Thursday, October 19, 2017

When I Find Myself in Times of Trouble by Reverend Tom Capo, preached on Oct. 15, 2017

On October 2, 2017, while my family and I were still in Houston celebrating my mother’s 80th birthday, my wife Martha noticed a private message someone had sent the church Facebook Page and called my attention to it.  The sender was not a member of our church; she had been doing some research about us and had stumbled on a Facebook event page that called for a demonstration against me—calling me a Nazi because of my support of Women’s reproductive rights—and against our church--for our support of Planned Parenthood.
So began a process.   The church leadership and I have been working on several fronts to prepare our members and ourselves for the uncertainties of today (October 15, 2017).  The church now has a plan to action that we can use whenever someone or some organization tries to protest us or disrupt our services.  This plan has specific roles and procedures for greeters, stewards, the Religious Education program, our Audio-Visual team, our Board, and the staff if a disruption happens.   We all feel more secure with this comprehensive program.
On September 9th of this year, Friends Who March, a local activist group, rented our church to hold an Activist Expo.  Members of our church had a table at this Expo—marketing our SMILE project, an internship program for disadvantaged and discriminated against youth.  There were 41 groups that had tables—some of which were Planned Parenthood, Handmaidens, PFLAG, Indivisible, Moms Demand Action, Environmental Defense Fund, and the Bisexual and Queer Alliance.  The program started at 1 PM and was going very well, lots of people sharing information with each other.   People from all around this area came, wanting to support the various organizations that were there.  After an hour or so, the leader of Friends Who March came up to me and said there are people here who were disrupting the event and wouldn’t leave.  She told them to go, but they wouldn’t listen to her. 
            I went down to Kreves Hall and was confronted by a man who said, “I am an activist; I shouldn’t have to leave.  I am advocating for life. I won’t let babies be killed.”  By the last part of his statement he was shouting.  And his wife had joined in the fray.  In a calm, but assertive, tone I told him, “You need to leave.  If you don’t leave we will call the police.”  His wife started shouting that she didn’t want anyone to kill the baby in her body, and he started yelling I was helping kill babies.   I just repeated “You need to leave.  If you don’t leave we will call the police.”  I walked them out of our building. 
            They sat in their care in our auxiliary parking lot for about 20 minutes, then they returned to our property with some of their supporters.  You see the leader of this group in the picture on your left.  I’ve blocked out the graphic image on his sign.  The police were called.  The police stayed with us for much of the rest of the afternoon, setting boundaries with the protesters.  I have come to learn from the police that prosecuting these types of protesters for what they say is pretty much impossible.  The right of free speech extends to us all.  The rest of the afternoon, the protesters verbally harassed anyone who came to the Expo.  We asked each of the groups if they felt safe as they were leaving, some of us provided escorts for those who did not. 
            While I had supported Planned Parenthood by standing in front of their Aurora clinic a couple of times, this was the first time I had to face these protesters within the walls of this church.  I have to tell you despite all my experience as a psychotherapist and my experience with dealing with protesters in other places, I was scared and angry, really scared and really angry.  I know this because when my emotions rise to a level that threatens to overtake me, I feel spasms in my back, and boy was it spasming.  Standing up for my values and our Unitarian Universalist Principles can be terrifying.  I could have used some words of wisdom whispered in my ear by Mother Mary or actually anybody. 
            In my office, I have a printed copy of Martin Neimoller’s famous quote:
First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.
Neimoller was a German anti-Nazi theologian and Lutheran pastor.  He became famous for this quote.  And I have it in my office for strength in times like these.  His words of wisdom give me strength and courage to speak truth to power.  Reading this quote helps me manage my anger and fear, knowing that if I don’t speak out, one marginalized group after another, one person after another will be trampled on without repercussion, and I will not stand for that. 
            In the political climate we live in today, more and more of these hate groups are rising up and feeling emboldened to act out.  We each need some words of wisdom to ground us in the work that lies before us.  For me it is Neimoller’s.  For me it is also the teachings of the Buddha. 
            Each of us needs a centeredness that will guide our work in the world, to help us cope with the anger and fear that we will feel as we take the risks necessary to hold the line on justice, equity, and peace.
            I end with this Pueblo blessing:
Hold on to what is good
even if it is
a handful of earth.
Hold on to what you believe
even if it is
a tree which stands by itself.
Hold on to what you must do
even if it is
a long way from here.
Hold on to life even when
it is easier letting go.
Hold on to my hand even when
I have gone away from you.
Today our members and our friends from the larger community have come together to take a stand against hatred and fear-mongering.  They stand, hand in hand, across creeds and beliefs, across economic lines and racial lines.  I will remember the feel of their hands in mine even when I have gone far away from them, from you.  I hope you remember the feel of their supportive hands in yours, too.  Together, we will make a positive difference in this world.   Namaste.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Honoring our Elders by Reverend Tom Capo

     “Wrinkles mean you laughed, grey hair means you cared and scars mean you lived!”  The author of this quote is not known. I chose this quote because it speaks to me of my life as I approach this time of being an elder.  Some of you have heard me laugh; a laugh that is deep and heartfelt.  A laugh that I used to suppress, but one that, as my heart fully opened, couldn’t help but boom out with pure joy.  While my beard has been grey for a number of years, I’m now noticing that my temples are starting to show grey.  It’s not that you’re turning me grey…no, I care deeply about those I love, including you, to the very roots of my hair, or at least what I have left of it.  And I have scars.  I have had my toes cut off and sewn back on, meniscus surgery, and I have a hole in my abdomen due to intestinal surgery.  And I, like you, have scars upon my heart, wrinkles in my soul. I know these scars.  I have memories, stories, of how each of these scars came into being.  And yet, also like you, just as long as I have breath, I’m still going to answer “yes” to life, to truth, and to love.  This is part of what it means to become an elder, to embrace life, to show love deeply, and have stories/experiences/wisdom to share. 

On the third Thursday night of each month, except during the summer, we have a Conscious Aging Group.  I have learned so much being present with the people who attend this group as they share their personal reflections on aging with one other.  Last Thursday night we watched a film by Atul Gwande, author of the book Living Mortal.  The press release of his book includes the following: “Medicine has triumphed in modern times, transforming birth, injury, and infectious disease from harrowing to manageable. But in the inevitable condition of aging and death, the goals of medicine seem too frequently to run counter to the interest of the human spirit. Nursing homes, preoccupied with safety, pin patients into railed beds and wheelchairs. Hospitals isolate the dying, checking for vital signs long after the goals of cure have become moot. Doctors, committed to extending life, continue to carry out devastating procedures that in the end extend suffering.  Gawande…addresses his profession's ultimate limitation, arguing that quality of life is the desired goal for patients and families” As we in the Conscious Aging Group watched Gwande’s video, we heard that the young--or those who have young-focus or those whose lives have a young signature—these folks want to grow social networks.  Their desires focus on achievement, and acquiring recognition.  An Elder--either physically or psychologically an elder--has a different signature.  Our elders want smaller networks of people, narrower, but deeper, more intimate relationships with those in their network.  They are less concerned with acquisition and more concerned with simply being.  They also want to make a difference in the lives of those people to whom they are most connected.  Elders feel poignancy, a feeling most younger people don’t possess.  Poignancy is being able to feel positive and negative emotions at the same time.  In addition, elders experience more happiness as they age, even though they had more health problems, limitations and disabilities, losses in function.  Gwande reported that people are less likely to be depressed and anxious at age 70 than at age 40.

Our Conscious Aging Group was asked to consider the questions that Gwande feels are most important questions as people grow older, more frail, closer to dying: What’s your understanding of your health?  What are your fears and worries for the future?  What are the goals you have when your health worsens?  What trade-offs are you will to make and not willing to make as your health worsens?  What would be your priorities beyond just being alive when your health worsens?  These are important questions for all us to consider, even if we embrace a “young signature”.  Your answers at 40 will be different from your answers at 24; your answers at 60 will be different from your answers at 80.  At each stage, you will be leaving the boxes you’ve created in your life, crammed with roles and responsibilities, rules and fears, crating your own unique way.

Most people, as they become older, more frail, more limited, more ill, often want autonomy vs. the restrictions that often come of an extension of their life or protection from harm. However, the adult children, the doctors, hospitals, and nursing homes want to extend a beloved elder’s life and protect the elder from harm, no matter what restrictions might put into place as a result.  Gwande beleives it is important to talk about quality of life, rather than extension of life.  And the thing is that an improved quality of life generally results in a longer and happier life.  He tells a story of a very ill elderly man in a hospital who is on a pureed diet that he hates, so he steals and hordes cookies.  The staff of the hospital doesn’t want him to have the cookies because he might choke on them.  He is miserable.  Gwande says just give him the damn cookies.  Let him have a life of quality and enjoyment. 

“We must honor our Elders, and care for them, for they have the knowledge of a thousand winds.”  The winds can sing a thousand songs, yet there must be ears to hear these songs, to listen to that knowledge, that wisdom.  Our Elders can offer themselves as beacons for others to create their path, but we must have eyes to see their shining lights.

Let me end with this quote from Ashton Applewhite, an activist and writer:  “The sooner growing old is stripped of reflective dread, the better equipped we are to benefit from the countless ways in which it can enrich us.”  Namaste.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Transitions in Unitarian Universalism preached by Reverend Tom Capo on 9/17/2017

Come into this place of peace and let its silence heal your spirit; come into this place of memory and let its history warm your soul; come into this place of prophecy and power and let its vision change your heart.” Reverend William Schultz, whose quote this is, was the president of the Unitarian Universalist Association in 1985.  I had joined First Jefferson Unitarian Universalist Church  in 1979, and by the time Bill will president I was deeply involved in teaching all kinds of classes at my church—from Building Your Own Theology to Newcomers Classes to High School Youth classes—all of them involving a fair amount of UU History.  In the 1980’s and 90’s, I loved this quote and felt greatly comforted by it.  As I reflect on this quote today, there are parts of it I understand in new ways.  But I get ahead of myself. 

            My story begins with the mental preparation I went through before attending General Assembly this summer.  White supremacy in our country—everything that was happening in the initial post-Obama phase—I felt like I could see and understand a lot of that, and I could continue to work against it, but the accusation of white supremacy without our denomination caught me a little by surprise.  Then came the resignation of the UUA president and other national leadership staff within our denomination over the controversial hiring practices—the hiring mostly white male ministers for leadership positions at all levels.  This was quickly followed by the arrest of one of our UU clergy, a man who had successfully run a church that was missionally based, helping the poor and marginalized in a small town in Oklahoma. This person who had been one of my mentors when I was in seminary had child porn on his computer.

            So, I got to Ministry Days, the professional days held before General Assembly officially begins and caught up with some old friends. They shared with me another issue that had recently come to their awareness.  Some of you may be aware of one of the keynote events of Ministry Days, the Berry Street Lecture.  It’s given by one of our top ministers—a highly esteemed, highly respected professional clergy person is invited to speak before the assembly on issues facing UU ministers.  I was astonished to learn that one of the past Berry Street Lecture presenters, a woman, had had her lecture, which is published on the UU Ministers Association website, redacted by a male minister.  He had brought a lawsuit against the UU Ministers associated to have his name removed/redacted from the Berry Street Lecture because the lecture pointed out his sexual transgressions as a UU minister; she had been speaking about our need to be more vigilant in dealing with sexual transgressions by our fellow clergy.

And then near the end of General Assembly, I, along with many others, learned of the shockingly large severance packages that were given to the president and leadership staff of the UUA who had resigned, when they were the ones who quit of their own volition—hundreds of thousands of dollars that could have supported any of several worthy causes that we as a denomination say we hold dear.

            It would be easy to say I was a little down on Unitarian Universalism.  At Ministry Days, I knew we would spend time talking about all our painful feelings over some of these hard knocks to our faith.  I did not look forward to spending days rehashing my feelings about these issues and the state of Unitarian Universalism.  In fact, you could say I dreaded it.  But you know what, after some deeply moving discussions by my colleagues about these issues, colleagues who were on the front line dealing with these problems, what I took away from Ministry Days and from General Assembly was a sense of renewed hope for our faith.

            As General Assembly began Black Lives Unitarian Universalists were everywhere; providing guidance to people at General Assembly.  Educating us on what Unitarian Universalism will need to become if we are truly going to take this opportunity to reknit our brokenness as a denomination—brokenness that has its roots in that General Assembly of 1969, almost 50 years ago.  Reknit our denomination to authentically embrace and support people of color in our churches and in our denomination, and lift them up into power and leadership at every level.  An African American who left Unitarian Universalism in 1969, Dr. Mtangulizi Sanyika, preached ( “Unitarian Universalism at its best is an instrument to transform humanity so that humanity can transform to its highest level.” And as he says, so too do I believe. But he also said "We have to be a faith that is always under construction", both within our hearts and minds, and within our denomination.   If we ever think we are a perfect or a sophisticated Unitarian Universalism, we are prone to begin excluding others, perhaps not intentionally, perhaps outside of our awareness.  We have to always watch, to not let ourselves become stagnant or too full of ourselves, thinking Unitarian Universalism is what everyone needs, Unitarian Universalism is what everyone who is rational needs, or Unitarian Universalism is the best thing since sliced bread, for if we do we can begin excluding others, marginalizing others, minimizing others.        
              My friends, this is a message of challenge, and a it is a message of hope.  The crowd assembled for our denomination’s annual meeting was electrified by this message.  It’s the same message of hope that so many of you in this church live out in your lives  as we do the work of anti-racism, restorative justice, and being a congregation that is radically welcoming to the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Gender Fluid and Gender Queer community.  We are in process.  We do not have to have everything right; we do not have to know everything right now; we can make mistakes and begin again in love.  And we can grow.
            Let me revisit the quote projected to my right: “Come into this place of peace and let its silence heal your spirit; come into this place of memory and let its history warm your soul; come into this place of prophecy and power and let its vision change your heart.”  When I was new to Unitarian Universalism, this quote comforted me, pacified me.  Now almost 40 years later, it challenges me and energizes me.  Come into this place of peace.  Yes there are times when this place is a peaceful, during meditations, prayers, and rituals and that is important.  But what you can achieve when you work from a place of deep inner peace is also important.  There are wounds we must heal together, and when we apply the salve of understanding, when we tend our wounds cautiously, we are renewed to do the hard work of co-creating a world that reflects the peace we feel.

            Come into this place of memory and let its history warm your soul.  Remember the good—Universalism ordained the first woman minister in America to ministry, Olympia Brown; Unitarian Ralph Waldo Emerson encouraged graduating Harvard Divinity School students to look within themselves for inspiration, not at the Bible or religious tradition—our denominational history is populated by a long line of women and men who were not only great thinkers; they turned their visions of a brighter future for all into reality.  Remember the good, but not at the expense of forgetting the bad.  There are scars that mark our history, and what is done cannot be undone.  Learn our history—all of it—and let’s work together, with slow precision, to repair the wounds—not to cancel or deny them.

            Come into this place of prophecy and power and let its vision change your heart.  Prophecy is speaking truth to power.   And Unitarian Universalists have done that – Henry David Thoreau and Theodore Parker writing and preaching about the abolition of slavery.  Many of our ministers preaching against wars in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan.  Albert Schweitzer speaking out against nuclear weapons and working to stop their proliferation.  But we have to be careful with power.  Power corrupts.  Power can lead us to thinking we are a perfect or sophisticated Unitarian Universalism, stagnant and too full of ourselves, too self-satisfied, too self-congratulatory to ever realize how we are excluding, marginalizing, or minimizing others.

            We have a vision of a world with peace, equity, justice, compassion, respect.   This vision, and the work we do to bring this vision into reality, rekindles my heart and renews my hope.  Yes, I will continue to speak truth to power, it is more critical today than it ever has been.  I will name injustice to people in political power and I will continue to work for justice, for the poor, the future of our planet, and for people of color.  And I hope you do the same. 

The SMILE project, a social justice project still in its developmental stage here at this church, rekindles my heart and renews my hope.  We’re creating a program of summer internship and mentoring for under privileged and discriminated youth, so they can have a chance of success in this world.   This is a direct result of the multi-cultural outreach we’re engaging in with PTMAN, the Proviso Township Ministerial Alliance Network, for the past couple of years.  When I see all of the individual and group efforts of members of this church—letter writing, calling, and emailing congressional representatives, marching in rallies, standing loud and proud in support of Planned Parenthood—all of this rekindles my heart and renews my hope. 

            I read in the prayer today:

What is done cannot be undone.

What is done next must now be done with care.

We gather because we are hopeful,

Because we have visions and dreams of a brighter future.

May the strength of this time together help us to walk forward.

May the wisdom of this experience help us to know our path.

May we have courage to return, as often as necessary, until our way is clear.

May we have perseverance, together, to see it through.

May we cause it to be so.

            We do have dreams and visions for a brighter future, and we must work for that future with persistence, courage, and caution.  If we are mindful, we will develop wisdom along the way.  And we will redefine and reimagine what Unitarian Universalism is as we adapt to become responsive and effective in these difficult times.  We are not static, either individually or as a denomination.  We’re under construction.  It’s time to add some new rooms to our house of prophecy.  Let’s pick up our tools and build a new way forward.   Amen, Amen, Amen.