Failure Tickets

Failure tickets. The term does sort of jump right out at you. For a period of time when I worked in business, one of the department heads in my division started tracking mistakes and breakdowns that occurred in the process of getting customers set up with our services. And he wanted to track how often our process was breaking down, so he got the software department to add a special category to our customer trouble-ticket system called “failures” – and he got everyone opening these “failure tickets” every time a breakdown occurred, so that we could work interdepartmentally to figure out what went wrong and to see if we needed to change our procedures in any away to avoid the failure in the future. The trouble ticket system actually worked well in a way for this, since tickets could be assigned to all the different departments, so failure tickets allowed for group awareness and collaboration. At a certain point, I said to Jason, the guy who had created this “failure ticket” process: “you know, these are actually really learning opportunities, not failures. I mean, yes, our processes definitely failed in each of this instances, but what we’re doing here with these tickets is finding learning opportunities.” I was surprised a couple of days later to see that Jason had actually gotten the software guys to change the name in our systems to “learning opportunities” – so now we had “learning opportunity tickets.” Not quite as catchy. The distinction between failure and
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Three Lessons in Perseverance

1. A Dog and a Sandbank: If at First… The house where we live in Florida is built on one-story concrete pilings due to its being beachfront. Our access to the beach entails going down off our deck, across a small backyard, over the dune walkover, and then down a slight sandy embankment to the beach. Usually. Since the last time we were here, fierce winds and churning surf have sculpted that gentle slope into a four-foot high sand cliff. Getting to the beach has been quite a scramble. The shape of the bank changes daily, adding to the excitement. Our dog Callum provides me with a fine example of perseverance in the face of this sand cliff. She had certainly not seen anything like that before! When we went down to the beach the first time, she paused, looked over the cliff, and tried to make her way around it. She soon realized this wasn’t an option, since the cliff stretched for miles. I will admit, my initial response was to walk the block or so down the road to a public beach access, thinking that repair crews might have restored access at public sites first. Not at that beach anyway. It was in the same condition. Determination won out, and we returned to our own beach access. Still excited even in the face of the trouble we were having, Callum cocked her head, looked over the brink, and launched herself into the air, landing at the base of the cliff in a flurry
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Perseverance & Spiritual Practices

In my Unigram article last month, I wrote about the application of intention to everyday tasks to transform them to spiritual practices. In that piece I noted how through intention I could transform some walks in Nature into spiritual experiences, raising them above the everyday and ordinary. Yet applying intention to everyday things to gain a spiritual practice is not a strategy that will be equally rewarding to everyone. It may also work better with some tasks than others. As a result, you may wish to seek out a spiritual practice that requires the application of perseverance. Some authorities on spiritual practices maintain that the most transformational potentials come from those spiritual practices that are nothing other than a spiritual practice for us. Take meditation, for instance. Meditation is something we purposefully do as a spiritual practice that we generally do not otherwise do in the course of our everyday lives. By being inherently spiritual, it becomes easier to distinguish it from everyday activities and emphasize its spiritual value. For example, taking a walk in Nature can have more than one meaning for me. As a result, it may be more difficult to stay focused on the spiritual. I could potentially, then, complete it sometimes with a sense of spiritual pride, but really have been focused on exercise or covering a lot of ground. Something like meditation, on the other hand, cannot be completed in any way other than spiritually. When we use everyday things as a spiritual practice, there can
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Intent vs. Impact

I arrived home a few days ago to find my youngest son, Elias, almost five-months old, sitting in his special baby-seat at the kitchen table. Usually when I first see him after getting home, I get a big smile back, but this time he was, and stayed, very serious. Knowing that I almost always get a laugh if I “beep” his nose (a.k.a. give his nose a gentle squeeze while saying “beep”), I figured I’d try that this time – with disastrous results. Instead of smiling and laughing, he started crying. Now I want to ask you: what do you think I did in response to his crying? Do you think that I either 1) said, “Elias, I was clearly trying to make you laugh, I don’t understand why you’re so upset, I didn’t do anything wrong” and left him sitting there crying, because it wasn’t my fault that he was upset, or 2) I picked him up and patted him on the back to make him feel better? Clearly the answer is two right? That’s the normal and natural thing to do for a baby. It doesn’t matter that I was trying to make him laugh, that I wasn’t trying to cause him to be upset – it simply matters that my actions had that effect, that impact, and I needed to respond. The thing is, while our instincts are usually option two for babies, for other adults, we too often choose option one. This is particularly true in anti-oppression
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The Intention of No Intention

I had trouble getting into this month’s theme. This was in part because I hadn’t allowed myself time to work on it at the leisurely pace I prefer. But, maybe there is more to this. I’m tired of the topic. I’ve written and preached on New Years resolutions in the past. Underneath that, I discovered a yet deeper sense of being tired of the topic in general, not just with what I’d done with it already. And underlying that was the realization that I’m tired of “working on it.” January seems a logical time to reflect on the year gone by and on the year that is dawning. I’ve always been attracted to the possibility of a fresh start, a new beginning, a “new and better whatever.” Another chance to remedy past failings and do better next time around. Until now. As one author of a piece in our Soul Matters theme packet for this month notes, maybe 2018 isn’t meant to be the year of “becoming a better me”! Another author cited the origin of the word intention: “Coming from the Latin word, intentionem, intention literally means a stretching out, a stretching out of mind, of heart, of body, of spirit. When we set an intention, we are turning our attention toward something, or someone, or some idea, and stretching out to meet it,” (First Universalist Church of Minneapolis Order of Service). Nonetheless, the term “stretching out” called up a different image for me. That image was one of how animals stretch
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Intention & Spiritual Practices

For years I felt that my desire and intention for spiritual practices was greater that my familiarity with them. By this I mean that my interest was high, but my knowledge was low and limited to a handful of practices common to our culture, such as prayer, reading scripture, and meditation. Perhaps you too have felt similarly, now or in the past, and craved spiritual exercises, but could not find ones that suited you. Because Unitarian Universalism embraces religious freedom of the individual, we do not possess an obvious and widespread set of spiritual practices outside of collective worship, in the way some other religions do. What is likely the easiest path to a spiritual practice is by adding intentional mindfulness to the passions you already hold. Mindfulness is fully bringing our attention to the experience of the present moment. The opposite of mindfulness would be to engage in tasks on auto-pilot, without thought or awareness. In what has became a famous example of mindfulness and intentionality, Zen Buddhist monk and author Thich Nhat Hanh wrote in Creating True Peace (pgs. 143-44 ) about eating an orange as a spiritual exercise of mindfulness. We could simply eat an orange as a piece of food. Or, says Hanh, we could eat the orange meditatively, appreciating it as a miracle of nature that nourishes us. Peel it and focus on how it feels. Smell it. Savor it as you eat it. Imagine the sun and rain it took to nourish the fruit. Imagine
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Hard-Earned Hope

I struggled in my teenage years and early twenties with what was most likely undiagnosed mild depression, undiagnosed anxiety of some sort, or both. I remember as a teenager feeling crushed under the weight of my feelings, of just wanting to go to sleep all the time. As a young adult, I would numb myself with busyness, sometimes having two social engagements even on workday evenings, and using books, movies and the internet to keep myself constantly engaged with something, anything, until I was so exhausted I would fall asleep… anything to avoid being present to my feelings. Though of course, I wasn’t able to name for myself that that was what was happening at the time – I was just stuck in the grind, in pain, trying to make it day by day. Mornings were the worst. I was tired of course, from having stayed up too late. But the paralyzing fear was what was really awful. I’d wake up, and lay there, checking the time, coaching myself over and over that I desperately needed to get up or I was going to be late, my stomach tied up in knots. Ten minutes past when I absolutely had to get up or be late would come and go. Twenty minutes. Thirty minutes. Thank god I had a forgiving boss… I would regularly show up thirty to forty-five minutes late for work. It was not a very happy way to live my life. It is amazing how my life has transformed
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Long-Haul Hope

Sometimes, I worry about hope. Huh? Why would anyone worry about hope? Psychologists tell us that we simply fare better if we have hope. It’s one of the attitudes Saint Paul counseled the Christians at Corinth to maintain, along with faith and love (1 Corinthians 13:13). One source lists some of its synonyms: aspiration, desire, wish, expectation, ambition, aim, goal, plan. What could be the harm in any of these? One of my mentors in the Buddhist tradition, Thich Nhat Hanh, says of hope, “Hope is important because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear. If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today,” (Peace is Every Step). So what gives? Here’s my concern: Hope sometimes pulls me out of the present, means that I’m projecting my energies on some future point, goal, or aspiration. When I’m doing that, I am less grounded in the present. I’m less focused on living creatively in the present, especially with whatever aspect of the present I would prefer to be different. Recently, I read a description of hope that appealed to me and addressed these concerns. What’s interesting is that the author was not describing hope! She was describing acceptance, but she describes a hope that makes sense to me. This hope “does not mean denying or diminishing life’s suffering….And it certainly doesn’t mean having a blindly optimistic ‘Pollyanna’ attitude. [Hope] doesn’t mean we have to like or be glad for everything that happens….Rather, it is the
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Stream or Swamp?

Once, a long time ago, there was a river that flowed through the land, over hills and through valleys and across fields, finally ending up at the sea. It was a quite happy and contented stream – it had plenty of fish swimming in it, quiet pools with aquatic plant life, and lots and lots of fresh, clean water. Things were going swimmingly for this river, until one day it came to realization. “Hey, I do all this work, carrying fish and freshwater across the land, and then everything just ends up disappearing into the sea. That’s not fair. I want to keep my freshwater… the sea is already huge, why does it need even more from me? I want this to change.” And so where the river joined the sea, it spoke to its friend the forest, and asked if it might fell a couple of older trees across the river mouth to stop its flow into the sea. That slowed things down a little bit, but the water still kept flowing out, out, out. So the river decided to find some contractors – the beavers arrived two weeks later. Slowly, day-by-day the river was pleased to see that the flow of its water to sea was diminishing. Finally, after a week’s worth of work, the dam was complete, and the sea stopped receiving fresh water. The river was ecstatic! Finally, it could keep all the water it had worked so hard to carry so far. The stream’s satisfaction did not
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Simple (and Not-So-Simple) Abundance

I showered in a rainbow one afternoon awhile back. Let me explain. We have a large skylight in our bathroom. Late in the afternoon, the sunlight shining in through the skylight glints on the water streaming out of the shower at just the right angle, turning it into myriad droplets of rainbow. Then there is the dialogue that took place in my kitchen recently. Our three-year-old grandson had arrived to spend the day with us, as he usually does on Wednesdays. I had given him his breakfast, and needed to step around the corner into the next room for a moment. From the next room, I became aware of a lively discussion going on in the kitchen. Roland was carrying on a dialogue in two distinctly different voices. Stealthily, I peeked around the corner. The discussion was between…. two dried Bing cherries, one grasped in each firm fist! My black lab-redbone hound mix dog has a favorite resting position: on her back, back legs stretched back, front legs extended over her head. Often, she leans up against a piece of furniture, or the side of the house if she’s outdoors, so she doesn’t have to hold herself up. To say she looks lovably silly is an understatement. It always brings a smile to my face, and usually gets her a belly rub as well. For me, the key thing here is being aware, awake, enough, and slowing down enough to notice these moments. To pay attention. Can I allow myself the time to
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