Gratitude - May 2018

“Gratitude is like a flashlight. If you go out into your yard at night and turn on a flashlight, you suddenly can see what’s there. It was always there, but you couldn’t see it in the dark.” —Dawna Markova

There are many reasons to begin a gratitude practice. We live in a culture that encourages us to continually chase after something new, more, or supposedly better. Gratitude can help us better understand what we already have, and what we really need. When we do this it helps us unhook ourselves from the allure and attraction of more stuff. That way we don’t miss the important stuff. We tend to put ourselves on automatic pilot and move through our days without paying attention as well as we could. As a result we miss out on the small, ordinary, amazing things that can light up our lives with meaning and joy—the powerful beauty and truth in a street musician’s music, the neon green of spring’s first leaves, our dog’s devotion. "In relation to others, gratitude is good manners; in relation to ourselves, it is a habit of the heart and a spiritual discipline." —Daphne Rose Kingma Gratitude can help us understand the truth of our interconnection with other people and the earth. It can help us live sustainably in community. Gratitude can help us find meaning and purpose, and make room for hope, love and justice.
 
Reflection Questions for contemplation, journaling, discussion:
Choose one question and carry it with you for a day. Turn it over in your mind and heart; write, sing or make up a dance about it. Savor it. Look at whatever shortcomings come forth, as well as any goodness. See what richness comes from holding just one question.
  • What new perspective did/can I gain today?
  • How can I love, and let go gratefully?
  • In what circumstances do I feel generous?
  • How can I bring forth my most generous self?
  • What adds delight to my life?
  • How does gratefulness deepen my compassion for others?
  • How do I belong? To whom do I belong? To what do I belong?
  • What moments fill me with wonder?
  • Am I as grateful as I would like to be?
  • What keeps me from my gratitude?
  • What does gratitude feel like?
  • In what ways do I practice gratitude? 
“The greatest thing is to give thanks for everything. He who has learned this knows what it means to live. He has penetrated the whole mystery of life: giving thanks for everything.” —Albert Schweitzer
“Look closely and you will find that people are happy because they are grateful. The opposite of gratefulness is just taking everything for granted.” —David Steindl-Rast 

Emergence - April 2018

Emergence in nature isn’t just a poking up or individual venturing out. Emergence is the result of complex interactions that enable individuals to transcend their uniqueness to become something more than the sum of their parts. For example, no individual in an ant colony is in charge. The queen lays eggs and sends our reassuring metamessages to the colony (keep calm and carry on), but she’s not in charge. What governs the colony is shared information. All ants have a job. They begin with the simplest tasks: move food to storage; take out the trash. When there’s enough food they drop chemical messages along the path for each other that sends them to a different task. Ants stay in their lane; they observe the limitations around their role. They’re mentored and nurtured through a series of increasingly complex jobs and responsibilities. The most experienced ants forage for food, tend the young brood, and if necessary look for a new place to live. Since the colony’s survival depends on it, the most experienced have the most responsibility and the toughest jobs. 

This self-organizing ability is what enables a group of tiny ants to create a habitat that’s on the same scale as a major human city. The complex whole of the colony has a collective ability to organize, create, and carry forward that’s greater than that of any individual. When any collective achieves the ability to become more than the sum of its parts, it’s an example of emergence. Complexity, increased intelligence, a shift up occurs, and suddenly we’re in something together that we couldn’t even imagine before because it didn’t yet exist.

This has been true for human societies and civilizations. And it’s true among groups of people who figure out how to get past their own self-interests, illusions, and fears. It’s hard work to be in a group, to listen with a more generous part of yourself, to respect others who are different than yourself, and to choose love instead of anger or fear. In those moments though if we’re courageous enough to risk vulnerability, the reward can be the ability to become part of something larger than ones individual self. It sounds simple, and it is elegantly simple. It also requires great discipline—staying in your lane, your role, a set of limitations. Oddly, even paradoxically, choosing to keep within limitations is what enables you to transcend your limits and become part of something greater than yourself.

Balance - March 2018

The folks who create Soul Matters share these thoughts this month:

“When we talk of balance, it’s natural for calm and rest to be the first things that come to mind. There’s no getting around it: many of us are tired. We’re overworked, over-busy, over-committed. Striving and stress have become the badges we wear to prove that we are of worth. We are often so weighed down by responsibility and worry that it only takes one drop of something unexpected to tip us over. So, yes, we long for rest. Yes, we want less to manage and juggle. Yes, we need balance’s reminder that a place of calm and peace is possible.

“And yet, pointing us to peace and calm is not all that balance is about. Remembering this is at the center of this month’s work. Being a “people of balance” is often the opposite of keeping things calm. In order to move toward a balance of justice, we have to upset the current state of things. Oppressive systems need challenged and toppled. We need to sacrifice our calm and comfort, and instead “go all in.” Achieving a balance of equality requires us to be purposefully off-balance with our culture, or as Martin Luther King jr. said, we need people who are “maladjusted.” Being out of sync with “the way things are” is the first step toward a better balance for all.

“Balance is not simply a destination, but also a place of invitation. It’s not a static space of peace, as much as a stillpoint on which we pivot and turn to something new. It’s not just about rest, but about resting up for a journey.

“Another way to put all this is to ask, “What is your balance for?” Maybe instead of asking each other, “Have you found balance?” we need to ask “Where is your balance taking you?” Yes, balance sometimes can be an end in itself, but this month and its observances remind us that more often balance is a means to a greater end.

In other words, maybe balance isn’t the prize but the springboard. Maybe balance isn’t the goal, but the source of strength that gets us where we need to go.

Which means that our most important questions this month might actually be, “Do you know where you’re trying to get to?” and “Which kind of balance will help you along your way?”

Perseverance - February 2018

This month the folks at Soul Matters, a UU worship and small group ministry collaborative offer us these thoughts on perseverance….
 
"This morning I have been pondering a nearly forgotten lesson I learned in high school music. Sometimes in band or choir, music requires players or singers to hold a note longer than they actually can hold a note. In those cases, we were taught to mindfully stagger when we took a breath so the sound appeared uninterrupted. Everyone got to breathe, and the music stayed strong and vibrant… So let's remember the advice of music: Take a breath. The rest of the chorus will sing. The rest of the band will play. Rejoin so others can breathe. Together, we can sustain a very long, beautiful song for a very, very long time. You don’t have to do it all, but you must add your voice to the song.” - Michael Moore
 
When tackling the topic of perseverance, most often, we’re asked, “Are you ready to be strong?” The standard recipe is well known: Buck up! Grin and bear it! Keep pushing! Keep moving forward! Dig deep; you are stronger than you know! But maybe…this typical roadmap isn’t the path to perseverance; maybe it’s just the path to breakdown.
 
Perhaps balance plays a bigger role in perseverance than we often assume. As a people of perseverance, we are being called not just to grit and strong wills, but to gentleness and self-care. Constantly pushing ourselves without also giving ourselves the gift of pause gets us nowhere. Digging deeper without making time to deepen and fill our wells is a recipe for selfinflicted pain.
 
Maybe vulnerability is the real secret to perseverance. Maybe admitting you’re tired and asking for help is the real strength that gets us through. That dominant myth of Sisyphus pushing his rock up that endless hill hasn’t done us any favors. We assume that Sisyphus suffers because his work is endless, but maybe it’s his isolation and lack of a place to rest that is his true torment.
 
So, friends, this month, let’s not torment ourselves. We don’t have to give up those pep talks about digging deep and being stronger than we know. But right alongside that, let’s make sure we’re also doing the more tender work of propping each other up and reminding 
each other to breathe.
 
Rabbi David Wolf tells a story that we might carry with us this month: A boy and his father were walking along a road when they came across a large stone. “Do you think if I use all of my strength, I can move this rock?” the child asked. His father answered, “If you use all of your strength, I am sure you can do it.” The boy began to push the rock. Exerting himself as much as he could, he pushed and pushed. The rock did not move. Discouraged, he said to his father, “You were wrong. I can’t do it.” His father put his arm around the boy’s shoulder and said, “No son. You didn’t use all your strength – you didn’t ask me to help.”
What a gift to remember that perseverance isn’t a solo act. May that be the gift this month’s reflection gives us all. See the ERUUF Covenant Group ministry page for group session plans on Perseverance.

Intention - January 2018

A Definition of Intention, from the First Universalist Church of Minneapolis 
“Coming from the Latin word, intentionem, intention literally means a stretching out, a stretching out of mind, of heart, of body, of spirit. When we set an intention, we are turning our attention toward something, or someone, or some idea, and stretching out to meet it.”
Settle your body and mind for a moment. Take a breath and ask yourself what your heart wants to stretch toward. Sometimes there are circles of yearning—what are you yearning for just for yourself? And then for your family and friends? And beyond this, what do you yearn for that’s good and life giving for your community—for people you don’t yet know, whose life circumstances might not be anything like your own? (And of course, their yearnings might be totally different than yours—
which would give you many opportunities for humility, curiosity, listening, and respect.)

Intention of course is more than simply yearning. To be intentional is to notice your deep desire, and make the conscious choice (or choices again and again) to move in that direction. Sometimes we succeed. Always if we’re open we learn things in the process. Sometimes we learn that what we desire is not big enough, inclusive enough, and so we adjust. We widen our vision, open our heart. At other times we learn that we’re more than enough, just as we are, or that we’ve got more power than we ever suspected possible.

Here’s an exercise from Soul Matters. Perhaps it will stir some thoughts in you about your yearning and how to go from that to intention. pdfDownloadable PDF File

Intentional Fill-In The Blanks

1. My most important promise to myself is __________________________________________________________________ .

2. I will help others by __________________________________________________________________________________.

3. Because of me, my children will understand that ___________________________________________________________.

4. I have always wanted to _______________________________________________________________________________.

5. I am on this earth to __________________________________________________________________________________.

6. I will learn more about ________________________________________________________________________________.

7. I am avoiding ________________________________________________________________________________________.

8. If I could change one thing about myself it would be _________________________________________________________.

9. At my funeral, the two adjectives I hope people use to describe me are ___________________ & ____________________ .

10. If I could go back and change one thing about my life it would be ______________________________________________ .

11. If I won or inherited a million dollars, the first thing I would do is ______________________________________________ .

12. If I won a free trip, I would love to fly to __________________________________________________________________ .

13. When I stop procrastinating, I will ______________________________________________________________________ .

14. I am most happy when I am ____________________________________________________________________________.

15. I want to spend the rest of my life becoming a ______________________________________________________________.

16. I want to spend the rest of my life doing ___________________________________________________________________.

17. Looking back, I realize that I was born to __________________________________________________________________ .

18. In five years, people will be surprised that I am _____________________________________________________________.

19. I have always intended to ___________________________ once I have finished __________________________________.

Hope - December 2017

The Greek myth says that hope is what’s left at the bottom of Pandora’s box after Troubles and Afflictions have been released into the world. Hope is tiny, fragile, and yet absolutely necessary for human endurance. Hope is beautiful, and good. But at times it can be so painful to hope that we put on cynicism as a defense. The comedian, George Carlin noted, “Scratch a cynic and you will find a disappointed idealist.” And when we practice disappointment it positions us to slip into despair. Meanwhile, cynicism only makes us more comfortable in the short run, and it changes nothing important. Rebecca Solnit points out, “For comfortably situated people, hopelessness means cynicism and letting oneself off the hook. If everything is doomed, then nothing is required.” And let’s face it; letting ourselves go free from responsibility is not a moral stance to be proud of. 

But hope is tenacious; hope persists. And despite what we’re tempted to think in our less optimistic moments when we try to discount hope down to a feeble sentiment, hope is really quite radical. Hope arrives loaded with a hidden but tightly coiled strength that can liberate the possibilities that we don’t quite dare dream are possible. Hope seems to have a bigger imagination, a larger moral vision than we do. As Brazilian Liberation theologian, Rubem A. Alves writes,

“[Hope] is a presentiment that imagination is more real and reality less real than it looks.

It is a hunch 
that the overwhelming brutality of facts 
that oppress and repress is not the last word. 
It is a suspicion 
that reality is more complex
than realism wants us to believe
and that the frontiers of the possible
are not determined by the limits of the actual…”

“The frontiers of the possible are not determined by the limits of the actual…” Hope is tiny but powerful, and it can open doors to whole new worlds. Far from leading to sentimentality and mindless quietism, hope stirs dissidents to organize and take action not only for themselves but also for the greater good. Hope leads to revolutionary love, the kind based on equity and inclusion, equality and mutuality. The kind of love we hope our children will inherit and pass on to future generations.

Abundance - November 2017

Do you tend to be a glass half-full, or a glass half-empty kind of person? We each have a history, lessons we’ve learned early and of late about what we might expect from life. What’s fascinating is that we don’t see the world so much as it is; we see it as we are. Is the glass half full or half empty? It depends on the perspective we’ve developed.

A man named BJ Miller was electrocuted in a freak accident one night in the early 90’s when he was a college student. He subsequently lost both of his legs just below each knee, and also one of his arms. He had every reason to feel sorry for himself, to hide from the world’s assessments that seemed to label him either “broken” or “defective.”

It was a whole year before he could return to college. When he did he took an Art History class, in which he unexpectedly discovered a whole new way of understanding his experience. In the darkness, as the students studied slides of ancient sculptures, Miller noticed that almost all had missing limbs, just like him. And yet they were considered priceless works of beauty. Miller slowly began to see himself in the sculptures. Unlike his subtle, internalized thoughts that he was now deformed and in need of fixing, he began to see himself as complete and ok just as he was. 
Eventually Miller began to believe that every person is somewhere on a continuum between original wholeness and new and different abilities. In an interview with Miller in the NYTimes magazine, journalist Jon Mooallem writes:

“Miller refused, for example, to let himself believe that his life was extra difficult now, only uniquely difficult, as all lives are. He resolved to think of his suffering as simply a “variation on a theme we all deal with—to be human is really hard,” [Miller] says. ... As a disabled person, he was getting all kinds of signals that he was different and separated from everyone else. But he worked hard to see himself as merely sitting somewhere on a continuum between the man on his deathbed and the woman who misplaced her car keys, to let his accident heighten his connectedness to others, instead of isolating him. This was the only way, he thought, to keep from hating his injuries and, by extension, himself.”

If anyone ever got a coupon from Life that said, “Go ahead and mope. It’s ok to feel sorry for yourself,” it might be BJ Miller. But that’s not what he did. Inspired by great art, he applied to medical school and eventually became a doctor who specializes in palliative care. He’s the director of a hospice that specializes in helping people live their fullest life till the very end.

Abundance is not about believing in a prosperity gospel that says that if you believe or think the right things then you’ll have more as proof of your worthiness. Abundance also is not about having what you want. It’s about wanting what you have, savoring it, and making the most of it. Abundance is reinforcement that teaches us that when we live our life with this mindset, we dwell in the realm of possibility. Not “pie in the sky, wouldn’t it be lovely, if only possibility.” But rather the kind of possibility that’s a rich, fertile ground that produces more than enough nutritious food, and building and clothing material for everyone if we tend that ground with determination and love.

When we pay attention to abundance, it can lead us to feelings of gratitude and a sense of our inextricable interconnection with everyone and everything else. When we give or share out of a sense of abundance, it can lead to a great sense of well-being and happiness. In this practice we might discover what Thich Nhat Hanh calls our “Interbeing,” and UUs talk about in our 7th principle as “Interdependence.”

Awe - October 2017

This month's theme in worship and small group ministry is “Awe.”

What is awe, and what does this human capacity do for us that we can’t just do for ourselves? Researchers tell us that the hallmark of awe, which is rare and therefore wonderful, is that it redirects our attention and leaves us with a different sense of time. After a truly awesome experience, we’re less stressed and more tuned in to and appreciative of ordinary life.

Some believe that our capacity for awe begins when we’re toddlers. Around a year old, toddlers wobble when they walk. Six months later they toddle because they stop to investigate seemingly every flower in the garden, every paper clip and piece of lint on the floor, and more. As a result, we put small, or breakable things up high and plug up the electrical sockets; we want them to be able to safely explore the wonder of all these new and fascinating things. A day with a toddler is exhausting, but it also can leave you with new appreciation for life’s engaging mysteries and tremendous beauty.

Awe is a human experience that sometimes erases our sense of self. The “I” that witnesses something truly awesome absolutely is “myself,” but it’s not exactly the same “I” who experiences my normal, daily routines. And when your attention does shift back to normal mode, you might have a sense of feeling both small and yet of being part of something larger than yourself—an expanded sense of reality, consciousness, or the natural, physical world. Scientists report having these kind of experiences when they contemplate their experiments, as do other people who are just going about their normal daily business. And again, our sense of time is altered. We’re less stressed and feel less need to rush.

We can cultivate our capacity for awe by paying attention. We can learn from toddlers and scientists to pay close attention to what’s immediately before us, and what our senses bring us. When we do this we have an immediate experience instead of a removed experience filtered through our memories of past encounters. When we meet the world with this kind of fresh attention, we find that the world refreshes us in return. We’re less stressed and more present to our actual lived experience of life.

Maybe that’s where toddlers get their endless energy? Who knows? But to find out, I could begin by simply paying attention.

A Racially Equitable, Inclusive World - May 2017

We let go of "Engagement" as our theme for May 2017 in order to advance our work around Racial Equity and Inclusion.  We did this as our committed response to a request from Black Lives Unitarian Universalists (BLUU) to have services and a teach in about white supremacy systems, culture, and institutional behaviors.

With Hope for the Racially Equitable, Inclusive World We’re Dreaming Of May 2017

By now you’ve probably heard about enormous events at the UUA set into motion by a hiring decision that was challenged by a Latina woman. She had been told by HR that she was fully qualified for the position, yet was turned down because she “wasn’t the right fit.” This is within an institution that’s been intentionally working to be anti-racist and inclusive for more than 50 years. In the aftermath of her disclosure, and in support of continuing our important work, our President resigned three months before the end of his term. Two other senior leaders also resigned, and the UUA Board has appointed a three person team to the Office of the President until we elect a new President at our General Assembly in June.

Most significantly, leaders of Black Lives Unitarian Universalists have called on all UU congregations to use this disrupted moment as a critical opportunity to learn about the invisible ways that racism operates in our society and institutions, including our congregations. Almost 70% of our congregations, ERUUF included, have signed on to preach and teach during the month of May about the underlying, unconscious, invisible systems of power that make life work in favor of White people. When White people experience these benefits we call it “unearned White privilege.” When we talk about “dismantling racism” what we’re talking about is becoming conscious so we can dismantle systems that keep White people in power and People of Color out of power. These racist interlocking systems of power are what we’re referring to when we talk about “White Supremacy.” This is language used by anti-racism educators, and it’s the language that UU racial justice activists have asked us to use.

That language is difficult, yes? Yet, it’s an intentional choice, because language is a tool that we can use to effectively dismantle racism. Racism is dependent upon hidden systems of power that are like the 90% of an iceberg that’s underwater. What’s unseen is all the more dangerous because we can’t see it. The work is to get more conscious. Using language in specific, particular ways is one way to get conscious together.

When we hear “White supremacy” many people immediately think of the KKK, and that’s certainly real. But the KKK is only the tip of something like an “iceberg of white supremacy.” The KKK is just a part that shows. The reality is that there’s much more to racism than KKK members. It’s a whole system of laws, policies, and practices that shape our housing, education, health care, financial, religious systems, and more. Even more, racism isn’t only “out there” somewhere else—when we’re unconscious of it, we carry the system of racism within ourselves as a power that shapes and informs us about what it means to be a good person, a good religion, a good society. It’s the power that keeps all the other systems in place. So when we unconsciously go along with it, racism privileges some people and hurts others. This is what we mean when we talk about systems of White supremacy. (If you want to learn more about this, sign up for a Dismantling Racism workshop this fall at ERUUF.)

When you suddenly find out in person, or in an on-line conversation that things you’ve just assumed, said, and done all your life are not ok, are in fact harmful, it can be quite a shock and very hurtful. It has been for me. My immediate response at times has been to get defensive, even angry at the people who were suddenly saying such shocking things to me. I’ve long since learned that this is what it’s like for everyone. This is what it feels like as you wake up to the reality of the hidden parts of the iceberg. And this is point at which we have a critical choice. You can choose to get angry and defensive. Or you can acknowledge your hurt and choose to be curious and stay in the conversation, and engage in the work. Jacqueline Brett recently pointed out to a group of leaders that when we talk about “dismantling racism” we’re not talking about a weekend workshop that we check off our list. And Julia Tyler pointed out that this ongoing work of waking up and dismantling racism is our curriculum. When we stick around and have the conversation, it can be a way of practicing our faith, our UU religion.

During the last week of May (dates and leaders TBA) we’ll be offering some simple programs for adults and youth—starting with videos and discussions about UU history, eventually adding other experiences that will help us understand where we are, how we got here, and how we can create racial equity and inclusion at ERUUF and the UUA. In the coming months we’ll continue this work which we’ve been doing for the past several years. For instance, the board might review ERUUF’s hiring and employment policies, and make sure that ERUUF leaders, myself included, manage the power that’s entrusted to us in non-racist ways. They might change our Ends if they’re not as specifically as inclusive as they might be. We can continue to audit our worship materials and music, our RE curricula and discover as many hidden assumptions as we can and then make more equitable and inclusive choices. We can hold ourselves accountable to the spirt of love and justice as we discern it together, all voices, everyone’s experience included in the discernment process. This is our goal: to dismantle racism by becoming conscious of systemic power and our own roles and actions within those systems. And to build a world that’s more equitable and inclusive, more loving, more just. Make no mistake however. This is not just a little light dusting and rearranging. This is dismantling and reconstruction. There will be dust. There will be debris. There might be major changes. And at times we will freak out. What keeps us going is our belief that if we do this work, our community will be more beautiful, more fair, more inclusive for all.

I’m committed to continuing to dismantle racism first within myself, then at ERUUF, the UUA, and our larger society. But none of us got this way alone, and no one can do this work alone. We truly need each other to build the more equitable and inclusive world we’re all dreaming of. So, even if the thought of this work scares you, angers you, makes you want to run away, please bring your love, curiosity, commitment and hope back to the room, back to the table. We can begin again, as always, with love, and measure ourselves against what love is asking of us. We do this because a new world is urgently demanding to be born.

Transformation - April 2017

Does life renew itself naturally, or at times must we consciously let go of old ways in order to make room for what’s radically new? What’s the connection between transformation and healing? Is courage necessary for transformation, or does it happen despite what we plan and do? This month we explore what spiritual teachers, and our own lives, offer us about all this.

Mary Ann and Frederic Brussat talk about transformation as an active practice. They write, “The spiritual practice of transformation holds within its wide embrace the personal renewals that come with a spiritual awakening, a conversion, a mystical epiphany, or an enlightenment. It covers the deepening that takes place when we get in touch with our Higher Self or Spirit.

“Transformation usually involves the shedding of old ways, especially those that have become burdens. This practice proclaims that no matter who you are, no matter what has already happened to you, no matter what you have done, it is still possible to be and do something new.

“Transformation implies a marked change in your life, but you can practice it by making simple changes. Start by doing something different — walk to work by a new route, answer the telephone with your other than usual hand. Break a habit, any habit. Signal Spirit that you are willing to accept change in your life and to be an agent of change in the world.

“With transformation comes healing and wholeness. It's as if they had been waiting in the wings all along, until you made room for them on stage.

“Often, however, we aren't sure that we want this show to go on. The refusal to admit change in our lives is a major obstacle to transformation. We cling tenaciously to our habitual ways of doing things, thinking they are our only choices. We may resist anything new or different through indecisiveness. We waver, going back and forth between fear and doubt.

There is also a shadow side of transformation — recklessness where we keep pushing the edge. Here change becomes an addiction, and we race from one stimulus — or perceived panacea — to another.”