Beauty and/or Pain

One of the longest serving/participating members of our congregation has been undergoing radiation treatment for cancer. They sent out an email, celebrating that this week that they completed their final treatment.  They shared these photos of the contraption they had to wear during those radiation treatments:

 

Before I read the email, I saw the photos and the first thought that went through my mind was “Oh, did they go to an art exhibit or something?”  There was something striking and aesthetic about the piece, as if it were a sculpture.    And THEN I read and realized what they were.  This was placed over the person while they were lying on the table, then snapped/bolted down so they wouldn’t move.  Apparently, some people have made art of these “masks.”  Apparently one person took it to a shooting range and shot it up– our church member has not yet decided what to do with it.

One of the greatest capacities we humans have is to take our pain and use it to make something beautiful.  I mean, if you we are going to suffer, you might as well do something with that suffering– whether it is to use what you learn to help others or to use it to somehow transform your pain into something beautiful.  I realize that is a hope I have for one of the things our congregation does– to offer space and support for people to transform their pain.  Such a process is rarely something that happens quickly.  But it can and does happen.

I look forward to worshiping with you all this Sunday: The Power of a Gift–
In our market economy dominated world, we are frequently deprived of the power of a gift– the power to create non-transactional relationships of reciprocity and mutual care. Worship leaders: Rev. Darcy, Brian Wise, and Jorge Torrez.

 

Nuts

Nuts are like the pan fish of the forest, full of protein and especially fat—“poor man’s meat…” Today we eat them daintily, shelled and toasted, but in the old times they’d boil them up in a porridge. The fat floated to the top like a chicken soup and they skimmed it and stored it as nut butter: good winter food. High in calories and vitamins—everything you needed to sustain life. After all, that’s the whole point of nuts: to provide the embryo with all that is needed to start a new life. –  excerpt from Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Braiding Sweetgrass.

How do we find a new path forward when it comes to our relationship to the Earth?  Dr. Kimmerer finds answers in integrating indigenous ways of knowing, scientific knowledge, and her own story as an Anishinabekwe scientist trying to bring them together in service to what matters most.  Kimmerer believes that healing the human relationship with the Earth requires an intertwining of science, spirit, and story.

As the beautiful white almond blossoms surround us (and their pollens bombard our sinuses!), I find myself asking what can the almond trees teach us?  This question doesn’t just come from Anishinabekwe wisdom that Kimmerer shares– I realize this is also the kind of question that our religious ancestors, the 19th century Transcendentalists, also would have wanted us to ask.   Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Thoreau, Margaret Fuller. They were critical of “cold, rational,stuffy” Boston Unitarian churches—they wanted more feeling, more poetry….they believed people should go out and experience the world, should go out and find truths for themselves—people should go out and get awakened.  Go out into the natural world and discover what is to be revealed.  What new life, new perspectives can the nut/embryo offer us? 28322017666_074bfb9677_o

I look forward to answering this question this Sunday with you all! Blossomings–
Come celebrate the glorious beauty we are surrounded by at this time of year (if your allergies allow!) Please wear your boots or sneakers and a coat as you will be invited to take a brief contemplative walk (or do a sitting) into the surrounding almond orchard as part of the worship service! Worship leaders: Rev. Darcy, Haruko DeArth, and Jude Markel.

 

Beauty in the Broken

Something like the phrase “Beauty in the Broken” can sound so trite, and yet, gosh darnit, I think it’s true.  It was true as I noticed this broken glass on the sidewalk from a car window that had been smashed in.

And in fact, a whole Japanese philosophy/perspective is based almost exactly on this principle of finding beauty in the broken: wabi-sabi.  Perfection is strived for in our dominant Western culture, but in Taoism something that is perfect means that no further growth or development can take place. In fact, “perfection” is considered equivalent to death.

Well, look how alive we are then! How alive are we, how alive is our congregation, how alive is the U.S. political system, and how alive is the world!  In order to nurture the kind of growth and change we yearn for– growth and change that leads us all to a more compassionate and just world–we have to learn to see beauty in the ugly.  Not so as to erase the ugliness, but instead to nurture our spirits so that we do not fall into despair and can be fully alive.

In other words, perfection is just not our goal.

Please join us for worship this Sunday: Bootstraps to Beltstraps- The broader culture, as well as the Unitarian-Universalist tradition, has over-emphasized individualism. How can we work our way from “pull yourself up from your boot-straps” to interdependence and right relationship? Worship leaders: Todd Whiteley, Brian Wise, and Jorge Torrez.

 

Being vs. Becoming

For many of us, becoming is always going to be a greater proportion than being. I’ll never have enough experience of life as myself, to have that settled, fixed sense.  “I think I’m always going to have this sense of being as something that constantly involves becoming. And I think that that’s really the glory of the human race. I don’t think anybody should write us off. We’re not done yet — Professor Joy Ladin

“Becoming is always going to be in a greater proportion than being.”  We so easily forget how much of our worlds are based on movement– the most solid thing in front of you– a rock, a table, is in fact made up of millions of buzzing particles.  Movement is at the very core of life, even when we cannot perceive movement.

Professor Joy Ladin has perhaps a less common experience of becoming– in her mid-40’s, she transitioned from male to female identity and was the first openly transgender professor at an Orthodox Jewish institution.   While transitioning a gender identity is not something most of us go through, I bet most of us can relate to the work of expressing our most authentic selves– and how our authenticity can feel restricted by cultural norms.   It wasn’t very long ago that gays and lesbians felt pressured to live closeted lives.  And as attitudes have continued liberalizing (in some ways), we are increasingly seeing people express their gender in different ways than earlier generations.   This growing freedom for individual expression is at the heart of our Unitarian-Universalist tradition, a tradition born because our religious ancestors believed that difference and individuality should and could be expressed in community.   I guess you could say “we welcome misfits.”

In a time when so many of our liberal values feel attacked or threatened, it is more important than ever to be clear about our values and how we want the world to become.  And then to do whatever our part to participate in that becoming.

 

 

 

 

Disagreement

I offered these words at the UUFSC’s Board of Trustees meeting on Tuesday evening:

The most difficult work of leadership involves learning to experience distress without numbing yourself. The virtue of a sacred heart lies in the courage to maintain your innocence and wonder, your doubt and curiosity, and your compassion and love even through your darkest, most difficult moments. Leading with an open heart means you could be at your lowest point, abandoned by yourpeople and entirely powerless, yet remain receptive to the full range of human emotions without going numb, striking back, or engaging in some other defense. … Without keeping your heart open, it becomes difficult, perhaps impossible, to fashion the right response and to succeed or come out
whole.  -Professors Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky

It is not just the most difficult work of leadership that involves us learning to experience distress without numbing ourselves– is some of the most difficult work of being human!  IMG_20200127_150531When you experience distress, when there is a significant disagreement in an important relationship, maintaining an open heart is HARD.  But if I were to list some outcomes of doing spiritual/moral/emotional development work, being able to maintain an open heart and listen while experiencing distress and disagreement would definitely be on this list.   (A friend shared this list with me recently and I think it’s fairly accurate).

 

The truth is even when you are feeling pretty good and secure in your life, maintaining open-heartedness is difficult.  But if you are struggling, stressed, and insecure?  Well, it may be virtually impossible. That is

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After refilling my olive oil bottle this week, I noticed the sun beaming through the bubbles.

when the compassion and open-heartedness of others saves us!   I often like to think of church as a laboratory or a playground where we get to practice behaviors such as open-heartedness– lord knows there is plenty for us to disagree about!  But at least in church, we share some values and the UU Principles– we share being part of a tradition that proclaims that you do not need to think alike to love alike.   If we can figure out how to disagree here, then perhaps we have a chance of figuring out how to disagree in the broader world, with people who are even more different.  In this age of political polarization, we need people who can disagree with open-heartedness more than ever.

I look forward to worshiping with you this Sunday: 12 Steps for UU’s- Addiction touches so many of our lives– 12 step groups have provided so much support to many, despite a lot of the ‘theological’ translation work many have to do to participate in such groups. What wisdom can be gleaned from the 12 steps? Worship leaders: Rev. Darcy, Brian W., Carol F., and Sue C.

The Work Love Demands

The politics of greed is at play when folks seek love. They often want fulfillment immediately. Genuine love is rarely an emotional space where needs are instantly gratified. To know genuine love we have to invest time and commitment. As John Welwood reminds us in Journey of the Heart: The Path of Conscious Love, “dreaming that love will save us, solve all our problems or provide a steady state of bliss or security only keeps us stuck in wishful fantasy, undermining the real power of love – which is to transform us.” Many people want love to function like a drug, giving them an immediate and sustained high. They want to do nothing, just passively receive the good feeling… More often than not they do not want to do the work that love demands. When the practice of love invites us to enter a place of potential bliss that is at the same time a place of critical awakening and pain, many of us turn our backs on love.– excerpted from All About Love: New Visions by bell hooks

Spoiler alert:  this excerpt from bell hooks is my sermon “seed” for our service this Sunday.   And the line “More often than not they do not want to do the work that loved demands” has been sitting with me.  There are so many reasons why people decide to get involved in a congregation.  Often times, people are seeking to find like-minded people, want to explore meaning and purpose, and build up a sense of belonging.  All of these are great reasons to be involved in a congregation.  And, as your Unitarian Universalist minister, I have to say we are here for something more because this is what the Unitarian Universalist traditions teaches us: We are here to experience radical love and help others experience radical love.   We are here to be transformed by an experience of love and community that is different than anywhere else in life.

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Transformation in process

So many of you are already working so hard, it seems a little mean to say “yes, you even need to do more work.”  But the work that love demands is not like other kind of work.  It’s often not about more “doing.”   The work that love demands requires being self-reflective, looking at yourself, what you do, and why.  It means participating in relationships in healthy ways, particularly when the relationship gets hard– when you feel hurt, disappointed, or betrayed.  It requires vulnerability, honesty, respect, and consideration.   Saying all this stuff is relatively easy– it is much MUCH harder to practice and live it out.   This is what I think our congregation is for– a space and people with whom to practice and practice, and practice the work of love.

I look forward to worshiping with you all this Sunday: Loving More Than Your Reflection–Too often we confuse love with the experience of another person reflecting back to us what we want to see–the version of ourselves we so want to see. Our Universalist heritage asks us to move beyond these deceptive practices of ego gratifying reflection to find true love. Worship Leaders: Rev. Darcy, Haruko DeArth, and Carol Festejo.

This is Why You Are Here

And then there’s the other thing which is, when your favorite song gets to that part that you love, and you just feel something. Or when you’ve had a series of crappy meals and then finally you get a well-spiced, balanced, goat biryani, and you have this moment. So, these moments of pleasure, of epiphany, of focus, of being there, in their instantaneous way can actually feel like a kind of little nudge that tells you, by the way, this is why you’re alive.   –Teju Cole

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Sunlight on a lemon tree after the rain–a little nudge towards beauty.

I’ve been chewing over this reflection from writer and artist Teju Cole.  I love how he takes some of the simplest, most accessible aspects of living– like food and music–and uses that as a portal to purpose.  When you experience moments of pleasure, epiphany, focus, and presence, it is like a little roadmap to help you get in touch with ‘the why’ of your living.   There is a part of me that says “yes!” and then there is a part of me (perhaps our Puritan roots?) that says but what about work? What about how our purpose can also require commitment and sacrifice?  But Cole is not saying these moments are ones we are supposed to try to exist in forever– but rather, those moments are nudges or traffic signs towards something, towards your deepest integrity.  That experiences of pleasure, epiphany, focus, and presence, if you explore them, might help you on your path (not BE your path).

In many ways, this is how I have approached ministry with our congregation– what are the projects, the things we do, that give us energy and joy?  Let’s focus on THOSE things.  This is why our monthly Shelters Meal program has survived, despite the death of the program’s founder.  Bill G. wanted to the experience of the Shelters Meal program to be way of deep humaneness and dignity. Getting to participate in that kind of experience is what we crave– that is why our congregation to exists.  To provide people with experiences and relationships of deep humaneness.

Where are the nudges in your life? And what do they tell you about why you are alive?

This Sunday:  Jan 19th  The Arc of the Universe– Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. made famous the quote by Unitarian minister Theodore Parker that the arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice.  For Unitarian Universalists, living in integrity means figuring out ways to lend our weight to bending the arc.  Worship leaders: Brian Wise, Todd Whiteley, and Jude Markel.

 

All Will Be Well, Right?

There is a song we have played at the church a few times , written by UU minister Meg Barnhouse, called “All Will Be Well.” The song is a conversation with the medieval woman Christian mystic Julian of Norwich who is believed to have been the first woman to write a book in English and who expressed universalist beliefs.   Julian became gravely ill and had mystical visions, which she then wrote about in her book.  In one of these instances, she reports wondering why there was evil in the world, why God would allow it (a common question across the ages!).  She had a vision of Jesus, who told her with deep tenderness “It was necessary that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

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Some things that bring comfort to my two-year old

I don’t know about the “necessariness of sin”– (and far too much evil has been labeled ‘necessary’ when it was far from it!).  But “all manner of things shall be well” seems eerily similar to my shallow understanding of Buddhist teachings regarding impermanence and non-attachment. There is something about it that both makes sense and does not make sense.

As I heard someone put it, the world seems to be a “large dumpster fire” right now–Australia is burning, military tensions with Iran, protests all around the world.  In fact, it feels like we have been in “dumpster fire” territory for awhile now.  Julian of Norwich had her share of dumpster fires: she witnessed the devastation of the plague and the violence of the Peasants Revolt.

Julian didn’t say things were going to be good, going to be easy, or going to be comfortable.  She said “all manner of things shall be well.”  In this dumpster fire moment, I am listening to this song and trying to access the wisdom I think is there.

I look forward to worshiping with you all this Sunday (particularly after being sick last Sunday!): Making A Way Out of No Way–Religious liberals often talk about ‘freedom’ as a value, even a goal, of our tradition–but perhaps freedom may be too lofty of an aspiration. Worship leaders: Rev. Darcy, Todd Whiteley, and Jorge Torrez.

How to Begin Again

There are so many voices you are hearing at this time of year, telling you how to be a better you in 2020; how to slough off the old and be new!new!new!   If you are in a moment in your life, where you are ripe for newness, such messages may provide just the encouragement you need to take that next step.   But if your life is not ripe for “newness,” all those voices may just be overwhelming and discouraging.

IMG_20200102_140807The title of this reflection is misleading because I do not know a simple answer to the question of ‘how to begin again.’   The truth is, we begin again every day.  The seasons of our lives do not so easily fit into cultural calendars.  The change of the (Gregorian) calendar year can provide us an opportunity to move what we want to move– frankly, for me, what I need to move is the accumulation of boxes that has built up during all the festivities and family visiting this Christmas holiday season!  But if newness and movement seem too hard right now, then maybe it’s not the right time. Maybe what you need is still and old.   You can begin again when the calendar year changes or you can begin again another time (or another calendar’s new year).   How to begin again? You do it when you need to do it and you are actually doing it every single day.

I look forward to worshiping with you this Sunday: Beginning Again..and Again…and Again— In order to live in integrity, we humans always need opportunities to begin again. What do you need to remember, what do you need to release, and what do you need to resolve to do? Rev. Darcy will lead the congregation’s annual ‘burning off’ ritual. Worship leaders: Rev. Darcy, Dee Hawksworth, and Jorge Torrez.

The Importance of Singing

On Sunday, my two year old was quite entranced by Elaine A. and Carol F. leading christmas carols after worship.  He loves singing and his eyes take on a particular sparkling focus when music is playing.  I realized that this carol-singing was really his first exposure to the classic canon of Christmas carols.  These songs, which I am sure will become as familiar to him as they are to most of us,  began for him in the Johnson room.

One of the most important things a religious community does is provide a group of people with shared songs.  Perhaps this does not seem lofty enough– shouldn’t a church aspire to save souls? Liberate us?  I would say yes and no.  Saving and liberation are, frankly, overwhelming goals.  What is the first thing we should do if we are trying to save and liberate?  Singing is not a bad place to start.  Having shared songs means that we can show up to a person’s hospital bed and have familiar songs to sing together (in fact, at this very moment, people are organizing to do just this).   Having shared songs means that when you are feeling depressed and isolated, you can show up to church and experience connection of shared breath and voice, if only for a few moments.   Singing together means our bodies and breathing are in sync, providing us humans with an experience of connection we so desperately need.  Before there is action or organizing or salvation or liberation, there must first be connection.  First, there must be singing.

I look forward to worshipping with you this Sunday: Pain is the Other Side of Love–
During this time of longest nights in our Northern Hemisphere, this contemplative service will help us honor all that darkness offers our beings in midst of ecological crisis. Worship Leaders: Rev. Darcy, Matthew Mason, and Jorge Torrez.