Practicing Reverence

Practicing Reverence
Douglas Taylor
10-2-05

We went raspberry picking this weekend.  We picked apples, too, but I enjoy raspberries more, both in the eating and in the picking!  And as I stood there, stooped over the berry bushes, my wife one row over with Brin, Keenan and Piran a short way further down the row with me, I thought of several spiritual lessons that could be derived from raspberry picking; such as, needing to stoop a bit because some of the best berries are under the leaves and effectively hidden from sight unless you are only three feet tall or are a little stooped over.  And life is sometimes like that, too.  Or I might choose to tell you about the pinkish-red stains on my fingertips and how what you love and what you do will mark you and show through.  Or I could have found a juicy metaphor about discernment and about how to tell the ripe fruit from the unripe and the over-ripe.  Indeed I tell you I was confounded and overwhelmed by how much a simple expedition to the berry patch could illustrate and reveal.  Indeed I tell you, despite befuddling difficulties such as this, I take great pleasure in my work.

I did eventually discover which aspect of this family outing held the secretly deep insight that I wanted to share with you all today.  And, as it turns out, it is not a metaphor, but the reality of something I discovered out there in the berry patch with my wife and our children.  It is simply this: raspberries taste so much better when you pick them yourself.

There is a story of an ocean fish who searched and searched for this thing called the ocean that others spoke of.  He asked older and wiser fish but was always disappointed when they told him he was swimming in it.  “What I am swimming in is water.  What I am seeking is the ocean.” And on he would search.

And so, you and I go searching for God, truth, spirituality, and so many things like this.  “But this is just life going on around me, what I am seeking is God.”  Silly fish, there isn’t anything to look for, all one must do is look!  You’re swimming in it!  Wherever you are is a good enough place to find what you seek.  Or try the raspberry bushes in autumn.  And to think, some only find berries there!

One thing, however, is certainly needed before you start – reverence.

At the beginning of this morning’s reading, Paul Woodruff offered a definition of Reverence that agrees with the standard dictionary and more.  “Reverence,” he writes, “begins in a deep understanding of human limitations; from this grows the capacity to be in awe of whatever we believe lies outside our control – God, truth, justice, nature, even death.  The capacity for awe, as it grows, brings with it the capacity for respecting fellow human beings, flaws and all.”

Why do the berries taste better when you pick them yourself?  Is it just that they are fresher?  I should think that is part of it.  But it also has something to do with the fact that it was my hands moving through the berry bushes harvesting these little fruit.  So small, those berries; so simple, the task to pull them from the bush; so insignificant, the energy I expend to collect this fruit; yet how grand the system and energy that went into creating and growing those raspberries.  From seed to bush to fruit, year after year of fruit, generation after generation of bush, age after age of seed; and I simply stoop down, push aside a few leaves, and pluck the fruit.

Now, it seems to me I have at least two ways I could see this, assuming I think about it at all.  I could revel in my own power to pluck the fruit that took so long to grow and ripen.  Or I could be humble in the face of how little control I have over such powerful creative forces.  According to Woodruff as he articulated in our reading this morning, the distinction between the two perspectives is reverence.  “Reverence is the capacity to be in awe of whatever we believe lies outside our control.”

Both ‘respect’ and ‘awe’ are listed as synonyms for reverence, but of the two, ‘awe’ fits better.  Awe is respect tinged with fear, a mingling of wonder and dread inspired by both majesty and the sublime.  Thus, the words “awesome” and “awful” both have their root in the word “awe.”  Now, I hope we don’t get tangled up on this word.  Awe is not the same as fear.  Let us not confuse reverent with God-fearing.  Usually those who most revere God are those who least fear God.  And consider, when Albert Schweitzer spoke of Reverence for Life, he was not speaking of a fear of life.

While picking berries a few days back, I was not suddenly struck by an overwhelming fear of berries, rather the feeling of awe was just that: awe – respect tinged with fear for the majesty of the whole show.  And it only lasted a moment.  Most of the time I was thinking and feeling those ordinary, mundane things that you feel on a family outing: happiness, pride, silliness, love, where did the boys get off to now? Let’s not get carried away, we don’t need that many apples. Hey, these raspberries taste really good.  Reverence is the capacity to feel awe.  You’re swimming in it all the time, but that doesn’t mean you are aware of it at every moment, (unless, I suppose, you are a saint or enlightened.)  Reverence is about not your constancy, but your capacity to feel awe.

I don’t know if you have noticed or not, but there has been a bit of a stir in Unitarian Universalism over the past few years involving the word ‘reverence.’  Specifically, there has been a call for a language of reverence.  Why?  Well, that is part of the confusion.  Some have seen this call as a push to bring back a lot of old words from our protestant Christian past, to dust off words like God, Sin, Prayer, and Salvation and to try and make those old words ring again, make them respectable in UU circles once more.  But that can’t be what it’s all about because that’s just silly.  Those words never left our circle, they’re still here.  And they get used when they need to be and they still ring, at least when they’re spoken in truth.

Another reason cited for why we need a language of reverence is so we can engage in conversation with our religious brothers and sisters from other religious traditions using words they can relate to.  Again, I think that’s silly because having words with which to talk to other religions will not make us actually talk with other religions more.  Maybe we should just get out there and start talking with and partnering with other faith traditions rather than having yet another internal debate about who we are and how we are going to define ourselves to the one another and the rest of the world.

Still one other reason cited for needing a vocabulary of reverence is that everyone has experiences of reverence, moments of inarticulate awe, and it would be nice to have some language with which to articulate those experiences.  Here, now, is a reason I can work with.  I am not interested in learning a new language or revamping someone else’s for the sake of then being able to communicate with them.  That will simply lead to confusion.  But if we start from the fact that we have experiences of reverence, what can we do but try to find words that will help us share those experiences.  And, of course, this can prove quite tricky.  As one story goes:

The seeker approached the disciple and asked respectfully,

“What is the meaning of human life?” 

The disciple consulted the works of his master and confidently replied,

“Human life is nothing but the expression of God’s exuberance.” 

When the seeker addressed the master himself with the same question,

 the master said, “I do not know.”

Sometimes the words get in the way.  Sometimes in our searching for understanding we find a great many words, but as we dig deeper we discover that we have moved from ignorance, through masked ignorance posing as knowledge, until we finally come to a place of wisdom and understanding, a powerful place of connectedness, a place where there are few words to explain or label what is known.  And, you know, I think I find that place every now and then.  But a significant part of my job is caught up in words and so I expect most of my life is spent as the disciple in the story who says, “Human life is nothing but the expression of God’s exuberance.”  That’s not so bad.

This is a significant reason why I love being a Unitarian Universalist preacher, in all honesty: this striving to articulate the ineffable experiences that fill every person’s days, trusting that the deeply personal is at the same time deeply universal.  I try to have a foot on each side of that line of distinction, half my time with words striving to say what can not be said, half my time digging below the words into life and spirit.  In Unitarian Universalism our primary source of truth and insight is life itself.  This makes it difficult to find the words sometimes, but I do love it.

One thing I do miss in our faith tradition, however, is specific holidays and other regularly scheduled times for us to address timeless spiritual needs together in our own unique Unitarian Universalist way.  We point to and occasionally go through the steps of other holidays from the world’s religions, like Easter and Yom Kippur and Samhain, but we have no holidays that are our own.  Sadly Unitarian Universalism has inherited a fierce iconoclastic tendency that has led us through the years to abandon communal rituals and prayers as misleading or empty.  It has led us to honor each person’s unique approach over a communal approach.  What that gains us is the authentic search for truth and meaning because each person’s experiences are their own and are honored.  What we have lost is the recurring opportunity to discover anew the meaning and power of adjusting ourselves to the depths to be found in deep rituals.  What we have lost by shunning rituals and ceremonies where the same questions arise and the same responses are given is the chance to take in some wisdom without it being explained first with fresh and entertaining words.

For example, the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, will begin at sundown tomorrow night.   Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (the Jewish Day of Atonement) are the start and finish of the ten Days of Awe.  The New Year is a time of prayer and reflection.  It is a time to look at the life you have been living with a particular perspective: Have I been a good person, have I served life, have I helped my fellow human beings?  This litany of reflection took place last year around this time and will take place again nest year around this same time.  Yet each year as you ‘go through the motions’ there is a chance that you are actually ready to receive them and be transformed.  Each time you engage the ceremony is an opportunity to go beyond the words of the ceremony and tap into the real stuff of life.

The holy month of Ramadan on the Islamic calendar also begins this week.  For Muslims it is a time for fasting and prayer.  It is a time when believers are encouraged to read the Koran in full.  Even though you read it last year, you read it in full again this month.  Even though last time, you didn’t understand all of it then, or didn’t like parts of it, you still read through the holy book.  Ramadan is a time to reverently turn back to the basics of the Islamic faith.  It is an opportunity to go beyond the words of the book and of the rituals, an opportunity to tap into the real stuff of life.  And so the Muslim people are encouraged to enter this holy time with reverence, anticipating the majesty of what they might experience.

If you could institute a new holiday for Unitarian Universalism, what would it be?  A feast day for a special person like Emerson or event in our history like the Edict of Torda?  A day of repentance and atonement?  A celebration of a change in the season and a mirrored shift in the lives of most of our people?  A serious time for reflection and sacrifice, a reenactment, a playful meal, a sacred trip to a sacred location like Walden?  What would it be?  A Water Communion, a Flower Communion, Question Box Sunday?  Do you think you could get the following Monday off work?  Could you face the recurring opportunity to discover anew the meaning and power of adjusting yourself to the depths that can be found in a deep ritual or ceremony?  Could you enter the holy time with reverence, anticipating the majesty of what you might experience?  Could you engage in this opportunity to go beyond the words of the ceremony and tap into the real stuff of life?  Could you open your mind and your heart, and stay humble for the possibility?  Could you at least show up and practice reverence?

Reverence is a frame of mind, a frame of heart, perhaps, to keep us humble, keep us tuned to the deeper levels of life.  Reverence begins with an understanding our limitations, according to Woodruff.  You know, when I was out there among the raspberry bushes with my family, my fingertips did get some pinkish-red stains.  What you love and what you do will mark you and show through.  What you revere, when you stand in awe, will mark you and humble you and will show through.  And that’s not so bad.

In a world without end,

May it be so.