Religious Education: Sun Sep 8

Greetings CUUC

This is my first blog as your new Director of Lifespan Religious Education and Faith Development. I look forward to seeing you at Ingathering, September 8th! The Fall Communitarian is full of information about the coming year. Please take the time to read everything and check here each week for updates. In the weekly newsletter, I will post upcoming topics in Religious Exploration/Education (RE) classes.

On your way home from worship, RE classes, journey groups and committee meetings, I encourage you to share thoughts around these three questions:
  1. What did I learn about Unitarian Universalism?
  2. What did I learn about the way Unitarian Universalists think and see the world?
  3. What did I learn about the way we act and behave as Unitarian Universalists, as we are in relationship with each other?
Those are reflected in the ways we teach through all of the choices we make in community:
  1. Explicit Curriculum - structured class lessons and activities, journey groups, use of covenant to call each other in to right relationship (rather than calling each other out), showing up in solidarity and working toward justice; 
  2. Implicit Curriculum - the ways in which we interact with each other and create intentional community that reflect our values as we worship together, support each other in times of joy and sorrow, engage in difficult conversations, interweave the many ministries of the congregation, uphold safe congregation practices, and build a culture of inclusion; and
  3. Null Curriculum - the topics we do not discuss and voices we are not listening to. 
Everything we do in our faith community teaches. The congregation is the curriculum. In that sense, everyone is participating in the RE ministry.

You will hear me talk about religious exploration as well as education. Central to our Unitarian Universalist theology is the understanding that we are each on a journey of learning and discovery, and it matters that we share the journey in community, honoring our interconnection and uniqueness. It is important that we have space to explore our own beliefs and that we support each other on our journeys.

You will also hear me talk about ministry, which is grounded in my understanding that in faith community we minister to each other as we care for one another and work to live into the values of our faith inside the walls of CUUC, in our local community, and in the world. 

I look forward to the year ahead, to learning more about this community and collaborating as we work to live into the congregation's mission and vision.

in fellowship,


Tracy Breneman
Director of Lifespan Religious Education and Faith Development



Practice of the Week

Category: Ecospiritual. These practices are oriented toward developing our spirituality through our connection with our planet home and our responsibility to care for it.

We – as individuals and as a species — are tiny and insignificant, yet unique and precious. We participate in the grand story that is the universe: creation and dissolution, being and nothingness, life and death.

We die. We must. Without death, there would simply be no room for new life. Further, death and decay are integral to life itself. The leaves that fall in autumn provide nutrients for the green shoots that emerge in the spring. Predator devours prey. The dance of "I eat you, you eat me” goes on. Thousands of neurons in a newborn's brain die in order for others to form connections. Without these cell deaths, the child's development would be impaired. Even deaths that seem “unnatural” are part of the cycle. The fox finds the mother rabbit's burrow. The baby zebra ends up in the lion's mouth. The eggs grow cold from exposure and never hatch. The fawn cannot find enough to eat. In the not-so distant past, human children commonly died before age five. It may not be easy or pretty but it is inevitable. Death, like life, simply is.

Even on the grandest scale of all, death is integral. Every atom in your body had its beginnings inside a massive ancient star that exploded. On the early Earth, the evolution of new complex forms of life that ultimately led to the evolution of humanity necessitated the death or extinction of other forms. Life flows onward, creating and expanding anew -- and so does death. Death flows onward, cleansing, clearing, recycling, providing the raw materials for life processes. Death cannot exist without life, nor life without death. They are so intimately intertwined that they are really best considered as one process. This one life-and-death process is one of continual transformation. We—and everything else that exists—are always in the process of being, becoming, dissolving, evolving, transforming.

On the ocean of being, an individual life is one wave. We ripple over the ocean until we peter out or run aground, but we are never separated from the larger whole.


1. Transformation. Clear your altar, and collect items for two categories: alive and formerly alive. “Alive” might include a potted plant or a small fish tank. “Formerly alive” might include feathers, bones, dried leaves, or seashells. Arrange them to suit you, and leave them in place for a week or so. Spend some time daily at your altar considering the following:
How are your alive items in the process of transforming into something not alive?
How are your formerly alive items in the process of transforming into something alive?
On what sort of timescale might these transformations play out -- weeks, years, centuries?

2. Imagine Your Own Funeral. (Note: if you are depressed or have struggled with thoughts of suicide, consult a mental health professional before doing this exercise, or just skip it entirely.) Imagine what your funeral will be like. In your journal, explore how you wish it would be and how you would like to be remembered by family and friends. In your imagination, is it a quiet memorial or a rowdy wake? Is there any particular music playing or poems someone is reading? Who is there? If you wish, consider pre-planning services offered by many funeral homes. You can plan, pay for, and make choices for your own funeral. This would help ensure that your wishes are carried out, and also spare family members from having to make these decisions during their time of grief.

3. Life Cycle Project. This is an ongoing project that will take many months. Throughout this time, reflect on the process in your journal. Follow the life cycle of a plant from seed to seed. Choose an easy-to-grow flowering annual plant, such as a marigold or zinnia. Pick a variety that is relatively short and suitable for growing in a pot, in case you need to move it indoors for frost protection. Plant your seed in a pot. As you do so, mindfully consider the seed as a metaphor for the life/death/rebirth transformation cycle. Water it, tend it, place it in a sunny location, and watch it grow. When it flowers, don't "deadhead” it by removing the blooms to encourage more blooms. Instead, allow the plant to complete its natural life cycle. Monitor it as it goes to seed, and eventually dies. Allow it to completely transform by simply leaving it in its pot, and observe as the plant gradually becomes part of the soil itself, ready to grow the next generation. (Some of the seeds may sprout into that next generation, and you can observe all over again.)

Group Activities

Examining the Culture. Our contemporary culture denies death, and tries to postpone it as long as possible regardless of the quality of life. Share experiences related to how our culture handles serious illness, impending death, funeral rituals, and grief. Share openly and honestly, but respectfully, realizing that although we share a culture, our individual stories and experiences are unique.

Questions for Group Conversation:

  • Is there such a thing as a "good death"? If so, describe it.
  • How might reframing the concepts of life and death into the broader concept of transformation alter how we think about them?
  • How can a nature-based, deep-time perspective help us through the grieving process? Can it be blended into traditional religious beliefs? If so, how? If not, why?
  • Consider the entire life/death/transformation cycle from the perspective of a mountain, a town, a civilization/culture, a language, a bacterium, an insect, or any other entity. Be sure to place them in the larger context of the story of the universe.

* * *


Don't Judge

Practice of the Week
Don't Judge

Category: Slogans to Live By: Carry these reminders at all times. These practices don't require setting aside a separate substantial chunk of time -- but they will slow you down a bit (and that's a good thing.) Resolve to get stronger at living by these maxims, day by day. Sometimes make one of them the focus of your daily journaling.

Adapted from Judith Lief, "Don't Talk About Injured Limbs," and
"Don't Ponder Others;" and Norman Fischer, Training in Compassion,
"Don't Talk About Faults," and "Don't Figure Others Out."

Most of us avoid talking about someone's obvious physical limitations: being wheel-chair bound, on crutches, or missing an arm, say. What about the metaphorical "injured limbs" -- others' limitations of cognitive, emotional, or psychological functioning?

Judith Lief: Don't talk about injured limbs.
Rather than dwelling on what is wrong with people, which only exaggerates and perpetuates their weaknesses, remember that they are doing the best they can. Accept them as they are.

This slogan does not imply that you should not notice the problems or deformities people have, or that you should pretend everything is okay. The point is to examine how you react to such things.

Judging people distances ourselves from them. It’s a subtle rejection of them. Yet we tend to dwell on faults because we are both fascinated and repulsed by other people’s faults, weaknesses, abnormalities.

Combine awareness with acceptance. Take people as they are, no matter what condition they are in. When you see people in this straightforward way, you are not embarrassed by their ugliness, weakness, or infirmity. Instead, you simply meet them where they are.
Norman Fischer: Don't talk about faults.
Suppose for one week you didn’t, under any circumstances, discuss the faults of others. You would probably discover with some shock how much of what you say (and hear) involves in one way or another discussing the faults of others.

Although we all indulge this sort of seemingly innocent judgmentalism, it also makes us nervous. What are the others saying about us when we are not around? Someone who refrained from any complaint about any other person and was consistently supportive and forgiving, would stand out. People would be unusually drawn to such a person.

When someone is being nasty, obnoxious, corrupt, cruel, stupid, or incompetent, speaking of that person's faults in a harsh or critical way doesn't help. It generally makes a bad situation worse. Such criticism makes the person upset, feel attacked, which inspires zir to continue in the same vein.

Everyone who acts or speaks destructively, foolishly, or incompetently is like a person with an injured limb. We don't criticize someone for having an obvious physical injury. Likewise, let us not be critical of the person with an inner injury that is the ultimate cause of zir poor conduct. We can recognize the injury and the limitations that it engenders and respect the person.

Speaking with kindness and warmth to and about a person who has been conditioned by almost all of zir relationships to expect the opposite may cause surprising transformation. Maybe you can’t imagine what the injury would be. But remember: whether you can imagine it or not, there's an injury behind every fault. So condition yourself, little by little, to speak differently. If you need to correct someone, speak with sympathy. Such people need to figure out how to heal their wounds someday, and harsh words will not inspire them, you, or other listeners.
Accept that there is an injury behind every fault. Don't even try to figure out what it is!

Judith Lief: Don't ponder others.
It is easy, entertaining, and totally distracting to muse about what is wrong with everybody else. The habit of faultfinding is part of a larger pattern of insecurity in which we always feel the need to compare ourselves to other people. It is as though we need to convince ourselves that we are okay, which we can only do indirectly, in comparison to people who are less okay.

Strangely, when you are not afraid to uncover your own limitations, and you are not constantly comparing yourself to others, it is a great relief. You no longer have to convince yourself of anything and you have nothing to hide. And when you look at other people, you are not doing so with the ulterior motive of using what you see to prop up your own feeling of superiority and virtue.
Norman Fischer: Don't figure others out.
Think of all the time you spend analyzing and discussing acquaintances, as if you could know what was going on with them, as if you had a real line on them and their problems. Who could ever understand another person? We don’t understand ourselves! There is so much going on in our mind -- all sorts of contradictory and underappreciated phenomena – so how could we possibly fathom what makes another person tick?

Jack Himmelstein (Center for Understanding in Conflict), notes:
"We judge ourselves by our intentions; we judge others by the effects of their actions on us."
This is one reason we so often come out on the righteous side of our conflicts: we think we know our own inmost intentions (and we are often wrong); we assume the intentions of others based on our understanding of their outward acts (and we are usually wrong).

Instead, when you find yourself thinking about someone else's motives, needs, or feelings, catch yourself and remember that you don't really know what someone else is thinking or feeling, so you are better off assuming ze is doing zir best and that everyone is on the same human journey you are on. Maybe at the moment zir journey is leading zir down some nasty dark alley ways. Practicing this slogan, repeating it to ourselves frequently, even in the midst of controversy with others, trains the mind to recall that we know little of what is in our own heart, let alone someone else’s.

Yes, there are times when it may be a good idea to try to imagine what someone else is feeling, thinking, needing, or wanting. Doing that in the light of this slogan means doing it with humility, knowing that we may be mistaken.

As you go about your day, with the people you encounter, pay attention to what comes up in your mind. Pay particular attention to the qualities of comparison mind and faultfinding mind. What is the difference between simply seeing a flaw and dwelling on it or using it to prop yourself up?

* * *


Don't Take Yourself Seriously

Practice of the Week
Don't Take Yourself Seriously

Category: Slogans to Live By: Carry these reminders at all times. These practices don't require setting aside a separate substantial chunk of time -- but they will slow you down a bit (and that's a good thing.) Resolve to get stronger at living by these maxims, day by day. Sometimes make one of them the focus of your daily journaling.

Adapted from Norman Fischer, Training in Compassion, "Don't Be a Phony," and "Don't Be Tricky," and Judith Lief, "Change Your Attitude, but Remain Natural," and "Don't Act with a Twist."

Click the picture for a video that
humorously illustrates ego
hijacking one's spiritual efforts.
Taking yourself too seriously takes two forms: (A) making too many rules for yourself, and (B) becoming overly ego-involved, allowing the ego to hijack the spiritual project.

A. Relax a bit about rules. Remain natural.

A commitment to spiritual training often, at first, makes a person very kind but maybe a little stiff, a little too deliberate about everything one does, very mindful about everything If you go to a monastery, you'll notice that the newer monastics are like this: very careful with the forms, very precise, very polite, perfect, and stiff. They are clearly trying hard, which is appropriate. It takes time to learn how to try hard while at the same time not taking oneself seriously.

If you're going to revolutionize your life, please do. But don't impose a rigid, artificial regimen on yourself. Change your attitude, but remain natural. Don't be a phony. In fact, as you go on, you begin to see that the spiritual process is exactly the opposite of this: that you've been imposing a regimen on yourself all of your life, you took it to be yourself -- and now finally you can stop, you can relax, you don't have to impress anyone, especially yourself.

So when you notice you're imposing something on yourself and your efforts to be good feel like a straitjacket, then try this slogan: "Lighten up, relax, maybe go to a movie, have a glass of wine, don't try so hard, maybe there's something good on TV."

B. Relax the self-importance.

Most of us have the attitude that we are more important than others. This is our default position, and deeply ingrained, although it’s embarrassing and we don’t like to admit it. Mind training is all about changing that fundamental stance. It takes effort to radically shift our attitude so that our concern for the welfare of others pops up first, rather than a distant second.

This kind of attitude adjustment seems like a pretty big deal, but it is important not to get caught up in the big-dealness. Spiritual practice has an odd way of combining radical challenges with the encouragement to just relax. Taking your spiritual growth seriously might prompt exhibitionism or spiritual posturing. Don’t let that happen! Get over yourself and just relax. Meet the challenge humbly -- through small but consistent moves in the direction of awareness and loving kindness.

When the ego hijacks your spiritual project, it injects ulterior motives. You want very much to cultivate altruism deeply and seriously -- but the ego will turns your efforts to its ulterior purposes such as winning friends and influencing people. Of course, it is wonderful to have friends, and if we can influence people for the good, this is worthwhile, but the focus of spiritual practice is the conviction, based on long reflection, that the cultivation of altruism is simply the best, truest, and most satisfying way to live.

Egoistic motives are not easily eradicated. Look closely at yourself and see whether, in fact, in some subtle way you are trying to gain advantages and "points" by being a nice person others will admire. Probably you do have this motivation, at least in part. We all do.

As you commit to spiritual practice, you may encounter people who tell you it's wonderful that you're on a serious spiritual path. They express admiration that you meditate, or do yoga, or are wise and healthy and a vegetarian. They may express the wish they could maintain a spiritual discipline. Even though the more common attitude is that meditation and spiritual practice are hooey, the province of the pious or naïve, in certain circles you'll be credited for your spiritual efforts, and thus you may grow proud of them.

You may find yourself keeping track of your acts of kindness and your moments of awareness as demonstrations of how you are progressing. Instead of genuinely opening your heart, you're going through the motions. You catch yourself looking around to make sure that your benevolence is properly noticed and admired.

When we peek through our self-satisfaction and self-deception and notice the pride we have been generating in ourselves for our fine spiritual efforts, we should simply admit it, and be able to laugh at, and forgive, ourselves. Selfish motivation is perfectly normal, and we will always be dealing with it. Notice this and be real about it. There’s no need to be bothered by it. But don’t be fooled by it either.

When egoistic motives arise in your heart, take an honest and lighthearted look at yourself and be ready to forgive yourself for your natural foibles. There's no point in self-recriminations, regrets, and self-blame -- those are just further manifestations of self-importance -- but do notice your egoistic motives. Then move on.

The self-importance of taking ourselves seriously results in acting "with a twist" -- the "twist" being the egoism behind our efforts to appear to have compassion, kindness, wisdom, and spiritual insight. When we relax the self-importance, our words and actions are not "sticky." They are straightforward, with no hidden schemes attached. When we practice meditation or otherwise develop compassion, we have no thought that we’re getting any credit. Instead, moment by moment, as each new situation arises, we work with it as best we can and then we let it go.

Ironically, moving from selfishness to concern for others starts with being honestly selfish. When such selfishness is hidden, that underground force colors everything you do, and you can’t help but "act with a twist." But each time you expose it, you are diminishing its power. Not taking ourselves seriously, we can let go of those selfish motives and relax.


Notice how often what you do is based on “What’s in it for me?” Rather than try to hide that, bring it into the open.

* * *


Expand Your Reality

Practice of the Week
Expand Your Reality

Category: Ecospiritual. These practices are oriented toward developing our spirituality through our connection with our planet home and our responsibility to care for it.

The medium-sized world (of stuff we can see) makes sense to us. Parts fit together nicely into wholes, and we experience moments of clarity and understanding. On the micro-level, however, the logic that serves us well in the middle-sized world falls to pieces. Reality turns out to be far more bizarre than we had previously imagined -- and far more amazing too. Considering these ideas can be a journey into awe and wonder.

What are you made of? Mostly empty space. The atoms – that make molecules that make cells that make tissues that make you -- are mostly nothing. If the nucleus of an atom were a grain of rice lying in the middle of Times Square, the rest of Times Square represents the space in which the electrons of that atom exist.

Our perception of ourselves as solid discrete entities is an illusion. At the atomic level, there is no boundary, no division between you and the rest of the universe.

Physicists now believe that this open space isn't entirely empty. It's frothing with energy and virtual particles that flit into and out of existence constantly. This luminous void exists within each of us, all the time.

Moving out to the largest macro scale, outer space isn't quite so empty either. The possibilities of dark energy and dark matter are throwing monkey wrenches into our understanding of the universe.

The implications of our new understanding of reality both at the subatomic and intergalactic scales are overflowing with majesty and wonder. Some might call it Holy, Sacred Mystery. This Mystery transcends religious boundaries and human divisions, including the divide between those who call themselves religious and those who do not.

Mystery itself seems to be built into the fabric of the universe. Werner Heisenberg discovered it is impossible to know both the velocity and location of a particle with any precision. Knowing one changes the other. There is always an unknown. Even more bizarre is the fact that the observer affects the existence of the observed. If all this isn't enough for you, toss in the possibility of multiple universes, eleven (or more) dimensions on top of the four we experience, the curvature of space time, and a little relativity just for fun. Are you not boggled?


1. Unity Visualization. Sit comfortably in a place where you will be undisturbed for fifteen minutes or so. Start out looking at your hand. See the texture of your skin. Imagine that you are looking at it through a microscope, closer and closer, deeper into the layers. At this point, close your eyes. Visualize seeing your skin in close detail, and slowly increase the magnification of your imaginary microscope. Now you can see your cells. Going closer, you can see the nucleus and all the organelles working in harmony. Zooming in on the nucleus, you can see your chromosomes and then your DNA. Closer still, you see the twisted ladder of the double helix. Go closer. You see open space, and the tiny nucleus of an individual atom. Imagine this space filled with virtual particles flitting into and out of existence. Moving closer, you see the protons and neutrons of the nucleus. As you observe them, you notice them slowly changing, and a star takes their place. Backing out a bit, you now see a galaxy, then another. Stay here for a while. See the harmony of it all, the beauty. When you are ready, come back to the present, and slowly open your eyes. Reflect on your experience in your journal.

2. The Unknowable Path. First, do the “Many Paths and Possibilities" practice (HERE). Looking at what you wrote and reviewing the paths you didn't take, reflect on the idea that the outcomes you presume from any given path are unknowable. As you look back at your outcomes, imagine a different one. How else might it have gone? Try to picture several scenarios. It might have been better or worse than you envisioned, but it is an unknowable mystery. With a spirit of gentleness toward yourself, release all the possibilities, let go of any regrets, and spend some time writing about the unknowns in your own life.

3. Shape of the Unknown. Consider the mysterious virtual particles and mysterious energies that physicists believe exist in the open spaces within an atom. How do you imagine them? Do they hold any meaning for you? Using any media that you like—sculpture, painting, or even dance-create your vision of this unknown, yet oddly intimate aspect of your world. Call to mind the fact that all this Mystery resides within you at this very moment.

Group Activities

Unity Visualization. Try the “Unity Visualization," described above, with a few enhancements for your group. Begin the session by playing some soft, relaxing music that can play through the entire session if desired. Allow participants to settle in, slowly breathe, and relax for several minutes before beginning. The leader should then slowly guide the group through the visualization, allowing time at each new level of imagining. Afterward, gently guide the group back to the present moment. Pause, and then allow participants to stretch and move a little before sharing their perceptions of the experience with each other.

Questions for Group Conversation:
  • The subatomic and macroscopic worlds exist simultaneously. How do they differ? How does what we call reality depend on what world is being considered?
  • How does our middle-sized world relate to the others? Do the problems we perceive in the everyday world have any relevance or meaning at these other levels of reality?
  • How do the implications of modern physics fit together—or not--with religious traditions and ways of understanding the world? Do some traditions blend with these implications more easily than others? How so?
  • At the atomic level and beyond the division between you and what is not you falls away. Only a continuum of particles exists. Does this change how you perceive and relate to your world and others in it? How?
* * *