Archive for the ‘Abigail’ Category

Sunday
April 6

Documentary Date Night

By aclauhs

Last night, Evan and I decided to watch the documentary Jesus Camp,  which is about an evangelical Christian children’s camp in North Dakota. This was probably not the best decision for a date night movie, as both of us ended up quite upset at the end (and not in the weepy “Oh, that was so good but so sad” manner of finishing Titanic). 

Lots of parts pained me. It gave me flashbacks of the Baptist youth camps I went to as a child, the pressure to go down at the altar calls to “recommit to Jesus,” and the time we were assigned to go up to people in a restaurant and proselytize to them–it made me cringe then, and it still makes me cringe now. The politics bothered me, the children being urged to lay hands and pray over a cardboard cutout of George W. Bush (the documentary was filmed while he was still President). The unapologetic attempts to break down the separation of church and state. The Islamophobic comments.

But the part that got me the most–the one that left me crying and Evan struggling to find me some tissues–was the scene where the leader of the camp told the children they were sinners, hypocrites, “phonies.” The screen filled with children shaking, weeping, their faces red and tears streaming from their eyes as they admitted that sometimes they doubted God, that they knew that made them bad people, that they wanted to be forgiven. The leaders of the camp whipped these children up into a frenzy of guilt and shame and self-hate.

And I sat there crying. This is the destructive power of religion–and of the idea of sin. Yes, there is evil in the world. I believe that. People do terrible things. But to tell children, so full of potential and hope, that they are–at 5 or 6 or 10–already full of sin and need to repent? To make them collapse into crying over the guilt of sometimes questioning their faith? To fill them with shame and self-doubt at some of the most formative stages of their lives?

That is wrong.

I feel lucky that my time among evangelicals as a child did not leave me scarred with those feelings. I’m glad that I still see the good in myself and in human nature (even though I know there are flaws there, too). But not everyone is so fortunate.

To raise holistic, compassionate, good Christians–or, really, people of any faith–we must teach them the value of love. If we believe the world is flawed and ugly and irredeemable–and that we are flawed and ugly and irredeemable–we are ignoring the light of God in the world. Yes, there are shadows, too. We must teach children to recognize those shadows–violence and hatred and oppression–and that they must resist and deconstruct them. But we cannot let that blind them from the light.

We are children of the light; children are some of those where that light shines brightest, and we cannot let that be extinguished.

Saturday
March 29

Aunt Frances, Presente

By aclauhs

My great-aunt recently passed away at 96 years old. Aunt Frances, I always called her, even though she was technically my grandmother’s sister—the eldest of the family. She was feisty and smart and lovely and talented, a matriarchal figure at every family reunion. While us kids spent most of those reunions splashing around the mountain creek (which she pronounced “crick”) and tumbling through the pollen-heavy September grass, we would always stop by her lawn chair for a bird-boned hug and a story of one of her past husbands, the three respective men she had fallen in love with then outlived to marry anew.

When I hear the word “moxie,” I think of her. She embodied the term, in her crisp shirts and flawless pantsuits she sewed herself. She was Appalachian through and through, with the thick accent and the skill for cooking up batches of calorific comfort food. Yet that did not mean she was conservative or close-minded. Instead, she was deeply loving and accepting.

You see, her granddaughter married a black man and had a mixed-race son. Aunt Frances’ son-in-law (father of this granddaughter), raised in the Jim Crow South, disowned his own daughter. She was dead to him, and her son did not—and never would—exist. Yet Aunt Frances—raised in that same Jim Crow South, in the deepest reaches of rural North Carolina—embraced her granddaughter’s new family. She loved her great-grandson and recognized him as her own flesh and blood, knowing full well the fallout she would face from her own relatives and from the larger society.

A woman born nearly a century ago, she was more open-minded than many people more “modern” in terms of their birth years have ever been. She inspired me with her stories, with her grit, with the softness of her hand touching my head as she told me she loved me.

She was also deeply Christian. In her last moments, as her younger sisters (now all grandmothers and great-grandmothers themselves) gathered around her, she asked for them to read the Bible to her. When she was finished, she told them that she was ready for Jesus to come and get her, because she was ready to go home.

Home. Aunt Frances, I pray that whatever happens to our souls when we die, and wherever we go, that you feel home. I don’t have the same security you did in believing in a specific afterlife, a certain heaven. But I know you, and your love, and I can feel it now, even with you having passed from this earthly life we experience. I was blessed to have known you, and you blessed our family by being part of it and by bringing love into it. Thank you, and amen.

Tuesday
February 18

Vespers Sermon: “The Common Field”

By aclauhs

Guess what? I preached the Vespers sermon this past Sunday. And….here it is:

Sunflowers_Land_by_Deinha1974

This past summer, I attended the Wild Goose Festival, a progressive Christian festival that happens in the mountains of rural North Carolina. There were many interesting things that happened, including cornbread communion, moonshine mass, and an event called “Beer ‘n’ Hymns.” But the one I want to talk about tonight was called “The Body and the Earth.”

It was a panel with speakers who do work with gardening and farming ministries. One woman was the leader of a farm called The Lord’s Acre. The Lord’s Acre is a community project where volunteers grow organic produce for those in need in the community–a beautiful concept.

Susan, the director, told us a story about Annie. Annie was a local homeless woman. She had some mental instabilities and would often amble past the garden, but would run away whenever they invited her to join in.

Well, pretty soon, the people at The Lord’s Acre started noticing something. It was high summer in North Carolina, and the beautiful watermelons they had been cultivating started to go missing. They’d be there in the evening, then, the next morning? Gone.

This was disappointing. Those watermelons were supposed to go to the local food bank, to help the needy. So one of the dedicated volunteers swore to get to the bottom of this mystery. He staked himself out the entire night to find out where the watermelons were going.

And who did he see, sneaking in late at night after everyone was gone, except Annie the homeless woman?

So Susan, the director, went and found Annie the next day, out at the outskirts of town behind an abandoned barn where Annie liked to sleep. She spoke gently to her. And, at long last, Annie brought her inside the barn and showed her the her secret stash–a heap of big, fat watermelons.

Annie started to cry. She had been so scared, she said. She had been scared that the volunteers in the garden–the nice people volunteering from the local churches (and you know what she meant–middle-class people with houses and cars and nice clothes)–wouldn’t want her in the garden. She couldn’t always control what she said. Sometimes she acted strange. They wouldn’t want her. Especially now that she had stolen all those watermelons–but she just hadn’t been able to resist. They were just so big and juicy and beautiful.

Susan stayed with Annie while she cried. Then she loaded Annie and the watermelons up into her truck, and they brought it all back to the Lord’s Acre. After Susan explained the situation to the volunteers, they hugged Annie and brought out knives and sliced open the watermelons and ate them right there in the garden, together. You can just feel it, can’t you? Hot Southern sun and crisp, cool watermelon and the sticky smiles on everyone’s faces.

Susan told this story to us at the festival, and she told us that Annie still volunteers at the garden. People know her quirks and moods and tics and accept her anyways. This is the power of a garden, friends.

Laboring together in a garden is a powerful thing–it brings us together over the glory of nature and creation, growing food that we can share together.

The Bible knows the strength of the garden, and that is why it uses it so often as a metaphor. In today’s reading from Corinthians, we hear that “The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.”

This is interesting, isn’t it? According to this passage, we are the servants working in the field–but we are also the field, also the building. It’s a holistic idea of engaging in communal work and common purpose together–but what we are fostering is ourselves. It’s our brothers and sisters around us.

So what I’m talking about here is not just physically working in a garden. Though if you can find one to physically work on here in Boston–more power to you.

I’m talking about having the mindset of seeing the world around you like a garden, of which you and your fellow beings are the gardeners. For it’s not just about what you do, but how you think about it.

We see this in today’s gospel. “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.”

Jesus is telling us that love extends to more than just our actions–it is also about thought. So you don’t murder someone. But thinking bad thoughts–that’s still pretty damaging for your soul.

And so we must cultivate good thought, just as one cultivates a garden. We need to water the good thoughts and weed the negative ones. We need to grow love, and we need to do it together.

You know, gardens can be good for more than just food. One of my friends visited New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina on a mission trip, and can you guess what their project was? Planting sunflowers. Yes, that’s right, planting flowers.

Sunflowers have the incredible property of purifying the soil they’re planted in. My friend and her team planted them in New Orleans in the toxic muck, full of chemicals and dangerous debris, as a part of cleanup.

You wouldn’t think it, right? Those big, beautiful, yellow flowers doing double duty as toxic waste cleaners. It’s pretty–I’ll say it–miraculous.

So, my friends–think about it, hard as it is when it’s full-on winter outside. Grow your sunflowers. Plant your crops. Share your watermelons. Remember that we are the servants in the field, but we are also the field. This world is our shared project, and it is up to us to cultivate love and healing in it. Be a good gardener. Amen.

Monday
February 3

Ignite

By aclauhs

Today we had one of my favorite Marsh Associates’ meetings ever. Not to dismiss the stuff that we normally do in those meetings. But for this one, we sat on the floor on meditation cushions in the chapel. It was dark, and we lit a circle of candles, representing our own lights as well as the light of God. And then, at the end, Soren and Jen left us to sit there and meditate with the candles for as long as we wanted to.

Let me warn you now—I get emotional around candles. They move me. I was incredibly disappointed when, at Christmas mass this year, there were no candles to hold during the service (my mother informed me that the priest had decided they were a fire hazard). Since childhood, I had always associated that candle flame with Christmas—gripping that little white candle with the paper holder dripping hot wax down your hand, the little beacon of light held close to your face as you sang hymns of new hope in the dead of winter.

And in Italy, I loved the cathedrals filled with their banks of candles. I went through my euro coins like crazy, dropping them into the donation boxes and adding my candles to the long line of flickering prayers in every church I wandered into. As Italian grandmothers prayed to the saints and tourists shuffled by, I knelt before the candles and clasped my hands and teared up at the light and warmth that so many tiny flames gave off.

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I love how fire has a life to it. There’s a reason we have the cliche about “dancing” flames. Our little circle of candles on the floor at our meeting tonight reminded me of people—our communities, our families, the strangers we sit by on the subway. Each person, no matter how discouraged they are or what wrong they have done, has that divine light within them. They have the miracle of life—the gift of being alive—and it links them to all other beings. We are all dancing flames. Or, as Elton John would have it, candles in the wind.

I am disappointed that I cannot light candles in my dorm room. The Hindus have the ritual of aarti, part of the morning puja ceremony, where they start off the day by offering light to the divine. They do this by circling a lighted lamp on a plate around a deity, singing praise all the while.

Aarti plate

Aarti plate

I think this is incredibly beautiful. When I have my own place where I can burn things, I plan to start the day with a candle. A spark, a flame, a light. A reminder of the beautiful, the dancing, the alive, the sacred within each person—and within every being.

Tuesday
January 28

Well Hello Again

By aclauhs

It’s 2014, and I’m back–back to Boston, back to classes, back to the bustle of BU.

It’s funny, because when I looked back on my journal that I keep at my apartment here, I had some pretty grim entries from right before I left for Christmas break. I was feeling pretty down, for a variety of reasons.

Luckily, I had a fulfilling Christmas break with my family and now, from here, life looks good from where I’m standing. I’ve submitted all my grad school applications. I’m looking at a bright new semester of creative writing and graphic design and more freedom than I’ve ever had in a semester here.

So yes, life is good. It is well with my soul. I’ve put up new art in my apartment, and put up some inspirational Post-Its on my desk (don’t underestimate the value of a good inspirational Post-It). They read:

Life is not a duty–it is a miracle.

To build the Beloved Community, meet people as equals.

All will be as it should be; all will be as it needs to be.

These are various phrases that have come to me while I’m journaling, and I like to think that one way the Divine communicates to us is through our own writing and reflection. Not that these Post-Its are holding the Word of God–but that the divine spark within us can sometimes nudge our pen, or give us a whisper of a thought that we take and put form to ourselves. These thoughts have come to me in prayer and theological reflection, and I think they’re good for me to look at in the mornings.

Better than my Facebook feed, at any rate.

Monday
December 9

Biological Anthropology Theology

By aclauhs

This semester, I’ve been taking biological anthropology, learning all about australopithecines, Homo habilis, Neanderthals, and our other hairy hominid ancestors. Now, you have to understand—this is a big deal for me.

lucy-recon-big

I come from a Bible Belt public school upbringing, where my science teachers always prefaced the unit on evolution with, “Now, remember, this is just a theory…” and my middle school science teacher even went so far as to tell us, “I just want you to know, I don’t actually believe this. But they still force us to teach it to you.”

So you can imagine what kind of positive influence that had on our budding hunger to learn about human origins (none, exactly).

So this class has been wonderful. Yes, I had known the pop culture elements—Lucy’s fossils, the caveman art, the dawn of early man. I had visited the Hall of Human Origins at the Smithsonian and cocked my head at the wax figure of the tiny Ardipithecus. But in this class, I’ve been learning about specifics. The evolution of bipedalism. How we lost space in our guts in order to evolve bigger brains that used up more energy (making cooking food to make it more digestible an essential element of human evolution—sorry, Paleo diet people).

It’s filled me with wonder—the fact that over millions of years, we evolved from ape-like animals to humans. Theologically, I know that pains some people. They want the security of knowing God created us special. But I think there’s an innate and enormous glory in our human story.

I was thinking about it while listening to Bach at Marsh Chapel yesterday. The soaring sopranos, the brassy trumpets, the deep and dark bass strings plucked pizzicato. The sheer transcendent beauty that one human composer brought to life, and that the performers create out of thin air with their voices and instruments.

In the same vein, at Interfaith Shabbat this past Friday, Brittany (our keynote speaker) talked about religion and art, and asked us to share an example of when art caused us to have a religious experience. I talked about visiting the cathedral of Siena this summer in Italy, moved to tears by the soaring ceilings painted deep blue with stars, mirroring celestial reality. The huge dimensions and echoing chanting and the weight of centuries of people’s prayers and hopes hanging over the space stirred something deep within me. I cried because humans, with their simple and mortal hands, had created something so beautiful and lasting and moving.

SienaCathedralInterior

We are so, so incredibly lucky that we have music and art and a connection to God.

For me, my theology goes something like this: the universe is a vast interconnected web—and God is what knits that web together. That divine spark is what ties living beings to each other; it is what makes stars burn and black holes explode and everything dance together in a cosmic symphony.

However, most animals don’t have the gift of being able to realize it. Much as we admire the grace of the tiger or the intelligence of the elephant, the truth is that their lives are more concerned with survival than cosmology.

But we, as humans, that race that struggled to stand on two feet, that slowly grew brains large enough to start looking up at the stars and thinking bigger—we are so blessed. And yes, I think that God nudged us in that direction, awakened that spark already inherent within us. It was what made Neanderthals start burying their dead with flowers. It was what made ancient humans start carving sacred objects. It was made us start to think deeper.

And with that deeper thought—that realization that the universe is a grander thing than just our struggle for survival, and that the world is an interconnected place—I think we have a duty to love. As such an advanced species, we have the ability to appreciate the glory of the universe and to honor the divinity within each being (human and otherwise). It takes our human interpretation to see that God is love, and that we should act in love.

This is what makes us different. Biological anthropologists see it, too—the moment when early hominids started taking care of their old and feeding the sick, instead of letting them die. When we started to value the other, and not just the self. When love became a concept we recognized.

Yes, humanity is flawed. It does horrible and evil things. It stumbles. But in the end, we are still so blessed, because we have the chance to know God—and to worship God—in a sacred and unique way among all beings.

Saturday
November 30

Empty Boat

By aclauhs

In this period of upcoming finals and long nights and cold weather, I’ve been having a bit of trouble with taking things personally. A couple weeks ago, those were the twin themes of Rev. Kim’s sermon (the minister at the UU church I attend)–”quit taking it personally” and “empty boat.”

“Empty boat” refers to Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh’s story, which I will share with you here:

A man was rowing his boat upstream on a very misty morning. Suddenly, he saw another boat coming downstream, not trying to avoid him. It was coming straight at him. He shouted, “Be careful! Be careful!” but the boat came right into him, and his boat was almost sunk. The man became very angry, and began to shout at the other person, to give him a piece of his mind. But when he looked closely, he saw that there was no one in the other boat. It turned out that the boat just got loose and went downstream. All his anger vanished, and he laughed and he laughed.

And so I’ve tried to think, “Empty boat.” But it’s hard. I get sensitive when someone snaps at me. I get miffed with people who annoy me. People with whom I disagree sometimes bother me.

And so I know I need to try harder. I need to not let anger or hurt come easily.

Because, really, to quit taking it personally and to keep thinking “empty boat” is to be compassionate. It is to realize that everyone is not out to intentionally hurt you or make your life harder. It is to realize that each person is going through things that are harming and bothering them, and that their actions are a manifestation of that, not direct malice toward you.

It is seeing things from their perspective. It is assuming the best. It is loving them.

Loving one person much harder to do than abstractly loving all of humanity. It is much harder to love your roommates when they’re grumpy or to love the students who are shouting in the library while you’re trying to study.

But you have to start with those exercises of mindfulness, those exercises of love. If you want to cultivate a compassionate world, it has to start with these small acts.

And so I am trying to carry a compassionate heart. Attempting to be slow to anger, quick to forgive, and intentional in breathing.

Empty boat. Empty boat. Empty boat. Full and welcoming heart.

Monday
November 18

Thanksgiving Wonder

By aclauhs

I’ve been thinking a lot about wonder. Maybe it’s because it’s drawing near to Thanksgiving–or because the leaves are vibrant colors or because I’m young and healthy and in love (cliché as that sounds). But I’ve found myself being often struck with awe at how wonderful–wonder full–life is. Walking down the sidewalk under a blue sky. Greeting a friend. Snuggling under warm blankets after a productive day. Toasting a wine glass over laughter and good times.

This isn’t to say that I don’t lose sight of these beautiful things sometimes. But I always find myself, in the season of Thanksgiving, thinking more about thankfulness.

And about God, and God’s role in all this.

I’ve been twisting my Claddagh ring around my finger, running my fingertips over the Trinity knots on both sides.

I’ve explained before how I conceive of the Trinity–as a symbolic representation of the presence of God: in the universe, in our fellow beings, and inside ourselves.

So, when I’m standing on the T or sitting in class, I trace the design of those trinity knots and think about the beautiful and beloved souls of strangers surrounding me, each carrying a divine spark within them. When I stare into the eyes of a person I’m having a conversation with–be it a professor or one of the homeless men I volunteer with–I recognize that piece of God within them.

Joseph Campbell, one of my favorite scholars of religion, once wrote about the gesture that Indians do when they say “Namaste”: the hands pressed together in front, like a prayer, and the slight bow. He said, “In India there is a beautiful greeting in which the palms are placed together, and you bow to the other person. That is a greeting which says that the god that is in you recognizes the god that is in the other.”

I am not saying we should all start saying “Namaste” and bowing, but I think it would be beautiful if we marked each encounter with another being with an acknowledgement of their inherent worth, dignity, and divinity. When we see these things in another person, the world becomes a more loving place.

Sunday
October 27

Out of the Mouths of Children

By aclauhs

One of the reasons I love Unitarian Universalist Children’s Religious Education is the openness–they’re not afraid to share the stories and tenets of other religions with their children. They give them their own free path to explore, with teachers to support them along the way.

I don’t necessarily want children, but if I did–that would be the kind of religious education I would want them to have.

Mine was far different. The majority of my formative religious education happened in the first ten years of my life, when we attended the Presbyterian church that my Protestant father and Catholic mother had compromised on (don’t ask me why…). Sunday school consisted mostly of Bible drills and coloring books, but I still struggled to understand the why.

Why did Jesus have to die for us? Who was Jesus, anyhow? If he was God’s son, who was his mother? (I fancied it was Mother Nature.) And if he was God’s son, how did he already exist in heaven–didn’t he have to be born sometime, somewhere?

Of course, none of my Sunday school teachers struggling to answer these questions told me that these were questions that the Church had struggled with since the beginning.

But, in a childlike way, I still believed. The heaven I imagined was more like Narnia, and I thought that Jesus would look like my favorite uncle, who also sported a beard. Our church had high windows that reached to the arched ceiling and I would spend whole services with my neck craned up, seeking a glimpse of the angels I was convinced were peeking in on us.

When our teachers would ask us, “Do you believe that Jesus is your savior?” I would eagerly affirm it along with the chorus of the other children saying, “Yes!” I didn’t really understand what that meant, but I knew I was supposed to say it.

Looking back now, the thought of it disturbs me a little–the way I parroted things and learned to keep my questions to myself.

In one of my religion classes, my professor explained the theory that there are two kinds of believing–childhood faith, where the world seems a magical  place and it is easier to believe fantastical things, and adult faith, which is a tougher thing because one has learned the logic of the world.

In a way, I think it is wrong to play the imaginative minds of children into believing only one story when their daydreams are still so vivid. I think we should share the stories of all religions with them, while their minds can still pull them into the passion and wonder of such stories. I think the child-like mind is an incredible and beautiful place to experience religion–but we should allow it to have broad horizons and endless questions.

Monday
October 21

In the Belly of the Buddha

By aclauhs

There was a time when I thought I was Buddhist.

I suppose that fits me neatly into the New-Agey spiritual-seeker college student category (or should I say cliché?). But yes.

I discovered Buddhism my freshman year of college, when I decided last-minute to take “Buddhism in America” instead of a computer programming class (yes, I was a computer science minor once upon a time). In the class, we read Shunryu Suzuki, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Thich Nhat Hanh. We had to visit local Buddhist centers. And I was drawn to it, to this sense of calm and peace and serenity that I had never found in Bible Belt Christianity.

When I came back to South Carolina for the summer at the ed of that semester, I was determined to find a Buddhist community. And lo and behold–there was one in my town with a bona fide Tibetan monk. I have no idea why a Tibetan monk would come to the United States for political asylum (around the same time that the Dalai Lama had to flee Tibet) and choose to teach in Charleston, SC of all places, but I was happy that he had.

The Tibetan Center was a small house on a side street, unassuming but for the Dharma Wheel symbol perched in the front yard. Inside, the first floor was the a large meditation room, hung with gold-trimmed tapestries and Buddha statues and always thick with the rich smell of incense. The floor was laid out in crisp rows of meditation cushions, and the platform at the front where our teacher sat always had a fresh lotus blossom floating in a bowl of water.

The monk was everything you might expect–wizened, sweet, and with a mischievous sense of humor that had him making comparisons between the mind and a Super-Walmart. He led us in meditation and talked about how each day is a snowflake, something delicate and beautiful and which will melt away.

I soaked up his words like arid desert ground. I brought friends with me to the center and begged my parents for a meditation cushion for my birthday. I read books upon books about Buddhism. I even posted the five beginner Buddhist vows (To refrain from harming living creatures (killing). To refrain from taking that which is not given (stealing). To refrain from sexual misconduct. To refrain from false speech. To refrain from intoxicants which lead to loss of mindfulness.) in my room, committed to following them.

Looking back on that summer now, I see that I was swept up in more than a little romanticization–for the incense, for the wise old monk with the Tibetan accent, for the lovely tapestries hanging on the walls. I was so sick of Christianity and of the strict theologies of Catholics and Southern Baptists that I had grown up with, and I wanted a change.

Our monk always emphasized that meditation was not simply Buddhist, but something that could be used in any tradition–something essential for humanity as a whole. It took me a while to realize that fully for myself.

I began to crave church–the hymns, the community, the stained-glass windows. And I began to see that I didn’t have to become Buddhist to employ some of the same spiritual practices.

I was lucky, because it was around this time that I went to a Unitarian Universalist church for the first time. The minister of this church, which I now call home, is deeply inspired by Buddhist practice, and incorporates it into her own faith life and that of the congregation. But there is also a recognition–and this is important–of the danger of cultural appropriation. I think that the first time I encountered Buddhism, I was slightly guilty of this, taken by the exotic nature of my teacher and the center.

But now, I engage with Buddhism out of my own tradition. I read a piece on cultural appropriation the other day, and it emphasized that the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange is power dynamics. Fair exchange cannot happen between a more powerful being and an oppressed one. It must occur between equals.

And so when I engage in Buddhist practice–or learn about and share in the practices of any religious tradition–I try to always be conscious of these ideas of equality and exchange.

I feel blessed that the Buddhists I met shared their tradition and the gift of their spiritual practice with me. Even though we are not all of the same tradition, we can learn from each other in peace and love.