2016-05-15

The Fourth P

Each one of today’s new members had a conversation with me before they signed the membership book. Toward the end of the conversation, I talked about the four Ps of membership. These are not requirements, and we do not enforce them in any way. None of the Ps stands for “Police.” We do not police our members to make sure they are doing these. Rather, they are the invitations of membership. We want your membership with this congregation to be as meaningful as it can be, and we know that you get out of it what you put into it, and these are the invitations to a membership that is rich and transformative, meaningful and significant. Presence, participation, pledge, and practice.

Presence. Show up. As the saying goes, showing up is 80 percent of life. Show up on Sunday morning, and show up at your Journey Group. That’s the invitation to be present.

Participation. Participate in the life of the congregation. As a member, you get a vote in congregational decision making. Once or twice a year we have congregational meetings at which the budget is to be approved, officers are elected, bylaws amended, resolutions adopted. Ministers are called – and may be dismissed – by vote of the congregation. We also have a variety of committees, and there’s teaching RE, hosting coffee hour, or helping with set up and clean up before and after events. There are "Days in Place" Saturdays, and an annual auction dinner, and brunches and concerts. There’s a lot to participate it. In particular, my hope is that every member will be on one of our seven social justice teams. Participate on the team at whatever level feels right for you, but at least be on the roster so you can be called if the team needs as much help as possible on some specific project it’s working on. Participate.

The third P is pledge. Pledge is a promise to contribute an amount that you decide to the congregation each year. We need to know what we can expect so we can budget for the year accordingly. Generosity is a key spiritual practice. I recommend giving away 10 percent of what you take in. And for the congregation, the guideline is 2 or 3 percent of your Adjusted Gross Income. The invitation to pledge is an invitation to do this thing that not only reflects the importance of the congregation to you, but also helps cause it to be important.

And then there’s practice. Signing our membership book puts you officially on record as a Unitarian Universalist. The invitation to practice is the invitation to act like it. Throughout your life, practice Unitarian Universalism.

If you were accused of being a Unitarian Universalist, would there be enough evidence for a conviction? Of course, once you join, there’s the evidence of your name in the book. There’s the evidence of your presence here, your participation, and pledge. But if somehow all of that were inadmissible, would there still be evidence for a conviction? This is the part of membership that is least visible to your fellow members – though it is the part that is most visible to everyone else in your life.

How do you live in a way that affirms the inherent worth and dignity of every person? A way that demonstrates justice, equity, and compassion? Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth? A free and responsible search for truth and meaning? Commitment to democratic decision-making and rights of conscience? How does the goal of world community of peace, liberty, and justice for all inform what you do? In what daily ways do you demonstrably respect the interdependent web of existence?

I want today to celebrate the ways we practice – practice our faith, practice our values, live the Unitarian Universalist way – in particular the ways we do it that I am not likely to see, the ways outside of this building, and outside of any specific program of our congregation. Some of it, over the last three years, a number of you have shared with me some of what you do – and I wanted to let that be shared more widely.

So I asked for input on how you carry out this fourth P, practice.

Many of you noticed that practice is not separate from the other three Ps. Presence is a practice, a discipline. Participation is a practice. Pledging is a spiritual practice, a discipline that deepens and enriches us. Some people mentioned lovely ways they participate:
“Bringing treats.”
And:
“I practice being a UU in my journey group.”
Several of us mentioned the practice of teaching:
“I practice being a UU when I teach at CUUC. I teach OWL because as Lara Campbell used to say -- I can save souls when I arm young people with the right knowledge to have loving and safe relationships (which may include sex).”
And:
"I teach in RE. What joy the children bring me."
And:
“As a Sunday school teacher, I joyfully embrace the "interconnected web of all existence," as I delight in the openness, trust and wisdom of these little ones who are beginning their exploration of our UU values.”
Beyond the ways we practice here, we practice our faith by undertaking spiritual practices, exercise, and keeping channels of creativity:
“I practice being a UU as a yoga practitioner. I practice being a UU when I compose.”
Our choice of career, choosing a vocation deliberately with an intention that work life reflect our values turns our careers into faith practice:
“I practice UU in the career I've carved out for myself working to inspire others to cultivate empathy and compassion.”
We practice our faith through the compassion of not endangering others – by, for example texting while driving:
“I practice, by making the smart and kind choice to be safe on the road by resisting the pull of the cell phone while driving. Phones are incredible and wonderful tools, but too often their presence in our lives removes us from the current moment and maims our ability to be maintain mindfulness.”
Some of you noticed that you were practicing Unitarian Universalism before you knew you were – but that your UU faith life has influenced the evolution of your practice:
“Generally speaking, UU principles are in harmony with many principles that I wasn't even aware that I had. But the UU principles are an important validation and encourage me to continue and expand my activities. It's hard to separate which came first and which principles have been newly adapted, though I suspect some of that is evolving with me. For example, I had reduced my consumption of meat before attending UU. At first for humane reasons, but have since found strong evidence to support that it's a healthier way to eat, and now I'm vegan at home and when ordering at restaurants. This is supported by the 7th principle: Respect for the interdependent web of existence, of which we all are a part.”
Practice calls us to our higher selves, but a little bit of not being our higher selves keeps us from getting too holy. As the previous member adds:
“Unfortunately I may stray when meat is offered to me as a guest, but it is a tiny fraction of what I normally consume.”
Many of us practice our faith by reducing our environmental impact:
“My concern for environmental issues is likewise supported by the 7th principle. I'm more mindful about using less, reusing, and recycling. I shop for environmentally friendly alternatives to many products that I buy. And my diet choices are better for the environment as well.”
Some of us practice by marching in demonstrations and public protest. Others of us don’t do that:
“I don't go to protests, but the principles are an inspiration.”
We also practice our faith through less strident civic engagement:
“I spoke up this week. I dragged myself to a school budget meeting.”
Or encouraging the engagement of others:
"I make it a point to vote in every election & I encourage my fellow UUs to vote. I've been known to send emails to people in my town when there's an election for a contested school board election if I think they'd like my opinion."
And:
“I practice being a UU when I stand up for others, when I am kind, when I am proud of how I behaved.”
And:
"I try to be nice to everyone - even the telemarketers who call me. They must have a difficult job."
And:
“Primarily I live in relationship with others. It is very important to me to demonstrate my care and concern for others who need support whether they have mental or physical health issues, grieving, homeless, unemployed. I have had friends who have had all of these life problems at some point. I cannot see a homeless person reaching into the trash at Grand Central and not do something about it. I believe we are in this life to support each other, and sometimes that's all we have. I believe it is my responsibility to help others in need whether its by making donations to non-profits or other, and I believe it is everyone's responsibility to do what they can for others. I believe that I need to speak up always in regards to racism, and to do whatever I can to work towards an unjust world. I believe that animals have equal rights to humans, and should be treated with dignity and love.”
Some of us practice by volunteering, by acts of compassion to both human and nonhuman animals:
“I volunteer in a public school, mentoring a first and second grader.”
Another member wrote:
“The Community Center of Northern Westchester meets many otherwise unmet needs of our local community. They provide food, clothing, and classes and workshops on everything from getting a job to basic healthcare. My family and I have supported this Community Center in significant ways over the past 10 years. Our children have organized food drives; we have helped stock the shelves of the food panty; every piece of clothing we outgrow gets a second life at the center; we donate money and routinely buy extra food when food shopping to drop off at the center. We actually see the impact we have as we warmly greet the people who are “shopping” when we are there. We are living our principles of the inherent worth and dignity of every human being, compassion in human relations, and respect for the interdependent web of all existence.”
Another member wrote:
“My volunteer activities embody my UU practice - in fact, I chose these particular activities at least in part because they offer a rich opportunity to live my beliefs. First, I volunteer one day a week as a pro bono attorney with Pace Women's Justice Center Family Court Legal Program, where I assist victims of domestic violence obtain Orders of Protection from the Court. This work offers me an opportunity to do far more than simply gather the facts and write the petition, but rather to meaningfully engage with women who are suffering from various forms of physical and psychological abuse in their intimate relationships. Over and over, I articulate and affirm the "inherent worth and dignity" of these women, and work with law students to help them see and empathize with their clients as more than the mere embodiment of the legal issues they are learning to identify. As a trustee of the [the town in which I live], I seek to "use the democratic process" in service of social justice (such as my commitment to Fair and Affordable housing). Inevitably, various individuals and interest groups have different stakes in the outcome of decisions the board makes, and I actively try to both model best fair practice and engage the community in considering issues on the level of "justice, equity and compassion. Ultimately, for me, these UU values are expressed in E.M. Forster's command to "only connect," and I strive each day to truly see each person I encounter, whether in the grocery store or on the subway or at the gala. I don't always succeed - and so coming to services on Sunday is essential to my own reconnection, ensuring that I have the strength to try again in the coming days.”
One member wrote:
“Daily I feed the last of three feral cats that I spayed and neutered 11 years ago. [One of them] comes when called.”
Another member shared:
“It's not something I do every day, but among the most rewarding experiences I've had at the animal rescue facility where I volunteer is when I can help a confused and frightened cat believe that there are people who care about it.”
And:
"I feed the birds & enjoy their beauty."
We practice our faith through neighborliness – at home and at work:
“Taking care of neighbors home and pet while they are away.”
And:
“Being copresident of my neighborhood association. Planning and responding to needs. Working with others.”
And:
“Remembering the religious holidays of all of my coworkers.”
Another member also spoke of
“Respecting other faiths and supporting their efforts to create a loving & caring community.”
Respecting, honoring, listening are ways we practice. One member wrote:
“How do I exhibit my Unitarian beliefs? Two words: Validation and Dignity. Like Steven Covey's famous mantra 'Seek first to understand, then be understood.' Everyone deserves to have their voice heard. Everyone deserves respect. Everyone deserves to know that their thoughts and feelings are being validated. It's not about agreeing, it's about listening and truly understanding the other person.”
So we practice our faith by honoring other faiths, other viewpoints. We also practice our faith by telling others about our views:
“By being active politically and speaking out on social media and to legislators on issues of social justice and environmental stewardship. By letting friends and neighbors know that I am a Unitarian and what that means. By inviting people I know to participate in our church events. By joining when possible public activities like the Climate Change March.”
We practice our faith through the joyful obligations of home and family:
“Loving and enjoying [a significant other]. Caring for our home and our life together.”
And:
“I practice being a UU as a parent, when my partner and I raise these three world citizens -- who question and provoke the world.”
We also practice our faith when we continue with obligations beyond when we thought we had discharged them:
“Opening the house to my challenging and under-employed adult child.”
We practice our faith commitment to a free and responsible search for truth and meaning by continuing to learn and learn:
“I’m reading The Spirit Level, about income inequality – recommended by the Social Justice Team.”
We practice our faith by giving ourselves reminders:
“Reminding myself that I’m privileged, have a quick and impatient temperament, and I need to practice compassion and patience and charitable giving. CUUC reminds me of a good way to live.”
Those who have walked this Unitarian Universalist path for some time find that “practice” becomes everything we do:
“Walking through the doors of CUUC week in and week out, I realize UU values have become part of every breath I take and the life the breath provides me with is to be aware on a daily basis, of how I can be more kind, more respectful and more just to the world.”
We come together here to nurture our spirits and help heal our world. We have ways we get together to do those things, and I'm all about getting together to do what we do. But let me never forget that the members of this congregation also do Unitarian Universalism on their own. We come together not only to do things together, but for growth and restoration so that we can live our faith out in a largely non-UU world for another week. Thank you to all of you who wrote in to share what you do, and to all of you who are doing equally fantastic things that I still don't know about. I am humbled and proud to be a part of such people as you.

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.