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Sermon on Human Flourishing

 In telling the story of his awakening Confucius said, and I paraphrase, “At 15, I set my heart on learning.  At 30, I planted my feet firmly in day to day living.  At 40, I no longer suffered from uncertainty.  At 50, I knew what made my heart sing.  At 60, I knew equanimity.  At 70, I became an authentic person of no fixed position.”

Confucius lived masterfully.  In sitting down to tell the story of my life, I discovered that there were six spiritual disciplines of human flourishing that had guided me to my own awakening.  Like Confucius I could say at 15, I set my heart on learning.  At 30, I planted my feet firmly in day to day living.   At 40, I far less often suffered from uncertainty.  At 50, I knew what made my heart sing.  At 60, I finally discovered equanimity.  So now I seek to grow in wisdom and understanding into my seventies.

For me, the first and foundational spiritual discipline was resiliency.  Let me tell you a story about how I developed resiliency at the age of six:

Ranger Elementary School was a small, aging brick building that served kids from the poorer side of Tiverton. It faced Stafford Road, the main street on that side of town, with a parking lot on one side and a large, grassy playground on the other side and behind the school. Written in stone over the main entrance door, the school motto said: “We do things because they are right, not because we are being watched.” And that was the spirit of the place, with a proud claim to righteousness and relatively little monitoring of each child’s behavior.

The teachers were not particularly well educated, and most had similarly low expectations for their students. However, it played a major role in our socialization process. Behaving appropriately was generally held in higher esteem than displays of intelligence. Being respectable was far more important than being good.

Beginning in first grade, I discovered the boys played marbles at recess. I didn’t know how to play. Marbles cost money. No one was allowed to play unless you played for keepsies, where the loser must give his marbles to the winner. This felt like a form of gambling. And even if you won, you could still lose your marbles. If they spilled onto the floor, the teacher would confiscate them and give them to the janitor.

Accumulating marbles was a risk, but having no marbles was a disaster. Many boys bought bags of fifty shiny marbles for one dollar per bag at the local variety store. For those who didn’t have that kind of money or couldn’t get it from their allowance or their parents, it was possible to buy three shiny new marbles for a dime. As a last resort for the truly destitute six-year-old, the janitor was willing to resell any used marbles gathered from the classroom floor for a penny apiece.

So everybody could afford to play, except me. I was still in debt due to that broken egg timer, [but that’s another story] so no marbles for me. I had no money, not even a penny, and knew better than to ask my mom or dad for gambling money. I couldn’t afford to play marbles. Yet I had to play! I knew I could be good at it. If only I could find a way to escape my poverty long enough to accumulate some marbles!

I didn’t want poverty to define me. At Ranger Elementary, everyone looked down on the Sherblom kids as poor. Our house was always dirty, overcrowded, and in a state of disrepair, with six-inch nails protruding from unfinished interior walls. As the fifth child in this large family, my clothes were mostly hand-me-downs. Many of these were cheap clothes when they were new, and all of them showed signs of wear and tear. Marbles felt like my destiny. My older brothers were too focused on other things to play marbles. This would be my proving ground and would become my domain. I became absurdly focused on this quest.

One day coming out to recess, I found a marble lying at the edge of the grass. Someone had forgotten it or dropped it running for the bell. Now I had my chance. I chose to play one of the smaller boys, Paul. Paul shot his marble and won. Again I felt doomed to no money and no marbles. But Paul lent me a marble to keep playing. This time, I won.

By the end of recess, I had played dozens of games and miraculously had won more than I lost. I went triumphantly back to class with two warm marbles nestled in my pocket.Every recess thereafter, I played, and every recess, I got better. I brought an intensity and focus few could bring to marbles. By spring, I was the best marble player on the playground. This is my earliest remembered experience of being in the zone, concentrating completely, and everything feeling right. I loved it! This sense of mastering the universe is highly addictive.

My marble collection grew to several hundred marbles. I began to sell them back to the other boys at two marbles for a penny, undercutting the janitor by half and virtually eliminating any competition from the variety store. Because my prices were the best in town, everybody bought marbles from me. Most days after school, my pockets bulged with marbles and increasingly with money. Now I had some spending money, so I began to buy my own used books at a nickel or dime each. I no longer thought of myself as poor. [Because] I had resources.

By the end of third grade, it was no longer cool to play marbles at recess. But by then, I’d spent some of my newfound wealth buying social status, tithed 10 percent to the church, opened a bank account with $18 from marble sales, plus gave over three thousand marbles to my younger brothers. My sense of the possible skyrocketed! I was an entrepreneur. I had a facility for money making, understanding how money works, and making my way in the world. In short, I had a facility for success.

Much I would later accomplish in life took root in those playground victories. I would never underestimate the power of focused intent and awareness [ever again].

For the rest of the sermon follow this link: http://firstparish.org/wp/speaker/rev-jim-sherblom/

Spiritual Audacity radio interview

Next Thursday August 17, 2017  from 3 pm to 3:58 pm Eleanor LcCain will interview me about my new book SPIRITUAL AUDACITY: Six Disciplines of Human Flourishing on her “All Together Now” radio program on the progressive radio network (www.prn.fm)

You can listen to it live at:

http://prn.fm (on your computer)

http://prn.fm/mobile (on your mobile device)

@PRN_Radio-http:twitter.com/prn radio (on Twitter)

http://facebook.com/PRNfm  (on Facebook)

Or listen to the archive of the show later at http://prn.fm/?s=LeCain

Heaven and Hell

So what about heaven and hell after death? What role do they play in human flourishing?

When my kids were little, my parents would sometimes come up to spend the weekend with us in Concord. On Sunday mornings, we would attend First Parish in Concord, and of course, my parents would come with us. I remember one particularly beautiful Sunday morning standing on the church’s front steps with my father following worship.

“How many people attended worship this morning?” Dad asked.

“About four hundred or so,” I replied.

“And none of them believe in hell or eternal damnation?”

“We are universalists,” I said, “so none believe in hell or damnation.”

“So why don’t they stay home on Sunday and read the New York Times?” he questioned.

“UUs come for spiritual community,” I answered, “neither for fear of hell nor lusting after heaven.”

The religious metaphors of heaven and hell are, I think, usually intended as aids to devotion. These concepts are borrowed from mystics who describe heaven and hell as a human psychological state in the eternal now. These metaphors are often then used to encourage moral behavior and, perhaps appropriately, provide comfort during the grieving process. They can serve a very useful purpose in that regard.  But they are metaphors for states of being.

If heaven and hell exist, and I think they do, it is in the here and now.  To concretize heaven and hell as only in the hereafter seems to be misusing metaphysical concepts in ways that can be as harmful as they are useful. An eternity in a static heaven never held much appeal for me. It may sound like heresy to some Christians, but I don’t think there is an eternally unchanging, unchallenging place called heaven following death, at least not as generally depicted. Even if such a heaven did exist, I wouldn’t want to go there. And I am certain our loving God doesn’t send anyone to hell in eternal damnation.

So why do so many people chase after these illusions? The Sunni Muslims’ promise of twenty-one virgins for religious martyrs seems to my ears preposterous. Even the Quran declares heaven is open to everyone, though allows for the possibility of a time in a post life correctional sphere for those who die unworthy of heaven.

The Hindu notion of returning in another life as a plant or an animal seems no more than a misplaced metaphor. Even if there were life after death or some form of reincarnation, this is the only life we know of from our own direct experience. So lay Buddhists working and praying to improve their lot only in their future lives seems to misrepresent the fundamental experience of the spiritual journey.

Time is an illusion. Spiritual transcendence, if achieved at all, is achieved in the eternal now. Spiritual mystics from every religious tradition affirm heaven is accessible in the here and now, not only hereafter, not only after death. These teachings all point at a deeper mystery of human existence: how we live our lives matters very much as we seek deep, transcendent living in the eternal now rather than in some postulated hereafter.

As much as possible, one ought to always be respectful of long-established religious beliefs. But there is a limit to how far faith can exceed reason and experience. Beyond that limit, tradition becomes a dead corpse.  Mystics seek the spark of the divine.

If we enjoy a good meal or an intimate touch, these are to be appreciated as gifts of this world. This practice of remembering or being mindful of the good things in life is an important part of becoming fully aware. Buddha’s non-delusional mindfulness leads us to cultivate a clear comprehension of what we are doing in every moment and why. Sometimes when walking in the woods or by the sea, or when sitting in mindfulness, meditation brings me to that state of ecstasy.

During the times of our life when we are students or householders, these mindful moments of ecstasy may be as close to awakening as we can come. At certain stages, we are more grounded in worldly matters than spiritual matters. We must be fully engaged with the world and the responsibilities, pleasures, difficulties, joys, and sorrows that come with it.

Spiritual maturity requires a shift in perspective. Tradition tells us that following his enlightenment, Siddhartha, the Buddha, spent forty-two days contemplating his transition from worldly to spiritual concerns. This foreshadows Jesus’s forty days spent in the wilderness, being tempted by Satan with worldly pleasures and power. Afterwards, he was able to take up his career, focused as it was upon spiritual concerns, and he lived faithfully between two worlds. These traditions show it takes time to consolidate a change of perspective from worldly to spiritual concerns.

This is the purpose of deep meditation—to transform our feelings, our thoughts, and our hearts. Having made peace with our embodied state, the Buddha teaches us to make peace with our feelings. The Buddha distinguishes six types of feelings: pleasant worldly feelings and pleasant spiritual feelings, unpleasant worldly feelings and unpleasant spiritual feelings, and neutral worldly feelings and neutral spiritual feelings.

Beyond regulating our body and feelings, the Buddha taught us how to regulate our mind. From the Zen Buddhists, I learned this spiritual practice of achieving equanimity through deep meditation; from the Taoists, concentration through focusing my mind. I learned to become like Budai, the impish so-called Laughing Buddha archetype, to achieve enlightenment through my natural inclinations.

My mystical teachers built upon the inherent, intense focus and tenacity that I first experienced growing up; playing marbles; surviving Yale; and becoming a successful entrepreneur, investor, and parish minister. Like Mr. Miyagi having Daniel wax his car in The Karate Kid, my teachers helped prepare my own nature for enlightenment through the discipline of fifty years of seemingly unrelated activities.

My enhanced concentration allowed me to overcome inevitable obstacles in my path, including sensual desires, aversion, boredom, anxiety, and doubt. Through spiritual practices conducive to my own nature and temperament, I learned how to remain awakened. When these obstacles burn away, peace and vitality remain, leaving a greater sense of purpose for your life. Reality is seen finally for what it is. And it is a thing of beauty

Discipline Six: Awakening

Seeking direct experience, but mindful of my physical limitations, I found myself on a long flight to India on New Year’s Eve. I was in search of enlightenment, knowledge, gnosis, wisdom, insight, oneness, ecstasy, and awakening—all terms used to point toward that spark of the divine which feels like salvation in one religious tradition or another.

Plato offered one of the most cited metaphors of this spiritual state of clarity in his allegory of the cave. He describes a group of people imprisoned in a cave since childhood, chained in such a way that a fire burns brightly behind them and casts shadows on the wall before them. Talking among themselves, they come to understand what is happening out of their range of sight simply by paying attention to the shadows on the wall. This is the only reality they have ever known.  Then one prisoner breaks free, and his reality is changed forever. As this former prisoner’s eyes adjust to the sunlight beyond the cave, allowing him to see all the beauty of the real world, he is struck with awe and delight.

This is what it means to momentarily glimpse enlightenment, to suddenly see directly that which has only ever been surmised before. We live most of our lives in the shadows of reality. Many cannot see beyond the cave of our constructed reality. Others simply refuse to believe any other reality exists, even if we catch a glimpse in our peripheral vision. It is too scary to conceive of a bigger reality than that which we have always known.

So this former prisoner returns to his mates, explains what he has seen, and encourages them to join him on the journey. Few will. In fact, many people will disbelieve, perhaps even seek to kill or dismiss the person carrying this new message.  But a few will always be willing to see. The Buddha’s Middle Path brought him inner clarity and enlightenment, so he declared himself awake. Then he taught his wisdom about the co-arising interdependence of all realities to all who would listen.

Sufis drink neither alcohol nor caffeine yet grow intoxicated with the sweetness of divine mystery and stumble forth to dance with the beloved. The goal becomes mystical union with the divine. As the fourteenth-century Sufi poet Hafiz wrote (in a Daniel Ladinsky translation): “God and I have become like two giant fat people living in a tiny boat. We keep bumping into each other and laughing.” Such can be a mystic’s experience of awakening to union with the divine.

In Europe during the so-called Middle Ages, Jewish mystics employed the wisdom of Kabbalah to achieve mystical union with God. Christian mystics practiced the presence of God, giving us spiritual practices—such as perpetual praying, the dark night of the soul, and the incredible lightness of being—that can lead us into union with divine mystery. Sufis practice love’s surprising joy. All three Abrahamic mystical traditions seem to point to this state of being, which is described as beyond understanding.

This is also the awakening sought by the Hindu sadhu and the Zen Buddhist monk. It is what Taoists describe as the perfect yin-yang balance in harmony with life’s core vitality and spirit. Vitality has to do with our life force and spirit with our primordial essence. For many people, myself included, vitality was in ascendency during the first half of my life. It was only after midlife that spirit came into ascendency. Both vitality and spirit seek to remain harmoniously in balance, creating a sense of heaven, even as the balance shifts over a lifetime.

The Buddha taught that each person receives insight according to his or her nature. Some rely on philosophical reasoning. Others draw upon ancient sayings and traditions. And yet others rely upon their direct intuition of the divine mystery. All three function according to our nature.

I discovered for me to truly experience spiritual awakening, I must draw, according to my own nature, from reason, traditions, and direct experience. Until this stage of my life, I had not yet been ready. Given my particular life story, finally by the age of sixty I felt I had lived enough to draw upon my reason, tradition, and experiences to finally discover the nature of deeper spiritual maturity. On my own pathless path, with many teachers, I traveled forth to awaken to divine bliss, to dance with the beloved.

But could I truly awaken without a sangha or spiritual community? Test my thoughts and experiences without an enlightened teacher? For decades, I had followed the path of the independent scholar and practitioner, never actually meeting most of my teachers in person. I possessed many good and valuable books with important insights and had encountered mystics who had taught me along the way. But I had never submitted myself to the discipline of a single master teacher. Would this be enough? Was I finally ready?

The Japanese Zen Buddhist monks had decades earlier shown me the way, set forth in their Rhinoceros Sutra, one of the oldest Buddhist texts, perhaps reflecting the Buddha’s own teaching. In this sutra, early Buddhism describes three different kinds of buddha, or awakened or enlightened beings.

The most famous, the sammasambuddha usually called Gautama Buddha, achieved awakening so he could teach the path to all who followed him. A second kind, a savakabuddha, includes most Buddhists I have ever met. They train in one of the lineages of Gautama Buddha’s followers, relying upon the Three Jewels: the teacher, the traditional teachings, and the spiritual community. A third kind, called a paccekabuddha, arrives at awakening through a spiritual journey of his or her own. To attempt to live into awakening on one’s own requires a certain spiritual audacity, but the pathless path is there. I was following this path.

So I flew to India, arriving in Kolkata on New Year’s Eve to begin 2016 by traveling up the Ganges River with a small group led by a Harvard comparative religion professor. We would journey in the footsteps of the Buddha. This would be the occasion of my enlightenment, my awakening, my coming into spiritual maturity, my bliss.

 

Discipline Five: Mystery

The first mystery is simply that there is a mystery. A mystery that can never be explained or understood. Only encountered from time to time. Nothing is obvious. Everything conceals something else. The Hebrew word for universe Olam comes from the word for hidden. Something of the Holy One is hidden within.  — “Honey From the Rock” by Lawrence Kushner

 My childhood faith was formed within a loving caring small town Baptist community.  But as to the nature of God, more was concealed than revealed.  As young adults Loretta and I chose to raise our kids and anchor our faith within the Unitarian Universalism of First Parish in Concord.  Its broad inclusive affirmation of the worth and dignity of every person, seeking justice, equity and compassion in human relations, and acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations fit our sense of the divine mystery.

But what do I intend to convey with words such as God or divine mystery?  The existential “God is dead” movement was popular among some Protestant theologians when I left the Baptists.  This was the death of the big white omniscient and all powerful “God in the sky when I die” metaphysics.  Such anthropomorphizing of the divine mystery no longer felt culturally appropriate.  It disavowed our participation in divine mystery while disempowering humanity.

Perhaps like quantum physicists, trying to simultaneously describe attributes and actions at the quantum scale, mystical theologians must accept that any comprehensive explanation of the nature of God limits divine mystery to our human understanding.  Any comprehensive description of God is inherently less than fully true and hence in some sense a form of idolatry.  A mystic can speak of their own experiences, or teachings of faith traditions, but neither can fully capture the entirety of that which we mean by divine mystery.

 

Discipline Four: Generosity

Discipline Four of Six: Generosity

My spiritual memoir Spiritual Audacity is built around six spiritual disciplines of which the fourth is generosity.  Is this an important discipline in your spiritual life?

Generous means “freely giving more than is necessary or expected.” So generosity includes the idea of open-handedness, along with a connection to our internal experience and spirituality. . . . Generosity ennobles us; it makes us great souls.”  From The Generosity Path by Mark V. Ewert

How has generosity helped shape your life and well-being?

Generosity takes different forms, depending on our financial circumstances. Jesus expressed this in his story of the widow’s mite. She had very little and therefore could give very little. Yet what she gave was everything, so far beyond the large gifts of the rich man. This is the gift of spiritually transcending scarcity.

Each of us chooses how we will live, and that choice alters our spiritual opportunities. So choose abundance. All religions teach some form of this wisdom. Generosity enhances the joy we receive from living. This has always been true. No matter how rich or poor we are at any point, a generous spirit creates opportunities that scarcity won’t.

Generosity: A generous spirit transforms the soul. Central to practicing generosity is the practice of tithing, to give back to those with a greater need than ours 10 percent of everything we receive. Loretta and I have been practicing generosity, often including tithing, in one form or another over our thirty-six years of married life. Giving generously makes what you keep sweeter.

Once you set your mind upon it, it is so easy to do. It changes your orientation to material things. Loretta and I have been richly blessed, partly because of our attitude toward money and material things but also because of our practice of tithing.

We accept what we do receive with gratitude, recover more quickly from any wounds and sorrows, look with joy to the common good, and practice generosity. We have a happier marriage, are more connected to community, and help bend the arc of the universe toward justice, all by giving away a mere 10 percent! This is a powerful spiritual discipline.

Why not be generous? The average American will have lifetime earnings greater than $1.4 million, so by tithing they can give away $140,000 to make the world better. The average family in this congregation will have a lifetime household income of over $4 million, so we can do three times as much. And some families will have lifetime household incomes three to four times that level.

However, generosity is measured not in the absolute amount we give but rather in its relative proportion and our attitude toward it. We read about people who never earn more than a middle-class income but who adjust their spending so upon their death they leave millions of dollars to what they care about. The spirit of generosity, with an open heart, matters more than the gift.

Spiritual Generosity by Rev. Jim Sherblom is now available for pre-order at amazon.com