Sermons 2012-13

Let Go and Pull for Shore

Let Go and Pull for Shore
Rev. Douglas Taylor
March 24, 2013

 

Kahlil Gibran wrote: “Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.  And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.  … The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.” 

“When the night is dark and dreary and the road has left me weary …” Joyce Poley sings.  When sorrow, trouble, hurt and heartache threaten to leave me alone and lost, there are ways to get through.  There are no ways to get around it that are worth pursuing.  There are no ways to ‘get over it’ that are worth pursuing. But there are ways through the sorrow and heartache.

And when the music fills my soul
And I am feelin’ strong
I’ll know again both joy and pain
Are part of the self-same song

                        –Lyrics of “Sing My Sorrows Away” by Joyce Poley 

There are ways through.  The question when you are in the midst of it, however, is how to keep going, how to persevere.  I think it is important to remember, when you are caught up in the collapse of your life or are knee deep in your sorrow, that the long arc of your life is aimed for fulfillment and that what some people see as failure other know to be the natural ebb before the flow. 

Perseverance, as Meg Wheatley told us in the opening words, is synonymous with “Tenacity, steadfastness, persistence, [and] doggedness.”  (from Perseverance by Margaret Wheatley, p3)  Perseverance is a virtue we don’t spend much time talking about but is so obviously a quality we long for in our lives.  We often see perseverance however as unyielding determination, which is not exactly fair.  We perhaps see perseverance as tangled up with strength and firm commitment, yet there is more to than that; and to think of it only like that is to miss an important part of perseverance.  There is a yielding aspect to perseverance because it is concerned with the big picture, the long haul. 

The long haul, what a great phrase!  Listening to that Annie Dillard reading (from The Writing Life, p83-89) about the man who hauled an Alaskan yellow cedar log through the night brings home how that turn of phrase can mean perseverance!  Ferrar Burns was in it for the long haul.  Half the night he was rowing north yet moving steadily south in danger of being swept out to the ocean.  Sometimes, faithful and productive action looks like the opposite.  It can look and feel like failure.  But in the long haul, with perseverance, you will get there in the end.

One of the David Leonard aphorisms mentioned at his memorial services is “If at first you don’t succeed, maybe there’s a lesson in that for you.”  This could be a statement suggestion you give up, resign, quit.  Or it could be a statement that failure is part of success.  It could be a signal to pay more attention to how success is never a straight line.  I mean, it is not like that for me.  I think I’m headed one way and it turns out I’m taking the long way to get there.  What’s it like for you?  For me, a “yes” from life can sound like “No, no, no, no, nope, not this time, no, no, no, no, no, no way, not going to happen, no, no, maybe next time, no, no, not like that, no, no, not like that either, no, no, no, no, no, YES!” 

Which leads me to talk about Taoism. This past week in the World Religions course we talked about Taoism.  During our conversations around the iconic Yin Yang concept I found myself thinking about this morning’s topic of perseverance.  I trust you are familiar with the Yin Yang image:  A circle half black and half white.  There is feeling of motion in the image because the halves are not a straight bisection from top to bottom, but rather an “s” curve or tear-shaped curve of each color.  It represents the flow of opposites, as if the two halves are each moving around; and as the tapered end of one closes the swell of its opposite moves in.  And in the heart of each color is a dot of its opposite. 

In the second chapter of the Tao Te Ching, we read about opposites:

When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.
Being and non-being create each other.
Difficult and easy support each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low depend on each other.
Before and after follow each other.

I could add that success and failure support each other, holding on and letting go depend on each other, beginning and ending define each other.  Both are occurring in every moment.  Consider the opening pair the chapter offered: beautiful and ugly.  Taoism suggests that you don’t see something as either one or the other.  Instead see everything as containing both in harmony.  A flower is beautiful now, as it blooms and as it blossoms.  But as it wilts and dies it is no longer beautiful, it is ugly.  But its beauty is not gone, its beauty is in the experience, all beauty is.  So it is with success and failure.  So it is with joy and sorrow. 

13th Century Iranian poet and mystic, Jalal Udin Rumi wrote:

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning is a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, meanness
Some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
Who violently sweep your house
Empty of its furniture,
Still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
For some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
Meet them at the door laughing,
And invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
Because each has been sent
As a guide from beyond.

Don’t fall into the trap of judging your emotions as good emotions or bad emotions.   Be grateful for whoever comes.  Even if you see only the dark, a dot of light resides therein and more is pouring in soon.  Even if you are pulled by the current in the opposite direction all night long, the full story of your life is not told in only that night.  Morning will come.  Even if life has said “no” countless times it may be clearing you out for a bigger “yes” still to come.  As Gibran and Joyce Poley say, “both joy and pain are part of the self-same song.” 

 Mary Oliver wrote a very brief poem entitled “The Uses of Sorrow.” 

Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness. 
It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.

Should you refuse the sorrow you would diminish the joy.  Should you deny failure then there is little chance of success.  Life is all of it.  Like the beauty of the flower, just because life is not all joy and success does not mean life is not full of joy and success.  Success is in the moment.  Don’t imagine the opposites as permanent choices; instead see yourself as containing both. 

Perseverance is that quality we have of moving through the ebb and flow of life with grace.  Through the beauty and the ugliness, through the joy and the pain, through the failure and the success, perseverance is the virtue of seeing through to the end: tenacity, steadfastness, persistence, doggedness.  The image of a reed or bamboo shoot is a good one.  It is strong yet supple.  It bows and bends in the wind but is not uprooted by the storm the way hard wood trees can be.  By yielding, the reed remains and continues.

What does that look like in your life?  How do you manage the rush and storms of life, the swinging vagaries of chance, the ups and downs of it all?  Do you wallow in the disappointments, or ignore them?  Or do you adept them, perhaps even learn from them?  Do you find your emotions, your self-esteem, your sense of self carried along on the ebb and flow in a draining and exhausting fashion?  Or do you ride it out?  Do you find yourself cursing the wind?  Or do you just smile at the absurdity of it all, knowing that the winds blows today and are still tomorrow?  What does it look like in your life?

We tell stories of principled heroes.  We lift up the people who, in our society and our history, stand firm and do not yield to injustice.  We shine the light on the great leaders who show fierce commitment and courage.  But there is a secret to that strength we often do not see.  There is an unseen power behind the scenes.  It is the power of letting go.  We do not give it much credit when it is seen so people often keep it hidden.  Compromise and bending are too often seen as weakness in our leaders and in our role models and in our hearts.    

Yet letting go is a huge part of perseverance.  Perseverance is not synonymous with permanence. It has more to do with growth, and growth is about change.  To persevere, we must let go of what is in favor of what will be.  Whether we speak of making the world a better place and the perseverance needed to keep at the work, or we speak of sorrow and heartache and the perseverance need to continue to hope and to love and to reach out.  Those who persevere have learned to let go: to let go of expectations, of judgment, of ego.

To let go is not to quit.  Indeed to let go in this sense is to commit to something particular!  Truly if you look at it rightly, the letting go is of whatever holds you back. To let go is to find that central and ultimate value in life worthy of your commitment, and then to surrender all else to win it.  So it doesn’t matter if all through the night as you row north with your beautiful cedar log, all the while drifting farther and farther south.  Trusting that the tides and the currents will carry you, you can leg go of your directional movement and just pull for shore. 

Moving forward and slipping back belong to each other.  In keeping with the way the Tao Te Ching would have it, they belong to each other not because one is good and the other is bad.  They belong to each other because if we want to persevere we will have both in our lives.

Rev. David Leonard, in his last sermon, “Dueling with the Grim Reaper,” talked about living and dying.  He said,

“Death and life are interwoven in an even more meaningful and immediate sense.  Pervious experiences must in some way die before present experiences can be born.  Past experiences become the humus out of which novelty emerges.  We look back with regret on our “bad” experiences, and we sometimes look back at “good” experiences with nostalgic sadness, because they are over.

… The purpose of life is to live … Our instinct is to put death off and to deny its reality.  But the truth is that our lives and our deaths are interwoven, and in order to come to terms with death, we need to come to terms with life – and vise versa.” 

David used not only the specific and literal meaning of birth and death, but also the little births and deaths that happen throughout our days.  The birth of a new day, a new friendship, or a new experience is always happening.  Likewise, the death of the old day, an old relationship, or an old experience is also always happening. 

Intellectually this is a little counter-intuitive but not overly difficult.  Life and death, success and failure, forward and back, sorrow and joy: to look at these pairings as entangled and necessary is intellectually manageable.  The trick is living it into reality.  The trick is all this letting go and holding on, embracing the bad stuff as well as the good stuff.  The trick is that on a daily level it is not simple.  But those who learn the art of holding both the joy and the sorrow, the success and the failure, – holding all of it and honoring all of it – those are the ones who persevere. 

So let go.  Let go of your ego, let go of expectations, let go of all fear of sorrow or failure.  Because the mistakes and failures are yours for the long haul and the sorrow and heartache are yours for the long haul.  But so too is the joy, so too are the sweet successes and achievements.  So let go and pull for the shore.  Hitch your boat to the solid core of your integrity and your dream and pull with all your might.  When you are caught up in the collapse of your life or are knee deep in your sorrow, remember that the long arc of your life is aimed for fulfillment and that what some people mistake as failure other know to be the natural ebb and flow of life.  So let go and pull for shore.

In a world without end,
may it be so.

 

Seeking Happiness, Finding Meaning

Seeking Happiness, Finding Meaning
Rev. Douglas Taylor
March 10, 2013

 

When I was 5 years old, my mom always told me that happiness was the key to life.  When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up.  I wrote down ‘happy.’  They told me I didn’t understand the assignment.  I told them they didn’t understand life.  -John Lennon

John Lennon wrote that.  I always thought I was so original when I would give that answer to the question over my younger years.  As far back as I can remember, that has been my answer to the question of what I want to be when I grow up: happy.  Oh, I learned to give a “correct” answer unfortunately, but I would still whisper the real answer to myself whenever someone asked.  I want to be happy. 

Over the years, through all the ups and downs of my life I have come now to a place in which I can with confidence say I am happy.  And here is what I’ve figured out.  I’ve figured out that my title, “Seeking Happiness, Finding Meaning,” is a little off.  I think a better title would have been, “Seeking Meaning, Finding Happiness.”  But the title as it is written certainly fits the world around us to say we are seeking happiness.  Our American consumer culture, if you take that portion of it as representative of who we are, is entirely focused on pleasure-seeking and the acquisition of things.  And we are told that this will lead to happiness. 

In the world religions course we are doing, the section on Hinduism begins with the notion that all people go through stages in life in which they are seeking different things.  The first stage is seeking pleasure.  As I was reading it I thought, “Yeah that’s us.  We Americans are pretty focused on that Pursuit of Happiness.”  It is interesting because in Hinduism it is honored as an appropriate stage for some people.  It is a starting point.  Certainly for the young it is what they are after.  But the book did not degrade the pursuit of pleasure as childish.  It just named it as the first stage of what we human beings want in life.  

The thing is: it is not satisfying.  Sure, it is great to take all the pleasure you can find. But eventually the pleasure fades by repetition into commonplace and boring.  It may take some of us a while to get there, but we all do eventually see that the pursuit of mere pleasure is not a fulfilling life.  In the Hindu understanding, it may take a few lifetimes for a soul to catch on that the pursuit of pleasure is pedestrian and that there is much greater fruit to be had for those willing to try for it.  And here it is important to say there is a difference between pleasure and happiness.

One way in which our American culture is very different from the Hindu culture of India is that here in America we have conflated the concepts of happiness and pleasure to the point they are synonymous.  “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” enshrined in our Declaration of Independence has become a very individualistic and isolating goal.  Many people are perfectly comfortable thinking about their own life, their own liberty, and their own happiness without being bothered by those ‘unalienable rights’ for the next person.  And the ‘pursuit of happiness’ has become something selfish, a result the founding fathers surely did not intend. 

Comedian Joan Rivers once quipped “People say that money is not the key to happiness, but I always figured if you have enough money, you can have a key made.”  But time again, in the wisdom of poets and religious scripture we hear that more money does not equal more happiness.  Despite what our consumer culture would have us believe, more stuff does not fulfill us.  Christian Scripture (Timothy 6:10) says the “love of money is the root of all evil.”  And John Lennon sings “I don’t care too much for money, ‘cause money can’t buy me love.” And yet, others have accurately said that money can be used to buy things that can make us happy, or can demonstrate our values or our love … and that can make us happy.

In terms of money and its relationship to happiness, the key seems to be the word ‘enough.’  Making enough money to meet basic needs of food, shelter, and clothing is the key. I’ve heard different dollar amounts from $40,000 to $75,000 a year. A study from a few decades back found that when you check in with major lottery winners a year later, they report being no more or less happy than they were before winning. 

But there is something connected to money that does seem to be related to our happiness: not acquiring money, but giving it away.  Countless examples show this.  I read an article in the New York Times from a few months ago that talked about this.  They offered the example of a person handing our envelopes to random people on the street.  In the envelope people would find a $20 bill and a slip of paper.  Half the slips invited people to splurge on themselves, to indulge in a little something, have fun.  The other half of the slips encouraged people to spend the cash on someone else.  The researchers then followed up with the people later.  Which group reported being happier with the envelope of money and its simple instructions?  The comparison isn’t even close.  Hands down, people got an amazing amount of happiness out of spending a little surprise money on someone else as compared with the people who were invited to spend it on themselves.  Giving gifts makes us happy.

Jerome Slote is our Worship Associate for today, and when he and I were talking about this service he brought in several possible readings from the work of Charles Eisenstein.  He also lifted up Eisenstein’s idea that happiness comes from three sources.  One source of happiness is Play.  The reading talked about this aspect fairly well.  The reading helped make a distinction between play as something other than pleasure or entertainment.  Entertainment and pleasure can make us happy, but it is a passive and short-lived happiness.  It happens to us.  We call the experience happy, but that is too small for what I am talking about.  Entertainment is too small for the fullness of life.  Entertainment is passive; play is active.

The second source of happiness according to Eisenstein is gift giving.  This, also, I have talked about a little bit at least in terms of how we use money.  I remember an interesting conversation about gift exchange when I was at the congregation I served before coming here.  I was in a circle of grandparents who were talking about the lost art of the Thank You Card.  They were lamenting the way their children don’t insist that the grandkids write ‘thank you’ cards.  They would just get the little ones on the phone to say thank you thinking that was enough.  And for a little while the conversation drifted into the realm of generational differences and the changing norms of society.  But then someone said something that refocused the conversation in an interesting way.  She said “The purpose of gift-giving is to establish or maintain a relationship.  The gift is about the relationship.  The ‘thank you’ is an extension of that.”  Thinking back to the notion that gift-giving is a source of happiness – a few of these grandparents were not feeling happy.  I think the idea that the gift exchange serves as a tangible reflection of the relationship is a very poignant point. 

The third source of happiness according to Eisenstein is shared work.  Sharing together in a task turns the task into the backdrop against which we can be in relationship.  My wife and I have discovered that neither of us particularly enjoys cooking.  It’s not that either of us mind it or are bad at it.  It’s just not something we enjoy.  But we’ve discovered that if we are both in the room, sharing the prep work, it is more enjoyable.  I see it happening in so many ways in my house, and around the congregation.  Through the years I’ve overheard laughter from the church kitchen when folks from the Social Justice committee are preparing the salad for Sarah Jane Johnson community meal each month.  There is a team of people who show up to fold the Beacon newsletter every other week.  Or consider how one of the core components of Small Group Ministry is for each group, at least once a year, to do a service project together.  In part it is for the group members to meet each other in a different setting, to enjoy each other.  We all should serve needs greater than our own, but when we share that service with others, the work can bring us happiness. 

Something to notice about Eisenstein’s three sources of happiness is that each is a shared activity; they are relational.  Play, shared work, and gift giving, each of these three aspects of happiness is social in nature.  And they are about creating and giving rather than receiving. 

As I say that, I will admit, I am not sure that is the whole story.  Let me shake this idea a little to see how it stands up to how I am living my life.  I do find happiness outside of the social aspect as offered in Eisenstein’s framework.  I can enjoy a good book, I take pleasure in that first sip of fresh coffee in the morning, I feel good when I go for a walk in the neighborhood or in the woods by myself.  So I’m not sure I’m ready to redefine happiness only as those activities I do with other people.   

My personal attitude has a lot to do with my sense of happiness.  But this is a slippery path to describe because it is so subjective.  Oh, self-help books and blogs abound with the advice that the key to happiness is to just be optimistic. “Don’t worry, be happy!”  See the glass as half-full and you will be happier.  Studies have been done about this, for example I found a report from the Mayo Clinic that said we can choose an optimistic outlook.

Other reports suggest that happiness is found in other attitude shifts such as: living in the moment, having satisfying work, staying close to family and friends, and taking care of your body.   These are all suggestions for how to have more happiness in your life.  But there is something missing. 

It stands out most in the suggestion to “be more Scandinavian.” (http://www.wikihow.com/Be-Happy) Recent articles in Forbes Magazine and the Huffington Post report on the prosperity indices that measure happiness and how Scandinavian countries regularly hit the top ranking.  Markers include “confidence in economic opportunity, faith in the government, and personal freedom.”  Scandinavian countries also measure high on “feelings of connectedness inside a community” and “physical and mental well-being.”  But really, the suggestion that happiness can be found in being more Scandinavian takes this hunt for happiness to an absurd end. 

It is not that the ideas are bad or built on unsound data.  It’s just that some of these suggestions are just correlations rather than real secrets to being happy.  These endless suggestions to be optimistic and to exercise and be more Scandinavian are passed along as self-help advice that doesn’t really get us very far.  Yes, my attitude is a significant part of the equation but if you really want to know what personal work is needed, take note because the best answer I have found is not simple.

In Viktor Frankl’s phenomenal book entitled Man’s Search of Meaning we read the thoughtful response to his experience in a Nazi concentration camp.  He had established teen suicide-prevention centers in Vienna prior to being taken by the Nazis.  His suicide prevention work continued in the camps.  He said the people who survived the camps were those who had a reason to survive.  Frankl saw that the difference came down to whether or not life still held a meaningful reason for a person. And further, meaningfulness is always about something greater than oneself. 

Happiness, defined narrowly as a selfish pursuit of pleasure, has no place when set against what Viktor Frankl is talking about.  But happiness – defined more deeply and relationally – is a natural outgrowth of a meaningful life.  Frankl said happiness should not be pursued so much as ensued.  He means happiness should follow.  Seeking meaning, we will find happiness in the long run. But seeking happiness, we have no guarantee of ever finding meaning – and what a mistake that would be.

It seems to me if you want to talk about behaviors that will bring you happiness, look to the behaviors that are active rather than passive and behaviors that connect you socially to other through play, shared work, and gift-giving.  If you want to talk about personal attitudes that will bring you happiness, look for meaning. 

Everything else offered as advice on how to be happy may prove helpful for this person or that person, in this situation or that.  So, sure – exercise, choose to be optimistic, move to Scandinavia.  But really happiness is developed by connections and meaning.

As a boy and as a teenager I had a deep emptiness that I named a lack of happiness.  As the years unfolded I came to see that emptiness instead as a disconnection on the verge of hopelessness.  When I shifted to a longing for connection and meaning in my life, when I began to seek after meaning – then all manner of vitality and joy and love poured in eventually.  I am now a happy person and have even learned how to spread that happiness around, creating more happiness and joy around me. 

If you really want happiness, get involved in things.  Reach out to other people.  Play, don’t just watch, take part.  Share the play, share the work.  And give things away; send gifts out into the world.  Buddha said the key to happiness is letting go.  Make of your life a gift and offer it up.

I saw a quote; I have no idea who said it.  “The meaning of life is to find your gift.  The purpose of life is to give it away.”  I like that.  The point is not to pursue happiness; the point is to create it by pursuing meaning.  At least that is what I have found through my explorations of meaning and connection and joy.

In a world without end,

May it be so.

Covenant through the Ages

Covenant through the Ages
Rev. Douglas Taylor
February 24, 2013

 

You are perhaps familiar with the aphorism of Lord Acton that claims, “Every institution finally perishes by an excess of its own first principle.” (Lifecraft, by Forest Church, p 70) The concept goes all the back to the classic Greek philosophers, it was either Plato or Socrates who said, “All forms of Government fall from an excess of their best principles.”

This concept always pulls me up short; because what is the first principle of Unitarian Universalism? Well, literally, the first of our Seven Principles is “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” But the less literal point fits as well for us. Our primary principle – the top attribute of our institution – is the same as the first of the Seven Principles of our Association.  The chief organizing concept for Unitarian Universalism is arguably our deep commitment to individual conscience and experience as the arbiter of truth and meaning.

As Unitarian Universalists we do not gather around a set doctrine or creed, rather we join in a commitment to help each other in the search for what is ultimately meaningful in life. Witness these past two sermons on atheism and theism I delivered this month. And some might be wondering where my sermon on neo-paganism is, and why I haven’t done a sermon on agnosticism lately. We’re all over the map theologically.

So do you think there is some danger in this first principle of ours? Can you imagine, or have you experienced any trouble due to an excess of our first principle?

In an article (“The end of iChurch”) from this past UU World magazine, (Winter 2012) Rev. Fred Muir raises this question through a reflection on the work of transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson.
“No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature,” Emerson proclaimed. “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” Emersonian individualism has become part of the American story, of course. Many of us were drawn to Unitarian Universalism because it seemed to be the church of Emersonian individualism. My thirty-seven years in the UU ministry have convinced me that historian Conrad Wright is correct: “One cannot build a church on Emerson’s dicta: ‘men are less together than alone,’ or ‘men descend to meet.’” http://www.uuworld.org/ideas/articles/279318.shtml

Muir goes on to articulate that such an ideology and theology of individualism cannot encourage people to work together “to create and support institutions that serve common aspirations and beloved principles.” The inherent worth and dignity of every person is certainly our defining principle as Unitarian Universalists. And if we were to leave it without a counterbalance we would surely perish, isolated each in our private, though beloved, encounters with the holy.

Blessedly, there is a frequently overlooked context that holds all the Seven Principles including this first one. The language of our Association’s Principles and Purposes is written as a covenant. This covenant states that as free congregations we promise to one another our mutual trust and support.

We are seekers first; always open to new learning, to new insight, to new understanding. The best avenue we have found is to be seekers in community. The covenant of respect and mutual care is the framework that provides the freedom we long for and the best boundaries possible for being in community.

In many ways, Covenant is as old an idea as ‘individual freedom of conscience.’ Indeed, they have gone together in most cases. To track the idea of covenant back to the Bible, we can talk about Noah and Abraham, Moses and David. In each of those cases, however, the specifics of the concept, the details of how it worked are not all that applicable to how covenant works for us. In the Biblical stories, God was a character in the events with whom the Israelites would enter into covenant. God would make a promise: to not destroy the inhabitants of the earth in Noah’s example, to bring forth a great nation in Abraham’s example. God made certain promises to the people if the people would agree to abide by God’s law.

That’s not what we mean when we speak of covenant in our Unitarian Universalist context. We mean it closer to the legal concept in government; or more accurately, as the puritans meant it following the lead of Robert Browne. Browne was an English separatist from the late 1500’s who is considered by some to be the founder of modern day Congregationalism. He gave up on the Church of England and attempted to create a new model the ecclesiology, or rather in his mind to recreate a very old model based on the early church house gatherings.

Following his model of congregationalism, many of the early English settlers in New England created churches with Congregational polity and Covenantal theology. Conrad Wright, noted Harvard Divinity School professor and historian emphasizes the role of the Cambridge Platform from 1648 as the seminal document from which we find these concepts. In the Cambridge Platform we find statements such as: “There is no greater church than a congregation which may ordinarily meet in one place.” It further insisted that the congregation itself is the highest level of ecclesiastical authority.

Another aspect stands out particularly and may seem odd against the backdrop of modern day Unitarian Universalism, the church is defined in Chapter 2, Article 5 as: “a company of saints by calling, united into one body by a holy covenant.” A company of saints, it said. But notice that it didn’t say ‘a company of believers.’ What was required was not a statement of belief but evidence of righteous living. Now, it did still focus on your righteousness with God more than your righteousness with humanity. To be invited into membership required “a personal and public confession and declaring of God’s manner of working upon the soul.”

But by linking it to a covenant rather than a belief, the church was able to stay truer to the promptings of the spirit, as they would have worded it back then. And most importantly, each church was free to govern itself. They were in association with each other, the document talks about being in communion with other churches, but that was meant as an ecclesiological concept.

But here is the interesting stuff that carries forward for us from this history: We have taken the Congregational Polity pieces to heart and have established our congregations in keeping with the basic tenets of Congregationalism from 400 years back. It radically relocated religious authority from the hierarchy of bishops and priests to the people in the pews. Throughout the theological shifting our Unitarianism history, this aspect of governance never wavered.

But something did get unsettled or uneven over the years. The concept of covenant wavered. Congregational Polity and Covenantal Theology go hand in hand. But our independent urge encouraged by the individualistic society around us had left us un-tethered and isolated. The interdependence of our congregations and of our individual selves had atrophied somewhat until recent times. The concept of covenant has had a resurgence over the past decade or so.

We are actively in the process of drafting a Behavioral Covenant for our congregation. You may have heard about it at the Matters of Our Lives segment in January, or from the Beacon newsletter article, or from the conversation meetings hosted over the past month. The Committee on Ministry is taking a five step process: Dialogue, Discernment, Development, Democratic process, and Deepening. Dialogue, step one, is the step we are still in. The Committee on Ministry is asking questions like: What are some of the things you need from your fellow congregants when you are here? What does it look like when we treat each other with justice, equity, and compassion?

There are index cards in the pews, take a moment to consider the questions, offer an answer or two. We’ll even set some time immediately after the sermon for a congregational response where you can speak some of your answers.

We’re working on crafting a covenant. You may be saying, what about the Blake covenant here in our Order of Service? There are two things I can say about that. First, that’s a liturgical covenant in the sense that I picked it a year and a half ago to include in the service. No one voted to accept it. The little bit of amending I have tried to do, the adjusting of the word “law” has really been an exercise in futility. I think that no one is really happy with the thing at the moment. I suspect a significant number of us would breathe a sigh of relief if I just dropped the thing from the regular order of service all together. And two, it is an old covenant. We ought to develop our own that speaks to us today. We will likely develop a long wordy thing for a Behavioral Covenant, but we can distill a short, poetic liturgical form from it.

We’re working on this. It’s like coming into the middle of a “Simon Says” game. It would be good for us to agree to the game we are playing before quibbling over the exact rules and who has to follow them. I actually have a rather high opinion of the way we are treating each other in this congregation. In many ways I think what we will be doing is naming the magic that already exists among us.

But covenants do not talk strictly about the relationship between individuals; covenant in the way we are talking about it here is about the individual’s relationship with the community. It is like a marriage covenant in which the two partners make a vow to the marriage, to the “us” that is created by the wedding.

And so it is with a congregational covenant. You are not in covenant with each individual person, you are in covenant with the “us” that is the congregation. The covenant, therefore, calls you to consider and treat each individual member of the congregation as you would any other member of the congregation. There are certain basic pieces that you automatically offer to every member – not because you like them all or even know them all – simply because we all are covered under the same covenantal relationship. It is a theological system that creates a relational equality. You treat people well not because you like them but because you have chosen to be in covenant with this congregation and what it stands for. A covenant allows us to sustain a community by promising to one another our mutual trust and support.

Colleague Tom Owen-Towle wrote in one of his books (Growing a Beloved Community), “If we fail to be practitioners of right relations in our chosen tribes, then our admirable pronouncements and contributions in the larger society are bogus.” In actuality, it may be far tougher to practice our Unitarian Universalist Principles of ‘justice, equity, and compassion in human relations’ in our families and congregations than anywhere else.

What does it look like when we treat each other with justice, equity, and compassion? We need to work that balancing act between independence and interdependence. We need to acknowledge the ways in which our personal needs and the communities needs can fit together and where they might rub a little. What are the specific promises we are going to make to each other about being in right relation, about being in covenant? What do you need in such a covenant?

Let us take some time to consider these questions and to seek some answers together.

Amen.

God, Not of the Gaps

God, Not of the Gaps
Rev. Douglas Taylor
February 17, 2013

 

St. Augustine wrote, “If you can understand it, it’s not God.”  So take everything I am about I say with that grain of salt. 

There is a version of “God” that is championed by modern Christian fundamentalism in particular that has become the focal definition of God to our detriment.  It is God as omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent, eternal, infinite, all good, and all loving, yet still harboring more than a hint of the old judgmental and jealous aspects as well.  To which I can say, “Yea, Hitchens and Dawkins!  Have at ‘em!”  The modern atheists of celebrity stature, the “New Atheists” as they are sometimes known, focus their critique wonderfully on this tired, illogical, archaic version of God to great acclaim. 

Noted author and scholar of religion Karen Armstrong wrote in the introduction of her book The Case for God, which we heard as our reading this morning, “Despite our scientific and technological brilliance, our religious thinking is sometimes remarkably undeveloped, even primitive.” (p x) Later in that introduction to her book she acknowledges the critique of the “new atheists” such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, saying “It is a pity [they] express themselves so intemperately, because some of their criticisms are valid … In fact, the new atheists are not radical enough” (p xvi) She points out that theologians from various religions including Christianity, Islam and Judaism have been insisting for centuries that God does not exist.  They say this not do deny the reality of God, she admits, but to safeguard God’s transcendence.  Paul Tillich, for example, used to say “God does not exist, God is.”  For which the fundamentalists labeled him an atheist.  Armstrong contends that the modern version of God is a domesticated God, a tamed God that is wide open for the eviscerating critiques of the “New Atheists.”  It’s too easy.  

Christian Existentialist Theologian Paul Tillich argued several decades back that religion will always lose the battle against science and secularism due to one initial slip. He said religion “defended its great symbols, not as symbols, but as literal stories.”  (Tillich’s Lost Dimension of Religion.) In doing so, it pulled the symbols down into the realm of being verified by science or history or logic. 

My title “God, Not of the Gaps” is a play on this very concept.  God of the Gaps is a concept from the dialogue between science and religion that Tillich is critiquing.  The concept of “The God of the Gaps” works like this:  In primitive times, God was the answer for any mystery, any gaps in our understanding of the world and life.  If we didn’t understand thunder, the gods were responsible for thunder.  If we didn’t understand death, God was responsible for it or in control of it.  God served as the way to understand whatever was beyond our understanding.  Where did we come from and what happens when we die?  How did the world begin and why is there something rather than nothing?  Many of our earliest myths and religious stories tell us answers to these sort or questions. 

As our understanding of the natural world has grown, the place that God held has shrunk.  We know what causes thunder and reason for the tides.  We understand a remarkable amount about our universe compared with what was known even a few hundred years back.  If God is simply in charge of the gaps that we don’t yet understand, then God will always be an ever-shrinking God.  Carl Sagan laments this pattern in his classic book Pale Blue Dot seeing traditional religion effectively saying in the face of science “No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.”

Fundamentalist Christians cling to the old version of God, refusing to see what Carl Sagan saw in the openings made by science.  Sagan longed to see the concept of God evolve to match our understanding of the world in much the way Karen Armstrong articulated in the reading.  I long to see our concept of God evolve to fit better with the world as we know it to be, in a way that does not contradict or supersede the natural laws of the universe.

Every now and then someone in the congregation will ask me why we are wasting our time trying to bring Religious Language back into Unitarian Universalism.  The goal – or at least my goal – is not to regress enough to fit back in to the dying landscape of mainline protestant Christianity.  My goal is to advance the conceptual maturity of the conversation.  There are many ways to speak of God that line up with reality as we know it and do not leave us constrained speaking only of a God of the gaps. In other words, God doesn’t have to be omnipotent and supernatural and vengeful and anthropomorphic to be God. 

Listen to the way a colleague describes his sense of such things.  Rev. Scotty McLennan is a Unitarian Universalist minister and the dean of Religious Services at Stanford University in California.  He wrote about his evolving understanding of God:

As a young child I thought of God as a magical, all-powerful being who was responsible for everything that happened, good or bad. Later in childhood I began to feel I had a cause-and-effect relationship to God, gaining some control over good and bad results by how I prayed, petitioned, and behaved. Then in my teenage years God became personalized for me as the ideal parent, unconditionally accepting and loving. By the time I was in my twenties, God had become an impersonal force or energy in the universe. …

Yet, in my fifties (McLennan continues) I’ve also begun to pray to God as a person again, especially in times of great need and great joy. I do that even as I know God intellectually as an impersonal life force. So I live in paradox and ambiguity with God now, often simply feeling overcome with awe as spirit fills me from some source far beyond my own conscious control.

I resonate with the way Rev. McLennan’s understanding evolved.  I had a different trajectory though I landed in the paradox and ambiguity he describes all the same.  For me, I grew up in a Humanist church, so Humanism is my first religious language. As a parallel, I was raised in a Universalist home.  Thus, I grew up unsure about the existence of God, certainly sure that if I did believe in God it wasn’t an anthropomorphized deity.  Yet I somehow developed the feeling of unconditional acceptance and love from this God in whom I only half-believed. And then I spent as much time as I could out in the woods near our house, out in nature where I developed another whole set of words to describe God. All this adds up to some confusion for me when it comes time to choose a religious label, and I sometimes claim to be a Buddho-Pagan Christa-Humanist with occasional bouts of mysticism.  But usually I just say I am a theist.

But let me take a minute to tease out a discrepancy in the language.  To be fair with the definition we must be clear that the word “theist” carries two valid meanings.  First, a theist is generally understood to be anyone who uses the concept of God in their theology.  Second, and more particular, a theist is one who believes in a particular version of God: a personal God with whom one can have a personal relationship.  Traditionally, this means an anthropomorphic deity: a being with human attributes like compassion, wisdom, mercy, and love.  This is a deity who hears and answers prayers, who moves through our lives. 

Theism, as in the belief in a personal deity, is not the only version of God that is out there.  Deism, for example, is a version of theism in this more particular concept except without the part where God goes tinkering in daily affairs.  Deism posits that God created the universe and the natural laws by which it is governed and then stepped back.  Deism is the God of Intelligent Design.  Many of the founding fathers of the United States were considered Deists. 

Pantheism, on the other hand, is a version of theism that sees god as synonymous with nature.  Many evolutionary scientists will take this route to still speak of God.  Richard Dawkins, in his book The God Delusion, calls Pantheism “sexed-up atheism” which is perhaps true from a certain perspective but Dawkins has a way of wording things that make me want to argue with him, (which is what he wants because that’s how he makes his money.)  Dawkins also acknowledges Deism but dismisses it quickly as “watered-down theism” which is also true from a certain perspective.  He focuses his whole critique of theism on the supernatural deity a la the Old Testament.  But Dawkins says nothing, for example, about Process theology, Transcendentalism, Existentialism, or Deep Ecology; each of which offers a version of God that does not line up with the standard supernatural, omnipotent, anthropomorphic God of the fundamentalists. 

Last year I formed a group that functions similar to Small Group Ministry with the twist that we always focus in some way or another on the question ‘what is the movement of the Spirit in your life?’  We call it the Good God Group.  I’ve discovered there is a significant breadth in the circle.  There are many different ways to believe in God.  We have a breadth of perspectives in the room that is wonderful – we don’t all agree with each other on the nature of God and how it all works.

I had a conversation with two Christian colleagues last month in which one said: “So you’ve pretty much shifted to preaching a non-theistic message?”  “Yup.”  “Boy, I wish I could do that.”  Meanwhile I’m quietly listening to this thinking, ‘are they really talking about what I think their talking about?’  Then they start sharing biblical passages, because they are still liturgical churches.  For example, In John, chapter 4, there is that great story in which Jesus says “The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship God in spirit and in truth, for God seeks such as these to worship him.” I was in the middle of a conversation with Biblically-based, God-believing, non-theistic Christians.  Non-theistic in the sense that they don’t conceive of an anthropomorphic God, a personal deity which whom we have a relationship.

We don’t need to limit ourselves to the fundamentalist’s version of God.  Let us speak of God as a metaphor, as a symbol for the deeper quality and aspect of living.  Let us speak as the Transcendentalists do and talk about the soul of the whole, the deep power in whom we each rest and yet also which rests within each of us.  Let us speak as the Existentialists do and talk about the God beyond God, whom we call by name but can be contained by no name, which transcends all concepts – yet is as close as our own breath.  Let us speak as the Process philosophers do and talk about God as the force of love, luring us without coercion toward the good, growing with us in the ever-changing story of life.  Let us speak as the Deep Ecologists do and talk about God as the energy of life, the nested creativity at every level of the universe, the evolving wonder and mystery that undergirds all existence and hums with the rhythms of living.

Not one of these concepts of God is anthropomorphic, some speak in metaphor of human qualities such as love and power but truly they look beyond the human level of such qualities.  Not one of these concepts of God is supernatural, though argument could be made that the Transcendentalists saw nature as symbolic of the spiritual world, not the other way around.  And several of the Existentialists did see God as beyond nature as well as fully inclusive of nature – so panentheists rather than just pantheists.  But still none of them conceive of a wholly supernatural God, which is nuance to the usual argument don’t you think? 

Last week when I preached on Atheism, I invited people to raise their hands if they indentified that way. So I will ask today, how many of you use the concept of God in your theology or take the label “theist” for yourself? [Note: a little more than half-a-dozen hands went up at first service and between 12 and 16 hands for second service]

The God I love, the God I believe in is not an anthropomorphic, supernatural deity.  Perhaps I am a non-theistic theist.  I am not a theist in the sense that a theist is one who believes in a personal god with whom one can have a personal relationship.  I don’t have a personal relationship with God.  And yet I pray.  Prayer is very relational.   I suppose I see prayer as a symbolic act, sacramental in function.  I suppose most of what I can say about God is symbolic.  

Martin Buber, a Jewish existentialist, wrote:

Some would deny any legitimate use of the word God because it has been misused so much. Certainly it is the most burdened of all human words. Precisely for that reason it is the most imperishable and unavoidable.            -Martin Buber (I and Thou) 1923

I had jokingly said earlier this week that the sermon I delivered last week about atheism was supposed to turn the whole congregation into atheists and this week’s sermon was supposed to convince everyone to be theists.  It was a joke.  I realized while I was writing this sermon that the purpose of this week’s sermon is to convince myself of my theism again. 

Or, perhaps it is more accurate to say it was to help me explore the distinction of non-anthropomorphic versions of God, of non-theistic theism if you will.  I hesitate to come out and say our modern religious landscape must do away with this personal Theistic concept of God to move forward – I hesitate only because I suspect a few of you find this personal sense of God to be still precious.  Yet moving to a higher level, can we not still use this language in metaphor and symbol?  Because I have had experiences that have lead me to see the hand of God in my life, which I mean metaphorically and not literally.  But those experiences will not go away and I need some theological framework to work from. 

I have had unsettling experiences and peaceful experiences.  I have had experiences of connection and of disconnection; experiences of grace.  And I suppose I could talk about all those experiences without reference to God or without using that particular word.  Yet no other word is big enough for what I need to say.  And then there are those times when the only words that can fit what I have experienced are words like, “I felt a presence,” “I heard a voice.”  I have had experiences when I sensed myself connected with all that is; or times when I looked back on where I’d been and somehow knew that I had not been alone.  These are experiences of Spirit and grace.

This is how theology ought to work at its best.  It ought to begin from our lived experiences. We begin not with a pre-established notion of God, but with our own experiences of the holy. We all have experiences that lead us to interpretations of the world in which we live.  Our understanding of the world around us and within us has grown exponentially over the past few hundred years.  There is no reason for our understanding and interpretations of the sacred and the holy to remain locked in ideas from centuries and millennia back.  As humanity evolves, let’s allow our concepts of God evolve with us.  Let’s not keep God locked in antiquity.  Let the life-giving breath of God blow across the deep of our own hearts even today.

In a world without end,

may it be so

Faith of an Atheist

Faith of an Atheist
Rev. Douglas Taylor
February 10, 2013

It is always a bit of a risk when I am first in an interfaith setting to be honest about who we are as Unitarian Universalists.  I hope you are not surprised to learn that some religious people are unsettled or shocked to learn we have pagans and atheists here in this congregation.  It is hard for some folks to wrap their brains around the idea of having avowed atheists in the pews.

Wonderfully, the responses I have received from most interfaith settings over the years here in Binghamton have been receptive and appreciative.  I remember sitting on a panel a few years back and explaining to the audience that Unitarian Universalism is a mix of theists and atheists, pagans and seekers together on the journey.  I explained it more fully than just that, you know me, but that was the gist of if.  The Imam smiled down the line at me when it was his turn to speak and said, “I wish we could get to that level of open acceptance at the mosque, we try.”  I don’t know what in particular he was referring to, but for me the mix of theological perspectives has always been a hallmark of our community.

Atheism in particular is an asset to the mix here.  How many of you here in the room this morning identify as an atheist?  (Note: About a dozen raised their hands at first service, more than twice that number at second service.) I am a theist and as the minister I find it good ballast to have atheists in the mix each Sunday when I talk.  Atheists have a tendency to call out sloppy theology or fuzzy definitions more than the average Unitarian Universalist.  I may be projecting a bit, but I think I am more careful preacher because of my inner atheist.

An atheist buys an ancient lamp at an auction, takes it home, and begins to polish it. Suddenly, a genie appears, and says, “I’ll grant you three wishes, Master.”

The atheist says, “I wish I could believe in you.” The genie snaps his fingers, and suddenly the atheist believes in him. The atheist says, “Wow. I wish all atheists would believe this.” The genie snaps his fingers again, and suddenly atheists all over the world begin to believe in genies. “What about your third wish?” asks the genie.

“Well,” says the atheist, “I wish for a billion dollars.” The genie snaps his fingers for a third time, but nothing happens.

“What’s wrong?” asks the atheist.

The genie shrugs and says, “Just because you believe in me, doesn’t necessarily mean that I really exist.”

But beliefs are not the point for today.  My sermon is not titled “Beliefs of an Atheist.”  Beliefs are important and we will certainly be talking about beliefs, but what I want to talk more about is the Faith of an Atheist.  So I will need to spend a little time talking about what is meant by the word “Faith” in this context.

Here’s what I don’t mean: I don’t mean faith in the way Mark Twain was using it when he said “Faith is believing what you know ain’t true.”  Twain’s quip is a spin on the line from Saint Paul in the epistle to the Hebrews, chapter 11 verse 1: “Faith is the substance of things hoped for; the evidence of things not seen.”  I would consider that to be a version of faith called Blind Faith.  That is a version of faith that Atheists strongly reject, and indeed the majority of all Unitarian Universalists of whatever theological stripe also reject.

More pointedly for me, I do not see faith as synonymous with belief.  When I do use the word faith I will sometimes use it in the colloquial sense of “our faith tradition.”  More comfortable for me however is to use the word as synonymous with trust.  ‘What is your faith?’ can be restated, ‘What do you trust?’  In this sense I follow the lead of James Fowler in his developmental theory as outlined in his book Stages of Faith.

Fowler talked about the human development of faith as something separate from beliefs and a person’s religious tradition. It is helpful to see a distinction between religion as a set of answers and beliefs, and religion as an ongoing journey of deepening and maturing.  This is the distinction between beliefs and faith.  James Fowler saw it that way.  The opening pages of his book on faith development asked questions like:

What commands and receives your best time, your best energy?  What power or powers do you rely on and trust?  To what or whom are you committed in life?

From this perspective we can talk about faith not as a set of beliefs but as the way you live a life.  As Carl Sagan said, in the quote we used earlier in the service: “Atheism is an attitude, a frame of mind that looks at the world objectively, fearlessly; always trying to understand all things as a part of nature.”  Faith is not about a set of beliefs, it is the way you live your life.  If it interests you to talk about the beliefs of an atheist, we can have probably a very short conversation about that.  It would go like this: Atheists do not believe in a personal God, a deity, a supernatural power.  The end.  To go further in saying what Atheists believe I think slips into an assumption that all atheists agree, dogmatically, in certain things.  It is probably safe to say that atheists believe in the validity of science and that the natural world is the only world – there are no supernatural worlds or places like heaven and hell.  And yet, on the surface, Atheism tightly defined is simply a belief that there is not deity, no God.

But a life is not built through denial and disbelief.  Life is built in the affirmation.  And a mature atheism moves to life-affirming statements that augment the bare denial with which atheism begins.  A mature atheism will deny the existence of God not out of bitterness or resentment or anger, but through a positive commitment to truth and reality as it is experienced in all its fullness.

Let me turn now to the task of broadening our definition of Atheist – in much the way we needed to broaden the definition of faith.  If we only take the definitions of ‘atheist’ and ‘faith’ that are the basic common definitions – we can still get to some interesting places but I suspect it will only be an academic exercise in cleverness that will not actually nourish any of us this morning.  Faith, (as in what you believe,) of an atheist, (a person who does not believe in God,) is a valid perspective; but most people who stop with that definition tend to not show up at a religious community – even a Unitarian Universalist religious community.

Most of the atheists who are members and friends of this congregation do not stop simply at the denial of deity.  So let me expand the scope of our consideration.  Some atheists will also consider themselves to be Christian or Jewish or Buddhist as an augmentation or a cultural backdrop for their atheism, or they will weave back and forth with agnosticism.  A few will dabble in mysticism even.  It happens.  But from my experience, most of the atheists in our Unitarian Universalist congregations are also comfortable with the term Humanist as a defining label.

Atheism takes a stand about what is not at the center: God.  Humanism takes a stand about what is at the center: humanity.  Atheism and Humanism are often felt as two sides of the same coin.  Humanism takes a slightly different stance in terms of God.  Instead of saying bluntly, “There is not God,” Humanism declares the question of God’s existence as irrelevant.  It says: We are born, we live, and we die.  This much we know, this much we can talk about.  Curtis Reese, Unitarian minister from 1920’s and 30’s, wrote, “The Humanist regards the universe as the given and is not likely to speculate unduly on either the beginning or the end of things cosmic.”  Reese explained further “the primary concern of Humanism is human development.”  There is a great deal of suffering and injustice in the world that will not be dealt with by a ‘deus ex machine.’  Humanity has got problems, to be sure, but they are our problems.  The only way there will be change is if we do something about it.

Humanism has a ‘this world’ focus rather than a reliance on fulfillment in another world yet to come.  Humanism gave us the phrase Deeds not Creeds.  Humanism contends that while ‘man’ may not be the measure of all things (as an early philosopher claimed that we are) we certainly are the measurer of all things.  But these are all aspect of Unitarian Universalism in general.  Deep down, we Unitarian Universalists are all Religious Humanists.  It’s just that some of us also believe in God or the Goddess or an Eternal Spirit.  Unitarian Universalism has at its core a belief that every person has worth and value.  This is a very Humanist type of message.  While it would not be accurate to say Unitarian Universalism is at its core atheistic; it is accurate to say that at our enduring core we are Humanists.

Our Unitarian and Universalist forbearers from the seventeen and eighteen hundreds were quite vocal about this.  Each in their way talked about a radical perspective of human nature.  These perspectives wound their way through our history to this day.  The positions evolved but at the core there was a commitment to a radical acceptance of every person as members of the same human family without segregating anyone out as saved or unsaved, clean or defiled, saint or sinner, worthy or unworthy; all we have are human beings: blessed, whole, capable of good and evil, fully part of the evolving nature of life.

Unitarian Universalism today proudly insists that every person has inherent worth and dignity as a basic root element of their being.  Whether the source of this is due to a loving creator, freewill, evolutionary maturation, the Image of God, divine spark within, or simply the nature of all life, there is plenty of disagreement.  But the effect is the same: we believe that every person has an intrinsic dignity and worth.  We have always said this.  And this is a very basic Humanist message.

As an exemplar of Humanist thought within Unitarianism in the 1920’s Curtis Reese, whom I quoted earlier, is one among several outstanding atheist pioneers.  I particularly liked the way he articulated the human condition.  Reese viewed humans as an organic part of nature, a result of the evolutionary process.  But because humans possess self-consciousness and insight, they are not a fixed part of nature but highly plastic and flexible, with potential for development.  … Because humans have self-consciousness, they tend to separate themselves from the other forms of nature, even other animals.  Reese objected to such a tendency because it perpetuates a dualism of the spiritual versus the physical.  (Olds, Mason American religious Humanism, p113-4)

Humanism and Atheism tend to stand for a single reality without duality between physical and metaphysical or natural and supernatural.  Humanism and Atheism tend to stand for our human capacity to address the problems of humanity.  It has always bothered me the way people will assume atheists are amoral.  I don’t understand the connection.  I have never found theists to be any more or less ethical or moral than atheists in general.  Indeed, many atheists in Unitarian Universalist circles are commonly found among the leaders of various social justice activities.  I think it is a great mistake to conflate morality with a particular belief structure.  It assumes that people are good only for the reward.  Rev. Dr. Richard Gilbert, a mentor of mine, likes to say we are “good for nothing.”

Looking back at many of my sermons, I think I have a fundamental message that rings true for Humanists and atheists.  I certainly still use the language of God and theism from time to time, but more often than not I speak in terms that stretch across what many think of as a theist vs atheist divide.  I went back and checked the sermon I delivered after the shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary school, “Faith for the Hard Times.”  I mentioned God in that sermon, but only briefly to say God is not the source of suffering, if anything God is a resource amidst the suffering.  But that was not the point of the sermon.  The point of the sermon was that we all have reserves larger than we think – we all can ‘light the lamp anyway.  Though the oil has run out, light the lamp anyway.’  Those reserves, the capacity we each have to make it through the hard times does not need to carry a theistic or a non-theistic form.  I didn’t say that pointedly then, but such is the nature of many of my sermons.  At least I strive for that to be the case.

But all this is a bit of a tangent from the main point.  Yes Atheists and more specifically Humanists are welcome in this congregation and the Humanist theology or philosophy is even central to Unitarian Universalism … the question on the table however is ‘what is the faith of an atheist?’

To what or whom is an atheist committed in life?  That is one of Fowler’s core questions about faith.  I think it is helpful to listen to Fowler’s reframing of the concept because “faith” can be a trigger word or can carry a negative tone that is seen as unredeemable for some atheists.  So, to what or whom is an atheist committed in life?  Truth.  An atheist is certainly committed to truth.  Integrity also stands out. It’s not that atheism has the corner on these deep aspects of life, just that these are some of the central tenets for an atheist.

What commands and receives your best time, your best energy?  Many people invest a great deal of time and energy in making the world a better place.  I can witness to the Atheists and Humanists in this congregation who have a passion for environmental justice, racial justice, peace, equal rights and countless other issues or causes that have their root in the idea of building a better world.  Justice and fairness are key values for many atheists.  Of course atheism is not a one-size-fits-all concept with a creed of values all must follow.  For some atheists ‘kindness’ is the highest value or maybe its ‘beauty.’  At the end of the day, you must find your own answers to this question.  What power or powers do you, as an atheist, rely upon and trust?  What is at the core for you?  Seek out and name the center of your trust and faith.  Don’t dwell in the denial, though that is a key element of the truth you know.  Seek deeper to what sustains you and urges you onward.

In a world without end,

may it be so.