Thursday, December 31, 2009

Books, Books, Books...

How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book. ~Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Books mark the interests in my life like some colorful timeline. I have my earlier periods of favoring Richard Brautigan and then my attention moved to LE Modessitt. Some are worn and some are too precious to mar the cover. There are the books from my various classes. Then the ones that remind me of friends and loves. I love to browse my children's shelves and see my childhood books and those given to the boys thoughtfully by friends, aunts, and uncles.

Of course, ministry has also fed this addiction. Yes, I admit that I am indeed a book addict. I'll take a little Process Theology with some Carol Christ, some Catherine Keller. I need a little Tillich or some Telesco. I'd like some Thich Nhat Han or a book on mysticism. Yet, why stop there. Give me historical China. Give me Science Fiction. Give me a book of verse. Give me. Give me. My insatiable book needs are overflowing my shelves, my dresser, my desk, and I am in the position where books must prioritized.

Tell me, how do you prioritize a book? Is it the number of times you've read it? I have to ask whether it might inspire a sermon or I might need it for something. There are some books that are duds, and I can often find another loving home for it. Yet somehow, like the movie Inkheart, I feel books have a magic life of their own. Crack one open and it takes you away. It has no strings or requirements, except patience for plot and a love of words.

Cutting down books is like culling saved letters. It is letting go of a chapter in my life or a moment in time. The best way I've found to reduce my collection to where I don't have to sleep on them or use them as a night stand is to spread them to other book lovers. Other book lovers will then love them and share them with someone new. Like some perfect dessert, you can only have so much sugar until you need to share it with your friends.

So, my New Years weekend will be spent lovingly looking through books. Some will find new homes, and others will never quite make it past the "must keep" pile. Until, I look again at my bookshelves and stacks of books and start over again. The delightful spiritual process of cleaning out and making room. The process of remembering what is important to share, and what is important to hold close.

Let books be your dining table, And you shall be full of delights, Let them be your mattress, And you shall sleep restful nights.~Author Unknown

Monday, December 14, 2009

What Are We Celebrating?

Lists are made, the food is baked, gifts are wrapped and yet there's still more to do? Why is it that during this time of celebrating so many holidays that hail the return of light that we are focusing more on gift returns instead? We string lights, we light candles, and sometimes even the outside of our homes...but how much light are we getting? Being intentional about this time of year is hard. We have messages from our childhood traditions, the media, and our own expectations about what it takes to do it right. Rethinking how we celebrate the winter holidays while not simple, can be quite radical.

This isn't something inside a sappy Halmark card. Searching for happiness and light has been the focus of age old quests and legends. What was the search for the Holy Grail all about? What about some wise men searching for a star in the night? I remember being fascinated by the story of the Wise Men that were willing to take off for strange lands - hoping to find something by the light of a star. What star are we following? What is it that we are searching for in this season?
“Jesus is the reason for the season” doesn't quite do it. Meg Cox wrote an article in U.U. World about this same struggle. Figuring out how to celebrate holidays is not always easy. She said “Many Unitarian Universalist congregations have beloved holiday traditions. But at home many of us still struggle to find the right mix of family traditions for this time of year. Many UUs respect Christian traditions that celebrate the birth of Jesus but are personally uncomfortable with the idea that he was the Christ. Yet veering away from religious rituals throws them smack into the materialistic, secular approach to Christmas, and they don’t want to deify Santa Claus either.” Some of us have grown up with Jewish traditions or some mixture of secular and Christian traditions. Coming up with meaningful ritual and practice is one way to search for the light in this time of shorter days and longer nights.

Meg Cox says that there are ways to celebrate the holidays without watering down everything into something unrecognizable and unprofound. She writes “Let’s start by going back to basics: No matter how historically suspect the date may be, Christmas is fundamentally the celebration of the birth of Jesus. In UU classrooms and homes, Jesus is lauded as a wise man whose devotion to peace and justice are worthy of praise and emulation. All the Unitarian Universalists I know take the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. very seriously as a holiday: Should we celebrate the birthday of Jesus with any less intensity?” She suggests that by embracing the stories and messages of Jesus, there is something to be found or reclaimed in this holiday.

The wise men in the story of the birth of Jesus are not that different from our own quests to find what is holy. We look for signs and we search in earnest for that which can bring us beyond despair and into hope. Yet we need not beat paths through deserts or forests to find this holy grail of happiness. Sometimes we must simply turn off the commercials, put away the electronics, and tune in. There are countless poems about the stillness of winter. It is in that point of stillness that wisdoms speaks. Yet, it is rare indeed that we have or make time for it. And yet, - in what many hail as a holy time – we are bulldozed by a loud, bright, and frenzied sensory overload. I was reminded of this when attended an Unplugging the Christmas Machine workshop last year, and that is what it seems to take sometimes. I have felt like I needed to pull the plug on what society has defined as Christmas, and explore my values around materialism, ritual, and what it is exactly that I am celebrating?

While we celebrate the traditional Christmas festivities with my extended family, we have greatly reduced the material push of this time. We've tried to shift to handmade or baked goods, or more giving lasting gifts like books. At home, our family celebrates the Winter Solstice. In my house, we light a fire and try to stay up all night on the solstice to greet the dawn. We drink hot cider or cocoa, tell stories, and play games We celebrate the light returning, and talk about what that means in our lives. And yes my kids still get excited about Santa Claus, but we primarily focus that he represents the spirit of giving. The boys are excited about presents, but they also get excited about evergreens and berries...and the stories about the return of the light. This is a magical time of year - with intention and sometimes unplugging the Christmas machine.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

What is enough?

When we had cable, Karl and I would constantly watch HGTV, and dream about how we could remodel the house... making furniture, repainting, etc. Commercials would feature gorgeous stainless steel appliances in a kitchen sleek and clean. It created dissatisfaction with the great house that we have now, because there was always a sense that it could be better. We just needed the materials, the time, and the money to do it -right? It is much like the image of Barbie for young girls - there is the reality vs. the fantasy factor. And, what is it that we are fantasizing about when we want the newest thing or best thing? It says something about us when what we have is not enough. It says that we are not enough without this stuff... without the perfect shape... without this and this.

The American economy is intricately caught up in a web of consumer spending. We are no longer export-driven - our economy is based on an over-consumptive model of people buying more and more. It will be interesting whether the lessons of this current economic crisis manifest permanent changes in the ethos of consumerism and waste. How can we reshape this model when we are stuck in this cycle of spending? It is not an easy answer. I heard a report on NPR that people are actually putting some money back in savings now. I think it is a hopeful sign when people feel like they can save, or put away something for later. There is this discipline of waiting for the right moment to use that money - a certain spiritual practice of delayed gratification.

We have learned to do without cable during seminary and happily get our media from Netflix and the Internet. My children get some commercial exposure from stores and the websites where they play games, but there is a relative lack of "I wants." They find fun in shopping at garage and rummage sales and finding the treasures of books and toys. I want to understand that what I have is enough, and this is a core value I want my children to understand as well. We live on a planet with finite resources. I don't need to even quote the monstrous consumption that the Western world takes of those resources, because it is apparent in the way we live and operate.

We are at the brink of choices around green technology, climate change, and the values that move our economy. I have gratitude for our land of plenty, yet our land of plenty will not supply us forever at this rate. I hope that we can learn to leave less of footprint on the world, and give back to our Mother. I hope that we can learn what is enough - that we are enough. It affects our self image, it affects our economy, and it affects the future.

Monday, November 23, 2009

A Kiss at the AMAs

Why does Adam Lambert kissing another male in the midst of a live performance look any different than the score of women that have kissed women in concert or television?

Lambert when interviewed about his performance said that it was a double standard. Of course it is discriminatory to accept one display of affection instead of another. It is interesting how we try and contain sexuality into safe packages for the American consumer. David Bowie could be androgynous as long as he was with a woman. Here is a star that is openly gay and promoting the right to express his sexuality in his art, and he's being challenged about whether a same-sex male kiss can be on television.

Wake up folks, love can not be legislated. A kiss is a kiss, and love is love.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Space to Grieve

Everyone has experienced the life exploding sensations of birth and the system wrenching loss of death on some level. These can be the most intimate and intense moments of life.

David Suzuki said is succinctly in The Sacred Balance, “Every child who has marveled at the growth of a plant from a seed, observed the transformation of a frog’s egg into a tadpole or witnessed the emergence of a butterfly from its cocoon understands in the most profound way that life is a miracle. Science cannot penetrate life’s greatest mystery; music and poetry attempt to express it; every mother and father feels it to the core.”

But, how quickly do we remove ourselves from these moments? Sometimes we remove ourselves so quickly from these moments that grief and sorrow seem foreign and unnatural. As the German-born American philosopher Erich Fromm stated, “To spare oneself from grief at all cost can be achieved only at the price of total detachment, which excludes the ability to experience happiness.”

When someone is crying, our first response is often to grab a tissue, and tell them it is okay. Is it really okay? Sometimes we just need to cry. Sometimes we just need to rage. Why do we often feel a need to anesthetize the pain around us? In that search for the perfect body and white tooth smile, our culture rarely gives us the message that it is okay to grieve. We need those times, and we need those spaces.

Would you cry that way while ensconced with your tear-jerker novel at Starbucks with latte in one hand and a big Kleenex in the other? Some of us might. But, some of us might tuck it away until later. How often do we tuck those feelings away, and keep tucking them away? How far can we go, before pain doesn’t touch us?

Often no matter how much we push grief down, it will spring forward in memory. Memories are funny that way, both tender and painful. I have one memory that is still clear and present. The pain has become less poignant, less a weight and more a picture that I cherish now. It is one piece of the picture of my mother that I’ve collaged into my memory and into my keeping. I confess that I still collect these memories greedily, as I do the sounds of her voice in my head.

The memory begins with the sun as a solemn observer in a cloud-ridden sky. My arms are folded against my chest as if to protect myself from the reality of my present situation. Thirty minutes before I’d given a eulogy for my mother’s passing, an honor to her life and a sending off of sorts at the time of her death. I’m thankfully distracted by my two-year old niece, Anna, dancing. Her brown hair is flying wildly in the wind, and the smile across her face is in juxtaposition to the heavy silence around her. Though she is irreverently dancing on some nearby graves, I can’t help but smile. She is chattering about “Ya-Ya” - my mother’s “grandmother” name. It is as if this solemn occasion has little bearing on her heart. She is chattering to the wind, and possibly speaking to her “Ya-Ya.” Her laughter cuts the painful reality I’m experiencing and eases my heart. As the minister murmurs the time old words. “From Dust To Dust…” I can’t help but think about the cycle of life and death.

Death is the ground from which all life comes and to which it returns.

Just as a minister said, “Dust to Dust…”, I knew that my mother had returned home. Whether I defined that as heaven or part of the great cosmic divine, it didn’t really matter, because - even in my grief - I still felt her and knew her peace.

I spoke of those a-ha moments. It wasn’t just when I saw my mom let go of her painful last moments in the hospital room. It was the whole process. The entire relationship of living and dying. There is no separation from it. Just as I was born to breath into this beautiful world, I will one day leave it. I am just as much a part of this life dance as the mulch in our church garden or my dancing little niece. The missing link became clear.

Just as the birth of a child is joyous, so can death be a time of release and renewal. There is a sacred cycle of letting go, so there is a space for the new- just as this Spring we will revel in the buzz of new life and colors - this winter we will watch the plants return to whence they were birthed. The dance marches on, whether my mom is dying of cancer or I am birthing my first child. When my mom died, it felt like time would stand still at that horrible moment of loss and pain. But - despite any efforts of my own - my life rolled forward. I got married to the love of my life and have had two beautiful boys in expression of that love. While my mother is not with me in body, I have felt her in my dreams,and the bedside of my children.

It is easy enough to conceptualize that we are all a part of a greater cycle. Though, when the we lose someone close to us, the grander schemes of life and death are far from our hearts and minds.

Whether we rage, cry, or simply detach and move away from the pain - loss is not a process that is easily mapped out. It is neither orderly nor clean. In a life of schedules, carpooling, and soccer games - it doesn’t seem convenient to “lose it” in the school parking lot or in the check-out line at the grocery store. In more recent times, we have lost a lot of the ritual and time for grief that cultures and religious practices might have once given us - to have the space to move through our loss.

Just as we need to find times in the day to step away from our desks, from the noise of our children, or the stress of a project, we need a space for a relationship with life, yes - we need to honor our relationship with death. We need a space to let go. A space to grieve, and time to move through whatever wells within in us. Give us a Kleenex, if you must - but let us cry. Let us cry.

Thornton Wilder, the American playwright, in this excerpt from his play Our Town wrote, “Now there are some things we all know, but we don’t take’m out and look at’m very often. We all know that something is eternal. And it ain’t houses and it ain’t names, and it ain’t earth and it ain’t even the stars…everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people who ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you’d be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.”

What is that spark of vitae - that soul footprint that makes us each so special and unique? How can one son be so different from the other? Do you remember the wonder of when you found out that each snowflake has its own crystalline pattern? Life is glorious. Life is magic. It is no wonder that people struggle with the loss of it. Death is often our own mirror. Our own window into our finite time in this precious life.

Tich Nhat Hahn said, “People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don't even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child -- our own two eyes. All is a miracle.”

All is miracle - honor the process and honor each season.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Urban Meditation

Let's think about one evening in an American household. Family and friends are spread out around the house, and a few people are watching TV. The television is turned up, and a cell phone rings. The owner of the phone doesn't hear the phone ring because she is jamming to her ipod tunes. The commercials are louder than the scheduled program, and the voices in the room speak above the show to be heard. The dog barks to be let out and someone is yelling from upstairs to be heard...Noise is everywhere. This might seem like the prelude to a Calgon or vacation getaway commercial, but the reality is all too common.

If you share your home with others – roommates, children, or parents there is a constant stream of distraction. There is noise at work, there is noise on the commute to work, and there is noise on lunch break...while walking the dog....while getting a cup of coffee... Our modern life is an exercise in filtering distraction and noise. With the hectic pace of modern life, we find at some point there is a need to find a still point of calm - even amongst the chaos of noise. As a mother of two young boys, I find myself searching hard for those oasis moments. How can a moment of peace be found, without the luxury of a weekend at The Mountain or some planned escape.
The good news is that you can. There is a practice for meditating in noise, finding peace amidst chaos.

As a part of staff worship a few weeks ago, I was blessed with the chance to do just that. UUCA's Business Manager graciously planned a worship exactly around how to find sacred and meditative space amidst noise and chaos. On a sunny Wednesday afternoon, with the traffic busy as ever on the 85 access ramp, a few of the staff tromped down to the Fern Creek preserve. Visually the trail down to the creek is idyllic with green and water surrounding you, yet there is a discordant sensation with the rush of traffic noise from the access ramp. It is surprisingly very noisy by the side of such a lovely creek! Sitting on towels and benches, we began our urban meditation under the written directions of Mike Suzuki, a writer of meditation resources.

At first it was disconcerting and disorienting to be among nature and still be under the onslaught of traffic noise. There is a trick to this. Suzuki writes that the key to meditating in a noisy environment is to change the way you think about noise. Rather than letting the external sounds distract them from your meditation, use them in your meditation. We are surrounded by the music of the world, whether birdsong or traffic noise. In an essence it is one more recognition of our part in the interdependent web of life, urban life is as much a part of that web as the flowing creek. Trying to separate ourselves from is not always a successful or easy tactic, as a parent of young children I can speak to that.

It is very hard to separate ourselves from noise and busyness, the key is to change how we integrate that noise. What do we do with it?

One suggestion that Mike Suzuki gives is to try and sit calmly and just listen to the noise. Sometimes, we can't help but listen. Let the sounds fill your head. Focus on the tones and vibrations of the sound rather than their origin.

All sound – whether distracting like a buzz saw, a crying child, or a barking dog – or even calming like a bubbling stream – are just vibrations. When the noise is broken down to its components, you can focus on the deep underlying vibrations. When you choose how to integrate the sound or how that sound makes you feel, then you have the power for it to be a calming sound.

There is also an acceptance. By the stream during that staff worship, I could not make the sound of traffic go away. It was amazing how as I accepted the rush of traffic, other sounds also became apparent. I could hear the water more clearly and I was attuned to other urban noises. A lot of times we might try and drown out unpleasant noise with music or white noise, yet even this is not full proof against soft points in songs or really insistent outside noise.
In order to meditate in this kind of space, you need to acknowledge and coexist with the sounds that are with you. Along with this acceptance, there is also certainly a need for patience. This is not a practice that will happen right away, and frustration can easily come up.

Yet there are countless reasons why we deserve to give ourselves a bit of peace during the stretch of a busy and stressful day. Don't give up! This method of meditation can work, and add more peace and calm to an otherwise noisy and stressful time. Whether by Fern Creek or in your car at lunch, make times for that still point. Make time for yourself to carve out that moment of stillness and meditation, regardless of bulldozers and chatty coworkers.

A square inch of silence is a square inch of peace.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Standing on the Side of Love

In 2009, are you serious? This was the cry of the GLBTQ community in Atlanta this afternoon. There must have been hundreds of GLBTQ supporters and allies at a rally in Atlanta's midtown.

Today I proudly stood with over thirty fellow Unitarian Universalists in a community rally against the raid at Eagle Atlanta, a gay bar in Atlanta. We were there not only stand up for rights, but also to support the GLBTQ community in Atlanta. From victim accounts of the raid there were heavy handed tactics, oppressive slurs against homosexuality, and possible rights violations. Rev. Anthony David, Senior Minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta gave a stirring speech and there were a great deal of press present.

Without a protest and without speaking out there is the danger of losing the momentum on speaking out against misdeeds. Richard Gilbert speaks of the prophetic imperative that demands that we speak, especially in the face of human dignity. The South has had more than its share of struggles for rights and recognition. The struggle still continues and Unitarian Universalists are on the rising front of recognizing that love knows no boundary. Love should not be bound by law, oppression, and fear. We must speak up and speak loud or we will lose our right to speak at all.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009 for Grace

For some grace can be a rather loaded word. I'm not talking about the kind of grace that one receives from a mighty deity. I'm talking about the action of grace in our lives. I define grace as the space in our lives for failure, and what that can gift us. Failure offers gifts?


I remember how frustrated I was when I was 5 and learning how to ride my bike. My best friend down the street had all his family around him and a lot of kids in the neighborhood cheering him on. He fell once, crying, and then sailed off on his bike like a champ. I was so jealous, and knew that I wanted to be a bike-rider too! I had a pink bike with tassels on the handles. While this was a little embarassing for a tom boy, I still knew it would get sufficiently muddy on the trails behind my house. I would turn it into a proper dirt bike - if I could only learn how to ride it!

I remember being by myself and falling and falling. I was pretty peeved that my triumphant crowd wasn't present to see me sail away on my bike. But, I would do it. Yes, I would. My knees were skinned and my pride was even more so. But, after what seemed like hours I finally got that bike moving in a straight line. I kept adjusting the handle bars and holding my breath as I pumped my feet.

That was better than anything! I finally had mastered the impossible. Later on, I gathered up a triumphant crowd - not to be outdone by neighbor and sailed down the street like a champion.

That is grace.

There is room in the universe for mistakes. It can be the most painful way to learn,but often the most rewarding and memorable. Looking back on what might be my easy lessons, I can't recall them. But, boy do those knee skinning and pride bending ones wrench my memory.

Being in ministry and being a parent remind me of this. I make mistakes, and watch my boys struggle through their first skills...playground fumbles. Before I jump in to "fix" it for them, I remember what grace is. Instead I offer a triumphant crowd of cheers and a hug for the tears.

Everyone needs to sail away on their bike, with their own feet pedaling.