Ironicschmoozer’s Weblog


Food and Farm!
November 9, 2014, 3:28 pm
Filed under: Eating Mindfully and Sustainable Agriculture, Inspiration | Tags: ,

Wow. When I sat down after the church service with a bowl of soup and chatted with a couple of young women, I hadn’t expected they would say that they had a hard day of work on the farm all day Saturday, slaughtering turkeys. But indeed they had. Then I learned more about their calling to plant good food and cultivate a thriving community (and ecosystem). (I stole that wording from their card and the blog.) Check them out. Pastor Cranky enjoyed the pumpkin and squash postings and he can’t wait to learn more.
Happy November!
http://tenderheartfarms.blogspot.com/



Learning Spirituality from Plants! Flower Celebration Sunday Message

Homily (Sermonette) by Rev. Roger from UUSS Flower Communion Sunday, June 2, 2013 (All-Ages Worship Service)

 

Writing in his journal in 1859, Henry David Thoreau says that “the mystery of the life of plants” is like the mystery of our own human lives. He cautions the scientist against trying to explain their growth “according to mechanical laws” or the way engineers might explain the machines that they make.   There is a magic ingredient, to go along with air and sun, earth, water and nutrients. There is one part miracle to every living thing, he says. The force of life. A force we can feel and recognize, but cannot create or control.

For my birthday I received a planter from our Religious Education staff person, Miranda.   To ensure its longevity I left it in her office, and it has flourished. But when she departed for two months in Ghana, a post-it note appeared on the planter: Roger, remember to water me.

            I am not reliable around green things. I have nearly killed off a cactus—a small one I got last Christmas. I remember when I was little, in school, planting seeds in Dixie cups with dirt an inch deep.   Watching the sprouts, helping them along; it was fun. Then, a few years later, a friend of the family helped me plant a garden in the back yard: green beans, tomatoes, onions. Delicious, for one or two summers.

But my horticultural karma was all downhill from there. In high school I mowed grass for a few neighbors and friends of my mom. One family had a large yard around their large house. They asked me to pull or cut out the weeds growing close to the house.  This was before the days of the weed-whacker, which would have been fun to use. Using my bare hands—not fun. So I drizzled gasoline on the weeds near the outside walls, all the way around. Killed all their weeds. Filled the house with fumes, I found out later.

To the good fortune of the plant kingdom, in my adult life I’ve never had a yard or a garden, nearly always lived in an apartment. Here in the church’s community garden, which we call UURTHSONG, a few summers ago at lunchtime I helped myself to a few meals of tomatoes and chard, but I haven’t dared to plant a garden plot.

I know many of you garden, with lovely flowers and gorgeous vegetables. You have citrus and plum and fig trees and so many other kinds. Some of you are Master Gardeners. Some of you sell plants for a living, or you work in landscaping and grounds-keeping.

Some of you volunteer with plants, like our member Jerry, who spends many a weekday tending the flowerbeds and flowerpots here at the church. Some of you, like Nancy and Gail, give tours at the Effie Yeaw Nature Center on the American River Parkway, among other outdoor places. Annie and other UUSS Waterbugs tend our thirsty trees and bushes year after year.

As I noted, my experience with plants is questionable, so I can’t be sure what it’s like for people who put hour after hour into the lives of growing green things. But this is what it might be like.   Planting, tending, watering, weeding, harvesting, transplanting… it involves a mix of your own physical power, and the patience to wait and see what happens. It calls for intention and effort, and then for humility.

            One cannot bring plants into bloom, or force them to bear fruit. You have to learn enough to know when and where to plant them, how much water and fertilizer to give, how much to weed, when to prune or plow over, and of course you need to know what not to do.

You do your part, waiting, watching, tending. You wait on the force of life. You wait on a miracle, an everyday ordinary miracle. Seeing a vine crawl, blossoms yielding fruit, colors calling for bees and other pollinating insects. Miracles happen a lot. But we can’t make them happen. We can’t make life happen.

I wonder if this is a helpful way to think about our spirituality. There are new and modern resources for spiritual growth, and there are ancient practices.   We can draw on all of them, of course.   Yet the main ingredient is paying attention. Watching ourselves, noticing reactions, sensations, desires. Observing the world around us—the plants, the people, the traffic, the sunlight. Gently tending to the needs around us.

Preparing ourselves.

Perhaps we can think of spiritual growth from the perspective of a faithful gardener.   Not a prizewinning perfectionist whose work is on the cover of a magazine. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I bet most of us aren’t up to that much effort in spiritual practice (or in gardening).

I’m thinking of a gardener like a humble companion, a curious visitor. As a humble gardener tending our own growth, we remember to check in with ourselves, on a regular basis. We notice the world around us. We tend our gardens. We wait in humility, and we remember to practice patience. We don’t worry about explaining too much, about figuring ourselves out, as if we were machines, predictable and controllable. We don’t try to fix, only to encourage, nurture, water and feed.

We can’t make plants grow, but we can help them, and watch the miracle happen. We can’t force ourselves to grow spiritually—and we certainly can’t make somebody else grow. But we can be present and attentive. Be intentional. Notice what might help, or ask. Practice a bit more patience.

Then, we can enjoy the results. We give thanks for what we are able to harvest, thanks for the results of our waiting and watching.

Give thanks for the ground of our being. And celebrate every ordinary miracle.

So may it be. Blessed be. Amen.

 



Breaking news: More Saturday dinner tix available for UUSS auction, plus a UU justice conference Saturday

#1

Good news from Glory, our head chef for the New Discoveries auction dinner.

We have enough tickets left and enough fresh ingredients purchased that if you have not yet reserved or bought your ticket, you are LIKELY to be able to get one at the door! To be certain, you may email Elaine in the UUSS office today or call her at 916-483-9283.

Doors open and silent bidding starts at 5:30 PM. Dinner served at 6:30 PM. The live auction starts after dinner with Rev. Lucy as auctioneer. TOMORROW, April 5!

Dinner tickets $20. Kids under 12 eat for free. For the live auction only, tix are $10.

Professional child care provided at no extra charge in the Room 11 Nursery! If you’re coming you might email Miranda so she can let our caregivers know whom to expect.

I hope to see you! Let’s give our thanks to our hardworking team of auction volunteers for making this big event possible.

#2

UU Economic Justice Summit Saturday, April 5, in Walnut Creek

The UU Justice Ministry of California’s new executive director extends an invitation to the UUJM economic justice summit for UUs from around the state. It features inspiring worship, area experts on suburban poverty and food inequality, and the Robert Reich documentary, “Inequality for All.” The host minister is the Rev. Leslie Takahashi Morris, of Mount Diablo UU Church in Walnut Creek. It will be over in time to make it back for the UUSS Auction & Dinner. Read about it at uujmca.org/advocacy/economic-justice-for-all/



April Newsletter Highlight #2 — From Grasshoppers to Goats — An Explanation

Some of you have been asking me about the goats you have seen on our church campus recently. They are truly adorable but are here for a more practical purpose.

They are not here every day but are brought here three days a week and watched (herded) closely. We have been blessed, finally, by rains and by new green growth of grass on campus. Unfortunately, our UUSS Grasshoppers —the teams of grounds keeping volunteers— need some new people to help out in the wake of retirements of longtime volunteers. (Call Elaine in the Office if you are curious about what the commitment and the tasks involve.) While waiting to get a larger group of human Grasshoppers, we have bought a small herd of goats to keep the grass and weeds cut back.

This purchase will NOT affect the funds available for the Building Project! The funds for the purchase of the goats have come out of the fundraising line in the operating budget. The goats will be… uh, gone before this Saturday night’s Auction Dinner.

Speaking of the dinner, you have one more day to buy tickets from the UUSS Office, since April 2 is the deadline and today is April 1. Thank you.



Time of Darkness and Light– UUSS Sermon from Sunday, December 15, 2013

Unitarian Universalist Society of Sacramento

Music:  Hymns:  #226 “People, Look East,” #118 “This Little Light of mine,” #1008 “When Our Heart Is in a Holy Place.”  Solo:  “The Dark” by Mary Grigolia, sung a capella by Rev. Lucy.

Litany of Darkness and Light    (see at end)

Sermon

I sat looking out the kitchen window well before 7 in the morning, just last week.  I felt the chilly air seeping in, and a mug of warm tea in my cold hands.  I was ready to watch the morning light emerge, was waiting for the sunlight to change the look of everything.  But I felt sadness.  The tea had caffeine—how long would it take to change my mood, if it could?  This mood was not of deep grief, and not a heavy burden of depression on my shoulders, yet it was a decidedly not-fun feeling of sadness.   I said my morning prayer anyway.

I gave thanks for the gift of life and the new day, for a night’s rest in a warm, safe place.  I lifted up the names of parishioners who need good wishes or prayers, brought their faces to mind, plus those of colleagues, friends, and relatives.  I stated my intentions for living the day with gratitude, generosity, curiosity and kindness.  The light was now making the street visible, and showing the colors of the cars parked on it.

Then it occurred to me:  that pre-dawn darkness was just the right place for my sadness.  The shadows could receive it.  The shadows could let the sadness move, in its own gentle way.  Had it been 7 AM in June or July, the sun would have claimed the whole scene by now.  It would be urging me into the many tasks of the day:  Get going, look alive!  But the morning darkness of December seems to say, “Take it easy and slowly–I am taking it easy and slowly, after all.  Let it be.  Feel what you feel in this moment.  You will notice how it changes.”

Soon it was bright and clear, and my day was on its way.  And it went fast.  The night came in the middle of the day—5 o’clock.  Wait!  I’m not finished with my day yet!

For years I have resisted and resented the early evening.  I’ve dreaded the shrinking hours of daylight, starting in early November, when we set our clocks back an hour.

But as this December Solstice approaches, I try to appreciate what can happen in the dark.  I would like to mention a few of the gifts of the time of darkness, but first I want to say:  it’s not a gift for everyone, no matter what a preacher or a poet might say.

Like many people, a friend of mine has a clinical, biological reaction in the winter darkness, called Seasonal Affective Disorder.  It does not help that she lives at a latitude even farther north than we do, and it’s cold there, for a long time.  You know what they would call the chilly weather we’ve had this past week?  Springtime (without the mud).

She sits under a special kind of lamp every day, to give her body and spirit some extra rays of light.  In retirement she has the time to travel, so she spends a few weeks in the winter visiting friends in warm, sunny places.  When she can save up enough money and find a cheap deal, she takes a trip to a warm country.  Not speaking Vietnamese, she made her way around villages in Vietnam by pointing and smiling.  In the sunshine of Egypt a few years ago, she heard people speak with hope right after the overthrow of longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak.  She enjoyed the January summer of Argentina, taking in the spray of Iguazu falls, the marvel of a glacier, and some penguins in their stiff cuteness.  Rather than cursing the dark and cold, she follows the sun.  Of course, this is not an option for most people, and she gives thanks for the privilege to do so.

It’s important to note that seasons of darkness and cold can be very hard on the spirit, hard on the emotional health of many people around us.  It may not only bring up grief or painful memories of past experiences, it may bring depression that weighs on our minds and even on our physical bodies.  This can happen to people young or old, in any occupation or stage of life.  When other ways of dealing with the shadow side of this dark time don’t seem to help us, it may be worth seeing if anti-depressant medicines, psychotherapy, or a 12-Step recovery group can make a difference for us.  Whether as individuals or as families, we can look for professional resources and community support as we pursue emotional healing, personal growth, and the ability to accept the gift of life with joy.

Personal growth can happen in the dark times and places.  Seeds will sprout in the cool dark of the earth, and begin their journey toward the light.  As a tree stretches toward the sun, it also grows downward, inward, into the dark earth.  We can be like the trees.  As Henry David Thoreau said, “In winter we lead a more inward life.”

Another friend of mine lives not so far north, so the weather’s not as cold and the nights not as long.  Yet the winter darkness does mean a change of her pattern of living, toward a more inward life.   She spends more time under the covers, reading a book propped on the pillow next to her.   In the living room she brings out candles and a string of holiday lights.  They remind her of our inner light, of an eternal spark.  Believing that winter is the best time for exercise, she puts on layers and goes out for a brisk walk.  The leaves crunch underfoot, the air chills the skin of the face, the nose runs.

In winter, she says, we need exercise to stimulate our endorphins.  Of course, we can be tempted to medicate our mood by drinking more alcohol and eating more, especially sweets and other carbohydrates.  But the boost we might feel by consuming alcohol and sweets can have a down side.  It can make us feel worse—edgy–after the boost wears off.   This December I am taking some of her advice.  Of course, I may never stop my holiday consumption of cookies, cake, fudge and anything else any of you might wish to make for me.  But I’m eating more almonds and pecans and not forgetting my veggies.  And I am having less alcohol, and drinking less often.   I’m not crazy about green tea, but I’ve been drinking so much of it lately that soon I may turn the color of the Grinch Who Stole Christmas.

One Unitarian Universalist family I know has created their own Solstice tradition.  With candles and cloths they make an altar of their table.  They bake a light brown, round ginger cake—dense and only an inch thick.  They serve it on a large round plate with a rim glazed with dark blue like the sky, and specked with stars.  They pass the cake around, each one cutting a piece for the next person, who indicates by nods and silent gestures how large of a piece to cut.

As the cake is served, what is revealed underneath it in the center of the plate is a round red sun.  The sun returns!  For Solstice dinner, they eat only foods with round shapes, evoking the sun.  They read prayers to the divine light and sing chants to the source of returning warmth.  The parents hide little suns around the house and the kids go searching for them.  By finding a likeness of sun, they are bringing the sun back, helping it return.  This family does not rely on the dominant culture to tell them what they need to do or to buy for making spirits bright—they create their own traditions.  Any of us can be creative.  We can join with nature and with other people to create our own light, and share the light, now in the dark of winter.

For many people, winter is a time for making soup and other warm foods, and eating more of the fresh foods that our season brings out.  In California we have so many winter crops.  Those in cold climates now can benefit from quick transport of fresh foods, but in the old days they kept food in the root cellar, and dried meat and beans from the summer crop.

Back home in Indiana, my mother’s fridge held many frozen foods for our winter meals, and this was fine.  But around the corner from our house, my uncle and aunt had shelves of clear glass jars with green beans, tomatoes, corn and other produce they had canned in the summer.   My uncle Roger had been a cook on a ship in the Navy during the Second World War.  As a boy I helped him in the kitchen, including his major undertaking of putting up all that food, with Mason jars boiling in big pots of water and other steps for cleanliness and safety.  That was a summer activity, but the memory of it warms me in the winter.

Now I can see that we were storing sunshine in shiny glass jars.

The poet Theodore Roethke wrote, “In a dark time the eye begins to see.”

The darkness can help us to see the truth… that we are not in control of everything.  We can be so busy in our lives, have so many expectations.  So many technologies at our fingertips and conveniences in our daily experience can lull us into thinking that there is an online menu tab for peace of mind or an iPad application for wisdom, courage, and grace.

The world does not revolve around any of us, including me; nor does earth rotate at my command.   Its creation is a miracle and a blessing. The operation of the heavens is a wonder.  And it all goes on without my permission or involvement. It will go on without me.  The darkness comes and goes—my cursing it or my blessing it affects only the condition of my own spirit.  The season’s advice to me:  you need not be in control, and in fact you are not in control.  Let the darkness hold the future.  Let go!

We can be intentional about living in the darker season. This is why candles appeal to us:  the darker it gets around them, the more they show their beauty.   Looking at a candle flame, or a string of lights on the tree or around the window, we can think about the meaning of light, and the bringers of light—like our nearby star, the human mind and heart, the source of love and light eternal, the creative spark, the divine fire of courage and compassion.

Solstice rituals use fire and food and song—to bless the darkness with beauty, while praising the cycles of the seasons of the earth.   People hang lights at Christmas to praise the source of life, celebrate the story of the star of Bethlehem, and remember that sun and warmth will return.

On Christmas Eve at UUSS, our sanctuary fills with members and their friends, and with guests we see only once a year.  In the weeks leading up to it, folks ask me the time:  seven o’clock, same as always.  They ask me if we will light candles and sing “Silent Night,” at the end.  Of course!  We will make a circle around the walls of the sanctuary, and exchange the light with one another, and then enjoy the darkness, filled with song and silence, and with faces illuminated by the flames.

Folks never ask:  will we sing the carols and hear a homily, will we have some instrumental music, prayer and silence and an offering?  All those things are like the setup to the “Silent Night” candle light finale!  Yet without those elements, the finale would be weak.

Without the darkness, our candles would be weak.  Likewise, without the embrace of the darkness, we might not have the reminder to plan ahead, create meaning in the season, and reach out for fellowship and support.  The darkness holds an invitation to let go of all that we cannot control, and accept with serenity all that we can’t change.

At my kitchen window, in my early morning watch for the light, the dark of winter seems to say:  “Take it easy, and go slowly–I am taking it easy, and going slowly, after all.  Let it be.  Feel what you feel in this moment.  You will notice how it changes.”

The dark of winter is a time to consider the sources of light we can count on, and give thanks for them.  It’s the season for tasting the warmth of nourishing food, made by human hands from the gifts of the earth for our sustenance and our joy. It’s a season for creativity, planning ahead, self-care and care for others.  It’s a time for digging deep and for reaching out toward others with compassion, openness, and kindness.

It’s a time for patience and letting go of control, for releasing the past and opening to the mystery of the future.  May we all be so blessed.

In the days to come, may you welcome the gifts of light and warmth you can bring into the darkness.  May the days and nights ahead bless us with light, learning, warmth, patience and peace.               Blessed be.


 

Litany of Darkness and Light

 

Part A (Before silent meditation/prayer)

 

Voice 1:  We wait in the darkness expectantly, longingly, anxiously, thoughtfully.

Voice 2:  In the darkness of the womb, we have all been nurtured and protected.

All Voices:  May we feel comfort in the darkness.

 

It is only in the darkness that we can see the splendor of the universe– blankets of stars, the solitary glowing of distant planets.

In the darkness of the night sky we feel beyond time – in the presence of the past, and with the promise of the future.

May we feel hope in the darkness.

 

In the solitude of the darkness we may remember those who need our love and support in special ways–

 the sick, the unemployed, the bereaved, the persecuted, the homeless, those who are demoralized or discouraged, those whose fear has turned to cynicism, those whose vulnerability has become bitterness.

Sometimes in the darkness we remember those who are near to our hearts – colleagues, partners, parents, children, neighbors, friends, congregation members.   We pray for their safety and happiness.  We offer our support.

May we know healing in the darkness.


 

 

Part B (After musical interlude following sermon)

 

In the quiet darkness of the night, we may hear that still, small voice within.

In the blessed darkness we may be transformed, changed by what we face in the dark.

May we feel the challenge of the darkness.

 

In the darkness of sleep, we are soothed and restored, healed and renewed.

In the darkness of sleep dreams rise up, calling us to possibilities, calling us to know our connection to the world.

May we feel joy in the darkness.               

Sometimes in the solitude of darkness our fears and concerns, our hopes and our visions rise to the surface. We come face to face with ourselves.   We find the road that lies ahead of us.

Sometimes in the darkness we wonder about the important things, the deep things, and inexpressible things.  We watch for glimmers of hope and glimpses of grace.

May we feel renewed in the darkness.  May we be guided by the light of our hearts.  Reflecting the divine love that shines at the heart of life,  let us reach out to this troubled world with compassion.

New Century Hymnal, adapted



Wow, am I tired! But a good tired. Happy Thanksgiving!

Our holiday at UUSS began with a brief circle worship in the Fahs Classroom, a first for us since I’ve been here and perhaps for a very long time.  We had 14 folks for candle lighting, music, silent contemplation, readings of scripture, poetry, devotional reflections.  We remembered those who are departed and named those who are away from us this holiday, and named what we are thankful for.

Then the decorating of the main hall began, and more folks came in to bring dishes of food, plus the turkeys and hams that volunteers had cooked at home.  We began just after 2 PM with words of welcome, a reading from the back of the hymnal and a song.  We had about 75 people, including at least four grandchildren of church members plus friends and relatives of members.  We had new and long time members.  Every table had its own unique centerpiece.

And we had food.

There was WAY too much food.  And I ate WAY too much food.  I rested and table hopped before feeling that I could justify any dessert.  By then there was less of it.  Just as well.  For the past two hours we have been cleaning, tossing, recycling and storing.  Thanks to Randy, who comes every year and runs the dishwasher/sanitizer for hours.  He’s still there. Soon I’ll go over and lock up the building and set the alarm.   My feet are tired.  I can’t imagine that I can sit and read without dozing off and it’s not even 6 PM!

God bless us, every one.



Caring for the Body Is Caring for the Spirit, UU sermon, Sunday, July 28, 2013

Unitarian Universalist Society of Sacramento

-Songs:  “Ven, Espiritu de Amor,” “Comfort Me, O My Soul,”  “Touch the Earth, Reach the Sky.”

-Yoga Practice in the Service with Paige Labrie

-Reflection on a Tai Chi Contest by Lonon Smith

-Testimonies about Yoga Practice by Jerry & Patty

  • Reflections on Chair Yoga by JoAnn Anglin

What I like is how each lesson is both dependable and surprising.

The order of the moves varies, but they still have a flow and rhythm, so it becomes like following a partner in a dance.  And it ends up feeling logical, as if that is the perfect order for that day’s motions.

I walk for an hour 3 days a week, but aside from gardening and occasional house work, most of my ‘activity’ is done while sitting – writing, reading, driving, conversing or on the computer.

Then at chair yoga, I get a real sense of where my body is, and a heightened feeling of its core, the centering connection for all the other movements. And I think this helps my sense of balance overall.

Another good thing is that there is no emphasis on perfection – just an opportunity to do what you can, and maybe a little more.  We are many shapes and sizes and abilities in our chair yoga class, but our instructor helps us see our possibilities – in a way, she introduces us to parts of our bodies that we didn’t realize were there.

And finally, we get reminded to breathe deeply, which is not as automatic as one would think.

And you know, another word for breathing is ‘inspiration,’ the same root from which ‘spiritual’ comes.

-Pastoral Prayer and Meditation by Roger Jones 

Please join with me now for a time of contemplation in words and silence.

Notice your feet on the floor and your body in the seat.  Become aware of your breathing.            After these words, we will take a minute of silence, and the silence will be followed by music.

O spirit that breathes in us, we are alive!

Let us give thanks for this new day of life.

O love that moves in us, we are here.

Let us give thanks for each person around us,

as they give thanks for our presence.

O ground of being, hold us and sustain us

as we live each day with joys and sorrows, longings and hopes.  Help us take one step at a time, living one breath at a time.

O spirit of compassion, show us the strength dwelling in our hearts, the courage to behold the tragedies and perils of our human family….  Among other events, we call to mind the ongoing strife in Syria, the killings in Egypt, the train crash in Spain.

We strive to extend our care to those who grieve or those who suffer in body, mind or spirit within these walls with us, and those far beyond these walls.

We touch this earth with gratitude for its beauty, and we are mindful of its countless inhabitants, mindful of all the forms of life on earth.

Now in the moments to come, let us be in stillness and become aware of our breathing.  Aware of our neighbor’s breathing.  Aware of our common breath, which is the breath of life.

Let us take some time in that silence which is more than the absence of sound but which is the source from which we all emerged and to which we eventually return.   Amen.

  • Sermon by Rev. Roger Jones

An Effort

Paige has been teaching Monday Yoga here at our church for a number of years.  She also volunteers several Sundays a year in our Spirit Play religious education program.  [The fees for Monday Yoga are modest, and a good value, by the way.] We appreciate the gifts of her time and attention, and her grounding in her own spiritual practice.

People attending Paige’s Monday morning session at 10:00 use chairs for seated Yoga and for stability while standing—chair yoga.

On Monday night at 6:30, it’s the more familiar kind of Yoga.  We used to refer to these classes as Easy Yoga. Then I went to one of them!  “Easy” was not my experience.  So now I say, let’s call it Mat Yoga, and bring a mat if you have one.  Of course, when a new person enters a class, an attentive Yoga teacher like Paige will notice how the person is doing and will give extra encouragement and instructions that are more thorough.

But any kind of Yoga remains a challenge, and that is its purpose.  After all, the root of word YOGA, from the ancient Sanskrit, means an effort!  It also means a joining, as Paige told us.  But it is an effort, and of course all disciplines do take effort.

It’s the same for any spiritual practice as it is for any physical practice, whether it’s an exercise workout or physical therapy.  Honoring and caring for one’s inner life takes intention, effort, patience, and some discipline.   Honoring and caring for one’s physical body also takes intention, effort, patience and some discipline.

Walking and mindfulness

I have always enjoyed walking, and try to walk when I have that choice, such as when running an errand.  Rarely do I just go for a walk as a practice for its own sake, for just slowing down and calming my spirits.  But in classes on mindfulness meditation I’ve been taught that walking can bring us to the present moment, noticing every step, moving with intention and ease.

While walking, or even while running, we might notice our breathing, notice how the parts of the body work together.  We might also notice how the ground holds us up, how the earth sustains us, and welcomes us.  We might imagine the whole round earth on which we move, along with so many other beings.

If we walk with friends, children or other loved ones, we can appreciate the chance to be together, either walking briskly to get the heart pumping, or gently to slow down and take it easy—sometimes both.  We can talk, and then we can walk for in silence for a time.

Whether together or alone, running or walking is a way to cultivate peace and gratitude as well as to promote our health.  With mindfulness, if we pay attention to where we’re walking or running, we’re less likely to fall in a hole or trip on a rock.  I’ve done such things while running or walking, because I treated running or walking only as a way to get someplace, or only as a way to exercise.

With mindfulness, we can honor the motion of the body and see it for the miracle that it is.   We can do this by walking.  We can do this by any kind of exercise.  We can do this by sitting still.  Just by noticing the body and the breath, and giving thanks for it.  If we can do anything more than sitting still–if we have the time and the ability and health to exercise regularly–we can count ourselves lucky.

Swimming and life

The intentional exercise practice I have sustained the longest is swimming.   In my mid-twenties I started going to a pool a few times a week.  To be sure, there have been phases when I thought I was too busy.  And I have tried other exercises—weights, treadmills, stretching, even using a professional trainer.  But swimming is what I have come back to.

When I think about what happens to me in the pool, I can appreciate the spiritual experience of it… of being held by the water and buoyed up in it, of having a glimpse of a different world under water.  My favorite thing during the workout is to swim the first length of the pool all underwater, on only one breath.  Sometimes I can swim back, doing a second length on a second breath.  When I do, I feel my arms and legs screaming for oxygen.   I know I’m alive.

But I must be honest with you.  I didn’t start swimming as a spiritual practice.  I did it because I was afraid that I would die of a heart attack at a young age, like my father.  Just as when, during my 20s, I obsessively avoided salt and cholesterol, swimming laps was a fear-based habit and a fierce one, so I could stay alive.  There are worse habits, aren’t there!

I’ve done my lap swimming at various YMCA facilities in the cities in which I’ve lived.  Many private health clubs have pools, and they may have newer, bigger facilities, but I like supporting the Y’s mission of building strong kids, strong families and a strong community.   I like seeing neighbors, kids and families taking care of their bodies and spirits, and taking care of one another.              Furthermore, unlike many private clubs, the YMCA always has lifeguards to watch over us while we swim.  Someday I might need one.

In my 20s and 30s, when I lived in Chicago, my habit was to stop off at the New City YMCA during my subway ride home from work.   That Y was on the near north side, with towers of sad-looking public housing nearby in one direction and upscale condos, cafes and shopping centers in the other direction.   At that younger age, I swam longer at a stretch than I do now, and more vigorously.  I pushed myself.

In that YMCA, on the white cinderblock wall above and next to the pool, running its entire length, were painted graphics of dolphins and fish.  And painted above them, in big block letters was this message:  “God Loves Us!”  (Exclamation point.)  Perhaps it was intended for the kids from the public housing projects.  Perhaps it was intended for all of us.  Of course it was.

Sometimes, near the end of a workout, as I pushed myself to do a bit more, a bit faster, I’d look up and read those words.  Then I would feel the energy of that affirmation in my legs and arms.  I’d feel the love of life in my thumping heart, and in the breaths I was taking.  God loves us!  I am alive!  I am so glad I can do this!

That message on the wall renewed my perspective on what I was doing.  It was a reminder, a refresher.  I was not only trying to forestall death by a heart attack.  Not only trying to guarantee a longer life.  I was alive.  I was living, in that moment.

As Paige says, honoring the body, caring for the body, is honoring life.

Pain and Aging: Swimming Less

Unfortunately, in my late 30s and early 40s, I developed neck and shoulder pain while swimming.  It hurt when I turned my head to breathe.  For months I neglected it.  I pushed on through, kept swimming.  Finally the pain was sharp and chronic enough that I took several months off.  After medical examinations, a cortisone injection and many treatments of physical therapy… not much progress.  Finally an MRI scan showed that I have degenerative disc disease in my neck.  So far I have avoided neck surgery.  Since then I’ve managed my condition well enough to be able to swim.  I now use a snorkel that goes right down the middle of my face, so I can breathe without turning my head.  Also, I don’t swim for as long a session as I used to, or as vigorously.  I take it more easily.

At some point in my life I may not be able to swim as much as I do now.  At some point I may not be able to swim at all, or even make it to a YMCA or other location for exercise.

At my current YMCA, I’ve become friendly with several of the regular swimmers and other members and staffers.  We chat and visit.  Sometimes we notice when a fellow member no longer comes to exercise as often as before.  Then we notice, they no longer come at all.  Such a decline and loss of ability is natural, unfortunately.  It’s inevitable for most of us.  It can be frustrating, depressing, saddening, painful.

It is my hope, as I become less able to use my body in the years to come, that I will not hate it, but will remember to honor it in thought and word, and in whatever efforts I’m still able to make.           Whatever happens, we can still honor the body that we were given.  We can give thanks for it.      The march of time, the wages of chance, the inequities and unfairness of the varying conditions of life on this earth—such things can reduce the options we have.  Still, we can give thanks for this gift of the body.  We can honor it.  To care for the body is to care for the spirit.

The body is the vessel of our mind and spirit, our channel for the life force.

Our bodies and the breathing of our bodies connect us to all other beings, to all that is.  Life is a gift, and so is the body.  Let us be good stewards of this good gift.   So may it be, blessed be, and amen.

A Benediction by Rev. Mark L. Belletini

Go in peace.
Live simply, gently, at home in yourselves.
Act justly.  Speak justly.
Remember the depth of your own compassion.
Forget not your power in the days of your    powerlessness.

Do not desire to be wealthier than your peers
and stint not your hand of charity.
Practice forbearance.  Speak the truth, or speak not.
Take care of yourselves as bodies, for you are a        good gift.

Crave peace for all people in the world, beginning     with yourselves,
And go as you go with the dream of that peace alive             in your heart.

–#686, Singing the Living Tradition