Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Q&A with Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins: Are There Things God Can't Do?

Question: I think I heard you say recently that there are things God can’t do. Isn’t God omnipotent?

Answer: That’s the question that people have wrestled with forever. If God is all powerful, then why doesn’t God fix everything that is wrong, especially when faithful people ask God to do so? The conclusion is often something like this: If God is all powerful, God isn’t necessarily all-good; and, if God is all-good, then God must not be all powerful.

I would prefer a God that is all-good but that can’t necessarily do all things (for instance, God apparently can’t override an individual’s will, God doesn’t seem able to prevent natural disasters, God can’t rig elections or lotteries or sporting contests, etc.) to a God that could do all things but for some unknown reason chooses to not heal all the brokenness in the world.

A book that disturbed me and helped me (those ideas that threaten our preconceived notions often prove to be the most helpful) in the early 90s was Rabbi Harold Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Kushner’s conclusion is that God is good but unable to do everything, which for him is preferable to the idea of a God who can do everything but chooses to allow good people to suffer anyway.

The word compassion means “to suffer with”…I believe God is infinite compassion, that is, God is with us in our trials, blessing us with ideas, with opportunities to make friends and summon hope and courage from our own depths, sharing our tears and our laughter, nudging us to do all we can for ourselves and for one another, and in the process we discover we are as resilient as we are fragile, that miracles are possible but they aren’t forced on us (or denied us) from on high, but are the result of our own choices, thoughts, attitudes, and actions.

I believe in prayer. It focuses us and reminds us of our connection to all life and to the Source of life. It lifts us up beyond despair and then we are able to see and seize many more opportunities and possibilities than we considered before. But prayer isn’t, for me, begging God to do what God wouldn’t do without our begging, and might refuse to do anyway. That is neither a powerful understanding of prayer nor a flattering understanding of God.

Rather than thinking of God as omnipotent, I tend to think of God as omnipotence. Rather than being a separate being that is all-powerful, God for me is All Power but can only do for us what It does through us.

It’s rather like any of the natural laws that once we understood them and learned to cooperate with them allowed us then to do the previously believed impossible (organ transplants, flight, space travel, instant global communication, etc.). The power to do these things has always existed, but we never benefited from it until we learned how to cooperate with it. The power needed us to be able to help us.

Prayer helps me tap into divine power, and then I can learn to direct that power more and more beneficially, but never in this process is my own responsibility for my life taken from me.

Middle Ages Christian mystic Meister Eckhart said, “God is the innermost part of each and everything.” Prayer helps us turn within to that power and presence, to commune with it and cooperate with it. But that is different than something beyond us denying our wishes or occasionally granting them. I really believe that what God does for us, God does through us. Our hands are God’s hands and the most powerful answer to prayer is when we let ourselves be our own answers to our prayers.

Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel wisely taught, “Prayer cannot bring water to parched fields, or mend a broken bridge, or rebuild a ruined city; but prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart, and rebuild a weakened will."

I believe that God is good, is the everlasting, ubiquitous energy of life (“spirit”) and contains within Itself all possibilities, AND that as amazing as that is, God can still only do for us what God can do through us. God needs us to be willing participants in the flow of blessings. Our spiritual journeys help us learn how to cooperate more effectively with God, and as we grow we find our prayers watering arid souls, mending broken hearts, and rebuilding weakened wills. And for me, this is the good news.

- Durrell Watkins

A Lesson on Prayer

                 Sometimes we just need to feel life, to community, to the ancestors, to the dreams we once had but let slip away...we need to reconnect to our high aspirations, our good desires, our noble goals, our worthy intentions. In other words, we need to pray.
Especially in moments of sorrow, despair, grief, fear, or decision, its seems almost a natural impulse to pray. How can one out grow the religion of the past and still practice meaningful prayer?
I suggest intentional silence...quieting the discursive thoughts in our heads and just connecting to breath and the fullness of the present moment can be a powerful, even "divine" experience.
I also suggest visualization...just imagine possibilities, and notice how good you feel when you are in that "place" where amazing things are within reach.
Of course, gratitude is a powerful way to pray...noticing and expressing gratitude for all blessings, large and small, not only feels good but it seems to attract even more blessings (or maybe it just helps us notice more).
Generosity is a good form of prayer...supporting what you believe to be worthwhile is a way of saying, "I want this to prosper," and that prayer is even more powerful because behind the wish you added your own resources.
Showing kindness is a good way to pray. What better way to say, "I wish you well" than to personally offer someone a kind word or gesture?
And finally, verbal prayers also serve a purpose. The words we choose direct our thoughts and the thoughts we consistently think create our feelings and our feelings determine many of our actions and much of how we interpret the experiences of our lives. So, when we "say" a prayer, we are actually directing our thoughts which are generating our feelings which, in some ways, are actually creating our experience of life. And so positive prayers are said for the purpose of directing the energy of our own thoughts/attitudes/feelings and this can be very powerful.
If you believe in a Higher Power, you probably believe it is omnipresent and doesn't need to be beckoned or begged. So, affirmations/positive prayers are a way of trusting the Power and letting it work through you; if you don't believe in such a Power, then affirmations still direct the energy of your own thoughts and feelings and that can be very useful.
Here are 12 prayers for you. Choose one, or use them all. Say the prayers you choose throughout the day. They may just help you feel more "connected"...and that is no small thing:
1. I choose to believe in, live into, and express my innate goodness today.
2. I pray for strength and high resolve; the energy of prayer sustains me.
3. I believe in, depend on, and call upon the goodness of life right now.
4. Hope, wisdom, strength and courage are always available to me.
5. I am not my mistakes; I give thanks for new beginnings.
6. May I be happy and healthy, peaceful and serene.
7. I am thankful that I have the support I need.
8. I forgive myself and others; I am free.
9. I am thankful for infinite possibilities.
10. I deserve hope, peace, love and joy.
11. I will make the most of this day.
12. I choose life.

- Durrell Watkins

Praying For Those Facing Floods and Fire

With flooding in parts of Florida and the Waldo Canyon fire raging out of control in Colorado, we feel the need to name our fears and also our hope that is greater than our fears.

We wish for our friends and loved ones to remain safe in these areas where wind, water, or flame threatens.

We are thankful for first responders who are doing all that they can to meet the urgent needs of their communities.

We are sad to learn that people have lost homes.

And we can't know exactly how or when these crises will pass, but our hearts cry out and look for comfort, as they have countless times before, in the practice of prayer.

Let us pray:

Indomitable Hope,

We are caught between Reason that tells us we can't control raging fires and windy storms and Compassion which tells us we can't remain silent in the face of suffering.

And so in spite of our apparent helplessness, we refuse to give in to hopelessness.

We bless those dear people who are facing floods and wildfire; we wish them safety and well-being, and we know that these crises must eventually come to an end, and we take comfort in that.

While we wait for the destruction to stop and for the work of rebuilding lives and communities to begin, we call forth peace today, the peace that passes understanding, the peace that seems miraculous in the face of such dangers and disappointments. Let there now be peace - and the healing that peace offers.

We pray also for the members of these communities to be filled with courage.

We pray for them to be guided by wisdom.

We pray that the human compassion that is pouring out toward them will be a comfort to them and will help them in the days ahead.

And mostly, we bless those facing these difficulties and we extend to them our love, trusting that from the chaos blessings will rise, that despair will be overcome by divine light, that fears will be relieved, and that joy will return to their lives. Amen.

In shared service,

Durrell SIg

Rev. Durrell Watkins, D.Min.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Still Love La Cage

In the 80s (when I was still a teenager), my amazingly perceptive younger (heterosexual) brother gave me a very special Xmas gift – the cast recording of La Cage aux Folles! That musical has been in my life ever since.

Beyond listening to the sound track (and imagining myself playing Albin on stage) a few thousand times, I managed to have other joyous encounters with La Cage. I found the film version of the French play and watched it a few times. The film, like the play, is in French but fortunately there were subtitles. Then in 1996 there was the American remake of the French Film with its English title, The Bird Cage. There were liberties taken, as so often is the case with American films, but the essence remained and I was able to strengthen my La Cage connection.

Then in 2004 the gods smiled upon me and I was able to take the subway from my upper west side Manhattan apartment to the Marquis Theatre to see the revival of La Cage aux Folles. The show opened in December but was in previews throughout November and I was able to see a Wednesday matinee during the preview period. It was an important moment in my life.

I didn’t make it to see the 2010 Broadway revival ( I do, however, have the cast album), but was thrilled to learn that the production would tour beginning the Fall of 2011. Well, I was thrilled until I heard the tour would be featuring George Hamilton. After listening for decades to George Hearn as Albin, seeing Nathan Lane on film as Albert (the Albin character), and seeing Gary Beach (The Producers in another gay role) as Albin and Daniel Davis[1] (The Nanny) as Georges, the thought of the star of the 70s comedies Love at First Bite and Zorro the Gay Blade who has since come to be known for his tanning addiction playing Georges just didn’t inspire confidence in me.

As always happens, though, my rush to judgment proved myopic. Thank whatever stars that guide the theatre world for not allowing me to stubbornly miss the touring production.  On June 23, 2012, in Fort Lauderdale, I saw the show at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts.    

As it turns out, Hamilton was competent. His singing voice was adequate. His movements were graceful. His character, believable. Actually, my expectations were so low, I wound up being impressed. I was especially pleased with how comfortable he was dancing with and kissing another man. Was it acting skill or just a remarkable lack of homophobia? In any case, George Hamilton gave a performance with which he can be pleased.

The actor giving body and voice to Albin was Christopher Sieber. I remember Sieber from the short-lived TV sitcom “It’s All Relative.” That program was ground-breaking in that it portrayed gay male parents of a young woman dating someone from a different class background, and both actors playing the gay couple (Sieber being one of them) were themselves gay, and the program was a prime-time, major network television show. But, perhaps it was ahead of its time because in spite of good ratings, it was cancelled after only one season.

Sieber is an accomplished theatre actor who played Georges opposite Harvey Fierstein’s Albin on Broadway before beginning the national tour for which he plays Albin. He was perfect in the role!

The Cagelles (the chorus basically) were a smaller group than I remembered from the 2004 production (but were as athletic with their dancing and acrobatics as the first revival Cagelles had been), and the tour had a pre-show, interactive monologue given by a female impersonator (also new since 2004). And the “orchestra” was really a very small band. But scaling it down (for the tour or was the 2010 revival just leaner from the start?) didn’t hurt the quality of the show at all. In fact, I liked having fewer bodies on stage where each performance was able to shine.

La Cage aux Folles is French play from 1973 that was later made into a French film. The Broadway debut of the musical La Cage aux Folles was an adaptation of the play with book by Harvey Fierstein , music by Jerry Herman, and it was directed by Arthur Laurents (gay, gay, and gay). The musical won multiple Tony awards including Best Musical. There was a 1986 run in London that lasted only 31 performances. In 2004 Beach and Davis starred in the Broadway revival which won a Tony for Best Revival of a Musical. A London production was mounted again in 2008, this time proving to be very successful, winning the Olivier Award for Best Musical. And the 2010 Broadway revival with Kelsey Grammar and Douglas Hodge also won Best Revival of a Musical. La Cage, to my knowledge, is the only Broadway musical to win Best Musical (or Best Revival) every time it has been staged on Broadway!

The story of a drag performer and his life-partner and their night club, their son and ultra-conservative future in-laws is a compelling story set to brilliant music; book and music by gay men, and original Broadway production directed by a gay man. And the closing number for Act 1, “I Am What I Am” is a powerfully, dramatic moment in this musical comedy and it became the Gay National Anthem for the 1980s.

The show brought gay people, on stage and behind the scenes to the forefront of social consciousness and proved that a positive story about Queer people could be both critically and commercially successful. La Cage has racked up Tony, Drama Desk, and Olivier Awards over the last 29 years. Two cast albums and a national tour are now also part of its legacy. And whether listening to the cast album, seeing it on Broadway, or enjoying it coming to a theatre near you, it remains a life-affirming piece of powerful theatre. For three decades and counting, I love La Cage!

[1] Native Arkansasan from a small town called Gurdon

Friday, June 15, 2012

Better Choices

Daily Wisdom from Spirit & Truth

Saturday, June 16
Today in 1970 Kenneth Gibson was elected mayor of Newark, making him the first Black mayor of a major Northeastern US city.

Better Choices
Rev. Durrell Watkins, D.Min.

“Every single second is an opportunity to change your life, because in any moment you can change the way you feel.” Rhonda Byrne

Most of what we call “life” is really what we feel. Positive feelings are described as happiness, success, comfort, strength, capability, or peace. Negative feelings are described as sickness, lack, fear, betrayal, loneliness, failure, or pain. What we want, obviously, is to have more positive feelings than negative ones. Of course, we can get in the habit of expecting the worst, predicting the worst, and imagining all that could go wrong. Those thought habits create anxiety and unhappiness. To change a habit can take some time, but it begins with making a different choice right now. We can begin now to establish new habits that will lead to more hope, more happiness, and more fulfillment.

Right now, I choose to imagine how things could improve. Right now, I choose to believe blessings are possible and are at hand.

Click Spirit & Truth for additional daily reflections

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Sometimes there is a simple, unexpected moment that proves to be magical, even sacred. The miracle of such a moment touched my life once again last night.

I have often called the multiplex cinema the secular cathedral of our time. The “congregation” gathers faithfully at the time of the film showing, and shares not only the experience of laughing, crying, and sometimes even applauding in response to the activity on the screen, but also shares a ritual feast (“communion”) of soda and popcorn as they sit reverently in the dark, allowing their minds and emotions to be engaged by the work of actors, directors, screenwriters, and other such “ministers.”

But Cathedrals offer not only corporate worship opportunities, but also moments of personal reflection. Side chapels, prayer gardens, and moments of centering before worship are also part of Cathedral life. Those moments of reflection can sometimes transport us to higher dimensions of peace, hope, and life.

Imagine my delight when I strayed into such a reflective space last night at a nearby “secular cathedral.”

I knew almost nothing about the film, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel; but I did know that it featured a cast of titans and any film that features both Judy Dench and Maggie Smith is sure to be almost life-changing!

The cast included:
Dame Judy Dench – 77 (TV: As Times Goes By; Film: Mrs Brown, Shakespeare in Love, Last of the Blonde Bombshells, Notes on a Scandal, Mrs Henderson Presents, Tea With a Mussolini, Chocolat, Nine, My Week With Marilyn, Ladies in Lavender, and James Bond movies)

Bill Nighy – 62 (Film: Pirates of the Caribbean movies as Davy Jones), Notes on a Scandal, Harry Potter films

Penelope Wilton – 66 (granddaughter of theatre owners; TV: Downton Abbey)

Dame Maggie Smith – 77 (TV: Downton Abbey, guest on Carol Burnett Show; Film: California Suite, Gosford Park, Sister Act, Harry Potter films, Ladies in Lavender, Tea With Mussolini, First Wives Club)

Tom Wilkinson – 64 (Film: Green Hornet, Wilde, Full Monty, Priest)

Dev Patel – 22 (Film: Slumdog Millionaire)

So, after a long and busy day, I went to the nearest cinema offering a late show of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

When I arrived at the theater, there weren’t many cars – not surprising for a rainy Thursday night at 10:30 pm. I happily walked in to discover no line, so I walked right up to the ticket booth, but my heart sank when I couldn’t find the name of the film on the board behind the teller. I asked her about it, and she said, “Oh, yeah, it’s showing tonight, but I’ve already taken the sign down.” I just made it to the last showing of the movie at that particular theater. Whew.

Next, there was my communion chalice of sacramental wine (aka a small paper cup filled with fountain soda) and then on to the show.

I walked in and was surprised to find the room completely empty. Previews were playing, but no one was there to watch them. I thought, “how kind of them to show this movie just for me!” And they did. No one else came into the movie for its entire duration. Fine! I get Judy and Maggie all to myself!

And that’s when the magic began. Dame Judy Dench and Dame Maggie Smith gave the brilliant performances we have come to expect from them. And they were joined by other great actors as well.

The story is about retirees in the UK responding to an ad for a retirement community in India. Affordable elegance for the elderly is what is promised, and the first residents of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for the Elderly and Beautiful all arrive in India on the same flight from England, and all arrive at the hotel together. The ancient palace is almost in ruins, and it is managed by a very young man with very big dreams.

These first adventurous retirees are there for a variety of reasons:
Evelyn (Dench) is recently widowed and her late husband has left her in debt. She sells their flat to pay off their debts, moves to India to live in an affordable retirement hotel, and takes a job at a local company for income. She not only finds purpose in India, but also a second chance at love.

Douglas (Nighy) & Jean (Wilton) have reached retirement age, but have invested their life savings into a scheme of their daughter’s which hasn’t yet paid off. So, rather than living in a retirement home in England, they move to India to live in luxury on their pension. Douglas loves the adventure and falls in love with his new community and country (and more); Jean is disappointed that the promised luxury is not yet a reality and she does not adjust well to the new environment.

Muriel (Smith) is a former housekeeper and self-trained bookkeeper who moves to an assisted living facility after being let go by the family she has faithfully served for decades. She has racist tendencies and is generally misanthropic. When she breaks her hip, her care provider tells her that her surgery has been “outsourced” to a clinic in India that can give her excellent care at a fraction of the cost. While she is recovering, she can stay at the Marigold. During her recuperation, she makes friends and takes an interest in the hotel itself. When the hotel’s survival is threatened, it’s Muriel who actually devises a plan to save it.

Graham (Wilkinson) is a high court judge with a health condition and a life-long regret. The closure that will bring him peace is in India, and he finds that peace just in the nick of time.

Norman (played by Ronald Pickup - 77) sees himself as a lover, but he’s having a lot of difficulty finding someone with whom he can share his love. He tells a younger woman who rejects him at a speed dating event, “I’ve still got it; but nobody wants it.” For a change of pace he relocates to India, and continues his search for romance.

Madge (played by Celia Imrie - 59) has been married repeatedly and has looked for love between marriages as well. When she finds that her life is becoming an extended experience of babysitting her grandchildren, she decides to make a drastic change and moves to India in search of a rich widower.

Even Sonny (Patel), the young hotel manager learns that love is worth risk, that dreams can come true for those who will learn, seize opportunity, and be open to change, and that success is possible but usually requires help along the way.

Some of these late in life adventurers find what they are looking for, others find something else (and possibly better), and at least one finds very little other than a chance to return to a life in Europe. What those open to it discover is that it’s never too late to enjoy the present and navigate the future if one is willing to release the past and move forward. And for those who can find such courage, other wonderful discoveries can also be made.

Aging, class, adventure, discovery, human sexuality, romance, grief, regret, hope, health, and personal growth are among the topics addressed not in a preachy way, but in the unfolding of human lives and relationships depicted on the screen.

And that wonderful experience was something I got to have in the sacred dark, alone, or perhaps in communion with the wisdom of ages, the power of poetic insight, the limitlessness of imagination, and the life- giving energy produced by good art. I was on holy ground and emerged whole and full of joy as a result.

If you’ve not yet seen The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel yet, find it wherever it is and make seeing it a priority.

Friday, June 08, 2012

Kathy Griffin

Kathy Griffin at Hard Rock Live
Hollywood, FL
June 2, 2012

I don’t know why I love Kathy Griffin so much. I think it has something to do with her courage, or her ability to seem accessible even as she is speaking to thousands of people, or the very natural way she tells a story. She is credited as a comedienne, but in truth, she is a story teller.

Griffin doesn’t make up characters, nor does she deliver one liners that deserve a rim shot from a snare drum. Kathy Griffin just tells stories about people she meets, topical events from the daily news, interactions with people in her life, confrontations with detractors, ups and downs of her show business career. She just tells stories, true stories, but with a mischievous grin and a naughty delight in being provocative or even shocking. Her stories are funny, mostly because of how she tells them, otherwise, they really are just things that happened in her life or on reality television shows or in the news. Her ability to tell every day stories in a way that is entertaining, for two hours, as if she were having a conversation with a dozen people at a party rather than with 4000 people in a casino performance space is amazing. OK, I guess I do know why I love Kathy Griffin.

This is how captivating Kathy Griffin is: the Hard Rock Live is a glorified basketball court! People on the floor (it’s all one level) have to look up to see the stage and screens. Then, there are two more levels (bleacher style seating), but, like gymnasium bleachers, the people in the elevated seats are facing each other, with the stage to their left or right (there is a small section of “stands” in the back that do face forward, but they are the most removed from the performance area). So, on advice from a friend (who may have been trying to kill me I now believe), I got seats in the bleachers, which meant I watched a two hour performance looking over my left shoulder! I’m about to have my third chiropractic treatment since the show last week and I’m still barely mobile; and yet!...I enjoyed every minute of her performance and am so glad I didn’t miss it. When a performance provides enough joy to override excruciating pain, it is a triumph!

Kathy came out and surprised the audience by being briefly joined by Gloria Estefan to sing with her the theme song from Kathy’s new television late night talk show. While they were on stage together, Gloria (who had been, apparently, tricked into performing the song unrehearsed) promised to “get” Kathy for dragging her out on stage, and Kathy’s response was that there is nothing Gloria could do that would embarrass her and to prove it, she flashed the audience showing her white cotton “granny panties” (and Gloria seemed genuinely shocked).[1]

After that, the rest of the show was just Kathy Griffin’s non-stop stream of consciousness storytelling. She talked about celebrity gossip, her love life and cosmetic surgeries, her mother and personal assistant, her new show, Scientology (she had a lot of fun and spent a lot of time on Scientology), and the recent news of people using bath salts as recreational drugs and becoming extremely violent. In common parlance, such a topic would be inappropriate for jest, but Kathy milked it throughout the show, and being able to laugh about it seemed to actually relieve some of the horror that people had about it (one of the cases of someone becoming extremely violent after ingesting or inhaling bath salts was here in Florida).

Notwithstanding spinal injuries from seating that should be forbidden by the Geneva Convention, the evening felt like playful gossip with an old friend, and a few thousand other acquaintances. Griffin ingeniously featured her status as a “D-List” celebrity in a way that catapulted her to major stardom, but she remains, I fear, underappreciated as an artist. She is funny, of course, but she is also smart and has developed an easy, almost ADD[2] style of storytelling that is engaging, compelling, and hilarious.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Give Thanks

Give Thanks
Rev. Durrell Watkins, D.Min.

“Rejoice always!” The Apostle Paul
          This is an amazing experiment that never fails to fill me with awe. Start giving thanks. Just whisper, “I’m thankful for…” and name something: a glass of iced tea, a friendship, a television program, a sunset, a memory, the relief that comes from scratching an itch, a tax refund, a nurse who was friendly to you during your doctor’s visit, a fun day on the playground way back in kindergarten. Just name something for which you are grateful. Then name something else, and something else. You’ll find as you name some things, more things flood to your mind as well. Just keep saying, “I’m thankful for…” After three or four minutes of just immersing yourself in gratitude, notice how good you feel.

Right now, I think of blessings, large and small, for which I am grateful.

Is Christianity the One True Religion (12 minute video)