Most of you have probably heard Richard and me tell stories about our two sons. With his permission I want to start this morning by telling you more about my oldest son, Antonio. We call him Tony and he lives in Massachusetts. Tony is now 26 and we met him when he was seven and adopted him when he was eight.
Tony had a traumatic early childhood. When he was three he was found on a city street eating from a trash can placed on the street corner. He was neglected and abused by his parents and was removed from his home and eventually placed in the care of the state. When we met Tony we did notice that he had some cognitive delays but thought that they might be caused by his early childhood. We eventually scheduled a neuropsychiatric evaluation and we were told that our son had a pervasive developmental disorder. In other words he had a developmental disability or, more commonly, mental retardation.
Tony was not fazed by this label. He got on with life. I remember Tony as an athlete when he was a child. He played basketball. The only problem was that he held the ball like a football and ran in the opposite direction than the rest of his team. Eventually there was a coach on the correct end of the court waving to Tony when he got the ball. He was on his high school football team. Tony doesn’t know this but the coach let Tony play if he knew the team was going to win or if he knew the team was going to lose. Tony played when it didn’t matter what he did. He would be part of the team and not have to live with unnecessary consequences from his peers.
Tony also ran track and was a swimmer. Excellent at both except a coach would need to intervene because Tony would run and swim until someone told him to stop. Tony completed high school and now works in the library of the university where he lives. He is on committees and in the choir of the UU church we raised him in. He has friends and everyone in town knows who he is because of his charm and warmth. He lives a life larger than any of us thought was possible. I share all of this with you to help us understand that embodiment is not a fixed state but a process requiring deep listening, honesty, and a willingness to leave the known for the unknown –- to leave the realm of familiar ideas and ways of thinking for the wide open territory of truth. Can our lives be larger than we were led to believe possible? Despite all of the challenges Tony faced he was the embodiment of courage, resilience, risk, and determination. He lived his truth and was willing to try and try again … and again.
I often compare embodiment to the words of Unitarian Universalist minister and theologian James Luther Adams claiming our theology. He says there is no need for us to go from person to person to tell and explain our personal theology. They only need to look at our voluntary associations to discern what we believe. That is, they only need to look at the life we are living, engaging, and practicing to tell what we believe. Let me make this a little more clear. Our dear member and friend Judy Bonner rolls in our parking lot, car covered with bumper stickers encouraging peace, equality, justice, and compassion. We only need to look at Judy’s car to understand what she believes, the life she embodies. If you know Judy well you know that she embodies the qualities her bumper stickers champion. She dedicates her living to peace and justice. Our lives are a journey toward embodiment; a quest that continues.
Poet Mary Oliver writes of this journey saying, “Things take the time they take. Don’t worry. How many roads did St. Augustine follow before he became St. Augustine?” We will embody our personal truth only if we risk the journey, are honest and leave behind our ways that keep us bound and unable to journey toward the truth.
Let us unpack the notion of embodiment as a journey a bit more. Embodiment, in our religious lives is not a list of qualities we like best about ourselves. It is a practice, a journey, to acquire these attributes through our living. Within embodiment we have listening, honesty, willingness to take risks, and the search for the truth. The journey of embodiment is one with unexpected or unintended results.
I recently read a story by Tracy Cochran titled A Shared World. Cochran describes her decision to travel to India as a place unknown to her other than what she was told or had read. She writes. “I came to India braced for darkness. But in all my planning, I hadn’t anticipated the light.” She describes living in the unknown when her tendency was to seek the known. She said yes to this trip because she wanted to live life in a bigger way. What she found were the joys of being in community and the generosity of a people. She expected darkness but received light. She realized that we are meant to give ourselves to life and that we can turn away from life or be open to receive it. It is on the journey toward embodiment that we give ourselves to life and the unexpected, embracing both.
Lao Tzu, founder of Taoism, tells us in the Tao Te Ching, the fundamental religious and philosophical text for Taoism, “If you want to awaken all of humanity, then awaken all of yourself. If you want to eliminate the suffering in the world, then eliminate all that is dark and negative in yourself. Truly, the greatest gift you have to give is that of your own self-transformation.”
The purpose of embodiment is to exist in the emotional and spiritual space of freedom, separate from the burdens of others' expectations. Embracing our own journey through life transcends us into creating our own voyage, in our own vehicle, with no hitchhiking needed. While driving ourselves we learn to take the scenic route through life while growing in emotional and spiritual intelligence. Life presents the opportunity to learn about ourselves in order to grow spiritually, not the other way around. This is the listening of embodiment. Listening to ourselves. Listening to the still and small voice within whether it be your voice or the voice of something or someone you believe to be greater than yourself. Honesty is staying true, honest, to one's beliefs. Honesty and integrity go hand in hand. Unitarian Universalists may find this easier than most because we are encouraged to be seekers and find our own truth versus managing the dishonesty of dogma.
In his 2013 commencement address at the University of California, DJ Patil says, "Actively take chances on others, even when it is at a risk to you and seek out others who will take a risk on you. Life always requires some level of risk taking. Risks are necessary to make changes happen and there will always be both personal risk, as well as to others involved. Comfort zones are really the perfect opposite for risks. They are the decisions and ways of doing things that have the least risks, the least unknowns and are easy for us to do. We should never let these comfort zones dominate us. Having a willingness to take on risks means also to have a willingness to step outside our comfort zones. Comfort zones are everything from our daily routine, to our lifestyle, to our work and habits or roles in our lives. All of these things that are repetitive and lasting become comfortable but, the new things in life really make things change over time. Anyone who is too afraid to step outside their comfort zone is also too afraid to take the risks that are often needed on the journey toward embodiment. If we give up comforts and ease to move towards and tackle the next challenge, we surely show great signs of personal and spiritual growth.
My colleague, the Rev. Carol Altman-Morton writes, “The challenge for Unitarian Universalists is not really in convincing us that there is a connection between mind, body, and spirit. The challenge is in getting us to move from thinking about it intellectually — knowing that there is a connection — to really experiencing it, being attentive and attuned. When and where do we experience it? It can be most easy to access when our senses are engaged: in relationships, nature, music, art, poetry. Through our experience we can move from knowing there is a connection, to learning about what that connection really means. We can know ourselves and each other more fully. “We are called to be the walking embodiment of our liberal faith.”
As messengers of Unitarian Universalism we must be the embodiment of our message. We must not live in a fixed state in our congregation or our lives. We must listen, deeply to ourselves and to the calling of our principles and tradition. We must be honest with ourselves and acknowledge the realities of our living, We must be willing to leave the known for the unknown and become familiar with the wide open territory of truth. We are seekers not of a single truth but our personal truth. We must be willing to take the journey of embodiment. We will only be rewarded by the promise that it is possible to live our lives and our faith beyond anything we could have imagined. There is no need to pack our bags. This journey is not a trip. It’s not a vacation. It is a process. A discovery. It is a process of self-discovery. A journey that brings us face to face with ourselves. The journey is life itself. Where will it take us?
The Rev. Jim Eller-Isaacs tells a story of what the journey might be for us as seekers. He recalls going to a Buddhist monastery for a retreat. He had forgotten to take his meditation cushion and so he looked around for one there. He was accustomed to the traditional type that is firm and inflexible. Nothing was available. He looked for one of those buckwheat-filled ones to use instead. No luck with that, either. Finally, he decided to do something radical and try out an inflatable meditation cushion that had been made for general use. Despite his distrust of anything new, he discovered the inflatable meditation cushion to be bliss. Even though a part of him whispered that “no real Zen student would use such a thing,” another part of him reminded himself that his Zen teacher — one of the most highly regarded Zen teachers in the U.S. — had been using one for years with no ill effect. Later it occurred to him that the traditional cushion is a metaphor for orthodoxy, rigid tradition, and the presumption that pain is good for us. “Sit and cope with it,” it suggests. The buckwheat cushion is better, but after a while, every nugget of buckwheat becomes engrained on your posterior and numbness is the result.
Dealing with religion can be like that, too. The inflatable cushion he observed was a good metaphor for our tradition and journey toward embodiment. It says, “pain is not required — you need not assume a painful position of body, mind, or spirit.” Your mind need not become paralyzed or numb. Just sit, be open, and see where your spiritual journey can take you. Let us prepare for the journey, the quest, that never ends.
May it be so.