The promise of living meaningful lives

Learn and obey the rules very well, so you will know how to break them properly.

… Dalai Lama 

What will call the promise of living meaningful lives into this new year? What will bring us into wider dimensions of spiritual authenticity? The willingness to expand beyond the strictures and structures of the way we always do things bears new possibilities and life. Living in awe before mystery, beauty, death and birth helps us to love more deeply. Our dissatisfactions become more pliable and can turn into satisfaction with less fuss, less fear, less fighting. Being in a state of readiness, a willingness to appreciate the process as it evolves, instead of being fixated on outcome, energizes. We still need goals, but ones fluid enough to let patterns evolve with unexpected grace.

A friend of mine, who is half Native-American and half Norwegian, believes technique is important, but essence is more important. She knows that some Native-American ceremonies performed with technical accuracy sometimes lack heart. The ceremony is done right, but the reason for its existence is lost. You can find this absence in painting, music, poetry, and in people’s homes. The crafting may be exquisite, but lacks life.

A painting or poem can magnetize by subverting the rules. The deft use of black can move the eye forward instead of into shadow. A sudden shift in meter or syntax can break a poem into an unanticipated brightness. The right dose of experimentation animates. If we always do everything in the same order, using the same ingredients, we end up with the same old meal. Hitler walked his dog the same time everyday and believed that one needed an ice-cold heart to accomplish big goals. He surrounded himself with heartless people dedicated to monoculture.

Balancing improvisation with technique invites play. Without the quality of play–and I don’t know what will happen, but exploration is fun attitude–life becomes rigid. When we risk being silly, everything can loosen. Cheer enters. The heart opens. When we insist on a prescribed formality, the cudgel of drudgery swings with its killing power. But without structure or expertise our creative efforts may result in chaos.

Compare the Dali Lama and Hitler. Compassion widens the heart’s capacity to experience pain and joy or the brutal endgame of an icy heart. One opens to the complexity of life giving options, the other contracts into a life negating rules. Addiction to perfection can kill the spirit. Yet we expect the laser surgeon to practice precision, and the concert pianist to play the right note. The best surgeons use dexterity and quickly adapt to the unexpected. A great performer finds something new in what they know in minute detail; always bringing in new life.

Rumi wrote, Your depression is connected to your insolence and refusal to praise. Let us be thankful for the new year and respect innovation,

Michael

 

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Pluralism

Cut loose, without devotion, a man becomes a comic.
His antics are passed

around the family table and mimicked so well, years
later the family still laughs.

Without devotion, any life becomes a stranger’s story …

Marie Howe, in her poem Without Devotion, explores the emptiness that results from having nothing to believe in; lacking the meaning that connects a person to something valuable enough that it prompts them to give of themselves. Such lives are often desperate and angry.

“Unitarian Universalists are neither chosen people nor a people whose choices are made for them by theological authorities— ancient or otherwise. We are a people who choose.” Forrest Church believed that it is our human obligation to make choices that expand and concentrate meaning in our daily lives. When we fail to heed the innate need for meaning, indifference holds sway and its cold winds buffet.

In the dark month of December it is important to bring light into our lives. Whether you celebrate the birth of love, its renewal, the winter solstice or find deep pleasure in building, tending and musing before a fire, it is a time to seek illumination. This month filled with festivities calls us to contemplate what brings us true worth and joy, what nurtures supple strength in the individual, families and our community.

What gifts are you willing to receive?

Many self-reliant people find it difficult to accept gestures of empathy or a compliment. They are deferred. UUs, independent minded people, tend to practice a modern version of stoicism, which tamps down the spirit. Public displays of heightened emotion, unless it comes from a child, are often found embarrassing. We prefer reason and people who measure and hide their feelings so that they do not stand out. This cautious approach to life tends to diffuse the bright light of joy. William Blake believed “joy and woe are woven fine.” You can’t have the heights without depth. The splendor of the stars relies on the darkness they are in.

This is the season to practice developing and honing your skills of being joyful. Opening the heart and focusing the mind on what is most important makes more room for joy, and joy needs lots of room. Stretching into risky territory can bring a new suppleness and appreciation, qualities I often find in toddlers who are not afraid of hugging and kissing. My 2 1/2 year old great nephew, Sam, loves to put his cheek against yours, to feel the comfort of flesh touching flesh. He has no fear of expressing his need to be held and loved. He loves to kiss his 4 month old sister Norah as well as his great uncle. I am lucky to be blessed with such a true presence; its gift.

May we all rediscover the innocence that allows us to love freely. May the season bless us with its gifts of devotion. May there be less estrangement. May you know and share love,

Michael

 

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Pluralism

Grateful for the pluralism which enriches and ennobles our faith, we are inspired to deepen our understanding and our vision. This sentence found at the beginning of our hymnal, Singing the Living Tradition begins the last paragraph of the covenant Unitarian Universalists agree to promote. I love the linkage between deepening one’s understanding and the ability to articulate and hold up a vision. Gratitude for pluralism makes this possible, but experience sometimes shows, embracing plurality can be unwieldy. Sometimes it makes an organization less nimble, especially when there are voices calling for change and those who like things the way they are. In Washington, DC, this is called gridlock. In religious circles this may be thought of as a time of extended discernment.

My experience with Tibetan Buddhism makes me truly grateful for the pluralism of our progressive faith. Tibetan Buddhism provides me with a great deal of wisdom, but I could not abide their more conservative organizational hierarchy and a less than enthusiastic acceptance of LGBT people and their rights. I believe that each person is important and ideally should have their say in helping to decide the direction our Fellowship moves.

Clearly our Fellowship has a moral obligation to extend its progressive ideals to people who need them, but have little or no access to make that connection kinetic. To do this effectively we each need to help articulate a vision, which holds up our principles and ideals so that more people can be touched by their power. Our effort is critical to help to make the common good more pervasive for Kansans.

Our Unitarian Universalist presence in the Northern Flint Hills has saved lives, helped people isolated by their heretical questions about religion make supportive connections and find the encouragement they need to freely search for truth and meaning in their lives. Now is the time for us to focus on the inherent worth and dignity of our community by lifting up a vision that provides a clear message of how integral diversity is to us, and how it enriches our individual and collective lives. Unifying the many strands of our dreams gives our dreams a real chance of being realized.

US history demonstrates what a crucial role Unitarians and Universalists played in shaping our country. Our achievements include strong efforts to end slavery, ensuring a woman’s right to vote and to serve our liberal faith as ordained ministers, bringing dignity to people with mental health problems, the need to provide a good education to every child, the creation of public parks, Red Cross, the inclusion of people of every ethnic heritage and LGBTQ people … The list goes on, but we must articulate what is most important to our community so that we can share and live it with exuberance.

A woman’s vote makes a real difference! Vote!

Michael

 

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HURRY….

Vacation and study leave give me the freedom to hurry less. I can read a book of poetry a couple of times, allowing the rhythm of the words to fully enter so that the images and their meaning have stunning power. “The Kingdom of Ordinary Time” by Marie Howe, continues to grip me. As the pull of pastoral work revs up, I return to the following poem for guidance …

 

Hurry

We stop at the dry cleaner and grocery store

and the gas station and the green market and

Hurry up honey, I say hurry, hurry,

as she runs along two or three steps behind me

her blue jacket unzipped and her socks rolled down.

Where do I want her to hurry to? To her grave?

To mine? Where one day she might stand all grown?

 

Today, when all the errands are finally done, I say to her,

Honey I’m sorry I keep saying Hurry–

you walk ahead of me. You be the mother.

And, Hurry up, she says, over her shoulder, looking

back at me. Laughing. Hurry up now darling, she says,

hurry, hurry, taking the house keys from my hand.

 

What is a healthy pace that leaves ample room for savoring what’s precious? In northern Vermont, Chuck and I lingered for hours over breakfast discussing what we were reading and writing, taking in the mountain meadow, bright with flowers, enveloped in the soft summer air. The lack of pressure felt lusciously liberating. Mid-afternoon we would hike up to Rattlesnake Cliffs or a portion of the Appalachian Trail, and on our way back stop at Brookfield pond for a swim. This slowing down gets into the bones. You feel more at home in yourself and have a deeper appreciation for beauty and all it offers.

When fewer obligations press, you notice when anxiety pushes against your psyche. In Vermont, the highest speed limit is 65 and most of the paved roads have a speed limit of 40 or 50. This slow pace tried my patience. I mean, even teenagers, drove slow. Along the major highways, signs flashed that said, “Drive slow, stay alive.” Last year Vermont had only 50 deaths attributed to automobile accidents. I can’t say I got use to these slow speeds, but I do find, since returning to Kansas, that sometimes I drive slower than the limit. When I do it feels luxurious.

May you be blessed with the luxury of time to fully enjoy what you love and what loves you.

Michael

 

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OUR HIGHEST ASPIRATIONS

Unitarian, John Adams, the second president of the United States, labored for religious liberty until his death at ninety. His home state of Massachusetts prohibited Jews or Catholics from running for elective office until 1833. Religious bigotry and ignorance dominate the civic conversation of this country. The progressive and conservative divide and its dogma obstruct our ability to care for those most in need. Promoting ideological justifications for indifference to those who suffer grinds against the grain of what our founding fathers wrought. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams political perspectives often differed. They believed in the Unitarian’s call to use reason in their private and public discourse. This perhaps is most evident in the letters they exchanged until they both died on July 4, 1826. They shared an expansive vision of what this country was and could be. Their approaches to help this country achieve the best for its people and nation sometimes diverged, but they devoted much of their genius to understanding and promoting what advanced excellence in this country. They sacrificed much of their private lives and wealth to give life to a vision where demagoguery did not oppress the people.

I am deeply saddened that the Manhattan Day Care facility has closed. One more service for children, often poor, shut down. The repeal of the human rights ordinance protecting LGBT people in housing and the work force still alarms me. The Manhattan Art’s Center cuts programs so they can keep their doors open. There are moments when it feels as if we have slipped into a nightmare—some surreal version of the dark ages. The foundation for encouraging the best in a person, family, community, and civilization requires that people’s basic human needs for food, shelter, and good health care must be a priority. Equal opportunity for excellent education naturally follows as does the acceptance of diversity.

There are small victories for gay youth at the Manhattan High School and our fellowship remains a beacon and sanctuary for progressive action, universal discourse and the practice of inclusion. We celebrate what is best in humanity and the possibilities for a better world. With the upcoming visit of Mary Gleason , the Unitarian Universalist Stewardship Consultant, the first weekend in May, we have a tremendous opportunity to examine what we do, how we do it, what works well, what doesn’t and how we might do it with more power and shared vision!

We need to open our doors wide—doors of perception, compassion, and good works. Lifting up the best in life becomes increasingly important. We have the capacity and the will, but we need a vision that elevates us into the realm of profound commitment to those values of friendship, as with Adams and Jefferson, that guide us to see and live beyond those differences that sharply polarize. We can all learn to give ourselves more fully to work synergistically to do what we can to make this a country a haven where equality and the pursuit of happiness brings love and good works to all its people.

Please participate in helping us to clarify and empower our highest aspirations.

Michael

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Windows of Perception

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Clivia seen through old glass changes what I see. It is no longer just the clivia in the entry way, it sings a song that calls me to see it from the outside in. This reminds me of how much of what I see is because of the lens I am looking through. Distortions and enhancements bring a different slant—a different point of access. Art brings us into the changing dimension, where what we see provides other ways of seeing. It has the power to lift our imaginations out of the habitual and bring us to places where we are in a kind of vulnerability that shifts our vision so there is room, the porousness for  another view. And don’t we need more beauty and its inspiration in our lives?

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WHAT TO DO IN A WORLD OF DIFFERENCE

“No more critical challenge faces each of us, and all of us together, than how to live together in a world of differences. So much depends on our ability to handle our conflicts peacefully – our happiness at home, our performance at work, the livability of our communities, and, in this age of mass destruction, the survival of our species.” (Third Side web-site)

In our competitive world we need models for peace. We need to learn how to be models of peace for ourselves, our families, our communities, the world…Peace building is our challenge—not someone else’s. No matter who you are, what has happened to you, what your gifts and flaws are, you can make choices that contribute to the construction or the destruction of the world we share. Join Rev. Thea Nietfeld and I, this Sunday, 1/29/2012, to explore why and how the “Third Side” approach has great potential on the micro and macro level of our existence to help us to create a more peaceful world for us to inhabit…

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Things UU Churches Do Right, January 19, 2012

Fellowship members Melissa and David McKee share some thoughts on things that have worked in various UU congregations they have been a part of around the country.   Highlights of their commentary were printed in the February 2012 edition of The UUFM Voice.   Melissa and David’s full text appears here:

We aren’t quite lifetime UU’s, but we’re close.  Melissa’s family joined The First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Antonio (FUUSA) when she was in preschool; David’s family joined the same church when he was a teen.  Over the last fifteen years the demands of grad school and post-doctoral appointments have kept us moving. As such we bring considerable experience with UU churches across the country.  We want to talk about things that some of these churches do well. We are drawing these thoughts from the UU churches, fellowships, congregations and societies that we’ve attended at least a few times.  We count eight in that list.

Some of these are things that UUFM already does well, some are things that we could probably do better, and some may not be a good fit for our community: this isn’t intended as some kind of checklist of Things That Must Be Done.  This is just a chat about things that keep Melissa’s first question about a possible new job being how close is the UU congregation.

Our thoughts can be grouped into things that make a UU group welcoming to visitors and newcomers; things that give our services a feeling of continuity and our facilities and worship a feeling of sanctity; and things which encourage the growth of our denomination and congregations and help us to manage the slightly different culture of larger congregations without losing the closeness of our community.

Lets face it:  we’re a minority denomination everywhere and not well understood. We need to make a good impression on newcomers–those new to UUism and those migrant UUs who are coming from a very different congregation.  Our very first chance to do this is when someone comes in the door.

At the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa (UUCT) they did a particularly good job of greeting visitors, making sure they were introduced to a member who would show them around and introduce them to the minister and the DRE.  This is especially important if the visitor has kids.  Letting them know that there is a Sunday school and which rooms their children will be in can really help someone feel at home.  In Melissa’s childhood experience knowing where she was going and who she was going with helped the first time her parents took her to Church.  Even with a good greeting crew we may not catch everyone–especially when we have many doors–so we want visitors to find it easy to come into the service without being made self conscience.  This means leaving some accessible chairs at the back and along the aisles, no small matter when many members do not find it easy to schootch in.

Something we do very well and really does help as a visitor or a new member are our use of name tags.  Almost everyone wears theirs and this means that a visitor doesn’t have to try and remember all of the names of people they’ve met.  It’s very uncomfortable to know that the person your talking to introduced themselves a few minutes ago, but for the life of you the name is gone and how do you introduce your significant other to them without embarrassment?  Another thing that helps those unfamiliar with us is when someone speaks in service to have the speaker always introduce themselves and of course use the microphone to include all and get your statement into the recording of the service.

Another thing that is important to have is good literature explaining who and what we are.  The Principles and Purposes cards that we have are a great place to start.  We might also do well to emulate Comal County Unitarian Universalist Society’s (CCUUS) brochure-length explanation of the history and Principle and Purposes UUism.

A big difference between many of the UU congregation we’ve attended and more traditional churches is a lack of sense of sanctity in the sanctuary.  The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula (UUFP) in Newport News, Virginia was a big exception here. Keeping the morning meet and greet out of the sanctuary preserved the sanctuary for quiet meditation and gave a sense of occasion upon entering.  The sense of reverence extended  to the area around the fire pit in deference to their extensive Pagan group.

David in particular likes a sense of ritual in the service without expecting or desiring a high degree of uniformity (as if…) or a “High Church” feel.  Several of the churches we’ve been part of have succeed in framing the service with a few fairly reliable touch points.  Frequently these touch points are the chalice lighting, the offering and the extinguishing of the flame.  Michael’s endless variations on the theme of welcoming are one of the most effective tools we’ve seen in this regard.  Other churches we’ve been to made good use of receiving the offering: the baskets came back to the front where they were formally received  with thanks (“We give thanks for these offering that are weaving a tapestry we call community”).  Also, UUFP and UUCT had candles available in the sanctuary for people to light if they wanted before or after the service to just commune with and have a moment of ritual.

The UUA has been leaning on churches for a long time to respected a few regular celebrations. Usually David couldn’t care less for what he calls “synthetic holidays,” but these rituals (different in each place though they may be) do provide a degree of continuity for nomadic UUs.  One that Melissa has really enjoyed across several congregations is the in-gathering water ceremony.

If we are truly successful in reaching out to new comers, our churches will grow and that is in itself a challenge (the UUA has a little to say on the matter, so there are resources).  We haven’t been part of a really big UU church since our parents broke with FUUSA so we have only a little to say about this.  To make a big church work it must be built of smaller units without becoming cliquish.  Lots of activities–like dinners for eight (circle suppers)–which bring church members together in smaller groups (and not always the same ones) are needed.  In a big enough group it is even harder to learn who everyone is, so we come back to name tags and introductions.

Friendliness to financially distressed members takes many forms.  Just pledging enough to cover UUA and regional dues can be a burden for some.  Out of respect for this UUFP accepted in-kind pledges from some members.  A lot of community building in a church happens outside of the building. Community Unitarian Universalist Church (CUUC) had a custom of going out to lunch after service, but in deference to the varied financial conditions of the members went to food court at a local mall (one with luxury vendors possible because San Antonio’s a big city).  UUFP has a different approach; several groups go to places at different points on the cost scale.

The audio recording efforts here and at the Williamsburg Unitarian Universalist (WUU) church in Virginia are very helpful.  Williamsburg went a step further for technologically challenged people: you could request a CD of a whole service or just one part.  Rev Michael Thompson at UUCT made his homilies available in printed form for a nominal donation.  This ties in to welcoming newcomers as it allows us to provide samples of the variety of programs available on any given Sunday.

As nomads the last several years we have always looked for a UU church to help provide people who will accept us for who we are; a place were we know we are welcome; and an immediate home and connection in our new community.  We would like all who come to this congregation to have the same feeling of welcome and place that we know and found here.

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Winter Hens…

The hens, who provide us with gardener’s gold and brown eggs, find this warm weather to their liking. If you feel solemn, a bit darkened by the Holiday flash, take some time to hang out with chickens. They always have something to say. They’re grateful for almost all scraps. They push aside the clementine peels, but adore black beans. In fact their appearance can cause a frenzy of pecking. Yet they do it so expertly. If I knew how to be so focused when in a rush, I’d  be as easily pleased as these tremendous gals.

Contentment to all in this New Year…

Michael

 

 

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MICHAEL’S MUSINGS – DECEMBER 15, 2012

Janus holds the number 365 in his hand. As the gatekeeper of time this Roman God’s power spanned the mundane and cosmic. The juxtaposition of the infinite in the hands of the finite puts one in the orbit of the earth round the sun. As I gladly pay for my late fees at the public library I do not feel the magnetism of the sun pulling me with billions of others in a tilting cycle of time that marks our passage through life.

It amazes me how easily the vastness of our existence collapses into taking care of business. Some days feel like it’s just one duty after another. Janus marks transitions. Something ends as something begins. Change, constant change is the way of life. This can be unnerving as kids grow up so fast, and you find yourself much older than you thought possible, especially as the people who held you as a baby die or died long ago.

Janus opens the doorway to the contrast between the everyday and the galactic. I recently read about one of those people who did something revolutionarily fabulous at a young age. He just turned 40 and a reporter asked him, ‘How does it feel to be that old?’” (Of course, I’m thinking, that’s young!) He shared that he didn’t feel older. He feels ageless when he lives in a way that is relevant. My interpretation: relevant equals kinetic meaning–you live in the reality of this moment, stretching between the finite and the infinite.

Being centered in every moment feels impossible, but when I am living from core, I do not feel the weight of my age, the bygone days, lost opportunities all the things that anchor one to the past, and can yank the spirit down. At 101, Dorothea Tanning, calls herself the oldest emerging poet. Most known as a surrealist painter, married to Max Ernst, in 2004 she published her first book of poems, “A Table of Content” and has just published her second, “Coming to That.” In between painting and writing she also tried her hand at sculpting. Obsessed by the universe, she can’t stop exploring. She doesn’t dread mortality, or simply accept or defy it; she lives in this here and this now, often dwelling on the big picture of life. This dreamer/philosopher artist does not live in a rarified world. Long post office lines make her impatient. Dorothea’s advice: “Keep your eye on the inner world and keep away from ads, idiots and movie stars.” Paying attention to what brings life into vital focus helps one balance all life’s tensions, no matter what age we are. If we don’t burn our experience through the fire of our own thought, as Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Unitarian poet, dreamer, essayist suggests, we are just a jumble of experiences with minimal transformative value and creative power.

Don’t be afraid of mixing things up. Play keeps time flexing and can bring wonder and discovery to every age. “Many people find joy in actually doing something the pragmatist would call useless.” Let us be inspired by Dorothea Tanning in this New Year. Joy is always useful, especially In January.

Michael

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