Friday, October 18, 2019

Finding Your Rhythm

 This summer I had the great good fortune of attending a week long “Labyrinth summer school” out in Petaluma California. The first part of our week was lead by Dr. Lauren Artres, who helped bring the labyrinth into modern usage, and she advised us to walk the labyrinth at our “natural pace.”

What is your “natural pace?” That takes some discernment, doesn’t it? Not just to walk the pace of the person in front of you. Not to walk the pace that seems like a dignified labyrinth walking pace, but to listen for an inner rhythm, and to match your steps to that inner pace.

A few weeks after that training I was introducing an 8 year old to a labyrinth I had set up on our friends’ land. She was already familiar labyrinths because there was one at her Montessori school. So I asked her what she knew. She said you have to be very slow. I nodded my head, not wanting to undermine her teachers. “Yes, a lot of people do walk labyrinths slowly. I like to encourage people to walk at their own pace. Even if that’s running. She looked at me uncertainly, and then took off-- running the labyrinth. Her mom went next, running a circuit behind. I waited a beat and then entered the labyrinth at a brisk walk, not even trying to keep up. We all emerged from the labyrinth with big smiles on our faces.

When I was growing up my mom had on her wall a poster with the famous quote by Henry David Thoreau: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” I grew up believing that it was okay to be “out of step” with society around you, to be an alternate or dissenting voice. It was only recently that I thought of this quote in a very literal and physical way. That there is an inner rhythm to our bodies, minds and hearts. That inner rhythm has its own wisdom and integrity.

I find it actually quite a relief to be able to do something at my own pace, but we rarely get the chance. When I was a little kid everyone wanted me to go faster. Apparently I was given to daydreaming and lollygagging. Also I had very short legs. I was constantly trying to keep up; in any group of kids on a walk or outing, I was almost always last, and sometimes despaired I would lose the group altogether.

In this culture there is an unquestioned assumption that faster is better. As a minister in Silicon Valley I believed that doing many things quickly and efficiently was the prime virtue. I rushed to keep up with work and with parenting. and noticed myself rushing my little son just as I was rushed as a child.

Then one day I got pulled over for speeding on the way to pick my son up from daycare. At first, of course, I felt defensive and guilty and angry and ashamed. Then I thought of an exercise Ram Dass mentioned in one of his talks- the practice of treating anyone you meet as if they were the Buddha. This officer - Buddha, was saying to me “slow down, you are going too fast. It’s not safe. In fact you are going so fast it’s against the law.” In a way it was a relief- what if I slowed down to the actual legal speed limit? Who could judge me for obeying the law?

It wasn’t until I started my training as a spiritual director that our teachers mentioned that going too fast can be an obstacle to contemplation. “We have to wait for our souls to catch up” they said. That’s certainly been my experience. When I’ve been moving fast and can finally slow down, it takes a while for all of me to “arrive.” I feel like a calmer, more centered, more competent person when I slow down to the pace that is right for me. There’s not one right speed for everyone- to be honest, even at these contemplative retreats, when we all rise from class together and walk down the hall to lunch it’s all I can do not to jog around the slower folks.

And yet when it comes to some of the mental and emotional aspects of our contemplative program, I felt I was constantly rushing to keep up. When a presenter says “set an intention” I think I am always the last one in the room to find my intention. It’s not unusual for a presenter to ask us to “allow a word or image to come to mind” and then move on to the next step while my mind is still a blank. More than once I’ve had to leave the room and go sit in silence away from the pressure of the now mounting instructions to allows something to come to mind at its own pace. Some parts of me are slow, some are quick. It takes my soul, it would seem, a long time to catch up.

Sometimes going slowly feels just right, and sometimes moving quickly feels just right. When I lived in Silicon Valley when I studied a vigorous form of yoga and learned to match one breath to each movement. I LOVED it. It was yoga that matched the brisk pace of my life, and taught me to breath into it. The movements were swift and challenging, but the breath was slow. Our teacher would often encourage us to do a sequence at our own pace “your breath, your body” he would say, encouraging us to match our movement to the natural pace of our breath. When I was younger and always in a hurry I used to get so impatient in the slow classes because I felt like I was missing something- we could be doing so much more! But at this moment in my life I appreciate both. I am lucky to live near a studio with lots of different yoga teachers, some fast, some slow. A vigorous quick class raises my heart rate and makes me feel confident and powerful. But I also appreciate a slow, thoughtful class where we focus on each little part of the poses, or maybe just lay down on the floor and relax.

As a species we have a tremendous range of speeds we can accomplish, and as individuals we each have a range of what is comfortable for us. But in our society we are rarely given a chance to find a pace that “feels natural.” We are rarely encouraged to know what pace works for you, and allow your body mind and heart to naturally settle into that pace. One part of the search for our true and wise Self can be listening for that drummer playing our own beat.

In school, at work or in traffic we are often required to ignore our natural rhythm, especially if it does “not keep pace with our companions.”  Listening for and then trying to match our own internal rhythm is not something we get a lot of support to do in this culture. It is more common to ask our bodies, hearts and minds to meet targets and goals defined by some societal standard. It’s easy to make a schedule of what we “should” be able to accomplish in a day, how quickly we “should” run a mile, how long it “should” take for us to learn long division, or to grieve the loss of someone we care about. And when we can’t keep up with these expectations, we struggle. When external norms and expectations clash with the reality of my own biology, I try to let the body, heart and spirit lead, knowing there are consequences for ignoring that inner wisdom.

When the mind is racing ahead of body and soul, a simple breath practice can bring them together. Let’s take a moment now to just notice your breath, without changing it. Just notice the inhale and the exhale. If you feel it want to change, just let the breath change to its “natural rhythm.” There is not a single tempo for each person, it is constantly changing, so the practice is to listen carefully as often as we can, to notice the inner rhythm of body and spirit, to follow it when we can. When some task or cultural expectation asks us to keep up or slow down, we can notice  how that affects us.

When we take on this kind of practice we affirm that each body has some natural rhythms that are right for you. And that going at your own pace has a value. That value is not only physical and emotional health, but a kind of integrity, a kind of integration and rightness that you feel when you are free to find your own rhythm. Getting to know your own rhythm is part of getting to know your true self. When we walk the labyrinth alone at our natural pace it grounds us in who we are, body mind and spirit.

If we walk the labyrinth with other people where everyone is following their natural pace we will sometimes need to pass, we will sometimes bunch up, we will sometimes need to step to the side and let someone pass us. When you walk the labyrinth as a group those who go last will have to wait their turn, and those who went first will have to wait till all the others are done. That’s community. We have folks who run on ahead to prepare the way, and folks who bring up the rear to make sure no one is left behind. Like a musical ensemble, we learn to listen not only to the beat of our own drummer, but to how that rhythm fits into the beats around us.

Noticing how our own rhythm fits into the larger whole is challenging sometimes, but it is also an important way of coming to know ourselves. It’s also a way to feel the pulse of the community, and to feel when it is out of sync, when it is leaving folks behind. This is one reason that being part of a congregation is a valuable spiritual practice.

Our society is going so fast right now that many folks cannot keep up. I’ve preached about the targets and quotas set by garment manufacturers, or at the Amazon warehouse, or set in the medical industry for physicians. I’ve preached about the impacts on workers who are physically unable to meet these quotas or the cost to their bodies when they do. Our society teaches us that “faster is better” but when I look at the world around me, I think there is plenty of evidence that this is simply not true. How often do we rush things into production without thorough testing and vetting, only later seeing the damage done to the ecosystem, or even to our own health?  There are plenty of times to move fast. It’s perfectly legal to go 65 on the interstate in some places. We really want our first responders to move quickly when we need them. We certainly wish relief aid to Puerto Rico had moved more quickly. But when the next smartphone will be released? Is that worth asking bodies to sacrifice themselves?

Other living beings don’t grow and live at our pace. Think about the slow lives of trees, or moss. We need those beings for the health of our local ecosystems and our global climate, but we fail to take them into account in our industrial time tables. What if we thought of our work not as a race to the finish line, but more like a group walking the labyrinth, each at their own pace?

Every living being has their natural pace, and it changes over the course of a day, over the course of a lifetime. I encourage you to make this part of your own spiritual practice- moving at a pace, at a rhythm that synchronizes with your deepest self, and with the selves around you. Not only will this support you on your own journey, but each time you arrive at your own pace, each time you march to the beat of your drummer and encourage others to listen for their own, you help shape the rhythm of our lives together towards health, toward sustainability and towards justice. May you listen for your own natural rhythm, as it speeds up, as it slows down. May you have opportunities to follow that rhythm and to notice when it does not match the beat of your companions. May we honor the diversity of the rhythms all around us, younger and older, hearty and frail, fast as a humming bird and slow as a great oak. Let our practice be to listen for our own rhythm among many and the beauty of their coming together.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Finding Our Way

I’m honored to be joining you this weekend as you celebrate the installation of Rev. Erin as your minister. One of the things I love most about being a minister in this area is how the UU ministers care for one another and for our congregations. Occasions like this installation are important because they remind us we are part of something larger than ourselves, and that our ministry just a small piece of the great web of Unitarian Universalism, and that we are never alone.

I grew up UU, and have been a ministry for twenty plus years, so over the decades, I’ve been to a lot of installations and General Assemblies, and every kind of UU gatherings. And one thing you can count on when you go to big gatherings of Unitarian Universalists, there is always buzz about the future of our movement. Together we try to cast a vision of who we are becoming, of who we are called to be. One of my favorite presenters at such events is Galen Guengerich who serves the Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York City. They have over 1000 members and a whole team of ministers and staff. Whenever Galen gives a workshop at GA it is going to be cutting edge. There might be a full jazz ensemble providing meditative interludes. There is certainly a high tech AV system, so that when he wants to references something from popular culture, he pushes some magic button and there is perfect cinema quality music and sound, seamlessly integrated into his presentation.

Sometimes at these national events where large abundantly-staffed congregations take the lead, it’s easy to feel left behind. We are told that if we are not skillful about our online presence, we won’t appeal to a younger populous, that if we don’t use sophisticated technology, and current popular music in our worship, the millennial generation won’t feel at home. We begin to wonder if our low-tech churches are relics of a time past. 

When I was a very little girl participating in the town Easter egg hunt for the first time I found the whole experience kind of overwhelming and confusing. After what seemed endless waiting in my little Easter dress, basket in hand, the hunt suddenly began. After 5 minutes of chaos all the eggs were gone and I returned to my mom, probably crying, holding my basket with only one egg, Mom told me this story, which has been almost archetypal for me ever since. She said “When that crowd of children headed left, you headed right. There you were alone with dozens of eggs, but when you looked up and saw where the other kids were, you left the eggs and followed the crowd. Of course by the time you got there, all the eggs were gone, and when you came back to where you started, all those eggs were gone too. If you had just stayed where you were, you would have a basket full of eggs right now.”

I have been mulling over that story ever since. When I realize that I have been separated from the crowd, I try to ask not “how can I get back into the crowd?” but “where are the eggs around me, right now, that only I can reach?” This morning’s sermon is not a challenge to keep up with the crowd, to have high resolution visuals in your sanctuary or to design an App for the congregation. You already receive plenty of encouragement from our culture to move in that direction.

The congregations I serve have a lot in common with the UU Church of Utica; congregations born out of the Universalist movement in the 1800s -- small congregations with part-time ministers. For the past 11 years I’ve been the half-time settled minister for the UU Church of Athens and Sheshequin, and just last year I started at the UU church in Cortland as a 1/8 time minister. But you, your minister is ¾ time! And I’m told also have a church secretary and a music director! It’s easy to worry that our churches don’t have enough members, enough staff, enough money to make a difference, but small churches have some important gifts that our world needs right now.

The most special gift of the small church is relational-ity. Anyone who has ever gone to a large church knows that sometimes you can get lost in the crowd. But there is no chance of getting lost in the crowd in a small church, we know each other and we know each other’s lives. No newcomer or visitor ever goes unnoticed. When I begin to get discouraged that our website is out of date, and we don’t even have a church Instagram account, I am reminded that people of every age will always want a place in the physical world where they can be with people they know and trust, and where they can meet new people in a web of community. Social Scientists tell us that we Americans are the loneliest we have ever been. Small churches are a healing balm for that loneliness.

When my son was a preacher’s kid out in California, there were Sunday school classes with an age appropriate curriculum for every age, and a flock of other preschoolers for him to play with on Sunday mornings. But for much of the time my son was growing up in the Athens church he was the only youth his cohort in our one room school house. I had a lot of sadness that he didn’t have church friends his own age, but the gift of a family size church is that, like with a large extended family, everyone knew Nick. I would see the much younger kids following him around like ducklings some Sundays, or talking to his friend the retired physicist about life the universe and everything. More than once, over these past 12 years, he stood up during Joys and concerns and talked about how grateful he was for that loving community.

Our small size also makes us nimble. Because we are nimble we are able to respond as the moment unfolds to the needs and gifts of our community. In 2011 a flood immobilized the Penn York Valley, where the Athens congregation is located. The rains came down hard on Thursday, and by the time the streets were clear on Saturday we had to pass through a National Guard checkpoint on the way to the church to assess and repair the damage. Volunteers filled the parking lot sanitizing and drying the contents of our basement. Sunday we worshiped without power, without potable water. At coffee hour, two members wondered how we could be of more help to our neighbors. We held an emergency board meeting, and decided to open our building to folks who just needed to use a bathroom, or a clean place of refuge. The next day we began serving a hot lunch and invited the community to join us in the social hall. Other volunteers delivered sandwiches to people who didn’t want to leave their work salvaging homes or businesses. For weeks we fed and cared for our neighbors until the crowds died down, and our work helping repair the damage of the flood continued in other ways. And once the mud had cleared, we held a public forum on what it might mean to live between 2 rivers in a time of climate change.

If the ministry possible for you here in Utica was a field of eggs ready to gather, there are, in fact, more eggs than you could ever gather in –even with all 108 members of your congregation, your very talented new minister, your staff and all your friends working diligently together. So which eggs will we gather? The Anglo Saxon tradition says that each of us has a Wyrd, formed in our unique intersection of nature and nurture, of time and place. Our Wyrd, like that thread in the poem by William Stafford, is hard for others to see. Sometimes it’s hard even for us to see in the chaotic web of culture and life. It can be particularly elusive when we are looking for the thread binding together a community full of so many diverse needs and gifts. So how do we discern our Wyrd, our own unique path?

Let’s start with our unique Universalist history and theology. That’s what makes us different from the Food bank of Central NY, or the United Way. The good news of Universalism is that there is a love big enough to hold us all. You find that in our first principle- the inherent worth and dignity of every person. This simple idea is actually quite radical at our moment in history. It is as radical now as it was at the founding of Universalism, as radical as it was when this church was founded in the 1800s. We live at a time when American society puts up walls to keep people out, and shows us 100 different ways that some lives have worth and others don’t. We live in a society where being on the right side is prized over compassion, over love. But Universalism sides with love, we have always sided with love. We believe in a love that embraces all life. That is the thread I hold tightly when I’m afraid of getting lost.

When I say love I think immediately of my son. He’s easy to love. I love him not only when he is smart and kind and funny. I loved him when he puked up on me, when he was angry, and frustrated, when he couldn’t tell me what he needed. I loved him when he was older and could tell me that what I wanted for him was not what he wanted for himself. I try to explain to him that while I am so proud of that honor he got in school, there is a love for him when he’s failing school, when he’s not kind, when he’s not funny. This is a Universalist love. A love big enough for each and every person with all their gifts and faults. Even when we screw up. It is a radical kind of love. I believe our Universalist theology suggests that such a love is possible, and challenges us to manifest it in the world day by day.

Easier said than done. It is hard to be loving in our hectic, divisive world. It’s hard to be loving when we ourselves are hurting. That’s why we come together in our UU congregations -- to remind each other of love, not only with our words and our worship, but by practicing and to demonstrating love. Over these next years of your shared ministry together, whenever you feel lost remember that the business of the church is not business, it’s love. Yes, the heat needs to come on in the winter, Yes we strive to have worship every Sunday, but no work of the church is more important than how we care for one another.

This is good news for small churches like us, because whether or not you have a jazz ensemble, or a high tech AV system, you already have everything you need. You have each other. We are following this thread each time we sit in a circle and speak our truth with love. Each time we stay at the table when it’s uncomfortable. Each time we say sorry when we make mistakes. Each time we call back hurtful words. There are a thousand ways, small and large, that we show our love to each other and to the larger world. Each time we manifest our love, we are preaching the good news of our Universalist faith, that there is a love large enough to hold us all.

I believe that far from living in a time when these old Universalist churches are a historic remnant, our communities ago are filled with ministry that is calling out to us- filled with Easter eggs, if you will. The need for our Universalist tradition and for our beloved communities is so great, that an equally great discernment is needed. We have to be willing let go of everything we “should be doing” --all those ideas we hear at conferences, the ministries we witness at other churches, in order to hear our own destiny. Just as each and every person has inherent worth and dignity, I believe that each of our congregations has their own gifts, their own worth, their own path to follow. All Souls has their own powerful ministry in NYC, and you have a totally unique ministry here in Utica. Sometimes we need the courage to take our eyes off the crowd, to follow the thread of ministry right here where we are. It is easy to see all those eggs across the field, the ones about to be scooped up by other kids, and worry about them. Instead look around you- you are surrounded by Easter eggs. You have this beloved community. You have a minister who cares for you. You have a community that needs your ministry. I challenge you to let Love be the thread you follow, and have faith that if you let love lead, there will be eggs wherever you go.