a sermon by the Rev. Jill Cowie


According to the HeartMath Institute we have two major clusters of neurons in addition to the brain, one in our intestines-our gut knowing, and the other in the cardiac sack-our heart knowing. Scientist Peter Senge says that with practice these come together in a quality of presence that inspires and energizes. Join us for a worship service for all ages as we explore the practice of presence together.

The Sermon

When I heard the first inkling of a call to ministry I sat down with my minister in Duxbury and asked him what ministry was really like. He said to me that the most important thing about ministry is presence. Since then I have been listening to the sages, the scientists, and the activists for lessons of presence. There are those that understand presence as being aware, alert in the moment, when out of our busyness, we are called back into balance, back into ourselves and our present being. And there are those that understand presence as sensing the transcendent other, where we with courage and know how remain quietly in the presence of the divine, the holy mystery, God. For me, the experience of presence often means both. For when I am listening to my breath, or the sound of the ocean, a presence larger than myself always begins to emerge. Has this ever happened to you? Listening to music, taking a walk in the wood. This sense of presence emerges especially when I am around my kids. I remember when my five year old Morgan asked, “Mom why am I here?” The first thing I wanted to say is she the great granddaughter of Scottish immigrants, and that her grandfather got an education on the GI bill and built a home for his parents with his first earnings and how they loved to spend the nights together playing Yatzee. I kept it simple and told her she is here to be loved and to love. I remember looking at her then sitting on the dock in front of our Florida Keys home her legs daggling above the water, sensing a green tender sapling of self, seeking to relate and grow, unique, strong and essential to the whole and that perhaps the answer was found in our shared silence that held the mystery of the world around us and her need to feel connected to a self beyond the story of her birth. This desire is still present for her and I wonder if this is true for you as well? If somewhere in your being lives a green tender sapling of self, seeking to relate and grow, unique and essential to the whole?

Theologian Howard Thurman suggests that when you nurture this emerging sense of self you create an island of peace within your heart. He says, “Well within the island is the Temple where God dwells, not the god of creed, or church, or family but the God of your heart and into that presence you come with all your questions, problems, plans, and ask what is your authentic point, where is your life going? All that becomes known in the sacred presence.” I love his island because it reminds me of my dharma name given to me by dharma teacher Joanne Friday, “Peaceful Island of the Heart.” She has given me this name twice. The first time was over ten years ago during my first retreat. She always invites newbie’s to be initiated into the five mindfulness trainings and gives them a name she believes will open up the practice for them. A few years passed and I went to another retreat and because I had not recited the five training at least once every three months, she asked if I wanted to be reinitiated. I was embarrassed that I could not remember the name she had given me, so she said she would come up with another. And it was the same. She saw that my authentic self emerges when I slow down enough to be deeply present to the truth within my heart. My challenge is that my other sources of knowing, my busy brain and my active body that likes to be in motion tend to resist this teaching.

“We must learn to see from our hearts, ” says Peter Senge a scientist and organizational consultant. A seeing that integrates the knowing of our brains, our bodies and our emotions to sense the generative possibility behind what we see.” Let me give you an example of when I think this happened to me. I was living in Key West, and my two sets of twins were all under the age of four. My go to place was the gym. I was on the treadmill, and the woman next to me said, “its my 40th birthday.” I think she just wanted the universe to know. I felt I should reply, so I asked, “How will you celebrate?” She said something about her two kids and she lowered her voice as she told me her nineteen year old daughter is living on the street at the intersection of Rout 1A and Ocean Boulevard. She said, “I kicked her out last week after she brought her drugs home,” “I did it to save my life. All I can do is pray for her.” The hum of the treadmills filled the silence. I said to her softly in a voice I didn’t recognize “I will pray for her too, what’s her name?” We slowed our treadmills and looked deeply at one another, and she said “Emily.” I could see Emily on that bamboo-covered corner of Rt 1A and Ocean Boulevard. And I began to pray, not just then but for weeks. I had never prayed before, I grew up unchurched; I didn’t even know who I was praying too.

Peter would say, that because of the connection we had made I was acting in harmony with a vision of our emerging reality, a shift experienced by Christians as grace, Taoist as chi, or energy, Hindus as Oneness, Buddhist as a stopping or cessation of separateness. When you choose to see with your heart, says Peter, you are called to spontaneously act in a new way with a new sense of self: my treadmill moment. Peter takes the religious teachings that focus on transformation of individuals to groups of leaders in the business world. He deepens their collective awareness of the negative impact their organizations are having on the most vulnerable around the world, and in that connection, a new reality often emerges. Before he started this, he wanted to understand how leaders learn so he interviewed over a hundred fifty scientists and business executives and he came up with his theory of U, like the letter U, which I love because it speaks directly to Unitarian Universalist theology. The left side is about our sense of Being (our Universalist heritage) and the right is about doing (our Unitarian Heritage). To practice, you start on the upper left side and you make a choice to observe and suspend judgment until you authentically connect with another. As you go deeper down the U you share the struggle and sadness of whatever separation is present. At the bottom is a common field of knowing that transforms the self and the will to see and do what is spontaneously needed.

In this common field of knowing, says Peter, “Whole groups start to see the future that wants to emerge as people spontaneously enact new ways of being in the moment.” He saw this shift in sessions he led with CEO’s, and white and black political leaders of South Africa as they imagined a new nation. I saw a shift of reality at Standing Rock. “It’s like being at a wedding. You feel the two separate energy fields of the couple; their family and friends merge with a new sense of sacred purpose. Peter says, “When I am part of a social field that crosses the threshold at the bottom of the U, “it feels as if I’m participating in the birth of a new world, it’s profound. I feel as I’ve been touched by eternal beauty.

The right side of the U is the “letting come part when you see and crystalize the emerging vision with on-going action. You become, an “instrument of life.” Take a minute and think of the places in your life where you are part of a larger whole, your family, a team, a group at school, a choir. Was there a moment where you sensed the need to go deeper and suspend what you knew to connect with someone? And in that connection did you feel your fields of knowing merge in a way that changed you? Did you see a vision and do something new? How about here at church? When has your collective field of knowing merged with the community in way this church was and is an instrument for life? Can you name some times out loud? (Add crystals to bowl) Each piece of glass is a crystallization of this congregation’s presence, mixed in with crystals of those who came before us. This bowl is a beautiful expression of this church’s “UU” presence, a presence with energetic power to shift a larger whole. (Turn on light.) So lets keep practicing presence together.

The poet Rumi writes “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing,
There is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
The world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the word “other” doesn’t make any sense.”

The blessing is that the people we meet in this field live in our hearts forever. One person who lives on in mine is Mary who I met at her house in New Orleans, two years after Katrina. (add stone) Most of the houses on the street were only facades, the porch and roofline belying the empty space behind the front door. It was surreal. Mary’s house was the first to be rebuilt. Three of us from a UU church, all women, were there to help finish the tile floor in her kitchen and bathrooms. We came ready with our book, “How to Lay Ceramic Tile.”

The second day Mary brought us lunch. As she unwrapped the piping hot crawdads I could sense her sizing us up, wondering if we really knew what we were doing. On the third day, as the kitchen floor was nearing completion she sat with us for awhile as we ate, sharing her story about raising her now adult children in this house, and telling us about the older man next door who died during the storm. Her presence helped us to hold the level of loss around us.

Then the floors were done and they were beautiful. Mary knew I was a new minister and she asked me to bless her house. She was a Baptist, and I told her I wasn’t Christian and she said that didn’t matter if the words came from my heart. Grateful for her trust, we formed a circle and I asked the Spirit of Life to bless her house with love, to bless her family with health and happiness. To lift laughter and joy to the rafters, to give strength to the beams, and to light the windows as beacons of hope for those that follow. Mary said a prayer to Jesus grateful for his presence, strength, and promise and asked him to be with us on our homeward journey She prayed that someday when the house is done that all of us sit together at the communion table. We saw each other with the eyes of our hearts.

Beyond all ideas of right doing and wrongdoing, there is a field where truth is found in the telling of memories and the easing of suffering; a field of knowing where the world is so full that the word “other” loses meaning. My hope and prayer is that we see each other with our hearts and that our ministry dances in a field of knowing that moves in harmony with the birth of an emerging reality, and that in our blessing we lift laughter to the rafters and light the windows with our joy. Blessed be and amen.