As we approach the Christmas holiday, I know many of you grapple with what this holiday really means to you and how you choose to celebrate it or not. Some of you grew up in Christian traditions where Jesus and his life were much more prominent in your religious upbringing. Some of you come from non-Christian or completely areligious backgrounds and Christmas is just an overly commercialized, secular holiday with no real spiritual depth.
I grew up Catholic as many of you know. My family’s celebration of Christmas had both deeply religious meaning and also many consumerist overtones. The way we celebrated Christmas was a truly syncretic blend of religious, cultural, and commercial traditions – the decorating and lighting of the German-based Christmas tree, attending midnight Catholic mass, eating bihongke (traditional Filipino bean thread noodle soup), and buying each other last minute gifts at the mall. Christmas meant time with family, grappling with consumer impulses that didn’t feel great, and also the celebration of a miracle shrouded in mystery.
Becoming a Unitarian Universalist, I have had to figure out what Christmas means to me now. In some ways, I feel more deeply engaged in reflecting on the significance of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. The biblical nativity story that we share during our annual Christmas Pageant and during our Christmas Eve services takes on new meaning every year as I imagine the lives of Joseph and especially Mary so many centuries ago. The improbability of life thriving in those harsh conditions – during a time of despotic rule, under extreme poverty, with a baby born under questionable circumstances to a teenage girl – cast new light upon the improbability, and yet the endurance, of life now.
The “holy family” is but one family in human history that has endured hardship and also found joy amidst their struggles. Jesus was certainly an extraordinary person who demonstrated more wisdom, kindness, and prophetic acts of love than most. His birth and his life can continue to offer any of us – Christian or not – guidance for living in ways that question power and break down barriers between us.
As you consider how you might celebrate Christmas this year and what the holiday means to you, I encourage you to consider what spiritual lesson the Christmas story may hold for you.
Is there something in the story of Jesus’ birth that you find wondrous?
Is there some aspect of Jesus’ teachings that you want to remember?
Is there a “miracle” that you are waiting for in your own life?
Is there a child whose life you want to be part of nurturing?
Is there a child in your life who is teaching you something?
Claiming (or in some cases reclaiming) the meaning of Christmas can be a significant spiritual undertaking. However it is that you choose to celebrate Christmas this year (or not), may you find the joy of the unexpected and peace in your heart this season.
*You might be interested in reading this reflection to learn more about the Unitarian influence on our modern day Christmas.
**Check out our Director of Lifespan Spiritual Exploration, Liza Earle-Center’s, blog post on winter holiday traditions for some ideas of rituals and traditions you might consider for your family.
Since childhood I have been an avid reader. It seems to me now that back in those days I was able to give my attention to reading with much more abandon than is possible presently. I remember one day I was sitting in my fifth grade classroom. We had been given some free time which I devoted to diving further into the latest Cynthia Voigt book in my collection. I became so absorbed in the story that I didn’t notice for several minutes that the teacher had already begun the next lesson.
We are constantly navigating the inner and outer worlds. In our solitude, we can become absorbed in the story lines and plots introduced to us through books or engage in activities that connect us with our own creativity and imagination. We can pay more attention to our inner psyches and spirits and the inner landscape of our souls where we harbor our fears and stoke the flames of our hopes and dreams.
The outside world also calls for our attention. Often, this call is a lot louder than the call to turn our attention inward. As engaged participants in public life, we may feel called to turn our attention empathetically towards those suffering and to take actions that move the needle in the direction of justice, equity, sustainability, and peace. On a more day-to-day level, we may feel the demands on our attention from children, spouses, co-workers or supervisors. And, the many devices we are so often surrounded with also beg for our attention with the buzz and burst of notifications every few minutes.
Our attention, though, is a precious resource. I have found that spreading my attention too broadly can have detrimental consequences for myself and those around me. It is when I am able to direction my attention with intention that I find the most contentment and fulfillment.
Engaging in a daily spiritual practice has helped me to be more mindful of how I direct my attention (and when I allow my attention to go flying in many different directions). My practice includes lighting a candle, sitting for a few minutes of meditation, and allowing my attention to rest within or on my breath. I sometimes journal or engage in some body practices of yoga and stretching. It’s not too long after this that my attention is then called to the hustle and bustle of getting the day started. But, these few moments of intentional turning inward make a big difference.*
This month, may you allow yourself the space and freedom to direct your attention in the ways that bring you and those around you joy and meaning. May you treat your attention like the precious gift that it is.
*I hope you will consider joining me for an “Introduction to Spiritual Practice” session on Tuesday, November 12. Whether you are new to spiritual practice or not, this session will offer a framework for developing a practice from a Unitarian Universalist perspective and practical tools for deepening your practice.
November 2019 Spiritual Exercises: Attention
Option A: Notice With Mary Oliver
In her poem Gratitude, Mary Oliver asks herself and then answers eight questions of attention:
What did you notice? What did you hear? When did you admire? What astonished you? What would you like to see again? What was most tender? What was most wonderful? What did you think was happening?
It’s a poem that treats the details of our days as a blessing and calls us to do the same. So for this month’s exercise, let’s accept her invitation:
First, take a few days and just spend some time with the poem.
But here’s the catch: You’ve got to decide how to gather the details for your poem. When reading Oliver’s poem, you get the feeling she wrote it at the end of a long day outdoors. But it could just as easily have been written at the end of a week, a year, or even a life. So you pick what calls to you. Maybe you take a 2-hour hike and then sit down and write it. Or maybe sit down and write it at the end of an ordinary day of work and family? You might even want to answer the questions as if they are asking about the past year of your life? Or the past few decades.
Think about sharing the poem with a close friend or your life partner. The point is to let Oliver’s eight questions help you remember that our attention is a way, maybe the best way, we say thanks for these precious days we’ve been given.
Option B: Join the Slow Art Movement
You’ve probably heard of the slow food movement. But how about the “slow art movement”? It arose from museums realizing that people were “seeing” their art but not really “looking” at it. For instance the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York discovered that people spent an average of only 17 seconds looking at their masterpiece artworks. 17 seconds! So now museums around the country organize special days where guests are asked to sit and view the art for 10, 20 even 30 minutes at a time, and then discuss what happened for them in that time of intensive and intentional looking.
This month you are invited to do the same. What a great excuse to invite a friend to your local museum! And if you don’t have a museum near you here’s a video with a bunch of options: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3DAESq9BGMc . Or maybe you want to do it with a piece of art in your house that you say you love but now rarely give your attention to.
Here are a handful of articles and videos to get you centered and inspired for this exercise.
Let’s be honest, we sometimes ignore their need to be noticed. We’re talking, of course, about our loved ones. It’s never their big needs that we ignore. But on a daily basis, it’s all too easy to get…well…busy. Preoccupied. Wrapped up in work. Or worry.
We also know how big of a difference a little attention makes. You see it in your partner’s eyes when you take an extra 3 minutes and bring them coffee in bed before you rush out the door with your own mug.Your kid comes home all excited to tell you a story and you have the good sense to put the phone down and look right in their eyes as they spin their yarn. They light up right in front of you.
Yes, we’re tired. Yes, life is stressful. Yes, half-hearted attention is not sin. But this month take a week and fight it. Spend a week intentionally finding all the ways you can to give your full attention and full heart to someone near you.
Oh, and be sure to pay attention to the difference it makes for and to them, and the difference it makes to what goes on between you and them…
I have loved biking since I was a child, but I have never considered myself a real cyclist. I bike to commute and occasionally for recreation. I do, however, love the sense of freedom I have when I’m on my bike. I also love getting to see places with more proximity than I can from a car. When the idea came about to join in a long-distance bike ride for immigration justice, I felt called to participate even though the longest distance I had biked recently was the mile or so between my house and the center of town.
Vermont Interfaith Action was organizing a Solidarity Bike Tour as part of a regional March for Immigrant Justice. Hundreds of people were walking from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and even Maine to the Strafford County Correctional Facility in Dover, NH which houses detainees arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). All of the participants were joining the journey to call for greater justice, compassion, and humanity in our immigration system.
The small but mighty group of cycling Vermonters set off from Montpelier on August 21. I was able to join them the next day for a 30-mile leg of the 140-mile trip.
By the time I joined up with them along Mascoma Lake in Enfield, NH, the group had already formed some bonds. On the trip was a married couple from Strafford, VT on their matching recumbent bikes who had traveled by bicycle all around the world together. Another couple of teenage friends from Burlington were also on the trip. The previous day the whole group had cycled through the pouring rain and up some steep hills before settling in for the night in Norwich, VT.
Despite being new to the group, they all welcomed me into the fold and helped me make a few adjustment on my bike to get ready. The fact that we were all there with the same intent fostered a sense of familiarity and comfort as we set off.
Those who passed us in their cars could also decide whether, in their minds, we belonged or not. A few loud honks, revving engines, and indiscernible shouts made clear that a few people did not think we belonged. But, there were also a few friendly honks and waves from cars that indicated our message and purpose were welcomed.
After several hours of biking, we made it to our destination for the evening in Andover, NH at the home of a member of a local UU congregation. By this point, I was ready to give my tired legs a break and was grateful for the food given to us and the gift of a warm shower.
I departed that evening back up to Montpelier, but the group continued on for another day of cycling and then the final march to Dover where they joined with others in marching and singing with common intention and purpose.
In the journeys we take together, we come together and form bonds and, in doing so, we can nurture for one another a sense of belonging. We can also remember that belonging is a gift – a gift that can be shared with others. We can ask, who else around me can I invite in? How can I embody belonging for others?
My 30-mile bike ride pushed me outside my comfort zone physically and mentally. It also opened up the chance for me to find belonging with strangers and to create together our own stand of resistance and declaration that ‘we all belong.’
October Spiritual Exercises:
Option A: Whose Are You?… All in One Place
We all know that belonging is not just about place, but people as well. Quaker teacher, Douglas Steer gets at this beautifully:
“The ancient question, ‘Who am I?’ inevitably leads to a deeper one: ‘Whose am I?’ – because there is no identity outside of relationship. You cannot be a person by yourself. To ask “Whose am I” is to extend the question far beyond the little self-absorbed self, and wonder: Who needs you?Who loves you?To whom are you accountable?To whom do you answer?Whose life is altered by your choices?With whose life is your own bound up, inextricably, in obvious or invisible ways?’
It’s such a powerful and important truth: we are who we belong to. But it’s also a hard truth to remember. The world around us doesn’t help. Its focus is on becoming not belonging. It wants us to wake up every morning and ask, “Am I succeeding?” not “Who needs me?” “ Who loves me?” or “With whose life is my own bound up?”
So this month why not engage in a bit of course correction? Why not see what happens when who we belong to is front and center at the start of every day?
This exercise is designed to help with this. Here are your instructions:
Clear off a space on a table, dresser, desk or shelf in your house.
Over a few days or a week populate that space with pictures of people who come to mind when you ask yourself “Whose am I?” Find or print out the pictures. Add as many as feels right. Push yourself to think beyond the obvious answers: your family, your church community, etc. Treat the question as a meditation practice. Asking it each day will lead you to unexpected pictures: a mentor from your past, an unknown boy on the other side of the world suffering because climate change caused by us, those who have been exclude from our faith because of white-centered structures. Or maybe it will take you beyond people, to a pet from your childhood or that park you walk in every Saturday of the Fall.
Once the space is filled with your chosen pictures, send another week or two using it as an altar of sorts. Pause briefly before it every morning. Or maybe more than briefly.
Pay attention to how bringing your network of belonging changes your days. Journal about it. Discuss it with your partner or friend.
Note: You don’t have to do this exercise by yourself. Consider doing it with your partner or with your children as well.
Option B: Belonging to the Earth
When talking about belonging, one soon meanders around to the idea that we all belong to the Earth.What is your connection to the particular plot of Earth on which you live?Take some time this month to be outside around your home.This might be a time of sitting and observing, or mindful walking. In walking around the neighborhood or the plot of land, note particular landmarks.Use your various senses to pick up the sounds and smells of the place.Ask yourself other questions, like, do you know where and when the sun is currently rising and setting on your horizon?What plant or animal species also call this plot of land their home?
If you like, journal or take some notes during or after your time outside. Or different options might include doing a sketch or writing a letter to the plot of land on which you live. Share your writing, sketch or your reflections with a friend or loved one.
Optional ways to take it further:
Consider doing some investigation to learn more about what that land might have looked like 20, 50, 100, or 200 years ago.
Option C: Find Your Place in the Work of Belonging
Belonging always comes with blindsides. When we receive a generous welcome it’s hard for us to imagine and notice the ways in which that open door doesn’t work the same for everyone. Our faith is slowly waking up to the fact that we haven’t been and aren’t the “welcoming congregations” we aspire to be. This is especially true when it comes to race and systems of white supremacy. The gap between our intentions and impact remains painfully large. The work is urgent and large.
This exercise is intended to help you find your place in that large work. Below are a number of resources and discussions that speak to the work our faith is doing around de-centering whiteness. As we know, the work needs to be systemic, but in the midst of systemic work there is also personal work to be done. Identifying “your work” is as important as participating in “our work.” So during this month where we are all trying to “be belonging” for others, not just find belonging for ourselves, use the resources below to better identify and deepen “your work.”
With the cooler nights and the first leaves starting to turn, we know that autumn is upon us. I hope that you have had many opportunities to rejuvenate your spirit during the summer season. My own spirit has felt renewed by slowing down, listening to the patter of rain on the tent while camping, floating in lake water, and sharing many laughs with old friends and family.
Continually renewing our spirits is important as we face the natural ups and downs of our lives and the seemingly all too constant barrage of troubling news in our world. I am grateful that we will be returning to our life of communal worship and the rhythms of our church year giving us all the opportunity to renew our spirits in our shared community.
We start our new church year in September with the theme of “Invitation.” I invite you to consider how you are re-engaging with our shared community in this new year. What intention can you set for nurturing your spiritual journey by participating in the life of our congregation? What support do you need? What gifts do you want to offer in service of our mission?
In early September, you are invited to join others in protecting the Earth, our home, by participating in the UCM Climate Action Team retreat on Saturday, September 7. The newly formed Climate Action Team seeks to mobilize the UCM community to address the climate crisis with meaningful action within the church and beyond.
During the month of September, you are also invited to learn more about the Building for the Future Project – a project to address the comprehensive needs of our congregation in fulfilling our mission today and into the future. You can learn more by visiting the Building for the Future website and attending a cottage meeting or congregational forum this coming month. (Upcoming events are listed on the website.) You can also share your ideas, questions, and hopes with the Education Work Group in person or via e-mail.
There is much afoot as we begin our 2019-2020 church year! I continue to be inspired by all of you and the many ways you share your love and compassion, inquisitive minds, searching hearts, and dedicated service with one another and our broader community.
I look forward to seeing you in the coming weeks!
September 2019 Spiritual Exercises
Option A: An Invitation to Redefine Success
The Invitation by Oriah Mountain Dreamer is one of the most referenced spiritual writings among all liberal religious groups–for good reason. It invites us to completely rethink what this game of life is all about. Forget “what you do for a living” or “how much money you have,” it says. Instead tell us about your ability to “risk looking like a fool for love,” “disappoint another to be true to yourself” or be “weary and bruised to the bone, but still do what needs to be done for the children.” It represents an entirely different spiritual metric. It invites a radically counter-cultural vision of “the good life.”
This exercise asks you to engage its invitation. Here’s your assignment:
Spend a week with the poem. Read it at least once a day for a few days.
Pick the one line that you hope will most characterize your life. Don’t worry about whether or not you are currently living up to it. This is about aspiration.
Share with a friend (or write for yourself in a journal) why this particular invitation is one you want to aspire to.
Option B: Are You a Pilgrim or a Monk?
In her essay, Following an Ancient Call, Christine Paintner reflects on two basic spiritual orientations. Each invites us to engage life differently. Using an animal spirit metaphor she writes, “the bear hibernates to regain its power and the salmon follows the ancient call back home.” Using the metaphor of monk and pilgrim, she writes,
“The monk in me feels the call of moving inward. My inner monk knows the deep wisdom to be found in rest, in slowness and spaciousness, in not letting the productivity of the world keep me running ever faster. The pilgrim in me feels the call of moving outward. My inner pilgrim feels a longing to travel, to walk across new landscapes, to find myself the stranger so that everything I think I know can be gently released.”
So which is it for you? Restoration of power or return to home? Deep wisdom found in rest or needed release found in new landscapes? Which kind of energy is life inviting you to nurture this coming year?
To help with your discernment, take some time this month to:
Discern which of the two orientations is inviting you most clearly. Think about this as your spiritual work for the coming year.
Share with a friend (or write for yourself in a journal) your discernment process and two concrete commitments you are making to yourself to fulfill the call of the monk or the pilgrim.
Option C: Invite a Friend to Church!
This exercise may seem predictable, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. We UUs have a complicated relationship with sharing our faith and inviting others to receive what has been given to us. If sorting through those complications is something your heart is calling you to do, then this exercise is for you. Don’t rush into it. Take time to figure out why you want to invite someone to church. This exercise is really about you figuring out your reason. Once, you’ve got better clarity, go do it. Feel free to reach out to Rev. Joan or Congregational Life Coordinator, Elaine Ball, to let us know how it went and what you learned.
This week, I have been grateful for the openness and spontaneity of this congregation. I treasured the fun and improvisational nature of this past Sunday’s “Question Box” service. I treasured it most for the window it opened into the hearts and minds of each of you that submitted a question.
The questions themselves, more so than my brief responses, held insight, curiosity, and longing that can be guides for all of us.
To what do we or you pray? How can we bring a sense of courage and faith to children and young people in these scary times? What is the spiritual or religious significance of having a marriage ceremony? How can we resist/move on from shame? How do I give basic human respect to persons who I really think are evil? Do you believe in God? If so, how do you define God? How do you hope to help us navigate this time when the spirit and hope are swamped in waves of despair over an increasingly threatening future? Have you ever witnessed a miracle?
This small sampling of your questions provides a years’ worth of reflection! I take joy in the wonderings held in your hearts, minds, and spirits.
Questions can be the source of deepening connection with ourselves and others.
When used properly, questions have the potential to connect us to the world of another. A heartfelt “How are you?” or “How was your day?” can become the bridge that keeps us in relationship to the lives of those we love. Sometimes, too, questions create a bridge within ourselves, allowing us to hear what’s going on at a deeper level. We know when we’ve encountered a question that has this potential because it stays with us — maybe for the day, maybe for our whole lives. It taps us on the shoulder to wake us up, or it wiggles its way in more deeply, opening us up to seeing things in a new way.
Thank you for your questions. I will work my way into responding to some of them with sermons and blog posts, and I invite you to reach out to me to make an appointment if you’d like one-on-one time to delve into your question further.
These are the words of Juan Lopez, an environmental and human rights defender from the Aguan region of Honduras. He joined our Interfaith Delegation for a visit to the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa. The words he shared at the embassy, quoted in this post, speak directly to the root causes of migration from Honduras. It was an honor to meet him and learn from him.
A Reflection written by Juan Lopez, a lay leader in the Catholic Church, a teacher and Delegate of the Word of God. Juan is a leader in the Municipal Committee for the Defense of Common and Public Lands of Tocoa, which works in the region and in coordination at the national level. Here is his testimony that he presented to the Charge de Affairs, Heidi Fulton at the US Embassy. Because of threats, Juan and his family are unable to return to their homes.
(Translation follows each paragraph)
27 de marzo 2019/March 27, 2019
Eran las 8:45am del viernes 22 de marzo, sonó el teléfono y conteste la llamada. Una voz firme y pronunciación muy clara a pesar de la mezcla entre Español e Inglés, ella Estadounidense y yo Hondureño con pocas horas de conocernos pero con una historia y una fe que nos une. Me dijo; “la reunión…
I returned over a week ago now from a weeklong pilgrimage to Honduras to learn more about the root causes of migration and to offer witness and accompaniment to Honduran environmental and human rights defenders. There is so much to say about the trip and what I learned and experienced, and for now I’d like to share a few photos to give you a sense of what the trip was like. During the Easter Sunday/Earth Day service on Sunday, April 21st, I will be offering a deeper reflection on the whole experience and will be presenting about the trip on Wednesday, May 1st in an event sponsored by the Central Vermont Refugee Action Network at UCM.
The purpose of our pilgrimage was to learn more about the root causes of migration and to offer witness and accompaniment to local people engaged in the defense of their land and their human rights. In subsequent blog posts, I will share more about these themes.