Monday, January 20, 2014

The Deep Way (January 19, 2014)

I am not sure you can become a Unitarian Universalist minister without knowing at least a few poems by Mary Oliver. When I was in seminary, we used her poetry in worship again and again because it seemed to speak right to our desire to live in the world in a deep way.

One poem we often heard in chapel was “The Summer Day” which ends:
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
On first hearing it spoke directly to my most urgent questions about what I was called to do with my life. What better life could I choose than being the minister of a church like this one? “To Serve Lovingly, live ethically and grow spiritually."

And so these past 15 years I have poured myself out into the shared ministry of our faith. I have tried my hand at just about every aspect of church life- I have been a church secretary, a church musician, a youth group leader, a Sunday school teacher. As a minister I’ve washed dishes and visited members in the hospital. I’ve weeded the garden and officiated at weddings. I’ve organized political action and led discussions of biblical criticism. And through it all I learned the hard way that it's not more meetings, more spreadsheets, more programs, or even more skillful preaching that lead to spiritual growth. As some of you dedicated volunteers know, it is possible to spend all of your spare energy serving your church, your community, your principles until you are all used up. If we are only serving lovingly and living ethically without growing spiritually, the quality of our presence, the spark of life we bring to one another sputters and goes out. 

When I shared Mary Oliver’s poem from the pulpit a few months back, I was startled to find a whole new way of looking at this question “What will I do with my one wild and precious life.” There’s nothing in that poem about the work of building up our world, instead she writes:
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
What Mary Oliver has chosen to do with her one wild and precious life is "to be idle and blessed."  

I want to acknowledge right now that this is profoundly counter-cultural. As I mentioned in my sermon on “emptiness” last month, we have come to value the worth of our lives by our productivity, by how much we do and the profit therein. But when we seek healing for the broken parts of our world, I don’t feel like we are a few over-time shifts away from repair. I don’t feel, as I walk through the mall, that we are a few more sales away from repairing the environmental damage to our planet, or one more iPad upgrade away from mending the broken hearts in our community.

For millennia, religious community has offered something different than the status quo. The great Unitarian religious educator Sofia Fahs wrote:
"The religious way is the deep way, the way that sees what physical eyes alone fail to see, the intangibles of the heart of every phenomenon. The religious way is the way that touches universal relationships; that goes high, wide and deep, that expands the feelings of kinship." [ii]

I think this is a great explanation of what we mean by “spiritual growth” in our mission statement. We are growing high, wide and deep. We are looking for the intangibles at the heart of everything.

Like everything of importance in our lives, this deep way takes time and attention. Spirituality doesn’t just happen. Okay, sometimes it does. Sometimes you find yourself gazing at a sunset from the peak of a mountain, or at the hospital bed of a beloved who is suffering and something deep comes to your heart and soul un-bidden. But most days we choose, consciously or unconsciously, whether to take the deep way or to skim along the surface of life.

I submit to you that it is possible to do each and every one of the long list of action items that make up church life without growing a jot. This happens not only when we are “going through the motions” instead of bringing our full self to a task, but it also happens when we confuse the purpose of our task with religious purpose. We can create worship that is excellently prepared, but still does not help us touch the ineffable. We can have meetings that complete every task on the agenda, but that still do not satisfy the longing in the soul. For this is the other part of what I am proposing; it is also possible to do each and every one of that long list of action items that make up church life in a deep way, in a religious way. You get this- this is part of what I love about you- you know the difference between what is important and what is merely urgent. I see you looking for the heart of our shared life together in this beloved community. I see you looking for the deep way.

My seminary professors Bob Kimball and Til Evans used to talk a lot about this-- about that special thing that can happen between people when they are really truly present with one another, something deep and real. We don’t have complete control over when and how this will happen but, as Bob used to say, we can do things that “increase the odds” that such moments will occur. This, they felt, was the essence of the religious life, the essence of ministry. Sometimes, as a clergy person, I forget that it matters more HOW we are at a meeting, than WHAT we accomplish. I notice that the busier I am, the more things on my to-do list, the easier it is to forget. My attention strays from the needs of the soul to the needs of the agenda. That is part of the reason that ministers take a study leave in the summer and a sabbatical every few years--creating a space that “increases the odds” of authentic, real, presence.

And of course, ministers are no different than any other person when it comes to the need for deep, authentic, relationship. It’s not just ministers and academics (and I hear now researchers at Google take sabbaticals). Everyone needs the time and the space to connect to the deepest wellsprings of life. Every soul needs space and time to develop. Every spirit needs room to grow. That is to say, as a Universalist, I believe that no one comes into this world cut off from their one-ness. We are all part of this amazing unity that is life, though sometimes it’s easier to remember that than other times. I believe therefore, I take the Universalist leap, that true religion must be accessible to each and every person. The religious life, life on the deepest level is by this definition something that every living being is connected to. Living a religious life is about our attempt to renew that connection to our one-ness with all that is.

I believe with Fahs that “The religious way is the deep way.” So I hypothesize that to find the “heart of every intangible thing” you go deeper and deeper until you reach the point where everything actually is one. Go so deep that there is not even the distinction of “this is a religious life and that is not” or “this is me but that is not me.” Seeking such a level of being is, to my mind, the essence of both the Unitarian tradition — the one-ness of God, and the Universalist tradition — the one-ness of our common plight.

Many people have asked what I will be doing on my sabbatical, and the training I will be doing in Spiritual Direction is just part of the answer. A better answer is that I want to go deep. Recently I mentioned to some friends that in addition to taking a leave from my usual work here in this congregation, I will be taking a break from all the committees on which I volunteer in the community as well. They were amazed-- Darcey without committee meetings? My partner Eric said “I don’t think I’ve ever known you when you didn’t have committee meetings.” A friend said “I’m looking forward to getting to know what you are like when you have no committee meetings.” I replied “me too!” What will this look like? I’m not totally sure. If I’ve learned nothing else about trying to follow the deep way it is that the first step is letting go of expectations, letting go of attachment to the outcome.

The spiritual adventure can look many different ways, it can take many different forms. It can look sometimes like sitting in meditation, and other times like weeding a garden or being fully present in conversation with a toddler. It takes patience and a persistent curiosity to penetrate beyond the surface of things to the deep well-spring at the source of life. 

Raised as we have all been in a culture that measures our value by our productivity, I must reassure myself that restoring, nurturing, lighting my soul with this in mind is not insular and selfish, but is one of the critical pieces of co-creating a religious community like ours, and co-creating our world through these troubled times. As Clarissa Pinkola Est├ęs writes in her “Letter to a Young Activist”:
“...One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul. Soul on deck shines like gold in dark times. The light of the soul throws sparks, can send up flares, builds signal fires ... causes proper matters to catch fire. To display the lantern of soul in shadowy times like these — to be fierce and to show mercy toward others, both — are acts of immense bravery and greatest necessity. Struggling souls catch light from other souls who are fully lit and willing to show it. If you would help to calm the tumult, this is one of the strongest things you can do.”[iii]

 If we believe that a soul who is “fully lit” is important to our world, then we must give whatever time and attention is necessary to “shine like gold in dark times.” As far as I know I am the only person in this congregation who is headed off on sabbatical this spring (and I am deeply deeply grateful to you for this gift of time to re-ignite my own soul) but I invite each of you, as you are willing and able, to follow the deep way, the religious way. While washing the dishes, while meeting in committee. I invite you to taking time for contemplation or to fall down in the grass-- to be idle and blessed. To “see what physical eyes alone fail to see, the intangibles of the heart of every phenomenon.”

[ii] Sophia Lyon Fahs, Today's Children and Yesterday's Heritage, from Cornerstones, p.5. [iii] 

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