Grace and Expectation
Rev. Douglas Taylor
December 6, 2015
I built a small door this week. Delightfully, it is not what you would expect from a door – it is too small to walk through. But it is exactly the size I need for the show. My wife and I are doing a radio play with our homeschool theater group. Usually we do Shakespeare but for a break, we decided to do radio plays. We’re doing A Christmas Carol right now. It is a lot of fun and very different from our normal teaching with the kids. I mention this because Advent is a season of expectations and of expectations overturned, and all radio plays have an element of that.
Because a live radio play is heard rather than seen, the key to a good show is a good sound effects table. If the script says someone is walking down the street, my job as the director is not to teach the actor to walk across the stage in a way that helps the audience believe it is actually a street – the real magic is in the sound. So the actor says his or her lines but the sound effects person uses a pair of hard-sole shoes on plywood to make the sound of someone walking down the street. Watching a live radio play is an interesting ‘behind-the-scenes’ experience where you see all the sound effects being created – that’s part of the show.
I agreed to make one of those radio-play doors for the sound-effects. The door doesn’t need to look like a door; it only needs to sound like a door. Thus, a radio-play door is traditionally smaller than a normal door for efficiency’s sake. The hinges and the latch set are the most important part, not the wood or the frame or the size.
Part of what we experience as the audience of a radio play is our expectations and the overturning of our expectations. We hear the door open and close, and we can close our eyes imagining the door. But then we open our eyes and look at this 36 inch tall door … it is not what we expected.
Advent is a season of expectation, but also of expectations overturned. Children make wish-lists for Christmas, they line up to sit on Santa’s lap to tell him they have been good children and what they would like to have for a present this year. Then they wait in expectation all month for the festive morning. All those presents are stacked under the Christmas tree – like Schrödinger’s boxes, they could contain anything and in the child’s imagination they do! But then we open our presents and perhaps receive something we never imagined – those are really the best. It is a disappointing holiday to only receive exactly what you asked for, to only receive what you expected.
Advent is a season of expectation, but also of expectations overturned. The Messiah was expected. That’s where this all started. People were looking for the Messiah to be born, looking with an eager expectation. But baby Jesus was not what they expected. They were looking for a powerful leader, someone with a sword and an army to break the shackle of the invading Roman forces.
In his book Zealot, Reza Aslan outlines the Messianic minutia at play in first-century Palestine, with numerous prophets rising up to claim the mantle of Messiah in an effort to rid the land of the occupying oppressors from Rome. The people expected something great to happen soon to save them.
Instead they got a baby. They got a baby who needed protecting! The young family had to flee into Egypt just after the wise men depart, according to the Matthew’s Gospel. Not much of a Messiah and savior by traditional expectations. Even if you do not believe in Jesus as the Messiah, this turn of events is still something we can marvel at and consider. And if you do believe in Jesus in this way, is this not the quintessential aspect of it all? It is a season of expectations and of expectations overturned. Ann Weems says it like this in her poem, Unexpected
Even now we simply do not expect
to find a deity in a stable.
Somehow the setting is all wrong:
the swaddling clothes too plain,
the manger too common for the likes of a Savior,
the straw inelegant,
the animals, reeking and noisy,
the whole scene too ordinary for our taste.
And the cast of characters is no better.
With the possible exception of the kings,
who among them is fit for this night?
The shepherds? Certainly to crude,
the carpenter too rough,
the girl too young.
And the baby!
Whoever expected a baby?
Whoever expected the advent of God in a helpless child?
Had the Messiah arrived in the blazing light of the glory
of a legion of angels wielding golden swords,
the whole world could have been conquered for Christ
right then and there
and we in the church—to say nothing of the world!—
wouldn’t have so much trouble today.
Even now we simply do not expect
to face the world armed with love.
There it is. Not what we expected but it’s what we have. Love. We heard the sound, turned to see – in expectation – something grand. Instead, like finding only a 36 inch prop-door, we turn and see only a baby born in a stable. Perhaps it is enough.
The story of Jesus has grown and matured and even mutated into the various version of Christianity we know today. And we have many cultural and personal expectations of the season as well – all jangling for attention and priority. And some of these new modern expectations are also regularly overturned – so that part still happens. And the experience is not just for Christmas; Hanukkah celebrates the story of the light lasting longer than expected. This is the season of expectation and of expectations overturned.
Do you have holiday traditions that include a significant amount of expectations? That seems to be how it is for many of us. We are expected to experience the holiday with joy and generosity of spirit. We are expected to reenact happy family memories, to follow the script of whatever traditions we have in our circles. Perhaps it would be simple to just walk away from all the expectations we do not want to deal with, but we love our friends and our family so we go through the steps and act the part.
One of the happy little traditions my family has developed is that after we have cut down our Christmas tree and set it up inside, we sort through the box of favorite ornaments exclaiming over them, arguing about where they fit best on the tree, and finally we settle into a calm silence as we regard this year’s tree. Eggnog is required at this point in the ritual. Sometimes a fire is in the fireplace and suitable Christmas carols are playing. Actually, all that is just filler.
The real event is when we gather around the tree to sing Silent Night together. Slowly, with feeling. It was spontaneous the first time. The second year, someone started it and everyone smiled, remembering, and joined in. By the third year, it was expected. Some years it has been a little forced. This year, I realized that over the years this moment singing Silent Night with my family either brings tears to my eyes, or laughter. It is hard to know which when we begin, but I’ve learned to expect something.
But it’s the part in the middle there, after it was organic and natural but before it became a point of grace, in which the tradition felt forced. That’s the hard part of this season of expectation. We are expected to be joyful and happy and cozy with our loved ones when the reality of our emotional lives and of our relationships and of life in general is full of unpredictable ups and downs. The season of Advent in particular is in the darkest time of the year, days are getting shorter and colder, the earth around us is shutting down and it is natural for us to feel a little tug in that direction as well. Then Advent comes along with Christmas and other festive holidays waiting just in the wings for their scene and we feel the expectation to buck the natural shut-down that is happening in nature. We feel the expectation to rouse our cold spirits to make merry and bring cheer to the house.
Advent is the season of expectations. But it is also the season of expectations overturned. In this month’s Soul Matters packet in the topic of Expectation, Artist Michael Leunig highlights this point in this prayer:
God give us rain when we expect sun.
Give us music when we expect trouble.
Give us tears when we expect breakfast.
Give us dreams when we expect a storm.
Give us a stray dog when we expect congratulations.
God play with us, turn us sideways and around.
This is a frightening prayer. Think about what you expect for this season, or any season for that matter. Consider what you hope for, what you long for, and how would it be for you to receive the unexpected instead? I think Leunig’s prayer is really a prayer for grace. When we let go of the expectations that are not being met, we can experience what is actually happening instead.
This point is actually illustrated beautifully by the analogy of skydiving. (I’ll bet you didn’t expect skydiving to come up today.) No, I’ve never been skydiving and I have no wish to ever go skydiving. But I like analogies. Doug Powell is a Unitarian Universalist who does skydiving and wrote a great article about what it is like. I found it posted on one of my colleague’s website (also discovered through the Soul Matters packet this month.) Doug Powell wrote about the experience of being a veteran jumper with rookie jumpers along for the ride, about the buzz and excitement as the plane gets into position, about the door sliding open and look people get on their faces at that point. But the key piece of the article, for us today, is how he describes what happens next.
Then the person in front of you ‘vanishes’, and it’s suddenly your turn. You enter the doorway, looking out into the incomprehensible vastness of the open sky, the wind buffeting you, and the ground looking less “high up”, and more simply unreal. “One!”, “Two!”, ”Three!”… and you are in freefall. Irrevocably committed.
There are a lot of things you could do at this point: Scream, howl, claw at the air, flap your arms, maybe turn to cast a longing glance back to the airplane. Sadly, none of them will really change your situation. Scream all you want. The wind will only dry out your mouth.
As it turns out, the most aerodynamically stable body position in freefall is achieved through… relaxing. When you truly relax in freefall, your body naturally assumes the shape of an arch. Until you arch, you are unstable, control is difficult. After arching, it becomes stable, even graceful.
So, first, I have some expectations that are not going to be satisfied by relaxing. In the skydiving scenario, I expect to have a functional parachute. I expect to have jumped from the plane rather than to have been pushed. This level of expectation being overturned is not an opportunity for grace or an exercise in letting go. But once those big ones are in place then we can look at this analogy and learn much from it.
When your expectations are overturned, you can “scream, howl, claw at the air, and flap your arms.” In some situations, these are perfectly valid options. But you can also learn to relax. Your plans got you this far before they fell apart. Your hopes for the day or for the week are thwarted by life (or God, or random chance, or whatever) and now what!?! Or maybe you decided to leave the scripted expectations other had of you! But the point is we are now in the realm of overturned expectations.
We have “music when we expect trouble … tears when we expect breakfast.” We have ruined meals, strained relationships, and long rides home at night. We have broken dishes, broken traditions, and broken hearts. We have a baby when we expected a king. We have lights and tinsel when we were expecting long cold nights. We have kindness, compassion, and generosity left unused because we can’t figure out how to offer these gifts in the place we find ourselves sometimes. We have all kinds of things that push us to the edge and beyond. And we can “scream, howl, claw at the air, and flap [our] arms.” Or we can relax and arch, regain stability and perhaps even gracefulness.
In relaxing, you will perhaps discover a way through the unexpected territory you could not see before. Your expectations got you this far, to this point, but they are of no use. Relax and take in the experience. Because the beautiful secret of Advent is that even though the door is far smaller than you expected, it is still amazing what can fit through. Part of the beauty of Advent is that it is a season of expectation and one of the expectations is that your expectations will be overturned. For in so doing, there is room for music and tears you did not even know you needed.
In a world without end
May it be so.
Letting Ego Go
Rev. Douglas Taylor
October 18, 2015
Once, two friends named Mussa and Nagib made a journey through the mountains of Persia on camel back. They came after a time to a place where a stream flowed by a sandy bank and trees gave shade. There they had a discussion, which turned into an argument. Nagib grew angry, and for the first time ever, he slapped Mussa across the face.
Mussa was stunned. He felt angry. He wanted to slap Nagib back. But then he thought, “I cannot be too mad at my friend because I could have done the same thing. We are alike, and I care about him, and I don’t want to fight with him anymore.” So he walked over to the trees instead and picked up a stick. With the stick he wrote in the sand, “Today my best friend slapped me.”
Then he and his friend stood in silence and watched as the desert wind blew the words in the sand away.
By the time the writing had disappeared Nagib had said that he was sorry. The friends got back on their camels and rode to their destination in a distant city. On their trip back through the mountain pass they stopped again at the same river.
This time the two friends decided to take a swim. Since their first visit, the rains had made the current stronger and river much deeper. Mussa, the friend who had been slapped, stepped into the water first. Right away, he slipped on a rock, was dragged under by the current, and began to drown. Nagib jumped in without a second thought and pulled his friend to safety.
The two friends again sat in silence for some time until Mussa had regained his breath. Then he rose and went to his saddlebags. There he found a carving knife. This time he went to a rock near the river. Into the rock he carved these words, “Today my best friend saved me.”
Again the two friends sat in silence. Finally Nagib spoke, “My friend, after I hurt you, you wrote the words in sand. Now after I saved you, you wrote the words in stone, why?”
Mussa replied, “When someone hurts us, we should write it down in sand where the winds of forgiveness can erase it away. This way our hearts are free from bitterness, and we can renew our friendships. But, when someone does something kind for us, we must engrave it in stone and in our hearts so that we will never forget.”
“Thank you my friend” said Nagib. “I am very grateful for our friendship. I don’t ever want to hurt you again.” The two friends embraced and continued on their journey together.
[MUSSA AND NAGIB; Adapted from a story by Malba Tahan (pen name for Julio Cesar de Mello e Souza, 1895-1975), a mathematician from Brazil who also wrote The Man Who Counted (Editoria Record, 2001), which was first published in Brazil in 1949.]
So, how is it with you? Do you write your complaints and your hurts in stone or in sand? Do you keep the kindnesses offered in a lasting manner or do they soon blow away from memory on the wind? What do you let go? What do you hold fast? What the hurts and the kindnesses you give to others? Which of those do you write in stone and which do you release? Rev. Forrest Church once said, “When cast into the depths, to survive, we must first let go of things that will not save us. Then we must reach out for the things that can.”
Letting go is a hard lesson and we often come to it late. When we are anxious or troubled, when life around us is falling apart, it is near instinctive for us to cling to and hold tighter all the things we thing we need. What have you wrapped your “grasping fingers and anxious hearts around” (that phrase from the Soul Matters introduction for this month)? Success, safety, or society’s standards of beauty? I don’t know what it is that will ring true for you. Perhaps you’ll need to learn to let go of your desire to be accepted, or your perfectionism. Is it your hurts or your hopes you would do well to let go? Maybe for you it is just stuff, things, material possessions that have taken over the center of your living.
Me? I’ve worked at letting go of things through my life. At some point early in my life I let go of judgement – at least of judging others … I’m still working on not judging myself. As a young adult I had to learn to let go of the sad and sullen self I used to be. The stakes had been pretty high on that one, thankfully I figured it out. Much of the work is to figure out what to reach for instead, as Forest Church mentions. Do you hate your body? Try feeding yourself a new message about beauty. Are you stuck on the rat-race for success? Try developing other metrics of value. Do you complain too much? Try gratitude. “When cast into the depths, to survive, we must first let go of things that will not save us. Then we must reach out for the things that can.” (Church)
Really, what I need to keep returning to, what I need constantly to learn to let go of is my ego. Again and again, it is ego. And I do not refer here to Freud’s definition of ego – the mediator between the id (our base desires) and the superego (society’s idealistic desires). Instead I mean ego as the “look at me” layer of my identity, the persona that is self-focused and anxious, the insecure part of me that will never measure up and cannot settle down. In the story of Mussa and Nagib, everything hinges on how Mussa’s response is not a self-focused ego response; instead it is a considered response in recognition of the friendship and up-and-down realities of relationships.
In the book The Curse of the Self by Duke University Professor of Psychology, Mark Leary, there is a delightful example of this anxious self-preoccupation by the ego.
Imagine that you are attending the first day of a new class or the first meeting of a new group. To begin, the teacher or group leader asks each person to introduce and say a few things about him- or herself. As members of the group start introducing themselves, your thoughts turn to what you will say when your turn arrives. Your self shifts into high gear as you consider various possibilities, imagine how the other people might react to each disclosure, finally settle on what you will say, then rehearse in your mind how you will say it. Although you have now prepared for your introduction, your self has distracted you from what the other people in the group have been saying. As a result, you have no idea who these people are or what they just said about themselves. This phenomenon is called the next-in-line effect because people are least likely to remember what the person who immediately preceded them said because that was when they were most self-absorbed. (p32)
In our reading this morning, also from Leary’s book, we heard a bit about the Buddhist response to ego. “People suffer, in part, because they cling to the idea that they have a self that must be protected and preserved.” Buddhism teaches people to let go of their attachments, of ego, of self. And while letting go of attachments is a central element in Buddhism, Buddhism is by no means alone among the religious traditions to speak against ego as the great burden of spiritual living.
In the Gospel of Luke (18:18-30) Jesus exhorts a young nobleman to ‘sell all you have, distribute it to the poor, and come follow me.’ Let go of your worldly attachments and follow me. There’s an old spiritual that talks about how “I’m gonna lay down this world and shoulder up my cross.” Let go of the world and follow Jesus. But Jesus himself is shown having trouble with this. In all three synoptic gospels, just before being arrested Jesus goes to the garden of Gethsemane to pray saying ‘remove this cup from me, yet not my will but thy will be done.’ In Matthew’s Gospel he even says this prayer three times. Jesus has a hard time letting go, yet surrendering my own will to the will of God is lifted up as a good and great virtue!
Now, this is a little different from the way the Buddhists speak of ego and letting go. A Buddhist does not surrender to the will of Buddha in any way comparable to how a Christian surrenders to the will of God. Instead they follow the eightfold path that they may be free of attachments. I can learn to let go my attachments; we can give up our clinging to things and expectations and outcomes, because that clinging is the root of suffering – that is what Buddhism offers its adherents.
Perhaps this is a distinction that resonates as one of the basic differences between eastern and western religions. When we look, for example, at another western religion, we see that the word “Islam” in Arabic is literally translated as ‘submission’ and is meant as submission to God. In western religious traditions the idea of letting go is wholly caught up in the idea of turning over control of my own will to the will of God. The point is to better control my ego by letting it go.
Yet in the eastern religions, while letting go of ego is still important, it is not accomplished by turning over control. Letting go is done by quieting the ego, by calming it. In the Tao Te Ching it is written, “By letting it go it all gets done. The world is won by those who let it go. But when you try and try, the world is beyond the winning.” ~ Lao Tzu
It is perhaps too much of a simplification to say that the west sees ‘letting go’ as synonymous with the secular war-related concept of giving your freedom up to another’s will, to be captured and constrained. And the east sees letting go as the opposite: as an act of liberation, of freeing oneself from constrains.
In both concepts however, we are talking about letting ego go that we might have life and have it more abundantly. Whether I am giving over my will to the will of something greater or I am liberating myself from my attachments, what I am letting go is my ego.
Now, this may not be what you need to be letting go. I know a good many people whose work is better described as needing to build up a strong ego, to let go of self-depreciation. Rather than thinking too much of yourself, you are thinking too little. Balance is key. And it is unfortunate that religions spend so much time telling us to let go of our egos. I need that message, but not everyone does.
Perhaps, as I wind my way to the end of this sermon, the point I am trying to make is for you to uncover what you do need to let go. It might be ego; it might be stuff, or anger, shame, a grudge, or the fear failure. I don’t know. Spend some time in self-reflection. Notice what you cling to, notice what feels threatened when you consider letting it go. It is not easy.
“What’s hard,” Charles Darling says in the poem I used for our meditation, (Skipping a Stone on Water,) “What’s hard … is not so much the proper match.” The hard part is not figuring out what you need to let go. All that takes is honestly. “What’s hard is what’s unreachable: reckoning that point at which you must release.”
But here is the next part – the piece that is hard to see when you are learning to hard work of letting go. The next part is that when we let go, we must at the same time reach out. “When cast into the depths, to survive, we must first let go of things that will not save us. Then we must reach out for the things that can.” Let go of ego, reach out for service. Let go of stuff, reach out for experiences. Let go of suffering, reach out for gratitude. And really, let go of nearly anything, reach out for gratitude! Letting go is hard, but by doing so we become open for so much more than before.
In a world without end, may it be so.
A New Way of Knowing God
Rev. Douglas Taylor
August 30, 2015
I was splitting wood yesterday. I had several trees taken down last year that I had cut and stacked for the winter. Now, I need to split the wood and restack it so I can use it in the fireplace this coming winter. As I am swinging my ax, I’m also thinking about my sermon. I’m sure that doesn’t surprise you. Perhaps you can even guess the insight I uncovered.
There were times when my ax would come down on the wood and it would thunk into the log a few times before a blow would split it. And then it would usually only split it some of the way or most of the way, and I would have to set it up and hit it again. Other times my ax would come down and, on the first blow, split the log easily. The difference was mostly about me, not the log. If I hit the log right, along the grain, the log was ready to split.
This is not a new insight. Any good Buddhist text will use an analogy like this, telling you about archery or juggling or chopping wood. Look at everything and nothing, aim for the follow-through rather than the exact point on top, be in harmony with the target, take a steady breath before acting – really, take you breath, no one else can take it for you … well, until you fall in love or experience some other absolutely breath-taking moment. But we’re not falling in love just here; we’re just chopping wood – so take your own breath. And notice the grain.
If the ax hits the log on the grain, the log will split with ease. The outcome I am wanting fits with what the log is ready to do. This is similar to what is meant with idea of God luring us toward the good. Like pancakes on the table calling us to rise from bed and begin the day. In Process Theology, God is not all powerful. Instead of making things happen or not happen, God’s power is purely the power of luring us toward the good, toward justice, toward harmony. Process theologian David Stowe says, “God is a dynamic presence, active everywhere in the world.” (Creative Transformation Vol. 9:3, p21) Or as Daniel Day Williams says, using the word ‘spirit’ instead of ‘god,’ “The Spirit is not a static ideal but a creative power which participates in the life it informs.” (The Spirit and the Forms of Love, p4)
This is how I began to understand Process Theology, through spiritual experience rather than the logic of science or theology. Don’t get me wrong, I love science and theology. I find it helpful when presenting the idea to others to start with the science of Quantum theory which is where Whitehead started. And I enjoy unpacking Hartshorne’s deconstruction of the Theodicy problem in classic monotheistic theology. The paths paved by quantum science and thorough critique of classic Christian theology are solid ways to understand Process Theology. But really it is the spirituality of process theology that hooked me. It has been the experiences I have of Spirit and grace and the lure toward the good that have drawn me in.
Briefly, in case you are wondering, the scientific path I mention is this: Process Theology arises from Alfred North Whitehead’s response to Einstein and quantum physics. In quantum physics we see that everything is in motion. Atoms, for example, are not simply little static building blocks. They have sub-parts, and those parts are spinning and vibrating and changing. Even to talk about electrons having an orbit around the nucleus is inaccurate – instead scientists speak of the ‘electron field’ that defines where the electrons have been and probably will be. In other words, an electron is best defined as an event in which something is happening. Whitehead said, in essence, if it is true for the physical world, it will be true for the metaphysical world as well. If the universe is dynamic then so is God. I find this an elegant argument.
Likewise, you can learn about Process Theology from Charles Hartshorne’s heresy. The Theodicy problem of classic Christianity says God is all powerful, and God is all loving, yet evil and suffering exist. This creates a logical puzzle. Why is there suffering if God cares about us and has the power to stop it? Hartshorne refuses this puzzle by saying God is not all powerful. God’s power is not coercive, but persuasive. God can’t stop suffering or evil on God’s own. But God is a resource to us so we can be God’s hands and God’s heart in the world. God’s power is not the power that can stop bad things from happening. Instead God’s power is in the lure toward the good, drawing people like you and me to act in ways that bring more wholeness and harmony to the world. Again, an elegant argument.
And I understand these scientific concepts (more or less) and believe in these theological ideas; but in truth, I was not won over by these arguments. Originally, I was drawn in by the spirituality of Process Theology. It is like that story of the humming planet.
I told this story for the children a number of years back now, maybe it’s time to do it again … Anyway, this is by UU Storyteller Joshua Searle-White: The Humming Planet. A girl is travelling around the universe in her spaceship and gets lost. She lands on a strange planet to get directions. She discovers that everything on the planet hums, or more accurately everything hums in response to the every other thing. She discovers that she is humming, her body is humming. So when she looks closer at a flower, she and the flower hum louder together. The humming is a wonderful feeling in her.
When she walks into town, people are smiling and nodding to her, and all the while the hum is steady and strong and good. She turns to ask someone how to find a star map and the first person she approaches is a shock to her. The man’s face is discolored and scarred. He is hard to look at. Though he smiles at her as she comes close, his scars look painful and it scares her. Instead of asking him for directions, she looks way and walks past him looking for someone else to approach. But when she does that, the humming fades. Within seconds it is like an aching absence.
So she takes a deep breath, turns back to the scarred man and looks him in the eye; the humming inside and around her resumes. She asks where she can find a star chart, with a smile he tells her. She thanks him and goes to find the chart, elated with the humming. She figures out where she is, gets back in her spaceship and heads back home.
Part of the lesson is about the interchange between us and between all things. Another part of the lesson is about how your spiritual life is not just about the happy, peaceful moments on the mountain top. It is not a spirituality aiming for inner peace. Creative interchange may challenge you. The interactions that matter most, the lure and creative interchanges, have more to do with compassion in the face of suffering than bliss and an escape from difficulty.
This is why the God described in Process Theology, is a God of compassion and a God of Justice. Because if something is not right – and I am in tune with the holy – I will feel that it is off. The humming will fade, if you will. The ax will hit the log again and again ineffectively.
It is a new way of knowing God, based not on seeing a deity that is cast in the image of humanity; rather God is the spirit of creativity and harmony. It is the event of interchange between me and the log or my friend or my community. A creative interchange is one in which I welcome in a little of you into my understanding of me. Our interconnectedness is not the event; it is what makes an interchange possible. And God is the lure for the event to unfold toward greater harmony and goodness.
The trouble with such a perspective, however, is that the word God already means something particular to most people in our western culture. Now, there is a strong humanistic strained in Process Theology. Process Naturalism acknowledges the interconnectedness of the universe, the emphasis on events over material substances as the base of reality, and the primacy of free will. They don’t talk about a lure toward goodness so much as the recognition that harmony and beauty are key aspects of goodness. And then there are those in Process Naturalism who will use the word God for poetic purposes. Process thought is a pluralistic perspective that is not a single uniform way of looking at reality – it has common themes but still variety.
But for many, Process Theology is a way to continue to believe in God by allowing the definition of the word to evolve. The classic monotheistic perspective is not the only option. In classical theism, we talk about God as a separate and wholly other entity from the Universe. God existed before the universe, created the universe, and remains outside, beyond, unaffected, discrete from everything else that exists. The driving characteristic of classical theism is there is no overlap between creator and creation.
To get to the version that Process Theology offers, we need to first pass through the concept of Pantheism. Pantheism takes the two concepts, God and the Universe, and names them synonymous. If you can picture two circles, one labeled “God” and the other labeled “the Universe,” Pantheism would have a single circle labeled “God = the Universe.”
From there we construct a third picture for Panentheism which says that God is the whole Universe as well as more. Picture a circle within another circle where the first circle is labeled “the Universe” and the second circle around it is labeled “God.” The sum is more than the total of the parts. Over our heads, but also in our hearts, there must be a God somewhere.
Panentheism is a common perspective for Unitarian Universalists who identify as theists. Emerson’s Transcendentalism and Process Theology and other contemporary perspectives fit within the general concept of Panentheism. It includes nature and humanity as participants in all that is holy, but allows for a ‘something more.’
But there’s more. To really draw the circles for a Process Theology version of Panentheism, we first have to change the label of ‘the universe’ and of ‘God.’ While it may seem like the big radical claim of Process Theology is a statement about God, it is actually a statement of cosmology. What if ‘the universe’ is not made up of things and materials, but events and the experiences of becoming?
The log I am about to split is a series of events from seed through tree to, in this case, log into split firewood and on into ashes and stardust to feed another seed. When I swing the ax, I am seeing both the log that is and the split firewood that will be. Instead of the log as a static thing, it is the event over time which serves as the ‘building blocks’ of reality and ‘all that is.’ The interaction between things over time is the defining aspect of reality more than the things themselves as such.
So, expand that concept from logs and firewood out to the whole universe. The large circle in Panentheism gets relabeled as ‘creativity’ rather than ‘God.’ The Whole to which process theology points is the dynamic interchange of creativity, the process unfolding and becoming, the possibilities and actualities as well as the histories of all that was, is and yet shall be.
But where is God in that picture? God is in the midst of the interchange, God is that aspect of the event luring us toward harmony and goodness. God is Omnipresent – in everything and every event. One theologian, Marjorie Suchocki, puts it like this: “Receiving the world, God fashions for it, in its next moment of becoming, an aim that will lure it toward harmony.” (God, Christ, Church, p 222) Within each moment of event, God offers the lure toward the good. “God works with what is, in order to lead the world toward what can be.” (Ibid p206)
This leads to a version of God that has unchanging aspects – goodness and love – as well as a nature subject to change because God is in the interchange. One of the old biblical phrases says it is in God that we live, and move, and have our being. And Process Theology affirms that but also insists that it is in the world and in humanity that God lives, and moves, and has God’s being. Omni-present rather than Omni-potent! Thus as we grow and change, so does God.
Change and connection are the strongest words in this theology. So, whether I am wrestling with climate change issues or a loved one with cancer, I strive to stay connected with our earth or with my loved one, to stay connected and let what is happening affect me so I can be the hands and the heart of a God who longs for the good to be more manifest among us.
When we are struggling with the Black Lives Matter movement, I am compelled by my spirit to listen to the voices in the movement, the voices of counter-movements that challenge me, and the voices of those along the sidelines anxious to not wade in too far. But I am obligated by the Spirit to not only listen. I must also heed the lure toward harmony and goodness. So, with compassion, I speak out in favor of the Black Lives Matter movement because that is where the creative interchange has lead me. Change and connection are the watch words of a Process Spirituality.
The God I love is not a God of power. God is the Spirit that lures us toward our best selves and a more harmonious would. But it will never be done. It is always changing and unfolding anew. Listen for the humming, seek to interact creatively with others, learn to hear the tug drawing you toward the good. Notice the grain. Take your breath. But don’t just commune with the beauty of it all, when it is time we must also act. Swing the ax to make the firewood, touch the hand to show another they are not alone, speak up for what is right but use compassion rather than force, and listen for the hum calling you toward home.
In a world without end
May it be so.
Learn the Rhythm
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Recently I stopped in to visit our CUUPS group as it reforms. CUUPS is an acronym for Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans. It is a national organization with many chapters. Many UU congregations are home to these groups of people who find their spirituality well fed at the confluence of Paganism and Unitarian Universalism.
Paganism and other earth-centered traditions were welcomed into our official “UU Principles and Purposes” in the early 1990’s as the sixth source of our living tradition: “Spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.” My minister when I was a child was Dick Gilbert, a UU Humanist. Yet he has said:
There is something of the pagan is us all – something that responds to the great spinning Earth that calls us to worship daily, that fills our soul, that heals our spirit, that enables us to greet the new day and the new season not with dread but with anticipation.
When I visited our CUUPS group earlier this month, they were talking informally after their meal about the different practices they each do. They talked about various rituals and favorite seasonal practices. I chimed into the conversation as well. I admitted that my practice is undisciplined and hopelessly sporadic. I talked about how I can do a daily sitting meditation for a while until I forget to do it and then it slips away. I walk the labyrinth and do chanting and light lots of candles but over time all these things come and go, nothing staying as ‘my spiritual practice.’ But what I would say I have learned from my interaction with Paganism is that my practices need to be embodied. And all of these things I have done over the years have been embodied.
I know enough about myself to know I am very much enamored with the world of thought. I revel in frameworks and delight at theological concepts. I have been tempted on a regular basis to simply reside in the world of thought and abstract notions. I know this about myself. I know and am wary. I have learned that my thinking is clearer, my concepts and frameworks and theology more accurate and useful, if I also stay grounded. The common thread of all my various undisciplined spiritual practices of the years is that they have been embodied practices.
My colleague Kathleen Rolenz says much the same when reflecting on how we access the deepest mysteries of life:
Whether we are digging a garden, or watching a lightning storm, or giving birth to a child, we come to know the mystery of life in our bodies in ways that words can evoke but never capture. (And she goes on to say,) Through embodying and naming the spirits of the world, we recognize and respect their presence, and honor their place in the changing seasons of our lives. (Sources of our Faith, 126)
Studies show we are more likely to act our ways into new modes of thinking that we are to think our way into new modes of acting. This is the root of Behavioral Therapy. And in many ways, this is the root of having a spiritual practice. When you keep acting in a certain way – sitting intentionally with silence, saying ‘thank you’, walking a labyrinth, working with prayer beads – these actions shape you.
The biggest lesson I have found through my interactions with earth-centered spirituality is in learning to listen to the rhythms of the earth and of my spirit. The earth moves through the cycle of a day, repeating it over and over – yet each day is different. The earth moves through the cycles of the seasons, repeating them over and over – yet each year is new. Starhawk calls it a Spiral Dance. We travel the circles of life but each trip around we are in a different place. In like manner, our spirits move through a rhythm we can learn.
Pat Montley, a UU Pagan from Baltimore and author of the litany we read earlier this morning, says this about the rhythm:
The wheel of the year turns. Seasons change. Darkness gives way to light, which wanes into darkness. Birth and death and birth and death and birth. Each has its season, and each season is a necessary part of the whole. It is the way of nature. Let us embrace it with faith.
While theologians and religious scholars tend to speak about the great search meaning, there is something more basic behind it all. Really what we seek is the richness and fullness of living – the experiences of being alive. We then aim to understand those experiences through beliefs and theology and theories. But really, what people seek is aliveness; experiences that help us feel alive.
The earth itself shows us the ebb and flow changes that constitute the rhythms of living. Our spirits feel a rhythm too and we can learn of it through practices that lead us to the have more experiences. Our shared conversations and thoughts about the practices and experiences are not what make life. Life is made in the living of it. You need not be a neo-pagan or believe in a pantheon to learn the rhythm. We need only seek to practice living, act on our searching and yearning with rituals or practices or actions that lead us to become the people we long to be. And in so doing, learn the rhythms, heal our spirits, and make the world more whole.
Margot Adler, a Wiccan priestess and Unitarian Universalist would tell people that her Wiccan practice feeds her need for ritual and movement and mystery while her Unitarian Universalism nourishes the side of her spirit that required rational thought and grounded activism. Not that the two sides of her spiritual needs were met exclusively out of her two spiritual communities, there was, she admitted a good and growing amount of overlap.
Of the interaction and impact of paganism on Unitarian Universalism, Adler said, “The Pagan community has brought UUism the joy of ceremony, and a lot of creative and artistic ability that will leave the denomination with a richer liturgy and a bit more juice and mystery.”
So lean into a liturgy, try a particular practice, take the ceremony seriously. These things are not the point, but they give you experiences of mystery and spirit which is the point. Learn the rhythms of your spirit through the embodied practices of your daily living. And perhaps that creative expression will lead, as Adler suggests, to more juice and mystery!
In a world without end,
may it be so.