Monday, April 25, 2005

Unitarian Universalists in the Military

If you've read my other blog, A Virginia UU in King George's War, you might remember that I'm going to be on a panel this summer at GA called "Unitarian Universalists in the Military." If you want to know more, check out the cool brochure that my graphic artist wife put together.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Prayer and Meditation: Practices in Presence

Creating and offering worship is one of the things that draws me to ministry. I find it most fulfilling to create worship with others, and this past Sunday I was honored and privileged to share the pulpit with our fantastic new minister Nancy. Our service was about the spiritual practices of prayer and meditation, which although they start from very different places can bring us to a common center of wholeness and peace in community. Here, then, are a prayer and a meditation, as offered during that service. Enjoy.

Prayer as thanksgiving and lament, offered to something greater than ourselves (from Nancy)

Spirit of life and love that moves within, among, and beyond us…

There is one human paradox among the many
that leaves us baffled, crying out for air, for answers, for a reason.
The paradox is that we are both unimaginably strong and irreparably weak,
that this world is ours to change,
that we are powerful beyond measure,
that our dreams can take solid shape
and walk among men and women,
vision become reality…

And yet, for all our power, we remain so small,
so ceaselessly incapable
of knowing everything,
understanding everything,
changing everything,
so small that when the questions get too big
and the answers fade into mist,
even we powerful ones
must bow to the mystery,

Even we powerful ones
must bend as humble reeds
in winds we do not create
and cannot still,
riding the tender and fast paced breath
of we know not who
to we know not where
to places we have never imagined,
nor dreamed, nor dared to predict.

In the sweeping unpredictability of every moment,
may we come to know our own power
even as we acknowledge our own limitation.
May we claim both strength and awe,
May we stand and may we kneel.
Spirit of life, may we know you
in even fleeting glimpses for what you are,
the God within, the God among, and the God beyond.


Meditation as the food of joy, where concious breathing opens the door to looking deeply (from Greg with thanks to Thich Nhat Hanh)

Breathing in, I know I am breathing in
Breathing out, I know I am breathing out
Breathing in
Breathing out
My mind is a breathing mind
not a remembering mind
not a thinking mind
not a planning mind

Breathing in, my breath grows deeper
Breathing out, my breath goes slowly
Deep Slow
Deep like the Grand Canyon
slow like a grain of sand in the canyon wall

Breathing in, I feel joy to be alive
Breathing out, I smile
Joy to be alive
All I have to do in this moment is breathe
I find joy in breathing
and I smile

Breathing in, I dwell in the present moment
Breathing out, I know it is a wonderful moment
Present moment
Wonderful moment
Life only happens in the present moment
not in the past which is gone
or the future which has yet to come

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

From Mortars to Meditation: A UU Marine in Iraq

I wrote this essay last winter as a submission to UU World Magazine. It was not published in the May/June issue as I had hoped, but it might appear there in the future. Meanwhile, you can read it here.

I spend my first morning at Camp Kalsu (a dusty, desolate outpost of the occupation, south of Baghdad) with one of the “old hands,” a helicopter pilot who shows me around and tells me what to do in case of a mortar attack. “Always hit the deck – that’s the safest place. If the rounds land far away, run for a bunker. If they’re close, stay down until the last impact and then run for a bunker.” He suggests an early lunch, because yesterday the chow hall was attacked at the end of lunchtime.

I feel very exposed and vulnerable as we wait in line outside the chow hall; the thin aluminum building, although surrounded by huge concrete barriers, looks about as sturdy as a beer can. Once we are inside and seated with our food, I find it very awkward to eat while wearing my flak vest, and I keep spilling little bits of rice down the front. I wonder if it’s worth the bother. I ask “what do we do if we start taking fire while we’re in here?” My host replies, “same as outside – hit the deck, get your helmet on, and wait for the stampede out the back door to end. Once it clears out, run for the bunkers.”

This advice is very timely. Less than a minute later, our meal is suddenly interrupted by a series of unbelievably loud explosions - mortar shells falling just outside the chow hall, no more than 10 yards from where we sit. In a few seconds we are all on the floor, except for the sergeant next to me, who still sits on his chair in dazed disbelief. I pull him to the floor and fumble to fasten my helmet strap under my chin. The sound of explosions is deafening as the rounds keep falling.

When the impacts seem to end and the crowd has thinned, we scramble outside and dive into the crowded bunker. I feel hysterical laughter welling up with the release of adrenaline and the knowledge that I am unharmed. Sitting in the bunker, I look at my shaking hands and the faces of strangers around me – some scared, some bored – and wonder if I will ever get used to this.

Mortar attacks (frequent and nerve-wracking, but mercifully short and usually harmless) become part of the scenery here at Kalsu. The biggest challenge is day-to-day life here in this parade of Mondays - a seemingly endless flow of solitary hours, days, weeks, and months – unbroken by weekends or holidays. I work alone as the Night Airboss – a task neither difficult nor interesting - and I am challenged to avoid despair, self-pity, and homesickness. This is much more difficult than my four previous peacetime deployments as a Harrier pilot. To transcend the sameness of my daily existence, I turn to the spiritual practices I have learned since I discovered Unitarian Universalism.

I like to tell people “I’ve been a UU my whole life; I just didn’t know it until I was 35.” My first taste of UU came when my wife dragged me to a service at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Monterey Peninsula a little over three years ago. I sat in the sanctuary with the minister’s voice flowing over me, watching the trees swaying in the wind, feeling the palpable love and welcome of the congregation. I knew I had found my spiritual home – something I didn’t even know I was seeking.

I soon became a committed member of that community, and the larger one of Unitarian Universalism. I have twice had the good fortune to attend the Pacific Central District Leadership School in Alamo, California – once as a student, and once as a staff assistant. During these weeks, I was introduced to a variety of spiritual practices; among them are two that I bring to my life here in Iraq – Tai Chi water exercises and meditation.

I begin each day with writing, meditation, and Tai Chi. Today, as on so many days, I write about how much I miss my wife and two children, and all of the relationships I have at home. I carry these thoughts into meditation, deepening my understanding of how important these people and our relationships are to me. When the time comes to transition from the peace and joy of meditation to the reality of my present, the mental and physical flow of Tai Chi provides a path. The world within my mind is safe and comfortable, but life only really exists in the present moment, in the real world where I am right now.

This reality includes mortar attacks, often when I’m asleep. I awaken to that gut-wrenching crack-BOOM, as I struggle out of a deep sleep into my flak vest and helmet. Lying curled in a fetal ball on the floor, heart pounding, I recoil with each explosion. I hear the subtle sound of something falling on my tent like a drop of rain. Eventually there is silence.

I step outside, and the present moment holds beauty – fear is now in the past. The sky is blue, the birds sing, and the sun shines. It shines on me, it shines on my tent, and it shines on the jagged piece of shrapnel imbedded in the fabric. In the present moment, fear comes again.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

The Crossing Guard

This morning I got to take my kids to school because my wife had an early meeting, which on the surface appears to be a good thing. It turned out to be very challenging, however, due to a son who couldn't stay focused on getting ready, a daughter who was being ugly to her friend who rides with us, and a lot of sitting in awful rush-hour traffic because the usual "back way" is closed for construction. It was difficult not to be impatient as it became obvious that my son and I would be late to school and work, respectively.

In the midst of this hour of driving, I encountered the most amazing person. When I first saw him, what leaped to mind was "great, another delay." As I slowed and then drove by him, I noticed he was not just waving me on, but waving to me; he was not just blowing his whistle, but smiling around it at me! I told my son "hey, that crossing guard was really friendly," and he replied "you're being sarcastic, right?"

I guess he knows me a little too well.

But the crossing guard was amazingly friendly - and when we drove back by him a few minutes later (in a different car) he waved, smiled, and said "good morning" (unencumbered by his whistle this time).

I feel blessed by my chance meeting with this man who could take the time to cheerfully greet people in cars - presumably people who might see him as an impediment to their busy lives - not just with a wave, but with a smile and kind words. I hope I can hold the experience in my heart and mind and remember to slow down, be aware, and acknowledge other people whenever I see them. Who knows, I might make someone's day...

Monday, April 11, 2005

A Walk in the Woods

Looking out the window at work this morning, I noticed little green buds on many of the trees by the creek across the road, and decided that today would be a good day for a walk on the nature trail behind my building.

I am very fortunate to work on a base where the work and housing areas are in a sort of oval around a central woods or forest. This area, criss-crossed with trails, is full of deer, raccoon, opossum, squirrels, and other critters, and of course riotous with flora just now bursting forth with the increasing warmth of springtime. Most of the larger trees - three varieties of oak, hickory, and birch - are sprouting tiny leaf buds that in a few weeks will produce an undulating canopy of green.

I have been on these trails many times over the past two years, almost always on two wheels. On most of the occasions when I've walked or jogged on these trails, I've imagined myself riding my mountain bike - picking lines, seeking out jumps, and hammering up the hills. My relationship with the trails and the woods has been formed at 10 miles per hour, an hour or two at a time, punctuated by brief stops for water, food, and oxygen.

Today I walk because I'm still recovering from minor surgery, and I'm not supposed to ride for another week. I just can't sit in the building any longer today, having spent much of the weekend outside. The forest beckons, and I set off for the trails thinking about riding. Before long, however, I am walking just for the sake of walking, and realize that the woods are much different at a slower pace.

I quickly leave behind the parking lot and most of the noise of the base - the mournful wail of a train whistle and the droning of an airplane high overhead are all that follow me into the forest - and find a bench in the sunlight. With a sigh of relief, I lie down to consider the pattern of bud-tipped barren branches etched against the deep blue of the sky.

As I relax into being present with the woods, I become aware of the sensuousness of my surroundings. Besides the trees and sky, I see little birds flitting about, and dust motes, leaves, and insects floating on the air. My ears alert me to the presence of many other creatures: the hammering of a woodpecker; the chirping, squawking, cawing, and cheeping of other birds; a mysterious rustling from the ground. Closer inspection of the leafy mat behind the bench reveals a busy little world of ants and beetles, and promises the presence of other more reclusive creatures such as mice, salamanders, and worms. I savor the rich scent of loamy earth and sundrenched leaves, and imagine the clear cool taste of water from a tiny rill nearby.

Continuing on my walk I notice all these things and more, and appreciate being able to go for a walk in the woods on a beautiful spring day. What power lunch or important meeting could compare with the urgency of just opening my eyes and ears to the wonder that is all around me? I want to be camping, to find my cozy little tent and lie down for an afternoon snooze to rest up for watching the stars. I want to experience this like a child - lie in the leaves and be seven again, uncaring of bills work mortgage career. I want to watch spring unfold, minute by minute and day by day, as the Earth warms and blooms.

Life is too short not to walk in the woods whenever you can.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005


Ever since I started playing guitar, and particularly in the last month or so, I’ve thought a lot about a close friend from high school who was a guitar player. We spent a lot of time together listening to music and playing in a band together, but I hadn’t seen or talked to him for about 20 years. I had the feeling that our friendship ended badly, and it’s been bothering me that I let such a close relationship go for so many years without even trying to renew it or at least .

Last week I finally Googled my friend, Jason, and found his website. He is living a dream – stay-at-home dad and traveling musician. As I browsed through his pages, I saw that he was scheduled to perform at a bar in Arlington, less than an hour from my home, on Sunday night. Serendipitously, my family and I were already planning to spend the day there visiting friends - the universe seemed to be conspiring for my friend and me to meet again.

I e-mailed Jason with some trepidation, wondering if my feeling that our relationship had ended badly was based on something that I had done or said, or if it were something else. Honestly I couldn’t remember having a falling out – I just had this feeling of having parted badly. I was overjoyed to receive a quick response, and we superficially caught up on our lives electronically. It became apparent that my family plans for the day and his travel schedule would not necessarily allow us to meet during the day when I thought it would work best for me. I decided that at least we had made contact, and we could catch up on the phone later.

Sunday morning my family and I went up to Arlington as we had planned, and we had a wonderful visit with some close friends from California and their parents. My kids found salamanders and worms in the back yard with Kate while Mike and I played our songs for each other inside. As the time to leave grew closer, I felt more and more compelled to find a way to stay and see my friend Jason again. With a lot of help from our newest family member Jamiila, I was able to.

I really wondered what Jason’s reaction would be when he saw me. Would he recognize me? Would he be surprised? Glad? Dismayed? I really didn’t know what to expect. I knew I would recognize him because I’d seen his pictures on his website.

As we walked into the bar and Jason saw me, his reaction took away all my insecurity. Arms wide, he came right up to me and it was as if the 20 years had never passed. We spent the hour before his set talking and talking, catching up on some of the details of our lives and laughing about our teenage antics from so long ago. It was an energizing and affirming experience to reconnect so quickly and thoroughly with someone I cared so much about.

As I listened to Jason playing his Mississippi blues that night, I realized that in many respects I now have more in common with the person I was 20 years ago than the one who I was even five years ago. Seeing my dear old friend helped me realize that the transformations in my life have led me back to where I was as a young adult in many ways – life as revolution, as well as evolution.