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Finding Deeper Streams

Several years ago, I attended a talk by author Reza Aslan where he described his personal spiritual journey from Islam to Christianity, and back again. To illustrate, he used the saying, “You can dig six holes one foot deep or one hole six feet deep.” The effort is the same, but by remaining in one spot and digging deeper, you’re far more likely to locate an underground stream of fresh water. Even a hundred shallow holes will never get you there. After a few years as an evangelical Christian, he realized that Islam was his deepest, most meaningful path to Source, and he decided to return there and dig deeper.

Likewise, over the last six decades I have sampled my way through a number of spiritual paths, religious institutions, and transformational teachings. I have been a Quaker by birthright, a confirmed United Methodist, a Baptist preacher, a Presbyterian elder, and a minister in the United Church of Christ. A casual observer might say that I’ve had trouble “finding myself,” but I can tell you that this is not true. All of it has happened in the interest of digging a deeper well.

The teachings of a young rabbi known as Jesus of Nazareth represent the place I have stayed the longest and dug the deepest, and I have found them to be a rich and meaningful path to Source, but they certainly have not been my only path. A Presbyterian colleague once introduced me to Thich Nhat Hanh and the practice of mindfulness. I trained as a spiritual director with a Marist brother who is a Jungian psychologist. My own husband is a transformational life coach steeped in Chinese medicine, alchemical healing, and neuroscience. I love the many poets whose creative journeys deepen my own. I feel at home chanting the Daily Office with Benedictine brothers, sitting silently in a Buddhist sangha, or acquainting myself with the spiritual rhythms of some of my family members who are Muslim.

Viewing Divine Source as an underground stream makes it easier to respect and even participate in the spiritual journeys or religious choices of others. As Roman Catholics, Muslims, Jews, Evangelicals, Mainline Protestants, and Unitarians (to name just a few), we identify our sacred writings, establish our institutions, rituals, and spiritual practices. We may be tempted to think that our own path is the “right” one because it is the one that has formed us. But if we somehow believe that this so-called right path is normative for the whole of humanity, we simply haven’t gone deep enough.

There is an unspoken recognition among people who find deeper streams, that though we have dug from a different location, we are all finding our way to the same Living Water.

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We’re Here Too

Among the gifts of this moment are the new rituals and patterns that are emerging. Not all of them will remain when we’ve moved through the current crisis. But some of them will, and we will be the better for it.

In our church we have a weekly discussion group called “Stone Soup” where we add our own “ingredients” around the Sunday readings. These days, of course this is done in a web conference. Attendance has doubled, and we are seeing people from far away, younger people, working people who cannot make our “retiree-friendly” time on a weekday morning.

Slowly, it dawned on me. These are the voices we have been missing.

There are many of us who are focused on the “gifts” of this moment, like the ability to slow down, to be more at home with ourselves, our families, the environment. The language around this time feels like one of an extended “retreat” that we have sorely needed.

But suddenly we’re hearing other voices that express a much different experience. For most of the world, this is not a retreat at all. It is a serious crisis. We hear stories of parenting, uncertainty over employment, health care workers on the front line, vulnerable populations who do not have the luxury of “retreat” at all right now.

This is an “aha” moment.

We have a serious blind spot. We have been slow to embrace change. We have expressed a disdain for technology as if it were unspiritual or undignified, and yet in this time when we can ONLY gather virtually, we suddenly hear the voices that have been missing. If we are wise, this will teach us something essential.

The Great Reformation would never have occurred without technology. The printing press was new and unknown. Many people didn’t know how to read, but the world moved forward, and those who did not embrace the technology of the printed page were left behind.

We have often said that there is a new reformation coming. It’s more like a spiritual revolution. This one is fueled not by the printing press, but by the internet. For some of us it can be new and unknown. I know it’s uncomfortable. Sometimes it makes us feel embarrassed and inept, like in first grade when we struggled to pronounce an unknown word.

But if we learned to read, we can learn to Zoom, and if we want to do our good work in the world, we will rise and meet this moment.

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Shelter In Place

So many times I have said to Tripp, “I wish we could just stay home today!” And so many times our little dog, Violet, has looked at us with sad eyes, the ones that said, “Please don’t go to work!”

Well . . . all of those wishes have come true! Yesterday we received a government directive, that along with all the counties of the San Francisco Bay, we are under a “Shelter In Place” order for the next three weeks. Of course, this is an effort aimed at combatting the spread of COVID-19. We are to remain in our homes and venture out only for necessities like groceries, medications, or doctor visits.

The initial shock took us to the fridge and the cupboards. Do we have enough? Can we get more? What is the best way of procuring what we need without putting ourselves at too much risk?

Having settled those questions, and having rethought the way we handle the basic necessities of life, my thoughts then moved to the Community Congregational Church, the place where I serve as pastor. What does this mean for us as a gathered community?

As a “seasoned” minister I have a pretty good grasp of what my vocation requires of me. Until now this has always involved physical presence and proximity, but suddenly (or not so suddenly) we are confronted with how to live and work as a community and not be in the same room.

“Social Distancing” is our new spiritual practice. It could easily become an experience of marking time, but that feels a little too much like incarceration to me. I’d rather view it as a gift of space and time, given for the purpose of noticing ourselves, knowing ourselves, making peace with ourselves, and loving ourselves.

This self-nurture can become the cultivated ground out of which will grow a greater love of neighbor, a love that will blossom and bear fruit and ultimately change the world. And we all know that what the world needs now is love, sweet love.

Social distance can also be seen as a season of gestation out of which will be born something we are just beginning to imagine. We are well versed in the collapse of the western religious empire. What is newer to us is the recognition of what is trying to be born in its place.

This is what we call a pregnant moment in human history. It is a pregnancy that is nearing full term. The delivery is exciting and scary, and it’s what we’ve been looking for all along.

So . . . how about a deep, collective cleansing breath?

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For All The Guests

In our spiritual community we have a consistent practice, each time we gather, of expressing our gratitude out loud. It creates a ground of positive energy from which we can be nourished, and from which we can draw when it comes time to express our deepest, most profound concerns. Prayers that are long on asking and short on thanking seem awfully hollow.

I’m not certain, however, that we have mastered the Pauline art of giving thanks “in everything.” There is a sugary version of it that I’m just not buying, like when people try too hard or too quickly to submerge their anger and bitterness in a desire to live in the familiar comfort of positive spin. Thankfulness is never about spin. It is the response of human tension to divine activity, much like the sound of a violin, when the masterful bow is drawn across its taut strings.

Rumi’s “The Guest House” is one of my sacred scriptures, for it speaks to me of the full range of human experience and emotion, including depression or meanness. It reminds us to “welcome and entertain them all,” because each has been sent as a “guide from beyond.”

There is a lot of meanness showing up at our doors each morning. It is a temptation to slam the door shut and hope that it goes away. But it won’t. The only true way to handle it is to invite it across the threshold for a cup of tea, with the full understanding that the welcome has brief shelf-life.

There now, I’ve heard you. Thank you for sharing. Kindly leave now.

Were the human family not called upon by the unwelcome guests of injustice, greed, and hatred, we might never have seen the subsequent rise of truth, generosity, and heart-felt activism that is pouring forth all around us–by necessity.

So, this Thanksgiving, we don’t pause to give thanks only for blessings of home and hearth and harvest, but also to welcome a world that is none too rosy at the moment. Gratitude means that instead of cowering within our fears, we stand in the present moment with a strong measure of grace.

We welcome all that comes our way, and eventually some of those things will feel welcomed to leave us. I’m pretty sure of it.

The Growing Light of Joy

In the decades of my life I have seen the seasons come and go more times than I care to admit. This time around, winter is quite different from the last five which were spent in the Bay Area of California. Being back in the northeast in what I once would have called the “dead” of winter, I find that the season is anything but.

Yesterday, for example, I paid a quick visit to the shores of Lake Ontario, and though it felt brisk, the world was bathed in bright sunlight. Later, as we walked the dog on a trail around a large pond, I could not help but notice her glee as she jumped around in the snow, enlivened by the crisp air and the elusive flocks of geese which she chased to no avail.

The winter storms come and go, but the beauty of earth remains vital, brimming with the joy of life. It is easier to see on a bright sunny day, but it is no less present on the cloudy ones. I need to remind myself of that once in a while.

If we’re taking all the cues from our environment, waiting until all conditions are exactly right before we can feel joyous, contented or secure, then we miss about ninety percent of the life we came here to live. What I’ve come to understand–better late than never–is that it takes a daily grounding of energy to live that life fully, to create new reality with purpose, and to enjoy the path far more than the intended destination.

Sometimes I get a little caught in the storms of life. The trauma of loss gets stuck in my body and captures my brain. Regret for an old choice stymies my vision of a future possibility. Stress becomes an addiction that drives my present moment, blinding me to the very blessing that sits right in front of me. These are the tempests, the earthquakes, and the fires of life, and like the prophet Elijah, we may call for an expression of God in a big splash of the Divine that all the world can see.

But as we all know innately, we don’t find “God” in a mighty north wind, nor in the shift of tectonic plates, nor in the conflagration of driven flames. All that we call God comes to us in a still, small voice. When we become practiced at quieting the mind, we can move toward the healing of trauma, the cleansing of regret, and the relinquishing of stress.

This is what I believe prayer to be, not the begging of a far off deity to change its mind, but the daily movement of my own soul into the glory of a winter sunshine ever filled with the promise of more.

Good Morning!

When I think of the life I have led, I sense the powerful flow of all that has brought me to the NOW moment. In my sermon this past week, I made reference to the very first New Year in my memory. Early one morning my mother told me it was now 1961, and with that, my three-year old self became aware of linear time.

The face of a clock was meaningless to me then. Though I could not yet read, I was awakening to the world I came to inhabit. The sun came up, the sun went down. It was time to get up or time to go to sleep. Rhythms got established that have endured for decades. Neural pathways, structures of thinking and behavior were put into place that have guided me and located me in this universe ever since.

In time, some other neural pathways were set as well. I heard things about a God I could not see, but whom I could address in those “Now I lay me down to sleep” moments at bedtime. This sense of Source was very clear to me as an experience of light, warmth, and security, mostly embodied in a loving mother. It is a place to which I still return in meditation, as time becomes non-linear and I reconnect with those early experiences that have been stored in my body memory.

Compressed in linear time, however, things have not always felt so secure. When I was five there was a missile crisis. I didn’t understand what that meant but I heard the president speak about it on TV. I absorbed the tension and fear of the adults around me. The following year that same president was killed in the bright Texas sunshine, and at six years of age I witnessed the murder of his accused assassin on live television. My beloved grandfather had just died. My parents were often in conflict. It occurred to me that God was angry, perhaps even angry at me, and if that were the case, I must have done something bad. Perhaps I was bad.

Enter a well-meaning Sunday school teacher doing the best she could with the material she’d been given, planting the seed that this “angry God” feels the need to exact a punishment, and you have the makings of an early stage theological crisis, one that might have been avoided. Some never have to face it. Many of us have had to find a way to transcend it, often in the second half of life. Others simply stop where they are and live within the toxic confines of “original sin” and whatever their brand of religion might prescribe for the condition it created in the first place.

I am convinced that we are living in the dawn of a New Reformation, a necessary clearing of stagnant past energy. Whereas an earlier reformation addressed unchecked abuses of power within the sixteenth century Church, this one addresses the theological abuses that have accumulated in its wake. The earlier reformation was made possible by technology (the printing press) and fueled by a growing capacity of the populace to read the printed page. This one is a digital reformation, fueled by the exploding capacity of the populace to access spiritual practices and communities which can now include and transcend the walls of any place of worship.

The New Reformation awakens us from the dark night of original sin, and calls us into the beautiful morning light of Original Blessing. In our awakening, we can then create communities of practice that affirm what John’s gospel refers to as “the Light that lightens every being coming into the world.”

Good morning! And so it is. And so it shall be.

Take a Moment . . .

At the turning of this new year, the only celebration I require is the one that happens on this bench just off the Tiburon rail trail. I know a ball will drop in Times Square later tonight, but all I really need is a bit more time to stare at this view of Mount Tamalpais, to offer gratitude for the year that has been, as well as the one that is to come.

I am struck with wonder at the sights and sounds of a place that feels very new to me in one moment, and in the next, it’s as though I’ve spent forty lifetimes circling this sacred ground.

Time feels less linear these days. My intentions feel less etched in stone. I am breathing more deeply, sleeping more soundly, enjoying a life that grows simpler and deeper with each passing day. There is no magic formula for any of this, other than the words that came to me on this spot. “Take a moment. . . .”

This past year, I have felt the churning of a harsh and bitter world. I’ve listened to the pundits, gasped at the latest outrage, and wrung my anxious hands with the best of them. But when I take a moment, I can see another plane of reality, one that is filled with all the hope, peace, joy, and love of the Advent just past, one that leads me toward the peace of mind and heart that waits patiently for me every day on this bench. Like a Tesla called to its charging station, I sit, I wait . . . I plug in.

If there is any intention I would set for the new year, it is that I take more moments . . . for . . . myself.

All In Good Time

I’m not great at waiting. It doesn’t matter whether it’s on the freeway, in line at Target, or sitting in a doctor’s office. I am programmed to get on with it, no matter what “it” is.  When people and situations get in the way, I feel impatient, inconvenienced, and maybe even put upon. 

So, when I encounter an entire season, like Advent, that is a celebration of waiting, it isn’t something that I naturally take to. How many days until Christmas? How many sermons? How many concerts, gatherings or parties will happen before I get to the beginning of a new year. How long must I hold my breath until I get to a breathing space. How much confinement is there before the opportunity for expansion?

Recently, we learned that a new grandchild is on the way, and what a perfect season to receive such news! A new life holds all the hope and promise to supersede obstacles, to create new energy, and maybe even change the course of history.

The potential of human pro-creation is nothing short of miraculous. Some would say there’s nothing supernatural about it. I get the fact that human reproduction is a series of natural processes that happen everyday. But, the energy we call Life, that which breathes us and beats our hearts, is something that defies easy explanation. 

As we celebrate Emmanuel, “God with us,” the demonstration of divinity residing within a human body, let us avoid the theological detours that could accompany our seasonal celebrations. Instead, let us wait for just the right moment, which is actually the present moment, to open ourselves to divine awareness.

Let us draw ourselves inward, at least until the turning of the solstice when the shift in light occurs, and something like a star appears in our hearts, illuminating all that the Christ Child represents within us.

Let us recognize that as we watch and wait for civility, equality, and justice to blossom in us and all around us, we are living in a gestational moment, as something new is near us, and waiting to be born. 

It will come.

Soon. 

Blessed Subtraction

The single most important shift in the second half of my life is that I have become a person of subtraction. The earlier years were all about addition, the having of children, the gaining of education, the gathering of possessions.

In terms of religion and spirituality, my focus was on learning more stuff, building a theology, a comprehensible view of the world, full of plausible explanations of reality that, hopefully, enabled me to stand in front of numerous congregations over the years and interpret the great questions of life.

The second half is about letting go. My children are in their thirties. The house has been sold. Nothing feels better than getting rid of some unnecessary thing, the dust-gathering figurine, the book I’ll never read again.

At the risk of horrifying some of my colleagues, the attic of my theology is likewise in a state of subtraction. The older I get the less I know, and the happier I am about it.  Obscure biblical points have become irrelevant to me. Questions that used to occupy my attention, and perhaps send me scrambling through dozens of reference volumes, lexicons, and commentaries, will now elicit a single comment, “Nobody knows! And isn’t this a beautiful day? Have you seen that beautiful heron over there?”

Ideas of church and ministry are likewise falling by the wayside in favor of only the most vitally important.  I don’t know exactly what Jesus said, but if I’m getting the gist of it, we probably should analyze it less and practice it more. It’s not so complicated Just do it. Ask questions later.

There is no doubt that we’re living in troubled times–times that call forth from us new ways of being in the world, times that necessitate the casting off of ballast, of parting with things that no longer serve us, and of focusing on that which is most important: doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly.

When we have finished the subtractions, that is pretty much it.

David Starbuck Gregory