Touching the Homeless on Valentine’s Day

homelessmassageTonight, two Neighborhood Church members and I are visiting the Union Station Homeless Services shelter on Raymond Avenue. to offer free chair massage to whomever would like it.  This is our third visit this week, and we have several more dates scheduled before the month is up.  We have eight volunteers this year, and since the USHS shelter is open year-round, we will continue to visit well beyond February.

I was trained in this ministry by Catholic nuns back in my seminary days in 2001, in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco, where the homeless are corralled and live.  My instructor was trained by Mother Theresa herself, so that means our Neighborhood volunteers are only a few degrees of separation away from the Saint!

Are Catholicism and Unitarian Universalism like oil and water?  Sometimes it would seem so – I’m appalled by some recent Catholic institutions’ decisions to fire workers who are married to a same-sex partner.  Catholics could learn from Unitarian Universalists about the truly inclusive love we practice, that Jesus himself practiced.

UUs could learn from Catholic nuns, too, about what it means to be radically compassionate and to embody what Jesus taught.  Religion can’t just be about thoughts and receiving an inspiring message each Sunday.  Religion is not about belonging to a social club.  Religion at its best is about transformation, so that all our actions are in alignment with our deepest values.

One of my deepest values is kindness and compassion.  When I massage a homeless person, I am blessed by the connection and the feelings of kindness and caring my actions transmit.  After an hour of massaging people, I feel light and happy, less locked up in my own personal anxieties.  To acknowledge that humanity is all one and worthy, my heart is transformed.

May we see what all of humanity has in common, well beyond what sets us apart, that our hearts and lives may be transformed.  Happy Valentine’s Day!

-Rev. Hannah Petrie

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Why Support a UU Church?

John Wolfe, minister emeritus of  All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma

“There is only one reason for joining a UU Church.  That is to support it. You want to support it because it stands against superstition and fear. Because it points to what’s noblest and best in human life. Because it is open to men and women of whatever race, creed, color, or national origin.

You want to support a UU Church because it has a free pulpit. Because you can hear ideas expressed there which would cost any other minister his or her job. You want to support it because it is a place where children can come without being saddled with guilt or terrified of some ‘celestial peeping Tom,’ where they can learn that religion is for joy, comfort, for gratitude and love.

You want to support it because it is a place where walls between people are torn down rather than built up. Because it is a place for the religious displaced persons of our time, the refugees from mixed marriages, the unwanted freethinkers and those who insist against orthodoxy that they must work out their own beliefs.

You want to support a Unitarian Universalist Church because it is more concerned with human beings than with dogmas. Because it searches for the holy, rather than dwells upon the depraved. Because it calls no one a sinner, yet knows how deep is the struggle and how great is the hunger for what is good.

You want to support a Unitarian Universalist Church because it can laugh…because it insults neither your intelligence nor your conscience, and because it calls you to worship what is truly worthy of your sacrifice…”

This speaks well for all of you, for our congregation, and community together.  Thank you for supporting YOUR Neighborhood Church.

-Rev. Dr. Jim Nelson

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“There is no life that is not in community”

NELSON-JIM-85The poet and writer T.S. Elliot came from a longline of Unitarians.  The Unitarian Universalist Church in St. Louis is named after T.S. Elliot’s grandfather, Rev. William Greenleaf Eliot, who founded the church and was a Unitarian.  His uncle was also a Unitarian minister and a pioneer in liberal religion in Portland, Oregon, where two members of his church founded Reed College.  And while T.S. was raised a Unitarian, he became a rather conservation Anglican later in life.

In his 1934 play, The Rock, he wrote “What life have you if you have not a life together?”

In some ways it is an odd thought from Eliot, as most of his poetry chronicles the loneliness and isolation of modern life, the despair that is often felt in a depersonalized world.  “The Waste Land,” “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” “The Four Quartets” are not especially happy poems.  I loved them in my teens and twenties, that time of life when we are often wondering what it is all about and have not quite yet found where we belong.

We say that we are a beloved community at Neighborhood.  That is both a claim and an aspiration.  We are not just a bunch of individuals, though we are that too.  But we are a community, a group of people gathered together in common purpose.  This is a place, I hope, where people can feel that they belong, where connections can be experienced, where a person does not have to be alone.

We get there by showing up, first of all.  There is no community without people there.  And we get there by people showing up wholly; that is, with their whole selves – hopes and fears and all that.  And we get there by supporting the community itself.

We begin our annual pledge drive this Sunday.  The theme is “Building for Tomorrow.”  It is a time of change, and the possibilities are, I believe, exciting.  This is your church, after all, to make of it what you want and hope for.  Working together creating a beloved community – a grand and good goal.  After all, “There is no life that is not in community.”

See you Sunday with thoughts about rowing and poetry – and more!

Rev. Dr. Jim Nelson

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Then There is Curling

Like many (some?) of you I watched the Super (not!) Bowl on Sunday, with all of the ads curlingand half-time show.  The ads and half-time were better than the game, although it is great to have special teams get the kind of credit they did.  Bruno Mars put on a great performance, the best parts his drumming, the James Brown foot work and the gold coats. Maybe our faith would grow if ministers wore jackets like that instead of black robes. I am not much of a football fan, and while I loved playing it, I don’t find it very interesting to watch.

I do, however, love watching the Olympics, and especially the Winter Olympics.  Speed skating, all the skiing events, especially the Nordic events, luge and bobsled and now the astonishing snowboard and trick skiing – not to mention hockey.  My favorite is the Biathalon – skiing and shooting, even though I have never shot a gun. I just wish those events were covered more than all of the figure skating – as beautiful as that can be.  There seem to be a lot more thrills in the Winter Olympics than in the Summer Olympics.  No race in Summer gets to the speed downhill skiers get to or no event has so much airborne time as ski jumpers or the speed of bobsled or luge. The athletes seem a little crazier.

Then there is curling.

It all brings home that we are bodies first and foremost.  Without our bodies we are not, and the joy that can come from our bodies is simply remarkable. Whether athletic or not, abled or differently abled, our bodies are sources of wonder.  A taste on our tongue, a scent in our nose, sound in our ears, the feel of skin under our fingers  – the joy of touch and taste and hearing and seeing – why it is enough to make us weep with joy.

Or how pain keys us into something being wrong or the churning in our stomach at anxiety, the heaviness that comes with depression – all indications that we are bodies.  Even at church, we are bodies.  We sit next to bodies; we shake hands or hug, or high five; we drink coffee and lemonade and eat cheesecake.  We hear music and sing (some Sunday I would love to look out and see everyone singing); we walk on the grass or some climb a tree. Some wag said we are a faith from the neck up only, all brain and no body. The brain is great but the body is too.

Every body is beautiful, has beauty, is beauty, knows beauty (same with everybody).  Young and old, tall and short, big and little – I love them all.  So watch the Olympics.  It is way better than the Superbowl.

-Rev. Dr. Jim Nelson

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The Blessings of Love

Love-is-love-blog-picture-680x680This Sunday, I’m using a passage from the Book of Ruth for our text of the month.  Five years ago, a lesbian couple used it in their wedding, toward the beginning of the 2008 Summer of Love.  Then another lesbian couple used it a few years later.  You may be familiar with it, the one that starts “Where you go, I will go . . .”  Ruth ends up marrying a dude in the Bible story, but I will go into why this passage has nevertheless been meaningful in lesbian weddings.

In the months since Proposition 8 has been overturned, I’ve done a lot of same sex weddings, as one might imagine.  It’s been a lot of fun.  Several of them couples who have been together two or more decades.  One of them so their mothers could see them get married before imminent deaths.  One with two young women from Texas who met in the Navy.  Who gets married at 9 a.m. on a Friday morning?  Lesbians in the Navy.

In most ways, hetero and same sex weddings feel exactly the same.  The whole point is for the couple’s community to bless the union with their presence.  But I can hardly put into words how they are different.  There is a special kind of joy present at same-sex weddings.  Families are opening their hearts to stand on the side of love, and they are showing up.  Because the couple’s parents are present, or grandparents, the brides or grooms are ecstatic.

The very first sermon I gave at Neighborhood was about just this – legal same sex marriage is about far more than the legality.  It’s about the sacredness of family blessing – the sacredness of being known, being loved, being blessed.  It’s about more than acceptance or tolerance – when the most important family members show up for the wedding, tolerance is not blessing the union, love is.

-Rev. Hannah Petrie

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If I Had a Hammer

seegerThe sunsets this time of year are often spectacular, and we love looking out the back of our house, which looks west, to watch the colors spread across the sky. We see them through the sycamore in the back of our yard and the palm trees high above Mentor Ave.When we moved here ten years ago, the sycamore was about 15 feet high; it must be close to fifty now.The beauty of the sky has something to do with the length of light and how it reflects and refracts through the atmosphere and paints the sky and clouds.It arrests us, and we stand, just looking as the light fades.It is easy to just stand there, and a joy to be at rest for some moments and do nothing more than notice the world.

Last night I thought of another long light that had brought beauty to the world, but now is gone.That would be Pete Seeger, who just died at the age of 94.Seeger was one of those rare individuals. Carl Sandburg called him America’s tuning fork.  His songs, his good nature, his belief in the power of song and change, his steadfastness with progressive causes, his belief in democracy and in people – he is a hero. 

His songs reached back and forward, and he believed in a life shared with others.  He was a member of Community Unitarian Universalist Church in New York City.He sang at our General Assembly in 2005 and I remember what an uplifting presence he was.  There was not an ounce of cynicism in him.He, like the sunsets now, had a long view in him, and  a radiance too.It was enough to just stop and listen.

Congregations can be like that.  They have a length in them – all those of the past who built up a community, that have a radiance to them that shines and then fades and is gone, only to be followed by others, just as there will be more beautiful sunsets and more musicians who bring songs of struggle and hope. The communities we join, and hopefully support, exists in both space and time, the past flowing into the present and the present will flow into the future. And the light shines along the way.

We are getting ready to begin our yearly Pledge Campaign when we ask everyone to consider their financial commitment to Neighborhood.  As you think about this beloved community, remember that lots of people did what they could to bring it to the present, and now it is our opportunity to carry it into the future. Think of people like Pete Seeger who was one of us, and think of the beauty of a sunset and how it is good to join with others in seeing and creating beauty in the world. My favorite Seeger song is “If I had a hammer. We have a hammer, ringing out justice and freedom and love between our brothers and our sisters, all over this world.” We are a hammer and we are a bell – remember that.

-Rev. Dr. Jim Nelson

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Moving Forward

The drought we are experiencing in California has got our attention, I hope, and meteorologists suggest that this may be the new normal.  Indeed, one scientist suggested that by the end of this century, this current year would be considered a wet year, and we would experience Sahara like conditions in California.  It remains beautiful here day to day, but the effect is cumulative, and so, of course, we will have to adjust and change our behaviors.

We are reducing our water use at home and plan to take out the rest of our front lawn for a low or no water landscape, and I know many of you are doing that as well.  It is a good thing, and I actually look forward to learning more about this desert climate we live in and the plants native to and adaptive to it.

What has to change, of course, is our attitude or our outlook, our expectations.  Of all the creatures on this earth, we seem to be the ones who can imagine the future the best, and see the present in the largest sense. We can be optimists or pessimists, depressed or hopeful, disengaged or engaged.

Our minds are pretty free things, less bound by condition than our bodies perhaps.  So how do we go from despair to hope, or from fear to courage, from being stuck to moving forward? In small and big ways, we face that every day – how do we move forward, for ourselves and for our children, for the present and for the future?

There is a melancholic Scandinavian part to my soul, but there is also an adventurous and excited part too.  Balancing them, not letting the downer part take over, occupies my attention.  How to move forward, not be stuck – that the sermon for this Sunday.  Even when confused, how can we see our way forward?

Recently, I read a wonderful comment by a NASA scientist about a rock Curiosity has found on Mars.  They have no idea what it is or where it came from.  It was not in recent photos; it just appeared.  The scientist said “We’re completely confused; we’re having a wonderful time.”

Now that is the attitude to have.  It is like the old Johnny Mercer tune sung by Perry Como and Sam Cooke:

“You’ve got to accentuate the positive
eliminate the negative
Latch on to the affirmative
But don’t mess with mister in-between”

It’s good advice.

-Rev. Dr. Jim Nelson

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