“What Props Up Your Perseverance? Forget the image of Sisyphus pushing his rock up the hill all by his lonesome. It is a myth after all. In real life we rarely push or carry our boulders on our own. Our perseverance is always propped up by something or someone.” (SoulMatters)
I just heard our Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) President, Rev. Susan Fredrick-Gray speak at a national UU Institute for ministers. I, and my colleagues, were most impressed and assured by her leadership, clarity of priorities, and willingness to put dialogue ahead of sound bites. Susan brings a highly ethical, compassionate, and courageous leadership style into our complex Association. If you come to General Assembly this summer you will have the opportunity to hear her and other leaders in our faith articulate our vision and direction.
This month’s theme is perseverance—staying steadfast despite challenges. Rev. Fredrick-Gray acknowledged that this has been a challenging year nationally and internationally. Her comments echoed a note she sent out prior to the holiday where she asks, “Are you holding heartbreak, anger, even fear? This has been an especially difficult year for so many.” Then she leans into her hope:
One of the things that gives me hope and strength when fear and despair move into my heart is all of you and this faith that we share. The practice of religious community calls me back to my humanity, to a practice of compassion, and to the power and importance of the values of love and justice, equity and interdependence.
It is in religious community that I find a place to bring my heartbreak, and to bring my fear– and in that collective sharing my strength and my spirit are renewed. I find hope in the witness that Unitarian Universalists and so many other leaders are providing, showing up for human worth and dignity, showing up in resistance to protect the precious resources of the earth, showing up in partnership for the long haul work of justice. And I find courage in the knowledge that we are in this together.
MSUS has persevered for over 50 years. We’ve had half a decade of being a strong congregation which asks challenging questions, provides loving support, practices radical acceptance, and values a compelling faith community. Being in contemporary American and at this gathering of colleagues I wonder how we will engage more deeply beyond our walls in the vital work that is needed in the community? There are no immediate answers and I invite us all into the messiness of this exploration and the next steps in service to a love, justice, equity and interdependence.
“Coming from the Latin word, intenionem, intention literally means stretching out, a stretching out of mind, heart, of body, of spirit. When we set an intention, we are turning out attention toward something, or someone, or some idea, and stretching out to meet it."
These words about intention were printed on the order of service at First Universalist in Minneapolis. I love how the words in this definition are so active. It encourages us to stretch and turn. At our Winter Solstice Service on December 21 we stood in a circle, lit a candle from the person next to us, and spoke out loud an intention. These intentions differed from New Year’s resolutions which often are goals such as exercising a few times a week, quitting a habit, or shifting some other aspect of your life style. Instead, intentions are more like guideposts for constructing one’s life. “Patience,” “openness to those who differ from me,” and “embracing uncertainty,” were a few of the spoken intentions. These were intentions that could be woven into lives, open new possibilities, and be ways to stretch oneself.
I have been thinking about our decision to grow the church—an intention set many years ago. Over the years there’s been an increase in staff hours, a commitment to two services, a call for a fulltime minister, and consideration of a new building. I am curious about other ways we may stretch and set our attention toward meeting this intention. I believe that if we are to grow, all of us will have to adjust some. New people have joined our congregation and I have heard from several of you that you are finding you don’t know everyone any more.
There are some practical solutions to this wonderful problem. We will be distributing a page of photos and contact information of new members with our updated address list in the next month or so. I’ve heard you used to have new member gatherings in the past. Perhaps someone will step forth to create such an event this year as well. During new member classes we talk about groups and/or service opportunities that are part of the MSUS community and connect individuals with what they’ve identified as areas of interest.
Beyond the practical, there is the question of how we live into this intention on an individual basis. I want to share a story of my mother and her experience of being a new member at a church. Over two years ago, my mother joined a church which prides itself as being friendly, open, and connected. Despite this perception of themselves, they do not wear name tags which makes it incredibly challenging for her to know people’s names and for them to know hers. She has found that members tend to come in, see each other, and then sit together in services and in the social hall. She consistently feels like and outsider and a visitor—even over two years later. She sees a “friendly culture,” but notes that it is friendly for those who are already friends, not towards new comers. Even in small groups she feels excluded. She spoke of joining a small group and constantly listening to people share outings and events they’ve done together outside of the group. This just exacerbates her aloneness as she feels she is tolerated in the group (even pleasantly), but is not invited into a deeper relationships. It has been hard to watch and acts as a cautionary tale for a place like MSUS.
Sometimes I look in the social hall and see new comers and newer members sitting unaccompanied in a room full of life and connection. I also wonder if people take time to check in and state their names when new members attend meetings or small groups? Bringing new members into the church community benefits us all. New people enrich our lives and also feel a true welcome to this community that prides itself on kindness and care.
If our intention is to be welcoming and to grow we need to continue to let that intention illuminate our path. How do we continue stretch our minds, hearts, bodies, and spirits so new comers will feel valued, included, known, and loved? I love this question and hope you do as well.
“Hope rises. It rises from the heart of life, here and now, beating with joy and sorrow. Hope longs. It longs for good to be affirmed, for justice and love to prevail, for suffering to be alleviated, and for life to flourish in peace. Hope remembers the dreams of those who have gone before and reaches for connection with them across the boundary of death. Hope acts—to bless, to protest, and to repair. Hope can be disappointed, especially when it is individual rather than shared, or when—even as shared aspiration—it encounters entrenched opposition. To thrive, hope requires a home, a sustaining structure of community, meaning, and ritual. Only with such a habitation can hope manifest the spiritual stamina it needs to confront evil, endure through trouble, and “hold fast to that which is good.”
- Rebecca Parker and John Buehrens
Rebecca Parker and John Buehrens describe progressive theology as a hope-filled theological framework in their book House for Hope published in 2010 by Beacon Press. Progressive theology embodies reverence for the sacred, nourishes community life, and aspires to carry forward the dreams of our forbearers who have responded to legacies of the violence and injustice that harm our bodies and souls. Such a theology is desperately needed in this time.
The quote cited on this page is one of my favorites by Parker and Beuhrens. They name characteristics of hope which rises, longs, remembers, and can be disappointed. When you think of hope, what words would you use to describe it? Hope can be pushed aside as simple optimism and unrealistic expectations or it can be lifted up as fuel for remaining engaged and moving forward.
Hope is the theme for this month and one worthy of our attention and exploration. Rebecca Solnit who has written several books and articles on hope reminds us that hope is just a starting point. She says, “Think of hope as a match but not the tinder or the blaze. To matter, to change the world, you also need devotion and will and you need to act.” MSUS is a home for hope. It is a place where we all can build the spiritual stamina to live by our faith and values in our own lives, this community, and out in the world.
If we are to be a place of progressive theology it important that we can clearly state what are and why we exist. We have started conversations on re-examining MSUS’ mission. We held a congregational forum in October and had a discussion with the Board of Trustees. What has emerged is a level of energy, recognition, and hope for what we are and what we can become. This is the first step—naming who we are and what we hope to do together. Our vision for the future will need to be connected with concrete and realistic plans.
I feel tremendously hopeful and curious about our exploration at the January 6th congregational retreat on MSUS’ mission. Please put it on your calendar and come prepared to share your observations, reflections, and hope for this faith community. Let’s see where our collective hope leads us.
“I know Unitarian Universalism saves lives, because it saved mine. Salvation is no metaphor. Unitarian Universalism offers us a faith that restores vision, a faith that is emotionally literate, intellectually mature, socially relevant, spiritually grounded, morally courageous, ethically innovative, concerned for others, and self-loving—especially when things fall apart.
Our focus on the transformative power of love derives from the intuition that we are expressions of divinity in the deepest core of our souls. And because of this we are called to unconditional, redemptive love. We love ourselves by loving each other by loving ourselves by loving each other—and in doing so we imitate the divine, that creative power of the universe and human culture, the only way we can: with our whole beings.”
- Scott Sammler-Michael, from "Testimony: The Transformative Power of Unitarian Universalism".
I met my new spiritual director for the first time this week. As I arrived for our first meeting I felt a knot in my stomach. My body often expresses that which I may not be consciously aware of. The knot, was a symbol of the importance of this new beginning. I am aware that I’ve longed for a person outside of my daily life who will be my companion and guide into deep spiritual questions and concerns. I’ve felt that same knot in my stomach as I’ve written sermons, when I’m struck by the profound nature of a particular moment with congregants, and when something is amiss that needs repair.
The theme for this month is abundance. Scott Sammler-Michael names how he was “saved” by Unitarian Universalism and the transformative power of love. However, “unconditional, redemptive love” does not come easily. I know that I, and many of you, struggle with being quick to judge, to push others away. This gets in the way of searching for deeper understanding of myself and others. An abundant love may not change our initial reactive response, but it can open us to more compassionate and curious relationships—where rough edges soften and every person’s inherent worth and dignity is called into the center.
Take a moment and reread the list that Scott uses to describe what is offered by Unitarian Universalism. What is listed is both real and aspirational. All of the offerings have value for individuals and faith communities. All of these offerings are available if we are open to change and growth throughout our lifetimes.
Are you working toward a more abundant love and faith in your life? How does that impact your way of being a part of this MSUS community? What would it mean to truly live into an unconditional, redemptive love where we, who are beautiful and flawed, can continue to grow into a beloved community? Ideally, we are constantly working toward a greater generosity of being. My prayer is that this place and it's people continue to offer us what we need and inspire us to flourish throughout the moments of our lives.
“Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear” - Ambrose Redmoon
Kathy Burek and I recently attended the opening service and celebration for the UU Church of Minnetonka. They used the same architect that designed White Bear UU Church’s sanctuary for their new building. A wall of windows overlook the woods and there is a long patio that runs along the side of the building. It is a beautiful place and reflects over a decade of hope as they waited for the land they purchased to be cleared for construction by the city. Their mission statement is posted in the foyer: "In a spirit of wonder and with courageous love, we connect, grow, and act." The words that stood out to me were “courageous love.”
This month’s theme is courage. UU minister, Rev. Erika Hewitt, writes about courage in a reading titled, “Bold and Courageous Together” on the UUA’s Worship Web.
The word courage comes from the Latin cor, which means heart. According to poet Mark Nepo, the original use of the word courage meant to stand by one’s core: a “striking concept that reinforces the belief found in almost all traditions that living from the Center is what enables us to face whatever life has to offer.”
What does courageous love look like at MSUS and our call to be in the wider world? What is at our congregational core? What is more important to us than fear? These questions are important to consider within one’s own heart, how we interact with each other when we gather at the church, and what we want to be beyond the confines of our own walls. They are also questions that we need to visit over and over again as a congregation and personally.
Another section of Rev. Hewitt’s reading says:
With full hearts,
we affirm our relationships with one another;
we recognize our agency and our connective power;
and we accept our responsibility to be bold and courageous.
This month, I urge you to consider how being a UU informs your core. Think of how courage does and does not show up for you at church. Do you avoid hard conversations or lean into them? Are you able to keep your heart full even when you greatly disagree with someone or something happens that is not to your liking? When have you been courageous with another congregant/s? What did you learn from that experience?
My, we are imperfect people and we frequently fall short in our relations and intentions. It takes courage to practice our faith and commit to life-giving connections with one another. May we continue to find the space in our heart to show up with courageous and bold love for ourselves, each other, and all who live beyond the MSUS community.
“Our stubborn belief in the bedrock of pre-ciousness of individuals ought never be taken for granted: it is not shared in large portions of the world, and it is frequently threatened by bigotry and intoler-ance here in America. It remains a distinctive, critical hallmark of our way to doing church.”
Last year, we joined a nationwide UU program called Soul Matters which creates monthly worship and small group resource packets around predetermined themes.
We begin the 2017-2018 church year with the theme of Welcome. Our faith, as Tim Owen-Towle states, is deeply connected to our first principle—the inherent worth and dignity of every person. To truly live this principle at this time in our country requires a level of groundedness and compassion that is hard to come by when people are feeling fearful and the country feels divided.
Somewhere in my reading or listening to the radio, I learned about The People’s Supper. The leaders of this project “aim to repair the breach in our interpersonal relationships across political, ideological, and identity differences, leading to more civil discourse.” The suppers began after the President’s inauguration as a response to a divided nation. The description continues, “This isn’t about a political party, or what is or isn’t happening in Washington. It’s about us, and our relationship to one another. Too often, we exist in echo chambers and see each other as monoliths: one-sided stereotypes who can be reduced to a single word or phrase.”
The supper hosts are given a facilitator guide that contains four questions. Two questions are:
- Describe a moment, recent or long passed, in which you’ve been made to feel unwelcome, unsafe, unworthy, and threatened.
- Describe a moment, recent or long passed, in which you were made to feel the opposite: in which you felt fully seen and heard and at ease.
Those who have never claimed a faith or church community as well as those who come from other faith traditions often speak of feeling fully seen and heard and at ease during their first few visits here. They feel seen as a person who has their own story and particular reason why they are looking for a community of faith. They feel heard as their theological doubts and questions as well as those about living a deeper life of purpose are welcomed. And they feel at ease knowing that ours is a faith that strives to be inclusive.
Theodore Parker, a nineteen century Unitarian minister and transcendentalist is quoted as saying we need to be a wide place as well as a warm one. Although our congregation took root by members of the First Unitarian, a Humanist beacon in the Midwest, we now have a greater continuum of faith belief ranging from Atheists to Buddhists to Christians. We create a beloved community when we listen carefully to one another and share our own beliefs and questions. It takes practice to come together and grapple with meaning without alienating others. Together, we continue to practice how to be the community we long to see in the greater world.
Ours is a covenantal faith based on the promises we make to one another. The depth and spirit of the commitments we make in this community differ from those of other areas of our lives. We are called to be mindful, open, curious, compassionate, reflective, and constantly working toward beloved community. My hope is that as we move through the year together, we can continue to practice radical welcome and hospitality and to explore how we want to be with each other here as well as in the community and the greater society.
Rev. Luara Smidzik
by Martha Postlethwaite:
Do not try to save the whole world or do anything grandiose.
Instead, create a clearing in the dense forest of your life and wait there patiently, until the song that is your life falls into your own cupped hands and you recognize and greet it.
Only then will you know how to give yourself to this world so worth of rescue.
My friend, Martha, read this poem at my ordination. I had her words printed on a beautiful business card with an image of a fern background. This poem feels like a gentle gift of wisdom, it is one that I’ve shared with a few of you over the past month.
I recall giving the printed poem to a member at White Bear Unitarian Universalist Church. A few weeks later I asked her to serve in some volunteer capacity. She said, “no,” citing her daily reflection on this poem as the reason why. I rejoiced in her clarity, recognizing that this did not mean “no” to every request that may come her way from the church. But clearly what I was asking her to do was not connected to the song of her life.
I’ve waited patiently in the dense forest of my own life. Wondering what is next, where to put my dreams and passion, what part of the large and complex world should I give myself to. After several careers I decided to move into the ministry. The years of seminary courses, clinical pastoral education, and a year-long ministerial internship provided time for discernment coupled with ministerial experience, theological reflection, spiritual practice, and clarity. I always imagined myself at a large church serving as part of a multi-staff ministry team. It is still a mystery and delight to feel called here, to be with you.
It is hard to believe that the end of the formal church year is here. I joined you last August and spent the year in observation mode and in the spirit of service. I have to thank all of you for welcoming me, bringing me into the congregation, and sharing stories your lives. I have been stretched, grateful, humbled, challenged, awestruck, and joyful—there is so much joy here!
I am looking forward to an opportunity to step away for a bit during the summer months. My contract includes time for study leave and vacation. I plan to do some focused reading on a variety of topics, create the Worship Associate Program, and plan adult religious education for the early part of next year. I’ll also do a bit of travel including attending an old family friend’s Navy Seal graduation, UUA General Assembly in New Orleans, a service auction weekend in the woods, and a family reunion in PA. I need to have surgery which will require that I devote myself to rest a solid month and take it slow for an additional two weeks. Unfortunately, the steps to arranging the surgery have been a bit of a scheduling challenge so I do not yet have a date. This may impact when I return in August. Needless to say living in such ambiguity is a challenge, but I have enough to do at church each day to keep me distracted and have come to accept that it really is out of my hands.
The MidAmerica grant money for a summer minister could not have come at a better time. An introduction of Lisa Myers can be found below. I’ll be supervising her during the summer and have no doubt that even though she is hired for just 15 hours a week she will carry the Sunday services, limited pastoral care, and adult religious education in a beautiful way. I’ll be present at the June 4 meeting regarding the potential purchase of a new building and am working on the 50th Anniversary Party with the talented Ruth MacKenzie. It will be a fun and inspirational day!
Lisa Myers - Our Summer Minister
Good news! We have hired a summer minister (thanks to the MidAmerica Chalice Lighter grant). Lisa Myers will join us for two months this summer while Rev. Laura is taking vacation and study leave time. She will lead worship, hold adult religious education classes, and be there if you need pastoral care.
Here is a note from Lisa:
I just finished my second year at United Theological Seminary where I am pursuing a Master of Divinity with a concentration on Theology and the Arts, with a further focus on Spiritual Growth and Formation. I'm passionate about finding where the intersection between the arts and our spirituality meets and how it can lead to spiritual growth.
About six years ago, I found my spiritual community within Unitarian Universalism by becoming a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Minnetonka in 2011. Serving on the Worship Arts Ministry led to a call to seminary. My religious and spiritual path has led me down many roads, but it is Religious Naturalism and Earth-based faiths that feed me spiritually. The UU Church has been an excellent home for developing my own spiritual formation. I look forward with excitement about serving the Michael Servetus community this summer and getting to know you all!
The Low Road By Marge Piercy
What can they do to you? Whatever they want. They can set you up, they can bust you, they can break your fingers, they can burn your brain with electricity, blur you with drugs till you can’t walk, can’t remember, they can take your child, wall up your lover. They can do anything you can’t blame them from doing. How can you stop them? Alone, you can fight, you can refuse, you can take what revenge you can but they roll over you.
But two people fighting back to back can cut through a mob, a snake-dancing file can break a cordon, an army can meet an army.
Two people can keep each other sane, can give support, conviction, love, massage, hope, sex. Three people are a delegation, a committee, a wedge. With four you can play bridge and start an organization. With six you can rent a whole house, eat pie for dinner with no seconds, and hold a fund raising party. A dozen make a demonstration. A hundred fill a hall. A thousand have solidarity and your own newsletter; ten thousand, power and your own paper; a hundred thousand, your own media; ten million, your own country.
It goes on one at a time, it starts when you care to act, it starts when you do it again after they said no, it starts when you say “We” and know who you mean, and each day you mean one more.
Marge Piercy’s poem, The Low Road speaks to the power of numbers, the strength of a collective, and the gifts of community. I’ve heard this poem read in worship at several different Unitarian Universalist churches. It always makes me smile and sparks a sense of greater potential than I usually imagine. The build up from being alone, to a pair of people, to a whole country incites energy in me. However, it is the final sentence that taps into the center of my Unitarian Universalist faith and ministry: It goes on one at a time, it starts when you care to act, it starts when you do it again after they said no, it starts when you say “We” and know who you mean, and each day you mean one more.
Some of you may be uncomfortable with the words “faith” and “ministry” while others are inspired by such terminology. I use those words deliberately because I believe that what happens in a church is different than what happens in organizations outside of a faith tradition. We are connected by common principles and sources and speak of a covenantal faith which calls us into a relationship with one another grounded in care, commitment, and courage. I use the word “ministry” as representing service which is grounded in something greater. For me, shared ministry lifts up the contributions of all of us as we aspire to create a world where we as individuals and as community ground ourselves in love and work for a vision of a more just and equitable world.
The theme for May is embodiment. What does it look like when we embody saying “we” and each day mean one more? By the end of this year we will have welcomed nine new members to the congregation and several devoted new “friends.” I have seen this church welcome them with open arms and glad hearts. When I speak of growth at MSUS this slow and steady influx of joyful and inquisitive seekers is what I imagine. I believe our faith calls us to grow and share that which gives us hope and meaning. This is how we will move into the future with old-timers and new comers side by side in the pews, in small groups, in song, and out in the world. May it be so.
In every life there are certain moments which partake of another, higher order of experience – peculiarly precious moments which offer serenity, hope, and strength and which allow us to return to the demands of daily life with renewed vitality and confidence.
The growth of a spiritual dimension in each of us as individuals seems to result in a multiplication and a deepening of such moments both in ourselves and in the world. - Elizabeth M. Jones, quoted by John Buehrens in Our Chosen Faith
The wonders of science, when viewed through the eyes of awe and mystery, can feel miraculous. I remember the Director of Religious Education at Unity Church-Unitarian telling stories of spring awakenings that evoke such wonder including as the beauty of budding tulips and the choir of song created by spring peepers (the small frogs that emerge from a frozen winter hibernation).
We witness the transformation of our natural environment throughout each season in Minnesota. Sometimes, our lives parallel such radical transformation and other times are more commonplace. Unitarian Universalism asks us to pay attention and recognize the “peculiarly precious moments” in our days. Our faith, which focuses on the journey of this life versus the destination of an afterlife, acknowledges the importance of each life and calls us to live with intention.
Daily spiritual practices turn us toward attention and intention. Spiritual practices including mediation, prayer, walking, coloring, or cooking can help us recognize the interconnection of our lives and our desire to be of use and at peace. I love Ralph Waldo Emerson’s statement, “Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens.” We are forever learning and in apprenticeship to some truth (with a little “t”). His words are anything but stagnant, they are words of motion, relationship, transitions, depth, and transformation.
How does being a part of Michael Servetus Unitarian Society contribute to your life? My hope is that this place, these people, and our living tradition help multiply and sustain your own spiritual growth, curiosity, and contributions to the world so desperately in need of our love and care.
To laugh is to risk appearing the fool.
To weep is to risk appearing sentimental.
To reach out for another is to risk exposing our true self.
To place our ideals—our dreams—before the crowd is to risk loss.
To love is to risk not being loved in return.
To hope is to risk despair.
To try is to risk failure.
To live is to risk dying.
(Reading #658 from the Unitarian Universalist Association's Singing the Living Tradition)
A group of us gathered for the recent new member session in mid-February. We participated in a lively conversation about what attracts each of us to this faith. Many of us came from other faith traditions and recognized how our own questions and doubts were not welcome there. The attraction to Unitarian Universalism included: religious pluralism, the individual search for meaning, the desire to be connected with a community of people who care about social justice, the joy of being among open-minded people who want to continue to learn, and the diversity of sources one can turn to for exploration and spiritual practices. I was energized by the conversation. Many of us had to risk being seen as “different” in our own families and communities when we decided to be UUs. This difference can create real challenges, particularly with family members who believe we are putting our own salvation in jeopardy if we are “non-believers.”
The worship theme for March is risk. I believe that life is risky business—we wake each day uncertain of what may occur. Risk is inherent when we dream, love, speak up, make a change in our lives, create, or engage in justice making in private conversations or in the public square. There is an element of courage or faith that accompanies taking risks. There is something that drives us out of complacency and into the discomfort and excitement of growth.
This congregation took a risk by deciding to move into full-time ministry. I took a risk by saying, “yes,” to being called here. We are in the risky process of reflecting where we have been, who we are today, and who we long to be in the future. I believe we have a faith that breathes life and hope into the world. We are at a time when radical openness, living from a place of connection to all, and engaging in the work of justice truly matters. My hope is that MSUS is a place where you risk being truly alive. May this UU community inspire you to laugh, cry, reach out to one another, love, dream, and stay engaged in this free and responsible search for meaning and the call to create a better world.
Rev. Laura Smidzik