Little Altars Everywhere by Taryn Strauss
You’ve heard it plenty around these UU circles. Maybe you’ve said it a few times yourself. “I’m spiritual, but, not religious.”
But. . . are you? I mean, you may actually be more religious than you are spiritual, if your main act of faith is showing up here for worship service each Sunday. It’s an act of faith I do not mean to diminish, by the way. It is a worthy act, especially since this is the best place to be in Atlanta on a Sunday morning.
But if you understand yourself to be spiritual, what does that actually look like, as a Unitarian Universalist?
I find this question more imperative than ever, in 2018.
When many of our American and world institutions are crumbling, or shifting dramatically.
When our civil rights are severely threatened, and our leaders threaten to take us back to the 1950s or earlier, to a time when “greatness” was a luxury afforded to a few wealthy white Christian heterosexual Americans, and the rest of us had to fight over the scraps of justice.
We are living in a time when freedoms are being dismantled, one by one. First a travel ban, and now my Muslim friend can no longer take her child to visit with his grandparents. Then intensifying long-term separation and internment for refugees, though that word is regularly interchanged with immigrant.
Assumptions of financial progress based on education or income are fading into deferred dreams. When student loans, rampant racialized gentrification and stagnant incomes jeopardizes the aspirations of my generation.
When all of this is stripped away, and we no longer have access to quality health care, to reproductive rights, to safe drinking water, to affordable home ownership, to the luxury of border-crossing, what will be left?
What remains is our relationships:
Relationship with the self.
Relationship with God/the Divine/Faith.
Relationship with our first Sacred UU Source: Wonderment.
Relationship with our ancestors and our sense of legacy.
Relationship with one another, our family and community.
As spiritual people, how do we tend to those relationships?
I know there is so much anxiety out there about our move to a new location, so much loss and fear that we are walking right up to the canyon’s edge. ??Make no mistake: You are not a member of 1911 Cliff Valley Way.
You are not a worshipper of this room. It’s what we have found within that keeps us returning. It’s the sacred mysteries we have unlocked here together. Inside the room, and further within, inside of ourselves. We are pretty good at being Unitarian Universalists on Sundays. I’m concerned with how we practice our faith the other six days a week, outside these walls. And when we get new walls, I’ll still be interested in what is happening outside those walls!
The true test of a religious practice in your life, is not necessarily when things are fine. When we can claim evidence that our individual life plans will most likely work out well, and in succession too. When our collective destiny appears to be following a moral arc bending eternally toward justice.
During those times of contentment, we might still attend church, to see our friends, and to deepen our lives through meaningful service, but when times are good, devotion and discipline become merely interesting concepts to study. Until things fall apart.
Until catastrophe hits your family and you suddenly realize what was a habit is actually a crippling addiction.
Until you lose your job mid-career, and the future feels more like the edge of a cliff than comfortably designed ascending ramp.
Until you receive a major, life-altering diagnosis.
Until your life is critically devalued by your own country’s laws and enforcement.
Suddenly, UU faith takes on a different tenor. Under threat of safety and security, our Unitarian Universalist faith is a bridge to our survival, toward hope for better days. So I have used these central relationships as a frame for a UU spiritual practice, or devotion.
Relationship with Self:
In his book “Fear,” Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn writes that, “When the Buddha was very old, just before he died, he said, “My dear friends, my dear disciples, don’t take refuge in anything outside of you. In every one of us there is a very safe island we can go to. Every time you go home to that island with mindful breathing, you create a space of relaxation, concentration, and insight. If you dwell on that island in yourself with your mindful breathing, you are safe. That is a place where you can take refuge whenever you feel fear, uncertain, or confused.” Tich Nhat Hanh calls this “mindfullness of breathing,” the energy of Buddha mindfulness, and says we are capable of generated it ourselves. He compares it to the Christian experience of the Holy Spirit, described as the Energy of God. As he died, he returned to his mindful breathing, teaching from his death bed that though his disciples were concerned they would lose their teacher, that they should look to the teacher within.
Now, as an extrovert, I fear islands, and I have to say the island within does not appeal to me. I like to think of it as the “altar within.” An altar you can populate with your dreams, your prayers, your sympathies.
Another devotional tool for UUs is to create a Mantra:
Often, in pastoral care encounters, after listening to someone’s suffering, I will ask them how they have survived it. What gets you through? I’ll ask. I’ll invite the person to consider adopting a mantra, to help generate calming energy during a challenging moment. The earliest mantras were composed in Vedic Sanskrit by Hindus in India, and are at least 3000 years old. Mantras now exist in various schools of Hinduism and Buddhism.
Mantras are repetitive, concise, and can be melodic. They express a human longing towards the spiritual. They can feel like a devotional prayer, or a spoken rosary.
Some of the most trying moments of my years in New York City were spent on the over-crowded Subway. Stuffed together in shockingly intimate spaces, these are the moments when humanity became the most difficult to love. I had a seminary professor who had a twice daily subway practice of looking at each person for just one second, and repeating to himself a variation from John’s gospel, “I am in you, and you are in me, and we are in God.”
That mantra released him from the downward pull of judging others’, and it released narcissistic concern of his own comfort above all else in those moments.
I had another friend who, years ago, was healing from a traumatic incident whose mantra protected her from intruding, terrifying thoughts. Hers was simple, “I am love.”
I do not know what your mantra is, but I know that if you can meditate on a mantra, and find one that holds power for you, then you can take it out of your spiritual toolbox when you need it the most.
Relationship with the Divine/Faith
Where is your chalice in your home? Is it at your dinner table, or on your fireplace mantle?
If it’s on your mantle or on a shelf, well that is lovely, but I suggest you bring it to your table, and use it. I grew up a Unitarian Universalist preacher’s kid, but you would never know it by the way we lived. We did not grow up praying or saying grace, we did not discuss the interdependent web of all existence, nor did we regularly share stories from the world’s sacred religious texts.
By the way, I mention these three practices because I believe they are the least we should all be doing as we live into our UU faith!
Each evening at dinner, Gather around the chalice, light it, and say some chalice lighting words. You could say the words we say each Sunday morning in our worship, or you could say some other words from our hymnal. You could use the words we will say at the close of our children’s worship in the fall:
“We are people of open minds, loving hearts, and helping hands. Amen.”
Or a Buddhist blessing: “May I be happy, may I be healthy, may I be peaceful, may I be true. The second time through, you look at each other, and substitute with you. “May you be happy. . . ” and the the third time, everyone says together, “May all beings be happy. . . thereby extending the blessing to the whole world.
Really though, you need not say anything at all. With the hustle of our days, once we have all finally gathered around the table, it is radical an act enough to simply take a simple, collective pause, a moment of silence, hold hands, and take a breath together before beginning your meal. One way to combat the anxiety caused by social media, is to generate more opportunities for mental silence throughout your day.
Prayer is central to all stories of survival against the odds. The voice crying out into the wilderness. Job’s lament to God, his surrender to a force greater than anything else.
Even in detention apart from their children, on our Arizona border, prayer is central to survival. One woman who was interviewed about her experience in detention talked about prayer as the one spot of light in her bleak darkness. Her name is Maira, and came here to escape gang violence in Honduras. Though most of the details of her life in our detention facilities are shockingly horrific, she did tell the USA today reporter, “There have been some good moments inside detention too, The women who speak little Spanish but who hold hands across the tables in the visitor’s room, praying.”
I can pray to God without knowledge of God’s existence. I do not know if prayer will change a destiny, or an outcome, but I know it will change me.
I will do more than encourage you to pray on your own. I would also like to make a collective offering to you. When we leave this building, Rev. Makar and I will begin offering a daily meditation for you to receive either via social media or even via text, if you’d like to opt in. This will be a morning meditation to help you begin your day inspired, ready to “throw yourself like seed as you walk, and into your own field,” as the poet Miguel de Unamuno suggests.
I hope you will choose to receive this morning meditation, and I am excited to offer this to you, so you might use it to construct the altar within.
Connection with the Divine: The spiritual practice of Reading:
I want to talk about reading as a spiritual practice. This is how I stay involved in the events of the world. I am not a news junky, but I have a deep desire to stay engaged in the world around me, and I do that through reading stories.
I try to read the stories of people who share some aspect of my experience, but are suffering in ways that I am not.
Lately, I am reading first-hand accounts from women who are mothers, like me, but unlike me, are living in detention facilities in my country, and are separated from their children. I read their stories as a spiritual discipline, to learn from them how they are surviving, and to understand their lived experience.
This practice of reading stories is more painful then just skimming over a headline so that I might emit a satisfying harrumph, or a dramatic gasp. But this is how I find truth amidst a complex web of deception that defines our government’s use of media.
Vice President of Auburn Seminary Macky Alston calls this seeking the life-dealing truths. He says, “We are vessels of truth telling. And the work of knowing what those lifedealing truths are, and the delivery of those messages to the world, that is beautiful sacred work. And if we took that assignment seriously, the life-dealing truths, sometimes they come in the form of confessions, it would be poetry, it would be art, it would feel like ritual, and prayer, and I think we would value our existence.” When I read as a spiritual practice, I am intentionally seeking the life-dealing truths.?As UUs, we have a special relationship that can frame our devotional life.
Relationship with Wonderment:
Last week from this pulpit, I named my dream: that Unitarian Universalists become known the world over, for being truly skilled listeners. Quaker educator Parker Palmer tells us,
“If we want to support each other’s inner lives, we must remember a simple truth: the human soul does not want to be fixed, it wants simply to be seen and heard.” A spiritual discipline of deep listening leads us away from judgment, assumptions, and the collective attention deficit that defines our time, and leads us back towards truth, surrendering to wonder and awe.
There is a lot of talk these days about wokeness, as a destination or an end. As though we are not all students to our own limitations, constantly waking up to the ways we benefit from systems that oppress others. To live spiritually is to be attentive and awake all the time to the experiences of others, and to awaken to all that we don’t know, and humbly reside in wonderment and curiosity. A spiritual practice for UUs is to connect to that First Source of Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life. If we live with a spiritual practice of staying awake to wonder, then no matter the age of our bodies, we continually awaken with our spirits renewed.
Relationship with Ancestors:
Build an altar
I have a friend who moves around a lot, but everywhere she has ever lived, the first box she unpacks is marked, “Ancestors.” She sets up a small table, unfurls a beautiful white lace cloth, and creates her altar of ancestors, featuring photographs, a few letters, with a candle in the middle. Her ancestors travel everywhere with her. She connects with them each day, lighting her candle, and taking a moment to be with them. I was reminded of this practice when I saw the Disney film Coco, based on Dia de los Muertos.
I lived in Mexico during Dia de los Muertos, and I was enchanted by the joy and the power of ancestral communication. On All Souls or All Saints Day, I would love for UU churches everywhere to bring photos of the deceased and place them on an altar, honoring the wider community of ancestors who bless all who worship together in community.
Make an altar in your home. Place sacred objects on this altar, create a reflection of your spiritual life. Make it a container for your dreams, your desires, your tears and lamentation.
A spiritual practice to honor Relationship with Family/Community:
Service to our neighbors
Last Sunday, we talked about neighborhoods and villes. Honor your ville through the spiritual practice of service. Create a living prayer by providing a service to someone in your neighborhood each week. Since last week, many of you have shared your stories of neighborhood service with me, and together we have delighted in the practice of being a living prayer, and being of service to our neighborhood as a practice of building a bridge to hope.
Sometimes a sangha, a prayer group or meditation group, can spring up out of sheer necessity. I remember the summer I was doing my Clinical Pastoral Care residency, and once a week I spent working at the Psychiatric unit. One patient I worked with asked if I would lead a guided meditation. It was the only thing, she said, that could calm her considerable anxiety and manic mind. I sat in the center of the room, and led a ten minute guided meditation for her. Her roommate came in, and a couple of minutes later, another neighbor of hers joined us. Next week, five people sat in her room, ready to sit in guided meditation. The following week, the numbers had doubled, and there were ten people, with phenomenally diverse diagnoses, awaiting my arrival. This went on, week after week, I would lead guided meditation for almost the entire unit. We had to switch to a different room, and get permission to gather with such a large group of patients, and week after week, we meditated together in mostly silence. Our phsyical bodies were behind locked doors and shut in. For many of the people in that room, they were unable to experience mental freedom, from medication or thoughts that conspired to create another kind of prison. Together we breathed, and walked down a path in our minds, up a mountain, and we were free.
The altar is a container. A container to cry and lament.
There are myriad ways to resist. Not just resist an oppressive administration, but resist feeling lost in overwhelm. Resist the urge to rest in ignorance and oblivion. Resist bitterness. Resist helplessness. Resist skimming headlines.
Make a little altar, within your heart. Or in your actual home. Find a way to return to that altar. Fill it with meaning. You will hear me say again and again to pray with your feet, to get up and do something,
But in order to give your actions integrity, and to give them meaning, you must also nourish your spirit.
So that in those moments where the stakes are high, when your faith is tested, you will know it is there.
We will resist, yes, and with a foundation of spiritual depth, building that bridge toward hope.
May I be light to those in darkness,
Food to the hungry,
And the alarm clock, the wake-up call, the morning cup
For those who would need awaken.
This is how we will survive.