We spend many tax dollars building and maintaining schools. We spend years learning in primary and secondary schools; then some go on to college, graduate schools, and post-graduate studies. We read papers and books to learn and expand our ideas, although my wife says I need to read more pleasure books!
Sometimes we might step back and ask, “What do we really know? Like, where are we? The simplest answer might be Hamburg, New York at the UU Church. But where is this? Hamburg is a suburb of Buffalo, in New York State, in the country of the USA, which is one of the 241 countries of the world although the United States only recognizes 196. The World Atlas recognizes just 193 but doesn’t include the Vatican or Palestine.
We could further ask, where is our earth? Scientists teach the earth is part of the “Virgo Supercluster” of galaxies held together by gravity. Within this cluster, which is only one of around 10 million more, we are in a small group of galaxies called the “Milky Way” solar system, which is only one of the 100 billion galaxies in a universe with as many as 500 billion! In our little solar system, the earth would look like the size of a footstep on the continent of Asia. If we had a view of earth from the sun, it would appear as a little dot! Stephen Hawking in his “A Brief History of Earth,” considered the universe as not having beginning or end. Mind boggling stuff that forces us quickly back to our small place on earth. For the world we know is very limited and small.
Closer to home, we know marriages aren’t all that permanent either, at least in our country and many others. Many don’t make it, and ultimately all are divided by death. Jobs are uncertain. Many get bored and want to find something else. Many lose jobs by elimination, or for health, or retirement.
Our minds constantly change. I read St. Patrick, whom is remembered today, quite often changed his mind. I certainly have and do! And we know countries are changing all the time, from president to president, from one generation to another. We know the Caucasian race isn’t the most dominant one. By the year 2050, the majority of people in the US will be non-white, the way it used to be before the Pilgrims arrived.
So, what do we truly know? How can we know anything permanently? What if we are never sure outside saying, “change is inevitable?” What if we are right? What if we are wrong? What difference does it make? Such can make us a bit nervous and more uncertain about life.
In many philosophies and most religions, we learn we are not really of this world. Religions both east and west teach our essence is not bodies but spirit. As spirit, we are here in bodily form only temporarily. We are like visitors looking out as observers. The observer, in the mind, makes decisions, and choices.
However, we mostly identify with our bodies—names, races, and countries. But bodies and the physical world of things are only temporary; they are always under constant change. The spirit-observer, just looks, and can watch things change, come and go.
Every 7 years our bodies completely change! As we age, there is less of it! Bodies are made up with between 50 and 75 billion cells. Every day, every hour, every minute and second, some of these cells die. Most are replaced but over time, fewer are replaced. I was once nearly 6 feet tall when finishing high school, but now I am nearly 2 inches shorter. Part of it I lost in a toboggan accident in 1976 when I crushed a lumbar spinal vertebra! The rest keeps melting away in aging, including the brain!
“Time, like an ever-rolling stream, soon bears us all away! We fly forgotten as the dream dies at opening day!”
So, who are we? What is the “we” and “I”? What can we know, if anything? A Bible verse says, “If anyone claims to know something, he or she does not yet have the necessary knowledge.” (I Cor. 8:2) Nothing here is for certain. Our weather, our future, our marriages, our health, even if global warming can be stopped and nuclear war prevented. It can be quite overwhelming! A Bible verse reads, “We live by faith, not by sight!” (2 Corinthians 5:7)
This is the heart of most religions, the understanding we are Spirit in our true Selves. The Unitarians taught this. They taught the real world was Spirit of which we are all a part. But in the 4thcentury, the creeds ordered by Constantine changed it, making the physical real and the spirit outside ourselves. If we believe the right ideas included in the creeds, we can be saved, and our bodies will raise up from the dead and live again! That’s why many don’t believe in cremation; what would there be to raise up? We visited European Churches in which ministers from 300 years ago were still hanging for the walls. Coffins surrounded the sanctuaries so people would be sure to be included! A Roman Catholic priest friend of mine once asked me, “How to people buried at seas ever get to heaven?” Yes, many Christian religions still teach our bodies as immortal.
In teaching this more spiritual, universal idea, one of the reformation thinkers named Michael Servetus was burned at the stake! But some of Servetus’ questions and ideas remained and became part of the those called Unitarians and Universalists. Everybody has Spirit! You don’t even need a church or religion to realize it!
One day Dr. Bill Webster asked me, (I loved that man, as many did!), “what do you believe? All that crazy stuff about God being ‘up there’ and the rest of us down here?” I said, “No, God is everywhere, including you! You are God!” And we were off on one of our frequent chats. (His funeral along with his wife’s Betty was among the most memorable I have ever attended.)
There are many signs of transcendent dimensions in our universe and world. So how did we arrive here in bodies and places? One idea is we decided being spirit in paradise was just too damn boring! So, we imagined another world of form and here we are! Einstein as many of the quantum scientists taught, “Consciousness always proceeds form.” Like this building, it began in consciousness. Someone had an idea or vision of what it would look like. And so, it became! You want to change things now? Just think, dream, and envision it into existence! I’ve seen some of that happening here. We now sit the opposite direction! Some new steps and walks have been improved. A Vision is very important. What you want and see begins to happen.
I learned to use this process while pastor at Wayside. I first read about it sitting one day in the Hamburg Library. I began learning it for myself and encouraged it for the church. A man named Tom Bandy, taught me how to use vision to form and re-format. I gathered a few others to join the dream wagon and off we went! It was a wonderful experience. The Bible says, “When there is no vision, the people perish.” (Proverbs 29:18) But dreaming is how we all got here! It’s part of our dream of “being on our own!”
A feel weeks ago at the recommendation of one of my grandsons, I watched the movie called “Dying to Know” which was a fascinating story of Richard Alpert and Timothy Leary. Both taught at Harvard College in the 1960’s and decided to go on a search for peace. Some of you may remember them. They led the country in discovering transcendence through drugs, specifically, LSD. Even as brilliant men and teachers, they yearned deeply to know what living was all about. They had plenty of money, especially Alpert who was born into it, but it wasn’t enough. Leary finally destroyed himself using drugs, even after several arrests, imprisonments, and broken marriages. Alpert, reared in a very privileged family, created LSD parties to help people find peace and meaning. Finally, tired of being arrested and put in jail, he went to an ashram in northern India where the Beatles had been. The guru, called Maharaji, knew Alpert was taking drugs and asked for them. He quickly swallowed them! Then he turned to Alpert and said, “You don’t need these anymore!” And he taught him how to meditate and discover his True and Higher Spirit Self. Alpert stayed a year or so, changed his name to Ram Dass, and before returning, wrote a book called “Be Here Now.” He returned to America a changed man, still active today at age 87, living in Hawaii, teaching others how to discover life and peace. It’s all within you, it’s who we are. I think this is what church is about.
A similar awakening occurred at Columbian University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. A teacher, named Hellen Schucman, worked there as a professor of clinical psychology. She complained about the continuing mistrust and backbiting occurring at the college, especially among her staff. An atheist, one night she heard a voice telling her to write down the secret to happiness. She thought she was having a nervous breakdown! She told her colleague, Bill Thetford, another atheist, and he told her if she heard the voice again, write down the words in shorthand and bring them to him. Thus their work became known at “A Course in Miracles,” published in 1976, and so far, has sold over 5 million copies in nearly 30 languages around the world. The book spreads mostly outside of churches, although a group is still meeting at Wayside reading and discussing it.
The Course is a book teaching our essence as spirit, and by giving up attempts to know how to fix this world, we come to know peace.
There is a line in the Course which goes, “The journey to God is merely the reawakening to the knowledge of where you are always, and what you are forever. It is a journey without distance to a goal that has never changed. For truth can only be experienced. It cannot be described, and it cannot be explained. I can only make you aware of the conditions of truth, but the experience is of God, Spirit.”
An ancient line from the old Jewish psalm goes, “Be still and know that I am God!” (Ps. 42:1) This is how we can discover it, if want to, by practicing being still and listening, feeling. One of my recent books is by a UU teacher named John Buehrens. He wrote, “Understanding the Bible.” It was written just for UU’s. He shows how it helps direct minds to the same awareness. I would enjoy reading it with any of you.
So how can we understand life and things around us? Realize it’s sort of a dream of wandering! You’ve probably done it many lives before. As St. Jerome wrote in the 4thcentury, considered by many the greatest teacher of the church,
“The soul has neither beginning or end. They come into this world strengthened by their victories and weakened by their defeats in former lives.” (De Principliis)
The other thing we can do to experience this inner Self, is practice meditation. Sit and focus on the breath each day, morning, noon, and night. It is practicing “being still and knowing.” It is what Maharaji taught Richard Alpert. You don’t need drugs, lots of more things, travels and lovers, but times and places to sit and meditate. Or in taking a quiet walk. I think every religious building and center needs a place to meditate and become quiet. Wayside created a quiet walk area outside the church called a “Labyrinth.”
We also can work at giving help and love without expecting anything in return except the feeling of giving unconditionally. You lose your job? Learn to let it go and move on. Your spouse leaves you, betrays you, learn to let it go and move on. Your close friends and family members die; learn to give thanks and sense their presence still with you as spirit.
Yes, spirit or soul is what we are. How can we know? Reason and experience will show you. The world of body, earth and universe are mortal. They come and go. They change and change again and again. They all end up in time, as Hawkins wrote, sinking back into the great black hole! Not very hopeful, in the long run! Identify with that which never changes, the same yesterday, today and forever; spirit, soul, or love, kindness, patience, forgiveness, and persevering in trust!