Monday, April 30, 2007

04/29/07, Sermon

Things are just fine on a coral reef as long as certain conditions are met. Begin to tamper with the conditions and you disrupt life on the coral reef. Change the water temperature, over time, for instance, say two degrees, and things are no longer fine on the coral reef. But, after a period of adjustment, with some life forms disappearing, and others appearing, things settle back into a convenient arrangement and all is once again just fine on the coral reef.

But, change the ocean currents, or alter the temperature a bit more, or pollute the water past its ability to sufficiently dilute the pollution, and you will soon destroy all life on the coral reef, and kill the reef itself. Things are “fine” within a narrow range of possibilities. Horse riding can be “fine” as long as you don’t put a burr under the saddle. It can be a very small burr and still ruin things on the ride. A drop of water is as next to nothing as something tangible can be, but a steady drop of water over time becomes Chinese Water Torture, and a trickle of water can cut a path through rocky ground. It doesn’t take nearly that much or that long to make us crazy.

Don’t think you can tolerate crazy-making conditions. Don’t think you can be fine in the extended presence of pathology. Move out of its way. A coral reef has to sit there and take whatever happens to it. You can leave the room, or the relationship, or the job, or the country. It’s beginning to look as though we should leave the country.

How bad can it get? What is with the madness? How can we bring sanity to bear? What can you do when leadership is so completely cut-off from the realities of the impact of its leading?
The country seems to be surviving as well as it is on the strength of psychotherapy, medication, distraction, diversion, and denial. We are adjusting ourselves to pathology like the frog in the pot. What else can we do? The coral reef is suffocating. Life there struggles to go on. But the barges dumping the pollution keep coming.

Things need to change on so many levels that it can easily seem as though we are a coral reef up against an endless stream of barges. Nothing we can think of doing appears to have any chance of making a difference. Any action we imagine either appears to be impossible or has consequences that are as intolerable as the conditions we are trying to transform. Making things better here, makes things worse there.

In other words, there is a price to be paid for transforming the world. And, we don’t like to talk about prices to be paid. We stay in abusive, toxic, soul-destroying, life-threatening, relationships because we are afraid of leaving. We die because we are afraid of paying the price required to be alive. We tell ourselves we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t, and settle too easily for being damned without a fight. If we are going to die, we should at least die in the service of life.
Well. That has a nice sound to it, but we have no idea what it means. If we were to begin living today in the service of life, what would we do exactly? Where, and how, do we begin? Well, here’s a suggestion: Let’s call it the concerted effort of unwavering gestures. Let’s commit ourselves to doing what is good, or just what appears to be good, whether it does any good or not.

Begin by thinking through what it means for your life to be “just fine.” What are the essential minimum requirements of “just fine”? How much about your life is excessive? How much is over-indulgence? How much can you actually get along “just fine” without? Answering these questions puts some distance between ourselves and the “buy, spend, amass, and consume” mentality that is the foundation of the economy and the culture. Which, of course, begins to shake those foundations. And, gives rise to the haunting threat: “If you don’t buy, spend, amass and consume, you will destroy the economy and the culture, and then where will you be?” Don’t buy it. Don’t buy that buying more is the whole basis of life, and that life will end if we quit buying more than we can begin to have any use for.

Focus on what your true needs are and meet those needs. Find the line between necessary and excessive, and draw it. Know what is wasteful, extravagant. Understand clearly what is required for things to be “just fine.” Limit yourself to living with the things you need to be fully, completely, joyfully alive. It doesn’t take as much as the culture would have us believe.
And, do all the small things you know to do, and probably haven’t done because you ask “What difference would it really make?” Stop driving with the air-conditioner on, and combine several trips into one. Change your light bulbs to energy efficient fluorescents and cut off the lights when you leave the room. These types of lists are everywhere. Implement the suggestions.

Write letters and emails to your congressmen. Propose sanity, oppose madness. Tell them to do what they can to stop clearing the rain forests and to start reducing energy consumption. Get on the band wagon. Take excess personally. Pay the price of refusing to live well beyond the limits of what it takes for things to be “just fine.” It doesn’t take long to find what’s wrong with this picture. “The price” is not something we are likely to pay.

There is a reason things are the way they are. It’s easier that way. We have all taken the path of least resistance to where we are today. That is true with us personally and collectively. When things became uncomfortable, we found the easy door. All the conveniences of life that are killing us were created by a culture fixated on easy living. Walking through the Easy Door, we stepped into a world we can’t live in. We want to live, but we don’t want it to be hard.

We can have anything we want if we don’t mind doing what it takes to have it. We always blink and fold when the ante goes up. We like the idea of clean air and water, but we aren’t willing to give up much to have it. We like the idea of a community, but when that means listening to people who have nothing to say, we think maybe community is over-blown. We like the idea of shared responsibility for the work that needs to be done, but the same people end up doing everything. We start down the road that leads to change, but then realize we don’t want things to be all that different.

We want things to be the way they are, only better. Cheaper gas, cleaner air and water, improved relationships among all people, peace, justice, and joy all around—without any limits, restrictions, or impositions on us and the way we live our lives. Who are we kidding?

We want our spirituality to be a feel-good boost, propelling us along the way of our own choosing to goals we find attractive in a life that never asks more of us than we feel like giving. Who are we kidding?

We want a life of complete freedom, without restraint or restriction. We want to follow our heart wherever it leads, never mind that it always seems to lead away from hard and to easy. Who are we kidding?

Look up the best-selling books on spirituality over the last twenty-five years. How many have to do with an effortless path to prosperity, wealth, joy and happiness? Titles like The Prayer of Jabez, How To Manifest Your Destiny, A Course In Miracles, The Purpose-Driven Life (the purpose of which is to have it made in this life and in the life to come), and The Secret come quickly to mind. How many of the best sellers have to do with sacrifice and self-discipline, commitment, dedication, surrender, and service? No titles come to mind. Who are we kidding?
We want to use spirituality for our own ends. When it begins to pinch, we will find a different pair of shoes. How many different approaches to spirituality will we go through, looking for one that doesn’t pinch? How spiritual can we be without doing things we don’t want to do, things we don’t feel like doing? Who are we kidding?

There are ten thousand paths to God. We must honor the path each one of us is on. And, we must honor our own path, and not jump from path to path when the one we are on begins to ask hard things of us.

The Buddha had a rice bowl. Gandhi wore the same strange outfit every day. Jesus died with nothing to his name. The Dali Lama has one pair of sandals. And, Yoda lived in a hole in the ground. Exactly how spiritual do you want to be? When the spiritual path and the path of least resistance fork and go their separate ways, say about two steps into the journey, which one are you going to choose? How hard are you willing for the spiritual life to be?

The Dali Lama does not participate in life the way we do. Neither did the Christ, nor the Buddha. We cannot live the way we live and live the life of the Dali Lama, the Christ, and the Buddha. Being the Dali Lama, the Christ, and the Buddha—or, just being their disciples—requires us to live in certain ways, and to not live in certain other ways. The American Way of Life stands between us and the realization of the spiritual quest. Something has to go. We cannot have it all. The American Dream is a nightmare that is destroying the world. There is a price to be paid for having a world we all can live in. We give up “this” to get “that,” get it? The happy fantasy of a lifestyle that consists of boundless consumption and unlimited freedom cannot tolerate the reality of waking up to the truth of how things are. We want all that we can want and heaven, too. Who are we kidding?

The spiritual journey is nothing more than growing up, recognizing what the deal is, and doing what needs to be done. And, growing up “is so very hard to do.”

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

04/22/07, Sermon

In the aftermath of the unspeakable tragedy at Virginia Tech, and in light of our experience with heartbreaking, catastrophic, loss in our own lives, we cannot avoid the realization that some losses are too great. There is no possibility of recovery. We cannot regain what has been lost. Or, put together the fragments of our lives in a way that even remotely resembles normalcy. Things will never again be what they were. We cannot return to where we have been. The life we once lived is no more, but that doesn’t mean we die. We start over, here, now, with nothing, and do what we can with it.

The Buddhist symbol of freedom is a burning house. You lose everything. You start over with nothing, and do what you can with it. Creation is ex nihilo, “out of nothing.” Ah, but, when we lose everything, we lose life itself! We lose our reason for living! When we lose everything, we lose the point. Why try if it all can be taken away in a flash? Why build another house if it can burn to the ground? Living can take the life right out of you. And so, the choice.

Always the choice: death or life. We can die, or we can live. What will it be? Do we owe it to our loved ones who died to die with them? Should we be burned with them on their funeral pyre? Should we be buried alive with them in their grave? Does life stop for us the day it stopped for them? Is that the appropriate testimony to their impact upon us? The culturally sanctioned way of honoring their memory? To shuffle through the rest of our lives not living, barely breathing, bent over beneath the weight of our loss? Is that how we would want them to live in the aftermath of our death? Would we want them to die with us? Or, would we want them to live fully, completely, even joyfully in honor of us, in memory of us, in defiance of death, as a bold and heroic declaration that death will not be permitted to take life from the living before its time?

I am not suggesting that we forget those who have died, or that we go on with our lives as though nothing has happened. As if! I am suggesting that we grieve their death every day. That we mourn their loss, and miss their company, and feel their absence from our lives. And then, carry them with us into those lives, living for them as much as for ourselves. Living in their memory, to their honor, and creating a life out of nothing that they would be proud of us for living, but one which might be radically different from the life we had been living.

We cannot recover what has been lost. But, we must not easily hand life over to death before its time. We take what we have, here, and now, and do what we can with it. Creating, out of nothing, the life that is left to be lived, always with the goal of bringing to life in our lives, in the time left for living, the qualities that make life sacred: Compassion and kindness, sympathetic understanding, peaceful, loving, presence. And, always endeavoring to make wherever we are a good place for others to be. We redeem our loses, and off-set the agony of living, by the grace and generosity we extend to one another, by the love we bring to life in our way with life. And, by asking, from the heart, perhaps for the first time: What form should our living take? What does it mean to be alive?

Look around you. We are all we have. If it doesn’t come to life through us, and those like us, it will not come to life at all. We had better be taking good care of one another, because we are it. We are all that stands between us and the void. And, it takes us all. No one is expendable, disposable. We have to recognize that, and start treating one another accordingly. We have to start seeing one another, and all others, in a new light.

Eyes to see, hears to hear, and hearts to understand mean first of all and primarily, seeing one another, hearing one another, understanding one another. THAT is the pathway to the heart of truth. We are born, ourselves, through that process into a deeper, fuller life and way of being in the world. In loving your neighbor, you save yourself—by waking yourself up and coming alive, as though for the first time.

Ah, but, in this culture, we are born under the curse of the Marlboro Man. The rugged individualist. John Wayne and James Bond are our idea of who, and how, we ought to be. We like to think we can order our lives, that we can manage our days, that we can line things up, and orchestrate existence, and choreograph events, so that everything comes in on cue and exits on schedule. So that nothing is lacking, or needed, and we are in command of it all.

Well. The truth is that we can read a book and put it on the shelf, but then we can’t find the book on the shelf. Books disappear. Car keys hide themselves. The check book takes up residence under the sofa, and lives for years there undisturbed. Computers crash. Printers and automobiles that worked perfectly fine fifteen minutes ago don’t work at all now. And this doesn’t begin to factor in bosses, and co-workers, and children, and parents, and ministers, and congregations! There are no self-contained, self-reliant, self-sufficient, autonomous and independent Marlboro Men and Women. No one has it all together and well in hand. You have to be encased in denial to not know that our lives are unmanageable and out of control!

This is how it works: We step into each day and do what we can with it. If we are lucky, we can work into the day something we enjoy, like sitting in a rocking chair with a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, or taking a walk around the block, but we cannot count on even that. We certainly cannot count on winning the lottery and having it made. We wouldn’t have it made even if we won the lottery. There is no having it made. There is no place off limits to the encroaching realities of our lives. We have to get out of the rocking chair and go do the thing that has our name on it, like it or not. The rocking chair is there for the breaks between rounds, and we had better take our breaks when we can, because life knows where we live, and we have to deal with the day’s deliveries.

One of the things we need—in addition to something like a rocking chair, a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, and a walk around the block—is a place where we can acknowledge that our lives are sometimes more than we can manage alone. We need to say how hard it is to those who understand without indulging us or dismissing us. Who can simply affirm our right to feel overwhelmed and undone, and say, “Yep. Living is the hardest thing you’ll ever have to do. Nothing is easy about it, and you have to work in what fun you can where, and when, and how you can. But, nothing is more essential than living as well as possible for as long as life is possible. What can we do to help you do that?”

What can we do to help one another live as well as possible for as long as life is possible? We get the idea in this country, in this culture, that we shouldn’t need help with our lives. We get the idea that money makes life easy, and that all we need is more money. The quote in the handout a few weeks back from Mark Hendren speaks directly to this. We are thirsty and think smoking a cigarette will cure our thirst. We are empty and despondent, lost and cut off from anything resembling meaning and purpose in our lives, and we think money will fix us up. We are immersed in commercials and advertisements that tell us we are only one more purchase away from happiness ever after. Think of the happiest people you know. How many of them have an HDTV on their wall and an MP3 player hooked up to their ears? Why do we persist in believing happiness can be delivered by UPS or FedEx? What’s it going to take to wake up?

Here’s the deal: Money does not make our lives go away. “We have to solve our own problems every day for the rest of our lives” (Shelton Kopp). How can we help each other do that? Simply saying, “Don’t be surprised at how difficult that is,” is a start. Simply saying, “Don’t be surprised at how exhausting living can be,” also helps. Acknowledging what we are up against provides a surprising bit of a lift. It IS hard. Living DOES take the life right out of us. And, therefore, one of the things we must do is work life back into our living. Our lives have to consist of more than crashed computers, and lost checkbooks, and getting ourselves, or our mothers, to another doctor’s appointment. We cannot spend our lives just meeting the requirements of life. We have to live a little. And, it helps to be reminded of that. It helps to be asked, “What have you done for yourself, lately?”

It also helps to be allowed to say what’s hard and what’s hard about it. What’s draining your energy these days? What is depleting your reserves? What is weighing you down? We need to “name the demons” to those who can listen with compassion without trying to give us their solution and without telling us how their demons are so much bigger and stinkier than ours in an “Oh, you think that’s bad, honey, let me tell you about MY in-laws!” fashion.

Compassionate, attentive, presence is the solution to all of our problems today. And tomorrow. And every day there after. If you are ever going to give me anything, give me compassionate, attentive, presence. The success of every twelve-step program ever is grounded, not on the twelve-steps, but on the thirteenth step: Participation in a community of people who regularly and dependably extend compassionate, attentive, presence to all in attendance. In every successful twelve-step program there is, we encounter love that will not let us go—that will not let us go unseen, unknown, unheard. And that is a more powerful assist than Powder Milk Biscuits in enabling us to get up and do what truly needs to be done.

Monday, April 16, 2007

04/15/07, Sermon

Want to wake up? Look at your contradictions. Don’t think you have any contradictions? Look at your conflicts. Don’t have any conflicts? You are so far into denial “You can’t,” in the worlds of Col. Nathan P. Jessup, “handle the truth.” Don’t even think about waking up. It would fry your world.

Want to wake up? Who are the people you admire the most? What do you admire about them? Where do you see evidence of those things at work in your own life? How does that square with what else you see at work in your life? With what else you think is important? Do you begin to smell a contradiction? A conflict?

The essence of being human is that we want what we have no business having. We what things that are mutually exclusive. In order to have “this” we have to give up “that.” Conflict. Contradiction. We live in a state of perpetual conflict, within and without. How well we handle that is how spiritual we are, how mature we are, how awake and integrated we are.

How do we deal with disagreement? How do we decide what to do as a family, as a group of friends, as a church? How do we determine what’s “best for all”? Who do you trust with your own best interest? When your interest and theirs clash, how do you work it out?

Who are you always taking care of? Doing it their way? Walking on egg shells so as not to ruffle feathers or rock boats? Because it’s easier than dealing with them being upset and angry? That’s one way to resolve conflict. But, it creates conflict within you to walk around with your hat off, bowing. How do you handle THAT conflict?

All of the spiritual qualities come into play at the point of recognizing and managing our conflicts and our contradictions. Only the spiritually mature (actually the two words describe the same thing) can live together over time without war. And even they cannot live very close together. We have to allow room for differences. We have to have the space required to follow our own interests and live our own lives.

In the old days, in Israel, the people would come together under the Judges to deal with a particular threat to the people. Once the threat was dispensed with, the people scattered to do, as the Bible says, “what was right in their eyes.” That’s as ideal a political framework as has ever been implemented. But, there was no Social Security and no garbage collection, so it wasn’t perfect. Nothing ever is.

I asked you about your heroes, here are mine: Give me Tevya, and Zorba, and Atticus Finch, and Amelia Earhart, and Eleanor Roosevelt, and Annie Sullivan, and Winston Churchill, and Will Rogers, and Nelson Mandella for people real and fictional who exhibit for me the way I think it ought to be done. I don’t think you can do it better than these people did it. With the Christ and the Buddha in the group, we have all we need to understand what is asked of all of us. But then, it is no secret what the deal is. Eyes that see, ears that hear, and hearts that understand. That’s all there is, ever has been, ever will be. Once you open yourself to the full truth of your experience, the way is plain.

What does it take to be alive? What does life require? How must we live to be—and to enable others to be—fully, deeply, joyously alive within the legitimate limits and restrictions of our lives? Our answers will not be the same across the board, around the table. Context and circumstances shape our responses, allow some, prohibit others. But, foundational to a rich, full, life in all times and places are awareness and compassion. Those are the two qualities which allow us to develop the eyes that see, ears that hear, and hearts that understand, which allow us to find the way to life, and be alive.

Is there a time and a place the Buddha cannot be the Buddha? A time and a place the Christ cannot be the Christ? Is there a context, are there circumstances, in which the Buddha and the Christ cannot be alive? Cannot be aware? Cannot be compassionate? And we think we have to wait until we get to the beach or the mountains? What is limiting our awareness? Reducing our compassion? Being aware and compassionate means being aware of, and having compassion for, this moment right now. We cannot be alive in some other moment. Life begins here, now. What is limiting our awareness here and now? What is consuming our attention? Reducing our compassion? Restricting our ability to be awake, aware, and alive? What are we going to do about that?

I recommend a spiritual practice. A spiritual practice can take any form. I walk. Spend time with rocking chairs, write, read, photograph the world, engage people in conversation. Each of these activities is essential to the others. I could not be one-dimensional and be open, and be alive. Our practice brings us to life.

A spiritual practice is a way of seeing, a way of opening ourselves to our experience of life, a way of extending ourselves to our experience, receiving our experience, taking in what our experience has to offer. Our practice enables us to perceive the gift tucked into each moment.
Through our practice, we develop eyes that see, ears that hear, and a heart that understands. We engage the world with compassion. We grant the benefit of the doubt. We grasp the difference between willing what can be willed and willing what cannot be willed. We take what the moment offers and bring our best to bear on it, transforming base metal into purest gold through the Philosopher’s Stone of perspective.

Or not. Sometimes, evil persists. Sometimes, evil is overwhelming. And, I understand evil as personal and corporate ambition, drive, desire, aspiration, which is strong enough to over-ride all other considerations. Evil thinks nothing of using all means necessary to achieve its ends. There are times when good can only get out of evil’s way, until its energy subsides and its momentum fades. Giving evil nothing to attack dissipates its force and speeds the time of its turning.

At the same time, however, resistance to evil is essential and on-going. What form does our resistance take? How does good conduct itself in opposition to evil? Nothing has quite the potential for transformation as compassionate, attentive presence. Just being a compassionate witness changes the world. Living in the world as witnesses of the world to the world restructures the world. When we force the world to take itself into account, a fundamental shift takes place in the way things are done.

We cannot live consciously in the same way we live unconsciously. The more conscious we become, the better off everyone will be. Good exists to wake evil up. The more aware we are, the more truthful we are, the more we are in tune with what is important, and the entire world benefits. And so, the importance of being a part of a community that allows us, forces us, requires us to see ourselves, hear ourselves, be aware of ourselves, here and now.

Waking up starts with seeing what is before us in the moment of our living. Too often, we look past what is with us, what is before us, because we are looking for something else. Our ideas and our expectations, our wishes and wants and desires and aspirations get in our way. The Observer interferes with what is observed. The only thing standing between us and the realization of the truth of our present experience is US!

Thus, the need to stand aside, to give way, to “disappear.” How do we “disappear” ourselves? How do we “forget” our own mind in order to see with innocent eyes, with fresh eyes, with new eyes, with beginner’s eyes, as though for the first time? We are back to the importance of a spiritual practice.

A spiritual practice provides us with the distance required to see ourselves seeing. A spiritual practice is a mirror which shows us the truth of who we are and how it is with us. There is no substitute for seeing, hearing, and understanding. Once we get that down, we have everything we need for the transformation of the world.

That transformation is not a matter of effecting a political solution. There is no political solution. There is no ideal social scheme. No one way things ought to be. No way of structuring society for the optimal good of all concerned. It’s a mess all the way around. What is good for me is bad for you, and so there is war, and poverty, and wealth and the solution is not political, but spiritual. The solution comes with eyes that see, ears that hear, and hearts that understand. Nothing can match the power of transformation of compassionate, attentive presence. That is what we have to work to develop if we would save the world.

But a word of warning: Compassionate, attentive presence is as emotionally exhaustive and physically draining as performing major surgery or being an air-traffic controller. Once we begin seeing, and hearing, and understanding, we always see, and hear, and understand. We cannot cut it on and off as the mood strikes us. We cannot take a day off and not-see. Even when we are on vacation we see. And, when we really get it down, we can’t even take a nap and get away from the truth of who we are and how it is with us. We go to sleep and see ourselves reflected in our dreaming. But, what are we going to do? Not-see?

Look around you. the world is in the mess it is in because it is being run by people who do not see, or hear, or understand. They keep trying to find and force a political solution, but they do not listen to what they are hearing, or see what they look at, and they do not understand the redemptive power of compassionate conversation. They play a game with each other of not-seeing, not-hearing, not-knowing, not-caring. It is our place to live with them as witnesses of their own lack of awareness, to mirror their unconsciousness, to wake them up and transform the world. And, we cannot do that if we are asleep ourselves!

Monday, April 09, 2007

04/08/07, Sermon

On the spiritual plane, it’s difficult to arrive at consensus about much of anything. “Denomination” is just another word for “division.” Dogma is divisive. The differences in religions lead to wars. We don’t see things in the same way on the same pew, even.

Perhaps we can agree, at least, that there exists the unconscious world. The Unconscious World is composed at least of the not-now-conscious world—the world I know but am not thinking about (like what I had for dinner last night, etc.), and the world that I don’t know anything about even though I may think really hard about it. The latter is the world where dreams come from, the night kind and the kind that provides us with college majors, and life choices. The kind that directs our energies, fuels our efforts, directs our living. This is the world where “feelings” reside, where intuition and creativity live, where “the Muse” muses and inspires, where “we” decide what “we” care about (How many of “us” are there in there, anyway?). It’s the world that provides meaning and purpose for the things we do in this world of ordinary, apparent, physical reality. It’s the world of “heart,” and “soul,” and “spirit,” and “self.” And, it’s invisible, yet real.

We talk of “charisma” and “presence,” and say that some people have it and some don’t. It comes into the room with some of them and exits when they leave. What is it that we experience in those people? What is the mechanism by which we experience it?

We talk of “falling in love,” and speak of “love at first sight,” and get all warm and giggly in the presence of some people, but not all people. What’s going on there?

We “connect” with some people, not others. We are “easily conned” by some people, not others. We recognize some people as “evil” and some people as “kind.” We operate on an invisible plane as easily and as surely as we negotiate traffic or find our way to the cereal isle at the grocery store. How do we do that? In us, the two worlds, visible and invisible, physical and spiritual/emotional (Where DOES that line lie?), come together to produce “our world.” In order to “live well,” we have to live well in both worlds. We have to orient ourselves, “read,” and find our way around in both worlds. We seem to have plenty of help in negotiating our way through the physical world. What we need are reliable “guides” in the invisible world. This is complicated by the fact that the most reliable guides know that they don’t know a thing, and realize they can’t say what they do know. We have to know what they mean before we can understand what they are talking about.

On the other hand, if our “yoga,” our “practice,” can take virtually any form, how do we know what to do to open our hearts, and minds, to The Way? Do we just trust our heart to find its own way to The Way? If that’s so, what do we need guides for? It seems that we need guides to tell us to trust our heart to find its own way to The Way. To remind us that there is a Way, and to goad us into taking up some practice to uncover it for ourselves and align ourselves with it.

The Way is the way of bringing the two worlds together in one life, in the life we are living. It is the way of merging, in ourselves, the physical and the spiritual/emotional, the conscious and the unconscious, the visible and the invisible. We live on the boundary between the two worlds, on the border between Yin and Yang, and make one world present to the other.

Our work is the work of integrity. It is the work of living in the physical world of practical, hard-and-fast, apparent reality in ways that are integral with the inner, invisible, world of that which is deepest, best, and truest about us. We integrate the physical and the spiritual, the conscious and the unconscious, the visible and the invisible. We bring the one to life in the other, wake the one up to the other, and make the two one.

As we do this, we don’t change in the sense of morphing into something different from anything we have ever been. We become who we are, who we always were. We can only be like ourselves. We cannot be like someone completely opposite us. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are both right-handed, and they both spell their name with a “y.” And, the similarities don’t end there. When we do the work of integration, we integrate our shadow, incorporating our “unacceptable” tendencies (And the quotes are there to point out that our shadow is a cultural phenomenon, not an unchanging, unalterable, psychic fact. With different people, in a different social and cultural setting, we have a different shadow), we become who we fully are, not as a monster, but as a complete human being.

We cannot become who we are without waking up to who we are and to who we also are. We see what we see (and also see), hear what we hear (and also hear), taste what we taste (and also taste), smell what we smell (you get the idea) sense what we sense, feel what we feel, think what we think, know what we know, believe what we believe… We become aware of how it is with us, and consciously choose to act out of the information and awareness that is available to us in each moment. “Appropriate” becomes our decision, not a culturally, or socially, imposed “should.”

We will always pay a price for our actions, internally or externally. Sanctions will be imposed externally when we step over, or erase, a line, or, internally, when we stop ourselves short. How will we live our lives? What does it mean to be alive? The challenge is always to be who we are—to be true to ourselves—within the context and circumstances of our lives. To live successfully is to pull that off.

We have to find a way to connect inner with outer, of integrating inner with outer, of bringing the two together into the one. This is not hard for those who listen. What needs to be heard, is the question. What is vying for our attention? What is trying to be born? What are we ignoring because it would complicate our life or rule out something that we have in mind for ourselves? It may be that in order for something to be born, something must die. To say “Yes” to something, we may have to say “No” to something else. Death and Resurrection. Doesn’t sound much like “integration.”

Integration means honoring all the voices within, and finding ways of appropriately bringing them to life in our lives. Some voices take precedent over others, but no voice can be relegated to the back rooms, locked away, ignored. Yet, any voice can be told “No.” Any urge can be disciplined. Any desire can be denied. Heard, but not necessarily obeyed. Honored with attention, but not necessarily followed, not necessarily indulged. And, it can be like death to say “No” to that which is important, even though the “No” clears the way for that which is also important. Death and Resurrection. And Integration. There is no integration without death and resurrection.

I don’t know if there is more to the spirit-world than this, whether there is reward to be garnered and punishment to be served, and angels, and demons, and gradations, and layers, and golden streets and pearly gates. But, I know there is more to living, to life, than meets the eye. How much more? How do we access it? How do we live fully on all possible levels? What does it mean to be alive? That’s the question that is at the heart of who we are, as individuals and as a community. And, it is the question that takes us to the heart of spirituality. How we answer it determines just how spiritual we are. It is the essence of the spiritual quest. It is the Grail. To drink from that cup is to live. It is what we spend our lives learning to do. Amen. May it be so!

Monday, April 02, 2007

04/01/07, Sermon

Kurt Vonnegut said, in Mother Night, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.” Imagination forms action, shapes character. Want to be different? Think differently. And hang out with different people. Don’t think you can be a different person thinking the same thoughts and running with the same people. And don’t think you can think differently without hanging out with different people. The people we spend the most time with restrict the thoughts we can think.

“Who do you think you are?” they say, when you do something “out of character.” “What’s gotten into you?” “You’re mighty uppity all of a sudden!” “I don’t even know you any more!” Our running buddies give us our role, hand us our script, make sure we come in on cue and exit on schedule, and see to it that we read our lines correctly. It is essential that we get those lines down.

Religious fundamentalists—and political revolutionaries—have their lines down. Their rhetoric is well-rehearsed, unedited and unquestioned. It is Party Line all the way. You cannot deviate from the rhetoric and be a religious fundamentalist or a political revolutionary. You can only repeat what you hear. You cannot think about it. You cannot challenge it. You cannot correct or improve it. And, you certainly cannot make fun of it. And, you most absolutely, positively, cannot make any of it up as you go along!

There is an old saying among iconoclasts: “Sacred cows make divine hamburgers.” But, you can’t say that saying in the company of those who worship the cows. You can’t say it twice, anyway. If you want to think outside the box, you have to get outside the box. You have to distance yourself—physically and emotionally—from those who condition your responses to life, who control your thinking, who keep you bound to the Party Line.

How varied is the thinking, do you think, in a group of Hell’s Angels? In a college fraternity of sorority? In a country club in Mississippi or Connecticut? In the church of your choice? How is your thinking restricted by the company you keep? What are the thoughts you never think? The things you never say? What are the thoughts you have to think? The things you have to say? You think that’s “really you,” don’t you? Well, change your crowd and you are a “different you.” So, who are you Really?

The question is not who are you really, but who do you want to be? How do you want to be? What is the personal ideal to which you aspire? “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.” And, here’s the important point Vonnegut left unstated: We must pretend to be something. We must intend something, live toward something, imagine something worthy for ourselves.

The most miserable people I know are trying to live away from something. They aren’t living toward anything. They hate themselves. They have failed themselves, or their lives have failed them, in significant ways, and they can’t get over it. They are hung up on, stuck in, what happened to them or failed to happen, what they did, or what they failed to do, and have only a terrible past to bemoan. They have no future at all.

They dread to see a new day dawning because it is only going to present them with additional opportunities to screw up somehow, or a new palate of awful things that might happen to them. They live wishing for a different life. But, they have no clear vision regarding who they want to be instead. They think pretending to be somebody else is delusional and escapist. They don’t understand that the people who have it together got there by pretending to have it more together than was ever actually the case.

In AA terms, we “fake it ‘til we make it.” We pretend to be who, and how, we want to become. Who, and how, do you wish you were? Act as though you are already there. Pretend you are your ideal. Before long, you won’t be able to tell if it’s real or if it’s Memorex. But, in order to pull off the transformation, you’ll have to change your running buddies.

In order to pretend to be anything other than what we are, we have to distance ourselves, physically and emotionally, from the crowd we identify with. “This old gang of mine” won’t let me be different than they have grown accustomed to me being. They are bound to keep me unchanged and unchanging forever. What happens when you go back home? Did you, at one time in the long ago and far away, like Lemon Ice Box Pie and Bread Pudding? Guess what you’ll get, even though you are twenty-five pounds over-weight and trying to avoid the carbs. They will call you what they called you in your youth and ask you how’s the fishing in North Carolina, even though you haven’t fished in twenty years, and accuse you of being a traitor to the tradition if you tell them as much.

Do you think Dick Vitale can stop saying “Baby” and still be a color commentator? Do you think Rosie O’Donnell can start being nice and continue to be whatever it is that she is? We can’t change without changing our lives. Sometimes, without moving away. Distance is essential to growth. We have to put space between us and that which would keep us as we have always been.

Can you begin to see how silence is the foundation of integrity, of living in ways that are integral to that which is deepest, best, and truest about us? Silence is a way of working distance into the framework of our lives. Silence gives us breathing room, frees us to become aware of how it is with us and what needs to change in order for us to change. Silence is as important as the right kind of company.

The right kind of company is the kind of company that listens closely to us, and inquires gently of our understanding of what is good, and holds before us the mirror of soul and spirit. In the presence of the right kind of company, we see ourselves, not as our company thinks we ought to be, but as we are. And we decide for ourselves if that is who, and how, we want to be. And, if not, we are enabled by the right kind of company to imagine who we want to be instead, and encouraged to pretend that we are that way until the “is” and the “ought” become one.

Of course, this means there is a certain degree of emotional distance in, and among, the right kind of company. The right kind of company is not enmeshed and co-dependent, with everyone minding everyone else’s business, and controlling everyone else’s lives, and tippy-toeing around everyone else’s feelings, and walking carefully as though on egg shells so as not to upset any apple carts or rock any boats. We cannot honor the Christ and the Buddha within each other without allowing each other the freedom to form our own thoughts and know our own heart, and live toward our own ideas of who we ought to be.

“Who do others say that I am?”, asked Jesus of his disciples. And then, “Who do YOU say that I am?” On another occasion he asked, “Why don’t you decide for yourselves what is right?” This from a man who is also said to have said, “The Father and I are one,” and “My meat is to do the will of the one who sent me, and accomplish his work.” It is not a “far stretch,” as they say in the deep south, to conclude that when we are most truly ourselves, we are most fully divine—that when we are “as we are,” we are “as God is.”

Ah, but! How do we get to who we are when we are so much the product of the company we keep? It’s called “spiritual practice.” Spiritual practice is anything that helps us toward clarity, that provides us the opportunity for focus, reflection, inquiry, and openness. Spiritual practice is anything that gets us out of the box and enables us to think about the box, to see the box, and to see ourselves seeing the box. Spiritual practice is not indoctrination. It is not absorption into a body of perceived truth. It is the path to a perspective that takes itself into account. So that we think about our thinking and intend what we pretend to be in light of what is deepest, best, and truest about us.

Here is where the Search for the Holy Grail, the Spiritual Journey, the Spiritual Quest and the Process of Maturation become the one thing that they are. As we grow into our ideal self, we grow into Christ, into Buddha, into God. As we do the work of integrating our holy depths—that which is deepest, best, and truest about us—with the practical necessities of life in the world, we incarnate God in the ordinary exchanges of the day-to-day.

It begins with our pretending to be more than we are, with our working to align ourselves with a compassion beyond our compassion, a grace beyond our grace, a gentleness and kindness beyond our ability to be gentle and kind. Then, when we go home, we can turn down the offer of Lemon Ice Box Pie and Bread Pudding, and show the guys at the Post Office our photographs of Death Valley and tell them the canoe has become a camera, and take them out for a beer. Because, while some things change, some things never do.