In Defense of Imbalance
The seventh anniversary of my ordination will be in about a month and a half. It is not an occasion for parties or special commemoration, but it does serve as a good time for me to recall the event and to remind myself what happened. One of the elements of a ceremony such as that is the “Charge to the Minister.” This is usually done by a colleague some what familiar to the one being ordained. In my case it was the Reverend Frances Manly, who is currently serving the UU congregation in Niagara Falls.
For the Charge, Frances decided against the standard speech format and instead gave me four rocks in a soft leather bag. Each rock represented an aspect of my self, of my gifts, which she charged me to remember. The first rock was a smooth red and green stone. As she put it in my hand she said, “This represents the masculine and feminine aspects of you which seem to me to be in pretty good balance. That is rare among most people and rather useful in your chosen calling.” The second stone was a smooth dark blue stone with thin threads of white throughout. “This,” she said as she placed it in my hand, “represents the pain and heartache you’ve had in your life. Though difficult, it provides you with a great depth of compassion. Notice also that the darkness is shot through with light. Remember that life is also balanced this way.” The third one was a sparkling and shining chunk of rock. She said it was to honor my saving sense of humor. The fourth rock was a contrast to the third in that is was a round plain rock; an unbroken geode which she placed in my hand with the admonishment that I was to crack it open to see the dazzling crystals within only if I really needed the reminder that there is a dazzling and hidden part within me as well.
That was the charge I was given as a new minister, four rocks: remember to be in balance and don’t forget that with all the sparkle and humor on the outside that there is more that remains hidden. Which is another way of saying, “balance.” So, in short – my charge was (and still is) to stay in balance. I take this charge seriously.
After rigorous attempts to attain enlightenment through austerity and complete self-denial Siddhartha eventually adopted what is known as the Middle Way, a moderate approach to spiritual enlightenment. Buddhism, the Middle Way, commends its adherents to be in balance. Jesus is often shown practicing and advocating a sensible moderation. When invited to a wedding, for example, he ate and drank with the other guests incurring the accusation of being a glutton. Jesus put forth a common-sense approach of moderation compared with the rigid structures espoused by others. The Tao Te Ching holds balance and equilibrium as central concepts in its teachings. Again and again from many perspectives, balance is a key component to the religious life. Balance is a common theme in the quest for personal and spiritual wholeness.
Balance has been the watchword of my adult life for I have known what it is like to not be in balance and it is not good. The need for balance has been a recurring theme in what I offer in my ministry as well. I did a computer search of the last three years worth of my sermons for the word “balance.” I found 14 sermons what specifically use that word and countless others that refer to the idea. I have called for balance when looking at the relationship between spirituality and justice making in our lives; I have called for religion to serve as a balance to our capitalist society; I have called on us as a species to recognize our place in the balance of our earth and of the interdependent web of life; and I have proclaimed that the soul of our congregation is in the balance of faith and reason achieved through the freedom of conscience.
A month ago I said, “It is always about balance, isn’t it? Breathing out and breathing in, reaching out and drawing in; balance is the key.” So, I want you to know that I value balance. I am in favor of balance; balance is good and important. That said; allow me to take a few moments to promote the benefits of imbalance. Imbalance is not necessarily a bad thing to be avoided. It does not follow that since balance is good, imbalance is bad; that just is not the case.
Being out of balance, I suggest, is a dynamic often frightening experience. Just imagine being off balance on a bicycle. Does “dynamic” and “frightening” cover it? I remember a portion of a dream I had when I was a teenager. I don’t recall anymore all that went on in the dream leading up to the moment I was falling off the cliff. I do recall the visceral feeling of wind-milling my arms as my feet tried to cling to the edge. I can almost still feel in my body what it was like to be halfway over; uncertain whether I would be able to catch myself or fall. And I remember waking up with my heart racing. That image, that heart-racing feeling, stayed with me so strongly perhaps because I quickly identified my waking life as spent clinging to the edge almost about to fall.
I told my dream to my sister and she said, “You know what you have to do, don’t you? You have to fall.” Oh!?! It’s that simple is it? Just fall? When everything in me is screaming to hold on? When every shred of my being knows that to fall is to die and to hold on is the only thing to do? Yes. Sometimes, you have to fall. Sometimes you need to let go of your balance so that you may live again. Sometimes what feels like holding your balance is really being stuck – and the way to move again is to go off balance and fall.
Allow me to digress for a moment into theories from psychology and theology to help unpack this idea. Jean Piaget spoke of cognitive development as a progression through successive stages: Sensorimotor, Preoperative, Concrete Operational, and Formal Operational. According to this widely accepted theory is that as we grow we all go through universal phases or stages differentiated by certain characteristics. “The starting point of development, according to Piaget, is the need in everyone for equilibrium, that is, a state of mental balance.” (The Developing Person through the Life Span, K. S. Berger; p48) The states of equilibrium are considered the different stages. The concept of “stages of development” is fairly well ingrained in our communal understanding of growth and has been applied beyond cognitive development to faith development, moral development, and all manner of other areas. The key piece is that there is equilibrium between what you experience and your ‘schemas’ as Piaget called them. Schemas are the mental concepts, they are how you think about what you are experiencing, the ideas you use to understand what you are going through.
Now, here is a critical component to all this that is usually forgotten. How do we move from one stage to the next? Through what Piaget called Disequilibrium. When the mental schemas don’t fit with present experiences, “the individual falls into a state of disequilibrium, a kind of imbalance that initially produces confusion but then leads to growth as the person modifies old schemas and constructs new ones to fit the new conditions.” (Ibid) That time of imbalance is the doorway into the next stage. Imbalance is a motivation toward and the momentum into growth.
Existentialist theologian Paul Tillich spoke of this process in terms of self-identity, self-alteration, and self-return. Self-identity, according to Tillich, is done through clarifying within yourself just who you are. With varying degrees of awareness, everyone manages to develop a self-identity. It is a centering activity marked by being in balance. Self-alteration is that moment of “uh-oh,” when your experiences of life fail to match the self-identity you have developed. Does that sound familiar? It is that moment when something new happens either by an external event such as a loss, or by an internal source such as a sudden insight. For whatever reason, you are thrown off balance, you are thrown into what Tillich calls chaos. Tillich loves to talk about chaos. Chaos, while a terrible thing we hope to avoid, is an amazing process whereby New Being can emerge. The experience of chaos is uncomfortable and the typical response is to take the next step which Tillich calls Self-return, the movement back into centeredness and identity and balance. Often we find, however, that our center has shifted a little because we have experienced that self-alteration, that ‘other thing’, that was outside our previous self-identity, which is now included in our experiences and thus into our new identity. And thus change and growth occur.
What Tillich calls chaos is not exactly the same thing that I am calling imbalance, chaos is imbalance and much more. “Nothing that grows is without form. The form makes a thing what it is … Every new form is made possible only by breaking through the limits of the old form. In other words, there is a moment of ‘chaos’ between the old and the new form, a moment of no-longer-form and not-yet-form.” (Tillich, Systematic theology Vol. III; p 50)
Other theologians use the concept of “liminal time” or liminal space” to describe the same concept. Limen is one of those old words like Spuddle [to go about a trifling business as if it were a matter of importance. To assume airs of importance without occasion] and Gardyloo [A cry which servants in the higher stories of Edinburgh give, after ten o’clock at night, when they throw their dirty water &c. from the windows; hence, also used to denote the contents of the vessel] which are not in use today, but we could perhaps still find use for them. The Limen is the threshold of a physiological or psychological response. It is that moment of no longer and not yet. You are at the threshold between. To be in Liminal space is that place of imbalance and chaos where you may discover anew who you are (or who you are becoming.)
For Piaget, it is the moment when you realize that how you describe what is happening to you and that which is happening to you do not fit and you experience a disequilibrium leading you into new understanding. If you cannot accept this time of imbalance, you will not be able to move forward into new understanding.
I said that imbalance is dynamic. Balance is also dynamic because it includes imbalance. When riding a bicycle you have balance because of momentum – but you have momentum because you pedal on one side first and then the other and then back, and so on. You maintain balance through moments of imbalance; otherwise, you are not moving. This sort of imbalance is healthy and productive, if a bit difficult to manage. In this way, imbalance is the threshold from an old balanced center to a new balanced center. This is valuable imbalance that thankfully only lasts moments. Other sorts of imbalance can last a lifetime and yet can still be something for which we can give thanks. Here I am thinking of those amazing artists, scientists, and reformers who have such an overwhelming gift for their art or their science or their ability to motivate positive social change, yet there are tragic flaws that accompany the gift. I think of movies such as Shine, Beautiful Mind, and Amadeus. These based-on-true-stories types of movies highlight the genius and the greatness of such people, but they also demonstrate the weakness and chaos that can come to dominate a person. It is not a healthy position to live from, but people do it. This is a level of imbalance that, if left unchecked, can produce some of them most amazing art, music, scientific discovery, social change, and transformation as well as utterly devastate the soul.
Some powerful movement can happen when you lean strongly into one aspect of your life, thus causing an imbalance. Dramatic results can be achieved if you throw all your energy into a social cause or artistic composition or complete self-denial with the goal of enlightenment. Such one-sided attention can also result in sudden overwhelming bouts of chaos or some other tragic consequence. There is an almost romantic notion for artists, scientists, and reformers that if they could only somehow focus all their attention and passion onto this next campaign, or this next play, symphony, or painting, or this next scientific breakthrough; if we could somehow give our whole life over we will succeed and taste a sweetness that cannot be had any other way. And yet, to be that out of balance seems to incur a debt in chaos, a debt of tragedy. Or is that just the stuff of myth and legend? Or is that the endless lesson of so many myths and legends?
That much imbalance may be worth it, thought the cost be high. The sort of Imbalance I set out to defend was the momentary crossing between kind, the threshold from “what no longer is” and “is not yet.” The doorway is not a place to set down roots and take up residence – yet some do, and for a few of them for whom there is a lasting legacy for their life and sacrifice, we give thanks. But I gently commend to you that you take your powerful moments of imbalance in moderation.
In a world without end
May it be so
Whose House Is It, Anyway?
Just this past week I was reading a newsletter from another congregation and noticed the sermon title was something like “Why It Matters to Our Church for the Pittsburgh Steelers to Win.” The blurb under it said, “This title was given to us by the winner of our annual service auction who paid a significant amount of money for the honor of titling the sermon. So, yes, in a manner of speaking, we are for sale.” Our UUCB Serendipity Auction is coming up next weekend, Saturday May 6th. I hope you have tickets; it promises to be a wonderful event. I will be offering a sermon topic again this coming year. Notice I am not simply offering the sermon title for you to bid on, but the opportunity to develop with me the topic for the sermon.
And so this morning, you receive the fruits of the conversation I had with last year’s highest bidder, Jeff Legget, who paid good money to select the topic and even suggested the title for us, “Whose House Is It, Anyway?” Jeff’s premise, (which is not far from Rick Warren’s premise from this morning’s reading,) is that thoughtful reflection on our foundation will lead to clarity as we consider current congregational matters. As Warren states in his book, “A clear purpose not only defines what we do, it defines what we don’t do.” (p87) It offers clarity.
I don’t think it is a coincidence that Jeff Legget chose the image of a house as a metaphor to talk about our foundational purpose. He didn’t suggest the title “What is the foundation of our church?” or “How do we address our desire to do it all, which puts us at cross-purposes?” either of which would have separated the concept he was reaching for. As someone who is relatively new to Unitarian Universalism and one of the key people involved with the Aesthetics committee, Jeff is watching to see how we sort through the decisions to change, improve, and make additions our space. It often appears at first impression for many people that a Unitarian Universalist congregation is a group of individuals without a common defining center. The unifying pieces are not obvious to most newcomers, and I sometimes suspect they are not so obvious to longer-time members as well. Jeff is watching to see how this diverse cluster of individuals comes together for the good of the community. He has some ideas about how it could work, but wants to see how we make the decisions, how we deal with our passion, how we engage the process, how we wrestle with the various priorities.
So, as we consider specific changes to our building and grounds, we could stand to keep fresh the basic reason or reasons why we have this space at all. As we consider what steps to take next into our future, we could stand to look back and see again the trajectory along which we have been traveling. As we consider these ideas for improving our house, we could stand to take a moment and ask, ‘Whose house is this?’ And in so considering we could find the clarity needed to move forward.
I had to redo my bathroom floor last year. The tiles on the floor when I moved in were the large ceramic kind that usually go on walls. Indeed, our thought is they were wall tiles, not designed to bare weight like a floor tile would. So they cracked. Several tiles, particularly those around the tub had cracks throughout. Well, tearing them out was fun, but then I saw that along tub under those tiles the floor was wet. So I had to tear that layer up too and go back to the store to learn about what material is needed for each layer of floor. Thankfully the wet and rot did not reach all the way down to the last level. The base sub-floor was still a solid foundation. So I then lay down new floorboard, leveling mix, waterproofing skin, and finally linoleum tiles. I thought it would take me a weekend when I started. It took a weekend just to tear out the wet and ruined flooring! It was almost a month before I was finished and we could use the bathroom again. And even then I had to go back and scrap up my first attempt at caulking along the tub and toilet so I could re-caulk.
Home improvement projects have a way of taking over a life. Now, I hope you are not surprised by the fact while I was on my hands and knees in the bathroom I noticed this would make a good metaphor for the congregation at some point. Noticing some cracks in the surface, rooting down and discovering the problem is deeper than originally conceived, digging all the way down to the solid foundation, slowly building back up step by careful step. Returning a short time later to check-up and adjust. I wasn’t sure if it would be a metaphor for personal relationships or for church life, and it turns out to be the latter.
The cracks on our surface in this analogy would be whatever has motivated us to consider changing things. Perhaps they are not ‘cracks’ in the negative sense of the word as though some problems have come up. Instead I would say what has motivated us to consider changing things is the Long Range Planning process coupled with the fresh paint on the walls. It has gotten us started, sparked our interest to discover what we want and what we can do. Now, it feels too close to be using a building analogy to describe the process of making changes to the building, but that’s what I’m doing.
When building a house, you lay the foundation first. In the reading this morning, Rick Warren said, “The foundation determines both the size and the strength of a building. You can never build larger than the foundation can handle.”(p86) He goes on, then, to say: “If you want to build a healthy, strong, and growing church you must spend time laying a solid foundation. This is done by clarifying in the minds of everyone involved exactly why the church exists and what it is supposed to do.” (p86)
So then, what is our foundation? Certainly it is there in the stories of our history. History is important. Where we have been, who we have been defines who we now are and in many ways determines who we can become. Who we used to be will never change; it will never not be who we have been. So it is good to be well aware of that, it is good to re-examine our foundation from time to time while in the midst of new growth. I see the value in what Jeff is asking, but it is a challenge.
Trouble is – we don’t have an easily definable foundation to examine. We don’t have an eightfold path or transcripts from the revelatory dreams of the prophet. We don’t have One person or One book or One belief that we recognize at our foundation. Iconoclasm and rebellion from the past is a common theme in our histories.
William Ellery Channing, the recognized founder of Unitarianism in America, spoke out against central doctrines of Christianity: the doctrines of the trinity, the divinity of Jesus, and human nature. He said that God was one, not three-in-one. He strongly and rationally contended that Jesus was human, human only, and in no way a part of the godhead. He fiercely challenged the belief that humans are basically depraved, flawed creatures; insisting instead that we are basically good. He based his rebellion on his reasoned study of scripture and the proof evident through the miracles. Within a generation Ralph Waldo Emerson and Theodore Parker had brought sweeping reforms that altered the understanding of the miracles and of the bible as a proof-text, thus removing them from the central place they had held at the foundation of the Unitarianism.
Similarly, in Universalism John Murray’s radical concepts of God’s love lead him to speak out against the popular Christian doctrine of eternal damnation. Murray’s message of universal salvation was in direct contrast with the popular preaching of the day. Within a generation Hosea Ballou (whose birthday is also April 30th,) offered a dramatic corrective to Murray’s message that now seems like a nuance to us. Murray’s message focused on doing away with the “eternal” aspect of eternal damnation yet still allowed that there would need to be, for cleansing purposes, limited punishment. Ballou’s message focused on both the “eternal” part and the “damnation” part insisting that there would be no punishment in the afterlife, limited or otherwise. The implications of such a belief cut to the heart of Christianity because if all are automatically saved by God’s love, what was the purpose of Jesus’ death? Was Jesus even necessary beyond as an example? And are we to expect people to be good for nothing, now that the afterlife contained no element of punishment as a motivation?
It almost seems that to be Unitarian Universalist is to rebel against the core elements of the foundation! What are the basic fundamentals of Unitarian Universalism? To Shake the foundations? To rebel against the foundations! But of course, that is not it. The ground we stand on is the ground of truth; any rebellion in which we participate is done in the name of truth. The foundation of our tradition is the search for truth and meaning. In earlier days it was called the freedom of conscience. In biblical times, it was the smashing of false idols.
The religious conscience is the inner knowing that we all have. It is similar to intuition. A commitment to the freedom of conscience is a commitment to allow each person to articulate for themselves what is ultimately true and meaningful. This does not mean it is just a theological free for all. We do not believe in whatever we want, we believe as we must. We believe as our conscience demands. It is not that we totally ignore all the conclusions and answers ever arrived at and written down, it is simply that answers from the past are not the final arbiter of truth among us.
You tell me which makes more sense: believing only what an organization tells you is true, or believing what your conscience within you tells you is true. If your deep personal beliefs are about the same as the statements of faith read out at the place where you worship, then all is well. But if your conscience and the creeds of your congregation are in conflict then you’ve got an issue. In too many religious groups if there is a conflict between traditional sacred beliefs – the foundations – and an individual’s conscience, the individual must either alter his or her conscience somehow or leave the group. In too many religious groups if there is a conflict between beliefs and reality, all attempts are made to adjust reality to fit the beliefs. Here, we fit our beliefs to reality, reality changes constantly and thus so does the ground on which we find our foundation
This is what we mean by Freedom of Conscience. Each person’s way of accessing that which is holy is as unique as a fingerprint. There is not a “right way” to do it. Instead, each person has her or his way to do it. This commitment to the individual freedom of conscience was present in Channing and Murray as well as Ballou, Emerson and Parker, and me and you. This commitment to the individual freedom of conscience is present as a thread since our beginning, at our foundation. And this commitment to the individual freedom of conscience is balanced by a commitment to being in a community together. We are a community of individual seekers, covenanted to walk together. We are a community of opinionated, authority-averse, do-it-yourself-ers – yes! But we are walking together.
As we vote and prioritize the various goals for improving our space, we want a bigger room here and a second room of this type there, it is important to keep in mind the purpose of our work, the foundation upon which we build. Remembering this will clarify what we choose to do. Without the clarity we will surely try to fit everything in that seems like a good idea. Without clarity we will surely try to make as many rooms as possible into multi-purpose rooms just in case. And there is nothing inherently wrong with multi-purpose space. But if we dabble in forty different things, we might miss the opportunity to be good at any of them. If we over focus on multi-purpose, we might lose sight of the main purpose.
Whose house is this? It is our house, together; and for all those who would join us in the search for what is good and true in life. It is our laboratory and gallery, our respite and sanctuary, “the cradle for our dreams and the workshop of our common endeavor.” This congregation exists to help people deepen and connect through worship, study, service, and fellowship. May we challenge each suggested change to fit with our main purpose. May the changes we plan to make, strengthen our ability to fulfill that purpose.
In a world without end,
May it be so
Rev. Douglas Taylor
I began my seminary career at a Methodist Seminary just north of Columbus, OH. It was a valuable experience for me. Having grown up in a Unitarian Universalist church and planning to graduate from Meadville Lombard, our Unitarian Universalist seminary in Chicago, it was a good experience to immerse myself in a positive Christian community. I developed an ear for the language and passion of the liberal Christian culture.
There were two other seminaries in the Columbus area, a somewhat moderate-to-conservative Lutheran school in downtown Columbus and a moderate-to-liberal Catholic seminary in the northern suburbs. By comparison, the Methodist seminary was more liberal, more ecumenical, and more rural. We all came together once a year for shared classes and worship. I was one of the representatives from the Methodist school to help in the planning of the day. I also participated in the evening worship service which the Catholic students (as the hosting school) put together. I did a reading, as did one of the Lutheran students from the downtown seminary.
Now, if you know a little bit about the historical theological rallying of Lutherans and Unitarians you will notice the irony of this. The organizers gave me, the “Deeds not Creeds” Unitarian, the passage from Ephesians where Paul says:
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
But then the “Saved by Faith Alone” Lutheran was given the passage in James that says:
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. (James 2:14-17)
The Catholic student in charge of organizing this shared service claimed to not have noticed the theological reversal, and that may well be true. I still harbor the belief that it was playfully intentional and he chose not to admit it. I think this because it is the kind of thing I might do. “Oh, really, Luther called the letter of James, “the Epistle of Straw” he hated it so much? Oh, Unitarians get there backs up when Paul starts disrespecting the role of good deeds? Gee, it must have been interesting experience for you to have the opposite readings.” Actually, I can’t imagine myself being quite that devious, I’m sure I would have admitted the readings were not random. I think Paul’s over-emphasis on faith is a good balance to James’ heavy-handed praise of works.
Sometimes I wonder if the conservative outsider’s perception is true. I wonder if we do place too much emphasis on justice-making in our congregations. What, after all, is the purpose of a church? And what is the role of social activism and justice-making in life of a congregation? How does the Prophetic ministry fit into the broader scope of why this congregation exists? I’ve been studying this question of purpose lately. I’ve noticed that more conservative Christian churches talk about their purpose in terms of worship, education, and evangelism. Many of them will have an outreach to the poor or a prison ministry, but it is rarely a featured program. Their justice ministry is not written into their mission statements or slogans. They will more often focus on the Great Commission which is to evangelize.
Now, it’s not that we Unitarian Universalists don’t evangelize. It’s that we do it gently. We don’t make a big show of it. We offer examples of what it means to be a part of our community, examples through our living, our loving, and perhaps most visibly, through our justice-making efforts. We are known as J-walkers, we walk the justice walk. Unitarian Universalists Congregations are networks of compassionate concern for the betterment of our world.
What is the purpose of our congregations, why do we exist? Is it simply to be a vehicle to better coordinate justice making efforts? Are we simply a J-walking club? Well, I’ll tell you: of course not, because it’s only half the answer. I’ll admit I toyed with the idea of preaching about faith or spiritual growth knowing that with the Justice forum scheduled there would be many social activists in attendance this morning. But I to be honest, I must spend out time together highlighting the shared primacy of contemplation and activism.
I have long held that the grand purpose of Unitarian Universalism is transformation: personal and social transformation. Social activism and justice-making programs fit as a balance into the primary purpose of why our congregations are here. Our version of salvation is focused on saving the world through justice-work today for all people, rather than offering “personal salvation” in some “next world” for a special select set of true believers. Unitarian Universalism is a progressive religion that balances the freedom of individual belief with the responsibility of the community to take care of others. We strive to have compassion in action.
We Unitarian Universalists have long held a conviction for the importance of good deeds, ethical living, and justice-making in both our personal lives and in our congregational lives. Throughout our history courageous men and women have taken risks and stood up for justice, fairness, and equity. The stunning number of famous people like Susan B. Anthony, Adlai Stevenson, Clara Barton, and John Haynes Holmes are wonderfully outnumbered by the hundreds and thousands of Unitarian Universalists like you and me who work with passion and compassion for positive change to happen in our local communities. And many of our congregations take stands together in a wide array of justice issues. We are justifiably proud of our habit to J-walking.
The grand purpose of Unitarian Universalism is transformation: personal and social transformation. Of course, each Unitarian Universalist congregation is a little bit different; each one has its own flavor. What is this congregation’s purpose? I have said from time to time, “People are our business,” which is kind of vague. I bet a Life Insurance company could get away with the same slogan. I think a better way for us to say it might be: UUCB exists to help people deepen and connect through worship, study, service, and fellowship.
I think we’re doing a great job fulfilling our purpose. Look at this busy month: Last week we invited an Emerson Scholar into our pulpit who led us into deeper study of the life and thought of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Today we host a forum with local justice-oriented organizations. Next weekend we’ll hold our second annual Spirituality retreat. The week after will have Maundy Thursday worship and fellowship events leading up to our significant Spring-time worship event: Easter Sunday. And then, one week later there will be our second annual UU Revue talent night. I could go on, and I’m still talking about the month of April! These are all activities focused on worship, study, service, and fellowship. These are all opportunities to deepen and connect, to balance our individual freedoms and our communal responsibilities. There are many ways to connect and to deepen, many ways to engage your faith here.
Of the many ways in, however, the way of service is a crucial way that everyone at one point or another must travel. And here I mean service in a broader sense than Justice-making. Service is virtually anything you do to make life in general or another person’s life in particular better. Without the service component in faith, everything would be turned inward and we might as well simply be a club. Faith without service is dead. A congregation without a service orientation is a dying congregation. Without the justice programs drawing us to connect with those in need, we end up only for ourselves – a stifling proposition. Our outward-looking service work is a critical component to the health of the congregation.
Notice, for example, how our financial generosity has grown through the monthly special offerings we’ve been hosting. Each month we give our collection away to a local charity or organization that is doing good work in the broader community. When we started, we gave about $200 away each month. That amount has grown slowly to the point that a special collection now raises $600 or $700. In February we collected over $900 for the SOS shelter. Yet, our annual pledge drive, our year-after-year effort to raise funds for our internal financial needs, continues to produce pretty much the same results again and again. We are a generous congregation, though it shows primarily when we are J-walking.
We are in the people business; our purpose is to help people deepen and connect. Justice is about relationships. Justice is not about abstract ideas, or issues. It is about people. “Righteousness” is a common word in the bible. It comes up when describing a just person, or in prayers asking God to make us righteous. “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream.” Being righteous is not about being right or correct. It is not about being better than others. Righteous is perhaps best translated as “Right-relatedness.” To be righteous is to be in “right-relation.” It is about relationships, about how we are with other people.
There is an insightful little story about two men walking along a river one day. They see an infant floating down the river, helplessly caught in the current. Immediately, the two men jump in the river and rescue the child. But after getting the infant to safety they notice another infant floating down the river in the same way. Again, they rush into the river to save the child. And again they look up after getting the second child to safety and another baby is floating down the river. One guy looks at the other and says, “I’ll get this one, you go upstream and stop whoever’s throwing babies in the river.” This story is a play on the aphorism, “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” They both illustrate a distinction between immediate personal problems and systemic problems that effect many people, but the first one makes clear that we need to deal on both levels.
And that is ultimately what I want to tell you this morning. We need to deal on both levels. Service and Justice-work is important, critical. But it is half the equation because we are also called to help one another at times with the little, simple, personal stuff of life: when your neighbor is in need of a ride to the store, a hand shoveling the walk, a kind word during a time of personal turmoil. We call ourselves to put our faith into practice, our compassion into action.
The world is full of all manner of terrible things. There are wars to protest, food pantries to support, legislation to oppose, grassroots organizing to encourage. Yet there are also people in need: loved ones have died, insurance bills have added up, marriages are in trouble, and houses have burned down. Everyone carries their own burdens; each of us is weighed down by our private cares and concerns. Meanwhile the world cries out with injustice and suffering on the global scale. We strive to have compassion in action. We strive to balance our individual needs and passions with the needs and injustices in the world around us. Not an easy task.
I suspect that Paul and James (from the bible-letters) would not disagree with me. Each wrote to a particular community in a particular situation. This is a fact many forget when we read the bible and take what it says as final. These writers were offering responses to particular circumstances such as an overemphasis on good works or a heavy-handed stress on faith as the only thing necessary. Both authors admit in their letters that both are present.
It is always about balance, isn’t it? Breathing out and breathing in, reaching out and drawing in; balance is the key. Having a conscience takes its toll. There is great need and so much of it is truly worthy of our passion and energy. Yet I caution us all to attend to the balance. Now, I’ll admit that some powerful movement can happen when we lean deeply into either our intimate spiritual, personal work or into a highly engaging time of activism and justice-making. Leaning into just activism or only spiritual contemplation will offer the risk of genuine movement. But it is not possible to lean so one-sidedly for long. Those who can develop an even give and take will go farther and cause greater impact both within themselves and in the world around them.
So for all you J-walkers with sometimes spiritual longings, take some time today to contemplate the reason behind your passion, allow it to seep again into your soul. And to all you contemplative souls with occasional bouts of agitation – take in the Justice Forum this afternoon and allow is to offend your conscience a little. Today, through balance and compassion may we become more whole and bring the world greater peace.
In a world without end,
May it be so.
The first time I went to visit someone in prison I was surprised at how much it reminded me of a modern McDonald’s. I guess I expected something with more steel and less plastic, something grey and dingy. The visiting room has what looked to me like a lunch counter with seats on both sides and short glass wall running through the middle. The glass only goes up a foot or so and you can reach over to shake hands or even hug the person you are visiting, something the rules say you can do as you begin your visit and again when you end your visit.
I wonder, how many of you have ever visited someone in jail or prison? Broome County Council of Churches has a jail ministry program that includes visitation, and the NAACP does advocacy for imprisoned African Americans. I imagine most of us who have been to the prison have been to visit someone through these programs. But then I could be way off base, perhaps there are many of you who have had a friend or family member in jail or prison. And I know there are a handful of you who have been in jail or prison. My sermon this morning is not really addressed to issues of prisoners of conscience, people arrested for civil disobedience. Rather I am addressing issues related to people who are in jail or prison because they have broken a law that is a good and just law. I am in favor of prisons but am frustrated with a broken system that continues to fail at fulfilling all but its crudest of functions.
When I as a parent need to punish my child, I do so not to exact revenge, not to make the child suffer, not to make an example of him or her for others. I do it to educate and redeem the child. Certainly a “time-out” serves to remove the “offender” from the situation but it also gives the child time to cool down and think through what went wrong. Can you imagine a criminal justice system where we actually tried to do the follow-up steps of education and redemption with our incarcerated brothers and sisters? Can you imagine a system built on restoration and reconciliation rather than on just locking them up and forgetting about them?
The Newsweek article by Polites that we used for a reading this morning drew several letters to the editor. It was actually these letters that caught my eye, leading me to search back to find the original article. One letter in particular stood out to me as a very even handed response. Michael Hollingshead writes,
Olga Polite’s personal account of tragedy is more than compelling. She reminds us that it’s one thing to oppose the death penalty on “Higher Moral” grounds, but another to experience such a dramatic personal loss firsthand. Indeed, I believe that any and all of us who are anti-death-penalty activists would do well to also join a victims’ rights group to, at the very least, get a better grip on the wider experience. (2-6-06, p22)
One of the key pieces I think needs to be remembered is that it is not principles and issues at stake; it is not statistics and ideology being measured and politely discussed. We’re dealing with actual people, with actual human beings who have been incarcerated and actual people who are victims of the crimes for which people have been incarcerated. We are dealing with more than politics; we are dealing with the theology of human nature, and the nature of good and evil. Are we basically good people who do bad things under certain circumstances, or are we basically bad people who can be compelled to do good things under certain circumstances? Can we divide the population into good people and bad people? What is our responsibility to our brothers and sisters? Can people change?
Historically both Unitarianism and Universalism have offered affirmative and theologically grounded answers to these questions. We have long felt the draw to lift our hands and voices to champion justice in the land. And historically even this very issue has long been a concern among us.
In 1857, the Universalist Convention adopted a sweeping statement for reform. A General Reform Association was created and they attempted to address Slavery, Women’s rights, Temperance, and Prison reform just to name a few. The Universalists of that time were committed to the implications of a theology that claimed all people were members of one human family. The reformers saw that all people were worthy of being included in the plan for salvation, and not just in the next world, but (as they said,) “insofar as possible, in this world as well.”
In the late eighteenth century, Benjamin Rush had argued forcefully on theological grounds for the better treatment of prisoners, including the elimination of the death penalty:
A belief in God’s universal love to all his creatures, and that he will finally restore all those of them that are miserable to happiness, is a polar truth. It leads to truths upon all subjects, more especially upon the subject of government. It establishes the equality of mankind – it abolishes the punishment of death for any crime – and converts jails into houses of repentance and reformation.
(from The Larger Hope by Charles Howe, p58-9)
And Reverend Charles Spear and his wife are remembered for thirty years devotion to a prison ministry. Spear visited prisoners, taught Sunday School classes, gave lectures on reform, helped those recently released to adjust, and for over 15 years published the Prisoner’s Friend which was advertised as “the only journal known in the world that is wholly devoted to the Abolition of Capital Punishment and the Reformation of the Criminal.” Rev. Spear and his wife lived in poverty most of their days, but were generally supported by their fellow Universalists.
On the Unitarian side of the family, Dorothea Dix is remembered for her tireless scouring of the Massachusetts jails, prisons, and poorhouses for people with mental illnesses. The conditions in the jails and correctional facilities were atrocious and after a year and a half of personally visiting each one and writing extensive notes, Dix convinced the state legislature to provide for the present situation and for the future accommodations. Her efforts ushered in sweeping reforms in that state, and in the several other states she went to next including New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island and New Jersey. At Dix’s funeral they read the passage from scripture: “I was hungered and ye gave me meat; I was thirsty and ye gave me drink; I was stranger and ye took me in; naked and ye clothed me; I was sick and ye visited me; I was in prison and ye came unto me.”
Prison reform and the abolition of the death penalty have long been seen as special justice issues in need of our voices from within the ranks of Unitarianism, Universalism, and now from within the merged Unitarian Universalism.
This past summer in Fort Worth, TX, the general Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association passed its annual Statement of Conscience. This year it was titled “Criminal Justice and Prison Reform.” This Statement of Conscience business is basically a process designed to engage the whole of Unitarian Universalism in a process of justice making. It is a two year process stating with a big vote to select a topic. In 2003 there were about five options, all of them worth deeper study and engagement. What persuaded me, and perhaps enough others, was when a representative from the Youth Caucus spoke at the microphone in favor of the Prison Reform topic. The Youth Caucus had considered the various options and decided to put their voices and votes toward the issue of Prison Reform because they saw it as a grave concern for the future of our nation. I have a personal commitment to always listen to youth when they speak of the future.
We have 2.2 million people in prisons and jails, as a ratio of incarcerated people to the whole population that is a huge number. Our ratio is the highest in the world. The United Kingdom has the highest ratio among European Union nations, and the U.S. ratio is five times greater. You would think that would be seen as a problem. Another startling statistic is that 50% of incarcerated people are African American. African Americans make up only 13% in general population. Is it not clear simply from the statistics that something is wrong?
But then, it is not statistics and ideology at the center of our discussion. We’re dealing with actual people; we are dealing with the theology of human nature. As Unitarian Universalists we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person. That includes every person who has hurt, terrorized, or killed another person. That is not to say that the cruel, unrepentant, sadistic killer has a nice and happy person hidden deep inside just waiting to be loved. Certainly not! It does mean, however, that even the worst criminals you could meet are still human beings, no less than fellow human beings. It means that even the worst criminals you could meet are worth the effort simply because they are human.
“Redemptive justice recognizes justice as relational. Its purpose is to restore wholeness and rightness in the social order and in the disposition of the offender, not to exact revenge.” That is from the UUA Statement of Conscience. Redemption is not a goal of our current prison system. Justice is relational. It is about how we relate to each other. Our prison system should work to restore and redeem the prisoner and society.
“Rehabilitative Justice is a process of education, socialization, and empowerment of the person to the status whereby she or he may be able to contribute constructively and appreciably to society.” That is another quote form the Statement of Conscience. There are three of these: Redemptive, Rehabilitative, and Restorative; all of which out current prison system should do, but does not.
“Restorative justice is a process whereby the offender can reconcile with the victim through appropriate restitution, community service, and healing measures.” Now, when I say our current prison system “never” works to be redemptive, rehabilitative, or restorative I am certainly exaggerating. But the efforts our current system puts forth are such failures we must recognize that institutions are inherently resistant to change and reform. I don’t know if these are strict definitions, but they all sort of mesh together in my memory: to restore, redeem and rehabilitate, is to bring the individual back into right relationship through education and restitution. Instead what we do is close people off, shut them in with their poisonous anger and hurt. Instead of recognizing the possibility of change, we assume it is too late and so simply send them away so we don’t have to think about it.
In a book Prayers for a Planetary Pilgrim, Father Edward Hays offers this prayer called Prisoner’s Psalm:
I am your caged brother/sister/ friend:
A criminal, yes, …
You’ve excommunicated me for life
Into a warehouse of unwanteds …
You’ve sent me to this walled hospital
Where you say that I’ll be cured,
But this is no place of healing
Or even of rehabilitation,
But rather it is a guarded schoolhouse
Whose crowded classroom cells
Teach a wild wisdom
That you and I both know
Is poison to the touch.
I remember talking to a man in prison. We had struck up a relationship that we maintained for a while well he was Downstate. He spoke of the difficulty of keeping a hardened exterior against that poisonous atmosphere, while somehow maintaining a transformed soul inside, where kindness is seen as a weakness. He told to me about seeing the Northern Lights through his small cell window one night. He was just stunned and climbed up to get a good look, crouching up by the window for several long minutes as the sky exploded with waves of brightness. A few minutes later, he had found one of the guards and pointed it out to him. The guard was just as stunned by the overwhelming beauty of the Aurora Borealis. Together they stepped out into the open of a small landing to get a better look. The guard said something about how he shouldn’t let my friend out on the landing like that – shouldn’t be standing this close to him, basically that the guard was putting himself in a compromised position. But sometimes the grace and beauty of the world will grab you and the only adequate response is to find someone else to share it with.
So, what, as people of faith, can we do about the failure of our criminal justice system? There is much we could do. First I want you to think about this though. Three weeks from now we are hosting a forum, Feb. 26th, Kevin Wright from Binghamton University will speak about prison reform more clearly than I could hope to. And our own Social Responsibility Committee is work on issues around torture. If you can find it within you to put some energy toward this work, I commend the NAACP and the Broome County Council of Church’s prison ministry program. I also know there is a pen pal program through the UU Church of the Larger Fellowship which I could tell you more about. What can we, as people of faith, do about this unjust justice system? Perhaps the simplest action is to remember that it is our brothers and sisters we have shut away, to remember and not forget them or give up on them.
In a world without end
May it be so.
Elusive Proof of an Afterlife
In her book Kitchen Table Wisdom, Rachel Naomi Remen offers this story:
For the last ten years of his life, Tim’s father had Alzheimer’s disease. Despite the devoted care of Tim’s mother, he had slowly deteriorated until he had become a sort of walking vegetable. He was unable to speak and was fed, clothed, and cared for as if he were a very young child. As Tim and his brother grew [into adolescence], they would stay with their father for brief periods of time while their mother took care of the needs of the household. One Sunday, while she was out shopping, the boys, then fifteen and seventeen, watched football as their father sat nearby in a chair. Suddenly, he slumped forward and fell to the floor. Both sons realized immediately that something was terribly wrong. His color was grey and his breath uneven and rasping. Frightened, Tim’s older brother told him to call 911. Before he could respond, a voice he had not heard in ten years, a voice he could barely remember, interrupted. “Don’t call 911, son. Tell your mother that I love her. Tell her that I am all right.” And Tim’s father died.
Tim, a cardiologist, looked around the room at the group of doctors mesmerized by this story. “Because he died unexpectedly at home, the law required that we have an autopsy,” he told us quietly. “My father’s brain was almost entirely destroyed by this disease. For many years, I have asked myself ‘Who spoke?’ I have never found even the slightest help from any medical textbook. I am no closer to knowing this now than I was then, but carrying this question with me reminds me of something important, something I do not want to forget. Much of life can never be explained but only witnessed.”
(“The Question” ,p300)
Last year during the Question Box sermon at the end of May, you asked me about this sort of thing a few times. “If we think with our minds, feel with our hearts, what do we do with our souls or spirits?” “What is meant by ‘the soul’?” “What do you believe happens to the soul after death?” And then, one more that held a slightly different focus, “Is there a UU version of Heaven and the afterlife?”
I would have to go back to the video tape from that Question Box Sunday to tell you exactly how I responded, but I recall talking about how there is not a unanimous or even majority opinion about the afterlife among Unitarian Universalists today. Perhaps I spoke about pastoral answers rather than theological answers. I am sure I shared my own conviction that we return to that from which we arose; that in the universe as a whole, I believe, recycling is the rule: our biological/physical components return to the good Earth and the energy of our being returns to be used again in another form. I was cautiously doubtful about anything of a persons ‘personality’ surviving death, and still am – yet there is much I am cautiously doubtful about. There are far too many experiences I have been through and have been told about by people I trust to completely discount the possibility that there is something more going on that what fits in my nicely neat philosophy and science. I have been told many compelling stories of connections, healings, and encounters.
A friend tells the story of feeling her grandfather tucking her into bed one night and saying goodnight, when in fact he had died earlier that evening several states away. What is really going on? I don’t doubt my friend’s experience, only her interpretation of it. Did her grandfather’s spirit visit her on its way out, if you will? Was it instead a dream with dramatic, maybe over-dramatic, timing? Was it actually her father tucking her into bed while she was already half asleep which she later in her memory transformed into the face and voice of her grandfather? If it was just a dream, was it therefore not real? Most people don’t have much wiggle room in their convictions to consider different possibilities. Most of us pick one explanation and stick to it, and since each explanation is just as un-provable as the next, we can just smile to each other and go on our separate ways, which we’re allowed to do here.
The person sitting next to you may believe very strongly that when we die we go to heaven and meet up with loved ones who have gone before us. Or that at death we can know and understand life, the universe and everything. Or that after we die nothing further happens. Of course, some here believe in reincarnation and others believe in spirits or ghosts that continue to move among the living and can be perceived and even communicated with by some of us. Then there are perhaps a goodly number among us who don’t give it much thought at all.
A book came out a year or two ago from Skinner House Books, which is the small in-house publishing company we have alongside the bigger Beacon Press. The book, by John Buescher, is titled The Other Side of Salvation: Spiritualism and the Nineteenth-Century Religious Experience. It is a documentary history of a movement focused around the idea that we could correspond with the dead. The implications and consequences of Spiritualism were almost unimaginable – especially for religion.
The Spiritualist movement is said to have blossomed in 1848 when the Fox sisters gained notoriety in the Rochester NY area for the rappings of a “haunt” that went beyond just noises and unexplained sounds: the “haunt” would answer questions with the rapping. A few years earlier the Electric telegraph had demonstrated to the general public that common sense rules about time and distance could be transcended in certain situations, such as sending a series of dot and dash sounds along a line. Couldn’t it be possible the rapping at the Fox sister’s farm house was something of a spiritual telegraph connection from the afterlife?
Suddenly we could approach what is perhaps the most critical question for religion, a question that before was altogether unapproachable but through conjecture: What happens after death. The first implication, of course, is that something happens, rather than nothing! Liberal religions were most open to the possibility and of them Universalism was most effected by the ideas.
Universalism has always carried the optimism and openness of liberal religion and a central doctrine clearly in the sphere of the afterlife: that all souls would be united in heaven. Demographically, people struggling in the lower and middle classes were drawn to Universalism. But Universalism was a modern religion as well; personal experience was tempered by reason. The efforts of science to understand the world were welcomed. Spiritualism was seen as an opening to explore, even in a scientific manner, the verity of the central tenet of the Universalist faith.
In the introduction of the book Buescher writes:
People from every denomination and from no denomination (and even those who were explicitly antireligious) became spiritualist. Universalist, however, were quite disproportionately drawn to this belief, and no denomination lost more of its leaders to it. Universalists and non-Universalists alike noticed this at the time, as have a few modern historians of spiritualism. But historians of Universalism have generally ignored it. (p viii)
Why? Perhaps embarrassment, I don’t know. As a scientific effort, Spiritualism proved to be inconsistent and open to manipulation. As a movement it tended toward disorganization. The Spiritualist movement was very individualistic, with no significant or lasting efforts toward institutions and communities of Spiritualists. Thus, individual clergy and lay people could have Spiritualist connections and practices and still have the Universalist church as their primary group for religious association. There were a few attempts at the institutional level to avoid any close tie or connection with Spiritualism on the part of Universalism. Spiritualism continues today as individuals continue to have experiences.
But for all that, many Universalists were prominent figures in the movement. The minister from the First Universalist Society of Rochester, NY was on of the few clergy supporters of the Fox sisters. Rev. Charles Hammond went on to write a book, under the influence of a spirit. The spirit turned out to be the great atheist Thomas Paine and was a narrative pilgrimage of Paine’s soul as he learned more and evolved higher beliefs after death, such as that of the eternal soul which could communicate with the living.
Another Universalist preacher, reformer, and founder of the utopian society in Hopedale, MA, Adin Ballou, also channeled spirits. Ballou, however did not channel to write a book, he lead Sabbath services that were directed by the spirits such as Benjamin Franklin and Ballou’s own son who had died young while training to become a minister.
I have on occasion, after completing a sermon, looked back at what I’d written and said, “Wow, who wrote that! That’s really quite good.” And I don’t intend it to sound arrogant, but neither do I intend to imply that I think I am channeling someone else’s words. At least, such was my assumption prior to really considering this book. What is the source of inspiration? I tend to think of my sermon writing as opening myself up to the text, to life, to the ideas and reflecting these things back in a somewhat organized fashion. But, then, what does that prove?
I searched through the book to find references of the Binghamton Universalist Congregation but found little to nothing. I am not sure if I am relieved or disappointed on that count.
The other book I’ve been reading, Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach, is a very entertaining book. The Other Side of Salvation is informative and very interesting but a bit dry. The author of Spook, on the other hand, has a very witty and engaging style. She travels to India to talk with scientists researching reports of reincarnation, to Duke University to discuss the theory and practice of weighing or otherwise measuring the soul, to Ontario to sit inside an electromagnetic haunt-box. Apparently there is a connection between electromagnetic fields and the frequency of reported ghost sightings. Of course, scientifically that begs the question of cause and effect. Does sitting in a specially designed electromagnetic haunt-box create hallucinations in the brain, thus causing people to experience “ghosts;” or does it simply heighten your ability to perceive what really is there? What does it prove, really?
Most people are comforted be proof. Even for a radical belief about every soul reuniting together in happiness and holiness with God in the heaven, a little proof is a comforting thing. The upshot of Mary Roach’s book is that the evidence suggests something but not any one thing strongly. People do find an otherwise unaccountable fluctuation of weight at the exact moment of death: a loss of 21 grams; but not every time, not even most times. (Alright, it only happened one time. The other five times from that specific study other measurements were found, even weight gain! But Hollywood liked the sound of “21 grams” and featured that number specifically.) People do report remarkably accurate accounts of what transpires from outside their bodies while doctors and nurses try to revive them, down to the shoes the medical staff wore and the tools they used and how; but not every time, not even most times. It is inconsistent. Science can’t replicate situations for study. But that does not mean it isn’t real.
I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the little book flatland written in 1884. Mathematicians and computer scientists still love this little book by Edwin Abbott. In it, the characters are all two-dimensional shapes: Square, Circle, Triangle and so on. Suddenly one of them meets a stranger, a three-dimensional shape: Sphere! Square and Circle’s experience of sphere is limited the two dimensions they live in. All they know is height and width. But depending on where Sphere is, Sphere looks like Circle but bigger, or smaller, or as even just a pinpoint until nothing! How do they explain it to each other? They try to use all the words and concepts they have yet nothing they say is quite right.
Well, this is the sort of thing we are dealing with when talking about an afterlife. The only way to really prove it is to experience it. And our experience of it is necessarily limited by our language, our concepts, and our experiences. How can we experience the afterlife until we are dead? Even the near-death experiences may not be anything like really dying. A near-death experience is like having a layover in the Paris airport and thinking you’ve seen France. You’ve had a near-France experience, but you haven’t really experienced France! You don’t know France!
I don’t know, all I am left with is more questions. It is a mystery. In the end there is not much more I can add. People have experiences that don’t fit the common philosophy and science as currently accepted. The history of charlatans and sham artists does not negate the possibility that what you think you have been through yourself may really be what you think it is! I don’t know. I’m left with more questions. It is a mystery. My assumptions certainly have popped out now and then over the past few minutes this morning, but I try to stay open so far as truth and experience are concerned.
By ghosts, gods, or we know not yet what, odd things continue to happen the do not fit within our scheme of how things work. Believe as you will, assume what you assume, try to stay open to possibilities. Remember there is so much more than can be explained or understood and we miss something important when we over-focus on trying to explain things we don’t understand. We miss that sometimes we are simply called to witness
In a world without end,
May it be so