- Last Updated on April 3, 2017
by Rev. Deborah Cayer
As a way of going deeper, this year we’re going to introduce monthly worship themes. Themes will run if not in the foreground, then in the background of services. We’re doing this as part of the Soul Matters collective of over 200 UU congregations. So themes will help us focus on a particular value or spiritual quality together in various ways at ERUUF, and also together with fellow UUs.
Ironically, the Soul Matters theme for September 2016 happens to be “Covenant.” Let’s go deeper together!
Our theme for worship and small groups this month (October 2016) is “Community,” something we hear and speak of often, but what exactly do we mean? You can live in a large condo complex, nod and smile at your neighbors, talk to people at the pool, but that’s more like the parallel play of toddlers. But if there’s a crisis—someone’s locked out, or a pet goes missing, or a single parent gets the flu, we cross lines to help each other. We’re more engaged, more caring, and afterward sometimes we have not only a greater sense of connection, but also a better sense of well-being. And sometimes we also have more fun.
In the fellowship, we have the potential to engage one another with knowledge of the reality of our interdependence. For Richard Rohr the phrase, “Everything belongs,” has become a mantra that opens a door to his lived experience of this truth. “We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness,” Thich Nhat Hanh tells us. This is the reality that lies waiting for us within all meditation practices. Similarly, Joanna Macy tells us that, “Our lives extend beyond our skins, in radical interdependence with the rest of the world.” It's her reason for hope in time of climate crisis.
All these teachers point to the spiritual truth of our interdependence. Our experience of this in relationship with one another has the potential to be richer than our solitary existence, no matter how rich our inner life. Also, this is not a condition that we have to create. It’s something real and true that we can experience, when we find a way past the guardians of our certainty; when we practice simple courtesies and good manners; when we remember that love wants to flow like a river through us each and all. What sages have always taught their students is that when we are in a true community, we find more possibility waiting there than we had ever imagined and often it's a way into the future we would not have discovered on our own.
“The new survival unit is no longer the individual nation; it’s the entire human race and its environment. This newfound oneness is only a rediscovery of an ancient religious truth. Unity is not something we are called to create; it’s something we are called to recognize.” William Sloan Coffin
“When you are grateful you are not fearful, and when you are not fearful, you are not violent. When you are grateful, you act out of a sense of enough and not out of a sense of scarcity, and you are willing to share. If you are grateful, you are enjoying the differences between people and respectful to all people. The grateful world is a world of joyful people. Grateful people are joyful people. A grateful world is a happy world.” Brother David Steindl-Rast
While gratitude is everywhere this month, but far from being ubiquitously meaningless, it can be a life changing practice. Whether we find ourselves in the narrowest of circumstances or in the midst of plenty, when we practice gratitude we move from an inner world of scarcity to abundance. Something shifts in us.
A gratitude practice can be very simple. Notice how you feel before you begin. Are you tense or calm? Do you feel stressed or at peace? Now ask yourself, what three things am I grateful to have received today? And what am I grateful to have been able to give? Savor the experiences around these simple things. And afterward, notice how you feel. Are you tense or relaxed? Happy or sad? Stressed or at peace?
You can’t be fearful when you’re grateful, David Steindl-Rast says. Wouldn’t that be a wonderful way to get through a day? What would it be like to go through a whole day feeling confidently joyful? It might feel like the difference between dancing and trudging, between boredom and intrigue. It might feel like the return to your truest self and a world of new possibility. Even if nothing were to change except your perspective, what would you have to lose? We’ll be practicing gratitude together over at the ERUUF Practices Facebook Group (this is a group for ERUUF members). Let’s go!
Generosity is a key spiritual practice in many religious traditions, perhaps because the practice of generosity helps us form the habit of seeing that the glass is half full. It helps us form the belief that we have the power to do something good with the gifts that life has bestowed upon us. When we practice generosity, we find that we stay flexible and open enough to receive as well. So generosity is a flow from the universe, or God, or others to us, and through us back to others and the world. Generosity connects with others and the world.
Generosity, when we get it right, also can heal us. Judith Lewis Herman is an expert in trauma, and knows that trauma severs good, healthy ties between individuals and communities. She also knows that generosity is essential to healing. She writes, “Repeatedly in the testimony of survivors there comes a moment when a sense of connection is restored by another person’s unaffected display of generosity. Something in herself that the victim believes to be irretrievably destroyed---faith, decency, courage---is reawakened by an example of common altruism. Mirrored in the actions of others, the survivor recognizes and reclaims a lost part of herself. At that moment, the survivor begins to rejoin the human commonality...” (from Trauma and Recovery)
What might happen if you extend to someone:
- The benefit of a doubt?
- Unless you know for certain otherwise, your assumption of their best intention?
- Your positive regard, regardless of whether they “deserve” it?
- Your respect?
- Your understanding?
- Your trust?
- Your love?
Generous things you can do very easily and simply:
- Feed the birds.
- Smile at the people you pass on the sidewalk.
- Hold open a door.
- Tip generously.
- Compliment or appreciate someone when you notice that they’ve done something good or performed well. (Use “I” statements so this doesn’t become patronizing.)
- Go through your household items. What haven’t you used in months, or even years? Pick out a few nice things, dust or wash, then donate to a group or a charity that can put them to good use.
If it’s a challenge for you to let go with an open hand, the spiritual teacher Robert Thurman says you can try this, “Practice giving things away, not just things you don't care about, but things you do like. Remember, it is not the size of a gift, it is its quality and the amount of mental attachment you overcome that count. So don't bankrupt yourself on a momentary positive impulse, only to regret it later. Give thought to giving. Give small things, carefully, and observe the mental processes going along with the act of releasing the little thing you liked.”
Intrigued enough to want to master the practice of Generosity? Here are eight degrees of charity from Moses Maimonides, a Jewish sage who lived in the 12th century. From lowest to highest they are:
"Lowest level: Giving to a poor person unwillingly. It is better not to give at all.
"Seventh level: Giving to a poor person with a glad heart and a smile.
"Sixth level: Giving to a poor person after being asked.
"Fifth level: Giving to a poor person before being asked.
"Fourth level: Not knowing who you are giving to, but allowing the recipients to know who their benefactor is.
"Third level: Knowing who you are giving to, but not allowing the recipients to know who their benefactor is.
"Second level: Giving to the poor, but not knowing who you are giving to, nor allowing the recipients to know who their benefactor is.
"Top level: Investing in a poor person, so that a solution to his or her problem is found.
“The Real Power of Generosity,” by Sharon Salzburg
“Generosity is the bread and butter of feeling connected in our lives — to ourselves, to others, and to life itself. And it’s a practice.”
In our consumer culture, January has become a month for organizing. But at ERUUF, our theme for January is “Creativity,” and creativity is anything but organized—it’s often an act of great messiness and chaos. When we create, the categories get mixed and lines blur; odd and wonderful things happen and something completely new is sometimes the result.
In Genesis the Hebrew Bible begins, “In the beginning all was without form and void…and God said, “let there be light,” and there was light…” And then God made the heavens and the earth and filled the earth with plants, animals, and people. Creativity is the basis of all life; creativity is the basis of our particular life the story says.
Houston Smith writes, “All of us dwell on the brink of the infinite ocean of life’s creative power. We all carry it within us; supreme strength, the fullness of wisdom, unquenchable joy. It is never thwarted and cannot be destroyed. But it is hidden deep, which is what makes life a problem. The infinite is down in the darkest, profoundest vault of our being, in the forgotten well-house, the deep cistern. What if we could discover it again and draw from it unceasingly?” (The Religions of the World)
What would it be like to stop searching for philosophic answers and just make something? Pick up some bits from your garage and play with them until they fall into an arrangement that just feels right and enjoy it as a temporary sculpture? Use up that stash of old yarn by knitting some 5x7 squares that ERUUF’s Clickers could sew into an afghan? Pick up a child’s tray of watercolors and some paper from the Scrap Exchange, and watch how the color spreads across a blank page? Dig a garden bed and transplant some seedlings, or plant a pot of herbs? Share stories or do some improv theater games with friends, and draw something more out of each other than you’d ever imagined?
This month we’ll be exploring creativity in services, in small groups, and on-line over at theFacebook ERUUF Practices Group.
February 2017 Theme–Courage
"Our word 'courage' comes from the French word coeur, 'heart'. Courage is a willingness to act from the heart, to let your heart lead the way, not knowing what will be required of you next, and if you can do it." Jean Shinoda Bolen
Researcher Brene Brown is famous now for her work on vulnerability. But her work began as research on courage. She had thought that courageous people must have had great advantages over the rest of us—better genes, better parenting, a more secure or easy life. But she found that wasn’t true at all, that in fact courageous people are just like everyone else. She reviewed the data on 11,000 people and couldn’t find one single instance in which people were courageous because they were advantaged and at ease. She could only find ordinary people who were courageous because they had acknowledged and accepted the precariousness or danger of a situation, and their vulnerability in it.
Brown also found that non-courageous people spend a lot of time trying to be perfect as a way to protect themselves, and that they’re also judgmental and rigid in their certainty and thinking. Non-courageous people do what they think others expect of them, then take their exhaustion and productivity as proof of their worth; they measure themselves by what other people think.
She had an insight when she recognized herself on that list of non-courageous people. And that was the day, she said, that she put aside her research and called a therapist. She wanted a more authentic, more whole life—imperfection, uncertainty, vulnerability and all.
She did this because in her research she’d discovered that courageous people simply show up for life without a lot of guarantees. They’re willing to face uncertainty and imperfections in themselves and the world and keep moving forward. And they’re rewarded with a deeply authentic life.
"The encouraging thing is that every time you meet a situation, though you may think at the time it is an impossibility and you go through the tortures of the damned, once you have met it and lived through it you find that forever after you are freer than you ever were before. If you can live through that, you can live through anything. You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you stop to look fear in the face… You must do the thing you think you cannot do." - Eleanor Roosevelt
"Don’t be ashamed to ask for help. Take on life’s tasks with the resolve of a soldier storming the breach. So what if you are lame and cannot scale a wall alone. Does your lameness prevent you from finding someone to help you?" -Marcus Aurelius
"What paralyzes life is the failure to believe and the failure to dare." - Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
"Failure is impossible" - Susan B. Anthony (born on February 15)
"Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says, I’ll try again tomorrow." - Mary Anne Radmacher
"Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen." - Winston Churchill
"The great courage is to stare as squarely at the light as at death." - Albert Camus
"The first and greatest commandment is, Don't let them scare you." - Elmer Davis
"A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is braver five minutes longer." - Ralph Waldo Emerson
"Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope . . . and, crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance." - Robert F. Kennedy
"Our word 'courage' comes from the French word coeur, 'heart'. Courage is a willingness to act from the heart, to let your heart lead the way, not knowing what will be required of you next, and if you can do it." - Jean Shinoda Bolen
"Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage." -Anais Nin
"It’s a shallow life that doesn’t give a person a few scars." - Garrison Keillor
"A ship in harbor is safe — but that is not what ships are for." - John A. Shedd
- Who is the most courageous person you know? Do you only admire them, or have you let their example change you?
- When have you had the courage to admit that you were wrong? What did you do when you realized this? Did you grow from the experience?
- Have you ever had the courage to step out into the unknown? Are you living your life in a brave way, whether boldly or quietly? Do you take brave risks?
- Do you have the courage to ask for help? What does it take for you to admit your vulnerability?
March 2017 Theme–Integrity
This month we’ll explore the concept of integrity. Our friends at Soul Matters offer this: “C.S. Lewis was right when he wrote, “Integrity is doing the right thing even when no one is watching.” Morality, honesty, knowing right from wrong - who of us would argue that these are qualities of a person with integrity?
“And yet our faith tradition has always been a little uneasy with leaving it simply at that. When it comes to integrity, the Unitarian Universalist take has always been as much about wholeness as goodness. Embracing the many aspects of ourselves has been more of a concern than perfecting every last aspect of ourselves. Indeed, we resonate with Quaker theologian Parker Palmer who writes, “I now know myself to be a person of weakness and strength, liability and giftedness, darkness and light. I now know that to be whole means to reject none of it but to embrace all of it.” Yes, says our religion, keep working at making yourself better, but along the way please don’t allow yourself to get so tangled up in perfection that you feel the need to hide those imperfect parts. This need to hide is what has always worried us UU’s the most. Integrity is most surely about honesty, but the honesty that seems to matter the most is the ability to hold an honest view of oneself.
“Which also involves enjoying that flawed self. When Palmer talks of “embracing it all” this is not a matter of somber resignation. There is a gladness involved. We can be whole without being perfect! To come to this realization is most surely the goal of any spiritual path.
“And there is yet another sense in which integrity calls us to gladness. Here the poet Rainer Maria Rilke puts it best: “May what I do flow from me like a river, no forcing and no holding back, the way it is with children.” Here the call of integrity is not “Be perfect.” or “Be good.” but “Be yourself!” Know your center. Know what makes you uniquely you. And live from that place! Forget the masks. Forget the “shoulds” and the “suppose tos.” Just figure out what takes you to that place of deep gladness and to that remain true! This doesn’t mean abandoning the task of “doing the right thing when no one is watching,” says our faith; it just means that you will know what the right thing is when deep joy accompanies your choice.
“Integrity and joy. They are companions on the spiritual journey. May we encounter them both more deeply this month.”
April 2017 Monthly Theme: Transformation
Does life renew itself naturally, or at times must we consciously let go of old ways in order to make room for what’s radically new? What’s the connection between transformation and healing? Is courage necessary for transformation, or does it happen despite what we plan and do? This month we explore what spiritual teachers, and our own lives, offer us about all this.
Mary Ann and Frederic Brussat talk about transformation as an active practice. They write, “The spiritual practice of transformation holds within its wide embrace the personal renewals that come with a spiritual awakening, a conversion, a mystical epiphany, or an enlightenment. It covers the deepening that takes place when we get in touch with our Higher Self or Spirit.
“Transformation usually involves the shedding of old ways, especially those that have become burdens. This practice proclaims that no matter who you are, no matter what has already happened to you, no matter what you have done, it is still possible to be and do something new.
“Transformation implies a marked change in your life, but you can practice it by making simple changes. Start by doing something different — walk to work by a new route, answer the telephone with your other than usual hand. Break a habit, any habit. Signal Spirit that you are willing to accept change in your life and to be an agent of change in the world.
“With transformation comes healing and wholeness. It's as if they had been waiting in the wings all along, until you made room for them on stage.
“Often, however, we aren't sure that we want this show to go on. The refusal to admit change in our lives is a major obstacle to transformation. We cling tenaciously to our habitual ways of doing things, thinking they are our only choices. We may resist anything new or different through indecisiveness. We waver, going back and forth between fear and doubt.
There is also a shadow side of transformation — recklessness where we keep pushing the edge. Here change becomes an addiction, and we race from one stimulus — or perceived panacea — to another.”