An elderly female visitor showed up at the local country church. A friendly young usher greeted her at the door and helped her up the flight of steps. "Where would you like to sit?" he asked politely.
"The front row please," she answered.
"You really don't want to do that," the usher said. "The pastor is really boring."
"Do you happen to know who I am?" the woman inquired.
"No." he said.
"I'm the pastor's mother," she replied indignantly.
"Do you know who I am?" he asked.
"No." she said.
“Good,” he answered, and he quickly scurried away.
I am glad to hear some laughter. Laughter is one of my favorite spiritual solutions. I hope to employ it more often in 2010. If I haven't laughed in a few hours chances are that I'm in need of attitudinal healing of a spiritual kind – a spiritual make-over, if you will.
The joke asks do you know who I am? This sermon asks do you know who you are?.”
Claiming that there are spiritual solutions for all of life problems, was brazen. At least my S/O Huyen seemed to think so. I told her the title of my sermon, “A Spiritual Solution for every problem we face in life.” She got a very delighted look on her face- one that suggested she was about to have great fun -laughing at me.
She starts “So...you are going to run out of gas if you don't pull over and fill the car's tank,” ... (her face says “Got you on that one, huh? ) She didn't pause long. Here comes a slam dunk. “The toilet won't flush, what's the spiritual solution to that problem?” she asked.
Not being inclined to back down, I gave her my best spiritual wisdom. “Plunge it.” .
The defense of my claim continues into this sermon.
Our problem is a culturally conditioned and very limited notion of what is meant by spiritual. We learned that the spiritual realm referred to angels, and other supernatural forces, that spiritual and physical are opposites, with spirit being good and flesh being week, sinful, and bad.
But when a UU holds the interdependent web of existence as sacred, physical acts- even plunging a toilet can be spiritual.
Now I'm wondering if my defending against this toilet argument, I've trivialized my monumental claim that there are spiritual solutions for all of life's problems. But this won't make me back down. I have a fail safe strategy. It is this: “Don't take me literally. Please do take me seriously, but not too seriously.”
I admit that there is reason for distinguishing between physical and spiritual. Wikipedia defines spirituality as is relating to, consisting of, or having the nature of spirit; not tangible or material. Hearing this you might assume that it implies that spiritual = supernatural. Spiritual = ghosts, angels. Some spiritualities posit supernatural explanations for things that we can't or don't understand. An important document didn't reach it's recipient, well it must be a demon in the Internet. You step out of a horrible car wreck without a scratch, it must have been an angel protecting you.
I am not putting down this way of thinking. I don't put much stock in demons, but angels are just all right by me. Now before those of you who consider yourself reality-based look down upon and scorn me, remember, I warned you not to take me literally. Besides, if the story I tell myself enables me to live with more peace and skillfulness, and you have a problem with my story, it's your problem. You live with your story. I'll live with mine.
Many years ago, I was driving to the coast with a girlfriend. A car pulled in front of us. I hit my brakes. “Get out of the way you( cover mouth) xxxx,” I cursed at them. She says “that is an angel up ahead of us keeping us out of harms way.” My first thought was “you can't believe that?! I started to feel scared, “Oh God she is some kind of flake. I'm thinking that I am smarter than her. Then it dawns on me. Hundreds of times I had cursed drivers that cut in front of me. Talk about crazy, like cursing would magically punish the bad driver and make him get out of my way. And I notice that I'm stressed and she is happy. (ponder this a moment)
HM angels keeping me out of harms way. Well I don't know about that, but I wondered how many times I had judged that something bad had happened, when in reality, the forces of life were conspiring toward my fulfillment. Hmm, it sure would be nice, if I could tune into her reality?
Susie, point taken. Of course I didn't admit to her at the time.
When we hear supernatural explanations, we could agree or disagree on a literal level. However, the religious liberal has another option. She can choose to listen beyond the literal level to receive a spiritual truth that is being expressed. Religious liberals are generous in our interpretations of religious language. Instead of closing our minds, and asserting that we have the truth and they don't, we remember that there are different ways to approach and receive what is true.
Let's apply this to spirituality. The English word spirit comes from the Latin spiritus, meaning breath. In Hebrew it's Roach. Synonyms include "soul, courage, and vigor".
Even if you don't believe that a person has a soul, even if you eschew supernaturalism, you'll likely admit a living person has breath in him. And that means that he's not just physical. More importantly, this breath or spirit animates life throughout our ecosystems.
Spirit can be understood as energy. There is an energy in a person. We see it. We feel it. We read it.
And like the breath, energy adds something kind of important to a person's body. Energy is also essential for understanding. Want to know what's going on with your husband or wife? Pay attention to the energy in and about them. And here's the real kick. And the same is true for the collective. Energy is an important part of interactions. A congregation has a certain quality and type of energy, a spirit. A city has a spirit, a state has a spirit, and so on. Theologian Walter Wink stated that each group develops its own spirituality. Entering into it, you are affected by it's consciousness, it's dominant stories, myths, and emotional patterns etc.
Spirit is what's between the lines. It's on our faces, in our bodies and tones of voice. It's non verbal communication.
A body that is cut off from spirit, the life force, dies. The same is true for social interactions, and bodies of people. In December, we talked about the Christmas spirit, the light, the attitude, the energy that descends from heaven or emerges from Earth during December. There is just no denying that something different happens in December and it changes things. It doesn't always change things for the better, or the way we would like, but it changes things. If we want to get the big picture, and decide to ignore spirituality, ... good luck!
Another way to understand spirituality is the search for the absolute or God. Now I gather that some of us turn off our receivers when we hear the word God. Maybe before you found this church, you figured religion was not for you. Maybe you heard that it was okay to be an atheist here. Then someone like me comes along saying spirit this and God that, and maybe your first thought is “hey man, I didn't sign up for that!”
Before you jump to the conclusion that one of us is in the wrong place, let's get something clear. We have theists, atheists and non-theists here. You definitely don't have to believe in the existence of a deity to be part of our spirituality.
Regardless of what you believe, if when you hear the words God or Spirit, you cringe and have a hard time keeping your mind and heart open, then I invite you to heal with us. If when you hear the words spirit or God, there is a mechanical response that fills you with a cascade of chemicals that say “enemy approaching...” and if you react the exact same way that you did 20 years ago.... then maybe you still have some work to do. If it sounds like I'm picking on one group, ... I have my trigger words too, I imagine we all do.
What's more important than our first reaction, our conditioned response, our first thought and emotion, … is what we do after that.
A UU spiritual practice is learning how to keep our hearts and minds open even after we've heard troubling words. After we hear a religious word that we don't like, do we get an attitude? close our minds?, refuse to consider anything that's being communicated?
This faith asks us to stretch, learn and grow. If every time someone uses the word God, if we insist on interpreting what they are saying through the filter of what it would mean if we said it, if we continue to assume they mean the same thing our parents did, or the same thing that Joel Olsteen would mean, then we are holding on to a pre-judged, predetermined concept, and we not listening to what they are trying to communicate. And when we do that, how can we claim to be reality based?
Unitarian Universalists are asked to be the Swiss of religion. We are asked to be multi-lingual and to translate. When someone tells you that spirituality means having a relationship with Jesus, you could turn off your receiver, and not hear another word. Or you might consider doing some translating. You might hear the word Ultimacy or Ultimate Reality. I like the phrase source of life. You don't have to believe that there is a supernatural deity in order to learn to listen and hear people's religious impulse.
I believe that everyone has a religious impulse. Even if you consider yourself cynical, you have a hunger for meaning. You have had existential moments when you were struck by the wonder of existence. When awe pushes you beyond what see, hear, touch, taste, smell to your deepest sense, your sense of being connected to more. The religious impulse begins with a humility that realizes that what is, is greater than what we have imagined. It is tied to our need for understanding. It's the dawning of consciousness, a need to connect with life. It's the desire to gain an eternal perspective.
Similarly, I see spirituality as the awareness of being in relationship to something greater than ourselves. In society, we suffer because we have learned to see ourselves as separate from others and from all life. Living with this delusion is painful. We seek to reconnect with the Ultimate reality.
All Religious traditions offer antidotes to this suffering. I am not saying that all spiritualities are equal. No, far from it. Some lead to passivity, aggression, callousness to suffering. Some lead to peace, love, and a desire for justice.
You want to find a spiritual solution to a problem in your life? Start by asking yourself if you are assuming responsibility for something beyond your control. We can take responsibility for what we choose to believe and what we do.
This is the realm of consciousness, and whether we get there through prayer, meditation or service, it's where we find spiritual solutions to all of our problems. If we take an honest inventory of the things that bother us in our life, we will notice repeating patterns. We will become aware that the problem is not so much what happened, not what our boss or spouse said to us. The cause of our suffering is in our reactions. In each of the difficult, torturous and miserable events in our life, what actually happens is only the tip of the iceberg. In each misery, what is it that we tell ourselves? How do we behave?
To start with an light example, the problem isn't that the toilet won't flush. The problem is that we think “I paid the plumber ..FOR WHAT?” or “why does this always happen to me?” Or “how am I supposed to have the time to deal with this? Ultimately when we look behind these thoughts we will find that we are repeating some belief that keeps us from trusting God or life, and that punish us by implying that “we are not good enough.”
Spiritual solutions come when we surrender our stories and discover the truth of our being. “To know know know you, is to love, love love you.” But we can't know someone when we are attached to a story about them.
Anthony DeMello wrote “Love springs from awareness. It is only inasmuch as you see someone as he or she really is here and now and not as they are in your memory or your desire or in your imagination or projection that you can truly love them; otherwise it is not the person that you love but the idea that you have formed of this person, or this person as the object of your desire, not as he or she is in themselves....
I would add that when we hate someone or something, we are also hating an idea we have about them.
There is a world that is far more real and true than the world the world of perception which is the world we liv. What we perceive on the physical level is a small percent of what is going on. Spiritual solution comes when we align ourselves with that which is most true. When we claim our place in the web of life and realize that we are here to serve and be served, to give and to receive, to love and be loved. Spiritual solution comes when we meet life with our heart.
Rabbi Schneerson, the Lubbavitch Rebbe of the last century, wrote:
In the Talmud, a question is asked, “How do we know when the night ends and the new day begins? The answer given is: The night ends and the day begins at the time when one can see his friend from four feet away and recognize him... This requires more than being able to discern the physical characteristics. Seeing a friend means seeing a soul created in the image of the eternal. .. It means treating that soul in a godlike way.”
As we go forward, may we remember to look beyond the clay exteriors and discover the treasure that lies inside us and each one we meet.
Our closing hymn reminds us that the infinite abides in each of us.
Hymn “There's a River Flowing in my Heart.”
There's a river flowin in my heart. And its telling me that I'm somebody. Theres a river flowing in my heart.