Water Ingathering at First Parish

At the start of the new UU church year – typically the Sunday after Labor Day – the center of the Sunday morning worship is a water ritual. Called a “Water Ceremony,” or Water Ingathering, it started in the 1980s and has found a home in many congregations. At First Parish, the ritual started 16 years ago: folks are asked to bring water from some part of their summer experience – perhaps travels, perhaps your kitchen tap, even your garden hose and join it together with the water of others, that it will be made into holy water to be made of use in congregational life in the coming year.

You can read about its general denominational history here and about some of the more complicated aspects of it here or here – how long it can take for everyone to participate, how sometimes it can seem like a game of show-and-tell, or worse yet, brinksmanship of economic privilege when folks reveal the source of their water (“Our water is artisanal-sourced and comes from the furthest place in the world from the most celebrated holy person who gave it to us personally filtered through the palms of their hands…” – okay, that last bit of snark is totally made up, but I hope you get my gist.)

There is a big, big bowl at the front of the sanctuary into which folks put their water, though it is first seeded with water from last year, which was seeded with water from all the previous years. To address the two challenges mentioned above, First Parish has established that you can say one word (two, tops) when you add your water to the bowl – and it can be the water’s source, or it can be what it means to you (a feeling, a memory, an experience). Amazingly, and as repeated acts of generosity to each other, that is exactly what happens (more or less).

Though each word or phrase may be evocative for the person saying it, and sometimes for those who hear it, the true power of this ritual is in its collective character, in the coming together to enter into yet another year as a covenanted community. In honor of this impulse, the web master of the congregation has a tradition of creating a Wordle from all the words spoken from this part of the ritual. Here is this year’s:

water-words-2015This morning, in addition to reading a poetic story to the kids about the life cycle of water, I got to stand next to the water bowl and hand emergency replacement symbolic water to those folks who had forgotten to bring some (which is me, every year I have taken part in this ritual at my home congregation). This meant, in addition to hearing the spoken words, I also got to see the myriad vessels in which people brought their water: plastic toiletry bottles of all hues, metal water bottles, crunched up plastic “disposable” water bottles, small Tupperware-like containers, and even what looked like a test tube. There was something delightful in these containers and the stories they might tell, if they weren’t inanimate.

In some UU congregations, this ritual is called Water Communion, like in San Juan, Puerto Rico or in Chatanooga, Tenneesse. Termed like that, it brings to mind the lyrics of Carrie Newcomer’s (yes, a Quaker, but beloved by so many UUs) song, Betty’s Diner:

Here we are all in one place
The wants and wounds of the human race
Despair and hope sit face to face
When you come in from the cold

Let her fill your cup with something kind
Eggs and toast like bread and wine
She’s heard it all so she don’t mind

Yes, that is the best part of congregational life: coming together in one place, despair and hope (and grief, and confusion, and contentment, and loneliness, and fear, and gratitude) sitting face to face and side by side. While we don’t serve bread and wine (or eggs and toast), we are a place to come in from the cold, filling up the world with blessings of kindness, compassion, and gratitude.

Here’s to a great year to all!

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On Keeping (Ig)Noble Silence

meditation hall at IMS with my little meditation bench and many, many unused cushions during a lull time in the center's schedule

meditation hall at IMS with my little meditation bench and many, many unused cushions during a lull time in the center’s schedule

At the meditation center – the Mothership I like to call it – Noble Silence is observed, even if one goes on Self Retreat, which is what I just did for three days: time on my own at the center when there is no specific teacher or course being offered, very little structure imposed from the outside: following the bare minimum rules and follow your own path.  Self Retreats can take place when other courses or group retreats are not scheduled, so the center is inherently less populated.

One of the bare minimum rules is Noble Silence. This is what the web site has to say about this expectation:

… you will be asked to honor what is known as ‘noble silence’ – a quieting of the body and voice that helps cultivate a calm and peaceful retreat environment. This powerful tool greatly enhances the deepening of concentration and awareness. Noble silence also fosters a sense of safety and spiritual refuge, even in a course filled with up to 100 participants.

It’s true. The stillness (it’s not really silence, for bodies still gurgle and feet still make sound when you take a step) is quite something, and even more so when it is embodied by that many people all at once. I did a ten-day silent retreat here once – there were about 80 of us, I think, and the silence was amplified by all those bodies keeping it.


NOT a sign at IMS

And even if it’s just plain ole me: the silence was an important tool to help remind me that I wasn’t on some vacation, I was intentionally setting myself apart as a means of spiritual reflection (and hopefully replenishment).

At the center, Noble Silence is not just for meditation times. It is for all times: eating together, opening the door for someone, what have you. And it is for all forms of communication. This even includes eye contact with all those around you (I am getting better at that but at first, I failed this miserably.) If they are talking that level of no communication, then it makes sense that you may not have your cell phone, and by extension, no other communication devices either – laptops, tablets, everything.

But then comes the hard part, at least for me: Noble Silence “includes not reading, writing, keeping a journal, receiving mail, or otherwise keeping busy and distracted. By leaving at home the many activities and communications that worldly life entails, you offer yourself the gift of stillness.”

Let me tell you: I am not that noble.

I brought books with me: poets and parables. Dharma and dying.  I brought my journal with me, with a delicious pen made for writing smoothly.

Does it count that I read about silence and stillness? Like this, from Wendell Berry?

Accept what comes out of silence.

Make the best you can of it.

Of the little words that come

Out of the silence, like prayers

Prayed to the one who prays,

Make a poem that does not disturb

The silence from which it came.

(excerpt from “How to Be a Poet” by Wendell Berry)

Or this, from Rainer Maria Rilke?

If only for once it were still.

If the not quite right and the why this

Could be muted, and the neighbor’s laughter,

And the static my senses make –

If all of it didn’t keep me from coming awake –

(excerpt from “Wenn es nur einmal so ganz stille ware,” I, 7; translated by Anita Barrows & Joanna Macy )

Or that I wrote about it, like this?

The silence saturates everything here. A welcome weight, slowing me down, a counter momentum to the actual hurling myself in space at rapid speeds in a tin can on wheels and the more metaphorical hovering I do with my to-do lists and my task completion and my calendar-control mechanism moving me through my day.

I did keep stillness, though not to the standards asked in the handbook.  Still I did it more so than I do in my regular day-to-day by far, by far, by far. I kept my body still in meditation practice and sometimes, for fleeting moments of time, my mind followed suit. I did not speak. I mindfully walked the country lanes and along the forest paths.  This time I did not sing in the woods. Or recite a poem at the top of my lungs.  This is progress.

yep: them's my feet, walking in the woods before i left this afternoon

yep: them’s my feet, walking in the woods before i left this afternoon

Since I didn’t keep 100% Noble Silence does this mean that I kept Ignoble Silence? Or that, as in everything, there is still more for me to learn and grow, this being no different than the rest of life?

May it be so.

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Tonglen: Enough. For Now.

I met Doris* as she lay in a bed on the pulmonary unit to which I had been assigned as a hospital chaplain intern. At the moment when we met, she her breathing was “good enough” – not well enough to be home, but none of the machines attached to her was sounding alarm.

Our particular human connection was easily made – perhaps too easily, for when I verbalized permission to cry, which she had been resisting, she began to struggle for breath. This was no healthy tantruming toddler who whose body would bring about equilibrium, but a soul in an aging body that was not working as it should. Doris’ panic made it worse.

I did what I had already found myself doing in that first month of the internship: tonglen, the Buddhist breathing practice to transform suffering. I asked her permission; she consented. I came very close to her, face to face, my hands firmly, kindly, powerfully grasping hers. I looked her in the eyes and directed her to do the same. She brought her gaze to me: a deep privilege.

I gave her my breath; she gave me her tears. Copious tears. It was an even exchange along which equilibrium, wBuddha headhich exists at all times in the wide Universe, reinstated itself in the embodiment of us two temporary mortals. It was one of the most thrilling moments not just of my ministry, but of my life.

Though this may seem like the right time to invoke the practice and writings of Buddhists such as Pema Chodron or Judith Lief, who write elegantly on the practice of tonglen, instead, I want to invoke Unitarian Universalist voices, instead (and at least one of them, a rather strange bed fellow here: William Ellery Channing).

“Religion only ennobles us, in as far as it reveals to us the tender and intimate connexion of God with [god’s] creatures, and teaches us to see in the very greatness which might give alarm, the source of great and glorious communications to the human soul.” (Likeness to God, William Ellery Channing)

photo 3(2)I know the alarm of which Channing speaks. About half way through the chaplaincy internship, after five weeks of experiencing a few more mystical connections with patients through the practice of tonglen, I walked the hospital’s labyrinth on an overnight shift and spoke aloud, to no one in particular:

Enough for NowIt stopped: no more mystical experiences for the rest of the internship.

Like Job when god speaks to him out of the whirlwind, going on and on, reminding Job not only of the great Magnificence of creation, but that Job is a part of it (perhaps smaller than Job had initially thought, but still very much a part), Job places his hand over his mouth.  Enough. For now.

The practice of tonglen, about which I have preached in multiple Unitarian Universalist settings, and which I have brought to my internship congregation during worship when people light their candle of sorrow, is predicated on the understanding that there is no separation, that our sense of being separate it a delusion and that we are connected as part of an interdependent web of all existence.

We are driven to recognize the paradox that our individual well being is rooted in the understanding that at heart we are one with all things and our sense of separateness is ultimately an illusion, while at the same time affirming that our individual separateness is a consequence of the drive of the universe for differentiation and complexity.  (David Bumbaugh, Toward a Humanist Vocabulary of Reverence, 2003)

We are called to gaze at and breathe with adoring, critical, awe-filled and awe-ful, compassionate, justice-seeking senses and spirit. This is not about being a passive observer. It is about the participatory nature of the Universe and how we, as Unitarian Universalists, understand our part in that – including principles number one through seven, but most especially, one through seven.

To bring witness as a person, as a member of an intentional community, as part of a spiritual community, as part of the interdependent web of all existence.

May it be so.

* Not her real name.

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My Yum of Communion: Sorry If It’s Your Yuck

This morning – my last free Sunday morning before I am happily spoken for by my internship congregation for the next ten months – I went to church at my favoritest churchcommunion_tray_jpg_300x500_q85y place to spend the first Sunday of the month. It’s my favoritiest because on the first Sunday of the month, they serve communion.

This is the place where I stumbled into a genuine affection for the ritual of communion.

This is the place where my concerns about how communion has been used as a weapon of exclusion (“you’re not allowed here, you’ve not been baptized in a way we recognize”) and punishment (“you said or did something with which we don’t agree, so we are going to withhold god’s love from you”) and hubris (“this is only for people who understand that we are the only way to get to heaven”) were not, well, washed away, but were put in proper perspective.

Communion needn’t always be like that, though sadly, too often, it is.

This morning I was at the church with the minister (my mentor) from whom I learned, when I was responsible for serving communion for a year at my first baby church, to say before beginning:

Open to All Required of None(Yes, me! Lil ole UU-Buddhist me: in charge of serving communion! The irony, paradox and gift of it still give me a thrill.)

The last time I took communion at this church – sometime in the early spring – once everyone had circled up, the best part was the woman – a lay person — bringing around the silver tray with bread on it and then again the silver tray with little tiny glasses filled with not-wine, looked into my eyes. Her gaze lingered intently; I felt so seen and held. It was intimate; it brought the immanence of the divine right to me.

I know that communion is not for everyone. It can feel far too Christian for my Jewish or once-Jewish friends. It can be full of hauntings for my once Christian friends. It can be too saturated in superstition for my atheist, ratiokeep-calm-and-dont-yuck-my-yumnalist friends. That’s okay. I get it. I’m sad for you if you are feeling loss or grief. I am happy for you if you are feeling free of a burden.

Just don’t yuck my yum.

I can’t take communion just anywhere – by taking communion, I feel as though I offer a tacit endorsement of some part of the theology of the place or the people offering it to me. There are times when I am not willing to give that.

When I take communion at that little church in the Hilltowns, I take it because I feel the pulsing egalitarian nature as it is given and received in that little church. That I wholeheartedly endorse.

As a Unitarian Universalist, but not a Christian, I have come to believe that the ritual of communion has power divorced of the Catholic and Protestant traditions, independent of their dogma-splaining. (Transsubstantia-what???) The ritual of sharing bread, of sharing an elixir of life – these are things that connect us with something greater than ourselves. The early Christians happened upon a winning formula for harnessing that divine power that we might touch it.

I have come to believe the power evoked in this ritual does not belong solely to Christianity, which is probably why when I take part in communion, I feel like I am taking part not in something that Jesus asked of me, but that Life asks of me.

Here are the beautiful words spoken today as the invitation to communion, penned and spoken by the poet, pastor and shepherd (yes, all three – no shit — literally), Stephen Philbrick*:

We share our faith

in finding each our own way,

in the company and in the prayers

and in the hearts of this congregation.

We also share: this meal,

made of atoms waiting forever

since the world began

for these forms

(this bread  and you and me.)

This meal is




us with the earth,

with Jesus, yes

and with all love,

all forgiveness,

all fate,

all awareness,

all life that has been or will be,

including your godesseses and gods,

buddhas and bodhisattvas,

your angels and messengers.

Your life is holy, too.

*shared with his permission

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Blessing of the Backpacks — A Mini Primer

Such a brilliant idea: a Blessing of the Backpacks. I first encountered it in Full-Week Faith, created by Karen Bellavance Grace through the Fahs Collaborative, which is ” is an exciting laboratory that brings people together to explore and create innovative ways to deepen faith through educational encounters.”

There are many reasons to do this.  As part of that innovative re-visioning of faith formation, such an event would help congregations remember commitments made at child dedications, as well as connecting our UU principle of the “free and responsible search for truth and meaning” as a thing we not just inside the walls of the church, but outside them as well.

Image by Jessica Fergosun

Image by Jessica Fergosun

Full-Week Faith (FWF) envisions this ritual as part of a larger effort that works on many levels, including intentional outreach via letters and social media contacts to young adults so they feel connected to the congregation, growing a tutoring program that connects elders in the congregation with youth afterschool, and a host of other possibilities – bringing out faith out of Sunday morning and into the WHOLE week.

Though FWF recommends this ritual take place as part of Sunday worship, the congregation where I am currently the Intern Minister wanted to do it a little differently. Like many Unitarian Universalist congregations, we hold lay-led Sunday services in the summer. Though children are welcome, they are rarely present. Our big Ingathering, “first” service of the year takes place the Sunday after Labor Day. This means that if we were going to bless backpacks before the start of the church year, we would need to create an event just for this purpose.

Many people played important roles in making this happen, though it was just a handful in the conceptualization stage, and a few more added on in the last few weeks.  Since this took place at the end of the summer, we were fortunate that people were around to be able to give of their time.  A big shout out to everyone from start to finish who helped make this moment in our church life possible!  Thank you thank you thank you.

Here is a description of our process in creating this, just in case you are considering doing something like this and don’t want to reinvent the wheel.

Choosing a Date & Time  After identifying when school would start in our locale, we then decided that we should not do it the night before school starts – likely too stressful for families. So we scheduled it for two nights before.

Since we are talking about including families with school age kids, including the littlest ones, it would have to be early evening, since some Littlests go to be early-pearly. Knowing that the ritual and the whole event would need to match the attention spans of kiddles and of families, we settled on starting at 4:45 and planned to be done by 6:00.

Outreach  The Religious Education Committee had discussed it as one of their agenda items at their meeting in June. The Intern Minister (that’s me) created a Facebook event; typically this congregation has not used the Facebook event function for church activities. So this was an experiment. Facebook events must be either private (by invitation only) or public (the whole world can know about it).  We choose “public,” even though our outreach would focus on our congregants. Though this is something we may want to grow to welcome the whole town/wider community or other UU congregations, we thought we would start just with us to see how it went and to gauge whether it had any traction.

We reached out to several key members in the congregation who had 1) a Facebook practice and 2) had some social sway (by which I mean that they were connected to other families in the congregation and if they posted something on their Facebook profile, others in the congregation would likely see it and have a positive feel towards it). We asked them to talk up the event, including posting it on their Wall once a week in the few weeks leading up to it. In the last two weeks, we created more activity on Facebook around the event – on the event page itself, posting it to pages of the congregation, the Minister, and the Intern Minister. Not only did this create energy around the event, it helped inform those who had not already seen it and it helped remind those who had.

Blessing-of-the-BackpacksFor the FB event page, we borrowed an attractive image from the internet that was made for this purpose (this ritual, it turns out, is a thing – many churches do it and have created graphics around it). It’s a wonderful graphic. I wish I knew who created it so I can give attribution. We know that best practices in social media includes use of appealing visuals. It makes a difference as to whether people will pay initial attention.

What turned out to be far more attractive that that wonderful image was som11902568_949239898466557_5902685194081794962_nething we did not plan. It came from the synergy of the congregation. Our church is in the middle of this old New England down. Seriously: right in the middle. We have a relatively new sandwich board sign that sits on Main Street when we have special events. Bless whoever is in charge of it, because they created a sign announcing to the whole wide town our event (we didn’t think of this and didn’t ask them to do this – they just came to the idea on their own). Then, they took a photo to share. We posted that photo on our congregation’s Facebook page (so then, it went out to the whole wide world).  Imagine our surprise when Facebook’s analytics reported that the photo had over 1,700 views! In addition, we have observed numerous UU individuals around the country asking their communities, “Isn’t this cool?” and “Can we do this at our church??”

Before the Ritual  While families were arriving and folks were jusIMG_20150825_164431864(2)t hanging about, waiting for it to start, we provided sidewalk chalk and encourage anyone – but especially kids – to drawn on our brick walkway. This gave a focus for those gathered and a way for awkward energies to be channeled. As well as whose spirits aren’t lifted when they see whimsical, joyful drawing by children?

Highlight Youth  The service began, like any good UU service, by lighting the chalice. After that, we then marked the end of the summer by singing a camp song.  We chose an interactive, “repeat-after-me” song. We chose Boom Chicka Boom, which is silly and has multiple verses that are fun to enact. Children were invited to help lead the song if they knew it.   Delightful and unplanned is that some of the older kids who came forward to help lead knew verses the Intern Minister didn’t and, in fact, ended up leading the song — way more fun.

Our congregation is structured so that we have Coming of Age every other year. This year is one of those years. At that June meeting, we identified that we hoped that this Blessing event would provide an opportunity for the Coming of Agers to participate and begin to identify as such. We didIMG_6997 not know how many COA’ers would attend, so we wrote the liturgy to bless them first (and to remove that part if none of them showed up), then have their role to be the giver of the blessing to the rest of the participants.

Much to our joy, two COA’ers were there and joyfully took part.   Their facilitation of the liturgical elements (talismans, holy water) was powerful for the younger kids who could see youth in important, serious roles and for the adults for that same reason.

We ended the whole service with a song sung by three of our older youths – this was organized only in the final few days before the ritual took place.   In fact, the youth decided which song to sing (with final approval from adult organizers). It was a lovely choice: Seasons of Love.

Photo by Steve Lieman

Photo by Steve Lieman

Inclusive Language  We were sure to use inclusive language regarding educational choices – since we were using school as a reference (“school is just about to start”) we were sure to reference those who are homeschooling. We also decided that to invite as much multi-generational participation as possible, we would also include the School of Life – thus making it clear that anyone could receive a blessing if they were so moved. Finally, since we invited folks to bring their backpacks (empty), we were sure to do two things: normalize if someone forgot to bring their backpack (we spoke of “invisible backpacks”), as well as to let folks interpret “backpack” to mean most anything. On Facebook and in person, people asked if they could have their briefcase, their wallet, their cell phone, their purse, the bag that holds their sheet music, and so on blessed.

IMG_20150825_160422(1)The Ritual  The actual ritual included words and blessing elements of water and the giving of a material reminder of the blessing in the form of talismans made for this occasion. The talismans, created by one of the members of the congregation and the Director of Religious Education together, were so delightful, combining symbols of peace, or beads that said “UU” or the name of our church (the congregation’s initials, “FPCOG”). They were colorful and put on a key chain so that they could be attached to the backpacks.

We blessed the Coming of Agers, then students of any age, then teachers, then anyone who hadn’t yet been blessed (those students of life). One of the ministers spoke these words (more or less – adapted a bit to each group) to each of the called groups:

Even when you are away from First Parish, you carry the heart of Unitarian Universalism with you wherever you go.

May you feel curiosity all your days.

May your imagination catch fire.

May you find courage when it is necessary.

May confusion lead to better questions.

May you feel compassion toward those around you, and they towards you.

May you feel heard and seen; may you hear and see others.

May you speak up for those who are not heard, who are not seen.

As your spirit’s home, we are made stronger when you share what you learn. We ask you to bring what you learn of the world back to this place. If you agree, say – “we will.”

Then the Coming of Agers dipped the talisman in a bowl filled with the holy water (created from last year’s Water Communion and used throughout the whole year for special occasions), then handed the talisman to each person who had lined up to receive the blessing. As they moved through a line, the other minister gave a water blessing to the backpack (or wallet, or purse, or bag, or shoulder).

Photo by Steve Lieman

Photo by Steve Lieman

A short benediction was offered, then we broke bread (which is to say, we ate pizza and brownies) together.

Photo by Steve Lieman

Photo by Steve Lieman

You are welcome and highly encouraged to borrow any part of this – no need to feel loyal to the words we used or the particular flow of the ritual. Change it up. Mix and match. Make it your own. Take one element, take no elements, take all the elements and rearrange them to suit you, or use it as a whole cloth. It’s up to you. My only request is that if you are going to use the words of our blessing in their current form and use them in print (hard copy or online) that you attribute them to me.

If you do a ritual like this and you have found this post helpful, please let me know by commenting below.  It would be great to hear how this works out in other places.

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Coming to the Pond: Surrender & Prayer (sermon)

Unitarian Society of Northampton & Florence

August 9, 2015

(The Mary Oliver poem referenced in this sermon can be found here.)

When I joined my first Unitarian Universalist congregation, this very one, nearly twenty ago, there was not much tolerance for the G-word (or the J-word) and there was a strong allergy to the p-word: prayer. We could have silence or meditation, but not prayer.

Spirituality was strongly here – this was and is no “corpse cold” congregation (thank you Ralph Waldo Emerson for that crisp descriptive phrase). Just in those days, a reactive one that has seemed to mellow in this regard over the years. For those of you who have been around that long and longer, I wonder if you might agree with this assessment. This discernible shift belongs not just to this congregation, but seems to be denomination-wide, though uneven to be sure.

Since starting seminary four-and-a-half years ago now, I am surrounded even more now with spiritual people – among friends, in the parishioners I served for two years in Cummington, among my colleagues, at the hospital and nursing home I spent last summer serving as a chaplain intern – it comes with the territory.

Consequently, and not surprisingly, I am surrounded by requests for prayer.

“Keep me in your prayers.”

“Can you say a prayer for fill-in-the-blank.”

These requests are all around me in a way they were not when I was growing up, or a decade or even half a decade ago. They are even on ~ gasp ~ Facebook (though I’m not sure they have made it to Snapchat or Vine yet…)

Even in the wide world, with its growing number of “spiritual nones” – N-O-N-E-S, those who do not identify with any particular religious tradition – prayer is present. According to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life,

Close to 90 percent of those affiliated with religions report praying on a regular basis, and 40 percent of Nones in general say they pray with some frequency. Indeed, …17 [percent] of those identified as “Atheist/Agnostic” …report that they pray. Among those who described their religious affiliation as “nothing in particular,” more than half say they pray regularly.

I’ve had more than my fair share of ambivalence about prayer and its power (not to mention about God and God’s power – the two topics are intricately related). It helps that people – like the UU Reverend Kate Braestrup – write about prayer – someone I not only respect, but whose writing allows me to chortle and perhaps even laugh at myself.

I do wonder about the power of prayer. I wonder about the nature of the prayers we flawed human often make. Some of us have been taught – in the religions we grew up in, from depictions in the media – that prayer is of that intercessory kind: please give me something. Maybe it’s a bargain: if you do this, I’ll do that.  I’ll do this, if you do that.

This misses the mark. In his famous book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Harold Kushner writes,

People who pray for miracles usually don’t get miracles, any more than children who pray for bicycles, good grades, or boyfriends get them as a result of praying.

However, his comment didn’t stop there. He goes on,

But people who pray for courage, for strength to bear the unbearable, for the grace to remember what they have left instead of what they have lost, very often find their prayers answered. They discover that they have more strength, more courage than they ever knew themselves to have.

In my summer as a hospital chaplain, I found this to be true. More often than I expected. Sometimes,

  • For people who are scared and have good reason to be scared;
  • for people who are in pain and have medical conditions causing that pain;
  • for people who are agitated with fear, with uncertainty, with loathing

I have seen talking do little, and prayer be the only thing that melts the suffering that plaguing them. Not for everyone, but for some. Melts it right away.

  • Sometimes it is a familiar prayer, known to them from their faith tradition, sometimes known to them and millions of others since before they were even born.
  • Sometimes it’s a prayer totally made up by the presence shared together and a companion who listens, watches, cares, and then, makes a leap of faith and opens their mouth…

So even though prayer has not been my idiom, I am honored to be asked. And to comply. I don’t have to know for sure, with solid guarantee, that it will work — for me to put in the effort. (If that were the criteria threshold, I’m not sure how many social justice rallies would take place.) I experience it as a chance to be blessed and to be a part of that greatER holiness that surrounds us.

Why do I agree to do this, when I don’t think asking God to change brings about said change? Why do I do it when I don’t even believe in a personal God? I turn again Rabbi Kushner, whose response mirrors my own. He tells a story of a late night phone call from a stranger, asking the Rabbi to pray for his sick mother.

Why did I agree, if I don’t believe that my prayers (or his, for that matter) will move God to affect the results of the surgery? By agreeing, I was saying to him, “I hear your concern about your mother. I understand that you are worried and afraid of what might happen. I want you to know that I and your neighbors in this community share that concern. We are with you…”.

Prayer is an act of generosity. And solidarity. And humility. It is living into this truth that I have my ideas of how the world and the universe operate, but I really don’t know.

It is also living into our seventh principle: into the interconnectedness of all living beings. We are not only with you, we are you.

But that is only half of why I consent.   It is an important half, not to be minimized, but it is the lesser half. The other half has to do with my own experience not of praying, but of being prayed.


I have noticed that when some Buddhist teachers approach the concept of the non-self, they speak using phrases that discourage the use of the concept “my.” For example, they might say, “the mind thinks” rather than “my mind thinks” or “I was thinking.” The intent here is to discourage a sense of Self and encourage a sense of belonging to the Great Interdependence of which we are not theoretically a part, but really are a part.

For folks not into Buddhism, that might sound just plain silly. Maybe it is. Or maybe it isn’t.

One of the other ways I have heard Buddhist teachers approach this, since breathing is so key to meditation practice, is to talk about experiencing one’s own breathing as being part of the whole wide Unity of all and breath being breathed in the experience of your own body.

I have experienced something similar, though it wasn’t exactly about breathing. The story goes like this…

A long time ago, someone I was close to betrayed me in a very personal way. This happened when we were in college. It was the kind of violation that left a deep and lasting mark, requiring attention and healing.

Fast forward ten-plus years to a renegade college reunion. This was before Facebook for the general public, but email and listservs were in play. It became clear that the person who betrayed me would be in attendance. I vacillated over whether to attend, but decided that I would not let the presence of this person deter me. Over email, I told him to stay away from me and to have no contact with me.

The reunion turned out to be tiny; it was impossible to avoid each other, though he did his best. For my part, I was a vulnerable mess. I had come with friends but somehow they seemed to evaporate at just the time I needed them. At some point in the midst of reunion-type activities, I returned to the little dorm room I had been assigned as lodging. I was not sure of much except that I did not want to be there at all, feeling utterly and uncomfortably and despairingly alone and lost. In that loss, I turned to poetry.

There is, at least, some consistency in my life.

I had brought Mary Oliver’s New & Selected, and I happened upon a poem that took my breath away. I had read the poem before, had even earmarked it as a favorite.

But now it was new.

I found myself repeating its lines, over and over, giving myself to it, as if it was a mantra, as if it were – dare I say it? – a prayer.

Even half-asleep they had
such faith in the world
that had made them – – –
tilting through the water,
unruffled, sure,
by the laws of their faith not logic,
they opened their wings softly
and stepped
over every dark thing.

faith not logic / faith not logic / faith not logic

The repetition, the cadence, the urgency made it all much bigger than me, made it more than a poem and I more than a reader. I was not praying: I was being prayed.

I came out of that experience and did something I did not plan, envision, or anticipate. Who is this strange woman and what is she doing? I asked my former friend to walk with me. We talked, my focus on accountability, not forgiveness.

It was the boldest thing I ever did. I did not know why I was doing it, just that I had to and that I put trust – or faith – in the urgent impulse that came from being prayed.

faith not logic / faith not logic / faith not logic


When someone asks me to pray for them, I say yes.

I say yes, knowing I will be praying for them to have the courage and strength to endure what they are enduring, that they come out on the other side with their heart broken just enough to experience generosity and cultivate compassion in this world with its ragged, sharp edges.

I say yes, bringing Kate Braestrup’s voice again, “as long as prayer reminds me to deploy both my resources and my generosity,” and “so long as prayer serves as a uniquely potent means of giving and receiving love.”

I pray because this is a sorrowful world and we are vulnerable creatures in it – I want my energies to help cultivate the kind of vulnerability that doesn’t make us weak or mean, but brings a surrender that makes us stronger.

I say yes, because I know that prayer reaches places that mind or intellect can only belittle or, at best, describe, but never touch. Faith, not logic allowing me – us – to step over every dark thing.

I pray it be so. Amen.

Special thanks to Rev. Ute Schmidt, my supervisor during my hospital chaplaincy internship, who was guest reader at this service.

Posted in Buddhism, Chaplaincy, Hope, Poetry, Prayers, Sermons | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Prayer on the First Anniversary of Michael Brown’s Death

May the words of our mouths and the meditations of all of our hearts contribute to peace and justice in this world.  I invite you at the end of each passage to speak these words in unison: We bear witness.

One year ago this morning, Mike Brown, the son of Michael Brown Sr. and Lesley McSpadden, a father and a mother who loved their child, was breathing.

We bear witness.


One year ago today, Mike Brown, 18 years old, had just days before successfully graduated from high school.

We bear witness.


One year ago, at noon, Mike Brown, unarmed, living in a city with a police force that did not reflect the racial make-up of the community, where emails with racist content were shared regularly among law enforcement, where people of color were stopped for traffic violations at a much higher rate than their white fellow citizens, was shot and killed.

We bear witness.

One year ago, four and a half hours later, Mike Brown’s body lay where he fell, a pool of blood his pillow; neighbor children were protected by their parents and moved to rooms in their homes that did not look out onto that part of the street; cell phone cameras and twitter accounts focused on this image and shared it with the world.

We bear witness.


One year ago and ever since, our nation has been reeling. Every single day, except the day of Mike Brown’s funeral, there have been protests in the streets. A festering wound has surfaced again, reality for many all these long years, visible now to a wider swath of the nation and the world.

We bear witness.


We cannot turn away from the dire truth that too many people, especially too many Black and Brown people, lose their lives under suspicious circumstances at the hands of those entrusted to keep the peace or by those who “stand their ground.”

We bear witness.

On this one year anniversary of the death of Mike Brown, let us bear witness to all that our nation has lost in these lives which matter; let us bear witness to all that our nation might gain should we commit ourselves to doing our part to bend the moral arc of the universe towards racial justice.

We bear witness.



*****   ******  ******   *****  *****  ******

For many social justice actions across the nation in the past year, the symbolic time period of four and a half minutes – like the four and a half hours Mike Brown’s body lay in the street – has been powerful. This morning, we will use it for our prayerful time together.

This is, for our context, a long time. It is, in fact, too long – and yet, that is the point. It will likely make us uncomfortable – and yet, that is the point. This is a time in our nation when we must not push away our discomfort, but use it to fuel our capacity to change what is wrong.

To help us all of stay with this meditation, I will ring the chime once each minute in case – or when – minds wander. I will ring the chime three times at the end our meditation.

Should you be so moved during the meditation, a list of the names of unarmed Black people who “have been killed by police in the US” since Mike Brown’s death. There are 96 names because it was printed on Friday morning – less than 48 hours ago. Yet there is already a name missing: Christian Taylor, 19 years old, killed Friday evening in Arlington, Texas.

Let our holy stillness begin.


In an effort to honor Michael Brown’s life and all the black lives that have been taken by police and America’s other systems of racism, we list the names of unarmed black people killed by police since Michael Brown’s tragic death. We realize that this list only contains part of the picture of police violence against black people. We hope you will use it as a starting point for prayer and personal action.

Ezell Ford                                    August 11, 2014

Dante Parker                           August 12, 2014

Corey Levert Tanner                  August 13, 2014

Levon Leroy Love                           August 17, 2014

Arvel Douglas Williams                  August 20, 2014

Rondre Lamar Hornbeak         August 22, 2014

Veronica Woodard                  August 22, 2014

Briant Paula                           August 23, 2014

Cortez Washington                  August 26, 2014

Darrien Hunt                           September 10, 2014

Ricky Deangelo Hinkle                  September 13, 2014

Charles Smith                           September 18, 2014

Cameron Tillman                           September 23, 2014

Eugene Williams                           September 27, 2014

Oliver Jarrod Gregoire                  September 28, 2014

Latandra Ellington                  October 1, 2014

Lashano Gilbert                           October 4, 2014

Balantine Mbegbu                           October 6, 2014

Iretha Lilly                                    October 7, 2014

Adam Ardett Madison                  October 17, 2014

Michael Ricardo Minor                  October 23, 2014

Florence White                           October 25, 2014

Christopher McCray                  October 27, 2014

Kaldrick Donald                           October 28, 2014

John T. Wilson III                           November 1, 2014

David Yearby                           November 2, 2014

Tanisha Anderson                           November 13, 2014

Keara Crowder                           November 18, 2015

Akai Gurley                                    November 20, 2014

Tamir Rice                                    November 22, 2014

Eric Ricks                                    November 25, 2014

Rumain Brisbon                           December 2, 2014

Dennis Grigsby                           December 15, 2014

David Andre Scott                  December 27, 2014

Jerame Reid                           December 30, 2014

Matthew Ajibade                           January 1, 2015

Brian Pickett                           January 6, 2015

Andre Murphy Sr.                           January 7, 2015

Artago Howard                           January 8, 2015

Demaris Turner                           January 23, 2015

Alvin Haynes                           January 26, 2015

Jeremy Lett                                    February 5, 2015

Natasha McKenna                           February 8, 2015

Terry Price                                    February 21, 2015

Calvon Reid                                    February 22, 2015

Glenn Lewis                           February 25, 2015

Charly Keunang                           March 1, 2015

Darrell Gatewood                           March 1, 2015

Thomas Allen Jr.                           March 1, 2015

Andrew Williams                           March 6, 2015

Bernard Moore                           March 6, 2015

Naeschylus Vinzant                  March 6, 2015

Tony Robinson                           March 6, 2015

Anthony Hill                           March 9, 2015

Terrance Moxley                           March 10, 2015

Jonathan Paul                           March 12, 2015

Askari Roberts                           March 17, 2015

Brandon Jones                           March 19, 2015

Denzel Brown                           March 22, 2015

Dominick Wise                           March 30, 2015

Phillip White                           March 31, 2015

Donald Ivy                                    April 2, 2015

Eric Harris                                    April 2, 2015

Walter Scott                           April 4, 2015

Freddie Gray                           April 12, 2015

Frank Shephard III                  April 15, 2015

Darrell Brown                           April 16, 2015

Norman Cooper                           April 19, 2015

David Felix                                    April 25, 2015

Bryan Overstreet                           April 28, 2015

Brendon Glenn                           May 6, 2015

Jason Champion                           May 6, 2015

Nuwnah Laroche                           May 6, 2015

Sam Holmes                           May 8, 2015

DaJuan Graham                           May 12, 2015

Lorenzo Hayes                           May 13, 2015

Markus Clark                           May 20, 2015

Richard Davis                           May 31, 2015

Ross Anthony                           June 8, 2015

Alan Williams                           June 13, 2015

Kris Jackson                           June 15, 2015

Jermaine Benjamin                  June 16, 2015

Kevin Bajoie                           June 20, 2015

Spencer McCain                           June 25, 2015

Kevin Judson                           July 1, 2015

Jonathan Sanders                           July 8, 2015

Salvado Ellswood                           July 12, 2015

Sandra Bland                           July 13, 2015

Kindra Chapman                           July 14, 2015

Darrius Stewart                           July 17, 2015

Alexis McGovern                           July 17, 2015

Joyce Curnell                           July 23, 2015

Samuel DuBose                           July 19, 2015

Ralkina Jones                           July 26, 2015
Raynetta Turner                           July 27, 2015

Created by Karen G. Johnston, Erika Hewitt, and Kellie Kelly. Primary Sources were http://mappingpoliceviolence.org/unarmed/, http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/ng-interactive/2015/jun/01/the-counted-police-killings-us-database, and http://www.rt.com/usa/311211-six-black-women-dead-police/.

Posted in Justice, Prayers, Standing on the Side of Love | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment