Why Are We Doing This Anyway?

Mandy's Chapel at Camp Weed where the Uniteen retreat was heldThe first weekend of October, I went on a Uniteen retreat.  Uniteens is the program for middle-schoolers in Unity churches.  My church just got our Uniteen program started up again and I am one of the leaders.  I must admit I had doubts about going on the retreat.  I have been and will be traveling a lot more than I usually do and this trip at moments felt like too much.  I ended up going though and it was AMAZING!!

From the moment we broke out into our “family groups” and I got to know some of these kids I was just in awe.  These kids were the most open, respectful, fun, confident, compassionate, and well-adjusted people (I said people, not kids) that I’d ever encountered.   The weekend was absolutely joyous!  Out of about 70 kids I only noticed a handful that were not completely with the program (which is all about love) and even those few kids had moments of being loving.

When I think back on my own church experience in middle school, I don’t remember this kind of loving atmosphere.  I remember never quite fitting in and moments of wanting to crawl under a rock or out of my skin.  On this retreat, even the kids who “didn’t quite fit in” were thrilled to be there and seemed to love every minute of it.

In Unity we stress the power of making time for meditation and silence.  We also encourage looking for God everywhere and in everyone.  Kids are introduced to meditation in the Unikids program and those practices continue.  With that being said, of course meditation was part of the retreat.  On Saturday night we did something called a Night Walk.  We were instructed to link hands and walk the path through the woods in complete darkness and silence to the chapel.  I was thrilled by this.  I just knew it would be such a powerful spiritual experience.  Instead, I had three kids behind me who just wouldn’t stop chatting.  I shhhed them 3 times before giving up.  I wasn’t going to break my silence to actually talk to them.

As we neared the end of our walk one of them said “why are we doing this anyway?”  It was then that I realized I hadn’t been spending the weekend with miniature enlightened souls, but kids.  The fact is kids are kids and they just want life to be as fun and easy as possible.  True spiritual understanding doesn’t typically come until you’ve been in the game for a very long time.  We can’t expect our children to receive divine revelations during meditation or to even understand the true meaning of scripture.  But we can give them tools that can help them navigate life and perhaps lead to spiritual growth later on.

What I love about Unity kids is that the tools they have been given seem to make them better able to take responsibility for their lives and choose positive ways of living and being.  They carry no guilt, shame or burdens from being told they are miserable sinners.  What they do carry is a divine light within them that they are well aware of.  They know that what they put out into the world comes back to them.  It seems they at least shoot for putting out love.  They know that their thoughts matter and they seem to think in a positive manner.

I often wonder about the relevance of church and Unity in my daughters’ lives.  My girls love to go to church, but is it really necessary?  After attending the retreat, I realized I should and will make it a priority for them.  Mark pointed out that maybe the kids were good because they come from good families (Unity people are pretty awesome).  That is true too.  I could teach all of this stuff to my girls at home but there is something really powerful about being with a group that proves this kind of love, acceptance and positivity really does exist!

I’m Teaching Again…

Over a year into my spiritual endeavors, I got the idea that I wanted to teach what I was learning to teens.  In my own life, I had been presented with Religion as a guiding tool to get you successfully through to your Judgment Day.  Whether it was valid or not my interpretation was everything that I do should be so that when I meet God, Jesus, or whoever one day they’d go through my list and it wouldn’t be so bad and I’d earn my ticket to Heaven.  Nothing I learned in Sunday school was applicable in my actual life.  If I wanted to do the many things teenagers tend to want to do, I was just supposed to NOT do them.  God didn’t want me to.  End of discussion.

What I learned as an adult on a Spiritual journey on my own terms is that God isn’t keeping a score card of my sins.  God isn’t even somewhere far off in Heaven watching over me.  God is actually an energy that moves through me and through everything around me.  If I am connected to and aware of that energy I am led to the best outcome for myself.  Instead of obsessing about what the God “out there” might be thinking of my choices, I simply pay attention to how I feel about my choices.  If I am on the right course I feel at ease, if I am not I feel stressed.  I am learning how to live now.  My spirituality has been the ultimate self-help.  Now, if I feel legitimate guilt I understand it is because I have done something that is not characteristic of who I really am.  I can let it go and remind myself of the goodness within me.

One thing I’ve said since I first found this path is if only I’d known this stuff when I was a teen.  I could have made better grades, been more organized, been better capable of dealing with conflict, and had more self-confidence.  But everything I did as a teen and young adult has brought me to the place I am now.  If I’d meant to “wake up” any earlier, the teacher would have arrived.

So back to the teaching thing.  Over a year ago I volunteered as the teacher’s assistant in the Uniteens (6-8 graders) program at my Unity church.  I did that for several months before the program fizzled due to teacher changes and low attendance.  Last Winter, our Youth Director returned after Maternity Leave and was ready to start a new program.  Again, I felt called to take it on.  I resisted for a while, but eventually stepped up and volunteered to lead the program starting August 15.  Since I made the commitment, I’ve been planning the year with my co-teacher.  During this time I’ve had a lot of feelings of uncertainty and fear.  It reached a peak the other day and I actually dreamed that 24 kids showed up for the class and not one of them was cooperating with me.  I woke up thinking what have I gotten myself into? And then I picked up the book “The Last Lecture” and read the whole thing over the day.  By the time I was finished I was reminded why I had gotten myself into this.  I want to help kids understand how valuable their dreams and ideas are.  I want them to know that they are divinely guided.  I want to give them the spiritual tools that will carry them successfully through middle school, high school, and into adulthood.  I want them to know that “God” isn’t an entity waiting to judge them after death, but a spirit that is within guiding them to live the most joyful and productive life they can.

Yesterday, I had 8 kids show up who are apparently ready to “awaken.”  And I’m going to do my best to teach them how….

I’m a Pot

Tuesday was a really big day on the blog.  Jeff’s click was a big hit, especially for a person who isn’t blogging yet.  I’d say from the response his post received that a blog is definitely in his future.  With the popularity of his post in mind, I sat down at the computer after dinner Tuesday night to check for comments.  To my surprise there was a new comment, from a familiar name, on an old post.  James had commented first on “Advice for my Daughters” and after some back and forth with him I decided to write a whole new post addressing his questions.  I titled that post “Believe in Yourself?”  James didn’t respond to that post when I wrote it so I assumed it had addressed his concerns and he’d moved on.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.  After nearly three months James came back and slammed me and my post in a comment.

The main criticism that I took away from the comment was that he believes I am judgmental.  I also gather that he has a huge bone to pick with the New Age movement, which he thinks I represent.  After my initial shock wore off (which happened surprisingly quick…which lets me know I’ve made some progress), I started to ask myself questions about the situation.  Why did I attract this person and situation into my life?  What is he a mirror for within me?  What can I learn from this?

Over this past week I’ve written a few posts about Religion and Church.  In moments, it has entered my thoughts that I am being a bit judgmental of those organizations.  I am only seeing the negative side of things.  I am treating them no differently than the way I perceive that they treat outsiders.  I’m judging them for judging.  I’m the “pot calling the kettle black.”  My deepest desire is for my circle of love to extend to everyone, no matter what they believe, but oddly enough I’m sitting in my blog spot being critical of those that aren’t aligned with my thinking.  Hmmm.  Damn, that mirrors tough to look in.  And seeing as James showed up calling me judgmental and judging me all at once, I’d say that’s like a hall of mirrors or something.

I think everyone I know would agree that we’d prefer not to be judged.  Yet, I’d say most everyone I know has been a judge at times.  Today I caught myself in a couple of judgmental moments. There was a really nice, newer car beside me at a stoplight and I looked over to see that the back passenger windows (beside the kids’ carseats) were covered in stickers.  I thought to myself why in the world would anyone let their kids do that to their nice car? Then I was at the post office and the lady behind me was giving me the eye for my envelope indecisiveness.  I thought to myself how rude of her, she really needs to relax. Neither of those thoughts were very neutral or peaceful of me.  And since those people were strangers it didn’t matter how I judged them.  If it was my best friend’s car, I might think it was cute that they let their kids decorate the windows.  And if the lady in the post office was my grandmother, I might excuse her because I would understand that she was tired or not feeling well.

So yes, I am a pot and I’ve called the kettle black plenty of times.  And if one idiom isn’t enough I’d like to thank James for reminding me that “people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. ”

*I’m leaving town at 2:45 pm eastern time and will return around 4pm eastern time on Monday.  If I don’t respond to or approve your comments, it’s because I am completely unplugged.  I do have the blog scheduled though, so don’t think b/c I’m away there won’t be something here to read.*

Church as a Factory

I think for most kids going to church is an excruciating experience.  Sure, Sunday School might be fun (especially if you’re a young child), but sitting through a service is hard.  When I was a kid, I used church time to daydream and clock-watch.  I rarely listened to the sermon.  Attending church was something that was expected of me.  When I was a teen I was allowed to choose the church I attended,  so I went to my sisters’ church and not my parents’.  I had friends there but they usually just stopped in for Sunday school.  I longed to hop in my car and join them at the nearest restaurant, but if I did that I would not be upholding my Sunday obligations.  So I would say goodbye to my friends and envision them driving off with the music cranked and the cigarettes lit (it was the 90’s in NC).

Religious organizations have their structure.  That structure includes a certain number of services per week that its members are expected to attend.  A lot of times the “goodness” of people is measured by how many of those services they are present for.  I remember being very aware that the best members of our church attended on Sunday morning, Sunday night AND Wednesday night.  You were the cream of the crop if you did this.  We lived too far away from the church to do that so we settled for once a week on Sunday morning.  BUT it was every Sunday and we always attended both Sunday School and preaching.

It bugged me that it was such a part of the regimen.  Sometimes, OK most of the time, I just wanted to stay home.  I wanted to feel comfortable and happy and church didn’t make me feel that way.

Now that I have embraced different ideas about God and what a spiritual life looks like, I find that most of the time I WANT to go to church.  My church is not typical.  It is still a church though and it relies on people becoming members and donating their money and time.  One thing I find though is that it is about as close as you can get to church as a factory.

My friend Rob and I had this conversation one day and he made this great analogy.  Church should be like a factory.  You go in and they give you all the tools you need to live a spiritual life.  They teach you methods for prayer and meditation and offer you resources to study.  They build up your confidence and remind you that you are special and unique with talents and gifts to offer the world.  THEN they should say…now go live and be happy!  This process may take longer for different people.  One person may need to attend church weekly and hear these messages over and over for 20 years before it breaks through to their being.  Someone else may only need to hear it for 6 months.  But there should be a point where you can “attend church” within yourself daily or weekly without needing to sit amongst a congregation.  And the great thing is, that if you backslide and feel you’ve forgotten how to use your tools, you can always go back for a refresher.

Be Like A Child

I stopped going to church when I went to college.  I was finally own my own (sort of) and could make the decision without any consequences.  Except for a brief period where I visited and joined the church I would eventually get married at, I chugged a long without the assistance of ministers or Sunday school teachers.  I was happy with that decision, relieved even.  The battle I’d fought (inwardly if not outwardly) every Sunday was now non-existent.

For the most part the people in my life left me alone on matters of religion until I had a baby.  When Bella was born I started to hear “You need to find a church.  It is important for children to be raised in church.”  I didn’t know if they were right or wrong, I just knew I didn’t want to set foot in a church.  When I finally discovered and began attending Unity Eastside, some people were happy for my girls.  Others were not because Unity was not the right kind of church.

This week I started reading “The History of God” by Karen Armstrong.  While reading, this idea (from Jesus) came to mind:   “Unless you become like little children, you cannot know the meaning of Life, for your minds must be cleared of the falsehoods of this realm if you are to be taught Eternal Truth.” Another thought that came to mind was something my friend @darkwulfe stated in a comment a couple of weeks ago.  He said this:  “So just out of curiosity…would this support my theory that God did not create man in HIS image, but rather MAN creates god in HIS image? Would it not indicate that the concept of God is influenced by the ebb and flow of society? Just a thought :-)

I think that young children are about as close to God as you can get.  They are empty vessels, open channels.  They acknowledge the mystery and wonder in things.  They live and love like the only moment is now.  As time goes by they start to learn the ways of the world.  They begin to emulate the people that surround them.  We decide then that we must show them what is right.  We start to teach them about God, assuming they require our knowledge, without even considering they only recently emerged from God.   The problem that comes with this is that everyone has their own personal definition of God.  We create God in our image and then introduce him to our children.

These days, I take my daughters to church because they love church.  The people there are family to them.  The focus in our Unity church is a God of love.  That is what I want my girls to learn, whether they name it God or not.  I want to teach them love, compassion, and forgiveness.  I want my every action to represent those qualities.  I don’t want them living by the rules of an organization, but by the golden rule.  There are certain things I have to remind myself of.  I know that my girls are always watching me, even when I think they are not.  I don’t always get it right, which is of course why I can write about it here…because it is my lesson too.

The Feminine Energy

I am pretty certain that at some point in my life I believed God was a man living way off in the Heavens watching us.  He would judge our actions and answer our prayers accordingly.  The men that stood up and preached before the congregations of the churches I attended were an extension of God.  They were the voices that made real the rules of God.  The roles of women in those churches were limited to Sunday school teachers and secretaries.

In 2001 one of my best friends was married by a female minister.  I remember being surprised.  It had never occurred to me that a woman could not only be a leader in the church but could be the leader.  In 2007, I started attending Unity Eastside.  At the time of my first visit, Rev. Jean was returning to the “pulpit” after recovering from breast cancer.  It was the first time I’d listened to a female minister since my friend’s wedding.  I was unsure of what to expect and had to quiet the voices of my past that didn’t think it was the place for a woman.  Before the hour was up those voices were silenced for good as Rev. Jean was amazing.  Spiritually speaking, it was as if I was a tiny babe being cradled by my mother, fed warm milk, and lulled to sleep.  Instantly I was introduced to a whole new side of God.

I no longer believe that God is a man.  I believe God is a force that moves through everything.  This force consists of energies, both masculine and feminine.  At various times in history societies have emphasized just one of those sides.  There was a time when people worshipped the “Mother” God and only focused on the creative, nurturing, sensual, and loving energies.  Then of course there was a shift to the “Father” God.  That is the God I learned of as a girl.  This is the God who judges, sets standards, leads with a firm hand, and is all powerful.  At all times, the spiritual leaders represented whatever “God” the people worshipped.

It seems these days there is another shift happening.  I like to believe it is a movement towards the balance of these two energies.  I am finding there are many churches and spiritual organizations with women as their leaders.  Many of these women (like Rev. Jean) express the qualities in both the feminine and masculine faces of God.  Also more and more there are men leading churches and offering new messages of a loving and nurturing God.  I think we are taking strides to spiritual equality.  I think we are opening our hearts and minds to the idea that God is too big to be limited.  The all-powerful and always-present nature of God can not be contained, but moves through everyone and everything.  God’s message is too valuable to be withheld from half of the entire population just because they are not the preferred gender.

As a woman who is also a spiritual seeker I hope to continue to watch this shift.  I hope that the women who now believe that “rules” are being broken when a woman takes a leadership role in a church will begin to let go of those old beliefs.  I hope that women who feel they are being called by God will answer, instead of staying in the spiritual boxes their religious organizations have provided them with.   I believe God intends for his (I use the pronoun he/his/him because it’s less confusing) children to be brave and follow the path carved out for them even if it isn’t always easy.