Different is Good

Different is Good
5-10-09
Rev. Douglas Taylor

Jo Ann Freer wanted me to tell you that ours is not an easy path to walk. And when I say “ours” I don’t mean ‘Unitarian Universalists’ as I often do when I say things like that. I mean anyone who is willing to step away from a preordained course outlined by a traditional religion. Jo Ann wanted me to say that it is hard work to strike out on your own, to blaze your own trail of faith, to build your own beliefs and understandings rather than follow the guidance of even good and wise examples past and present. Jo Ann felt it was important for you to hear this: it is not easy, but it is worth it.

Jo Ann won the “Sermon Topic and Lunch with the minister” item at the annual UUCB Dining for Dollars Auction two years back. You may recall the sermon I preached after a ‘lunch and conversation’ with John Smigelski only a few weeks ago, “Douglas’ Revised Catechism for Skeptics and Seekers.” Jo Ann won the same item from two years back, and it needed to be postponed for various reasons. Jo Ann asked me to consider how each of us is different and the impact that can have on a person’s spiritual journey.

Jo Ann sent me to Oprah’s interview with Rev Ed Bacon from Pasadena, California. The Episcopalian church he serves, All Souls, says this on there website: “Whoever you are and wherever you find yourself on your journey of faith, there is a place for you here.” That sounds a lot like a UU church slogan. There are so many of these progressive religious communities that offer a message that are much like ours – it is a real joy to me to know that open searching communities are out there for people, that we are not the only show in town to offer that kind of gracious openness. That is, after all, part of the integrity of the message: your path is unique – here might be about the best place for you to explore your faith with others, but then again it might not be. Part of your work is to figure that out. Welcome.

Rev. Bacon spoke about spirituality and religion, shared insight into the differences between them. He spoke of spirituality and religion from the vernacular understanding: spirituality is synonymous with your personal faith, your experiences; religion is about your beliefs, doctrines and dogma. Your spirituality is what you would live for, even what you would die for. Your doctrines and beliefs are what you would kill for. This, I would argue, is a far too simplified dichotomy to really serve, but it’s an apt dichotomy to work with all the same. Rev. Bacon said that while there are people who are spiritual without being religious and others who are religious without being spiritual, the best are those who are both. Spirituality is what you have within you; religion is what you share with a community.

It kind of makes you wonder if they could have an online quiz for this. Well, wonder no longer! Beliefnet is loaded with such silly quizzes like the Belief-o-matic. This one is called: “What’s Your Spiritual Type?” and it really seems to be a quiz to place you on the continuum between spiritual and religious as Rev Bacon is talking about. A low score will peg you as a “Spiritual Dabbler” or even a “Hardcore Skeptic.” Around the middle you have the “Active Spiritual Seeker — Spiritual but turned off by organized religion” and “Old-fashioned Seeker — Happy with my religion but searching for right expression of it.” Higher scores will get you labeled as a “Confident Believer” or at the extreme, a “Candidate for Clergy!” I did not score as a ‘candidate for clergy’ thankfully (because I think they were using that as a way to say someone is closed-minded with no doubts and very traditional.) I scored right in the middle. They called me a “Spiritual Straddler — One foot in traditional religion, one foot in free-form spirituality.” That feels right to me.

There was a sign hanging in the kitchenette at the Meadville Lombard seminary building that read “Here you do your own theology and your own dishes.” A major component of how we do things here is to encourage each other in free-form spirituality: work this out as you feel your heart leading you. Another aspect of that dichotomy that is tempting (but dangerous) is to hang emotion and intuition on the side of Spirituality and faith, and leave intellect and reason on the side of Religion and beliefs. Watch out for that. I strongly advise you, when dividing up parts of yourself, to never excuse a portion of your life from critical evaluation! Likewise, be wary of what was called be Emerson “corpse-cold Unitarianism” – always remember the experiential root of your beliefs. Heart and mind belong together. Spirituality and religion belong together in my understanding as well. But today I will tease them apart and focus on the spiritual journey.

Typically when I approach a topic like this is focused on how we can be bound together in a community when we place such an emphasis on the individual journey. But I heard Jo Ann asking for reflection not on how ‘we’ do this work together, but about how you or I do this work. So let us talk not about the communal religious work as I led us through a little of last week. Instead let us talk about the personal spiritual work involved in life. After all, all the doctrines and beliefs and different religions are vehicles to help us on our way.

There is a Taoist meditation book with a story about using donkeys to reach high places in the world. Donkeys, so sure footed and sturdy, are excellent beasts for carrying you up the mountain. When we reach the top, everyone stands in the same place, sees the same view, and the donkeys are not used anymore. The meditation is called “Dismount your Donkey at the Summit.” Of course it is a metaphor. The donkeys are the various religions and doctrines and beliefs we embrace as we journey up the mountain. “What does it matter,” the meditation asks, “which donkey we embrace as long as it leads us to the summit? Your donkey might be the Zen donkey, mine the Tao donkey. There are Christian, Islamic, Jewish, and even Agnostic donkeys.” I love that, the meditation singles out agnostic donkeys. It goes on to say, “All lead to the same place. Why poke fun at others over the name of their donkey? Aren’t you riding one yourself?” (From Tao- daily Meditations by Deng Ming-Dao) And then the point of the meditation is that once you reach the top, you no longer need your donkey, we will one day come to a place where we no longer need names to describe what we experience. “All religions have different names for the ways of getting to the holy summit.” Yet we must get off our donkeys when we finally get there.

Thankfully, we are each different.  Every person experiences and interacts with that which is holy, with the sacred, with God, in the way that fits for that person. Each person is like a fingerprint. What fits you will not fit me. You must find the words and ways that fit best for you, as you listen to my words you’ll need to translate to the words that work for you. We vest a great amount of authority in the individual religious conscience, proclaiming that you and you alone can discern, through your own free and responsible searching, what is ultimately true and meaningful in terms of faith and religion. It is not simply that differences are honored, accepted. They are necessary. We must be different. All of life is like this.

Last year I was marching downtown with Muslims, in solidarity with a conservative faith community’s efforts to reach out and define themselves more clearly in the community. They actually asked me to be the keynote speaker for the rally following the march. They asked me to speak about unity. So I spent a little time talking about unity but mostly I spoke of diversity. I pointed to the trees around us on the lawn – there is a remarkable variety to be found. And even when you consider two oak trees, they still grow differently, uniquely. Difference and diversity is the order of life, the way we have been designed by our creator, the result of an effective process of evolution. It is just the way it is! And, elegantly, that is the best way into our unity.

The Transcendentalists such as Emerson captured the fullness of the sentiment that your personal unique experience can shoot straight to the heart of a universality of experience that harkens the unity of life.

And this, because the heart in thee is the heart of all; not a valve, not a wall, not an intersection is there anywhere in nature, but one blood rolls uninterruptedly an endless circulation through all men, as the water of the globe is all one sea, and, truly seen, its tide is one. Let man, then, learn the revelation of all nature and all thought to his heart; this, namely: that the Highest dwells with him. (Oversoul)

Your expression of divinity or high principle is your contribution to the pattern. The differences among us beautify the pattern of the whole. There would be no harmony if we all sang the same note. Talking with people who sound like you do is like walking around endlessly in a cul-de-sac, the challenge is absent and the beauty fades by familiarity! It is critical to discover the divine spark within you, as Jesus said “the kingdom of God is within.” However, the real challenge is to see the divine spark, the inherent worthiness and dignity of another; to see God’s image in one who is not in our image.  It is one of the great tasks of a spiritual life: to allow yourself to be challenged from time to time by the perspective of another. It is one of the best ways to stay grounded in your otherwise private spiritual journey.

The analogy of eyesight applies well.  Depth perception is gained by having two eyes focused on the same object.  If you close one eye, it is very difficult to judge depth and distance.  A depth of understanding is gained by having more than one perspective focused on the same issue.  Listening to the perspectives of others will lead you to a deeper understanding of yourself and your world. I know my own faith is deepened when I encounter another person’s faith in a way that allows me to listen and share with the other person. Listening to another person’s perspective helps me appreciate my own understanding at a deeper level.

Unitarian minister A. Powell Davies said that life is an opportunity to grow a soul. The implication in this statement from Davies is that your soul in dynamic, today we could say your spirituality is dynamic. Certainly dynamic, but not necessarily easy. Growing your soul is not about clarifying your beliefs or attending the best churches. It has more to do with clarifying your compassion and your capacity to see another person’s situation. Growing your soul is about allowing another perspective in without being threatened or feeling a need to overcome it or disprove it. Growing your soul is about welcoming diversity and seeking the unity beneath it all.
So, welcome. Welcome to the journey you continue this day. You are always changing, and your personal faith is equally dynamic. Your religion and your community can never keep up with you and thus we do not even try. Here we eschew doctrines and creeds that we may hold open a space for your understanding to grow and develop free from any shackle or undue constraint. Be mindful, ours is not an easy path to walk. Anyone who is willing to step away from a preordained course outlined by a traditional religion will find the deeper truth and meaning to be found in life. Be warned, it is hard work to strike out on your own, to blaze your own trail of faith, to build your own beliefs and understandings rather than follow the guidance of even good and wise examples past and present. It is not easy, but it is worth it.

Along this path you will uncover a way to manage, to tame, your ego. Along this path, you will develop a strong ethic of right relation with others. Along this path, you will open yourself to experiences of oneness and unity. Along this path, you will find forgiveness and the art of forgiving others. Along this path there is peace and joy and community. Let go of the need to be right, let go of the desire to have life fit your doctrines and beliefs. Welcome a mindful attentiveness to what is happening in front of you. Welcome the perspective of others and learn to expand your compassion. Growing your soul is about welcoming diversity and seeking the unity beneath it all.

In a world without end
May it be so