Who Have You Buried?: The Meadow For Metaphor, 2

Regrets. We all have some. (I don't believe people who claim they have no regrets. Either they weren't living or they weren't paying attention.) What do you regret?

At the end of life: hospice and palliative care patients in their final day sometimes gain new clarity and insight. Australian nurse, Bonnie Ware, worked with many patients at the end of their lives. She asked them if they had any regrets or anything they would do differently. Five common themes surfaced again and again.

Most commonly, they say, “I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”

Second, almost all the men and many of the women said, “I wish I hadn't worked so hard.”

Third, “I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings.”
"Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were capable of becoming."
Fourth, “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.”

Fifth, “I wish that I had let myself be happier.”
"Many did not realize until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called 'comfort' of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content, when deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again." (See Guardian article HERE; Bonnie Ware's blog post is HERE.)
In other words: they buried away a part of themselves. Each of these five most common regrets involve burying a part of the self: the person you truly are, the playful person, the person who expresses real feelings, the person who maintains long-term friendships, the happy person. For Easter, I invite you to reflect: What part of yourself has been laid away in a tomb? What heart’s yearning got nailed to a cross of familiarity? What longing for wholeness and connection withered away in public view? What is your passion’s passion story?

We might find elements of our own story in each of the four Gospel passion stories.

In The Gospel According to Mark, there are three women:
"Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome." (16:1a)
They had
“bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.” (16:1b)
There is a tone of concern about how they are going to pull this off:
“They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?' When they looked up, they saw that the stone which was very large, had already been rolled back.” (16:3-4)
That’s not good. What are they walking into here? Have the Romans laid a trap to arrest more of the rebel Jesus’ followers?
“As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed.” (16:5)
Is he secret police? Is he a Roman agent?
“But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here.’” (16:6)
These words do not reassure the three women. They turn and run away from this creepy guy.
“So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” (16:8)
That’s how the Gospel of Mark ends: right there, with three scared women running away. They don’t tell anyone; no one else comes to check out the tomb. End of story. Most Bibles include a few more verses, which scholars say were added later. Originally, the Gospel of Mark ends starkly -- in uncertainty and fear. The last three words of the Gospel are, “they were afraid.”

Maybe the ethical movement founded by Jesus will continue. Yet it’s clear that fear of political repression will be an ongoing reality for that movement.

Next: Matthew and Luke.

Photos by mayeesherr

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This is part 2 of 5 of "The Meadow For Metaphor"
See also
Part 1: Four Easter Stories
Part 3: Matt & Luke
Part 4: You are Mary
Part 5: True Stories


Four Easter Stories: The Meadow For Metaphor, 1

An insightful and compassionate teacher was put to death. He died on a Friday, too late in the day to bury him. The next day, Saturday, was the Jewish Sabbath. Jesus and all his followers were good, observing Jews, so the body could not be properly prepared and buried on the Sabbath. They had to wait until Sunday for the burial. The body was placed in a temporary tomb – a small cave cut into the side of the hill. The doors were heavy stone circles that ran on a track. What happened next is a matter of some disagreement among the writers of the four gospels.
John: On Sunday morning Mary Magdalene went by herself.

Matthew: No, two women, Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary,” went to the tomb.

Mark: No, three women, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome went.

Luke: An indeterminate number of women – at least four -- went to the tomb.

John: She . . .

Matthew, Mark, and Luke: They . . .

John: took spices to prepare the body for burial.

Matthew, Mark, and Luke: Right.

John: Mary went in the pre-dawn darkness.

Matthew: The women went when the day was dawning.

Luke: (agreeing) When the day was dawning.

Mark: No. The sun had already risen.

John: When Mary . . .

Matthew, Mark, and Luke: The women . . .

John: Got there, she . . .

Matthew, Mark, and Luke: They . . .

Matthew: They arrived just in time to see an angel roll the stone back.

Mark, Luke, and John: They found the stone already rolled back.

Matthew: The two women saw an angel and some guards.

Mark: The three women entered the tomb and saw “a young man dressed in a white robe”

Luke: The group of four or more women saw “two men in dazzling robes.”

John: Mary Magdalene, alone, saw no one at all until after she returned from the tomb, and told two of the disciples that the body was missing. All three of them returned again to the tomb. They still saw nothing but linen wrappings. The disciples left Mary alone crying. Only then did she look into the tomb and see "two angels in white."
However we tell it, the tomb was empty. What had been taken for dead, wasn’t. And a whole new world of possibility was suddenly open.

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This is part 1 of 5 of "The Meadow For Metaphor"
See also
Part 2: Who Have You Buried?
Part 3: Matt & Luke
Part 4: You are Mary
Part 5: True Stories


Labyrinthine Lessons: The Half-Won Blessing, 5

Freedom is our half-won blessing. The first half is straightforward and negative (in a good way): no slavery, no masters or overlords, no chains. The second half is paradoxical. We arrive at liberation by accepting the constraints of discipline, by surrendering. By letting go and giving up, we gain. The first half involves being able to do what you want. But then you can become enslaved to your own impulsive wants. So the second half involves liberating the true self from the bondage of the desiring self.

The labyrinth is an exercise in freeing the true self by accepting the dictates of a prescribed path. When you walk a labyrinth, you wind around and around and end up at the center. Then take the path in reverse to go back out. Both journeys, the in and the out, are circuitous and terribly inefficient.

Notice the temptations, I said to the rehab group that I was leading on a morning's labyrinth exercise. It is easy to cheat, to step over the rows of rocks, to walk straight in. The labyrinth’s lesson is that path and destination are intertwined, they define each other. The destination isn’t the destination unless it reached by the needful path. Like Hebrews in the wilderness, you go around and around – often winding further from your destination rather than closer.

When you get to the center, I said, hang out there as long as you feel like it, then head back. Folks heading back and folks still heading in will encounter each other. This, too, is a lesson: we encounter people who are heading in an opposite direction from us, who we could bump heads with, who might seem to be heading in a wrong direction, but there is only one path. We go in and we go out, and if you are in a going-out phase and pass by someone in a going-in phase, rest assured your positions will soon be reversed. Practice the gentle grace of letting others by. And notice that, doing this, you may have to take one step off your path. Others can knock you off your path, but never very far, and it is always a simple matter to step back on.

I instructed them to hold their hands in front of their waist; to notice the rhythm of their breathing, and synchronize it with their steps. It helps the mind quiet, so the path can take over.

Then I stood by the entrance with my watch, and sent them in at five-second intervals. I went last, walking the labyrinth, as I have many times before, though never with a such a large group.

Afterwards we retreated to the sanctuary to debrief about the experience. Most of them had something to say.

I heard from them how they valued the experience, how they took to its lessons – though some acknowledged they had been skeptical and dubious. Some spoke of how, yes, their need to control had to be tamed, and how good that felt. They spoke of how the path was not always clear – the layer of leaves has gotten thick – but they let themselves trust the person in front of them, and how good it felt to trust and follow – to not be alone on this path.

One spoke of noticing how a few of their fellows had stepped over the rocks and taken shortcuts. He wrestled with judging them for that – but he said he knew that the judging voice was about him, not about them. I mentioned the little proverb, "whenever you point the finger at someone else, there are three fingers pointing back you." They all knew that one already very well.

They were so wise. I was moved and touched to be among them. It was clear to me how much they have learned from the hard work they have done – because one walk through the labyrinth will not teach such lessons except to those who have done much to prepare themselves to think and see and understand that way.

We all have our addictions. And we’re sometimes judgmental of others, of ourselves. Before us is a path of freedom from those constraints. Take it. Go. You are not alone. There are others on the path waiting for you join them. Go. Don’t wait for the bread to rise.

* * *
This is part 5 of 5 of "The Half-Won Blessing"
Previous: Part 4: Paths to Freedom
Beginning: Part 1: Bring Out the Festal Bread


Paths to Freedom: The Half-Won Blessing, 4


The chains that bind us might be anger and blame.

A few years back, I had friend, call her Gloria -- an activist. Gloria worked for good, for policy changes that would increase fairness and reduce suffering. Gloria had anger that took her straight to blaming and condemnation.

"Those people in that other party are evil, corrupt, willfully blind," she said. "Some of that party’s supporters are simply dupes – who are duped by the evil and corrupt others."

Her anger and judgmentalism were her bondage. It was hard for her to give that up, to be free of those chains, because she saw them as integral to helping the people she wanted to help.

So there’s that question: how would your liberation affect those you care about? Sometimes we stay in the chains because we think we need them to be of service.

Gloria was venting with me one day, and I remembered: it is often the case that anger outward is a projection of anger inward, that negative self-judgments manifest as negative other-judgments. As the saying goes: When I point the finger at someone else, there are three pointing back at me.

Gloria said, "Those people have no respect for other people."

So I asked, "Have there been times when you didn’t respect others as much as you wish you had?" Yes, there had indeed been times. Personal stories of regret and shame began pouring out. We’d made the shift from other-blame to self-blame.

The path ahead, to self-forgiveness and self-compassion and thence to compassionate understanding of others, including one’s political opponents, would not be easy. That liberating path would make Gloria a more effective activist – and certainly one who enjoys life more.

She assumed she needed her chains of anger and judgment to serve the causes she cares about. The truth is that freeing ourselves allows us to more lovingly and more effectively care about others.


A couple years ago I got a call from a director of a rehab facility for people in recovery from substance abuse. She asked me about the labyrinth on the grounds of the congregation I was then serving. Would it be all right to bring over a group to walk our labyrinth? Would I be available to talk about it with them and guide the experience? I said yes and a week or so later, they came.

There were fifty of them: men and women, rebuilding their lives, wrestling with demons that I can only imagine. Somehow, summoning courage that they wouldn’t have known they had, they made a break with their past lives, a sudden and dramatic exit from the comforts of slavery and addiction. They now faced the slow part – the rest of their lives, really – the wilderness to traverse, a new life of freedom to build.

We gathered by the labyrinth. I stood on a bench to speak to them.

The labyrinth is not a maze, it has only one path. Its lesson is let go of your need to control, trust the path, keep going. One foot in front of the other.

You must go into your center – wind your way in. You must find what is there.

And: you cannot stay there. You must return out to the world, bring the true self you have found back to the encounter. As Yeshua says in the Gospel of Thomas:
“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”
This was a group that knew a lot about what will destroy them.

Next: The Labyrinth's lessons.

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This is part 4 of 5 of "The Half-Won Blessing"
Next: Part 5: Labyrinthine Lessons
Previous: Part 3: Goldilocks Responsibility
Beginning: Part 1: Bring Out the Festal Bread


Goldilocks Responsibility: The Half-Won Blessing, 3

Goldilocks responsibility means taking the amount and kind of responsibility that's just right -- not too much and not too little.

In our last thrilling episode, The Liberal Pulpit posed these four questions:
  1. Can you make a decisive break with a big part of your past?
  2. Can you endure the sacrifices this will mean?
  3. What about the effects this will have on others?
  4. Are there others who can go with you on this journey, who can walk with you on the path to liberation?
The Passover story gives us a narrative structure for wrestling with each of these questions. The previous Liberal Pulpit glossed the first two questions. We turn now to the the third: what about the effects this will have on others? Are you just being selfish thinking about your own freedom?

In the Passover story, the Israelite quest for freedom involves an enormous slaughter of Egyptians.

The rituals -- the paschal lamb, the unleavened bread, the consecration of the firstborn -- probably predate the story and the story probably took shape around pre-existing rituals. The rituals account for the story more than the story accounts for the rituals. It is impossible to know
“how much of the narrative draws upon authentic experience and how much of it developed over time in relation to existing customs.” (Carol Meyers, Exodus, 2005, 92)
Whatever it’s source, we have this problematic story.
“The intentional destruction of innocent life in God’s slaying of the firstborn has long troubled readers of this narrative. What kind of deity was it, whose deed could benefit one group at the expense of others? Already in the early postbiblical period, rabbinic commentators sought ways to rationalize such a horrific act.” (Meyers 93)
The Israelites path to freedom came at the cost of this tragic slaughter of Egyptian firstborns. Is it worth it? What is the cost to others of your freedom? Should the Israelites feel responsible for this tragedy to the Egyptians?

It’s true that liberation leads to compassion. The chains that hold you back, more than anything, limit your ability to be present and caring to others. But might it not be better to try to work with the chains you’ve got, dragging them with you though they hamper and slow you? Put yourself in the Israelites’ position. You hear that a plague is coming, and to protect yourself, you put lamb’s blood on your doorway. Should you also be protecting your neighbors? Pharaoh got the same warning you did. He hardened his heart and disregarded it. Perhaps that's what all the Egyptians did. Let’s say you did tell your Egyptian neighbors to put lamb’s blood on their doorway, and they just wouldn’t do it. Now they’ve lost their child, and their grief is overwhelming.
“There was not a house without someone dead.” (Exodus 12:30)
What kind of God would do that? The kind that is the way the world is. There is massive suffering. It is more than you or I can fix. Your path to freedom occurs in the context of others' pain and loss, but your freedom is not the cause of their loss. To see clearly, at last, what we are responsible for and what we're not responsible for, is essential for freedom.

Perhaps the Israelites’ hearts went out to their neighbors. Maybe they asked, how can we help? They were told to just leave – which happened to be what they’d always wanted. If there is a path to liberation – going back to school, quitting your job, changing the way you eat, changing your daily routine to include journaling, study, and meditation – and you hesitate because of the effect this might have on the people around you – you might just ask them. They might tell you, as the Egyptians told the Hebrews, just go. Do it.

Fourth question: Are there others who can go with you on this journey, who can walk with you on the path to liberation? Here, too, is a lesson of the Passover story: Not one Hebrew ever walked out of Egypt alone. Nor could any have survived the wilderness alone. Freedom is a collective enterprise. We need each other to be free.

Yes, there is necessary work only you can do. You, individually, have to decide it can’t wait any longer, can’t wait for whatever batch of dough you’re in the middle of to rise. You, individually, must choose the uncomfortable path. Once you do, though, you don’t have to face it alone. There is other necessary work only we can do -- together.

That’s what a liberal ("liberal," as in "liberty," as in "freedom") faith community is for. It offers support – maybe some guidance, maybe some insight, maybe some affirmation and encouragement – as we wander in wilderness trying together to make our way to the freedom that is our birthright. You aren't responsible for everything -- sometimes you have to let go and let others manage on their own -- but we are responsible for care and connection to one another.

* * *
This is part 3 of 5 of "The Half-Won Blessing"
Next: Part 4: Paths to Freedom
Previous: Part 2: No Easy Thing
Beginning: Part 1: Bring Out the Festal Bread


No Easy Thing: The Half-Won Blessing, 2

Did you hear about the guy who was addicted to brake fluid?

He said he could stop any time he wanted. . . .

We all have our addictions. Whether it’s full-blown alcoholism or drug addiction or something we think of as milder, the key feature of addiction is that disconnect between what we want ourselves to do and what we’re able to actually do.

At Passover, we celebrate the blessings of our freedom and also reflect on what greater liberation would be. Pharaoh has many forms of bondage – addictions to video games or shopping or work or emotional habits of anger, blame, and judgment. What Pharaoh holds you in bondage in Egypt?

Freedom is ever the half-won blessing. Its unfinished work lies before us. As they say in the recovery community: you can be consumed by your addiction -- or you can be recovering. Recovering – but never recovered.

It is rare indeed for a human to attain complete freedom. New chains appear. Old chains return. And their constraints are often so comfortable, for a while. It’s no easy thing to commit to a path of freedom, of liberation.

Here are four questions:
  1. Can you make a decisive break with a big part of your past?
  2. Can you endure the sacrifices this will mean?
  3. What about the effects this will have on others?
  4. Are there others who can go with you on this journey, who can walk with you on the path to liberation?
The Passover story gives us a narrative structure for wrestling with each of these questions.

First, can you make the decisive break?

This is the "not waiting for the bread to rise" part. Even under the worst of conditions, there is some leavening in the loaf. What, give that up? Our addictions and our judgmentalism offer us creature comforts that are like a nice, hot yeasty loaf. What harm could it do to let one more batch of dough rise?

Is it really necessary for the sake of freedom that we make do with the blandest unsalted crackers? Yes, it is. At some point we have to say: no more delays, no more putting it off. That’s going to mean something that was in the pipeline has to be abandoned. The bread won’t have a chance to rise. Is that a reason to stay in bondage? It’s those little rationalizations that keep us stuck, isn’t it? Can you make the decisive break?

Second, can you endure the sacrifices?

Unleavened bread is nothing compared to hardships and trials on the path to freedom. It’s scary out there. The status quo has fierce armies to enforce its way. Days after leaving Egypt, the Israelites see Pharaoh’s army advancing on them. They cry out to Moses:
“Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, ‘Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” (Ex 14: 11-12)
Powerful resources are arrayed against you to enforce the old way. And you don’t have the resources you need to support the new way.

Fondly remembered fleshpot (pot of meat stew)
A few weeks after leaving Egypt, the people moan again to Moses:
“If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” (Ex. 16: 3)
The path to freedom is risky and uncertain. Can you endure the sacrifices?

Next: Questions 3 and 4.

* * *
This is part 2 of 5 of "The Half-Won Blessing"
Next: Part 3: Goldilocks Responsibility
Beginning: Part 1: Bring Out the Festal Bread


Bring Out the Festal Bread: The Half-Won Blessing, 1

Exodus, Chapter 12, verses 21–34:
“Then Moses called all the elders of Israel and said to them: ‘Go, select lambs for your families, and slaughter the Passover lamb. Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and touch the lintel and the two doorposts with the blood in the basin. None of you shall go outside the door of your house until morning. For the Lord will pass through to strike down the Egyptians; when he sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the Lord will pass over that door and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to strike you down. You shall observe this rite as a perpetual ordinance for you and your children. When you come to the land that the Lord will give you, as he has promised, you shall keep this observance. And when your children ask you: “What do you mean by this observance?” You shall say: “It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, for he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt, when he struck down the Egyptians but spared our houses.”’ And the people bowed down and worshiped. The Israelites went and did just as the Lord had commanded Moses and Aaron. At midnight the Lord struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the prisoner who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of the livestock. Pharaoh arose in the night, he and all his officials and all the Egyptians. And there was a loud cry in Egypt, for there was not a house without someone dead. Then he [Pharaoh] summoned Moses and Aaron in the night and said: ‘Rise up, go away from my people, both you and the Israelites! Go, worship the Lord, as you said. Take your flocks and your herds, as you said, and be gone. And bring a blessing on me too!’ The Egyptians urged the people to hasten their departure from the land, for they said: ‘We shall all be dead.’ So the people took their dough before it was leavened, with their kneading bowls wrapped up in their cloaks on their shoulders.”
The Jewish holy week of Passover began at sundown on Mon Apr 14. The celebration of freedom continues eight days, through the evening of Tue Apr 22. The first two days and the last two days are full-fledged holidays: the middle four days are semi-festive. The first two days commemorate the 10th plague, when the mystery beyond naming killed all the firstborn of Egypt, but passed over the Israelites: hence Passover. At this, Pharaoh released the Israelites from bondage. They immediately fled. Pharaoh changed his mind and went chasing after them. A week later came the episode of the parting of the Red Sea, commemorated the last two days of Passover.

This is not history. It’s a story – a narrative metaphor available to us, as it has been to peoples through millennia, for structuring the meaning we make of our lives.
"Bring out the festal bread and sing songs of freedom."
Celebrate and reflect on the blessing of freedom.

In parts of the world, full-scale slavery is still going on. If you're reading this blog, then chances are that you are not enslaved in that full-scale way and never have been. Even so, I would guess that there has been a metaphorical land of Egypt in your past in which you were bound and from which you now are free.
"Bring out the festal bread, and sing songs of freedom."
Yet freedom is the half-won blessing. Modern pharaohs live unchallenged. Chains still there are to break, metal or subtle-made. Resentments, small or large, bind us. A further Exodus awaits us still. And further truth, bright as a burning bush, cries to become known.

We (we who are not under an unrelenting grind of oppression, nor consumed wholly with mere survival) stand midway between full-scale slavery and full-scale liberation. The unfinished work of freedom lies before us. So
bring out the festal bread and sing songs of freedom.
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This is part 1 of 5 of "The Half-Won Blessing"
Next: Part 2: No Easy Thing


The Blizzard and the Rope: Friends Along the Path, 4

Consider this. Here in New York, we have emerged from what was a particularly cold winter, and especially a particularly snowy winter. But the winter we had here this year was nothing like the winters that frontier farmers on the Great Plains faced.

At the first sign of a blizzard, those farmers “would run a rope from the back door of their house out to the barn.” They did this because they had heard the stories of people – sometimes their neighbors – “who had wandered off and been frozen to death, having lost sight of home in a whiteout while still in their own backyards” (Parker Palmer). They knew they would have to go out – there were critters in the barn that required their attention – they could not shirk the responsibilities of care. They knew they’d have to venture out into a world in which they could lose sight of home. Hence, the rope.

We don’t face anything like that kind of blizzard. We face blizzards of another sort, as Parker Palmer notes.
“It swirls around us as economic injustice, ecological pain, physical and spiritual violence, and their inevitable outcome, war. It swirls within us as fear and frenzy, greed and deceit, and indifference to the suffering of others. We all know stories of people who have wandered off into this madness and been separated from their own souls, losing their moral bearings and even their mortal lives. The lost ones come from every walk of life: clergy and corporate executives, politicians and people on the street, celebrities and school children. Some us us fear that we, or those we love, will become lost in the storm. Some of us are lost at this moment and are trying to find our way home. Some are lost without knowing it. Some of us have just reached for the rope. Others are in the middle of the journey trying to keep hold of our grip. Others have just arrived home. My own experience of the blizzard, which includes getting lost in it more often than I like to admit, tells me that the soul’s order and life’s hope can never be destroyed, but only obscured. By the common compassion of friends, that rope is always close at hand, . . . offering, time after time, the chance to regain our bearings . . . and find our way home again.” (Parker Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness)
In the blizzard of busy-ness, we can get lost in our own backyard, lose sight of the way back home. Friends along the path can be our rope, our lifeline, helping us find our way out to do the service that is ours to do, helping us find our way back home again, helping us understand the ropes of life, so we don’t get lost even when they aren’t there.

The prospectus for "Journey Groups" at Community Unitarian Church describes the plan for launching small group ministry. Check it out (CLICK HERE). We have to do this because our mission is to nurture each other’s spiritual journeys and foster compassion and understanding. Each group needs a facilitator. The facilitators will start meeting with me this spring, training ourselves to be ready to begin our groups in September.

Our congregations gather to heal disconnection by nurturing each other in our spiritual journeys, fostering compassion and understanding within and beyond our congregations, and engaging in service to transform ourselves and our world. Journey Groups support our journey toward deeper connection with ourselves, with others, and with the mystery of life.

We are all struggling to find our ways home -- to what we care most deeply about and who we most want to be. Preaching isn’t enough. At least, mine isn’t. I wish it were. You need more than what I can give you. You need what you can give each other.

* * *
This is part 4 of 4 of "Friends Along the Path"
Previous: Part 3: Gotta Have Group
Beginning: Part 1: Nurturing Perfection


Gotta Have Group: Friends Along the Path, 3

Preaching isn’t enough.

Whatever I say from the pulpit on Sunday morning – no matter what wisdom and insight I, or any preacher, might be able to offer – and no matter how much beautiful worship music has opened up your heart to take in the message – that’s not enough. I hope that your worship experience helps, but it isn't enough.

"Paul" (not his real name) was a congregant of mine in a previous congregation. Paul had been a member of his Unitarian Universalist congregation for 30 years. I knew him as cheerful, upbeat, bright, funny, recently retired after a successful career. Then Paul lost his wife. She got cancer. The disease progressed slowly for a year, from all symptomatic evidence, then suddenly progressed quite rapidly and in a week she was dead.

I visited Paul when that loss happened. He was understandably desolate. Of course, he was. No one wouldn’t be. Six months later, he still looked and moved like a stunned man. At the one-year anniversary of his spouse’s death, I visited Paul. Those anniversaries can be tough. For Paul, though, it wasn’t just the anniversary. He’d been in the depths of barely functional devastation continuously.

The work of grieving is unpredictable, and it follows its own schedule. You never know when the tears will want to come. You’ll be in the kitchen and turn around and catch a glimpse of a bowl and suddenly feel slapped in the face or punched in the gut all over again. Yes, significant loss does that -- to any of us. If we’ve been on a spiritual path, if we have had a spiritual practice, have put in time studying wisdom literature, have a practice of journaling, of taking time each day for a period of stillness and silence, have reflected alone and with others on questions of depth, then we done some emotional and spiritual preparation, and we have some resources for rebuilding our life.

Paul, that dear man, for all the beautiful perfection of who he was, didn’t have those resources, didn’t know how to begin to find himself, had scant clue how to start slowly constructing meaning in his landscape of loss. An upstanding and intelligent Unitarian Universalist for 30 years, yet he was utterly unequipped. His congregation failed him. As his minister for more than 5 years at that time, I failed him.

Certainly, most Unitarian Universalists move through the grieving process, the unsteady and irregular rebuilding of life, meaning, and hope without as prolonged total devastation as Paul. But then most unchurched people move through the grieving process more easily than Paul. It made me wonder: What difference is our congregational life making for most of our members?

How can we better nurture each other’s spiritual journeys, better guide one another on that journey toward wholeness, integration, and wise cheer in the face of both triumph and defeat, better foster the compassion and understanding that both flows from and reinforces resilience and self-awareness?

It is obvious what the answer is. It is, in fact, kind of embarrassing to me to realize just how blindingly obvious the answer is. I spent a lot of years studying Plato, Descartes, Kant, Nietzsche, Sartre, the American Pragmatists. Then I spent some more years studying the great theologians. No one needs any of that to see the answer to this question. The way to nurture each other’s spiritual journeys is to get together and do it. We have to get together, and we have to get together in small enough groups so that everyone can be heard, so that the group’s members can get to know each other well enough to develop real friendship and deep trust, so that we can speak from our hearts and finally make a regular practice of hearing what our hearts have to say, informed by the hearts of our friends with us on the path.

The way to nurture each other’s spiritual journey is to get together and do it. It’s our mission, the mission of our faith, to do this, and doing it means small groups. Within your group, you might then explore something Plato or Nietzsche or Paul Tillich said about a significant life issue, but first you gotta have the group, and it needs to be a group intentionally oriented toward working on those significant life issues and led by a facilitator there to guide the process along.

* * *
This is part 3 of 4 of "Friends Along the Path"
Next: Part 4: The Blizzard and the Rope
Previous: Part 2: Paying More Attention
Beginning: Part 1: Nurturing Perfection


Freedom: The Half-Won Blessing

"Bring out the festal bread and sing songs of freedom.
Shout with the slaves who fled, and sing songs of freedom.
Chains still there are to break; their days are not finished.
Metal or subtle-made, they’re still not diminished.”

- Hymn #220, Singing the Living Tradition
At Community Unitarian Church, our April theme is “Freedom,” which aligns with the Passover celebration. We celebrate the freedom we have – while also reflecting on the “chains still there are to break.”

Passover this year begins at sundown on Mon Apr 14. The celebration of freedom continues eight days, until the evening of Tue Apr 22. The first two days are full-fledged holidays commemorating the 10th plague, when the mystery beyond naming killed all the first-born of Egypt, but passed over the Israelites: hence, “Passover.” At this, Pharaoh released the Israelites from bondage. They immediately fled. Pharaoh changed his mind and went chasing after them. A week later came the episode of the parting of the Red Sea, commemorated the last two days of Passover, which are also full-fledged holidays. The middle four days are semi-festive.

Celebrate, then, and reflect on the blessing of freedom. In parts of the world, full-scale slavery is still going on. None of the members of CUC are enslaved in that full-scale way, and none ever have been. Even so, I would guess that there has been a metaphorical land of Egypt in your past in which you were bound and from which you now are free. Bring out the festal bread, and sing songs of freedom.

Yet freedom is the half-won blessing. Modern pharaohs live unchallenged. Chains still bind us – whether “metal or subtle-made.” Resentments, small or large, constrain us. A further Exodus awaits us still. And further truth, bright as a burning bush, cries to become known. We (we who are not under an unrelenting grind of oppression, not consumed wholly with mere survival) stand midway between full-scale slavery and full-scale liberation. The unfinished work of freedom lies before us. So bring out the festal bread and sing songs of freedom.


Congregation-Based Community Organizing

Words of the poet Marge Piercy – which Emily Economou read last November at the service at which you installed me as your minister:
“The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.
I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.
I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.
The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.”
Work that is real. A person cries "for work that is real." Unitarians, Universalists, and Unitarian Universalists have understood that work that is real involves working for peace and justice.

Work that is real brings together our transformation with the world’s transformation.

Work that is real stretches us, deepens us – it works the worker into becoming a wiser and gentler person.

Work that is real makes the world a better place, but we must be careful to avoid the trap of thinking self-righteously and pridefully that we possess infallible knowledge of what is “better” and what the best way to get there is. Our knowledge is always incomplete. Our values are never the only ones worthwhile.

Work that is real becomes possible when, recognizing our fallibility and incompleteness and doubts, we decide not to let them paralyze us – when we resolve to move forward with our most thoughtful best guess as to what we and our world most need.

Work that is real is self-correcting. We don’t have to be sure we’re right before we act, we don’t have to get it right the first time, because the process of praxis is an ongoing cycle of action and reflection upon that action. With work that is real, because we cannot know everything beforehand, we learn as we go, acting in the world, coming together to reflect on the experience, modifying our approach, and returning to action.

Work that is real is central to the Unitarian Universalist enterprise. I was a teenager in the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta in the 1970s.
I remember a worship service put on by the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (those olive-drab field jackets!) and the subsequent anti-war demonstration which I think I was a part of. It’s what our church was about. And civil rights, and race and poverty analysis went on in my RE classes and I could see the adults organizing classes, rallies, marches, fundraiser benefits on behalf of social justice issues.

It’s what I always understood was an integral part of my congregation. Other kids didn’t seem to have that kind of thing going on at their churches, but when you grow up Unitarian Universalist in Georgia, you know you’re different.

Engaging in service to transform our world is what we have always been about. At Community Unitarian Church, our mission, which we did decide to accept:
Nurture one another’s spiritual journey, foster compassion and understanding, and engage in service to transform ourselves and our world.
Last week I talked about how we can nurture each other’s spiritual journey and foster compassion and understanding. Today, I want to talk about engaging in service to transform ourselves and our world.

When we adopted our mission, we were giving our articulation, our own expression to what we understand all of Unitarian Universalism to be about. Here we are, a Unitarian Universalist congregation. What does that mean? What’s the purpose of a Unitarian Universalist congregation? We needed to answer that question in our own words, and we did. And we surely got it right.

Unitarians and Universalists have been around for over 200 years in this country, not even counting our history in Europe. Throughout that history, our watchwords have been “deeds not creeds.” We have insisted that faith must be lived.

This church a generation ago determined that it was a nuclear free zone. The sign hangs in the back of our sanctuary, declaring, "This Is a Nuclear Free Zone." It was a stand against nuclear weapons. Of course, the likelihood that the government would ever want to put nuclear weapons where Unitarians might get their hands on them is vanishly small, but the point is we engaged with our world to publically declare opposition to nuclear weapons.

Engage in service to transform ourselves and our world. That’s always been our mission – now we have said so in those exact words. As Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams put it:
"The prophetic liberal church is the church in which all members share the common responsibility to foresee the consequences of human behavior (both individual and institutional), with the intention of making history in place of being merely pushed around by it."
Ours is a theology of engagement.

Of course, we are a religious community, not a secular activist organization. Seeking social change is a major part of what we do, but we do it always with an eye toward and within the context of nurturing spiritual growth and building relationships. Approaching justice work as an expression of faith means that how the work is done is as important as the end goal of promoting justice.

We do this work for ourselves – because being caring and engaged people is part of the project of becoming the people we want to be. This is about personal transformation. Our ability to create social transformation is linked with our willingness to go through personal transformation in the process. How can we expect the world to change if we’re not willing to?

Work that is real will stretch us, while engaging us in action and reflection that serves needs greater than our own.

Our best bet is to team up with others.

For one thing, we are small. Joining in coalitions to accomplish good work magnifies our number, multiplies our effectiveness many fold. For another thing, it stretches and grows us. Suppose we are working together with a group of churches that includes predominantly Hispanic Catholic churches, that includes predominantly African-American churches, that includes predominantly lower class evangelical protestants, Muslim organizations. We all care about jobs, education for kids, reducing violence in our neighborhoods.

We aren’t going to agree with them about everything. We aren’t going to see eye-to-eye with many of them about reproductive rights, or LGBT issues or gender issues. Those are important issues for us, and I would never want us to back down being active in those areas. So we need different coalitions to team up with for that part of our work.

The great advantage of teaming up with people with whom we have significant disagreements as well as significant agreements is that it begins to build bridges across our divisions. It gets us out of our insular circle and in touch with people from different walks of life. It stretches us.

I do want us to be allies of the LGBT community, and active in protecting and expanding reproductive rights. And I will speak and advocate for those issues at another time. But we can’t have all our concerns on the table at the same time – not if we’re going to get anything done. If we’re going to effectively stretch ourselves, reach out to those communities we are usually pretty well insulated from – if we’re going to build bridges across the divisions between us and people who are culturally different from us, we have to be willing to temporarily set aside our disagreements, learn from each other. Only thus can we work together on what we do agree on.

There is a relatively new organization in Westchester County, a coalition of faith-based institutions called Westchester United. (See the Westchester United web site HERE, and my brief introduction to what it is HERE.) It’s only a couple years old. It was formed by congregations who, like us, were struggling with how to become more effective, how to matter in the world and in our own hearts. Now it’s up to 20 members in the county. Four of them are community service organizations like Wartburg Adult Care Center in Mt. Vernon, the Council of Community Services in Port Chester, and Second Chance Ministries in New Rochelle. Sixteen of them are congregations: 3 Jewish, 3 Catholic, 2 Muslim, 2 Lutheran, 2 Presbyterian and 1 each of Episcopalian, AME, Baptist – and Unitarian Universalist. The Baptist and the AME are predominantly African-American congregations. Some of the Catholic parishes are predominantly Hispanic. The one Unitarian Univeralist congregation is the UU Fellowship of Northern Westchester in Mt. Kisco. I’d like to see all five UU congregations in Westchester make common cause with this group, work together with each other and with those quite different from us on issues that matter to all of us.

Our minister in Mt Kisco, by the way, is Reverend Michael Tino, a gay man married to his partner. He’s very active on LGBT issues, but he recognizes that those aren’t the only issues, and we make different alliances to be effective for different purposes.

Westchester United trains lay leaders and ministers both to discern and to act on the concrete needs of our communities, and also to develop our respective congregations. Westchester United has already had an impact in our county. They have orchestrated meetings with superintendents and police commissioners and built lines of communication that had not existed before. They’ve been instrumental in generating a bill in Albany to protect Kindergarten in New York, proposed in Albany; and we are working nationally for effective gun control.

Westchester United does CBCO – congregation-based community organizing. There are four major national networks of local CBCO associations. Westchester United happens to a part of the national network called IAF – Industrial Areas Foundations – the nation’s first and largest network of multi-faith community organizations. That’s worth mentioning just because it does mean that there are national-level resources for leadership and training that are helping our Westchester coalition be more effective.

A few basic principles of CBCO really appeal to me. People working together have the power to change their communities and their country for the better. We have to believe that in order not to succumb to fatalism. We have to believe that in order to carry out our mission to engage in service to transform ourselves and our world.

A second principle is the iron rule. We have a golden rule to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. In engaging in the work of service and justice, it’s helpful to keep in mind the corollary iron rule:
It is wrong, always and everywhere, to do for another what they can do for themselves. 
I first learned the iron rule when I was engaged in Congregation-Based Community Organizing through an IAF chapter in El Paso. These groups take the iron rule seriously. They are very aware of the risk that charity can create dependency, and they know that’s not the best way to do good in the world. Congregation-based community organizing isn’t about doing for others what they could do for themselves. It’s about removing barriers to opportunity so that everyone can do for themselves.

Congregation-based community organizing like Westchester United challenges people to imagine the change they can accomplish, connects a broad range of people and organizations to multiply their power, and helps mobilize people to make their voices heard effectively.

Congregation-based community organizing stresses relating, learning, and acting. "Relate, learn, and act" are the watchwords. Through this community organizing, we relate to people different from ourselves.

The method stresses building relationship, having one-on-one encounters to share with the members of other congregations. Most of us don’t know how to begin to start forming a friendship or a meaningful acquaintanceship with a member of a very different church serving a very different average socio-economic status. Through congregation-based community organizing, we are brought into the contact that allows and encourages and nurtures that to happen. It stretches us, and it organizes us with a larger group so that we can be more effective. That’s the amazing double-whammy of congregation-based community organizing: it transforms both us and our world.

Drawing on the proven power of person-to-person organizing, CBCO associations transform communities and build the local power necessary to create national change. You see, “Community organizing does not consist of deciding on an agenda and then finding the people who share it.” Instead, “The fundamental unit of all community organizing is the 'relational meeting' — a one to one opportunity where a leader listens to another person’s story . . . to learn what drives the other person." It’s a process that starts with training in listening and leads to “a culture where congregants visit and attend to each other.”

One of the wise tenants of church development is that a visiting congregation is a strong congregation. A congregation whose members are out simply visiting – each other, yes, but beyond that, are they visiting outside of their own congregation’s membership? If they are, that’s a sure sign of congregational vitality – and an sign of a church that is and will be growing. The community organizing model “strengthens and mentors leadership; develops a habit of inquiry; and always seeks to enable leaders" (De Leeuw).

In Community Organizing there is constant evaluation. Projects end when they aren’t working and there isn’t lay leadership for them. These skills developed can open up new energy in a congregation.

Gawain DeLeeuw, Episcopal Priest at St. Bartholomew’s in White Plains, who congregation is a member of Westchester United, has written about the experience:
“It is in our listening to each other that our communities become strong and magnetic. They cannot survive if we are merely sitting beside each other, with no awareness of the challenges our neighbors face. . . . Community organizing is precisely about reconciling ourselves within the concrete lives of our communities.”
Westchester United does ask its member institutions to pay dues: one percent of their annual operating budget. "Engage in service to transform ourselves and our world" is one-third of our mission," so shouldn’t it be one-third of our budget? Of course, Westchester United can never be the whole of our social justice engagement with the world – we have values that will require us to also work through additional channels. But the chance to connect with different others, to stand beside them to do work that is real – that’s huge. Surely, that’s revelatory. So maybe 15, or 10 percent of our budget? Not hardly! One percent.

For Father Gawain up at St. Bart’s:
“It wasn’t an easy sell to my financially precarious congregation. But — as we affirm in stewardship season—where our treasure is, our heart will be also. Deciding to invest in Westchester United has paid for itself, and our parish is even more dynamic. The training Westchester United provided has changed the way I work. . . . I’ve spent more time listening to individuals in the community—both new and long-time members—and less time in the office. As a result we now have more committed and more effective lay leaders. New members have taken ownership. Ministries have started without my initiative, with congregants now trained and confident to reach ou to each other. . . . In an age where our political system has lost relationship skills, perhaps we can show a way that both rebuilds our congregations and helps restore our diminishing public culture. We say we believe in reconciliation of the world. But do we risk it, or do we remain inside, thinking that because our door is merely open, the world shall be saved?”
I want you to get a taste of this work that is real. The next Westchester United Assembly is coming up in June. They’ll be selecting the exact date in a few days, and I’ll let you know. It’ll be an evening event, 7:00 to 8:15 or so -- to call attention to and stand for the issues that Westchester United is working on.

"The pitcher cries for water to carry and a person for work that is real." Let it be so.


Introduction to NVC (Nonviolent Communication)

If you're speaking, speak with intention to communicate in these four areas, and if you're listening, focus attention on understanding what the speaker is indicating in these four areas:

1. Observation - In a purely factual way, without judgment or evaluation, what happened?

2. Feeling - What is the speaker's emotion about what happened? (If you're the speaker, what's your emotion?) Paul Ekman has researched universal, cross-cultural emotions. His work identifies 17: amusement, anger, contempt, contentment, disgust, embarrassment, excitement, fear, guilt, happiness, pride in achievement, relief, sadness, satisfaction, sensory pleasure, shame, and surprise.

For beginners, a good, memorable starter list is these four: mad, sad, glad, or scared. Are you -- or is the person you're listening to -- feeling mad, sad, glad, or scared? These are the basic four, and in most cases one of these four fits.

Try to avoid a common temptation: to disguise a judgment about some other person as an expression of your feeling. For example, "neglected," "abandoned," "betrayed," "disrespected," don't count as "feelings" in the NVC sense. This is because the emotion that's present is being mixed with judgment about some other person who is alledgedly guilty of the neglecting, abandoning, betraying, or disrespecting. Watch out for those "-ed" words -- they tend to indicate a mixture of emotion and judgment about someone else. Instead, seek to identify JUST the emotion. Sticking to Ekman's list is generally good practice.

3. Need - In the context of NVC, we're not talking about something you'll die if you don't get. Rather, we're talking about a "universal attractant." It's a "need" if it's the sort of thing that everybody enjoys getting from time to time -- if it's universal. Forget about distinguishing between "need" and "want." Instead, the relevant distinction is between "need" and "strategy." Nobody needs pizza, but we all need food. Getting some pizza is a "strategy" for meeting the food "need." Once you've clarified that a particular desire is a "strategy," ("I want a red Ferrari"), then the question arises what need the strategy meets (ease, respect, self-expression are some possible needs here). This way of approaching issues invites us to open-minded consideration of alternative strategies for meeting our needs. In other words, once we see what we want as a strategy, and have then identified what need the strategy is designed to meet, we are psychologically prepared to think about whether other strategies would meet the need as well or better. (Or whether we can make our peace with simply not having that need met for now. Remember: Needs do not HAVE to be met. Even the food need can be happily left unmet by someone on a hunger strike for a cause they deeply believe in. It's just that humans are built to feel certain attractions, whether we might decide, or be able, to satisfy them or not. The things that all humans want are called "needs.")

Marshall Rosenberg has identified a list of needs -- i.e., universal attractants -- that is quite comprehensive, yet manageable -- he lists 77 needs in 11 categories. SEE HERE.

4. Request - Is there something clear and do-able that the speaker (or you) wants to ask for? The key distinction here is between a "request" and a "demand." The difference has nothing to do with what language is used or how polite or gentle the expression is. Sometimes you can't tell from hearing it or expressing it whether it's a request or a demand. The litmus test is: If the answer is 'no,' will the speaker (or you) be upset? The level at which a 'no' answer is perturbing is the level at which demand was present in the request. Sometimes it's a little; sometimes it's a lot. NVC is a way of relating to people in which the attempt is made to identify all "demand energy" that may be present, and, insofar as possible, let it go.

This approach to communication is called "nonviolent" in recognition that violence is any thought, word, or deed that treats a being like an object or diminishes a being’s sense of value or security.

The most significant contributor to the development of NVC and the founder of the Center for Nonviolent Communication is Marshall Rosenberg, whose work in NVC began in the 1960s. The best introduction remains Rosenberg's 1999 book, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life.

The website for the Center for Nonviolent Communication: www.cnvc.org.


Paying More Attention: Friends Along the Path, 2

We need friends along the path, nurturing our spiritual journey. A good group will foster you along an the arc of growth and development that will include a gradually growing facility with thinking theologically, living your calling and your ministry at home and in the wider world. You'll grow more familiar with resources for living each day with faith, integrity and wisdom; resources for dealing with challenges, tragedies, crises, as well as all the day-to-day minor annoyances; resources for finding joy in simple, ordinary life.

When the doctor reports that you have a terminal disease, or that your spouse does, or that your child, just a toddler, does, or when a natural disaster wipes out everything you have, or your house burns down, or a dear and longtime friend does something you think is a betrayal of trust, or you go on a trip and encounter – really encounter for the first time – people on another continent struggling with, and sometime dying from, hardships you had not before imagined except in hazy abstraction, it can jar the life assumptions you’d been taking for granted.

“What kind of world is this?” becomes a suddenly compelling question. And: “who am I in a world where this happens?” It’s a common pattern that only when an experience of tragedy and loss tears away complacency does a person begin a path of exploration that leads to spiritual wisdom, depth, maturity. It’s a common pattern, but it’s not the only pattern.

When I hear an adult’s anguished question, “What kind of God would let this happen?” I empathize with the harrowing experience of which that human being is in the middle. I also know: this is a person who hasn’t been paying attention. Had they been paying attention, they wouldn’t now be in such surprise and shock. I’m reminded that I, too, spend most of my time not paying attention, not taking to heart that nature destroys, sometimes as suddenly as a massive mudslide, and that random acts of violence and senseless brutality can happen anywhere, to anyone, even to me. I know these things cognitively, but I don’t really pay attention to what these facts mean, for if I did, my heart would never fail to love every precious moment, and would never be shocked or stunned when something or someone I’d habitually relied on wasn’t there anymore.

It’s a common pattern that a time of crisis provokes a person to a path of really paying attention. It’s a common pattern, but it’s not the only pattern. Sometimes a person embarks on that path before the crisis comes.

I’m sad that Unitarian Universalist congregations today do not do a better job of offering their members a common language of faith, a common set of stories, or a clear and systematic map for developing their own understanding of theology and liberal religion.

I’m sorry that, for decades now, our members have only rarely been provided with ways to engage their religious life at various levels of depth and understanding, and that, as a result, Unitarian Universalists, beautiful and perfect beings that we are, have not been developing competency in theology, familiarity with World Scripture, or the habits of deep reflection on themes of faith, death, forgiveness, hope, justice, love, brokenness, resurrection, gratitude, peace, grace, truth, salvation, evil, God, creation, mercy, freedom, redemption.

I’m saddened to notice that when members of our congregations have built up a toolbox of resources for dealing with loss, betrayal, addiction, evil -- a toolbox for building lives of resilience, presence, and joy – they mostly did it on their own outside the context of congregational life.

And I’m disturbed to realize that in 10 years as a Unitarian Universalist minister I have been so complicit in allowing this lack to continue.

* * *
This is part 2 of 4 of "Friends Along the Path"
Next: Part 3: Gotta Have Group
Previous: Part 1: Nurturing Perfection


Nurturing Perfection: Friends Along the Path, 1

On 2014 Jan 19, Community Unitarian Church adopted this mission:
  • to nurture each other’s spiritual journeys,
  • to foster compassion and understanding,
  • to engage in transformative service.
That is not simply this congregation’s mission. It is, rather, this congregation's articulation of what we understand to be the mission of all of Unitarian Universalism. If you have to move to some other city, and you join the Unitarian Universalist congregation there, you can expect that they, too, will be looking to nurture each other’s spiritual journeys, foster compassion and understanding, and engage in transformative service. At least, I hope that would be true, and I think for the most part it would be.

We needed to articulate our shared sense of what Unitarian Universalism’s mission is so that we can be guided toward doing what we think Unitarian Universalist congregational life is and should be all about: nurture each other’s spiritual journeys; foster compassion and understanding; and engage in transformative service.

In this "Friends Along the Path," series, The Liberal Pulpit will examine particularly the first two missional objectives: nurture each other’s spiritual journeys and foster compassion and understanding. Any group that makes progress in those two will also be more ready for effectively engaging in transformative service. And that service will in turn serve to nurture their spiritual journeys. Service will foster compassion just as compassion fosters service. Each of the three parts of this mission supports and strengthens the other two. Still, for now, we shall focus on the first two. In the next series, The Liberal Pulpit will focus on engaging in transformative service.

For those readers who are members of a congregation, let me ask: How is your congregation doing at nurturing its members spiritual journey? If you’ve been attending your current congregation for a year or more, have you, in fact, found that your spiritual journey has been nurtured? That is, in the last year:
  • Have you become more grounded or wiser?
  • Do you have any greater equanimity or inner peace?
  • Are you happier, more joyous, calmer, less irritable?
  • Is your emotional resilience or your self awareness any greater, your reactivity or your defensiveness any less?
  • Has your sense of connection with other people, your compassion and lovingkindness for others gotten any better?
  • Do you notice abundance more and fall into the grip of imagined scarcity less?
  • Are you any more present and any less distracted?
Maybe, in the last year, you have changed in these ways. If so, has your congregation had anything to do with that?

Let me hasten to say this: you are perfect exactly the way you are. Oh, sure, maybe yesterday you were adding up some numbers and got it wrong at first, or this morning you were typing a quick email, and your finger hit the wrong key – a typo. Our word for things like that is “mistakes.” Mistakes don’t mean you’re not perfect. Mistakes are just what your brain, or fingers, had to do at that moment. Perfection has a little randomness built into it because that’s how we learn and grow and evolve – just as the evolution of a species happens because DNA replication has a little randomness built into it.

When we can’t see any point to it, we name the randomness “mistake.” Fine, call it that. It’s all part of perfection’s unfolding – for perfection is not static. Rather, your perfection includes your arc of growth and development.

It is your being and also your becoming.

Perfection doesn’t mean that there aren’t those things we label mistakes, nor does perfection mean possessing every possible skill. A perfect flower is a perfect flower, even if it can’t dribble a basketball, or work a geometry proof. And you're a perfect you -- mistakes and lacks of skill and all.

The thing is: sometimes we all have a hard time seeing our own perfection – let alone other people’s perfection.

That's where we need friends along the path.

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This is part 1 of 4 of "Friends Along the Path"
Next: Part 2: Paying More Attention