Rev. David Herndon
First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh
September 13, 2015
This past summer, Cindy, Rachel, Meredith, and I had an opportunity to travel out of town for a few days of vacation. As it happened, the place where we stayed had a yoga instructor. I went to his class most of the days we were there.
When it comes to yoga, I am among the world’s least accomplished people. My downward dog pose is a slow-motion downward collapse. My mountain pose wobbles. Like a tangle of coat hangers, my triangle pose has too many angles and too many sides. At the final class that I attended, the yoga instructor said that I was “a good sport,” which was his kind way of acknowledging our mutual assessment that I was really, really bad at yoga. Nevertheless, in my limited experience, yoga instructors consistently say that you can benefit from doing yoga even if you are far from expert, so I have not given up.
One yoga thing I was able to do was lie flat on my back, relax, and observe my breathing without falling asleep. The yoga instructor would say, “Clear your mind, let go of your troubles, and simply pay attention to your breath.” I could do that. On other occasions, the yoga instructor would say, “Now focus your attention on specific parts of your body. Bring your attention to your kneecaps, and hold your attention there for a moment. Now bring your attention to your toes, and hold your attention there for a moment. Now bring your attention to the back of your neck, and hold your attention there for a moment.” Once again, I could do that.
Then one day the yoga instructor said, “I am inviting you to focus your attention on specific parts of your body. But this time, instead of focusing your attention as if you were looking at your kneecaps from the outside, focus your attention as if you were inside your body and you were looking at your kneecaps from the inside.”
This invitation was different, but I am a good sport, after all, so I imagined moving the focus of my attention to the inside of my body, as if the center of my attention were inside my knee and I was looking out at the world from there. The yoga instructor invited us to move on to other locations. Fingers. Belly. Soles of the feet.
I was able to do this exercise only imperfectly. It was definitely a challenge to try to imagine looking out at the world from the vantage point of my big toe.
Nevertheless, I was quite intrigued with this idea of inhabiting my body in this more mindful way. As I was placing the center of my attention first in my knee, then in my fingers, and so on, I thought about other things that exist within me: conscience, loyalty, purpose, persistence, creativity, and so on, all mixed together with the muscle and the bone and the blood. It was reassuring to know that all these qualities exist within me, reassuring to know that I have all these qualities that I can call forward at any time, reassuring to know that these qualities come from a source within me.
It was also reassuring to know that even if I were to lose things outside myself, I would still have these qualities inside myself that could not be taken away.
Because I was away from my customary surroundings during these few days, I was able to block out the compromises and complexities and contradictions that can so easily shut down one’s hopes and aspirations. Yes, we are social beings, and yes, we could not survive without one another, and yes, our identities are interdependent. We are part of one another. We are all family. At the same time, we can get in one another’s way. We can have different ideas and preferences and perspectives. In a religious community, or any other intentional community, we have to give and take, we have to compromise, we have to temper our own opinions with the wisdom of others, and we have to know when to step up and when to step back. Harmonizing differences day after day can be challenging, difficult work, especially for those of us who are naturally introverted.
But being away from my customary surroundings during these few days gave me an opportunity to become more aware of my own inner spark, my own interior spring of pure water from a deep source, my own interior motivations and values and aspirations and hopes, my own sense of calling, without having to explain or defend. This opportunity was refreshing.
As we start a new church year here at the First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh, I would offer a reminder that all of us have our own inner spark, our own interior spring of pure water from a deep source, our own interior motivations and values and aspirations and hopes, our own sense of calling. It is important that we step back from time to time and honor those qualities in one another. Those sacred qualities are what first brought us to this sacred space. Yet in the midst of attending committee meetings, showing up for rehearsals, working out lesson plans for children’s classes, cooking community meals, working out budgets, scheduling one-on-one conversations with others, attending social justice rallies, and so many other instances of day-to-day life in a church community, we may lose track of our inner spark, our own interior spring of pure water from a deep source. We may lose track of why we came to First Unitarian Church in the first place, and what we were seeking by showing up here.
This year let us be more mindful that each and every one of us is experiencing our own personal spiritual journey, our own inward sacred process, our own spark of holy purpose, our own sense of mission in the world. This year let us be more mindful that each and every of us has a deep longing to make a difference, to contribute something that comes from our soul, to put our faith into action. This year let us be more mindful that each and every one of us has come to this Sanctuary seeking to become more closely connected with some larger purpose, more closely connected with our own interior self, and more closely connected with other people.
Once upon a time, it seems that a church had run out of ideas and enthusiasm for fund-raising projects. Nobody wanted to do another bake sale, or bingo night, or quilt raffle, or service auction, or spaghetti supper, or benefit concert, or rummage sale, or talent show, or car wash. The Board of Trustees sat gloomily in silence, facing the specter of a looming deficit. Then someone said, “Well, we could always try religion.”
Well, yes, we could always try religion. But not to balance the budget, not to build membership, not to accumulate the outward trappings of congregational success. You try religion because you want a deeper foundation in your life, because you know that life is short and you want to make a difference in the limited time you have, because you want to serve some purpose larger than what can be contained in your own life, because your soul has spoken up in an urgent way with an invitation toward more abundant life that you cannot set aside.
This year let us be more mindful to put first things first, that is, to remind one another that first and foremost this is a Sanctuary for the soul-journey of us all, a Sanctuary that honors the unfolding sense of sacred purpose within us all, a Sanctuary where we build up transformed people who can go forth and build up a transformed world.
The radical lesbian feminist theologian Mary Daly said, “It is the creative potential itself in human beings that is the image of God.” In other words, we are created to be creative. Here at First Unitarian Church, we are blessed with an abundance of creative potential. We are blessed with so many amazing and remarkable people who can do so many amazing and remarkable things. Yes, we also have some talented staff members. But our purpose as staff members is to open doors and extend invitations and offer encouragement so that you all can actualize your creative potential in the service of our Unitarian Universalist values and aspirations. If this church buzzes and hums with creative energy, it will be your creative energy that matters; if this church offers creative service to the world, it will be your creative service that matters.
In an article entitled “The Promise and Paradox of Community,” Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers observe two opposite and inseparable tendencies in living beings. They write: “Life takes form as individuals that immediately reach out to create systems of relationships. These individuals and systems arise from two seemingly conflicting forces: the absolute need for individual freedom, and the unequivocal need for relationships.” They go on to point out that when people join organizations, the cost is giving up one’s creative self-expression, or abandoning one’s autonomy. But they also point out that the opposite reaction, isolating oneself, is not healthy either. What is needed, they say, are communities that honor both sides of the paradox, respecting creative self-expression and yet also respecting the disciplines of community. They write: “Our communities must support our individual freedom as a means to community health and resiliency. And individuals must acknowledge their neighbors and make choices based on the desire to be in relationship with them as a means to their own [individual] health and resiliency.” For Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers, the key is to stay focused on shared purpose. They write: “What called us together? What did we believe was possible together that was not possible alone? What did we hope to bring forth by linking with others? These questions invite in both our individuality and our desire for relationships.”
Here at First Unitarian Church, of course we will struggle with the challenge of affirming both individual freedom and right relationship in community. However, the wisest way to meet this challenge may be focusing on our shared purpose, that is, focusing on what we want to accomplish together. To discover our shared purpose, we can simply turn toward one another and listen from heart to heart and thereby learn about one another’s interior journeys and one another’s stories of putting our deep faith into devoted action in the world.
This year here at First Unitarian Church let us live life from the inside out, starting with our soul-journeys, our sense of sacred purpose, our inner spark, our interior spring of pure water from a deep source. Let us live life from the inside out, starting with our sorrow for the oppression of the past and our call to bring about greater justice in the future. This year, let us live from the inside out by speaking with one another in ways that bear witness to the deep foundations of our spiritual identities. This year, let us live from the inside out by creating a transformed world with one another in ways that bear witness to our most earnest visions of the future. Not that this interior depth has been absent from our community life; but this year let us be even more mindful about starting with our souls and then cooperatively and collaboratively drawing on that creative potential we all share.
© 2015 by David Herndon