Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Sermon: "I Have a Spiritual Life... Now What?" (Delivered 3-2-08)

It was the Ancient Greek poet Archilochus who playfully observed, “The fox has many tricks, the hedgehog only one – one very good one.”

It is always a bit contrived and artificial to divide the world into two types of people. But, I’ve always thought about those who engage in spiritual practices in such starkly dualistic terms. First, there are the foxes. They are the ones who know many tricks. They journey from practice to practice. They try yoga. They experiment with prayer. They join groups then leave groups, hither and thither. They are always open to different traditions, always keeping an eye out for new tricks. Then, there are the hedgehogs. They’re committed to a singular, steady, regular practice in which they continue to deepen and grow more skillful.

Such is life, with this constant tension between breadth and depth. Generalization and specialization. Broad waters can carry you to distant shores. Deep wells can bring you to the mysteries of the fathoms. How does that song we sing go? “Roots hold me close; wings set me free.” Good morning foxes. Good morning hedgehogs.

This morning is the third and last sermon in a three part series on Spiritual Practice. The first sermon, delivered in mid-January considered the impediments and barriers that keep us from engaging in spiritual practice. Two weeks later, I preached on gratitude as a spiritual practice particularly well-suited to Unitarian Universalists and challenged the entire congregation to participate in a daily practice of gratitude during the 29 days of February.

I am a little disappointed that more people didn’t leave comments about their gratitude practices on my web-site, so I have no idea how many people accepted my challenge. At the same time I was extremely heartened by the number of emails and passing comments I received by people who were engaging in gratitude practices, either every day or sporadically, during the month. My parents even played along at home! If you missed it for some reason, the good news is that there is no rule that gratitude can only be practiced in February. You can use the resources on my blog and try out the month of gratitude whenever you want.

This morning I want to do three things. I want to offer some closure to these experiments in gratitude. I want to say a little bit more about spiritual practice generally, realizing that it is such an extensive and expansive subject that there will always be more that is left unsaid than said. And finally, I want to talk about the future, but not the future of this church or the future of Unitarian Universalism or even the future of our country or the planet. I want to talk about the future of those who have developed a regular spiritual practice. So now what? Now that you have a spiritual life, what do you do with it?

During the month of gratitude I learned several things. My greatest learning happened not on the days when I dutifully performed the prescribed practice of the day, but on the days I got too busy or distracted and forgot. I learned that battling a head cold causes you to put aside your gratitude practice. So does being called for jury duty. This is not surprising. All spiritual practices have to do with mindfulness. They have to do with how we walk through this world, whether we pass our days attentively and with awareness, or oblivious, pre-occupied, troubled, or indifferent.

Ralph Waldo Emerson was a Unitarian minister before he became an essayist. Emerson’s first sermon was also one of his most famous. All of his sermons, as was the custom in the days he lived, were based on Biblical texts and the sermon to which I refer was an exploration of Saint Paul’s instruction to “pray without ceasing.” (1 Thessalonains 5:17) Emerson invited his listeners, literally, to pray without ceasing, that is to live every moment of every day as an act of prayer.

It may be startling to think of those early Unitarians as the prayer freaks that they were, but for Emerson, as it would later be for Thoreau, there was an emphasis on developing a constant mindfulness that would imbue every waking moment, making our daily lives a constant communion with divinity. “Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life?”

The month of gratitude had a similar though less totalizing intention: the idea of cultivating thankfulness for a variety of different things throughout the course of our days.

It seems that this month of gratitude and focus on spiritual practice was well-timed. On the minister’s on-line chat, there was a great discussion on one facet of spiritual practice in particular. And, the cover article of the newsletter of the Church of the Larger Fellowship was written by Janne and Rob Eller-Issacs, the co-ministers of our Unitarian Universalist congregation in St. Paul, Minnesota, and colleagues of mine whom I deeply respect and quote so frequently that you might get sick of it. Their cover article was about their respective daily spiritual practices, which they perform with hedgehog-like consistency but are, in fact, foxy admixtures of yoga, martial arts, walking, journaling, the recitation of poetry from memory, and holding other people in care in their thoughts. Whew! For its honesty and power I found Rob’s admission of what having a spiritual practice did for him each day. He writes, “Whenever I [did my spiritual practice], I was able to move through anxiety and rage, to let go of that immature sense of betrayal and live in the moment. Whenever I didn’t, I wasn’t. You wouldn’t want to be with me on days I didn’t…”

At the same time, a discussion about spiritual discipline was taking place on-line and one person referenced some words by the Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker, the President of our Unitarian Universalist seminary in Berkeley, California. In this passage, Parker quotes a member of the first church she served who gave a testimonial on his spiritual practice and the importance it played in his life. I am delighted to share this man’s words with you, because they are powerful, and deeply felt, and because they are about the spiritual practice of tithing. That morning in that church, Steve said the following about his spiritual practice:
“I first began to tithe because I was taught to obey the teachings of my church… I did it because I saw obedience as the heart of faithfulness. When I began to understand that obedience was not all that important and could even be evil, I continued to tithe because a different reason had come to me. The people I loved most and admired most – my parents, the leaders in my church, my minister – all tithed. I wanted to be like them so I modeled my life on theirs.

“But then I matured in my faith even more. I discovered I didn’t need to obey and I didn’t need to imitate. I could make my own decisions and my own choices. I choose to tithe because it tells the truth about who I am. If I did not, it would say that I was a person who had nothing to give, or that I had received nothing from life, or I didn’t matter to the larger society, or that my entire life’s meaning was solely in providing for my own needs. But, I believe I am a person who is the opposite of all those things. I am a person with something to give. I am a person who has received abundantly from life. I am a person whose presence matters in the world. I am a person whose life has meaning because I am connected to and care about many things larger than myself alone. If I did not tithe, I would lose track of these truths about who I am. This spiritual practice reminds me every day of who I am.” [I have slightly altered this passage, which can be found in Everyday Spiritual Practice, edited by Scott Alexander (p. 194-195) and Blessing the World by Rebecca Parker (p. 130-131)]
“My spiritual practice reminds me every day of who I am. It causes me to remember who I am.” That language really catches me. It stirs up something inside of me. It stirs up something for Rebecca Parker as well. For her the language is equally as powerful as it is for me. As a theologian and a cultural critic, Rebecca Parker calls this “endangered knowledge.” By this term, she means that there are all sorts of forces, especially in our culture, that cause us to forget who we really are. Television and media tell us things about ourselves that are not true. Culture encourages us to engage in habits that are not who we really are or who we are called to be. We are deceived and deceive ourselves. We are lied to and lie about who we really are. We need practices that remind us of who we are. She mentions keeping a Sabbath, a day set apart, and tithing as practices that remind us of who we are.

So, in her writings here, Rebecca Parker is talking about practices that reverse the cultural conditioning that obscures and obfuscates our true identities. Janne Eller-Isaacs strikes a similar chord when she writes that her spiritual practice helps her to understand that,

“Whatever we call it, we can agree that we human beings are destined to live surrounded by mystery: we possess just enough awareness to know that life is a great and frightening gift. It is our nature to be aware, to feel every day the failings and foolishness, the wonders and joys of being alive and being connected to one another.”

Her husband, Rob, testifies to what has happened in his life since he found his spiritual practice: “Every day [it] restores my sense of balance, opens my heart and aligns my life with those I love. It matters…” Again, Parker calls this “endangered knowledge” because of how easy it is to forget who we truly are.

I will admit that I had a slightly different reaction to reading all of this. I was struck by those words about remembering who I am. Honestly, those words took me a place that is quite a bit different. Upon reading Steve’s words about tithing, my mind immediately turned to a story about the famous sportscaster Howard Cosell. [I recall hearing this story told several years ago on a sports radio talk show.] There is a legendary story that once Howard Cosell had traveled to a city to announce a sporting event and afterwards went gallivanting out on the town with his colleagues in the broadcast media. Late at night, their limo crossed the tracks into a bad part of the city and they happened to pass a street fight taking place on the sidewalk. Cosell ordered the driver to stop the limo and got out. He walked towards the fight and began – in his one-of-a-kind voice – to announce the fight as it took place before him.
“We have before us on this humid evening a battle of two fierce competitors, engaging in a valiant battle of primal ferocity. In one corner we have a brawny, thick-bodied southpaw, an impressive specimen of strength and power. His adversary in this battle is a scrappy brawler giving fifty pounds in this contest. To the untrained eye, the brawny southpaw would have every advantage, but what he does not know is that he has a weak jaw and lacks the fortitude to absorb the blows he will receive.”
Reportedly, the fight came to a stop and the whole crowd of roughnecks turned and stared. Howard Cosell was calling their street fight. Later in the limo, one of Cosell’s colleagues was said to ask him, “You could have gotten yourself killed. Why did you do that?” To which Cosell was alleged to reply, “I know who I am.”

“I know who I am.” What a macho and egotistical thing to say! Yet, isn’t it sort of like what Steve said when he talked about tithing, what Rob and Janne said when the spoke of their spiritual disciplines, what Rebecca Parker meant by “endangered knowledge”, and maybe what Emerson meant by praying without ceasing, that is, to live with a constant knowledge of who you are, not forgetting it. Not that Howard Cosell is any great exemplar of virtue, but none of us are Howard Cosell either, thank goodness.

Assuming that you have found or will find a spiritual practice that brings you into the fullness of who you are and who are meant to me, what then? What next? Part of what comes next is nothing. You just keep at it. You continue your practice that helps you to function as who you are: your whole self, your best self, your true self. You practice to remind yourself of who you are, knowing that it may make you a better person than you really want to be.

Foxes: keep learning even more tricks from your adventures on this planet. Hedgehogs: as you curl into yourself and practice your one good trick, continue to love the depths. And those in-between, you dappled souls, you fox-hogs and hedge-foxes: do those broad-deep, disciplined-free things that you do so well.

And, as my colleague Rev. Kendra Ford would put it, “LIVE your life. Live YOUR life. Live your LIFE.” Live it in all the fullness of the knowledge of who and whose you are. Shalom. Blessed Be. Amen.