© Dr. Chris Schriner 2007
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
February 25, 2007

What's going on - really - under the everyday surfaces of things? Who are we? Where did we come from? Why are we here? Where are we going? Most religions answer these basic questions by saying that God, or a group of gods and goddesses, arranged the world in a certain way. Is this true? Are there spirits hidden behind or within the physical universe?

Today and on March 11 I will explore this question, and this morning I will consider whether belief in invisible spirits is fact or fantasy. A spirit guide might be God, as understood by traditional religions such as Christianity. It might be an angel, or some other mysterious companion.

How would we know whether such spirits exist? What is the evidence? Well first of all, we might hear them. In Biblical times many people said that God, angels, or spirits spoke to them out loud. Chapter 9 of the New Testament book of Acts tells about Paul, a man who loved to persecute Christians. He was traveling to Damascus one day and he heard a voice demanding, "Why do you persecute me?" Supposedly those traveling with Paul heard the same voice, but couldn't see who had spoken. Paul decided it was Jesus speaking, became his disciple, and went on to write most of the New Testament.

It's hard to evaluate this episode because it happened long ago, but today most people who believe that a spirit has communicated with them do not report that they heard these messages out loud. Usually they just have a sense of what some holy presence wanted to tell them. A thought comes into their mind that seems like a spiritual message. This is obviously a lot more subtle than hearing a loud and clear voice, and it's hard to know whether these messages come from outside of us or from deep within us. Furthermore, when people do actually hear a voice, this might well have occurred in some altered state of consciousness. We do not undestand altered states very well, so it is hard to know whether the testimony of someone who was in an unusual state of mind is reliable.

In addition to hearing or sensing words, people feel that spirits communicate through actions and events. But this is also tricky, because events can be read in many ways. Someone lives through a plane crash that kills almost everybody aboard, and concludes, "God spared my life because he has a special plan for me." Does it really make sense that God had no special plan for all the people who died? Conceivably - but we should be careful of assuming, "it's all about me."

If we think we hear an invisible being speaking out loud, whispering inside of our minds, or communicating through events in our lives, this is evidence for the existence of spirits, and yet we can also explain the same evidence without needing to believe in the supernatural. I guess that's why traditional religion emphasizes faith more than indisputable proof.

But despite the frustrating limits of human knowledge, I do have good news this morning. Paying attention to messages from mysterious sources works, even if we aren't sure where they come from. If we have some insight, or feel profoundly inspired, we do have the insight, and we do feel inspired, regardless of what brought these gifts to us. If something or someone seems to be speaking to you, listen to it and don't worry too much about how to explain what's happening.

What this means, in practice, is that we should learn to listen to the silence. In our busy, noisy world, hearing the quiet voice of higher guidance is becoming a lost art. Our children are growing up with Ipods welded to their ears, constantly thumbing at their phones and video games. If we rob human beings of quiet times for reflection, we have stolen something which is at least as important as all art and music. And if you never go within, never close your eyes and reflect in a quiet room, you are living with blinders on, like this [holding up hands like blinders worn by a horse]. You see some of what's out there, but you're missing a lot.

I should emphasize that it is dangerous to instantly believe any intuition that pops into the mind during a quiet moment. We need to test our intuitions by using reason. Even the most dazzling and impressive religious experience should make some sort of sense when we think about it later.

Some of us are unaccustomed to sitting quietly and praying, meditating, or just thinking in a leisurely way. Doing this may seem too religious, too New Age. Don't be so intellectually hip that you deny the obvious fact that listening to the silence pays off. Like any new behavior, you may need to experiment with this approach for a while, but wisdom is waiting for us in quiet moments, regardless of whether this wisdom comes from "out there" or "in here."

I want to return to the question of whether spirits exist, by considering the human need for personification. We are persons, meaning (at least) that we are conscious beings that think, feel, make choices, act, and communicate. And because we are persons, we relate to the universe in human terms, as if the things around us were persons. We want to humanize the universe, imagining that everything is like us.

People do this all the time. Walk into a drugstore and pick up a bottle of Phillips' Milk of Magnesia. The label says it "works with your body more like nature intended." Oh? Does nature have intentions? I don't think so, but I instantly understand that this slogan mean the medication works in harmony with the normal functioning of our bodies. We personify often and effortlessly, without even noticing it.

Do you ever think of our planet as Mother Earth? Earth is not actually a female parent, and yet this idea means a lot to me. Despite having occasional bad moods where she whips up hurricanes and shakes the ground under our feet, in most respects the Earth caresses us in a life-giving embrace. Although some people think she is truly a conscious being, I assume "she's" a bunch of mindless minerals. But I love this orbiting rock we live on, and in a poetic, non-literal way, she loves us.

So when we speak of God, are we referring to an invisible conscious being who thinks, feels, makes choices, acts, and communicates? Or are we speaking in a poetic, symbolic, non-literal way, similar to the way we personify the Earth as our mother?

Some UUs who are secular humanists do not want to hear God mentioned during the Sunday service because they think they are being asked to believe in God literally. But if one is sure that no one is pressuring us to believe a certain way, it may be easier to be comfortable with references to God or spirit guides.

Listen to this reading about a spirit, and see how you respond to it.

Spirit of Life come unto me.
Sing in my heart all the stirrings of compassion.
Blow in the wind, rise in the sea;
Move in the hand, giving life the shape of justice.

When you sing, "Spirit of Life, come to me," what does that mean to you? Some of us sing this as a literal invitation to a real but invisible spirit. Some think of it as a lovely metaphor. Others of us aren't entirely sure whether to think of it literally or poetically but we know that it feels right. So now I'd like to find out how you interpret it. When you sing this hymn, what does the phrase, "Spirit of Life" mean to you? Let's hear from a few people about that. (Discussion)

Right here among us there are many valid ways of interpreting this song. Personally, when I ask the Spirit to come to me, I automatically translate that to mean I am opening myself to transforming experiences which are available at any time. I am opening the door to what's already there. Powerful sources of healing and transformation are abundantly available to all of us. Some of us sense the possibility of transformation in our connection with humanity, or with all living creatures. We may sense it as the presence of God, or as something which is hard to define but seems right and good. There are many ways to think about the Spirit of Life, but most all of them have at least one thing in common. Being with the Spirit means being with something that inspires us and connects us with our highest values.

Today I'm encouraging us to become comfortable with personification, thinking in personal terms about something that is not necessarily a human being, realizing that some of us interpret phrases such as Spirit of Life literally while others hear these words as sacred poetry. Another example would be the song the choir sang earlier: "Make my ears sharp to hear your voice ... Great Spirit whose voice I hear in the winds." (Native American Prayer, by Nolan Schmit)

People of many different philosophies of life can benefit from at least imagining they are in the presence of spirits. As an example, let me tell you about my own experiences with spirit guides. In the 1980s I took a course called the Silva Method, which included a technique for connecting with two personal spirit guides, one male and one female. My own guides were named Al and Barbara. Al was based on a real person, Al Huang, a tai chi master. Barbara was a blending of various wise and strong women I had known. For a couple of years after taking the Silva course, I regularly put myself into a deeply relaxed state in which I talked and interacted with these two guides. These experiences were meaningful and often moving, partly because Al and Barbara accepted me 100%. There was never even a hint of disapproval. Even when they criticized my actions, they never attacked me as a person. It was profoundly healing to experience this sort of unconditional acceptance, over and over again, valued just as I am, with no holding back. More than any human counselor who ever worked with me, they radiated what psychotherapist Carl Rogers called unconditional positive regard.

This experience shows something very important: You and I are able to imagine a being which is far superior to us in important ways, far more loving, for example. It's a little bit like being able to bring a god into our limited human minds. That is one way that imagination can help us climb up higher than we are today. And in some sense, to imagine something greater than we are is to become something greater, at least for that moment. This is a remarkable ability that we seldom use.

Were Al and Barbara real spirits who linked up with me during the Silva class? Or were they simply useful fantasies? I can't be certain, but it seems likely that these were imaginary characters rather than actual entities. Their messages seemed to reflect my wisest, strongest, and most creative aspects. In general they seemed to be "Chris" rather than "non-Chris." I admit that there was one eerie episode when I asked a question and Al responded in a way that truly seemed like some consciousness other than my own was speaking. That made my spine tingle. But in general Al and Barbara behaved like a better version of me.

Last week I paid another visit to these two old friends. I was able to imagine them easily, and as we talked about my current priorities, I had an important insight. I have sometimes wondered what would happen to my unpublished writings if I were to die suddenly. There are some useful ideas in there, though it might take a while for someone to separate the good stuff from the garbage, going through hundreds of computer files containing sermons and other material. It dawned on me that rather than worry about this, I need to write specific instructions about what I'd like done with the past 40 years of my work. This came out of just one session that lasted about 15 minutes. Maybe I should talk with them again!

Last fall you and I considered the amazing power of imagination, and this is one more illustration of what imagination can do. I'm not saying all of you need to go out and visualize spirit guides. But find some way of your own to open up new possibilities in your life through imagination.

If your fantasy muscles have atrophied from lack of use, Mission Peak is one place where they can get a workout. So let me mention one more imaginative technique for spiritual exploration. Have a conversation about some subject with God or a guiding spirit. You can either think of this as praying to a real being or as an imaginary dialogue. Start by thinking of this spirit as a man, as male. Then repeat the process, thinking of it as a woman. (Or reverse the order, and start by connecting with a goddess.) See what's different with a male spirit and one that is female. Notice what is especially helpful in each case.

What is really going on, under the everyday surfaces of things? Is there an invisible person beneath it all, or woven through the cosmos like an invisible thread that holds together a tapestry? Does this spirit speak to us, either in words or in actions? We cannot conclusively answer these questions, which is one reason theology is so inrtiguing. But we do know that paying attention to messages from mysterious sources works. There is wisdom waiting in the silence - waiting for you. And all sorts of new possibilities are available to those who dare to use our imagination to discover life's hidden opportunities.

In a couple of weeks we will return to the question of whether there is a conscious intelligence hidden in the heart of the universe. On that Sunday I will try to show that believing in God and denying that God exists are much more similar than one might assume. I will even go so far as to claim that in extremely important ways, theism and atheism amount to the same thing. To prepare for that service I invite you to practice listening to the silence, in whatever way fits for you. If you like, try imagining a conversation with a man-spirit and a woman-spirit. In two weeks we'll talk about what happened.

Since I have been urging us to listen to the silence, let's move now into a time of silent meditation and prayer. I invite you to close your eyes and go within, feeling yourself in the presence of that which is sacred to you - God, Goddess, spirit guides, or just your own deepest values. And during this quiet time, you may wish to visualize that which is sacred, using your imagination to heighten the experience. So now let us begin. (Silent meditation)

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