The Spirit-Filled Life

Third Sunday After Epiphany •
January 21, 2018

Pastor Jeff Wells

“Spirituality is not a formula; it is not a test.
It is a relationship. 
Spirituality is not about competency;
it is about intimacy. 
Spirituality is not about perfection;
it is about connection. 
The way of the spiritual life begins where
we are now in the mess of our lives.”

– Mike Yaconelli

“You do not need to work to become spiritual. You are spiritual; you need only to remember that fact. Spirit is within you. God is within you.” 
– Julia Cameron

“Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that God is good. Come to Christ, the living Stone – rejected by humans but chosen by and precious to God.”
– 1 Peter 2:2-4

          Today, we embark on a four-week worship and sermon series on spirituality. In the coming weeks, we will look at what it means to “practice” spirituality, at the reality that progressive Christian spirituality is inclusive and inviting, and at the reality that love and justice are inextricably linked in our spirituality. Today, I want to explore an expansive definition of “spirituality” and what it mean to live a spirit-filled life.

          Peter McGough is one of the artists behind The Oscar Wilde Temple installation that The Church of the Village hosted for three months in the fall. Peter  grew up in the Catholic Church in Syracuse in the 1960s and ’70s and became very alienated from religion because of the church’s deep-going homophobia. For years, he dreamed of creating the Oscar Wilde Temple as a secular tribute to the great poet and playwright – he has even referred to Oscar Wilde as his “god.” Peter rejects all religions because he has experienced all of them as generally homophobic (although he does now have a soft spot for the Church of the Village). Yet, in his career as an artist, he has continually striven to connect with something outside of and larger than himself and to has sought a sense of meaning and purpose through what he was creating. In other words, Peter has is deeply spiritual. 

          ne definition of spirituality I found compelling comes from Christina Puchalski, MD, Director of the George Washington University Institute for Spirituality and Health. She contends that “spirituality is the aspect of humanity that refers to the way individuals seek and express meaning and purpose and the way they experience their connectedness to the moment, to self, to others, to nature, and to the significant or sacred.” I also reached out to our neighbors at the Integral Yoga Institute and got the response back just this morning from Rev. Sam Rudra Swartz, an interfaith yoga minister: 

“To me spirituality is the recognition that deep within our individual consciousness exists an awareness. This awareness is beyond words, beyond description, and beyond our limited human understanding. Our attempts to connect with this formless awareness, which we often refer to as, ‘our spirit,’ help us to be in the present moment where all that we are aware of…allows us to rest in our truest nature of peace and joy.”

So the universal human experience of spirituality is difficult to define or describe. Even so, I am going to offer this morning a way of grasping spirituality.      

           Much traditional thinking and writing on spirituality has treated it as something that is outside of us that we must seek after. It has also often focused primarily on our need to connect with God. We have to admit that part of this comes from the way that the spirit and spirituality are talked about in the Bible. But the reality is that spirit and spirituality are integral to who we are as humans. We are necessarily spiritual beings. And rather than being solely or primarily on our connection to God or to the sacred, spirituality is about our connectedness to all things.

          When you walk barefoot on the sand or wade into a river or ocean, don’t you feel more than just physical sensations? When you walk through a park or a woods, pick up a fallen leaf and examine its color, shape, and texture, is it just an exercise in scientific observation or do you actually experience joy in the connection with the nature? Or, if you pet your dog or cat, aren’t you experiencing a spiritual connection with another living creature? Yesterday, I got up when it was still dark outside, made a cup of English Breakfast tea, and sat at my desk to work on this message. Maybe half an hour later, when I noticed the dawn, I looked up to find a beautiful stripe of red sky hovering over the treetops and exclaimed to no one but myself an God, “Oh my God, wow!” Now, it it true that all of these experiences I described have a material and sensory component, but there is more to these them – there is a spiritual component that cannot be separated from our physical experience of the world.

          Think about the experience of something both immediate and more distant. Imagine reading a book – it doesn’t matter whether it is fiction or non-fiction – as you read, you connect with the writer, you also connect with the experience the writer is describing, and you connect with the spirit within yourself that feels something about what you are reading: joy, love, empathy, fear, suspicion, pain, and so on. And sometime, when you are reading or walking in the wood or petting your dog, you even feel a connection with God. That is spirituality. 

           It this is true that spirituality is fundamental to every experience we have, then it is a misunderstanding to talk about having “a spiritual life” that is distinct and separate from the rest of our existence. I can’t say, for example, that “My spiritual life is expressed through The Church of the Village.” Your life is your spiritual life and your spiritual life is your life. 

           “Spirituality” is not the same as religion and is not based on religion. The reverse is true – all religions are founded on the reality that we are all spiritual beings. In a fundamental sense, we are all spiritual, and some of us choose religion as a pathway for our spirituality. Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin are spiritual. It’s just that their spirituality is deformed. That brings me to a crucial point. Our minds, bodies, and spirits are part of an integral whole being. Our spirituality is inextricably connected to our physical, emotional, and psychological well-being. Yet, our spirits and our ability to feel, access, and express our spirituality can get damaged, broken, or suppressed by things that happen to us and things we do to ourselves through our choices about the ways we connect with or separate ourselves from God, from other human beings, and from the rest of creation. So, when our minds, emotions, and actions are filled with envy, hatred, prejudice, anger, violence, and greed, then our spirituality is going to be very diminished from what it could be and from what the Loving God desires for us. That is precisely why a healthy “spirituality” has to include both love and justice. 

           Spirituality is innate – it is built into us. So, in one sense, we can’t become “more spiritual” or “less spiritual” – we just are spiritual – although I understand the phrase “I want to be more spiritual” can be a shorthand for an deep and important longing. It is a longing to learn how better to access and experience our spirituality and deepen our connection to others, to God, and to the creation. We can shape our spirituality. We want to overcome the ways our spirituality may have been diminished or damaged. We can intentionally get past ways that theology and ideology have misshapen our spirituality longings. We can overcome our modernist suspicion of our own spirituality. We can reflect on our spirituality and we can do things that help to develop our “spiritual senses.” Next Sunday we will delve into some of those ways or practices that can open us up to the amazing spirituality that is within us. 

           So, we may have spiritual goals. Our spirituality is ever-present, but there are ways in which we may desire to open up to that which is already in us. Giovanni Dienstmann is a meditation teacher and coach and the author of the “Live and Dare” blog on spirituality. He came up with a useful list of possible motivations for working to open ourselves to our spirituality:

1) Seeking a sense of purpose, meaning, or direction. 

2) Seeking a sense of oneness, love, and Connection. 

3) Seeking to continuously “grow and learn, live a life authentic to our truth, develop our minds, cultivate virtues, and expand our consciousness.”

4) Seeking answers to existential questions like, “Who am I?”, “Why are we here?”, and “What else is there?”

5) Looking for happiness, peace, and overcoming suffering. 

6) Longing for transcendence or enlightenment. 

7) Seeking to get in touch with “the mysteries of life and nature, exploring the sacred, and living with a sense of wonder.”

8) The urge to serve people at a deep level, to make a difference other’s lives, and help life up humanity.

Many of these motivations go beyond traditional Christian conceptions of spirituality. Yet, spirituality is a universal human phenomenon and there is no reason we should restrict ourselves from learning and adapting wisdom, experience, and practices from other sources. As Christians, we would add to this list that we are motivated by a desire to connect deeply with God. As specifically progressive Christians, we would also say that our spiritual expressions cannot be solely personal and individual. They are necessarily communal and motivated by our seeking for the kin-dom of God and the beloved community of human persons. In the coming weeks, we will explore more in depth how our spirituality shapes and is shaped by our  progressive Christian theology and practice. 

          So, what could it mean to have a spirit-filled life? There is no single answer to that question. But I can share with you what that has meant in my life and encourage you to think about your own experience. Since I was very young, I have felt a deep longing to be a participant in something large and important, to have a positive impact on the world. Yet in the midst of that longing, a part of my spirituality was shaped for a long time by the fact that I was quite introverted and expressing myself did not come easily. While I longed for connection with others, opening myself to being vulnerable was not easy so I had only a small circle of friends growing up. There was spiritual struggle and pain in that. My spirituality did not always find expression in religion. For a long time it was shaped by Marxism and not always in a positive way. But even then, I always felt a strong spiritual connection through music, writing, advocacy for workers and the oppressed, hiking, and spending time nears bodies of flowing water and waterfalls. Over the past 18 years or so, my spirit has recovered a desire to connect deeply with God. My spirituality now is very much shaped by my vocation as a pastor. And what has been true since my childhood – my spirit has always been fed, even when I was away from the church, in being part of and surrounded by a community of persons with similar values of inclusivity, justice, and compassion. For me, to have a spirit-filled life means to be always seeking to grow in my connection to the Spirit of God that is around and within us and also to the the spirit that is in every other living creature. 
          I encourage you, in whatever ways you feel are authentic and meaningful to you, to open yourself up to your longings for purpose and meaning, for deep connection, for growth and enlightenment, for peace, and for the ability to positively impact the lives of others and bring justice to our communities and social systems.