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.

Namaste

namaste_01

The common definition I have been given for the greeting “Namaste” is “the light in me greets the light in you.”  That “light” is the spark of divinity within all of us.  It is also called our Christ Consciousness.  I’d say it was a huge moment in my life receiving this information.  I am not just this human body and mind, but within me lies a light and that light is God.  My view of life has not been the same since.

I am grateful to have found an amazing church that is supportive and encouraging of the search for truth.  I go to church not to gather with friends (although they are an amazing group of people) or out of duty or obligation, but for spiritual food.  Some Sundays I stay home because my nourishment that day is meant to come from loving time with my family, time in nature, or reading spiritual literature.  But most Sunday’s I feel a pull to go.  It never fails that when I respond to that pull and show up, I receive “my message.”

Today I received a few messages, but the most important one came in a song.  From time to time our music director will have us sing the song “The Face of God.”  This particular song, I believe, expresses the same sentiment as the greeting “Namaste.”  The lyrics are as follows:

You are the face of God.

I hold you in my heart.

You are a part of me.

You are the face of God.

Usually after 2 verses of the song, we are asked to turn toward someone next to us, look into their eyes, and sing the song to them.  I will admit that often this is an uncomfortable feeling.  I think it has a lot to do with the quote I posted yesterday.  It is hard for us to accept our own divinity.  Many of us have had lifetimes of being told we are miserable sinners.  We also have a difficult time truly connecting with other people on a soul level.  So to look in the eyes of someone you either don’t know or don’t know well and acknowledge their spark is quite the challenge.  Today when the song started, I felt a bit nervous.  Who would I sing to and how would it feel?namaste welcome

When it came time to find a neighbor, the friend sitting next to me had stepped out.  I turned around and saw a visitor, who was there with her daughter.  The woman was probably in her 80’s.  I reached for her hand and looked into her eyes as I sang the song.  She had beautiful blue eyes and I watched as they welled up with tears.  By the end of the verse the tears were streaming down her cheeks.  Her daughter looked at her and began to cry as well, then I also began to choke up.  It was a beautiful moment.  We had gone past the superficial level and experienced the true meaning of “Namaste.”

I put this video up so you could listen to the song if you want to.  Hearing it gives a little more meaning to the post.  It seems the video must have been put together in the aftermath of Katrina as it contains a lot of those images.

Religion

These days I feel as if I am caught between two worlds.  There is the rational/scientific world in which many people are atheist, agnostic, or just completely hiding their belief in God.  Then there is the Religious world where people wear their strongly held beliefs on their sleeves and walk around with an “if your not with us, your against us” attitude.  I feel very grey in this black and white world.

I grew up in the south, but unlike most families in our community, we didn’t start attending the Baptist church (or any church) until I was 12 years old.  By then I had been a blank slate too long to be indoctrinated.  Or it could have been that I felt so much like an outcast amongst the kids in my church that the true message of the religion could never quite penetrate all the other stuff I felt while there.  (I still find it quite interesting that no matter what church I  attended -there were 3 in all-I always felt an off the charts level of discomfort amongst the other congregants that I interacted with.)

I was “saved” at some point, while attending my first church.  My cousin and I spent a quiet moment with our dear great Aunt (who was an amazingly spiritual woman, truly connected to God) and asked Jesus into our hearts.  I know I felt something in that moment and I carried it with me for a while.  I began to read my bible and would talk for hours on the phone with a friend who wanted to be a minister.  But instead of being taught how to nurture that spiritual relationship  in myself, there was pressure to put it outward and save others.  Since I was such a shy and quiet person, this wasn’t something I was capable of and I began to scrutinize what I was taught at church.  I had a difficult time believing in a God that would pick and choose based on people’s behaviors.  I didn’t understand how, with all the billions of people in the world, only those that asked Jesus into their hearts could go to Heaven.  The questions began to outweigh my beliefs and as soon as I went to college I left religion and God behind.

Flash forward fifteen years or so and Mark orders the book “Mere Christianity” and encourages me to read it.  I was not happy about it, but I read it and something in it struck me.  In the book C.S. Lewis says something to the effect of God being your conscience and that the feelings you get of things being right or wrong is God communicating with you.  I didn’t agree with everything in the book (in fact parts of it made me feel quite yucky), but that was the one thing I needed to hear to understand and believe in God again.

Since then more spiritual doors have been opened to me.  I have learned a lot about other religions and what is most important to me now is finding the similarities, the basic principles that they were all founded on.  I love so many aspects of various religious traditions that I don’t feel I can choose just one to call my own.  I enjoy practices such as yoga, meditation, and chanting that are associated with Eastern religions.  I send my daughter to a Jewish preschool and am grateful for the exposure she gets to the religion.  I am fascinated by the healing practices and speaking in tongues associated with the Pentecostal church and the miraculous stories of the Saints in the Catholic tradition.  I feel that Jesus is my highest teacher and truly a way-shower.  The underlying message of all mystics is the same no matter what religion they become the symbol for.  And I would say that a true mystical message is to seek within for your spiritual identity, because ultimately it is about feeling the connection for yourself not following a path laid out for you by someone else.

Masks

It is quite amazing how the universe works.  It certainly gives you what you ask for and you are constantly asking whether you know it or not.  I didn’t know any writers until I started writing again and now my life is full of them…in fact I know so many that I find myself getting nervous about whether there’s really room for all of us.  (There is…)  When I first became interested in meditation I did an internet search for classes.  I didn’t find anything through google, but the next day a friend called and told me all about a man she knew that taught mantra meditation.  I took his workshop two weeks later.

Currently I’ve been reflecting on my past and wondering how much of it, if any, I should share in my writing.  I’ve read two posts (at least)  on Owning Pink that have made me wonder if I would benefit from embracing my shadow side and bringing it into the light.  I went to church today and the minister started her message with the fairytale “Beauty and The Beast.”  She talked about how we have “good” and “bad” aspects of ourselves and most of the time we choose to hide the “bad” stuff.  We put on masks for the people around us and we form relationships based on those masks.  She went on to say (more or less) that when we take off the masks and show our darkest stuff to others and they choose to embrace us that is real love.  That’s the kind of love Jesus had in his heart for everyone…not just those in his immediate circle.

I have been reunited with my past in a big way this year through Facebook.  On my list of friends, there are definitely a few that had a role to play in the past that I am not so proud of.  In my 25 things list I found a way to let some of them see the shame I carried.  I wrote “I am not who I used to be.”  I was surprised when I heard that a friend responded to that statement with sadness.  She wanted me to remember that time in our life the way she did…as a grand adventure and beautiful learning experience.  And it was…but I had buried the fun and the beauty right along with the beast.

I have worn a mask for years, trying to forget who I was.  I thought I was leaving behind the actions.  But really I was leaving behind the parts of me that made those choices, the “weak” and “bad” parts.  It seems that slowly those parts of me are resurfacing and I find myself desperately longing for love.  But it is a love that can only come from myself when I embrace my shadow.  So, I’ll take the mask off now and go take a shot at writing my story.  It’s the sharing of it that will be the ultimate challenge.