I moved this year from a home in the country to the city. For 20 years I watched amazing birds come to my feeder. Some days, dozens of cardinals in their crimson glory waited for their chance at my sunflower seeds. I hosted blue jays and gold finches and even a pair of nesting pileated woodpeckers.
It’s not the same in the city. We have woods close to our home but the visitors to our feeder are ordinary. There are brown speckled birds, small gray ruffled birds, and black noisy ones. All are quite unexciting. I was disappointed at first. I was used to such peak experiences, where each day I’d run to the window to exalt the glory of the gifts I received from nature.
And then I thought, “well these birds were there too, I just never noticed them.” Clouded by the glory of the well-dressed visitors, these common guests got none of my attention.
It’s the same, I think, with spiritual practice. When we commit to a daily time of meditation or prayer, we expect transcendence. There’s a chance we may get it. We feel connected to our deepest self and the glory of that is rich and rewarding. We may have moments where the veil of lie’s drudgery is lifted and we connect with the Divine. In other words we see cardinals by the dozen. Once this happens, I think we naively believe that this is the only spiritual experience worth having and we chase it with intention and diligence. In the meantime the ordinary visitors fill our practice. The brown speckled birds are everywhere.
The trick is to treat them as honored guests, to know them deeply and to rejoice in their presence in our life. To know their subtle message and to learn the reasons they show up as our guides. It is here, I believe, that real spiritual work takes place. This is the harder part, perhaps the deeper part. The part that calls us to have faith in the mystery, and to trust that all is revealed in the ordinary.
This weekend our Wellspring groups will host the Sunday service at First Unitarian Church in Rochester, NY. Each year the participants design the service and offer their insights to our congregation. This year the theme is trees, and I’m eager to hear what they have to say. It is always rich and engaging.
Over the years of teaching Wellspring, I’ve realized that so many of us find our connection to the Holy in nature. So it seems as if summer is the perfect time to engage a nature based spiritual practice. One of my favorite resources for all things spiritual is the website Spirituality and Practice. They offer online guided practice sessions with some of the world’s leaders in spirituality.
This month they are offering an E-course, Pausing with Terry Hershey, that explores the fine art of slowing down and pausing. What a revolutionary thought. Or you can be inspired to design your own practice from their tips on Summertime and the Living takes Practice which offers many delightful activities that easily turn into contemplative practices.
So whether you befriend a tree, take a course or catch (and release) fireflies, engage this glorious season in all it’s sacredness. Touch the summer and you touch the Divine.
There is something gentle about summer mornings. They start with the soft sound of birds, a shimmer of the rising sun on the leaves. On such a day, I just can't help loving the world…
sukhita hontu (May all living beings be happy).
avera hontu (May all living beings be free from animosity.)
abyapajjha hontu (May all living beings be free from oppression.)
anigha hontu (May all living beings be free from trouble.)
attanam pariharantu (May all living beings look after themselves with ease.)
In our sessions for both Wellspring I and Wellspring II, we tackle tough questions such as: What is forgiveness? How do I experience joy in this world? How do we pray? What do I believe about death? Is there life after death for UUs? As much as we try to engage these questions from a heartfelt place, we sometimes find we are thinking about them more than experiencing them. And that’s OK, it helps us understand ourselves, so when we are faced with challenges, we can fall back on our beliefs and live our lives fully as Unitarian Universalists.
So when my sweet granddaughter asked me last night, how people could possibly live in heaven, where would they sleep, I actually was at a loss. This dear child lost her mother earlier this year, suddenly, tragically. She’s five now and as I’m combing her unruly hair, wishing I had paid more attention to how lovingly her mom did it, I just don’t know what to say to her. I know I believe that there is no heaven, that when we die, we live on in others. I believe that somehow our energy stays in this world in the love we have shared and in the good work we have done. I believe the love of her mother is here now with my little girl, but how do I say all that to a five year old. What does she want really, comfort, answers or just her mother?
I look over to my husband as I start the story about angels and heaven. He smirks at me and I feel no need to justify. I did after all just finish reading a book about dancing bears. I think we all tell ourselves stories that comfort us. Truth is such a relative thing. The real question is, do I put love and kindness first? If I do then the answer is easy.
And I know when she’s older and has other questions that I will admit when I don’t know the answers. I’ll honor her questions and be willing to talk about her mom and how much we miss her. And how much she taught us in her short time here. I’ll help her know that what she believes is important and not whether it’s what I believe. I think that’s what UU teaches us after all.
By now many members of the Wellspring program are fully engaged with their chosen spiritual practice. Others seem to struggle with finding the right fit or making the required commitment. Still others tell me their whole life is a spiritual practice. While I respect that concept, I have to admit that that I’m a bit skeptical. You see I’m pretty old school when it comes to a spiritual practice. In fact I’ve been known to call it a spiritual discipline, not always a favorite word to Unitarian Universalists. However, if the purpose of a spiritual practice is to get close to our divine essence or to know our deepest values, well…I just don’t think you can do that on the way to the grocery store.
Don’t get me wrong. I admire those who take their sense of the holy into all their daily tasks. I said the same thing to my own spiritual director a few years ago and he gently said “Great, now it’s time to go deeper. And in order to go deeper, you must be quiet.” Advice not only from him but also from the sages for millennia.
It may be a trap of our multitasking culture to think that we can open our heart and soul to the divine while we are cleaning the garage. Or we may have given in to the sense that we have no time. Whatever the reason, an important question to ask might be, “What might I be avoiding and how can I go deeper?”
Here are some tips for enriching your practice
- Practice privately, during a time when no one will disturb you.
- A short period, ten to twenty minutes at a time, is best to start with.
- It can help to set aside a regular time each day for practice.
- Early morning, mid-afternoon or later in the evening are popular times.
- Ideally, you shouldn't even have to worry about answering the phone.
- Your goal is to be free from all potential distractions during this time. This will help you focus and calm your mind.
- Stay with one practice for a long period of time. If you have a walking meditation, walk everyday for a month or more.
- Separate your practice time from regular time by doing transitional breathing. Five minutes of deep belly breathing will do fine.
- Set your intention, invoke the presence of the divine or declare your intention to devote this time to listening to your core self.
- Remember to close your practice time. Lighting a candle and then blowing it out is a good way to mark the time.
Above all, relax and offer yourself this gift of uninterrupted time and connection.
The man seated on the stoop had been there each morning for several days. He was thin, disheveled and frail, and he was probably homeless. As I walked into my office building, I said good morning and he often looked up and greeted me, too. I worked for a large social service agency, and it was not uncommon for clients to hang around outside the front doors. However, when I asked if anyone knew this gentleman, no one did. Folks had gone out to ask if he needed anything and he always said, “no.”
Then one day, as I approached the door, he stood up.
“Can you do something for me?” he asked.
“Of course.” I said.
He asked for a cup of coffee, a cup of strong coffee with milk and sugar.
“I can do that.” I said. And we walked into the restaurant near my office. His hands were shaking but his eyes were clear and gentle.
“Is there anything else I can get you?” I asked.
“Toast,” he said, “with lots of butter.”
I ordered the coffee and the toast and placed them in his hands. He took my hands in his and looked into my eyes.
“Thank you,” he said.
When I told my colleagues about this exchange, many chided me for not buying him something more substantial, like eggs and ham and potatoes. They wondered why I didn’t encourage him to come into the agency to get help. But he had sat there for weeks, he knew what the agency was, how to walk through the front door. Many people had approached him.
I think I did the right thing. I saw this gentle man as whole. He knew what he wanted, strong coffee and toast with lots of butter. I gave him the gift of being seen and heard, he gave me the gift of true connection.
May you have both in this New Year.
We are at the end of another year of Wellspring. Our participants are summing up their experiences in projects that represent their journey, and their theology. Through these efforts they willingly share their deepest selves with each other in the circles of trust we have created together. We sit in a nest where the shy soul emerges with one last voice. I also take this time to reflect on my year as a facilitator and as a partner on the same road searching for god.
So this is what I know right now…
The more spiritual I become, the more imperfect I am. I thought this would be different. I expected to be a paragon, meditating everyday, being kind all the time, sort of basking in a glow worthy of those saints from my childhood. But I'm not that. I make wrong choices, I'm impatient with others, I often doubt love will really cure all and some days my spiritual practice consists of playing Gin Rummy on the computer. But somehow all that is OK, because being worthy is overrated and all the universe really asks of me is to stay open to my own heart. So I laugh more and that brings me closer to god.
I also learned that if I want a direct route to the divine, all I have to do is turn and look straight at that which scares me the most. I've spent years taking the back roads, meandering around with this spiritual teacher and that practice, looking for peace and transcendence, trying to convince myself I was safe in an unsafe world. But everything dies, and if I stand in that reality, all is illuminated. And if I'm lucky friends and family show up right when you need them.
Wellspring calls us to be in covenant with one another, connected to our deepest values. It calls us to listen intentionally to ourselves and others. In this way, we evolve to become our best selves and offer promise to humankind. This is no small thing, it's not merely a group of folks who meet every other week and grapple with theology. It's connection, where life sneaks in and fills the spaces between us with compassion and truth and we live the joy of just being human together.
With sincere gratitude to each member of my group, and blessings to all…
Every year, as our Wellspring groups end, participants are asked to create a project that synthesizes all they've learned during a year of studying. They consider the Unitarian Universalism history and theology, the exploration of big questions and the deeper journey into their own soul. Often the task seems daunting. So I thought I'd post some resources so folks could meander around the web and revisit some of Wellspring's key elements. So get cozy, grab your journal and relax into your own soulful cyberspace journey.
How about Unitarian Universalism on YouTube
Let's start with the Seven Principles
How about some spiritual tidbits from Speaking of Faith browse, listen and be inspired
Let Your Life Speak with Parker Palmer
Consider Faith in Action with the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee
An if you feel as if you are getting way too serious, enjoy some UU Jokes
Enjoy, listen to your soul and speak your truth!
Have you ever glanced at a sign and thought you knew what it said? Today I was sure the big sandwich sign in front of the garden store said, “God for Sale.” “Well great,” I thought, “that’s exactly what I need.” I momentarily considered that the store had stocked some spiritual articles, and then forgot the sign completely. I was on a mission.
You see I was going to visit a dear friend who is facing life with ovarian cancer. I wanted flowers or a plant or bulbs that would give her back her future. I looked for hydrangeas called, Everlasting, I considered bulbs that wouldn’t grow until next spring, and I finally settled on a white rose plant called “Hope.” I wanted to offer my friend some sense of continuing life.
When I arrived at her home in the country, she stood waving from the front field. She wore a stocking cap and I knew immediately she had shaved her head. Taking control of the inevitable loss of her gloriously long gray hair, she donned a buzz cut. “Do you want to see?” she asked. “If you want to show me.” I said. And with tears and smiles, I touched the soft fuzz on her head. “You are beautiful.” I said and we went to make tea.
We sat in the generous spring sunshine, sipping tea. And my friend told me her story, as I imagine she has told many people: how she found the cancer, what she has endured so far, what comes next in her treatment. I listened. We talked about what flowers are blooming and what birds she has seen, who has come to visit and who has not. I listened. We talked as if the cancer was gone and what she wanted if she died, and I listened.
And then she told me of a passage by Pema Chödrön that soothed her. “All we ever have is this moment. It is what you had yesterday and what you will have tomorrow.”
“So you see,” she told me, “I have lost nothing.” And she cried, and I listened. And God sat between us and promised us this moment, always and forever.
My gift of hope didn’t come from the rose plant I brought; it came from two friends sitting in the sun, listening to now.
Oh yeah, that sign at the garden center, it said “Sod for sale.”