Under The Collar Experiment

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Love Personified

Love Personified

by Kate Starr, Rev. Tamara Lebak

Love was born on the longest night of the year

while outside a great storm raged.

Lightning ripped its ragged sword 

through the darkness,

temporarily turning night 

into day.

Thunder came from everywhere

Jolting the land from the inside out 

shattering the silence. 

It was as though when Love slipped into the world, 

the earth's heart 

cracked wide open.

Life wrapped her in velvet,

humming a mother's soothing song of praise,

while Death, her father, stood vigil.


Even today, despite the weather, 

Love feels at peace in nature. 

Not that she is boastful or proud, 

Love does believe she is an expert rock climber.

She somehow manages to take hold 

in the smallest fissure,

to wedge her way into the tightest crevice

and make herself comfortable.

Her father used to take her spelunking.

Together they explored the deepest, 

most remote caves.

They treasured the tomb-like quiet and pitch blackness

found nowhere else but the world's inner core.


Love works in the kitchen

of a juvenile detention center.

She brings spices from her own cabinet

to add flavor to the bland rations

the warden calls nourishment.

She also puts a single  raspberry on each tray

as it passes by. 

It's Love's safe and subtle way 

to give each of these sad, scared

and wounded youth

a reassuring kiss.

To show them someone cares,

that they matter.


Love has been engaged many times

but has not yet married.

It's a mystery to her friends 

who set her up on dates 


Love is so patient and kind.

She's not easily angered, self-seeking, or rude.

She doesn't delight in evil, 

but rejoices in the truth.

She always trusts, always protects, always perseveres.

But her suitors 

misinterpret her unconditional attention to everyone 

– men and women, young and old, friends and enemies – 

as insecurity and neediness.

They fear they're not enough for her.

Or that there isn't enough of her 

to be shared.


Love cannot wait to have a child of her own

but in the meantime, 

she has been a surrogate mother 

three times now and counting – 

the first time for an infertile cousin on her mother's side,

then for a single mother, 

and, most recently, for a gay couple.

To Love, there is 

no greater gift she can give to heal a broken world,

no better way to pass on what she's been given.



Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Fishing Naked

John 21:1-8

Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples knew not that it was Jesus. They did not recognize him. This was actually the third time, in John, that Jesus had appeared since the crucifixion, and you know about the rule of threes. It usually means wake up!  You are about to hear something important!

Peter had wanted to go fishing the night before and invited the disciples to come along. They had been fishing all night long in the dark with no luck. That morning Jesus called out to them, “Children, have you [any] fish?”

They answered, “No.”
Jesus then said, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.”
So they cast the net on the right side – I imagine out into the sea
and not toward the beach. They were barely able to haul in the net because there were so many fish!

Now, no one had recognized who was giving them such sage advice up to this point. Then the disciple whom Jesus loved recognized him.  Now obviously Jesus loved all his disciples, but I imagine, he REALLY LOVED the disciple who could recognize his spirit alive in the world after he had died.

So, the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter,  “It is the Lord!” Peter hadn’t recognized Jesus. Peter is such a character– a fisherman chosen by Jesus who: gets to walk on water, witnesses the transfiguration, can’t stay awake, denies Jesus, is restored by him, and then gets to preach the day of Pentecost. Peter is so human, so fallible. Gotta love him. Peter hears that it was Jesus telling them to fish the other side of the boat, so he puts on some clothes, and jumps into the sea to swim toward Jesus.

He was fishing naked!  All of the disciples likely were.
There are some disputes about whether they had on underclothes or not.  But back then, if you were a fisherman or a carpenter or any of the working class folk you likely only owned one good set of robes and if you were going to be casting out heavy nets all night long: 1: you wouldn’t want them to get all sweaty, and 2. robes are not the easiest things to wear while throwing fishing nets.

So, Peter sees Jesus after he is pointed out, puts on his robes and jumps into the water, while the other disciples do the hard work of dragging in their net full of fish. While the other disciples make an incredible catch by looking in the same direction as Jesus, Peter dives in weighed down by his robes and swims to shore.

If we are going to recognize Jesus, the spirit of love and truth and justice, if we are going to recognize the spirit that is alive in this world over which death has no dominion, we might imitate the beloved disciple and in fact be vulnerable ourselves. We must do our hard work naked (not literally of course) but vulnerable.

If we want to be abundantly successful and receive our catch,
We must look in the direction of Jesus and explore the unfamiliar territory of the other side of the boat.

The Disciple who recognized Jesus was naked and stayed that way… but Peter burdens himself with layers of clothes that get in the way and makes that 100 yard swim a much more difficult one. He dives in, I imagine head first, struggling with every stroke and emerges on the beach before Jesus, exhausted, his clothes drenched and heavy. Why does Peter put on his robes to swim? Jesus reminds us in this story to stop struggling for grace.

There is no reason to hide yourself before GOD. If what you are doing is important and holy and on the path then your vulnerability is required. It’s almost laughable to assume that it can’t be seen hidden behind a robe or even a fig leaf. Let us not buy into some mythology about vulnerability being weak or gullible or frail because that mythology is the very thing that keeps us from our greatest strength and prevents us from doing the thing that matters most. 

I love this story about Peter in John 21 because, not only are we reminded to be vulnerable, but this scripture also reminds us to take a look at where we are casting our net. If we only cast toward the shore toward the familiar, what we think we already know, we just might miss the abundance of the sea.

Friday, November 7, 2014

God Objectified

God Objectified- Kate Starr/Tamara Lebak
You’ll have to use every form of transportation
to get there – a plane, a train, cars and buses,
and something that floats.
The last few hours you’ll spend on foot
following the directions of country people
speaking languages that are difficult to understand
using hand signals
and maps drawn with sticks in dirt –
turn left at a certain cedar that looks like a man,
make a right at the rock formation
of mother and child,
go through the valley, cross over a bridge, go
until you come to the crossroads …
Then, if you are looking carefully,
stairs will appear underfoot
leading you to a door that looks
very much like your own front door,
into a foyer with multiple mirrors
and countless corridors.
Lining every hall are rows and rows
endless rows of card catalogs,
sky-high shelves of dusty books,
stone tablets, papyrus scrolls,
oral traditions preserved on vinyl and cassettes,
8-tracks, CDs, and DVDs.

Down one corridor is a portrait room.
There you will find an ornately framed painting
of each and every person who has ever lived.
Or ever will.
Down another passage you enter an audio library
where the thoughts of every man, woman
and child are audible.
There is a also a video room,
with screen upon screen and holographic
images of unspeakable horrors
and moments of unbridled elation.

People of every sort are here
looking for something:
their origin, their genealogy, a connection,
Hope, Justice, Love.
Occasionally you will see
those who have taken up residence
in the hallways and sitting areas
and have no other home but here.
You might find them sleeping under newspaper
or silk calligraphy banners,
grumbling about the chatter
and having to share the space.

Animals of all kinds lope and slither and fly
throughout the halls around you.
Some creatures require a microscope to see,
others a microfiche to remember.

In one room, children slide down a giant Plexiglas
replica of the human body.
When you glide behind the eyes you catch glimpses
of the infinite and the minute.
Pass through the heart and you experience
the incredible capacity for love and hate.
Slipping through the intestines you intuitively
feel empathy and fear.
Make your way through the birth canal and,
just for an instant,
you truly understand all the paradoxes of life.

And somewhere in the bowels of this modern
steel and glass marvel,
in the turret of this medieval
stone and mortar castle,
somewhere in this igloo, this condo,
this mansion, this hut,
sits the sole proprietor, the archivist,
the docent, the librarian
meticulously, systematically, analytically
and very, very lovingly,
counting the hairs 
on yet another head.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Golden Rules.

Because of my recent travel, I have only now begun to been celebrating Oklahoma's new (forced) recognition of Gay Marriage.  Ironically, as I restarted my non-travel-morning-practice I also found this weeks lectionary to be on Leviticus (19:1-2, 15-18 to be exact).  This is the only time in a three year rotation that Leviticus makes the lectionary cut.  I must say my relationship with Leviticus has been damaged over the years having been bludgeoned by it (18:22, 20:13).  This center of the Torah that liberal Christianity so quickly dismisses as archaic and irrelevant also includes entertaining "Thou shalt not's" that make good fodder when fundamentalists pick and choose what they lift up in the text.  My favorite Leviticus until today includes no shellfish and no blended fabrics :)  Leviticus is not a book I typically turn to for inspiration.  However, I learned something I didn't know this read through.

Leviticus is a call to holiness, to do things "decently and in order."  Even though, who gets to define holiness has been a 2000 year argument that will likely never be resolved.  I did not know that Leviticus is the only place where the Golden Rule occurs twice... and in two very different ways. Chapter 19 Verse 18 says "love your neighbor as yourself."  This in theory is a great idea, but works only if you are surrounded by people just like you.  As a cultural competency trainer I am invested in showing the good intentions but poor impact of the the Golden Rule by introducing the Platinum rule: Do unto others as THEY would have done unto them.  This requires knowing what they would like done unto them.  We teach others how to respect us.  We must be curious about and seek to discover how others would like to be respected and not assume we know.  And here is where Leviticus, after years of abuse has finally earned my respect.  The second wording of the Golden rule seems to have platinum underpinnings.  Verse 34 reads, "You shall love the stranger (the alien) as yourself, for you were strangers (aliens) in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God."

In lifting up both neighbor and stranger, Leviticus seems to be lifting up that you cannot simply stop the conversation with those like you and pushes us to think about how we have indeed been strangers ourselves.  Embedded in so many rules and regulations how will we possibly get it all right?  We won't.  And so we must learn how to make mistakes and stay connected to the person beyond the disrespect.  We must in fact get our hands dirty.  And when we do, we tap into the humility of when we ourselves were strangers in a strange land unaware of when we offended even when our hearts were in a good place.  I am going to shout the good news of Leviticus from the rooftops now.. when you are offended, assume well intended... when you offend speak from your heart and stay in relationship.  Isn't that the holiest of places anyway?  When two people meet and that third place is created where differences and similarities are celebrated?  May it be so.

Friday, October 17, 2014

All you need is Love

I have reconnected with my global citizenship. I am in Manchester, England where I have been at a training learning how to train others in Emotional Skills and Deception Detection.  I love a British accent and the sing song way of chatting. I found myself singing along when I said Thank Yuuuu.. and using their version of "Hon" which is "Love."  I much prefer Love as a term of endearment even for people you've just met.  The group I trained with was was an international group of incredible people from all over.   As we all got to know one another, I tried to explain Unitarian Universalism and my ministry to French, English, Turkish, Polish, and Lithuanian delegates.  It was not an easy task.  Religious diversity is itself is complex... add to it the complexity of gender and sexual orientation with the language differences and we had a lot of expressions of surprise and laughter.  The cross cultural chasm was quite vast yet I was reminded so keenly that despite the differences there is still this common thread of wanting to be seen, heard and understood.  Grounded in love and compassion, I believe there is always a possibility for connection.  I am blessed to have 12 new friends from around the world.   Martin Luther King Jr wrote, "I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality." Amen.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Be Flat

  I recently read that black holes emit a frequency of a B flat.  B Flat also happens to be my preferred singing key as well as the tone that is used to attune our heart chakra, as it were. I was on my way home after picking up our daughter singing along (likely in the key of B flat)  when I hit a pothole on a highway interchange.  The tire went flat immediately and we were limping along nearly a mile before I was able to exit.  

  I breathed in deeply but could not do much more than chant "please, please, please" while watching cars irritatingly zip around and past us. It was the first time I had felt fear while driving in this particular way because our daughter was with me.  Each time I checked the rear view mirror for cars speeding up behind us I had to look past her searching face in the back seat first.  If we were in fact rear ended, she would take the impact first.  I tried not to hold my breath and refrained from panic.  Maybe it was my daily meditation paying off.  "We hit a hole and our tire has no air in it." I tried to say cheerfully as I dodged cars.  It was one of those moments where the fragility of life coats everything else you see.

  It is nearly impossible to hide an emotion when in cognitive or emotional overload.  You will inevitably leak.   It seeps out in our voice or in a nearly imperceptible micro-expression that warns others of our emotional world even if they don't know exactly what they saw.  On the one hand I want Beckett to be able to identify and articulate what she is feeling when she is feeling it and I would like to model that.  I don't want her to hide her feelings. On the other hand I do not need her upset when I am trying to dodge oncoming cars. I had a job to do. 

  We pulled off the highway and into the first driveway which is a college. I took the first turn into a spot that was out of the way and discover a Porsche with a flat tire and park behind it.  I get out to change my tire and he gets out of the car, too.  "You just missed two more cars with flat tires ahead of us who have already come and gone" For some reason I was comforted knowing that I was not the only  one who hit the pothole, not that I would wish it on anyone.  This man was able to see them come and go because evidently, Porsche finds spare tires to be dead weight. They also apparently believe Porscheowners have plenty of time on their hands to wait for a tow and plenty of money to pay for it.  As he waited for rescue, he helped me with my tire. I imagine he also helped the other two with theirs.  His forced dependence gave him opportunity to assist.  He assisted me in locating and assembling the jack.  It was my first time changing a tire in this car and I was trying to manage our daughter's anxiety as well as my own, so I gratefully accepted. 

  Black holes reflect no light. They allow no light to escape.  And yet they emit this sound of Om.  A sound that attunes the hearts of humankind.  We need to use all of our senses to find a way to move through the darkness.  When we cannot see, we can still listen deeply. I believe that the good will find a way.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Meeting the Dead in Love

More than preaching, more than weddings, more than child dedications, I love memorial services.  I feel I was knit together in my mother's womb and molded throughout the course of my life to serve in this way. Robin Williams’ recent passing had me thinking about the memorial services I have done for those who have taken their own lives.

Not that long ago I led a service for a woman who committed suicide after years of struggling with mental illness.  She would not have wanted to be defined only by the way she died. It was such a small piece of who she was.  She was also diligent, a hard worker, blunt, loving, and compassionate. As I listened to her family, one story stood out to me that seemed to slip past the family and under the door of the room where we were gathered piecing together the fragments of her life.  Once, the deceased and her sister found a bird that a cat had tortured. Its wings were broken. Its feathers were missing, ripped out in chunks. It was barely alive. Seeing this once-beautiful bird struggling for life broke their hearts. It was the deceased’s sister who told me this story. She couldn’t look at the bird—she had to turn away. Her sister—the hero of my eulogy—asked for a bucket of water. In an act of compassion of which very few of us are capable, the deceased dipped the bird beneath the surface of the water and held it there until it drowned.

This story created an opportunity for forgiveness of this final act that took her away from her family. It held the suffering and the strength. A single story from her life offered healing in a way that scripture could not. The joy of our lives is richer when the pain is not neglected, not ignored but held up to the light. When we do this everyone walks away inspired, renewed, and reminded that this life is worth living even in the face of suicide.

People often ask how ministers can write a eulogy for someone we have never met.  It is not as difficult as it may seem.  I am just a vessel for the stories told by those who knew them.  And so I meet them through the eyes of their family and friends.  The formula for doing this well is simple: First, I fall in love with humanity. Then, I fall in love with those who loved the deceased as well as with those who may have struggled to love him.  Finally, I have to fall in love with the one who is gone. After my heart is cracked open for all those involved, I then have an opportunity to meet the dead in the thick of that love, even though our earthly paths did not cross. Knowing the deceased really only adds one more story to the mix, the personal impact of their earthly life on mine.

Death is an opportunity for the truth in a way like no other.  I have the incredible opportunity to paint— using the stories from the living— pictures of the dead.  Although you may not think it so, this is not a lament. A eulogy is meant to praise. It is a final act of gratitude for a life lived. That gratitude, expressed in the context of a life’s struggle, allows us to learn about our own lives by hearing about someone else’s.
In hearing and telling your stories, they in turn, become ours.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Proud as A Peacock

I have had two tattoos on my ankles since my late teens early twenties.  I have always liked one more than the other… so they have also served as a reminder that all people-- judges, therapists, ministers, even tattoo artists have bad days.  Some bad days have more permanent consequences than others.  Both of my tattoos are from an era in my life that involved a lot of feeling like I had missed the 60's and even more Grateful Dead. One tattoo is of the word peace in rainbow colors with flowers all around and the other a peace symbol that is supposed to look like it is covered in foliage.  It instead looks a bit like a failed attempt at coloring inside the lines. Because of my chosen professions of teaching and ministry, I have spent most of my time covering them.  In the Oklahoma summers most of my wardrobe has revolved around what I could wear with black opaque tights.  

Just before my wife and I had our commitment ceremony in Tulsa in July of 2009, I decided to invest in covering up the one I liked the least with another tattoo.  I found an artist whose work I liked, scheduled an appointment, and made sure he was in a good mood.  The cover up tattoo is of a tree of life in all four seasons with delicate leaves that move through the seasonal colors until winter where there are no leaves at all.  In the section that represents the spring, there is a tiny acorn that represented my hope of bringing our daughter into the world. At the commitment ceremony, I walked bare-legged in a summer dress for the first time in many years and am proud to remember this phase in my life.

In January, I found myself on a new precipice.  I had been invited to participate in a new business venture and was at the beginning of redefining my ministerial role as the church began to restructure. I knew that I wanted to cover up the other ankle tattoo from my youth, and I knew it was time to mark a new chapter in my life yet again. Knowing what I wanted and the style of artist I was after, I found someone extremely talented.  So now on my left calf, with her tail wrapped around my ankle to cover the peace and flowers is a beautiful peacock.

My mother was Christian and my father was a Buddhist Christian and so the peacock is a symbol that reminds me from where I have come. And it represents what I aspire to be. I have always been fascinated by peacocks: their beauty and mystique, the way they use their voice.  They nest on the ground but root in the trees. Even though their beauty is often translated into vanity, early Christians adopted the ancient Greek myth about the peacock that they do not decay after death.  So the peacock is the Easter bird and often depicted next to the tree of life (which I didn’t know until after the fact). Peacocks symbolize transformation and immortality. The feathers mimicking eyes remind me of the multiple ways to see any situation. In Buddhism, they are a symbol of openness, acceptance and wisdom, synonymous with bodhisattvas. Just as Peacocks are capable of eating many poisonous plants without being affected, bodhisattvas are believed to transform the poisonous mind of ignorance, desire and hatred into the thought of enlightenment, to take delusions as the path toward liberation opening up colourfully like the peacocks' tail.  

And so to mark this new phase and only weeks after launching this new blog project, I got a new tattoo in my collar.

Monday, July 21, 2014

She's got a ticket..

She’s got a ticket…

I had a dream last week that a man, who I knew was God (but who looked vaguely like Rev. Marlin Lavanhar), came to tell me I had won a million dollars.  I was skeptical.  What was this -- some kind of Publisher’s Clearinghouse invading my dream world?  “No, no," he said,  "You entered a photo contest with your dogs.” He held up a picture of my two deceased pups together when they were young.  For some reason that seemed legitimate. I took an envelope from him, and he disappeared.  

I opened the letter and found it was indeed a check made out to me, but my name was spelled wrong (which is a familiar experience).  As often happens in dreams, the next time I looked, the letters were moving around on the page and my name was becoming all jumbled.  I couldn’t possibly cash this check; I couldn't even be sure it was even mine.  After some time talking this out with someone else in my dream, I realized that all I needed to do was take the check back to God and ask him to re-issue it.  I felt relieved by my solution, and was looking for the check to do just that when I awoke.

 I journaled nonstop for 30 minutes about how beautiful this dream felt to me.  I had already won.  I merely needed to redeem what was mine, and I needed to do so with MY NAME, who I was, all of me, no misunderstandings or rearranging of pieces of me to get there.  

Fast forward to Saturday.  I am leaving Portland, Maine, to get on a plane to return to Tulsa. 
I checked my bags at the counter and proceeded to the security line.  At security, the TSA agent she was warm and friendly but said, “I am sorry ma’am.  You can’t come through. The name issued on your ticket does not match your driver’s license.”  “How could that be?” I asked.  I looked at the ticket that read Tamararev LebakOK. Keenly aware of my dream I felt like time slowed down and every word was underscored.   "Oh… I see what happened," I said. "The computer added my salutation to the end of my first name when I bought my ticket online. I'm a minister. If I had put Mrs., it would read Tamaramrs. And it seems to have added my state abbreviation to my last name.”  I had about 15 minutes to board at this point and was nervous about missing my plane.  I looked at my watch and expected her to just say, “I get it; come on through.”  She did not.  She was no longer smiling. “You are going to have to have a ticket with just your name and spelled correctly.  No title and no state abbreviation. You’ll have to go back to the counter and have the ticket reissued.” I needed to redeem what was mine.  I needed to do so with just MY NAME, who I was, all of me, no misunderstandings without the confusion of added titles or geographical locations.

I preached at the church that ordained me last month.  It was a beautiful reminder of an incredible event.  My ordination was truly magical: the participation, the music, the laying on of hands, the silence, and the feeling of a presence larger than all of us assembled.  

Eight years later and my call still sings to me as loud as it was that day. The chords are the same but the melody now has expanding layers of harmony.  Instead of a sabbatical, I will be embarking on reissuing my call beyond the walls of church. The church I have served, that has loved me into life as a confident and driven minister, has inspired me to flare up like a flame and make big shadows God can move in.  I will serve them as long as they will have me, and, I will pray to expand this ministry, to empower leaders grounded in their values who will better serve our state and, ultimately, create  a more just and compassionate world.  

May it be so.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

So a minister walks onto a beach...

So, A minister walks onto a beach…

I'm in Maine all week leading a conference.  East Coast beach culture and the clerical collar make for an interesting dichotomy.  I have multiple short sleeve collars that are made of T-shirt material and have paired them with lightweight pants, skirts, and cargo shorts.  When my legs are bare, my two calf tattoos -- one of a peacock and another of a tree of life --  flow into my flip flops (standard retreat shoes around here). At the beach, I am in a bathing suit like everyone else.  Changing from the collar into my two piece tankini made me wonder what it might feel like for others to see their minister at the beach.  Each version that we present of ourselves for various purposes has its place. And the truth is, I am comfortable in a variety of seemingly discordant settings, but is everyone comfortable with me?

For example, I had this incredible teacher in high school, and I remember distinctly the day I first saw her in a pair of jeans at the grocery store.  It was shocking.  She wore skirts or dresses every day to work so the jeans felt out of place -- like she was formal but her clothes were not. In the jeans, she came across to me as uncomfortable, not herself.  I realized that is how I felt, and not, probably, how she actually felt.  It added another layer to my experience of her because it did not fit my preconceived notions. It helped me develop  a much more complicated view of people now than I had when I was 16.

At one point this week, I went into town to pick up a gift for my daughter.   I was buying a toy, and said something like, "Yippee! I delivered on my promise to a 4-year-old for a stuffed lobster."  As I was checking out, an older man with a thick Boston accent said, "What's with the collar?"  I said I was a Unitarian Universalist camp minister at Ferry Beach for the week... that I was from Oklahoma.  My phone case has a picture of my daughter on it and he inquired,  "Is that your niece?"  Interesting assumption, I thought.  He must think I can't be married, and, therefore, am not supposed to have children.   "No," I said. "This is my daughter."

Now I realize I, too, am making assumptions about his assumptions, but my hope is that this man has a new view of all that is possible for clergy, as I did with my teacher in jeans.  Even if I am experienced as an anomaly, it is one more example outside of his expectations. Even if he thinks I, too, look uncomfortable in my collar and flip flops.