Category Archives: sermon

‘crazy’ dreams – Syria, Dr. King, and the Common Good (on compassion)

© erin dunigan 2013

© erin dunigan 2013

Estimates are that 100,000 people gathered on St. Peter’s Square and countless others around the world heeded the cry of Pope Francis for a day of ‘prayer and fasting’ for Syria. Hearing about it on Friday, I passed the world along in the way I so often do, – posting it to Facebook.

 Fasting? Why fasting? What good will fasting do?
Am I going to send the food to Syria?
Does God want me to fast?
Am I somehow going to change God’s mind about whether people should be killing there?
What is the point?
Am I supposed to feel guilty that I am enjoying this lovely meal while others are being displaced from their homes?
What is the point?

As I sat and contemplated these questions while eating my morning oatmeal… a thought occurred to me.

The point of fasting, the point of doing without, is not about sending the food to the ‘poor starving children’ and it is not about appeasing some angry deity who is a masochist and enjoys seeing me suffer.

The point, I realized, is to help connect me to the other.

The point of fasting is to, for a moment, displace me from the center of my world and my life, even if it is just around food – but, for those who know me, you know that is a central component of life!- but, for the moment, for the meal, for the day, I am given the opportunity to, in a small sense, allow my life to be joined with the one who is suffering.

No, it doesn’t make their suffering any less, no, it doesn’t somehow change God’s mind about me or them – but what it does do is to provide a link – a link of solidarity. But also a link to something larger than my own individual self, my own isolated self.

Which is, of course, what compassion is all about.

Compassion, according to wikipedia, is the understanding or empathy for the suffering of others, an emotion that we feel in response to the suffering of others that motivates the desire to help.

Not exactly empathy, though related.

Not pity, but related.

Not exactly charity, though related.

Not exactly service, but related.


Steve has told us what the word compassion means in the Hebrew scriptures – it is related to the word womb. To feel deeply, as a mother feels from her womb. The scriptures speak of God’s womb trembling with compassion.

In the Christian scriptures the word that is used for compassion is splagchnizomai – Literally, to be moved to ones bowels, for the bowels were thought to be the center of ones feeling, the center of love and of pity.  It is the word that gets used in the story of the Good Samaritan – when he sees the many lying in the ditch by the side of the road, he has compassion – he is moved to his very being.

It is the same word that gets used in the story of the Prodigal Son – a story of two brothers, an older and a younger. The younger decides that he has had enough of this two horse town and wants to take his share of the inheritance – basically saying to his father, you don’t matter to me, only your money does, so give me my share and I’m outta here – a less than respectful way to leave. He takes the money, goes to a far away land, squanders the money on loose living and winds up with the pigs – not exactly a great spot for a young Jewish boy.

One day it occurs to him – you know, I could go home and be a servant and I’d be living better than this. So he heads back. Not with any sense of remorse, necessarily. Not with a sense of ‘I have squandered what I have been given I need to go home and apologize.’ Nope. Just a sense of ‘I’m hungry and if I returned home at least I could eat.’

As the story goes, when the son is still a long way off the father sees him – has the father been watching for him all along? The father sees his wayward son and does something remarkable – he runs toward him.

This is remarkable for a number of reasons. One, it is a relinquishing of a man’s dignity, to run in such a way. It reminds me of the other day when I went to Paola’s for lunch and, upon hearing that they had chilis rellenos, reached my hands into the air and cried, ‘yes!’

But not only was the running a shedding of dignity – it was also a letting go. The boy had done his father wrong. The boy had not acted like a good son. The boy needed to apologize. The father deserved an apology. The son owed it to him.

But the father ran. He ran before he knew what the boy’s motives were for returning. Without asking for or demanding any sort of explanation of the past months or years, he embraced his son. And he threw a party.

Compassion. To be moved to ones bowels.  Even to the point of running, of embracing, and of throwing a party.

The older brother, the one who had stayed home, taken care of the farm, done all the right things and behaved the right ways, was not as pleased.

“What are you doing, encouraging this delinquent by such behavior?!” he demanded of the father. “He has done wrong. He should pay. He needs to apologize at least. And then pay back all that he has squandered.”

To which the father responded, “This son of mine was lost – now he’s found – celebrate with me.”


The older brother couldn’t go there. He was too stuck on the way he thought things were supposed to be. I wonder, does that sound familiar?

As we all know, there is much talk these days about the ‘spiritual but not religious’ – and one of the main things that gets mentioned in this conversation is the idea of ‘belief.’ People don’t necessarily want to have to ‘believe a certain way’ in order to be on a spiritual path. Don’t tell me what to believe.

But did you know that this linking of belief with an intellectual assent is actually a fairly recent phenomenon?

Prior to the last few hundred years the word belief had almost nothing to do with ‘what I believe or don’t believe to be true about x.’ Rather, the word belief actually meant commitment. (see this post by Karen Armstrong for more info)

So, to say I believe meant not I acknowledge or assent to intellectually, but I commit myself to.

I believe in justice – I commit myself to justice.

I believe in caring for the environment – I commit myself to doing so.

Committing oneself to is a much different animal than agreeing intellectually, isn’t it? We can agree with things intellectually and yet never actually put them into action, can’t we?

But ‘I believe’ as in ‘I commit myself to’…well, that’s a much more demanding prospect.

Just over a week ago was the 50 year anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, a speech whose ‘I have a dream’ is a call for ‘commit yourself to.’

And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream. I believe. I commit myself to.

There have been many studies done recently about the physical effects of compassion.

Did you know that practicing compassion actually lengthens your life? That people who practice compassion are, across the board, happier and healthier? Sounds like an infomercial, doesn’t it? But before you rush to practice compassion for all of these benefits you should know one other piece of information – only when compassion is practiced selflessly, as in, without regard to personal benefit, does it actually produce these results.

But there is something else, and what I find to be the most interesting thing about compassion – practicing compassion actually reconfigures our brains.

Compassion, according to Buddhist roshi Joan Halifax, enhances neural integration. When we go through trauma, or even stress, especially as young children who experience abuse, terror or trauma, but even as adults who experience difficulties, and challenges the stressful or traumatic event actually causes blockages in our brains that, with repetition, are like damming up the flow of a river. Because of those blockages we are not able to think always as clearly or as well or as easily. For most of us we acclimate to the new situation and move on, not always even realizing the damage.

Compassion actually has the capacity to mend those broken places in us, remove those blockages, re-connect that which had been disconnected.

Re-integrate that which had been segregated.

When can often assume that compassion is for the benefit of the other – for the benefit of the one who receives our compassion. But the act of compassion actually heals us in the process as well. Compassion mends the broken places in us. Compassion re-integrates that which had been separated.

When we are moved to our bowels, splagchnizomai, like the father in the story of the prodigal son, we are welcoming back those parts of ourselves that have gone off wandering in a far country. It is that very practicing of compassion that brings healing to ourselves, but also healing to the world.

What is the failing of the older brother in the story? He fails to have compassion. He is so preoccupied with the rules, with his own preoccupation with following them to the t, that he misses the larger point – that the point is to have compassion. He is so concerned with following the rules that he misses the relationship.

Compassion re-integrates that which has been kept separate.

Which, of course, is the meaning of the word religion – to re-bind, to connect. To mend that which has been torn. To remind us, to invite us, into a world where father’s run with arms wide open, throwing dignity to the wind in their rush to lavish extravagant love. Not to demand that we punish ourselves, or wallow in our wretchedness. But to throw a party, no string attached.

To re-integrate that which has been separate. To help us see that separate is the illusion – connected is the reality. To repair the broken places.

There is a Buddhist story about Acharya Asanga who medidated in a cave for 12 years, hoping, in so doing, to have a vision of the Buddha Maitreya.

He exerted so much throughout those years but still he could not have a vision. He lost heart and came out of his meditation cave. He was walking towards town when all of a sudden, he came across a female dog totally infected by maggots on the lower part of her body. Asanga felt so much compassion towards the maggots and towards the female dog. He was wondering how to relieve both the maggots and the female dog.

Under such strong compassion, he reached out his tongue with the eyes closed. No matter how much closer he went, he could not touch the dog. Asanga opened his eyes and saw Lord Maitreya there in all His glory.

It was the cultivating of compassion, and then acting upon that compassion, that finally allowed him to see. 

Compassion, thusly practiced, has the power not only to heal us, but to bring that healing to the world – what we have talked about as the Jewish concept of Tikun Olam, the repairing of the world.

What does compassion look like, when practiced by a community?

It looks like the common good. Not just my own personal private good – not just my own benefit, but the benefit of all.

Or, to put it in the words that Dr. King used to describe it, it looks like the beloved community. His vision was that of a completely integrated society, a community of love and justice where brotherhood would be an actuality, not just a dream.

And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:

Free at last! Free at last!

Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

trashcans, tomatoes and trees – in(ter)dependence


Last Saturday something tragic occurred. Something that should not be, that should not have been.

My mind was in slow motion as I heard it unfold – first shouting, or was the shouting second? Almost at the same time, a loud bang, or more like a giant popping sound. I ran from the garden to see what happened to find this – my trash can, and, in the distance, to see the gas truck disappearing up the hill.

So I did what any sane person would do in such a situation – I ran after the truck.

Up the hill, panting despite my recent attempt to start running again, I finally caught up with the truck just as it had turned left down the road toward Viktorya’s house. As the truck came to a stop so did my Spanish, and what poured out of me was the worst load of Spanglish you’ve ever heard. “What are you thinking? You killed my trash can! What is happening here?!”

To which the young guy driving (the normal driver was in the passenger seat next to him) said “I didn’t see it.”

I didn’t see it. That was it. The extent of his explanation.

I realized, as I walked back down the hill that this wasn’t just any trash can – this trash can was a memory.  My dad, who died 9 years ago, had painted this trash can, carefully scripting the word ‘Dunigan’ along the side.

Sure it is old, sure it has seen better days, even before yesterday. But it was a reminder to me of him. A random one, of course, but for me it was a trash can, but it was also somehow more than a trash can – a visible sign, something tangible, of an invisible reality –  the religious word for that is a sacrament – something that we can see that mediates for us what we cannot see.

It was just a trash can, but it was also more than a trash can – now crushed, because the driver ‘couldn’t see.’


It is interesting, in light of yesterday’s events, that today happens to be the day, in churches at least, for reading one of the best known stories from the Bible.

I don’t always talk about Jesus – this is not because I don’t think he is important or worth talking about – I just usually leave it to Ron.

But today I want to tell you a story told by Jesus. A story which, whether you have ever opened a Bible or not, just by living in our modern world you have come into contact with at some level.

It is a story about interdependence. It is a story about relationship. It is a story that shows us something, and invites a response from us.

The story of the Good Samaritan. 

Something has always bothered me about this story.

The man asks, who is my neighbor? As the story unfolds we realize that the answer given is not ‘who is my neighbor’ but  ‘who is a neighbor to the man lying in the ditch…’   Not who is my neighbor, but Who is a neighbor to me?

That is a different answer than the question asked.

I am no longer the one in charge here.  I am the man lying in the ditch.

It is a perspective shift. A different way of seeing the question.


Last week I had just such a shift. Glenn was over, and, as it happened, we began to talk about the garden.

As we walked along the patio he happened to notice a cardboard box full of small pots. He asked me about the pots and I explained to him that I was trying to start new tomatoes from cuttings from my existing tomato plants – I had heard about it that week and wanted to see if it actually worked.

Glenn, in his gentle and kind way, proceeded to point out to me that what I had in fact done was to plant the leaves from the tomato plants. There was nothing wrong with this – except that they would never actually grow, never actually bear fruit.

So, though I had followed the steps carefully, I had thought, in preparing the soil in the pot, using a pencil to press a hole into it, and then putting the tomato shoot into the hole, pressing down the soil and then watering it I had made one slight error in the process – not using the right part of the plant.

So close, and yet so far.

Glenn, with his training and his background, could see this immediately. I, in my ignorance, could not. But once he pointed it out to me it became clear, my eyes were opened, and I was able to make the slight, but essential adjustment.

I was able to see.


There is a well-known question of whether or not a tree falling in the woods makes any noise – but the reality is that whether or not it makes any noise that we might hear, trees ‘talk’ to each other.

Trees are actually much more connected than it might seem to us, looking upon them from the outside.

They have, beneath them, under the surface, something called fungal threads – these threads can stretch more than a kilometer. It is the job of these fungal threads to collect minerals and then bring them back to the tree itself. The fungal thread gives the tree minerals, and the tree gives the fungal thread starch in return.

But what has also been discovered about trees is that these fungal threads, and even the roots of trees themselves, allow the trees to communicate with one another.

Studies have been done on a grove of trees that show that when an insect blight is simulated on one side of the grove, trees on the opposite side begin to release a chemical to prepare themselves for the onslaught of this attack.

This is true amongst tress of the same type, but what was even more startling for those doing the study to discover was that the same phenomenon was true amongst trees of different varieties – through their roots, unseen, under the ground, they are actually able to communicate not just to other trees, but to different types of trees as well.

The world, it seems, is far more connected than we might assume upon casual observation. It is a small shift that has the potential to change everything, if our eyes are opened, if we begin to see.


As we’ve talked about before, the origins of the meaning of the word religion is a bit unclear. But one of the early meanings is thought to be to ‘re-bind’ or to ‘re-connect’ – to take that which is separate, or which appears to be separate, and to connect it again. Or, in the case of trees, to take what we see and experience as separate and learn to see connection.

The word yoga has similar meanings at its root – to join, to unite, to attach.


Which brings me back to yesterday – to trash cans and to Trayvon Martin.  (You didn’t think we could talk about all of this without talking about that, did you?)

As I began to reflect last night on the court’s decision I began to realize something.

Earlier that day I had been outraged – because of a trash can.

The injustice of the driver seeing me, not seeing my trash can, driving over it, knowing he did so, and then continuing on his way as though nothing had happened. It was not the running over the trash can that was the worst of it – it was the callous disregard for having done so. As though it didn’t matter. As though it weren’t his fault. As though he could just continue on as if nothing had happened.

“I didn’t see it.”

Like the two religious people in Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan.

Granted, they weren’t the ones who inflicted the injuries upon the man in the ditch. But, in a sense, they might as well have. They saw the man lying there, and then they continued on their way, as though nothing had happened. As though it didn’t matter. As though they could just continue on as if nothing had happened. As though they didn’t actually see it at all.

But it did happen.

It does happen.

Trees can feel the pain of other trees, different trees,  on the opposite side of a forrest.  Can we?

Connection, it seems,  is the reality. Interdependence is the reality. It is separation that  is the illusion.

It is a shift that is needed in our world today. A shift not so much in our believing, but in our seeing.

The purpose of religion, of spirituality, of deepening in the spiritual life, is to help us to continue to wake up. To open our eyes. To see.

To encounter the sacramental in the everyday – that which though tangible, visible, points to that which is beyond, invisible. Trash cans as a reminder of a father’s love. Trees as a sign of our inter-relatedness – something that is, that points to something that is more. A portal, if you will, from the here and now to the here and now.

The ancient Celtic people used to refer to such encounters, such epiphanies, such moments of seeing, as ‘thin places’ – the places or times where that which was more, beyond, seemed to ‘break through the veil.’

It is what can happen in meditation.

It is what can happen over a delightful and delicious meal shared amongst friends.

It is what can happen when someone unexpected comes to our aid when we are in need.

It is what can happen when we take a long walk along the beach.

It is what can happen here, within us, amongst us.

It seems to me that our world is in need of a bit more of such seeing.

What does it mean to be a neighbor? To be one who sees. One who is awake. And one who acts. One who shows mercy.

I wonder what it might look like were we to go and do the same?

lake woebegone, blue highways and enjoying the journey…(happy father’s day)


It’s been a quiet week in Lake Woebegone…

It was Saturday night, of course. About 7:30. There we were, at 336 Snug Harbor Road, seated around the breakfast room table, plates filled with flank steak, baked potatoes, and a green salad, gathered together as a family, my dad, my mom, me, and Garrison Keilor. It was a tradition, this Saturday night dinner together. There wasn’t much that went on in our family that was not a tradition, but that’s beside the point. With apologies to the ministers in the room, the sermons on Saturday nights, my dad often said, were often as poignant as those on Sunday mornings.

The thing about Lake Woebegone is, it never really was a quiet week…there was always something going on, whether it be the ‘exiles’ (those who had left Lake Woebegone) returning home at Christmas, a dry stewardship sermon by pastor Ingqvist that inspires a dramatic repentance, or the fourteen year old girl who, just before her confirmation at Lake Woebegone Lutheran Church, decides she may have lost her faith. But these are not the type of things one would notice, speeding past on the Interstate. No, these are the type of stories that only unfold if you travel the Blue Highways, the back roads that go through the small, forgotten towns, the Lake Woebegones…


This story from the Bible is so simple, you might almost be tempted to skip right over it, to get to what’s next, to get to the good part, to get to where the real action is…but Jesus was not in such a hurry to get to where he was going that he wasn’t able to stop along the way.

dad054Pat Dunigan, my dad, liked to travel the Blue Highways…that, of course, is how I know about them. Left to my own devices I have a tendency to take the quickest route, a straight line, the shortest distance between two points. But not my dad. Though as an engineer he could calculate the shortest distance from point A to point B, he chose, instead, to meander, sure that there was as much to be enjoyed in the journey as in the final destination. Not that this meandering was aimless—oh no, these meanderings were thoroughly planned out beforehand, many months beforehand, on intricately detailed spreadsheet itineraries.

Martha had a sister named Mary, who sat at Jesus’ feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.

Now if you’ll remember, it was Martha who invited Jesus to her home. But upon inviting him in, she quickly went about her business, attending to the many things on her to do list. She had to get dinner ready, didn’t she? She was doing all this for him, by the way. Somebody had to get things done around here…


It was a Saturday night, this time many years later. It was Saturday September 4, 2004, to be exact. Based on my request, we were to have flank steak for dinner, with corn on the cob this time, since it was summer, and of course, the requisite green salad. The address had changed, and this table was out on the patio, instead of inside that breakfast room. The radio had to be brought from inside, and plugged in out on the patio. But we were to gather, in the tradition of Saturday nights, eat dinner together and listen to the News from Lake Woebegone. It had been a busy evening—I had gone for a run, and then was trying to organize the garage so that all that needed to could fit into it. Almost by accident I wandered out on to the patio where my dad was sitting, in his wheelchair now, enjoying the waning evening, and just then I heard Garrison Keilor’s opening words…It was a quiet week in Lake Woebegone… I called to my mom, who came out and joined us, and thought to myself, I almost missed it.

DWIND is what he called it. Dad’s work is never done. It was always said in a sort of mock seriousness, as, truth be told, he loved to be involved in his many projects. In fact, I can’t remember a time when he was not involved in some sort of a project.

dad059They were varied in nature, from the remodeling of our old house on Snug Harbor, to the building of a wooden kayak, needle pointing beautifully intricate Christmas stockings for Jack, Alison, and Tommy Hanle, baking bread with Carol Kerr, putting in a new stairway with my grandpa and uncle Fritz at the cottage on Lake Otsego, and ‘rushing’ the seats on the rocking chairs there this summer, when he was no longer able to walk down the stairway that he had helped to build. More recently he and I were in the garage together, working on the latest project, cherry wood salad serving utensils, which he had been intending to make for my mom and me.

In his last days during one conversation I asked him about knowing that he didn’t have much time left—how did he feel about that? His response? Dunigan through and through… “I just wish that I had gotten a chance to finish the front patio.” Now, if the truth be known, that wish was based on the desire, I am sure, to finish the work that he had started and to leave it nice for my mom, but it was also based on the firm belief that if it was to be done right, he would need to do it himself!


But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.

Often this story from the Bible is told as one in which Martha did something and Mary did nothing. But don’t be misled…the distinction between Martha and Mary is not one between doing something and doing nothing. For that would be the same fallacy that would lead us to believe that it really was a quiet week in Lake Woebegone. The distinction here is not one between activity and inactivity, but rather a distinction between living a life that is distracted and living a life that pays attention.


It was a Thursday night this time. It was Thursday September 9, 2004, to be exact. After a rather pain-filled day and with some difficulty my mom and I got my dad out of bed, into his wheelchair and out onto the patio for dinner. This time it was a pesto pasta, as flank steak is Saturday night food. After dinner, and what had become a nightly tradition of dessert, my dad seemed quite tired so we asked him if he was ready to go to bed. “No,” he said, “just a little while longer. I want to keep enjoying it while I am enjoying it.”

dad053It was this desire, this drive really, to enjoy life a while longer that carried my dad throughout his life and most especially through the past two and a half years. In that time his desire to live life took him on trips to Princeton for my graduation, Port Townsend to the Wooden Boat Festival, Cleveland Ohio for my grandmother’s 90th birthday, Lake Otsego to spend time with family, and even across the pond to Scotland where he fell in love with the small town of St. Andrews but more importantly, the sticky toffee pudding at the Russell Hotel!

Especially in the last weeks, his time was spent simply “being with”—whether it be working with Jack McClarty to build wooden wheel chair ramps for getting in and out of the house, breakfast with the Webbs at Wilma’s on Balboa Island, nightly martinis and game of rummy on the patio with my mom, or teaching me how to bake bread…I am sure it was all included on the spreadsheet itinerary of his life, attempting to enjoy as much of the journey as possible, before arriving at the final destination.

In the days before he passed away I asked my dad if he was afraid to die. I am not sure what I expected in asking that question, but I can tell you that his answer both startled me and yet struck me, for it was so him. Without hesitating he said, “No, I am not afraid to die. I never have been. I know where I am going and I know that it is a better place. I have always known.” And there he paused for a moment. “I’ve never needed toe crossings or altar calls or to put my hands up in the air when I sing songs in church. Some people do that, and that’s okay. But I don’t need that. It’s not for me. I just know, and I have always known.”

This is the life that God offers to us all, calling us to enjoy the journey along the way, and then welcoming us home when we reach the final destination.

And that’s the news from Lake Woebegone, where the women are strong, the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.


**This is the sermon I preached at my dad’s memorial service almost 9 year ago – thank you, Dad.


on gophers, hate, and being sunflowers


sunflower                                                                               © erin dunigan 2013

The other day I went out into the garden, as I often do, to check on the progress of the vegetables. On this particular day I noticed that one of my tomato plants – the entire reason I became a gardener in the first place (have you ever tasted a tomato, fresh from the vine, ripened in the sun?! It might be the best thing ever) –  one of my tomato plants seemed to have leaves that did not look quite right – they were wilted. Excessively so. As if the plant had not gotten enough water, though it had.

Oh no. The feeling began slowly but quickly washed over me as the realization hit me, even while everything in me tried to resist it.

I walked over to the plant, about four feet tall, and tugged gently on it. Sure enough, it came right out of the ground, as though it had no roots with which to secure it.

No roots, because they had been eaten. By a gopher. I’ve had gopher encounters before – in fact, only days earlier I had performed the same act on an artichoke plant. But this time, it was serious. This time it was my tomatoes. And not only that, but in the protected area of the garden – the area in which I had laid chicken wire and bounded it by boards and rocks. This area was supposed to be safe!

As the emotion washed over me I began immediately to dig out the area – soon exposing two holes, tunnels, leading in opposite directions but intersecting under what had been my tomato plant. Almost without thinking I went into house and got the package labeled ‘gopher destroyer’ – cylinders that look like fire crackers. When the fuse is lit, they begin releasing a noxious gas – light them, put them down the hole, cover it up, and, the package claims, your gopher problems are no more.

We’ll see if you eat any more of my tomato plants, I thought as I quickly lit, dropped and burried the gopher destroyer.

Sure, normally I would consider myself to be someone who believes in nonviolence. I am for peace, not war. I even flirt with vegetarianism. But this was different. These were my prized tomatoes…this was justified.

One has only to look at the subsequent holes throughout my garden, or picture the movie Caddyshack, to get a sense of how successful this anti-gopher measure was…


Last month, as many of you know, I was with a delegation from the Presbyterian Church, USA to Lebanon and Egypt. It was a ‘solidarity visit’ – to our partner churches in the region. Our sister church in Lebanon is the Synod of Lebanon and Syria – two countries, but one church. A church that is struggling to care for both its own members who are the victims of violence, bombings, and strife, while also seeking ways to reach out beyond their own boundaries to the multitude of Syrian refugees that have fled the violence, only to find themselves displaced in Lebanon.

In one village we visited the total population, prior to the conflict, was 11,000. They are now also hosting 11,000 Syrian refugees. It is stretching resources and local officials almost to the breaking point.

We visited one of the refugee camps there – 40 tents, housing 45 families. Tents about the size of that which my parents and I used when we would go camping as I was growing up. Children came out to greet us, intrigued by visitors as children often are. Teenagers stopped to talk with us – wondering where we had come from, and what we were doing.

One woman motioned to me from within her tent. I approached, and she opened the tent to let me in. I had no idea what was going on, since my Arabic is limited to about 7 words, but I entered the tent and sat down. All the while she was speaking – rapidly, emotionally, with passion. Thankfully one in my group who is bilingual came in and joined me and so was able to translate.

All I want is to return to my country. I do not want aid. I just want to return to my country. I have a masters in English. My sons are engineers. My daughter is a teacher. I have a granddaughter.

My heart broke for her. And my eyes were opened.

This woman was a Palestinian. The country that she longed to return to was not Syria, but Palestine. Her parents had been the first refugees – fleeing Palestine in 1948. She herself had never been there – she was born in Syria. Her children were born in Syria. Her grandchildren had been born in Syria. But they are not Syrian. They are Palestinian. Displaced first in 1948, and now again. Generations of refugees.

Her family’s displacement had come, of course, as a result of the creation of the State of Israel. The creation of a state that was to be good news for Jews who had been nearly exterminated by the hate that drove the machine of Nazi Germany.

Last week I was in Florida and happened to have a bit of extra time. Some friends and I rented bicycles and were riding around the South Beach in Miami when we came upon a startling sculpture, rising up out of a reflecting pond. It was an arm, from the elbow up. It was grasping. Reaching. As though it was coming out of the very earth itself. A the base of the arm, where it met the water, were hundreds of figures – they looked to be scaling their way up, fleeing the depths below. That was when I saw the number. The number etched onto the inside of the wrist.  The sculpture, I realized, was at the entrance of the Holocaust Memorial. A museum that stands as a memorial for a hate as palpable as those figures scrambling to escape the pit.


The Buddha says that holding on to anger is like holding a hot coal that you intend to throw at someone else – but you are the one who gets burned.

Jesus says to love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you. When someone strikes you on the cheek, to turn and give them the other cheek as well.

Tell that to the Palestinian woman living in a tent. Tell that to those whose arms hold the numbers that bear witness to hate.


A friend of mine, a woman and a pastor, who happens to be married to someone who is also a woman, told me this about the hate she has experienced – “It kept me afraid. Sure, it was the direct comments that people would make when they saw me walking down the street with another woman – and we were not even touching – but it was also the more subtle hate. The hate that would come from people when they were talking about ‘the gays’ and didn’t realize that they were also talking about me. It made me afraid. It kept me silent. It kept me from coming out for years, this fear.”

Another friend, a man who happens to have a husband, expressed it in this way – Dealing with the hate has actually changed who I am, who we are. We never touch in public – we don’t even touch in front of people in our own home. It has sunk into my very being and changed the way I act, change the way I am in the world.”

He did not use these words, but I thought, upon hearing his story – this hate has left wounds. Scars. The burden of this hate, the heaviness of it, has, in a manner of speaking, bent him – of course he is not ‘straight.’


One of my favorite authors, a Catholic priest named Henri Nouwen, described this as being a ‘wounded healer.’ It is a phrase that Carl Jung used as well – that it is in going through our woundedness, not becoming trapped by the hate, but somehow metabolizing it, that we find within in it the seed that leads us toward new life.  It is not an easy process and it is not a quick one.

Dealing with the hate that has been inflicted upon us, the hate we have internalized, the hate we know to be inside us and the hate we see around us in the world can be overwhelming. It can seem impossible – like trying to catch a gopher by digging more and more holes in the yard.

But it can be done. It has been done. It is being done.

After the Fukishima nuclear disaster in Japan two years ago the question was left of what to do, how to begin to heal the land that had been so decimated, wounded by the radiation.

The most common method is to dig up all of the impacted topsoil, remove it, and find another location in which to bury it. This is an expensive process and of course just moves the problem somewhere else, burying it. In someone else’s backyard.

They decided to plant sunflowers.

Sunflowers?! It can seem as naive as the suggestion to turn the other cheek. What good are sunflowers, in the face of such a severe situation?

Sunflowers, it seems, may have the ability to absorb that which is toxic in the soil, pulling it out of the soil. Not only that, but when people would see the fields of sunflowers, bright yellow thought those who began to organize this sunflower project, it would be a symbol of both beauty and hope.

Pain that is not transformed is transferred. Hate that is not transformed ends up being passed along. Sometimes for generations.

How do we plant sunflowers in the midst of such overwhelming odds?

It is why we practice meditation – centering, mindfulness, grounding ourselves in who God is and who we are. It is why we practice gratitude. It is why we share meals together and why we seek ways to be in service to our friends, our brothers and sisters when they are in times of need. It is why we seek to go deeper in our spiritual journey though that is not always an easy path.

Nelson Mandela, a man who, it seems to me, would have so much justification for being angry, for holding onto his hatred – says this:

‘I had never lost hope that this great transformation would occur, because I always knew that down deep in every human heart there is mercy and generosity. No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin or his background or his religion. If people can learn to hate they can be taught to love. For love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.’

May it be so.  And may we be a people of sunflowers.

Yx3 (on things hidden)

Recently at our monthly Not Church gathering our theme was the parable of the jewel hidden in the robe. If you have not read or heard the parable, you really should before proceeding and you can find a link to it here.


labyrinth    ~    © erin dunigan 2013

During the gathering that particular Sunday, the parable was read three different times, by three different readers, each reading spread throughout the rest of the morning’s activities.

There was quite a stir after – why three times? Was the big question. Why did we read it three times?

Some assumed that each of the three readings would have a different telling of the story. But, alas, all three readings were the same story, the parable of the jewel hidden in the robe.

The topic came up again last night, more than a week after our gathering, at a dinner with some friends. “Why was the parable read three times?” again was the entry point into the conversation, which unfolded from there.

For though we read the parable three times in our gathering, there was never any direct teaching from it, upon it, about it, or regarding it. The rest of the ‘sermon’ for the day came from a re-telling of the movie version of the Life of Pi, woven together with a discussion of the recently confirmed discovery of the Higgs Boson particle. The written version of the sermon can be found here, for those who were not present to hear it.

“I believe that the parable means that God is planted within all of us (the jewel) and we have only to look within, rather than to search so many outward paths, to find that, to realize that, to experience that,” the conversation continued as I listened. “So why didn’t you just say that?” was the question begged.

Why not tell people this amazing, beautiful and life changing truth – that what you are seeking out there is to be found in here, that that which is inside of you doing the seeking, is, in a very real sense, already that which is sought. The answer is to go within, to awaken to this ‘jewel’ that already is.  “So why didn’t you just say that?” hung in the air as the conversation unfolded. I listened.

It is a good question. A valid question. A worthwhile question.

Which, in response, brings me to a question of my own –  Why didn’t the rich man in the parable tell his friend he was leaving him with the jewel?

“Because the friend was inebriated, passed out,” you answer. The rich man could not tell him – it was impossible.

Okay then – why did he not leave a note? “Hey, by the way, when you wake up, check your hem – I left something for you.” Or, better yet, why didn’t he just put the jewel in the man’s hand, so that when he woke up he would find it right there? Why ‘bury’ it within his hem?

It would have been so much easier! It would have saved the man so much undue suffering – he would not have found himself in such want, in such need. In fact, it seems almost wrong that he did not leave the gift in a more obvious way – what is the point of such a precious gift, if the receiver doesn’t even know that he has it? It is a waste, isn’t it? Would it have been so hard to leave a simple note?

But there was no note. The inebriated man woke up, found his friend gone, and went on his way, blind to that which he had, clueless to the reality of the precious gift which he now carried with him – unaware of the seed that had been planted.

It was now up to him to look within and discover that it was there all along.

hidden gems, the life of pi and the higgs boson


light                                                                                        © erin dunigan 2013

The Jewel Hidden in the Robe*

Once upon a time there lived a man who had, as a friend, a rich public servant. One day the man called on his rich friend, who entertained him with food and wine. He became completely inebriated and fell asleep. The rich friend, however, suddenly had to set out on a journey involving urgent public business. He wanted to give his friend a priceless jewel which had the mystic power to fulfill any desire. But his friend was fast asleep. Finding no other alternative, he sewed the gem into the hem of his sleeping friend’s robe. The man awoke to find his friend gone, totally unaware of the jewel his friend had given him. Before long, he allowed himself to sink into poverty, wandering through many countries and experiencing many hardships. After a long time, now reduced to sheer want, he met his old friend. The rich man, surprised at his condition, told him about the gift he had given him, and the man learned for the first time that he had possessed the priceless jewel all along.


A month ago today there was a rather catacysmic discovery in the world of science (pun most definitely intended).

On March 14 it was reported that scientists had apparently discovered the elusive Higgs Boson – that which is thought to explain what has been called one of the most fundamental riddles of science’s understanding of the universe – how the Big Bang created something out of nothing.

“The discovery explains what once seemed unexplainable and still is a bit hard for the average person to comprehend. But it means the key theory that scientists use to explain everything works – for now at least,” according to a piece in the Huffington Post.

To understand what this might mean, consider something along the lines of molasses or snow – when other particles pass through it, they stick  and form atoms – thus giving them their mass, their being, if you will. It is for this that the Higgs Boson has been referred to as ‘the God particle’ – that which holds everything together and gives it its substance.

Though the existence of such a concept was first theorized some 50 plus years ago, it has only just, as it seems at least, been confirmed. This confirmation has come from a network of scientists who have been working on it, and with the help of the world’s largest atom smasher – CERN’s Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland – which produces huge surges of energy thought to replicate those that may have existed just after the big bang. Crushing energy. Intense. Powerful.

This Higgs field is thought to be everywhere around us, surrounding us, with all particles moving in the presence of this field. If there was no such thing there would be no mass – everything, in fact, would be ‘massless.’

Prior to this discovery every particle within the Standard Model of particle physics had been discovered – except the Higgs Boson, which is the very key to what holds it all together.

Missing. Undiscovered. Yet all around us – even, in fact, within us. Predicted, but not yet proven. Theorized, but not  quite concretized.


I finally decided I had to see it for myself.

People had been telling me about it, wondering what I thought of it, and suggesting that I might find it interesting. So, upon hearing that Jim and Ross had a copy, and knowing that they have the best way to experience such things, a few weeks ago I invited myself over to watch the Life of Pi.

If you do not know the story, I’m sorry, I’m going to spoil it for you – here’s your excuse to duck out!

The story is about a young Indian boy, Pi Pattel. Born a Hindu, he has a sort of religious conversion – or more like addition, and realizes that Vishnu has lead him to Christ and finds his spiritual practice in the space of a mosque.

His father runs a zoo and so Pi grows up amongst the animals and his three faiths until one day his dad says that they and the animals will be moving to Canada. They board a Japanese cargo ship and set sail, only to encounter rough seas that sink the ship. Pi, we later find out, is the sole survivor, cast away on a lifeboat for 227 days.

We are invited into the story through the grown up Pi, now living in Canada, talking to an American author who has been sent there to hear his story – a story, the author has been told, that will make him believe in God. The author, ironically, is without a story, having thrown his latest novel away after years of work. He has come to Pi looking for a story.

A story is most definitely what he gets.

As Pi’s story of the shipwreck unfolds, we come to find out that he was not actually alone on that lifeboat – initially he shared it with a zebra, a hyena, an orangutang, and, the biggest surprise, a Bengal tiger. The hyena quickly takes care of the zebra and the orangutang, to Pi’s anguish. Fearing that he might be next, he is saved when the tiger makes quick work of the hyena.

For the next two hundred plus days Pi struggles to keep himself alive, but also to keep the tiger fed with something other than himself. It is a beautiful movie – one you must see for its stunning images, if for nothing else.

Finally, after an encounter with a carnivorous island, Pi and Richard Parker, the tiger, wash up along the shore of Mexico. Barely able to continue on, Pi looks up and sees Richard Parker disappear into the jungle. Pi is rescued shortly after.

Because he is the lone survivor from the shipwreck, officials from the Japanese company come to the hospital to try and get a report from Pi of what happened. Pi tells them the story – of a zebra, a hyena, an orangutang, and of course, Richard Parker, the tiger, who he credits for keeping him alive. Without needing to provide for and also be careful of Richard Parker I would not have made it, he says.

Needless to say, the Japanese officials are left speechless and rather incredulous from this report.

What else do you want from me? Asks Pi.

A story that won’t make us look like fools, they respond. We need a simpler story for our report. One our company can understand. A story we can all believe.

So, a story without things you’ve never seen before? Without surprises or animals or islands?

Yes, they respond, the truth.

And so he told them another story – a story of a lifeboat with a sailor, a cook, a mother, and a young boy. A story of cannibalism in which the cook kills both the sailor and the mother, and finally is killed by the boy. A story that is raw, detailed, harsh.

As Pi gets to the end of this story, now back in the present day in his living room with the author, he poses a question:

I’ve told you two stories. Neither explains what caused the sinking of the ship and no one can prove either one. In both stories the ship sinks, my family dies, and I suffer.

So, which story do you prefer?


The man awoke to find his friend gone, totally unaware of the jewel his friend had given him. Before long, he allowed himself to sink into poverty, wandering through many countries and experiencing many hardships. After a long time, now reduced to sheer want, he met his old friend. The rich man, surprised at his condition, told him about the gift he had given him, and the man learned for the first time that he had possessed the priceless jewel all along.


Finding a Higgs more or less as expected is actually a bit deflating, one of the scientists interviewed remarked. Physicists had  hoped that, rather than confirm what they had theorized, instead perhaps new mysteries might have been opened up through the discovery.

“Scientists always want to be wrong in their theories. They always want to be surprised,” he said. “It’s a bittersweet victory when your theory turns out to be right, because it means, on the one hand, you’re right, that’s nice, but on the other hand, you haven’t learned anything new that’s surprising.”


As modern day Pi brings his story to a close there in his living room, there is a sound at the door.  “That is my wife and children, would you like to stay for dinner?” He asks the author who is visibly surprised.

You mean you have a family?

Yes, a wife, two children and a cat.

So your story does have a happy ending, responds the author.

That is up to you, says Pi.  It is your story now.

So, which story do you prefer? Pi asks him. The one with the tiger. That’s the better story – responds the author.

And the man learned for the first time that he had possessed the priceless jewel all along….


*Our theme for the April Not Church gathering, The Jewel Hidden in the Robe, is actually a parable – a short story, more like a Buddhist koan than what we might think of as a fable or morality tale.  This parable comes from the Lotus Sutra, thought to have been written sometime in the range of 100 BD to 200AD. It is said to be a discourse delivered by the Buddha, most likely toward the end of his life, written down at the time, then hidden away for five hundred years.

on easter, making sopes, and finishing the music

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border music
© erin dunigan 2013

Good morning. It is wonderful to be with you all, on this the fifth anniversary of our La Mision Easter celebration. Whether it is your first time with us, or your fifth, know that you are welcome here, that you belong here – that this is a place that is open to all people, of all faiths, or of no faith, where we are seeking to journey together along the spiritual path though we come from very different approaches to that.

I have had people ask me how in the world do we have an Easter celebration that is so inclusive, that welcomes atheists and devout believers, that has those who have dedicated their lives to spiritual things and those who think that, to be honest, they are kind of a bunch of BS, those who are intrigued by the spiritual life and those who would rather just get on with living the life in front of them. It is, I grant you, an interesting mix. We are, of course, an eclectic community. For that I, for one, am incredibly thankful.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this gathering and it seems to me there is an important question that is sort of hanging in the air surrounding it – this Easter thing, which, of course, is a Christian feast day commemorating the crucifixion – crucifixion was a common death in the first century in the Roman empire. It was for criminals. When the man Jesus of Nazareth was crucified, the story says that it was with a thief, a terrorist even, on either side of him. It was a shameful, degrading way to die – reserved for those who were a threat to the system –  and, more importantly, this day is a day commemorating the resurrection, the somehow living beyond death of a man, named Jesus of Nazareth, who walked this earth and through his resurrection became the living Christ.

It can be a crazy thing to get one’s head around.

For some, it is accepted without question – it is a matter of faith. Done. For others, it seems like a fairy story that asks one to check their brains at the door. We are both in this room.

So, I wonder, if just for a moment, we can all – those who accept this and those who think it is a bit too crazy to actually believe – I wonder if we might let go of, for the moment, the question ‘Did it happen?’ Did it actually happen? Did a man who was dead come back to life? What did that look like? Did Jesus actually walk out of the tomb where his dead body had been laid? Was the resurrection a flash of light? Is this meant more as metaphor?

They are good questions. They are important questions. They are questions that have been the cause of much wrestling by people who have dedicated their lives to such wondering – and they still don’t agree, they still don’t know, definitively, one way or another what actually happened – there were no video cameras, no iPhones there to capture the moment. Only the stories of those who experienced it, passed down through generations.

So I wonder if, just for this moment, we might set aside the question ‘did it happen?’ and wonder together instead, ‘does it happen?’


It is, as I mentioned, the 5th anniversary of our Easter service. But it just so happens that it is another very important anniversary, which is less well known, but, if you ask me, also very important.

It is the fifth anniversary of the first time I ever ate sopes.

vitaIt was on Easter evening, five years ago, that I had my first taste of a sope – made by Vita. It was delicious! I fell in love immediately.  I had to know how to make them for myself.

So, not long after that first sope experience, I invited Vita over, and some of you, my neighbors, to make sopes. I have to admit – my first attempts, well, they were less than ideal. Some were too small, some were too thin, others were too thick – if you watch Vita make them, each sope is identical, perfectly shaped, perfect thickness – a work of art, really. Mine were something more like play dough thrown against the wall.

For in making sopes there is both the consistency of the dough that has to be just right – not too much water or they will fall apart, mostly masa, but a little bit of flour, and then work them together into a consistency that will not crumble but is also not too mushy.

In the five years since I’d like to say that I’ve perfected the sope making – but the reality is, Vita’s are still more precise, more perfect than mine. I’m guessing she’s had more than five years of practice at it.

But that hasn’t stopped me. We’ve had many a sope night at my house – when friends from the US come to visit I make sure that they are in the kitchen at least one of their nights, learning how to roll the balls of dough, flatten them, make the ridges around them, and then delight in tasting them. I’ve modified the traditional sope somewhat – making vegetarian sopes with a potato filling instead of meat, or using whatever I happen to have on hand for the fillings.

As I thought about it, I realized, making sopes is a lot like Easter. It’s a lot like this gathering here.


That first Easter as we gathered downstairs here in Kathleen’s house we were led by Gary Wilburn – a man many of you had the privilege of knowing. Gary was a retired Presbyterian minister. Retired not because he was tired of being a minister or ready to be done with it, but because he had been diagnosed with ALS. He and Bev made the decision to live full time in what had previously been their vacation home here on the beach in La Mision. As their first Easter approached, they wondered what they might do – were they to do nothing? It did not seem right. Easter, after all, is arguably the biggest day in the Christian year.

But it just so happened that there was a bit of a minister match maker in the midst – Marty Harriman, who introduced me to Bev and Gary and next thing you knew, we were planning and then hosting our first La Mision Easter service.  What a gift that was in so many ways.

You might think that because I’m a minister I remember sermons all the time – I don’t. Sometimes, sure. But most often, nope. But I remember Gary’s sermon from that day. It was called ‘Finishing the Music.’ In it he told the story of Puccini, the great musician who wrote Madame Butterfly, La Boehme, and so many other majestic operas, and who was stricken with cancer in 1922.  So what did he do?  He sat down to write a new opera.  His students asked him, “But suppose you die?”  “Oh,” he replied confidently, “never fear.  YOU will finish it!”

Puccini did die…and as he predicted, his students did finish his music.  The premier of the great opera, was held at La Scala Opera House under the direction of Puccini’s best student – Arturo Toscanini.

The performance proceeded and came to that point in the music where the composer had finally laid down his pen.  Tears streamed down Toscanini’s face.  He put down his baton and turned to the audience and said, “Thus far, the master wrote…and then the master died.”

Then, picking up his baton, his face wreathed with smiles and determination, Toscanini shouted to the audience, “BUT HIS DISCIPLES FINISHED HIS MUSIC!”  And they played on through the grand finale.

So shall you and I play on, said Gary, as he finished that sermon on that first Easter celebration.  He concluded it with an Amen. There was not a dry eye in the room.


It is said that Jesus, toward the end of his life, told his disciples, his friends, “You will do far greater things than these.”  A bit crazy, if you think of it, as the story up to that point has us learning that Jesus had not only restored sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, multiplied loaves to feed five thousand, and healed all sorts of disease and sickness. You will do far greater things than these, he said to his friends, his followers. Really?

Earlier in the week some of us gathered for a Passover celebration – Pesach, as Ron has instructed me – the Hebrew way of saying Passover. As we sat down to begin the reading of the Haggadah, the Passover story that is read every year, re-telling the story of exodus, of liberation from captivity, Ron shared with us an important, an essential, part of this re-telling of the Passover story – when we read it, we are not reading a story about an event that happened way back when, to some other people. No, as we read it, it is our story, we are the ones who have been liberated from that which binds us, we are the ones who have been set free, who have crossed from death to life – it is our story.

We are, if you like, not just those who would eat sopes one time five years ago – we are those who are ourselves learning how to make sopes, and then sharing that feast with others.

In the Jewish tradition, as in the Christian tradition, we are called to be as the phrase tikkun olam puts it, repairers of the world – actively involved in sowing love, justice, peace, and joy.

So today, on this day where we celebrate resurrection – new life – that death does not have the final word, that the systems of power and domination do not have the final say,  I wonder what would happen if we were to ask ourselves, not, did it happen, as if the only importance were the historical validity of a particular event two thousand years ago,  but does it happen?

Does it happen?

Are people set free from their bondage? From their addictions? From the things that weigh us down, that threaten our very ability to carry on? Is hospitality practiced amongst us? Are those who have much sharing out of their abundance with those who have less? Is life being lived in the now, in the present, awake to the moment, and to its fullness? Are we growing in love, in compassion, in service to one another?

For, of course, it is we who will finish the music. We who are, even now, here in this place, continuing the music. Even as we gather here today.

So shall you and I play on.  Amen.