Hush: Spirituality Part I
Spirituality Part I
Rev. Douglas Taylor
There has been scientific research lately on what is happening in the brain during deep meditation. Scientists brought a bunch of very proficient monks into the MRI lab and took pictures of their brains while they were meditating. I’ve had an MRI and I could barely keep my body still, that was the extent of my meditative capacity. I would be lying there thinking about how the itch on my nose has shifted to my eyebrow, and then I would be thinking about how thinking about the earlier itch on my nose has caused it to return and now both my nose and my eyebrow itch. But you’re not allowed to move when you’re in that MRI tube. So, I consider keeping my body still to be a pretty good accomplishment! Meanwhile, these monks could lie on one of those thin MRI board with all the bright lights and the loud, artificial humming and the jerking motion and they could experience oneness with the universe!
What the scientists have learned from these brain scans is that during meditation the parietal lobe blocks incoming information. The parietal lobe is located at the top of the brain and deals with spatial and temporal orientation. The MRI pictures show drastically reduced level of activity in that part of the brain. So, during meditation the brain itself can let slip the perception of time and space. Many mystics report a feeling of oneness with the universe, a feeling of connectedness that transcends physical boundaries. It is a feeling I have experienced, though certainly not in an MRI lab.
When I was in high school, I remember sitting alone in the woods near a friend’s house one afternoon. I was not doing anything in particular or thinking about anything in particular. I was not waiting for something or someone. I just had a free afternoon and nothing better to do, so I sat on the ground in the woods. I was staring at a stone. It was not a distinguished stone in any way: just a regular gray flat-ish one about the size of a melon. I suppose I had recently had science lessons about atomic structures because I started thinking about the small parts of the stone that go into making it a stone. I stared at the stone and thought about how it was made up of smaller parts that are in turn made up of even smaller parts. How far down does it go? What is the smallest part made of? As I thought of little electrons swirling around a nucleus and tried to think about what might be inside subatomic particles, I remembered the silly philosophical question that asks, “What if our universe is just a swirling atom in the big toe of someone in another universe?” Suddenly my perspective shifted, it telescoped out from the very small to the very large. Atoms became planets. I reeled with the awareness that the subatomic particles and giant big toe of another universe were the same thing. For a brief moment a whole universe swirled inside that stone, my whole universe. Everything was connected. Inside that instant the stone and I and ten thousand universes were the same thing.
And then it was over, in less space than a breath it was finished because I noticed myself. I thought, “Hey, I’m having a really profound thought.” And suddenly it was over, my parietal lobe turned back on, the universe fell back into place, and I was simply sitting alone in the woods staring at a stone. Try as I might I could not get the stone to do that trick again.
Annie Dillard, after experiencing something like that with a tree of lights wrote, “I had been all my life a bell, and never knew it until that moment I was lifted and struck.” (from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek”) I think I have spent a good portion of my life since then looking under rocks for the universe and myself and listening to the ringing in my soul.
So silence and meditation interest me. Unfortunately my nose itches of my foot falls asleep. I lack the discipline to sit still for long periods of time or to stick with it long enough to learn how to sit still. Yet I keep trying. What I am after when I meditate is a reconnecting; not just a reconnecting to that moment with the stone, but a constant reconnecting with life, with God, with myself, with . . . words fail to explain or fully describe what is at the other end of that connection. My energy can get spent out in many directions, and if I am not connected into my source of energy, I have learned I can run out of that energy pretty quickly. I use silence and meditation to reconnect. I am no master, obviously, but I manage. Silence is the doorway into spirituality. And so I have become very interested in spirituality.
American culture has certainly grown quite enamored with Spirituality. Spirituality books are as popular now as the self-help books of the Eighties. Yoga and Tai Chi classes are filling up. Time and Newsweek do almost regular stories about spirituality and things of that nature. People are beginning to see how they get burned out on all the little surface stuff and they want to reconnect. There are undercurrents of spirituality even in our little denomination; I have uncovered a multitude of conversations about spirituality. There has been a shift away from the old half-truth that Unitarian Universalists don’t have and don’t want spirituality. “We are all in the head,” we have said of ourselves. “We are the rational religion, the skeptic’s choice,” we say. While these statements are as true as ever, we can be rational skeptics and yet have spirituality.
I think part of the problem is that there are too many definitions of spirituality. It can be confusing. It is hard to form an opinion about something if people don’t agree on the definition. Generally, spirituality has to do with religious matters as opposed to material or tangible matters. Although a popular distinction also exists between religion and spirituality where religion is seen as an organization of beliefs and rules. In such a case, spirituality is about either a personal relationship with God or personal serenity, … or both. There are numerous meanings for that word. It certainly is a problem. And it is a problem I am not going to solve for you.
Instead, I am going to deliver a series of sermons on four different aspects of the subject. Perhaps this will only serve to heighten your need to figure out exactly what spirituality really is. Good luck. For the purposes of my sermon series, I offer a working definition, just so we can get on to the next step. Spirituality is our way of relating with and responding to . . . Life, Love, God. This last term is malleable as far as I am concerned. It is the relating with and responding to that I want to work from. So my definition this morning of spirituality is our way of relating with and responding to that which is holy.
There are four basic paths on which we can approach spirituality. The path of Silence and meditation, the path of Activism and justice-making, the path of Emotion and feelings, and the path of Intellect and study. Certainly there are more than four. I have a book on my shelf edited by Scott Alexander called Everyday Spiritual Practice which outlines a couple of dozen ways to approach spirituality such as Sitting Zen, Memorizing Poetry, Fasting, Quilting, and Recycling (Yes, that’s right, recycling as a spiritual practice!) I offer four basic paths which are not mutually exclusive, nor are they all-inclusive. But they at least cover the waterfront. Silence, Activism, Emotions, and Intellect are our four paths. We begin with silence and meditation because silence is the doorway into spirituality.
Silence can be like a salve in today’s society. Only your silence will save you. I’m guessing most of you have heard the phrase, “Your silence will not save you.” Scientist Niels Bohr said, “There are two kinds of truth, small truth and great truth. You can recognize a small truth because its opposite is falsehood. The opposite of a great truth is another great truth.” And so it is true that your silence will not save you. In this sense, silence is implied acceptance of injustice. This is silence as compliance. I’ll talk more against that in the next sermon in this series.
It is also true, however, that only your silence will save you. Our lives are so filled with noise and traffic and schedules as to leave no room for silence. This makes for much stress and anxiety. Silence is a doorway into spirituality. e. e. cummings has an essay about how a room is defined by its walls and corners, but it is the empty space within which makes it useful. The sides and bottom of a bucket provide definition, but it is the space within that makes it useful. Thus it is with bowls and flutes and doorways. So many of the common things in our lives are only possible through their essential empty spaces. As another author put it, “Just as a loaf of bread needs air in order to rise, everything we do needs an empty place in its interior.” (T. Moore, see below.) We need empty spaces in our lives. Silence is like an empty space.
Silence is not easy to create but harder still to find. It takes a conscious effort to set time and space and energy aside to make silence. The typical day in my life has very little quiet in it. I suspect this is how it is for most people, all manner of activity and bustle is going on throughout the day. I thought maybe nighttime would be quiet. Have you ever noticed how many noises there are in your house at night? I usually leave my computer on. But this past week, thinking about silence, I found it really hard to fall asleep with that thing humming so loudly. So I tuned off the computer and I could hear the refrigerator and the furnace humming a little duet. Well, what finally distracted me from the sound of those machines was the sound of kittens racing through the dark house when everyone else was asleep!
Now here’s the really trouble, even when the outside world is quiet and I make room amidst my own noise and busyness to be quiet, my mind leaps through distracting thought after distracting thought! “Did I pay the heating bill? Why did we watch that really bad movie last night? Someone once devised a more efficient arrangement of the letters on the typewriter, but nobody cared, they all liked the traditional arrangement. Our new newspaper delivery person is not as good as the old one.” It goes on and on! It seems far harder to tame the inner noises than the outer noises for meditation. Focusing on a word of phrase helps some. Concentrating on your breathing also helps some.
But perhaps we do not need perfect silence. I have been reading from monastic books lately. Monks and nuns have to deal with this sort of thing regularly. I was looking for clues about how to create time for silence and meditation in the regular course of a day. Garrison Keillor once said: “The rule at the Unitarian monastery is complete silence, but if you think of something really good, you can go ahead and say it.”
Thomas Moore wrote a book called Meditations on the Monk Who Dwells in Daily Life. He talks about how he goes about the business of silence. “I especially enjoy such ordinary retreats from the active life as shaving, showering, reading, doing nothing, walking, listening to the radio, driving the car. All of these activities can turn one’s attention inward toward contemplation. … Anything is material for retreat — cleaning out a closet, giving away some books, taking a walk around the block, clearing your desk, turning off the television set, saying no to an invitation to ANYTHING. At the sight of nothing, the soul rejoices.” (pg 4)
It is not enough to just have empty spaces in your life, it is not enough to have silence. Silence is a doorway, and it is not enough to simply stand in the doorway. Step through the silence and enter meditation. Quiet the outside world as best you can, and quiet your body as best you can, and then turn your attention to quieting your mind. And what do you do with your quiet mind, should you ever be able to actually quiet the thing? (sigh) The answer to that one is for you to figure out another time. For now, just hush and enjoy the silence.
In a world without end, may it be so.
“A Theology of Life in the Midst of Death”
Rev. Douglas Taylor
You are all looking at the new owner of a burial plot at the Vestal Hills Memorial Park. Perhaps you’re thinking, “Wow, first they buy a home here and now a burial plot. He must be planning on staying a long time.” I certainly do intend to stay in Binghamton for a while, but I must admit I did not buy this burial plot. I won it. Of all the deals I have ever won, this is the most bizarre. Apparently our phone number was drawn at random and this weekend my wife and I were awarded a visit from a duly authorized agent of the Vestal Hills Memorial Park who tried to convince us to spend a thousand dollars on a second plot for my wife. The agent would have happily helped us with burial plots for our extended family as well if we only had some in the area. Indeed the initial letter was very up front about this, their goal is to develop family heritage for their cemetery.
It was an uphill battle for this agent. She was sitting down with a young couple that had recently purchased a home, was new to the area, and had no extended family locally. To make it even harder, Sidra and I are both determined to incur as little expense as possible in these matters. I personally had always intended to be cremated and scattered. We declined all her offers, but still have the one free plot in my name (non-assignable and non-transferable.)
In all that this cemetery agent said there were two main points that came out. One was overtly stated and the other, merely hinted at (though certainly intentional.) Her sales pitch centered around the argument that hardly anyone thinks ahead about death. People do not like to talk about it, certainly not the particulars such as what shall be done with the body. And people definitely do not want to talk about the basic reality of one’s own death! There is a blanket of denial covering this topic in our society. The second point was that the details of death are overwhelming and that if you really love your spouse and children you will take care of at least this much for them. When we pair this attitude of denial with the mass of difficult details we notice that death is secretly becoming big business with lots of money to be made.
One of the general societal trends over the past several decades has been away from generalization toward specialization. The big invention of Henry Ford was not really the automobile, the credit for that needs to be doled out to several people, not one person. Nor was his claim to fame simply the first reliable and affordable automobile, although, that he did do. Really he invented the manufacturing assembly line where a single worker specialized on one small part in the complex creation of an automobile. The concept of specialization that swept through manufacturing also took medicine and mechanics by storm as well as education and economics, and death. The business of death is swamped with details and little necessities to which the bereaved must attend.
Death has become the province of the professionals. Robert Fulghum, in his book From Beginning to End, The Rituals of Our Lives, mentions this when he writes about the state of death in our culture today.
Death, in our time, (he writes) has been given over to institu-tions. Eighty percent of us die in a hospital. If we die else-where, 911 is called, and the police, fire department, am-bulance company, emergency room, funeral home, lawyers, courts, insurance companies, accountants, churches and ministers, cemeteries, and several govern-ment agencies become involved. All have their rules and protocols. For most of us, once we die, we are no longer in the care of our families and friends-strangers and in-stitutions take over. Though we may witness the portrayal of thousands of deaths in movies and on television, it is rare for any of us to see a dead person, much less touch or care for the deceased. …
Instead of a normal part of life, death is treated as an unexpected emergency, something that happens when the medical community fails. … Death in our time means crisis. When someone dies (Fulghum continues) and I’m called upon as a minis-ter, I’m struck by the tone of “something awful has hap-pened.” … They were not expecting this … “She died unexpectedly.”
So many times I have met with families who had no clue as to what to do or where to begin. They don’t know the wishes of the deceased, much less if there is a will and where it might be. The possibility of death has never been addressed in that family. Instead of the last rites, we deal with the last crisis. It is no wonder fu-nerals often seem awkward and painful. We are not pre-pared.
(Fulghum concludes by saying,) It doesn’t have to be this way. I will go further and say it should not be this way.
Fulghum describes our current cultural response to death as “surprised.” I can only agree with him in saying, there is no reason for it to be that way. Do not leave it to the specialists to handle. We need to talk of this more, families need to talk of this more. Don’t let doctors and lawyers and ministers do all the talking. Let us have brothers and sisters and parents and children do more of the talking about what will happen and what can happen when we die. A great book came out about five or six years ago called Tuesdays with Morrie, subtitled: “An old man, a young man, and life’s greatest lesson.” It’s about dying. The best part is that it was written, not by a minister or rabbi, not by a doctor or even an activist from within the Memorial Society. It was written by a sports columnist! Mitch Albom worked with the Detroit Free Press and was a regular on radio and television sports shows. He was not a specialist in death! He was simply a writer who had a compelling experience with death in a way that moved him toward life.
An odd, almost counter-cultural thought, there: the death of a loved one can be a positive, life-giving experience. This is one of the underlying messages of that little book written by the Sports Columnist. Our society tells us dying is a terrible, awful thing. In the book, Morrie says, “Dying is only one thing to be sad over, Mitch. Living unhappily is something else.” (p35) I can’t tell you the number of times people have come up to me after a memorial service and said something like, “That was a very nice memorial service,” and then they look down at their shoes and mumble, “Oh, you know, I don’t mean it was nice, but it was, oh, you know…” There is nothing to be embarrassed about. You are allowed to come away from a memorial service feeling good. Especially the way we do them here.
One of the things Unitarian Universalists are known for is our sway of doing memorial services. Non-UU’s who hold a positive opinion of us often recognize us for our commitment to social justice, our intellectualism, our willingness to do interfaith and same-sex marriages, and the way we put together life-affirming memorial services. This is not to say we are the only show in town with these qualities … certainly not! Simply that these are positive qualities for which we are known. I have done dozens of memorial services and a good number of them were for non-members. I think people recognize that we have something to offer. We share the story of a life, we don’t hide from the sorrow and grief; but neither do we let the sorrow and grief take center stage. We offer a theology of life in the midst of death.
I remember a man named Dave. I met him at a little UU fellowship where I had just started at the nearby seminary back before I knew all that I have just told you about life and death. Dave had cancer, a very resistant type of cancer. When he found out that I was studying to be a minister he wanted to meet with me to talk about death. We met, we talked. Mostly he talked. He told me about his illness, and the various treatments he was trying. He told me about questions he was having, questions that surprised him. He wondered about heaven. “Not that I believe in heaven,” he said, “at least not the way my next door neighbor does.”
He told me that he wondered if he might get nervous at the end and start calling around to the other faiths to see what their offering. “You know, hey what is this one offering? Eternal life? Great I’ll take that. What is that one offering? Reincarnation? Hey sounds great.” Then he looked at me, a glint in his eye that told me he was only half joking, and said. “What are you offering?” I didn’t know what to say. I sort of thought to myself, “What do we have to offer? Not much along those lines. It’s a big mystery.” I didn’t say anything. Thankfully he laughed it off. I don’t think I helped him much. I moved up to Chicago a year and a half later and read in the newsletter from that little fellowship that Dave had died.
He died at home. The day he died, he had struggled to put on his church t-shirt. His family and a few close friends from the church and the neighborhood were gathered in the house. They sang hymns from our hymnal as he died. It was a powerful statement by Dave about how important being a Unitarian Universalist was to him. It seems to me Dave figured what we have to offer.
When push comes to shove, it is not a solid theology or a clever idea, but the caring presence of companions that is wanted in the end. Every religion offers some comfort to the harsh reality of death. In the face of death, we Unitarian Universalists speak of life. It is good and right to help one another so. This is how we live. This is how we die. This is all we have to offer.
In order for this to work, however, you have to refuse to be surprised by death, save when it really is a surprise. You can prepare for the undeniable reality of death. Talk you’re your lawyer and draw up your will and an advanced directive. Talk to any of those other specialists, those doctors and ministers and funeral home directors, if need be. Most importantly, talk with your family. Often this is not easy. “Oh, Mom! Don’t talk about that. You’re not going to die, not for a long time.” If you bring up your death, some people will refuse to talk about it, as if talking about it would make it happen sooner. Maybe you will need to be persistent or leave lots of notes.
You can prepare for the undeniable reality of death. And for that part for which you cannot prepare, have faith that it will work out without being a crisis. Trust life. Trust that when that last stage of your life arrives, you will be able to take advantage of what is offered. Trust life.
There is a poem called “First Lesson” that brings this home, this idea of trusting life. It is from a collection called Letter from a Distant Land in which the author, Philip Booth writes to his daughter:
Lie back, daughter, let your head
Be tipped back in the cup of my hand.
Gently, and I will hold you. Spread
Your arms wide, lie out on the stream
And look high at the gulls. A dead-
Man’s float is face down. You will dive
And swim soon enough where this tidewater
Ebbs to the sea. Daughter, believe me,
When you tire on the long thrash to your island,
Lie up, and survive.
As you float now, where I held you
And let go, remember when fear
Cramps your heart what I told you:
Lie gently and wide to the light-year
Stars, lie back, and the sea will hold you.
When I learned this poem, I also learned from a colleague that he first heard it read at a memorial service by the father of a young woman who had drowned. “Lie back, daughter, … I will hold you.” “A dead-man’s float is face down, … lie up and survive.”
This poem is not about swimming, it is about life and death. “Remember when fear cramps your heart what I told you: lie gently and wide to the light-year stars, lie back, and the sea will hold you.” Trust life. You life will be filled with both wonder and pain; embrace both. You will be touched by death as you go through your life. Trust that when fear cramps your heart you can relax and be held in the grace of the world. The sea will hold you.
In a world without end, may it be so.
Sources as Resources
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Unitarian Universalist Congregation
One of the first weddings I ever performed took place in the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota. I had met the couple while serving my internship in a suburb of Chicago. When they asked me to officiate at their service over the summer I was flattered, but I warned them saying I would not be in the Chicago area over the summer. I would unfortunately be in upstate New York serving as camp chaplain at Unirondack, our UU summer youth camp in the Adirondacks. They said, “No problem, the wedding is not going to be in the Chicago area anyway. We are going to get married up in the Boundary Waters. We’ll fly you to Minnesota for this.” So I said, “Yes.” (Well, first I said, “Wow!” Then I said, “Yes!”)
Now, I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the geography of Minnesota, so I’ll tell you that the Boundary Waters are an extensive series of lakes and rivers way up in the northern part of Minnesota. Camping and canoeing enthusiasts flock to the area every summer. I flew into Duluth, which is on the western edge of the first of the great lakes. The Duluth International Airport is considerably smaller than its name implies. It has four gates. It is an international airport because it has flights to Canada. So I flew into Duluth and waited in that little airport for one of the bridesmaids who was also flying in that afternoon. She rented a car and we drove two hours north along long stretches of road to a town called Ely.
The next afternoon we all piled into cars and went another half-hour or so north to a parking lot on the side of the road. Then we hiked in about a mile to the lake. Waiting for us at the lake were the ushers who paddled us across the lake in canoes, two at a time, to the little rocky clearing next to the waterfall. I was wearing sneakers, jeans, and a t-shirt. My robe and stole were rolled up in my back pack along with a water bottle and some trail mix.
A half-hour later when every one was assembled, and I had my robe on, and I had started the ceremony. I wanted to tell them, “be sure you start your relationship on sure footing. Be careful, this marriage stuff is dangerous and you need to be certain of one another.” I wanted to tell them, “Look out, what you’re about to start here is not a simple thing. The journey ahead of you is fraught with peril and hardship so make sure you really mean it and you’re ready for this.” But I looked out over the lake to the path on the other side leading back to the cars and I thought, “They all ready know all that.” Besides, this was only the third wedding I had ever done, I didn’t know how to say all that stuff anyway.
How we start things is very important. Our beginnings have a distinct impact on who we are and how we grow. In our reading this morning, Charles Stephen said we like the idea of new beginnings and starting over, but it is really all continuations. It is human nature to mark out beginnings and endings to give definition to our experiences. When we arrive at small landmarks, we pause in our steady tumbling forward to recognize the passage of time. One of the hymns in our hymnal is entitled “The Ceaseless Flow of Endless Time.” We do indeed find ourselves in this ceaseless flow, this ever progressing push of time. Charles Stephen said we find stability in these new beginnings. Generally speaking, life is a journey without particular beginnings and endings other than birth and death. It becomes very important to set aside special times to celebrate the changes, brief moments to pause and recognize our progress.
This idea which says ‘our beginnings and endings are our own arbitrary human constructions’ is a useful idea because it can help us to recognize that our past does not need to own us. Starting again is possible. Transformation and change are possible. However, this idea can also be equally unhelpful if we think we can escape our past. If we think of new beginnings as a break from yesterday, we are bound for trouble. All of your past is a part of you, all of the good stuff and all of the bad stuff. And no amount of New Beginnings will make it otherwise. Where you come from is important.
It seems to me there are three choices as to how we can deal with our past. We can choose to dwell in it; to either revel in the glory or wallow in the guilt. Most people recognize this to be unhealthy. All those wonderful self-help books are filled with the sort of wisdom that warns us against dwelling in our past: Don’t let guilt consume you. Acknowledge and move on. Don’t rest on your laurels. Today is the first day of the rest of your life.
Our second option is to ignore the past. This is also an unhealthy choice. This will allow us to have fake New Beginnings. We can talk about starting over, and turning over a new leaf, and having today be the first day of the rest of our life. But often all this does is allow us to continue to make the same bad mistakes, or to not capitalize on the gains we’ve made. If we try and say, “That was the old me, now I’m married, or, now I’m born again, or, now I’m all better so just forget all that old stuff about me.” This is a fake New Beginning because it ignores the past or pretends it doesn’t matter.
Our last option, and thus the healthy one, is to learn from the past and grow. This is where change and transformation are possible, this is where New Beginnings can take place, this is where we step forward and say, “All my gifts and all my warts are why I’m deciding to live my life in this new way from this day forward.” I picked up a great quote recently. It is from an interview with a George Shearing, Big Band pianist who is blind. The reporter asked, “Have you been blind all your life?” To which the musician replied, “Not yet.” I like this quote because it is forward looking, without ignoring the truth of the past.
Where you come from and where you have been and all that you’ve been through will never leave you. Now, this is true for cultures and countries and congregations as well. I remember a friend once complaining about our national anthem saying it is the only national anthem with rockets and bombs in the lyrics. I remember at the time agreeing with my friend and saying, “Aren’t we awful as a country to have this song that glorifies war as our national anthem. We should change it.” But as I was preparing this sermon, I thought, “Well, at least it is honest.” This country was founded as a result of war. The song says that the principles of liberty and freedom are worth fighting for and even dying for. I may not like the song, but at least it is honest about how we started.
Another example, all three of the great monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, have a significant amount of violence in connection with how they began. The early years of Islam were filled with strife, persecution, and war. Christianity’s seminal moment is the violent execution of its leader. Judaism began not with Adam and Eve or even with Abraham or Jacob, figures which literary and historical scholars generally agree were mythic characters rather than actual people. Judaism formed when Moses took the Hebrew people out of bondage, across the wilderness and into the promised land, a land filled with other people they has to conquered before they could really move in.
Over these past few years, much attention has been given to the accusation that Islam is a violent religion. Thankfully we have also heard the counterpoint saying Islam is basically a peaceful religion. I certainly can’t stand in judgment as to which statement is true, and I tend to think that both statements are somewhat true and somewhat false depending on where you are looking and what you are wanting to see. Certainly there are passages in the Koran and practices believers do and events littered throughout history which we can point to and say, “look, here we see peace” or, “look, here we see violence.” Of course, we can do that with Judaism and with Christianity. And it is not an insignificant connection that all three of these great religious traditions began amid violence.
This is not so with Unitarian Universalism. For one thing we don’t have a sacred book with which to contradict ourselves. But I think we can fairly say that both Unitarianism and Universalism as they began here in America, did not have violent beginnings. Now, European Unitarianism has a few martyrs, but there was not for example a Michael Servetus movement or following. Instead, we have stories about how radical we have been and how upsetting we were to mainstream religion and society. This is not to say we are exempt from having character flaws sown into our origins, just that violence is not one of them.
The major negative component to crystallize in our beginnings as Universalists was the over-focusing on one message. If you follow the history of the Universalist denomination, you’ll notice that when we were no longer the only church focusing on God’s love, there was a sharp decline in our membership. As one Universalist minister put it, “Hell became less of a burning issue.” When we found ourselves to be no longer the only show in town with that message, it was difficult to expand our message to met the changing world. For Unitarians it was character flaws crystallized in our beginnings were flaws such as arrogance, elitism, and a cold intellectualism which detests emotional responses in religion matters. Between you and me, I’ll take those flaws over violence any day.
We, as a movement, are making efforts to address our communal original character flaws, but they will never not be the flaws we’ve had from our beginning. The good side to this is that we will always be known for the social advancement and justice work recorded in American history, whether or not we are still working for justice today. We will always have the freedom of individual conscience as our first principle regardless of how much emphasis we place on community. Who we were when this all started has a lasting and important impact on who we are now and on who we may possible grow to be. When the two traditions merged, we experienced a balancing that will serve as a true New Beginning so long as we remember both traditions and how they started and grew. I am not suggesting that every Unitarian Universalist today is over focused on one message and is struggling to be less arrogant, elitist, and overly-rational. I’m simply saying this was our starting point and always will be.
At nearly every formal or semi-formal gathering of new members or visitors we intentionally go around the circle and invite everyone to share a little of their journey which brought them to this congregation. More and more we are hearing that people come here for community and a humbling respect for the mystery surrounding the major religious questions.
We don’t ask new people to tell us their name and theological perspective, their least popular belief, or their favorite middle-centuries pope. We ask, “Who are you, where did you come from, and how did you end up hear?” One time I sat down and wrote out my most eloquent response yet to those questions.
We have, within each of us, echoes of memories beyond us. There are traces of lives and loves which are not ours, and yet belong to us and shape who we are and how we see the world. I am a fourth generation Unitarian Universalist. My personal religious and spiritual history would be incomplete without saying something about the echoes of the lives and loves I carry.
My mother’s mother’s mother, Cora Arvilla Beadle Miller, was one of the founding members of the Old Stone Universalist Church of Schuylur Lake, NY. That is the same church where my mother’s mother, Marie Elizabeth Miller Strong, played the organ and was Superintendent of the Church School, and where my mother’s father, Ashley Walter Strong, was Moderator and then President of the New York Convention of Universalists in the mid 1950’s. It is the same church, The Old Stone Universalist Church, where my mother, Elizabeth May Strong, now a Minister of Religious Education, grew up and began teaching when she was in eighth grade.
We have, within each of us, echoes of memories beyond us; traces of lives and loves which are not ours, and yet belong to us. My mother’s mother’s mother was a church builder. May I be so blessed as to be the same.”
What I learned here was that not only must I contend with my own past, that part of my history for which I was there; but I must also reconcile all that is a part of me that came before I even showed up! Thus it is, certainly with nations and congregations. You all inherit the great wonderfulness and all the blemishes and warts that this congregations has stood for over the years.
Seeing as I began with a story from Northern Minnesota, let me return there for my closing. There is a song I know with the line “The Mississippi is mighty, but it starts in Minnesota at a place that you could walk across with five steps down.” (Ghost by The Indigo Girls) That river which cuts across the whole country from top to bottom, is a major landmark on our map and has featured prominently in American history and in the contemporary lives of many people. It is a powerful river. And it is a powerful metaphor. It overflows now and then and floods towns and plains. Each of us is like that river. We all started in some small way in some remote place and lead mighty lives now. And I bet that a lot of you have experienced the analogous flooding in one form or another. You do well to know and understand the implications of what has gone on upstream. That is your past. If you can acknowledge the good and bad in your past, you will be prepared for the challenges coming from upstream. They can serve you and give you great strength. You will be better suited to be intentional about what you send downstream, into the beaconing future.
In a world without end,
May it be so.
God: A Creative Event
By Rev. Douglas Taylor
I love how preaching about God in a Unitarian Universalist church is still considered a bold move. Many of those among us who consider themselves theists tend to have a quietly fuzzy theology of God. Many of us seem content with being a few steps beyond a respectful agnosticism. Recently there has been a push to reclaim traditional religious language. The president of our Association, Rev. Bill Sinkford, has called for a renewed interest in a vocabulary of reverence. While this should not by any means be limited to conversations about God, God certainly is a featured word within the lexicon of traditional religious words, and thus deserves a sermon of two as we consider the retrieval and clarification of a reverent vocabulary.
To seek a definition of God is tricky business. When I was talking with my wife about this Sunday’s topic she asked, “Well, what can you really say about God. I mean, either you believe or you don’t and even then, what can you really say about God?” I thought about that for a moment as she looked at me. She had a good point, you know. Anything we can say about God must necessarily be filtered through our human language. As a means of discussing all that is Holy, human words and concepts are woefully inadequate. Rev. Fred Muir from the Annapolis Unitarian Universalist Church has pondered upon this very point. In his recent book, Heretics’ Faith, he writes this:
God is a word that we’ve come up with to describe what no other single word can. Just in that alone, the word is insufficient. The ancient Hebrews recognized this right off, and so they made their word for God unutterable: it was sacrilegious to say that word. So then they came up with a word that meant the word no one could say!
It’s because of this kind of thinking (Muir continues) that I’ve called myself everything from atheist to agnostic to pagan – all done, in part, as a reaction to the misuse, overuse, and perversion of the word God. The most profound abuse has been accomplished by orthodox Western religions that have accorded their God with humanlike qualities as well as raising God above nature. My God is neither anthropomorphic nor supernatural: to me is it absurd, meaningless, destructive, and oppressive to conceptualize a higher power as having attributes like humanity has in addition to being above and outside what we know, see, and feel. (p 96-97)
In the second half of that quote, Muir tells us about the God he does not believe in. It is easy to expound upon the God I do not believe in. I suspect many of you could speak at great length about the God you do not believe in (whether or not there is a God you do believe in!) When it comes to speaking in the positive about God, as my wife asked me earlier this week, what can you really say? However, “The turtle only gets where it is going by sticking out its neck.” (James B. Conant) Even though words are at best second-rate tools for the task of defining God, it is nonetheless a worthy task. So I will now stick my neck out and we’ll see where that gets us.
Often the first place we land is among labels, so let us begin there. Labels are tricky. Muir says he calls himself an atheist some times and a pagan other times. Labels are useful in the beginnings of defining yourself and your perspective, but they paint with such a broad brush that it is hard to be comfortable with simply a label. What is my theological label? The quick and dirty answer is that I am a Theist. However, I grew up in a Humanist church, so Humanism is my first religious language. Also I was raised in a Universalist home and while I did not know God not so much as a personal God, I some how developed the feeling of unconditional acceptance and the transformative power of love which comes from God. And then I spent as much time as I could out in the woods near our house, out in nature where I developed another whole set of words to describe God which of course conflict at times with both my Humanism and my Universalism. All this adds up to some confusion for me when it comes time to choose a religious label, and so I usually just say I am a theist.
A basic Theist is defined as a person who believes in a personal God. There are, however, several variety of Theists beyond that basic definition. In working with the Building Your Own Theology workbook, we in the class discovered quite an assortment of theisms described in the manual. Mystics and Pagans and Liberal Christians are three types of theists that are usually found within Unitarian Universalist circles. Liberal Christianity within Unitarian Universalism looks most like what we usually think of when we talk about theists. Liberal Christians hold traditional perspectives about God in the form of either the first person of the Trinity (the Father) or the third person of the Trinity (the Holy Spirit). Paganism and other Earth Centered spiritualities often take a Polytheistic and Pantheistic view of God, speaking of gods and goddesses, and the embodiment of the holy in the rhythms of the earth. Mystics could be considered theists in that they believe unmediated experience with God is possible. Mystics are less concerned with any definition of God except that it not be too specific and that it includes love as an overwhelming quality. Historically there have been a significant number of Deists counted among our ranks. Deism is the belief the God created the earth along with the natural forces that govern it and then left. Many of the founding fathers are also reported to have been Deists.
But that’s just the first batch of theisms. Another distinction is drawn between a Theistic Monist and a Theist Dualist. These two definitions tease out a definition of God in relation to nature. The Theistic Monist believes that God “alone is real; the world or nature is at best an illusion or mere appearance.” This variation of Theism is the most diametrically opposed to Atheism, which would say the world or nature alone is real; God is at best an illusion or mere appearance. The Theistic Dualist believes that God “is completely transcendent over nature; [God] and nature constitute totally different realms of reality.” Similarly, a Natural Theist believes that “Nature includes the divine; God is but one force or process operating in the natural world.” A final type of Theist along these lines would be a Pantheist. Pantheists believe that God “and nature are in some sense identical; nature itself is divine.” Then there is the Panentheist. Panentheism is like Pantheism plus. Panentheists believe that “The divine is independent of and transcends nature, but also includes nature.” Nature itself is divine, but there is also a transcendent element to God.
Are you confused yet? I promise this sermon will be reprinted and available at the Book table so you can go over these again if you wish. The main point I want to present here is the amazing variety of definitions of God found among those who take up one of the many regular and traditional labels within Theism! For all of these types of Theists the word God means something different. But, wait, I have one more type of theist I want to talk about.
Process Theists believe that God is not a being; rather God is a process. From this point of view, “the world [is] a social organism growing toward fulfillment by means of mutual influence, including the persuasive aims of God.” In this way they it is like Natural Theism. It could be said, however, that for Process theists, God is a verb rather than a noun. My favorite theologians, Paul Tillich, Martin Buber, Henry Nelson Wieman, talk about God not as a noun but as a verb. Weiman, the only one among that short list who is really a Process Theologian, said that God is Creative Interchange. Buber spoke of the primacy of the I-Thou relationship. And Tillich was considered an atheist by some when he said, “God does not exist, God is.” It should be no surprise therefore to learn that the God I believe in is more like the Holy Spirit than any other part of the Christian triune God, for example. There is movement and presence. I believe God is something that happens, or better yet, simply, “God is.”
The concept of Creative Interchange articulated by Henry nelson Wieman is worth further exploration. For Wieman, Creative Interchange is God, or at least the closest thing that fills the role usually appointed to God. Wieman was a Presbyterian minister before returning to academia to become a philosopher and empirical theologian. He was born in 1884 and died in 1975. He spent the last decades of his life as a Unitarian Universalist. He wrote books with titles like, Intellectual Foundations of Faith, Man’s Ultimate Commitment, and The Source of Human Good.
Wieman did not say that God was simple a process, he took great pains to define just what sort of process is considered Creative Interchange. It is about transformative interaction between individuals in community. Wiemen defines the Creative Interchange as a four-step process. It is one event with four stages. Creative Interchange occurs in this way: beginning with “Emerging awareness of qualitative meaning derived from other persons through communication; integrating these new meanings with others previously acquired; expanding the richness of quality in the appreciable world by enlarging its meaning; [and] deepening the community among those who participate in this total creative event of intercommunication.” (The Source of Human Good, p58) In typical Theologian style, that one run-on sentence packs in this man’s whole concept of God. Let me unpack it a little.
First we get the perspective of another person. By sitting and listening or sharing in conversation with another individual we are made aware of another perspective of meaning beyond our own. This could happen in church on Sunday morning, over a meal with a relative of old friend, or nearly anywhere at anytime when we are listening to another person share about meaningful life experiences or beliefs. We take in another person’s understanding, not perfectly, of course, but well enough. That is the first stage.
Second we begin to integrate this new perspective with what we already know or understand or believe. If you just listen to another person’s perspective and do not let that perspective mix in with your own then we’re not at that level of creative interchange. Wieman wrote, “The mere passage through the mind of innumerable meanings in not the creative event.” (Ibid, p59) Also, this does not mean new meanings and understanding supplants what is already meaningful. If, however, what was shared and communicated in that first step is integrated, the third step does follow naturally.
The third step in the process of Creative Interchange is the “expanding and enriching of the appreciable world by a new structure of interrelatedness.” (Ibid, p61) Obviously, if you take in another person’s understanding of meaning and integrate it with what you already know of meaning, you will naturally experience an expansion of your world. This doesn’t need to be huge or really dramatic, but it is transformative all the same.
The fourth step is the commensurate expansion and widening of the community of mutual understanding. This last step in the Creative Interchange event seems the easiest one to argue against perhaps. Why would the communities I belong to expand and deepen simply because I have integrated another person’s perspective and grown in my understanding? We all exist in communities, and these communities exist because of us. And in terms of the Creative Interchange, Wieman is only speaking of the community or Communities involved in the interchange. Your community grows because you grow.
Are you still with me? According to Wieman, Creative Interchange, that particular kind of communication which involves the hearing and integrating of another person’s understanding of meaning with your own, and which therefore leads to transformative personal and communal growth, that is God. That event, that moment of transformation and growth where I take in a little of you and am different and better for it, that is God: that creative interchange between us. That event is God.
Now, this has got to be one of the most unusual definitions of God out there! I mean, if you’re using this word as a verb, the syntax alone is hard enough to grasp. (“Yesterday I was out for a walk when I suddenly God!”) The concept is both sensible and amazing, certainly worth pondering. There are so many ways of defining that one word. I have heard the complaint that the attempt to reclaim traditional religious language is a waste of time especially since we always redefine the old words anyway. It seems to me the word ‘God’ has such a plethora of definitions, it would be one of the easier ones to reclaim! Some look at the word God and see a lot of baggage and stagnant associations. I look at that word and see live possibilities for deepening understanding.
And if we should find we disagree about our definitions of God, then perhaps we can sit down and share them with each other, not for the goal of changing one another’s minds, but for the creative interchange that can take place, that God may take place.
In a world without end,
May it be so.
Rev. Douglas Taylor
November 30, 2003
Unitarian Universalist Congregation
One of my favorite models for ministry has always been Miss Marple. Miss Jane Marple is the elderly, crime-solver in Dame Agatha Christie’s mystery novels from the mid-1900’s. Absolutely delightful character. Very intelligent and down-to-earth. I’ve never really liked Hercule Poirot, but I think Miss Marple is great. She solved so many of her crimes simply out of her clear understanding of human nature, which she learned while growing up in a small village, St. Mary Mead. I like her because she has a different way of seeing things. She see connections based on her understanding of human nature. She would hear the details of a murder and say something like, “That reminds me of poor Mr. Johnson…” And somehow, the little problem that Mr. Johnson had, or tried to hide, or had perhaps even caused, would be related to the murdered person’s situation in that the motive was the same but on a smaller scale; or the parlor maid had the same character flaw as the niece of the guy who was murdered; or some such thing as that. Miss Marple paid attention to people. She paid attention to life and saw connections. That is a model I try to emulate in my ministry. I pay attention to life and try to see the connections. The part about having a very solid understanding of human nature is something I still hope to someday claim.
I don’t feel it is too far off base for us to occasionally think of ourselves as detectives. After all, life, at the level we usually speak of here in church, is a mystery. Unitarian Universalists in particular work well with this analogy that being a religious person is like being a detective. One of our prized principles, the one which we perhaps tote out the most when asked to define our denomination to others, is the “Free and responsible search of truth and meaning.” Detective work! We are in the search religiously speaking. We are searching for answers to life’s great mysteries. The meaning of life itself is the greatest mystery and has plagued Philosophers and Theologians through the ages. It was a Methodist Bishop, and I don’t recall now which one, who once said: “The main thing is to find the main thing and to keep the main thing the main thing. That’s the main thing!” That is about as clear a definition of the mystery of the meaning of life as I have ever found from most of the professional theologians and philosophers.
Thankfully we have poets to help clear things up. The German poet, Rainer Rilke, once advised a younger poet to cherish his deepest questions. “Try to love the questions themselves,” he said. “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms or books that are written in a foreign tongue. The point is to live everything. Live the questions now.”
It may come as no surprise to you that UU ministers love this quote because of what it says about loving questions and living them now. We love that search for truth and meaning! We like questions that lead us deeper into more questions, “like locked rooms,” or mysterious boxes we are not allowed to open. We love the questions, the mystery, and the search. We are tolerant of different paths and understandings. We respect each person’s search for the Holy. The question may then be asked, what do we do if someone finds an answer or two?
I remember the first day I met members of the congregation where I did my internship. One person actually said to me during a side conversation that in our denomination we encourage the search for truth, but if you find any truth, you’ll need to leave. It wasn’t until I got to know that person a little better that I realized he was just making a joke, rather than apt social commentary.
Perhaps you cringed a little after I offered the Rilke quote because I left off the last line. That sort of thing really bugs some of us. But I did it on purpose because so many people focus on the part about ‘loving the questions’ that the last part can be forgotten. The last part of that Rilke quote is very important. “The point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live your way some distant day into the answers.”
Answers are a big part of being a detective. Miss Marple would not be a very good detective if she never found some solid answers. Being a religious detective means we must be willing to get a few answers to these big questions we ask. Paul Tillich, once wrote, (and I offer this quote to redeem my earlier slight against theologians when I said they are all confusing.) “Being religious means asking passionately the questions of the meaning of our existence and being willing to receive answers, even if the answers hurt.” (The Essential Tillich, ed. by Church, p 1)
Now does this mean we have some kind of obsession with questions and it’s high time we fess up and admit to a couple of answers? Are we somehow cheating the whole religious community when we say, “We are non-creedal, we don’t believe in set answers for every person for all time.”? Is that a cop-out? Is that our way of saying “we really have no clue.”?
No. No, our way of faith is the wide path because that is our authentic answer to the question of how to be a searching religious community. I believe that God comes to each person in the way that that person can best understand and receive God. This even means if the word ‘god’ gets in the way for folks, then that is the wrong word. And we might say, every person perceives the Holy as they are able. To demand that we all have the same answer to the intimate and ultimate questions of existence is unrealistic.
There is an essay I remember from my Liberal Theologies course back in seminary. The author, Lindbeck, claims that all the different religions of the world are merely diverse expressions of a common core experience. There is such a diversity of religious belief due to our different cultures and vocabularies. It is all the same root experience, but one person’s experience of the Holy cannot be universalized. Each person’s experience is filtered through his or her socio-linguistic background.
If I am in the midst of a silent meditation, for example, and a word comes to mind unbidden … perhaps even a word which makes a problem that has been plaguing me suddenly make sense and therefore easier to handle. Using my theistic understanding of an immanent and transcendent God, I might say, “that was the voice of God.” But I understand that I could just as easily interpret such an experience as an awakening to the first noble truth of Buddhism, or as a gift of grace from the Holy Spirit, or as simply the timely remembrance of a past knowledge, or (as Ebenezer Scrooge would have it,) “an undigested bit of beef or blot of mustard.”
How I interpret, and therefore define, this experience is determined by the cultural and linguistic stream I am standing in. And, while understanding that, I don’t need to give up my perspective as flawed or in any way untrue. I believe in an active, loving God who can and does transform lives through the power of grace. I’ve seen it happen. I’ve felt it. We do not need to lose our religious identities simply because we understand the mytho-symbolic basis of those religious identities!
All that, to say the answers I have found are not necessarily the answers any of you have found. And that works. That is how it ought to be. My answers are not what this sermon is about. My title is not “Answers,” but “Clues,” because answers are not always easy to find and over time they can shift as we mature in understanding. So what we need are clues to how to get there, signposts and landmarks to guide us on the journey toward the deeper answers of our lives.
So what are some of these clues? Well, there is one that I mentioned in connection with my hero, Miss Marple. Pay attention. Pay attention to life, to other people, to your gut feelings about what is going on around you. Miss Marple was able to discover a great deal just by paying attention. It is amazing what we can miss if we stay focused on the mundane stuff, stuff that we do need to attend to. The daily routines of work and chores and bills all need our attention, but that doesn’t mean we need to keep our focus there all the time. Pay attention to who your children are becoming. Pay attention to the dreams and aspirations in your life, yours and those of the people you love. Pay attention to the deepest hunger of your soul, that longing, yearning, sometimes aching feeling within you. Pay attention to life.
As Religious detectives, paying attention is not only a clue as to how to find answers, it is also the root clue about how to find more clues. Let me share with you another clue I noticed while paying attention: Come to church every Sunday. Really, that is a clue, I’m not just peddling my wares. I have read more than one article in the past year or two about a study that has been done which connects church attendance with longevity. The study found there was no clear connection between how long a person lived and what a person believed, or which kind of congregation they attended. But there was a strong connection between a long life and regular worship attendance. Participation with the community is what matters. This is true for Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, Pagans, Unitarian Universalists, and all the other major world religions. I remember the story of a Christian who went and studied with a Zen Buddhist master for a year. I think it was someone relatively well known, (one of you may remember this story and tell me who this is about after the service.) Anyway, at the end of the year the Christian went to his Zen master and asked to become a Buddhist. The master said, “No, you do not need to become a Buddhist. You should go back home and become the best Christian you can be.” And he did. The Master was saying, grow where you are planted. You don’t need to go to the other side of the world to find the Holy within yourself.
This is not, as one might infer, saying that what you believe and what groups you associate with are irrelevant. In fact, what you believe and what groups you belong to are very important. Its just that how you live out you beliefs is more important. The Zen master didn’t say, “Go home and be a Christian because we’re full over here.” He said, “Go home and become the best Christian you can be.” The way you practice your religion is what matters most. Every true religion has the potential to lead its adherents to true spiritual depth and understanding. All of them offer answers to the ultimate and intimate questions of existence. At the same time, I am not shy about saying that Unitarian Universalism at its best stands out among the others in that it offers people the commitment to the freedom of conscious that will allow each person to find the path that leads through their questions to the deeper answers.
All those articles linking church attendance and longevity conclude that participation is the key. Participation is the second clue I offer. Participate: Show up here regularly, join the choir or a small group, join the UUW or the UUGLC or the Library committee, teach a class, increase your financial giving, visit some of our shut-ins, serve as an usher or a coffee hour host, come to the cranberry coffeehouse. Wherever your gifts and talents lead you in this diverse and lively congregation, participate! Now, frankly I can’t stand here and promise you a long life if you come to church regularly and tithe and join the choir. I can’t promise you a long life, but I can promise you strong life; a quality, if not a quantity of life. And if I’m wrong, what will you do? Stop coming regularly, right? Well, if you start to suspect that I am wrong about this participation stuff and you’re thinking of pulling away and not coming regularly, call me. Usually that is the time that you can most use a community such as the ours So, pay attention and participate.
Often the hardest part of any mystery novels for the reader is recognizing the difference between clues that matter and clues that don’t. Miss Marple seems to always be able to recognize whether or not a fact or character trait or event is malevolent or benevolent, or just innocuous. This is not easy. As religious detectives, it is vital for us to perceive correctly. There is a line from one of Richard Gilbert’s meditations that says, “May we learn to separate that which matters most from that which matters least of all.” We need to be able to sift through the clues and discern the valuable ones from among the lot. While we are paying attention and participating in our faith community, there is still some much that bombards us: details, events, individuals, thoughts, and feelings. We need some process for reflecting and sorting it all to uncover the connections and meanings. I suggest regular prayer. Set time aside to sit in quiet reflection and offer up your searching in prayer.
I am a little hesitant to put prayer on my list of clues because prayer is a topic that causes raised eyebrows from some of you and secret smiles from others. But that is no reason not to include it. When it comes to true discernment about whether the course I would take is life-affirming or life-denying, whether what I want is of God or of my own ego, I would have to pray. It is the only thing that has worked for me. I’m not suggesting that prayer works somehow to cause God to connect the dots for you, simply that it allows you an opportunity to be open to the possible connections that may arise. Which leads me into a longer sermon on prayer that will need to wait for another day.
Pay attention, participate, and pray. These clues will get you started toward understanding the deeper meaning of existence. If nothing else, these will help you look at life differently and perhaps see more connections. You are religious detectives, but you are not alone, we seek in community. There are clues readily available to us in our search. To demand that we all turn up the same answer to the intimate and ultimate questions of existence is unrealistic. But to think that therefore there are no real answers is a form of profanity. Seek boldly. Don’t shy away from uncovering an answer or two. And maybe you will find that some of your answers lead you to deeper questions. That happens too.
In a world without end,
may it be so.