Saturday, February 27, 2010

spiritual Practice day 27

Today I meditated to the background noise of falling rain. There is such a powerful comfort to that noise. I think it is related to the awareness that we are, most of us I should say, we are inside and safe and dry. It takes a rainstorm to recognize the comforts of a warm dry home. So today my meditation was an exercise simply in holding gratitude for all the very simple good things in my life. There was no guilt attached, but simple gratitude for the many gifts of a safe home, a steady job, a refrigerator full of food, loving support of family and friends. It's unfortunate that it takes a moment of sitting down and concentrating to realize how gifted our lives are. But it's a very powerful thing to sit with.

Friday, February 26, 2010

"A Community of Covenant"

Reading - 1 Corinthians 13:10 (NRSV)

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends.

“A Community of Covenant”

I hear that this congregation has been talking a lot about covenant lately. More and more congregations across the country are bringing the idea of covenant back into how they operate as a community. It is a wonderful revival for our tradition. This agreement to stick together in the face of difference is after all what makes Unitarian Universalism unique. I believe that covenant is a core of who we are as a tradition. In the absence of a creed, a common belief to which we all subscribe, covenant is what bonds Unitarian Universalist congregations as communities.
That line comes almost directly out of my elevator speech. That is a speech you should have handy to explain Unitarian Universalism to a stranger in the time it takes to ride an elevator. My speech starts with explaining the words “Unitarian” and “Universalist.” Then I always mention that we are a covenantal rather than a creedal tradition. We are a very different kind of religious organization because it is not a set of shared beliefs that brings us together, but a commitment to be in community. We commit to supporting one another as we each search for what brings truth and meaning to each of our lives. You’re welcome to borrow this for your own elevator opportunities.
Today’s sermon will explore just what a covenant is. It is a sort of relationship, similar to some of the relationships that most of us already have in our lives. As I talk about covenants, it may be helpful for you to keep in mind your most deeply help two or three commitments. They may be to your partner or your children, or even a career or long time friend. Just keep these relationships in the back of your mind for now.
This idea of covenant, or freely joining a community sounds somewhat liberal and modern. In many ways it is. We freely join organizations as individuals, and in so doing, we commit to following a few rules. It depends on the free and conscious choice of the individual, a very modern concept. But like so many building blocks of modern thought, the idea of covenant is actually quite old. It is the root of the Hebrew Bible and Jewish theology as I understand it. It should be no surprise then that solid advice about covenant comes to us from the Bible.
I’m sure many of you recognized the reading we heard moments ago. No, no one is getting married here today. That reading from 1 Corinthians is perhaps the most overused wedding reading ever. You may even have potions of it memorized. The real kicker is that this great New Testament passage was never intended for weddings. In fact 1 Corinthians 13 has nothing to do with romantic love at all. Like most of Paul’s writing, 1 Corinthians is an epistle or a letter. It’s a letter to an early Christian congregation that found it difficult to come together across class lines, a congregation where some thought they are more important than others, where some talked more than others. It was a congregation that cared deeply about its mission but finds a challenge in being together in community. Does that sounds familiar to anyone?
We don’t hear from the Bible much in our UU churches here on the West Coast. But as I was thinking about the idea of covenant, the best advice I could find was in Paul’s Epistles in the New Testament. Over and over Paul tells different congregations to do their best to get along. He always mentions love and encourages them to focus on their highest ideals. Sure there is some specific problem shooting that he offers, but that is always underscored with a focus on love and faith. After all, what are we as a church if we don’t have love. He was trying to get them to think about why they came together in religious community. Why they made this promise.
I want to take a moment to talk about the traditional use of covenant and the way it is understood in the Bible. Before embracing an idea and claiming it as the foundation of contemporary Unitarian Universalism, it’s worth understanding covenant in a historical context.
We often think of a covenant like a contract, and they are similar. But, in the Biblical use, covenant differs from a contract in three important ways. First, a covenant has no termination date, whereas a contract usually does. The initial covenant, between the Israelites and God was a sort of metaphysical statement. It was an understanding that there exists one God in the universe, and that the Hebrew people would be in relationship with that God for eternity. We rarely talk about FOREVER anymore.
Later, when covenant was used to talk about membership in congregational churches, it meant that those entering a covenant or joining a congregation were doing so for the foreseeable future. As we are much more mobile today, the foreseeable future may be only a few years. Who knows when a career change or retirement may take us half way across the country? In the fifteenth century, when Puritan joined a congregation, they did so for the rest of their life, and probably the next couple of generations.
The second way that a covenant is different from a contract is that a covenant applies to the whole of a person, whereas a contract involves only a part, especially a skill, possessed by a person. For example one may contract to have a house built. However, in a marriage, two people make a covenant with each other, and perhaps with God. They commit their whole selves to each other. While the identity of the individual persists, even prevails over the institution, covenants are concerned with an entire person, not parts of a person, or moments of their lives.
The third and perhaps most significant difference between a covenant and a contract is accountability. Contracts exist as a sort of quid pro quo. You do X for me and I’ll do Y for you. But you have to do X, or I won’t do Y. Covenants are very different in that they assume best intentions. Each party of a covenant assumes that the intentions of the other are good, that he or she is doing their best. The breach of the covenant by one party does not automatically nullify the other party’s obligation.
This does not mean that anything goes. While covenants do enjoin us to be flexible, they do not invite disrespect or repeated denial of the covenant. Just as occasionally marriages find a natural end, a time when it is best for both parties to move in different directions, so too covenants can, and sometimes should be ended.
This covenant stuff is serious business. We have an obligation to offer profound flexibility and also an obligation to preserve community in the face of occasionally unhealthy relationship. This sounds burdensome.
“You mean I have to follow through even if others don’t. I have to be flexible and take into account what is best for the community. And I have to do this with people I don’t necessarily agree with?”
Yes, that’s exactly what a covenant is. But strangely, the point is covenants are not about burden or obligation. They are about compulsion. The best example of this sort of motivation, misunderstood as it is, is the covenant between the Israelites or modern Jewish people and their God. We know that there are a great many rules that our Jewish brothers and sisters live by. Some of them may seem antiquated and harsh to us as outsiders. It is difficult to understand why God would require the people follow such strict rules. But that is the point of misunderstanding. Jewish people do not follow these rules out of obligation, because they have to. They follow these sacred rules because they feel compelled to by their love of God. They are compelled to joyfully uphold a covenant, even when life is difficult.
So covenant is Biblical, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it has a bearing on modern Unitarian Universalism. There are some far more distinct historical links to covenanting for Unitarian Universalism here in the United States.
If you can imagine North America in the mid 1600s with colonial governments and small religious groups popping up all over the place. There were some orderly Anglican churches, but also a slough of small Puritan and Congregational churches. Each had their own slightly different theology and way of governing themselves. In 1648 the government of Mass. called for some sense of order amongst these churches. As a response, the Cambridge Platform was writing.
This document, the Cambridge Platform became the blue print for congregational polity that we still largely follow today. It included the right of each parish to call its own minister, to control its own property and funds, and to determine criteria for church membership.
Outside of the strictures of patriarchal religious institutions, these new American religious communities used covenants as a simple document for members to agree on how they would treat each other. They were written and signed by all the members of each congregation and they reflected the simple promises that members made to one another and to God. What I want to point out here is that the covenant was understood consistently as a promise involving God. Like the Biblical notion of covenant, members of the Puritan churches committed themselves to one another, but God was the foundation of that commitment.
It is precarious to talk much about Unitarian Universalist history because the theology seems so removed from who we are as a tradition today. Some of us are comfortable with invoking God in our promises to one another. But just as many of us have no understanding or interest in recognizing God, much less grounding our commitments in God. Our beliefs today are just to varied to be summed up with the “G word”, and that’s okay.
That’s because the rest of Unitarian Universalist history, the portion most obviously produced the congregations we know today, is, a continually widening search for truth and meaning. Starting with Transcendentalism, we have accepted broader and broader sources of truth and wisdom. This ever-expanding theological spectrum has made us who we are. We maintain vastly different beliefs and share a religious community. It’s quite an odd project if you think about it. What we end up with is Unitarian Universalism as I described in my elevator speech. We are a covenantal, rather than a creedal religious tradition.
But as we heard in the historical context, covenant is not simply a promise or a contract between people. Historically a covenant is a promise that is based on a faith in and relationship with God. For some of us, bringing God into our relationship with church makes a lot of sense. For others of us, it simply doesn’t fit. I’m concerned that in a wonderful expansion of theological diversity, we have forgotten to deal with the “God” component of covenant.
But don’t fear. I believe we can work around this.
Earlier I asked you to keep in mind your top two or three commitments in life. Although you may not recognize them as such, these probably function sort of like covenants. They are commitments that involve your entire person and you keep them not out of obligation or because it’s profitable. You keep them because of something greater.
Perhaps we can rethink what it means to involve God in a covenant as our forbearers did. Think with me again about those top two commitments that you hold dear. They may be to your family, you children, or a career. What is the great loving compulsion that keeps you in these commitments. It is likely to be different for different people, but we each have something that drives our deepest commitment. You may not even be able to describe it; maybe you can feel it. But I want you to identify that thought or feeling that grounds your most profound relationships.
Now imagine with me what it might look like to infuse your relationship with this congregation with that same loving compulsion. What would it look like to reaffirm the role of God, or your highest ideals in your covenant with this faith-community.
Please don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean this sermon to be accusatory. For many of us our relationship with this church is founded clearly on our faith and our highest ideals. For others, and I suspect all of us fall into this category at one time or another, we are a part of this community as a part of a contract. We expect to get out of it as much or mare than we put into it. It’s a break from our real lives. It’s a religious home for now.
I just want to take a moment to imagine what it would look like, what it would feel like to reinfuse our covenants with our faith and our highest ideals. What would it feel like to be compelled by our faith to be here?
We throw the word covenant around like it is a simple agreement. This is a dangerous way to treat the primary thing that holds us together as a tradition. As a brief recap, a covenant involves a whole person for an undetermined length of time and is based not on obligation, but on compulsion, on love. Covenants are founded in faith or in our highest ideals. This founding of covenant in God or ideals depends on each person, and may be different for each person, but it cannot be forgotten as the foundation of covenant.
If we are a covenantal rather than a creedal tradition, it is time to reexamine our covenants and where they are grounded.
-Amen and Blessed Be-
©Kent Doss 2008

Thursday, February 25, 2010

spiritual Practice day 25

I meditated later than usual today. In fact it was the last thing before blogging and bed. I found my mind was pretty peaceful. The only energy I could muster was concentrating on my body. Rather than focussing on the abstract visualization, third eye or what have you, I simply felt my still body for 10 minutes. It was a very different and very simple meditation.

Well I'm off to bed :)

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

spiritual Practice day 24

Letting Go!
Today's meditation began with a flood of thoughts and anxieties and frustrations about minutia. Eventually, I realized that my purpose of sitting was simple. I had to let go of all of that. For the majority of today's 20 minutes I simply let go of what entered my mind. First it was letting go of meaningless frustrations, then letting go of smaller stuff, then letting go of whatever thoughts came in to fill the void. It's remarkable how much our minds dislike a void I think. Anyway, I found that letting go was a long overdue, and wonderful meditation experience.

Monday, February 22, 2010

"Unitarian Universalist Prayer?"

The sermon text below is written as a guide for preaching, not a final text for publication. Please enjoy this sketch of my thoughts from this past Sunday's worship service.

Unitarian Universalist Prayer?

In my home-town of Tulsa, Oklahoma, there is a piece of art that is quite impressive. If I remember correctly, I think you can actually see it from the airplane when flying into town. It is at the entrance of Oral Roberts University. I keep saying it, but is actually they. To most people, they are simply known as “The praying Hands.” At 60 feet tall and weighing 30 tons, these praying hands were at one time, and I believe still are the largest cast bronze monument in the world.

From an artistic point of view, the sculpture is pretty, well tacky. From a theological point of view it is interesting. Most people assume that the two hands are hands from the same person. That is certainly what the sculpture appears to be about. But if you look closely, you notice that one hand is slightly different from the other, not in a left hand – right hand sort of way, but in a different person sort of way.

As is often the case with art, far more interesting than the object itself is the way that we observers interpret the sculpture. Like I said, the casual observer sees hands praying. This colossal statue has been an object of tremendous praise and derision from countless tourists and internet posts. It’s one of the few things that people can comment on about Tulsa, one of the few things they remember, and of course it comes with and opinion attached.

I know this because I did a pretty thorough internet search about them. There are tons of picture and tons of opinions. And I weeded through most of it to find what I was looking for. I had this idea in my head that I faintly recall about the hands being from different people. So I dug and I dug and I dug, until I finally found my answer. It was in a 1981 issue of “Oklahoma Today” magazine. The story is actually about the artist who created the sculpture but includes a little bit of detail behind the initial concept.

Oral Roberts said, “The Hands represent the hand of a physician using the natural forces of God’s earth and the hand of the prayer partner offering the prayer of faith.” The right hand represents the power of prayer and the left, medical skill. What a tremendously different sculpture than those who love it or hate it. Countless Tulsan’s see it as an eye sore in their city, without even bothering to understand it’s purpose.

How often do we interpret prayer, or other peoples religious practices the same way? How often to we take what we see at face value and ridicule it, without taking the time to learn about the underlying concept?

The fact is prayer is a multifaceted experience. It means a great many different things to different faith communities. And as Unitarian Universalists, our practices are just about as diverse as our theological beliefs. I have heard UUs practicing prayer, meditation, crystals, calling on Pagan Gods, Goddesses, and spirits, yoga, guided imagery, energy healing, visiting sites known to be of tremendous spiritual power. You name it, and Unitarian Universalists have done it. Or not done it. The other very important piece of this story for UU’s is that for some people, for some of you, prayer is not something you participate in. That’s just another piece of our diversity. If you believe there is not God or sense of the divine, then it doesn’t make much sense to pray to a void. That makes sense to me.

Because it is rooted in our personal beliefs, prayer is a deeply personal thing. So personal that I think often we don’t know what our closest friends and family members participate in. We can know their deepest strangest secrets, but prayer is often not on the list of topics up for discussion.

Well I’d like to break that taboo for just a moment today. For just literally a couple of minutes, I would like you to turn to the person seated next to you, and answer these two questions. Do you pray? What does that mean to you? Of course no one if forcing you to answer these questions, but I invite you to push yourself a little. Pick one person seated next to you, and both of you answer the questions, do you pray? And What does that mean for you?

I hope that that experience was both liberating and informative. I know there were some surprises out there, and I thank you for sharing with one another.

As I said before, and hopefully as you have discovered in that quick chat. There are all sorts of prayers. I want to talk about a few of those different types of prayer.

First of all, there is a fascinating difference between traditions for the way an individual is supposed to pray. In some traditions, like Islam and Catholicism, prayers are a recitation of something that one has memorized. The rosary is the best example I can think of this sort of prayer. It’s a sort of script that one follows in communication with the divine.
That’s a pretty sharp contrast from Protestant Christian traditions for whom prayer flows freely from the heart. I’m betting that your conversation from early was influence by this split, between prayer as a recitation of a script and extemporaneous conversation with the divine.
Both scripted prayer and extemporaneous prayer have a lot to offer, and people tend to stick with one format or the other, depending on the way they are first exposed to prayer.
I have heard from Unitarians several times that they come into a challenge when the memorized prayer that used to bring them comfort, no longer matches their belief. That is after all the primary benefit of those scripted prayers. You know them by heart and they bring comfort. But if the words don’t match what you believe in your heart, there can be major conflict there.
One of the key things I want to be clear about today is that your prayer life exists to serve you, not so that you can live up to a script that someone else deems appropriate. If there are portions of a prayer that you no longer like, CHANGE IT. There is no reason to recite things that you don’t believe. And if you can’t change a portion of the traditional prayer that brings you comfort, then find a new one. I am more than willing to help if you would like. There are some amazing prayers in our hymnal and countless resources printed by the UUA. Look at our library, or you are welcome to have access to my collection of materials.

But not all prayer is done alone. Much of it is done with a wider community. We do this every Sunday here at church with a prayer or a meditation. For obvious reasons this is the most theologically loaded moment of our worship services. I know the prayer is not going to please everyone, but I do my best to provide a balance. You may notice that the prayer or meditation is usually somewhat balanced with the sermon. That is to say, if I’m doing a lot of heavy theology and talk of God in the sermon, then we will have a meditation with minimal theological detail. However, if the sermon has been had less of an explicitly religious focus, then I will choose a prayer that is addressed to God and resembles a more traditional prayer. As I said before, we have a tremendously wide variety of belief and practice. And we try to build our community by supporting one another by recognizing a range of types of prayer and meditation on Sunday mornings.
I thank you for trusting me, and each other with this delicate balance. It can be tough to know that you would never say those words, but know that they are meaningful to someone else in our community. Sitting with that uneasiness until your turn and words that are meaningful to you are said is really what makes our church possible. It’s a tremendous trust that I will probably talk more about next week. But for now, thank you for making our diversity possible

So we pray together in our Fellowship, but sometimes we are expected to participate in prayer with people in other places, outside of houses of worship. It is a strange phenomenon in our country, the public expression of faith, public prayer. Public prayer is one of many things in life where my intellect doesn’t match my emotional experience. I am a minister, a person who has dedicated my professional life, and a good deal of my personal life to religion, and still public prayer makes me flinch. I think the big issue is about having a captive audience. If people have come to an event for a purpose other than prayer, then they should not be expected to join in, as if everyone believes the same way. Of course religious institutions should practice their faith freely, but expecting everyone to share that religious sentiment in a public venue is, well naïve at best, and manipulative at its worst. I know that is a sore spot for many UU’s and rightfully so.

And for some people it does not make sense to pray at all, ever. Some people, some of us believe that there is no God and that the exercise of communicating with a void makes no sense to you. That is certainly an important part of the Unitarian Universalist community.
There is something very important to be said about the atheists in our midst, both for them to hear, and for everyone else to hear. Whether you call it religious or not, your commitment to live out your values in this world is magnificent and holy and sacred and profound and inspiring. Living out your highest values is everything that anyone can say about the power of faith. Simply put, it is good, and it is worthy.
Belief in God, or participating in prayer doesn’t validate anyone’s place in this community. The bravery to live out of our highest ideals and our faith, the bravery to reach out and make our world a better place, that is what we are most centrally about. And that is what we do.

Too often we create a false dichotomy between prayer and action. These two foundational elements go hand in hand. This is not an either /or thing, either we pray or we act. The choice is not one or the other for most of us. It’s a matter of engaging both prayer and action. No one can act 24 hours a day. It simply isn’t physically possible, and sometimes we the opportunity to act isn’t in front of us. Sometimes we face obstacles in life that no amount of action will help, so we meditation, or we pray. We send out our good thoughts and feelings to the universe and we hope for the best.

It is true that some religious traditions place prayer over action, but we do not. We are Unitarian Universalists. I am concerned with the way we pray, not the rest of the world. The reading explains this point very well. Actually the reading that we did earlier is pretty much a summary of everything I had hoped to say in this sermon.

Throughout time and still today religious life has been of tremendous support to communities as they make meaning out of their lives. Religion helps us to face the challenges and uncertainty of life, and it helps us to celebrate the beautiful gifts of this world. Personal prayer is a big part of that.
The merits of prayer are not about the effectiveness of healing a patient. There are countless studies coming from both sides that try to prove or disprove the power of prayer. Most of these studies seem to neglect the effect of prayer on the people doing it. It was mentioned last week, that Cal Hullihen first came to church because people who go to church live longer. Well it may sound funny, but it’s true. People who engage their concept of the divine, or their highest values to seriously bring meaning into their lives do live longer. Prayer is good for the people who do it. Living out our values in community is good for people. In fact it’s difficult for me to think of any other way of being in the world.

I want to close by simply saying, I invite you to let your life be your prayer. Let the words that you speak and the actions that you take be a reflection of your hopes for the world. Let your heart be open every day, at every encounter to the divine that rests in the world. Live your prayer. That is the highest calling in religion. Let your life be your prayer.


spiritual Practice day 22

This morning I sat and meditated for twenty minutes. My discipline was not such much in deep meditation, but in keep myself seated and not bolting to the calendar to jot down everything that flooded into my mind. Wow what an endless flow of interruption. I did manage to sit for the time allotted. I think some days that is the best that we can do. To simply sit still in a quiet place, even if we aren't engaging in profound spiritual experience is an important discipline. Take time for self, even if that time is not "productive" is deeply important.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

spiritual Practice day 20

I'm sorry I haven't posted in a couple of days. I forgot to meditate a couple of days in a row so today's meditation was 30 minutes. While it was totally a mistake, it has been helpful to explore the difference between regular practice for short periods, and a more sporadic longer meditation. While it would be more convenient to do every few days, I really do think that short daily meditation has a much greater benefit. I guess it is like any practice that way. A little bit every day is ideal.
Today as I used my breathing to center, I was again struck by the sense of life and existence as a flow. This is especially helpful for Buddhist thought where one of the primary goals is to move from a static sense of a defined self. Recognizing the flow of life through my breath was a helpful was to tap into the flow of existence, that my being depends on the relationships with countless other beings, and the lines where they stop and I begin is quite fuzzy.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Spiritual Practice day 17

Today's meditation was focussed on a sense of openness. I find so often that I am pushing thoughts out of my mind. But today embracing a sense of openness I was able to clear my mind, without the agitation and harshness of pushing thoughts away. I also appreciated that a sense of openness is multifaceted. I was able to focus on a sense of openness in the abstract. I was able to think of openness in terms of my mind, and my heart. Even openness in my body was helpful as I focussed on deep breathing.

I feel like I am learning in the practice. Every day I have a different small insight. I notice that I have stopped focussing on the practice itself, what it means to sit down, take time out, and meditation, and more in the experience of meditation, the insights gained. Although there aren't many readers of this blog I'm deeply happy that I have used to to cultivate my spiritual practice in this way.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

spiritual Practice day 16

Maybe I don't need an answer. Today ended up being a very nice meditation. I sat down and had in mind what will I blog about. What will I come to today. I quickly realized that that is so NOT the point of meditation. After accepting that I didn't need to come up with something, or be filled up with some insight, I was able to sit comfortable with a sense of openness. There was limited expectation, just openness to what the moment had to offer. Today was a nice meditation. I am finding is hard to sit down with the expectation of writing something, and sitting with no expectation. We'll see how that goes. I just have to remember that the power, and the purpose of meditation is not in the answer, but in the process.

Monday, February 15, 2010

spiritual Practice day 15

I had major monkey mind tonight. Squeezing in your meditation between countless emails and a looming conference call is not a wide idea. Actaully, I am glad that I meditated, it was just not the ideal time to do it. And I do feel a little more centered now, even though the meditation itself seemed scattered.
I guess the essential part of any practice is that we do and, and try to be mindful while we are doing it. It's not always possible to have the perfect moment, but at least doing it is a sign of commitment, a sign to yourself of what is important.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Sermon - Standing on the Side of Love 2010

Standing on the Side of Love 2010
Yes, this is yet another Sunday dealing with social justice. I regularly speak about justice from this pulpit. On average, probably one worship service each month is dedicated to social justice, either a cause of justice in general. And Unitarian Universalist ministers across the country do the same. Social Justice is probably the easiest and most direct way to connect with a UU congregation. It’s an easy sermon. But this week I want to aim a little higher; I want to make a commitment to action.
While we sing “Standing on the Side of Love” and talk about it, I also want us to actually stand, to physically do something to express our love for the world. I’m reminded of Abby Alderman. How many of you know Abby? She’s an older member of our congregation who can’t make it to worship any more. She is a woman of strong opinions, but she also acts on them. One of her biggest concerns is supporting our military troops and the work of the USO. One of my favorite images of a Unitarian Universalist in action was Abby Alderman collection signatures and donations for the USO here, with a clip-board attached to the front of her walker while she carried an oxygen tank. That is standing on the side of love. That is standing for what you believe in, not just talking about it, but doing something about it.
I’m proud of the impact that our little congregation has on the world. We do provide meals at the homeless shelter twice each month. That’s a hot dinner for sixty people. It’s no small effort. I am so proud of that. We also raised a ton of money for Haiti relief in one Sunday morning. We have done a lot here, and we’re going to keep on changing the world one week at a time. And we are going to do it in the name of love. Not anger or fear, or urgency or guilt, but love.
As I said, I’m going to aim a little higher with this sermon, and the ones in the future. I am going to try, every time I speak of justice here, to offer some real opportunity for action. This week it’s small, but it is something. I have printed some letters for you to sign about political issues that are of importance to us as Unitarian Universalists. You just need to add your personal message, and sign it. We will take care of the mailing the letters. This is very small action, but I promise, I will do my best to not only talk about justice here, but to bring you opportunities to create justice.
Today, on Valentine’s day, I challenge each of us to express the love that is in our hearts. Whether that is romantic love, or love for your friends and family, or love for this little world that we share. Get it out, let it fly.
Because we need it. Too much of our public discourse is driven not by love, but by fear. Day after day we read newspaper articles that pit one team against another, as if the goal of politics and government was competition, rather than serving the people. This is not football, this is our government we are talking about, the institution that educates our children and provides for our seniors. It is the institution that safeguards our food and transportation. And what we hear, is who beat who in the latest battle.
Too much of the public discourse is driven not by love, but by fear and competition, which usually scapegoats particular people and deems them somehow less than human. Now is easy to think that we stand on the side of love, because of course what we care about is right, I mean correct. But to actually stand on the side of love, to bring love and compassion to the forefront of our conversations is a much more demanding task. Partly because that football game we call politics is fun to watch. And because we get so angry at those other people. You know, the ones who just don’t understand. The ones who are mean and want to make money off of us. Those people who don’t care about children or the elderly. Those war mongers. Those bigots.
I think you get the point. It’s easy to go down that road when we care passionately about something. But scapegoating and assuming that our adversaries are mean-spirited, rather than misinformed is not standing on the side of love. And it’s not helpful.
For one, when we scapegoat someone, we don’t take them seriously and we don’t understand them. Absolutely no progress is possible when we don’t make an honest attempt to understand the hearts and minds of the people we engage with.
And second and more importantly, standing on the side of love is more than good strategy, it is who we are as a religious community. We believe in the inherent good and dignity of every person. We believe, even when it is hard, that people act out of good intentions and not malice. We believe that just becomes someone is ill informed or disagrees with us, that does not make them any less of a person, or any less worthy of dignity.
My goal, our goal as Unitarian Universalists is to change the public discourse, change the focus from hatred to love. It is a huge goal. Ambitios, maybe even naïve. But I refuse to accept the alternative. I refuse to accept that solving problems looks like a verbal boxing match, or that our fellow human beings are either with us or against us.

Standing on the Side of Love is not just a song, or the theme of my sermon, but it’s also a national campaign sponsored by the UUA. The Standing on the Side of Love campaign seeks to harness the power of love to stop oppression, exclusion, and violence. That’s it, it is a simple and beautiful mission, and something to grab onto. The campaign seeks to harness the power of love to stop oppression, exclusion, and violence.

It addresses marriage equality, immigration rights, healthcare reform, environmental justice and other issues that touch the hearts of Unitarian Universalists. It is a very diverse campaign.
But Standing on the Side of Love is not just about standing with picket signs. Yes the UUA has sponsored a public relations campaign to engage in political issues. But standing on the side of love is also a much more subtle, much more common experience. It’s about standing up for what we believe in, and standing face to face with our friends and family. It is simply about expressing our love, whether that is in a political format, or a personal one.

It is worth taking the moment to say, I care about you, I love you, because believe it or not, those opportunities don’t last forever. You may know I have been teaching an adult religious education class on death and dying, and it has been an amazing gift to spend time with this group.
Their bravery and candidness about their age and limited time before death is pretty striking. As we went around the class to check in, to see how everyone was doing someone mentioned getting up that morning, counting ten fingers and ten toes, and everything functioning, it was a good day. Other times I have asked people how they are. The response is often, “well I got up this morning.” Meaning any day you get up in the morning is a good day.
Of courser humor is a helpful way to deal with the reality, but these old sages in the class, are on to something Those gathered know that life is a gift, not a given. They know that the opportunities to express love are not limitless, in fact they are numbered, for all of us.

We don’t have the fear of fire and brimstone, punishment of Hell to motivate us as Unitarian Universalists. We have the tremendous overwhelming glorious gift of life, and all the opportunities that it presents. It is a gift with a time ticking away, a gift that we are called to use deeply, in every moment possible, while we can. If anything is worthy of invoking the Unitarian Universalist version of existential guilt, it is this, the call to manifest our love in the world. The call to stand on the side of love. Because who knows how long that opportunity will last.

How many times have I passed up the opportunity to say “I love you?” How many times have you chosen not to tell someone how deeply you care about them? I’m betting it is a lot, because I know I do it all the time. Not because I’m fickle or mean. But because those words hold so much power, they can be scary.
The missed opportunities for expressing our love are overwhelming if you think about it. Years and years of missed “I love you”s, and sincere moments. But there’s only one response. We better start now to make up for them now.

For years there was a metaphor that a friend and I shared. It was about dealing with you emotions and how much to share with the wider world. You see emotions are sort of like having a nice set of china. How much you use them is an important decision. You don’t want to leave them in the china cabinet to collect dust and just sit there where no one can enjoy them. But you also don’t want to pull them out every day for your morning cereal or you reheated leftovers in front of the T.V. If you do that, they are likely to get broken and over time, you won’t be able to enjoy them any more because you will be missing pieces.
Our feelings work much the same way. They are valuable, and if you pull them out at every occasion for every person, they are likely to get damaged. But you also don’t want to keep them hidden away from the world. Because they are no good in hiding.

For a long time that metaphor made sense to me. However the more I think about it, the more I realize that our feelings, especially the feelings of love and compassion are not finite things. They are not like dishes that, once broken can never be restored. In fact quite the opposite is true. The more we pull our hearts down from the shelf, the more we share out love openly and freely with the world, the more we have to give the next day. There is plenty of love, and plenty more when you have spread what you have. There is no reason to hold back.

There is a song from Fiddler on the Roof called “Do you Love Me.” Of course it is in the midst of a musical, and it is a little over dramatic, but the song is actually heartbreaking. It’s a dialog between Tevye and his wife Golde.

(Tevye) Do you love me?
Do I what?

Do you love me?

Do I love you?
With our daughters getting married
And this trouble in the town
You're upset, you're worn out
Go inside, go lie down!
Maybe it's indigestion

"Golde I'm asking you a question..."

Do you love me?

You're a fool

"I know..."

But do you love me?

Do I love you? 
For twenty-five years I've washed your clothes
Cooked your meals, cleaned your house
Given you children, milked the cows
After twenty-five years, why talk about love right now?

Golde, The first time I met you 
Was on our wedding day
I was scared

I was shy

I was nervous

So was I

But my father and my mother
Said we'd learn to love each other
And now I'm asking, Golde
Do you love me?

I'm your wife

"I know..."
But do you love me?

Do I love him?
For twenty-five years I've lived with him
Fought him, starved with him
Twenty-five years my bed is his
If that's not love, what is?

Then you love me?

I suppose I do

And I suppose I love you too

I don’t know about you, but something about this song melts me. It’s both a beautiful expression of love, but also such a tragic statement about the inability of some people to express it. For twenty-five years they built a life together, and still the sincere question can be asked, “Do you love me?”
Why does this sound all too plausible? Why does this sound like it is a conversation that could happen here in Orange County in 2010, rather than in the arranged marriages of 1905 Russia, where this musical was set.
Standing on the Side of Love means expressing our love, in actions, and in words. The Three little words, I love you, are so powerful. They are words too often denied even within families, especially within families. Perhaps it is the power that they contain that makes them scary, but there is no replacement for both acting out our love, and speaking our love. “I love you” let it be a refrain in every household.

One of the centuries leading Unitarian Univeralist ministers, Forrest Church knew the power and importance of those words. Unfortunately he died just last year. He was the minister at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in New York City, a congregation that he grew into a great institution. At some point in his service of that church, he decided to end the worship services, every worship service with the words “I love you.”
He did it for a few different reasons. One was that every person needs to hear these simple and direct words. There is no replacement for hearing from another human being that you are loved. There is no replacement for those words, I love you. And the sad fact is some people aren’t offered that gift very often.
I intend to invoke these powerful words too. Not just to copy a successful ministry, but to embrace what I think is a deep and powerful truth. Every person needs to know that they are loved.
It is the simplest and strongest blessing I can offer as I send you out into the world after out time together.

Today, especially here in idyllic Laguna Beach, people will celebrate Valentines day. People will go out of our way, sometime agonizing over the perfect way to say it, the perfect gift or romantic moment. This year, I challenge you to refocus that energy in a broader perspective.

Let your love come out into the world. We are called to express our love in our homes, in our daily encounters, in our church, in our work to make the world a better place. Don’t let your love waste away inside. Stand on the side of love.
Make no mistake, you stand for something, every person stands for something whether they want to or not. You can either let the world put a label on you, or you can choose for yourself what you stand for. What will it be? I humble suggest that you choose to stand for love.


spiritual Practice day 14

Sorry I missed you all, and my practice yesterday. I did spend twice as long meditating today and it was very nice. I found myself meditating on the idea of being a container. I have recently found a fascination with the Buddhist begging bowl. We trust that it will be filled by our friends and neighbors, or by the universe, so that we are sustained, and then can pour out our offering for the world around us.
Sometimes our bowls are full to brimming over with spirit, sometimes only a couple of drops rest at the bottom, but so much of faith and spiritual practice is a trust in the flow. Just as I offer myself and my intentions to the world, so will my container, my spirit be refilled by the universe. After a big day a church, that flow is about all I can get my mind and heart around, but it's certainly there.
I also had an interesting experience in this meditation. As some point I drifted into an old and comfortable style of prayer, most likely because I was tired. It was more conversational prayer with God, mostly prayer of gratitude. But I caught myself very quickly for two different reasons. One being that that is sort of the antithesis of the style of meditation that I hope to engage. But also, this simple meditation of being a conduit for the goodness of creation is much more in line with my intellectual theology than that older conversational style. It was a really pleasant moment of recognizing my practice as both spiritually fulfilling and having intellectual integrity.
It has been a lovely day for meditation for me.

Friday, February 12, 2010

spiritual Practice day 12

I have been writing about expressing love all day i preparation for Sundays service. As I began my meditation, that is what I planned to focus on. However, I quickly realized that forcing a particular feeling is not really the goal. My goal in meditation is more to simply be present with whatever feelings come up. Of course one can learn from those feelings, which ones are productive, which ones do we cling onto in a harmful way. But sitting down with the intention of forcing a feeling rather than being fully myself in the moment seemed counter productive. I know that is all very abstract, but meditation pretty quickly moves into that realm.

I guess the goal of my spiritual practice in general and what I came more in touch with this evening is the power to sit with an emotions, not to choose one that you should have, but to simply sit with what is there, and feel it with compassion.

I also found it a little more difficult to stay focused this evening. I think it's because I"m a little tired but heading into a weekend that I look forward to. I guess the commitment is to sit and meditation for ten minutes, not to reach total concentration and enlightenment in those ten minutes.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

spiritual Practice day 11

This evening I found myself sinking into the night. I was absorbed by the sense of energy and peace that comes in the evenings. The coolness and the different sounds of nature. It's amazing how different the same space can feel at a different time of day. In my meditation I found comfort and energy in the darkness. What a wonderful combination, energetic comfort, relaxing into the power.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

spiritual Practice day 10

One of the sounds that I use for a timer for my meditation is of waves lapping the shore. After a very nice dinner and all the day's activities, I couldn't help but find myself mentally on the beach. It was actually really lovely.

I came to realize that the thing that I LOVE about going to the beach, is the recognized commitment that I am sitting here doing nothing... on purpose. And I am going to sit here and do nothing, and that's wonderful. It was just such a nice reminder of what a gift that we give ourselves when we set out committed time to sit still, and "do nothing." It was also a nice reminder to be easy on myself when meditating. We don't always have to have some wonderful insight or connection with the universe. Sometimes just sitting still is worth our time.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

spiritual Practice day 9

Compassion is my heart-preserver.
Kathy thank you for that wonderful word, heart-preserver. I have been holding an unnecessary and frankly unhelpful amount of anger toward a certain situation. However, in my thoughts and in my meditation practice today, I have been trying to invoke compassion. That is compassion in two senses. I hope to hold compassion for the person / situation that angers me, and understand that that situation arrises out of conflict and difficult circumstances. And, equally important, I try to sit with compassion for myself and my own feelings. Compassion has been my heart-preserver today and it made for some amazing meditation. I think the biggest part of what I noticed in my meditation is that compassion is mostly about being fully present to other people and ourselves. Being fully present, also the task of mindfulness and meditation. It's a great challenge, but somehow the notion of compassion has been a nice opening of the door for me.

What is your heart-preserver in the face of unhelpful anger?

Practice Makes Perfect (the story)

Practice Makes Perfect
By Linda Frost

Practice makes perfect
You’ve all heard that before
And what does it mean
You may ask.

Let me tell you a story
It may help you see
Why practice can be better
Than just make believe.

This is the story about Mona.
Who was bold and really quite sassy
For one considered such a young lassie.
She was quick and quite bright.
But practice, said she. I’d rather go play.
Who wants to practice on such a nice day?

Mona thought she could wing it
No matter the task or the sport.
I’ll simply fake it, she said with a pout.
And no one will ever find out.

She had a piano. All grand and divine.
But music. Oh dear. Mona couldn’t read a line.
You see – that might take practice and
Some of her time.

Mona wanted to swim
And could jump in with ease.
And then she sank with a croak.
Why? She still hadn’t learned
That practice makes perfect.
Mona never got around to practicing her stroke.

Mona refused to learn how to read
And math questions made her head spin.
She failed every test. She wouldn’t believe that practice might help.
And she never, ever gave it her best.

Now Mona was shy and round people quite slow
To say “Howdy and So Glad to Meet You.”
People thought she was stuck up, or snotty at best.
Social graces take practice – to do them with zest.
Dancing? She loved the fast beat
And the sway of the band. But dancing
Was fearful at best. The steps can take practice
So Mona instead - just sat down and pretended to rest.

Mona wanted to drive and bought a red car
But lessons she refused, don’t you see.
I’ll just turn it on and release this old brake
Then she drove it into a tree.

Mona invited some guests
To her home for a party
But she didn’t know how to cook.
I’ll just grab some of this,
And a big dab of that
And a sprinkle of those will be fine.

Mona didn’t believe
That practice makes perfect.
She let it all slide.
And all of her guests?
Well, they died.

Mona is old now and just sits still all day.
She never goes walking or attends any plays.
And why does she sit there with cobwebs around her?
Because moving takes practice.
Or else it soon goes away.

Mona’s story has come to an end.
And what have we learned from her tale?
If you want to do something with skill and delight.
Then dust off your skills and
practice, then practice some more.without fail.

Practice something every day
Because practice makes perfect don’t ja know.
And along the way - why you’ll get your mojo.

If not perfect, then better.
So dust off your shoes
And get moving and grooving
It’s called paying your dues.

Some make skills look easy.
Like no practice at all.
But I’ll tell you the secret to all their success.
They practice and practice until they’re the best
At whatever their passion, whatever the test.

So don’t be a Mona. Do practice each day.
And soon you’ll find out that practice will pay.
We’re here to support you, applaud you and cheer
Because practice makes perfect.
Have you all got that clear?

Monday, February 8, 2010

spiritual Practice day 8

You may notice that I skipped a day of meditation. I guess I was too busy talking about it in my sermon to sit down and do it. Just the kind of distraction that I hope to avoid.

To make up for my missed opportunity, I sat in meditation twice as long today. I found myself pretty thoroughly distracted today. Especially half way through my meditation, after the 10 minutes I usually do, I was anxious and had to open my eyes to look at the timer. I think it's because I tried to meditate in the middle of the day rather than near the end of the day.

Today my practice took me to a place of relaxation. I guess my meditation was most apparent in the sensation of full body relaxation. It's probably more noticeable in the middle of the day when I'm wound up, than in the afternoon or evening. Rather than any particular epiphanies or insights, it just felt really good. What a simple free and healthy treat you can give yourself. The gift of time. A chunk of time, even a small one set aside for yourself can feel like such and indulgence.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

"Practice Makes Perfect"

“Practice makes perfect,” they told me about piano, and basketball, and baseball, and multiplication tables, and reading, and swimming, and everything else I have ever pursued. Practice makes perfect.

Today we are going to talk about what it means to develop a practice, either a spiritual practice or any other kind. The entire month of February we are talking about spiritual practices of different sorts. But today, I am going to talk about practices in general. Whether it is pottery or basketball, meditation or horseback riding, most practices share a lot in common. And they are all good for us if we engage them with a degree of mindfulness.

There are a few keys to developing a practice that I’ll touch on today. The amount of effort that you put into it really influences what we get out. Getting started can be a challenge. And making that leap from a fun idea into a really ongoing practice takes a lot of follow through. But before I get into those details about practice, I would like to share a short story with you. It is a Buddhist story based on a passage in the Dhammapada, one of the sacred Buddhist texts.

This is the story of a very young monk named Pandita. In fact he was only seven years old. He was a very wise soul. His mother knew he was a special child when he was in her womb, and she therefore decided that she would grant whatever he asked. So when Pandita said at the age of seven that he wanted to go into the monastery, she and her husband agreed that it was okay with them.

So one day Pandita was out with his bowl collecting alms for the day. This is a daily piece of the life of a Buddhist monk, going door to do, collecting food donations that you have to eat for the day. And he was making these rounds with Sariputta, one of the Buddha’s two biggest followers. He was a very, very wise man.

As they were walking, Pandita noticed some farmers who were digging irrigation ditches. Pandita asked Sariputta, "Can water which has no consciousness be guided to wherever one wishes?" And the teacher replied, "Yes, it can be guided to wherever one wishes."

As they continued on their way, they next came upon some fletchers, men who make arrow. They were heating their arrows with fire and straightening them. Further on, they came across some carpenters cutting, sawing and planing timber to make it into things like cart-wheels.

Pandita pondered, "If water which is without consciousness can be guided to wherever one desires, if a crooked bamboo which is without consciousness can be crafted to fly in a straight line, and if timber which is without consciousness can be made into useful things, why shouldn’t I, having consciousness, be able to tame my own mind?”

At that moment Pandita knew he was on to something. He asked his wise teacher Sariputta if he might skip the alms rounds and return to the monastery to meditate. So Sapriputta agreed and took his begging bowl. Pandita return to the monestary and began meditating and achieved enlightenment before it was time for his evening meal. And thus he became enlightened at the age of seven.

As I mentioned the story is based on a short verse in the Buddhist sacred text, the Dhammapada. That verse goes like this:

Irrigators guide water,
Fletchers shape arrows
Carpenters fashion wood,
Sages tame themselves.

Isn’t that beautiful.

In the religious world, we might be inclined to say that of all of these things, sages taming themselves is the way, that of all these practices meditation is the highest road. Well that may be the argument for some religious folks. But I’m inclined to take this a little differently.

Yes, meditation and taming ourselves like sages is a great thing. But rather than diminishing our other practices, I think this story of the wise little monk isn’t a message that we all need to leave our daily lives and go join the monastery. I think it also points to the fact that cultivating a practice, any practice can help us develop as people, and can help us approach our religious lives with a little more purpose and structure.

“Practice makes perfect” can mean far more than a pithy grade-school saying. I honestly believe that cultivating a practice, any practice can help us at much more fundamental levels. Practice can guide us toward being better people.

It seems that no matter what we are practicing, the amount of effort that we put into it is key. Maybe it isn’t the amount of effort that I’m concerned about, but the amount of concentration, or force. Too much force and our practice becomes tense and exhausting, the thing that we once enjoyed is a burden. Too little focus and we drift into our usual routine, we lose track of the practice that we intended to do.

It’s an odd thing to talk about in the abstract, but it really is a key to any sort of practice. And it is a difficult thing to be aware of. But knowing just how much effort to put into it is really key to any type of practice.

I want to suggest that the amount of concentration that is most skillful to use, is actually pretty small, a light touch. It is just the amount of energy that is required for the present moment. Don’t worry about becoming a superstar, about losing the full forty pounds, or a fundamental change in your lifestyle. Just enjoy the practice in the present moment. One day, one hour, one minute at a time.

I have another story that perhaps some of you will relate to. It is about using just enough effort. I was not the most athletic kid growing up. Later I think part of that challenge was that my eye sight is terrible and I was not given prescription glasses until I had a pretty strong resentment for most sports that involved keeping my eye on a ball, a ball that in retrospect, I don’t think I could see very well.

So in my many attempts to learn different sports, there was this particular phenomenon that always frustrated me. You have probably had this experience as well when someone tries to teach you something. I remember it most keenly in baseball and golf, the sport that I resented the most.

Because getting the right stance was crucial for batting, or for playing golf, I remember all these details of keeping your eyes on the ball, keeping an elbow cocked at just the right angle. Feet had to exactly shoulder width apart. It was a virtual yoga pose under the summer sun.

And then they would tell me, now relax. As if I weren’t thinking of the ten things that I had just been told to do, or the bizarre position I had contorted my body in. “now relax,” they told me. It was infuriating at the time. I still have twinges of anger when I recall those unfortunate moments of my ineptitude at sports.

But now I find myself in the awkward position of telling you a very similar thing, but hopefully in a much more nuanced way. Relax into it. Whatever your practice is, it should be freeing, not oppressive. It should open your heart and your mind, not close you off from the world.

The kind of effort that builds a sustainable practice is really quite small. Just enough for the present moment, and then you do it again and again and again and again and again. Like using your breath to center a meditation practice, one breath at a time. Over time and repetition that energy builds, there is momentum. It is like a wheel, needs a little push to start and then just light taps to keep it going. After a while you don’t have to tap as hard or as often.

The energy of a practice is like a wheel spinning. The initial start of the wheel may take a bit of a shove, but once it is moving, once the practice has started, a light touch over and over again will build momentum. The wheel, the practice builds much of its own momentum until you don’t have to think about giving it that touch as often or as hard. Sure you still have to keep it going, but the effort required, the force required is actually quite small.

I want to talk a little bit about taking that fist step, the first shove of the wheel that I just spoke of. Many people will say it is the hardest step, and in many ways that is true. The first step is the hardest because it is a sort of leap of faith. “I can do this we tell ourselves. I can be the kind of person who does this. It is a leap of faith, but a leap of a particular sort. It’s a leap of trusting in our WILLINGNESS to try something, not trusting in our eventual success. It’s like sitting down at a piano for the first time. We know we are not going to play beautiful music but to play a single note. “Okay, I can do that.” That basic confidence is in your willingness, in the willingness to try, not to master the art. The first step comes not in a belief in ones ability to master, but a willingness to try.

It’s sort of like this mornings intergenerational story. At first glance it is a cute story about a child, or a little pig I guess, learning about working for money. But it’s not teaching him to be a little venture capitalist, that that money makes the world go round. This little story was about a little pig dreaming of what could be, and then settling into the world of what is, and living in the difference. Pig Pig learned to make a buck, but in the process he learned that he could be useful doing smaller projects. And that those smaller things were worth his time.

How many of us like Pig Pig dream of being a chef, rather than prepare a healthy home cooked meal, or want to build a house when we should really start with a bird-house. Pig Pig learned to take a dream and make meaningful work out of the smaller steps. He didn’t have to commit to being a racecar mechanic to wash the family car, or to being a bulldozer operator to clean up his room. He started with very small steps and a willingness to try.

There is one more piece of starting a practice that I want to talk about. It is fascinating, and seems very powerful. How many of you have heard the concept that it takes 30 days to create a habit? Gyms advertise this idea all the time. I have heeded the advice because it sounds logical, but I never really knew where it came from. It turns out that this is not just an advertising scheme to get you to join a gym. It is actually very reputable science. Recovery groups and therapeutic circles pretty widely recognize and work with the concept that it takes thirty days to create, or break a habit

And the idea grew out of one doctor’s discovery, not a psychotherapist, but a surgeon. The surgeon, Dr. Maxwell Maltz noticed that it took 21 days for amputees to cease feeling phantom sensations in the amputated limb. That’s to say it took 21 days for people who had had a limb removed to stop feeling sensations from the limb that was no longer there. Patients experience a full 21 days of feeling sensations from a body part that no longer have. Isn’t that fascinating. (Dr Maxwell Maltz wrote the bestseller Psycho-Cybernetics.)

That’s because their brains, everyone’s brain gets used to a certain type of sensation. The tiny electrical pulses in our brains fire over and over in the same path. And as your body experiences the same thing repeatedly, and your brain fires the same electrical pulses, it starts to build pathways to enhance that particular sensation. Brains produce neuroconnections and neuropathways by re experiencing the same thing over and over.

And, those same pathways can be changed if they receive different information consistently for 21 days in a row. SO the theory goes that to change a habit, to break an old one, or to create a new one, you have to keep it up for 21 consecutive days. You have to literally rearrange the habit of your brains pathways.

The research of the surgeon pointed to 21 days and many groups stick with that. But others, myself included tend to say a month. Just to be on the safe side, and because you may miss a day in your 21 day routine, why not shoot for a full month. It takes a month of repeated activity to form a habit.

The closing hymn that we will sing in just a bit comes from the often-repeated words of Theodore Parker. “Be ours a religion, which like sunshine, goes everywhere. Its temple all space, its shrine the good heart, its creed all truth, and its ritual works of love.” Our practices, whatever they are, can be deeply fulfilling activities, that do in fact make us more perfect people. All sorts of activities are worthy of our time and energy because we don’t just isolate our religion within the walls of our church.

However, I want to encourage all of you to engage in some spiritual practice. However grand or small, some regular activity that helps you focus on the sacred aspects of life is tremendously important. And just like basketball, piano, or ballet, it takes a balance of persistence and patience.

We talk a lot about hospitality for guests and visitors here at our church. And that is terribly important. I want anyone who comes here on a Sunday morning to feel like they have a home, and that their spirit is nurtured. But the truth is, being a part of a church community is not a pop-in sort of a thing. It’s not based on convenience. Being a member of this church is a spiritual practice. It means taking time out of your life to do something a little bit different, to refocus on what is important. And more to the point, it becomes based on habit. I have been here long enough to see it, going to church, or staying home on Sunday mornings becomes a habit. I know I’m preaching to the choir, to those of you who came today, but church is not just a place to pop in and fill up when it is convenient or your spirit is low. Church is a kind of spiritual practice, a habit that you can cultivate. Like any other practice, no one can do it for you.

This place is not the one and only holy spot. We don’t hold “the” answer here between these four walls. But when you need to, you can come here and be supported. And when you have a tremendous new insight or feel filled with spirit, you can come here and share. But more importantly, in the in between, the times between despair and triumph, the day to day, week to week, and year to year, this is a place for you to come and nurture the spiritual practice of building community. Because, it takes your practice to make this place more perfect. Coming to church is not an occasional convenience, but a spiritual practice to cultivate, so that when the tough times come, you know deep down, that you are not alone.


Saturday, February 6, 2010

spiritual Practice day 6

The past couple of times I have meditated with Peter in the room. He hasn't joined me with my meditation, but respectfully done his own thing and held a quiet space for me. There is something very powerful about having someone else present, supporting your spiritual practice. It is something that I feel when I pray at church on Sunday mornings, as if I am praying for people.

I think it is important for us to recognize that our practices are not just for ourselves. Or at least I don't think they should be. A spiritual practice helps us to be more centered people, and to engage our worlds more constructively. And for some people prayer and meditation is a very important way of influencing their world, not only for themselves but for the people they care about, strangers even.

This isn't self important or woo-woo. Having a spiritual practice and taking it seriously affects our world. In that I feel both a sense of pride, and a sense of responsibility to keep it up.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Spiritual Practice day 5

Squeezing in meditation time between arriving home late, and waiting for Chinese food to be delivered. I have a new appreciation for this every day commitment that I have set up.

Tonight I find myself grateful for the power of breath and the focus it can bring. In such a short meditation time, I find returning to focus on my breath is an immediate bypass of many of the distracting and scattered thoughts that enter my meditation practice. I wax poetic but Breath keeps us alive physically and spiritually. It is a built in mechanism for centering. It is amazing.

I guess being at home tonight, warm and dry in the rain makes me especially grateful. I'm grateful for the power of breath and grateful for the power of publicly expressing a commitment, and a community that will lovingly hold me accountable.

What are you grateful for today?

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Spiritual Practice day 4

I was so busy writing a sermon about spiritual practice I forgot to meditate. Well at least forgot until I was about to go to bed. Isn't that often the case though we absorb ourselves with the writing about, or the talking about, or the thinking about, rather than doing. I'm glad that this meditation adventure is a commitment not to words, but to a particular practice, a doing.

I also noticed to night that both my body and mind are tired, my mind still had plenty of interest in jumping all over the place. You would think that the less energy you have, the calmer your mind would be, but that is not the case. Having a calm a centered mind is not about exhaustion or giving up. Having a calm and centered state of mind actually takes a good deal of concentration and energy. Two things that I don't have much of past 10:00p.m. I guess that speaks to the role of prioritizing your spiritual practice.

When do you do your practice? Do you squeeze it in wherever it fits, or do you make a specific regular time for it? Does that help or hinder your practice?

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Spiritual Practice day 3

Today I find my short meditation as a quite sea in the midst of a bit of chaos, literally. I finally sat down to meditate between two meetings and a couple of looming deadlines. And my couch conveniently faces the ocean. I don't have an ocean view or anything, but that's okay. I know it is there close by and I can feel my heart opening and connected to it. So I sat on my couch for ten minutes of calm in the midst of a hectic day.
I also had the strange experience of having to meditate with a spray bottle at my side. My dog seems uncomfortable with my practice and starts making noise and pacing when I sit quietly with my eyes closed. I hope thats not a sign of how frenetic my life is, that she gets concerned when I am actually peaceful :) Anyway, I found myself meditating next to a water spray bottle which is what I use as a gentle punishment when she barks. How strange to sit next to a tool of punishment and connect with the universe. Maybe it's just practical, maybe it's a reflection of the real complexity of our relationships with the world around us...
I found the sea a particularly nice point of focus. For years and years my spirituality was anchored immediately in nature. More recently I have been more consumed with human relationship or abstract theological thought. I may use some of this meditation practice this month to refocus that connection with nature that fed my spirit for so long.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Spiritual Practice Blog

For the month of February I have committed to blogging every day about my simple spiritual practice of meditation. I'd love for you to join me in the commitment to engage in some practice every day, even if just for a few minutes. This blog was created for my congregation, the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Laguna Beach, but certainly anyone is welcome to read along, and please, please offer your comments.

Spiritual Practice day 2

I just finished a nice meditation. I find that ten minutes is barely enough. We'll see if I end up extending the time. It feels like it takes about 7-8 minutes for me to actually quiet down my mind. So it's only that last couple of minutes that I actually feel centered and in the moment.
Recently I have found myself focussing on the image of a lotus flower. I preached about this image fairly recently, about the concept of rootedness, but rising above the muck that we grow out of. However, the part that's most significant to my meditation these days is a sense of opening in layers. That is after all my primary focus in growth and in meditation, cultivating a sense of openness to the world around me. Opening my heart. That's my thought and image for the day.

What images or symbols are meaningful for you in your spiritual practice?

Monday, February 1, 2010

Spiritual Practice day 1

This is the first day of my blog about meditation practices. I have not had the chance to meditate today, because as soon as I sat down, my lovely dog decided she needed my attention more. So be it. I decided to take this time to describe my meditation practice.
It is very simple. I have set the intention to spend ten minutes each day in silent meditation. Sometimes I focus on a particular thought, sometimes I simply focus on my breath, with the purpose of clearing out all the mental clutter that is otherwise there. Today I'm struck by the closing words of a book that I just finished. "Even a short life is a whole life." writes the mother of a child who died way too young. That's what I focus on today, the wholeness of each individual life. The inherent worth and dignity of each life, including my own.
As for my meditation practice, I wanted to mention a tool that I have found very helpful. I used to use a timer for my meditation practice, but that ended in a jarring beeping noise that blew away any sense of peace I had cultivated. More recently, I have actually been using an ap on my iphone called Buddha Box. It's a digital replica of a meditation tool that has several different chants or noises. But more importantly for my purposes, it has a timer that ends with a gentle gong, rather than ear splitting buzz of the egg timer I had used before. So I'm off to meditate now.

What is your spiritual practice?
Do you have any tips for secrets that might help others in a similar practice?