“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)

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Best Gift Ever?

Last Sunday in church, I suggested that the “Give” part of First Universalist’s Mission Statement invites us to develop a practice of big, generous, radical giving. It invites us to give the gift of deep attention to ourselves (not ego attention, but deep attention, i.e. really checking in with our spirits), to others, to the planet, and to the Holy. I suggested that this kind of "giving of attention" opens the door to all other kinds of giving. You might think of it as the gateway gift. When we really pay attention, it becomes clear about what to do and give next. 

(If you’re interested, you can listen to the sermon, here. And a congregant shared some fascinating thoughts, here.)

I also said that this kind of giving is so important that we need to practice it in some concrete ways:

One way is to give someone a one hour “time coupon.” (On Sunday, the orders of service actually had “time coupons” in them that said, “Give this time coupon to a recipient who will get one hour of your undivided attention on a project or activity of their choosing.”) You decide who gets this – a child, friend, or partner....Whoever it is will get 60 minutes of your undivided attention.

It might seem like a simple, silly gift, but it’s pure gold.

Life size brontosaurus!
For example, our own son loves dinosaurs and cars. I could give him dinosaurs and cars every time I see him; he’d like it! But what he really likes is when I play with him; when I pay attention to him, when I give him my full self. That’s more valuable than a life-sized brontosaurus.

This attention feeds his spirit. (It’s true that I can’t give that kind of attention all the time, but when I do, it matters.)

Second, give a gift a day for seven days. It could be a material gift, but it certainly doesn’t have to be. It could be a helping hand, a hand written letter, a phone call, a home cooked meal, a singing telegram, a walk with someone.

For this exercise, focus on what you have to give and not on what your limitations are. As a colleague of mine says, “When we take the time to pay attention to what we have to give, and we all have so much to give, our hearts begin to overflow with generosity.” It could be standing in solidarity with someone, holding the door open, taking the time to tell a dear friend how much they mean to you. 

So try it. See what happens. You have so much to give. 
And giving makes Love come alive in the world. As the poet Hafiz says,

Even after all this time
the sun never says to the earth, "You owe Me."
Look what happens with a love like that,
It lights up the Whole Sky.

At the end of the day, it’s not what we hold on to that matters -  it’s what we give away - the love, attention, and compassion we give to one another and this world. 

If you were at the service, I'd love to hear your thoughts and reflections...how did you experience this service? 

Monday, September 26, 2011

Staying Grounded: What's Your Practice?

This past week, I was involved in two significant interfaith gatherings.

Gathering at Hennepin Ave Methodist Church (see more
pictures here.)
1) A week ago, I gathered with 550 people of all faiths at Hennepin Ave United Methodist in Minneapolis to begin to strategize about how to defeat the Constitution Amendment that will be on the ballot in November 2012, defining marriage as one man and one woman. Minnesotans United for All Families, working with Outfront Minnesota, did an outstanding job organizing this event, and the spirit was moving in the place, even though the power was out for the first 45 minutes!

I was there because as a person of faith, I believe that Love matters, families (in all configurations) matter, and that marriage - for everyone! - matters.

I also think it's important to remember what Jesus had to say about homosexuality and gay marriage, which is this: "." As far as what truly mattered, he said: "Love God and love your neighbor."

I know that the track record for defeating these Constitutional Amendments is not good, but I believe we have a good chance of defeating it next November. If we do, Minnesota will lead the way as we rewrite the national story on this issue.

Ready to march with the Earth and a Heart of the Beast Puppet 
2) And last Saturday, I was at the Moving Planet-Moving Faith rally at the Capitol, in St. Paul, part of a global event, to encourage our leaders to help move the planet off of fossil fuels. A handful of clergy, including me, spoke at the event (you can watch a two minute video of me, if you're interested.)

While there was strong turnout at both of these events, and lots of energy and passion, it is not clear what the outcome of either of these issues will be. It's possible that the Amendment will pass next November. It's possible we'll fail to move beyond fossil fuels, and leave a devastated planet to future generations.

Much as I want to be involved in efforts I know are going to succeed, that's not how it works. I'm called to act upon my faith regardless of what the outcome might be. There's always the chance of heartbreak. Thus, as a person of faith, it is critical that I have spiritual practices and discipline that ground me, so that I stay centered, loving, hope-filled, and open hearted when I engage in issues where the outcome is not clear or certain. .

So on an almost daily basis I pray, journal, read, reflect, and give thanks. I spend time with poetry, various scriptures and teachings, and with the Holy. I remember those who faced the impossible with Love and Compassion at the center of their lives. I remember that Love's work is never done and that each day I am called once again to faithfully serve Love.

And here's the thing, if I'm not grounded in this way, I know I will burn out, that the pain and weight of the world will crush me, that I will turn toward anger and cynicism, and that I will become toxic to myself and those around me. The world is in need of some big changes, it's true; these changes won't come overnight; they will take time; there will be failures and heartbreak. And so we must have practices that sustain and strengthen our spirits, so that we can be grounded in faith as we work on behave of love and justice...or we'll be no good to anyone, anywhere, regardless of final outcomes.

What are your spiritual practices? How do you stay grounded and balanced in difficult times?

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Why Small Groups Matter

September is sign up time for Small Groups at First Universalist. As some of you know, I am a huge believer in the power of Small Groups. In fact, I believe that they are one of the most important things we do at First Universalist. 

Certainly, Sunday worship is important, but Small Groups are about moving from "rows to circles*" (from sitting in the pews on Sunday morning to moving to a “face to face,” environment,  where we listen to and get to know one another, and share the growing edges of our lives and our faith.) 

While part of the purpose of a Small Group is to connect with other members of the church, a larger purpose is to create an environment where we can engage in the spiritual practice of deep listening.
Rachel Naomi Remen (learn more here.)
As author Rachel Naomi Remen says,  
“I suspect that the most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention.” 

As one small group participant said:
“I decided to sign up for a small group just a few weeks after starting to worship at First Universalist. I’ve had the good fortune to do a fair bit of listening training, but to be honest, as a man, as a father, as "the boss" at work,and quite frankly as a raging extrovert, I really don’t get nearly enough being listened to. And, to be honest, I know I don’t listen enough either. So I signed up and showed up, and what I found was that no one is listened to enough, and in equal measure none of us have enough space in our lives to open up, go deep, and share from the hardened tender edges of our souls. What I learned is that deep listening is another word for seeing - and that in our small groups, we show up, week after week to say to each other: 'I. See. You.'  
What we practice in Small Groups sticks with us in the larger group too. As we grow our capacity for deep listening, we also get more adept at sharing that capacity with the wider community.”
He’s right. And that's why Small Groups are so important; they are changing the fabric of our faith community. Small Groups are a practice that is helping us create new patterns, new ways of being together, new ways of living our faith, as we "give, receive, and grow" together (that's part of our Mission Statement.) The more we practice deep listening in Small Groups, the better we get at it. It changes the DNA of our faith community and how we are with one another, and the wider community.
Another Small Group participant said,
I think one of the most meaningful experiences for me about small groups is that they have allowed me to connect with other church members on more than just a surface level. We share stories we would not share in other settings. We see ourselves in  others, and others see themselves in us.” 
Small Groups matter.
They are a spiritual practice that can open our hearts and help us move toward wholeness
As I told the congregation on Sunday, "The early Universalist believed that God loved everyone and that everyone was saved. Today, we might say that the 'Spirit of Life' is in everyone, and that "salvation" comes from authentic relationships - with ourselves, others, and that which is larger than us…salvation, in part, comes from the kind of deep relationships we form in Small Groups, as we give, receive, and grow into love’s people." 

How is your church using Small Groups? How has the life of your faith community changed because of Small Groups? What has your experience been in Small Groups? How does a practice of "deep listening" inform and shape your life? I'd love to hear from you!

*The "rows to circles" concept is one that I've heard from Andy Stanley, Senior Minister from North Point Community Church, in Georgia.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Today we launched the 10th Anniversary 9/11 "Hope Journals"

On Sunday, during both worship services, we launched 10 "hope journals" out into the congregation and (ultimately) into the wider community. If you're asking, "What are hope journals?" that's a fair question! Here's the answer: our "hope journals" are an experiment. An experiment in possibility, in crafting a new narrative, in connecting with our community, in imagining how the next ten years might unfold, and how we might be a part of that.  

Front cover of the the "Hope Journals"

Here's the explanatory text of what was in each "Hope journal:"

What you’re holding in your hands… 

The Story: On September 11th, 2011, during our Sunday morning worship services, we “launched” 10 “hope journals” out into the congregation. We launched 10 journals because it’s the 10th Anniversary of September 11th. We know what the story since September 11, 2001 has been: Wars in Iraq in Afghanistan, an erosion of our civil liberties, an unfortunate rise in anti-Muslim sentiment, economic upheaval, and much more. In many ways, it’s been a painful and heartbreaking ten years.
 As people of faith, we believe it’s time to write a new story. A story about reconciliation, hope, compassion, forgiveness, and peace, as we look to the next ten years. 
And that’s what this journal is about. It a place to record and collect your hopes, dreams, and commitments for the next ten years. 
Journal Instructions:  If you are holding this journal in your hands, we’re glad you have it! Please add to the “hope story” we’re creating! We invite you to write down your hopes and dreams for what the next ten years might look in our country and the world. You might paste a relevant poem in these pages, or add a meaningful photograph, or even draw your hopes and dreams. If you have children, pull out the crayons and get creative! 
After you’ve added your contribution, please pass this journal on to another friend or acquaintance, and invite them to pass it along when they’re done. The goal is to have as many people as possible contribute to these journals, whether they are from First Universalist or not. 
Return Date: Please return the journal to First Universalist Church by August 1, 2012. In September of 2012, we’ll share stories and highlights from this journal and others in one of our Sunday services, as a way to inspire us to truly create the future we dream of.  If you can’t drop the journal off, please mail it to us: 
The church’s address is:
First Universalist
3400 Dupont Ave S.Minneapolis, MN55409 
Tracking the Journal: 
Let us know you've touched and written in this journal! Send us a Tweet on Twitter. Find us on Facebook. Or visit us on the web. 
Blessings to you! 
Rev. Justin Schroeder and the entire First Universalist staff

Inside page of the "Hope Journal"

So that's what the "Hope Journals" are about. And now they're launched! We hope some of them will return next year and we'll craft several sermons based on the stories and hopes that have been shared. And we're aware of course, that some of the story is a story of sadness and despair; those stories are welcome too; we know that faith lives at the intersection of despair and hope. 

Friday, September 2, 2011

Parenting Confession

Here's the confession: there are times when I really don't want to be a parent. In fact, there are times when I don't like myself as a parent, and even question my parenting abilities. Heck, there have even times when I don't really care for our son, times when he's screaming or crying really loud, or pushing all of my buttons, or throwing rice or pancakes or tomato pieces all over the floor, or knocking over potted plants, or yelling "get up, get up," at 6:00 a.m. in the morning. (I know, I know, these are all great "opportunities" to practice forgiveness and understanding, but that doesn't always happen.) 
    So, yes, there are times when I don't like being a parent. 
    I recently said all of this to a group of folks I deeply trust.

    I doubt my confession is shocking to other parents. I suspect all parents feel this way, from time to time. What is shocking, however, is how hard it was for me to say all of this out loud. Sure, I think these things on a somewhat regular basis, but to say them out loud felt risky and dangerous, even among a group of trusted people. What would they think of me as a parent and minister? 

     But I was surprised by the sense of relief I felt when I spoke honestly about how hard parenting can be and how sometimes I really wish I wasn't a parent. (And for the record, I also said that I love our son, and there are plenty of times when I love parenting, and even times when I think I'm doing good (even great) parenting. Those times far outweigh the times I feel incompetent and dislike parenting.)  However you crack it, parenting can be hard. We all face challenges with our kids - whether its autism, attention deficit disorder, health issues, or something else. Parenting can be hard and tiring and sometimes we don't want to do it. 

      It's kind of like a spiritual practice.* It's about attending to the life and task and feelings right in front of you. It's about mindfulness - what am I feeling/experiencing/aware of right now? Seen in that light, part of the spiritual practice of parenting is noticing and naming when it is damn hard, when it's challenging, when it's breaking our hearts. It's important to name that reality. To say, "Wow, this is really hard," and not to hide or be ashamed of that reality. And to name it when it's glorious, powerful, soul stirring, and beautiful. 

      Parenting is hard. Sometimes I really don't dig it. The vast majority of the time, though, I love it, and am thankful for all of the ways it has helped me grow. Both realities are true. And I feel better for having said it.

*The Rev. Rob Eller-Isaacs frequently refers to parenting as a "spiritual practice".