© Doug Slagle, Pastor, The Gathering UCC, All Rights Reserved
I recall a moment in my life very vividly when all of my actions up to that point, and all of my thoughts about the meaning of life and the possible existence of a Divine Being came crashing in on me. Growing up in a home that was entirely secular, I had little exposure to religion or spirituality. But my daughter Amy, who was in kindergarten at the time, was invited to join a children’s choir at a local church. And so I would troop off, like many proud parents do all of the time, to see and hear my daughter sing and perform cute songs of faith. In doing so, I was also compelled to hear the Sunday messages and the Pastor’s words which, over time, had an impact on me. I was not sure of my own identity and was terribly guilt ridden over what I perceived at the time to be wrong – same sex attraction. I also felt the acute guilt of a suburban white man. I was leading a life with relatively little impact on the world and only limited concern for the poor and those in need. Guilt for my inner demons and guilt about a relatively selfish life up to that point all combined with the words from this Pastor to cause me to reflect on my purpose in life, the point of life itself and how I might resolve issues of right and wrong within me.
And so on May 3rd, 1996, I became born again – to use the Christian term for what happened to me. While I no longer understand that moment in my life according to conservative Christian theology, and I no longer use the term “born again” – I nevertheless was awakened to a new me. That was the time of my life when I became aware of my place within the universe, my role as a human, and my encounter with the mystical reality that there exists something true and beautiful and powerful beyond my ability to fully comprehend it. In that awakening moment, I was a broken man. I sobbed uncontrollably for what seemed like hours in the loneliness of my home office. I sensed this wonderful force of love surrounding me, lifting me into its arms and enfolding me with forgiveness and understanding. I cried the tears of one who is amazed at an encounter with forgiving love – as one who felt at that time like I was freed from all of my guilt and all of my shame. As a grown man, I nevertheless felt the power of this force and its parental embrace. I was reduced to feeling like a child – powerless, in awe, lacking knowledge and yet feeling overwhelmed with love. I was suddenly aware of my own potential to serve others and my desire to matter in this life – to serve, to love and to grow as a person. With tears streaming down my face, without understanding what had happened to me, I then resolved to pursue this spiritual awakening in me – to learn as much as I could – and to fundamentally change my outlook on the world, on myself and on others, especially those who hurt or struggle. While it would take almost ten more years for me to finally and fully love myself as I was created – as a gay man – that moment in 1996 is still a birthday of sorts for me. When I reflect on it too deeply, as I have done in preparing this message, I cry all over again.
I believe such moments occur to virtually all of us, in one fashion or another, at some point in our lives. Many people stubbornly hold out on spirituality and find themselves near the end of their lives contemplating meaning, purpose and a mysterious realm beyond themselves. Others are awakened early in life and find a richness and vitality in themselves that imbue their personalities and alters the course of their lives. And it is toward that subject that I begin this month’s series theme on, “The times of our lives: spiritual awakening, transformation and wisdom.” This is not a series on religion or theology. It will be, I hope, a spirituality series into our own lives and how we define them. For the skeptic or questioning person in matters of faith, I encourage an open mind to the mysterious and ineffable stuff of eternity, existence, love, meaning and ultimate power beyond human understanding. To those of faith, I hope this is a journey into a deeper understanding of the times we all go through – how we are spiritually awakened to deeper realities; how, at some point, we are transformed in our thinking and our outlook on life and the world and, finally, how we will someday arrive not at perfection, but at a deeper understanding of truth and a sense of wisdom. We are all awakened. We are all transformed. We all finally realize what life is about. Today, let us consider spiritual awakening.
The well-known contemporary motivational speaker and spiritual commentator, Eckard Tolle, recently wrote that “The secret of life is to “die before you die” — and find that there is no death.” In so many ways, Tolle has expressed the key to spiritual awakening – the moment in our lives when we die to our former selves and then open our minds, our emotions and our souls to a new way of perceiving the world.
If pride is often considered the original sin, than it stands to reason that our life long battle is one against our own egos and inflated sense of self. In that regard, dying to ourselves and becoming awakened spiritually involves much more than mere attendance at church, saying our prayers or regular meditation. It involves, as Tolle wisely observed, symbolic death and letting go of ourselves. It involved, for me, a sudden “ahah!” moment – an epiphany – when I realized I was not the center of the universe. In many of our recent discussions about fear and loss and racism, I realized that I have a long way to go before I am a complete person. I still think of myself in ways where I believe I am right or I am entitled or that I have subtle forms of prejudice within me. What made my defining moment in life so important was that, afterwards, I clearly understood life is not about me. My existential purpose is not to simply make myself happy. Indeed, the concept of moral cooperation, of which I so often speak, proposes the idea that individuals, families, communities and nations eventually come to the conclusion that self-advancement is not only a zero-sum game – nobody wins – but that it is intrinsically wrong.
There are many stories of individual spiritual awakening in the Bible. Moses, King David, Peter, Paul, the woman caught in adultery and even Jesus – all experienced a spiritual epiphany – a born again moment, if you will forgive my Christian evangelical terminology, when each person suddenly understood their own purpose and the ultimate meaning of life.
One of those persons, the woman caught in adultery, is often assumed to have become a devoted follower of Jesus. Many commentators wonder if she was Mary Magdalene, a woman, in some non-canonical books – those not included in the Bible – who had previously been a prostitute and was a close confidante to Jesus, perhaps even becoming his wife. Imagine a woman caught by a group of patriarchal men in the act of sexual intercourse with a man to whom she is not married, and these men gather menacingly around her prepared to stone her to death – her accomplice male lover apparently was not condemned. And, amazingly, a white knight appears – Jesus – who confronts the men in their hypocrisy – “let him without sin cast the first stone” – and saves her life. He not only does this, but he then enfolds her in his arms, brushes her off, and instead of scolding her, calls her to a new way of thinking and a new life.
Many months later, Jesus encounters her again where she becomes so overcome with emotion and love and appreciation for her rescuer that she uses her hair to rub his skin with a costly, scented oil. This is not mere thankfulness. It is, I think, a deep understanding of what Jesus represented. As we all know, he called people to their higher selves through his own example. Instead of living a life of indifference to the plight of others, Jesus had no home, he forsook a life of easy living and instead reached out to the poor, to lepers, to women, to money lenders, tax collectors, children, the blind, the lame, prisoners and others considered outcasts of decent society. He renounced racial and ethnic discrimination and he pointed others to the heart of the Divine – concern, activism, and compassion for others. This beautiful and wonderful man beckoned Mary – a prostitute – to spiritual awakening. And, it is apparent from her later behavior – her ability to love Jesus – that she was, indeed, a new woman.
Watch with me now a video of Mary’s anguished love for Jesus from the stage play “Jesus Christ: Superstar”. Listen carefully to her words and to her own sense of what this man Jesus represented to her – a man of her dreams but also a man who changed her by calling her to be her better self… (play video) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nLkO-yHbe5Y
A native-American proverb says, “Learn to think with your heart, and feel with your head.” And that is exactly the process through which spiritual awakening takes place – if it can even be reduced to a system. For myself, I did not plan my awakening. It happened by chance and perhaps it was how the stars and the events of my life all lined up. I had certainly been on a spiritual quest – led unexpectedly by a Pastor – but the result was a surprise. It was like Mary the prostitute – all of a sudden I was confronted with a power so strong and so loving – encouraging me to change and open my eyes to a hurting world outside of myself. As the native-Americans understood, if an awakening is planned or sought by conscious effort, it won’t happen. If anything can be done consciously, it is to stop analyzing everything by reason. One must be present with nature and with others, one must be empathetic and one must listen far more than speaking. By allowing our hearts to yearn for what we truly need – meaning, purpose, love and human connection – the path to awakening is opened. Anger, bitterness, a sense of victimization, selfishness, entitlement and resentment all lead to a path toward greater depression and loneliness. Far too often, we – and I include myself here – believe that money, a career, sex, alcohol or material things all bring contentment. While I don’t condemn any of those, I believe they distract us, particularly in excess, from finding real peace and joy.
Buddhism obviously encourages one to actively pursue elimination of such passions from our lives. By doing so, one concentrates on the quality of his or her thoughts and the emptying of self. In this regard, Buddhists see the working of the cosmos as dependent on a purity of each person’s thinking. Will humanity be continuously reborn in a grasping form of thinking, or might we eventually reach nirvana – the state of being at perfect peace with oneself and with the universe?
In many ways, Jesus and Buddha thought alike. But I discern one key difference which causes me to still stand in awe at what the man Jesus taught. We can all die to ourselves but what is the real purpose for our symbolic deaths? Are they windows into greater introspection or are they doors opening out to others? I personally don’t want to awaken and die to my former self only to find a new me. I want to awaken and die to myself to discover a universe beyond the “me.” There is a certain beauty in the homeless man, or the one ravaged by disease or the poor Haitian child. I do not mean to idealize those who suffer. Pain and dismay are never pretty. By looking into the face of a troubled soul, however, I might see myself. I might see all humanity in its breadth and width of wonderful diversity and terrible need. I can see my common cause with him or her; the wonder of our shared creation miracle and the possibility of a universe without suffering. Mother Theresa once said that when she looked into the eyes of a disease ravaged, homeless man, she looked into the eyes of the Divine. Clearly, Mother Theresa was a spiritually awakened woman.
My friends, life is not about the pursuit of our personal happiness. Life is about creating a universe of happiness – a creation where all live free from pain and all live within a mosaic work of art, together, diverse and at peace. We’re here to make that happen. We are here to carry on the ethic of Jesus – to be his hands and his feet as some Christians like to say – to nurture families, to love friends, to share with the poor, to touch and heal the diseased, to sing with other races, to cherish nature …….. to be one not with ourselves but one with all of the Divine universe. That is what it means to be spiritually awakened – to die and yet………..not die at all.
When I spoke here three weeks ago about growing the Gathering, I emphasized that for us, growth in numbers or finances are merely by-products to growth and deepening of our purpose. As I speak about a spiritual awakening in each of us as individuals, I also speak about it for this congregation. Absolutely everything we do here should be done from the focus of fulfilling our mission. Showing up here on Sunday mornings, giving money, choosing where we sit, making coffee, listening to and respecting each other in our diverse opinions about politics, religion, food or whatever – all of these must be rooted in our mission to serve and care for the other. This place is not about us. It is not about making ourselves comfortable, making ourselves heard or meeting our own needs. It is, I hope, about growing, learning and reaching out to others.
In the Book of Psalms, the Divine One speaks to David at one point and says, “Be still and know I am God.” Spiritual awakening is just that. It is to be quiet, to stop talking and thinking and to simply let the Divine be within us and all around us. (Long Pause here) And in our stillness, I believe we might hear the soft voices of all creation, from the beginning of eternity, calling us to a new birth and a new understanding. We are not alone. We are not islands in the midst of a swirling cosmos. We are like those in the artwork here, “Everybody Dance”, united in a common path of cooperation and mutual love. My interests are yours, and yours are at one with those outside walking the streets, and all of our interests are one with the animals and plants and stars and rocks of the whole universe. This is life. This is existence. This is untold beauty expanding outward forever. No longer must we cling to our own selfish needs and desires. We can awaken to the wide expanse of creation – seeking to touch, to listen, to love and to serve. Dear friends, it is time. It is time to simply let go. Let us be still, and hear the Divine…. For your comments this morning, I hope you might reflect on the Native American proverb, to think with your heart and feel with your head. Tell me and tell each other, what, if anything, you are feeling….