Monday
Nov262018

Pillar and Cloud

‘Tis the season of Chanukah, Winter Solstice, Christmas and New Year’s Eve celebrations. Many of us are busy as bees preparing for company coming to our homes, or for our own travels, and buying gifts for loved ones. This time of year can feel overwhelming for those of us who are bearing the burden of preparation.

Even for those of us whose holiday-preparation burdens are light, the ever-increasing commercialization of the end of the year can obscure the spiritual meaning of what we are celebrating. For me, there is an irony that in the middle of so much abundance, it can feel as if there is a spiritual void.

And for some of us the holidays are emotionally painful. Families can be messy. The myth of the perfect family holiday celebration is just that, a myth. For many of us, the holidays are a time when the ghosts of the past emerge from the shadows. Our un-healed pain, our unresolved anger, can be uninvited guests in our family gatherings.

This can also be a very lonely time of year for those who live alone, and for those who are mourning the loss of a loved one. It’s small wonder that not everybody looks forward to this time of year.

As a Unitarian Universalist community, I think that it is important for each of to be able to name and share these feelings and to try to be supportive of one another. At this time of year, “How are you feeling?” can take on a deeper meaning than usual. We might ask follow-ups to our usual words of greeting - -“No, I meant, how ARE you feeling, really?” Sharing feelings, and listening deeply, are vital gifts in themselves, and can be more meaningful than the ones that come in gift-wrap.

Let’s also not forget that many of the December traditions have spiritual roots, going back to the earliest days of human civilization. When the long nights and short days meant the supply of food we had on hand might not be enough to last the winter, we humans found a way to connect with the powers-that-be in the universe. Having spiritual connections and practices are always important, but seldom more so than at this time of year.

Spiritual practices are not limited to prayer and meditation. Going for a walk outside, writing a poem, learning a new craft skill or picking up an old one. All of these and more can help us to center, and to connect with the holy place that lies within each one of us.

Lately, I have been spending a lot of my downtime learning to be a better nature photographer. There is a creek near where I’m living that has been frequented by some wood ducks. First, there were seven, and the last time I was there over two dozen of them were jumping in and out of the water. Chicks emerging from their baby plumage, as well as majestic adults, they have all been in attendance in the small creek surrounded by cottonwood trees. They come and go, and when I am lucky enough to be there, my camera gives me an insight into wood duck family life. I think wood ducks may be the most impressive looking birds in North America. No matter what mood I am in, when I see them, they lift my spirits.

This will be my first and only winter spent in Northern Arizona. As news of snowstorms in New England has reached me, I am glad to be here to experience the different shades of light, the dryer air, and the sights and sounds of the colder seasons at a higher elevation. I used to dread the onset of winter when I lived in the east, but this year I am looking forward to it.

I hope that all of us in the Granite Peak community will have a way to find meaning in this holiday season. I hope that all of us, in this beloved community will experience joy, and hope, and peace, and love no matter what our circumstances.

Blessing to one and all.

Thursday
Oct252018

Pillar and Cloud

As November gets under way I am feeling slightly overwhelmed, in a good way, by the richness of my life and what the future may hold for me and for our community. There is so much going on in November that my head is filled with all sorts of emotions. Feelings of excitement, apprehension, anticipation, reflection and wonder.

I am writing this column just a few days before heading east for a week to see friends and family, and for my ordination into Unitarian Universalist ministry. Yikes!

What a journey the last six and a half years has been.

In many ways I am still very much the same person I was when I decided to give up my law practice and enter the ministry. I still over-analyze things. I still offer up opinions irrespective of whether I have been asked to do so. And I am still my own worst critic.

But in many ways, I have grown and changed during my discernment process. Colleagues and teachers and mentors have helped and encouraged me to focus on listening first and asking questions later (yup, still a work in progress!). More importantly they have supported me in my ongoing need for spiritual growth and nourishment. I shall never forget one of my supervisors criticizing me during my training for NOT spending more time walking in the woods. It took a long time for it to sink in that that is now part of my job description. It is so different from my prior professional life, and a joyous one.

This month brings the long-awaited mid-term elections. Whatever the results may bring, I suspect that many of us will feel relieved simply in knowing that they are behind us, as they seem to have dominated the news for the last several weeks and months. My hope for our members and friends is that we will be strengthened by the opportunity to participate in our nation’s flawed, but not broken, democracy. That our commitment to being in right relationship with each other, with our community, and with our world, will be stronger than ever no matter what happens on November 6. I believe that it will.

We Unitarian Universalists are people who chose our faith based on science, reason and our own individual spiritual resources. We share that in common with those who came before us long ago. People like William Ellery Channing, Theodore Parker, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the later transcendentalists and humanists on whose shoulders we now stand.

No matter what transpires in the November mid-terms, or in 2020, or the years ahead, Unitarian Universalists will continue to challenge authority, and will continue to work for the common good. Our history of working to end the institution of slavery, of working for women’s suffrage, of opposition to the Vietnam War (including ensuring publication of the “Pentagon Papers”), of working for Civil Rights in the 1960s, leaves no room for doubt that we will continue to show up for justice no matter what the future might bring. For that, I am deeply grateful.

In this month of Thanksgiving, I feel extremely grateful to be a part of our movement. For me to be able to share my talents and skills as part of something much bigger than myself is both a privilege and a joy. To be able to minister to the Granite Peak congregation, even if it is only for a short time, was worth the effort of training for the ministry. For all of these things, I feel deep gratitude.

And I am deeply grateful for my family, my friends, and for all of the incredible experiences that make my life so rich and meaningful. My life would be quite empty if I didn’t have the people I love to share it with me.

(And, this month of November will bring my 64th birthday. The old Beatles’ song, “Will you still need me, will you still feed me.....,” has also been playing aloud in my head for a couple of weeks now.)

November is also the month in which your search committee will complete the first stage of its work by finalizing the information that will be provided to ministers looking for a new congregation. I am feeling excited that the process of identifying your next settled minister is about to enter its next phase.

And, as the month of November draws to a close, I too will begin my search for my next call.

As I survey the list of other congregations that will be looking for a minister next year I am feeling joy, anticipation and excitement at the wealth of possibilities.

We all often have mixed feelings and emotions as we get ready for Thanksgiving. Having many emotions welling up inside us at one time or another is part of the experience of feeling alive. It is also part of the process of creation. An opportunity to connect with the holy. And that is good.

I hope that all of our members, friends, and neighbors have a safe, warm, and happy Thanksgiving holiday.

Thursday
Sep272018

Pillar and Cloud

As the season changes from summer to fall I am feeling nostalgia for the autumn leaves of New England and New Jersey. Different hues of red and gold as far as the eye can see are an unforgettable sight. I also miss going apple picking and having fresh apple cider and apple butter. And the crisp fall air of New England smells so good.

I don’t miss raking leaves, though. This time of year my former lawn and sidewalk, like all of my neighbors’ lots, would be a sea of maple, oak, sycamore and other leaves; way too many for me to rake and bag them all. During the winter months frozen leaves would make harsh music in the streets of my neighborhood, as they were blown every which way by the wind.

The onset of fall also nostalgically reminds me of the beginning of the academic year. I feel for the thousands of students who are taking their next steps into the world of adults, many living away from home for the first time in their lives. I remember my own feelings of being thrust into the alien world of grown-ups, of thinking how new and exciting it felt. And scary at the same time.

At this time of year, in almost every town and city in our country, new friendships are being forged, fresh ideas are being exchanged, and knowledge shared between generations. It gives me hope that the current state of affairs in our national dialogue is transient, a hiccup on the road to social progress.

For me, education is one of the great miracles of life, one of the few constants that human existence can claim. Each generation makes new discoveries and passes them on to the next generation, no matter what the political climate, the state of the economy, or whether there is war or peace.

Today’s scientists and engineers and doctors who were born in the ‘50s and ‘60s would never have been, but for the education they received from those who came before them. And now my generation, the baby boomers who came of age in the 1970s, who knew nothing about computers or other technical wizardry, are passing the baton to the next generation. And one day it will be our grandchildren’s turn to pass along the mantle of knowledge that enables humankind to live in a world that has power lines and running water and automobiles, and all the things my generation would likely not have built but for the legacy of what came before us.

New discoveries, of course, change our theology, our understanding of the holy. When the seemingly inexplicable is explained new theological ground is broken; new questions are raised as intuition and belief continue to give way to lived experience and empirical evidence. That is a good thing. To borrow a line from the song Blue Boat Home, new discoveries are an opportunity to cast new questions into the deep. It is part of the human experience to question, and to seek meaning wherever questions are raised.

And yet ....

A couple of Saturday mornings ago I had a conversation with a gentlemen who told me he believed that the Bible is the inerrant and literal word of God, that there is no such thing as evolution, and that only Christians whose name is “in the book” will achieve salvation and go to heaven. Our conversation took place while we were both enjoying a cup of coffee outside a store on Gurley Street. Although we were polar opposites in our beliefs and in our appreciation of science, I enjoyed meeting him very much. At the end of our conversation we prayed together.

This conversation with an evangelist was troubling for me, however. It highlighted the extent to which suspicion of modernism, and fear of progress, is deeply embedded in the culture of certain religious communities. So deeply embedded, in fact, that reason and knowledge have been ineffective in encouraging many Christians to ask new questions, encouraging them to cease to defend the indefensible.

And so I continue to pray that the seeds of knowledge will find a place to live and grow on those craggy, windswept cliffs that were formed by the molten rocks of Bronze Age mythology. As the new academic year gets into high gear, and as my generation passes knowledge to the next, may new ways of thinking about the divine, about what is holy, pave the way for a new era in liberal religion. May new ideas about pluralism and tolerance replace the worn out theology of the past.

Kids, it’s up to you now. May it indeed be so.

Thursday
Aug232018

Pillar and Cloud

I have to admit that there’s one thing about living in Prescott that beats where I’ve lived on the east coast hands down, and that’s the night sky. The other night I sat outside on my deck and looked up at the most amazing panorama of stars- and planets. Some of the points of light that were glowing in the darkness were so big that I knew they couldn’t be part of the milky way. A quick internet search led me to a website that listed all of the planets you could see in the Phoenix area that night, and sure enough Saturn and Neptune and a couple of others were all scheduled to be visible at one point or another. The big yellow shimmering blob that I was able to bring into view with my binoculars was Saturn for sure. Even though my hands were not steady enough to keep the object from moving around in my binocular lens, it was big, and bright, and well, Saturn-ish.

For me, looking up and seeing the wonder of the universe is a spiritual encounter with creation. My mind swirls with thoughts of the Big Bang and how things happened from there. Like snowflakes, no two galaxies are the same, and yet they all sprang from the same place at the beginning of time. My logical side feels that everything in the universe should be predictable. All you have to know is how much force hits an object and what direction it moves in to know where it going to end up. But our Milky Way galaxy and all the other galaxies we are able to see seem to be arranged at random.

And we know that subatomic particles sometimes act randomly, seemingly defying the laws of physics that we humans have to live by. Could there be a relationship between quantum physics and love? They seem to have so much in common.

Some years ago I read a book that described Einstein’s theories of relativity in layperson’s terms. For a brief period of time I got it. I really did. I understood why the speed of light is the cosmic speed limit, and how time dilation works. But then I learned that, even though there is no way anything having a positive mass can travel as fast as a beam of light, the universe is nevertheless expanding faster than the speed of light.

So one day the light from our nearest galaxy won’t go fast enough to be seen by our most powerful telescopes here on earth. So our galaxy will feel like it’s the only one there is, even though there are millions of others whose light will never reach us.

That makes me feel sad, even though our sun will likely have run out of fire by the time that that happens. I wonder whether there are other universes out there that we might once have been able to see before our own universe got too big? My wonderment gives new meaning to the word Universalist – one who affirms the existence of other universes.

Maybe we humans just aren’t meant to understand everything there is to know about the cosmos. Humanity’s quest for a unified theory of everything could well turn out to be a fool’s errand. We can theorize and theologize about whether the universe is the result of divine creation, and if so whether the creator is teasing us as each discovery opens up new questions. Or we can sit back and enjoy being swept up by the mystery of it all.

As Unitarian Universalists we affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. But we never claim to have all the answers.

Looking up at the night sky over Granite Dells, I would like to keep it that way. To preserve the wonder and awe I feel simply by looking up at the light that took millions of years to reach us.

Thursday
Jul262018

Pillar and Cloud

If you had told me ten years ago that I was going to change careers and become a Unitarian Universalist minister I probably would have told you that you had mistaken me for somebody else. I also would have seen my moving to the beautiful place that is northern Arizona as likely as my setting up residence on Mars.

But life has a way of being unpredictable sometimes, and one change can lead to another, and then another. That is how it came to be that a few years ago years ago, during a period of introspection, I felt a profound call to devote my remaining working years to Unitarian Universalist ministry. It felt as if something greater then myself was at work in my life, and that I needed to follow a path set out before me. In some ways my new calling feels a bit like the story of the Israelites’ escape from Egypt as recounted in the Hebrew Bible:

The Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people. (Exodus 13:21-22)

In following my path to ministry I have felt the presence of the pillars of cloud and fire leading the way. That is why I decided to call my monthly column for the congregation I served before coming to Granite Peak Pillar and Cloud, to recognize my personal spiritual journey. It seems only fitting to use the same title for my monthly column during my year as your interim minister.

Unlike the ancient Israelites, however, I’m not looking for the Promised Land someplace else. Instead my call to ministry means working to help make this land fulfill its promises, promises expressed and implied in our national constitution, and embodied in our seven Unitarian Universalist principles.

As I write this column, my first for GPUUC, our third UU principle – acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations – is uppermost in my mind. For too long our country and our national leadership has gone down the path of becoming more and more polarized, and our national dialog has become increasingly more rancorous as a result. How can I, and how can we, as spiritual beings, help to promote acceptance of a diversity of opinions in the larger community? After all, isn’t acceptance of diversity one of the things that our constitution is supposed to encourage?

It seems to me that spiritual growth in the wider community ought to be a new national priority. Regardless of where one stands on the theological spectrum, from atheist to theist and all points in between, the work of social justice is not just a moral or ethical issue. It is a spiritual issue as well. That is why most of us recoil in horror when we see young children separated from their parents by US border officials acting at the behest of unfeeling individuals far removed in Washington D.C. Justice is a spiritual response to the kind of injustice that denies the human spirit its freedom.

In the year ahead I am looking forward to my own spiritual growth as I serve as your interim minister. And I look forward to all of us sharing our spiritual journeys with one another as we engage in our shared ministry of living according to our Unitarian Universalist principles and values. May a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night lead us all as we undertake that journey together.

May it be so.
Terry Cummings, Interim Minister