Waking Up

By Rev. Terry Davis

Delivered at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation on

March 19, 2017

What does it mean to be spiritually awake?

Hannah described it as a place where she sees beauty in everything and has a deep feeling of contentment and peace. We might say that the people in Dana’s story who dug clay and cut down trees to make pottery were roused from spiritual slumber when they realized that they had to change . . . change for their well-being and the well-being of the natural world on which they depended.

In both cases, it seems to me that to wake up spiritually is to realize that we are connected to something larger than ourselves. This Larger-than-Us Something can be anything . . . such as universal beauty or unconditional love, for example. It can be a community, a cause, the natural world.

Whatever it is that wakes us up, and whatever it is that we connect to, I wonder if the outcome isn’t mostly the same – that is, we come away from the experience with a heightened sense of well-being. Or we may feel ready to take action we’ve never taken before.

Hannah offered some light-hearted examples of being spiritually awake, such as the happiness she feels when she beats her grandfather at Monopoly. On a more serious note, it seems that waking up spiritually can include some pretty profound experiences. There are numerous myths, legends, and stories of religious and moral leaders, for example, who get aroused from spiritual slumber after a big wake-up call . . . often from the Big Guy or Gal upstairs himself or herself.

There’s Moses, for instance, who was minding his own business when one day he came upon a burning bush. Surprised that the bush wasn’t being consumed by the flames, Moses took a closer look only to have God speak to him from the bush, commanding him to free his people enslaved in Egypt and embark on a journey to the Promised Land.

There’s Mother Teresa who, at age 36, was riding a train to a Himalayan retreat when she says she heard the voice of God tell her to give up her life in the convent and as a geography teacher. Instead, she was instructed to dedicate her life working with the poor, which she did until her death at age 87.

We might say that Mother Teresa wasn’t exactly spiritually asleep when she was roused by God, but her ministry then was much smaller and simpler than what it ultimately turned out to be.

There’s Martin Luther King, who after being jailed, harassed and threatened with death, found himself sitting at his kitchen table one night with a cup of coffee and unable to sleep. Worried about his family’s safety and unsure of his leadership, he prayed for guidance. King says his prayer that evening at the kitchen table was answered by a clear voice urging him to keep fighting for justice, and assuring him that he would never be alone in his struggles.

“My uncertainty disappeared,” King recalled. “I was ready to face anything.”

Finally, there’s Prince Siddhartha who, upon leaving his palace for the first time, encountered such suffering among the townspeople, that he decided to leave his family and life of luxury and go in search of answers. The Prince’s wandering eventually led him to sit under a tree to meditate, where he became the Buddha, which means “he who is awake.” 

In each of these examples, to be roused spiritually meant to move to a new level of awareness and to be called into a new vocation. It was like putting on a new pair of glasses and seeing the world – as well as one’s role in it – in a whole new way. These examples of being spiritually awakened describe profound and sometimes sudden experiences. Yet, I imagine that, for many of us, our own awakening from spiritual slumber – while personally significant – was far less epic and possibly not immediate.

As someone in recovery from addiction, for example, it was encouraging for me to learn at the beginning of my journey that my own spiritual awakening would likely be a slow process. In the book Alcoholics Anonymous, the authors write:

Most of our [spiritual] experiences are what the psychologist William James calls the “educational variety” because they develop slowly over a period of time. Quite often friends of the [alcoholic] are aware of the difference long before he is himself. He finally realizes that he has undergone a profound alteration in his reaction to life; that such a change could hardly have been brought about by himself alone.1)Alcoholics Anonymous, Fourth Edition (Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., New York, NY: 2001), 567.

In other words, a spiritual awakening may start as a hardly-noticeable affair, but it generally results in a life-altering change.

In my own life, recovering from addiction, ending an unhappy marriage, finding Unitarian Universalism, coming out as a lesbian, and even hiking at midnight under the moonlight in the Sonoran Desert have all been experiences that have roused me from spiritual slumber, connected me with something larger than myself, and led me to action and a greater sense of well-being.

What about you? When was a time in your life when you were aroused from spiritual slumber and became more spiritually awake? Did the experience motivate you to do something? If so, what?

Let’s take a few minutes to talk about it at our tables.

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What was it that aroused you from spiritual slumber? What did the experience motivate you to do?

I think one of the wonderful things about spiritual awakenings is that they can keep happening. If I bring curiosity and an open mind to my life . . . if I am intentional about putting myself in circumstances and among people who are seeking growth and change . . . then I believe there’s a good chance that I’ll keep waking up to discoveries about myself and my world.

As Unitarian Universalists, I believe we are called to be on a journey of spiritual awakening not just for our own personal transformation, but for the transformation of the world. The UUA and UU Service Committee’s Declaration of Conscience that you unanimously voted to endorse at last Sunday’s congregational meeting is, in many respects, a commitment to stay vigilant and not fall into spiritual slumber. It’s your commitment to take action and make our cherished values visible in a climate of increased fear and oppression.

And, so, knowing that your hearts and minds are wide awake, I would like to invite you, on behalf of your Stewardship Team, to do something with me.

I imagine many of you received your Pledge Campaign packets in the mail this week, inviting you to think about not just your financial support of Northwest, but also about how we mustn’t stop working for love and justice.

On your tables, you’ll find a blank nametag and pen. As spiritually awake members of Northwest who are being roused yet again by the events we see unfolding in our state, our country and our world, I invite you to join me in making a commitment to something larger than yourself.

Unitarian Universalist minister Rev. Edward Everett Hale reminds us that, while we cannot do everything, we cannot refuse to do the something we can do. So, if you are willing, I’d like for you to take a moment and write down on your nametag one thing you feel moved to do as part of your ongoing spiritual awakening . . . something that you think will help make our values visible and is both for your good and the Common Good.

Can you think of something you’re already doing . . . or that you would like to start doing? Please write it down. “I’m not stopping. I’m . . .” fill in the blank.

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Who is willing to share what they wrote?

Now, if you’re willing, I invite you to hang the nametag around your neck and let’s ask each other about them during our coffee and conversation time after the service. As you leave Northwest today, you’re invited to hang your “I’m Not Stopping” nametag, along with your regular Northwest tag, on the stand in the Lobby and wear it again next week.

My hope is that our awakenings will lead us to take action for a better way and a better world.

Now, finally, I’d like for you to open your printed Orders of Service and take out the pink insert. On one side you’ll see an invitation and on the other side you’ll find a brief survey. At last week’s meeting, many of you identified some causes and concerns that are important to you that you might also like to collectively address at Northwest. They are listed here.

You’re invited to select up to three or write in a new one. Please put a check by the causes you care about and provide your name and e-mail address.

Can we take a moment and do that now?

As you exit the Sanctuary, please leave your insert in the basket with the ushers. These surveys will be tallied and the results will be reported back to you. They will also be shared with Northwest’s Board and Ministry Team Leaders so that they can be in touch with you about next steps.

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Unitarian Universalists are often referred to as spiritual seekers because we have a reputation for continually exploring questions of truth and meaning. As spiritual seekers, I invite us today to use our experiences of discovery to move us into action. Just as our spiritual awakenings don’t have to be burning bush experiences, neither do our acts of love and justice.

The point is that we can do even a small something to help make the world a better place. May we keep our eyes, ears, hearts and minds open and do just that.

May it be so. Amen.

References   [ + ]

1. Alcoholics Anonymous, Fourth Edition (Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., New York, NY: 2001), 567.