“We build on foundations we did not lay.
We warm ourselves at fires we did not light.
We sit in the shade of trees we did not plant.
We drink from wells we did not dig.
We profit from persons we did not know.
We are ever bound in community."

Rev. Peter Raible (paraphrased from Deuteronomy 6:10-12)

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Trusting the Gift: Some Advent Reflections

(NOTE: This is a longish post...a modified version of the message I delivered on Dec 4, 2011. You can listen to the whole message here, if you'd prefer.)
The Suspicions of Joseph - by Rainer Maria Rilke
And the Angel spoke, not without carefully hearing
This man who stood there with his fists tightened.
“But isn’t it clear from the very fold of her dress
That she is as cool as the morning mist?” 
The man however looked at him with suspicion
And said, “I want to know how this happened.”
The Angel spoke louder:  “You woodworker,
Don’t you see any mark of God at all in this? 
“Just because you know how to make planks
Out of tree trunks, are you unable to imagine
One who can bring forth leaves
And pregnant buds out of the same wood?” 
He got it. And the instant he lifted
His deeply shocked eyes to the Angel,
The Angel was gone.  He took hold of his cap
And pulled it off slowly.  And what he sang was a hymn.
What happened to Joseph? What could Joseph have been thinking and feeling after this exchange with the angel? Whatever it was, his only response was to sing a hymn of praise.

Please don’t tune out just because I’m talking about angels! Don’t tune out, because this story doesn’t pass the logic test. Don’t tune out, because I promise there is a deeper truth here, one we all need to hear.

We’re in the middle of Advent.  As you know, Advent, in the Western Christian Tradition, is the four weeks before Christmas. It a time of anticipation, waiting, slowing down, getting clear about what really matters --- as people prepare their hearts for the birth of Jesus into the world, the promise of a hope coming back into a dark world.
“This Advent season,” as John Buchanan recently wrote in the Christian Century, “plays out against the backdrop of a materialist culture at its gaudiest, most materialistic, most vulgar…Advent responds by reminding us that a child will be born in the midst of a world and a time very much like our own, that the reconciliation and redemption his birth promises is not separate from the world, and that he will call us to follow him (or her) and be his (or her) people in this same sad, greedy, vulgar and beautiful world. His (her) birth, which dark Advent anticipates, will be a light in the darkness that darkness will not overcome.”

During this time, many turn to Mary and Joseph, as they wait with them for the arrival of their baby. Thus, the “The Suspicions of Joseph.”

This poem invites us to imagine what Joseph was going through when he got the news.  We’re invited to really land in that place of suspicion, doubt, and uncertainty.  And if you’ve long ago dismissed this story as “not real,” I invite you to look again, below the surface.

In the poem, it’s clear that Joseph has ran straight into a wall of unknowing. All of his worldly knowledge can’t explain what’s happening.  What he knows is that his wife is pregnant and he is pretty darn sure he’s not the father.  And he’s a little steamed, with a lot of questions.

And the angel carefully listens to this man who stands there with his fists tightened, asking, “I want to know how this happened,”  And this angel says to him:

“Just because you know how to make planks
Out of tree trunks, are you unable to imagine
One who can bring forth leaves
And pregnant buds out of the same wood?”

And Joseph gets it. Something beyond words happens to him. A mystery. His deeply shocked eyes look for the angel, but the angel is gone. And he begins to sing a hymn. 

So I think of Joseph and I wonder if maybe, somehow, in that moment with the Angel, Joseph gave up his illusion of control over life’s events. I wonder if in that moment, he was filled with holy wonder and fear, and understood on some deep level that the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Life, was with him and with Mary…was at work in the world…even if he couldn’t understand all the details?

I wonder.

And Mary, dear Mary. She’s not in this poem, but we know from the Biblical text, as author Kathleen Norris writes, that “Mary proceeds – as we all must do in life – making her commitment without knowing much about what it will entail or where it will lead.”  

Both Mary and Joseph “get it,” they trust that something greater than themselves moves with them, and they say yes, without knowing where it will lead.

And really, isn’t this what any committed partnership or marriage is like? We say, “I do, I promise, I will…,” but what do those promises really entail, and where will they lead? We do it; we trust that something beyond our knowing can emerge from such a partnership.

And isn’t this also what having children is like? Or seeking to adopt? We move forward in some sort of faith. We set off down a path, we make a commitment, say “yes,” not knowing where it will lead us. Perhaps there’s joy and wonder at the arrival of a new life, or heart break that things didn’t work out the way we thought they would. And yet, would we undo the original yes?

And isn’t this what moving a loved one into hospice care is all about, too? You face the reality of what is, not knowing exactly what it entails, but trusting that you can walk that path.

And then there’s the death of a loved one, and the questions. How will I move forward? How can I go on? And yet, we do, carried by something we can barely name.

In every case - marriage, birth, children, death - the illusion of control, of sure knowing, dissolves; our knowledge fails us…and we are swept up in awe and terror and wonder. And perhaps, out of that place, we sing like Joseph did.

Let me come at this from another direction. If you’ve ever been to one of First Universalist’s Solstice services, you know that the central part of the service is when all the lights in the Sanctuary go out, and we sit in the darkness together. For me, something happens in that darkness, as we sit together, something beyond knowledge, words, rational mind. As the drum in that service sounds out a human heart beat, I feel myself cast into a timeless space, a womb of darkness, a space of awe, terror, wonder.

My name loses its meaning, all the ways I maintain the illusion of control in my life, they collapse. And the darkness comes bearing gifts that cannot be explained. Emmanuel. God is with us. The Source of Life is with us. The Heartbeat of Life is with us, in the darkness – as we face the eternal mystery.

I think of these lines from a Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem:

“I had a vision of infinity I never told you about.
I was ten, on our trip to the farm – a sow was in labor.
You were all keeping vigil in the barn.
By myself I walked back to the house.
A television was on, no one watching it, just on.
  I sat on the couch. For a moment between programs
The screen swirled an outer-space landscape,
Stars and galaxies, dazzling miracles of light.
Suddenly something dropped –
It was the first moment I knew I would die.
I would not always be healthy, brown, breathing easy inside my skin.
And then I fell farther, I lost my name, the month,
I traveled deeper than I had ever gone,
Back behind the point where I began,
Before I became someone knowing herself as someone.
I became that endless black beyond the stars,
Knowing nothing, not knowing what it had not known,
And realized it was where I was going,
Just as it was where I had been.
 For seconds, Mother, or maybe minutes,
I was no longer your child or anything human.
And then the screen changed and Walt Disney took over and I switched it off and wandered out into the dark.”

We have such moments in our lives, moments that no textbook or curriculum can prepare us for, moments when it becomes clear that all we thought we knew is simply inadequate to explain the mystery at the heart of things.  These moments, terrifying, heart stopping, amazing as they may be, are like a gift, but not a gift we thought to ask for. Instead of suspicion, clenched fists, and anger, may we embrace the gift. May we trust that God/Love/Life is with us in those moments, in the darkness, in the mystery, and if we speak, may we speak only awe, singing, “Hallelujah.”

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Waiting for a Baby: Advent Thoughts from Three Years Ago

Our son was born almost three years ago. Here's what I wrote in my journal, December 10, 2008, addressing our unborn child:

We're in Advent, little baby. It's a time of waiting. And we're waiting because you could come any day. We don't know when, so we wait. The waiting is so crazy. I want to fill up the time with something: watch Westwing, cook, sort through stuff and organize it to prepare for your arrival. But all there is to do is wait. Wait in stillness and silence.  
I'm ready to meet you, little one. I'm so ready to meet you. Everyone is ready to meet you. Your grandma is coming out soon. Your other grandparents, my parents, are coming out soon, too. They can't wait to meet you. And yet, we're all waiting. 
When you're ready, you can come. I want you to have a blessed entry into this world. I want you to connect with your mom; I want to tell you that this is an incredible world, and that so many people have come before us that helped us get to this point. Of course, you have your own life and desires and dreams that you will live into...and you will no doubt help me touch my own dreams in deeper ways.
I wonder who you are and who you will become? Before you grew in your mom's belly, you were just an idea, a dream of love and possibility. 
And now you are flesh and blood, about to enter the world. We'll wait for you; we'll wait for your laughter and tears. We'll wait. 
The waiting is pregnant with possibility. 

Monday, December 5, 2011

What's at the Center of a Vibrant Faith Community?

I recently read this piece by the Rev. Tony Lorenzen, called, "Out of this Stillness: Spiritual Direction, Discernment, and Mission in Liberal Congregation." (It's a bit long, but worth reading; read it and then come back here.)

Tony's paper helped me understand why I feel such a deep commitment and passion for Small Group Ministry. Small Groups, or similar environments based on deep listening and spiritual reflection, truly seem to be the fertile ground that can create a mission-driven, relevant, engaged faith community that understands what "saves them" and then wants to live that out in the world. We're still tinkering with our Small Group model, but we're clear that some environment like this really matters.

Just this morning, I read this piece by the Alban Institute, "Rational Functionalism," by N. Graham Standish, which dovetails nicely with Lorenzen's piece. Here's an excerpt that really spoke to me: 
What I have consistently noticed in almost all thriving congregations, however, is that what makes the difference is the extent to which the community is open to God at its core. Many churches simply aren't open to God. They let the will, ego, and purpose of the dominant voices in their congregation, whether the pastor's or that of a few strong members, drive the agenda. Instead of seeking God's call and purpose, they argue over who is right and wrong. Declining churches tend not to be open to God's presence. 
First Universalist Church feels like a "thriving congregation," (and by many metrics, we are) but after I read this piece, I had to stop and pause. If Standish is right, and if Tony Lorenzo is right (and I think, in general, they both are), then we have a lot of really important spiritual work to do at First Universalist. We have definitely started down the right road, and as a body, we're beginning to seriously reflect on the question, "What is Love/Life/God calling us to now?" This deep reflection and listening will be especially important as we move into our Strategic Planning Process in the coming months.

But it's not easy. As Unitarian Universalists, we can get hung up on the language of God or God's Presence. We can get focused on the functional task in front of us, and fail to step back and listen and reflect. And speaking from personal experience, it can be a challenging, scary (and life giving!) process to truly listen to Love's call (God's call) on your life, or the life of your community.

But it's critical we do this, and continue to do it, because the core of the work is about getting our egos out of the way, and truly discerning how we and First Universalist can be instruments of healing love in the life of our community.

And I think both these articles point to ways that can happen.

If you can't tell, all of this has stirred me up! So dear readers, First Universalist members and others, please chime in, I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Daily Spiritual Practice: Gratitude

A few posts ago, I blogged about the spiritual practice of keeping a "daily gratitude journal." I have a regular spiritual practice of writing, praying, and reflecting on gratitude - and I thought I'd share what that looks like for me:

 Dec 5, 2011
"I thank You God for most this amazing day..." Thank You for the walk to church yesterday, in the fresh fallen snow. It was still dark out when I began my walk, but I was warmed by thoughts of who I'd encounter at church, and by the hot cup of coffee I carried in my mug. The streets were empty. The sky held the faintest hints of the morning sun, but it was still mostly dark. As I walked down the silent, beautiful streets and sidewalks, I reminded myself that the world doesn't owe me anything: not my health, or the hot coffee (which I did not grow, harvest, roast, or pack), or anything else, for that matter. I reminded myself that I am utterly dependent on those around me, and so many that I do not know. As I walked, I gave thanks for a body that mostly works; for family and friends that hold and support me; for the faith community I am blessed to serve. I try to take none of this for granted, because things won't always be this way.
"I thank You God for most this amazing day..." Thank You for the powerful, healing conversations that took place at church yesterday. I was surprised and delighted by the interactions I had with long time members and guests. I was deeply touched and reminded of how important a faith community is and can be. (And thanks, also, for a worship hour filled with moving and soul stirring music.)
"I thank You God for most this amazing day..." Thank you for the walk home from church...and the chance to unwind...and  for the call from my Amicus friend, and for the chance to put my son to bed, to rock him and sing him "silly songs" before he fell asleep...
And thank You for the ongoing, creative, spirit filled work of the Occupy Movement, here in the Twin Cities and around the country, who continue to highlight the troubling economic disparities in this country, and call out the ways that money corrupts our democracy...I am with them in spirit.     
There's more, of course, but it's of a more personal nature, and not something I feel comfortable putting on a blog...but you get the basic gist of one of my core practices and what it looks like.

What daily spiritual practices help ground and orient your life?


Saturday, December 3, 2011

Advent Practices

Advent is a time of waiting, of slowing down, of expectation and anticipation. And while Advent is certainly about preparing oneself for the birth of Jesus, it is so much more than that.

It is about preparing for the birth of hope, love, light, and possibility in our own lives. It is about getting caught up in a vision and a story bigger than our little piddly, ego-driven, non-sense story that focuses way too much on the "Kingdom of me."

It is about letting something be born anew in our hearts...something that calls us to align ourselves with God's vision/Love's vision for the world and its people.

If you're interested in digging more deeply into Advent, check out these folks and resources:

I'm particularly enjoying and challenged by Rev Matt Tittle's daily Advent Tweets. You can follow Matt at @reverendmatt.

@Occupyadvent and the the Occupy Advent blog are good, too, and they link to lots of other good Advent sources.

Finally, be sure to check out @HeidiMastrud's blog, and her recent post about Advent.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Reflections on an Interfaith Thanksgiving Service

Last Thursday, I participated in the annual Minneapolis Downtown Clergy Interfaith Thanksgiving Service. I've just recently joined this group, so this was the first time I've been a part of the service. 

As a Unitarian Universalist, interfaith services are not new to me, but none-the-less, this service was a powerful experience, as Jews, Christians, Muslims, Unitarian Universalists and people from all walks of life worshiped together at Plymouth Congregational Church. 

If every there was a day for an interfaith service, Thanksgiving is that day. What united us during that service was not a set dogma, or doctrine, but gratitude, praise, and awe. (Things near and dear to my heart; I've blogged about gratitude here, and here.) What united us, beyond belief, was love - love for the creation/creator, love for our neighbors - known and yet to be known - love for the lives we have been blessed with, and the people who nourish and support our lives. 

Gratitude, praise, awe, and love - a solid foundation for a meaningful, grounded life in any faith tradition. 

Thanks to Plymouth for hosting; thanks to all who came and worshiped together; thanks to my colleagues for their tireless efforts to create bridges, meaningful connections and relationships among the various faith communities in the Twin Cities. I'm honored to be a part of this group, and can't wait until the service next year. 


During the service I shared a poem/meditation, by the Rev. Max Coots, a deceased Unitarian Universalist minister. Many of you have requested a copy of this poem, "A Prayer of Thanksgiving." Here it is:

Let us give thanks...

For generous friends...with hearts as big as hubbards
and smiles as bright as their blossoms;

For feisty friends as tart as apples;

For continuous friends, who, like scallions and cucumbers, keep reminding us we had them;

For crotchety friends, as sour as rhubarb and as indestructible;

For handsome friends, who are as gorgeous as eggplants and as elegant as a row of corn -- and the others -- as plain as potatoes, and so good for you.

For funny friends, who are as silly as brussels sprouts and as amusing as Jerusalem artichokes, and serious friends as complex as cauliflowers and as intricate as onions;

For friends as unpretentious as cabbages, as subtle as summer squash, as persistent as parsley, as delightful as dill, as endless as zucchini, and who -- like parsnips -- can be counted on to see you through the long winter;

For old friends, nodding like sunflowers in the evening-time, and young friends coming on as fast as radishes;

For loving friends, who wind around as like tendrils, and hold us despite our blights, wilts, and witherings;

And finally, for those friends now gone, like gardens past, that have been harvested - but who fed us in their times that we might have life thereafter;

For all these we give thanks. 



Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Mapping a Life: Greed or Gratitude? PART 2

It’s easy to say, "gratitude matters." but without a regular practice of gratitude, I believe we’ll drift back toward greed. So, in that spirit, I offer two practices of gratitude, that I use in my own life:

1) Keep a daily gratitude journal. Maybe this might sounds ridiculous, but try it. Each day, in your journal, or Word document, or wherever, lift up three things out of the landscape of your life that you are thankful for. Three things – people, experiences, music, food.

Here’s how this works in my life: I regularly journal and pray early in the morning. I begin with this line from e.e. cummings: “I think you god for the most this amazing day…” And then I prayerfully list what I am thankful for:

“I thank you god for my family.
For the people I serve.
For bringing me to this moment, despite hardship and heartbreak.  

This practice changes me. And I’ll tell you, giving thanks doesn’t deny the hard moments, the loss, the grief, the despair we feel. Gratitude does not mean we ignore those things.

In fact, the Reverend Peter Gomes, former minister of Harvard’s Memorial Chapel, during a Thanksgiving Sermon, encouraged his congregation to,

 "think of your worst moments, your sorrows, your losses, your sadness and then remember that you are here, able to remember them...you got through the worst day of your life...you got through the trauma, the trial, you survived the bad relationship, you're making your way out of the darkness...remember these things...then look to see where you are."

And if you are in a dark, troubled place right now, know – beyond your rational mind - that you won’t remain there forever.  
The first practice is to keep a gratitude journal. If you’re not into journaling, write some thank you notes on a regular basis. Surely there are people in your life who deserve your thanks.

2) Make it a practice to tell a spouse, partner or friend something you appreciate about them every day. Author Arlie Hochschild writes, "When couples struggle, it is seldom over who does what. Far more often, it is over the giving and receiving of gratitude.  The struggle in the contemporary context is the struggle to cultivate gratitude between any two committed partners."

Dr. John Gottman, a national known relationship counselor, says that he can predict, often after only three minutes of observation, which marriages/partnerships are likely to flourish and which are likely to flounder.
The basic formula is that for every negative expression (a complaint, or a put-down, or getting angry with one another) there needs to be about five positive ones (smiles, compliments, laughter, expressions of appreciation and gratitude). 5 to 1 is the ratio, he says.

So this practice is about opening your heart to your partner, and truly paying attention. What are the ways, large and small, that you appreciate your partner, or friends? Have you told them? Are you being stingy with your praise?

Gratitude won’t fix everything in a relationship – I’m not saying that – but it will change the landscape of your relationship.

Here’s the bottom line: “Practicing gratitude" is not one more thing to check off your to-do list. It's not an obligation or a burden to praise, to give thanks. Rather, it is an overflowing of Love, of the heart remembering and acknowledging the web of life we are in, that we had nothing to do with, yet sustains and nourishes us, nonetheless.        

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Mapping a Life: Greed or Gratitude?

A few thoughts on greed...
Greed is almost impossible to see in ourselves, right?  No looks in the mirror, and says, “You Greedy Jerk..I see you there!”

It’s easy to look at Bernie Madoff, or the top Executives at Enron, or the Bankers and CEOs on Wallstreet, or any number of other people and businesses, and shake a finger and tsk-tsk disapprovingly, and say, “Those greedy people…in this greedy system.”

Greed is nearly impossible to see in ourselves, isn’t it? I mean, who among us would say, “Yup, I’m greedy! And it’s causing me problems!” Probably not to many of us.

And yet, I’m surprised by how often I find myself saying, almost unconsciously, “I deserve this; the world owes me; other people owe me; what I have is not quite enough, quite yet, I deserve just a little bit more…More attention, more money, more things...more.”  

Greed is an insidious, dangerous condition of the heart – and it’s about more than money.

Here’s what I mean: perhaps in our work lives, or relationships, or marriages, we just “feed” ourselves, slowly starving our partners or colleagues or children of the things they need. We hold tight, being stingy with praise, kindness, attention, love, even money. 

Maybe you’re thinking, “I don’t hold tight, that’s not me,” and that may be true, but remember that greed is almost impossible to see in ourselves.

And yet, from the bird’s eye view (God’s view, if you will), it is clear that collectively, greed is rampant.

As the poet, George Ella Lyon, says in her poem:

God is fed up
All the oceans she gave us
All the fields
All the acres of steep seedful forests
And we did what?
         Invented the Great Chain
            of Being and
            the chain saw
         Invented sin
God says,
I've had it…
I set you down
a miracle among miracles
You want more
It's your turn
You show me.

Show what? Show how?

We might start by showing some humility. We might remember that we didn’t make the world, this day, our lives, the soil, the trees, or the oceans. We didn’t make the birds, or the moon and stars.

When I worked at All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, we began each service with these modified words from the 118th Psalm:

This is indeed a day which God has made.
Let us, then, rejoice and be glad in it.
And let us count our many blessings.
Let us be grateful for the capacity to see, feel, hear, and understand.
Let us be grateful for the incredible gift of life.
And, let us be especially grateful for the ties of love which bind us together, giving dignity, meaning, worth, and joy to all our days.

For a long time, that line, “This is indeed a day which God has made!” made me cranky and bothered me.  Sure, I loved the stuff about counting blessings and gratefulness, but I didn’t even really believe in God, or that “God” created the day.

But week after week we said those words together. Slowly, something in me changed. I began to understand that “God” was something that kept my ego in check and grounded me. I realized that no matter what I thought about “God,” the truth was that I definitely did not make the day. I did not make the earth. I did not make the coffee bean, or the oats, or the egg that nourished me.

Something greater than me, had done these things, and had allowed life and the new day to emerge. The day was a gift. My body, my breath - a gift. All that I had, a loan from Life itself.

And the truth, is that the God and the world don't owe us anything: not the high speed internet that works 24/7, or corner offices, or drivers who always signal properly, or a partner that can read our mind, or meet our every need, or anything else.

“I set you down
a miracle among miracles
You want more
It's your turn
You show me.”

Show what?

We owe the world and its abundant miracles - fiery sunsets, northern lights, laughing children, honey crisp apples, the fact that we’re here at all - our gratitude, our praise.

Instead of always reaching for something more, for feeling we never have enough, the Spirit Map invites us to try saying, "Thank you," and living with a bit more humility at the center of our lives. 

P.S. For more good thoughts on this topic, check out Heidi Mastrud's blog, "Not Hell, But Hope."

Black Friday: An Alternative Narrative?

I follow the Star Tribune on Twitter. The other day, I saw this Tweet:

 Star Tribune 

Black Friday shopaholics: With many stores opening at midnight this year, will you just stay up? Tell John Ewoldt: jewoldt@startribune.com

It's true that there are great "deals" to be had on Black Friday, and there will certainly be people out and about filling the stores, probably even at midnight. But this Tweet, it seems to me, somehow misses the mark.

On the one hand, a voice inside my head says, "Yippee - great deals! - stores open at midnight!" On the other hand, as a person of faith, I'm curious about living into another story, a story about slowing down, pausing, reorienting, saying, "I have enough...how might I share the blessings and treasure that I already have? And how might I focus on the things that truly feed my spirit?"

And so I wonder: what other story might we create and live into on Black Friday? Who might we spend this day with? How might we honestly take inventory of our deepest needs and yearnings? How might we spend that day in a truly life giving way? How might we spend every day in this way?

I long for another Tweet from the Star Tribune that might go something like this:
"As you take stock of your life and the things that truly nourish you, how will you be spending Black Friday? Will you staying up to midnight, talking and laughing with friends? Will you be spending time with your children, creating memories that last a life time? Will you be giving yourself space and time to listen to the small, still voice within? " (I know, it's longer than 140 characters!)

How will you be spending Black Friday?
We'll be talking about this and more at First Universalist in the coming weeks, as we kick off our new sermon series, "Gift." Services are at 9:30 and 11:15 every Sunday.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

"In Faith..." What does that mean, exactly?

NOTE: Recently, a congregant asked me, “You always sign your emails, ‘In faith…’ What does that mean?”

This post is inspired by that question… 

Do you consider yourself a person of “faith?” What do you have faith in? Yourself, science, nothing, something larger than you?

Or do you equate “faith” with belief in a deity? Faith as something rigid and dogmatic? Maybe, like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, you would say faith, belief, and religion are a plague upon humanity.

Or maybe you consider yourself a person of faith, but aren’t sure exactly how to articulate that.

In Pali, the language of much of the ancient Buddhist teachings, faith is a verb, an action, as it is also in Latin and Hebrew. In this context, faith means to trust, to confide in, to rely on.  

You can learn more about Salzberg's book here.
As Buddhist author Sharon Salzberg says, “Faith is not a singular state that we either have or don’t have, but is something we do…Whether connected to a deity or not, part of faith’s essence lies in trusting ourselves to discover the deepest truths on which we can rely.”

So this means that over time, in conversation with sacred texts and others, we might learn to trust in the power of love, or the presence of the Holy; we might trust that with deep awareness and a practice of loving kindness, we can know peace and help relieve suffering in the world.

With “faith” as a verb, an action, it means faith is not something we either have or don’t. Instead, it is a step, a leap we take over and over again, a trust and loyalty that grows over time.
As Salzberg says, “Faith is what gets us out of bed, it’s what gets us on an airplane to an unknown land...it is saying, ‘I align myself with the potential inherent in life, I give myself (my heart) to that potential.’ …Faith is the willingness to take the next step, to begin a journey to an unknown destination.”

Think of marriage, or a committed partnership, or having children, or sitting at the bedside of dying loved one. Faith takes us to the threshold of what we know. And then it calls us across. Faith invites us to give our hearts to a relationship, a friend, a cause, to God - even if we don't know how it’s all going to play out.  

There’s a story by the Buddha that explains this kind of faith:

A herd of cows arrives at the bank of a wide stream. The mature ones see the stream and simply wade across it. They are like fully enlightened beings who have crossed the stream of ignorance and suffering. 
The younger cows, less mature in their wisdom, stumble apprehensively on the shore, but eventually they go forward and cross the stream. Last come the calves, trembling with fear, some just learning how to stand.
But these vulnerable, tender calves also get to the other side, the Buddha says. 
They cross the stream just by following the mooing of their mothers.
The calves trust their mothers and, anticipating the safety of reunion, follow their voices and cross the stream. That, the Buddha says, is the power of faith to call us forward.  

For me, "In faith" is not a statement of belief as much as a statement of practice. It is "in faith," that I practice trusting my own deepest experiences - continuing to lean into love and life, continuing to awaken and respond to the presence of the "Holy." It is "in faith," that I practice leaning into community, vulnerability, and greater authenticity...step by step, in faith, I learn to lean into and trust these things...and invite others to lean with me. 

In faith,

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

More on Maps: What's Your Internal Landscape Look Like?

I just read this piece, "What Does Your Spiritual Geography Look Like?" by Carol Howard Merritt, over at Christian Century. The full article is worth a read. It'll take 5 minutes. Do it, and then come back!

I've been thinking about maps and landscapes lately and this section caught my attention:

Fall surrounds us, reminding me of all the transitions happening within me. Just as I’ve come to appreciate how seasons transform the land, I’ve also become aware of my internal landscape. The two seem bound together in many ways.

When I see those bare limbs, I think of the times when my work turns inward. We all have periods of fruitfulness and other months when we can hardly create. My father died a few months ago, and I noticed a lot of those empty days in the wake of his passing. I looked back on the hours, wondering what I actually accomplished.

But driving through Pennsylvania, I’m reminded that I should have appreciated the internal work. In our culture, we relentlessly measure productivity, but we don’t allow space for those seasons when hidden roots grow deeper. We don’t always trust those times when the limbs remain desolate. I didn’t honor the days of beautiful stillness enough.
This line, especially, sticks with me: "In our culture, we relentlessly measure productivity, but we don't allow space for those seasons when hidden roots grow deeper." 

I've been thinking about this in terms of "expansive time," time when there is no pressing issue, no huge "to do lists," no calls to return, no things to produce. I long for more "expansive time," flow time, time to let my heart and spirit settle, time to hear the whisper of the Holy, time to just be in the world, time for roots to grow deep...time to process, integrate and make sense of grief and loss and change.

My spiritual director (as well as another good colleague), invited me to take five minutes out of every hour in the day (or at least some of those hours!), to step into "expansive time," to settle into my internal landscape, to take some deep breaths. And in that time, to reflect on where the Holy, or joy, or meaning, have shown up in the past hour. To take note of those things, to hold them intentionally. And to be honest if the Holy, or joy, or meaning haven't showed up...and how I might invite them to show up in the next hour.

It's a hard practice to engage in - I like to be productive, after all! - but it's beginning to change the landscape of my day and of my heart. It slows me down and invites me to consider a whole other world, right there in front of me, inside of me.  

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Mapping a Life: Love, or Fear?

(Note: for some context for this post, please check out previous post about Mapping a Life.)

"Love takes off the mask that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.”   - James Baldwin

In the consumer culture map, fear plays a big role in our lives, doesn’t it?

Maybe we’re afraid of our bodies, their smell, how they look. Or we’re afraid we’re not enough, don’t have it all together, don’t have the right things, or the right job.

Or on a deeper level, maybe we’re afraid of how close we feel to falling apart – because of health issues, financial stress, parenting, our house being foreclosed on, losing a job, or our marriage coming undone.

Maybe we’re afraid we’re on the edge of losing it. And yet, we’ve got to keep pretending things are fine.

Let me say this another way: perhaps we’re afraid of truly confronting the pain in our lives.

And the fear of confronting that pain might mean we turn to the bottle, to pills, or the internet, or something else, so we can numb out, tune out, keep the pain at bay.

As the Rev. Forest Church says, “We find so many ways to armor and protect ourselves…”

And as I’ve been thinking about this, here’s what I’m realizing: fear – from the consumer culture map - makes us put on a false show of strength, of pretending to have it all together.

You know how this looks:

Q: “Are you ok?”

A: “I’m fine.”
A: “I don’t need help.”
A: “I don’t want to talk about it.”

And of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Beneath that mask of strength, of being “fine,” is grief, pain and heartbreak.  

And here’s what I think the crux of the issue is: In the consumer culture map, we have been taught to be afraid of our feelings and our pain.

As the Rev. Forest Church reminds us, “Every time we express ourselves, emotionally, we lose some control.”

Beyond being afraid of our feelings, the consumer culture map tells us that the thing to be most afraid of is to lose control of our emotions, to be vulnerable, to appear weak.

This is particularly brutal for men in our culture, but it impacts all of us. Essentially, we’re instructed to be afraid of ourselves, of our feelings, of our own deepest truths.

Fear then, tells us to hide our hearts. This, as you might imagine, is not a life giving practice!

And this is where love comes in.
Love calls our hearts out of hiding. Love invites us into vulnerability, authenticity and honesty.
This feels risky, even terrifying.    

As the Rev. Forest Church says, “We sense the risk… every time we share ourselves with another, every time we commit ourselves to a cause or to a task that awaits our doing…
We risk disappointment, failure, or being embarrassed or inadequate…”

But love calls us to take that risk; love invites our hearts out of the dark closet they’ve been hiding in. And paradoxically, real strength comes from risk taking, from vulnerability.

And in a faith community, we can collectively begin to orient ourselves on a new map, and take risks to live from a place called love.

The consumer culture map says, “Be afraid, bunker down, pretend things are just fine,” but when we look around and see our homeless neighbors, or bullied GLBT youth, or veterans coming home and struggling with addiction and suicide, or reflect on the pain in our own lives, we can see that things aren’t ok.

With courage, we can name these realities, and “speak the truth in love.”

Fear says, “Dress right, talk right, have the right things, have the right job, and keep it all together – keep the mask on – this will keep you safe and strong.”

Love says, “Nope, not true.” Love reminds us that we’re not asked to be perfect, or have our stuff together. We’re only asked to take off our mask, to be who we are, to see our fellow human beings as the incredible miracles they are, to see their struggles and desires as our own, and to see them as brothers and sisters.

Love, as author John O’Donahue says, invites us to “waste our heart on fear no more.”

May it be so.  

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Mapping a Life: Hospitality, or Exclusivity?

Who’s in? Who’s out?

Who’s welcomed, who’s not?
Who’s acknowledged and seen? Who’s not?

Hospitality insists that people are not objects or “its.” They are not means to an end. 

Hospitality insists that people are living miracles, children of God, the face of God, if you will. Hospitality is about loving and welcoming the stranger, those different from us.

Hospitality, as opposed to exclusivity, is about a kind of kinship, an authentic, holy engagement with another. It is about casting the circle of welcome and love wider and wider still.
I spoke with a church member earlier this week, and he told me it was his personal practice to connect with folks “who looked lost” in the coffee hour after the service.

He greets them, talks with them, and introduces them to others.
He described the sense of relief they seem to feel, as someone notices, pays attention, and engaging them.

As author Rachel Naomi Remen says, “The places in which we are seen and heard are holy places. They…remind us of our value as human beings.”

Wherever hospitality is practiced is a holy place.
And hospitality’s baseline is simply: “Welcome, you belong, you are a child of the Universe, of God.” As Greg Boyle, a Jesuit Priest says, “Our common human hospitality longs to find room for those who are left out. It’s just who we are if allowed to foster something different, something more greatly resembling what God (Love) had in mind.”

That sentiment points us to the Spirit Map, where our natural desire to reach out, to connect with others, to reach out to those who are left out, can blossom!   

Wherever hospitality is practiced is a holy place.

What sacred places are you creating? What new map are you trying to life into?

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Mapping a Life, or "What Values Orient You in the World?"

(Note: for the full context of this post, you might want to check out this earlier post. Thanks!)

This past Sunday, this song was our reading for the day, our "sacred text:"

That line,“How could it come to this? I really want to know about this…” just grabs me.

That’s my heart’s question.        

I really want to know, how can it be that 1 in 7 children in Minnesota live in poverty and go to bed hungry? How can it be that their life is shaped by that devastating reality? These are children just like our son. Just like your children. And perhaps they are your children. How has it come to this?

Imagine having to choose between paying your utilities bill or buying groceries? Maybe you don’t have to imagine…maybe that’s your life. How has it come to be that across this country, there are 46 million people living below the poverty line? That’s a family of four making less than $22,000 a year. These are our brothers and sisters, uncles, grandparents, friends, our neighbors – it’s us.

How has it come to this? 

How has our moral compass gotten so twisted? Our political system so shaped by moneyed interests? Our politicians posturing and playing games, as people suffer? Can’t we do better?

I really want to know about this.

I trust I’m not alone with these question.

Maybe on a personal level you’re asking, ”How did it come to this?” Maybe there’s a deep sense of unhappiness about your life, or marriage, or something else. Or perhaps you’re longing for more purpose and meaning in your life. Perhaps you’re thinking, “How could it come to this? This sure isn’t what I imagined my life would be like.”
Or maybe, like me, you’re thinking about the country and the world. Maybe you’re wondering, how did we get into these wars in Iraq and Afghanistan again? Tell me about the $3 billion we spend a week in these wars; what that money might do in North Minneapolis or New Orleans or anywhere else…what that money might do for our children?

Maybe you’re thinking, “Tell me how we decided it was ok to trash the planet, to mine, pollute, exploit it? When did profit become more important than people and our planet?"

If our eyes and hearts are truly open to what is happening around us, surely a part of us must be asking: “How could it come to this?”
The good news is that this is not a new question. It seems to me that sacred scriptures all deal with some variation on this question, and the simple answer to "how could it come to this?" is that we’ve been using the wrong map to guide our lives and decisions.

We’ve been using the “popular culture” or “consumer culture” map instead of the spirit map, the faith map, Love’s map, God’s map – call it what you will.  

In popular consumer culture map, the core values we are given to guide our lives are these:

and greed.

(We’ll be unpacking these values in the next four weeks in our Sunday worship…and looking at “spirit map” alternatives to these popular culture values, which are: hospitality, love, compassion, forgiveness, and gratitude.)

The trouble, of course, is that these "consumer culture" values lead us to ask the wrong kinds of questions. As the Rev. Jim Wallis says, “Television, magazines, and our whole popular culture, in ad after ad, have asked us, “What’s the fastest way to make money? What do you need to buy next that will make you truly happy? What is wrong with you, and how could you change that?" What do you need to be afraid of? These questions do not speak to the deep yearnings of the human heart, nor do they help us become better people.  

But that’s the map we’re living in, right now, in what I would call an “apocalyptic moment.” Yes, an “Apocalyptic movement!” (The root of the word “apocalypse” means to unveil or reveal what has been hidden. And we are living in an apocalyptic time right now because what is being revealed is the popular consumer culture map – with exclusivity, fear, ego-gratification, guilt, and greed as its core values - that has lead us astray.

And I believe that our brothers and sisters in this growing “Occupy” movement are essentially saying, “As a country – we’ve been living and operating from the wrong map, and it’s not working. We need a new map.” 

That’s what this Occupy Movement is about. It’s not dirty hippies lounging around – it’s people of faith, families, students, and so many others, who are saying, "It’s time to use a different map with a different set of values and principles." 

And they’re bearing witness to that.
And for the next four weeks at First Universalist, we’ll be exploring the Spirit Map and how we might live more fully in that map. 

To be continued in another post...this one is plenty long!

Friday, October 14, 2011

Practicing Hospitality

True hospitality is amazing.

Let me tell you what I mean. I spent part of the day down town at "The People's Plaza." While down there, I met a great guy named "T."

T's been staying over night in the plaza since day 1, and he explained that he used to work (in a well paying job) but that he'd recently lost that job. I'd guess T was in his mid to late 50's. He told me he didn't want to feel hopeless about the current economic and political crisis, so he came to the people's plaza.

What he's experienced has changed him.

Here's the gist of what he said to me, "This is incredible; the organizers are amazing; this process is democracy in action; and we're staying here until there's real change in this country. The community that's formed here is something else. We've got a medic station set up and a food station (along with a media station and more) - we feed anyone who's hungry. We take care of the homeless folks - food and a visit with the medic. It's like this country's supposed to be. We take care of each other. I didn't think I'd be here, but I am. And we're starting to communicate with the other "Occupy" organizers, beginning to plan together. I really didn't think I'd be here, but I am."

I had a plate of hot food while I was there, and T introduced me to one of the other organizers, D. We talked for a bit about the role that the faith community could have in this growing movement. We talked about staying grounded and not burning out, something near and dear to my heart.

As I left, I couldn't help but think about hospitality, the radical welcoming of strangers. I was a stranger and they engaged and welcomed me.  I was a stranger and they fed me. And it wasn't just me; this group was offering radical welcome and care to the growing number of homeless men and women who are on the streets of downtown Minneapolis. They are living their message of creating a new way, of truly putting people before profit, a way that might work for all of us.

P.S. If you're a new reader of this blog, and are curious to know more about me and how I am, check out this post.

P.P.S. Here's another good piece to read by a colleague of mine, the Rev. Bill Sinkford.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Countdown to "Invite a Friend Sunday!" (Oct 16)

 (Dear readers: while this post is for all of you, it's especially geared to First Universalist members.)

Starting Oct. 16th, we’re launching a 5 week sermon series called, “Mapping a Life.” We’re be exploring the tensions between the different “maps” we encounter in this life – the “consumer culture map,” which offers a particular set of values to guide and orient our life vs. a “spiritual” or “faith map,” which lifts up a different set of values and a different way of being in the world.

This whole sermon series will be especially visitor friendly, and we hope you’ll ask a friend to join you for the launch on Oct. 16th.  (Why? One reason is because it breaks my heart when I talk with people who are new to First Universalist, and they say, “I wish someone had told me about this place years ago....when I was raising kids, when I was struggling, when I really needed a faith community like this...” Now is your chance to be that “someone!”) And you send 'em to check out this video, found here: 

Remember, a personal invitation really means something. It means you know and care enough about your friend to invite them into something that’s really important in your life, and you think it might be important in their life, too.

So if you’re proud of this progressive, liberal faith community and the faith based work we do with Habitat for Humanity, for Marriage Equality, for the Environment, and so many other things, invite a friend to experience what’s happening here! If you’ve had a life changing experience in a Small Group, or a Sunday morning worship service, invite a friend to experience what’s happening here! If your children have loved their Religious Education Classes or the Our Whole Lives comprehensive sexuality education curriculum, invite a friend to experience what’s happening here!

Who knows, it might change their life. Or yours. Perhaps you'll grow in ways you never expected!

I’ll see you, and a friend, in church.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The People's Plaza! (Further reflections on the occupy movement)

NOTE: This is a follow up post to the earlier post, "What Would Jesus Occupy?"

On Friday, my wife and I had the chance to visit the People's Plaza in down town Minneapolis. (I spoke about this and more in my sermon from last Sunday.)

I wasn't sure what to expect, but as a person of faith, committed to truly growing in my faith, I have to confess that the "Universalist spirit of love and hope” invited me to show up.

Because right now, our political, economic, and financial systems aren’t working; our government no longer represent the interests of the American people; rather, money has polluted our political process and the government is more responsive to the needs of corporations than to its citizens. As a result, too many people are suffering, the planet is suffering…and I think faith communities have a role in creating a future that works for all people.

So I showed up. It was peaceful. I talked to people. There were students, unemployed folks, families, grandparents, veterans, and hundreds of others - a really diverse crowd, as you can see from the pictures. 

When people asked why I was there, I told them I was a Unitarian Universalist Minister, that my faith brought me there. That I believe in a vision of a just and fair world. 

It felt good to be there, to step out of my routines and my habits, to engage with my fellow citizens, to dream of a future that might work for our son, for all children, for all people, to occupy a public space with our bodies and our voices. To stand for justice and equality, and systems that better serves all people. 

I left feeling like this is a significant movement taking shape in our country and that the faith community has an important role to play.

I'll be back next Friday. If any First Universalist folks are interested in a "faithful field trip" down to the people's plaza, let me know. 

In the meantime, here are some other informative articles you might check out: 

1) this piece about the values and principles behind the Occupy Wall Street movement
2) this article from Rev. Marilyn Sewell, former minister of First Unitarian Portland, about how the church might respond to this movement.  
3) For you religious professional types who are reading, this one, about "Protest Chaplains."
4) And this one: "These Occupy Wall Street Protesters have a message"

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this movement and the role of the faith community...