Making Religion Relevant- II

September 16, 2012 - 10:15am

As a follow-up from last week's service on Reb Zalman and finding a new cosmology that will heal the earth, Laurie Stuart will present more about this modern day Jewish sage.

Welcome: 

Welcome to the Upper Delaware Unitarian Universalist Fellowship this third Sunday in September. We continue with our theme of making religion relevant with a second part of exploring the cosmology of Reb. Zalman. For those of you who were here last week, you will recall that Reb Zalman is an 88-year old rabbi, who left the Lubavitch tradition and began the Jewish Renewal Movement in the 1970s. There he fused the mystical traditions of his Hassidic background with modern sensibilities concerning the environment, technology and psychology in an effort to reinvigorate a Judaism he found stultifying. At the heart of his wisdom is the idea that we need to come up with a new cosmology that helps to heal the earth. And in finding that new cosmology, we need to adopt ethics and establish practices that brings that cosmology into being. This week we will center on how we might bring ourselves in alignment with this cosmology.

Call to Worship: 

Source of Time and Space, Avinu Malkaynu!

From infinity draw down to us the great renewal and attune us to Your intent, so that Wisdom, Your daughter flow into our awareness, to awaken us to see ahead, so we help instead of harm. May all the devices we make and use, be sparing and protecting of Your creation. Help us to set right what we have debased, to heal what we have made ill, to care for and to restore what we have injured.

Bless our Earth, our home and show us all how to care for her, so that we might live your promise given to our forebears, “To live heavenly days right here on this Earth.”
May all the beings, You have fashioned, become aware that it is You who has given them being. May we realize that You shaped our lives and may each one who breathes join with others who breathe, in the delight of shared knowing of the great breath.

Assist us in learning how to partner, with family, neighbors, and friends.

Aid us in dissolving old enmities.

May we come to honor, even in those whom we fear, Your image and form, Your light dwelling in their hearts.
May we soon see the day, when Your House will be indeed, The House of prayer for all peoples, named and celebrated in every tongue and speech.

On that day You will be one and one with all cosmic Life.

Amen!

Opening Prayer by Reb Zalman in his address to the Dali Lama, 2004

Chalice Lighting: 

We are thankful for the gift of this day, for this Fellowship: for those who are with us today, for those who are away from us and for those who have returned. We are thankful for this religious community, which calls us into covenant with ourselves and each other and our magnificent universe.

First Reading: 

God talks to each of us as he creates us,
Then walks with us silently out of night.
But the words, spoken to us before we start,
Those cloudy words are these:

Sent forth by your senses,
Go to the very edge of your desire;
Invest me.

Back behind the things grow as fire,
So that their shadows, lengthened,
Will always and completely cover me.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror
Only press on: no feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself be cut off from me.
Nearby is that country
Known as Life.

You will recognize it
By its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

Rainer Maria Rilke, The Poetry of Rilke, translated and edited by Edward Snow

Sermon
Sermon: 

Each religion is like a vital organ of the planet and we need for the planet’s sake for each one to stay alive and be devout in the most healthy way;

The problems we face at this time don’t seem to yield to the solutions our traditions and lineages have provided in the past.

We need to discover a cosmology we have to have in order to approach the healing of the planet.

The cosmology we seek to find should produce an ethos that honors harmonious biological health in the individual in the matrix of the most harmonious biological health of the environment.

The mind of the current chaos of global consensus leads us to an ever greater crisis. What are the upaya, or skillful means that are needed to launch the awareness of the emerging cosmology?

How do we update the inner resources of our spiritual traditions to attune our consciousness to optimal transformational power?

What do we need to do to address the matrix of the life process on the subtle plane to gain understanding of the deep life process?

In answer to this last question, we will return again to a virtual experience of Reb Zalman. In this clip he is speaking to a group about consciousness and the nature of God. In the first question, a woman asks for clarification on the container through which we can access consciousness. Zalman explains that the container is imagery and how, in order to give power to that imagery, we have to understand the matrix of our body and its connection to our mind. In the second question, what is the essence of the God to whom I am praying, Zalman points back to the four-point matrix of religious experience: being present in our bodies, touching reverence, connecting to the expanse of the universe, and becoming one with divine spirit.

My Neighbor's Faith: What I Found in the Chapel

By Zalman Schachter-Shalomi

In 1955, after years of intensive seminary study and service in various Orthodox Jewish congregations in New England, I began to feel the need for a broader education and a wider range of experience. Up to this point, my entire religious education had taken place within the Jewish world, and it was beginning to feel somewhat narrow. I also had a sense that I could be doing more with my life, and so, with the permission of my rebbe, I enrolled in Boston University to study pastoral psychology and the psychology of religion. But of greater importance for my later life was my meeting with the Rev. Howard Thurman, who was then Dean of Marsh Chapel at the University.

At the time, I was living in New Bedford, Mass., which was then a two-hour drive from Boston. And since it was winter, I had to be on my way under a dark sky, too early to say the morning prayers. So I would leave at 5 o'clock in the morning in order to arrive there at 7, leaving me an hour to pray and have a bit of breakfast before my first class at 8.

Once I was there, the problem was to find a suitable place for a Jew to pray. The Hillel student organization building was still closed at that hour; the only building open that early was the chapel, but this presented a dilemma. The main chapel upstairs was full of statues of Jesus and the Evangelists. As an Orthodox Jew, I simply wasn't comfortable praying there. Downstairs was a smaller, more intimate chapel for meditation, but there I was likewise inhibited by a big brass cross on the altar. Having no other option, I chose a public room called the Daniel Marsh Memorabilia Room in the same building. There I found myself a corner facing east, toward Jerusalem, and began to pray.

One morning, after I had been doing this for a while, and just after completing my prayers, a middle-aged black man came into the room and said in a casual way: "I've seen you here several times. Wouldn't you like to say your prayers in the small chapel?"

I shrugged my shoulders, not knowing what to say. The man was so unpretentious that I thought he might have been the janitor. And his offer was so forthcoming that I did not want to hurt his feelings, but how could I explain that I couldn't pray in the chapel because of the cross on the altar?

After a moment of looking at me earnestly, he said: "Why don't you stop by the chapel tomorrow morning and take a look? Maybe you'd be comfortable saying your prayers there." The next morning I was curious and went to look into the little chapel. There I found two candles burning in brass candleholders, and no sign of the big brass cross! The large, ornate Bible was open to the Book of Psalms, Psalm 139: "Whither shall I flee from Thy presence." From then on, I understood that I was at liberty to move the cross and say my morning prayers in the chapel. Page 2

Afterward, I would always put the cross back and turn the pages to Psalm 100, the "thank you" psalm.

Trusting the Holy Spirit

Sometime after this, I read an announcement about a new course in Spiritual Disciplines and Resources, which would include "labs" for spiritual exercises to be taught by the Dean of the Chapel. The course intrigued me, but I was apprehensive about taking it. The Dean of the Chapel was also a minister, and I worried that he might feel obliged to try and convert me. So, after giving it some thought, I made an appointment to speak with him about my concerns.

When I walked into the office, the friendly black man from the chapel was sitting behind the desk, none other than Dean Thurman himself. He smiled and offered me a chair and mug of coffee. I felt a little ashamed of my initial assumption; I should have understood from our first encounter that this was a man to be trusted, but still I was hesitant.

"Dean Thurman," I said, "I would like to take your course, but I don't know if my 'anchor chains' are long enough."

He put his coffee mug down on his desk and began to examine his hands. Slowly, he turned them over and over. I noticed that the backsides were very dark, while his palms were very light. He looked at them slowly as if considering the light and dark sides of an argument. This lasted only a few minutes, I'm certain, but it felt like hours to me. He did this with such a calm certainty that he seemed to possess great power. Moreover, he had this prominent bump on his forehead (above and between his eyes) and I could swear that it was about to open and reveal the "third eye." Finally, he spoke: "Don't you trust the ru'ah hakodesh?"

I was stunned. He had used the Hebrew for the Holy Spirit, something I had not expected from a Gentile. And in so doing, he brought that question home to me in a powerful way. I began to tremble and rushed out of his office without answering him.

For the next three weeks, I was tormented by that question: Did I indeed trust the ru'ah hakodesh, trust it enough to have faith in my identity as a Jew? Or was I holding back, fearful of testing my belief in an encounter with another religion, unnerved by the prospect of trusting my soul to a non-Jew? If I was fearful, did it mean that I didn't truly believe? Finally, I realized that his question could have only one answer. "Don't you trust the ru'ah hakodesh?" Dean Thurman had asked. I had to answer, "Yes, I do," and so I signed up for his course.

It was marvelous and tremendously impactful, especially his use of "labs." In the labs, we experimented with various spiritual exercises, which frequently took the form of guided meditations. In one exercise, we were instructed to translate an experience from one sense to another. We would read a psalm several times, then listen to a piece by Bach to "hear the meaning of the psalm in the sounds of the music." Another exercise was to "see music as an abstract design moving through space." In these ways, our senses were released from their usual, narrow constraints and freed to tune into the Cosmos, to touch God.

People seldom have those primary experiences in religion referred to by William James, Aldous Huxley and others. But without this firsthand knowledge, the study of religion is impoverished. Such primary experiences allow the student to understand what is being taught. The use of experiential labs is now part of my own method; in fact, I have found that they turn out to be extremely important in the spiritual growth of many individuals.

In my exchanges with Dean Thurman and the other members of the class, I learned an important lesson that is still at the center of my thinking: Judaism and all the other western religions are suffering from having become over-verbalized and under-experienced. Someone else's description of ecstasy or spiritual at-one-ness, given second- or third-hand, is simply not enough; we need -- and want to have -- these experiences for ourselves. And I want to make it possible for other people to have them. That is part of what a living, breathing religion is about, and that I learned from Dean Thurman.

This column is an excerpt from 'My Neighbor's Faith: Stories of Interreligious Encounter, Growth, and Transformation.'

Homily/Meditation: 

In drawing our service to its conclusion, I want to thank you for the opportunity to explore the wisdom Reb Zalman with you. I am fortunate that my connection with Starr King School for the Ministry remains strong and that I was invited to participate in their August Symposium where Zalman was the keynote speaker and received an honorary doctorate of Sacred Theology from the school. Not surprisingly, my connection with the school continues because of the limited nature and the long-distance relationship that I had to maintain in order to receive my Masters of Divinity. It is not the same for my colleagues who moved to Berkeley, participated full-time for four years, and then moved away to pursue careers in full-time parish ministry.

This is an example, in my mind, that the limitations or the set of particular circumstances where we find ourselves, if used creatively, does indeed expand the possibilities. In our limitations there is the opportunity to find attunement with others.

In Reb Zalman’s final teaching he said that all teaching should fit together integrally. That is what, I believe, we experienced here. Because of our connection and attunement, Reb Zalman was introduced into this community. My particular circumstances afforded me access to this wisdom; you were open to it being shared as part of our service. Our connections, beyond ourselves, brought this learning, this exploration to fruition.

There is one final video I’d like to share with you. Using the teaching of Hillel, another famous sage who lived and wrote at moment of the beginning of the Common Era; who wrote: "If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?"

It brings us full circle to our engagement with the divine and the magic that happens there. It connects us to the magic of our lives and the magic that we have shared today.

Closing: 

God talks to each of us as he creates us,
Then walks with us silently out of night.
But the words, spoken to us before we start,
Those cloudy words are these:

Sent forth by your senses,
Go to the very edge of your desire;
Invest me.

Back behind the things grow as fire,
So that their shadows, lengthened,
Will always and completely cover me.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror
Only press on: no feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself be cut off from me.
Nearby is that country
Known as Life.

You will recognize it
By its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

- Rainer Maria Rilke

Sermon PDF: