Living in Liminal Times

Rev. Tina Cansler Clark – July 8, 2012

Opening Words

From Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

“Who are you?” said the caterpillar…

“I –I hardly know, Sir, just at present,” Alice responded rather shyly, “at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”

 

Homily

Since my last sermon was about coping with difficult, painful change in our lives—and was almost
immediately followed by the life changing event of a house fire, I thought I would talk today about
winning the lottery—hitting the BIG jackpot—just to see if that might happen to me next week!

Last time I was in this pulpit was April 29. My sermon title was “The Times, They Are A’
Changing,” and I talked about the opportunities that we are offered in the chaos of change. That
was Sunday.

A mere 56 hours later—on Tuesday—after buying a sleeper sofa and having dinner with my
mom, I went home, walked in my front door and discovered a heavy, hazy fog hanging in my
living room. It was so strange looking, that haze. At first, I had no idea what it was—then I
smelled it! It was smoke and I realized there was a terrible fire somewhere in my house.

My first thought was “It’s the laundry room! The dryer must be on fire!” I started toward the
laundry room and then remembered our dogs in Nikki’s room, and knew I needed to get them out
first. I went to Nik’s door, yelled for the dogs and tried to open the door. I couldn’t even open it
enough to get my fingers in the door. I knew it had to be the body of my beautiful 10-year-old
Golden Retriever blocking the door. I frantically called 911, told them I had a house fire and that
my dogs were inside. The firemen were there in less than 4 minutes, but our sweet Marley and
Simon were already dead.

Two hours later, the fire was completely extinguished and most of the firemen were gone. I
looked at one of the firemen and said, “What do I do tomorrow morning? I don’t even know what
to do now.” His answer to me was “When you wake up in the morning, call your insurance
agent—they will tell you what to do.” When we finally got to my mom’s house about 11:30 that
night, Nik looked at me and said, “Mom, I don’t even have any underwear!” She’d been
swimming with friends and came home in her swimsuit. Everything she owned was gone.

On Tuesday, May 1 at 7:31 pm—I know because I pulled up in the driveway and looked at the
clock in my car and realized I was 30 minutes late for feeding the dogs their dinner—56 hours
after delivering a sermon on the chaos of change– I found myself trying to hold on as the tornadic
winds of change about which I spoke on that Sunday blew my way.

The fire not only killed our dogs, but totally destroyed Nikki’s room and all of her possessions. We
also had to replace all of our upholstered furniture, mattresses and pillows and the entire interior
of the house had to be washed down, painted with a coat of Kilz, repainted and floors redone due
to smoke and soot damage. Nikki’s room had to be stripped down to the studs and completely
rebuilt. We were out of the house for almost 2 months.

I’m happy to tell you that we just moved back home 3 days ago. We aren’t yet settled, but we are
in. I am looking very forward to having Beth come and offer a Blessing on our repaired home and
Nikki and I are so happy to be home.

It was this experience that compelled me to write an epilogue to the April 29th sermon. I wanted to share some of my feelings, thoughts and experiences related to the fire, but I also wanted to
weave my experience of huge change and transition into the changes facing our own High Street
community. Even though the fire brought chaos, loss and disorientation to our lives, it also
brought many gifts of insight and opportunities for growth—gifts that can only be received in times
of transition and liminatlity.

In April, I talked about Liminal Time. The concept of liminal time was developed by a Scottish
anthropologist named Victor Turner in the mid to late 20th century. His work explored the
importance of rituals in the social processes of different cultures and he spent a great deal of time
with the Ndembu people of what is today Zambia. . His original thinking about ritual grew out of
his interaction with the Ndembu, although he later expanded his ideas of ritual process to other
indigenous cultures, modern and ancient, and to western industrialized culture as well.

Turner said that liminal time is that time “betwixt and between”—a time that is fraught with
danger, but also rich with opportunities. Let me share with you some of how I spent my recent
liminal time.

First, I was impatient. I wanted to skip right over the time-consuming reconstruction process and
get back to my wonderful home. I struggled with what felt like a snail’s pace of the reconstruction.

I went to the house every day and would despair on the days when there were no workers there.

I wanted to completely forget that we ever had a fire—just plow right through and move on. I
resisted being where I was called to be. I didn’t want to deal with the grief after the fire—which is
a funny thing because in my work as a hospice chaplain, I spend LOTS of time telling people to
with their losses—to be patient with their grief.

On days when I would feel particularly impatient, I would work in my newly planted flower garden,
nurturing my plants and watching them grow and flourish. I spent time taking care of my beehives
and harvesting lots of honey. And I realized that I was able to do all that because I had the gift of
time—I wasn’t spending time having to clean a house, or buy groceries or any of the other daily
tasks of home life. I didn’t have to hurry through my gardening or beekeeping—I could dawdle
and linger on the tasks I loved without neglecting others.

Another of the gifts of my liminal time was the gift of LOVE, LOVE, LOVE. The kindness,
concern, and generosity of my neighbors, coworkers and High Street friends was overwhelming
and humbling. I had friends sit with me during the fire, my neighbors held a cookout on our behalf,
so many cards and letters came with gifts for Nikki and me, beloved friends brought gifts. I don’t
think I have ever so deeply appreciated the words, “We’re holding you in the Light,” or “I’m
praying for you,” or “I’m so sorry that this happened,” or “I have some clothes that Nikki can
wear.” We were surrounded by loving arms that held us and loved us. I developed a much
deeper sense of connectedness with my neighbors, my friends here at High Street and my
coworkers. The experience of being so very loved was a transcendent one—it centered me and
brought me back to my Center and into a sense of the presence of Holiness.

During the weeks following the fire, I had a couple of very interesting dreams. Let me tell you
about one of them. The first week or so after the fire, I was unable to sleep at all. I would close
my eyes and my brain would start thinking about everything that had to be done. I was
completely overwhelmed. How do I do such massive shopping at once? How do I buy new
furniture, new bedding, new clothes, new kitchen supplies all at once? The enormity of the entire
project made me feel small and inadequate. Then– I had this dream. I was standing outside in a
roaring storm—there was thunder, lightening and heavy rain—and I was holding a bucket. For
some strange reason, I’d been tasked with the job of catching all the raindrops in my bucket and
as hard as I tried, I just couldn’t do it. As I stood with my bucket, despairing, in the torrential rain, I
began to see shadowy forms through the heavy veil of rain. As I looked harder, I began to see
that the shadowy forms were all the people in my life, standing in the storm with me, holding
buckets of their own, helping me with the overwhelming task of catching the raindrops. When I
woke up the next morning and remembered the dream, I KNEW that I would find a way to get
through everything that needed to be done because of the love and support of all those who love
me, helping me hold this struggle that seemed so overwhelming when I thought I had to hold it
alone. That dream was a gift in the midst of liminal time. It said to me, “The Divine thread of Love
surrounds you and holds you and connects to all of Life.”

As I mentioned earlier, I share these stories of the weeks after the fire because I believe that they
correlate with the transition facing us here at High Street. Our liminal time may not have been
preceded by a tragedy like a fire, but we are facing a seismic change here in our church—we are
entering a liminal time that will offer challenges and struggles, but also brings gifts and
opportunities for growth if we do the work we need to do.

In April, I mentioned a fella named William Bridges who has spent his life helping people and
organizations through transitions. He is a world-renowned speaker and consultant and past
president of the Association of Humanistic Psychology. His work dovetails nicely with that of
Victor Turner’s idea of liminality.

Bridges says, “It isn’t the change that will do you in, it’s the transitions. Change is not the same as
transition. Change is situational—a new site, new boss, new policy. [And in our case, new
minister.] Transition is the psychological [and I would add ‘spiritual] process people go through to
come to terms with the new situation. Change is external. Transition is internal.”
We here at High Street have already had an external change—last Sunday was Rhett’s final
Sunday in the pulpit as our settled minister. The change has happened. NOW it’s time for us to
begin the internal process of transition. It’s time for us to do the work required of us in this time of
liminality.

Bridges says that the process of transition requires 3 tasks—that a person maneuvers each of
these three areas:

  1. Endings
  2. The Neutral Zone
  3. New Beginning, which we will only look toward today.

First, let’s start at the END.

TS Elliot said, “What we call the beginning is often the end and to make an end is to make a
beginning. The end is where we start from.”

It’s seems strange that most of us do endings so badly, especially since we deal with them all of
our lives. We tend to either see them as something final, to be dreaded or as something to be
pushed aside as we plow toward a new beginning—or we hold onto to something that begs to be
let go.

In one of his books, Bridges shares this story:

“Once there were two monks who were traveling through the countryside during the rainy season.
Rounding a bend in the path, they found a muddy stream blocking their way. Beside it stood a
lovely woman dressed in flowing robes. ‘Here,’ said one of the monks, ‘let me carry you across
the water. And he picked her up and carried her across. Setting her down on the further bank, he
went on along in silence with his fellow monk to the abbey on the hill. Later that evening, the
other monk said suddenly, ‘I think you made an error, picking up that woman on our journey
today. You know we are not supposed to have anything to do with women and you held one close
to you! You should not have done that!’ ‘How strange,’ remarked the other monk, ‘I carried her
only across the water. You are carrying her still.’”

This story teaches us that endings must be dealt with if we are to move on to whatever comes
next in our lives—personally and congregationally here at High Street as well. Endings are a
clearing process that allow for new growth to begin. Bridges says endings cry out to be ritualized
and savored and reflected upon in order to bring positive meaning to them. Instead, they often
become simply events that we tend to move beyond as quickly as possible, always trying to grab
the new beginning.

We need to honor and recognize our ending here at High Street. Yes, we said goodbye to Rhett
and honored him in a very fitting way. But that was HIS ending. Now, Rhett is gone and we are
here, in this liminal space on the first Sunday without Rhett as our minister. How we deal with our
ending and this transition will determine the direction and growth potential of our community.

When we first began to discuss Rhett’s retirement, there were several different opinions on
whether we should have an Interim Minister or move straight to looking for a settled minister. I
believe we made a wise choice in moving to bring in an interim minister—and not just for one
year, but for two. Rhett was with us for 8 years—we have to deal with the ending of his time with
us before we can look to a new beginning with a new minister. And that is the job of the interim
minister—to help us look at ourselves honestly and to determine who we are, who we want to be
and how we will get there.

Bridges tells us that endings have several steps: disengagement, disenchantment,
disidentification, and disorientation.

In ancient stories, the theme of disengagement is found frequently: Jesus made a 40 day journey
into the desert; Theseus leaves the familiar world and journeys to Athens; Jonah flees his
vocation and heads to the sea; Oedipus leaves home to avoid a fate that he ends up meeting
along his way; and Siddhartha leaves his life of luxury to sit under a Bodhi tree.

As difficult as it may seem, we here at High Street are being called to disengage ourselves from
the way we have operated in the past and to realize that endings may be symbolic events—
signals that a time of transition is beginning.

Disenchantment –the second step of ending—requires us to look at things as they really are—to
remove the way we viewed things in the past. Life is a series of disenchantments—we discover
there is no Santa Claus, someone hurts us or is unfaithful, friends let us down— ministers retire.

Bridges says, “A disenchanted person recognizes the old view of how things were done as being
sufficient in its time, but insufficient for now.”

Is is that what has worked for us here at High Street that may no longer be sufficient for us? That
is the question that is begged of us as we maneuver this ending.

Disidentification is the third step in the process of ending, according to Bridges. In this step, we
break our old connections with the world around us and we lose our way of identifying ourselves.

We are no longer High Street UU Church with a settled minister who was known and respected
all over town. We are High Street UU Church who has lost our minister due to his well-deserved
retirement and who is awaiting the arrival of our interim—the name of whom is not even known by
alot of us yet. Our letterhead has to be changed, our website has to be changed, our order of
service cover will have to be changed—we will be required to disidentify ourselves from who we
have been for almost a decade. It’s important during this time of ending that we work on
loosening the bonds of who we think we are so that we can go through a transition toward a new
way of being—a new identity.

Disorientation is the final part of the Ending process. Look around this sanctuary—the beautiful
stained glass is the same as it was last Sunday; the order of service is in the same format; we
sing from the same hymnal; Elise’s art still adorns our walls—all things seem to appear to be the
same. Yet this is a very different place than it was last Sunday. Last Sunday, we still had a settled
minister. We KNEW who we were last Sunday. We knew what to expect. Yes, things look the
same, but are indeed very different.

The strongest experience of disorientation I’ve ever known was in the days and weeks following
the death of my husband. Everything looked the same—my house was the same, my children
looked the same, I still bought groceries at the same Kroger in Newnan—yet I had a very real
feeling that someone had picked me up and put me on a planet that looked exactly like the one I
used to live on, but it wasn’t the same at all. Everything seemed strange and new and frightening
and unfriendly.

Disorientation is not an enjoyable process—or one that invites embrace. Yet we must face it
because THIS IS THE WAY through transition. We must have faith in the death and rebirth
process. We may feel a vacuum here at High Street as we cope with areas that were traditionally
those dealt with by Rhett. We may miss knowing that we have a pastor on the ready who knows
us and our families and our stories—knows how to care for us in our vulnerabilities and struggles
and our griefs and our joys. We may feel abandoned. Our job will be to remind ourselves to BE
WHERE WE ARE and to FEEL WHAT WE FEEL. It’s part of the process.

Bridges tells us that after we move through the disengagement, disenchantment, disidentification,
and disorientation of endings, we move next into the Neutral Zone. He describes this as a time of
emptiness between the old and the new—what Victor Turner describes as liminal time—“between
and betwixt time.” It’s this neutral zone that brings chaos to us. “Chaos is not a mess, but rather it
is the primal state of pure energy to which we return for every true new beginning.” It’s only from
the perspective of the old that the chaos is frightening—if we haven’t dealt with our endings, we
will be fearful of the chaos of the neutral zone.

In his book, Rites of Passage, French folklorist Arnold van Gennep says: “Although a body can
move though space in a circle at constant speed, the same is not true of biological or social
activities. Their energy becomes exhausted, and they have to be regenerated at more or less
close intervals. The rites of passage ultimately correspond to this fundamental necessity.”

High Street is in the midst of a rite of passage—we are moving from what we have known and
what Is familiar to a new identity—one that is yet to be developed—we are in liminal time.
Victor Turner tells us that “Liminal entities are neither here nor there; they are betwixt and
between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremonial.” Yes,
we are in liminal time, but we are here together.

Turner emphasizes the transformational capacity of the liminal space. In the process of coming
into contact with sacred and arcane understandings our inmost natures are deeply changed.

Following the initiating practices in the liminal space, the initiate returns back to the everyday
world, but changed by the experience and living in the everyday world in a different way.

Arising out of liminal space is the phenomenon of “communitas,” a key concept developed early
on in his classic work The Ritual Process. According to Turner, communitas refers to a collective
experience that becomes possible when a whole group of people cross a threshold and together
enter liminal time and space, an in-between time that is neither past nor present, and a space that
is neither here nor there. In this threshold space, they experience a bond, and it is not like any
bond they may experience in their ordinary structured lives. Victor Turner describes, what is
sought in communitas:

“It is not effortless companionship that can arise between friends, coworkers, or professional
coworkers any day. What they seek is a transformative experience that goes to the root of each
person’s being and finds in that root something profoundly communal and shared” (Turner, 1969,
p. 138).

Communitas is not the same as community. Communitas is a process where no one is
marginalized, because everyone is on the margin. It is a transitory period of transformation, which
enables group members to return to their way of living in dramatically new ways. So communitas
is not simply social interaction, it is not simply belonging to a group. Implied in communitas is a
social and a soulful connection.”

That’s what we are seeking here at High Street as we enter this liminal period together—
communitas—a social and soulful connection. And I very much agree with Turner that this sense
of communitas cannot fully develop without ritual—ritual that is shared and understood by the
entire group. Meaningful ritual that is connected to their social construct and that brings us
through our time of endings, into the neutral zone—and gives us hope that we will come through
all of this into a healthy new beginning.

Yes, we are in liminal time here at High Street—but again—we are in it together. To honor our
period of transition, I would like to offer a ritual of passage. Liminality is derived from the Latin
word La-men, which means “threshold.” We are standing at the threshold of something new
here at High Street, but we must first deal honestly with our endings and then be willing to enter
the neutral zone before we embrace our beginning with strong emotional and spiritual strength.

So here’s what I’m going to ask us to do to ritualize this threshold at which we find ourselves. I
am going to lay a threshold down here on the platform and then I will lead us in a reading of our
High Street Vision Statement. (I’ll read a line and then you repeat it back responsively.) Following
the reading of the Vision Statement, I’d like to invite everyone to line up, come to the platform,
step across this threshold and return to your seat.

Here’s our vision statement—I will read a line and you repeat after me in unison:

We at High Street Church commit ourselves to…..

  • Welcoming all people who share our values into our community of faith and hope.
  • Offering persons of all ages opportunities to learn and to grow.
  • Embracing diversity, believing that everyone deserves a place where they feel safe, honored and
    included.
  • Living our faith through works that positively transform ourselves, our community and our world.
  • Giving a home and a voice to religious liberalism in Middle Georgia.
  • Celebrating passages and milestones of our individual lives and our common work.

This is the working vision of our faith community. To this we pledge our best efforts and gifts.

As you wait to cross the threshold, I encourage you to meditate upon who we are and to think
about the work we must do together as we move through our endings into the neutral zone of
transition. How do we let go of who we were to become who we will be? What are the endings we
must face? How will we deal with the creative energy of the chaos of liminal time?

Crossing of the threshold.

So here we are—we have crossed over the threshold together into a time of liminality.

Now, I want to invite you to repeat our Vision Statement once more, knowing that, even though
you are still in the same place you were a few moments ago—with everything appearing to be the
same it has been for many years—knowing now that it is indeed a new and different place than it
was last week—and even than it was just a few moments ago when we were yet to cross the
threshold of transition. The creative chaos of transition is now whirling around us. Let us repeat
our Vision Statement with the strength and conviction of one who has crossed the threshold to a
journey that will end in the creation of a new beginning:

We at High Street Church commit ourselves to…..

  • Welcoming all people who share our values into our community of faith and hope.
  • Offering persons of all ages opportunities to learn and to grow.
  • Embracing diversity, believing that everyone deserves a place where they feel safe, honored and
    included.
  • Living our faith through works that positively transform ourselves, our community and our world.
  • Giving a home and a voice to religious liberalism in Middle Georgia.
  • Celebrating passages and milestones of our individual lives and our common work.

This is the working vision of our faith community. To this we pledge our best efforts and gifts.
Yes, we are in liminal time. But the people sitting next to you, in front of and behind you have
crossed that threshold with you. Let us draw on that soul connection—our communitas—to bring
us through our ending and the chaos of our transition into something new and strong and Light
filled.

May it be so. Amen.

Sources cited:

Bridges, William. Making Sense of Life’s Transitions (1980)
Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change (1991)
Turner, Victor. Internet research.

A New Year … A New Beginning

The Rev. E. Arlen Goff – December 31, 2006

For as long as humans have marked the seasons, there has been the sense of endings and beginnings. For as long as societies have fashioned calendars to note the passing of days, the time of endings and beginnings has been seen as a time for introspection and meditation, a time for confessing and forgiving, a time for affirmation and encouragement, a time for dreams, possibilities and promises, a time for reflection and renewal. And so it is that we gather here today.

It is fitting that we assemble in this holy place on this occasion. For in some ways, this place collects all our highest ambitions and deepest beliefs … about ourselves, about others, about the world in which we live. We join together here each week in this place as a reminder and a return to our deepest, best selves … what we value, what we hope for, what we dream for. Here we recover strength and fortitude for the living out of our faith in our everyday lives. Here we celebrate and here we mourn. Here we sing for joy and here we sit in silence. Here we listen for a sacred word and here we speak to one another words of comfort and of challenge. Here we encounter all that is holy and sacred both in ourselves and in each other. Here we meet god. It is fitting and proper that these holy walls hold our thoughts this New Year’s Eve. It is fitting and proper that this spiritual home offers us sanctuary as we mark the passing of the old and the promise of the new.

As we gather here this day, it is my hope that High Street Church will continue in the coming year to provide for each of us a place of confession, a place of aspiration and a place of accountability.

I speak of CONFESSION not out of some morbid sense of inherent sinfulness. If you glance around the walls of this sanctuary, you will see no confessionals. Our minister doesn’t wear priestly robes or act as an intermediary between a judgmental deity and our wicked, sin-ridden souls. We do not regularly engage in corporate recitations of prayers of confession on Sunday mornings, and we do not cleanse either children or adults with water to wash away the stain of Adam’s (and Eve’s) rebellion. No, confession as I speak of it this day is not related to sinfulness.

I speak of CONFESSION as a reminder that we are a covenant community of imperfect persons. Yes, we affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and yes, we look for the best in each other and expect the best of each other. But no measure of liberal faith or progressive perspective can blot out the fact that we will not always live up to our highest ideals. Yes, even liberals act wrongly and behave badly, and for that we need forgiveness.

Years ago, as a young Baptist lad, I would hear visiting evangelists talk of “church-shoppers”, folks who moved their church membership from one congregation to the next until they would get mad about something and join up somewhere else, always looking for the “perfect” church. And over and over again, I heard evangelists speak these words, “Well, for God’s sake, if you find the perfect church, don’t join it. You’ll just screw it up!”

Well, we at High Street have found the perfect church, and it is chock full of screw-ups and foul-ups … folks just like us.

I speak of CONFESSION because we are fashioning here in this place a safe haven for imperfect souls who are crying out for forgiveness. I speak of CONFESSION because we seek to create here an atmosphere of safety where folks whose lives need healing can find wholeness. I speak of CONFESSION because High Street Church accepts folks just as they are, and calls them to be the best they can be … and forgives when they cannot.

I speak of ASPIRATION because we have not yet reached perfection, and find ourselves at times slipping away from our highest ideals. I speak of ASPIRATION because confession without the possibility of forgiveness leads only to depression and despair. I speak of ASPIRATION because that which we hold to be sacred and holy calls us to HOPE … for renewal within ourselves, and for the world in which we live. ASPIRATION and HOPE call us beyond where we are and where we have been, to the promised land of what we can be. ASPIRATION and HOPE reminds us that, in the struggle between the worst in us and the best in us, the best must prevail.

Father Matthew Fox has been for years the major voice for a “creation theology” in the Christian Church. Because his focus was on “original blessing” rather than “original sin” and he refused to knuckle under to the demands of his Roman Catholic order, he was banned from speaking by the Vatican for a year. He finally left the Roman Catholic Church, and is now an Episcopalian priest.

Father Matthew states that the essential religious question is this: “Is the universe a friendly place, or not?” Because of his belief in “original blessing”, he answers overwhelmingly in the affirmative. Because of his expansive belief in a God who blesses, Matthew Fox’s vision is one of hope for humans and the world in which they live.

This past summer, our Sunday Morning Adult RE class had to opportunity to read and discuss a volume of poetry and essays edited by Paul Rogat Loeb entitled The Impossible Will Take A Little While – A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear.

Week after week we reveled in story after story of HOPE cancelling out despair, of men and women and children doing what they could with what they had to make their corner of the world a better place. For some of them, the change did not occur during their lifetimes. But like Martin Luther King, Jr., they were able to struggle their way to the mountaintop and peer over into the promised land. And their vision gave them strength, and the promise gave them courage, and they fought on.

I speak of ASPIRATION and HOPE because we live in a world where children go hungry and people sicken and die and nations war against nations and the earth is despoiled of its riches. I speak of ASPIRATION and HOPE because there is so much for our hands to do and so many for our hearts to love, and the world needs stout and hardy souls filled with HOPE to heal its soul and bind its wounds. I speak of ASPIRATION and HOPE because High Street Church has committed itself as individual persons and as a people to a high and lofty mission: “As people of faith, we seek to better ourselves, our community and our world through integrity, justice and HOPE!”

Let no one be discouraged by the belief there is nothing one man or one woman can do against the enormous array of the world’s ills, against misery and ignorance, injustice and violence. … Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of our generation.
– Robert F. Kennedy

People say, what is the sense of our small effort? They cannot see that we must lay one brick at a time, take one step at a time. A pebble cast into a pond causes ripples that spread in all directions. Each one of our thoughts, words and deeds is like that. No one has the right to sit down and feel hopeless. There’s too much work to do.
– Dorothy Day

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.
– Margaret Mead

Lastly, I speak of ACCOUNTABILITY because hopes, aspirations and dreams are insufficient in and of themselves. I speak of ACCOUNTABILITY because our dreams need wings and our hope needs hands, and our aspirations call us to action.

High Street Church must be a place of personal and corporate ACCOUNTABILITY, where in the spirit of love we challenge each other to live up to our highest ideals. It is not enough to say what we will do if we never get around to doing it. It is not enough to DREAM if we wake from our dreaming to carry on life as we always do. It is not enough to HOPE if we allow ourselves to become mired in the inertia of despair, and fall by the wayside preoccupied with our liabilities rather than being emboldened by our assets.

ACCOUNTABILITY calls us to the hard work of being open and honest with each other. It means creating an atmosphere where membership in this COVENANT community means something more than “writing our name in the book” and placing a few dollars in the plate. I speak of ACCOUNTABILITY because we need each other terribly, for we cannot do the hard task of world-changing alone. I speak of ACCOUNTABILITY because as individuals we cannot always be trusted to follow through with our promises, no matter how high our ideals and how treasured our values. At times, we need gentle reminders of that greatness which lies deep within us, of that sacred and holy character which shines forth from our eyes and utters forth from our lips in our best moments. I speak of ACCOUNTABILITY because our liberal faith calls for us to move beyond CONFESSION to RENEWAL, and beyond ASPIRATION to ACTION. Only then, can our believing truly be wed to our doing.

So when the supernova comes to get us, we don’t want to be disappointed in ourselves. We should hope to be able to say proudly to the supernova, that angel of death, “Hello supernova, we have been expecting you, we know all about you, because in our schools we teach science and not creationism, and so we have been expecting you, everywhere everyone has been expecting you, except Texas. And we would like to say, supernova, in the moment before we are returned by your protean fire to our previous inchoate state, clouds of incandescent atomic vapor, we’d like to declare that we have tried our best and worked hard to make a good and just and free and peaceful world, a world that is better for our having been here, at least we believe it is.”
– Tony Kushner

In the end of days, when all is said and done, may there at least be the faintest glimmer of memory that in this place, on this spot, there existed a BELOVED COMMUNITY whose dreams for a better world found expression in their everyday lives, and who here found the strength and courage “to create a better tomorrow”.

So may it ever be. Blessed be. Amen.

Closing Words written by Kendyl Gibbons

There is, finally, only one thing required of us: that is, to take life whole, the sunlight and shadows together; to live the life that is given us with courage and humor and truth.
We have such a little moment out of the vastness of time for all our wondering and loving. Therefore let there be no half-heartedness; rather, let the soul be ardent in its pain, in its yearning, in its praise.
Then shall peace enfold our days, and glory shall not fade from our lives.
Source: 1997 UUMA Worship Materials Collection

The service is ended. Now the true work of the church begins. Go in peace.

Living in (Sometimes) Glorious Harmony with Ambiguity

Cathy Morris – August 17, 2003

Original sermon from the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, Dublin, Georgia Sunday, October 1, 2000

The Rev. Larry Smith told me something important about giving sermons, or in my case, a simple talk from one Unitarian Universalist to another. He said that if the group hadn’t yet heard it, it was OK to recycle. When the Worship Committee contacted me to speak this month, I said sure, as long as I didn’t have to use a summertime brain to create something totally new. My apologies to the handful of you here who may have heard me give this same talk in Dublin a couple of years ago. You have my permission to sleep through the service, but not to snore.

Arlen Goff travelled every Sunday for a while to the UU church in Dublin to do an adult Religious Education program called Building Your Own Theology. High Street UUs may not realize it, but you have several real evangelists among you, including Arlen and Dorner and Nancy and Jane and Mary Lou and Bob and Beth. I had already been engaged in Building My Own Theology for years, and I took advantage of the contact with real UUs, putting my mind and heart and soul into the course. For several weeks I struggled to articulate for that kind but very perceptive group a piece of my own theology. Today I would like to share with you some of the results of that effort.

You may agree or disagree with my premise or with the assumptions I make or the definitions I use or my personal conclusions.

But it is my belief that you will learn as much from what you disagree with as from what you agree with and perhaps even more.

I invite you to listen now as I explore the concept of ambiguity and the role it plays in my spiritual life and my daily conversations with the universe. For I have found myself gradually learning to live in (sometimes) glorious harmony with ambiguity.

When you check the dictionary, ambiguous means permitting more than one interpretation or explanation.

Ambiguity can also indicate some lack of clarity or presence of uncertainty.

With fair certainty, and with perhaps with the only certainty I will muster today, I can state that ambiguity permeates my religious life at many levels.

As a first instance, ambiguity exists within me at any given moment. I was born with a tendency to see more than one side to any issue, whether it is political, spiritual, intellectual, or whatever. With something as simple as which way the toilet paper should hang, I can tell you not just the arguments for each side, but I can feel the rightness of both points of view. Sometimes that makes me a little uncomfortable, but in my more positive moments (and with more important issues than toilet paper) I see that discomfort as a way to harness energy for me to grow.

For each of us these bits of ambiguity currently existing in our minds may be different, but I would guess that we each have our share. For me…right now…I am trying to reconcile my lifelong commitment to others B to bettering the lives of others, easing their burdens, and tackling the unfairness in life that assails other people –with my increasing respect for the autonomy of other human beings and the good that comes to them if I step back and allow them to succeed or just fail on their own.

This is not a simplistic question for me. There are grave concepts of power and caring, independence and dependence and interdependence here. I have not yet found all my answers to the multiple facets of helping others.

I find hints of the resolution of this problem in the Golden Rule from many religious traditions. One Christian version from Mark 12:30 says: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy mind and all thy strength.” Whatever God is to me, this tells me to look to my own spiritual wellness as part of the process of being a person and being a giving person. I need a base from which to give. Mark 12:31 continues with the other half of the Golden Rule, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,” which reminds me that I should not scatter what I may think are good deeds mindlessly over the landscape (although hugs and smiles don’t count, I believe in the liberal use of both). Instead of good deeds, I need to offer others the same consideration I would want for myself, that I receive help, encouragement, and a smoothing of my path, but with due respect and dignity given to my abilities and my choices and my right to rise and to fall and pick my own self up or not.

This is complicated stuff for me, and I expect to continue to make many mistakes. I also expect to continue trying to tease out the principles involved and how to apply them.

In addition to such immediate concerns about spiritual and ethical living, I have also noticed ambiguity within myself that exists over time.

For example, I grew up believing in a Godhead expressed as the Trinity. I went through a time of questioning all the creeds and givens I had been taught. I wondered what was wrong with me that I could not feel God when I tried to pray. I moved on to being nearly unable to say the word “God.” It was almost profane for me. Gradually, I learned new meanings to attach to the word “God” B meanings I could feel safe and comfortable with.

In fact, ambiguity was saving here for me. I gathered definitions of God from Unitarian Universalists, from nature religions, from mainline Christian faiths, from Judaism. The multiple definitions I could give to God freed me from feeling separated from God by a terribly limiting definition I could not accept.

I still feel myself growing in terms of how I understand God. My youngest child, Caitlin, says I use the words mystery, wonder, and feel too often when I give her my best personal answers to her questions. Perhaps a little child shall lead me, too. Or perhaps I will lead her to a jumping off point for her own experience of transcendence.

Ambiguity also exists between my own beliefs and those of others. Any one of us could cite numerous examples of times when we discussed differences in belief in a friendly (or not so friendly) way with other middle Georgians.

I contend that these differences are as they should be. We are all as unique as snowflakes, and our relationships with God are, fundamentally or minutely, different. My heart sings out for us to revel in the differences. Rejoice in them. Appreciate the unique person before us, whether it is culture or language or religion or color or personality that illuminates the differences that we are privileged to see. Then move on to find and love the likenesses we humans share, to one degree or another.

This love of differences and likenesses, particularly the religious differences, does not always come to me easily. But I am learning to be grateful for the spiritual challenges that force me to growth.

Without the challenge of living in the Bible Belt and associating very closely with conservative Christians, I would not have refined my religious understanding in quite the same way. If my own beliefs had not been shaped on the anvil of fundamentalist belief, they might not have the breadth and depth they now have. If I had not been exposed to Christian faith, even though it is not my own, I might have lost a real opportunity.

Given that my own beliefs are very different and that I went through a long period of suspicion about the religion of my childhood, what do I think now about the Christian who seeks God through his or her relationship with Jesus Christ?

Sometimes I think it’s wonderful. I feel the joy and peace radiating through some Christians. It is wonderful. There are many paths in my own mind to a relationship with the spirit that is both eternal and ever-changing. The approach to God through Jesus is one that opens the door for many people – a thing we can rejoice in.

I have come to understand, finally, that I can find it spiritually uplifting to see the effects of Jesus in the lives of some people I know while rejecting the mind-numbing and heart-breaking limitations of Christianity.

I reject that it is the way for me.

I reject that it is the one way for everyone.

I reject that it is the way for people with dead eyes and hearts who adhere to some outward observances and some inward acceptance of what they have been told to believe. I reject that it is the way for people who hurt as they hate themselves for not having the transcendence or the relationship with God through Jesus they have been taught to expect.

Yet I accept and appreciate it when Christianity does lead a person into true relationship with God.

I can live with both responses to Christianity existing within me at the same time, and I can be a whole and honest person.

With this insight, I am learning to live in greater harmony with the Christianity that swirls around me in Dublin. But this line of thought does not just apply to Christianity, but to my responses to other religious beliefs as well.

At various times I hear a coherent argument or feel a compelling insight about another path to spiritual wholeness. Deep down I know that sometimes what I am appreciating is not the rightness of that path for me, at least for now, but the rightness of that path for someone else.

Other times I realize I am tapping into a source of wonder of the universe, ready to grasp it with both hands, perhaps ready to tentatively touch the edges or only ready to watch and wait to see if it is right for me, and me for it.

An example, I feel a gentle future pull toward some aspects of Buddhism. Who knows if I will ever go there, or if I need to?

Another example, my heart beats in rhythm with Neo-Paganism, even though my understanding of paths to the Goddess is still limited and my regularity of religious observance is appalling.

A third example, I periodically hear discussion of reincarnation and feel respect for the meaning it has for others, but I feel no resonance in my heart for it. Nor do I feel affinity with a Christian Heaven with pearly gates and streets of gold and God on a throne.

I do not know what happens after we die. My genetically coded human desire for life and continuance cries out for some individual life after this life yet my rational mind and my heart’s connection to the universe say that any continuance is not likely to be anything I expect or recognize.

For now, I believe that I am gifted with an individual consciousness rooted in this world and this time. I have some awareness of the Eternal which exists before, during, and after my life as well as the interdependent web of all that is animate and inanimate and spiritual in the universe.

How my relationship with this Web will change after I die, I do not know. That lack of certainty is anathema in some religions and to some people. I understand. Ambiguity is more difficult for some of us than others; it’s more of a challenge some days than others; and life after death is a pretty powerful concern, making ambiguous answers even more painful.

It is my feeling that it may be enough of a challenge to live this life fully and mindfully. Perhaps Judaism’s approach, if I understand it correctly, to focus on this life and let God focus on what happens after death, has its merits for me.

Finally, viewing religion from the vantage point of ambiguity is also personally revealing when I look at individual beliefs I hold.

I jumped on Unitarian Universalism as a religion when I was 16 first because of its open-minded attitude and second because the name made sense to me. I still find I can comfortably take Unitarianism and Universalism literally from their names. As a Unitarian, I believe that there is one spiritual Eternal that we all try, in our limited ways, to understand and be in relation to. As a Universalist, I believe that salvation, whatever that is- and that’s a whole other discussion, is equally available and automatically part of each of us.

As an ambiguist, on the other hand, I admit that I could be wrong. This life is not doled out equally and fairly, at least to my human eyes, no matter what the Unitarian and Universalist fathers of our country may have said. If this life is not always experienced with equality, what does that say about life after death?

Babies are conceived whose mothers cannot carry them for physical reasons or because of circumstances or because of their own internal lives. Babies are born who die soon or suffer handicaps in living the fullness of their lives. Children are raised in families that are more loving, or less so. They come to us with personalities that attract other people and those that repel. People live in places with many opportunities, or places of terrible hardship. An old woman like the Queen Mother can drink a quart of gin a day and live and die safely, surrounded by riches and people who care for her, while another old woman does the same, and dies homeless and unlamented. Religions throughout time have postulated reasons why these apparently unfair allocations of life, liberty, and the opportunity for the pursuit of happiness occur, frequently resorting to past or present lives as explanations.

The ambiguist in me accepts the lack of fairness in this life and is still able to postulate universal salvation both in this life and, whatever it means, after death. Sometimes I’m amazed at myself for having the audacity, but that’s what I believe.

There are days when all these possibilities seem almost overwhelming to me. And others when I find it invigorating. One certainty for me is that when I am among Unitarian Universalists, it is safe for me to delve into the un-certainty of life and spiritual belief. If we wanted it laid out with no question marks, we would be in another church.

Thus I am free to live, at least sometimes, in glorious harmony with the ambiguity of the universe and my understanding of my relationship with it.

The Unitarian Francis David has said: “You need not think alike to love alike.”1

Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote: “There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds.

 

1 {editor’s note} This is a commonly-attributed quote that may or may not have been by Francis David. A similar quote was made by John Wesley.

God of Law or God of Love?

Isaiah 42: 1-9 – Acts 10: 34-43

Rev. Larry Smith, 2003

The lessons appointed for this day to some degree provide us with two aspects of Christianity. Isaiah reminds us of the sending out of one who will bring justice to the earth, to open eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. Though the prophet Isaiah, like the other writers of the Bible uses language in a poetic sense, replete with many layers of meaning, the release of prisoners and salve to the suffering in this passage seems to be a literal meaning that the chosen one will be a bring justice and comfort to all the nations.

The writer of Acts, who is also probably the author of the Gospel of Luke, has a different theological perspective. He says that Jesus of Nazareth was anointed with the holy spirit and with power, “went about doing good and healing all that were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.” Acts reminds us that Jesus is to be the “judge of the living and the dead” It also states that everyone who believes in him “receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

These two lessons present very different theological images. One is of a God who takes his people by the hand, heals the sick, frees the oppressed. The other is of God’s anointed who judges people and has set a formula for the forgiveness of sins, who is in competition with a literal devil for the souls of the chosen ones. In essence, the lessons are the two sides of religion which have come into conflict, often armed conflict, over the course of the past thirty years. This conflict is one which transcends the differences in major world religions. Today I will speak to you about fundamentalism and hopefully help you understand why subjects as different as the bombing of the World Trade Center, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, the explosion of nuclear weapons in India and Pakistan, and the Taliban, are connected and not separate entities and events.

“Fundamentalism” is a word so bandied about by the media that it loses its original meanings. Yet, each of us thinks that he or she knows what the word means. In his book entitled Stealing Jesus: How Fundamentalism Betrays Christianity, Bruce Bawer makes a distinction which is helpful for me. He writes that the major difference between Christian camps is not best understood as conservative and liberal. Those are political terms which may or may not apply to the religious arena. In fact, one might be politically conservative and religiously tolerant and open-minded. My own paternal grandfather, by contrast is extremely religiously zealous about a narrow theological perspective. He is convinced that only people who believe exactly as he does will go to heaven. Breaking a common stereotype though, he is politically more liberal than I am.

So if the terms liberal and conservative are not helpful in the discussion of religious differences, how does one characterize the distinctions? Bawer divides the religious world into two groups—legalistic and nonlegalistic religion.

Legalistic religion worships the God of Law who presents his people with divine rules and formulas, given through prophets and seers. In legalistic religion the God of Law rewards those elect individuals who resist the temptations of demons by maintaining a perspective which divides the world into saved and unsaved, good and evil. When those who worship the God of Law see the inconsistencies in their strict doctrines and dogmas they are conditioned to believe that the source of their doubt is temptation from Satan. Legalistic religion does not broach differences of opinion, sees no shades of gray, does not encompass the ability of people worshiping together who believe differently.

The forces that create Pat Robertson and Osama bin Laden have been with us for a long time. In the late nineteenth century the Protestant world struggled with the implications of Darwinism and the change in society from an agrarian community to industrialized state. The churches of the mainline, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Methodist, Congregationalist, Lutheran, etc., encompassed both legalistic and nonlegalistic Protestants. The struggles between the two camps in every denomination were present but they did not split them. A common history was strong enough to keep everyone in the “big tent” of the mainline churches. Groups within the mainline Protestant churches formed but they had no catalyst to trigger their conflict. Particular mainline congregations became known for being more moderate, others had stricter pastors.

Then, the world changed in the late nineteen fifties and into the nineteen sixties middle-class women began to assert their identities and seek lives outside the home. They entered the workplace, entered professions previously unimaginable. I can still remember the days of my boyhood when we children would ask each other if there were jobs women could not do. Such a question, I imagine, would be unthinkable to children growing up today.

Later other groups in society followed the women’s liberation movement and they too sought recognition and their rights. African-Americans, gays and lesbians, the handicapped and many other groups sought a more just and equitable society. Additionally, ecumenism and the interfaith movements encouraged dialogue between religions following the disaster of the Holocaust.

For the nonlegalistic religious people who worshiped the God of Love, these societal changes presented a necessary challenge. Though they might not feel comfortable with all the changes initially, they tried to adapt to the idea of women in ministry, and accepted open gays and lesbians in their churches. The nonlegalistic religious believed that since all were children of God that they should endeavor to understand people in other religions as well. For the legalistic religious the law was always the law. It is interesting to note that the legalistic and nonlegalistic religious perspective is found in every world religion with legalistic Jews, legalistic Christians, legalistic Hindus and legalistic Moslems all being opposed absolutely to the changing roles of women in society, believing that such violates the God’s law. It is important to note that regardless of their faith, those of the legalistic religious bent believe that those in other religious groups are demonic. Evangelical Protestants in this country view those outside their communities as unholy other. The al-Qaeda, under Osama bin Laden, view those not of their brand of legalistic Islam as satanic. The Hindu legalists in the the Indian government believe that the Moslems in neighboring Pakistan are basically evil. The legalistic Islamic Taliban who ruled Afghanistan made it a crime for any other religion to be preached in their nation and they destroyed any cultural artifacts representing any religion other than Islam.

This perspective is an element of every religion. Every mainline Christian denomination has a legalistic faction and a nonlegalistic faction. In the Roman Catholic church both factions are also present with Cardinal Ratzinger in the Vatican upholding church dogma and condemning ecumenical efforts, and the late Cardinal Bernardin in Chicago reaching out to many religious groups, being de facto the religious leader for that city.

Our congregation stands at an extreme in this matter. There is no question in the Unitarian Universalist Association about which God our body worships, if we can all be said to be worshiping a God. We worship the God of Love. Yes, I know that in our tolerant church it is difficult to say that we are all united in any belief. Yet, the fact that we travel with people of different faith positions in the same community means to me that it is not only the law which we obey but the calling of our hearts. Unitarians in the nineteenth century affirmed that a loving deity gave them minds to think. The Universalists believed in a God who would not condemn anyone to eternal torment. They also broke the rules and were the first to ordain women to their ministry. The Unitarians,

Universalists and the Quakers represent religious movements which have never believed in the God of Law. That makes our denomination different, we have never been founded upon notions of sin and fear of God’s wrath. They are concepts antithetical to our tradition and always have been.

Ironically, in regards to history, the legalistic Protestants of the religious right love to quote from the founding fathers of this land to back up their own version of reality. If you watch television programs like “The 700 Club” or Jerry Falwell’s broadcasts you would assume that the men who wrote the United States constitution were religious legalists like themselves. They love to quote Washington or Franklin or Jefferson to make their point. Yet, they always neglect to mention that those men, though all Christians, were all nonlegalistic Christians—people like you and me—people who the religious right in this country do not consider Christians. George Washington was an Episcopalian and a very open-minded one. Benjamin Franklin was a Quaker who believed that God’s light shone in all people, not just the chosen few. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, though political enemies, were both Unitarians. Ultimately the reason that the United States constitution does not establish any religion is that the men of nonlegalistic faith who were seated at the table believed that every person should find God for himself. They believed that this was the attitude that Jesus preached.

If you read the gospels telling the story of Jesus and compare them to the ten commandments, you will find that there exists a dichotomy. Jesus consistently breaks some of the ten commandments as they were understood in his lifetime. He often does not honor his mother and his father. Once when he is told that his mother wants to speak to him in the hallway he turns to his disciples and tells them that they are his real family. When they are traveling on a Sabbath he and the disciples pick food to eat and are condemned for breaking the prohibition against working on the Sabbath. Jesus responds that the Sabbath was made for man and man was not made for the Sabbath. Many similar examples of Jesus’ behavior exist. He often broke the rules. Why did he do it? Jesus wanted the Israelites of his day to know that it was not the following of rules which sanctified their lives. He associated with tax collectors and prostitutes. He spoke to women as equals. He saw the good in those were considered untouchable. I believe that the God of Love, who Jesus followed, did not divide the world into clean and unclean, saint and sinner, kosher and unkosher. Jesus rebelled against the legalisms of his day. When asked by a lawyer which one of the laws, meaning the ten commandments, was most important, Jesus faced a potential problem. If he named one law above the others then he would almost certainly face a rhetorical backlash. A good lawyer can argue anything. Instead, he ignored the specifics of the question and replied that the foundation of the law was that one love God with all thy heart and soul and love thy neighbor as thyself. This was not the legalistic answer which the lawyer expected and he was not prepared to debate Jesus. Jesus supported the ten commandments and refuted them at the same time. Jesus expressed a faith in something greater than law—the spirit behind the law, which he described as the kingdom of heaven.

In truth though, religious legalists and religious nonlegalists quote scripture to their own advantage. As the scripture we read today demonstrates, both the God of Love and the God of Law are always with us. The advantage in any debate only from the perspective of rhetorical logic, has to be given to the religious legalists. This is because the methods of debate and argument favors those who proof text. It is the nature of debating skills.

Additionally the religious legalists in our country have an ally in the media. Notice what happens when Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell state authoritatively into a camera that Christians believe something. What then happens? Does the camera then revert to an Episcopal bishop or a United Church of Christ minister or Unitarian Universalist minister refuting what was just said? Of course not, that is not opposite enough to be controversial. Instead, the media then turns to some university professor or lawyer to respond to Falwell or Robertson. They do not turn to other nonlegalistic Christians to respond to Christian fundamentalism. This means that Falwell

and Robertson are assumed to represent the Christian community. They are given possession of the word “Christian” without question and the tacit assumption by the media that they genuinely represent what Christians believe–when in fact Christians believe a wide range of opinions on any given issue.

The future though does not belong to the religious legalists of any faith, regardless of how powerful they might become, because the religious nonlegalists have a great advantage—they are willing to speak to each other. You see, some Roman Catholic priests are willing to engage in dialogue with Protestants. Some Christians engage in dialogue with nonlegalistic Jews. Some Jews will speak with nonlegalistic Moslems and some nonlegalistic Moslems will speak with Buddhists. In so doing these people are following a religion based upon love and not law. Though the cause of love often faulters, it does not fail. It prevails unto the end.

In the early nineteenth century in the United States a debate raged upon the legitimacy of slavery from a religious perspective. In Boston in the early nineteenth century the leading Unitarian minister of the day, William Ellery Channing, was invited to debate the subject of slavery. The first person to speak at the debate stood up and quoted ad nauseum scriptural citations which supported slavery. When he was finished William Ellery Channing stood up, approached the podium, and conceded in his speech that the Bible contained scripture which could be construed to condone the enslavement of human beings into cruel bondage. Channing conceded that those passages of scripture did exist. However, Channing replied, despite its legalistic parts, the spirit of the Bible was ultimately a story of love and liberation–and against such a spirit slavery could not stand.

We are challenged at all times to live in the spirit of love and liberation. The God of Law is easier. You know exactly what is expected. Living with the God of Love requires one to think about things more deeply and to question the mores of our times.

Today I have told you about legalistic and nonlegalistic religion. I hope that you have not had to agonize in your own life about your faith. The fact that you are here today probably means that in your spiritual journey you asked questions and considered the answers. I know that the God of Love was ultimately the one you must have felt in your soul.

Such a spiritual journey occurred to Huckleberry Finn in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In the story, recounted in Bawer’s book, Stealing Jesus, Huck realizes that he is guilty of helping Miss Watson’s slave Jim escape and has therefore, been guilty of theft. He believes in the religious law stating that theft is a mortal sin worthy of punishment in hell. He decides that in order to get right with God and avoid eternal punishment, that he must write a letter to Miss Watson telling her where Jim is hiding. He does so and feels clean and washed of sin. But before posting the letter, Huck thinks of Jim and thinks of their trip together down the Mississippi, “talking, singing and laughing.” Huck says, “But somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind.” He thinks about how sweet and good Jim is with him, and what a good friend he is. Then Huck looks around and sees the letter that he’s written to Miss Watson: I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever betwixt two things and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself, “All right then, I’ll go to hell”—and tore it up.

Though his society and its churches, which have set God up as a supporter of slavery, tell him he’s wrong to help Jim escape and that he will go to hell for it, Huck’s love and his conscience compel him to help Jim anyway. In the end, by acting in accordance with his love and his conscience, Huck does the truly Christian thing. The true Christian does not follow church dogma out of fear of hell; it is the person who, in defiance of everything, up to and including the threat of hellfire, does the right thing out of love.

In our materialistic culture we are tempted to believe in a God for whom the afterlife is a matter of cold-blooded deal making as the religious legalists would suggest: “Believe in me and I’ll give you heaven, refuse and you go to hell.” Given how much pain and suffering there is in the world, one can hardly fault some people for believing in a wrathful, legalistic God. But can you worship such a God? Can you hold up rules and regulations, punishment and rewards as the best hope for humanity? Rather than do so, I would suggest that in the face of a barter system with the Almighty that we shake our head heads firmly, affirming our allegiance to the liberal faith, and say with Huckleberry Finn, “Alright then, I’ll go to hell.”

Such commitment to love, ultimately, is the kingdom of heaven. Such is the hope of humankind. May we have courage to speak the truth with love and a love greater than any law which can be written, a love written large in the action and movement of our lives. Amen and amen.

The pastoral prayer is one probably well-known to you. It is one written by St. Francis of Assisi. He was the least legalistic of Christians. In an age of intolerance and crusades, Francis exemplified a new spirit. He traveled to the Middle East and prayed in a mosque with Moslems. His first words to his followers upon leaving the mosque were, “God is everywhere!”

Make us instruments of peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Amen

 

On Being a UU in the South

A Sermon by Dick Creswell July 2002

As many of you know, I’ve just completed four years as Vice-President and then President of the Mid-South District of the UUA — the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. The duties of a district president are like those of a congregational president, except that:

  • your “district congregation” is composed of all 32 UU churches + 3 emerging congregations scattered across Mississippi, Alabama, Middle & North Georgia, Middle Tennessee and the Florida Panhandle; and, except that
  • instead of having a congregational minister, you have a District Executive as professional staff for what is essentially a volunteer organization; and, finally, except that
  • each of the congregations that are members of your district have “congregational polity” – that means each is autonomous and doesn’t have to pay attention to anything the District President or District Executive says. On second thought, I guess that makes the analogy of the district president to a congregation president complete, since members of a congregation often don’t pay any attention to the congregational president either!

Come to think of it, the position of district president is absolutely powerless and has no authority whatever – but that position does get the occasional opportunity to take “the bully pulpit” – which is where I find myself today as a member of High Street.

My purpose today is not to tell you about the district organization so much as to introduce you to a few of the people I’ve come to know in our 5-state region who are part of our extended religious community. While the district and the UUA is an association of congregations, our extended religious community is really composed of people just as High Street UU Church is composed of all of us rather than of the bricks and stained glass of the building where me meet.

As our opening words described it, a religious community — both our High Street community and the Mid-South District community — enlarges our vision, renews our strength, and inspires us to act together for justice. What unites us with the people of the 35 Mid-South congregations in such diverse places such as Biloxi, Mississippi; Panama City, Florida; Huntsville, Alabama; Nashville, Tennessee; and Douglasville, Georgia is our shared commitment to the Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism. The Seven Principles – before the responsive reading most of us could have recalled only 2 or 3 and could now list 4 or 5 – read as a pretty bland and vague statement of purpose. But I think, when they are translated into action by the people in our religious community and extended religious community, they become dynamic and powerful.

But I’m getting ahead of myself . . . let me begin by describing just one day out of my four years of serving in the Mid-South District. Last March 23rd, I was in Montgomery, Alabama for an annual district conference called “Church Basics” – a Saturday of workshops for lay leaders on to../Pics such as church finance, social justice, RE, and publicity. High Street was well represented at that meeting — I recall that Jane Donahue, Lynn Shelley, Chris Sama, Karen Jackson, and Dorner Carmichael were there to attend or help present several different programs. Incidently, that conference has been redesigned to make it more useful to both new and experienced church members and it will be called the Healthy Congregation Conference when it is held this October

12th in Marietta. I hope many of you will consider attending for High Street.

For the publicity workshop last March we had a special guest — the UUA’s Director of Electronic Communication, Deb Weiner. After the conference officially ended, there was a special training session given by Deb in response to a very urgent local need. But I’ll have to give you a little background about some folks in Montgomery so you can understand what was going on.

The UU Fellowship of Montgomery is about the same size as High Street Church, but they have been meeting in a very different sort of facility, a low brick structure with a large all-purpose meeting room, classrooms, and offices. What strikes a visitor as strange about the building is that it has no windows. It was built in the 1960s, at a time when the Montgomery fellowship had received numerous threats due to its outspoken support of civil rights for African-Americans. The bombing of churches was a very real concern. At that time the fellowship was lay-led, and its president was Morris Dees, a lawyer known nationally now as the head of the Southern Poverty Law Center – the group that closely monitors and attempts to bring to justice racial hate-groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and Aryan Nations.

Montgomery’s current minister is The Rev. Tracy Sprowls — a young, single mom who came to the South from Community Church in NYC with her 7 year old son, Isaac. Tracy has continued in the activist tradition of the fellowship and, with many church members, has been publicly visible in support of the civil rights of gays and lesbians in Alabama. In early March of this year, a lesbian couple living in California, which recognizes the couples’ relationship under its Domestic Partnership Act, was denied custody of the child of one of the women in an Alabama court. The Alabama Supreme Court affirmed the denial of custody for reasons ostensibly unrelated to the mother’s sexual orientation, but Chief Justice Roy Moore took the opportunity to write a special concurring opinion to make it clear that his vote was motivated by a belief that lesbians are not fit to be parents. Further, Moore relied on biblical text to support his attack on the basic right of gays and lesbians to exist in our society.

Moore’s opinion in In Re: DH v. HH says:

I write specially to state that the homosexual conduct of a parent . . . creates a strong presumption of unfitness that alone is sufficient justification for denying that parent custody of his or her own children or prohibiting the adoption of the children of others.

Homosexual conduct is, and has been, considered abhorrent, immoral, detestable, a crime against nature, and a violation of the laws of nature and of nature’s God upon which this Nation and our laws are predicated. . . . The Courts of Alabama should continue to recognize that a homosexual lifestyle is “illegal under the laws of this state and immoral in the eyes of most of its citizens.”

Moore’s opinion even suggests that capital punishment is an appropriate sanction for homosexuality. He wrote: “The State carries the power of the sword, that is, the power to prohibit conduct with physical penalties, such as confinement and even execution. It must use that power to prevent the subversion of children toward this lifestyle, to not encourage a criminal lifestyle.”

In claiming a legal basis for his opinion, Moore asserted that Alabama law derives from the Common Law of England and that English Common Law was, in turn, based on Natural Law. This is not an unusual formulation in American jurisprudence, but from that point forward, Moore’s opinion raises serious fundamental questions for those of us who believe there is and should be a “wall of separation between church and state” erected by our Constitution’s 1st Amendment prohibition of the “establishment of religion.” Moore wrote:

Natural law forms the basis of the common law. Natural law is the law of nature and of nature’s God as understood by men through reason, but aided by direct revelation found in the Holy Scriptures.

He then quoted from Blackstone’s Commentaries, written in the middle of the 18th century, and adopted Blackstone’s rationale and words as his own:

The doctrines thus delivered (through natural law) we call the revealed or divine law, and they are to be found only in the Holy Scriptures. These precepts, when revealed, are found upon comparison to be really a part of the original law of nature, as they tend in all their consequences to man’s felicity.

Blackstone’s reliance on the Bible as a source of civil law was appropriate in an 18th century society with an established church and with a civil law based on custom; but Justice Moore’s reliance on Genesis and Leviticus as legal authority is, at best, extremely disturbing in our 21st century society with a government founded upon a written constitution that expressly forbids the establishment of religion.

Rev. Tracy Sprowls and her Montgomery congregation were quick to take issue with Moore’s pointed attack on gays and lesbians as presumptively unfit parents and with his reliance on biblical text as authority for the exercise of the state’s judicial power. Tracy organized a coalition of concerned citizens that placed a full page ad in the Montgomery newspaper announcing a petition drive to recall Justice Moore and organized a peaceful demonstration at the state judicial building with signs calling for “No MOORE Justice.”

Shortly thereafter, during the week of the district conference last March, the Montgomery UUs received notice that they themselves would be the subject of pickets and demonstrations by the Rev. Fred Phelps — a fundamentalist minister from Topeka, Kansas who travels the country stirring up hatred of homosexuals and those who support them. This man maintains a vitriol-filled website called “GodHatesFags.com.” Phelps has become nationally known for his hateful protests characterized by aggressive personal attacks designed to provoke a violent response. At the funeral of Matthew Shepard, the young gay man beaten to death in Wyoming, Phelps held up a sign and shouted over a bullhorn that “Matthew is now burning in Hell.”

In March, Phelps was on a hate campaign in the South and planned a demonstration in Montgomery in support of Justice Roy Moore. The Montgomery UUs received faxed notices from Phelps that he would bring his protesters to the Montgomery UU Church on Sunday morning, March 24, the day after the Church Basics Conference.

So, the audience for the special workshop by the UUA’s Deb Weiner on how to handle such a hate- filled, aggressive protest and the expected media coverage had a very obvious and immediate importance to the people of the Montgomery fellowship. Since I was the scheduled speaker at their Sunday worship service, I have to admit I also paid extra-close attention. Deb first told us about what to expect from Fred Phelps. When she told us how Phelps has often resorted to attacks upon children – “Little boy, don’t you know your mother will burn in hell for her sick and wicked life?” – I stole a glance at Tracy and thought of her son Isaac. It was a chilling moment.

But Deb offered strength in knowledge and know-how. When the workshop was over we all had a better idea of what to expect, who would take what role in speaking with the media, and how we would handle ourselves in a situation that we hoped would fail to materialize. We were all anxious, but resolute.

Although it was supper time when Eunice Benton and I helped Deb Weiner gather her materials and piled into my car, we decided on taking a quick pilgrimage. Selma, Alabama lies about 45 miles from Montgomery and the miles whipped by as we hurled down the blacktop highway in the blustery spring afternoon. We talked about the day’s meetings, the expected events of the next day, and about events that had taken place in Selma 37 years earlier.

In 1965, the miles had not “whipped by” at 65 miles per hour, but at 2 miles per hour for the marchers who walked from Selma to Montgomery in protest of the systematic denial by the State of Alabama to its African-American citizens of their right to vote. But before the marchers had even reached their destination, they had made their point and attracted national support in their attempt. It was the events that preceded the actual march — Bloody Sunday and the beating death of UU Minister James Reeb — that created the political will to enact the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and that helped bring about a virtual revolution in government in the South and in the entire nation.

On our pilgrimage, Deb and I had a better tour guide than even David Halberstam’s book – we had Eunice Benton. Many of you know Eunice in her professional capacity as our Mid-South District Executive, but I am pleased today to tell you a little more about Eunice as a fellow member of our extended religious community. Eunice is a native of Mariana, Florida, where her father was, among other things, the county superintendent of schools, an elected position. Eunice comes from a long line of politicians – including the governor of the State of Florida at the time that state seceded to join the Confederacy. She is, indeed, a daughter of the South. But her southern character is not just an accident of birth; she has a graduate degree in Southern Studies and she knows first hand, as well as from academic study, the history, literature, politics and culture of the unique region in which we live. As a “born again UU” – by that I mean that, like me, she came to Unitarian Universalism in mid-life – Eunice has served as president of her congregation, president of Thomas Jefferson District, and now is a member of the UU Fellowship of Oxford, Mississippi and District Executive for our Mid-South District, working in all these capacities to make the world, or our part of it, a better place.

On that Selma pilgrimage last March, Eunice recounted for me and for Deb – a wide-eyed Massachusetts Yankee on her first trip to the South – the story of the Selma March.

As our car approached the center of the town of Selma, the four-lane highway was lined by an assortment of run-down businesses — gas stations, auto repair shops, used car lots and abandoned restaurants, not an inviting place to stop. But, as we approached a steel-girder bridge leading into Selma’s downtown, we pulled off the highway into a small oasis of remembrance. On the verge of the Alabama River, on the Montgomery-side of the bridge, is a small park. A trail winds through the vegetation along the river with signboard memorials recalling the events of Bloody Sunday and Selma’s place in civil rights history.

A chill wind had whipping up and the light was failing, but we decided to retrace the steps of the 1965 marchers over the Edmund Pettus Bridge. There was something special about that 500 yard walk that transcended the noise of the traffic, the 37 years that had intervened, and the fact that we had to first cross toward Selma before beginning to follow in the marchers’ footsteps. Somehow, it was easy to imagine myself in the midst of a large throng of hopeful, purposeful people — beginning a peaceful walk that was to turn to chaos as they topped the crest of the round-backed bridge and saw what awaited them: scores of state troopers, under orders from Gov. George Wallace to stop the march with any force possible short of murder, and dozens of Sheriff Jim Clark’s deputized vigilantes, with night sticks and axe handles, ready to literally beat the marchers until they abandoned the idea of equal rights for blacks. What courage it must have taken to walk forward

toward that sea of armed men!

From the bridge, Eunice led us to Brown Chapel AME Church, the center of the protest movement in Selma and the gathering spot for the marchers. An historical marker in front of the red brick church recites the events of 1965 and the names of the key people involved, among them the Rev. James Reeb.

Jim Reeb was one of dozens of UU ministers and lay people who responded to the televised footage of Bloody Sunday and to Martin Luther King’s urgent call to church people to come to Selma in support of civil rights. Rev. Reeb, Rev. Clark Olson, and Rev. Orloff Miller were the three UU ministers attacked by white thugs as they walked past the Silver Moon Café on March 9, the Tuesday evening after Bloody Sunday. Reeb died from the beating on Thursday and two days later the UUA Board of Trustees adjourned their quarterly meeting in Boston and all 30 of them traveled to Selma to join the march. On the day that 3,000 marchers walked unmolested across the bridge and on to Montgomery, over 200 of the 500 white clergy present were Unitarian Universalists.

The Silver Moon Café was located on the edge of Selma’s warehouse district adjacent to the black residential community. In the 1960s, the Café served mostly working class white folks. Although the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had officially ended segregation in hotels and restaurants, federal law had not yet come to Selma, and the Silver Moon was a hangout for segregationists. Today, the restaurant building is still there, but now it is a black-owned, community restaurant known as the Strong #2 — that is, Strong’s Restaurant #2. Eunice and I had a good time introducing our Yankee friend, Deb, to the menu. We settled on catfish & hush puppies, fried okra and cheese grits with pecan pie for dessert. When we left the Strong #2, we saw that the side of the restaurant building is now covered by a mural that commemorates the events of March, 1965. The face of James Reeb is featured prominently, along with those of John Lewis and Jimmy Lee Jackson, a young black man shot to death by police in a voting rights demonstration two weeks earlier.

James Reeb was from Boston, a slight young man who wore glasses — his face on the mural is the essence of what high school kids in the 60s would have called a “nerd”– the only details that distinguish Reeb’s likeness from a Mad Magazine cartoon of a nerd is the absence of a pocket protector and a slide rule. At least that’s what I would’ve thought if I’d seen him in 1965, when I was a high school senior concerned above all else about being cool. As a southern high school kid, to the degree I was aware of the civil right movement, I thought is wasn’t about me. Jim Reeb was just 28, but already he knew the truth of the words Martin Luther King wrote in his Letter from the Birmingham Jail: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Reeb never made a decision to die “to affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person” or to “promote the use of the democratic process.” But he did.

Still, I think Reeb’s death is beside the point. More important than his death, to me, is his awareness as a young man of the importance of standing up for the rights of others when he himself enjoyed all the privileges our nation offers to the well-fed, the educated, the employed, the insured, the annointed — all the privileges I took for granted as a member of the senior class of a public, segregated high school.

This past March, Rev. Clark Olsen re-visited the site of Reeb’s murder and his own attack, as part of a civil rights tour for UU ministers sponsored by the Mid-South District. He was asked to reflect on what he, Miller, and Reeb had accomplished by responding to Rev. King’s call for church people to come to Selma. He began: “To have been connected to that change in American history through almost happenstance was an enormous . . . “ but he couldn’t finish the sentence as tears welled in his eyes and his voice choked with emotion. He collected himself, then said: “Every time you choose to stand for something that’s right, enormous good could come from it. Perhaps something

profound, deep and wonderful could happen.”

Just two weeks ago, I met with Susan Ford and a group of interesting people in Cookeville, Tennessee. Susan is a veterinarian who “discovered” Unitarian Universalism about six years ago — another born again UU — and she and her husband recently moved to Cookeville, a small city that has never had a UU congregation. She has gathered a group of folks who – if they succeed – will be the founding members of the UU Congregation of Cookeville. At present they’re writing bylaws, learning how to put on a worship service, finding Sunday speakers, holding their first pledge canvass, and looking for new members. They’re busy people, doing everything a church does, and doing it for the first time.

But Susan’s excellent leadership of these church-founding activities isn’t what she really wants to be doing. She confided that she’s anxious to get the congregation organized so she can get involved in more important things — in social justice work in and around the town of Cookeville. She and her fellow founders were worried that if they spoke out on controversial issues that they would be regarded and, perhaps, disregarded as kooks.

My advice to her — and to her congregation — was not to defer the social justice work. I said, “Go do what you feel needs to be done now. The bylaws will get written by and by.” I said that my own attraction to my congregation was based in large part on the fact that this group of people at High Street are actively involved in walking their talk — in enhancing the education offered to children in inner-city schools, in feeding and clothing the hungry and the homeless, in supporting Macon’s black community in preserving and celebrating their equal rights as citizens of our city and our nation, in demonstrating pride in Macon’s gay and lesbian community, and in declaring its unanimous support of the Creek Indian Nation’s desire to protect their ancient homelands from highway development. I told her that there were plenty of churches with good bylaws in Cookeville, but only by acting on their convictions would the UU group find a real purpose together and, in the process, find more like-minded people than they had yet reached.

The Cookeville group took great courage from the knowledge that a small group of committed UUs meeting in a bank basement in Macon in 1988 found a way to both buy a church building and hire a minister. They are inspired to hear about the outstanding social responsibility activities of our congregation; and they’re not alone.

This summer’s Peacemakers’ Camp was attended by the minister and DRE from the Athens UU church, trying to learn how Jane Donahue and the High Street crew make it work. I have often said it elsewhere, but I’d like to say in this place that I am proud to be in the same congregation with Jane Donahue, who is now taking her Peacemakers program on the road — she is scheduled to be the Sunday speaker at the Columbus, GA UU Fellowship on August 25. Folks all across the district are inspired by our Peacemakers story. And we at High Street can take courage and inspiration from the actions of our sisters and brothers in Montgomery, and in Cookeville, and in other UU communities of faith all across the South.

By the way, Fred Phelps didn’t show up at the Montgomery UU Church the Sunday morning I spoke there. He did conduct a sidewalk demonstration the next day in downtown Montgomery showing support for Justice Moore’s attack on gays and lesbians. According to the Montgomery newspaper, his pro-hate, pro-Moore demonstrators were outnumbered 6 to 1 by UUs and other Montgomery folks who turned out to “Just say NO to hate” and to advocate “No Moore Justice.”

I think we folks in the South — whether we grew up here or just arrived — have some unique challenges and opportunities that go with being Unitarian Universalists. Most southern folks don’t know us, have never heard of us — and that presents both a challenge and an opportunity: a

challenge because we want them to know about us / and an opportunity because we can present to them what we want them to know about us. And the best way to do that is simply by doing what we UUs do best — working to make the world a better place.

I love many things about the history, literature, people and culture of the region we live in; I would like to change many other things. I know that I am in a religious community — here at High Street and in the Mid-South District — of folks who will not just join me, but lead me, in standing up for what is right.

So may it be.

Copyright ©2000, R.W.Creswell, All Rights Reserved.

Wizard Theology

A Sermon by The Rev. Yvonne V. Miller – December 12, 1999

[Edited Transcript]

This time of year is one of our most human seasons. It’s a time that is full of ambiguities and
tensions. We feel both anticipation and anxiety; happiness and stress. We go through the darkest
days of the year to get to the re-birth of the light as the sun returns.

December is a tightrope, and sometimes we could all use a little magic to help us cross that
tightrope.

Which brings me to wizards. Wizards have made it back into the news with the phenomenal success
of the Harry Potter novels.

This series follows the career and adventures of a boy, Harry Potter, as he studies to be a wizard at
the Hogwarts, the famous school for wizards and witches. Some of the students at the school come
from famous wizarding families. But other students come from perfectly ordinary families; they
have been selected by the omniscient governors of Hogwarts who have noticed their potential.

Harry, an orphan, himself comes from wizard parents, although he does not know this at the
beginning. He is plucked from a miserable existence with his uncle Vernon and his Aunt Petunia
[who hate and fear magic] and invited to Hogwarts. For him it is paradise.

Harry could not be happier. But he soon finds himself with a powerful enemy: the evil Lord
Voldemort – a wizard gone bad who becomes his nemesis. The books follow Harry’s course of
studies as well as his battles with Lord Voldemort n his various guises.

One of the things that makes the Harry Potter books so popular is that they send the message that
anyone may turn out to have wizarding powers. No matter how ordinary or even bleak their life
might seem, the invitation to Hogwarts might arrive any day – carried by an owl of course.

Another message they send is that pluck and resourcefulness are more important than sheer talent.
It’s character that ultimately triumphs here. It’s an appealing message because it makes being a
wizard very accessible.

Some people, you may have heard, have objected strongly to this series on the grounds that it
encourages witchcraft and Satanism. Sure there are spells in the books – mostly in bad Latin – and
the students learn to brew up potions, but the word “Satanism” is misplaced. The reason people
read these books is so they can watch young Harry triumph over the forces of evil – mostly with his
courage. Harry just has a few extra tools.

It’s too bad that some people seem to be afraid of the imagination. If we removed all the magic,
spells and magical characters from books, the best of our children’s literature would be gone. The
Wizard of Oz, for example would be gone, and Dorothy would still be stuck in Kansas. It’s not the
human imagination we should worry about, it’s what we do with that imagination that should cause
us concern.

Harry Potter is just the latest twist on a figure that has an ancient literary tradition: the wizard.
Wizards pop up again and again in literature to rescue people, or save the world, or to undo evil
spells cast by wizards and sorcerers gone bad.

Like people, wizards vary greatly in their personalities, and yes, there are evil wizards now and
then [although that is usually associated with sorcerers], but all wizards have one common
characteristic: they are all agents of transformation and change.

Let me briefly mention some wizards I have known, so to speak:

The oldest of all must be Merlin of the Arthurian legends. He is the archetypal European wizard on
whom many subsequent wizards are based.

There is also Gandolf the gray in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Wizard of Oz [a wizard
in his own flawed way], and my personal favorite, the wizard Sparrowhawk from Ursula LeGuin’s
Earthsea trilogy.

More recently, the Star Wars movies have given us a new variant of the wizard in the Jedi knights –
especially the Jedi masters Obi Won Kenobi and Yoda. They use their laser swords and their
powers to dispel the forces of the dark side.

And this is what wizards have always done. And that’s why we love them. We are allies.
Wizards work to weave the powers of the earth and sky and light and dark. The wizard Gandolf,
with his long staff, lit up by his power, lights the darkness so that the hobbits can find their way. His
staff burns with a fierce bright light, casting out shadows, repelling evil.

This is what we would all like to do; what we all try to do.

Wizards in literature are projections of our inner selves and our deepest religious impulses.

Good wizards always serve the spirit of life. Evil wizards and evil people never do. And so we cheer
on the good wizards because, we too, are in service to the spirit of life. Without it, the wizard might
survive for a time, but we know we won’t.

Wizards stand with us in our human anxiety. My favorite wizard, Sparrowhawk of the Earthsea
trilogy, is one of the bravest. In the last book, at the end of a long journey full of dangers, when they
have sailed to the edge of the world and are faced with almost certain defeat, Sparrowhawk’s
companion suggests they surrender. And Sparrowhawk turns to him and says: “No, I will not hear
it. I will take not the counsel of despair.”

“I will not take the counsel of despair.” This wizard stands with us in our anxiety and says no to the
forces of despair.

We admire wizards because they seem to be able to do so much more than we can. When we are
defeated and overwhelmed by evil or apathy the wizard is undaunted. The wizard also seems to
have greater ability to grasp events and shape them. The wizards’ strength runs deep, grounded in
spirit. After all, the word wizard comes from the same root as the word “wise.’

I too would like to be a wizard sometimes. I would like to speak to the wind, commune with animals,
and feel a stronger sense of connection to the heart of things. But we are human.

Still, we should not underrate ourselves. After all, we create these characters. They are both models
for us and also reflections of ourselves. The character of the wizard is our own character writ large
– the actions more dramatic maybe, but not different in kind, not really.

We are all agents of transformation and change. And we too can and do say “no” to the forces of
evil and despair. We too, serve the spirit of life in our own way.

The trick, and the challenge, is to recognize our own wizardry.

Let me tell you a story.

* * * * * * *

Once upon a time, there was a group of people who all went to church together on Sundays and
sometimes on other days.

One day, as they were sitting in church, thinking their thoughts, the doors of the church suddenly
flew open. A mist rolled in. Now most mists cover things up and make it hard to see. But this was a
mist from the heart of the world, and what it did was the opposite: it made everybody see better.

And all the people suddenly knew themselves to be wizards. They were not very strong wizards, but
they were wizards all the same.

One of the first changes they noticed in themselves was that they had a new clarity of vision. They
could see things that other people couldn’t and they could name things by their true names. They
saw that much of what people considered normal, really wasn’t so good. And they also saw that
much of what other people called “ordinary,” was really miraculous – including themselves.

Oh they still had to get up and go to work, and they still had to do shopping and stand in lines, but
now with their new wizard vision they saw that there was power in everything they did. And as they
used the power, it grew in them.

They used their power first of all to brighten up their world, which was looking a little drab.

Christmas lights sprang up everywhere and fresh fir trees were brought inside to grace the spaces
with their fragrance. Presents for the needy appeared under the trees because as the wizards looked
around, they saw much poverty that needed to be changed. Then they turned their gaze on each
other . With their new vision, they began to see the wizardry in each other. They saw that each had
his or her own special wizardry. This one could fix fabulous meals, while this one could change
silence into music. Another could build things. Many of them sat and dreamed powerful dreams of
beauty and peace, which they told the others about with magical words. This too was wizardry.

As they practiced using their wizardry in small things, their powers grew — although they never
became as powerful as any of the celebrity wizards. Still, as their abilities grew, they were able to
catch glimpses of the heart of things. They began to feel the great force that connected them and all
living things to each other. It was this that gave them their wizardry. Their hearts sang with the
song of the birds and danced with the stars. But despite all these marvels, the wizards stayed
together, because they knew beyond doubt that it was by being together that they each came to
realize their own true wizardry.

And in this way, many changes came into the world.

So may it be.

Reconnecting with the Earth

The Rev. Yvonne V. Miller – August 22, 1999

Reconnecting with the earth. Reconnecting with the universe around us. It’s an important topic for us to consider, and that’s true even if you don’t think of yourself as a nature person. Even if you may think of yourself as the writer Fran Liebowitz clearly does when she wrote, ” I am not the type who wants to go back to the land – I am the type who wants to go back to the hotel.”

But it’s an important question for all of us; perhaps especially for those of us who feel like we don’t have much connection to the natural world.

I’d like to start out this morning by first sketching out some of the various and conflicting views that we seem to hold about nature.

And there are many of them. Just as it’s possible to have many conflicting feelings about human beings, it is possible to have several conflicting attitudes about the natural world. The challenge for us is to try to make these conflicting feelings cohere into some kind of unity which we can then fit within our understanding of the world – our theology, if you will.

Celestine’s Sibley’s column, which I read this morning , is lyrical about the beauty of the world – and she is not wrong. But, as we know, it is not the whole story. When we think about the natural world many different pictures can come to mind.

The first chapter of Annie Dillard’s book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, contains a horrifying drama. So horrifying that I won’t read it to you, but the gist of it is that she describes what happens as she watches a frog being sucked dry by a giant water bug.

“Cruelty,” she writes, “is a mystery.” [7] (i)

And so it is. And there is much in nature that is cruel.

It is hard to make sense of it – to fit these facts into the context of a loving universe, a sheltering universe, or a caring god.

If we contemplate at length the destiny of the frog, whose organs are being sucked out by the water bug, nature may well appear to us to be nothing but a field of destruction and even waste. It can remind us of Wm. Blake’s famous saying that “nature is red in tooth and claw.”

As one writer has said: “first and last, life consists of eating and being eaten.” (ii)

This somewhat gloomy view runs like a thread through western theology, with its split between body and spirit or between the material and the spiritual worlds.

Nature has often been relegated in traditional Christian theology to the realm of the fallen and the unredeemed. To the realm of Satan. At worst, it’s savage and destructive, and positively evil. As one of the Puritan settlers called it, “a howling wilderness.” At its best, under this viewpoint, it’s simply inert and passive, waiting for us humans to come along and do our magic — to invest the material with the spiritual. As though they could be separated.

As though nature needed to be redeemed by us.

At the other end of this spectrum of attitudes is what the UU writer Phillip Simmons has called, “the Bambi syndrome.” And he describes this as the fantasy in which “all animals become wide-eyed innocents”– never mind those animals that eat their young. Part of this Bambi syndrome, he says, “is the prejudice that animals and nature are pure while humans and society are corrupt.” (iii)

Simmons blames this, as others have, on the French philosopher, Rousseau, who in the eighteenth century started the Romantic movement by espousing a back-to-nature philosophy. In his view, nature was the source of all goodness, society and civilization the source of all evil and corruption.

The natural world, and humanity in its natural, uneducated state, are inherently good; it is society that corrupts this original goodness.

Now in these early Romantic views, nature is always described as pastoral. Nature is lovely, benign. It is life- giving.

A paradise where the lion and the lamb obligingly parade themselves before our eyes, so we can enjoy them.

Now I suspect that here in Macon Georgia, in the land of Kudzu and Palmetto bugs, we are not so easily lulled into this pastoral, benign view of nature. And in climates to the south of us, and to some extent here, nature is a force that constantly threatens to overwhelm. Just to not cut the grass for a month, is to risk not being able to find your house. In the tropics and semi-tropics, the plant world is greedy and voracious in its fertility – it seems like it’s always just waiting out there for its chance to come back and reclaim the earth.

Setting both of these views aside for a moment, I suspect that if we seriously set about trying to create a relationship with nature, we will find that it is not so different from the process of creating a relationship with another person

Many of the same rules apply, I think.

First, we have to work at it: it doesn’t just happen. We have to value the other, too -despite differences in goals and perspectives. And finally, we have to accept a host of imperfections. A multitude of things of which we don’t often approve.

We have to work at our relationship. Nature, frankly, does not leap to be in relationship with us. In fact, I suspect that nature is mostly indifferent to our existence. We must work to create an enriching and ethical relationship. We must study its ways and learn its language. Such study has rewards as more of the natural world then becomes understandable to us, and its mysteries are at least partially explained.

We must also care about it for its own sake and not merely for the benefits it brings us.

We have heard much about the exploitation of the earth and its natural resources. Most of us are quite conscious of that. But there is another kind of exploitation – almost a spiritual consumerism, in which we seek to use nature for spiritual benefits which we fantasize, or hope, it will bring us. This also, is a kind of exploitation. A kind of using of nature as something other – as a resource which we can exploit.

There is also the effect of television nature documentaries. Now, I actually love these -especially the documentaries about animals.

They have had a perverse effect on our attitudes, because, raised on a diet of nature documentaries, we go out into the woods and expect that within five minutes, we will see a whole parade of animals, just like on TV. Many people in fact are disappointed when they go out on a long hike and it isn’t like on TV – coyotes don’t go bounding across the field, and you don’t see elk and hundreds of birds -all these animals that are packed into a thirty minute television program. And most of us don’t go out with 800 mm lenses, so even when we might spot an animal, it is often just a speck on the horizon -not like on TV at all. And so, TV has shaped our expectations and attitudes in a negative way.

Finally, as I said, we must also work out a way to think about or accept the many things of which we don’t quite approve.

Palmetto bugs for instance. “Palmetto bugs” are those giant cockroaches you see down here in the south. Let us consider the problem of the Palmetto bug.

Our 7th UU principle teaches us to respect and uphold “the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”

Presumably this includes the cockroach and the Palmetto bug. This I say is the true test of one’s faith, of one’s ethical resolve.

The Buddhist teacher Lama Surya Das wrote in a recent book that, as we practice opening our hearts to compassion, we can expand the range of things that we can love. He talked about an incident in his childhood in which he stepped on a baby bird and killed it, but then he said that now, after years of spiritual discipline, he’s reached the point where he cannot even kill mosquitoes. (iv)

I have no such qualms about mosquitoes. My guilt meter barely registers.

But Palmetto bugs are a different story, and, fortunately or unfortunately, killing them is becoming a problem for me. Maybe because they are bigger, and hence, seem more like real animals. And as I’ve watched them I’ve noticed that they really seem quite clever -capable of strategy and thinking.

So it has become difficult for me to kill them, even though they scare and revolt me.

Now I’m going to confess to you my solution to this problem. My solution at home, when confronted with a cockroach, is that I take my cat, Rocket. And I pick him up. If he’s asleep, I wake him up, and I carry him into the next room. And I put him down in front of the bug, And I point it out to him. Then I wash my hands of it, and I figure, I am just letting nature take its course.

Now in my defense, let me say that I don’t really pretend I have no responsibility in this. And yes, I still feel a flicker of guilt as I do this.

But as between my cat Rocket and the bug, it does seem to me that they are about evenly matched. So at least it’s a much fairer fight.

Someday I may be where Lama Surya Das is, and you may be too. Maybe you are already. But for right now, I’m still on that path, and we do the best we can.

* * * *

The cockroach, as I’ve said, is a test of our belief in inter-connection.

But in the scheme of things, it is a relatively trivial annoyance.

Despite Palmetto bugs, and mosquitoes, we know that we need these connections to the earth – that we need a connection to the earth, almost as much as we need anything.

We need a connection with our fellow creatures, with the natural world in order to be fully human. We are not, as some religious traditions teach us, merely or even primarily spirit. I do not believe that we are just souls which happen to be temporarily encased in a physical form.

I believe that to be human, we must claim our animal side as well. To see ourselves primarily as spirit, or mind, or even emotion, robs us of an important part of being a human being.

This, at best, is what nature can restore to us: a sense of our kinship with other living things. A sense of connection with the rest of the living, struggling universe.

I’ve always found my deepest sense of the holy in mountains. Mountains restore us to a proper sense of ourselves. They give us back a sense of proportion. From a mountain top our daily lives and troubles shrink back down to their proper size. From a mountain top we can know again, in our deepest being, that we are just part of a vast living, breathing tapestry.

The challenge of mountains is itself a spiritual discipline which teaches many lessons.

When we place ourselves back in the hands of nature – giving up our civilized comforts for a time – whether that’s in backpacking, camping, white water canoeing – whenever we put ourselves back into nature’s hands and give up some of our control, things become very simple, very fast. We become aware of the extent to which we too are basically animals: food, water, shelter – this is what it all comes down to in the end.

In testing ourselves, in placing ourselves at nature’s mercy, we realize that it all comes down to food, water and shelter in the end.

And in this knowing, in this experiencing, we see our basic kinship to all other living things. It’s almost a relief.

I have mentioned Annie Dillard’s dying frog and the loathsome Palmetto bug. Of greater importance may be what I sometimes see as nature’s betrayal.

That is — the ultimate betrayal that nature makes.

It is in fact, life’s betrayal. And it is this: we can give ourselves over to nature, to the natural world. We can love it passionately, embrace it wholeheartedly. We can worship at its temple. Again and again, we can return to it and let its beauty pierce and heal us.

And in the end, it will “betray” us. No matter how passionately we love the world, we will die, and the world will go on. Nature is completely indifferent to our suffering, as well as to our death. As we go falling off the cliff, the rocks and trees will not usually save us, or the swirling waters lift us up – no matter how we’ve loved them. In fact, that which we most love often turns against us in the end.

So the truth, as I see it, is that nature is an indifferent lover. We humans are the lovers. She, or it, is the beloved, unmoved by our passion.

But this is the price of admission to the cathedral of beauty. Dying is the price of participating in the show. And we can at least say, that it is fair: We are not treated any differently than the rest of the earth’s creatures.

There is both a terror and a grace in the natural world. Both are unexpected and often undeserved. Annie Dillard writes in her book that, “unless all ages” have been deluded, there seems to be such a thing as beauty, a grace wholly gratuitous… ” (v)

And she describes her witness of the flight of a mockingbird, and I will close with this:

About five years ago I saw a mockingbird make a straight vertical descent from the roof gutter of a four-story building. It was an act as careless and spontaneous as the curl of a stem or the kindling of a star.

The mockingbird took a single step into the air and dropped. His wings were still folded against his sides as though he were singing from a limb and not falling, accelerating thirty-two feet per second per second through empty air. Just a breath before he would have been dashed to the ground, he unfurled his wings with exact, deliberate care, revealing the broad bars of white, spread his elegant, white-banded tail, and so floated onto the grass. I had just rounded a corner when [this] caught my eye; there was no one else in sight. The fact of his free fall was like the old philosophical conundrum about the tree that falls in the forest. The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will orsense them. The least we can do is try to be there.(vi) [emphasis added]

She is right. There is grace, as well as terror, in the world.

As we fall into life, and as we fall into our own deaths, may we strive to find the courage to open our hearts to the mystery and joy in this paradoxical universe, so that we too may fall at last into a sense of grace.

So may it be.

Let us have a moment of silence.

Footnotes:

  1. Dillard, Annie, Pilgrim At Tinker Creek [New York: Harper & Row, 1974].
  2. Phillip Simmons, “Out of the Cave,” in World Magazine, Mar/Apr. ’99 issue at 33.
  3. Id.
  4. Lama Surya Das, Awakening to the Sacred [New York: Broadway Books, 1999] excerpted in Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, Summer ’99 issue at 88-89.
  5. Dillard at p.7
  6. Id. at 7-8.

On Risk and Rumi

A Sermon by Cynthia J. Alby – May 23, 1999

[Edited Transcript]

 

Opening prayer:

There is a community of the spirit. Join it, and feel the delight of walking in the noisy street, and being the noise. Drink all your passion, and be a disgrace. Close both eyes to see with the other eye. Open your hands, if you want to be held. Sit down in this circle. Quit acting like a wolf, and feel the shepherd’s love filling you. Be empty of worrying. Think of who created thought! Why do you stay in prison when the door is so wide open? Move outside the tangle of fear-thinking. Live in silence. Flow down and down in always widening rings of being.

Sermon

I would like to open with a few words from Rumi, “Gamble everything, if you’re a true human being. Half- heartedness doesn’t reach into majesty. You set out to find truth, but then you keep stopping for long periods at mean-spirited roadhouses.”

Many of us have a tendency to get waylaid at mean-spirited roadhouses; we have a tendency to lounge at the bar. Rumi explores the image of the tavern in a number of poems, and it is an apt image. Think about what bars are like: sometimes they are places where we get stirred up with a kind of muddled happiness. Sometimes they are places where we wallow in the guilt or hurt which we somehow crave. But they are also places where we are transformed like grapes are transformed into wine because eventually we sense how unfulfilling the life of wallowing is. I think a lot of us have become stuck in such places in our lives. They are unfulfilling and we recognize that we need more, but we just can’t seem to get out. Mostly we try to get out by taking baby steps, but as Rumi says, “Half-heartedness doesn’t reach into majesty.” Leaving the tavern is scary; it requires a leap into the unknown. Where is the tavern in your life?

Today I want to talk about what happens when we are unwilling to leave the tavern, what is likely to happen if we do, and what goals are worth risking everything for.

Another image Rumi uses for the place we wallow is the lake. Here is a wonderful story Rumi uses of three fish trying to decide if they should leave the lake:

This is the story of the lake and the three big fish that were in it, one of them intelligent, another half-intelligent, and the third, stupid. Some fishermen came to the edge of the lake with their nets. The three fish saw them. The intelligent fish decided at once to leave, to make the long, difficult trip to the ocean.

He thought, “I won’t consult with these two on this. They will only weaken my resolve, because they love this place so. They call it home. Their ignorance will keep them here.” When you’re traveling, ask a traveler for advice, not someone whose lameness keeps him in one place. Sometimes there’s no one to talk to. You must just set out on your own.

So the intelligent fish made it’s whole length a moving footprint and, like a deer the dogs chase, suffered greatly on its way, but finally made it to the edgeless safety of the sea.

The half intelligent fish thought, “My guide has gone. I ought to have gone with him, but I didn’t, and now I’ve lost my chance to escape. I wish I’d gone with him.” Don’t regret what’s happened. If it’s in the past, let it go. Don’t even remember it.

He mourns the absence of his guide for a while, and then thinks, “What can I do to save myself from these men and their nets? Perhaps if I pretend to be already dead! I’ll belly up on the surface and float like weeds float, just giving myself totally to the water.” He bobbed up and down, helpless, within reach of the fishermen. “Look at this! The biggest and the best of the fishes is dead.” One of the men lifted him by the tail, spat on him, and threw him up on the ground. He rolled over and over and slid secretly near the water, and then, back in.

Meanwhile, the third fish, the dumb one, was agitatedly jumping about, trying to escape with his agility and cleverness. The net, of course, finally closed around him, and as he lay in the terrible frying pan bed, he thought, “If I get out of this, I’ll never live again in the limits of a lake. Next time, the ocean! I’ll make the infinite my home.”

Rumi doesn’t pull any punches in this story. He calls the fish who remains in the lake, “stupid.” I think most of us stay in the lake, not because we are stupid but because we are afraid. But if we keep to this image of the lake, we will notice that the lake isn’t just an unfulfilling place, it’s actually a dangerous place. It is a place that will eventually suck the life out of you. And finally, like the third fish, you will find yourself saying, “If I get out of this” but it will be too late. I find the dying words of the fish so poignant: If I get out of this, I’ll never live again in the limits of a lake. Next time, the ocean! I’ll make the infinite my home! Those words are poignant because I, as the reader, know that for him, and perhaps for us, there will be no “next time.” Where is the lake in your life?

The second fish, meanwhile, is nearly ruined by regret. So often we feel that it is too late for us. We could have left for the ocean, but that opportunity has passed. Now we’re too old, too set in our ways, we have responsibilities you know! But over and over Rumi says that it is not too late. You aren’t in the frying pan yet! Other times what holds us in the lake is that feeling of safety it provides. The first fish scoffs because his friends believe that the lake is their home. Many of us become trapped by the belief that home and the safety it offers is something outside of us.

What is keeping you in the lake? Fear? Regret? The fears of those around you who aren’t travelers themselves? Remember the opening prayer today when Rumi asks, “Why do you stay in prison when the door is so wide open?” Why do you stay in prison? Is the door really closed?

You may be wondering, what if I did leave the lake? What is it like out there? Rumi does not soften his description of the first fish’s journey. He admits that, “like a deer the dogs chase, the intelligent fish suffered greatly on his way.” The trip to the ocean is described as “a long, difficult trip.” Rumi describes his own journey in the poem Burnt Kabob:

Last year, I admired wines.
This year I’m wandering inside the red world.
Last year, I gazed at the fire.
This year I’m a burnt kabob.
Thirst drove me down to the water
where I drank the moon’s reflection.
Now I am a lion staring up totally
lost in love with the thing itself.
Don’t ask questions about longing.

Look in my face.
My heart, I’d say it was more
like a donkey sunk in a mudhole,
struggling and miring deeper.
But listen to me: for one moment
quit being sad. Hear blessings
dropping their blossoms
around you.

In the midst of the journey he often feels burnt, helpless, mired in mud. But the journey is a blessing. One of my favorite quotations from Rumi is, “You should wish to have one hundred thousand sets of moth-wings so you could burn them away, one set a night.” In burning, he is able to see something so much bigger than himself. In his own words: you abandon kingdoms because you want more than kingdoms. But he never suggests that you won’t get burnt along the way.

Perhaps you recognize your tavern, your lake, your prison, and you are willing to take the risk, set out on the journey. What gamble is worth pursuing? Rumi uses the image of wine here. He says there are many wines and we must choose carefully:

Don’t think all ecstasies are the same!
Every object, every being, is a jar full of delight.
Be a connoisseur, and taste with caution.
Any wine will get you high.
Judge like a king, and choose the purest,
the ones unadulterated with fear,
or some urgency about “what’s needed.”
Drink the wine that moves you.

Here are many goals which do not lead out of the lake. If I decided to work overtime and buy a new car, I am unlikely to experience anything more than the brief, muddled joy of the tavern. So many goals aren’t ultimately fulfilling. Rumi gives us some clues, though, to help us differentiate between worthy and unworthy wines. Avoid the ones adulterated by fear or neediness. Perhaps I want the car to assuage my fears that I am not financially my neighbor’s equal. Or perhaps I work to be thin because I fear that I do not attract the attention I need. Instead, Rumi advises, “Drink the wine that moves you.”

For Rumi, our first goal should be to move outside the tangle of fear-thinking and be more open. And for him, the ultimate goal would be the understanding that there is no reality but God. I think here, most of us are hoping for some perfect understanding of the ultimate reality. I hesitate to call that a goal, however, because I believe we find it, not by actively seeking it, but by leaving the lake and allowing the river to take us where it may. As Rumi says, “I will search with all my passion until I learn that I don’t need to search.” But in between openness and perfect understanding, there are certainly many goals worth pursuing. What pursuits move you?

The one problem with the image of the lake is that it suggests that we leave it once and then we are on our way. So I will return to the image of the tavern – a place we often escape only to return again. The trick is to stay out. The trick is to keep walking into the night, to keep finding new ways to walk away from fear, regret, and the need for safety. We walk out when we take a relationship to a new level or leave a destructive relationship. We walk out when we approach our job as a calling rather than a drugery, when we use our position to uplift ourselves and others, or when we leave a job that is strangling us. We walk out when we engage in activities that nourish us or those around us and abandon activities that are not truly fulfilling. We walk out when we set aside time to contemplate that which is bigger than ourselves. As Rumi says:

Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

And,
When you do things from your soul
The river itself moves through you.
Freshness and a deep joy are signs of the current.

And,
Be dizzy and wandering like Abraham
who suddenly left everything.
The alchemy of a changing life is the only truth.

What is it that brings you freshness and a deep joy? What are the ways you can walk out? Where would you like to wander?

In summary I would say that our tendency, as humans, is to lounge at the bar, to stay within the safety of our lake. But when we don’t take risks, we end up frying in remorse. When we do take the plunge, we flail in the mud, we burn, but at times we sense ecstasy, and our hearts swell to hold more. There are many goals worth pursuing, and you will know them because they are the ones that move you and bring you a deep joy.

I would like to end with some final words from Coleman Barks, a great translator of Rumi:

To a frog that’s never left his pond, the ocean seems like a gamble. Look what he’s given up: security, mastery of his world, recognition! The ocean frog just shakes his head.

Closing Prayer:

Inside this new love, die.
Your way begins on the other side.
Become the sky.
Take an axe to the prison wall
Walk out like someone suddenly born into color.
Do it now.