Mary Beth Writes

This was this last Sunday’s service in the United Unitarian Universalist congregation in my town.  This was entirely written by five of us - the “United We Writers.” I told friends that I would post this on my website. The service was wonderfully received.

 If you would like to know how we get 4-6 people to write a service, well, ask me. I started to write about how we do this until I realized it was going to be a long post that would take several hours to write. I’m not going to do it unless several of you would like to consider doing something like this in your own congregation, service group, or reunion of family or friends. 

 At the end of Jennifer’s part of the sermon we watched her beautiful slide show of photos she had collated over the past few weeks. It was a gift to watch that.  The three photos I’ve included in this posting are all from Jennifer.

 The service – What and Why is Beauty? – was written by Franc Garcia, Jen Hinton, Jennifer Beiriger, Mary Beth Danielson, and Sam Silver. Thanks, Friends!

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Opening Words

What is beauty?

 The way beauty always was back then, and usually is now, it has not been the friend of an average girl, an ordinary woman, or any common female. Beauty was the quality we were compared against. Beauty was our primary or at least a secondary goal. If we didn't have enough bravado to claim beauty, we were at least supposed to accomplish very clean and mildly attractive.

 And then, one day, for most of us, something plain and ordinary stopped us in our tracks: sunlight falling through a million leaves; a deer who looked up as we drove by; the curl of our baby niece's fist; the hallelujah chorus before we were sophisticated enough to know that classical music could make one weep.

 It didn't take away our feelings of "not good enough" or "less than her." But that moment of astonishing beauty crashed into our spirits and souls. It set us free from being the beginning or the end of anything.

 We took in, like each leaf quivering in the light of that bright summer tree, that we are here to seek beauty, hold beauty, reflect beauty, participate in the beauty of earth and life.

 What is beauty?

 Is it the visualization we get when we are gazing at a magnificent sunset? Is it the extreme tenderness that is evoked when rocking a sleeping baby? Or the peace we feel when listening to our favorite music? The wag of a puppy tail? The harmony of our souls when just the right deep tone sounds from a set of pipe chimes? Being able to sense the Oneness of all that is ... for even a brief moment? Yes! They are all beautiful. 

 What is beauty?

 The sun sets as we watch a pond. The cattails dance in the breeze and a melody of frogs plays through the air, mingling with that of beetle tunes.

 Oh, the joy of these summer evenings. We stare at the mossy floor of the pond; tiny fish swim back and forth and reflected sparrows fly to their nests. Tranquility is all around. Beauty abounds in the coolness of the rippling pond, in the calmness of a rustic evening. 

 What is beauty? 

 Beauty is found in the imperfect. It is the friend who is always there for us but who also needs us. It is the mighty tree covered in moss and mushrooms to feed its fellow creatures.

 It is the full blossom, the buds waiting for tomorrow, as well as the fading flower of yesterday. It is the bright yellow and red leaves on the tree; it is also the brown leaf on the ground, decaying to nourish the coming year's growth. Imperfection is also beautiful.

 Beauty isn't the goal. Beauty is every free deep breath—our eyes that see, our ears that hear, our hearts that feel emotions, the people we love, the light above and around us.   

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Story for All Ages            

This is a story for all ages, of all ages – the true-to-life story of tiny 18-year-old – which is 126 in human years! - Italian greyhound named Ms. Maya and how she came to live with Franc in Racine.

Many of you know Franc. Franc has been a friend to some of you for about a year – he’s been my friend for more than 20.   I like to share people.

So although this is Franc and Maya’s story and Franc wrote it; we edited it so that I could read it while Franc and Maya walk around. If you want to pet Maya, just reach out or raise your hand. Maya is a sweet, gentle pup and today she is here to let you consider and touch her beauty.

Franc and his former partner Michael were a volunteer foster home for the Midwest Italian Greyhound Rescue organization.  Sixteen years ago, they got a call from Carol, who was heading a remarkable rescue operation called "The Indiana 35." There had been a group of dogs being bred in a garage by a backyard breeder who got in over his head. He cared enough for the dogs that he realized that he could no longer take good care of them after two passed away, so he surrendered all 35 of them.

This was going to be a challenging rescue! Carol and Franc drove to Chicago in horrendous rain to meet the dogs. The weather that day was so bad that Carol lost control of her car when she hit a patch of water - and skidded down a ditch up into oncoming traffic. They thought they were goners. But they were okay.

They finally made it to the designated house— which was full of people and cages of yapping dogs! One by one, Carol pulled each pup from its cage to check it out, read its history, and share who that dog's foster parents would be. Franc was assigned to foster a brown female.

Then … from one cage, they pulled out a seal & white split face girl who was shaking and so scared. Her paperwork said she had only one puppy her first time and two on the second try, therefore she wasn't “good breeding material”, so she was fixed.

She wasn't happy being handled by so many people. Someone handed her to Franc. She looked up at him - and stopped trying to get away. In that instant, the name "Maya" popped into Franc’s mind. When he tried to pass her to the next person, she started acting up until someone handed her back to him – at which point she immediately calmed down and snuggled onto his arms, the way she is doing right now.

Throughout that day, people would walk by Franc, holding Maya, and comment about how safe and comfortable she looked. Franc kept explaining she wasn't his foster pup - and that Michael and he already had three little Italian greyhounds at home.

Yadda yadda. By the end of the night the couple who were supposed to take Maya suggested they trade. 

Ms. Maya rode all the way home sitting on Franc’s lap, just staring at him. Carol looked at them and said, "I don't think that girl is going anywhere," and by then, Franc tended to agree with her. The little split face girl was already making her way into his heart.

The next day Michael met Maya —and all she did was bark at him! This was going to be the pattern for the rest of their lives! Every time he would come in with the mail, she would carry on as if he was a burglar. Michael would always tell her, "I live here." It was funny.

Daisy, who had her own complicated story, was Franc’s naughty little favorite of their three dogs; Daisy decided that Franc had brought this new dog home just for her. Daisy took Maya under her wing and became her protector. Sweet Maya and Bad-to-the-bone Daisy … that's the way it was until Daisy passed away, leaving Franc with her soul mate because he needed one.

After having her in their house for two months, Michael called Carol to say that the dog was most likely unadoptable because the only person she liked was Franc and that they should just adopt her. Carol replied, "Oh, so Franc told you?"

Michael responded, "Told me what?"

"That Maya was never going to go anywhere." 

A few days later on Franc’s birthday, he walked into the house to his little split face girl running to greet him—wearing a new pink collar with a pink heart tag attached. Michael said, "Happy birthday! Read the tag." The label said, "Maya, Franc Garcia, phone number."  (Michael said it took him hours just to catch her to get the collar around her neck.)

Years later, Maya slipped out and got lost late one dark night. She could have so quickly frozen to death or been hit by a car – but a crazy neighbor Franc had never before met (and he has lived in his neighborhood for decades) - that man saw her wandering alone and ran outside (in his underwear he said!) to scoop her up. He brought her into his house with his Pitbull and Chihuahua, and a day later, when Franc put up signs, he called.

 Franc told him with tears in his eyes that he was so grateful for his kindness and then he hugged him, and the man hugged him back. “I know about dogs, man. They just are your heart.”

Ms. Maya came out from his kitchen right then and her skinny tail started to wag. She spent the rest of that whole night telling Franc about her ordeal that week - and she has stuck to Franc like glue since.

Franc was at a Lowe's recently with Maya in his arms, as is typical for them. They met a woman who asked about her. Franc told her how they met etc. and the woman looked at Franc and said, "Well, that explains it. Maya chose you as her person and isn't ready to give you up just yet." What a fantastic explanation for this beautiful long-term relationship.

Maya’s life has been pretty much uneventful ever since. She's a fierce little creature who refuses to call it quits. Ms. Maya has curvature of the spine due to her age and it's causing her to lose feeling in her hind legs, making walking difficult. She has lost most of her sight and hearing. However, she has been with Franc through so much, including the loss of his mom. 


As Franc explains it: “For me beauty was being chosen by this tiny, skinny dog who knew how much I was going to need her. “

So take a good look at Maya not just with your eyes but also with your heart. Use your imagination.

Picture an even smaller, younger Maya as a very young puppy! My can that dog bark and wag her tail!

Now, consider young adult Maya. She loves to scamper and run! Her fur is shiny, she has her beautiful split face colors, and she is a robust small dog. She is gorgeous.

Fast forward to Maya as she is becoming older. She loves to be held and petted gently. She still goes on walks, but they are shorter. Maya is slowing down, but no problem. She is beautiful.

Now, Maya is very old – ancient, for a dog. She mostly eats from Franc’s hand, sleeps a lot and tires very quickly.

Some may look at her and think it is sad. However, what you see is a dog who loves and is loved. How beautiful! 

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Focusing Meditation

Today's meditation is going to start with another one of our many tales about beauty, written by Sam.  Religion has provided millions of people with comfort in times of need, purpose in their lives, and valid objectives for their behavior.  Since the beginning of the history of human civilization, religion has been used in many ways.  Can spirituality and beauty also be a doorway to the divine?

 Paganism is often described as a group of religions, and spiritual traditions based on a reverence for nature and by some estimates date back about 23,000 years, the late Stone Age.  Some recent carbon date testing may push that date back further, but let's just say Paganism is ancient.  Being so old, there really is no such thing as dogma or doctrines. So, there are very few pieces of liturgy familiar to the majority of Modern Pagans. The one exception to that rule might be Doreen Valiente's "Charge of the Goddess," an inspirational text often used in the Pagan beliefs as eight virtues. It says, "Let there be beauty and strength, power and compassion, honor and humility, mirth and reverence within you."

 First on the list of values is beauty, followed by strength, power, compassion, honor, humility, mirth, and reverence. Beauty is consistent with the emphasis on the celebration of love, desire, and nature’s other appealing qualities. It is the province in love myths such as those of Aphrodite, Freya, Venus, Hera, and Cupid. What pleases the senses, pleases the Spirit.

 She invites us to dress as well as we can afford, to adorn ourselves and our homes in a way that appeals to us. Beauty is to believe in yourself and have confidence. The Divine embraces the beautiful aesthetic and calls us to reawaken ourselves to its healing powers. It exalts in beautiful music that stirs the emotions, in vibrant colors and textures that call out to be touched, and in shapes that flow pleasingly from one to the next. If you feel positive, beauty will radiate from you. If you are connected with your own heart, you don’t need to explain anything to anyone. 

 We need to learn not to pursue our ideal of beauty to the degree that causes us, or other people, harm, such as the impulse to tan until we have skin cancer, to malnourish ourselves into an unhealthy body type, or to be cruel to others who do not meet our own standard of beauty.   Ugliness can be found in hate and hostility.

 We must also remember to honor the beauty of destruction. While creation is beautiful, without ruin to temper it, it runs wild and makes everything into a grandiose junkpile. To make a garden beautiful, we need to plow up and make a shambles of the soil so that our seeds have a place to grow and flourish. Old dead leaves must fall for fresh green leaves to begin. 

 Nature is often identified as a place where humans have our most heartfelt and comforting spiritual experiences. Sam recalled a time up on a mountain in Northern WI. She was returning home from a funeral and decided to stop at a hiking trail to stretch her legs. A thousand feet up, Sam left the trail and found a little ledge to sit. From her cold boulder, she could look down on the valley: green from fresh spring plants dotted with small white caps from the remaining snow. A squirrel dashed by, across a dead tree and up a big-tooth aspen, as a gentle breeze carried in the fresh air. A wonderful spot to rest and reflect. 

 Our own UU seventh principle calls us to “affirm and promote respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” This principle affirms the beauty of the earth, and it recognizes the wisdom of science, which has taught us that not only are we part of the land, but the universe is part of us. Nature offers an invitation for fellowship and harmony with all life. 

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Responding Reading  

Today's reading is an anecdote written by Jen - who is camping today in this exact place!

Every year for the last 45 years, Jen and her family have gone camping in the Chequamegon National Forest in Northwestern WI.  Her favorite place there comes at the end of the trail.

 As she stepped off of the hard-packed earth into the clearing, the ground beneath her moccasins was soft, almost springy.  Under the pine needles is a soil made of trees that had died before anyone living was born.  They have decayed and given themselves as sustenance to the forest that we see today.  There are many tree stumps out of which many new trees had grown, with each being about a foot high.  Which ones will survive?  How long will it be before these trees tower over me?  This sacred space encourages wonder and questions.

 Between the birches and pines, sunshine bounces off the lake beckoning come and sit.  Jen became aware of all there was to be grateful for: the earth that holds us up, the tree behind her that was a backrest, and the scent of pine and water spray as it hit the rocks.  She saw the bright sun, tiny toads, and ripples where fish would come up to the surface, the plaintive call of loons looking for their mates and the barely heard response from the next lake over. Her favorite sound of all: the wind through the pine trees.  She closed her eyes and let it flow.  A feast for every sense as nature shares all of its bounties.

 Quickly, the sunset painted the sky with every color you can imagine, heralding the end of the day.  Finally, the moon came out to light the path back to the campfire. Taking notice of all of this beauty and genuinely paying attention to all of the senses—that is her prayer.

 Whenever Jen goes to this place, she is reminded of the biblical quote: "Take off your sandals for you are standing on holy ground."  Jen has journeyed to many places in the world and seen many beautiful things, but this place calls to her soul in a way no other does.  To her, it is the most beautiful place on earth.

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Message - Beauty Tips!

MB

Like all of us, I have been at the sucker punch end of amazing beauty so, so many times in my life.

This was one of the first times.  I was a teenager and I went for a walk with my dog on a humid summer day in Michigan. Sheba and I walked to one of our favorite places to hang out together – we were away from ALL people (criteria number 1) under some pine trees at the edge of a sandy ravine; it was a front row seat to watch weather blowing in over Lake Michigan.  The day I remember so clearly, we watched the gray sky turn into a flashing and crashing lightning storm and then we ran home in the rain. 

But I was a kid evolving into a young adult, and that day I didn’t stay until it STARTED to rain a little, I stayed until the storm was pounding and thundering right over our heads. I stayed because the world was powerful and beautiful, and I wanted to experience it - and after that Sheba and I ran home. I do remember that when I got inside the door, my mom looked at drenched me and drenched Sheba and then pronounced the blessing of my life, “Mary Beth, I don’t know about you.”

That day marked me.

Beauty is an invitation. It stops us in our tracks, slows us down, comforts us, gives us rest and solace. And then, when we are quiet and aware, beauty calls to us. Like that incoming storm telling my teenage restlessness to sit down, hug the dog and wait because this will be good. Beauty meets something in our spirits, and we change as we become part of the story that is happening.

Beauty speaks to us. Beauty is a question and an answer, it is science and exploration, it is creation and appreciation, it is ‘grow up’ and it is ‘act like a little child.’  Beauty is the universe’s tango of matter, wind, light, and restless energy.  Scientists says the universe erupted from energy into stars 13 billion years ago. Everything that is – including us – is made from that energy and dust.  I sometimes think when beauty stops us it might be the dust, matter, and light of us recognizing our old stomping grounds.

Beauty doesn’t wait for the right credentials or the right audience.  Beauty simply is – it exists. It’s where we see it and where no one sees it. It’s in silent cedar forests and on tundra moss stretched for hundreds of miles, grazed by 10,000 reindeer.

It’s in the picture being drawn right now by a little kid in a refugee camp and in a bigger kid wrapped in one of those despicable foil blankets at the border cages, hugging and rocking a smaller child newly separated from their parents.

It’s in whizzing solar winds and in the strange formations in outer space- contemplate this - there’s a planet not far outside our galaxy that, scientists tell us, is made mostly of diamonds.

Beauty is in the pink, red and apricot hues of the organs inside our bodies.

Beauty is the Universes’ middle name.

Annie Dillard in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek says, “… we have been as usual asking the wrong question. It does not matter a hoot what the mockingbird on the chimney is singing. If the mockingbird were chirping to give us the long-sought formula for a unified field theory, the point would be only slightly less irrelevant. The real and proper question is: Why is it beautiful?” 

 Len and I buy berries all year in the grocery store produce department.  Most of those berries are imported from corporate-owned farms in places like Peru and Chile and the San Joaquin Valley – so the berries are profitable hybrids raised to be big and tough. 

Then comes summer and we buy berries from the farmers market. That first bite that bursts in our mouth and drips down our chin - is a clue to beauty. When left to its own devices, with some help and support, but not overwhelmed with corporate standards for profitability, food is so much brighter, richer, knock-your-socks off delicious.  Earth grows and shares amazing tastes and foods.  Why?  Why are the flavors so beautiful?

I was leaving a store.  Two folks who looked to be about my age were walking along with a very little girl, probably their granddaughter, who had curly black hair and big dark eyes. The adults were talking to each other, but that little girl and I caught each other’s eye.  I smiled and waved.  She stared at me, almost stumbling.  And then, as she rounded the corner to her car, she looked directly at me and blew me a kiss. Why are kids so beautiful and why do they respond so deeply to kind attention?

Beauty is a clue as to what the universe wants to do, why it is here, what the story is. Beauty says we are inside of a story of astonishment, awareness, and patterns weaving inwards. Beauty is also patterns breaking outwards into wind, fire, floods and upheavals.  It can be breathtakingly destructive, and yet always, eventually, the natural world heals itself into new patterns with new swirls and patterns of beauty and awareness.

Seeking beauty becomes a journey, a trek, an adventure, a quest.  Once we have been inoculated by moments of beauty, like the storm that broke over my head, or afternoons hiking in a park, or sailing at dusk, or traveling a great distance to view amazing animals, or visiting a close place to watch the sun set over a field or inlet -  we witness the beauty and beauty fills us up and tells our spirit that we belong here, too.

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Jennifer

“Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything that is beautiful – for beauty is God’s handwriting. A Wayside sacrament. Welcome it in every face, and every sky, and every flower, and thank God for it as a cup of blessing.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

How do I describe Beauty?  I find it hard to put into words. Perhaps that is why I love photography so much.

 There is a personal satisfaction in a well framed, well-timed image. A feeling of pride at being able to capture even on a tiny scale, the person, the animal, the scene, the memory. To preserve that moment of beauty.

 I used to take wedding pictures for family and friends, and some via word of mouth. I loved doing that. I enjoyed meeting the bride and groom. (This was before a possible bride and bride or groom and groom. That would have been amazing!)

 I would ask what they considered important. We would discuss, plan, and then the big day would arrive! To preserve the images of the bride and bridesmaids, mother of the bride, the laughter and bustle of getting ready. Some posed shots and lots of spontaneous ones.

 And of the Grooms and groomsmen, and Father of the Groom, doing their finishing touches, and the antics that only the guys can pull off; pre-wedding fun!

 The ceremony, vows, the celebration. And then back in the day, the very stressful time waiting for the developed photos to see if I was truly able to catch an important moment … many important moments … the Beautiful Moments …for the new couple.

Editing, cropping, making the photo book. Fun! Time commitment!! And then the time of sharing the finished product with the bride and groom. Did I do a good job, are they happy, did I catch the beauty of the event?

 In the end the hobby was a bit more of a commitment than I was able or willing to do. It was spoiling the hobby, so I removed that anxiety of trying to capture or preserve what to my mind’s eye was and is beautiful. Now I continue my hobby with the goal of seeing the beauty and not worrying about the angst.

I love photography. To take away my responsibility allows me to reflect more. What is it? What is trying to be captured?

I look beyond the photo of the newborn to see connections. Who does he look like? How will his life unfold in the bigger picture that is to be his life? And to be sure, the emotional connection that is evoked from looking at pictures of infants, children, parents and children - the connection, the emotional connections of protection, warmth, love, identity. We are all part of the web of birth, Life, Death, rebirth. The connected web - yes, the interconnected web that joins us and all living things together, is beautiful.

 The amazing birth and rebirth that is all around us. The soil that is fed and nourished as the old growth becomes food for the new. As one season evolves into the next and the next as the cycle of life continues Unbroken.

 When we see something of beauty, or something that evokes a positive emotion, we are connecting to that Web of Life.  To be able to gift to the world the talent that is in ones Mind’s Eye, and then to connect to the hands or voice, and then to the palate or the cloth, the book, clay, bronze, the instrument,  the music… such amazing creations of Beauty! Satisfying to the eye but then becoming connected to our hearts as the art's meaning is sought – and found.

 Nature. What emotions are being stirred when we gaze at beautiful pictures of nature? What memories are evoked? What feelings? when we gaze at a calm lake, at a beautiful flower, the ocean’s waves, the Thundering clouds? We are connected. The energy of life is in us around us, is in the air we breathe, the water that sustains us, the Earth that feeds us.

We live in the world of diversity: mountains, plains, deserts, oceans, frozen tundra. All are beautiful and all are interconnected with each other. They do not exist without the others.

 And the universe? It holds the awe and beautiful unknown wonders that exist beyond our horizons and our understanding. Who are we? How do we fit in? Why do we struggle so, with finding peace and harmony and beauty, in each other? We recognize the beauty in our diverse natural world, and the interconnectedness. Why not in ourselves? I believe that Beauty is our souls’ way of connecting to the interconnected Web of Life, to all that is. Whatever your thoughts and feelings are regarding Beauty, may you see it, sense it, feel it. May you stop for a few moments and contemplate what is beauty to you, what feelings are stirred, or…. simply enjoy, as the following pictures are shared with you., courtesy of Len Lamberg, me, and Google.

                                                        

 

Comments

Looks great. It was fun working with everyone, and it all came together magnificently!

Sam, you are an awesome editor!

Oh my gosh —- so awesome. All of it. Wish I could have heard it in person!

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"No Felons Here"

I preached this sermon at United Unitarian Universalist /23/2019.

The photo is of the sanctuary of Grace United Methodist in Chicago. It's the church in which Len and I met and then married. We happened to be driving by earlier this year on a Sunday morning. They were voting that day on what to do with their building. I took this single picture with my phone, capturing the affection we all feel for our friends and fellow-journeyers in our congregations. 

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Journey to Happiness

(I preached this sermon at my church, United Unitarian Universalist, in Waukesha. 3/3/2019)

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One day a young Buddhist on her journey to find True Happiness, came to the banks of a wide river. Staring at the great obstacle in front of her, she pondered and pondered how to cross such a wide and mighty barrier.

  Just as she was about to give up, she saw a Great Teacher on the other side of the river. The young Buddhist yelled over to the Teacher, "Oh Wise One, can you tell me how to get to the other side of this river?”

Sermon - Courage / Roses on the Columbia

While on the space shuttle Columbia, which would explode during reentry a few days later, astronaut Laurel Clark wrote some emails to family and friends.

This is from one of them: Subject: Hello from 150 NM above the Earth

Sermon - "Why do we attend church? Um, I can't remember."

“Why do we attend church? Um, I can’t remember.”

There are so many reasons to not belong to or attend church - even liberal Unitarian Universalist churches.

Sermon - The Story of Ruth & Naomi / Who We Welcome is Who We Are

I have liked the Old Testament story of Ruth ever since I was a kid. But in seminary, when I learned it is not an “Aww Shucks, Ma’am” cowboy romance, I started liking it even more. The story of Ruth is not the particular romance of Ruth and Boaz. It IS a story of dangerous poverty, racism, and sexism – and what happened when good adults welcomed each other in an unsafe place and time.

In case you were not raised drenched in Hebrew or Christian stories (I can’t riff on Star Wars…) – let me retell the tale of Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz.

Sermon - Julian of Norwich / She Persisted

I first encountered Julian of Norwich in a seminary class on mysticism when I was in my 20’s –back when I could read for hours without falling asleep. I had been raised in such a religiously patriarchal culture; that reading Julian for that first time was as if someone had turned a light on in the room.

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