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July 28, 2013: “Progressive Theology Week III”

Reading: “In a Mother’s Womb” (unattributed)

In a mother’s womb were two babies. One asked the other: “Do you believe in life after delivery?”

The other replied, “why, of course. There has to be something after delivery. Maybe we are here to prepare ourselves for what we will be later.”

“Nonsense,” said the first baby. “There is no life after delivery. What would that life be?”

“I don’t know, but there would be more light than here. Maybe we will walk with our legs and eat from our mouths.”

The other said “That is absurd! Walking is impossible! And eat with our mouths? Ridiculous. The umbilical cord supplies nutrition! Life after delivery cannot exist, if for no other reason than the umbilical cord is too short.”

“Well, I think there just might be something, and maybe it’s different than it is here, and we just can’t understand it yet.”

“But,” says the other, “No one has ever come back from there. No, delivery is the end of life, and in the after-delivery, there is nothing at all.”

“I don’t think so,” says the other, “I believe we will finally see mother and she will take care of us.”

“Mother??? You believe in a mother? Where is she now? “
“She is all around us! It is in her that we live! Without her there would not be this world!”

“I don’t see her, so I must conclude that she doesn’t exist.”

And then the other baby replied, “sometimes when we are totally quiet, can’t you almost hear her, can’t you almost feel her touch, and sense that she loves us? I believe that after delivery, we might come to see her clearly, and maybe then we will come to understand what this is all about.”

This is the third in a three part series on progressive theology, and particularly, on my own version of progressive, Christian theology, which some of you had pressed me to share. I want to say at the outset that in this sermon, I am really going off the grid of progressive theology per se, and that what you will be getting today is pretty much just plain, old me. There is a saying, I can’t remember the source, that goes something like this: It’s no good to mix all the ingredients of a fabulous new recipe, unless you finally, actually, cook it on your own stove. Well, today’s sermon is me sharing with you the dish I get once I cook it on my own stove. Because for me, theology is ultimately kind of pointless unless it is really makes a difference in my daily life. While to some extent I can appreciate it as an intellectual pursuit, (I like the world of ideas as much as the next nerd after all;) but for me, it is more than that. If we can go back to the kitchen metaphors, for me, it’s like mixing up a recipe in a blender. You add the various ingredients a bit at a time, and they get sucked down into that central vortex where they became an integrated, processed part of the whole. If that doesn’t happen, if the theology doesn’t get thoroughly integrated into the whole, it all seems a bit pointless.

So I begin with affirming that underlying, awe-inspiring spirit of life, which I believe is an imminent part of this world. I think of it sort of as the underlying water table, underground streams which nourish and hydrate all the various forms of life that tap into it. We see life emerge from it in even the most unlikely places, like where the Cyprus Tree emerges from a wall of solid rock, or where humans survive horrible abuse or suffering, and go on to survive, and maybe even flourish. Or we see it where broken relationships are reconciled, or acceptance finally comes for something you had been mightily resisting, or systems are improved by those who patiently endure in the work of justice, and finally a tipping point is reached and apartheid falls or DOMA is overturned or Belfast becomes a city in which it is reasonable safe to walk again. I believe there is a spirit which ultimately will not be suppressed and even though there are whole domains at any given moment where we don’t see it yet, still it is on the move and breaks the surface, sometimes where we least expect it and had almost abandoned hope.

Further, I believe we are at our best, our most whole and alive and effective, when our roots are tapped into it. When we work with it, rather than resist it. I had a friend in Minneapolis who was a very progressive Jesuit priest and always in trouble with the hierarchy. One of his daily, spiritual practices was to take a moment to stand on his porch as he was leaving his home each morning. He would lick one finger and then lift it, in a symbol of discerning which way the wind was blowing. Then he would mentally and spiritually set the intention of aligning himself with the wind’s direction, then run down the steps into his day. Not a bad picture of the spiritual life, I think. I believe we are at our best when we seek to discern where the broader flow of life and wholeness and healing may be flowing, and then seek to work with it.

I guess I am talking about being open to spiritual guidance. Traditional Christian theology calls it “discerning the guidance of the Holy Spirit.” I would be more comfortable talking about it as being intuitively open to wherever the universe may be nudging me. Maybe it’s as simple and basic as the Serenity Prayer, accepting the things we cannot change and changing the things we can, after first trying honestly to figure out the difference. If that is all we ever do, to try to live from the serenity prayer and “go with the spiritual flow” just that much, then that is way more than most people do, and will be, I believe, a deeply rooted spiritual life.

But as a Christian Universalist, for myself I would add a bit more. As I mentioned last week, I believe Jesus was one whose roots were consistently immersed into his spiritual source and that because of that, he was able to reach out in moment by moment love. For me, the point is not to worship him, not to locate some magical properties in him, but to “go and do likewise,” to keep my roots, as much as possible, immersed in Spirit, and my arms reaching out in love. He didn’t “do it for me.” He modeled it, and I likewise need to do it for myself. It’s not about becoming like Christ; it’s about becoming the fullest, most whole, most alive, most love-based version of myself as possible; growing into my own wholeness and into my place in the interconnected web.

And for me, that is what it all comes down to. I believe it is the underlying purpose of life, for each of us to grow into our wholeness and into our own place on the interconnected web. I believe it takes at least a lifetime, and the process never stops, in fact, that aging and dying and death are a big part of it, sort of the senior project, the final thesis, the big push at the end of the degree. I believe the whole purpose of life is to learn and grow spiritually, to keep evolving. I believe that “life is the school and love is the lesson.” And that it takes at least a lifetime, and probably more.

And now comes the part where some of you will really think I’m crazy. I am very open to the possibility that the gradual, spiritual evolution I am talking about, doesn’t just occur in this lifetime as bookended by our birth and death. I do not know the particulars of where we might have come from or might be going. I have a strong gut instinct that Wordsworth might have been right when he said, “not in utter nakedness do we come, but trailing clouds of glory from God who is our home.” Likewise, I think Holmes was sensing it when he wrote “Chambered Nautilus” and used the idea of outgrown shells left behind so that a broader, more vase shell could then be made, each revealing a larger, more expansive world to the little creature involved. Or like that baby in the womb who, in the quiet, sensed that mother was all around, and there would be more to come.

CS Lewis, perhaps best known for his “Chronicles of Narnia” also wrote a compelling short book on this whole idea entitled “The Great Divorce.” (This is another book that I recommend, but with full disclosure that while there is plenty of meat, there are also plenty of bones and you will need to do some careful filleting.) In his book, we meet a number of individuals who have just died. We are told something of their back stories, and see that during their lifetimes they made choices that, unbeknownst to them, were moving them along a path either of emerging wholeness and evolution, or of a kind of shrinkage of spirit. After death, they each got to choose whether to stay on the path they were on or not. Then the rest of the book follows those who decide to continue the journey up the mountain towards the land of beauty and clarity. As they make the journey, they find they still have plenty of work to do. They meet people from life with whom they have unresolved issues, and need to face their own part. Some of them still cannot, and their progress stops. They stay where they are or even decide to go back down to the grey, drizzly city where people keep moving further and further apart because they cannot get along with their neighbors. Others do their work, and find themselves going up and on, and as they ascend, they notice that their new bodies are changing. They are becoming more luminescent and strong, emitting a higher energy frequency, they are developing the bodies of spiritual athletes, you might say, as they ascend further into what they later come to know as “deep heaven,” the realm where each soul sings in joy and reconciliation and understanding of what they entire journey has been about. No outside God has sent anybody anywhere. They have all made their own decisions at each, small choice point.

Basically, that’s what I believe, that spiritual growth may well have started before we got here, and will continue after we move along. Whether it is multiple lifetimes, as in reincarnation, or just one long, slow process extending beyond what we know as either end, who knows?

Although I will share with you one story from when our son was about two years old, when he suddenly said to his father and I, “when I was an old man, I was a ship’s captain.” His dad and I looked at each other wide-eyed in that moment, I don’t mind telling you. Still, I obviously don’t know the particulars, nor do I ultimately know that any of this is certain. If it isn’t, as I mentioned last week, it is not a deal breaker. If, after we die, there is nothing, other than our cells going back into matter as part of the universe, that’s OK by me, too. But I cannot help but hunch, at a deep and visceral level, that there is more, and that we just do not yet have the range of perception to discern it; that there may be other dimensions unknown to us, but existing right on top of this one. Sort of like different TV channels that we don’t know when we haven’t yet changed the channel.

Basically, what I am saying is that I believe that somehow consciousness continues, that spiritual growth is the purpose of life and will continue for as long as it needs to until somehow everybody and everything is part of some kind of joyful reconciliation, some kind of cosmic resolution. As to understanding the particulars? I couldn’t begin to guess. But even if I turn out to be dead wrong, this belief gives me a strong sense of purpose, and allows me to believe that even the awful things that happen, while not premeditated by God, can at least ultimately become useful in working toward some kind of greater evolution as we proceed in the great, cosmic process. This belief does not mean I live any less fully now, in fact more so, because this is all I have to work with right now, and living from my spiritual source and reaching out in love in each, present moment is all I am ever called to do, and if I am not practicing that now, I am pretty much missing the boat.

So there you have it, three weeks of “the universe according to me;” my spouse calls it “Judy-ism.” I want to thank those of you who pushed me to do this, because I haven’t revisited these things in a systematic way since my ordination paper back in 1986. And so now, I want to lob the ball back to all of you. Taking the time to think through and write down your theological and spiritual beliefs is a very helpful process. You require your kids to do it in coming of age. Maybe it’s time to think about another “coming of age?” So to all of you, and especially those of you who pushed me to do this, (and you and I both know who you are,) what I am really saying is “Tag. You’re it.”