Lives of the Spirit


as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, September 10, 2023

“Life is just a chance to grow a soul,” the words are attributed to the Unitarian minister A. Powell Davies. They capture a theological sentiment long prevalent in our tradition. Alternatively phrases as “salvation by character,” it is the belief that the religious life is not pointed to some great end outside of our terrestrial existence. It is found here, now, in this life that we lead, amongst the company we keep, and expressed most fully in our actions.

The aim of “true religion,” said William Ellery Channing, “is growing in the likeness of God.” For Unitarian Universalists, religion is less a matter of belief and more a matter of practice. Put somewhat differently, we are each called to pursue the good life. What is the good life for you? When do you know you are living it? What models, what exemplars, might you follow as you seek to live into it?

Over the next year, we are going to explore something of the good life through a program we are calling “Lives of the Spirit.” Each month, we will devote a service to the life and teaching of one of the great spiritual activists of the twentieth century.

Grace Lee Boggs, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Howard Thurman, such names might not be familiar to you. We have selected them, alongside seven others, because they sought to lead a life infused with meaning and integrity. We could name the lives they lived as models for the good life. Or we could describe them as religious beings who, during their brief spans, each found something of the essence of religion. The word religion, I have shared with you before, originates with the Latin religare “to bind.” One definition of the word is simply that religion is what binds us together.

That binding agent can be termed spirit. Spirit, again leaning into the Latin, stems from “spiritus,” the word for breath. Synonymous with the essence of life, we all have spirit because we all have breath.

“Lives of the Spirit,” those we will be turning to for inspiration understood a few things in common. All were, after their own fashions, what might be named mystics. A mystic is one, the great scholar of religion and preacher Howard Thurman told us, who finds something within their own “experience that opens up into the infinite.” They discover in their particular spirit, their life’s essence, a glimmer of that which binds all of us, all life, all being, together.

Each also found life to be a matter of questing and questioning. The mystic, returning to Thurman, grasps that “[t]here is nothing more destructive in life than a … [person] who is sure.” They intuit that Unitarian Universalist commonplace, “revelation is not sealed,” and seek ever after truth, knowing that what the good life means for one generation or for one person will not be exactly the same as it does for another.

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do / With your one wild and precious life?,” queries the poet Mary Oliver. What is the good life for you? It will be different for you than for me. It is a question we are each called answer.

In our search for answers, there is something to be gained by inquiring after those who answered their own question well. Those we turn to each answered during a period of conflict and upheaval when the way was often unclear. Their era, the twentieth century, was, wrote the philosopher Hannah Arendt, a period filled with “political catastrophes, … moral disasters, and … [the] astounding development of the arts and sciences.” It was, in other words, an epoch not all that different from our own–a truth some of us know from having lived through portions of it.

During those times, when confronted with what Arendt named, “the monstrosities of … [the] century,” there were people whose lives were such, who grew souls such, who began to so approach “the likeness to God,” that their actions and words point a way for us in our own struggles. Approaching them, studying something of the richness that they offer, provides us the opportunity to strengthen our spirits, deepen our own connections to religion, to what binds us together, as we do what we can to live through the crises of the hour.

What is the good life for you? It has long been religious practice to lift up the lives of the exemplary so that we might learn by imitating them. Almost every religion has saints or religious ancestors who are recognized as having something to teach us about it means to be human and strive for the good life.

It is one of Unitarian Universalism’s gifts that our tradition recognizes that such people might be found across the world’s cultures. Unlike, for instance, our friends in the Roman Catholic Church, we do not restrict ourselves to a single strand of sainthood. Instead, we believe that wisdom might be found anywhere, that anyone, from any tradition, might have something to teach us.

I was reminded of this blessing the other day when I found myself in conversation with a retired union iron worker. I questioned him on how he got into his trade. He told that was inspired by his father. “My Dad,” he said, “was the toughest, baddest, best, man I knew. He knew all the trades–carpentry, welding, plumbing–but he finally settled on iron working. I dropped out of school, got my GED, and then asked him what I should do. He told me to apprentice as an iron worker, so that is what I did.”

As our conversation continued, he spoke about the pride he took in his work. “Even now,” he told me, “sometimes I go out to one of the downtown bars with my buddies and look up at the Houston skyline. And I say to them, hey, I built that, and point to a hotel, or the convention center, I was one of the people who built the convention center, and tell them about putting the beams in place. It is a good feeling.”

“Lives of the Spirit,” within that interaction we find the dynamic that exists in the lives of our great spiritual activists. They each confronted the question: What does it mean to lead a good life? And then they followed this question with two others: What are the resources that will allow me to lead such a life? How shall I know that I am leading one?

These are ancient questions. I heard their pattern of query and response in my conversation with the retired iron worker. He wanted to know how to lead a good life. So, he looked to his father, “the toughest, baddest, best man,” to seek his answer. Note here, already, in ordinary life, we encounter the habit of looking to the exemplary to point the way forward in our own struggles. Observe, also, what comes next. The iron worker asked his father what resources he might find for his question to live the good life. His father pointed him to a tradition, iron working, that would help him to lead one. The tradition helped him discover both a path towards and measure for the goodness of his life, the building of things. It is like the last stanza in Marge Piercy’s poem “To be of use:”

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

The people we will turn to over the next months each answered our three ancient questions in their own ways. What does it mean to live a good life? How might you answer that question? What is the good life for you? Your answer will be other than mine. We have each been shaped by our own experiences. Not all of us were lucky, like our iron working friend, to have parents who pointed the way. Nor have all of us been blessed to find wisdom within the traditions we were born into. What is the good life for you?

“I am a brand plucked from the fire, in which my people was burned to death.” The words come from Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Polish born rabbi and theologian who escaped Warsaw a scant six weeks before the Nazis invaded. For him, the question of the good life was forever haunted by that catastrophe. “The question of [the good life] … must be pondered not only in the halls of learning but in the presence of inmates in extermination camps and in the sight of the mushroom of a nuclear explosion,” he wrote.

It matters where and when we live. The good life, however, we might find it, is different for those of us living in Houston, Texas, than it is for those confronted with the unfolding tragedies in Morocco or Maui. The horrors that people living in those locales, in the third decade of the twenty first century, are other than those Heschel, living in New York City the middle of the twentieth, confronted. He had to discern the good life in the aftermath of Auschwitz–much of his family perished in the camps–and atom bombs. He marched for civil rights and against the Vietnam War. He struggled with the Cold War liberalism of Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon.

In his struggles he turned to the Hebrew prophets because he was a theist and sought wisdom from those who experienced “a fellowship with the feelings of God.” Seeking his way, he looked for “the heart of the divine.”

“I am a brand plucked from the fire,” we have to worry about different horrors than the ones that challenged Heschel. We may turn elsewhere than Hebrew prophets for our answers. Yet, the wisdom Heschel found might point the way for some of us. He found a path, not the path, but a path. It is one we will consider in our age as, with every hour, the death count in Morocco grows and a summer of climate disaster draws to a close.

There are saw blades between buoys on the border. Our state government practices the politics of cruelty and is trying, in Jamelle Bouie’s words, to turn Texas into a “laboratory for autocracy” as it denies poor and working clas people health care, targets Black, Brown, and LGBTQ communities, and seeks to strip Houstonians of our democratic right to make decisions about the education of our children. Calamity, crisis, how shall we live? What is the good life for you?

The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

“Lives of the Spirit,” each of the people whose lives and work we shall lift up found, nay created, a good life despite the difficulties of their hours. They each did something, many things, to make the world a more beautiful place to celebrate their one precious, wild, life. Each succumb, in their own way, to what A. Powell Davies named “the temptation to be good” and found in their particular lives connection to the infinite unnamable all that binds life and being together.

What is the good life for you?

Throughout the next months, you will have the opportunity to explore this question, and the two that accompany it, in a variety of ways. Each month there will be at least one service devoted to someone who lived a life of the spirit, who answered our questions in a way that might help you answer your own. And then you will have four opportunities to go deeper. First, there are covenant groups that will meet once a month. In these groups, we will consider how the essential teachings of these great spiritual activists might inspire our own sense of the spirit. Heschel, for instance, encouraged us to live a life of “radical amazement.” How might opening ourselves to the amazing beauty and possibility of the world allow us to have a more profound sense of the spiritual? How might it give our lives a greater sense of meaning or point us more towards the good life?

Second, there is the ministers’ book group. Each month we will wrestle with a text that points the way to the good life. This month we will be reading Heschel’s “Man’s Quest for God.” We will approach the book group the same way we approach the covenant groups, seeking to understand how the texts we read might point us towards the good life.

Third, twice a month, between the services, there will be a chance to meet to discuss the readings from the service. How do they inform your own sense of spirituality?

Finally, we will have monthly workshops led by someone whose own life has been deeply shaped by one our spiritual activists. This month, Rabbi Scott Hausman-Weiss of Congregation Shma Koleniu and our own Craig Oettinger will offer the program “Awe and a Meaningful Life: Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.”

What are the resources we need to lead a good life?

It is part of our mission to offer “opportunities for transformative spiritual growth for members and seekers.” Last year during the vision, mission, and covenanting process many of you said that you wanted more opportunities for spiritual growth from First Unitarian Universalist. We have created “Lives of the Spirit” in response.

And here let me make a special plug for the covenant group portion of the program. We have sign-up sheets in Channing Hall. These groups are a way for you to share something of your journeys and fellowship with other members of our congregation. If you are new and looking to connect or have been around awhile and are hoping to meet some of the newer folks who come to First Unitarian Universalist, the covenant groups are a great way for you to get to know other people as you explore together how spiritual activists and religious leaders have pursued the good life. As you discuss their lives you will have opportunities to share a portion of your own.

Such opportunities for discussion are one of the core practices, central resources, that the Unitarian Universalist tradition offers us in the pursuit of the good life. We have long been inspired by that verse from Isaiah, “[c]ome now, and let us reason together.” Religious truth, the life of spirit, an understanding of what it means to grow our souls, is something we have long believed is well pursued through conversation. I offer up a little of what I have found and you, by turn, share with me something of you have discovered. Through our interchange we come to greater understanding.

What are the resources we need to lead a good life?

A place for dialogue, fellowship, there are many ways we might answer that question—of these answers some are spiritual and others are more material, it is hard to pursue the good life on an empty belly. Each of our spiritual activists approached the quest for the good life from a particular tradition. Some, like Heschel, were theists. Others, like Grace Lee Boggs, were humanists.

Boggs was an Asian American philosopher and political radical who spent most of her life in Detroit. A Marxist deeply influenced by the Black radical tradition and African American humanism–she was friends with such people like Albert Cleage, Jr., founder of the Shrine of the Black Madonna, Malcolm X, and the great Jamaican philosopher and socialist organizer C. L. R. James–she lived through the desolation of her city that came with the decline of the auto industry.

She made it to a hundred. She took part in almost every one of the long twentieth century’s struggles for love and justice. She helped organize the great unions of the thirties, forties, and fifties that gave birth to the middle-income working class. She was there when Malcolm gave his message to the grassroots. She was on the line during the powerful wildcat strikes that shook the Motor City in the late sixties. She was proclaiming a need to confront the climate crisis long before many of us were even aware it was coming. She was…

Boggs was there, across the long twentieth-century, hoping, working, trying to bring into being all of the changes for the better she believed were needed to build a more beautiful world. And through it all, she came to the conclusion that the great task before us was not mere material betterment. It was not only social betterment. It was “that the time has come to grow our souls.” It was only by growing our souls, “our relationships with one another,” that we might find a way out of no way and blossom fully into being.

What are the resources we need to lead a good life?

Through “Lives of the Spirit,” we aspire to offer you some of those resources. If you are joining us this Sunday, in-person or online, you have likely come to the conclusion that pursuing the good life is something better done in community than on your own. And this leads me to our final question, how shall I know I am leading a good life?

This might be the most difficult question of all to answer. Aristotle famously believed that we could only truly say that someone had lived a good life when they were dead. Even the most virtuous, the best, of us, always lives haunted with the possibility of tragedy. It is only when we come to our end, he thought, that we could understand a life as good, as free from the blemishes that might besmirch the beautiful in each of us or liberated from the tragedies that can destroy our legacies.

We Unitarian Universalists reject absolute human perfection as a measure of the good life. The spiritual activists whose lives and works we will be exploring were human beings. They were flawed, like all of us. They were not divine beings. They were beings who took the chance in life to grow a soul.

How shall I know I am leading a good life? We will come back to that question, again and again, as we examine these lives of the spirit. One answer that they offer us, I suggest, is each found something of the infinite within their own story. It provided them a measure by which to understand the good life. What about you? How might you know that you are living the good life? Perhaps, together, we can point to each other something of the way.

“Life is just a chance to grow a soul,” said Davies. What is the good life for you? What are the resources you need to pursue it? How shall you know you have found it? Let us, together, take up this spiritual journey and seek something of our own answers in these lives of the spirit.

I end with an invitation to prayer.

Oh Spirit of Life,
known by many names,
and found in all places,
remind us
that spirit
is another word for breath
and that today,
in this hour,
we can be grateful
for the opportunity
to draw together
another breath,
to let the sweet air
fill our lungs with oxygen.

Oh Spirit,
help us,
to pursue,
to lead,
more spirit filled lives
so that we might find
each in our particularities–
this breath I take,
this breath you take,
my hand on this pulpit,
your hand on that pew–
something of the infinite
of all being
of which we are all a part.

In doing so,
might we remember
that each is connected to all,
that each can learn from all,
that each can be inspired
to greater depth,
more compassion,
better clarity on how to confront
the crises of the hour,
so that we might each find a good life
and build a more beautiful world.

May it be so,
I invite the congregation to say Amen.

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