July and August 2008


     Welcome to Spirituality 601!  Students do not need to acquaint themselves with other classes held in former years before taking 601.  Not only is each year a stand-alone cluster of settings, each class is likewise one that captures a theme that is independently considered.  The sessions will begin promptly at 10:00 a.m. and conclude at 10:45 a.m.   Each lesson will be posted on the St. Matthew’s web site the week before it is considered in class.  Hard copies will always be available on a table in the back of the classroom.

     Why do we study Spirituality?  We come to the earth through our mother’s womb and we awaken in a world that is filled with everything that stimulates our senses.  Our identity is formed from our responses to how we perceive our environment.  The environment can become a very treacherous platform from which to do self-analysis.  Much learning comes through our exposure to the external world.

     For example, the loving arms of parents can hold us, and soothing voices can sing to us as we are rocked to sleep.  Yet, other newborns can be shaken and spanked because they are crying.  Cigarettes can be extinguished on their arms and harsh voices, filled with violent images, can imprint themselves on innocent spirits.  Infants have no choice but to absorb and will eventually respond to what their environment communicates to them.

     The young onions are formed a small layer at a time, modeling what they are exposed to because that is all they know. Our teachers point to performance and we excel at pleasing.  We hear words that form our individual responsibilities, “Clean your room!  Brush your teeth.  Wash behind your ears.  Thank God for your blessings rather than whining about what you don’t have.

Bring home A’s on your report card and we will be proud of you. Follow through on everything you start.  Finish every task with such perfection that no one could come in behind you and do a better job.  Be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.  Be cautious in your relationships.  Always carry yourself with an intriguing degree of mystery.”

     When students of spirituality truly examine the nature of their spirit, many of them learn that their identity has been formed by their responses to external factors, e.g., wealthy, well-connected parents, an excellent private school education, physical attractiveness, complying to the rules of an upper middle class society, exposure to traveling abroad, etc.  Or, people learn from an entire host of responses to being in an environment where most of the above attributes were absent.

     Learning about spiritual guidance often does not come until people fail, until other kids make fun of them because they are “fat,” “ugly,” or labeled “a loser.”  What happens to our world with all its perfect variables operating when our pet dies, when mom and dad divorce, when we are raped while walking home from school, when people betray our trust, when we are terminated from our job, or when thieves break into our living space and destroy our belongings as they search for what they fear they will never have.

     Life often carries us into experiences where the external world appears to have turned against us.  This is very similar to Siddhartha’s experience.  He lived in his father’s perfectly maintained palace grounds – his Garden of Eden.  One day he slipped out through the gate that was carelessly left open and he witnessed what he had never encountered -- hunger, poverty, crime, aging and death. He was shattered and he had no guides to provide an interpretive meaning to what his senses experienced.  This episode facilitated his movement into his inner world.  He emerged and became known as the Buddha – the enlightened one.

     Jesus was exposed to a metaphysical experience during his baptism that was beyond anything he had ever encountered.  He was so confused by that moment that he went into the wilderness and fasted for a considerable time.  He was unprepared to understand such a paranormal moment.  He emerged the Christ – Greek for Messiah.

     Saul of Tarsus was overwhelmed while traveling to Damascus by an experience he could not explain.  He heard the voice of Jesus.  He became blind for several days and was healed by a follower of the way of Jesus.  He emerged from that experienced a changed person.  Years later, he became the Apostle Paul in the early church.

     Some experience, some stimulus, some motivating agent appears to flip a switch within us and we become aware that not everything is as it appears.  We become aware that we can become victimized by our responses rather than by having our lives change as a result of them.  We become aware that many aspects of life are well beyond our ability to control.  We learn that what we can consistently control is the quality of our responses.

     Quite often we are tempted to use responses that have been imprinted in us over decades of being exposed to the modeling of others or by our continued reinforcement of them in our day-to-day routine living.  But, a break in our reality can come when life carries us to a tipping point.  We can either grow exceedingly angry that life is not the way we want it, or we can learn that every experience is offering guidance to a promised land.  When we choose the latter, we emerge from our protective caves into a world where we begin to take charge of our lives by writing new scripts over those our external world and its people had taught us.

     We learn to think before we respond.  We learn to recognize when we backslide.  We learn to laugh again.  We learn not to take ourselves as seriously as we once did.  We learn that God is not the ruthless killer that is frequently featured in the Scriptures, e.g., Genesis 38:7, 10.  Exodus 4:24, or I Samuel 15:3.  We learn that the Scriptures are not the infallible idol/icon we were taught they were.  We learn that we were not born into sin, but were born into ignorance of our vast potential.  Jesus pointed to this treasure trove of attributes that remain dormant until they are accessed, used or given away.  He called this depository of treasure, The Kingdom of God.

     Many of us believe we are tracking well on the spiritual path.  Perhaps we should pause here to examine what as happened to us as a result of the reinforcing elements, the imprinting of our culture on our lives.  Let us contrast our experience with the thought patterns of another culture that knew North American long before the Europeans appeared.  Read the words of Chief Seattle:

The President in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy our land but how can you buy or sell the sky, the land; the idea is strange to us.  Every part of this earth is sacred to my people.  Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods and every meadow, all are holy in the memory and experience of my people.  We are part of the Earth and it is part of us.

The perfume flowers are our sisters.  The bear, the deer, the great eagle, these are our brothers.  Each ghostly reflection in the clear water of the lakes tells of events and memories and the life of my people.  The water’s murmur is the voice of my father’s father.  The rivers are our brothers.  They carry our canoes and feed our children.

If we sell you our land, remember that the air is precious to us.  That the air shares its spirit along with the life it supports.  The wind that gave our grandfather his first breath also receives his last sigh.  This we know, the Earth does not belong to man.  Man belongs to the Earth.  All things are connected like the blood that unites us all.  Man did not weave the web of life.  He is merely a strand in it.  Whatever he does to the web he does to himself. Your destiny is a mystery to us.

What will happen when the buffalo are all slaughtered?  What will happen when the secret corners of the forest are heavy with the scent of many men and the view of the ripe hills is blotted by the talking wires?  Will this mean the end of living and the beginning of survival?  When the last red man has vanished with his wilderness, and his memory is only the shadow of a cloud moving across the prairie; will these shores and forests still be here?  Will there be any spirit of my people left?  We love this earth as a newborn loves his mother’s heartbeat.  So if we sell you our land, love it as we have loved it.  Care for it as we have cared for it.  Hold in your mind the memory of the land as it is when you receive it.  Preserve the land for all children and love it as the Great Spirit loves us all.  One thing we know, there is only one God.  No man, be he red man or white man, can be a part.  We are brothers after all.

     There is a quality within our nature that has the potential to remain open-minded much like that of an eager student.  When we come into contact with words with which we resonate, with an experience that deeply touches us emotionally or with an experience of connecting the dotes so that one moment in time serves our growth – we have kept open this marvelous talent that has its roots in a dimension of ourselves we cannot see.  When we sense the pain and sense of loss in Chief Seattle’s words, we are made aware that he was a visionary that loved the earth more than many in our society that race to cover it with buildings and roads.

     We study Spirituality because it fine-tunes our skills of spirit by remembering that our identity is far more expansive than what our earthly sojourn has taught us.  We can be stewards of the earth without owning it.  We can empathize with our brothers and sisters without needing to control their destiny.  We can surrender our worries about issues of life over which we have no control.  We can love other people intimately without counting the cost.  We can remain accountable to God regardless of how our outward behavior is interpreted by others.

     For example, Jesus’ family initially misunderstood his mission and message.  Mary, as well as his brothers and sisters came for him because word was spreading through the community that Jesus was possessed with an evil spirit.  They came to take him home, but he refused to acknowledge their presence. (Mark 3:30-32)  In fact, he transferred the understanding of his nuclear family to those who were listening to him.

     Most of us have heard the hackneyed response, “This is not about you.”  What comes closest to reality is that everything is about you.  We will study this in the first chapter of this course.

     Only you can fine-tune your life.  Only you can determine the values, purpose and meaning that you give to your experiences.  Only you can choose whether or not to internalize the judgments and comments of others that are directed toward you.  Only you can understand the purposes of the masks that you wear.  Only you can appreciate all the nuances of pleasure and the joy of learning through living the adventure.  Only you can savor the moment by choosing fully to live in each one.  Only you can take the risks that are necessary for you to ascend to different levels of understanding.

     The study of Spirituality takes us to a new appreciation of that vast universe of creativity that lies within us in a place we can only access through spirit.  Spirituality is the final frontier.  We can and will land humans on Mars. Our scientific growth and societal evolution will depend not on science but on whether or not we can make visible the Gospel’s three essential words that summarized Jesus’ entire ministry -- “Love your neighbor.” Until we learn that, we will only carry our unbridled and untamed aggressive nature into our galaxy.

     The other life forms we will encounter may have little tolerance or patience for primitives who have matured technologically but have not matured in spirit.  Life is about living our potential, not exploiting others for some material gain.  There is absolutely nothing in this life that we really need or want.  We came with nothing and we will leave only with the growth patterns we created while we were here.  A little serious humor before we begin:

I was shocked, confused, bewildered as I entered Heaven’s door, not by the beauty of it all, nor the lights of its décor.

But it was the folks in Heaven who made me sputter and gasp – the thieves, the liars, the sinners, the alcoholics and the trash.

There stood the kid from seventh grade who swiped my lunch money twice.  Next to him was my old neighbor who never said anything nice.

Heb, who I always thought was rotting away in hell, was sitting pretty on cloud nine looking incredibly well.

I nudged Jesus, “What’s the deal?  I would love to hear your take.  How’d all these sinners get up here?  God must have made a mistake.

And why is everyone so quiet, so somber – give me a clue.  “Hush, my child,” Jesus said, “They are all in shock.  No one thought they would be seeing you.

Enjoy the course!