Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Bardo, the Butterfly, and the Boy Who Lived

(Introductory sermon offered by Jessica Gray, DFDM, 8/14/2011)

“He moved on, and now he reached the edge of the forest, and he stopped.
A swarm of dementors was gliding amongst the trees; he could feel their chill, and he was not sure he would be able to pass safely through it. He had no strength left for a Patronus. He could no longer control his own trembling. It was not, after all, so easy to die. Every second he breathed, the smell of the grass, the cool air on his face, was so precious: To think that people had years and years, time to waste, so much time it dragged, and he was clinging to each second. At the same time he thought that he would not be able to go on, and knew that he must. The long game was ended, the Snitch had been caught, it was time to leave the air…

The Snitch. His nerveless fingers fumbled for a moment with the pouch at his neck and he pulled it out.

I open at the close.

Breathing fast and hard, he stared down at it. Now that he wanted time to move as slowly as possible, it seemed to have sped up, and understanding was coming so fast it seemed to have bypassed thought. This was the close. This was the moment.

He pressed the golden metal to his lips and whispered, “I am about to die.” The metal shell broke open.”
(J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows 697-698)

“I open at the close.” Last week, in her final sermon here, Kim Hampton opened with a quote from T.S. Eliot “What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.” I find it highly appropriate that I open with the very same words in my first sermon here. With every ending, we find a new beginning. And with every beginning, we honor the ending of that which came before.

How many of you have read the final Harry Potter book? Seen the final film? Seen any of the films? Ever heard of Harry Potter? If you didn’t raise your hand for at least one of those questions, either you’re not paying attention or you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past ten years. For my generation and those after me, Harry Potter is a cultural phenomenon, with the successful books and films, tons of toys and merchandise, wizard rock bands, and even a theme park. The stories became an important part of my life work as I was “Headmistress” of Hogwarts summer camp for seven years in Baton Rouge and also wrote a chapter in my dissertation about the series. I believe this story has had such a great impact because the imagery in Harry Potter transcends mere fantasy. I see it as a story of power, symbolism, and significance - a modern mythology.

And as with any myth, images can be interpreted far beyond their literal context. But some context is helpful. For those of you who may be less familiar with the series, let me explain something about the passage we just read. In the wizarding sport of “Quidditch,” Harry Potter plays the position of the Seeker. This player has only one job: to catch a small golden flying ball called the “Snitch.” Once the Snitch is caught, the game ends, and usually the Seeker’s team wins. As part of our camp we played Quidditch every year, and believe me, the snitch was well-sought. Much joy and many tears were expressed by the children who sought this little ball.

In the scene we read, Harry Potter is ready to face what he believes will be the final battle of his life. As he walks to his immanent death, he remembers that his mentor, Dumbledore, gave him an enchanted golden snitch engraved with the words, “I open at the close.” Let’s consider this image for a moment.

First, we have the Seeker. This is a classic image of one on a spiritual search. In Matthew 7:7-8, Jesus taught his disciples: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.” Our Unitarian Universalist principles encourage us each to a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” We seek the opening that will allow us to understand the big questions, the revelation of something more.

I have always considered myself a spiritual seeker from as early as I can remember. I was raised Southern Baptist, the child of a minister, but I knew early on that I wanted more. I remember when I was about five years old, people would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I said I wanted to be a minister, just like my daddy. But the good Southern Baptists always told me I could marry a minister, but since I was a girl I couldn’t be a minister. I was crushed. So instead I decided to be a missionary, and in high school I traveled on mission trips to Budapest, Hungary, Malawi in southern Africa, Venezuela, and Papua New Guinea. But I was frustrated with the exclusivity clause of Christianity as I knew it. I had an assignment in one of my missionary courses to write a paper called “The Destiny of the Heathen.” What happens to those who die that have never known about Jesus? Were we actually condemning them by telling them? I remember praying about this and determining that there must be other ways to know God. I left conservative Christianity. Academically, I studied other sects of Christianity, including Catholicism. I studied Judaism and Islam and other world religions. But soon I found a spiritual home in earth-centered traditions of modern Paganism and in a dance meditation of Tibetan Buddhism. I went on a dance pilgrimage to India and Nepal. I trained until I was considered a leader in my chosen spiritual practices. But I still valued my Christian roots, and I found that others could not understand why I followed multiple spiritual disciplines. When I found Unitarian-Universalism, it just made sense. I could honor many spiritual sources. With the principles, I found a framework for living my beliefs. And I found opportunities to minister to others through my work in religious education and now faith development. As a line from another of my favorite movies, Joe Versus the Volcano, says, “It's taken a long time meeting you, a long time on a crooked road.” My spiritual search has led me here to meet you.

Going back to Harry Potter, in this scene, the Snitch – the object of the Seeker - opens to reveal something extraordinary inside. But this moment of revelation, of openness, cannot come on an ordinary day. It can only be revealed in a moment of transition, a moment of change, a moment in between. Anthropologist Arnold van Gennep called this space “liminality,” based on the “limen” or the “threshold.” In his work studying rites of passage, he examined how religious rituals involve a separation from what was and a transformation into what will be. The boy becomes a man. The single individuals become a married couple. The girl becomes a mother. The moments in between are powerful, sacred, and transformative.

The Tibetan Buddhists call this moment of transition the bardo. Though this term often refers to the space between death and rebirth, the great teacher Sogyal Rinpoche explains in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying that “Bardo is a Tibetan word that simply means a ‘transition’ or a gap between the completion of one situation and the onset of another.” Sometimes the bardo lasts for a fraction of a second. Sometimes we live in states of bardo for years. I’d like for you to think about a time when you experienced a transition or change in your life? Some of us may be in the bardo right now. For the past year and a half, I have lived in the bardo. We were ready to move on from Baton Rouge, but we were open about where we would go – uncertain of the future.

But are any of us ever certain of the future? As soon as we think we are, *snap* everything changes. A job disappears. A loved one dies. A diagnosis, a hurricane, a car accident, a war. I don’t know you, but I know that you have suffered loss of some sort. We all have. This is a fundamental part of the human experience.

Last week, my three-year old spent hours crying over the loss of a cupcake. She was supposed to wait until after dinner, but in her own inventive way she stacked boxes on top of a stool to reach it from the top of the cupboard. But she couldn’t eat it quietly. She came running into the living room to show us what she had achieved. We were so proud of her ingenuity that we didn’t want to punish her, but we couldn’t let her have the cupcake before dinner. She pitched a fit. She wailed over the loss of her cupcake. And her experience is just as real, just as valid, as those of us who have lost so much more. To her, this loss defied everything she knew to be right and good. She had a complete expectation that the cupcake would be hers, and when it was taken from her, she did not know how to handle that emotion. When we have good things in our life, we grasp and cling to them, trying to hold on, to prevent change. But they cannot ever remain the same. The only constant in this life is change. Oh, and by the way, she ate her dinner and got her cupcake. She only had to wait. But after she ate it, like everything else, it was gone again.

Harry Potter approached the bardo willingly. He believed he was walking to his death. He had already lost so much – his parents, many friends, his teacher, everything he knew and loved. He could not conjure his “Patronus,” the guardian that would protect him from the darkness and despair of the creatures called Dementors. And yet he kept going. And in this moment, the metal shell of the snitch opened, revealing a stone called “The Resurrection Stone.” This stone gave him a moment of connection with those he had lost. For this moment, he was strengthened by his sources of refuge and support. I asked some of my friends what they thought about this scene, and one told me, “For me it's that we never really walk this road of life alone, and it is comforting to know that others have walked it before us, made mistakes like we make, loved others like we love, and fought battles like we fight. Even when we feel alone and that the world is a horrible, cruel place, those we love have never really left, nor ever will leave us.” Those we love become our sources of protection, our Patronuses. From the Buddhist perspective, those who support our journey can be honored as our sources of “Refuge.”

I would like you to think about your own personal sources of refuge: If you will, bring your hands together in a symbol of reverence. Think first about your lineage of teachers. Who are the people that have guided your search? Perhaps your parents, your teachers, your ministers, your guides? See them clearly in your mind. Repeat after me, “My path is supported by the lineage of teachers.”

Next, think about your vision of the Enlightened Ones. Which spiritual beings have inspired your path the most? The Buddha, Jesus, Mary? Others? Prophetic men and women like John Murray or Martin Luther King, Jr.? See them clearly in your mind. Repeat after me, “My path is supported by the enlightened ones.”

Now I want you to think about the teachings themselves. What spiritual truths have you discovered in your search? What teachings have helped you with the big questions? Let them form in your mind. Repeat after me, “My path is supported by their teachings.”

And, finally, think about the community of Seekers. Who has traveled with you on this path? Look around. Today, at least, we travel the path together. Repeat after me, “My path is supported by the community of practitioners.”

These are your sources of refuge. When you find yourself in the bardo, remember that you are not alone. You are never alone.

“I open at the close.” Another way of looking at this looks within. We are not just the Seeker. We are the golden snitch. “We” open at the close. And we must break open to find new possibilities. What does it mean to break open? The word “broken” seems so violent – broken bones, broken homes, broken hearts. But we also can break ground, break bread, break-through, break free. We break the constraints holding us back. Like a seed pod breaks to allow a plant to grow, change must happen for life to happen.

When I look to nature, I see the bardo in the life of a creature with glorious wings that flies just like the golden snitch - the butterfly. While I was preparing for this sermon, I decided to watch some time lapse videos on youtube showing the butterfly life cycle. Did you know that most butterflies have an adult lifespan of less than two weeks? Many species of butterfly spend nearly twice as long in the cocoon, as much as a month or two. Their lives are so fragile, so brief, and yet so inspiring. First the caterpillar hatches from a tiny egg and lives and grows. Then, as we all know, to mature into a butterfly it must spin a cocoon. I always thought that the cocoon wraps around the caterpillar’s body. Instead, the first thing I noticed in the videos was that the cocoon forms from within the body, shedding the outer skin of the caterpillar. Just like the caterpillar, we each have all of the resources we need for transformation within. But we must give up all that we know, break through the outer shell, and shed our past like the caterpillar sheds its skin.

Then, after a significant amount of time and space, the caterpillar struggles to emerge from the cocoon. But the struggle is absolutely necessary. As some well-meaning people have discovered, if a person cuts away the cocoon to make it “easier” for the butterfly to emerge, the butterfly will never fly. The struggle through the tiny opening in the restricting cocoon is nature’s way of forcing fluid from the body of the butterfly into its wings. And even then, it takes a long time for the wings to expand. The butterfly, who has just endured great hardship, must continue to rest, to wait. Finally, the butterfly must be willing to release the familiar, to let go of the branch and fly. In our lives, we let go of the past. We wait. We struggle. We expand. And finally, we let go and fly.

“I open at the close.” In every ending, we find a new beginning. I graduated from Louisiana State University in May. Much like the caterpillar transforming into the butterfly, my academic work was full of ups and downs. My dissertation defense was quite a struggle. There were times I nearly gave up. But, do you know what they call a person who struggles but still passes a dissertation defense? Doctor. After 13 years of college, I thought it was important to attend my graduation, to walk the stage and receive the PhD hood, to formalize in a rite of passage the ending of this part of my life. And yet, like so many graduation ceremonies, I found myself impatient through the long wait of the day. I remember looking at all the other PhD graduates from different disciplines, thinking, “Can we just move on already?” It’s appropriate that the end of any academic program is called “Commencement,” for while it may signal an ending, it also is the beginning of whatever is to come.

At the end of June, my family and I packed and moved everything we own 1600 miles across fourteen states. In moving to Worcester, I have opened myself to a new home, a new job, a new church, new friends – a new life. And in bringing me here, you have also opened to me. While we can build on the glorious history of this church, your specific sources of Refuge, we are also breaking new ground together. We are beginning a new journey. I will do things differently than my predecessors. You are different from my previous congregation. We will likely disappoint each other at times. And I hope we can have a lot of fun together. I am a seeker. I open myself to what I will learn from you. And I hope you are open to what you can learn from me.

When you come to a time of transition in your life, the bardo between the past and the future, I encourage you to rest in the in-between. Breathe love and peace. Sogyal Rinpoche teaches, “When this kind of experience occurs, do not immediately rush to find solutions. Remain for a while in that state of peace. Allow it to be a gap. And if you really rest in that gap, looking into the mind, you will catch a glimpse of the deathless nature of the enlightened mind.”

I had a very visceral experience of loss and the bardo this past week. On Thursday, I took my laptop with me to the YMCA to work on my sermon while Ariana was in childcare. I was happy with my work, so we locked my bag into a locker and went swimming. After swimming, Rhye got our clothes bags out of the locker, locked it back, and we showered and changed. A mere 10 minutes later, we were shocked to find our locker empty – his shoes were gone, but my bag was gone – my bag with my computer, my phone, my glasses, my keys… pretty much my life. Shock. Tears. I could not believe that another human being could be so cruel. I was overwhelmed with how much it would cost to replace all of these very important things. I couldn’t even see straight since I didn’t have my prescription glasses. For hours we stayed in the lobby, giving a report to the staff and meeting with the police. But somewhere in the middle of that time, the lessons of this sermon really began to sink in. I breathed. I rested in the letting go. I was still sad and frustrated. I had a hard time sleeping that night. But I fully experienced the gap, the moment of the bardo. Even in the midst of a dramatic crisis, I found moments of peace. The next morning we got a call from the YMCA that our stuff was found stashed in a locker – all of my belongings intact! Our theory is that the thief figured it wasn’t worth getting caught, considering the police and security were quite visible at the only exit for hours after the stuff was stolen. But I also like to think there was some divine grace involved. I let go, and I was blessed in return.

We do not really own our possessions. And we especially cannot own our loved ones – our mates, our friends, our children. As precious as they are to us, we have to be willing to let them go. While stories like mine do not always have happy endings, when we let go we have the opportunity to receive blessings we cannot even imagine.

I would like to lead you in another short spiritual practice. If you are willing and able, gather your hands at your heart and imagine everything you hold precious and dear. This is your own golden snitch. But it’s time to open and fly. Raise your hands up as an offering and open. Release these blessings to the world.

The golden snitch is what we "seek." And when we find it, we win the game. But to win this game, we must “open at the close.” We have to let it go to move forward. With every ending comes a new beginning and new possibilities for openness. The future is not yet written. Are you ready for the next chapter, the next great adventure?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Now Hiring! Youth Ministries Coordinator

Are you or someone you know interested in a part-time job that makes a real difference in the lives of youth? First Unitarian is now advertising for our new Youth Ministries Coordinator. Feel free to pass this on to anyone you think might be interested:

Position Opening
Youth Ministries Coordinator

First Unitarian Church of Worcester
This is an academic-year (nine months per year) position, September through May with an average of 15 hours per week (~4 units per UUA accounting system). This includes Sunday hours. At times, attendance at weekend and/or overnight events will be required. In the case that summer hours are required for a special event, such as a youth group service trip, hours during the academic year may be adjusted accordingly.

Youth Ministry Coordinator responsibilities include:

• Together with youth and adult volunteers, create a warm, welcoming, positive, safe, and healthy environment for youth ministry.
• Provide oversight, leadership, development, and support for programs for youth in grades 7-12 in the six realms of a balanced youth ministry: (1) leadership development, (2) fun and fellowship, (3) service, (4) worship, (5) relationships with peers and adults, and (6) education. This includes oversight and varying levels of involvement in the Sunday morning classes and youth group meetings, as well as youth group activities and the Our Whole Lives sexuality education program.
• Encourage and support the involvement and integration of youth within the congregation as a whole, and support the faith development of young Unitarian Universalists.
• Assist with organizing and executing volunteer recruitment efforts for all youth ministry programs. Together with the Director of Faith Development, train youth advisors and adult volunteers for their ministries. This includes familiarizing the volunteers with the First Unitarian Church Safe Congregation Policies and Procedures.
• Communicate with parents, youth, youth group governing bodies, and the Religious Education Committee, as well as the Director of Faith Development and Minister(s) through various means including meeting attendance in order to successfully and collaboratively provide oversight, leadership, development and support of the youth ministries.
• With assistance from the Faith Development Assistant, ensure that all administrative aspects of the youth ministries are completed successfully, including form collection and appropriate record keeping.
• Advocate for and publicize youth religious education programming and youth ministries through the newsletter and other means of communications.
• Together with the Director of Faith Development, youth group governing bodies, youth, Religious Education Committee, the Minister(s), Lay Leadership Council and/or Music Director, help plan and implement special and intergenerational events including intergenerational worship services not limited to the “Senior High Sunday” annual worship service.
• Work with the Director of Faith Development and Minister(s) to appropriately address youth issues of individual or family crisis.
• Participate in appropriate district and area conferences and workshops. Join online listservs related to work.

Responsibilities may also include:

• Work with the Director of Faith Development and volunteers to develop and implement a Coming of Age program for youth at one or more age levels.
• Work with the Director of Faith Development on curricular development for youth Religious Education Programs.
• With the Director of Faith Development and the Religious Education Committee, develop programs that support the ministry needs of families of teens, including and especially parents.

Qualifications (note that minimum age of candidate must be 25):

• Initiative, energy, enthusiasm, and positive-outlook
• Superior interpersonal skills with youth and adults, including parents
• Strong communication skills with youth in particular
• Healthy boundaries and sense of limits
• Ability to encourage and motivate others
• Affinity with and knowledge of Unitarian Universalist principles
• Ability to celebrate diverse religious beliefs
• Skills in managing volunteers
• Outstanding organizational abilities

Background check (CORI) will be completed by First Unitarian Church before hire.

Pay is approximately $12.73 per hour with paid holidays and sick leave. Four paid Sundays may be taken “off” per academic-year as arranged in mutual agreement with the Director of Faith Development. The Youth Coordinator is responsible for finding and providing instructions for a volunteer substitute when away. At this time, no other monetary benefits are offered.

The Youth Coordinator reports to and is supervised by the Director of Faith Development. The Director and Youth Coordinator will together work in collaboration with the minister(s), Religious Education Committee, Youth Group governing structures, and the Prudential Committee to meet ministry goals.

For more information please email or call 508-757-2708 and ask for Jessica or dial ext. 105. Position will remain open until we find the right match for us at this time. Resumes can be mailed to:

Attn: Faith Development Department
First Unitarian Church
90 Main Street
Worcester, MA 01608

Monday, August 8, 2011

Greetings! I'm so glad to meet you...

Greetings First Unitarian of Worcester! I am so honored and blessed to serve as your new Director of Faith Development Ministries. I want to personally invite you to join us for Sunday worship this upcoming Sunday at 10:30 where I will be leading my first service here. My theme, “I open at the close,” developed out of a phrase from the final Harry Potter book and movie, but I look forward to taking it much, much further.

In time I know we will get to know each other well, but for now I want to give you some basic information about who I am.

I am a true Renaissance soul, with so many passions and interests. My spiritual path has journeyed through Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, modern Paganism, and samplings of various other spiritual paths. All of these studies and practices led me to Unitarian Universalism, a rich religious tradition that allows me to incorporate many sources of inspiration into my spiritual life and work. I am passionately committed to the UU principles, having integrated them into my own spiritual practice and daily life. I believe Unitarian Universalism is the best venue for faith development, as it never provides all the answers. Instead we are encouraged to wonder, to seek, to engage in a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.

I traveled the world seeking spirit, performing dramas in Hungary, Malawi and Venezuela, studying culture in Papua New Guinea, and dancing for peace with an organization called Tara Dhatu in India, Nepal and Brazil. I recently completed my PhD in theatre at Louisiana State University, writing about modern myth and identity. All of my academic training is in theatre. I earned my bachelor’s degree at the University of North Carolina and my Master of Arts at Florida State University. I have directed many plays and especially enjoy finding intersections between theatre and spirituality.

For six years I served as the Director of Religious Education at the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge in Louisiana. I led a complex and diverse program for children and youth. As a member of the Liberal Religious Educators Association, and the Unitarian Universalist Association credentialing program, I am well-trained in UU Religious Education. I have even written a couple of UU curricula and am a member of UUCards, a free-lance curriculum resource. I truly believe that education is a spiritual practice for all ages, not just for children. In my training, I was taught that everything a church engages in, from worship to social action, can be part of religious education.

I especially enjoy creating participatory worship services for all ages. It is so difficult to bring families together for anything, so offering opportunities for many ages to worship together, even if it’s only one or two times a month, allows for families to make a spiritual connection to one another. Even more, we are part of a larger church family. We welcome all who are seeking, whether they have children or not, whether they have mates or not, whoever you are. This year we are looking forward to offering Family Worship for all ages 1-2 times each month.

My approach to worship is contemporary, colorful, and multi-sensory, bringing significant messages through creative means. I have incorporated costumes, props, dance, theatre, puppets, and interactive storytelling into worship.

By far the most successful program I initiated in Baton Rouge was our Hogwarts Summer Camp (which included as many as 130 children and over 50 volunteers each year). It was completely an intergenerational endeavor, with “campers” as young as two weeks old (a child of a staff member) and staff who were octogenarians. Some campers began as youth in the program and before I left had transitioned to teaching. In this program we were able to use a mode of fantasy role-playing to creatively explore such topics as life and death, environmentalism, the value of friendship, overcoming differences, and how to make positive choices. We incorporated service and social action into each camp, as we taught “The real magic in life is helping others.” While the camp was ostensibly based on the Harry Potter novels, we used the structure to create a community. Through the six years of camp, I learned so much from the dynamic between the age groups, from helping teenagers work with toddlers to encouraging adults to engage in their own creativity. Based on this work, I have joined with other creative educators to create the Imaginorium Educational Collective, a nonprofit organization offering educational events and curriculum based on creative exploration of mythic worlds.

I also engage at home with practical spirituality as my husband, Rhye, and I actively raise our young daughter Ariana. Rhye and I met at an earth-centered festival in fall of 2000, married in 2002, and Ariana was born in December 2007. Rhye is such a wonderful partner – my intellectual and spiritual match in every way. Ariana is a blessing. She is an active and curious child, and she’s especially inventive when it comes to finding something she wants, like cupcakes (no matter how high we put them in the pantry!).

I look forward to meeting each of you as we embark on this journey into our faith development work. As with any journey, we begin with the first step. May we walk together in love, hope, faith, and peace. Bright Blessings!