Lessons Learned

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By my rough estimate, this is the 85th time I’ve written a Minister’s Message for our church newsletter. That adds up to a lot of words. I hope that some of them, at least, have been helpful in providing our church members and friends with some hints and guideposts for your spiritual journey through this world. As this will be the last time I address myself to you as your minister, it might be helpful to “lift up” some of the spiritual lessons and practices that have been important to me over these past eight years for you to consider, if they apply, for your own life.

“Emotional intelligence.” That was the topic of my second sermon upon my return to the church after my 2015 sabbatical. Learning to be aware of my own emotions even as they are forming proved to be a wise and necessary practice. I remember from Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, a quote (not precise), “Between the stimulus and the response, there is a space. In that space, we can choose our attitude.” Too often, we think we are aware of our emotions when we are really only aware that emotions are in process. We need to step back and observe those emotions before issuing responses that we’ll be sorry for once we’ve reached a cooler emotional state.

A second point: It is important to have a daily spiritual practice– meditation or devotional reading or soul-nourishing gardening or another such discipline. A spiritual practice creates a space for mindfulness; mindfulness allows for the kind of thoughtful, reflective response that comes forth when the emotions have not taken full control.

You may have heard the variety of hazards that ministers face. The level of depression is higher for them than for the general population. The rates of divorce, alcoholism, obesity, and suicide are all higher for ministers than for the general population. This speaks to the need for self-care. I’ve been careful to take time for exercise, swimming for thirty minutes three times a week, doing yard work, even walking the dog every day. I’ve connected with fellow ministers for fellowship. These are things that we too often think of as luxuries or “extras” in life. In fact, they are necessities, and I can’t urge enough that you make space in your life for exercise and socializing. These things feed your spirit.

Be aware of the potential impact of your words. Again, mindfulness is key. There are times when we believe we’d get a great satisfaction from “blowing off steam” or “speaking our mind.” Well, maybe so, but that satisfaction needs to be balanced against the potential impact of those words on the person on the receiving end. Sometimes, I am congratulated for my patience. Personally, I find myself a perpetually impatient person. If I show patience, it’s because I’ve disciplined myself to listen carefully and speak to whatever grain of truth I find in an argument, rather than to start off with an attack. (I’m not always successful.) Examining “white privilege,” as we’ve been encouraged to do in light of racial sensitivities within the UUA’s governing structure and culture has brought home in a significant way, the importance of gauging the potential impact on others of whatever “blunt truths” I might believe I have to offer.

Gratitude and appreciation. Taking the time to appreciate such small things as the smell of new-mown grass, a light breeze on a hot summer day, the chirping of the variety of birds we are fortunate to live among, fireflies on a summer evening, white squirrels scampering across the yard, the relaxing vista of Shanty Hollow Lake– the appreciation of all these things fosters a more positive attitude, one oriented towards hope and grounded in the present moment and the kind of simple pleasures available to us all.

Finally– service. Visiting inmates at the Warren County Jail for the past nine months has brought me satisfaction in knowing that I’m making a difference in people’s lives. I’m reading Nathan McCall’s memoir, Makes Me Wanna Holler, these days. In the chapter where he recounts his response to being back in the world of freedom after three years in prison, the blessed gratitude for simple things is profound. Cherish your freedom, be grateful for small blessings.

As I enter my last month of service with you all, I offer you these simple words. May they be a blessing.

See you in church,

Peter

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