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August 31, 2008: “Spirituality for the Theologically Challenged”

There was a child who loved watching Sesame Street, and for a Xmas treat got to visit the studio where Sesame Street was produced, and later wrote a letter to Big Bird that said:
Dear Big Bird,
The other kids were fooled but not me. I know that you’re really not a giant bird. I know that you wear a costume. I also know that inside your costume you a regular, normal, little bird.”

There is a Jewish story _ Goldberg had the loveliest garden in town and each time the Rabbi passed by, he would call to Goldberg, “Your garden is a thing of beauty. The Lord and you are partners!”
“Thank you, Rabbi,” Goldberg would respond with a bow.
This went on for weeks and months, at least twice a day, on his way to and from the synagogue, the Rabbi would call out, “The Lord and you are partners! until Goldberg began to be annoyed at what the Rabbi evidently meant as a compliment.
So the next time the Rabbi said, “The Lord and you are partners,” Goldberg replied, “That may be true, but you should have seen this garden when the Lord had it all on his own!”

Spirituality is one of those slippery words that we are often challenged to define by people. The Buddhists call spirituality, Shamatha, tranquil abiding. I believe that part of spirituality is somewhat mystical, though not irrational or illogical, and is related to the emptying of the ego, to the opening our hearts and minds to let the spirit of life, love, and happiness shine through. It is an emptying of resistance, denial, defensiveness and cynicism; it is a religious aha experience; it is to be in the awe, wonder, and delight of a little child again.
Psychotherapist Molly Young Brown: When we expand our awareness, strengthen our center, clarify our purpose, transform our inner demons, develop our will and make conscious choices, we are moving toward deeper connection with our spiritual self.
        So if we are feeling theologically or spiritually challenged, I invite us to let go of the resistance, to let it float away, as if we were envisioning a balloon on a string at the fair wafting its way to the heavens while we all watch below. I invite us to find what we have in common with all religion rather than how we are separate from a particular religion, especially one in which we might have been raised.  We often speak of religion, then qualify it, or separate it into compartments called religions. The next step is then usually to praise our own and put the others down.     Former president of our Unitarian Universalist Association, former, Executive Director for Amnesty USA, Bill Schulz says that .. Spirituality is not just for what someone called bliss ninnies, but is also inspiration for working for social justice.
In his book, Finding Time and Other Delicacies, written while he was UUA president, under a section called A Consumers guide to Responsible Spirituality, Schulz says: If I were forced to define spirituality in a single phrase, I would call it our experience of the profound- not our beliefs about meaning, death, hope, suffering, the nature of creation, or the design of the divine-but our experiential responses to those realities...      He shares his six-point guide to a responsible Unitarian Universalist spirituality... though he doesn't man to exclude people; he means this is what we want in our churches...
  1. Can everybody join in the fun? We don’t want elitism or exclusiveness. You can be any age.
  2. Does it have a sense of humor? Let us not take ourselves too seriously.
  3. Does it respect reason? Beware spirituality which does not have a reality check, but I, would add, also respects mystery, like love…
  4. What are its implications for the world? Social Justice shouldn’t be forgotten; the prophetic part of religion always has called the religious into the world to work for justice in the world
  5. Does it pay homage to the tragic? How does it cope with suffering? I am suspicious when someone claims that God will protect me when I know that the plane crash that had no survivors included those who believed that God would save them!
  6. Where does it locate the most precious? Beware a spirituality which is out of this world! Of course the word spirituality means different things to different people as do the words, God, or pagan, or Wicca, or love, or life, or even death; indeed even humor is relative. That’s why I like Schulzs six-point guide. We may talk about spiritual experiences, and we come together to learn from each other, to search for meaning, love, community. What does it mean to be a member of this church if it is not to be in a very special and perhaps even profound relationship with each other, with the always evolving sense of discovery of our truest and deepest selves, and to a religious, spiritual dimension to life Freuds student, son of a Lutheran minister, the great psychologist Carl Jung writes (in Psychology and Religion: West and East: ) A monk once went to Gensha, and wanted to learn where the entrance to the path of truth was. Gensha answered him,Do you hear the murmuring of the brook? yes, I hear it, answered the monk. There is the entrance, the Master instructed him. In his book, Four Spiritualities by my colleague, Peter T. Richardson writes:
    Unitarian Universalists have spent two centuries forming a new and distinctive religion for the planet. We can see our history from the Enlightenment to the present as the spinning of the cocoon of a new world faith. This faith has been gestating slowly in a small but vibrant minority. In the turmoil of emergence a synergy of five powerful offerings has been forged:
    • affirming individual religious freedom
    • affirming independence of communal life in congregations
    • affirming an active tolerance in a pluralistic context
    • affirming global citizenship, which considers all branches of human religious tradition to be our own inheritance
    • affirming an open and creative attitude in the practice of worship.
      He then speaks of four spiritualities or paths, like Buddhism or even Hindu yoga, : the Path of Unity, the Path of Devotion, the Path of Works, and the Path of Harmony. Each has its own characteristics for mind, heart, and hand. All are equally important as alternative journeys, and exist in creative tension with each other.
      If we visit a bookstore or even check the NY Times Bestseller list, we will see that books on countless different approaches to spirituality abound from the profound to the absurd to the dangerous to the right one for us. As the great theologian and comedian who recently died, George Carlin, said, Just when I find the meaning of life, they change it. There is a deep well within us which we need filled, a spiritual, religious, drought that many of us thirst from. The living water, spirit of life, spirit of meaning and comfort. Some find it within traditional religion, but more and more people are finding it outside of traditional beliefs and institutions, and that’s why I believe we have an opportunity for reaching out to people in religious search.
    So for some of us, talking about spirituality may be difficult or even confusing. We may find ourselves feeling defensive. Like the 12-step recovery program of AA, before we can find spirituality we have to let go of our defenses and find the higher power, God, life force, the Force, pick a name, but we have to be able to admit that we just can’t handle everything alone.
    That does not mean that we have to depend on an outside force separate from ourselves. The religious writer, Sam Keen, in a book which has a title sounding very Unitarian Universalist-like: Hymns to an Unknown God: Awakening the Spirit in Everyday Life, says: My life is the text within which I must find the revelation of the sacred.
    It is an agnostic approach, not being sure it is possible to know God or to understand what or who God is or isn’t.
    Spirituality or the soulful path, Keen writes, s the quest to discover our higher selves and explore the depths, to allow ourselves to be moved-animated inspired by that sacred no-thing that keeps us human, the Unknown God within whom we live and move and have our being but may never fully comprehend… Spirituality is comfortable with an unknown God. That is, one does not have to believe a certain way to experience the spiritual. It sure helps to be open-minded about our possible agnosticism, just as we must be open-minded if we have a theistic approach. The animating principle in a human being is the spiritual instinct, argues Keen, the impulse to go beyond the ego to explore the heights and depths, to connect our individual life with something beyond the self, something more everlasting (even if ever-changing) than the self. Ultimately, our self-esteem comes from our discovery of a purposeful source of deathless meaning that transcends the self. I think perhaps that in the theological evolution of Unitarian Universalism, and perhaps in our own theological or the-a-logical, or even philosophic evolution, we go through different religious phases or discoveries. Perhaps evolution is not the exact right word because it implies that one way of thinking supersedes another. For instance, early Unitarianism and Universalism was deeply rooted in Protestant Christianity-except that Unitarians had rejected the idea of the Trinity as unscriptural, and Universalists had rejected the idea of the Augustinian and Calvinist idea of predestination, indeed believing in no hell and all being saved. Emerson and the Transcendentalists many of the traditional doctrinal tenets of Christianity like the divinity of Christ, but held on to a kind of theism. Then late in the 19th and especially in the early 20th century, Humanism became popular, though controversial and still very much the minority view. Western Unitarianism especially, became the bastion of humanism. Now, at the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st century, many of us who considered ourselves humanists, theists, or Christian are all speaking about this slippery word, spirituality, About religion from the heart rather than just the mind-remember the both-and principle. Indeed, studies are showing that Americans are now seeking spirituality in a wide variety of places from liberal to conservative churches. Indeed, the unchurched segment of the population is growing! Here’s my theory of UU spirituality of the old designation of UU Christians, Theists, and Humanists. When we decided to split up the trinity, the Christian UUs focused on Jesus, the theists, of course got God (not that the Christians don’t also have God) and the humanists got, well, nothing. But what part of the trinity was still available? The Holy Spirit, of course, but the early humanists, the ultra rationalists (some might even say compulsive, but I certainly won’t) didn’t want any part of it.
    Think for a minute, though, about the part of the trinity called the Holy Spirit or in some translations the Holy Ghost ( and yes, Casper the friendly Ghost always came to my mind!). Yet it also brings to mind the Native American concept of the Great Spirit. Spirit, not person, not father or son or mother or daughter, no form of divine relative, no Being even, but a life force, the Star Wars Force, as well as being easier to understand as metaphor. So, for atheists, humanists, agnostics and maybe even Gnostics, which might be described as the nature-centered, maybe even the pagans and wiccans, the idea of a spirit was more understandable, or perhaps less threatening. Indeed, I think that most people today are less interested in theological pigeonholes, and more interested in just exploring spirituality, worship, community. For whatever reason, in the latter part of this century we began to hear the word spirituality in UU churches, some where one was not allowed to use the G-word! I find it interesting to note that recent translations have noted that the Native American term Great Spirit should more accurately be translated as Great Mystery! The Japanese have a saying that relates:- Even though you should worship but one God, yet all the other Gods will be pleased. Using the word God may lead to confusion in our churches, may lead to a unconscious shutting of the mind, because it refers us back to the old traditional usage which we no longer find valuable or perhaps even understandable. The writer Kathleen Norris, in her recent book Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, writes about this very plainly: After inheriting her grandparents farm in North Dakota where she had spent her summers growing up, she and her husband, both sophisticated intellectual writers from California move back and she writes about the experience about small town life and memories of her youth, especially around church: When some ten years later I began going to church again because I felt I needed to, I wasn't prepared for the pain. The services felt like word bombardment-agony for a poet-and often exhausted me so much I'd have to sleep for three or more hours afterward. Doctrinal language slammed many a door in my face, and I became frustrated when I couldn't glimpse the Word behind the words. Ironically, it was the language about Jesus Christ, meant to be most inviting, that made me feel most left out. Sometimes I'd give up, deciding that I just wasn't religious. This elicited an interesting comment from a pastor friend who said, I don't know too many people who are so serious about religion they can't even go to church.

Interestingly enough it is almost an exact quote of Emerson from his Harvard Divinity school sermon where he talked about the formalized Unitarian preaching of the early 19th century when he said that someone said it almost seemed like a sin to go to church!

     It sounds like the stories of peoples religious journeys which brought them to this church, doesn't it? We needed a new language for religion and here and in other UU churches and fellowships, I believe we are crafting a new language so that we may once again speak religion in the church, the home, the workplace, perhaps even the schools. A kind of religious Esperanto, a language that was invented in this century for universal speaking. Perhaps spirituality is that new universal religious language, which might also serve to bring our theological diversity together.

It seems to me that spirituality is a word that we intuit more than know or understand. It is a religious gut-feeling, it is inspirational, it is the very breath of breath, the air-in Greek, pneuma means spirit, or a kind of holy air, or breath, without which, of course, we can’t live.

The birth of our children can be an incredible spiritual experience, perhaps the most profound of all. I wasn’t sure I really wanted to be in the delivery room when my daughters were born, but all three births were the most incredible spiritual experiences of my life. Sure I know I had the easy part! So, too, death is a spiritual experience; when a loved one passes away, we are deeply affected and all sorts of feelings run through us, grief feels overwhelming, and we cry until we can cry no longer, Soon a calm comes upon us and we realize that we will make it through this, and there is a spiritual dimension to our feelings of the bittersweetness of all life. We begin to change our relationship with the dearly departed, realizing their spirit, their essences; their memory will remain with us as long we live. We find ourselves connected with the great and mysterious cycle of life.

    My colleague Walt Moulton, who was your interim minister some years back was in one of my spirituality courses and puts it this way: Spirituality is what grows on me when I contemplate deeply the magnificence of birth, the meaning of life, and the mystery of death, while being deeply aware of my relationship to the earth and other people.

When I conduct a workshop on Exploring Spirituality, I never know what will happen, or what I will learn, say nothing about what the participants will learn or experience. I know what I will teach; I have a lesson plan. But one does not teach spirituality, rather, as I’ve said before, we can only set the stage, assemble the props, create and perform a ritual, share music-all sorts of stage setting, or should I say altar- setting, for this is not entertainment, not a show, not a performance. Some churches call the part of the service we call opening words, the call to worship, perhaps we should be more specific and use those terms.

     Some people come to the first workshop or one worship service and never return. It wasn't for them; it either wasn't what they looking for, or for some unknown reason, it just didn't feel right. Some need traditional words and prayers to find spirituality, and some could never find spirituality there; we must take the initiative to search for the right place, to find our own intuitional or experiential holy ground, burning bush, sacred space. You might find this hard to believe, but not everyone finds it at 9 or 11 O'clock Sunday morning.

My colleague, George Kimmich Beach writing in an essay entitled, The Covenant of Spiritual Freedom in   Unitarian Universalist Selected Essays 1995, says:     We covenant in spiritual freedom: We find at the center of our faith an energizing mainspring, a drive for meaning and dignity implanted in every soul in every land -- the wonder of being alive and awakened to life, the grace of beginning anew. Not in the self-enclosed isolation of the self, but in the quest for a more inclusive covenant. Not in narrow-mindedness or in mean-spirited debunking of things, cherished by others, but in listening for the spirit of life and truth wherever it arises. Not in fearfulness that life runs out and nothing can be done, but in the courage to turn every crisis in life into an opportunity for growth and spiritual depth.

Amen, Shalom, (Peace in Hebrew), Assalaamu Alaikum(may Peace be upon you in Arabic), Abrazos a todos (Hugs all around) Namaste, (A Hindu greeting the divinity within you) Blessed Be, and let me add one more blessing that I adapted from the Spanish long before I went in to ministry. Vaya con Dios is Spanish for Good-bye, but literally is Go with God, SO I adapted it to say Vaya Con Su Dios, Go with your idea or interpretation of God.