THOUGHTS SCOTT BEGOT:
When a friend calls to me from the road
And slows his horse to a meaning walk,
I don’t stand still and look around
On all the hills I haven’t hoed,
And shout from where I am, ‘What is it?’
No, not as there is a time to talk.
I thrust my hoe in the mellow ground,
Blade-end up and five feet tall,
And plod: I go up to the stone wall
For a friendly visit.
– Robert Frost
My last day in the pulpit will be on June 18. I can hardly believe it as I type those words. So much has happened in the church since I arrived here in 2011. Our church family and my own family have grown. And I have grown. Being a part of this church community has been one of my greatest honors and joys of my life. I tell people that I have a wonderful vocation because I get to work with 200 teachers. I have learned so much from sharing life with you. I have learned how to step into my own fear and hesitation in justice work (I have much more to learn). I learned about worship creation and implementation (I have much more to learn). I learned the value of sitting together through sorrow and pain (more to learn). I began to understand what it means to engage all of church life as a continual avenue for spiritual growth (I have much, much more to learn…). Perhaps more than anything, I have learned that with the support of a religious community, a person is able to become far more than I ever could have imagined alone. I have felt loved and supported. Thank you. It is my hope that with this love you offered me, I used it to shape something of value back into this community and our world.
The Robert Frost poem above stopped me when I read it. In a world in which many are often busy and running from one activity to the next, he reminds us of the simple and sacred act of stopping for a friendly visit. As June continues forward and there is a space for good byes and remembrances, I hope you will feel free to come by for a friendly visit here at the church. Our shared time and work together is best remembered in story, and I think that looking back upon the good and difficult times is a proper way of honoring life spent in each other’s presence.
“We are the stories we tell about ourselves.” This gem off wisdom came from Rev. Martha Munson, my predecessor. One of the stories the church used to tell about itself was that it was hard on ministers. The church rightly stopped telling this story. I can assure you that the church can begin telling a new story. It is this: “We have been kind to our minister. We offered him trust and respect and that grew into a foundation of a solid ministry. Our minister felt a great love from us. When he left, his heart was so full of gratitude. We are an amazing congregation. There is always room to grow, and we are up for that challenge.”
On April 23, 2017 at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the North Hills:
And here is the thing… this Sunday morning was not particularly out of the ordinary. This is the sort of stuff that happens at church EVERY week, month after month, year after year. People choose to gather in our religious community on Sundays and this is the environment that this congregation creates. It is a blessing to be a part of.
All you have to do is listen.
Stop the headlong hustle of your day for just a moment and listen to the world around you. There is a symphony of sounds resounding around you with each auditory notion manifesting from specific locations for some particular reason. The hums, chirps, blips, and bells. The rustling, scraping, swooshing, and singing. The banging, whispering, swiping, and beeping. Within that white noise of the crowd are little individual statements popping out. Layered on top of each other, these sounds surround us, and all we need to do is notice. In this paying attention, we hear existence making the music of our time. Listen to all the ways that life is becoming and passing in every moment.
All you have to do is listen.
Listen when someone is speaking to you. When you feel yourself forming words for a response, let them slide away and just listen. When you begin to want to be heard as well, to speak out as a way of saying, “See me. Affirm me, too,” just trust that there will be another occasion in which it is your turn. Listen and let the other person open up, go deep. Offer them this gift by simply paying attention to their words, their intent, and their being. Listen to another and see how you are moved in witnessing the life of another person expressing themselves. Listen and understand the opportunity in front of you to watch and honor the Universe experiencing itself through this one unique being in this one precious moment.
All you have to do is listen.
Take a deep breath and calm your mind and listen to the beating of your own heart. Slow yourself and create a vast empty space into which you might hear moments of insight, murmurs of comfort, and movements of awe. Listen to that part deep within that soaks up the information from your intellect, the longings of your heart, and the hopes of your soul then offers them back to you in a still small voice softly suggesting the way. Listen for nothing at all and wait for it to arrive with its bounty.
All you have to do is listen.
To laugh is to risk appearing the fool.
To weep is to risk appearing sentimental.
To reach out is to risk involvement,
To expose feelings is to risk exposing your true self.
To place your ideas and
dreams before a crowd is to risk their loss.
To love is to risk not being loved in return,
To live is to risk dying,
To hope is to risk despair,
To try is to risk failure.
But risks must be taken because
the greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing.
The person who risks nothing, does nothing,
has nothing, is nothing.
— William Arthur Ward (1921-1994)
This well-known poem offers such a clear perspective on the value and necessity of risk in life. We are afraid of the collision of life and failure, and so we avoid it directly, allowing it to seep out in cracks in unseen or unintentional ways. Risk brings about all that we believe failure insinuates. It takes courage to reckon with fear of rejection, or loneliness, or any number of things far worse than putting our foot in out mouth. It takes courage because we want the other person to love us and think well of us, and how could they love an angry, wounded, or imperfect person.
Let’s be honest here … we aren’t all fully self-actualizing, mature people whose image belongs in fashion and sports magazines. Or in a brainy think-tank. We’re imperfect. We’re learning. We’re trying to be the best people we can be. Our splotchy, creaking bodies, our tangled and misdirected emotions, our foibles and genuine faults aren’t only in our heads.
It takes courage to put one’s flawed self forward. It does take courage to be able to say: Here I am. This is me. It takes courage whether you’re introducing yourself to someone for the first time, or talking with your partner of thirty years. This life stuff isn’t for the faint of heart if you are willing to risk. Now I like being safe just as much as the next person. There is a place for safety. But there is also a place for risk. AND a place for failure that is acceptable as any other condition. Failing doesn’t make you unlovable. It makes you human.
On September 1, 2013, the Wendy’s fast food burger chain on Route 19 in Wexford Flats served its last meal, shut its doors, and closed for good. In time, Wendy’s built a new restaurant about a block up on the same side of the street. The design is sleek, wood-paneled, and modern. The old one began a slow process of dilapidation. The Wendy’s sign was removed so that the company would not be associated with the eye-sore it fast became. Three years and five months later, it remains in place, rotting and discolored. I live in the area around this building. I called McCandless Township last summer to see what the plan was for the structure or to see if there was a plan. I was assured that they are in the middle of addressing the situation and something new will be built. And so I wait. Meanwhile, the building sits there in disrepair, hallowed out and broken.
Here is the kicker. I don’t often “see” the building. Despite its deterioration, it has simply become part of the landscape. My eyes drift over it as I pass because it no longer sticks out like a sore thumb. It has been normalized, and I have become used to it barely ever noticing it as a daily blight upon the community in which I live. Life is like that. We get used to things pretty quick. Things that are novel become normal. We are creatures of habit and have an ability to roll even discomfort, pain, or ugliness into our routine.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “There are certain things in our nation and in the world which I am proud to be maladjusted and which I hope all men of good-will will be maladjusted until the good societies realize.” As I look out at the landscape today, I see a list of things happening that I never want to see become normal: racism, homophobia, sexism, xenophobia, sexual assault, a lack of decency or civil discourse, disregard for our Earth, the killing of police officers, championing of corporate interests over people, religious zealotry, ignoring science, the marginalization of indigenous communities, police brutality, truth and facts being negotiable, a nation deeply divided, a free press under attack, and the list goes on. These things should always stand out to us. May we ALWAYS see them as ugly and dangerous. We cannot let forces of oppression and exclusion dictate to us what is normal. It is exhausting to keep our eyes attuned to that which turns our stomach. But we must continue to witness and speak out or else the center shifts and there will be a new normal. There are many things around us now to which we must remain maladjusted.
I just called McCandless Township again. I spoke with a nice person on the phone who informed me that the corporation who owns the land has no plans currently registered to do anything with the abandoned Wendy’s building. The zoning guy is going to call me back tomorrow, possibly with more information. I suppose I will reach out to community members in my area now. I am going to remind them about the building, as I assume they also have stopped seeing it. Maybe we can place our eyes and attention back upon this building and claim that it is not what we want to be considered normal in our community. Not sure how to go forward yet, but I know the more organized eyes I can get upon the building, the better.
We have to see and acknowledge the ugliness before we can address it. And then we will see what we can do together.
Dear Good People of UUCNH,
I woke up this on this dreary, grey morning in a sour mood. The rain drizzled down outside the window. I was tired. The radio was on reminding me of the events to come today and about how deeply divided our nation is. It is an inauguration day like no other. “Oh well,” I thought. “I might as well just give into this feeling. Enjoy the wallow.” I shook my head, sighed, and noticed myself resigning, letting go into a daylong sulk. There was something about recognizing my voluntarily resignation that gave me pause. It seemed to suggest that I had some say in the matter. I had a choice. It made me wonder if I could push in the other direction and not let my mood be guided from the outside. So I gave it a try.
And, I’ll be darned, it worked. It felt defiant. I tethered onto kindness. I championed the good around me. I went to Bellwood Preschool after dropping of my daughter and watched the kids sing at “Happy Time.” (It is pajama day over there, so it was extra cute and that helped, too.) I acknowledged the truth of the day when I spoke with others, but fanned away the would-be clouds that began to form over our heads. I do not fear that I will lose sight of what is happening today. That is omnipresent. But our world is filled with joy and goodness as well. Both exist at once. And so I will just make a space big enough inside of myself to hold both. Or at least I will try my best to do so.
Someone asked me the other day how things will change for a church in this new world and new administration. I have given a decent amount of thought to this. First, we will be called to a direct resistance when we see things happening in our country and in our North Hills that run counter to our Unitarian Universalist values. Along with others who advocate for love and justice, the responsibility falls to us to speak out and be the voice of dissent and disruption. Time will tell where and when this voice is needed. But we can be certain it will be. We will need to show up in deed and action. More than ever, we will need to embody what we espouse. It is hard work to affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Second, we will need to continue forward in areas that we believe are working to create a more just and sustainable world. We cannot simply be reactionary. We cannot spend the next years only in defensive mode. We must go forward with what we believe in. Finally, it is important that church remains a place of sanctuary and regeneration, of beauty and joy, of community and connection. While the world rages outside our church walls and discord in our own hearts, UUCNH will be a place where we can dare to love boldly, care for one another, inspire each other, show up with our full selves, and create a space where, as James Luther Adams said, we can “practice being human.” We will fill ourselves up with Love here so that we can go out and be Love in the world.
I am thankful for our church. I know it will be an important place in the lives of our members and friends in these coming days, months, and years. I am thankful to every single person who keeps this church running, healthy, and moving forward. We create this place together. We hold joy, anger, hope, sadness, and love all at once. We are each and together also a part of creating our human story with every other person breathing today. May we be strong and clear that the lines we write into this narrative are of peace, inclusion, and a vision of greater unity among our all siblings.
There is work to be done. On this inauguration day, I find challenge, hope, and a call in these words from Langston Hughes…
Let America Be America Again
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed-
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)
Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?
I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.
I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!
I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean-
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today-O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.
Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home-
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”
Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay-
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.
O, let America be America again-
The land that never has been yet-
And yet must be-the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine-the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME-
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.
Sure, call me any ugly name you choose-
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath-
America will be!
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain-
All, all the stretch of these great green states
And make America again!
With faith in love,
There has been a lot of talk about how 2016 was a horrible year. I would have to agree. There was the election (depending on who you voted for, I suppose), the Zika virus, a steady presence of terror attacks, more killings of black men by law enforcement, more killing of law enforcement by unhinged people, Brexit, civil war and mass killing in Syria, ISIS, climate change, the death of Prince, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Muhammad Ali … I’ll stop. I could keep going, but that was becoming depressing.
This has been a terribly hard year. But there has also been beauty and goodness. There has been victory. There has been laughter and love. Because of the Ice Bucket Challenge, we may have found the gene responsible for ALS, 800 hostages were rescued from Boko Haram, solar power is thriving in California, during a 24 hour period in India this year, a bunch of people planted 50 million trees, the hole in the ozone is actually getting better (a model for hope), child mortality continues to descend, manatees, tigers, and pandas… oh my! -all are up in population, Harriet Tubman is going to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill, and this list could also go on and on. And furthermore, let us not forget that there are still puppies, rainbows, stars, fuzzy caterpillars, and snuggly blankets.
There is also our church, which is thriving – which is pushing into new space and deepening in ways that we hoped for years ago. I spend a lot of time at church, so while my news feed offers me despair, my daily life is filled with inspiration as I witness the way our church meets the needs of its people, how our members work together, and how we dream for our future and then courageously move forward into those aspirations. My daily life is full of goodness because I spend my days and evenings with the members of UUCNH. In hard times, my spirit is lifted by the reality of our church. If you get discouraged, I invite you to simply look around our community. Trust me. You will feel better. What good is a church if it doesn’t provide us with hope? Our church provides me with so much hope. And a place to participate in bringing hope into being. UUCNH is hope filled and hope fulfilling.
“When I breathe in, I breathe in peace. When I breathe out, I breathe out love.” We sing this song Meditation on Breathing together in church, and I am always comforted by it. In the last two months, I feel like I have not always been breathing in “peace.” I feel like I have been breathing in a good deal of anxiety, fear, sadness, and anger. Through October we focused on Race as our church theme. I personally found this deeply challenging, and it pulled me toward a more complex and difficult understanding of race in America. Then in November we had the culmination of an incredibly divisive and ugly presidential campaign. We elected an administration linked with misogyny, xenophobia, ableism, income inequality, and homophobia. As religious people grounded in love, our voice will be needed in these coming years. Ours is a message of inclusion for all people.
In December, our theme is Wonder. To me, this feels like a needed exhale. I need to be reminded of some beauty and goodness. I need to cherish the connectedness of all things. I need to remember that life is a miraculous gift and full of incredible wonder that leaves me in awe. We will continue to be a church that responds to our world in real ways to promote justice and equity. That is a constant. In December, we will ground ourselves in the holy mystery. It is from this place that we move into the world seeking to help create a more loving world.
SO many things fill me with a sense of wonder. I only need to stop and look around to be filled with gratitude and astonishment. Look at anything closely enough and wonder starts to unwind. So many things. Anything. Everything…
Life, the stars above, the sun, the blue sky filled with clouds, children’s laughter, fingers, toes, pandas, river currents, ocean life (that is a big one!), gravity, life cycles, eyes, smart phones, empathy, water, recycling, choirs, hope, running, tomatoes, baking bread, evolution, colors on a duck, generosity, a flower rising from a sidewalk crack, skin to skin contact, feathers, veins, numbers, humility, glitter, warmth, showers, teeth, medical science, snowflakes, puppies, poetry, roots, seeds, wind, stories, self-expression, muffins, soccer, toilets, balloons, horses, lighting and thunder, rope swings, bouncy balls, wheat, engines, musical instruments, beans, kites, tears, beaches, breath, dirt, pencils, a chalice, friends, bees, hoola-hoops, math, bicycles, art, penguins, vinyl records, clouds, dreams, smoothies, heart pumping, snails, magnets, jokes, mountains, creativity, eagles, weeping willows, robots, hollow logs, dancing, lamps, movie-making, optometry, caterpillars, bark on a tree… I could go on… What do you see or feel that creates a sense of wonder in you?
There is something strange about Halloween — – a want to be scared. Or even a delight in being scared. I am a gentle, sensitive, easily-troubled soul and have never enjoyed the fright of the season. When I was younger, when friends wanted to go on a scary graveyard walk, I passed. And scary movies! I have never liked them. The empathy and trepidation I felt for the victims in these movies far outweighed the thrill of the exhilaration of a scare.
Overtime, I have become desensitized. I watch horrible things on TV now. But they still make me sad. I feel a resistance anytime the TV offers up some sordid scenario. This reminds me of how powerful empathy is and how it can also be something that can be easily passed over. We can imagine the worst or can witness through fiction or the news the far stretches of how hard life can be. We might say, “That is horrible. I am so glad that is not me.” A true and strange take on the Golden Rule. But empathy is at the heart of our religious life.
There is a big divide between seeing oppression or hardship and working to help those to whom the trial is happening. As religious people, we are called to respond to the experience of the marginalized and downtrodden. The work is ours to bridge the gap between “that is horrible, I am so glad that is not me, and I wish that were not how things are” to “that is horrible, I wish that would never happen to anyone, and I am going to dedicate to that work.”
I can get scared. I know evil exists. Very real evil. My defense is not to deny this but rather to remember where it is that I religiously ground myself – love is real and we can make love manifest in the world. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
I just watched a Halloween Curious George special with my kids. The spooky stuff was all in fun so that neither I nor my kids needed to worry about being scared. All is well. Kid shows always end well. In our world, I do not have faith that all will be well. To simply believe this would be to believe in pre-ordained magic. I do have faith in the power of love. And I do believe that we have the possibility to bring about the world we dream of. There is something about Curious George that gives me hope. George is imperfect and messes up a lot, but George’s heart is true and loving. He is learning. He is always going forward. Sounds like a Unitarian Universalist to me. Let us be some of the people to bring that light and love into the world that MLK spoke of.