I was playing tennis at Memorial Park the other day. The sun was blasting. A number of us took shelter under a gazebo. Loud squawking. A mother bird and a nest and a couple of baby birds were at the highest point of the gazebo inside, living their life. Mama bird was not overjoyed to be interrupted in the midst of her daily tasks.
We tried to be quiet and mellow to let mama bird know we came in peace.
The birds were gorgeous. And in that moment, eternity burst through. We were touched by a sense of mystery and love and life. It was the divine presence right there.
Your life is dripping with the divine presence. The world is dripping with the divine presence. So begins my book, Seeds of Devotion.
Today, I won’t tell stories or read sections from that book. I will instead give you a glimpse into what animated the story telling and the prayer writing. The principles that I try to lift up, even if indirectly.
Let me start first with some foundational ideas and principles that I try to be a part of in everything I write.
Foundational is this idea:
1) There is one presence, there is one power present in every moment. The divine presence. The holy. That little bird and her babies. God.
2) All of creation, including we who count ourselves as humans, each is of God and therefore good. Now the evidence can be hard to see sometimes, but it is a matter of faith. As the poetry of the Jewish scriptures remind us: God looked at all of creation, in all of its diversity, and said: it is good. That goodness is the supreme reality. God looked at that little bird and she said: it is good. It is beautiful.
3) We are co-creators with God. Every morning, the poet says, the world is created anew. As I noticed that bird, she was alive to me, in my spirit, in my heart. And all of the moms and all the birds that I’ve ever known were alive in me in that moment of co-creation. And I was transformed by the encounter.
4) Through prayer and mindfulness and awareness, we align our hearts with the heart of God. When I saw that bird and the little babies and the nest, my heart was enlarged and I was able to feel in my heart the breaking through of eternity.
5) To the best of our ability, we live the truth we know. The truth I knew in that moment was that beauty is all about us, the kingdom of God is all about us, the inbreaking of eternity can happen in profound and surprising ways.
Those are unity principles as illustrated by a bird in a gazebo on a hot summer day at the memorial park tennis courts.
Those principles animate my book. Those unity principles are kind of the heart of mystical thought. A good starting point, a strong foundation.
Will you take one minute with me and ponder this question: What principles animate the story of your life? What is the first of those principles?
Now there are a few other animating principles in my life. One is the idea that revelation is ongoing. Now this isn’t particularly controversial here, but in some places it can be hard to imagine this. They might say that Jesus was the definitive revelation of God. No more, no less. That isn’t our approach at Unity. The reason I say over and over in my book “see everything as a sacred text” is that God still speaks in and through all of the things near at hand.
The second animating principle in my life is the idea that there are enough resources, human and divine, to achieve meaningful lasting change, change for the common good. Hence, we live in hope and ultimate optimism.
Now this last one is super important. Without hope, we might find it too easy to escape into cynicism or despair or greed.
The idea that there are enough resources, human and divine, to make change, lasting change, gives me a strong sense of encouragement to keep trying new things, keep trying things that may be different than what I’ve done before.
I think some of you know that my wife is taking a doctorate up at Iliff School of Theology. She is super interested in the idea of revising and reworking and renewing images of the divine. And I think all of us have a lot of work to do with revising the old cultural and spiritual stories, re-imaging those too, so that more and more of the world can feel themselves in the sacred story. This is why I’m always going on and on about making a sacred text of your experiences. Everything you encounter, hello mama bird in the tennis park nest, is a sacred text.
Whatever Jacob’s dream was, yours is as interesting and as powerful.
God comes in many disguises, hello baby bird, and one of them is your life.
This idea that God comes to you in the form of your life leads me to one final animating principle that I try to live by and that informs my writings, including and especially Seeds of Devotion.
And that principle is that the spirit and the flesh are one. In the west we are given this idea, without ever having it sort of explicitly taught I suspect, from early on, that there is a separation of spirit and matter. The flesh is evil, the spirit is good. Hogwash.
How have we let ourselves imagine such a thing?
The body is not out to subvert the spirit. It is the sacred vessel of the spirit, it is one with the sacred pulse of all life.
Which beheld the baby bird and its mama, my spirit or my eyes? My spirit and my eyes, all at once, all at once.
The body and all of its functions, the spirit and all of its functions are not in competition, de-colonize that idea once and for all.
The invitation to live, to see, to understand, takes place in the spirit and the flesh.
Invitation is crucial to the spiritual life. You are invited to the table. You belong.
Reception. The idea that you, and I, in our flesh, in our spirit, in our oneness, can receive. Are worthy of receiving.
Reception is crucial to this spiritual life. Open your arms. Receive. The gifts are constantly in your line of vision.
Renewal. After a while our knees get a little creaky. Our backs get a little creaky. We forget things. There are times when glimpse the miracle of the everyday, the transforming power of connection and beauty. And the world is renewed and our spirit and our flesh, our very selves are renewed.
Renewal is crucial to this thing we call life. Are you breathing and calling it a life, the poet asks.
The miracle of the everyday. This morning Poem of the Day sent me the poem Sunsett by Effie Lee Newsome.
Since Poets have told of sunset,
What is left for me to tell?
I can only say that I saw the day
Press crimson lips to the horizon gray,
And kiss the earth farewell.
The flesh, we are taught, perhaps, is to be feared, managed. But in our principle that the flesh and spirit are one, the body is part of the sacred dance. A part of the natural world and its miracle. Our bodies come from and return to source. Come from and return to the sacred center, the connectedness of all things and the unity of all things.
This way of thinking is subversive of the normal order of things. The body has its own way of knowing.
Oh my sweet little birds at the memorial park tennis center. Did I see them with my flesh, my eyes that need glasses and the brain that is somehow connected to my eyes and all of that? Yes! I saw those beauties with my eyes and my ears and my brain. Mama bird wouldn’t let me miss her presence, protective and profound.
Or did I see them with my spirit? Yes! Both. And. Not either or. Not in competition. In beautiful unity.
I will leave you with a beautiful story. It involves st. Kevin, who died around 680. Lots of legends about St. Kevin, including that he kept his monastery going by receiving salmons brought to him by otters.
St Kevin and his bird.
St Kevin and the Blackbird
(from The Spirit Level, 1996)
And then there was St Kevin and the blackbird.
The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside
His cell, but the cell is narrow, so
One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff
As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands
And lays in it and settles down to nest.
Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked
Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked
Into the network of eternal life,
Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand
Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks
Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.
And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow,
Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?
Self-forgetful or in agony all the time
From the neck on out down through his hurting forearms?
Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?
Or has the shut-eyed blank of underearth
Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?
Alone and mirrored clear in love’s deep river,
‘To labour and not to seek reward,’ he prays,
A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.