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WAITING AS A SPIRITUAL PRACTICE

Waiting as a spiritual practice is found in almost every religious tradition I can think of. 

For Muslims, the month of Ramadan, the 9th month of the Islamic calendar, marks a month of fasting, giving alms, abstinence from all things of the flesh,and active prayer. This is in an attempt to cleanse the soul, but also it is thought that using these methods of emptying out the cares and desires of the physical world, one is preparing and waiting for the revelations of God to be experienced.  This is what happened to Muhammad.  In fact, the holiest night of the Muslim year is Laylat al-Qadr, it falls just before the close of Ramadan, and commemorates the night when the Qu’ran was first revealed to the prophet Muhammad. 

In Jewish tradition, waiting and the practice of patience in the face of daunting circumstances, has been a recurring theme since the Book of Exodus and those ensuing dark days in the desert.  The Jewish people wait for the angel of death to pass over their households during Passover and recreate the stories of bitter times and the promise of sweeter days in the Seder.  Again, fasting, prayer, and self-denial carve pathways to this opening up of the soul.

The Christians now find themselves in the heart of Lent.  Christians too share these same tools of purification.  Yet they wait for something unique to the other monotheistic religions.  They wait for the day of Resurrection, the Day that Jesus rose from the dead.

And, yet, even if one does not believe in the actual physical revival of the Christ from the dead, the stories that rise up from the New Testament can resonate with each of us, teaching us the power of waiting in faith.

These are stories that speak of yearning and suffering.  Yearning for a better life, a purpose, a meaning, and the reality of pain.  The stories of Jesus of Nazareth are stories of hope and fear, loyalty and betrayal, acceptance and denial, life and death.  Jesus tasted both the success of his mountain ministry (see Matthew’s feeding of the 5000) and yet was still determined to go to Jerusalem, with death threats and a certain persecution.

His followers were waiting for a triumphant crowning of a king as the culmination of a glorious ministry.  Instead, they were confused and angry by a leader ridiculed and crucified.  Jesus tried to point out that this path he was on, was not one easily understood by the ways of the world, that his lessons were those of the spirit and not of earthly successes and kingdoms.  Certainly choosing to undergo great suffering is not a natural inclination. 

Our own stories of waiting for a better day, whether for a job that has not yet materialized, a healing from an illness (our own or a loved ones, or even a death), can find much solidarity with the Bible stories of Lent.  They are filled with expectation on one day, as Jesus heals a leper and brings the dead to life, and then disillusionment, despair, and death on the next.

 One of the definitions of resurrection that I can hold up to a broader, secular audience is the Greek notion of resurrection as the “state of one who has returned to life.”

We all have seen the grief-stricken and the broken find a way back to a full and happy life after the most unmitigable tragedies, this is the promise of resurrection that casts it net wide and yet does not strain the boundaries of the intellect.  It is the faith of waiting. 

Quote for the day: “Even if one glimpses God, there are still cuts and splinters and burns along the way.”

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BE WITH THOSE WHO HELP YOUR BEING

I was sent this poem written by the Sufi poet, Rumi, sometime ago and it continues to inspire me on many different levels:

“Be with those who help your being.  Don’t sit with indifferent people; whose breath comes cold out of their mouths.  Not these visible forms, your work is deeper.

A chunk of dirt thrown in the air breaks to pieces.  If you don’t try to fly, and so break yourself apart, you will be broken open by death, when it’s too late for all you could become.

Leaves get yellow.  The tree puts out fresh roots and makes them green.  Why are you so content with a love that turns you yellow?”

This poem has become a daily invitation and a challenge to me,  to bravely face all of my preconceived notions of who I am or who I thought I was and what my purpose is.  It reminds me that in this moment, and then in that one, I have to commit to the truth of the hard work and courage that goes along with being that person who is not content with “a love that turns you yellow.” 

It involves becoming a person ready and receptive to the fearless and  dangerous and REAL love that coaxes, prods, and pushes your being towards the flight God intended for you from your moment of creation.

Let yourself be thrown up in the air like a chunk of dirt breaking into tiny pieces?  Wow, this is a radical letting go of the Self that sounds like Bungee jumping to me.  Intellectually, I know that living without a safety net reaps rewards that the majority of folks will never taste…yet still, there is that  jump…

For much of my life, while I have outwardly appeared bold and brazen, my choices reflected a need for security, a tendency to complacency, and a holding on so tightly…I’m surprised I didn’t instantaneously combust!  Being broken open was not on MY agenda…emphasis on the word my.  

But life broke me open anyway (against my will) and what a ride! When you surrender and allow yourself to be broken open, people serendipitously appear who connect with you on a deeper level and bearing such gifts as love and wisdom and compassion that you wondered where all of these souls had been hiding.  They benefit from your person, your gifts, and your love too.  Nature mirrors this vibrancy of living in the light, of moving towards the light, the way a tree strains and grows towards the sun.

So here I am again in this moment, palms open, with the way of Jesus Christ, the path of the Buddha, the latest bestselling self-help book of Eckhart Tolle; loosening by bits that hard scab of self-will that seems to be resistant to removal, yet ripped off it must be as it blocks true joy.  Expanding my love beyond the border of friends and family, to include those difficult to love, those who have caused great hurt, the stranger, the plants and animals…

There are bright green shoots sprouting in my soul, fragile with promise and vulnerable to much, anticipating and percolating under the fertile food of the spirit.  It is a waiting time, much like the buds in winter.  It can be dark and scary at times, like it is at the roots of all things. Yet actively waiting is anything but indifferent and lucky for me there is still heat coming from my mouth.

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A SNAPSHOT OF AMERICAN UNITARIAN CHRISTIANITY

I ended yesterday’s post with a thought from Forrest Church, who in his full life of serving as the senior minister for All Souls Church in NYC, as the author of a host of spiritual books, and as a committed and articulate champion of  Unitarian Universalism, was also able to say yes to Jesus without acquiescing to any of the supernatural implications, creeds, or dogmas.   

Like the liberal theological stock that came before him , Church was able to bring forth his ideas, using the light of reason.  His voice, along with others in American Unitarian Christianity (and Universalism), emerge from a common historical prism and context.  While today there is a great variance of beliefs amongst congregations and congregants (this is an understatement!), they each evolved from the Age of Enlightenment. Yet…

All of this was seated in an era which began in Western Europe with theories of philosophical and scientific luminaries the likes of (DesCartes, 1633 and Issac Newton, 1688, respectively),who  gave the human mind preeminent status over the rest of the body.  This glorification of human reason,which would in hindsight have its own set of limitations, allowed for fresh breezes to blow through the unyielding and sometimes suffocating interpretation of scripture and tradition. 

While hotly contested, many theologians and parishioners began to believe that the meaning in Christianity should be focused more on this life and less on the here after.  It is what Jesus said and did that were paramount, not who he was or wasn’t.  These faithful did not consider themselves to be blasphemers or even heretics.  They simply felt that this was the natural and logical progression of Christian faith, whose seeds of dissent were planted at the time of the Reformation (1517) and were borne from the much rockier soil of turbulent Jerusalem.    

William Ellery Channing, educated in the Congregational spirit at Harvard, became the foremost Unitarian preacher in the U.S. during this time of widening and shifting viewpoints. Channing extolled the possibility for revelation through reason rather than solely from scripture.  Noting in his sermons, “Unitarian Christianity” (1819) and “Likeness to God”, we could choose to reject the notion of divine election put forth by the Calvinists or the idea of human nature coming from a state of total depravity, and instead believe in human goodness and human potential.

“We do then, with all earnestness, though without reproaching our brethren, protest against the irrational and unscriptural doctrine of the Trinity…to us, as to the Apostle and primitive Christians, there is one God, ever the Father.  With Jesus, we worship the Father, as the only living and true God.  We are astonished that any man (person) can read the New Testament and avoid the conviction, that the Father alone is God.”

Today’s Unitarian Universalists form a wide swath of belief;  there are those who believe in a traditional God, another kind of God, no God, or Something Else. Like Channing and his fellow theologians, among them Henry Ware, Theodore Parker, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, UU’s bring to Reason their American sensibilities, namely, freedom and democracy. It has been this contagious spirit of liberty that has allowed God talk  to continue to evolve, in many ways unfettered, in the universities, the pulpit, and the pews.  Combined with the rapid and dramatic changes in the world in the past several centuries, in the areas of science, technology, business, and warfare (the first two World Wars taking place in the 20th century) the conversation continues, always rendering more questions.    

Book of the Day, Christian Voices in Unitarian Universalism, Essays, Kathleen Rolenz, “Unitarian Universalists need Jesus, too. First of all, we need to connect with our own history.  We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Jesus.  We neglect our own history at our peril. We also must become more comfortable with traditional religious language.  We must be able to speak the language of another’s religious tradition without hesitation or fear.  we don’t want a marginalized faith on the world’s stage.  And finally, I believe we must genuinely embrace the religious diversity of our own church members-including the Christians among us.

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A UNITARIAN UNIVERSALIST APOLOGETIC (Part I)

Several months ago, I was casually listening to a piece on NPR when I was stirred, no, perhaps more accurately shaken, out of my decidedly complacent Unitarian Universalist perch.  A fellow on the airwaves had lost his religion and feeling very happy and free about it, wanted to share his experience with the rest of us, in the form of a book he had written.  Most of it was pretty standard fare-devout Christian background (Episcopalian I believe-but you could fill in the blanks here- I have heard Catholics and Southern Baptists relate similar tales), followed by feelings of disillusionment, first with their particular brand of religion, and then belief all together. 

Callers ranged from those wanting to cajole him back to some sort of faith, ones who wanted to argue, and a much smaller number calling to say, “Good for you.”  But when one caller asked if this gentleman had ever visited a Unitarian Universalist church or considered the UU faith, he responded, “Unitarianism is like drinking non-alcoholic beer, what’s the point?”

I suppose if this were just one man’s opinion on a talk radio show, I would have just let it slide.  But it’s not.  Over the years, my mother has affirmed, “Unitarian Universalism, it’s not even a religion really; it’s more like a philosophy.” My friends ask if we ever even talk about God in our services, never mind Jesus. 

Mostly, I get condescending little chuckles at social events and the like, conveying a good-natured tolerance of my folly.  Sometimes it’s a small, woeful smile, an “Oh, you’re one of those.”  What they mean, of course, is that I am a member of a loosey goosey, Birkenstock wearing, noncommittal, not as legitimate as their faith, only “kind of” a  church.  And aside from having a liberal bent, I can attest to having none of these attributes.   

As a trained theologian who arrived at my faith by a long process which involved both head and heart, I feel compelled to respond to that off-handed comment.  To infer that there is no meaningful effect on one’s life and the community or no tangible compass by being a member of the Unitarian Universalist faith is simply wrong.  It continues to be perpetuated by the reticence of Unitarians to feel that they are trying to “sell” their faith to anyone combined with the fact that other religions in the U.S. have most successfully evangelized theirs. 

It’s a tenaciously held prejudice, a myth propelled by a shroud of misinformation, which I attempt here to dispel.  It has become abundantly clear to me that the time has come for someone to defend this little known, oft misunderstood faith.  So,  following in the tradition of the early Christian Apologists, remembering Justin Martyr, Origen, Tertullian, and Irenaeus, defenders of their young faith amidst an onslaught of skeptics and persecutors, (while unlike them, without the fear of being martyred), I hereby humbly submit a Unitarian Universalist Apology to the mainstream Protestants, fundamentalist Christians, and all strata of Roman Catholics of these United States of America.

Theologically speaking, I am going to climb out on a limb here and state that Unitarianism has been around since the first groups of Christians were meeting to worship God and Jesus in their own physical locations and with their own unique emphasis.  This went on for several hundred years in a relatively non confrontational way (amongst the Christians themselves at least) until 320 or so, when the lack of uniformity posed a threat to the social and political order of Constantine I (the first Roman Catholic emperor). His desire was that these “divisions” be quelled.

Citizens were certainly having heated arguments over who exactly Jesus Christ was, what his relationship with God the Father was, and whether he was God or not.  There were a host of variant but equally passionate opinions; there were almost as many ideas about Jesus as there were people to convey them. These discussions were taking place in  local shops, at the bakery, the dinner table; it was the topic of the day.  

The debate took on an increasingly ferocious nature as Arius, a priest from Egypt, and his followers (Arians) believed that Jesus was not coeternal with the Father.  There was a time that Jesus was not.  God was the Eternal One, a Unity unto Himself.  The seeds of Unitarianism planted.  His opponent, Athanasius, a priest also from Alexandria, hostilely disagreed (an influential predecessor to the development of the doctrine of the Trinity).  Not only was Jesus cosubstantial with the Father, so was the Holy Spirit. They all had been around since the beginning of time.

When Constantine demanded coherence and orthodoxy as the Church became an accepted political force, 22 bishops descended upon Nicaea in 325CE to determine an official theology.  Athanasius’ theology won the day. Arius was labeled a heretic (318CE) (a sentiment libeled against Unitarians over the ages).  He was excommunicated, banished, and many say, finally poisoned.

Open and lively discussions were then funneled from a continuous stream of diverse dialogue to a (one size does not fill all) limit imposing creed.   The vague philosophical language being bandied about (substance, cosubstantial, coeternal) were conjured up by the closed circle of bishops and religious authorities. Political power and not spiritual presence was the real motivation for these councils and their formulas. 

Yet the conversation still continues, with heretics still having their say…tomorrow I will share some of the American voices that embraced the Oneness of God and the belief in universal salvation.

Book of the DayA House for Hope by John Buehrens and Rebecca Ann Parker    

Quote from the Book of the Day-“Do you want to know how I believe we are saved?” my grandmother once asked me.  “We aren’t saved by Jesus’ death on the cross.  People who believe that focus on hocus-pocus and avoid having to live out the teaching of Jesus.  We are saved by every person in every time and place that has stood up for what is true in spite of threat.  Like Socrates did.  Like Jesus did.  Like many others have done.”

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The Top 5 and a Half Movies with a Message

In some ways we are often engaged in the process of practicing religion, even if that’s not what we’re calling it, or its not about our formal theology (God talk).   The most basic notion being that we are all human and from that perspective, we are bound together by our collective experience of being human.

Movies have a particular advantage in this regard.  They connect us, fill our senses with the sights, sounds, and emotions of other’s stories. When done well, they move us… (to tears, laughter, reflection, or inspiration).   

Here are Nun Tuck’s pick of the top 5 and a half movies with a message:       

51/2. Stand by Me (1986) A coming of age movie based on a novella The Body by Stephen King.  It received Golden Globe Awards for Best Picture and Best Director as well as an Academy Award for Best Screenplay. The only reason this is number five and a half is that six sounded less exciting and this movie (one of my all time favorites) while  meaningful may not have the overarching power of the other four. 

Stephen King also wrote the next 2 picks. We often associate King with scary, deranged, but page turner novels.  Yet there is also something prolific in his ability to capture the darkness and suffering of the human soul but also it’s resilient potential with an occasional glimpse of cosmic justice.

5. The Green Mile (1999) A story of the baseness and wonder of human behavior set in a death row prison in the 1930’s.  See how the supernatural abilities and character of John Coffey bear a resemblance to another J.C.   Based on Stephen King’s novel The Green Mile, it was nominated for best picture, best supporting actor, and best screenplay.  

4. The Shawshank Redemption (1994) Another prison setting, this movie is based on Stephen’s King’s Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption.  “The narrator (Morgan Freeman) is healed from his despair by Tim Robbin’s character’s hope in the face of suffering.  There is the redemption that comes when one man is redeemed by the suffering of an innocent man who takes on the suffering of prison, seeing life within and beyond it, and living fully.” (Edie Bird)  (Again the Biblical reference of Jesus (the innocent) taking on the sins of others.  The metaphors of endless, the prison itself being one of them.  This movie was nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Director, but it was running against one of my other picks that year.  

Now, my daughter says that my top 3 picks are a little cliche, but a lot of things sound  like a cliche, but that doesn’t make them any less real…or wonderful. 

3. Chariots of Fire (1981) British Film- true life story of 2 athletes in the the 1924 Olympics in Paris, Eric Liddell, a devout Scottish Christian who runs for the glory of God and Harold Abrahams, an English Jew running to overcome prejudice.  The faith and courage of both men is inspirational and the title comes from the Bible, 2Kings 2:11- “Bring me the chariot of fire“.  It won the Academy Award for Best Picture.    

2. Forrest Gump (1994) Forrest is a simple minded man whose innocence and trust are made all the more poignant as he travels through the turbulent culture in which he lives and the effects he has on the broken lives whom he touches.  This film won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Screenplay, Best Writing, among others.  It won these same accolades at the Golden Globes (including Best Supporting Actess).  Bible reference: Luke 18:15-17, “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”     

1. Gandhi (1982)- An outstanding and gripping biography of Mahatma Gandhi, the lawyer who became the face of the Indian people’s non-violent protest (which inspired Martin Luther King.) This movie won the Academy Award for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor, among others. Gandhi wrote several books on Jesus Christ, one of which was entitled The Message of Jesus Christ.  The Hindu leader said, “The message of Jesus as I understand it is contained in the sermon on the Mount unadulterated and taken as a whole…If then I had to face only the Sermon on the Mount and my own interpretation of it , I should not hestitate to say, ‘Oh yes, I am a Christian’.  But negatively I can tell you in my humble opinion, what passes as Christianity is a negation of the Sermon on the Mount…I am speaking of the Christian belief, of Christianity as it is understood in the west.  

Let me know your thoughts….do you have a nomination? 

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DAWN AND RESURRECTION ARE SYNONYMOUS

This morning, I woke up before my dog, to attend one of our local church’s annual Sunrise Easter service. I am not a member of this church, but have lived in this little hamlet of 4500 souls for 18 years. It’s an everyone knows everyone kind of place.  And yet, for one reason or another, I’d never attended before.  It’s held at the shore of our Town Pond, which is lovely and secluded and has an ancient history (if one could call New England history ancient.) As I walked the path to the pond, there were luminarias lighting the way (white paper bags weighted with sand and little tea candles in them).  The hot pink and grey-blue sunrise rose up over the water, blessing our sleepy-eyed band of celebrants.  And while I understand that many past services had a frost and a chill in the air, today’s early moments began balmy.  The crackling bonfire was more symbolic perhaps than necessary.  Although, I don’t think we can ever get enough of the symbols, the concepts, or the people that bring light to the world.   The mood was meditatively quiet. The prayers were simple, direct, and ready for immediate application.   

I saw some of my dear friends around that fire, those who know the kind of challenging year I’ve had.  I felt their good will towards me through their eyes, their smiles, and hugs.  I hope they sensed the same from me. Resurrection is the happy part, but its significance is diminished if we don’t remember what comes before it.   For most of the world’s Christians, today is Resurrection day. It means that Jesus Christ rose from the dead and returned to life everlasting… AFTER suffering a torturous, laborious, and unjust death.  Even outside of Christianity, many faiths believe in a future state after death, where there will be a resurrection, a rising again, to new life in some shape or form.  Yet resurrection’s power, its gift of joy which passeth all understanding (no matter your faith) comes from the awe, the incredulity of being brought back from our darkest places, when we are crippled or broken or blind and death seems certain.  

Ena Zizi was there. (From an excerpt from Paul Jeffrey’s article, “Out of the Rubble”, March 23rd,  The Christian Century:

After having been buried for a week in the rubble of Haiti’s January 12th earthquake, Ena Zizi was rescued by the Mexican team called the  Gophers (rescue workers, some of them survivors themselves of a horrific earthquake in Mexico city in 1985).  As they pulled her dirty and injured body out on a broken piece of plywood salvaged from the rubble and carefully passed her down over three stories of debris to the ground, the 70-year-old woman was singing.  Her singing was inarticulate, as she hadn’t had any water to drink for seven days.  Yet her joy was infectious.  The members of the Mexican rescue team who were carrying her began crying. 

Zizi, who was severely dehydrated and had suffered a broken leg and dislocated hip, yelled for help for hours, then for two days, conversed with a priest, and when he grew silent, she “talked only to God.”   Her singing was gratitude, the indominability of the human spirit, and a way for her rescuers to find her.  To the South African and Mexican rescue teams surrounding her, she was very real proof of resurrection.

Resurrection is never just personal.  It is always in relationship.  Yesterday, while I was out on my daily run, I ran into a neighbor out for a walk with her two school age children.  Her 11-year-old daughter has been struggling with leukemia since May.  I noticed her hair was growing back in a full, spiky, long crew cut fashion.  And she had dyed it in  colors of the rainbow.  I wept later to witness her resurrection, the “resumption of vigor” (one definition).  And her courage to wait on it, expectantly, faithfully.       

Song of the Day: Amazing Grace by John Newton (1725-1807) (Ex-slave trader)

Stanza from the Song of the Day: “Through many dangers, toils, and snares/I have already come/’Twas Grace that brought me safe thus far/and Grace will lead me home.”

Quote of the Day: “Dawn and resurrection are synonymous.  The reappearance of the light is the same as the survival of the soul.” -Victor Hugo

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