The Tao of Doubt
by Rev. Douglas Taylor
Unitarian Universalism has got to be about the only religious option that encourages doubt. Skepticism and Agnosticism are prevalent in our congregations, and are certainly here at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Binghamton. I see this as a good thing. Doubt helps us to steer clear of many idolatries. We do well to have a touch of agnosticism, a dash of doubt, if you will, in all of our religious statements. After all, “The surest way to lose truth is to pretend you already possesses it.” [Gordon Allport Becoming, p. 17] I have also heard it said that doubt is the handmaiden of truth. On the whole, I find many Unitarian Universalists to be “happy agnostics” willing to consider differing perspectives, though a little hesitant to commit entirely to only one perspective, always leaving ample room for doubt.
Unfortunately, our high comfort level with doubt comes off in the eyes of others as a cheap abdication. It looks like we lack enough conviction to take a stand. While I strongly argue against this perspective as uninformed at best, I continually bump into it. I wonder if any of you have experienced this? “Unitarian Universalism? That’s not really a religion, right?”
As a religious movement, Unitarian Universalism is constantly pushing itself beyond narrow definitions of religion. We are perpetually searching for a better way to see and a better to describe what we experience as religious people. We recognize that revelation is not sealed. We know that insight and growth can and often do come from unexpected quarters. We are a community of people in the search. We do not claim to have all the answers and do not demand of anyone to adhere to even a specific set of questions.
Because we are willing to doubt, willing to admit we do not own the corner on religious truth, we find that we are therefore willing to look to other world religions as often (if not more often) as we do to our own Judeo-Christian religious roots or our Unitarian and Universalist forebears. Of the Eastern religions, certainly Buddhism has made the most inroads into our churches. Buddhist meditation groups are common and I think there is a national Buddhist-UU group to help any who self-identify that way. I would like to suggest some interesting connections I have found with another one of the traditional Eastern religions. I want to consider Taoism, particularly as it relates to the ideas of certainty and doubt.
Lao Tzu is the first teacher of Taoism and the author of the book the Tao Te Ching. Lao Tzu was supposed to have been born around the 6th century B.C.E. With the decline of the reigning dynasty, Lao Tzu decided to leave to the uncivilized West. However, at the frontier the guard demanded that he leave behind all the treasures of China that he may have with him, including his teachings. So Lao Tzu sat down and scripted over five thousand Chinese characters and left into the wilderness, never to be heard from again. This teaching he left with the guard has been passed down through the centuries as the Tao Te Ching, the Taoist holy text.
The first chapter of the Tao Te Ching states: “The Tao that can be expressed is not the true Tao. The name that can be named is not the true name.” This statement seems to say to me that if I think I know the power that creates, sustains, and transforms my life, I’m probably wrong. If I think I’ve grasped a corner of what we call the Ground of Being, I am most assuredly mistaken. This is where that agnostic dash of doubt comes in. The Tao Te Ching begins with a statement that it is impossible to name or express the Ultimate Reality, the fundamental core experience of life, and yet, this is precisely the effort we undertake in our congregations.
Tao is typically translated as “the way.” This is not altogether inaccurate, but neither is it a complete rendering of the concept. A closer interpretation of the word Tao is “a person running along a path.” (Everyday Tao, Deng Ming-Dao. P 2) This translation makes Tao more like a verb than a noun. This idea echos the way we speak of being on a spiritual journey. We talk in Unitarian Universalism about being on a faith journey or a spiritual journey. We sometimes even talk about God as a process, an event that happens, rather than a pseudo-being or thing.
A decidedly more complex interpretation of the Tao (from Dao De Jing by R. Ames and D. Hall, 2003) says that it is best translated as at least three nuances. It is “the way” and it is “movement along the way” but it is also “way-making.” It is a complex concept that almost necessitates a course in Chinese culture before a fair understanding can be formed.
Witness the meeting of two great figures, Confucius and Lao Tzu, in this legendary account:
When Confucius went to Chou, he asked Lao Tzu to instruct him in the rites. Lao Tzu relied, “… When a gentleman lives in favorable times, he hastens to court in a carriage; but when he lives in unfavorable times, he drifts with the wind. I have heard it said that a good merchant hides his wealth and gives the appearance of want; if endowed with a rich supply of inward virtue, the superior man has the outward appearance of a fool. Get rid of that arrogance of yours, all those desires, that self-sufficient air, that overweening zeal; all that is of no use to your true person. That is all I have to say to you.” Confucius withdrew and told his disciples, “I know a bird can fly; I know a fish can swim; I know animals can run. Creatures that run can be caught in nets; those that swim can be caught in wicker traps; those that fly can be hit by arrows. But the dragon is beyond my knowledge; it ascends into heaven on the clouds and the wind. Today I have seen Lao Tzu and he is like the dragon!” (Lao Tzu and Taoism, by M. Kaltenmark; p 8)
So even the great Confucius had a difficult time understanding Lao Tzu and the Tao. I have turned to another great philosopher to aid me in my understanding, one who is a little more current. I look to Winnie-the-pooh, in the book The Tao of Pooh. (“The Tao of who, the Tao of Pooh”) It’s a fun book, and a helpful one, too.
It talks about the way Pooh is in comparison with the other characters in the Winnie-the-pooh stories. “While Eeyore frets and Piglet hesitates and Rabbit calculates and Owl pontificates, Pooh just is.” Pooh is effortless and simple. He just does stuff and it seems to work. As Piglet once said, “Pooh hasn’t much Brain, but he never comes to any harm. He does silly things and they turn out right.”
Pooh spends much of his time just being Pooh and not doing anything in particular. Christopher Robin once asked him “What do you like doing best in the world, Pooh?”
“Well,” said Pooh, “What I like best —” and then he had to stop and think. Because although Eating Honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better that when you were, but he didn’t know what it was called.
The truth is, sometimes there just are no words to describe what is going on. And yet there are so many books on the topic. Wittgenstein observed that the limits of our language are the limits of our world. And yet, as it was written in the passage I offered during the reading: “The most profound levels of life are so enormous, so deep, and so mystical that they are unnamable. When we are dealing with this most difficult and yet most meaningful part of the Tao, we have to accept that there are no words in our dictionary to define our experiences.” “The Tao that can be put into words is not the true Tao. The name that can assign fixed reference to things is not the true name.”
Another popular book on the subject of Taoism which recently came out in a 25th anniversary edition, is The Tao of Physics. Taoism is a philosophy about being in the rhythm of the universe, like Pooh. To say that Physics is the study of the rhythm of the universe may be a touch more poetic than most textbooks would allow, it is still a fairly close explanation. The best example of the connection between physics and Taoism is found in the work of Werner Heisenberg. Heisenberg was the first to formulate that when dealing with a subatomic particle, there will always be a level of uncertainty built into the very nature of the process. This concept is known as Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. Most scientific process prior to this concept was structured under the presupposition that if you were uncertain about some aspect of your new formula, later scientists would eventually refine the formula into perfection. Heisenberg said that old notion was all wrong. There will always be that dash of doubt. When you study these particles, there is no way to not be involved with them. If you try to study what is happening, if you try to name what is going on, you participate in what is going on and therefore create uncertainty in the situation. This is not a flaw in Heisenberg’s formulations, it is the nature of subatomic particles. It is the nature of life. It is Tao. (Capra pp. 140, 158)
Ultimate Reality is a mystery to which we have clues, but will never fully understand. Words are helpful, but they also get in the way. Heisenberg once said “that every word or concept, clear as it may seem to be, has only a limited range of applicability.” The natural world and our experiences of it are complex and varied. We live and move in a complex, multi dimensional world. Words are like maps that represent our experiences. And it was Alfred Korzybski who coined the phrase, “the map is not the territory.” We are like cartographers faced with the task of creating a flat map of a curved earth. Words can be close approximations at best, never exact representations.
One of the most captivating lines from the Tao of Physics book states, “because our representation of reality is so much easier to grasp than reality itself, we tend to confuse the two and to take our concepts and symbols for reality.” (P 28) One of the first tenets of Taoism is rid us of that mentality. Taoist sage, Chang Tzu wrote:
Fishing baskets are employed to catch fish; but when the fish are got, the men forget the baskets; snares are employed to catch hares, but when the hares are got, men forget the snares. Words are employed to convey ideas; but when the ideas are grasped, men forget the words.”
Words get us there, and words get in the way; but they are all we have. I firmly assert that anything we can say about the deepest, most profound levels of life must necessarily be filtered through our human language. As a means of discussing all that is Holy, human words and concepts are hopelessly inadequate. However, we must try because spiritual growth is important, and it can only be accomplished through dialogue with yourself, with your neighbor, and with your God. We need words for this. After all, “the turtle only gets where it is going by sticking out its neck.” [James B. Conant]
My dilemma is this: if I were to try to articulate what I experience of God, it could only be like trying to catch running water in my bare hands, and then bring it in to the sanctuary to show you what running water is. I simply do not have a firm enough grasp of how to communicate mystery. It is not for lack of something to say, it for lack of words to properly articulate the experiences.
The ineffability of the Tao is the first principle of Taoism. It demands that before we begin talking about this, we admit that there is nothing we can say. But we are Unitarian Universalists, we like to talk. We are a verbal and verbose religion. Witness the fact that I have been standing here talking on and on about how mere words can’t get us there. Mystery is a cornerstone of my theology, likely that of many UU’s. Unitarian Universalists are sometimes seen as people without beliefs. I think it is closer to the truth to say we have beliefs but they are coupled with the realization that mere words too often fail to express the experiences we know. It seems to me that we are at our best when we recognize that dash of doubt, and admit that there is nothing we can say which can finally nail down any knowledge of Ultimate Reality. And yet we shall share together what we can of what we know thus far, and trust that we shall continue to understand more tomorrow.
In a world without end,
May it be so.
Arrogance at the Needle’s Eye
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Let me begin with the Needle’s Eye. The passage in the gospel of Matthew where Jesus says, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God,” has been such a captivating image and a rallying point for the concept of God’s Preferential Option for the Poor. There is an absolutely wonderful interpretation of this line about the camel and the needle’s eye. The “eye of the needle” is really the name of the back gate in Jerusalem. This gate was quite small, as the name implies; and it was the one gate open after dark. A merchant, arriving late to town, would need to go around to the back gate, the needle’s eye. But he would need to unload all the camels. The gate was too small for camels to get through loaded up with goods. The message is palpable: you cannot get into the kingdom of God unless you unload your possessions.
This interpretation, this suggestion that the Eye of the Needle is actually a gate in Jerusalem, is apocryphal and unsupportable. Someone made it up. I own several annotated bibles and not one of them mentions this back gate. I did bump into a website that debunks this story at length, (and of course you should always be suspicious of any fact you read on the internet, but seeing no support for the needles eye/back gate connection in the any of my books, I decided to believe the website.)
From the 15th century, … this story has been put forth, however, there is no evidence for such a gate, nor record of reprimand of architect who may have forgotten to make a gate big enough for the camel and rider to pass through unhindered. … Great sermon material, … lovely story… but unfortunately unfounded.
The website goes on to consider several other possible interpretations such as, maybe the word for “camel” is a Greek misprint. Instead of kamilos, ‘camel,’ they meant to write kamelos meaning ‘cable or rope.’ “It is easier for a cable or rope to go through the eye of a needle”? This and other clever twists of the English, Greek and Aramaic words are decidedly set aside. Instead the website lands on a tame interpretation which claims that Jesus was basically saying it is all but impossible for a rich man to get into the kingdom of God. But, of course, the website ends with the comforting scriptural quote, “With God, all things are possible.”
But what I am interested in from all of this is that image of a merchant standing outside this apocryphal gate, arrogantly demanding entry despite the barriers. This image comes to mind when I think about economic inequity here in the United States and how some people call welfare a drain on our society. This image comes to mind when I read about big corporations crying out for free trade and an open market. This image of arrogance at the needle’s eye comes to mind when I hear in the news that Wal-Mart was denied access to some communities in California and a Wal-Mart spokesperson said, “It’s really too bad that this little local bureaucracy is denying people options of where to shop.” I find that statement so ironic because I always thought that denying people options of where to shop was what Wal-mart did when it undersold it’s products and drove small local merchants out of business.
Yesterday, a couple of dozen people from our congregation and the broader community attended a workshop on Free Trade and Fair Trade hosted by our Social Responsibility Committee. We had two speakers from Rochester talk us through some of the history and consequences of economic globalization. They began with a statement that Globalization is not a bad thing. Globalization is the process by which the people of the world are becoming more interconnected and interdependent. Certainly we as Unitarian Universalists are in favor of recognizing our interconnectedness! Globalization is about the increase in communication, the exchange of cultures, it is about being able to go to the supermarket in the middle of February and buy a mango. What the presenters at yesterday’s workshop were critiquing was the way trade agreements enrich those who are already rich and pit the poor against each other in a battle over who can provide the cheapest labor. What they critiqued was who really makes money on the mangos in our supermarkets in February, (and I’ll give you a hint, it is not the people on the other side of the world who grow and harvest mangos.) What the presenters of this workshop critiqued was the Free Trade agreements such as NAFTA that are eroding not only the economies of various nations but also the democratic process and national sovereignty as well.
That last idea is one that really startled me. I don’t want to turn this into a Free Trade lecture, you could have gone to the workshop if you wanted that. But let me briefly spell out that last idea because it is really frightening. If a country that is a part of one of these trade agreements like NAFTA makes a law protecting the environment and NAFTA determines that this new law impedes their right to make a profit, then NAFTA has the right to sue. They have their own courts to do it, too. They enforce their judgments through fines and other economic sanctions. This rampant, unchecked capitalism is running roughshod over democracy in the name of the almighty dollar. And the merchant stands arrogantly at the needle’s eye.
In a capitalist society, religion must serve as a balance against individualistic greed that so easily creeps into the system. The role of religion is to speak out when the culture is out of balance and call for a reprioritizing of our interests. We must remember our basic values as a people. The individualism and the interconnectedness that are displayed in these global trade systems are not our kind of individualism and interconnectedness. They are using interconnectedness to enrich themselves as individuals.
There was a time when the CEO of a major company, like General Motors, could say, “What is good for GM is good for America.” It worked back then because if GM did well, that meant the people who worked for GM did well. Now if GM does well that means the Stockholders and the management will do well. Companies like that no longer have the worker, or even the customer, in mind when they measure their success. And the merchant stands arrogantly at the needle’s eye.
And more frequently, thanks to trade agreements, these companies don’t even benefit our nation because they are becoming transnational. They employ people from other countries and build factories in other countries and they don’t even pay much in taxes here because they are not really here anymore. A quick example of this in the history of telephone company, AT&T:
Until the late 1970’s, AT&T had depended on routine producers in Shreveport, Louisiana, to assemble standard telephones. It then discovered that routine producers in Singapore would perform the same tasks at a far lower cost. Facing intense competition from other global webs, AT&T’s strategic brokers felt compelled to switch. So in the early 1980’s they stopped hiring routine producers in Shreveport and began hiring routine producers in Singapore. But under this kind of pressure for ever lower high-volume production costs, today’s Singaporean can easily end up as yesterday’s Louisianans. By the late 1980’s, AT&T’s strategic brokers found that routine producers in Thailand were eager to assemble telephones for a small fraction of the wages of routine producers in Singapore. Thus, in 1989, AT&T stopped hiring Singaporeans to make telephones and began hiring cheaper routine producers in Thailand.
(The Work of Nations by Robert Reich, p210)
The other countries are beginning to catch on that the boom of jobs and profits that appear with unrestricted trade agreements can evaporate in the blink of an eye as corporations look for “ever lower high-volume production costs.” And the merchant stands arrogantly at the needle’s eye.
The result of these and other economic transgressions is the amazing disparity in wealth distribution. And the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. That is really happening in startling ways. And we get wonderful little phrases like “jobless recovery” to explain why there is a lot of money floating around the system, but none of it seems to be coming around here. It’s great that apple juice can be imported real cheap from China, but if you’ve lost your job as an American apple farmer, how are you supposed to pay for this new cheaper apple juice?
But it’s not like I can spend all my energy being angry at our current Republican administration and their attempts to make our present economic situation look good; because the first major free trade agreement, NAFTA, came into existence under the early days of the previous Democratic administration. The main reason I am angry at the government is because of their lack of regulation over these corporations.
How do you and I fit into all this? Where do you fit on the wealth distribution? Moderation is a nice goal. Great wealth is not very conducive to a positive spiritual life, but then neither is poverty. I am not sure where you are in the class system, but I’ve finally made it into the middle class! Unfortunately, the middle class is not necessarily a place of economic moderation. Now a day the middle class is made up of a lot of people who are pretending to be well off by living in massive debt. I have a thirty-year loan to pay off before I own the house we live in and a five-year loan out on the car we drive, I have most of my credit card debt in one account and I’m working hard to pay that off, and I am still making payments on the loan I took out to get my seminary education. I sometimes feel like I’m standing at the needle’s eye with a handful of IOUs, and I’m saying, “You gotta let me in, because I owe those folks ahead of me a thousand camels!”
What are we going to do about all this economic inequity? Well, if you are feeling the negative side of the inequity, (and I know we have people here in this category) reach out for help. If you’re at the other end and are the steward of some wealth, (again, I know we have people here in this category) use it. Don’t let greed corrupt an otherwise fine capitalist result!
Stay informed, educate yourself about what is happening. Of course, you should always vote and sign any petitions that you agree with. There are more trade agreements like NAFTA coming down the pike right now: CAFTA and the FTAA. Stay informed about what is going on there and get involved! Write a letter to the editor. One of our teens, Caitlin Smigelski, had a letter to the editor last month about this sort of thing.
Send a letter to you elected representative telling them your opinions about free trade and fair trade. Even if your opinions are not the same as my opinions, I urge you to get your opinions out in the public dialogue! And here is a suggestion that will really do some good: Support your local farmers and local industry. Buck the economic system by paying extra for something that you know is locally produced.
This problem is big and it is growing, but it is not inescapable. If something is not done to reign in the corporations who no longer care about their workers, their customers, or even their nations of origin, then we may easily end up with global corporations making all the rules. The role of religion in a capitalist democracy is to serve as a balance to greed and injustice. It is our role to stand at the needle’s eye and cry out for the needs of the disenfranchised and forgotten. It is our role to demand that the common good be cherished, to watch that back gate and make sure the arrogant merchants don’t destroy us in their rush to exploit just a few million more. Religion must hold the needle’s eye.
In a world without end,
May it be so.
Singing, Shouting, and Praying
Spirituality, Part III
by Douglas Taylor
There are some are some unspoken rules, (no I don’t want to say rules, … guidelines.) There are some unspoken guidelines about how to be a Unitarian Universalist. The first guideline is: we don’t do that overly emotional kind of religion. There is a story of a woman who came to visit a UU church in New England. And as the minister was preaching, she heard something she liked and said, “Hallelujah!” An usher hustled up the aisle and leaned over the woman asking, “Woman, are you ill?” To which the lady replied, “Ill? No, I’ve got religion.” At which point the usher said, “Please, not in here!”
The reason I mention our penchant against emotional spirituality is that I have come to Part III of my four-part sermon of Spiritualities. The first two topics were ‘quiet spirituality’ and ‘activist spirituality’. The last one will be about the intellectual side of spirituality whereas today I am exploring the emotional side of spirituality.
The emotional side of spirituality is difficult for most Unitarian Universalists to get into. We have long had clear-headed, reasoned theologies. We are the skeptic’s religion, the rational person’s option. There is a tendency to shy away from emotion-based spirituality that involves a suspension of the intellect. We shy away from, and even look down on that sort of religious expression were people are jumping up and down, and clapping, and shouting “hallelujah” a lot. But that is not all that it means to have an emotionally expressive spirituality. Mystics from many traditions speak of the sheer joy of experiencing the divine first hand. They speak of spiritual ecstasy and abandon!
There is a story told by Rachel Naomi Remen in her book Kitchen Table Wisdom (Healing At a Distance, p87-89) where she describes a workshop that Joseph Campbell offered to some physicians on the experience of the sacred. He showed slides as a part of it and on slide in particular stuck in Remen’s memory, not because of the picture but because of the reaction it stirred. The slide was of the Hindu God, Shiva in a traditional pose, dancing a ring of fire. Shiva’s arms are all out holding various objects, one foot is raised high while the other is supported by the back of a little man crouched done giving all his attention to a leaf in his hand.
The physicians were very interested in this little man at the bottom of the slide, who was he, what did he represent? Campbell’s laughter filled the room. The little man represented those who were absorbed in the material world, in the world of science and study. The little man is so absorbed in the leaf he does not even realize the living God is dancing on his back. At times, each of us can get that way.
I mention our communal discomfort with emotional expressions of spirituality not because I want us all to feel proud of our attitude about it, not because I want us to all feel bad about our attitude toward it, but simply because I want to tweak the idea a little and get you thinking about it. This sermon breaks down into three areas of consideration: singing, shouting and praying.
Some people don’t believe in singin’,
They say singin’ ain’t true
But if you want to get into heaven child
Your gonna have to sing some too!
There is an old joke that says the reason Unitarians are so bad at singing is because we’re always looking ahead to see if we agree with the words.
A colleague, Victoria Safford, wrote up an absolutely delightful piece about this in her meditation manual, Walking Toward Morning (p17). She refers us to that ever-popular hymn, Amazing Grace. There is this bizarre moment right in the first verse where the Unitarian Universalist hymnbook slaps down an asterisk and a choice. What do you do? Do you sing, “Amazing Grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me” or “that saved a soul like me”? What other group’s hymnal will virtually stop the congregation mid-measure and do a theological poll? And you have to be quick because the piano is not going to stop and wait for you, the congregation will leave you no time to ponder, Sunday is rolling on and you are called on to stake your claim right then and there! Are you a wretch or are you a soul?
Will you risk the shocked, sidelong glace from your pew neighbor as you confess at the top of your voice your own wretchedness and the even our common condition as a fallen, faulty species. Or would you rather chance the annoyed look as you stand there warbling on about what a pleasant soul you are, what a nice, well-rounded, sin-free, guilt-free happy soul you are? There you stand the hymn has begun and we are careening toward that asterisk there in the hymnal while you hastily cobble together a theology of human nature. It’s a lot to ask of people on a Sunday morning! But that’s what we do.
I love singing in gospel choirs and it is a rare gospel song that has my kind of theology behind the words. I started a gospel choir when I was at Meadville Lombard Theological School. We sang hymns mostly, occasionally I found a piece that was theistic but not Christ-oriented.
When the storms of life are raging, stand by me
When the storms of life are raging, stand by me
When the world is tossing me like a ship out on the sea
Thou who rulest winds and water, stand by me.
That is still stretching it a little for me theologically, but I love the feeling I get when I am in a group and the music is rising and there is a palpable feeling of happiness and joy there.
I discovered that I learn better when I’ve been singing. My brain integrates information better when I’m in a choir or singing in a group. I was at a week-long minister’s retreat and for the first half, I listened to the papers that were being presented, I attend the worship services and listened to the choir. On Wednesday afternoon I joined the choir and noticed a change in the rest of my week. I took in and integrated the information better. I enjoyed myself more.
I recently heard a colleague comment that a study had been done whereby brain lesions were healed by applying sound vibration to a corresponding part of the brain. After hearing that, I came home and tried to find a story about that online but with no success, so I need to call Kenn and find out where he got this. If I remember correctly, they applied a tuning fork-like instrument to one part of someone’s brain and the vibrations and the resonance healed the lesion in another part of the brain. There were quantum theories to explain it, but it certainly seemed to me to be an interesting concept. Could certain vibrations and resonance patterns stimulate the brain in special ways? Could music, could singing, stimulate certain brain area? What might this mean for religion and spirituality?
Some people don’t believe in shoutin’,
They say shoutin’ ain’t true
But if you want to get into heaven child
Your gonna have to shout some too!
Shouting is another one of those things we don’t tend to see a lot of in Unitarian Universalist congregations. Let me stress a nuance here: this is not about angry shouting. This verse, this aspect of emotional spirituality, is not saying you need to express your anger by shouting more! What it is saying is that you need to express you passion by being louder.
Colleague, Richard Gilbert has said, “Religion is more than mindless jumping up and down about how super it is to be alive.” Many people in our churches tend to recognize that merely being alive is indeed an amazing thing. The response to this recognition is usually a quiet gratitude rather than an exuberant shout of joy. I certainly agree with Gilbert that jumping up and down about how super it is to be alive cannot be all there is to a religion. However, I think we are not in any danger to reaching that point and we could, in fact, let a little shouting and hallelujah-ing into our mix without much worry.
Here is where we tend to go with our passion: social justice work can get us shouting. We have about 30 members from this congregation down in Washington D.C. right now marching in support of reproductive rights. Now, I already did a whole sermon on spirituality and justice. This is just an indication of how these areas overlap. I am reminded of the quote from American author E. B. White, “Every morning I rise with the twin desires to SAVOR the world…and SAVE it. This makes it hard for me to plan the day.” It seems to me we don’t have much trouble letting out a shout now and then in our desire to SAVE the world, and we shouldn’t be afraid to do the same with our desire to SAVOR it as well.
What is shouting for, after all, but to let off steam! That old analogy of the steam-powered engine is just perfect! Imagine yourself just full to bursting with energy shouting is releasing some of that energy. If you’re full of negative energy, if you’re angry, shouting releases that energy. If you’re full of positive energy, filled up with joy or gratitude, maybe you don’t want to let it out by shouting, maybe you want to hold it in and spend that energy in other ways. Maybe instead of shouting you’ll want to go help people, or make the world even more beautiful, or share your story with someone. The problem you’ll find is that trying to spread around this really positive energy jut builds more up inside you and you may just find you need to let some go with a joyful shout now and then.
Some people don’t believe in prayin’,
They say prayin’ ain’t true
But if you want to get into heaven child
Your gonna have to pray some too!
Praying is intimate work. It is also one of those activities that we Unitarian Universalists believe ourselves to be no good at. I know many of us are quite good at it. It doesn’t take great skill. You don’t even need to believe in an answering God to voice a prayer. Soon, I promise, I will devote a full service to this topic.
I wrote and deleted many things for this section in preparation for this morning. So many words can be heaped onto this topic that are unnecessary. Prayers need not be deeply emotional things, they can be simple and light. What prayers do need to be is real. I commend to you the practice of prayer. If you’ve never done it before, try it sometime.
Maybe when you are alone you could just sit down and close your eyes and breathe deep. Reflect on your life; notice what is going on in your life or in the lives of people you love. Then say something out loud: God, or Spirit of Life or Eternal Spirit, or some other name that is comfortable for you, God this is what’s going on. This is where it hurts; this is where it feels good. This is where I want to give thanks, and this is where I need some help. Amen. Prayer is for when you are bursting with life or when life is bursting on you and you need to express it with words or laughter or tears, or simply with sighs and silence. Just try it. I can’t speak to what effect it may have. I doubt the world will change for you, but a change may occur in you, and that may be the whole point, I don’t know.
John Haynes Holmes said that “Reason and rapture need one another, the latter to drive and lift, the former to control and guide.” He indicates that although the two seem to be incompatible, they are necessary to each other. This line of thinking flies right in the face of the little unspoken rule about no overly emotional stuff in our religion, thank you very much. Another way to say it is that our reason is the steering wheel of our car, or the rudder of our ship; and our passion is the gas pedal, or the sails. A passionless religion is powerless. We certainly are a faith tradition that has a strong emphasis on the use of reason, but we are not and could not be passionless. At our best ours is a full faith, embracing all that is in us for the journey. And if that occasionally leads us into moments of abandon, let us go with joy!
I leave you with the closing lines from a poem by Kabir:
At last the notes of his flute come in,
And I cannot stop from dancing around on the floor.
In a world without end
May it be so.
Easter tends to arrive for most Unitarian Universalists with a considerable amount of ambivalence. A few UUs embrace it, others tolerate it, some are hostile toward it, and a good many simply ignore it. The vast majority, however, have mixed feelings. And every year it reappears and we will gather on Easter morning once again with our blend of expectations and opinions. A colleague, the Rev. Jane Rzepka puts it this way:
“Every year I fight the feeling that our UU churches just can’t win on Easter. Our familiar congregation [comes] through the doors, alongside a number of Easter visitors we’ve never seen before. Why do they come?
To hear familiar, traditional, Easter music.
To not hear familiar, traditional, Easter music.
To be reminded of the newness of spring, the pagan symbols of the season, and the lengthening days, without a lot of talk about Jesus and the resurrection.
To be reminded of Jesus and His resurrection, without a lot of talk about the newness of spring, the pagan symbols of the season, and the lengthening days.
To participate in a family service, where children delight in discovering the many roots of our religious tradition.
To participate in a dignified service, where adults celebrate the undeniably Christian holiday, Easter.
We each have religious stories, spring dreams, seasonal celebrations. And on Easter they’re with us, joining together in church. It is our glorious celebration, and by considering the blend a blessing, we win every time.”
I like the way Jane puts that, “considering the blend a blessing, we win every time.” Today is Palm Sunday in the Christian liturgical year. In an attempt to have it all, I am preaching what could be considered a dignified Easter sermon now so we can have a celebratory intergenerational service of story and song on Easter morning.
If you think about it from an historic perspective, Easter really should be a difficult holiday for us to celebrate! Early Unitarians and Universalists spoke out from within the ranks of Christianity. The message of each does serious injury to the doctrines that under gird the glory and purpose of the resurrection for which Easter is all about. From a logical perspective, it is remarkable that any Unitarian Universalist congregation celebrates the holiday with anything more than an occasional sermon topic or special reading such as we might offer for Divali or Yom Kippur. From a logical perspective, with the Unitarians saying Jesus was a man and not a part of the Godhead, and with the Universalists saying there is no hell or eternal punishment, there is little left to support a viable theology of salvation based on the resurrection. Or is there?
Now, fear not, I am not going to try to convince all of you (let alone, myself) as to the literal truth of the resurrection, instead I wish to save for us the concept of salvation. For what is really behind this holiday is the question of salvation, which is really just a question about love. Is there enough love in the world to include me? “Are you saved?” is like asking “Are you loved?” Salvation is a question about who gets to receive God’s eternal love and how do they get it. Unfortunately the question of salvation ends up as a question of “are you a part of the group or not?” The question to often ends up as a discussion of the entrance fee for heaven. That is what I want to argue against.
Salvation is not salvation from hell or from the wrath of God, that is a common misunderstanding. It is not salvation from eternal punishment. According to the Bible salvation is about salvation from sin. Indeed all my sources from the Oxford dictionary to Universalist theologian Hosea Ballou agree on this point, as does the Lord’s Prayer, when it says “deliver us from evil.” Salvation is about salvation from sin. Jesus said, “I come not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:32) The Christian concept of salvation in its basic scriptural form is a call to live a better life free from sin, a loving call to live well.
The Jewish concept of salvation, which of course predates the Christian one and thus is a significant influence on it, is in many ways a communal concept in the same way that sin in Jewish theology is a communal concept. In the stories from the Hebrew scripture, God makes covenants with groups of people such as when Moses brought the Ten Commandments down to the people just after their flight from Egypt. The flight from Egypt is what Passover commemorates, specifically, the thanksgiving of the Hebrew people that God passed over their houses when he went through and slaughtered all the first-born children of their oppressors. Passover is a celebration of gratitude that they may remember their deliverance. Deliverance is a common synonym for salvation. Salvation in Hebrew scripture is a communal concept.
Christian theology mixed the Hebrew concept with Hellenistic notions of life and came up with a decidedly personal version of salvation. The group known as Christians is comprised of individuals who know Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior. That is a sweeping generalization and does not serve as an adequate definition for all Christians, of course. All the same, according to the standard Christian doctrine of soteriology, the death and resurrection of Christ was the pivot of salvation history. What that means is that when Jesus died on the cross and rose again three days later, people could suddenly get into heaven. It is like that door was slammed shut when Adam and Eve caused original sin, and now Jesus has thrown that door wide open again. But of course the argument is always, well how wide did he open the door, just who gets to come in?
The most notable argument comes from the followers of John Calvin who articulated an idea known as double predestination. Regular predestination is the idea that God has, from the beginning of time, preordained just exactly who will be going to heaven. The number is set. If you’re on the list then you’re don’t even need to RSVP, you’re going to heaven! Naturally people assumed that if you were saved, if you were on the list, you would be a pious person without significant want or suffering in life. Of course, double predestination is a logical and obvious next step. If there is a set number going to heaven, and the only other alternative is hell, obviously everyone not on heaven’s list is going to hell. Double predestination says there is a set number, probably a very small number, going to heaven and a set number, probably a very, very large number, going to hell. The only reason, according to this line of thinking, that anyone is going to heaven at all is because Jesus died on the cross, thus atoning for original sin for a special select number of true believers.
Unitarian Universalists have long rejected such a notion. During the formative years of both Unitarianism and Universalism Calvinist formulas of salvation were very popular and thus easy targets against which to develop a new religious identity. Have you heard the quote from Thomas Starr King who held credentials within both denominations? He once distinguished between the two by saying, “The Universalists believe God is too good to damn them and the Unitarians believe they are too good to be damned.” The Unitarians articulated elegant arguments against the depravity of all humanity as was the popular Calvinist belief of the time. This radical idea of the basic goodness of people undercut the need for Jesus to go dying on the cross to save us.
The doctrine of universal salvation is basically predestination taken to its most optimistic extreme. Sure, there is a set number of people going to heaven, the number is absolutely everyone. The doctrine of universal salvation is usually defined as the belief that there is no hell. Remembering that Salvation is not salvation from eternal punishment, rather it is salvation from sin, the doctrine of universal salvation is perhaps better seen as the belief that everyone is saved from sin. That is a rather remarkable position.
I recall an anecdote about Hosea Ballou that illustrates this point however. He was riding his horse toward a town where he had been engaged to preach, and alongside him was another preacher on horseback likewise traveling to town to preach. They of course feel into conversation and, of course, the conversation fell into religious discussion. The other preacher said, “Brother Ballou, if I believed in your doctrine of universal salvation, there would be nothing to stop me from knocking you off your horse right now and stealing off with it.” To which Ballou replied, “My dear fellow, if you believed in the doctrine of universal salvation, such an idea would not even occur to you.”
If you really believe in God’s unconditional love for you, indeed for all of humanity, the natural impulse would be to respond in kind and to be a good and just person. It reminds me of a quote from St. Augustine (of all people) who said, “Love God and do as you will,” for if you truly love God your will can in no way contradict God’s will.
Both Unitarianism and Universalism brought serious objections to the Calvinist doctrines of God, human nature and how God and humanity relate (i.e. salvation.) Each however raised a different line of argument, and ultimately the Unitarian ideas of salvation and the Universalist ideas of salvation are not only different, they are contradictory.
One of the greatest statements about Unitarianism says we believe in Deeds not Creeds. An earlier version of that statement said we believe in Salvation by Character. Both phrases, “Deeds not Creeds” and “Salvation by Character” are attempts to succinctly say that we believe people need to live out their faith. People need to behave in good and just ways. These phrases indicate that justice making leads to salvation, not unlike the statements I made a month back in my sermon about the spirituality of social justice. “Salvation by Character” is a statement saying we are saved because we are good. It says we are loved by God because we do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God.
Hosea Ballou and other early proponents of Universalism say we are loved by God first. God’s love is a given. Because of that love, we are led to live justly. God’s love is not conditional or dependent on a certain set of rules being followed. God’s love is not based on meeting a set of criteria first. Ballou uses a most simple anecdote to drive this point home.
Your child has fallen into the mire, and her body and her garments are defiled. You cleanse her, and array her in clean robes. The query is, Do you love your child because you have washed her? Or Did you wash her because you love her?
The doctrine of Universal Salvation says God will save everyone, all are loved and none shall be removed from God’s loving presence in the end. God does not love us because we are good and clean people, God helps us to be good and clean people because God loves us. God’s love is a given, it is where you start from.
I have always wanted to believe in God as described by Hosea Ballou. I have always wanted to believe in a personal God who knows me, knows my inner workings, my deepest longings, my wrenching sorrows and my soaring joys. I have always wanted that God who knows all about me and still loves me.
Of course, we are not a religion where you can believe anything you want, instead we each believe as we must, as our consciences dictate. What I believe about God comes close to Ballou’s God, but not quite. My conscience leads me to believe that the God Ballou believed in is too transcendent, too anthropomorphic and paternalistic for me to believe in. I believe in an indwelling God, who is more than all loving. Unconditional love from God is still not quite it. God is the loving. And I know I am saved by that love.
Now, how does all this fit with Jesus and Easter? I turn one last time to Hosea Ballou who saw Jesus as a demonstration of God’s infinite love for humanity. Jesus was a model for imitation, an agent of reconciliation by example. He is not the pivot of salvation history, but an arrow pointing the way to greater love and peace. If that question wells up within you or is put to you by a friend, “What do Unitarian Universalists do with Easter,” remember that salvation in its basic scriptural form is a reminder that you are loved and a call to live a better life, a loving call to live well. On Easter we celebrate life.
In a world without end, may it be so.
If I Had a Million Dollars
Rev. Douglas Taylor
The story is told of a millionaire, back when a million dollars was a lot of money, who was on his deathbed. He gathered his family around him and told them to bring him all his money and heap it around him on the bed. They tried to argue with him but he waved them off saying, “I know they say ‘you can’t take it with you’ but I don’t believe that. I’m going to take it with me.” Later that day he died and when he arrived at the pearly gates he excitedly waved his money around for everyone to see. “They said I couldn’t do it, but I did it!” St. Peter came over with a sad expression on his face. “Sir,” he said, “you don’t understand. Up here that money is worthless. The only thing that counts up here is receipts.” It matters little how much you have, it’s what you do with what you’ve got!
A few years back two of my cousin’s children in junior high had an interesting school assignment. They had to imagine they had a million dollars and they had to account for how they would spend it. One of the rules was that we needed to spend all of it. So they were looking through magazines and clipping advertisements for cars, houses, clothes, cruises, and all manner of expensive items. I don’t remember all the details of how they choose to spend their imagined money. In leading up to this morning’s topic, I asked my two oldest children, out of curiosity, what they would do if either of them suddenly had a million dollars. After paying off the house and the car, and buying a new big harp, they figured they would give a least half of it away to help other people have places to live. And then put the rest in savings toward collage.
If you suddenly had a million dollars, you would probably use it first to pay off debts and make necessary improvements, for example you might be driving a real junker and could suddenly be able to trade it in for a new, more reliable, economic and environmentally friendly car (and pay for it outright!) What next? Maybe a long postponed vacation or special trip. Then again you might take early retirement or go back to school depending on where you are in your life. Perhaps you would spread it around, offering to help your kids, sort of an early inheritance. I understand gifts of less than $10,000 are non-taxable. Maybe you would invest the money and try to make more!
I know my family would be doing a number of these suggestions and many more as well. I would also be so happy to finally be able to properly support the local public radio and public television stations, the NAACP, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the American Red Cross, and all those organizations that send me free mailing labels and ask for my money. Oh, and my church. You knew I was going to say that eventually. We ministers are so predictable that way.
Churches are so valuable for people. Congregations are havens for individuals seeking support in a difficult world. They are important to the society at large in that they provide a place for people that is not home and is not work. They are an alternative to bars and coffee shops for folks. I think the first time I heard this idea articulated this way in Robert Putnam’s book “bowling Alone.”
In his book from four years back, Putnam critiques American society and the degradation of what he terms “social capital.” He makes it clear that this degradation is taking place, this decline in social and civic participation. He also looks at several reasons why it is happening.
One of the possible excuses for this decline in societal participation and association is money. I sat down last week and read the section of his book where he considers the possibility of blaming it all on money. What Putnam finds is this: “financial anxiety is associated not merely with less frequent movie-going – perhaps the natural consequence of a thinner wallet – but also with less time spent with friends, less card playing, less home entertainment, less frequent attendance at church, less volunteering, and less interest in politics.” Interestingly, he does not say that low income is associated with this long list of disassociation; he does not say an outright lack of money makes you antisocial. He says financial anxiety is the culprit. Now, to be sure, a person with a low income will tend to have financial anxiety, but I know many middle income people who have considerable financial anxiety as well.
A survey Putnam refers to compares 74% of people in 1975 who agreed to the statement, “Our family income is high enough to satisfy nearly all our important desires;” to the 61% of people in 1999 who agreed with that statement. Despite a remarkable increase in financial well-being and societal prosperity over the twenty-five years between, there is a significant decrease in people’s sense of financial satisfaction. How about you? Would agree with the statement that your family income is high enough to satisfy nearly all your important desires? Do you have considerable worries about your family or personal financial situation?
And according to the findings, people with money worries tend )among other things) to stay away from church. Did you know that a significant number of Jesus’ parables concern the use of material possessions. For someone who is promoted as having been all about salvation and eternal life, Jesus spent an inordinate amount of time feeding people and helping them sort out their financial priorities. Many of those parables and sayings are variations on the theme: don’t let a love for money get in the way of a love for God.’ Another category of money sayings deal with what many refer to as God’s preferential option for the poor. One of Jesus’ best aphorism that mixes these two sentiments is this: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Luke 12:34 and Matt 6:21) It is interesting don’t you think, that he did not say, ‘if your heart is in the right place, you will use your treasure in good and holy ways.’ No, he said, ‘follow the money and you will learn what really matters to a person!’
So, what would we do as a congregation if we suddenly had a million dollars? Where do we put our money and what does that say about what really matters to us as a community? “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” If we really had a million dollars suddenly given to us we would probably put it into our endowment or perhaps into a capital reserve fund in anticipation of making major capital improvements to this building. But what if we had the same assignment my cousin’s children had whereby we were required to spend it all and show our receipts? Where would the money go?
Currently our annual budget is a little under a quarter of a million dollars, two hundred forty one thousand eight hundred and thirteen dollars to be exact. If we had more money what would we do? Well, I don’t have an official list to look at and tell you the answer to that question. Typically I would. Typically when we get to this point in a pledge drive campaign here at UUCB, there has been a proposed budget prepared and numbers have been crunched and the pledge drive committee lets us all know what we are shooting for and by how much we would each need to raise our pledges to meet that goal.
This year, we’re turning that around. This year instead of asking you to meet the proposed budget increases, we are asking each of you to consider this question: How much are you called to give? Instead of focusing on what the church needs to receive, we ask you to consider what you need to give for your own spiritual development. Next week when the Rev. Dick Gilbert is in our pulpit you will hear all about that message. This week I want to tell you what effect our generosity could have on our plans.
I offer three areas were we could use more money in our budget, three ideas about what we could be doing with our money if we are find ourselves with a significant increase over this current year. One possibility is that we will move the parking lot rent off budget onto a separate maintenance reserve fund of some sort. (Parking lot rent, what is he talking about? I am sure many of you know what I am talking about, but some surely do not.) About two years ago we renegotiated a lucrative rental contract with our next door neighbor, Lourdes hospital, for their use of our large back parking lot. By lucrative I mean we have been receiving between 15 and 20 thousand dollars a year from them for the use of our lot. Now compared with a six-digit budget, 20 thousand is not that much (it accounts for 8% of this year’s income). If we do move it off budget, which I understand to be a fiscally sound idea that I hope we find ourselves debating later this spring, there will be a commensurate gap on the income side of our budget for us to fill. Of course we can continue to use that money toward operating costs, but there is no guarantee that money will continue to be available to us in the future. If we can, I would like to see us saving that rental income toward bigger projects such as renovations and improvements to our facility.
Idea # 2: two thirds of our budgeted expenses are for personnel. This is standard for many congregations, the main expense is for staff. Even if we hold our own on the income side of our budget from this year to the next, we’ll fall behind simply because of the increases in cost of living, such as insurance premiums. There will not need to be too much financial attention to personnel any time soon so long as we keep our steady cost of living increases in line with reality. This is the second idea for where we could put our money.
Now, this third idea is where I think the fun really begins. As a program-size church, we have some amazing programs going on that we can enhance with a little intentional funding. We have piles of ideas waiting to burst forth with the right amount of energy and financial boost. Take our music program for example. Quality music is one of the reasons people come here. Aside from paying our music director and our organist decent money, there is not much budgeted here: a little bit for guest musicians and for the purchase of new choir music, but not much. If we discover at the end of this stewardship campaign that we can anticipate more for the coming year than we have this current year, music is one program area I will advocate we put some of that money.
Now, the quality of what we have going on around here is not always tied to money. In fact, one of the best programs we have going right now has taken absolutely no money from our budget. Small Group Ministry is a wonderful example of the kind of program we can offer here. People meet in facilitated groups of six to twelve a couple of times a month to talk about issues of intimacy and ultimacy. We are making plans to make this wonderful program even more wonderful for even more people. Now, if we had a little money to help this effort out, perhaps we could help some of the facilitators attend a weekend workshop on Small Group Ministry in Rochester later this month.
Other programs that we offer such as the forum series and other classes through the Adult Religious Education committee have little to no cost tied in with them. We occasionally pay for a speaker for a lecture or for the workbooks to use with a class. Imagine, though, what we could do if we put a little money toward advertising these programs to the general community, or if we could help pay the way for more of our members to attend workshops and seminars such as EAGLES so more of us would know how to create opportunities for these amazing programs.
(And more could be said about Children’s Religious Education, Social Responsibility, and Worship as areas where we could put more money to very good use!)
Now, do we NEED you to raise your pledge and go to the next level? Well, that depends on what is meant here by “we” and “you” because as far as I can tell the only people in the room right now is “us.” This is our money we are talking about and it is our plans. If we want to do more here as a congregation, for ourselves and future members, we can start now by generously supporting our congregation. “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Next Sunday we are each going to be asked to fill out an “estimate of giving” card at the end of the worship service. We will have an opportunity to reflect on the sermon Richard Gilbert will be delivering, to consider the question “what am I called to give?” Ponder what percentage of your family income you currently are giving and then what percentage you want to be giving. Then at the end of the service, fill out a card and bring it forward before going out to share in a celebration brunch in the next room.
If you are one who lives within very tight financial lines and may want to give more but cannot, I hope you will hear this pitch as a gentle invitation to financially support the congregation in whatever way you can. If you are one who has more flexibility with your finances, I hope you hear this pitch as a bold invitation to financially support the congregation in whatever way you can!
When I die and show up in front of the pearly gates with my hands full of receipts, I want them to show that I lived a modest and valuable life and that I spent my money accordingly. I want my receipts to show a broad variety. I want them to show that I helped my parents and my children when they needed it, that I helped people in need whom I’ve never meet, that I gave regularly to the civil causes and organizations that support justice and further human dignity. And I want my receipts to show that I have generously supported Unitarian Universalism, a religious institution that stands for justice; that recognizes the inherent dignity of each individual balanced within the startling interdependence of all life. Let my receipts show that I support my church and all it stands for in the world. How will it be for you? What will your receipts show?
In a world without end,
May it be so.