Sunday, October 8, 2017

Reflections on Grace
By Alex McGee
October 2017

Today I would like to suggest that grace between humans depends on two things being present:  one of them has more power in a situation, and that person believes in the blossoming potential of another human.

In the television show called Andy Griffith, in the town called Mayberry, one episode tells the story of Jim.  Jim grew up in Mayberry, and was a fine guitarist.  He went away and joined a well known band, supporting a famous lead singer.  One day, he returned to town, and everyone was so glad to see him and proud of his success.  They admire his shiny car.  They admire his fancy clothes.  He brags that he is so talented that he even left the band and the lead singer to branch out on his own. 
But after about a week, people begin to tell stories:  Jim hasn’t paid his hotel bill all week; he is keeping a tab at the drugstore; and he has told the barber he will come back and pay him later.  Andy begins to wonder what is going on. 
Andy calls up the famous singer and asks him what happened.  The lead singer says Jim got too big for his britches and also spent all his earnings.  Nonetheless, this singer has faith in young Jim’s potential and would love to have him back if he would be a team player. 
So, what happens next, is that Andy goes to Jim and in the kindest way possible, asks him to pay his bills.  But, Jim says he needs to leave town.  Now, Andy is the sheriff, and up until now, hasn’t used his force.  But at this point, he arrests Jim and brings him to the station.
And what do you think happened next?  Was that the end of the story?  Did Jim have to simply be in jail, ashamed, and unable to pay?
No, because waiting at the jail for him was the lead singer he had left and who was ready to hire him back.  Andy had arranged for that.
And so, the story ends with Jim having an opportunity to return to playing guitar and earning money.

Andy offered grace to Jim.
Andy had the power of being sheriff.  Andy had the knowledge that Jim had spent all his money and lost his job.
Andy also believed in Jim --- he had seen him grow up, and Andy believes in bringing out the best in people.

So, those are the two prerequisites for grace to occur, I believe:  power and believing in human potential.

What Andy did next was to remove an obstacle and to open space for Jim to move forward on a path.  He did this by inviting the lead singer, who could pay Jim, and who could offer him a chance to keep playing guitar.

My friends, each day, as we move among other humans, we also have opportunities to offer grace.

For surely, we will encounter people who have done something wrong. 
Maybe we encounter someone who has done something illegal, or just unpopular.  Maybe we have a close friend or family member who has broken trust or corroded a relationship. 
Maybe we are in a position of power in a workplace or organization. 
In any of these situations, the power that we have by that knowledge or relationship gives us fertile ground to act with grace.

And, secondly, as we go through each day, we can look upon this world with tired eyes and a closed heart.  Surely, each of us has been banged up and bruised by the bumps in the road of life, and don’t feel like looking around for hidden potential. 

But, instead, we might do something different:  we might look with eyes at the flower that is about to bloom,
the child who is about to learn a new skill,
the friend who is developing more self-awareness,
the neighbor who is recovering from addiction,
the coworker who is ready to turn over a new leaf.   
In this mode, we become ready to act with grace.

And then, with this power and this outlook, our eyes become open to creativity and new options to help a person on their path.  We often then see ways to remove obstacles on their path.

So, let me clarify:  I have been explaining how I see grace between two humans.  This is different than forgiveness.  By contrast, forgiveness is when relationship is broken and one person goes through stages to no longer hold the hurt.  And perhaps they go on to reconcile, which is then a two way street of repair and honesty to move forward together.  In forgiveness, there may or may not be a power differential.  And in forgiveness, there may or may not be a desire for the other person to blossom and unfold into greater potential.  In the example I gave earlier, Andy did not just ask Jim to apologize and then let him finish his jail time.  He looked at the bigger picture of human well-being.

Andy did not just go by the rules.  The reason he is the beloved sheriff of Mayberry is because he does not go by the rules, but still keeps peace in the town.  Perhaps the reason he keeps peace in the town is because he knows the rules aren’t the most important thing.  This is true with other classic characters from literature:  for example, Grandma Dowdel in the books by Richard Peck;  Professor Dumbledore in the Harry Potter books; and even Jesus of Nazareth, who did not play by the rules of the Roman Empire, but looked out for the good of the people around him.  In our daily lives, we also face moments when we could fall back on the rules, perhaps because they seem easy, or familiar, or safe.  But when we act from grace, we find ways to do what is good for people becoming the best they can be, and still somehow fit within the structure or institution we’ve signed on to.  Grace does not rebel against rules for rebellions sake, but sees that rules exist for a reason, and are only one factor in the picture.

One of the rules that grace defies is social rules about ideology.  When you have an opportunity to help someone else proceed on their spiritual path, do you ask yourself whether they are Republican, or Democrat?  I hope not.

Grace also does not have rules about timing.  Grace can be offered in the line at the grocery store, in the dining hall at the retirement home, on the bench in the public park, …all on a plain, simple day. 

Grace can also show up after tragedy:  after a hurricane, after a mass shooting, after a baby dies, or any other shock and heartache.  All of us humans are blossoming and can use some help having obstacles removed no matter the time and place.

As a child and teenager, I lived in a variety of places and cultures.  I received acts of kindness and learned that kindness is a universal trait, even if you can’t speak the same language as another person.  But even more beautiful and complex, the experience of grace also crosses lines of culture and language.  When I was a child in a working class neighborhood of London, a teen visiting families who lived in the landfill in Tijuana, Mexico, and a young adult living with Buddhist nuns in Sri Lanka, I did things that were goof ups.  And yet, people looked at me with a universal eye for my human unfolding:  all these situations had moments where someone else extended themselves to ease my path, even when I didn’t deserve it, meaning I had done something that inconvenienced them, was culturally insensitive, or had made naïve mistakes.

I would like to finish by talking about how grace also happens on a divine level, and that we humans are able to offer grace to one another because we receive it from a spiritual source beyond ourselves.  Here is a metaphor:  One universal image of a person with power who is removing obstacles from the path of another is the image of a parent helping a child learn to walk.  I am imagining a child with two fat legs, teetering, with big eyes, experimenting with putting one pudgy leg in front of the other.  And I am imagining an adult nearby moving the toys out of the way, or offering one finger to hold on to.  A parent looking out for a child as they learn to walk knows that there will be falls.  They don’t blame the child.  They know they won’t always be able to remove all obstacles, but they do when they can.  This a perhaps the simplest form of grace.

And, this universal image could suggest a divine force greater than all of us, that looks out for us and removes obstacles on our path, as we are stumbling our way seeking to walk with spiritual consciousness.  This is one way to image the divine. 

You may balk at that image of the divine because it hints of a parent god.  So, let me offer another image.  All of us are part of a Universal force of Love, and that is embodied in all of us, and constantly looking to express itself.  Perhaps we receive grace from something beyond ourselves?  Listen to this quote from Deepak Chopra, a doctor and philosopher:  “In my garden, the rose opened, but I was too much in a hurry and passed it by. Love remembered me and said, I will make a rose bloom in your heart.” 

However you image the sacred, I think that when humans extend grace to other humans, it is because of a deeper and greater force.   Something inside of us moves us to act with grace.  

And, so, my friends, the mystery of this life goes on.  We do not understand why our paths are made easy sometimes.  We do not understand why we act to make the paths of others easy sometimes.  But, may it be, again and again, that some force of grace, inside us and beyond us, help all of us to blossom to our full potential.

Blessed be,

© Rev. Alexandra McGee, 2017
My yoga practice and my ministry are interwoven.  The way I see human potential based on yogic teaching informs my theology.  The grounding and breathing of yoga help me when I lead worship.  Here is the sermon that I offered today.  In today's service we also recognized new members, which we do once or twice a year.

“Spiritual Roots”
Sermon for October 8, 2017
by Rev Alexandra McGee for TJMC Unitarian Universalist in Charlottesville, VA

This month we are exploring the image of Roots.  I am especially moved by the images on the altar in which glass jars show the roots which support these plants and draw up nourishment from the water.

Today I am enquiring about our spiritual roots.  I am encouraging all of us to know our spiritual roots and trace them up to the present time and see what is changing. 

I want to make some important distinctions:
Our roots determine where we come from but they don't determine where we go

Sometimes it is tempting to cut off our roots, … but they have a place

The roots are not the whole plant,… it can change and be unique

Growth and change are seasonal

Whether we name them or not, I would suggest that all of have spiritual roots.  A person is shaped in their early childhood years by whatever rituals and morals surround them, whether those are part of formal religion or not. 
If your grandma took you on her knee and talked to you about how to treat your friends, that is part of your spiritual roots. 
If your neighbor always lit candles on Friday evenings and invited you to come over for Shabbat, that is part of your spiritual roots. 
If you grew up in a Unitarian Universalist congregation, that is part of your spiritual roots. 

Spiritual stages of growth were studied by theologian named James Fowler, and shared in his book published in 1981:

Fowler observed:  All of us as kids experienced faith as something told or experienced from an authority, even if that authority was agnostic or atheist. At some point, though, a child grows up to be their own authority in their life.
As a young adult a person may decide that some of their roots are things to build a pattern on while others are not. At some point in our adulthood, may to start making choices for ourselves about our beliefs.  These may or may not cause us to participate in formal religion.

Eventually a person in their mid-adult years may identify with the story of a people---a tribe, an extended family, those who experience the same privilege or oppression.

In the final stage of spiritual growth, at some point we may experience a spiritual maturity which allows us to live with both simplicity and complexity. Spiritual maturity doesn't mean having all the answers and telling them to other people, but living comfortably with one’s own beliefs of the moment and with other people, wherever they are in their own journey.  (based on Tapestry of Faith handout about James Fowler Six Stages of Faith)  So, that is a general outline of stages of faith a person might go through in their lifetime, based on James Fowler’s theories.

One popular adult faith course in the UU movement is called Building Your Own Theology.  How many of you have done it?  I recently heard someone say that course gave them their own unique personal bedrock which has helped them weather life situations and be a congregational leader.  This curriculum Building Your Own Theology is written by Rev. Richard Gilbert and invites people to consider four questions: 
-       do you believe in something beyond yourself?
-       What is the meaning of your life?
-       What ethics guide your relationships
-       What communities and identities and tribes you belong to
At the end of this six week course, each person makes some symbol or statement of their beliefs, whether in the form of an essay, one sentence, a drawing, a dance, or an altar.  This is a creation that they can refer back to---they are creating their own religious object to help themselves.  And, yet, the whole point is to know that this is not set in stone, but can change as life circumstances change.

As you reflect on changes in your inner experience, these make up your spiritual story.  For example, here are some situations you may have experienced that are a chapter in your spiritual life story:
-       If you have grappled with questions about what happens after someone dies and come to a new understanding.
-       If you have found a way to explain how we and this earth were created
-       IF have you had conflict with God and eventually found resolution
-       IF you have questioned human goodness and came to a new conclusion
-       If you have discovered evil and decided how to live with it
-       If you have faced an ethical dilemma and come to the other side with a new moral compass
-       If you have let one chapter end and another begin

These examples can be quite personal and individual.  For example, a person with an illness who believes God will give healing not necessarily by removing disease but by helping them and their family, is an example of someone finding comfort and love in a way they didn’t understand before.

We are also shaped by external events.  For example, CS Lewis, a Christian theologian of the past century, served in the trenches of World War I and then spent decades trying to make sense of this.  His experience in war caused him to wrestle with what is good and evil, and what is the role of the common person, who feels little control to do good.

Similarly, I have heard many people here this summer grapple with what they believe after the complex harms that occurred in our town this summer.  I have heard one person say the Good News of the past summer here in Charlottesville is that good people helped make terrible events less terrible and are changing things for the better.  When I hear this, I hear this person with a humanist outlook affirming the goodness in humanity—this person is solidifying their humanist values.

And, my friends, world events keep happening. 
Just this past week we have seen another horror in Las Vegas. 
Each of us has been handling this news in our own way. 
Perhaps we find comfort or don’t,
perhaps we have faith in human goodness, or don’t,
perhaps we come to a new conclusion about the nature of evil, or don’t,
perhaps we find that we are called to act in meaningful ways, or not.

Each of these potential changes is part of our spiritual growth.

Hence, our lives are an unfolding spiritual story. 

When an author tells a story of someone else’s life, it is a biography.  But when an author tells a story from their own life, it is an autobiography.  And each of us have spiritual stories that we could tell.  One tool which people have used to understand spirituality is to write and to read spiritual autobiography.  If you go to the bookstore or library, spiritual autobiography is one classification you may find.  Spiritual autobiography has value because we gain deeper spiritual strength and resilience.  We can name our beliefs specifically, we are more likely to live a life consistent with our values.

One person, who did this, centuries ago, was Teresa of Avila.  She was a Catholic nun who lived in the 1500s in Spain.  She wrote about her inner conflicts and confusion about God.  She described challenges in her life and questions about God’s role.  By story-telling about her rigorous self-examination, she not only served as a model for others but also invited them to reflect on their own spiritual experiences.
 (drawing on dissertation of Beth Ford Friend, written for Graduate Theological Union, ~2011, p.104)

Many people throughout time have engaged in spiritual autobiography in big and small ways, in personal and private ways.  Those of you who are beginning in our church’s program of covenant groups will have moments of sharing chapters of your spiritual autobiography, although it may happen casually, as it is woven into the conversation. 

Spiritual autobiography played a role in our Unitarian history, from the part of the Unitarian family tree that grew from the Puritans.
Now I will quote from a professor of spirituality named Beth Ford Friend who gives some history on spiritual autobiography.

Spiritual writing emerged as a Protestant practice in seventeenth-
century England and became integral to the devotional life of New England
congregations. Puritan ministers encouraged members of their communities to record their experiences in diaries and journals.

people then shared insights with one another. The practice of writing thus instilled in people a pattern of daily self-examination and accountability to the larger community of believers. Spiritual autobiography, then, was not only a private practice; it also had a corporate dimension. Writing facilitated the process of paying attention to the movements of the Spirit.

While Puritans differed on theological issues, two core convictions united them:
the emphasis on learning (an educated clergy and literacy and learning among lay members) and the belief that each Christian engaged in a direct, personal relationship with God.
(quoting dissertation of Beth Ford Friend, written for Graduate Theological Union, ~2011, p. 5)

Here, today, in 2017, my hope is that each of us can find solace and strength in naming our stories.  Here are three ideas of how to do so:
-       One: keep a spiritual journal.  Perhaps even challenge yourself to write each day:  what are three ways I experienced something spiritual today?
-       Two:  find a spiritual buddy who is willing to meet with you to share spiritual experiences.  Commit to meet regularly for a certain amount of time.
-       Three:  Read spiritual autobiography from diverse sources.  For example, the memoir of the Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed, one of the first black Unitarian Universalist ministers. 

My friends, just like these plants up here, each of us has spiritual roots and have received nourishment.  Each of us has changed as we make sense of the world.  Let us be alert to our own stories and claim our growth so that we know our own strength and resilience.

Blessed be.

(c) Alexandra McGee, 2017.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Spirals Out of Touch, Back in Touch

Today I went to NIA class.  Moving, dancing, swirling, rolling.  Usually I would include in that list:  breathing, sensing.  And yet, today, the breathing and sensing did not come easily.  When the teacher asked us to sense our spines, I (the very yoga teacher who asked my students to sense their spines yesterday), had trouble feeling the tiny articulation of bones in my back that I have felt before.

What is going on?  I am feeling kind of out of touch with my body.  And, the very coolest thing about it, is:  That is okay.

When I was 14, my first experience of aerobics made me feel awkward and clumsy.  Later, at age 21, yoga made me feel subtly exhilarated---coming home to myself in a way I had never known possible.  And now, at the age of 44, I realize that I have revisited both places many times. 

After having discovered the feeling of being “in touch” with my body, the first time that next I felt out of touch with it, I was unnerved.  Scared.  Where had the mother ship gone?  Was I a failure for not being centered? And then, eventually, somehow (probably through dance, rest, hiking in nature, laughing with friends, hugging, eating good food), I found myself “in touch” again.  This process has occurred enough times now that I see I am comfortable with this uncomfortable spiral. 

The past few weeks I have needed to push myself professionally and personally beyond my comfort zone.  I knew there was a cost.  Whenever we push, something else usually contracts or recedes or atrophies.  If we go too long without returning to attend to it, then our bodies/beings get way out of whack.  But, if we make time to return and check in with that part, then we can restabilize our health.  I realize that that was happening in my Nia dancing this morning.  It was a slow returning, and is not yet a complete restabilization.  That is okay.  That is the spiral we live in.

A decade or so ago, I thought that a yogic lifestyle meant that I should never push or stress myself.  Yet, I discovered that this resulted in a kind of bland life.  Now I am seeing that a well-lived life means choosing our pushes wisely and tending to the costs.

This principle is true of organizations and families also.  A professor of medical ethics once explained to our class that whenever a difficult ethical choice is made in the hospital by the doctors and family, that one must later return and attend to the members of the medical team and family whose choice was not chosen.  For surely, all voices were lifting up crucial values!  But only one choice could be acted upon.  If the family and medical teams are to stay cohesive in the future, there must to time to tend to what was not chosen, for it is also part of the values that feed and anchor them. 

If I am to keep living out my values, I need time like Nia and yoga and walking in the woods to return to the places that I wasn’t listening to when I was pushing myself.  And then, from this integrated place, all sorts of creativity and power can blossom forth to surprise me (and the world!).

---Alex McGee, Nov 15, 2012.  Thanks to Susan McCulley for sharing her Nia teaching gifts with our world!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Many Meanings of Tapas

What does tapas mean?
  • to accept without causing pain
  • self mortification
  • to heat
  • discipline
These are just a few of the meanings. At my Yoga Philosophy and Gentle Movement class at the Unitarian Universalist church, we compared six translations of sutra II.32. Here, the niyamas are listed, and tapas is the middle one.

"Discipline" has come to be a bit of a bad word in some parts of our society, especially among liberals and youth. For people who seek freedom and self-discovery, any idea of limitation or rigidness might appear antithetical.

Yet, Patanjali says in this sutra that we need tapas if we are to journey on the path to freedom (samadhi).

Many years ago I heard Gary Kraftsow describe a certain delicious fruit near his home in Hawaii. But, this fruit was not digestible until cooked. The heating process made it possible for nourishment to occur. He used this as a metaphor for tapas.

Does discipline need to involve pain?  I don't think so.  Perhaps it involves discomfort.  But, if we don't choose a healthy discipline for growth, we are likely to bump into more painful experiences that will teach us the lesson in a more difficult way.  This is why the doctor tells us to exercise:  because the other option is to have health problems resulting from lack of exercise. 

The good news about discipline is that it eventually starts to feel good to know that we are taking care of ourselves and investing in a healthy future.  This is why people who have a routine of yoga look forward to their regular practice. 

I invite you to consider what discipline means to you.  And ask some of your loved does discpline help in their lives?

Friday, July 2, 2010

"...He Restores my Soul"

Fight or flight? Or, rest?

As I have heard friends and students discussing surgeries and illnesses this week, I am keenly aware of the importance of evangelizing "restorative yoga."

Perhaps you are in a period when you know that you long for the calm and renewal of yoga, but don't have the energy or ability to do vigorous, moving poses. This is why restorative yoga exists. Sometimes we need constructive rest. Each poses aligns the spine and supports the joints in a way that allows the inner systems of the body to do their natural processing. Digestion gets flowing again. Lungs oxygenate. Lymph moves. The immune system refills its well.

In the teachings of Judith Lasater, a yoga teacher and physical therapist focusing on restorative yoga, I have heard the term "Rest and digest" as an option to "fight or flight." This might mean to digest our food, or it might mean to digest life issues---joys, griefs, mysteries.

When I consider the time to digest mysteries, I am reminded of the prayer practice lectio divina.  In this method, a passage of sacred text is read multiple times.  I have heard the metaphor of taking a bite, tasting it, savoring it, digesting it, allowing nourishment.  This is what makes lectio divina different than prayer that is vigorous or heated, like some kinds of yoga.

In Psalm 23, the author says that his shepherd leads him beside still waters and restores his soul.  Restoring.  Restoring the soul.

Isn't that what we all need time for?  I wish for you to find restoration through prayer and yoga---to digest what life has brought you.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The stream of thought: tumbling or lethargic?

During these hot days of June in Central Virginia, I have been walking my dog by the cool stream as often as possible.  I notice how sometimes the water moves in fast, energetic turbulence.  Sometimes it sits in muddy stagnation.  Other times it flows in gentle clearness.

As risk of oversimplification, we can think of the gunas this way.  The fast moving water is like the trait of rajas, which is energetic.  The slow moving water is like the trait of tamas, which is sluggish.  The flowing water is like the trait of sattva, which is clear.

These qualities of nature (the gunas) are the foothold of Samkhya philosophy, and are often referred to in Patanjali's Yoga Sutras.  Patanjali assumed that the student would already know these basic constituents of nature, and builds many of his arguments on this foundation.  If you want to see more, check out:  Book II Sutras18-19 and Book IV Sutras 13-14; 32-34.
I see these qualities in students as they arrive at class.  After class, they often report that they have a renewed sense of balance and clarity.  It often comes out like this: "I'm so glad I came, even though I was tired.  Now I have some energy!"  Or, "I was so amped up before class.  Now, I still have energy, but I feel calm at the same time."

Sometimes, during class, I ask students to observe their minds.  Are their thoughts tumbling like the rapids in a stream?  Or is their mind lethargic?  Ideally, by the end of an appropriate asana and pranayama practice, their minds feel clear and flowing.

And what better way to approach life?

Monday, April 26, 2010

Ongoing Sanskrit Classes - open for drop-in basis

The Sanskrit workshop in April brought smiles, wide eyes, courage, timidity, laughter and serenity.  I discovered that people are ready to hop on the Sanskrit bus at many levels, and the language enchants and confuses people with compelling force.  I learned that I can actually teach it to others, and have new ideas about how to make it work for a multi-level class in the future.  So, mark you calendar for our next one on June 27. 

Sanskrit workshop with Alex McGee
Sunday June 27, 4 – 6 pm at Polarity Barn in Batesville through
To register, contact me, or Kate Hallahan at Guerilla Yoga Project. 
Donation basis.

Depending on your goals, you can gain:
* more confidence saying the Sanskrit words in front of your class;
* the pleasure of sharing in a chant;
* greater understanding of how the rules of Sanskrit show up in the verses that you already know.
We will review Sanskrit letters, grammar, and pronunciation, and apply this to a chant or verse.

This class will follow a similar format to the April workshop, and we will repeat this format in coming months.  By repeating this standard format, we hope to provide a place for new folks to be exposed to Sanskrit and experienced folks to have review.  If you have questions, bring them to class or e-mail Alex beforehand (alexandramcgee(AT)gmail).  We hope to be an ongoing local resource.

Here's a little bio in case your friends are wondering who this teacher is...Alexandra McGee has been studying Asian languages since 1989, and Sanskrit since 2002.  Alex studied Sanskrit for two years at UC Berkeley with Sally Goldman.  She also learned from Cynthia Snodgrass, using the methods of Vyaas Huston, of the American Sanskrit Institute. She is eager to help others apply Sanskrit for yoga teaching, for sacred settings, and studying ancient texts.