October 8, 2017: Spiritual Roots

This month we are exploring the image of Roots.  I am especially moved by the images on the altar in which glass jars show the roots which support these plants and draw up nourishment from the water.

Today I am enquiring about our spiritual roots.  I am encouraging all of us to know our spiritual roots and trace them up to the present time and see what is changing.

I want to make some important distinctions:

Our roots determine where we come from but they don’t determine where we go
Sometimes it is tempting to cut off our roots, … but they have a place
The roots are not the whole plant,… it can change and be unique
Growth and change are seasonal

Whether we name them or not, I would suggest that all of have spiritual roots.  A person is shaped in their early childhood years by whatever rituals and morals surround them, whether those are part of formal religion or not.

If your grandma took you on her knee and talked to you about how to treat your friends, that is part of your spiritual roots.
If your neighbor always lit candles on Friday evenings and invited you to come over for Shabbat, that is part of your spiritual roots.
If you grew up in a Unitarian Universalist congregation, that is part of your spiritual roots.

Spiritual stages of growth were studied by theologian named James Fowler, and shared in his book published in 1981:

Fowler observed:  All of us as kids experienced faith as something told or experienced from an authority, even if that authority was agnostic or atheist. At some point, though, a child grows up to be their own authority in their life.

As a young adult a person may decide that some of their roots are things to build a pattern on while others are not. At some point in our adulthood, may to start making choices for ourselves about our beliefs.  These may or may not cause us to participate in formal religion.

Eventually a person in their mid-adult years may identify with the story of a people—a tribe, an extended family, those who experience the same privilege or oppression.

In the final stage of spiritual growth, at some point we may experience a spiritual maturity which allows us to live with both simplicity and complexity. Spiritual maturity doesn’t mean having all the answers and telling them to other people, but living comfortably with one’s own beliefs of the moment and with other people, wherever they are in their own journey.  (based on Tapestry of Faith handout about James Fowler Six Stages of Faith)  So, that is a general outline of stages of faith a person might go through in their lifetime, based on James Fowler’s theories.

One popular adult faith course in the UU movement is called Building Your Own Theology.  How many of you have done it?  I recently heard someone say that course gave them their own unique personal bedrock which has helped them weather life situations and be a congregational leader.  This curriculum Building Your Own Theology is written by Rev. Richard Gilbert and invites people to consider four questions:

Do you believe in something beyond yourself?
 What is the meaning of your life?
 What ethics guide your relationships
 What communities and identities and tribes you belong to

At the end of this six week course, each person makes some symbol or statement of their beliefs, whether in the form of an essay, one sentence, a drawing, a dance, or an altar.  This is a creation that they can refer back to—they are creating their own religious object to help themselves.  And, yet, the whole point is to know that this is not set in stone, but can change as life circumstances change.

As you reflect on changes in your inner experience, these make up your spiritual story.  For example, here are some situations you may have experienced that are a chapter in your spiritual life story:

If you have grappled with questions about what happens after someone dies and come to a new understanding.
 If you have found a way to explain how we and this earth were created
 IF have you had conflict with God and eventually found resolution
 IF you have questioned human goodness and came to a new conclusion
If you have discovered evil and decided how to live with it
 If you have faced an ethical dilemma and come to the other side with a new moral compass
If you have let one chapter end and another begin

These examples can be quite personal and individual.  For example, a person with an illness who believes God will give healing not necessarily by removing disease but by helping them and their family, is an example of someone finding comfort and love in a way they didn’t understand before.

We are also shaped by external events.  For example, CS Lewis, a Christian theologian of the past century, served in the trenches of World War I and then spent decades trying to make sense of this.  His experience in war caused him to wrestle with what is good and evil, and what is the role of the common person, who feels little control to do good.

Similarly, I have heard many people here this summer grapple with what they believe after the complex harms that occurred in our town this summer.  I have heard one person say the Good News of the past summer here in Charlottesville is that good people helped make terrible events less terrible and are changing things for the better.  When I hear this, I hear this person with a humanist outlook affirming the goodness in humanity—this person is solidifying their humanist values.

And, my friends, world events keep happening.
Just this past week we have seen another horror in Las Vegas.
Each of us has been handling this news in our own way.
Perhaps we find comfort or don’t,
perhaps we have faith in human goodness, or don’t,
perhaps we come to a new conclusion about the nature of evil, or don’t,
perhaps we find that we are called to act in meaningful ways, or not.
Each of these potential changes is part of our spiritual growth.
Hence, our lives are an unfolding spiritual story.

When an author tells a story of someone else’s life, it is a biography.  But when an author tells a story from their own life, it is an autobiography.  And each of us have spiritual stories that we could tell.  One tool which people have used to understand spirituality is to write and to read spiritual autobiography.  If you go to the bookstore or library, spiritual autobiography is one classification you may find.  Spiritual autobiography has value because we gain deeper spiritual strength and resilience.  We can name our beliefs specifically, we are more likely to live a life consistent with our values.

One person, who did this, centuries ago, was Teresa of Avila.  She was a Catholic nun who lived in the 1500s in Spain.  She wrote about her inner conflicts and confusion about God.  She described challenges in her life and questions about God’s role.  By story-telling about her rigorous self-examination, she not only served as a model for others but also invited them to reflect on their own spiritual experiences.

(drawing on dissertation of Beth Ford Friend, written for Graduate Theological Union, ~2011, p.104)

Many people throughout time have engaged in spiritual autobiography in big and small ways, in personal and private ways.  Those of you who are beginning in our church’s program of covenant groups will have moments of sharing chapters of your spiritual autobiography, although it may happen casually, as it is woven into the conversation.

Spiritual autobiography played a role in our Unitarian history, from the part of the Unitarian family tree that grew from the Puritans. Now I will quote from a professor of spirituality named Beth Ford Friend who gives some history on spiritual autobiography. Spiritual writing emerged as a Protestant practice in seventeenth-century England and became integral to the devotional life of New England congregations. Puritan ministers encouraged members of their communities to record their experiences in diaries and journals.

People then shared insights with one another. The practice of writing thus instilled in people a pattern of daily self-examination and accountability to the larger community of believers. Spiritual autobiography, then, was not only a private practice; it also had a corporate dimension. Writing facilitated the process of paying attention to the movements of the Spirit.

While Puritans differed on theological issues, two core convictions united them:

The emphasis on learning (an educated clergy and literacy and learning among lay members) and the belief that each Christian engaged in a direct, personal relationship with God.

(quoting dissertation of Beth Ford Friend, written for Graduate Theological Union, ~2011, p. 5)

Here, today, in 2017, my hope is that each of us can find solace and strength in naming our stories.  Here are three ideas of how to do so:

1. keep a spiritual journal. Perhaps even challenge yourself to write each day:  what are three ways I experienced something spiritual today?
2. find a spiritual buddy who is willing to meet with you to share spiritual experiences.  Commit to meet regularly for a certain amount of time.
3. Read spiritual autobiography from diverse sources.  For example, the memoir of the Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed, one of the first black Unitarian Universalist ministers.

My friends, just like these plants up here, each of us has spiritual roots and have received nourishment.  Each of us has changed as we make sense of the world.  Let us be alert to our own stories and claim our growth so that we know our own strength and resilience.

Blessed be.

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