Nature as Guide
In Hindu scripture there is a story of a student asking the master about the nature of the transcending reality that is often called God. The student asked how it is we can know about the great mystery. The master told the student to fetch a glass of water and a bit of salt. The master then instructed the young one to stir the salt into the water and then asked, “Where is the salt?”
“Why, it is in the water,” replied the student.
“But we cannot see the salt,” the master said. “How are we to know the salt is really there?”
“The water will taste salty,” answered the student.
“Just so!” said the master. “In the same way can we know about the transcending reality of life, by experiencing it.”
Jesus extorted his followers to not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Indeed, he said, “look to the birds in the air” and “consider the lilies of the field, how they grow.” He spoke of faith being like a seed and good deeds as fruit. Perhaps the image that has struck deepest other than that of God being like a father, is the story of the shepherd and the lost sheep. “Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven. What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine one the mountain and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.”
There is a Buddhist meditation that I learned years ago now that reflects on the power pervasiveness of water, on its essential and humble qualities; suggesting that we, too, like water can move through life with a humble power.
The central metaphor we evoked last week during the Samhain service was that of the dying leaves of autumn. Leading up to the releasing fire, I invited us to consider the lesson offered by these dying leaves and what we could let go of as we each journey into the deep winter time.
Annie Dillard writes, “I could very calmly go wild.” In our reading this morning she suggest that the single-mindedness of the weasel is something lacking in human living and that we could learn something from those wild things out there.
Are you noticing the common thread here? Time and again, religions turn to the natural world for guidance in how to live. Time and again the metaphors we use in religion to describe life or God or faith, are metaphors from nature. Time and again in the deep questions of who we are and how we are to live, nature is our guide. Unitarian Universalism is heir to a remarkable tradition that held this focus on the natural world. The Transcendentalists, most notably Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, were people who believed in the imminence of God in every person. They turned to nature to for insight and understanding.
There is a reading in our hymnal from Ralph Waldo Emerson that is about roses. The transcendentalists were generally quite skilled at recognizing in nature the secrets of a good life. “These roses under my window,” Waldo wrote, “make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exist with God today. There is no time to them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence.” This is so common a statement from naturalists and transcendentalists. It recurs in literature regularly. The world of nature: flowers, animals, waterfalls; these do not tax themselves with preoccupations and worries. One of the goals of Buddhist meditation is to become present to the moment. A task which is so simple for a dog or a bird or an infant, is so very difficult for you and me.
As Emerson says, the rose under his window is ‘perfect in every moment of its existence.’ “But we postpone or remember. We do not live in the present, but with reverted eye lament the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround us, stand on tiptoe to foresee the future. We cannot be happy or strong until we too live with nature in the present above time.” Think back to a time when you were fully happy. Where you watching the clock? Or was time flying while you were having fun? Think back to a time when you were fully happy. Where you multi-tasking? Or were you fully present and enjoying the moment, ‘perfect in every moment of your existence.’
So many examples from nature lead us to the conclusion that single-minded attentiveness is highly valued. So often, however, we hear appreciation and praise of multi-tasking; as if multi-tasking is some how better than being able to focus on one thing, as if having a fragmented attention is a good thing. Multitasking only gives the illusion of creating extra time. This and other behaviors like it work to divide our attention in too many directions. We are in danger of becoming fragmented.
I had a fascinating experience this week that tied together much of what I was reading for this Sunday’s sermon. I was invited to speak to a class of grade school English teachers in Elmira College. The teachers were all taking a graduate level class in literature. Their professor had them reading The Scarlet Letter and Moby Dick, and he thought it would be great to get either a modern-day Calvinist, Wiccan, or Unitarian in to speak with them because these were the faith traditions that came up in the books. The professor found me and invited me over. A few days before the class he sent me a list of questions they had brainstormed the week before.
The first question they asked was “Do you believe that contemporary America is a Puritan country?” They had just finished reading The Scarlet Letter, so this was foremost in their minds. My response was “No,” because the most predominant characteristic in our country today is the fragmentation. We are too fragmented to have one characteristic such as Puritanism shine through as a dominant characteristic. There are certainly pockets of it alive today, and pockets of anti-Puritanism as well which is really the same thing, just in the opposite direction. American society holds too many sub-cultures for there to be any ONE dominate culture informing us. Now, answering that puritan question with a little more time and a little more thought would probably yield a “yes” from me as well as my initial “no,” and that be make a good sermon down the road.
But my initial response lead right into their second question, “What, if anything, is wrong with American society?” When my kids had seen that question on the sheet they had said “what do you mean, ‘if anything’?” What, if anything, is wrong with American society? I said, “Well, some people don’t think anything is wrong.” “What?!?” they asked incredulously. We could develop quite a list, I am sure: incivility, greed, privatization, thoughtless destruction of the good earth, a political administration gutting our domestic infrastructure and crusading across foreign nations, excessive moralizing about sexuality while ignoring the poor, apathy; we could have a couple of months worth of sermons from that question and more importantly: how to respond. My answer from earlier this week: ‘fragmentation leading to radical alienation.’
As a nation we are fragmented down into market groups, special niches, and subcultures galore. As individuals we are also driven to distraction be multiple competing demands of our attention and focus, driven from integrity – from an integrated whole – into dis-integration. We learn to juggle our calendars and to multi-task and to act like the dancing bear in the circus. For whom do we perform? What is gained by all that, and what is lost? “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” (Mark 8:35).
Can you imagine a tree acting like that? Or a bird? I can’t even imagine what that might be like! Henry David Thoreau wrote,
Nature never makes haste; her systems revolve at an even pace. The buds swell imperceptibly, without hurry or confusion, as though the short spring days were an eternity. Why, then, should man hasten as if anything less than eternity were allotted for the least deed? The wise man is restful, never restless or impatient.
This is not entirely true, but generally speaking this is how it happens. Thoreau says nature does not hurry or get confused. But strange behavior was noticed in the trees along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico last month. People are saying the trees were confused, that they were “fooled by the wind, raid, and cold of the hurricane into thinking that winter had already come and gone.” (From a web log by Bishop Hope Ward) This October the trees down there went into bloom and produced fruit out of season. They call it a “Second Spring.” It is not just a metaphor; there are photographs of a fig tree producing figs in October. Now, I’ve learned not to believe everything I see and read on the internet, but NPR was reporting on this too so I’m inclined to believe the reports.
But I don’t think the trees are confused or fooled. I think it is just an extra part of the natural system! When devastation hits, the land responds. There is a natural resiliency in the world; and in people as well. So, while nature can be thrown out of her “even pace” as Thoreau calls it, it is still ill stated to say the trees are confused.
Confused is what we get. Distracted and fragmented, that is our lot. Emerson suggests we could learn something from the roses under his window. Jesus thinks the lilies of the field could offer insight. Annie Dillard, from our reading this morning, proposes the same concerning weasels. “I might learn something of mindlessness,” she writes, “something of the purity of living in the physical senses and the dignity of living without bias or motive.”
“I could very calmly go wild. I could live two days in the den, curled, leaning on mouse fur, sniffing bird bones, blinking, licking, breathing musk, my hair tangled in the roots of grasses. Down is a good place to go,” she writes, “where the mind is single.” She asks if we can really live that way, though. “We could, you know,” she finally concludes. “We can live any way we want. People take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience – even of silence – by choice. The thing is to stalk your calling in a certain skilled and supple way, to locate the most tender spot and plug into that pulse.”
And there is something in that last line, that line where she says “the thing is to stalk your calling.” There is a clue there that also comes pouring out from the essays of the transcendentalists and the sermons of the messiah and the lessons of the Buddha. There is a clue here that nature can be not only a guide to living well and living healthy. The single-mindedness, the focused attentiveness, the ability to be here now is simply an underlying element to nature. And it is something in the nature of you and me as well. We can live that way.
In a world without end
May it be so
We went raspberry picking this weekend. We picked apples, too, but I enjoy raspberries more, both in the eating and in the picking! And as I stood there, stooped over the berry bushes, my wife one row over with Brin, Keenan and Piran a short way further down the row with me, I thought of several spiritual lessons that could be derived from raspberry picking; such as, needing to stoop a bit because some of the best berries are under the leaves and effectively hidden from sight unless you are only three feet tall or are a little stooped over. And life is sometimes like that, too. Or I might choose to tell you about the pinkish-red stains on my fingertips and how what you love and what you do will mark you and show through. Or I could have found a juicy metaphor about discernment and about how to tell the ripe fruit from the unripe and the over-ripe. Indeed I tell you I was confounded and overwhelmed by how much a simple expedition to the berry patch could illustrate and reveal. Indeed I tell you, despite befuddling difficulties such as this, I take great pleasure in my work.
I did eventually discover which aspect of this family outing held the secretly deep insight that I wanted to share with you all today. And, as it turns out, it is not a metaphor, but the reality of something I discovered out there in the berry patch with my wife and our children. It is simply this: raspberries taste so much better when you pick them yourself.
There is a story of an ocean fish who searched and searched for this thing called the ocean that others spoke of. He asked older and wiser fish but was always disappointed when they told him he was swimming in it. “What I am swimming in is water. What I am seeking is the ocean.” And on he would search.
And so, you and I go searching for God, truth, spirituality, and so many things like this. “But this is just life going on around me, what I am seeking is God.” Silly fish, there isn’t anything to look for, all one must do is look! You’re swimming in it! Wherever you are is a good enough place to find what you seek. Or try the raspberry bushes in autumn. And to think, some only find berries there!
One thing, however, is certainly needed before you start – reverence.
At the beginning of this morning’s reading, Paul Woodruff offered a definition of Reverence that agrees with the standard dictionary and more. “Reverence,” he writes, “begins in a deep understanding of human limitations; from this grows the capacity to be in awe of whatever we believe lies outside our control – God, truth, justice, nature, even death. The capacity for awe, as it grows, brings with it the capacity for respecting fellow human beings, flaws and all.”
Why do the berries taste better when you pick them yourself? Is it just that they are fresher? I should think that is part of it. But it also has something to do with the fact that it was my hands moving through the berry bushes harvesting these little fruit. So small, those berries; so simple, the task to pull them from the bush; so insignificant, the energy I expend to collect this fruit; yet how grand the system and energy that went into creating and growing those raspberries. From seed to bush to fruit, year after year of fruit, generation after generation of bush, age after age of seed; and I simply stoop down, push aside a few leaves, and pluck the fruit.
Now, it seems to me I have at least two ways I could see this, assuming I think about it at all. I could revel in my own power to pluck the fruit that took so long to grow and ripen. Or I could be humble in the face of how little control I have over such powerful creative forces. According to Woodruff as he articulated in our reading this morning, the distinction between the two perspectives is reverence. “Reverence is the capacity to be in awe of whatever we believe lies outside our control.”
Both ‘respect’ and ‘awe’ are listed as synonyms for reverence, but of the two, ‘awe’ fits better. Awe is respect tinged with fear, a mingling of wonder and dread inspired by both majesty and the sublime. Thus, the words “awesome” and “awful” both have their root in the word “awe.” Now, I hope we don’t get tangled up on this word. Awe is not the same as fear. Let us not confuse reverent with God-fearing. Usually those who most revere God are those who least fear God. And consider, when Albert Schweitzer spoke of Reverence for Life, he was not speaking of a fear of life.
While picking berries a few days back, I was not suddenly struck by an overwhelming fear of berries, rather the feeling of awe was just that: awe – respect tinged with fear for the majesty of the whole show. And it only lasted a moment. Most of the time I was thinking and feeling those ordinary, mundane things that you feel on a family outing: happiness, pride, silliness, love, where did the boys get off to now? Let’s not get carried away, we don’t need that many apples. Hey, these raspberries taste really good. Reverence is the capacity to feel awe. You’re swimming in it all the time, but that doesn’t mean you are aware of it at every moment, (unless, I suppose, you are a saint or enlightened.) Reverence is about not your constancy, but your capacity to feel awe.
I don’t know if you have noticed or not, but there has been a bit of a stir in Unitarian Universalism over the past few years involving the word ‘reverence.’ Specifically, there has been a call for a language of reverence. Why? Well, that is part of the confusion. Some have seen this call as a push to bring back a lot of old words from our protestant Christian past, to dust off words like God, Sin, Prayer, and Salvation and to try and make those old words ring again, make them respectable in UU circles once more. But that can’t be what it’s all about because that’s just silly. Those words never left our circle, they’re still here. And they get used when they need to be and they still ring, at least when they’re spoken in truth.
Another reason cited for why we need a language of reverence is so we can engage in conversation with our religious brothers and sisters from other religious traditions using words they can relate to. Again, I think that’s silly because having words with which to talk to other religions will not make us actually talk with other religions more. Maybe we should just get out there and start talking with and partnering with other faith traditions rather than having yet another internal debate about who we are and how we are going to define ourselves to the one another and the rest of the world.
Still one other reason cited for needing a vocabulary of reverence is that everyone has experiences of reverence, moments of inarticulate awe, and it would be nice to have some language with which to articulate those experiences. Here, now, is a reason I can work with. I am not interested in learning a new language or revamping someone else’s for the sake of then being able to communicate with them. That will simply lead to confusion. But if we start from the fact that we have experiences of reverence, what can we do but try to find words that will help us share those experiences. And, of course, this can prove quite tricky. As one story goes:
The seeker approached the disciple and asked respectfully,
“What is the meaning of human life?”
The disciple consulted the works of his master and confidently replied,
“Human life is nothing but the expression of God’s exuberance.”
When the seeker addressed the master himself with the same question,
the master said, “I do not know.”
Sometimes the words get in the way. Sometimes in our searching for understanding we find a great many words, but as we dig deeper we discover that we have moved from ignorance, through masked ignorance posing as knowledge, until we finally come to a place of wisdom and understanding, a powerful place of connectedness, a place where there are few words to explain or label what is known. And, you know, I think I find that place every now and then. But a significant part of my job is caught up in words and so I expect most of my life is spent as the disciple in the story who says, “Human life is nothing but the expression of God’s exuberance.” That’s not so bad.
This is a significant reason why I love being a Unitarian Universalist preacher, in all honesty: this striving to articulate the ineffable experiences that fill every person’s days, trusting that the deeply personal is at the same time deeply universal. I try to have a foot on each side of that line of distinction, half my time with words striving to say what can not be said, half my time digging below the words into life and spirit. In Unitarian Universalism our primary source of truth and insight is life itself. This makes it difficult to find the words sometimes, but I do love it.
One thing I do miss in our faith tradition, however, is specific holidays and other regularly scheduled times for us to address timeless spiritual needs together in our own unique Unitarian Universalist way. We point to and occasionally go through the steps of other holidays from the world’s religions, like Easter and Yom Kippur and Samhain, but we have no holidays that are our own. Sadly Unitarian Universalism has inherited a fierce iconoclastic tendency that has led us through the years to abandon communal rituals and prayers as misleading or empty. It has led us to honor each person’s unique approach over a communal approach. What that gains us is the authentic search for truth and meaning because each person’s experiences are their own and are honored. What we have lost is the recurring opportunity to discover anew the meaning and power of adjusting ourselves to the depths to be found in deep rituals. What we have lost by shunning rituals and ceremonies where the same questions arise and the same responses are given is the chance to take in some wisdom without it being explained first with fresh and entertaining words.
For example, the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, will begin at sundown tomorrow night. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (the Jewish Day of Atonement) are the start and finish of the ten Days of Awe. The New Year is a time of prayer and reflection. It is a time to look at the life you have been living with a particular perspective: Have I been a good person, have I served life, have I helped my fellow human beings? This litany of reflection took place last year around this time and will take place again nest year around this same time. Yet each year as you ‘go through the motions’ there is a chance that you are actually ready to receive them and be transformed. Each time you engage the ceremony is an opportunity to go beyond the words of the ceremony and tap into the real stuff of life.
The holy month of Ramadan on the Islamic calendar also begins this week. For Muslims it is a time for fasting and prayer. It is a time when believers are encouraged to read the Koran in full. Even though you read it last year, you read it in full again this month. Even though last time, you didn’t understand all of it then, or didn’t like parts of it, you still read through the holy book. Ramadan is a time to reverently turn back to the basics of the Islamic faith. It is an opportunity to go beyond the words of the book and of the rituals, an opportunity to tap into the real stuff of life. And so the Muslim people are encouraged to enter this holy time with reverence, anticipating the majesty of what they might experience.
If you could institute a new holiday for Unitarian Universalism, what would it be? A feast day for a special person like Emerson or event in our history like the Edict of Torda? A day of repentance and atonement? A celebration of a change in the season and a mirrored shift in the lives of most of our people? A serious time for reflection and sacrifice, a reenactment, a playful meal, a sacred trip to a sacred location like Walden? What would it be? A Water Communion, a Flower Communion, Question Box Sunday? Do you think you could get the following Monday off work? Could you face the recurring opportunity to discover anew the meaning and power of adjusting yourself to the depths that can be found in a deep ritual or ceremony? Could you enter the holy time with reverence, anticipating the majesty of what you might experience? Could you engage in this opportunity to go beyond the words of the ceremony and tap into the real stuff of life? Could you open your mind and your heart, and stay humble for the possibility? Could you at least show up and practice reverence?
Reverence is a frame of mind, a frame of heart, perhaps, to keep us humble, keep us tuned to the deeper levels of life. Reverence begins with an understanding our limitations, according to Woodruff. You know, when I was out there among the raspberry bushes with my family, my fingertips did get some pinkish-red stains. What you love and what you do will mark you and show through. What you revere, when you stand in awe, will mark you and humble you and will show through. And that’s not so bad.
In a world without end,
May it be so.
Undeserved Abundance (and Hardship)
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Have you ever seen
In your life
Than the way the sun
Relaxed and easy,
Floats toward the horizon
And into the clouds or the hills,
Or the rumpled sea,
And is gone –
And how it slides again
Out of the blackness,
On the other side of the world,
Like a red flower
Streaming upward on its heavenly oils,
Say, on a morning in early summer,
At its perfect imperial distance –
And have you ever felt for anything
Such wild love –
Do you think there is anywhere, in any language,
A word billowing enough
For the pleasure
That fills you,
As the sun
As it warms you
As you stand there,
Or have you too
Turned from this world –
Or have you too
This poem by Mary Oliver, “The Sun” captures the essential qualities of grace, for it is grace I wish to speak of this morning. Grace, one of those old theological words from earlier days and earlier traditions among us; grace, one of those “traditional religious” words that grow dry and pious from overuse and misunderstanding; indeed, grace is what I did wish to speak of this day. My title, “Undeserved Abundance” was meant to tug at a fresh way of seeing this old word and breaking open a deeper understanding for us. Undeserved: all the standard theologians over the ages have agreed that Grace is a gift, a gift you do not deserve, earn, or merit; you just receive, it is given to you, poured out. It just happens. Abundance: because it is always around you, always available, always awaiting your notice. Grace: undeserved abundance.
Someone once said Grace is when you receive what you do not deserve, and mercy is when you do not receive what you deserve. Grace is blessings and abundance, undeserved. It didn’t have to be like that, it might not have happened that way, but it did. What did you ever do to deserve ripe cantaloupe or true friends or lilac bushes or this church community? Did you happen to notice “the way the sun every evening, relaxed and easy, floats toward the horizon”? The sun does this every evening. It does not care what your day was like or if your actions warrant this gift, it is there for you all the same, all you must do is – notice.
UU minister, Peter Fleck tells us, “Grace is a blessing, a blessing that is undeserved, unsolicited, and unexpected, a blessing that brings a sense of the divine order into our lives. The ways of grace are mysterious, we cannot figure them out. But we know grace by its fruits, by the blessings of its works.” (Come As You Are) Grace is a blessing, he says. And I would add that with grace, your abundant blessings become more evident to you. The blessing of grace allows you to see the manifold blessings that surround your days and fill your life. And have you ever seen how the sun “slides again out of the blackness, every morning, on the other side of the world, like a red flower streaming upward on its heavenly oils”?
One of my theology professors at the Methodist seminary I attended liked to share a personal story from his childhood as a parable toward understanding grace. He describes a time when he and his older brother were at the beach, they had the standard brotherly competitive streak that often resulted in contests and races. Well, the race that took place in the story my professor told was a race from the beach out to the floating dock marking one corner boundary of the deep end in the lake. As they tore across the beach, they stayed neck and neck; but in the water, the older boy seemed to just slip through the water while the younger pulled and strained and kicked with all his might. As his older brother slipped further and further ahead, the young boy who would become my theology professor, realized his error. He was spending all his energy to fight the water, while his brother was riding the water, using the power of the water more than his own strength to get through the water. It downed on him suddenly, his brother always won these races in the water because his brother did not fight the water; he used the water.
With this story before us, our professor would pause dramatically (I’d heard him tell the story twice and he did this both times,) he would pause and then say, “That is what grace is like. It is always there, we’re swimming in it! It is always available to us, but we must first stop fighting to be in control, we must relax our own need to move forward by our own power alone, we must relax and accept the gift before we actually feel its power in our lives.”
Frederick Beuchner speaks of grace as a gift, but adds, “There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it.” You do have some work to do. As with the story my theology professor liked to tell, you don’t just float on the water to get to the dock, you still need to kick your legs and move your arms. You don’t need to fight it, but you do still need to kick a little. You need to be open to it, you need to notice. Have you ever noticed “the way the sun every evening, relaxed and easy, floats toward the horizon”? “Have you ever seen anything in your life more wonderful”?
In speaking of grace this way, as a blessing, as a way of noticing the world, as a way of being in the world, as a style issue, we would do well to not lose sight of that old traditional interpretation whereby Grace was the demonstration of God’s love for you. Beuchner characterizes grace this way: “The grace of God means something like: here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.” (Listen To Your Life)
This now, is powerful stuff. I can attest to this, it is powerful and awesome to be loved this way. But here is where we begin to get sticky. “All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above.” That’s the title of a song from the musical Godspell, but it is also the sentiment of many people. All the good stuff comes from God, but what about the rest? Where do the hurricanes come from? Do insurance companies still use the phrase, “Act of God” to describe natural disasters?
Natural disasters are certainly undeserved. Despite some examples of Bad Theology, most people do not honestly believe that God sends Hurricanes and Tsunamis as a means of dispensing divine justice and punishment. Of course, there are those few who are always tempted into Bad Theology by events such as this. Like the story of the preacher on the Sunday after a tornado swept through town telling his people on Sunday morning, “I went past where the Methodist Church was before the tornado. But it is there no longer. I drove over to see the Presbyterian Church, but it was gone. The Catholic Church on Main Street and the Baptist Church near the green, — both gone. But our church was spared; God chose to leave our church standing.” That is just Bad Theology.
And there are those who have taken the bait and slipped into a similar bad theology about the events surrounding hurricane Katrina. The people of New Orleans did not deserved this, the people in the surrounding areas were not ‘collateral damage’ if you will, as if they were unfortunately caught in the path of God’s just retribution. No. The suffering and hardship they have experienced was undeserved and outside their control.
And I shutter to hear the phrase “Act of God” in connection with this disaster, indeed I see far too much in this disaster that was the act of people, or perhaps the lack of action on the part of people. When the levees broke, that was no act of God; that was the lack of funding from the federal government despite repeated appeals from scientists and engineers. When FEMA’s response was so slow and feeble, that was no act of God; that was the act of the neo-conservative administration hell-bent of gutting the infrastructure by placing unqualified cronies in charge of under-funded domestic programs. When the hurricane crashed so easily through the Mississippi delta region, that was not an act of God; that was the act of several consecutive government administrations, though in large part this current one which drained and destroyed as much as 20 million acres of wetlands which served as a natural buffer against such volatile storms. When so many thousands of people were not evacuated from the city, that was not an act of God; that was the negligent hubris of a town that only planned for a level 3 or below storm, and had no plan in place for a storm of this level. I’ll even go so far as to say the immenseness of this hurricane was no act of God; even that we can connect to the effects of the increased temperature of the oceans due to global warming (which the Bush administration still denies is a reality)! In my reckoning, the vast blame for this catastrophic loss of life can be laid not upon the hurricane itself, but on the appalling lack of preparation and response from the city, the state, and the federal government. This was not an act of God; this was a colossal failure of leadership.
This devastation was no act of God. “Here is the world,” Beuchner wrote. “Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you.” That is grace. Grace is not only found in noticing the beauty of the sunset. Grace is always around us, always available; it is as if we are swimming in it. Grace is found in the way we come to see life as a blessing. It is found in the way we come to see the abundance of what we have, for at a moment we may no longer have it.
My life is filled with undeserved abundance. I have the love of my wife and children. I do not deserve it, I did not win it or earn it or buy it. It is a gift for which I strive to worthy. Yet at those times when I prove unworthy of that love, they love me anyway. It is a gift. I have a home, I have meaningful work, I have a car enough money to pay for its fuel. I have certainly worked for these things, earned them you could say; but through no fault of my own, I could lose it all. And yet, there might still be grace. There might still be such abundance in my life that it fills my heart and keeps me going.
And I can become a vehicle for grace for others. “Have you ever felt for anything such wild love,” Mary Oliver’s poem asks. Have you ever loved anything the way you are loved? I am unwilling to call the hurricane an act of God, but an open hearted response to the devastation… I would be willing to let God have the credit for that. If I reach out with generous compassion, I could call that an act of God. I could call that grace.
How could you become an agent of grace. How might you allow some of your own undeserved abundance to pour out to those with undeserved suffering and hardship? I read a story yesterday on the Beliefnet website. Deane knew I was looking for stories about grace and about Katrina, she pointed out to me a webpage in the Beliefnet site that contained dozens of stories of hope and help rendered to those in need. One story grabbed me. It was about a woman from New Orleans named Mabel who walked though neck-deep flood waters with her children, her sister, and her sister’s children to get out of the city, only to run into such disorganization and chaos that walking two miles with seven other behind her and her own head just barely above water was merely the first step in the journey to safety. Mabel got her family to the super dome, (you remember the super dome, the one that was next to the other levee that hadn’t broken yet.) The chaos in the dome was terrifying. “The crowd grew crazier every minute,” she said. “Guns were being fired in the dome; there were no lights in the rest room.” I can’t bear to tell you what was going on in those dark bathrooms.
Mabel and her family spent the night in the dome while empty buses sat outside the dome, buses that would remain empty until the next afternoon; buses that eventually took her and her family to the Astrodome in Houston. In Houston, Mabel tracked down her own mother, her other three sisters and their kids. She’s had enough of waiting, however. She walked over to a cell phone dealer a few blocks from the dome. She had lost her cell phone in the New Orleans muck and she had no money, but she had an account with them and they agreed to just bill her. So she got her phone and started making calls. Mabel called the South West Unitarian Church.
I stared at this article and felt suddenly disoriented. Was this a Unitarian Universalist website? No. Was I in the middle of an article specifically geared toward UUs? No. Have you ever had that experience where you bump into somebody you know in a setting you’re not used to seeing them; like stumbling into your neighbor at a wedding taking place out of town? Well, I was a little disoriented to find Unitarianism cropping up in this article. It turns out the author of this article I was halfway through is a syndicated newspaper columnist and president of a mid-sized Unitarian Universalist church in Georgia. And it turns out, Mabel and her children, her mother, her sisters, and all her sisters’ children landed in the care of that congregation. “By the time you read this,” Lisa McLeod writes, “my church will have fed Mabel’s family and all her sisters’ families’ breakfast. And my neighborhood will have delivered 19 duffel bags filled with clothes, toys and toiletries.”
Here in Binghamton, we have been jumping around trying to find the best way to offer our help. Many of us have sent money, several have tried to organize various efforts to send stuff down to Louisiana, or to open our homes and bring people up here to us. We’ve made a few informal contacts such as Lisa McLeod had done with Mabel. We’ve also connected with UU congregation down south in the effected areas, and we’re tapped in to the Red Cross effort to relocate people. The people managing these efforts will have a table set up in the social hall to help you better understand the specifics of what we are striving toward and how you can take part.
Here then, is an opportunity to reach out and serve as an agent of grace for others. Here then, is an opportunity to allow your own underserved abundance to pour out and help those in the midst of undeserved suffering and hardship. Grace is a gift, it is undeserved and unearned. It is a gift that will fill your days beyond measure if you will but reach out for it. And how amazing will that grace be if you find the ways to be an agent of it, to serve the hurting world.
In a world without end, may it be so.
How to Be a Good Unitarian Universalist
There is a story told of an old rabbi who was worrying over his weekly talk to the people. He spent the whole morning walking up and down the village square trying to think of a fresh way to give the old message of God’s love to the people. He spent all afternoon walking around the lake in the park, and still had not discovered how to say the old important message in a fresh new way. He grew frustrated. When the congregation gathered in the evening for worship and the old Rabbi rose up into the pulpit he looked out at the people and said, “Do you know what I am going to tell you?”
They were a little taken aback by this and no one responded at first. “Do you know what I am going to tell you?” he asked again. The people looked at each other, confused. One of the bolder men finally spoke out saying, “No, Rabbi. We do not yet know what you will tell us.” The Rabbi threw up his hands in disgust, “Then why should I bother.” And he stormed out of the pulpit without further explanation.
The following week, the people gathered again for worship. There were a few more of them than normal for word had spread of the Rabbi’s strange behavior of the week prior. As the old rabbi rose into the pulpit, he looked out at the people and asked, “Do you know what I am going to tell you?” Now, the people had anticipated this and had take steps in case there were to be a repeat of last week’s question, as indeed there was! “Yes,” several people called out. “Yes, we do know what you are going to tell us.” The Rabbi smiled a little and said, “Well, then, why should I bother.” And he left the pulpit and walked home early again.
Well, you can imagine the crowd that gathered the following week! This was a small town and something this interesting had not happened in quite some time. As the Rabbi rose up into the pulpit this week, however, the people were ready for him. He asked, “Do you know what I am going to tell you?” And many voices responded in unison: “Some of us do and some of us do not.” The old Rabbi smiled and said, “Well, in that case, those of you who know shall tell those who do not.” And he stepped out of the pulpit and went home early.
Now, I am guessing that at least a few of you had seen my given title for this morning, “How to Be a Good Unitarian Universalist.” And I would suppose that several of you thought you might know just want I would be talking about. So, tell me, do you know what I am going to tell you?
Do you know what it takes to be a good Unitarian Universalist? Do you have some ideas about what it takes to do this well? I imagine most of us feel we would qualify as a good Unitarian Universalist, and why not! Most of us are above average, right? Isn’t there a statistic that says over 75% of people feel they are a better than average driver? And Ron Clupper would remind me that 87% of all statistics are made up on the spot. But I imagine most of you have a few ideas about what it takes to be a good Unitarian Universalist and could indeed make a fairly accurate guess at what I am about to tell you.
What does it takes to be a good Unitarian Universalist? Who gets to decide the definition for that? If you were here last week you’ll remember … (How many of you were here last week? Maybe I should say regular attendance at Sunday worship is what makes for a good UU!) If you were here last week you’ll remember that we talked about how ours is an evolving faith, bound by reality and a commitment to the freedom of individual conscious. Therefore who we are keeps changing. So how do we define the characteristics of a group that keeps changing? Who gets to decide on the definition? Well, thankfully we have the internet to help sort some of this out!
I recently read a short article about a survey being conducted on the internet by Boston University. The survey is called “Religiosity Scales Project.” And the title of the short article that alerted me to the survey read, “What makes a ‘good’ Christian?” Well, as you may guess, I was curious! So I followed the suggested link in the article to the internet site and took the survey. Interestingly, the survey was not trying to find out if I am a good Christian, but how I would define a good Christian. And allow me to note, “The researchers say that practicing Christian could be substituted for good Christian. They are trying to measure the importance of numerous variables to Christians rather than make judgments about how good or bad people are.” (From Christian Century August 9, 2005, p6 article entitled “What Makes a Good Christian?”) So, how would I define a practicing Christian?
When I took the survey, I rated as “Absolutely Essential” statements like “A good Christian emulates Jesus in being of service to others,” “A good Christian is someone whose faith provides meaning and purpose in his or her life,” and “A good Christian does not judge or condemn others.” Conversely, I indicated that “Watching or listening to religious programs or television or radio,” “Opposing abortion,” and “Believing that the Bible is the literal word of God,” are Not At All Important marks of a good Christian. I know lots of people I consider “good” Christians who wouldn’t be caught dead watching Pat Robertson and the 700 club!
But all that is merely academic. It does not matter how I define a good or practicing Christian because I am not a Christian. (Good, practicing, or otherwise!) I am a Unitarian Universalist, and that survey was just the starting point which got me going. The deeper and more pertinent question for us today is, “What makes a good Unitarian Universalist?” How would you define a practicing Unitarian Universalist? Perhaps: “A good Unitarian Universalist is tolerant of other people’s religious beliefs.” “A good Unitarian Universalist actively seeks social and economic justice.” “A good Unitarian Universalist is a vegetarian, a registered Democrat, a PhD candidate.” What does it take to do this well?
Well, let me begin with some clear statements about what it is not. Being a good Unitarian Universalist has nothing to do with staying true to traditional and historical doctrines. It has nothing to do with conforming to a creed. Indeed one could almost say one trait of a good Unitarian Universalist is non-conformity, it is to always push the envelope of innovative beliefs, it is to seek after novelty and deeply unique ideas. But that is going to far because how then could we gather as a community of faith and hope if our binding force were simply that we all agree to disagree? We could not be the community that we are if each person were chasing the latest novelty. A good Unitarian Universalist will seek a balance between honoring the past while considering new possibilities.
Another statement has been suggested from time to time that I would also like to debunk. Being a good Unitarian Universalist has nothing to do with supporting a particular social or political cause. Be it abortion, gay marriage, or the current war in Iraq, there is no single issue that is a litmus test to whether or not you are a good UU. There were some questions on the Religiosity Scale Project survey along these lines that made me shudder, because I know there are people who would say that one of the Absolutely Essential qualities of a good Christian is that they oppose abortion, or they do not drink. Those issues seem such narrow definitions to the breadth and depth of how to be a good Christian. Likewise, one can not wholly capture the essential quality of being a good Unitarian Universalist in a set of social issues. However, a good Unitarian Universalist will be thoughtfully engaged in these sorts of issues, a good Unitarian Universalist will be involved. To abstain entirely from social issues, to say you are not going to muck around in that political stuff is a disservice to the faithful pursuit of a spiritual life. “Faith without works is dead.”
If anyone read the article I wrote about faith and good works that the Press and Sun ran yesterday you’ll have already seen my thoughts on this topic. The title the press chose for my article was “A deep faith requires the faithful to act for justice.” In other words: your beliefs and your behavior ought to line up. They are two sides of the same coin. One follows the other as night follows day. The day does not cause the night or vice versa: they just go together, that’s how it works. At least, that is what a good Unitarian Universalist will tell you.
It has been said many times, for indeed it is true, that one defining characteristic of our faith tradition is that highly prize the use of the intellect in discerning truth and meaning. Religion is not simply received whole-cloth from somewhere else and hand-down. The use of reason, while not unique to Unitarian Universalists as a source of authority, does stand out for how high we rank it as a source of religious authority. Some have taken this a step or two to far and in noticing the preponderance of well-educated individuals in our membership, have suggested that rigorous intelligence and a good education are qualities of a good Unitarian Universalist.
I recall visiting a congregation a few years ago where I delivered a sermon that extolled the virtue of our intellectual inheritance but tweaked it as well saying to think about deep things is not enough. After the service a member of that congregation came up to me and said, “Maybe I don’t belong here because I’m not smart like you say everyone here is.” I remember smiling and saying, “Of course you belong here.” Meanwhile inside I was kicking myself. And I think I also said something like, “It is not intelligence that counts as much as wanting to figure it out for your self.” A good Unitarian Universalist has a holy curiosity driving them to seek out deeper and better understanding.
A fourth quality that I feel I must raise up is in some ways a basic distinction between liberal religion and conservative religion. Conservative religions tend to have fairly clear and set lines between who can be in the group and who cannot, who is saved and who is not, which are the good practices and which are not. Conservative religions tend to have very rigid lines around which behaviors are considered sins or evil deeds and which behaviors are seen as blessed and good deeds. In their extreme they see diseases and natural disasters are God’s justice, and assume that if terrible things happen to you, well you either deserve it, or God is testing your faith. Liberal religions, on the other hand, tend to see life as a little less cut and dry, more complex and random. Liberal religions tend to emphasis God’s love despite the disease or natural disaster.
Unitarian Universalism has certainly embraced the view that sometimes bad things happen to you that may be caused by genetics or weather patterns over the equatorial Atlantic over which you have no control. These things are not God’s justice and they don’t happen because you are a bad person. But then again, you may have made certain risky choices, such as your diet or choosing to buy a home in an area prone to hurricanes; and these choices may contribute to your situation, but these choices don’t make you a bad person. It’s more complicated that a simple cause and effect moral relationship. A good Unitarian Universalist has a taste for complexity and ambiguity.
For us this branches out well beyond explaining why bad things happen to good people. Unitarian Universalist embrace complexity and ambiguity on may issues and levels. Do you believe in God? Well, yes, and no. It depends on what you mean by God. Do you believe you should always tell the truth? Well, I can imagine situations where there could be something more important than the truth at stake, like another person’s life. It is complex and depends on the situation. If you come asking me for answers I’m likely to give you only my answers for today, … or perhaps I’ll only give you more questions. A good Unitarian Universalist has a taste for complexity and ambiguity.
Which leads me to my final statement: Unitarian Universalism is in some ways a very easy religion to be a part of. We don’t demand that we adjust our beliefs to a set traditional pattern, rather we invite you to be open to what your religious conscience tells you is true. We don’t tell each other who to vote for and which social issues God cares about, rather we bid one another to be involved and engaged. We don’t require that you pretend to be smarter or dumber than you truly are, rather we encourage each other to use your gifts including your head and your heart to discern what is right and true. We do not insist that life and faith fit in neat little boxes, rather we allow nuance, complexity and reality to exist in all its changing beauty. Indeed, in some ways Unitarian Universalism is an easy religion to be a part of because it allows for so many freedoms. But therein lies the secret difficulty that may make this one of the hardest religions to practice well: It is on your own motivation to take up the responsibility to use that freedom. We do not affirm and promote the free search for truth and meaning, rather it is the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. If you would be one to practice Unitarian Universalism well, you must have the where-with-all to take up the challenge and engage in the complex mysteries that make life worth living. A good Unitarian Universalist is someone committed to the search for truth and meaning, truly committed to finding some satisfying answers, even if they are not answers to last for eternity.
I hope most of you are not all that surprise at my suggested list (and notice it is a suggested list: I’ll stick by it, but I know it is not authoritative.) Would you have known what I was going to say back at the beginning? As with the old Rabbi in the story, my effort today was to offer a fresh way to deliver an old message. Indeed, I am pretty sure I have said all of this at various times over the past couple of years.
A good Unitarian Universalist will seek a balance between honoring the past while considering new possibilities.
A good Unitarian Universalist will be thoughtfully engaged in these sorts of issues, a good Unitarian Universalist will be involved.
A good Unitarian Universalist has a holy curiosity driving them to seek out deeper and better understanding
A good Unitarian Universalist has a taste for complexity and ambiguity.
A good Unitarian Universalist is someone committed to the search for truth and meaning, truly committed to finding some satisfying answers, even if they are not answers to last for eternity.
May we all find the courage and where-with-all to be good Unitarian Universalists, for our faith tradition does call us to fill the world with beauty and goodness at every turn.
Ina world without end
May it be so.