Sermon: Living a Religious Life, by Rev. Ana Levy Lyons

2019 September 15
by Rev Ana Levy-Lyons

Living a Religious Life

Ana Levy-Lyons

First Unitarian, Brooklyn

September 15, 2019



People do not like being told what to do. Take it from me – I’m the mother of two nine-year-olds and I can testify to this basic truth. I’m also the minister of a Unitarian Universalist congregation and I can testify that Unitarian Universalists don’t like being told what to do any more than 9-year-olds. And I myself do not like being told what to do, especially when I feel like I’m already either doing or intentionally not doing the thing that someone’s trying to get me to do.


And yet there are people in this world – millions of people in this world – who willingly surrender some of their freedom to live a life guided by a code – basically being told what to do by their religious tradition and their community. We tend to think of the most obvious examples – people like Orthodox Jews and Amish people. But right here in our local neighborhood there are ordinary Muslims who pray five times a day; there’s a Presbyterian minister in my Brooklyn Heights clergy group who lives a life according to monastic discipline. A Seventh Day congregation, led by Pastor Gil Monrose, Brooklyn’s Faith Director, keeps a strict Sabbath on Saturdays.


These are all ordinary people. To run into them on the street, you would never know that they’re living their lives in a radically different way. But they are. And the vast majority of these people will say, if you ask them, that their religious practice gives their life meaning and depth. It organizes their day, their week, their year. It keeps ethical principles in the front of their eyes – honesty, kindness to strangers, fairness and justice, charity. It gives them a spiritual core that is more joyful. It helps keep their channel open for the flow of love. Does this mean that these are perfect people? No, of course not. They have struggles and pain and the capacity for cruelty like everyone. But they have a great spiritual resource at their disposal in responding to whatever life throws at them.


I believe that one of the reasons why our world is in such a state of crisis right now is that fewer and fewer people have such a spiritual resource. I’m going to speak more about this next week, but the short version is that our life practices abhor a vacuum. When we don’t have practices that we consciously and faithfully choose to embody our values, there are armies of PhD psychologists and algorithm designers working for corporations round the clock who are all too happy to tell us how to spend our time and money. We are made to want things that are not ultimately going to make us happy. We are made to do things that continue the plunder of an earth that cannot take any more plundering. We are made to feel inadequate and unloved, even unlovable. We are made to feel that our value depends on our looks or our bank account or our social media ratings. We are isolated from one another and left to care for our young without a village. We have no time for the holy in our lives.


Living a religious life is not a magic bullet to fix all this. It doesn’t automatically enable us to live ethically or find inner peace. But it gives us a fighting chance. It gives us a wisp of a prayer. It creates the conditions of possibility for finding freedom for ourselves and our world. For me personally, as I’ve committed myself to living a more deeply religious life over the years, I’ve felt more clarity, more calm and stability. I’ve become a more loving wife and mother. I’ve felt less cognitive dissonance as my lifestyle better reflects my values. And I’ve been more effective in my work. The difference is not like night and day, but it is substantial.


So what does it mean to live a religious life? It means to live a life where our day-to-day practices (and by that I mean mostly things that we do with our bodies) – our practices are shaped by our sense of the holy and the religious traditions of our community. It means that we use spiritual technologies to keep God or our highest self at the center of our consciousness in a world that is constantly pulling to distract our attention. It means that, even when it clashes with the dominant culture, we are always moving little by little, toward fulfilling our calling.


This is not always sexy and it’s not always easy. It involves sometimes doing things that we don’t want to do. And sometimes not doing things that we want to do. Now, most of us are used to that piece of it. We already do things we don’t want to do to meet our obligations to our families or just keep food on our own tables or to reach goals for the future. Doing things we don’t want to do is not necessarily the deal breaker for us liberal folks. The deal breaker is what I mentioned earlier – being told what to do by someone else.


And so far be it from me to tell you what to do. I won’t even try. I won’t tell you specifically how to live a religious life. But I want to encourage you to somehow live a religious life. And what I can offer you is this – if you want to live a religious life, here are the sandboxes to play in. Here are the types of things that religious communities have concerned themselves with through the generations. Here are the areas of religious practice in which you could – if you choose – make commitments. What commitments you make are up to you. I’ve identified seven of these sandboxes. I’m sure there are more, but these are a good start.


  1. The sandbox of Spiritual Practice: Most religious traditions teach that it is essential to have some form of daily practice to keep the channel open with God or our highest selves. It can be prayer, meditation, yoga, tai chi, repeating a mantra while walking or swimming. Any modality that helps unlock our hearts is good, but the key is to do it every day. It can be five minutes at first, but it has to be every day.


  1. The sandbox of Good Deeds: We think of this as the bread and butter of religious life – the basic do’s and don’ts of how we treat one another and the other creatures of the earth. It’s basic kindness, it’s hospitality to strangers, it’s volunteering to pack meals for hungry people, as we’re invited to do here on November 17 as part of our Rise Against Hunger program. In this sandbox I would also put social justice work – supporting the world’s youth in the climate strike on Friday. A regular commitment of effort to tipping the balance of the world toward love is a part of the religious life.


  1. The sandbox of Sabbath and Holidays: There’s a bumper sticker that says, “I considered atheism, but there weren’t enough holidays.” That’s supposed to be kind of snarky, but it points to an underlying truth – holidays are important. There are joyful, fun holidays and contemplative, intense holidays. There’s the Sabbath, which is a holiday that happens every week. Holidays give shape to our week and our year, they mark the passage of time. We cycle back to the same sacred stories, going deeper and deeper, and see how we’ve changed. There are holidays from our cultural backgrounds, Diwali, Christmas, Passover; First U home-grown holidays like our Hunger Communion; natural holidays like the solstices and equinoxes. But the magic only happens if we embrace just a few specific holidays, call them our own, and invest in them.


  1. The sandbox of Daily Bread: (I know that doesn’t sound very appetizing—I hate when metaphors break down!) Through food our bodies are connected to the world. We are literally what we eat. Plants metabolize sunlight, rain, and soil, and then we eat the plants – either directly or through animals – and that sunlight and rain and soil become our bodies. Many religions recognize the miracle of this and sanctify the simple act of eating a meal – a blessing beforehand; laws governing what is fit to eat and what is not. Today we know that through food, not only do we bring the water, soil, and sky into the temple of our bodies (whether we’re eating broccoli or, God help us, Doritos), but we also affect the outside world far beyond us. It goes both ways. The foods that we choose have a ripple effect on our water and soil and sky, and on any animals involved. Spiritual traditions teach that it matters what we eat.


  1. The sandbox of Reverent Speech: Words create worlds. The words we speak and write and tweet have an impact far beyond ourselves. Some of us may have heard the tale of how gossip and negative talk spread like feathers from a feather pillow torn open. You can never retrieve them once they’re out there. This is especially true in the digital age. Our words can bounce around the world in an instant. How do we talk about race? For the white people in the room, when do we not talk about race? What do we avoid saying? Silence is speech too. How do we all talk about the natural world? Do we instrumentalize natural elements as “resources” or do we honor them? Words create worlds.


  1. The sandbox of Conscious Sexuality: Sexuality has always been a religious concern …many of us would say too much of a religious concern. Religion has a reputation of suppressing certain kinds of sexuality. But there are also traditions that celebrate sexuality as sacred. We know that sex is a marbled thing. It can be an expression of love and it can be used as a weapon. In the age of #MeToo, our society is becoming aware of how often the gift of sexuality is abused, with tragic consequences. As people of faith we might ask ourselves – how do we share our sexuality with others? Why and with whom and in what circumstances? How do we value consent? What does it mean to respect our own sexual dignity? Sexuality is a powerful force. To lead a religious life requires us to be intentional about how we use it.


  1. The sandbox of Charitable Giving: Religions teach that giving is a vital practice, both because of how it supports the flow of healing in the world and because of how it affects the soul of the giver. I think we know intuitively that giving feels good, even if it can also be a little scary. It can free up the flow of energy and compassion in our lives. Traditionally charity has meant giving to the poor. Today it can also mean giving to social justice groups and organizations working to transform the soul of our society. In this sandbox, we may also play with not only where we give our money, but where we withhold our money. We might refuse to give our money to corporations that do violence to people or the earth. Money is a concentrated form of human energy. How we use that energy is a religious question.


So those are the seven sandboxes. I know that was a lot, so I’m going to repeat them and you’ll also be able to find them online and in the e-news: Daily Practices, Good Deeds, Sabbath and Holidays, Daily Bread, Reverent Speech, Conscious Sexuality, Charitable Giving. Here’s what I’m proposing: this fall we each explore what it would mean to adopt one religious practice in each of them. You might notice that a few of these are hot button items – food, sex, money. These things tend to trigger emotions and stress. They can trigger fear of judgement or fear of failure. Which is why I’m not prescribing what we should do in these areas. I’m just inviting us to do something. What we do, how intensely we do it, is up to us. No one’s judging us, no one even has to know. I offer some good sandboxes to play in; you build the sandcastle or the bridge or the tunnel or the sculpture or whatever you feel called to build.


I invite you to spend some time with yourself thinking about (or praying about) what small practice you could commit to in each area – make them small enough that you feel pretty sure you can succeed. In some cases, there may be a practice you already do, but you clarify it in your mind and heart. You infuse it with purpose. To help you in this exploration, we’ll be offering seven workshops over the next couple months, one for each sandbox. At each workshop, I’ll talk a little about religious practices in this area from a couple different traditions, I’ll share what I do as an example of one option for a religious liberal in New York City in 2019. And we’ll have a conversation about what you might want to try; what would be good about it, what would be hard about it, what’s realistic and attainable. This is not a covenant group – these are drop-in sessions. Come to any or all of them that would be helpful to you.


This process will culminate on our Hunger Communion on November 24. This is our annual fast day and whether you fast or not, I invite you to set aside that day as a day of contemplation on the practices you want to try for the rest of this year. You can come out of this with a set of seven practices that are yours. I’ll be available, along with Meagan and Ethan, to help.


Even though no two sets of practices in this room may be exactly the same, sharing a journey of practice will help us build a stronger community. We can lift each other up when we fall short of our aspirations, as we definitely will. We can be each other’s cheerleaders. We’ll have new tools to navigate the tough times we are in and the rough times ahead. It will soothe our hearts and clear our heads. We will be individual in our paths, but unified in our goal – to live lives of meaning, grounded in the holy, to create loving community, and to play a small part in turning the tide of our culture and our world.





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