Monday, March 28, 2016

Born Again (March 27, 2016)

Spring is a difficult season. I know that seems counter- intuitive, but every year as winter recedes, as the ground thaws and the first green tips of tulips poke through, we fill our bowl with stones during Joys and Concerns and tell of illness and loss. In the Anishinaabe Native American tradition February is called the “hunger moon” because there is a lag between the return of the light, the return of the warmth, and the return of our food, because unless you are a plant you can’t eat sunlight. The squirrels who were comically fat before the winter solstice are now quite thin. This is followed by maple Syrup moon, when the sap finally turns in the trees, and gives the buds the energy to become leaves.

It occurs to me that growing a leaf must be hard work. I have watched the first of this year’s leaves emerge and be frozen again and again. The tops of their leaves are brown and misshapen. Spring is hard even for the tulips- especially if you have deer.

During this season the earth-based spiritualties here in the northern hemisphere celebrate Ostara- the spring equinox which happened this past week. It is the earth herself who suggests tulips and bunnies and chicks as symbols of the season. These are the signs that the cycle of the year is turning, the cycle of life is turning. The bare brown and grey earth is dotted with spots of color- of purple and yellow and green. If you or your neighbors have chickens, this is the season when a new generation begins its life, the fluffy yellow chicks as perfect a symbol of hope for the future as any.

In the Christian Tradition today is Easter. We celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is the most joyful and important holiday in the Christian tradition. But there is no Easter Sunday without Good Friday. There is no risen Christ without the wounds. The spiritual journey is not one of ceaseless peace and joy, but about the challenging process of transformation.

The religious symbols of the season carry within them important spiritual lessons for our own journeys. Consider the babies you have known and loved. Consider teething. Most babies are grumpy as their new teeth push their way through the gums. Some even have fevers, refuse to eat or drink, or have trouble sleeping. As the parent of a small child I got used to this pattern- the increasing discomfort and frustration leading to the breaking through of a new tooth. Then I noticed this didn’t just happen for new teeth. Some kids, when they are learning to walk or learning to talk, become quite wretched, until suddenly one day they take those first steps. It occurred to me that this never really ends, though the cycles of growth do slow down. All through childhood and the teen years I see the young people I love cycle through difficult times followed by periods of synthesis and mastery when some new physical or mental milestone is reached. And though we have less tangible results to show as adults, I propose that the same cycle continues. The symptoms may still include irritability and frustration, but they also may include a sense of meaninglessness, an inability to imagine yourself in the future, a sense of ending and loss, a feeling of soul-deep tiredness.

The Episcopalian Theologian Matthew Fox called this the “via negativa’ or “the path of negation”. This is the spiritual path of letting go. Sometimes we find ourselves on the Via Negativa because what gave our life meaning before no longer gives it meaning. Sometimes we come to it through very real losses and struggles in the physical world. Our faith, our beliefs are shaken to the core. Many people use words like “dry” or “dark” or “barren” to describe this kind of experience. Sometimes it feels like God has gone missing, but if you believe in God, though we know intellectually that actually there is no place where god is not. On the via negativa we feel like someone has turned out all the streetlights on the road we are traveling, we can’t see the terrain, and we feel very alone.

But in the same way that Tulips could never compete with the tangle of June growth in my garden, after the harsh winter the tulips and crocuses have the garden all to themselves; like the winter, the Via Negativa creates space for something new to grow. Fox calls that new growth the “Via Creativa” or the “Way of Creativity.” This is a time of rebirth, a time when out of the grey landscape the tulips emerge, when out of the tomb, Christ appeared to those who followed him.

As you can see, we are deep in the realm of metaphor here. In the natural world there is no such thing as rebirth that I’m aware of. Tulips are not really born and born again, they are dormant and growing. When we talk about the rebirth of spring we are talking about trees coming out of their winter dormancy, and new generations of birds and mammals giving new life to their genetic line. Nicodemus was quite correct when he asks: “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?”(John 3:1-21)

So what does it mean to be reborn? Psychologist Carl Jung talks about it in terms of an “ego-death” some part of who we think we are must be destroyed or released in order for our true self to emerge. Therefore, says UU dream expert Jeremy Taylor, when we have a dream where we are afraid of dying, what our subconscious is warning us about is not a threat of physical death, but the real threat to our ego- the person we think we are. Jeremy would say such dreams are good news- they point to an important transformation that is possible for us. We get so caught up in who we have to be to get and keep a job, who our families expect us to be, maybe even who our church expects us to be, that our deepest truest self lies asleep within us. And when it begins to wake up it can be as scary as a bear waking from hibernation in springtime.

As we heard in our opening reading, many shamanistic traditions have a similar understanding of what it means to be reborn. When a shaman experiences this death of self- this loss of ego, which can be quite scary and painful, “The person is returned to spirit as a reminder that we are more than just body and mind. Who we are beyond our skin is spirit. The dismembered person experiences a state of unity with source.” [p. 138]

When our Christian friends and neighbors talk about being “born again” this is not an idea that is uniquely theirs. When Jesus says “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again[b] he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Unitarian Universalists believe that this kind of spiritual rebirth is possible whether or not we identify as Christians. In his journal, Emerson, who was a transcendentalist and Unitarian Preacher, writes: "In the instant you leave far behind all human relations, wife, mother and child, and live only with the savages-water, air, light, carbon, lime, and granite. Nature grows over me. Frogs pipe; waters far off tinkle; dry leaves hiss; grass bends and rustles, and I have died out of the human world and come to feel a strange, cold, aqueous, terraqueous, aerial, ethereal sympathy and existence. I sow the sun and moon for seeds."

Have you ever experienced anything like this? One member of a congregation I served long ago told me about the first time he saw a living cell under a microscope. The experience was ecstatic and he was overwhelmed by emotion. It changed something about how he saw the world. I think of this as a quintessential born-again Unitarian experience. As Ingerman said in our opening reading: , it typically happens spontaneously. An initiation such as this cannot be planned and has no safety net.” We can choose to open our minds and hearts to this kind of spiritual transformation, but it is not something we can replicate predictably. We can choose to be open to the spirit of life, but deep change of this kind usually comes as something of a surprise.

But I believe that being reborn is not something that happens once an dramatic fashion, instead this is happening to us constantly, like the toddler teething. Perhaps your life is going smoothly like a train on a track. The habits and rhythms of your life are dependable, maybe even satisfying, or maybe there is a hunger for something more. But then arises a feeling of crisis. It could be purely emotional and spiritual- a mid-life crisis, say, a feeling that a job or partnership is no longer a good fit. Or perhaps it is a crisis that comes from the outside- a round of layoffs at work, a car accident, a scary diagnosis, a betrayal. Often our first thought is “what did I do wrong?” We have this idea that as our parents and teachers rewarded us with a gold star when we did well, and gave us detention or grounded us when we didn’t, perhaps this crisis is a punishment for something we did wrong. When our comfortable familiar patterns of life are threatened, we kick and fight, and resist the change. Even Jesus cried out on the cross: My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? [Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34 ]

Consider a baby in the womb, it has known nothing its whole existence but a snug warm home where all its needs are taken care of. And then the contractions begin and the water breaks and life can never be the same again. It is commonly agreed that the labor and birth process is difficult and uncomfortable work for both mother and child. And there is no safe alternative- My grandmother tells of women in her village in Estonia who never went into labor, and of the tragic outcome for both mother and child. The difficult, painful process of labor leads to life, everyone of us here in this room made it through that process. If you happen to find yourself in a room of women telling the story of how their children entered the world, you will find that each and every one was absolutely unique. And so are the many spiritual and psychological rebirths that we experience over a lifetime.

I use this metaphor with caution, because birth is sometimes smooth and joyous, and sometimes scary and dangerous. As a woman who carried my child for 10 months and then finally gave birth only with medical intervention, I called Matthew Fox on this- during a seminar one afternoon. The formulation so commonly find in theologies of birth and rebirth is that the birth of the new child is worth the pain and risk to the mother. But that is not my theology. I would never say that to a woman who struggled in childbirth, and I would never say to you that your painful divorce, or cancer was ultimately a fair price to pay for what growth follows. The rebirth of tulips in the spring does not necessarily balance out the harsh winter that makes way for it. The one is not the price to be paid for the other. The marshmallow candy-ization of Easter covers over Easter’s real gift; during those darkest hours when it seems that all we love is falling away from us, the Easter story offers us hope. (It is a hopeful thing that we are never fully formed)

This is one of the reasons for religious community- because we need support in the pains of rebirth, in the struggle of transformation. And we need hope when we feel like all we know and love is dying. As the women experienced with birth have traditionally gathered to support the laboring woman, so we support one another when we are in transition, encouraging us to push when it is time to push, to rest when it is time to rest, and to reassure one another with the knowledge in our own bodies and spirits that even where it seems the struggle will never end, new life can come of this too.

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