What is the Spirit? Sunday, October 18, 2015
Twenty or so years ago, the congregation in New Hampshire where I was then minister held an auction, and recklessly I offered two items. I offered four hours of yard work, raking the approximately 4,589,357 leaves which fall on every square yard of ground during a New England Fall. And, I offered a sermon on the topic of choice of the winning bidder. I don’t remember the theme of the sermon I was required to preach on that occasion, but I do remember that the yard work fetched more than double the price paid for my sermon. I guess I should have chosen gardening as my career.
You would think I had learned my lesson, but no, at this year’s UUCM auction I again offered a sermon on the theme to be chosen by the winning bidder, and this year’s lucky winner was Phil Hart. He has already told you what he wants me to preach about, and why.
What is the Spirit? And what is the point of prayer?
Let’s disregard the fact that he is really sneaking in two sermons for the price of one here, and that each theme could easily warrant a whole series of sermons and still not scratch the surface. I’ve got twenty minutes here. Let’s see what I can do.
What is the Spirit? And what is the point of prayer?
Spirituality is a word enjoying an increasing popularity today. It enjoys quite widespread currency, even amongst those who claim themselves to be “Spiritual, but not religious”. People often tell me that is what they are, often when they are trying to justify why they don’t go to church. Perhaps you describe yourself that way. But what does that mean? Is it saying anything interesting or profound? As far as I am concerned, we are all spiritual. To be human is to be spiritual. It is the distinguishing features of our humanity that, as far as we know, we are the only species with a spiritual dimension. We are the only species which asks ultimate questions of itself and of life, the only species which worships, which is self-aware. It is both the triumph and the curse of our humanity.
But what is spirituality? None of us really know. A while ago, anatomists were trying to locate the soul, thinking it must be an internal organ. The pancreas was a favourite, because at the time they had not yet figured out what that was for. Even now, nobody can locate the soul. Nobody really knows why we humans have this spiritual dimension, though of course some people explain it by saying we have it because God gave it to us. But our spirituality is not dependent on belief in a transcendent being. Buddhists seem to do just fine without it. Many humanists also.
The best way I can think of to describe or define spirituality is that it is our human search for and our experience of ultimate connection, a search and experience of connection which can take different forms.
First, there is the connection with the universe. I am guessing I am not the only one who has ever stood outside on a beautiful clear night and looked up at the infinite sky and thought to myself Wow! Just as an aside, “Wow” is one of the most important words in the spiritual vocabulary. “Wow” moments are moments of intense spiritual experience if you are receptive to them. So, you look up at all those stars, and you know that even the closest star is so far away you can’t even begin to comprehend the vastness of what you are looking at. And you know that what seems to you vast beyond measure is in fact just a tiny little out of the way corner of only one galaxy and there are hundreds, thousands of galaxies. And it does tend to make you feel just a little bit. You know that since human time began people have stood and gazed at the stars as you are doing, wondering, marvelling, wanting to make sense of it, weaving it into stories and myths to connect us, the finite, with that, the infinite.
You might know, as your ancestors did not, that the earth is not the centre of all creation around which all else moves, but that this earth is the merest speck of insignificance compared with all that is. You might know all of that. Yet on this mere speck stands all that is precious to you – everything of love and beauty and pain and exultation. Then you turn your gaze from the heavens to this earth and you see all of nature’s intimate beauty and pageantry and complexity, right down to the tiniest insect or flower. You might not be a creationist in the simplistic fundamentalist sense, but perhaps you are drawn to wonder about how all of this came about. How did this miracle of creation happen? Could it all be just an accident?
And the most magical miracle of all, how did life begin? Why did it begin? How, why do you have life? When you ask such questions, not seeking to answer them with science but experience them with wonder, you are delving into the life of your spirit. Because you know that, however small the universe might make you feel, you are part of it, you belong. You are connected to it. You are made of the same physical stuff as all that is, you are, literally, stardust. You are connected with the earth on which you stand, you are connected with the air which you breathe in and out every moment of your life, you are connected with water, without which you could not survive. You are physically connected with everything you see around you, from the most distant star to the tiniest insect. But more importantly, you are connected by invisible bonds, the bonds of the spirit. Spirituality is seeking and experiencing that intimate connection with the universe of all that is.
And here is another eternal spiritual question. What does your life mean?
Spirituality is also the quest for connection with meaning and purpose in your individual life. Like all other life, you were born, you live for a while and along the way you experience some pain, some pleasure, each of us in different measure, and then you die. That is the eternal circle of life from which none of us is exempt. But why? What is the point? Is there a point? Perhaps our human life is just a meaningless accident, a bad joke, and the best we can hope for is to get through it with a minimum of suffering and discomfort, and when we die, that is the end. Or is there some grander scheme, some nobler end than an inevitable return to the dust?
Spirituality is the larger quest for connection with meaning and purpose which places the individual within the context of a grander vision. Some of those answers might seem fanciful to the sophisticated modern mind, but even the most modern mind craves a context. Knowing that you are going to die, how are you to live so that your death does not deny your life’s meaning? Spirituality is seeking connection with purpose beyond self, with that which will not die with you. It is demonstrably true that many people, having acquired financial or worldly success, discover with dismay that such success gives them little satisfaction? Their life still feels hollow to them because they have not connected with a larger purpose beyond themselves. Spirituality is the connection of the individual self with meaning and purpose beyond self.
And that purpose involves ethical living. Spirituality is connection with ethical living.
Most of us have a sense of right and wrong. We want to live with integrity and authenticity. We want an ethical code. And we want it not only for our own benefit, we want our lives to touch others. Some people distort personal spirituality into an exclusive focus on themselves. They think that it is all about them, that the only thing which matters is that they get themselves to some imagined paradise and it does not matter what happens to others. I think there are very few absolutes in spirituality, but here is one. If it is only about you and the state of your soul, so that you have no regard for the physical or spiritual well-being of others, then your spirituality is worthless. Authentic spirituality is about living in right relationship with others, all others, in ways which contribute to their good as much as it does to your own. Every great spiritual teacher has said the same, if in slightly different form. Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you.
Spirituality is the search for connection: with the universe, with meaning and purpose, and with ethical living.
There is one other very important aspect of spirituality. Spirituality is about practice. Some people think that spiritual experience is just something which happens. Certainly moments of heightened spiritual awareness can and do happen spontaneously. Such moments of spiritual ecstasy are real, and can and do come unbidden.
However, spirituality is also a practice. It is a discipline. And that is where prayer comes in. Some people seem to regard prayer as a sort of celestial shopping. Let’s see, these are the things I would like – er, a new car, to lose ten pounds, to cure an illness, and for the Giants to win the world series. And in return, to pay for it, er, I’ll be good. Or at least, I’ll try to be good. For a while. Maybe. Prayer is not doing a deal with God.
Two men had been out fishing all day, they had drunk quite a few beers, and they had not realised that quite a storm had been brewing. By the time they did realise, they were a long way out to sea, the waves were high and pounding down on their small boat, and to top it all off, the engine wouldn’t start. They were in a lot of trouble.
“What are we going to do?” said one of them.
“I don’t know. Should we pray”
“I’ve never done that before. Have you?”
“No, me neither. But it can’t hurt.”
So they got down on their knees in the wildly pitching little boat.
“Lord” one of them called out hopefully, “Joe and I have never bothered you much in the past. You get us out of this one, and we promise never to bother you again.”
Prayer is not a shopping list, in spite of the imprecations of those charlatans otherwise known as TV evangelists. Prayer is not asking for favours, it is not hoping to impress a listening God with your piety and getting Him – always a Him – to do as you ask.
Prayer is the conscious and repeated exercise of making yourself available for connection. Connection with the universe; connection with meaning and purpose; connection with right living; connection with your own best self. It is the intentional opening up of oneself to that possibility. It is acknowledging that you are part of something greater than yourself, in which you discover your own best self.
Prayer is seeking what you really want in life, and seeking it in the place where you are most likely to find it. It is casting your net where there are indeed enduring and meaningful riches, not the riches of consumerism but of contemplation; it is looking in the right place, not just where the world shines its own dazzling but ultimately fruitless light. Prayer is a turning away from that which is superficial and unrewarding; it is a willingness to seek in the shadows.
That’s what I understand as the Spirit; it is what I understand as prayer. Some of it, I know, I have expressed in language with which not all of you are immediately comfortable. But, if that applies to you, this is what I suggest. Be the highest bidder for the sermon theme at next year’s auction.