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If there’s one practice that may connect the disparate traditions that inform Unitarian Universalism, it may be the theme of this week’s small group ministry session based on resources from spiritualityandpractice.com: Wonder. Wonder may be at the root of all human yearnings for the transcendent, the amusement park, coney island, D300, digital image, ferris wheel, HDR, high dynamic range imaging, image of the day, linkedin, new image, night exposure, Nikon, photo, photograph, Photography, wonder wheelultimate, the divine; and as such, it motivates much of what we do as a species (once we’ve satisfied our basic physical and emotional needs.)  Indeed, wonder could very well be the place in a Venn diagram where religion, science, and art all meet. As Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat say in their introduction to this practice, wonder “increases our capacity to be a bold inner space tripper and an avid explorer of the physical world.” I like that. If the transcendent element is a string that runs through existence from the farthest reaches of the Cosmos into deepest recesses of our hearts, wonder is the frequency at which is vibrates. All we have to do is attune our senses to that vibration and wonder reveals itself to us.

Chalice/Candle Lighting

Opening Words:

To pray is to take notice of the wonder, to regain a sense of the mystery that animates all beings, the divine margin in all attainments.
— Abraham Joshua Heschel quoted in Finding Your Own Spiritual Path by Peg Thompson

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Topic:

A Teaching Story from A Season in the Desert: Making Time Holy by W. Paul Jones.

W. Paul Jones, a Methodist minister who is now a Trappist monk, presents a thought-provoking overview of the Christian faith as a pilgrimage based on the sacralization of time. He discusses the Incarnation, sanctification, the daily offices, and the meanings inherent in the church year. In the following excerpt, he gets at the heart of the spiritual practice of wonder:

As I have mentioned, my spiritual director, a hermit, once smiled at me and concluded: “The difference between the two of us is that, while life for me is a matter of passing through, for you it is a matter of drinking deeply of everything along the way.” True. I do not want to miss the aroma of even one wild strawberry along the path. That is, I want to live deeply in time in all its manifold richness.

Perhaps it was because I was younger then, but I often remember an experience with an Atlanta elevator. At a conference in a hotel there, some friends suggested that as an “adventure” I ride with them in a glass elevator to the top. Slowly it rose, as I took in the gothic-like panorama beneath: of water features, plants, chandeliers, and colorful people of all kinds. Suddenly we burst through the roof into momentary darkness, then into a glass tube, where stretching out in all directions were the lights of Atlanta’s skyline and above it, the trek of endless stars. While still mesmerized, we penetrated through a floor into a sphere at the top. And as the doors opened, a friendly voice, with a warm handshake, bid us come and eat.

That night, at a table slowly rotating above the glittering city below, we told stories of past, present, and future. That was when I knowingly celebrated for the first time that I was a joyful denizen of time. Even the infinite space all around was bathed in time. Just that morning I had read that an astronomer had perceived a quark twelve billion light-years hence. Staggered by it all, that night I toasted the God of time, drinking thankfully for being alive in all of time’s multifarious intersections.

Questions: Share a story of some experience, event, or person that aroused or renewed your sense of wonder.

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Closing Words:

In the muddled mess of this world, in the confusion and boredom and amazement, we ought to be able to spot something — an event, a person, a memory, an act, a turning of the soul, the flash of bright wings, the surprise of sweet compassion — somewhere we ought to pick out a glory to celebrate.
— Samuel H. Miller in The Dilemma of Modern Belief

To Practice This Thought:Identify something glorious and celebrate it!

Group Session Plan based on resources on Wonder from www.spiritualityandpractice.com.

For a PDF version of this small group ministry session, click here: Wonder.

For more information on small group ministry, visit the UU Small Group Ministry Network.

Now that I’m almost done with my semi-regular Sunday feature of small group gratitude, gratefulness, thanksgiving, thank youministry sessions based on resources from SpiritualityandPractice.com (32 down, 5 to go), I’m feeling like I’d like to continue the practice. So once I’m done with Zeal, the final practice, I’m going to go back and revisit them all, beginning with Attention. However, since I haven’t posted much this month, I thought I’d slip in a extra session in honor of Thanksgiving (and to give me a chance to see what it’s like to come up with a completely new session on a practice I’ve already covered). Here, then, is another session on one of the foundational practices for anyone seeking to live a more spiritual life: Gratitude.

Chalice/Candle Lighting

Opening Words:

I think the dying pray at the last not “please,” but “thank you,” as a guest thanks his host at the door.
— Annie Dillard quoted in Super, Natural Christians by Sallie McFague

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An Excerpt from A Listening Heart: The Spirituality of Sacred Sensuousness by Brother David Steindl-Rast

Brother David Steindl-Rast salutes the spirituality of sacred sensuousness and the importance of the listening heart. Here is an excerpt on the spiritual practice of gratitude.

Day and night gifts keep pelting down on us. If we were aware of this, gratefulness would overwhelm us. But we go through life in a daze. A power failure makes us aware of what a gift electricity is; a sprained ankle lets us appreciate walking as a gift, a sleepless night, sleep. How much we are missing in life by noticing gifts only when we are suddenly deprived of them! But this can be changed. We need some methodical exercise in gratefulness. Years ago, I devised a method for myself which has proved quite helpful. Every night I note in a pocket calendar one thing for which I have never before been consciously thankful. Do you think it is difficult to find a new reason for gratitude each day? Not just one, but three and four and five pop into my mind, some evenings. It is hard to imagine how long I would have to live to exhaust the supply.

Questions: Share one thing for which you’ve never before been consciously thankful.

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Closing Words:

One chief idea of my life . . . is the idea of taking things with gratitude and not taking things for granted.
— G. K. Chesterton quoted in Celebrate Your Child by Richard Carlson

To Practice This Thought: Be lavish in your gratefulness.

Based on resources on Gratitude from www.spiritualityandpractice.com.

For a PDF version of this small group ministry session, click here: Gratitude #2.

For more information on small group ministry, visit the UU Small Group Ministry Network.

I have to confess that I’ve found it a little difficult to write about Vision, the topic for this week’s small group ministry session based on resources from SpiritualityandPractice.com. It’s an odd situation for me since INFP (my Myers-Briggs type) is one of three types they label as “visionary” (has something to do with the NF—intuitive and feeling—indicators they say). So I vision, idealism, pragmatism, visionary, futureasked my Facebook friends to give me a hand. Friend and colleague Tandi Rogers offered this question to get groups thinking about vision: “What story do you want the next generation to proclaim about what we did to tip the world more toward justice and love?.” And Cindy Beal, a fellow religious educator, suggested that “if we truly believe that the universe ‘bends toward justice,'” and if “we act in cooperation with power/energy/good, then we have the responsibility to be very intentional and thorough in terms of how we envision that future.” Both thoughts remind me of this quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “This time like all times is a very good one if we but know what to do with it.” Vision can help us know what to do with our particular time in history. It puts us in the position of “making history in place of being merely pushed around by it,” as James Luther Adams put it.

Chalice/Candle Lighting

Opening Words:

This new millennium requires extending our present limited horizons of mind, heart and imagination, as well as expanding our social and religious boundaries. To live with new horizons means constantly stretching our hopes and hearts as far as possible — and then gradually and progressively taking them even beyond those limits.
— Edward Hays in The Great Escape Manual

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An Excerpt from A Seat at the Table: Huston Smith in Conversation with Native Americans on Religious Freedom edited and with a preface by Phil Cousineau

Editor Phil Cousineau has put together 11 interviews of Native Americans in conversation with Huston Smith about religious expression in America. Here is an excerpt on vision.

Message From the Hopi Elders

You have been telling the people that this is the Eleventh Hour.
Now you must go back and tell the people that this is the Hour.
And there are things to be considered:
Where are you living?
What are you doing?
What are your relationships?
Are you in right relation?
Where is your water?
Know your garden.
It is time to speak your Truth.
Create your community.
Be good to each other.
And do not look outside yourself for the leader.
This could be a good time!
There is a river flowing now very fast.
It is so great and swift that there are those who will be afraid.
They will try to hold onto the shore.
They will feel they are being torn apart and they will suffer greatly.
Know the river has its destination.
The elders say we must let go of the shore,
push off into the middle of the river,
keep our eyes open and our heads above the water.
See who is in there with you and celebrate.
At this time in history, we are to take nothing personally.
Least of all, ourselves.
For the moment that we do,
our spiritual growth and journey come to a halt.
The time of the lone wolf is over.
Gather yourselves!
Banish the word struggle
from your attitude and your vocabulary.
All that we do now must be done
in a sacred manner and in celebration.
We are the ones we have been waiting for.

Questions: Have you ever had a “vision?” Share the story. (A vision can be a mystical experience or revelation, or it can be a dream for personal or group fulfillment.)

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Closing Words:

The best success I can dream for my life: to have spread a new vision of the world.
— Pierre Teilhard de Chardin quoted in Spirit of Fire by Ursula King

To Practice This Thought: Watching small children, vow to make your vision of a better world a reality.

Group Session Plan based on resources on Vision from www.spiritualityandpractice.com.

For a PDF version of this small group ministry session, click here: Vision.

For more information on small group ministry, visit the UU Small Group Ministry Network.

When I think of Unity (the subject of this week’s small group ministry session based on resources from SpiritualityandPractice.com), I think of two spiritual tasks: one is to learn to act from the Unity in our own being, ourPaganism, Pentagram, Buddhism, Dharma Wheel, Judaism, Star of David, Hinduism, Om, Unitarian Universalism, Flaming Chalice, Taoism, Yin Yang, Christian Cross, Islam, Star and Crescent own nature; the other is to learn to see the essential Unity of all creation. As Parker Palmer puts it, “In a paradox, opposites do not negate each—they cohere in the mysterious unity at the heart of reality.” And it’s this great paradox, “the tension created by the need for togetherness and need for separateness” (to use the language of Bowen Family Systems theory), that I believe drives much of what we do as individuals, as well as the universe itself. Everyone and everything, it seems, is constantly negotiating this paradox. We long for companionship, the company of others, yet we need our solitude, our time alone. Perhaps this is what the original oneness of the Universe felt, too, the desire for another, the other, that set the entire cosmos into motion in “The Great Flaring Forth” formerly know as “The Big Bang.”

Chalice/Candle Lighting

Opening Words:

We are already one. But we imagine that we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are.
— Thomas Merton in Thomas Merton: Essential Writings edited by Christine Bochen

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Topic:

A Teaching Story from Yeshua of Nazareth: Spiritual Master by Richard W. Chilson.

Richard W. Chilson, an author and Paulist priest, presents a thought-provoking portrait of Yeshua of Nazareth as a spiritual master. Here is a passage about the spiritual practice of unity.

I remember an embarrassing incident that brought to mind that the ‘enemy’ is my brother. I was driving home on the freeway and as I approached my exit a car dawdled in front of me. Too late to pass him; I was stuck following: as usual I was in a hurry. That driver inspired in me a whole slew of invectives. Spewing epithets I pulled up alongside at the stoplight by the exit. I looked over only to discover a dear friend. Instantly the situation changed although I had not done anything public to express my rage, I felt ashamed and guilty. How could I think these things about him? I had seen him as an obstacle, not a brother. It is the same with the other no matter the situation, from the person ahead of us in line, to our age-old enemy. Whoever it is, they have the same concerns, fears, gifts, and shortcomings we all do. Just another human being trying to do their best, a fellow sufferer of life, a brother or sister at heart, at least in the heart of God.

Questions: What blocks or obstacles most often keep you from feeling that you are one with others.

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Closing Words:

Only when we have the courage to cross the road and look in one another’s eyes can we see there that we are children of the same God and members of the same human family.
— Henri J. M. Nouwen in Bread for the Journey

To Practice This Thought: The sight of people from different races and countries, on the street or on television, is your cue to practice unity.

Group Session Plan based on resources on Unity from www.spiritualityandpractice.com.

For a PDF version of this small group ministry session, click here: Unity.

For more information on small group ministry, visit the UU Small Group Ministry Network.

I was reading an article in Huffington Post by Skye Jethani about Megachurches (Megachurches: When Will The Bubble Burst?) when I ran across this unsettling quote: “On average 50 small churches close their doors every week in America.”Unitarian, universalist, church, online, ministry, welcoming, religion, beliefs, megachurches, small congregations, small churches What? Fifty small churches are closing their doors every week? That’s not very encouraging, especially for a denomination, like, say, the UUA, where two thirds of its congregations have 150 members or less. Does not bode well, if you ask me. And I think small congregations know this, too. Business as usual is not going to cut it any more. Small congregations in any denomination are going to find it more and more difficult to maintain the status quo, let alone grow. Which I why I’m so pleased that the Prairie Star District offered a Small Congregation Conference last weekend in Des Moines, Iowa.

The conference was the brainchild (love that word!) of the Rev. Michael Nelson of our congregation in Manhattan, Kansas (Go Wildcats!). Michael noticed that the UUA regularly sponsored conferences for large and midsize congregations, but had never, as far as he could tell, sponsored one for small congregations. So Michael contacted me and we talked things over and decided this needed to be done. Thanks to a Chalice Lighter grant from Prairie Star, we were able to afford to bring in a topnotch keynote speaker. And knowing that a prophet is seldom welcomed in his or her hometown, we decided to ask someone from outside of the district to be the main presenter at the conference. I’m happy to say that our choice, the Rev. Andrew Pakula from London, England, delivered the goods. Andy offered three presentations over the course of two days. On Friday he gave us the recent history of his congregation in London (check out their website at www.new-unity.org) which has gone from six members in the 2001 (yes, six) to around 35 in 2006 under the leadership of his predessor, and then from 35 to over 100 members in the last 5 years under Andy’s leadership. What’s really exciting about that growth is that 50% of those new members are young adults.

Andy’s follow up presentations on Saturday dealt with using social media and attracting young adults. We also had a variety of workshops led by some terrific people: the Rev. Meg Riley talked with folks about what CLF (Church of the Larger Fellowship) is doing to help small congregations; the Rev. Charlotte Cowtan offered information on the demographics of various communities around the district; the Rev. Thea Nietfield presented information on right relationships and conflict engagement; Lori Emison Clair and Moria Leu of the Des Moines congregation did workshops on membership and music, the Rev. Jill Jarvis & al. talked about moving toward ministry, and Tandi Rogers, UUA growth specialist, did two workshops on faith development in small congregations. The participants were equally stellar as well. We had 12 affilitated congregations from throughout the district represented, along with folks from three new fellowships forming in Prairie Star. All in all, it was a fantastic weekend. Hopefully there will be more events like this in the future.

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