Today's topic is “Finding Resource for Renewal. That's what a lot of us think about this time of year. We make resolutions, and wish to make a fresh start. Did anyone make any New Year's resolutions this year?
Did you ever notice that people flock toward the fitness clubs in January? It's like a pilgrimage. January, time to migrate to the gym! People who go to the gym all year find that suddenly they have to park farther away and walk all the way across the parking lot to get to their workout site. We are a funny species, aren't we? And knowing these trends, seeing the fickle nature of human behavior doesn't make us any less likely to do these things. I know because I joined Bally's Fitness Club this month.
Did anybody make a resolution, and blow it the first day? At that point you've got a choice. Blow it off entirely, or adjust the start date. Being liberal about traditions most of us can be flexible about dates. I mean Hey, January 7th is just as good a time to begin carrying out a resolution as Jan 1st, right? Come to think of it, Janury 24th works too! Being loosey goosey is really helpful when you want to cut yourself slack and begin again. The problem is that by boiling it all down to ourselves, and what we decide, we we lose with something much greater than ourselves. And being in relationship to something larger than ourselves is what religion is all about.
We sometimes over-analyze and dismiss the power of tradition. Perhaps we assume that we are enlightened moderns who base our life decisions on reason and intellect? Rev. Michael Dowd, author of “Thank God for Evolution” laughs at this assumption.
He and his wife, Connie Barlow, who is a science writer, created great symbols to talk about brain evolution in our species. They talk about the lizard brain, the war and fuzzy mamallian, the monkey mind, and the prefrontal cortex or higher purpose. The lizard brain is concerned with survival, food, mating, possibilities for loss, and gain of power and status. The higher porpuse is concerned with orchestrating our thoughts and actions in accord with internal yearnings.
To illustrate the power of the lowest and highest brain parts, Rev. Dowd uses a metaphor of riding an elephant. We think that it's our higher function that steers the elephant, he says. Actually our higher thinking conjures an elegant path for the elephant. Before long, the elephant sees food, a potential mate, or something that freaks him out. The powerful elephant then goes bounding off the pretty planned trail. Then the intellect provides us with reasons why it was okay to veer off course. It says things like, “I meant to do that”- planned it all along.
We are mental creatures. We generate thoughts all day long. The problem is that we think mostly the same thoughts every day as we did the day before. We use our minds to repeat the same loops, the same patterned reactions over and over again. We use our intellect to help us avoid looking at our choices. We use our intellect to block consciousness instead of awakening consciousness.
Until now this may have all sounded to some as matters of secular concern. But getting a clean start - awakening our consciousness - is what religions are all about. Or anyway, it's been a popular theme throughout religious history. Can you think of some examples? (they answer)...<Shabbat, the day when creation ceases is one example.>... What about baptism? Being born again? The resurrection ?
That phrase “born again” makes some of you cringe. You think about the sibling with whom you enjoyed a close relationship until they got religion. And then you stopped being able to imagine being close to them. You think “Huh! They say they are born again, and yet they are now so rigid and set in their ways!” It's a good thing we aren't like that, huh? (pause) HAH!
I would invite us to become willing to move past any knee jerk reaction we might have and move deeper to find the beauty in the concept of being born again into a new life. This is the key to find renewal. Our beliefs, the stories we hold about the past, these are dead. Real life is dynamic, emerging and new. When we can embrace the spirit of life emerging fresh in this moment we are renewed.
Don't we love to hear about people who are able to turn their lives around for the good?
Take Greg Mortenson, author of Three cups of tea. His big idea for living a good life was to climb Mt. Everest. He failed, and almost died. He stumbled into an Indian village, where he was adopted and nursed back to health. While staying with the family, the talked with a young girl, and was shocked to find she had no school. As a way to pay back the kindness he had been given, he became determined to raise the money to build her a school. In the process of achieving his first goal, he began to understand what an incredible difference providing education means in terms of affecting the living conditions for a people. He has spent his life since then, raising the money that enabled many schools to be built.
I have had the great fortune of knowing more people than I can count who have made monumental and lasting changes in the course of their lives. Most of these are nowhere near as larger than life as Greg Mortenson. Hang out in 12 step meetings long enough, and you will get to know lots of people that are walking miracles. You'll meet people who live in gratitude for the recovery they have found. Again and again, you will hear of people who have spiritual awakenings that occur, not in a flash of divine light, but as a slow shifting of consciousness that enables miraculous transformation.
People who work the 12 steps receive gifts they never dreamed possible. Sometimes these gifts are dramatic and impressive in social or economic terms. Far more often they are simple, things like the gift of learning how to fulfill responsibilities as Dad, Mom, Son, Daughter, employer, employee, citizen. As people recover from conditions associated with addiction, they experience the miracle of being able to be content with, experence the joy and beauty of life.
No longer do they need drama. No longer do they need to use drugs to become comfortable in their skin. When some one moves from self absorbtion and becomes able to show up for their son's basketball game and their daughter's graduation, this is a miracle. People in recovery become greatful that they have gained or reclaimed the ability to visit parents in nursing homes, or to practice random acts of kindness without needing to seek recognition. They gain some freedom from the bondage of ego, and become capable of being able to fulfill responsibilities, how to love people, and how to enjoy life.
For most of us the need for renewal is not drastic. Fortunately, most of us haven't created major disasters in our lives. Most of us are not needing or wanting a total makeover of our lives. If you can look back over events of the past year or decade, without seeing a trail of destruction, carnage, scandal, imprisonment, I hope you will take a moment to consider how fortunate you are.
Not every enjoys this same fortune. Thinking about the wreckage created by some people can remind us of the reality and the power of choice or free will. Consider for just a few moments some of the people who have made REALLY bad choices in the past year that resulted in deaths, or conditions that brought about great suffering that will last- sometimes extending generations into the future.
I don't know about you, but considering those kinds of mistakes really helps me put my screwups into perspective. I have spent a lot of time anguishing and being resentful of my imperfections. For instance, every month I travel here from San Antonio, and usually I forget something. This month it was my stole. I've been very familiar with what its like to leave behind important resources that I intended to schlep (that means carry). In my life I have sometimes neglected to “put away” things when I finished using them. You know writing that out, it really sounds so trivial. Yet truth is that many is the time I've lit into myself - like I was some kind of super-villains. When I realize that I'm treating myself like I've created a crime against humanity, I shift. I realize that all along, I've been longing for the quality of trust.
You might think that I'd be embarassed to admit that I've tortured myself over such trivia. I could imagine calling it “messed up.” However, my years as a counselor and minister have meant that people have shared intimate details of their lives with me, and I know how normal it is to be crazy. you know my definition of normal? Normal is a person with whom you have not yet become intimate.
You see, when you get to know someone, you find that they struggle too. Sure some people are very accomplished. They do really well, and so we might see them as having their stuff together. Some people are really good at looking good. But everybody has patterns that they wish to change.
Many of us also suffer with a condition known as “denial.” Denial says “I don't have any problem". When denial is present, the rationalization it offers keeps us from admitting that aspects of our personality are leading us to create suffering for ourselves and others. Denial is present whenever there are addictions or patterns that do not serve our wellbeing or life.
What if we are someone who has created monstrous wreckage in their life. Are we to be pitied ? What are we to do? I have had great teachers who have taught me not to pity people. The teachers I'm referring to are people who have made really monstrous mistakes.
In addition to 12 step communities, I've met many other “walking miracles,” in the liberation movement by and for people who have been mental health consumers, survivors and patients. Like 12-step communities, these communities often have a spiritual wealth that is unknown to mainstream society.
I can only begin to tell you of the power that sometimes abides when people with "histories” get together. It's got to do with our first UU Principle, “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” It's something that is present in a palpable way when people are loved and accepted and encouraged without regard for their past.
There are certainly countless ways and resources for getting a fresh start. To some extent they all come down to learning to love, encourage and accept ourselves no matter what. Most of learned to try to motivate ourselves through punishment. Faith teaches us that we can learn more easily when we first give ourselves self acceptance.
It's a paradox of Unitarian Universalism. We prioritize two things; acceptance and change. We challenge ourselves to be welcoming and accepting of all people regardless of diversity. Unitarian Universalism also invites us into a covenant that asks us to support spiritual growth in our congregation and ourselves. Being in covenant asks us to remain teachable, willing to find out more, willing to continue to grow along spiritual lines. Our covenants ask us to be willing to learn how to create the beloved community, and to work toward this end.
To fulfill our resolutions and our covenant, to renew ourselves we must have a willingness to open to something greater than ourselves, greater than our preconceived notions, ideas, and beliefs. We don't require anyone to call this something greater “God.” We do need to remember that we are here to call ourselves into that something greater, that “more love somewhere.” I heard an expression at the minister's retreat that captures this sentiment. It says we want to be more intent on invoking truth than on defining it.
When we put a name upon the great what is, we are likely to think we have dominion over it. We do have amazing powers of creation. But what is required for life to thrive, is co-creation. We must develop spiritual awareness, awareness that we are bound together, that an injury to one is an injury to all.” Amending slightly the words of Martin Luther King “we must learn to live together as brother and sisters, or we will … perish together as fools.” Individually and collectively, we can open ourselves to the love that causes life to emerge and reemerge.
Whenever we become miserable, resentful, or scared, we can find our way back into awareness of being in relationship to something greater than ourselves. We can plug back in to the source of life because it is the great “I Am” and will always be. All the things we clutch at will all pass away. But life is greater than it's creations, as we are greater than our creations. We come to life by discovering this eternal force. We come to life by acceptance of it. Now acceptance of what is doesn't mean being passive. Life exists inside of you too. And it's there for a reason. You are being called to flourish, to live, to flower and bear fruit, to be and to know that you are not a humandoing. You are a human being. And so ...we will continue to be,... to strive, to mourn, to celebrate, … to worship.