Sacred Living: A Sermon


Sacred Living: A Sermon

by Rev. Peter Connolly

Presented at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green, KY, September 6, 2009.
The words are from the Dalai Lama:

All…religions can make an effective contribution for the sake of humanity. They are all designed to make the individual a happier person, and the world a better place. However, in order for religion to have an impact in making the world a better place, I think it’s important for the individual practitioner to sincerely practice the teachings of that religion.

One must integrate the religious teachings into one’s life, wherever one is, so one can use them as a source of inner strength. And one must gain a deeper understanding of the religion’s ideas, not just on an intellectual level, but with deep feeling, making them part of one’s inner experience.

–from The Art of Happiness

In today’s reading, His Holiness the Dalai Lama sees as essential the importance of inner transformation in realizing our potential as human beings.

To emphasize “potential” means to recognize that we are never fully realized, that we are always in a place where change is possible and change is desirable. Fulfilling our potential can be seen as doing our part in the continual unfolding of Creation through which we live and by which we bring new life into the world, nurturing that life, too, in the understandings of transience, potential and change.

“Potential” shares the same root as “potent,” powerful. To have potential indicates that we have a capacity to grow into positions and places of power, places where we are not only open to the capacity for change, but also places where we can act as agents of change.

This brings us to the Dalai Lama’s insistence that what is essential in effecting change is the process of inner transformation. Here, the change we speak of is within ourselves. There is an understanding that we are dynamic agents. As much as we are motivated to keep things relatively stable and predictable, we are also in search of something new, something stimulating, something refreshing, something that renews us.

Transformation means a “change in form.” These kinds of changes are motivated by moments of insight, epiphany, revelation—the products of both dynamics and form—the inner workings of the dynamic by which we seek to be present for the opportunities for living that make themselves available to us from moment to moment, knowing that there must be some form to capture the meanings of these moments, to contain them and retain them— otherwise we become subject to thrill-seeking, looking for stimulus for the sake of stimulus.

I think sometimes that the perils of the teenage years grow out of this excitement of “the new” rejecting the restrictive forms that parental protection can take, but with no other stable form from which to make meaning out of the excitement of dynamic change.

Sacred living, I think, is in the attempt to be open to change in the form of new insights, changes in our perspectives, interactions with dynamic persons and ideas, while retaining the forms of knowing and believing that have made sense to us up to now, at whatever place we may be in life’s unfolding of mystery and meaning.

In 1981, for five months, my primary experience of myself was as a volunteer at a kibbutz on the Mediterranean in Israel. For the bulk of that time, my work was in the chicken houses, a meager term for the three buildings where the chickens were raised; each housed 2,200 birds.

When they became fifty days of age, it was the job of the volunteers to sneak up on them in the dark of night and load them onto crates for transportation to the slaughterhouses. Manning the fork lift was an Arab manned named Josef, sullen, dirty, unpredictable, disrespectful—disgraceful, I thought. In a poem, I referred to him as a “crazy Arab.”

The term startled me and I could not decide whether or not to retain it— disrespectful as it was, it was true to my feelings, and, at the time, I understood my feelings to be the most authentic expression of my self—who I was.

But the moment of being startled prompted me to reflect upon the roles allowed to Arabs in an Israeli culture and to grapple with what it must mean to be an Arab in Israel, a Semite in a Semitic country, but a stranger to power and, thus, a stranger to the full expression of what it means to be human. And an understanding that the powerless seek power where they may.

On a trip to Europe several years back, I dropped in to the interfaith chapel of Gatwick Airport while waiting for a connecting flight. While there I witnessed a Muslim man and his two children roll out their prayer mats in the direction of Mecca. He knelt down quickly and in the most perfunctory way, bowed several times, quickly muttered some words, rolled up his prayer mat again and immediately resumed a business conversation with a companion.

I was profoundly unimpressed by this display and felt my prejudices solidify. I carried these as my personal experiences of what it meant to be an Arab and a Muslim.

In the summer of 1999, I took a course on world religions. One of our field trips was to the Islamic Institute in Quincy, Massachusetts, where we met the imam, learned first-hand about Islam and its traditions and piety and were served a delicious lunch in a gracious manner. It opened a new window for me in my growing understanding of the religion that grew out of the Arabic culture.

Within the year, I had the sad experience of seeing this selfsame imam being interviewed on TV about his reaction to the defacing his mosque had recently been subject to. Someone’s sense of the “form” that religion should take was too rigid to allow for an understanding of the forms developed by another culture.

I spent the summer of 2002 as a chaplain intern at the Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston. We met for a prayer service each day at noon in the hospital chapel. One day I noticed that while the service was in progress, a Muslim gentleman took the time to offer his worship, one of the five times a day that Muslims are called to practice, in the foyer between the chapel proper and the doors leading to the bustling hospital.

His seriousness impressed me, as did his respect for our service and humility in choosing this humble space for worship. My understanding of the worship tradition was growing.

Later in the summer, it was my turn to lead a worship service. I was quite surprised in the middle of the service, as folks were lighting candles and offering prayers, to see a man enter softly through the chapel doors, come up along one side of the chapel’s chairs and unroll his prayer mat. After several minutes of bowing and praying, he rolled up his mat, looked at me and smiled before turning around and exiting the chapel. There was a sparkle illuminating his soft eyes.

Through my experience and by way of cultural expectations, I had developed a “form” for understanding the Arabs of the Islamic faith, a rigid understanding at first, and not accepting. But I was open to a change of opinion, a change of heart —the cultivation, as the Dalai Lama says, of a compassionate heart.

This opening presented by being at worship and, in fact, leading worship, allowed greater room for change—and for the smile of the man who found a way to integrate his practice into ours with grace. It allowed the room for an inner transformation. I cannot again think of the Arab people or the practice of Islam without seeing that smile and allowing for the further growth of integration and transformation.

Our potential as human beings and the inner transformation of which we are capable are, for me, aspects of what it means to live within a context of the sacred. “Life is sacred—or it’s not.” The sanctity of life is determined in part by the attitude we bring to our living.

If we live by the motto “He who dies with the most toys wins,” we do not bring to living an attitude of reverence. If we see as our objective to climb to the top of any particular field without regard to how our climb impacts on the lives of others, we do not see life as a place for sacred relations, but as a place to accumulate power for the sake of power and for ends that are justified by our ambitions and personal gratification.

The distinction is worth making, obvious as it is, because we find ourselves in a culture where such maneuverings are tolerated and even promoted.

I give you the title of an article from the “Boston Works” section of the Boston Sunday Globe: “Office treachery is a tough reality: In an era of job insecurity some turn to betrayal as a tactic.” Where does this ethos come from?

I give you the popularity of so-called “reality shows.” In most of them, the ethic of motivation is the pretense of team-building undermined by the lust for personal dominance– it has become normative and is glorified. It is an ethic that can lead to no place good, no place where there is a base for unity across division, a place for growth of the spirit or growth of community. Our culture encourages us towards polarization.

To speak of the sacred life, then, necessarily means to speak of something distinct from the secular life. The secular life in the United States today is defined by limits and the desire to challenge and transgress limits. It plays out in every aspect of the culture: what can the CEO and his cronies get away with before the flagrancy of the violation attracts attention enough for redress? What can the selectman salt away for himself through knowledge of the way money moves through the system?

The question comes down to: Is the culture of I vs. you, us vs. them, employer vs. employee, management vs. worker, celebrity vs. anonymous Joe an effective way to address meeting our needs? Must there always be losers? Must there always be victims? Must our place of meeting always be considered a battlefield?

And, of course, this scenario I’ve drawn of sacred vs. secular can be viewed as more of the same, as a way of polarizing points of view and demonizing the secular which, some will say, can be reformed from within. But, it is important, I think, to draw the lines dramatically, in order to seek a way of integration.

We are too human, too contradictory, too ambivalent to believe that our motives are very often pure. It is not purity we seek, but a means for healthy integration. The question remains: what can we do, in the many small acts of our daily life, to introduce an element of the sacred into our secular interactions? Can we view the culture in a way that does not see it as a monolith, but as a complexity of interactions? Can we bring something to our interactions that has the quality of redemption?

For twelve years, when I drove to work, I made my way across the Neponset River Bridge from Quincy to Dorchester. There was a teeming mass of us jockeying for position, cutting in suddenly when we saw an opening that we knew would not last for more than a few seconds, slamming on the brakes then because that sudden acceleration did not allow for the sudden deceleration of the last car in the lane we’ve just joined.

It’s possible to get a headache in a matter of seconds; it’s just as possible to feel the exhilaration of personal triumph in a successful maneuver, fueled by the caffeine rush of that second cup of coffee. Some time, over that period of years, I was able to gain an insight.

I was able to see myself less as a team of one against a few hundred other such teams and more as one individual in a group project that has as its goal getting everyone to the workplace in a sane and peaceful manner. It means pulling myself back from the fray, thinking of myself less as my “ego” and more as a “self in the world.”

With this point of view, I can see patterns develop in the traffic flow, I can see four lanes of traffic merging together at one stop light and I can ask myself “How can I make this situation work best? How can I blend into the developing form that is emerging? How can I transform the dynamic of my will into the dynamic of intelligence seeking peace and order?”

It means returning to my practice. It means beginning to realize in myself my human potential. Before starting the car, taking a moment to center myself.

Am I running five minutes late? Then, what will it matter to run six minutes late?

“Breathing in, I am aware of breathing in;
Breathing out, I am aware of breathing out.Breathing in, I am aware of my emotions,
Breathing out, I release my emotions.

Breathing in, I am aware of feeling centered,
Breathing out, I relax.

Breathing in, I open my heart to God’s grace,
Breathing out, I am aware of life’s bounty.”

And I take a few moments to enjoy that bounty, whether in the movement of the wind through the trees, the flow of a cloud across the sky, the movement of a robin wiping his bill across the branch on which he rests. There is a blessing in the sheer gift of being alive. Let me bring it to the day and the interactions of the day.

Is there time for a prayer before stepping out to greet the world? Are there fifteen minutes for devotional reading or as long as that for sitting in mindfulness, enjoying the flow of the breath?

Our practice is to seek the form that allows the dynamics of our creative beings to seek and find meanings which nourish us and allow us to transform the corners of our world through these moments of inner transformation. The meanings we find we bring to the world, sanctifying it by our presence. The form we choose captures an inner dynamic.

There is a vibrancy and passion that we bring to our projects that seek a measure of social justice in the world.

This is true democracy in action, fueled by the beliefs and actions that evolve from the depths of our seeking.

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