“Many Ways to Kiss the Ground”
A Sermon by Deborah Weiner
Delivered on Sunday, March 17, 2019
At The First Parish in Bedford
A Thought to Ponder at the Beginning:
“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” —HOWARD THURMAN
The creative spirit moves in many and mysterious ways, and can open up a new world for us if we hear its call. The poet ee cummings wrote these words:
i thank You God for most this amazing
Day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and love and wings and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)
how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any-lifted from the no
of all nothing-human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?
(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)
Today, we explore how we respond to that call of the spirit and the imagination…and we begin by responding to the call of this morning. Let’s rise in body or spirit and join in singing # 1000 in the teal book: Morning Has Come.
I was 13 years old, in seventh grade in Mrs. Nalle’s art class at Sleeping Giant Junior High School in Hamden, Connecticut. Although I never thought of myself as particularly talented in art, I wanted to try new things and so I sat at my desk while we got our assignment: make a mosaic design with little tiles and pieces of glass, and fit it into an ashtray mold (yeah, it was that time!) Any design we wanted, was fine, I recall the teacher saying. Lay it out to show me before you start to grout it into place. OK, GO!
I picked out the materials I wanted to use and laid out the design. I put up my hand so that the teacher would come over to look at what I had created. When she arrived, she frowned and said, “Oh no, this isn’t right at all! Here, try this.” And whisking her hands around, she moved the tiles and glass into a pattern that she found more suitable. I had failed. I wasn’t sure what I had done wrong, but Mrs. Nalle had made it clear that whatever it was, I was not up to her standards. Later, I got a C in Art.
From that day forward I stayed away from visual art and crafts. I clearly couldn’t do it to the teacher’s satisfaction, and rather than labor on in any area where I had no ability, I shut off that part of my brain as best I could and moved on to study English where I seemed to fare better.
Years later, while in graduate school studying theater, I was in a required costume design class. I felt terror when the teacher assigned our costume rendering project. That meant that I had to DRAW. And that meant that I had to imagine how I wanted the characters in a play to be dressed, what the creative impulses were for the play as I envisioned it…and it was another opportunity for me to Fail, I thought… this time at the graduate level. I made myself sick. Like someone on their way to an execution, I trudged to the part of the Boston theater district where fabric warehouses were, getting swatches for the costumes. I procrastinated as long as I could. I wondered if there were a way to get out of the assignment. Maybe if I could get booked as stage manager for a show headed to Broadway, they would let me out? Nope.
I had chosen Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” for my project…my favorite Shakespearean play. I found diaphanous grey and silver for Ariel, the sprite…garnet silk for Prospero…and so on. I finished the renderings and handed them in with my narrative. I was sure it would be a disaster. I nearly fainted when the project came back with an “A” on it – a fluke, I decided.
But enough about me.
The creative spirit lives in all of us, I believe. Rumi’s quote, which is on the cover of your order of service, calls us to identify the beauty that we love…and in engaging in that practice of lifting up beauty, to allow us to move our spirits closer toward reverence, which some of us call the Holy, and some of us call God.
In practices around the world and through time, there are examples of cultures that meld the arts and the spirit – and explore the ways in which the connection can strengthen and empower us.
Unitarian Universalist minister Scotty McLennan said (1), “Learning how a great activist like Gandhi found his strength in quiet meditation helped me try it out, and the Hindu priest I lived with one summer in India insisted on it as a daily exercise. The more I meditated, the more I learned the value of stillness in many realms: listening to others more patiently and empathetically, smelling the flowers rather than missing them in the rush, becoming slower to anger, breathing intentionally when I feel stressed, feeling connected to the larger universe or Ultimacy.
Meditation is a central practice for many Buddhists and Hindus, and we in America often attribute it to traditions other than Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Yet, all religious traditions (and many humanistic and secular ones) have something akin to meditation…” using a centering prayer, reciting scripture or poetry, holding icons, handling prayer beads, rocking rhythmically, dancing like the dervishes, or practicing mental visualization or muscle relaxation.
In a monograph (2) published by UCLA, scholar Christine Valters Paintner wrote about the connection between spirituality and artistic expression. If we accept the notion that spirituality is at its core a search for meaning in life, spirituality can then provide an orientation to our lives, a set of values to live by… a sense of direction, and a basis for hope.
More than that, Paintner suggests, it can help us cultivate a reverence for mystery: what is it that we cannot fully describe through language? “This is the presence that great mystics have described as the God beyond all names… an awareness of the presence of love in the world where there might only have been hate; hope where there might only have been despair; being where there might have been nothing.” It is tied to possibility, to what might be. And spirituality is about transformation – and it should challenge us to stretch and grow through commitment to practices, to disciplines, to engagement with ways that elevate our thinking and our growth.
Creativity – the process of bringing something new into being, as psychologist Rollo May described it – brings forward elements of human expression that rise from our experience and our imagination. As Paintner reminds us, “Engaging in the arts as a spiritual practice means honoring the process of meaning-making, of cultivating a relationship to mystery. Through this opening of the creative soul, we extend an invitation to the spirit to rise and lift us to new heights of wonder and exploration. And through that process, we grow.
“We carry inside us the wonders we seek outside,” wrote Rumi in the thirteenth century. Yet, what lies inside remains locked there, too often. The voices speak loudly to us: “Not good enough.” “No one will be interested.” “Those other people are way better than you.” “I’m too old (or too young) to do it well.” “I don’t have the time.”
“The imagination is a doorway into the divine,” writes psychologist Margaret Paul (3), “and when we learn to trust what we imagine, we come to realize that we are not making it up at all. When we open to our creativity and our imagination, we are opening to the wisdom of the Spirit, and what comes is coming THROUGH us, not FROM us.”
This would not be a sermon from a religious educator unless I spoke about the ways in which children and youth are impacted by the crying need for the creative spirit to be unleashed in their lives. I don’t need to tell those of you who are parents or grandparents about the enormous pressure that children are under these days. I do not suggest that today’s generation of children are the only ones who are growing up in a boiling kettle of demands and expectations. Yet the pressure that they live with – and in fact, the life we live in towns like Bedford, Lexington, Concord, Carlisle and others – contributes to the stress they experience.
These towns – and the ones around us that I didn’t name – offer, for the most part, great quality of life in lots of ways: recreation, open space, nice places to shop, access to the arts and culture, many fine houses of worship like this one. And they offer very good schools – some of the very best in the country – and places to live that cost a boatload of money. Which generates lots of stress for many of us: needing to work even harder than before to support that cost of life. And at public and private schools, the focus has increasingly been on MCAS exams, SAT’s and other tests that will help our children advance, get into the best higher education settings, and move on to what we imagine is a successful life.
And of course, we want to be able to tell our friends and neighbors that our child is hitting all those marks, because they might judge us on how many of those invisible boxes of achievement we’re able to tick off: they will want to know that our child performs in the school band, is on the soccer team, goes on nice vacations to fancy places each year, attends a great summer camp, etc., etc., etc.
In the face of that kind of pressure I frequently hear parents remark that their children don’t have time to come to church each week, participate in faith formation programs, or just come to the youth group hangout that might give them a little breathing room. Because there are too darned many hoops to jump through to get to the next hurdle so that we can feel like we can compete in life. And in the face of that kind of pressure, it’s also not surprising that children and adults may not have much time for allowing the spirit to flower.
It’s not hugely surprising that many Unitarian Universalist congregations have folks in them who are traveling somewhat different paths… folks who have shown up at our doors wanting support for a journey that will not only – as a UUA promotional campaign a decade ago said – “nurture your spirit, (and) help heal our world,” but also allow them to explore their identity and set their spirit free. The question is: will we allow ourselves – even in an environment that at least on paper, encourages us to ‘come as we are,’ to take a breath, in the face of increasing demands on our time and attention?
The opportunities for the kind of spiritual exploration and freedom we seek start at an early age. Next year the religious education team here at First Parish hopes to offer a wonderful program called “Spirit Play” to our early learners. Modeled on a curriculum created by Jerome Berryman using Montessori teaching methods, “Spirit Play” uses stories, music and free play to inspire children to explore faith and the creative spirit. We hope that it will be a welcome and timely addition to this congregation’s faith formation program, one that can support our children on their path toward engaging with our beliefs and spiritual practices that will be meaningful for them.
The music, the film, the theater that inspires our children and youth frequently follows a theme of opening to what lies just beyond our reach. Where is that place where we will be accepted for who we are, where we can explore our potential? Fifteen years ago, the groundbreaking musical “Wicked” burst onto the stage. It should not surprise us that the composer of that show, Stephen Schwartz, is the same man who, more than a generation earlier in 1972, wrote the musical “Pippin,” which included a song called “Corner of the Sky” – about the young prince yearning to find the identity and freedom that might be his in a troubled world. In “Wicked,” we find Elphaba, the young witch who has always felt held down, stretching and struggling to explore her true identity as she sings “Defying Gravity.” In many ways, the same theme is present in another hit with children and youth, “Frozen,” where the Snow Queen, Elsa, claims her space and place in the world, proclaiming that “the cold never bothered me anyway.”
Inside us – whether hidden deep inside the ice, crawling out, or bursting forth, our spirit yearns for its space…and frequently, in its most creative moments, this can come through the arts and through ventures into differing cultures or identities. Sufi dance. The call to prayer five times a day. The use of clay and paint to create images of the holy. In this western culture, we worship not the body, but words…we rely on them to help us express our thoughts and even our feelings. But it is by unleashing other parts of the spirit that we can move closer to that which is holy, which truly feeds us.
The therapist Carl Jung observed that “when the gods left Olympus, they went into the unconscious and reign now in the solar plexus of the individual”. It is in this space where we may encounter a piece of art …be it painting, film, dance, music…that affects us to such a point that we feel it in the body. It is that inspiration that calls the dervishes to whirl, to become the mechanism through which new vision is achieved. The Sufis say that the goal is to “Open the eyes of the heart and see infinity in eternity… [the] goal is to loosen [one]self from the earth’s glue which binds and become one with God, to become a channel for [God’s] Light, and enter the realm of no boundaries.” (4)
As Christine Paintner says, unleashing this “imagination is fundamental to all human activity; indeed, it is creative and critical, intuitive and… central to human becoming. It gives us the power to remember the past, to shape our desires, and to project possibilities for the future.”
In his book “Miles Beyond: Electric Explorations of Miles Davis, writer Paul Tingen recalled that “Miles Davis, the famous jazz musician, used to tell his musicians, “When you play music, don’t play the idea that’s there, play the next idea. Wait. Wait another beat, or maybe two, and maybe you’ll have something that’s more fresh. Don’t just play from the top of your head, but listen and try to play a little deeper.”
Miles also advised his musicians, “Don’t play what’s there. Play what’s not there.”
Whether – for me – it was making mosaics back then, performing in theaters, or singing – my brain is set free when I explore other parts of myself. One of my absolute favorite things is to sit on the porch at Star Island with my paints or beads or whatever project I’m in the middle of. I can look out at the harbor, I can hear the bell buoy and the seagulls…I feel the breeze…the conversations fade and what is in my head is just…wonder and a full-color array of ideas and snapshots and poetry.
At times like this, I find myself filled with gratitude for what is possible in life…holding gratitude for these gifts that come from the heavens, through the air we breathe. This spirit can help us break down the walls that hold us back and the barriers that block us – as individuals, as people, as a community – from fulfilling the promise that each of us holds inside.
What do we gain when we open to the possibilities?
I encourage you to allow those questions to come in:
Is there space inside you for love…for you to be nurtured by the knowledge that you are loved, that you love someone, who can lift you up?
Are you able to seek, and find, real beauty in the world?
What is it that will make you feel alive?
What is it that you love to do, and that needs to be set free to flower, and to nurture you in return?
Through the exploration of these questions, we may open the spirit to that which the universe holds for each of us.“ Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”
Adapted from Susan Van Dreser
Let us sing of the magic of imagination by which we know one another.
Let us sing of the magic of creation by which we build the world of our soul and teach its wisdom to others.
Let us sing the magic of our lives together, holding and shaping, by the movement of breath from heart to lung, all new life that is to come.
Go now with singing. Go now with magic in your fingertips. Touch this world with life.
(1) How to Bring Your Spiritual Side to Work Every Day by Deborah Petersen – https://www.gsb.stanford.edu/insights/how-bring-your-spiritual-side-work-every-day – Insights by Stanford Business, 2015
(2) The Relationship Between Spirituality and Artistic Expression: Cultivating the Capacity for Imagining, by Christine Valters Paintner, Ph.D. Spirituality in Higher Education, Vol. 3, Issue 2 – January 2007. https://www.spirituality.ucla.edu/docs/newsletters/3/Paintner_Jan07.pdf
(3) The Spiritual Power of Creativity, by Margaret Paul. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/margaret-paul-phd/the-spiritual-power-of-cr_b_12427572.html
(4) Myth and Creativity: The Role of the Artist and the Sufi Tradition by Allison Steiger. http://www.creativitypost.com/arts/myth_and_creativity_the_role_of_the_artist_and_the_sufi_tradition