You have already been forewarned that what I said I was going to talk about this morning has been changed. That’s the challenge, as I have said before, of having to know what moves one’s mind and spirit in time for newspaper and newsletter deadlines.
In this case, I took the chance that I would actually end up where I was supposed to be a week ago. Being educated and enlightened about our Unitarian Universalist Green Sanctuary movement — an effort to ensure that our own buildings are consistent with our commitment to the environment. That we are energy-efficient, chemically-sensitive, and water-preserving folks. That we honor our seventh principle — the interdependent web of all existence of which we are all — and just — a part.
An executive committee meeting of the Southeast UU Ministers Association got in the way of my attending this conference at all, so all I could report to you this morning is what I know to be what they talked about, and a bit of background.
Not enough to do justice to this movement within our movement, except as it exemplifies one of the basic convictions of our faith tradition. And one that seems very much on the minds and in the hearts of our own UU community.
The host congregation, for example, the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta, recently completed a multi-million-dollar renovation, which included all of the above — the prudent use of power, care in selecting materials, stewardship over other elements.
A continuation of creek clean-up on their property and a community recycling center. The youngest children tend organic gardens. Youth groups wade in the often turgid waters of the tiny stream and drag out the old cans and other clogging waste.
Their efforts and enthusiasm, and that of others from all over the country who came together last weekend — both to educate each other and to celebrate — are precious. Not just in the specifics of their ecological commitment, but also in the particular religious impulse, the spirituality, that under-gird these kinds of initiatives. A call to personal and global transformation. A call to movement and change.
Undergoing change, usually to something better or more useful.
Former Unitarian Universalist associational president, now the Executive Director of Amnesty International, William Schultz says it well when he talks about one of the fundamental convictions of those of us who call ourselves UUs. He writes that too often in this world, religion has been seen as the agent of division and fear. Unitarian Universalism, he believes, seeks to heal a fractured world and the broken lives within it by calling each and every one of us to the best that is in us.
Beyond nationalism and ethnic prejudice, beyond materialism and greed, beyond the petty and the shallow — we invoke global loyalty, an ecological ethic, and a deeper mercy.
An ecological ethic — which not only implies for me a sense of stewardship and interconnection, but a sense — a faith in — a connectedness, not only in time and space, but in energy, moving, changing energy. Another definition of transformation.
Current denominational president William Sinkford certainly created a firestorm — fire being the element of transformation and change — when he dared recently to propose that, for him, there was a missing element in our religious movement. That of naming the holy, or in my way of metaphor-making, that which describes my sense of ultimate wholeness or connectedness. Which this culture most commonly calls God.
My metaphors for the holy change as frequently of those in my own poems, but one that has stuck for me, in fact, is stuck on my refrigerator along with receipts for car repairs and restaurant coupons, is a description of God as neither the Old Man with the flowing White Beard or the Great Mother giving birth to the universe… but, in this instance, I mean God as the verb energizing the universe, God as the source of all movement.
The God, the energy, that moves us, moves us always towards opening ourselves to the world, to our fellow humans. Which allows us, pushes us, even, to take down barriers, drop our masks, and join with the rest of creation in the unending effort to live the good life.
I am reasonably sure that the yellowed quote is NOT from a Unitarian Universalist theologian, but it speaks to me as a Unitarian Universalist. God as a verb, moving through us as individuals and as a religious community.
Religious in that we are bound together in search of meaning and purpose.
And, for me, that presumes change, and assumes spiritual (WHOLE BEING) transformation over my own lifetime and the communities to which I am bound in covenant.
It turns out that, to put it mildly, I am not unique in this spirituality and this theology.
Just last week, I saw and picked up a special issue of a new magazine — I kid you not — What is Enlightenment? Spirituality for the 21st Century. The issue purchased attracted me for two reasons — one, the kicker header with a yellow happy face advertising that this was a special “boomeritis” issue — long may we rule and clog the social security rolls — and the theme — Are YOU willing to CHANGE NOW? Exploring the dynamics of human transformation.
Now, the human transformation movement is certainly not new to many of us Boomers, but the fact is, that this approach to how and why we live has taken on new life as a kind of alternative spirituality. An antidote to packaged religious doctrine for anyone under, let’s say, 60. Not an easy one, however, in fact, to even begin to comprehend some of the languaging of it might require more than a C grade in physics.
The working definition of spiritual transformation, for purposes of this one issue of one magazine, is provided by Yashiko Kimura, a contemporary Japanese philosopher. Who owes his own work, credits some of his own trailblazing work in naming and inspiring individual and collective transformation, to our own transcendentalist philosophers of the 19th century, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.
Kimura stumbled across these men, and others of their time and world view, through his research on the work of an organization called the Twilight Club.
Formed in the late 19th century by a long list of illustrious figures, including Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Andrew Carnegie. Discouraged, disheartened even, by what they saw as their sense of the moral decline of society during the so-called “Gilded Age,” with its conspicuous consumption and self-involvement. They came together to explore the ways to bolster the spiritual and ethical life of a nation they saw as suffering deeply from the changes of the industrial revolution. A country that had lost its soul, its heart.
Kimura and others see the parallel between that time, that time of selfishness and cynicism, in what is often called the post-modern spiritual malaise, that he feels has spawned a culture wide “conspiracy of mediocrity,” undermining what he describes as the drive, and what I would, in feminist terms, call the constant nudge of movement toward higher human potential in our global village.
So what is spiritual enlightenment for Kimura and others?
Transformation, he tells us, is a uniquely significant dance between being and becoming. Being is in becoming, and becoming is in being. Which is not enlightenment.
Enlightenment, he says, or spiritual awakening, points more to the movement from becoming to being, whereas the term transformation points more to the movement from being to becoming, to creating.
Not, then, a kind of sense of “ah hah — I got IT,” but the sense of “ah hah — I have joined in the movement,” from merely surviving, to accepting someone else’s myth or explanation of the what, why, and how of life, to our own highly individual sense of consciousness, to cosmic awareness, which inevitably includes change, almost constant change.
Transformation, ongoing transformation, he believes, implies that you and I need to continuously dissolve the old meaning of our lives and create our lives anew again.
And to recognize, truly recognize, that the central meaning of my life, your lives, is to be the evolutionary process itself.
He writes that his previous studies, his interest in a range of spiritual teachers from the Buddha to others such as the Buddha and Thomas Merton, taught him that the term guru, or lama in Tibetan, means the force of intelligence working inside ourselves and the universe as a meaning bestowing evolutionary principle.
Not a provider of comfort or easy, pre-set answers to life’s challenges, tragedies, mysteries.
The most important personal quality, he has found, to move into this understanding and to what he sees as the change, the transformation, that comes with it, is authenticity.
Authenticity is more fundamental than spiritual enlightenment. The blinding “I’ve Got It” moment that regards the highest truth as a noun, instead of a verb.
Authenticity, he says, is the state of being committed to truth, an evolving truth. And that path, that way, is the path least traveled. Because not only does it not provide constant comfort and reassurance, it can be incredibly uncomfortable and disturbing.
So, is Unitarian Universalism in the 21st century a transformational faith? Generalizations are hard, but I am going to go boldly into the arena of the definite, and say emphatically, Yes! Is it a faith more of verbs than of nouns? Yes! Is it a faith that is, and in fact should be, difficult? Yes! It requires, as Kimura and so many of our founders and contemporaries tell us, the awareness to know what one knows and what one does not know, and to know the difference between the two. It requires, then, humility. It requires honesty.
It is not easy and it is not common. Especially for adults in such uneasy times. Such a period of dis-ease.
Ken Wilbur, a tremendously important figure in current liberal religious thought, has written a new book, Boomeritis. Which is all of us around 55 and younger; the group we know is out there waiting to be part of a seeking community. In this book, Wilbur gives us the discouraging news that, while most individuals go through major transformations from birth to adolescence, transformation tends to taper off after that.
From the ages of 25-55, very few vertical transformations happen — changes in mind and spirit, at least, with any consciousness. It is almost impossible, he asserts, to get adult human beings to change.
Some people can do it if they go to the Himalayas, to an ashram, to a mountain retreat.
But it is not a part of the common culture in which we live.
Which is a great loss, not just to the individual who stays stuck, but to the possible changes that might be made in our greater communities, including our global one. Individual and global transformation do not exist without the other, because people like Wilbur and Kimura are convinced that there can be no authentic, life-affirming transformation in the world unless and until we do our own part in self-transformation. Not one first or second, but in a parallel way.
We must commit ourselves, they say, to the ecstatic life. Because ecstasy means being unstuck, ongoingly un-static.
Coming out of the Puritan, Enlightenment religious traditions that we did, it is not surprising that our mission statements do not often enough contain the words transformation and ecstasy. But I saw it yesterday, in our going-on-ten planning conversation, as we got unstuck together.
In this forward-looking, optimistic, and optimizing faith, may we offer sanctuary — comfort and support — to those who seek authentic transformation. To probe even what it means to be authentic, and to join in the invisible stream of seekers.
In the words of Unitarian songwriter Holly Near, may we experience the change of heart when we witness each other’s courage in being both the changer and the changed.
So be it.