With reference to Cheryl’s May sermon entitled “Religion: What’s God Got to do With It?”, while religion without a transcendent source of direction could possibly offer the best option for the future of humanity, what about, in the words of Parker Palmer the “human quest for connectedness with something larger and much more trust-worthy than our egos, with our own selves, with one another, with the worlds of history and nature, with the invisible winds of the spirit, and with the mystery of being alive? What is it, after all, that draws us to religion?
The complete sermon can be read below:
In one of those rare moments when you have felt that all is right with your world… nothing to worry about… have you ever found yourself wondering how many Unitarians it would take to change a lightbulb?
We choose not to make a statement either in favour of or against the need for a lightbulb. However, if in your journey you have found that lightbulbs work for you that’s fine. You are invited to write a poem or compose a modern dance about your personal relationship with your lightbulb and present it at our annual lightbulb Sunday service, in which we will explore a number of light bulb traditions, including incandescent, fluorescent, three-way, long-life and tinted, all of which are equally valid paths to luminescence.
It’s about our relationship with the lightbulb, our connection to it. It’s about the openness to explore various lightbulb traditions.
As Unitarian Universalists we covenant to affirm and promote acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth. Accepting one another seems pretty straightforward but what exactly is spiritual growth? And, furthermore, is this kind of growth something that will improve the quality of my life in some way?
If what Transcendentalist, Unitarian-inspired Ralph Waldo Emerson had to say is accurate -
“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”
then I believe that spiritual growth does, indeed, have the potential to improve the quality of my life… to give my life meaning. And the realization of that meaning (sorry Ralph) will surely make me happy.
Religion, which encompasses spirituality, is a human invention – generally speaking, our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die. We try to make sense of being here – of existing. We look for the meaning of our lives.
My son is someone who has asked repeatedly, “Why do we have to die?” He wants to get out of having to do that. When I told Mark, who is mentally challenged, that his Dad’s Aunt Anitra had died he told me – with great conviction - that a staff at his group home recently told him that people are born again. Just the message Mark needed. He might have to die but by golly, he would be born again. I didn’t want to burst his bubble but I told him that as far as I know we’re only here once and suggested he ask the staff what she meant by being born again.
Mark worries about death and up until Aunt Anitra’s death has said that he wants to live to 100. Now, that someone he knew died at 92, and 100 isn’t that far off he now wants to live to 120. Mark would benefit from a religious perspective whereby he could be assured of a life everlasting – preferably including his CDs.
Personally, I can’t honestly say that I trust religion. I ask myself: What does religion really do for people? I see a problem with people believing that theirs is the one, true religion. I sense the potential for a lack of empathy for those who hold differing beliefs.
Although I am mistrustful of religion I yearn for what American Quaker, Parker J. Palmer, refers to as “the ancient and abiding human quest for connectedness with something larger and much more trust-worthy than our egos, with our ownselves, with one another, with the worlds of history and nature, with the invisible winds of the spirit, and with the mystery of being alive."
Recently, in an article in the Vancouver Courier Rev. Phillip Hewett had this to say:
“The Unitarian movement has been set up to be based on personal spirituality, your own development, rather than adherence to a particular creed. The unifying factor is that we are looking for some kind of spiritual depth in life, but we are not constrained within any particular group so that we are able to draw from all the world’s traditions of religion and spirituality.”
He said that Unitarians can come from a wide range of conventional religious traditions. He said: “It’s sort of a spiritual co-op if you like.”
So that’s what we are. A spiritual co-op.
I trust what Phillip Hewett, minister emeritus of the Vancouver Unitarian Church where he served from 1956 to 1991… has to say. We might well ask, however, what does it look like to be a spiritually mature person within the context of Unitarian Universalism? What is our distinct and integral way of deepening our “connectedness with something larger and much more trust-worthy than our egos, with our own selves, with one another…with the mystery of being alive.”
I find it helpful, certainly for the purposes of this sermon, to view religion as both a set of beliefs and also as an ongoing journey of deepening and maturity… the latter distinction in keeping with Emerson’s life purpose as being useful, compassionate and making a difference.
Someone who has done a lot of thinking and writing about spiritual maturity is James Fowler, Professor of theology and United Methodist minister. He’s best known for his book “Stages of Faith”. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. He asks questions like the following -
What are you spending and being spent for?
What commands and receives your best time, your best energy?
What power or powers do you rely on and trust?
To what or whom are you committed in life?
I also like what UU minister Rev. Kendyl Gibbons has to say:
It is obvious to anyone who has any historical or international awareness that there is something that the world’s most acknowledged spiritual leaders have in common; some attributes that characterize the Gandhis and Dalai Lamas and Mother Teresas and Martin Luther Kings of the world, no matter what historical religious tradition they identify with. And of course, these qualities are not limited to those who achieve wide recognition; they exist as well in French villagers who hide Jews from the Nazis, in Rwandan hotel keepers, in neighbors and teachers and elders everywhere, who exemplify for us what it means to grow into the radical acceptance of others, self-awareness, active compassion and sacrificial love that are the highest expressions of any faith.
Spiritual qualities of self-awareness, radical acceptance of others, active compassion, and sacrificial love. And to my mind, the key ingredient that must be in place before any of these characteristics can be realized is openness. Opening ourselves to the free and responsible search for truth and meaning, opening ourselves to the deepening journey of self-understanding and self-awareness.
Remember the penguins. Some people like Mahatma Ghandi and Mother Teresa plunge into the sea of self-awareness boldly. Many of the rest of us, busy with our various pursuits, wait for the tide to rise.
Openness to the search for truth and meaning, openness to the journey of self-understanding and self-awareness can sometimes mean holding two contrary ideas at the same time.
As I mentioned earlier we recently buried Andy’s Aunt Anitra, a frugal woman who had always lived an orderly life, a place for everything, and everything in its place. She makes me think of another woman with the same disposition. Following her death the family came across, safely stored in the attic, a shoe box neatly labelled: Pieces of string too small to save. And inside the box they found, as you have already guessed, tiny pieces of string, clearly too small to save.
The pieces of string are clearly worthless and, at the same time they are just as clearly valuable. Isn’t that something? Holding two contrary and true ideas at the same time. I suggest that this kind of ability is necessary if we are serious about understanding and caring about the world we live in. What else in the world, hidden from casual view, is indeed a treasure? Who knows what we might yet find in Anitra’s condo?
We look for this spirituality in religion where we discover a community and a context where we can invest in others so that we ourselves are able to grow into “radical acceptance of others, self-awareness and compassion”. In community we find the support and understanding that make this possible.
In May, 2005 just prior to the Annual General Meeting of the Canadian Unitarian Council, that year in Montreal, Tom Harpur wrote a piece in the Toronto Star entitled “Unitarians Could Fill a Spiritual Vacuum”.
He writes about our engagement with current issues and cites two workshops as having themes based on gender and sexual diversity, the one asking the question: What is religious about sexuality education? He points out that Unitarians have been in the forefront of gay rights and have sanctioned same-sex marriage for some time.
But what I liked best in his article was this line “They believe in the duty of each to foster the nourishment and maturing of our own soul to hear the divine call to work for healing of the planet and its inhabitants. It’d a kind of Cosmic Spirituality, though they might not call it such.”
It’s from a deepening spirituality – out of acceptance and compassion spring our response to social justice initiates.
I’m not satisfied being spiritual all by myself. Gathering together in a religious community that affirms and promotes acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth is essential to my spirituality. Where better to improve your spiritual maturity than in a spiritual co-op also known as a UU church. A church where Unitarian minister A. Powell Davies said people come to grow a soul.
It’s here that we affirm and promote the basic tenets of our faith making us not only spiritual but also religious.
I leave you with a story -
Long ago in China there was a monk who was known by the people as ‘Bird’s Nest’ because of his habit of sitting to meditate in the top of a tree. As people got used to his presence, they would often stop to talk to him when they passed his tree.
His reputation as a wise man began to grow and people began to travel from great distances to hear him speak or to ask his advice.
One day a very important visitor came to speak to ‘Bird’s Nest’. The governor sought him out to ask him about the teachings of Buddhism. He called up into the tree, “Tell me, Master, what is the most important teaching of Buddhism?”
In a few minutes ‘Bird’s Nest’ called down, “Do not do bad or evil things, and do good deeds and acts of kindness.”
The governor grew irritated at such a simple answer. “But I know that,” he yelled up the tree. “In fact even a three year old knows that.”
After a moment, ‘Bird’s Nest’ called back down, “Yes, a three year old may know it, but even an eighty year old finds it hard to do.
Thankfully, spirituality is a lifelong pursuit… an ongoing journey of deepening and maturity - a journey of connectedness which moves us towards compassion for all existence.
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