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

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Living the Best Vision of Ourselves by Reverend Tom Capo

An Amidah is the core of every Jewish worship service, and is therefore also referred to as “The prayer.” Amidah, which literally means, “standing,” refers to a series of blessings recited while standing.  The Amidah is also considered a person's opportunity to approach God in private prayer.   Rabbi Jack Riemer wrote an Alternate Amidah for Rosh Hashanah and I have slightly adapted it to reflect on as we consider a vision for a better self.  You are invited to express a vision of your better self in words or images on the paper after the questions posed in the Amidah.  This paper is for you alone; this reflective writing is just for you.
I invite you into a time of prayer or reflection:
Let us ask ourselves hard questions for this is the time for truth.
Did we fill our days with life or were they dull and empty?
Was there love inside our home or was the affectionate word left unsaid?
Were we a help to our mates, family, or friends, or did we take them for granted?
How was it with our friends: Were we there when they needed us?
The kind deed: did we perform it or postpone it?
Did we respect the rights and feelings of those who worked with us, went to church with us, lived near us?
Did we acquire insights or just possessions?
Did we speak out when something hurtful or negative was said? Or did we fear what the crowd would say and keep quiet?
Did we live according to our values, ethics, morals, and, if not, then have we learned, and will we change? 
Now take some time to express a vision of your better self.

Sermon: Living the Best Vision of Ourselves
Reverend John Dietrich, the founder of Unitarian Religious Humanism wrote: “[Religion is] the up-reaching and aspiring impulse in a human life.  It is life striving for its completest fulfillment, and anything which contributes to this fulfillment is religious, whether it is associated with a god, or not.”  Our Unitarian Universalist Sources   (, from which we draw for our spiritual sustenance and grounding aid us in this striving for “completest fulfillment”.  They remind us of our religious heritage, call us to consider time-honored wisdom, and invite us to draw on these Sources as we look deeply within ourselves.  Two Sources from which we draw include:  Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit; and Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God's love by loving our neighbors as ourselves.  Some people might experience these two Sources as being diametrically opposed, as being mutually exclusive, that it’s nonsense to put them in the same sentence.  But, I think of them as a call for dynamic balance.  We need both the spiritual and the scientific in exploring our faith, beliefs, ethics and morals.  Leaning too much in the direction of the spiritual can lead to idolatries of the mind and spirit, leaning too much in the direction of science can lead to a lack of empathy and compassion.  As Unitarian Universalists we seek balance in our beliefs, ethics, morals, and expression of our faith.  And as Unitarian Universalists, we understand that balance is not the same thing as static; it’s an active state of being.
A number of years ago this congregation decided to be intentionally pluralistic, thus embracing our Unitarian Universalist Sources, all our sources; considering what we all might learn from the various religious, spiritual, and ethical traditions that exist in our world.  As a result of that decision a number of affinity groups have formed over the years.  One of those is our DuPage Unitarian Universalist Church Jewish Heritage Group.  I have felt privileged to join the Jewish Heritage Group at celebrations of Hanukkah and Passover.  What I noticed right away was that while the members of this group treasure the myths and traditions of their Jewish faith, they do so from a more humanistic perspective—in other words god is not the focus of their beliefs, they instead consider the meanings this religious tradition offers them in the here and now. In other words they practice a Jewish theology that finds expression on the moral plane, between individuals. I hope I am not misrepresenting the group when I say that they believe Judaism is not the result of divine intervention, but was molded by the experience of the Jewish people.  That the holy days are human responses to events and celebrations of human development.  And the music and literature are inspired by human experience.  I know for a fact it is accurate to say this church honoring Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah in a Sunday service is important to the Jewish Heritage group. 
            Remembering Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah in our Sunday morning service can also remind Unitarian Universalists of our Judeo Christian roots and gives us an opportunity to consider what we might learn from these time-honored traditions.  We are not here to usurp Judaism or to in any way claim their practices as our own, but to reflect on some of the wisdom and practices of Judaism and consider what we, as Unitarian Universalists, might learn from them. 
            Rabbi Jodi Kornfeld of the Society of Humanistic Judaism wrote: “Rosh Hashanah reiterates [the] themes [of]: forgiveness, resolution, peace-making, and ultimately our ability to choose to change. In making such a choice, Rosh Hashanah is not simply a single day’s observance, but it has a message to be taken to heart and applied daily. It has a particular purpose, if we are wise enough to recognize it. Rosh Hashanah asks that we pause, assess, and recalibrate. We reflect on the past year, and look ahead to the next. It need not be a one-day experience, and indeed traditionally Rosh Hashanah began a ten-day period of introspection leading to Yom Kippur. We can develop the mental habits started on Rosh Hashanah and practice them every day. For example, make a point of setting aside the time to think and share your own company with yourself. The effort will be rewarded with renewed energy and creativity, with greater patience and enjoyment, and with a deeper understanding of ourselves and the meaning of our lives.  It demands that we pay attention; its very name involves using the head, the 'rosh'. Paying attention is the purpose of hearing the Shofar, the ram’s horn. Awaken the senses, now. Listen to those around us, now. Enjoy the blessings in our lives, now. Notice the small wonders, now. That is where the extraordinary lies, where the true sense of awe emerges. The present is where life happens.”
            I have often felt that one thing that we lack in Unitarian Universalism is a tradition or ritual that calls us to intentionally reflect on where we have “missed the mark” and how to move forward after “missing the mark”.  The Hebrew word for sin is “chet”, which literally means “missing the mark.” According to Jewish beliefs, a person sins when he/she/they strays away from making good, correct choices.  For a Unitarian Universalist the term sin may be problematic, but the concept of “missing the mark” by not making choices that are consistent with our values, ethics, morals, and/or beliefs is a concept that we’re all personally familiar with—unless you’re one of the lucky people who never does anything wrong.  We have all made choices that we regret because they are not consistent with our values, ethics, morals, and/or beliefs, that is the human condition; we are not perfect.  The question is what do we do once we have missed the mark.  Do we reflect on what we did?  Do we consider how to forgive or make amends?  Do we learn from this behavior?  Do we make changes in our lives due to this experience?  And how can we consistently hold our values, ethics, morals, and/or beliefs in the front of our mind so that we reduce the frequency of missing the mark? 
            The beginning of the Jewish year is also more or less the beginning of our Unitarian Universalist church year.  I wonder if we UUs might find a way to incorporate an intentional time of reflection and renewal into the beginning our church year or if not then, perhaps another time of the year.  Not to appropriate the Jewish tradition, but to find a way to honor the importance of learning from our times of missing the mark.  And a time to envision being our better selves. 
            During the time of reflection I led you through earlier, I invited you to write a vision of your better selves.  Notice I didn’t say “best” self.  It’s not about perfection.  It’s about improvement.  What, if anything, about your better self is different from who you are, how you are, today?  Consider where you might put that paper if you want to hold onto that vision.  Consider if there is more to learn as you go deeper into that vision—where it might take you on your journey. 
          When I talk about a vision of our better selves, I am not talking about better in the sense of materialism making more money, having a successful career, fancy cars, and club memberships.  I am talking returning to truest selves, about being the most authentic self we can envision – the person that we know ourselves to be.  UU minister Reverend Suzelle Lynch goes even further with this thought, writing: “Vision is like passion, it surges up from our roots, from the core of our being.  Vision is a force within us based in the principles by which we know we must guide our lives.  Our vision rises up from the values we hold dear – it’s the calling which we cannot ignore, it is the most powerful motivating moral force within us…when we look inside, into our hearts, that’s where our vision is, waiting to awaken us.” 
         If we’re going to have an honest relationship with ourselves then we must make time to stop and let that vision waiting within to awaken us.  We also need to stop and reflect on who we are and how we are in our relationships with other people.  Hopefully, you find opportunities to do both of these here in this church.  And here we can practice being our better selves; here we can ask ourselves difficult questions; here we can share parts of ourselves that are not always accepted outside these walls.  Here we can be affirmed for who we truly are and for being better.  And when we miss the mark—and that does happen—here we can practice forgiveness, reconciliation, and peacemaking.  While we find wisdom in the religious and spiritual traditions of the world and from many prophetic people and from science and reason, we are not here to emulate Jesus or Buddha or Mouhamed or Confucius or Lao Tzu or anyone; we are here to encourage each of us to be the most authentic person you can be.  Being your most authentic self takes work and practice and we will be there to support and encourage you in this work, and rejoice in what you accomplish.  We are all capable of being our better selves.  This church is a place “where we encounter each other with wonder, appreciation, and expectation, where we call out of each other strengths, wisdom, and compassion that we never knew we had.” (Beverly and David Bumbaugh, UU ministers)  And may it always be so.