“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.