God: a Universe of Connections
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Do you remember the Calvin and Hobbes comic? I loved that strip when I was younger, and my kids are jealous when I tell them how a new strip came out every morning with the newspaper. There’s one where the boy and his stuffed tiger are sitting on a hillside relaxing, Hobbes the tiger turns and says, “Do you think there’s a God?” Calvin thinks for a moment and responds “Well somebody’s out to get me.” In so many ways as a kid I could relate to Calvin, but on this count I must admit my experiences and my assumptions as a child led me to different conclusions.
When I was a young child I believed that God loved me. Growing up in a Unitarian Universalist congregation, I was nurtured in a community of acceptance and affirmation. At home, despite the chaos caused by alcoholism, there was a gentle undercurrent of universalism – an unwritten base of God’s love throughout it all. At times I was uncertain about life, about myself, about my family, even about God. Yet somehow I was certain that the God I was a little unsure of was a God who loved me.
Over the years my relationship with and belief in God has shifted, faded, resurged, matured, adjusted, and in turns grown overly complicated and blindingly simple. My starting place was one in which I knew myself to be loved by God. As I grew older that surety began to fade and I experienced times of God’s absence. As a teenager I felt my own angst and depression to be more real than any competing reality including the reality of God’s love; though I occasionally still offered myself as one who believed in God … provide I could include caveats and footnotes with such a confession. In college I passed as an intellectual atheist because that was the clever attitude to hold. But I was never a committed atheist. Later as a young adult with a young family, while still in college, I began to wind my way back toward God, to turn my face again toward the depth of mystery and that early feeling of being loved by God.
One of the great attributes of a Unitarian Universalist congregation is the breadth of theological diversity and the freedom for each individual to follow their distinct path. Many people in our Unitarian Universalist congregations work to develop a theology that makes sense and is honest with the experiences they have had. Whether or not you believe in a God with a physical form or a personal nature, whether or not you believe in a transcendent creator God or an imminent Goddess, whether you call on the multiple names of the Gods and Goddesses or respectfully refuse all names, whether you believe in a Great Spirit or a series of underlying principles that comprise Ultimate Reality, you are welcome here and you are loved and you are encouraged to nourish your spirit and walk your path.
I do not often offer sermons that witness strongly to my own theological stance in terms of God. Religious belief is a matter of conscience and cannot be coerced. I usually direct my words on Sunday morning toward life and how to live well, striving to keep my words open that each hearer may find therein sustenance for whichever path they walk. I have no wish to preach at people or convert anyone to my way of seeing the world. Indeed, I do not think it would be advantageous for you to see the world or to understand God as I do. I would rather you see the world and understand God as you do. Still, this morning I will offer my own understanding as an example for your consideration and encouragement. Let me tell you about the God I love and whose love sustains and transforms me.
Strictly speaking, my understanding of God’s love is paradoxical and contradictory when considered from the perspective of logic. The God I love, the God I believe in is not an anthropomorphic deity. I am not a theist in the sense that a theist is one who believes in a personal god with whom one can have a personal relationship. I do not believe in a personal God. And yet, I have a relationship with God. Perhaps if I share with you my caveats and footnotes, it will become clear. Perhaps not.
Partly how it all works for me is that I do not begin with the idea of God and then fit my life and my experiences around the idea. It seems to me that many people do exactly that, including many Unitarian Universalists with whom I have talked. A significant number of Unitarian Universalists were raised in another tradition and were given an image and idea of God. If we begin with the image or idea of God supplied to us by someone else, our choices are to accept it or reject it. An alternative is to begin, not with a pre-established notion of God, but with our own experiences of the holy. This is critically important and lies at the heart of our Unitarian Universalism tradition. Start with your personal experiences and work what interpretations and reinterpretations you may. Don’t start with ideas and images of God. Start instead with the experiences you have of mystery and the holy. At times I still catch myself starting with an idea of God and shaping my understanding around the idea, but when possible I begin again with my experiences of the Holy.
I have had, over the course of my life, several experiences that can be classified as religious or spiritual experiences. For me they seem to fall into two types. One is the sort of experience in which I feel a presence both loving and holy. The second sort of experience has been sometimes called an “oceanic” experience, in which I’ve felt swept up in the unity of existence. For years I kept these two sorts of experiences categorized as two strictly different things. I interpreted the feeling of a loving and holy presence as the presence of God. I interpreted the experience of universal oneness as a guide to understanding how I fit into the interconnected whole of the universe. Over the past several years I have begun to name this second type of experience, the deep interconnectedness of our universe, as God – as the Ultimate Reality.
Let me take a moment with that particular phrase: Ultimate Reality. Think for a moment about everything, about the whole compass of reality. Theologian and existentialist Paul Tillich used phrases like “Ultimate Reality” in place of the word “God.” In so doing, Tillich is trying to stretch himself and others beyond preconceived ideas of God by digging back into what the idea of God is meant to symbolize.
Early in the first volume of his Systematic Theology, Tillich writes, “God is the answer to the question implied in man’s finitude; he is the name for that which concerns man ultimately.” (Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, Vol. 1, 1973, p 211) One of the ways Tillich is remembered as a liberal theologian is in his efforts to pull the concept of God away from the notion of Divinity as a personality and help people conceive of God as a power, a force. The phrases “Ground of Being,” “Ultimate Concern,” and “Ultimate Reality” are classic Tillich trying to name God without the word “God.” God is the symbol for that which concerns us ultimately.
Tillich goes on to say,
This does not mean that first there is a being called God and then the demand that man should be ultimately concerned about him. It means that whatever concerns a man ultimately becomes god for him, and, conversely, it means that a man can be concerned ultimately only about that which is god for him. (Ibid, p 211)
This reminds me of the passage from Emerson we read earlier together. “A person will worship something – have no doubt about that. …That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives.” (from Singing the Living Tradition Hymnal, #563) That which concerns us ultimately will determine our lives. Therefore, be wise in your choice of what concerns you ultimately.
But there is another piece of what Tillich said in that paragraph earlier that I want to look at again because it surprised me when I first read it. He wrote, “This does not mean that first there is a being called God and then the demand that man should be ultimately concerned about him.” In other words, this liberal theologian is saying, don’t start with an idea of God and then fix your experiences and your worship and your ultimate concerns around this pre-existing idea. It doesn’t start with God. Instead, look at your life, listen to your heart, heed your conscience and your inner knowing. Find what matters most to you, uncover the yearning for meaning, the anxiousness around your mortality, the passion for living that will occasionally grasp you, and there you will uncover the root of God.
We’re not talking about a being, a person or creature that looks a little like you and me, maybe with a beard and a thunderbolt. No. God is a symbol, a deep metaphor for the source of your living, for that which holds all, for the whole of which you are a part. I speak broadly and perhaps a little vaguely. But the trouble with God really began when people stopped describing God as a great symbol of faith and began to instead speak of God as a literal character in literal stories. Cast away all literal interpretations of the nature of God. They are illogical and irrational. Seek instead to source of your living; seek the whole of which you are a part. You do not need to then name it God, though many do.
We all live with the understanding that there is something greater than our individual lives at work. The whole of the universe is not simply material reality of time and space; there is also a quality of experience which we have in our living. There is a network of connections in which “we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28) Apostle Paul uses that exact phrase to speak of the God of Christianity in whom we live and move and have our being. But Paul says he is echoing an earlier Athenian poet who said much the same thing, though it would likely have referenced a pantheist understanding of the known world, which is closer to, (though still not quite,) what I am talking about. God is the quality of experience we find in the network of connections in which we live, move and have our being.
God is a reality more akin to beauty that to literal fact. Beauty does not exist outside of our subjective perception of it. We name beauty as a quality of experience as we sense the light falling in a particular way across the texture and color of the world or the face of one we love. These things are not beauty, they have beauty. Beauty is our name for a particular quality of experience. Similarly, there is a depth quality to living for which I use the name God.
The video clip I played this morning (“We Are All Connected” by Symphony of Science) begins with this sentence spoken by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, “We are all connected; to each other biological, to the earth chemically, to the rest of the universe atomically.” I would add that divinity is the quality of experience found in these connections. Theology and science each show us truth. Science is ever searching for greater understanding of reality and religion ever striving to speak of the quality of experience felt, of the Ultimate Reality within the whole of reality.
And so, when I feel a calming and loving presence sitting with me while I am praying in a chapel during a tumultuous time in my life; when I stare meditatively at a stone on a quiet afternoon outdoors and tap into the feeling of both atoms and swirling galaxies as other aspects of myself, when I sit on the dock beside a mountain lake while a blue heron sweeps within inches of me and I catch the hint of kinship between us, when I feel the joyous energy of a common moment at home, I gather these moments around me like lifelines taping the deep wellspring of my life. And I find in these experiences a quality that I name God.
Perhaps you use another word. Or perhaps the word God symbolizes other meanings and qualities for you. Or perhaps your experiences have led you to other assumptions and interpretations. Look at your life, listen to your heart, heed your conscience and your inner knowing. Find what matters most to you, uncover the yearning for meaning, the anxiousness around your mortality, the passion for living that will occasionally grasp you, and there you will uncover the root of God.
In a world without end
May it be so.
Pilgrims on the Journey
Rev. Douglas Taylor
All of living is a journey. We begin with birth and end with death, although arguably those are merely the boundaries of this chapter in which we each now walk. You are on a journey through this life. The story of each life is different but there are broad patterns that many of us find in our lives. Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” has several stages that apply not only to “heroes” in fiction, but to all of us who chose to live a life of integrity. The first step is “The Call to Adventure” followed by “the Road of Trials” and “Transformation” or “Atonement,” each of which have both internal and external components. Following victory, there is “Returning Home.” My focus for this morning, whether this pattern fits your life dramatically or only in the vaguest of senses, is that we all experience “the road of trials.”
The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism begins with the statement that all life is suffering, that all of life is a road of trials. Christians speak of sharing Christ’s cross in this life through our own troubles. The basic story of Judaism proclaims that all of us in all communities experience our place in the Exodus story; that at some point, perhaps even at all points, in our life we are exiled from our true place in the world. Or as the pithy statement from Ben Franklin puts it: “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Time and again, throughout cultures we hear the message that life is a road of trials.
Sometimes religion will call this a test from God; trouble and hardship you meet on your journey are God’s way of testing you, they say. I don’t find this a helpful way of talking about the work of overcoming fears that accompanies such trouble in life. And I don’t find this a helpful way of talking about God either. Certainly the way to deal with trouble and fear is to face it, but to characterize such times in our lives as tests set in our paths from a loving God is not, to my way of thinking, a helpful framework. God is love, God is a resource while we are on the journey, not a harsh test-maker dropping challenges in our paths. God is not the source of our pain, but a resource in the midst of our suffering.
My colleague, Tom Owen-Towle, uses a different framework to talk about the ‘road of trials’ and the accompanying fears that are tangled therein. He calls our fears “dragons.” Each of us has dragons we must face in our life. These are not dragons for us to defeat, instead, they are dragons for us to face and embrace. It is all part of the journey. We are pilgrims walking our paths and we encounter our dragons as we travel. The greatest work for any of us truly trying to live with integrity and faith is to face our fears. Poet and mystic, Jalal-Udin Rumi says “Our greatest fears are like dragons guarding our greatest treasures.” But the trick is that facing our dragons is not about conquering them, facing our fears is not about eliminating them. Instead the work is to learn from them, to overcome them by incorporating them into our journey. Contemporary author Robert Johnson writes: “Medieval defenders had to slay their dragons; modern ones have to take their dragons back home to integrate into their own personality.”
What are the dragons in your life? What are the dragons you have faced and embraced? What are then trials you have experienced on your journey, your pilgrimage through life? Death? Loss? Change? Loneliness? Discomfort? Meaninglessness? Or perhaps, as Marianne Williamson suggests in the reading from this morning: “Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” Are your dragons the dragons of success? Of living? Of the grand responsibility of your light and power? What are your dragons? I had a theology professor who taught with an eye toward mythic reality and archetype. He would say things to us like, “There is not one of us in the room who is free from the scars of the dragon.” We all suffer; we all have been hurt; we all have fears and trouble in life. This is not something to avoid or something to hide. It is a basic reality of being alive. Do not run from your dragons. Face them, learn from them.
I think the critical component to do what is being suggested is to first learn trust. There is a poem called “First Lesson” that brings this home, this idea of trust resting at the heart of living. It is from a collection called Letter from a Distant Land in which the author, Philip Booth writes to his daughter:
Lie back, daughter, let your head
Be tipped back in the cup of my hand.
Gently, and I will hold you. Spread
Your arms wide, lie out on the stream
And look high at the gulls. A dead-
Man’s float is face down. You will dive
And swim soon enough where this tidewater
Ebbs to the sea. Daughter, believe me,
When you tire on the long thrash to your island,
Lie up, and survive.
As you float now, where I held you
And let go, remember when fear
Cramps your heart what I told you:
Lie gently and wide to the light-year
Stars, lie back, and the sea will hold you.
This poem is not about swimming. It is about learning trust; learning to trust that when ‘fear cramps your heart,’ fighting against it will not serve. Trust that you can relax and survive. Trust that the sea will hold you. Perhaps trusting the universe, or our fathers, or God, or that the stars and the sea to hold you is exactly the dragon the meets you on your road. What do you trust? What do you fear?
A couple of times while volunteering up at Camp Unirondack I had the privilege of taking a group of kids out on a trust building exercise called a Wolf Hunt. Unirondack is our Unitarian Universalist summer camp up in the Adirondacks. A Wolf Hunt is a late night activity that works like this. The counselors select one cabin of campers; this works best with the junior high age youth. We gather the campers after the in-cabin and lights-out bells have rung and have them get dressed in long sleeves and put on bug repellent. Then we explain to them the activity in detail so they know what will happen and so they will trust that this is safe.
We line up; I serve as the alpha wolf at the front of the line and another counselor walks at the back. Each person rests a hand on the shoulder of the person in front of them. Once we start we make no human noises, no talking, no laughing, no whispering. Flashlights are all off except for mine at the front. We walk slowly down the camp road a few hundred feet and then into the woods about another hundred feet. They gather around me so we can all see each other. Then I howl like a wolf to signal the beginning. Each camper then moves away from me as I stay in the same spot in the center. They go out far enough so they can’t see each other or me and then they sit waiting for the next signal. We have them sit for about five minutes in the dark in the woods, each alone but knowing the rest of the pack is nearby.
This is one tactic a real pack of wolves will use. They spread out in an area and sit quietly waiting for all the other animals, prey, to wander into the circle. After five minutes I start howling. The rest of the campers start howling too, all of us out in the woods in the dark after lights-out howling together. As they howl the start moving in toward the center, back to the alpha wolf. In a real pack, this would scare all the game into the center for a shared feast. Once we are all back together again, we line back up and walk out the way we came in. Once we reach camp again we go to the lodge where another counselor has paper and pencils and hot cocoa. Then we have them write about the experience together. Finally, about 45 minutes or an hour after we took them from their cabin we return them, where they get back into their pajamas and turn the lights out.
It is an experience we ask them not to talk to the other campers about in case we get a chance to do it again with another cabin or, I suppose, in case we don’t. It is an experience they remember. For some it is about facing their fears, for others it is about feeling themselves to be a part of the natural world around them. For all of them it is about trust; trusting their counselors, trusting one another, or trusting the world around them.
Eleanor Roosevelt wrote, “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, I have lived through this horror. I can take the next think that comes along. You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” Roosevelt uses the word horror, but there is no horror in experiences of the Wolf Hunt activity. Horror may be too strong a word for the experiences we all have of facing our fears. But certainly Roosevelt’s reasoning still stands, those situations in which we face our fears builds up in us the resources we’ll need for facing future situations with grace and trust.
I remember an incident from my childhood that illustrates this point for me. When I was in school and was picked on by the other children. All through elementary and junior high I had to deal with bullies. I made myself an easy target for their teasing and taunting. The majority of my memories of school prior to high school involve humiliation and fights as well as trying to be unnoticed and every now and then just running away from school.
I have one particular memory of not getting into a fight. It was during lunch, a time of day I did not particularly care for because the cafeteria was always crowded and I never had a group of friends I could sit with. On this particular day I was standing in the lunch line, waiting to pick out and buy my lunch. One kid came over from his table of friends and tried to taunt me into a fight. This is the sort of thing that would happen to me from time to time. Occasionally it would work and I would get into a fight and occasionally I figure out a way to avoid it.
As usual, I was scared. I did not want to get in the fight this other kid was asking for. I said, “It takes more courage for me to not fight you than it does for you to keep egging me into a fight.” A girl behind me commented “that’s right. You leave him alone,” she said to the other boy. When the other kid kept at it and finally shoved me hard so I fell scraped by shine against a nearby table and then fell over onto the floor I jumped up with blood rushing in my ears and I grabbed the other kid by the shirt and pulled my arm back to strike him. Many of the kids around us started chanting “fight, fight.” But that girl who still stood behind me in line shouted at me, “I thought you were better than that.” Ashamed of myself I glared at my adversary and slowly let go of him, turned my back on him and got back in the line.
My challenger shrugged and laughed his way back to his friends as if to say, “I tried.” The girl behind me said, “You did the right thing.” I was shaking with fear and anger as I tried to bend my glasses back into shape, but I also knew she was right. There were other times when I did fight the bullies and other times when I worked very hard to avoid trouble and stay unnoticed. But that one time when I stood up and refused to fight my dragon – that one time was enough and it shines still in my memory and has guided me ever since. I did it once, but that helped define me, that helped me walk my path as a pilgrim on my journey to become who I am today.
Helen Keller wrote, “Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.” Or as John Wayne said, “Courage is being scared to death — and saddling up anyway. “ But the adventure is not necessarily a fight. It can be a long slow walk toward a better way of being in the world. Facing your greatest fear is not necessarily a fight, indeed it may, in fact, be not fighting, and possibly even befriending.
At the end of his book, Love meets the Dragon, Tom Owen-Towle tells this story about a colleague’s experience of a tiger at the zoo.
A colleague was standing in front of the tiger area in a world-famous zoo. There were several people beside Ted. The huge beast singled out one person next to him and stared straight at this woman, while emitting a low growl. After this had gone on for some time, Ted remarked to the woman: “Doesn’t that shake you to have the tiger glare at you that way? The tiger seems to have it in for you.” She replied, “No, for several years I was its keeper and fed it every day. It knows me and talks to me.”
I have thought back on that incident often, as a kind of parable of the soul, (Owen-Towle writes.) What was giving my ministerial friend imaginary terror was, for the woman who knew her tiger, a message of affection.
Whether you call them dragons or tigers, I encourage you to consider feeding the beasts and befriending them. Your greatest fears are like dragons guarding our greatest treasures. (Rumi) You have a path to walk; you are a pilgrim walking through this life. There will be trouble and suffering and, to be sure, there will be dragons you must face. Face your fears that you may learn from them. Walk in the light, walk with integrity.
In a world without end,
May it be so.
Rev. Douglas Taylor
This past fall, while I was on sabbatical and serving Meadville Lombard Theological School as its Minster in Residence, I taught a class on Adult Religious Education. My class met once a week for three hours and I led six students, who were on the path to becoming Unitarian Universalist ministers, through religious education theory and practice. I focused on the spiritual path of teaching and on the stages of faith development. James Fowler’s Stages of Faith is one of those books that I and many of my contemporaries, heard about, read synopsis of, but never actually read or worked with directly. So I made these students actually read the book, learn all six stages, and make some attempts to apply the theory to our work as ministers leading adult religious education classes.
Fowler talked about the human development of faith as something separate from beliefs and a person’s religious tradition. It may be helpful to see a distinction between religion as a set of answers and beliefs, and religion as an ongoing journey of deepening and maturing. This is almost a distinction between beliefs and faith. James Fowler saw it that way. His ground-breaking work on faith development asked questions like:
What are you spending and being spent for? What commands and receives your best time, your best energy? What power or powers do you rely on and trust? To what or whom are you committed in life?
These are not questions about beliefs; these questions do not lead a person to answer in a way that assumes one religious tradition’s answers are the best answers. Instead these questions are open to the lived experiences of each person, they draw out of you answers that are likely to change and grow as you continue on your own journey of growth and discovery, of development and maturity. It is not about arriving at the ultimate set of timeless and permanent truths, rather it is about developing the qualities of spiritual maturity.
Fowler listed six stages of development. The sixth and final stage is the one that excites people. It is that stage which includes persons like Gandhi and Mother Teresa, saints and people who have reached enlightenment. The great mark of the rare people who are considered to be in this stage is that they live in a kind of Universal understanding of life. More often there are people in whom there are glimpses of this way of seeing and living in the world. It is a hard way to actually fully live. One synopsis has this description (from a UUA curriculum manual), “They live with a felt participation in a power that unifies and transforms the world. For this reason, many times they are seen as subversive by the establishment and often die at the hands of those they wish to change.”
There is something about such people, they are grounded in life, but they seem to be larger than life as well. And it is not just the famous people who are counted in this list. Many extraordinary souls are out there. In the same sermon I used for our reading earlier, Kendyl Gibbons writes this about Spiritual Maturity:
It is obvious to anyone who has any historical or international awareness that there is something that the world’s most acknowledged spiritual leaders have in common; some attributes that characterize the Gandhis and Dalai Lamas and Mother Teresas and Martin Luther Kings of the world, no matter what historical religious tradition they identify with. And of course, these qualities are not limited to those who achieve wide recognition; they exist as well in French villagers who hide Jews from the Nazis, in Rwandan hotel keepers, in neighbors and teachers and elders everywhere, who exemplify for us what it means to grow into the radical acceptance of others, self-awareness, active compassion and sacrificial love that are the highest expressions of any faith.
Kendyl’s list of characteristics is this: self-awareness, radical acceptance of others, active compassion, and sacrificial love. That is a pretty tall order. Fowler points out that many of us are fascinated by the lives of such people. Most of us are not going to find ourselves in monumental scenario so as to be thrust upon the world stage for all to see and note our spiritual maturity. Most of us will only ever be the everyday people living our lives as neighbors and teachers and elders. But the point is to see even the small moments as rife with opportunities to grow and mature spiritually.
And we don’t need to be stage six saints to be spiritually mature. Fowler insists that the real work is not to get through each stage until you arrive at the last one. He said the real work is to discern your own faith and how you can live more fully in the stage in which you currently reside. I don’t want to get lost in trying to teach you about Fowler’s stages of faith development. Instead let’s get lost in the defining questions Fowler asks at the front of his book. Let’s get lost in the basic questions of ‘what is spiritual maturity?’ The reason to bring Fowler into all of this is the way he characterized faith as something you develop rather than as something you either have or do not have. Faith is a continuing journey of discovery; it is a process of maturing, of growing. The core questions Fowler asks are these:
What are you spending and being spent for? What commands and receives your best time, your best energy? What power or powers do you rely on and trust? To what or whom are you committed in life?
To ever achieve a decent level of spiritual maturity, we need to be able to know what power or powers we rely upon and trust. Faith is the ground for spiritual maturity. We need to trust enough to move beyond ourselves. We need to trust, to have faith, in something larger than ourselves – however it is named and recognized. We will know it by our commitments and by where we spend ourselves. The more worthy the object of our faith, the more solid will be the ground of our faith for future growth.
Such is true for any person in any religious tradition. We might well ask, however, what does it look like to be a spiritually mature person within the context of Unitarian Universalism? What is our distinct and integral way of growing in faith? Rev. Tom Chulak (in a document entitled “10 Characteristics of Unitarian Universalist Spiritual Maturity” which can be found at: http://www.sld.uua.org/newspackets/Aug09packet/2_10CHAR-TomC.pdf ) wrote, “The starting point for spiritual maturity within [the] Unitarian Universalist tradition is openness.” He further identified our openness to the ‘free and responsible search for truth and meaning.’
This sounds spot on to me. The way to begin, for anyone, is to be grounded in your personal faith. And the way the Unitarian Universalist tradition has done this is through openness. Other traditions may offer other avenues: saying certain prayers, doing certain practices, visiting certain holy sites. For us the practice we lift up is simply openness: opening yourself up to the perspective of others, opening yourself up to truth as you search it out, opening yourself up to the hard work of listening to your own life.
Listening again to that short list Kendyl Gibbons offered, we hear openness echoing. How else can you begin a journey of spiritual maturing but through opening yourself up? Gibbons says the marks of spiritual maturity include: self-awareness and a radical acceptance of others. Self-awareness and a radical acceptance of others. This is very Unitarian Universalist place to begin! Open yourself up to the free and responsible search for truth and meaning; open yourself to the deepening journey of self-understanding and self-awareness. Allow yourself to open up to others, offering a radical acceptance of those who are different from you. Relax, you don’t need to control your interactions, be not afraid of other people’s differences. Instead, be open. Learn and grow from the encounter. This is the Unitarian Universalist starting point for spiritual maturity: Openness to yourself and your journey, openness to others and new perspectives, openness to being changed, to growing.
This so easily leads to a letting go. Letting go is a huge step in spiritual maturity. In our openness, we let go of who we have been in favor of who we are becoming. We let go of who we have perceived others to be if favor of learning who they really are. We let go of our labels of other people, we let go of our initial perspectives for the sake of something larger. This leads us back to faith. If you will be open and if you will let go, then you will need to be firmly grounded in something both trustworthy and larger than yourself.
In that well worn passage about love in the apostle Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, he says, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.” (1 Corinthians, 13:11) The path of spiritual maturity is the path of leaving behind earlier ways that may have worked well in the past but are no longer suited to what you need now. The path of spiritual maturity is the path of leaving behind old patterns that never really worked well in the first place. It means being open to the new and letting go of what’s no longer moving you forward. It means letting go of grudges and your status as a victim, and moving into a place of forgiveness and of accepting yourself and the consequences of your choices and your actions. It means letting go of greed and selfishness and the desire to have what you want, and moving into a place of generosity and working to satisfy your own needs as well as the needs of others. In means letting go of trying to get other people to make you happy, and opening yourself up to the full measure of joy and sorrow that pours though every day of your living. It means letting go of expectations and opening up to ambiguity and paradox and apparent contradiction so prevalent in love and compassion for all people and all of life.
Oh, it is a life of virtue, the stuff of enlightenment and sainthood. But it is also available to you and me and anyone who will begin in faith to open up and let go. In the write-up for this sermon I told you I would explain just what Spiritual Maturity is and I said I would also talk about how we can cultivate it in ourselves.
Growth and maturation can happen in a number of ways. This is true cognitively, physically and emotionally as well as spiritually. The first way is in keeping strictly with developmental theory, that it is the natural order of life for us to mature. There is directionality and a natural pacing to our development. This form of growth and maturation is almost unnoticed as we go through our lives. It is just automatic like a seed growing. Unless something goes wrong, we naturally mature. It is also true that occasionally we develop more quickly when some outside influence causes sudden growth or transformation. There may be a teacher or a book that suddenly opens up an insight for you, or there has been a loss that was unexpected, or perhaps a major transition is one aspect of your life that triggers an unlooked-for opening in what seemed like an another unrelated aspect of your life. Physically, this is like when little kids go through growth spurts. They are suddenly hungry ALL THE TIME and can sprout up an inch in height over a weekend. This second form of maturation is not unlike the third form, which is the really exciting one. The third form of spiritual growth is to go looking for it, to create sudden growth or transformation; or perhaps more accurately to create opportunities within your life for transformation.
You can train your body to run a marathon physically, you can meet with a therapist to work on your emotional life, and you can take a class in various subjects to cultivate your mind. You can also participate in various spiritual exercises or programs to cultivate your spiritual growth. Like going to school to improve your cognitive maturity you can go to church to improve your spiritual maturity. Rev. A. Powell Davies said a church is where people come to grow a soul. Is that something that is happening here in this congregation? Are people growing wiser, more spiritually mature, as a result of anything we are doing here in this congregation?
Now, for the same reason schools do not offer only intellectual opportunities and instead seek to feed the whole student with music and Phys. Ed. and social events like dances and such – similarly religious communities such as this one will offer a range of things including intellectual stimulation, social opportunities, ethical and moral encouragement, and so on. But the basic function of a religious community is to aid people in becoming more spiritually mature. One of the current phrases used by the UUA in its advertising, its current tagline, is “Nurture Your Spirit, Help Heal the World.” The first part of that tagline is squarely focused on each person’s spiritual growth and maturation.
I think deep down many of us yearn to be more spiritually alive and mature. In the same way that we want our physical bodies to be healthy and balanced at whatever age we find ourselves, in the same way we want our emotional needs to be met – to be loved and to share our love with others in, in the same way we find our minds demanding truth about the world in which we live, truth about life; … in this same way we yearn for a spiritual grounded-ness in our lives. We yearn to be more open and accepting, more compassionate, more self-aware, more generous with our gifts that can bless the world and bring more peace.
The basic function of any religious community is to feed that hunger, to help people develop their faith, to nurture their spirit, to become more spiritually alive and mature. Here we encourage one another in spiritual growth. Here we hallow a place and a time to grow more spiritually mature. Here we open ourselves to the journey of faith.
In a world without end,
may it be so.
Banish the Edges
Rev. Douglas Taylor
According to the reports and articles, the movie “Avatar” by James Cameron, is a blockbuster. It broke the record to become the highest-grossing film of all time in the world. Steven Spielberg said this movie is “The most evocative and amazing science-fiction movie since Star Wars.” So I’m thinking it is a pretty safe bet to assume that most of you have seen this film or have at least heard about it enough to know something about the film.
It is a science fiction piece: ten-foot tall blue humanoids, giant floating mountains, six-legged horses and pterodactyl-like flying animals. There are enough high-action chase and fight scenes, and falling in love scenes, and cool technology scenes for the average sci-fi film lover to be truly satisfied. The film is a little light on the plot and character development, high on the use of tropes and clichés. But that is not so bad for this sort of movie; Star Wars, after all, was one cliché after another and that was a great movie! What I most liked about it, and why I am mentioning it in the context of a sermon, is the way it presented the relationship of the Na’vi – the big blue people – with nature.
The Na’vi are portrayed as living in harmony with nature and worshiping Eywa, the great mother goddess. There are strong overtones of Native American spirituality and Hindu spirituality. There is a very clear moral to the story that has to do with environmentalism and imperialism. Cameron said in an interview [Press, Associated, August 18, 2009] that he wanted this to thrill people but also to touch the conscience of people, “that maybe in the enjoying of it makes you think a little bit about the way you interact with nature and your fellow man.” Cameron was working to create a myth for our times. In another interview James Cameron has said that he “tried to make a film that would touch people’s spirituality across the broad spectrum.” [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Themes_in_Avatar#cite_note-TOI-60]
Here is a fascinating piece of this that I wish the film had done more with: The Na’vi have a biological connection point with nature. They have a cord, a tendril coming out of the backs of their heads which feeds directly to the brain. It is a sensory organ that can link with the biology around them. The Na’vi can connect with a tree or an animal through an electrochemical neural link and transfer signals such as thoughts and memories. It’s like a biochemical USB port. We mostly see this used in the movie as a means for the protagonist to ride other animal and for the Na’vi to connect to the trees. It offers a whole new concept of ‘communing with nature!’
I tried to imagine what it would be like to have a direct link like that with trees or animals around me. I was just up at a retreat center this week, the ministers and religious educators meet for three days together just ahead of our annual Unitarian Universalist District Assembly. We were on a beautiful lake with trees around us. Whenever I am at a retreat I make an effort to go out and find a wild place. Usually we meet by a lake or in the woods so it is rather easy for me to find a trail or a path to start with. Invariably though I have to get off the path. I want to wander through the trees and weave around the undergrowth. I want to duck under branches and step over logs. I need to be surrounded by nature and let my spirit feel the wild places. Growing up I was able to do this regularly, weekly or even more frequently as there were wild places around my neighborhood. I stand (or sit if the ground is dry) and just breath, listening to the wind and the animals around me. My spirit needs this.
What would it be like to have a more direct link, to feel that connection? I’ll be honest; I can’t get my head around that idea very far. It is an intriguing starting point, but I can’t imagine what the sensations would be like coming to my brain from a completely foreign sense organ.
I was recently offered a poem that uses the sensation of sight to talk about this sort of experience. It talks about a different way of seeing the world and our connection to nature. It is from poet Lisel Mueller and imagines a response from Claude Monet to a suggested surgery for his eyes. It is fictional – Monet did have cataracts removed when he was in his 80’s.
Monet Refuses the Operation
Doctor, you say that there are no haloes
around the streetlights in Paris
and what I see is an aberration
caused by old age, an affliction.
I tell you it has taken me all my life
to arrive at the vision of gas lamps as angels,
to soften and blur and finally banish
the edges you regret I don’t see,
to learn that the line I called the horizon
does not exist and sky and water,
so long apart, are the same state of being.
Fifty-four years before I could see
Rouen cathedral is built
of parallel shafts of sun,
and now you want to restore
my youthful errors: fixed
notions of top and bottom,
the illusion of three-dimensional space,
from the bridge it covers.
What can I say to convince you
the Houses of Parliament dissolve
night after night to become
the fluid dream of the Thames?
I will not return to a universe
of objects that don’t know each other,
as if islands were not the lost children
of one great continent. The world
is flux, and light becomes what it touches,
becomes water, lilies on water,
above and below water,
becomes lilac and mauve and yellow
and white and cerulean lamps,
small fists passing sunlight
so quickly to one another
that it would take long, streaming hair
inside my brush to catch it.
To paint the speed of light!
Our weighted shapes, these verticals,
burn to mix with air
and changes our bones, skin, clothes
to gases. Doctor,
if only you could see
how heaven pulls earth into its arms
and how infinitely the heart expands
to claim this world, blue vapor without end.
~ Lisel Mueller ~
What might it be like to have a different way of sensing the natural world around us? What would we see or perceive? Our Unitarian Universalist theology talks about a connected and interdependent world. Science certainly supports this idea of a ‘web of connections.’ For example, researchers in the genome project have shifted from looking at single genes to sequences and patterns of genes for clues about issues ranging from illness to evolution. When scientists and theologians and poets start to offer similar perspectives it is worth taking note – This is not just a fad or a cultural delusion. This is real. We are interconnected; we are not a mere cacophony of diverse isolated individuals. We exist in a pattern, in relation to other things and other people. Isolation is not real. As John Muir put it, “when we try to pick anything out by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”
So when I am on retreat and I wander off the path into the undergrowth and ramble around among the trees, I am not isolating myself. I am softening and blurring the edges between what is me and ‘not-me’. As the poet wrote, I eventually banish the edges, the lines of division. At some point the air around me ceases to be air and becomes my breath. It moves through my body in an intricate way I do not fully understand and then back out. And somewhere along its way out the breath ceases to be me and becomes the air that is part of the world that is not-me. Or we can banish the edges and allow the connections in.
When I try to imagine having a biochemical cord, like the aliens from the movie “Avatar”, I think I would be overwhelmed by the sensory information. If I really let the divisions slip, would I lose all sense of individuality? I must admit I am not ready for that entirely. I like the occasional experience of being one with all that is, and the times of communing with divinity – but I am not ready to loss all the edges. I would like to see them softened and blurred from time to time.
There is an underlying unity we notice and connect with, a pattern through existence that matters. The environment we live in is a part of us, defines us in a way. The ‘edge’ between what is me and what is not-me is less a wall and more a semi-permeable membrane. Someone pointed out that perhaps a better biological phrase to use is to say we are ‘selectively permeable.’ We choose what we let in. That would certainly be the point – to develop our sense of connection to all that is to the point where we can actively choose what we let in.
I sit among the tall trees and the grasses and undergrowth and these things become part of me. The trees and the lake and the people and my small self become part of an intricate connected pattern that is me. The edges blur. Such a way of seeing is the reason I care about the environment and about peace among people and about racism and healthcare and war and so many other social issues. I am a part of the pattern, I am a partner in all that is; the edges are blurred. Oppression, destruction, suffering of others people and of the earth is part of my life and my existence. This is why I care. This is why it matters to me that we deal with the social ills of our world.
Let me end with one last story, this from Anthony DeMello, cautioning me to stay grounded in the midst of my flights of mysticism.
“There are three stages in one’s spiritual development,” said the Master. “The carnal, the spiritual, and the divine.”
“What is the carnal stage?” asked the eager disciples.
“That’s the stage when trees are seen as trees and mountains as mountains.”
“And the spiritual?”
“That’s when one looks more deeply into things – then trees are no longer trees and mountains no longer mountains.”
“And the divine?”
“Ah, that’s Enlightenment,” said the master with a chuckle, “when trees become trees again and mountains, mountains.”
(DeMello, Anthony, One Minute Wisdom p 47)
In a world without end,
may it be so.
Rev. Douglas Taylor
I think I picked “grace” as a sermon topic primarily because I like to sing the hymn. My mom used to tell me that we Unitarian Universalists can be very intellectual and ready to argue about doctrines and beliefs at the drop of a hat, but if asked to sing Amazing Grace, we do so with gusto – many even singing the line about being a “wretch,” despite the option to insert the word “soul” instead. I mean, that right there should tell you all kinds of information about Unitarian Universalists: We give people an alternate line in our hymnal according to their conscience. Sing about being a soul or sing about being a wretch – either way is fine. But choose quickly because it is coming up in the seventh measure of verse one.
I trust most of you have a sense of where this hymn came from. It is the story of Englishman John Newton (1725-1807), slave ship captain turned Anglican priest. According to one version of the story, our captain was sailing with a hold full of human cargo when a fierce storm overtook the ship. Fearing for his ship and his life, the captain, in desperation, began to pray. Surviving the harrowing storm, John Newton had a conversion experience that made see the evil of slavery and set on the path to being an abolitionist and a priest. That, as I said, is one version of the story. It is not true, but it is a good story.
In truth, our captain retired after earning quite a lot of money from the slavery business, returned to England to become a well respected and accomplished preacher. As a priest, he also had a talent for writing hymns and indeed wrote and co-wrote a great many hymns during his years. Over time, Newton’s views on slavery shifted and he grew to be an advocate of abolition. And it was out of his experiences working against slavery as a priest that he came to write the hymn Amazing Grace. It was not an “all of a sudden” conversion from sinner to saint, from slaver to abolitionist, from captain to priest. It evolved over time. You could say grace made its way though his life as a slow and subtle thread rather than as a sudden flash, as so many assume.
Grace is one of those religious words that has made its way into secular usage and thus lives on in our vocabulary. Credit cards and insurance companies provide a “grace period” between the due date of your bills and the date upon which they charge you for being late. Composers will sometimes add “grace notes” to their score — notes that are not essential to the melody, yet add flourish and flare. “Grace,” in these uses, refers to something extra, they are gratuitous. (from Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing about Grace?, p 12)
Even when we keep a more religious sentiment, the meaning of “grace” can shift, as in the example of “saying Grace” before a meal. In this case, “grace” refers to a prayer uttered before eating. One colleague, reflecting on this form of grace, writes:
The intent of such a prayer is two-fold: one is to encourage the spirit of gratefulness for the food, and another is so that the food will benefit us spiritually. Grace before the meal also takes the event of the meal out of just ordinary time and into sacred time. In this way, a simple table grace can induce the feeling of being blessed or having a sense of well being. (“A Question of Grace” Rev. Ann Fox, December 3, 2006, Unitarian Universalist Society of Fairhaven)
Of these examples, the words of the hymn and the story behind the hymn – both the real version and the fanciful version – are closer to the original religious understanding of Grace than these secularized versions of the word.
Grace is (according Van Harvey’s A Handbook of Theological Terms, p. 108) “the most crucial concept in Christian theology because it refers to the free and unmerited act through which God restores his estranged creatures to himself.” This idea of grace, stripped down to its most basic definition has to do with connection. In the theological vocabulary of Christianity, we have the words “free and unmerited” and I am quite used to seeing those adjectives attached to the concept of grace. Theologians and poets are amply capable of showing this aspect of grace. Robbie Walsh’s wonderful reading illustrates this: “Some say we get what we deserve in life, but I don’t believe it. We certainly don’t deserve Bach. What have I done to deserve the Second Brandenburg Concerto? … Life is a gift we have not earned and for which we cannot pay.”
But the part that struck me anew recently was the bit about connection, or as it is worded in my Handbook of Theological Terms, the restoration of estrangement. The free and unmerited part is old news. Theologians have been gnawing on that one for some time. It is undeserved, you’ve done nothing to gain it or earn it or win it. It is just there for you unexpectedly, unlooked for.
Christian author Barbara Brown Taylor tells the story of taking out the trash one evening. It was just about sunset, and the bag was heavy. As she struggled to get it from her back door to the garage, she passed by her garden. Glancing through the gate, she noticed that the light was hitting the garden just so and, she said, she got “the whole dose of loveliness at once” as the setting sun turned the scene golden. But she had to dump the trash before she could really experience it, and when she went back just a few moments later, the light had changed and the garden had returned to normal. Taylor had noticed this moment of grace, but she passed it by. (Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World, p. 26.)
Beauty happens, if you can notice it. The earth pours this beauty out regularly, have you eyes to see? 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? Have you noticed the beauty of the moon, or perhaps the sunset last night? 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.
Do you remember when I said, a few weeks back, that connection is our holiest word? At times, we feel disconnected from the world, from ourselves, from other people, from all that is holy. At times, we feel isolated or perhaps caught up in our own busy-ness. And then we’re taking out the garbage and see the fading sunlight falling on the garden just so. We reconnect with the beauty around us or within us or between us.
So, some would call this “God restoring his estranged creatures to himself,” and others would say it is our awareness of ourselves as connected with, indeed embedded in, that which is larger than ourselves and is also our larger self. Grace is that sense of connectedness that is also a profound respite, allowing you to release, for a time, the troubles of your life. It is that felt sense of something larger than yourself that holds all.
I think of the farmer who plants the seed. The work of the farmer is to plant the seed, not to grow the seed. The farmer is not in charge of the rain or the sun or the nutrients of the earth. Something larger is in charge of that: the laws of physics, the nature of seeds, the way the world works … the point is the farmer is not in control of that part. The farmer’s work is to plant the seed. Similarly, when you have trouble in life, when you’re working to make things happen, it can be restorative to allow a space for grace in your life to say, “I’ll do my part and trust the universe to do its part.” Because when we get too caught up in ourselves and our work and our efforts, we can lose sight of the beauty around us and within us. If we make space for grace in our lives, we can see we are not alone in our work.
The meditation by Wendell Berry has the word grace in the last line and I think it fits here. “For a time, I rest in the grace of the world and am free.” Worried, concerned, distracted, fearful, isolated … the word Wendell Berry uses is despair. “When despair for the world grows in me and I wake … in fear…” At times we feel disconnected. Grace is that reconnecting, that “act through which God restores his estranged creatures to himself.” And while it is “unmerited and unearned” and all that – as Wendell Barry shows, there are steps you can take to find it, to open yourself up to it.
In speaking of grace this way, as a way of noticing the world, as a way of being in the world, we would do well to not lose sight of that old traditional interpretation whereby Grace was the demonstration of God’s love for you. Liberal Christian author and apologist Frederick 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)
I like the way Beuchner talks about grace in this regard. He says, clearly, that it is a gift which you cannot earn or win but he 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 the meditation by Wendell Berry indicates, you can’t stay in bed with your despair and fear, you must “go lie down where the wood drake rests … and the great heron feeds.” Grace will find you, but you need to work with it, and you’re allowed to go looking for it.
Existentialist theologian Paul Tillich talks about the profound sense of grace, when it is most amazing. He speaks of grace, not as the gentle moment while taking out the trash or watching wood drakes and herons. He speaks of the level of grace alluded to in the hymn, when you are really at the bottom of your rope.
Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged. It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when year, after year, the longed for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsion reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness. If that happens to us, we experience grace. After such an experience, we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed. (from Shaking the Foundations, Paul Tillich)
Grace is that moment of reconnection, of turning back to God and discovering you are accepted and loved. Grace is the unanticipated felt knowledge that all shall be well.
This leads me to the story for which I have titled this sermon. There is a story that says each of us has a thread that connects us to God; when we sin, we cut the thread; when we seek forgiveness, we retie the thread. The story says each of us has a string that connects us to God, a thread running from our soul to the oversoul, a line tying the spark of divinity within each of us to the divinity of the whole – whatever theological framework you need to use – there is a thread. When we turn away from the holiness of life, when we sin or cause hurt, when we allow fear to command our actions, there is a cutting of the cord – we cut that thread of connection. We grow estranged, alienated, disconnected from God. When we turn back to face that which is holy, when we seek forgiveness, when we notice the angle of light upon the garden as we take out the trash, when we “go lie down where the wood drake rests … and the great heron feeds,” we are reconnecting. We are being restored with God. We are re-tying the thread.
When you re-tie a line, you create a knot and the string is shorter, causing you to be closer. Think of the occasions you have had a fight with someone whom you love – a parent, a spouse, a very dear friend. Not even necessarily a fight at the level where you might feel as though the deep connection between you has been severed – just a regular fight. When you get back together, when you make amends, when you weather that storm, are you not closer? Is not the fight and the fact that you are still together in love and loyalty a part of the depth of the relationship? So it is with grace. So it is with this story about knots along the line connecting you with all that is holy, with that which holds all.
Bill Moyers did a PBS documentary on the hymn Amazing Grace 20 years ago. One of the really striking scenes is at a concert in celebration of the changes that were happening in South Africa. The concert featured a variety of bands, mostly rock bands, but they had set the closing act as a black opera singer named Jessye Norman. Jessye comes out on the stage and the huge audience is all pumped up and shouting for more rock music. Jessye starts singing Amazing Grace, a capella, all alone on the stage, very slowly. As she sang, the crowd of seventy thousand unruly fans settled into a silence. By the second verse, she had them in the palm of her hands. “Jessye Norman later confessed she had no idea what power descended on (the crowd) that night.” (p. 282, Yancy.) Surely the answer is not that hard. The hymn evokes the feel of grace, evokes the remembered experience of it in the lives of people. Whether it is the dramatic sort of grace that Tillich speaks of or the gentler, subtler version we hear about from Wendell Berry, people understand what the song is about.
As we sing Amazing Grace for our closing hymn, I invite you to consider all the words of the hymn, not just the ones set apart with an asterisk. Consider how you can make room for more connections in your life, for more grace. You don’t need to earn it or win it, just plant the seed and let the seed do what seeds do.
In a world without end,
may it be so