I’m Needy

by Karen Richter

I’m needy and so are you.

How do you feel about being called needy? Why is needy such a pejorative… one of the worst things we can call someone else? As you’re reading, do you even hear that word differently, like ‘nEEEEEEEEE-dy,’ with an exaggerated tone and a little eye roll?

I'm Needy by Karen Richter, Southwest Conference Blog, United Church of Christ






Our culture, even in our churches, is so infused with American-style rugged individualism. For our children (in lots of families), no skill is prized more than independence. Whether it’s toileting or sleeping solo or shoe tying, we are hell-bent, so to speak, on passing on the values of independence and individualism. English idioms in the US evince a huge cultural preference for NOT being needy.

self-made / ‘self-made man’
pull up by one’s own bootstraps
your own person
independent as a hog on ice
making it / I made that
lone wolf
free mind
live and let live
cup of tea / ‘that’s not my…’
stiff upper lip
stand up / ‘stand up guy’
elbow room
green light
like a dog (doggedness, dog with a bone)
run of / ‘the run of the place’

However… have you tried recently to declare your independence from oxygen? from water? from food? from sleep? … from love?

We need things, and those things are remarkably consistent from person to person. Besides the usual physical needs (food, water, air, shelter), we need respect and fairness; we need to be heard; we need our lives to have meaning; we need a sense of safety. Can you think of other needs?

Today, can you be gentle with yourself? When things go sideways, can you ask, “What need was alive in me when this happened? What need was I trying to meet?”

Today, can you be gentle with others? When you’re tempted to blame and shame, can you ask, “What need might that person be trying to meet?” Even if you guess that person’s need incorrectly, you will have awakened your spirit to empathy.

Stop worrying, then, over questions such as, “What are we to eat,” or “what are we to drink,” or “what are we to wear?” Those without faith are always running after these things. God knows everything you need. Seek first God’s reign, and God’s justice, and all these things will be given to you besides.
~Matthew 6.31-34, The Inclusive New Testament (emphasis is mine ☺)

I'm Needy by Karen Richter, Southwest Conference Blog, United Church of ChristThis kind of empathy for self and for others is a building block of Nonviolent Communication. It’s a helpful skill (I’m totally a beginner).

Explore more about human needs here.

Phoenix NVC Learners meetup

Blessings on your needy human journey!

In These Tough Times…

by William M Lyons

Ours is a world “no longer experienced as stable, predictable, or even comprehensible.”[1] Fear, anxiety and hopelessness have become hallmarks of how Americans feel these days, if not for ourselves, for our family members, our friends, or our neighbors. The question in our Gospel text is indeed the question of our day: What is this?!

In these tough times, Psalm 111 invites us to return to our spiritual center, focusing on the attributes and accomplishments of God.

“I give thanks to God with everything I’ve got—” writes the Psalmist. “Wherever good people gather, and in the congregation. God’s works are so great, worth a lifetime of study—endless enjoyment!

Splendor and beauty mark [God’s] craft; …generosity [that] never gives out, miracles [that make a lasting] memorial [to] this God of Grace, this God of Love.

[God] gave food to [ones] who fear him, remember[ing] to keep the ancient promise.

[God] proved to [Israel] that [what God said, God could really do]:

Hand them [a place and a home] on a platter—a gift!

[… manufacture] truth and justice;

[Everything God does is] guaranteed to last—Never out-of-date, never obsolete, rust-proof. All that God makes and does is honest and true: [paying] the ransom for his people, [ordering] God’s Covenant [be] kept forever. [God is] so personal and holy, worthy of our respect.

The good life begins in the fear of God—Do that and you’ll know the blessing of God. His Hallelujah lasts forever![2]

We may not see these qualities in our national or local leaders, but certainly God is:

  • Honorable
  • Majestic
  • Gracious
  • Merciful
  • Powerful
  • Faithful
  • Just
  • Trustworthy
  • Holy
  • Awesome

Because God is all those things and more, God does certain things. Psalm 111 calls them “wonderful deeds.” You can recount some of them; I know you can.

  • Creation
  • Leading the people out of Egypt
  • Giving them manna and quail in the wilderness
  • David triumphing over Goliath
  • Repeatedly saving the people from what appeared would be certain defeat
  • And the list goes on…

“The Hebrew word in Psalm 111 translated “wonderful deeds” is niphla’oth.” It means “something that I simply cannot understand,” or “something different, striking, remarkable; something transcending the power of human intelligence and imagination.” [3] Something that makes us say to ourselves and to others, “What is this?!”

If we must be caught up in what feels unstable, unpredictable, or even incomprehensible, then at least let us choose what things those will be! Both Psalm 111 and our Gospel story today invite us to choose the attributes and works of God as the center of our attention. There goes the oppression of powerlessness and hopelessness and anxiety -did you feel it start to lift?! If we must be caught up in what feels unstable, unpredictable, or even incomprehensible, then let us choose what things those will be: the honorable attributes and wonderful works of God!

In these tough times, we don’t see those honorable attributes or wonderful deeds in our most visible leaders, and so we find ourselves grieving our loss of those expectations and past experiences. And yet, honorable attributes and wonderful deeds are alive and well in our God. God invites us today and each day to center ourselves in God’s instability, God’s unpredictability, in God’s incomprehensibility, for there we find all that is holy and just, gracious and merciful, majestic and honorable, powerful, faithful, and awesome!

When the people in our Gospel story asked themselves and one another, “What is this?!” they weren’t crying out against their political or religious leaders, or their hopeless circumstances, or their own insecurities. They were raising their voices in awe for what Jesus was doing in their midst: speaking with authority, taking on evil, silencing accusing, judgmental, disruptive and divisive voices, calling out demons, and restoring wholeness to ones who were caught up in brokenness through no fault of their own.

As Karoline Lewis points out, Jesus’s Gospel dared to stand up to supposed authorities. His Gospel challenged assumed power which had never been earned. His Gospel ripped apart the barriers and boundaries and borders that separated people from God. His Gospel tore down walls rather than insisting on ways to build them. With His Gospel the dead didn’t even stay dead! [4]

But “there are risks in identifying the forces of evil and of God in contemporary struggles…,” writes Cynthia Briggs Ketteridge, “specifically, [and] particularly if one assumes oneself and ones’ own “people” to be on the side of God.” [5]  Ones of us preaching out of positions of privilege or into communities with political and economic power must be careful about making that assumption. As Kettridge points out, “the community that performed and heard Mark’s gospel, was powerless and poor in a country occupied by a powerful empire. The theological imagination of the victory of God’s power over illness, disability, and danger was for them, lifesaving good news.”[6] The mere reminder that we can choose what kind of unpredictability, instability, and incomprehensibility we let ourselves get caught up in is for our time lifesaving good news!

But there is another risk. “…[ones] of us who decide to go about in the world, insisting that God is even for the unclean spirits, or for [ones] whom others have determined are unclean, will be suspect. After all, once God is really for everybody, well, there goes merit-based immigration. There goes regulation of pulpits. There goes justified discrimination. And there goes our own deep desire to make claims about God that are created in our own image.”[7]

Our Scripture readings today “provoke us to stop assuming that “the way things are” must always equal “the way things have to be.” The reign of God promises more, whether the “more” can be realized now”[8]

“In this first skirmish, Jesus prevails, but not without the unclean spirit protesting and acting out.”[9] By the end of Mark, the forces of evil launch an all-out campaign to silence and immobilize Jesus in death. “… the world’s response was to crucify that Gospel.” [10] But Jesus won’t stay dead, because who God is (attributes) and what God does is wonderful, and powerful, and bigger than death!

Psalm 112 reminds Israel that the same honorable attributes and wonderful works that characterize God should also characterize them.

In John 14:12 Jesus told his followers, “The person who trusts me will not only do what I’m doing but even greater things, because I, on my way to the Father, am giving you the same work to do that I’ve been doing. You can count on it.[11]

So why are we so afraid to take on demons – our own, or the forces of evil in the world? Why are we willing to give ones who act for evil so much power – power they’ve not earned, and that God’s people have the authority to call out?

As it did in Jesus’ day, the cosmic conflict between good and evil has a socio-political dimension. We can be sure that if we are on the side of the powerless and poor, the marginalized and the oppressed, we are on God’s side. God has a long history or championing the cause of the disadvantaged, the suffering and the victimized, of siding with ones who have lost “their ability to control their movements and their voices” and are being “immobilized”[12]

“What is this?!” really is the question of our time.  Let us live in ways that put skin on the honorable attributes and wonderful works of God! When ones around us see what we are up to and how we are going about it, let them be amazed and exclaim, ““What is this?!” And we will reply, “This is what the Good News of Jesus for our day looks like!”

Praise the Eternal [One]! How blessed are [ones] who revere [God],
who turn from evil and take great pleasure in [God’s] commandments.
Their children will be a powerful force upon the earth;
this generation that does what is right in God’s eyes will be blessed.
[Their] houses will be stocked with wealth and riches,
and [God’s] love for justice will endure for all time.
When life is dark, a light will shine for [ones] who live rightly—
[ones] who are merciful, compassionate, and strive for justice.
Good comes to all who are gracious and share freely;
they conduct their affairs with sound judgment.
Nothing will ever rattle them;
the just will always be remembered.
They will not be afraid when the news is bad
because they have resolved to trust in the Eternal One.
Their hearts are confident, and they are fearless,
for they expect to see their enemies defeated.
They give freely to the poor;
their righteousness endures for all time;[b]
their strength and power is established in honor.
10 The wicked will be infuriated when they see [good people] honored!
They will clench their teeth [pause] and dissolve to nothing;
and when they go, their wicked desires will follow.[13]


[1] Watkins, Mohr, and Kelly. Appreciative Inquiry: Change at the Speed of Imagination. p. 2

[2] Language made inclusive and adapted from Peterson, E. H. (2005). The Message: the Bible in contemporary language (Ps 111:1–10). Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.

[3] Nancy deClaissé-Walford. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=232

[4] Adapted from Karoline Lewis. http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5047

[5] Cynthia Briggs Kittredge. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3535

[6] Cynthia Briggs Kittredge. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3535

[7] Karoline Lewis. http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5047

[8] Matt Skinner. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2343

[9] Cynthia Briggs Kittredge. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3535

[10] Adapted from Karoline Lewis. http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5047

[11] Peterson, E. H. (2005). The Message: the Bible in contemporary language (Jn 14:12). Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.

[12] Cynthia Briggs Kittredge. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3535

[13] Psalm 112, The VOICE

The Banner of #MeToo

by Davin Franklin-Hicks

A friend of mine was commenting that the Women’s March was less attended in 2018 than it was 2017. He was pretty disappointed which quickly turned to judgment. He determined that the low attendance was a sign that people care less. He indicated that folks show up for the cameras. There is definitely validity to his theories.

Yet, I have sat with this for a few hours now because something was amiss in those statements.

Historically we do show up less for ongoing change efforts than we do when they first start and I am certain ego plays a big part in that dynamic. As we get further away from the pain/catalyst that launched the change effort, we often adjust our beliefs to include new normal. We begin to adapt to the bias and abuse. “This isn’t so bad.“ and yet it STILL IS so bad and getting worse.

Instead of assuming no one cares as much as they did last year, I’d like us to consider another reason for that low attendance.

What if… the March for Women got us to the starting line of true change?
What if… it handed all of us the baton?
What if… we have been marching this whole time?

Marching into police stations and demanding justice.
Marching into courtrooms and speaking the unspeakable.
Marching into relationships that empower.
Marching out of relationships that harm.
Marching into interviews and bearing the questions.

Dear ones…
We are strong
We are mighty.
We are fierce.
We are marching together.
We are marching with a banner
And the banner reads #metoo.

There Is Hope for The Last Jedi… and for All of Us

by Ryan Gear

Reviews of the latest installment of the Star Wars saga The Last Jedi are as mixed as U.S political opinions, but one thing is certain. As much as the  galaxy far, far away needs hope, we need it too. With a culture war raging in the U.S. and a resurgence of fascism in Europe, the Dark Side seems to be winning in our world at the moment.

As a people, we seem to be aware that we are trapped in a tragic time in history, and we need a spark of hope. Like the seven previous episodes, The Last Jedi is a great modern example of Greek tragedy. In his foundational work on drama, Poetics, Aristotle instructs that one of the features of a tragedy is that the main character possesses a tragic flaw.

The tragic flaw is a character deficiency or a mistake that leads to the main character’s downfall, and that downfall creates suffering both in the character’s life and usually in the lives of those around them. The first six episodes of Star Wars follow the life trajectory of Anakain Skywalker who becomes known as Darth Vader. His tragic flaw is obvious— for a combination of reasons he turns to the Dark Side of the Force. Brilliantly, he is also a physically flawed character who is so deformed by his choices that he needs his suit to live, move, and breath. Those first six episodes could be titled “The Tragedy of Anakin Skywalker.”

Similarly, in the latest two episodes, like his grandfather before him, Kylo Ren is a character with a tragic flaw. He wants to follow in the footsteps of his grandfather, Anakin, and a turn to the Dark Side is a necessary choice. In The Last Jedi, we see Kylo Ren’s tragic flaw contrasted primarily with the pure character and choices of Rey.  She is a light to his path, and we can’t tell whether he is in love with her or only wants to use her power to accomplish his plans. The tragedy of Kylo Ren is unfolding in a way that will make Episode 9 interesting, and possibly just as controversial.

Aristotle’s Greek word for this tragic flaw is hamartia (pronounced Ha-MAR-tia). It was originally an archery term for when an arrow misses its mark and falls short of its target (an ancient form of an “airball” in basketball). About 400 years after Aristotle, the word finds its way into the books and letters of the New Testament, also written in Greek. English translations of the Bible translate hamartia as the word “sin.” And like a basketball feels heavy to a child who can’t even make it reach the rim, sin is a heavy word.

Hamartia can be both individual and collective. A woman in a church I pastored shared with me one time that she was the “sinner of her family.” She grew up in a church-going, 1950s, pure-as-the-driven-snow environment, but she was the black sheep who transgressed the boundaries. In other words, she had sex before marriage and a child out of wedlock.

She felt like the worst person in the world because the people she loved the most defined her by a decision she made in her youth. It’s as if she wore a scarlet letter to all family functions, and the word sin became a soul crushing word that made her wince whenever she heard it in a sermon (despite her family’s disappointment, she was a regular church attender all of her life).

Collective hamartia is a description of the human condition. We live in a fallen world of conflict, turmoil, and an uncertain future, and we all play a role in the drama. Yes, our world leaders influence global conditions far more than the common person, but we all share collective responsibility more than we would like to admit— as voters, as citizens, and as “actors” in our everyday lives.

If you feel like the sinner of your family, or if in your most reflective moments you feel heavy guilt and wonder if there is hope for your spiritual life, the biblical meaning of hamartia might be helpful here. In the same way, an understanding of collective hamartia and its role in our society might also be the spark that gives hope to our galaxy.

In Aristotle’s definition of a tragedy, and in the Bible, the tragically flawed character is not the worst person in the story. Think about it— Emperor Palpatine is the evil, Satan-like presence in the first six Star Wars films. Compared to the Emperor, Darth Vader is a sympathetic character. In fact, we feel pity for Darth Vader throughout the series, because he is a man who was deceived and manipulated by Palpatine. Even in his rage and hatred for rebels, Darth Vader loves his children. He protects them from the Emperor, and in that climactic moment in The Return of the Jedi, he turns to the Light and throws Emperor Palpatine into a reactor to save his son. The conflict within Kylo Ren is just as pronounced, and we feel pity for him compared to the absolute evil of Supreme Leader Snoke.

I’m going to guess you’ve never murdered an entire village with a lightsaber, so you’re no Darth Vader or Kylo Ren, let alone the Emperor or Snoke. Maybe you transgressed the moral boundaries of your family or your church. Like every human being alive, you have not always acted in love toward your fellow humans. You’ve made mistakes, just like I have, and just like every other person. Those flaws and choices are damaging. They are serious, and they do have consequences. However, the tragic flaw does not mean that you are irredeemable or a hopeless case.

Similarly, the collective hamartia of our world is an outgrowth of individuals missing the mark, the cumulative brokenness of all of us throwing up moral and spiritual airballs. If individual hamartia does not make one an irredeemable monster, then collective hamartia does not damn our world to repeat the same needless conflicts that create the same absurd misery for so many.

An understanding of hamartia insists our world is not a hopeless case. In The Last Jedi, while Luke Skywalker has resigned himself to Kylo Ren’s turn to the Dark Side, Rey protests his fatalism by saying, “His choice is not made. He can be turned.” Regardless of how Kylo turns out, perhaps we as a people are not doomed to wallow in a cyclical view of history that expects a return to fascism every few generations.

The New Testament author who is most known for his use of the word hamartia is Paul. He observes both the individual and collective definition of hamartia. In Romans 3:23 he argues that “all have sinned (hamartia)” and in Romans 5 that the consequences affect all people collectively because of it.

Paul experienced personal redemption. According to the New Testament accounts, prior to his conversion he presided over the arrest and even murder of Christians he persecuted. Hamartia does not mean you have to wear a scarlet letter to family functions or view yourself as an evil character God cannot stomach. You are not the devil. Sometimes even Lebron James tosses up an airball, and the hamartia in your life means that you’re human in need of God’s grace.

In the same way, the human race is not evil incarnate either. Our future is not decided. Our choice is not made. World history can be turned. From a Christian perspective, Paul insists that Jesus Christ’s “righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people,” and that gives us a continual hope that things can made better[i]

Basketball players can increase their field goal percentage. Darth Vader can turn to the Light. Kylo Ren might too— we’ll see. Like the once-controversial The Empire Strikes Back, eventually most Star Wars fans will probably approve of The Last Jedi (there is even hope for flawed movies). In an atmosphere of forgiveness, grace, and resulting self-acceptance, we as individuals can learn to make better choices over time, and we are redeemed, both personally and collectively.

So, as we enter the New Year, here’s to holding out hope for all of us. Hamartia is a tragic flaw in otherwise decent people, and together we can write our comeback story. Yes, our world condition is serious… and for a Christian that is exactly what makes the Good News such great news, in fact. It is the great news that redemption is possible for even the most flawed of characters. It’s even greater news that redemption is available to all of us together, and consequently, there is hope for our world.

[i] Romans5:18b

Younger Generations Uninterested in Organized Religion Not Missing Out

by Greg Gonzales

Never did I think I’d find God on the internet, but I did toward the end of December 2017. On Radio Garden, a radio station streaming service, I found a Dubai station called Ananaz that played awesome song after awesome song that I’d never heard before — I learned Paul Mauriat covered the “Godfather” theme and that a band called Banda Do Sul covered “Evacuate the Dance Floor.” Each song I learned about helped me branch out to discover more artists, more songs, and to fill my playlists for my own radio show. Those connections, that branching out, is one way I experience God; rather than a being, it’s the process of being, of participating in the world, of moving forward and bursting forth into the future as an effect of an infinite preceding cause, part of the nonstop cosmic evolution. To many, that kind of spirituality is nothing more than hippie-dippie hocus-pocus, but it’s central to my mode of living.

Turns out I’m not alone. A third of Millennials surveyed by Pew Research Center said they don’t affiliate with a religion, but two-thirds of that third said they still believe in a God, or some sort of universal spirit. Adults 18 to 25 apparently aren’t fans of traditional congregations, and I’m one of them. Though I grew up in a Disciples of Christ church, I never have liked the way a service comes off like a performance, or the way some people use church like a way to wash themselves of their wrongdoings. I appreciate the divinity in music, community, and ancient texts, but I don’t feel a need to have all those things bundled for me. I get all of those things in my daily life, through my volunteer work at the radio station, through sharing my homemade wine with friends and family, and by exploring the works of every philosopher from Ancient Greece to post-modern France. For me, choosing non-religious spirituality means not expecting anyone to curate these things for me, and more freedom to explore when I feel inspired (it’s not really acceptable to pull out my phone during the sermon to follow up on a Bible verse, for example).

That’s not the only reason my age group is turning away from organized religion. Some of them are indeed atheists. But the main reasons have more to do with feeling left out of the picture. We feel left out of traditional institutions, but find the same love and divine presence when we get in touch with our bodies at the gym or in yoga, when we join strangers at dinner or in support groups to share honestly our griefs and joys, or get to know our own minds through meditation — we get to become something larger than ourselves without the guidebook. We get to write our own books.

And isn’t the point of that word, gospel, is that it means good news? Those pages have some dust for good news. Though I don’t believe in magical miracles, I do believe in miracles of great fortune, of divine experience, and unconditional love — and those miracles happen every day. As we connect to each other, as we listen to each other’s stories and use those lessons to grow, we gather our own “good news.” Perhaps the only reason the Judeo-Christian traditions are so important still is because the people who lived out those stories bothered to write them down. This generation, and the generations who inspired us, have new gospels to write for a new era.

Dark Nights: The Spiritual Promise of Grief Work

by MK LeFevour

Editors note: Southwest Folklife Alliance, an affiliate of the University of Arizona, recently interviewed Mary Kay LeFevour. She has graciously shared her words from the interview with us.

Grief work is very spiritual work. How do you spiritually survive losing a beloved? It’s the family members that are left after a death. Trust is the biggest thing that gets jettisoned. There’s the primary loss, of course. But the secondary loss can be a trust in the universe, God, the idea that life is beneficent.

So all those wonderful questions of spiritual inquiry come forward: Who am I now? Who is God? What’s my meaning in life? You’re now swimming in unchartered territory. For a lot of people this is the first time they’re having an existential crisis. You are in the dark night of the soul.

I’ve always loved dark. What’s wrong with the dark? As a Taoist and Buddhist, I know you can’t have one without the other. We are a society in America that denies death and denies grief. When someone experiences a death, society says, “Get over it. Just start consuming, start eating, buy something, find someone new.”

But this place of despair is a great cauldron to bubble in, to find your essential self. This is the time when I feel people are the most open to wisdom or beauty or reconnecting. They have to reinvent themselves. Some call it “post-traumatic growth.” It’s an opportunity for growth, for differentiation, for resilience, to become more of who you are or who you were. Because you have to.

Of course you don’t say any of this to the bereaved. You don’t say it’s all going to be okay, when they’re thinking, I’m lonely and I hate my life and what am I going to do? I just go, Yeah that sucks.

I might quote Victor Frankl, who wrote Man’s Search for Meaning, who says we are happier humans when we have meaning. It doesn’t matter what the meaning is, whatever it is you have to create it. Some don’t like that because they believe there is one meaning and that they have to find it.

The trick is to let them swim in the despair or sink into the quicksand and hold that space. Sometimes you have to just let them sit in there. You can’t fix it. You can hold a branch, maybe, but people have to move through it. I just hold the grief and I don’t do anything but hold the grief.

I saw a guy this morning—77 years old, just lost his wife of 50 years. He said, “I’m okay.” He’s been grieving for almost a year. And he did sound pretty good. “I’m okay because I’ve got lots of stuff to do, he said. But it’s hardest at night, when I’m alone.”

People say the nighttime is the worst, the evening. It’s the time of intimacy, snuggling, having dinner, watching TV. That’s when you feel absence. Insomnia is most common presenting grief symptom. So night becomes the enemy, because we make it the enemy instead of the friend.

But mammals, when they’re hurt, find a dark cave and lick their wounds. It’s natural for us to want to go into a cave—it’s dark, we don’t want external stimuli. Bereavement work is not about giving people a spiritual bypass with distractions. They get that from friends and family. I’m the one person who lets them wallow. This is the tax we pay for being human.

Grief isn’t good or bad. It is a human thing. Loss begins from the time we’re born. We lose this cozy place in the womb. Loss is inherent to our life as humans. My feeling is if you can’t avoid it, then what can you do with it?

Grief takes away your artifice, every shred of dignity you’ve had and makes you this mass of vulnerability and also someone who’s open to a different way of living, one that makes sense. That’s what’s exciting to me about it. I get to be at somebody’s birth. You’ve lost and you have to be reborn. I feel like a midwife in that respect and it’s such an honor.

Sometimes you’re just hoping people don’t commit suicide before they get through the dark night. You hope and you hold and that’s all you can do. I don’t even have faith. I have knowing on my side. I’ve seen people go from being barely able to crawl into the room to having a full life again. I see it again and again. I can sit with you in the not knowing. I don’t know if you’re going to make it but I have seen the most desperate people make it.

Rather than resist, through denial, the very thing that’s going to happen–which is that we’re going to die and we are going to lose things we love along the way and we are going to lose parts of ourselves–we can reclaim the night. We may never be able to embrace it wholeheartedly, but we can aim for it. We distract ourselves so we don’t have to pay attention to grief, mortality, death. And then we are unprepared when they come for us.

Many cultures have mourning ritutals–wearing the arm band, the day of the dead, putting a stone on the tombstone, sitting Shiva.  The ritual of mourning. But there are so many ways in which we no longer participate in the night. We look at is as something to get through, instead of something to enfold ourselves in.

Again, I’m not going to tell you this when you’re in the quicksand. I’m just going to hold you and tell you it’s okay to feel everything that you feel–angry, abandoned, miserable. All of that is welcome here. That’s what people need–a steady presence that radiates the idea that this is a cycle. This is a cycle. Life is a cycle. It’s going to be a roller coaster, but all things arise, develop, and fall away. All things. There’s no one thing in nature that doesn’t. And grief is that way. Because grief is part of nature.

The In-Between

by Abigail Conley

On Christmas Day, I’ll lug bags through the airport. They’ll be filled with gifts that I wanted to see so I didn’t have them shipped straight to my parents’ house. Those gifts will be padded with the few winter clothes we own, all of which get pulled out for the week of thirty or forty degrees colder than Phoenix. Some version of this has been part of the ritual of Christmas since I became a pastor. A day of flying ends with a few more hours of driving in a rental car. Many times, I have longed to be traveling to a place where I could at least top off the endless day with a glass of wine. Alas, the Southeast continues to hang on to dry counties with the same death grip it uses for the Confederacy.

The plane ride is eerily silent and empty if it’s early and chaotic if it leaves after 8 a.m. The seats are packed with children who are excited about more things than I care to count, are ramped up on sugar or ramped up in hope of sugar, likely tired, and definitely bored. The best of parents are worn thin by the time anyone is seated on the plane. The same pattern is true for security, where parents herd kids through the line. It’s immediately evident if the family flies often or only at Christmas. The kids’ excitement manages to derail that process, too.

Pick a place along the journey and business as usual has gone out the window. The lone open gas station is packed, as is the Waffle House. Roads are mostly deserted, no matter where I’m driving. Across the board, people are either exuding Christmas cheer or in a Scrooge-level huff, with few occupying middle ground. For me, at least, this holy day is mostly an in-between day. It is most definitely the already and the not yet. I have sung carols, heard the Gospel, and marveled at the promise of the Christ child. Family gatherings are still a ways off, including packages and too much food. This day lies in between.

The in-between places are never the ones of memories carried through the years. They are never talked about at family gatherings. We don’t mark in-between places as holy. I am incredibly aware that not hitting cultural milestones makes some places feel more in-between than they should. I spent three years as a very single adult after seven years of higher education and another three as a kind of single adult before getting married. Many people treated all of those years as an in-between, not my life.

As Christmas draws near, I’m aware of how much weight the in-between places carry. Holiday expectations and in-between places never seem to match up just right. The in-between is a place of grief, a place of longing, and a place of wandering.

That day of travel every year that is spent mostly nowhere has given me some perspective on the rest of the year, especially the in-between times. If I cannot live my faith in the far more prevalent in-between times, then I’ve lost some of my best opportunities. Here are a few things I do that day a little more intentionally than the other days:

  • Hold babies. I’ve said it many times, but here’s once more: I hold babies in the line for security. At least I make the offer. Most parents look surprised, look around briefly at the number of security guards, then hand over the baby. I know they’ve done the math and realize I’m not going to make it anywhere with their baby. Maybe holding babies freaks you out. How do you make the day of the people around you a little easier? How can you tangibly love your neighbor in that moment?
  • Tip well. I loathe that we create industries where we intentionally underpay employees. I always tip 20% out of the conviction that if I can’t afford that, I can’t afford to eat out. We don’t buy drinks at restaurants most of the time, so it evens out pretty well. Maybe your budget is tight and you’re only eating out because there’s no other option. Even so, how can you be generous?
  • Be patient. So here’s one way to be exceedingly generous. I am not a patient person. Ask my partner about this and he could well talk for twenty minutes about my lack of patience before you got another word in. Still, we’ve opted for a society that pushes productivity amid stagnant wages. Most everyone is a little tired and overworked. An old Sunday school song might help, “Remember that God is patient, too, and think of all the times that others have to wait on you.”
  • Say, “Thank you.” The stories of people in service industries are appalling when it comes to the way they are treated. Recognize the dignity of people around you (imago dei, anyone?) and treat them with basic respect.
  • Accept help. The implication of “Love your neighbor,” is that we’re all in this together. There’s more than that, sure, but if you get nothing else, remember that we’re all in this together. You might need help one day and it’s ok to take it. You gave someone else the chance to be nice or to live out their faith. One terrible morning on my way to work, I stopped to get caffeine at a gas station. I opened my wallet to pay and it was totally empty. I realized in my non-caffeinated stupor that when I dropped my wallet from my nightstand the night before, the cards must have fallen out. Someone behind me paid the $3 and I went back home and found my cards. I love that person dearly, even though I wouldn’t recognize them if I saw them, again.

The in-between is holy, too. For it was in the in-between place that the Christ child was born because we needed something in-between heaven and earth. Let us occupy the in-between with as holy intent as we welcome the Christ child.  

All Pointed in the Same Direction: Body Acceptance, Grace, Nonviolence, and Our Whole Lives

by Karen Richter

Advent is short this year, y’all. Because Christmas Eve morning is the fourth Sunday in Advent, the season is 6 days shorter than usual! It’s a great time to do something pondering on the incarnation. I like the incarnation as a metaphor to help us have a healthier understanding of sexuality.

I’ve heard lots of people talk about incarnation as a one-time, limited engagement kind of thing – that it’s just about Jesus. I’ve heard lots of people use the incarnation as an exclusionary doctrine to clobber people who believe differently. And I’m not interested in that at all.

I want to make a case for keeping the incarnation… not in a literal “special Jesus” way but in a life-giving metaphorical way.

The shame around sexuality and BODIES in our culture is the best reason to keep the theology of incarnation! The Word became flesh and lived among us for a time (John 1.14)! Full of grace and truth :: when Jesus was fully human he was full of grace and truth. WE ARE TOO. We are full of grace and truth! Who is full of grace and truth? You are, friend!

We know this. This is not new to us… except sometimes this is new to us.

Living it out  – living INCARNATIONALLY – means having a different relationship with our bodies than we are accustomed to. Living it out means treating ourselves and everyone around us in ways that our culture thinks is downright odd.

Living INCARNATIONALLY means “have you lost weight?” is not a compliment. Yeah, you heard me.

Living INCARNATIONALLY means that “I hate my thighs” goes against my faith.

Living INCARNATIONALLY means shoving your 5 year old forward with instructions to “Go kiss Auntie Jean” tears down that child’s body autonomy.

Living INCARNATIONALLY means that a school dress code that shames young women and holds them responsible for the learning environment is offensive and just plain wrong. “What was she wearing?” is always the wrong question… whether the setting is a darkened alley or a college party or a public school classroom.

On the positive side, Living INCARNATIONALLY means that when we show up for one another in embodied ways… with hugs or casseroles, on yoga mats or in the dugout, with fist bumps or shared tears, with birthgiving and diapering and nurturing, and yes, with sexual intimacy…  holy space is created.

Living incarnationally means that when we say God loves everybody… we MUST mean that God loves Every. Body. including our own… or we are liars. I like to say it like this: “God loves Every PERIOD! Body PERIOD!”

OWL - Our Whole LivesSo… The United Church of Christ and the Southwest Conference support Our Whole Lives. We do this for wonderfully practical reasons: because we value our young people, we want them whole and healthy. We want them to experience sexuality as part of God’s good gifts of embodiment and creation. And OWL does a great job at teaching sexual decision-making, values, safer sexual behaviors, and consent. In so many congregations, there are these awesome trained facilitators… they live this out, showing up for our students. At Our Whole Lives here at Shadow Rock, we eat together, we ask questions… we do many ridiculous role plays… It’s so fantastic.

BUT HERE TODAY, I WANT TO TAKE IT FURTHER. I want to move Our Whole Lives, and bodies, and incarnation, and sexuality to the heart of my own faith.

We believe that each human person is unique and unrepeatable. So in the OWL classroom and beyond, we foster a culture of consent… moving through the world in such a way that each person’s individuality is honored.

When consent become part of our basic operating system – when consent is entrenched as part of our core value of JUSTICE – when anything other than consent is anathema to us… we begin to move through the world in a non-harming way.

Consent and body autonomy are part of nonviolence for me. Nonviolence is not just nice (‘nice’ being a pretty low bar) – nonviolence is even beyond kindness (although kindness gets us closer). It’s a way of being – a kind of showing up – that’s marked by life-giving interactions with other earthlings.

Life-giving interactions with other earthlings. I have SO MUCH WORK TO DO on this. My way of showing up is way too often characterized by materialism and greed and arrogance.

But continuing to lead Our Whole Lives, even when the students are a little squirrelly… this helps.

Remembering that at my best, I too am full of grace and truth – this helps.

Being here, with you all in the Southwest Conference, being part of a group of OWL facilitators and trainers that embodies the Our Whole Lives values of Self-Worth, Sexual Health, Responsibility and Justice & Inclusivity… this helps.

Knowing in my heart in my bones that God loves me – that I am part of Every. Body. … this helps.

Our Whole Lives

So in this season of Advent, I invite you to be gentle, to remember how this idea of incarnation  – of the Word becoming flesh – makes us all siblings together, God’s children, full of grace and truth. Amen!


Spiritual Formation at the Conference Level or – “What’s up with Lay Academy?”

by Karen Richter  

A small but tenacious group has continued thinking and dreaming and talking about lay theological education in the Southwest Conference. Julie McCurdy from the Prescott congregation and I attended the Regional Theological Education Consortium gathering in Oberlin, Ohio last fall. We had an opportunity to see what other groups are doing regarding lay education, preparation for authorization, alternatives to traditional seminaries, and support for formation in local congregations.

Since November, conversations have continued and lots LOTS of questions have come about…

  • What formation experiences are best kept in the context of the local congregation?
  • What’s the purpose (mission, goals, etc.) of lay formation at the conference level?
  • What are other organizations doing and how can we participate in those efforts in a mutually beneficial way?
  • How can the conference best support “everyday” formation of laity in our congregations?
  • What are the various needs for discernment resources and skills in different settings?
  • What are we hearing about what people need? What do people need that maybe they’re not yet aware of?

As I’ve thought and daydreamed, I have found it helpful to make some little piles – metaphorically tossing ideas and concepts into where-does-this-happen groups.

In the “Local Church” pile, I’ve put

  • Discipleship
  • Navigating culture as a person of faith and conscience
  • Discernment and calling (“what work in the world is mine to do?”)
  • Interpersonal and family support networks
  • Values clarification

In the “Southwest Conference / Middle Judicatory” pile, I’ve put

  • Navigating culture as a congregation/institution/denomination
  • New church forms and ways of being church together, sometimes called Church 3.0
  • Discernment around authorization (“in what way am I called to authorized ministry?”)
  • Boundary training
  • Leadership development for congregation and the conference
  • Available resources for staff and volunteers managing formation at local churches

What’s left that doesn’t have an easily defined pile?

  • Nonviolent direct action training and mentoring
  • Church history
  • Mid-level theology (that broad territory between Sunday School and seminary)
  • Meditation and spiritual practices beyond the basics
  • Interfaith, ecumenical, and multiple religious belonging conversations

What have I left out? Where do you see your own needs reflected in these piles, if anywhere? Where is energy around spiritual formation and lay education bubbling up around the conference (hat tip to Barb Doerrer-Peacock for this evocative language)?

Share your thoughts (karen@shadowrockucc.org or bdoerrerpeacock@uccswc.org) Conversations continue – stay tuned! In the meantime, please hold in prayer those called to work on lay formation in our congregations and throughout the United Church of Christ.

Do You Feel Out of Sorts Lately?

by Amanda Petersen

Ever have one of those days where you just feel out of sorts? There is nothing happening in your life to cause it, yet you feel like that commercial where the little blue cloud is following you everywhere? If that has been happening lately, you are not alone.

One of the side effects of living a Deep Listening life will be days where –for no reason at all– the little blue cloud will show up. It makes sense if one believes we are all connected, and there are tragedies happening in large proportions, that one would feel the pain of others. When there is a lot of sadness in the world, that sadness touches others.

What do you do with these blue cloud days? I could make a list of ways to move through these days, yet I really believe each of you have your own wisdom. I’d love to hear what you do when these days of communal sadness show up.

For myself, the blue cloud days mean reaching out to community, increasing self care and meditation, and balancing the sadness with inspiration. In the midst of all the sad stories there are so many of how people have reached out and loved each other. These seasons are times for me to ask questions like “Is this sadness moving me in a new direction?”

Let’s take a moment and inspire each other with our stories of blue cloud days and how they call us to a deeper and richer life. If that sounds impossible, I encourage you to reach out to one of our community to assist you in finding your way through blue cloud days. In the meantime, may your week be filled grace as we interact with ourselves, others and God/Divine.