Apr. 24, 2016.
There I was, in a room full of ministers, at a retreat were the focus of the retreat was on spiritual practice and I was feeling terrible about myself. As a minister am I not supposed to keep up a journal, or meditate, or take a weekly walk in a labyrinth, or even pray a couple of times a day on a regular basis? As we went deeper into conversation, at some point I spoke up and said, “I am not sure that I have a spiritual practice, I feel like I am supposed to meditate and I don’t.” The room was silent and then slowly, one by one, a number of other ministers echoed my thoughts, and finally we had what felt like a pretty honest conversation about spiritual practices.
What I have come to over the years is that I have two significant spiritual practices: One is writing sermons, which gives me an opportunity to intentionally sit down and connect with what is moving deep in me and in the world and try to be in touch with what that is as I bring it forth to you, as honestly, openly and vulnerably as possible.
The other practice is to do what I can to practice and support right relations in the world. Right Relationship is a concept where all things are in relationship with each other. A definition of right relationship that I appreciate is from Environmentalist Jasmine Wallace:
“Essentially,” she says, “Right Relationship is being in relationship with ourselves and all Life Forms around us, whether they are plants, animals or humans. Being aware that what we think and what we do determines our world and what is in it. The truth is that what we think and what we do influences the future of our children, our planet and all things within it and on it. This concept is at the foundation of sustainable and practical living. It involves the knowledge that there is no such thing as separation – everything in our world is directly involved with us and we are involved with it. The key is that it is our choice to take responsibility for our thoughts and actions and relationships and focus on them being positive.”
So, I think about all this on a pretty regular basis. How can I practice right relations and be in right relations with myself, others and all that is? At my previous congregation, we worked on a covenant of right relations that I really liked. It was a guide for congregational life. I thought if I really practiced this on a daily basis, I would be practicing right relations and it would be my spiritual practice. The covenant went like this: “As we walk this spiritual path together, we are mindful of our common need to love and be loved, to support and be supported, to listen and be heard and to forgive and be forgiven. Therefore, we strive to build a religious community dedicated to communicating directly, respectfully, patiently and lovingly. We strive to be kind to each other and to establish a place of trust and safety. We welcome and respect differences of opinion. When conflict arises we seek clarity and listen more than we speak. Mindful of our own assumptions, we work to achieve reconciliation when we disagree. When the inevitable challenges come in our interactions, we will stay in community and reaffirm the values that brought us together.”
I have always loved that and felt that it held very worthy ideals for me to try to “practice” as much as possible. I can’t help but think that if I consciously try to do these things on a daily basis, I will be contributing as best I can to the concept that there is no such thing as separation: Everything in our world is directly involved with us and we are involved with it. So I often review this covenant and think about how I can:
- Communicate directly, respectfully, patiently and lovingly.
- Strive to be kind and to establish a place of trust and safety.
- Welcome and respect differences of opinion.
- When conflict arises, seek clarity and listen more than I speak.
- Mindful of my own assumptions, work to achieve reconciliation when I am involved in a disagreement.
- And when the inevitable challenges come in interactions, do my best to stay in community and reaffirm the values that bring us together.
This is the honest truth of how I try to live my life. Often, no matter how hard I try to keep this in front of me, I struggle and sometimes I fail. This is why I always call right relations a spiritual “practice.” I always try to remember to practice this. I must practice this at home, especially the concept of listening more than I talk. I have to practice this here at work. I have to practice it in my interactions in the world. I have to practice it in my interactions with the planet.
It is pretty obvious that there is a substantial struggle right now in the spiritual practice of right relationship in many areas, but it is hard not to note on this Earth Day weekend that we are struggling with our relationship to the planet.
We are also struggling right now with how to practice this in our politics. It is no secret that our political process has never been a stellar example of practicing right relations. But oh my lord, this year it seems like an example of how to practice “wrong relations.”
As many of you know, last weekend I attended a conference titled Revolutionary Love: Tools, Tactics and Truth-Telling for Dismantling Racism. In my blog after the conference, I said that the conference was both heartbreaking and hope-making. It was heart breaking because we heard testimony from those who have been on the front lines of the struggle for equality and justice, who have lost friends and loved one to the breakdown of right relations in the form of racism and forces of supremacy, hate, fear, othering and division. It was impossible to sit through this conference and not process how much the economic, religious, cultural, regional and social struggles we face as a nation stem from what some call the original sin of America – slavery – a sin that launched an economic system that fed off the hardship and degradation of the humanity of millions. Jim Wallis, author of many books but in particular a new book titled, “America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege and the Bridge to a New America,” says, “Race is about the American story and about each of our own stories. Overcoming racism is more than an issue or a cause – it is also a story, which can be part of each of our stories, too. The story about race that was embedded into America at the founding of our nation was a lie; it is time to change that story and discover a new one. Understanding our own stories about race and talking about them to one another, is absolutely essential if we are to become part of the larger pilgrimage to defeat racism in America. It is also a biblical story and now a global story in which we play a central role.”
I know we have talked a lot about racism this year – our internalized white supremacy and the importance of black lives – and I have been asked many times about why I believe it’s so important that Unitarian Universalists address these issues.. I believe racisim lies at the core of the biggest rift our country faces in moving toward being in right relationship with each other, to overcome this concept of separation – us against them – whoever us is and whoever them is. It lies at the core of the systems of economic disparity and it raises its head in our politics, policing, privilege and personhood. It also is an issue in Unitarian Universalist congregations that work so hard to be multi-cultural while still struggling to make it happen. It is a very broad, very deep issue of how we engage in the spiritual practice of being in right relationship with the interconnected web of all existence of which we are a part. That is why we have spent time focused on this over these past months. It is a pervasive and important issue that once again has risen to the surface of American life.
So while attending the Revolutionary Love conference, I thought a lot about what to do about this. Speaker after speaker gave examples of ideas, of struggles, of successes, of failures, which all pointed to the same thing I and others seem to struggle with. What is the formula, please, someone tell me, what is the right way? Unfortunately, there was no one right answer. And then I thought about a book I studied in seminary. Authors Mary Sellon and Daniel Smith in their book about “Practicing Right Relationship” state it well when they say, “Without relationship, we perish. Without loving relationships, we rarely thrive. We long for our relationships to be positive. We want them to connect us with other people in and life-giving way. We feel a sense of appreciative awe when we truly ’see‘ someone . . . and are seen by them. Positive relationships support us and nurture us. They connect us, letting us know we’re not alone.”
So I hear this and I think, the practice of right relationship is not about how right we can be, it is about how we can overcome our own pettiness, how we can move beyond our internalized challenges, how we can learn new ways to be and how we can practice love. Practicing love. We talk about that a lot as UUs. It is an essential concept, central to our faith tradition. It permeates our theology and history. It asks us to stand on its side. Yet, how many of us can truly define what practicing love means?
At this conference on practicing Revolutionary Love, we were actually given a definition that I also included in a recent blog post: “What do we mean by love?” Love is, “A well-spring of care; an awakening to inherent dignity and beauty; a quieting of the ego; a way of moving through the world in relationship, asking: What is your story? What is at stake? What is my part in your flourishing?”
What a lovely and meaningful definition. “A well-spring of care; an awakening to inherent dignity and beauty; a quieting of the ego; a way of moving through the world in relationship, asking: What is your story? What is at stake? What is my part in your flourishing?”
And then, it goes a step further and talks about what then would be practicing revolutionary love. I think that would be, “When we work together to change culture and policy in love – love for others, our opponents and ourselves – we create the conditions for lasting political, social and moral transformation.”
This is why we have talked about this subject so much this year. This is what consumes me as your minister: the desire to live in a world defined by right relations and revolutionary love. I admit it; I am driven to talk about it, create programming that supports it, preach about it and try to live it which is by far the hardest part.
A number of years ago, I was trying to understand how to best reflect on living in right relations from a place of love and I created 18 questions for reflecting on right relationship. At the time I didn’t think about this, but the 18th letter of the Hebrew alphabet is Chai and that stands for life.
I invite you to turn to these in your order of service and let’s read them together [see below]. [Click here to download a printable pdf.]
There is not one right way. As much as we would like there to be, there just isn’t. We are human and we struggle with long-held patterns in ourselves, between each other and with the planet. The question is always, can these patterns change and what can we do to help be the change we wish to see.
That’s it, each one of us has control over ourselves. I believe that every person in this room or watching on live stream would like to see a more loving, just, equal, kinder and more compassionate planet. I guess that begs the question: What do we need to do in our lives to create a revolution, to love deeply. We need to understand that if we want this revolution of love, it will challenge our comfort, it will require deep reflection, it will ask us to examine our own privilege, it will call for new ways of being, it will free the oppressed and the oppressor and it might just set us all free. Because the old ways are in large part built on a lie and this revolution of love will bring depth to the meaning of truly being in right relationship. For “When we work together to change culture and policy in love – love for others, our opponents and ourselves – we create the conditions for lasting political, social and moral transformation.”
May that be so.