Friday, February 21, 2014

One Year, Five Books, New Insights

Last week while talking about Love Without Boundaries I referred to one individual pursuit that could cause any one of us to reflect on or re-think the truths we know.  Reading. I said:

“The people in this congregation consult their own consciences about the truths they’ve discovered. They hold their experiences up to the light of both reason and hope; looking to find those enduring values that make a life worth living. How many books do you think have been read, and pondered, by people in this congregation in this last year. Do you think it might be five books per person/per year? That mean that our 203 members might have read over 1,000 books. Some of those books will have been novels of note, some of them hastily consumed leisure reading. Some of them will have been books, either fiction or non-fiction, that caused the reader to pause and compare their perceived truths to those reflected in the written word.”

As I spoke, I could see vigorous nods from many areas of the congregation. So, I know other people have encountered authors who’ve challenged and inspired them. Looking back over the last twelve months I found five books worth sharing. 

Lee Hammond’s Big Book of Acrylic Painting made me see that I could learn new tricks when I was feeling very anxious about the tasks I’d set for myself on Sabbatical.

The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code (Margalit Fox) tells the story of how the Linear B tablets were deciphered; and the role Alice Kober played in making that discovery with shoeboxes and slips of paper organized on her dining table. Reading this book reminded me that great accomplishments can have humble beginnings, and led me back into an awareness that women are often the unsung heroes toiling in those humble circumstances.

Hurt Machine (Reed Farrell Coleman) is philosophy woven into hard-boiled detective fiction. I entered the series late, so late that Moe Prager has been diagnosed with cancer.  Looking back on his diagnosis he offers this reflection:
“One thing I was proud of: I hadn't 't walked out of the doctor's office asking , Why me? I had since learned not to ask that one. You ask it once and you never stop asking it.  Besides, in a Godless universe, the answer starts fourteen billion years ago as a pinpoint in the void, and I didn't have that kind of time. None of us do. I actually preferred icy randomness to thinking of God as the universal hurt machine.”
No wonder I liked his character immediately, and continued meditating with him on the ways we each have a role in the ‘hurt machine.’

Generosity: An Enhancement (Richard Powers) asks what’s the source of happiness and what will people do to get it? Presenting an imaginary “happiness gene,” Powers encouraged me to reconsider what I believe about the role of happiness in my life.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers (Katherine Boo) led me into the world of the poorest people living in the shadow of Mumbai, a city of over 20 million people. This book was on my “read it because it’s good for you shelf”...for a long time. I could only imagine that it would be thoroughly depressing. There are hard truths here, but also impetus for an extended meditation on the role hope plays in human lives. 

That’s my list of five books from the past twelve months. What have you read? Have you had time to read five books in the last year? Has one or more of any of the books you’ve read tweaked your perspective, and given you an opportunity to question your perceptions of the world and your place in it? Why not post your own list of books worth sharing? 

Who knows where the truths we discover may lead?

                                                                                                                                                                            Robin Gray, Minister

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Love Rather Than Hate

By Aimee Griffith

“Love is a whole lot lighter to carry than hate.” — Agnes Furey
“Love is an infinite supply of electricity, of power that you’ve got to plug into and connect with for all your cylinders to fire. Without it there is no life or light; without it you are a leaf without a tree to fall from— Leonard Scovens

Aimee Griffith
I am proud to be a newly appointed board member for Achieve Higher Ground (AHG), a non-profit Restorative Justice (RJ) organization that advocates for the adoption of RJ practices by the criminal justice system. 

Achieve Higher Ground was co-founded by Agnes Furey and Leonard Scovens. They met and found common ground many years after Leonard murdered Agnes’ daughter and grandson in 1998. Their approach to RJ is a focus on restoration for everyone involved in a crime, including the perpetrator.  “Best case scenario,” says Agnes, “is when that can occur with reconciliation between both parties.”

The story of these two brave individuals involves a kind of love that many cannot fathom. During this third week of the Thirty Days of Love campaign, we are being encouraged to practice a radical, courageous love. Their story has certainly taught me that.

Agnes and Leonard began a written correspondence in 2005, initiated by Agnes, some of which can be found in the book they have co-authored, Wildflowers in the Median. Leonard is presently serving two consecutive life sentences in the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC). Together, they have created FDOC’s first ever residential program for violent offenders, Circles of Restoration. The program’s vision is to transform participants into mentally sound, virtuous, and productive citizens.

I was honored with an invitation to speak about Trauma-Informed Care to the Victim Impact Awareness (VIA) class at the Northwest Florida Reception Center, where Leonard is currently housed, this past October. Being in that room, filled with 50 plus inmates serving varying sentences for varying charges, was a powerful experience.

I was also invited to sit in on the Higher Ground group, co-led by Leonard Scovens and Dr. Deborah Weidlund, FDOC psychologist. In a small room with about 10 participants, Leonard urged his peers to look deep into themselves and reveal their humanity, despite the criminal behavior that presently defines them.

During my first meeting, Leonard called in to thank us for our contributions and to share talk about the newly approved Circles of Restoration program. At the end of this brief call, Agnes ended by saying “Love you,” which I had not expected, but also did not surprise me given the depth of their history.

I would like to honor both Agnes and Leonard with the “Courageous Love Award,” created by the Unitarian Universalist Association to recognize individuals or organizations that have exhibited courageous love and touched hearts. I am proud to have met both of these virtuous individuals and to be a part of their budding organization whose vision is avant-garde and sure to inspire others.

If you would like more information about Achieve Higher Ground you can join their Facebook group or click here to purchase a copy of Wildflowers in the Median. I encourage you to think about how you can build bridges of love in your own life and community during this Thirty Days of Love campaign. Perhaps there is someone you would like to honor with a Courageous Love Award.

Aimee Griffith, LCSW, is the Clinical Director of DISC Village, Inc, a private non-profit behavioral health organization.  She also co-facilitates the local Trauma-Informed Care Workgroup, co-leads a Suicide Loss Support Group with Big Bend Hospice, and serves on the board for Achieve Higher Ground.  She is a congregation member, youth advisor and choir member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tallahassee.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

5 Ways to Add Meaning and Fulfillment to Your Life

by Lee Walton

"For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person's life at a given moment."
- Viktor Frankl

Below I will outline 5 ways to add meanings of life, as I see them.  This list isn't meant to be prescriptive (“This is the meaning of life, because I say so.”) so much as they are descriptive (“Based on my observations, this is how people add meaning to their life.”)  The categories aren't perfect, overlap in some places, and perhaps even could be added to.  The point of them, however, is to get you thinking - to allow for thoughtful consideration about how you are living your life.  Are you living life as fully as you could be?  Are there aspects of your life that you may be neglecting?  How can that be fixed?  Please consider these questions while reading and, as needed, open your heart to changing your life for the better.


Life is all about meaningful relationships.  It’s about: looking deep within your lover’s eyes and seeing care, compassion, and connection looking back; snuggling with a beloved pet; the loyal bond forged between life long friends who have been through it all together; and enjoying company and conversation with those that share values, ideals, and passions.  We are inescapably social creatures and we are most alive and actualized when we are living in community with others we care about.

Reflection questions: Do I have enough love in my life?  How can I find healthy, fulfilling love?  How can I give and build love to another? (Gentle reminder: This about so much more than romantic love.  Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t have that right now.  There are a myriad of other forms of love and meaningful relationships to focus on.)

Practices to enhance your relationships: Set aside time together. Don’t wait for others to initiate contact; be an initiator.  Love others as they want and need, not how you want and need love.


Life is about involving yourself in causes that are larger than yourself.  It’s about making the world a better place, getting caught up in building something lasting, and improving the life of others.  Think of those often revered by history - Jesus, Gandhi, MLK, Mother Theresa, etc. - they had one major thing in common - they lived to improve the world.  It is this passion that sparked a flame in their own heart, as well as the hearts of the world.

Reflection questions: What are the causes I care about most?  What am I doing to see their success?  What should I be doing?

Practices to enhance your involvement in important causes: Deeper is often better than broader.  Find causes and organizations that you believe in and find out what they need.  Don’t limit yourself to thinking about giving money.  Money is cheap.  What is often far more valuable is time and talent.  Give what you can where you want!


A symphony, a glass of wine, the sound of rain on a summer afternoon, a touch, a souffle, jumping out of a plane, the stillness of a snow covered forest - each one of these experiences enriches the lives of those that partake in them.  You may be tempted to think of this life purpose as shallow.  I hope that you won’t. Enjoying our five senses is vital to enlivening our mind to the beauty and "worthwhile-ness" of life.  They flood our brain with pleasure neurotransmitters that awaken our minds to the fullness of life.

Reflection questions: What are my favorite experiences?  Within healthy moderation, how can I enjoy these more?  What experiences do I want to have but never have?  How can I seek those out?  What are experiences that I haven’t had in a while but should?

Practices to enhance your experiences: Savor.  Slow down.  Focus on and appreciate the little details.


Set meaningful goals.  It’s essential to living a fulfilling life.  While not everyone has the interest or ability to run, I have received a huge amount of fulfillment from accomplishing some of my running goals.  As I ran across the finish line of my first marathon, I broke down in tears.  I was overcome with joy and gratitude (and, yes, pain) for having accomplished a goal that I had been working towards for more than a year.

Reflection questions:  What are important goals that I want to accomplish this year?  The next 5 or 10 years Before I die?  How can I work toward those?

Practices to enhance goal success: Set meaningful goals.  Break down tasks into S.M.A.R.T. goals (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-bound).  Celebrate not just the achievement of goals but also progress. Set goals together.  Have kids? Friends with similar interests?  Maybe you could set meaningful goals about spending a certain amount of time together, building/making/doing something together, going on a big trip together, etc.  Don’t compare your goals to other people.  You are the only true measure of your success.

Personal Growth

This is, admittedly, a subcategory of ‘goals.’  With that acknowledgement in mind, it is still worthy of its own category because of both its importance and breadth.  We stop fully living as humans when we stop reaching to become better, smarter, more loving, more generous, more alive people.  This is the ultimate quest and fundamental story line of every hero epic - to slay the dragons within and to obtain peace and enlightenment.

Reflection questions: How have I grown over time?  What progress have I made?  What are areas of my life that I need to grown in?  What are reasonable, accomplish-able goals that I can set for myself in this arena? (It’s important to not be overly self-critical here.)

Practices to enhance personal growth:  Choose who you want to be first and then make action decisions in line with who you want to be. Spend time around people you look up to.  Build routines into your life that foster growth.

Supplemental resources:

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

My Friend

by Warren Brackmann

I have a really cool friend I’d like to tell you about.  He’s the type of friend any good person would love to have.  He is an “up” person; a positive person.  He approaches life in a positive manner and with courage.  Problems and issues tend to be viewed as a challenge and are solved or resolved in a positive manner.

He is very ordered.  One might say he is obsessive about it, but that someone wouldn't be standing in my friend’s shoes.  They might like it if they could.  He is fair and wants everyone to have a fair shake.  Again to an appropriate obsession, he endlessly and fervently devises schemes and processes that address many issues or moral dilemmas facing our society, environment and lives.

He cares, loves and hopes.  He cares about people, their feelings and well being, and he cares about the earth.  He advocates love as well as rationality.  He has hope!  In this world headed towards doom, he has hope!  I find this amazing because I do not have hope for this planet.  I think things have gone too far.  There are just too many issues that affect our planet that need solutions.  I think the solutions will not happen in time.  But HE has hope.

My friend is logical to a tee in his approach to everything.  He is not always right, but it is difficult to refute his logic and one might have to get used to his rationality and almost flawless logic.  I've seen him in heated arguments. He never gets mad and is very respectful to his opponent.  He listens carefully.  He has an open mind and is ready to consider and analyze any opinion or hypothesis.

He is kind and non-judgmental.  He is kind in his discussions or academic arguments (or any arguments for that matter).  He is kind and respectful in the manner in which he addresses his fellow person, and is non-judgmental in thought and approach.

He is a giving person.  He gives of himself and he gives his resources.  He thinks.  Man, does he think!  His philosophies and opinions are well thought out.  His Humanistic philosophy keeps him pretty busy.  He is a successful influencer with integrity.  He uses his fine traits to influence and lobby for good.

Yes, his opinions, thoughts and methods are liberal, which the less-liberal or conservative might find threatening, but they are logically thought out and usually address the betterment of mankind and the planet.
On the home front he is a wonderful loving and supportive husband and father.  He is no stranger to personal strife and emotional pain either.  For that alone I find him courageous.

My friend is ethical and moral.  He is also a Freethinker, pretty much like a Freethinker is defined:  One who forms his own opinions about important subjects (such as religion, politics and justice) instead of accepting what other people say.  One who forms opinions on the basis of reason independent of authority; especially, one who doubts or denies religious dogma.

Wikipedia defines Freethought as a philosophical viewpoint that holds that opinions should be formed on the basis of logic, reason, and empiricism, rather than authority, tradition, or other dogmas.

Thus, freethinkers strive to build their opinions on the basis of facts, scientific inquiry, and logical principles, independent of any logical fallacies or the intellectually limiting effects of authority, confirmation bias, cognitive bias, conventional wisdom, popular culture, prejudice, sectarianism, tradition, urban legend, and all other dogmas. Regarding religion, Freethinkers hold that there is insufficient evidence to support the existence of supernatural phenomena.

Many find these qualities and principles admirable, even those whose beliefs are religious and who conceive of a God.  I've observed that the methods used by freethinkers to promote their philosophies and opinions vary from person to person, and organization to organization.  One may choose to come from a negative point of view and attack, as opposed to challenge and debate those whose beliefs are different than their own.  I would call such attacks religion or God bashing.  I believe they are judgmental.  But not all Freethinkers or Freethinker organizations are negative.  They do not believe Freethinker philosophies should be shoved down other’s throats.  Rather, being a Freethinker gives one an opportunity to look at the world as a real world with real people that deserve respectful and non-judgmental treatment.

My friend regularly attends Freethinkers meetings.  Many of the people who attend these discussion groups have similar qualities.  They care.  They observe, analyze, collaborate, philosophize and discuss many topics.  Freethinkers consider and discuss many topics of which religion and God are just one.  I've been to meetings and programs with topics such as, “Reforming Our Democracy,” "Unmanned: America's Drone Wars," “The JFK Assassination: 50th Anniversary,” “Thom Hartmann: The Boston Tea Party Revealed,” Clips of George Carlin, “The People vs. Larry Flint,” “Dr. Jeanette Narden: Understanding the Brain,” and many more programs that have nothing to do with God or religion.

Of course, not all Freethinkers have the exemplary integrity and moral fiber my friend has, but more than not have similar ideals and attitudes.  From my perspective, although somewhat bias, I find Freethinkers tend to be non-abrasive and friendly.  They do not necessarily proselytize.  In fact, I've never observed such coercion in my association with Freethinkers.  I am extremely fortunate to have comrades such my friend and the majority of Freethinkers I meet.  I find the associations stimulating and up lifting.

Monday, January 13, 2014

You are a Mirror of Eternity

By Bob Deyle

You are a mirror of eternity! What an empowering assertion. What a marvelous embodiment of Universalism. What a call to community.

Elizabeth Andrew, author of Writing the Sacred Journey: The Art and Practice of Spiritual Memoir, encourages each of us to share the stories of our personal spiritual experience: the grand questions with which we have wrestled, the wonder and awe that have filled us, the pain and suffering we have endured, the compassion we have expressed, the hope we have cultivated, and the glimpses of truth we have beheld.

Each of us has a story of inherent worth.
Each of us is the world and the heavens boiled down to a single drop.
Each of us is a concentrated universe made of stardust from the Big Bang.
Your pain taps the world's suffering.
Your loneliness reveals creation's drive for connection.
You are a mirror of eternity.

How empowering to be told that your personal spiritual experience is inherently worthy and true. Someone else does not assign worth and truth to our religious experiences. They are our own. William James, writing specifically about personal mystical experiences, asserts in his Varieties of Religious Experience that such experiences "have the right to be . . . absolutely authoritative over the individual to whom they come." He argues that each of us should be the sole judge of the value of our personal religious experiences based on their "immediate luminousness, . . . philosophical reasonableness, and moral helpfulness."

Elizabeth Andrew's assertions bring to mind former UU minister Forrest Church's metaphor for Universalist theology, "The Cathedral of the World," which he first described in Our Chosen Faith: An Introduction to Unitarian Universalism (1989), co-authored with John Buehrens. Church invokes the metaphor of a cathedral that embodies the whole of human religious experience, the windows of which offer unique illuminations of the mystery of existence. At one level, we can take the metaphor to represent the diverse religions of the world and the many individual sources of religious inspiration they have produced. But at another level, following Elizabeth Andrew's vision of individual universality, each of us is a window in the Cathedral of the World. In Church's words, "Each in its own way is beautiful. . . . Each tells a story about the creation of the world, the meaning of history, the purpose of life, the nature of humankind, the mystery of death."

None of us will ever see the Whole or be able to claim to know the Truth. We cannot insist that someone else accept the insights we form from our personal spiritual experience. Yet we should want to listen, with a willingness to be transformed, to each other's stories, because each of us is, in some way, a mirror of eternity.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Let the Moon Shine

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

In the Dhammapada, it is written: “Whoever, by good deed, covers the evil done, such a one illumines the world like the moon freed from clouds.”

I love this positive image. Think of the moon, slipping along the sky on a raft of light, yet obscured by the dark clouds which allow only the slimmest rays to escape at their outer edges. The clouds are lit from behind by the moon, but all we can see is the seemingly impenetrable face of the clouds. Just so, evil takes precedence on the human horizon as well.

Keeping your face to the clouds, you now see them slide to the right of the sky vault and with increasing fervor the light of the moon overcomes the sky. The difference between darkness and the sky under moon glow is quite distinct. You would not readily confuse the sky at its darkest with the sky draped in moonlight. The change proceeds silently, swiftly and surely.

Likewise I can imagine our good deeds rolling from under a cover of evil and casting a new light on a scene so vast the good deeds themselves are dwarfed by it. Evil still exists. It has the potential to darken the world again, but our world is transformed by loving deeds emanating light.

I invite you then to take this image with you into the new year, to make use of it in your meditations and in your daydreams when you imagine the good deeds you can do.

No matter how small the deeds that are within your ken, remember the illumination of the moon and how many shades of light there are even in the darkest night.  Let the moon shine through your actions; dispel evil with all the good that lies within you.