© Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering UCC, All Rights Reserved
Lily Tomlin, one of the great comedians of our time, once said that, “I always knew I wanted to become somebody when I grew up. Now I realize I should have been more specific!”
And so she has pointed out, with the irony only comics can offer, the issue many of us face. We have lives that are filled with lots of events and family members and friends. But we still ask ourselves what is the meaning of life? We build careers and we pursue great acts of service for our communities, but we often find no cohesive purpose to what we do beyond personal fulfillment. Too often, people find themselves near the very end of their lives and they struggle to understand the significance of their long journey. Many of us live and die without knowing where we have been and where we are going. Who are we besides a superficial set of descriptions about what we have done and what we do?
One anonymous commentator on life said that, “Birth is God’s way of saying you matter.” But why is that so and how do we arrive at a place where we not only intellectually understand that we matter, but we also feel it? To ask a more relevant question for this morning, why are we here at this time and place – is it to just hear the Greenhill’s Strings play some great music? Is it to spend time with good friends or to feel good about ourselves? Or is it something deeper and more meaningful?
In our message series this month entitled “The Times of Our Lives: Spiritual Awakening, Transformation and Wisdom”, my hope is that we arrive at a few conclusions about purpose and meaning – for ourselves, for life, for this church and even for the time we spend here today (or waste – depending on your viewpoint!). Last week we looked at the first spiritual period of our lives – a moment or process I believe each person experiences – when we are awakened and arrive at the conclusion that life is not about us. How is it that we die to former selves and, in the awakening process, find that we don’t die at all? I believe in our awakening we find that life is full of feeling, compassion, love and empathy NOT for our own sake but for the sake of serving others. Each person awakens to that realization at some point in their lives and, as some of you pointed out last week, we often must re-awaken to that ideal each and every day.
In the spiritual evolution of our lives, therefore, we arrive at a point where we are indeed awakened to our potential and our purpose to live for others. And the next step then involves actually changing. We begin to live out what Lily Tomlin opined in her life observation – we make specific who and what we were created to be. That doesn’t solely involve becoming a teacher or a lawyer or a social worker or whatever life work we choose. Those are things we do. It is, I believe, a total transformation – a maturing or growing up, if you will, in becoming not just a person who does certain things but a person who IS certain things. In other words, are we defined by the tasks we perform in life or are we defined by the ideals we manifest in life – like compassion, selflessness, empathy, sacrifice, love and forgiveness? Becoming defined by those ideals is what I mean by spiritual transformation.
Please join me now in welcoming up front one of the members here at the Gathering who will to share her spiritual life journey – Lisa Blankenship.
In the Bible, Paul told the Christian community in Rome, “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is the good, acceptable and perfect will of the Divine.” In this quote, we find a nugget of wisdom within a divine text pointing the way toward greater spiritual enlightenment. Transformation involves discovering our god-selves and then offering our powerful skills to family, neighbors and the world.
If, as I often say, God is not some mystical force out there but she or he is in here, in us, then spiritual transformation is about becoming that little god – a force for good and positive change. In our pre-awakened lives, we too often think of ourselves as god-like, but only in the sense that we are powerful creatures operating within a mini-universe of one, to love and serve the “me”. By renewing our minds, as the Bible says, we transform ourselves into human versions of god who are powerful creatures capable of creating a universal heaven on earth. Such is, I believe, our true purpose and the reason for our existence. Eons of evolution have not brought us to a place of power and capability merely for us to use it for the selfish ends of our own species and our individual selves. Indeed, if we believe that life is ever-changing and ever-evolving, we are called to be a part of that process of change for the better. To spiritually transform ourselves we must become manifestations of the Divine – earth bound gods who love, serve and sacrifice for others and for the ultimate good of the entire universe.
In this regard, the famous psycho-analyst Carl Jung had it right. After studying Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism, Jung concluded that personal transformation constitutes the mysterious heart of all religions. Through transformation, we see and meet the Divine and thereby discover our true selves. Unlike Freudian analysis which is often accused of an obsessive focus on the self, Jung turned psychoanalysis on its head in proposing that the spiritual experiences of awakening and of transformation are absolutely essential to our emotional well-being.
And, if this is so, just what is it that we transform ourselves into? If we are to become little versions of god, what does god look like? As I look to the prophets throughout history who have pointed to the heart of god, I find two common characteristics in describing that ideal. We must become peacemakers at one with all creation through forgiveness – and then we must sublimate ourselves to the will of all creation and all humanity through personal sacrifice. With these two – forgiveness and sacrifice – we manifest the Divine.
If we truly wish to transform and renew ourselves, than we must be people of forgiveness. And only then are we people of true peace and love. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “He who is devoid of the power to forgive, is devoid of the power to love.” And, if I can add an addendum to King’s words, such a person is unable to be spiritually transformed and thus incapable of bringing genuine goodness to the world. Forgiveness involves letting go of past hurts and resentments. It means, once again, letting go of the self and our own need for justification and merit. If we hold on to the feeling of victimhood, we live only within the self and the universe of “me”. If, on the other hand, we are forgiving people, we can find understanding, empathy, and compassion for others – and perhaps even for the one who has hurt us.
In forgiving others we are to reach out to our past, present or future oppressors. We do not absolve or excuse their actions against us but we refuse to allow them to prevent us from extending peace and love. Bassam Aramin, the Palestinian founder of Combatants for Peace, often talks about his own journey of spiritual transformation into a god-like man of forgiveness. As a teenager he was sent to prison for seven years for attacking a convoy of Israeli soldiers. And, once in prison he relates how one day he and all of the other Palestinian prisoners were severely beaten as a part of an Israeli training exercise. During his beating, he suddenly remembered a movie about the holocaust that he had previously seen. And he remembered how he had cried as he saw Jews led off to the gas chambers. In that moment, as he was bloodied and bruised by Israeli guards, he suddenly felt himself no longer a victim but instead one who empathizes with and understands the fear and anger of Jews who had suffered so much under their oppressors. His pain was their pain and theirs became his.
In his awakening moment, when he could have been filled with hatred and thoughts of revenge, he vowed instead to become a force for peace and forgiveness. On his release from the Israeli prison, he founded the Palestinian and Jewish organization of Combatants for Peace which works for reconciliation in the middle-east and in conflicts around the world. Several years ago, Bassam was again confronted with the choice to hate or forgive. His ten year old daughter, standing outside her school and not involved in any act of conflict or protest, was shot and killed by an Israeli soldier. Despite an investigation by Israeli authorities, no punishment was ever meted out for the killing of an unarmed child and the soldier in question was allowed to remain unidentified. In the spirit of his peace movement, however, soon after justice was denied, over a hundred Israelis arrived at his daughter’s Palestinian school and built a playground and garden in her name.
In prison, Bassam Aramin awakened to the idea that life was not about him and his victimhood. He cried the tears of one who could identify with others who hurt and are oppressed. And he found spiritual transformation in his work to forgive, as one who brings together historic enemies. Finally, in a father’s worst nightmare, he offered proof of his transformation by refusing to seek vengeance for his daughter’s death. As Mohatmas Gandhi once said, “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”
Such change in a person does not come without cost. We cannot love and we cannot forgive unless we not only die to ourselves but also sacrifice our needs and our desires for those of other people. A change of attitude into a sacrificial mindset is the ultimate evidence of spiritual awakening and transformation. Sacrifice – like forgiveness – involves denying the needs of the self and working for the needs of others. Sacrifice means doing for another without any expectation of a return in kind. It is the truest form of love – to love another unconditionally and to love beyond the need for its return.
As we discussed last Sunday, acts of genuine altruism are never easy nor do we ever become perfect in forgiving and sacrificing for others. If you recall my earlier quoted words from the Bible that transformation comes from renewing our minds, such change is not something that just happens to us. We must consciously choose to change. We must embark on a journey of transformation involving a regular choice to alter the way we think. By learning to test our previously unquestioned thoughts, we can transform our cognitive thinking. Instead of reacting with anger, bitterness and hatred when I am wronged, transformation for me must include asking myself why I react with hate, why did the other hurt me, what ways did I contribute to the conflict, what can I do to create peace and reconciliation in the situation?
To be proactive in my newly transformed approach to life, I might no longer ask myself what is in it for me whenever I do something for another. I will change the premise upon which I base all of my actions. No longer will I think of the potential rewards coming from my actions. Instead, I will learn to act sacrificially. My motivations will not always be so pure, but I will have begun to change and alter my outlook on life. Indeed, I can even begin to see my actions as affecting the big picture of all human relationships and all creation. My acts of forgiveness and sacrifice are not merely done for another person, but they help to advance unity and peace in our world. To again quote Martin Luther King, Jr., he said, “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle.”
My friends, I hope you might begin to see and understand these spiritual times of our lives. I believe we will each confront the ultimate question we all face. Why am I here, what purpose do I serve and what is the meaning of my life? Shall we wait until our lives are nearly over, only to understand and be awakened to how selfish and self-focused we have been? In our last moments before we pass into eternity will we remember those we hurt, those we refused to forgive, those we could have helped or listened to or sublimated ourselves before? Or can we now be transformed to think with our hearts and feel with our heads – understanding we are here to build an earthly heaven of peaceful coexistence and well-being for all? Can we not die to the big “me” in all of us and find our true god-selves, the person we were created to be who gives, who cares, who nurtures, who walks humbly, who forgives and sacrifices and loves with abandon?
This is mystical stuff of which I speak. As I said earlier, we are not a mere evolutionary amalgam of atoms that now dominates our world. Whatever creative force brought us to this point, we exist for a purpose. All of creation is a beautiful and fantastic gift – the product of billions of years of refinement. If we are to preserve our universe and advance the cause of human dignity and well-being, we must begin with ourselves. Peace and sacrifice and forgiveness will never happen between Muslims and Christians or between Palestinians and Jews or between any two of us in this congregation unless they first begin individually. Mohatmas Gandhi said that we must be the change we want to see in the world. For myself, may that change begin with me…