February 21–Fire of Commitment–Finding Faith

It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me the most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.

James Baldwin

There is a certain kind of torment that becomes what I would call faith.  I don’t know if James Baldwin would have used that word, faith, but he describes it well for me. Baldwin, an American novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, and what I would call social prophet, addressed the intricacies of racial, sexual, and class distinctions in Western societies.  He was born and died in the 20th century (for more on the basics of his life, look him up on Wikipedia).  The kind of torment that leads to faith are those very questions that take us to our core and then, once in the depths of who we are, realize that our very souls (deep core) join us, as Baldwin says, to all the people who are or have ever lived.

Those places where we realize that we do nothing singularly, become nothing all by ourselves, take no actions that do not come with responsibilities and consequences for all those within our reach are what I want to call true human faith.  This is not the faith of religious rules or dogma.  This is not the faith that someone has handed on to us or that we can even read in a book (though the influence of others and their writings may have a hand in this kind of faith).  This kind of faith emerges from within us, always, as a kind of clarity about uncertain things.  This kind of faith, while it cannot be proved as a certainty, provides us with enough light and other qualities that allow us to walk in a new direction in a new way.

I have shared with many in my circles of the various experiences I had as a child, teenager and into my early adult years around race and my own whiteness in a time and in a country which made it clear to me that I enjoyed a life not available to people of color AND that my privileged status required things to remain the same.  Those experiences created waves of torment for me, some of which continue to this day.  Those experiences, their insights, the feelings that come with them are in my soul bells that cannot be unrung. What has emerged in me is way of seeing my life and the lives of all others around me differently, as connecting me with all other people who live and who have ever lived.

As this is not a perfect or perfected faith in me, I suspect that I will continue to search for the best ways to live this kind of faith until my last day.

Bob Patrick

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February 20–Fire of Commitment: Fired Up and Ready to Go

I know that I need to be present with my Beloved Community now more than ever before in my life.

The level of danger and tension in my World, Country, State, County, and Neighborhood looms as large to me as the barely-remembered beginning of the Cold War. It’s energizing- this danger and tension- and a call to service that I feel I’ve been preparing (and being prepared) for my entire life.

The astounding level of effort on the part of so many that has gone into a new learning experience for my Minister and my Congregation- Sabbatical- has been energizing for me, and a call to service that I’ve spent two years preparing for. Covenant Groups and the Pastoral Care Team grew out of that effort.

We have a new Choir Director, who I had the pleasure of getting to know during the interview process, and whose joy in leading us is irrepressible.

New things are happening. Worship leaders and associates are taking new approaches to our times together. Different voices are being heard, and we are learning different ways to be together.

This is a time of learning and growing I want to be present for.

There is a chant that I want to share with you. I hear that it became popular at the beginning of the biggest movements for social justice of my adult life.

Fired Up! Ready to go!

When I see challenges to the First Principle- to the worth and dignity of every human- I get fired up! I am ready to go!

When I see opportunities to be in the Worship Service, participating in the Choir, and I can look from the Choir into the eyes of my Beloved Community- I get fired up! I am ready to go!

Outside of my Beloved Community, there are times when I have to remain anonymous, and that I truly regret.

However, in the Sanctuary, the beat goes on.

Fired Up! Ready to Go!

If, like I was for awhile, you’ve been absent, and wondering what you might have been missing, I hope you hear the beat.

Fired Up! Ready to Go!

If, like I did for awhile, you’ve had some issues, worries, or wounds that kept you from entering the Sanctuary, I hope they fall away. I hope you hear the beat.

Fired Up! Ready to Go!

If, like I did for awhile, you’ve been wondering how you might find your way back to your Beloved Community after a long absence, I hope you hear the beat.

Fired Up! Ready to Go!

– with Love from a “Signer of the Book”

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February 13–Fire of Commitment: Entering Fire

Recently, members of the Worship committee, all people in our community who, each week, either lead services at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Gwinnett, or who assist those who do, gathered for our quarterly meeting.  We spent about 15 minutes reading this poem–taking turns, reading with intention, creating space for one another with the words, the spaces between the words, with our voices and the cadence of our reading, watching the punctuation and deciding how to interpret it.

You can
die for it–
an idea,
or the world. People

have done so,
brilliantly,
letting
their small bodies be bound

to the stake,
creating
an unforgettable
fury of light.

Reading like this, intentionally, with care, together, began to change us.  The feeling in the room changed.  The words broke us in places.  Many in the room have been involved in this question of what it is that we are willing to die for, what we are giving our lives for.  To have that named so poignantly in the first words of the poem is riveting.

But

this morning,
climbing the familiar hills
in the familiar
fabric of dawn, I thought

of China,
and India
and Europe, and I thought
how the sun

blazes
for everyone just
so joyfully
as it rises

under the lashes
of my own eyes, and I thought
I am so many!
What is my name?

And then the poem reminded us that even given all of the big issues that we are concerned about, to which we are giving ourselves, about which we are engaging our minds and for which we are opening our hearts, today, the sun still rises, the earth still spins, and everything we do is subject to what sun and earth do.  Not the other way around.

What is the name
of the deep breath I would take
over and over
for all of us? Call it

whatever you want, it is
happiness, it is another one
of the ways to enter
fire.*
~Mary Oliver

In these days of intensity, trouble, protest, fear and fighting, there are increasing ways for us to enter fire.  For our own personal well-being, and for the sake of any future that is worth having and living into, we do well to stop today, and notice the sun rising.  Notice the flowers that are blooming and the birds that are singing.  Notice another human face without wondering whether that face supported our political opponents.  Notice happiness, and remember that it is ANOTHER of the ways to enter fire.

Bob Patrick

*”Sunrise” ~Mary Oliver

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February 9–Fire of Commitment: Bellows

We heat our house with wood. It’s amazing how much warmth is generated by a three-foot soapstone box in the living room. On a cold night in January (yes, there were a few of those), the house was noticeably chilly. I went to check the stove. The tiles, usually too hot to touch, were lukewarm. I opened the door.

My husband, who usually tends the fire, had gone to a basketball game that evening. Before he left, he had added an oversized log, assuming it would carry us through the night, but the large log hadn’t properly caught fire. There was plenty of fuel but not enough oxygen. I added a few smaller pieces of wood and adjusted the vent to allow for more air. Shortly afterward, the fire was burning and warmth returned to the room.

Many in our congregation have been protesting since the inauguration of President Trump. Indeed, there’s a new issue to protest daily, often times more than one.  I frequently listen to NPR news, and a recent analysis speculated that Trump and his team may be deliberately overloading the public in order to wear us out. “Resistance fatigue,” he called it. The speculation struck a chord.

Protest is important. It’s the fuel that makes a democracy work. But airflow is important too. Take a day off. Sit in nature. Enjoy a visit with a friend and challenge yourselves not to discuss politics. Life is still beautiful, even in these times.

And to those of you who, for life’s myriad reasons, have less time or energy to give, know that the kindling and the smaller wood are of equally vital importance to keeping the fire of commitment lit.

Lorena Griffin

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February 6–Fire of Commitment: Content of Commitment

In my work as a teacher, I am encountering students who are caught up in our recent political turmoil to one degree or another.  Two phrases often emerge in their conversations about it all and which reflect what the events of the last year are doing in them:  political correctness, and freedom of speech.

Trying to stay in conversation with them, giving them my ear, my mind, my heart, listening as best I can and returning responses that I hope are responsible and thoughtful has caused me to reflect again.  Fire can be brought to anything. Fire will usually effect change in the thing it’s brought to if it is hot enough.  The change can be partial or total destruction.  The change can be some other sort of transformation like turning raw foods into cooked meals, water into steam, and various chemical transformations like coal, over millions of years into diamonds.  You can bring fire to any human commitment, and it becomes passionate response.  When we sing these words this month, I want to add a cautionary to us lest we take what we sing for granted.  I love this song, its music and its words.  The combination always moves me and stirs up the fire of passion within me.  What we take so for granted is the content of the commitment involved.  Consider the words below from another perspective:  My comments are in bold.

From the light of days remembered burns a beacon bright and clear
Guiding hands and hearts and spirits into faith set from from fear.

Which days are you remembering?  Are they centered on that day that a friend and you went to a nearby University and listened to Milo Yiannopoulis (Yiannopoulis appeared at UGA this past year) bring his fiery passion in derogatory remarks about women, Muslims, “fat people,” the LGBTQ communities and liberal thinkers?  Are you remembering that day that he called on more people to forget about how  other people feel and to become more offensive in the name of freedom of speech?

When the fire of commitment sets our mind and soul ablaze
When our hunger and our passion meet to call us on our way
When we live with deep assurance of the flame that burns within
Then our promise finds fulfillment and our future can begin.

What is the content of your commitment?  The fire of any commitment, even the commitment to hate and offend can set our minds and souls ablaze, can call us onto a particular path and give us assurance of a new future.  To what do you trace your commitment?

From the stories of our living rings a song both brave and free
Calling pilgrims still to witness to the life of liberty.

From the dreams of youthful vision comes a new, prophetic voice
Which demands a deeper justice built by our courageous choice.

Our Unitarian Universalist commitments do have strong, deep ideas, principles and religious sources that inform our hearts as we sing this song.  We are living in days right now in which we cannot afford to forget them or grow weak in reflecting on them and putting them to practice in the world.  Our liberal tendency to “live and let live” will allow hate speech as freedom to burn the world down.  We have a fire of commitment, too.  It is very old.  It is honorable.  It is powerful.  But only if it is not silent.

Fire can be dangerous by itself.  The fire of commitment can be held and put into practice by anyone. Our commitments have content.  What is the content of our commitments?  When we become passionate about something, in what is it rooted?  When we encounter the fire of others, from what content are they speaking and acting?

If we ever thought that being Unitarian Universalist “just means that you can believe whatever you want,” we might want to reconsider.  Is there a content to Unitarian Universalist faith that is identifiable in the world, in our words and in our practices?  The new disciples of Breitbart and their spokesman, Milo Yiannopoulis are clear about the content of their faith, and they see a new future.
Bob Patrick
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February 2–Fire of Commitment: Let Surprise Come

I grew up in New York. It snowed every winter.

I remember one night when a blizzard was in full swing and my mom and dad had my older brothers and my sister outside with them shoveling the walks and driveway just as soon as the snow stopped falling. I was too young to help.  I was not ready to be out in the dark like that working. So I stood by the front door and cried the whole time. The next morning when I went outside with my pitiful plastic shovel it was all done. I cried again.

Yet, It was easier when my parents measured for me when I was ready for something. It was conventional and it was safe  – they chose everything – even my faith……..

Now that I am all grown up the lines are blurred. I want to know the answers for my life but I don’t.

A few weeks ago I was at the pool and faced one of my alltime pool fears – ran into one of my first graders.

“Why are you wearing glasses in the pool?” “So I can see where I am going.”

“Why are you wearing shoes in the pool?”  “So I don’t slip on the bottom.”

“Why are you walking in circles?” “To build my resistance against the current.”

Then he was gone. He got his answers and so he went back to the pool party.

I’d like to think that as I continue to grow up and into my spirituality for the next 50 years that I am as equally committed  to face the whys, the whats, the hows, the whatifs just like my little friend was about what I doing in the pool, without fear but with contemplation and balance.

I want to commit to ask myself whatever I need to so that I can let go of what is no longer working and venture out into something deeper and better.

I want to commit  to go forward and back into life’s events and surprises without judgement or stuckedness but take and leave and come and go into new truths whatever I face whether or not I think I am ready. Let surprise come.

Lydia Patrick

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February 1 – Fire of Commitment: Fired Up!

Ever since the election I have felt burdened with worry.  I feel like we are living in a nightmare, and I have deep fear for the future of our nation and our world.  I am simply burnt out.

Or am I..?

What if what looks (and, I’ll admit, often feels) like ashes is actually an ember?   I’m not beaten down, I’m fired up!

I have heard people say with absolute conviction that they believe “God intervened in this election to give us Donald Trump”…

Really?

But actually, I think that may be true.  (Okay, I know what you’re thinking, but hear me out for a minute…)

What if in our comfortable slumber and our easy complacency we were offending the universe by squandering our potential to be a formidable force for good?  Perhaps there is a divine energy that felt compelled to remind us of our collective power.  Of our resilience and our strength.  What if adversity is the only avenue by which we will achieve all that is possible?  What if getting there requires that we march down that avenue, called forward by our hunger for justice?  Hope is the flame that burns within the inspired soul, but our best intentions weren’t enough…

In striking the match I realize – nightmares end when we wake up!

Two Matches Burning

image ©JD Benz

From the light of days remembered burns a beacon bright and clear
Guiding hands and hearts and spirits into faith set free from fear.
When the fire of commitment sets our mind and soul ablaze,
When our hunger and our passion meet to call us on our way,*

Is this what it took to ignite the flame?

It had to get hard because nothing worth fighting for is ever easy.  It had to get deep because you don’t really learn to swim until your feet can’t touch the bottom.

It had to get dismal because the light only achieves its greatest impact when it shines into darkness.

When we live with deep assurance of the flame that burns within,
Then our promise finds fulfillment, and our future can begin.* 

~ Christiana

 

*Lyrics of the UU hymn “Fire of Commitment”, by Jason Shelton

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January 31–Woyaya: Winning and Losing

I was out running errands when I first heard the news.  Professional tennis player, Serena Williams had just beat her sister, Venus Williams, in the Australian Grand Slam tournament to become the most winning player since the Grand Slam opened up to professional players in 1968.  A little while later, I listened as Serena accepted the Cup and acknowledge that she would not be in this place of victory except for her sister–the woman she had just defeated.  That sent my mind reeling about how it is that we view winning and losing in our American world.

In any field: sports, the workplace, in neighborhood issues, in church politics, and speaking of politics–especially in politics–we all want to win.  No one wants to lose.

I don’t think I ever paused to notice that there is not a single winner that is capable of rising to a true victory independent of the very one or ones who lost.  Winners NEED those who lose, and not just so that they can point to the losers and feel superior (though, that is certainly how we often behave).  I mean something much more significant when I say that winners NEED losers.

An athlete who wins only does so because of the skills and strength developed in the process of competing with those who lose.  The winner is a winner to the degree that the loser challenged them. We are all aware of winners who took on an ill-prepared opponent who was badly beaten.  The win, in that case, is almost shameful, as if the winner should never have played that opponent.  The real and significant win comes from competing with a most worthy opponent.

And this: a true winner understands just how much she NEEDS her opponent to become that one who wins.  Winners do not arrive at victory on their own.  The ones they defeat have helped them to that place.  Just like the Williams sisters, the “losers” are actually also there and always in the background of the “winner’s” victory. If that’s true, doesn’t that fundamentally reshape how we think about winning and losing?

Winners depend on those they defeat in order to be winners.  Those they defeat play a significant role in helping them develop the skill, the strength, the insight, the wisdom, and the finesse to become as successful as they are.  We live, however, in a culture that pretends that winners take all, and that winners have nothing to do with losers.  Let’s consider some other scenarios.

If men have been the “winners” in the world, have they not done so with the NECESSARY power of women?  If white people have been the “winners” in the world, have they not done so without the strength and insight of people of color?  If Christianity has been the prevailing religion in the world for the last many centuries it has not been so in a world school where other religions were its teachers?  If human beings have dominated the earth and its resources, have we not done so because those resources were there as a limited treasure in the first place?

There really is no such thing as winner-take-all.  I am clear that we still believe that.  It’s a notion that comes out of ancient warring where the winners took land, people as slaves, and treasures for wealth. We have extended that notion to all kinds of competition, falsely. Our newly elected President and his cabinet could take some lessons from the Williams sisters. Every one of his political opponents–whom he defeated–stand around him, metaphorically, spiritually and politically speaking when he acts as the “winner” of the office.  If he does not begin to realize this, the day will come when he will be replaced by another who might learn that lesson.  I hope it is not too late when these lessons come.

We are going.  We want to get there.  We don’t know how, right now, but we hope we will. I’m pretty sure it comes with a new relationship between “winners” and “losers.”  Thank you, Williams sisters.  You clearly understand.

Bob Patrick

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January 30–Woyaya: Heaven Knows How, but . . .

I’m learning to play the banjo. One thing I’ve discovered as I’ve aged is that my fingers don’t always do what my brain commands. In fact, there are times they behave something like the broken springs in a cartoon clock. A few months back, I was embarking on learning a tune called “Whiskey Before Breakfast” (I had to share that song title). As I gave it a go and worked out my fingering, I came to the exasperated conclusion that I may have reached my outer limits as a banjo player. I may just have to concede that I wasn’t going to master this song. But…I practiced and went over the problem areas with my very excellent teacher, and now I can play it. Recently I’ve started another challenging tune. Unwelcomed, the following thought popped into my head… I’ve reach my outer limits as a banjo player. I’m just not going to master this song. But then I remembered, I’d had that thought before and, Heaven knows how, but I got there.

The first time we encounter any difficult task – grieving the death of a friend, working through depression, hitting a road block at work – we think we won’t be able to make it through. But the more hard times we encounter, and the more times we do make it through, the more confident we become that we will make it through once more.

There’s a song that sticks in my head at times like these. Often too, I sing it as I’m walking, a meditative mantra. From Santa Clause is Coming to Town, “Put one foot in front of the other, and soon you’ll be walking ‘cross the floor. Put one foot in front of the other, and soon you’ll be walking out the door.” Heaven knows how, but it helps.

Lorena Gay Griffin

 

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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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