Nov 01 2013

Shaking the Foundations: What Is the Ground of Our Being? by Rev. Nancy Palmer Jones

Published by under Minister's Musings

Way back in the day, when I am in high school in Dallas and attending the “largest Methodist church in the world” (as my father would say) on Sundays, a progressive Sunday school teacher introduces our class to the radical theology of Paul Tillich. Tillich, writing in the middle of the twentieth century, says that “God” is just a name some people use for the “infinite and inexhaustible depth” of life, for the “ground of all being.” If the word God doesn’t mean much to you, Tillich says, “translate it, and speak of the depths of your life, of the source of your being, of your ultimate concern, of what you take seriously without any reservation.” You may need to forget “everything traditional you have learned about God, perhaps even that word itself.” The point is, to mine the depths of what it means to be alive and human and living in these times. To stay in touch what is most true and worthy of our attention, of our commitment. The vocabulary doesn’t matter.

            Sitting in that Sunday school class with “Ground of Being” written on the blackboard, I feel my world shift. The God preached from the pulpit of that Methodist church—a kind of puppet-master God meddling in the smallest details of every individual life, a mixture of Santa Claus (“he sees when you are sleeping, he sees when you’re awake”) and my elementary school gym teacher—disappears in an instant, and I drop down to a deeper truth. Not nameable exactly, but real and present. Like the moment when our feet touch the bottom of the deep end of the pool, and we can push back up toward air and sunlight.

            That morning I experience an earthquake in my thinking and feeling about religion—really, about life itself. My Sunday school teacher, and Paul Tillich, show me a wider, more inclusive world. They ask me to look for a deeper meaning in those daily high school struggles—classes, friendships, romance. They hint that even when our individual struggles feel unique and insurmountable, we really are all connected … in the struggle, in the meaning making, in Being itself.

            How difficult it is to stay grounded in that deep knowing every day! A thousand distractions, obligations, calls on our attention and our duty, pull us away from depth and make us long for more accessible comforts.

            So this November, let’s stop all that scrambling and look for clues as to what leads us to greatest depth in our living of each day. What is your Ultimate Concern? What lies at the foundation of your self so that, when you lose touch with it, you lose your way, you lose touch with your true North?

The ground of my being most often comes down to this: the authentic encounter with another—stranger, congregant, friend. A chance to witness to each other’s pain, joy, and growth. The strength and hope that walking together through this life—so beautiful, so tough—can bring. I call this ground Love, and religion, for me, is about finding ways to live it every day.

And still there’s more: As this community plunges into the truths of climate change and begins to rally with others to create and reclaim resilient, sustainable ways of being, the “Ground of Being” takes on a new, urgent, tangible meaning. Earth, humans, creatures, things—we are all connected here on this tiny planet. I want to give my life and work, without reservation, to the very real ground on which we live.

With all my love,


Rev. Nancy

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Oct 07 2013

Published by under Minister's Musings

October Theme: Evil

Waking Up to Beauty and Brokenness—Why We Look at Evil

by Rev. Nancy Palmer Jones

On the morning of September 11, 2001—the first day of my last year at Harvard Divinity School—I stand in the registration area with clumps of shocked and silenced students. A giant TV screen has been set up opposite the weary registrars; our eyes and hearts track the unfolding news. I have my arm around a fellow student, a Muslim colleague, as the second World Trade Center tower falls. “This is all suffering!” she cries. “This is all suffering!”

In the aftermath of that day, as the litany of death tolls—in the United States, Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere—grows and grows, something else falls in me. Although I had certainly already experienced suffering and witnessed the harm that we humans can so, still I had held onto an overwhelmingly rosy view of humanity. Rumi’s “Every object and being in the universe is a jar overfilled with wisdom and beauty” was—and is—one of my favorite poems. The poetry of creation still captures my faith in the human potential for good. No wonder Unitarian Universalism makes so much sense to me!

But beginning that year, 2001-02, and continuing to this day, I have been seeking an equally compelling “poetry of destruction.” I want wisdom, philosophy, religion, and ethics that make sense of our equally powerful human capacity for harm. Specifically, I want our faith, Unitarian Universalism, to look squarely in the face of these most troubling aspects of our lives, to parse their meaning and their roots, and to offer hope and guidance for a better way to live.

That’s why we here at First Unitarian take up the theme of “evil” this month. Our congregants’ responses to the theme (see “In Our Own Voices” in this month’s journal) offer clues to a Unitarian Universalist approach. Even those who don’t like the word evil want us to look at how the capacity to do great harm resides both within and around us. Many of us don’t want a dualistic interpretation; we see “good” and “evil” on a spectrum, sometimes blending into each other. Others resist calling persons “evil”—we all have our “inherent worth and dignity”—but they see how certain acts can be destructive, cruel, and harmful. Do these acts, then, qualify as “evil”?

Try on the definitions of evil that I have brainstormed: To harm or destroy with intention; to move actively in the direction of harm or destruction. More passively: to turn our view away from wrongdoing, to ignore our interconnectedness and our response-ability to engage in preventing harm. To not see and not respond to the harm and destruction happening around us when we have the capacity to see it—that is evil to me, especially when this harm occurs through systems of injustice and oppression into which we have been finely woven, often through no fault of our own.

I believe that if we don’t look squarely at the deepest wrongs in our lives and world—the injustices, the systems of oppression, the cruel and abusive acts, the willful ignoring of harm to ourselves  and others—then we condemn ourselves to being only half-alive. If we stay asleep, we isolate ourselves, cut ourselves off from our earthly kin and all existence, which can bring us joy as well as pain.

So I return to the great chorus of my ministry: Let us wake up! Let us wake up to, and live the both/and of, life’s beauty and its brokenness. There is so much more joy to be had when we live fully awake. Won’t you join us this month on this journey of awakening?

With all my love,

Rev. Nancy

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Aug 30 2013

The Journey of a Thousand Leagues Begins Beneath One’s Feet

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The sixth-century Chinese philosopher Laozi (also spelled Lao Tzu) offers this nudge to everyone daunted by a big vision for a better life: “The journey of a thousand leagues begins beneath one’s feet.”

Most of us know this version: “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” But I like the literal translation better. Laozi tells us that we are already on our path. We don’t need to leap tall mountains or ford raging streams to get there. The road we long for is the one where we stand right now. This very road will take us toward our dreams, lead us deeper into our lives, help us create the self and the community that we long for.

At our August Worship Associates gathering, we read aloud the Mission and Vision of this congregation. On that warm Saturday morning, surrounded by our team of lay worship leaders, the words strike my ears with fresh meaning. Sometimes these words have sounded beautiful but abstract, hard to turn into action. But this time, they have body, shape, power. I can name concrete examples of how we have begun to bring each phrase to life.

We are already on our road. With renewed energy and commitment, let us take our next steps.

When you read our Mission and Vision statements, what strikes you? How are you “making Love visible in word and deed”? How are we, as a community, making Love visible in word and deed? Let the specific examples rise up in your mind. It doesn’t matter whether these examples seem small or large. Every step counts.

Mission Statement

Bound together by our commitment to making Love visible, we gather to deepen our spirits, to work for justice, and to create one sacred family.

Vision 2015

We seek to build a religious community that makes Love visible in word and deed. Therefore we are called to:

1)      Create a caring, connected congregation that actively reflects the richness and diversity of our community, honoring and nurturing with justice and compassion all that makes each of us unique.

2)      Undertake bold initiatives to transform ourselves and our community.

3)      Worship together so that we connect with the divine, transcending the boundaries that limit us, to become part of something greater than ourselves.

4)      Care for, nurture, and empower the growth of our children and youth through vibrant and engaging lifelong faith development and social programs.

 We are already on the road to these ambitious, beautiful dreams. Now they are all the more urgent, and thus all the riskier. So, I invite you to take the hand of those standing near you. Now come, let us take our next steps. “One more step, we will take one more step”—day by day by day. Welcome to this new church year at the First Unitarian Church of San José!

With all my love,


Rev. Nancy

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Jul 24 2013

Beach Finds: Our Funny Hearts

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May 30 2013

Building on what’s bright

Published by under Minister's Musings

What moments from the past nine months stand out for you in bright relief, as though backlit or perhaps even lit from within? In what moments, small or large, have you felt a sense of rightness, of comfort, contentment, passion, or joy? When have you met a challenge that brought out the best in you? When you have achieved something that makes you feel grateful and proud?

Shining star
Appreciative Inquiry asks us to look for such “sparkling moments” on our journey toward a goal, and then to build on the qualities of those moments in order to grow. The paradigm shift from solving a problem, which keeps us focused on what’s broken, to building on what’s healthy and bright releases energies we didn’t know we had.
Let’s say our goal is to live true to our values, to “make Love visible in word and deed,” as FUCSJ’s mission and vision put it. What bright moments from our life together this year at First Unitarian point us toward how we can grow next?
On a recent Thursday morning, Rev. Geoff and I sat down to list our sparkling moments for the 2012-13 church year. Here are just a few of mine – a deeply personal and very partial list of moments when I feel that you and I have been at our best.
Caring for each other: Like love itself, sometimes our brightest moments mingle joy with sorrow. Walking with long-time members Gene Martin and Anne Gunn in the last months of their lives, and then celebrating those beautiful lives with you, have been transformative for me this year. Now I see the ways in which we carry forward our love for them and their legacies to us. I am grateful, and I think of them every day.
These are just two of the losses we have suffered in our church family and extended family this year. What loves and legacies are you carrying forward? How have you been changed by the dear ones you have lost?
Sharing the ministries of this congregation: All our partnerships have grown stronger and deeper this year. My list of sparkling moments includes every single gathering with Worship Associates, Pastoral Associates, Small-Group Ministry Leaders and Content Team and the small groups themselves. Right now, the intense holy moments with our Search teams for our new Choir Director and for Office Manager (and the amazing pools of candidates we have had for both—such a sign of our health!) shine especially brightly. I love working with our strong, creative, dedicated officers and other elected/appointed leaders. I love all the ways in which you and I collaborate, making good ideas even better by working on them together. Who knew that meetings could satisfy the mind, heart, and spirit so deeply?
Every member has a ministry to offer to this spiritual cooperative. So tell me: What is your ministry within this congregation, and with whom do you share it? What bright moments have lit up your ministry this year? What inklings of discernment have you had about what you’d like to contribute? How will each of us grow in these ministries in the year to come?
Embracing 21st-Century Ways of Doing “Church”: The Pacific Western Regional Assembly, along with Rev. Geoff’s and my workshops and collegial conversations, offers exciting, urgent visions of how to be a spiritual community in the Media Age. Ministering with UUs beyond the walls of our congregation; “curating” on-line resources that people can access anywhere anytime for making meaning and making a difference; creating virtual connections through social media – these are the waves that we must catch and ride. The Program and Operations Council, including the ministers, are diving into the recreation of our website, with professional help. And I love my growing on-line ministries and the fresh possibilities for sharing Unitarian Universalist ways of living.
Have you “liked” FUCSJ’s Facebook page yet? It’s a great way to stay in touch. Feel free to “friend” me on Facebook, and at the same time, send me a message letting me know who is making that friend request.
The 21st-century congregation is not so much about bringing people into membership as it is about sending people out into the world to make a difference – that’s how the Rev. Christine Robinson puts it. So tell me: How are you expressing Unitarian Universalism beyond the walls of our beloved church? What is your “UU mission” in the world?
Working for Justice: No list of sparkling moments could be complete without mention of our powerful work to make this world a better place. Working for compassionate immigration reform, including the Teddy Bear Campaign, and passing a congregational resolution on the Rights of Nature, stand out for me here.
Weathering Life’s Storms: Not every transformative moment “sparkles,” of course. When we manage to learn and grow from life’s biggest challenges, we have so much to celebrate! On my list of “bright moments” is the difficult but important experience of ministering with you during my divorce in 2012. A divorce is never an easy passage, even when it is amicable, and I feel grateful and awed by how much support I have received and by how sustaining our ministries together have been through this tough life transition. Thank you, Beloved Community, for all your love!
There are so many bright moments I long to lift up; this list is partial, indeed. I would love to hear your lists, too. May you find time this summer—as I surely will—to reflect on the year just past so that in the year to come we can continue to build on our strengths, both personally and in community.
With much affection,
Rev. Nancy

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May 06 2013

Try Something Different!

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You and I have spoken all these words, but as for the way
we have to go, words
are no preparation.
So begins a beautiful poem called “A Necessary Autumn Inside Each,” by the Sufi poet Rumi, found in The Soul of Rumi in Coleman Barks’s translation.
Something in me stirs whenever I hear a poet, prophet, or philosopher speak about the limits of our knowing. At that edge of what we know, we must step forward into the unknown or else turn back to the familiar and risk stagnation, a kind of death. As my friend Dr. Mark Hicks says, this limit of our knowing is where we “dance at the edge of meaning.” It is where we must learn something new. There, we have the choice to let go of old ways of living and being that no longer bring health, happiness, and wholeness to us and others. It’s where we dare to “try something different.”
Perhaps you are experiencing this edge of knowing in your own struggles to make sense of life.
Rumi’s poem concludes with this urging:
Very little grows on jagged
rock. Be ground. Be crumbled, so wildflowers will come up
where you are. You’ve been
stony for too many years. Try something different. Surrender.
Photo of autumn leaf

I have included the term “surrender” among our transformational themes because of this mystical understanding of it: that when we “crumble,” wildflowers can grow up through us. This kind of surrender invites us to be humble yet open—to be “right-sized.” When we human beings are right-sized, we do not allow ourselves to feel puny or helpless, as though we have no agency to make ourselves and this world a better place. But neither do we see ourselves as all-knowing and all-powerful, as superior to or more important than other creatures. When we are right-sized, we find our true place in the interdependent web of all existence, and then, using our own best gifts and capacities, we participate in tikkun olam – the Hebrew term for healing the world – knowing that we can do much, yet that we always, always have more to learn.
As I write this essay, we have experienced a horrible week: explosions in Boston, a violent manhunt that continues even as I type; more explosions in Texas, more deaths and destruction; Congress turning down anti-violence bills that 90 percent of us support; and news from my colleagues ministering in the face of violence and loss in their local communities. It breaks my heart. An attitude of “letting go”
and “surrender” seems too passive in the face of so much that needs healing, changing, repairing.
And yet … Sometimes we are called to be still. To let go of our need to fix or control, which is so often driven by fear. We need instead to sit with our sadness, in community, recognizing how tragedy can bind us even closer into kinship. Kinship with all who endure violence daily; with all who cannot fathom how to heal their own suffering except through a violent lashing out; with all who generously weave webs of relative safety, comfort, care, and compassion; with all who mourn and with all who help us find ways to laugh and to rejoice in life and love once again.
Another poem speaks to this moment, and to our theme, too. In “The Real Work,” by Wendell Berry (Collected Poems), Berry says,
It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work.
If we are not at least a little baffled by all that life presents to us, then we are not really showing up, this poet suggests. This is when our true journey begins. May this poet’s vision, like Rumi’s, help us move beyond the edge of our knowing into a new and softer place where we can be of use.
With love for the journey and for each of you,
Rev. Nancy

P.S. You can read the full poems on-line:
Rumi, “A Necessary Autumn Inside Each,”
Berry, “The Real Work,”

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Apr 29 2013

When “Transformational Themes” Get Tough: A Ministerial Reflection

Published by under Minister's Musings

April’s theme, “Salvation,” caused quite a stir for some of us. Some have lifted up positive responses, such as new interest or insight, while the negative responses have included discomfort, dislike, offense, and a range of assumptions about why the heck we at the First Unitarian Church of San José have taken up these “transformational themes,” anyway. In last month’s newsletter and April’s worship services, I have tried to share my own wrestling with this particular theme. In fact, I wrestle with the themes every month, but last month’s was particularly hard for me, too.

Still, you may not have been interested in wrestling with it at all. As some of you have said, the heavy “traditional Christian baggage” that comes with this word salvation may have made it darned near impossible to hear how Unitarian Universalists make meaning of it, and how it can be useful to our own real, contemporary lives.

          I wish we had all the time and space in the world to go deep each time we gather, each time we communicate. Then we could look more deeply and broadly at how “salvation” is not just a Christian concept—how it shows up in other religions and philosophies throughout human history. We could unpack and set aside the dug-in associations that come from just some parts of the Christian faith, those parts that harangue about “God” “saving” humankind from “sin” “through Jesus’ death.”  Each quotation-marked word or phrase needs about a year’s worth of sermons and writings for us Unitarian Universalists if we want to build our own theology …

          In these 21st-century days, however, we usually don’t have that kind of time or attention span. I—and the Small Group Ministry Content Team, and others who guide our ministries—have to make choices about what tiny slice of a huge topic we will take up. All of us have to listen closely to each other to hear the tunes of belief, longing, fear, hope, love, uniqueness, and authenticity that underlie everything we say (and write) about these themes.

So why I have chosen to explore these “transformational themes”? It’s not some fruitless attempt to “return to the past.” Rather, it’s because I believe in the value of exploring the questions below the question. In other words, I know, both in my gut and in my best reasoning, that there is a human question, applicable to our human condition now as much as it was centuries ago, that drives the formation of beliefs, hopes, longings, and ways of living. For April’s theme of salvation, some of those questions-below-the-question include: Why have humans felt the need to describe, to name, to ask, what “saves” us? What is common to the human condition that makes us long for something better—for a more whole and healthy state, a happier way of living? 

          For us Unitarian Universalists, salvation is not about how or if we’re “going to heaven,” if heaven is seen as something apart from this world and this life. It’s about how we survive life’s daily challenges and biggest traumas. It’s about how, through it all, we grow into the folks we most want to be—the folks that our life-saving faith claims we can be!

          Sure, there may be less loaded words to use instead. I can promise you that we will rename some of our themes when we come back to them through the three-year cycle. But I hope we can help each other to think and feel through the word itself to its roots, and then use all that we find to build our wings. 

Next year, some of the transformational themes get even stickier—can you believe it? I will look for new names for these themes—and/or offer synonyms or “translations”—that will make them less likely to trigger old traumas. We’ll also try some new patterns to preaching and worship services; a better balance of “light” and “heavy” in Small-Group Ministry content each month; and more. We ministers—lay and ordained—will keep seeking ways to make these themes more meaningful, accessible, and truly transformational for all of us.

          Meanwhile, your own responses to these themes (see the “In Our Own Voices” column in the journal each month) prove that we are on to something. So I hope you’ll hang in there, finding your own ways to explore, to remain open or to open anew, to listen more deeply to yourself and to others, to have faith in your (and our) capacity to grow. Trust that we are, together, Unitarian Universalist to the core—because our faith is what we are making it, as well as what we have inherited. Roots and wings.

          It is a sign of our growing health and vitality that you are sharing your varied responses fearlessly. Please continue to do so in ways that are both authentic and compassionate, bold and inclusive, ways that lead to deeper conversations rather than shutting conversations down. Please continue to let me know what you are thinking and feeling about all this. I may not be able to respond to each of you individually—but your experiences will help to shape our life together. I guarantee it!

            And do take a look at Michael Pelizzari’s response to April’s theme, included in this edition. Our merry Band of Writers has a great time letting ’er rip on the themes each month—and that’s another way in which we spread our wings. Let us soar on together, my friends!


With heartfelt gratitude and much love,


Rev. Nancy




I’d like to share this by a member of our Band of Writers:


From the Band of Writers Theme of the Month: “Salvation”

What’s all this talk about “salivation”?
And all this praying to God for it?

These seekers must be dyslexic.

Pavlov had the answer
Not from God, but from dog.
Ring a bell and dog provides salivation.

–Michael Pelizzari


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Apr 03 2013

Wrestling with Salvation: The Human Hunger for Wholeness

Published by under Minister's Musings

“And then I learned to read.” During a recent talk at the California Theater, Anne Lamott – the quirky author of Help Thanks Wow, Traveling Mercies, and Operating Instructions – names the big turning point in her life. Like many of us in the theater that night, Anne grew up in a middle-class 1950s household where the Manhattans and martinis flowed like fountains and the family’s dysfunction hid behind glassy smiles and rigorous social “correctness.”
“Then I learned to read,” Anne Lamott says, “and reading saved me.”
Up in the balcony of the California Theater, I fumble as quietly as I can through my cavernous purse, searching in the dark for the small notebook I carry with me. Not there. Desperate, I grab a pen and write on my palm: “Reading = salvation.” As Annie goes on, my notes crawl up the inside of my forearm: “Help each other feel better 1950s style [not equal to] salvation.” “We’re going to find a space for you, too.”
Salvation – our theme at First Unitarian this month – is not an easy topic. I feel the same resistance, if not outright rejection, that many of you express (see “In Our Own Voices” in this issue). Picture this: Many years ago, a friend calls from across the country for help with a Stewardship Testimonial that his church has asked him to give. “What’s a Stewardship Testimonial?” I ask, pre-divinity school. My friend’s essay includes a line about “being saved.” Even over the phone he can hear my face scrunch. “What does that mean?” I ask crankily. “Saved from what? Saved for what, to what? Who gets to be ‘saved’?”
Some of us grew up with a religious interpretation of salvation that hurt. One Christian version claims that Jesus died to atone for the sins of humankind, thus granting his followers “eternal life.” But what does this interpretation say about the value of suffering?
This idea that Jesus’ death is Christians’ saving moment only came into favor during the Crusades, more than a thousand years after Jesus is killed. In Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us, Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker point out that in the 1100s, it became politically expedient for popes to persuade soldiers that acts of violence could be “sacred” and that death might bring its own reward. A few centuries later, John Calvin’s “doctrine of election” says that some folks are predestined to be “saved” while others are not. Oops, sorry, your name’s not on the list! And how do we know? Well, maybe by the way in which you live now—or maybe not. Don’t ask: it’s a Mystery. But you over there—you’re different, so surely not you.
Our Unitarian and Universalist religious ancestors just don’t buy these interpretations, because they don’t make sense, and they’re not fair. As Thomas Starr King famously quips (I’m paraphrasing), “The Universalists think God is too good to damn them forever, and the Unitarians think they are too good to be damned.”
What does this all mean?
So what does all this theological history, combined with Anne Lamott’s Baby Boomer story, mean for us today?
It means that we humans are always asking to understand why we suffer, why bad things happen to good people, and how we can live with more peace, joy, and authenticity.
It means that we 21st-century UUs are called to question and reframe how we find our way to wholeness. It means we’re not going to plaster over the hard stuff or deny the damage done by emotional and physical violence. Instead, we’re going to find the people, the stories, and the interpretations that ring true, that show us how we are “already all right,” just as we are, and at the same time help us to grow.
Most of all it means: “We’re going to find a space for you too.”
Welcome to a month of discovery and new connections!
With love for the journey and for each of you,
Rev. Nancy

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Mar 05 2013

The Power of Intention

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“Currently, more than 200 controlled experiments in humans, plants, animals, and even microbes suggest that the compassionate, loving prayers and intentions of one individual can affect another individual or object at great distances…. Our individual mind appears to be connected with all other minds, no matter how far apart.”
—Larry Dossey, M.D., “Introduction,” in Thich Nhat Hanh, The Energy of Prayer: How to Deepen Your Spiritual Practice

What if “prayer” simply means directing our intentions toward someone or something? When we hold someone or something in our hearts, can we sense a connection? Can we have faith in this connection, regardless of the outcome of our hopes or requests?
A New Energy
“If we have a new energy, a new insight, a new faith, we are able to open a new stage in the life of our body and our mind. When we sit down to practice unifying our body and our mind, and we bring our energy of love to our grandmother, to an elder sister, or a younger brother, then we are producing a new energy. That energy immediately opens our heart.”
—Thich Nhat Hanh, The Energy of Prayer: How to Deepen Your Spiritual Practice
What spiritual practice helps you to unify your body and mind? Try sitting still and focusing on your breath for a few minutes. Take a walk in a beautiful spot, mindful of your steps, your breath, your surroundings. Wash a few dishes by hand, aware of every sensation. Notice your energy before you begin. Notice your energy as you conclude this practice. Do you sense a new energy in body and mind? Do you feel a slight increase in the “nectar of compassion” for yourself and others? What happens when you try again, and again?
More Love
“What it can do—what prayer, at its best and at our best, has always done—is help us to live consciously, honorably, and compassionately…. As long as prayer helps me to be more loving, then I need prayer. As long as prayer serves as a potent means of sharing my love with others, I need prayer.”
­—Kate Braestrup, Beginner’s Grace: Bringing Prayer into Your Life
The next time you feel impatient with yourself or another, try taking a long mindful breath. Then, amid the chatter of your mind, gently introduce this silent question: “How can I respond now with love to myself and to this other person?” Or phrase it as a silent request—no need to specify a recipient: “Please help me to be my most conscious, honorable, and compassionate self right now.” Then take another breath. What choices do you make?
Yours in exploring spiritual practices,
Rev. Nancy

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Feb 13 2013

Justice in the Real World

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My friend Terry and I walk out of the darkened movie theater, still immersed in Les Miserables’ gritty world of 1800s Paris—the Paris of the 99 percent. Outside, the bright southern California sun and the garish colors of the mall seem less real than the world we have just left. The movie’s message—that sacrificing for justice is worthwhile, that love really can conquer fear, that forgiveness is possible—is so much easier to see and hear when the characters’ hearts and minds are laid bare in relentless close-ups and in soul-stirring song.

Outside, in the great mix of people distracted by merchandise, hungry for French fries, and jostling for each other’s attention, the arc of the moral universe seems much less distinct. When the challenges and rewards of daily life occupy every waking thought, how do we make time to look at systems of justice or injustice that affect us in less visible ways? When so much is wrong with our world, when so many people, creatures, and ecosystems are suffering, how do we choose the specific cause or causes to which we will give our limited time, energy, and resources? And when we do get involved, how do we sustain ourselves through both the heartbreak and the exhilaration—again and again and again?

As a survival strategy, each of us tries to pick one way or another to approach the work of justice. Sometimes we rage against the harm that human beings do to each other, to other creatures, to the planet. We use that rage to fuel our fight for change. Other times, we focus on all that’s good, beautiful, and hopeful about life itself, trying to store up enough joy to keep us going as we do the hard and partial work of justice making.

I think we need both/and. Both the rage and the joy, the pain and the hope, the clarity of a powerful story told on film and the messiness of the real world outside the movie theater. Both the big vision, and the tiny steps that inch us toward it.

For instance, some folks pooh-pooh the efforts of Unitarian Universalists who traveled to Phoenix last June for Justice General Assembly. What do we have to show for it now? some ask. While in Phoenix, we met with justice-seeking partners on the ground—immigrants, immigrants’ rights organizations, people of many faiths and of no religious affiliation. We studied strategies for social change that have succeeded, and learned important lessons (often by making mistakes) about how to communicate across differences in life circumstances. We stood outside Joe Arpaio’s Tent City, waving battery-operated candles in the air, chanting slogans, and singing songs—though “Kumbaya” was not in our repertoire, as some have joked. The goals of Justice GA were to increase the visibility of an unjust immigration policy (national media coverage: check), to demonstrate our solidarity (from partners’ testimony about the power of our presence: check), to gain skills and competencies to take home to our own communities (workshops, worship, practical training: check), and to go home equipped to do transformative work (those results: still to be determined).

Going to Phoenix was like going to an inspiring movie: we learn, we yearn, we have a peak experience—and then we step outside into the messy mixed-up world. Now we have to find each other, to gather together. We have to do the hard work of disagreeing, choosing, encouraging, getting discouraged, and doing it anyway. We have to do the small work of signing petitions, writing letters, making phone calls, going to meetings (and to parties), ensuring that our combined voices are heard.

That’s what this month on Justice is about at the First Unitarian Church of San José—what every month is about, really. Finding each other, gathering together, doing the hard work and the small work. Remembering: sacrificing for justice brings meaning to our lives. Discovering: love really can conquer fear. Experiencing: the joy of our combined spirits, the thrill of those moments when the arc of the moral universe really does bend toward justice.

I’ll see you there!       


With love and hope,


Rev. Nancy

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