August 31–Return Again: You’ll Never Know

I am prone to rush to judgment.  I also know that doing so is almost always a bad idea that comes with bad results.

My bad judgments are almost always around pieces of information.  Never about the complete information.  What I learn, again and again, is that I can never know all that I need to know from bits and pieces of information.  Bits and pieces forever call me to ask more questions, to be curious, to practice inquiry.  I return again, and again, and again to this lesson.  First judgments based on pieces of information about anyone or anything are inevitably wrong.  I had no idea.  I could never know all of this.  Why did I rush to judgment?

Rebbe Shlomo Carlebach, the author of our beloved hymn, Return Again, tells a story about a tailor who lived in a village.  He was deemed by everyone to be the worst Jew of the place.  Then, word came that he had died, and the holy rabbi of the village was giving a grand funeral for him. He told this story.

When the rabbi was planning the marriage of his daughter, he borrowed money from every Jew in town to pay for it.  The husband-to-be of his daughter came to him and said that he did not have a new prayer shawl for the wedding, and the rabbi had promised him one.  The rabbi went wandering in the street wondering what he would do.  He decided he would go to the first house with a light on.  And so he did.  He knocked on the door, and the tailor appeared.  The rabbi explained that he needed 10 rubles for a new prayer shawl for his soon to be son-in-law.  The tailor said that he could give one ruble.  As the rabbi was walking down the street wondering how he would find 9 more rubles, the tailor came running and shouting to him.  “Rabbi, what if I give you the whole 10?”  And he did.

That day of the funeral, the rabbi walked behind the coffin of the tailor, and he wept.  He wept, and he knew that the soul of the tailor was wrapped in the the prayer shawl that he had bought for the rabbi’s new son-in-law.

We can never know–all the pieces that go into another’s soul.  We can never know.  And so, let us return, again, to that truth.  And practice no judgment.

Bob Patrick

*Listen to Rebbe Shlomo Carlebach’s telling/singing of this story here.

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August 30–Return Again: Who, What, Where

Who are you?

What are you?

Where are you?

Those three questions, core to the structure of Shlomo Carlebach’s song, call us to three basic and deep considerations: our being, our doing and our journey.

I wonder what you believe about the essence, the being, of the human being?  Do we arrive from the womb a blank slate waiting to be written on by life and other people?  Do we arrive already “somebody” with an essential (there’s the root of being again) way of locating ourselves in the world?  The human genetic map that we now have certainly seems to suggest that we do not arrive simply a blank slate, and our genetic make up with all of our ancestors pouring themselves into us through our genes begins to suggest that our being is a complex web of contributions by countless unseen beings before us–all the way to the algae and its ancestors.  What does it mean for you, for me, to return to who we are?

What we are can relate to what we do in the world.  Sometimes what we do in the world is the result of choices–a series of choices through which we pursue loves, interests, questions–but what we do in the world may be the result of choices that were made for us, pressures put upon us.  When we return to what we are, we return to all of that, and we my find ourselves reconsidering . . .

The question of where we are may remind us to pay attention–knowingly or unknowingly, we have been and continue to be while we breathe on a journey.  The journey is a working out of things that relate directly or indirectly to what we do and who we are.  The questions embedded in this song and the journey itself, I believe, come full circle.  Return to where you are (in the journey) and that will bring you back to what you do, and that will bring you back to who you are.  Born and reborn again.

Bob Patrick

 

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August 29–Return Again: Finding the Balance

We had a dog when our children were growing up, now of blessed memory, named Buster. Buster died just a year ago after a long life as a beloved member of our family.

Buster was a runner.  He was a small dog, and we always kept him in the house and in the fenced in yard–except for those times when he managed to get out a door or an open gate. He was masterful at shooting out even the door that was only slightly and momentarily open.  And he would run.  Oh how he would run.  The more we called, the faster he would run.  The more we ran after him the farther and faster he would run.  There were many nights in those early years when he would manage to get out just at bedtime, and we would spend hours driving the streets of downtown Birmingham where we lived looking for him. Almost always, we would find Buster with someone else.  He would run to where people were and join in whatever they were doing.  One time it was another driver who flashed us with his lights.  He had been driving in the area and seen Buster run across the street. When he opened his car door, Buster jumped in!  Many, many times, we would get a call from St. Vincent’s Emergency Room, a hospital two blocks from our house.  Buster had learned that if he ran to the ER doors, they would magically open, and waiting inside the ER would always be a room full of people for him to play with.  They were always delighted to see him!

What we learned over the years was that if we would not chase Buster, if we would not call after him, if we would but wait a few minutes and leave the front door open, Buster would return.  Always.

I recognize something of myself in this story we played over so many times during those years.  There are things in us that we simply have to do, have to explore, have to question, have to go and check out.  Often, that can be upsetting to the apple carts of our lives and especially to those around us who depend on us being a certain way.  Yet, we hear Mary Oliver’s haunting question:  what are we going to do with this one, precious life? Answering that question means bolting out of the open gate at times to run and see who we are and what it is we want to do. Once we have done that (or, okay, once we have done that enough) there is a sort of return to who we are.  The balance of the human life is in both–the running and the returning.

Buster was a runner all of his life.  A month before he died, at 16 years of age, we came home to find a note from the pest control service man on the door.  For years, the company knew that our dogs had access to the back yard and that keeping that gate closed was essential. On that day, he had left the gate cracked just a bit, and, as he wrote, “Buster just disappeared through that gate in a flash!”  He called me later that day to make sure that everything was okay and explained that as he chased after Buster (never a good move) the mail man was coming down the street.  He joined in the chase.  After an hour or more, the two of them managed to find Buster–waiting on them on the front porch of our house.

Where are we in our lives today?  If running is what you need to do, then let it be a good run.  If returning is what you need to do, then find your way home.  They both matter, in the balance.

Bob Patrick

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August 26–Return Again: The Power of Faith and Belief

I think that embracing UU principles and the covenants we make together in support of them is an act of courage that requires faith and belief.  Doing this requires far more from me than the recitation of a creed.in order to “save my Soul from the fires of Hell and ensure it a place in Heaven.”  

My UU faith journey is a journey of discovery.  I am discovering my connection to the power of love.  I think that choosing love instead of apathy or hatred is an act of faith and belief.  I have faith that making this choice is worth the risks to my physical and emotional safety.  I believe that choosing to love will transform my life and the lives of others.

The loving acts of some people I’m privileged to know are one of my “sources” of faith and belief.  For this reflection, I’m going to focus on people who the “gender binary” identified as women- Flora, Wanda, Lela, and Sharon.  I’m focusing on women because I think it takes more courage to be seen by the world as a woman than I can even comprehend. It’s even tougher when the world is wrong.

Grandma Flora taught her three children and all of her grandchildren to “always look for the gold in people.”  In addition to raising her children, she had three careers during her lifetime-  teacher, postmistress, and full-time caregiver for my grandfather when he developed Dementia.  Her shining example of unconditional love enriched my Father’s life, and, in turn, my own.

Aunt Wanda, ten years older than my Father, took him in when he left home the summer after graduating from High School.  When her children were old enough to attend school, she left her abusive husband and launched her own career as teacher.  After earning her Master’s Degree in Early Childhood Education, she helped to found a new school and was a program director in early childhood education.  At a time when lots of folks were retired, she was still working as a nanny to provide for the grandchild she was raising.

Grandma Lela was both father and mother to her children while her husband was deployed during World War I.  After her career as a teacher, she was the “head babysitter” for my cousins.  She took care of me and my siblings, as well, when my Father was deployed to Vietnam and my Mother arranged to meet him overseas.  When Lela was diagnosed with breast cancer, she just went and did what needed to be done.  After her surgery, she called my Mother to let her know everything was OK.  That was the first time Mom knew about Lela’s cancer.  I remember Lela’s loving work with cancer patients, including making “cancer pads,” the way they coped with the massive invasion of a woman’s lymphatic system that is breast cancer surgery.

My Mother, Sharon, pursued her career in nursing and as a nursing teacher, including earning her Master’s Degree, while raising three children and dealing with the multiple household upheavals for moves and deployments that come with being a military spouse.  When it came to the care of her children and the care of her pediatric patients, she was a “force of nature.”  Her commitment to her students was intense.  Her greatest challenge was the part of nursing that depended on natural ability- the clinical practicum- because she knew that, in spite of her best efforts, some students would fail.  In retirement, after starting two Alzheimer’s Support Groups, she was my Father’s full-time caregiver for the last stage of his Parkinson’s Disease.  My Mother believed in Heaven, because she had literally seen it during a near-death experience.  When she received her diagnosis- that more therapy for her metastatic breast cancer would not be useful- she said “well, I didn’t plan to live much longer anyway.”

The achievements of these people, because they believed in the power of love, count among my “moments of awe and wonder.” I’m so thankful to know their stories, because they’re a constant reminder of the power of faith and belief.

Their example helps me to understand my own worth as an individual.  They are some of the reasons why I keep this “note to myself” in the front of my “self-awareness” binder:  

Connection

You deserve to be awake and aware- 
no pretending or secret longing.  
Your meaning is your meaning.
You- here- now- defining how.
Appreciated, respected, affirmed.

Bill Benshoof

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August 25–Return Again: Our Principles-7

In Unitarian-Universalism, we gather ourselves and our faith around seven Principles. Our Principles are not religious dogma in content.  They are ethical principles in that they embody rather explicitly the things we value.  They allow us to bring stories and content both religious and otherwise to them to help us reflect on how to live their wisdom.  As such, they are or can be points of return for us. I think of points of return as those places, ideas, people and memories to which we return to find our center, to find our moorings, to find the clarity we need in order to make decisions, to move forward, to create.

7th Principle: Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

In our weekly welcoming words at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Gwinnett, members and visitors alike will hear these words:

Wherever you are on your life’s journey, whether you believe in the god, the goddess, many gods, no god, god in all things or all things in god; if you are spiritually wounded and seeking refuge or celebrating the present moment, you are welcome here.

Those words were crafted with the seventh principle in mind.  We know that people have a variety of experiences that we call things like community, communal, transcendent, spiritual, interpersonal, religious, numinous, altered-state, cosmic, holistic, generative, personal, redemptive, grace-filled, salvific as well as others.

Long ago I was given the insight that theology is anthropology.  That is, what we know, think, experience and believe about being human reflects, always, into any and everything that we know, think, experience and believe about the Ultimate.

As I sit writing this, I am looking out the window at the woods behind our house.  The afternoon sun is touching the leaves of the still green trees at an angle that communicates to me that the end of the day is near.  Butterflies feast on the flowers in our yard.  Birds are scampering from limb to limb.  I know that a myriad of processes are taking place in this vista: photosynthesis, decomposition, fertilization, and feeding, to name a few.  Just as I wrote that last phrase, I heard the katydids begin their evening song.  I also feel a presence, a livingness, a vibrancy that is rushing through and sustaining all of this that I can see, hear, and smell.

What to call it?  Organic process.  Nature.  The Goddess.  The God.  Spirit.  Life. The Interdependent Web of all Existence.

Of which we are a part.

I am so glad that this principle is the last one in our list.  It is, for me, the ultimate return. Wherever I turn, the Interdependent Web is always there.  When I look out on these woods, the Web is there.  I am a part.  When I go with my beloved family on our visits to New York City and I am caught in the near shoulder to shoulder crowd on the streets, the Web is there.  I am a part.  When I walk into my classroom and students fill it up, the Web is there.  I am a part.  When I touch another human hand, hold my beloved pet, smell a flower that grows in my yard, catch sight of a cloud in the sky, see the tear form in another’s eye, hear the sound of a child’s curiosity, see the man on the side of the road with the sign–homeless, need help:  The Web is there.

I am a part.

Bob Patrick

 

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August 24–Return Again: Our Principles-6

In Unitarian-Universalism, we gather ourselves and our faith around seven Principles. Our Principles are not religious dogma in content.  They are ethical principles in that they embody rather explicitly the things we value.  They allow us to bring stories and content both religious and otherwise to them to help us reflect on how to live their wisdom.  As such, they are or can be points of return for us. I think of points of return as those places, ideas, people and memories to which we return to find our center, to find our moorings, to find the clarity we need in order to make decisions, to move forward, to create.

6th Principle: The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.

Sometimes a goal makes a huge difference in the outcome of a thing even when the goal seems impossible.  I suspect that folks may feel that our sixth principle, the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all might just be one of those that are impossible.  Maybe we have over reached here.  Maybe this is just an example of liberals off in dream land wasting our time with something that can never happen.

What is not speculative at all is that if there is no aim for world community, for peace, liberty and justice for all, none of those things will ever exist.

Goals make a difference.  They reset our expectations and the actions that fill out our expectations.  Years ago, almost on a whim, I asked students at the beginning of the school year:  How many of you like to get A’s? (all hands went up).  And how about B’s? (a few hands went up.  And C’s? (no hands went up).  I said that from that moment on, our expectation would be “nothing less than a B” and we would use that as a daily check.  I would work with anyone whose grade dropped below a B to strengthen their work.  That year, I had no failures at all, and there was nothing less than a B in the class.  That is now my routine way of beginning the school year with yearly results the same.  The goal changed me.  It changed my students.  It changed the nature and quality of the entire program.

So, having the goal of world community where we build bridges instead of walls, thriving economies that work freely, peacefully and equitably for humanity rather than building economic islands where only a few may participate sets the stage for the imagination and creativity needed to make just that happen.

Can we return again to something that is yet to be?  I think that is what this sixth principle does for us.  It establishes a back to the future possibility for us in the world.  It establishes, for example, that if we do not act as a world community with regards to climate change, there will be no world to which humanity may return.  The only way to see a goal fulfilled is to take steps toward it, even when it seems impossible.

Bob Patrick

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August 23–Return Again: Our Principles-5

In Unitarian-Universalism, we gather ourselves and our faith around seven Principles. Our Principles are not religious dogma in content.  They are ethical principles in that they embody rather explicitly the things we value.  They allow us to bring stories and content both religious and otherwise to them to help us reflect on how to live their wisdom.  As such, they are or can be points of return for us. I think of points of return as those places, ideas, people and memories to which we return to find our center, to find our moorings, to find the clarity we need in order to make decisions, to move forward, to create.

5th Principle: The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.

Of all of our principles, this one–the right to use one’s own conscience and to make use of the democratic process–may go the heart of the problem of being American than any other.  Of course, all seven principles arise out of our deep and wide tradition of progressive religion, but this one speaks to what I consider a particularly difficult American situation:  the tension between the freedom of the individual and the obligation that we all have to create a just society.  The power to engage my own conscience implies the power and freedom of me as individual.  Yet, the very word con-science implies a kind of knowing that we have together as human beings.  It is mine, and yet it is born of us all. The democratic process implies a communal way of making choices, of establishing law and order, of providing for equality in society, and yet too often the democratic process is reduced to two sides pitted against each other with a “winner” emerging with only 51% of the vote.  Too often, as our current presidential election process demonstrates, we end up more wounded and estranged from each other because of the democratic process as we practice it than united because of it.

Despite the way that this principle sounds, the use of conscience is never just an act of the individual though it certain aims to protect any individual’s conscience and exercise of it. This principle endorses the democratic process but not the binary thinking that often arises from it.  If we probe these ideas, I think what we emerge with is this:  the call to community, a community where the individual is honored and valued and where it is clear that community only ever happens when individuals choose intimacy and compassion for on another.  From our corners of isolation, this principle calls us to return again the communities that make us whole.  None of us is ever completely whole when we are just alone.

Bob Patrick

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August 22–Return Again: Our Principles-4

In Unitarian-Universalism, we gather ourselves and our faith around seven Principles. Our Principles are not religious dogma in content.  They are ethical principles in that they embody rather explicitly the things we value.  They allow us to bring stories and content both religious and otherwise to them to help us reflect on how to live their wisdom.  As such, they are or can be points of return for us. I think of points of return as those places, ideas, people and memories to which we return to find our center, to find our moorings, to find the clarity we need in order to make decisions, to move forward, to create.

4th Principle: A free and responsible search for truth and meaning

When it comes to the search for truth and meaning, I think that often people don’t think of this as any sort of “return” when it comes to religion and the spiritual life.  Having and holding the right religious doctrine has been deeply ingrained into the people of many cultures.  Fear is the product.  How can one question and search for truth when “all truth” has been laid out by one’s religion?  To seek more is arrogant.  To question the received “truth” is heresy.  Many lives over the centuries have been given for this principle of searching for truth and meaning–freely and responsibly.

This search for truth and meaning is a return.  There is an inherent curiosity built into us as human beings.  Children display this curiosity as soon as they can move about under their own steam–opening things, looking at things, touching things, tasting things, crawling, walking and running to places without any sense of boundary or fear.  We say that our search for truth and meaning must be free, and we say that it must be responsible.

For me, one of the good outcomes of embracing this our fourth principle is that as I give myself permission to be a seeker of truth and meaning, I immediately become more capable to giving witness to the search for truth and meaning in others–even when what they believe and hold to be true is not the same as what I hold and believe to be true. There is a basic respect born of that freedom (which hearkens back to our first principle.)

We are free.  We are responsible beings.  Curiosity is built into our being.  We can choose to return to ourselves today and see where this curiosity will lead us.

Bob Patrick

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August 21-Return Again: What Are You?

I watched the first of three segments of the PBS series “9 Months That Made You.” This first episode offers a profound view of the first 8 weeks of human development at the cellular level. Scientists have made significant discoveries about what happens from the moment of conception that goes into what makes each of us who, and what, we are. I look forward to watching the next two episodes.

The question as to what we are can be interpreted in so many ways. Are we our education, career, country of origin, skin color, gender identity, sexual orientation? Are we what we do… artist, dancer, gymnast, swimmer? Are we our behavior … kind, compassionate, lying, cheating, loud, quiet, sneaky, altruistic, transparent, vulnerable, egotistic? Are we our political affiliations, social concerns, or are we our family of origin, or the family we create, or the friends we choose?

Star Clusters (public domain)

Star Clusters (public domain)

I think the answer is all of these, and … so much more than these. The images of those microscopic cells multiplying, dividing, determining in those first few days and weeks of our formation so much about what we will become are not dissimilar from photos of amazing nebulae and star formations … from which all life has formed. These images remind me of our deep time connection with every molecule on earth … and beyond. Life is such a mystery, and yet, we continue to uncover clues that take us closer to understanding the mystery from which we come and to which we return, again and again, as biological beings in this wondrous web of life. And with each new clue we uncover, the mystery seems to become even more complex.

What am I?  I am a mother, a wife, a daughter, sister, and aunt. I am a minister, a colleague, a friend, and a team mate. I am a hiker, knitter, dancer, artist and musician. I am white, a baby boomer, a social and political liberal, and I am always a learner. And when any of these identities weigh me down, or feel too constricting, or I begin to take myself or life’s challenges too seriously, I remember that I am but a very small part of the great mystery of life … that I have arrived here from the unknown, living a life that I can only know in part, and I return to the unknown. I am cosmic dust, or, in the words of Peter Mayer, a “snowflake in the cosmic storm.” Humanity is but a “quarter note in the march of time.”* Ultimately, when I return to what I am – an infinitesimally minute speck in the timeline of the universe – this is a source of humility and perspective that allows me to take myself lightly, lay my worries and arguments aside, and savor the beauty and joy that is present when I pay attention.

Jan Taddeo

*Peter Mayer, “My Soul”

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August 19–Return Again: Our Principles-3

In Unitarian-Universalism, we gather ourselves and our faith around seven Principles. Our Principles are not religious dogma in content.  They are ethical principles in that they embody rather explicitly the things we value.  They allow us to bring stories and content both religious and otherwise to them to help us reflect on how to live their wisdom.  As such, they are or can be points of return for us. I think of points of return as those places, ideas, people and memories to which we return to find our center, to find our moorings, to find the clarity we need in order to make decisions, to move forward, to create.

3rd Principle: Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations

Our third principle implies something that perhaps religious organizations are apt to overlook:  spiritual growth and development in human beings implies relationships and in particular this relationship is founded in acceptance.  Religious traditions tend to use the language of love and unconditional love to express this foundational relationship. Religious institutions tend towards a catch 22 in these matters.  They hold that love, unconditional love, is foundational to the spiritual life and to spiritual growth, but then fall into the practice of judging human beings through their religious doctrines and dogma. The message sounds like this in so many words:  “We love you but . . .”  With that little word “but” the unconditional quality of love disappears and often so does the possibility of spiritual growth.

Spiritual growth, we say in Unitarian Universalism, is founded on acceptance of one another. No acceptance?  No spiritual encouragement and growth.  This does not mean that we always get it right.  We are as prone as others to overlook this central practice of the spiritual life.  Human beings yearn to be accepted, to be included in community, to be “members of the club” as some say.  When, however, our starting place is in the act of acceptance of one another, we are much more likely to be open to encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.

We can imagine two images.  In the first, one person says to another:  if you know what’s good for you, you will walk down that path over there, not the one you are on.  You’ve got it all wrong.  By the way, you cannot wear those shoes.  No one wears those shoes on the right path.  If you are going to keep wearing those shoes, then forget it.  You’ll never make it.

In the second, one person says to another:  Welcome, friend.  Let’s go for a walk.  Hey, I’ve never seen shoes like that.  Tell me about them.

We will have opportunities today to practice acceptance and perhaps even to encourage spiritual growth.  It begins with acceptance.

Bob Patrick

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