“A Few Practical Suggestions for Falling in Love with the Mystery”
Rev. Bob Janis-Dillon, delivered at the
Unitarian Universalist Church at Washington’s Crossing
“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open.”
– Martha Graham, quoted in The Life and Work of Martha Graham (1991), by Agnes de Mille
This month, your theme at Washington Crossing has been “what does it mean to be a people of faith?” As a part of that, I’d like to preach about how we might fall in love with the mystery. Which is far too mysterious and grand to possibly talk about sensibly – so I’d like to begin with an oil leak on a 1984 Chevy Chevette.
The Chevette in question was red. It was beautiful, in the way that only Chevrolet Chevette’s can possibly be beautiful: not the sleekest car in the world, maybe not the fastest, but endearing, like a favorite cousin you always hoped would stop by for a visit. I had bought this car for $300, when I was 19 years old, on a used car lot, from a man who – oblivious to stereotypes – was smoking a cigar when he sold it to me.
He was honest though, he told me it wasn’t the best car in the world, but the price was right. I had never bought or owned a car before. Two of my friends were coming to visit me, from England, and we planned to travel all around the East Coast for two weeks, and I figured cheaper than bus fare for the three of us – and more exciting – would be our own car. It would make for a grand adventure – being able to go wherever we wanted, stop and start whenever we wanted, we could where we want, when we wanted, and make stops on the way.
I hadn’t bought a car before, so I hadn’t known about taxes and tags and proof of insurance, so by the time I actually drove the car off the lot I was both late to pick my friends up, and had spent a lot more than I intended. Oh, well. But eventually, I was reunited with my friends and we were ready to go off on our grand adventure. I was about an hour into our trip when we discovered the oil leak. Now, I’m not talking about a little “drip drip” trail coming out from behind the car. I mean, when we parked the car, I said, “hold on, is that…a PUDDLE under the car?” And we moved the car, and sure enough, there was a lake of motor oil underneath it.
Now, I’m not a car expert, but I figured that may be a bit of a problem, so we found a gas station that did repairs, and the guy was kind enough to take a look at it for free. He took a quick look under the car, and he said, “That there is dangerous. DO NOT drive it.” And I said, “What’s option B?” And he gave me a little smile, and he said, “OK. You want to get some oil – the biggest container of oil you can find – and every 40 or 50 miles, you fill it up. And if it starts making any sounds out of the ordinary, stop and see a mechanic right away.”
Fortunately I didn’t know what ordinary was, I had only had the car a day. So we drove it up and down the East Coast, saw Niagara Falls, Toronto, Cape Cod, Washington DC, Virginia – stopping every 40 or 50 miles to fill it up with oil. I learned a little bit about cars that summer: (like where to put the oil) and we had a glorious time. There’s something special about getting to see a place, when you’re not entirely sure you’re going to make it. It’s a wonderful feeling – “We’re here! It might well have been otherwise!” But we made it. My friends were over for two weeks. The car lasted three.
I wanted to start with that story, because if Im talking about what love has to do with faith, for me that means I’m talking about spirituality. And if I talk about spirituality in a congregation, I can imagine the reaction. Now, this may not be your reaction, but for a lot of people when I start talking about spirituality, I imagine the inner monologue going something like this:
“Oh, spirituality, yeah right, ok! I don’t really know what it means, but it sounds like a good idea – you know, when I get my life together – I’m gonna try that spirituality stuff! Yeah, when I pull everything together, I’m gonna be so spiritual!”
If we’re going to have any sort of meaningful discussion about falling in love with the universe – which for me is what spirituality is all about – we’d better begin with the acknowledgement that, for most of us, most of the time, our life is a little bit like that Chevy Chevette. We’re barely making it from one place to another, careening along. Maybe we work 16 hours a day to make ends meet – or are out of a job and financially in tough straits and wondering what our identity is when we don’t have a job. Our bodies are a bit like that Chevette, for most of us, much of our lives – leaking here and there, creaking and cranking, liable to fall apart at any minute. And our minds – there’s this rattling engine noise, isn’t there, of worries, stresses, distraction, and our inner voice nattering on that we’re not good enough, that nobody loves us, that life is out to get us, or whatever it’s nattering on about now. And behind ALL of this, is the nagging sensation that maybe, maybe, we won’t even get to our destination, that this journey won’t last forever.
Which, in a way at least, is true. This car will break down sooner or later. Our lives will end unfinished, us not having done everything we intended to (and doing a few things we didn’t mean to). We don’t know what’s next, if anything, but in this, our individual life, we can know with certainty that everything will fall apart.
And yet – and yet…how glorious…to be here. To look around. To feel ourselves on this magnificent plant…to get to live…
“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it…”
It’s a great opportunity to be alive, isn’t it? And a great responsibility. There won’t be another you in a billion, billion years. You are the universe’s only expression of what it means to be you. In spiritual direction we say, “God has called you by name.” We all have different beliefs about God here, but I like to imagine God as a grandmother, sitting on the porch, calling us by name and saying – “Oh, Jessica – oh, the world needs Jessica. She is so good at…” Or, “Frank – yes, Frank. You know, he might be so perfect at…”
The question at the heart of spirituality is, what is your relationship with the universe? For theists, this will likely mean their relationship with God. For non-theists, I still think it is true we live our lives in relationship. We are in relationship to our friends and families and communities, we are in relationship to the earth, to Gaia, and we are in relationship to things that are less solid. Like the virtues: we have a relationship to integrity, to compassion, a relationship to the values in our life.
So there are all these kinds of relationships in our life, and the question is: if you were to sum up these relationships, what is your relationship to the universe? Is the universe cruel and out to get you? Is it indifferent – is the universe an uncaring place? Is there love in the universe? Can you rely on that love?
These are simple questions, but that doesn’t mean our answers to them will be simple. Most of us veer between different answers, both on the “head level” of rational analysis and the “heart level” of our emotional life. The entirety of spiritual direction – which I’m taking two years to study – is about paying attention to that relationship, discussing what your relationship is to the spirit with another person. Because it’s deeply important. Our lives rest upon it. What is your relationship to the everything?
“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique.”
With my sermon title I promised you a few practical suggestions for falling in love with the universe. There are a million ways to do this – walking in the woods, writing a journal entry, spending time with a favorite person, meditation and prayer. The truth is, I bet you already know a few good spiritual practices. I’ve helped congregants create “spiritual growth plans”, setting spiritual intentions for their next six months of their lives. Snd when it came to spiritual practices, often I just asked them “what makes you come alive?” And I explained that “alive” could mean many things – it could be enthusiastic and active, or it could be calm and quiet. It could be out in the world with others, or deep in your interior world. I found most people already knew what made them come alive. What is it for you? Doing yoga? Playing the piano? Washing the dishes? Or is it simply present to your life with loving attention, what Walter Burghart called, “a long loving look at the real?”
Anything that brings your awareness to the fact that it’s good to be alive can be a spiritual practice. But there’s a catch. The catch is that often, we don’t do the things that really make us come alive often enough. We practice the clarinet for a week, and we love it, but then we put it aside. We decide we love hiking, but somehow, we never find the time? And sitting in daily meditation for twenty minutes? Forget about it. This is called resistance. Resistance crops up in most of our spiritual lives.
Why do we have resistance? Well, there are whole books written about this, but briefly: falling in love with the universe is hard work. Attraction to the universe is easy. Falling in love is hard work, and sometimes we simply don’t want to muster up the energy. Oh, we may say how good love is, but have you ever loved something or somebody? Is it easy? I mean loving them for fifty years, day in and day out? For most of that, doesn’t that take effort? Commitment? Do you think Martha Graham ever had a blister?
“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique…It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work.”
If you follow your calling – if you choose to fall in love with the universe, no matter what – it will demand much of you. It will demand everything. There will be times you don’t believe in yourself. There will be times you don’t believe in the love of he universe, times of doubt and heartbreak.
In this country, on the daytime talk shows and in our mega-churches, we love to preach “prosperity gospel”. Prosperity gospel is the idea that, if you try and try and try, God will reward you, and you will realize all your dreams. Think how many times you watch the entertainment news or the daytime talk shows and there’s some actor or writer or artist or whatever, and they’re saying, it may have been hard, but now I’ve made it big. My name in lights. Well, love the shows, too. And I have nothing against those who have succeeded abundantly. Shakespeare’s a dear friend of mine, even though he’s been dead for almost five hundred years. But you know who I really admire? The ones who don’t succeed, in any kind of worldly way. The man who works two factory jobs for twelve hours, and then goes home and picks up a paintbrush. The woman who’s been told all her life that women don’t need to get an education, who has had to fight all her life just to live her own life, and at 70 years old enrolls in the community college and starts taking classes… “IT IS NOT YOUR BUSINESS to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open…Keep the channel open.”
You have been called by name. There is only one of you in the whole world. Your life may resemble an old used car, but YOU are beautiful in a way only you can be. If you dedicate yourself to a relationship of love with the universe, it will demand something new of you just about every. Single. Day. You will have to work hard at the practices that make you come alive. But this is your chance to live life like you mean it. You may not get to where your planning to go. But it’s going to be a beautiful ride.
Thank you so much for gracing our church last Sunday-your sermon was so deeply spiritual. I have been doing the “thankfulness” and “love the world better” exercises every morning. You have an immense gift-thank you for sharing it.
Thank you so much David! It was a great pleasure to be with you – what a lovely congregation you all are. Many thanks for your comment, it means a lot to me. And so glad you found the exercises meaningful, too. Many thanks!