Rev. Douglas Taylor
November 30, 2003
Unitarian Universalist Congregation
One of my favorite models for ministry has always been Miss Marple. Miss Jane Marple is the elderly, crime-solver in Dame Agatha Christie’s mystery novels from the mid-1900’s. Absolutely delightful character. Very intelligent and down-to-earth. I’ve never really liked Hercule Poirot, but I think Miss Marple is great. She solved so many of her crimes simply out of her clear understanding of human nature, which she learned while growing up in a small village, St. Mary Mead. I like her because she has a different way of seeing things. She see connections based on her understanding of human nature. She would hear the details of a murder and say something like, “That reminds me of poor Mr. Johnson…” And somehow, the little problem that Mr. Johnson had, or tried to hide, or had perhaps even caused, would be related to the murdered person’s situation in that the motive was the same but on a smaller scale; or the parlor maid had the same character flaw as the niece of the guy who was murdered; or some such thing as that. Miss Marple paid attention to people. She paid attention to life and saw connections. That is a model I try to emulate in my ministry. I pay attention to life and try to see the connections. The part about having a very solid understanding of human nature is something I still hope to someday claim.
I don’t feel it is too far off base for us to occasionally think of ourselves as detectives. After all, life, at the level we usually speak of here in church, is a mystery. Unitarian Universalists in particular work well with this analogy that being a religious person is like being a detective. One of our prized principles, the one which we perhaps tote out the most when asked to define our denomination to others, is the “Free and responsible search of truth and meaning.” Detective work! We are in the search religiously speaking. We are searching for answers to life’s great mysteries. The meaning of life itself is the greatest mystery and has plagued Philosophers and Theologians through the ages. It was a Methodist Bishop, and I don’t recall now which one, who once said: “The main thing is to find the main thing and to keep the main thing the main thing. That’s the main thing!” That is about as clear a definition of the mystery of the meaning of life as I have ever found from most of the professional theologians and philosophers.
Thankfully we have poets to help clear things up. The German poet, Rainer Rilke, once advised a younger poet to cherish his deepest questions. “Try to love the questions themselves,” he said. “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms or books that are written in a foreign tongue. The point is to live everything. Live the questions now.”
It may come as no surprise to you that UU ministers love this quote because of what it says about loving questions and living them now. We love that search for truth and meaning! We like questions that lead us deeper into more questions, “like locked rooms,” or mysterious boxes we are not allowed to open. We love the questions, the mystery, and the search. We are tolerant of different paths and understandings. We respect each person’s search for the Holy. The question may then be asked, what do we do if someone finds an answer or two?
I remember the first day I met members of the congregation where I did my internship. One person actually said to me during a side conversation that in our denomination we encourage the search for truth, but if you find any truth, you’ll need to leave. It wasn’t until I got to know that person a little better that I realized he was just making a joke, rather than apt social commentary.
Perhaps you cringed a little after I offered the Rilke quote because I left off the last line. That sort of thing really bugs some of us. But I did it on purpose because so many people focus on the part about ‘loving the questions’ that the last part can be forgotten. The last part of that Rilke quote is very important. “The point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live your way some distant day into the answers.”
Answers are a big part of being a detective. Miss Marple would not be a very good detective if she never found some solid answers. Being a religious detective means we must be willing to get a few answers to these big questions we ask. Paul Tillich, once wrote, (and I offer this quote to redeem my earlier slight against theologians when I said they are all confusing.) “Being religious means asking passionately the questions of the meaning of our existence and being willing to receive answers, even if the answers hurt.” (The Essential Tillich, ed. by Church, p 1)
Now does this mean we have some kind of obsession with questions and it’s high time we fess up and admit to a couple of answers? Are we somehow cheating the whole religious community when we say, “We are non-creedal, we don’t believe in set answers for every person for all time.”? Is that a cop-out? Is that our way of saying “we really have no clue.”?
No. No, our way of faith is the wide path because that is our authentic answer to the question of how to be a searching religious community. I believe that God comes to each person in the way that that person can best understand and receive God. This even means if the word ‘god’ gets in the way for folks, then that is the wrong word. And we might say, every person perceives the Holy as they are able. To demand that we all have the same answer to the intimate and ultimate questions of existence is unrealistic.
There is an essay I remember from my Liberal Theologies course back in seminary. The author, Lindbeck, claims that all the different religions of the world are merely diverse expressions of a common core experience. There is such a diversity of religious belief due to our different cultures and vocabularies. It is all the same root experience, but one person’s experience of the Holy cannot be universalized. Each person’s experience is filtered through his or her socio-linguistic background.
If I am in the midst of a silent meditation, for example, and a word comes to mind unbidden … perhaps even a word which makes a problem that has been plaguing me suddenly make sense and therefore easier to handle. Using my theistic understanding of an immanent and transcendent God, I might say, “that was the voice of God.” But I understand that I could just as easily interpret such an experience as an awakening to the first noble truth of Buddhism, or as a gift of grace from the Holy Spirit, or as simply the timely remembrance of a past knowledge, or (as Ebenezer Scrooge would have it,) “an undigested bit of beef or blot of mustard.”
How I interpret, and therefore define, this experience is determined by the cultural and linguistic stream I am standing in. And, while understanding that, I don’t need to give up my perspective as flawed or in any way untrue. I believe in an active, loving God who can and does transform lives through the power of grace. I’ve seen it happen. I’ve felt it. We do not need to lose our religious identities simply because we understand the mytho-symbolic basis of those religious identities!
All that, to say the answers I have found are not necessarily the answers any of you have found. And that works. That is how it ought to be. My answers are not what this sermon is about. My title is not “Answers,” but “Clues,” because answers are not always easy to find and over time they can shift as we mature in understanding. So what we need are clues to how to get there, signposts and landmarks to guide us on the journey toward the deeper answers of our lives.
So what are some of these clues? Well, there is one that I mentioned in connection with my hero, Miss Marple. Pay attention. Pay attention to life, to other people, to your gut feelings about what is going on around you. Miss Marple was able to discover a great deal just by paying attention. It is amazing what we can miss if we stay focused on the mundane stuff, stuff that we do need to attend to. The daily routines of work and chores and bills all need our attention, but that doesn’t mean we need to keep our focus there all the time. Pay attention to who your children are becoming. Pay attention to the dreams and aspirations in your life, yours and those of the people you love. Pay attention to the deepest hunger of your soul, that longing, yearning, sometimes aching feeling within you. Pay attention to life.
As Religious detectives, paying attention is not only a clue as to how to find answers, it is also the root clue about how to find more clues. Let me share with you another clue I noticed while paying attention: Come to church every Sunday. Really, that is a clue, I’m not just peddling my wares. I have read more than one article in the past year or two about a study that has been done which connects church attendance with longevity. The study found there was no clear connection between how long a person lived and what a person believed, or which kind of congregation they attended. But there was a strong connection between a long life and regular worship attendance. Participation with the community is what matters. This is true for Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, Pagans, Unitarian Universalists, and all the other major world religions. I remember the story of a Christian who went and studied with a Zen Buddhist master for a year. I think it was someone relatively well known, (one of you may remember this story and tell me who this is about after the service.) Anyway, at the end of the year the Christian went to his Zen master and asked to become a Buddhist. The master said, “No, you do not need to become a Buddhist. You should go back home and become the best Christian you can be.” And he did. The Master was saying, grow where you are planted. You don’t need to go to the other side of the world to find the Holy within yourself.
This is not, as one might infer, saying that what you believe and what groups you associate with are irrelevant. In fact, what you believe and what groups you belong to are very important. Its just that how you live out you beliefs is more important. The Zen master didn’t say, “Go home and be a Christian because we’re full over here.” He said, “Go home and become the best Christian you can be.” The way you practice your religion is what matters most. Every true religion has the potential to lead its adherents to true spiritual depth and understanding. All of them offer answers to the ultimate and intimate questions of existence. At the same time, I am not shy about saying that Unitarian Universalism at its best stands out among the others in that it offers people the commitment to the freedom of conscious that will allow each person to find the path that leads through their questions to the deeper answers.
All those articles linking church attendance and longevity conclude that participation is the key. Participation is the second clue I offer. Participate: Show up here regularly, join the choir or a small group, join the UUW or the UUGLC or the Library committee, teach a class, increase your financial giving, visit some of our shut-ins, serve as an usher or a coffee hour host, come to the cranberry coffeehouse. Wherever your gifts and talents lead you in this diverse and lively congregation, participate! Now, frankly I can’t stand here and promise you a long life if you come to church regularly and tithe and join the choir. I can’t promise you a long life, but I can promise you strong life; a quality, if not a quantity of life. And if I’m wrong, what will you do? Stop coming regularly, right? Well, if you start to suspect that I am wrong about this participation stuff and you’re thinking of pulling away and not coming regularly, call me. Usually that is the time that you can most use a community such as the ours So, pay attention and participate.
Often the hardest part of any mystery novels for the reader is recognizing the difference between clues that matter and clues that don’t. Miss Marple seems to always be able to recognize whether or not a fact or character trait or event is malevolent or benevolent, or just innocuous. This is not easy. As religious detectives, it is vital for us to perceive correctly. There is a line from one of Richard Gilbert’s meditations that says, “May we learn to separate that which matters most from that which matters least of all.” We need to be able to sift through the clues and discern the valuable ones from among the lot. While we are paying attention and participating in our faith community, there is still some much that bombards us: details, events, individuals, thoughts, and feelings. We need some process for reflecting and sorting it all to uncover the connections and meanings. I suggest regular prayer. Set time aside to sit in quiet reflection and offer up your searching in prayer.
I am a little hesitant to put prayer on my list of clues because prayer is a topic that causes raised eyebrows from some of you and secret smiles from others. But that is no reason not to include it. When it comes to true discernment about whether the course I would take is life-affirming or life-denying, whether what I want is of God or of my own ego, I would have to pray. It is the only thing that has worked for me. I’m not suggesting that prayer works somehow to cause God to connect the dots for you, simply that it allows you an opportunity to be open to the possible connections that may arise. Which leads me into a longer sermon on prayer that will need to wait for another day.
Pay attention, participate, and pray. These clues will get you started toward understanding the deeper meaning of existence. If nothing else, these will help you look at life differently and perhaps see more connections. You are religious detectives, but you are not alone, we seek in community. There are clues readily available to us in our search. To demand that we all turn up the same answer to the intimate and ultimate questions of existence is unrealistic. But to think that therefore there are no real answers is a form of profanity. Seek boldly. Don’t shy away from uncovering an answer or two. And maybe you will find that some of your answers lead you to deeper questions. That happens too.
In a world without end,
may it be so.