Tag Archives: spirituality

A Spiritual Life

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Breathe

A couple of weeks ago I read these words by Werner Herzog:

We need constantly to renew our relationships–

to the houses we live in,

to our friends,

to our own bodies

–all the time, every day.

I have become more diligent lately about going to yoga 2-3 times a week. It’s a gentle yoga with more attention to the breath than to the reach of the body. Focus on the breath and the body will follow.

A spiritual life means movement, not “just” prayer, writing, reflection, conversation. Thus are we invited to more mindfulness in everything we do for ourselves–food, drink, exercise; and more mindfulness in everything we do for the world–labor, chores, advocacy, volunteering, and otherwise getting out of our chairs.

The invitation has been here all the time. Mixed in with the rest of life’s debris we didn’t even notice the plain looking wrapper. But let your imagination open it. Notice the care with which it was created–the perfect choice of color and style, the quiet and open-ended invitation. There’s no deadline (other than death), no promises, no begging.

Just a possibility, waiting.

Life and Loss

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Chalice.Beads

A friend and I enjoyed lunch together at Sweetish Hill.

It’s a bakery and restaurant that was located originally in East Austin where Swedish immigrants established residence many years ago. Now it’s on West 6th Street. We talked about all sorts of things just to get to know each other. Among the topics she brought up are the traumatic moments in most of our lives:

Birth (where am I? what’s going on here?); puberty; choosing a mate; mid-life crisis; and aging/dying.

In my culture, social and faith communities recognize some of these through ritual and community support.

There are baby namings and christenings for newborns and adoptees. There are coming of age ceremonies like bar and bat mitzvahs, confirmation, quinceañera, Eagle Scout honors for Boy Scouts, and Gold Awards for Girl Scouts. High school graduation marks the end of publicly supported education—the least expectation we have for basic employment, but not necessarily enough for graduates to support themselves. For that they need on-the-job training or years of college and even graduate school. Weddings celebrate true love and express the hope that couples will live happily ever after. In the U.S. we then slow down with adult celebrations other than occasional birthday galas among friends. Retirement parties include friends and colleagues.

But life is more than a series of celebrations.

Failure to get that degree? Unemployment? The loss of a child? Mental illness? Imprisonment? Medical crisis? Bankruptcy? Mid-life crisis? Aging? Not so much. Only rarely have I as a pastor been asked to create a ritual of loss other than a memorial service. Some churches I have served haveChalice.Beads offered support groups for specific groups of people. The secular world offers support groups, especially in big cities. Nowadays, technology allows people to connect across any number of miles if they have access to the Internet.

Social media has become one way people expose difficult situations that worry them or even generate a level of shame. There follows at least the electronic version of hugs and support.

These crises frequently become private matters. No one knows but the closest of friends and family. They try collectively to find online and/or local support groups and look for other resources that are hard to come by. A life crisis calls for a practical solutions and a spiritual response.

How shall we let go of dreams and find a new way forward? How can we build a new way?

We can acknowledge losses with ritual. Possibilities:

  • Throw stones into a river or shells into the sea.
  • Write down your lost dreams on flash paper and watch them go up in flame.
  • Place flowers in a place that is meaningful for you.
  • Give symbolic gifts to those who have shared the pain with you.
  • Have participants drape you with beautiful scarves and tell you what you mean to them.
  • Turn over your loss to the highest power you can name, from the Universe to God.
  • Pray for healing and wholeness.

Beyond the ritual, exercise good self care: solitude, companionship, a rugged workout or a healing walk. Eat well. Sleep. Find a therapist if you have trouble coping (and try more than one until you find someone who seems right to you).

Know this: You are not alone. So many of us have stumbled through life. If you share your loss you will find that someone else truly does have a similar story. Let their creativity and resourcefulness help you through.

Believe in yourself.

Fill in the Blank

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The summer of 2014 and into early 2015 have brought national and international deaths by violence. Every day some part of the world is wracked by violence over which most of us have little control. In that context I offer this reflection:

Anxious, agitated,

Uncertain, unclear, unsure–

The latest news about (fill in the blank) breaks my heart. I am a woman of privilege who was born into a middle class white family in a white neighborhood. Life has not been completely rosy. Childhood abuse, the deaths of loved ones, divorce, and depression were usually followed by therapy or medication–another sign of privilege for sure, since I had to belong a system that made remedies available, affordable, and acceptable to my cultural group. For less serious anxieties I learned meditation.  Benefits arose from paying attention to my breath and to the present moment. I could regain equilibrium and go on about my business.

But watch the news;  see how fast social media churn up nastiness and ignorance;  witness insults and put-downs pawned off as humor. No amount of meditation makes it go away. War, jihad, racism, bullying, systems of oppression all seem impossible to address. What can I do anyway?

Then I remember the children and adults who have no choice but to do something for survival. They have no choice but to live inside a system that’s designed to keep them silent and out of sight.

  • Teachers and students kidnapped or killed because they value education.
  • Families in underground bunkers because of bombs that level neighborhoods.
  • Domestic partners and children abused by those who claim to love them.
  • Minorities threatened and killed because of skin color, religion, or national origin.
  • Refugees who cross borders to escape war or financial ruin.
  • (Fill in the blank.)

History repeats itself and all we can do is wring our hands? NO! That’s not good enough!

If I am remotely worthy of the privilege gained by my white skin and U.S. citizenship, I can stand up; speak out; swap safety for courage. It’s time to step forward in solidarity with those who have no choice.

Second (spiritual) Childhood

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I seem to have entered my second childhood, spiritually speaking. Earliest lesson that I remember from Sunday School: God is Love.

Decades have gone by; theological studies; ponderings. For many years I have labeled myself a Panentheist: in short, God infuses the cosmos and also transcends it (Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panentheism).  Maybe that was my grownup way to understand God as Love that flows through us yet is greater than all, the Love that abides.

I have spent time in prayer. Always before, it was meditation or silent reflection. It is more likely now to be addressed to God, a surprise even to me!

How shall we find God? Tony deMello says it by looking at creation in a special way. If you look at the sky you might see clouds and the angle of light and outlines of trees and vast stretches of blue, but it becomes beautiful with that special way of looking. You will seek God in vain until you know God is not an object but a special way of looking.

As I go about the rest of this  Thanksgiving Day I will remind myself to see God and to see Love. My husband and I will go to a church potluck where there will be all kinds of people with whom I have a range of relationships. I will tune in to Love and look for God in each person.

For each of you, I am grateful. May our hearts swell a little more through the art and practice of Love.

In the Public Eye

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Goodness, gracious, what a week this has been! Generally speaking, clergy are sometimes asked to deliver a public prayer or something along that line. This week I had three different opportunities that came around serendipitously during the same week. Okay, part of it is that I’m the designated summer minister while the other three in our team are on vacation or study leave.

Cherry Steinwender, founding director of the Center for the Healing of Racism, asked me if our church would co-host a Community Dialogue on “The Legacy of Trayvon Martin: so that he may rest in peace.” That has been a plea by Trayvon’s parents, who have gone a long way toward advancing a national conversation about race in the United States. Their son was one more young person caught up in the fear and general unconsciousness about race. I feel sad about our vast separation along skin color lines, but grateful that we could encourage an honest conversation.

Participants packed the place. More and more chairs were brought in until there were anywhere from 75-90 people in close quarters. It was the most diverse group of people I have seen in one place with a common, interactive purpose.

We wanted to express feelings–confusion, anger, tears, and even some laughter. Ground rules were established from the start. I provided opening and closing words; others gave a short history of racism in the country and a little about what people were saying on opposite sides of Highway 288, one of Houston’s color lines.  Cherry facilitated as individuals shared their feelings. We tried (not always successfully) to keep speakers to 2 minutes each.

The collective dialogue was honest, respectful, and heart-felt. I would say that every one of us heard something to make us uncomfortable, but we stayed with it for two hours. Afterward, people made personal connections and invited one another to coffee, to lunch, or to another event. Our next event at the church is a video and discussion about Michelle Alexander’s scholarly work on the New Jim Crow (the prison system as modern segregation).

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During the month of July, my sermon series has been on immigration, with the Big Idea = Welcome the Stranger. On the 21st I addressed the issue of minimum wage ($7.25 / hour OR the “tipped” wage of $2.13 / hour). The $2.13 hasn’t gone up for 22 years! The $7.25 was established 4 years ago. Anyway, I had read Saru Jayarama’s book Behind the Kitchen Door and decided it was sermon-worthy. Word got around to a former president of the church Board who has since moved to the west coast. Her daughter, who grew up in our church, is now an Ph.D. student and an intern with Restaurant Opportunities Center. ROC is establishing a presence in Houston and has joined with other organizations in campaigning to Raise the Wage.

So I met with ROC organizers and was invited to deliver the closing remarks at their March to Raise the Wage on Wednesday. We started at a downtown building where the cleaning staff gets low wages, marched past some of the others with our signs and chants and drums, and ended the rally with a few more testimonies from low wage workers and my remarks. (I’ll post them separately for anyone interested.)

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Today I delivered and invocation / grace before the Greater Heights Chamber of Commerce. Board members Jacob  I was seated at a table for the Houston City Council, and met Council members Brown and Bradford, their Chiefs of Staff, a Constable, two photographers, and a few from the Power Women Group–they had 3 tables! There were women throughout the gathering of 200 folks, but the Power Women’s table sign caught my eye. My prayer was as inclusive as possible, knowing that it was a diverse group in attendance. I’ll post that later, too. Congressman Ted Poe was the keynote speaker.

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Now it’s back to sermonating / sermonizing / wrestling with words for Sunday. It’s the last in the immigration series this time around, with stories of people I know who have crossed international borders to make a new life. There are some truly remarkable stories. Natalie, Lin, Rob, Fibi, Maru, Farah, and so many more, I salute you!

Transformation as a sermon idea

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What is your take on transformation?

I just finished a very rough draft and condensed it to an outline for my sermon 2 weeks from now. This Team ministry is an extraordinary way to push each of us to pull our thoughts together early, to offer relevant material and ideas, and to suggest appropriate music and a story that will become the Big Idea for all ages.

The sermon series on Transformation begins April 20. My sermon, Life Story, is secheduled for the 28th at our Mid-Town location. Two weeks later, my content will be delivered live or via video at our two satellite locations. Fun stuff!

I hope to “get at” the dreams we have as (children and) adults to imagine ourselves and the world as different, ultimately accepting it (and ourselves) as beautiful, and discovering our own transformation. The basic steps I’ll address are these:

Acceptance

Imagination

Liminality (the transitional period from the old to the new)

Transformation

Spiritual Fulfillment / Acceptance and Gratitude

So now’s your chance to help me shape this sermon. Yes, I have a rough draft filled with my own reflections, stories, and message, but there will be more wrestling with all of it until that last moment before delivery. A gestational period, I suppose.

But now, it’s Friday evening at 6 p.m. I think I’ll have a glass of wine with my neighbors!

20 years and counting!

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Today marks the 20th anniversary of my Ordination!

Way last century, back in 1993, I was ordained by the members of Northwoods Unitarian Universalist Church. After the laying on of hands I think I was floating for weeks. Both sons Rob and Fred Nugen participated in the service and surprised me with a simultaneous kiss on each cheek in front of the congregation.

The Rev. Dr. Leonora Montgomery preached the sermon–and now I’m back in Houston, where she is Minister Emerita of Bay Area Unitarian Universalist Church, retired (though still extremely active), and a member of the church I now serve, First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston.

In that summer of 1993, freshly ordained and graduated from Perkins School of Theology at SMU in Dallas, I was in search of a congregation but without an income. Leonora graciously offered her garage apartment and many late night conversations in her kitchen. It was a bonus to have a swimming pool just 2-3 feet from my door. I continue to feel grateful for her kindness, generosity, and wisdom shared with so many colleagues and congregations.

I plan to celebrate today by working on my sermon. What a privilege it has been to delve into a topic, reflect on its spiritual aspects and why they matter, and craft a coherent message for people who have a variety of experiences and spiritual understandings. My sermon this week is actually on a universal theme: “A Good Birth, a Good Life, a Good Death.”

Life is sacred all the way from birth through death and into whatever beyond one might imagine. We fear aging and debilitating illness more than death. We can’t quite imagine death–what that means for us and how life as we know it will change after we’re gone. We’d be glad to live forever if we could stay healthy, vibrant, and wise. (Few of us wish to return to our youth and go through all the tough times again.)

Tomorrow my loving husband Jon Montgomery will take me to dinner for a different kind of celebration. Meanwhile I will dive back into this vocation that has taken me on an adventure of a lifetime.

Blessed and Happy and Full of Love

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So my earlier post was simply a link to Loco’s prescription for “surgically removing writers block” in a careful way. He started loosening up with a book he couldn’t put down; he exercised his mind by getting into a writers’ group; he chose a subject that would keep his interest and carry him forward; and he replaced the hate that was rising within him with love. He said a lot more than that but you should read it for yourself to get a fuller context: http://www.locoinyokohama.com/2013/03/05/how-to-surgically-remove-writers-block/

One challenge for me has been to live and work alone in Houston for most of the week while Jon lives and works alone in Austin most of the week. I’m not complaining, just observing that my tendency has been to come back to my apartment and either work some more or slip into some mindless tv or resort to comfort food.

Time to get out of that rut!

First stop, music. I changed my schedule to put me in Austin on Monday evenings where I can rehearse with Tapestry Singers and the small ensemble Loose Threads. It’s my 10th year and we’re coming up to my 20th concert on May 5. To return to that great community of women and song is a real lift to my spirits. In the car I can listen to mp3s of our songs to help implant them into my brain. By next week I should be able to sing along with greater accuracy.

Before starting this entry, I couldn’t find a radio station that suited me this evening, so I turned on Pandora and chose the Shuffle option to add interest. Folk, jazz, classical, piano concerti, bluegrass; people like Hubert Laws on flute, Dar Williams on vocals, Wynton Marsalis on trumpet, and already I have the makings of a musical feast!

Exercise was simply a walk around my neighborhood to loosen up my body and mind. Blackbirds were coming home from work, too, and making a racket that made me smile. Neighbor Alice, frail and elderly, was walking around the complex as usual, opening the door or gate for people if she is close by. She was a librarian before retirement–talk about a world of books! If she can get out for a walk several times a day I have no excuse. I do like to walk over to Memorial Park, close to my apartment, or to Hermann Park, close to the church. A beautiful day.

Yesterday Jon was here and we watched the movie Happy. I think next time someone asks me how I am, I’ll say “happy.” Much better than the usual “busy,” don’t you think? You CAN choose happiness.

A couple of interesting things are coming up in my work. On the 16th at 10am, a Blessing of the Animals. We have invited a local shelter to bring some of their adoptable pets for blessings and some extra love. I’ve been told that one year someone brought a donkey; another time, one of those hissing cockroaches (I’m not sure I’m up for that, actually).

In April, we will have a special Coming of Age worship service for ten young people. We’re so proud of them and their work all year long! They will be writing their own statements of belief and I’m sure each credo will rival any religious doctrine. When beliefs come from the heart at a time of spiritual awakening they touch all our hearts. This Friday I’ll get to meet with them during their lock-in to start planning the service with the kids and their advisors.

Also in April there will be a memorial service I will be privileged to conduct. It’s unusual to have this much time to plan such a service, but that’s what the family requested. Two sons will be my primary collaborators.

There is a good bit of work involved in preparing for special events but the payoff is huge. Rites of passage, all three, will include blessings for those beloved with whom we share an extraordinary life. Considering all these blessings from birth to death, along with our animal companions, love and happiness fill my spirit. May you be blessed and happy and full of love!

First Days Record

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Shifting gears, big time! Phone calls, emails, and meetings with key leaders have started to fill me in on the weeks I was away. At the same time I have been picking up many balls all at once, as though I had never been away. Some things have waited for my return; some balls were dropped altogether; many positive things have moved us forward in our mission. Already I have had to say goodbye to a member who is moving away.

Even as I ramp up it is important for me to maintain a wide perspective, a metaphorical view from the balcony. Life IS short. Healthy balance requires considerable effort because there is always something personal or professional that can throw that balance right out the window.

So I go back again and again to the spiritual heart of my being. Meditation, poetry, music, writing, and prayer–early and often during each day. Such a joy it is to fall back on the spiritual wisdom of the ages!

Today has been a reading and writing day. I’m outside under the shade of a patio umbrella and there is almost enough breeze to offset the heat and humidity. The weather will only get worse as summer takes hold, so I might as well avail myself of this beautiful spring day. Too bad we haven’t had enough rain lately. I’m trying to be super conscious of water consumption already and to appreciate every drop.

Here’s a closing reading from Anthony de Mello’s Song of the Bird

A Parable on Modern Life

The animals met in assembly and began to complain that humans were always taking things away from them.
“They take my milk,” said the cow.
“They take my eggs,” said the hen.
“They take my flesh for bacon,” said the hog.
“They hunt me for my oil,” said the whale.

Finally the snail spoke. “I have something they would certainly take away from me if they could. Something they want more than anything else. I have TIME.”
You have all the time in the world, if you would give it to yourself. What’s stopping you?

I don’t need ALL the time. Just enough. And you?