Our Mission: Foster Spirituality
Rev. Maddie Sifantus and Jerry Gray
Just as a candle can’t burn without fire,
We cannot live without a spiritual life.
~ the Buddha,
TIME FOR ALL AGES Walking Meditation
Today I am talking about a big word: spirituality. Have you ever heard that word? Well, sometimes big words are confusing! But I think what it means is pretty simple. It means being concerned about human beings, the human spirit, your spirit, rather than material things—stuff! Basically, it means being concerned with something larger than ourselves, something outside ourselves. Something we maybe even can’t see or hear. And sometimes maybe we are just too busy doing things to even notice. That’s why people do things that are called spiritual practices like yoga, T’ai Chi Chih and meditation, all of which we have in this church on weekdays. This morning we are going to do something called Walking Meditation. Anyone who can walk can do it. In fact, even someone who uses a Walker or a wheelchair could modify it so they can do it too. It doesn’t cost anything. You don’t need a special outfit.
There is a very famous Buddhist monk named Thich Nhat Hanh. That is a complicated name but a lot of people just call him Thay, which means teacher. When he teaches, he often talks about walking meditation…and it is NOT complicated. Thay says that we usually walk with the only purpose to get from one place to another. But where are we in between? We can arrive at the present moment with every step. We can pay attention. Believe it or not, I am going to teach you how to walk, this special kind of walking, walking meditation.
When you walk, arrive with every step. That is walking meditation. There is nothing else to it! We are going to practice it now. Why? Because it can bring joy! It can bring peace. It can help us pay attention! Because we can learn to walk so we enjoy every step.
The first thing to do is to lift your foot. Breathe in. Put your foot down in front of you, first your heal and then your toes. Breathe out. Feel your feet solid on the Earth. You have already arrived.
RESPONSIVE READING #665 Transcendental Etude Adrienne Rich
SERMON Our Mission: Foster Spirituality Rev. Maddie Sifantus
Our reading this morning was by the writer and poet Adrienne Rich. She was an American poet, essayist and a feminist. She was called “one of the most widely read and influential poets of the second half of the 20th century”, and was credited with bringing “the oppression of women and lesbians to the forefront of poetic discourse.” She expresses the thought that we should make of our lives on this Earth a study. That we should start with simple exercises—perhaps like our walking meditation this morning—and move out to the more difficult ones. And if we start in the middle of it all, in the hardest movements as she says, we miss the one sounding as we are born. For me, we miss what is often called the “still, small voice”. We miss what is spiritual, if you will. That is what I believe spiritual practices are for…but, I am getting ahead of myself.
This morning we come to my final reflection this year on our Mission Statement in this Congregation, one that the members here chose and voted on some years ago and which we are revisiting during a time of reflection on mission and vision. Does it still fit us? Does it describe what we are about here at 740 E Main Street, Santa Paula as we head towards 2020? What does it call us to be or do? What does it even mean?
Our mission statement has three phrases. Can anyone tell me what they are? Call it out!……………….
Practice Inclusiveness ~ Seek Justice ~ Foster Spirituality
Your board last April at their retreat spent some hours considering this mission and at the end of the day thought it DOES speak to how we go about things here and still fits us. And all us over the next year or more will be thinking more about it and who we are, those who have been here since the Sixties like our board member Jyl Atmore to the newest folks who come in the door. Discernment and planning are—or can be—a spiritual practice.
Practice Inclusiveness ~ Seek Justice ~ Foster Spirituality
If that is our mission, what does it call us to do?
Today I am focusing on the last phrase: “Foster Spirituality.” What does that mean? Of course, you are getting my take on it and as UUs we know that we might have as many thoughts on it as there are people in the seats in the Sanctuary!
A much analyzed and discussed survey by the Pew Research Center released in 2015, the year I came here to be your minister, found that the number of Americans who are not affiliated with a religion grew to 23 percent of U.S. adults in 2014, when the study was conducted. That is over 50 million Americans. In an earlier survey by Pew, nearly 37 percent of these nones, as they are called, say they are spiritual. Do you know what a none is? Perhaps you are one.
Let us ask: What does it mean, to be spiritual?
French philosopher and priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin famously said that we are spiritual beings on a human journey. Whether you believe that or the converse — that our spirituality emerges from being human — we are spiritual beings.
What does it mean, to be spiritual? What did it mean to this congregation when it chose Foster Spirituality to be on third of our Mission Statement? What does it call us to do?
And what does it mean to foster anything? After all, the verb is where the action lies. My dictionary tells me that “to foster” is to encourage or promote the development of something, typically something regarded as good. To use it in a sentence we might say: “the teacher’s task is to foster learning”. Dictionaries are great at listing synonyms as well which helps to further our understanding of what fostering might be all about: to…encourage, promote, further, stimulate, advance, forward, cultivate, nurture, strengthen, help, aid, abet, assist, contribute to, support, enrich, endorse, champion,
To speak for, proselytize, sponsor, espouse, uphold, back, boost, give backing to, to facilitate.
So we, here are fostering—or espousing or facilitating or whatnot— this thing called spirituality, here in this congregation. Of course, we can each practice our own version of spirituality on our own, in our own spiritual practices. And there are a wide variety of those. You might practice birdwatching, running, or walking about the neighborhood or on the beach. You might have a Gratitude Journal or a long practice of journaling. You might sit in silent meditation or read inspirational books. The sky’s the limit. But what makes it a spiritual practice is that you pay special attention to whatever it is. You practice it—repetition. And you bring some intention to it. And what can make it even more powerful is to do it with other people—in a congregation like ours. And here we have decided to foster that spirituality, that practice, that finding of meaning.
I was thinking about spirituality this week and what my earlier thoughts were about it. As I have said before, I realized in high school that I was not an Episcopalian, the church of my childhood. In fact I thought I was not for organized religion at all. But I still felt drawn to the meaning questions and ways of addressing them. If I were that age now, I would no doubt say, “I am spiritual, not religious”, just like many couples have said to me over the years when I asked what kind of ceremony they wanted to have at their wedding. What did I think that my spirituality was and how did I foster it in myself?
For me I explored by listening to and singing all kinds of music, by reading all kinds of books, by visiting various faith communities and trying again and again to sit in meditation. When I was in college there were all manner of ways to be spiritual, from the Hare Krishna folks singing in Harvard Square with their begging bowls, places to learn Transcendental Meditation, the macrobiotic and other vegetarian lifestyles, and even the psychedelic experimentation of that time. And of course, music. I listed to everything from Ravi Shankar to Sam and Dave, early forms of electronic music to modern classical, Crosby Stills and Nash to bluegrass. I would occasionally go with my family to church but always thought, “That’s not it.” Until one day I went to First Parish in Wayland, my first exposure to Unitarian Universalism and thinking about how we make meaning from a more intellectual orientation in that very humanist congregation. And somehow, that facilitated my spirituality in a whole new way. Maybe it was being in a community of fellow souls also trying to figure it all out.
What do I mean by spirituality? The term spiritual comes from the Latin term spiritus, meaning breath. The current definition of spiritual relates to the human spirit or soul, in contrast to material or physical things. Gary Larude who in speaking to our congregation in Peterborough NH said, “The spiritual focuses on the mysterious essence of our being that animates us and makes us human, with self-consciousness and the ability to conceptualize ideas and bring them into reality. Living a spiritual life is living in a way that realizes our positive human capabilities, both individually and as a community.” That’s good enough for me. That would be someone I would want to foster. Especially since I did bite the bullet and become a UU in about 1981 and our Third Principle is “Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.”
“In our congregations.” So it’s great that I sit on my meditation cushion or meet on Zoom with my Spiritual Director…but as a believer in congregations, I believe that it is important to bring my contemplations—that all of us do—to our gathering together, if nothing else so that we are not just doing individual naval gazing. Those who attend our meditation practice group on Wednesday evenings often share the power of meditation together. And that group has become a kind of community by virtue of their regular gathering.
And because we say in our Mission Statement that we aspire to “Foster Spirituality”, I believe it calls me—and us—to address how we do that here. And there are many ways we do. Right now we are brainstorming on how to address what is most often called Faith Formation these days for our youngest to our eldest. That is the place we look at what we want to do with your children, our youth and all of us. Do we want classes? Walks by the river? Field trips to museums? Right now we need adult volunteers to be with our children on the Sundays they don’t stay in worship. Please let me know if you can help with that. I have felt that I have always learned from doing these type of things and it has fed my spirituality.
What kind of activities could we add to our Spiritual Growth Center which already includes yoga, meditation, T’ai Chi Chih, sometimes singing meditation and could have more? Do you have a spiritual practice you would like to share with our members and friends? How can you—how can we—foster spirituality?
There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
There are a thousand ways to go home again.
—13th century Sufi poet Jalaluddin Rumi (translated and interpreted)
Unitarian Universalism offers diverse and meaningful ways of connecting with the sacred, the spiritual, however you want to name what the is that is beyond ourselves. Whether we’re sitting in meditation, listening for truth with Christian lectio divina, praying to the spirit of life, chanting at our winter solstice, and dancing around our Maypole, our spirituality is unbounded.
In his book Walden, Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Only that day dawns to which we are awake.” Indeed. May we awaken to the fullness of life each morning. May it be so. Blessed be.
BENEDICTION Thich Nhat Hanh
My final words are from Thich Nhat Hanh, in this week when many are involved in a Climate Strike and other actions. Here are words adapted from his “A Letter to the Earth”:
Every time [we] step on the Earth, we will train ourselves to see that we are walking on you. Every time we place our feet on the Earth, we have a chance to be in touch with you and will all your wonders. With every step we can touch the fact that you aren’t just beneath us, dear Mother, but you are also within us. Each mindful and gentle step can nourish us, heal us, and bring us in contact with ourselves and with you in the present moment.
 Thich Nhat Hanh, How to Walk, adapted. Parallax Press, 7-13 (excerpts)
 Burns Stanfield.
 Thich Nhat Hanh, How to Walk, 116.