Rev. Douglas Taylor
A story I found tells of a little girl and her father crossing a bridge. The father was kind of scared so he asked his little daughter: “Sweetheart, please hold my hand so that you don’t fall into the river.”
The little girl said: “No, Dad. You hold my hand.”
“What’s the difference?” asked the puzzled father.
“There’s a big difference,” replied the little girl. “If I hold your hand and something happens to me, chances are that I may let your hand go. But if you hold my hand, I know for sure that no matter what happens, you will never let my hand go.”
How do we learn and relearn trust? Developmentally the obvious answer is from our parents. Cynthia L. Wall, clinical social worker, psychotherapist and author, says “No one is born knowing how to trust.” This quote gave me pause for I had been thinking just the opposite must be true. I was thinking we all begin with an abiding trust of Mother and milk. But as I considered it further I came to see that the trust is learned. Babies come into a world filled with strangeness for them: light and sound, all sensation and no control. They cry, and they learn that in crying they get a response. They learn that crying produces a response they can come to trust.
In a normal healthy scenario, babies learn to trust that their cry brings comfort from Mother or milk or the various other sources of happiness and comfort in their little lives. The word “trust” has a deep Scandinavian root related to confidence and reliance; and a parallel deep root in German meaning consolation or solace. Trust comes from confidence and reliance, where do you find your confidence? Trust is related to solace and consolation, where do you find solace? Babies learn that their cry brings comfort and solace they can rely on and thus they begin the life-long lessons of trust.
We learn to trust. “No one is born knowing how to trust,” Cynthia Wall says. She goes on to say, “Life gives us many teachers, some caring and others cruel. Few people receive a solid base of trust as children. Even fewer are taught how to trust themselves.”
Can you call to mind the teachers you have had who have offered you lessons in trust? Some of these have been positive lessons and others have been negative lessons. For a child what is at issue is trust in her own body, trust in his parent or parents, trust that we will receive enough care and nourishment to survive. As we get older the topic become more abstract: we trust those who tell us the truth, those who keep promises. We trust those whose actions are predictable.
Yet life is not fair and promises get broken. We are disappointed, we are lied to, we are abused, and in ways large and small our trust is broken. That’s life and that’s the risk. I imagine all of us have experienced broken trust. We learn that relationships are fragile. It can feel even like our whole worlds are sometimes on the verge of collapse: like we can’t even trust the world to hold together.
I think back on what I was like for me growing up with the chaos of alcoholism in the home and the fear of bullying at school and the numbing depression that grew in my heart. I think at the root, my trouble was that I had no trust or faith. I did not trust the alcoholics in my family. I did not trust potential friends at school. Ah, and I did not trust myself. Cynthia Wall says “Few people receive a solid base of trust as children. Even fewer are taught how to trust themselves.”
A story I found tells of a young woman and her boyfriend crossing a bridge. The boyfriend was a little nervous about their new relationship and a little nervous about the bridge and he said to her: “Sweetheart, can I hold your hand so that you don’t fall into the river.”
The young woman said: “No, my love. But I will hold your hand.”
“What’s the difference?” asked the puzzled young man.
“There’s a big difference,” replied the young woman. “If you hold my hand and something happens, chances are that you may let go. It happens all the time. But if I hold your hand, I know for sure that no matter what happens I will never let your hand go.”
A week ago I thought this sermon would be about trust in relationships, learning to trust others. About mid-week I discovered that this sermon would be about learning to trust yourself. The first lesson we have as children is to put out trust in others: in Mother and Father. Over time, through disappointments and disillusionments we each find the next deep lesson is to learn to trust ourselves. Ralph Waldo Emerson, unsurprisingly, said “Trust your instinct to the end, though you can render no reason.” A key piece to the lesson of trust is to learn to trust yourself.
“No one is born knowing how to trust,” Cynthia Wall says. “Even fewer are taught how to trust themselves.” If you do not trust yourself, you will be susceptible to all manner of difficulties. When you do not trust yourself you are likely be too trusting of others or unable to trust anything.
Ironically, when we don’t trust our own judgment – our own capacity to affect the world – we are susceptible to the undue influence of others around us. When we are too trusting, we are easily taken in. We want to see the best in others, to believe in the best of others. At the extreme, this is gullibility. This self-distrust is not a signal that a person is unintelligent. The woman in Rachel Remen’s story that I offered as a reading (from Kitchen Table Wisdom, “embracing life” p 212) is a good example. Remen writes that Gert “did not believe that she could change things. Yet at work she was powerful and competent.” The woman in Remen’s story was not to the level of gullibility, but she was certainly not trusting of her own judgment.
I know what that’s like. When I was younger, perhaps because of the dysfunction and alcoholism in my childhood, it took me a long time to learn to trust myself and particularly my own perception. As a teenager and a young adult I was clueless about how others perceived me. It was nearly impossible for me to read social cues. My few friends learned to be very blunt with me, for which I thanked them. Eventually I realized that I didn’t trust my own sense of things, my own perceptions and intuition. I starting asking other, checking in with them: is this what’s really going on here? It was a good thing for me to do, I now see, because as I grew into adulthood I had started to swing away from being too trusting of others to being not trusting at all … of not even trusting life.
Many people, in an effort to not be overly trusting swing to the other extreme. Cynicism is the mirror of gullibility, (though our society praises its cynics, which may be some comfort.) But cynicism is only a sophisticated distrust of life. It may seem like a safe route, a way to avoid being hurt, but cynicism is a cold comfort and usually not enough for a sustainable relationship with a partner or a circle of friends. People can tell when they are not trusted, when they are kept at a distance. Cynicism may be safe but it is also lonely. Better to learn to trust yourself so you can extend trust to others.
While it is true that trust is earned, the true art of it is that trust is a gamble. At some point, we reach out even though we suspect we’ll get out hand slapped back.
A story I found tells of a woman and a man crossing a bridge. The man was kind of scared so he asked the woman: “Sweetheart, please hold my hand so that you don’t fall into the river.”
The woman said: “Better yet, let us hold each other’s hand. That way, should either of us slip and let go, the other will always be there.”
To trust too much in others while not trusting yourself is to ask others to hold your hand because you do not trust your own strength and capacity. This is exactly how we should behave at certain points in our development. But it is a healthy end point. To trust too little in others while putting all your trust only in yourself is to refuse to let others hold your hand because you do not trust the motives and interests of others to include your needs. This also is a version of a healthy perspective developmentally yet not a place to linger.
Ernest Hemingway once quipped, “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.” No one is born knowing how to trust, we learn to trust by trusting. Through trial and error, by reaching out; like love and hope and anything else really important: We learn to trust by trusting. Over the weekend, I thought this sermon was going to be about learning to trust yourself. But around midnight on Saturday I realize the sermon was about learning to trust life.
Trust is not just an attitude or perspective on life. Trust is not just a condition of believing, for example, that everything will work out. It is that, but it is more. It is a behavior for dealing with situations. To trust is to proceed on the assumption that things will work out. It may not work out, but that’s not the point. To trust is to treat other people around us as though they also want the best outcome. To trust is to accept that a sound process will bring us to a good solution – perhaps not the solution we want, but a good enough solution all the same.
Computer entrepreneur Steve Jobs said, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.” Trust is a risk; it is a reaching out without knowing what will come next.
Parker Palmer is a Quaker writer I admire and turn to for wisdom on a regular basis. Many of his books lead us deeper into this sort of conversation about trust and courage. He tells a story of the time he came up against a vocational crisis. He was a successful teacher but was very unhappy. So he went on a sabbatical retreat at Pendle Hill, the Quaker retreat center in Pennsylvania.
While at Pendle Hill, Palmer opened up to his anxiety and talked with others about it. Whenever he did this he would be offered a response that is fairly typical among Quakers: “The way will open, proceed as the way opens.” It is a statement of trust, of faith! It says, ‘relax, be patient with yourself, and trust that the next step will become clear.’ “Proceed as a way opens.”
[from Rev. Dr. Patrick O’Neill, “Proceed as the Way Opens,” Quest, July/August 2001]
Try as he might, however, after several weeks of Quaker silence, prayer, and listening for his calling, “the way” was not opening for him. It was an elder Quaker woman who finally gave him the perspective he needed when she said, “I’m a birthright Friend, and in 60-plus years of living, the Way has never opened in front of me.” After a pause she added with a grin, “But a lot of way has closed behind me, and that’s had the same guiding effect.”
Proceed as the Way Opens. In his book, Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer writes that “some journeys are direct, and some journeys are circuitous; some are heroic and some are fearful and muddled. But every journey, honestly undertaken, stands a chance of taking us where we belong. We can learn as much about our nature by running into our limits as by experiencing our potential.”
What I am talking about now is trusting life. What Parker Palmer is offering in this passage is that gamble of reaching out even when you are unsure. And the way to become sure is to reach out. The risk is part of the trust. You can’t connect the dots looking forward. We must move forward trusting that the dots will somehow connect afterward.
Inspirational author William A. Ward writes:
To laugh is to risk appearing the fool.
To weep is to risk appearing sentimental.
To reach for another is to risk involvement.
To expose your feelings is to risk exposing your true self.
To place your ideas, your dreams before a crowd is to risk their loss.
To love is to risk not being loved in return.
To live is to risk dying.
To believe is to risk despair.
To try is to risk failure.
But risks must be taken, because the greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing.
So take the risk. Here in this community we create an opening for people like you and me to try to connect our dots, to examine our panic in the face of life. Here in this community we build room for risk, create space for grace, allow trust to grow and life to unfold. So take the risk. Reach out and trust.
In a world without end
May it be so.
Our Three Best Stories
Rev. Douglas Taylor
It has occasionally been quipped that Unitarian Universalists think the movement began about six weeks before they found it. But history is of value in defining who we are and who we are becoming. Our history matters as a touch-point for our values and our identity. But we don’t need to go over the whole history of Unitarian Universalism. I can tell you just our three best stories and that will be enough to have a sense of what our faith is all about.
My first story is from Transylvania over four hundred years ago. Time-wise this story happens in the heart of the Protestant Reformation, but geographically the events are tucked a little out of the way in Eastern Europe. The primary character in our story is Francis David, a priest and preacher from Kolozdvar in the early 1500’s. At this time there were public religious debates that served almost as entertainment for people – they were events for people. There were judges who would declare a winner. And I imagine in today’s culture there would be trading cards and statistics people would follow religiously. Anyway, David was a top debater.
He started out Catholic because that was pretty much the default. But when David learned of Lutheranism, he found it to be sensible and was convinced of the arguments. So he converted to Lutheranism. He became a debater for Lutheranism and when he debated against a preacher from the Reformed tradition – that would be Calvinism which in the United States we know as Presbyterianism, David technically won the debate but the ideas struck him as sensible. He soon became convinced of the arguments and converted to Calvinism. And he was then a debater for Calvinism, and in that capacity he came up against the ideas of Unitarianism. He found Unitarianism to be sensible and was convinced of the arguments. So he converted to Unitarianism. Then, a few years later he won a debate in the presence of the king of Transylvania, King John Sigismund who then converted.
Sigismund is known as the only Unitarian king in history. But more, he is known for issuing the Edict of Torda in 1568 – it is broadly recognized as the first law of tolerance from that time. The Edict simply said that the people did not need to all convert to the religion of the king. In the upheaval of the Reformation, people did experience sudden conversions because a king would convert. When a king converted he would change the state sanctioned religion and thus everyone would need to also publicly convert as well. But Sigismund did something different. The Edict of Torda allowed that “that in every place the preachers shall preach and explain the Gospel each according to his understanding of it, and if the congregation like it, well. If not, no one shall compel them for their souls would not be satisfied, but they shall be permitted to keep a preacher whose teaching they approve. … No one shall be reviled for his religion by anyone … For faith is the gift of God.” This edict allowed diverse beliefs, protected minority opinions, and kept the peace.
Now, it was limited. It claimed there were four ‘received’ religious: Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, and Unitarian. Others were not accepted – it didn’t allow for Jews or Muslims or Eastern Orthodox traditions. But it was still remarkable for its time. But that’s not the end of the story. When King Sigismund died a year later of a “hunting accident”, and a new king (not in sympathy with Unitarian beliefs) took the throne, the old court preacher, David, was dismissed. David was tolerated only so long as he advocated no innovations in doctrine or thought or practice. If you remember what David was like at the beginning of the story you see where this is going. Francis David’s conscience, of course, could not be contained. David was committed not to a particular doctrine, but to truth and his unfolding understanding of it. His heresy was to suggest that we could pray directly to God rather than praying through Jesus to God. He died in the dungeon of Deva for the crime of heretical innovation in 1579. He scratched the Hungarian phrase “Egy Az Isthen” (pronounced Edge Oz Eeshten), “God is one” on the wall of his cell as his last testament.
My second story is from only a little over two hundred years ago and a little closer to home: New Jersey to be exact. This is the story of the founding of Universalism in America and it is the story of a sermon. But it starts in England in a Methodist church with a preacher whose life was about to fall to pieces. John Murray had bumped into notions of universal salvation while trying to correct a fallen-away parishioner of her errors and instead she planted the seed of this great heresy in his heart. Universalism slipped into Murray’s preaching over time and when it grew too obvious and too much, the church ejected him. At around that time, his child grew ill and died, his wife also suffered an illness, and debts began piling up around him. Following the death of his wife and some time spent in debtor’s prison, John Murray found no solace in religion or in community. He considered suicide but opted instead to travel to America where he could “bury himself in the New World”
So in the summer of 1770, Murray booked passage on a ship and left religion and preaching behind for good. But things did not go as he had planned. They were bound for the port of New York but learned it was closed; they made for Philadelphia only to later learn that New York was open. They turned north and headed thence with all due has only to end up stuck on a sandbar off southern New Jersey. The captain tapped John Murray to head up to the farmlands near the shore to find provisions for the ship while it waits for the winds to change; something bound to happen within a day or two. Well, Murray knocks on the door of a farmhouse and man who answers the door is Thomas Potter.
Let me pause to tell you a little about Thomas Potter. Potter was an illiterate though deeply religious farmer. He had built a meeting house on his land for itinerant preachers and would welcome into his pulpit any who wished to preach, but he had not yet invited any of those preachers to stay. Potter was waiting for the right preacher. And here came Murray knocking on his door. Potter said to Murray, “Are you the preacher whom God has sent to preach in my pulpit?” Murray says, “No, I’m the one the captain has sent to get provisions for our ship stuck just off the coast.” Potter presses, and Murray admits to having been a preacher before, but now he is just a traveler whose ship will be leaving in a few days, and could he please have provisions for the crew. Potter presses again, and Murray agrees to preach in Potter’s church on Sunday IF he is still here, which is unlikely as the wind would likely change any day now. And Potter said, “The wind will not change, and your ship will not leave the sandbar until you have preached in my pulpit.” Well, you see where this is going, don’t you?
By Saturday evening the wind had not changed and Murray was preparing a sermon. He decided to not hold back, to give full voice to the heresy that had caused him to be ejected from his earlier pulpit. Murray preached a sermon of universal salvation entitled “Give them not hell, but hope and courage.” Even after all he had been through, all the grief and loss and doubt, he dared to tell of how strong God’s love truly is. Following the sermon Murray received word that the wind had changed and with the rising of the tide his ship would soon be on its way. This is considered by some the one miracle story of our tradition. Potter invited Murray to remain and occupy the pulpit of this meeting house permanently. And indeed Murray felt his own calling renewed again but that day Murray returned to his ship and his journey north. Over the subsequent years, Murray founded the first Universalist church in Gloucester, MA and helped create the denomination that at one point was reported to have been the sixth largest denomination in the United States.
My first and second stories here are ‘founder’ stories – stories of our beginnings. This next one is similar in that it reflects a seminal experience at the beginning of our newly merged Unitarian Universalist faith. My third story is from nearly 50 years ago, a mere four years after the Unitarians and the Universalists joined into a single faith. And the story takes place in Selma Alabama; deep in the heart of the Civil rights Movement. And it exemplifies the best qualities of our activist spirit as a movement.
We begin with a reminder of March 7, 1965, a day otherwise known as “Bloody Sunday.” There are over a dozen events over the past century or so that are known as “Bloody Sunday” – five of which are part of Irish history. The event I refer to, though, is the only one when 500 civil rights marchers attempted to cross the Edmond Pettus Bridge as part of a voting rights protest. The marchers were met by state troopers with billy clubs and tear gas.
Dr. King issued a call to white northern clergy to come down to Selma to march with the black southerners in their bid for civil rights. Hundreds of people responded, including dozens of Unitarian Universalist clergy. Among them was Rev. James Reeb. On March 9th two and a half thousand marchers made a second attempt to cross the bridge but were again thwarted. The marchers pulled back before violence broke out this time. But later that violence caught up with some of them. Three white ministers who had come to march were attacked and beaten with clubs. Those three ministers were Unitarian Universalist ministers and one among them was James Reeb who sustained a fatal blow.
The Selma public hospital refused to treat Rev. Reeb and he was taken to the Birmingham University Hospital two hours away. He died two days later. King did his eulogy. And a national outrage finally took root. Later that week President Johnson introduced the Voting Rights Act to congress. A week after that many thousands of marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge to begin the five-day march from Selma to Montgomery to demand voting rights for blacks. Over 500 Unitarian Universalists marched. Of the estimated 500 clergy in Selma, nearly 200 were Unitarian Universalist. That is roughly 20% of all our UU clergy at the time including the entire UUA board of trustees. Our Own Rev. Harry Thor went to Selma. There was some bitterness that the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a black southerner, warranted barely a mention in the media while the death of Rev. James Reeb was all over the news and commented on by national leaders of the day. But the fact remains, Reeb’s death galvanized the nation around King and the civil rights protestors. Reeb’s death was a pivotal moment in the Civil Rights Movement.
These three stories, I contend, exemplify the best of our movement. These three stories offer us a sense of what our faith is all about. Ours is a whole faith for the whole person: head, heart, and hands. In our first story we learn about our commitment to freedom of conscience and the evolving nature of faith. We learn to trust our curiosity and to ever seek after truth. In our second story we learn about our dedication to courage as an ever-present opening in life and the hopeful nature of faith to be ready even after disappointment, heartbreak and loss. We learn to trust our deep knowing that we are beloved of God. In our third story we learn about our pledge to live out our faith in the world and that we have the power together to make a difference. We learn to trust our longing for a better world made more beautiful by our efforts toward equality, liberty, and justice.
These stories tell us about who we are and about what Unitarian Universalism is all about. These are stories, not full history. What I’ve offered is closer to myth than fact. Not that what I’ve said is untrue. What I’ve offered is close to true with some embellishment.
The story of David is more complicated than what I offered. Religious Tolerance was a not unknown in Hungary. King Sigismund’s Catholic mother, Queen Isabella had actually issued an edict of toleration for Lutherans and Calvinists ten years earlier than the more famous Edict of Torda. Isabella’s edict was one of tolerance that allowed religious debates to occur, her son’s edict moved beyond tolerance to establish four ‘received’ religions in Transylvania. And I haven’t even hinted at the influence of Dr. George Biandrata from Poland or the books by Michael Servetus that David read. The history is a very complex muddle of politics, religion, nobility, and power.
And John Murray’s story, where did I stray in the telling of that? Well, I give sort shrift to influence of George De Benneville and the seeds of universal salvation already planted in America by Quakers and some Baptists at that time. Also, we have no why of knowing, for example, the title of Murray’s original sermon. “Give Them Not Hell, But Hope and Courage,” is popularly considered the title and that was a “fact” circulating a few decades back, but there is no research to back it up.
My third story is far more factual that the other two, eyewitness accounts are possible today at a level unheard of in the 1700s or 1500s. Where I stray from history into story is more in that parts I leave out. The history is incomplete if all I tell you is about how we showed up in Selma while skipping the part of how we stumbled over the question of Black Power from within, a mere three years later.
But I am not sharing strict history this morning. I am feeding you on the deep stories of who we are. I offer you history with the hints of myth entwined. Can you have the strength of conviction and curiosity to chase down the truth as you know it wherever it may lead … as David did? Can you have the strength of faith to trust life even when it leaves you lost and alone, stuck on a sandbar off new Jersey with a new life about to unfold … as Murray did? Can you have the strength of spirit to live out your faith in the world and act on your beliefs for the greater good … as Reeb did? Listen for the deeper message of who we are and what we value. Find other stories from our history that speak to you and whisper lessons about who you are and who we are.
In a world without end
May it be so
* * * * *
Suggested Sermons Douglas Taylor has preached about Unitarian Universalist History
These are all available online at www.uubinghamton.org
Wineskins and Watersheds October 2, 2011
About the past 50 years since merger
How to Avoid Getting Burned at the Stake October 26, 2008
About Michael Servetus and his theology
Hope and Courage September 23, 2007
About John Murray and Universalism
Our Common Story August 20, 2006
About the story of Unitarian Universalism
Profiles in Courage February 20, 2005
About vignettes of several interesting UU figures from history
Emerson’s Reformation October 26, 2003
About the history and theology of early American Unitarianism
Unitarian Universalist History: An abbreviated UUA Bookstore Reading List
1-800-215-9076 • http://www.uua.org/bookstore
Unitarian Universalism: A Narrative History David E. Bumbaugh
An accessible overview of Unitarianism, Universalism and Unitarian Universalism from their beginnings in Europe to the end of the 20th century.
For Faith and Freedom: A Short History of Unitarianism in Europe Charles A. Howe
Lucid and readable account of the origin and development of Unitarianism in Europe, from the Reformation until the 20th century.
The Larger Faith: A Short History of American Universalism Charles A. Howe
Spans from the first gatherings of American Universalists in 1793, to the consolidation with the Unitarians in 1961, to present-day Unitarian Universalism. Includes bibliography, appendices and an index.
The Premise and the Promise: The Story of the UUA Warren Ross
The tale of two like-minded but separate religious bodies electing to unite and move into the future together. Features important figures in Unitarian and Universalist history and chronicles significant aspects of the work of the UUA since 1961.
This Day in Unitarian Universalist History Frank Schulman
Marks the significant anniversaries and milestones in Unitarian and Universalist faith heritage for every day of the year. Spans six centuries of liberal religion.
A Stream of Light: A Short History of American Unitarianism Conrad Wright
Unitarian thought from 1805 to 1961. Essential for any UU historical library.
Wonder and Chaos: Adventures in Childhood
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Wonder is one of those magic childhood words. Childhood is a time of discovery and exploration. So much is new or seen anew with fresh eyes. And so when we think about ‘wonder’ and what that word means – it is easy to link wonder with childhood. It’s about discovery and curiosity, perhaps even amazement. Many of us can think back to time of wonder we experienced in our childhood.
I was talking with our youngest, our ten-year-old, this week about my sermon. He was asking in general about how I write sermons, when I do it and how many do I write at a time. He was curious. I made a point to telling him that this week’s topic would be about childhood, but we didn’t go into detail about that, he was more interested in my writing process at the moment.
Later that night during bedtime, when all manner of possible conversations can occur, I mentioned my sermon topic again: Wonder and Chaos, Adventures in Childhood. I asked him if he knew what those words meant and we talked about that a bit. Then I asked if he thought his childhood had both wonder and chaos in it. He said, “Yeah, I wonder about stuff. I don’t have that ‘wonder’ like really exciting ‘wonder’ but I wonder about stuff. And chaos, of course, lots of that.”
The way he said it was almost like chaos is a given – of course, lots of that. He wasn’t so sure about ‘wonder’, but ‘chaos’, yeah! Lots of that. He went on to express what seemed to him an obvious fact: that children experience more chaos than adults do.
That made me … wonder … about my assumptions. Despite what I know about life, despite what I have experienced in my own childhood – I still romanticize childhood. I remember hours spent watching water move or clouds float by. I spent whole days holed up in my room creating worlds with my legos and imagination. I used to tromp around and explore the woods near my neighborhood. I remember watching the Aurora Borealis roll and unfurl across the cold night sky. Yeah, it’s not hard to think of my childhood as a time of wonder. And my son’s perspective surprised me. Does he not get out enough? Are there fewer opportunities for wonder in his life, in children’s lives today? Or, am I – are many of us – looking back at childhood with rose-colored glasses, romanticizing it into being more full of wonder than it really was?
Yes, childhood is a time of discovery and exploration and wonder. But ‘chaos’ is a word that can be used to describe very similar experiences. Think about this. Wonder is that sense of discovery, that sense of seeing things anew. Chaos is also about that situations in life that are suddenly there, new – especially that which is not-yet-understood. If it is hard to predict and it all seems random: that’s chaos. Chaos is certainly a word I would use to describe significant parts of my childhood. I used to hide in my room with my legos or flee the house for hours wandering in the nearby woods rather than spend time with my older alcoholic and drug-using siblings. It was hard to predict how they would behave; I didn’t understand what was really going on. It was chaotic. School wasn’t much better, I didn’t fit in. Everything felt like a strain and a trial. I sometimes wonder how I got through it.
So, when I am honest with myself I recognize how my childhood was filled with experiences of wonder and experiences of chaos. I lean into the experiences of wonder when I look back today. I have thankfully filled the story of ‘who I am’ with the experiences of wonder that I recall. Chaos is about confusion and disorder, turmoil and upheaval. Wonder is akin to innocence and joy; it is to marvel at something, to be in awe. In short: Wonder is something we want more of, it is a good experience; Chaos is something we want less of, it is not an experience we seek out.
So consider this with me. Consider your own childhood. Did you have times of wonder and times of chaos in your childhood? Was your childhood mostly filled with wonder and maybe some chaos as my romanticized version led me to think? Or was your childhood chock full of chaos along with some times of wonder as Piran’s version of events would have it? Or was it more or less a mix? And more importantly: How did you get through the chaos? How do you hold on to the wonder? How about in your life today? Do you experience wonder? How do you get through today’s chaos?
The wonder and chaos of childhood is ever present to us as adults. The question worth pursuing is the one about how we get through the chaos of life. Our experiences of it as children can lead us to deeper understanding and richer living today. Jesus said that to enter the Kingdom of God we would need to become as children. (Mark 10: 13-16) I suspect this has to do with wonder. I suspect this is trying to say, ‘relax and be as open to life as a child can be.’ Be aware of wonder for it can lead you to peace in the midst of chaos.
Interestingly, I’ve discovered this to be a rather singular religious passage, the one about receiving the kingdom of God through your child-likeness. Many religious texts – the Bible, the Qur’an, the Upanishads, the Analects – say things about children. They outline ethical statements about children. They say children should honor their parents. They say children should be trained and given instruction while they are young to help them grow up to be good people.
“Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it,” the book of proverbs tells us from the Hebrew Scriptures. (Proverbs 22:6 – Christianity and Judaism) “As the child, according to its natural disposition, commits thousands of faults, the father instructs and slights, but again hugs him to his bosom,” is how it is stated in a text from the Sikh tradition. (Adi Granth, Sorath, M:5 – Sikhism) “The Lord has decreed … that you be kind to parents,” is how the Qur’an puts it. (Qur’an 17:23 – Islam) Again and again religious texts offer the message: train the children right and insure that they honor their parents. As if “obedience” is the best skill we can offer our children.
And it occurred to me that these are attempts to ameliorate chaos in life. They are offerings of rules and order, which are the backbone of overcoming chaos and turmoil to be sure! And my son had said something of that sort to me earlier this week, that parents behave in certain ways to protect children. Yet in the midst of all these statements about children from the sacred texts of the world, one stands out to say something different. Christianity says just as much about rules and childhood behaviors as any other religious tradition, but in this little passage from the gospel of Mark it also offers child-likeness as something of a spiritual quality. Child-likeness is offered up not as being in need of correction or guidance. It is offered as a guide back toward something we once know and have perhaps forgotten.
“Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” (Mark 10:15) Some of the best things we can receive, it says, are only available if we can be as children. Surely this has something to do with qualities such as openness, curiosity, willingness to be amazed. Surely this is about wonder.
Now, we don’t count the words of our famous Unitarian and Universalist founders as scripture. So when I say this passage in the Gospel of mark is singular in its message among religious scripture, I am not counting the words of Unitarian Universalists. Sophia Fahs says something other than ‘honor and obey your parents’ when she proclaims that “every night a child is born is a holy night.” And William Ellery Channing says this:
The great end in religious instruction is not to stamp our minds upon the young, but to stir up their own; Not to make them see with our eyes, but to look inquiringly and steadily with their own; … Not to impose religion upon them in the form of arbitrary rules, but to awaken the conscience, the moral discernment. In a word, the great end is to awaken the soul, to excite and cherish spiritual life.
Channing appeals to that sense of discovery, that openness and curiosity that we had as children. Wonder. “Yeah, I wonder about stuff,” Piran said to me earlier this week. “I don’t have that ‘wonder’ like really exciting ‘wonder’ but I wonder about stuff. And chaos, of course, lots of that.”
What do we, as a people of faith, say about children and chaos? We don’t have those rules about not sparing the rod and filial piety. What do we offer to ameliorate chaos? I think that instead of offering rules to stave off chaos, we acknowledge it as a part of living. In so doing, we say the way to survive the chaos of childhood and adulthood is by staying open to grace and wonder.
The UUA recently published (through Skinner House Books) an anthology on parenting titled Chaos, Wonder, and the Spiritual Adventure of Parenting. It is loosely the source of my own title and topic for this sermon. The essays discuss a range of parenting topics rather than topics of childhood – but of course they are similar, the difference being a matter of from which end are looking at it. Award-winning author Barbara Kingsolver is one to the contributors with her essay entitled “Civil Disobedience at Breakfast.” Kingsolver describes the root problem she experiences with her two year old as a difference in personality.
Like any working stiff of a mother keeping the family presentable and solvent, I lived in a flat-out rush. My daughter lived on Zen time. These doctrines cannot find peace under one roof. I tried everything I could think of to bring her onto my schedule: five-minute countdowns, patient explanations of our itinerary, frantic appeals, authoritarianism, the threat of taking her to preschool exactly however she was dressed when the clock hit sever. (She went in PJs, oh delight! Smug as Brer Rabbit in the briars.) The more I tried to hurry us along, the more meticulously unhurried her movements became. (p95)
And that’s how it was, as I sat at breakfast one morning watching my darling idle dangerously with her breakfast. I took a spectacularly deep breath and said, in a voice I imagined was calm, “We need to be going very soon. Please be careful not to spill your orange juice.”
She looked me in the eye and coolly knocked over her glass.
Bang, my command was dead. Socks, shirt, and overalls would have to be changed, setting back the start of my workday another thirty minutes. Thirty-five, if I wanted to show her who was boss by enforcing a five-minute time-out.
Later in the day I called a friend to tell my breakfast war story. She had a six-year-old, so I expected commiseration. The point of my call, really, was to hear that one could live through this and that it ended. Instead, my friend was quiet. “You know,” she said finally, “Amanda never went through that. I worry about her. She works so hard to please everybody. I’m afraid she’ll never know how to please herself.”
A land mine exploded in the back of my conscience. My child was becoming all I’d ever wanted.
Oh, how slight the difference between “independent” and “ornery.” (p95-97)
Consider how Barbara Kingsolver’s description of her breakfast war story was an experience of chaos at first. Then she became a moment of wonder: “My child was becoming all I’d ever wanted” she suddenly understood.
The difference between chaos and wonder is not simply a shift in perspective; like the difference between a glass half empty and a glass half full. What happened to Kingsolver in her story is has more to do with a layer of wonder being added alongside the chaos. And I think that is one way we survive the chaos: we find parallel experiences of wonder amidst the chaos. I think that is the message our faith offers: Be aware of wonder for it can lead you to peace in the midst of chaos. It cannot lead you from chaos to peace, but to peace in the midst of chaos.
In a world without end
May it be so.
Of Minstrels and Ministry: Part I
“Spirit of Life, come unto me.” When was the last time you looked at the words to this meditative hymn and considered what it says? We sing this hymn nearly every week. Newer folks are still discovering this hymn and learning it. But many here don’t reach for the hymnal anymore as the words have been learned by heart. I prefer to think you have it learned by heart rather than memorized … even though ‘by heart’ and ‘memorized’ mean essentially the same thing. The phrase ‘by heart’ locates the metaphor in what you love rather than what you know. Music is like that. There is something special about music. Music gets into us at a different level than plain words. Music reaches different parts of our brain. In some way it invites the hearer to share in the experience.
“Sing in my heart all the stirrings of compassion.” You’ll want your grey Singing the Living Tradition hymnals for this service. I want to look through several hymns that express something but also bring something out of us. I’ll invite us to sing our way through several of the most commonly sung hymns in this congregation. We’ve already sung Spirit of Life, but look over the words with me.
“Spirit of Life, come to me, come to me.” This is structured as a prayer, it is reflective. We use it that way in our services each week. This hymn is more than a prayer though. It has become the Unitarian Universalist song, our musical rendering of the essentials among us. It says all the important things about our faith: compassion and justice and the grace of the natural world. It hints strongly at our core messages of Inherent Worth and Interconnectedness. And, remarkably for a faith tradition so untraditional, it is a prayer.
We sing other prayers rather commonly. Hymn # 1, for example, is a prayer or blessing we sing often in our services. Join me in singing just the third verse.
May Nothing Evil Cross This Door, #1, verse 3, Louis Untermeyer
Peace shall walk softly through these rooms,
touching our lips with holy wine,
till every casual corner blooms into a shrine.
What does this hymn say about us? It is a hymn that refers to an abiding and sheltering power. Look at the words: “By faith made strong,” “Peace shall walk softly,” “With laughter.” The hymn talks about a power that keeps us safe, that bars evil from our sacred space. Faith and peace and laughter will be the power we use to keep hate out and hold love in. Now think about what it’s like in this congregation. Are we doing that? Do you find peace and laughter and faith in this community and in our actions? I do.
Turn with me to another prayerful hymn we sing a lot. Guide My Feet #348. Let’s just do the first verse.
Guide My Feet, #348, verse 1, traditional African American Spiritual
Guide my feet while I run this race. (3x)
for I don’t want to run this race in vain!
What does this one tell us about us? It declares that you are not alone. Where do you find guidance? Who holds your hand, searches your heart? Who stands with you as you struggle or stumble? Whatever the answer, the important part is that you are not alone. As we look over more hymns, you’ll find this message keeps coming up.
We’re going to jump to the teal hymnal supplement Singing the Journey for a minute. #1010 is next on my list of prayer hymns we often sing. While you’re digging that out I will tell you I consulted a few sources to come up with a list of the most common hymns we sing. It’s not that hard to draw up such a list. I spoke with Vicky, our music director, and the two of us drew up a list anecdotally. I then turned to Darin’s hymnal. Darin purchased his own hymnals a few years back, brings them every Sunday he is here, and marks in his hymnal each time we sing a hymn. There were nearly three dozen hymns on the list which I then barely narrowed down to the fifteen hymn numbers I have listed in the order of service. I had to cut #347 Gather the Spirit and #108 My Life Flows On. #168 One More Step and #38 Morning has Broken are also left out. I just couldn’t fit them all in. I should have cut more out; fifteen is still too many to fit into a mere twenty-five minutes of service time. And the more I talk, the less we sing. I will hush now so we can give thanks. #1010
We Give Thanks, #1010, Wendy Luella Perkins
Oh, we give thanks for this precious day
For all gathered here and those far away
For this time we share with love and care
Oh, we give thanks for this precious day
The tone of this hymn is upbeat and fun to sing. And it pretty much just says: Thank You. We list what we are thankful for. We name the day as precious; we remember all the people around us and those in our hearts. Thank you. It is a song we could offer every day. It is a good message to hear.
The next hymn is one I used at my ordination ceremony. I sang this hymn with three other people. We did it a capella; I did the base line. If you want to read along, it is hymn # 6.
Just as Long as I Have Breath, #6, verse 1, Alicia S. Carpenter
Just as long as I have breath, I must answer, ‘Yes’ to life;
though with pain I made my way, still with hope I meet each day.
If they ask what I did well, tell them I said, ‘Yes’, to life
I choose this hymn because my ordination was a dramatic turning point in my life. Aside from the obvious professional change – the ordination – it also marked the growing change in my sense of the world. Each verse, you’ll notice, has that line in the middle about the darkness and the disappointment and the pain. I had long been aware of that part of life, of my life. And that is all still there, but now it is alongside the hope and faith and love. I saw my own transformation into hope as wrapped up in my calling. And that is what this hymn offers.
The next hymn is a favorite of many people. I remember singing Amazing Grace to our older kids each night as they were falling asleep. We had a few dozen songs we rotated through but Amazing Grace was a regular. And many nights we were exhausted ourselves and we would sing it very slowly so as to encourage sleepiness. A-a-a-a-ma-a-a-a-a-zi-i-i-i-ing gr-a-a-a-a-ace. Sing the second verse with me, at a regular tempo.
Amazing Grace, #205, verse 2, John Newton
T’was Grace that taught
my heart to fear.
And Grace, my fears relieved.
How precious did that Grace appear
the hour I first believed.
I’ve often been struck by that verse. What does that mean to say grace taught my heart to fear? We could spend quite a while on that one. Suffice at this moment to point out how this old hymn carries a depth of meaning among us.
Let me turn us to another popular hymn that in a similar way tells us about how we can be transformed or led into a new understanding. Lets do the opening verse of #131 Love Will Guide Us.
Love Will Guide Us, #131, verse 1, Sally Rogers
Love will guide us, peace has tried us,
Hope inside us, will lead the way
On the road from greed to giving.
Love will guide us through the hard night.
Think back to #348, Guide My Feet. Where do you find guidance? Here we say Love will guide us. Love is the spirit of this church, and love will guide us through the hard night. And again we find the message that all is not well in the world, but we have a strength and a power on our side as we live with hope and faith.
Our last hymn in this half is from the teal hymnal, #1053 How Could Anyone. It is a song that with such bare simplicity and beauty lifts up the basic Unitarian Universalist commitment to the Inherent Worth of every person. It also hints at our interconnectedness.
How Could Anyone, #1053, Libby Roderick
How could anyone ever tell you
You were anything less than beautiful?
How could anyone ever tell you
You were less than whole?
How could anyone fail to notice
That your loving is a miracle?
How deeply you’re connected to my soul?
Our music tells us who we are as individuals, it tells us about our values and about what matters most to us. The choir is going to offer a piece, not a hymn we sing a lot but one that tells us and reflects to us who we are as a people of faith. And their anthem will help us segue from the individual focus the earlier hymns offered to the communal focus of others we sing with great frequency.
Choir sings We Are … by Ysaye Barnwell (#1051 in the Singing the Journey)
Building a Vocal Community: Part II
The next two hymns are used every year in our June Passages service. They tell us who we are and about how we are as a community together. #311, Let it Be a Dance, was included in the Search Packet I looked at about this congregation when I was a pre-candidate for the ministry position. I was told it was the congregation’s favorite hymn. Let’s sing the chorus leading into the second verse.
Let it Be a Dance, #311, verse 2, Ric Masten
Everybody turn and spin,
Let your body learn to bend,
and, like a willow with the wind,
Let it be a dance.
Let it be a dance.
Let it be a dance
A child is born, the old must die,
A time for joy, a time to cry.
Take it as it passes by.
And let it be a dance.
Such fun. I think a significant reason why we like this one is the lyrics and what they mean, but also the fun and playful melody and rhythm! Our congregation puts a high value on laughter and joy. This hymn honors the life cycle and the ongoing search for what is right while maintaining balance.
The same can be said for the other hymn we sing at our Passages service. Join me for the last verse of #354, We Laugh, We Cry.
We Laugh, We Cry, #354, verse 4, Shelley Jackson Denham
We seek elusive answers to the questions of this life
We seek to put an end to all the waste of human strife.
We search for truth, equality, and blessed peace of mind.
And then we come together here, to make sense of what we find
And we believe in life and in the strength of love
And we have found a joy being together
And in our search for peace maybe we’ll finally see:
Even to question, truly is an answer.
All that guidance we talked about earlier from “Guide My Feet” and “Love Will Guide Us,” that guidance is valued because we are looking for something, we are in a search. This hymn lifts up the values of Love and Justice as well as our sense of yearning, of the search for truth and meaning. We find – as we found in Spirit of Life – the key features of our faith in this hymn: Love and Justice, Inherent worth and Interconnectedness, and the yearning we have “to nurture our souls and to help heal the world.”
One of the strongest “help heal the world” hymns in our hymnal is #121, We’ll Build a Land. It is chock full of justice and equality and healing. Sing the opening verse with me.
We’ll Build a Land, #121, verse 1, Carolyn McDade (Isaiah & Amos)
We’ll build a land where we bind up the broken.
We’ll build a land where the captives go free,
where the oil of gladness dissolves all mourning.
Oh, we’ll build a promised land that can be.
Come build a land where sisters and brothers,
anointed by God, may then create peace:
where justice shall roll down like waters,
and peace like an ever flowing stream.
The powerful drive of this song is amazing. I’ve had Humanists and Atheists tell me this is their favorite hymn – it’s probably the most blatantly biblical hymn in our list of favorites! But the message is of an abiding ethic of right relationship. It is powerful stuff calling us to build a better world.
The next hymn in our survey of the hymns we sing most often around here comes out of the Singing the Journey. #1028 Fire of Commitment is newer to us but has quickly grown on us. I suspect in part this is due to the youth. I remember my oldest child, Brin, learned it on the piano almost immediately after she got her hands on a copy of this hymnal supplement. It then became a standard in nearly every youth worship service here after that. Sing the second verse with me.
Fire of Commitment, #1028, verse 2, Jason Shelton
From the stories of our living rings a song both brave and free
Calling pilgrims still to witness to the life of liberty
When the fire of commitment sets our mind and soul ablaze,
When our hunger and our passion meet to call us on our way,
When we live with deep assurance of the flame that burns within,
Then our promise finds fulfillment and our future can begin.
Such rich metaphors, so lyrical! This is another great justice-based hymn. But the root metaphor is again about guidance. We are pilgrims called to witness, a beacon guides our hands and hearts, and our dreams and visions demand a deeper justice. All of this is rooted in the deep assurance of the flame that burns within. That old Emersonian inner guidance mingled with the fire imagery of our flaming chalice perhaps.
And consider another long favorite among us, This Little Light of Mine, #118. You surely don’t need to switch back to the regular hymnal to belt out the first verse with me.
This Little Light of Mine, #118, verse 1, Traditional African American Spiritual
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine, (3x)
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine
Is it the flame that burns within as Jason Shelton says? Who are we? We are the fire of commitment, the warmth of community, and the light of truth. As a community we value that action and compassion found in the fire metaphor of these hymns. But compare all that to what has become the most common hymn sung here these past five years or so: #1064 Blue Boat Home. The water image brings balance to the fire image of other hymns. Join me just for verse two.
Blue Boat Home, #1064, verse 2, Peter Mayer
Sun, my sail and moon, my rudder
As I ply the starry sea
Leaning over the edge in wonder
Casting questions into the deep
Drifting here with my ship’s companions
All we kindred pilgrim souls
Making our way by the lights of the heavens
In our beautiful blue boat home
Did you hear again he words “questions” and “pilgrims” – these words keep popping up in our hymns. This hymn has become the most commonly sung hymn in this congregation by a narrow margin, aside from Spirit of Life of course. So what does this hymn say about us? It speaks of wonder and a sense of home; it is a peaceful hymn of nurture. The tension between our fire hymns and our water hymns is the tension of our faith. Love and Justice are tangled together. Here you nurture your spirit and help heal the world.
Hymn #318 in Singing the Living Tradition is We Would Be One. It was the anthem of the youth movement a generation back. It is a hymn that holds the tension between Blue Boat Home and We’ll Build a Land, the call to both love our home and make it a better one. We Would Be One has the call, the yearning, the promise that rests at the heart of Unitarian Universalism. Sing the second verse with me if you will.
We Would Be One, #318, verse 2, Samuel Anthony Wright
We would be one in building for tomorrow
A nobler world than we have known today
We would be one in searching for that meaning
Which binds our hearts and points us on our way
As one, we pledge ourselves to greater service
With love and justice, strive to make us free.
Which is your favorite? Is it one you sing alone or is it best when others join their voices to yours in the lift and swell of the chorus? Is it the meter and the rhythm that draws you or the message in the lyrics? The music we sing tells us something about who we are as a people. These hymns are not extra pieces to adorn the service. They are a deep part of the message, working their way into our consciousness in ways the spoken word cannot. The music not only proclaims our values, it lifts up values that shape who we are becoming as a people.
In a world without end,
May it be so.
Closing hymn #1008, “When Our Heart Is in a Holy Place”
Power and Process Theology
Rev. Douglas Taylor
I am still trying to figure out if Process Theology is for me. Unitarian Universalism is a covenantal tradition rather than a creedal one; we don’t have a single belief structure here. We are theists, pagans, atheists, seekers and mystics together encouraging each other on the path of faith. As one who believes in God, I have been excited to learn more about Process Theology because it offers a version of God that I find compelling and that fits well my experiences and understanding.
Last spring when singer/songwriter Peter Mayer came to visit I had the pleasure of sharing the Sunday worship with him. I asked him to sing his song “God is a River” as a companion to the story I shared about John Muir strapping himself near the top of a pine to experience a storm. The song and the layer of interpretation I put on the story offered up the image of God very much in line with Process Theology. In the song, Peter Mayer says he clung to the rock for solace and shelter but eventually learned to ride the flowing river in faith.
God is a river, not just a stone
God is a wild, raging rapids
And a slow, meandering flow
God is a deep and narrow passage
And a peaceful, sandy shoal
God is a river, swimmer, so let go
Yes, God can be seen as the rock, but God is also like the river. In the story I lifted up that image of John Muir clinging near the top of a soldier pine as the wind howls around him, bending his tree and the trees around him in deep arcs as Muir revels in the awesome experience of the storm. I talked about how God is not just the solid place you can always return to as a protecting shelter when the storms of life rage, God can also bend with you and move with you in your troubled times. As I stray into history and metaphysics over the next few minutes I invite you to keep these images in mind as touch points. The images of the God as a river you don’t have to fight against and God as a bending tree in the storm of your troubled life can help keep some of this academic and philosophical stuff I am about to wade into linked to the heart and the spirit of faith.
So, what exactly is Process Theology? I have found over the past year or so, two distinct ways into this conversation about Process Theology. Let me roll these out briefly so we can move on to the interesting consequences such a conversation holds. One way in is the question of God and suffering. If god is indeed all powerful and all loving, how is it that suffering also exists? Process Theology offers a singular answer to this classic Christian conundrum. But let me first spend some time on the other way into this conversation and I will come back to the question of God and suffering in a moment.
The other way in is through science and philosophy, and it starts with Alfred North Whitehead, the progenitor of this school of thought. Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947) was an English mathematician and philosopher from the late 1800’s through the mid 1900’s. He wrote books which set the groundwork for modern mathematical philosophy and logic. The philosophical ground of what we now know as Process Theology arises from Whitehead’s response to Einstein and quantum physics. I won’t go into detail, I can’t go into detail. But the crux of the idea is this: in quantum physics we see that everything is in motion. We discover that nothing is fixed, everything is moving. Atoms, those tiny things that are the basic building block of everything, are not simply little building blocks. They have sub-parts, and those parts are spinning and vibrating and changing.
Mountains that poetically epitomize stability and changelessness are not only growing and wearing down – they are also built out of those tiny atoms that are shaking and vibrating all the time. Everything that seems solid, fixed, and stable, is in fact in dynamic motion. The electrons of an atom are not even little balls orbiting the nucleus like I was taught in high school. The models I was offered in school looked very similar to astronomical models of small round objects orbiting a larger central object: like our moon circling the earth. By college I was learning about the ‘electron field’ because it wasn’t accurate to say it was orbiting – it was doing something else. I won’t go into details, I can’t go into derails. The point is this: everything we thought was fixed, stable, solid, turns out to be vibrating, changing, shifting.
Whitehead saw this and figured this applied not just to the nature, physical world but to the metaphysical world as well. He came up with a philosophy that trusted ‘becoming’ over ‘being.’ He talked about ‘events’ as the discrete base of reality rather than matter. He really messed with our sense of time and reality. A simplified version of what Whitehead seemed to be getting at is “if it seems static, don’t trust it.”
This is a remarkable sentiment when applied to religion. Static is often synonymous with our traditions, foundations, orthodoxy and ideals. We want truth to be unchanging, our deepest values ought to be unchanging, there ought to be some firm ground on which we stand – metaphorically speaking. But when the literal firm ground we stand on is made up of vibrating atoms, then perhaps the metaphorical ground we stand on is also subject to shift – not because we’re wrong or that we’ve chosen unstable ground, simply because that is the nature of ground.
Now, before we dip below the conversation of science and logic, thus falling into a mere quibble of semantics, let me suddenly shift gears and share with you the other way into this conversation. Let us set momentarily set aside grand thoughts about the nature of the universe and the dynamic nature of all matter and the implications that has on the nature of God to consider the question from the perspective of the traditional theology of God.
Charles Hartshorne (1897–2000) took Whitehead’s philosophy and developed into a theology. Hartshorne was a 20th century American theologian who wrote books such as Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes. The starting point for this conversation is the “theodicy problem” of traditional Christianity. The theodicy problem states that there are three non-negotiable givens that set up a puzzle: First, God is all powerful. This is declared over and over in scripture and affirmed again and again in Christian theology. God is the almighty creator. Second, God is all loving. This is sometimes rendered as ‘all-good,’ but it amounts to much the same thing for the purposes of this puzzle. God is not a monster or a capricious force. He cares about us. Scripture declares this and traditional Christian theology affirms this again and again. Third, evil and suffering exist. Our own experience of reality shows us this, scripture speaks of it, and basic Christian theology wrestles with the problem of suffering and the problem of evil regularly.
But when you hold all three of these traditional non-negotiable Christian beliefs together, there is a problem: How could there be suffering if God really does care about us and has the power to make it better? When I see someone I love suffering I want to make it better and will do what is in my power to help. Why doesn’t God?
Well, traditional Christianity will occasionally solve this puzzle through semantics and slick logic while maintaining belief in all three pieces. For example: We might say the problem is in our understanding of God as all loving. God’s love, we are told, is sometimes a tough love that allows us to make mistakes so we can learn from them and become better people. That is not a very satisfying answer for a child soldier from the Darfur genocide, or person paralyzed by a random car accident. Unearned suffering can be redemptive, but only in certain situations.
Another tack is to say the problem is in our understanding of God as all powerful. God’s power is perhaps more properly seen in the grandest of scales, we are told; and the finest exercising of that power was when God gave us free will. God could step in to alter things and maybe does on occasion, but doing so messes with the bigger picture of our free will. Yes, God is all powerful and could end suffering, but God restrains herself because the grand human experience of life hinges on our capacity to choose between good and evil, creation and destruction, love and hate, justice and apathy. That also is not a very satisfying answer; it makes me wonder why bother believing in that sort of God … unless you go with that slim little piece where occasional miracles do still happen when God comes down and tinkers with our troubled lives. But that leaves us with a God waiting for us to ask in just the right way or for just the right people to ask for us in just the right way with just the right intention and circumstance. It seems too much like a trick to me.
The final significant way people try to solve this theodicy problem is to undercut the reality of evil or suffering. Suffering, we are told, leads to greater joy in the next life. Evil, we are told, is judged or possibly redeemed by God in heaven in God’s time. Some theologies even go so far as to say evil and suffering are a result of our sinfulness; we deserve what is happening in some cosmic scale.
So Process Theology looks at this and basically says, ‘what a ridiculous set up!’ Of course all three pieces can’t be true. Suffering is real, evil exists. Hartshorne’s articulation of Process Theology came on the heels of World War II; everyone had a ready reference to point to in terms of the reality of evil and suffering. God is a loving God, otherwise God is not worthy of worship and would be better named a monster. The piece that has to fall is God’s power. Thus, Process Theology declares that God’s power is not through force but through persuasion.
Hartshorne and other theologians spoke of God’s power as a lure we could align ourselves with rather than a raw power we could call upon in need. It’s not that God doesn’t choose to use a greater power. It is not that God could but decides not to tinker with the laws of nature. It’s not that God has the capacity to perform miracles and to end suffering or snuff out evil but has decided that instead it is better not to. No. God can’t do those things. God is on the side of the creative good. God can’t unilaterally end suffering, but God’s power is relational power
By this theology, and in my understanding of the nature 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 name given for the source of your living, for the creative energy in everything, for the whole of which you are a part. It is a little fuzzy, perhaps a bit vague. But then the trouble with God began when people started to 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 creative energy that flows around you and through you. Seek the whole of which you are a part. You do not need to then name it God, though many do. Much to think on! Remember the river and the tree; there is a simple intuitive element here as well.
I remember a colleague who claimed to be a ‘third-person Unitarian.’ By this he meant that as Unitarians we historically reject the Trinitarian formula of God as three-in-one: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And that many did this by rejecting the godhood of the second-person of the trinity, Jesus. Often this led Unitarians to declare God the father, the first-person of the trinity, to be the one God: creator, first cause, almighty author of all that is. Process Theology leads us to look at the other end of the formula with my colleague who declared himself to be a third-person Unitarian. The Holy Spirit is traditionally the movement of God, the advocate, the ready aid at hand for those in need. The dynamic spirit of life, to me, is quite a compelling phrase to describe what I know and understand of God.
But this is more than academic for me, more than clever theological debate. I trust science and logic, and I have had experiences that lead me to believe my prayers do make a difference and that grace is real. I am the kind of person who desperately needs a theological framework to hold it all. I see God as a dynamic spirit luring the best out of me, a creative energy in and around us all.
God is a river, not just a stone
God is a wild, raging rapids
And a slow, meandering flow
God is a deep and narrow passage
And a peaceful, sandy shoal
God is a river, swimmer, so let go
In my experience God is that creative and transforming power in my life, ever new, ever leading me to put my faith and trust in the beckoning future. The watch word of Process Theology is “becoming,” synonymous with growing, developing and evolving. I believe in God as the spirit of life and love, the creative energy found in all life, the transformative power of love that lures us to become better people building a better world.
In a world without end
May it be so.