March 7, 2004
Unitarian Universalist Congregation
Reverend Douglas Taylor
How I got over,
How I got over,
My soul looks back and wonders
How I got over.
Have you ever noticed how there are some people who have heaps of trouble and suffering in their life. (….how I got over) Or maybe you are one of those people who have been seared by the metaphorical forest fires that can burn through a life. (….how I got over) And somehow these folks are OK today, (….my soul looks back and wonders) They have (or you have) transcended the troubles that assail. (….how I got over) And then there are other people you may know or may be, (….how I got over) For whom the suffering compounds upon suffering and there seems no break in the storm. (….how I got over) Folks who make bad choices on top of bad situations, whose lives are littered with loss and hard luck ….My soul looks back and wonders, How I got over
What is the difference between resilient people and those who can’t seem break free from the heartache. What are the qualities of resilience? What are the characteristics we can point to and say ‘This is what you need to get through.’?
How I got over,
How I got over,
My soul looks back and wonders
How I got over.
This gospel hymn I found has a wonderful opening verse. But when the rest of the song does answer the question of how this gospel singer ‘got over’, the answer is Jesus Christ. Somehow, Jesus Christ got this person over his or her troubles. But I want to know a little more detail. How did Jesus help? What did Jesus do that work? I need a broader answer because I don’t have Jesus that way and I don’t think I’m ever going to. So I want a song that will tell me how I’m going to get over. Because my soul looks back and wonders how I got over.
I had a professor when I was in undergrad studying theater who would talk to us not about acting or set design or directing, but about life as an artist. His philosophy was ‘if you know who you are as an artist, everything else will fall in place.’ This professor was a bit of an odd duck, but you grow used to that when you work in theater. There was one lesson in particular that I found and still find of great value. He was talking one day about the role of suffering in the life of an artist and he said it is important to name and own the pain you’ve experienced. This way, for example, when you are getting into character, you could relate to your character’s hurts and suffering by saying “I know that fire, I’ve been through that fire or one very similar.”
That image of talking about the hurts in our lives as fires we have lived though stuck with me when I switched my major from theater to psychology, and when I then went through seminary as I trained to become a minister. This idea that we all have been though fires that have burned us has informed much of how I interact with other people, especially as a minister. And it is an analogy that seems to fit better and better the more I think of it and live with it. Fires are deadly.
I noticed and saved a newspaper article from a 2002 about a fire that “burned through the Bitterroot and Lolo forests that surround the college town of Missoula, Montana,” back in the summer of 2000. The headline read “Montana forests rise anew from grey ash.” It was a nasty little fire, burning so hot in some places that there was not even ashes left, just charred rocky soil. But in the second paragraph of the article the journalist writes, “During the past two summers, while fires have raged in other parts of the country, those seemingly dead forests [in Montana] have had a chance to burst back to life.” The article goes on to describe the amazing plants and flowers that bloom after a fire has been through a forest. Certainly a lot of the process can be chalked up to seeds that float in on the breeze. The left over ash mixes into the soil adding rich nutrients for the new seeds. But that is not the whole story, or even the interesting part. Apparently there are some seeds that sit and wait for a forest fire. There are seeds that will not germinate until they have reached a certain high temperature, and then after that have to take in moisture and go through a cold cycle before they will burst forth in bloom. The seeds can lay dormant for hundreds of years waiting for the next fire.
“Some plants flowered in mass only the first year following the fires; others, only the second. Some species, such as the Bicknell’s geranium – a delicate, stringy plant with tiny, pink flowers – and the dragonhead, will quickly disappear after this second summer, and be unseen until the next fire event. Some perennials, such as fireweed and wild hollyhock, will flower in mass several more years.” (Washington Post, September 16, 2002; pA9)
There is a natural resilience to the world. This morning’s reading about Mt. St. Helens also mentions this. There is a particular lake near that mountain called Spirit Lake that was temporarily killed as a result of the 1980 eruption. The landslide caused by the initial explosion fell into Spirit Lake at roughly 150 mph according to reports. (“Spirit Lake Came Back” by Tom Paulson of the Seattle Post, May 10, 2000.) “The day after the eruption, Spirit Lake was the temperature of a hot bath. It bubbled like a witch’s cauldron from the volcanic gases seeping up from the lake bed. … Nothing was left alive in Spirit Lake. … A month after the eruption, the lake was completely devoid of oxygen.”
Now, as you might guess, Spirit Lake was resilient. But how long did it take? It has been twenty-two years now and the place is once again a beautiful place to visit. One researcher wrote that “it went from a relatively unproductive lake prior to the eruption to a highly productive lake by 1982 and 1983.” And I love this line, “The rapid turnover from a toxic sludge hole to a cornucopia of life surprised scientists and demonstrated how little we know about the complex biology of recovery.”
So, what I get from reading these articles about the resilience of the earth after the volcano or after the fire, is that resilience is an inherent quality. It’s natural. Life moves toward life: it’s a natural process. Life moves toward higher order. We sometimes think entropy is the final word, not so. Life moves toward higher order. In the Jewish and Christian story of creation, God takes chaos and speaks it into order. And looking around it sometimes feels like God said “go,” and creation has been happening ever since. All around me and within me there is birth and rebirth and creation just leaping out. We bounce back. That’s how we are designed! That is how all of creation is designed.
Another newspaper article I noticed and saved from a few years back has the headline “Some victims resilient while others crippled by abuse.” (Washington Post, July 29, 2002, pA14.) The article talked about two individuals who were very similar in many ways: they were both in their fifties, both came from middle-income Catholic families, both had been alter boys, and both were molested by priests in the mid-1960s. Each, however, fared differently. One had dropped out of school, battled alcoholism, attempted suicide, been diagnosed with predatory sexual disorders, spent time in a mental hospital and jail, and is (at the time the article was written) unemployed again. The other worked as an insurance investigator, advocate for the abused, and recently a music teacher. He takes medication for depression and anxiety, but seems to be doing OK. Early in the article the journalist poses the question: “Why are some victims permanently crippled by child sexual abuse while others are able to transcend the trauma?” The question is not answered in the article. I suppose I should not be surprised, after all it is a newspaper article, not a sermon.
I’ve heard a lot of stories about people who are not demonstrating their natural resilience. I know many people who are spiraling down in their troubles and are not “Leaping with life and creation.” I’m even related to some of these people. I bet you are too. There is not much you can do about the hand you’re dealt, but how you play it is all up to you. I know a man who took years to break out of an unhealthy relationship. He got married again a year later and I see him now having many of the same old problems in this new relationship. I know a couple who have never been able to make it economically, and then when she decides to go back to school in her fifties, she chooses a career with remarkably limited possibilities for making any money. Hard situations on top of poor choices and these people can’t break out of the cycle.
Now, it’s no secret that life is hard. There is always the daily little stuff to deal with. For example, in my family, we’re always stressed about not having enough money or enough time together. Many of you have these or other daily worries. Are you making the right choices for your children or for your aging parents. Maybe your health is deteriorating. Maybe your older brother just lost his job or your best friend is dying of cancer. Life is hard. It always has been. It always will be. But that is just the regular daily stuff. Each of us have been through various emotional or spiritual forest fires in our lives. These events, these traumas threaten to consume us. But somehow, so many of us keep going or even transcend the hardship and really grow. How does it work? Well, as it happens, I did finally get some answers. I took a course in Family Systems Therapy last year and one of the faculty gave a lecture about resilience in which she listed out several qualities of resilient people. That resilience is natural was at the top of her list.
One of the things I’ve noticed is that resilience has a lot to do with attitude. If you look around yourself when things are falling apart in your life and think “this is all my life will ever be,” then it’s not likely you are going to be able to tap into that natural resilient quality within you. Your attitude can block the natural resilience. I remember thinking when was a younger man that I had never been as happy as I had been sad. That is to say, the most extreme and most common feeling for me was sadness. Now this is no longer a true statement for me and I sometimes doubt that it ever was a true statement. I have a lot of joy and happiness in my like now. And I suspect that when I made that assessment back when I was younger, I blocked out the memories of happiness I’d had. I limited my definition of myself and what I was capable of being. This closed off resilience. I didn’t believe it was a possibility. So step one, of course, is the trust me when I tell you that resilience is an inherent part of who you are. There are things over which you have little control. You are not in charge of the environment around you. Situations come up which you can not stop from happening. What you can control is how you respond. People who are resilience have a good sense of what they are in charge of what is out of their control.
Another quality of resilient people is playfulness and imagination. Serious people don’t bounce. Think about the way most of us get when they are faced with a significant trauma in life, we tend to over value the power the event holds. Maya Angelou has a line in her book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings which struck me when I read it and I’ve never forgotten it. After some particularly tragic event (and if you know the book you know that the tale is fraught with tragic events) she says “That night, the sun set and it never rose again.” Now, Angelou is a resilient person, remarkably resilient. But at that moment life seemed to hold no more possibilities for her beyond her pain. But in her resilience, and as it unfolds through the rest of that and her subsequent autobiographies, her imaginativeness returns as does her playfulness. Having a sense of humor, or better, a sense of life’s absurdity, is important.
Did you know that 90% of all scientific discoveries are mistakes! I can’t back that statistic up, but it sounds good. I recently read somewhere that the invention of the air conditioner and the microwave were accidents, that it was not necessity serving as mother to these inventions, rather it was playful imagination which noticed another possibility in a situation. Here’s another one: a group of scientists set out to win the Nobel Prize for bold research involving the destruction DNA. Unfortunately they failed miserably, no matter what they throw at it. They failed so big, not only could they not destroy any DNA, their tests kept turning up more DNA. Now, another group of scientists took on the same research, and got the same results, but said they were trying to replicate DNA and they got the Nobel prize for it!
Let me offer you another quality of resilient people, were developing a list here for those of you taking notes. Another quality is persistence. Persistent people keep plugging away at the problems in life and thus, tend to accomplish some positive things. If you think about it, the definition of resilience is the system’s or organism’s ability to resistance to change. It is the ability to absorb change and disturbance while maintaining balance. It make’s sense that persistence is a piece of that.
Perhaps you can see some of these connections and can witness to the resilience you have felt and seen around you. Perhaps you are reflecting on your family, on your work environment, or on your church community. Perhaps you are thinking about yourself or a friend or family member you care about. Perhaps you are thinking of one of these as an example of resilience or the lack there of. In the latter cases, what can you do about it? You can try to bring in a little persistence and playfulness, and some faith in our natural ability to rise above the hurt and trauma, some faith that you will get over.
In a world without end,
May it be so.
The Work of our Hands
Spirituality Part II
Rev. Douglas Taylor
One autumn I spent a number of weekends painting houses for God. I trust you understand I am speaking metaphorically. The man who hired me, paid me and eventually let me go because I wasn’t very good, was named Erwin. And at the time and for years after, I thought I had been working for Erwin. But as it turns out I was painting houses for God. As it turns out, the work was laden with values and lessons about putting one’s faith into actions. I thought I was just looking for a few extra bucks and some lessons in house painting; as it turns out I was helping to bring more justice into the world. As it turns out, Erwin and I and the others there with us were all painting houses for God.
Erwin was a remarkable man. The majority of the painting jobs he did were for people in government subsidized housing, people who were required to maintain their homes according to bureaucratic standards yet lacked the financial resources and, frankly, the wherewithal to do so. Erwin did not work through the government, he was a private contractor, but he made a point of taking jobs based on the work that was needed rather than on the profitability of the job. Erwin didn’t get rich doing this. But he did a lot of good. He would always spend time talking with the resident. Philosophical conversations seemed to be a part of the package deal he offered people. They would often talk about the house and the job. But there were also times when they would talk about politics, education, childrearing, economics, ethics, poverty, and the welfare system.
Erwin figured this was his way of giving back to the world. This was his good works flowing from his deep humanistic ethic at the core of his faith. But for me, something else was going on. I was not there because my spirit called me to help people in that way. I was not there because my core faith led me to behave in such a good and helpful manner. But that work led me to reflection. That work led me to a deeper understanding of my own faith and beliefs. It was a reversal of the normal pattern and I did not know it could happen that way. My actions informed my faith rather than my faith informing my actions.
Most of the time the work of justice functions as the natural outgrowth of a healthy and active faith. Many people talk about social activism as “the fruits” of ministry. This agricultural metaphor likely continues to be so prominent in our non-agricultural society because of the passage in the Bible where it is mentioned that “By their fruits ye shall know them;” meaning: the inner motives of a person will show themselves in the course of time through word and deed. You can say you believe this, that or the other thing until you are blue in the face, but how does this, that or the other belief effect your life? Or, as the question was posed in our Building Your Own Theology workbook, “How do your beliefs interfere with your life?”
This is a very excellent question that we would do well to heed. So you believe in the principles of non-violence, how does that effect your driving? So you believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all people, how does that effect your choice of which grocery stores, clothing stores, and books stores you patronize? So you think Jesus said some powerful things about how we should treat one another, how does that effect the way you treat other people?
The classic question asks, “In what way does your faith bear fruit?” I wonder now, can this work in the opposite direction? Can our good works bear inner fruit? Or perhaps a different analogy would serve better: Can our good works bear seeds? Can justice making be seen not only as the outcome of a healthy spirituality, but also as a pathway into a healthy spirituality? Because if that is the case, then we can jump into the cycle at any point. I don’t need to wait until I have a healthy inner spiritual life before I go having fruits because if everyone waited until they had a healthy spiritual life, hardly any justice would get done.
Mother Teresa’s diaries made a stir when they were reviewed a few years ago. Mother Teresa has long been considered a spiritual giant as well as a powerful activist of the past century. Some of the contents of the diaries were reported on recently as it pertains to her fast-track to sainthood, and apparently Mother Teresa was not as spiritually sound as the world had believed. She was plagued with doubt and felt abandoned by God. She had one year of ecstatic visions and fifty years of drought. Can you imagine if she had pulled up early on and said to herself: no more good works until I get my spiritual life back on track! Vatican is not ruffled by her doubt. They are calling it her ‘dark night of the soul,’ granted it was a very long night, (lasting decades,) but the Catholic Church is still moving forward with their plans to make her a saint.
When I was still in seminary I delivered a vespers sermon that outlined a very linear view whereby first you have faith and then you do good: first one, then the other. One of my professors came up afterward and congratulated me on a good sermon, but challenged in the same breath. He said, “That was great Douglas, I only disagree with you about the order.” (I thought, “Ron, the order was the main point!” It amazes me how little comments like that can linger in the memory for years. I’m certainly glad his comment lingered, though. At the time I couldn’t see that the argument about which comes first the faith or the works, is like the chicken and the egg! It is cyclical: working for justice deepens your spirituality, which in turn can spur you to respond by working for justice, and so on.
I remember a colleague who expressed dismay over a justice project going on in his congregation. They were managing a Habitat for Humanity style house renovation for a family out in the community. The trouble was focused on the project manager who was getting very frustrated with the rest of the congregation because he couldn’t find regular skilled volunteers for the job and he was doing far more work than he had signed up to do. The project manager was getting very grumpy and indignant about the whole affair. My colleague lamented that there were always plenty of volunteers, just not the sort that this project manager wanted. The minister finally pulled the manager aside and asked him, “What are we doing here? What is this project all about?” The manager replied, “We’re building houses of course.” “No,” my colleague shot back. “If we are trying to build houses we should get out of the business now. We lack the proper skills, the proper funding, the proper commitment of time, the proper organization and the proper motivation! We are the last organization who should be trying to make houses. But that’s not what we’re doing. This project is about transforming lives: the lives of the people who will eventually move into this house, and your life and my life and the lives of all of us working on this project! We are not building houses, we are transforming lives.” The great end of Unitarian Universalism is transformation: personal and social transformation. That is why we are here: to become better people and to make the world a better place. We certainly don’t own the corner on this and can end up in some wonderful partnerships!
Back when I was living in Montgomery County, Maryland, I participated in a grassroots, interfaith, political lobbying group called Action In Montgomery, or “AIM”. It is based on the Industrial Areas Foundation that was founded by Saul Alinsky in Chicago in the 1940. People from all sorts of Jewish, Catholic, mainline Protestant, and Unitarian Universalist Congregations came together to advocate for issues of common concern in the community. Many people were involved from the start with the reflection and discussion about what the needs were. I showed up after things were already cooking, I walked in when it was time for the action to start.
I remember in particular an AIM meeting my family and I attended on county funding for housing held at a little Methodist church. Over 200 people from nearly 15 churches tried hard that evening to fit into a very small sanctuary! My family and I sat up in the choir seats next to the pulpit. (If I can’t be in the pulpit just put me in the choir and I’ll be happy.) It was a great meeting– exciting and efficient: a kind of mix between a tent revival and a well-run finance committee meeting. Near the end of the meeting there was a Call to Action. “Now, we’ve talked about power before,” said the speaker calling us to action. “We need some power now to see this housing proposal safely through the budget process of the County Council. We’ve got power right here in this room tonight. We are that power.” My daughter leaned over to my wife and whispered, “We have the power?” “Yes, we do,” my wife responded. “Do I have the power?” my daughter asked incredulously. “Yes,” my wife said smiling, “You do.” My daughter and I responded to the Call to Action and signed up to help see the proposal through.
Later I reflected on these experiences with my child. We talked about how exciting the big AIM meetings were and how good it felt to be a part of the smaller personal meetings with the various County Council members trying to convince them to fund the affordable housing proposal. All the people who were a part of the organizing from the beginning had a chance to reflect on what they were getting into before they did it. My daughter and I jumped into the action and found time to reflect on it and grow from it afterward.
Sometimes action can lead to reflection and deepening, working for justice in the world can help you figure out who you are and where you belong! Just leap in! There are thousands of opportunities awaiting you. The Social Responsibility committee can sell you fair trade coffee during coffee hour and tell you about the evils of Free Trade and what you can do about it. Petitions float through our midst now and then, if you agree with them, don’t hesitate to sign them! Our monthly Forum series is often focused on social and political concerns, learn more about what is going on by attending. And there is so much more just within our little congregation, so many opportunities for you to discover the truth to the aphorism, “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they shall be filled.”
You could think of it as a Unitarian Universalist version of the Christian season of Lent. Traditionally, Lent is a time when Christians, for their own spiritual betterment, give up a vice for the forty days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. In the UU version, instead of giving up a behavior you don’t like in yourself, you pick up a behavior you wish was a regular part of who you are. What if, over the next six weeks we all did something extra to make the world a better place. Do it for your own spiritual growth. Do it to save the world. They may be the same thing in the end!
In a world without end,
May it be so.
Why I Go To Church
February 22, 2004
At first glace this question, “Why do I, your minister, go to church?” has one blindingly obvious answer: It’s my job. I am here to serve this community. There are, however, a great variety of other reasons beyond that one basic, rather pedestrian answer. I am called to this work, I am drawn to be in this community in this particular way. And here is what I really want to talk about: I suspect that my reasons as to why I come to this congregation are not all that different from yours.
Why are you here? Why do you come to church? Perhaps you show up out of habit, church attendance can be habit forming. If this is the case for you, can you recall the original reasons as to why you are here? I can imagine many possibilities. Some of us come for inspiration and insight. Some, for ethical encouragement. Some show up because they want to stay connected to friends. Some come to grow and become a better persons. Some, for spiritual or personal healing. And some are here to take part in the justice-making work of this community. Likely you come for a mixture of these and other reasons. I have owned each of these reasons at several points along the way in my own journey. A religious community meets different needs for different people. Of course we are not all things to all people, but in a way we are a little bit of a social club and a civil activism group, and a support group and an institute of higher learning all rolled into one. And yet, in a radical way we are nothing like any of those groups.
Our mission states who we are. Our mission statement is printed on the back of the order of service almost every Sunday. Take a look at it. Amid the poetic imagery about sun and wind and rain there are statements about educating ourselves and our children. There are statements about putting our faith into actions at the local and the global level. It says we are a safe and nurturing community. It says we celebrate beauty and support one another in times of sorrow. It says we are guided by truth in a search for justice. It says all are welcome. It actually says a lot of stuff. It is a long mission statement.
I sometimes wonder if there might be a shorter version hiding inside. I wonder if there might be a single concise statement that could flash through like lightening, alive and dazzling. There is a passage in the gospels where a lawyer tries to trick Jesus by asking him which of the commandments is the greatest. Jesus responds, (at least in Mark’s account of the event,) by saying the single greatest commandment are these two! To love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind; and to love your neighbor as yourself. I just love how he did that. But do you think we could do something like that with our mission statement? What about this? “We gather in a supportive and nurturing community to create opportunities for all to grow and to serve.” “We gather in a supportive and nurturing community to create opportunities for all to grow and to serve.” That is probably not a perfect rendering of the regular mission statement, but it is an easier mouthful and has many of the important components: growth, service, support, creating opportunities.
One part of all this I want to lift out is service. We are a voluntary association. People choose to associate with this community of their own free will. We run by congregational polity and the democratic process. The people who have chosen to join this congregation are the people who create this congregation. Much of what goes on around here happens because someone among us makes it happen. The more you put into it the more you have to work with. The more you give, the more you will receive. When you join a community such as ours you are asked to make a pledge of money. Everyone in the room pools a little of their money together into the common pot. Then you decide what you want to do with that money, and then you do it. But this is not just about money. When you join this community we ask that you give of your time, talent and treasure. We ask you to volunteer not only your money, but your time and your talent as well. We ask you to serve.
Have you ever heard the concept of tithing applied to your time? What percentage of your time do you give to the various demands and passions of your life. A forty hour work week is nearly 25% of the 168 hours in a week. You could make a case for not including the hours when you sleep in your total. That would be akin to the difference between gross income and net income, I guess. For the sake of argument, let us stick with the 168 hours. A tithe of time would be a little over 16 hours which is a lot. 1% of your time in weekly terms is about an hour and a half. That covers the worship service and part of the coffee hour each week. How much time do you spend here?
Many people volunteer significant portions of their time to sing in choir or organize a put luck or manage the endowment funds or videotape the service for rebroadcast. Why? What is the reason behind volunteering? There are a couple of prominent perspectives on that.
One perspective on why you should volunteer is because your congregation needs you. We have all these things going on and we need someone to be doing them. Someone has to make coffee for all these people. Every Sunday we need ushers and greeters and focal point makers. Someone needs to help out on the membership/outreach committee and the Library committee and so on. There is work here to be done and no one else around to do it. To a degree this perspective is true. If someone does not step up and do these things they will not get done and that is not a happy thing. But in the end, if these various activities do not get done, it’s not the end of the world. People do not come to church for the church’s sake. We do not come to church to do tasks. We do not exist for the church, the church exists for us.
Therefore, another perspective is that you should volunteer at the church because you get so much out of this community. This congregation is here for you. We have so much to offer, it is amazing how much is going on around here! You know, you really ought to give back to this community, at least to the extent that you get something out of it. Unfortunately when we start with a consumer mentality as we do in this second perspective, when we start with the idea that the congregation exists to meet your needs, then we to easily fall into the idea that we are “paying” with our financial pledge and our donation of time for the benefits we get out of this place.Yet there is something true in each of these perspectives! Your church does need you, there are many little important tasks (as well as large important tasks) that need attention. But at the same time, A. Powell Davies once said that church is where you learn to grow a soul. You are here for your own spiritual and ethical growth. But in the first case we rely to heavily on a legalistic idea of duty to motivate volunteerism, and in the second, we slip into using guilt to break away from the consumer mentality we have set up. Well, if the reason you should volunteer at this community is not about what the congregation needs because that is legalistic and at its extreme makes the church into a monster, and it is not about what the individual needs because that is consumer-oriented and at its extreme relies to heavily on guilt and shame as the prime motivators; then perhaps there is another perspective that could work.
When I was a child I used to help my mother get the church school ready each Sunday. I would follow her around as she went from classroom to classroom, there were about a dozen of them to go through. She would drop off the curriculum for that week, deliver craft supplies and occasionally rearrange the furniture. And I would help her do all this. When I was in Junior High, she started letting me do this on my own. I would take her huge key ring, I knew what each of the fistful of keys was for. I would go through the building and open up the rooms for Sunday. I made sure the glue was there, and the paper and scissors, and everything the teachers would need for that class. I loved being helpful. I loved knowing what needed to be done and being able to do it. It wasn’t fun. I wasn’t doing it because the work itself was enjoyable. I was doing it because being able to do the work meant I was a part of it all, and I liked that.
If we see the mission of the congregation as creating opportunities to grow and to serve, what would it look like for service to be an avenue of growth? What are your gifts and talents? What do you have to offer into the communal pot of our shared resources. As a junior high kid, one of my gifts was being able to follow an orderly routine and to remember that the chairs in room twelve often gravitate to room fourteen during the week and need to be brought back for Sunday morning. So simple a talent, so normal a skill. It was useful all the same and when I was found willing, my usefulness was put to use.
William Ellery Channing, prominent Unitarian preacher from the early 1800’s spoke of a seed theology. He believed that God was like a divine seed within every soul waiting to unfold, a holy potential awaiting the proper nurture and care. In his statements about religious education for children he wrote, “The great end of religious instruction is not to stamp our minds upon the young, but to stir up their own. … Not to form an outward regularity, but to touch inward springs. … In a word, the great end is to awaken the soul, to excite and cherish spiritual life.” For so it is with children and so it is with you at whatever age. The great end of my ministry is not to serve you, but to draw out your ministry from within that you may serve others. And this is where we bump into the phrase “Shared Ministry.”
Roy Phillips, a recently retired colleague and author of texts that have become required reading in UU seminaries, sees a shift toward shared ministry. “People now seen as members of an organization that delivers them spiritual care will come to view themselves as part of a community of lay ministers expressing their unique core of gifts and values in personal and shared ministry.” -Roy Phillips, Transforming Congregations for the New Millennium
The Unitarian Universalist congregation of Binghamton is a community of people who want to make a positive difference in the world. We have among us a vast array of resources and talents available. Imagine what we could be capable of with a little motivation and organization. I have said that I am called to serve this congregation. A calling is when your deep hunger and the world’s deep need meet. Congregational consultant, Loren Mead of the Alban Institute writes, a congregation is called to “… assist more and more people to identify what needs of the world cry out from them; and nurture and support each person and send each one forth to respond to these needs with his or her unique gifts.” (Loren Mead, Transforming Congregations for the Future)
I go to church to grow and to serve. How about you? Here is my invitation: If you have not yet joined the congregation and have been considering it for some time, come join us. I’ll be in the fireside room with the membership book after service. I’m skipping out on the receiving line, and will instead be receiving new members. If you’ve been waiting for that invitation, that gentle nudge, here it is: please join us. And further, come serve with us.
If you are already a member and have been lingering at the sides, I invite you to search within you and find your passion, find that seed within which awaits merely the opportunity and encouragement to bloom, find your ministry. What do you have to offer and how can we help that happen?
If you are have served already, if you are one who has given much to this congregation over the years and has filled many roles and sat on many committees and served many meals, Thank you. You are now our elders. I invite you to continue to share your wisdom and to mentor the new leaders along and enjoy the fruits of your good work among us. Thank you.
And to you who now sit as the heart beat of this institution, you who are now in the thick of it, remember to take time to consider the future. Consider your role as a mentor for others. How can you help more people realize their gifts. How can you, even through the work you now do, help open pathways for others to share their gifts and talents. Soon your work will consist not of doing the work, but in creating opportunities for others to be able to do their work. Soon you will serve as mentors, which is perhaps the greatest gift.
I am here to serve this community. I come to church because I am called to this work, I am drawn to be in this community in this particular way. I suspect that my reasons as to why I come to this congregation are not all that different from yours. I come to offer my gifts. I come to serve. Perhaps it is so for you as well.
In a world without end, may it be so.
The Other Original Sin
The Reverend Douglas Taylor
February 8, 2004
Back during the beginning of my seminary career when I was at the Methodist seminary, I took an ethics course called “Biblical Ethics in a Modern Global Context.” It was taught by a man named Star Bowen, who dressed like a cowboy and worked as a missionary in Cuba. He was teaching a class on Biblical Ethics in a little town in Ohio because he was taking a break from his missionary work while things cooled off down in Cuba. Those of us in his class assumed this meant he had gotten into trouble in Cuba. This theory was something Mr. Bowen never officially confirmed or denied for us, so we just imagined him to be the Indiana Jones of liberal Christian missionaries. He was quite a character, and a rather good teacher, I might add. He had a very interesting way of reading the Bible. I think it was because he looked at the world first and then read the Bible, rather than the other way around. I distinctly remember a rather subversive question he asked us one morning, the sort of question that made me think that the hot water he got into down in Cuba was not with the Cuban government but with the Christian hierarchy. He said to us, “What if the Original Sin everyone talks about from the first story in the Bible is not really a sin at all. Would that make the second story the story of the real Original Sin?” Most of us just stared at him (much in the way you all stare at me now.) A few of us were right there with him.
Of course those of us in the room were all seminary students who had recently taken classes, or were in the middle of other classes, dealing with Biblical Study. I imagine most of you are not in seminary right now. Perhaps there are a few of you who recall these first two stories from teaching Sunday school this year where the Bible is the shared topic. But allow me to flesh this idea out, because it leads us down very interesting paths with real life implications and applications!
Let me start with Original Sin. The text book answer to the questions “What is Original Sin?” and “Where did the idea come from?” is as follows: Original Sin is “the universal and hereditary sinfulness of man since the fall of Adam.” (Handbook of Theological Terms by Van Harvey, 1964) It originated from the first story in the Bible which is about Adam and Eve who ate of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil despite God telling them to not do so. According to the story, God set man and woman up in the Garden of Eden and had them tend to the various plants and animals therein, but he specifically said to not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the middle of the garden. But they ate from it anyway. And so God kicked them out of Eden. This is often referred to as “the Fall.” Thus, some say Original Sin is our disobedience to God, our own proud willful nature, inherited from our earliest ancestors. It wasn’t a distinctly formed doctrine, however, until Augustine put it together around 400 A.D. Specifically, Augustine said,
“… before the fall angels and men possessed the ability not to sin as well as the ability to sin but that after the fall they possessed only the latter. Adam’s sin, then, has corrupted the entire human race and it is a mass sin and justly subject to damnation.” By this Augustine means not only that man inherits a tendency to sin, but that he also inherits guilt. (Handbook of Theological Terms by Van Harvey, 1964)
So disobedience to God is the cause of Original Sin and the result is, at least according to the traditional orthodox doctrine formulated by Augustine, our inability to not sin. When faced with an inability to not sin, how can we but disobey God? So, in effect, because the couple in that first story were disobedient, God solved that by making disobedience compulsory. It’s this kind of stuff that gives God and religion a bad rap. Jumping back for a moment, a quick reading will show that mandatory disobedience is not in there at all.
In the story, God curses the snake, who, as you may know, persuaded Eve to eat the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God curses the snake saying, “Because you have done this, cursed are you among all animals and among all wild creatures; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life.” (Gen 3:14) He also says something about making snakes and women enemies from then on. When he turns to the man and the woman, he says stuff to them, but never curses them. He curses the snake, but he does not curse the people. The Woman is told she will have to endure great pain during childbirth and that her “desire shall be for [her] husband and he shall rule over [her].” And the man is told he must sweat and toil to raise food from the ground. Never does God say, “cursed are you for what you have done.” Never does the story present God as saying, “Now I punish you for your sin.” And it certainly does not say anything about there needing to be universal and hereditary sinfulness!
I read this and most other Biblical stories with the perspective that they are myths. I see them as deeply meaningful and truthful stories, but not historical or literally true. With that in mind, when I read this story, it is quite easy for me to connect these consequences or “punishments” in the story to some of the presumed early steps of physiological and societal development among homo sapiens. The consequences Adam and Eve experience for eating the fruit are the increase pain in childbirth, the ruling of woman by man, and the sweat and toil of man to produce bread. As we moved from being transient hunters and gathers to an agrarian society, we would have begun to notice how hard it is to cultivate the earth to produce food. As we settled into permanent villages and living clusters, cultural rules arose to manage the relationships at the time. The consequences or “punishments” which Adam and Eve experience in the Bible fit right in with some of these key evolutionary steps in our development into civilized people.
And that bit about increased pain during childbearing, well, consider how most other mammals emerge at birth and can walk within a few hours. (and thus flee from the immanent threat of predators) Many of us, I am guessing, have seen the Wild Kingdom footage of the baby zebra emerging from its mother, and then mere hours later attempting to rise up onto wobbly legs with marked success. Humans take months before we can rise up on our wobbly legs and take a few tentative steps! One theory says that humans come out of gestation early. We emerge only half-finished because if we waited inside the womb, as most other mammals do, until we were able to walk, our heads would be to big to fit through the birth canal. The development of the frontal cortex, the area of the brain I will add, which is associated with abstract thought and moral reasoning (ie, knowledge of good and evil), the development of the frontal cortex made it necessary for nature to strike a timing balance between the baby being ready enough to come out and yet small enough to fit through.
So, it could be said that the eating of the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil represents the important evolutionary leap from common beast to the beginnings of civilized individuals. A leap, I might add, which took a great many generations. This first story in the Bible is about how we grew civilized.
But all that is one laymen’s theory, just some wandering, occasionally connecting thoughts. Really, what I want to say is that the first story says very little about the real problems we all face today. This first story does not tell us what our biggest problem is. It does not contain a workable statement of our human condition, thereby informing us of what we should be fighting against. It just tells us that we are human; not beasts, not gods, merely humans. Which leads me back to the beginning of my sermon and that professor who posed the question: “What if the Original Sin everyone talks about from the first story in the Bible is not really a sin at all. Would that make the second story in the Bible the real story of Original Sin?”
Let me remind you a little about the second story in the Bible: the story of the first children of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel. “Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground.” (Gen 4:2) They both brought offerings to God. God liked Abel’s offering and did not like Cain’s. Cain grew angry. He rose up against his brother and slew him. Cain killed Abel. God says to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” To which Cain replies, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” God then curses Cain, curses him as he had cursed the snake earlier. “And now you are cursed,” he says. “…When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a fugitive and a wanderer.” The situation God described to Adam of needing to toil in the ground, is revoked from Cain as a punishment, and it is acknowledged as a curse upon him. And following my earlier thoughts about the evolutionary development of society and David Bumbaugh’s meditation about the backscratcher, the punishment of Cain comes as much to say, “If you can’t behave right, then you can’t live in the society of men and women.”
Now, again, it does not say anything in this second story about Cain’s sin being universal for all of humanity. It does imply a certain amount of heredity, but that does not seem to play out in any significant way throughout the rest of the book. So, where do I get off suggesting this story of Cain and Abel is about Original Sin if it lacks the same built-in supporting evidence of the first story of Adam and Eve?
If we choose to read the Bible the way my teacher read the Bible, (my teacher, the Marxist cowboy Christian missionary, who taught me to read the Bible by looking at the world around me first, then reading these stories and seeing what I might learn from them,) … if we choose to read the Bible that way, then we might see some worthwhile connections. If you think about the troubling things going on in the world today and ask yourself, “What, if anything, might be a universal problem we humans face from within ourselves again and again?” What is our big problem? What, if anything, is the common element humanity contributes time and again to what’s wrong in the world? It seems to me to be our tendency whereby each person thinks only of him- or herself: self-centeredness believing in self-sufficiency. This plays out in the extreme as violence in its diverse and plentiful variety. And that is what the second story in the Bible is all about. Cain thought only of himself and grew angry and ultimately violent because he did not understand the answer to his own question! “In Eden, no one stands alone, each depends on the others.”(Bumbaugh) Yes, you are your brother’s keeper.
You know, that has got to be one of God’s biggest blunders. He missed a great opportunity. Cain said “Am I my brother’s keeper?” And God skips over the lecture and gets right to the punishment and cursing! What a missed opportunity! God should have at least made the record clear, “Yes, Cain, Yes! You are your brother’s keeper. You are here to help each other. You are here to watch out for one another. I can’t be expected to do everything here, Cain. Why do think you’re even here if not for some really important reason like taking care of each other! Yes, Cain, you are your brother’s keeper.” But none of that made it into the book. Silence. God just brushes that question aside. What a mistake!
You know, sometimes life gives us the short end of the stick. In the story, when the two brother’s took their offerings to God, that which Abel offered was pleasing to God. Sometimes everything is going your way, things work out for you, every now and then life and you are both flowing in the same direction! Cain brought his offering and God was not pleased with it. Sometimes it feels like your swimming up stream against a strong current. Sometimes nothing works out right, the timing is just always off, every now and then you hit a tough patch and life just keeps throwing you hard and fast. And it almost seems like its human nature to get angry at life, or at God, or at whomever you can find to blame. It almost seems universal.
If Original Sin is really all about our disobedience before God, then the solution is for us to figure out the way in which God wants us to obey and do it. This is not a simple solution to live out because there are easily fifty different rulebooks about what God wants and many of them are contradictory. If instead, we consider the possibility of the Other Original Sin, which is about the violence we do to one another, then the solution is to stop being so violent to one another.
That’s a hard sell. People have been trying to convince the world to not be so violent for what feels like forever. These people usually end up shot, or crucified, or at best ridiculed and then ignored and forgotten. It is not easy to speak out for non-violence.
In our story this morning, One man rose up and killed his brother. Today thousands and thousands of our brothers and sisters rise up and kill our brothers and sisters. What if the real Original Sin is not about disobedience and guilt. What if the real Original Sin is the Other Original Sin: Fratricide. Every major world religion preaches peace and love and cooperation. As Bumbaugh said in meditation this morning, “In Eden, no one stands alone, each depends on the others.” Yet religion is too often one of the major components leading us into war and violence. When will we learn? When will we be free from our warring madness? When will we ever turn from this stain that seems to pervade every soul?
I don’t believe in Original Sin, even as I have cast it this morning. I still believe that we all have an inherent and basic goodness at our core. And as long as I see this basic dignity and goodness in us I will continue to see hope for humanity. I will continue to see hope that we can eventually quell this violent appetite within us. As we look at the world around us, and then read some of these old stories and find therein truth and hope, I will continue to do what I can. I will continue to see hope as we here take what steps we can to deliver our messages and examples of peace and love to our brothers and sisters near and far.
In a world without end
may it be so
At Home in the Wilderness
Rev. Douglas Taylor
I had always loved the wilderness. I love the wilderness from my experiences growing up with many opportunities to explore and play in the woods near my home. I grew up in the Bushnell Basin near to where the Erie Canal runs through the southern suburbs of Rochester, NY. Glaciers created the basin long ago, which accounts for the many sudden hills and lowlands. Across the street from my house was one such lowland. The ground dropped down several dozen feet to a broad swath of trees and clearings that we called The Flats. (not really enough to count as ‘wilderness’ but as a child it was enough.) Every spring and fall the Flats would become a maze of flooded creeks and overgrown puddles, and all winter there would thick patches of ice everywhere. The land was not useful for farming or development and so was left to go wild with trees and shrubs, left to grow wild for the imagination and exploration of children. Once I was old enough to be outside on my own, I spent nearly every nice afternoon down in the flats. A friend and I built forts out of scrap wood. We would make a fort and then a few weeks later tear it down, move it all to another location and build again. I developed a strong sense of ownership to the Flats, not so much in a possessive sense, more like it was a gift for me to open anew each day. It feels like I spent years down there, like it was an extension of my own home.
This connection with nature runs through my whole childhood. It is a connection that I regret my own children have not had a chance to develop until recently. One of the reasons we bought the house we did is that it has a bit of woods in the back yard that opens out into a lot of woods running up the side of Poplar Hill (a steep climb, not conducive to development.) I was so thrilled to have a backyard with woods. “You see those trees?” I would grin playfully, “Those are my trees! I own those trees!” But of course, they are not really my trees. You can’t own trees, you can enjoy them and you can use them and you can love the trees, but you can’t really own them. Yet in some ways, I still have that innocent love of nature, a love deeply settled in a romantic perception and youthful experiences of wilderness.
This is not what most people think of when they speak of wilderness. For most people the idea of wilderness grew out of the basic Judeo-Christian stories of wilderness. Moses freed the Hebrew people from Egypt only to wander in the wilderness for forty years. It was a hard time and they barely had enough with them to survive. The people did not know where they were going or when they would ever get there. Wilderness appears again when Jesus goes out into the wilderness for forty days and is tempted by Satan. The Wilderness is a place of exile, a place of testing, a trial to endure. It is certainly not a place you want to be, except as a step in the journey before you can move on to better things. With these stories imbedded in the culture, wilderness is then used as a metaphor to describe difficult times on a spiritual journey, times in your life when you felt lost or abandoned.
Interestingly, there was a shift in the idea of wilderness as something to be endured to wilderness as something to be conquered. It would make sense for such a shift to take place as the western frontier of America was being explored and “tamed,” though I’m sure Americans cannot lay sole claim to experiencing this shift. The legacy seems to be that whether it is endured or conquered, people certainly do not feel comfortable with it.
Wendell Berry’s poem, The Peace of Wild Things presents a very different perspective. Not only is wilderness comfortable, it is peaceful and freeing.
When despair for the world grows in me
And I wake in the night at the least sound
In fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go lie down where the wood drake
Rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
Who do not tax their lives with forethought
Of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel the day-blind stars
Waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Whether it is the writings of Wendell Berry or Aldo Leopold, Henry David Thoreau or John Muir, Annie Dillard or Rachael Carson, or Chief Seattle, nature writers help us to articulate and integrate our experiences of wilderness.
I recently read through a wonderful book entitled The Geography of Childhood. It is worth the price of the book just for the captivating photos at the front of each chapter. The book is a series of essays by authors Gary Nabhan and Stephen Trimble they present their hypothesis that children need wild places in their lives. Using mostly stories from their own lives and the lives of their children along with a sound base of theory, the authors make a compelling case. The hypothesis is not that everyone needs wild places, but that children need wild places. Children in particular need wild places for developmental reasons. Surveys claim that less that ten percent of adults see the quality of the environment as an important issue, “over ninety percent of our children feel it is the major issue in their lives.” (p 40) They are drawn to wild places like moths to a flame. My experiences and feelings about nature fit well with what these authors suggest.
Children and adults approach nature very differently. Where adults often look at nature with an eye toward the “Picturesque panoramas and scenic overlooks,” (p 6) children see what is near at hand, the little details right at their feet. In the first chapter, Nabhan describes taking his kids on a camping trip. After they returned home he writes that he was surprised when he processed the film from that trip. “When we opened up a packet of [our son’s] snapshots from the trip, we were greeted with crisp close-ups of sagebrush lizards, yucca, rock art, and sister’s funny faces. The few obligatory views of expansive canyons seemed, by contrast, blurred and poorly framed.” (Ibid)
Another manifestation of the difference in perspective is the way children seek out close little niches. All those forts my friend and I built testify to truth of that. There have been studies about how children use elementary school playgrounds. In one situation, they replaced “an acre and a half of asphalt with a diverse group of traditional playground swings and bars; structures and sitting area; and a half-acre of fishing ponds, streams, woods, and meadows.” (p 66) Then they watched the children to see where and how they played. One aspect they found was how “the natural area of the playground saw wider ranges of activities and more mixing of the genders.” (Ibid) The bit of asphalt they left was used primarily by boys for competitive ball games. This is how some of the children described the natural area: “It’s a very good place. Really quiet. Lots of kids just sit around there and talk.” “It’s just perfect.” (Ibid) Children make themselves at home in little places in the wilderness.
The book is primarily descriptive and does not speculate as to what cognitive or social developmental step such experiences fulfill. I suspect the broader a child’s sense of home is, the broader her or his future circle of care and concern can become. The authors ask the question, “What may happen now that so many more children are denied exposure to wilderness than at any time in human history?” In the preface Trimble and Nabhan suggest one answer to that.
Many young people … have no time to familiarize themselves with the names of the few plants and animals that remain in their immediate surroundings, because they are busy absorbing other taxonomies they believe more critical to their daily survival. Consider a PBS interview conducted in the wake of the Los Angeles riots of 1992. One adolescent in south-central L.A. listed a half-dozen different automatic weapons used on the street, and he was able to identify each by its sound. He did not see this as an unusual piece of discriminatory knowledge for someone his age. These were the sounds he heard, learned, and sensed to be vital to his own existence. In another place and time, he would have spoken as matter-of-factly about the calls of six common species of hawks and owls. (p xiii)
I wonder if children who do not find natural wilderness in their lives, crave it in other outlets. I make the same argument against modern watered-down children’s stories that distinctly remove all sense of danger and conflict and scary situations. Children are drawn to natural wilderness, and when denied it, they may seek out the feelings of awe and danger in more destructive venues such as street gangs, for example. As one naturalist (Frank Burroughs) said in response to the some people’s desire to have children respect nature rather than rough-house in it, “Better to let kids be a hazard to nature, and let nature be a hazard to them.” (p 9) Nature is unforgiving to be sure, but it is never malicious.
I spent two summers up at Unirondack as the camp chaplain. Each morning I would rise early and go to the side porch of the lodge or to the lakeside to meditate. Camp life can be a little chaotic for the staff. Fifteen minutes of silent stillness at the beginning of each day is what saved me. One morning I was sitting on one of the two docks at the lakeside. I went down to the water, lit a candle, and I sat. I am silent during these times, but the world around me is not. I could hear the wind in the trees, the sounds of various chirping insects and woodland birds, and the male loon. A pair of loons has owned this lake for many years. They have a nest over there by the small island among the reeds and lilies. This morning, a blue heron has flown in on the lake, which explains the awful amount of noise the loon has been making.
The heron is tall and stately as it glides low and silent across the water. It alights at the end of the other dock about thirty feet from where I sit in silent meditation. The loon is obviously upset. The loon is out in the middle of the lake making a beautiful and eloquent sound of dominance and command. The heron stands poised and unperturbed on the opposite dock. I sit, silent. The majesty of these two characters causes a humble joy to well up within me merely for being allowed to be a witness.
The loon moves closer, making a melodic clamor, and the heron opens its wings. Effortlessly, it lifts off and is suddenly drifting toward me! As if to make ready to settle down at my side, the long elegant bird glides soundlessly closer. My heart leaps, my breath catches. I see the slope of the neck, the blue tinge in the feathers, the legs outstretched, the black eye fixed on the dock, on my dock. I shift my body. Why did I do that? It nearly landed right next to me! Why did I flinch?
The heron made the slightest shift of wing and floated off to the right, a mere two feet from my shoulder. It circled briefly as the loon made his musical vociferations. I sat, breathless, as the heron sailed low over the water back from whence it came. I sat, shaken and amazed at a renewed understanding given to me of how I fit in this intricate web of life.
Yet I seem to always flinch. This is what happened when I communed with a stone as I described it last week. I felt a oneness with everything, I felt my place in the whole, yet I flinched and it only lasted an instant. Likewise, as the heron floated toward me as if I, too, belonged on the dock, a deep part of me recognized my place among the wild things, and yet some overlay of culture warned that it could not be so.
In the end we will only save what we love, and we will only love what we know, and we will only know what we experience. I invite each of you to listen for and heed that deep voice within you that cries out in recognition of a sunset or the lonely, longing wolf howl. I invite you to recognize the whisper of kinship borne on the wind, … recognize and respond.
In a world without end, may it be so.