Integrity: Getting It All Together

Integrity:  Getting It All Together
preached for the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greater Lansing
by the Rev. Kathryn A. Bert
February 22, 2015

“Be ours a religion which like sunshine goes everywhere; its temple, all space; its shrine, the good heart; its creed, all truth, its ritual, works of love; its profession of faith, divine living.” 
These words are by Theodore Parker, American Transcendentalist, Abolitionist, and Unitarian minister. 

You may be more familiar with his words: 
"I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice."

These were paraphrased and made famous by Martin Luther King in 1967 when he said,
"The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice".

Parker was referring to the abolition of slavery and King to the subsequent civil rights movement.  What strikes me about their positions is that they were both confident, faithful, hopeful is maybe too strong a word – but because they knew they were in the right, they knew right would eventually prevail, even if not in their lifetimes.  It was a faithful position.  I think that’s what spiritual practices can help us achieve – that faithful dedication to a higher cause or purpose, despite the dangers, obstacles and trials. 

This is our last Sunday with the theme of spiritual practice, and I want to sum up some of what we’ve done this month – and introduce the notion that it helps us get it all together, it helps with integrity. Spiritual practice helps with wholeness.   I’m going to review some of the sermon I gave on February 1st because not too many of you were here.  We only held the first service, and then cancelled due to snow and illness. 

Robert Wunthnow, writes that, “The point of spiritual practice is not to elevate an isolated set of activities over the rest of life but to electrify the spiritual impulse that animates all of life.” which I take to mean, that the point is not to say that time spent meditating is more important than time spent doing something else, but rather meditating, or any spiritual practice, has its value if and when it helps you live the whole of your life with enthusiasm and passion.  It reminds me a little of Parker – let ours be a religion which like sunshine goes everywhere.  Our faith should animate, improve the whole of our lives and be everywhere – it should sustain us, and help make us whole and well and filled with lovingkindness.  Any activity we engage in repeatedly, that we practice, which serves our wholeness and the wholeness of the world, could be called a spiritual practice.

February 8th, I know that the covenant group facilitators presented a variety of spiritual practices for you to consider – drawing, jogging, music, and, of course, small group work.  I think they made the point that it is not the particular activity you engage in which makes it spiritual, but rather the way you practice, and how the practice helps make you and the world more whole.

As I introduced the topic the first Sunday, I mentioned that personal change for most of us, doesn’t come quickly, but rather it takes time and hard work and, yes, practice.  Most of us are just trying to make sense of the changes that occur around us.  Zen teacher Alan Watts says “The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.” 

I want to say that I think this congregation has been dancing beautifully, skillfully, wonderfully.  We’ve had changes thrown at us in quick succession, and the only reason, I believe, that we’ve been able to navigate those changes, is that we’ve been practicing.  We practiced raising lots of money, we’ve practiced honest disagreement, we’ve practiced trying to be as accessible as possible, we practiced making offers on buildings, we have been practicing, practicing, practicing for the moment that took place January 25th in the congregational meeting when, unanimously, a super-quorum of the congregation voted to sell this awkward and beloved building in favor of the future. 

“I believe that we learn by practice. Whether it means to learn to dance by practicing dancing or to learn to live by practicing living, the principles are the same.” said groundbreaking dancer and choreographer, Martha Graham.  Spiritual practice is our subject this month, and it couldn’t be more timely, in my opinion.  Because though we may wish to sit back and congratulate ourselves on solving our adaptive challenge with the building, as your Board of Trustees discussed this is really just the beginning.  We have simply entered into that neutral zone – the hardest part of the journey – when we know that we are leaving, but we haven’t yet arrived at what is to be.

Spiritual practice helps us prepare for the unexpected, the difficult, the challenges of life.  Wuthnow says that the point of spiritual practice is to electrify the spiritual impulse that animates all of life.  I refer to it as any repeated and intentional activity that helps us connect our body and mind, and find our center in the midst of chaos or change or busy-ness.

I don’t really believe that the body and the mind are separate entities, but the English language we speak and the understanding of the world we’ve inherited, describes them that way.  I like the single word description of bodymind or mindbody, because I can’t imagine one without the others.  Some people do believe in a consciousness outside of the body, but given that I am still living in my own body, I’m agnostic on that point.

What I do know is that my mind can be active while my body is still and my body can be active while my mind is still, and sometimes they seem to be synchronized and other times, the information I get from my mindbody or bodymind seems to contradict itself.  Spiritual practice, for me, is one way to align the two, when I do distinguish the parts.  The breath is the connecting link, and when done consciously, allows us to give attention to the mindbody and experience it as whole. 

Nic and I are taking a class on congregationally based spiritual direction.  Nic is our ministerial intern for multigenerational community.  He and I have been learning about spiritual direction in the context of congregational life.  I have been having a hard time wrapping myself around it.  I believe that whether or not we call it spiritual direction, spiritual direction is what we should be doing at church, pretty much all the time, and so studying it as a separate subject matter has been a challenge for me.  We are practicing, experimenting, learning, about ourselves, our community and our highest values, and constantly discerning whether or not we are on the spiritual path we think is best.  Congregational life is about doing this in community – having others with whom we can check our assumptions and test our theories, and working toward social change, social justice in the world.  It’s better we start practicing now, rather than waiting until we reach a crisis.  We must start now to electrify the spiritual impulse that animates all of life.  Practice today. 

Kay Lovell, your board president, who also happens to be a neuroscientist, gave me an article from Scientific American about the benefits of contemplative practices on the bodymind.  The article is titled Mind of the Meditator.  You’ve heard about this research, no doubt, this is the more than 15 year study of expert Buddhist meditators –those having more than 10,000 hours of practice.  They looked at the brain activity as measured by an electroencephalogram, and discovered things like:  meditation training increases one’s ability to better control and buffer basic physiological responses – inflammation or levels of a stress hormone.  I’ll jump to the end of the article and give you their conclusions.  These authors, Matthieu Ricard, Antoine Lutz, and Richard Davidson, write that “about 15 years of research have done more than show that meditation produces significant changes in both the function and structure of the brain of experienced practitioners.  These studies are now starting to demonstrate that contemplative practices may have a substantive impact on biological processes critical for physical health.” 

Mindbody.The reverse is also true.  We know that activity in the body affects brain function.  Bodymind.  “I believe that we learn by practice, said Martha Graham, “whether it means to learn to dance by practicing dancing or to learn to living by practicing living, the principles are the same.”

It’s this mysterious thing, this being human.  We can electrify the spiritual impulse that animates all of life through our practice.    Practice means to perform, over and over again in the face of all obstacles, some act of vision, of faith, of desire.”

The people who joined in membership this morning are performing an act of vision, faith and desire.  They are saying, despite the inherent risks of community, they wish to join with this congregation to help build the beloved community and take it into the world.

I forgot to share with the members who joined last week the wisdom of my colleague Mary Ann Macklin who at the UU Church in Bloomington, IN tells people who join that they don’t really become members until first they’ve been disappointed.  I usually say that in the Taking the Leap class when you sign the membership book, but I forgot this time, so I’ll remind all of you now.  It’s what you decide after that first disappointment with the all-too-human institution of church that will determine your long term relationship with it.  Do you come back and grapple with your disappointment?  Do you talk to others, or do you keep it to yourself?  Do you slowly disappear, or do you re-engage? These are the same reactions we can have to other disappointments in life.  And we can build our today on our responses to the events of yesterday.

I think it takes integrity to stick with it, and to engage our disappointments.  Engaging in a regular spiritual practice can help us pull it all together, keep it all together, integrate all our various thoughts and feelings, so that we act with vision and faith and for the future.

When we first voted to purchase property, I named some of the elders of this church who have died, but who I hope would be celebrating our eventual move to Lansing.  This morning I remember different elders:  Walt and Ann Williams, Max Mortland, Betty and Bruce Ambrose, Grace and John Iverson – to name a few.

Those of you who joined the church this morning may not know those names, but they are just some of many who kept this institution strong so that you could one day arrive here to join us.

One of the definitions of integrity is the state of being whole, entire, or undiminished.  In pursuit of that wholeness, I would like to invite others into this room, who did not live to see this day, but who would be celebrating with us this morning.  If you would like to name someone who has died who helps make you whole, please speak that name into the room right now, and we will listen to our wholeness:

People in the congregation speak names of people….

This church is more whole today, with these ancestors and new members.  This church is more whole today with the prospect of a building that makes welcoming people with disabilities of mobility more possible.  This church is more whole today because you have gathered your bodies, your resources, your power, your hope, to say we have faith in the beloved community and the arc of justice, we know that love is possible and made palpable, we work to improve our lives and the world.  If this is true for you, will you please say amen?