I have learned a little about myself as I have traveled this life. One of the important lessons I have learned is that if I don’t set something, even an important something, as a priority and carve out specific time just especially for it, I will get distracted and will not make time for it in my life. Does that resonate with you?
Back when I was new to ministry, serving Peoples Church Unitarian Universalist in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, I felt something stirring in my heart and soul. I wasn’t clear what it was and I was prepared to ignore that restlessness, and just keep doing what I was doing. That would have been easy. But I was also aware that stirrings if ignored might leak out sideways—in some reactive, perhaps even destructive way. I knew that left to my own druthers, I would just keep my routine, so I signed up for a Spiritual Direction group with other clergy that was being led by a nun at a local retreat center. Being in a group would hold me accountable in my personal growth, give me focus, and most important, since I paid for this experience, I would make myself attend every week.
Now I had heard about Spiritual Direction, but had not been in individual or group Spiritual Direction. My understanding was that the time in the group would be spent with someone sharing something they were struggling with. Then the group members would offer thoughts or questions to assist the person who shared. The members weren’t supposed offer advice. What they were supposed to do was listen for what touched them in what the person shared and offer a question that might deepen the person’s reflection. Questions like, “I wonder if you have felt this way before.” “I noticed that you almost came to tears as you were talking about – whatever it was that the person was talking about.” “Why does this problem feel too big for a solution?” “Do you feel that this situation in your life needs light, but that darkness is mysteriously beckoning you?” I realized that whatever was going on within me probably had a solution and yet while I wanted insight, light if you will, I was finding myself being beckoned by darkness. Counterintuitively, for me that meant going deeper into some dark places to uncover the light within and I wasn’t clear on how to do that myself. I knew it meant I needed silence, reflection, and questions that I was not as of yet asking myself.
How often have you taken a significant amount of time to be silent, to listen to the voice within, and then give voice to your life stories, to your heart felt yearnings, time to attend to where your god or the great whatever is messing with you, or to explore those places within that don’t feel whole? How often have you carved out a chunk of time to reflect on the larger meaning of your experiences or the purpose of your life? How often have you given yourself the gift of time to sit alone or in a group of people with different beliefs who are there to support and help you as you look within? I have talked with many people within and outside of Unitarian Universalist congregations, and time and again, when they realize that I am clergy, I hear from them a yearning for an opportunity to look within in a safe, accepting, supportive environment. Do you feel that yearning to look within? To explore what is stirring or troubling your heart or spirit? To find your center?
Well, as I entered the retreat center, which I had been to many times, I noticed that a couple of people were at the back of the main hall beside a door. I went over and asked them if they were there for the Spiritual Direction group. One elderly man said yes, and introduced himself. He was a chaplain at a local hospital. And the other person was a middle-aged woman who was the pastor of a local Episcopal church. They both had been part of this group for some time. They told me some of the basic rules. Take off your shoes before entering the space for the group. The space was a small room with floor to ceiling windows, very comfortable chairs and a small table in the center. They told me that we were asked to be silent upon entering and to respect the silence until asked to share. I held back entering, not wanting to silent any longer than I had to be. As I was taking off my shoes, a small very elderly woman approached, she was the nun who would be leading the group. She said hello and we greeted one another, then she took off her shoes and entered the room. I followed her in.
As the group started, she lit a candle, offering a centering prayer. A Centering Prayer is a method of meditation used by Christians placing a strong emphasis on the intention to be open to the presence and action of the Divine, spirit, the holy, or your deepest self or center. It starts with a few words or simple prayer, then silence. It reminded me very much of the Zen practice of Zazen meditation. Sitting in silence and letting whatever is going on in your heart, mind, spirit pass freely within you, being open to whatever you might experience, without expectation of whatever particular wisdom, enlightenment, connection you might be given or experience. The word she offered for this centering prayer was “grace”.
Well, “grace” was a mixed bag for me. Growing up Catholic, it had always meant the spontaneous, unmerited gift of the divine favor in the salvation of sinners. And while that jumped into my mind, I know that this meaning no longer held any significance for me. As I softened into the word, the meaning I hold now for grace gradually filled my mind, heart and spirit: unearned love, freely given to oneself and freely given to and accepted from others. In other words, by our very existence, as part of creation, we are worthy of love, self-love and love from others and everyone else is deserving of love, and I feel called to give that love to them. As I settled on this word, I felt the warmth it offered, the calmness and comfort within me growing, and the peace I needed as the many, many minutes of silence progressed.
I wonder, when we practiced the Lectio Divina earlier, if there was a word or phrase that you held onto for a little while, that offered you some warmth, calmness, comfort, peace, or that beckoned you forward into something new, some new awareness, some new insight, something that you will take forward beyond this hour together.
After the silence, the nun gave us some further direction. She said that each week one or two of us would be given time to share a pickle or stirring with the group. I don’t remember if she actually used the word pickle but that word keeps popping up for me when I think about what she said. After the sharing, there would be silence. Then the group would offer questions. Then silence. Then personal reflections. Then silence. Then we would close the group. To me that was an awful lot of silence. But I guess finding my center and gaining some wisdom or insight would be worth it, so I embraced the process.
So as is the case for most of my life in circumstances, when a volunteer was asked for, I volunteered first. I wasn’t exactly sure what to share. I just knew something was going on inside me that I couldn’t ignore, and so I said exactly that. I don’t know how articulate I was, or if I made any sense. I explained that I was pretty sure it had to do with my ministry and how I should live it out in the world. I felt I had accomplished a monumental task in helping the congregation move from one church home to another; I also felt I had made a significant difference in social action and social justice in the community; but I also felt an unease or like I might be drifting off center, and I wasn’t sure why. That was it; I was finished, we headed back into silence. I surely didn’t know what questions they might offer that might help me.
I will share with you that the questions they asked and the contemplation I experienced did in fact help me discern some new direction. And I have come to believe that the practices of contemplative prayers/mediation and Spiritual Direction, are both about inner balance/insight and action, and that being able to balance my inner self with my outer actions. In the ancient Heretical Christian writing, the Gospel of Thomas, it is written: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” This quote has become of a touchstone for me since I have continued contemplative spiritual practices. I know that if I don’t stop and make time to find what is going on inside me so I can find balance internally and between my inside and the outside world, there will be some negative consequences—stress, discomfort, reactiveness. I do not want that if I can avoid negative consequences. And the reality is I can pretty much avoid it by carving time out of my life to be more centered.
I am talking with you about finding your center not only because it is important for you personally to find your center, but that this congregation also has to find its center. Some of the tasks of my Developmental Ministry here is to help you discern who you are as a congregation, what is your mission/mission and what is your covenant with one another. I am also here to help you discern who you want as your next minister. For this discernment process to be fruitful, each of you must ask questions, listen to answers that bubble up, and give each other mental and emotional space to live into the truths that you have discerned. At times, this may not be any easy process, but I guarantee that you will find your center, gain some insight, and it will be worth it.
Let me offer you one more centering meditation to close this sermon. Sit comfortably. Put your hands in your lap. Take a deep breath. Bring your attention to your hands? What is your immediate reaction to your hands. Look at them front and back. Put them in different positions. Hold them up. Put them back in your lap. Hold them away from you. Close them. Open them. Bring them together with intertwined fingers. Take them apart. Tickle your palms. Feel that. Contemplate what your hands have done for you. Contemplate how you have used them to make the world a better place for yourself, for those you love, for those who come into your life, even for just a little while. Be thankful for your hands. Cup your hands. Imagine this cup holds your truth, your understanding of yourself and others in the world. Imagine it holds the grace you offer others. Contemplate how your hands are blessed. Contemplate how your hands will bless. Contemplate how your hands are open for more truth and more understanding. Contemplate how your hands and the hands of others in this community are open to more truth and understanding, more service, and more love. You are blessed; we are blessed; let us bless the world.
My friends finding your center takes time. I invite you to carve out time in your busy lives for some contemplative meditation or prayer, and set attending to your center as a priority in your life. Notice the blessings that this offers you. This is your sacred journey to discover, to learn, and perhaps even to tell us about.