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Selected Presentations

June Gilbertson (Spring 2006)

Spiritual Growth

Before I begin, I need to make a disclaimer about some shameless plagiarism. A few weeks ago the Elora Chant Group delighted me and many others in this congregation. I had been percolating ideas about this sermon and the words of their chants have somehow inserted themselves into my talk this morning.

All around us things are growing: Leaves are breaking out on trees; crocuses, snow drops and scillas give a wonderful jolt of unfamiliar colour in gardens as the symphony of spring begins again. For some of us, this process lifts our spirits and brings us new energy. We'll start our thinking of spiritual growth here in our gardens. Seeds are buried deep in the earth and now they are beginning to stir. As they feel the warmth of the sun, they start to stretch after their long sleep, they break their outer shell as the moisture from the rain soaks in and the earth gives them nourishment through their roots.

The seed feels the warmth through the layers of soil. Over my head I hear singing in the air: There must be a God somewhere. Perhaps for you it is a goddess, perhaps a spirit, a higher power or a sense of wonder. No matter the name, the beginning warmth that stirs the seed of the spirit, the warmth that creates the wonder, the yearning, the connection with the eternal comes from beyond us, connects us, warms us, and starts the questing of our inner soul.

When I use the word soul, I am not focusing on the Christian idea of soul as the part of the human which lives eternally. I am focusing on the soul as the seat of human personality, the soul as the fundamental part of our nature and the essence of who we are.

We need to return again. "Return to the land of your soul, return to who you are, return to what you are, return to where you are, born and reborn again." This idea is expressed by Sophia Fahs in one of our education curricula. The religious way is the deep way -- the way that dips into the heart of things, that sees what physical eyes alone fail to see, the intangibles at the heart of every phenomenon."

Sometimes we need to visit the shadow of our soul. Each of us has a pattern and shape to our lives which is made on choices we made and situations and events which occurred to give our life its unique shape. Beyond this is the shadow of who we are not, the other life, the other person, the other place, the other ways of looking at life. Spiritual growth and the care of our soul requires us to open our hearts wider than they have been before, softening the moralism that may have characterized our attitudes and behaviour for years. Moralism is one of the most effective shields against the soul protecting us from its intimacy. As we deal with the complexity of the soul, morality can deepen and drop its simplicity becoming more demanding and also more flexible.

The family is the nest in which the soul is born. The family is a microcosm reflecting the nature of the world which runs on both virtue and evil. No family is perfect and in reality most have serious problems contrary to the image of sanitized families depicted on television. The prefix "dys" in dysfunctional is representative of the Roman name for the mythological underworld. Soul enters life from below, through the cracks, finding an opening into life at the points where smooth functioning breaks down. We need to recover our soul by reflecting deeply on the events that have taken place in the crucible of the family. The sentimental image of family can be a defense against the pain of proclaiming the family in what it really is, a sometimes comforting and sometimes devastating house of memory and life.

The Christian image of God as our father in heaven looks different for each person depending on their experience and view of fathers. Yet there is a sense that part of our spiritual journey is to find the deep father figure that provides a sense of authority and wisdom. Care of the soul's fathering requires that we sustain the experiences of absence, wondering, longing, melancholy, separation, chaos, and deep adventure. For some people, the kind of authority and wisdom we need comes from scriptures or prophetic writings. Revisiting scripture in seminary as a Unitarian has for me been a deeply enriching experience. The historical metaphors and stories have stimulated my imagination and thinking especially when my life experience confirm the ring of truth in these stories that still has relevance today. You may have a different source for the authority and wisdom that feeds your soul. Whatever it is recognize it consciously and visit that place. Like the rain for our seed in the earth, our spirits grow when we soak them in spiritual wisdom.

As Unitarian Universalists, we covenant to affirm and promote: acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations. My friend Ann Treadwell mused that she was curious why these two ideas were joined. Perhaps they were really two separate principles and we wanted to keep the number limited to seven, and so lumped them together. She correctly concluded there was a rationale why acceptance of others is tied to spiritual growth. Actively living in religious community is the earth that nourishes spiritual growth.

To be a Unitarian Universalist requires one to shun intellectual laziness and spiritual shoddiness. We cannot rest easy with the faith we inherited: we must grow our own; revising it continually during our lifetime. We are blessed (perhaps cursed) with a faith as large as the universe, as diverse as human nature, and as complex as it is simple.

An open mind becomes a clogged mind if it never changes. Whenever we arrive in our spiritual quest, we ossify and turn like Lot's wife into useless pillars of salt.

A UU minister Walter Jones tells of an evangelist who took her place at a busy intersection almost hidden beneath the panels of a sandwich sign that proclaimed on the front in huge letter "THE ANSWER." The rest of the placard was blank except for the words on the bottom in small, almost inconspicuous letters "Please see the other side."

People who stopped to read the front almost always looked behind, where to their amazement they found an identical announcement "THE ANWSER" with "please see the other side written at the bottom."

Perplexed, some people raced from front to back and front again while the evangelist stood quietly. Other people left shrugging and tapping their heads as if the evangelist was a nutcase. Some laughed in embarrassment, others left scowling, feeling deceived.

At length a wise woman came by. She considered the sign from the front, and then the rear and stood a while pondering. Finally she spoke "Yes," she said quietly, "we all want the answer but being willing to see the other side is the only way to even come close." And the evangelist smiled approvingly.

Unitarian Universalist communities encourage people to share honest confusions as well as their convictions. It is in our sharing with each other, our listening with openness to each other that we gain enlightenment and spiritual growth. Religious community is the earth that nourishes us. Our seed puts out roots and it is our acceptance of each other that stimulates our growth. As Norman Cousins stated "Our passport to immortality is not valid unless we have the stamp of human community on it. Strong is what we make each other, flowing through you, flowing through me. Birthing life.

Each of us like the seed in the ground has the potential to grow to flower and to bloom spiritually. We need to look inwardly and know ourselves. What sort of seed are we? The growing conditions right for one seed may not work for another. Some like direct sun others must have shade; some thrive in rich soil, others only grow in sandy and waste areas. The divine, the mysterious must warm us. We need wisdom and authority to soak in and the nourishment of our church community to be able to grow strongly. May each of you find that place where the dead old husks begin to crack and new life stretch its way into the light?

The Unitarian Congregation of Guelph -- Phone: 519-836-3443
122 Harris Street, Guelph, Ontario, Canada, N1E 5T1

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