“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)

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Day 26 of Spiritual Practices and Reflections: The Practice of Saying No

Well, I'm a few days short of the finish line. I set out on this blogging journey thinking I'd blog every day for the whole month of January, and I've just run out of steam. Or, maybe a better way to say it is this: I've decided to say "no" to this project, so I can really focus my time and energy on some other things that really need my attention right now. So I can really say "yes" to those things, and make that "yes" count. I'll still be doing my own spiritual practice work on a daily basis, but not blog every day.

I will still get to some of the questions you all have left, and will no doubt include further reflections on such things as "eating as a spiritual practice..." I actually think our relationship to food, and food and table fellowship especially, are worthy of multiple blog posts.

Anyway, thanks to all of you who were regular readers. I hope your own spiritual practice has been deepened in some way, or you've begun a new spiritual practice. Thanks the those of you jumped in with comments and questions. Reading your comments and thoughts made this meaningful and fun.

This Sunday, we wrap our "Living Resolutions" sermon series, with a sermon called, "Losing Weight: Casting Out Demons." Come find out what that's all about. We worship at 9:30 and 11:15. I hope to see some of you there.



Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Day 25 of Spiritual Practices and Reflections: The Practice of a Good Goodbye

This morning, I'm thinking about the spiritual practice of saying goodbye (and related to it, the practice of saying hello).

If you're a part of the First Universalist faith community, you know that our Associate Minister, Rev. Kate Tucker (who has served First Universalist for 15 years), will be completing her ministry with us in June. Her leaving is a significant transition in the life of our congregation, a significant "goodbye" that we'll saying together. 

And as we're saying goodbye to Kate, we'll be looking forward to August 1, as we prepare to welcome the Rev. Jennifer Crow (and her family) as our new Minister of Program Life. (Jen Crow will have oversight of the Program Life of the Church, including responsibility for Congregational Care. Some of her portfolio will be the same as Kate's, but with an overall focus on Program Life and Unitarian Universalist Faith Formation in the church.)  

All of this has got me thinking. Done well, goodbyes can be part of a meaningful spiritual practice. A good goodbye, although hard and perhaps similar to a miniature "death," can help us stop and see the whole of what we’ve experienced, lifting to the surface what’s been important and meaningful, how the relationship has touched and changed us. A good goodbye gives us the chance to name the joy and gratitude (or even shared heartbreak) we've experienced - to reflect upon and name what we've learned and appreciated because of the relationship.

Learning how to do endings well, in a meaningful, healthy way (whatever the ending may be: the loss of a dream, moving to a new house, leaving a job, losing a favorite pet, saying goodbye to children leaving for college, the death of a loved one), helps prepare us for the ultimate ending - our own death. In some sense, every goodbye - and how well we do it - is a practice run before our own final goodbye. 

It makes me think we should practice saying goodbye more often – monthly, weekly, daily - to the things and people we love. Like in the children's story, “Goodnight, Moon,” when we go to bed, we should say goodnight and goodbye to everything in the room, and everything we love - because there’s no guarantee of a new day.

Thus, a heartfelt, loving goodbye, for the day we’ve had, for the people we’ve spent time with, for whatever it might be, gives us room to let go – and then to greet the new day, the new job, the new house, whatever it is, with a friendly “Hello.” 

Done well, goodbyes and hellos put us directly in touch with our own mortality and the truth that all life is change - a dance of gently holding on, gently letting go, gently holding on, gently letting go. As the poet Mary Oliver says, “To live in this world you must be able to do three things: “To love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; And, when the times comes to let it go, to let it go.” 

I'm sad that Kate is leaving; she has been an incredible colleague to work with. I've been touched and shaped by her deep and playful spirit. I am grateful she has faithfully served First Universalist for 15 years, and that we've been able to work together for three of those years. I am excited for her as she begins to imagine what the next chapters of her life might look like. And I'm looking forward to saying "Hello" to Jen Crow in August, as she and I begin our new ministry together, serving the First Universalist Universalist.     

I'm wondering: What are you saying goodbye to in your life? How well do you "do" goodbyes? What makes a goodbye good for you? What are you learning about the goodbye process? And finally, what are you saying hello to in your life?  

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Day 24 of Spiritual Practices and Reflections: Some invitations to Give (Or: Giving as a spiritual practice)

Back in October, during our "Mapping a Life" worship series, I said this about gratitude and generosity: 

“All that we have is a loan from life itself…. The world doesn’t owe us anything…. We owe the world and its abundant miracles…our gratitude, our praise…. The spirit map suggests that we live with humility and gratitude at the center of our lives. 
Gratitude opens the heart to generosity. When we’re really grounded in gratitude, we can remember that it’s all on loan. We don't get to take it with us; it’s not ours to keep—it’s not our to begin with—so we might as well share the blessings; we might as well become generous.” (You can listen to the whole sermon here.)
For the past five years, I have been focusing on truly living from a place of gratitude and generosity. It's not always easy, but as I've written about before, almost every morning, when I write, reflect, and spend some time in prayer, I try to identify at least three things in my life that I'm grateful for. Sometimes it's easy, sometimes it's hard. But living from this place of gratitude changes my inner life and how I am in the world. Gratitude invites me to give back, to serve the world. As a faith community, we strive to practice giving, gratitude, and generosity. Here are a few of the ways we do that: 

If you're a part of the First Universalist community, I hope you'll join us for our Day of Service, Feb 4. We have over 30 different projects going on that day, as we serve (give back) to the wider community. We've challenged ourselves to give 2000 hours of service to the community on Feb. 4, and we've got service projects for families, youth, and people of all ages. If you're in the Twin Cities, I hope you'll sign up and participate. And feel free to invite a friend to join you, too! (It's worth noting that many of these Day of Service groups continue to work and give together throughout the year, so it's not just a one time event.)

The Day of Service is part of First Universalist's Annual Giving Campaign (our Pledge Campaign). During the month of February,  not only are we invited to give our time and energy to the wider community, via the Day of Service, but we're also invited to give generously to the church (3-5% of our income) to support its mission and work in the world. 

Finally, each Sunday, as a faith community, we have a chance to practice giving and generosity, as we give away the majority of our Sunday offering. This past year, as a faith community, we've given away over $60,000 to non-profits and organizations in the wider community.

(And I haven't even mentioned the hundreds of congregants who give their time and energy to serve on the Board or as Small Group Facilitators, or Religious Education Teachers, or Strategic Plan Working Group Facilitators, or ushers, greeters, or coffee servers...)

Ultimately, none of the numbers truly matter; what matters is the story behind the numbers: how our hearts are changed, opened, and stretched by gratitude, giving, and generosity. What matters is how the church helps us become "Love's People," grounded in gratitude and generosity.

How has your heart been opened/expanded by gratitude, giving, or generosity? How can you imagine deepening your practice of giving, of generosity?

Monday, January 23, 2012

Day 23 of Spiritual Practices and Reflections: What new practice are you engaging in the new year?

I really appreciated Scott Marshall's comment from yesterday's blog post: 

I'm inspired by the "practicing" theme that has run through January's sermons. This month the same message has come through my work to be a better writer - something else I think I'm working on. Thinking about writing and now about my spirituality, I realize how little "practicing" I do these days (and the dearth of practice isn't limited to spirituality and writing unfortunately!).  
I'm going to put those two things together and commit to/set aside time to practice writing about faith, God, Spirit, church in a reflective, wandering way. Four times a week for 30 minutes.   
Looking forward to the adventure...
I love that Scott's committing to a practice of intentional writing and reflection four times a week for 30 minutes. That's a huge commitment, but I suspect it will pay meaningful dividends. 

I'm curious, readers, First Universalist members, and frequently blog visitors: what new practices are talking shape in your own life? What new practices (or old practices resurrected) are you moving into the new year with? I'd love to know - feel free to leave a comment! Or have you been engaging in a particular practice for the past week or two? How is that going?

P.S. It was great to meet Scott yesterday at church. I've so enjoyed making virtual connections with folks (via this blog and Twitter) and then meeting them at First Universalist. If you're a frequent reader and visitor at First Universalist and we haven't met yet, please do introduce yourself one of these Sundays.

P.P.S. I've got a few ideas for the final posts in January, but I'm curious if there are topics you'd like to see addressed? Let me know. 

P.P.P.S. Following up from the resource list of Day 21, I highly recommend Sharon Salzberg's book, Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience. Also, Love and Death, by Unitarian Universalist Minister Forrest Church is quite good.  

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Day 22 of Spiritual Practices and Reflection: Making Time

I know, humans can't really make or destroy time, but we use that language all of the time. "I need to make time..." or "There's isn't enough time..." or "I've run out of time..." or "When I have some time in my life, then I'll do that."

It's been a few Sundays since I've walked into church. I was doing it very regularly right up until the holiday season, but I haven't done it yet in the new year. I'm going to do it today, because despite the preparation work I still need to do for today's sermon, I know I'll be more grounded, centered, and grateful if I walk to church today. So I'm "making" time to walk into church today, rewriting the narrative that says "I don't have enough time."

What would you like to make time for in your life? What is an easy first step you can take to make this happen?

P.S. Today is the last day to sign up for Small Groups at First Universalist for the winter/spring semester. We have groups for newcomers (folks who have been at the church less than a year), groups for parents with young children, two men's group, a group for parent's of teens, and many groups open to everyone. I blogged about this here, and you can learn more at the church's website, here

Day 21 of Spiritual Practices and Reflection: What does Spiritual Practice Mean?

A few days ago, Nancy Jones left this comment
...I'm wondering how you're defining "spiritual practices?"
I probably should have defined this back on day one, when I launched this month of blogging. But better late than never. Roughly, here's how I understand spiritual practices and spiritual disciplines:

  • More than anything else, spiritual practice has to do with a particular kind of attention and awareness. It has to do with how we're showing up in the world and how present we are. I return again and again to this quote from Mary Oliver: "The first, wildest, and wisest thing I know is this: that the soul exists, and it is made entirely of attention." Spiritual practices/disciplines are about growing the soul, about paying attention in such a way that the "soul" expands. Spiritual practices are about noticing the ways our inner lives, the world, and something larger than ourselves are woven together.  
  • With this understanding, parenting young children (any age, really, but especially young children) can be seen and understood as a spiritual practice. Gardening can be understood as a spiritual practice. Prayer can be understood as a spiritual practice. Any of these things can be vehicles that help us see a bigger picture, that help us subdue the ego, that locate us in mystery, wonder, and awe. 
  • A spiritual practice/discipline often has a deeply reflective component. So tap dancing (to take an example from the previous post) could become a spiritual practice, if one understood "God "or the "Spirit of Life" to be found in the dancing itself, in that playful, noise-making, rhythm making, dancing...and understood, through tap dancing, that one could participate in something larger than one's self, then that could become a spiritual practice.
These are just some early morning thoughts...I'm sure I've missed dozens of things. 

Dear readers: How do you define and understand "spiritual practice/spiritual discipline?"

Friday, January 20, 2012

Day 20 of Spiritual Practices and Reflections: Resources and More

Several of you have asked me to share resources about spiritual practices, both people and books/poems, etc. that I return to again and again. (And if you're new to the blog, visit this post to see what I'm doing this month.)

So here's a short list with a few words of explanation:

1) An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith, by Barbara Brown Taylor. Incredible book. Each chapter is about a spiritual practice/discipline. Taylor is compelling and easy to engage with. This is an outstanding book.
2) Mary Oliver; her poetry book, Thirst is great, as if her book of collected poems. Anything by her generally speaks to me.
3) I've been returning to the Psalms, trying to read one a day. I'm using this book: The Complete Psalms: The Book of Prayer Songs in a New Translation.
4) I love Rachel Naomi Remen's books. Powerful stories about listening, healing, and love. She understands medicine and healing as a kind of spiritual practice and discipline.
5) John O'Donahue's book, To Bless the Space Between Us.
6) Risking Everything, 110 Poems of Love and Revelation
7) And I love Parker Palmer's book, Let Your Life Speak.
8) I'm also in a Small Group at church (made of staff); this helps center and ground my life. If you're at First Universalist, I hope you'll join a group - you can sign up right now.

There's a lot of Unitarian Universalist authors and ministers I turn to, as well...and back in the post about prayer, there is a great resources by Erik Wikstrom, a Unitarian Universalist minister and author...

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Day 19 of Spiritual Practices and Reflection:Inhabiting the Body

Astute readers might have noticed that I haven't posted much about spiritual practices and the body. I've posted a lot about practices of reflection, of contemplation, and of writing, but my practice life doesn't include much "body practice." That is to say, I rarely do yoga, tai chi, chi gong, or something else more deeply rooted in the body. 

This morning, though, I did about 10 minutes of yoga. I'm a complete and total novice, so it was just some simple stuff that I know my body likes - sun salutation, pigeon pose, tree, and some downward dog. I loved closing my eyes and focusing on my breathing as I did the sun salutations. It was grounding, the in-out, in-out, as my breath found a rhythm in my body. 

I'd like to do more of this - make it a more regular part of my practice.

I'm curious - in what ways do you inhabit your body as a spiritual practice? What spiritual practices connect you with your body and your breath? Do you walk a labyrinth on a regular basis? (We have a fabulous one at First Universalist, if you're ever interested.) Do you do walking meditation? Yoga? How is body awareness part of your practice or discipline?  

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Day 18 of Spiritual Practice and Reflection: Walking with Death, Part II

Way back on day three of this month of blogging, I wrote about walking with death. I'm returning to the topic of death and end of life for today's post.

I just read this little piece in the Christian Century's "Century Marks" section:
Bonnie Ware has long worked in palliative care, spending time with the dying during the final weeks of their lives. Over the years she's heard the same regrets from the dying. They wish they had had the courage to be themselves, rather than trying to meet expectations. They say they should not have worked so hard - a lament heard especially from the older generation of males. They regret not having had the courage to express their feelings, even if doing so would have caused others pain. They say they should have stayed in touch with their friends and given more time to nurturing friendships (Activist Post, November 30).
This piece really resonates with me, really prompts me, in little ways, to make some adjustments in my day to day living. I don't feel too far off course; reflecting on this piece can help keep it that way.

As you move into this new year, what courage would you like to summon? In what ways can you cut back on work, if you're working too much? What friendships can you nurture or re-engage in? How can you do more of what truly feeds you and brings you joy?

Thinking about the end of life can be a powerful vehicle to help us occupy our lives in new and transforming ways. (If you're looking for additional resources, last March we had a whole sermon series on Death and Endings. Here's one of the sermons I preached.)

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Day 17 of Spiritual Practices and Reflections: Why Love Matters (or: "Why Marriage Equality is a Religious Issue")

Last Thursday, I gathered with other Unitarian Universalist clergy to learn about the marriage amendment (that defines marriage as being between one man and one woman) that will be on the ballot in November, and ways that we can work together to defeat this amendment as we celebrate love, families of all configurations, and loving, committed relationships.

It was a good training, and what really became clear to me during the hour was this: I didn't get married for the rights that marriage brings (although the rights are terribly important). I got married because love opened my heart in the deepest way I've ever known. I got married because I wanted to journey through life with someone who was a true partner, who helped me be the best person I can be (and who I helped as well), through thick and thin. I got married because of love, not because of the rights. Again, the rights matter, in this training it became clear to me that it's the bigger framing of this issue, as one of love, commitment, and growing old with someone, that really changes people's minds around this issue. As the website of Minnesotans United for all Families says, 

We believe marriage and family are about love and commitment, working together, bettering the community, raising children, and growing old together. We believe in a Minnesota that values and supports strong families and creates a welcoming environment for all Minnesota
That's why marriage equality matters.

I'm curious, if you're married: why did you get married? What caused you to take that leap of faith? Was it love? Was it because your partner felt like a soul mate? Why did you get married? Was it for the rights? 

And as I think about working to defeat the marriage amendment, and all that is ahead of us in the coming months, it's clear to me that this is not a "head" argument. This is a "heart" argument. As people of faith, who believe that love matters can be at the center of all we do (we're Universalists for heaven's sake!), we need to tell the story of love, the stories from our hearts - so we can move beyond the "rights" argument (as important as that is), and understand that this is a "love argument." And the spiritual practice then, is to tell our story, to talk about why love matters and how love has shaped and formed us. The practice is to have the courage and discipline to do this, dozens and dozens of times before next November's vote, so we engage in "heart" conversations with our friends, families, and neighbors...and talk about why marriage matters and why love matters. (And if you're looking for some inspiration about love, try this from Kathleen Norris: "Here's the gospel is seven words: God is love; this is no joke.")

If you'd like to join us, congregants of First Universalist Church will be gathering on Wednesday, Jan 18th, at 7pm, to explore the role that we have, as people of faith, in celebrating love and defeating this amendment. 

Day 16 of Spiritual Practice and Reflection: Taking a Day of Sabbath

Turns out, I really needed a "sabbath" day yesterday, a day of rest. Early on Sunday night, I could tell that I needed an "unplug day," a "sabbath" day. So on Monday, I didn't go online, I didn't check email, I didn't write up a new blog post. The internet and the online world whirled on without me for a day

Yesterday, I took a long walk. I journaled for over an hour. I read poetry. I had some prayer time. I reflected on the life and ministry of Dr. King. I spent time with my family, doing lots of puzzles with our son. And it was exactly what I needed. 

(And if you're interested in learning more about sabbath time, you might enjoy a sermon I preached several years ago on "Living a Sustainable Life.")

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Day 15 of Spiritual Practices and Reflection: Pick One, and Stick with it

Even though I'm offering lots of spiritual practices and ideas on this blog, I invite you to pick one, stick with it for a while, go deep with it. Practice praying for the month. (Imagine the fun you'll have when people ask, "How are you? What have you been up to?" and you can answer, "I've been practicing prayer.")

Or really dig into lectio divina for a while. Sit with a poem or scripture for a couple of mornings. Really let it speak to you. Let it come alive in your heart and body. Or start a daily gratitude journal, or send a letter of gratitude to someone every day. Or go back to the opening post in this series, and re-read the article about our Unitarian Transcendentalist forebears, and how they engaged in many of these practices, as a way to grow and cultivate their souls. Get inspired by them, and pick a practice. Stick with it. Go deep.

I'm curious - what are you practicing? What's your discipline? How's it going?

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Day 14 of Spiritual Practices and Reflection: Serving others (or: "It's not all about you")

On Feb 4, 2012, First Universalist will hold its 2nd annual day of service. Last year, during our day of service, over 400 congregants helped contribute 1500 hours to our community. We served with Habitat for Humanity, Simpson Shelter, Ascension Place, Harriet Tubman Center, and dozens of other places. It was a remarkable experience, as we came together to serve the wider community. 

Here's a video, made by a youth team in our church, that invites members and friends to participate in this year's Feb 4th day of service: 

Rachel Naomi Remen, medical doctor and author, says this about service:
Serving makes us aware of our wholeness and its power. The wholeness in us serves the wholeness in others and the wholeness in life. The wholeness in you is the same as the wholeness in me. Service is a relationship between equals: our service strengthens us as well as others...service is renewing. When we serve, our work itself will renew us...in serving we find a sense of gratitude.
Serving is a way of being in the world, a practice. It's not about us or our needs; it's about wholeness, relationships, partnering with others, and it changes our orientation in the world. It's about getting outside of ourselves and entering the larger current of life. And when we serve together, I think we understand ourselves as a faith community in new and powerful ways. I'll never forget last year, on the Sunday after the day of service, when we invited everyone who had served on the day of service to stand up - and more than half the congregation stood. It was remarkable, the joy, energy, and gratitude we all felt.  

In what ways do you serve in your life? How has serving changed your life? Do you regularly make time to serve others, in ways large and small? How do you feel when you are served by another? Are you able to receive their gifts, their loving service?

If you're in town, I hope you'll join us for our day of service on Feb 4, 2012. Invite a friend! And if you're willing to be a point person for a project on the day of service, please let me know. 

Friday, January 13, 2012

Day 13 of Spiritual Practice and Reflection: Learning to Pray

Do you pray? Have you ever prayed? Does the idea of praying terrify you, or fill you with calm? Do you pray by yourself or with others? Outloud or silently?

Does prayer have to be directed toward someone or something, or can you simply pray? And what do you imagine prayer is for, anyway?

In Mary Oliver's short poem, Praying, she writes:
It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.
In my experience, this is exactly right on. For me, prayer is about paying attention, noticing what's happening around me, with other people, even in my own heart. It's about naming, and saying outloud those things that I'm noticing and feeling. It's about being in relationship with the world in a particular way. When I pray, it's hardly ever perfect, but it's not supposed to be. It's just a doorway into thanks, into a deeper place, into silence, where another voice might speak. 

When do I pray? I almost always say a short prayer before I preach...holding in a prayerful way the people who are gathering in the sanctuary and praying that I be a conduit for something larger than myself. In this way, prayer serves as a reminder...I am reminded that worship is not, ever, about me...I am reminded that people carrying hopes, dreams, and broken hearts are arriving...and they're hoping to hear something that speaks to them. 

Why do I pray? Because it centers, grounds, and holds me. There's something remarkably powerful about praying with other people. 

Does prayer change anything? It changes me, the one who is praying. It changes my awareness, opens my heart, helps me move toward a posture of gratitude. 

Who do I pray to? Life, God, the Spirit of Life, the Source of Life, the Big Mystery...sometimes I don't address anything or anyone...I just pray words of gratitude. Prayer is not a contest and there's no right way to do it. (If you're looking for a good resource on prayer, check out Erik Wikstrom's book, Simply Pray, or listen to this sermon I preached a while back: "All About Prayer: The Lord's, Yours and Mine."

Today, I invite you to patch together a few words of prayer...they don't have to be fancy or perfect...just pay attention...and give yourself a chance to step through the doorway into thanks. And if you're up for it, dear readers, I invite you to leave your prayer or prayer requests in the comments sections. 

I'll see some of you in church this Sunday, 9:30 and 11:15.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Day 12 of Spiritual Practices and Reflection: Joy in my own life

So here's what truth: it's hard to post every day. It's a discipline. This "post a day" exercise has really become my morning practice. I still make a bit of time for prayer and writing, but these posts get most of my attention right now.

I love that so many of you are commenting and reflecting on these posts. I feel like I'm getting to know some of you in deeper and different ways. Reading your comments, and imagining you at your computer, or on a laptop in a coffee shop, or thumbing away on your cell phone - well, that has brought me joy.

This morning, simple things are filling me with joy: my morning routine, fresh coffee, time to sit, think, and get grounded.

But the biggest surge of joy I've felt recently? We were in Durham, NC, over the winter break. The weather was mild. One afternoon, I want for a walk. The sun was out, warming my face. A gentle breeze was blowing. I didn't have a destination; I was walking because it felt good and I wanted to. And I felt profoundly happy, joyful, even, to be alive, to have a chance to spend some time on this earth. And as I walking, the idea to blog during the month of January came to me. I felt a pull to write about some of the spiritual practices I'm doing, to explore new ones, and to see if I could actually post once a day for a month. And in that 45 minute walk, about ten different posts began to write themselves in my head, as I breathed in fresh air, watched birds circle overhead, and felt my body in motion on a warm December day.

I don't quite know why I was so "joy-filled" during this walk - perhaps because the moment felt timeless, or because I was in a creative mindset, or because I wasn't needed anywhere else other than right where I was, or because I let the problems of the world fade away for a moment...but something happen, and joy took up residence in my body. .

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Day 11 of Spiritual Practices and Reflection: Making room for joy

Yesterday, I wrote about leaning into those things that help us come alive. Today, I want to build on that notion, as I share some thoughts about making room for joy in our lives.

So: a short story, a poem, and then the question...

The story: This past halloween, our son went trick or treating for the first time. We had explained the basics of how it would work. He'd wear a costume, knock on people's doors, say trick or treat, and then get some candy. He should say "thank you," and then move on to the next house. He seemed to understand the essential concept, but when we actually went trick or treating that night, and he got his first piece of candy dropped into his plastic pumpkin container, it all came together. After saying "thank you" he turned around, on fire with joy, and dashed off to the next house, happily shouting, "Candy! I got Candy!" I've never seen such joy or happiness. He embodied "living joy" that night. (Of his joy filled both my wife and I with a deep joy, as well.)

The poem: "From Blossoms"

From blossoms comes
this brown paper bag of peaches
we bought from the boy 
at the bend in the road where we turned toward 
signs painted Peaches.

From laden boughs, from hands, 
from sweet fellowship in the bins, 
comes nectar at the roadside, succulent
peaches we devour, dusty skin and all, 
comes the familiar dust of summer, dust we eat.

O, to take what we love inside, 
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into 
the round jubilance of peach.

There are days we live 
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy 
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to 
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.
- Li-Young Lee

Question: When do you live as if death is nowhere in the background? When has joy bubbled up within you, blossoming in unexpected ways? Has there been a time when you ate a piece of fruit, and it opened you up to the orchard, the shade, the days?...and something close to joy burst into your life? When and where and how do you experience joy in your life? How can you make room for more joy in your life? 

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Day 10 of Spiritual Practices and Reflection: What makes you come alive?

Howard Thurman
According to Wikipedia, "Howard Thurman, (1899 – April 10, 1981) was an influential American author, philosopher, theologian, educator, and civil rights leader. He was Dean of Theology and the chapels at Harvard University and Boston University for more than two decades, wrote 21 books, and in 1944 helped found a multicultural church." 

Thurman also wrote a number of books and meditations.  One of his well known quotes is, 
"Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive."
Today's reflection question is simple: What makes you come alive? What makes you feel full of purpose and meaning? Or, to take another approach to this: When have you felt most alive, doing something that really aligned with you in a deep way? How can you do more of that in your life? (Another resource to help dig into this question is Parker Palmer's short book, Let Your Life Speak. I highly recommend it.)

Monday, January 9, 2012

Day 9 of Spiritual Practices and Reflections: Naming the good news of Unitarian Universalism

There are some good comments posted on Day 8, about the good news of Unitarian Universalism. I hope you'll check them out, if you haven't already.

Here are a few pieces of the good news of Unitarian Universalism that really jump out at me:

*Revelation is not sealed. A particular piece of wisdom/truth/insight, is not final. There is not one truth in one book somewhere, sealed up, beyond new interpretation.  Instead, Unitarian Universalists suggest that revelation is unfolding, is continuous. God/the Spirit of Life/Love is still speaking in the world, through nature, poetry, sacred scripture, other human beings, music, and so much more. We believe that truth and wisdom continue to emerge in all sorts of places and is not limited to a particular book or teaching...and that's good news.

*The Universalist notion that we're enough, and that we're loved. When I really, truly let this reality into my heart, it is a stunning feeling, a mind blowing experience. In many ways, I'm still leaning how to live into this truth because we live in a culture that says we're not enough unless we make X amount of money, or look a certain way, or have a certain job, etc. etc. Universalism says none of that stuff matters. Universalism says "you're loved, beyond anyone you've done or failed to do." That is stunning, powerful, mind blowing good news. And as I glimpse that reality, it calls me (us) to love the world in a similar way. (Clearly, I'm drawn to this; if you missed my post on, "What exactly is the Universalist spirit of love and hope?" you can catch it here.)  The saving message here is that we're held in a love greater than we can imagine.

*Belief that the individual is an authentic source of religious knowing. Another way to say this: We trust in our own religious experiences. I don't mean to suggest it's all about the individual and individual experience. It's not. We need a practicing faith community to be a part of, to hold us accountable, to challenge and shape us. And we need to be in conversation with sacred scripture and traditions that have deep roots, as well. But the good news, the saving message, is that the individual's religious experience matters...it's an authentic source of knowing (as opposed to saying the only authentic religious source is a sacred scripture, or the words of a religious person.)

I'm curious - what else do you see as the good news of our faith, the saving message, if you will?

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Day 8 of Spiritual Practices and Reflection: Claiming the good news of Unitarian Universalism

I'm a lifer. That is to say I've been a Unitarian Universalist for almost all of my life. I love this faith tradition and its history and stories. I love how our faith evolved, as our Unitarian and Universalist ancestors wrestled with doctrine, dogma, knowing and unknowing.

Essentially, this is where they landed:
We can follow the teachings of Jesus because they are deep, powerful, and transformative teachings, and they show us a new way to be human, to care for one another, and those outside our "tribe," whether they're man or woman, young or old, Jew or gentile, immigrant, exile, or outcast. We can follow Jesus (and his teachings) for this reason, not because he is God, and not because we must believe in his death and resurrection for our salvation. (This is the essential Unitarian claim. And of course, we're invited to follow the teachings of others, as well, as they help us live into our full humanity.)
We can trust that "God" loves the whole creation. Everyone is held in that love. We don't have to prove anything to be worthy of that love. And in turn, because we are loved, we are called to love fiercely, to persist in love, to turn love into justice in this world. Ultimately, love wins. (This is the essential Universalist claim.)
It's continued to evolve, of course, but these claims essentially boil down to these one liners:

     "We believe in the idea of one God (Unitarianism) and no one left behind (Universalism)."
"We believe in a love beyond belief." (Love trumps every boundary, barrier, or ideology that human beings construct.)
    "We don't have to think alike to love alike." (This is from Frances David, a 16th century Unitarian.)
Or simply: Love wins. (Love transforms us, and calls us into new ways of being, that nothing else does. At the end of the day, love is more powerful than fear, or even death.)

So here's the reflection question for today: "If you identify as a Unitarian Universalist, how do you name the good news of our faith? What is the good, saving news, of our Unitarian Universalist tradition?"

I'm looking for something deeper than, "It's the community," or "You can believe whatever you want (not true!)," or "It's the social justice work..." Lots of places have community and do social justice work. In your own words, what is the good theological news of Unitarian Universalism?

...I almost shared my list of what I think some of the good news is, but I've decided to wait, to see what shows up in the comments section, and then I'll add my two cents worth.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Day 7 of Spiritual Practices and Reflections: The Practice of Attending to Your Soul (or Why Small Groups Matter)

(If you're new to the blog, welcome! For some context, check out this post, which explains why I'm blogging every day for the month of January.)

I recently came across this quote from the poet, Mary Oliver:
 "This is the first, wildest, and wisest thing I know, that the soul exists, and that it is built entirely out of attention." 
"The souls exists...and it is built entirely out of attention." This seems like the perfect quote as far as it relates to spiritual practices and disciplines. All of the spiritual disciplines, whatever they are, are about paying attention, being mindful, being present - in short, they are about building/growing one's soul as we pay attention in different and deeper ways.

At First Universalist, one of the best places to "attend to your soul" is our Small Group program. (I've blogged about this before.) In Small Groups, with 8 to 10 other people, congregants engage in the discipline of deep listening to one another (and themselves) as they share the stories, questions, and growing edges of their lives and faith. It's the kind of listening that is not about fixing or advising another human being, or interrupting to tell a better story. It is the kind of deep, attentive listening that can help the soul show up...that can help the soul grow and speak its deepest truth.

Small Groups are a place where we can be known and know others at a deep level. Check out this video to hear from church members who have found great meaning in their Small Group experience:

Signs ups for Small Groups begin Jan 9, 2012. We're offering a variety of different groups. You can learn more here.  If you're not already in a Small Group, I hope you'll join one. It just might change your life.

In this new year, how are you attending to your soul?

Friday, January 6, 2012

Day 6 of Spiritual Practices and Spiritual Reflection: What's at the Center of Your Life?

This is a question I ask myself again and again, on a regular basis: "What's at the center of my life? Does it belong there? Is it worthy of my ultimate loyalty? Have I put the wrong things at the center of my life?"

For me, this is a "God," question, it's a "what are my priorities?" question, and it's a question about idols. Wikipedia defines idol as "an image or other material object representing a deity to which religious worship is addressed or any person or thing regarded with blind admiration, adoration, or devotion.Take a second to read that again. Money, alcohol (any addiction), the internet, ego, self, a job, anger, a title, an expectation, just plain busyness - these can all become idols, they can all land in the center of our lives with remarkable ease. And they don't really belong there - they're not worthy of the best of who we are or can be.

So I'm curious, what's at the center of your life? What have you put there? Does it belong there? Is it worthy of your deepest loyalty?

I've had all sorts of crazy things at the center of my life over the years and it's only by continually asking this question that I can begin to put the right things into the center of my life - things like awe, wonder, God/the Holy, Love, spiritual practice, gratitude, and family. Those are the things worthy of my ultimate loyalty.

What's at the center of your life? What doesn't belong there? What would you like to add?

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Day 5 of Spiritual Practices: Engaging in Lectio Divina (Holy Reading)

What the heck is lectio divina?!

In Latin, it means, 'divine reading.' It's a way to engage a reading (a poem, scripture, etc), not as a text to be studied, but as a living thing, that can speak and move and come alive in us, if we let it. Lectio divina is not about learning the text, it is about experiencing the text in a new way. 

There are all sorts of variations on how to do lectio divina, but the most common way I know is to read a piece (a poem, a short piece of scripture) three times through, slowly, and to let the words wash over you. 

Pay attention. What phrase comes alive in you? What new thing do you notice in the 2nd or 3rd reading that you didn't notice before? After you've read the piece three times, the idea is to sit in quiet meditation for a while, letting yourself and the text be together, allowing a new insight to be born, to open your heart to the experience. After this, there's often a chance to write or reflect on the experience. If you're in a group, you might share reflections with one another. Finally, you end with silence again, held by the words, the Spirit of Life, and the space.

This process of lectio divina might sound dry or even boring, but it's actually a powerful way to experience the text in a new way (At the bottom of this post, I included a poem I used this morning, as part of my practice...and for what it's worth, the part that really spoke to me was the first two lines; I imagined hope watching over my wife, son, and I, "hovering in the dark corners," as we slept last night...) 

If you're in the Twin Cities, and interested in practicing lectio divina or learning more, Ruth MacKenzie, our Director of Worship Arts, writes in our January church newsletter (on page 5):

In this month of Living Resolutions, join me after the second service (at 12:15 p.m. in room 203) to experience lectio divina, an ancient practice of spiritual reading: Jan 15, 22, or 29. This practice is a meditative approach to the written word, where we allow ourselves to move deeply into a text, and let that text move deeply in us. No sign up is necessary, just a willingness to practice.

It hovers in dark corners
before the lights are turned on,
it shakes sleep from its eyes
and drops from mushroom gills,
it explodes in the starry heads
of dandelions turned sages,
it sticks to the wings of green angels
that sail from the tops of maples.

It sprouts in each occluded eye
of the many-eyed potato,
it lives in each earthworm segment
surviving cruelty,
it is the motion that runs the tail of a dog,
it is the mouth that inflates the lungs
of the child that has just been born.

It is the singular gift
we cannot destroy in ourselves,
the argument that refutes death,
the genius that invents the future,
all we know of God.

It is the serum which makes us swear
not to betray one another;
it is in this poem, trying to speak.
~ Lisel Mueller ~

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Day 4 of Spiritual Practices and Reflection: Giving Thanks

The Mission Statement of First Universalist Church is:

In the Universalist Spirit of love and hope, we give, receive, and grow.

I've blogged about the "Give" part of this Mission Statement before (here: "The Best Gift Ever?") It's a deceptively simple Mission Statement, and the "Give" part especially. As a faith community, we're being called to give our attention, to pay attention, in new and different ways. Giving our full attention, to ourselves, to others, to the Spirit of Life/the Holy, opens us up, changes us, and allows us to get clear about what matters and what other gifts we might have to give the world. 

Paying attention (giving our attention) can allow us to see our lives differently, to notice and give thanks for the gifts, people, and experiences that fill our lives....all of which can be invisible unless we're paying attention.

So today's reflection question is this: "What have you noticed in the past 24 hours that you are thankful for, that you don't want to forget?  What blessing or moment of grace landed in your life yesterday? What experience, or conversation, out of the hundreds you had yesterday, stands out to you? What happened in the past 24 hours that you are deeply thankful for? And how might you express that gratitude? Is there someone to call? A note to write? A journal entry to make? A way you can pay this gratitude forward?"

As I look back over the past 24 hours of my life, my heart opens in gratitude for the time yesterday the church Management Team spent reflection on the question, "What is saving your life right now?" Our emerging practice, as a Management Team, is to spend the first part of our meeting doing some kind of spiritual reflection/spiritual direction work together, before we dig into our "work" agenda. I was deeply moved by the depth of what was shared yesterday. Thank you, management team. 

Poem In Thanks

Lord Whoever, thank you for this air
I'm about to in- and exhale, this hutch
in the woods, the wood for fire,
the light - both lamp and the natural stuff
of leaf - back, fern and wing,
For the Piano, the shovel
for ashes, the moth-gnawed
blankets, the stone-cold water
stone cold: thank you.
Thank you, Lord, coming for
to carry me here -- where I'll gnash
it out, Lord, where I'll calm 
and work, Lord, thank you
for the goddamn birds singing!

-Thomas Lux

If you're a new reader of this blog, and in the Twin Cities, you're welcome to come worship with us on Sundays, at 9:30 and 11:15, as we continue our "Living Resolutions" sermon series. More information here.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Day 3 of Spiritual Practices and Reflections: Walking with Death

Over the Holiday break, I had the chance to walk through a small cemetery. I spent time reading the headstones, imagining the lives of the people who were buried there. Some had served our country, some had died young, some had been dead a long time. 

Being among the dead, on a bright sunny day, I once again felt the impermanence of my life. I was aware of my mortality, of the mortality of those I love. I intentionally brought to mind many of the names and faces of those I've known and loved, who are no longer alive. And I was able to imagine myself near death, as well, my own body failing.

"Walking with death" in this way, I felt a renewed understanding of what a gift it is to be alive at all. I felt thankful to serve the faith community of First Universalist, as we journey together. I was reminded, as Rev. Forrest Church so often said, that death doesn't take everything from us; death cannot take away the love, time, attention, we've shared and given away to others. 

There's nothing quite like walking in a cemetery...to bring you back to life, to what matters. In fact, as a Unitarian Universalist, my focus is on living this life as well and as deeply as I am able, so that when I come to the end of my days, I am not filled with regret or anger, but gratitude for the life I've had.   

In this New Year, I hope you will spend time reflection on death, so that you might answer questions like these: How can I best serve and bless the world with my life? What is truly important in my life? What can I give away (or do) that will last beyond my life, that death can't take away?

Perhaps many of you have seen this poem. It's worth sharing again: 

When Death Comes  by Mary Oliver

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps his purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering;
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth
tending as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it's over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was a bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it's over, I don't want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened
or full of argument.

I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.

~ Mary Oliver ~

Monday, January 2, 2012

Day 2: Spiritual Practices and Reflections: Befriending Grief

This poem, by Denise Levertov, is one that I return to again and again:

Talking to Grief

Ah, Grief, I should not treat you  
like a homeless dog
who comes to the back door
for a crust, for a meatless bone.
I should trust you.

I should coax you
into the house and give you
your own corner,
a worn mat to lie on,
your own water dish.

You think I don't know you've been living
under my porch.
You long for your real place to be readied
before winter comes. You need
your name,
your collar and tag. You need
the right to warn off intruders,
to consider
my house your own
and me your person
and yourself 
my own dog.

So often, in my own life, behind my anger or anxiety, there is simply grief that has not been expressed, that I have not befriended, that I have not fully welcomed into my life. 

As a culture we seem to fear tears (especially from men) and the sense of vulnerability that grief can bring.  

But our grief is not a homeless dog. It is real. It is about loss, both small and large, dreams that have died, and much more. Grief is not something to be ashamed of or embarrassed about. We should trust our grief, name it, and befriend it, as best we can. 

In this New Year, how are you befriending your grief?

Kicking off a Month of Spiritual Reflection and Spiritual Practices: Jan 1, 2012

(I wrote this post in my mind yesterday...but didn't have time to get it online.)

This month at First Universalist our sermon series is about spiritual practices. We're focusing on spiritual practices and disciplines that can live at the center of our lives, helping us become more grounded people, aware of the gifts we've been blessed with, and the many ways we might bless the world. (Over at NotHellButHope you can Heidi Mastrud's great take on this.)

Every day, for the month of January, I intend to post about one of the practices or reflection questions that I'm currently exploring in my own life. (And in doing this, I understand myself to be continuing a practice that our Transcendentalist forebears engaged in, as they reflected on their lives through contemplation, meditation, journal writing, and conversation. You can read more about the practices of the Transcendentalists in this great article,  "The Roots of Unitarian Universalist Spirituality in New England Transcendentalists," by Rev. Barry Andrews.)

The spiritual question I want to kick things off with is this one:

"What is saving your life right now?" 

This question comes from the Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor, who I've blogged about before. Early in her ministry, she was asked to come and guest preach in a pulpit not far from the one she served. She wondered if she would have anything to say to a congregation she didn't know and that didn't know her.

"What would be helpful for me to preach about?" she asked the minister of the church she was going to preach at.

"Tell us what is saving your life right now," the minister responded. "That's what we need to hear. Tell us what is saving your life right now."

This story strikes a deep cord in me. Indeed, what is it in my life, right now, that is "saving me?" Amidst the ups and downs, the blur of endless "to-do's," the piles of books to read, meetings to attend, what is grounding, centering, holding, and "saving my life right now?"

Here's one of the things that is "saving my life" right now:

Putting our son down for nap.

Crazy, right?! Maybe you're wondering: "How is this life saving, exactly?"

Here's the story: I've had some time off between Christmas and the New Year. This has meant that I've home during the day, and thus able to put our son down for his afternoon nap. (I rarely am home during the day, so it's something I have the chance to do.) Our son is not a big fan of the nap, but he absolutely needs it, or else he's a wreck by 6pm. And the best way for me to get him down is to hold and rock him, sitting on the edge of the bed or in a chair. He fights pretty hard for the first 10 minutes or so, kicking, crying, telling me he's hungry, or needs to get down to "go for a walk," or to go "get some exercise outside."

It's an intense experience, gently restraining him as he struggles, being clear that it is nap time, and that I love him (that's my mantra, "I love you, and, it's nap time.") After a little while, he settles down in my arms, still awake, but not struggling. His breathing deepens. He lets me rest my face in his hair. He smells like sweat, and shampoo, and something beautiful I can't even begin to describe, and the warmth and smell of his head touches something deep inside me.

As he relaxes in my arms, and moves toward sleep, I feel deeply grounded in the present moment, my arms gently holding my three year old son. From where my head rests, I can watch his eyes slowly close. After he falls asleep, I hold him a bit longer, then tuck him into bed.


So when I asked myself yesterday, "What is saving my life right now?" and scanned back through the past week, this is where I landed. I didn't know it in the moment; it's only looking back that I can say, "Yes, putting our son down for nap is saving my life right now."

It's saving my life because it's a reminder that things won't always be this way. Soon, I won't be able to hold and cradle him. Soon, he'll stop taking naps. Soon, he'll be at school most of the day. So be present, Justin, be present.

It's saving my life, because it brings my son and I together in a way that nothing else does. There's a deep intimacy, connection, and vulnerability that we share together in those nap time moment. There's a trust and a comfort that is beyond words. (If you've ever fallen asleep in the arms of someone else, you know what I mean.)

It's saving my life because these nap time moments puts me in place where I can imagine how my parents might have held me in such a way; it opens up the past in a different way for me, opening up a new sense of connection with my parents, imagining their arms wrapped around me.

It's saving my life because it's giving me new insight, meaning, and connection. It's saving my life because it helps me feel whole.

What is saving your life right now?