Thursday, November 19, 2015

Encountering the Divine (November 15, 2015)

“Why don’t we UUs talk more about our spiritual experiences?” I asked my theology class. There was a deep silence, and then the student across the table said “because they are private.” 

It’s not easy for UUs to talk about our spiritual lives. It’s not just because we are so diverse in our theology, that sometimes we flounder to find a common language to express our experiences; it is also because there is something profoundly un-knowable about the divine. This is why some folks use the word “mystery” to refer to God. And those who seek to encounter the divine are called “mystics” 

This morning we had a series of readings trying to describe what it feels like to encounter the divine. Individuals putting into words their experiences of wonder and awe. Rev. Hamilton-Holway, who gathered those readings together, was trying to express something of the great variety of such experiences. A common thread I see is that while these encounters are profound, they are also wildly ordinary. These experiences happen to people “bathing in a pond” or watching a moon rise, listening to a Beethoven Symphony or “messing about in boats.” 

UUs call the first source of our Living Tradition: “ Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life”

We describe this source in a very universalist way- these experiences of transcending mystery and wonder are not the prevue of our special religious sect, but an experience universality available to all persons, and “affirmed in all cultures.” We tend to be of the opinion that the transcending experience that may be had “messing about in boats” is no less important, no less profound than that of a monk who has spent years in practice. And that a numinous experience while “watching a moon rise” may be just as awe-filled as one found kneeling in prayer. 

Some folks have never had an experience they would describe that way- and I want to be very clear that it doesn’t mean you are not having a spiritual life- it just is taking a different path for you. Some people have stories of Moment of Wonder that came unbidden and without warning which they cherish and allow to bring meaning to their lives. Some folks encounter the great mystery, find it terrifying, and run fearfully in the opposite direction.. And some see their numinous moments as an invitation to seek the deeper mysteries of life. They want to understand the experiences they have had, and wonder if there is a path they can follow to lead them back to that transcendence. 

Prof. Yielbanzie Charles Johnson used to say to his students “If you want spirit in your life, you have to invite spirit into your life”. This is a paradox- because if you believe in an immanent divine, that is to say, if you believe that the Spirit of Life pervades all living thing, then God is in and around us around us all the time. So when we sing “Spirit of Life, come unto me” What do we mean? Maybe this is a way of expressing an intention to know that spirit more deeply. It implies a relational nature of the divine. It implies that, as with any friend, or patch of earth, or field of study, we know something or someone better when we spend time consciously together. In the same way that your relationship with that neighbor you wave to each morning when you walk your dog changes when you say “want to come in for a cup of coffee?”

This idea “if you want spirit in your life you have to invite spirit into your life” implies a tremendous freedom on our part. It implies that the spirit is both waiting for our invitation and offering us an invitation all the time, which we are free to decline or accept. Some teachers say that whenever you have a thought like “I wish I had more time for my spiritual life” that this very thought is an invitation from the spirit to come closer. And the choice is profoundly yours to make.

If you do decide to invite spirit into your life, the next step is to make room for the spirit. We fill our lives so full of doing, that we rarely leave enough space to be truly present in the moment, to those around us, or to our self. That isn’t to say the divine isn’t present in all our busy days, only that when we talk about a spiritual life, when we talk about encountering the divine, we are talking about bringing that spirit of Life that is present in all things into our consciousness, and this takes time and space. 

The traditional way to do this is with a daily spiritual practice. Whether this is meditation, or painting, or a walk in the woods doesn’t really matter. As the great Mystic Teresa of Avila wrote “the important thing is not to think much, but to love much. Do, then whatever most arouses you to love.” [Interior Castle p. 49] That’s why a particularly powerful spiritual practice is mindfully serving others- they experience God as Love in the face of a child they are helping tie her shoes, or a patient on their rounds at the hospital. We all have probably experienced a moment when helping someone, for example putting a shoe on a child who has already kicked them off 3 times and now we are late for work, is just one more piece of busy-ness. But time when we are fully present to another can also be a numinous experience, full of meaning and a felt presence of something larger than either of us. 

Part of the spiritual journey is figuring out what this “making space” will look like for you- where are you being drawn? Where do you feel the pull of desire or yearning? Following that desire is not just a first exploratory step of the spiritual journey, but because our relationship with the divine changes over time, I encourage you to follow desire the whole journey through. we must be continuously alert to moments when we are feeling alive and passionate, and when we are feeling dry, when we are feeling resistance. We follow the spirit of Life wherever it leads.
Buddhist teacher and activist Tich Nhat Hanh in his new book “How to Sit” writes “You do not need to sit to meditate. Anytime you are looking deeply- whether you are walking, chopping vegetables, brushing your teeth, or going to the bathroom- you can be meditating. In order to look deeply, you need to make the time to stop everything and see what is there.” [p. 18]

Tich Naht Hanh uses language big enough to include atheists in this discussion. Hanh writes “with mindfulness and concentration you can direct your attention to what is there and have a deep look. You can begin to see the true nature of what is in front of you. What is there may be a cloud, a pebble, or a human being. It may be our anger. Or it may be our own body and its nature of impermanence. Every time we truly stop and look deeply, the result is a better understanding of the true nature of what is there inside us and around us.” [p. 19] So when those who are comfortable with God language are talking about “encountering the divine” the very same practices can be used by atheists to “understand the true nature of what is inside us around us.” This same language is makes space for Agnostics, because the they are free to be fully present to a state of un-knowing, with encouragement to look deeply into their own experience, without having to arrive at any particular conclusion about what it means. Ours is a non-creedal faith. Ours is a faith built on experience, on knowing life deeply. Remember, our first source is “direct experience” – I believe that comes before all the other sources because we give it priority. Because what you experience in prayer or meditation, or just living in the world will naturally be different than my experiences. Whether you are theist, atheist or agnostic, the basis for your spiritual life is your intention to know deeply, and a careful listening to whatever you find in the depth of your experience.

As the great Unitarian Religious Educator and author Sofia Fahs writes: “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.” [i]
Within this space we have created, all we have left to do is listen. To have a deep look. What does that mean, to “have a deep look?” What does it mean to listen for the spirit? How do we hold ourselves open to seeing or hearing something we are not expecting? It requires a very open mind and a very open heart. It requires a quality of surrender to the present moment.

I must be honest with you that sometimes what happens is that when we first make room for this deeper experience of life, some old unhealed pain might come back to us. Or perhaps a sense, that we have been trying to ignore, that some part of our life is not quite right for us will emerge. It may turn out that we have made ourselves so busy for a reason- to drown out some difficult message from our deepest self. Again, we have freedom in our spiritual lives. We don’t have to leave the job or the relationship or the bad habit that causes us pain, but neither can we listen selectively when we are hungry for the spirit in our lives, when we are hungry to know ourselves deeply. While the time that we dedicate to our spiritual lives may be peaceful, may be restorative, may even be numinous, this is just part of the soul’s journey. I’m worry that there has been some false advertising about the spiritual journey. Meditation, or prayer, or service are not necessarily a quick fix for a wounded soul. Our spiritual practice will not always brign us comfort in the short term. Someitmes it may bring us up against the deep pain of our lives. Our spiritual lives are not an anesthetic to take away this pain, but a support, a container, a companioning for all that is our lives, both the joyful and the painful. 

 In my experience, sometimes seeing or listening deeply takes patience. Yes, Sometimes the spirit moves quickly like a darting breeze. Other times it seems our deepest self is speaking as slowly as the shifting of tectonic plates. Deep things often unfold slowly, maybe over months or years or a whole lifetime. This is why a daily spiritual practice can be so helpful; it helps us keep faithful to our journey when it is slow, and serves as a touchstone revealing the slow changes as they unfold.  

And sometimes the deep way takes us through rough territory- that doesn’t mean we are “doing it wrong” it is only a reminder that because the sacred pervades all of life, we are listening for the spirit in calm seas and troubled. We patiently listen and discern where the Spirit of Life is leading us. Sometimes things are confusing or mysterious as they unfold. That’s why it helps to have company. Most spiritual traditions encourage us to find companions for the spiritual journey. This is why we come together as a congregation. This is why people seek out a spiritual director. We need these companions not to tell us what to do, but to listen , to ask good questions, help us discern.

The great mystics suggest that if you feel a desire to encounter the spirit of life directly, if you feel even a tentative curiosity, is an invitation. We then, choose whether to accept the invitation, or to take a rain check. Because all of us are on a spiritual journey. We are on it whether or not we explicitly choose to give it our attention. And if we do feel a longing to deepen our relationship to God, or simply a desire to experience life deeply then we have only to open our hearts and minds to wonder, to love and to the truth of whatever we find there. Really, the path of the mystic is as simple as that: to invite the spirit into your life, to make space, and to listen. 

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

Monday, November 2, 2015

Faith at the Crossroads (November 1, 2015)

Diet at Torda, 1568
His majesty, our Lord, in what manner he - together with his realm - legislated in the matter of religion at the previous Diets, in the same matter now, in this Diet, reaffirms that in every place the preachers shall preach and explain the Gospel each according to his understanding of it, and if the congregation like it, well. If not, no one shall compel them for their souls would not be satisfied, but they shall be permitted to keep a preacher whose teaching they approve. Therefore none of the superintendents or others shall abuse the preachers, no one shall be reviled for his religion by anyone, according to the previous statutes, and it is not permitted that anyone should threaten anyone else by imprisonment or by removal from his post for his teaching. For faith is the gift of God and this comes from hearing, which hearings is by the word of God.

 Many years ago I was teaching a New UU class, and one of our new members, with the furrowed brow of someone thoroughly bemused asked “so are we Christian or what?” For many years I have answered that question by painting the picture of a family tree with Christianity at its roots that began over time to reach out to other faith traditions, perhaps as far back as the 20th century, when we created the innovative “Charles Street Meeting House” a Universalist congregation which sought a truly universal religion for one world. Then I learned that we were part of the leadership that helped convene the first World Parliament of Religions in 1893.[ii] But even before that the transcendentalists, who influenced and were influenced by Such Unitarian Thinkers and teachers as Ralph Waldo Emerson, were aware of the philosophical teachings of India. Emerson had been was introduced to Hindu literature by his aunt, Mary Moody Emerson. In the 1840s he began to publish excerpts in the transcendentalist journal The Dial, whose editor, Margaret Fuller, was also an influential Unitarian. [iii]

But Dr. Susan Ritchie, a UU Minister and historian, who several of us heard speak at this fall’s PUC in Smithton, argues that “Unitarian identity in Europe emerged as a defense of the inherent kinship between Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Thus Unitarianism was multicultural and multi-religious from its beginning. [p. xviii] That is to say, at a time when people were being persecuted for not being part of the “right” faith, many Christian leaders were trying to create clear boundaries between the faiths, Unitarians noticed the similarities in their own theology with the Jewish and Muslim traditions, and tried to point out our common ground. 

This time of the reformation and the counterreformation was also the era when Unitarianism was born. was a time of great religious intolerance, when rulers would choose the faith of their country, and capriciously expel all those who didn’t fall in line with that faith. And since Unitarianism was a heretical faith, the history of our movement in those early days is one of exhile as Unitarians and Jews and others who fell outside the religion du jour, had to pull up stakes and find a new country more tolerant of their beliefs. So it was that Unitarianism traveled from Spain to Poland and Italy to Transylvania fleeing persecution, and in so doing spread the very teachings those in power were trying to stifle. 

The border lands, the area just past the grasp of persecution, have always been an incubator for radical ideas, Ritchie argues. Where, for example, those exiles of the counter-reformation not only brought their diverse and heretical ideas, but found themselves living side by side with neighbors of different faith traditions. So Multi-religiosity is not theoretical, but a way to describe the experience of actual people who live in multi-religious ways. It was my sister’s Mother-in-law who first introduced my husband to Mazza Ball soup one year when we celebrated Passover together- and I believe her soup was a transcendent life changing experience for him. And even though I am not Catholic, and don’t know any Croatian, there is something special about going with my Mother-in-law to the Croatian Christmas mass. People today who live in the literal and figurative borderlands experience a kind of neighborly multi-religiosity just as folks did in the lands on the border of the Ottoman Empire 400 years ago.

UUs often tell the story we told this morning of King John Sigismund who issued the most sweeping edit of toleration Christendom had known. But Ritchie was the first to show conclusively the “direct demonstrable influence of Ottoman edicts” that is to say – we learned this from our Muslim neighbors in Turkey, who showed us an example of how to be tolerant. We know, for example that
“Any monotheist willing to accept the political rule of the Ottomans was given protection and legal rights by the empire. [p. 25] Ritchie notes that in 1548 when the Catholic authorities in Tolna asked the Sultan’s representative to either kill or drive out the Hungarian Protestant pastor Imre Szigeti, the chief intendant of the pasha of Buda not only denied their request, but issued an edict of toleration saying that “preachers of the faith invented by Luther should be allowed to preach the Gospel everywhere to everybody, whoever wants to hear, freely and without fear, and that all Hungarians and Slavs (who indeed wish to do so) should be able to listen to and receive the word of God without any danger.” [p. 32]
“By the time Unitarian congregations gather as communities in the sixteenth century, their more radical theologians are arguing that Christianity, Islam and Judaism have a familial relationship. These theologians specifically construed Unitarians as a safe and conciliatory space for multi-religious relationship. Their theologies both enabled and were enabled by Unitarians’ creative, real-world encounters with Muslim and Jewish communities.” [p. xviii]

That’s powerful- even 400 years ago Unitarians were felt to be “a safe and conciliatory space for multi-religious relationship.” So our reaching out to other faiths is not something new, it is in our very DNA.

During my graduation ceremony from Seminary, each student was given 3 minutes to speak. Rev. Daniel Canter talked about growing up in a Jewish Family, practicing Buddhist meditation for years, and having found a home and now a profession in UU. He called himself a UU Jew Bu. We all laughed, but something about the messiness of that bothered me. Shouldn’t we just be one thing? In fact, the fancy name for this is “syncretism” -- the bringing together of disparate religious practices or ideas. It’s considered kind of an insult or heresy in some faiths[iv]. There is an idea that true faith needs to be kept pure. 

In her introduction to Ritchie’s book, Rebecca parker encourages us to “let go of fictions of purity” [xiii]– that’s a powerful phrase “fictions of purity” because it reminds us that religion evolves and grows, just as our very biology evolves. One could argue that to be religiously or ethnically pure we would all be living in the African birthplace of our species and practicing the earth-based religions of our first human ancestors. But everything grows and changes- it’s unavoidable. That’s why our hymnal refers to our “living tradition”

Professor Ibrahim Farajaje encourages us not to think of religious silos, not as a series of Quaker Oats boxes, but to imagine dumping all those boxes out on the table. He assures us that the beautiful mixity we of fruit loops an cheerios and granola and raisin bran is how religion really functions in the world. He reminds us that religious traditions do not have impermeable walls between them; most traditions arrived in their current forms by combining and flowing out of each other. Farajaje encourages us to honor multiple traditions with depth and seriousness. Depth and seriousness. 

It was only 15 years ago that the US census made space for those of multiple ethnicities on the census form[v]. In this culture we have historically thought that only something “pure” could be serious. perhaps we thought when we became the member of a UU church we must give up all our previous practices and beliefs to be a “serious” UU. And I know that our UU movement has at various times in its history had trouble being taken seriously because people just don’t have a place in their minds for, for example, a UU Jew Bu. But the reality of American families today is that about 45 percent of American couples married since the year 2000 are interfaith,[vi] There is societal pressure for one or the other to convert, to maintain some kind of religious purity. As this morning’s reading shows, choosing one over another just doesn’t feel like it authentically represents the reality of a mixed family. Maybe this is part of our calling as a UU movement- to take a serious, deep look at multi-religiosity, in history and culture and in our everyday lives with one another. 

Our UU publishing house has recently come out with a series of books called “Jewish Voices in UU” and “Buddhist voices in UU” and “Christian voices in UU” so we can learn from the lived experience of UUs who live this religious mixity. 

Perhaps you are one of the many UUs whose life reflects this mixity. I know some of us in this room were raised Catholic. Some were raised Jewish. Some were raised Mormon or Episcopalian. It’s quite common among UUs. The question is, what do we do with all that history? All those years of Sunday School classes, The shining moments where our childhood faith spoke to us deeply, and the moments where the faith of our families felt like a pair of too-tight shoes, it just didn’t fit the reality of who we really knew ourselves to be.  

Truth be told, all of that is part of who we really are. For example, a number of members of our congregation were raised Catholic. For some, there was a beauty to the Catholic rituals, and they have fond memories of their childhood church. For the person sitting next to them in the very same UU church, their relationship to their catholic upbringing may be quite different- perhaps they felt shamed for asking questions, or for their sexuality. But each of those very different experiences are part of our spiritual lives. And our spirits don’t thrive and grow when we put up walls between the parts of our selves. We know this. Somewhere inside ourselves the parts of our story that “don’t fit” with our current sense of ourselves itch for our attention, for integration. We long for wholeness, rather than fragmentation. All the pieces of ourselves, our UU pieces, our Jewish pieces or Catholic or Evangelical Christian pieces, we need all of them to make us whole. 

When Marcia blew the Shofar here in the sanctuary to celebrate the New Year, it was because that tradition still had meaning and power for her as one who grew up Jewish, even though now she is a member of a UU congregation. Priestess Lady Hawk is coming to lead us in an Imbolc ritual, and she is also the president of the UU congregation in Towanda. If we open our hearts and minds we find a richness of experience right here in our own beloved community. 

The seminary I went to (Star King School) was part of the Graduate Theological Union, an interfaith consortium of theological schools. I studied meditation at the Buddhist Center, Jewish Mysticism at the Institute for Jewish Studies, bible from the Jesuits and , and preaching from the Unitarians. The San Francisco Bay Area is a great crossroads of culture, where people from all over the world settle to work and study, and so my spiritual practice today includes hatha yoga which comes from the Hindu tradition but has been profoundly owned and transformed by American Culture. I practice contemplative prayer and spiritual direction which come from the Catholic tradition. I observe the cycles of Sun and Earth in a way I learned from the Reclaiming tradition of Wicca. And my practice of beloved community, and of working for Social Justice, I learned from you- my Unitarian Universalist faith. As I studied there at the crossroads of the world, my faith and my practice became a crossroads faith. 

 This is the challenge of the faith tradition you have chosen -- of composing these pieces large and small into a whole that is pleasing to the spirit, a whole that has integrity to itself and to the real life context in which it evolves: The family in today’s reading did not take the easy way- there are challenges in trying to be an authentically multi-faith family, but they are willing to do the hard thing because it grows with integrity out of their family faith, and their relationships to one another. 

At the crossroads of your heritage and today’s cultural reality, at the crossroads of your community and yourself. At the intersection of your spiritual life and this present moment, that is where you will find yourself. That is where you will find deep and complex relationships, and that is where, in the depth of that mysterious mixity, you may find the divine.

So I encourage you to metaphorically dump out the Quaker oats box where you store your “UU self” the one where you store your “Childhood religion” self and any others you have stored in your pantry and allow them to create the beautiful mixity that we are.

[ii] A 16-person General Committee was charged with settling on a mission and program, inviting participants, and hosting the event. Unitarian minister Jenkin Lloyd Jones served as the Committee's Executive Secretary.

[iii] For more about the history of Buddhism in UU read 

[iv] here is an example of such an analysis