I found myself awash in spiritual truths as, in my reading this week, I dove into the ethereal waters of Hinduism. There I saw the underpinnings of that faith tradition more clearly than ever before. In the closing of Philip Novak’s chapter on Hinduism in his book The World’s Wisdom, he offers a definition of God’s grace from the Hindu mystic Ramana Maharshi: “When you pray for God’s grace, you are like someone standing neck-deep in water and yet crying for water.” So too am I seeking wisdom, this day in the Hindu tradition, only to find that the universal truths found herein resonate very closely with the Unitarian-Universalist faith that already surrounds and animates my life.
The first of these common principles is the oneness of all creation, which UUs would call the interconnected web of being. From the Isa Upanishad, we are urged to see ourselves in other beings and vice versa: “Who sees all beings in his own Self, and his own Self in all beings, loses all fear…When a sage sees this great Unity and his Self has become all beings, what delusion and what sorrow can ever be near him?”
In fact, the capacity to recognize the oneness of creation is the very definition of religious virtue. In the Katha Upanishad, we read, “Who sees the many and not the One, wanders from death to death…Who sees variety and not the unity wanders on from death to death…As pure water raining on pure water becomes one and the same, so becomes…the soul of the sage who knows.” Later in the tradition, the mystic Ramakrishna reinforced this idea: “Every conscious being we gaze upon is then perceived to be God. Inanimate structures as well are God…But the most complete Divine Manifestation, surprising as it may seem, is this human reality…” It’s easy to see how this faith tradition has resulted in so many vegetarians in India, and the ecological dimensions of this statement resonate with contemporary environmentalism. It also reinforces the value of sacred and beautiful spaces, whether that be temples or a perch beside a babbling brook.
The second point of resonance in the two faith traditions follows from the first. Because of the oneness of creation, we each have the spark of divinity dwelling within. Continuing from the Katha Upanishad, we find this explanation: “There is one Ruler, the Spirit that is in all things, who transforms his own form into many.” Religious life, therefore, is the practice of communing with this inner peace. Unlike traditional Christianity, with its emphasis on external sources of salvation (e.g. the salvation “by proxy” of Christ’s sacrifice, or obedience to a set of religious observances), the path to salvation comes from within, from the divinity that is already present in us and always has been. This is the art of knowing the Atman, the inner spirit, and the yogic teaching of inner-union.” This resonates for me in the UU principle of the inherent worth and dignity of every person, which echoes the 19th-century transcendentalism that imbued UUism with this more spiritual dimension.
A third point of resonance between UUism and Hinduism is that of “many paths” to a spiritual life, which is embodied in the UU principle of a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Returning to the sage Ramakrishna, his ancient text extols the virtue of respect for all sincere religious traditions. Each person claiming that her own religion is the one true faith is a recipe for insanity. “All religions are glorious!” he wrote, and we should feel joy in participating with our co-religionists. This is because, according to Ramakrishna, Divine Nature can be revealed in many different ways: “All the integral transmissions of sacred wisdom and contemplative practice that survive the test of time are true—true in the sense that they function authentically and bear the sweet fruit of sanctity.” What makes Hinduism friendly to “many paths” is that the pure spiritual nature of Brahman and Atman are not specific, anthropomorphic gods but are confined primarily to the world of meditation and wholeness, as opposed to worship in the Judeo-Christian or Islamic traditions.
The final point of intersection I have observed between Hinduism and UUism, much to my amazement, is the unitary nature of God, who is transcendent and cannot be divided—Unitarian as opposed to Trinitarian or polytheist. I have heretofore thought of Hinduism as polytheistic (and therefore very un-Unitarian) given all the stories of gods and goddesses in the tradition. But I have heard Hindus dispute this vehemently, and claim that their faith centers on one true God.
Having dived into these sacred texts this week, I see now how this is so. Having reviewed highlights from the Vedas, the Upanishads or the Bhagavad Gita, I see that none of them mentioned the deities with which I am familiar, with the exception of Lord Krishna. What came through instead was a clear devotion to Brahman (ultimate reality) and Atman (the soul or the true self) which all seemed to be referred to collectively and interchangeably as “God.” Even Lord Krishna cannot be confined to a single form of existence: The physical manifestation of Krishna, when he revealed himself to the petitioner Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, was many faceted, with hundreds of mouths and arms and sources of light. This expresses the truth that “God” cannot be defined in limited human terms but rather transcends our capacity to comprehend it.“
I, too, believe that God is a great mystery that resists easy definition. From the Hindu tradition, we can learn that letting God remain mysterious is a better approach to religion than most, at least for those of us who value praxis and human wellbeing over orthodoxy of belief. Keeping God in the realm of the ethereal puts the focus where it belongs: On our earthly capacity to find inner peace and see the divinity in all fellow creatures and in all things.
This week I have been exploring my family history through our family genogram project. I have been seeing patterns and influences on my life, including the impact of coming of age in the monoculture of 1980s Central Indiana farm country.
This reminds me of the exploration done recently at my seminary with the Minneapolis slam poetry artist Tish Jones. Jones invited us to experience the poem "Self Portrait" by spoken-word artist, playwright and dancer Marc Bamuthi Joseph, which was a powerful exploration of the tangled roots of racism and culture.
This encouraged me to explore the relationship of family and cultural influences that contributed to my own sense of alienation as a young man. What I didn't experience in racism I made up for in my experience of toxic masculinity, with the result that so many of us hid our true selves. In case you didn't know white people could write slam poetry...well, they can. We all have our pain, and Tish Jones taught me that we can never try to compare our experience with someone else's. So, with apologies to those who are much better at this art form than I, this is my version of rural slam. This was a cathartic experience.
Inspired by "Self Portrait" by Marc Bamuthi Joseph
I come from a monoculture.
One crop, one religion, one way of loving.
Isolation of the farmland Midwest
Married pale Ethnicity to beget
The world of white farms with red barns.
Fundamentalism then married in
To keep the culture running.
White and hetero, made in God’s image.
Then the cousins came to stay:
Heterosexism and Masculinity.
There’s only one way to be a man
And that is to hunt rabbits and women.
These kissing cousins begat Bullying
And his big brother Intolerance,
Because that’s what bullies become
When they grow up.
They own the land,
They own the church,
They own the culture without color and then
Pretty soon the need to keep the Monoculture pure
Demands Silence to hide real questions.
No room for listening, no room for dykes and fags
And those of whom we shall not speak.
No room for boys who love disco and dress-up.
Instead the Patriarchy of pioneers
Called out uncles and cousins and
Drove diversity deep underground.
Keep the rows straight.
Keep the yield predictable.
Bring the poisons.
Bring the blades.
Kill the weeds.
This is a reflection on “A Failure of Nerve” by Edwin Friedman.
What does it mean to be a leader? If we stop and think about it, this is a fundamental topic to our very existence. Every day, each us is in our own way in a position to lead, inspire, direct or motivate others. Even when we’re on the receiving end, and we are faced with the need to follow, take direction or accept help, the approach that our leaders take creates a pivotal difference between compliance and transformative personal growth.
Edwin Friedman, an ordained rabbi and best-selling author, suggests a new framework for defining leadership. His thinking is breakthrough, but once you consider it, it immediately resonates as true. In short, he views the frequent failure of leadership as a “failure of nerve.” Understanding the conceptual and emotional dimensions of how we make decisions can help us tap into the paradigm shifts that always accompany breakthroughs in human achievement. Our culture today has many parallels to 15th Century Europe before the age of exploration. We, as the Europeans did then, find ourselves in “imaginative gridlock.”
We are on the “treadmill” of trying the same things over and over even though they don’t work; we are desperately looking for answers and data, when in truth we may be asking the wrong questions; and we fall victim to false dichotomies and present false choices. The metaphor he uses from the 15th Century is the internalized barrier of the equator, whom the early navigators thought could not be crossed. Their worldview was similarly distorted with the obsession to get to the Far East, which was viewed as the only destination that mattered. And the only barrier to Europeans getting there was the Moors who were blocking them in from the East.
Everyone thought they knew how the universe worked, they thought they knew what the goal was, and they thought they knew exactly what the barriers were to their ambitions. As we know today, all their assumptions were completely wrong. What it took to break through it was the “nerve” of those who could take risks and break out of the imaginative gridlock. Once the equator was crossed, and the navigators returned, the whole world as it truly existed began to unfold before the explorers at an unprecedented pace.
This new era of exploration resulted in many mistakes until the maps were fully drawn, but the mistakes didn’t last. Of course the end result of the European “exploration” of the southern hemisphere and the “new world” ended up being one of exploitation and brutality, but the metaphor stands as a way to understand how imaginative gridlock traps us in our old patterns of thinking and (in this case literally) prevents us from seeing the world as it truly is.
This week I'm thinking of the a leader who's nerve never failed. This of course was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who's death 50 years ago is being marked this week. He had the courage to reject the conventional wisdom of the day, which is that violent oppression must be met with violent resistance. He changed the course of history, like the explorers that Friedman lifts up, and was not bound up by the emotional cries of those in pain.
It's instructive to note that his assassination came at a time when he was continuing to push new boundaries, appealing to broader themes of social and economic justice. The fears of the small-minded set out to sabotage his leadership and his legacy. But, like Friedman's explorers, King has already created new maps for others to follow. We have made many mistakes in this bold new project, but may we never lose our nerve.
This is a reflection on “When Women Were Birds” by Terry Tempest Williams.
This morning I’m thinking about the beautiful memoir of Terry Tempest Williams, which is filled with love, beauty and struggle. Upon her mother’s death, the writer inherits her mother’s journals, which is a critically important maternal tradition in Mormon culture. As Williams began to dig into this treasure trove of family and maternal history, she was shocked to find that every single journal page was blank. This book is her reflection on her and her mother’s lives that was lovingly written on her mother’s blank journal pages. Her mother, it would seem, had given Williams the gift of her (Williams’) own voice that now filled the pages. This book is a beautiful act of creative love, a merging of their lives.
The work overall is about women (and I can read all people who struggle to be whole and authentic) who are seeking their own true voice. But the beautiful idea that leapt out of these pages for me is the precursor to hearing your own voice: that of silence. The book I was reading was born in silence: it knew its existence only because of the invitation of the silent pages that Williams’ mother had bequeathed to her.
In reflection XVII, Williams describes this seeking of truth that grows out of silence, which is sometimes uncomfortable: “I was experimenting with voice, what I could say and still be heard in an atmosphere of prescribed [Mormon] truths.” Of course, the truth is that silence is not really silent.
Williams recounts the stunning experience of John Cage’s 4’33 concerto, which is 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence. But what she and the concertgoers heard, in fact, was not pure silence, the absence of music: what they heard was the wind and rain outside the concert hall. They heard voices. They heard the sound of their own breathing. And they no doubt heard the still, small voice of their own longing. “Silence introduced in a society that worships noise is like the Moon exposing the night,” she explains. “Behind darkness is our fear. Within silence our voice dwells. What is required from both is that we be still. We focus. We listen. We see and hear. The unexpected emerges.” (61)
Silence gives space to that which is wordless, and it gives space to allow new words and feelings to rise and take shape, like sunlight gently drawing clouds up out of the ocean. And for me, this wordlessness is God, a divine space where truth can find its voice, or even many voices.
Clouds that form may be cotton-candy cumulus clouds. But they can just as easily be black and forboding storm clouds. As I experienced myself as I struggled with the truth of my own sexuality five years ago today, listening to your true self can be frightening. Williams writes words that I could have written myself: “I fear silence because it leads me to myself, a self I may not wish to confront. It asks that I listen. And in listening, I am taken to an unknown place. Silence leaves me alone in a place of feeling. It is not necessarily a place of comfort.” (pp. 59-60)
As I began to explore my spirituality in more depth a few years ago, this was one of the first lessons I learned: being quite, making spaces in my life to just feel and think. I learned that prayer, for me, is really about making space for love and insight to enter my being. Or, perhaps more accurately, to give this small, quiet voice a stage. It was already there but needed space to emerge. This reminds me of the tradition of the Native American talking stick: Whoever holds the stick is given permission to speak, and their words will be heard without comment or judgment.
Sometimes we need to make space for the talking stick. God, in whatever form you know God, will emerge. And you might find that what has emerged is your own, authentic voice.
A prose poem inspired by Audre Lorde’s essay: “Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism”
Anger is a flame. It flares up sometimes when you least expect it. Like when you are working, and speaking and doing your best to make sense of the world and you are suddenly slapped in the face by the ignorance of people who don’t get it. Who don’t get you. Who can’t hear. And who long ago forgot how to listen.
Anger is when a member of the dominant culture says, “Tell me how you feel, but don’t say it too harshly or I cannot hear you.”
Anger is when someone says the problem is that you, the oppressed, just need to understand them, the oppressors.
Anger is something that only belongs to us people of color. “Let them work it out,” they say, while they cross to the other side of the street.
Anger is when they say, “What about my anger”? As if the erasure of my culture, my sex, my being can be compared with your white discomfort.
Anger is when the little white girl in the supermarket points at my little Black girl and says, “Oh look, Mommy, a baby maid!”
Anger is when they say, “If we could only talk calmly about racism without having to deal with the harshness of Black women.”
What is this anger, exploding inside of me? When I attend to my own rage, I hear truth, and I feel energy. That bang that can thrust me past silent suffering and into the streets.
Let my anger be a candle that illuminates my truth, like a candlelight vigil that draws in more and more fiery flames to create action in the service of our vision.
Let my resentment remind us that pain is a message—a message that racism and sexism and homophobia are weeping wounds on the body of our people that cry out for healing.
Let my rage be a flame for all to see, a thousand points of light illuminating a thousand black and brown faces that for too long have been silent and invisible.
Let my outrage be a voice shouting in the darkness, joined by another, and another, and another until we have banished silence and embraced our survival.
Let my fire be one of creative destruction, one that sweeps away the old growth and calling forth out of the blackened earth shoots of green hope.
May we all be transformed, not by guilt, but by finally lighting up the dark so that we can see where we’ve been, and where we must go.
Do not fear my anger. Fear the darkness instead.
After all the living, the struggling, the vicissitudes of life, today I feel like I have started back at the beginning. Reading Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermon On Being a Good Neighbor returned me to my Christian roots. Treating your neighbor as yourself is such a common phrase in the Christian tradition, yet it is an ideal that so many people utterly fail to live up to.
Of course the catalyst for this lesson was Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, which is the perfect illustration in two ways: First is the obvious lesson that we must have compassion for others who are suffering, even when they are of a different social, religious or economic group. The robbed and beaten person lying by the side of the road to Jericho is a metaphor for anyone who needs help.
King characterizes the virtue that Jesus calls us to as altruism: “The Samaritan was good because he made concern for others the first law of his life.” Then King comes to what for me is the pivotal question for all human relations throughout history: human tribalism. He laments this as one of the great tragedies of our existence, that our neighborly concerns so often find their limits at the boundary of “tribe, race, class, or nation.” To this I would add other boundaries, such as gender, identity, and sexual orientation, among other divisions.
I have wrestled with this often in my own religious development. I view myself as a citizen of the world, and I love freely across the boundaries that many people would not cross. I cannot know the experiences of others, but I can have compassion for a fellow human being, especially one who suffers. Yet there are those who draw the line at their own kind, expressing disinterest at best for “the other” and, at worst, all-out enmity.
I am astounded by people who not only have the capacity to hate, but who actually wear their hate as a badge of honor. A fellow Unitarian-Universalist once recounted a story of how his treasured bumper sticker, which says “God Bless the World. No Exceptions,” invoked anger and hostility from someone who observed it. Somehow it was blasphemy, in the onlooker’s eyes, to assert that God loved muslims, migrants, atheists and gays. If I could just figure this one out, I could fix the world. How can we be so kind and loving to our “own kind,” having empathy and charity, and then cross over to the other side of the street (or worse) when we see a young black man approaching?
Finding the answer to this question is a big part of what is motivating me to pursue ministry. Along with Jesus and Dr. King, I refuse to give up on the idea that altruism is possible across the boundaries that have historically divided us.
And that’s the second lesson, more hidden, that King elucidates in this sermon, which is the reason that people normally do not help: fear. King recounted his own experience traveling in the Holy Land, finding himself on the very road from Jerusalem to Jericho. It’s a winding, steep and dangerous trek and this helped him realize the full meaning of the parable. The road to Jericho represents our fear. Maybe the robbers were still nearby and would attack again. Maybe the injured person was faking and it was a trap. The prevailing thought among those who don’t help is often “If I stop to help this person, what will happen to me?”
King brings it home by insisting that we must learn to reverse this question, to ask, “If I do not stop to help this person, what will happen to them?” Therefore, the neighborly ethic, to which we can all aspire, is that we must overcome our fear and accept risk to our own position, even our own lives, for the wellbeing of others. That’s a hard lesson, and one that we must work on every day.
My heart has grown two sizes this past week, as I’m learning to get out of my head and explore the world of the poetic and emotional. It began with the meditation in my Spiritual and Personal Formation class last Thursday. The leader of last week’s meditation had us bring some old magazines, some paper, scissors and some glue. Ugh. A Sunday school art project? Is this what I came to seminary for?
In an unexpected turn, the leader then gave us a copy of the 23rd Psalm. You know this one: The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…” And she then asked us to reflect on the deeper, personal meaning that spoke to us from this classic Psalm and to create a collage that illustrates our thoughts and feelings visually. My mind resisted.
My experience of seminary so far has been learning how to do theological interpretation, which is more like complicated math than I would care to admit. What is the nature of God? What is sin? Where in the text can we find a message of social justice? What is the Hebrew word for “wilderness”? What do we do about the difficult texts that speak of death and division? Big ideas. But no, now we were going to do a craft project.
As I flipped through the magazines, I contemplated: what is my want and where are my still waters? What am I shepherding and what is shepherding me? I found that I had to turn off my theological brain and let my heart guide me, rather like young Luke in Star Wars first learning to access “the Force” while blindfolded. I soon found pictures that began telling a story. Then the story came tumbling out of me and, before I knew it, I had more pictures than I could fit on my page.
This is no great piece of art, but my result is pictured here. The old man, alone, is my “shall not want”: I don’t want to grow old alone, but rather to live in vibrant, loving community all the days of my life. The hula dancer is reaching out to embrace divinity in the universe, and is a symbol for me of my loving life partner who is devoted to the ways of hula. The Native American weaving artwork in the center represents art in nature, which brings me inner peace and poetic reflection. And what I am shepherding, and what shepherds me, is creating loving human relationships that liberate us from the old “us vs. them” paradigms. As Dr. King wrote, we must learn to be transformed nonconformists.
The transforming power of love then returned to me on Sunday, when I had an online dialogue with a young gay friend overseas. In an online LGBT forum, he had previously posted about feeling suicidal and his life not having any meaning, as he struggled to claim his authentic identity in a muslim culture that is hostile to unorthodox ways of loving. The thought nearly broke my heart, so I reached out and befriended him. On Sunday, our conversation had turned to his attempt to understand the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, which is traditionally taught as a condemnation of homosexuality. Despite all the theologizing, my intellectual brain couldn’t solve this one, but the two of us together found a path to life rather than death. He told me I had saved his life, and tears welled up in my eyes. I didn’t know I possessed the powers of life and death. As I ended the conversation, I walked past a door in our bedroom and saw a small rainbow sign, reminding me of the one in my collage. Maybe the collage of my heartfelt longing to create loving community was actually much more real than all the intellectualizing.
Then I read Audre Lorde’s essays “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” and “The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power.” I literally wrote the word “Wow” in the margins in at least two different places. Her general idea is that poetry is essential for women (and here I also read in, other oppressed minorities). It’s essential because it is a way to access the deep meaning within ourselves that rejects the constructs of culture. It’s the feelings and longings speaking within us that liberate us, as opposed to the script that society would have us follow.
One of the lines that brought this home, especially for me as a white male studying theology intellectually: “The white fathers told us: I think, therefore I am. The Black mother within each of us - the poet - whispers in our dreams: I feel, therefore I can be free.” This idea is so liberating to me, and finally helps me understand how art connects to spirituality. It is the realm of the emotional and deep, an inner place wherein dwells a radical love that transforms people’s lives from the inside out.
What I can take home from this is that poetry, feelings and emotions are my true religion. This is why I cry when I think of tender, heartfelt exchanges of love between people, and why traditional religious “teachings” leave me cold. While Lorde wasn’t directly speaking to me, I have so much to learn from her approach. From the essay on Uses of the Erotic, which is to say, our emotional, feeling, loving side, I took the lesson that our greatest power is our love, our passion, and our joy. It is these gifts that lift our own souls, and then allow us to lift up others.
I’ll leave you with this powerful Lorde quotation from a third essay, “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action.” She’s speaking to a convocation of women, where she expounded on the idea that silence is death, while speaking - forming language and poetry found within us - is a bridge to life and community. Here’s the challenge from Audre Lorde that I can only aspire to live into:
“What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies that you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence? Perhaps for some of you here today, I am the face of one of your fears. Because I am woman, because I am Black, because I am a lesbian, because I am myself - a Black woman warrior poet doing my work - come to ask you, are you doing yours?”
May all of us who aspire to minister to human souls answer Lorde’s challenge with a life-giving yes.
As part of my effort toward my own personal and spiritual formation, I'm happy to be returning to my Sunday Morning Blog each week. My journaling here will be inspired by my readings, thoughts and reactions each week in my Introduction to Spiritual & Personal Formation course.
This first week is challenging me already, as I sit with two seemingly very different texts from Catholic Priest Henri Nouwen and black womanist lesbian poet Audre Lourde. Nouwen’s small book, Life of the Beloved, is a broad statement of theology using everyday language, structured as a conversation between two close friends. Lourde’s work, interpreted in this reading by Pamela Ayo Yetunde, Th.D. at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, is one that speaks of a theology that grows out of deep personal struggle and a desire to be liberated from oppression.
My first reaction to the thought of looking for common linkages in these two texts was that it’s impossible—they are vastly different and coming from opposite poles of social location: on one end, a white male clergyman representing the most powerful and pervasive Christian faith tradition; on the other, a black female lesbian with no formal theological training, whose life represents on many fronts the struggle against oppression. But there is a thread that connects them.
For Nouwen, he is writing to his dear friend, Fred, and trying to convey a sense of what is most important for him and his friends to know about spirituality. He develops a four-part approach that essentially equates to a communion blessing: taking the bread, blessing it, breaking it and sharing it. This means we are all “taken” or chosen by God as beloved beings, which from my Unitarian-Universalist perspective I equate with inherent worth and dignity. We can then, in Nouwen’s construct, use this special status that we all share to bless each other. Next we must accept that, despite being the Beloved, that we are all broken in our own way and suffer pain, most often the pain of rejection and alienation. And finally we can give our lives as a gift to benefit others.
For Lourde, the essential point I took from the reading was the womanist perspective, which Yetunde characterizes as “an attitudinal process that starts with value being placed on being
human, takes account of our sex, race, sexuality, and culture, and ends with a celebration of Black women’s preciousness” (Yetunde, “Audre Lorde’s Hopelessness and Hopefulness: Cultivating a Womanist Nondualism for Psycho-Spiritual Wholeness”). For Lorde, the womanist perspective includes “nondualism,” which embraces the integrated soul, the unity of life, and a fusing of “I” with “the other.”
What I see as the common element connecting these two approaches is our inherent worth—our status as the Beloved, in Nouwen’s language, or the claiming of black women’s humanity, dignity and power, in Lourde's approach. Despite our suffering, our brokenness, we have the power to bless and uplift each other.
Nouwen recounts one of his spiritual epiphanies as he responded to the mentally disabled people who were in his care. They asked him for a blessing. After an awkward attempt to give them the standard Catholic priestly blessing, it soon become clear what they really wanted: to be embraced and told of the unique gifts they bring to the world and how precious they are.
This reminds me of a lay-led Thanksgiving service that I created several years ago, in which I counted the members of the congregation as blessings to our shared community. I found great power in naming individuals, and saying why we as a community are grateful for them. A dear friend had questioned the use of “blessed,” perhaps misunderstanding it as a claim to religious superiority and divine favor over and above others. Nouwen makes it clear that this is not the case, that each of us has a special status as one of the Beloved. Even more important for me, we have the ability to bless each other. We do this when we truly see each other, call each other by name, notice the good, and give our sincere hope for their spiritual and physical wellbeing.
We must do all we can to embrace our own self worth, and remember to pause from our busy-ness and reach out to give blessing to our fellow beings at every possible opportunity.
As I witness the horror unfolding around me in St. Louis this weekend, with yet another cycle of racially motivated protests and police violence, I'm wondering what the hell I'm doing in my seminarian ivory tower studying the Old Testament. After all, I want to go into ministry to make the world a better place, fight injustice and foster new or deepened understanding among all those whose lives I touch. How does reading books - and ancient ones, at that - accomplish any of this?
While I'm studying the Pentateuch and ancient Jewish history, my brothers, sisters and siblings of all colors and backgrounds are being beaten down, literally and figuratively, by an alarmingly militarized army of riot police wielding batons and tear gas. I have been struggling to find a connection between theology and this potent real-life conflict among people of the same city and the same country. People who continuously and willfully misread each other's actions and motives. People who can't see each other's perspective.
As a creature of white privilege, like it or not, it's easy to think that this fight isn't really about me or the people like me. "Just be safe" we white folks tell each other, which means "Stay out of harm's way. Don't do anything stupid like participate in dangerous protests." In my virtually all-white workplace on Friday, all the concern and discussion was about how to avoid being trapped in our Clayton office building in case the roads should become blocked by protests and inconvenience us from getting back to our luxurious suburban homes. Incredibly, our building actually went on lockdown, lest the "other" invade the sanctity of our tidy workplace. We were bolting the door against the hurricane of anger that was brewing outside, but somehow felt like it had nothing to do with us.
But after consuming the scenes and hearing the stories of what's happening in our streets, the repeated body blows become unbearable. "Be safe" rings hollow, even cowardly, in the face of historical injustice.
But of course theology does have something to say, at least the kind of theology that I'm immersing myself in now. When I began my studies just a few weeks ago, we started at the beginning. The classic creation myth of Genesis 1 teaches us that all are made in God's own image. And it was good. And alongside Genesis, we are also studying the Africana interpretation of the scriptures, which includes the perspectives of African-Americans, among others.
Theologian Rodney S. Sadler, Jr. wrote about the Africana experience in interpreting the Genesis story. The focus of that tradition is a familial relationship between God and humanity. From this perspective, how can people justify demonizing "the other"?
For Africana peoples, he writes, one of the most important things taught by the story of Genesis is that we are all made from the dust of the earth, in the image of God. And implicit in this understanding is members of the same family cannot and must not do violence to each other.
Dr. King had also incorporated this into his own theology of civil rights, writing that "Man is a child of God made in His image...Until men see this everywhere, until nations see this everywhere, we will be fighting wars."
I'm praying this day that all can see the humanity - the common face of God, the spark of divinity - in each other's eyes, and base our choices on this understanding of universal human worth.
This reminds me of the Zulu (African) concept of Sikhona and Sawubona. This traditional dialogue, used as a daily greeting and affirmation, reflects this Africana conception that all of us belong to a common human family. When two people meet, the Sikhona calls the first person to say "I am here to be seen." The Sawubona calls the second to respond, "I see you."
Let us pray that the Black Lives Matter movement can be rightfully understood as a cry of "I am here to be seen." Not made to feel that these lives don't matter. To understand that black lives have to matter before we can even begin to say "All Lives Matter." And may the response from all of us, not just police and the courts, be to look into those beautiful and fearful black and brown faces, and say "I see you."
Very hungry have I been,
Searching and devouring
Tasting and testing,
I pause at the end of this earthbound trek
And with the first silken strand
I fix myself to this place.
In this protected nook, sheltering and secure
Shall I spin a cocoon of blessing
Where my restless journey will now turn inward,
Forming, reforming, transforming,
Where the flowers I have tasted
And precious jewels I have pocketed
Will be spun into kalaeidoscopic wings,
My coat of many colors,
That will, in God's time, unfold in prairie sunshine
To launch this newly wrought soul into blue heaven.
My short essay submitted as part of my application to Seminary - an exciting time of change in my life!
My life has been one shaped and inspired by religion, but not in the usual, linear path. Like concentric waves from a stone dropped into a still pond, my initial experiences started small and narrow, eventually expanding to embrace a wide universe of love and diversity.
My participation in church life began as a youth in a traditional small-town Baptist church in Fairland, Indiana. A lover of music from early childhood, I volunteered to serve the church as its pianist at age 14 and did my level best to move worshipers to come forward to the altar to claim salvation. After losing touch with my traditional faith and family influence during my college years, I gradually shed my conservative values, replacing them with a love of the world, a respectful agnosticism, and a fascination with religions and culture very different from my own.
I met my wife in Washington, D.C. and we were married in her faith tradition, Unitarian-Universalism. Upon relocating to her family’s hometown of St. Louis, I quickly embraced the UU practice of congregational, covenantal religion founded on the worth and dignity of all people. It was in the UU church that I was able to reclaim Jesus – this time in a historical context – along with the Buddha and Coyote, Theodore Parker and Olympia Brown, and many other sources of religious and spiritual truth.
There were three key influences that set to work on my life: Lay led worship, music and theatrical performance, and liberation from the straightjacket of hetero-normativity.
Our minister Rev. Thomas Perchlik was a particular influence on my lay-led worship experience. I supported his ministry on the Worship Committee, and I was entrusted with developing and leading several lay led services during the church year, and also (in conjunction with my family) for several more informal summer worship services. Rev. Perchlik inspired us with his story telling, often including Native American stories about Coyote and other vivid characters, and often played his Native American flute to set the mood for worship.
Service themes I developed included the joy of pilgrimage in Transylvania (which I experienced for myself in 2007), the meaning of marriage, Unitarian-Universalist superheroes and LGBTQ themes. I explored freely, including writing original songs, poems and prayers, creating several videos to accompany worship, and self-publishing my creative work in a blog/website www.geospirituality.com .
As part of my service with the Partner Church Committee, I developed a series of musical theater events to teach Unitarian history in poetry, music and song. It was a “trilogy” produced over several years, including distinct explorations of phases of Unitarian development in Transylvania, England and the United States. These productions were time-consuming and exhausting, but the thrill of pulling them off and creating unique entertainment and learning experiences for our congregants was the most rewarding amateur work I have done.
The church was also instrumental in supporting my coming out as bisexual/gay, which I did in a lay led sermon from the pulpit in 2013. (http://www.geospirituality.com/on_welcoming.html) The first inspiration was the example of a gay interim minister who also came out late in life, who taught me, as someone who was already becoming attracted to ministry, that I first had to be honest with myself, my family and my community about who I was. And the second inspiration was the comforting presence of the Welcoming Congregation movement that would educate our traditional congregation and seek certification (now achieved) as a Welcoming Congregation by the Unitarian-Universalist Association. Together, both experiences created a path for me to integrate my sexuality and my spirituality.
My leadership experience is broad and diverse, including participation on the church board for a three-year term and leadership of several committees, serving alternately as the chair of the Music Committee, the Partner Church Committee and the Welcoming Congregation Committee. One of my most cherished accomplishments, after spending 23 years in the human resources consulting field as a professional communicator, is my ability to form strong interpersonal relationships with both colleagues and clients. It seems I am the consultant most often called upon when there’s a “difficult” client who needs tending, and I’m usually the one who ends up coaching and mentoring the “problem employees.” When I encounter these supposedly challenging people, I see them as multi-dimensional individuals, not cardboard cutouts, and through empathy I can quickly discern what makes them tick, what they value and what they need most.
I find myself today at a crossroads and feel ready to finally bring all these diverse life experiences into a fulfilling life of parish ministry, where my focus will be creating meaningful experiences for people. The number one thing I have to share with the world is my diverse perspective on —or should I say, perspectives, plural. I have lived as a conservative fundamentalist and as an Obama-loving social democrat. I’ve lived as a straight, married man and as an out-late-in-life gay man. I’ve lived in the Midwest and on the East Coast, as well as in the United Kingdom. I’ve experienced the joy of family, as a kid with more cousins that I can count, as a wide-eyed newlywed, and as a father of two beautiful children—soon to get reacquainted with life as I share a newly empty nest with my wife and life partner as we turn toward caring for our now-aging parents.
I hope to have the opportunity to count United Theological Seminary as among my life’s companions, to guide and inspire my future life of service to all those people who need love, comfort and inspiration. Thank you for considering my application.
Out with the dogs on a December walk,
Thoughts of Advent and holiday expectation taking shape,
When the incongruous vision looms along my path
Of a maple resplendent with electric gold.
I stop to reflect, trying to understand my impatience
With this tree flaunting a reckless disregard for calendars,
The riotous clamor that refuses to let go and give in
To the silent and more respectable winter.
Perhaps in today's climate of political fears,
Our tree wants to do its part to hold out some hope.
Maybe it's not too late for the leaves to be recounted
Before admitting defeat and choosing a more promising season.
Let us all let go of the golden promise of autumn,
Knowing it's time to prepare for the long coming winter.
Protect yourself from the biting winds, offer warmth to a stranger,
And most of all, protect the precious buds as they await new birth.
As you start on your way, the way appears.
When you cease to be, real being comes.
This morning I'm reflecting in gratitude for the time spent with my son in South Dakota's Badlands. The French called them "bad lands to travel across." What they didn't understand is that these stark and beautiful landscapes were not meant to be traveled across, passed by on the way to something more productive or more readily reshaped by white human hands. Rather, they were meant to be explored without agenda or timetable. They were meant to be lost in, your being absorbed into the landscape itself.
In reflecting on the experience, I'm enjoying the thought of how this hiking and backpacking trek is a beautiful metaphor for how I'd like to live my life.
Some go to the wilderness to find themselves. I say go to lose yourself. On the vast open plain, below a million miles of sky, what is the meaning of my individuality? Let me be another black spec among the brown-green hills, one with the buffalo or dung beetle.
Part of losing yourself is abandoning the Western desire to plan and control your day, acheive goals, conquer obstacles. As Rumi said, just open yourself and the way will appear. Accept gifts as they come. The early sunrise, the chirping of frogs in an unexpected shallow pond, the grasshopper, the serenity of a distant grazing bison herd, the taste of live-giving water, the quiet companionship of a fellow trekker.
Leave only footprints. That's the wisdom of the wandering buffalo, whose muddy, pitted trails we followed across the soft spring prairie. The herds appear to wander, yet there are clear paths, a network of knowing, that leads them to water and rich grasslands. One with earth and sky, they live life one moment at a time, trusting that the Great Father and Great Mother will provide.
And by giving up nearly everything - my schedule, my expectations, the roof over my head, my desire to control and predict - I became free.
I close with a few more words from Rumi:
...Your way begins on the other side.
Become the sky
Take an axe to the prison wall.
Walk out like someone suddenly born into color.
Do it now...
Today I sing the mother of all,
Not only she who gave birth to sons,
But she who has birthed all the suns,
Stars and planets, moths and flowers.
She who shakes rock and sky
With the violence of creation
Then gently turns, gazing upon her creation,
Breathing out from her blue sky eyes unfathomable love.
Earth, gaia, woman, mother,
You are my source, my past, my future,
But above all, you, gardener of souls, creator of love,
Are, this verdant spring day,
Two souls trekking among woods
Mostly silent, lost in thoughts of new possibilities.
Yet each footfall is the here and now drumbeat of a new song
Welling up from the hearts of new buds.
I finally understand what Rumi is talking about. He speaks of the beauty of emptiness: "Praise to the emptiness that blanks out existence," he wrote. It's a concept I struggle with. From birth it seems we are taught to fill our lives with good things - work, faith, friends, hobbies and projects. My life is full, and, so I always thought, that is a noble and beautiful thing. For my life then has meaning and purpose and connection.
But amid all the frenetic activity, I am lost.
I mean the real me who's shy and reclusive and needs some coaxing to come out. But true emptiness means getting all versions of you out of the way so that beauty can enter. The beautiful elixir of life and universal truth is waiting to be poured into our waiting cups. But those whose cups are already full cannot receive.
Yesterday morning I returned to the forest running trail after a long winter's absence. I lost myself in the woods and made room in my consciousness to receive a message from nature, from the universe, from God if you will. And upon the greening grass, off the beaten path, I received the gift of this feather. I like to think it's from my favorite barred owl who is teaching me to see what is invisible to most.
I wish you all a great and beautiful emptiness. Who knows what may fill your waiting cup.
So this is the sound of new snow
That descended in the night.
Hush, world, hush.
Everything stops to listen to silence.
The Sunday morning snow stops time
And erases unraked leaves
And so much unfinished work.
I will not break the spell with my shovel.
Even the impatient daffodils
For an hour let go of desire.
And it is in this moment I discover
I am breathing.
I want to destroy the myth of two.
Black and white
Love and hate
Good and evil
Hot and cold
Day and night
Male and female
Gay and straight
To black and white, I say gray.
To love and hate, I say talk.
To good and evil, I say compassion.
Why seek hot or cold when the perfect, warm bath is what I crave.
The day is harsh, the night lonely, so give me a sunset instead,
The soft night embracing me from behind, the sunlight kissing my eyes with color.
Let us let go of male and female,
Gay and straight.
Why are we forced to choose?
Do I love my right hand better than my left?
Maybe I wish to have them both, perfect mirror images.
Then I think of couples. Don’t get me started.
Double beds, double occupancy, tea for two.
Why does three not compute…sir, you can bring
Your right hand but leave the left at home.
Even God needs a Trinity to be complete.
Let us destroy the binary.
You and me and we,
Choose C, not A or B.
Today, as we welcome our son Owen into the world of adulthood on his 18th birthday, I'm filled a desire to impart wisdom. A desire to set him on the path of proper manhood. A desire to send him off into the world equipped with the manly virtues of strength, courage and bravery.
But, alas, those words sound hollow to me. They are not the essence of manhood, but easy platitudes, stereotypes even, if not examined carefully. No, this day, I wish to impart true wisdom to you, my son, not convenient slogans. I don't have all the answers, but I want to share what I've learned—so far—about what it means to be an adult human being. Call it manhood, call it womanhood, call it personhood, but upon the threshold of adulthood, it is beyond a doubt a time for getting acquainted with your true self, the one with whom you'll journey on the remainder of this awesome trek that we call life.
It's my profound hope that who you are and who you continue to become will be one of your own choosing. But these words of wisdom, gleaned from a variety of sources, may be stones you can pick up along the way—stones that you may one day find have turned into precious gems.
Live in the present. As John Lennon wrote, life is what happens to us while we're busy making other plans. Don't let it happen to you.
Let yourself be vulnerable. Open up to caring people, and share your tender heart. Without connection we are nothing but tumbleweeds rolling through the desert.
Experience the awesome power of forgiveness. Forgiveness is the ocean waves that topple fortresses and smooth the roughest stone.
Know that love always means having to say you're sorry. It's inevitable that we hurt the ones we love. It's what you do about it that renews and strengthens our connections.
Never stop learning and growing. As soon as you think you've figured out the puzzle, it's time to tear it apart and start again. This work is never done.
Be strong in your moral convictions. You have a good heart. Trust it. Beware of those who would ask you to compromise your values or to adopt theirs without careful examination.
Be courageous when it's time to change them. True courage is not only about defending your convictions but embracing your right to admit new evidence—and draw new conclusions.
Be brave when charting an unknown course. Sometimes the best path in life is Frost's road less traveled. Sometimes it may be a road that doesn't yet exist.
Find out who you are today. Self-knowledge is essential, but the man you are today is not the man you'll be in 5 years, 20 years or 50 years. Take the time to get reacquainted as often as you can.
Then embrace that person. Be who you are, like what you like, love whom you love.
Then love yourself without apology. Loving yourself is the price of admission to a fulfilled life.
Don't cheat the man in the glass. The only real memory I have of my grandfather Howell is the newspaper clipping he gave me upon graduation from high school. Love and compassion for others is essential, lest we live empty lives full of regrets. But above of all, you must have love and compassion for yourself. Whether it be from pride, or fear or lust, do not cheat yourself out of the happiness you deserve.
And now...it will be up to you, young man, to complete the rest of this list. I know that your life's list, like you yourself, will be an awesome and inspiring work of art.
After an exhausting day of preparing the traditional Thanksgiving feast, my family and I treated ourselves to some peace and tranquility. The beautiful walk on the golden prairie at Shaw Nature Reserve in Gray Summit, Mo. was just the type of restoration I needed.
The gentle wind in our ears, birdsong, and the occasional squish or snap of footsteps on the soft earth were all we could hear—except for the moments of playful conversation, which were equally delightful. There was even some snowball throwing as the kids discovered a thin patch of snow that had somehow escaped the warming rays of the sun that afternoon.
Our days walking together as a family are numbered, as we contemplate our first-born leaving the nest within the next year. Although we hope he will always return for Thanksgiving, it will never be quite the same as when he is still living among us in his childhood home. But perhaps our new tradition can be a walk on the prairie each Friday after Thanksgiving, to restore our connection to each other and to renew our gratitude for the bountiful earth that sustains both body and spirit. Not Black Friday, but Golden Friday.
I hope you enjoy the photos here and that they are able, in some small way, to convey the sense of peace and connectedness that we all crave after a busy holiday.
The trees have something to teach me.
Will I learn to hear their silent words?
They quietly teach my heart to whisper the words
"I must learn to be vulnerable."
In this season of turning inward,
When flamboyant foliage fades into memory,
The lesson begins with simple being.
The skies and seasons swirl overheard as I remain rooted.
The trees speak softly of accepting change,
Perhaps inspiring those words of Ecclesiastes
That sing of a time for every purpose.
And on this cold, dark day it is a time to let go.
And then the most beautiful lesson of all:
That letting go of so many fig leaves
Is in the same tender moment
An embrace of my vulnerable, naked self.
In my nakedness I stand in the presence of the universe
Or of God or of you, my love,
With arms open wide under churning skies,
Eyes closed, breast bared, feet connected to earth.
Will you see my crooked limb
Where the summer storm exacted its price?
Or the curve of my back, twisted
From too much reaching, desiring, longing.
Will you run your hands over my rough-hewn bark
Contemplating my imperfect plates of armor,
Thick and calloused here, thin and vulnerable there,
And tenderly touch the scars to see if you still believe.
And the most terrifying question of all,
Harder than the frost or the pruning saw's bite:
Will you, seeing my unadorned, true self,
Still love me just the same?
And will I, in turn, learn to love my naked self,
To love the imperfect shape that speaks my history.
May I, in winter's quiet, whisper into the wind the words
"I love you," and trust they will come back to me in spring.
Somehow the fall has come and I haven't had time to notice. It's a tragedy considering this is by far my favorite season. It seems only a few short weeks ago the trees were still in full summer green.
Seeing so many of the maples in Webster at their peak color and intensity, I set out yesterday to walk a little farther than usual. The object of my quest was to lay eyes on my favorite swamp maple that grows on Gray Avenue. Every year I look forward to standing in awe before this spreading, statuesque beauty.
But I was too late. The picture here is from last fall, when it was just slightly past its peak. But this time nearly all the branches were bare. As I stood amid the yellow-orange leaves littering the ground, I sensed the annoyance of my largest dog who had been forced to walk an extra half mile to complete this pointless pilgrimage.
The disappointed trudge home was filled with regret for the fact that I had squandered the opportunity to see “my” tree in its full glory. And soon that led to thoughts of other missed opportunities, such as the fact that I feel I've missed so much of my children's growing up. Cliché yes, but nonetheless true that they grow up too fast—you blink and you've missed it. My son is nearly ready for college, and soon the opportunity to spend time with him will have slipped away, like yellow-orange leaves.
One has to pay attention—over and over again—because trees, children and life always change. Being present isn't something to be accomplished, an item to be checked off the list. It's a constant process, a way of being, to take in all the beauty that surrounds us every day. And, whenever necessary, to walk an extra mile to take it in.
Go outside now and look around. Then do it again tomorrow.
You are to me the gift of water,
The pure and precious source of life
Moving within me and around me.
Flowing through my veins and living
Within my very breath.
Wherever I look, there you are,
Falling as beauty from rainclouds,
Resting as a jewel for an hour on a leaf,
Yielding to gentle gravity as you let yourself
Flow outward, downward, to pools of tranquility.
You are the still waters that I yearn for.
Let me commune now with your loving presence,
Looking upon your loving face, and then seeing
My own reflection gazing back at me,
Knowing perfect union, confluence, atonement.
You are my river of living,
Let me drink and eat and rest in the
Cool shade of sycamores that you nourish.
Let me make my life's dwelling place here,
For I would shrivel and die in the unloving desert.
You, upon whose flowing breast
Laden vessels effect their commerce,
Bringing spices and silk, coal and questing Vikings,
A thoughtful exchange of ideas and yes, even feelings,
Traded hand to hand like precious beads.
You are the patience that draws
A gentle stream into a mighty river,
Rivers to vast and heaving oceans.
You are the drumbeat that erodes ramparts
And polishes stones to lustrous perfection.
You are strength and fearsome power
When the elements stir you to anger,
Rising, swelling, crashing to remind all
Who care to listen that you will rise up
With thunderclap to speak your truth.
But above all, you are the journey,
The running, swirling, gurgling flow
Of one existence into the unknown next,
Niagara waters who flow faithful, unflinching,
Plunging headlong with grace and beauty.
You, beautiful water, temper my fire,
Nourish my earth and infuse my every breath
With your peace, your life, your presence.
Let us be one on the lifelong journey,
Tumbling over rock and branch to find repose.
And, after reflecting sky, to rise up and join it,
Sunfire lifting us, calling us into cloud,
That we may reinvent ourselves as abundant showers
Poured out freely upon all who know thirst,
To all who will dare to come out and dance in the rain.
Yesterday I was not absent for a change. I was actually present, giving a precious gift not only to myself but to my family.
Try as I might, it's so hard for me to be fully present—there is always a torrent of busy-ness and worries about things that are left undone. And that will never end. Putting off being present until some time when you're not so busy is tempting. But the busy-ness is a great river that flows without ceasing. Best to just turn away. It will still be there tomorrow.
It occurs to me that the opposite of busy-ness is not doing nothing, but rather is being present. And when there are no scheduled plans on the calendar, and no to-do list, the result is not boredom or silence. For me it freed me to receive gifts from others, a feast of art, music, dancing and quiet companionship.
After a quiet morning of coffee, muffins and sharing with Betsy, I had decided to spend some intentional time with my son. Since he's a quiet one, it's easy to let him recede into the background amid the busy-ness. As we sat across from each other enjoying lunch at the City Diner in Grand Center, I could fully appreciate the reality that he is no longer a boy. Thoughts are now of physics, college applications and serious violin playing.
We took in the Mildred Lane Kemper Gallery at Wash U—a first for both of us—and spent some of that silent companionate time as men often do. Owen enjoys the intellectual challenge of modern art, finding meaning and structure in abstract forms. I love the pictures I captured of him in quiet contemplation of artistic experimentation. Perhaps testing new theories, approaching art as a laboratory, appeals to his scientific nature.
Then in the evening, Betsy and I had our date night and took in an open air jazz concert in Lafayette Park. Again, I could feel that I was just present, receiving the gift of her company and connecting with the music in a way I often fail to do when my head is full of if-onlys and what-ifs. It was a multi sensory experience, with a lush green setting, the smell of moist earth, the sound of jazz, the taste of a crisp French rosé, and the feel of Betsy's hand in mind and drops of water falling from the oak above. Who would want to be anywhere else?
Then the evening ended back home with the kids where I allowed myself to be swept up in a family "no-shame dance party" that Betsy and Meredith began. We put on our favorite dance tunes from yesteryear and popular tracks from today and just lost ourselves in sound and motion. I was slow to warm to it, feeling self-conscious and out of my element.
But the biggest joy of dancing, is that you can't worry about anything else while you're doing it. Like a roller-coaster ride, it completely absorbs you, gives you an "in-the-body" experience, and is the very definition of living in the present moment.
And today I'm hoping this precious present will find its way to you, too.
I've finally mustered the courage to state clearly and unequivocally the rule that will govern my life from here on out: There's no such thing as black and white.
I remember in my college days (gulp, 25 years ago) learning about Aristotle's ideal forms. (Or maybe it was Socrates - another gray area in my mind.) I was intrigued by the idea that a circle, in its ideal, is perfect, but that in actual real life there is no such thing as a perfect circle. Even with precision drafting tools, if you zoom in on the pencil line, it's a blurry abstraction.
I've discovered that life's like that too, whenever I truly look at something close up. Throughout human existence, apparently, we seem to be compelled to put things into distinct boxes, sorting classifications of mineral, flora and fauna—and most of all—each other. We love creating opposites: black and white, sun and moon, male and female, gay and straight, master and servant, good and evil, rich and poor, fact and fiction, good guys and bad guys, reason and superstition.
I reject the duality implied in these human constructs. Take sunlight and moonlight for example: Moonlight is actually reflected sunlight happening on the other side of the planet. And is dawn or sunset daytime or nighttime? Even something as seemingly fundamental as male and female breaks down when you understand the independent fluid spectrums of sexuality and gender identity.
Apparently mother nature likes gray areas, too: The richest, most diverse ecosystems occur where two different environments converge—giant redwoods, for example, grow in soil but get 40 percent of their yearly water supply from fog created by the nearby Pacific Ocean.
Some among the religious left, including those within the American Unitarian-Universalist tradition, seem to want to draw a distinction between reason and spirituality. If reason is our precept then there is no room for God talk. I feel no such need for bright lines. I can both understand the scientific symbiosis between redwood and ocean and at the same time stand in awe and wonder at the foot of this marvelous creation, commune with it and offer a prayer to the great spirit that connects us.
My spirituality is strengthened by scientific knowledge, such as the fact that a tall, ebony-skinned African and a diminutive, fair-skinned East Asian are still 99.9% genetically identical. For me this means there is an intangible sense of spiritual connection—fellow feeling—between people, and even among people, plants and animals. Is it carbon speaking to carbon, or some ineffable spirit seeking its lost soul mate, seeking to reunite sparks of flame scattered when the world was created?
Both ideas stirred together make for the most beautiful and delicate interplay of shades of gray. And most of all, they remind us that we must never stop paying attention and reassessing the old lines that others have attempted to draw upon our consciousness. Gray—it's the new black and white.
What gifts have I to offer the world?
Perhaps it is the gift of beauty
In the form of music or simple poetry,
Or a picture of a raindrop on a leaf.
Simple things are these that for most
Would go unnoticed or perhaps soon forgotten.
But I will never forget, or at least I hope I won’t,
For there is a universe to discover inside a raindrop.
Perhaps it is the gift of perspective.
In my own seeking and exploring
I have found the greatest joy in discovering,
Taking the road less traveled by.
My joy is to lead people to new knowledge.
Maybe it’s a tour of my town,
Maybe it’s reacquainting people with their own forgotten history.
My bliss is to explain Transylvania and the meaning of Delmar.
Can I find vocation in a concept as simple as perspective?
I can imagine myself a barred owl or a great blue heron,
But can I imagine myself a poor, young black man?
Can I imagine myself homeless, scared and alone?
Maybe it’s enough that I have also felt outcast,
A stranger in my own land,
Afraid to be my true self,
Afraid to love too much or too little.
Let me be at peace with my own darkness,
My own pain, my own suffering.
I am not here to be perfect or to wear the mask of another,
But simply to offer my imperfect self on the altar of ultimate meaning.
Can I show people what life is like on the other side,
On the other side of fear, of hate, of misunderstanding?
Can I be the Horton who alone can hear
The still small voice saying 'don't forget us'?
Can I still myself long enough to hear
The cries of a hurting and restless world,
To collect the scattered sparks of the divine
And in so doing make creation whole again.
I have a gift to share with the world,
Offered with humility, in the palms of outstretched hands.
Who will accept this gift, and do I care if it’s no one?
Perhaps I must offer it nonetheless.
Could I stand here for eternity, like Lady Liberty,
In a state of perpetual giving?
Will I have enough to give and still have enough left
For myself and for those who need me?
And today I feel the answer is yes.
Yes to being a bridge that leads to love,
Yes to being a candle that offers hope,
Yes to journeying ever onward,
Yes to standing firm and planted in this place,
This place where I know in my bones
I am meant to be,
With those I know in my heart
I am meant to love.
And someday when I’m gone,
Let them not shed a tear,
Unless it’s just a small tear of gratitude
That I helped them see something along the way
That they had not noticed before,
A new connection, a new path, a new thought,
A drop of rain on a leaf bending the light,
Even if just for a moment—
Long enough for eyes to meet eyes
And say simply, 'I see you, I hear you, I want to know you.'
Perhaps, in the end, I want my life
To be about holding hands.
Sad that I only
It's the question that echoes across the ages. I had always thought I knew the answer. I am, well, me. The life I was leading, the path I had chosen, was by definition my identity. Thanks to my reading of Palmer Parker's "Let Your Life Speak," I'm beginning to do the challenging and exciting work of going back to my early childhood to reacquaint myself with the original me, before the "real world" told me who I was supposed to be. (And a special thanks to First Church member Paulita who brought this writer to my attention.)
Palmer posits that we are born with native gifts that make us unique. And it's often not until mid life that we realize our lives have been based on the expectations of others - wearing their masks, following their scripts - rather than remembering our unique voice. The word vocation, he points out, means hearing the voice that calls us to the life that is joyful and fulfilling, and most important, that this voice we hear when we take the time to listen is our own voice, not someone else's. Our "calling" in other words is a calling from within ourselves, not a voice from without.
In this sense, your "inner child" is not really a child at all. It's the real you. The same person whose been there all along, who occasionally makes an appearance only to be told by grown-ups to stay quiet and not take us off script or distract us from our real-world duties.
So forgive the self-indulgent task at hand as I catalogue the early loves of my life...better yet, think about the person you naturally were in childhood. I don't know where this will lead, but it's exciting to think about rediscovering myself.
Things I loved as a child...
Singing made-up songs while playing outdoors.
Banging on the piano pretending to read music (but really making it up as I went along).
Making other people sit and listen to my made-up songs.
Making up imaginary friends, e.g. Pickerman Brockman and Dodie.
Playing with kittens. And puppies. And bunnies. Oh, and horses.
Climbing trees and looking at the world from a new perspective.
Losing myself in cornfields.
Making up plays, forcing my brother into service as a fellow actor.
Creating haunted houses in my bedroom and adjoining hallway, complete with colored light bulbs.
Visiting other families to play with other kids: the food, the running around the yard, seeing new places.
Playing "streets and roads" riding bikes on the network of sidewalks around my grandma's farmhouse.
"Staying all night" at grandma's house, making caramel popcorn and butterscotch pudding.
Creating floats for the summer Bible School parade to recruit other kids to attend.
Playing with other kids' action figures and dolls: Star Wars, GI Joe, Wonder Woman, Ken and Barbie (I found Joe and Ken strangely erotic, but was disappointed at the lack of anatomical completeness...).
Building towns and neighborhoods out of Legos, Lincoln Logs, plastic bricks and Matchbox cars.
Leaving said neighborhoods in place for weeks, preventing my mom from vacuuming.
Going with my mom and brother to Larry and Janice's farm to see their horses.
Riding bikes down hill fast, feeling the wind in my face, seeing how far I could go without peddling again.
Wading in Brandywine Creek wearing old tennis shoes.
Walking in the woods with other people, discovering hollow trees and marveling at the diversity of tree bark (was strangely attracted to "muscle trees"...)
Collecting treasures from our travels to exotic locales such as Southern Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee: a cedar box, a rabbit fur and sea shells from coastal South Carolina.
Hanging around with my Aunt Franny: riding in her car, waxing her car under shade trees, riding on her horse, listening to her music, meeting her friends.
Going to movies at the Shelbyville cinema with my dad and brother.
Creating "underground" rooms and tunnels out of hay bales in my grandma's barn.
Kissing certain girls in said secret rooms (you know who you are).
Playing spin the bottle with a boy and a girl in same said secret rooms (though no boy kissing...maybe I wanted to?).
Playing piano in my home town Baptist church and playing the alter call music so sweetly that it would make people come forward and weep at the alter. No, really.
Playing Donna Summer records at full volume on my parents' huge RCA cabinet stereo that was the size of a Datsun. (First clue to my sexuality - did no one pick up on this?)
Riding my Garelli moped around Indiana country roads before I was old enough to drive a car.
Playing trumpet in the marching band, though I was bored to tears by the football and basketball games. The real show was at half time.
Acting and singing in school plays: Arsenic and Old Lace, Godspell, Lil Abner, Snoopy!, Harvey.
Driving my little brother to McDonalds in Shelbyville in my first car, a 1974 Mercury Montego. What's an adventure without someone to share it with?
Going on travel adventures with my best friend Ted in his 1978 Bonneville, actually content to acquiesce to his agenda and be his helper on many crazy projects. (This one seems not to fit, but it was true nonetheless.)
And perhaps the thing I loved best as a teenager was singing in the Triton Central Singers, which was the high school show choir. Yes, I was a Gleek before there was Glee.
I will enjoy reflecting on these in the coming week. But the first thing that comes to mind is that it's no wonder why I hate the confining exactitude of Excel spreadsheets...
Paddling along on glistening lake,
Serene on surface of waking dream,
I spy the Great Blue Heron, one with water and reed,
Noiseless and patient as sunshine and cumulus cloud.
Gazing with stopped breath at gray-blue majesty,
I, too, gave in to silent stillness, paddle suspended,
Keen eye fixed on keen eye—who was watching whom?
Watching, waiting, drinking in beauty to nourish the soul.
Could this stately creature be the me I long to become,
Or perhaps the one I was hatched to be,
Only at this moment I am not yet fledged—
No noble, ebony plume yet gracing my head.
I yield to this still point, waiting for messages.
With feet on earth, legs in water, head in air,
Simple existence becomes a prayer to whatever gods
Whose job it is to bind up the fragments of existence.
What animal instinct will take hold next?
To flee this floating stranger, launching to flight
On massive wings, beating slowly, powerfully, silently,
Elegant neck folding just so on the way to a quieter spot.
Or to stand still, striking, spearing and swallowing fear,
Regal and unruffled in lazy summer sun.
Content in the noiseless knowing that,
For this one moment, he and I are both perfect and beautiful.
I knew it was going to happen someday. It was always a distinct possibility given my regular practice of trail running: The big fall. And yes, it finally happened yesterday morning. The art of trail running is to be simultaneously "in the zone" like an active meditation and "on the lookout" for obstacles in your path that can be a painful if not deadly distraction. Sometimes they're tree roots, sometimes even a turtle or a wriggling snake. In this case, it was a big rock in the middle of the path.
As I try to get back to more of my beloved nature-based spirituality, I have been opening myself once again to signs from nature. And she gave me a big, unmistakable one. I soon felt myself flailing in slow motion though humid air, with a breathless, panicky feeling like I was drowning, and a second later felt myself plowing into the earth and vegetation beside the path.
This was a spiritual wake-up call.
I know this because I suffered only minor scrapes and swollen fingers. But spiritually it was a slap in the face—an exhortation to stop and really see myself and what's happening in my life. I decided to meditate afterward on the meaning of this rock that had tripped me up. The rock had always been there (this is a familiar trail), and there are many rocks over the past year and a half that I have navigated safely, even skillfully.
So what was special about this one, this day? It was determined to tell me something, but I wasn't listening. So, bam. Now I'm listening. And, ironically, as I staggered back onto my feet rom the bed of ivy (not the poison variety, thankfully) and did a quick damage assessment (not too bad, considering), I heard a voice in my head saying, "There's nothing wrong with you. You need to be who you are."
It seems all the issues in my life lately that have caused me and my loved ones pain all tie back to my low self-esteem issues. When good things—and good people—come into my life, I have somehow felt that I didn't deserve them. And this has sometimes caused me to make choices out of fear, or out of a desire to avoid rejection. Like so many things that trip us up in life, that rock in the middle of the path was probably obvious to everyone but me.
It's trite but true that we learn more from our failures than from successes. The lesson is not to avoid paths with rocks, but rather to be aware of the rocks and other pitfalls that abound.
This spiritual reawakening caused me to pay a long-overdue visit to Mystic Valley new age spirituality shop in Maplewood to buy a copy of a favorite book about animal totems (so that I can return the original to the friend who lent it). And while I was there, some pendants with Celtic symbols spoke to me. I chose the one pictured here, which symbolizes spiritual rebirth. The Celtic patterns with five knots represent the endless journey of life, from birth through successive rebirth.
And today I have reconnected spiritually with my animal totem, the Great Blue Heron. More about him in a future blog. But the essential point of Heron medicine is that we must always be on the lookout for opportunities. And that has helped me see my "trail running fail" as an opportunity to make a fresh start.
Today's blog is by my wonderful wife Betsy...Thank you for this Father's Day gift!
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Today, as a small gift to my children’s father, I took on the Sunday blog to give him a little more time to enjoy the day. The warm almost-summer breeze out on the patio is delightful, and one has to leave the laptop inside to enjoy it fully and hear the birds. My spouse, like many dads, has a hard time putting down the laptop/ hedge trimmers/ paint brush/ dirty laundry/ iPhone to relax and “just be.” But I gave him that assignment today, and he is always very conscientious about completing assignments.
My children have this in common with me: they can’t quite relate to those Father’s Day cards that tease the stereotypical Dad about sleeping in the La-Z-Boy and endlessly watching sports. My overwhelming impression of the father figures in my life has been of almost ceaseless activity. When my dad wasn’t at work, he was mowing the grass, washing and waxing the car, reorganizing the camping gear in the garage, out running or cycling, or grilling something. When he wasn’t doing all of that, he would come in and invite us kids out to work on our baseball skills by playing “pepper” or catch in the yard. Even though he had a comfy, squishy armchair in the living room reserved just for him, sitting in it apparently required a self-improvement excuse, such as watching the evening news or reading the newspaper or some law journals (a stack of them lay at the ready on the floor next to the chair). And my dad was typical of the men in my family – enormously productive in his off hours but just a little hard to keep up with. Small wonder, then, that I married a man in the same mold. With his own hands, brick by brick and stone by stone, he laid the very patio he enjoys today.
One possible down side to this model of paternal industriousness became evident to me many years ago when my daughter and I were shopping for a birthday gift for her friend Sophia. We had found a lovely unpainted bird house at Ben Franklin, and Meredith enthusiastically planned out how she would paint the bird house. But then she got a look of concern on her face. “I can’t give Sophia this bird house, because she doesn’t have a dad!” When I questioned her about that statement, she explained that because Sophia had a single mom, no one at her house could hang up a birdhouse. My feminist heart cringed as I realized the message implicit in my willingness to let the man of the house tackle every job requiring a hammer or nail, even though I am perfectly capable of doing those jobs and indeed did so frequently before I married. Somehow my daughter had internalized some “Leave it to Beaver” gender stereotypes simply by default.
The other possible down side is that the habits of industriousness can make it hard for such fathers to accommodate the pace of their young children. It is hard to sit on the lap of a man who never sits down. But perhaps the answer to that problem lies with time. To everything there is a season… My own childhood lap was provided by my grandfather, who had an amusing habit of dozing off sometimes while I was sitting there, but who more often just listened to my prattling with unfeigned interest and recited poetry from memory. My brother and I have shared our amazement at watching our father practice similar patience with his young grandchildren, playing the slow games toddlers love or rescuing a fallen toy from behind a piece of furniture. So I have a word of advice for all of the super-productive fathers out there – take care of yourselves, and realize you have a different kind of work to do when your building and bricklaying days are over. We need you around for years to come, and we’re saving you a chair so you can make your lap available when it’s your turn. Happy Father’s Day to all of the dads, granddads, and nurturing men in our lives.
Vermont's Mount Ascutney called to us during our vacation time there last week. The farm where we stayed was carved out of the northern slope of the hillside with a clear view of this beautiful, 3,000-foot mountain of green overlooking the Connecticut River Valley. Were we there to conquer the mountain, or was it going to be the other way around?
In the final morning of our stay, my son Owen and I decided to embark on a journey to the summit of Mt. Ascutney. Trudging up the mountain paths, mostly in silence, the hike quickly became for me a living metaphor of our journey through life and the world.
The first observation was that the path up Mt. Ascutney is an ever-changing adventure—with a green, wet valley in the South that reminded one of the Pacific Northwest, complete with ferns, moss and cascading waterfalls...then a more rocky, scrubby Ozark-like setting in the Western slope...and finally a pine-scented, Rocky Mountain alpine experience at the higher elevations.
If one were looking for a true wilderness adventure, this was not it. Like the sheep that grazed on our farm, this mountain had been domesticated, conquered even. A paved road from VT Route 44 allows less ambitious thrill-seekers to arrive near the summit by car. And the summit is crowned with multiple communication towers, meaning our smart phones never lost connectivity. (I resisted the urge to check in on Facebook.)
But I didn't go to Vermont looking for wilderness. My favorite thing about the place is the beautiful balance between Nature and human civilization. There are the verdant Green Mountains, yes, but also beautiful farms, historic architecture, covered bridges and, yes, Ben & Jerry's made from Vermont's finest milk and cream from cows who are happy not to live in New Hampshire.
Although there were no grazing Holsteins on this journey, this hiking experience was pure Vermont, combining the best work of human hands in the midst of God's own handiwork. This Weathersfield trail, one of several trails that ascend the mountain, had been lovingly maintained and improved over the years by the local Ascutney Trail Association.
Far from leaving hikers to their own devices, true caring was evident on this mountainside. Places that had washed out had recently been repaired with new stones scavenged from nearby slopes, thoughtfully placed and set in with fresh soil. And the trail was well marked with rectangular, white blazes at key turning points. Whenever doubt crept in about the correct path as we clambered up root-covered, rocky faces, we only had to look up to find the thoughtfully placed markers just when they were needed. Sometimes it's nice not to be first person to have passed this way.
Most impressive of all were the occasional staircases that had been assembled from native stones (see picture to the right). I climbed the primitive escalator with a clear sense of gratitude and admiration for those who came before.
And that is the obvious lesson and reminder for me: that while we may be called to seek new adventure and new heights, we also have an obligation to build a bridge, or place a helpful stone or mark the way for those who will come after us. It is our reminder that, even in moments of solitude or even lonely struggle up a steep and uneven path, we are never truly alone. Like my phone at the top of the mountain, like it or not, we are always connected.
Out of watery dark explosion of light, sensation, naked neediness
Sputtering gulps of alien air, like salmon snatched from flowing water.
Tiny heart pounding, lifeblood filling, flowing into flailing limbs,
Ten fingers reaching, curling, clinging, finally to sleep cradled by maternal flesh.
Gaia embrace me, draw my roots into your nurturing bosom,
Anchor me in this sacred spot, the place that makes me who I am.
Sheltered under your leafing branch I reach upward, downward, outward.
Watch over my growth as life unfolds, thoughtless, beautiful, perfect.
Earth, verdant, loving mother of all, past, future, and of this moment,
Spinning among the stars just so, balancing searing sun, serene moon,
Tending, tenderness, tenacity, teaching, touching,
At once grounding, embracing, nourishing each delicate body and soul.
Blessed Mother who imparts sacred wisdom, eternal knowledge,
Impart thankfulness to every heart, gratitude for internal treasures,
Riches that, as in the tale of loaves and fishes, pour out from each to all,
Turning out abundance to embody every need in perfect measure.
Spirit of the North, grounded in earth, let us reach up to clouds,
Give us courage to launch dreams skyward, seeking our higher selves,
Let us dream, yes, but above all teach us to love who we are.
For our Mother has made us unique and perfect—nothing else can we be.
Today's reflection is a celebration of the reawakened Missouri landscape after a long, cold winter. During walks yesterday in and around Bonnots Mill, Missouri, along the Osage River, we enjoyed the birdsong, fragrance and visual delights that called to us from every direction.
May we always find the same childlike joy in these small rebirths, grateful for another year, and another opportunity to feel a new spring in our steps.
Click on the Blog Archive link for "04-May-14 Joy Spring" to see the full photo essay. Hope you enjoy, but most of all, I hope you can find the time to visit the beautiful native Missouri forests very soon to experience it for yourself.
The occasion of my wife Betsy's birthday yesterday presents an opportunity to pause and reflect on the true meaning of birthdays. Children love them and want more of them. Aging adults approach them either with apathy or angst. Some of us, as we approach another milestone, especially ones that end in zero, become downright hostile to the idea of celebrating an occasion that inches us ever closer to the abyss.
The beauty of blogging is to force oneself to take time for reflection, and in the process discover new truths lying just beneath the surface. And the epiphany for me this morning is that birthday celebrations are not really for the birthday girl or boy, but rather are for those of us who love that person and have a need to honor and celebrate that connection. Remember the joy many of us felt as children to make a birthday card for mom or dad or a friend at school? Or as newly weds, to serve your beloved breakfast in bed?
The sweetness of the birthday cake speaks to us of the sweetness of life and living, at any age. The flame of the candles promises new life, new creative energy and new possibilities for the next year. Cards and gifts reflect the need of the giver to express our profound gratitude for the presence of this honored person in our lives and to acknowledge the many gifts, named and unnamed, that we have already received. It's our opportunity to pour out blessings, hopes and love.
Our friends from India celebrate this beautiful sense of mutuality by having a parent or other family member feed the first piece of birthday cake to the birthday girl or boy. It's a beautiful symbol of nurturing, the giving of life from one generation to the next, and a celebration of the interconnectedness of the human family.
Perhaps most important of all, celebrations of the anniversary of our living are a celebration of life itself. For the alternative to getting a little older each year is not getting younger—it's death. For this reason, I've chosen this dogwood image, snapped yesterday, to accompany this reflection. In Native American circles, the dogwood is a symbol of protection and safety, and in some Mohawk communities, the primeval Tree of Life in the Sky World was said to be a giant dogwood tree.
And so it is that the flowering dogwood offers its blessings for a short time in late April and early May to help us celebrate Easter and Betsy's birthday. Both are beautiful occasions to celebrate life and renewal, love and gratitude.
This Easter morning, I'm thinking of renewal—not just of the earth, the trees and bunnies and flowers—but of the soul itself. There is something in spring that rightly makes us want to be alive again, coming out at last from winter's introspection.
Today I will share my favorite Easter reading, by Sara Moores Campbell. It speaks of the need to open ourselves to the light of new possibilities.
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Rolling Away the Stone
In the tomb of the soul, we carry secret yearnings, pains, frustrations, loneliness, fears, regrets, worries. In the tomb of the soul, we take refuge from the world and its heaviness.
In the tomb of the soul, we wrap ourselves in the security of darkness.
Sometimes this is a comfort. Sometimes it is an escape.
Sometimes it prepares us for experience. Sometimes it insulates us from life.
Sometimes this tomb-life gives us time to feel the pain of the world and reach out to heal others. Sometimes it numbs us and locks us up with our own concerns.
In this season where light and dark balance the day, we seek balance for ourselves.
Grateful for the darkness that has nourished us, we push away the stone and invite the light to awaken us to the possibilities within us and among us—possibilities for new life in ourselves and in our world.
—Sara Moores Campbell
Today was a big day for me spiritually and emotionally. This blog entry, in addition to being late, is not about poetry, not about flowers, not about warm hugs and acceptance. It's about the very hard work—the overwhelming, painful work—of putting our faith into action.
I had the privilege of serving as worship assistant this morning for a moving Palm Sunday service led by our intern minister Cecilia Owen. We collaborated on some of the readings. We would start with the traditional reading about Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey. Then I added a reading from Unitarian "prophet" and abolitionist Theodore Parker. The rest was all Cecilia, who turned it into a meaningful and challenging call to social justice.
What made it real and challenging was our guest Romona Taylor Williams, who leads a local non-profit working on the challenges that face low income people and especially people of color in our North St. Louis neighborhoods. Bridging the economic and racial divide between those north of Delmar and those south became the topic that energized the service and made it real.
Romona spoke of the crumbling housing stock, the homelessness, the unemployment and, perhaps most disturbing, the gun violence that plagues too many of our neighborhoods. How can we sit in our beautiful and comfortable sanctuary, sing our lovely hymns and talk about our favorite European trips while just a few blocks away young people are dying in the streets? Romona's neighbor and dear friend is at this moment still grieving the loss of her 18-year-old grandson who was gunned down in her street last Thursday.
Parker knew something about having the courage of his convictions, having once earned the reputation of the most hated man in America in the mid-19th Century for his strong stand against the scourge of slavery. And the wakeup call for a comfortable professional-class America is still ringing.
I fear I may not have the strength to answer the call.
We say we believe in the worth and dignity of every person. Easy to say. Harder to do. Especially when those who desperately need social justice are so often out of sight, out of mind. And when the needs come and find us, and look us in the eye, how many of us—myself included—find ourselves looking away, unable to look injustice in the face.
Will we have the strength and courage of our convictions? Or will we shrink away to the comfort of our sanctuary, sipping from our cups and saucers and contemplating T.S. Eliot?
I'll leave you with the words of Theodore Parker, who in 1852 proclaimed that our faith must be one of "higher, moral courage, which can look danger and death in the face unawed and undismayed; the courage that can encounter loss of ease, of wealth, of friends, of your own good name; the courage that can face a world full of howling and of scorn,—ay, of loathing and of hate; can see all these with a smile, and, suffering it all, can still toil on, conscious of the result, yet fearless still.... The courage that dares resist evil, popular, powerful, anointed evil, yet does it with good, and knows it shall thereby overcome."
South, welcome me now into your warm and passionate embrace.
Show me heat and light and a fragrant flowering of life I'd nearly forgotten was possible,
That stirs in my breast and murmurs softly of new beginnings.
Renaissance now welling up, death of then, birth of now.
What shall we make this day? say the gods within.
Answering green shoots, the serenade of songbirds, old songs renewed,
New buds and blossoms singing, too, of shiny, new creation
Reflected in glossy eyes of tadpoles yearning to leap in air.
Then summer sun shimmers, summoning flower, fruit and berry,
Ancient maize rockets skyward in gold and green abundance,
Entwined with delicate sisters whose corkscrew tendrils
Worship sun with offerings of squash, beans, morning glories, too.
O South, how can we forget your hard lessons of death and resurrection?
You are miraculous fire, destroyer and purifier, razing and raising.
The fury of forest blaze and hot flashes of human violence
Bursting open dormant seeds and releasing the Phoenix of greenest hope.
I look longingly into the passionate blue-green eyes of summer,
Feeling the fury of hot light penetrating my bare skin,
Burning away the withered vines that bind love and choke joy.
Purge my wintery soul with fire, and forge for me a new and tender heart.
(Written March 30, 2014) In this concert weekend here in Kansas City with the Men's Chorus, we are enjoying artistic expression in all its forms. The highlight of yesterday's free time was our tour of the Nelson-Adkins Museum of Art. There, we saw human artistic expression ranging from a 3,000 year-old relief carved into limestone to elegant 19th Century sculptures, and so much more.
I can't help but wonder what common threads connect the Mesopotamian limestone carver and the 185 men who sang the Midwest premiere of the I Am Harvey Milk oratorio so beautifully last night.
The answer could probably be many things, but for me the answer is the dual human desire for self-expression and community. Both sculpture and choral singing are by their nature public art, celebrating the individual artists or performers while simultaneously celebrating communal values - and in some cases pushing the envelope on our shared values.
Best of all, art shared publicly creates many beautiful conversations, both spoken and unspoken, as the art intertwines the life experience of the viewer or listener. Thus the art speaks not just with the voice of the creator but with many voices - both today and throughout the millennia to come.
I don't want to feel like a tree.
My arms would ache holding up so much sky.
Fingers rigid pointing south and west
Could never lace my fingers among yours and caress your face.
I don't want to feel like a tree,
Tall and still, I would suit the stray cardinal or crow for perching,
But some days uprightedness melts into a worshipful pose
As I gaze earthward into blue eyes in a sea of green grass.
Not content to merely sway in someone else's breeze.
Let me dance and leap, embracing first sky then earth then you.
Let my feet be lashed not to soil and rock
But to the stirring winds that carry me back to the place where your arms await.
No, I don't want to feel like a tree,
With rough hewn armor that protects tender secrets.
Let me feel your fingers trace a path on my ticklish skin,
Reaching through me to hold my quivering heart.
Gazing westward in the glowing, closing moments of the day,
Sky and cloud transformed in that penultimate moment
When day meets night, wake meets sleep, thought meets dream
In those precious seconds when we are golden.
Let me be as autumn leaves in a crescendo of color
Before spiraling on chilly breeze to seize the future,
Joining sun to stem, green to gold, sap to soil,
In a journey of restless, relentless transformation.
Stepping resolutely into the poet's open road,
Singing of the joy of the void and endless possibilities,
New land, new people, new visions, new tragedies, new me,
The place where answers live if we only knew the questions.
Go west young man, old woman, master, servant, native, gay,
You are here, look up, look out on the unfolding journey that swims like stars,
Hoping, plotting, tripping, falling, failing, but rising again
To nail up sign posts and build bridges for seekers who will come after.
As in prophecy of old, all will be transformed in the twinkling of an eye,
Water flows, tosses and turns, seeking, longing until it finds rest,
Stopping an instant before launching skyward as mist and cloud,
Safely crossing scorching desert to return as rain, and journey anew.
This morning I'm thinking of San Francisco. Yes, I have a business trip there for which I'll be departing this afternoon. But that's all about airports, hotel rooms, client meetings and traffic jams.
The San Francisco that fills my thoughts today is the metaphorical one, a place of hope and sanctuary for those who long for a place where they belong, a place where they can connect with kindred spirits, where they can feel they've arrived at home at last.
I spent all day yesterday rehearsing and enjoying fellowship with my brothers in the Gateway Men's Chorus, and our fellow singers in Kansas City's Heartland Men's Chorus. We have joined forces to produce the Midwest premiere of Broadway composer Andrew Lippa's oratorio "I Am Harvey Milk." Originally commissioned by the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus, it's a moving work that celebrates the life of slain San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk who was a pioneer for gay rights in this country.
I was in awe as man after man stood and shared which pieces of this oratorio spoke to him personally, and the reflections were rich and poignant. There's not space here to talk about all the stories, but each ultimately was a story of belonging, overcoming the pain of exile, and living authentically.
For me, and I think intentionally for Lippa as well, the anchor of the oratorio is the lush, prayerful and moving ode to the city of San Francisco. As one singer shared yesterday, for Harvey Milk and thousands of gay men beginning in the 1970s, San Francisco became a place where they could find community and belonging.
The piece opens serenely, with a chorus of gentle oohs and ahs rising out of the mist like the Golden Gate itself. Then comes the text, which is some of the most moving I have ever sung.
In last night's preview performance in Columbia, Mo., I saw people weeping in the audience. And this is because a longing for community is a universal experience that resonates in each of us, regardless of sexual orientation or any other characteristic. Each of us has broken places, old scars or fresh wounds. We all must find our sanctuary, our place, our people so that we can feel authentic and whole.
In our own region, St. Louis or Kansas City is San Francisco for young LGBT people who need a community in which they can not only find refuge and understanding but celebrate their identities, to be "made real." For others, such as those with non-traditional religious beliefs, their San Francisco may be a caring religious community that welcomes them in and says "you belong here."
Where is your San Francisco? And, perhaps more important, can you be San Francisco for someone else?
I close with Lippa's text from this extraordinary piece, spare and powerful.
I am calling.
I am hoping you'll hold me secure in your arms.
I have no one.
So I'm hoping you'll hold me,
And I'm hoping you'll help me.
I am broken.
But you welcome the broken to come and to heal.
Be my lover
Make me real.
I am lonely and tired and frightened
But you surround me.
Then I'm wanted and welcome and perfect
With you around me.
City by the Bay,
Let me hear you say
You love me.
Oh the thrill of standing still at day break
Facing the East and drinking in the golden beams
That pierce morning cloud and gild my face, even the lilies,
As the dawn proclaims a new day, this shiny penny placed in my palm by grandfather sky.
How will I spend it, this marvelous gift?
I must choose wisely, for grandfather's great eye sees all.
Today is the day I will climb higher, see more, do better,
Embrace more, love more, know more, taste more and ponder all the verbs that God is.
The ball of fire rises and warms the air,
Ecstatic molecules swirling and swooping up mountains, through valleys,
Careening off cliffs, sailing verdant plains and soaring over searing deserts,
Lifting birds, filling sails, flying kites, turning windmills and filling my lungs until I think they will burst.
Like Black Elk, I see from the mountaintop the sacred hoop of my people below,
And with ascending consciousness circling on feathered wings, I see ever more hoops loom into view,
Revealing for all who can see that the many hoops are one great circle.
At that moment Grandfather sky whispers in my ear the sacred truth that all creation is one.
Just for a moment, let me be the eagle who knows the secret in her mind's eye
As she touches the earth here, the water there and now the bluest sky
Refusing to choose only one.
For life is seeing, seeking and soaring—and most of all—hoping at sunrise.
My big toes pressing down, down in the soft earth
Cool, moist humus, wellspring of all life humming and human.
I imagine for a moment toes turn into tender tree roots
Embracing, penetrating, making love to the earth.
Down they grow, past the fragrant mud, past stones and beetles,
Thirsty divining rods questing and questioning, seeking and finding,
And once sated serving as anchor, a spreading foundation
Choosing this place as perfect, here and now and forever.
With source tapped, life now anchored shoots up and out and everywhere,
Fingers, leaves, flowers perfumed and passionate drawing life to life,
Bees and birds, women and water, men and butterflies
Worshiping at the source of life and being.
Foolish questions fall away as nurture and nature abide together,
Bound and bonded, birthing and bountiful,
Fecund, that word I love that's dirt and sex and lovely life
Joining us all in one never-ending cosmic orgasmic organism.
Root us here, O Mother Earth,
Receive the sky into your blossoming bosom that nourishes bodies and branches, souls and seekers,
Prayers that prance and crawl and walk and fly into the sun
For one glorious moment before plunging back into the black source of all.
A theme for me last week was that of light. As we rise early each day for work and school, it was encouraging to see the sun rising earlier and earlier, reminding us of the promise of the spring to come. It was also a week to reflect on the love the nourishes and sustains us. In complement to the earth, sun is the equally critical ingredient for growth and health.
I'd like to share with you this beautiful prayer from Brahma Kumaris Sister Jayanti that captures the peaceful fulfillment of that comes when, like a flower, we open ourselves to each other and to the world in the presence of precious sunlight.
* * *
Sitting quietly, turning inward, I think
of the Being of Light,
the One who is Supreme in love and peace,
purity, wisdom and joy.
In the presence of the Supreme,
I feel the comfort and security of being surrounded by God's light.
Resting in this moment, I stay connected with this light,
and it's as though God's truth,
is reaching the roots of my being,
making me strong.
And as I feel the warmth of God's love,
my heart opens.
I become able to share fragrance and beauty with the world.
—B. K. Sister Jayanti
A beautiful reflection by my wife, Betsy, offered in last night's Feel the Love coffee house…
What’s in a name? Shakespeare told us names don’t matter, but I think we know it’s otherwise. I have a friend named Sprite. How did you get that name? I asked him. It picked me, he said. He heard a name when he was just a kid and recognized it somehow as right for him. How lucky, I thought… but also how brave. He had the courage to claim his name, even though I’m guessing he was the only “Sprite” in his middle school. Mostly I have just recognized when a name was wrong for me. I am still waiting to be picked by the right one.
The right name is important, because names have power. We use them to sort things and to make sense of the world. Am I a theist or an atheist? Or an agnostic? Finding a name for or labeling ourselves allows us to identify the values or beliefs or experiences we share with other people – it is how we form affinity groups and create community. Just last month the New York Times published an article about bisexuality [in the “Fashion and Style” section] which talked about the discomfort that many bisexuals have with labeling themselves. The article asserted that labels for sexuality are a generational thing, and younger people may be rejecting the idea of labeling their sexuality altogether. So will all of those letters in LGBTQQIAA fade out of existence? One of my favorite bisexual bloggers, Patrick Richard Fink, responded to the New York Times piece with an article in the Huffington Post titled: “No Label Is No Community”. He asked: how can sexual and gender nonconforming people, who have historically been and often still are marginalized, discriminated against, and driven into the closet, find each other and create a self-affirming and supportive community if they are told that they don’t need labels anymore?
Of course we should be careful how we use labels – especially when we are labeling others. Names can be dangerous. Instead of helping us to sort and understand, to recognize and affirm each other, they can be used to exclude or condemn. In the wrong hands, names can be weapons.
We should also accept that the most profound parts of life, or of one person’s life, are so unique to that individual person, so mysterious, that no adequate name exists for them. If we do name those things, we must always keep in mind that the name will never encompass the entire reality. Labeling something or someone puts it in a box – it also often makes us lazy and lets us assume we know more about it than we actually do. But what Patrick Richard Fink reminds us is that self-labeling – being able to name and claim an identity for ourselves – can be important in finding a community of people who accept us.
That is precisely why one of the names that I am truly comfortable with is Unitarian-Universalist. “What IS that?” is a common response when I mention it. It’s nice when you can start with a clean slate. But its real significance for me is that the name describes me as a religious person without circumscribing my beliefs. It includes an entire rainbow of sincerely- held religious beliefs that could not coexist in any other church. It includes my religious beliefs even if they change. It includes your beliefs even if yours differ from mine. In this church, we actively fight against the idea that because we are using the same words, we all think the same way … as if we ever could or should. “We need not think alike to love alike,” as a famous Unitarian minister once said. And what a radical idea that is. It means we need not share, or even know or understand, each other’s beliefs in order to love each other. And we’re talking about love here, not tolerance or acceptance of each other’s presence in the pew beside us, but LOVE for each other.
So Unitarian-Universalists would be the people who thought up the “Standing on the Side of Love” campaign but don’t tell us what kind of love we are supposed to be standing on the side of. Love is one of those things we all know is real, enormous, powerful, transcendent, redemptive. And the more I have learned about any group of people, the more I have been able to extend my love to include them. But the question is, do we have to know and understand people before we can love them? Isn’t that maybe a misunderstanding of love itself? Maybe we are supposed to give love first, to every person, simply because each person has inherent worth and dignity, in the hope that by practicing love we will learn to understand it a little better, even though we know it will always exceed our ability to completely comprehend it. In the words of the poet Mary Oliver: “How many kinds of love might there be in the world, and how many formations might they make? And who am I ever to imagine I could know such a marvelous business?”
Feb 8, 2014
Too many hours we spend gazing downward
At tiny screens, lane stripes, mud puddles, belly buttons and myriad hazards that can trip us up,
Which is a curious phrase, since when we trip up we fall down.
What I long for in moments of quiet is to fall gently into the sky
To lose myself in contemplation of the Sistine Chapel of the universe
That sees all, knows all and offers us answers if we only can crane our necks long enough
To take in all the mystery of that little gap between the fingers of God and man, almost touching but never quite.
And in looking up I imagine what I must look like
From the perspective of tree tops, moon, or stars,
Or of the hawk perched in oak, her sharp eye scouring the earth for scampering delicacies
Or of the star nation, those innumerable ancestors above my head, who weep for me with love and hope through starry-eyed tears.
But today the vision is found in my own mind's eye craning upward,
Scouring the heavens, the clouds, the treetops and rainbows, even,
For drops of truth I can catch in my mouth to nourish my spirit,
Glimpses of longed for peace and deep knowing of what my place in creation must be.
Whenever I can pry my eyes away from contemplation of my own feet,
I look up from wherever I am and feel hot sunlight on my neck
Or watch the simmering clatter of oak leaves in wind
And, finally, lose myself for a moment in the splendor of my own insignificance.
Yesterday was a day filled with unexpected beauty. My wife and son, an icy blue-green river, a bald eagle, a great blue heron and a gorgeous sunset. It seemed everywhere I turned, beauty was there with outstretched arms.
I've been trying to understand why it is that I am driven to seek beauty in the natural world. I've concluded that I am most content when I stop struggling and lose myself in the natural world. Our human culture, particularly the American version, portrays life as a struggle between the individual and the wilderness. Taming the wild, controlling the resources, reshaping the world around us to suit our own short term needs.
It's beyond the scope of my little spirituality blog to speculate on the reasons for human behavior, but my observation this weekend is that I am happiest when I stop struggling to reshape the world and simply release myself into the wild, if only for a few minutes.
I found a poignant reflection written by UU minister Becky Edmiston-Lange. In it, she draws inspiration from other writers and develops the beautiful thought that we are all a part of the Earth, not separate from it and certainly not locked in a cosmic struggle to subdue it:
"…In our bones lies the calcium of antediluvian creatures,
in our veins courses the water of seas;
we are part of all that ever was,
born of this earth, riders upon a cosmic ocean;
we are not separate from nature, we are nature,
part of that same spirit that turned scales into feathers and
birdsong into speech
we live by the sun; we move by the stars…
we eat from the earth; we drink from the rain.
"O great spirit, help us know who we are
and fill us with such love for this holy creation
and gratitude for this awesome gift we call living,
that we might claim our inheritance and live out our calling
to bless the world and each other with our care."
My conclusion is that when we find beauty, we are finding our true selves.
My favorite poem in the whole world is also one of the simplest:
"Best of any song is birdsong in the quiet, but first you must have the quiet." —Wendell Berry
Lately I've been rediscovering the joy of silence. How much of my life has been spent with my mind and spirit numbed by constant stimulation? In recent years, my love of news and music usually meant that the radio was a constant accompaniment to so many mornings and evenings. It was almost as if I was afraid to be alone with my thoughts, so I somehow made sure there were no empty spaces in which I would have to face them.
About a year ago I decided to silence the constant drone of news and talk, and Betsy agreed to give this a try (she was an NPR addict, too). It's amazing what we discovered in the silence. It made a space for us to reflect, and with the opportunity for reflection came thoughts and feelings, both profound and mundane, that we could share or perhaps tuck away for another time.
This idea, in fact, is a primary tenet of Native American spirituality: to settle yourself quietly in nature and open yourself to receive messages. It's not a prayer you pray to get something—it's a prayer that comes to find you. As Erik Wikstrom writes in his book Simply Pray, the quiet creates a space for us to hear the prayer that God is already praying inside of us.
So in this sense, there's really no such thing as silence. The moment you think you've achieved it, you can then hear something quieter, such as nearby birdsong or rustling of leaves in the breeze or the cat hopping off the bed upstairs. In the ultimate silence, you can hear your own breath and even, very faintly, the whisper of your own beating heart. You simply move to another level of consciousness but there's always something there to discover.
And that's why for me the quiet is the ultimate sanctuary. It is, of course, a refuge from the constant drone of life's busy-ness that we all need. But its power comes not from the mere absence of noise. It comes from what rises up in that quiet place: the message that all this time has been quietly tugging at your sleeve. Those quiet words that your heart so urgently needs to hear. The truth that's been waiting to have a word with you.
Are you listening?
Today's blog is a tribute to my favorite spiritual practice: trail running….Click on the image to the right to see the photo gallery of the moments I have captured during and after my trail runs.
* * *
Into the woods I go
Kneeling down in grass or soft leaves for the gentle stretch of the shins
Connecting my ears to the timeless music of the ancestors.
With the trance beginning I plunge into the forest and feel the sensation of entering in
As the trees part and welcome me into their beneficent presence.
They speak to me.
When I look down they speak to me of rootedness
Even the rocks and protruding roots in the trail warn me to focus in this moment on my path
But only one eyeful at a time.
Casting my eyes too far down the path, thinking of what is beyond the next curve, is an invitation to a fall.
When I look up the trees speak to me of hope and transcendence, touching sky and earth in the same moment.
They speak to me of love and belonging.
You are one of us, they say, and I lift my arms sometimes to see what it feels like to be one of them.
They are protection and I have never fallen.
The trees smile on me and accept me into their fold because I come not to take but to give back,
Always leaving a small stone as a token of gratitude for the peace and fulfillment I receive in return.
My feet become one with the earth, digging into the decaying leaves, soil and sometimes mud,
And with chest pounding I revel in the swirl of earth and water, my feet stirring air fueled by inner fire.
It's all here in the woods.
Here we are as in olden days
Happy golden days of yore
Faithful friends who are dear to us
Gather near to us once more…
These old familiar words, sung in joy with new chorus friends in our recent holiday concert, have inspired me to embark on another spiritual journey this year. Last year's journey was a series of spiritual practices focused on peacemaking, one practice each day to celebrate each of the 12 Days of Christmas.
Inspired by that experience, I will celebrate the 12 Days of Christmas this year by remembering and, where possible, reconnecting with 12 people from my past and present who have been instrumental in shaping the person I am today.
These dear friends and mentors, however, represent much more than treasured memories. They were there at the creation, as it were, participating sometimes unknowingly in shaping my beliefs, my values, and even the very trajectory of my life. Take away any one of these people, and I would likely be someone a little different.
I'll probably have trouble limiting it to only 12...
Yes, I realize this will be a very personal and self-absorbed set of reflections, so I ask your forgiveness in advance. If you are so inspired, I hope you will consider joining me in this worthy 12-day celebration, starting on Christmas day, by remembering those who have been a meaningful presence in your life. I would be very happy to share your stories and pictures on a special page in this site. (You can post a comment here on this blog page, or post a comment to the Facebook posting.)
As with most journeys, I have no idea how this will go. And that is half the fun. In the meantime, have a very happy holiday season. I hope it is one filled with meaningful connections and rekindling of old friendships.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
On the twelfth day of Christmas...
Finally, day 12, and the Christmas tree is toast. Despite the blizzard outside my front door, I'm having warm thoughts about some wonderful friends I have made since last April after joining the Gateway Men's Chorus (GMC). One couple in particular, Michael Dorn and Andrew Hernandez, have taught me the true meaning of welcoming and acceptance.
Despite him singing in a different section, I happen to sit next to Michael in my first weeks at rehearsal. He took me under his wing and helped me navigate unfamiliar waters. As the social activities coordinator, he always made sure I knew about upcoming social events, giving me the opportunity to get to know other members outside of rehearsal. Even more important, Michael and his partner Andrew went out of their way not only to invite me to their own barbecues and holiday gatherings but specifically to welcome my wife and kids as well, and that has meant a lot to me, and to Betsy as well.
Welcoming, in fact, is hardwired into the DNA of GMC. From the first day, I was welcomed with open arms by this community of singers that are really like a family as much as a choral arts organization. The lessons for how to welcome newcomers were powerful. The music director, Al Fischer welcomed me and decided to give me a chance despite that fact that I had already missed several weeks of rehearsals in the current concert cycle leading up to the Pride concert last June.
Beyond welcome and good will, there was organization: The same day I arrived, I got a binder of music, perfectly organized, and was introduced to the chorus manager and to the section leader. By the next week I had a personalized name tag and was connected to the online information and social networks. (And of course my dues were efficiently collected, with convenient credit card payment right there in the rehearsal hall!)
It was a lesson in welcoming, not only spiritually but organizationally, and a reminder that welcoming is more about deeds than slogans. It's a lesson I hope to incorporate into my personal and church life as we all reach out to connect with the diverse LGBTQ community in greater St. Louis.
Michael, thank you to you and Andrew for being that gateway for me, bringing me into your community of caring. Being accepted for who I am, even if I don't fit into anyone else's neat and tidy boxes, is the best gift anyone could ask for this holiday season.
Blessings to all for a 2014 filled with peace, joy and friendship.
* * * * * * * * * * *
On the eleventh day of Christmas...
It's now day 11 and I'm thinking of a special person in my life who is teaching me a thing or two about loyalty. This person, Lori Block of San Francisco, is not completely comfortable with the title, but she is my "boss" at work. But more specifically, she is my mentor and occasionally my protector. From her I'm learning what it means to be "family"—what it means to be loyal 110 percent.
I have learned that it all comes from her commitment to mutually caring relationships. She forms these with her best clients, with her fellow Principals in the firm, and with her direct reports and other more junior members of our team.
The flip side of this, which is the part that is harder for me to learn, is knowing when someone is not your friend, when they have violated trust or showed respect or (worst of all) disloyalty. These are relationships that may need to be repaired, if possible, but loyalty cannot be provided equally to all. Otherwise, loyalty to your true inner circle is meaningless.
You know someone is fiercely loyal when he or she believes in you even more than you believe in yourself. But when it happens consistently enough, you start to believe in yourself, too. And that's the point. Fierce loyalty makes you want to be strong enough and good enough simply because you want to be worthy of this loyalty and to demonstrate trustworthiness in return. If push came to shove, I know she would put herself in the line of fire, even if I didn't want her to.
Best of all, fierce loyalty creates a safety zone, where you can talk about anything (or anyone!) and know you are always on firm ground. Some bosses actively avoid personal contact with their direct reports in a misguided attempt to accrue more authority to themselves. But Lori's approach allows for intimacy and friendship that is rare in the workplace, even rare among some families.
Lori, thank you for believing in me. You know I will pass it on to others for whom I am a mentor and cheer them on to greater things.
P.S. I want my San Francisco Giants hat back… I look great in that hat. I promise not to wear it in St. Louis. What was that about loyalty?
* * * * * * * * * *
On the tenth day of Christmas...
Good lords-a-leaping, it's already the 10th day of Christmas and our tree is starting to look more like a cactus than a conifer. Today I'm remembering another person who has been instrumental in my spiritual development: Reverend Thomas Perchlik of First Unitarian.
For many years now I have been cultivating my Unitarian Universalist beliefs, but after Thomas came to us a few years ago I have felt my spiritual universe steadily expanding. Thomas will be the first to remind us that he is a UU, period, but it's clear that he draws inspiration from—and finds beauty in—a variety of religious traditions.
It must have started with his playing of the Native American flute during worship services. It was such a refreshing alternative to all the talk that characterizes protestant worship. It's pure spirit and it opened the door to exploring Native American spirituality, including their symbolism, stories and spiritual practices.
But there is so much more, including beautiful writings and folk legends from Hinduism, Buddhism, and from Sufism and other Islamic traditions. But my favorites will always be the coyote stories. I take great inspiration from the thought that beauty and truth can be found everywhere, not confined to a single book.
The catalyst for my spiritual exploration over the past year was Thomas' Christmas Eve sermon in 2012, where he offered a set of 12 spiritual practices, one for each day. My loyal readers may remember my daily blog entries during that time. I've added the link under Thomas' picture in case you're interested. That was a lot of fun, and I felt and experienced things I never had before. I never knew what power lay in a simple lighted candle, but it is powerful when you approach it with a spiritual goal in mind.
Most important, Thomas has helped me realize that I want to pursue UU ministry, and that is a powerful new direction for my life. It will take several years to make it happen, but I know this is what I was meant to do.
Thomas, I can never thank you enough for quietly opening a window that lets a little love and beauty into our lives each week. I hope I can succeed in following in your footsteps, following the music of the piper.
* * * * * * * * *
On the ninth day of Christmas...
On the ninth day of Christmas I felt unconditional love, the kind of love that I am still learning how to give. Day nine is all about the person who is not only the love of my life, but who represent the love in my life. Of course I'm talking about the wonderful alto I met in the Alexandria Choral Society back in 1992 shortly before her 30th birthday.
The first time I experienced Betsy's unconditional love was with a warm and wet French kiss—from her miniature poodle, Hannah. The first time I arrived at Betsy's small house on Groveton Street near Alexandria, VA, I was greeted at the door by this enthusiastic creature who's affection knew no bounds. And I've been living in that world of unconditional, unbounded, freely given Betsy love ever since.
The amazing thing about Betsy and the way she lives her life is that once she chooses to love someone (and dogs definitely count as someones) it is forever. Admission to Betsy's circle of unconditional loving is not a fleeting joy, it's a lifetime membership. Her best friends from college are still her best friends today. Whether canine, human or otherwise, Betsy's love is constant, despite all our worst behaviors.
Though I had an inkling of how Betsy loved early in our relationship, it was revealed most fully when we had our beautiful children. She has impressed me over and over, to this very day, with her ability to maintain compassion, appreciation and complete devotion in the face of the daily cuts and bruises inflicted by those she loves. Make no mistake—it's not some kind of martyrdom. She doesn't want to be a saint. She's not making a sacrifice. Her consistent love just is, like a hot spring or like the sun itself.
Make no mistake, unconditional love is not some kind of Disney-esque fairy tale—it's often hard work and she is not immune to hurt. That's always part of the deal when you love anyone or anything. But I've finally figured out why it's worth it: When you are ever present to loved ones, this also means you are first in line to receive all the hugs, insights, revelations and the host of other joys that come with being present, with heart and arms open.
So thank you, Betsy, from all of us, for being that ever present, unshakeable and consistent source of love in our lives. You have given me, in particular, a greater gift than perhaps you'll ever know.
* * * * * * * *
On the eighth day of Christmas...
Day eight and I'm already starting to have a new appreciation for how the George you know actually came to be. It's a rewarding journey, continuing today with reflections on how I came to love all the beauty that abounds in the world of human culture. And in large part I have one very special woman to thank for so much of the beauty that has touched my life, and that is Kerry Krebill, former music director of the Alexandria Choral Society (ACS).
To meet people after moving to D.C. I looked up choirs in the yellow pages (remember those?) and I found ACS listed there. I did a simple audition with Kerry, who determined that I was a tenor despite having sung baritone in college. My life has never been the same since.
As part of Maestra Krebill's world, I was exposed to countless examples of beauty and the very best of human culture and achievement. It began with Renaissance music, sung in an authentic, spare style appropriate to the period. I soaked it in like sunshine, absorbing it into every pore in my skin. And soon to follow were the more challenging but equally beautiful contemporary choral compositions that gave me a new appreciation for 20th Century harmonies.
But it was about much more than just the perfect beauty of a Renaissance motet. Kerry is a bon vivant, exploring with enthusiasm all the great creations of human culture: wine, food and architecture among others. I wanted to taste it all and just being around Kerry made me feel like that could actually be possible. For some people a vacation is booking a cruise or a nice hotel at the beach. For Kerry, it's collecting a group of dear friends and renting a villa together in Seville.
The most cherished memories are from a choral music tour of Italy in 1992. I had no idea I even liked Italy but Kerry and other ACS singers encouraged me to join them. I thought I would give it a try, having no idea the world of beauty and wonder that was about to be opened to me. We sipped wine in a hilltop town in Orvieto, and sipped some more in beautiful Montepulciano, and yet more around the main plaza in stunning Sienna. But that was just the wine. There was the music, too, of course. We sang a mass in the gorgeous glittering cathedral of San Marco in Venice and even sang a beatification mass with Pope John Paul II at St. Peters. It was pure magic.
Kerry taught me that life is meant to be enjoyed to the fullest, engaging all your senses and delighting in the beauty that is all around us. There was never a hint of snobbery—it was all an adventure, available to anyone who took some time to educate himself and appreciate the exquisite craftsmanship that human beings are capable of.
Kerry, molto grazie for all the beauty you brought to my world, not the least of which was the opportunity to meet the beautiful person I would later marry. May beauty continue to follow you each day of your bountiful, wonderful life.
* * * * * * *
On the seventh day of Christmas...
Already the seventh day of Christmas. The new year is upon us, and it’s a fitting time to reflect on the person in my life who for me has always represented positive change and new possibilities. One of my dearest companions in this life, Jane Leader Soderquist, was there at the beginning of my “new” life that began on Feb. 20, 1990.
It was a new decade, and I had just relocated to the Washington, D.C. area from rural Indiana. I had met Jane during my first big adventure ever: studying abroad in Nottingham, England. Jane was my “bridge to somewhere” and she, along with her dear and loving family in Bethesda, MD, welcomed me to D.C. with open arms. The simple words spoken by Jane’s mother, Carillon Leader, changed my life forever: “Sure, you can stay here…” Those words, and the kind hospitality that anchored me in new soil, changed my life forever—bringing me at once a new time zone, a new community, a new job and a new circle of wonderful friends.
Best of all, Jane introduced me to Indian food. For that alone, she deserves to go to heaven (all seven of them).
For Jane, life is always an adventure that she embraces with enthusiasm and optimism, and a healthy dose of that rubbed off on me. Perhaps it came from her growing up in a Foreign Service family where she spent much of her childhood in exotic locales, including Venezuela and India. Though I know she often craved a little more stability, which she later created for herself so beautifully in her adult life, I think her upbringing taught her to look for the good in new places and for friendship in new faces.
Yes, Jane was a bridge to somewhere, and it didn’t end with my relocation. She continued to be both the source of, and inspiration for, more adventures than I could count. Some of the dearest friends of my life were made during this three-year adventure in D.C., including the alluring alto from Missouri who would become my spouse, life partner and the mother of my children.
The best piece of advice Jane ever gave me was this: “You have to make it good where you are.” In other words, be present to the life and relationships you have here, today. Don’t neglect them while pining away for a different life, one which may never come. Perhaps she was uniquely qualified to give this advice. Perhaps in a way she was giving this advice to herself. I have often failed to live up to this ideal, but about a year ago I resolved to get back in touch with this important principle of Jane-ness—and it has blessed my life in unimaginable ways.
Jane, thank you for teaching me that change is good...to look for the good things... and latch onto them when they appear.
May each of you be so fortunate to have a bit of Jane-ness in your life. Happy new year, and happy new beginnings.
* * * * * *
On the sixth day of Christmas...
It’s day six of Christmas and thoughts turn to my college days—and in particular some of my first serious male friendships. I owe a lot of my social development to the men of Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity, Alpha-Alpha Zeta chapter, at Butler University. And in particular, I owe a lot to my fraternal big brother Richard Tewksbury a.k.a. “Tewk.”
I had never seriously thought that I would join a fraternity when I was first accepted to Butler in 1985. But I was recruited early by a brother who was also from Shelby County, Kurt Blackmore, and I decided to check it out. It turned out to be a great decision for me, and it taught me how to have quality male friendships as an adult. A friend recently shared with me an article about how the majority of men in our culture, at least heterosexual white ones, have very few intimate friendships despite having more of a need for them than ever. So I’m proud to say that Tewk was one of those great friends who taught me how, a few short years later, to be a friend and mentor to the younger brothers who came after me, including my own little brother Scott Waldron.
As I finished my freshman year in 1986, I realized that one of the most impressive things about the classes of juniors and seniors who were serving as our big brothers was that they had successfully eliminated hazing from our frat house traditions—despite the fact that they had been hazed themselves as freshmen. These guys will forever have my thanks and gratitude for exhibiting the moral courage to break this cycle of abuse, competition and domination that so often characterize relationships among men in our culture. We younger brothers absorbed and maintained this new culture through our senior year and I’m very proud to say that hazing is ancient history at Alpha-Alpha Zeta to this day.
Tewk was always someone I could talk to, someone who introduced me to dry red wine (yuck!), and someone who shared his revelation that occurred by his senior year (after doing some student teaching) that Butler actually had pretty high academic standards. In short, Tewk modeled for me how to be a thoughtful, caring and responsible grown-up. I even played piano for his wedding, and I counted his fiancée and soon-to-be wife, Lisa, as a friend as well.
Unfortunately, I have not been in touch with Tewk for several years, and I suspect he goes by Rick as a grown-up. But I do remain in touch with the values he lived, which is to be a friend, mentor and role-model for younger guys. As an educator, I’m sure he continues to be an inspiration to young people.
Tewk, thanks for the being the big brother that I never had in real life. I wish you all the best!
* * * * *
On the fifth day of Christmas...
Confidence and Creativity
The person I'm thinking of today on this fifth day of Christmas was one of the most influential people in my young life. Imogene Shofner, the junior high and high school choir and show choir director, was a constant source of inspiration to me from the 7th through the 12th grades. She helped me discover and develop my musical talents, challenging me when necessary and sharing in my successes every chance she got.
The joy I found in singing has become an essential ingredient in the adult George that most of you know. I found myself in a choir, I made my best friends in choirs, I met my wife in choir, and choirs will be part of me until the day I die. (If one believes in heaven and choirs of angels, perhaps my choral career can even extend beyond the grave.)
Imogene encouraged me to develop my musical and leadership skills. She taught all of us to stand confidently, sing out and make eye contact with our audience. These skills have given me confidence in front of an audience, serving me very well in college, in my business career and in my time in the pulpit conducting lay-led worship services. She also encouraged me to attend Butler University in Indianapolis, where she had studied music at the Arthur Jordan Conservatory of Music. Butler turned out to be a perfect fit for me, allowing me to continue my love of music even though I was not a music major and expanding my world view, quite literally.
Imogene always had faith in me and my abilities even when I did not. I'll never forget the time she announced changes to a show choir performance we were working on. It was a Dick Clark-style pop music review of hits from the 50s, 60s and 70s. I liked the planned finale just the way it was and pushed back publicly on her announcement that she was rewriting the ending. Uncharacteristically, she cut me off and said it had been decided, end of story. I withdrew and nursed my wounds for a few days, only to find out that the change she had planned was to feature a new song that I had written (taking us into the 80s...).
Of course I was ashamed that I had dared to question her judgment when all along she was planning a tribute to local homegrown talent that included my own amateurish attempt at a pop ballad. That experience taught me not only to have faith in my own talent but to bring fresh thinking to every musical creation, pushing the boundaries where necessary, fusing old and new to make something unique.
Thanks in large part to you, Imogene, I have no fear of failure. Thank you for nurturing this beautiful and satisfying part of me. As so many of your former students would agree, our contributions to the world are really your own.
* * * *
On the fourth day of Christmas...
Service in Community
Forget about the four calling birds: This fourth day of Christmas I’m remembering a special couple that influenced my life as an adolescent. Today I’m remembering Vernard and Nora McClanahan, the preacher and organist, respectively, of my childhood Baptist church in Fairland, Indiana.
This was my formative experience in learning how to be a member of a religious community.
Rev. McClanahan was the quintessential country preacher, quick with a folksy quip, a vigorous handshake and an easy laugh. Nora was his wife and accomplice, timing the soft music just right to make the traditional Baptist altar call as alluring and emotionally satisfying as possible.
Learning of my interest in music and the fact that I been taking piano lessons from Mrs. Alley (also a church musician at another Baptist church), the McClanahans offered me an opportunity to become the church pianist at age 14. I had been baptized by then and saved by Jesus at least twice (I wasn’t sure it took the first time, since I still felt as sinful as ever…). So I took the next logical step and contributed actively to the music program of the church, which is a habit I have maintained to this day.
As a youngster, it was appropriate that I always played second fiddle to Nora’s organ playing, as we attempted (usually successfully) to play piano and organ simultaneously on the congregational hymns. This, I now realize, was how I first learned to accept the role of a mentee. I also learned patience and humility, as I did not always agree with the rhythms I heard emanating from the console organ across the small sanctuary but had to “play along” just the same to make sure the two instruments continued to sing with one voice.
In other words, it was a lesson in how to put the communal worship experience first and my own ambitions second. It was a lesson in respecting those whose experience had something to teach me. And it was a huge lesson in how making good music (and making a good life in general) is 20 percent performance and 80 percent listening.
Thank you, Vernard and Nora, for the opportunity to contribute to our beautiful little community and for the precious gift of followership.
* * *
On the third day of Christmas...
On the third day of Christmas I find myself on a road trip to visit family in North Carolina. It’s pure coincidence that the aunt I will visit tonight is the next person who gave me a great gift that has shaped my life.
Aunt Franny, the next-to-youngest sister of my mother, was (and still is) young and full of life and love for the world. She was the antithesis of rules, boundaries, chores, Sunday School and homework. Time spent with Aunt Franny was pure pleasure.
She took me under her wing like a little brother and especially in the carefree summer time she always had something fun for us to do. We rode around in her car, listened to 8-track tapes of Gloria Gaynor and Donna Summer. We went fishing and swimming. We rode her bay mare, Jake-o, around my grandmother’s farm and played with Jako-e’s filly Spanky. We waxed her Dodge Charger in the shade behind the farmhouse. She was confident and fearless, changing her own oil, catching and throwing softballs, and cleaning fish she caught in the nearby creek.
She let me and my brother hang out with her friends, Susie, Cotton, Bev and so many more, listening to them play guitar and sing. I wish I could remember the songs she wrote. I just remember one line: “Take my hand and walk with me…”
I never told her this, but I realize now that she was my best friend as a kid growing up, and her influence is still felt in my life today as I do many of the same things: enjoying the love of good friends, listening to music and having fun outdoors. Even Gloria Gaynor and Donna Summer have their place in my iTunes library. Maybe our lives have diverged a bit. Instead of waxing the car, I’m more likely to be gardening, and you’ll catch me running in the woods instead of cleaning fish. But the same joy and love of life is there.
I’m very happy to say that, even as a retired 50-something, she is still opening herself fully to life’s rich possibilities. This summer she will finally marry the love of her life, showing us all that she still has so much more to give. I know she will never run out of ideas to keep her hands busy and her spirit engaged. Someday, when she tells the story of her life, she will be able to say with confidence that she accomplished everything that was truly important—that she loved life fully and it loved her back.
Thanks, Franny, for taking time out to make memories. Thanks to you, I have a treasure trove of them. Ama la vida.
On the second day of Christmas...
Awareness of Others
This second day of Christmas, I am remembering a valuable gift given to me by another essential person in my life—my father. This gift was a sensitivity to the needs of others, including showing courtesy and respect to all, whether friend or stranger. Perhaps as the middle child of nine growing up, Dad found getting along with others essential to getting his needs met. Or maybe it's just because he is a naturally kind and considerate person. But the lesson I continually absorbed from my father, among others, was that other people deserve to be treated as we would like to be treated.
This kindness manifested in many ways, starting with respect for elders, then extending to neighbors and friends, and even co-workers and customers he served. People were referred to as ladies and gentlemen and treated accordingly. Even strangers in the checkout line were worthy of a kind word or a shared humorous observation. When teaching me to drive, courtesy to other drivers was a lesson I learned well and have now passed on to my own son. Dad went out of his way to see the goodness in people, to assume innocent motives, and to pay the appropriate compliment to the sower of a fine garden or the baker of an excellent pie.
In this way, my father, likely without knowing it, made the world a warm and safe place for me. Because I, too, see the goodness in people and enjoy their diverse contributions to our shared human experience, I have become comfortable with being a citizen of the world. The stranger, for me, is not a threat or a challenge but an opportunity to make another connection with a fellow human being. And in so doing, the boundaries of my universe and my love for humanity expand a little farther.
Thank you, Dad, for teaching me to live and work well with others. It's a practice that fills my life with peace, joy and endless possibilities.
On the first day of Christmas...
Space to Be Me
There's a special one who was literally present at the creation… My own mother is the obvious starting point for this 12-day journey of gratitude for those who have shaped my being.
My mother is as fundamental to my existence as the Earth itself. As the worshippers at the Buddhist Deer Park Monastery near my birthplace in California have so beautifully prayed, “Dear Mother Earth, breathing in, we see that we and all of our ancestors are your children. With your patience, stability, endurance and creativity you have raised us and guided us tirelessly through many lifetimes…" Likewise, this extraordinary person who did the largest part in raising me provided all these things and more. The home she did her best to create for my younger brother and me was the soil that nourished us and, like the terroir of a French wine, blended its earthy character with that of our own.
Though of course one's mother bestows innumerable gifts, both treasured and otherwise, the one I'm most thankful for is that of space. By that, I mean a vast and verdant playing field in which to learn and grow and explore. She'll be a bit shocked to read this, maybe preferring to think that she did right by us in her careful attention to setting boundaries and limits that kept our exploring safe and within the bounds of Christian respectability.
Despite her own childhood filled with abuse and desperately hard farm work, she did her best to make sure that my brother and I had a childhood. There had been no space for that in her own youth, and to this day she mourns theloss of her own childhood. Oh, make no mistake: there was a list of chores for us to do each day after school and every day during the summer—mowing the lawn, pulling weeds, helping with laundry and cooking, cleaning the bathrooms and the like.
But when the list of chores was accomplished, there was always time to be kids. I rode my bike, played in the creek, wandered fields with the family dog, climbed trees, played piano, built a clubhouse, pressed my little brother into service creating plays and tape-recorded radio programs. And when I was older, I listened to loud disco music, played spin-the-bottle with adolescent friends in the hay loft of grandma's barn, and kissed girls in the cornfield (well, one in particular—you know who you are…).
This Christmas, Mom is self-conscious about the fact that she can't provide us with gifts that are commensurate with the loving generosity in her soul. But Mom, rest assured, you have given me the greatest gift possible, which is the space to become the person I am today. And for that I will always be profoundly grateful. I can't help but feel that I am, in some ways, living life for the both of us, enjoying an abundance of love from my family and a degree of material comfort that have always been just beyond your grasp.
Merry Christmas, Mom. Let's play together soon. It's your turn to explore.
"My life flows on in endless song, above earth's lamentation. I hear the clear, though faroff hymn that hails a new creation." These opening words of a popular hymn give voice to my thoughts this morning.
My experiences this weekend have sharpened my sense of how important music—and in particularly choral singing—is in my life. Yesterday in particular, two seemingly unrelated events came a few hours apart and only while reflecting this morning did I discover the silver thread that connects the two.
The first was a moving memorial service celebrating the life of Jan Good, a friend of my wife's who passed from this life much too young. On the way into the church I heard the bells ringing and the music never stopped throughout the thoughtfully planned service. The voices of Jan's fellow congregants joined together to sing her on her way, to celebrate her life and provide time for those in attendance to quiet themselves and reflect.
Then in what seemed like a completely different experience, I raised my own voice in song with 60-some other men as our Gateway Men's Chorus performed our annual holiday concert. It felt incongruous at first to go from the memorial service to a sometimes raucous and irreverent romp through the standard holiday lit. But perhaps not.
The silver thread that binds these two experiences and so many more like them are that music, and the human voice in particular, is an expression of community in its most intimate form. When people come together to make music, it is a deliberate act of faith: faith in our ability to make beauty where there is ugliness, to assert hope in the face of loss, to join hands and hearts where there is deep loneliness and alienation. Voices joined in song is an ancient expression of humanity that seems fundamental to our very existence. After all, we sing at weddings, at funerals, at birthday parties, at worship services and at Cardinals games…And in this season, many of us sing together around the Christmas tree and the menorah.
It's not surprising that most choral groups I've ever sung with feel much more like a family than with any other group activity. The men's chorus, especially for me at this time in my life, provides a powerful sense of community for which I'm deeply grateful. Just when you think it's all frivolity, moments of profound beauty rise up and wrap you in a warm embrace. One man, before the first concert Friday night, stood before the group and shared his gratitude for the sense of family that he has felt in this group, and how that support was critical for him as he struggled through a difficult period in his life. Another member, after suffering through a recent tragedy, shared these words: "Sometimes I forget that I am loved. Today I felt loved by my friends and family. Also when I walked onto the stage to a round of applause and a string of hugs from my Gateway Men's Chorus brothers (and sisters)."
And that's it, really. Singing is how we say I love you to the universe, to life, and to each other. May it ever be so.
There is light here and now in the darkest time of the year. The events of this past week have reminded me of this annual lesson. In this season of advent, which also saw the final days of Chanukah, the lighting of candles, the hanging of the greens at First Church and the illumination of our own front porch with sparkling lights, have all done their part to push back the cold and darkness.
And of course, one of the great joys of this season is the collection of crude and glorious ornaments that the children have made themselves. On the First Church holiday tree (right), there is a paper chain composed of hundreds of individual links, each adorned with the hopes and self-expression of people of all ages. My favorite were the reindeer pictures cut out of brown construction paper, with each child's hand and footprints guiding the shape of antlers and face.
I once heard it said that hope requires some kind of action to truly be hope. Otherwise it's mere wishing. So lighting the candles, creating and hanging those ornaments on a Christmas tree, and finally switching on the lights, becomes not only a celebration but a deliberate act of faith. It reminds us that the light will soon return and the sun will once again start climbing a little higher in the sky each day.
This weekend also saw my son's violin recital, the first with his new teacher at the Community Music School. He chose and performed a challenging piece and mastered it well, with his nerves just barely detectable in the first minute or so. I was a little nervous for him as I was struck by the thought that he was all alone up there on the stage. Even as his parent and protector there was not a thing I could do to help him through this challenge—there was no choice but to let go and watch from afar along with the rest of the world.
And this morning I realized that these two events, hanging of the greens and the violin recital, have a beautiful connection. Our children—and for those without children of their own, the next generation of humanity to follow—are the vibrant (and sometimes prickly) green branches on which we hang our hopes for the coming of new light, new growth, new possibilities.
But as with the hanging of ornaments, the best hopes must hang very gently on our children, lest the hopes of the older generations become a burden, bending the upward-reaching branches downward to the ground, or worse, breaking the branches completely. Like the reindeer ornaments that are created from the child's own hands and feet, leave them room to hang ornaments that reflect a measure of their own hearts.
No, let us resolve to hang our hopes ever gently, then stand back and watch the sparkle.
This Thanksgiving weekend afforded the opportunity to spend time with my family wandering the new wing of the St. Louis Museum of Art. There I discovered some wonderful abstract and other forms of "modern" art that spoke to me in a way I had never fully appreciated before.
We started our exploration of the new wing by walking through some ancient art, including the classical sculpture of the male torso to the right. Then we stepped into a world of colorful abstraction, where the artist and the expression of ideas are front and center, in direct contrast to the classical approach that seems to have largely removed the artist from the equation. The classic artist, such as the one who chiseled this torso, may have presented an idealized version of reality but the result is still concrete and literal, following the forms that everyone expects. People may differ slightly in their interpretation of the torso—perhaps it's a man, perhaps it's a god, perhaps it's too idealistic, etc.—but everyone agrees that it's a male torso.
The abstract art is all about interpretation and not being bound by traditional forms. It's about an idea, or a technique or even an experiment, but in this way it's all about what's in the mind of the artist, not what's in the mind of the viewer. When one looks at it, it may say all kinds of contradictory things at once, requiring you to retrace the thought process of the artist to even begin making sense of it. Even so, it will ultimately mean something completely different to each person who experiences it, requiring you to add something of yourself before you can be fully satisfied.
And so it is with my own personal spirituality and liberal religion in general. Though we take inspiration from, and find beauty in, the classical forms of theology and worship, I find them too confining, too literal. There's not enough room in them for personal exploration and self-expression. What's the point of creating an exact replica of reality when there's a whole universe of ideas to explore. The point is we experience these ideas together as a religious community but we all take a little something different from the experience.
Click on the abstract image to the right to enjoy more images from SLAM.
"If you have ever gone into the woods with me, I must love you very much." These are some of my favorite words from poet Mary Oliver, as she describes the joy she finds in a solitary walk in nature. I feel the same way and I tend to invite others along very selectively.
Yesterday I invited my son to join me for a hike, despite the unseasonably cold weather. I suggested we try Castlewood State Park which I had never been to, despite its nearby location in West St. Louis County. He agreed, and soon we found ourselves gliding along the sandy path that traces the Meramec River.
We walked mostly in silence, for that is how we communicate best. As usual, Owen and I approach nature with a sense of awe and wonder. Like Christopher Robin with his pals in the Hundred Acre Wood, we embarked on a big Explore, climbing a giant fallen tree, scrambling up and down the river bank, throwing rocks into the river, and craning our necks to admire the dazzling white upper branches of Sycamore trees against the blue sky.
We were not the only two companions tracing the bend in the river that afternoon. I spotted a pair of large dark birds in trees on the opposite bank of the river. As they flew away from us, I noted the brilliant white tail feathers and a moment later glimpsed the white heads of two mature bald eagles. Eagle sightings are always thrilling, but I don't recall ever seeing a pair together like this. It seems they were on an Explore of their own.
I looked up eagles in the dictionary of bird totems in the book by Native American writer Ted Andrews (Anna, I must give your book back to you, my dear!). Among other powerful symbols, he notes that the eagle is also a symbol of the rediscovery of the inner child. That was fitting for our jaunt in the woods, which made us feel like we were two kids on top of the world.
Few words were spoken between my son and me, but that makes the few that were all the more memorable. My favorite comment from my son was when he climbed up on an old concrete wall, the apparent skeletal remains of a disused railroad bridge from early in the last century. His words, as if spoken by a boy half his age, were simply: "Look how high I am."
Perhaps the eagles heard it, too.
I begin with a confession: I am becoming a hugger. Yes, one of those. I don't care if you're a person, a dog or a tree. I will even admit that I occasionally lay hands on a rock, or let my fingers caress the grain of a carved piece of wood. I imagine I feel some ancient heartbeat or vibration that connects me to the divine, the infinite.
The need for human touch is a powerful need among us primates. We fill our heads with notions instilled by contemporary society that touching others is often inappropriate. And of course in certain circumstances we must respect personal boundaries. But the need for physical contact is universal and should not be strictly equated with sexual intimacy. I feel energized by physical interaction and haven't realized until lately how much I have been craving that. How many of us have put ourselves, or been put by others, into glass cages. We see and hear each other, but are still cut off, isolated, alone.
The Taoist philosopher I'm fond of quoting (thanks to Betsy) writes of the universality of our human desire for union. This is true of an infant who craves the cuddling of her parents, the lover who craves the touch of his beloved, the lonely person who wants to be reminded of the sustaining power of human friendship, the worshipper who touches the idols in a HIndu shrine and so touches universal truths.
Our craving begins at birth, if not in utero. As so many of us have heard, and as some have directly experienced, babies who are not touched and cuddled will often fail to thrive, become withdrawn and listless, even die. Perhaps it's true there is a spark of the divine in each of us, and our touch transmits this power like some kind of life-giving electric love.
A handshake is perhaps the most common form of human-to-human contact. A slow, warm hand-squeeze matched with sincere eye contact can go a long way to satisfying this need for union. The stereotypical macho iron grip, paired with vigorous arm pumping, is perhaps much less satisfying to me because it seems to be more about competition than communion. Let them call my handshakes effeminate if they want. My purpose is to let the energy flow. It's already there and doesn't need to be generated mechanically.
I've read about studies that report even the very slightest, casual touch from a cashier or librarian can positively affect our perception of that person or institution. In more than one choir I've sung in, we start rehearsals by rubbing each other's necks and shoulders—to loosen us up for singing but also to create the bonding that is necessary to attune our breathing and voices with those of our companions.
Human touch, when approached from this spiritual perspective, becomes a form of worship, a way of tapping into that great flow of divine energy that swirls within and among us. It's a way of putting ourselves into the midst of that stream, feeling it surging and pulsing through us, bathing us in warm contentment and a sense of belonging.
So don't shrink away when I come to hug you or take your hand. It's just me taking the pulse of the universe.
The devil is in the details, they always say. After taking a few moments from a busy week to collect and study some fallen leaves, I would have to say, instead, that in the details I find divinity. Or maybe it's ourselves that we find in the detail, if in fact there's any difference at all between divinity and ourselves.
In the photo essay on the right, you can see the amazing diversity of forms but with a surprising consistency of red and gold hues. No human art could be more colorful, no shape more elegant, no texture more lustrous. Maple, redbud, sweet gum and pear—These are Plato's ideal forms made manifest on a lonely sidewalk in Webster Groves.
Being human, of course, we see everything through a human lens, so the leaves speak to me of our individuality but anchored within a living community. The emergence of each new leaf is nourished by the root and trunk, but then, once unfurled, the individuals return the favor. Each leaf takes its intercourse with the surrounding atmosphere, breathing in carbon dioxide, converting sunlight to sugar, and breathing out oxygen. Each is made to live in communion with others and is virtually meaningless when detached from community.
In one of life's great ironies, the leaves are perhaps the most beautiful as they descend back into the earth after a productive season. Like the sunset sky, the hues are made possible only by the fact of their dying.
May we be reminded of the fragility of our individual lives and of our duty to do our small part to nourish our communities during our numbered days in the sun. You are unique and beautiful. Yet there is no need to be lonely during our short time here together.
My spiritual life this past week seemed to revolve around the poignant mix of beauty and death I experience every autumn. I watch the trees in St. Louis reach their peak for rich color, and all too soon afterwards release their hold on life and fall to their wintry deaths. I have long been fascinated by this paradox, that the most beautiful day in the trees' annual life is just one moment away from the saddest time.
I have for years been annoyed with the poet Robert Frost for creating the best poem title ever—Nothing Gold Can Stay—accompanied by a poem that I have always felt was inadequate to the topic. You can see the poem below and judge for yourself.
The sentiment is sound: that anything gold in our lives is transient and soon to be lost to us forever just at its most beautiful moment of existence. But where is the mention of golden autumn leaves? I can only think that Frost must have penned his poem in the springtime. And where is the mention of apple pie baked to golden perfection, soon to be devoured? Or the simple joy of a ripe banana that's only perfect for a day before the brown age spots consume it. He mentions the dawn but what about those luminescent sunsets that are my favorite part of the day, but only possible because the day is in the throes of death.
I guess for me, the gold is more about the tragedy of endings, the swan song, the long and lingering goodbye kiss, the denouement, or one of my other favorite words, penultimate. Penultimacy. And ultimately it's a reminder of the fragility of our own existence, of our own imminent mortality. For death happens one day at a time: one more line in the face, a new bump that appears, a new ache or pain that sneaks up on us in the night. We do our best to vanquish these invaders, but they keep coming.
Then other times as we lie in bed sleepless, we experience the deeper, emotional pain that we don't need a mirror to see. It whispers in our ears that we are losing our vitality, our very life force, our physical attractiveness. Who will love us in the golden years, for after all, who buys a ticket to see a play that's already in the third act? Who will want to see us naked when all the golden foliage has fallen away and we're left only with our crooked branches and hard, rough truths?
So, yes, this is the subtle tragedy I now contemplate as I stand on the threshold of the second half of my life. I look with envy on the faces of the young, still in the hopeful spring and vigorous summer of their lives. Do they really know how beautiful they are? Is it true that youth is wasted on the young? It seems inconceivable that their verdant, sun-warmed branches could be longing for the cooler days of golds, reds and browns. Perhaps they do sometimes, for heat and light can be exhausting.
Of course, the lesson is that it's not a tragedy at all but the natural course of the universe. Nothing stands still, for to be frozen in time like a glass-coffined Snow White would be just another form of death. When I speak of the regret of aging, I always note that it beats the alternative, which is to be food for worms.
Taoist writer Deng Ming-Dao reminds us that personal growth takes place in the context of our aging. There are different levels of consciousness, he writes, and each is appropriate to its own age. "What a teenager knows is perfect for being a teenager—anyone else looks stupid doing what a teenager does. What an elderly man does is perfect for an elderly man: anyone else doing it engages in absurd mimicry." His conclusion is that time, and aging, is the greatest gift when we take time to learn the lessons appropriate to each stage of our lives.
So…I will keep reaching upward and outward hoping that all will take pleasure in what remains of my end-of-summer foliage…and only time will tell if, indeed, there will be life after gold.
NOTHING GOLD CAN STAY
Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
This morning I'm thinking of the dead. After all, it is the season. Ironically, the thoughts began with my daughter's 14th birthday party yesterday. See her growing up, becoming a beautiful young woman, exploring her personality and enjoying her friends, is the essence of what it means to be alive.
When coupled with the coming days of Hallowmas—All Hallows' Eve, All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day—I recall the connection with my daughter's ancestors, most of whom she'll never know.
In Mexico, as you may know, they build altars to the dearly departed to celebrate their lives, including objects, photographs and food offerings. Marigolds, curiously, are the preferred flowers that are used to decorate these highly personalized shrines.
You may have heard me speak fondly of my great grandmother and how I treasure the special connection she has with my daughter: My granny, Hetty Orpha Orem Tucker, an artist, teacher, parent and writer, was born in 1899 and my daughter was born almost exactly a century later in 1999.
If I were to build a shrine for my great grandmother, what would I put on it? It would certainly feature my most treasured possession from her, which is the portrait of me she painted when I was less than two years old. I would also put out a dish of butterscotch candies wrapped in translucent gold wrappers, the kind she always kept in her kitchen because they were my great grandfather's favorite.
I would buy a miniature shrub, like one of those appropriate for a bonsai sculpture, to stand in for the large yews that used to grow in front of her little white house on S. West Street in Shelbyville, Indiana. And I would trim it just so, so that it looked like it hadn't been trimmed at all, but was roundish, symmetrical and natural "just like God made it." For those were always my orders when I went to her house as a young man to do yard work. Never mind that the state in which I found the shrubs upon arrival were actually the wild and unruly way that God made them, bending towards the best light without regard for the artists' sense of symmetry and order.
I would put out some tubes of paint reminiscent of those I used in the 80s in Hetty's Art Studio in my great grandmother's basement: yellow ochre, reds and black. And maybe a tiny portion of turpentine, just to remember the smell of creation.
I would place another of my prized possessions in the center: the little cards she used to pass out with her untitled poem that began with the words "I am a common mustard seed." Her poetry was not Shakespeare but tidy and respectful, rather like the yews after I had reclaimed them for God.
And for the food offering, alongside the butterscotch candies, I would have to leave a plate of fish and chips from Long John Silver's, preferably purchased with a coupon clipped from the local newspaper. Oh, the memories.
So this is my virtual offering this day. What would yours be?
This past week has brought together thoughts of harvest time and gratitude for gifts received, culminating in Friday night's beautiful Harvest Moon. The week began with Canadian Thanksgiving which, rightly so, coincides with harvest time unlike the curiously timed American version. Last weekend I saw the corn harvest in progress in St. Charles County, some fields already bare with rows of corn stalk stubble, others still with full fields of leaning stalks, heavy with ripened ears, ready to be unburdened of their gifts.
The corn harvest will always have a special place in my heart thanks to my upbringing as the son, grandson and great grandson of Indiana corn farmers. At the time my father and mother were still farming, I was not old enough to be of any significant help, but the requirement for "all hands on deck" to bring in the harvest had my brother and me along for the ride. For those who don't know, the corn harvest leaves the fields not in ears of corn but with the grains already wrested from the cobs by the combine (harvesting machine). Even without romanticizing it, the technology of mechanized farming is an amazing site to behold: One minute the dried cornstalks are standing, the next, the golden kernels are flooding out of the pipe into the bed of the waiting truck, like a kitchen faucet opened full.
So we rode atop the load of grain in the bed of the truck, rather like sitting in sand at the beach I suppose, though at the time I'm not sure I'd ever seen anything as exotic as an ocean or a sandy beach. Our ocean was the endless expanse of cornfields and rich soil spread out before us. I'll always remember the sweet, dusty, earthy smell of it, with bits of chaff tickling our noses. I had almost forgotten.
Awash in these golden riches, the heart sings and one cannot help but give thanks for our many blessings. As is my custom, my gratitude always seems to come in the form of thankfulness for the people in my life—the many hands that come together to work and enjoy the fruits of our mutual labors. Last week my colleagues at work in New York, Toronto and Kochi, India all came together to complete our largest project of the year. And then last night, a host of dear friends and acquaintances in the St. Louis LGBT community came together at the Band Together concert in U City. The grand orchestral-quality band arrangements and mixed voice chorus of men and women brought forth a golden bounty of thrilling music. With both my work and my musical friends, the coming together of talented, committed people make magic happen.
In celebration of the Native American Harvest Moon, I'll leave you with this harvest prayer. May you find peace and gratitude this week for life's abundant gifts and remember to give yourself time from your toil to reflect on the gifts of the season.
SIOUX PRAYER: AT HARVEST TIME
You, O God, are the Lord of the mountains and valleys. You are my mother and my father. You have given rain to make the corn grow, and sunshine to ripen it. Now in your strength the harvest begins.
I offer you the first morsels of the harvest. I know it is almost nothing compared with the abundance of the crop. But since you have provided the harvest, my gift to you is only a sign of what you have given to me.
You alone know how many suns and moons it will take to finish reaping. You alone know how heavy the crop will be. If I work too hard and too fast I forget about you, who gave me the harvest. So I will work steadily and slowly, remembering that each ear of corn is a priceless gift from you.
After a very intense week of work and the prospect of an even more intense week to come, I'm taking refuge in thoughts of nature this weekend. Yesterday I enjoyed a wonderful trip to the Missouri Weinstrasse in and around Augusta. The weather was heavenly, and fall colors that were starting to pop on the hillsides formed the perfect backdrop for the vineyards.
When burdens are heavy, it's liberating to just lose yourself in the natural world. It puts everything into proper perspective. Even if things go badly with a project at work, the maples will still turn red, and the geese will fly south.
So today I can't decide which of my two favorite poems to share, so I'll be reckless and share both of them. They are from Wendell Berry and Mary Oliver, my two favorite writers. Berry's "The Peace of Wild Things" is my 23rd Psalm. Oliver's "Wild Geese" is my theology compressed into 18 elegant lines.
I hope you find some peace and inspiration in these passages.
THE PEACE OF WILD THINGS
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
— Wendell Berry
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
— Mary Oliver
As I feel the sharp coolness of autumn finally arriving in St. Louis last night and this morning, I feel like summer may at last be saying good-bye and letting go of my hand. The crisp and colorful days of autumn have now taken my other hand, and I am turning to greet it. It is where life meets death and we stand, torn between the two.
I have always loved best those things in the natural world and in our lives that represent the edge where two things meet. I've read that the richest, most diverse ecosystems are in these places where two types of environments overlap—forest meeting savanna, mountains meeting the ocean, salt water meeting fresh water. Perhaps this is why I've always loved the agricultural landscape. Orchards, wheat fields and grazing pastures are all places where the work of human hands meets divine creation, thus producing the richest abundance.
So, too, it is true for matters of the strictly human variety. The richest cultural, culinary and spiritual experiences come from that cocktail of creativity that arises when traditions overlap, cross-pollinate and create new life.
So here, now, at the meeting of the seasons, I'm thinking of my gardenia on the patio. The waxy, tropical shrub loves the warm and humid summer but, like Florida-bound snowbirds, can't tolerate the cold. The Bangladeshi man who sold it to me said not to leave it outside when it's below 50 degrees.
So as we contemplate the coming of frost, and enjoy this beautiful time that is part summer and part autumn, I leave two gifts for you. One is the small slideshow of images I captured last fall to get you in the mood for the full-throated opulence of the season to come. I hope you can find some quiet moments to enjoy the real thing when it comes again this year.
The second gift is this reflection by Robert T. Weston, who rejoices in the paradox of autumn, this happy and sad time where edges meet.
Harbingers of Frost
Autumn, we know,
Is life en route to death.
The asters are but harbingers of frost.
The trees, flaunting their colors at the sky,
In other times will follow where the leaves have fallen,
And so shall we.
Yet other lives will come.
So may we know, accept, embrace,
The mystery of life we hold a while.
Nor mourn that it outgrows each separate self, but still rejoice that we may have our day.
Lift high our colors to the sky!
And give, in our time, fresh glory to the earth.
—Robert T. Weston
Yesterday I had a lot of time to think as I applied butter cream paint to the west side of our house. And, as I often do, thoughts played out in my head in the form of a dialogue with an unknown interlocutor. The question was put to me, "What is the meaning of life?" And to my astonishment, I had an answer. "The meaning of life is mutual caring."
Wow. Could it really be that simple? I tried to test my theory to see if it held, thinking about what's really important, what is healthy, what is whole, what is beautiful. And for me, yes, when I thought about relationships, families, work, the environment, religion, politics…it all boils down to mutual caring, giving and receiving and being present to diverse truths that are alive in each of us and in every plant, animal and rock. Most evils of this world result from a breakdown in mutual caring: violence, greed, loneliness, bigotry, and desecration of the natural environment.
Then as if by (or perhaps because of) divine providence, Betsy recalled that the InSight Theatre Company here in Webster Groves was offering its final performance of Our Town. I had never seen it, and we agreed to spend our date night taking in this 75-year-old Thornton Wilder classic.
For those who may not know, the tableau of people and events in this small turn-of-the-20th-Century New Hampshire town seems utterly ordinary. Everyone's lives are going along, following the script that the gods of social convention hand out to us at birth. Until Act 3. Young Emily Gibbs dies in childbirth, and because of Wilder's rejection of realism, he is able to let her character and dialogue continue from the grave.
The deceased Emily is allowed one visit back to her former life, though the other deceased spirits of the town warn against it. She chooses to go back anyway and visit her family on the day of her own 12th birthday. Of course she can see and hear the events in the kitchen as her mother prepares breakfast and offers Emily's birthday gifts, but her mother is trapped in the past and unable to detect the presence of the adult Emily.
The tragedy, obviously, is that no one in the scene can fully appreciate how fragile and fleeting our lives and relationships are. Emily exclaims, "Oh Mama, just look at me one minute as though you really saw me. Mama, 14 years have gone by. I'm dead….Just for a moment now we're all together. Mama, just for a moment we're happy. Let's look at one another."
Upon Emily's return to the realm of the deceased, the former town drunk sums up the meaning of the play: "Now you know! That's what it was to be alive. To move about in a cloud of ignorance; to go up and down trampling on the feelings of those…of those about you. To spend and waste time as though you had a million years. To be always at the mercy of one self-centered passion, or another. Now you know—that's the happy existence you wanted to go back to. Ignorance and blindness."
The experience of Our Town naturally leads me to thoughts of my own mother, mostly because she was in that play in high school back in the early 60s. And also, of course, because I feel there are many years we have wasted, each focused on our own self-centered passions, or other distractions. I'm sharing here a few photos from my recent visit to her secret garden—a hidden plot at the top of the hill near her apartment building, where she tends an oasis of flowers and shrubs as her way of communing with the divine, and of caring for her own soul.
Today I think I will go visit her, and hope we can take a few moments to just look at one another. I hope you'll be able to do that, too, with someone you care about.
This morning’s reflection is inspired by my 20th anniversary trip to the ocean. While this particular place and occasion are unique in my experience, what I say here today will not be original. For many before me have felt equally moved and humbled as they stood face to face with a vast ocean.
As I took a morning run along that smooth and moist track where the waves meet the sand, I was filled with a sense of awe and wonder. As one who is contemplating a life of the spirit and ministry to fellow souls, the infinite ocean became for me a symbol of the deep mystery, the infinite power of the spirit realm. The pulsing surf spoke to me of my own insignificance as I observed how the lapping of a single wave erases the erratic tracks of seagulls and the footprints of human beach-goers.
Most of us see only the surface of the spiritual world. Very few have the patience or bravery to fully experience the depth of this translucent universe that teems with life and energy unknown to us terrestrial beings. So we’re content to sit or walk along its edge and contemplate infinity. Like the gulls, we clamor on the edges of the spiritual universe, performing our daily rituals, occasionally snatching a morsel to nourish us, glimpsing moments of beauty. We dip our toes in the water, and some will even wade out into this alternate universe to lose ourselves in the waves for a few moments. Sometimes we are determined to be passive observers, yet the splashing waves surge and catch us unaware, creating moments of panic and delight.
Like the foaming waves, my feelings ebb and flow—in one moment contented wonderment that comes from being in the presence of this divine power, and in the next a helpless regret that I will never glimpse what lies beyond infinity. Many love the beach but truly fear the ocean. There is fear of riptides, fear of sharks or barracudas, fear of drowning.
And this is the art of meditation and other moments of deep spiritual connection. Metaphorically speaking, we have to hold our breath—suspend our normal routines and set aside our fears—in order to dive into the deep. At first we can only experience this quiet, surreal universe for a few moments at a time. As we practice, we can hold our breath longer, begin to open our eyes under water, relax our bodies, let go of the fear of the unknown, and for a brief time measured in heartbeats, commune with the infinite. These are the moments when we feel true contentment, compassion, and deep, unconditional love.
This is my wish for you, and for all of us—to experience these moments of transcendence, to know your own insignificance, and to keep living and loving anyway.
And so it has come to pass that this week, Sept. 18, marks my 20th wedding anniversary. That human love and relationship can endure multiple decades in this chaotic world inspires in me a sense of awe and wonder. W. Somerset Maugham said it best: "We are not the same persons this year as last; nor are those we love. It is a happy chance if we, changing, continue to love a changed person."
In honor of this occasion, I offer 20 moments from the life Betsy and I have shared, for which I'm profoundly grateful.
For your quiet grace as you bore the indignity of me forgetting your name on our first date.
For the delicate lines of your neck that drew me into our first kiss.
For the excitement in the crisp, winter air as we witnessed the inauguration of a new president.
For the quiet joy of our first Christmas together, spent with canine friends.
For the way you looked that day in your elegant wedding dress, standing on that staircase that had married so many Custises.
For the look of contented love on our faces as we walked among the sheep and dry stone fences in Wales.
For the straw hat you wore that sunny morning in Sissinghurst Castle Garden.
For the pride you felt as you introduced me to your home town of St. Louis, home of Chouteaus, Gratiots, Gieblers and Grimms.
For the time I comforted you in my arms after the loss of our first baby.
For the Christmas of great expectation when you were ready to deliver a son, but the son was not yet ready.
For crisp and colorful autumn days taking turns behind the baby stroller.
For the thrill of joy we both felt when the ultrasound technician said "it looks like a little gal."
For your joy in reading to our children.
For my joy in having you read to me, poetry and Taoist meditations.
For your love of Goethe, Rilke and all things German.
For your loathing of Volvos. And raspberries.
For your vision of spring green paint for the living room and dining room of our new house.
For your assertive, loving presence with squabbling children on Friday family dinner night.
For the moments spent in quiet conversation on the living room couch in morning light, and my realization just now that it's a love seat.
And, most of all, as we turn toward the next leg in our journey together in this life, for the beautiful moments yet unborn.
The turning of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, is an appropriate time to reflect on the happy prospect of new beginnings. Though it still looks and feels like summer this week in St. Louis, the signs of new beginnings abound.
Yesterday, I enjoyed watching my daughter and her school volleyball team mates play their first game of the season. They played well, exhibiting new confidence and new skills learned from the last season. They worked together and supported each other, and of course enjoyed the celebratory outing to the ice cream shop afterwards perhaps even more.
Likewise it’s the beginning of the new church year with our traditional water communion this morning. All have returned from summer travels and the streams of our lives will once again flow together. We anticipate the new growth and new friends that we will gain as the new year unfolds.
In honor of the high holy days, I leave you with this reflection by Jack Riemer...
Now is the time for turning. The leaves are beginning to turn from green to red and orange. The birds are beginning to turn and are heading once more toward the South. The animals are beginning to turn to storing their food for the winter.
For leaves, birds and animals turning comes instinctively. But for us turning does not come so easily. It takes an act of will for us to make a turn. It means breaking with old habits. It means admitting that we have been wrong; and this is never easy. It means losing face; it means starting all over again; and this is always painful.
It means saying: I am sorry. It means recognizing that we have the ability to change. These things are hard to do. But unless we turn, we will be trapped forever in yesterday’s ways.
God, help us to turn—from callousness to sensitivity, from hostility to love, from pettiness to purpose, from envy to contentment, from carelessness to discipline, from fear to faith. Turn us around, O God, and bring us back toward You.
Revive our lives, as at the beginning. And turn us toward each other, God, for in isolation there is no life.
As someone who works in the human resources industry, this time of year is the busiest as we help employers plan and prepare for the coming benefits year. So this Labor Day, for me, it seems fitting to reflect on the importance and value of work in our lives.
Although the work each of us performs can vary greatly, our forms of labor represent the opportunity to bring our gifts, our talents, our energies, and offer them for the benefit of the greater good. I'm so grateful to have a boss (pictured here with me) who understands the value and importance of supporting and, when necessary, guiding her team to give deeply of themselves and be rewarded for that effort. Most important, she believes in her people and encourages them to bring their own life experience to the work to make it their own.
My wife has shared some of her Taoist readings with me about the value of work and craftsmanship. I'll use the balance of the space here today to quote from a powerful little book of meditations by Deng Ming-Dao called Everyday Tao.
As with every meditation, he begins with the Chinese character that represents the object of the meditation. The symbol shown here to the right is Gong, meaning work, skill or a job well done. The symbol is derived from the word for heaven. It actually derives from the idea that all work is for the benefit of the emperor who was called the "son of heaven." But I prefer to think of honest work as contributing to the creation of truth, beauty and harmony in human society—my version of heaven on earth.
When we work, we learn….We learn much more by doing. Testing oneself against the limitations of material, time and skill is critical to self-development.
It is important to do the type of work that leads not simply to production, but to skill. In other words, the most important type of work is the kind that results from one's life, not from societal or economic pressures. When we work as part of life it leaves a profound residue in our personality. It produces an attitude of accomplishment, an accumulation of working wisdom impossible to obtain any other way.
The ancients recognized this phenomenon so clearly that work came to signify skill. The kind of work one does—farm work, art work, spiritual work, or any other work—is not so important. What is important is that one performs one's work at its most profound level. In olden times, people would say that a craftsperson who had achieved great skill had realized the Tao of that art form.
And once one has realized Tao in part, the whole is not far away.
This weekend already has been a multicultural experience for my family and me. It began Friday night with treating ourselves to a Japanese dinner, with colorful sights, smells, flavors and textures.
And this continued into Saturday as Betsy and I enjoyed the Festival of Nations in Tower Grove Park (still on today, by the way, so it's not too late to enjoy it yourself if you're in St. Louis). Just like it is every year, the gathering was filled with sensory delights from every direction. It was harder than ever to choose which foods to sample—we tried Bulgarian this time. Last year was Ethiopian.
But the real focus of our afternoon was the main stage, where performers from all over the globe and here in St. Louis joined together to celebrate cultural heritage. Betsy has been learning Hula with a local group devoted to Hawaiian and Polynesian dance, and we watched the more experienced dancers performing for the crowd. While it's pleasurable to watch, the casual observer cannot fully grasp the underlying meaning of what the graceful hand motions, footwork and colorful costumes truly mean culturally. They are a set of unique customs that belong to a particular time and place in the world and we can only fully grasp the meaning if we immerse ourselves in study and practice.
Next it was the Mexican folk dancing group from Chicago. As I watched the bright colors, broad-brimmed hats and ornate twirling skirts, I was struck by how fluid these cultural practices and artifacts can be as human cultures blend and adapt. You could see clear influences from the original culture of the indigenous pre-colonial people, then with Spanish and some African influences layered on top. And the most striking thing was seeing how a lot of our own "American" culture, at least that in the Southwestern US, is actually Mexican/Spanish, including the cowboy hats and fringed buckskin jackets.
And believe it or not, the Hawaiian and Mexican presentations had a beautiful if unplanned point of connection, as the Hula dancers did a Hawaiian cowboy song that mixed the Hawaiian and Spanish languages—a tribute to the Mexican/Spanish cowboys that came to Hawaii to teach the natives how to ranch. When one takes the broader view, we can see how we in the Americas are all connected culturally.
As we watched the performance, a friend of mine said that some multicultural festivals in other parts of the country are beginning to include representations from the LGBT community—another dimension of celebrating human diversity. This thought struck me as incongruous at first. Could Queer Nation, as a diverse identity not one born of geography, religion or colonialism, successfully stand alongside Hula and the Mexican Hat Dance?
I hadn't fully processed the friend's comment until after our second cultural experience yesterday, which was attending a discussion panel sponsored by the Metro Trans umbrella group. Several members of our Welcoming Congregation committee at First Unitarian thought this would be a valuable experience to hear a more in-depth discussion of the joys and struggles experienced by this amazingly diverse group of people who break all the rules about what it traditionally has meant to be a woman or a man.
There were people in various stages of transition from male to female and female to male, along with an intersex person (biologically both male and female) and a gender queer person (fluid gender identity). Like other human communities, there is a shared and sometimes contrasting set of norms that contributes to cultural identity: your gender identity (whether the identity in your mind matches your biological body), your affectional orientation (whom you're attracted to) and your expression (what gender or blend of genders you present to the world)—and the fact that all of these elements exist independently and in different combinations.
Like the melting pot of Hawaiian or Mexican culture, the result is a mosaic that is beautiful to behold when you open yourself to it and celebrate the individual within.
This past week I was blessed by the return of the beautiful Barred Owl. It was on Thursday morning, late enough in the morning that I would have expected her to be asleep for the day. As I was beginning my day and she was ending hers, our paths crossed.
I was slowly walking up the path toward, cooling down after my run, when I happened to glance up and saw her sitting motionless on a tree branch next to the trail. Wanting the encounter to last as long as possible, I stopped and sat down on the ground. Our eyes locked and we just took each other in for several minutes. It was probably the most significant exchange I'd ever had with a wild creature.
It's easy to see why in Native American spirituality the owl represents the ability to see deeply inside people and reveal secrets. Because owls can't move the eyes within their sockets, their gaze looks like a fixed stare that can be unsettling—I felt like she was looking right into my very soul.
Of course it's easy to try to read too much into things, but I believe the timing of the owl's appearance has great meaning. The first time was about five months ago, as I was just beginning my spiritual awakening. At the time, I interpreted the owl's appearance as foreshadowing my own death, that is, the imminent demise of the person that I was. Not that my journey is complete by any means—nor will it ever be as long as I am alive and thinking—but at this point the old "asleep" me is now essentially dead and buried and there's no turning back.
The owl's reappearance this time seems more about the truth of owl medicine—the ability to see into people's souls and know their secrets and their hidden longings. As I have shared in recent blog posts, I continue to feel the call of ministry. And one of the first calls came last night, literally. A young friend of mine, whom I've met online but not in person, had romantic woes and just wanted someone to talk to, someone to provide reassurance that life would go on.
Like the owl, I was able to sit quietly and just take in everything this friend was saying. I could hear the loneliness, the desire for human connection and the fear of losing family and community. Like dusty books on shelves, there is so much knowledge available to us about people but we rarely access it. The lesson of the owl is that we can always afford to take a few moments to take the book in our hands, part the pages, and take in a few moments of truth.
Or maybe it doesn't even have to be another person. You can access hidden knowledge about virtually anything you encounter in life. Open your eyes wide and sit quietly long enough to fully take it in. You'll be amazed at how much is there, waiting to be discovered.
I wish you peace and self-knowledge as you prepare for another busy week.
My family vacation trip to Colorado this week has been an opportunity to relax and rediscover connections with family, friends and the mountains. Hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park was a highlight of the trip,and, as it turns out, a great teacher of truths.
A hike through forests, across meadows and up and down mountain peaks of course is a metaphor for life's journey. And most important for me this past week, the hikes had something important to say about the importance of companions--especially family--on this trek.
Prior to Betsy's late arrival to join our family vacation, the kids and I set out for RMNP to explore the Bierstadt Lake trail near Bear Lake. Owen was eager for the hike and pressed forward with urgency. The shared experience was beautiful, negotiating rocks, occasional mud and tree roots along the trail and sharing observations of animals, trees and mountain vistas encountered along the way. Someone else always notices something I miss, and that is the best reason to share the journey.
I soon realized that this journey is not just about reconnecting with nature and sharing the experience, but about caring for fellow travelers along the way. Did everyone have proper footwear? Did we have enough water? Will the destination be far away enough to please the vigorous hikers, while still close enough as to not discourage the more reluctant ones?
When navigating rocky terrain, I often think of the first serious hike I ever undertook as a young man. A group of us from the university set out for the Lake District of England to climb the perilous Mt. Scafel. Cold, wet weather set in at the top of the mountain and we began descending in the slippery mist. Being an inexperienced flatlander from Central Indiana, I did not have proper hiking boots, which nearly resulted in disaster. We were scrambling across a scree of loose, wet rocks when I lost footing and began to slide down the mountainside. I panicked as I faced the reality that I might actually slide off the cliff to my doom. Suddenly, the hand of a fellow trekker reached down and grabbed mine, pulling me up to safety.
Though nothing that perilous occurred last week, it was present in my mind as Meredith and I realized we had "lost" Owen. He was hiking ahead of us, impatient with our plodding pace and impervious to the relative lack of oxygen at 10,000 feet. We came to a fork in the trail and we didn't know which way he had gone. We searched for a while in one direction, then thought it more likely he had continued towards the lake. We circled the lake, trying everything we could think of to avoid missing him as he turned back to search for us. Meredith and I agreed to divide and conquer, with her sitting in strategic locations while I moved about in active search mode. This would improve our odds of intercepting our wayward son and brother. I was very proud of her bravery as she conquered her own fears.
What was an enjoyable hike had started to turn into a panic. We asked other hikers along the way if they had seen Owen and a few of them had, giving us encouragement. A nice family from New Jersey, who was going another way, offered to keep an eye out for him and tell him where to meet us. It was quickly turning into a communal effort to reunite our family.
When I came back to the "waiting place" where I had left Meredith, I was surprised to find a woman waiting there with her. Her name was Pippa, a teacher from Seville, Spain. She had compassion and concern for poor Meredith sitting there alone, no doubt looking brave but scared. Pippa resolved to wait with her and refused to leave until I had returned. This was a great blessing to us. As it turns out, Pippa was herself lost because of the confusing network of trails surrounding the lake. Expressing concern for others perhaps made her own plight a little easier to bear.
Just then, Owen's phone finally came back into range and we connected by text message. He was already heading back to the trail head, which was the logical thing to do. We helped Pippa find the trail that lead to the car park where she had left her car, thereby returning the favor of her caring for Meredith. All were reunited in the end, and we made some good (if temporary) friends in the process.
May we be grateful for all the fellow travelers in this life who care for each other along the way. Despite the mythology of the rugged individual, we all need each other. May it ever be so.
I had a wonderful pair of conversations with two young women who are a loving and committed couple who recently began attending Unitarian-Universalist services. While they now live in one beautiful relationship, they have two very different stories. First I spoke with April, who shared with me her incredible transition that began for her in a fundamentalist Christian faith community. She was engaged to a young man whose family was deeply committed to Biblical Christianity. Although she knew that she was a lesbian, she saw no other option than to do what was expected of her.
Her true sexual identity came out in the heat of an argument with her fiancé, and after her revelation, there was nothing but pain and rejection. Her would-be mother-in-law actually suggested that April was demon-possessed. Her youth pastor refused to let her see the kids that she used to work with each Sunday. This woman discovered that her religious community had no capacity to welcome her for who she really was, and she was cut off from the fellowship of the people she had loved and worshipped with.
When she discovered the UU faith community, along with her partner, Kayla, April was astonished to see us doing loud-and-proud things like marching in the Pride parade. “If you’re going to be welcoming,” she said, “it’s important to be as loud as possible.”
April’s partner Kayla has a totally different religious background. With a family headed by her mother, who was a bisexual activist for gay rights, Kayla’s family of origin, not surprisingly, found little comfort in the Catholic faith. Thanks to a supportive mother who understood issues of sexual and gender identity, Kayla was confident in her identity as a lesbian at an early age. The lack of religion in her life, in contrast to her partner’s experience, actually drew her to explore organized religion. She learned that Unitarian-Universalists were accepting of the LGBTQ community and diverse religious beliefs, and so she convinced her partner to try us out. She’s glad that we’re not silent about LGBT issues, because silence feels like disapproval. “When you interact,” she says, “you’re sharing a part of yourself. You want a response to that.”
When asked what her advice would be for how a lesbian couple like hers would like be treated when visiting for the first time, her answer was simple. They want to be acknowledged just like any other couple. And she feels we are doing a good job at that. Her feeling upon visiting here was that she just felt normal.
I continue to hope for, and work for, the day when respect for love, in all its beautiful forms, becomes the norm in our society.
Today I continue from last week with a second story about LGBT people I have met and interviewed for the Welcoming Congregation sermon I am delivering today at First Unitarian Church of St. Louis. Just like this amazing leaf insect I saw on my front porch on Saturday, some people are not what they appear to be on the outside.
Feeling normal was a long time coming for another person I talked with. I’ll call him Dan. Dan the man, with a curly beard and energetic blue eyes. Only Dan didn’t used to be a man. Or more accurately, I should say he always was a man, but his body led everyone to view him as a woman. In actuality, he was intersex. He has both an extra X and a Y chromosome. For purposes of telling the story, I’ll use “she” to refer to Dan before the transition, and “he” after the transition, since that’s how most people will relate to Dan’s experience.
From childhood in the 1960s, Dan always felt like a boy. Her mother tried to fix her, but that wasn’t possible. In the days before Title IX, her desire to play sports was often thwarted. She was great at baseball but wasn’t allowed to play Little League, although she did manage to be the only female body on the high school football team in rural Missouri where she grew up. Later, she joined the army, where she starred on the women’s basketball team. But all this time, she knew inside that she was really a man.
More specifically, she was a straight man and was always attracted to women. In her woman’s body, Dan having a female partner was never an option in his rural Missouri, Southern Baptist community several decades ago. Dan wanted nothing more than to have a wife and child. It would take a near fatal tragedy to finally give him the courage to make the transition.
It was 1982 and after a foolish joyride with male friends who had been drinking, the car she was riding in crashed, killing everyone in the car. Except her. For reasons only God knows, Dan clung to life despite multiple broken bones and severe internal injuries. Her burning desire for a wife and family gave her the will to live.
So Dan gradually recovered and committed herself to the long road to transition. Now Dan the man is happily married to the woman of his dreams, who came into his life with a baby girl that now is his precious daughter. He says that now, everything is finally as it should be. He appreciates the blessings of family more than most, given how long he had to wait. Now that he is a straight man with a wife and child, he is able to reclaim the traditional faith of his youth, with the exception that he believes that God is more powerful than the prejudice of people. He knows in his heart that God loves him, and that if God is for him, who can be against him.
Dan has moving words of advice for any congregation that desires to be truly welcoming. He agrees that silence is not welcoming, but whispering is much, much worse. “If you say you’re accepting,” he said, “then be accepting. Don’t go around talking about people.” He says we must have compassion for how hard it is to be a transgender person. We must understand that they are not confused, but rather are very certain about who they are.
When Dan, and people like him, enter the doors of this church, he says openness is the answer. Tell me “I’m here,” he said. “I’m willing to talk. I understand your struggles.”
As I shared last week, I view myself as being on a path to ministry. Rather than feeling like a destination at which I've arrived, it feels more like a float trip. I've climbed into the kayak and pushed off. Now the current will carry me on the journey but I have no idea how long it will take or whether I will ever arrive at the end. Rivers, after all, flow on and on until they ultimately join the sea, which is itself endless. This is why water is the perfect symbol of life's journey, because it is ever moving, ever changing and adaptable just as our lives often are.
From my vantage point on the river, I'm already seeing things—and in particular, people—from a new perspective. The current leg of the journey is focusing on the work of my church's Welcoming Congregation activities, and specifically, the Welcoming-themed worship service we will conduct next week. Of course, Welcoming in this context is about fully opening our doors, our minds and our hearts to members of the LGBT community. My aim next Sunday will be to help people see—and feel—the spiritual rewards that come from this kind of opening.
The sermon will focus on the personal stories of a diverse set of people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender/intersex. I have had the privilege of interviewing two already and I will share highlights of one of the stories here today, with the other to follow next week.
I'll call him Caleb (not his real name). He grew up in suburban St. Louis in a family who embraces a conservative protestant faith tradition. He knew without a doubt that he was gay from an early age and wanted nothing more than to be who he was without having to lie to his family and hide parts of his life from them. His goal, poignantly and simply expressed, was to be able to bring a boyfriend home for the holidays and have his partner be welcomed and accepted.
With the support of a true friend, he finally mustered the courage to come out to his parents. His mother cried. His father questioned whether he was really sure, and asked if this wasn't just a phase he was going through.
The next day, Caleb's parents took him to see their senior minister. At this point in his story, because of my own faith tradition, I expected him to say that the minister had compassion for his situation and helped his family navigate this transition to a new understanding. No. Instead, I was hearing this young man recount what must have felt like a nightmare. The minister told him, with hardly a moment's reflection, that Caleb had two paths he could take. One was to repent his sin and commit himself fully to resisting his same-sex attraction—in other words to deny his identity and pretend to be straight. The other path was that he could no longer take communion in his church—essentially excommunication.
I was stunned. As a minister who had presumably devoted his life to the teachings of Jesus, these are the only two paths he can envision? It sounded more like a deal with the devil: lie about who you are or suffer eternal damnation.
Obviously, Caleb felt he no longer had a spiritual home in this faith community which caused him great pain. He is exactly the kind of person who needs to, and must, find a refuge in a Welcoming congregation. He asks for nothing special, just to be accepted for who he is and to surround himself with people who, like Jesus and many others, embrace love and acceptance as their primary values.
As I grow into ministry, may I never lose sight of this powerful and fulfilling work to open ourselves to those who need the blessings of community and unconditional love. If other faith traditions offer falsehood and damnation, let us offer truth and acceptance in its place.
That's the only river I know, and now there's no turning back.
As anyone who knows me already understands, I have always felt a strong connection to nature and outdoor pleasures. The idea of being confined by four walls—particularly windowless ones—causes my nature to rebel.
Therefore, an important spiritual and fitness practice for me is trail running, usually in a local park when I don't have time to travel out into the Missouri wilderness. Much different than just pounding the pavement, running in the forest both requires and rewards the ability to observe all that is around me: required, to ensure that I don't trip on a rock or tree root or squash a turtle or snake in my path; and rewarding, because it allows me the opportunity to encounter the divine all around me in the form of trees, earth and sky.
As is the Native American practice, I intentionally open myself to receiving messages from nature and, for me, hawk is one of the most frequent messengers. Hawk is both soaring and grounded—calling us to higher vision while at the same time keeping us intimately intertwined with earth-bound giving and receiving as part of the cycle of life.
Yesterday morning, I gratefully received the beautiful gift of a hawk feather discovered next to the trail at Laumeier Sculpture Park. It reminded me that Hawk has become a totem for me over the past several months as I move into a new phase of my life. Ted Andrews, author of Animal Speaks, describes how this powerful bird can symbolize the reigniting of your spiritual energy: "It may pop up as a totem at that point in your life where you begin to move toward your soul purpose more dynamically." Associated with the hawk are an activation of one's vital energies and the bold expression of them, leading to a higher level of consciousness.
And so today I'm publicly stating my soul purpose—which increasingly for me has been to pursue ministry in the Unitarian-Universalist Church as my second career. Over the past several months, I have been increasingly aware of my ability to serve others in the pursuit of their own spiritual journeys and especially demonstrating love, affirmation and compassion for those who are often marginalized and excluded by others.
Andrews sums it up well: "The red tail hawk reflects a greater intensity of energy at play within your life. It reflects an intensity of physical, emotional, mental and spiritual forces. This bird is the catalyst, stimulating hope and new ideas. It reflects a need to be open to the new or shows you ways that you may help teach others to be open to the new." This is a beautiful summary of where I feel I am at this point in my journey.
Some may be comforted to know that this is a change that will happen gradually and without cataclysmic changes to my family and my current job. Call it a five-year plan, but all of that will unfold in due course. In the meantime, I will keep living and loving one day at a time, always alert for important messages from the divine.
My life this past week has been an exciting and riotous mixture of activity and new friendships—more adventure than I ever could have thought possible while traveling no farther than downtown St. Louis.
The Pridefest Parade on June 30, experienced with my fellow Unitarian-Universalists, was the opening event of my week. We marched proudly in support of the worth and dignity of every person, in this case our friends in the LGBTQ community. With our beautiful float (see last week's blog), I felt like we were floating down Market Street on a wave of energy unleashed by love. Fear and exclusion were nowhere to be seen.
Then my family and I switched gears from celebrating the freedom of the individual to celebrating the birth of our freedom-loving nation. On the eve of Independence Day, we enjoyed the InSight Theatre production of 1776, starring Martin Fox as John Adams. It was an inspiring performance and underscored the historical reality that human and social progress is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. Getting the Declaration of Independence drafted and signed by a diverse collection of colonies was an extraordinary feat. It's no different today as we're reminded that we are continually called upon to do the hard work of preserving and extending human freedom.
Our 4th of July was a classic slice of Americana, starting with the traditional parade in Webster Groves, time with family, a generous slice of watermelon and the shared experience of the local fireworks display. Betsy and I topped off the festivities the following day with a beautiful dinner for two atop the Four Seasons Hotel downtown, with an awesome view of the fireworks bursting over the Mississippi near the St. Louis Arch. It felt like we were in a dream, on top of the world, just the two of us all alone in a crowd of people.
After a wonderful afternoon BBQ with Gateway Men's Chorus friends, the week came to a climax last night as I accompanied my daughter and a friend to the Lion's Club annual carnival back in Webster Groves. It was a beautiful evening and setting was visually stunning as the glowing western sky formed a backdrop to the bright lights and whirring motion of the thrill rides. We were spun and tossed and slung until the cash finally ran out.
After all the floating and soaring and gazing into the night sky, I'm ready to come down to earth for a while. Today, let me be still and quiet and feel the solid earth beneath me. Let me breathe in, let me breath out. For, despite our longing to be launched skyward, we are after all creatures of the earth and must be reunited with our nurturing mother eventually. The carnival ride is but a momentary thrill and, thank God, they always come to an end and put us back on two feet where we belong.
This morning, as many of us are basking in the neon glow of Pride week in St. Louis and the afterglow of the downfall of DOMA, I am feeling more than ever a part of this community. So thoughts are naturally turning to what it means to be in community with others.
I'm proud of my Unitarian-Universalist community in St. Louis and our commitment to doing the needed work to make the world a kinder, more inclusive place. Friday night, thanks to the vision of our brilliant leader Adam and many hands from three area UU congregations, we put the finishing touches on our UU Pride float that will make its appearance in this morning's Pride parade in downtown St. Louis.
This float, and the process that built it, holds a wealth of lessons about the value of community and how those values get translated into real results. The float design itself portrays the historic UU commitment to building community in St. Louis, and includes icons representing Washington University and Mary Institute (now MICDS) both of which were founded by William Greenleaf Eliot and his Unitarian congregants. And with the creation of the St. Louis public school system and Southside Day Nursery, it's clear that Unitarians played a large role in bringing education and support for working families to what was in the 19th Century a primitive settlement surrounded by vast wilderness.
And the process that built the float is even more meaningful to me personally, since it was a labor of love from people all around the metro area, from Belleville to Ellisville. Just like in Eliot's day, today we're still coming together to celebrate the values of love and compassion that lift up human communities—specifically celebrating the worth and dignity of all people, including those in the LGBTQIA community. This is the ultimate act of worship - which means to "worth-shape" by naming and celebrating truth the way we see it, the way we experience it.
This urge to express our faith in meaningful work in the wider world is the legacy from our Unitarian and Universalist forebears. Today, our cause may be the abolition of legal and societal discrimination against gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgendered people and others. But 150 years ago the cause was the abolition of slavery, which similarly required both changes in law and changes in social attitudes. One of the leading voices was Rev. Theodore Parker, who saw that achieving freedom and justice for all was a very long journey, one that may never be finished: "I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice."
Based on this morning's forecast, it will likely rain on our parade. But, thanks to the brilliant forethought by our fearless leader, Adam, the float is made of sturdy stuff. Like all the institutions we UUs and our friends have built together in St. Louis, it will weather the storm and stand as a beacon of faith, hope and love for years to come. After the rain will be the rainbow, bending towards justice on the distant horizon.
On this day, I am proud of my faith, and proud of the contributions we continue to make in this community and around the world. Thank you to all those who stand with us, and with your own communities, on the side of love.
Today's Sunday Morning Blog celebrates the kickoff of Pride week in metro St. Louis. May we all keep the spirit of love and generosity in our hearts. Love is the prism that helps us see the true colors in each other.
I'll let the song True Colors say the rest - recorded by Cyndi Lauper and performed this weekend by the Gateway Men's Chorus…
* * *
By Tom Kelly, Billy Steinberg, John Kenneth Wetton
You with the sad eyes
Don't be discouraged
Oh, I realize
It's hard to take courage
In a world full of people
You can lose sight of it all
And the darkness inside you
Can make you feel so small
But I see your true colors
I see your true colors
And that's why I love you
So don't be afraid to let them show
Your true colors
Are beautiful like a rainbow
Show me a smile then,
Don't be unhappy
Can't remember when
I last saw you laughing
If this world makes you crazy
And you've taken all you can bear
You call me up
Because you know I'll be there
And I'll see your true colors
I see your true colors
And that's why I love you
So don't be afraid to let them show
Your true colors
Your true colors
Are beautiful like a rainbow
(Can't remember when I last saw you laughing)
If this world makes you crazy
And you've taken all you can bear
You call me up
Because you know I'll be there
And I'll see your true colors
I see your true colors
And that's why I love you
So don't be afraid to let them show
Your true colors
True colors are shining through
I see your true colors
And that's why I love you
So don't be afraid to let them show
Your true colors
Are beautiful like a rainbow
This is an excerpt from my Father's Day sermon, delivered June 16, 2013 at First Unitarian Church of St. Louis.
* * *
On this Father's Day, I am thinking of the difference between father love and mother love, and how they each may contribute to the wellbeing of children. As I contemplate this duality, the Buddhist and Native American celebration of Mother Earth and Father Sun resonate strongly for me.
Neither Earth nor Sun is better than the other, any more than air is better than water or day is better than night. New life, be it animal or vegetable, generally starts with a seed, an egg, that is nurtured in the mother’s body or in the body of Mother Earth.
But once the seedling or newborn emerges from Mother Earth, it requires the light and energy of Father Sun to continue its growth. Once they have been launched into the world, our children will continue to rely on their nurturing parents. But in my own experience, there has always been a division of labor between Mother Earth and Father Sun. These need not be equated to the sex of the parent: The roles may even be interchanged, or one parent may by choice or circumstance play both roles.
The role of Mother love, in my experience, has been more about the hands-on, intimate and immediate care. Mother Earth, after all, is the source of all life, grounding, nourishing and sustaining us in a circle of giving and receiving.
The role of Father love, in my experience, is like that of Father sun, which stands a little farther off, but whose sunlight transmits energy and invites new growth. Father sun stands with arms outstretched and waits for the little one to take his first steps. He is the one who lets go when the child can finally pedal the bike for the first time.
On this Father’s Day, then, let us celebrate the role of the Father in our community and in our families, and give special thanks to those who are a sustaining presence in the lives of children. All is well in the world when the sun continues to rise predictably every morning and infuse the world with its light, warmth and energy.
For those of us who are fathers, and for those mothers and other caring people who take on the role of father, we are reminded that the greatest gift of all is to be fully and consistently present in the lives of our children.
Happy Father's Day, and may the sun shine on you and yours.
Ever since becoming an adult, I have fallen in love with the early morning. Sit quietly, facing the pre-dawn eastern sky, and you can see the spark of fiery creation renewing itself. Everything is possible, it seems, in these early moments of gentle awakening.
What promises and heartbreaks does this new day hold? Will my heart grow a little larger today? Will I learn a new song, or make a new friend? Will I taste something new and delicious? Will my reverie be rent with the sharp pain of disappointment? What endless possibilities lie in store to create something of beauty and meaning out of the everyday world around me?
If we humans created God in our own image, then perhaps it's easy to explain the creation myth. We seem to be driven to create and recreate every day. Of course we can create chaos and destruction, but we also create art and music. This weekend we surrounded ourselves with the creative arts as we spent time enjoying both a film festival at Webster University and the Art & Air festival across the street on the grounds of Eden seminary. Creativity and expression blossomed everywhere, all the more magical because of the perfect spring weather.
The question this morning has turned inward: can I myself be a work of creative expression? Are we not, each one of us, priceless works of art? But never permanent, ever changing, like performance art—or even vanishing like a chalk pavement picture in the rain. All the more reason why we have to pay attention, lest we miss these moments of beauty in each other.
In one of my morning visits this week to the sculpture park I was delighted to encounter the statue pictured here. As I myself grow and change, feeling myself forming and reforming, this elegant being emerging from marble is perhaps my reflection. She or he was tightly wrapped up all through the winter, when I had rediscovered this beautiful park. Now this elegant being had emerged from the cocoon, but still not fully formed. Like Crazy Horse emerging slowly out of the rock in the Black Hills, the promise of creation is fulfilled only in nearly imperceptible daily installments.
As every day, today I will recreate myself just a little, on the journey to becoming a fully formed human being. Just as I hope the promise of mornings will never end, so too may this journey be one that is never completed.
After the frightening storms that rocked the St. Louis region on Friday night, I awoke the next morning to find that this beautiful gardenia blossom had miraculously bloomed despite the weather. Not only did I find it beautiful, but I found it a beautiful symbol of hope. This exotic blossom, with its exquisite fragrance, reminds us of the beauty and creative energy of the universe that surrounds us everyday—and the joy that awaits us when we simply take a moment to notice it.
Throughout this past week and particularly yesterday, feelings of hope are growing within me as I feel my life moving and changing. And soon I realized that our current project of repainting the house is, itself, a sign of hope. When Betsy and I picked out the paint color last night, the vision began to take shape in our minds. And our vision is butter cream.
Having hired a crew to help us prepare the house for her new dress of butter cream, I had to clear the way for them by reclaiming the exterior walls from the Boston ivy that had taken over the southeast corner of the house. The leafy vines had weaved their way over—even behind—the wood siding, choking the gutters and calling the house to return to a state of nature. Though that is a romantic vision, I will have yield to more practical realities.
And as I worked on clearing the front of the house I was visited by the small, furry black friend pictured here. Like the gardenia, this was another beautiful sign of hope. According to Native American spiritualist Ted Andrews, "The spider is the master weaver. To the Native Americans Grandmother Spider kept and taught the mysteries of the past and how they were affecting the future. Spider reminds us to awaken our own sensibilities to be more creative in life."
And that's exactly where I find myself this morning, in this happy confluence of hope and creativity. When Betsy shared with me one of her Taoist readings about hope, I was delighted to see how it pulled all these strands together for me. The meditation begins with the Chinese character shown here, which is Wang, the word for hope. Taoist philosopher Deng Ming-Dao explains that the upper right quadrant represents an eye, while the lower part portrays a person standing on the earth. He doesn't explain the upper left, which is apparently the object of the person's vision. Perhaps that will be different for each of us.
Whatever of the object of our hopes, his reflection teaches us of the value of a goal to keep us going. Hope, he explains, is not about an intellectual philosophy, but rather about the need to "get up each day, to work for what we believe in, to put our will toward accomplishments important to us…" and that none of this can happen without hope.
I leave you with Deng's conclusion:
Have something to hope for.
Make yourself into a person who can attain that hope.
And when you have that hope, share it with those you meet.
We need more hope in the world.
My reflection for this Memorial Day weekend centers on remembrance of those people, both family and dear friends, who have passed into memory. I recently heard it said—forgive me, I remember not by whom—that each of us will die three deaths.
The first is the death of the spirit. We see this reality in the vacant stares of those whose bodies remain alive but who are no longer present to us. Perhaps it's Alzheimer's or a comatose state that separates us despite the faint pulse and rhythm of breath that lingers.
Beyond this lies the second death, which is the moment that the lights go out permanently: When the heart stops, the brainwaves cease and we draw our final breath. It is after this death that our bodies return to the earth, completing the cycle of physical life.
But, more appropriate to my purpose this morning, is the third and final death, which occurs the moment after someone speaks our name for the very last time. Like the ancient tombstones from whose facades time and the elements have slowly erased our names, our very existence is in the end permanently extinguished.
The act of remembering, therefore, is an essential spiritual practice that reawakens these dearly departed spirits and keeps them alive and among us for just a little longer.
Perhaps because I am preparing my thoughts for the Father's Day service I will lead at First Unitarian, my meditation this morning centered on a memory of my paternal grandfather, Charles E. Howell. This is as surprising to me as it would be to my family, because I did not know him well and he was essentially absent from my life. In fact, he was absent for much of the lives of his children, including my father, only seeking reconnection in his later years and not fully achieving it. I have always imagined him living with decades of guilt and pain for having severed his connections and starting over with a new life, a new state and a new wife.
But thankfully that was not the end. As he approached his bodily death in the early 1990s, my grandfather apparently was contemplating that third and ultimate death and thinking about his legacy. Other than his genes, what was he leaving to the next generation? How would he be remembered? And above all was it too late for reconciliation and reconnection? Was it too late to tell us all that he loved us and was sorry that he missed most of our lives?
And so it was that this man whom I had barely known chose to clip out a classic 1930s poem from a Dear Abby newspaper column and mail it to me. Perhaps it was autobiographical, perhaps just an act of thoughtful generosity. But I will remember it always, and in so doing, will renew my grandfather's memory and his unspoken love that binds one generation to the next.
The Man In The Glass
When you get what you want in your struggle for self
And the world makes you king for a day
Just go to the mirror and look at yourself
And see what that man has to say.
For it isn’t your father, or mother, or wife
Whose judgment upon you must pass
The fellow whose verdict counts most in your life
Is the one staring back from the glass.
He’s the fellow to please – never mind all the rest
For he’s with you, clear to the end
And you’ve passed your most difficult, dangerous test
If the man in the glass is your friend.
You may fool the whole world down the pathway of years
And get pats on the back as you pass
But your final reward will be heartache and tears
If you’ve cheated the man in the glass.
—Peter Dale Wimbrow Sr.
On this beautiful spring morning, I have been enjoying my Sunday morning meditation quietly in my back garden (I prefer the British phrase to the American “back yard”). I just allowed myself a few minutes to enjoy the wonder of just being alive and relishing the details around me. The soft green grass below me, the subtle fragrance of the euonymus vine behind me, the cacophony of birdsong overhead, and cup of earthy, dark roast coffee in my hands.
My reverie was interrupted by a tickling sensation on my arm which I immediately assumed to be a small insect. I instinctively started give it the brush-off, but then my sense of wonder made me more curious than irritated. Taking a page from poet Mary Oliver, I drew my arm closer to my eye and studied this little ant and her antics as she navigated the tiny hairs on my skin, eventually reaching the tangling fibers of my t-shirt sleeve.
Anyway, the point is that this weekend I’m just drinking it all in. Last night, Betsy and I enjoyed an entertaining evening at the Gateway Men’s Chorus’ fundraising show, Cabaret Risqué. The emcee reminded us at the end that we had laughed, and we had cried, and that means the cabaret evening was a resounding success. Indeed, life is a cabaret, old chums.
For me this means a sense of awe and wonder, not only of the natural world, but of the network of mutuality (M.L. King) that has connected me and my family with a dazzling array of interesting friends and acquaintances. I was struck by this yesterday as I was standing in the greeting card section at a local Walgreens. I had just come from picking my daughter up from a Batmitzvah celebration which she had enjoyed with her two beautiful African-American friends as they celebrated the coming of age of a Jewish classmate. In fact I was picking out a Barmitzvah card (the male equivalent in case you didn’t know) for another school-mate of hers. But I was also picking out graduation cards for two young Nepalese friends of our family who are cousins from Kathmandu, and who are graduating from UMSL this weekend. Then we were about to be off to the Cabaret in which we would swim in an ocean of mostly gay men and sparkling cabaret performers. And just to top it all off, we befriended a vivacious man who shared our table at the cabaret who appeared to be Native American, decked out with a gleaming collection of silver rings and bracelets contrasting beautifully with his dark skin.
It was like a day at a living museum. Or, well, like a cabaret. I love every moment of these experiences and just want to drink it all in and not miss anything. It reminds me of one of my favorite rock songs, (I Wanna Live In A Dream In My) Record Machine, by Noel Gallagher (formerly of Oasis). It sounds way better with the music but the lyrics to the chorus go like this:
I wanna live in a dream
In my record machine
I wanna piece of the world
And everyone inside my mouth
And all the money I waste
Is it a matter of taste?
I wanna piece of the world
And you can't make me spit it out
Enjoy life’s cabaret. May you love, sing, laugh and cry today and every day.
By Betsy Grimm-Howell
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child… at a very early point in his life I began singing that old folksong to our son, and the haunting words stuck. He sings it now, teasingly, when I refuse one of his requests. I always laugh, though I actually feel a little guilty making fun of one of the saddest images in the human imagination.
Beneath all of the idealization, the sentimentalism, and even the psychoanalysis of motherhood is every person's actual first experience of helpless dependence on another human being for survival - to call that formative bond with another human being love is an understatement. It goes much deeper than love. And becoming an adult brings knowledge of sexuality and desire that complicates even further the image we carry of that powerful first presence. No wonder many of us wrestle with that relationship for the rest of our lives.
The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh observed, however, that those who simply want to escape their past relationship with their mothers are doomed. As he says: your mother is you…. to think that you can have nothing to do with her is sheer ignorance. Learning to be at peace with ourselves means coming to terms with that part of us that is our mother.
But does mothering have to involve love of mythical proportions? Although I am grateful to Julia Ward Howe, the founder of our modern Mother's Day, for her efforts to advocate for peace, her view of maternal devotion (all mothers want peace, because what mother wants her son to die in war?) doesn't find much support in reality. The examples we humans have historically held up of motherhood are so fraught with self-delusion that I find little in them to comfort or inspire me.
Instead, nature provides me with more inspiration. It is no accident that we coined the term Mother Nature and speak of the Earth as our mother. Taoism teaches that one of the most remarkable things about nature, and the example we should take from it, is its generosity. William Martin, in his book The Parent's Tao Te Ching, describes the Tao as the Great Mother and source of all that is. Her resources are inexhaustible; you can never be outside Her love. Therefore the wise parent should be like water, content to nourish all it touches without asking anything in return.
And so, as we celebrate Mother's Day, let us appreciate the gifts that we have been given, the nurturing we have received, despite our inability to repay it. Enjoy the flowers, who bloom for everyone whether we deserve them or not.
This morning's reflection is a literal one. I have been fascinated in recent weeks with the intersection of two powerful ideas: one visual and one spiritual.
As you may have seen from recent posts, I have lately been enjoying the water in Forest Park and also at the Shaw Nature reserve in Gray Summit. The camera has an amazing capacity to capture the reflections on the surface of the water even more than the naked eye, bringing to life an alternate mirror-image universe. There's something very calming about the quiet reflection, especially when the surface of the water is perfectly undisturbed, like a glass surface.
And this image leads me to the other powerful idea, one shared in a sermon several weeks ago by Thomas Perchlik, in which he shred the idea that this visual metaphor can be a great help in teaching us how to meditate. I'm not sure if it was Thích Nhất Hạnh or another Buddhist practitioner who suggested that to mediate in a meaningful way, we should visulize a perfectly placid lake or pond, imaginging the surface to be smooth like a mirror. Only in this way can the water, which symbolizes our inner selves, fully reflect the light of the heavens above, leading to new insights and deep inner peace.
So there's a reason why it's so attractive for the spirit of love, or God if you prefer, to lead us beside the still waters. For it's only in this stillness that we are able to fully reflect upon our place in the universe.
This brings to mind the quotation from Paul, which I'll leave you with today (from the Aramaic Bible translation):
Now we see as in a mirror, in an allegory, but then face-to-face. Now I know partially, but then I shall know as I am known.
--I Corinthians 13:12
Best of any song is birdsong in the quiet, but first you must have the quiet.
- Wendell Berry, A Timbered Choir
Today is the church choir's special music Sunday, so today's meditation is on the gift of song. How I have been experiencing this gift lately is through the wondrous chorus of birdsong that greets me every morning, usually starting just before dawn.
I wish I knew better how to identify the calls of different birds, but that will be for a future chapter in my life. For now, I enjoy the favorites that I recognize, but have not yet put a face with the song—rather like listening to the radio, the old fashioned kind, when you hear the song but you have no idea who is singing. I once caught a male cardinal shouting at the top of his lungs early one morning where I could get a look at who was singing. It was a lusty and urgent call that reminded me of a siren or call of warning. It started with two high pitched &quot;flares&quot; to get your attention, then followed by a sharp recitative of DAN-ger, DAN-ger, DAN-ger. I think it was his way of telling me to refill the bird feeder.
We humans, too, each have our unique voice to share with the world. Whether we're shouting danger or murmuring softly to our newborn babies, we have a miraculous capacity for a wide range of vocal expression—so much so that the oft-expressed idea of finding one's own, authentic voice has become a cliche.
I'm going to take the road less traveled and speak of the joy of losing your authentic voice—through the act of choral singing. Choral singing has been an important part of my life since singing in the 5th grade choir. As a refreshing counterpoint to the wider American culture, the act of singing brings the joy of losing yourself in a tapestry of sound, to form a communion with other souls, to be one tiny cell in the body of the cosmos.
It's a relief from daily stress, if nothing else, because being fully engaged in singing is already the ultimate in multi-tasking, leaving no brain power for worrying about our jobs, the bills or our relationships. Stand up straight. Breathe. But don't just breathe, inhale in the shape of the vowel you're about to sing. No, you're singing from your throat—push the air up from your diaphragm. That's better. Watch the conductor so you know when to start. But also watch the music on the page in front of you to know what pitch to sing, and what words. But don't just sing the words, use the right vowel sound so that the everyday word sounds like poetry. Now, tempo, tempo—am I behind the altos? Ah, and the rhythm - music is not just notes, it's a drumbeat. Oh, and don't forget dynamics—loud, now soft, now flowing (go somewhere!), now ebbing. And all the while you are making glorious sound you are listening to the other voices around you, blending, caressing, circling together ever higher to the climax of the phrase and then slowing falling back to earth, now ending together followed by silence—that second or two when we come back to ourselves and reclaim our individuality.
My wish for you this week is to know the joy of losing yourself in such a beautiful and joyful act of community.
This past week has been one filled with images of water. The most obvious connection is that we were blessed with several days of life-giving rain. This gift of water made it impossible for me to enjoy my trail runs in the forest, sending me to the east end of Forest Park. Though I had been there many times, I had never been in the frame of mind to truly appreciate the abundance of water that flows there. Water leads to more water.
A friend reminded me that this is what's left of the River Des Peres, now reshaped into the tranquil pools and gently flowing streams we enjoy today in the park. Appropriately, the water is a magnet for waterfowl, including ducks, geese, herons and egrets, all of which I observed with quiet reverence during my morning outings.
Last week was also one that, for me, was filled with metaphorical water images. Water, among other things, represents the power of adaptation. When it flows, it is an ever-changing journey. When it is still, it is the very essence of peaceful reflection.
Water reminds us that we, too, will have periods of torrential flow and urgent purpose, followed by periods of stillness and introspection. My period of reflection in recent days, and the resolution of troubled relationships, has left me this morning with a satisfying sense of acceptance and deep peace.
Having reconnected with my mother more deeply in recent days, her Christian faith reminded me of the classic favorite from the ancient Hebrew scripture, the 23rd Psalm. I'll share my version of it here, reflecting my own more nature-based theology and also a special message to certain people in my life, both in my family and in my faith community, who yearn for the deep peace that comes from loving acceptance of our differences.
Let love be my protector; I need nothing more.
You invite me to sit quietly in the soft green grass,
You lead me beside the still waters.
You restore my soul:
You show me the way of understanding and acceptance, for it is the path to peace.
Even when I must walk through darkness, when the path is uncertain, you, spirit of love, conquer my fear.
Painful words of truth, and the hope of reconciliation, comfort me.
You, O love, pour out rich blessing on me for all to see;
You sanctify me and call me your disciple; my heart overflows.
May generosity and compassion follow me all the days of my life,
and may I live in the house of love forever.
As beautifully illustrated by the orchid pictured here, it's clear that being open to the world is not simply about showing yourself intimately, though it does begin with that. The opening, ultimately, is less about exposing yourself than it is about a true exchange with others—a natural cycle of giving and receiving. Insects and birds don't just come to gawk, they come for intercourse, receiving nectar and giving necessary pollination. In other words, the opening is the beginning of true relationship.
And so this has now become my experience as well. Every person in my life to whom I have opened myself and truly shared my heart has responded with love and compassion. For the first time in a long time, I feel I am now capable of true, deep friendships that go beyond the superficial.
It is life affirming and liberating to truly, fully open yourself to another. The content of your conversations—long-suppressed feelings of guilt, or anger, or fear—will not always be easy and, in many cases downright painful. But honest words spoken in love and compassion are powerful medicine.
Popular Buddist philosopher Thich Nhat Hanh, in his book Anger, tells a beautiful story of a woman who had suffered a very unhealthy relationship with her husband. He was a chronically angry man who made the lives of everyone around him miserable. The woman was close to taking her own life in despair when her Buddist friend finally convinced her to simply try talking to him. Not confronting him, but just sitting quietly and opening herself and asking him to share what was in his heart. Like the orchid, her opening was also a risk, for the heart laid bare is fragile and vulnerable. In this story, when the wife spoke to him like this, the husband began to cry like a little boy. The door of his heart had been closed but now was beginning to open again.
Every one of my experiences has been like this. Opening myself causes others to reciprocate and it can be a miraculous and life-sustaining exchange. The benefits of right relationship are the wisdom that comes from your intimate knowledge of another other beautiful person, and the peaceful joy that comes from being accepted as the person you truly are.
I wish you wisdom and joy in each of your human relationships.
Yesterday I enjoyed spending time with my son, my brother and my father during our Easter weekend. Echoing my thoughts from last week, enjoying the protection of my inner circle of family and friends is important in my life right now.
As we viewed the miraculous collection of diverse plant life, I found myself drawn to the display of cacti in the Linnean House. It was fascinating to see the many ways that nature has devised to protect the tender, succulent hearts of these otherwise fragile plants.
Click on the cactus picture to the right to see the complete photo essay "Protection."
May you continue to be beautiful while protecting your precious inner life. Happy Easter and Happy Passover.
Welcome to another new week, starting with a clean slate of new-fallen spring snow. This past week for me has been a fresh start in terms of deepening many relationships in my circle of friends, work friends and family.
I started the week deepening my connection with Thomas and Amy, as we celebrated St Patrick's day with a modest celebration at their home. There I got to know one of our newest church members, Ian, as well as enjoying time with my own family.
Then it was off to spend much of the week in New York and suburban New Jersey on business. But this wasn't the typical trip to pitch new business. Rather, it was an opportunity to meet with a full team of folks from my largest client at the same time as the full service team from my company that serves this client on a daily basis.
Nearly all in both groups are people whom I had never met in person, or rarely ever see. It was such a heart-warming experience to see faces and shake hands and even hug. Human connections are never complete without physical presence—seeing their smiles, their body language, looking into their eyes. Only now can I say we are truly in relationship.
I finished the week on a peaceful weekend retreat with Betsy and the kids, enjoying a quiet country cabin in Maries County, Missouri. Walking with my wife, making origami boats with my daughter, and taking a more vigorous hike with my son were all beautiful opportunities to renew deeper connections by simply being present to each other—an occurrence that unfortunately is all too rare.
During both experiences, I had with me the little book Meditations With The Cherokee, by J. T. Garrett. As I enjoyed early morning meditations during sunrise last week, I focused on the direction of East, which symbolizes both new beginnings and the circle of family and friends with whom life is shared and celebrated.
In the words of Garrett: "A certain freedom occurs in a family or group of friends who experience a sense of belonging and unity. This becomes a protection while you are on a spiritual journey. Any activity focused on sharing and connection satisfies our natural sense of fulfillment."
I have certainly experienced this to be true, noticing that my confidence and ability to succeed on many fronts is due to the strength I draw from this circle.
I hope that your life equally will be lived amid the sustaining, meaningful connections of your own inner circle.
As we rise this morning on a cloudy, chilly and snowy St. Patrick's Day, I simply offer this traditional Gaelic blessing to each and all.
May you find deep peace this day and always.
Deep peace of the running wave to you.
Deep peace of the flowing air to you.
Deep peace of the quiet earth to you.
Deep peace of the shining stars to you.
Deep peace of the infinite peace to you.
- Adapted from Gaelic Runes
This past week has been so full of meaning for me, for so many reasons. The plentiful robins that abound around St. Louis this winter have been on my mind frequently. With some research I have learned that the robin, in Native American spirituality, symbolizes new growth. I have also learned that robins only migrate when there is insufficient food. The fact that they are so plentiful and did not fly farther south for the winter must mean abundant sources of nourishment.
Likewise, there has been much food for thought for me lately. New growth abounds for me right now, but—just as with the leg aches of childhood caused by rapidly growing bones—the growth does not come without pain.
This week I have experienced a period of grief and mourning for the death, spiritually speaking, of the person I once was. I think it's safe to say that the old me has now passed out of existence. I hope you were not too attached to him.
What is propelling me forward on this journey at this stage is the difficult spiritual work of examining the dark and broken places within myself. We all have these dark recesses. We all have regrets and fears. And we all have people in our life with whom we have unfinished business that, if we listen to the prayer being prayed within us, we know is crying out for resolution.
Two truths have emerged that I feel have universal application for me, and for you, and for all of us. And they go hand in hand.
First, we must acknowledge the hard fact that the only path to true peace and spiritual fulfillment is to open ourselves completely to examining those dark, hurting and broken places within. We all have one or two and only you yourself can know what they are. A quotation that has affected me so profoundly is one shared by Erik Wikstrom in his book Simply Pray: that the reason we need to face the dark places in ourselves is not to prepare us for being in the presence of the divine. It is because the dark places are where God is.
And second, which follows so beautifully from the first, is that we are not alone on this difficult journey. Finding the divine when entering the darkness, for me, really means discovering the capacity of loved ones around us to forgive us and hold us up. I give thanks this morning for my beautiful wife and dear friends that hold my hand and keep the hugs coming throughout my journey.
I close with Walt Whitman's closing lines from Song of the Open Road, which is a beautiful gift that Betsy shared with me last week that for me was a candle in the darkness.
Mon enfant! I give you my hand!
I give you my love, more precious than money,
I give you myself, before preaching or law;
Will you give me yourself? Will you come travel with me?
Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?
Click on the picture to the right for whole poem. It's well worth a read.
In recent days I have been exploring the meaning of ritual, specifically from the Hindu and Catholic perspectives. It gives me a renewed sense of the value of the rituals of my own faith tradition and the value of ritual in ordering the lives of all creatures.
As does so much of our education in life, it began with an assignment. The recent 30 Days of Love campaign invited participants to reach out and experience worship in another faith community. So I asked a Hindu friend if he would be my guide and allow me to accompany him at the Hindu temple in West County. As I think most people would, he welcomed the opportunity to share his faith tradition, assuming I would see the value and beauty in it that he sees. Despite my experience with Hindu people in everyday life, I was not prepared for this form of worship.
The first revelation is that it was not an organized group activity as I was foolishly expecting. Worshipers reverently make their way around the collection of shrines that house statues of the principle gods and goddesses. At each, they place palms together, fingers pointing upward, say a prayer and leave a coin or two. Touching the idols at designated places was a key activity, often followed by circumambulation of some of the larger shrines, or simply kneeling in reverence. The only participation of a priest was to serve some fragrant drops of holy water for us to touch to our lips and to our heads. Upon exit, we rang a bell to let the deities know of our presence in the temple. The most striking thing of all was the complete wordlessness of it all.
Then yesterday, I attended a Catholic memorial mass for the mother of a friend and co-worker. You might think this would be the Western opposite to the Eastern experience, but you would only be partly right. Again, there was the ritual touching and holy water (though disappointingly devoid any exotic fragrances) as well as the ringing of bells and kneeling in reverence. Though there was no stations of the cross ritual in connection with this mass, that common Catholic experience is strikingly similar to the Hindu practice of going station to station and praying or meditating on the meaning of each icon. With the pantheon of Catholic saints on display all around, there is more in common that not with the Hindu experience.
Out of respect for both of the dear friends who were kind enough to take me under their wings and lead me through these rituals of worship, I would love to say what a beautiful and uplifting experience it was.
But I have to be honest and tell you it was more like making love for the first time. Awkward, and not inspiring of confidence, but ultimately completed with a sense of some relief.
The rituals without a doubt are beautiful and meaningful to those who practice them regularly. After meditating on this, I have come to this rather obvious conclusion: The fact that religious and other rituals are shared with others in a community of faith is what gives them real meaning. There is no magic that rubs off and sends the neophyte into spasms of ecstasy. In other words, the consistent sharing of our rituals with others are what binds us together, not the rituals themselves. Like in Plato's cave metaphor, the rituals are only the reflected shadows of the true meaning which may remain hidden from outsiders. As Exupery wrote, we live not by things but by the meaning of things.
For that's what religion is, literally, the binding together of human spirits, as ligaments connect the bones in our bodies or as ligatures connect letters into beautiful words.
Like love-making, it is well worth the effort to try again and do it better. Rather than trying to learn the rituals, perhaps I will do better to start by learning truths. The rituals, then, will follow.
Click on the third picture below to see images of sacred symbols found at First Unitarian.
This past week was one filled with fire. I'm speaking in this case of the fire of creativity, both in my church life and in my consulting work. Of course, I live for the joy of creativity, but fire cannot burn forever and I need a turn of turning inward.
Last weekend as I walked among the trees on a clear day, I was drawn to the intricate shadows they cast on the ground. Instinctively I did my best to capture them with the camera, but was not yet sure what meaning these images had—but I knew they must hold some kind of meaning. Then yesterday morning, once again, I was drawn to the tree shadows, only this time the sunlight cast the outline of the tree branches onto a flawless palette of white snow.
During my Sunday morning meditation, I was finally able, after a week of frenetic activity, to quiet myself long enough to hear the answer to this puzzle about the tree shadows. The truth is that fire, which also refers to the great ball of fire that we call the sun, by its very nature requires its opposite, shadow. Nothing can survive this ball of fire for long without burning up and it must be balanced by darkness.
More important, the truth that revealed itself to me was that shadows were cast upon the earth, directing my attention downward, back to the ground, and bringing my busy mind to a place of quiet rest.
I frequently claim to see the world in shades of gray. But I could not resist the urge to render these images in classic and stark black and white. Click on the images to the right to see the full photo essay. May you find peace and groundedness in your shadows this week.
Today, in my spiritual journey, I paint on a much broader canvas. The music you are hearing is from the far off and beautiful land of Transylvania.
Later this morning, US time, the bells in the Unitarian church in the village of Csókfalva, Romania will ring for us in celebration of the partnership with First Unitarian. The bells are in the steeple pictured at right.
I am blessed to be collaborating with Rev. Perchlik and committee member Julie Oyen-Keller on a service this morning that will celebrate our relationship with Unitarians a half a world away. Our out-going partner church minister Levente Lázár was very happy to arrange the ringing of the bells to coincide with our church service in St. Louis. Thanks to his enthusiasm, we will be hearing the bells "live" during the service via a Skype connection on the iPad. Ancient bells, the latest technology.
Thank you for taking a moment to visit this very special place with me, the birthplace of the Unitarian faith, which declared to the world as early as 1568 that we need not think alike to love alike (Francis David). May we love alike this day.
I leave you with a pilgrim's prayer that I created many years ago to for one of our Partner Church services. It closes with the bells. Egy az Isten…God Is One.
A Pilgrim's Prayer
O God, who inspires the pilgrimage of seekers:
Help us to find our roots, that our branches may grow wider.
Help us to find inspiration, that we may be called to a purpose greater than ourselves.
Help us to find community, that we may grow and work together to secure our faith, and our faithfulness, across continents and generations.
In the majesty of Transylvania’s mountains, may we find a higher and broader perspective.
In the splendor of the verdant Transylvanian valleys, may we find our own connection to rooted human communities.
In the fresh cracked walnut shared in a village garden, may we find a communion of earth and life.
In the plodding pace of the farmer’s horse-drawn cart, may we find the gift of time for quiet reflection.
In the paring and chopping of garden vegetables for the daily soup, may we find nourishment for our souls.
In the farmer’s daily pairing of plough and palinka, may we find our own daily measure of toil and pleasure.
In the steady, step-by-step climb to the hilltop citadel, may we find the serenity of patient anticipation.
And in the sweet song of church bells, may we find a gentle invitation to find our way home.
Last week I reflected on the beauty of giving and receiving, and that theme continued to be a very real presence in my life last week as well. In my reading, I'm learning more about the value of being open and observant while spending time in nature, but this is teaching me to be equally open and observant in my encounters with fellow human beings.
As has become my practice of late, I spend time in the Kennedy Forest in Forest Park two or three mornings each week. It so happens that I drive right past it to and from dropping my daughter at school. I finally recognized this was a gift that I should accept, and so now I stop and commune with nature for a brief time before setting about my work day.
Last Wednesday I had an encounter with a hawk. (I've included the picture of it on the right, but it's too small to see very well. The Hawk is in the exact center.) Similar to my experience with the barred owl a few weeks ago, I encountered it sitting still on a branch observing me quietly and intently, almost as if sitting in judgment (likely judging whether I would be good to eat). I'm still reading and processing what this sign might mean, but hawks are associated generally with visionary power because of their ability to soar while simultaneously using their keen eyesight to spot the tiniest detail on the ground below. This is a power that I aspire to myself.
Another sign that spoke to me was a particular tree that had one lower trunk and root system but had split into two nearly equal upper trunks. It was a tree with a dual nature, one growing north, the other growing to the south. The appearance of the owl and then later the hawk also speak of a dual nature, with the owl representing the night, the moon and the feminine insights, while the hawk is its counterpart representing the day, the sun and masculine powers. Of course what makes any of this meaningful—or even noticeable—is that it resonates based on where I am right now in my spiritual journey. And the key to my journey will be the concept of integrity—integrity in the direct sense of having my spiritual and moral values completely integrated with my daily thoughts and actions. Integrating day and night, and valuing both equally, is important for me. I have learned that the barred owl and the red shouldered hawk actually will share the same territory and even the same nests. Yin and yang, hand and glove.
So now I am waking up to the fact that the people who have entered my life have great meaning for me as well. In fact, in my communing with nature in Forest Park, I have encountered a fellow seeker from First Church who also enjoys the Kennedy Forest in the mornings. There's no reason at all why this encounter would have any less meaning than the encounter with the hawk.
Upon reflection, I have come to realize that some new friends in my life have very specific and beautiful meaning for me. Not that I don't see and value each as a whole person in his or her own right. But they each speak to my soul in different ways. One is for me the fire of creativity and new beginnings. Another is the journey of water and adaptation. One is the solidity of earth, groundedness and the importance of being true to your own nature. And a fourth, who comes from the high mountains, represents to me air but also the beauty of art and a deep, spiritual love.
I'm even beginning to see connections between the natural signs and these people. Recently, as I was about to meet up with one of the friends, I saw two hawks circling above. Almost as if they were trying to say, this one is beloved (or perhaps there were some fat squirrels nearby). But it had meaning for me nonetheless.
May signs and wonders never cease.
Today we are blessed with a blissful blanket of new fallen show. Perhaps it is a gift in honor of my mother's birthday which is today. As I am learning, it is not only blessed to give, it is important that we also learn to receive from the Earth and from each other with humble gratitude.
Giving, receiving and gratitude have been the focus for me this past week. It began with a radio news story that reminded me about the near-universal instinct in human beings to honor the rule of reciprocity: when someone gives us something, we naturally want to give something in return. The news story was about how this instinct even applies to computers and robots when they mimic human behavior. In a study, when a computer said friendly things and helped people who were using it, the people were much more likely to agree to help the computer by answering a long series of complex questions. Contrary to a popular current of American political thought that exults the virtue of self-reliance, we are in reality programmed to live in a constant state of giving and receiving.
Native Americans have never forgotten this. Their spiritual practices, to which I've been exposing myself gradually, teach us the value of giving and receiving in equal measure and giving thanks everyday for the gifts of food, shelter, love and community. My wife lent me a beautiful little book called Meditations With the Cherokee, by J.T. Garrett. It's a treasure trove of Native American spiritual practices that are opening my heart and mind to new ways of looking at the world. One story the author shares is the spiritual practice his mother taught him, which was always to leave something in return when Mother Natures gives you a special gift. It's good medicine.
Because my spirit is very open right now, I decided to try this. It so happens that I went again yesterday in the relative warm and sunny afternoon to enjoy another trail run among my friends the trees at Laumeier Sculpture Park. I had brought in my pocket a small white stone from near my house and was actually excited about the idea of leaving this small gift with the forest in gratitude for the peace and sense of wholeness (even Owl visits!) that it gives to me. In a spirit of humble gratitude, I placed the small stone at the base of the oak tree that hosts the sculpture of the Indian maiden who married the tree fairy and has become one with the forest.
Perhaps not coincidentally, last week also marked the first days I began using my Gratitude365 daily gratitude journal. I wholeheartedly recommend this simple but powerful practice of jotting down each day a few things you are grateful for. It is a perspective-shifting exercise that spills over into nearly every aspect of your life. I like the Gratitude365 app for the iPhone, because it's easy to use and I can add a picture each day, which appears on a monthly calendar.
Today's gratitudes will certainly include the gift of comforting snow and for the growing spiritual relationship with my mother. Last night before going to bed I just read a beautiful piece she had written about the comfort of snow and how all the snowflakes were like sisters holding hands to provide blessing and comfort. Then I awoke to find the sisters had come once again. A blessed and peaceful birthday to you, Mom.
What's on my mind and heart this morning is the joy of friendships, and I am blessed with many beautiful ones. The past week has been one that began with a heart-warming gathering of friends for a drink (or two) to mark the occasion of my 46th birthday. Many people asked if it was a milestone birthday, since there was the air of festivity. I replied that I was just in the mood to celebrate. On further reflection, this mood is a result of my having opened myself to new friendships and having found new joy in old ones. I wanted to surround myself with the loving presence of specific people who have great meaning for my life at this moment.
The week ended yesterday with two beautiful encounters with beloved community. The headmistress of the Montessori school that Owen and Meredith attended invited us to a Bengali high tea at her home. She has been such a source of inspiration, giving completely of herself in the nurturing of our children. She has created a beautiful and loving community in that school and I'm grateful to have been a part of that, and I'm grateful that we are able to continue our connections and imbibe the best of Indian culture.
Then the second encounter with community came in the church midwinter congregational meeting last night, where I had the pleasure of making music with my wife and dear friends in our little AcUUstics folk group. We sang, among other things, Bridge Over Troubled Water. I think, more important, we are living the covenant that this old song invokes when we take the time to work and sing and laugh and share food together. It was appropriate for my own spiritual journey that we adopted and spoke out loud a new covenant among the members of our church community: the essence of it is that we will not agree on many things but that we agree to be welcoming to all and to walk together in this journey of life with love and listening.
Over the past few weeks my meditations, both still and walking, have led me to reflect on the idea of rootedness. I have been marveling at the striking beauty and strength of tree roots. How they reach out in all directions, reaching deep into the earth which sustains them, connecting earth and sky. Friendships and living in community likewise sustain us, giving us what we need to live and giving us the strength to grow tall and wide in a network of mutuality.
You can see my collection of rootedness images by clicking on the image to the right. Perhaps while doing so, you may wish to reflect on the relationships that anchor you.
May all enjoy the blessings of friendships and rootedness.
Part of making spaces in my life is to allow time for more deliberate spiritual practices. In doing so, I feel myself gradually becoming a new person. This realization brings both joy and fear. My visitation by the Owl, I've decided, was the turning point. I'm still hoping to learn much more about Owl Medicine. For some, owls are a symbol of great wisdom and insight, while the majority of cultures around the world view them as an omen of death. For me the owl experience is both one of new self-knowledge and my own spiritual rebirth. The old me has been marked for death.
I've been exploring the basic elements of native American spirituality, including the four elements of fire, water, earth and air. The lesson of fire, among other things, is that life and death are a natural cycle and not to be feared. Fire brings creative destruction, burning away the old to allow rebirth of the new.
Making space for these reflections has led me, as mentioned before, to explore prayer and meditation more deeply than the old me had ever dared to do. My spirit guide in this journey is Erik Wikstrom, with his book Simply Pray. In it, he leads the seeker to create a set of prayer beads. This was the focus of my day yesterday, shopping for just the right beads and assembling them. The beauty of the Unitarian Universalist tradition is that the prayer beads are not prescriptive as in some traditions but rather are reflective of one's own spiritual journey and aspirations. I'm certain the meaning of the various beads for me will evolve over time as the new me comes into being.
After the large centering bead, which is the starting point for clearing your mind and focusing on your time of prayer or meditation, I have placed a bead with bright red-orange splashes as the symbol of fire. For the creative destruction of the old self and new growth that then becomes possible will for me always be the point at which I enter into the holy.
The detail of what every subsequent bead stands for is too much for this brief space and in some cases is not yet fully known to me. But you can click on the bead picture to the right if you're curious to learn more about the meaning of their selection and arrangement.
Creating your own prayer or meditation beads is one of the most beautiful forms of worship - worship meaning worth-shaping, celebrating or remembering what which is most holy to you. I know the owl would approve.
My meditation this week has been about the benefits of making spaces in our lives. I of all people know how easy it is to fill our days with endless activity, squeezing in one more thing before we sprint off to the next thing (usually a few minutes late) arriving breathless and unprepared.
The art of making spaces to invite new life in is best observed in nature. During this time of winter, the absence of leaves on the trees makes spaces through which we can view the sunrise and sunset, which otherwise might escape our attention. Gaps among tree roots become havens for small plants and animals. And even the tiniest cracks and crevices make space for moss, lichens and other tiny plant life to grow. (Click on the second or third picture to the right to see my latest photo essay about these tiny spirits that quietly inhabit the forest floor.)
I have begun creating more spaces in my life for meditation, just sitting quietly and focusing on my breath. And even my morning dog walks, now that I have slowed down, make spaces not only for my dogs to stop and sniff deeply, but also for me to stop and observe—to look up at the sky, or down at the ground, or nowhere in particular as I find myself thinking deep thoughts.
And of course this need to stop and make spaces for family and friends is growing in importance to me. Holding out time for playing a game with my family or having a beer and good conversation with friends expands my consciousness, for there is so much to learn from listening to others sharing unstructured time together. I still have a long way to go, but it's a start.
May 2013 be for me the year of making spaces in my life for truth and beauty to flow in.
You are listening to the sound of "Ethereal Awakening." That's also the sound of me waking up.
Yes, I have my cup of coffee in hand this morning, but I'm talking about a much deeper kind of awakening, which (surprise) is a spiritual one. A big part of my spiritual journey, including creation of this blog and website, is the integration of my beliefs and actions.
I have believed for a long time in the value of mindfulness, and looking people in the face and greeting them deliberately. But my actual practice has fallen woefully short. After this experience the past few weeks, I have realized that I have been awakening gradually over the last many months.
For me, 2012 will always be the year of the sky. I went around asking people, Aren't the clouds much more interesting and beautiful this year than normal? Are there somehow more beautiful sunrises and sunsets this year? The answer was always, huh? The reality is that I was simply becoming more mindful, perhaps in part due to the fact I was usually carrying the iPhone with its excellent camera, so I was always on the lookout for beautiful moments I could capture through its tiny lens.
The book I'm reading now is another stepping stone on this journey. It's called "Simply Pray," by Unitarian-Universalist minister Erik Walker Wikstrom. I'm still reading it, but the exercise is opening my mind to what prayer is and what it can be. If you had told me two years ago I would be blogging about prayer, I'd say you must have me confused with my mother. :-) But I'm learning, as many have long ago, of the value of prayer as a practice for focusing my mind and heart on what's important - as a practice for waking up spiritually, ethically and emotionally.
Wikstrom outlines the four kinds of prayer, which I'm looking forward to exploring: Naming, Knowing, Listening and Loving. I'll save the definitions for another day, but the Listening one is already teaching me a valuable lesson. The essence of it is that God, or one's equivalent ultimate source, is already talking in a small, quiet voice. We just have to slow down, quiet ourselves and listen closely before we can hear it. In other words, the sky was already beautiful long before my awakening. I must have been sleeping through it.
It's truly amazing what the spirits will say to you when you make space in your life for listening. A few weeks ago I had the most amazing experience while running through the forest. I know it will sound crazy, but I swear I was visited by the tree spirits. This was at Laumeier Sculpture park not too far from my home, and has wide and smooth woodland walking paths which I have adopted as my preferred running trail. There in the forest is a sculpture of a native American tree maiden. The essence of the tale is that she ascended into the tree and become one with the tree god, preferring him to her espoused human husband, and a sculptor has captured it beautifully. The sculpted wooden likeness of her resides high up in an oak tree, with her long maiden hair of natural vines tumbling downward. It's easy to miss, but I happen to see it last fall and so that story was bouncing around in my head that day.
The point is, as a life-long lover of trees, I was open to hearing what they had to say. They are the cathedrals of the natural world and full of diversity and wisdom when you take time to study them. I have too much to say about trees to fit into this blog entry, but the essential point is that I had a very moving experience by simply being quiet and open to new truth.
That day, after my run, I was further blessed with an incredible sunset. I was drawn to it like a moth to flame and captured many excellent moments with my camera. See a sample to the right, which included a sculpture of wooden poles at Laumeier, reminiscent of Cahokia Mounds. I felt the Native American spirits were still speaking and I didn't want to go home until it was nearly fully dark. If only Thomas had been there to play the flute. :-)
May you have a blessed and quiet 2013 so that you can enjoy some deep listening. You never know what the spirits might be waiting to say to you.