It is December now, which means we are well into a season of celebrations and gift-giving. If presents are a part of your holiday observances, please remember to add one more person to your list of gift recipients: you!
And (if I may be so bold and presumptuous), I know exactly what you can get for yourself; and that is the present of presence. This time of year is often a busy one, and the ‘hustle and bustle” seems baked in to the season. Amidst this busy (and sometimes frantic) energy, one of the best things you can give yourself is a moment of pause, a moment to be still, a moment to breathe and just be.
A mentor of mine taught me about two kinds of spiritual practices. The first kind she called “on cushion” practices, which are practices that you plan and prepare for, and build into your schedule to do regularly. “On cushion” practices are things like sitting meditation, yoga, and praying before meals or bedtime.
The other kind of spiritual practices she called “off cushion” practices, which are practices that you can keep in your back pocket and use whenever you need to ground and center yourself. These can be as simple as stopping what you are doing to take three (or five, or ten) intentional, slow, deep breaths in… and out. Another one that is popular among Unitarian Universalists is the metta meditation (also called the loving-kindness meditation), which you can recite to yourself: “May I be filled with loving-kindness; may I be well; may I be peaceful and at ease; may I be whole” (then repeat it, but replace the “I” with “you”; then repeat it again using “we”; on the last time through use “all”). This is a way to return our attention and our energy to kindness when we sense ourselves slipping into frustration and anxiety.
I hope this season brings you joy and peace. However, I know that there are more difficult emotions that come along at this time of year too. Whatever you are feeling, it’s okay. The best thing you can do is be attentive and notice, and then be gentle with yourself.
I am thinking of you, and sending you loving-kindness.
A farmer lived in a small house with his wife, many children, and his aging parents. The house was always crowded, noisy, and often messy. The farmer could never seem to find a moment of peace and quiet; so he went to see the rabbi.
“Rabbi,” he said, “my house is full of noise and mess. I cannot get even a moment of peace!”
And the Rabbi told him, “Farmer, you should bring your chickens inside and let them live in the house with you.”
The farmer did this, but did not find peace. Instead, the noise and mess got worse. So he went back to the Rabbi.
“Rabbi,” said the farmer, “I have brought the chickens into the house to live with me and my family, but the noise and the mess have gotten worse, not better. What should I do?”
And the Rabbi told him, “Farmer, you should do the same with your goat as you did with your chickens. Bring it into the house and have it live inside with you.”
The farmer did this, but did not find peace. The goat was not just noisy and messy, but also destructive. So back to the Rabbi he went.
“Rabbi,” said the farmer, “I have done as you told me. The goat and the chickens all live in the house now. But now, the house is not just noisy and messy, things are getting broken. What should I do?”
And the Rabbi told him, “bring your cow into the house to live with you, your family, the goat, and the chickens.”
The farmer did as the Rabbi said, and brought the cow to live inside the house. But the farmer still did not find peace. Instead, the house was noisy and messy, things were getting broken, and it smelled like a barn. So off to the Rabbi he went again.
“Rabbi,” pleaded the farmer, “I don’t think I can take it anymore. I have done as you told me, and brought the chickens, the goat, and the cow to live inside the house with my family. But every time I have done what you said, conditions get worse, not better. I cannot take the noise, mess, and smell any longer!”
And the Rabbi replied, “Farmer, go home now and return the chickens to their coop, the goat to the barn, and the cow to the pasture.”
The farmer went home and did this. And suddenly, his house was so much quieter and less crowded. He felt a sense of peace wash over him.
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I’m excited that we are on the verge of something great: being together again for worship.
And who would have thought that the prospect of simply going to church would be so exciting, or take so much time and energy to plan? Just 20 months ago, going to church was completely unremarkable. And now, the prospect of returning to our church building for worship services feels like a monumental task; and when we do it, we will celebrate it as a huge achievement.
We are going to do something that we have easily done before: we are going to return to in-person church. But like the parable, after a noisy, messy, destructive year and a half that really stunk, we are going to appreciate what we have with a renewed sense of gratitude. Enduring this pandemic has given us a new context, and a new lens through which to see our community.
Right now, most of my time, attention, and energy is going toward our reopening process. It seems strange to me that so much of my ministry right now is doing things my ministerial preparation never prepared me for.I’m looking forward to the peace on the other side of this transition, which is really a transition back to somewhere we’ve been before.
And, it won’t be just like it was before. We can take what we’ve learned (and dare I say, some of the things we liked) about our pandemic time (sweatpants all the time, less traffic/commuting, etc.), and keep them, even as we return to the things we miss from pre-pandemic times, like seeing each other in person.
We’re very close to taking a very big step. My hope is that we are back to in-person services (while retaining the option to attend virtually) by early December. There are just a couple more logistics to work out, but I assure you, we are working on them. In the meantime, just try to tolerate the goat, the cow, and the chickens a little longer. Soon enough, we’ll have our house back.
As we continue to search for a more normal way of life on the other side of this pandemic, it occurs to me that we are in a liminal space. “Liminal” comes from Latin, and means “threshold.” Physically, it is the space between two other spaces. But often it is used metaphorically to refer to transitional moments in our lives. It is where we find ourselves when we are neither in the place that we have come from, nor at the place we are going. Being in liminal space means in between, and in transition.
Liminal space can be very uncomfortable. Often, we don’t know what waits for us at the other end of our transition, where we will arrive once we have made it past the threshold. This uncertainty can leave us feeling anxious and fearful. The other unsettling thing about liminal space is the uncertainty around how long the transition lasts. Sometimes, we don’t know (as is the case with this pandemic). Not knowing where we are headed or when we might get there can be very uncomfortable.
But liminal space has a positive side, too. Liminal space often leads to opportunities and new possibilities. The uncertainty of liminal space also means that nothing is determined, and much more is possible than when we are definitively “here” or “there.” This means that liminal space often is a place or time for discernment, growth, and transformation.
The pandemic has been (and continues to be) a long, extended liminal space. We’re not intended to be her forever, and eventually, we’ll have gotten through it. As we navigate the late stages of this pandemic, may we look for opportunities and new possibilities as we spend our remaining months of uncertainty deciding who we want to be when we come out the other side.
As we go from summer to fall, the changing season reminds me of how beautiful times of transition can be. May the signs of autumn inspire us, and bring with them the comfort of our favorite fall sweater.
It’s September, which means our ingathering service is just around the corner. Ingathering is the time each year when we return from summer adventures, students prepare to return to school, and we ramp up our church programs and activities. It is a time of joy and celebration at our returning to community again.
I know it was my hope, and the hope of many in our congregation, that we would be able to celebrate our ingathering this year in person. The rise of the Delta variant of COVID-19, however, has made that plan unsafe; and so, we find ourselves preparing for a virtual ingathering for the second year in a row.
Though necessary, this is disappointing to many of us who were hoping to return to worship and fellowship in our beautiful building, and to see each other’s smiling, maskless faces. That day is still coming, just not as soon as we’d hoped.
This year’s ingathering also marks the start of my second year with you as your settled minister. And while it will be the second time going through the cycle of the church year, this year will still hold a lot of firsts. We still have yet to have a worship service in our sanctuary together. I have yet to meet many of you in person. I have yet to teach an Adult Religious Education class, or attend a potluck. Many of the tried-and-true ways of being together in community are not available to us right now, and so, in many ways, our first year together was just a “getting to know each other as we get through this weird and difficult time together” year.
The year we are now beginning together (albeit, still virtually for now) will likely hold more of the hallmarks, practices, and customs that we will engage in together for years to come. And so, I like to think of this coming year as our second “first year” together. We still have a lot of “getting to know you better” to do. We have a lot of breaking bread to do. We have a lot of learning and growing and serving to do. And we will. We will do all of these things in due time.
This year holds many opportunities. I know our hearts are ready and our spirits our willing, but our bodies are vulnerable. So we will wait just a little bit longer. And I know this: our patience will be rewarded. When we do finally have that first worship service in the church building, when we attend that first potluck, or sing together for the first time in months, it will have been worth the wait. Our sacrifice will be rewarded, and it will taste all the sweeter knowing that we did what we had to do to protect ourselves and others.
It is said that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, but that second step is just as important. As we continue our journey together, may our second first year hold much-longed-for reunions, many beautiful firsts, and abundant blessings for all.
General Assembly, the annual meeting of Unitarian Universalists from across the country to conduct the business of our denomination, usually takes place the last full week of June, and this year was no exception in that regard. It was exceptional for another reason though, because it took place virtually for the second year in a row, due to the pandemic.
This year’s General Assembly was the third one I’ve attended, and while I was impressed with the Unitarian Universalist Association’s ability to create such a huge event entirely online, it still lacked some of the magic of years past. (Nothing quite compares with needing a sweater in the summer because you’re in an air-conditioned convention center all day.) Usually, a different city hosts the gathering each year, and UUs flock by planes, trains, and automobiles to spend nearly a week in a convention center, busily moving about between auditorium-sized spaces for worship and business meetings, to smaller conference rooms to attend workshops, classes, and smaller social gatherings. And of course, the exhibit hall is always a great place to pick up the latest UU merchandise and learn about partner organizations. I’m looking forward to next year’s in-person General Assembly just down the road in Portland, Oregon to restore some of that “magic” feeling.
This year, in the lead up to General Assembly, one particular item in the business agenda seemed to get a lot of attention here at WUUC: the proposed Statement of Conscience called Undoing Systemic White Supremacy: A Call to Prophetic Action. Through email discussions and during a listening session after a Sunday service, our community shared thoughts, feelings, reactions, and opinions, and you listened as others shared theirs. Many of you spoke passionately, and it was clear how strongly you felt. Some of you advocated strongly for the statement, and some of you were opposed to the wording and/or the tone of the statement. And under those points of disagreement, I heard plenty of agreement on the goal of the statement: to actively oppose systemic racism and oppression.
In group conversations like this, I often remind people that the only mind anyone can change is their own. These situations tend to go better when we stop trying to convince others to agree with us, and focus instead on sharing deeply from our own feelings and experiences, and listening deeply when others do the same. Personally, in my own spiritual development, I’ve begun to practice Changing My Mind as a spiritual practice. To be more accurate, it’s really more about being open to changing my mind, and not as much about changing my mind just for the sake of it. It’s about cultivating a willingness in myself to let my experiences with other people have an effect on me. A wise colleague of mine, who works as a chaplain, once shared that before she enters a room to provide pastoral care to someone, she asks herself, “How open is my heart to this experience?” And mine is similar, but a little different: “How open is my mind to being changed?”
But ultimately, it’s an illusion. Because cultivating a willingness to change our minds is really heart-work more than head-work. It’s more emotional and spiritual than intellectual.
I can’t make anyone say or do or believe anything. However, I encourage you to try Changing Your Mind as a spiritual practice, and see if cultivating that willingness to open your heart and mind will deepen and enrich your life, as it has for me.
In the second half of May, Emily and I took Natalie on vacation through Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas to see my parents and Emily’s parents. We call it the Grandparent tour of 2021.
In the last few days of work before vacation started, I was trying to complete all of the church-related tasks I had on my to-do list so I could be distraction-free during our trip. However, as the last day of work arrived, I realized there was still more to do than I would be able to get done that day; so I decided that I would spend the first few days of vacation “wrapping up loose ends.” Well, as tasks often do, finishing one created another, and I never did get everything done that I had on my list. In fact, it got longer, not shorter.
A week into the vacation, I realized how the unfinished work was affecting my family. Not only was my to-do list keeping me from being with them, but even when I set the work aside, I was still distracted and thinking about what I needed to get done. It prevented me from being fully present with my family.
When I realized what was happening, I set the list aside, truly for (most of) the rest of our vacation. And I’m so glad I did. I got to see Natalie bond with all of her grandparents, try guacamole (she liked it!), learn to drink from a straw, and meet a cat for the first time. I got to be part of these precious moments because I put the list aside and decided to be present.
All too often, I find myself caught in the daily to-do list of tasks and deadlines. I find this is especially true in our approach to church work, teams, and committees. On the one hand, it is important to do the things we set out to do, the things we decide are important. Some of these tasks are the things that make our community sustainable. But sometimes it’s worth pausing and reflecting to decide if the deadlines we’re facing are truly necessary, or if they are self-imposed and more flexible than we believe them to be.
What happens if the annual meeting is in June instead of May? What if we take a month longer to finish a project, but it allowed us to bring someone to the table who wasn’t there before, and whose perspective was needed? What if a meeting was an opportunity to do something together, rather than a gathering to get something done? Can it be both?
Is our community oriented more toward getting stuff done, or about getting along? Can we find ways for the “doing” to enhance the “being”? We don’t have to choose “either or.” This is one of those “both and” situations. And striking the balance between doing and being is the business of being human. So let’s practice together, right here in our community. Let’s practice being present as much as we can, to each other and ourselves, right where we are, right in the moment. And maybe we can even get some stuff done in the process.