry did -- so as to ensure "customer loyalty."  In fact, the comparison is increasingly being made between fast food and cocaine.  It's scary.

Super Size Me is not a complete antidote, but it most certainly is a corrective.  I recently ordered a copy so that I have it to remind me should the cravings come on strong again.  Does it overstate it's point, as critics have complained?  Perhaps.  But is the point it (perhaps) overstates an important point to make?  To be sure.

In Gassho,


Tuesday, January 29, 2013

T Minus 3 and Counting . . .

Perhaps you live here in Charlottesville and are planning to take part in the upcoming month-long juice fast being sponsored by the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist. (Perhaps you're lucky enough to already count yourself among the members of the TJMC community!)  Maybe you're reading this blog and are planning to join the fast from a distance.  Perhaps you're thinking about watching all of this from a distance, taking your time to really think about the challenge and the changes involved.
No matter who you are, or where you are, there are some tips I'd like to offer.  Today is T minus 3 days until the 1st of February, the official start of the month-long juice fast and the formal launch of TJMC's "Health and Wholeness Initiative."  So here are some thought.
1)  Please do check in with your doctor or other primary health care provider.  I know.  Everybody tells you to check with your doctor before you start an exercise plan, or begin a new diet, or even (according to Cialis) before starting to have sex (if you're of a certain age).  And just as most people respond to the advise to read the manual before building that build-it-yourself furniture by not reading it, most people hear the advise to check in with your doc and then don't do so.  So please, please, check with your doctor.  Make sure that she or he is on board and keeping an eye on you -- especially if you're thinking about doing a month-long fast (or more).  Depending on your current health and dietary habits, your body may be in for quite a shock and while it is probably going to be a good shock . . . well . . . a shock is a shock.  And think about it this way:  even if you don't think it's necessary to get your health care practioner's "permission," you'll have much better bragging rights at the end of this thing if you know what your numbers were at the beginning!  So get some blood work done; go over your meds; make sure to note your weight on a standardized scale.
2)  Take a "before" picture.  Most everyone that I've encountered who has successfully completed a month-long "reboot" finds themselves looking markedly different than when they began.  And I'm not just talking about weight lost here, although that usually does happen.  People find that their skin glows more, those bags under the eyes have vanished, hair is more lusterous -- we look more energized.  Being able to remind ourselves of what we looked like before is a great motivation for keeping healthier after.
3)  Think about what folks in Overeater's Anonymous call "trigger foods."  What is it that you most find yourself eating without thinking about it?  What are you "called" to (or by) when you're feeling upset, or bored, or exhausted?  If possible -- get those things out of your house.  Now.  Give yourselves a couple of days before begining the juice fast to get those temptations out of reach . . . and to begin clearing your body of them as well.  Some people say to stop cold turkey, now, and to begin increasing the amount of vegetables and fruits you're consuming.  Then, if you're like most North Americans, your body won't be as shocked when you suddenly start ingesting nothing but vegetables and fruits!  (Other people suggest that you take one last bowl of Hagen Daas, or order one more McBurger, so as to say "goodbye" to these old friends.)
4)  Go shopping.  Have the produce you'll need already at hand.  If you need recipes, many will be provided at the Friday night kick-off, but you can start by going to Joe Cross' website.  Remember, at least if you're here in Charlottesville, you may well not need to have a juicer before beginning -- the church has purchased ten Breville juicers which we will be loaning on a first-come-first-served basis.  (we're trying to eliminate as many hurdles as possible)
5)  Last, for now, but certainly not least -- remind yourself that you really have no idea how this is going to be for you.  You may have past experiences with fasting, or dieting, but unless you've tried a juice fast, after watching Joe Cross' movie, while being part of the supportive TJMC community . . . well . . . then . . . you don't really know what this will be like.  When I did my first "reboot" back in May, I managed 30 days pretty easily.  A bit of a challenge the first week, but by the end of that week the (re)new(ed) energy was its own motivation.  The second time I tried it, however, I got through about 3 days before giving up on it.  It can be ridiculously easy; it can be impossibly hard.  But one thing that is certain -- none of us will be doing this alone.
I'm going to try to keep these blog posts coming, at least one per day, until the fast actually begins and, then, at least a couple of times weekly through the month of February.  I hope that we can inspire and support one another in our free and responsible search for . . . better health.
In Gassho,

Monday, January 28, 2013

Movie Review: Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead

As I have repeatedly said, this is the film that started it all for me.  It tells the story of Joe Cross, an apparently very successful Australian man whose "successful" lifestyle had gotten him to the point where he could be described by the title of the film and where he was, as he says, "one cheesburger away from a heart attack."  He also had a severe and dibilitating autoimmune disease for which he was taking multiple medications, including steroids.  He decided that something had to change . . . that he needed to "reboot" his life.

He remembered that as a child his body had been able to manage pretty well at healing itself and concluded that his unhealthy lifestyle -- particularly his unhealthful eating habits -- had robbed his body of that ability.  And since he knew that eating healthy foods -- particularly vegetables and fruits -- would be key to helping his body recover he decided to supercharge the process.  For sixty days he would eat consume nothing but fresh vegetable and fruit juice, infusing his system with the micronutrients and phytochemicals he had been denying it.

And since this is a movie it needs some kind of hook, so he decided to come to the United States -- home to his favorite unhealthy foods -- and travel across this country while fasting, introducing as many people as he could to his experiment.  Along the way he meets a trucker -- who by coincidence has the same rare autoimmune disease, and who is also "fat, sick, and nearly dead."  This man, Phil Stapels, decides to try Joe's approach, and the film chronicles both of their efforts . . . and their results.

There is a lot of pain in this film -- few people who are in the condition of these two men got there without some amount of personal pain that needs to be addressed -- but also a whole lot of hope.  The film is honest, and surprisingly humerous.  (Joe is a wonderful narrator and guide.)  It's filled with a lot of solid information, and is crammed full of inspiration.  A quick look at the movie's FaceBook page, or the community of "rebooters" on it's website, and you'll see countless testimonials from people who've seen the movie and tried the practice (although many for a lot less than 60 days!) and who have seen incredibly exciting results.  (If you look carefully you can find my own contributions to both of these sites.)

If you think your life could benefit from a "reboot," this movie might just be the trigger that you need.

In Gassho,


PS -- a reminder that I will be hosting a public viewing of this movie at Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist, in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Friday, February 1st and again on Wednesday, February 13th.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

T Minus 5 and Counting

This post is adapted from my January 2013 "Words of Wikstrom" column for the monthly bulletin of the Thomas Jefferson memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist.  And while it is clearly directed toward the members and friends of the congregation I serve here in Charlottesville, Virginia, it's invitation is open to anyone, anywhere, who'd like to join.

As some of you know, a few months ago I got very excited about something. And it all started with a movie.  I’d gone to see my new doctor. After she took my health history, and looked over my various numbers, she said to me, “I’m not saying that this describes you, but I’d like you to watch a movie.  It's called Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead.” I did, and it began to change my life.

The movie is about an Australian man – Joe Cross – with a severe auto-immune disease and who could fairly reasonably be described by the movie’s title. He came to the United States – home of all of his favorite foods! –to regain some control over his health. He began by embarking on a 60-day juice fast. That’s right. For 60 days he consumed nothing other than freshly made vegetable and fruit juices. (He’d consulted with a doctor and a nutritionist before beginning, of course, and was monitored regularly through the fast.) He traveled across the country, and along the way he encountered other people who needed to make changes in their lifestyle who also decided to kick-start a rebooting of their systems, if you will, by an extended juice fast.

After watching the movie I borrowed a juicer that a friend had in her basement and began what would turn out to be a 30-day fast. In that time I lost a little over 50 pounds, my blood work improved dramatically, and both my mood and my energy increased to levels I hadn’t known since junior high if, in fact, I’d ever known them before.

Many folks noticed these changes. Some took on their own juice fasts of various lengths. Others took other approaches – increasing the amount of vegetables they eat, for instance, or decreasing the amount of heavily processed foods consumed on a daily basis. Others said that it had gotten them to at least think about the relationship they had with food and eating.

I didn’t stop with watching one movie. I’ve now seen such films as Food, Inc.; Supersize Me; Forks Over Knives; FoodMatters; Fresh; Dirt!; Processed People; Hungry for Change; King Corn; PlanEAT; and HBO’s The Weight of the Nation among others. I read the works of doctors Mark Hyman, Joel Fuhrman, and Alejandro Junger. I am currently enrolled in the Nutritional Educator’s training program in Dr. Fuhrman’s institute, in order to deepen and expand my understanding about nutrition. And I also looked at how other ministers and congregations have worked to respond to the links between food and faith, health and wholeness . . . the interconnectedness of the whole body-mind-spirit-ecosystem-social justice matrix.

Yes. I became something of an evangelist. I do see this as part of a bigger picture, the kind of Big Picture I think our churches should be working on. Because the truth is, there are a lot of sick people in our country . . . in our county . . . in our congregation. Sick in body and in mind and spirit. We are a sick people in a sick culture on an increasingly sick planet. The more I learned, the more embarking on a Health and Wholeness Initiative here at TJMC has been making more sense.

This coming Friday -- February 1st -- I will host a public showing of the film that, for me, started it all -- Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead.  I am also in the process of buying for the church ten Breville juicers -- the kind Joe uses in the movie!  And I am challenging . . . no, inviting . . . anyone who wishes to to join me in a fresh vegetable and fruit juice fast for the month of February.  Not quite thirty days, but long enough to break some of the bad habits/ingrained triggers that many of us have with food -- especially the so-called "Standard American Diet" (aka, SAD). 

For so many of us eating has more to do with emotional self-regulation than it does with providing nutrients to our bodies.  We eat because we're bored; we eat because we're upset.  We reward ourselves with food when something goes really well; we comfort ourselves with food when things go badly.  When we need an energy boost we eat, and when we want to chill out we do so with some of our favorite foods.  A brief, intentional fast is one way to break some of this unhealthy habituation when it comes to eating. 

Another thing a juice fast can do is give the body a quick infusion of high quality nutrients.  Yes, there is debate as to whether or not juicing is healthy.  Some argue that by removing all of the insoluble fiber from our diet we are doing our body harm.  And long term this could be true.  (And please note that for some people this would be true in the short term, as well.)  For most people, though, the benefits of a temporary and well-planned juice fast far outweigh the intentional harm.  (Pun intended.)

And what are those benefits?  Well, the break in our normal eating pattern, as already mentioned.  And few of us eat anywhere near the amount of fruits and vegetables we should, and these foods are filled with micro-nutrients our bodies desperately need.  It takes a lot of veggies to make a juice, far more than most of us are likely to eat regularly, so juicing is a way of giving a "turbo-charged" infusion of the phytochemicals and other nutrients we generally lack.  In so doing, we begin to rebuild our body's own innate ability to heal itself . . . something that the Standard American Diet has seriously damaged in many of us.  It can also re-tune our taste buds.

And so, this Friday, with the showing of Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead and the launch of the month-long juice fast, the TJMC Health and Wholeness Initiative will be officially launched.  Is this the beginning of tyrannical food police trying to guilt all of us into eating rabbit food? Lord I hope not. But is this the next step – building on a history in the congregation and our wider Unitarian Universalist movement – in taking seriously our responsibility to our-selves and one another to care for the health of our planet, our communities, and ourselves? I most certainly hope so.  I like to say that it is an invitation for us to make as "free and responsible search for truth and meaning" in our food choices as we do in other aspects of our lives.  What we eat affects not only our own health, but the health of our communities, and our world.

Two caveats.

First, please consult with your doctor before engaging in any kind of fasting program.  Even though a short and well-thought-through vegetable and fruit juice fast will provide most people with all the nutrition their bodies will need, not all of us are the same.  Our body's have different needs, and our various health conditions can cause us to be more or less vulnerable.  If you think your doctor would simply be horrified at the thought of something like this . . . I can recommend my doctor who has said she would be willing to see anyone who wanted to see a doctor both open and receptive to this kind of thing.

Second, please, please do not jump on any particular band-wagon too quickly.  Advocates for various understandings of what makes for a healthful diet can become as fundamentalist as advocates for anything else.  Some will say NO meat.  Others will say LOTS of meat.  Each can be absolutist in their declarations.  I encourage us to engage this Health and Wholeness Initiative with what we might call a Unitarian Universalist attitude -- seeking the truth both responsibly and freely and as it resonates with our own lived experiences.  I like this passage from the writings of an MD named Mark Hyman:
"It’s time to focus on the broader discussion…people shouldn’t be eating industrialized foods—period. If you choose to eat meat, you should be wary of where it comes from, what it’s fed, how it’s raised. For the average American, animal protein is a real problem. For the country and the globe, animal feedlots are a real problem. I think that’s the bigger issue.

People have fanatical beliefs about diet, but the truth is that you can be healthy on a multitude of diets. If you look at the research, you can argue both sides, but are saying the same thing. I think we are over-arguing the issue instead of looking at our commonalities, which means that we are missing the real issue. The real issue is that we need to be off our of industrialized diet."
So . . . if you're interested in a learning about one approach to "rebooting" your internal systems back to their more naturally healthy state, come by the sanctuary this Friday, February 1st, to watch Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead at 6:30 pm.  (Or plan to watch it at home on Netflix or on the Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead web site.)

If you're interested in taking my up on my invitation try joining me in a month-long fresh vegetable and fruit juice fast, come to church this Friday evening (or check in with me before then).  We'll have ten juicers to loan out (first come, first served), and can give you information about where you could get your own.  There'll even be a juicing demonstration following the movie and a hand-out with some delicious juice recipes.

And if you're interested in trying the juice fast, but don't feel like you could do a whole month, there'll be a "second wave" starting on Wednesday, February 13th.  This one will also start with a showing of Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead, this time at 7:00 pm.

And feel free to follow this blog.  During this month I intend to focus on how the fast is going -- for me and for the community -- as well as on providing information about nutrition and health (personal, communal, and global) such as book and movie reviews, links to other web sites, and discussions of various issues in this unfortunately all-too-complex debate.

Today is "T minus 5 and counting."  I don’t know where this will take us, but I didn’t know where settling down in front of my TV a few months back would lead, either. I still don’t. But I’m excited to find out.

In Gassho,


PS -- if you're interested in learning more about the involvement of the wider Unitarian Universalist movement in the issue(s) of food check out the links on the UUA's Ethical Eating:  Food and Environmental Justice page.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

That Vision Thing . . .

Back in June I wrote a report for the Board of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist where I am privileged to serve.  I tend to write kind of rambling, philosopical reports -- more sermons or reflections than detailed reports of how I spend each and every minute of each and every day.  (So much time spent in meetings; so much in putting out fires; so much staring out the window hoping some kind of words might come to me before Sunday . . . You know the kind of thing.)

Anyway, as I was writing this particular report I found a vision forming in my head.  That whole "vision thing" is pretty important for an organization, and as I confessed this past Sunday -- as if there were any real doubt among anyone -- if you divided the world into dreamers and doers I'd be . .  well . . . staring out the window dreaming up things for the doers to be doing.  Not that that's necessarily a bad thing.  The world really does need both.  Really.

So . . . this vision.  The congregation already as a covenant, and a pretty good one:

The Covenant

of the

Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist

In order to create the beloved community we all desire for ourselves, we, the Congregation of Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church Unitarian Universalist covenant to

  • Communicate with compassion and respect, especially when we disagree,
  • Celebrate diversity and nurture our inclusivity,
  • Embrace one another spiritually and emotionally,
  • Promote social justice within our congregation and the larger community,
  • Generously support the ministries of the church with time, money and enthusiasm, and
  • Lovingly call each other back into covenant when we have fallen short.

It also has a mission statement and, again, I think it's pretty good.  (I especially like the clarity of the last line!)

The Mission

of the

Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist

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 I'm sharing this vision statement that came to me not because I think TJMC (as we call ourselves) is lacking vision or clarity.  I'd just like to add this to the mix of things people are thinking about:

TJMC is a Unitarian Universalist faith community which actively and intentionally cultivates connections – among our members, within the wider Charlottesville area, as well as around the country and the world.  We cultivate connections as a way of helping people to “nurture their souls and help heal the world.”  We cultivate connections as a part of our “total immersion language school of the soul,” teaching ourselves and each other how to live lives that are truly alive.  Therefore we concentrate on how we welcome one another – newcomers, longer-term members and friends, and those whose paths we cross (whether they may ever become members here or not!).  And we focus on feeding the hungry – those who are physically hungry, as well as those who hunger for companionship, a sense of belonging, intellectual stimulation, justice from oppression, etc. – and housing the homeless – again, both those who are literally homeless as well as those who are seeking a safe “home” in this often frightening world. 

In Gassho,


Wednesday, January 23, 2013

New Beginnings

Finding Home (detail), mural by Josh Sarantitis,
photo by Danny Birchall, Creative Commons License
[This was originally delivered as a sermonic exploration on Sunday, January 20, at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist in Charlottesville, Virginia. 
If you would like, you can listen to the podcast.]

“New Beginnings” – that’s the title of this exploration.  And I’ll confess that I almost didn’t have a sermon for you this morning.  Oh, this was one of those weeks where I wrestled with the topic, danced with the topic, and just couldn’t find a handle, couldn’t get a grip.  I knew that whatever tack I took there’d be those of you who’d be disappointed, who’d wish I’d remembered to say something I left out, or who’d wish I’d said what I said differently.  And as I was writing, I was right there with you.
I’d promised, in the monthly bulletin, to tell you about efforts at moving beyond providing temporary, short-term housing for homeless persons – which some are beginning to see as, ironically, “enabling homelessness.”  People are now suggesting that a better plan is to get folks into some kind of stable housing as soon as is possible, rather than making them go through a series of steps to demonstrate their “worthiness,” because that stability is the best platform to build on.  It provides a “new beginning” rather than a temporary respite.
But try as I might to write that sermon it just wouldn’t work.  I sounded pedantic at best; at worst, hypocritical.  I’ll be honest, if you were to divide the world into doers and talkers I’d be a talker hands down.  I’d like to do more, I really would, but my default mode, and my real skills, are in the talking.
And I know that if I were to talk about these things I’d be talking to a room filled with doers.  I mean, seriously, Kip Newland, Lynn King, Elizabeth Breeden, Jen Larimer, Jill Mulligan, Edith Good, Achsah Carrier, Shirley Paul, other folks I’m sure I’ve forgotten, and other folks I don’t even know about . . . these people are up to their armpits in doing something about homelessness in Charlottesville.  They’re the ones to be talking about these things.  (And, in fact, they will be – in the coming months the Social Action Council and the Adult Faith Development Committee will be co-sponsoring a series of three workshops on homelessness that sound really incredible.  I strongly encourage you to keep your eyes open for the details as they’re announced so that you can participate.  I think that they’re going to be amazing.)
But I just couldn’t write a sermon that made it sound like I was one of those doers, because I’m not.  And when I thought about writing a sermon of facts and figures, I remembered that there is a fantastic info-graphic hanging on our Social Action bulletin board, just outside of the social hall and that that picture conveys more than a thousand of my words ever could.
So then I thought I could write a sermon that would encourage you to get involved.  Besides the fact that that’d be a case of a talker encouraging you all to be doers I banged into another problem.  We’re already doing a lot in this congregation.  I’ve already mentioned some of the folks who are kind of big-time players on this stage, but did you realize that when we take our turn to host a week of PACEM – People and Congregations Engaged in Ministry – that around 100 of us are involved in seeing that our guests our fed and sheltered?  That’s about a quarter of our formal members!  (And there’s a chance to be one of that number when we host PACEM early next month.)
On top of that, the TJMC IMPACT team is hoping we’ll have about 200 people at the big Nehemiah Action on April 29th so that we can add our weight to the roughly two dozen other faith communities who this year are trying to find some collaborative solutions to homelessness in our area.  So that’s nearly half of our membership getting involved!
And I’m hoping that a whole lot of us are going to avail ourselves of the opportunity to be more fully and deeply educated about these issues through that Social Action/AFD program I mentioned a moment ago.  And I’d love to know that a goodly number of us take part in the annual “Point In Time” survey that aims to get a fix on just how many unhoused people there are in Charlottesville.  (And there’s information about the training for this effort in the insert to your Order of Service.)
All this to say that I couldn’t figure out a way to write a sermon that exhorted us to get more involved.  I’m sure we could – but I was at a loss.
And then I thought about Mike.  Mike was this wild guy I’d pass on the Boston Common when I was working at UUHQ, our Association’s headquarters near the State House in Boston.  Mike was about my age, or maybe even a little younger, and had been living on the street for a long, long time.  Everyone knew him.  He’d call out to just about every single person who passed him by.  (And since he sat right near the entrance to the T station that was a lot of people.)  He didn’t call out asking for money, usually.  He’d just tell you that you were “lookin’ good.”  Or he’d ask how you were doing.  Or tell you it was good to see you.  He’d shout out, “have a good day!”
Everyone knew Mike – the vendors, the cops, the commuters . . . and nearly everyone who worked at the UUA.  I didn’t usually carry cash on me, but I’d stop and talk with him most mornings.  Sit with him.  I found that beneath the perpetual gregariousness and generosity of spirit with which he greeted the passerbys there was also a weariness of soul that so many people passed him by.  I never learned his whole story, but there was some substance abuse and some unnamed mental illness.  He’d been in and out of shelters, in and out of treatment programs, in and out of the homes of friends and family, but the streets were really what he knew.  He knew which coffee shops would let you nurse a cup of coffee for a couple of hours when it was cold outside, and which ones wouldn’t.  He knew which movie theaters would let you stretch a single ticket into a triple bill when it was raining.  He knew when to be where to increase the likelihood of scraping together enough money to be able to make it through another day.  Another night.
I grew to really like Mike; to look forward to our encounters.  And when several weeks went by without seeing any sign of him I became genuinely worried – I feared discovering that he had been arrested or, worse, had died.  But like I said, everyone knew Mike and when I asked one of the Common’ cops he knew just who I was talking about and was able to assure me that Mike had moved out of downtown because he’d hooked up with a friend who had an apartment and was now spending his days closer to there.
During the three years that I commuted in to Boston from my home on Cape Cod I got to know a couple of other guys I’d pass on my walk to and from my office.  I don’t want to say “a couple of the other homeless guys I’d pass on my walk” because while it is true that none of them had a steady, stable home, to identify them first and foremost as “homeless” would be like talking about my non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma brother, or my bi-polar friend, or one of you talking about your overweight minister.  Labels may be convenient, but there is no person who can be neatly summed up with one.  We are all far more complex than that.
And that brings me to Shaggy.  His spot was in front of the Dunkin Donuts on the corner of Summer and Lincoln Streets.  Thin, scraggly hair, skin like leather, bad teeth . . . he could have been scary.  I bet he did scare some people.  But I came to know him to be one of the sweetest people I’d ever met.  He didn’t engage people the same way Mike did.  He’d just stand there, cup in hand, hoping that the people coming out of D & D’s might drop their change in. 
But as with Mike I usually didn’t have cash on hand.  But it never felt right to just pass Shaggy by.  So many people were already doing that.  So many people were already treating him as if he were invisible; as if he weren’t even really there.  And from somewhere in the recesses of my Presbyterian/Methodist upbringing came the phrase, “And whatever you do to the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you have done to me.”  And so I’d strike up a conversation.  I’d ask him how things were going, about changes that were going on then in the response of the Boston PD to panhandlers.  We’d talk about the weather and what that’d mean to someone whose entire belongings could fit in a single pack.  He explained to me how he used to try to engage people – he’d had a million stories, most of them lies, about why he needed some help at that moment.  But the dishonesty gnawed at him.  So he gave up the pretense.  This was his life.  He offered no excuses or explanations.  He’d engage with people who’d engage with him, just like most other people do.  Like I’ve said, I didn’t always carry cash, but I did remember to bring him new gloves when a cold spell was settling in.  And whenever I did have cash on me I made sure that I gave some to him.
A year or so previously Shaggy had found an Episcopal church with a real outreach to the unhoused, and he’d really begun to turn his life around.  He’d gotten off drugs and alcohol.  He’d begun going to Capital Hill to speak out about the issues of homelessness in Boston.  He’d begun doing some writing.  As I was getting ready to move from the Cape to . . . well . . . here, Shaggy’s number was finally called up and he was able to move in to an efficiency apartment.  A couple of weeks ago I heard a piece on homelessness on WBUR’s program “Here and Now” and I can’t tell you how incredible it was to hear that familiar voice – Shaggy was one of their guests!   He’s still in his apartment and, while it’s not always easy, he’s continuing to find solid footing.
A block or so up, between the Wendy’s and the CVS on Arch Street, I got to know John.  Brother John, I called him, because he was always praying for me or asking me to pray for him.  Somehow this felt right, this praying for each other, this mutual blessing we would share.  I came to learn that John had family, living not so far outside of town, but he said he made them really uncomfortable.  He never told me his diagnosis – or, maybe, diagnoses – but it was clear that his life had unraveled some time before and he had just never been able to knit the pieces back together.  He didn’t want to be a burden to his family, nor did he even want to inconvenience the other panhandlers on Summer Street who would sometimes fight him for the prime spots.  Brother John was one of the meek.  It was clear to me that he was more than just “a homeless person.”
And maybe that’s the hook for this sermon this morning.  Maybe this is another in my ongoing series that I’ve been preaching for nearly two decades now, the sermon that says “there is no us and them; there is only us.”
But let me tell you about Frank.  I came out of a meeting a couple of weeks back to be told that there was someone here who wanted to talk with the pastor.  (That usually clues me in that it’s not someone from our “flock.”  You guys hardly ever call me “pastor.”)  Frank is a tall man, and from other encounters with him here and in some of the other churches in the area I knew he could be belligerent.  Hostile.  Threatening.  But on this morning he was calm.  So we talked.
He told me that he’d made some mistakes in his life, spent some time incarcerated – “nothing I lose sleep over now,” he assured me – and had had problems with substance abuse.  His family had cut him loose, and he really didn’t have any other kind of support network.  He said he’d tried going to couple of churches, and the people had been real nice, until they learned that he’d spent some time in jail and was currently homeless.  Then they got cold real fast.  It became clear to him that he wasn’t welcome as he was.
And that’s when he said something that’s really struck me.  I think what he said can probably be interpreted in a couple of different ways, and I have to say that I agree with both of them.  After telling me how he’d felt the doors to these other churches close on him when they discovered what was really going on in his life, how he felt that as soon as people found out what his life was really like they instantly began looking down on him, he said, “I always kinda thought churches were supposed to be like hospitals.”
Now he might have meant that like a hospital he’d thought that churches had to take you in.  And I do think that there’s some truth to that.  If South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu is right that the church should be an “audio-visual aid” showing what the world should be like, then there is some truth to that. 
But I prefer to think that what he meant is that, like a hospital, a church is full of sick people.  This might sound surprising to a lot of you . . . shocking even.  And wrong.  I can imagine some of you thinking that that just isn’t right – looking around you right now you don’t any see “sick” people here.  But we are here.  In every pew, if we’d be honest with one another, and ourselves.  Who here isn’t – hasn’t been – wounded in some way?  Who here isn’t – in some way or other – even just a little bit – broken?
I’ve realized that my lifelong sermon was only partially right.  I’ve always said that there is no us and them, that there’s only us.  But in my wrestling this week I’ve come to realize that that still puts usme – in the center of the circle and subsumes those “others” into “my” sphere.  There is no “them,” I’ve said, there is only “us.”  What I’ve realized this week is that there is no “us,” there is only “them.”
The deepest call of religion is not the recognition that “they” are “us” but the realization that “we” are “them.”  We all are wounded.  We all hunger and thirst.  We all know what it’s like to be lost, alone, alienated, homeless . . . if we’re honest with ourselves.
Yes, homelessness is an overwhelming issue; it’s a challenge with too many facets, too many interlocking pieces, an onion with too many layers.  What can you or I do to solve such a thing?
But we can address the separation.  We can address the exile.  We can address the walls within ourselves that serve to maintain the distinctions.  I came to discover that I’m not all that different from Frank, and Brother John, and Shaggy, and Mike.  Not that they’re not all that different from me but that I’m not all that different from them.  This realization makes all the difference.  And that, I suppose, is the “new beginning” I was searching for.

In Gassho,


PS -- all through the preparation of this sermon the song "Just a Bum" by the incredible Greg Brown kept playing in my mind.  I kept trying to find a place to sing it, or at least to quote it, but I guess that's what a blog is for . . .