Monday, December 16, 2013

The Christmas Menorah

By Kristen Coyne

My daughter, now 13, has been raised a Unitarian Universalist since the age of 4. I’ve watched UUCT shape her, support her and challenge her in many ways over the years. This holiday season brings to mind one of my favorite “UU” stories about Omie that I think illustrates so many of the wonderful things about our faith. Let’s call it, “The Christmas Menorah.”

It was December 26, 2006, and the booty of the previous day was still piled on the living room couch. We were cleaning up the yuletide detritus—my husband, Sean, vacuuming up Christmas tree needles, Omie pulling out the skirt from beneath the tree to shake outside —when Omie gasped in surprise.

“Momma, momma!” she cried. “There’s another present under—and it’s from Santa!”

Clad in her new robe and pajamas, she hugged a box wrapped in red to her chest. She didn’t need to read the tag to know it was from Santa. She recognized the wrapping as the paper Santa had used on his presents that year.

“Oh, my goodness,” I exclaimed. “Where did that come from?”

It had been lost under the tree, she explained; she discovered it while cleaning. After studying the words penned in Santa’s distinctive block script on the tag —“To Omie, Love Santa. Ho, Ho, Ho!”— She tore off the wrapping to reveal a blue and white box bearing a photo of the familiar holiday item contained inside.

“It’s a menorah!” she shouted, more thrilled than she’d been at any point the day before. “Thank you, Santa. You’re the greatest!”

My husband and I are not Jewish, although I can claim a bit of Jewish creed: I worked on an Israeli kibbutz for half a year; my Irish surname is sometimes mispronounced as Cohen; and, of course, Judaism is part of the religious smorgasbord we’re exposed to at UUCT. Still, none of this quite qualifies us as Jews. My husband comes from Irish Catholic stock and I from Norwegian Lutherans.

However, sometime during her sixth year, Omie had decided that she was Jewish.

I cannot say where this conviction came from. Perhaps from our laid-back attitude about faith at home, or from the time in kindergarten when she ate scrumptious latkes fried up by a classmate’s mom. Or maybe it dated to a lesson about the Jewish festival of Sukkot one Sunday at UUCT. She informed her teachers that day that she had made a sukkah (a kind of temporary hut constructed to celebrate the fall holiday) at home and that she was Jewish, responding indignantly when classmates doubted the claim.

Not that my child’s newfound Jewish identity was going to interfere with her Christmas that year. Early in December she had made out her wish list: Polly Pocket dolls, a Chinese outfit, a locket, a robe, pajamas, and a bow and arrow.

This list notwithstanding, Omie had begun to suspect that there actually was no Santa. “Dad,” she asked the week before the holiday, “Tell me the truth. Do you buy all the presents?”

“No, I don’t buy all the presents,” Sean answered, managing to tell the truth and preserve Santa’s cover at the same time. Omie seemed reassured and dropped the matter.

Two days before Christmas, as an exercise in spelling and penmanship, I suggested our daughter write an actual letter to Santa. I promised I would mail the letter from the post office that day and that it would reach Santa before he left on his Christmas Eve journey. She composed her note at the kitchen table, folded it up, and slid it into an envelope addressed to Santa at the North Pool.

The missive was short, sweet and entirely different from the one that had been posted on the fridge for weeks. She asked that Santa help the poor, and kindly included a plug for mom, who wanted a new pair of bike shoes. For herself, Omie requested just three things: a dolphin purse (the same one Santa had given her several years earlier, which had been missing for months), a dreidel and a menorah.

My heart sank: There was no way Omie would receive any of these items. Replacing the unique purse purchased years earlier was impossible. The dreidel was a definite no: I had bought her one a few weeks earlier which she had promptly lost, a carelessness I could not allow even Santa to reward. And a menorah! The prospect of finding a menorah after Hanukkah had ended in a small southern city with a modest Jewish population was not promising. Besides, I had finished my shopping and, on a tight Christmas budget, did not want to buy anything else. There was no time left for shopping, anyway; we were busy preparing for UUCT’s Christmas Eve pageant, in which my daughter had a part as an angel.

The pageant was a delight, populated by cute, little shepherds, glittery white angels sporting butterfly wings and a beautiful Mary. As a golden star dangled from the end of a bamboo pole above a manger, we listened to the story of Jesus’ birth. We sang familiar carols and lit candles in the darkened sanctuary.

Omie told in song the story of the role that angels play in the nativity:

“If I were an angel with halo so bright,
I’d light up your way,
I’d journey with you through the dark of the night
‘Til sun delivers the day”

The minister praised the beauty, depth and mystery of the nativity story. Many in the audience might not believe in it literally, she said, but the story gave us much to reflect about and in that wonder, she explained, was great power.

 “Santa came, Santa came!” Omie pounced on me with her news early the next morning, pointing to the proof: presents under the tree, the stockings stuffed, crumbs and an empty glass where milk and cookies had been put out the night before. Omie opened her packages—the straw Chinese hat, softball glove and bow and arrow from Santa, the Barbie laptop from Aunt Katie, the Walkman and socks from Mom and Dad, the cooking set from Grandma.

She was happy with everything. We passed the morning learning to operate the electronics and playing catch in the yard.

But something was nagging at Omie. “Dad,” she asked later in the day, “did you buy the presents?”   My husband hesitated, teetering between fact and myth, unsure which was right.

“Of course he didn't buy the presents,” I interjected before he had a chance to spill the beans. “Santa brought the presents.” My tone made clear the matter was to be dropped.

Part of my daughter did not believe. But another part needed very much to, and fought to quiet the doubter in her.

But as the day went on, the facts lay cruel siege to her imagination. She learned during a phone call to her aunt overseas that Santa had skipped her home in Indonesia. When Omie visited her grandparents that afternoon, she discovered Santa hadn’t been there, either. It didn’t make sense. It wasn’t fair. Beginning to feel like Santa’s apologist, I came up with what I thought was a pretty convincing explanation.

“Santa is for the kids,” I told her. “Grown-ups can buy what they want anytime. But kids can’t. So Santa is special—just for kids.”

She seemed to find the explanation plausible—but just barely. As I tucked her in later that night, Omie seemed exasperated, weary. “I just don’t understand Christmas,” she sighed.

What else could I say? How could I tell her the truth, yet preserve Santa and all the good he represents for at least another year? I decided to borrow from what our minister had said during the pageant the night before.

“Christmas is a mystery,” I told her. “Santa is a mystery. No one knows for sure what it’s all about—no one can explain it. It gives you lots to think about, to wonder about, to explore in your mind and in your heart. Sort of like angels.”

I did not personally believe there were angels flying around with wings, in the way she had been outfitted the night before, I told Omie. But there were times in my life when strangers had intervened to save me—once on a cold, wet evening when I was hopelessly lost on a trek in the Japanese Alps, another time when I was stranded on a dark highway. Surely these people were angels. She, too, was an angel in my life, I told my daughter. She had brought me great joy; she was full of mystery.

This made her beam: At last an explanation that made sense, that rang true, that quieted her mind enough, at least, for her to fall asleep.

I cannot say why I needed my daughter to believe in Santa a while longer, to believe in the kindness and giving and hope that she clearly saw in that figure. But I did. And I believed she did, too.

Which is why, the next morning, after she and her father were safely out of the house, I began my quest for a Christmas menorah.

First I drove to a small specialty shop that I knew sold them, but they were closed. Back at home, I pulled out the phone book. Not surprisingly, the “Judaica” category did not exist. I tried calling a store that sold international merchandise: No, they hadn't any menorahs this year. Next I phoned a department store: They had had some earlier in the season but had long since sold out. The nice lady I talked to suggested the grocery story. An unlikely source, I thought, but worth a final phone call.

Bingo: The manager reported they had one menorah left, mixed in among the Christmas clearance stuff.

I was there in minutes. The menorah was not exactly the noble-looking candelabra I had envisioned, a silvery accessory featuring fine, tapered candles.  Instead I held a Deluxe Chanukah Electric Menorah, a white, plastic, made-in-China affair that came complete with nine royal blue 120-volt light bulbs.

Nevertheless, I was clutching what was very likely the last 2006 menorah available in all of Tallahassee.  So I happily parted with nine dollars on the half-off merchandise, rushed it home, wrapped it in Santa’s red “Merry Christmas” paper and slid it discreetly underneath the green sheet coiled around the base of our tree.

Later that night, as I assembled the pieces together, I professed consternation over how we could have overlooked the present on Christmas Day. Omie screwed in each of the nine blue bulbs, explaining to her father how the middle candle, the one perched atop the Star of David, was the servant candle, used to light each of the others over the course of Hanukkah’s eight days.

We placed the menorah and plugged it in. Omie scurried to turn off all the lights, including those of our Christmas tree, and the three of us sat in the glow of the nine electric candles. Gazing up at it in beatitude, Omie mooned, “Santa, you’re the greatest!”

By the light of our fire and that menorah, I read aloud to Omie before it was time to brush teeth and get in bed. Our daughter protested, as usual, but quickly turned obedient when reminded Santa was watching.

I brought the menorah to her room and found a home for it on her dresser. I loosened all but the servant candle, to serve as Omie’s nightlight. Shining above the Star of David, it filled the room with a magical blue aura. After tucking my girl in, I turned and saw that candle number No. 6 had lit itself back up; Omie and I gave each other a knowing smile, and I returned to the dresser to unscrew it again.

Snuggling in her bed, we stared for a while at the mysterious menorah, at Santa’s wonderful gift. Then Omie burst into song, picking it up mid-carol, and I joined her:

Star of wonder, star of night,
Star with royal beauty bright
Westward leading still proceeding
Guide us to thy perfect light.

We sang it twice. She begged for more stories of angels, but it was late and time to sleep. Preferring, as is her habit, to sleep in total darkness, she asked me to turn off the menorah for the night, which I did before bidding her sweet dreams.

Later that evening, before turning in myself, I went down to check on her. I found the servant candle shining brightly over a soundly sleeping child. It was a thing of profound beauty and mystery.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Love We Seek

By Rev. Robin Gray
Minister, Unitarian Universalist Church of Tallahassee

The Jain prays: “Forgive do I creatures all, and let all creatures forgive me. Unto all have I amity, and unto none enmity.”  Short phrases, made no less profound by their brevity. Phrases borrowed from a religious tradition begun in India, and no less pertinent in our lives as the great winter of waiting begins on the American continent.

Time and again, scriptures and sages from around the globe remind us that our essential goal in life must be to create amity — the harmony that rests on a foundation of peace and loving kindness. We listen and we know that that harmony will paint a brighter future for humanity. We listen to the admonitions, and sometimes we hear, how very important it is to our personal growth as spiritual and physical beings to develop the capacities for all-encompassing love.

Still the goal eludes the vast majority of us. A dedicated few, some call them saints, move beyond the masses and their love is legendary. The rest of us find ourselves caught up in the fear that pits nation against nation, and creates foes from friends. Wars waged and terrors committed in the name of religious purity shout down the quiet prayers of those who wish only to promote the Spirit of Peace.

The deep knowledge we have about the way life should be is tangled in the surface activities that divide us from the love we seek. Yet the fact that the goal lies beyond us still is hardly reason to abandon the search, and those same scriptures and sages recall us to a renewed dedication.

This, for me, is a part of the holy quest of Christmas and the sacred cycle of the seasons. If ever the angels did sing, “Peace on Earth, Goodwill to All,” they sing it still for me. If the sun shines with rays of hope and gives to life her all, then I can do no less in return. 

Take time this season to bring make love and harmony a part of your daily care and concern. Let yourself  be reminded of the greater goal that needs our attention in every season of the year.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

How to “See the Best” in People: The Hard Way

By Anna Bethea
UUCT Director of Religious Exploration

I’ve heard often that I see the best in people.  Maybe you’ve been told the same, or know someone who fits this common description.  I think it’s a nice compliment, but it’s never felt quite right to me.  One reason is that this trait is often associated with being more prone to getting hoodwinked by others and having a general sense of naivety. 

I  admit that, at times, I can be quite carefree and gullible.  But in important matters, I feel confident in my intelligence to weigh risks and make wise choices.  In short, I don’t like being dismissed for seeing through rose-colored lenses or for having Pollyanna thoughts.
However, the biggest reason this attribution doesn’t sit right with me is that I think I probably have just as many judgmental and unkind thoughts about others as the next person.

At the risk of exposing myself as insensitive, I admit:  I often wonder why people are so lazy, stupid, or can’t get their act together.  I make assumptions about others before I know the whole story.  I have, at times, even held myself above others and felt that I’m better than them.  These are not consistent with the traits of someone who “sees the best” in people.

There may be others with temperaments more suited to having naturally kind thoughts about others, but my approach is actually quite the opposite.  Instead of seeing the best in others, I relate to the worst in them.  In their thoughtless actions, I see the many silly mistakes of my own life.  In their arrogance, I see my own tendency to see myself as righteous and virtuous.  In their flusteredness, I see the moments when I’ve felt overwhelmed and inadequate.

It’s not the simplest of practices.  It’s quite difficult for some of us to be able to chip away at our own egos.  But once we start, we begin to see that what’s keeping us separated from others is not their actions or their differences.  It’s our own inability to see them as human beings¬—as us.  In order to see the best in others, we have to be willing to see the worst in ourselves.  It’s a scary endeavor, fraught with self-doubt and loathing. 

Unpleasant as it may be, this paradoxical practice provides an opening for true compassion for ourselves.  Once we can truly see and accept ourselves¬—warts and all¬—we can start to extend this more readily to others.

Recognize yourself in others.

Monday, November 11, 2013

What helps?

By Rev. Robin Gray
Minister, Unitarian Universalist Church of Tallahassee

Traveling in Alabama a few years ago, before I became a transplanted Southerner, I experienced two instances of helping that missed the mark.  

I arrived after a journey made longer than necessary by two airline delays, to discover that the shuttle to my hotel was shut down for the night. With midnight chasing me, I hopped in a cab for a short ride. Perhaps it was my generous tip, or his generous nature, but, the cabdriver offered me some advice.  “This is a good enough hotel,” he said, “but don't go outside at night. I mean it,” he repeated, as he handed me my suitcase, “This is a bad neighborhood, don't go out walking at night.”

He couldn’t have known that unlike Peggy Lee, Walking After Midnight is not one of my regular pursuits. Still walking down the dimly lit hall to my hotel room took on new and sinister meanings with my helpful cabdriver’s warning ringing in my ears.  I’m sure the driver meant only to ensure my safety, but, he left instead a seed of doubt about my safety indoors or out. It interrupted my sleep and kept me hovering at the edge of being able to relax.

This brings us to a lesson in helpfulness. Our faith and traditions tell us that helpers are good people, probably better people than those who don’t help others, and so we become attached to the image of our helper selves, our good selves.  We sometimes are so attached to that good person we will be when we’re helping someone else, that we ignore the totality of the human being who will be helped. 

Like my cabdriver, we want to experience ourselves as helpers, more than we want to be truly helpful. Whenever you're about to embark on helping someone you need to know something about the person—their needs and their limitations— before striking out on your “crusade.” My cabdriver could have asked, Do you have to go out again this evening?” My travel weary “No” would have told him he didn't need to issue a warning on my account.

Helping can hurt. Helpers need to know why they are doing what they are doing, and who they are doing it for. The helpful impulse is often improved when the helper reflects on his or her needs, and spends time discovering what the intended “helpee” needs, wants and can tolerate. I had a second encounter that went awry the next morning.

The van driver who was to escort me from the hotel to the car rental booth displayed his Southern openness and candor by beginning a conversation about Medicare and Medicaid as I was settling in my seat. Attempting to overcome my Northern inbred reticence with a stranger so engaged my attention that I neglected to tell the driver that I wasn’t going to the airline departure gate.

As the van came to a stop, I responded to his solicitous question about which airline did I need to find with a casual reply that I was going to the rental desk. He gunned the van and insisted on “carrying” me around to the lower level.  A second question about my eventual destination by car led him to helpfully begin giving me directions to Talledega.  I had a map, I didn’t need directions, but, I couldn’t tell this kind man that. So, I politely absorbed his words while he drove.

When he exclaimed, “Oh, shoot,” slapped his forehead and tapped the brakes, I knew what was happening. Caught up in his efforts at helping, he’d once again missed the turn off for the lower deck. This time I disembarked and made the trek to my proper destination wondering how much helpfulness it takes to create an unhelpful situation.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Small Changes

By Greg DeAngelo
UUCT  Board President
At the October meeting of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tallahassee’s Executive Board, we approved a recommendation from a committee. It was a quick action, a small moment of our time. After brief discussion, the motion passed unanimously, as most board actions do.

This particular change involved adopting a new tag line for the church, as recommended by the Communications Committee with input from the broader UUCT community. A small change.

Our tagline that we've been using for several years has been A Home for Liberal Religion. You may have seen it on the web page. Or maybe in our newspaper ads and other media. And it was causing some a growing discomfort because of the use of a word— and not the word you might think. UUCT has become comfortable, in my opinion, with thinking of itself as a church, with identifying what we do as a religion. Our religion is covenantal and freely entered into by our members. Our faith is in ourselves and in the community that we create. It was not the word “religion” that was causing the problem with our tag line, but rather the word “liberal.”

One small change moves us towards creating a more accepting and inclusive community. Internally, we know and can perhaps articulate what we mean by a liberal religion. Read our seven principles. Come to one of our services. Experience fellowship with us. You will come to understand what we mean by “liberal religion” and by “free church.” But those not familiar with us are those to whom the tag line is targeted, and to them, the phrase simply means “a religion for liberals.”  And if you don't feel like the label “liberal” applies to you, then the old tag line would not be welcoming at all.

You will hear more in the coming weeks about the selection of our new tag line: Seek. Share. Belong. I think it wonderfully captures the core of UUCT, simultaneously telling members of our community and our church not only what to expect at UUCT, but also what is expected of you at UUCT. A small change, but one that is moving us in the direction of inclusivity and community.

The larger UUCT leadership team—meaning our board members, chairs of committees, and program coordinators — recently held its fall retreat. This is an annual meeting to kick off the activities that will eventually lead to a budget for our church's fiscal year starting next July. A small change in the organization of this year's meeting helped it to be successful in a new, exciting way. And a small change in tone and approach to the budget process will hopefully help the broader church approach our finances from a place of generosity and abundance, instead of concern and scarcity.

At the leadership retreat, for several years, we have divided into small groups centered around church program areas, such as social justice, worship, religious exploration, and buildings and grounds. Individually, the breakout groups would brainstorm ideas for new goals and projects for the church, and then come back together as a larger group to prioritize and rank the results.

The small change we made this year was to break out randomly, bringing experience and perspectives from many program areas into each small group, and to have the groups focus on dreams, goals, and projects for the church as a whole. Not surprisingly, some groups came up with similar issues, but each had a unique spin; there was less overlap than you might expect in the ideas to pursue.

This new perspective highlighted a concrete approach to developing UUCT into a “community of communities,” showing the benefits to be reaped by engaging with each other in small groups but creating opportunities for those groups to interact with each other. (Seek. Share. Belong.) I‘m excited about our leadership retreat, and I’m looking forward to seeing these ideas realized. Stay tuned for some new and interactive ways to join the conversation and to stay informed.

The other small change sounds deceptively simple: we are resolved to attempting to live within our means. Over the past few years, we have consistently asked for a budget based on goals and dreams. We asked for more in pledges than we typically receive, admittedly based on good ideas for good goals. But then when the pledges fell short of our lofty (and perhaps unrealistic) expectations, many were left with feelings of disappointment in the result and concern about our financial standing.

We are striving to be more realistic in our approach to an asking budget in advance of this year's canvass, and we are even pursuing alternatives to our typical canvass approach. The hope is to encourage a sense of stewardship and a rekindled pride in ourselves for the truly remarkable generosity our members show our church year after year.

Small changes, to move us towards inclusion, community, and abundance. What small change can you make at UUCT? You might be surprised how much can happen once you make it.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

What are you afraid to admit at a UU church?

 By Lee Walton
Young Adult Coordinator

The title of this blog is the first and only question in an anonymous survey I created and distributed online to different UU communities to raise awareness about an issue dear to my heart—we UUers are inadvertently excluding people from our congregations.

I first became aware of this issue when a close friend and committed Christian said to me, “Lee, I wanted it to work.  I really tried.  I wanted to be a part of Unitarian Universalism, but my faith is just not welcomed there.  I couldn’t take the scoffs anymore when I’d talk about my faith nor the pot shots at my beliefs from others in service.  It was just too much.  I’ve decided to not go anymore, which is real shame because I don’t know where else to go…”

Those words crushed me.  Unfortunately, it’s not the only time I’ve heard them.  After a friend had gone to several church services, I asked him what he thought and he relayed to me, “Well, I loved it but I don’t think it’s for me.  Talking with the people after service and hearing how politically divisive they are kind of turns me off to it.  If it weren’t for this one issue I’d totally go, but my differing political views just aren’t welcomed.”

While we pride ourselves on our diversity and open mindedness, in practice that’s often the opposite of the truth.  Below are the results of my informal survey as they came in from September 2012 through May 2013.

Please bear several questions in mind as you read the survey results:  In what ways is my congregation wrongly making some feel unwelcomed?  What’s my contribution to the problem?  What can I do about it?  Are there times when it is acceptable to exclude some because their views are simply incompatible with the Seven Principles?  If so, where do we draw the line?

Final thought:  What binds us together as Unitarian Universalists  are the Seven Principles, not our stance on particular theological topics and not our particular interpretation and application of the Seven Principles.

Below are excerpts from the survey responses.  To read the full result, click here:

  • “I'm not a Democrat.”
  • “The welfare system is broken, and not everyone should be helped indefinitely by the government.”
  • “I would like to see the draft re-instated.”
  • “Political beliefs that aren't aligned with the Democratic party.”
  • “Republicans are very regularly ridiculed and the Republican UUs out there are either driven away or insulted regularly but have to bear it.”
  • “I find it difficult to admit that I am a devout theist with Christian leanings.”
  • “I believe that Jesus saves, and that God is sovereign.”
  • “That I'm a Christian UU.”
  • “I love communion and feel like I need it so I go to a Christian church in the afternoons.”
  • “I know a fair number of Unitarians that would make my Christian friends feel very uncomfortable because of their attitude.“
  • “A lot of UUs are...Christian bashing, etc.”
  • “I find it hard to share with my fellow UU church members that I am a UU Christian.”
  • “I learned about both evolution and creationism as scientific theories, and I respect both as scientific theories. Intelligent design is not just all about teaching the bible.”
  • “Religious beliefs besides atheism/agnosticism [aren’t accepted].”
  • “I pray.”
  • “Certainly in my church admitting that you believe in a god/God would be quite difficult.”
  • One person expressed that they opened up about their paranormal experiences and many others shared their own stories.
Gender Equality
  • “Concern over men's rights, and gender equality from a male perspective.”
Miscellaneous Ethical Issues
  • “I believe abortion truly is the taking of a life.”
  • “I own and love to wear my mink coat.”
  • “I don't care about recycling, and I'm pretty uninterested in the environment.”
  • “Eating meat is okay.”
  • “That genetically modified crops, herbicides, and pesticides have saved millions from starvation.”
  • “I water my lawn with a regular sprinkler...and I don't compost.
  • “I shop at Walmart.”
  • Children need more discipline.  (Two people stated this.)
  • “I support nuclear power.”
  • "Marriage is a sacred institution, even if it's optional. Anyone should be able to do it, but devaluing long-term commitment is harmful."
  • “Disinterest in the problems of disadvantaged groups such as the GLBT community.”
  • “That as a gay man...I am not your “project” and I am not interested in being your ‘gay friend.’”
  • “The ‘Standing on the Side of Love’ t-shirts are patronizing, especially when the only places they get worn are to church and gay events.”
  • “If you want to attract gay people, offer programming that caters to them as gay people, otherwise, just attract them as people who happen to be gay. (The same goes for the other minorities as well.)”
Recreational Drug Use
  • “Even though we support radical change in the war on drugs, we still speak in hushed tones and not publicly about drug use, particularly marijuana.“
  • “That my religious leanings started with psychedelics. I would not be in church if not for THC and LSD.”
  • Worship
  • “I really desperately miss good worship music.”
  • “I HATE hymns!”
  • “I think it's disrespectful to sing other ethnic songs and pat ourselves on the back."
  • “That I do not enjoy documentaries and that mindless television sitcoms are very relaxing to me.”
  • “That I dropped out of college or that I'm not familiar with an literary reference.”
  • “I'm in debt up to my eyeballs because of student loans.”
  • “I'm not wealthy.  I don't have a master's degree or a career job.”

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Of Growing Up and Chickens

By Angel de Armendi
Music Director
Unitarian Universalist Church of Tallahassee

As I grow older, I find that I often judge my life, namely by the things I do and the things I don’t, by the things I want to do and the things I wish I did not have to.  When I was much younger, pre-teen years let’s say, I did not think much of what I did and didn’t.  Instead, I lived in the present like there was no tomorrow.  I did not worry much compared to present-day standards about the food or lack thereof I was to eat every day, how ethical was my living, what went on to bring about the sustenance of myself and family, and the rest of those invisible threads seemingly spun by fate that eventually tangle up one’s adult life. 

Everything seemed so much simpler and beautiful in the good old days!  Ignorance can be blissful, and I guess as children it is important to have those thick layers of naiveté to grow up in hope, learn how to love, and find beauty in the world at every corner, no matter how marred by decay.  Yet the deterioration of our world is marked by our own actions, what we choose to do and don’t.  And our lives, though so short, are full of tremendous potential.

But let’s back up to those days of enjoyment outside the realm of adulthood, like waking up on Saturdays and getting lost in the local river all day only to be punished later by a worrisome parent who did not know where you were.  How could you relate, how could you possibly understand apprehension and fear then? 

de Armendi with Terri and Tikka
Sometimes I think that my life as a kid was like being a chicken.  They both eat when food is served, or not. If they do not eat, something is wrong; you change the food or take them to the doctor.  They get lost and often do not tell you where they went– often over at the neighbor’s, creating havoc.  The first time I got lost like that, my mother actually pulled a belt and hit me for the first and only time, and, not understanding the punishment at all, I cried, puffed, and told myself I would never speak to her again, only to forget the next morn. 

When I punish my chickens with an early retirement to the coop because they have been naughty, they do make a ruckus, but the next day, they adoringly follow me around, waiting for the next meal.  These chickens are so dependent on me that an intense feeling of caring and dedication become part of my life.  They imbue my routine with a certain purpose that is ever fresh and forgiving, simple and beautiful.  Research tells us that people with pets live longer, I bet that people that work with children also do.  But I digress. 

So why give up youth and noble simplicity for adulthood and an array of daily concerns?  Thoreau writes “Age is no better, hardly so well qualified for an instructor as youth, for it has not profited so much as it has lost. One may almost doubt if the wisest man has learned anything of absolute value by living.”

Thus I have over the last years decided to retrace my steps and become more like a child, or learn a thing or two from my chickens.  This entails giving up my fears, forgiving, accepting, hoping, believing, and having a tremendous amount of faith.  Who thought that youth was so amazing, I now do! 

When invited to attend the Greek Festival on Saturday I politely declined stating that the Greek Orthodox Church that profits from it is an institution that treats same-sex loving couples as second-class citizens.  I let go of my anger by forgiving and not harboring negative feelings toward that institution, while at the same time making the simple choice of not supporting it.  I did not give it a second thought and went on with my day.  I engaged in gardening, tending to my pets, getting lost and giving in to simple necessities and lovely projects.  As Thoreau notes, I want “Every morning [to be] a cheerful invitation to make my life of equal simplicity, and I may say innocence, with Nature herself”.  

It is amazing to be human.  Grow from a toddler as simple minded as a fowl into a conscious adult with full reins of one’s own life, with the responsibilities and freedoms it entails.  Yet, it is more amazing to choose to remain in touch with your inner child and live a hundred percent into fulfilling your ethics and ideals.   

Monday, October 7, 2013

Would You Take This Advice?

By Rev. Robin Gray
Minister, Unitarian Universalist Church of Tallahassee

There is some advice that’s worth a second look, perhaps only to become more thoroughly confused by the original intent of the advice giver, or by the advice itself.

Sleep tight. Don’t let the bed bugs bite. Well, if this isn’t a mixed message, I don’t know what is. How is a child supposed to sleep after being tucked in with that opposition of phrases? Not only does she have to work at outsmarting the monsters hiding beneath the bed skirts, and the monster that lives in the closet, she has to worry about unseen threats that live somewhere in the mattress.

Now, I knew from a very early age that I could escape the monsters of the darkest places in my room by tucking the sheets firmly in place and never, ever letting my legs or arms stray over the side of the bed. But, once I was wound up into the bedclothes, I had to start worrying about ways to stop bed bugs from biting. I could conjure up images of the monsters I feared, but, I wasn’t at all sure what a bed bug looked like, or what its habits were. Did it only bite at night? Did it dine on children? Would sleeping ward them off, or egg them on? With all those questions animating my overactive worry-center, I’m amazed I got any sleep at all before the age of 24.

For those who want to know the entire ditty, it goes something like this:  “Good night, sleep tight. Don’t let the bed bugs bite. Wake up bright In the morning light to do what’s right with all your might.” 

Look before you leap. This advice, offered by the same woman who asked me — more than once — “If your best friend jumped off the Empire State Building, would you do it, too?” implies that there is a time for leaping. I guess it’s just not when your friends are leaping. I’m not sure why one would give any child even tacit advice to leap. Leaping is not something children need to be told to do, they seem to have the idea of jumping off dangerous precipices down pat. Looking is, I suppose, a bit of cautionary advice designed to make the potential jumper pause and consider the wisdom of this particular step into nothingness. However, if your best friend is already down there yelling, “Come on, you can do it!” rare is the child who will stop to look for the nearest set of stairs.

Let tomorrow take care of itself. I know this excellent advice that offers an exit from the endless round of worrying. It’s a Buddhist kind of advice, and it might help many people to let go of the need to control the future. But...on the other hand...I’ve had over 50 years of waking up tomorrow, and not once has tomorrow actually taken care of itself. I still need to show up, play my best game, and be present in the today that tomorrow has become. I think it might be more to the point to say, “Do today what needs to be done today.”

Work hard and you’ll get ahead. I know plenty of people who work hard never seem to get ahead. At another glance, I can’t help but wonder all sorts of things when I hear this advice. For instance: Who is it we are supposed to get ahead of? If we ‘get ahead’ does that mean that somebody else will get left behind? If I work hard and get ahead of my boss and become her boss, did I do something good along the way, or did I get ahead just because it had to be done? Is there an intrinsic value in ‘getting ahead’ or should work be tied to a moral or ethical imperative?

As I look back, I can see that sound bites that ignore the heart of the matter were invented long before their supposed appearance in a June 1980 Washington Post admonition to journalists: “Remember that any editor watching needs a concise, 30-second sound bite. Anything more than that, you’re losing them.”

The 30-second philosophers have been hard at work for generations reducing the complex into simple, easy to repeat phrases that may be meaningless or even negative. With that, I can only say, “Good night. Sleep tight. Beware of every sound bite.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Who Has Time for Personal Development?

By Anna Bethea
UUCT Director of Religious Exploration

There are some weeks that go by in a blur and I don’t even know what happened.  I know I was busy, and I think that my busy-ness benefitted others, but sometimes I find myself questioning even that.

My best weeks are when I’ve taken time to care for myself first.  You know:  those rare instances when we get enough sleep, eat well, are active, and take quiet time to reflect, meditate and be mindful of our actions and thoughts.  The way I’d describe how and why these are the best periods of my life is that I feel a bit of spaciousness around me —a sacred bubble, so to speak.  It’s not a bubble that keeps the world out, but rather gives me the space to enjoy and savor it for all it is.

We live in a world of urgency and reactivity.  When our heads are constantly turned by the newest product, task, cause, project or newsfeed update, we don’t have the time to enjoy what’s right in front of us.  But if we don’t engage with what our society, culture, or community think are of highest importance, we may miss out on something great, or an opportunity to connect with others along common interests.

And on top of balancing the demands of the world, we have the demands of our heart to grow into better human beings:  to become better at handling arguments, to feel better about our in-laws, to pass on our best values to our children.  Or how about to feel more compassionate, more available for those around us and be able to set better boundaries?  And although we probably all acknowledge that these are important endeavors, they take a lot of time … time that’s often already taken up by everyday life.  Certainly, we can’t be expected to handle all of this in just 168 hours per week.

So, the obvious solution is to set priorities so we can better know what it is that we want from the hours of our lives.  But how do we do that?  There’s still the competition between what we want, what we think we should want, and what the world wants from us.  It takes time and insight, but many of our desires can boil down to something more basic when we really dig deep.

My solution is to find those things that give me the most joy and can also benefit those around me.  That is, how can I cultivate the spaciousness in my life in which I feel peaceful, and can therefore pass that peace on to others?  How can I find the time and presence of mind to appreciate the feel of the water on my skin while I wash the dishes, and savor the flavor of each apple I bite into?  What do I have to do with my other so-called priorities to be able to return to what’s right in front of me?

I still struggle often to return to my “best week” mode, but the importance is that we continue returning.  Spend your thoughtfulness and energy on those things that’ll bring you back to your true self and you are well on your way to having time for all of your heart’s true and most basic desires.