Rev. Douglas Taylor
As a liberal religious community we affirm that we are always learning; that there is always more truth unfolding in our understanding. We see that being together matters, relationships are more important than doctrine, we say. We further state that how we are together – how we are in relationship – also matters. We are committed to the notion that to be good we must do good. And finally, we always hope. These, here stated in simple language, are James Luther Adams’ famous Five Smooth Stones of Liberal Religion.
James Luther Adams was a Unitarian Universalist theologian and ethicist from the 20th century. He taught at Harvard and Andover Newton in Boston as well as Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago. He wrote several books. He had died a few years before I entered seminary, but his legacy still loomed throughout the school and throughout my reading lists. James Luther Adams was not an easy read.
I remember getting frustrated with my reading lists and signing up for speed reading lessons through the school’s Student Services. The instructor gave me a session with some basic speed reading techniques. She then asked me to bring in a text I am actually using in my classes for our next session. I brought in a James Luther Adams book. After about ten minutes she looked up at me and said: “Ok, so here’s what we’ve learned: you can’t use speed reading techniques on books like this.” James Luther Adams has never been an easy read.
There is one essay he wrote, however, that though pitched to academia is worth consumption by a broader audience: The Five Smooth Stones of Liberal Religion. It is an essay from one of his books (On Being Human Religiously) and was turned into a pamphlet at one point. But it is so dense as to be inaccessible and frankly boring to most people. I gave a copy of this pamphlet to Don Karn, our worship associate for today, and he said he had to slog through it. He had to slog through a pamphlet! Don, if you don’t know, just finished teaching theology for a term up at LaMoyne College. And he felt like he was slogging though this pamphlet.
But the content of this essay, the Five Smooth Stones of Liberal Religion, is too rich for me to just let it stay lost to the average Unitarian Universalists. There is some good stuff in there worth lifting up more clearly.
Adams starts with the story of David and Goliath from 1 Samuel (chapter 17). The key verse is 17:40 where it says David went to the river and selected five smooth stones. Instead of wearing the king’s armor and using the king’s own sword to face down the giant champion of their enemy, young David arms himself with his familiar sling and five smooth stones. David’s weapons are light and flexible, not cumbersome and bulky. His choice of protection is to remain nimble rather than fortified. Adams takes all this as a metaphor for Liberalism in general and Liberal Religion in particular. The five smooth stones are the key aspects of our free faith, and they are all we need to face the trials we have in life. Let me put the list out there briefly and then I’ll walk through each point.
Number one: As a liberal religious community we affirm that we are always learning; that there is always more truth unfolding in our understanding. Number two: We see that being together matters, relationships are more important than doctrine. Number three: We further state that how we are together – how we are in relationship – also matters. Number four: We are committed to the notion that to be good we must do good. And, number five: we always hope.
The first stone is that we are always learning, always evolving, always open to new truth and meaning yet unfolding. James Luther Adams say it is the principle the “revelation” is not sealed. This is perhaps the central tenet of our faith. Other religious traditions can claim absolute authority and infallibility, they can point to a book or a person or a creed that carries ultimate truth. Liberal religion does no such thing.
We talk instead about the freedom of belief, the freedom of each individual to believe as his or her conscience demands. Faith cannot be coerced, it cannot be given by tradition; it must be uncovered afresh by each believer in each generation. We are always learning. We teach our children the importance of a good education. A good education is one that teaches them how to learn, one that enlivens their curiosity, because the point is not to learn a set amount of information. The point is to learn to long for the ever unfolding truth in life.
The challenge of this stone is that we can’t rest on laurels. We can’t simply sit back and laugh saying “Nobody can hang their doctrine on me!” The Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism speak of the “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” Yes, it is free, but it is also responsible – you need to do it. You are accountable to learn and grow. William Ellery Channing, the father of American Unitarianism said, God gave us the capacity of reason, we will be held accountable for our use of it or lack thereof.
The second stone is that relationships should rest on mutual free consent, coercion will not serve. This is key for liberal faith; it is a bedrock component to relationships in communities such as ours. It is also key to any understanding of the Ultimate from the perspective of Religious Humanism or Liberal Theism.
We talk about equality and fairness. In the same way faith cannot be coerced, love also cannot be coerced. Loyalty cannot be forced. Trust cannot be faked. We teach our children that relationships matter; that friendships are important and that friends are earned – to have a friend, you need to be a friend. No one is an island. We are social creatures and it is important for that to be honored. But it can’t be forced and it can’t be faked.
The challenge of this stone is that we need to trust each other. We need to be together. And you get to come with all your faults and foibles as well as your glory and your greatness. So long as you also allow that others are also free to come with all their faults and foibles, glory and greatness. Each person is welcomed with all their dignity and their limitations. You are welcomed, but you are also one doing the welcoming of others. But for that to work it must be real, freely offered on your part and freely accepted too. Coercion will not serve for where we are going.
The third stone is similar to the second, but takes it deeper into community. The second stone speaks of relationships, the third stone says we need to build just and loving communities. It’s not enough for them to be free; they must also be just and loving. It is not enough to be in relationship, how we are in relationship matters as well. If, as we said at the start, truth and meaning are open and yet unfolding (stone number 1), then it follows that when we say relationships are more important that doctrine (stone number 2) we will need to enter into these relationships with care and authenticity for our own sake as well as for the sake of all others indeed for the sake of truth and meaning itself!
We speak more and more of covenant and of being in right-relation with each other. We have banners and slogans about ‘standing on the side of love’ and we promise to ‘speak the truth in love.’ We teach our children about fairness. We teach our children that being part of this family means they have to do certain things they may grumble at – but that’s just what it means to be a part of this family, or this school, or this church, or this society, or this human race. As an adult, I recognize that I must weigh the needs of the whole community not just my own individual needs. As adults, we learn to be in groups.
In the essay, Adams offers up a brief example. He talks about scientists have studied how long it takes for a group of chickens to form social organizations. The answer is less than 24 hours. In less than one day, chickens that are all meeting for the first time will form a “tightly structured social organization – a rigid hierarchy of pecking order.” Liberal religion refutes ‘pecking orders.’ This doesn’t mean we refuse all structure and organization – only the rigid that does not allow for free inquiry and free association among people.
The challenge in this stone is that my efforts to help to create a just and loving community will necessarily restrain some of my individual freedoms. Selfishness will not serve. There is some surrender asked for here. And the trick is there can be no coercion, it has to be real and thus it has to be voluntary.
The fourth stone follows the third and emphasizes that we must do good to be good. Goodness is not meaningful in the abstract: it must be embodied. Adams said, “We deny the immaculate conception of virtue and affirm the necessity of social incarnation.
We talk about how our faith must be lived out, we must walk the talk. We teach our children that helping others is important, that actions speak louder than words. Whether it is voting, signing petitions, helping at a soup kitchen, donating money to a cause, participating in a walk-a-thon, or just helping a neighbor in need – it is important for us to pitch in to help make the world we want to live in.
“Ye shall know them by their groups” JLA says paraphrasing scripture. In community we can make a difference. The way to make a difference is through small simple actions, the way those small actions make a difference is when many people are together in the work. Goodness must be organized.
The challenge of this stone is similar to the others before. All five of these Stones are about securing and celebrating freedom. Freedom is the watchword of Liberal Religion. But freedom is always paired with responsibility if it is to be real. At the end of the day, if your beliefs cannot be translated into action, if your faith cannot be witnessed in your living – then perhaps you don’t really believe what you say you believe.
The fifth stone is the stone of hope. It is the stone that says we have cause to be optimistic. Adams says, “The resources – divine and human – that are available for the achievement of meaningful change justify an attitude of ultimate optimism.” Despite the many difficulties in life, there is ample cause for hope.
We talk about how we can build the beloved community among us if we try. What blocks us is apathy, not inability or impossibility. We teach our children to think positively, to look on the bright side, to find the silver lining. And at our best we also teach them that bad things do happen and that in the face of trial and loss and injustice and heartbreak, life is still worth living.
Hope is the only thing more powerful than fear. The world is on fire with strife and turmoil. Terrible experiences of war, disease, injustice, and pain are ever present in life. But that is not the whole story. Because there is also love and there is also kindness and there is also beauty and grace and generosity and joy and sacrifice. And these do not cancel out the terrible things and the suffering. Instead they rides alongside the terrible. All that is good and holy and beautiful deepens the well and strengthens the walls. Our ultimate hope is not that the suffering and injustice will be cancelled out, but contained; not halted, but held.
Our hope is not in turning away from the realities of injustice and heartache. It is in facing these things with clarity knowing that we have the resources to make a difference. This is not an optimism that hides from reality. It is a realism that sees an ultimate hope for the fulfillment of grace.
As a liberal religious community we affirm that we are always learning; that there is always more truth unfolding in our understanding. We see that being together matters; relationships are more important than doctrine, we say. We further state that how we are together – how we are in relationship – also matters. We are committed to the notion that to be good we must do good. And finally, we always hope. These, here stated in simple language, are James Luther Adams’ famous Five Smooth Stones of Liberal Religion.
Freedom is our watchword. In our search for understanding, in our longing for more spirit, in our praying to know God, in our aching for more peace in our hearts, in our actions to bring more peace in our world, in whatever way we face the metaphorical Goliaths in our lives, these five stones lead us deeper and line the path we walk. Rev Naomi King says, “With these stones we build the cities of refuge, houses of hope, and gardens of peace.” The five smooth stones are the key aspects of our free faith, and they are all we need to face the trials we have in life.
In a world without end,
May it be so.
Healing the Commons
Rev. Douglas Taylor
“If you ride your breath and quiet your mind, you will hear the heartbeat of the Earth,” Susan Podebradsky tells us in the poem we used as our opening words this morning. “The Song of the Soul of the Earth” is something we feel “deep in our bodies, and deep in out souls because the Song of the Soul of the Earth is our song too.” These lines remind me greatly of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s teachings about Oversoul: that my own simple song is part of the great song being sung across all creation.
And I can sit among the tall trees and feel the breeze washing over me and hear the ripple of water there on the lake – and when I ride my breath and quiet my mind I can hear the heartbeat of the Earth. And the intricate connected patterns between the trees and the lake and other people and my small self become obvious when I look for them. The earth pulses and I pulse in return. We are connected. Our theology speaks of this; science discovers this over and over. The patterns of life are interconnected, interwoven throughout all existence. As John Muir says in what I now think is my all-time favorite quote: “when we try to pick anything out by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”
Such a way of seeing and understanding the world we live in 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. I feel it deep in my body and deep in my soul because the Song of the Soul of the Earth is my song too. Oppression, destruction, the 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 times and the environmental destruction of our world.
Today is the 42nd Earth Day, a day of activism and awareness-raising. It is a day when many people – religious and non-religious – consider the earth and our human impact upon the earth. But it can be daunting: this task of saving the world from environmental destruction. Ozone holes and global warming are huge problems, loss of biodiversity and melting of the polar icecaps – near impossible to think about let alone solve. But that is exactly what we are about. Well, not exactly. Saving and solving are perhaps not the right action words for what we need. Repairing and healing are closer to what I think we need to be about.
I have come to see that there are two levels to the repair and the healing. First and foremost for there to be any significant impact on climate change, specifically any significant decrease in the negative human impact on our environment, there will need to be globally coordinated political actions to reduce emissions of dangerous gasses and chemicals, we will need to regulate for sustainability of our economy and our environment, and to make a solid commitment to clean renewable energy sources. The types of major course corrections needed are going to come at the governmental level. And this is daunting. I know, for example, that as a nation we could be drawing the majority of our energy from renewable sources such as wind and solar, but there are financial and legal incentives in place currently to keep oil and gas consumption in the lead.
It is frustrating and I feel helpless when facing the scope of the situation and my role in it. This is so much larger than one person’s consumer choices. And it feels like my actions to recycle and use energy efficient light bulbs and reusable canvass shopping bags are all the equivalent of ‘rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.’ But, consider the reading from Gordon McKeeman about being “a drop in the bucket.” Every voice counts in the larger work. We need to have significant political movement to address climate change. Wes Ernsberger and others from our Green Sanctuary are planning to have petitions and other political action steps people can take available after services this week and in the future – should you feel moved to participate in that way. Check out an environmental advocacy group to see if they do political actions. Get informed, get involved.
But that’s just one level of what needs to happen. The other level is that we need to build a person by person change in our mindset, our framework as to how we look at ourselves and our place in the world. Listen to this story that author, engineer, and environmentalist Derrick Jensen tells:
Years ago I heard a story of a Native American spiritual leader who was in a circle with several environmentalists who were drumming and singing. One of the environmentalists prayed “Please save the spotted owl, the river otter, the peregrine falcon.” The Native American got up and whispered, “What are you doing, friend?”
“I’m praying for the animals,” the environmentalist replied.
“Don’t pray for the animals. Pray to the animals.” The native American paused, then continued, “You’re so arrogant. You think you’re bigger than they are, right? Don’t pray for the redwood. Pray that you can become as courageous as the redwood. Ask the redwood what it wants.”
As it says in the Bible, “Ask, and ye shall receive.”
Ask the Pandas what they want. They will tell you.
The question is: Are you willing to do it?
I think the mindset we would benefit from is one in which we see ourselves as interconnected with the redwoods and the spotted owl, with the heartbeat of the earth and the Oversoul. Such that we will believe that what befalls the earth befalls to each one of us. And that our work is not to save the earth or to save the river otter. Our work is to repair and heal. And in that way we may heal and repair ourselves. There was that playful bumper sticker from the 1970’s environmental movement that came out after all the ‘save the whales’ and ‘save the seals’ and ‘save our planet’ bumper stickers. The playful one that came out after those said ‘save the humans.’
Because, really, the earth will survive us. Climate change happens; mass extinctions are part of the grand pattern of existence on earth. The question is can we maintain enough of the current climate and environment such that humans survive. And the trick here is to notice that one of the critical things humans need includes the biodiversity around us and the healthy thriving land beneath our feet.
And for that, I am convinced we need not only political actions in favor of sustainability but also a mindset change to bring us into balanced interconnectedness. Not really to save ourselves from an environmental crisis so much as to save ourselves from the sin of believing we are separate and isolated and superior. I am convinced we need to move past seeing the earth as a merely commodity and resource, it is also a source of healing.
As a few lines from an Ute prayer say:
Earth teach me humility as blossoms are humble with beginning.
Earth teach me courage as the tree which stands all alone.
Earth teach me resignation as the leaves which die in the fall.
Earth teach me regeneration as the seed which rises in the spring.
There is much we might learn from the earth should we be willing to listen, to ride our breath and quiet our minds enough to hear the heartbeat of the Earth. One reason we should save the Pandas and the Spotted Owl and the Polar Icecaps if possible is because each of these is precious. Another reason is because we are all part of the same pattern. What affects one strand on the web affects us all.
Frogs as a broad species are in significant danger: nearly a third of all the 6000 different species of frog are endangered because of a fungus spreading across South America and moving up to Central America. Amphibians such as frogs have a skin that allows water and nearly anything in the water directly into the frog’s body. So they have no defense or immunity against this particular, human-introduced fungus. And it is killing them off. This matters to us pragmatically because human beings thrive best in a system with a high level of biodiversity. The greater the variety of species on the planet, the greater stability and resiliency experienced for the whole system.
From this perspective, even our small actions make a difference of consequence because they can help shift the mindset, the framework for this situation. Our small actions matter not because they impact legislation and create globally coordinated efforts toward sustainability; the matter because they impact the basic mindset we live in.
Listen, for example, to this poem called “Birdfoot’s Grampa” by Joseph Bruchac (from Entering Onondaga)
The old man
must have stopped our car
two dozen times to climb out
and gather into his hands
the small toads blinded
by our lights and leaping,
like live drops of rain.
The rain was falling,
a mist about his white hair
and I kept saying
you can’t save them all,
accept it, get back in
we’ve got places to go.
But, leathery hands full
of wet brown life,
knee deep in the summer
he just smiled and said
they have places to go to
In the meditation this morning, Kathleen McTigue writes “If we can learn to think like a stone, then we might learn to think as though we are truly a part of the planet instead of merely living on it. The meditation reminded me of the pivotal story in Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. The thrust of the book is summed up in Leopold’s forward when he writes: “When we see the land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” (viii)
But the pivotal story is in a short section headed, “Thinking like a mountain.” (p 129-133) In it he describes killing a wolf. He talks about being out with others when they saw a pack emerge within range. And naturally, or at least what seemed natural to these young hunters, they shot.
We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean a hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf not the mountain agreed with such a view.
Leopold goes on to describe how a deer population with no wolf predators to keep it in check will quickly devastate a mountain’s foliage. “I have seen every edible bush and seedling browsed, first to anemic desuetude, and then to death. I have seen every edible tree defoliated to the height of a saddle horn. Such a mountain looks as if someone had given God a new pruning shears, and forbidden Him all other exercise.” When all that fuss about culling the deer population in the Binghamton University wood was raging, I kept thinking back to this passage from A Sand County Almanac in which Leopold wrote: “Just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer.” (p 132)
The point is not to think only of the deer or of the wolf or even of the mountain. The point is to think of the whole system and the interrelated parts that depend on each other. The point is that we live in the pattern; we are not separate from it. Thoreau said, “In wildness is the salvation of the world.”
At times I am tempted by despair and discouragement. At times I am tempted by what I know of environmental ruin and what I see of politics to throw my hands up in futility. But I know that drop by drop we can make a difference – both for the pragmatic changes needed at the governmental level as well as for the basic perspective changes in how we see ourselves as people in this world. We can repair and heal the earth because we are the earth. We can respond to the changing climate. We are already involved, we live in the pattern.
And we feel it
Deep in our bodies,
And deep in our souls,
The Song of the Soul of the Earth
Is our song too.
In a world without end
May it be so.
A Fool’s Assumption
Rev. Douglas Taylor
In a world without end, may it be so!
Assumptions are such a basic part of how we interact with reality it is hard to pull back and notice them. This is part of the definition of an assumption. They are assumptions in part because we don’t pull back from them and notice them. Now, assumptions are not necessarily a bad thing. Just on the basic level: I assume gravity is working. I am not going to check for evidence every day before stepping out. So, that’s not a fair example. But it gets at what I’m talking about: we don’t usually check our assumptions because their often in the background of our thinking. We expect the world to be a certain way. And this is not a bad thing. That’s just how we live.
I remember an old Sci-fi book (Stranger in a Strange Land) in which a character served as a perfect witness because she made no assumptions. Someone pointed to a house down the street and asked, ‘what color is that house,’ and the character said, ‘the side I can see is white.’ But she would offer no statement about the color of the whole house without first checking. No assumptions. The process of scientific inquiry is rooted in this perspective that we should prove all things and never assume.
I think this is taking it a bit too far. I contend that it is actually useful and helpful for us to make some assumptions. I think it is ok to trust life and each other a little more. The perspective that says we must never assume what has not been proven is useful in scientific research, but it can be disastrous when applied to relationships and life in general. (I’m actually being serious here.) To make no assumptions is to have no trust. And it is to be caught up in the fear of being mistaken. To make no assumptions is to take no risks, to always play it safe. Well, in the world of scientific research and other such places that is a fine and noble perspective. But in the world of relationships and living it is better to learn to trust, to risk false assumptions and mistakes.
Listen to this piece I found on a website called Tiny Buddha. It highlights how the real question is not should we assume or not assume, the better question is which assumptions we should make.
First Reading: DO HAPPY: ASSUME THE BEST by Lori Deschene
“We must never assume that which is incapable of proof.” -Unknown
You can never truly know someone else’s intentions.
If a coworker offers to cover your shift, she may be trying to ease your stress–or she could be vying for your job. If your sister-in-law offers to pay for your meal, she may want to help you out during tough times–of she could be trying to remind you you’re inferior.
You can always find a negative assumption that allows you to believe the worst in people. Or you can give that person the benefit of the doubt and believe they have your best interests at heart.
When you assume someone is being kind and not selfish, you may occasionally wrong, but for the most part you’ll feel appreciative and peaceful with the people in your life. The alternative is to believe people are bad, seek and find proof everywhere, and walk around feeling bitter and critical.
When you have no proof, it’s a judgment call: assume the best and feel good and grateful; or assume the worst and feel bad and suspicious.
Choosing to see and feel good does more than ease your sense of doubt; it also expands your awareness. Barbara Frederickson, a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, explains that positive emotions allow us to see more, whereas negative emotions literally narrow our thinking.
When you feel more positive emotions, you form closer bonds with people, increase your resilience, and become more satisfied with life.
You can’t always feel good. But you can choose to feel good more often, starting with the way you interpret the things people do.
Thus, I think the better question in life is: which assumptions should we make? For, life is meant to be lived and it is a messy and mistake-filled experience for all of us. Rather than trying to protect yourself from mistakes and false assumptions, learn to roll with the absurdity that is life. And this is where humor comes in. Laughter and humor come on the heels of grace and love. Rumi said: “Sell your cleverness and buy amazement!”
Humor depends upon assumption. Humor is, at its heart, about incongruity. Humor draws connections between two seemingly unrelated things. A joke is often funny because we assume it is leading us one way and all of a sudden, it is something else.
There is a story of a young boy who suddenly announced to his mother after church one morning, “Mom, I’ve decided I’m going to be a preacher when I grow up.”
“O, my darling boy,” the mother gushed, “Tell me what made you decide to be a preacher.”
“Well,” the boy replied, “I’ll have to go the church on Sunday anyway, I figure it would be more fun to stand up front and yell.”
Life can be like a good joke. We think it is going one direction when all of a sudden it is something else. When we can learn to roll with the absurdity of life with grace and humor – rather than trying to protect ourselves by risking nothing – then joy will be our companion no matter how hard things become.
The question came up for me: isn’t this Palm Sunday? Isn’t it a little irreverent to have a joke service on Palm Sunday? This question helped me move deeper into the theme of ‘assumptions.’ Darin Goldenberg who co-created this service with me was the one who actually started us on the ‘assumptions’ theme for today; otherwise, I’d have turned the day over for just jokes and pranks. Palm Sunday is, in a significant way, a celebration of Jesus disrupting assumptions. People had an image of the messiah entering Jerusalem in power and in glory. Entering on a horse would have been more suitable. But Jesus chose a donkey because a horse is symbol of war. The people wanted him to wage a war for them. In some interpretations of the day, the messiah was supposed to come with a sword to free the people. But Jesus turned the expectations and assumptions upside down.
And he did that a lot! That’s one of my favorite things about Jesus. Blessed are the meek, turn the other cheek, the first shall be last, love your neighbor as yourself. Again and again, Jesus disrupted people’s assumptions. Listen to this story about Jesus found in Anthony de Mello’s book Taking Flight.
The priest announced that Jesus Christ himself was coming to church the following Sunday. People turned up in large numbers to see him. Everyone expected him to preach, but he only smiled when introduced and said, “Hello.” Everyone offered him hospitality for the night, especially the priest, but he refused politely. He said he would spend the night in church. How fitting, everyone thought.
He slipped away early next morning before the church doors were opened. And, to their horror, the priest and the people found their church had been vandalized. Scribbled everywhere on the walls was the single word “Beware.” No part of the church was spared: the doors and windows, the pillars and the pulpit, the alter, even the Bible that rested on the lectern. “Beware.” Scratched in large letters and in small, in pencil and pen and paint of every conceivable color. Wherever the eye rested one could see the words: “Beware, beware, Beware, beware, beware, beware …”
Shocking. Irritating. Confusing. Fascinating. Terrifying. What were they supposed to beware of? It did not say. It just said “Beware.” The first impulse of the people was to wipe our every trace of this defilement, this sacrilege. They were restrained from doing this only by the thought that it was Jesus himself who had done this deed.
Now that mysterious word “Beware” began to sink into the minds of the people each time they came to church. They began to beware of the scriptures, so they were able to profit from the Scriptures without falling into bigotry. They began to beware the sacraments, so they were sanctified without becoming superstitious. The priest began to beware his power over the people, so he was able to help without controlling. And everyone began to beware of religion which leads the unwary to self-righteousness. They became law-abiding, yet compassionate to the weak. They began to beware of prayer, so it no longer stopped them from becoming self-reliant. They ever began to beware of their notions of God so they were able to recognize him outside the narrow confines of their church.
They have now inscribed the shocking word over the entrance of their church and as you drive past at night you can see it blazing above the church in multicolored neon lights.
(Taking Flight, by Anthony de Mello; p 92-3)
So, what types of things must we ‘beware’ of as Unitarian Universalists? A joke or story of this sort can be useful in pointing out the assumption that might be getting in our way. Earlier I said, go ahead and assume; go ahead and make mistakes. But I mean it in the way Martin Luther meant it when he said ‘Sin boldly that grace may abound.’ Make mistakes, not for the sake of being wrong for the point of learning more about life and about yourself.
Humor challenges pretentiousness, pokes fun at pomposity, nudges our preconceived notions. Any time an opening is made in our assumptions and our fixed ideas of life there is a risk that we will uncover the dangerous opportunity of growth. I believe that a religion such as ours, at its best, presents a radical perspective that is different from the standard accepted perspective on life.
But we’re far from perfect. Sometimes listening to someone like Garrison Keillor tell stories about us can lead us to see our assumptions.
Q: Why can’t UUs sing very well in choirs?
A: Because they’re always reading ahead to see if they agree with the next verse.
Q: Why did the UU cross the road?
A: To support the chicken in its search for its own path.
Q: What is the most moving part of a Unitarian service?
A: When the members of the congregation stand and, in a single firm voice, recite the hypothesis. [Alternative answer: At the end when everyone gets up to leave.]
Do we tend to over analyze things? Do we have a difficult time letting go and trusting? I had a bumper sticker on one of my old cars that said: Don’t believe everything you think! And another one that said: Militant agnostic, I don’t know and you don’t either! These jokes about reading ahead in the hymnal and reciting the hypothesis poke a little at our sense of ourselves.
The joke about the chicken crossing the road is also delightful for another reason. We put a lot of emphasis on each person’s search, on the journey. So we help the chicken in its own search. It’s like the story of the bride who brought yards and yards of fabric to the dressmaker for her wedding dress and the dressmaker asked: “Why did you bring so much fabric, it would be enough to wrap around you three or four times!” To which the bride responded: “My fiancé is a Unitarian, he’s more interested in the search.”
Q: How many Unitarian Universalists does it take to change a light bulb?
A: None. We believe it must change by itself. We’re not in the business of telling anyone they HAVE to change.
Q: But really, how many Unitarian Universalists does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Eight. One to do it, seven to make sure that the power doesn’t go to his or her head.
Q: OK, but how Many Unitarian Universalists does it take to Change a light bulb?
A: We’re not in agreement as to whether the Light bulb really exists or if it just another myth.
Q: Douglas, seriously, how many Unitarian Universalists does it take to change a light bulb?
A: We strenuously object to the term ‘light bulb.’ We believe there are many ways of darkness dispersion and so would not want to participate in an activity validating the light bulb as the exclusive light source.
Q: Come on, now. How many Unitarian Universalists does it take to change a light bulb?
A: We choose not to make a statement either in favor or against the need for a light bulb. However, if in your own journey, you have found that light bulbs work for you, that’s fine. You are invited to write a poem or compose a modern dance about your personal relationship with your light bulb and present it next month at our annual light bulb Sunday service, in which we will explore a number of light bulb traditions including incandescent, florescent, halogen, three-way, and even candle light all of which are equally valid paths of luminescence.
In this life there are many things to make us worry and make us weep, and other things that lead us tripping through laughter into the joy of living. You can choose to interpret life’s challenges as an opening or a closing. Humor allows us to relax and open up to life. When we can laugh at ourselves we are more open to growth and grace. So take the risk, appear a little foolish. “Sell your cleverness and buy amazement!” Make a mistake and see your assumptions cracked open from time to time. Life is so big and so wonderful: open yourself to the humor and the joy, and live!
Let us sing.
Prayer to Laughter by John Agard
Giver of relaxed mouths
You who rule our belly with tickles
You who come when not called
You who can embarrass us at times
Send us stitches in our sides
Shake us till the water reaches our eyes
Buckle our knees till we cannot stand
We whose faces are grim and shattered
We whose hearts are no longer heavy
O laughter we beg you
Crack us up
Crack us up.
On the Edge
Rev. Douglas Taylor
The story of Icarus is one of the perennial stories of the human condition. In the Greek story, Icarus was a man who escaped Crete using wings his father had made from feathers and wax. And in the story, the wings took him up into the heavens, but as he neared the heavens, the sun melted the wax. His wings fell apart and he began to fall. The Greek version of this story is told to warn against what they saw to be the basic human problem: Hubris, overweening pride
A friend and colleague of mine, Rev. Abhi Janamanchi, told a simlar story from the Hindu tradition, the Story of Trisanku (THREE-SHUN-KOO), when he lead the Sunday worship at General Assembly nearly three years ago. In this version of the story, the Icarus character, Trisanku, did not fall to his death as Icarus did. In this version of the story, one of the gods felt sympathy for him and caught him – and there Trisanku was stuck, caught between heaven and earth, near to flying and near to falling. Caught in between. The Hindu version of this story is told to warn against what they saw to be the basic human problem: being caught in between.
My friend Ahbi related the story to the feeling he had coming from India to America, the feeling of mixing his Hindu upbringing with his Unitarian Universalist ministry. Truly issues of race and immigration bring out this Trisanku-type of experience of being on the edge, caught between seemingly conflicting communities.
Have you ever been out the edge? Have you ever really noticed how close you have been at times to the edge? We might be talking about any number of edges. We might be speaking of the brink of environmental collapse or a personal nervous breakdown. But that’s not quite what I mean, though it is close.
Today I mean something closer to the experience of moving along the fringe of the in-group or passing for middleclass while living from paycheck to paycheck. Have you ever been caught between seemingly conflicting communities, on the edge? We can be talking about any number of edges in life. And perhaps every experience of being at the edge will evoke the type of feeling I am tugging at.
Surely we all recognize that state of being. The lucky among us either experience it as a temporary thing or something from our past. Others roll along the edge with grace and aplomb that defy the thin reality. But for many, being on the edge is frightening and exhausting and dangerous. I suggest that most of us have some experience with being on the edge.
What I am trying to evoke is a parallel to the Quote from Leviticus: “When strangers sojourn with you in your land, you shall do them no wrong, the strangers who sojourn with you shall be to you as natives among you, and you love them as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Leviticus 19:33-34) This passage is a common piece of the Passover liturgy. It is a Jewish injunction to treat others well because, ‘you know what it feels like,’ the passage reminds them. One strong Passover message is to reach out to the stranger, not to fear the stranger as is the baser human instinct. Why? Because you know what it is like to have been a stranger. And so I say today, we each know what it feels like to be on the edge. Be gentle and have compassion for those you see in this life who are on the edge.
The Press & Sun Bulletin (Thursday, March, 22; B1) offered a brief headline article about Immigration being talked about from pulpits. But rather than lead with this passage, they talked about how preachers are leading with something from one of Paul’s letters about obeying authorities and laws, something from Romans, chapter 13. It wouldn’t be the first time some Christians have mistakenly claimed obedience as God’s greatest commandment.
I don’t know a lot of the details of the immigration laws and the legal issues. I am not a political junkie paying close attention to how it all works so as to notice and point out some of the places where the system is broken. I do pay attention to cultural dynamics, but I still would not consider myself to be ‘on top’ of what’s going on. Two years ago when I preached on Immigration I tried to figure some of that out and to find something interesting, intelligent, and somewhat radical things to say on the topic. But I have to admit: I really don’t know much about what’s going on with immigration in our country.
But here’s what I do know: compassion is always a good idea. Remember the times in your life when you have been at the edge; have compassion for those you meet who are there now. I don’t know much about immigration, but it keeps coming up around me so I’ve tried to learn more about it.
Did you know that according to senate reports, travelogues, and the Guinness book of world records, the U.S. – Mexico border is the most frequently crossed international border in the world, with approximately three hundred fifty million crossings per year. The boarder between the United States and Mexico is nearly 2,000 miles long. According to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, we have built nearly 600 miles of fences (as of 2009) to control border crossing. By some estimates the fence has cost about a million dollars per mile to construct. Later this summer I’ll be about a hundred miles north of that wall in Phoenix.
This year’s 2012 General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association will be held in Phoenix Arizona. It has been termed Justice GA because “Arizona – where one of the most aggressive state laws on immigration enforcement has been enacted and where the sheriff has been called out by federal authorities for racial profiling and civil liberties violations.” (UU World Spring 2012, p 25) In July of 2010, UUA president Peter Morales, the UUA’s first Latino president was arrested for civil disobedience while protesting Arizona’s SB 1070 immigration enforcement bill. Minister from our sister congregation in Albany, Rev Sam Trumbore went down to Arizona two summers ago for that protest.
Over the past few years leading up to this General Assembly there have been debates and discussions about how to deal with the upcoming General Assembly in Phoenix given the troubling immigration situation that has galvanized there. Some suggested we boycott. Others encouraged us to come but to not have business as usual. Thus, Justice GA will be a different time of gathering. There will still be business brought before the delegates, but the bulk of programming will be focused around training for advocacy and witness, and Saturday will be given over as a day of service and action with local partnerships.
I imagine, I will learn a good deal about immigration while I am down there this summer. But I have a suspicion. Yes, our country has an immigration problem; but I suspect that deeper down, our country has a compassion problem. Perhaps most countries have this problem, but we seem to be exceptionally poor at allowing compassion to influence our politics and our culture. We have a tendency to turn people into ‘the other.’ The authors of Leviticus knew this thousands of years ago, Jesus spoke of this; all the world religions speak of having compassion … and of having compassion for the stranger, the alien, the other in our midst.
Trayvon Martin, the young black teen in Florida armed with skittles and wearing a hoodie, was a stranger to the self-appointed neighborhood watchman. This story is all over the news now; I trust you’ve seen it. All Zimmerman saw was a stranger, someone who he thought should not be there, someone on the edge, crossing the boundaries. The shooting of Trayvon Martin is tangled up in race, gun rights, and fear. And it is tangled up in how we treat those we view as “other.”
It all starts to flow together and get tangled up in my mind because it isn’t just about immigration. I think immigration is nested within a larger problem of racism in America. It is about how we treat those not like us as “other.” It is about how we categorize groups of “other” and treat them as less than ourselves. It is about how we have lost sight of the dream our county was reaching for at its founding. We began as a mix; we began as a pluralist mix seeking unity not in nationalism but in the yearning for shared freedom. Diversity was a key ingredient to the American Dream. But lately the American Dream, like some many other great ideas, has become privatized and commodified.
The American Dream is still out there, but I think many people have lost a sense of what it is. When the housing bubble burst a few years back, people talked about how it was more than just homeownership at stake. The American Dream itself was being lost, people said. But I say the concept is bigger than mere materialism. Yes, it is about joining the middle class, about owning a home and getting a college education. But it is more than that. We’ve lost sight of what all of the material and status markers are supposed to be pointing toward.
The true scope of the American Dream is that our children will be better off than we are. Really, the American Dream is about the possibility of generational improvement. By focusing on the materialistic and status aspects of it, we cheapen the dream and we pervert it from being an opportunity we can work toward for our children into something we personally deserve simply because we’re American! Immigrants understand the American Dream. It is not about personal gain or status. It’s about opportunity.
Consider the image of the Statue of Liberty: “A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame is the imprisoned lightning, and her name Mother of Exiles.” That’s what the poem New Colossus says about her, the poem written by Emma Lazarus in 1883 that 20 years later was engraved on a bronze plaque at the pedestal of the statute; “From her beacon-hand glows world-wide welcome.” The more remembered lines solidify the perspective that we are a land of immigrants:
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she with silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
That message says it doesn’t matter if you are on the edge. No, actually it does matter: because when you have been on the edge, when you are tired and poor, homeless and tempest-tossed, you have a better sense of what freedom can be, of what it can mean to breathe free. It does matter. Let’s start not with a point of privilege, but with a shared sense of how much it is worth to us to build a land where all people shall be free. Because once we loose that feeling of being on the edge – that’s when we begin to think the American Dream is about luxury cars and huge houses. That’s when we begin to forget that the goal of this whole experiment in self-governance is about building a land where our children can breathe free, where other people’s children can breathe free; where anyone, even someone caught on the edge, living between two seeming conflicting communities, can be offered the opportunity to breathe free at last.
I want to close with this poem by Alberto Blanco entitled “My Tribe.”
My Tribe by Alberto Blanco (English translation: James Nolan)
Earth is the same
Sky is the same
From lake to lake,
Forest to forest”
Which tribe is mine?
–I ask myself—
Where’s my place?
Perhaps I belong to the tribe
Of those who have none;
Or to the black sheep tribe;
Or to a tribe whose ancestors
come from the future:
A tribe on the horizon.
But if I have to belong to some
–I tell myself—
Make it a large tribe,
Make it a strong tribe,
One in which nobody
Is left out,
In which everybody,
For once and for all
Has a God-given place.
I’m not talking about a human
I’m not talking about a planetary
I’m not even talking about a
I’m talking about a tribe you can’t
A tribe that’s always been
But whose existence must yet be
A tribe that’s always been
But whose existence
We can prove right now.
In a world without end
May it be so
Tener Salsa en la Vida
Rev. Douglas Taylor
I don’t mean to knock ketchup lovers, but salsa is so much better in my opinion. I still use ketchup on a burger, and – to put it patronizingly – many of my closest friends still prefer ketchup over other condiment options such as salsa. But the trend is quantifiable: salsa sales outstrip ketchup sales and have for twenty years or so. Of course this is a statistic and virtually all statistics are able to be manipulated to say nearly anything you want. By volume, ketchup actually wins the contest. For the sake of my argument, fair to say salsa has a place in our American refrigerator today alongside ketchup in a way unheard of a few generations back.
And, of course, I am going to take this factoid of salsa vs. ketchup in a metaphorical direction. I could have used the comparison of a rollercoaster vs. a carousel but given that Binghamton is the “carousel capital” it would be ill-advised to slight the carousel from this pulpit. So I turn to salsa.
“Tener salsa en la vida” is a phrase that means to fully enjoy life. It doesn’t literally translate; it’s a figure of speech. Salsa more literally means sauce – not spice. But figuratively, salsa means ‘the spice of life.’ To have spice in life – that is the goal; or one of the goals at least. Whatever else the goal of life is – salvation, happiness, meaningfulness, true love, karmic redemption, spiritual education – whatever else the goal of life is, I believe joy should be mixed in as important.
I don’t mean life ought to be one great thrill ride. I am not advocating pure pleasure or decadence. Joy is something much deeper than just ‘pleasure.’ About two years back I preached a sermon on the concept of Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture phenomenon. I tried to imagine what I might say if I had only one last chance to say it. Here is what I said in my opening paragraph:
I once quipped at a minister’s meeting, “If we’re not having fun, why are we doing it?” In response, one of my colleagues suggested that this was surely my motto for ministry and for life. I’ve considered that. I’d meant it only as a joke, a flip response to whatever was under discussion at that moment; but in a way, Yes, that is my motto. If we’re not having fun, why are we doing it? Well, there could be many very good and important reasons to do something that is not fun. I’m not suggesting we stop doing things that are not fun, there are important things to do which we do because they must get done. But then, couldn’t we add a little fun into it? (“Last Lecture” sermon from 3/1/09)
And today I am saying let us add spice to life, for it is the spice, the dash of joy that brings out the flavor – that brings out the fun. People say it is the little things that mean the most. It is the spice, the salsa, which makes the difference. In the movie Princess Bride Billy Crystal’s Miracle Max character says: “Sonny, true love is the greatest thing in the world – except for a nice MLT – mutton, lettuce and tomato sandwich, where the mutton is nice and lean and the tomato is ripe”
Certainly the grand and extravagant parts of life stand out: the holidays, the weddings and awards, the peak experiences. But we can’t live at this level. The week is not made of Sundays only, Christmas comes but once a year, and the average orgasm lasts less than 15 seconds. So what do you do with the rest of your day? The real art of a good life is learning to find joy in the simple everyday parts of life. Tener salsa en la vida! “Our lives are made in these small hours,” Rob Thomas sings, “These little wonders, these twists and turns of fate.”
The culture around us, the dominant western culture of consumerism and materialism, tells us that this perspective is wrong. But this is how we and most religious communities serve as a counter-cultural balance – a culturally transforming balance – to the messages of the dominant culture. It’s not a Kodak moment or a Hallmark moment. It’s life. What makes our lives magical is not the stuff we’ve bought; it’s the way we infuse each ordinary moment with love and spirit and joy.
Let me shift this conversation by changing the context from personal to communal. This congregation is becoming more of a salsa congregation. We have flavor, we appreciate the spices that season our lives. I’m not saying we are seeing a change in our demographics with more Latinos and Latinas signing the membership book. Instead, I am pointing to the parallel of values. Salsa is a great metaphor for diversity and the mingling of differences. Tener salsa en la vida is a phrase from the Latino culture. As Juana Bordas said in the reading this morning, “Salsa is more than a dance of a racy condiment. Salsa is a way of life. Tener salsa en la vida is to fully enjoy life.” (Salsa, Soul, and Spirit, p10)
The book I used for that reading is called Salsa, Soul, and Spirit: Leadership for a multicultural age. It’s a leadership book. But more than that, it is a book about community. And as I read though it the theme of different approaches to leadership found through different cultural values struck me again and again with the parallels of the kind of values we talk about here. The book is about the non-dominant culture values, the values of Latino, Black and American Indian communities. These are counter to the dominant Anglo-American values that prevail in our society today. But we as a religious community share many of these same counter-cultural values
The book lifts up collective identity over individualism, generosity over accumulation, leadership with rather than leadership over, working for the common good rather than individual gain, and universal kinship instead of parochial partitioning of who is in and who is out. There are eight principles covered and you can check out the book if you want to explore the details. I want to give just a few examples. Generosity: “Mi casa es su casa,” Activism and caring for the common good: “Que viva la Causa!” and Gratitude: “Gracias a la vida.” I’ll start with generosity.
In some cultures, generosity is the true mark of wealth. The question is not about how much you can accumulate, it is about how much can you give away? Consider that old concept of the potlatch: the staple topic of Cultural Anthropology 101 classes. The potlatch is a process of reciprocity and redistribution. A leader in the community would host a gathering to which the people of the village or tribe were all invited. Everyone would bring an offering, a valuable item. People would try to bring a significant gift to give away. At the end of the event, people would each leave with a gift selected from the offerings.
Another common tradition in Native cultures such as the Pueblo is that on a birthday instead of receiving gifts, a person would give gifts to everyone else. One custom is for the birthday person to stand on the roof to throw blankets and shawls and things like that out to the guests. It is a demonstration of gratitude. But more than that: generosity is the cultural marker of someone who is well off. In the dominant culture the markers of someone well off financially would be big houses and fancy cars. In Native cultures, the wealthy person is the one who is generous. A Comanche woman, for example, might have a giveaway to honor her graduation. The custom is to “emphasize achievement as a collective feat rather than just a personal one.” (Salsa, Soul, and Spirit, p 60)
What’s mine is mine because of all the support from you. Thus, what’s mine is not fully mine alone. Mi casa es su casa is a fair rendering of the concept of generosity. And, if you think about it, that’s a value we promote. Lynn Garman (our Director of Religious education) mentioned to me that three of the RE classes would have ‘generosity’ as their session topic today. But it’s not planned out to line up like that. We certainly are not organized enough for the Sunday school topics to line up with any sermon themes! Clearly, generosity is a value we promote.
Our stewardship and pledging is a function of generosity when we’re at our best. The dominant culture values an even give and receive exchange – but here there is no way to quantify the value of this congregation or a person’s participation. The exchange between a member and the congregation can’t follow the consumer model of the dominant culture, it doesn’t work. Accumulation and acquisition is not what we are doing. We run by the value of generosity. Mi casa es su casa. My house is your house. None of what we have here belongs to one person, none of the success or shine is owned by a single individual. It is all poured out for everyone. Mi casa es su casa.
The second value I find from this book that lines up with our values is typified in the phrase “Que viva la Causa!” Long live the cause! ‘The cause’ is social change, the movement to build a better world for all the people. ‘The cause’ is equality and opportunity and justice. It is a leader’s role in Latino culture to inspire people to work together to take on a seemingly impossible task: to build a better world. Well that’s what we’re doing here too. This congregation is filled with activists and that activists spirit is thread though our shared history and through our basic identity as a congregation.
When we were working on writing our new Mission Statement we had those great words of interconnectedness, transcendence, and compassion. But again and again we kept bumping up against something missing. When the final version came out with the word Justice added in it felt right. “We act with justice and compassion,” the last phrase of our congregational Mission says. That is a part of our work as a congregation: to build a better world. Que viva la Causa!
The third principle I want to lift up is that of gratitude. Gracias a la vida – thanks to life! Gracias a la vida is a famous song by Chilean artist Violeta Parra. It says we are thankful for our ability to see and hear and to walk. We are thankful for puddles and beaches, cities and stars, for the people in our lives and for both smiles and weeping because they allow us to distinguish happiness and sorrow. The song ends by saying it is your song and everyone’s song – thanks to life. A dozen years ago I met a Brazilian exchange student working up at camp Unirondack for a summer when I was there as Camp Chaplin. He found the song in my “Rise up Singing” song book and insisted I learn how to play it so he could sing it. He said everyone knew the song where he came from. Everyone could sing it.
And here in this congregation and in Unitarian Universalism in general, there is a prevalence of gratitude. I often hear us expressing our thanks for the music, for the community, for fun social events, for meaningful worship and classes. The exercise I had us go through this morning with writing a note about how this congregation has made a difference in your life or in the life of someone that you know … that is an exercise in gratitude. Most Sundays, if you listen for it, you will hear in the Joys and Sorrows time a considerable amount of gratitude.
You can hear about the family hit by the flood on top of the economic troubles, but who are supported with hands-on help with the clean up. You can hear about the parent whose teenager is nurtured through a difficult time by the love and support of friends in youth group. You can hear about the parents who, when their infant died, were welcomed into this building – even though they were not members of connected here – for a meaningful and compassionate memorial service. You can hear about the atheists and humanists who come for community to explore meaning without superstition.
You can hear about the widow whose loss led to loneliness but also to finding this community and new friendships. You can hear about the recovering addict living day-by-day through the grace of God’s Love and through the compassionate support and appreciation of this congregation. You can hear about the gay youth who finds support, acceptance, and encouragement. If you listen, you will hear an abundance of stories filled with thanksgiving.
Our community is counter-cultural. We offer a balance to the dominant culture and a call to transform that dominant culture. We have many parallels with the minority cultures, the cultures of people of color. The book I found lists eight different principles and I’ve only weighed this sermon down with three of them. Tener salsa en la vida. These principles and these stories are not grand extravagant things. They are quite simple really. They are not ordinary but they are everyday. There is spice and lively flavor for us here. Let there be joy and compassion in our justice making and in our search for greater connection and deeper meaning. Let there be spice in life.
In a world without end
May it be so.