2016-04-28

Gifts of the Entire Universe

What is Blessing? part 2

Blessing affirms situatedness within a relationship of worth. To bless is to affirm the place of ourselves and something or someone else within the order of things.

In the Jewish tradition, the Talmud teaches saying 100 blessings a day over any little thing: a piece of fruit, a cup of tea, a sandwich. "Blessed are you, Yahweh, our God, Source of Life, who creates the fruit of the tree,” or “by whose word all comes into being,” or “who brings forth bread from the earth.” In this context, to bless the item is to say that God is blessed – and to acknowledge the source from which the item comes.

So the sense in which we say some object is a blessing, meaning that it’s a good thing, nice to have, is derivative from a practice of asserting that God is blessed. The object or event is a gift we have received for which acknowledgement of an ultimate source is appropriate, and in that acknowledgement, “blessedness” belongs to that source itself. Saying an object is blessed or a blessing is shorthand for saying it comes from a blessed – that is, divine or ultimate – source.

The Talmud goes on to teach that
“whoever has enjoyment of something from this world without saying a blessing, it is as if she or he had improper enjoyment of the thing – as if she or he has robbed the Holy One and the community."
Robbed. Receiving without blessing – without acknowledging source – is like stealing – robbing from the Holy One and the community. That's what the Talmud says.

There is so much that is granted, and we take it. If we take it, and it is granted, how do we not “take it for granted”? It’s a simple matter to pause and acknowledge the source – of the food you’re going to eat, of the house that shelters you, of the friendships that soothe and enrich, of the great green earth, clear air, and quenching water.

"Everybody is everybody else," as Roy Zimmerman sings, with his characteristic whimsy (below). And everything is everything else. Acknowledging the source means recognizing that the thing comes from, is produced by, all of reality. It means seeing the thing in the light of its place – its belonging – in the web of interconnection. In the Talmud, the broader whole is recognized in saying Yahweh is blessed. But whether you say “Yahweh” or “Universe,” you are affirming your and the blessing's placement – situatedness -- within a relationship – a relationship of worth, of meaning, of community, of nurturance and care. If you were to follow the Talmud’s recommendation of deliberately, consciously doing that 100 times a day, what would that do to you?

Blessing is about place -- your place within the interdependent web. Rabbi Toba Spitzer writes:
“…saying a blessing is an opportunity for a particular kind of awareness. If I were really to think about all that it has taken to bring a plate of vegetables to my table – all the natural elements of sun and earth and rain, and all the human elements of planting and harvesting and transporting and selling, as well as the Godly power that underlies the whole process – I would feel a profound connection every time I sat down to eat. I would have a better realization of the myriad ways that my life is intertwined with people all over this planet.”
Those are words that might also have been written from other faith perspectives. I’m especially reminded of Buddhist writings – Thich Nhat Hanh, in particular, who emphasizes mindfulness of interconnection. The mealtime blessing in Thich Nhat Hanh centers and retreats begins by noting:
“This food is the gift of the entire universe: the earth, the sky, and much hard work.”
The pancakes of which we will soon be partaking are gifts of the entire universe – the earth, the sky, a lot of hard work. Taking a moment to say so calls attention – awareness – to the vast complex to which we are linked through receiving its gifts.

The practice of blessing gifts such as food wears different guises in different faith traditions, but the universal need that such blessing addresses is acknowledgment, gratitude, interconnection, relationship. Blessing affirms and reinforces our sense of place within an interconnected network – a web of mutual care, a web that looks, if only we can attentively see it, like beloved community itself. Through blessing we help ourselves and one another see that web, realize the beloved community – to become aware of the beloved community is also at the same time to make it real.

In traditional Catholicism only a priest could issue an official blessing. Our democratic sentiments rebel against the idea. Still, I can see how in some ways it helped lend solemnity to the occasion. It signified that this blessing stuff was serious business. In the space of that solemnity, those present might more easily find their way to the awareness of interconnection and place.

Moreover, this human need to know our place, to feel ourselves enmeshed and held in relationships of support that ultimately include all of reality is not just a need that we have as individuals. We also have that need as faith communities – congregations of ten or of ten thousand -- to know and feel our faith community’s place within the broader network of all that is – a network that includes or emanates from – or constitutes – God. A medieval Catholic priest pronouncing a blessing upon the newly constructed village church may not have conceived of what he was doing in such terms of affirming and realizing situatedness within the interconnected web of all existence – but I think that, functionally, that was exactly what he was doing whether he knew it or not. He was helping situate his community within the vaster whole.

Turning from the Judeo-Christian tradition, a Buddhist practice is metta, generally translated as lovingkindness meditation. It looks a lot like what we would recognize as blessing. Typically, the way metta is done is that we sit in meditation and say some words of lovingkindness, first to ourselves, then others. Here’s an example:
“May I be safe from harm.
May I have a calm, clear mind, and a peaceful, loving heart.
May I be physically strong, healthy, and vital.
May I experience joy and love, wonder and wisdom in this life just as it is.”
And then we repeat those words replacing “I” with the names of loved ones, with the name of groups we identify with, with enemies or "difficult people" in our life, and finally, “all beings.”

Buddhist literature says:
Metta cultivates our ability to connect with and care in a rare unconditional way, for ourselves and others. Our hearts' capacity for patience, acceptance, compassion and forgiveness becomes boundless. With an inner and outer environment of safety our hearts and minds can open fearlessly. The result of this practice is an ever deepening stillness, from which the truth of life can be recognized clearly. It is a bodhisattva practice for blessing the world.”
Blessing the world.

Interconnection is the overriding reality, the “truth of life” to which, through mindfulness, “our hearts and minds can open fearlessly.” We are here to be with each other. Your presence is a blessing to this community. It’s a help and a boon to us, and it reminds us of our place in the family of things – our place in community and as community.

We come together to bring our blessings – the blessings of ourselves, that make this community what it is, and the blessings of our resources, that sustain this community. We receive blessings from community, and the biggest blessing we receive is that here we are a blessing to others. Blessed be. Blessed be indeed.

* * *
This is part 2 of 2 of "What Is Blessing?"
See also
Part 1: Blessing and Belongingness

2016-04-27

Blessing and Belongingness

What Is Blessing? part 1

What is a blessing – what does it mean for something to be a blessing? What is blessing – what are we doing when we bless something?

Blessing is our theme of the month for May. So, looking ahead to next month, I offer these reflections of help stimulate the sharing and the going deeper that you will be doing in your Journey Groups next month.

We bless God. We ask God to bless us. We bless each other. We bless food. We bless objects – boats, cars, houses, buildings. We count our blessings, and we count on our blessings.

We often bless each others' hearts, but rarely bless one another's spleen or pancreas. In the south, where I’m from, adding "bless your heart" will, excuse any insult: "Why he's just as dumb as a post, bless his heart."

Blessing is about place – being situated, located, in the context which fits, and thus belonging. Mary Oliver’s poem, “Wild Geese,” concludes with these lines:
“Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination,
Calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting,
Over and over announcing your place in the family of things.”
Blessing is all about knowing and affirming our place in the family of things. By announcing our place, those wild geese are giving us their harsh and exciting blessing.

This community, this congregation, is your place – at least for now on your journey through life. And this community’s place is with you.

Divergent faith traditions suggest a common idea in blessing of interconnectedness, of partaking in the significance of a larger whole through relationships of meaning and care.

Let me tell you how I came to explore the function of blessing – in this case, the act of one person blessing another.

In 2002, I was a chaplain at a large county general hospital in Raleigh, North Carolina. During the last three months of my year as a chaplain, I was assigned to the surgical intensive care unit. The nine-bed, surgical intensive care unit is for patients who have just come through serious major surgery – or they are in often-dire circumstances about to go into major surgery. For these reasons, about a half of the patients there at any given time were under heavy sedation or otherwise unconscious. Some of these could squeeze my hand if I asked them to – many made no response at all.

My job as chaplain was to make visits -- and to listen. That was my job. So I visited these sedated or otherwise unconscious patients – which presented a bit of a quandary. I was there to listen – but they weren’t talking. So: I blessed them. It started slowly at first – this is not something that came naturally to my UU-humanist-raised rational skeptical mind. One hand on their shoulder, just a couple sentences, log it as a two-minute visit, then on to the next room. Gradually, I found more words. Gradually, I grew more comfortable with more silence around and between the words – letting the silent presence be part of what conveys the blessing.

At some point I wrote down some of the typical things I would say, and this week I went back and looked at that document. I see that I used language from various places: the closing words they used every Sunday at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Raleigh, metta exercises from the Buddhist tradition, Max Ehrmann’s “Desiderata.” Certain phrases I’d repeated several times – for emphasis.

So let me offer to you this blessing, similar to the ones I gave those patients fourteen years ago. This blessing, though, is not so much from me to you, but rather among us – a small web for realizing our place in larger webs. If you and your neighbor are both comfortable doing so – and it’s OK to say no -- let me invite you now to place a hand on the shoulder of the person sitting next to you. If you and both your neighbors are amenable, you might put your other hand on the shoulder of the person on your other side. You might try closing your eyes.

As I speak, think of these words being your words flowing out from you through your hands into the people next to you. Be aware of the flow from them back into you.
Hello. My name is Meredith.
I’m here to say, hi, to be with you now.
We are here to be with each other.
We know our bodies are working very hard, even in our fullest health, to keep us going.
Our spirits our working hard, too.
Life itself is a time of great labor.
In this time of labor, may you know that you are good.
Know that you are loved.
Know that your life is a blessing unto the world.
The breath that you breathe – can you feel it?
It is holy breath. Holy spirit.
Holy spirit breathes through you.
Sacred spirit breathes you.
For you are a child of God.
You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars.
You are good.
You are loved.
Your life is a blessing unto the world.
And the kindom of God is within you. Within you.
The calm, abiding presence of the holy spirit is with you.
With you always.
May you have a calm, clear mind and a peaceful loving heart.
May you stay physically strong, healthy, vital, and vigorous.
May you be safe.
May you experience joy and love, wonder and wisdom in this life, just as it is.
You are good. You are loved.
Your life is a blessing unto the world.
Peace be with you.
And God bless you.
I don’t know which, if any, patients heard me. I don’t know what happened inside the patients if they did hear me.

Maybe the words and a sense of a presence zipped around some unconscious brain circuitry in there and stimulated something that looked like what hope would look like under a brain scan. I don’t know. In any event, I think the act of blessing them stimulated something that looked like hope in me.

Maybe at some unconscious level, some of the patients stepped toward realization of their place, of their belongingness, within the vast web of relationship. I know that through those experiences I stepped toward such realization. I had a very strong sense of being in place – right there, and through “right there” to everywhere else also. And if we are as interconnected as it felt at that moment, then anyone’s realization of that connection is everyone’s.

Blessing affirms situatedness within a relationship of worth. To bless is to affirm the place of ourselves and something or someone else within the order of things.

* * *
This is part 1 of 2 of "What Is Blessing?"
See also
Part 2: Gifts of the Entire Universe

2016-04-24

Prayer

"When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water,
and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.
I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light.
For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.” (Wendell Berry)
Dear Earth that brought us forth, whose beauty and wonder is all we know of heaven:

Thank you, Earth, for wood drakes and herons, and for the waters and wetlands that support them – and us.

Thank you for daffodils and bloodroot pushing up through ground that was frozen hard but never dead.

Thank you for all of your beauty, which is a grace, which is a gift we do not deserve and could never earn.

Thank you for trees. Patients in hospital rooms with windows through which trees can be seen recover more quickly. Patients in rooms without such a window, but with a picture of trees on the wall take a little longer to recover. Patients with neither a window looking out at real trees nor a picture of trees take the longest to recover. This data informs the mind of what the heart always knew: our health is in the presence of trees. We were made to be among them, their solid upright trunks, their fractal ordered chaos of branching -- standing, in winter, naked, patient, and enduring; donning, in spring, rich clothing of green; sentinels of peace, exemplars of simplicity, silently whispering, "wherefore your headlong dash? It is enough just to be.”

Thank you, Earth for all of your interacting systems, geological, biological, climatological, ecological. May we, your children, be able pupils and learn what you teach.

The grasses stilled with light teach stillness.
Old stones suffer with memory, teaching suffering.
Blossoms humble with beginning teach humility.
Parents of all manner of species secure their young, teaching caring.
Ants crawling on the ground teach limitation.
Eagles soaring in the sky teach freedom.
Leaves dying in the fall teach resignation.
Seeds rising in the spring teach regeneration.
Melting snow forgets its life, teaching us to forget ourselves.
Dry fields weep in the rain, teaching us to remember kindness. [adapted from Ute prayer]

May we, your children, prove able and grateful pupils of all your teaching.

2016-04-12

Prayer

"It is our quiet time. We do not speak, because the voices are within us. It is our quiet time. We do not walk, because the earth is all within us. It is our quiet time. We do not dance, because the music has lifted us to a place where the spirit is.It is our quiet time. We rest with all of nature.” (Nancy Wood, SLT #481)
Dear silence at the center of all,

You are there, the quiet behind the cacophony, the silence beyond the sound, the calm unspeaking awareness deep within all the words of self-protection from ourselves and from others. We would perceive your presence amidst the noise of our lives. From the silence at our center, there is peace. From the quiet abiding without as within, we are one.

From the place of love, we see suffering and rather than pushing it out of mind, we take in the pain, for only in presence to the hurting can we become a fully alive people of compassion.

Breathing in, we breathe in the world’s cries, its brokenness, its hurt.
Breathing out, we breathe out love.

Breathing in, we take in suffering.
Breathing out, we send healing kindness.

Flint, Michigan brought attention to lead in drinking water, yet this is nothing new. Children in minority neighborhoods have been exposed to lead from water and other sources, like peeling lead paint, for a long time. Black children have the highest risk of lead poisoning in the United States.

Breathing in, we grasp the damage and the injustice.
Breathing out, we orient ourselves toward compassion.

Immigrants seeking asylum face lengthy detentions in conditions that further traumatize people who have already been traumatized by the violence and persecution they fled in their home countries. Immigrants seeking asylum also have no right to a public defender, which makes a big difference. Mothers with children without a lawyer are granted asylum in 2 percent of cases, with a lawyer, in 32 percent of cases.

Breathing in, we feel their pain.
Breathing out, we breathe out love, resolving not to forget them.

Around the world, people are drawn to or pressed into violence and terrorism. Millions live in abject poverty, even as they look at the wealth which seems so far out of their reach.

Breathing in, their suffering is our suffering.
Breathing out, we are moved to respond in care and compassion.

Dear silence beyond knowing, guide our hearts and our hands, that we may be agents of reconciliation, of health and healing, of justice and peace in our world.

Amen.