Head and Heart: Whole Body Religion

Sermon given by Rev. Frank Clarkson, October 6, 2019

Yesterday following the memorial service for Diane Brokvist, a couple of different people came up to me and said something like, “I could use a church like this.” We just had given Diane a good sendoff, and from what people shared in the service it was clear that she had found a spiritual home here; that this church was a place that invited Diane to bring her whole self, it had been a place of healing and growth for her. had changed her life for the better, helping make her into a spiritual leader who helped others find their own healing and liberation too.

Diane was one of our evangelists; she brought people here, and she told people they should come check us out. She wanted others to discover the liberation she had found. This doesn't mean she didn’t have a complaint every now and then; which of course she felt compelled to share. And as Clare said, this was good for us too.

I was heartened that those people spoke to me about their longing to find a spiritual home; because it confirms my hunch and my hope that these days, there are people who are hungry for a free faith; who are looking for and longing for a place where they don’t have to fit into a particular belief system or theology, where they can bring their doubts as well as their faith, where they will find companions who accept them as they are, a place that feels safe enough, so they can then stretch and grow.

If you know someone who might need a church like that, like this one, will you invite them to come? Don’t be shy about this—think of what a gift this could be to them, and what a change it could make in their life. They way this church changed Diane, and the ways she changed and blessed us.

One of my spiritual heroes is Kathleen Norris, the author of this morning’s reading. Because of how she writes about coming back to church after having wandered away. Coming back, not as going back in time, but going back and reinterpreting, recovering, redeeming what she thought had been lost to her as a contemporary thinking person. 

Her writing resonates with me because it feels similar to my own story. I grew up in the church, and mostly loved it. I used to sing hymns to as I cut our grass on Saturday morning! But as I grew up, I started to question things. My child-like faith didn’t made as much sense once I became an adult. Too many aspects of the tradition seemed, at face value, impossible to believe. I didn’t know what do to with my doubts, so I kind of wandered away. 

But when I followed my wife to a Unitarian Universalist church, I felt a new invitation—to make my own search for truth and meaning. To explore what those words God, faith, Spirit, Christian meant to me. This search eventually led me to seminary, a place I never planned to go, and there I discovered deeper and less literal ways of entering these mysteries. In the classroom, in the lunchroom, and in the chapel, my head and heart kept getting stretched, opened wider by new learnings and understandings and experiences.

And that deepening has continued here. You are my companions and my teachers; my faith has been enlarged and enriched by getting to travel this way with you. And I hope this is your experience too.

I wonder how many of you have a similar story, of leaving a tradition that no longer seemed to fit, feeling compelled to seek out a new faith, a different or deeper way of being. The book of Hebrews describes our religious ancestors as people who “confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland” (Hebrews 11:13-14). How many of us here feel like we have been wandering in the wilderness and we’re simply looking for a place that feels like home?

I love that in a time when more people are heading away from organized religion, Kathleen Norris is writing about her return to faith. She’s not trying to convince anyone; not trying to tell you that you ought to go to church; rather, her writing is like a traveler’s guide, an exploration of the religious landscape these days. She writes like someone who’s entered a foreign land, and is trying to learn the language and find her way around. And it’s compelling reading for someone like me who understands why people are leaving church, but still, who feels a longing for connection and community that I don’t know how to find anywhere else. And I sense other people are searching too.

Kathleen Norris seems to believe that one of the reasons we modern people have trouble with religion is that we think too much; we allow our heads to be in charge, when we ought to give as much attention to what our hearts, and our bodies, are tying to tell us. She’s not saying we should give up our minds, just that we ought not let our rational side run the whole show.

In the passage we heard this morning, from her essay “Belief, Doubt, and Sacred Ambiguity,” she describes her struggles, as a rational thinking person, to come back to faith. And how she met some Benedictine monks, who weren’t nearly as worried about her doubts as she was: “They seemed to believe that if I just kept coming back to worship, kept coming home, things would eventually fall into place.”

I truly believe that we have within us the ability to access a deeper wisdom that we often give ourselves credit for. It’s like you have a inner compass or GPS, and if you can learn how to access it, how to get in touch what it is trying to tell you, then you will find your way home. This is what good religion does, it helps us find our way. As Anne Lamott says, “a path and a little light to see by.”

We are meant to live lives of connection and meaning, in touch with the joys and the sorrows of being human, aware of the miracle of this moment and this day. Aware that we are here, living and breathing, and of the truth that one day, each of us going to die. And to be able to live with that truth in such a way that, rather than make us depressed, it helps us to live our days with purpose and joy. This is what good religion does—it connects us with the cycles of life, it helps us to find our place in the family of things, and to see and be able to say that it is good.

Our worship theme for October is “A Free Faith,” and I hope this month will encourage you to make your own search for what is good and true, and help you to dig deeper into our UU tradition. The invitation of a free faith is to follow you longings and the Spirit where they lead, and in the process to become more fully yourself; to make deeper connections with others and with the larger Mystery; to make meaning from the stuff of your life, and find ways to help heal and bless our world. 

The way toward a free faith is by jumping in, engaging with practices that call to you, and even those that might scare you a bit. Singing out in church, writing down your own prayers, trying meditation, spending time in silence—thee are so many ways one can do this. Listen to a bit more from that essay by Kathleen Norris. She writes:

“I feel blessed to know from experience that it is in the act of worship, the act of saying and repeating the vocabulary of faith, that one can come to claim it as ‘ours.’ It is in acts of repetition that seem senseless to the rational mind that belief comes, doubts are put to rest, religious conversion takes hold, and one feels at home in a community of faith. And yet it is not mindless at all. It is head working inseparably from heart; whole body religion.”

Let me say that again: “It is not mindless at all. It is head working inseparably from heart; whole body religion.”

So often in our culture we are encouraged to split things apart into false dichotomies: to separate the mind from the body, to value thinking over feeling and light over shadow. The invitation is to learn to live beyond these dualities, to see life more as both/and than as either/or. To break out of the boxes others would force us into, and celebrate the fact that our lives do not have to be so neatly and clearly delineated and explainable. In fact, it may be that when you find yourself unable to adequately describe or explain your unfolding spiritual life, that is a sign that you are making progress!

This church, this free and open faith tradition, is here to “hold open a space where you can become yourself, without shame or fear” (Theodore Rozak).

The invitation is use our heads and our hearts, to engage our whole selves. To be in touch with that which we have pushed away. To trust the wisdom of your own body, to listen for the longings of your own soul. To be open to that amazing grace which is so near to us, now and always.