Grow Your Spirit

Rev. Fiona Heath     Presented December 5th, 2021      Eight Principles Series


Many years ago self help author Debbie Ford went to a spiritual retreat feeling burnt out and lost. Ford spent the first day stressed out but the beautiful surroundings and gentle pace helped ease her until she was able to meditate.

While Ford was meditating she experienced a vision of retreat’s teacher telling her: “We each carry a flame. Your flame is very small. It is only a flicker.” The teacher told Ford her fire was “faint, timid and tired”. That it needed fuel.

Ford realized that she wanted a bright and powerful fire within, and to get her fire roaring again she needed to make some changes in her life. She needed to leave a situation that was crushing her spirit and find a better path. So she did.  (Debbie Ford, The Right Questions)

As a Unitarian Universalist, the religious denomination with a flickering flame in a chalice as our symbol, of course I love a story about an inner flame. For me, the chalice light represents the light of that lifeforce – that spirit – that lives in each being.

As we consider our third principle: the acceptance of one another and the encouragement to spiritual growth, the inner fire is a good metaphor. This call to grow in spirit is a call to keep your fire burning bright.

By spirit I mean the special sum of all that we are. Spirit adds up mind, body, emotions, history and experience to make your unique life force – your spirit – which is also somehow more than the sum of the whole.

Growing in spirit doesn’t have much currency in today’s economy. Imagine asking your local politician to develop public policies that help people grow their spirit!

It is the role of a religious community, though.

UCM is place which asks you to consider that state of your spirit and, I hope, offers ways to help your inner fire burn strong and steady. I think this is essential work right now. In the bigness of all that is happening in the world our inner lights can feel inadequately small.

If you read any news at all, the news is often sad and terrifying. There is too much to wrap our minds around, let alone find a way to integrate into the whole of ourselves.

During this pandemic there are many times when my inner fire felt faint, timid and tired. I’m not in need of big changes, but the fire has needed tending.

Fires burn when there is heat, fuel, and oxygen. Spiritually, heat occurs when we are engaged and energized about our activities. Fuel comes from food and sleep, but also love and shelter – when we are regularly nourished body and soul. Oxygen comes from having time and space to be, from belonging and acceptance, not having to battle just to be ourselves, not having to fight to be heard.

Our third principle – acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth within our congregations – points us to these spiritual necessities.

We need the oxygen of acceptance in order to glow bright. We need to accept ourselves as we are, and we need to be accepted by others. Sometimes when our inner light is low, we just need to shift the logs around to let in a little more air.

What do you need to help your inner flame burn brightly? Heat, more ways to express yourself? Fuel, more ways to nourish yourself? Oxygen, more ways to accept yourself?


There is a saying in the buddhist community that when you feel too busy to sit in meditation, even for twenty minutes, you should sit for an hour.

If you are feeling overwhelmed, feeling pressure, that’s when you especially need to take time for your spiritual life. To give fuel and oxygen to your inner flame by making space to just be.

For non-meditators, it might be going for a run, or baking bread, or escaping into a good book.  Or talking to a good friend. Tending to your spirit helps you “right size” your struggles.

I had a colleague in their early years of ministry who worked seven days a week, they were too anxious to take a day off and so answered emails daily. They argued that otherwise there were too many emails to deal with on Tuesday and they got too far behind.

After a couple of years, they burnt out and took a sabbatical. When they returned, they began keeping a sabbath day and stopped checking emails.  It turned out that the email pile on Tuesday morning was manageable.

It wasn’t that the volume of work changed but that they were able to ‘right size’ the situation. Starting the week refreshed meant work was easier to manage.


We live in disproportional times – the weather is getting extreme and so is politics. The economy is becoming extreme, basic wages are mostly stagnant while house prices are soaring.  You have to be a millionaire by thirty to afford a home around here.

Life for the educated middle class – which is mostly what we are – is becoming less secure. It is not unreasonable to be fearful of the future, if not for yourself, for your children and grandchildren.

But fear smothers our spirit.  Anxiety crushes us.  Pressure pushes us down. It’s all we can see.  The way all my colleague could see was their in-box looming way too large.

But then we grow in spirit and get bigger than the fear, then the worry, the anxiety, the sorrow, the anger. We can put it back in perspective and remember that our beautiful messy wonderful struggling selves are so much more than any single tough moment. Our spirits grow and we become more resilient.

At times we need not to tend our spirit at all, the flame is burning strong and we are busy going about our days. But some days, when we feel that flame becoming faint, timid and tired, we need to tend to the fire.

Only you will know what you need, and it may take some time to figure it out. Some little shifts may be all that is needed. Sometimes bigger changes are. Sometimes all you need is a listening ear.

Humanitarian Albert Schweitzer wrote “At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have [lit] the flame within us.”

It may be we can’t get our fire to burn bright on our own. That’s okay. We all need a little help some days.

This is a tough time, disorienting, disproportional, uncertain, and tending to our inner flame helps us grow bigger than our struggles.


Like all our principles, there is no one right way to live this principle in our lives. The acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations is a practice that needs to be practiced over and over again.

But as you continue to tend to your inner fire, making sure you have heat, fuel and oxygen to keep it burning steadily, you may find over time that you are showing signs of spiritual growth.

American meditation teacher Shinzen Young suggests there are five signs that you have been growing in spirit.

The first is that you have a lesser sense of suffering.  This isn’t to say there is less pain and sorrow in your life, but that you suffer less when the tough moments happen. There is less resentment, less negative judgement of the self or others. It’s easier to regain your calm.

Second, life feels more fulfilling. You feel grateful for the joys and gifts of living, appreciating those around you. You feel that your life matters.

Third, insight increases. You see more and more interconnections between your life and the world, sense that you are part of the whole. You trust yourself more and find it easier to know what to do.

Fourth, healthy behaviours tend to win out over destructive choices. You are kinder and more patient with yourself and others. It’s easier to take good care of yourself and let go of bad habits.

Fifth and finally, compassion for others comes more easily while your desire to help others increases. You seek opportunities to give back.

Less suffering, more fulfillment. Increased insight. Healthy behaviours. Compassion comes easy.

Sounds pretty good to me.

And I know that when my inner flame is low, I hear a list like that and feel filled with resentment – thinking “easy for a buddhist meditation teacher who meditates all day to be so good.And then I feel guilty because I’m the minister and should exude all of these wonderful things every day.

I know that I don’t and I am sure even the Dalai Lama can be a jerk sometimes.

One of things I appreciate most about Unitarian Universalism is that we are quite clear that we are human beings, in bodies with emotions and attitudes. We embrace the dark and the light that exists in all of us. That we are selfish and difficult at times. That’s okay. We are also magnificent and amazing and fabulous. We can be both.

Growing our spirit means we don’t get stuck in our worst selves and we also don’t get entranced by our best selves.

Instead we find a way to experiencing the bigness of life – whether that is the stars at night – the immensity of love – or a sense of God.

When we can get there, feel that connection, feel being held in the mystery of all that is, it allows us just to be, just as we are. And we may just find ourselves suffering less and feeling more compassion.

Life is tough and weird right now. Many of us are a little off-kilter. It’s okay for your light to be flickering and low. And if your light is burning bright, you might be able to re-kindle another person’s light.

Our third principle tells us that as long as we accept one another as we are, right here and right now, and keep on paying attention to our spirits, we will get through this together.

I know that together our lights shine brightly, always.


So Say We All


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