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PRACTICING COURAGE

Updated: Jul 26, 2022

It is spring in Seattle. Beautiful clouds with sun breaks. There are flowers blooming everywhere, and so many neighbors out gardening. Spring helps to lift our hearts, even with all that is going on.


I am in an intensive study of Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly. I guess that I am playing catch-up, because millions of people, including some of my best friends, know Brown’s work well, and I did not know of her until this year. This past winter, I first learned of Rachel Held Evans from NPR and the New Yorker, and I fell head over heels for her books. I mean I fell head over heels for her! She became one of my heroes. Like millions of others, I wish that she were still here with us.


Rachel wrote that she kept Brené Brown’s books on her bed table. I wondered why? Then the name rang a bell. Catherine, my awesome, life-saving therapist, had mentioned her name more than once. Catherine turns me onto many very wise, creative, spiritual people, and half the time at least it takes a long time before I follow up.


I remembered the name and got some of Brene’s books from the library. I started one of the books, and Brené wrote about her first TED Talk in Houston in 2010 that I mentioned in my first blog post. I put down the book and watched the TED Talk. That is when I realized, “I need to learn from Brené Brown. Then when I either read in her book or heard in her second Ted Talk when she was so honest about how freaked out she was by her first talk, I knew this is really someone I need to learn from. Because she was not just an academic researcher talking to us from her research about our struggles to overcome shame, be vulnerable, and be free and creative. She was talking to us from within her own struggle to do this. And this is the quality of my greatest heroes. I bought all the books.

* * * * * *

I said in my first blog that writing to the public like this is really scary for me. And I believe that it can be liberating for me. If I can believe in my heart, just part of the time (smile), just sometimes!, regardless of whether I have received glowing reviews from those who love me or whether I think that I have failed or embarrassed myself, that I am intrinsically worthy and loved, then I am on the path to creativity. If every single person who knows and loves me texts me and says, “John, this is a great website!” that will feel great. But then I will think how will I live up to this in the next blog post? Only my own understanding of my own intrinsic worthiness can make me free. I think that Brené’s work, studied, understood, practiced, will help me in that understanding and will help me to grow in courage and creativity.


My personal Christian theological belief is that nothing that I do can do is needed to make me worthy and loved, but by some grace, I am and always have been worthy and loved. That the separation from the one whom we call God is only in our minds and hearts and in no way in God. I love Michael Morwood, who tells us that Jesus taught us about the presence of God, not our separation from God. Our spiritual practices help us to grow in that understanding. And knowing that we are all in this together, we must help each other!


The ancient wisdom of the Indian Upanishads in Advaita Vedanta teaches me that nothing can make me complete and whole other than that I am already complete and whole. We experience the separateness of all things and long for connection, but the reality in each of us is the same reality that is in all things. Vedanta is a pramana, a means of knowledge, and studying the Vedantic scriptures with the help of a teacher is a practice that helps us to focus our minds on the truth of that one reality. From that knowledge comes compassion for all.

I would tell my congregations, “There is only God.”


Catherine reminded me of Wendell Berry’s take on it: It is Burley Coulter speaking in Berry’s short story called The Wild Birds: “The way we are, we are members of each other. All of us. Everything. The difference ain’t in who is a member and who is not, but in who knows it and who don’t.”*


And in this psychological approach that Brené is teaching and I am studying, I find my worthiness in my knowing, believing, trusting in my worthiness, resilient from fear of judgment and shame, not in any praise that I receive nor critique that I survive. There will always be situations in which If I will experience myself being judged, being shamed, being embarrassed. Brené is teaching us how we can be resilient in those situations, and what the practices are that help us to develop that resilience.


I am just beginning this study. Writing this blog is a perfect laboratory for me in which to practice. Because I so want “to get it right,” it can really trigger me! And so I will continue to study Brené’s work and practice! Whether you are way ahead of me on this journey, no matter where you are on this journey on which we are all pilgrims padding along the path in our dusty feet, write a comment, let me know your thoughts. I welcome you to be in commune with me.


*The Wild Birds: Six Stories of the Port William Membership. San Francisco: North Point, 1986.

* * * * * *

From My Life Story

In my life and spiritual journey, there have been times when I took a great leap into the unknown: Leaving Ohio hitch-hiking for San Francisco at the age of 23 and arriving in that whole new world. A year later, falling in love, coming out to my Dad and Mom, leaving my best job ever and going to the ashram in 1986, separating from my partner Bry after 30 years, deciding to go to seminary, deciding to transfer to the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, deciding that I could not be a closeted pastor, re-committing to Bry after his stroke. These were decisions which did not come with a road map. They all had to be acts of faith. And acts of faith are not without fear or doubt. If they were, they would not be faith. Ann Lamott wrote, “The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.”


In the next couple of blog posts, I am going to tell you about one of these times, in the spring and summer of 2000. How I, who did not even know if I wanted to call myself a Christian, came to go to seminary. But, first, a little trip to Cleveland.

* * * * * *

Going back to my early years at Wallingford United Methodist Church, my first church in which to be active in over 30 years. In January of 2000, four years after finding WUMC, I was working as a Program Manager for the City of Seattle's Aging and Disability Services and still attending Wallingford. I had become active in the co-leadership of the Reconciling Congregation Committee, whose aim was to support Wallingford’s mission as an open and affirming congregation.


In late January of 2000, I attended a Men’s Retreat. It was this extraordinary bi-annual retreat led by two highly gifted and compassionate psychotherapists, John Mosher and Dale Buchanan. Approximately 30 men, gay and straight together would spend four days living together and doing psychodrama. At a fire ceremony at the beginning of the retreat, John gave us each a rune, a small stone with a symbol on it, whose meaning we would not know until the end of our long weekend together. Usually these retreats were very powerful for me. But this time, by the end of the four days, I was really disappointed. I thought that I had not allowed myself to be vulnerable enough to do any really important psychodrama work, and was grieving that. Then, in the final closing ceremony, I learned the meaning of my rune. It was “breaking through to change.” I was baffled; it was so incongruent with my experience of the retreat. What could this mean?


Around that same time, in early 2000, while working for the City, I realized that I no longer wanted what I was passionate about to be what I did with what little energy that I had left when I got off of work. I wanted my work itself to be something that I was passionate about. I do not know if I thought of the word, but what I wanted was a vocation!


Then, as the 2000 quadrennial international General Conference of the UMC approached, our committee at Wallingford launched a letter writing campaign, encouraging WUMC congregation members to write personal hand-written letters to delegates to the international conference. Admittedly, our effort had its faults. If we had co-ordinated with the national Reconciling Congregation Committee in Chicago, we would have been more efficient, because we did not even know supportive delegates from opposing ones! But Wallingford members wrote and sent over 700 hand written letters to delegates.


On May 2- 12, with funds raised by generous WUMC members, I attended the United Methodist General Conference 2000 in Cleveland for the whole two weeks. It was an intense experience. We all arranged our own housing and our AMAR* coalition gathered in the evenings at a nearby supportive church. We did not get much sleep.


And on May 11th, the next to the last day of the conference, we lost the vote to remove language in the UMC Book of Discipline stating that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, banning self-avowed practicing homosexual persons from being ordained as pastors, and banning same-gender unions.


Our AMAR* coalition advocating and demonstrating for an inclusive church acted in civil disobedience, occupying the podium area and refusing to leave. This was a very courageous act by all of us participating. We were standing in front of a conference of about 1000 United Methodist delegates, approximately 700 (mostly seated in the front) of whom had just a little earlier voted to deny the full participation in the church of those among us who were LGBTQ. We had no permission except for moral permission to be there. Many of the conference delegates were likely outraged by what we were doing. There were unsuccessful negotiations and eventually the Cleveland police were called to take us way, including two bishops, Susan Morrison and Joseph Sprague, who went to jail with us.


On the conference podium before the arrest, all very vulnerable and showing

Courage. The last three on the right are Pastor Greg Dell of Chicago, the leader

of our coalition, the Rev. Gil Caldwell of Black Methodists for Church Renewal,

and Randy Miller, from Bethany UMC, who spoke for us.

Photo: Mike DuBose, UM News

Randy Miller, of Bethany United Methodist Church in San Francisco,

speaking on behalf of our group to presiding Bishop Dan Solomon of

Louisiana. And standing with Randy is Sue Laurie. We did not

agree to leave the podium. .Photo: Mike DuBose, UM News


This was a life-changing experience for me. I do not want to pretend that civil disobedience is not a real risk, because many times courageous people have suffered serious consequences, getting killed or injured or having to spend significant time in jail. This is best known to us by the civil rights movement and the movement for independence in India. But there are courageous people acting in civil disobedience every day in our world. And there are dramatic examples of incredibly courageous civil disobedience against the Romans by the people of Judea in ancient Israel.


I am writing about this, not because it was unusual (although it was probably the first and probably only time UMC members have been arrested on the podium of the UMC international conference). I am writing about it because it changed my life.


We were a group of 27 clergy and lay UMC members, advocating for equal rights in the church for LGBTQ United Methodists. It should not have been very scary. But I was scared. This was my first experience of being arrested in a civil disobedience. But why I was afraid? The leader of our coalition, Pastor Greg Dell, had warned us that, since this would be the second civil disobedience at the conference (Soulforce* had demonstrated and been arrested the day before), and, unlike the first group, we had no pre-arranged agreement with the authorities, we might have to serve 30 days jail time. Not only was I two thousand miles away from home, but also I had been arrested and jailed in a drug raid when I was young, at a time in my life when I was very emotionally vulnerable, so the idea of actually being incarcerated again was frightening to me. What I actually found was that it was quite liberating to go through that fear and come out the other side. And I was in jail with pastors who had been arrested in the civil rights movement. I thought, “These are my people.” The next time that I felt the need to be in a civil disobedience, it was much easier.


I described the events of that day in more detail in a piece that I wrote for the Wallingford UMC newsletter. It is titled “Images of Cleveland.” That will be in my third blog. And then, after that, how I, who was deeply steeped in Advaita Vedanta, who had, and still has, no doubt whatsoever about the truth in Advaita Vedanta, who had most of my adult life not attended church, who did not even know if I wanted to call myself a Christian, came to go to seminary.


See the two footnotes below.

* * * * *

Repeating the prayer that was at the end of the first blog post: We are experiencing the tragedy in Ukraine, the on-going hardships of the pandemic, the slow pace of nations and corporations to address the climate crisis, wildfires in the west, a stalled congressional agenda, and the assault on voting rights and democracy itself in our country. So whether we say, “May... in the Buddhist tradition, or “Oh Lord...” in the Christian tradition, let us do all that we can to work, support, advocate locally and globally “caring for our neighbor,” and may our lives be lives of prayer. May we always remember to be kind to ourselves as well as others, and with our hearts open, knowing the suffering of our world, doing what we can to relieve suffering, may we experience moments of grace and joy.

** * * * *

This is a heart-opening song: From his album Vignettes, Wesley Schultz singing the song “Keep Me in Your Heart,” which was written by Warren Zevon.


*Our coalition, called *AMAR, was a coalition of Affirmation, the Methodist Federation for Social Action, the Reconciling Congregation Program, People of Color for an All-inclusive Church, and In All Things Charity.

*Soulforce was and still is a national gay rights advocacy group. It was founded by Pastor Mel White. During this period of time, Soulforce was leading many large demonstrations at national denominational conferences around the country in support of full LGBTQ inclusion in our faith communities.


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