Why I got arrested for standing on the side of love

This past week I was one of 112 faith leaders and immigrant activists arrested at the White House protesting the President’s deportation policies. Many have asked me why I allowed myself to be arrested and why I stand on the side of love on this divisive issue.

I could answer that I advocate for immigration reform because of my Cuban-American husband’s experience as a refugee. Or I could answer the question by telling the story of observing abject poverty in Honduras when as a teenager I served as a volunteer for Amigos de las Americas vaccinating children against TB. These would be partial answers. The full answer to the question of why I will no longer remain silent while President Obama deports 1,100 aspiring Americans daily is because my faith calls me to prophetic witness. My faith requires that I stand up and act when injustice creates a humanitarian crisis.

The sponsors of last week’s action which resulted in our arrest for blocking passage on the sidewalk outside the White House included the United Methodist Church, Church World Service, CASA de Maryland, CASA de Virginia, Bend the Arc, the Unitarian Universalist Association, the United Church of Christ, Sisters of Mercy, Disciples Home Missions of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the PICO National Network, the National Advocacy Center of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, Wind of the Spirit, and the Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach.

Standing with colleagues prior to the action that got us arrested for refusing to move from the White House sidewalk.

Standing with colleagues prior to the action that got us arrested for refusing to move from the White House sidewalk.

As a Unitarian Universalist minister I am heartened to know that I do not stand alone when I urge our nation to embrace love rather than fear and to give relief to the 11 million migrants living in this country and the children fleeing from violence in their own countries. Keep families together. Stop the deportations, stop this injustice now.

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Christmas Again (Christmas Eve 2012)

Although the sun has just come out, this dreary day is not completely gone. I unclasp my hands from around my hardened heart, squeezed tight by the news of the day. A suitcase left unpacked, presents hastily purchased; decorations leftover from past holidays are awkwardly set aside to keep them safe from the cat. It’s time again to remember why we do this. It’s Christmas again.

Traditions, passing from generation to generation, have changed. The tree went up on Christmas Eve, presents never appearing until the next morning. Anticipation was the best part of the season, I was told. In the next twelve days, porcelain wise men made their way from the back of our church sanctuary to the manger scene in front, pausing along the way at stained glass windows festooned with pine. Ceramic statues placed there by the loving hands of altar women, serving God as a baby.

Some say the only reason for the season is the annual axial tilt, but children falling asleep in the midst of midnight vigils waiting for Santa Claus bear witness to other reasons. There may be snow where I am headed in the morning, but not here. Today’s wet warmth here may be truer to the day Jesus was born. Truer than the cards we write and the carols we sing.

And as our neighbors and friends flock to worship, we go too. Having been left alone on the stark hillside of this starry night, like sheep, we follow our instincts in the darkness. Having heard the news, we too enter into humankind’s great procession: a great noisy din loud enough to wake the divine child sleeping within. Only the mother quietly ponders all that is in her heart; the mother remains silently holding the future in her arms.

Researched and well-read this time, the reason for the season will not elude me. Christmas come again will remind me why we do this. The famous star wasn’t a star at all. Possibly a comet, possibly the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, still it remains a beacon to a season pulled forward in time towards one more verse of “Away in a Manger,” towards one more shout of “Great Joy.”
Today I remember the legend that animals are given the gift of speech on Christmas Eve. Mid-wives to the Christ child, the animals were blessed by their presence on this holy night. I eye my cat warily, remembering too, that the legend warns that it is unlucky to hear an animal speak. Some magic is best when it is only anticipated. Christmas again is best when remembered, left unexplained.

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What You See is What You Get

I preached the following sermon this past Sunday (August 11, 2013) at Conejo Valley UU Fellowship, the congregation I serve.

American Buddhist Joseph Goldstein tells the story of a friend’s son who was asked by his first grade teacher “What is the color of apples?” Most of the children answered red. A few said green. The friend’s son raised his hand and said white. The teacher explained that apples could be red, or green or even golden but never white. The little boy raised his hand and said, “Look inside.” Goldstein tells this story and then tells us, “Perception without mindfulness keeps us on the surface of things, and we often miss other levels of reality.”

“It is that simple – what you see is what you get,” writes Annie Dillard in her classic book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. She could have easily have written, “How you see is what you get” or “you are the one assigning meaning to this chip of copper, this muskrat kit paddling from its den, this apple….”

Dillard’s way of seeing and assigning meaning emerges from a year spent in a cabin by herself observing Tinker Creek and the mountains that surround it. We can learn from Dillard’s year in the woods, just as we learn from reading earlier transcendentalists like Thoreau, Emerson and Fuller.

We can learn what it is to let go and to truly see.

As we let go we empty ourselves of the meanings we give to the pennies and boulders, the treasures and obstacles in our lives. As we let go the only moment is now and things appear as they really are. “The difference between the two ways of seeing is the difference between walking with and without a camera,” Dillard tells us (p. 31).


Who here hasn’t spent most of their vacation behind the lens of a camera? I remember when my daughter graduated from high school. I arrived at the auditorium loaded down with camera equipment – my video camera AND the still camera – I was ready! One friend, who happens to be a professional camera man, took the video camera away from me. Another friend came with her very expensive digital camera from work and told me to put mine away. They gave me the gift of being completely present –completely mindful – to the experience of my oldest child graduating from high school. Before their gifts I was ready to record my daughter’s graduation, but not exactly ready to experience it.

Walking with a camera is to view all of life through a lens of interpretation. I see this way because my parents taught me to see this way. I am no good at this or that because my teacher told me so. Walking without a camera is to drop the lens of blame and guilt. When we see our lives just as they are the windows of our beings open wide, the moment’s light imprints on us a new image. We become the observers of our own dramas. Without a year spent alone in the woods, without the aid of stalking muskrats or observing nature’s cruel beauty, even we can see in this second way.

This is the “miracle of mindfulness” that Thich Nhat Hanh writes about. When Dillard stalks muskrats all she is aware of is stalking muskrats. When we wash dishes, we can practice being aware only of washing the dishes.

The first time I read Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, The Miracle of Mindfulness, I purposefully placed myself outdoors in my backyard. It was a beautiful day – I was mindful of the heat against my skin, I was mindful of my cat jumping in the grass, I was mindful of the squirrel yelling at my cat, I was mindful of every word on the page. “Wow, I’m really good at this” I thought….which is the trick of course, as soon as we think we’ve got it, we really don’t.

The miracle of mindfulness is much more than being completely present to washing the dishes or a daughter’s graduation. Being “conscious of each breath, each movement, every thought and feeling, everything which has any relation to ourselves,” seems sort of selfish. But how can we be aware of anything if we aren’t even aware of our own self?

Joseph Goldstein says mindfulness is the key to being fully awake. Books like his “Insight Meditation,” Lama Surya Das’ “Awakening the Buddha Within” and Thich Nhat Hanh’s many books are instruction manuals in the art of mindfulness. It is a great concept, one that many of us who are not Buddhists are attracted to. It has crept its way into Western self-help thought and become a recipe for stress reduction. To lift the concept off the page, we actually have to practice it.

I like to practice mindfulness in the shower. This seems so simple at first. Half-asleep, perhaps my mind would be slow enough to just let me take a shower. Each morning I start my day standing in the shower determined to well, take a shower. Usually I end up planning my day, writing a sermon, figuring out the grocery list, designing brilliant arguments, making decisions about things that haven’t even happened yet…the list goes on. My mind is involved in every sort of activity besides taking a shower. I try again.

After getting dressed and drying my hair, during which my mind is doing all sorts of things besides getting dressed and drying my hair, I try again. Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “Every day and every hour, one should practice mindfulness. That’s easy to say, but to carry it out in practice is not” (p. 27). That’s very reassuring. He then suggests we set aside one day a week to practice. That is not so reassuring. A whole day? I must be a bad Buddhist.

And so we begin again. Waking up in the morning we smile and breathe. We notice during the day when our shoulders are up around our ears. We stop. We breathe. We can become more aware by measuring our breath with our footsteps, counting as we breathe or following our breath while carrying on a conversation. We practice mindfulness during mundane activities such as making tea, washing the dishes and cleaning house because when the really big moments in life arrive we want to be able to throw down our camera and see beyond the surface of things.


Annie Dillard’s year at Tinker Creek begins with a transcendent experience when the late afternoon sun plays tricks with silvery fish, the creek and floating flower petals. “Something broke and something opened,” she writes. “I filled up like a new wineskin. I breathed an air like light; I saw a light like water. I was the lip of a fountain the creek filled forever; I was ether, the leaf in the zephyr; I was flesh-flake, feather, bone. … When I see this way I see truly. As Thoreau says, I return to my senses” (page 32).

Dillard’s mindfulness practice in nature takes her to a transcendent place, a place where she becomes more than her self. It is not always this way, she confesses. She must adopt a “healthy poverty, a simplicity,” so that a mere penny can make her day. Hers is the classic solitary experience of the transcendentalist from our Unitarian tradition. Thoreau spent two years alone in the woods observing the natural world and drawing conclusions about the nature of reality.

In her autobiography, Margaret Fuller recounted her moment of awakening during a walk on Thanksgiving Day in 1831. Only twenty-one, filled with despair for herself and all of humankind, she walked through fields as fast as she could, as if running from her deep sadness. She walked for hours, emptying herself. In her description of that day, she recalls the bleak clouds, the cold November wind and the shrunken stream. Suddenly the sun breaks into her gray day and with it a thought that burns as brightly as the sun. With that thought, she saw the “ineffable, the unutterable” – she perceived mindfully.

Here is where I confess that not only am I a bad Buddhist, but I am also a bad transcendentalist. It is difficult for me to be one with the heat, the cat and the squirrel in my backyard. This may be because I am a suburban dweller whose experiences with nature come in the form of squirrels, cats, lizards and store-bought plants. I do not have muskrats paddling around in my backyard.


I do have occasional visits in nature, glimpses of awe-inspiring vistas. And now that I live in California, I have more than the occasional chance to “breathe in air like light,” as Dillard says. One visit in nature stays with me, imprinted on my being by the light of insight and new awareness. Several summers ago I shared a rented cottage on a creek with some family members. One morning we observed a nutria or a beaver, or it could have been a rat for all I know. Add bad naturalist to my list of labels. I’m not sure which it was, but we watched it bathing itself in the creek just below a stack of sticks that we assumed was some sort of dam. A mother duck and her four babies swam from light to shade and back to light again. A chipmunk – yes, we recognized a chipmunk, something I never saw in Texas – showed up both mornings we were there. A weeping willow filled the yard just below the deck at the back of the house. I cannot identify all of the birds we saw or name the water plants that lined the shore. Disappointingly, I was not the “lip of a fountain the creek filled forever.”

Rather, I noticed how the weeping willow reminded me of the trees from my childhood. I was mindful of my sister sitting reading a book in the morning sun, how thin she has become. I was present to my youngest daughter, recently turned 18, as she joined the adults on the deck each morning for a cup of coffee. I was mindful of why we were there.

My mother had died the September before our summer gathering. We rented a cottage on the creek in a small town in upstate New York because we were in that small town to bury her ashes. We gathered in a tiny cemetery that contains the remains of my ancestors going back to the 18th Century. My father is buried there. My grandparents. My great-grandparents. My mother had been planning this trip for us for years. “When you take my ashes to Saugerties…” she would always say. She left detailed instructions including an article cut from the Houston newspaper about a historic house in the area. She had written on the edges, “You might want to visit when you take my ashes to Saugerties.”


I knew what to expect from this trip. I knew where we were headed. I knew what we would see. I had imagined it all many mornings in the shower, when I was failing at my mindfulness practice. After the service at the cemetery, standing on the deck of the cottage by the creek with cousins, mother’s college friends and my family I did not stand “transfixed and emptied” as Annie Dillard does at the sight of silvery fish, a creek and floating flower petals. I stood transfixed and emptied at the sight of the shining people, memories retold, the laughter and a weeping willow that bent down over us mirroring our sadness.

I was not the “lip of a fountain the creek filled forever.” I was not one with the birds or the plants that I could not even name. I was filled – filled with the unexpected letting go of what this trip was supposed to be like, one with a new-found connection to my family and our shared history.

Right mindfulness is the seventh step on the Noble Eight-Fold Path. It is the “kind of seeing that involves a letting go.” It is Thoreau’s returning to our senses. It is seeing beyond the surface into other levels of reality. It is knowing that the color of an apple is white.

In the original Mindfulness Sutra, the Buddha described the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. We are to be aware of our bodies, aware of our feelings and emotions, aware of our thoughts and aware of events. We practice mindfulness during mundane activities such as making tea, washing the dishes and cleaning house because when the really big moments in life arrive we want to be able to throw down our camera and see beyond the surface of things. We practice mindfulness during mundane activities because in reality there is no difference between the mundane and the extraordinary. We practice mindfulness during mundane activities to remind us that every moment is sacred.

The miracle of mindfulness is that we see past the masks, the limiting thoughts and the labels. The miracle of mindfulness is sitting with a dying loved one and seeing them as if for the first time. It is listening to our partner during an argument and not replaying all of the past arguments. It is seeing our child not as a reflection of ourselves, but as a separate person continually unfolding in front of our eyes.

What we see is what we get. And when we see deeply, when we perceive with mindfulness, what we get will transform us.

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Wisdom and joy can emerge from tragedy

This appeared in the religion section of the Ventura County Star, May 25, 2013. I write a column twice a year as a member of the Conejo Valley Interfaith Association.

I went to a movie Monday afternoon and stepped off the world for two hours, taken away by the magic-making of the art of filmmaking. Back inside my car I turned on the radio and was immediately pulled back into the world by the news of the day. There had been a devastating tornado in Oklahoma and my thoughts turned to those I know who live there and serve churches there. This is how we live now – we are immediately connected to the latest tragedy. It can be an overwhelming way to live.

It can be overwhelming to be pulled into other people’s lives in a shared intimacy provided by instant information spinning towards us in a hyper-connected world. I watched online as an older woman stood before the rubble that was once her house. The interviewer asked her if she could yet comprehend what had happened. “Oh I know exactly what happened to me,” the woman feistily answered. Pressing on, wanting something further from the woman, the reporter kept asking her what she thought of the disaster. “That’s life in the big city,” the woman finally said. Maybe a cliché is all any of us have in the face of such inexplicable sorrow, but I imagine this cliché carries the wisdom of the ages. It is a wisdom that will be shared by thousands of viewers who will watch this video over and over again on devices that keep us connected to each other, reminding us we are not alone.

“How do we make sense of this?” the reporter wanted to know. “Why does suffering happen?” we all want to know. How can an all-powerful, supposedly loving God, allow suffering? Allow evil? “That’s life in the big city,” the wise woman counsels. Sometimes suffering just comes out of the whirlwind. It is part of the nature of things. The story of Job from the Hebrew Scriptures teaches us this.

Job’s friends try to convince him he must have done something wrong, some unknown sin has caused his suffering. In the end Job is forced to reject the shallow theology of his friends when he comes face to face with a God who speaks out of the whirlwind. Job is shaken from his simplistic understanding of the sort of puppet-master God who directs each and every human action. Job wakes up. He is transformed. “That’s life in the big city,” he might say. 

My faith teaches that when suffering comes out of the whirlwind, it matters how we respond. My faith calls me to pray with my feet, to first cry out in anguish with those who are hurting, and then to take action. And, in our constantly connected world, we can take action immediately. We can text cash donations to the Salvation Army, the Red Cross and the Oklahoma Regional Food Bank. Survivors of the disaster can post photos of found items to a Facebook group helping identify lost possessions that were thrown a great distance by the storm. This is how we live now – we are immediately connected by the latest tragedy. It could be an overwhelming way to live, if we let it be overwhelming.

The video of the woman standing in front of what was once her house has been seen by thousands more in the time it has taken me to write this reflection. You are nodding your head because you have seen it. You have seen how the video ends. You have watched as the woman’s small dog climbs out from underneath the rubble. This is how we live now, connected and connecting, receiving wisdom from an ordinary woman who knows that sometimes suffering just comes to us, and joy comes too.

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Trust in that daring that shapes the world

The first time I preached an Easter service I was joined on the chancel by a young man who had recently experienced a life-changing accident. He sat behind me at the aging church’s pipe organ, hidden by the height of the pulpit, privately listening while I quoted from the poet Karin Boye’s poem “Yes it hurts when buds burst.”

I was preaching on the meaning of resurrection as transformation, both as personal and as political transformation. As I spoke about the kind of resurrection that comes after personal darkness and pain, I began to grow more aware of the young college senior who was sitting behind me. As I talked about how the rituals and symbols of this time of year remind us that after the pain of betrayal comes new life, I realized that our church organist might have something to teach me about resurrection.

Just three short months before Easter, the young music major who served as our organist and pianist failed to show up for the Sunday worship service. A message had been left with our worship committee chair person who just happened to be out of town. As a result, we didn’t know until later that day that our accompanist had blown off half of his hand while playing around with a “potato gun,” which is basically a pipe-based cannon that uses an accelerant of some type to launch bits of potato or marshmallows or other small objects at high speeds.

After about six hours of surgery and three months of recovery, our accompanist returned to us in time for the Easter service. The surgeon had been able to reconstruct part of the palm of the right hand, but this young man who was about to graduate with a music degree specializing in piano was now missing two fingers. He was in constant pain as the injury continued to heal, but he was determined to return to his life as it was before the accident, knowing that his life would never be the same again.

The words I said about resurrection took on new meaning for me as I found myself looking out to the congregation but realizing I was talking to the young man sitting behind me. I talked about how after the death of our old ways of being comes not everlasting life, but the sense that life is ever-renewing. I quoted more lines from the poem:

Then, when it is worst and nothing helps,

they burst, as if in ecstasy, the first buds of the


when fear itself is compelled to let go,

they fall in a glistening veil, all the drops from

            the twigs,

blinking away their fears of the new,

shutting out their doubts about the journey,

feeling for an instant how this is their greatest


to trust in that daring that shapes the world.

After the service I walked out of the sanctuary with this injured and healing young man. I shared with him my experience of sensing that somehow I had been preaching only to him. Now, looking back, I realize it was his life that was doing the preaching. It is his life that teaches me still to “trust in that daring that shapes the world.”

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Letting Go and Letting Be

During the holidays I visited with a friend who is dying. She has had cancer for the entire time I have known her, almost ten years now. She isn’t in hospice, so you could say that she is not actively dying. She is still receiving chemo, still expecting to live for a year or two. We sat by the fire in her home, beautifully decorated for the holidays by loving friends. We talked of ordinary things and yes, occasionally about death. I have no idea when I will see her again.

This could be said of all the friends I visited during the holidays: “I visited with my friends who are dying.” I have no idea when or if I will see them again. For we are all dying and we do not know when the appointed hour will come.

The poet Anne Hillman writes,

We look with uncertainty

Beyond the old choices for

Clear-cut answers

To a softer, more permeable aliveness

Which is every moment

At the brink of death;

Moving from one year to the next is a liminal moment, a threshold moment. We always stand “at the brink of death” but at the death of one year and the birth of another, this truth reveals itself for further examination. We make “best of” lists, memorialize the recently deceased and resolve to live differently in the year ahead. We stand at the doorway of the New Year. It is a perfect time to practice dying.

Western culture is not comfortable with practicing dying. Western culture has a tendency to institutionalize dying, to remove it from sight. Remember the fear that was stirred up by talks of “death panels” being included in the President’s healthcare plan? The inclusion of assessing dying patients’ needs as a way to reduce end of life costs is a countercultural message in a society that treats death as an illness. Cynical politicians fed on our collective fear of dying and stirred up controversy for their own political gain.

“Perhaps, from the great spiritual traditions of the past, we can retrieve a vision of dying that makes it possible for us to embrace the unknown without being paralyzed with fear, and to embrace the truth of impermanence as we open our arms to the world,” Joan Halifax tells us. “Plato told his students, ‘Practice dying.’ The Christian monks of medieval Europe ritually whispered to one another, ‘Memento mori’ (‘Remember death’) (Being with Dying, page 48). In my own Unitarian Universalist tradition we have Ralph Waldo Emerson, emulating the practice of Buddhist monks, opening the coffin of his much-beloved first wife thirteen months after her death. Twenty-five years later when the coffin of his son was being moved, fifteen years after his death, Emerson again opened the coffin.

This seems morbid and ghoulish, hard to comprehend in a world that keeps death far away from us in sterile hospital rooms and lavish, over-priced burial arrangements. Emerson’s insistence on seeing the reality of impermanence is neither morbid nor ghoulish. This was Emerson learning to live in the ever present now while freeing himself from the limitations of the past. If you have ever witnessed a loved one’s cremains being released back to the elements, you know the healing that is possible in the stark acknowledgement that life and death are constantly caught in a loving dance.

We practice dying when we let go of the way we thought our lives would look. We practice dying when we surrender to the way things are. We practice dying when we let go and let be. The brackets we impose on one year versus the next also allow us to practice dying.

I do not know what happens when we die. I am attracted to the idea described by philosophers and theologians as objective immortality. Objective immortality is not the same as subjective immortality: the notion that we live after death in a perfected fashion of the way we lived before death. Objective immortality means that every thought, every action, every way of being we have created while living, lives on in a perpetual web of existence, described by some as the mind of God or by Emerson as the Oversoul. We are in the lives we leave behind, not just in children we may create, but in every life we touch during our brief sojourn in this world that we are destined to leave.

Dying is the ultimate act of surrender because we truly do not know what comes next. At the beginning of a New Year we would like to know what comes next. We would like to make what comes next happen based on all of the supposedly bad things that happened in the old year. In the art of practicing dying we give up controlling what comes next and we surrender to the glorious possibility that Life can surprise us. In the art of practicing dying we learn to let go and let be.

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