Sermon: Purpose, Meaning and Encounter
This sermon was first preached on 10/5/14 at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington. It reflects on the writings of Martin Buber and how they influence our sense of purpose in life.
Remember our story earlier today about the two dogs going into a room full of mirrors and being greeted with what they brought in with them? When are we the dog wagging our tail, and when are we the dog growling and barking at ourselves? So often in life, how we react to the world, creates the way in which the world responds to us. Our actions create a cycle that’s sometimes hard to get out of. Now, I’m not primarily talking about matters of injustice, or violence, or hardship. That’s sometimes true too, but often the really horrible things that happen in life are out of our control. No one should carry the burden for what is random in the world. I’m not preaching the message of “The Secret;” in fact, we don’t always get what we give.
But we often see in the world what we see in ourselves. If we see in our selves cynicism, or hatred, or fear we can find the world a harsh place. If we know joy, or compassion, or forgiveness; we often find the world appears the same. When we come upon the funhouse mirror-filled rooms, we see the tails wagging or the teeth bared that we bring to it.
It’s a practical argument for self-care, self-affirmation and self-love. When we live our lives from a place of emptiness, we limit creation. As we lose a sense of value, or a sense of purpose, we enter a cycle of limiting how we can perceive meaning in the world. It’s a painful spiral, and something most, if not all of us, wrestle with from time to time.
Today marks another new year in the Jewish holy calendar. Throughout the world, Jews recognize this weekend as Yom Kippur – as a time of atonement. Last week, Starr preached about how forgiveness works between people and even within ourselves. Sometimes we also have to learn to forgive the world; forgive the universe, or chance, or maybe even God. We sometimes have to learn to let go of how we perceive the world ought to be differs from how the world is. Or maybe just how the world appears to us to be.
We often get caught in the trap of wanting things to be a certain way, then those things fall short, and we then succumb to disappointment, regret or disaffection. Remember, I’m primarily speaking about the every day, smaller things in life today, not the great injustices in the world. I’m speaking about the clutch and grab we often have over things, and preferences, and delays and achievements. The things commercials tell us we need, that they conveniently have the exact answer for – until the new model comes out of course. Then we’ll need it again. If our sense of purpose is tied to the things of the world, our spirits’ sense of satisfaction will be trapped to the temporal. That way lies only pain.
Forgiveness allows us to let go long enough not to hold the world, or ourselves to blame when the dreams of our ego, the desires of convenience, don’t win out. Those things are dross, so to hold animosity toward life when our wants, or our preferences, or those small conveniences are not met – is to lose the core of our purpose in living. And this is a daily struggle for most of us.
…I believe life has meaning. I believe our purpose is to see the world as it is; to notice the spark of life, of divinity, in each breathing being around us. When we notice that, our purpose is met, and the rest can grow from there. Ethics and values are rooted in the mindful recognition of life around us. It begins with seeing – or recognizing. It begins with coming to a place of reverence for that which surrounds us. And like the dogs in the funhouse, it’s much easier – or maybe I should say it’s much more pleasant – seeing the world with our tails wagging than our mouths growling.
The world around us has meaning, and it also has form. Finding the substance or distinction between this can be easy, yet is often nonetheless difficult. Dr. Martin Buber, a prominent Jewish philosopher from the 20th century, influenced generations of wonderers on this very topic. Since I posted this week’s sermon topic, I’ve learned from a long time member, that Rev. Ralph Stutzman – our Fellowship’s minister from 1962 to 1980, was fond of preaching on Dr. Martin Buber. In the category of small world, Buber had probably the strongest philosophical influence on my own thinking of any religious scholar.
Here is a short excerpt from his book, “I and Thou.”
“The world is twofold for man in accordance with his twofold attitude. He perceives the being that surrounds him, plain things and beings as things; he perceives what happens around him, plain processes and actions as processes, things that consist of qualities and processes that consist of moments, things recorded in terms of spatial coordinates and processes recorded in terms of temporal coordinates, things and processes that are bounded by other things and processes and capable of being measured against and compared with those others – an ordered world, a detached world. This world is somewhat reliable; it has density and duration; its articulation can be surveyed; one can get it out again and again; one recounts it with one’s eyes closed and then checks with one’s eyes open. There is stands – right next to your skin if you think of it that way, or nested in your soul if you prefer that: it is your object and remains that, according to your pleasure – and remains primarily alien both outside and inside you. You perceive it and take it for your “truth”; it permits itself to be taken by you, but it does not give itself to you. It is only about it that you can come to an understanding with others; although it takes a somewhat different form for everybody, it is prepared to be a common object for you; but you cannot encounter others in it. Without it you cannot remain alive; its reliability preserves you; but if you were to die into it, then you would be buried in nothingness.
Or man encounters being and becoming as what confronts him – always only one being and everything only as a being. What is there reveals itself to him in the occurrence, and what occurs there happens to him as a being. Nothing else is present but this one, but this one cosmically. Measure and comparison have fled. It is up to you how much of the immeasurable becomes reality for you. Then encounters do not order themselves to become a world, but each is for you a sign of the world order. They have no association with each other, but every one guarantees your association with the world.”
Buber is referring to the perception of two worlds. One world is of things. We can measure, count, taste, sense that world. But we also keep that world as “a common object,” a thing. The other world is the world of relationship. Not just a conversation with another, or the act of gardening in all its logistical complexity, not just petting a dog – but the place of encounter. It’s the world when we are recognizing another living being as a being, and not as the sum of its parts.
We each live in both. The world of it, allows us to work, and eat, and learn and teach. It makes sure the pets are fed, the bills are paid, and our roofs stay above our heads, and our basements stay dry. As Buber writes, “Without it you cannot remain alive; its reliability preserves you; but if you were to die into it, then you would be buried in nothingness.” There is nothing bad about the world of it, except for when we live only in and by its rules. A life whose purpose is simply the details, is a life without meaning, a life of nothingness. Or it might be more accurate to say a life whose awareness is only on the details, is a life without meaning. Awareness of only the details, and not the relationships, is to die into the world of it. Fortunately, there’s nothing to needed to do, nothing to accomplish, to live from time to time in the other world – the world of being. It’s not a check-box on our to-do lists. It’s simply being aware of our interdependence. We can’t easily do this in every moment, though any moment would due.
When I pay my bill at the diner, I can do it as a chore, or I can remember the people around me are living lives themselves; that I’m part of that whole. When I’m frustrated with how my kid is being willful in school or at home, I can focus on the chores that aren’t being done, or the stress I’m feeling over disobedience (both things that may be real problems), or I can remember that every human – kid or adult – goes through deep places of pain that extend beyond the details of any situation. The problem has to be attended to, but we don’t live by the problem. We are not defined by the details or the chores or the failure of them being accomplished. As important as all that may be to the completion of our tasks, they are not our essence, not our soul, not our being. Dealing with the specific problem doesn’t change the essence of our personhood or the inherent nature of human relationship. To focus, Buber said, “It is only about it that you can come to an understanding with others; although it takes a somewhat different form for everybody…”. When we’re dealing with frustrated relationships with people that are incredibly close to us – like the case of a parent/child or child/parent argument – it helps to remember those words. The world takes a somewhat different form for everybody. We will always see a given situation from a different perspective. We’re rarely responding to the same situation with the same information or from same angle. Any disagreement – or any agreement for that matter – we can only come to an understanding about it – we don’t have the essential truth – just proximity. I mention this here, because in the most difficult of arguments we can sometimes fall into the trap of projecting onto another what we think is going on in their head. We know what their actions might mean if we were making them, and assume that’s what they mean as well. I’m not sure that’s often the case.
In that same quote, Buber is talking about the World of It. Measurements, details, processes and things. “It is only about it that you can come to an understanding with others; although it takes a somewhat different form for everybody…”. I think this is also a good description though for how we talk about our encounters with the Holy. When we talk about the Holy – life, God, awe, spirit – whatever word makes the most sense to you – we often transmute the Holy into the World of It. It’s why you’ll oddly find this minister not talking too much about some of the theological questions of the Divine. It’s the old conundrum that you can talk about a thing or you can relate to it, or experience it – but it’s tough talking about something while you’re experiencing it. But the reminder that it takes a somewhat different form for everybody is really instructive. You might believe something differently because you’re seeing something else. It doesn’t mean the other person is wrong.
We’ve talked about the ethical, the pastoral and the theological. What abou the practical applications of some of Dr. Buber’s philosophy? Our Fellowship is about to make a major decision regarding the care of its grounds and finances this afternoon. We have a project from the world of It – the reconstruction of our parking lot and general improvement of our grounds, environment and how we manage water run-off. In the scope of “reasons to be a religious institute”, one could imagine this is not at the top of your list. How we manage the curbs, and the drainage, and the landscaping and the financing, are all important details that we’ll live with and through – but the details are not what we live by. We live by our relationships and our commitments. Money that was bequeathed to us by longtime beloved members is not just dollars and cents. They’re markers of life-long relationships of encounters with people, art and space that was centered around this Fellowship grounds. Parking Lots may not be spiritual, but the attended details that prevent someone from falling is how we live in this world. And the ways we care for the space around us, speak to the care we have for the memorial garden on our grounds – speak to the encounters with all that rest with us from decades past, and in our most recent months. The details will always matter – “Without [them] you cannot remain alive; its reliability preserves you; but if you were to die into it, then you would be buried in nothingness.” We can not remain alive without attending to the bits that keep the world moving, but as we prepare to make one of the most important financial decisions in the past generation, let us not die into those details either. We are a Fellowship grounded in community. May we make all our decisions remembering the truth that we are here, on this earth, to bear witness to one another, to the Holy in any form it may take. And may we do so, wagging more, and barking less.
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