Spiritual Practice for UUS, as individuals and as congregations
A guy gets into a cab in NYC, and he asks: "How do you get to Carnegie Hall"?" The cabbie answers: ??? (the congregation replies)
A woman approaches the great Izthak Perlman. She says: “Mr. Perlman, I am a big fan of yours. I have purchased a dozen of your cds. I would give my life to play the way you do.
Itzhak Perlman replied: “So, what do you think I did?
Many people assume that genius is something that genetics gives to a lucky few. It is also true that each of them has applied an incredible focus and passion into honing their gift, perfecting their aptitude, their skill and craft. Indeed the Itzak Perlmans of the world play the way they do because they give a good portion -sometimes the best portion- of their lives to do so.
When I was a child, I often heard the expression that practice makes perfect. As an adult, I was greatly relieved to find that perfection is rarely a reasonable goal. Expecting to achieve perfection is usually a form of insanity. :>
The spiritual principle that I've remembered and used most often is “progress not perfection.” A wise person knows that they will never reach perfection, but they are willing to continue the journey in order to move in a desired direction.
The question in any given area of life is “how close do you need to get to perfection?” If for example you wish to make a living as a singer or musician, you'd better be pretty darn good. If you wish to participate in the creation of beauty and the joyful sounds of singing during worship service, you do not need perfect pitch. It isn't necessary that you be able to get every note exactly the way that it is written in the hymnal.
Sure, we all appreciate people who play the instrument of their vocal chords well. We appreciate people's efforts to improve their skill as it adds to the beauty we all experience. And sometimes joy and spirit in singing can be as important as skill.
Now the big question for the day is what makes a practice spiritual.
For some people reconsidering the meaning of spiritual practice means overcoming associations fraught with painful memories of judgment, threats and coercion. However, the very act of identifying as a Unitarian Universalist implies a recognition that there are many valid spiritual traditions.
Some define spiritual practice as entering into a personal relationship with Jesus as Lord and Savior. While it is completely wonderful for one of us to choose to follow Jesus as their spiritual path, the idea that this is the only valid spiritual path would be rejected in every UU congregation. Hopefully calling Jesus your personal Lord and Savior wouldn't prevent your welcome into a UU community. It might lead to some interesting discussions about the trinity, and doctrines of atonement. What is required to be UU is an acknowledgment that there are other valuable spiritual paths besides your own. To be UU, you need a liberal definition of spirituality and spiritual practice.
In my 21 years since graduating seminary, I've heard a lot of definitions of spirituality. Most of them had to do with relationship between ourselves as individuals and something vastly greater than ourselves. Many people would use the word God. For some it would be the Tao, the way of nature. For most UUs it would include the interdependent web of existence.
One man shared a definition that took me a while to appreciate. He said that spirituality was anything that made his heart sing. At first this seemed a bit light to me, but the more I thought about what it takes to make someone's heart sing, the more I liked his definition.
I would like to suggest that a spiritual practice is anything done repeatedly and with clear intention to bring you into a greater or more clear awareness of your spirituality. UU spiritual practices develop a greater and clearer sense of UU spirituality. I would include as aspects of our UU spirituality, to have reverence for the interdependent web of existence, faith that revelation is continuous, faith in the inherent worth and dignity of every person, the possibility of improvement of the human condition and the awakening of consciousness within individuals and society, communion with God or the Sacred through nature &/or life in a variety of possible ways.
In order to progress in a particular direction, one must have a sense of that direction or an instrument such as a compass. For Jews the compass is the Torah. For Christians its the bible. For Muslims it's the Koran. For Buddhists, it's Dharma. For Jews and Muslims, true north would be right relationship with God. For Christians, add to this correct relationship to Jesus, to Buddhists it would be right understanding of the impermanence of all things and right action defined by avoidance of the creation of suffering.
In any of the UU spiritual values I've mentioned, there might be interesting discussions as to what exactly the destination would look like. How do we U Us as a group or even as individuals acquire a compass for spiritual journeying? What would be considered true north? I've heard many people say that the purpose of UU tradition is to make better people. But what does it mean to be a better person? Who decides what is better?
UUs regularly criticize other religious traditions for separating themselves and assuming that they are somehow better than others. Is it presumptuous of us to assume that we know what it means to be a better person? Does this assume that we know better than everyone else? Or perhaps we believe that everyone knows what it means to be a better person, and it's just a matter of listening to the wisdom and truth inside each of us.
Without one sacred text, how does anyone measure spiritual growth? With so many sources of inspiration acknowledged as valuable, and no agreed upon end, do we have carte blanche to justify any of our inclinations? Does our religion encourage us to do whatever we feel like doing? If so it doesn't match any scholarly definition of spiritual practice, certainly not of a spiritual discipline. If the path we are walking doesn't yield desired results, do we simply change the stated destination? Do we examine why the path we've followed didn't “work for us?” Do we empower our conscience, or our ego? Do we answer to anyone?
One of our primary spiritual practices as UUS is our emphasis and reliance upon covenant. Our UU denomination is defined by a covenant between congregations, known as the Principles and Purposes of the UUA. Equally important is an emphasis on the covenants, agreements and promises we make on a congregational level. What promises do we make to each other that shape our journey together?
We talk about theological diversity, reflection and discussion. However, our religious life together also asks us to reflect and discuss the ethics of our behavior. Participation in the congregation is the place this comes up. As Rev. Susan Smith say “the congregation is our curriculum.” If we actually use democratic process, rather than give it lip service, … if we actually treat each other with equity and compassion, as we strive to build the beloved community, we will get plenty of opportunity to examine the assumptions that fuel our actions. Our ideas about how to get things done will come to light. The question is whether only other people will reflect upon them, or will we join them.
As UUS our spiritual practice can be our willingness to learn from being together. “But what about individual conscience?,” you say. As UUs nobody can tell us what is right and wrong! There is no question that we cherish the right of individual conscience; it's a bedrock UU value. We want our children to act upon conscience, and to develop confidence in their ability to live with integrity. We invite individuals to become aware of their responsibility to determine what is true and valuable. However, we also want members of our community to be accountable. Increasingly we are asking for transparency from our leaders. We want our collective values to be realized in what we do, and how we get things done. We can't force people to look at themselves, but in our way of working together, we try to encourage it.
Covenant becomes spiritual practice only when we value being in relationship, making agreements and being accountable. Do we give each other honest feedback about how things affect us? Do we ask for what we want? Are we willing to work through established channels, or do we believe it's easier to ask for forgiveness rather than permission? Are we willing to abide by agreements made by the congregation and our elected leaders? Do we talk about other people in the congregation rather than speaking directly to them? Do we form unofficial committees and try to wield influence outside the bounds of accountability and trust?
Spiritual practice is not just reading a meditation book once a day. It's not just special time you spend with yourself, speaking or listening for divine guidance- although I highly recommend these practices. It is also learning to grow in ability to practice the values that we claim to cherish as a congregation.
I'm not suggesting that our congregation should be God to us. Don't expect us to be perfect. I am suggesting that the purpose for the existence of this church is something we need to do in all our affairs. It's not just for Sunday mornings. Similary, being UU has to mean more than being a person with progressive social views. It's more than being visible advocate for justice, equity and compassion in society. Again as valuable as those are.
It is the practice of becoming the people we want to be in all aspects of our lives. And it's something we attempt to learn by being together.
To do this we have to admit that we are not perfect. This will be better than it sounds. It means get to admit that it's okay to make mistakes. We get to celebrate that faith development is all we do. We are here to learn and grow and deepen our spiritual awareness.
Attending Sunday service is a collective spiritual practice. This is the hour we share a focus as a congregation. This is one of the primary times that people experience the power that is here to change lives. We have to understand that Sunday morning isn't just entertainment, or intellectual stimulation. This is a time we remember and shape our faith. It's a time we try to be together in a way that invites us to come home to truths inside ourselves. It's a time for us to remember or discover who we are and how we intend to live.
We want this to be a place where we experience a change of heart. Yes balancing the budget is important. Achieving that next level at work may be important. Finding ways to deliver excellence in school is important. But there are some things even more important than good grades or personal achievements. I'm talking about the kind of things that enable you to sleep at night, and go to your ultimate rest knowing you have lived a good life. That power is here with us. Sometimes the only way it becomes known is when we are able to come together for greater purpose. That power is ours, but we must choose it.
UU Spiritual practices help us to develop our intention and our skills to take UU spirituality into the world. The beauty and power of our tradition is that it invites us to discover the sacred, and remember the divine in all aspects of living.
How do we bring a sense of the sacred into more aspects of our life? How do we grow in awareness of our intentions, so that we practice our religion in school, at work, at home?
We can learn from what religious people have done throughout the globe and the ages. We do not need to reinvent the wheel. We can find inspiration for spiritual journey in the words and teachings of countless sages. They lived with the hope of contributing to the fullness of people's lives, and to their enlightenment. We would be wise not too judge to quickly, but simply do what we can do with integrity and respect. We are also free to practice in new and creative ways. For example, we can choose to do say ancient prayers and create our own. We can read the poems of the mystics, as well as express ourselves. Both can be spiritual practice. We can recite new and old blessings. We can choose to do these, not from obligation or guilt, not to be cool by association, but because spiritual practice makes our lives more wonderous and wonderful. We can choose practices that help us to think and act based on our chosen values.
We are going to get up every day anyway. We are going to eat meals. We are going to go to bed. We can use these events as opportunities to awaken ourselves spiritually, and return to a chosen state of consciousness. It's easy to worry, get angry, become resentful. It's easy to get stuck in blame and criticism. But who wants to live that way? Is this what we want to continue practicing, so that we can become masters of hate and misery? Instead of eating the neuropeptides of fear and anger, we can aid our digestion by creating create peace in ourselves. Wouldn't you call that grace?
We do spiritual practices to help us become aware of the direction and path we wish to choose for ourselves. There was a man named Rabbi Zusea, he is perhaps best known for something he told his disciples. He told them that when he died, God wouldn't say to him “why weren't you more like Moses, Or Solomon, Or Elijah. He told his students that he believed God would ask him, “if he had been like Zusea?” In other words to be true to our souls and ourselves. Each of us in unique in all creation. We are a marvel and miracle of beauty and truth. Each of us can ask ourselves “What can I do in my life to be fulfilled? Each of us can create a vision for a life that would enable us to become our true selves.
Spiritual practice is what we can do to help us remember or discover our vision. It is what we can do to know divine power, truth and peace. When we find these, we can return to them day by day until they become as natural to us as breathing.
So be it.