Posts Tagged Gen X
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 12/3/17 beginning the season of Advent reflecting on the everyday choices we make in the face of worldly greed. This takes a hard look at the pending Tax Bill before the US House and Senate.
“One day our generation is gonna rule the population.” We heard those words earlier from our choir. John Mayer made them famous in his 2006 song, Waiting on the World to Change. From time to time, I hear folks use the song to reference a certain spirit of change coming from our millennial generation. And I’m so grateful for that and for the generation after me. Please, by all means, have at it – we need all of us to thrive. But Mayer is my age peer – two years younger; I’ve always felt a strong resonance with it, and this song has always felt to me to be one of the Gen X anthems – at least for my fellow Gen X on my end of the generation.
In 2006, when this song came out, I had just finished up 400 hours of what they call Clinical Pastoral Education at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. All the chaplains were on call from time to time throughout the hospital, but we all had a focus. My focus was Pediatric ICU, the CCU and the ER. Holding eyes with patients who were going under for immediate surgery; moving family away from some of the work they would not ever want to see; talking with a stranger who was suddenly and shockingly facing what they never imagined would occur on a random weeknight. The children’s hospital was amazing; kids who really had no hope elsewhere, would find hope there. The ER was frequently used as primary care for patients without health insurance. My role was purely pastoral – being a human presence in a place where so many practical things needed to get done, and not enough time in the day.
Being located up in the 150’s, speaking Spanish was a real need in some cases, and although my Spanish is weak these days from lack of use, it was worse back then. The story from last week about my trip to Guatemala, actually came about because of this time working at that hospital. A mom and her baby were trying to get urgent care, and no one nearby could understand her. I ultimately helped her find her way, but it took way longer than it needed to. It all turned out alright, but that’s not always the case. Right after CPE ended, I booked that trip to work on my Spanish. “One day our generation is gonna rule the population.” How that looks, is going to depend on how we act, live, and grow in our everyday choices as we wait for the next day, and the next. Everyday choices.
That time working at the hospital rounded out another aspect of my community work over the years: access to health care. Before the ministry, I worked for a republican mayor in NYC, focused on using my tech, and public policy training, to work with a team that got affordable health care to an additional 80,000 New Yorkers that year – including any child being eligible regardless of income or immigration status. I had the challenge of doing the analysis in such a way as to not track immigration status, while still finding the kids that needed the care. The republican mayor didn’t want to risk turning our agency into an ICE office, and wanted kids not to die for reasons that could be avoided.
Now, I’m not going to talk politics about this – I’m lifting it up as a measuring stick, as a form of marker of the times. Ten or fifteen years ago, I could go from non-profit advocacy working to pressure a particular mayor’s office to improve on affordable housing, straight to working for that same mayor to implement access to health care. There was a certain practical, sensible civility that seems to have disappeared in recent years. And even more stunning looking back, that access to health care, came about because of Mayor Guiliani. A basic conservative value said, it was cheaper to care for patients with their primary care doctors, than using emergency rooms as primary care. That seemed to get lost over the intervening decade of sound bytes and media fueled culture wars. Common discourse shifted from nuance – to needing to be right, and more importantly, needing others to be wrong. “One day our generation is gonna rule the population.” How that looks, is going to depend on how we act, live, and grow in our everyday choices as we wait for the next day, and the next. Everyday choices. Do we seek to find what’s best for all our community, or do we seek to make sure others are just wrong?
Waiting on the world to change, and for a new generation to take the lead, won’t happen some distant day in the future. It happens bit by bit, day by day. The holidays are a time of year that many of us turn toward introspection. Although we can see with the brilliance of 20/20 vision what has come before, especially after much time has past, it’s the incremental living that adds up to a new world. Not all the things all at once, but the culmination of intentions by impacts by intentions. …Even one generation leading, is a misnomer. Our mentors lead, or inspire the change we bring about. Those of you who are teachers, are setting the stage for new ways. Those of you who are parents, or grandparents, can serve as a bedrock for the next generation. To the role models in our Fellowship, know that you are avidly being watched, and followed, probably in all that you do. (I hope that is more a source of inspiration than of trepidation. We need you to be inspired right now. Even with all the chaos of the world, it’s still ok to be inspired but what still may be.)
And it should be a source of inspiration! We will not accomplish everything there is to every accomplish. But if our kids and our kids’ kids, will someday lead the way, how that looks, is going to depend on how we act, live, and grow. So in this seemingly perpetual climate of avarice, greed, and hypocrisy, choose to act, live and grow in ways that build up a more just foundation for our neighborhoods.
We have entered the season of Advent; the season of waiting for the good word, that we know will soon arrive. A miracle of new birth, that we have done nothing ourselves to accomplish. We’re called to be attentive, to be open, to what new paths of hope, joy and possibility may soon quicken in our lives. This is a spiritual teaching, but it’s also a challenging social teaching, a challenging political teaching. Religious author, Neal A. Maxwell, writes, “Each of us is an innkeeper who decides if there is room.” When we hear the Christmas story, year after year, do we ever imagine ourselves as the innkeepers? Those who turned the young family away, time after time, or the one who decided he could make room with the animals for these refugees? With all the talk of religious intolerance these days; with the desperate needs of refugees the world over; where are we the innkeepers in our life story? The season of Advent is not only about waiting for the arrival of the homeless boy seeking shelter in night. It’s about waiting to see what role we will play in the story – our story – this sacred story of life. How do we act, live and grow in our everyday choices. As news turns to news turns to news, we can rewrite the Advent story to be about waiting for Herod to find the baby Jesus, (for the Vassal Despot to find the middle-eastern refugee) or we can wait for our next lines that will help to birth a new world, to be the innkeeper that chooses to make what room we can. The innkeeper that said yes, to the family that had no shelter, may not be the hero of the story we teach about again and again, but they were certainly one of the many heroes in the story. The change we make doesn’t have to center ourselves in the story, to make a world of difference; often in fact, it’s the other way around.
In light of what is going on in the wee hours of the night this weekend, I need to take a small detour from Advent, but we’ll find our way back quite soon. We had two tax bills pass this week, that were written with such obscurity, that senators were voting without having fully read it, without the public being fully informed, and with financial reporting at places like Fortune magazine, saying it was potentially the largest wealth transfer in American history, from the poor and middle class to the super wealthy. As more reporting comes out this morning, this seems to be worse and worse. At a time in our religious life where we are focused on the teachings of the birth of hope for the poor, the weak, the hungry, the sick, lost and the refugee, our government is ensconcing the very opposite in our tax code. I’m heartsick. In biblical language, this is cause to don sackcloth and ashes, rather than garlands gay and singing; a time for less Fa La La, and more a time to seek communal repentance. It’s naked avarice, pure and simple.
I had a moment of fear, when I heard the news sometime around 1am Saturday morning. I was watching the feed live on Facebook. It means less protection for health services for our elderly, and our poor. Remember the health insurance for children I spoke about working on earlier in this sermon – that program costing about 15 billion nationally would be eliminated to give a 1.5 trillion dollar tax cut to corporations. It means a ballooning deficit. For my generation and the next, the impacts from our student loans will skyrocket. Practically no reputable economist disagrees – and that’s just from what we knew of prior to the 12th hour adjustments that were voted on without being reviewed. It’s more than a tax rewrite, it’s a massive rewriting of our cultural fabric, and I feared it was already too late. A colleague of mine, Rev. Dr. Michael Tino, a UU minister serving in another part of New York State, publicly reminded many of us, “Just so we’re clear on how a bill becomes a law, the disaster that passed the House has to be reconciled with the abomination that passed the Senate. Then the resulting horror will have to pass both chambers again. This fight isn’t over.” …“One day our generation is gonna rule the population.” How that looks, is going to depend on how we act, live, and grow in our everyday choices as we wait for the next day, and the next. Everyday choices.
The choice for each of us, in this sacred season of waiting, is how will you be engaged? In our liminal spaces, where we are feeling stuck between what was, and what will be, we often understand waiting as a sort of passive, helpless state. Waiting with indifference may be that, but spiritually speaking, waiting can be a deeper path. Waiting can have a tenacious quality to it. In the Advent season, we are taught to tenaciously wait for the coming of the birth of the good news; that peace and justice will someday prevail. It’s not a possibility, but the end point in the Christian tradition, the culmination of the teachings of one of the world’s greatest teachers.
Joy and hope do not come to this world from positions of power, privilege or prestige. In the weeks to come, and the year to come, as we tenaciously wait for what will be – remember this advent season; remember that star over Bethlehem. When you are exhausted from the long road to wherever you are going, remember you are not alone on that road. If you’re trying to piece together a family of your own making, remember you are not alone on that road. If you’re struggling to make ends meet; to find that next job; to keep a roof over your head – remember you are not alone on that road. All these stories, all our stories, are in this great story of a helpless baby waiting for what would soon come.
And when you go back into the fuss and busyness of the frantic year – when you hear people say the poor deserve what they have – remember this story and know that message is false. When you hear people say, we shouldn’t be concerned about affordable places to live for others – remember this story and know that message is false. When you hear people say that a family should always look a certain way – remember this story and know that message is false. The kings and wise men of the world will come later to the creche, but the animals, the shepherds – the lowest among us – are the first to witness this night. Will you wait with me, tenaciously, and engaged?
And if engagement for you means organzing around this issue, let me know how I can help spread the word in our congregation. We have so many that work with our shelter, and supporting growing food for our town pantry, and for helping with immigrant accompaniment locally. Maybe that way of helping and leading is too much right now in your life. It takes all of us together to make a difference, and we can’t all do everything. But maybe organizing letter writing is a thing that you feel called to do. If that’s you, let me know, and we’ll move forward together. “One day our generation is gonna rule the population.” Everyday choices.
This sermon was preached at the UU Fellowship of Huntington on Sunday, August 25th, 2013. It looks at how our lives are in constant transition and how that can be a source of strength for our community.
You can view the youtube video here. Unfortunately, due to a technical glitch, the last 15 seconds were not recorded. The text though can be found below.
I’ve been reflecting a lot this Summer about being immersed in a season of change in my life. I hear our congregation talking about all the transitions going on for our community as well. Some of the stories are energizing and sustaining; some of the stories speak of slowing down; some have suffered losses in their family or continue to wrestle with health concerns that don’t seem to go away; while others are celebrating new beginnings with college, or school, or work. Each of these are happening all the time. On any given day, look around and you’ll see a little bit of sorrow and joy in each of our faces. Although sometimes it’s hard to notice if the person doesn’t want you to see the vulnerability.
We often talk about the Springtime of our life being childhood, and the Winter being our elder years. In some basic ways, the metaphor has merit on its own, but I’m not sure it goes deep enough. Reincarnation aside, Winter inevitably turns to Spring – and I have yet to meet anyone who’s successfully turned back the clock to childhood. It’s more helpful if we consider the seasons in each time of our life. However old we are, there are always beginnings and endings. There are always times of excitement and exhaustion. We can be renewed by Spring, or we can be reflective in the Winter. This can happen through the course of the day, but over the arc of our lives it’s most visible in hindsight. We see it most clearly when we turn a new leaf in our story.
What does it look and feel like as we turn to our next leaf in our own lives and the life of this congregation? Ask yourself right now –What season are we in, at this moment, in your own life? What season is our congregation in? What transmutes within us as we take on the long view of a million or more such turns in the life of a soul or a community of souls?
Is the turning of a new leaf a page unread, the dying of Autumn, a Spring time resurrection, or just the bending of our soul toward the motion of the sun?
Change happens. And will continue to, for a very long time. Someone comes along and hears a thing, or a phrase, or a way of living, or a tradition. She thinks it’s meaningful, and helpful, but has a new use for it. She takes it and runs with it; hopefully bringing the idea a new life and a new direction. She makes it meaningful and relevant to her generation or to a new time. All of that’s critical in the life of a community or a person. Times change and so do needs and outlooks. But an idea or a ritual or a tradition came from somewhere and had a meaning and a value all its own. It grew out from a place of shared values of another people or another time. It can be a snapshot of a generation or a family. Where it goes and grows toward is just as important as where it came from – what soil it was rooted in. An idea or practice can grow ignorant of its foundation, but will be more rich and certainly stronger for the knowing.
What season we’re in will often influence how we react to the intrepid new leader or idea. Maybe more importantly, how we feel about the season we’re in will influence our response as well. Are you in a dry time of your life? Will new pathways offer renewal and a turning to Spring? Or are you feeling bitter and willing to allow the coldness to wither new openings? Or are you in a time of reflection in your life where it’s not yet time for new beginnings?
What happens when the ideas one generation runs with are more sacred or more sensitive than a simple time change – like when our shared “Centers meal” happens during the month? What if it involves a lifetime of work, or a value that formed your youth? We know how hard this can be for everyone involved when new inspirations set off a struggle of values. “But we had that in our family for generations?” or “But I grew up with children in worship with us – for the entire service.” or “For me social justice work is really about…” (and I’ll let you fill in that blank knowing that it will be different for almost every one of us.) We can all imagine the pain that can quickly sprout from these instances.
I found some helpful advice to reframe the discussion in a book called,
“From Age-ing to Sage-ing: A Profound New Vision of Growing Older” by Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi. It’s a book about aging, and eldering. In a chapter about mentoring he writes,
“Think of a canal lock that fills and empties, allowing boats to rise or descend to different levels. Because the elder is at a higher level of experience than the younger colleague, mentoring enables the water to move from one level to another through spiritual intimacy. In this exchange, communication is always a two-way process that mutually benefits both parties. The elder has more life experience and wisdom, so naturally the higher seeks its own level by flowing into the lower. At the same time, the mentee, having more vitality, naturally rejuvenates and invigorates the elder with energy and an influx of fresh ideas. Without this exchange, the elder may remain locked in the past. With their penchant for experimentation and their forward-looking mentality, young people give elders the gift of encountering the present and anticipating the future. What mentees receive, says Maurice Friedman, professor emeritus of religious studies, philosophy, and comparative literature at San Diego State University, is a readiness to bridge the past and the future.”
Hopefully, we’re all familiar with canals and locks otherwise this quote’s going to be a tough one…. It speaks to movement, back and forth. The interchange keeps the water fresh and refreshed. Wisdom lifts us all up while itself needing new life to stay fresh. I like it because it also depicts how we’re all in the same system of locks. It’s not a struggle or fight between one generation and the preceding, but rather a long river flowing from one age to another – interconnected, interspersed, and continuously reliant upon one another to move its vessels and cargo from their source to their destination. Each new decade being another lock that can open up incredible potential to face the world as it is – with all its challenges, changes and new experiences. The rabbi finishes this thought with this line, “The twenty-first century is nothing but questions that we’ve never heard before. In the fire of a mentoring relationship, young people develop a readiness to meet new, unforeseen situations in ways that carry life forward.” It seems to me that we’re invited to appreciate the value our elders have, with their longer view, in collaboration with the contemporary age’s great translators – our newest generations – the Gen Xers who are now in their 30s and 40s (when did that happen!?) and the Millennials who now range from those graduating high school to folks in their very early thirties. (I feel like we just coined the phrase Millennial the other day, and in a few short years we’ll start hearing what our current teens’ and grade schooler’s generation will be named.)
If mentoring relationships can be a collaboration of minds and spirits; realizing that both benefit from the connection; that both grow from the interchange; then how renewed – how inspired – can a religious community be as groups of people learn, interact, exchange and connect? We can readily think of the benefits of this in the realm of the technical and professional. The details and the proclivities make sense in congregational mentoring relationships that involve architectural students, or financial expertise, or master teachers. These are all wonderful opportunities, but they are ones that we can often access in the secular world as well. As a religious community, our central commodity, our competitive advantage is in the realm of values. We’re also a rare opportunity to explore values, ethics, and theology in a communal- and self-reflective way. And this is wherein our community saves lives and renews dreams.
Mentoring values is an art. It’s integral to the process of eldering. I have the suspicion that eldering is not so much about learning more stuff and knowing how to do more things and better. I expect it’s less about expertise. Eldering is coming to grips with the reality of the brevity of life. An appreciation for how precious and delicate we all are; that life ultimately is more about the questions of value than the details. The “whys” that lead to who we become overshadow the “hows” and “how tos” of daily living. Eldering is living from a place of this kind of knowing and seeking to mentor from that locale. The “longer view” speaking to the clarity of those of us whose sight might be more acute. If values are the central act of religious community, and I believe it is, then this is the greatest gift our elders can offer – both to the wider community and to themselves.
Now what is this “longer view?” I don’t believe it’s simply a factor of duration, although that does help to wizen all of us. One truth the book “Age-ing to Sage-ing” speaks to is that the failings and disappointments that sometimes feel like catastrophes may in fact be the doorways to new opportunities. The new, the fresh, the next great thing sometimes can’t come about without something else ending. The longer view reminds us that “not all that is bad,” is actually bad, in the long run. Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi writes, “When you are young and vulnerable, you see the world as either for or against you, and this view is reinforced when people do hurtful things or betray you. When you are old (of) age and climb the platform of broader understanding, you can reexamine and contemplate your foundational views of the world and recontextualize what happened to you from a more objective, less impulse-driven philosophical position. In this way, you do not have to remain imprisoned in your earlier conclusions about life.” I find that it comes down to what stories we tell about our lives – what stories come out in the moment, and which ones paint a decade or a generation. When we’ve experienced less, we may be more prone to fixating on how difficult, or downright awful, an encounter might seem. But in the longer view, most of these stories seem to open up more doorways than we can possibly imagine.
When I was in my early twenties, I was working in Information Technology. I had a solid job supervising a 24/7 computer Helpdesk; with what was then my longest term relationship, little debt and more vacation time than I could possibly use. That was a story I told for several years. But most of it was really a trap for me. I had taken that job as an opportunity to get professional experience right out of college and save up enough money to actually go into non-profit work. The truth is that I was never going to leave that job unless it became a horrible place to work. One new Vice-President later, and suddenly so many qualified, capable and expert colleagues left; many of us emotional wrecks in his wake. I could find no place of compassion or care for this particular VP. I could not find a way to “story” that experience in the affirmative. In the blink of a few months, I was miserable and needed a way out, and couldn’t see the silver lining at the end of the road. Looking back with that longer view, without that Dilbert-esque VP, I simply would not be where I am today. Back then, I honestly couldn’t imagine this new world at all.
The acute clarity of the short-term vision brings the pain and difficulty vividly to the forefront. As the Rabbi says, “When you are young and vulnerable, you see the world as either for or against you, and this view is reinforced when people do hurtful things or betray you.” And we don’t need to actually be young to still see the world this way; but it is the shorter view. I had a teacher once in Human Development point out accurately, “We are all the ages we have ever been.” It’s probably the most useful fact I’ve ever learned in 22 years of school. You don’t have to be young to act like a baby. Every developmental stage we’ve ever gone through stays with us and occasionally pops back up. But as we grow older, there are new vantage points. We can choose to revision all that has come before us and see it in the bigger picture – and still – we don’t need to be old to realize this truth about life. Doorways forever open and close, but the ones we walk through were necessary to get to where we’re going. We can always choose differently, excepting the realm of death, but the new destination will never be the same.
Our elders among us can help remind us of this truth; they can help steer us back on the path of moderation, compassion and forgiveness – ever reminding us that our family and our religious community matter more for how well it strives to support us than it seeks to always agree with us. Our longest-term members (regardless of age) have seen a congregation of shared values living out the past thirty plus years. We pass on our values in light of the changing seasons, and activities, and habits, and styles. There is an essence to the life and spirit of this congregation that can be felt and can be lived, but words would rarely suffice. It is the task of “eldering” to witness this transition; to strive to crack it open for the next generation to partake and to be enlivened by this sacramental work; for the transmission of communal spirit is a sacred endeavor. In the awareness of the precariousness of life and the appreciation for endings that enliven our beginnings we come to know the time of our lives. We honor the best of ourselves by blessing the sanctity of the lives we share in community. In doing so we become a blessing ourselves to the world around us.
Sometimes the season we’re in in our lives isn’t going to shift neatly to the next, or turn back to an earlier time. Sometimes when we live out ourselves fully, and honestly, we can help another person make a profound choice toward wholeness – wherever they are in their path – whichever season. I’m thinking in particular right now of the story in Georgia this past week, and the hero Antoinette Tuff. A young gunman comes into a school to kill. He’s mentally ill. He’s off his medication. He’s ready to die. He sees no reason to keep on living. Ms. Tuff just starts talking to him. She talks about her life. She talks about her losses and disappointments. She treats him like a human being at a time that most of us wouldn’t even be able to think straight for fear. She has prayer in heart – and she simply relates.
In a later interview she would go on to say, “I loved him right then. I didn’t know him, but I loved him.” In an absurd moment of risk, she was fully human, fully, and honestly, herself. She remained open to her assailant’s humanity. She was mindful of the danger to the children in her protection. And she would later say that she gives it all to God – that she’s no hero. And the young man stopped and said, “I didn’t take my meds today.”… And all those children lived. Where we are in our lives matters profoundly. How we remain open to the people around us can be life-saving. Being centered when we’re terrified, reminds us that there is a deep well in our souls that is ever waiting to be drunk. Tending our relations – friend and stranger alike – changes the world we live in. All is connected – always.
At the start of this sermon I asked two questions. “What does it look and feel like as we turn to our next leaf in our own lives and the life of this congregation? And what transmutes within us as we take on the long view of a million or more such turns in the life of a soul or a community of souls?” I cannot answer the first for any of us. But I can ask all of us to be open to accepting a new look and a new feel to the next page of our communal story, for the leaf must now turn. For the second question, I hope that for each of us we learn from the perpetual transition in our communal story. May it remind us that in our own lives each new challenge or adversity is for but a time – and it might just be something that opens a new path that is wondrous all in its own. With each new step, something may pass away as the Autumn leaves; something may finally birth anew as our current Springtime demands; and sometimes the change is nothing more and nothing less than our souls bending toward the motion of that perpetual light which transcends and imbues all life.
 “From Age-ing to Sage-ing: A Profound New Vision of Growing Older” by Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. p192-193; 1995.
 Ibid. p. 193.
 Ibid. p.97