Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Spiritual Teachers

The taglines of the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship are: "Simply Following Jesus" and "Following Jesus in Freedom". In both of these, you see the phrase following Jesus. At a Saturday Revival workshop entitled UU Christianity 101, I learned that the UUCF has been following Jesus and encouraging those who do since 1945. Following Jesus in the UUCF tradition means connecting with the life and teachings of Jesus.

Through our workshop discussion, Ron Robinson, the UUCF Executive Director, brought us to the reality that although Jesus is the central role model and teacher for Christians, there were spiritual teachers before Jesus and there have been spiritual teachers after him. The goal of our personal spiritual journeys is to seek people who speak to us in a way that opens us to the Truth, to the Mystery, to God. I'd add...who helps you to recognize systemic injustice and urges, even demands, that you set it right? People who can touch us, guide us and move us in these ways become our teachers.

One of the reasons that I find Jesus so compelling as a teacher is that Jesus leads with the Heart, with Love and Compassion. Fear and Guilt are not the motivators in the Way of Jesus. Ron asked us: What religious tradition or spiritual practice helps you, supports you, pushes you to act from Love and Compassion? Then run to those practices, disciplines, routines and embrace them.

Last evening, I learned of the death of one of my spiritual teachers. Her name is Sister José Hobday, a Native American who joined the Franciscan order of nuns and spent many weeks every year traveling about the country speaking on simple living, spirituality and prayer. Several years ago I attended an all-day workshop that she led. "Speaking" is not quite the right description for what happened that day. Sister Hobday was a storyteller. Her stories came from her childhood, her experiences serving on an Arizona reservation, her prayers, her Native American spirituality intertwined with her education in Catholic theology. What a joy and a wake-up call those stories gave!

Here is one of her stories. Among the disciplines in simple living is taking an inventory of the things in our lives and determining what is connected to our life's ministries or vocation and what is not. What is not should be cleaned out, sold, given away. A well-to-do woman came to Sister Hobday with a dilemma. She had many real furs--coats and stoles--that she knew she did not need. She considered selling them, but felt uncomfortable and she wasn't sure to whom she could give them. She was torn. Sister told her that perhaps it would be best to burn them. Have a bonfire in the backyard. Invite the neighbors. Have a party. Stand by and watch the furs burn. The woman was appalled. Finally, Sister offered to take the furs, and the woman gave them with a great deal of relief. Sister sold them to raise money for her ministry on the reservation.

You have to start fresh, Sister Hobday told us. The greatest fault that this well-to-do woman displayed was the sin of Lack of Imagination. That is a great sin. To follow Jesus, to create a simple life, to do the right thing requires the full use of our imaginations. Otherwise we miss the mark.

I'm still referring to Sister Hobday's writings to simplify my life and get close to God. To me, only her body has passed on. Her spirit, like Jesus, is right here with me. Urging me. Prodding me. She is one of my spiritual teachers.

In the sidebar of this blog, you'll see a new link to LTS It's a store that I've created as an easy way to share books and materials that have touched me. I've added two of Sister Hobday's books there. If you know of something that you'd like to share, I'll put it out on the store. If you purchase something through the store, I get some money back, but that money will go to the charities that my business supports.

Give thanks today for Jesus and for any other people in your life who have become your spiritual teachers.

Blessed Be. Amen.

Friday, April 24, 2009

"Make a Joyful Noise..."

"Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth;
break forth into joyous song and sing praises." Psalm 98, v. 4

Needless to say, at Revival, we made a lot of joyful noise, as well as more meditative and solemn sounds. I don't think that you can bring a group of celebrating, worshipping Christians together and not have them express their hearts and souls in music. And we enjoyed the full range of music styles.

In previous posts, I've described the joyous outpouring of the Pentecostal worship style and the contempletive rhythms of Taizé. We heard traditional hymns and choral arrangements from the All Souls choir. From the choir loft the song seemed to float directly from heaven. We enjoyed the talent of Rick Fortner, one of the music directors and a professional pianist with a jazz flair, whose improvisation and beautiful accompaniment brought special blessings to every gathering. Flute, violin, electronic keyboard, organ, voices. Our music cups were overflowing!

I'm a singer myself and play guitar for accompaniment. I've sung and led worship music with several praise and folk groups. I've also sat in the pew and closed my eyes to drink in the harmonies of Bach or sink into a soloist's hymn. I also learned to distinguish music purpose: hymns where the words and the theological message are important; Gospel music where expressing emotions is the focus, Taizé for meditation, listening versus participating. Music speaks to our souls, transports us into the transcendent, can give us an out-of-body experience when we least expect it. A gentleman at Revival shared a description of music's power--Grounded Euphoria. Oh, yeah! That's what we're talking about.

My Polish heritage has a saying that when you sing, you pray twice. I've heard that this saying is part of almost every culture. With the music we shared at Revival, I'm sure we prayed a dozen times for every song.

One of most surprising experiences was the Revival tradition of the Hymn Sing which happened after dinner on Friday. Now, because of my background in leading worship, I figured I knew a lot of Christian music, and I was ready to sing my favorites. I learned very quickly that my music repertoire comes from the Catholic/Anglican tradition; the hymns most requested at the Revival Hymn Sing were from the Protestant tradition. Big difference. Big. I heard this observation from other people at Revival who grew up on the Catholic side of the Christian aisle. No wonder we Christians can hardly communicate; we don't even share the same music!

It's not as bad as all that. Many of the tunes were familiar, and I enjoyed learning new songs. It did get me thinking about my UU Christian fellowship back home. What music selection would best fit our services? Clearly, we would need a range across the Christian traditions to welcome people coming from different music directions.

So here's today's question. What worship hymns or songs do you love? Post the titles or the first lines or whatever you can remember in a comment.

I'll start.

Be Not Afraid. On Eagle's Wings. We Bow Down. Shine, Jesus, Shine. He Is Able. City of God. Here I Am, Lord.

Your turn.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Jesus, The Wisdom Teacher

For all of you just joining us, I'm sharing experiences I had at the 2009 UUCF Revival in Tulsa in March, and we're using those experiences as springboards for discussion and reflection.

One workshop I attended that weekend was called "Saving Jesus from the Christian Right and Secular Left" and was moderated by a minister from the United Church of Christ. As one participant said, "I don't think that Jesus needs to be saved. He can do that for himself. But I'm willing to listen."

First, we watched a video from the Saving Jesus curriculum, a 12-week DVD-based study for small groups presenting leading religious voices of today, such as John Dominic Crossan, Matthew Fox, Marcus Borg, and Amy-Jill Levine. The sixth video is Teachings of Jesus: Wisdom Tradition and focuses on the oral tradition that Jesus used to greatest effect in his ministry--parables. Parables are an exquisite form of storytelling which ground the story in commonplace, everyday images, and then shifts perspective within the commonplace to make you think, sit up and take notice, or nudge your perceptions. The power of Jesus was his ability to create these stories with a radical force. He described the status quo: the Roman occupation, the status of Jews in society, the rule-based Jewish community. He showed how the status quo oppressed. Then he shifts. Through his storyline he tells his listeners that they are pure, worthy, everything that society tells them they are not.

I particularly valued the teaching that in reading all the parables, we should be on the lookout for not only personal sin, but also systemic sin; not only personal injustice, but also systemic injustice. Jesus was a master at showing both at the same time. The example parable is the one about the generous landowner and the laborers in his vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16). Remember? The landowner hires laborers throughout the day and when the end of the day comes, he directs his manager to pay them all the same rate whether they worked a full day or only a few hours.

Jesus begins by saying the "The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner..." So we know that Jesus is going to describe the environment, our mind set, our internal moral compass the way God wishes it to be. The story is one of outrageous generosity. Underneath, two other realities arise. First, is the gut reaction we (and the grumbling laborers) have to such generosity. It's unfair. It's unjust. People should be paid at a rate reflecting the work they do. Jesus' first lesson is that we need to radically reorder our thoughts on this matter to create the kingdom of heaven on earth.

The second reality is more subtle. Here we are, at the height of the harvest season when it should be "all hands on deck" so to speak, but at the end of the day, there are still laborers milling around without a job, "Because no one has hired us." (v.7). Here is systemic injustice. There is something wrong with a system that has jobs available, but can not bring the workers and jobs together so that workers can work and jobs can be filled.

This second reality is evident even today. Jobs in the suburbs could be filled by workers living in the city, except for a lack of good public transportation and affordable daycare. High tech jobs go unfilled due to a lack of re-training for manufacturing workers and less emphasis on math and science in our schools.

Jesus often speaks on two levels; it's up to us to recognize it and become aware of the situation around us. Personal injustice and systemic injustice. If we tackle the systemic injustice, will all the personal injustices be resolved? What's better, putting our efforts toward systemic solutions like teaching the person to fish, or putting out the brushfires by feeding him today?

What do you think? What will you DO?

Friday, April 17, 2009

It Takes A Small Group...

One enjoyable aspect about the UUCF Revival in Tulsa was the opportunity to meet and talk with people from all over the country, from many UU congregations, and from many spiritual perspectives. At every meal, I chose a different table. At each workshop, I listened and learned and shared with a different group. At break times, we gathered in the comfortable arm chairs of the church library, rubbed shoulders as we viewed materials at the Book Sale, and found quiet corners for private chats. Revival also offered the more formal variety of gathering--small group sessions.

Each attendee was assigned to a group of 5 to 6 people, and that group met together three times over the course of the weekend. Our leaders used excerpts from a UUA Tapestry of Faith program called Spirit of Life as the source of topics. We lit a chalice, a UU practice that sets aside the time and space as sacred and draws us into the Divine. By way of introduction, we shared our signature motion or movement. We sang the beautiful hymn Spirit of Life and considered what the hymn means to us and why it's so popular. With pens and pencils, we drew our Spiritual Paths. We reflected on and discussed our prayer lives and composed prayers that tapped into our deepest needs. We offered each other affirmations. In just a short time, we shared on a level that many people never experience, even avoid. We practiced listening, brought our whole selves, and learned to trust the circle.

We modeled the Kingdom of God.

In the UU faith, such gatherings are collectively known as the Small Group Ministry. Some of the groups form for social purposes; others focus on service or social justice action. Still others are created specifically to carve out time and space for reflection on spiritual topics, deep listening and sharing. These are not therapy groups, except to give our Spirits the attention they crave. These are Covenant Groups, Spirit Groups or Chalice Circles. Our Revival small group experience illustrated how our Christian Fellowships in our own congregations might serve us better and teach us to regularly lead with our hearts.

It takes a small group to foster the feeling of connection within the large community. It takes a small group to support each other in spiritual growth. It takes a small group to learn how to listen, to accept, to allow the Divine in.

Do you have a small group of people with whom you regularly meet and share your spiritual self? What do you gain from the experience? What draws you back to the group time after time? If you don't have such a group, are you ready to make a commitment to one? Enough to seek out opportunities in your congregation or with spiritual friends?

It takes a small group to root us in a community of God's love so that we can sprout wings and fly into life.

"For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them." (Matthew 18:20)

"Roots hold me close; wings set me free; Spirit of Life, come to me..." (#123, Singing the Living Tradition)

May it be so. Amen.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Lay Your Burdens Down

We're now in the Easter Season. I hope that all of you took time to linger on Easter weekend and notice God's work in the world. I saw no Easter lilies here in North Carolina, but the thick sprays of dogwood visible down every street, pristine white against the bark brown and pine green, symbolize for me Easter's message of renewal, hope and revival.

One way to renew the spirit at the UUCF Revival was to participate in the Taizé Worship Service on Friday morning, led by Rev. Felicia Urbanski. The service was fashioned on the structure of the Taizé Community in France--Singing, Silence, Prayer, Scripture. At the front of the chapel stood a foot-high Celtic cross and a tall Christ candle, surrounded by small jar candles, all white.

The songs provide the framework of the worship. One or two phrases of English, Latin, French, or Spanish (other languages can be used) are repeated over and over to a simple, but interesting tune. In our service each song would begin quietly, hesitantly as the piano started and people learned the tune and words. More people joined in. The song grew in confidence. Someone added a harmony. A flute floated in, then out again. More harmony. The piano's chords rose. The violin soared above with a counterpoint. Without planning, all the instruments and people sang their prayers with full hearts and voices. After a few more repetitions, the energy began to recede into the quiet until the tune and words were merely a whisper.

Between each song, there were Bible readings, long minutes of silence, intercessions spoken from the congregation, the Lord's Prayer. For the final song, someone recessed carrying the Christ candle. Others followed with the smaller candles, all singing the phrases of Ubi Caritas, Where There Is Charity.

To me, the most moving ritual within the service was what the Taizé Community calls the Prayer of Intention, the prayers around the Cross. I have heard this symbolic action described in many ways: "Let Go and Let God", "Lay Your Burdens Down.", "Cast Your Troubles Onto the Lord", "Let it be." In one ceremony I attended several years ago, we even wrote our troubles on slips of paper, took a nail and hammer and literally "nailed it to the Cross".

In the Taizé prayer, with song in the background, each person is invited to come forward, kneel by the Cross, touch it, pray by it, symbolically entrusting to God and to Jesus, our brother, all of the burdens and difficulties endured by our friends, family and the oppressed peoples of the world. The physical movement coupled with spiritual intention helps us to allow God shoulder what we cannot.

Take a moment to think about the difficulties you or others close to you are facing. What troubles do you need to give up to God? What do you need to "nail to the Cross"? Do it now and know that you are not alone.

And after you have given your burden up, experience the joy that God can bestow when we least expect it. If you have not seen it, please turn your speakers up and watch the YouTube video of Susan Boyle's performance on Britain's Got Talent.

Our God is an awesome God!

Friday, April 10, 2009

"Useful Righteousness"

The Opening Service at UUCF Revival dropped me into a Pentecostal style of worship that I had never before experienced. The combined choirs of All Souls Unitarian Church rocked the house with praise choruses accompanied by an electric keyboard and the beat of drums, clapping, swaying, raising hands--all to praise God. Energized, we settled in to hear the sermon of Rev. Gerald Davis, Church of the Restoration-UU. Settled in? Not going to happen when Rev. Davis began preaching.

Revival, he told us, means to get back up, to come back to life, to rise again. When we are revived, we gain renewed life, renewed energy, and renewed focus. That was why we were all in Tulsa that weekend. To REVIVE.

Why? For what purpose?

To take that renewed life, energy, and focus and MOVE out into the world. The Way of Jesus for a Unitarian Universalist is to be useful. Someone in the congregation declared, "Preach it, Brother!" And he did.

Believing is fine, he said. Pulling a friend to church is fine. Stating your beliefs is fine. But if you don't extend yourself into the world, then your belief is lifeless, stagnant. He turned our attention to Isaiah 58:5-15 by calling Rev. Tamara Lebak of All Souls to "Read, Sister!" And she did.

As she read, Rev. Davis expounded. Only when you feed the hungry, love each other, fight for justice, THEN "...your light shall break forth like the dawn (v.8) shall be like a spring of water, whose waters never fail."(v.11). Punctuated with "Amen" and "Yes, Lord!" from the congregation, the words of Isaiah and the enthusiasm of Rev. Davis gave us the message of "Useful Righteousness." Read the Isaiah passage. Powerful stuff.

Just this morning, I was reading a Love Inspired romance by Cheryl Wyatt titled "Ready-Made Family" (April 2009). In the story, a young man named Hutton with Mosaic Down Syndrome watches all day as an older man, a claimed Christian, chastises and insults another because the other man is Asian, different. Days later, the older man relates how Hutton confronted him. "He [Hutton] asked me why I had pictures of Jesus up on my walls when I didn't love like Him...He went on to tell me that he didn't know how I could tell everybody I was a Christian because he looked and looked and looked all day and couldn't see Jesus living anywhere in my heart."

Hutton couldn't see Jesus. "They'll know we are Christians by our love", a well-known hymn states.

Useful Righteousness.

We talked about what our faith looks like earlier this week. Same question, different perspective. How do you intend to practice useful righteousness today so that "...your light shall break forth like the dawn..."?

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Jesus Goes to the Movies

The Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship (UUCF) Revival 2009 began on a stormy Thursday in Tulsa, OK. After flying through dark, angry clouds that were hurling lightning bolts and rain with equal ferocity, a safe landing drew my fervant prayers of gratitude. I think God wanted me to remember the opening scene.

I made my way to the Twilight Zone Cinema Room, an intimate movie theater on the lower floor of All Souls Unitarian Church and dropped into a series of film clips selected by Rev. Ron Robinson to show portrayals of Jesus through the years. From silent movies like "King of Kings" through talkies like "The Greatest Story Ever Told" (Charleton Heston as John the Baptist), Jesus is Brother Alien (thanks, Ron, for this phrase), a mystical pale ghost, brooding, intense, set apart. Light skin, light eyes (usually blue!), long medium brown hair and wearing a spotless, long white garment (how does he keep that clean?!). The retelling of his story is a mixture from all the Gospels and sticks closely to traditional Biblical interpretations. With only one or two exceptions, this other worldly image dominates the screen.


1973. Two films burst on the scene.

The first was "Godspell", a musical that opened off Broadway on May 17, 1971 and was translated to film in 1973. Riotous, joyous, shimmering with energy, the film is based on a series of parables lifted from the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus is a young man with a large afro, baggy pants with suspenders and sometimes dons the makeup of a clown. The music has many styles--vaudeville, rock, folk, pop--and lyrics not written by Stephen Schwartz were taken largely from the Episcopal hymnal. The setting is New York City and the cast plays an acting troupe.

The second was "Jesus Christ Superstar", a rock opera created by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice which was staged on Broadway in 1971 and hit the theaters the same year as "Godspell". In the film, the setting is modern Israel (the scenery is glorious) and the cast portrays a movie company going on location to make a movie about Jesus. Although Jesus is shown as being touched by Divinity, this Jesus is totally human--tender, angry, frustrated, questioning, prodding, loving, hurting. The rock music underlines the emotions and the lyrics, punctuated with modern language and idioms, mirror the Gospel stories.

After these two films, the doors are open for work such as Zefirelli's "Jesus of Nazareth", "The Last Temptation of Christ", "Jesus" (The Mini Series), "Color of the Cross" and "The Passion", working with a more human Jesus, new interpretations and attempting to bring historical authenticity to setting and context. But even with these portrayals, the storyline remains fairly traditional.

I was in high school when "Godspell" and "Jesus Christ Superstar" arrived. I have to admit the Brother Alien image of the past left me cold. The Jesus of these two movies roared into my blood like Spirit fire. I saw, no felt, through music and images that here was a Jesus to whom I could relate, who really did know what life on earth was like, who at times argued with God about His purpose for him, but pushed on with his ministry, knowing ultimately that God was with him. I still hum and sing the music of "Godspell" when I need a lift, and I watch "Jesus Christ Superstar" every Good Friday.

Close your eyes. What image of Jesus comes to mind? Is that an image that will propel you to live his teachings? If not, maybe you need a different image.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Lifting the Spirit Blogging Schedule

Just a note to let you know that I plan to post on this blog on Wednesday and Friday of each week. That way you'll know when to drop by and we'll have enough time to chat about the week's topics before moving to something else. Looking forward to seeing you all back here tomorrow.
Blessings of the Spirit to You!

Sunday, April 5, 2009


I am a Unitarian Universalist Christian. It's taken me many years, a lot of prayers and a few twisty roads to get here. More on the twisty roads in a later post. As a Christian, the Way of Jesus draws me to seek God, and his teachings as related in the Bible provide my moral compass and a vision of what life on earth might be if only we could bring the Kingdom of God to it. As a Unitarian Universalist (UU), I acknowledge that there is a Truth, Divine Light, Sacredness, Higher Power, God, but I do not profess that I have exclusive, complete knowledge of its existence or characteristics. The Face of God is seen through many windows--sacred scriptures, nature, television, the cosmos, people, books, movies, Facebook--and only by being aware and open can we see even a glimpse of Divinity's expanse and nature. I foster an attitude of gratitude for Life, its blessings, joys and sorrows. As a UU, I'm very interested in outcomes. You may have very different beliefs from me, but how do you put those beliefs into practice? Do you respect and listen to others? Do you care for nature and Mother Earth? Do you seek justice for all people or do you feel that only a few deserve it? Do you love your neighbor as the Samaritan did? Do you support other people in their spiritual walk even if it's different from yours? Outcomes.

What does your faith look like?

Friday, April 3, 2009


Welcome to Lifting the Spirit! On Wednesday, April 8, 2009, come share the journey of a Christian "in the pews". I'll start with a series of posts about the powerful experience of the UUCF Revival weekend which was held in Tulsa, OK the last weekend in March. From there, we'll travel forward where the Spirit leads. Talk with you on Wednesday!