Empowering your Spiritual life.

a talk given by Rabbi Brian at the Embrace Festival produced by Progressive Christianity. Portland, Oregon. May 5, 2017.

What is empowering? What is the spiritual life?

The definition of the word empower is to give someone the authority to do something and to make them stronger and more confident, especially in controlling their life and claiming their rights.

I am Rabbi Brian – an ordained rabbi on a mission from God – a rabbi with John Lennon’s inclusivity and a Blues Brothers mission. My mission, to empower people in their spiritual lives – so that they can feel the seat of their religious authority within them.

I empower people’s spiritual lives so that they can more confidently go against the prevailing mores of our culture and live fulfilled, blessed, beautiful lives of spaciousness, surrender, and love. I want to empower people in their spiritual lives so that they can reclaim their life – have as much agency and control as they can. And, I want to empower people in their spiritual lives so that they are able to have a sense of surrender and peace with what they cannot control. This is the role of the clergy person –in the words of the prophet Prince, to help people get through this thing called life.

I empower people in their spiritual live because people who are not empowered in their spiritual lives suffer. People who are not empowered in their spiritual lives:

  • feel they lack the resources to get through this thing called life
  • feel from feeling like they do not belong, that they are apart from not a part of
  • travel on a road that is much bumpier than those who have examined their spiritual lives


The spiritual life can be characterized as being about meaning, value, relationship.

I like a five part definition from Erich Fromm:

  • People who have a spiritual life believe there is a hierarchy of values – Love and compassion are seen as more important than distain
  • People who have a spiritual life know that life is not filled with simple answers, but that life is a series of questions that expand us.
  • People who are engaged in a spiritual life know that life is about being transformed
  • People who have a spiritual life know that life is not about the self, but it is about transcending the self we think our selves to be.
  • People who have a spiritual life know that there is an inter-connectedness with one another.

Let me put all of this in one sentence: The spiritual life is about questioning our devotion to our self and our willingness to be transformed in love and connectedness.


Why this isn’t needed

However, let me be clear. No one needs my help. No one needs me or any other shaman, healer, or minister to empower them in their spiritual life. No one needs help at all.

A good many people are quite comfortable with the downsides of lackluster spiritual lives. Many people – both in organized religion and those opposed to institutional worship – are quite content pretending that they are in control of their world, feeling that the way they do things is right and that when things do not align with their beliefs of the world that the world is wrong.

I have no illusion of shaking them from their delusion.

Even if I were wave a shiny banner proclaiming the benefits of having an authentic, empowered, efficacious spiritual life – these people would not want to change. Even if I were to promise that in exchange for their perfect sense of who they are they could have all the fruits of the spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control – for some people, the threat of change is too frightening and the desire to be exactly who they think themselves to be is too alluring.


Who I want to help

I want to speak to you and to the great many people who are open. People who are curious, willing to explore, and who want a more fulfilled spiritual life.

I come as a teacher, a guide, a supporter. I imagine that one can learn to play the tuba from reading books alone. However, I am certain that learning to play the tuba is easier with personal instruction.

That is my job. I help people adjust their spiritual lives. To help them define and achieve their spiritual goals. Borrowing an idea of Alan Watts, I do this job of religious empowerment more as a physician than as a clergyman or guru. I am not in this business to gather adherents. I want to help like a good doctor or teacher does – to give a suggestion, to teach a lesson, in the words of Yeats, to light a fire, to empower. And, when they have reclaimed their birthright of religious authority, of connection, of joy, then off they go on independently, beautifully.


How spiritual empowerment happens

How? How do I empower people in their religious lives? How do I reach people about the virtues – the benefits of the spiritual life – the religious notions of surrender, peace, acceptance, transcendence, and gratitude?

Two answers: with reason and by example.


Although many people mistakenly believe that those of us who live beautiful religious lives are devoid of logic and reason, logic and reason prove to be the best technologies to spiritually empower people.

This is why I gave you Fromm’s definition of the spiritual. Because logic and reason help us to group.

Let me give an example of empowering people in a spiritual practice. When I break down for people the components of a gratitude practice, they can see for themselves clearly what they can change.

The formula is quite simple – your gratitude practice is simply the number of times you are thankful minus the number of times you complain. Thanks minus gripes = gratitude practice.

People easily see two choices for change immediately.
add thankfulness
subtract complaining.

To lessen complaining, I often Will Bowen’s 21-day Complaint Free Challenge. And, to increase gratitude, I suggest an exercise we will try in a moment.

By example

The other way to help people empower themselves in their spiritual lives is by doing what everyone here at this conference is doing – by living their life as an example of what an empowered spiritual life can look like. We can empower people by example. If my wearing an oversized yarmulke helps someone to feel a little pride in living their spiritual life our loud, wonderful.

And, to this end – about living by example – I want to bravely go somewhere that seems almost taboo. I want talk about God and I want us, the people who are progressive, who are open to inviting a rabbi to come speak, people who are open to listen to Gretta Vosper, and Jim Burklo, and Matt Fox, and Irene Monroe to talk more about God.

I find it odd that this conference about all matter spiritual, we aren’t talking about gee-oh-dee word.

Many people have been badly burned and confused by fun-damn-mentalists who have seemed to have co-opted the word and trivialized God into being something so limited – Authoritarian like Zeus, Benevolent like Santa, or Critical like a high school vice-principal. I’d like us to reach people with theologies beyond these fourth grade conceptualizations of God – as an agent removed from our lives.

We religious progressives need to be putting out other definitions of God so that people can know that God is beyond simple definitions. And, that God, like beautifully sung in Bernstein’s Mass, God is also the simplest thing of all.

I’m a fan of Panentheism and predicate theology – that we are all in and a part of God and that the way to bring more God into the world is not by trying to define God as a noun, but living God as a verb. We need to help people to hear and learn that there are other notions of God. Beautiful, consonant ones.

Rabbi Mendel Menachem of Kotzk once asked a group, “Where is God?” And, they answered quoting the scriptures, “God is everywhere. The whole earth is filled with God’s glory” “Alas, no!” exclaimed the rabbi, “God is only where-so-ever people allow God in.”

God is not removed from us.

If anything, it is we who are removed from God.

It is we who need to surrender our sense of who we are so that we can better be with God and better be godly in this world.

It’s back to what I started with.

We must confidently go against the prevailing mores of our culture so we can live fulfilled, blessed, beautiful lives of spaciousness, surrender, and love. We must challenge our society’s mantra that our precious sense of self is important.

It is when we are devoted to ourselves and making ourselves the center, we are not living spiritually empowered lives. When we are devoted to ourselves all of our virtues get blunted. For us to claim the fruits of the spirit – for us to have love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control – we must question our devotion to our self and have willingness to be transformed in love and connectedness.

Let me end with a bit of technology and a gratitude practice.


Find someone who you haven’t communicated with for a while – someone who would be genuinely surprised to hear from you. And, I want you to write them a note that says simply, in your own language, “I thank God that you are in my life. You are important to me.”

Usually I challenge people that they have to reach 5-7 people within 24 hours of hearing of this exercise.

Go ahead. Do it.

You will up the number of times you have gratitude today. And, you’ll probably do the same for them. While, at the same time, modeling what it means to be spiritually empowered.

For those of you who want more, I encourage you to go to rotb.org or type “Rabbi Brian” into a search engine. On the Religion-Outside-The-Box page you will see a salmon colored box about “The 10-day spiritual fitness program.” In it, I give you 10, 2-minutes exercises like the one we just did. All free. To help you empower your spiritual life.

May we all live fulfilled, blessed, beautiful lives of spaciousness, surrender, and love. May we all know that we are a part of – not apart from – God.

May we free ourselves from ourselves so we can better be spiritual vessels.

I thank you. I thank you. I thank you.


Deborah is one of the integral pieces who made sure the whole program ran smoothly, and made me feel like a celebrity.

Rev. Lauren Van Ham is a light. And, as such, she doesn’t trudge or fret. But, neither does she etherially float or flit. She walks and acts with the calm of being God’s beloved. 

Toni Reynolds is an inspiration in her open theology and spirit. Her leadership is just begining. And, wow. Powerful. Wow. You are an ol’ black church lady, but 

The Reverend Gretta Vosper is the most wonderful God forgaven woman I am glad to call a new friend. (If you don’t know about the UCC putting her on tiral for heresy as she refuses to say creeds that are not connonent with the reality.) I love her. And, her beloved Scott. I will meet either or both of you for milkshakes. Also, as you probably know, I would love you to meet my beloved.

Jim Burklo is more intoxicated with God’s spiritual than most. I love his childlike and mystical nature. USC is L-U-C-K-Y to have him inspiriing the children with a sense of panentheism and mysticism. Brilliant.

Dr. Matthew Fox, who just inspired me that, yes, indeed, there is something that I can do about the problem.

Matt, you are one of the last of the great lights my generation has to look up to. Your brilliance is appreciated. We must teach the world that all of us are mystics (and combat rampant anthropomorphism).

From the Reverend Timothy Murphy, I learned about soteriology – the notion that everyone of us need to ponder from what we need to be saved and for what reasons we are saved.

If the world is going to be redeemed, it will because, in part of the work of the Revered Alexandra Sanger who I delight to call a new friend. And Matidilda and Annie and you and I can all stay friends. “We got this.”

Few problems are solved by an email your in-box.

This is an exception.

40 curiosity-satisfying, soul-nuturing messages from rB
Plus $130-savings on patience

Wonderful! You did it. Look for an email soon! (Unless you want to work on your patience, of course.)