Friday, December 7, 2018

Remembering Life's Gifts and Grace by Reverend Tom Capo

Reading: The Gift by Unitarian Universalist, Reverend David Blanchard
Sometimes I think I can teach my children things that will make life better for them as they grow up.  I want to believe I can protect them, or that there is some way for me to do their learning for them.  This line of thinking is routinely flawed, not because my children are poor learners, but because I’m not always the best teacher.  Despite my efforts to avoid repeating mistakes, I’m still learning things I thought I knew.  Just last year I mistook a gift for a present. 
This gift was a homemade potholder woven of colorful scraps of cloth.  It wasn’t perfect.  It wasn’t beautiful.  It wasn’t particularly unusual.  Accepting it as a present, I placed it into service beside the stove.
Four days before Christmas I was called to officiate at a memorial service for a friend.  Talking with her five and nine year old daughters, I asked what things they liked to remember about their mom.  What things did they do together?  What had she taught them?  They were busy, deep at work on a gift-making project, but they expressed some memories that mattered, and recounted some gifts their mother had shared with them: making cookiess…snuggling in bed…being their Brownie leader…planting bulbs.  Then the nine year old looked down and said, “And she taught us how to make these potholders!”
Of course!  A gift! How could I miss it!
 Presents are the sort of thing that fit on lists, complete with size and color preference.  Presents are the sorts of things we are smart enough to ask for.  Gifts are altogether different.  We don’t usually think to ask for them, perhaps we think we don’t deserve them, or don’t want to risk expressing the need.  Maybe we don’t even recognize the need ourselves.  Gifts differ from presents because no matter what form they take, they always represent something greater, something deeper, something more enduring; they are about things like love, respect, and affirmation…They can be easy to miss.

When preparing for the service today, I came across this reading about the difference between gifts and presents.  I wondered how often I notice that difference.  At Thanksgiving, the ritual is that my mother puts a piece of paper on the refrigerator and everyone is supposed to write what they want for Christmas and their sizes and color preferences.  Then on Christmas day, we generally get some of the things on the list.  But the unexpected, thoughtful, or confusing gifts are much more fun.  Isn’t that true for you too?  My aunt has been making pottery now for the past couple years, and everyone in the family gets something that she has made: plates, bowls, wall hangings—most of which have a Cajun theme or New Orleans theme.  They have crawfish or beads or floats or Mr. Bingle on them.  These gifts are reflective of who she is and of our family’s heritage.  In addition she makes sure to send something she has made especially for each of us.  A one of a kind item that often we have no idea what to do with, but love none the less.
            Recently, let’s say in the past few weeks, I have come to realize that gifts are not limited to things, just as Reverend Blanchard realized.  I have been going through a lot, and many of you, realizing this, have given me a number of gifts, not presents, gifts, things I didn’t think to ask for, wasn’t sure I deserved, or didn’t want to risk expressing the need for—either to myself or to you.  Gifts of love, respect, and affirmation.  Someone invited me on a walk in the woods and then gave some wooden worry birds he had carved; you know you hold them in your hands and rub them while you think, reflect, or worry; rubbing the wood is soothing and calming.  And someone offered me a helpful discussion on how to manage grief.  Some have offered hugs and some reference letters.  I didn’t even think about asking for reference letters until one of you came into my office and asked if I needed one.  Others of you have offered to go out to lunch, or dinner, or a coffee just to talk, not about anything in particular, just to talk.  These gifts--offered in the spirit of love—are things I very much appreciate and I will remember.   
            I know this might sound strange, but these gifts made me stop and consider how lucky I am, how blessed I am, how much abundance there is in my life.  I have more than things than I need, I have more love in my life than I could have ever hoped to have. I am blessed by the Universe or the divine or by life.  Now this might sound strange coming from a Unitarian Universalist minister, but here’s the thing, I believe that there is an abundance of grace in the world in every moment, if we just take time to mindfully take it in.   Grace is the unexpected, undeserved, wonderful, (often needed things) often unwarranted kindnesses that life offers.  I don’t think grace is found; I believe that grace is there for us to notice.
            Unitarian Universalist Reverend Jeanne Harrison Nieuwejaar wrote in her book Fluent on Faith:  “A cartoon in the New Yorker a while back shows bicyclists in four panels.  In the first, a young man in sleek cycling attire pedals away while the balloon over his head captures his thinking, “Fitness.”  In the second, a woman with baskets and saddlebags filled with bundles thinks, “Environment.”  In the third, a teenager thinks, “Independence.”  And in the last, a young child, smiling ear to ear, thinks simply, “Wind.”
            When I read about this cartoon, I remember how when I was in college at Texas Christian University, I used to take walks on winter nights, often all by myself, from my dorm to a little park about a six blocks away.   I remember the joy I felt just breathing in the cold air.  I felt the cold air was an unexpected special gift, invigorating me, making me smile, something just for me that I needed though until I breathed in I didn’t know I needed or even wanted it.  
            Right after that memory popped into my mind, I left my office here and went outside.  I closed my eyes and took a deep breath.  The cold air filled my lungs and I felt the same joy that I did all those years ago.  I smiled and let my mind wander, opening my mind to all the other unexpected, undeserved, wonderful things that pass through my life every moment of every day.  The sound of a bird turweet turweet turweet.  The breeze against my skin.  Even the wonder of being able to balance on two legs or even one.  I know these may sound like little things, but they bring joy to my heart when I just stop and notice them. 
            In these past few weeks I am taking more time to notice the little things, embrace them, feel gratitude for them.  And I am feeling the abundance of gifts and grace in my life.  I have more than I need and my spirit is full.  I have more than enough to share. 
            When was your homemade potholder or Mr. Bingle plate moment? When was your last “wind” or “deep breath of cold air” moment?  Life will continue to offer these moments every day.  It's up to us now to stop and notice.

Monday, September 24, 2018

What You See is What You Get: Tuning our Vision toward Love by Sarah Cledwyn preached at DuPage UU Church on 9/23/2018

Several years ago I encountered a profound shift in my life.
My marriage ended, I moved.  My financial future and my work life were in flux.  On top of everything I developed a herniated disk in my upper back that caused constant pain in my right arm and hand.  I did not know how long my health insurance would continue and my back worsened making driving, writing, using the computer and daily functioning full of pain.  It was a challenging and terrifying time.  A crowd of sorrows had definitely swept through my life and I was not laughing.  I saw my situation dire.  I needed to fix my life immediately and at the same time, felt incapable of figuring anything out due to my physical pain and the many unknown factors in managing a completely new way of life.  During this time I had a powerful dream.  
In the dream, all was black and dark.  I was on my hands and knees, but I could not see anything because of the darkness.  I knew that on the floor there were black and iron panes of stained glass windows and I tried to put them together, but was repeatedly frustrated, to the point where I woke up several times in extreme pain.  Each time I sank back into sleep, I would re-enter the dream and try to put the pieces together; each time failing and coming to a new place of surrender.  In the end it was clear to me that these pieces were self-assembling and my efforts to put them together were unnecessary and even harmful.  The dream taught me that my job was to sit in the dark until things came together.  Trying to organize the “panes” was beyond my ability.  I couldn’t fix it.
We all face parts of our lives when it seems that everything is shifting sands, when transition, mystery or a crowd of sorrows sweep us into unknown territories that we are asked to navigate and learn about.  How we see what’s happening in these times is an important invitation into raising our awareness which in turn can bring us to a place of positive and conscious creation.  There is power in our vision and influence in what we see.  We also have choice around how we look at situations and our part in them that make healing and growth possible or unlikely.
I was fortunate to attend my first General Assembly this year and met a person from your congregation.  She said, “Our church is imploding.”  My ears perked up because this kind of statement implies something I work with all the time as I companion people.  It may be that in the living experience of your community, you are in a place that everything is shifting sands, where transition, mystery or a crowd of sorrows have swept you into unknown territories that you are being asked to navigate and learn about.  I wonder if we could just take a moment to feel into this?  How do you see this place?  Do you see your community imploding?  Are there shifting sands here? 
        Spiritual traditions are full of stories like this, stories of transformation.

Things and people come apart, come undone.  They enter a dark night of the soul or a healing crisis or a pilgrimage of the heart and in that space of uncertainty they are re-made anew into new life, new identity and dedicated to new work.  For Rumi himself, he was living a very nice life as a scholar and civic leader until he encountered a spiritual teacher named Shams.  They had a dynamic and tumultuous relationship that resulted in Sham’s murder by Rumi’s family and Rumi losing almost everything.  Rumi never wrote a single poem until he had been completely undone by this period in his life.  Out of the wreckage emerged some of the most beautiful sacred poetry ever written.  I have come to see from these spiritual transformation stories that the times when crowds of sorrows visit, when things are imploding are part of a larger cycle of learning and creation.  The crisis is not the end of the story.  When we hold the space together, we have a chance to walk through the unfolding toward a different vision; toward healing and new life.
We see this same idea echoed in other arenas of life.  In the field of positive psychology, Dan Siegel has done extensive work on trauma and resiliency.  Some of his work focuses on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  In a study with the military the researchers noticed that most soldiers knew about PTSD and what its signs and symptoms were.  Some soldiers upon returning home from deployment anxiously watched themselves and their friends for signs of PTSD worrying that they might go crazy or be swallowed up by this illness.  While learning about PTSD was helpful in raising awareness so soldiers could get help, the researchers found “It is also important to have the awareness that people who have experienced trauma can go on to not only “survive” the trauma but also experience what has been identified in the literature as “Post Traumatic Growth”. Understanding that this is possible is an important element that contributes to fostering hope.
Post traumatic growth is defined as the “experience of individuals whose development, at least in some areas has surpassed what was present before the struggle with crises occurred. The individual has not only survived, but has experienced changes that are viewed as important, and that go beyond the status quo” (Tedeschi and Calhoun, 2004).”
           This is important.  When soldiers understood, not only about PTSD, but that it also opened the space for Post Traumatic Growth fear lessened and what once looked like a dreaded diagnosis, turned into a journey with a hopeful destination.  The new information and a more complete story changed what was seen as possible.  It created a new vision of healing.
           In the examples shared so far, an important component of each is the re-framing and new way of seeing that allowed something new to open up and unfold.  One day in the middle of my own time of transition, I was in a class where we were asked to identify any pain in our body and to simply sit and witness it.  To just notice what was actually there.  Was it a pressure, was it an ache?  What came to me in those moments of silent attention was the realization that I was pinching myself.  I was in a very difficult time and I was pinching myself.  This was certainly true.  My thoughts pushing me to get everything fixed right now, my fear of all that was uncertain and unknown served to put me in a pinch.  I realized in that class that the pinch was a choice and I didn’t have to see the situation that way.  I could choose to treat myself with compassion and kindness.  This was another permission to sit in the unknown as an act of love.  It was a radical shift in my thinking and a practice that I immediately engaged in. This experience and my dream invited new way of seeing what was happening.  As I surrendered to rest and stopped trying to fix everything, my body started to heal.  As I moved into a new and unknown life, I started to explore and look for new ways to be.  From this new place of curiosity, there began to be a feeling of empowerment. 
            In trauma healing, simply knowing that some kind of growth and thriving is possible after significant loss is something to aim for and work for.  If there is thriving, then investing in healing is worth it.
            Even quantum physics has something to teach us here.  I recently read a quote by Max Planck, “When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change”.
Much rigorous research has been done to study the effect of the observer on scientific experiment.  What we have learned is there isn’t the separation and individuality that we have assumed in the past.  In Lynne McTaggert’s now classic book, “The Field” she describes a robust body of scientific work looking at the effect of thought on machinery and events.  Machines programmed to generate random events have been influenced by the thoughts and intentions of study participants into generating events less randomly.  This is fascinating.  If our thoughts can do that with a machine, imagine what our intentions and thoughts can do within a living community.  I return to the question then…How do you see your life?  How do you see this place? 
The vision you bring here is guaranteed to influence this space.  Are you looking for what you want to see?  Are you gathering evidence for the story you already see in this place?  If I walk in these doors looking for the ways that this place is imploding, I will find plenty to support that way of seeing because every community, even at its best will include this aspect of life.  If I walk into these doors looking for the ways this place is coming alive, I will also find plenty to support that way of seeing because, again, all communities will include this aspect of life.  If both ways of seeing are true, then what do I want to look for as I walk in these doors?  Here is an invitation into curiosity and wonder.  If the thought that this place is falling apart, or my life is falling apart cause me anxiety and fear, if I look around at my fellow travelers and feel protective and defensive at their roll in it, I will create in this place a divisive and upsetting environment.  The thought, is not helping me to create what I would hope to see, which for me is a life or a community that is based on love and compassion, not anxiety and fear.  If I get to choose what to look for, I want to look for what is coming alive, for where love and compassion live.  I want to move closer into participating in and creating that reality.  I have the awareness and choice to encounter my life with that vision and see where it takes me, see where it takes us.  Now I could practice changing my thoughts of things falling apart and instead get curious wondering about what kind of possibility and more delightful vision could unfold out of this shifting; I could look around at my fellow travelers and see collaborators and allies in creating a place of more love and compassion.  This is the energy I want to bring to this community.  I wonder what new vision might unfold coming from this place of possibility?
So where do we go?  What path do we want to make together?  One starting point in this journey is to begin by exploring our own truth and being curious about ourselves and what vision we bring to life.  Being cleared out by a crowd of sorrows, experiencing trauma or loss comes with hurt, grief and pain. Airing our stories in an environment of love, compassion and non-judgment is powerful medicine that allows the pain to release and for a new healing story to emerge.  In my own experience and in the psychology research deep listening was a significant factor in the healing and recovery from trauma. I would like to recommend 3 practices to foster this kind of loving exploration.  The first is work you can do to listen to and explore your own thinking.  It is especially helpful if your pain comes out as blaming and complaining.  Spiritual teacher Byron Katie calls this method of inquiry “the work” and has a beautiful process that can be used to explore our inner and sometimes unconscious ways of thinking.  You can search online for her “Judge your neighbor” worksheet.  This practice helps to reclaim our power of choice over what we think and what way of seeing we are bringing to a relationship with a person or community we find difficult.  Second, sometimes our work on our own just isn’t enough.  The gift of another loving person to witness us has the power to give us even more help in exploring our thinking and choosing. This kind of deep listening is fostered here in this place in spiritual direction (and covenant?) groups.  Another practice to embrace is to engage in regular acts of praise and gratitude.  What are you grateful for here, in your life?  Look for it.  You’ll find it.  When you look in this way, when you set out searching for love, you will find more love and you will create more love.  All of these practices lead to the same place; an openness to be where we are and to choose a vision of love.
We are all in this together.  We need each other.  What you create of your life, what path you walk into being in turn helps create this place of community which in turn helps create the world.  Can you come together in the shifting sands and share the journey into the possibility of the next moment?  Can you soften into love and share your deepest joys and concerns, the ones underneath your hopes and your fears?  Can you pause all attempts to fix what’s happening and hold each other’s hands in the darkness and uncertainty looking for the love that is here till you find it?  I hope you will look because in looking you will tune your vision and you will find and create the love and community you seek.

Sarah Cledwyn, MA is a Spiritual Director and an energy medicine practitioner from St. Paul, MN.  Sarah is a member of Unity Church Unitarian and brings her skills as a healer to her congregation and to the world.  Sarah works in private practice assisting individuals, groups and organizations to gain greater awareness, come into conscious alignment with their values, and to make choices towards greater love and life.  More information can be found at her website