The Promise of a Questing Spirit

This sermon was first preached at First UU in Brooklyn on August 23, 2009. It looks at our fourth principle as a covenantal promise. It revisions our responsible search for truth and meaning as a quest of spirit.

I remember when I was about 8 years old. My mom used to regularly warn me about the dangers of electric sockets. I recall those little plastic inserts that filled unused power outlets throughout the house. She apparently believed 1 inch of plastic could hold back the rampant imagination of my third grade mind. Or possibly, it just served to ease her mind – she could at least say did the best she could. It was a rather good hearted, yet ultimately fruitless precaution.

One Saturday afternoon, with a few friends in tow, I travelled into the bathroom and closed the door. Armed with curiosity, companionship and a set of metal tweezers, I had the brilliant notion that I wanted to see exactly what would happen. Why was it safe for the plastic to go inside, but not the metal? If these sockets really were so dangerous, they clearly wouldn’t be left all around the house with such a flimsy guard. Besides that other great electrical threat, the tongue-on-battery experiment, was in fact unpleasant, but hardly as bad as it was made out to be. I’d be fine.

Well, standing here now does kind of ruin the suspense of whether or not I lived through that pseudo-scientific experiment. In case it’s not clear; I made it. The tweezers gave me the biggest shock I’d ever felt; still to this day that’s true. (Don’t do it folks!) With triumph and pain, and gritted teeth, I knew for myself what my mom was trying to tell me all along. It it plain stupid to stick bare metal into electrical outlets.

For me, that’s the plainest example of doing half of what our fourth principle asks us to do. Our fourth principle reminds us that we covenant to affirm and promote the free and responsible search for truth in meaning. The tweezer and socket search was meaningful and it was certainly free, but I can’t say that it was very responsible at all.

In what ways do we do this in our own religious lives? Do we ever search for something new while making sure to close the door behind us? Not seen, we think we’re safer. Or maybe it just signifies how closed off we might make ourselves to something else as we search for the new. “I don’t need that Christianity or Judaism… or my family.” The only thing I had going for me in that bathroom, was that I didn’t go in it alone. I brought my friends with me.

I recall a long time atheist friend of mine from my college days. He did this sort of thing with his spiritual life. Frustrated with many difficulties after college, he managed a 180 degree turn leaving what was for him a healthy sense of atheism, to join a cult. Moving across the country, he shut the door; only his friends weren’t nearby making sure he didn’t get hurt. He needed answers and a change on his own terms, and he was certainly free to do that, but without the balance of responsibility, that way lies little promise. It certainly left little room for long time and close friends.

I imagine some of us may have felt this way if we find ourselves now in a religious community that isn’t the same as the one we grew up in. There’s a time when we’re not sure if what we’re doing is safe, or sane, or saving. We’ve been told one thing. And now, for whatever reason, we need to see the world for ourselves, and the only way we can do it, is to challenge what we’ve been told. Are we going to get shocked, or are we going to be OK?

When I left Catholicism almost 20 years ago over my Universalist heart – not able to believe that an all-loving God could condemn anyone to ever lasting pain and misery – I didn’t really know if I was right. I just had my reading of the bible that told me that God’s love is unconditional. Hell seemed to me to be one rather large condition. Am I going to get shocked later? Hard to tell really.

I’ve come to rely on this fourth principle here. I also have this covenant now to help me sort that out. It calls for a responsible search; and it reminds me that I need to be free to make it. How does a thing make sense? It needs to match what we encounter in the world; and we need to make sure we’re leaving space for a spiritual openness in our hearts. And most importantly, as is all of our principles, it is written as an action statement for the community. We covenant to affirm and promote… we don’t do this alone; even if it says it’s a free search.

I find that the search has to be a useful one. I don’t mean that all our searches have to be materially productive, or come out at the other end with a new way of looking at the world though. Our responsive reading this morning by Marge Piercy is helpful here. She wrote, “The work of the world is common as mud. Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust. But the thing worth doing, well done, has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.” Not all our searches, and some might argue none of them, will return permanent results or outcomes; but the ones that are really important or truly relevant, have a way of sustaining that is untied to the thing itself. Our mud worker’s dirty hands are clean at the end of her line, despite the dirt obvious to the eye.

That is the promise of this fourth principle. The quest, despite it’s rigors, leaves us clean at the end of the thing worth doing. When we submerge ourselves in the task at hand, or the quest for meaning in a world that too often we find it so difficult to find any whatsoever, a transformation occurs. Mud becomes pottery, becomes empty vessel ready for content.

That’s the story of the Ox Cart Man we heard this morning as well. A year of meaningful work on the farm that fills up a cart pulled by an Ox. Not holding onto all the things that allow him to bring his wares to market beyond their use, the Ox and the Cart are sold along with the potatoes and goose feathers. When he returns home, he stitches a new harness for the next Ox, and cuts planks for the next cart. The focus for our farmer is the work at hand. His quest for sustenance involves travel, but always a return home year to year.

Things, like beliefs and opinions, are held onto so long as they serve the role they need to for the time at hand. There is no fear in his heart when he let’s go of a thing; even if his plan is to pick it up again later or craft a replacement in its stead. This lack of fear is an act of responsibility. It is true to life. A thousand arguments could fly through the mind warning us of all the calamities that might befall our Ox Cart Man should he continue his long practice of selling all of his goods at the harvest market; but none of them would be real. They would be in our mind, and likely we might feel some investment in getting them inside his mind. But he remains true to his experience. All that he needs is available from the land before him, and the work of his hands. Why hold on tightly?

We do this with beliefs and religious views. We often hold on tightly, beyond their use, or sometimes despite their use. Some of us might rail against something we’ve been taught. Because of the hurtful, or nagging, or patronizing things that have been said or taught. We run to our respective bathrooms; shut the door to the message and stick a piece of metal into the Spirit. Sometimes we’ll find those sockets are dead things, not to be feared. Sometimes we won’t. The fact of the free search is life saving. How we go about it though, might not always be.

I’m not sure that when we rail against a belief we have actually let go of it. It might still hold dominion of us as we run through our lives doing most things as an act of defiance. We’ve not really gained freedom; we’ve just learned a new way to stay trapped. My once good friend who traded atheism for cult-hood may subscribe to a new set of beliefs; but I find it hard to imagine that the dis-ease he wrestled with before doesn’t continue to manifest itself in new ways. I hope I’m wrong though in his case.

Maybe the role model to look up to is the Ox from our poem. He’s able to carry large burdens without complaint. The Ox has slow, plodding, deliberate steps that are just the right speed to plant seeds for the future; possibly to a time beyond the span of the Ox. How is knowledge like the seed planted by the helpful efforts of our Ox? As they relate to the living world, seeds grow for a purpose, not for themselves. They are planted, take time to grow, have a lifespan, transform and someday repeat the cycle. How responsible would the farmer be who wrestled with his seedlings? A very humorous image comes to mind for the farmer and seed that chose to role-play out my own history with my Christian heritage. (Insert imaginative hand gestures.) But the growing would have to happen after the weeds, hands and plants let themselves untangle.

Our bricklayer from our words for all ages is another good role-model. “He stoops over to look at the line of the bricks, hands on his thighs, inspecting the work. Sometimes as I drive by I see him put his hand on the back of the person he’s teaching. Often they are both smiling.” I so wish that was the metaphor for my religious journey. Always and ever loving the work, with a clear mentor to guide my way; we’re both smiling. And not the metaphor of the farmer rolling in the fields; body wrestling with his crop. Sigh.

“I think, from the look on his face, that he loves the process. I imagine that he never thinks about the end of the project, the completion of the wall. I think he will go onto the next wall as if it were just a continuation of this one, then the next one and the next, and never be bored.” In our search for truth and meaning, is knowledge about building structures or outcomes, or is it about the hand on the back and the process? How do we have fun along the way? What do we carry with us, and where is our focus?

Truly, part of it is about what we learn from it. With science, it means the potential for healthier lives and increased capacity for global communication. Pretty good goals. I remember the hundreds of hours I shared as chaplain in the pediatric intensive care unit at NY Columbia/Presbyterian Hospital. This ICU was the place so many infants went when no where else could help. There were many children that recovered who would not have lived were it a decade earlier. That’s part of this fourth principle to. Make sure we’re looking for new ways.

Sometimes it’s just about seeing that star for the first time. Coming close to the mystery and awe that is this ever expanding universe; like the bricklayer, never bored. It’s where our fourth principle and our first source connect. Our living tradition we share draws from many sources, and the first among them is the direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life. In some ways the free and responsible search for truth and meaning helps us to encounter this sense of wonder in new ways. I see this as the promise of the Questing Spirit. Unsettled with where we are, we set off to some distant stars to better learn our place in the universe. It is my prayer and my hope then when we see the beauty and awesomeness of some far away universe, that it touch something deep in all of us, and help us to see the same thing here, on this planet; right now. For we truly are of the same stuff. Every quest has the possibility to help us to find our way home.

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