Monday, July 18, 2011

Sermon - "Experiencing the Mystery"

Experiencing the Mystery

The title of today’s worship service is a little odd, I know. But, It’s the best way I could summarize the first in the list of sources of Unitarian Universalism. That list is in the gray hymnals and on that the back of the order of service. Along with the seven principles that we talk a lot about, there are six sources that are the building blocks of our religious tradition. This particular source is, and I quote:

“Direct experience of the transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life.”

I did my best calling it, “Experiencing the Mystery.” It is listed as the first of our six sources. But I also think it is first source or our religious lives as individuals. Our first source of inspiration, our first source of wonder, or spirituality, our fist and most important source of our religious life is what we experience for ourselves.

On rare and intimate occasions I have heard some of our members share those moments of inspiration, when they felt connected to something greater. One of our leaders has had that experience of connection in the California Redwoods. As he began to grasp their tremendous size and history, he began to place himself in a much broader web of life, a web that reaches further than he had ever really grasped. Another of our members talks about reconnecting with the source of life every time she drives down from her home at the top of the world. Every time she sees the vast expanse of ocean she is reconnected to the earth and reminded what a splendid world we live in.

A lot of us experience that sense of awe and wonder in the midst of nature. I know I do. But there are other sources as well. She’d probably shoot me if she knew I was including this in a sermon, but the conductor of the community choir sometimes waxes poetic about her experience leading a choir. She talks about the rare and beautiful experience of making music as one body of people. The alignment of harmony and consciousness as a choir melds into one voice, and one heart. It’s an amazing experience.

And it’s not unlike what we try to create at the community drum circle. Yes, part of it is getting together and meeting new people. But the drumming, when it comes together right, when everyone in the circle plugs into the rhythm and lets go of their own personal agenda or self consciousness, time stands still. You can totally lose yourself in the depth of connection and the moment.

Direct experience of the transcending mystery is listed as the first source of Unitarian Universalism as a religious tradition. As Unitarian Universalists, we celebrate that ever person, every single person has the capacity to experience what is holy and true. Every person can through prayer, through inspiration, or through their own personal reflection come to know and feel the sacred life-affirming power that we share.
That may not seem like such a big deal to you or me today, but it’s actually quite significant in terms of a religious tradition.
The first source of our faith is not a sacred Text, or tradition. It’s not the word of others. The first source of our faith is an individual’s direct experience of the transcending mystery and wonder that touches each of our lives. It is available to each and every person, from the time we are quite small. It’s not limited by gender, class, age, race, education, language, sexual orientation, nation or origin. It is the mystery and wonder that touches every human being at some point in our lives, the power that moves us. That spark that is available to all, is first and foremost the source of Unitarian Universalism as a religious tradition.

And so it should be. Because that spark of awe and wonder is also the first source of our own individual religions lives. I use religious here and throughout this sermon not to talk about a personal relationship with God. But religious in a broader sense. Religious in the sense of relating to our highest values and deepest understandings of our world.
Experience of the transcending mystery and wonder is the first spark for our religious lives. The experience of human compassion or awe at nature, or the miracle of life, is the bedrock upon which we build our faith. It happens before we read about religion or are taught about it. It certainly happens before any rational argument can be made to us about the existence or non-existence of God, or the nature of the divine. I think children understand these feelings much better than we do as adults. Because it’s about feeling something beyond words, feeling something that’s not been labeled and dissected and processed and trapped by our critical minds.

The sad truth is, religious traditions, including our own sometimes, can do a very good job of extinguishing that spark. More and more I hear my pears, and just about everyone young than us, describing themselves as spiritual but not religious. They know that on occasion that have felt a deeper stirring, a connection to the world around them that goes beyond explanation. They have had that direct experience.
They have also had the mind-numbing experience of boring churches, dry lectures about ancient books, dull music, money sucking institutions, and dim dank spaces that would depress even the happiest of people. There’s something wise about this spiritual but not religious movement. These people seem to be protecting that spark within them. They are protecting their experience of the transcending mystery and wonder from the words and baggage that might diminish it.

By its very nature, the type of experience we are talking about is far beyond what words can capture. Which obviously makes it a little odd to talk about in a sermon. It is a little bit like giving a long lecture on the beauty of music, without ever actually listening to music. These moments of inspiration, like music, far exceed what words can express.
Maybe that’s why we are uncomfortable talking about it, because we feel like we don’t have the right words. I don’t know if you have noticed this, but we UU’s are very , very reluctant to talk about our own personal experiences spirituality. We’ll talk all day about political opinions, or who should do what to make our world a better place. But talking about the experiences that mold our hearts, is a whole different ballgame.
Maybe we don’t feel like we have the right words to adequately explain those moments of mystery. But it’s my hunch that something else holds us back. I think we don’t talk about our experiences because we don’t want to be vulnerable. We don’t want to be considered unscientific, or overly emotional, or overly religious. It’s true. We are worried that if we talk about feelings of spiritual connectedness, or overwhelming beauty, that we would appear, frankly stupid.

Today, I’m asking us together to let down some of those walls, to open ourselves to sharing some of those stories. If you can’t share your own, just start by listening to others with an open mind. I know it is asking a lot, but it could change our lives as a community.

You may know that I went to a liberal Christian seminary, not unlike Claremont School of Theology just up the road. In seminary it broke my heart to hear my Christian class mates say that they would never be able to preach the cutting edge information we learned about the Bible. We learned all sorts of fascinating stuff about Christian history and the way the Bible was put together. Things that both enriched and transformed the common understandings of Christian teaching. They knew if the spoke freely about the historical detail of Christianity, if they told the truth that rested in their mind, they would lose their jobs or cause havoch in their churches. It was a very sad thing to hear then.
Today it breaks my heart to hear UU ministers who can’t talk freely about faith and spirituality, for fear of the exact some thing. Because they fear if they told the truth that rested in their soul, they would lose their jobs or cause havoch in their congregations. I want to test that fear today, and prove it wrong.

For me, the experience of the transcending mystery and wonder first came as a child. Although I am still moved today by the beauty of nature, as I child it was simply breathtaking. I was fortunate to grow up in a family where outdoor adventure was a standard part of our lives. We backpacked every year in the rocky mountains. We camped locally. We scuba dived. For me growing up being outdoors was expected. As I think back on it, there was never a particular stated value to these activities. We weren’t doing it to be fit, or to save the environment. It was just understood that outdoors in nature was the place to be.
I guess it’s no wonder then that my earliest, and still my deepest connection to the wonder of life is through the natural world. In a general way I feel connected to life when in nature. But beyond that, there are a few moments of profound connection. They are moments I will never forget. One was watching the sunset, and the stars appear in the mountains in New Mexico. I had been out backpacking for ten days with a group of Boy Scouts. Needless to say it was a ruckous bunch. But our last night out on the trail I managed to spend some time alone, walking by myself, I decided to sit, and wait and watch. The night sky that came alive before my eyes filled my soul. It opened for me the beauty of possibility in infinite space. It was a breathtaking moment that I knew I would cherish forever.
Years later, in seminary I had a similar experience. I was camping in the hill country outside of Austin Texas. I went down to a shaded stream area to do some reading. Whatever I was reading didn’t last long. I found myself setting aside the notes on theology to sit in nature. And there in the shade next to a stream something stirred in my soul. A sense of connection to the earth was absolutely overwhelming. Frankly it was almost erotic. I sat there, and I simply felt connected, and held by the universe. Again, I knew it was a very simple moment that I would cherish forever.

For me, there have been a couple of amazing, aha moments. The rest of the time, I just try to be open to them. You might call it a spiritual practice, but there’s nothing resembling discipline about it.
To tap into a sense of connection to the Universe I pray. Not because I think God necessarily hears my prayers, like Santa or something. But I pray because it gives me some familiar way of being in relationship with a much broader much more complex life-affirming force that I believe in. It’s like having a conversation with the interdependent web of being.
I pray and I visit the ocean twice a day, nearly every day. Watching the waves churn the water I see, I feel the circulation and respiration of the earth. I feel the source that makes life possible, that makes life beautiful. I visit the ocean twice nearly every day and I am grateful to be alive and to be a part of this magnificent world.

If experiencing the mystery is our first source of faith, if it is the bedrock of our tradition as I believe it is, then we have a lot of work to do in getting that foundation beneath us. We have a lot of work to do in naming what is sacred, in reaching back to that time, that moment when we knew a deeper connection. We have a lot of talking to do.
Only you can share what is sacred for you. Only you can explain what you came to see in a glimmer of hope. No one can do that for you. Hopefully I started a conversation. This is your invitation. Hopefully you will jump in the deep end of the pool with me and tell someone a story of when you felt something stir in your soul.

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