Saturday, October 25, 2014

Raise a Glass to Disappointment!

Celebrate when you are disappointed.  I always get champagne when I’m really, really disappointed by something that hasn’t gone like I wanted to or when a sudden change comes along I wasn’t expecting.  I think I started doing it because I prefer to defy my anxiety and depressive tendencies by my actions rather than medicate them.  That could very well be a fool’s errand, but it’s what I’m going with for now.  I’d rather attempt to view the gaping hole caused by the absence of whatever I was expecting to come as an invitation for the thing that is supposed to come.  Not a gaping hole of disappointment but a portal for what’s truly best for me to come.  

How many of us have lost out on a job only to get an offer from an even better one?   Would it have hurt to raise a glass to losing that first job?  It might have made it suck a little less.  Would it be so bad to transform some disappointments into hopefulness?  Sure, take your time absorbing the change, it’s ok to cry, it’s ok to grieve.  But when you’re ready to accept it and decide what’s next, start by being grateful for the process of your life.  Start by giving thanks for what’s to come.  Ponder your faith and ask yourself if you’re the type who believes they’re not alone.  Do you believe in God?  If so, do you think God is there for you?  If not, just be grateful for your intellect and creativity (regardless of how intelligent or creative you think you may be, be grateful for whatever you have) which will help guide you to the solution.  Faith in oneself is just as good as faith in God.  Some would say it’s the exact same thing.  I tend to think I’m not alone.  The God I believe in is one who helps when asked, and sits there loving me quietly when I don’t think to do it.  Which is often, of course, like the rest of us.  

Let’s reframe our way of thinking.  Let’s take a stab at being creative with our grief and loss.  It is not irreverent to assume that every cloud has a silver lining.  Why not celebrate it?  If the Universe provides based on our intent, what favorable messages might we be sending by raising a glass to possibility?

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

My Wellness Is More Contagious Than Your Illness

We love to dwell on the negative.  It's so safe, and familiar, the negative.  And loyal.  It's something we can rely on to mitigate our disappointment in advance.  But thinking that way sets up a paradigm.  It fosters a negative stream of consciousness that lives up to your low expectations.  It is the darker side of the self-fulfilling prophesy.

We quote maxims like, self-fulfilling prophesy, and mind over matter, and we empirically examine, and prove, the Placebo Effect.  We prove to ourselves in each strata of our world that we believe in the idea that our mind can control our experience.  Mind over matter.  We say it like we believe it, but we don’t live it.  We acknowledge after the fact that we manifested, or at least predicted, our discomfort, Oh man, I knew that was going to happen!, but we don’t think about The Future in relationship to what we are thinking in The Present, the Now.  We say we believe, but we don’t, except when we do, but we don’t hold onto it, we don’t make use of what we are observing.  We limit our practices to what we can rationalize while we spout philosophy of the irrational. And mind over matter may very well be irrational, but it’s observable in the Placebo Effect.  

Quantum physics proves that it’s the observation of something which changes its behavior to accommodate the observer’s expectation.  When somebody looks at something it changes.  It’s true on many levels.  I know that there’s a maxim about it out there somewhere.  Think of reality television for a moment.  Do you think those people behave exactly like they would if there were no cameras present?  They might behave better, or worse, without them.  But they definitely are influenced by their presence.  Police and suspects both behave better when their actions are being videotaped.  Statistics of police departments that employ body cameras on their officers report a drop in complaints regarding excessive force.  Atomic particles change their behavior based on the expectations of the observer.  And so does everything else as you move on up from the micro to the macro.

It means that there is something influencing matter which we cannot see or comprehend but use just the same.  It’s a bit like electricity.  We don’t know what it really is but we know how to use it.  It’s irrational, yet observable.  We can prove it exists because we can see it and be killed by it.  Electricity is easier.  Harnessing the concept of Mind over matter for productive use is hard.

But let’s accept it for the moment.  Our minds are more powerful than even matter.  Say that.  Our minds are more powerful than even matter.   Do you believe it?   We have cultural/memetic, empirical, and mathematical proof, take your pick of whichever source best validates the idea to you.  Whatever will get the thought from your head to your heart, do it.  My mind is more powerful than even matter.  Say that.

Now start the process of learning to apply it in the reverse of the way you were doing it before.  Start thinking Help me to be healthier, rather than Help me to lose weight.  The Universe and your own mind will manifest health with the former.  Help me to be healthier.  Your health is what you are thinking about.  But with Help me to lose weight, you will only manifest more weight to lose.  We don’t even realize we think this way.  We do it without thinking because we prefer the confidence of preparing for the worst (but hoping for the best).  Change the priority and emphasis in that statement and it will nudge you closer to thinking this way on a regular basis.  We are hoping for the best, (but preparing for the worst.)  It’s the same words, but with a different emphasis.  Put the emphasis on the positive, productive words.  It’s okay to be rational.  Fine, be rational.  Be productive in your thinking.  Do some research if you feel you need to.  there’s plenty out there.  

When I approach a friend to hug them and they stop me because they have a cold, or worse.  I always spout the irrational.  I wave their objections away and say, “My wellness is more contagious than your illness.”  And then I hug them well.  I say it as much for my benefit as theirs.  I remind myself as I hug them My mind is more powerful than even matter.  I say it out loud to my body.  I literally tell it what to do.

I wonder if a study of medical professionals who adopted that saying in their practices would prove that illness in their patients and themselves decreased.  I don’t think we would be surprised if it did.  We see things like that all the time.  We are bombarded with proof that the mind is more powerful than matter all the time.  For example, in 1993 meditation groups reduced the crime rate in Washington DC by 25% in 53 days.  Here’s the link  The long term effect of the 53-day experiment was a 48% reduction in crime.  And all we say is Wow, that’s interesting and move on with our day.

Why don’t we stop and think about what that implies?  What do we really think of proof like that?  And if you don’t believe that study, pick another, or another.  How many pieces of evidence do you need to believe that humans are capable of more than they realize?  And it’s not for some, it’s for all.  Everyone is connected to this idea.  You are not excluded simply because you are you.  

So here’s my advice for you.  Write on a post-it:
I am more powerful than even matter.  What I think, becomes.
And then start tweaking your thinking a little bit at a time.  It’s a slow process, but will prove itself soon enough.  But never doubt.  That’s the challenge.  Commit to the belief and never doubt.  When you see yourself doubting, reassure yourself with whatever proof you can collect.  Don’t plant a seed and then complain when it hasn’t sprouted the next morning, keep watering it.  Keep noticing where you could be having a better thought.  Soon enough you see the result.  Lean into it.  Believe. 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Do what we say or you're going to hell.

I have questioned for many years what form the church should take in our world of today.  In previous times church attendance was compulsory.  The law and/or society determined what was appropriate action for your salvation.  Social order was maintained in a push-pull environment of Obedience vs. Damnation.  Do what we say or you’re going to hell.  That’s a strong argument.  Especially if you believe it.

But today, there are pockets of religious freedom that have arrived on the planet.  Islands of struggling justice filled with people trying to build for themselves a practical idealism.  The mass awakening to the belief that we are all inherently free is only a few hundred years old, remember. The demand for freedom and equality as we know it today is only visible in the last half of the last millennium.  And after those short few hundreds of years of fighting for a voice we have very nearly won.  Unless you look at it from a pace back you can’t really tell how far we have come and how close we are.  Politics aside, you do remember they voted a black man into the White House, don’t you? Twice.   

Freedom is not yet universal, but it is universally known.  That’s not a small feat.  Go back in time to ask an American or French Revolutionary soldier what he thinks about the 21st Century results of his efforts.  

And this returns me to my question about the role a church is supposed to play in the Information Age.  Where is the moment of church?  What is the purpose of church?  What has it said about itself and its mission for centuries?  What is its historical function?

The early Catholic Church, for all its egresses, created the world’s first network.  It built the original infrastructure of connectivity on this planet.  It unified us, admittedly using fear to do it, but fear is what an animal responds to.  And in earlier times of our civilization we have operated even more barbarically than we do today.  We might look back at those times and see ourselves as little more than animals; and we are half biology after all.  But we are also half spirit.  We are a duality, and I’m fairly confident God knows this.  We operate more out of one side or the other depending on our mindset.  When we operate more from our biology we are in concern over only one thing: biological heredity.  We need to protect and push forward our genes.  We need to protect our family.  We need to gather resources, we need to conquer, protect, purge and refine.  Those are the needs of biology and they exist in the micro as well as the macro.  If there is a loving God which created us, then surely It must know all about us.  And if God is loving, then that love is based on a much wider view of us than we have of ourselves.  We must step back a pace and look at ourselves with an objective love and guide ourselves lovingly toward the light.  Without judgement, without anger.  Not without challenge.  Nor without love.

What might a loving God do to nudge us more toward Spirit?  What might God be willing to do, or even sacrifice, to help us move from fear and biology to love and light?  God would accept us where we are, and if we give intent to be somewhere else, God will know the way.  We pick the destination and Source knows the path.  We are not stepped back a pace from ourselves.  We want what is easiest and most comfortable.  But comfort rarely brings progress and innovation.  And when progress and innovation is what we are asking for, we forget to be careful what we are asking for.  

We risk our lives for progress and innovation still.  But that is a light-facing view, isn’t it?  Aren’t we winning, incrementally, the fight for human rights?  Step back and look and you tell me if humanity isn’t slowly getting it right.  Stop listening to the pundits and look for yourselves.  Start looking a thousand years ago and compare it to today.  Who had the right to do what?  The powerful had the right and the unpowerful had nothing.  Not even a way to talk to one another.  But today a seventeen year old girl can win a Nobel Peace Prize and be heard by the entire world.  

This may be a challenge for some, but Darkness is not a thing of its own.  Darkness is merely the absence of Light.  Light is a thing of its own.  Biology is not darkness, but it can lead us to do dark things.

If we were asking to change from eye-for-an-eye to turn-the-other-cheek, how might God respond to that intent?  God would accept us where we are at the point of asking and move us gently toward it.  The Church is a beautiful and miraculous thing.  It, like Humanity itself, is perfect yet flawed.  Weak with strength.  And burdened by its own Light.  And yet it has managed to carry a beautiful message in its dubious bottle.  All this time.  And we have survived long enough to read it.  And it says: You Are Free.  You are powerful.  Love one another.

So now that we resent the garish bottle in which the message was delivered we have very complicated feelings about the bottle and the rituals around it.  We have suffered the worst idolatry in the worship of the bottle and it made us weak with power before it made us strong with wisdom.  We have not mastered it yet.  But we are getting there.

And now that the Church cannot continue in its former way it must reinvent itself or die.  But this is a thing “too big to fail” as it were.  It is equivalent to the removal of our central nervous system.  It is so built into the fiber of our world it would be like deconstructing soup.  So it has but one choice: Evolve.  The dread word, evolve.  How the Church likes to disdain the concept and yet it is the one which must be embraced and loved in order to survive.  

The scales have been tipped and the old rules do not apply anymore.  That’s why the darker forces at work in the world are so increasingly barbaric, they are dying.  Let’s let them go.

But as we turn our backs on darkness what will keep us in check?  Without fear to guide us how will we know what to do?  Love is available.  Let that be your authority.

And now as a church we must decide how to let love be our authority.  We must accept our estranged congregants for what they are and serve them where they are.  Just like God did for us.  We must forgive them and go to them, not insist that they come to us.  The worship service should not be a requirement for salvation, it should be an hour of refuge and restoration from the other 167 hours in our week.  A week spent out in the world hopefully doing good work informed by a sense of justice and compassion for others.  It should be a time where we may come to the trough and refill ourselves if and when we choose, not an obligation of any kind.  It is the sense of obligation which eclipses any value it might truly have.

So, as a student minister with a strong community focus it is my job to seek out and recognize places in our world where we, as a broad congregation of informed and compassionate people, may do the most good just for the sake of it.  And if our work holds no obligations or strings, then it is good work.  It is the right work.  

Who knows?  Maybe its the evangelism of doing and not speaking which attracts a Sunday worshiper most.

Monday, October 13, 2014

This is Who I Am

This is an essay required by the Unitarian Universalist Association to begin the process toward ordination.  It asked for a description of my history and my ministerial aspirations.

At six years old I was asking strangers what they thought happened to them when they died.  Not out of morbidity, but a deep spiritual curiosity.  My curiosity and fascination with world spirituality has only increased over time.  I think I have been a form of clergy my entire life.  Always listening for good advice so I could share it.  Offering a shoulder and a hopeful thought as needed.  When opportunities like this came I always felt at my best; like I intuitively knew what I was doing or at least understood my mission.  In my early teens I wanted to be an advice columnist.  Later, into my high school years I decided it was the role of psychologist I sought.  But it didn’t feel quite right and I left college during my first semester.  I knew I wasn’t quitting.  I just didn’t know toward what I was transitioning.  I had been singing from the age of nine and loved performing.  I did a lot of community theatre in my late-teens and early twenties while I went on an employment spree.  I often had two or three (at once time four) part time jobs in various disciplines.  Everything from restaurants to retail to child care to picture framing.  I wanted to know how to do everything.  Eventually I went to acting school in New York and spent many years as a performing arts professional in New York, Toronto, and on cruise ships throughout the Western Hemisphere before resettling in my hometown of Fitchburg at the age of thirty.
By this time I knew I wanted to merge my performing arts interests with my desire to be of service.  I had also developed a strong entrepreneurial sense during my employment spree years.  I began creating various performing arts and cultural series designed as social enterprises to benefit local nonprofits and service organizations.  I was awarded two fellowships with Community Builders/United Way and made a Paul Harris Fellow by Rotary International in support of my work.  I started an after school social enterprise rock band at my old high school called the Tribe (we are launching our debut album this school year).  The Tribe Music Mentorship Project cultivates empowerment through creative achievement.  We meet three days a week, year round, in our classroom at Fitchburg High School and rented storefront space in downtown Fitchburg.  As a youthful expression of its commitment to community service, the Tribe hosts Fitchburg’s annual Zombieburg Festival (about to enjoy its third infestation on Nov 1).  
In 2015, through a partnership with the local community development corporation, I am launching the No Storefront Left Behind Program.  NSLB will be a community-run, service organization dedicated to supporting property and small business owners in downtown Fitchburg.  It will create cultural events around curated window displays in empty storefronts, seek funding to restore blighted, out-of-code, or run-down properties, and work with city development to advocate for energy and tax subsidies for small business owners operating in the downtown.
This is my ministry.  This is my evangelism of doing.  I consider myself to be a Christian.  But my form of Christianity is focused entirely on the teachings of Christ.  It does not comment on his divinity nor does it affirm or deny reports of miraculous events.  I believe in the miraculous, it happens all the time.  I consider the Bible to be a sacred text, but do not claim any authority to know the method by which it was written or the motives behind which it was made canon.  I believe in the active daily practice of forgiveness and compassion.  I believe that my neighbor is my supreme responsibility.  I believe that all paths up the mountain are valid.  I have Facebook friended my bullies from high school.
I grew up Congregationalist in a UCC church in Fitchburg.  Rollstone Congregational raised me and taught me to think for myself.  They encouraged me to have my own ideas and explore.  They produced plays for me, gave me solos as a child, and still ask me to sing O Holy Night every Christmas Eve.  They allowed me to host my first performing arts series using the sanctuary and hall.  When I entered seminary they formed a committee to support me and helped me begin the UCC discernment process.  But as I began to discern my path I realized the difference between the pews and the pulpit.  My universalist theology fit in fine as a member, but not as a minister.  I was never rejected for my beliefs, but I began to see that it was not a UCC pulpit that I would speak from.
I had been attending services at various UU churches over the years in my travels; preferring the open spirituality and sense of justice.  Friends of mine invited me to sing at First Parish UU Church in Fitchburg and I began appearing there occasionally to sing with my Tribe, or preach.  I decided to buck my sense of loyalty to the community in which I was raised and “came out” one Sunday to the members of Rollstone Church as a Unitarian Universalist.  No one was surprised. Everyone was supportive.  I thanked them for everything they had done for me throughout my life and signed the book at FPC Fitchburg the following week.
I aspire to continue my work as an advocate for community innovation, youth mentorship, and social enterprise.  I have decided that a Master of Divinity with a focus on community ministry is the best training ground for that continued work.  
Ordination is entirely another matter.  Why ordination?  It is entirely personal.  It is the completion of who I have always felt that I am, yet saw no version of what I aspired to be.  It wasn’t until I realized that I could be my own form of minister that I finally answered my call.  Every form of “coming out” in my life has been increasingly difficult.  Coming out as gay was a piece of cake.  As an actor, a bit harder.  As a musician, very risky.  As a minister?  Somehow the social stigma of ministry and organized religion had kept me from accepting it my entire life.  I didn’t want to be that.  But in today’s world, ministry can look like what I have always done: Simply be there for people.  Encourage and empower them.  Offer comfort and an actionable way toward personal acceptance.  Instill entrepreneurialism with integrity and invent models to show it can work.  Mentor kids, knowing they are the best place to start to change this world.  Understand that speaking to thousands is no less important than holding one person’s hand.  Ordination offers me a loving and well-guided pathway of learning to be the best version of what I have always been, a servant of people.  It adds the crucial element: sanctification and blessing of my life’s work.  
My last name means of the archangel in Italian.  I have always viewed that as a perfect job description.  I want to be a messenger of good news in the world.  I want to encourage hope and forgiveness.  Create pathways toward acceptance, rather than merely tolerance.  We are better than that.  I want to repurpose our old retributive forms of justice to the restorative.  I want to end my days knowing that my fearless idealism and rabid optimism made a difference even if only as one grain of sand on an entire beach of human progress.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Afflicting the Comfortable

We are all from somewhere.  Fitchburg, Massachusetts is my hometown and that's where I have centered my work.  I have made Fitchburg my career, you might say.  But Fitchburg is like almost any town.  It has people who love it and people who love to complain about it.  It has community services with low budgets and high need.  It has a struggling downtown with a formerly vibrant past.  And Fitchburg is like its people.  Struggling, but hopeful.  I am here to nudge that hope along.  Not just for my town's sense of hope.  But maybe your hope, too.  It could happen.

It's time to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable," as 19th century journalist Finley Peter Dunne once wrote, in a roundabout way.  And I am here to comfort the afflicted.  I am.  It's part of my job.  I may only be in seminary now, but I've been in ministry my whole life.  Not religious ministry.  The ministry of ministering.  The evangelism of doing.  It's about being here for one another.  It's about living a forgiving life.  A compassionate, optimistic, generous, hopeful life.  And that's hard work.  We have to do it together.

The other part of my job is to afflict the comfortable.  Afflicting the comfortable sounds like a preamble to sit-ins, protests, and riots.  Yet I am not an activist.  I am an advocate.  I am an advocate of you.  I believe in you.  And you can say, "You don't even know me."  But it doesn't matter.  I believe in you anyway.  You're here.  You're not done yet.  So that means there's still hope.  No matter where you think you are, you're here.  And I believe in you. 

So what do I mean then by "afflict the comfortable?"  Misery, and pessimism, and anger are faithful companions.  They never let us down.  We get very comfortable with our misery.  We get very comfortable with thinking that things will never change.  If we believe that, that belief is always reinforced.  There's always plenty of available proof that the world is miserable and that things will never change.

So, if you're comfortable with that notion, you'll do one of two things right now.  You'll either stop reading this, or you'll continue.  But know this...  if you continue to listen to me, and if you are one of those who is comfortable in your misery, you will become afflicted for a while before you find your new comfort.  It's sometimes messy business changing your channel.  But it'll be ok.  I promise.  And when you start to feel better, you'll know that it was worth it.  Take a risk.  Be hopeful.

Friday, October 10, 2014

What would you like to do with today?

What would you like to do with today?  Assuming that all things are possible, what would you like to do with possibility of a day?  Will today be the day that you turn left instead of right?  Will today be the day where you learn to forgive someone that has wronged you? What will your prayers be like today? What will you ask for?  Will you ask for help, or will you ask to know?  Would you have the courage to ask the Universe, "What would you have me know today?"  This is a powerful question.  

What would you have me know? The question itself is a covenant with Spirit. It is, in essence, a promise. A promise we may not even realize we are making as we ask that enormous question.  It is a pact with God which states I am here, listening. 

But then, for what should we be listening?  Is it a sound? A voice?  Words?  Or might it be a flash of internal intuition so quick, arriving so fast, that the burst of idea comes almost before you have even finished asking the question?  Are you listening as you ask?  Will you ask, and then sit around tapping your fingers waiting for a text message from Source?  It is my belief that the answer does come. Though not in ways you might expect.

There is another philosophy of prayer which suggests that every day you should hold a question in your mind. Many of us might form a question like, "How can I solve my problem?"  But then in your thought communication with the Universe you are actually thinking about "my problem" and not "my solution."  It's about changing our thoughts.  It's about re-framing the ask.  It's about changing Help me, God to What would you have me know?  It's about changing Help me to not be fat to Help me to have a healthy weight.  I'm by far not the first person to say this.  This is not new information.  But it is spiritual advice that has largely yet to be taken.  We hear but we don't know.  We know in our heads but not in our hearts.  And we don't do anything with conviction until we know it in our heart.  So try it as an intellectual exercise for now.  Just think about your thoughts today.  What are you actually thinking about?  What you don't want, or what you do?  Maybe what you do different today will make a difference in your life.  Start with that thought.  A little hope never hurt anyone.