Last week, Peter Kelsey, a former lawyer and now an environmental activist
and educator, gave an uplifting and informative talk on our relationship with the
earth, our patterns of consumption, and our need to simplify our lives.
The most meaningful part of his talk for me, though, came before the service
when I had the pleasure of speaking with him about his work and about the Statement
of Conscience that our Unitarian Universalist Association is writing with the input of
our congregations. The Statement of Conscience is titled "Responsible Consumption as
Moral Imperative," a phrase that in its simplicity and elegance captures the message
it wishes to convey.
In my conversation with Peter, I asked him why it is so difficult for most of
us to make this Moral Imperative a force within our own lives? Why is it that we can
give our intellectual assent to an incredibly important issue but have such difficulty
making meaningful lifestyle changes.
Peter, in his gentle, soft-spoken manner, expressed his feeling that over
consumption is, for many, a means of filling a void. We spend, not out of need,
but to compensate for something that is lacking. We surround ourselves with material
goods, not out of necessity, but in the mistaken belief that these objects will provide
desperately sought-after comfort.
Peter's comments made me remember that the food I often put in my body, (I
confess I snack between meals, and I eat more junk food than I should) the food that I
put in my body, often has nothing to do with hunger, but with the stress I may be feeling.
I use food to soothe my anxiety like others use shopping. What is it that we are desperately
in need of?
In his book, The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell says,
"People say that what we're all seeking is meaning for life. I don't
think that's what we're really seeking. I think what we're seeking is
an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely
physical plane will have resonance within our own innermost being and
reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive."
Some of you may recall that last month, I preached a sermon on the meaning
of life. Is Joseph Campbell saying I got it all wrong, that it's not about meaning, but
instead about being alive? I choose to interpret Campbell's words not as a contradiction,
but as an amplification of that sermon. Call it ministerial prerogative! Finding meaning
in life, for me, is the experience of aliveness, or as Campbell so eloquently says, "the
rapture of being alive."
You may be wondering "What does this have to do with Spirituality?" I'm glad you
When I was in seminary, Dr. Bill Mallard was my professor for the History of
Christian Thought. Dr. Mallard taught us about the early Christian church and had the
daunting task of explaining to us the Holy Spirit.
As an able scholar, Dr. Mallard began his lecture on Spirit by teaching us the
Hebrew and Greek roots of the word Spirit. In the Hebrew Bible, the word Spirit translates
from the Hebrew word ruach.
In Genesis, Spirit, translated as wind, is an agent of creation as in "the wind
from God swept over the face of the waters." Later, Spirit is the inspiration and power
as found in the Hebrew prophets. Finally, Spirit is the presence of Truth, or God, or
Strength, found in the Jewish community.
In Greek, the word is pneuma, and again we think of wind, air, or breath
itself, the very agent of life. In the New Testament, it was the Holy Spirit that endowed
Jesus with power as the Messiah and finally, it is the Holy Spirit that is the continuing
presence of Christ, or Light, or Life, in the church.
But where Dr. Mallard's gifts as a teacher were most evident was when he taught
us more than the textbook definition of the Hebrew word ruach. Dr. Mallard would bring
ruach to life for us, as he would burst out with, ruuu-ahhh, and the class would respond,
ruuu-ahhh,often trying to outdo Dr. Mallard in his enthusiasm.
Why don't WE give it a try? For those of you who are a little shy,just think of
this as a responsive reading. I will say ruach and you will respond in kind. Are you ready?
(response) ruuuuuuuu-ahhhhhhhh.(response) Great! Dr. Mallard would be so proud of
you. But I warn you; you may be getting spiritual!
Dr. Mallard was teaching us about spirit. He was showing us that Ruach, that
Spirit, emanates from the very depth of a person's being. Spirit is all of the things we
have inherited from the Hebrew and Christian scriptures and so much more. Spirit is that
which makes us come alive. It is the very breath of life; it is that which inspires in so
many different ways. It is a deep connection with life itself.
How many of us can remember a football cheer from high school. "Have you got that
spirit?" "Hell yea!"
In Unitarian Universalism, we have much that animates us, much that brings
us to life. In fact, as a faith, I feel we are as life-affirming, if not more life-affirming,
as any religion I know.
In Unitarian Universalism, we affirm that there is more than one way to bring
out this rapturous feeling. And for most of us, this feeling of being fully alive is not
one feeling but a host of feelings that engages us completely. Ours is a religion of the
body, mind and spirit.
Historically, our faith has been an advocate for a rational approach to religion.
In the eighteenth century, ministers who would be seen as the precursors to the Unitarian
movement in this country, took strong exception to the high emotionalism in which ministers
of the first Great Awakening whipped crowds into a frenzy. These budding Unitarians felt
that religion should not deny our rational side. Today, this is still an intensely
important part of what Unitarian Universalism brings to the table of religious discovery.
As often happens, though, a response to one extreme can lead to another extreme.
It is also part of our history, that many felt that science and reason would provide all
the answers to life's conundrums, that the intellect alone was the source of our salvation.
At this other extreme, there was a coolness to things that were not of the intellect. The
importance of ritual, the deep insights of myth, the transcendence of music, the warmth
of community were looked at begrudgingly. In some circles, even the role of ordained
clergy was treated with suspicion. I know this could never have happened here!
After visiting both extremes, the pendulum hopefully, thankfully, moves closer
to the middle. Today, Unitarian Universalism is a religion of the head, and the heart, and
the spirit. We still bring the intellect into religious discovery --- I could not imagine
it any other way --- but we also value the non-rational ways of knowing, of becoming alive.
Let me be clear, I don't mean the irrational, I mean the non-rational.
Myth, for example, is not a reasoned treatise on a religious topic, but it can
nevertheless reveal great truths in religious discovery. Myth can create a rush of
understanding, of connection with a larger Truth.
Celebrating the value of community and the sharing of joys and concerns has
nothing to do with the intellect, but is an integral and intensely personal part of our
religious experience. We come alive in our shared journey knowing that we have the support
of others ... knowing that we are not alone.
And there is nothing rational about music or ritual and yet for many of us, it
reaches deep into our beings and finds or creates a connection that defies explanation.
The indwelling of the spirit is not to be shunned. We are spiritual beings
becaus we are alive. Let's become fully alive; let's get spiritual. Let each of us embrace
the full extent of our aliveness. Let us value and respect the historical, factual, and
reasoned part of our aliveness. We demand no less. The mind is our ally as we engage
life's challenges. With the mind on fire, the spirit is fully engaged. For many of us,
though, we also become alive through social justice. We draw energy from our work in the
community. Social justice is our spiritual discipline.
The shared vision of this Fellowship is also a source of inspiration. I watch
how animated you become as we work together to make this Fellowship vibrant and healthy.
We are inspired by the message of Unitarian Universalism and the people we find in this
When we most often think of spirituality, we think of the presence of,or deep
connection with, something greater than ourselves, the unity of Life, or Truth, or God.
We may have a sense of oneness, an aha experience, a mystical encounter, or awe
and reverence for the beauty and mystery of life.
As Unitarian Universalists, let's not shy away from emotion. We may reject
emotionalism, or overindulgent emotional response, but that is no reason to deny that
we are emotional beings. As I have come to be part of this Fellowship, I have this deep
need to shout for joy because of who you are. And as a community we come together for so
many reasons, not the least of which are to laugh together and to cry together. To be
cared for, or comforted by another, may be when we are most fully alive.
I began this sermon reflecting on my conversation with Peter Kelsey. Overcoming
consumerism, eating junk food, or snacking between meals could keep us busy for a lifetime.
But Peter's comment to me was that too often our undesirable habits are our ways of
compensating for something that is lacking, for something that makes us come alive.
As I said, I could spend a lifetime trying to overcome my bad habits. But
imagine, if instead, I spent my lifetime filling it with joy, with activities that filled
Like Jumping Mouse, the character in the story I read this morning, we must set
our sights on the far-off land. But remember, the far-off land will be different for each
person here. It will include the challenge of the mind, the warmth of the heart, the awe
of mystery, the call to social justice.
For many of us, the far-off land may not be so far away. I am reminded of the
story of the man who spent a lifetime in search of buried treasure only to find it was
buried beneath his own house.
We are searching for ways to become more alive. When you find it, bathe yourself in it.
Allow it to soak to the core of your being. Do what fills your spirit. Do what brings you
Last weekend, I felt an aliveness at a Circle Supper in the presence of caring
and delightful friends in this Fellowship. I've heard similar stories from many of you.
In our Fellowship, my hope, my dream, my vision, is that we have many activities that
will fill your spirit.
As Joseph Campbell says, "what we're seeking is an experience of being alive, so
that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonance within our own
innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive."
May it be so.
Presented to the Unitarian Universalist
Fellowship of Fredericksburg
February 4, 2001