Sunday, April 20, 2008

04/20/08, Sermon

The way things are is continually clashing with the way things also are. The way the world works is in constant conflict with the way the world also works. It's like this: “You can't fight City Hall!” That's the way the world works. The way the world also works is this: “Things were just fine in these parts, Lady, until you showed up.” You can't fight City Hall, AND the Renaissance Woman, the tall, handsome, stranger, is always riding into town., “City Hall” (and the way things have always been done in those parts) are soon in shambles, and nothing is ever the same again.

Either way, there is a price to be paid. This is how things work. We pay a price. We pay a price to change things and we pay a price to keep things as they are. The Renaissance Woman, the tall, handsome stranger pay a price. City Hall pays a price. We all pay a price. What price are we going to pay is the question. It is the only question. Everything flows from our answer to that question. Or we going to pay the price required to change things, or the price required to keep things as they are?

Another way of phrasing the question is to ask, “What are we willing to put on the table?” Jesus said, “If you want to be my disciple, you have to sell everything you have, give the money to the poor, then come, follow me.” He also said, “If you want to be my disciple, you have to pick up your cross daily, and follow me.” It is interesting to note, I think, that he didn't say anything about believing in him, or believing the doctrines of the church, or professing the proper statements of faith. “If you want to be my disciple,” he is saying, “you have to live in certain ways. You have to pay the price.” 

What price is that, exactly? Everything. Everything goes on the table. With everything on the table, anything is possible. Everything is always on the line. Or, to put it another way, after Paul in 1st Corinthians, “Love has good manners and does not pursue its own advantage.” If we live like that, we follow Jesus, take our place in the long line of Renaissance Women and tall, handsome strangers, and change the world. And pay a price. And, if we don't live like that, we pay a price.

Socrates and Jesus paid a price for speaking the truth about City Hall to anyone who would listen, even to City Hall. They were told, in a manner of speaking, “If that's the way you are going to be, you're going to have to die!” Lao Tzu and the movie cowboy Shane were told, in a manner of speaking, “If that's the way you're going to be, you are going to have to leave.” When the way things are clashes with the way things also are, everybody pays a price. The price Socrates and Jesus paid is more obvious than the price their oppressors paid, but oppression has, you might say, its own reward, and the oppressors have paid that price throughout history by forcing the collapse of their own rule through the ruthless cold-hearted-ness of the way they ruled. 

Now, the way around the extreme price of win/lose is the more moderate price of conversation. We talk with one another, around the table with everything on it. We talk from the heart about what is important to us, and listen as the other speaks, as the Enemy declares what is important for him, for her. Love your enemies. We have met the enemy and he is us. This is the thing. City Hall lives within our own hearts. The Renaissance Woman, the tall, handsome stranger? Yep. They live within us as well. The struggle is an inner fight for how things ought to be with us!

We pay a price to live the way we are living, or failing to live. That being the case, it would make sense to live the way we live with conscious, willful, intention. And that, gentle people, is the thrust of the work of any religious leader worth her, worth his, salt. Live the life that is yours to live. No matter what. Regardless of the price. In spite of the cost. This is our one shot at glory, at being the person we are built to be. Don't blow it. That's the message of religious leader worth her, worth his salt.

Pay the price to be who you are. Here's how it works. There is the way you are, and there is the way the world is. There is the way things work, and there is the way you work. “You can't fight City hall,” and  the tall, handsome stranger, or the Renaissance Woman, is always riding into town. What is the way you work? What is the way you are? Who are you? Answering those questions is the Spiritual Journey, Spiritual Task, Spiritual Quest, Spiritual Path. Our work is to know what our work is, and do it, no matter what. In so doing, we right the world. 

In doing the work of knowing what our work is, and doing it, we have to understand that we find our own way. We work it our for ourselves. No one can tell us anything of importance. But, of course, that is not going to stop me from telling you some things of importance. The first thing is about tools for the work of knowing what our work is and doing it (of knowing who we are). Three things are crucial: Awareness, Silence, and Engagement with Life. 

As we engage life, we have to be aware of what that stirs up within us, for better or worse. What happens as we live the life we are living? What are we conscious of? What is calling us? Where do we meet resistance? What are we resisting? What is opening up? What is being asked of us? How else might we live? In the silence, we don't think about any of these things. We let the yeast work its own magic in the dough, and we get out of the way. Trusting that we will, as our awareness deepens, find the way to assisting what is coming to life in us and through us in the world.

The second thing of importance is that we are always more or less who we are. It isn't some big secret deal that we are looking for. It isn't some completely need identity that we are in search of. We already are who we are. It's just that we aren't as well-integrated, as in-tune, as in-sync, with ourselves as we might be. We are at odds with ourselves. At war within. We wish we were different in ten thousand ways. We don't like our hair, or our nose, or our waist size, or, well, the list is pretty much endless, the things we don't like about ourselves. So, you might say that the only thing standing between us and ourselves is ourselves! We don't want to be who we are! We want to be some other, bigger, finer, better self in stead! 

There you are. We don't want the life we are living, and we don't want the I who is living it. We want deliverance. Escape. Freedom. And we settle for distraction, diversion, denial. That is as clear a description of the human predicament as you are ever going to get from me. What are we going to do about it? Ain't but two things: Wake up! Grow up! If you don't like those two things, I have two more for you: Get over it! Get with it! 

Look, it's like this: We only have the life we are living. This is it. If we are going to make the most of it, we have to do it with what we have to work with. What do you think “making the most of it” means? It means knowing what our work is and doing it. Knowing what is ours to do and doing it. Knowing what needs to be done and doing it, to the extent that we are able, with the gifts, with the genius, that we bring to the table. It means bringing who we are to life in our lives. 

This is our work: Bringing who we are to life in our lives. Bringing forth the life that is ours to live in our lives. And, we have  been doing that in fits and starts all our lives long. Think of the times in your life that you have been proudest of yourself, times when you absolutely shined, times when you were beautifully, wonderfully, perfectly YOU. There you are. That's you. What have you most enjoyed about your life? What have you loved the most? There you are! That's you! Or, of what have you been most ashamed? What do you wish you had done instead? There you are! That's you! Be who you are! Do it more often. How do you do it more often? Get out of your way. How do you get in your way? That's the question. How DO you get in your way? 

You could bring the three tools into play here. Awareness, Silence, and Engagement with Life are circular. They support one another. Engagement with Life gives us something to be Aware of in Silence which is then applied in our Engagement with Life. Our spiritual practice is our life, see? We practice living the life that is ours to live by being who we are in the life we are living. We don't have to go to the High Himalayas, or wear a hair shirt, or, what is the Mary Oliver poem about wild geese, crawl on our knees for a hundred miles through the desert  and do ten thousand prostrations? We only have to let “the soft animal of our body love what it loves.” That's our spiritual practice. 

What's so hard about that? We want more out of life than that. Remember the story of the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve traded Paradise for the Land of their Dreams. We've been doing it ever since. Standing in our own way is what we do best. How DO we get in our way? How do we condemn the soft animal of our body for loving what it loves? For not loving what we want it to love instead? We have met the Enemy, you know, and it is us.

But, there is Awareness, Silence, and Engagement with Life. There is the spiritual practice of living our life as only we can live it. There is the work of coming to terms with the life we are living, with the choices, and options, and possibilities we have, and letting that be that because it is, and finding ways of living the life that is ours to live within the context and circumstances of our lives as they are. 

And, that gets us to the third thing of importance. Each other. We help each other. Conversation, remember? The right kind of conversation with the right kind of people is all we need to do what is ours to do, all we need to do what needs to be done. We find our own way. We work it out for ourselves. But, we are not alone. We make our way to the way in the company of each other. In the process of learning to be good company, we learn to be ourselves.

I'll flash back to Paul and 1st Corinthians: Love has good manners and does not pursue its own advantage. That's as fundamental to being good company as it gets. After that, we only have to get the listening skills down, and know how to be a compassionate presence without being meddlesome and interfering in each others lives. Then, we'll be well on the way to offering the right kind of help in the right kind of way. And, who could ask for more?

I don't know what else we need to come to terms with our lives, to make our peace with the way things are, and to take up the work of bringing ourselves to life in our lives. It's the work of integrity, the work of bringing our contrary sides together in the work of being a true human being. This work is the Spiritual Journey, Task, Path, Quest. And, we don't have anything better to do with the rest of our lives.

But, in order to do that with the rest of our lives, we have to get to work. It will not happen accidentally, unintentionally, just because we talked about it once and wish that it would. We have to create a structure which will create and maintain the kind of atmosphere that will provide the kind of support we need to enable us to do the work that must be done, the work of being who we are within the context and circumstances of our lives, the work of bringing ourselves to life in our lives, the work of being a true human being. In order to do that work, we have to create a structure that will function for us as a life support system—a structure that will bring life forth, and sustain life in ourselves and all people. Creating that structure is a revolutionary step to the transformation of the world. That's the task that is before us in the time that is left to us. Amen! May it be so!

Monday, April 14, 2008

04/13/08, Sermon

Everything has its own integrity. Its own way of being. Our work, both individually and collectively, is to know and be who we are. The church of our experience has its way of being. It has tradition and momentum, and we are not going to talk it out of being the way it is. We have very little to say to it, except to wish it well. And, we can do that in all sincerity, because the people it speaks to and ministers to, would not likely be able to hear what we have to say. Our task is to be clear about who we are, to know what we are about. To be who we are and to do what is ours to do.

My idea of that is this: We are in the business of creating an atmosphere in which all voices can be heard, and people can find their voice, and say what they have to say, and come to see what is important to them—not because someone is telling them what should be important, but because they can hear themselves saying what is important over time. We have to be able to say something enough to hear what we are saying. Once we hear it, we can evaluate it, and adjust it, so that it says better what we mean to say. In this, our voices saying what we have to say are self-correcting mechanisms that enable us to find our way to what is important, to what is good.

This is the second thing: We are in the business of creating an atmosphere in which people can find their own way to what is good without interfering with anyone else’s ability to find their way to what is good. We are here to help one another find our way to what is good. When what is good for me is bad for you, and vice versa, we work it out. We talk it out. This one of the conversations we have to have on a regular basis.

Conversation is a self-correcting exercise. It is the way to The Way. Conversation is the key. We are about conversation as much as atmosphere. The atmosphere must lend itself to the right kind of conversation. While we are on the subject, grant me an aside.

It would behoove us all, across the board and around the table, to agree that we will not talk about God. When we talk about God (World wide, I mean, “out there,” I mean, as well as “in here”), we raise our voices, consult the scriptures, quote the authorities, slam doors, roll out the guns, beat on the drums, excommunicate one another, burn one another at the stake, and send suicide bombers into each other’s shrines, and temples, and synagogues, and masques, and churches. We should know by now that we cannot talk about God. But, we can talk about our experience of God.

When we talk about our experience of God, we lower our voices, sometimes to a whisper. We speak a common language. We use the same words. Words like peace and peaceful, and love, and acceptance, and oneness, and unity, and compassion, and wholeness, and beauty, and transcendence, and ineffable, and wonder. Our experience of God is remarkably the same, across the board and around the table. We should agree to talk only about our experience of God. That is a conversation that could heal the world.

Except, to have that conversation we have to have that experience. And, we are too busy talking about God to have an experience of God. It helps to be quiet to have an experience of God. And to visit the holy places. To be quiet in a holy place is especially helpful.

We have to hunt around for holy places. They are everywhere, but not everybody finds the same holy place. So, you have to be on the lookout for places that are holy for you. Mine may not help you much. You have to find your own, and spend time there, regularly, quietly, and open yourself in an un-expecting way to the experience of being there. The experience of God is, you could look this up, 100% of the time an experience of place. It’s the place that connects us with the experience of God. It’s the place that does it. Not theology. Not doctrine. Not the sacraments. Not the scriptures. Not the catechisms. Not the preacher or the preaching. It’s the place.

The place enables the experience which is the foundation of the conversation that could heal the world. You’d think we would all be out there right now looking for the right place to sit quietly so that we could transform the world. But, maybe it will suffice if we just understand that this is one of the things that we are about, sitting quietly in the right place in order to foster the kind of conversation that will change the world. Not that conversation is limited to our experience of God! That’s just one of the conversations we need to have.

The right kind of atmosphere and the right kind of conversation are two of the things that we are about. There are three more: eyes that see, ears that hear, and a heart that understands. Seeing, hearing and understanding. Right seeing, right hearing, right understanding lead to right knowing, right being and right doing. That’s it. That’s who we are and what we are about. Now it is only left to us to live lives that are integral to, that are integrated with, this understanding of who we are and what we are about, and so shape our way of being in the world. But, it all starts with us finding that right place, and sitting quietly, regularly and dependably, even when nothing seems to be happening.

Here is the really hard part: In order for this to work, there must be magic. There must be grace. There must be unexpected benevolence. There must be help. Assistance. Cooperation. Deus ex Machina. That’s how it works. We can’t begin to make it work. We can only wait for it to work. Without knowing what we are waiting for, or even that we are waiting. And, it may not work. Nothing may happen. That’s why we call it magic, and grace. It can’t be counted on. There is nothing predictable, or controllable, about it (and being able to predict something is almost as good as controlling it).

“Do your work,” says Lao Tsu, “and step back. The key to serenity.” Do your work and wait for it to work. Maybe yes. Maybe no. Maybe, after you plow and plant, it will rain in the right amount at the right time. Maybe not. Your work is plowing and planting and stepping back. Waiting. That is your work.

Our work is the right atmosphere, the right conversation, right seeing, right hearing, right understanding. It helps to know what our work is, and to do it, and step back. And wait for the magic.

If it rains in the right amount at the right time, then we have to cultivate and weed and harvest and market. It it does not, then we have to figure out how to live. But all along the way it is out of our hands. All along the way, we do our work and step back. And wait. For the magic. Because the really important stuff is out of our hands. The really important stuff depends on magic.
The thing to remember is that it is out of our hands. The thing to know is what is in our hands and what is not—what our work is and what it is not—when to step forward and when to step back. Getting all this figured out is not easy. There has to be magic there, too.

It’s all magic. I don’t know where we stop and magic starts. How did we get here? I don’t know about you but I was born ten miles from Itta Bena, Mississippi. I don’t know how I got here. Magic! Grace! It’s all the same, magic and grace. We can’t tell where magic stops and grace starts. Call it what you will. That’s what got us here.

And, we think, now that we are here, we can take over. We can take it from here. Okay. Give us the reins. Give us the wheel. Give us the helm. We are in charge now. We don’t need magic any more. Grace can take a vacation.

We are never more stupid than when we think we are in charge. Than when we think we know what we are doing. Than when we think we know what is to be done. Than when we think we know what our work is. Knowing what our work is and what it is not is all there is to know. And no one can know that without magic, without grace.

Real knowing is a gift. It isn’t learned. You don’t get it out of a book or out of some guru or guru-ette. You can’t figure it out. You can’t reason it out. You can’t sort it out. You don’t know how you know anything worth knowing. And you can’t explain it. You can’t make sense of it. And, you can’t talk anyone into knowing what you know.

The test is whether you will trust it under those conditions, whether you will give yourself to what you know, given that you don’t know where it came from, or where it’s been, or who its parents are. Will you know something you can’t prove, or verify, or understand? Or, will you put it aside and go back to your life as a rational human being? And not do the thing you know must be done? Because you can’t say why you are doing it or what you expect to come of it by when? Will you believe in magic?

The real work is believing in magic. In grace. Trusting ourselves to it, and being open to its unfolding in our lives. That’s really what we are about here—believing in magic, wallowing in grace.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

04/06/08, Sermon

We talk about reincarnation. Which is completely ridiculous. We’ve never been incarnated the first time. How can we expect to be RE-incarnated? We have to BE incarnated before we can be RE-incarnated! BEING incarnated is exactly the work that is before us.

Incarnation is the work of soul. It is the spiritual journey, path, task, quest. The search for the Holy Grail is about our incarnation. It is the work of bringing who we are to life in our lives. It is easier, by far, to go through the motions of living, and leave the work of being alive, the work of incarnation, for someone else.

Spirituality is the work of being alive. It is the work of incarnation. The nature of that work is not what you might expect. But, that is exactly what you might expect. That is to say, we might expect that spirituality would be something other than what we would expect, that it will require us to do things differently, and it does.

Spirituality is not about thinking, or believing, or professing. It is not about changing the way we think, or believe, or what we profess. It is about changing the way we live. Spirituality is about living. It is about the way we live our lives. We cannot be more spiritual than we are if we continue to live like we are living. If we are going to be spiritual, we are going to have to live different lives. But, this isn’t different the way we would normally think of differentness. It is entirely different. It is different in the sense of , “Boy, she, or he, is different!”

Usually, when we think of living entirely different lives, we think of living differently the way everyone lives differently. We think it’s the way of turning over a new leaf, changing our reckless way of living, leaving our fickle past behind us, and crossing over the bridge. We think that it is the way of repentance and re-dedication. That it’s the way of new beginnings and fresh starts. That it’s the way of reforming ourselves in the ways of purity, and honesty, and up-rightness and all the qualities that the right kind of life is supposed to have. In this work to be different, we are guided by New Year’s Resolutions, the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, the Boy Scout Oath, and the Moralisms of Countless Mothers. So that every day we work hard at getting better and better in every way. This is not the kind of differentness that spirituality requires.

The different way of living that spirituality requires is the work of aligning ourselves with who we are, not the work of achieving our ideas of who we are supposed to be and of we want to be. Spirituality doesn’t have anything to do with what we want. Wanting, desiring, wishing, dreaming are the first things that go. The things that come are stillness, emptiness and nothing. When we get into nothing, we are getting into the difference that makes a difference.

The old way of living differently is a strategy for achieving our idea of what life should be. That is to say, we should be happy and have everything we want. The spiritual way of living differently is a way of assisting the unfolding, the emerging, of what life needs to be. It is the work of incarnating who we are in the service of life. That is spirituality. Not thinking, not believing, not feeling, but simply living aligned with the right order of things, with the way things truly need to be.

In order to live this way, we have to see what is opening before us in each moment. That is true seeing. What are the possibilities for life, here, now? How might we take this old, dry, stale, dead moment and turn it into life? This is the alchemist’s task: Turning a base moment into a precious one, bringing life to life in this old here, this old now. It is a work that is worthy of us.

Eyes that see, ears that hear, a heart that understands—these are the tools that do the work. What do we need in order to develop the tools? A certain quality of spirit, a certain attitude of mind, a certain perspective of soul, a certain shift of being—a certain openness to the possibilities of the moment. The primary ingredient in that openness is a concern for what needs to happen, regardless of its implications for us, personally.

At stake here is a deep interest in, and concern for, what is truly important, and an equally deep desire to serve that, no matter what. This does not mean we have no concern for our own interest: “Eat when hungry, rest when tired.” Our needs and interest are very much a part of the picture, and we can either serve them or set them aside, depending upon our determination of what needs to happen, of what needs to be done.

In other words, everything is equally on the table and off the table in each moment. We are completely free to decide what needs to be done and to do it without regard for what is supposed to be done, for how we are supposed to be, or what is supposed to happen. The only viable “should” ever is that we should do what needs to be done, and we are the ones who decide what that is. If we are wrong, we are wrong, and can rectify that in the next moment, or the one after that, if it can be rectified, and if not, oh well. The freedom to decide what needs to be done and to do it implies the freedom to be wrong. Implies the freedom to be disappointed and to be a disappointment—to be disappointing.

We make poor choices from time to time. We might think we are hungry when we are not, or tired when we are not. Or worse. Well, when that happens, we apply the same strategy that got us there to get us out of there: We look for what needs to happen now, and do it. We always strive to see what is opening before us in each moment. That’s all there is to it. Of all the things that can happen now, what is most important? What needs to happen? What needs us to do it? We can be wrong, but we cannot let being wrong keep us from doing what we think needs to be done. The freedom to act implies the freedom to act wrongly, and to keep acting wrongly (with awareness and acumen) until we get it right.

So, we only need to be as open as we can be to what is opening before us in the moment of our living. We only need to do what we think needs to be done in this moment, and do it again in the next moment, until we figure out how to know what needs to happen. We don’t have to be right. We don’t have to know. We are perfectly free to guess our way along. We will become better guessers over time. Or not. We are perfectly free to guess badly all our lives long, to be wrong forever. We cannot allow that to keep us from doing what we think needs to be done, from serving what we think is important. If we are wrong forever, oh well. We cannot let the fear of being wrong keep us from living toward our best guess regarding what needs to happen. We can improve our chances by being quiet.

In the work to know and do what needs to be done, silence saves us. In the silence we can hear ALL the voices. When we hear ALL the voices, we then only have to decide which one, or ones, we will listen to. In hearing them all, we find balance and sanity and perceive The Way as it opens before us. The Way is to perceive the way that opens before us, to know what is important, and to do what needs to be done, now—understanding that the best effort may not achieve the desired result.

What needs to happen rarely happens exactly as it needs to happen. Occasionally, things come together to produce a moment that is exactly what that moment needs to be, perfection, grace, wonder and beauty and truth coming together to stun and amaze. But that is not often the case. Usually, we can only produce an approximation of what needs to be done in any moment, and are less than satisfied with our efforts. Then, what needs to be done, is to make our peace with our inability to do more of what needs to be done than can be done. But, we do what we can and let that be that.

There will always be something in our way, in the way of The Way. Our Way and The Way become confused and we grow increasingly hell bent to force Our Way upon the world. Our Way must give way. We are forever standing aside, giving way, stepping back, making adjustment, accommodating ourselves to whatever is in the way of The Way. We don’t remove one obstacle before another is springing up to take its place. “It’s like swimming through a sea of vines.” When we become like the water, we find the way of The Way, even through a sea of vines. Take what you are given. Do what you can. Always the task is the same: See what needs to be done, now, in this context, in these circumstances, and do it, as it needs to be done. And, let that be that.

The service of the vision requires us to see what needs to be done and to do it, insofar as that is possible. Just continuing to see what needs to be done. Just continuing to do what needs to be done. No matter what. Whether it is received, or resisted, or ignored. Just see in each moment. Just do what is needed in each moment.

So, it is only left for me to tell you how to get to the place of making the shift necessary to see, and hear, and understand. I know of only one short-cut: Don’t kill yourself! Now, there are a number of ways of killing yourself without ending your biological existence. When I say don’t kill yourself I’m taking all of those into account. You should make a list of your favorite ways of killing yourself, and stop doing them. Once you stop killing yourself, then, it’s only a matter of time.

Until what? Enlightenment, of course. Seeing, hearing, and understanding. Right seeing, right hearing, right understanding, right knowing, right doing, right being. Seeing what? Hearing what? Understanding what? What is truly important. What needs to be done in each moment of living, and the way it needs to be done. That’s all there is.