“Spirit in Life”

a reflection by Rev. Bill Gupton
Sunday, September 20, 2015
Heritage Unitarian Universalist Church
Cincinnati, Ohio

Now that you have been transported by the music, by the vibrant voices of our Choir, by the sublime silence that followed – I encourage you to reflect, for a moment, on what you have just experienced. If you’re part of the congregation today, you have heard, and seen beauty. As I say, it is a gift that you have received.

And if you are in the Choir – you have the added satisfaction of knowing that you have given a gift, to others. Over the years, I have had many singers tell me that the feeling they get when a singing choral music, together, is indeed nothing less than a spiritual experience. The same is true for musicians and directors.

So let us rejoice, this morning, that truly “music brings us together.” It transports and transforms us, as it lifts us up, beyond the small and fractional – helping us transcend ourselves, and connect with something larger, and deeper, perhaps something even beyond our understanding.

Music, of course, is but one way we experience the Spirit in life. Our days are teeming with countless other pathways, countless other wide-open and inviting – or at least partially open, and waiting doors to the transcendent. But to walk through those doors – to choose to open one of those doors – we must shake off the distractions and the fears that keep us bound in the shackles of an all-too-often spirit-less daily grind.

After all – this is why we are here, at church, right? To leave behind the daily grind. To escape, if just for an hour, if just for a moment, the busyness, the commotion, the distraction, what Forrest Church called “the detritus” of our lives. David Robinson, a Unitarian Universalist scholar whose specialty is the Transcendentalists, says that in UU congregations, “There is a feeling or hunger for a deeper inner life, and a more profound experience of the world that we share. We are haunted by the specter of our own superficiality – by the uneasy feeling that life is sliding by and leaving no deep mark on us. That we’re missing some more ‘real’ experience that would add marrow to the dry bones of our daily routine. We have found many ways of dealing with this spiritual hunger, or masking it, or [even] denying it … but we have also found that it has a curious persistence.”

We are drawn here, drawn together, by that common desire Robinson describes – that hunger for something more meaningful, something more relevant, something that really matters. This is why we come to a religious community – to a sanctuary – on a gorgeous Sunday morning in September, when we could just as well have slept in, played golf, done the crossword puzzle, weeded the garden.

I’m not disparaging those things. In fact, I’d be the first to tell you that anything can be a gateway to heaven. Anything, can help you see and experience the Spirit in your life – provided, you are intentional. Provided the right mindset, and orientation. And lots of practice.

Which is why most of us never achieve enlightenment, much less nirvana.

No, most of us are much more like the poet Marie Howe, than we are like the Buddha. So as I begin my reflection today, I want to go back, for just a moment, to that poem I read right before the Choir sang. You will recall that it was titled “Prayer” – and indeed, it was a prayer. The “you” that Howe addresses, in the poem/prayer, is God. Goddess. The Divine. The Holy. Allah. Brahman. Yahweh. Shiva. Shakti. The Spirit of Life.

It doesn’t matter what you call it. What matters, is that you call it. What matters, is that you seek it, in your life. Seek, and ye shall find – but don’t seek – and, well, ye shan’t find!

I could say to you that the Spirit is always there – which is what I believe. I could tell you that you are literally swimming in the Spirit of Life right now – which is also what I believe. But unless you look for it, unless you notice – those words will mean nothing to you. It will not change how you experience your life. It will not change your life.

Now I don’t know about you, but I can certainly relate to Marie Howe’s prayer: “Help me.” I can relate to her question: “Why do I flee from you?” I can relate to her complaint: “Every day I want to speak with you – and every day something more important calls for my attention.” Then she goes on to enumerate some of those allegedly “important” things – a veritable grocery list of the mundane. And then there’s the kicker: The poet realizes that “even as I write these words, I am planning to rise from the chair, as soon as I finish this sentence.”

Boom. Busted! Again, I don’t know about you, but that last line hit waaay to close to home for me. “Even as I write these words, I am planning to rise from the chair, as soon as I finish this sentence.”

This morning – not four hours ago – I was there, in my meditation room, on my yoga mat, doing my daily morning spiritual (and physical) practice – when, wouldn’t you know it, I realized my mind was not on mindful movement, or on breathing – but on this morning’s worship service. This worship service. Four hours ago, I was trying to live this moment. To plan for it. To make sure it went exactly how I wanted it to go.

So what to do, about this all-too-common, all-too-human, tendency? How do we learn, to, in yogic terms, be on our mat – how do we, in Marie Howe’s metaphor, learn to sit in that chair – to be still – to not only stop and smell the roses, but to find, in them, something sacred, something that can simultaneously bring us into contact with that which is bigger and beyond ourselves, while also teaching us something about ourselves? How do we, in the words of another great poet, learn to “hold infinity in the palm of our hand, and eternity in an hour”?

That, my friends, is the project of a lifetime – and it begins, in believe, together. “May the music bring us together,” the Choir sang – and truly, for a moment – it did. Yet the Choir could only give us that gift, because we were here. We showed up. We ventured, perhaps, a bit out of our comfort zones, and chose to come to a place called a “church” – where we knew someone called a “minister” would be talking about something called “spirituality.” Maybe even encouraging us to pray. To be silent. To seek God.

Yet knowing all that, we opened our hearts – and thus, we opened one of those doors to the Spirit.

I want to invite you – those of you who perhaps would like to open another door, this year, at Heritage Church – I invite you to become part of a program I am calling “Spirit in Life.” We know about the Spirit of Life … At least, we sing about it, and talk about it sometimes. Maybe we don’t know that much about it, after all – and maybe we haven’t thought about it very much, either.

Maybe it’s time to change that.

That’s why next month, I will begin offering small, intimate, interpersonal “Spirit in Life” groups – groups where individuals will come together and contemplate where, and how, the Spirit is working in their lives. Using a model I studied over the course of my sabbatical, when I received training in Unitarian Universalist congregational spiritual direction – I hope to create a safe, intentional and decidedly spiritual space, here within the Heritage community, for those persons who want to open some of the spiritual doors I’ve been talking about, and seek a connection – be it a new connection or a deeper connection – a connection with the Spirit of Life. With the Divine. With the Great Mystery.

We’ll talk some about language, at the start – but then move quickly into exploring your spirituality, exercising your individual spiritual muscles as it were – developing, or strengthening, your spiritual practice. And we’ll do it together, in small groups of two or three, or at the most four seekers, all of whom will commit to meet for 90 minutes a month, October through May. That’s barely 10 total hours, this entire church year. Isn’t your spiritual life worth that much?

Perhaps at this point I should explain the difference between a Spirit-in-Life group, as I am envisioning it, and what we at Heritage have called “Chalice Circles.” Both offer small-group connections within a church community – but whereas a Chalice Circle is somewhat larger, and meets to discuss pretty much whatever may be going in the lives of its members – a Spirit-in-Life group will be intentionally very small, and will be focused entirely on its members’ spiritual lives. Though done with others, it can be a very individual journey. By definition we will be looking for the Spirit, and seeking to connect with it – through prayer and reflection, meditation and sharing, and individual spiritual practices.

So if you’re looking for an adventure – I’m looking for you. If what you seek is an adventure of the spirit, I want you to be part of this first year of Spirit in Life at Heritage Church. I have room for a couple dozen seekers, who want to go on this adventure with me.

Those who sign up for this pilot program will, together, strive to deepen their spiritual lives, in beloved community. There will be groups on Sunday evenings, Monday mornings, and Tuesday evenings – and remember, it’s only 90 minutes a month. If you are interested, speak with me after the service, and I’ll be back in touch with you soon.

Thus ends the advertisement portion of this morning’s service. And now, back to our reflection!

Whether or not you ever become part of a Spirit in Life group, here or at any other church – I submit to you that you are surrounded by Spirit. In truth, you cannot escape it, even if you wanted to. In our remaining time together today, I will make my case, for that claim.

I mentioned during our Membership Ceremony that one of our new members described herself as “spiritual, but not religious” – a term that is now used, by sociologists, to describe the fastest growing demographic group in the country. I suspect that most of our new members – and that most of us, here in this sanctuary – also consider ourselves to be “spiritual, but not religious.” By that we mean that while we have a sense of our own spirituality, and perhaps feel something of a longing to explore and express that spirituality – we nonetheless find that the traditional practices of orthodox religion simply to not move us. For many, in fact, those practices and dogmas are what has driven us away from more conventional kinds of churches. They are a roadblock, as it were, on the path of our personal, spiritual exploration.

This was the stance taken by the 19th century Transcendentalists – who collectively had more influence on modern Unitarian Universalist thought and, yes, spirituality, than did any other historical group or philosophy. And as I pointed out a moment ago, it is also the stance taken by a rapidly growing number of Americans today. Nearly a quarter of the adult U.S. population now describe themselves “spiritual but not religious.”

Perhaps more surprisingly, almost half of those who self-identify as “spiritual but not religious” say they engage in prayer, or some other form of spiritual practice, every day. But what exactly is meant, by “prayer or some other form of spiritual practice”? That can sound pretty daunting, pretty off-putting.

Here it might help if we turn for guidance to two of the great ambassadors of the Spirit in life. Anne Lamott, in her book “Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith,” writes, “It doesn’t matter how you pray – with your head bowed in silence, or crying out in grief – or dancing. Churches are good for prayer – but so are garages, and cars, and mountains, and showers, and dance floors.”

Now listen – one should always listen, carefully – to Walt Whitman: “I know of nothing else, but miracles. Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan, or dart my sight over the roofs of houses toward the sky, or wade with naked feet along the beach, just in the edge of the water – or stand under trees in the woods… To me, every hour of the light and dark is a miracle. Every cubic inch of space is a miracle. Every square yard of the surface of the earth is spread with the same; every foot of the interior, swarms with the same.”

Whitman’s words remind me of that wonderful song by Catholic turned Unitarian Universalist Peter Mayer, “Holy Now,” in which he sings, “When I was in Sunday School … I remember feeling sad, that miracles don’t happen still / but now I can’t keep track – ’cause everything’s a miracle… / When holy water was rare at best / it barely wet my fingertips / but now I have to hold my breath / like I’m swimming, in a sea of it … / Everything – everything – everything, is holy now.”

The song of a bird in the morning, or of a cricket at night. The glory of a mountain range, or the crashing of the waves on a beach. The joyous squeal of delight when a young child discovers something new – or that sublime second of silence, at the end of a powerful piece of music, when you soak it all in, with gratitude. The unconditional love of a four-legged, furry friend – or the very human love, of a life partner.

I remember distinctly the moment when one of my “church kids” – a high school senior in Tulsa who was in the youth group there – asked me point blank if I had ever seen God. He wasn’t so much challenging me, as he was being a good Unitarian skeptic.

Without missing a beat – I think that surprised him, most of all – I said yes, I surely had. I had seen God, in the eyes of a certain young woman. That woman is now my wife.

Seeing God in the eyes of another – that is the meaning of the Sanskrit word I use, on a daily basis. “Namaste” is the recognition of the holy, in our companions. It is sometimes translated “The Divine in me, greets the Divine in you.”

What a beautiful – what a powerful and profound – spiritual claim that is! There is divinity in you. There is divinity in me. Everything is holy now.

My prayer for you today – and my prayer for us, in this coming year – is that we will seek the signatures of the Spirit, all around us. All around us – and within us.

The Spirit of Life – the Spirit in life – is everywhere, for those who have eyes to see. Seek – and I promise, you will find.

Blessed be. Namaste. And amen!