Archive for June, 2011

Spirituality

The topic of the first Fellowship Circle I ever attended was “Spirituality”.  I’d just been recruited as a facilitator in the Small Group Ministry program at the Unitarian Society of Hartford, a congregation with a proud Humanist tradition, and in some ways it was something of a bold choice of topic by the program’s directors.  On the other hand, the beauty of Fellowship Circles is that people are asked to simply share what is in their hearts while everyone else listens with a loving mind; absent any fear of being questioned or diminished, such a topic is as natural as any other.

One of the first questions for sharing asked participants what spirituality meant to them.  It quickly became apparent that most people in the circle were thinking about it in similar terms, describing spirituality as a deep sense of connection: to other people, to community, to something larger than oneself, to something within oneself, to the natural world around us.  Spirituality as a sense of connection to the natural world was mentioned more than once, in part perhaps because we were in a chapel with large windows overlooking the woods behind the Meeting House, but in most people’s sharing there was also an ambiguity of what it was, exactly, to which they were feeling connected.

Certainly a deep sense of connection to either (or both!) something larger than oneself and something within oneself allows for a broad spectrum of personal beliefs, including a variety of worldviews based in theism and atheism, naturalism and dualism.  Beyond any deliberate attempt to be theologically inclusive, though, maybe the vagueness of “something” comes more from an instinctive recognition of indescribability.  Picking up on this in his article in the Summer 2011 issue of UU World, Doug Muder defines spirituality as “an awareness of the gap between what you can experience and what you can describe.”  His intention is to present spirituality in a way that focuses on human awareness as a subjective experience, offering the sort of “big tent” inclusiveness that is the hallmark of Unitarian Universalism.

Now it’s become something of a cliché in American culture for people to claim to be “spiritual but not religious”.  The subtext is a distrust of so-called “organized religion” that ultimately inhibits true spirituality by stifling that sense of deep connection to something larger than oneself and/or within oneself, when of course any genuine religion actually ought to foster spirituality.  I like Muder’s definition for its emphasis on a basic human need — the urge to take our experiences and find ways to describe them so that we may understand them and make sense of the world around us — that precedes any particular set of beliefs or ethical prescriptions.

To use an analogy from my past as a research scientist, our lives are like experiments, generating results that we’re challenged to interpret and explain.  It’s nice when those results confirm the theories we’ve already developed, of course, but it’s only the unexpected results that have the potential to lead to new ideas and the growth of understanding.  A congregation, then, should be like a laboratory, providing the equipment needed to conduct those experiments, the tools to analyze the results and the co-workers who help one another figure it all out.

As such, each Unitarian Universalist congregation has promised to affirm and promote each person’s “acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth”.  Each one of us, after all, has different experiences, conducting a different experiment in what it means to be alive, and each of us has different tools that we prefer to use to find meaning in our lives.  Sometimes, though, the tools we’re already using are not enough, and we find ourselves in that gap between awareness and describability.  As unsettling as it may be, if we’re willing to spend time in that gap — if others in our religious community are willing to support and encourage us in that state of spirituality — then that’s the place where we’ll deepen our understanding and expand our vision.

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Letter to the Editor, June 21st 2011

To the Editor, Daily Press:

I write as a minister who is a proud member of the “Religious Left”.

While Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (“Attorney general rallies church leaders”, June 17th) may be free to witness to his particular social values, I strongly resent the implication that all “pastors and other church leaders” walk in lockstep with his opposition to abortion rights and same-sex marriage.

Speaking as someone who joyfully stands on “the other side” from Cuccinelli, I stress that there are valid religious voices that affirm reproductive rights and marriage equality on the basis of sound theological principles. Visit the congregation I serve or any other progressive church or temple and you’ll find ministers, pastors, rabbis and other religious leaders willing to speak truth to power in opposition to the evils of state-sponsored discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation.

Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Religion does not equate to repressive social values. There are plenty of us who still believe in religion based on compassion, equity and justice.

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High Places

I love mountains.  I guess I didn’t know that before living in Colorado and New Mexico for four years, not that it’s something I’d have suspected growing up in a seafaring nation that prides itself on being an island!  Most mornings of those four years I was greeted soon after leaving our house with a breath-taking view of the Rocky Mountains, occupying the horizon west of Denver and stretching as far north and south as the eye could see.  (The Rockies dominate local geography to the extent that directions are often given relative to them — “go toward the mountains” or “head away from the mountains” instead of “turn left” or “go right” — which is fine unless it’s a rare cloudy day, or it’s night-time!)

During my internship in Albuquerque, we lived in the foothills of the Sandias.  At a mere two-miles high rather than the Rockies’ almost three, the “watermelon” mountains may be less majestic than their snow-capped cousins to the north, but I found them more approachable — not just physically but emotionally: I found their proximity and solidity a source of comfort, even if it meant that our mobile ‘phones rarely had signal!  Every morning, stepping out onto the driveway, I would look up, and the Sandias were there, ready to greet me.  I found myself developing the spiritual practice of reciting the version of Psalm 121 improvised by Christine Robinson, Albuquerque’s minister and my mentor:

I lift my eyes to the hills.  Whence will my help come?
My help comes from the creativity of the cosmos
which is making the Heavens and the Earth.
It comes also from the core of myself.  It is my guide and hope.
On this path I am safe whatever befalls me.

Last month I enjoyed getting to know two areas of North Carolina’s High Country: the Mountain, the Unitarian Universalist retreat center near the southern end of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and then Watauga County, including the towns of Blowing Rock and Boone and the aptly named Grandfather Mountain.  For all that I lived at an altitude of a mile or more for four years, it was a very different experience to stand on the “Mile High Swinging Bridge” than spans the ravine between two of Grandfather’s peaks, looking out — and hundreds of feet down — to the surrounding countryside!

Setting my vertigo aside, though, there’s nothing like being in such a high place to get an immediate idea of where I am; with the land laid out beneath me, I can see where I’ve been and where I’ve yet to go.  It’s not surprising, perhaps, that the ancients located their gods on mountains, from which they could see what was going on in the human world, a gods’-eyes view that necessarily eluded mere mortals.  After all, with imperfect memories, limited awareness of what’s happening around us, and next-to-no ability to anticipate the future, it’s difficult for us to climb out of the valleys and canyons of our human lives to reach a higher place of mind and time, much less a mountain top that affords us a panoramic view of history and destiny.

And yet we are blessed with creativity and imagination, with abilities to be confident in ourselves and to trust our companions on this spiritual journey that we call life.  We may not know exactly where we come from, but in sharing stories we can get an idea of where we’ve been.  We may not be completely clear on what we are, but in building community we can appreciate who is with us.  And we may have little idea of where we’re going, but in dreaming together we can explore what might be.  Come, let us lift our eyes to the hills!  Let us be one another’s guide on this path, offering hope with a smile and an out-stretched hand.

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