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Yesterday morning at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration (in Philadelphia) I did a talk titled “Entering The Mystery.”  This talk was part of a larger service on “New Member Sunday.”

You can view the YouTube video below.  If you prefer, you can read the piece below the video. Thanks!

 

Good morning

 

“Janet?  Janet joined a church?”

I overhead this a few years ago when I was downstairs.  A woman I had known casually for a few decades through the women’s community was talking to my partner.

Her comment wasn’t judgmental or skeptical.  Rather it was innocent and incredulous — or maybe it was simply factual.  Was she hearing things correctly?

Could Barbara had said this? Was it true?

This was after a service when several members of the Anna Crusis Women’s Choir joined the Restoration Singers on Music Sunday. Our music director, Jane Hulting, formerly directed the Women’s choir and stays in touch with the “Annas.'”

Of course, I found the comments of this “Anna” amusing.

But I’m the first to admit that I’m an unlikely church member.

When I joined Restoration about four years ago, it was the first time I had joined a church.  I was raised secular – but always knew myself as a spiritual person.  Like many, I was distrustful of organized religion.

In one of my earliest spiritual memories, I remember standing on the beach as a child — having lost my parents — and looking out to the waves and praying to an amorphous and genderless “God” that I find them.  Then I turned around and my mother was walking toward me.

I played the guitar as a child, and in fifth grade sang “Like A Bridge Over Troubled Water” on the stage. The song has always had resonance for me.  Then as an adolescent, I crossed my own troubled waters.  Perhaps it was my spirituality that got me through.

When I started coming to Restoration, the time was ripe for me.  I discovered a religion that shared my values.  I had a life-time of alternative spirituality behind me and found a place that wasn’t rigid or narrow where I could explore traditional spirituality.

I also found a spiritual home for my partner and I.

Last week she said to me after we came home from the service that it was really wonderful that we have such a nice church to attend together.

There are so many people from the wider communities that we belong to here at Restoration. And there are so many others — who I wouldn’t have met otherwise.  It is good to be together.

It is good for me to be connected to all of you, to this Beloved Community – and to be connected to hope.

Shortly after the election, I heard a short segment on National Public Radio about how people in the United States tend to be divided into red and blue states and experience sameness rather than diversity.  They often don’t know the stories of anyone who is different from them.

Diversity helps to build empathy.

It also creates hope.

I really cherish being part of the diversity here at Restoration.

As a writer and as a creative writing teacher, I know that our stories are sacred. I spend much of my time alone and am fortunate in having a partner who respects my need for aloneness.  Solitude is necessary for a writer but so is being in the world – to a lesser extent.

I’ve been a reader all of my life.  As a child, the whole world opened up to me when I learned how to read.  I was described as a bookworm – as a child and as an adult.

Restoration’s emphasis on books drew me in as did its diverse and welcoming community.  But coming here most Sunday mornings is different than spending my time writing and reading. By coming here, I am part of a community that is connected to the world and to the cosmos.

A year ago, I would have said that the diversity of the congregation was important – today I know that it is absolutely essential.

As I mentioned, I was raised secular. Religion is still a bit of a mystery to me.  Everyone’s reason for joining a church is different.  I suspect that each person joins Restoration for a reason that might end up being different from what they may have thought originally.

Welcome to the mystery.

 

 

–Namaste

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(previously in The Huffington Post /Religion)

I had a spiritual revelation in my polling place last week in the presidential election. My partner and I chatted with others in line. There were many familiar faces and also many new acquaintances. It was a diverse liberal crowd. I smiled at a man wearing a blue “I’m With Her” T-shirt in the line that snaked around behind me.

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When I got to the registration table, an African American woman sitting behind the table gave me a smile when she heard me exchange names with the woman next to me  — someone in the neighborhood who I had never met before. In the hour in which we stood in line to vote — we discovered we had much in common. It was then I realized, this is like part in church where people pause and greet each other. The minister in my church calls it a “radical welcoming.”

When I joined the Unitarian Universalists several years ago, I quickly became a lay minister — called a worship associate in Unitarian lingo. As I recently explained to a vehemently atheist friend (there are many atheist Unitarians), my Unitarian Universalist experience has helped me learn about religion (I was raised secular), be open to people of all backgrounds and above all to underscore that no one group “owns” spirituality/religion.

Before I joined the Unitarians, I avoided religion all together since the religious right put me off — including the white Evangelicals who, according to The Huffington Post, voted for Trump, for the most part. They voted for him in record numbers based on hypocritical un-Christian hate filled values.

One of the epiphanies that I had in line at the polling place was that as a lifelong democrat, I have always voted, and I have voted for more than a few guys (and they were all guys) who I personally did not like. (President Obama was, in fact, the first candidate who I actually liked.) I have always strongly felt that there is a difference between the two major parties — enough of one that people’s lives will be affected.

Of course, this epiphany that I had at polling place the morning of the election was before we would see the devastating effects caused by people not voting.

If you stayed home and didn’t vote or effectively cast your lot for now President-elect Trump by voting for a third party — it is now time to wake up, suffer the consequences and step up to help those, especially the most vulnerable, who are now threatened by this administration. It’s time to cast away smugness and entitlement, and to put yourself on the line. Those (of all ages) who sat out the vote and are so apathetic they plan to do nothing are part of the problem.

As a practicing Buddhist, I meditate almost every morning. (The Unitarian faith includes and supports many spiritual paths.)

My emotions quickly cycled through me after the election results came in. On election day, spirits were high. After voting, I volunteered for the Democratic Party and went and knocked on doors. The people I talked to — almost all African Americans — had already voted. At the watch party (in my liberal neighborhood), I was stunned. By the following morning, I was devastated and depressed — so much so that I didn’t think I could get out of bed. But then I realized that anger was more healthy. Then for about two minutes, I felt deep grief — a necessary letting go and a relief — and returned to nothingness in my morning meditation.

Since then I keep going to back to anger.

Anger is linked to survival and I am blessed to have a strong streak of both. Perhaps it is my class background that makes me unafraid of my anger. I am the first in my family to have graduated from college and I have strong opinions (they may be different opinions from others from my class background but they are still strong). I am also a second-generation feminist and it may be my mother’s feminist rage (something I talk about in my book Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters).

I also am a lesbian-feminist who came of age under a fierce patriarchal system and I remember the quote from The Woman-Identified Woman By Radicalesbians:

 

“What is a lesbian? A lesbian is the rage of all women condensed to the point of explosion.”

I am empathetic but concerned about the stories I am hearing about people — especially young people— being emotionally stymied by sadness/devastation and fear. Vulnerability is a good thing but too much of it leaves us open to attack. Remember, they want us to be fearful.

When I heard a friend talking about a young gay man who said he felt like he should go back into the closet, my immediate response was, “NO! — We have to be more out than ever.”

I am with Senator Elizabeth Warren who said in an interview on the Rachel Maddow show that now is the time when “We stand up and we fight back.” She advised people to volunteer for the causes they care about, to stay connected, and to stand our ground.

Despite my spiritual beliefs or maybe because of them, I do not have any optimistic words about the future. I do not advocate acceptance and I do not buy into the theory that anything is “God’s will.”

But maybe it is the goddess in my heart that gives me joy when I see the protestors on the street (#NotMyPresident).

Now is the time to prepare for the worst (even as we may hope for the best). We have to be centered and strong — to fight for our own rights and to help those who need help.

As the saying goes, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

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Yesterday, a the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration in Philadelphia, I presented a “Dharma Talk” on ancestors and religion — how they intersect in my life.  I also presented some photo compositions that I shot and put together.  The photos are below and the presentation can be seen on YouTubetrinity-blog-one

What does religion mean to you?

I found this question in my home office. It was on a yellow Post-It note (which I often use) and it’s in my handwriting, so I know it didn’t drop from the sky.  But I have no memory of writing it.  It is a question that unconsciously I’ve been asking myself for a while.

To me religion at its purest is a connection to spirituality and spirituality is connected to the ancestors. My channel to religion/spirituality/myself has always been my writing. (My spirituality is now also connected to a regular meditation practice, yoga — with my gifted teacher the one and only Jane Hulting — and through attending services at Restoration.)

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My feeling of ancestry runs deep — and it makes me stronger. For example, when my mother was dying, my taking notes on our conversations (which I did not do in her presence) gave me focus.  I wrote my memoir Tea Leaves after she died. The writing of the memoir allowed me to keep my mother alive in my imagination — she had a wicked sense of humor — and at the same time it gave me the space to process her death.

Tea Leaves, which I just read from, includes stories about my mother, who was an office worker, and also my grandmother, who was a spinner in a textile factory in the Kensington section of Philadelphia in the 1920s and 30s. Later in life, she was a domestic. My mother and grandmother were artists at heart — just like me — so the book is full of mythology and dreams as well as family and labor history.

Ancestors are something that we all have, even if we have never known them. Like the Sweet Honey in the Rock song Breaths, if we listen more often to things than to beings, we can hear the ancestors speaking. In Santeria, and other religions in the African and Cuban traditions, there are rituals for communicating with the ancestors and seeking their wisdom.

In Native American spiritual paths there are many traditions that honor the ancestors.

All over the globe, ancestors are honored in Hinduism and Buddhism.

As extensive as these are, they are just a few of the spiritual traditions that honor ancestors.

Last fall, I started working on a project with an old friend and we are taking classes together at Temple University. One of the classes was on anthropology and photography and required field work. When I began classes, I was taking the bus and walking down North Broad Street.  I noticed that I was passing Glenwood Avenue, the street where my grandmother lived. She died when I was twelve and despite the fact that I attended the nearby campus of Temple when I was young, I never returned to her house.

 

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I decided that I needed to see the house that she lived in. Fortunately, I still have my father. He is 96 years old and is in good shape aside from bad eyes and increasing aches and pains.  He has a mind like a steel trap.  He told me my grandmother’s street number.  He also confirmed the name of her church — St. Simeon’s Episcopal Church — at 9th and Lehigh. This is the church where my father and mother were married.

I took my camera and visited the church which was bought by an evangelical group in Washington D.C. several years ago, partially rehabbed, and from the looks of it abandoned again. Then I walked several streets to my grandmother’s old house.  I took the bus home and put the photographs together with a smaller portrait that my friend took of me and my memoir.

 

In Speak Memory, Vladimir Nabokov writes “our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” That is why the background of this composite photograph is black with a drop shadow on the images of my grandmother’s old house and church as they currently exist (representing also their imprint in my memory).  And there’s me at the bottom with my book, Tea Leaves, tying the generations together.  The title comes from the first line in the book with my mother saying to me: “Your grandmother read tea leaves.”  My mother told me this when I was 35 and she was in her mid 70s and dying.  I never heard about my grandmother reading tea leaves until then.

Since I titled the photograph “Trinity” — I decided that there should be three of them. The second photograph shows the door of my grandmother’s church as it is now in a collage with my parents wedding photograph above it. Like memory, the photograph of my parents’ wedding is fading into the background.

Finding my grandmother’s old church was magical. I recognized the arched red door from an old wedding portrait of my parents. When I photographed the broken stain glass window, a scent of musty decay reached my nose.  It may be the scent of abandonment and poverty, but I remember that smell from childhood. I associate it with my grandmother’s house — in particular with her basement.

The third photo shows the church, the house and my grandmother.

If I had done this project five or more years ago, I would not have thought of returning to my grandmother’s church. Perhaps being a member of Restoration — and of finding a church that I could be a member of — gives me a stronger connection to my grandmother and to my ancestors.

I always thought that my grandmother’s strong attachment to her church was mainly social and not religious. Some years after my mother and father were married in Saint Simeon’s, my mother became a card carrying atheist and my father declared himself an agnostic. They both were, in many ways, ahead of their time. The secular upbringing they gave me was a gift.  Yet, here I am, a Unitarian Universalist, searching for religious significance.

I share my grandmother’s sense of the spiritual, be it be reading tea leaves or clairvoyance in finding a parking spot. Since my ancestry involves religion, I come back to my original question, “what does religion mean to me?”

One purpose for religion is to make the world a better place. For this reason, I am proud to be part of a tradition that honors social justice and the legacy of “deeds not creeds.”

Another purpose of religion is to explain mortality.

When I heard the UU belief that “everyone goes to heaven,” I thought as party lines go, that’s not a bad one.

There’s lots of room in this religion — enough for you and for me. As the UUA website says:

“We are Unitarian Universalist and: Atheist/Agnostic, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Humanist, Jewish, Muslim, Pagan, and more.”

There’s room for my belief in karma — that what goes around comes around.

There’s also room for traditional beliefs. I heard someone say, in this church, of a departed loved one, that he is in a better place. I really began to think about it. It is comforting.  And if you look at the statement logically (even without a religious context) it is true.

I watched my mother and my aunt die slow agonizing deaths — there is no doubt in my mind that wherever they went is better than where they were.

I agree with the Buddhists that “we should always keep in mind the impermanence of life.”

I also have a kind of Buddhist theory about the energy or the consciousness of our lives continuing after death.

For example, my mother’s wisdom and acerbic wit is often in my mind.

So who do you see when you look in the mirror? I see my late aunt and mother. When I laugh I hear my grandmother. He is still living, but when I look in the mirror sometimes I see my father. Specifically, I see his hair. When he had hair, it was just like mine.

You don’t have to answer now, but think about it. Who speaks to you and what are they saying?

 

 

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I presented this reflection as part of the November 15 service at the Unitarian Universalist Church on Stenton Avenue in Philadelphia.  To watch piece on video, click here.

 

Heroes, saints, and mythology all occupy the same space in my mind. Saints may be as old as the hills but they are a new category to me.  Last year, I started reading about female saints at Catholic.com as research for a novel I just finished — titled Art, a novel of revolution, love and marriage. I was raised secular and was inspired to research the saints based on one of the conversations in the New UU, a group for new Unitarian Universalists held here at Restoration.

What I found on Catholic.com was fascinating.  The female saints, in today’s lingo, are often differently gendered. Often they were martyred with their particular, also female, friends.  Hmmm.

To give you an idea of the saints, I am going to read a short excerpt from my novel Art:

 

March wind gusted. Grace remembered that March thirteenth,  just a few days away, was the feast day for Saint Grace. When she was nine, she learned about her name saint in preparation for her confirmation.   Grace was mesmerized by the stories of the female saints. One escaped a violent marriage and became the patron saint of abused women. Another became engaged at the age of three and when the engagement was broken, was overjoyed to live a life of virginity.

The ones who were persecuted captured Grace’s imagination. She remembered looking at the images of martyrs holding tight to the stake where they would be burned, golden halos shining behind their heads. Saint Apollonia’s faith was so strong that she jumped into the flames.

…..

Grace did her essay on her name saint. Saint Grace lived in Spain where she died in three hundred and four A.D. …. If Spain had chilly March winds in the year three hundred and four A.D., it might have felt like this on the day of Saint Grace’s death. Grace remembered reading that Saint Grace was unmarried. She was arrested and tortured. Her breasts were cut off. She died in her prison cell from internal injuries. She was martyred in the Roman Empire’s Great Persecution.

 

The saints occupy a place in my mind that is as magical as it is necessary.

Imagine, for a moment, that we lived in a world with no strong female role models, such as the saints on Catholic.com.  I, along with many others, would have to be the saints rather than be inspired by them.

And so I am thankful to the saints.

Almost every morning, as part of my yoga practice and Buddhist chanting practice, I reflect on what I have to be thankful for.  I have a lot to be thankful for — including the fact that I am here at Restoration.

When Maria and I talked about today’s service, she asked me what it feels like to be a member of Restoration.  I came to religion later in life — after fifty — and from a secular background.  I never thought (even, or maybe especially, in my wildest dreams) I’d ever be a member of a church.  Becoming a member of Restoration is an inclusion of my past. So many here have been in the various communities that I have long been a part of.  It is also an expansion of my world.  I am exposed to much more now — including the saints on Catholic.com — than I was before.  And I feel connected to others in this Beloved Community.

I am thankful to my partner Barbara.  Although she denies it — modestly,  I like to think — she is my anchor.  And all that she does to care for us — and our cats, Felix and Princess Sappho — makes everything possible.

At Restoration, the pews (and the seat behind the curtain and in front of the piano) are full of living saints who make it possible for us all to be here.  I am thankful for each and every one of you for all that you do and most of all for being yourself and for being here.

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Princess Sappho (who sits on my lap as I write)

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