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In preparation for writing the introduction to the spiritual practice of Yearning, this week’s small group ministry session based on resources from spiritualityandpractice.com, I decided to do a search for what appears to be a nonexistent word: the opposite of nostalgia. You see, if nostalgia is, as the longing, wish, desire, need, burning, urge, yen, pining, hunger, hungering, inclination, eagerness, hankeringdictionary says, “A sentimental longing for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations,” then Yearning seems to me to be something that points in the other direction, a longing for some unknown future with those same personal associations with happiness. Anyway, there’s no word for that feeling, but I’ve experienced, as we all have. It’s a bittersweet feeling when we acknowledge that things could be better, but we’re not sure what it would take to make them that way. Or perhaps it’s more of a feeling that we have all we need to be happy, but we know that it will never last. I’m guessing that the religious concept of eternity grew out of the simultaneous sense of yearning for something more and never wanting to lose it. At any rate, Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat suggest that the music of Bruce Springsteen often captures that Bruce Springsteen, Nebraska, My Father's Housesense of longing. When I read that, I was reminded of Springsteen’s album Nebraska, which I pretty much wore out with repeated listenings back in the early 80s. Not only for the lyrics and the stories they tell, but for the overall sound of the album—just Springsteen on the guitar punctuated with a mournful harmonica. One song in particular, however, really captures that sense of Yearning for me. If you can track down “My Father’s House,” it’s worth a listen.

Chalice/Candle Lighting

Opening Words:

Our longing is an echo of the divine longing for us. Our longing is the living imprint of divine desire.
— John O’Donohue in Eternal Echoes

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An Excerpt from Words of Common Sense for Mind, Body and Soul by Brother David Steindl-Rast

Brother David Steindl-Rast salutes proverbs as cross-cultural wisdom that appeals to our common sense. Here is an excerpt on the spiritual practice of yearning.

Jesus, if he came back today, might look bewildered at what has become of the movement that he started. Would he recognize it at all? Would he think it has much to do with the message he preached? I think he would feel more at home in a twelve-step meeting than in most churches, let alone in the Vatican. . . . Twelve-step programs rely on no other authority than common sense. Jesus would recognize his spirit alive and active today as soon as he walked into a twelve-step meeting. This should not surprise us, since the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous were fervent Christians. And there is an even deeper connection between sobriety and common sense. Don’t we call people who use common sense ‘sober minded’? What then is the addiction that makes most of us, again and again, fall off the wagon of common sense? It must be an enormously strong addiction to draw so many into its spell.

What is it that attracts us with such power? For many years I was searching for an answer to this question. What is the desire that draws us away from common sense? Gradually, the answer dawned on me: It is our longing to belong. But does not this deep desire in the human heart aim precisely at that all-embracing communion from which common sense springs? Isn’t our homesickness a desire for the cosmic household of which common sense is the family spirit? Indeed it is. But we fail to go all the way. We settle too soon, settle for less, before we reach our true home.

Questions: Share a story about the ways in which your desire has expressed itself in a relationship, in a creative project, or at work.

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Closing Words:

Longing is a compass that guides us through life. We may never get what we really want, that’s true, but every step along the way will be determined by it.
— Joan D. Chittister in The Psalms: Meditations for Every Day of the Year

To Practice This Thought: In what directions are your yearnings pointing you?

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

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

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

A few weeks ago I mentioned Barry Andrews’ article “The Roots of Unitarian Universalist Spirituality in New England Transcendentalism” in a post about the role of spirituality in our tradition. That post (and Barry’s article) come to mind as I think about this week’s small group ministry session on X-The Mystery, based on resources from spiritualityandpractice.com. Why? Because the reading for this mystery, the divine, sky, Godsession is from the poet Mary Oliver (beloved by UUs everywhere, it seems). Oliver mentions something that reminded me a lot of a quote by Emerson in the “Roots” article. Emerson says that his “transcendental experience” (the one where he becomes a gigantic eyeball or something like that) gave rise to a “double consciousness”; that even though one lives mostly in the mundane world, a single experience with the divine, the Mysterious X, “will characterize the days.” Oliver says a similar sort of thing: that her “sudden awareness of the citizenry of all things within one world” was a moment that she has “never forgotten, and upon which” she has “based many decisions in the years since.” Definitely sounds like it has characterized her days. At any rate, take a look at the complete passage from Mary Oliver. Perhaps you’ve had a similar sort of moment. If so, does it continue to affect your decisions? Does it characterize your days?

Chalice/Candle Lighting

Opening Words:

It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day. Never lose a holy curiosity.
— Albert Einstein quoted in Holy Clues by Stephen Kendrick

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An Excerpt from Long Life by Mary Oliver

This collection of prose and poetry by poet Mary Oliver offers what she calls “little alleluias” to nature, animals, soul, place and literature. Here is an excerpt on the spiritual practice of mystery.

Once, years ago, I emerged from the woods in the early morning at the end of a walk and — it was the most casual of moments — as I stepped from under the trees into the mild, pouring-down sunlight I experienced a sudden impact, a seizure of happiness. It was not the drowning sort of happiness, rather the floating sort. I made no struggle toward it; it was given. Time seemed to vanish. Urgency vanished. Any important difference between myself and all other things vanished. I knew that I belonged to the world, and felt comfortably my own containment in the totality. I did not feel that I understood any mystery, not at all; rather that I could be happy and feel blessed within the perplexity — the summer morning, its gentleness, the sense of the great work being done though the grass where I stood scarcely trembled. As I say, it was the most casual of moments, not mystical as the word is usually meant, for there was no vision, or anything extraordinary at all, but only a sudden awareness of the citizenry of all things within one world: leaves, dust, thrushes and finches, men and women. And yet it was a moment I have never forgotten, and upon which I have based many decisions in the years since.

Questions: Reflect upon the things you just can’t explain in your daily life, especially ones that you are having difficulty leaving alone. Describe the mystery but don’t try to add an explanation.

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Closing Words:

Accustom your tongue to say, I do not know.
— The Talmud

To Practice This Thought:
Take time to really see what is right in front of you.

Group Session Plan based on resources on X-The Mystery from www.spiritualityandpractice.com.

For a PDF version of this small group ministry session, click here: X-The Mystery.

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

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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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.

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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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.

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