My Spiritual Portfolio
Brattleboro’s Good Neighbors
Rev. Barbro Hansson
A Winter Meditation
My Spiritual Portfolio
by Trudy Ferland
When I was asked to lead a service this fall, I readily agreed knowing there was a topic I was anxious to share. A cause I am passionate about – a call to action. But a funny thing happened when I began to plan. A different message was in my head. Could the two be combined? Maybe, but it would be a stretch so I ended up deciding to tackle them separately and chose to put off the cause until a later date.
Conversations our family had while my father was preparing to die are fresh in my mind. What do you believe? What is the meaning of it all? What is important? How do you live a life that matters?
I’m basically an optimist but lately I’ve felt despair and fear. It sometimes feels like people are becoming more self centered rather than evolving as compassionate human beings. That an audience would cheer when executions are mentioned or that we are still fighting for marriage equality is more than discouraging. Yet I haven’t become cynical or withdrawn and I believe belonging to a UU community has a lot to do with that.
One line in the responsive reading last week really stuck with me. The line was, “What can we do to stretch our hearts enough to lose their littleness.” The idea of stretching one’s heart is a wonderful image. The “what can we do” brings me to the question I have wrestled with for 25 years. Why is church so important to me? I’ve had this conversation with many of you over the years so I apologize if any of it is repetitive. I did chat with the Reverend Margaret Beckman this week and she encouraged me to share my perspective on “why church”.
I am a humanist, an atheist. I do not come to church to “worship” anything. Involvement in church now is completely different from my participation in the church of my childhood. Raised Catholic, I was born with sin, taught to confess my sins regularly, and learned the lessons of guilt at an early age. At catechism we were allowed to question – as long as those questions were the 100 questions (and answers) written in the Baltimore Catechism which we were required to memorize. “Why did God make you? God made me to show his goodness and so I could be happy with him in heaven.” Hmmm. A comment I heard frequently when my mother died when I was 15 was that “God must have needed her in heaven”. WAIT, I screamed. GOD NEEDED HER MORE THAN WE DID?!!! Although I attended a catholic high school, religion had begun to unravel for me.
I remained unchurched for years. Friends, Sue and John Burgess, invited us to their Unitarian Universalist church. I politely declined until an old school bus pulled into our yard one Sunday morning when our oldest son was in kindergarten. The driver and one of Evan’s 5 year old classmates came to the door and asked if Evan could go to Sunday school with them. Then and there I realized it might not be a good idea to raise my children in a spiritual vacuum and I might want to consider visiting the Burgess’ church. Although I no longer thought of myself as religious, this place immediately felt like my spiritual home and I’ve been here ever since.
Yet I sometimes still ask myself why – or more often, I try to explain it to someone else. Why would a secular humanist need church? What draws me here week after week?
For years my explanation focused primarily on community, inspiration, and social justice but last weekend I discovered a new way to understand and describe my involvement here. A little lightbulb came on after I heard a talk by Dr. Eric Steele at the local Health Fair. Dr. Steele compared taking responsibility for one’s health to building a financial portfolio to be used in the future. By investing small amounts of money regularly over time, hopefully one would have the resources needed in retirement. He proposed thinking of exercising, eating well and visiting a primary care doctor as additions to your health portfolio. Both the financial and the physical portfolios required long range planning and investing for a sound future. That made good sense. Cool. By the time I walked through the parking lot, my mind was spinning over what a spiritual portfolio would consist of. I liked the thought of regular, small contributions over time. The concept worked in the material and the physical realms, why not the spiritual?
But was spiritual the right word? What does that word mean to you? I always thought that humans were spiritual but not necessarily religious. For years, my personal, simplified definition of spirituality was the search for meaning in our lives but I wasn’t sure. Lately I’ve heard it used mostly in cynical ways; such as New Age Woo-woo spirituality; a kind of hokey, bastardized word. I was curious how the term would be defined so I looked it up. This is what I found in Wikipedia:
Spirituality can refer to an immaterial reality; an inner path enabling a person to discover the essence of his/her being; or the “deepest values and meanings by which people live.” Spiritual experience includes that of connectedness with a larger reality, with other individuals or the human community; with nature or the cosmos; or with the divine realm. Spirituality is often experienced as a source of inspiration or orientation in life.
Secular spirituality emphasizes humanistic qualities such as love, compassion, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, contentment, responsibility, harmony, and a concern for others, aspects of life and human experience which go beyond a purely materialist view of the world, without necessarily accepting belief in a supernatural reality or divine being. Spirituality in this context may be a matter of nurturing thoughts, emotions, words and actions that are in harmony with a belief that everything in the universe is mutually dependent. "Spirituality exists wherever we struggle with the issues of how our lives fit into the greater scheme of things. We encounter spiritual issues every time we wonder where the universe comes from, why we are here, or what happens when we die. We also become spiritual when we become moved by values such as beauty, love, or creativity that seem to reveal a meaning or power beyond our visible world.
That definition sounded perfectly respectable to me. So now I could consider what to collect for my Spiritual Portfolio.
People come first in my portfolio; all kinds of people, family, friends, neighbors; those with whom I agree and disagree. But especially I want my church community there. Every week we covenant to help one another. We rely on each other for help in growing as compassionate human beings, in marking the milestones in our lives, celebrating and grieving, and in working together to embody our principles in the world through projects like the Welcome Table, our weekly free lunch program. Projects too big for any one of us to accomplish alone. Our individual journeys surely are enriched by sharing our paths with others.
My portfolio bulges with the pieces of wisdom I’ve gathered here. The Purposes and Principles are there as a guide and inspiration. Sunday services remind me to be the best person I can be. Here I can sit back and contemplate a larger universe than I usually think about in day to day life. Inspiration can be found in the sermon or a verse in a hymn or a line in a reading. Last Sunday I added two items to my spiritual portfolio. The first was the line I quoted earlier about stretching our hearts. The second came from a piece I was given to read at the 9-11 Service at the Congregational Church. Colleen Kelly, a woman who lost her brother in Tower 1, wrote about a rabbi who became fascinated by and began seeking out the last words and sentences of anyone who was killed that day. The rabbi found that not one single person spoke of revenge or hatred. The last words were overwhelmingly about love. She wrote, “In the end, it is always about love.” I gather all of these words, these nuggets, to save as a resource when needed. Words ARE important. They inform one’s outlook and therefore one’s behavior and relationships.
I was grateful to have a portfolio to raid for comfort during the last months of my father’s life. Rev. Margaret’s sent me an email about “how we work so hard to grasp tightly to life and when it seems that it's time to stop holding so tightly, we are surprised at how tightly life can hold onto us.” Her wisdom helped my father to be patient in his dying. Rev. Kate Braestrup’s description of the end of life as “holy time” led us to cherish Dad’s last days. We had a structure now in our minds to define this period in a positive way. Rev. Forrest Church’s book on Loving and Dying brought great solace to Carol, my step-mom. Because my brother Brian’s memorial service at our church 10 months before was such a healing experience for my family, we were able to plan Dad’s memorial with confidence. At Dad’s service, my niece Christine read the poem Live a Life That Matters, which I first heard from the pulpit here.
Not that many years ago, I envied the comfort some people find in their unquestioning faith. One of my favorite songs by Libby Roderick is I wish I still believed in Angels. These are the words of one verse:
“I wish I knew there was a heaven where I’ll go the day I die
Where they spread a balm of answers on the open wound of why
I wish I thought I’d live forever in some blissful place above
But I don’t believe in heaven but I do believe in love.”
I now understand that “the balm of answers” never satisfied or comforted me and what I have found instead, is much richer and more meaningful for me. I have built a spiritual portfolio as a solid foundation upon which to support my life. I can make withdrawals whenever I need to for guidance through all the journeys which lie ahead.