A Rev. Bill Sermon: Spiritual Practice 101

As I was collecting my thoughts for this morning’s service as well as next Sunday’s service I was pleased to notice that our KVUUC worship theme for this June is the subject of “Wisdom.”   Pleased because the topics I was going to talk about anyway, Spiritual Practice 101 and 102, really have to do with wisdom in perhaps its most profound sense.

In his book, The Road to Character,  the columnist and TV commentator David Brooks distinguishes between resume wisdom and eulogy wisdom.  They are two sides of human nature, our depth of knowledge and our depth of character.  The former he calls Adam I wisdom and the latter Adam II wisdom.

“Adam I is the external Adam, it’s the resume Adam,” Brooks explained. “Adam I wants to build, create, use, start things. Adam II is the internal Adam. Adam II wants to embody certain moral qualities, to have a serene inner character, not only to do good but to be good. To live and be is to transcend the truth and have an inner coherence of soul. Adam I, the resume Adam, wants to conquer the world…. Adam II wants to obey a calling and serve the world. Adam I asks how things work, Adam II asks why things exist and what ultimately we’re here for.”

Our Adam II side is where resumes do not usually go but eulogies usually do.  It’s our spiritual side and what I want to talk about this morning and next Sunday.  David Brooks’ thesis is that in our secular culture exploding into the Age of Trump, virtues and wisdom leading to a depth of character are being diminished.  So, has use of Adam II words in our conversations.  My object here is to rift on five of those words from the Adam II, wisdom realm.  I linked them together in a little diagram on your orders of service. This Sunday for Spiritual Practice/Wisdom 101, I’m going to delve a little more deeply into Compassion and Gratitude.  Next week, for Spiritual Practice 102, we’ll focus on Attentiveness, Acceptance and Commitment.

First, I want to take a stab at suggesting what I think the term “spirituality” encompasses, and what it does not.

There are not many certitudes about spirituality except that it surely will flummox those who want to reify it; to include it among things we can weigh or measure;  to try to nail its essence to a tree—like the proverbial slice of jello–anymore than you could do that with music or art or poetry.  Yet, let me say that over the years I have noticed some people who just seem “spiritual”, to me, and to most others around them.  They just do.  I notice.   You meet these people who radiate a kind of inner light.  What is it?

What is it about them?  Here are a couple of observations about what I have noticed about such people.  First, the people that I sensed had spiritual depth seemed anchored, or grounded.  In other words they seemed to have an inner life to connect to, draw upon, sustain them and offer meaning.

Secondly, I’d say they had perspective about what really matters.  They know, for example, the difference between a bad hair day and global warming.

Third, they spend little energy in self-promotion, and aren’t so quick to get ruffled, irritated.

Fourth, they have a love for others and life in general that just seems to radiate.  They’re good eggs—it feels good to be in their presence.   We need more of them; persons who look for the good news in people and treat each day and each problem with a sense of graciousness and joy.

I have met Catholic priests and nuns, rabbis, imams, Zen Buddhists and, yes, UU’s who radiate these qualities.  There is no single pathway forward.  For us UU’s, though it seems that we are drawn towards a spirituality related to our everyday lives.  It’s not about out there; it’s in here. It’s living in a way that is satisfying to our spirits, to our deepest selves, to our souls, without having to make a leap of faith that we just can’t make; without having to  “accept 20 improbable propositions before breakfast,” as Karen Armstrong put it.

Here are several definitions of “spirituality” that say the same things in slightly different ways.  Rebecca Parker, the former Dean of Starr King, one of two Unitarian Universalist theology schools, said that spirituality is concerned with moving from a place of existential isolation toward communion with the greater whole.  She says communion with the greater whole is living with “soul.”  Living with soul is to “live deeply rooted in knowing and feeling that we are connected to one another and to the earth, that our life is held in embrace of something larger than ourselves—a wisdom, a presence, a grace whose beatitude is accessible to us.”

To break it down to its bare essence, I think she is saying spirituality has to do with connectedness.  The non-spiritual includes experiences of separation, fragmentation, hopelessness, despair, lack of clarity.  In a sense we are all angels climbing Jacob’s ladder going up and down on a scale that goes from separated to connected.  The essence of spiritual practice is to check-in.  Where am I in my consciousness right now?  Particularly if a conflict appears do I remember to check in and notice certain aspects of myself in others, and vice-versa.  If we can do that we are on the road to freedom, which is awakening into our full identity; realizing our absolute interconnectedness with all being—which is, of course, our UU Seventh Principle.

Quaker social activist, Parker Palmer. Palmer says, and it’s printed on the cover of our orders of service, that the heart of the spiritual quest “is to know the rapture of being alive and to allow that knowledge to transform us into celebrants, advocates, defenders of life wherever we find it.”

Celebrants, advocates, defenders of life! That’s you guys, here gathered at the Ecumenical Chapel of Ellensburg. The kind of spirituality we’re talking about here doesn’t say that you must have faith in God or accept any theological doctrine.  It’s about connecting to the greater whole, the largeness of life—to repeat, the absolute interconnectedness with all being; knowing that what harms thee, harms me.

There is a huge and hurting world out there in need of help.  If we can get our own acts together, perhaps we have something to offer them.

OK, so say you decide that this notion of spirituality sounds as if you might consider it.  What’s next?  Well, let me suggest it might have something to do with practice. And “practice” implies something of a discipline, a regularity.  Just as a gymnast does, you develop new capacities when you practice. That requires for most of us some pause in our lives to tune into the world of the present and tune out concerns of the past and “to do’s” of the future.  I’m using the word “prayer” to describe one such practice because the word works for me, although a lot of other words might be substituted.

I would define prayer as a quiet listening of the heart or, more simply, attention.  It is the check-in as we climb up and down Jacob’s ladder, that I talked about before.  It certainly doesn’t have to include affirming a belief in a controlling agency out there.

Prayer  is about opening the windows of your being so that more life giving light can shine in on, so that you can discover a deeper connection to the greater whole that you had not known before.

Let me refer you back to the little diagram on the cover of your orders of service.  Note that Compassion is at the heart and each of the other spiritual dimensions, Attentiveness, Gratitude, Commitment and Acceptance are connected by lines.  That is because each of the outer dimensions can be seen as different forms of the heart which is compassion and all the dimensions are related in the sense that you can’t have any one fully in isolation from the others.

So, first we focus on the Adam II virtue of Compassion.

Compassion, or that companion word, “love” is inseparable from my concept of spirituality because, more than anything else spirituality is about “relationship.”  Or, it might help to think of spirituality as what is going on in the interstices between relationships to self, others and life..

There are a lot of differences between the world’s major religions.  Some believe in no God, some in one, some in three, some in many.  But every one teaches the Golden Rule.  My favorite Golden Rule story belongs to Hillel, the great Pharisee, who was an older contemporary of Jesus. And it said that a pagan came to Hillel one day and promised to convert to Judaism on condition that Hillel could recite the whole of Jewish teaching while he stood on one leg. And Hillel stood on one leg and said that which is hateful to you do not to your fellow man. That is the Torah, and everything else is only commentary. Go and study it.

Compassion is at the heart of my spirituality diagram because it is the ultimate test of any religion or spiritual practice. Whatever your beliefs, whatever your “ism”, it is good only if it leads you to practical compassion and connection to self, others and life.  That is the line between good and bad religion with the power to hold the world or to rip it apart.

The first practice I am offering in Spiritual Practice 101 is simply find a quiet space first thing in the morning or during the day and check in:  “How could I live more compassionately today? How could I spread a little more kindness today?”  And, or , you might hum the words we close every service here with  “Spirit of Life, come unto me.  Sing in my heart all the stirrings of compassion.

Now let’s move to the spiritual dimension of Gratitude.  This is not necessarily the most logical order for presenting these dimensions but it works because it is so inextricably linked with compassion; it’s hard to see myself relating to others out of one but not the other.

Most of us like our occasional, decadent indulgences.  Eat, drink and be merry.  But what our consumer culture advertises will make us happiest, really won’t.  Most of you are here in part because you know that more stuff or sensual pleasure, won’t do the trick.  So what will?  Perhaps,  a bit more gratitude for what we already have?

Several years ago I read about a NYU study that demonstrated that subjects who were tasked to focus on what they were glad about in their lives tended to immediately move out of psychologically depressed states but those who focused on “I wish I were…” (someone or somewhere else) got dramatically worse.

Think about it:  Anytime you say “Thank you” you are acknowledging your dependence upon some gift of life—food, air, water, sunshine, art, beauty.  Most of them were given to you freely.  None of us are isolated beings.  All of us are reliant upon the mercy and generosity of others, Mother Earth, fate, and that which is just mystery.  The simple “Thank You” prayer reminds us of our dependence and our connection to the greater whole that is the ground of our being.  And always, if it is genuine, it is an expression of love.

Scrape away all the smoke and chaff and what we are doing mostly, or should be doing mostly, in these worship services is gratitude—to be here, alive, with each other, with beauty or music and word.  Perhaps the most important jobs each of you can do is make sure everyone who gives to this fellowship is properly thanked.

In a wonderful little prayer book I have, Brother David Steindl-Rast says:  “If the only prayer you ever say is ‘thank you’, that is enough.”

So for our spiritual practice another question for the day to ponder might be:  “What am I most grateful for in my life today?”

When you are grounded in spirit, you feel held in love and are grateful for that and can’t help but extend it out to others.  Join us next week to consider how the Adam II wisdom virtues of Attentiveness, Acceptance and Commitment  fit into the whole.

We need spiritual practice to remember who we are.  We need to do this in a religious community so we have allies in our great cause of mending our world.