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Sunday, September 16, 2012

The First Source: Our Own Experience

Presented by Rev. Diane Teichert with Worship Associates Celinda Marsh and Jonathan Mawdsley

Our First Source:  Our Own Experience

A sermon preached by the Reverend Diane Teichert

Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church

September 16, 2012


The first of six Sources from which Unitarian Universalism draws is “Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.”


Today we began our exploration of the first Source from which Unitarian Universalism draws with our breath. Breathing is one of our most directly apprehendable and ordinary experiences, though involuntary. Similarly, our blood flows through our veins, arteries, and organs but few of us note its circulation on a regular basis. 


Recently, I heard an interview with the modernistic composer John Cage in which he described an experience of what was supposed to be total silence – engineered in an advanced-technology sound-proof booth and he was wearing sound-blocking headphones – but he could hear something and described the sound to the researchers.  They told him it was the sound of his blood circulating. Few of us have heard it.


But most of us can easily become aware of our breathing, so we started there this morning. The first thing to note about “direct experience” is that it helps to be paying attention, or at least to notice when the experience comes upon you! Most of the time, we breathe without noticing, but in our short period of breathing meditation with the children during Together Time today, you may have noticed that paying attention to your breath turned your breath into something you were experiencing (as opposed to just doing involuntarily,) and that often has a calming or centering effect.


But is our breathing an experience of transcending mystery and awe? Moving us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life? Many who meditate – and it’s certainly happened to me, but not every time – have entered into it with anxiety or worry and come out of it feeling renewed and in touch with our own creative force.

Supposed you’ve just been frightened – nearly - to death. Maybe you held your breath. But you didn’t die. Having survived the fear you breathe again and are filled with awe. I can breathe! You are filled with gratitude, too. I survived! And, to the extent that we appreciate that it is kind of a miracle to wake up in the morning alive and not dead, our breath is a sign and reminder of that gift throughout the day.


Yes, simply experiencing our breath can be transformative, helping us transcend our trials and tribulations.


To the ancient Hebrews, the breath was holy. In Hebrew, their name for the God of Israel was Yahweh, which - you will quickly notice if you pronounce it - contains no true consonants and sounds like air passing through your lips when you say it:  Yahweh.  Ruach is the Hebrew word for the Spirit of God, and much like the English word “breath,” it means “moving air” - whether breath, wind or some invisible moving force.


I tell you all of this about breathing to suggest that a direct experience of transcending mystery and wonder does not require a beautiful natural setting, a great book, aerobic exercise, another person, mobility, or perfectly working eyes, ears or nose. If we are alive, breathing, and conscious of breathing, the experience is there for us to have. And the ancients knew of its power.


Yet, when we ask ourselves – as we wrote last Sunday and read aloud today – about a “direct experience of transcending mystery and wonder“ we do tend to think of a particular place and time. In fact, the specificity is notable. That’s because we paid attention. We were drawn into the detail of the experience. Yet, on the other hand, such an experience also draws us way beyond ourselves and we use expansive, transcendent-sounding words:  power, oneness, spiritual, exuberance, presence, harmony, unconditional, wonder-filled, absolute peace, and everyone came through beautifully.


We heard this interplay between a specific, detailed experience and an expansive, transcendent experience in the Chalice Reflection by Celinda Marsh earlier. When she said, “I also had a sense of shifting perspective –a sensation of simultaneous separation and communion...  It was a bit like zooming in and out in a picture.  At one point you have a close-up of a single person, but if you pan out, you see a larger and larger landscape around them.”


And in many of the experiences you wrote about last week, we can visualize the details so acutely noticed and yet also sense that the individual lost his or her individual self into a sense of the whole of life. For example, hear this one, and note how long ago it was, yet how vivid the images still are, and how the experience opened the person up to the forces which create and uphold life:

“In our vacation to the Canadian Rockies five years ago we were told that giant peaks were just ahead and hidden by the clouds. As we sat eating our bag lunch on a cold cloudy day we wondered if we would see those mountains. After a while, the clouds started to break and the sun started to shine. There were three gigantic mountains so close that we felt we could touch them. We both felt it was so spiritual for each of us!”


By contrast, another person wrote simply, “the sunrise every morning.” That person may be succeeding at incorporating into daily life a time to seek a direct experience of transcending mystery and wonder. It may not be a transcendent experience every time, but that person cultivates the intention.


Anticipating my vacation in Australia this past summer, I had an intention born of  a deep longing to experience a starry, starry night.  Where I live now, on a clear night, I’m lucky to see ten stars. It’s pathetic.  This summer, I so hoped to see a wide expanse of stars, millions of them, with planets, and the Milky Way from horizon to horizon. Two of our stops “Down Under” were likely to provide me with my wish, and they did.


The first was many miles out to sea on a coral island. Lying out on the sandy shore at night and looking up – there they were! The experience was mesmerizing with detail – there was a Southern Cross and no North Star, and my familiar constellations, like Orion, were upside down. But then me-myself got lost in noticing it all, and I was one with the expanse of it and with the humans down through the millennia who, lacking light pollution, saw such an array on every clear moonless night.


The second place was in what they call the Red Center of Australia, the desert, and we were sleeping in swags around a campfire with ten other people with whom we were traveling for a few days, hiking in gorgeous sandstone rock locations in the outback. It got cold at night, nearly to freezing. And the moon had become fuller and didn’t set until 1:30 or so in the morning, so stargazing wasn’t easy.


Nevertheless, I often wake up in the middle of the night and so when I did there, I rolled over to look up, saw that the moon had set, and uncovered my face enough to watch the sky. There they were, the stars in all their glory, Milky Way and all, and one tantalizing shooting star after another appeared with intervals just long enough to make me wait in anticipation but not long enough to make me give up. Eventually, deeply satisfied, steeped in transcending mystery and wonder, I rolled over and went back to sleep.


These direct experiences of mystery and wonder – like the river flowing in our souls – about which we sang a few minutes ago –  “tell us that we are some-body.” I think they give us access – as we will sing in a moment – to the power within – the power of the faith, hope, joy and love within us – that grounds us and connects us, one with another and with the Spirit of Life.


The fact that Unitarian Universalist congregations declared that Unitarian Universalism draws, firstly, from our own direct experience, is hugely important to me – because of what it says about how we do, and do not, come to know what is true. We do not accept our truths because they come from a priest or other clergy (or, indeed, from any other person), or from the Bible or other scriptures, or from the rituals or sacraments of any religious or cultural tradition.

We come to know what is true by our own experience. Yes, we can be fooled by our experience, or misunderstand it – that’s why humility is called for – but how we discover a falsehood is by new experiences of body, heart and mind. This requires us to be paying attention. Our faith tradition doesn’t suit those who want to be told what to believe, nor those who crave an imposed structure, and the effort might be hard to pull off if a person is starving - an experience I thankfully have not had, so I cannot be sure.


We do not accept our truths because they come from a priest or other clergy (or, indeed, from any other person), or from the Bible or other scriptures, or from the rituals or sacraments of any religious or cultural tradition.  We come to know what is true by our own experience and especially direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.”


This is why we call Unitarian Universalism a living tradition – it changes, and evolves, and emerges, based on our experience.


To me, this is true to life:  life is change. So will our faith be changing, through out our lives. That’s why it’s called a “journey.” Hang on! And don’t forget to breathe!


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