December mUUsings

Image credit: NASA/JPL

As most of us were finishing up our Thanksgiving dinners this past week, three spacecrafts were making their final approach to the planet Mars. NASA’s InSight Lander trailed by two briefcase-sized satellites, MarCO-A and MarCO-B (nicknamed “Wall-E” and “Eve”) had traveled nearly seven months to reach their destination beginning a two-year mission to study the interior composition of the planet.

One of the hopes for the mission is that the data it sends back will help us learn more about the early formation of our planet Earth and other planets in the inner solar system.

The human drive to answer big questions and unravel timeless mysteries continues to move us forward. This drive also stops my in my tracks in total wonder at all we may never fully understand about our own human existence and the universe of which we are one tiny part.

As we enter this holiday season, I hope that you will allow yourself a moment (or two or three) to stop and marvel at the wondrous mystery that is all around us. It is our capacity for awe that can help replenish our wells when the weight of the world starts to feel too heavy.

Remember: we are all made of stardust.

How mysterious and wonderful is that?

December Spiritual Exercises

Option A: Return to an Ordinary Moment of Deep Meaning

We’ve all experienced it: the mystery of an ordinary moment that suddenly unfolds and offers deep meaning. The everyday becomes luminous. This exercise invites you to remember some of those luminous moments and revisit the gift they gave. To do this, simply make some time to watch and meditate on the following video:

The Moment

As you watch, think of moments you’ve experienced when life suddenly and mysteriously lit up and reminded you of the marvel and preciousness of being alive. And think about how that lit you up – move you from a feeling of “the same old, same old” to a feeling of dancing with the sacred. Go one from there to imagine images from your own life that you’d include if you were making your own video. Then keep watch during the following hours and days to see if this meditation changes the way you perceive or dance with your “ordinary” days.

Option B: Connect with Mystery on a Clear Night

Since the beginning of our existence, star-gazing has been a primary way we humans contemplate mystery. For scientist and mystic alike, it is a central way we sort out our mysterious place in the universe and the mystery of who we are. As we connect with the universe we connect more deeply with ourselves. This exercise invites you to lean into this connection between the stars above and deep meaning within.

To do this, make room on a clear night to listen to the following podcast while you gaze at the open sky:

Space – RadioLab

The podcast tells the stories of numerous people’s efforts to connect with and make meaning of the mystery that lies beyond. As you listen, treat each story as an invitation to see something new in the vastness overhead. Simply allow this visual and auditory meditation to soak over you. When the podcast ends, continue to sit or lay in the quiet stillness and listen for the new story that your own voice starts to tell. Come to your group ready to share what this clear night clarified for you.

Here’s some additional inspiration:

Option C: Tell Your Mystical Tale

We UUs have had a mixed relationship to our mystical side. Sadly, we’ve tended to distance, deny or ignore it. But it’s there. From the Transcendentalists to our love of earth-centered spirituality, from our first UU Source to those of us who describe themselves as “freethinking mystics with hands,” stories of UU mysticism are woven fine throughout our history. This exercise invites you to add your own mystical experience to that narrative.

Throughout the month of December on our Soul Matters Facebook page, we will invite Soul Matters participants to share short versions of their mystical experiences on the Facebook page and in our Soul Matters google folder. It’s an effort to collect, affirm and articulate the first of our UU Sources: “Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.”

All you have to do is make some time this month to reflect on and condense your mystical experience into a paragraph or two. Or if you have the heart of a poet, maybe even into 8 or 12 lines. When you are done, copy and paste it into our UU Mystics document (or post it on Facebook when we solicit stories).

To help you on your way, visit our UU Mystics document where some stories of UU mystics already are.

As you write your story, think about the phrasing of our first UU Source and ask yourself how your story continues to “move you to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.”


October mUUsings

The grove of pine trees in the field down the road from our family’s shared vacation house outside Rockford, Illinois seemed a bit out of place. There were a few houses on the street and also big open fields typical of the Midwestern landscape. But, my favorite place to run to was the oddly-placed grove of pine trees adjacent to our neighbor’s house.


My family was one of four families that shared this modestly-sized house as a weekend getaway from the city environs of Chicago for the countryside of rural Illinois. When we visited this home, my cousins and I would run to the pine tree grove and crawl underneath the branches of the trees into a small clearing often covered in pine needles. It was a magical place to play and imagine.

My extended family was quite large, and being a more introverted child, I would sometimes venture over to the pine tree grove on my own just to have some peace and quiet. Even as a child, I knew how important it was to have a place of sanctuary.

Since then, I have sought out and created places of sanctuary wherever I have lived – the natural amphitheater at my college, the running path through Rock Creek Woods, my attic bedroom in my adobe house in New Mexico, the independent book store in Denver…so many places have offered me peace, solitude, and inspiration and have helped me recharge my spirits. The many sanctuaries of my life have offered my soul a safe and protected place to be still and to sink into the depth of my own being.

As we enter more deeply into the season of autumn, where and when can you offer yourself a space of sanctuary? How can you nurture for yourself dedicated times and places to take care of your soul?

October Spiritual Exercises

Option A: Share Your Umbrella

There’s a beautiful UU children’s story called “The Umbrella Sanctuary.” Its message is for kids and adults alike. In it, the umbrella represents the many ways others offer us sanctuary from the storms of life as well as the many ways we can pass on that shelter to others. The story also gently reminds us that we overlook opportunities to offer shelter and sanctuary every day. If our attention is woke, we notice that all around us people are “wet with rain.”

So this month, you are invited to use the story to wake up your attention and seek out opportunities to offer people “your umbrella.” This exercise also asks you to go one step further and use a literal umbrella as your daily reminder. Yes, it may feel a little silly at first, but after reading the story, you’ll feel differently. Find an umbrella and hang it by the door of your home so you are reminded every day as you head to work or out for the day. Or take an umbrella with you and let it hang out near your desk as your daily reminder. You might even just let it lay in the back seat of your car for the month. Whatever you choose, use it as a reminder and meditative token of all times someone has noticed you in need and how your gratitude for that calls you to keep an eye out for those often subtle (and not-so-subtle) signs that someone else needs the gift of human shelter.

Here’s the link  to the story:

Option B: Your Many Sanctuaries

Sanctuary comes to us in many forms during our lives. This exercise invites you to meditate on the gift of those many sanctuaries.

Make time to take stock of all the various places, spaces, relationships and experiences that function and have functioned as sanctuary for you.

Here’s the crucial part: As you remember and notice them, identify a symbol or token that represents them. For instance, collect a picture of the person who has been sanctuary for you. If it’s a physical space like your church sanctuary, grab a hymnal. If it’s the arboretum near your work where you often take your lunch, then grab one of their brochures. Those of us who find sanctuary in music might pull out a CD cover. Those of us who find refuge in the woods might pick up and press a fall leaf. Or you might want to use your phone as your collection device and spend the month taking pictures of all of your sanctuaries.

However to do it, the point is to gather these symbols of sanctuary in one place and then see what that “pile of sacred support” says to you. Indeed noticing the size and diversity of the pile is the point: It’s all too easy to go through life feeling vulnerable and alone. Pulling all our sanctuaries into one space, helps anchor us in the truth that life itself is more of a sanctuary than we sometimes think.

Option C: Sanctuaries of Silence

There is a special relationship between silence and sanctuary. Places and moments of restorative silence are as essential to us as breathing. Some even say it takes silence for us to find the breath of our souls. But in our loud and hurried world, spaces of silence are not easy to come by. They’ve been pushed to the far corners of our experience and in some case they’ve been eliminated and must be created again from scratch.

So this month, seek out (or create) as many “sanctuaries of silence” and stillness as you can find. Think of it as a spiritual treasure hunt. Where are the hidden refuges of silence near your work? How might you create pockets of silence in the midst of your daily routine? What secret spaces of silence do your friends know about? Hunt down as many as you can. And then share your “treasure map” with friends and loved ones not only as a way of sharing your story but also reminding others that they can find sanctuaries of silence too.

Here’s a bit of inspiration for this exercise: Sanctuaries of Silence

Or if your cell phone and e-mail are keeping you stuck in storm of doing and cut off from the sanctuary of silence  You could approach this exercise by following the advice of a wellness expert named Dave Radparvar. It’s called “Toothbrush to Toothbrush.” We’ll let Radparvar explain the spiritual trick in his own words:

After reading the article, give it a try for a week or two. Or use the article to figure out a freeing habit of your own. Come to your group ready to share how sanctuary from your cell phone and email helped alter and enhance not only your time before and after brushing your teeth, but also all the time in between!

September mUUsings

handshake-3113668_1920 (1)

As we sat on the edge of the bed, my just-turned-fiancé turned to me and said, “Let’s spit on it.”

The “spit handshake” Urban Dictionary will tell you, is “the act of spitting on your hand before a handshake” and is “only to be used for the most sacred of handshakes.”

Well, this was certainly a sacred moment. After professing my love for my partner and telling him I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him, he wanted to be sure about what I was pronouncing.

“So, are you saying you want to marry me?”

I nodded my head with slight incredulity at what I – the slight commitment-phobe I am – had just proclaimed.

“Let’s spit on it.”

We shared in the sacred gesture of the “spit handshake,” and then I quickly dashed to the bathroom sink to wash myself clean of the promise-laden spit smeared across my palm.

We all make sacred promises in our lives. (Not all of them involving such grand gestures, of course.) These promises give our lives and relationships shape and meaning. Some promises feel easy and natural to make and others require much thought and consideration.

The decision to deepen our relationship by entering into a covenant of marriage was one that my partner and I made with great consideration. I knew that this would be one of the biggest promises I would ever make and would set a course for my life in a defining way.

As Unitarian Universalists, the word “covenant” is foundational to describing the promises and commitments we make in our spiritual community. To covenant is to engage in mutual relationships of trust and accountability. These kinds of relationships can be counter-cultural in a society that so often prioritizes the individual self in our idea of what it means to be human rather than our relationships.

This month, I invite you to consider what it means for you to be a person of covenant. What promises have you made to yourself and others? What relationships might need repair? How can the covenants in your life be deepened?

May you know yourself to be held in relationships of trust and love this month and where you find brokenness in your relationships, may you feel the possibility of repair.

With love,

Rev. Joan

September Spiritual Exercises

Option A: Whose Am I?

Quaker teacher, Douglas Steer writes:

The ancient question, “Who am I?” inevitable leads to a deeper one: “Whose am I?” – because there is not 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, whose lives is your own all bound up, inextricably, in obvious or invisible ways?

So, whose are you? This exercise invites you to honor this core covenantal question by living with four different photographs this month.  Here are your instructions:

  1. Find and print out four pictures of four different people:
  • one of a person that represent your promises to those that have gone before you
  • one of a person that represents your promises to those who will come after you
  • one of a person that represents your promises to someone central to your life right now
  • one of yourself — past or present — that represents your promises to yourself 
  1. Put these four pictures in a place you will see every day this month.  Perhaps tape them to your bathroom mirror or stick them in your wallet.  Maybe frame them and place them on your desk or stick them with magnets on your fridge.
  2. Make a conscious effort to reflect on them every day and do at least one thing to further or honor your promise to one of these people.
  3. Share your four pictures with a friend, family member, or maybe even your minister (!) and share how living with them altered your days.

(Note: consider making this a group effort and do it as a couple or as a family.)

Option B: Return & Repair

UU minister Gretchen Haley writes:

What our faith asks of us, what our faith imagines for us, is that somehow, right at that moment when our hearts break, we will find our way to see through that heartbreak.  We will stay put – not close off, not run away, not hurt back – but keep on being in relationship, doing what we can to repair the world and each other.

This exercises asks you to do the work of return and repair. Pick a relationship of heartbreak in your life.  Maybe it involves a friend or family member, maybe even someone who is no longer living. Maybe a neighbor. Maybe even an institution, like your church or our government. Whoever or whichever it is, make time this month to return to that relationship and work on repair. Simply ask yourself “Where have I withdrawn, been betrayed or broken something myself?” Your heart will know the answer. Listen to what it says.  Then open your heart one more time and lean into relationship once again, doing what you can to repair what you can.

Option C: Live in the Plural

UU minister and writer Victoria Safford writes:

We are bound by coven­ant, each to each and each to all, by what theologian Rebecca Parker calls “freely chosen and life-sustaining interdependence.” The central question for us is not, “What do we believe?” but more, “What do we believe in? To what larger love, to what people, principles, values, and dreams shall we be committed? To whom, to what, are we accountable?” In a tradition so deeply steeped in individualism, it becomes a spiritual practice for each of us to ask [these questions], not once and for all, but again and again. … The life of the spirit is solitary, but our answers to these questions call us to speak, call us to live, in the plural.

Full article here:

What might it be like for you to live “in the plural”? For this exercise, get out a big sheet of paper and write “ME” in the middle of it. Then start adding the people, principles, values, and dreams you’re committed to. Draw lines of connection, creating a mind map of the network of covenant you live in.

When you’re done, set it aside for a few days. Then come back to it and notice what stands out for you and, also, what is missing in your web. What covenantal relationships do you have in your life? How might you more intentionally live in the plural?

April mUUsings

It has taken me a few years to appreciate the unique emergence of spring in Vermont. This year, the first real sign that I picked up on was the distinctive aroma of wet earth as the snow began to melt away. Or, perhaps it was the strange sensation of simultaneously feeling solid ice and soft mud underfoot. All of a sudden, too, there were the sparrows, blue jays, and finches reappearing at the feeders eager to get their fill.

Photo Mar 26, 4 54 38 PM

I have learned that spring emerges haltingly. Sunny days followed by freezing nights. Daffodil shoots tentatively breaking through into open air and then finding themselves covered again by snow.

I like to think that our spirits also emerge out of our winter hibernation in this kind of slow and halting way. We can notice signs of emergence as we notice a hint of unencumbered happiness where there was once a dullness on that first “warm” day of the new season. You have been mourning the loss of that person who was the constant companion for so many of your days and then, one morning, you awaken, and sorrow is not the first thing on your mind or in your heart. You decide not to put on your double-insulated down jacket and opt for a lighter coat and now feel the lifting of those winter layers from body and soul.

Little by little we emerge – perhaps still integrating loss, grief, and sorrow from the winter months – into a new way of being and knowing ourselves.

In this season of emergence, may you allow yourself to unfold and unfurl at the speed that is right for you. May you find renewed life, light, and joy in the brightness of the lengthening days. And, may you (re)discover a deeper sense of self and connection to all that brings us wonder and awe.

April Spiritual Exercises

Option A: Notice Your No’s & Let Some Yes’s Loose
This month, to honor spring’s celebration of wildflowers and Easter’s call to roll away the stone, you are invited to let some Yes’s loose and see what kind of new life emerges. Here are your instructions put as simply as possible:

Try to say Yes as often as you can!

Patricia Ryan Madson, drama professor and author, captures the possibilities inherent in this seemingly playful, but seriously daring spiritual discipline.  She writes,

“This is going to sound crazy. Say yes to everything. Accept all offers. Go along with the plan. Support someone else’s dream. Say: yes”; “right”; “sure”; “I will”; “okay”; “of course”; “YES!” Cultivate all the ways you can imagine to express affirmation. When the answer to all questions is yes, you enter a new world, a world of action, possibility, and adventure… It is undoubtedly an exaggeration to suggest that we can say yes to everything that comes up, but we can all say yes to more than we normally do. Once you become aware that you can, you will see how often we use the technique of blocking in personal relationships and life simply out of habit. Turning this around can bring positive and unexpected results…”

Keep it simple. Try it for 2-3 days and see how it goes. Just catch yourself right before the word “no” spills from your lips and say “Yes” instead. To keep yourself on task, consider printing out these words on a small card or piece of paper and place it somewhere you will see it throughout the day: “Accept all offers. Go along with the plan. Support someone else’s dream. Say: yes”; “right”; “sure”; “I will”; “okay”; “Yes and…” not “Yes but…”

Along the way, try to pay attention to your relationship to Yes’s and No’s. What kind of Yes:No ratio rules your life? How do your Yes’s and No’s impact those around you? Who taught you that Yes’s are risky and No’s are safe? Who desperately needs your Yes, but you’ve been too busy to notice?

Here are a handful of resources to guide and inspire you:

The YES Challenge!
My year of saying yes to everything – TED Talk
Called to Say Yes – Poem

Option B: Emerge From the Tomb of Worry

“We suffer more often in imagination than in reality.”  – Seneca

When it comes to the tombs that keep us trapped, worry tops the list for many of us. The tragedy is that, as Seneca points out, many of those worries are imagined. In other words, we are the creators of worry, not just victims of it. And to the degree we contribute, we can also escape and free ourselves.

If worry and anxiety is what you are wrestling with, then here’s your exercise this month:

Identify your imagined worry
Work with one strategy to address it

Spend some significant time this month engaging and meditating on the below list of resources. Take a day and dive deeply into them all or spread them out and tackle one at a time as your daily meditation practice. Use them not just to better understand worry and anxiety, but to figure out the one particular worry that exists more inside your head and heart than out there in the world. Just naming that imagined worry might be enough for the month. But if you can, also consider using the resources to identify a strategy to begin separating yourself from that worry.

Recommended Resources on Emerging
From the Prison of Worry, Anxiety and Stress

Option C: Leaning Into & Emerging From A Week’s Worth Poetry
There are many sources of awakening and emergence. Poetry is among the most potent. Below are seven different poems, each with its own unique call to emerge into something new. Take a week and use them as your daily meditation practice, letting the voice of the poets help you better identify the particular voice of new growth inside you. How is life calling you to emerge into deeper or greater living? What form of new being and becoming are you being invited to lean into? Treat these poems as partners helping you answer those questions.    

DAY ONE: Last Night Antonio Machado
Spoken & Video meditation:

DAY TWO: Those Who Don’t Feel This Love Jallaludin Rumi
Spoken & Video Meditation:

DAY THREE: Die Slowly (Lentamente Muore) Pablo Neruda
Video Meditation:

DAY FOUR: There is No Going Back Wendell Berry
Poem and Visual meditation:

DAY FIVE: I know. I try to avoid it too Amy Lloyd
See the text of poem below in “Companion Pieces” in the Soul Matters April packet.

DAY SIX: Song of the Shattering Vessels Peter Cole

DAY SEVEN: Open-Hearted Beauty Ahlaam Lala Abduljalil

February mUUsings

I was raised in a family of church-goers. Going to church on Sundays was as natural as breathing, and, from a young age, I witnessed my parents get involved in our local Catholic parish. They were part of committees, organized fundraisers, participated in reading scripture during Mass, and were called upon in countless other ways. They have seen priests come and go, and yet, they have remained committed to serving their church.

I think it is this commitment that has stuck with me so many years later even as I have parted ways on theological and political grounds with the Church. My parents modeled for me a persevering commitment to values-based institutions even when those institutions are (inevitably) imperfect.

As I have become a Unitarian Universalist and participated in many UU congregations, I have witnessed over and over again that same persevering commitment to community from many elders and leaders.

In just the short span of a week, our church community has lost two people who, in my mind, exemplified perseverance and commitment: Hedi Ballantyne and Dave Grundy. Between them, they had close to 100 years of committed membership to UCM. In their time, they weathered several ministerial transitions. They taught Sunday school. They sang in the choir. They prepared dishes for countless potluck suppers. They washed dishes, served desserts, greeted strangers, encouraged others to serve in leadership roles, and so much more. In just the past several months, our congregation has lost others whose perseverance and commitment to UCM has impacted who we are today – Linda Abbott, Jim Ashley, David Ellerson, and Ron Ferry.

These elders show us what it means to be “long-haul people.” These are the ones who share in the steady ministry of church life despite the ups and downs, despite not always “liking” all the decisions made. They show up. They do what needs to be done. They bring others in.

I am deeply grateful for the legacy of our “long-haul people.” May their perseverance be an inspiration for us all.

Long-Haul People

Rev. Rudy Nemser, UU minister

You find them in churches
when you’re lucky;
other places too, though I mostly
only know ecclesiastical varieties.

Long haul people
upon whose shoulders
(and pocketbooks and casseroles
and daylight/nighttime hours)
a church is built and maintained
after the brass is tarnished and
cushions need re-stitching.

They pay their pledges full and on time
even when the music’s modern;
support each canvass though the sermons aren’t always short;
mow lawns and come to suppers;
teach Sunday School when
there’s no one else and they’ll miss the service.

Asked what they think of the minister,
or plans for the kitchen renovation,
or the choral anthem, or Christmas pageant,
or color of the bathroom paint,
they’ll reply: individuals and fashions
arrive and pass.

The church—their church—will be here, steady and hale. For a long, long time. It will.
For long haul people bless a church
with a very special blessing.


January mUUsings

At the start of this church year, I offered up a question for us all to consider: What difference are we called to make? This question was inspired by a phenomenal sermon given by the Rev. Cheryl M. Walker at the Service of the Living Tradition at this past June’s UUA General Assembly in New Orleans. In her sermon, Rev. Walker asked us to reflect on the distinction between making a change and making an impact.

One has to ask the question do I want to make a change or do I want to have an impact? I can change an institution and still not have an impact on the lives of the people in that institution. I can change the bylaws, I can pass resolutions, I can restructure the institution, I can change the leadership of the institution, I can do all of these changes and still not have any impact on the lives of people the institution is purportedly is serving. Change, contrary to popular belief, is actually easy. Having an impact, that’s hard.

Rev. Walker’s words have stuck with me. As we embark upon our Two Service Exploration this month, some of you may be wondering why we are trying out this change. The answer is, in part, that if we are to live out our mission of welcoming all, then we need to make more room for all those who want to worship together on Sunday mornings. And, right now, we aren’t able to. But, that’s just scratching the surface.

This change is also about making an impact. It’s about offering a space of welcome, safety, love, community, mystery, reverence, and beauty to our weary bodies and spirits. It’s about offering this space so that we can fortify ourselves for the challenges ahead and so that we can be reminded of our individual and collective calling to serve the world and one another. And, it’s about nurturing a sense of belonging – building bonds of love that can sustain us and inspire us.

Our Sunday morning worship can serve as a doorway. A doorway to personal growth and transformation; a doorway to greater service in the world, and also a doorway for individuals to become more deeply engaged in our spiritual community through our many ministries and in leadership within the congregation.

The exact impact of opening up our time of worship to more people is something we can’t foresee, but I am hopeful that it will lead to meaningful transformation for all of us as individuals and as a congregation (even just after this one month of exploration).


Though Rev. Walker was speaking in her sermon in large part to her ministerial colleagues, I think that her message applies to all of us in the many spheres of our lives. We can be intentional about making an impact and not just making changes in our relationships – with our spouses, our children, our friends. We can be intentional about making an impact and not just making changes in our workplaces and our neighborhoods. We can be intentional about making an impact in our own personal lives. This intention can lead us to make a lasting difference.

As you begin this new year, I encourage you to take a moment to reflect on the difference you are feeling called to make in the world. Perhaps that is making a difference – a lasting impact – on a child in your life through your mentorship. Perhaps this means making a difference for the planet by reducing your fossil fuel consumption. Perhaps this means making a difference in our church community by serving in a new way.

May you enter this new year with intention knowing that the gifts you offer the world can truly make a difference.

With love,

Rev. Joan

December mUUsings

snow-69830_1280Dear UCM members and friends,

The beginning of the winter season for me always brings a feeling of anticipation. It is the anticipation of the holiday time and all the seemingly frenetic activity of the season; the anticipation of the arrival of the heart of winter with its cold, darkness, snow and ice; and also the anticipation of the quietness that comes once all the holiday hubbub has passed.

It is this quietness that I most long for and also most fear. I know that my soul needs the space and rest that goes along with the depth of winter’s darkness. And, I fear at times the unmasked truths I might discover in that quiet.

As you prepare for this seasonal transition, I encourage you to make space for your anticipation. What are you longing for? What hopes do you hold? What do you need to stay centered amidst the swirling energy of the season?

Our church community will be engaging in some exciting activities in the coming months, and, again, I encourage you to make space for your anticipation – whether that be marked by excitement, anxiety, or both.

I remain grateful to each of you for the love and care you bring to our community and our shared ministry.

With hope,

Rev. Joan