Friday, April 29, 2022

Are we listening?

 A small group from the local Unitarian Church is planning to do a training day for Lay Pastoral Care Associates.  The main focus for this particular gathering will be on listening, attentive, focused, compassionate listening.  In the weeks leading up to the training day, I have become increasingly aware of both the power of and the absence of deep listening in my daily interactions; of how discounted I can feel when I am speaking and the listener’s attention drifts to whoever or whatever else may pull their attention away; of how grateful I feel when I know I have been heard and understood.

I am reminded of a powerful excerpt from Nelle Morton’s book, THE JOURNEY IS HOME that I read many years ago at the beginning of my theological studies in seminary.  She wrote this:

It was in a small group of women who had come together to tell our own stories that I first received a totally new understanding of hearing and speaking.  I remember how one woman started, hesitating, awkward, trying to put the pieces of her life together. Finally she said: “I hurt…I hurt all over.”  She touched herself in various places as if feeling for the hurt before she added, “but I don’t know where to begin to cry.”  She talked on and on. Her story took on fantastic coherence.  When she reached a point of most excruciating pain no one moved.  No one interrupted.  Finally she finished.  After a silence, she looked from one woman to another. “You heard me.  You heard me all the way.”  Her eyes narrowed.  She looked directly at each woman and then said slowly: “I have a strange feeling you heard me before I started. You heard me to my own story.”

So I have been reflecting on the power of listening and hearing in the midst of a culture that is a virtual cacophony of sound that so readily distracts and drowns out the human cry.  I wonder what the power brokers in government and on Wall Street hear?  What do they listen to?  Do they hear the cry of the prophet Isaiah’s widows and orphans?  Do they hear the weeping of the enslaved and oppressed? Do they hear the moaning of families whose children have been lost to gun violence?  I wonder what I have drowned out that I need to be hearing more acutely - - where has my sense of the importance of my own presence in relationship gone missing?  Where have I missed the opportunity to “hear another human soul into speech.”

Morton reminds us that when we listen actively and deeply “we voluntarily join another human being at a particular point on their life journey for a brief space in time and that it “…is not so much a journey ahead, or a journey into space, but a journey into presence.”

Honoring the high value of the presence we bring to any human interaction is a spiritual practice.
We can actually create a space wherein a person can find their own voice, perhaps even “listen” another person into connecting with their own inner wisdom for their own life.
    This is a powerful gift both given and received.  Most of us have not had many experiences of being listened to and heard in such a way that our own wisdom becomes activated and we begin to “see” a direction or action we need to take - - begin to feel reassured in the midst of a challenging situation that we do, indeed, have the wisdom to move on through.  At one time or another, we all need to be “listened to or heard into speech.”

It is difficult to leave behind my ruminations on listening.  The last thing I read before drifting off to sleep last night was Nelle’s thoughts on:   “Learning to listen with one's whole body. Learning to hear with the eye and see with the ear and speak with the hearing. Knowing the Spirit in movement and not in stasis.”

It sounded to me as though there might be the promise of an encounter with Divinity in the process of full and deep listening to another human being.  Hmmmmmm.

Vicky Hanjian

Friday, April 22, 2022



I’ve been asked to dust off the CCRC (Children’s Creative Response to Conflict) program. Fifty years old in 2022, the program began in New York State and gradually went global. In fact, their web site these days is Their mission statement reads: “Creative Response to Conflict (CRC) is a global non-profit organization that educates individuals and groups to transform conflict into positive and constructive experiences that contribute to building a just and peaceful world.” The word “children” was dropped from the original program title as the skills    shared are relevant to any age group.

A friend and I were trained in the program back in the 80’s and took it to several S.D. schools, mainly in Sioux Falls and Todd County. We were scheduled to do other Sioux Falls schools when a new superintendent arrived and decided to send disruptive students to the National Guard armory for a behavior modification program, rather than have CCRC in the other schools. We weren’t promoting resolving conflicts by pointing a gun at someone, which seems to be the popular way in our culture. Besides, the Guard program was free, courtesy of the federal government, that saw it as a “feeder” program for recruits.

It appears that post-pandemic public education is experiencing some school conflicts and disruptions because of student behaviors. Some say it’s because they lost two years of socialization. If they are fifth graders, they are still acting like third graders. Whatever the reason, teachers are resigning in large numbers, parents are becoming more vocal and sometimes acting like teenagers, and some school board meetings have turned into conflict zones.

Given the need, we will dust off the CCRC program and offer it for educators when school ends this spring. It will certainly help! But my fear is, the reasons for the escalating unease and issues in the schools, and our rapidly rising incidents of conflict and violence in our communities, lie deeper than poor skills. Two recent experiences are revelatory for me.

The first was watching a newscast on TV. A retired general was being asked whether the $800 million in new weaponry we were sending to Ukraine would help them “win” the war. The interviewer was young, not even born when World War II was “won,” and the nuclear age was born. (My, how that age has grown!) Can we say that any war has been “won” since World War II? Was Korea “won”; or Vietnam; or Iraq; or Afghanistan?

And weren’t we seeing daily on this very same TV channel what the war in Ukraine is like: mass graves; mass destruction; masses of refugees; masses for the dead. How is it possible for any rational person to even talk about “winning” a war in our time? The whole world is impacted in negative ways.

Somalia is experiencing a terrible draught. People are hungry! There is no water for agriculture!  Ukraine provides more than 50% of their food aid. No ships of wheat are leaving the port of Odessa and any harvest there is on hold. Soon the people in Somalia (no more refugees, please) will be lying dead next to their sheep and cattle. And how will that $800 million in new funds for weaponry in Ukraine affect what’s available here at home, for human need? Like the pandemic, we’re all in this war together!

And it’s the cultural conditioning and the military-industrial economic engine, that keeps us from noticing how Denmark defeated Hitler without firing a shot; how Solidarity and the laborers in Poland threw off the Soviet stranglehold; how pots and pans helped depose Pinochet in Chile; how young people offered their bodies to integrate lunch counters in Nashville, TN; how a prisoner in Africa inspired millions to break the back of apartheid; how Gandhi sent the British packing. 

The other experience was listening to the radio and hearing the weather called breezy. Good grief; the wind gusts were 50 MPH. People on the edge of Sioux Falls were shoveling up the dirt blown around and into homes. It looked like the dust bowl days. When have we ever seem so many windy days, all in a row; and what kind of year are our farmers facing? Is there any awareness of the dangers to agriculture of a changing (and raging) climate? You wouldn’t know it by our folks in Congress!

Has anyone noticed the 1,200 scientists all over the world protesting our lack of action to stop our climate catastrophe? In London they glued their reports and their hands to the windows of a government agency. In Los Angeles one was arrested at a Chase Bank, the leading funder of new fossil fuel development, where he chained himself to a door.  

My students don’t watch the news. I don’t blame them. Somehow they still know what’s happening, and they aren’t happy about it. Actually, I’m hoping more young people will be disruptive; but in positive ways. Because the folks who are driving the train today are taking us all straight to hell and back. We need some young people with good conflict resolution skills and trained in nonviolence to help apply the brakes and turn us around.

Carl Kline

Friday, April 15, 2022

Both and...

 In a rather strenuous confluence for those of us who observe both ritual holidays, Pesach and Easter are bound up in the same weekend this year with the first night of Passover happening on Friday evening followed rapidly by the celebration of Easter on Sunday.  Many Jewish friends are engaged in the ritual of rigorous house cleaning to rid their homes chametz - any food product made from wheat, barley, rye, oats or spelt that has come into contact with water and been allowed to ferment and “rise.”  No food products containing yeast or any other leavening agent are consumed during the 8 days of Passover observance.  

 What will appear on every Pesach table will be matzah.  Chametz and matzah are almost the same substance, containing the same ingredients of flour and water. The difference is that while chametz bread rises, filling itself with hot air, in the carefully watched production process, the matzah stays flat and humble. In this central symbol of the Passover seder, matzah, unleavened bread becomes a metaphor for humility, self effacement - - the diminishment of the ego in the service of a life of commitment to the liberation of humankind from the narrow, confining limitations of the many Egypts that limit the fullness of life and joy.     So - the yearly symbolic search for and elimination of whatever it is that “puffs up.”   No yeast.  No baking soda.  No Cream of Tartar.  No baking powder.  Unleavened bread.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the street, as Christians observe Easter and celebrate resurrection into new life, there will be bread on the table.  It will be risen bread.  The fragrance of yeasty Hot Cross Buns will waft from local bakeries.  Christian sacred text invites practitioners to become as yeast - as leaven - in the  loaf of human life.  In Christian tradition, yeast or leaven is a metaphor for transformation - - transformation that leads to compassion and justice - - transformation that brings the reign of God among humankind.

As I reflect on the two different ways of thinking about leaven - either as something to be eliminated - as symbolic of ego relinquishment or as something to be celebrated as a symbol of transformation, it is not an “either or dynamic.”  Somehow both perspectives are intimately intertwined when it comes to living a life of wholeness.
The removal of chametz becomes a  rigorous observance of the inner forces that are governed by the needs of the ego that can and do impede the progress of a life of service in the name of compassion and generosity and justice.  At the same time, the yeast of transformation plays a role in shaping a society that is continually moving toward an inclusive justice that allows for fullness of life for all human beings.

So - - A Pesach/Easter weekend is a strenuous time - - a time of integration of powerful central symbols from each tradition.   May it be a time of joy and rejoicing and understanding as we celebrate separately together.    Chag Sameach!  Happy Easter!

Vicky Hanjian

Friday, April 8, 2022

On The Boundary


 Last summer, as part of the landscaping effort to beautify his home, our neighbor cleared out all the natural growth that had created a visual boundary between his lot and ours. All of a sudden there was a gaping space between our homes.  My writing desk sits under the window that faces the neighboring yard and I feel as though I am invading the neighbor’s privacy whenever I am occupied at the desk while the neighbors are enjoying their outdoor dining area -especially during the summer months.  Our living room also serves as a guest room. With the windows open we felt like the neighbors were right in the house with us when we had overnight guests during the summer months.

Building a privacy fence seemed divisive so during the fall, we planted a few Leyland Cypress  trees along the property line to create a “soft” visual boundary on the property line between our homes.  The neighbors like them.  The solution works for all of us.

Appropriate boundaries are necessary for harmonious living.

As we have watched the horror of the invasion of Ukraine unfold, we have seen the worst of the results of boundary crossing as boundaries of sovereignty are obliterated, as the boundaries protecting the sanctity of human life are crushed, as the life sustaining boundaries created by respect and compassion and human kindness have disappeared in the service of  military aggression.  

I wonder when and how and if these boundaries can be restored.

I read about states passing laws that increasingly infringe upon and obliterate the boundaries of safety in society for the  LGBTQ community, for young people who are still figuring out who they are with regard to gender.  One step forward and two steps backward as boundaries we thought might be secure are breached in the service of fear.

I wonder when and how and if these boundaries can be strengthened and secured.
I shudder when I observe the systematic destruction of the boundaries of women’s sovereignty in their bodies as more and more restrictive and punitive laws limit the freedom of choice around around their reproductive rights.

I wonder when and how and if these boundaries can be strengthened and women’s freedom to choose be restored.

On Palm Sunday I am invited to speak at the island Unitarian Universalist Society on the theme of “awakening.”  The sermon is still in process.  The metaphor of Easter looms in the near future with its challenge to believers to make their way through the darkness of the tomb into the radiant light of a resurrection morning.  I ponder the notion that, often, deep darkness is required in order for an awakening to happen.

In the protective dark containment of the chrysalis, out of sight, a somewhat lowly looking caterpillar is transformed into a monarch butterfly.

As we gradually  emerge from the “cocoon” of a long pandemic, I wonder who we will be.  Will we abort the process and revert to our less illumined nature? Or will the time in the darkness  provide the transformation needed to birth ourselves into something more glorious?

The seed of hope was planted there during the most fearful times of the epidemic as kindness and compassion were lifted up in selfless sacrifice and generosity.  The seed of hope is planted in the outpouring of compassion and kindness toward the Ukrainian people.

John O’Donohue has written:  We live between the act of awakening and the act of surrender. Each morning we awaken to the light and the invitation to a new day;  each night we surrender to the dark to be taken to play in the world of dreams where time is no more.  At birth we were awakened and emerged to become visible in the world.  At death we will surrender again to the dark to become invisible.  Awakening and surrender:they frame each day and each life; between them the journey where anything can happen, the beauty and the frailty.

So, maybe that’s where we are - - on the curious boundary between sleeping and waking.  We have had our strange time in the cocoon world of the pandemic.  We have only limited vision of how the last two years may have changed us - or not.  

 I wonder on which side of the boundary we will land?

Vicky Hanjian

Friday, April 1, 2022

Grace and Patience

When despair for the world grows in me 

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake

rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things 

who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. 

I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

waiting with their light.   For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

—The Peace of Wild Things, by Wendell Berry


    It is not far-fetched to imagine that many of us have recently had an experience like the one described in the first three lines of the poem. We are living in difficult and challenging times fraught with injustice and inequities, with threats within and without: COVID-19, climate change, the war in Ukraine, painful losses, difficult relationships, work, finances, etc.; most characterized by uncertainty.
    The last line of the poem suggests that by resting in “the grace of the world,” one may become free, at least for the moment, of the fear and despair experienced in reaction to the uncertainty and unpredictability of the world.
    Grace, the experience of gifts freely given, is ever present; it’s the body breathing, and the heart beating, it is seeing, tasting, smelling, touching, and feeling (emotion), thinking, and it is language and speech, listening, laughter, kindness, generosity and gratitude, and it is the awareness that knows in and through all these and more. “Resting” in grace requires patience, the ability to stay and attend long enough to receive and savor what has been freely given. 

     During the winter years ago, I was asked to give the sermon at a church in Brookings, South Dakota, where I was living and working. When I came out to my car, individual ice crystals, in all their beauty and wonder, were visible on the windshield, and, for a moment, I saw them. Then I began scraping impatiently, and I realized that those incredibly beautiful crystals, which were freely given to me, in that moment were objects that were in my way, that I needed to get out of my way, so I could get on my way.
    Check yourself now, if you like, noticing any feelings of impatience that are pushing you to get through this article so you can get on to or back to what feels like it needs to be done. That’s not your fault. The demands and pace of our lives often require this attitude from us. People, emotions, conversations, eating, exercise—even vacations—become objects that are in our way, that need to be gotten out of our way, so we can get on our way. Little room is left for cultivating an attitude of wonder and curiosity, and the patience required to witness and savor the grace that makes our lives possible.

    There are practices that create conditions allowing a patient witnessing to emerge from deep within us to open and receive the gifts freely given. This attitude of patient witnessing is the antidote to the attitude that treats every something and someone as objects that are in the way, and must be gotten out of the way, so we can get on our way.
    One practice is to slow the pace of our lives whenever possible. When noticing ourselves rushing with the mind racing toward the future, we can tune into any one of our senses, e.g., feeling the breathing sensations, noticing seeing or hearing, etc., immediately anchoring us here, now. While shaping a condition that may allow the attitude of patient witnessing to emerge, this resting back in awareness of the present moment may have the added benefit of easing anxiety and balancing uncertainty. For example, when we realize that, though feeling anxious and unsafe, we actually are safe, here and now; or we realize that, though feeling helpless or powerless, we actually have some power and control in this moment because we can choose to stay and, perhaps, rest in it gracefully.

A second helpful practice is to look up, as I did a moment ago, above the computer, to the gray, cloudy sky, interrupting the push to complete this task, so I can get on to the next one, and the next. Instead, looking up creates a much larger context, one that, perhaps, makes room for patient witnessing of the mystery of writing, of a computer, of clouds and rain, and the seeing and the knowing and hearing, and the awareness that makes it all possible.
    Finally, allowing our face to relax into a smile may shift our attitude from impatiently pushing through to the next thing, to gently resting back in the freely given gift that is each moment. 

    The fear and despair experienced in reaction to the uncertainty and unpredictability of the world is not going away any time soon, however, it is possible to make room for and cultivate an attitude of wonder and curiosity, and the patience required to witness and savor the grace present in each moment of our lives.

 Chris Klug

Ed. note:  Guest blogger, Chris Klug, is a Grief Counselor, Educator and Consultant.  He is also a Mindfulness instructor.  Welcome, Chris.
This blog is re-printed with permission and may also be found at the website below.