Wednesday, September 26, 2018

The Spiritual Journey

As a seminary student, I felt inadequate reading theology books so dense I could barely complete my assigned reading. I felt like the only student who couldn't sit still in meditation class. How could I get anywhere on my spiritual journey if I couldn’t sit quietly in meditation? If I couldn’t get through Tillich’s Systematic Theology? I got the impression that the spiritual journey was like the New York Marathon- thousands of people training and racing, and a few elite winners.

But something about this paradigm fundamentally does not harmonize with the most basic Universalist teaching- that all people will eventually be reunited with God. Or as I like to say - if there is a God, she loves everyone. Think of how diverse humanity is: folks who have been to school and haven’t. Folks who run marathons and folks who can’t walk. Eventually it dawned on me- whatever the spiritual journey might be, at its core it must be so simple that even I could do it. What kind of cruel God would require obstacles and hurdles that excluded even a single person from participating in the journey? I began to look at the spiritual journey in a different way. Instead of wondering how I could win the spirituality Super Bowl, I began to ask “what is the spiritual journey we are already all on?”

If you are part of an exclusively theist community, the question has an easy answer; the journey is the spirit’s desire to be closer to god, to return to god. But Unitarian Universalists are very diverse theologically. We are Atheists, Agnostics and Theists, We are Humanists, Christians, Jews, Buddhists and Pagans. What kind of spiritual journey could include all of us?

Recently I went to visit a friend and noticed that her beautiful oriental rug was gone. It turns out, hidden under the bookcases moths had been gradually eating away at it for years. Professional rug cleaners told her the wool rug was irreparably damaged, and that she should look now to saving the smaller wool rugs she had around the house. This shook her. These beautiful rugs she had loved were being silently eaten away, were un-salvageable. She said “have you ever noticed how often moths are mentioned in scripture?” I looked it up myself when I got home. For example, the book of Matthew says: "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.” One way of looking at the spiritual journey is this simple- is there anything that neither rust nor moths can destroy, that thieves cannot steal? [Matthew 6:19]

And so we look inside ourselves, inside our lives, to see past our small, separate self, to see if there is something larger there. Many religious traditions talk about this journey from the individual to something larger of which we are only a part. In the Western psychological tradition, Jung talked about moving from the ego to the Self. The separate self, the ego is the part of us that believes that we are doing this on our own. Life is a problem to be fixed, a race to be run, and our ego is going to fix it all by itself. The spiritual traditions hint that when we are able to let go of our ego’s grasping, we realize that we are not separate at all, that we are inexorably connected to something larger than ourselves.

All the paths in the classical traditions begin with observing ethical precepts. An early meditation teacher of mine said this is particularly critical if we are trying to grow spiritually, not just it helps us create a better world, and live a meaningful life, but because meditation can be very painful when your conscience is troubled, when your life is out of alignment. So living an ethical, compassionate life is recommended for everyone on the journey, and if that’s your only spiritual practice, that is plenty to work on and learn from.

For folks who want more, there are many paths that have been described (Useful resources include Teresa of Avila's Interior Castle, or Caroline Myss's modern interpretation thereof, Entering the Castle, Fowler's Stages of Faith, and Huston Smith's section of World Religions under Hinduism "Four Paths tot he Goal". ) But the two most common paths are work and love.

Our society values work very highly, and specifically our culture values material success- a large salary, a prestigious job title. The Buddhist precept of “right livelihood” encourages us “ to engage in compassionate activity, and to make [our] living in a way that does not cause harm and that is ethically positive.’[i] At the most elemental level, this involves choosing an ethical type of work- Assassin, for example, that’s an easy one to rule out. But even if we have chosen work in an ethical field, whether paid or unpaid, we must continue to ask -- do we do our work each day in an ethical, honest, compassionate way?

But the we apply the moth test. Nothing we build will last forever. Even the great pyramids, the great Empires crumble. The gardens we plant will be reclaimed by nature if we leave them be. No matter how many times we help with the backpack program, there will still be hungry kids. According to Huston Smith, the Hindu practice of Karma yoga is not, as we often say in the west, about doing kind and generous acts, but in fact is about doing any kind of work with a detachment from the outcomes. Can we build the new building with equanimity knowing that it will one day crumble? Can we fill the backpacks knowing we have not cured hunger? Can we write that report our boss asked for knowing that no one is ever actually going to read it? The Hindu scripture the Bhagavad-Gita (IV:1) says: “he who does the task dictated by duty caring nothing for the fruit of action, he is a yogi”

Whenever we experience a setback in our work, it is a huge blow to the ego. We feel like we played the game of life and we lost. At the moment when we lose a job, or don’t get into the college we most wanted, our simply have a low turnout at the event we planned, this is a turning point on our journey inviting us to ask “what is the meaning of my life when my plan is shredded and torn, when I have not achieved in my work what I hoped to achieve? Am I more than my work and my accomplishments?”

So the path of karma yoga is not to finally end hunger, but to loosen the grasp of the ego, and find the Self that is unchanging whether or not they are ever completed. What feels like a failure to the ego, is an opening for the soul, a separation between what we achieve and the larger nature of ourselves. Even in profound disappointment, in the discomfort of uncertainty and not being in control, it can be such a relief to see that I am not my work, I am not my job or my bank account, I am something much more expansive. And each time we put our hands to a task, we are all on that journey.

Love is another path all of us take just by being humans. Every tradition I have studied acknowledges that love is also one of the best and most direct paths on the spiritual journey. Love is a very direct way of opening to something larger than ourselves. But once again, the question is: how do we loosen the grip of the ego which gets attached to individuals and to outcomes? I’m reminded of the tears and drama of the dances I attended in High school- who had asked who to dance, which couples had broken up, which friendships were true. I feel like now in midlife I’m not as overwhelmed by this drama, but I still want to be loved, and the ego wants to be loved by a specific person in a specific way, so the spiritual journey invites us to ask, can we give love away without predetermining what we want in return?

That’s easy compared to the hardest challenge in this human life; everything we love we will lose. Losing someone we love can be excruciating. Some of us have been hurt so badly that we have reinforced the walls of the ego, of the separate self, looking for a safety from that pain by breaking or numbing ourselves to our connection to the web of life. But the spiritual path of the heart invites us to stay open and awake. Sometimes even in the deepest grief, especially in our deep grief, we touch a deeper love- The Buddhists call this Bodhicitta the “kinship of the suffering of others”[ii]. Even when our hearts are broken, we learn on this journey that even without that dear one, we still are, and we are not alone. This is enough practice for a lifetime.

But some folks really want to their spiritual journey to be at the center of their lives, they want to be more conscious and intentional about their spiritual growth. We can study meditation, prayer, we can study the subtle currents of energy that move in our bodies and in the world, there is a huge richness of diverse practices. Many folks start on this conscious path of spiritual practice and awakening because they are in pain, and they want the pain to be taken away. They want to rise up and out of the discomfort of ordinary life. We meditate to find peace. We pray to find comfort. And I will tell you from my own meditation practice, that sometimes there is peace. And sometimes there is comfort. But not always. So if spiritual practices don’t always make you feel good, what is the point?

Even on this intentionally spiritual path, the end is the same- to relax the grasping of ego. A Buddhist teacher I studied with in seminary shared with us a text that included a list of powers that could be gained with certain meditations, powers we might raise our eyebrows at in the skeptical rational tradition- for example in the Theravadan school of Buddhism adepts are taught that through the practice of the akasa-kasina one “is able to discover objects that are concealed, … see into the midst of rocks and of the earth, penetrate into them and create space therein and pass through walls and other solid masses.” [Buddhist meditation p. 164] When we gathered in class after that assigned reading we UU students asked our teacher with some skepticism what he thought of that- he said the development of such powers was a distraction from the true goal of enlightenment, or dissolving the separate self into the larger consciousness. It’s just as easy for the ego to be hooked by the idea of passing through walls as it is to be hooked by more ordinary goals.

Let’s take something more familiar to UUs. For folks who have had a numinous glimpse of something beyond ourselves, of peace, of love, the ego immediately clings to the experience, doesn’t want to let it go, and asks “how can I get it back” when it is gone. The Christian mystics call these moments of beauty and peace and grace “consolations” and the tradition is clear that these are not the goal of the journey. They can be welcomed, and cherished, but held loosely, because they, like all human experiences must end. The same traditions[iii], also talk of “aridity” the times when the soul feels dry like a desert, where there are no consolations to be found. These arid times are part of the journey too. Like the stumbling blocks in the paths of work and love, these arid places, some teachers say, help us relax the grasp of the ego. So if you are not finding such consolidations in your spiritual practice, it doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong, it is yet another moment for the separate self to soften its attachments to its own plans and expectations, so that we can glimpse the real nature of what lies underneath.

Fortunately, no matter which path we take, life is teaching us. Our work will teach us, our relationships will teach us, our aging body will teach us, our spiritual practice will teach us. All of us are always on this journey. As Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron says “the path is the goal” So if our spiritual journey is not a mountain to climb or a state to accomplish or a problem to solve, can we do anything to help it along? The monk I studied with said the 2 core pieces of the journey were equanimity and love. We bring, as we are willing and able, a non-judgmental compassionate awareness to whatever life brings us.

And, in keeping with our Universalist tradition, whenever we are lost and not sure where the journey is leading, we return to love. As the Christian Mystic Teresa of Avila wrote “…we should really be loving our neighbor; for we cannot be sure if we are loving god, although we may have good reasons for believe that we are, but we can know quite well if we are loving our neighbor. And be certain that, the farther advances you find you are in this, the greater the love you will have for God” [Interior Castle p. 78]

So if there is a desire for the spiritual journey in you, just begin by following that desire wherever it leads you. And if you don’t feel like meditating or praying or ritual, that’s okay too, you are still on the journey as you work and love. The journey is unfolding now and in every moment. Don’t worry if your friend can walk through walls and you cannot, just open your heart to love and you are on your way.

[ii] When Things fall apart p. 87

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Finding Our Way

The Way It Is by William Stafford
 There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

I’m really honored to be joining you today for my first Sunday as your new Consulting Minister. I grew up UU, and was a student for the UU ministry back in my 20s, so over the decades, I’ve been to a lot of General Assemblies, and District Assemblies, and Ministerial Conference’s. And one thing you can count on when you go to big gatherings of Unitarian Universalists, there is always buzz about the future of our movement. Together we try to cast a vision of who we are becoming, of who we are called to be. One of my favorite presenters at such events is Galen Guengerich who serves the Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York City. They have over 1000 members and three full time ministers. Whenever Galen gives a workshop at GA it is going to be cutting edge. There might be a full jazz ensemble providing meditative interludes. There is certainly a high tech AV system, so that when he wants to references something from popular culture, he pushes some magic button and there is perfect cinema quality music and sound, seamlessly integrated into his presentation.

Sometimes at these national events where large abundantly-staffed congregations take the lead, it’s easy to feel left behind. We are told that if we are not skillful about our presence on twitter and Facebook, we won’t appeal to a younger populous, that if we don’t use sophisticated technology, and current popular music in our worship, the millennial generation won’t feel at home. We begin to wonder if our low-tech churches are relics of a time past.

When I was a very little girl participating in the town Easter egg hunt for the first time I found the whole experience kind of overwhelming and confusing. After 5 minutes of chaos the hunt was over and I returned to my mom, probably crying, holding my basket with only one egg, Mom told me this story, which has been almost archetypal for me ever since. She said “When that crowd of children headed left, you headed right. There you were alone with dozens of eggs, but when you looked up and saw where the other kids were, you left the eggs and followed the crowd. Of course by the time you got there, all the eggs were gone, and when you came back to where you started, all those eggs were gone too. If you had just stayed where you were, you would have a basket full of eggs right now.”

I have been mulling over that story ever since. When I realize that I have been separated from the crowd, I try to ask not “how can I get back into the crowd?” but “where are the eggs around me, right now, that only I can reach?”

For the past 11 years I’ve been serving congregations that have a lot in common with the UU Church of Cortland; family size congregations who can’t afford a full time minister …or any full time staff at all really. For the past 10 years I’ve been the settled minister for the UU Church of Athens and Sheshequin which is, like Cortland, a historic Universalist church in a beloved historic building, although UUCAS was not founded until 1808, so you are a full 5 years older. I want to reassure you that this morning’s sermon is not a challenge to keep up with the crowd, to have high resolution visuals in your sanctuary or to design an App for the congregation that works with the latest smartphones. You already receive plenty of encouragement from our culture to move in that direction. Instead, let’s look at the eggs hiding around us right now.

First, let’s start with what it means to be a family sized church. I don’t have to tell you the challenges of being a small church- we live those each week. But I want to remind us of the special gift of the small church, which is relational-ity. Anyone who has ever gone to a large church knows that sometimes it can be a lonely experience. But I can’t remember a time when I’ve felt lonely at a family sized church. The very first time I went to UUCAS as a guest preacher their friendliness shone and I felt welcome. I hope that is how it was for you when you first came here. There is no chance of getting lost in the crowd in a family sized church, we know each other and we know each other’s lives. We open our hearts to newcomers and visitors. Younger generations have a lot to teach us about the rapidly evolving web of social media, but people of every age will always want a place in the physical world where they can be with people they know and trust, and where they can meet new people in a web of community.

There are other hidden gifts of being small. I hear story after story from colleagues at larger institutions about how hard it is to maintain a large salaried staff. At General Assembly a speaker referenced with a nervous laugh the emerging trend that more and more ministers will be piecing together part time and multi-site ministries. I thought to myself- well on this one at least we are ahead of the curve! When the Alban institution closed after decades of being leaders in church life, a journalist theorized that we are headed into a time when many such institutions will be closing because they have an infrastructure that is unsustainable. One thing I suspect Cortland and UUCAS have in common is that we have always used our money carefully, staying lean. We don’t confuse the success of our shared ministry with the trappings of monetary success. It’s easy to look longingly at churches with full time youth ministers and a state of the art AV system for seamless video content in worship. But when the crash happened, UUCAS had a lean infra-structure, and no debit, and a board that understood the importance of stewarding its resources carefully to keep our institution sustainable.

Our small size also makes us nimble. Before I served in Athens, I served a church of about 400 in Palo Alto, California where even after 2 years of meetings we could not begin to imagine how we could make our vision of composting church food scraps into a reality. So when I first preached at Athens, I was amazed to see a composting center, and had to find out how that had come to pass. Turns out, the children were painting compost buckets for a Sunday School lesson, and one of our members bought an extra one for the church. Now members take the scraps home whenever the bucket is used, and so composting happens.

Here’s another example: My first year as the minister in Athens a parent asked me if I could create a coming of age program for his daughter. I had been running Coming of Age programs every year or two for a decade at the various congregations I had served, and I told I’d be happy to design a program for his daughter to do by herself. Bur miraculously when we created the program, all those teenagers who’d stopped coming to church when they aged out of RE came back for Coming of Age, and teens at the Fellowship in Big Flats wanted to participate too. Both congregations jumped in to support it. It was important to the young UUs who came of age, and it was powerful to me.

Now that doesn’t mean anything we want will just happen. The following year we had no teens at all most Sundays. There was no force of will that would have made a Coming of Age program happen. It would have been like a Fish trying to go adventuring on land. Neither Athens nor Big Flats are congregations where we can promise families that every week there will be a Sunday school class for each grade level, but whenever we have a critical mass of teens, we offer coming of Age to the folks who are ready …it’s starting to look like next year may be one of those magical Coming of Age years again.

Because we are nimble we are able to respond as the moment unfolds to the needs and gifts of our community. In 2011 a flood immobilized the Penn York Valley, where the Athens congregation is located. The rains came down hard on Thursday, and by the time the streets were clear on Saturday we had to pass through a National Guard checkpoint on the way to the church to assess and repair the damage. Volunteers filled the parking lot sanitizing and drying the contents of our basement. Sunday we worshiped without power, without potable water. At coffee hour, two members wondered how we could be of more help to our neighbors. We held an emergency board meeting, and decided to open our building to folks who just needed to use a restroom, or a clean place to rest. The next day we began serving a hot lunch and all were welcome to join us in the social hall. Other volunteers delivered sandwiches to people who didn’t want to leave their work salvaging their homes or businesses. For weeks we fed and cared for our neighbors until the crowds died down, and our work helping repair the damage of the flood continued in other ways.

Another gift of this church is our location. Both Cortland and Athens are situated in the historic downtown of rural cities which have significant economic struggles. And while there are many challenges that come with that, there are abundant opportunities for ministry. I don’t yet know what that might mean here in Cortland, so in the coming months I’m counting on you to teach me. Each community is unique, with particular needs and gifts. When I ask my colleagues for advice about working in the community where UUCAS is located, I often I get advice like “you should connect with the local GLBT community center” and I think, well, I guess that’s us. “Why don’t you work with the local interfaith group?” I guess that’s us too. “What about a local humanist group.” That’s DEFINITELY us. The Penn-York Valley is what you might call an “underserved community.” The Valley NEEDS us. Folks from the valley reach out to me to marry them when they don’t know where else to go. Can I marry GLBT folks? Of course. Atheists? Naturally. Whether or not our small congregations could ever grow large enough for a full time staff, we have an important ministry in our communities. We are needed here.

That, already, is a field of eggs wider than we can ever gather in –even with all 16 members of UUCC working diligently together. So which eggs will we gather? The Anglo Saxon tradition says that each of us has a Wyrd, formed in our unique intersection of nature and nurture, of time and place. Our Wyrd, like that thread in the poem by William Stafford, is hard for others to see. Sometimes it’s hard even for us to see in the chaotic web of culture and life. So how do we discern our Wyrd, our own unique path? One strand has to be our unique Universalist history and theology. That’s what makes us different from the Food bank of the Southern Tier, or the United Way. Karl Rahner, the famous catholic theologian who influenced Vatican 2 said “Christians in the coming age must all become mystics or be nothing at all.” One of the teachers in my Spiritual Direction Training, Don Bisson, interpreted Rahner’s statement this way: “the future of the church-- if the church is going to have a future-- is how do we initiate men and women into the universal call to holiness and union with God because that’s where the world would change. Not on what denomination you belong to, or whether you are Christian or not Christian, the transformation of the world is dependent on our call to holiness.”

Rahner is saying a very Universalist thing here. He is saying that spirituality must either be at the core of who we are as a church, or we may as well close our doors. For all the folks who check off “none” on surveys about religion it is not obvious why they would want to support the Unitarian Universalist tradition or any other tradition. But the soul hunger for the depth of life, that is universal. And the capacity to seek and find that depth-- Universalists believe that this is the right and potential of each and every person. The first source of our UU tradition is: “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.” In other words, mysticism. This is the single most important thing we can offer the world direct experience of the forces which create and uphold life. Which renew our spirit.

Rahner calls this “union with God.” But we know that not all UUs, nor all those in the wider community who are spiritually hungry are comfortable with the word “God”, so let’s switch gears a bit and look at this from the psychological perspective. Don continued “We get lost if we don’t experience something deeper in us than just our superficial ego needs. We get lost. This is what Jung called soul murder.”

There is no App to feed our spiritual hunger. It is not Facebook that brings us back to the deeper self when we are lost. The reason I like, for example, to sit and hear Galen’s talks is not because of how his beautiful technology (okay, maybe a little. It is pretty cool) but it is because he has a message worth hearing. And you, you left your home this morning not because you knew everyone would be tweeting about today’s service, not because we have so many followers on YouTube, but because you wanted to experience something directly- you wanted to connect with other people, face to face, you wanted to connect with something deeper inside yourself. You wanted to connect something bigger, larger, wider --the interconnected web of life of which we are all a part. And from that place of holiness, from there we can transform the world.

I believe that far from living in a time when these old Universalist churches are a historic remnant, these crossroads where our churches were planted over a century ago are filled with ministry that is calling out to us- filled with Easter eggs, if you will. The need for our Universalist tradition and for our beloved communities is so great, that an equally great discernment is needed. We have to be willing let go of everything we “should be doing” --all those ideas we hear at conferences, the ministries we witness at other churches, in order to hear our own destiny. Sometimes we need the courage to take our eyes off the crowd, to follow the thread of ministry right here where we are. This is at the core of why we gather in our UU tradition, to listen for and know our own thread, to see and know the thread we hold together as a community. When you feel lost remember, there is a thread you follow. There is a thread we follow, together.