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Spirituality and Worship

The Magic of Winter?

By Dwayne Eutsey

(This column is adapted from a lay sermon I delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship at Easton on Sunday, December 27, 2009).

I’m not a big fan of winter. In fact, I can be downright Scrooge-like when it comes to this time of year.

What little there may be to like about winter is lost to me among my sore back from shoveling an endless layer of snow; driving on dangerously icy roads with the tires of other vehicles spitting and splattering that brown salty glop all over my car; paying those crushingly high heating bills; suffering through colds and flues, numb fingers and toes, and the never-ending sniffly, snotty noses.

With all that going on, is it any wonder I cringe when I hear those sappy songs about winter that we hear around this time? Songs like:

When it snows, ain't it thrilling,

Though your nose gets a chilling

We'll frolic and play, the Eskimo way,

Walking in a winter wonderland.

Especially as I dug out after the recent big snow storm, all I can say to that winterist propaganda is: Bah humbug!

When I think it about it, though, maybe like Scrooge in A Christmas Carol I’ve allowed myself to become so consumed by the cold, dark, and dreary aspects of this season that I have forgotten the magical light of the season that’s shining all around me.

Shining a Candle on the Miracle of Our Wonderful Life

By Dwayne Eutsey

Although I’m something of a cynic when it comes to over-sentimentalized movies, I can’t help but be a fan of that corny but heartfelt holiday flick, It’s a Wonderful Life.

There’s just something uplifting about the story of how the beleaguered George Bailey (played by Jimmy Stewart with homespun American hope and defiant scrappiness) triumphs over Old Man Potter’s warped and self-centered view of life.

If you’ve seen the movie as many times as I have, you can probably recite from memory when George, after his father’s death, tells the banker/slumlord Mr. Potter why his father’s savings and loan sought to help give ordinary working people a decent life:

“Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you’re talking about...they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath? Anyway, my father didn’t think so. People were human beings to him.”

Although it’s nice to fantasize about living in such a world shaped by George Bailey’s economic idealism, unfortunately, evidence increasingly suggests that more and more of us are struggling just to hang on in grim financial Pottersvilles.

According to Elizabeth Warren, Chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel created to oversee the banking bailouts:

“Today, one in five Americans is unemployed, underemployed or just plain out of work. One in nine families can't make the minimum payment on their credit cards. One in eight mortgages is in default or foreclosure. One in eight Americans is on food stamps. More than 120,000 families are filing for bankruptcy every month. The economic crisis has wiped more than $5 trillion from pensions and savings, has left family balance sheets upside down, and threatens to put ten million homeowners out on the street.”

Thanksgiving: A Lesson in Gratitude and Hospitality

 By Dwayne Eutsey

Every year around this time when I was a kid, I remember learning in school about the origin of this month’s big holiday.

As we made pilgrim hats and Indian headbands out of construction paper, the teacher told us the familiar story of how the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Indians celebrated the first Thanksgiving together in 1621. It’s a nice story about the Indians teaching the pilgrims how to plant their first crops in the New World and the pilgrims inviting the Indians over for a feast to thank them and God for the harvest.

However, as with many of our national myths, the story we were taught in school is greatly embellished. In fact, beyond two brief accounts written by pilgrims Edward Winslow and William Bradford we know very little about what happened during this event. There was a harvest feast in Plymouth and Indians were there, but a lot of the rest is open to interpretation.

http://www.pilgrimhall.org/1stthnks.htm

Tough Economic Times Call for Community Action

By Dwayne Eutsey

About 10 years ago, I worked briefly in a small homeless shelter in Frederick, Maryland.

I remember thinking one evening as I looked out from the staff room to where our residents watched TV in the lounge that the televised images they saw must have seemed as alien to them as transmissions from Mars.

It was the late ‘90s, so the dot-com bubble was still inflating many Americans’ perceptions of endless prosperity while heralding a new faith in cut-throat corporatism. Popular shows like Who Wants to be a Millionaire and Survivor reflected these prevailing sensibilities while the persistently high homeless rate at the time barely made a footnote in the national narrative relentlessly promoted on TV sets around the country.

As I saw our homeless residents in the shelter’s lounge that evening watching commercials for shiny new luxury cars and SUVs, I wondered how they must have felt seeing the elusive promises of consumer bliss beamed into their impoverished reality night after night.

After watching an unsettling episode of Frontline recently, I think I may have an idea. Called “Close to Home”, the show “chronicles the recession’s impact on one unlikely American neighborhood -- New York’s Upper East Side.” http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/closetohome/

Unlike most of the people featured in this show, I come from a poor, working-class background and can appreciate some criticisms viewers have expressed about the upscale people featured on the program. “If times are so hard for them,” many viewers have asked, “do they really need the expensive haircuts and massages some of them still charge to their overburdened credit cards?”

Relevant question, but overall, seeing how the worst recession in 63 years has shaken even the most affluent members of our society underscored for me just how unstable the economic situation is for all of us today. In particular the story of the not-so-affluent carpenter featured in the program was heart-wrenching. Not only did his business go under, but his wife died three days before the bank foreclosed their home and dumped all their belongings on the curb.

A Spirituality Rooted Somewhere between Science and Superstition

By Dwayne Eutsey

As Halloween approaches and autumn colorfully marks the year’s demise, two recent items in the news reminded me of our culture’s generally paradoxical view of death. At the risk of oversimplifying it, it seems to me the two main ways we try to make sense of what happens when we die involve either superstitions or science.  

On the superstitious side, for example, Rolling Stone reports that researchers claim a photo of Jim Morrison’s ghost haunting his gravesite is “unexplainable.” Although it isn’t clear who these researchers are or how they reached their conclusion, the article notes that they believe the photo of the dead rock-and-roll legend’s apparition “was in no way manipulated, and also rule out any possibility that it’s merely a trick of the light.”

http://www.rollingstone.com/rockdaily/index.php/2009/10/16/unexplainable-photo-snapped-at-jim-morrisons-grave/

On the scientific side, CNN ran a story about a neurological researcher who says that cryptic near-death experiences (NDEs) are actually quite explainable.

Dr. Kevin Nelson asserts “that near-death experiences are part of the dream mechanism” the brain uses to cope with a life-threatening crisis. He goes on to say, “The most common cause of near-death experience in my research group is fainting. Upwards of 100 million Americans have fainted. That means probably tens of millions of Americans have had these unusual experiences.”

http://www.cnn.com/2009/HEALTH/10/16/cheating.near.death/index.html

Personally, I don’t have a lot of faith in either view represented in these articles. The skeptic in me finds ghost sightings like the Morrison photo dubious (the “researchers” are selling a book of ghostly images, after all), while cold clinical attempts to explain phenomena like NDEs seem sterile and too narrowly focused to me. As Shakespeare might have said to the neurologist, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Dr. Nelson, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Harriet Tubman’s Legacy Lives On

By Dwayne Eutsey

On October 3, 1849, 160 years ago this past Saturday, the following notice from Eliza Ann Brodess, from Bucktown in Dorchester County, appeared in a local newspaper called the Cambridge Democrat:

Three Hundred Dollars Reward.

Ran away from the subscriber on Monday the 17th ult., three negroes, named as follows: HARRY, aged about 19 years…he is of a dark chestnut color, about 5 feet 8 or 9 inches high; BEN, aged about 25 years, is very quick to speak when spoken to, he is of a chestnut color, about six feet high; MINTY, aged about 27 years, is of a chestnut color, fine looking, and about 5 feet high. One hundred dollars reward will be given for each of the above named negroes, if taken out of the State, and $50 each if taken in the State. They must be lodged in Baltimore, Easton or Cambridge Jail, in Maryland.

The “fine looking…5 feet high” Minty the notice refers to was an African American woman originally named Araminta Ross, now more famously known as Harriet Tubman.

Brodess posted the notice after Tubman and two of her brothers made their first attempt to escape race slavery on the Eastern Shore. They didn’t make it to freedom that time, but as Tubman would go on to demonstrate throughout her life, she wasn’t one to let setbacks hold her down.

Not long after she and her brothers returned to Bucktown, Tubman successfully escaped to the North with the help of the Underground Railroad and the community of Quakers living in the Preston area. Even so, she secretly returned to the Shore numerous times in the years leading up to the Civil War. At great risk to her life and liberty, Tubman helped lead hundreds of escaped slaves to the “promised land” of freedom, earning her the well-deserved epithet “Moses.”

Ghosts and Goblins Might be Trying to Tell You Something

By Dwayne Eutsey

With the hint of chill in the air and the morning and afternoon sunlight becoming a bit more golden with each passing day, I’m reminded just how much I love autumn.

I’m pretty easy going when it comes to all the seasons. However, summer’s stifling heat can drain me, soggy spring’s allergies irritate me, and I shudder to think about winter’s heating bills and the sore back I get from shoveling snow.

Fall, on the other hand, is a season that’s better suited for my more laid-back, contemplative nature. I can slowly ease into and savor it like a cup of hot apple cider late on a brisk afternoon. Autumn’s meditative appeal isn’t surprising when you consider that in many pagan cultures this time of year, traditionally marking the end of harvest, was literally a time for taking stock of your life amid the encroaching cold. According to one pagan source:

“This is the time when thoughts turn towards the culmination of a year’s work; for our ancestors it represented the culmination of the year’s endeavors in ensuring that they could look forward to enough food to see through the winter—the grain which would provide the following year’s bread and beer, the fruit and meat were laid down and stored for the coming months of scarcity.”

http://www.whitedragon.org.uk/articles/harvest.htm

As the natural world goes into its cyclical remission, fall is also known for its festivals of the dead. I’ll write more about these haunting celebrations as we get closer to Halloween. For now, however, I’d like to reflect on why ghostly folklore might be so inseparably entwined with this time of year like tangled vines in a pumpkin patch.

Cycling and the Art of Spiritual Maintenance

By Dwayne Eutsey

I just returned from an awesome bike ride, man.

Now, I’m not typically the kind of person who goes around saying “awesome,” but in this instance it fits.

Far from the bland, overused buzzword it’s become in today’s lingo, “awesome” literally means stirring within someone a sense of awe, which itself can be defined as an emotion inspired by the sacred or sublime.

Earlier today I was hunched over the dining room table counting and rolling coins to help us make the proverbial ends meet until the end of the week, so I was about ready for something a little more sacred or sublime than mounds of dirty pocket change. I’m happy to say I found it while cycling around my little chunk of the Shore on this late September Sunday afternoon.

Life in a Jar -- Irena Sendler

It's time for another look at the email inbox, this time I found one of those emails that sounded to good to be real.  This had to be a made up story, just to get get people to forward it.  Turns out that reality was actually better (worse?) than the email.

I will not go into details, but I will encourage you to follow the links below and read more about this remarkable woman from the old world and the remarkable young women from the new world that gave a story life.

Here is the email, I have inserted dates/corrections in parenthesis to correct the context of the email:

Irena Sendler


There recently (May, 2008) was a death of a 98 year-old lady named Irena. During WWII, Irena, got permission to work in the Warsaw Ghetto, as a Plumbing/Sewer (actually she worked for the health department) specialist. She had an 'ulterior motive' ... She KNEW what the Nazi's plans were for the Jews, (being Polish.) Irena smuggled infants out in the bottom of the tool box she carried, and she carried in the back of her truck a burlap sack, (for larger kids..) She also had a dog in the back that she trained to bark when the Nazi soldiers let her in and out of the ghetto. The soldiers of course wanted nothing to do with the dog and the barking covered the kids/infants noises.. During her time of doing this, she managed to smuggle out and save 2500 kids/infants. She was caught, and the Nazi's broke both her legs, arms and beat her severely. Irena kept a record of the names of all the kids she smuggled out and kept them in a glass jar, buried under a tree in her back yard. After the war, she tried to locate any parents that may have survived it and reunited the family. Most had been gassed. Those kids she helped got placed into foster family homes or adopted.

Water, Water Everywhere…The Spirituality of Water

by Dwayne Eutsey

Last Sunday at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship at Easton (UUFE), we celebrated the opening of our church year through a ritual called the “Water Communion.”

According to the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA):

The water service is a UU ritual, usually conducted in the fall when friends and members return from their summer travels. They are invited to bring a sample of water from their travels or water that has other significance for them. All of the samples are poured into a common bowl or vase to signify coming together again. It’s a way of symbolizing that many are one, and a way of getting reacquainted.

The first Unitarian Universalist Water Communion in 1980 took the sacredness of water and originally transformed it into a symbol of empowerment for women. Organized by attendees of a Women and Religion Conference, the ritual was initially intended to speak to the worship needs of women, with the water symbolizing the birth waters; the cycles of moon, tides and women; and all the waters of this small blue planet.

Water, as the key ingredient of this service, is an appropriate symbol of such ingathering and also of true communion. It is, like the air we breathe, something we all need and all share in common. It is something vital that each of us must have in order to sustain the interconnected web of life to which we all belong.

Because of its importance to life, human beings have revered water as holy throughout our history: Genesis tells us that the Spirit of God moved over the surface of the watery depths before creation began; Jesus began his ministry after being baptized in the Jordan and the Spirit descended on him like a dove.

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