It is so true that the preacher needs the sermon at least as much as the congregation. At least, that’s been true so far in my baby-preacher experience.
For example, this past week, I preached (sermon to be posted soon – the audio is pretty quiet, so listening with headphones helps) about love and Earth. I preached about just looking and breathing and being idle in the arms of the Beloved. About how do-ing is not the surest route to love and intimacy, but be-ing is surely one way.
Meanwhile, I’ve had to cancel some plans I was really looking forward to this spring. Trainings I wanted to attend, social engagements with folks I miss and haven’t seen in a long time, a trip I wanted to take. And why?
Because I’ve been a human do-ing, not a human be-ing of late.
Until very recently, I’ve been burning the candle at all four ends.
Burning the candle down, doing doing doing, and not feeling satisfied with my performance or accomplishment or achievement with anything I was doing. Not feeling satisfied with school, with churchwork, with family life. And so focused on the achievement piece, the excellence piece, the no mistakes piece.
So a wise woman “prescribed” me naps. Naps and rest and downtime. And the ongoing practice of allowing myself Ten Mistakes A Day. Just to let myself be.
Just trying to Be allows me to Do more effectively and peaceably. But it comes so hard.
So for now, let’s just breathe. Let’s just look and listen and breathe and be.
Come and be One. Become One. Become. Be.
So long since I’ve been here. So long.
Let’s jump in!
First, I should mention my RSCC interview. RSCC = Regional Sub-Committee on Candidacy. It is the body that interviews Aspirants to the UU ministry to assess some of our strengths and
“growing edges” along our way. It is certainly possible not to pass the interview—that is, to be told you are discouraged from continuing ministerial discernment and formation. Generally, though, what happens is that you are either told to return in a year to interview again or are granted Candidacy (the next “role” in ministerial formation) right away. Either way, you get some information about how you come across, what the Committee’s sense is, and where you have gaps or growing edges in your development. Beyond that, and happily, you also receive information and affirmation about the strengths they see that they hope you continue to develop.
It can be a really nerve-wracking experience. In fact, the week of my interview, despite all the encouragement and reassurance I had received from friends, ministers, and fellow seminarians, I was a WRECK. I really had a hard time, and felt invited to look at that anxiety more closely. (But more on that perhaps some other time.) By the day before my interview, however, I felt much better, and I was even looking forward to it.
I had a great chaplain-companion for the experience. A good seminary friend, Sue, came with me, and was a lovely, grounding presence. We have similar ideas about preparation, being on time, and how to approach significant events. So her way of being centered and calm also felt really affirming and helpful.
I got to the interview, and things moved along. My chalice lighting words were about the life of discernment, about defending our traditions while tending our passions, all in the context of accountability to ancestors and descendants. Just three or four little lines, but it said what I wanted to say, and as soon as that chalice was lit, I knew I was in the right place at the right time.
The interview was a great experience! I enjoyed the folks who were with me, I respected the work we were doing together, and I really felt able to share myself and my passions with them.
I felt connected: We laughed together, we were thoughtful in our questioning and answering, we were there to do a shared work. At the end, I thought, Wow, I could do that again! Just for fun! And then I thought, very appropriately: Wow-even-more, I am a big dork.
At any rate, the “end” result—though not so much an end as an encouragement along the way—was that they affirmed my ministerial presence and identity, and recommended some concrete, specific actions for me to take in my formation. I left with a sense of elation, confirmation, and humbled to be part of this process of corporate/communal discernment.
It was a great day.
More to follow…
What the Practice Looks Like These Days
Over the break – from winter solstice to secular new year – I made a commitment to really strengthen and deepen my morning practices. I did my ten new goals with paradigm and guidelines, which I mentioned a few posts back, and the very first of my goals was to maintain my morning practice.
At the time I wrote the list, I figured I’d be doing my practice five days a week, you know, as part of getting ready for the workday. Saturdays are for sleeping in! Sundays are for church!
But then a couple of things happened. For one, Sundays became church-work as I moved into my new position. And Saturdays often now have meetings pretty early in the day. So Julie and I decided that the alarm needs to stay set at 6 for every day, so we have time to engage the practice that nurtures the day that unfolds from it.
For the longest time, I thought that the bulk of my practice needed to be silent meditation. And I still think that silent meditation is helpful, even key for my reflective life. Like many (especially extroverts?) I resist it. I find it difficult to do regularly, and when my practice consistently primarily of silent meditation, I practiced infrequently.
I came to the conclusion that I needed to keep silent meditation, but that it need not be the main body of my practice. I keep it because it is a discipline I want to encourage in myself, and because I know that it benefits my mission to be happy, fruitful, and wise. But it is no longer the whole picture.
First, there is breakfast, then coffee, and then my desk. At my desk, I settle in and write Morning Pages; Hello, Day! (see previous post); my goals and guidelines for the year; and any other preparatory writing that will explore what needs exploring or further set intentions for my day.
Then there is altar time. Time at my altar is varied, though it is always time at my altar. Silent meditation often begins my practice. Just a wee bit sometimes. Sometimes longer. If I play quiet music, I find I can sit longer. Is that “cheating?” I don’t know, but it’s part of my practice now.
Something I almost always do is sing. I chant or sing songs of opening, devotion, centering, and compassion. This part of my altar time is the most solid and can go on for as long as 45 minutes, though it usually lasts between 15 and 20.
The last thing that I sometimes do is work with Belleruth Naparstek’s Healing Journeys. Healing Journeys is a combination of music, guided imagery, and affirmations. I find them transformative when I’m using them consistently.
I’m also incorporating some yoga into my practice. More on that in a post to follow….the body in practice seems like a meaty topic in itself.
So that’s what I’m up to. What nourishes and sustains your unfolding days?
A New Practice!
Spiritual practice is something I’ve written about before, but not in a while. Furthermore, I see that Rev. Justin Schroeder, the senior minister at First Universalist in Minneapolis, is writing over at his blog, Wells We Did Nor Dig, about practice. I’m inspired! Not only that, but All Souls’ spiritual theme for the month of January is Presence, and nothing helps me be more present than my regular spiritual practice.
So what is my practice these days?
One part is Havi Brooks’ “Hello, Day!” (Havi does a ton of super-amazing, unbelievably stupendously awesome stuff – check out her site, “Fluent Self.”) I trust I’m not doing violence to her method — check out her site for more examples of “Hello, Day!” I include it here as an example of how I have been using it.
“Hello, Day!” is a way to plan-without-planning. That is to say, it’s a way to think about the upcoming day without boring, tedious categories or annoying structures that make me want to think about my upcoming day about as much as I’d like to get my teeth scaled.
“Hello, Day!” involves a set of simple questions about the day to come. Havi, as usual, has framed them in ways that are helpful, simple, and a bit whimsical. Here they are with examples of answers:
- What would I like from today?
- A safe drive where I’m going
- A fruitful meeting with the person I’m meeting
- Success in accomplishing my tasks around the house
- What qualities or essences would I like from my day?
- What is something nice I could do for my body?
- I’d like to do a couple of yoga poses to help ground me in my body.
- I’d also like to have a nice fruit salad for breakfast.
- Slightly future me has helpful commentary. What does s/he say to me now?
- “Great job!”
- “I’m so glad for you that you made this commitment to this meeting and followed through with it, even though it was scary.”
- Mini Very Personal Ad (answers are things that we’re looking for in a day, just like what one might be looking for in a partner.)
- I’m looking for a day of energy and fruitful conversation and connection.
- I’m looking for the energy and generosity to plan and perform the surprises I have in store for a loved one.
- Who/what are my Allies, Resources, Support?
- Fuzzy Self – my inner self who knows how my body is really feeling
- My well-maintained car that will get me where I’m going
- The person I’m meeting
- Slightly future me, who has reminded me that I have a tiara on all the time.
- My pets.
- My sense of energy in my vocation
- What could today be like?
- Today could have lots of great information, as well as a new sense of connection.
- Today could also have a celebration of a dear friend later on, and that’s even more connection!
- Today could be a really great day!
As you can see, “Hello, Day!” is a way to frame the upcoming time with intention. Intention is so important, and something that I find is often overlooked in UU circles. We talk about it in terms of how we hope our congregations will grow, but not enough (in my humble opinion) about how intention plays out in our personal lives. Setting intention can be an important part in preparation for any significant meeting, when doing worship planning, when preparing to speak before a congregation or any other group, when coming into any situation that may involve conflict, and when doing really any kinds of planning.
More later on this topic of planning as spiritual practice.
For now, what is your intention for the day? What are you longing for that you intend to bring into greater clarity and manifestation? Be intentional. Write it down. Then see what happens. Write that down too. Repeat as often as you’re able
This morning, writing my daily three pages of whatever comes out first, I considered the way disciplined routine shapes us. How movement—presence to the power of my body—teaches my body it’s okay to move. How meditation—presence to the moment alone—makes room for me to perceive what would otherwise go unnoticed. How writing in conjunction with meditation—presence to the page—helps me articulate what arises in me and what I perceive. And again, how meditation slows me down and helps me with that Northerly quadrant of the Witches’ Pyramid, the skill to keep silent. (The other three sides of the Pyramid are to know, to will, and to dare.)
Yesterday, talking with Julie, I found myself listening in a way I don’t remember doing before. I realized that there were about four places while she was talking when I would normally have said, “okay,” or “I’m not sure that’s true,” or “but…” When she was finished, she looked at me quizzically, as though to say, “What is going on?” I responded, “I’m pausing.”
Now, in this case, the Pause meant that I was both listening to Julie and observing myself and practicing waiting. I wasn’t waiting for what I was planning to say. There was nothing I was planning to say. I was just noticing. Granted, my attention was divided, which I told her, but it was new, an interesting step on my way.
I’m aware that in my quest to practice and internalize the Pause, I am going to have times like the one I’m describing with Julie. It’s going to take a long time before the Pause is just part of me, just incorporated into my encounters.
For example, I had a pastoral encounter yesterday during which I observed myself at one point sort of scotching my feet around. I became concerned about the time—I had nowhere else to be—and I felt uncomfortable with the conversational circles I seemed to be hearing from the person I was with. Was I being helpful? Was this conversation what they (the person) needed? Was the fact that I could not be of more concrete help really damaging to their process? What was it they most needed, anyway, and was I part of that?
Talk about not showing up! Again, another step on the way. Another place where I am learning. One of the things that sometimes concerns me in my growth in ministry is that all our learning happens with other people, and often other people in crisis. As we learn, we bump up against other people. But I suppose this is true in life and all over the place. There’s just this sense of responsibility—not duty, not obligation, but responsibility—of which I’m very aware much of the time. Sometimes, though, I can be, as I like to say, “invisible to myself” and just be in the moment with folks, and that is time of beauty and of love.
“You are trying to remember something
too important to forget.
Trees. The monastery bells at twilight.”
“Walk around feeling like a leaf.
Know you could tumble any second.
Then decide what to do with your time.”
The lines above are from the poem I posted earlier, The Art of Disappearing. Some of the poem describes a way of being I can only just imagine—turning away from someone who’s come up to me in a grocery store to say hello, for example—but some of it is so necessary, so close. Like a very slender, extremely sharp knife just touching a spot between my ribs. Pointing to mortality. Pointing to the silence to come. Pointing to my heart and its songs. And being beautiful.
I haven’t written here much at all over the last few months. For a while I was feeling really guilty about my “absence” from these pixilated pages. Since winter solstice, though, and since breathing in the Shihab Nye poem again and again, I have realized some things that bear sharing.
I try to peel open the still-green petals of flowers. I try to help the butterfly open his wings before they are pumped-up and dry. I sing my new songs, and just as I open my mouth and croak out the first few notes, I lose the tune, the words, the reason for singing in the first place.
I have what you might call a small problem with instant gratification. With demanding connection with other people. With distraction from the inside by all the shiny things outside.
It’s why I know enough not to have a television. It’s why I know that cross-stitch is good for me, its maddening slow progress. It’s why I think I really should check my email, say, two or three times a day. (These people who do it only once…well, I bow and kiss the ground.)
This malady is why one of my 2012 goals is to practice the Pause. Pause before speaking. Pause before sharing. Pause before suggesting. Pause before assuming that what has happened to me is “just like” what has happened to you. It isn’t. It is mine. Yours is yours.
You are the expert in your own pain. Teach me, if you’re willing. Let me listen.
Not only do I need to pause before speaking, but I need the longer, creative Pause. I need to let things rest. Let them germinate and take their sweet time coming up. I need to be still enough that I can notice when the dirt starts to move, just making room for the shoot that’s coming up. My breath and the breath of the wind will strengthen the shoot’s upright standing. The rain will water it. The putrefied, liquefied, broken-down bodies of those I’d lost and let go—so many—will give it more and more life.
One day there may be a flower. You may smell it if you don’t disturb the air too much.
One day, if there is fruit, I will bring a basket or perhaps the Dish—the tool for community sharing. Then, in the letting go, there will be some for everyone.
But if there is to be some for everyone someday, then there must have been lonely sidelong glances and focused cultivation. There must be waiting. And stillness. And silence.
The Art of Disappearing
~~Naomi Shihab Nye~~
When they say Don’t I know you?
When they invite you to the party
remember what parties are like
Someone telling you in a loud voice
they once wrote a poem.
Greasy sausage balls on a paper plate.
If they say We should get together
It’s not that you don’t love them anymore.
You’re trying to remember something
too important to forget.
Trees. The monastery bells at twilight.
Tell them you have a new project.
It will never be finished.
When someone recognizes you in a grocery store
no briefly and become a cabbage.
When someone you haven’t seen in ten years
appears at the door,
don’t start singing him all your new songs.
You will never catch up.
Walk around feeling like a leaf.
Know you could tumble at any second.
Then decide what to do with your time.
Hello, and happy Gregorian New Year.
Between winter solstice and the secular New Year, my lovely wife and I go through a process to plan our goals and guiding principles for the upcoming year. I posted my list here last year, and am happy to have another to post this year.Much, if not most, of the goals are things I’ve already begun, so they have some traction. #1, for example, is going very well this month! Supportive, interested comments welcome.
2012: The Year of Kindness
Everything I Touch is a Success
- Lean into routine
- Self-acceptance is the key to health. (Thank you Michelle Allison)
- Treating myself gently helps me grow strong.
- Maintain morning routine, including writing, meditation, song, and yoga.
- Embody beauty. (as though I can help it!)
- Independently plan, shop, and cook dinner with leftovers five nights a week. (My inner Nigella Lawson is QUEEN.)
- Work on the Super Secret Project.
- Practice the Pause.
- Save $XXXXX
- Do twice-daily timed tasks of tidying, once in the kitchen and once elsewhere.
- Read poetry every week.
- Preach seven times.
- Visit Portland.
Gentle, gentle, gentle.
More to come…
Yes, well, it’s been rather a while since I’ve posted. My apologies to those of you who are “regular” readers. The semester, not to put too fine a point on it, kicked me in the tuchus. There’s still one week of it left, but the end is in sight.
What else is very much in sight is the position I begin tomorrow as the Interim Coordinator of Pastoral Care at All Souls Church, Unitarian, in DC. Our minister of pastoral care and lay leadership left at the end of November, and we will be hiring a new minister by the end of the summer, maybe sooner. In the meantime, though, people get sick, have babies, die, get married, or just need to talk with someone at the church. So I’ll be there for them. It is not a minister’s position–given that I’m only halfway through seminary, that would be totally inappropriate; it is, rather, a way for us to manage pastoral care for the congregation while conducting a reasonable search in the meantime. Anyway, I’m SO excited. It’s going to be great experience for me, and a way for me to help the congregation, all at once!
In other news — did I tell you this already — my Career Assessment report came out beautifully. I mean, I’m far from a “perfect” human — no issues, no crazy history, no whacked-out family stuff — but if I were, I reckon I’d be a Stepford Wife, no? What I learned is that my understanding of myself pretty well matches the understanding of the professionals who worked with me, given all the data they had at hand and the conversations we shared. I learned some other things in the process, but it wasn’t the earth-shattering, OH NO, experience that I understand some folks have.
So now it’s on to RSCC stuff. I’ve written one mini-essay, and have another one to do. Once I’ve let go of them (which needs to be soon, since they’re due on the 9th of January), I’ll post them here so y’all can see what I’m claiming to be about these days. At least I’ll post the first one –What Excites You About UU Ministry? It was fun to write. I come off sounding like some kind of deranged ministerial cheerleader. But, well, if the shoe fits….
Blessings of the Turning Year to everyone, no matter how or whether you celebrate.
What follows are the beginnings of ruminations I’m sure will continue for a good, long time to come. Life, death, connectedness….I’m interested in what folks think — I preached this at the Sugarloaf Congregation of UU’s in Germantown, MD on 2 October 2011.
Part of the Big Picture
Last October, I stood near the bank of Laurel Run, the Chespeake Watershed stream that falls down Pine Grove Mountain to Slab Cabin Creek. I was in the mountains outside of State College, PA. My brother carried the box, heavier than you’d think with my father’s ashes. Inside, a clear plastic bag held all that we could see remaining of his body. My mother had brought cups we could use to scatter the ashes in the woods. I wanted to use my hands. I wanted to feel the smooth, sandy feeling on my skin. When I plunged my hand into the box, my mother looked away.
I carefully placed several handfuls beneath the laurel and the rhododendron growing near Laurel Run’s banks. And then I tossed some on top of some leaf litter. I looked and there were ashes under my fingernails. I tossed again. The wind came up just for a moment, and I was surrounded by an eddy of my father’s ashes, getting into my clothes, my hair, swirling around. I gasped and breathed in enough that I coughed.
It took me just a moment to consider how I should feel or react. Should I be alarmed or disgusted or freaked out. Or maybe have some profound, memento mori experience of remembering soberly that I, too, will die and dissipate into ashes and dust and pass into memory and nothingness. In the end, though, I threw my head back in the breeze and laughed. Just for joy.
My father’s ashes, my father’s body, some significant part of my father’s being, transformed by the energy of fire, was in me, around me, a part of me.
Today, I invite us to ponder the mystery of connectedness through the lens of death. Obviously, I’m considering these issues because of the personal anniversary I mentioned, but also, at the end of this month, we will celebrate the days of the dead, our ancestors – Hallowe’en, Samhain, el Dia de los Muertos, All Saints and All Souls…Let us prepare for those days as we watch the trees let go their leaves, animals stock up for their winter’s lean snooze, and see the ground soften under the rain before the freeze. The coming winter, like death, is not an ending, but a resting, another season of transformation.
Earth-based traditions have a helpful perspective on these issues of transformation. My dear friend, Jonathan White, is a Wiccan priest, writer, teacher, and social worker. At one point, discussing death, he said that part of what his traditions have to teach is that we are all and always part of the Big Picture. We cannot ever be parted from the Big Picture, and our existence is eternally meaningful in that Big Picture. This insight was a great consolation to me in my grief. We are never separated from anything else in existence.
Our culture has problems with this idea. From Christianity’s Paul of Tarsus, to contemporary secular understandings to many New Age doctrines, we learn that the body, especially in its soft, oozy, “ickiness”—most of all when it decays after death—is infinitely less valuable than the mind, less enduring than the soul. We can even say, according to Paul, “corruptible.” Paul is wrong here. The body is not corruptible in this sense. What do I mean by this? I mean that ickiness is not corruption. Decay is not corruption. Decomposition is not corruption. I mean that “return” to Earth is not corruption. What changes, what is transient or temporary, is simply participating in the greater life of the Universe. I argue, then, that the body is at least as eternal as any other part of human existence.
I wonder about the teachings that the saved soul is incorruptible and the body corruptible. Is the soul what we associate with consciousness, interior essence, or personality? We “lose consciousness” at death. Many religious traditions teach that consciousness moves on to another plane of existence, to a shadowy realm near us, to an intermediate stage between this life and another just like it, or to everlasting bliss or eternal agony. In whatever way, many religions teach that the part of us that is most enduring is that part that we cannot see or get a handle on concretely.
We are changed in death. We are changed every moment, and perhaps never more profoundly than when we die. It is the nature of life of existence, of matter; it is the nature of our energy to be changed and changed and changed again, always changing. Never destroyed, never called ex nihilo—out of nothing—into creation.
For example, it had always been the case that I was connected to my father and that I am connected to him now, after his death. It had always been the case that I had the shape of my father’s eyes and the color of my mother’s. It had always been the case that my hands reflected the shape of both my father’s and my grandmother’s before his. Laughing out loud, talking with my hands, falling into melancholy, there are countless ways of being genetically, environmentally connected to our biological parents.
That way of connection is obvious. Life continues. Those who have children pass on their genes and we know the story from there.
To take this further, we might refer to the book of the prophet Jeremiah, where we read that God knew us and held us and had all the bits of us in an eternity before we were born. There is no part us that was or is or will ever Not Be. No energy. No matter. Nothing. Everything that has been or will be emerged in that first flaring forth at the birth of the universe.
In the final analysis, we are all ageless.
But consciousness, we say. Consciousness is lost, and that’s the hard part, the part we most grieve when others die, the part we fear losing when we consider our own deaths. What do we lose as we cross the boundary of death, that border so fine and so definite?
Many definitions of consciousness talk about aour sense of our own thoughts and experiences in time. Significantly, consciousness relies on a separate “me.” An “I” founded on an ego structure that—of necessity—gives us a sense of separation. People talk sometimes about “higher” or “deeper” consciousness, or even “God-consciousness” when sometimes I think they mean innocence, lack of consciousness, or lack of self-reflection. Those mystical states seem rather a dissolution into the Great Sea that is God, the Cosmos, all energy and matter.
When our existence has more brainpower, when we “live” we find ourselves separate. And that separateness allows us to act on our own and other people’s behalf. And yet, this separation really is illusion. Is it not a trick—even if a necessary trick—of consciousness that makes us think we are separate in any way?
Even those of us who are embalmed and buried in cemetery rows, even we return to our tasks of existence, our works of cause and effect, of connectedness and no-thingness. It takes longer for our bodies to break down into our constituent parts, but even while we’re in that casket, we’re still participating in existence. And furthermore, Earth will have what is Hers. Everything emerges from something else; we emerge from ourselves and every other living thing. And not only that, but dead or alive, our actions have effects, our choices, our living, our breathing…and those effects spiral out into forever, one effect breeding another and another. Though our names pass out of memory, still we will in some way be changing the world.
We are all part of the Big Picture. Nothing, nothing, nothing: “neither height, nor depth, nor principalities nor powers” can separate us from what Paul of Tarsus called the love of God and what I might call the embrace of the Universe. Not only are we carried on in memory, in DNA, and in the effects of our many actions in life, but our deaths usher us into a continuing rich engagement with existence. Our deaths become others’ lives and those lives die and fade into new life, forever changing, moving, creating, and destroying and creating again.
There is more to the story. I return to that day last October, to the moments after we had finished scattering the ashes, on the land and into the creek, into the air and under the trees.
My father’s ashes floated down Laurel Run into Slab Cabin Creek, down Spring Creek to the Susquehanna towards the sea past the Chesapeake Bay. I could romantically think of them as floating out to sea, hundreds of miles away, and maybe some bits of him did so. In any case, what I know is that he continues. Taken up into fish, into soil, into my body, into plants and animals and soil microbes. Soil microbes who are, as ever, doing their work making the ground fertile, using countless particles—some from my father, and most from other beings passing from life into death and taken back to life. Nutrients pass into trees and fungi and flowers blooming in irresistible fragrance year after year… Giving, always giving, never separate, always a part of the Big Picture.