Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Digging Deeper in the Jewelry Drawer

At the last Spiritual Practice, Practice, Practice workshop we dove into the shallow end of spiritual memoirs. We were pursuing Elizabeth Andrew’s assertion: “Every spiritual memoir reaches into mystery, attempting to place human life in a broad sacred context.”

We began writing in response to a prompt that asked us to “describe a small, ordinary activity that you’ve already done today (brushing your teeth, buckling your seatbelt, making your child’s lunch, etc.) ...Reflect: What does this activity reveal about you? What mystery does it contain?” We took twelve minutes to respond to the prompt. Here’s what fell out of my mind and onto paper. 


I open the secret drawer. The choices are revealed.  Not a treasure chest of gold and precious jewels; but, a collection of silver and stone, cut and crafted for special purposes.

Occasionally I make a clean sweep of the clutter in my hidden drawer, tucking each piece into a bag, organizing them by color and size and type.  The organization lasts but a few weeks because I rifle through the drawers contents nearly every morning, and, in my haste, fail to neatly package each bauble again.

The secret drawer calls to me every morning after I’ve dressed.  As I sift through the collection I’m looking for the right necklace, or pendant, pin, or chain to complement my attire.  Does a stern black shirt need something brighter?  Am I yearning to wear something blue and brilliant? Or, is plain silver called for? Or, perhaps a pendant embossed with words or symbols. Peace. A flaming chalice. A rainbow.

Selecting the right piece to wear means taking a personal pulse each day.  Do I want to recede with simple charms or make a bolder statement? Am I feeling confident or shy? I know that whatever I select will say something about who I am, why I get up every day, and the values I espouse.

A jumble of inexpensive but meaning-filled jewelry helps me know who I 


Pendant from Chalice Art
I had no conscious idea that a broader, sacred context dwelt in my jewelry drawer.  I didn’t ever think about the connection between the secrecy of the drawer itself, and my attempt to share my values, my essence, with the world. What once was secret becomes revealed to all who see me. I never thought about how choosing bits of jewelry would interact with my own self-understanding, or that the jewelry so readily reflects my own struggles to know who I am or where I’m going with my life.

After each round of writing, a few people shared their twelve minute compositions. In each round we learned something about ourselves, and heard something of the sacred moving through the lives around us. All who attended agreed they would like to continue writing and sharing their spiritual memoirs.  Bob Deyle is interested in organizing such an opportunity. I can recommend the process to everyone who wants to add texture to their own musings, and who will listen attentively as others explore the hills and valleys of their own experience. 

Monday, June 17, 2013

Imagining a Haven of Hope

I have to admit that the first thing that came to mind when I read that the Haven of Rest was closing here in Tallahassee is “What would happen if Unitarian Universalists bought the buildings and developed a homeless mission in our own style?”

Haven of Rest had been run by North Florida Baptist Church for 30 years.  Described as a “structured faith-based program” by the Tallahassee Democrat,* Haven of Rest strove to bring the eighty to ninety homeless men it served each night to a belief in Jesus. 

What would UU’s do if we took our faith to Tennessee Street and opened the shelter under a new title -- Haven of Hope, perhaps?  What would happen something called the Haven of Hope became a focused, singular mission for this congregation?

How would we broadcast our beliefs, and encourage a broader understanding of “hope”? Would we demonstrate what we believe by:
  • Refitting the heating and cooling to install energy saving options?
  • Serving only local, organic food? Or, would we gratefully accept donations of whatever food was offered?
  • Developing relationships with area growers?  
  • Establishing Save Our Selves groups, instead of theistic AA groups?
  • Innovating programs to help the men find appropriate work?
  • Expanding our work to develop Single Room Occupancy (SRO) housing, with counseling support, giving some men permanent housing?
  • Offering discussion groups on issues of the day to encourage involvement in the political processes effecting homeless men, women and children?
  • Distributing copies of the Purposes and Principles, and discuss those?
  • Bringing the foundations of our Covenant of Right Relations to our work?
  • Inviting the men to services and programs at our congregation...and what would happen if we did?

My imaginings are a fantasy, I know. If North Florida Baptist can’t raise $250,000 a year to keep the Haven of Rest afloat, what hope would our smaller congregation have of raising that amount and even more?  Yet, there is something in me that says that the Haven of Hope may be beyond our means, but, we should be extending ourselves more fully, more surely, to people who are experiencing crises in their lives. We offer support to a number of agencies that care for people in crisis, but, as a congregation we have not yet found what will be our calling to bring hope to people who are in a world of hurt.

There are many reasons we haven’t found that focus.  

Unitarian Universalists are the kind of folk who are so involved in so many good works that it seems hard to find two people who are passionate about addressing the same issue. 

Another reason may be that we just haven’t given that outward focus our concerted attention. Moving forward in Unitarian Universalist mission in the world will demand attentiveness. It will need to arise from our unique identity as a Unitarian Universalist congregation, and the singular gifts we have to offer.  

I believe there is a third reason we’ve not yet found our role in addressing the needs present in Tallahassee -- because we aren’t sure that we have something valuable to offer. I also think the questions above amply demonstrate that we do have unique perspectives to share, and we have a worldview that might help people in crisis to something more than a hot meal and bed (or whatever physical needs they know); but, instead help them to see themselves as confident and capable persons of worth, deserving in dignity.  

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Big in Essence

When we purchased our home in Tallahassee the most prominent features around the house were the pine trees. Dozens of loblolly pines (pinus taeda) stretched toward the clouds, each vying with its neighbor to carry its needles another foot closer to the sun. I had to tip my head back as far as it would go to see the crowns of the trees seventy and eighty feet above the ground. Back at eye level, the bark hung on the trunks as if troweled on in irregular plates of reddish brown hue. One pine, a sentinel at the front entrance, had a large dead branch dangling over the pathway. I shuddered to think what would happen if that branch dropped from that height onto an unsuspecting head.

The pines weren't alone on the property, many had magnolias standing parallel to their towering trunks. Crowding up against their neighbors, they exuded an air of dependency, as if they didn't know how to grow without encouragement from a taller tree. The magnolia trunks gave the appearance of being stretched out like taffy with each branch well separated from its fellows. I soon learned that it's a rare blossom that graces the broad leaves of these magnolias.

At the back of the property, a respectful distance from the parking pad, an enormous, spreading tree allowed its branches to wander, almost aimlessly, toward open spaces. I hoped it was a southern live oak, but, had to acknowledge that it wasn't quite as alive as it might have been at one time. Huge scars scored the base, and some of the limbs were not more than stubs. The broken crossbars of a neighbor's fence attested the propensity of the ancient branches to seek relief from holding themselves aloft at odd angles by plummeting to the ground.

Invasive Chinese Camphor trees studded the property as well. Introduced to Florida in the late nineteenth century, plantation owners hoped to distill the oil used as a remedy for many ailments, including rashes and joint pain. The tree is not only invasive but persistent. Cut down a sapling and it grows from the roots. Dig up the roots, and if you've succeeded in thwarting that member of the family, new cousins will grow from the wildly abundant seeds encapsulated in black berries.

There was plenty to see when we first surveyed the property.  It was almost easy to ignore the shrubs that dotted the open areas. There was a broad leafed shrub that had grown to cover the bedroom window, and one that matched it by the front drive, and a third struggling to survive on the shady side of the house, a fourth and fifth close to the property line; and a sixth and largest identical type of shrub by the corner of the house. In June, those round and quiet shrubs laugh at the definition that claims they are in any way "smaller than a tree." 

The grandest of the sextet, keeps watch over a bit of sunny yard and is filled with gardenia blossoms at the tip of every branch. How many hundreds of gardenia blossoms grace this ten by fifteen foot shrub? How many on the other shrubs? I don't have time to count them. All six sister shrubs scent the air around our house, pleasantly assaulting the senses. 

More subtle than any failed attempt to bottle it as perfume, more pervasive than any invasive species, one can't escape the delightful essence captured in the arching folds of pure, white flowers. A gardenia blossom carried inside and coddled in a bit of water quickly fades, turning brown overnight, but leaving behind an aura that will not be denied.

Shrubs like these gardenias may be labelled "small" but they have the power to broadcast their presence.  They proclaim, "Notice this!" and I do.  With gratitude, I do.

                                                                                                                                          - Robin Gray

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Hope is a Thing with Wheels

Nuns on the Bus visit Tallahassee
Inspired by faith, ten nuns are traveling the country to gather support for immigration reform. When they visited Tallahassee this morning they were greeted with a resounding ovation from the standing-room only crowd gathered at First Presbyterian. I, along with other UUCT members, area clergy, representatives from Roman Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant traditions, as well as AFSCME, and the NAACP; heard stories about deportations, disrupted families, and racist reactions to reform. But, I also heard hope rising in the presence of these ten nuns.

They came to meet with Senator Marco Rubio's aide to offer encouragement for his work with a small group of legislators who've put forward a bill that will give some undocumented people access to a more secure status.  They also came to push the Senator toward being a full-fledged leader supporting the bill in both the Senate and the House as amendments and alternate bills are brought to the fore. Finally, they came to leave -- to go on to other Senators -- and to leave us with a spirited willingness to continue to engage our Florida legislators on the issue. 

Our legislators will need all the encouragement, support, and concerted nudging supporters of immigration reform can give them. Recently, we've heard of toxic reactions to ideas labelled with the word liberal. Public officials supporting gun control have had ricin filled mail sent to them. Senator Rubio is already under verbal attack from opponents of his bill. An author of the Heritage Foundation study on immigration, Jason Richwine, holds fast to his dissertation theory that Hispanics have lower IQ's than whites.* Nothing is certain, and there may be many struggles ahead.

And, yet, ten nuns with gray hair and glasses, exuding their dedication to a life of loving inclusivity, dare to offer themselves as witnesses for those who can not speak for themselves for fear of being deported.  Ten nuns found in themselves a willingness to act for human dignity, to call immigration reform a moral issue, to tickle our hopes with their enthusiasm for doing the right thing.  Can we do any less?    
 - Robin Gray (sporting gray hair and glasses)

Heritage Study Author: ‘Hispanic Immigrants Will Have Low-IQ Children’