Posts Tagged humility

Sky and Water, Land and Spirit

(I delivered this sermon for Earth Day at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on April 21st 2013.)Born with a Bang

Children’s Story: Born with a Bang: the Universe Tells Our Cosmic Story by Jennifer Morgan

Reading: from Song by Philemon Sturges

A few weeks ago I talked about someone I’d met through an organization called the Institute on Religion in an Age of SciencePhilemon had been challenged to write a book about the Epic of Evolution, which is one name for the scientific creation story of the Universe, the Earth and Life as we know it.  As a successful children’s author, he’d accepted the challenge to write not just another technical, scholarly book, but a book for children, and to write it not just in ordinary prose, but in poetry.

The working title of the book was Song, a metaphor for the creative processes of the cosmos itself.  This reading tells the portion of the story where an ancestral supernova created the heavy elements that would later form our solar system, our planet and ourselves.

Quite long ago, yet not so far
from here, there was a giant star.
Tiamat’s the perfect name
for that great sphere of searing flame.
Her balance-dancing did not last.
She ‘xploded with a thund’rous blast.
That roaring fiery furnace forged
new elements.  They were disgorged
into surrounding space, and then
were gracefully gathered back again.

Her stardust gyred and slowly spun;
soon gravity’s great work was done.
Though Tiamat was sorely riven,
her godlike gift of gold was given.

A mellow star was born — our Sun.
Of his [eight] planets there was one
that balance-danced ‘twixt heat and cold,
and there Song’s singing could unfold.

Air-wrapped Earth was bathed in water.
The circling Moon, Her clinging daughter,
stirred amniotic air and sea.
Soon gyring eddies came to be.

As Earth basked in the warming Sun,
Song’s birthing song was softly sung:

Gently turn, slowly spin,
my warmth transforms what errs within.
What once was simple now shall be
imbued with new complexity.

Then, in a still mysterious way,
near a vent, on crystal clay,
or on the edge of tidal sea,
emerged a new complexity.
Two mirrored molecules entwined.
Our Mother, Life, was born.
(And now, perhaps, Her daughter — Mind.)

Anthem: “Above the Moon, Earth Rises

Sermon: “Sky and Water, Land and Spirit”

When I was seven years I started at a new school.  At the back of the room where I had all of my classes other than art and music, there was a tall bookcase, crammed with books suitable for seven-year-olds.  The teacher told us that we were to choose one of the books, to read it as class-time allowed, and, when we were done with it, to select another and repeat.  All of the other children picked books like The Wind in the Willows, Peter Pan and The Hobbit.  I picked a book about the solar system.  And when I’d finished reading that one, I picked a book about atoms.

My teacher patiently explained to me that those weren’t really the books that she wanted me to read.  Eventually she succeeded in getting me to read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe — and I owe her my thanks for my enjoyment of reading ever since — but I have to admit that my interest in the science books wasn’t because of the science, at least at first, but because of the pictures in the books — gorgeous photographs of planets and galaxies, beautiful illustrations of particles too small to see — and they captured my imagination.  It was an incredible feeling to try to wrap my mind around the immensities of space and time, so far beyond anything I’d experienced in my barely begun life, or to think about how everything that I believed to be solid — books, chairs, my own body — was made up of these miniscule bits of matter that were actually mostly empty space.

And I guess there’s an important lesson for all of us, whether we’re teachers or not.  If you want to get somebody to do something, particularly if it involves thinking in a new way, and not just to do it but really to commit to doing it, you’ve got to capture their imagination.  Because after reading those books on planets and atoms, I was hooked.  I’d had an interest in mechanical devices and machinery, thanks to a few children’s television programs I’d seen as well as some of the toys my parents had given me, but now I didn’t just want to build the machines myself: I wanted to figure out how they worked.  I wanted to figure out how everything worked, how we could be part of the same Universe, from atoms up through planets and with us living our lives there in the middle.

NASA: Earthrise at Christmas

NASA: Earthrise at Christmas
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Humanity’s understanding of the Universe has come a long way in my life-time, of course.  Apollo 11 landed on the Moon just a couple of years before I was born.  This picture was taken by Apollo 8 only a little before that, on Christmas Eve 1968, to be precise.  It has inspired a generation of would-be astronauts, as well as the words by preacher and poet Thomas Troeger that the choir sang a few minutes ago, and gave its name to the Fellowship’s Earth-centered spirituality group, EarthRising.  Then there’s the cosmic microwave background — the low level hum of energy that fills all space — that had been discovered earlier in the 1960s, a phenomenon that, as we have studied it, has revolutionized our knowledge about the Big Bang and the evolution of the Universe.

Fifty years later, we know more precisely than ever that the Universe is a little less than fourteen billion years old.  Much as we might be tempted to ask what happened before the Universe was created, that’s not a very meaningful question because time itself didn’t exist before then either.  There was no “before” before.  The metaphor that cosmologist Stephen Hawking gives is that asking what happened before time began is like asking what’s north of the north pole.

One idea about how the Universe was created is that there was an unstable fluctuation in what is known as the quantum vacuum.  To try to explain that, let me simply say that in quantum mechanics, what we might think of as nothingness is actually boiling with activity, with energy appearing and disappearing far too quickly for us to notice.  Only, 13.8 billion years ago, some of that energy didn’t disappear and instead blew up.  As described in this morning’s children’s story, the early Universe expanded and cooled down enough for some of that energy to turn into particles.  They were created with their anti-matter equivalents, which annihilated each other back into energy, but as the particle physicists who work at Jefferson Labs can tell us, there’s a very slight imbalance built into the laws of physics and so there was just a little matter left over.  That slight excess of matter, of course, is what everything that exists today — you, me, this building, this planet — is made from.

NASA: Best Map Ever of the Universe

NASA: Best Map Ever of the Universe
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After a few hundred thousand years, the Universe was cool enough for atoms to form, mostly hydrogen with some helium.  Now this is a picture of the cosmic microwave background, a map of the whole sky that was completed just last year after nine years of gathering data.  It shows very slight irregularities in the distribution of energy in the very early Universe, as a result of which there were places where, even under the very weak pull of gravity between hydrogen atoms, those atoms could be gathered together and eventually form galaxies.

NASA: Pillars of Creation

NASA: Pillars of Creation
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In places where enough hydrogen could collect, of course, gravity squeezed the hydrogen atoms together until nuclear fusion took place, and stars were born.  This is a process that continues even today, in places such as the Eagle Nebula.  This picture was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope; to give you an idea of the scale here, the column on the left is six or seven light years in length.  The Eagle Nebula, by the way, is about seven thousand light years away from us, which means that, given the finite speed of light, we’re actually seeing the nebula as it was seven thousand years ago in the past.

Now only a decade or two ago there was an idea that in our part of the galaxy there was once a very large star, much bigger than our Sun.  In the children’s story, this was called the Mother Star, while others have called it Tiamat, which in Babylonian mythology is the name of the primordial goddess who gives birth to the other gods.  The idea was that this star exploded and, as a supernova, produced carbon, nitrogen, calcium, iron and other heavy elements that were scattered across space.  Given another billion years or so, enough of those elements, along with plenty of the original hydrogen that was still around, had condensed to form our solar system, with the Sun shining at its center.  More recently, astrophysicists have concluded that at least twenty such ancestral stars exploded, contributing the elements that made our solar system, so Tiamat was not a single star but a community of stars.

At the same time that we’ve been making these discoveries, astronomers have also discovered planets around other stars — and some of those other planets are about the same size as the Earth or are orbiting their star at just the right distance for liquid water to exist, which is generally believed to be one of the pre-conditions for life to emerge.  Those solar systems were similarly formed from the elements resulting from ancestral supernovas, so perhaps our solar system isn’t that unique, though we cannot say as yet whether any of those other planets have anything we’d recognize as life on them or not.

In any case, our planet, life as we know it and everything that makes us up was produced by dying stars.  As astronomer Carl Sagan and others have since put it, “We are made of star stuff.”  We all come from the same raw materials.  And we are alive today because, billions of years ago, those stars died.

Of course, once the Earth had formed and the bombardment of comets and other space debris had eased off, the story switches from cosmological evolution to biological evolution.  That’s a topic for a future sermon, but I want to note that it’s in biology that the principle of interdependence is particularly obvious.  After all, the air we breathe and the water we drink and the food we eat are all parts of a vast system of cycles that, powered by sunlight and otherwise left to themselves, support life on this planet just as they have for millions of years.  Everything that makes us what we are was once somewhere else in and on the Earth, even as, billions of years before that, it came from a supernova.

Now there’s apparently a Serbian proverb that captures these ideas and suggests what we might do with them:  “Be humble for you are made of earth.  Be noble for you are made of stars.”  Actually I suspect that the Serbian word translated “earth” here more literally means “soil”, since I’ve seen another translation that says: “Be humble for you are made of dung.”  And there’s little that’s more humble than that.

Yes, we should all be uplifted to know that we are made of stars, but we need a good dose of humility, too.  It’s all too easy to look at the progression from energy to matter to life to consciousness, even to claim (and not metaphorically) that stars died so that we might live, and then to conclude that, well, the point of the whole thing was obviously to produce conscious beings as a way for the Universe to be aware of itself.  There’s even something called the Anthropic Principle that claims that the Universe must be the way it is in order for there to be intelligent life that is able to see that the Universe is the way it is.  But when we’re talking about conscious beings, of course, we know we’re really talking about human beings.  After all, wouldn’t we like to think that the whole point of the Big Bang and everything that happened in the fourteen billion years since was to produce us as the pinnacle not only of biological evolution but of cosmological evolution, too?  That seems awfully arrogant to me.

Sometimes, though, it’s easier to be arrogant, to be conceited, to be unquestioningly sure of ourselves, than it is to be humble.  Humility takes courage.  Humility requires that we question ourselves, that we think about things beyond ourselves, that we think of ourselves not in the spotlight at the center of the cosmic stage but as part of an interdependent web where our true value comes from our relationships and not from our fantasies about self-reliance.  It takes courage to hear the scientific creation story of the Universe and embrace its implications for how we are to live on this Earth, how we are to treat one another, and how we are to treat the special planet that supports such diversity of life, not just ours.

For example, Carl Sagan pleaded with NASA during the 1980s to have the first Voyager spacecraft take a particular picture.  Voyager had swung past Saturn up and out of the plane of the solar system, and Sagan wanted it to glance homeward one last time.  It almost didn’t happen — a few project personnel claimed it wasn’t “science” and the project’s technicians were being laid off — but an administrator intervened just in time and so Voyager 1 took its photograph of the Earth — from a distance of more than four billion miles.

NASA: Pale Blue Dot

NASA: Pale Blue Dot
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You may have seen that photo.  Here it is, in fact.  Against an almost black background, a beam of sunlight, reflected off the spacecraft, slants across the picture.  As if suspended in the light, like a tiny bit of blue dust, is our planet.

Describing the photograph, Sagan wrote the following.

“That’s here.  That’s home.  That’s us.  On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.  The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar’, every ‘supreme leader’, every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

Sagan continued.  “The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena.  Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors, so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.  Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.  Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.  Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark.  In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”

And Sagan concluded with this.  “It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character building experience.  There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world.  To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

We are all called to embrace this cosmic perspective, and to do so joyfully.  Our Earth, this pale blue dot that is our blue boat home, is small, but it is special and so very precious.  It is unique, so far as we know, and so are we.  For we are made of earth and should be humble, but along with the Earth we are also made of the noble stars.  Rather than being at odds with one another, though, the humility and the nobility go hand-in-hand, asking us not to look down on our world and one another in superiority but calling us instead to look up to creation in wonder.

The living tradition that is Unitarian Universalism is based on the truth that we are most human when we are in right relationship with one another and with the world around us.  For the fact of our interdependence is manifest in the Unitarian assertion that “We are all in this together.”  And our faith in a better future — in the only way that salvation can really work, which is in this life — is expressed by the Universalist assertion that “Together we shall be well.”  The scientific creation story of the Universe affirms that there is a unity that makes us one, but it is up to us, all of us, working together, to ensure that the future is hospitable to humanity.

We are called to honor the Earth and to honor one another, to care for our blue boat home and to nurture the irreplaceable spark of divinity within each of us.  May we strive to answer that call, now and always.

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Doing Justice as Faith-in-Action

(A sermon delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on October 28th 2012.)

Reading: from “When Love Speaks in Public” by Kate Lore, from A People So Bold: Theology and Ministry for Unitarian Universalists

My sermon theme this month has been “Works”, given the simple message expressed in the Biblical Letter of James that “faith without works is dead.”  For me the takeaway message from James is that “faith should be neither quietly hidden nor displayed ostentatiously, that salvation isn’t something that happens privately, individual by individual, but only happens when faith leads to service to the greater community and when such service is a natural expression of that faith.” [from my Oct. 7th sermon]

For its part, “Unitarian Universalism[ …] draws a distinct contrast between deeds and creeds[ precisely because, when you get into the nitty-gritty,] everyone believes something different, [and yet] it is possible to come together with common goals such as clothing the naked and feeding the hungry.”  Moreover, if we are able to live our “commitments to see past the specifics of creedal differences and to participate in good deeds,” we find that “Unitarian Universalism doesn’t really distinguish between faith and works.  We recognize that it goes deeper than the truth that ethical action must be based on faith for it to be effective, so we speak of the hyphenated ‘faith-in-action’ instead.”  “This is neither faith as a list of prescribed beliefs nor works as a set of empty observances,” I said, “but faith-in-action that calls us all into salvation in this life, bringing heaven into being here on Earth.” [from my Oct. 7th sermon]

Well, that’s all well and good.  It sounds nice, it rings the right bells, but how do we actually do it?  “Justice is what love looks like when it speaks in public” makes a nice bumper sticker, but what does it mean for how we actually live our lives, how we work together as a congregation, how we grow the Beloved Community?  It needs to be fleshed out, and put into practice, to actually make a difference.

Now Kate Lore is right that “a set of best practices”, an extensive collection of detailed recipes for what has worked in some other place, isn’t much use outside of the congregation in which they were developed, any more than the weather forecast for Portland, Oregon is helpful for deciding what to wear here in Newport News, Virginia.  (And vice-versa: nobody in Portland should be preparing for a hurricane!)  There are ways, though, in which we can think about faith-in-action that can help congregations and their social justice committees to figure out their own practices, without trying to shoehorn in some other church’s policies and procedures.  There are, as it turns out, some types of ways of putting faith into action that, when congregations take a balanced approach to all of them, can help produce the sorts of social justice programs that make First Unitarian, Portland the envy of the whole denomination.  There are, in fact, six such ways, and I remember them using the acronym S-E-W A-C-T, only “so” is spelled “S-E-W” not “S-O”.

The “S” stands for Service, something that generally comes pretty naturally to churches and other religious organizations.  Service is about meeting the immediate needs of people facing hardship.  It’s about the obvious ways in which we can alleviate the symptoms of poverty, such as feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless, things that we do here at the Fellowship through the Weekend Meal Ministry at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church as well as the Winter shelter program known as PORT organized by the Living Interfaith Network or LINK.

Service also includes efforts such as after-school tutoring, teaching English as a second language, and visiting the elderly, hands-on activities that address a particular social need while also affirming the inherent worth and dignity of those we are serving.  For that reason, the most effective forms of service are those where the people providing services are accountable to those being served, as is the case at both St. Paul’s and LINK where past and present clients are involved in running the programs.

What’s more, service not only meets the immediate needs of people facing hardship, but it also meets many people’s need to feel useful, that they can make a difference in the world.  I’ve seen time and again, in congregations of all shapes and sizes, that while visitors and new members are cautious about joining committees — and understandably so! — they will happily sign up to help out at a food pantry or a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter.  They do it not out of any fanciful expectation of recognition but simply to feel good about doing good.

And there’s nothing like the hands-on engagement of service to gain a much better understanding of social problems.  Spend even a little time with a veteran who’s unable to find work or a homeless person who can’t pay for diabetes medication or a single mother who works two minimum wage jobs but still needs to line up at a food bank to feed her child and, if you’re fortunate never to have been in such a position yourself, you’ll gain a whole new appreciation of the strength of the human spirit in spite of disadvantages and even oppression.

The next way of putting faith into action, then, is education.  Well, this one seems to come pretty naturally to Unitarian Universalists.  Our religious education for both children and adults lends itself quite readily to talking about social issues, and as well as classes we have fairly regular services on topics from marriage equality to environmentalism.  Over the last four months alone, we’ve had sermons on religious freedom, compassion, war and peace, slavery and civil rights, LGBT equality and immigrant justice.  Include M—’s sermon on compassion, which is another form of faith-in-action, and more than a third of our services since July have been about some aspect of social justice.

That trend will continue next month, with services honoring the commitments and struggles of our military service personnel and families, services about the work of the UU Service Committee and a special service in observance of Transgender Day of Remembrance.  Then in 2013 I’m going to be doing some joint sermons with our Share-the-Basket partners, including the Sierra Club, LINK and Planned Parenthood.  We’re also planning a Friday evening and Saturday daytime workshop on Social Justice in mid-January, so keep an ear open for more information about that as it develops.

So imagine you’ve been exposed to the daily reality of some injustice through your involvement in hands-on service and then through classes, sermons and workshops you’ve educated yourself even more about the issue.  What’s next?  Obviously talking about a problem can only take us so far, and there comes a point when we must take action on it.  That brings us to the next way of putting faith into action, which is witness.

Witness is a way of taking what we know about a social issue and expressing our desire to change it.  Going to demonstrations, holding vigils, writting letters to newspaper editors, creating short YouTube videos for Facebook — all of these are ways of bearing witness to our values and speaking up about an injustice that we believe needs to be addressed.  If the media takes note, so much the better.

The more obvious examples of witness, of course, are the rallies and protests that take place each year at General Assembly, particularly the Phoenix GA’s massive vigil at “Tent City” that J— talked about last Sunday.  It’s hard to come up with an image that appeals more to the media than thousands of people wearing yellow “Standing on the Side of Love” T-shirts!  Closer to home, the Fellowship has been a part of public demonstrations on issues such as women’s rights and health care reform and has held vigils right here in response to problems such as global climate change and violence toward transgender individuals.

Now rallies and protests and demonstrations and vigils are great for raising the wider social consciousness, but sooner or later any group that wants to bring about social change must engage in the next way of putting faith into action, which is advocacy.  This is a matter of direct engagement with legislative processes in order to impact public policy, something that is particularly effective when lawmakers receive letters and even delegations from churches that can provide a clear theological basis for their moral positions.  (And, for that matter, when those lawmakers realize that not all people of faith stand for regressive, oppressive social policies.)

This is, though, an area where both congregations and ministers need to be careful, given the considerable privilege that has already been extended to us in the form of religious freedom.  While we, as a church, are free to discuss social issues and to promote particular positions on those issues within our own membership, we are only free to engage in advocacy for or against specific pieces of legislation as an “unsubstantial” portion of our overall activities.  (The IRS doesn’t define “unsubstantial”, but in cases where they have ruled on the lobbying activities of non-profits, the rule of thumb is no more than five percent of money, staff time and volunteer effort.)  In no way shape or form, of course, may we take positions for or against candidates for public office, something that we need to remember at around this time of year every four years!

There is, of course, only so much that any individual person or any individual congregation can do by her-, him- or itself.  And that’s why the fifth way of putting faith into action is community organizing or, equivalently, coalition building.  We can be much more effective in just about every effort, from service and education to witness and advocacy, if we can work with others who care about the same issues of neglect, injustice or oppression.  We don’t have the resources to help every person who comes to our office door asking for, say, money to buy food, but we can help by combining our resources with other congregations in supporting LINK.  We don’t have the resources to do much advocacy for policies that promote environmental sustainability or women’s reproductive health just by ourselves, but we can make a difference by partnering with the Sierra Club and with Planned Parenthood.  There’s power in numbers, but there’s also synergy that comes when different people and groups come together around a common cause.

I’ve now described service, education, witness, advocacy and coalition building.  The sixth way of putting faith into action is the T in S-E-W A-C-T, namely transformation, by which I’m referring to the transformation of ourselves, or our own house of worship.  This is a necessary result of humility — which tends to be forgotten as one of the often core virtues in just about every religion — in that we can’t assume that everything that’s wrong and unjust in the world is only outside our own walls.  So we are called to transform ourselves to live up to our own standards, to walk the talk with integrity.

That’s why we worked to become a Welcoming Congregation a few years ago, to begin a process of being more intentionally inclusive toward LGBT individuals, and it’s why we’re working to become a Green Sanctuary, to build environmental awareness into everything we do.  There are two more examples of transforming ourselves that I want to mention as well, both of which touch on matters of accessibility.

Last month, B— and J— installed in this Sanctuary a hearing-aid loop that S— had donated to the Fellowship.  It’s basically a wireless transmitter that allows anyone with the right sort of hearing aid to patch directly into our sound system.  The loop was installed in the overhead light fixture, so the best signal is in the center section of seats within the footprint of the light; then, activating the T-coil or telephone program on hearing aids will let the wearer pick up the signal and hear what’s being said more easily than relying on the loudspeakers.  This means that all of us really need to make sure we use microphones when we speak, not only for those sitting in the library and listening through the loudspeakers in there but particularly for those using hearing aids to listen to the service right here in this room.

The second example of how we are transforming ourselves into the people we want to be is part of our effort to pay for the mortgage on the Office Building.  Rather than sensory accessibility, it’s about fiduciary accessibility.  You’re probably all aware that we’re selling mortage bonds, to raise the funds we need to pay off the short-term, high interest, interest-only, private loan on the Office Building, with the bonds being repaid over time at an interest rate quite a bit better than any bank offers.  In other words, we’re asking our members to collectively loan our congregation the money to pay the mortgage, with our congregation then paying that money back to our members with interest.  What you might not realize is that you don’t need thousands of dollars to participate in this.  (Though, of course, if you do have thousands of dollars to invest, you probably won’t find a better place right now to do that than the UUFP!)

You see, there are also bonds available in smaller amounts, amounts like ten dollars, amounts such as a child might get as a gift in a Christmas card from a grandparent.  I remember, when I was growing up, getting Post Office Savings Bonds from relatives, just five or ten pounds that would slowly accrue interest until I received the money a few years later, and it taught me important lessons about patience and the value of money.

When it comes to paying for our Office Building, though, these small denomination “participation bonds”, as they’re called aren’t just for children!  Any of us can be a part of owning our own property here at the Fellowship, since the feeling of satisfaction in being a part of advancing our mission and ministry should not depend on the amount of money we have.  Everything we do is an opportunity to grow the Beloved Community, and it’s the most difficult, most inconvenient, most important, most life-giving task any of us are called to do.  In fact, compared with creating a dynamic community, being an investment bank would be a walk in the park!  But we’re a congregation, a church, a religious home for diverse spirits, and all of us have an equal right to participate in this community regardless of personal circumstances.  Making these participation bonds available is an important way in which we are transforming ourselves into the people we dare to be.

And, really, that’s the point of the whole shebang.  When we serve others, educate ourselves, witness to injustice, advocate for change, build coalitions with allies, and transform ourselves for the better, we are becoming our best selves, growing the Beloved Community, putting our faith into action, and showing the world what love looks like when it speaks and acts in public.  So let us bring the warmth of community, the light of hope, the beckoning of the holy, the comfort of companionship, the dancing of the spirit, the energy of faithful action, and the fire of commitment to a world that still waits for our good news, for our faith-in-action.  It’s the most difficult, most inconvenient, most important, most life-giving task any of us are called to do.

So may it be.

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The Jigsaw Puzzles of Our Souls

It’s no accident that my congregation’s mission — “to create a dynamic community that celebrates life and searches for truths” — refers to “truths” in the plural.  Unitarian Universalists generally recognize that there are few things we can claim as being absolutely true in any completely objective sense, and so we embrace “the free and responsible search for truth and meaning” as a valuable part of our religious endeavor.

Of course, we human beings like to be right.  We like to think we have the truth, that we can even refer to “truth” in the singular — or, worse, capitalize it.  We like to believe that we’ve got it all figured out, and it’s just a matter of convincing people, and if they won’t be convinced it’s only because they’re stupid and we just need to talk at them more loudly.  Oh, we know on an intellectual level that it’s possible to be wrong, but we’d much rather be right, even over the most apparently inconsequential things, and if needs be we’ll defend our rightness with words or fists… or bullets… or bombs.

There’s apparently no greater need to be right than when it comes to understanding the world around us.  Given my former life as a research scientist, though, I know that while a good discovery confirms something we thought was right, the better discovery is actually one where we realize we were wrong about something.  After all, experiments that failed to follow Newton’s ideas about absolute space and time led Einstein to his theories of relativity, while a couple of apparently minor problems in optics and thermodynamics led to quantum mechanics.  As Isaac Asimov put it:  “The most important phrase in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, isn’t ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny…’”

Now it’s not for nothing that most religions lift up humility as a virtue; at one time in ancient Greek society, hubris was considered the greatest crime someone could commit.  Journalist Kathryn Schulz, author of Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, notes that “the capacity to [be wrong] is crucial to human cognition.  Far from being a moral flaw,” she writes, “it is inextricable from some of our most humane and honorable qualities: empathy, optimism, imagination, conviction and courage.  And far from being a mark of indifference or intolerance, wrongness is a vital part of how we learn and change.  Thanks to error, we can revise our understanding of ourselves and amend our ideas about the world.”

Of course, I’m not advocating willful ignorance or suggesting we avoid courage when it comes to our convictions.  But it seems to me that refusing to acknowledge our own mistakes, to stick to our guns come hell or high water, to willfully deny the evidence that we’re wrong is to be no better than a child with his fingers in his ears chanting that he can’t hear.  In doing so we forget that it’s only when we’re wrong that we have a chance to become right, to seek out those small-‘t’ truths than can help us find wholeness and wisdom.

Maybe we can think of such truths as pieces of a jigsaw puzzle — actually, as the pieces of lots of different puzzles, at least one for every human soul on the planet.  You never know where you might find one of the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle of your own soul, or who might have found it and kept it in their heart until the day they can pass it on to you — and on that day your own soul grows a little more into its own wholeness.

After all, we can learn a lot about ourselves from other people.  Versions of the Golden Rule are found throughout the world’s religious traditions, but here’s one from the ancient wisdom of Shinto that goes beyond the ethic of reciprocity:  “The heart of the person before you is a mirror; see there your own form.”  What if we were truly able to see and hear ourselves reflected in the hearts of others?  Would we be so righteous about our rightness?  Or would we be open to seeing the holes in the jigsaw puzzles of our own souls and be more willing to seek out the missing pieces?  Wouldn’t we see ourselves as part of something so much larger?  Perhaps then we’d be ready to lift our hearts above the constraints of our own truths and be free.

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In Service to Love

Love is the spirit of this church, and service its law.
This is our great covenant:
to dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love, and to help one another.

— Blake Covenant of 1894

Ours is an engaged religion.  Whether we’re cooperating in one another’s faith development, supporting our own members struggling with adversity or working with our community partners to address social needs, Unitarian Universalists are engaged with the lives and the world around them.

Such engagement does indeed take many different forms.  Each of us, for instance, is a steward of our own community, accepting the responsibility to take care of something we do not own.  Membership represents a commitment to not only support our congregation financially, but to also help realize our shared vision of “spiritual diversity and individual growth through lifelong religious education and service to the wider community”.  Every time we teach a class or participate in a discussion group, every time we take a meal to a member recovering from surgery, every time we volunteer at St. Paul’s or the Living Interfaith Network, we help bring that vision alive.

While engagement and stewardship are characteristics of any self-organizing group of freely associating individuals with a vision for themselves and their world, a Unitarian Universalist congregation is not simply another community group working on social or environmental issues.  The overriding characteristic for UUs is that, while we foster community and address issues, we do so in service to love.

That is why we emphasize covenant, the promises we make to ourselves and to each other about how we intend to behave within beloved community.  Love isn’t easy, whether we’re talking about amorous devotion or beneficent compassion.  Covenant brings us back to our best selves, providing a framework for those times when love is proving more challenging that we’d like, and service to one another and the wider world provides a mechanism for cultivating and re-cultivating that love.

It’s tempting, when first confronted with an issue of injustice, to remain at a certain level of theory and abstraction.  There are certainly no shortage of causes that might impel us to write a letter to the newspaper editor or to a political representative, to educate ourselves on the issues or try to convince others of their importance, even to join a demonstration or a protest.  And those are all valuable activities that are essential to changing systems and structures of oppression.  Also essential — and, in my experience, a powerful source of motivation and resilience — is direct engagement with and service to oppressed communities and those who suffer injustice.

After all, no newspaper article or television report will teach you about poverty or hunger or homelessness like volunteering at a food bank or a shelter.  Nothing will build another’s self-esteem like helping a disadvantaged child to read or meeting a homeless person’s eyes with a genuine smile — nor warm your heart and grow your soul, too.  And nothing dismantles privilege like entering in humility what would otherwise be a relationship governed by relative power, deferring to the wisdom of the oppressed and remaining accountable to those whom society renders powerless.

Rather than denying the world and ourselves, Unitarian Universalism calls us to boldly engage with them, seeking ways of being that strive for peace and justice, and living into the beloved community that fully embraces the humanity of every human being and the preciousness of life on Earth.  If love, in the words of James Vila Blake, “is the spirit of this church and service its law”, how are you answering the call of our living tradition?

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