Schooled by Awe
This sermon was first preached at First UU in Brooklyn on Feb, 7, 2010. It’s about the wonder of the universe, the imminent and the transcendent. The poem by Neil Gaiman can be found at http://j.mp/kOu7yw
At the beginning of this month, I went on a retreat with 20 other Unitarian Universalists to Murray Grove, NJ. It’s a simple retreat center about 2 miles from the ocean that serves as a Universalist pilgrimage site. It’s the location where John Murray, founder of Universalism in the U.S. got stranded off a sandbar on his way to NYC from England in the year 1770. The very brief version of the story goes that local farmer, Thomas Potter, had built a church 10 years prior to house a Universalist preacher in the pulpit. The problem was, there were no Universalist preachers yet in the U.S. It was either a case of extreme forward thinking, or merely fantastical wishing come true. The farmer Potter managed to convince the reluctant John Murray to preach the following Sunday should the wind not change by then, thereby freeing his boat. The wind didn’t change, and Murray did preach, and Universalism was born in America. This is said to be the only recounted miracle in Universalist history.
So 240 years later a few friends invite me to leave the barracks-like retreat center to go for a hike to the spot where Murray’s boat got stranded. I’m thinking, “sure… an easy walk through some forest and farmland to the ocean sounds lovely.” It’s sunny out, and a balmy 40 degrees. I run back to my room to put on better shoes – well sneakers without holes in them really, and my nice hand-crocheted scarf. I decide not to change out of my good jeans… and we’re off. The start of the walk is lovely, an easy trail through light woods. You couldn’t tell there’s a strip mall just off the road from where we started. The (first) time my running shoes break through the patch of snow hiding a thin veneer of frozen ice covering ankle deep water I vaguely recall the retreat director saying something about “everything should still be frozen over.” And I think, “oh, that’s what she meant.” Good thing those sneakers, the ones I had just bought that day, were black – or they’d really clash with the new shade of mud coating my good jeans.
This is the first teaching or challenge of the Universalist retreat center for my urban-self. Can a city-boy keep his heart and mind on the beauty and indwelling-presence of the natural world caked in mud and baptized in frozen water? Can I push aside the thoughts of my colleague next to me giving me a lesson in how to treat tough to get out stains, while focusing on the “now” I traveled 3 hours to get to encounter? Can I stop berating myself for packing so insensibly? Twenty minutes in, I realize after my crocheted scarf starts getting caught on thorns and 5 foot tall grass, that the “everything should still be frozen over” comment of the retreat director was a reference not to patches of ice, but to the frozen swamp that was the doorway to the ocean. I could hear Thomas Potter laughing as I realized that a century of untended farm-lands means that they’re probably not farmlands any longer. In New Jersey, most of the area surrounding the ocean eventually turns back to marshland when humans stop fighting it. And that was the trigger that woke me up – the absolute absurdity of unexpectedly trekking through an icy swamp in sneakers dressed as what another colleague labeled – “fashionista.” The mind turned off, and I could see the world around me again.
We heard from Emerson in our reading this morning that, “I do not wonder at a snow-flake, a shell, a summer landscape, or the glory of the stars; but at the necessity of beauty under which the universe lies; that all is and must be pictorial; that the rainbow, and the curve of the horizon, and the arch of the blue vault are only results from the organism of the eye.” What we encounter we glimpse at through our world of perception. What we see, or hear, or feel. It’s also what gets conveyed more subtly or more insidiously. The beauty of the surrounding is modified in our minds by our company of friends or family, or our perception of those loved ones, at the time. It’s altered by our concern for the stuff we bring with us – whether that stuff be our designer jeans or attachment to our opinions. We forget the present with thoughts of homework, deadlines, debts and other fears. Or it could be innocuous like my one friend who can never simply say that the day is rainy – it always has to be “awful and miserable” as well. Or more troublesome prejudices – the kind where one gets distracted by two men or two women holding hands in the park, or those of us who may need to cross the street when someone of a different race comes our way.
I usually preach against bias as a justice issue, going through all the ways that it separates us from our common humanity, or fails to honor our first principle where we covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person – and some would say every being. This morning, I’d like to remind us that it also is a spiritual crisis. The biases of the mind – whether they be the awful miserable titles to our rainy days or the more serious slurs we label anyone who’s different than ourselves, makes it distinctly more difficult to experience Emerson’s “necessity of beauty under which the universe lies.” They cut us off from our religion’s first source — that transcendent mystery that affirms life and defies description. They garb us as fashionistas in a landscape that’s better suited to more practical attire. They may build us up, and make us think we look better than those around us, but in truth it just serves to slow us down; to complicate the snags along the way; and to leave our hands and feet icy and cold for the road ahead.
Even Emerson is guilty of this dressing-up. We heard him write, “…There is no need for foolish amateurs to fetch me to admire a garden of flowers, or a sun-gilt cloud, or a waterfall, when I cannot look without seeing splendor and grace.” I do hope that Emerson could only see splendor and grace in all things – he’d be a truly remarkable soul if he could. I know that’s something that’s very hard for me to keep in the forefront of my experience. I guess I prefer to be in the company of foolish amateurs — I sure need them to remind me of what I’m seeing.
Our poem by Neil Gaiman laughingly prods at this human condition – our capacity to get so tunnel visioned that we miss the world for the problem. He takes us along a different road to absurdity with mythic alien invasions, walking dead, and robotic dominance that are readily missed for the much awaited phone call. The extreme is not seen for the mundane thing that we can’t let go of since we long to have it. This mirrors my parable of the frozen swamp. The extreme wonder of the living world can be missed by a cost-benefit analysis of mundane dry-cleaning prices. The beauty and indwelling spirit of our fellow human beings gets cloaked by our bias, or fear, or simple discomfiture. And that cloak is sooo easy to see, when the sublime “rose of beauty on the brow of chaos” is sooo easy to miss.
What are we waiting for? When we’re sitting in our living rooms staring at the phone for whomever to call, with a world falling apart around us in one hand, and extravagantly awe-inspiring on the other, what exactly is it that we need? When we’re checking emails or text messages every 3-5 minutes – what do we not have in the spaces between? Do we need to be reminded that we’re ok, just as we are? That we’re loved? That we’re human and beautiful despite what the magazine or billboards may otherwise depict? Have we convinced ourselves that those products of air brushes and photo-shopping Frankenstein creations are real and we are not? Is it that we’ve forgotten that the natural world is a resource and the anchor of being, and not a commodity? That we’re foremost and first citizens – not consumers?
All of these subtle shifts turn us toward or away from our living, breathing selves and world. We are barraged by an overload of information that constantly informs and misinforms. Some of it is useful data that allows us to navigate our daily lives. Some of it false. Some of it obscures with it’s addictive voracity. The correct or incorrect bits are useful or discarded for a time. It’s those bits that create a fog of hazy dreaming that I want to help dispel. When the phone rings, will he or she still love me? Will I lose my job? Did I make the right decision? Will she pull through? All those questions may really matter; they may all point to something truly serious. But do they also sometimes cause us to miss the transcendent mystery that is living? We’ve got a long road ahead of us, but regardless of that, we’re still on the road. The view’s worth looking at – always. I promise you, it’s a better sight than the silent phone.
One source of the barrage of information is the T.V. I’m beginning to wonder if some contemporary news sources are more like the mind that’s sitting waiting for the phone to ring than the investigative news of, say for example, the Nixon era. When a tragedy hits the world, we get cycles of information that seem to repeat themselves without adding anything new of substance. Getting the word out about Toyota’s recent recall is important. But I’m not sure that repeating the same clip of news about the disastrous threat of uncontrolled acceleration is the best application of cutting edge reporting or my precious viewing time for that matter. I could tell you everything about the delay in reporting, apologies, legal obligation of drivers to bring in their cars, etc. I can do this because I heard the story at least 6 times in one hour – the same story. It’s much like the utility of replaying that disastrous argument you had with your loved one. Some of it is valuable in recognizing how to move forward, but five sixths of it is wasted space that could be better filled. I’d rather hear more about the nuances of the health care debate, or comparative views on the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” But I suppose we’ve relegated that to episodes on comedy channels, like the Daily Show. That’s the only T.V. news source that I’ve seen consistently do comparisons between politicians promises or views of 2 years ago with their stance dances of today. It sets an odd tone where we label intelligent investigations as comical, and name serious, reporting which fixates on repetitive fears.
I used to blame the conglomerate that we call news for its own failings. Well, to an extent, I still do. But a greater part of me begins to wonder whether prime time news is simply reflecting our human condition. Are we so used to fixating on the moment of disaster in our lives, that we can’t let ourselves move on to the stuff that matters, or the life that continues on, or the complexity of what brought us all to and through that moment? Maybe the news is structured as it is, because it better matches our own minds.
Considering it in this light, I suggest that paying attention to the disease of that news medium, the repetitive kind of news that fails to add more substance to data, can prove helpful to our own capacity to more fully engage life. Attend to the feelings that arise from the repetition. Take note of how it affects you bodily. Do you feel more anxious? Do we feel frustrated? Does our breathing change? Do we feel more connected to our global community or feel more isolated? Do we feel more connected to our humanity, or less so?
These questions are valuable in regards to our own often repetitive minds as well. The negative iteration of some contemporary news sources can be seen as a useful mirror to how our over-thinking minds impact our lives and our humanity. Holding onto the moment that was, or will be, or might be – over and over – affects our feelings, our breathing, our anxiety and our human connectedness. Allowing the barrage of information to echo in our heads, rather than inform us, actually serves to diminish our awareness of the world rather than better inform it.
I’m not sure simply being aware of this will change how our news sources communicate, although it’s probably advisable to frequent the less common but genuinely investigative reporting than the more common type I’ve been speaking about. But we can change how we are affected by the medium. We can change how we are conscious of echoed talking points. We can be aware of the over-thinking mind that’s reflected in the cultural-consciousness we call the news. I feel it’s a metaphor for our own selves and a useful tool to awaken to the reality that we often do this to ourselves within our own heads. For myself, one clue that this is true is that I find it much simpler to point toward the noise on T.V. than I am to the noise in my head. Easy target. And yet, it does map the pattern. Just like people, the only ones we really have any power to change are ourselves, so we might as well seek to start there.
If awareness of considerate reporting that remains conscious of nuance and complexity is the goal for a healthy news medium, what is the path toward healing in our own consciousness? If we accept that the news can reflect our own mental states at times, what does it point toward? In my heart, I believe we as a species are struggling deeply with learning to be able to disagree with one another without holding onto our sense of rightness; without maintaining a stance that demands our take on the information we see to be 100% truth. There’s another verse from Emerson’s writing that talks about that indwelling spirit, that sense of presence, being likened to a bird flitting amongst the trees. It lands on this branch then the next, popping up from different locations and directions. No one tree masters it. Conscious awareness is like this. Truth is like this bird. Once we try to grasp firmly, the bird is no longer free to be itself. A certain beauty is lost or mangled, and the capacity for flight is grounded. The lessons of Emerson’s flitting creature is in the awe it inspires, not teaches. It’s in whatever wondrous moment that finally pulls the person, waiting for the phone to ring, away from their stupor and schools them back to life. It laughs at a world view that suggests we can sift through all the data pouring through our well-informed minds and separate things neatly into a sense of right and wrong that just so happens to cleanly align with our way of doing things. …Whatever that might be this week, or year, or century. We are awash with another type of information in our lives; one that gets lost beneath our thinking distractions. Our first source as Unitarian Universalists points toward that direct experience of wonder that leads us to a renewal of the spirit – one that affirms and upholds life. I would marvel at an education that used this litmus test on truth. How does what I’m learning right now affirm and uphold life?
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