Rev. Maggie’s Blog

The Power of Thinking Big

Given that our theme in August is “Experimenting,” I’ve been thinking about people who have been great explorers of new territory—people who have made a practice of trying new things, of experimenting. Over a decade ago, I was fortunate enough to meet the late Thomas Leonard, who is generally considered the founding father of the life-coaching industry. What I particularly enjoyed about keeping my eyes on what Leonard created was his continual focus on the future. He truly was a visionary, and his work was always focused on what’s new, and what’s next. The kind of visioning he did is rare — and important.

Often we don’t hold a big enough picture about what’s possible; we tend to get bogged down in the details of our everyday life. Or, even if we’re actively working to create a big vision for our lives, we sometimes become so focused on what’s possible for us personally, that we forget to think beyond our own individual boundaries.

But, as Leonard reminded us, there is always a bigger game to play. We can always dream bigger, play bigger, be bigger. There’s a world out there that needs us. If we’re feeling uninspired about our own lives — or if we feel pretty good about our own lives — there’s always more territory to cover, and more possibilities to be lived.

May we remember that, as we are told in holy scriptures, “without vision, the people perish.” May we tend our visions with care, weeding out anything that chokes our personal vision, and scanning the horizon for new arenas in which to plant and cultivate our hopes and dreams. May our lives be evolving stories; and may we always realize the power, and importance, of holding the highest vision we can imagine for our spiritual center, our communities, and our world.

—Rev. Maggie Oman Shannon

The Power of Spiritual Friendships

I often have wonderful conversations with members of USC about the power and pleasure that can be found in spiritual community — the special kind of spiritual friendships that can be created between like-minded and like-hearted people. An anonymous sage once wrote that “a real friend helps us think our best thoughts, do our noblest deeds, be our finest selves” — and those kinds of friends can be rare. But in order to live from our highest selves — or at least make that worthy intention easier — we need to surround ourselves with people who will hold our vision with us, who will even hold it during the times when we ourselves can’t. Such friends are precious beyond measure.

Take a moment to reflect on your friendships — can you point to people in your life who hold the highest regard for you, even though they’re familiar with your challenge areas and history? Do you gift them with the same kind of regard? The Apocrypha says that “a faithful friend is the medicine of life.” How faithful are your friends? How healing are your friendships?

Such a reflection is useful to undertake on a periodic basis, both to see if we’re truly being supported by our friendships, and to track how supportive we’re being of our friends. It has been said that a true friend is a gift from God — so may we honor our true friendships as the blessings they are, and may we be willing to serve in the same way for our friends.

May we create and cherish the friendships that will support our highest visions for our lives; and may we support the highest visions of our friends.

—Rev. Maggie Oman Shannon

The Importance of Voice

In today’s increasingly high-speed, wired world, it can be rare to quietly savor the sound of someone else’s voice. So much is done through e-mail or texting; so much of what we hear recorded is fast-paced or accompanied with a booming soundtrack. Even in the privacy of our own homes, we may listen to our companions only half-present, because of the distraction of household responsibilities; or, if we live alone, we may substitute the satisfaction of a talk with a friend for the din of another television sitcom.

In the next week, let us remember the power of the human voice. May we be mindful of how we use ours; may we allow ourselves the gift of being truly present to another’s. As Henry Wadsworth Longfellow reminded us, “The human voice is the organ of the soul.”

May we remember that using our voices in service of truth, beauty, and goodness lies at the heart of living our best lives; and may we each have the courage to bring our own authentic voice forth.

—Rev. Maggie Oman Shannon

The Importance of Discernment

What do we do when pursuing our vision becomes difficult? This is an important question, because there’s no doubt about it — sometimes things will feel just plain hard.

When looking at this situation, there seems to be a spectrum of opinion, marked by two endpoints. On the one end are people who feel that if there’s the slightest bit of difficulty, they shouldn’t continue — that the challenges they face are a message indicating that they should pursue another path. On another end are people who continue to plug away for years, continuing to pour time, money, and energy into the path that they feel is theirs. Sometimes that path leads to victory — as it did in the case of Thomas Edison’s toil to invent the lightbulb. Sometimes that path leads to bankruptcy and burn-out. So the big question is, How do we discern when the difficulties indicate that we’re meant to truly stop, and when we’re meant to persevere?

Like all important questions, this one has no easy answers. But there are a few things we can do to begin the discernment process. The first one is a mental exercise: to ask ourselves what we’re learning in this process, to see our challenges as offering feedback, not failure.

A second exercise is physical; to check in with ourselves about how well we’re taking care of our bodies. Are we getting enough rest, movement, nourishment? Do we need to just take some time to rejuvenate, or to tend to low blood sugar?

How’s our emotional state? Are we too attached to our way of doing things, our opinions about how something should be done? Is there any anger, fear, pride or resentment driving our activities?

Most importantly, how often do we stop to pray, meditate and re-connect with the Divine for guidance? There is a great opening that occurs when we simply surrender. As Mother Teresa once said, “We must empty ourselves to be filled with God. Even God cannot fill what is full.”

May we increase our powers of discernment as we work to create our highest visions for our lives. May we take the time to learn and rejuvenate; may we be willing to simply stop and surrender.

—Rev. Maggie Oman Shannon

The Importance of Slowing Down

Lately I have been thinking a lot about the need to slow down, to carve out precious space in the jam-packed busyness of our everyday lives. I remember being reminded of the importance of this several years ago when I went to a presentation given by Sue Bender, the author of Plain and Simple, Everyday Sacred, and Stretching Lessons. As both her talk and her books reflect, she teaches the importance of slowing down…not only to give ourselves a much-needed rest in this fast-paced 21st-century life, but also to give audience to, as she expressed it, “a spirit inside each of us that whispers to be heard.”

Sue told the story of what happened when she paid attention to that spirit whispering to be heard; a whole new chapter in her life began when she listened to the message inside of her that told this Berkeley artist and professor’s wife to go live with the Amish. Despite many reasons not to do it, and an uncertainty as to why to do it, she decided to follow that invitation. Her life unfolded in many delightful and unexpected ways; in addition to learning, and valuing, a new and slower way of being, she also became an author — an author appearing on The New York Times best-seller list! She found her calling by listening to the call of the voice within.

May we slow down long enough to listen to the whispers of the Spirit inside each of us. May we trust enough to follow the guidance of those whispers. May we allow ourselves to be led when creating new chapters in our lives; and may we share the stories of following our guidance with others.

—Rev. Maggie Oman Shannon

The Importance of Passion

Although I’m not a very good cook myself, I usually enjoy watching any food show that features the ascerbic, streetwise Manhattan chef and author Anthony Bourdain. Bourdain travels around the world, commenting on both the culture and the cuisine of the places to which he travels.

In one episode I watched, he visited the famed French Laundry, the restaurant north of us in Yountville that is renowned for its exquisitely prepared, and consequently expensive, menu. What was fun about watching this show was the delight that Bourdain displayed at watching the French Laundry’s chef, Thomas Keller, prepare these culinary creations. No detail is too small for Keller; he even prepares the food using vegetables and fruits that are specially grown for the restaurant.

In one memorable scene, Keller opened a fava-bean pod to show the camera the way the beans were nestled in the pod. With awe, he expressed utter delight at the way these beans were cradled in their covering. His awe and delight became Bourdain’s, and the audience’s — who among us has really taken the time to notice such details, and to find such joy in them?

And that’s the point of this reflection: that when one is living out of one’s Divine purpose and passion, every detail matters — and our delight in those details will in turn delight, and expand others. As John Ruskin once wrote, “When love and skill work together, expect a masterpiece.”

May we delight in the details of our particular passions, and may our delight delight others. May our love and skill work together, today and every day.

—Rev. Maggie Oman Shannon

The Importance of Beauty

Lately I have been thinking about things that carry healing properties — and one of the most potent forms of healing is offered by the beautiful. Beauty truly heals. And most times, beauty is a result of the authentic, the essential being expressed; whether reflected in a face or in a piece of art, we respond to that which flows from the soul, without self-consciousness or contrivance.

It can be a helpful exercise to expand our awareness of the beautiful, to enlarge our boundaries of what beauty is. I don’t know that I’ll ever forget the scene in the movie American Beauty in which a character, who made videos of his experience, captured the haunting, ethereal dance of an abandoned plastic bag floating on the wind. The magnificent can be found in the mundane; beauty is all around us, if we take the time and set the intention to really see.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything that is beautiful; for beauty is God’s handwriting — a wayside sacrament. Welcome it in every fair face, in every fair sky, in every fair flower, and thank God for it as a cup of blessing.”

May we see the beauty and the cups of blessing that surround us every day. May we share beauty with others; may we be beauty — our authentic, essential selves.

—Rev. Maggie Oman Shannon

The Importance of Honoring the Spark in Our Heart

Joseph Campbell once wrote that “We must be willing to get rid of the life we’ve planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” The life of singer/songwriter Bruce Springsteen reflects just how powerful doing that very thing can be, for the life planned for Bruce Springsteen wasn’t much. He grew up in a working-class New Jersey family, in an environment that did not value or expose children to the riches of art and other cultural offerings — and one that was not supportive of Bruce’s music. According to his biography, when he was in the third grade, one of his teachers told him to sit in a garbage can in front of the class because that, she said, was where he belonged.

Imagine what the consequences of just that single message could have been for his life. Instead, Bruce honored the spark in his heart and the creativity of his imagination — and created a life and work that has had a powerful impact on millions of lives (including mine) for 35 years now, and he’s still going strong. Is there anyone who has ever seen Bruce Springsteen perform who does not believe that he’s living out his purpose — the very gift that he was born to share with the world? Seeing someone share the fullness of their talent, authentic being, and heart not only inspires us, it energizes us; it is a true force of energy. In Bruce’s words, it helps us to remember that it “ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive”— and what better message to share with others is there, than to share one’s sense of hope?

May we look for the people, places and things that inspire us to live our highest purpose. May we remember that living our highest purpose not only is a gift to ourselves, but to others. May we remember to be glad we’re alive…

—Rev. Maggie Oman Shannon

The Importance of the Process of Elimination

A few years ago, my husband, then-8-year-old daughter and I visited the museum in Santa Rosa that is dedicated to the work of cartoonist Charles Schulz, the creator of the “Peanuts” comic strip that delighted people for close to half a century. One of the most interesting elements of the museum was an entire wall that had been removed from a house Schulz lived in during the earlier years of his life. The wall is now in the museum, because hidden under several coats of paint that subsequent owners had applied to it was a colorful mural Schulz had painted for his daughter — and one which contained prototypes of his characters which later became so famous.

I was struck by this as an interesting metaphor for creating our best lives: Sometimes it’s not about adding to ourselves, but stripping away — uncovering the playful, colorful parts of ourselves that we may have covered by fearful or resigned layers of “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts.” As Elbert Hubbard once reminded us, “The sculptor produces the beautiful statue by chipping away such parts of the marble block as are not needed — it is a process of elimination.”

May we remember the colors and delights of our childhood, and become willing to bring them forth again. May we remember that living the life of our dreams sometimes involves a process of elimination. May we revisit the treasures that may be lying under the surface, just waiting to be in service to ourselves and our world.

—Rev. Maggie Oman Shannon

The Importance of Acknowledging Our “Deep Gladness”

Several years ago, I read a story in The New York Times that really stayed with me. The story was about a Scottish museum director — Sir Timothy Clifford — who, while visiting the Cooper-Hewitt museum and looking through a number of old boxes that had been largely ignored by that museum’s staff, discovered a drawing that he and other experts agree is a work by Michelangelo. Here’s the paragraph that really caught my attention: “…Early in his career Sir Timothy was an assistant curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, working on ceramics. As a small child he collected porcelain and was so obsessed that he used to go to bed with his cups and saucers, stroking them to determine by touch, in the dark, whether he could figure out which factories in France… made what.”

Now I don’t know about you, but I don’t know any boys — or girls either — who cuddle their cups and saucers under the covers to identify them by touch. So Sir Timothy’s story seems to me to be a marvelous example of paying attention to what it is that we delight in as individuals, what we have always delighted in. By doing that, we receive such clues as to what it is we can contribute to the world. In the words of Frederick Buechner, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

May we re-discover the places where our deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet — and may we have confidence that our own version of teacups-under-the-covers can have ramifications beyond our imagining.

—Rev. Maggie Oman Shannon