These Ancient Modern Stories

The Jewish and Christian traditions are foundational in the long evolution of stories which have shaped Unitarian Universalism. It is now the season for two of the most important of those stories: the exodus of the ancient Hebrew people from Egypt – the Passover story, and the death and resurrection of Jesus – the Easter story.

The Passover and Easter stories do not shy away from the hard realities of human suffering. They include graphic descriptions of plagues, armies, murder, brutality, loss, and devastation. They are stories which arise in times and places of oppression and violence, of the power of a state to use oppression and violence to sustain its greed. They are stories of people terrorized and killed and pushed to the edge of endurance, and they are stories of endurance and perseverance and un-extinguishable dedication to justice and love. Stories we can understand so well, because we live in these times too. The stories of Passover and Easter are stories for our time.

One thing I’ve learned from working with these stories for so many years is that I can’t fully understand what they mean on my own – I don’t meaning alone. I make meaning in relation to others – listening, hearing, considering. I need the perspectives of others, because there are so many pieces of truth. This is why we work together, why our justice and connections and learning work is led by teams.

I’ve also learned over and over again that the human story remains so much the same. Which is good, because the human story always includes new life, new ways, and the persistence of love and truth over and over again. What makes sense to me now has made sense to many others in the midst of times of devastation. Like so many others before us, in our lives now, we are called to let go of old ways and begin again. To be able and willing to accept new life as it comes, even if from the ashes of the old.

In April of 2020, just a few weeks into the world-wide pandemic shutdown, UU minister Kendyl Gibbons said this: “This Easter, as never before in many of our lifetimes, we are invited to seek the strength to let go of an old way of life, and discover what else might be possible.” May this be our aim this year as well.

Daily Practice: A Weekly Reminder, 3/22/2024

Along with trees and bushes and bulbs, the Fellowship seems to be in a season of blooming! Events and activities abound – so many ways to get together with others, to share in religious learning and growth, to increase justice and peace step by little step. New formats and methods for communication are emerging. The Fellowship calendar suddenly feels full, as do the Sanctuary and the foyer and the Social Hall on Sundays. Tables are multiplying in the foyer – that’s a sign of activity and of the need for folks to invite other folks to join them. (Tables can also sometimes feel like obstacles – we’ll need to take care in how we use them.) It’s also a season of cleaning up and cleaning out – including some moldy carpets and furniture. We’re in preparation for renovation of the meeting wing of the building – finally, and we’re preparing for Stewardship season and Earth Month. It can feel very energizing and exciting and a little overwhelming at the same time.

Recently I found a prayer I wrote after a retreat of some sort, more than 15 years ago. It was like a gift to myself in this season of growth. May it be helpful to you as well.

“In the swirling of paradox in this moment, acknowledging my conflicting needs and aims, let me gather all the love I know, and give thanks.

May I hear the sound of today calling me, and may I never forget the call of all ages – may these calls from Life guide and steer me as I move.

May the path on which I move be a path toward more justice and peace: may it be as clear as possible and filled with enough curves to keep me from certainty.

As I move, may I be an instrument of the music at the heart of Life, ready and willing to be played and to melt into the song.”

May I wake up into more and more gratitude for each day that is given to me and for all that it offers.”

Daily Practice – A Weekly Reminder, 3/17/2024

This is the week – Spring has definitely arrived. Daffodils and jonquils have been holding on thru cold rainy days – and now they are standing proudly! The long line of ornamental plum trees around the corner are purple pink today. When the crescent moon appeared last night, with Jupiter shining close by, frogs and owls began to provide music – this morning owls and robins. Spring has arrived. Once more the gifts are given.

It has been four years (!) since the Spring of March 2020, when we shut down and entered into pandemic living. The human world began to feel more calamitous and fractious — and in many ways it still does. Nothing has simply reverted to the way it was before. Perhaps by now we realize that there are only constant opportunities to start over, to begin anew in a changed world, as always.

From time to time we consider the ‘art of embracing’, as a practice of turning toward and moving toward — moving in the direction of with arms opened wide. The question is “What are you willing and able to move toward for the good of all?” Everything we have been practicing will continue to help us – inner nobility and steadiness, naming our fears and counting our blessings at the same time, and the core strengths of courage and trust. Beginning today, every day, the way stretches out before us, and we can only take one step at a time. There are blessings that live in the very acts of reaching out, of moving toward, of opening our arms in anticipation.

Every day may we breathe in deeply and feel the calming power of an exhale, as we open our arms and begin again. Sending love to you all — Jill

Between Us, 3/10/2024

At the end of every OSU term I mark out ten to twelve hours on my schedule to have short one-to-one meetings with all the students in my class on World Religions. There are usually around 45 students, so it takes a while. I have learned that it is one of the most worthwhile things I do. I have a chance to hear from each student whether or not, in getting an overview of nine different traditions, they have learned anything useful (or surprising or helpful). This is my week for interviews, and once again, I am full of gratitude and awe. Students who never say anything in class become incredibly articulate. They describe how their perspectives have opened, how their horizons have widened, how what they thought was simply true is much more complicated and nuanced than they could have imagined. They appreciate knowing more than hearsay about Judaism and Islam, they are intrigued by the possibilities of Buddhist and Daoist practice. They recognize that even if they don’t consider themselves religious, nevertheless they too are in the process of trying to understand what it means to be human is, and how to live a good life.

I sometimes say that I continue to teach this class as my small contribution to world peace. And maybe that’s true. Maybe it’s also true that I’m still trying to understand what it means to be human and how to live a good live.

The Fellowship, and Unitarian Universalism, mean a lot of things to a lot of people. It isn’t always easy to describe what we do, because so much is done by so many, and because as the world changes we also change. At the very least, however, from my perspective, we are people who gather together as companions on the journey of life, trying to understand and do our best to be human through ups and downs, love and loss, fear and joy. We choose this specific liberal religious path, and this particular congregation for the freedom to ask our own questions and to share both questions and answers with others. We also choose this place because we understand that we can promise one another to take care of ourselves and of each other.

Being a Unitarian Universalist can look easy, as in “nothing is required.” But that is not quite right. Much is asked of us, including being responsible to and for each other, to and for the congregation, and to and for the world. All are welcome to come in and consider this path, yet it is so much more than a spectator sport (as I’ve said many times before). The religious life — this religious life as a Unitarian Universalist — is a life based on commitment. There is too much at stake in our lives and in the world for anything less.

From the Board President – Sheryl Stuart, 3/1/2024

I’ve been reflecting on the beautiful work of our RE team over the past several years in helping us be more attentive to the needs of multiple generations within the Fellowship, recognizing that there are differences in experience, expectations and more between different generations. As we’ve been blessed with more, younger children being present, especially in our Sunday services, I wonder how we can best accommodate the diverse needs of people of all ages who experience hearing and attention challenges in the service. I suspect this is one of those perennial conversations that is worth contemplation now and again.

First, I thought about the ubiquitous cell phone ring tones and notifications that happen during service. No matter how often we remind people to silence their phones, it is a rare service that doesn’t have some type of electronic interruption. I easily fall into righteous indignation about these interruptions…until I remember the unfortunate time that it happened to me.

I recalled a time when I sat next to someone who had a nervous habit that caused them to crack their knuckles often and repeatedly during the service. It drove me crazy! I never said anything, but I vowed never to sit next to that person again. I’ve subsequently gotten to know them and am quite fond of them. I don’t know if they still crack their knuckles in service, but I suspect my tolerance would be much higher.

I recalled several years in which we had a member who used an oxygen generator that made a loud noise periodically during the service. This also was annoying, but I reminded myself that the device was allowing the person to live and that helped me stop focusing on the distraction.

A friend once told me that a technique for dealing with these kinds of distractions is to consciously grant permission. I’m not sure this has ever totally worked for me, but I continue to try. And this reminded me of another congregant sharing during joys and sorrows about their experience in a hospital room in Portland. Their roommate was very loud and distressed. They said that they helped themself by repeating a version of the Metta prayer: may I be well, may I be peaceful…may you be well, may you be peaceful…and so on.

I’m so glad to see, and hear, babies coming with parents on Sundays. I confess that my heart literally aches for these parents. I remember the exhaustion of parenting young children and I’m so impressed that not only have families made time to join us on Sunday mornings, at least two parents have made the effort to contribute to our Fellowship by joining the choir. My immediate reaction is “How can we help you?!? How can we make your time at the fellowship a little lighter, so that you will continue to participate?” Supporting children and youth has always been one of our main focuses, and without new families, what will the future UUFC be?

I know that for some adults, especially those seeking quiet or contemplative moments, distractions can be distressing. I also realize that distractions come from many sources, and I am left with questions. Might there be a technology fix associated with the sound system that would help some of us hear better over background noise? Can we look at distractions differently? Is it possible for us to try to honor each distraction and then set it aside?

Building on its continuing work, our RE department has prepared a set of guidelines to help us all navigate differences and distractions. It’s a good place to begin to imagine and live into good possibilities and new ways.

Between Us, 2/25/2024

(I wrote this in 2016. Re-reading it during this Black History Month was helpful – as if I had written a reminder to myself check in some years later..)

I’ve heard that as we age and mature, the best we can do is replace one habit with another habit. That doesn’t sound very promising, but it certainly can be. If the habit is projecting anger on others by use of physical force, and it’s replaced with a practice of walking away and cooling down on your own, the effects are immense. If the habit is to address sorrow and grief with alcohol and drugs, and that habit is replaced by finding someone to talk and cry with instead of reaching for a bottle, the effects can be life-changing and life-giving.

Replacing destructive habits with less destructive or nurturing habits is not limited to big problems, or to those with the most intense emotional content. Often our smaller habits are what get in our way – sometimes because we can’t even see them, much less name them as habits. Racism is like this most of the time, and sexism, and ageism, and homophobia, and religious prejudices, and other similar habits. For example, simply calling our approaches to diversity ‘habits’ might be something new. It is usually quite a challenge, for any of us, to recognize that what we might think are facts about the way things are – such as “those people are……” are simply habits that we have been taught, that we have learned, that we have internalized. Why for example, do White people almost never say “I met a White person”, when we nearly always say, “I met a Black person,” as if white is an accepted and therefore unspoken norm for what a person looks like? (The reverse is true in many black-dominated cultures and societies.) Of course this represents a limited perspective, which we have definitely been taught somewhere, which we have internalized so that it is a habit. If you think this doesn’t make sense, try changing it, for at least one whole day, by describing the skin color of EVERY person you meet.

Many of us at the UUFC are challenging ourselves to be more active in living our religious values in our daily lives. We keep aiming to live in right relations with others who are of different faiths, ethnicities, persuasions, personality types, etc. Right relations sometimes requires challenging truths that others hold, and sometimes having our own truths challenged. Right relations often requires being able to hold two opposing truths in order to simply stay together. This requires going beyond our initial reactions to things and people (which give evidence of our own habits), and it is often uncomfortable. That is the work of right relations.

While he was serving as a ministerial intern at a UU congregation a few years ago, a seminary student named Ricky Klein noticed how hard this work can be for both individuals and congregations. He wrote, “The greatest challenge to counter-oppression work is that (some people want) to see greater diversity without doing the deeper soul work to understand why and what that would mean.”

Deeper soul work. Perhaps that’s what it means to replace one habit with another habit. Perhaps that’s the most important thing we can be doing, the soul work or emotional work, of understanding how our habits can both help and harm. I know this requires calling on all our resources – intellectual, spiritual, and physical – and I know from experience that it’s something I can almost never do on my own. That’s why I love being part of this congregation with you. May we continue to help one another in this work.
See you Sunday — Jill

Daily Practice: A Weekly Reminder

To begin a day with notes of thanks is never a waste of time. It is a courageous way to orient oneself to a day, given how easy it is to start with complaints. To sit quietly for a few minutes to see what gratitudes emerge can feel like what the phrase “heart song” might mean. Thanks for the chorus of frogs and the response of an owl last night; for the shape of Marys Peak on the horizon; for the snow drops and crocuses and three tall daffodils already in bloom; for the busyness of birds who share this place; for the smell of moisture-filled morning air; for the thriving vibrant green of lichens; for gifts from friends and family – a poem, a photo, a message; for the wisdom of teachers and of students; for being part of a supportive working team; for knowing I am held in a circle of connection and love. I try to begin the day smiling, which is always what happens when I pause to count blessings. As I’m smiling, I’m bowing my head to my heart in a spontaneous prayer for so much that is so painful – for people living in wars in Ukraine and Gaza and elsewhere; for children in danger; for families struggling to survive; for generations of trauma of racism and patriarchy; for losses and mourning; for the state of the earth’s living systems. I look to this day with hope, and words from W.E.B DuBois as encouragement: “ The prayer of our souls is a petition for persistence; not for one good deed but deed on deed and thought on thought, until day calling unto day shall make a life worth living.” May this be our daily practice.

The Worshiping Community

Is religion dying out? Some say it is – others say it should. Since I consider religion to be an innate human process, I doubt it will disappear, but there’s no question in my mind that its forms will continue to change – as has been true forever.

To understand why the Fellowship is so important to so many people and will continue to be so requires recognizing the unique characteristics of a liberal religious community. I remember some of my mentors describing this: we are like a school because we offer educational opportunities, we are like a hospital because we offer care and support for healing, we are like club because we offer social stimulation and connection, we are like a charity because we do charitable works (we call it justice work now.) But we are not merely any of these: not a school, or hospital or club or charity. We are a religious community. First and foremost we are a worshiping community; worship is at the heart of our congregational life.

I know – the terminology can be challenging. What do we mean by worship? It’s easy to get hung up there. What’s much more important than the word is the act, or acts of worship. Here’s a way to think about it: to join with others around a commitment to values in order to support one another in living up to those values. To not participate regularly in worship is to miss some very important things. For example, to not be present in a Sunday service is to not enter into the shared effort of support for others, especially for dealing with hard things. The courage it takes for many of us to name our fears and troubles is made possible, is called forth, by the compassionate listening presence of others. And to be present in that process is to be part of bringing forth truth and working to understand more of it. To be part of worship is to be part of considering life and living, together, including the parts that words cannot express.

The religious life is not merely an intellectual exercise, not limited to discussion of religious, theological or political ideas. The religious community is more than a club or a school or a shared project of justice-making. Religious life, and especially shared worship, are practices which turn us ever closer to living in right relations. Both depend on learning more about the truths of our own minds and thoughts, more about the truths of our relatedness to all others, more about the truths of how we are part of Life. To be part of this religious life is a choice, which is offered to us daily, weekly, and more. May we choose to be present, intentional and committed, that our lives may be blessings to each other.

Between Us, 2/2/2024

When I answered the call to ministry here at the Fellowship in 2013, the letter of call which became the Letter of Agreement between minister and congregation included this as its second point:

1.2 “Anti-Oppression Awareness
This congregation accepts its responsibility to continue to offer its members and minister(s) opportunities to increase their ability to function in a multiracial, multiethnic capacity and to address the systemic nature of oppression within Unitarian Universalism. On-going opportunities for growth and reflection will be offered to ensure the success of the professional ministry and will be scheduled in consultation with the Committee on Ministry.”

Having most recently served a congregation in Michigan which had increased its commitments to understanding and addressing systemic racism, I was very happy to move to a congregation which shared that awareness and commitment. Part of my own work to understand systemic racism had begun very early in my career, when I made a commitment to myself to undertake an annual study of the works of and about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (I’ve now been engaging in this study for nearly 25 years).

Here at the Fellowship, my commitments have only increased, as have those of the Board and many members of the congregation. Now, Black History Month is part of my own “liturgical year”; I set a learning goal during this month each year. This practice has influenced how I learn and study throughout the year. I think that 85-90% of what I read is related to the study of systemic racism and other forms of bigotry. I read predominantly non-white authors, in a wide variety of genres – mostly because I realize that my own perspectives, based on my own experiences in life, are still very limited.

Several years ago, soon after the strong emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, I invited everyone in the congregation to join me. “If you are White like I am, read something – anything,” I said, “that will begin to broaden and deepen your understanding of the nature of systemic racism. Many of you did, and we have been engaged in communal learning and discussion ever since.

This year, this Black History Month, I offer the same encouragement. If you have never made a commitment to learning about Black History, I invite you to begin. In case it might help, here are some of the books I’ve read in the last couple of years, which I highly recommend.

“We Were Eight Years in Power” – Ta-Nehisi Coates
“How the Word Is Passed “ – Clint Smith
“The Radical King” – Cornel West, Editor
“Homegoing”, and “Transcendent Kingdom” – Yaa Gyasi
“The Book of Delights,” “The Book of More Delights,” and “Inciting Joy” – Ross Gay
“Fortune: How Race Broke My Family and the World – and How to Repair It All” – Lisa Sharon Harper
“Remnants: A Memoir of Spirit, Activism and Mothering” – Rachel Elizabeth Harding

Daily Practice: A Weekly Reminder, 1/21/2024

Things don’t always go as planned.  Right?  Life is always going in its own ways, which are bigger, wider and more complicated than we understand.  And yet we still, constantly, expect something different. Something expectable.  As if our own expectations are the measure and priority of Life.  My goodness, the self-centeredness of the ego is incredible!

I’ve been studying recently with a Zen teacher, and have been reminded that one of the most important of daily spiritual practices is to allow what is real to be present.  To allow.  Snow and ice are perhaps easy examples – we can see and feel and touch them, and so it’s not hard to be convinced that they are real. (And that we must dress accordingly, move (or not) accordingly).

Yet even with awareness of their realness, we can find ourselves negotiating with that realness, trying to tailor it to our expectations – that the snow and ice should come and go quickly, for example. 

One of the best ways to soften expectations – perhaps even to set them aside for a while and begin to understand their unnecessary urgency – is to allow ourselves to become still.  If we can quiet our bodies enough, becoming aware of the breath as it comes and goes, the mind can follow and take a break from its constant organizing, planning, worrying, expecting.  This doesn’t happen immediately – it takes time – which is what daily practice is for. 

Here in the Fellowship, we have religious ideals and commitments – to the freedom to be safe and to thrive, to justice, to continual learning as a way to become more compassionate, more loving.  None of these can be accomplished through the strategic machinations of the mind, nor merely through expectations.  All involve greater understanding of what is real – within us, between us and around us, all of which take practice.  In the week ahead, may we allow ourselves more time for stillness, for the quieting of body and mind, for allowing the way things are to become more clear.  May we help each other in this practice!