January 18–Woyaya: Magic and Mystery

I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next.

Gilda Radner, Delicious Ambiguity

I have to admit that one of the most recurring themes of my own life experience is the discovery that a thing is not fixed and unmovable.  A child of the very end of the 1950’s and raised in a world that was still very much a 1950’s world, the first impressions of my life were that there were rules, rules must be followed and that if you followed the rules, things worked out well.   Of course, the unspoken rule in such settings is that if things don’t go well it must mean that someone wasn’t following the rules.

The rules could be everything from how to hold your fork at the table to obeying a command of sacred scripture.  To my younger self, I’m not sure that those felt any different one from the other.  It was the same older, beloved people who were teaching me both that I must hold my fork a certain way and that God required a particular thing.  And I believed them.  And now, I believe that they also believed these things.  This was not a period in American life where doubt was much part of the conversation–except to answer it with a clear cut dictum.  A rule.

As we live, hopefully we grow.  We are going.  And we will get there.  We don’t know how, but we will. Woyaya.

I learn, again and again, the deep if often painful value of not knowing.  Not knowing who. Not knowing when.  Not knowing why.  Not knowing where.  Those questions each by themselves account for periods of searching, struggling and to some degree suffering in my life.  They also, without exception, account for growth and insight in my life.  As I shared with a friend recently who had suffered a deep loss:  my losses always seem to tenderize my heart.  I emerge broken, tender and changed.  I think I am a better human being for these experiences, though I would not wish for any of them.  I tend to think that these are universal experiences.

I really believe in using my imagination to create the reality I want to live into, and it often works.  I call that good magic.  I also know that sometimes the reality that emerges is painfully different than what I imagined.  I call that mystery.  I enjoy the harvest of good magic, but mystery always changes the way that I see and experience life.

Woyaya.  We are going.  I don’t know how we will get there.  But, I know we will.

Bob Patrick

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January 16: Woyaya: Working on the Vision

Every year for many years now, I try to read or listen to a recording of one of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches.  This year, because we used an excerpt in our service at the Unitarian Universialist Congregation of Gwinnett from the American Dream speech given at Lincoln University on June 6, 1961, I chose to listen to the full speech.  You can listen to the 30 minute speech it here. Lincoln University, located in Pennsylvania, is the first degree granting historically black university in the US, founded in 1854.

King gave this speech 55 years ago.  I was two years old.  I allowed my imagination to take me back into the world I knew in Birmingham, AL as a child.  I remembered as I listened to both King and the crowd he spoke to at Lincoln University 55 years ago that my life-time ago there was this way of seeing life and human beings in this country. It affected both how black people saw themselves and how white people saw themselves.  It was a vision constructed around segregation.  In so many ways this vision of the way we were held black people back while it allowed white people to advance.  Because this vision of the way we were was built upon the notion that white people were superior and black people were inferior, the whole vision was by its very nature infused with fear.  Even the fears were different, though.  This truth struck me over and over again as I listened to this great voice lay out a new vision.

Part of the truth that struck me was how almost 60 years ago there were leaders helping black people to see through the evil of that old vision and to see beyond the fears they had–fears that they would never be free, that their children would never have opportunity, that they as a people would never be equal sharers in this thing called the American Dream. What struck me more profoundly is that 60 years ago there were not leaders working just as passionately and intently to help white people see through the evil of that old vision and to see beyond the fears that they had–fears that they would lose pride as American citizens, that they would somehow be dragged backwards if the black community enjoyed progress, that the only way to be in the world was as superiors and inferiors, and if black people moved up it would necessarily mean that white people would move down.  The only real efforts being made among white people was to quiet their fears and tell them that nothing was really going to change.  Many white people believed that extra lie–and to this day think that nothing has nor needs to change.

We who are white are just beginning to do the necessary work on ourselves for anything like an American Dream to be a possibility for anyone.  Our presidential election has sounded the latest call for why we must work on ourselves–we who are white–and determine what sort of vision can frame this thing called America so that all of its daughters and sons enjoy this illusive thing called freedom. The old evil of white superiority fueled this presidential election and we were horrified to see how many of our fellow citizens either hold that vision, or did not find that vision disturbing enough not to join the electoral vote.  This is where we are, and where we are going requires our serious work.

I imagine today that Dr. King would tell us that, in the words found in the middle of this 1961 speech, that we have become a neighborhood, we black and white folks.  He would acknowledge that we even live together in many neighborhoods, but I suspect he would observe the harder truth:  we still have not achieved a clear brother and sisterhood.  We still have that work to do.  Serious work.  Hard work.

We are going.  And we will get there.  I hope we will.

Bob Patrick

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January 12–Woyaya: Remember Hope?

Poet, Mary Oliver, begins her poem “The Journey” with these words:

You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations – – –
though their melancholy
was terrible. It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.

I think we probably spend a lot of our lives wondering what it is we are supposed to do, what the meaning of our lives is, whether there is any purpose to what we do.  The German poet, Rilke, would remind us that it’s not the answers to such questions that mean the most but living into the questions themselves.

Still, I think we also have moments–the kind that Oliver captures here–moments when we know what we have to do, or what things mean, or some sense of purpose about our lives.  For me, these are fleeting–extremely welcome and cherished–but fleeting nevertheless.  Maybe it’s because of the winds that try to pry that sense of knowing what I must do away from me.  Those winds come from many directions: from unexpected events that overwhelm us; from people, even those close to us, who criticize or demean even while “trying to be helpful.”  There’s nothing quite so disorienting than saying:  “this is what I must do” only to have someone show up and say “you absolutely cannot do that thing.”

Many people in this country felt that way about the recent election.  We had a sense that progress would continue in several important directions.  The election results came as a horrible wind with cold fingers prying at our very foundations.  The result for many is a kind of disorientation, and no one likes feeling that way.  We want direction.  We want meaning.  We want purpose.  We want some security.

But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice,
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do – – – determined to save
the only life you could save.

As in the poem, so in life.  If we hold the memory of that moment when we knew, when we had direction, when we felt purpose, when we knew the meaning of things–the cold, distracting winds subside and the stars come out again.  After being tested for a time, that knowing becomes even clearer.  It becomes our own voice.

We don’t know what sort of period we enter as a nation.  If it should be a dark and cold storm, we can trust that what we knew and felt within us before, what hopes for progress, what directions we traveled will emerge again, and they will be our own voices.  And these voices will keep us company for a lifetime.

Bob Patrick

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January 9–Woyaya: The Passing Landscape

Recently, I listened to a conversation between Krista Tippett, Parker Palmer, and Courtney Martin.  Their conversation was about “rebellion and the inner life.”  There was one moment that particularly caught my attention.  Parker Palmer is one of my mentors-through-books, and he said this about a word that some people are hesitant to use:

. . . if the word “soul” doesn’t work for you, it’s “identity” and “integrity” in the language of secular humanism. It’s the ”spark of the divine,” in the language of Hasidic Judaism. It’s “big self” or “no self” in the paradoxical language of Buddhism. Everybody has a name for it — different name — and nobody knows its true name.

A moment later, Palmer added this which made me stand still and ponder:

I think that the way you talk about the soul as a piece of intelligence in us and a compass — which is distinct from the intelligence of our minds, or even of our emotions. And there’s a line of Mary Oliver’s poetry, “This is the first, wildest, and wisest thing I know, that the soul exists and that it is built entirely out of attentiveness.” And that’s another thing that we have to carve — seize space for.

And so one of my mentors-through-books is quoting another, Mary Oliver.  The soul is built entirely out of attentiveness.

Just like it is possible to go sailing down the road in a car and not be aware of tens of miles of landscape as they pass by, it is possible to journey through our lives unaware, dulled to the landscape of humanity and the earth that is all around us.  When we are living from our souls–our big selves–our integrity–it is because we have become attentive.  We are, as Palmer says later in the conversation, immersing ourselves in the substrate of being human that is always there–if we create spaces for it.

We are going, and we will get there, our song says.  It strikes me that our going and getting there are often one and the same thing–especially as we are able to be present to the journey, able to sink down and immerse ourselves in the presence of life–our own lives and the landscape of other lives around us.

If we don’t run away.  I notice in my own journey a tendency, sometimes,  to run away from aspects of the human landscape that I find frightening or challenging or just too different from what I know.  I suspect I am not alone in this.  I also know from times when I’ve dared not to run away that being present to the frightening, the challenging and the too different, can be a new, deep moment in my journey.  When I run away, what am I running away to?  Mindless inattention to the passing landscape.

Bob Patrick

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January 5 – Woyaya: Pilgrimage

I am a big fan of synchronicity, the connection that can be found between randomly occurring events; I experienced one such unexpected moment recently.  I serve on the sabbatical committee at church, helping the congregation travel the days to come while our minister goes on the sabbatical. The day after one of our meetings, I caught a program on PBS entitled “Sacred Journeys”.  Produced in 2014, the host, Bruce Feiler, explores the experience of pilgrimage in several of the world’s religions.

Pilgrimage is about both the journey and the destination.  It is about removing oneself from the usual experiences of everyday life to seek out a place where the unseen and unheard can be felt. Each pilgrim journeys for their own reasons, but as Bruce Feiler states “It is an experience that you cannot do alone.  You must experience the suffering and support of others as part of the journey.”

Pilgrimage is not part of the Unitarian Universalist theology, at least not that I am aware.  People may go to Boston, MA, to see the headquarters of the UUA or to Tulsa, OK to see one of the nation’s largest UU congregations, but there is no one place that we endow with sacred power.  As it says in one of our hymns, “…ours is a religion that, like sunshine, goes everywhere.”  We have a direct line to the awe and wonder that imbues the entire planet.  Unitarian Universalism allows me to be intimately acquainted with the sacredness of life.  For this I am grateful.

I have come to think of my weekly attendance as church as a very small personal pilgrimage.  I am reminded weekly  that I am not alone in my quest for meaning and I find that the diversity of others serves only to enrich my experience.  The community of seekers that I find on Sunday mornings reminds me that we are all connected to each other.  Everyone, everywhere.

Our minister has planned some very specific destinations for her sabbatical time; the time for our congregation is not as clear. We know only when we will start and when we will end.  What is certain is that we will go together, supporting one another as we go.  For me, that is enough to make the journey worthwhile.  See you in church.

Karen Smith

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January 4–Woyaya: Going Together, Or Not At All

Somewhere along the way in my theological education and work, I came across the saying:

We either go to heaven together, or we don’t go at all.

When I heard it, it jolted me, and almost instantly, I knew it was true.  I think that’s the day I became a Universalist.

I am much less interested in whether we think that there is a heaven (or hell) after death than I am with the implications for human progress.  We all like to take pride in our accomplishments, and well we should.  Human progress includes individual progress in any endeavor that we consider of value: learning to read, learning to color inside the lines, learning to catch a ball, graduating a school, finding a job, enjoying a job, finding a life partner, coming up with a good idea, successfully arriving at a destination on a trip, starting a company that is successful, building, painting, or writing something with your own hands, creating anything that you set out to create.  Progress in human endeavor is worth celebrating however small or large.

A few years ago, I was invited to the UK to offer workshops for Latin teachers there.  The trip meant flying to Manchester, England and then taking a train to Sheffield, and then a bus within Sheffield to the University.  After my workshops because of an airplane delay, I was able to visit friends in Wales.  That meant a bus, to a train to another train.  Not accustomed to this kind of public transit, I was really terrified of my ability to make all of these connections. From my computer in our kitchen in Lawrenceville, GA, I bought all of the plane, train and bus tickets that I needed.  I arrived in each place, and secured those tickets which I had purchased digitally, and one by one, made each connection.  Every connection felt like a huge accomplishment!  How silly that would sound to Britons who do this sort of thing every single day.

Truth be told? In almost all of the connecting stations and cities, I had to ask for help, and in every single place, kind and patient human beings helped me find the right station, the right track, the right seat, the right bus.  I got there!  But I only got there because of the generosity of others.

We all are going–on the journeys of our lives.  We all know and celebrate certain successes.  And, really the truth be told–not a single one of us ever does it all on our own.

We either go to heaven together, or we don’t go at all.

Bob Patrick

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January 3–Woyaya: Already Going

This is the time of year that we tend to line up all our faults and one by one proclaim how we’ll change them. I’ll be less sarcastic. I’ll be more organised. I’ll get things done well before the deadline. I’ll lay out my clothes every night…

For some reason, this time of year has become less about beginnings and more about endings. We try to “end” the things we perceive as bad, and change them into something good.  I’ll eat less junk food. I’ll go to the gym more.

Personally, I’ve never been good at making resolutions. What I find, and I suspect this is more common than not, is that when I make resolutions, what I’m really doing is deciding ways I can be more of what other people want. I resolve to change things that I’ve been told are faults.

I would put forth this about our “faults”. So what… Rather than resolving to change those things about us… what if we decided to put them to good use. Rather than resolve to go to the gym (which many people hate) what if we resolved to find an activity we loved – gardening, running, dancing. Rather than resolve to eat what society tells us is “approved food” we decide to put our palates on a journey, discovering which food is both good for us and good to us.

What if we considered our faults as a song of new beginnings, in the dark, cold, frozen world we live in?

Miriam Patrick

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January 2 – Woyaya: The Long Way ‘Round

“I’ve got my ticket for the long way ’round,
The one with the prettiest view.

It’s got mountains, it’s got rivers,
It’s got woods that’ll give you shivers
But it sure would be prettier with you.”

~ When I’m Gone, lyrics by A.P. Carter and Luisa Gerstein

Sometimes even when I know where I’m going, I lose my way.  There is a certain degree of anxiety involved in the realization that I am suddenly not where I expected to be.  Unfamiliar sights, foreign landscape, lost sense of direction…  The trick, I have learned, is not to panic, not to lose myself.  I might have forgotten that at times during the past couple of months…

I remember riding with my dad when I was a child, before the days of electronic GPS.  Occasionally, the folded map or the handwritten directions would fail us (or, perhaps more correctly, we would fail them), and we would find ourselves on unfamiliar roads, in unfamiliar territory.  Lost.  We would find ourselves in a place my father euphemistically called “the scenic route”.

My father’s perspective – perhaps entirely for my benefit – was almost always a positive one:  Yes, this detour meant we were going to arrive at our chosen destination later than we’d planned, and yes, we now had to pay even greater attention to the route we were on in order to actually reach our goal, but eventually we’d get there.  And we might even see some interesting things along the way.  We’d definitely learn something important about Where We Are (and maybe even about Who We Are) that we didn’t know before.

And all of this new knowledge?  If we were smart, it would stand us well as we traveled any future roads.  We.  The two of us.  Because even though he was the one driving, we were traveling together.

Today we find ourselves staring ahead at an unfamiliar political landscape.  For most of us, we didn’t intend to be here, and we might not be sure we ever wanted to be close to where we’ve gotten.  But this is the road we’re on.  Are we lost?  Perhaps.  But the trick is still not to panic.  We are resilient, and we can still get where we are going.  We are together – all of us – and taking the long way ’round doesn’t deter us from our goal.

We’re not walking a straight path anymore.  (That we ever were was an illusion, anyway.)  We’ve got mountains to climb and rivers to cross; and navigating these woods definitely gives me shivers.   But it sure is prettier with you.

~ Christiana


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January 1–Woyaya: We Are Going

Happy New Year!  With this word from the language of Ghana, we welcome the beginning of 2017:  Woyaya!  This is the song that becomes our theme for the month of January, so let’s look at its words.

We are going,
Heaven knows where we are going,
But we know within.
And we will get there,
Heaven knows how we will get there,
But we know we will.
It will be hard, we know,
And the road will be muddy and rough,
But we’ll get there,
Heaven knows how we will get there,
But we know we will.
Woyaya, woyaya, woyaya, woyaya.

The Unitarian Universalist Association website offers this background information about our hymn:

Written by Ghanaian drummer Sol Amarifio, Woyaya is the title song of a 1971 album by Oisibisa, a musical group of Ghanaian and Caribbean musicians. It was frequently heard in work camps throughout central West Africa in the 1970s and 1980s. The arrangement in Singing the Journey comes from the version by Ysaye Barnwell (of Sweet Honey in the Rock). “Woyaya,” like many other African scat syllables, can have many meanings. According to the song’s composer, it means “We are going.”

You can listen to the recording of this song by Oisibisa, the Ghanaian music group here.

The words are affirming and encouraging.  They support human dignity and without question our Unitarian Universalist affirmation that every person has the right, even the responsibility to search out truth and meaning.  It strikes me, though, that this song supports my journey and affirms my life best when I show up with my questions, my curiosity, and my willingness (let’s call it timid courage) to explore the path in front of me.

So, on this first day of the New Year, what are you questions?  How do you experience your curiosity?  How courageous do you feel?  I don’t expect, for myself, to have the answers to these questions all neatly answered.  I do want for myself to begin working with them.  It’s going to take me all year.  That’s okay.  We’re  going.  And we’ll get there.  Heaven knows how, but we will.

Bob Patrick

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December 26-31: We Are

During this last week of December, Words of Wisdom will be taking a short break.  We will return at the beginning of the New Year with more daily reflections. In the meantime, feel free to search through our archives for reflections that you may have missed or for favorites.  We affirm with you all the words of this song by Dr. Ysaye Barnwell:

For each child that’s born
a morning star rises
and sings to the universe
who we are.

We are our grandmothers’ prayers.
We are our grandfathers’ dreamings.
We are the breath of our ancestors.
We are the spirit of God.


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