“When we cry ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are the children of God.” -Romans 8:15 NRSV
What do we spend most of our waking hours thinking about, and doing? Or for that matter, our sleeping hours in dreams? If it’s mostly taking care of our body, working hard to survive whether in a home, business or church, or to break away and have a wild, fun and exotic, out-of-your-dreams- vacation, it’s probably for nothing, or death, right? Or the denial of death.
In our Romans 12 lesson for today, one of the earliest letters to the early church written by the Apostle Paul, he wrote; “So then, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh, for if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” The word for “debtors,” ophelateis,” means “to be in debt to, to owe or be in obligation toward.”
If in most of our waking hours we are concerned about working to take care for our body or another’s, including our properties, or how to relax our bodies with vacations, with warm and pleasant places to visit, or how to eke get a few more years out of our bodies, then it’s really for naught, right? They all simply pass away like the flowers at sunset.
Paul also wrote in Romans chapter 12, verse 6, “To set the mind on flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” So if our minds are mainly filled with how to get more stuff and to protect it in order to satisfy our material bodies and world, we are fixated on death. But if our primary thinking and awareness is set on that which is un-seen, the Spirit world, then we will experience living more in “life and peace.”
Paul wrote in other places (2 Corinthians 4:16ff) that to fix our minds on the world of sensory things is death but to set our minds on the unseen world is life and immortality. With the mind set on bodies, material possessions and structures, we thus live for nothing. It is like spending our days and nights chasing bubbles or illusions.
We may remember our fascination with “blowing soap bubbles,” or in watching children blow and chase them. To spend our waking hours working and playing hard in the world of passing material matter is to chase bubbles. So much of our altruistic efforts become directed toward making lives more comfortable with material surroundings and medical efforts to prolong physical life. We can work hard to preserve animal life as well, animals on, above or beneath earth and its waters. But in the end of time, which is also relative or unreal, all passes away.
In Eastern religions such as Hinduism and its reformed version of Buddhism, the outward world manifestation is called “maya” or illusion. To spend life chasing after the unreal or death is to chase soap bubbles, or illusions. Paul summarizes it with one word, “death.” “To set the mind on flesh is death.” (v. 6)
A visitor once asked the Hindu Guru, Sri Ramana Maharishi, “What do you see when you open your eyes and look out over the world?” He answered, “Death!”
Living for “death” is the cause of our anger, deep seated guilt, unhappiness and loveless or uncharitable thoughts and deeds. There is always anger over the fear of losing, or that none of what we fight so hard to obtain will last more than a few “breaths.” It’s like taking drugs to get high, and then they’re gone, back to the world of fear, jealousy, and shortages.
Recently I was talking to a retired man about maintaining financial security in our aging, “golden years”. I told him I feel quite secure at this point but if things get worse, I might just do a “reverse mortgage” on our property like all those movie stars keep urging us to do on TV. And he said, “But if we do that we may actually have nothing left when we die!” Hello! We will have nothing left when we die! Actually, it’s nothing now!
How then can we live according to the Spirit rather than the flesh, living with a sense of life and immortality rather than mortality? By remembering. Remembering we are not our bodies but Spirit, one with God the Creator, Who is spirit, and thus his Children, Sons and Daughters. As the Course in Miracles beautifully and succinctly expresses it,
“I am not my but I am free, for I am as God created me!”
To experience life we first come to understand this but then work to remember it, stay awake to it, conscious of it. Through prayer and meditation we practice and become more aware when we have lost consciousness and gone back to sleep. We desire to stop our “sleep walking” and begin “wake walking.” It’s similar to how people often lose extra weight or stop smoking.
Deepak Chopra once wrote if we want to lose weight, which can be very difficult, or to stop smoking, which isn’t quite as hard for many, we can wake up and be conscious to it. How? Well, he wrote, (and he is also a certified medical doctor) “When you eat food, be conscious of what is happening. If it is filled with sugar, be conscious of it going down into your stomach and into your system as a sweet rush but then be conscious of the extra sugar becoming attached to your stomach cover as fat. When you smoke, imagine and be conscious of the smoke filled with tars and harmful chemicals moving over and around your lungs, slowly leaving deposits which are restricting your breathing, constricting your blood vessels and causing blockages to build up. If this isn’t enough, you could watch some vivid color movies they now use on current commercials! If you remain conscious of such pictures, you will better stop eating harmful food or ingesting large amounts of smoke into your bodies!
But perhaps the most powerful way to kick start our journey into Spirit is by having a “transcendent experience.” Paul calls it a crying out, “Oh Abba! Oh Father!” It’s somewhat like an orgasm, truly! When that happens, you’ll remember it, and you will just know you are the child of God! That’s why meditation and contemplative experience are crucial to the awaking of ourselves as God’s Children or Divinity. Without it, we are just another work of “death”, trying to save structure, form and “flesh.” Unfortunately, many organized religions miss this. They substitute a cheaper, more ephemeral thrill to take its place.
Fr. Richard Rohr says in some churches, this “fake thrill” is in the form of “accepting Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior and getting baptized.” I went through once myself. Suddenly you think you got it and others don’t. “I know I’m going to heaven and the rest aren’t.” I sang about it, went out onto streets to tell and warn others how to stay out of hell by accepting and praising God for his ever flowing blood saving us from sins!” It’s what the Course in Miracles calls developing a “Special Relationship.” The other popular “thrill” is what he calls “social justice converts.” I’ve gone through also myself. People seize upon a special social issue of the day like hunger, clean environment, racial equality, economic justice, sexual equality or you-name-it. All these are great thrills and emotional calls to follow. We can transfer our “specialness” to our favorite political candidate who’s going to save us and all from annihilation. When I think of my years devoted to social justice causes, I remember the time I helped created a “Task Force to Reverse The Nuclear Arms Race!. Presbytery gave us one year. Then they morphed us into the “Church and Society Committee.” Then Mr. Reagan got elected President! Both of these options, Fr. Rohr states, can be substitutes for a deep contemplative experience with the Divine Presence. Yes, it’s a new birth, a born again experience, but it’s much deeper than the normal substitutes.
Nicodemus, the religious teacher/leader in John’s gospel, chapter three, didn’t know about this “awakening.” Working diligently to save the church/temple, keeping it true to all the correct creeds and confessions, bowing and chanting the exact correct number of “Hail Moseses’”, he knew something was missing. So he quietly slipped off in the night to meet Jesus, the “wild, free, out of nowhere teacher, from the badly educated and poor area of Galilee,” and asked him how he had such power and authority in his life and teachings. Jesus answered, “Are you a teacher of Israel and yet do not know these things?” (Jn. 3:10)
To work hard to save a church, keeping the traditions alive with people supporting them can be just another method of a “mind set on death.” The Spirit gives life! The “flesh” is death! The Spirit is Who you and I are. A religious organization can’t escape doing acts of charity and benevolences to the community and world. But it also cannot exist for long, unless it has “central empire backed authority.” Those are pretty much behind us now in this “Post Christian” era. Religious seekers need the Spirit-Oneness, Unity experience. It’s the great mysterious experience of moving beyond the dualism that seems to permeate so much of our lives into the Oneness and Unity of God. Luther and the old Roman Catholic Church were both right; It is by Grace alone that we are saved, as long as we bring forth works of love and kindness.
Years ago while a student at San Francisco Seminary, I heard the late Roy Fairchild say that Martin Luther began the great Reformation by teaching the experience of “salvation by Grace alone!” Yet in recent polls among California Lutherans, most of them, 98%, believe their good works alone would get them into heaven! See how fast we loop back into dualism?
Wayne Dyer, in his recent book, “Wishes Fulfilled: The Art of Manifesting,” writes that by our thoughts we manifest the world we see around us. Some scientists have written articles stating the whole universe is but a manifestation of our thinking. Are you at peace and happy with what you see? If not, change your thinking about it. Either look at it in another perspective or begin to manifest one which more clearly connects with how you think in your deepest desires. Are your desires aimed toward death or life, mortality or Spirit? To set our minds on the flesh is death, but to set our minds on the Spirit is lie and peace. The choice is ours, yours and mine. Let us awaken to Spirit and allow Him to flow freely through these mortal bodies, manifesting an existence that radiates love, peace, and compassion.
Reflections given at the First Presbyterian Church, 2085 Union Road, West Seneca, NY on June 3, 2012.