Earth life is slow

We are creatures of Earth; our life is part of the life of the Earth, and we draw our nourishment from it just as plants and animals do. Earth life is slow; autumn and winter are as essential to it as spring and summer, and rest is as essential as motion.

-Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness

It is winter, the days are dark, and nature does not offer up the comfort of warmth. But instead of complaining or decrying this, we can accept it as a part of the creative cycle.

Our bodies need rest. So do our minds. This time of year we can take more time for that by recognizing that everything has a time and place and season. Trust that you will progress and grow, when it is the right time. Spring brings energy, transition, a pushing outward. Winter brings quiet, inner reflection, an evening gathering with friends that is a natural response to the short days, and finally, sleep.

Let the bare trees of this season remind us that we are also needing to look at the bare facts of ourselves, the naked truth of who we are. That will be the starting point for all our love and all our work in the year to come.

An Appetite For Possible Things

All happiness depends upon a natural zest and appetite for possible things.

from Bertrand Russell, “Conquest of Happiness”

When we lose our sense of the possible, our mood darkens.

That first inkling of the road stretching out to a point of light in the distance is about possibility. When we pick up a new book, this is what we hope for. When we embark on a new job, a new relationship, a new project, we draw motivation from the possible.

Inevitably, all people and all projects end up closing off some of the possibilities for us. Once we make a decision in one direction or the other, we commit to a path, and the rest of the options become unavailable.

Our own commitments and choices can thus make our lives seem bleak, like being enclosed in a possibility-less state, like a drab cubicle with no exit.

If we add to that a disposition to look at things fatalistically, it looks even bleaker. If this is the way it was, is, and ever shall be, then what is the point of hoping?

But within the world of constraints, there is still possibility.

We are endowed with creativity, which can find the cracks in the cubicle. We have, under even the most severe constraints, freedom to choose again tomorrow which direction we will go.

Let us open our eyes again to the possibilities, however faint or dimly lit they may be, so that we may be drawn to them, and feel our “natural zest” reawaken. If it is dark, let us be like the seed, and gently push up through the soil. Let us tap that deepest resource of our humanity, our creative spirit.

Venturing Back To Church

When I left full time ministry, I was burnt out. I was down on religion, and angry.

I never thought I’d set foot in a church again.

I was tired of saying things just because I was supposed to and not because I really believed them. I was tired of what I perceived to be a lack of ardor in my congregation for actively reaching out and helping people, and a lack of curiosity about what could be possible. I was tired of people saying that our only mission was to show up and receive communion. I felt restricted, nearly claustrophobic, by the way the lectionary—the traditional weekly Bible readings—limited what we could talk about in our gatherings. I was angry at the hypocrisy of talking the Christian talk and being unwilling to take any risks or make any changes. I was fed up with arguing at board meetings, and with the way people would use financial issues to control the direction of the church. And many other things. The list is long.

So when I left my position as a pastor, I became a spiritual hermit for awhile, keeping to myself and doing much study and reflection. It was a time of healing and recovery for me, but after awhile I began to feel a lack of connection to other people spiritually. It wasn’t a specific desire for church, but rather a need to be around some like minded people. A therapist told me I needed to try going back to church; she could tell I was getting depressed. I was reluctant.

I was living in Dubuque Iowa, and there was a place I was curious about, called the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Dubuque, or UUFD. I decided to try it. Imagine my surprise and delight at attending services there for the first time. I discovered a group of down-to-earth people who were, like me, trying to recover from a former belief system. The people were interested in highly intellectual sermons on a wide array of topics, ranging from religious pluralism to social activism to the latest knowledge of the cosmos. There was an openness and variety of belief that I had not encountered before. There were atheists and believers, agnostics and freethinkers, Catholics and Protestants, and everything in between.

Having been a minister, I was curious about the fact that the UUFD minister, Rev. Kent Mayfield only preaches at the UUFD once a month. (Imagine that! The cumulative pressure of weekly sermons is a stress factor on pastors not generally understood.) The rest of the time the lay people run the service. Those lay services were very important to my first experience as a UU, because they showed me that a) it was possible and b) average people were committed to making that happen, and therefore c) there was a diversity of voice coming from the pulpit.

Anytime you go into a place for the first time, there is apprehension. Will these people welcome me? Will I like them? Is this a complete waste of time? And so on. But from the first, I felt at home, and felt that I was accepted. The people were friendly but not suffocating or over-eager. They did not give off the “desperation vibe”—a well-intentioned phenomenon of new member committees everywhere who descend upon the new person and actually make them feel uncomfortable enough not to come back. They were not overbearing in any way, they simply “were.” That quiet confidence attracted me.

Flower Communion at UUFD

Flower Communion at UUFD

I attended services there for about a year and a half. I learned much from Rev. Kent, a wise gentlemen, a man of the world, an appreciator of the arts, and in general a person whose mind can adapt to and accept anyone. I took his “Building Your Own Theology” course, and received much personal encouragement from him. I also saw how attentively everyone listened to his sermons, which were based frequently on a wide-ranging combination of scripture, philosophy and poets. Spiritual leaders such as the Vietnamese Buddhist and Zen master Thich Nhat Han featured prominently in Rev. Kent’s thinking.

I have since moved away from Dubuque, but this past May I visited UUFD again. Even though I don’t live in Dubuque anymore, I encountered an increased sense of connection, as everyone treated me as a part of things. My kids learned about communion from a pluralistic viewpoint as we went up to the front and took a flower, learning about the history of this ritual for UU’s, and experiencing the meaning of “communion” as a bond between people.

Thanks, truly heartfelt thanks, to the people at UUFD for re-introducing me to church.

A New Goodness

It’s been a year of new beginnings.

The winter was harsh this year. Spring and summer have seemed especially nice this time around. With the advent of those seasons has come a willingness to allow a new start in myself. Toward some new beliefs, a new community in the Unitarian Universalist faith, and toward a new involvement in ministry.

I used to be a Lutheran pastor. In my Lutheran tradition, being good was about responding to something God has done. We are all born sinners and are completely dependent on God’s work through the sacrifice of Jesus to be saved. God is the initiating actor, who lovingly provides His grace in creating and sustaining us. Goodness was defined as those actions instructed or inspired by God, received through the sacred texts of scripture and through the preaching heard in church.

“Good” means something different to me now. Goodness for me is no longer based in sacred text, or in revelation, or in the actions of a heroic figure on my behalf, or in the creedal codes or commandments of a church. Goodness is based in a grounded view of the real world, the one we actually observe in the present moment, and in how our actions in that real world affect others. (My actions have not always affected others in the best way, but looking to another world for forgiveness does not solve that problem, it only takes our focus off of really understanding our own actions.) Goodness is not based in something that comes from the outside in, but is based in the way we interact and adapt to our world.

Goodness is a way we make meaning for ourselves. We are generative beings, each of us as humans are good in that sense, that we are part of the vital natural world. Goodness comes from within us as we live out our lives, choose actions, and reason over those choices.

Goodness is about being happy, about finding our true potential. It is about being honest and self-expressive. It is about finding the best in every belief, every tradition, and every person. It is about becoming empathic, about caring for those who are Other, especially those who are less privileged or who are abused by those in power.

I believe this to be a more self-expressive definition of The Good. It is creative, loving, and genuinely pluralist.

In this blog I would like to share more about that journey toward a new goodness. I appreciate the chance to explore this new sense of goodness, to unpack what I have said here, to say more about why I have found myself in a different place spiritually. I also want share more about Unitarian Universalism and its faith and practices. My engagement with that community has been a large part of my recovery from my own harsh winter, of discontent with what I had formerly believed.

I've felt a new start this spring.

Shedding beliefs that are no longer relevant to who I am has allowed room for new directions

Winter may be harsh, but it makes spring seem all the more lovely. Thanks for joining me on this journey of self-discovery. I hope that it opens up new vistas of what is “good” for you as well.