Rev. Maggie’s Blog

The Power of Spiritual Friendships

This week I had a wonderful conversation with a member 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.

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.

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—and I will be talking about that all this month, since our theme for July is “Pause and Reflect.” I remember being reminded of the importance of this a few 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.

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.

The Importance of the Process of Elimination

A couple of 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.

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.

The Importance of Acknowledging Our Own Gifts

Though I was definitely late to the party — the party known as watching “American Idol”— I always like to tune in around this time of year to find out who wins the prize after the field has narrowed.  And enjoying the young singers’ incredible gifts, their talent for expressing themselves so soulfully through their music, always reminds me of a weekend many years ago in which I learned a powerful lesson about the importance of acknowledging one’s own gifts and talents.

That weekend, I was at a group gathering of about 100 people, and the facilitator opened the meeting by playing the recording of a hauntingly beautiful song. The song was sung by a woman whose only accompaniment was the graceful playing of her own guitar. The lyrics, the voice, and the music were so compelling that I made a note to find out who recorded the CD, so that I could buy it.

Other people in the room were moved by it, too, and after the break the facilitator responded to a person who had asked him about it. He said that the CD wasn’t available; it had been recorded by a friend of his who had given him this copy as a birthday present. He implied that she didn’t feel the music was good enough to record, and that he was trying to address that misconception by playing her music to groups of people.

I bet there were at least 50 people in the room who would have bought her CD — and this is a painful example of how we don’t only deny ourselves when we tell ourselves our offering isn’t “good enough.” We also deny other people the experience of enjoying our talents and skills. Everyone loses out.

Not everyone can win “American Idol”; and not everyone can record a CD that people want to buy. But all of us have gifts and talents that not only are unique but also needed in this world. Let us all share ourselves with each other…by doing so, we not only contribute to our own and others’ joy, we also participate with the Source of all creativity in creating our world.

The Power of Symbols

It has been said that the Divine speaks to us through symbols, and this week’s reflection is on the many ways in which symbols surround us. In the last decade, I’ve had the opportunity three times to spend two days and nights completely alone in nature, which is always an amazing arena for viewing the symbolic. I was visited during my waking hours by deer; in my dreams, I was visited by a white heron and a green snake. Later looking up these symbols in the reference book Animal-Speak by Ted Andrews lent additional layers of meaning to both my inner and outer journey.

And we can work with the symbols we’re given in creative ways. Once I was in a drugstore and saw tiny, six-inch plastic trashcans for sale in the dollar bin. I thought to myself, “What would someone do with those things?!” The very next day, during an appointment, someone I was counseling spoke about noticing the “Divine residue” all around her — bits of animal fur, dried flower petals. I was very captivated by this image and the exercise that it suggested of collecting the bits of Divine residue that surround me every day. And I thought of the perfect container for gathering these discoveries — that same tiny trashcan I had dismissed the day before! It has become a great joy to use this symbol to become more mindful of the beauty and possible messages found in otherwise overlooked elements.

And when I once overheard a peer counseling someone to put one of those life lessons we all receive into her “learning basket,” I was delighted when that person later told me that she was literally going to make a learning basket as a reminder to be gentle with herself as she grows and evolves. Symbols can support us in becoming who we want to be and in contributing what we want to contribute.

May we each take the time to notice our symbols — to notice how God is speaking to us through all the beings and small details crossing our path –and to create creative containers for them, so that they can support us in living our most mindful, connected, and sacred life.

The Power of Words

The reflection for this week is on words — the power of words and also the limitation of words.  Words are slippery things; they can carry different meanings for each listener, a fact of human living which invites us to choose our words with care.  Chosen carefully, words are extremely valuable to us, as they can connect us to another, create a bridge of understanding or kinship that did not exist before.  Used carelessly, words can destroy those bridges — or at least create enough damage for some major roadwork to be necessary! And this, we know, also applies to the words we choose for our own interior conversations, as well.  Our words to ourselves can also create, or destroy. As Aldous Huxley wrote, “Words form the thread on which we string our experiences.”

I once read a book in which the author noted that the most telling evidence of who a person will be five years from now is found in the books that the person reads and the people that the person spends time with.  It seems to me that the common denominator in both of those situations is words — the words we take in and the words we share with others.  Reflect for a moment: Are the words you’ve been reading recently creating something in your life?  Are the words you’ve been sharing with other people lately — and saying to yourself — constructive?  How does your future look, based on what’s on your night table or what you’ve talked to friends about recently?

As Charles Capps once said, “Words are the most powerful thing in the universe….Words are containers.  They contain faith, or fear, and they produce after their kind…”  But the great thing about words is that they can be changed, shaped, re-written, revised at any time.  Today.  Right now.  May your words bless you and be a blessing; may your words create your most deeply held dreams.

The Power of Devoting Ourselves to Something Larger Than Ourselves

As we are fortunate enough to be seeing signs of spring here on the West Coast, we may find ourselves reveling in the beauty of nature. And whenever I think of our beautiful planet Earth, I often visualize some of the amazing images of American photographer Ansel Adams, who specialized in powerful depictions of our natural world. Watching a PBS documentary on his life and work a few years ago, I was intrigued to learn that, according to someone who knew him well, he probably would have vehemently disdained any term suggesting the religious or spiritual to describe his work.  He did, however, see his art as reflecting something that was larger than himself — a “giving and taking” of beauty.

Anyone who has ever looked at an Ansel Adams photograph and who is comfortable using spiritual terminology would no doubt categorize Adams’s work as being intensely evocative of Spirit. Yet one doesn’t need to have a belief in anything other than the reality of one’s existence in the here and now to know that indeed, artwork such as this does point to something larger and more timeless than the course of a human life. In the end, as the example of Adams suggests, terminology and beliefs become secondary to the commitment of devoting one’s life to something larger than oneself, for the purpose of contributing to the larger good. In the words of Black Elk, “A vision without a task is a dream. A task without a dream is drudgery, but a vision with a task can change the world.”

May we commit to devoting our lives to something larger than ourselves — the life of a child, a church, a cause, the earth itself. May our visions be aligned with our tasks, and may our contributions help to change the world.