No Easy Road
Reverend Douglas A. Taylor
September 14, 2003
Meditation “A Common Destiny” by A. Powell Davies
There are times when I stand aside and wonder at the strangeness of this world of ours. The years of all of us are short, our lives precarious. Our days and nights go hurrying on and there is scarcely time to do the little that we might. Yet we find time for bitterness, for petty treason and evasion. What can we do to stretch our hearts enough to lose their littleness? Here we are — all of us — all of us on this planet, bound together in a common destiny, living our lives between the briefness of the daylight and the dark. Kindred in this, each lighted by the same precarious, flickering flame of life, how does it happen that we are not kindred in all things else? How strange and foolish are these walls that separate and divide us! …. When I think of these things I wonder. I wonder at the patience of God. While the dream still lives in our hearts, God waits. While the vision shines in our eyes, God waits. How long shall we keep God waiting?
It is not that hard to be a member of a Unitarian Universalist Church. At most of our churches, all one must do is sign the membership book. This is the case in our congregation. That’s all there is to it. Just call me up, or find me sometime and I act as witness to your signature going in the membership book. Now, I have heard of some churches that set up a few guidelines to serve as extra steps before signing the book. But they tend to be in the line of gaining knowledge about our way of faith, and an understanding of what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist; rather than laying out acceptable doctrine or outlining the creeds by which new members are tested.
What I am steering at here is that we have a proud heritage of non-creedal congregational policy. Meaning: there are no tests of membership; no dogma or belief statements to subscribe to before you’re allowed in. And each congregation chooses how that works, there is no over-arching governing body telling every congregation what standards to set up. It’s just the membership book. No, indeed it is not hard at all to be a member of a Unitarian Universalist church. Well, actually to be more accurate, it is not hard to become a member. There is, perhaps a little more involved in being a member. The truth is, ours is no easy way.
I remember a question which came out of one of the New Member orientation days offered at my internship church. Someone, upon hearing the ideals and practices of our religious tradition, our beautifully written principles and purposes, and the litany of famous people connected with our way of faith, asked “Why then, is this denomination so small and unknown?” Indeed, if we are as great as it appears and there are no creedal restrictions on membership, why are we not the biggest show in town? This is not really a new question.
Just over fifty years ago now, Clarence R. Skinner, Universalist minister, educator, and prophetic author, posited that ours was a religion for greatness. In a book by that title, he stated: “The crisis of our age which is one of the most acute in the whole history of [humanity] might well be described as a sudden demand for greatness for which the world is not prepared.” (pp 21-22) He cited global trade and modern interdependent cultures as the context out of which the need of a world community and unity of spirit rises to rid us of our narrow provincialisms. He called on us to rise to this cry, to expand our understanding and sympathy in this radical religion of ours. He called us into greatness.
These are some rather grand marching orders! The implications say that with all the world interconnected and modernized, religion, too, must step up to speed. As other, more exclusive, religious systems are found to be too narrow for today’s globally-conscious individual, our universal way of faith can carry the people forward. At least this seems to be the implication. But before we write Skinner off as another wild-eyed dreamer, it is important to note that his intentions for our religious movement are not otherwise unheard of. Around two hundred years ago, Thomas Jefferson said, from the other branch of our now merged heritage, “The pure and simple unity of the creator of the universe is now all but ascendant in the eastern states, it is dawning in the west and advancing toward the south; and I confidently expect that the present generation will see Unitarianism become the general religion of the United States.” And one of the driving motives for Michael Servitus nigh on four and a half centuries ago was the thought that if he could only show John Calvin the fundamental errors in the concept of the Trinity, then the doctrinal reforms of Servitus would sweep over all of Europe!
And even closer to home, I have often detected a sense from some Unitarian Universalists who have come to us from other faiths that ours is on a higher order than others,…that Unitarian Universalism manifests as a fuller, more informed faith. Indeed the implication here is that our religious movement is great. While I tremble a bit at some of the more arrogant nuances, I do not find Clarence Skinner’s appeal at all unfounded.
I actually agree that we have within us the seeds of greatness. We are a religion that seeks the truth, as it is made known to us. Rather than fixing on any tenet or position, we continually allow truth and meaning to bubble up as it will. Rather than passing on last generation’s formulas and solutions, we hollow out space for the questions to tumble around and new connections to rise. We focus on saving this world through justice-work for today and for all people; not in personal salvation in a “next world” for a special select few who assent to a particular belief. It seems to me as though we are doing everything right. We should have every environmentally-aware, socially-conscious, politically-correct, hip and progressive idealist in a fifty mile radius jumping up and down for a chance to get through those doors and sign our book.
But, why, then, isn’t that happening? Why are we still so relatively unknown? Where is this greatness?
You know, sometimes clues come from the oddest places. For example, there is something in a little book called “The Gospel According to Peanuts” which is illuminating. Linus is sitting there, eating his sandwich, and he becomes a little absorbed in his own hands. “Hands are fascinating things.” He says, “I like my hands, I think I have nice hands. My hands seem to have a lot of character.” Lucy looks up with a puzzled expression while Linus goes on. “These are hands which may someday accomplish great things…. These are hands which may someday do marvelous works…. They may build a mighty bridge, or heal the sick, or hit home runs, or write soul-stirring novels.” And then he turns to Lucy with a flourish saying, “These are the hands which may someday change the course of destiny.” Lucy looks at his hands, looks up at Linus, and says, “They’ve got jelly on them.”
The Rev. Dick Gilbert says in reflecting on this stuff, “We’ve all got jelly on our hands. Not one of us is clean.” He has a point. None of us have really achieved that balance between all that we could be and all that our existential limitations are. This applies to groups as well as individuals. So this is that clue I found. One reason why we are not great despite our potential is that we are failing to properly acknowledge our limitations. We seem to be pretending that there is no jelly on our hands. But I’ll tell you, there is something that is gumming things up.
There are many candidates in the line-up of possible excuses. And we could likely sit together long into the night enumerating and exploring the options,…but that may well be one of our problems.
One rather prominent feature of our way of faith is our Intellectualism. Normally I would list this as an asset. Indeed, modern liberal religion is the heir of the Enlightenment. We Unitarian Universalists in particular embrace the view that the rational mind must be engaged in the quest for the Holy. As William Ellery Channing said, God gave us rational intelligence, we are therefore held accountable to use it. Indeed it was in this very strength that Jefferson saw the seeds of our greatness.
But there are two other characteristics I would have added in a healthy dosage. While we are so rational, intellectual, and enlightened, there are some who forsake the “heart” in worship and still others who ignore the justice needs within the broader community. Now I won’t pretend that these things fall out in our congregations always with such clarity, but these extremes do occur often enough that debates abound. I have never heard a complaint that we don’t investigate something enough, or that we don’t think about and talk about something enough. What I often hear is that we either don’t feel enough or we don’t do enough. And I do believe I have detected a hint of these sentiments, of this debate, even here in our sparkling congregation.
Over the years before I arrived here, I had, in fact, heard some UUs complain about the excessive emphasis of some on social action when the people in our own congregations are experiencing spiritual vacuity. “What good is all this social betterment,” they say, “if our personal and spiritual lives are still empty?” And likewise, I have heard others claiming that all this recent flirtation with spirituality and “feel-good” flakiness is distracting us from the work of the world. “What good is all this navel gazing,” they say, “when our children are killing each other in our schools?”
How strange, indeed, these walls that separate and divide. In the meditation this morning, A. Powell Davies asked “How long shall we keep God waiting?” Indeed I have wondered that myself. A few years back I would have easily located myself in the “Spiritual” camp rather than the “Activist” camp. But as I went further and deeper into my quest for personal transformation and wholeness, I became less and less comfortable with the world around me. The attention I gave to my spiritual life only heightened my awareness of the needs for justice in our world. I now see that the division between those who seek spiritual wholeness and those who seek to meet the needs of justice in our community is quite a flimsy division and an unnecessary one.
About a year ago, my children and I read “The Trumpet of the Swan,” by E. B. White. In it is described how zoo birds are, or at least were at that time, pinioned. The people at the zoo would clip a small portion from the tip of one of the swan’s wings, a painless procedure they say. In this way, however, the bird would meet failure in the attempt to take off because the wings would be unbalanced. No matter how strong the unclipped wing, the bird would remain permanently grounded merely because one wing was longer than the other. Thereby making it impossible for the bird to leave the narrow confines of the zoo environment.
And so, too, if we attempt to clip one wing by focusing too strongly on either spirituality or on social justice, we will continue to find ourselves unable to compensate for the unbalance, and thereby find it impossible to leave the narrow confines of our environment. Our goal, as well as I have ever heard it articulated, is both personal and social transformation. While each alone is a noble and worthy goal, each alone without the other is ultimately unattainable. How can one seek inner wholeness and not see the pain and desolation of the times in which we live. And again, how can one seek to comfort and empower a bruised and battered world and not be deeply affected and personally transformed.
This relationship is poignantly defined by the response I received the first time I preached this sermon. This is a road sermon which I have delivered in several congregations. Indeed, this sermon is roughly the same sermon I delivered during my pre-candidating weekend for the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Binghamton. But the first time I delivered this sermon, a few years ago now, I was visiting a congregation of a colleague in Maryland. I was unfamiliar with the congregation and the congregation was unfamiliar with me. Specifically, the pianist was unfamiliar with my tendency to preach a relatively short sermon, and she had left the room. I was running typically about twelve minutes, while she was used to the regular minister’s standard eighteen to twenty minute sermons. She had left the room thinking she had time to take care of a few things. Immediately after I finished the sermon, expecting to launch into a rousing rendition of our closing hymn “We’ll Build a Land,” the regular minister, who was up there with me, leaned over and whispered to me, “Stall the congregation, Douglas.” I needed to stall them while he went to find the pianist. He suggested opening up the time for congregational response. So I did. And they responded well.
One question in particular has stayed with me. “In our times,” a young lady began, “when so many of us suffer from Social Justice Attention Deficit Disorder, where people are only willing to commit to short bursts of justice-making, and when there are so many worthy and deserving tasks for my attention, how am I to find what I need to do? I ask because in the face of so much need, I find I freeze up and do nothing. How do I know what to do?”
I did not give her the answer I suspect was most helpful to her, or at least to me. Sure, I stood up there at that pulpit and said stuff, but the articulation came from another member of the congregation that morning. “Pray.” Pray or meditate or think deeply to your center, what ever it is you do, do it. Meditate on yourself, on your passions. Find what you are passionate about, and there you will find an outlet for your ache for activism. Because our goal, our purpose as a faith community is transformation: personal and social transformation.
I am confident that we shall never forsake our intellectual proclivities. But until we bring into the balance the emotionally spiritual aspects and the social justice demands of religion in equal and reciprocal measure, our way of faith will always be stuck in the quagmire of insignificance despite brilliance. But if we can link together the spiritualists and the activists who are so strangely at odds, I believe we may yet be able to achieve the truly great potential that is our movement. Ours is no easy road. Not only do we insist on allowing for different answers, we don’t even agree on the questions. What we have to work with is a shared process of discovery. We are in search for the good and we are in search together.
We have a calling in this world. We are a people of the wide path, the open heart, and the searching mind. We have a calling to be a beacon of light and truth to the world. We extinguish the flame of our chalice, but not the flame within each of us that calls us out.