Saturday, May 9, 2009

Engaged Spirituality

The story of Guru Nanak's encounter with the Yogis brings to life the importance of an engaged spirituality. According to Sikh tradition, Guru Nanak originally visited countless spiritual centers, spreading his message of longing for God. At one point, he ventured up a high mountain to a sacred site in the Himalayas. Upon seeing this lone wanderer, a group of nearby Yogis flocked to Guru Nanak asking him: "Have you come join us?" Looking around at the type of life these Yogis were living, Guru Nanak quipped: "Join what?" Set aback, the Yogis responded: "You appear to be in search of God. If you want to achieve your spiritual goal, you must first renounce the world and join us." At this, Guru Nanak exclaimed: "You have not renounced the world, you have run away from it. The world is on fire, and you have the knowledge of how to put it out. What kind of spirituality is this that leaves humanity to suffer?"

As Unitarian Universalists, we are committed not only to spiritual growth and transformation but also to involvement in the world. As the aforementioned story illustrates, the two must not devolve into polarized antitheses: just as asceticism fails to grapple with the harsh realities of human experience, so too empty worldliness fails to take into account the spiritual dimension of the human heart. Instead, an engaged spirituality calls us to constantly balance between these two worlds, allowing each to interpenetrate and inform our thoughts, actions and ways-of-being in community.

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Friday, May 8, 2009

Glorious Floating

This morning's shabad from the Sri Guru Granth Sahib touched me during a time of trial:

ਜਾ ਕੀ ਸੋਭਾ ਘਟਿ ਘਟਿ ਬਨੀ
God's Glory is manifest in each and every heart.

[Guru Arjan Dev Ji in Raag Gauree on Pannaa 182]

There is something deeply comforting - a cradling of the soul - in knowing that God resides both in us, as well as in others. For me, this state-of-being transforms laborious paper-writing into a (still not joyous, but at least precious!) process of unraveling God's word; it transforms provocative encounters with 'difficult people' into beautiful expressions of life's complex contraries; it transforms trying health conditions into opportunities for spiritual investment. How might it transform your challenges?

ਜਿਸੁ ਸਿਮਰਤ ਡੂਬਤ ਪਾਹਨ ਤਰੇ
Remembering God in meditation, sinking stones are made to float.

[Guru Arjan Dev Ji in Raag Gauree on Pannaa 182]

Amidst our daily sinking, God's presence lifts us up that we may glide with the steady crashing of waves.

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Thursday, May 7, 2009

Prayer of Remembrance

Beloved Lord,
hear my prayer:

Day after day-
I bathe in the ocean of jealousy,
Drown in expressions of enmity,
Lest I forget:
Liberation rests solely with Thee.

Night after night-
I rest my head in joviality,
Praising the world in frivolity,
Lest I forget:
Exaltation rests solely with Thee.

Day after day-
I wake in a spirit of misery,
Dejected beyond all extremity,
Lest I forget:
Rejuvenation rests solely with Thee.

May I never forget Thee, O Perfect One.
Thy compassion will hardly be outdone-
Thou art the cradle of all virtue.

May I always dress myself in Thy praise.


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Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Morality Pageant

During my daily news-sweep, I stumbled upon a fascinating story out of Saudi Arabia: the country's only beauty pageant does not crown queens according to coke-bottle-figures or star-quality-facial-features; rather, their contest revolves around beautiful morals. Pageant founder Khadra al-Mubarak elaborates: "The idea of the pageant is to measure the contestants' commitment to Islamic morals... It's an alternative to the calls for decadence in the other beauty contests that only take into account a woman's body and looks."

Without entering into a heated debate about whether or not such Islamic morals entail oppressive or unequal standards for women, suffice it to say that at surface level this contest is undoubtedly alien to our shores. Don't take my word for it - a quick glance at some of the user responses more than sufficiently proves my point:

1) "Nut-jobs all of them...see what wonderful ideas come out of religion!!!!! Although the full body gear does help out a guy who's got monogamy issues... kinda like horse blinders."

2) "How many of those chicks' morals are synthetic implants?"

3) "A Saudi Strip Club is where they take off their veil."

The sheer ignorance and maliciousness of such comments suggest that a) the popular American imagination still privileges the aesthetic over the ethical, and b) America might very well benefit from a moral pageant of its own. Mind you, these are likely 'liberal' respondents.

Food for thought.

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Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Nature's Hymn

The Romantics reinscribed the Enlightenment's reason-centric world with streaks of irrationality, emotionality and synesthesia. Self-expression and personal experience transformed the Kantian Sapere Aude into Blake's council: "Bathe in the waters of life." So too did Nature undergo metamorphosis, re-inheriting unexpected delight, bursting animation and divine exaltation. No longer materialistic, soulless and mechanic, the natural universe was understood in terms of ebullience and dynamism.

Traces of such super-in-the-natural expression surface in Universalist E. A. Bacon Lathrop's poetic confession:

Life, life! ‘t is singing in the rills,
And piping in the meadows,
‘Tis bursting from the gray old trees
That cast their ghostly shadows;
The bluebirds and the robins now
Awaken sweet reflection;
All things are typical this morn
Of life and resurrection:
I cannot tune my heart to woe
In such a world of glory
When every year repeats anew
The gospel’s gracious story.

It is powerful, I believe, to take seriously the divine presence in the living, both human and non-human. Sufi traditions hear in the wind blowing through trees the name of Allah. Similarly, in the Sikh cosmology, practitioners attune themselves to the Cosmic Vibratory Sound, which births and sustains all creation. On Pannaa 1265, the Sri Guru Granth Sahib reads:

ਜੋ ਬੋਲਤ ਹੈ ਮ੍ਰਿਗ ਮੀਨ ਪੰਖੇਰੂ ਸੁ ਬਿਨੁ ਹਰਿ ਜਾਪਤ ਹੈ ਨਹੀ ਹੋਰ ॥
Whatever the deer, the fish and the birds sing, they chant to the Lord.

When was the last time that you listened to Nature's life-giving chant?

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Monday, May 4, 2009

God Within

Unlike the canonical gospels, the Coptic Gospel of Thomas records Jesus' proclamations in a list-like format. Many scholars believe that such sayings-gospels pre-dated other scriptural formats and provided the necessary groundwork for the later production of narrative accounts. Theologically, Thomas focuses almost exclusively on the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist, in contrast with Paul's obsession with resurrection - this may also correspond to a historical trajectory towards Calvary, as the baptismal formula found in Galatians 3:28 represents one of the oldest known expressions of the early Jesus movement.

Interestingly, Thomas grapples with the nature of God's immanence and transcendence in a unique way:

Jesus said, "If those who lead you say to you, 'See, the kingdom is in the sky,' then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, 'It is in the sea,' then the fish will precede you. Rather, the kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty and it is you who are that poverty." (GTh 3)

This humanistic ethos does not threaten God's universality but seeks to locate God's worldly manifestation in the particular. Jesus' observation serves as a call to unfold the layers of the self and allow the soul to pass into higher forms (Emerson: 'ascension'). By knowing and loving ourselves - and, by extension, by knowing and loving others - we encounter God's presence.

This sentiment can also be found in this morning's shabad from the Sri Guru Granth Sahib:

ਦੂਰਿ ਨ ਜਾਨਾ ਅੰਤਰਿ ਮਾਨਾ ਹਰਿ ਕਾ ਮਹਲੁ ਪਛਾਨਾ ॥
I know that You are not far away; I believe that You are deep within me, and I realize Your Presence.
[Guru Nanak Dev Ji in Raag Tukhaari on Pannaa 1108]

Through self-reflection and introspection we see God; through outward compassion and devotion we feel God.

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Sunday, May 3, 2009

Poetic Justice

Martha Nussbaum would be upset: in preparation for Obama's Supreme Court appointee, the GOP has already launched a slew of 'trial-balloon criticisms,' including the following from Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah):

Obama has also said a judge has to be a person of empathy...What does that mean? Usually that's a code word for an activist judge.

Nussbaum's call for poetic justice - for a richer understanding of neutrality that infuses rationality with the humaneness of a literary imagination - appears to be falling on deaf ears. Unfortunately. For as Nussbaum elucidates, the cultivation of empathy through a balanced emotional life of acknowledged vulnerability leads to more balanced judgments and theoretical reasoning about the human experience. Our emotional lives are cognitively rich - we need to promote empathy as an element of decision-making. We need to individualize, not generalize. We need to encounter others as subjects (not objects) with stories to tell.

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Risking God

We are all agnostics by default, for we simply do not and can not know whether God really exists. Theism, thus, represents a risk - a wager that allows for the possibility that God be true, regardless of whether empirical science or metaphysical philosophy can confirm God's existence once and for all. The underlying cost and benefit of such an investment impacts not the divine but the self: the expense of suspending the rational may produce the inestimable fortune of encounter with God. For those of us not socialized in an environment that took God's reality for granted, the act of risking God may initially prove both counterintuitive and frightening. For all people of faith, relationship with God is inevitably fraught with doubt and hesitation - at one point or another, we find ourselves in Thomas' shoes, righteously proclaiming: "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe" (John 20:25).

This morning's shabad from the Sri Guru Granth Sahib expresses this poetically:

ਪਾਥਰ ਕਉ ਬਹੁ ਨੀਰੁ ਪਵਾਇਆ ॥
Stones may be kept under water for a long time.
ਨਹ ਭੀਗੈ ਅਧਿਕ ਸੂਕਾਇਆ ॥
Even so, they do not absorb the water; they remain hard and dry.
[Guru Arjan Dev Ji in Raag Bhairao on Pannaa 1136]

The cynic, the nihilist, has every right to resist the absorption of spiritual water. Yet, as the passage suggests, such a disposition hardly allows God to penetrate and indwell in the soul. Importantly, as Guru Arjan Dev Ji observes, faith is about a self-softening of the heart - an opening to radical possibility. Faith neither flows from nor results in a hardening of the mind - a staying stone-like. Risking faith in the divine involves a willingness to admit that we don't know where or how God is leading us, only that God is. Dayenu - that is enough.

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