Posts Tagged Humanist

The Agnostic Disciple

This sermon was updated and preached on 4/6/14 in Huntington. It looks at how one can be a disciple of a path rather than a certainty.

 

Have you ever walked, jogged, or rolled across the Brooklyn Bridge? One day I was planning on meeting up with a friend in the West Village for dinner, when I was still living in Brooklyn, and I decided to take a stroll. In my mind, it seemed like it was going to be quite a bit of a stroll, but it was a warmish evening and the sky was clear.

To my surprise, it took me a little bit longer to figure out how to get onto the bridge than I expected. Traffic patterns, turn signals, cement barricades and one entrance feed later – I found my way.  On paper (or the internet) the bridge was pretty close to my old Brooklyn Heights neighborhood  – but you kind of have to already know the patterns to join the pathway. Even with the clearest map the electronic highway can produce, you have to do it once yourself, with all the natural missteps along the way, in order to get it. And between you and me… I broke out the GPS… shhh!

So I get on the entrance ramp, for lack of a better word, to one of the world’s greatest bridges, and it’s only about as wide as I am tall. No wonder I missed where it started! Walking along the now clearly demarcated pathway, stopped traffic was only separated from me by about 5 feet and low cement walls. People’s frustration was clear on their faces, all the while I was feeling a sense of success for finding my way and the surety of knowing I didn’t have to make any more choices for a bit of time.

Then the first cyclist came clown-bell ringing his way toward me. Enough of the sight-seeing; momentum and a narrow walkway meant I had some quick twisting to do. Surviving a few encounters with fast-paced inertia; the sort where you realize unless you move differently, no one’s going to, I achieved the bridge!

It was about at this point that I recalled exactly how bad my fear of heights actually is. I’m pretty good if there’s some width, or breadth or dozens of feet between me and a down that I can’t actually see. In my head I was thinking, “There are whole car lanes between me and down. I’ll be fine.” I had forgot that the pedestrian walkway has those lovely little holes and slats that show you what’s below you. You have to face it all. No one’s going to hide the brutal reality of “down” for the feint of heart. After the initial horror, and then the wondering why no one thought to cover that up, I have to admit, it was kind of exhilarating!

After the acrophobia subsided a bit, I started to notice how I was the only person walking from Brooklyn to Manhattan. I began wondering if I missed the memo. In a city of 8 million, how is that no one is walking this same direction as me? The sights are awesome, and the view is energizing and scary, but I’m having that not so infrequent NYC alone feeling even though I’m around a ton of people.  So many people dream of being right where I am, and I’m wondering how did I get here, where am I going … and why are those 8 million people walking in the other direction?

When I got to the midway point on the bridge, I took a breather. I reveled in the solidness of the central pillar. And by “reveled”, I mean to say, “clung” to the solidness of the central pillar. And by “breather”, I should say, “started to breathe” again. I could see how awesome the view was. There were a lot more people hanging about here. Propping cameras up in small crevices so that their timers could capture a moment between a couple. Fingers pointing toward this or that. This particular night was our first warm night despite it not yet being spring. I had a better sense of where I was, and which way to go again once I was ready. I was comforted by the peacefulness of the center’s surety, but I had dinner plans to go to. The West Village was calling, and there was a long way still to go.

And thus ends the parable of the bridge. Broadly, I see our faith, Unitarian Universalism, as that bridge. It is what I consider one of the world’s great religions. Spanning back to the reformation, Unitarianism in Europe, like many of the other early Protestant traditions, formed from the thoughts, writings and martyrdom’s of those that came before us. We have grown into a very contemporary religious expression, but our roots go deep.

Having a 400 year arc of tradition and change, how does one who is new to the faith, find their way in? How does one who was born into our religion, balance their life-path with the demands and rigors of our values? How can you live into this religious community when we all don’t have the same beliefs?  It can often feel very difficult to find one’s way onto the bridge. The many traffic signals, cement barricades and the on-line maps of life tell us how to live and how to be. Sometimes they’re helpful, sometimes they just don’t speak the truth. Consumerism teaches us to be more productive at the expense of living deeply. The crush of the Metro New York area and the protestant/american/capitalist work ethic informs folks who are salaried or who are holding two or more jobs, that working less than fifty hours a week is being lazy. I’ve heard this concern enough times before and since the recession, that I think it’s crucial to point out the following value – and it is very much a value. The 70 hour work week might be a reality for some of us, but lazy doesn’t start at under 50 hours. That mindset makes us automatons, not humans.

I remember a high school education with 8 classes, no lunch period – didn’t need it since the teachers would let me eat during class time, choir, track, and theatre. Mornings that started at 6am, and homework that ended by 9 or 10pm at night during the week. And mom still sent me to church and church school on the weekend as a kid. As a teen, I began returning the favor to mom, reminding her to make it to Mass.

Cement barricades serve their purpose; they keep traffic flowing, give solidity to our way of life. They also make some of us have to walk a few extra blocks out of the way to get where we’re going. Where’s the path that lets us maintain our jobs and find time for a religious life? Homework on Sunday mornings means there’s no room to explore our values; just our facts. Are we raising our children to be pro-Soccer athletes, or are we raising our children to be spiritually mature, good people? The cement dividers are here to stay. We have to find another way. When we take out our maps, or memorize those google maps and see where the blocked paths are, we need to make the personal choice to not be surprised when the path is long. We need to manage our expectations. And when we still lose our way, and know that we will all lose our way at least at one point, the GPS of congregational life – our clergy, fellow congregants, our parents, our sons and daughters, need to be ready to help point the way.

So, look around. … This might surprise some of us, but this week, we are the ones who made it. Not everyone makes it hear each week. We’re walking up the entrance ramp. For many of us, this is the first time we’ve done so. Coming to the congregation might be the challenge, with seemingly narrow paths to joining. You haven’t seen all the activities, heard all the stories, served the call of justice-making in all its ways yet. At first the walkway may seem tight, but trust me, if you keep walking forward it will seem more open. One significant widening of our pathway is happening this month. Our Committee on Ministry has crafted a Mission Statement reflecting two years of cottage meetings from the Ministerial Search, and months of meetings this year. If you look in our Order of Service, I think on the inside cover, you’ll see the old Mission Statement. For folks who have been coming awhile, can you quote the several paragraphs by heart? (Any hands?) That’s a way in which the pathway stays tight. It’s hard to articulate our purpose when our purpose is so verbose. The new Mission Statement to be voted on at the April 27th congregation meeting is: “In Religious Community, we nurture our spirits by caring for one another and helping to heal the world.” Pending that vote, joining this community means that we recognize the value of community, and how compassion and social justice are spirit deepening practices. We matter, and how we act in community matters. And acting our values matter. This becomes what we are about – clearly.

For some of us, we’ve been coming for years and are active members. We volunteer our time, money and a ton of heart. So many folks here have given so much – and I am so grateful for your volunteer work. The teachers, the committee members, the people who keep the roof up, and the floor safely on the ground. The newsletter editors, the folders, the folks that keep our shelter safe and warm. Those who help honor our dead, and turn on our lights. The preachers, the counselors, the sound mixers, the webmaster, the youtube videographer, the pageant director. And the list will inevitable go on to at least one more role that I haven’t mentioned, no matter how many volunteer services I’ll name. Because we’re a community of many people who share many gifts.

But whether you set up your first Shelter Cot (like me last Sunday) or you’ve prepared a dozen Seder meals, in some ways we may be at the same place. We probably agree with the principles and purposes of Unitarian Universalism. And yet you might still be figuring out how to feel your way onto or up that ramp. You’re inline with our ethics and our causes, but the question of identity still seems elusive. Maybe, just maybe, the spirit in Unitarian Universalism hasn’t caught hold. The zeal of evangelism, even if it’s only to evangelize yourself, hasn’t taken grip. You might seek to figure out where our religious tradition’s values matches your own. You agree that people have value and worth; that justice, equity and compassion are imperative in this troubled world; that beliefs need not divide us in all things; that the search matters; that all voices should be heard; that world community is a goal; and that we are all related and that the natural world is inclusive in the word “we.” These principles ought to be impressive, because they are daunting and very difficult to follow.

For those of us who this describes, let me challenge you a bit, more than you already are in striving to live up to these values. In the month ahead, ask yourself what does our faith tradition ask you to do? When you catch yourself thinking, “I agree with that ethic, or value, or principle,” follow-up by asking yourself, “What can I do, or say, or consider in light of that value that I wasn’t doing, or saying, or considering before?” Consider it a spiritual self-assessment. We do all sorts of assessments in our lives – with our finances, our job performance, our buildings and homes. It may be time to perform one over what matters among the most in our lives.

I believe that’s the core of the meaning of the word discipleship. We often think of it in terms of Jesus’ disciples; men who were following a central figure. How can we be disciples when we don’t all have the same views, and many of us maintain an agnostic stance to faith? Discipleship can also be to a path, to a way of living. Our principles and purposes are not easy to maintain all the time, in all ways. Living them, intentionally, can change us for the better. Being devoted to that practice strengthens our character. For example, fostering justice, equity and compassion in human relations is not just a nice thing to do. It has implications on our perspectives and our personality. From time to time we’re all guilty of wanting to be the one to end up right and the other person to end up wrong. We get into struggles that are more about me, myself and I, rather than we and us. When we retract behind our Ego fortresses, we’re not living up to the practice of the second principle I just mentioned. We’re not living our path. We become devoted to something else – something with less substance or power.

For those of us who are ready for Advanced Lifespan Religious Education 405, take what you realize, or learn, or remember from that spiritual self-assessment and share it with your fellow congregant. Most week’s we invite a member to share how our congregation has deepened their spirit or transformed who they were for the better. Hannah Arendt once suggested that the highest form of human action is speaking amid and engaging with others. I think this point is often particularly difficult for Unitarian Universalists, not the speaking up bit, but the engaging with others about our spiritual values. We often act as if we are imposing on others, should we engage in a discussion about values as they pertain to religion.

…Raise your hand if you are easily swayed; if you do whatever you’re told; if any belief shared with you becomes your own. (Be gentle with those whose hands are up.) We kid ourselves into thinking we are being responsible by not engaging with one another over our values. Be genuine as you engage, but remember to engage. That’s another aspect of the agnostic disciple. We go out into the world and engage with one another about matters of the spirit, of the heart, of the mind. I sometimes imagine we’re helping convert people away from being automatons, away from their ego fortresses.

Be genuine as you engage, but remember to engage. Some parents here have heard me remind them that most of our religious education happens at home. One can not learn Algebra or Spanish by studying it one hour a week for nine or ten months a year – it only adds up to about 40 hours, or one week of school. Believe me, I tried that approach with Spanish, and it did not go well for me. It takes immersion. We are that immersion. If religious education ends in the classroom, our oldest youth may have as much as 12 weeks of full-time class with very little homework or 3 months – one semester – over the whole span of our religious education program. And that’s if you attend every Sunday. Our folks who joined us as adults may have but a few hours. Since we are that immersion course, I need you to help me out by practicing our spiritual fluency with regularity.

As a quick aside, just like the widening ramp, let me warn you, at some point in your religious life, you will likely encounter someone speeding toward you rapidly ringing their clown-like bell to get out of their cycling path. Whether you may feel that’s coming from the pulpit, or coffee hour, please do not take my challenge toward deeper engagement to sound like a ringing cyclist on a narrow path. Be nimble, be swift. Take what is of value, even if it turns out to simply be that cycling (like spiritual engagement) is a healthy sport, and turn to the side as you need. We control not the sounds and bells along the way, only that we continue to have a path to share. How we share it is all our responsibility.

Some of us lament the lack of neat, simple answers in our faith to the questions of belief. This is the particular challenge of the Agnostic Disciple. Like my acrophobic-induced panic attacks, we do not cover up what’s below us and around us with straight, hard, and opaque answers. There are times in life where we feel we may desperately need the certitude of truth to be known by us as clearly expressed belief. … We don’t build that way. We lay walkways and frameworks that allow us a clear view in all directions – even the scarily downward ones; yet the path is firm. Millions have walked it. And it can get exhilarating if you let it. Know that belief does not equal faith. The path we walk is our faith. We may construct that faith with varying beliefs, but the wise choice of wood, metal, solid, or porous does not diminish the path. These choices will change the view though.

Some of you may question my choice in the West Village as the destination of my little spirit-walk. Kingdom of Heaven, Beloved Community, or Nirvana it may or may not be. But it was where I was going. I just so happened to know this time which way I headed. We don’t always know that. But the path remains as firm as it needs to be. We have chosen, or continue to choose each day, to walk through this precious and rare gift that we know as life in the manner we do. Each day we see a rebirth to this life, and are faced with the most serious question we can be asked. How do we live? Knowing that the majority of our religious education comes from one another in how we choose to answer this question of living; consider how you model the role of teacher; how do you model the role of disciple? What would your students learn from you? How would they learn to live their life? Where do you connect with our values? Where do you fall short? From time to time, we all succeed and we all fall short. Each day that we see a rebirth to this life is a new opportunity to change, to grow and always and ever to teach.

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Independent Thought, Dependent Heart

This sermon was originally preached at First UU in Brooklyn on July 6th, 2010. It’s about how we are best when we connect our rational minds with our connected hearts.

Have you ever been in a spot where you’ve got to make a decision about two or three difficult choices? You run all the options through your head over and over and over trying to make some sense of where you are with the choice. You weigh the pros and cons and find yourself unable to commit one way or the other. You then drag in as many friends as possible – if it’s a decision that’s a big deal. They all have opinions of their own; and to your great frustration they may even have opinions that agree with one another, but you still can’t be swayed by their advice. You keep seeing the other side of the issue, and the solidarity between your trusted advisors simply confirms your concerns for the opposite take. Or is that just me?
The problem is partly one of indecisiveness. Fearful of mistakes, or lost opportunities we shirk away from committing to a course of action. We paralyze ourselves before the great “what if.” I wonder if the problem isn’t just that though; if it isn’t just about cautiousness and due diligence gone wild. I wonder if it’s more about the problem resting solely in our minds and not also our hearts. I wonder if we sometimes have a tendency to overly value our intellectual rigors over our emotional awareness. Do we ask more of the practical questions; more of the detail-orientated concerns, than we seek to be comfortable with the choice in our center, the choice in our spirit?
I feel like this has been a central challenge for our religious faith over the past 50 years; since the merger between Unitarianism and Universalism around 1960. We as a religious people wrestled with the mind and the heart. We combined the cool rigors of our Unitarian forbears with the passion and verve of our Universalist predecessors. For sure, both traditions had members with more of the traits of the other as well, but the religions had a tendency toward one or the other. Painting a broad swath, one could say they both had a style to them; mind and heart.
Over 400 years ago Unitarianism came about in Eastern Europe where it first gained a foothold (while also developing in parts of Western Europe where it wouldn’t solidify, however, for a while). Impassioned preachers these Unitarians certainly were, but their arguments and concerns were rooted in the rise of scientific honesty and intellectual cohesion at the expense of valuing adherence to doctrine. Simply put, they made sense, and they got most worked up when things didn’t make sense. Not that they weren’t very heart-felt in their convictions, but their ultimate concerns theologically wrestled with the realm of the consistent mind. It first had to be right up here (pointing to head.)
Universalism on the other hand was an American creation at around 1800. It was an emotional reaction to the fire and brimstone preaching of the times. Their great critique was rooted in the heart even if it also made intellectual sense. “How can an all-loving God condemn anyone to ever-lasting pain and suffering?” Their answer was – “God wouldn’t.” For sure, theologians coached their arguments in logic and scripture. But at their root, their concerns were less about doctrinal consistencies and more about how our theologies reflect the God we know in our lives. It’s as if they were saying, “The God I know loves us. How could you say anything to the contrary?!” Their theologies were about the heart, where the Unitarians were more about the mind.
So starting about 50 years ago, we began our great struggle of sorting through these conflicting theological impulses. The two denominations had their own conversations prior to that as well, particularly among the respective youth groups, but up till that point it was always discussions between denominations – not within the same. Are we going to focus more on making sure we can all agree? Or is that beside the point now that we’re in a truly non-creedal tradition? Or are we going to focus more on where our hearts and spirits meet? How can we make our deeds match our thoughts while living true to our hearts? What do we do when each of us have differing concerns we put to the forefront? Our histories and backgrounds are often very far apart, yet we struggle to find a common language.
Our minds and hearts are in conflict with one another theologically and it sometimes causes us unease and pain from the disconnect. (Remember that when I use the word “theological”, I simply mean “how we find or make meaning in the world.”) We get frustrated for the lack of a common language or we lament the loss of the ease of creedal certitudes even while never wanting to return to them; we came here or we stayed here in part for this reason. But wouldn’t it just be so much easier if we could simply state how we wrap up the complexity of the universe in one neat little “elevator speech” for our friends, family and co-workers! (An “elevator speech” is that phrase we spew out in between the time it takes to get from one floor to our destination. I get asked with frequency what Unitarian Universalism is as one of our ministers. My elevator speech goes something like; “We’re a covenantal faith which means we place a greater concern on our shared commitments with the people and world around us – our shared relations – than we do on the beliefs we hold at any given moment. Ideally, our pews reflect the diversity of experience and views in our community. In other words, we seek to reflect living experience. We will never all agree on everything, and our spiritually needs to match this reality. When folks ask how can we have a religion when we don’t all agree, I remind people that we have a planet where this is the case. We don’t all agree, and yet we need to learn to live together through the difference. This challenge and this vocation is my faith.”) OK – maybe we can describe what we’re about… but even so, it’s going to take a few sentences. It’s not simple and it’s not quite rote.
I’m starting to feel Unitarian Universalists are called to bear the burden of not having an easy answer. We keep the space in human conversations around meaning – for incertitude, for complexity, for nuance and for doubt. On our better days, we also keep the space for relations, networks, justice-building and integrity. We could likely come up with neat definitions for all these latter virtues, but no definition in the world would ever truly explain what we meant. We can’t define justice – we can simply live it or we risk speaking a hollow echo. We can’t define relations – they are only realized in action, in living them. The mind can take us pretty far, but the mind can’t live the reality, it can only describe it. That’s where the heart comes in. That’s also where the pain comes in.
One frequent theological challenge is the idea of God. We have many books we draw wisdom from, but we have no source that tells us what to think, what to feel exactly about this concept/experience. I say concept/experience because some of us in this room view God as an idea and some of us view God as an experience. And this is likely true whether or not we believe in God. There will be atheists who encounter God through heart-felt experience, and there will be theists who only see God as a concept in their minds.
When I first converted to Unitarian Universalism 15 years ago, I was a former Catholic who was very much still harboring anger with the Catholic Church. (It took about 15 years to remember to say “Catholic” Church, and not simply “The” Church. I’m sure I’m not alone on this one. You know who you are.) I joined a Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Morristown, NJ. The congregation was overwhelmingly Humanist at the time, and although I no longer identified as Catholic, I still identified as Theist even while I was wrestling with Christianity. I joined that congregation, not because our theologies were the same, but because the community was strong and warm and faithful. They were faithful to their sense of caring for the world they lived in. They never did it perfectly, thankfully not perfectly, but they did it as best they could. Their best rubbed off on me and helped to make the place feel like home for me.
Lest one think I’m painting my first home as a paragon of the heart – no. We were largely centered in our heads, not our hearts. There were frequent arguments around theologies and there was little room in Morristown for the G word, or the J word; and H forgive us if the C word was used. We cared for one another and sought to make the world a better more just place; but the mind ran rampant and trod all over any difference of religious belief. I was in the minority as a theist, but gratefully they still carved out some space for me. The cycles of fear around talking forthrightly about how we make and understand meaning in the world though, really broke my heart. The 1990’s were a very difficult time in our religious tradition because of this. We didn’t always do so good a job in educating converts to Unitarian Universalism. We certainly didn’t always do such a good job in ministering to the pains and hurts converts were carrying with them into our pews. We also lost the vast majority of our children and youth upon adulthood. As a tradition, we still loose the vast majority of our children and youth upon adulthood.
All of these issues are complex and difficult, but I feel that part of the reason for these challenges is our aversion to dealing with the heart/mind challenge. We are hesitant to stake a mind-centered claim on our faith lest we become guilty of creeping creedalism; while ironically succumbing to the staunch certitude of not believing or stating anything. We are hesitant to speak the heart-centered truth of our faith because we may not yet have resolved all our issues relating to where we came from (even if that place we came from is Unitarian Universalism); while ironically not meeting the needs of our covenantal call to deeper relationships with one another. In combination, we risk forming a mind made up and a heart that is closed.
These two maladies have a fair bit in common, even though we often talk about the mind and the heart in very differing ways. A mind made up knows how things are, what’s true in the world, who’s correct and who’s wrong. Take a moment to think of someone in your life that relates to you in this way… (or consider who in your life do you relate to in this way) … and be present with the feelings that arise in your stomach… or the tension that rises in your shoulders and neck.. or the pressure in your head or throat. That’s what a mind made up does to the world and the people around it. It doesn’t mean that indecision is better than decision, rather it clarifies that extreme certitude is often felt as toxic to those around it. What is the thing that you are absolutely convinced of to such a degree that no amount of conversation could sway you? … What changes for the better in the world by holding onto that view?… Is there any way in which it causes harm?
A heart that is closed is a real loss. Like the mind made up, there’s little room for changing the person. Emotional and loving connections are hard to forge for the closed heart. It’s convinced that it’s too dangerous, or not worth trusting, undeserving of love from another. It carries with it a similar certitude to the mind made up. The world is a certain way, I know it, and that’s that. There’s little room once more for complexity or nuance. Either/or perspectives kill genuine relationships between family, between friends and between loved ones.
Both of these idolatries of the mind and the heart are guilty of a sort of creedalism; the kind that claims that we know best the verities of life and no one else has any capacity to better inform us. We raise up our egos, or our pain, up as little gods and thereby close ourselves off to the world. We limit our ability to encounter and play in the same reality as the rest of humanity when we lift up our own worldview.
I feel that Unitarian Universalism offers a saving message here. Whatever our well-informed opinion helps us to understand about whatever facet of the world we currently are considering with our minds or hearts, Unitarian Universalism calls us to thread upon that facet lightly. We ought to engage, or wrestle, or dream, but we ought not to come to understand our opinions as facts. We ought not to confuse perception with universal truth. We ought not to demand those around us obey our take on a given issue or concern. Whether this be about the nature of the Holy, or which political parties offer the best solution to a given problem, or the best way to run this congregation, or which track we must take to liberate this world from injustice. Unitarian Universalism challenges us to break apart the idols we craft our opinions into; whether those opinions are about thoughts or feelings.
Our faith may not offer us easy answers, but it does try to save us from the hard, unwavering rules we so often create for ourselves. It does free us to question and to wonder; never fully knowing. It does free us to be nimble with life. Faith is a religious word describing how we orient ourselves toward living. I feel that Unitarian Universalism calls us to orient our living with a certain amount of wanderlust, a certain amount of being comfortable with uncertainty, and a deep sense of caring for the life around us. In short, the questions matter. The answers are never better than just good enough for now though. May we ever seek to have our minds a little bit untidy and our hearts left as wide open as we can dare at this moment.

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