“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, 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.