“Spirit and Soul”

Worship Script 1


Worship Script (1 of 4)

 

OPENING WORDS

We gather this day

To try to grow a soul,

Each of us.

To try to get a little spirit,

Each one of us

Let us be open to what is stirring within

Let us claim that life that is rising up, even now

And let us rejoice in the regal presence of one another,

Fully alive.  This day.  This moment.

Blessed Be.

 

HYMN #1  "May Nothing Evil Cross this Door"

 

 FIRST READING

“When Great Trees Fall

When great trees fall,
rocks on distant hills shudder,
lions hunker down
in tall grasses,
and even elephants
lumber after safety.

When great trees fall
in forests,
small things recoil into silence,
their senses
eroded beyond fear.

When great souls die,
the air around us becomes
light, rare, sterile.
We breathe, briefly.
Our eyes, briefly,
see with
a hurtful clarity.
Our memory, suddenly sharpened,
examines,
gnaws on kind words
unsaid,
promised walks
never taken.

 

Great souls die and
our reality, bound to
them, takes leave of us.
Our souls,
dependent upon their
nurture,
now shrink, wizened.
Our minds, formed
and informed by their
radiance,
fall away.
We are not so much maddened
as reduced to the unutterable ignorance
of dark, cold
caves.

And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.” 
― Maya Angelou

 

SECOND READING

 “The first peace, which is the most important, is that which comes within the souls of people when they realize their relationship, their oneness with the universe and all its powers, and when they realize at the center of the universe dwells the Great Spirit, and that its center is really everywhere, it is within each of us.” 
― Black Elk, Oglala Lakota (Sioux) leader

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HYMN #6  "Just as Long as I Have Breath"

 

STORY FOR ALL AGES

This story is from the Cherokee people, told traditionally to explain the formation of some stars and trees.  As you hear it, think about how nature might be alive to you, as if it contained a soul.

"The Origin Of The Pleiades And The Pine"

Long ago, when the world was new, there were seven boys who used to spend all their time down by the townhouse playing the gatayû'stï game, rolling a stone wheel along the ground and sliding a curved stick after it to strike it. Their mothers scolded, but it did no good, so one day they collected some gatayû'stï stones and boiled them in the pot with the corn for dinner. When the boys came home hungry their mothers dipped out the stones and said, "Since you like the gatayû'stï better than the cornfield, take the stones now for your dinner."

The boys were very angry, and went down to the townhouse, saying, "As our mothers treat us this way, let us go where we shall never trouble them any more." They began to dance, some say it was the Feather Dance and went round and round the townhouse, praying to the spirits to help them. At last their mothers were afraid something was wrong and went out to look for them. They saw the boys still dancing around the townhouse, and as they watched they noticed that their feet were off the earth, and that with every round they rose higher and higher in the air. They ran to get their children, but it was to late, for they were already above the roof of the townhouse, all but one, whose mother managed to pull him down with the gatayû'stï pole, but he struck the ground with such a force that he sank into it and the earth closed over him.

The other six circled higher and higher until they went up to the sky, Where we see them now as the Pleiades, which the Cherokee still call Ani'tsutsã (The Boys). The people grieved long after them, but the mother whose boy had gone ihnto the ground came every morning and every evening to cry over the spot until the earth was damp with tears. At last a little green shoot sprouted up and grew day by day until it became the tall tree that we call now the pine, and the pine is of the same nature as the stars and holds in itself the same bright light.

 

MEDITATION

Spirit of Love, we come into your presence,

Perhaps shyly, at first,

Knowing that, in Your light, we are revealed.

Well, then, let us be revealed,

In the fullness of beauty

We've been holding within.

Let us be known, seen, and beheld.

Let the world see our soul.

Let us act from the strength of that soul

To do what we are called to do

Today, tomorrow, and forevermore.

Amen.

 

CANDLES OF JOY AND CONCERN

Those who are so moved are now invited to come forward to light a candle, expressing a joy or concern in their lives. As you do, you may briefly share what it is. We ask that people coming forward speak for no more than a sentence or two, and speak from the heart about issues in their lives, rather than political issues, which we can take up at coffee hour or in the parking lot.

 

SERMON ESSAY

The Movement of the Spirit

by Rev. Jonalu Johnstone,

Have you ever had a spiritual experience, a sense of movement of the spirit? A flash in time when your appreciation for the world was so complete, so perfect, that you were transfixed and transformed? A moment in which you had found a place that you treasure in your heart? But then, when you describe it to others, the words are never full enough, never sweet enough, never sharp enough, never enough to convey the wow of the moment, the senses heightened, the life in you fully awakened, the twinkling of connection, of perfection, of peace, of unity.

We can’t make those transcendent moments come to us. When they do come, we can’t make them stay. We can’t even be sure what they mean, at least not until we take time for reflection and discernment. We can only bask in them when they arrive, consider them when they have gone, and hope that we learn from them whatever we need to.

I recognize that spirit and “spiritual” are loaded terms for some of us. On the other hand, I can think of no better word for such experience, and I do think it’s relevant to how we live our lives. The disquiet around the word spirit prompts me to hold it up for further examination.

First, what is spirit? We speak of it as if we know what it is, yet the abundance of definitions confuses as much as it clarifies. Spirit comes up in many contexts. School spirit has a lot more to do with football than with God, while community spirit produces strong volunteer effort. The French gave us espirit de corps to animate military units and work teams. We refer to ghosts as spirits, and speak of someone writing “in the spirit” of someone else when they have been deeply influenced by them. We refer to someone’s good mood as “in high spirits” and a sourpuss as “in poor spirits.” And speaking of spirits, there’s that other kind—Cheers!

In German the word geist is similar to spirit, but creates different shades of meaning depending on the context and what syllable is added to it—a system that seems to offer more precision. But we may have more confusion in English. And, even with the overlay of religion on spirit, we can’t contain it in a religious envelope, despite the heavily religious—or spiritual, if you will—connotations of the word. Is it surprising that the word spirit is as hard to pin down as spirit itself is?

In many Christian churches today, this month brings the celebration of Pentecost, a holiday we don’t often recognize as UUs. Do you know the Pentecost story? The Jews had gathered in Jerusalem some fifty days after Passover for the holiday they called Pentecost, a commemoration of the giving of the law at Mt. Sinai. The followers of Jesus—not yet called Christians—felt a mighty wind and tongues of flame descended on them and they spoke and somehow, all who were present, from all the corners of the diaspora, heard the words in their own language.

“They must be drunk,” said the skeptics. Really, that’s in the text. I’ve often thought those were the proto-Unitarians, searching for a rational explanation. To which Peter replied, “It’s only nine in the morning! They’re not drunk.”

One of the fascinating things about this story is that the spirit comes not to a single person bringing tranquility, but to a large group of people bringing energy. And that highlights for me some of the questions that cluster around spirit.

Is the spiritual a private, internal experience, or a shared, communal one? Those seem radically different to me. And is it about serenity and peace, or energy and action? Again, two very dissimilar impulses.

While the dictionary equates soul and spirit, some writers make a distinction between them. Bill Plotkin, a depth psychologist, eco-therapist and wilderness guide from Colorado writes in his book, Soulcraft: Crossing Into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche, that the soul “holds our individuality together and gives us our identity,” while the spirit is “the single, great, and eternal mystery that permeates and animates everything in the universe and yet transcends all.” In other words, soul is particular and individual while spirit is what links us all together. Spirit is in us, but at the same time, is out there. Soul is always internal.

Reading his descriptions reminded me of the distinctions the Hindus make between atman and Brahman. While atman (individual soul) and Brahman (universal spirit) are distinct and separate, they are also the same. Famously, Hindus say, “Atman is Brahman.”

Here’s where the distinctions between spirit and soul, or atman and Brahman, take me. When we realize our connection with that which is larger than ourselves, we touch spirit. When we go deep into better understanding of our unique selves, we engage soul. Sometimes during that deep engagement of soul, we realize a connection with our particular niche in the larger world, so we also slip up against spirit.

For instance, one of my great spirit moments was standing out on a cliff in a wilderness area, wind pushing against me, shaping the trees around me whose branches seemed to grow into the void created by the sudden drop-off of land. Before me, above me and even below me was the expanse of sky. My senses heightened, I felt exhilarated, but it was as if I felt not only my feelings, but also the feelings of the trees and the wind and the sky. I was profoundly connected with my space in the universe, aware not only of myself, but of my unity with all.

So, is spirit a private internal experience or a shared, communal one? My theory is that spirit is an experience of connection with what is greater, so if that private internal experience leads to connection with what is greater, then spirit is present.

In other situations, the experience is more overtly communal. The experience at the first Pentecost, whatever it was, was shared by thousands of souls. So, too, was the Azuza Street Revival in the spring of 1906, in Los Angeles, during which people were speaking in tongues and smitten by the spirit. The founding of the Pentecostal tradition dates from those days. We UUs might scoff at the way spirit presented itself there, but some interesting boundaries were crossed. Women as well as men took leadership, as did people of color. Blacks, whites, and Hispanics shared the meetings and the enthusiasm. In 1906. The unexpected happened.

We might better relate to being caught up in the spirit as we perform or hear music or get carried away at a political rally or march. Swept up in something bigger than themselves, people feel a common humanity that cements them and inspires them. The spirit moves, and everyone feels unity and gets carried along as if by a great wind. Our language expresses it this way: we lose ourselves. UU minister Shay MacKay called it “the experience of overcoming physical and cultural differences in pursuit of connection at a more universal, divine level.”

It’s fun to be part of something like that. What’s more, that kind of spirit can accomplish great things. It gives people courage to march for human rights even when faced by tear gas and tanks. It rallies rescue responses in disasters. It inspires sacrifices of time and energy and money to build something bigger than oneself, so that the group lives on as family or tribe or nation or church. It also leads people into wars where they sacrifice themselves completely.

Something in this suggests to me an evolutionary characteristic that somehow contributed to our human survival. Self-sacrifice can be required for the survival of a species, and individuals do not surrender themselves readily. Something, though, encourages us—literally, gives us courage—and that is spirit.

The longest-lasting religious traditions, though, have found a place for both spirit and reason—a delicate balance to produce, but it can be done. Holding the movement of the spirit up to the light of reason can cause deeper truths to emerge.

Take an example. Malcolm X famously went on the hajj to Mecca. He participated in the ritual circling the Ka’ba and all the associated ceremonies. And he reported that he had a spiritual experience of the unity of all. He wrote about it this way:

There were tens of thousands of pilgrims, from all over the world. They were of all colors, from blue-eyed blondes to black-skinned Africans. But we were all participating in the same ritual, displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experiences in America had led me to believe never could exist between the white and the non-white.

You may be shocked by these words coming from me. But on this pilgrimage, what I have seen, and experienced, has forced me to rearrange much of my thought patterns previously held, and to toss aside some of my previous conclusions. This was not too difficult for me. Despite my firm convictions, I have been always a man who tries to face facts, and to accept the reality of life as new experience and new knowledge unfolds it. I have always kept an open mind, which is necessary to the flexibility that must go hand in hand with every form of intelligent search for truth…

In the past I permitted myself to be used... to make sweeping indictments of all white people, the entire white race, and these generalizations have caused injuries to some whites who perhaps did not deserve to be hurt. Because of the spiritual enlightenment which I was blessed to receive as the result of my recent pilgrimage to the Holy City of Mecca, I no longer subscribe to sweeping indictments of any one race. I am now striving to live the life of a true Sunni Muslim.

Malcolm X had an experience of oneness, a spiritual experience, and then he held that experience up to the light of reason and found a deeper truth of practical unity. The process matters because he could have responded differently. He could have rejected his spiritual experience because it contradicted what he had believed over time, and said, “Oh, that was just the hajj. It’s like that. It’s not real life.” He could have been unreflective about the spiritual experience and set it aside.

Instead, he said, “There is something real, something of truth, something holy here that I need to acknowledge. And when I hold up the lessons of the spiritual experience, I find them consistent with reason and reality. These things are true, despite my previous experiences and beliefs that caused me not to accept them. We really are united.”

It’s important to recognize that he did not dismiss other realities he already knew, such as American racism and the experiences of suffering that he had endured as an African American. He continued to work against racism, but with a different inspiration, different philosophy, and different goals. His spiritual experience had shown him a new way but one that had continuity with his past. The unexpected confronted him, and he responded with mind, heart and soul.

The gospel of John says, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Spirit brings the unexpected. Sometimes spirit sneaks up on us and we connect with it unbidden. Sometimes we seek and seek for it and maybe we find it and maybe we don’t. Spirit, like wind, is elusive and ever moving. Spirit empowers and equips, enlivens and inspires. It is our job to be open to its movement, and to respond with our minds, hearts and souls.

 

HYMN #100  "I’ve Got Peace Like a River"

 

BENEDICTION

As we go from this place,

Let it be a parade

Of whole-hearted living,

Of souls on fire with freedom,

Ready to spread the joy

Of the simple fact

Of being alive.

Go in peace.