Transformation Takes Practice
Fourth Sunday After Epiphany •
January 28, 2018
Recommended Readings: Acts 17:22-28
“God is the One who gives everyone life, breath – everything… so that human beings would seek, reach out for, and perhaps find the One who is not really far from any of us – the One in whom we live and move and have our being.”
– Acts 17:25, 26
The Spirit calls us to deep connection. As the scripture lesson says, God gave us life so that we would reach out and find the One in whom we live and move and have our being. Don’t you love that image! But God wants us to connect not only with Them (the Trinity), but with all that is around us. God invites us to deeply connect with the lowercase “spirit” and the uppercase “Spirit.”
So, what connects you with spirit – with your own spirit, with the spirit in those around you, with the spirit in your dog or cat, with trees and rocks and rivers and oceans? What connects you with the Spirit of God? Such connections are the ground of our spirituality and are crucial to our wholeness and well-being. Through such spiritual connections, we are formed and transformed as human persons. We know this process is not automatic. Transformation takes practice!
So, what can we do? Or, perhaps a better way to put it: How can we live in order to grow our ability to experience those connections more deeply? How should we practice? In one sense, we do not become spiritual – we are spiritual. It infuses our whole being. The spirit is within us. God is within us. Yet, we can become more attuned to our spirituality – more able to connect deeply and in ways that transform us, our community, and our world. We can do that through “spiritual practices.”
Now, that’s a loaded term. When you imagine traditional Christian spiritual practices, you probably think of things like prayer, fasting, reading and meditating on scripture, or maybe taking a silent retreat. Yet, surely, spiritual practices are not limited to these. In our Call to Worship, we just heard a pretty creative and non-traditional list of spiritual practices from our own community. Would you consider dancing or going to the gym as a spiritual practice? How about walking in the woods or cleaning your apartment? Would that help you connect with your own spirit or with God? Then, there is my favorite new and surprising spiritual practice: cocooning in bed. Hmm…definitely one to consider!
So, perhaps there is more to this “spiritual practice” stuff than many of us have been led to believe. Some of those practices COTV members suggested sound pretty intriguing! And these are only the tip of the “spiritual practice” iceberg. The multifaith and interspiritual website, Spirituality & Practice, has a database of over 1,000 articles about spiritual practices! Our spirituality is an ever-present part of who we are and is active in everything we do. It’s active in every encounter and every experience we have. It makes sense, then, that there would be a spiritual practice to cover pretty much every way that we connect: with ourselves, the world, and God. They don’t have to be solitary, inwardly-focused, or quiet. They can be playful and loud and communal, too!
So I need to make a confession: I do not pray several hours a day. I do pray, of course, as concerns come up, but I don’t have prayer times set aside each day. Also, I love the Bible. I study it. I think about it. I read commentaries and essays and sermon about it, but I rarely read it devotionally or meditate on it. I have to admit that I am not a big fan of fasting. Alright, there, I’ve said it. But here are a few practices that do feed me spiritually:
- Worship – I love really good worship that grabs people’s hearts and spirits.
- I connect deeply through reading with authors I will probably never meet and with circumstances I may never experience.
- My writing connects me deeply with my own spirit and the spirit of God that inspires me to write. It has, for example, connected me more deeply with my own life experience and, in a surprising way, with the spirit of ancestors I never met.
- MUSIC! I play it. I sing it. I compose it. Music has always been a huge piece of my spirituality, from the time I learned to play the ukulele when I was five years old. Are the any other ukulele players among us this morning?
- And finally, at 60 years old, I tried yoga for the first time recently. I tore the meniscus in my right knee seven weeks ago, so I had to be careful trying the warrior pose, but I found it to be very centering and relaxing. This was a charity fundraising event, but my physical therapist has also been recommending yoga for a while. So, here is a practice that is good for body and soul!
Spiritual practice is not about following a prescribed “checklist.” It is about finding those practices and ways of being that most feed our spirits and nurture our connectedness. We need to find practices that feel authentic and meaningful to us. That is true for our individual spirituality and in the circles and communities to which we belong. We need practices that help open us to deeper connection and to the gifts each of us has to offer to help transform lives, communities, and social systems.
Pathways that work for one person won’t necessarily work for another. We are unique individuals and, sometimes, our spirits will be fed by different means. You heard the range of practices listed by just a few people in the Church of the Village. Imagine what variety and breadth we would find if we surveyed the whole congregation. Let me be clear. I’m not saying we have to throw out traditional Christian practices, but we do not have to limit ourselves to those alone. Tradition should serve us and not the other way around. Christians can benefit immensely through borrowing spiritual practices from other faith traditions or from exploring practices that are not necessarily connected to any faith tradition and those we may never have considered to be “spiritual practices” – like cocooning or vacuuming. If we do something intentionally and regularly that promotes connection, then isn’t it, at least in part, a spiritual practice?
I have focused so far on individual spiritual practices. You will have a bit of time after the sermon to note some of the practices you already engage and those you wish to take on. We exist in community with others, so we also need to discover authentic and meaningful communal spiritual practices. What spiritual practices do we already have in common as a community? What practices might we adopt that feed our individual spirits and also help to create a shared spirituality? Are there practices that contribute to a healthy and vital progressive Christian spirituality? Name one that stands out for you. I am guessing that for at least most of you, our worship together feeds your spirits. For me, it powerfully combines music that touches and inspires us, messages that have depth and significance, a deep sense of the power of prayer, and a strong focus on love and justice. One of my favorite points in worship every Sunday is when we gather in a big circle, join hands, sing together, and look across the circle at one another. It is a Spirit moment for me and really captures the most basic meaning of our worship together. Beyond worship, our Together in Prayer group, the prayer chain, our small groups and other gatherings, all help to center us as a community. Our commitments to advocacy around racism, homophobia, transphobia, and economic justice is also a spiritual practice for us. It grounds us in the reality of the task we face of working with God to create a kin-dom of love and justice. One of the most profound spiritual experiences I have every week is spending time each Tuesday at the Hope for Our Neighbors in Need food pantry. I get to express my love of leading singing with my voice and guitar. I get to know our guests and volunteers. We pray communally and also with individuals. It is nearly always an experience of great spiritual joy and connection for me, and I hope for others.
Moreover, our community building efforts in The Church of the Village keep us focused on building loving relationships. Those efforts and those relationships include not just worship and study, but joyful socializing, laughter, mutual care and compassion, forgiveness, and deep mutual sharing. I have personally had many connecting experiences with individuals and groups in our congregation. I have experienced that with many of you over coffee. Some of us have attended concerts and plays plays together. We have cared for one another when we are grieving or ill. We have shared joyful moments at social gatherings and weddings. We don’t usually think of these as “spiritual practices,” and yet they do foster our connections with one another.
Now, we should not pretend that any of this all happens without a hitch. If it were easy, we would all be approaching a state of nirvana. What gets in our way? Painful physical and emotional experiences dampen our openness to spiritual connection. Depression, addiction, or abuse can do great harm to our spirits. Abuse, exploitation, and all forms of oppression make us wary of being vulnerable. Being caught up in pride, greed, power, and privilege can blind us to our need for connection. These stumbling blocks do not make deep spiritual connection impossible, but they do make it more difficult.
Can there be a danger in the ways we practice our spirituality? Surely, if we focus only on being zen and quiet, while ignoring the pain and suffering around us, then spiritual practices can pacify us or make us complacent and uncaring. We need to find the proper balance between those quiet and loud practices and between inwardly and outwardly focused spirituality. Sometimes our spirits need to shout in anger or grief or righteous resistance. Sometimes, our spirits need to rest, sometimes to play.
There is no exact prescription for our spiritual existence, but we have plenty of direction. We have direction from God who inspires us and reaches out to us continuously with God’s Spirit. There are thousands of years of tradition and experience for us to draw from. And, it is so important to remember that we are in this together. We don’t exist as spiritual islands, but as a community of spirits. Aren’t we a community of spirits? We are all of us seeking, longing, and desiring to connect, as the scripture says, with the one in whom we live and move and have our being. So, we support, and we encourage, and we share with one another. We grow and we learn together how to connect. And on this journey – on this journey, we are continually being drawn together – our spirits drawn together with one another and with God’s Spirit. And in that process, we are transformed – transformed as individuals and transformed as a community – for love and justice and beauty and for the glory of the Spirit. I am so grateful to be on this journey with you.
 Julie Cameron
 Spirituality & Practice is a multifaith and interspiritual website. Online at www.spritualityandpractice.com.