First Unitarian Universalist Church of Berks County

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The Spiritual Practice of Being Human

July 1, 2018
Rev. Dr. Sandra Fees

Another week. Another tough week.

The Supreme Court struck a blow to unions and collective bargaining.

US Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy tendered his resignation.

The House rejected a bill to protect the Dreamers.

Migrant families have been separated at the border, restrictions and criminalization of asylum-seekers has increased, and the building of tent cities for migrants is scheduled to begin in a few days.

In Pittsburgh, an unarmed African American teen–17-year-old Antwon Rose–was killed by a police officer.

The shooting at a newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland, left five dead and others injured. Wendi Winters, a Unitarian Universalist and members of the Annapolis, MD, congregation who was known for her work with Unitarian Universalist youth in our district, was among those killed.

The news hasn’t been all bad. But what I am hearing from people is a current of despair, anxiety, reactivity, and frustration. There is also a deep current of anger and blaming.

This week, a tough week, I have experienced a kind of whiplash, reacting to each event, each news story, each day with a sense of overwhelm, and each day seeking to restore a sense of balance.

This morning I planned to talk about spiritual practices. The Worship Associates selected spiritual practices as the summer worship theme. I thought I would talk about what a spiritual practice is and why it is important, how we all need regular spiritual practices rooted in everyday experiences. And all week I kept thinking, “really? I don’t know if I can talk about this when the sky is falling. These are times for action.”

Then I harkened back to last week’s General Assembly.

2000 UUs gathered from across the nation and internationally as well. Delegates arrived to represent our congregations and make decisions in line with Unitarian Universalist values. Collectively we asked questions and reflected on the kinds of answers Unitarian Universalism has to offer, the kinds of answers the world needs, the kinds of answers that are grounded in our liberal religious values, our human values.

Those decisions speak directly to the kinds of issues that have been so prominent in the news in recent months and days. These include decisions about the importance of black and brown lives, transgender and differently abled lives, the lives of youth, the lives of immigrants, indigenous lives, the life of this planet, prisoner’s lives.

Three Actions of Immediate Witness were selected, and two of our delegates—Tonya Wenger and Pat Uribe-Lichty—helped to craft the final language of one of them. That action is: “End Family Separation and Detention of Asylum Seekers and abolish ICE.” The other two are: “Dismantle Predatory Medical Care Practices in Prisons and End Prisons for Profit" and "We are all Related: Solidarity NOW with Indigenous Water Protectors."

Delegates also changed the Unitarian Universalist Association bylaws to reflect gender inclusive language, shifting he/she/him/her to they/their. The historic marginalization of religious educators and youth was addressed by two key decisions. Religious educators were enthusiastically and overwhelmingly voted delegate status to General Assembly.  Youth were voted full status for two positions on the UUA Board of Trustees.

What struck me as much as anything about this year’s General Assembly was the decision-making process itself. It included intentional spiritual practices. I remember when I first went to General Assembly about 20 years ago. There were lots and lots of long debates at microphones about anything and everything. There were lots of proposed amendments and language controversies. There was lots of frustration. As a community espousing love and worth, the gathered assembly was too often left with a sense that we were warring factions with winners and losers. While we were trying to save the world out there with our social justice passions, we were trampling each other in the process.

What I have witnessed in recent years is a growing respect for what it means to weave together the threads of decision-making, activism, and spirituality—to ensure that our process and relationships with one another are as humane as the statements and actions we produce. Even a seemingly small decision this year speaks to that. The con mic—there is a pro and con mic—became a mic of concern rather than controversy.

Moderators reminded delegates frequently about the rules and how they work, offering options to ease tensions and constraints. When delegates seemed to be collectively struggling with the rules, the moderators reminded us that we could vote to suspend the rules.

Before crucial and potentially divisive decisions, delegates were asked to take two minutes and turn and reflect with a neighbor on a question related to the topic. Before votes, the moderators led us in prayer. We sang between business agenda items. Groups assembled in smaller break out groups to work on refining the language of documents and engaged in discernment together. They then brought their work back to the larger assembly.

The leadership modeled a collaborative way of being. A number of key UUA positions have moved from being held by one person to being filled by teams of two or more. We learned that the UUA board has suspended the use of Roberts Rules of Order during its meetings and has moved toward a consensus model of decision-making. Panels provided a mechanism for sharing a diversity of perspectives and stories.

As with previous assemblies, between the business sessions, there were times of spiritual practice, worship, education, acts of witness, and time to break bread with old and new friends.

Yes, these are times for action. Yet they are also times when the importance of the spiritual practices of our community and of our individual lives cannot be underestimated. We need both. This summer as we embark on the theme of spiritual practices in our worship services, our General Assembly offers a reminder of just how critical those spiritual practices are. When woven with the business, with the work, spiritual practices strengthen community.

The division between justice and spirituality, between work and spirituality, between activism and prayer is an arbitrary one. The language of spirituality and justice gives us a way to talk about certain experiences and ideas but does not serve us well when it separates them into two rigid categories. After all, if you’ve been to a vigil, if you attend tonight’s vigil, silence and song and stories will fill the air. Our presence will be a spiritual and political act.

When times get tough, we need to act, and we need to act from a place of spiritual grounding. Our way of making justice has to be rooted in our deepest values and humanity. As we wrestle with the urgent calls to justice, spiritual practice can also be the very thing that makes it possible to continue.

Without spiritual practice I lose my balance, my patience, my compassion, my hope, my joy, my deepest connection to spirit, my deepest connection to others, my commitment to collaboration, healing, and transformation. Without spiritual practice, I lose my humanity, the very breath of my life.

Without active engagement, I lose my community, my connection to others, my part in the interconnected web, my power to effect change and to be changed, the opportunity to give shape to the world and to be shaped by it. I lose the hope for planetary healing and beauty. Without engagement, I lose my humanity, the very breath of my life.

This summer as we engage in reflecting on and embodying spiritual practices, I invite you to seek and reflect on those places where the two intersect. Where does one feed and nourish and encourage the other? How do you bring spiritual practice to your justice work, and how do you bring your justice work to your spiritual practice? These are the warp and the weft. You can’t weave a tapestry without both.

Spiritual practices are not meant to remove us from our lives and from daily experiences. Nor is activism meant to remove us from ourselves. Being a Unitarian Universalist calls on us to be people of spiritual depth and social engagement, to weave tapestries of our lives and with the lives of others.

When asked by a priest to speak at his church, author Barbara Brown Taylor asked him, “What do you want me to talk about?” His answer was simple. “Come tell us about what is saving your life now.”

We each need to be asking ourselves that question. What is saving my life right now? And we each need to reflect on and answer that question for ourselves. On what does my life depend? But let’s not stop with that question. Let’s also ask “On what does the life of the world depend?” (An Altar in the World)

Aimee Maree Brown asks a similar question, “What are the practices you need to line your life up with your values and beliefs?” She says:

I have found that the work of cultivating personal resilience, healing from trauma, self-development and transformation is actually a crucial way to expand what any collective body can be. We heal ourselves, and we heal in relationship, and from that place, simultaneously, we create more space for healed communities, healed movements, healed worlds. (Emergent Strategy)

To cultivate our individual selves and communities in line with our values creates more healing—for ourselves and the planet. Spiritual practices save lives.

Meditation and prayer, vigils and letters to the editor, marches, calls to legislators, deep listening, forgiveness, humility, and planting trees . . . . Where does spirituality end and justice begin? Often it is nearly impossible to say and improbable to imagine one without the other.

Spiritual practices that are aligned with our deepest commitments and values have the potential to transform. Practices that affirm and advocate human worth, fairness, compassion, peace, interconnection and appreciation of difference, and decentering whiteness can save lives.

When the news arrives—a personal loss, a national tragedy, microaggressions and macroaggressions, inhumanity, hatred, bigotry—when news of these arrives, spiritual practice can give us courage and hope and resilience. It can help us breathe.

Spiritual practice can fuel our engagement and our re-engagement over the long haul in the calling to be our most human selves. Spiritual practice can return us to ourselves, to our deepest humanity, and to the spirit of life, to God.  

It can draw us deeper into the community of all beings where our stories and our voices and our values are needed.

May we ever heed the call to the spiritual practice of being human.

Amen. Blessed be.