One should be light like a bird, and not like a feather.

One should be light like a bird, and not like a feather. — Paul Valéry

Our culture often condemns us to heaviness. The news media can weigh on our psyches with such force that life becomes a burden. Last night I dreamt that I had a lead role in a modern dance company production. I moved through space with precision, lifting above the ground with an exhilarating agility and lightness. Every cell of my being knew what it meant to fly above all that has the power to pull me down.

The second and third floor of our barn is transformed into a space where we can look out over the hills from every direction, where I can paint and dance. After graduating from college I moved to Boston to study mime. Modern dance was an essential component of the curriculum. While I found that I didn’t like to fabricate the illusion of a wall with my hands, I grew to enjoy learning how to spin without getting dizzy or falling. Discovering where music and the body intersected illuminated the moment. I found that I needed this radiance that brought joy to my mind, body and spirit. This remains true.

When despair weighs me down I can raise myself from gloom by allowing the flow of music to lift me up. If I release to its pull, eventually and amazingly every bit of me feels liberated. On top of Flower Power Hill the wind, crows cawing, the rushing clouds and the sweep of the land elevates me up and out. The coyotes find my leaping amusing and sometimes lend their voice to the scene. Most men find this kind of expression unmanly. I would suggest such feelings trap one in a density that limits access to beauty and a living affinity with wind, fire, water and earth.

Life is too short to worry so much about what other people think. When I walk with Poppy over the hills, I often flap my arms like an osprey. It rushes me into childishness. Isadora Duncan, the great expressive dancer, believed that most people learn to tightly regulate their range of motion as they age. Adults forget the bliss of skipping, moving with the rhythmic power of the waves or breeze or flickering fire. The lack of fluidity in the body leads to a life that becomes unnecessarily rigid. While I might look ludicrous to many people, I value my freedom more than always projecting a stately image of a 61-year-old white man who happens to be a minister.

If the free expression of your body embarrasses you, find a private place and let loose!

Happy Springing,

Michael

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How are ordinary people persuaded to comply passively with injustice …

Taking the bus, which costs about a dime, after listening to Càntor, Ensamble de música antigua perform Vivaldi, Bach, Telemann, Handel and Hayden at the Gene Byron Museum, the woman in front of me turned around and we talked. We met at the reception after the concert in the courtyard of the magnificent hacienda. I recalled her from the Guanajuato monthly public reading series Chuck and I participate in. She read from the end of a play her husband, Thomas M Robinson, professor emeritus of Ancient Greek Philosophy at the University of Toronto, wrote. The scene reveals a deep and complex relationship between Socrates and Aspasia. She was a companion of Pericles, known for her intellectual prowess and for running the best whorehouse in Athens. Dr Robinson believes the conversations between Socrates and Aspasia influenced Socrates’ thinking a great deal. I did as well by the end of the scene.

We chatted away. I blithely asked, “What is your name?” She replied, “Erna Paris.” “What a wonderful name! Did you make it up?” Her glance made me wonder if I’d just bumbled a bit. She said, “No, my first husband from Paris, was also named Paris. I could give him up, but not that name.” I then asked if she wrote. She let me know that, actually, she wrote a lot. Her book, From Tolerance to Tyranny: A Cautionary Tale from Fifteenth-Century Spain, had just been released. We talked about how for 700 years Spain had been a very good example of how Muslims, Jews and Christians could live in productive peace with one another. She is intensely interested in understanding what promotes the kind of integration of diversity that goes beyond acceptance to a place where deep interconnection occurs and further, what destroys or prevents harmonious relations between diverse peoples.

Erna asked me what I did. “I’m a Unitarian Universalist minister.” She said, “We are on the same side.” I said, “Yes, we are.”

That evening, I Googled Erna and found that she has a distinguished international career as a historian, writer and political commentator. In an interview in the Ottawa Citizen, January 20, 2015, she said, “The most elusive question about tyranny is this: How are ordinary people persuaded to comply passively with injustice, or to take the next step and actively turn on neighbors with whom they may have lived in peace for decades, or even centuries? A devalued, marginalized minority seems to be the key. By being exposed to a continuum of propaganda, decent human beings are transformed and desensitized.”

We talked freely, in part because we share the same progressive aspirations and both enjoy a good chat; the kind that keeps you keen for those odd intersections that reveal life’s rich possibilities. It nudges me to let serendipity do its unexpected work and to value the lives of strangers.

Let the sun shine in,

Michael

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“Way up north in Marysville.” …

Guest column by Elizabeth Skinner

Michael Nelson suggested I write a piece about how the Fellowship and its progressive faith and voice make a difference “way up north in Marysville.” He may have been thinking of a UU effect on the larger community, but my thoughts on this matter focus more on the individual and personal.
I live in Marysville, 60 miles north of Manhattan. I moved here 20 years ago from the Washington, DC, area. I was ready for a change and my elderly mother needed a family member nearby. I have stayed because I feel a strong connection here in my home county with the land, the history, the many reminders of my forebears.

Back in the Washington suburbs, I had been an active UU, and took it for granted that I would continue. I joined the Manhattan Fellowship because it was the closest UU church to Marysville. I underestimated how important this connection would become.

It took a while to realize how deep religious conservatism runs in this corner of northeastern Kansas. My fellow citizens know that I go to church in Manhattan but rarely ask for details. Occasionally I attend services (when there’s special music) and funerals in Marysville churches, but I keep quiet about my own spiritual views. I don’t have the right personality for proselytizing (and that’s not a UU thing anyway). And there is little interest or curiosity on the other side. When it comes to my spiritual beliefs, “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” pretty much sums up the situation. In 20 years, I have been asked only twice what Unitarians believe. In both instances the responses to my brief “elevator speech” narrowed in immediately on the afterlife. “But you do believe in heaven, don’t you?” “Well, it makes me sad to think that I won’t see you in heaven.”

UUFM’s recent discussions about growing its membership and playing a more important role in the Manhattan community are exciting and I support these goals. But on a more personal level, the very existence of UUFM–just as it is now, even 60 miles away, even when I don’t attend often– sustains me and helps me feel less spiritually isolated. The listserv, the website, the archives of services available for download, the occasional calls and visits from Michael and others–all are sustaining. They connect me with a community of people with wider views of the world–more open, more questioning, and more tolerant.

Elizabeth Skinner is a longtime member of UUFM, combining her special talents and contributions with those of other members and friends, to create a liberal, vibrant, supportive spiritual community for all in northeast Kansas.

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The wonder of seeing all the candles …

candles 2015The wonder of seeing all the candles shining in the darkness at our Christmas Eve service will lift me into this New Year with gratitude for the goodness that shines out from the life of our Fellowship. My mother felt that the service was “homey” and was pleased to feel at home–inspired and glad. She carries the glow of all the gathered candles in her heart. This helps her to feel less isolated from the human family. Her increasing frailty sometimes makes her less able to maintain and build new connections with society. Experiencing wonder links the old and the young.

The magic of fire, how it illuminates the primal, brings us inside the sun. Once inside, I can feel the warmth of love radiate out. This is what makes us go round and round. The orbit of our individual lives that from some magnificent perspective, becomes inseparable from all the other lives. Essential truth sparks and we can see the trajectory of human history. Here we are, each of us an integral part of the mystery and all those who seek specific, broad and profound understanding of what it means to be here. This is how magic works. It lets you see, without necessarily seeing all the dots, how the little connections are part of infinity. You feel it in these small and glorious moments.

In the New Year, may we have many visionary moments when the world makes sense and we can see how we are a part of the whole. May this coherence bring us the courage we need to build the bridges across the rivers of indifference; the indifference that makes oppression, violence, and racial injustice so prevalent in our society. May it also bring the laughter we need to keep our spirits fresh and vital. May there be many moments of play to help us remember what it means to be fully human.

May this be a daring and adventurous year for the Fellowship. May there be plenty of peace to help us to appreciate the quiet moments when awe has a chance to amaze. Let us amaze one another!

Happy New Year!

Michael

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Maybe December is a month when we can slow down …

tawny-prairieMaybe December is a month when we can slow down instead of speeding up. Do one less thing and not one more. Why not take a nap? Let memories drift like fat, lazy snowflakes across the landscape of your life.

Make a wish list that encourages dreaming; the act of slipping into the world of marvels.

Why not drive leisurely through the tawny flanks of the Flint Hills? Stop. Look. Get out and stretch your arms up to the sky. Breathe in the sweet and pungent prairie air. Let this remind you of your natural beauty, your innate goodness, how much you do care about the well being of all people.

Spot a bald eagle flying over the Kaw.

Find a book you can’t put down, and don’t put it down.

Let your childhood innocence creep back into those dark pockets of despair.

Seek the intersection where the smallest thing sparks your imagination wide.

Find new ways to encourage yourself and others.

Cradle an egg, think and feel: MIRACLE! Know it.

Find something to be grateful for every day. Better yet, 3 times a day. Morning, noon and night, thankfulness–a good practice when cynicism makes you weary and wary.

As the darkness lengthens, remember to appreciate your home, warm bed, electricity, running and drinkable water, food that is safe and healthy to eat.

Watch a hilarious movie. If you are not laughing every day, do what you need to do to change that. FUN is not a fourletter word.

Practice your Unitarian and Universalist values by honoring the oneness of our existence. Meditate on a vision that sees everyone as worthy of love. Start with yourself and extend your reach out of your private circles. Dance, yes dance the dance that saves us all.

Help love go round and round touching everything with its live giving quality!

bald-eagle

If you think this is nonsense, just a bunch of fluff, try lightening up. Lay your burdens down. When the work of being human leavens into play, then we have healthy energy to do more good in this world. Joy has much more power than anger to heal the wounded. And we know there is much healing to be done in the world we live in.

May you have many moments of sweetness and light! Forget irony for a day or two. The term “sweetness and light,” used by Matthew Arnold, had a special use in literary and cultural criticism. It meant “pleasing and instructive.” Aim high, reach for beauty, take it in, and share it.

Michael (trying to be his best)

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The mellow flicker in the graveyards is not spooky …

One celebrates their ancestors in Sweden on All Soul’s Day by putting votive candles on their graves. Halloween in Sweden is seen as a crass and commercial import from the states, but the ancient custom of honoring those you loved with light bonds with quiet power. The mellow flicker in the graveyards is not spooky. It connects one to the mystery of life cycles and the living memory of those who are dead, who continue to have a say in our lives.

sweden

In family therapy it’s helpful to trace dysfunction by looking at the family tree to locate the origin of a dysfunction. The focus of the search can shift by looking for positive traits that run through a family’s history. Studying my family tree helps to expand and focus my imagination. This summer in Sweden, I located a church gate Anders Esping, one of my forefathers, forged and shaped in the 1600’s. In the 1500’s, this branch of my family was summoned from Finland to Sweden by Gustav the First, Monarch of the House of Vasa, to help the king build better machines of war. They were master ironworkers. When you visit Lindsborg, you will find Malcolm Esping’s metal work gracing all parts of the town with fantastic arms to hang signs, magical finials, golden wedding crowns, and andirons in the Red Bar Studio. The need to shape rough ore into useful and beautiful objects has been in my family for at least 600 years.

Connecting to one’s heritage brings one into a more profound sense of who they are by telling them how they became who they are. We are here because of all those before us. This is true for anyone who participates in the life of Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Manhattan. Those who started the Fellowship in the 1950’s created a safe haven for people who question the status quo, and seek answers for life’s big questions that they have burnt through the fire of their own experience. A culture which promotes free inquiry while providing support for a wide spectrum of beliefs is rare in this country. We have much to be thankful for.

We often don’t pay attention to our roots because they are not visible, but if you love big oaks, you know that if their roots get damaged by earth moving equipment, or disturbed in any fundamental way, the tree suffers. Parts of the crown stop leafing out. The dead branches stick out reminding us of its suffering. As with trees, we should honor the roots of our progressive heritage so there can be healthy and vibrant growth. In the last decade, we have lost many of the Fellowship’s founding members. These people dedicated themselves to nurturing this liberal faith with ingenuity and passion. Their sustained efforts make it possible for us to gather today. They inspire us to keep our minds and hearts open to an evolving truth that encourages us to live an authentic life. As we inherit the living tradition of free thinkers who worked to make the world better for all, we are called to learn more about our roots and to nourish them with love.

Let us honor all those who have given of themselves to help the Fellowship develop healthy roots and the resources to thrive. Do this by being bold models of love and building bridges of trust across cultural barriers so that we may more fully appreciate this magnificent life we are given to live.

PAXALWAYSPAX,

Michael

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Mixing the strange and the familiar keeps our progressive religion evolving …

The good poem maintains a delicate balance between strangeness and familiarity. The author must make the familiar strange enough to be re-seen or re-felt by the reader. The truth is always a little strange because the conventional world has little interest in truth, and regularly accepts packaged versions of it …

This excerpt from Stephen Dunn’s essay, The Good, The Not So Good, defines a central paradox of Unitarian Universalism. Mixing the strange and the familiar keeps our progressive religion evolving. People ask, “How can people who don’t believe in God be in the same congregation with those who do?” It’s not so hard when you promote diversity and compassionate listening.

We need the sense of being rooted in our lives as we are growing out of them. The need to have a safe haven where you can be yourself doesn’t exclude the need to practice radical hospitality. Welcoming the stranger stretches us into an essential tension. To be open to others is a way of being open to the world. Being stretched in two directions keeps us flexible.

The willingness to evolve makes life so much more interesting. Yes, there are some awful consequences that the industrial revolution has wrought, but it has freed many people from spirit numbing and body breaking labor. All the new technology today may feel off-putting to those of us who are older, but it can provide amazing tools of communication that have a democratizing impact on the world we live in. It gives everybody the opportunity to lift up their voice. Yes, it can feel chaotic, but it also brings in a new order.

The history of failed UU congregations may be marked by their lack of willingness to change; to shake things up a bit. I’m not advocating chaos as a good strategy, but the feeling that comes when I walk into a happy grammar school which is deeply supported by families, teachers, staff, and community. There’s a buoyancy that makes me feel more alive, more curious, more receptive and very happy.

Thoughtful experimentation is a good way to go. We honor those people who started and nurtured this Fellowship by infusing it with new programs within and without. If something doesn’t work, try something else. But one thing for sure is that we don’t want to be a packaged version of Unitarian Universalism. I believe we want to live out our shared truth with brave hearts and keen intelligence. I believe that the potential for an increasingly colorful, vital and meaningful presence is endless if we give ourselves to the big vision of what is possible!
With love,

Michael

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I plan to retire in May of 2016 …

Kansas gay feather, those violet-purple spires, have begun to bloom on the roadside. Soon asters and goldenrod will shine across the prairie, summoning autumn. At our Fellowship Board retreat, which moved with gusto into the important issues that give our community forward momentum, I announced that I plan to retire in May of 2016. Normally, a minister shares this information when only a couple of months of their tenure remain. That approach feels wrong for me. It would not honor the relationship I have with this caring community. It would feel fraudulent.

My abiding hope is that we will continue to work together to build the bridges inside and outside our community that allow for a freer flow of people, ideas, creativity, and action that leaves people knowing that we are a bold model of love. Many ministers begin to leave before they are done. Their focus on what comes next causes them to be more neglectful of the ongoing needs of the congregation. I commit to give my best until my last day, to share and receive what promotes healthy growth.

I will count on collaboration with all of you to help lead the way.

With love,

Michael

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On a perfect Swedish evening …

On a perfect Swedish evening, on the beach of a perfect lake ringed by woods and meadows, a family arrives just as the red-gold of the lowering sun begins to shimmer on the water. The daughter and father move quickly into the lake and swim out. The mother sits on a large towel, reaches for her phone and starts scrolling. She never looks up.

Another family arrives. The father is black and the mother is white. The two daughters are a beautiful mix of their parents. The kids and dad move into the lake. The daughters call, “Mama, come mama, come, it is so beautiful.” She dives in and the family takes turns diving in off the pier. Their laughter is contagious.

The woman on the towel studies her phone as if it were the Talmud–a source for answers to deeply troubling questions.

There are no radios or motorboats. The geese are talking in a bay of cattails. The big cranes cry out in the distance.

I pray for the willpower and grace to become more present.

Michael

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A decade has passed since we sold our little house in Sweden …

A decade has passed since we sold our little house in Sweden. We left boxes of books, family pictures, bikes, and antiques with a friend. Stuff that we could not haul back to Kansas or simply toss. It’s time to sort through these belongings.

It makes us happy to return to a more leisurely approach to time; the encouragement to schedule more mindfully. Instead of packing in 5 to 7 major things in a day the Swedes leave more time for rest and revitalization. They enjoy 6 weeks of vacation and have many more long weekends than we do in America. Almost everything shuts down during these Holidays. Less harried, life becomes simplified. When we’re invited for a coffee, we look forward to a three-hour visit with 7 treats and many cups of strong coffee. Conversations build to a crescendo and a lull that comforts, opens–the space to appreciate one another’s company in silence. The unspoken rule: do not rush.

When my cousin Peter and his wife had their last child, he was given two weeks off to help bring their baby home so that everyone could integrate this new life into the family, and fully celebrate Sarah’s arrival. Anna-Lisa was given two years leave of absence from her job and received 80% of her pay. When she returned to work she relied on good childcare available to all families in Sweden. If Peter had decided to stay at home instead of his wife, he would have received the same benefits as his wife did. They also had the option of splitting the benefits between them.

Sweden ranks as one of the world’s most gender-egalitarian countries. Swedes believe men and women should share power and influence equally. In the Global Gender Gap Report 2013, Sweden is a world leader in equality. On average, women’s monthly salaries are 94 per cent of men’s, when differences in choice of profession and sector are taken into account. Pay disparity is found mostly in the private sector. After the 2010 election, 45 percent of the seats in the Swedish Parliament were filled by women, down from 47 per cent after the 2006 election–the first fall in this figure since the 1930s. At present, 13 of the 24 Government ministers are women.

Time in Sweden provides us relief from the inequities that plague our society and inspire us to advocate for more equality when we return home.

May we all be inspired to work for a well-balanced life so that when joy beckons, we’re available.

Michael

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