Emily Dickenson says  “hope is the thing with feathers – That perches in the soul – And sings the tune without the words – And never stops – at all…”

It may not stop, but somehow over time in our effort to become adults, we lose the ability to hear it sing. Yes, I said the effort to become adults.  We try so hard to grow up don’t we?  To get the right education, the right career, the right partner, the right house, we try to then we have children and we begin to gear them toward growing up.  But we know we want something different for our kids, maybe we can’t exactly name it, but some spark we want them to retain into their adult hood.  We want them to keep listening to the singing in their soul.  We want them to remember to have hope.

When we are children it’s easy to hope.  We hope and dream and wish and in the face of disappointment we just go on to hope and dream and wish for the next thing.  If we only have a 50/50 record we know that’s good enough.  The singing in our soul is LOUD.

Children, at least children growing up in safe and loving homes, know the world to be basically good.  This is the way they move through the world.  It gives them no reason not to hope for the best and enjoy life to the fullest.  What did you love to do before you had any worries?  I used to climb to the very top of a dirt pile in a field nearby our house and slide down it over and over again.  All the better if it had rained recently.  I would watch the clouds or roll down big hills in the grass.  Staining my clothes was the worst thing that could happen and I hoped with all my might each time that the stains would come out and my mother wouldn’t be upset.  I had about a 50/50 track record, it was good enough.

As I got older, like all children, I encountered unfairness in the world.  I realized sometimes people were hungry or homeless.  I had a very minor idea about war.  I knew people died no matter how much you loved them and didn’t want them to. At this stage children still believe the world is basically good but they have encountered enough heartache to know it needs help.  Because they see it as basically good they also see it as worth saving. It was around this time I used to climb into the arms of a magnolia tree in our yard and watch out over the neighborhood like a sentinel.  I would make signs encouraging people to not litter and pick up trash with my grandpa on our walks together.  I was saving the world.  I knew the world was WORTH saving.

Something happens to us between that stage of childhood and becoming grown-ups.  Maybe we finally encounter enough garbage on the nightly news to lose hope that the world is capable of being saved.  It mounts up and it doesn’t feel basically good anymore.  News channels don’t make a habit of reporting on the good people are doing in the world. Sure they do the occasional puff piece, but happy and wholesome doesn’t sell and so we tune in daily to disaster and monsters and there’s a kind of darkness that can take root in our hearts.  The canopy of which makes it difficult to see back to our child-self and hard to hear the singing of hope in our souls.

The Greeks knew how powerful hope was.  All the darkness Pandora released into the world but hope remained and it was important enough for the story to be told again and again. With hope in the world the Greek myth tells us everything will be okay. It’s as if the message is to pay attention to where you put your focus. It reminds me of the “crap or cone” philosophy.  Have any of you heard of this?  It’s a basic way to remember you can choose where you put your focus.  It was shared by Halcyon on Hug Nation.

Imagine you are walking through a park.  It’s a beautiful day, the breeze is just right, and you have your absolute favorite ice cream cone in your hand.  Then you step in dog poop.  So there you are, crap on your foot and your favorite ice cream cone in your hand.  Which one is going to win your attention? For many people the joy of the day would fall away.  They might even throw down the ice cream in a fit of anger and dub the day “ruined”.  Is that really the best way though?  To let a little dog poop steal your awesome day from you? Halcyon says we have to remember we’ve only got a little dookie on our shoe; we still have our beautiful day and our favorite ice cream.  This means life is good so you rake your shoe off in the grass or run it under the garden hose and you keep on going.

Since adopting the “Crap or Cone?” philosophy I find I more actively choose where my focus will be.  Do I want to focus on the ice cream cone or the dog poop?  Do I focus on the smiles and laughter of children in the coffee shop or see it as a distraction from the time I carved out for sermon writing? Do I ask my child to dance in the kitchen while we clean or am I too focused on my mounting to do list for the next day?  Crap or cone?

This doesn’t mean it’s all fun all the time.  I know some of you are thinking that sermons must be written, the to do list accomplished, the dog poop cleaned from the shoes.  You’re right. We like to say it’s all about balance. We strive to teach the children in our lives balance.  We give them age appropriate responsibilities and help them navigate managing time, money, and energy well.  Yet somehow, by the time we have reached adulthood many of us aren’t balanced anymore.

We’ve been concentrating on the crap and can no longer hear the singing of our soul.  We’ve forgotten the world is basically good and we see happiness as a fleeting moment rather than a state of being. What if we get back the sense of hope and happiness we had as a child?  What if there was a way to start focusing on the cone and leave behind any sense of hopelessness, any notion that something as minor as a little dog poop had the power to ruin an entire day?  What if we could feel what it was like to be so full of joy that there was no way to hold us down because we were like a hot air balloon? It can happen but we have to take lessons from our children.

We have to remember what it’s like to move for the joy of moving, to sing loud, to roll down dirt piles and hills of grass, to jump in leaves, to run through sprinklers, to dance in our kitchens, smile at babies and talk to elderly people we see in the coffee shop. We can have hope again.  We can be happy.

I can never stay angry or sad if that song comes on the radio.  There was an internet sensation of people videotaping themselves dancing to the song and now there’s a 24 hour official music video you can watch online.

Happy:  a pretty good concept to be hitting the top 40 and being sung by people all over the world.  Imagine how that can change and shape the way people begin to see the world, if even for a few minutes they reconnect with that level of joy. This is the stuff dreams are made of – happiness and hope.  When we have hope and happiness in our hearts we dream a little bigger.

Another key to unlock lives of happiness is friendship.  Children seem to know this one too. It’s easier to keep happiness and hope in your heart when you have friends. It was friendship in the Harry Potter books that helped keep darkness at bay.  Hermoine and Ron were with Harry through everything, and Dumbledore felt comfort in a time of great distress because Harry was with him.

We need community to keep us in the light and singing when the hurts of the world begin to feel like too much. Friends remind us we are the light in the world.  We see it in the way they hold the torch during our dark times and then we take up that role for them when they are hurting.  Traveling through life with friends means never having to walk alone in the dark.

As a religious educator I sometimes think that if all I instill in the children and youth I work with is the sense that they are a light in this world then I will have accomplished everything I need to.  We are lights.  We are shining beacons of hope when the world feels like a dark and scary place.  We are the ones who sing the fears out when our children can’t sleep.

If we are to shine bright – we have to reclaim hope and happiness.  We have to choose the cone.  We have to be in community with friends who understand the importance of these things.  We are the lights in troubled times.  Whether it is the way you can make people laugh, you ability to soothe someone who is crying, your artwork, the way you help people with finances, or house cleaning, or growing food…. These bright shining lights in our hearts, this loud song of hope in our souls, it can change the world.

(originally delivered as a sermon at UUCJ in Jacksonville, FL May 18, 2014)

Becoming Real

It was Easter morning 2004; I was sitting in my home congregation, the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Fayetteville, Arkansas.  We had an interim during that time and frankly a good number of people did not much care for him.  This was of no fault on his part and I would come to understand that more as I moved into ministry work.  He was simply different.  We held our prior minister in such high regard we might well have sainted him if UUs did that sort of thing.  At any rate, it was Easter morning and I was there because church was just something I did each week, a holdover from my evangelical upbringing. I expected to be bored, as I had in years past with UU Easter services.  I certainly did not expect that I would be encountering the Holy.

Marc, our interim, asked what it meant to be real. He talked about the literal versus the literate interpretation of the bible.  What did it mean to be real? What made a story real and what was more real, the history or the telling of a story laid out in a life well lived?

“Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.

Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.

Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

I look back now and consider this day the first day of a long personal resurrection or rebirth.  I had no idea who I was becoming, like a caterpillar in a cocoon, no clue I was about to get my wings.  I read the above passage now and I know it as the most true, absolute real story I have ever been told.  “When a child loves you for a long, long time… then you become real”.

I had no idea a decade ago I would ever work with children, become a professional religious educator, or talk about my work and life in terms of ministry and spiritual calling.  The work I do with children and youth makes me more real.  I’ve seen one of our volunteers weep when talking about the trust a small child gives you when you work with them in RE classes.  I know that trust as love.  Through that love I’ve been able to heal old hurts from my own childhood.  I’ve been able to become real.

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?

It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

Marc’s sermon made space in my heart for receiving the power of story, including stories from the Bible, as spiritual teaching.  I started remembering some of my favorite biblical stories from childhood.  What was there beyond the fantastical I felt as a child and the rejection of the bible as the literal word of God I experienced in my teen years?  I found there was layer after layer of richness in the stories I grew up with and I could now mine them for wisdom.  While it doesn’t have the meaning it might have for Christians, I took Jesus back into my heart.  I remembered the way I loved him as a child and the love I felt from him too.  I remembered the Jesus I knew as a child: teacher, unconditional love, peace, friend.

I still don’t consider myself a Christian but I have come to understand one need not be a Christian to take in the beauty and wisdom found in scripture just as one need not be a Buddhist to take in the wisdom of a koan.

I’m still on my long journey of becoming real.  I’m much closer now that I’ve made peace around some of my early religious wounding and have found my ministry in the work of religious education. By the time my hair has all been loved off I expect I will have become real, which is to say become so seated in the core of who I am that I know my own worth and I move from a place of love for myself and others.  May it be so for us all.

Resolve to Forgive

It’s a brand new year.  Do you feel the promise in that?  Is there a glimmer of hope for a better year?  Are there certain things you want to accomplish this year that maybe you didn’t quite get to in 2013?  How many of you made resolutions for this year?  Me too.

In and of itself a resolution isn’t a bad thing.  It means to resolve to do something; to hold ourselves to our own promise, to be resolute is to be determined.   Lately though I’ve been considering why so many of us make the same resolution again and again, year after year.  I mean why isn’t it just working already?

I think the answer is in forgiveness.

photo by Brian Perry

photo by Brian Perry

Too often we walk around carrying the burdens of perceived mistakes, never forgiving ourselves for the supposed wrong turns we took in life.  In our consumerist society, many have lot of gain by you staying small.  Afterall there are creams, special clothes, and diet pills to sell you.  So if we stay in a place of shame, if we refuse to forgive ourselves, then year after year we can make the same resolution, the same promise, fail to keep it and use that to beat ourselves up all over again.

Let’s not.

Take a breath and allow yourself to feel compassion as you might for a small child.  Think of a time you feel you did something wrong, a time that burdens you still, and breathe some of that tension out and some compassion in.  Allow yourself to believe, just for a moment as you recall that memory, that you were doing the very best you could do at the time.  No, it wasn’t perfect.  Yes, you might do it differently if you could go back.  Breathe.  Let yourself feel the truth that in that moment, you were doing the best you could.  Compassion.  Forgiveness.

For 2014, let’s have only one resolution: to love ourselves unconditionally.

And A Child Shall Lead Them

I used to say I hated kids, with the exception of my daughter of course. I think it was my defense mechanism against parents actually.  I find it really difficult to interact with parents who have some particular opposing values from my own.  Parents who assign gender to toys, excuse boys abusing girls with “he likes her,” and are more comfortable with their kids consuming massive amounts of violence than the slightest hint of sexuality in films or literature.  Those parents are quite difficult for me to get along with.  So as a result I put forth this notion that I hated kids.  This worked.  It excused me from many Chuck E. Cheese parties, babysitting, and circling up with the other moms at school activities. Then I wound up working with children and youth in my church but I hung tightly to my mantra of not liking children.

Somewhere along the way I had started to buy it.  I actually believed that I just didn’t like kids. This helped fuel my inner critic who wanted to attack my own parenting.  I would say to myself, what kind of mom doesn’t like kids? Eventually I modified it to; I don’t like kids, except UU kids.  It explained my joy in teaching RE classes but enabled me to still keep my distance.

Olivia hammockOver the years I have done a lot of spiritual practice and soul searching.  I have come to realize another layer in my story about not liking kids was in reality being around children reminds me of being one.  I did not like being a child. So to avoid having to deal with the feelings that came up around my own childhood, I could just avoid kids unless I was sure I could control the environment completely.  Teaching RE started that way.  I thought as the teacher I could control the environment.  Wow, was I wrong!

The essence of teaching is meeting the students where they are, sparking young minds and following them where they want to go.  The kids in my RE classes taught me a lot about how to relax and roll with it.  They showed me the beauty that can happen when you let go of curriculum and focus on relationship. Still, these were UU kids.  I felt I could trust them more than the general population.

Now I direct a religious education program.  This is my career and my spiritual calling.  It’s great to be around all those UU kids, but I also greet families every week who have never stepped foot in a UU church before.  Their kids are, well, they’re not UU kids!  Not yet anyway.  Something in my brain screams “Red alert! Red alert!”

I take a deep breath and become the adult I think every child needs in their life.  I become so fully present when greeting these kids that there is no room for me to build any walls of defense or tell any stories which do not aid my role in creating a safe space for these children and engaging their spirits and minds. Magic happens.  Something inside me heals a little more with every interaction.

On the worst days, the Sundays when I wake up and wish I didn’t have to work but could instead just sleep a little longer, I find these children save me.  I may show up sleepy and a bit cranky, but as soon we sing the opening hymn the walls around my heart break open. There’s always a small group of children who sit next to me in the Sanctuary.  They have their orders of service and hymnals ready.  When the music starts they stand and follow the words with their finger so they don’t get lost.  If it’s a song they’ve never heard, they look at me because they know I will scoot in closer and I will sing a little louder and that together it’s going to be okay.  They know that here it’s safe to try. It’s safe to not know all the words or the right key.  They know that here it’s about relationship and being together.

In my year of serving my congregation I have discovered something amazing.  I love kids.  They are my teachers.  I am honored to be able to sing songs with them, play Simon Says on the playground, decorate cookies, make mandalas, laugh and grieve together, and so much more.  It’s a career and a spiritual calling doing what I do, but it is so much more than that too.  More than I have words to say.

Understanding Through the Veil

This deviates from the strictly UU perspective I normally write with here and delves more into mystery and the esoteric.

Magnolia Woods pond

The seasons in Florida, being what they are, have left me feeling somewhat disconnected this past year of living here.  Recently it has started to change. For one, it actually is cool out.  We are having fall!  It is especially cool in the mornings, sometimes down in the upper fifties.  While the days still get quite warm, the mornings and evenings being so cool has helped connect me more deeply to the land.

There is a shift that happens within me at a certain moment in fall.  In Pagan community, we refer to this moment as the veil thinning -the veil between the living and the dead. Samhain, Day of the Dead, All Soul’s Day, and even Halloween, all center around the mysteries fall ushers in.  A time to think about our Beloved dead, the passing of time, the release of old habits, and the things which scare us.

In my house we put together a Samhain altar for our dead and share stories.  When we Samhain Altar 2011lived in Arkansas we visited the gravesites of our ancestors.  We observe trick-or-treating and often around midnight I am doing solo ritual work looking at what I am releasing and what I am calling in for the next year.  Alongside honoring the dead, many Pagans view Samhain as a new year; a time to let go that which no longer serves us and call in what we hope to have more of in our lives.

These two seemingly unrelated ways to honor Samhain have been an important part of my spiritual practice for over twenty years.  I realize now how connected they really are.  Honoring our dead and remembering their lives while also being surrounded by conventional Halloween revelry reminds us that our lives are short, far too short to be lived frozen in fear.  So we cull.  We burn our undesired habits in the Samhain fire and we begin to visualize what we believe will enrich our lives.

Last night I spent some time working with divination and art as a way of opening to something larger than myself and determining what theme or work lies ahead for me this year.  I went to bed with the descant from a favorite chant floating in my head, “hold the vision that’s being born.”

This morning I sat looking through the glass window above my desk into my back yard.  There’s a tree with a broken limb, for over a month now, but it still hangs on and is full of bright green leaves.  The sky through the trees tops is a startling blue.  Green is everywhere.  My yard bursts with life as though it doesn’t know the dead are walking among us.  Then I realize the scene before me is a rich metaphor for living.

Over the past few years I have cultivated the practice of leaning in and letting life break me wide open and I will continue to do so, but I refuse to die.  I refuse not to bloom.  I keep my skies blue and look for the spaces of light in small openings of the canopy.  As my eyes took in the reality of dead brown leaves amid bright green palmetto and papaya fruit on the tree,  I realize there is more here for me than what I’ve previously been willing to open to.

There are more lessons for this year beyond leaning in, breaking open, and holding on to good.  This year is about living.  These past several years my work has been to let go: break open, cut, and cull, to go back to zero.  Even last year’s work with holding on to good, which is in no way finished, was about holding on to something while everything else was cut away and poured out from something broken.  Now, holding on to good is about gathering things to me as well.  Living life: expressively and radically. Letting myself be seen and, as a dear friend put it to me, “loving myself exquisitely.”

Play is Serious Soul Stuff

Spiritual growth requires much of us.  It takes effort, presence, practice, and time.  It’s work.  Lately I’ve come to appreciate another layer required for this growth – play.  For the spirit to truly grow we must learn to play, to entertain wonder.  Many of us lost that ability as we became adults.  We think of play as something children do.  Even then, we don’t take it seriously.  There is societal pressure to grow up quickly and put away childish things.  Somewhere along the way we can begin to confuse wonder and merriment with something too juvenile for our engagement.  This is an error.  Play is actually serious work.

“Play Is The Work of the Child”   – Maria Montessori

I am learning to take play seriously due to my position as the Director of Religious Education.  Earlier this year I enrolled in a class on Spirit Play, a method of teaching RE which is based in ritual, story, and individual choice in response to the story.  As the training began I could feel my own resistance.  I stared at the felt being smoothed out in the center of the circle and had to remind myself to look at this from a child’s perspective. Quickly I was lost in the story.  A part of me had opened to the magic of story as teacher.  The simple objects moved across the felt bringing the story to life.  Still, I could feel a nagging in the back of my mind telling me I should be doing something more serious, more important.

I returned to Florida and busied myself with increasing the quality of the Spirit Play class we offer and adding another class for a slightly older group of children.  My days soon filled with reviewing and selecting stories, putting together story baskets, shopping for art supplies, and putting together stations for exploring prayer, reading, and creative play.

Play showed up again as a piece of my work when I attended a workshop at General Assembly to learn about a worship component for all ages called The Wonder Box.  It was the best of Spirit Play combined with the best of sermon delivery and direct ministry.  You can view a video of the workshop here.

I returned to my congregation with a new mission; to invite the congregation into a space where wonder was central to the worship service and their lives.  Through doing the Wonder Box each week I continue to open myself up to merriment and joy.  Wonder has become a source of inspiration as well as a goal in the kind of ministry I provide.  I find as I am learning to simply wonder about the world again, something within me is softening and opening to life’s gifts.  I find myself more present with my surroundings, more willing to encounter the Mystery, which some choose to call God.

With willingness, often comes growth.  The spirit longs to sing.  There is a fundamental need for us to allow ourselves to be wowed by life. Let’s all go do the work of children and find ways to play and wonder.