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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The Stories We Tell Ourselves

“I’m not very creative.” This was my statement to our staff, last fall during our staff retreat, when we were talking about ways in which we could bring more creativity to our work. Our wonderful, caring, thoughtful staff – they pushed back at me: “That’s not true, you’re very creative administratively. You come up with ideas in terms of doing new things administratively that would never have occurred to us.” My story of non-creativeness was very strong though. “Sure, ok, but that doesn’t count. I can’t draw, I can’t paint, or sculpt, or…” They kept pushing. “Is art really the only way that someone can be creative?” Me: “Ummmm….” <pause to think> “Hmmm.” <more thinking> “I guess not.” In my head, I understood the logic of what they were saying. My emotion, my body, my spirit was rebelling though. I was finally able to acknowledge, after they pointed out several specific examples, that it did seem like I was fairly creative in terms of leading the administration of the church. Reflecting about this later, I totally get where my story of non-creativeness came from. Growing up, I was good at math, and school, and following directions, and not as good at the “typically creative” stuff, like drawing, painting, or any kind of typically artistic things. That was my sister, she was the free spirit, the painter, the drawer… the “creative one.” Me, I still draw stick-figures to this day. So I can see where this story comes from, and, I recognize
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From the Stories of Our Living

There’s a lot to like in the hymn “The Fire of Commitment.” I won’t speculate on what all Mary Katherine Morn and Jason Shelton, who penned the lyrics, wanted their words to say. I’m sure it’s a lot broader than my interpretation of the small part that gives the hymn a very special meaning for me, and usually leaves me with tears in my eyes when we sing it: “From the stories of our living rings a song both brave and free, Calling pilgrims still to witness to a life of liberty.” Many, if not most of you, know the rudiments of my story. I’m a survivor. Briefly, my father sexually abused me in several ways from the time I was four or maybe five years old until my parents divorced and he moved out when I was twelve. There was also emotional and physical abuse, and the effects of his alcoholism and womanizing affected our family dynamics as well. Working through that part of my life story with a compassionate, caring and competent listener who had a seemingly endless capacity to walk beside me into the scary, shaming, grieving places of my life made healing possible. As we tell our stories in an open, nonjudgmental space, new possibilities emerge, which can translate into a life far different than we had imagined possible. As we tell our stories, we piece together our wholeness, bringing together those parts of ourselves that have been shattered and split off by the external circumstances of our lives, or those
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The Practice of Welcome

What does it mean to be welcoming? One might think, for example, that a long-time Unitarian Universalist who moved to a new city and joined a new UU church might fit into and feel welcome in their new community rather easily, since they know the ropes. One longtime UU shared with me though his experience, where in his new UU congregation, he showed up at a couple different committee meetings, looking forward to being able to contribute – and immediately felt like an outsider. Everyone assumed that since he was UU, he knew exactly how everything worked in this new congregation, and no one made an effort to try to explain to him “how things were done.” The difficulty, of course, is that there are wide variations between UU churches, and of course each congregation has its own version of “that’s how we do things around here.” Things which everyone who has been “here” for a while knows how they go, and often assumes that everyone else does too. Welcoming people into our congregation often isn’t just as simple as a warm greeting to newcomers, or engaging them in conversation during coffee hour, though of course those things are still important. Welcoming new people to our community, even people who have signed the book and officially become members, even people who are UUs already – it extends beyond the initial embrace. Welcoming is an intention, an attitude, that needs to persist far beyond the initial hellos and deep into our life
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Welcome! Holding Space for Others

When I was serving as an on-call hospital chaplain, I was often called on to simply “hold space” for a patient, family members, or a staff person. In many ways, offering spacious, compassionate presence is of the essence of chaplaincy, of pastoral care, of the work of our lay pastoral associates. Frequently, there is “nothing else” we can do, but in that moment, it is everything that is truly needful. I remember particularly one late-night call into the emergency department. The woman was young, probably early twenties. She was there alone. She had awakened to find her small baby dead from what was likely SIDS. When I arrived, she was sitting on the gurney holding her baby and sobbing, her heart cracked open. I introduced myself quietly and expressed my sorrow for the death of her baby. None of which she even heard. The small room was far too full of grief for there to be any room for words. I sat behind her on the gurney and held her while she held her baby. Her sobs vibrated through my own body. I don’t remember how long we sat there. Eventually, she was ready to leave, and I walked her to the door. I could not take away her pain; I could not make the unthinkable right. But I could be with her, alongside her, and that was enough. In part, I learned to do this as an aspect of my professional training. But I have learned the most from the people
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Looking Back, Looking Forward

It’s been quite a year! We saw a new US president elected, a president who is trying to redefine what this nation is and what the presidency is. We discussed, discussed some more, and discussed yet again the prospect of having two services here at UUCM, and voted to try it for a year. Those strike me as the two major things that have occurred from a national and a congregational perspective. There have, of course, been others as well. I, for one, feel like I’m still catching my breath. I want to look back at my columns from 2016-17 as a way of gathering up the past and reflecting on where that past may lead us in the coming year, and what gifts it might offer. Appropriately for what was to come, we began the church with our September theme, change. And there certainly have been changes. Nonetheless, there are constants as well. As one of our long-term members said to me recently, “This is the most wonderful congregation!” That’s a constant for me. As I concluded my September column, it’s both, change and constancy. “The wind of change forever blown across the tumult of our way” (hymn # 183), and “We are going, heaven knows where we are going, but we know within. And we will get there, heaven knows how we will get there, but we know we will” (hymn #1020). In October, I tried to sort out true humility from false. True humility serves us well through change.
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Connect

“Uh-oh! The delivery person left my picnic table in the front yard!” Kristen Schnell, of Austin, Texas, had certainly meant for it to be delivered to her back yard where her family planned to use it. Nevertheless, there it sat. Then she had an idea. What if she left it where the delivery person put it? What if her family moved some of their usually-indoor activities like homework, reading, and just hanging out from inside the house to their front yard? She painted the table a brilliant turquoise and later on sat down at her table. A neighbor whom she had not met, despite living three houses apart, stopped by. Her turquoise table became more and more a focus for neighborhood gatherings. Eventually, she founded theturquoisetable.com with the goal of enabling more people to connect in this easy, casual way. She’s also written a book, The Turquoise Table. I recently read the account of her venture in the June issue of Good Housekeeping. Like Schnell, I remember growing up in a neighborhood in which residents were “front yard people” who routinely spent time outdoors, in their front yards, where everyday interactions with neighbors and friends happened easily. As time has gone on, we’re become both “indoor people” and “back yard people.” Those of us who spend time outdoors are more likely to sit on our back patio or deck, or play in our back yards, than in the front. Older houses were usually or often built with large, sweeping front
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