Saturday, April 19, 2014

Easter Through a Unitarian Universalist Lens

It's been awhile since I last posted, but I've been rethinking my understandings of the Easter/Passover/Solstice season and am speaking about it tomorrow.  Here it is.

By Rev. Kit Ketcham, April 20, 2014

          As Frank and I worked together on this Easter service, we noted the many ways human beings celebrate this time of year.  We recognize the Vernal Equinox, the changes in weather patterns, the shoots of plants popping up in gardens and fields, the new lambs, calves, and foals.  Rebirth, even resurrection, seems possible in the fervor of spring’s changing and sometimes tumultuous conditions.

        How do we respond to the gleeful springtime promise which also brings the uncertainties of weather and frequent natural disaster?  Looking at this religious season through a Unitarian Universalist lens tackles the problems of believability and our quest for trustworthy answers.

        Phyllis McGinley, an Oregon-born poet whose heyday was the 40’s and 50’s, wrote something I’d like to share with you as we begin.  It’s entitled “Lament for a Wavering Viewpoint”, and it’s one of my favorites.         

I want to be a Tory and with the Tories stand,
Elect and bound for glory with a proud, congenial band.
Or in the leftist hallways, I gladly would abide,
But from my youth, I always could see the Other Side.

How comfortable to rest with the safe and armored folk,
Congenitally blest with opinions stout as oak!
Assured that every question one single answer hath.
They keep a good digestion and they whistle in their bath.

But all my views are plastic, with neither form nor pride.
They stretch, like new elastic, around the Other Side.
And I grow lean and haggard with searching out the taint
Of Hero in the blackguard or of Villain in the saint.

Ah, snug lie those that slumber beneath conviction’s roof.
Their floors are sturdy lumber, their windows weatherproof.
But I sleep cold forever, and cold sleep all my kind,
For I was born to shiver in the draft of an open mind.
Born nakedly to shiver in the draft of an open mind.

         My conservative Baptist minister dad used to say to me, “Honey, don’t be so openminded that your brains fall out.”  He’d say this on the many occasions when I’d defend some---to him---indefensible act or position, such as my summer crushes on the cute boys who came to Athena for pea harvest.  Or that living with one’s future mate before marriage might be a good idea.  Or that the war in Vietnam was crazy.

         I never brought up my religious opinions, because I was pretty sure I’d get the same response, and yet it seemed to me that there something worse than being so openminded that my brains fell out.  It seemed to me that being so closed-minded that my brains dried up was worse.  But saying so  seemed tantamount to accusing him of dried-up brains, and that didn’t feel so good either.

         As a child, I depended on my parents and other trusted adults to tell me the truth, whether that truth was about religious matters or grammar or history or how to conjugate a Spanish verb.  They knew more than I did, and I trusted their knowledge.  I trusted them to be right.

         As I grew older, I gradually began to realize that my parents and other adults were telling me the truth only as they saw it.  Though I knew that they had my wellbeing in mind, I also began to see that they had received their version of the truth from still other persons.  Filtering this received truth through their own experience, they had passed it along to me.  How many people were there in this line of truth-telling?  Where did the original people get their truth?

         Well, you know how adolescent minds work---always questioning, wondering, considering alternatives.  Despite all the good advice available for free from parents, teachers, police, doctors---adolescents prefer to work out their own truth. 

         “Yeah but, Mom, I’d rather do it myself” became my refrain as I sorted through the sources of wisdom that I knew about and looked for others that made more sense.  Which of course gave my dad a chance to use his other favorite stock phrase:  “A yeah but is a half-brother to a halibut”.

         I loved the romance and tragedy of the ancient Christian Easter story:  Mary’s anointing of Jesus’ feet and his acceptance of this act; the commandeering of a donkey for a triumphal ride into Jerusalem; the overturning of the greedy vendors’ stalls in the temple; the clever answer to the trick question “is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar?”; the chilling words spoken at the Passover Seder with his disciples—“this do in remembrance of me”; the betrayal by a kiss from Judas the disciple; the arrest in the garden and the subsequent series of denials from Peter the disciple; a kangaroo court, a condemnation, a beating, a savage public execution in front of Mary Jesus’ mother, and all his friends.

         This all felt completely believable to me.  As thrillers go, it ranks right up there with some of our best modern stuff.  It displayed human nobility and human frailty in extremely clear detail.  Shakespeare had nothing on the Gospel writers when it came to drama and tragic endings.

         But that famous story as told in the Gospels of the Christian scriptures ends with a twist---a twist which turns a human tale into a ghost story.  Jesus’ body disappears from the tomb in which it is placed.  Angels appear to the women who are searching for his body to cleanse and wrap it.  Jesus the living person appears to his friends in several places, vanishes again, and then reappears to offer them advice about evangelizing the world, building an institutional church, and living his teachings.

         This part of the story bothered me.  A lot.  I didn’t know what to think about it.  All the ghost stories of my youth notwithstanding, I didn’t believe people could rise from the dead.  Surely there was another explanation.

         In studying the Bible as literature in college, I discovered that there were actually several different versions of this story in the Gospels.  Either it happened several different ways or it didn’t happen at all or somebody made it up or at least embellished it.  Or maybe people dreamed it.  In any case, the entire Christian tradition in all its many variants seemed to be built on a supernatural foundation.  Never mind the perfectly sensible and inspiring events of Jesus’ life.

         My sources of authority---how I knew what I knew---began to shift dramatically as I dealt with the ramifications of a possibly-fictional Easter.

         I met non-theistic friends who told me that Easter was proof that the concept of God is absurd.  What loving parent would send a beloved child to be killed as a sacrifice?  This God didn’t make sense.

         Nor did the Hebrew scriptures seem any less fantastic in their authority.  Laws which mandated that wool and cotton not be combined in fabric?  Which recommended death for a myriad of seemingly minor offenses?  Which dictated laws of diet that collided with modern science?

         “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free…”  one of Jesus’ most famous sayings.  We want to find truth, to believe the truth, to be able to trust the truth we hear.  We want to find reliable sources of authority, but we are hard-pressed to find those reliable resources.
         In the daily news, we hear conflicting reports about international events, domestic issues, political situations.  Even the best medical research offers us thousands of studies proving both sides of any given subject:  butter is good, butter is bad; organic is good, organic is bad, estrogen works, estrogen harms, fiber is good, fiber is overrated.

        If we followed all the studies available, we’d go nuts.  So we sort things out according to our own experience.  Uncle Bill had a heart attack and ate lots of red meat and dairy products; therefore, too much fatty stuff is probably not so good.  We grow our vegetables organically and have few pests or diseases and all we have to wash off is the dirt; therefore organic is probably good.

        The jury is still out on many issues, but we’re wary----if the market says it’s good, they’re probably saying so out of economic self-interest.  Therefore it might not be so wonderful.

        Religion is a little tougher subject to sort out.  Many of us were raised to revere certain texts and authority figures as sacrosanct, infallible, or at least metaphorically true, if not factual.  The Hebrew Bible, the Christian scriptures, the Koran, the Bhagavad-Gita, Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths---these are all sacred bodies of knowledge, revered by humans world-wide, accepted by many humans world-wide as absolutely true.

        Now, we have come to Unitarian Universalism at least partly because we have a problem with accepting a sacred written text or body of knowledge as absolutely true.  We have come to Unitarian Universalism because we believe that our actions toward each other and toward the earth and universe are more important than certain beliefs about God or the creation of the earth or the lives of the Buddha or Jesus or Muhammed.

        Yet we still need authoritative sources of knowledge.  What will they be?  How will we decide?

        As a religious humanist, I am convinced that human experience and wisdom can be an authoritative source of my knowledge.  My own experience and wisdom are authoritative for me, but may not be authoritative for others.  I am willing to accept the experience and wisdom of credible others, but I insist on filtering it through my own experience and wisdom.

        I accept certain texts as authoritative---the Declaration of Independence is, for me, an authoritative text, as is the Bill of Rights.  Imperfect as they may be, they establish principles of democracy that I believe to be right.  The Constitution---well, with the challenges it’s getting these days and the current membership of the US Supreme Court---well, who knows?

        As a Unitarian Universalist, I find great wisdom and credibility within many sacred texts.  I do not consider them historical documents and would not use them as the basis for a history lesson.  Yet these poetic literary works offer me a great deal of universal wisdom:  to treat others as I would be treated; to act with justice and mercy toward others; to be generous with the poor and downtrodden; to love freely and unconditionally; to express compassion and to work for freedom.

        Our UU principles are based upon the universal wisdom of many religious and secular thinkers.

        My friend and colleague the Rev. Harold Rosen of Vancouver BC, in his book “Universal Questions:  Exploring the Mysteries of Existence”, lists his methods for arriving at useful truth and declares that each balances and complements the others.

        He lists as his sources of authority, how he knows what he knows, the following methods.  See what you think.

        The scientific method, the combination of reason and experience applied to an idea.
         Common sense, a personal and practical understanding of reality.
         Tradition, accumulated patterns of thought and behavior, often of enduring usefulness and patterns which define a culture.
         Intuition, a sense about the way things are that leaps ahead of ordinarily available information.
         Artistic expression, a way of seeing, hearing, and feeling that is different from ordinary knowing.
         Wisdom teachings, useful axioms and spiritual principles that can improve the human condition.
         Revelation, direct communication of insights by prophetic persons such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and others, both ancient and modern.

        In addition, Rev. Rosen believes that we are morally obligated to follow the laws of our government, except when those laws violate universal standards of justice.

        So what do we use as our sources of authority?  How do we sort out truth from fiction, hype from reality, ethical direction from self-serving manipulation?

        Living in a multicultural world, we are always called upon to interpret and evaluate the sources of authority that bombard us.  We are forced to rely upon media reports of national and international events that seem hysterical, inaccurate, and often evasive.  We hear rumors and stories from friends and family about other friends and family.    And don’t even get me started on Facebook!

        We cringe at the proclamations of truth that we hear from certain groups:  creation scientists, big corporations, cults and many political organizations, fundamentalist religions and hate groups.  We step carefully through our lives trying to live by our ethical and moral principles but always knowing we don’t have enough accurate information to know for sure.

        And so we often become like Phyllis McGinley in her poem---chilled by the draft from our open minds, hoping that our brains won’t fall out but hoping just as much that our brains won’t dry up from too little openness.

        How do I know what I know?  I find it helpful to look at the things that I think I know “for sure” and tease out from them the reasons that I know them with such certainty.  And I find that almost invariably there are common roots to my sense of certainty.

        For example, I believe deeply that Easter is a season to celebrate, that it is meaningful, that its meaning has profound consequences for my life, and that I neglect that meaning to my detriment.

        Sixty years ago, my conviction was based on my Christian upbringing.  I believed that it was the day that Jesus rose from the dead.  My parents and teachers had told me that this was the truth, and I believed them.  I found the story inspiring and the great love and sacrifice it portrayed thrilled me to the core.

        But one day, Kit the teenager was sitting on a windy bluff early one gray Easter morning with other youth as a single ray of sunlight pierced the clouds, singing an old hymn about light and space and thunderclouds and storm and then the words “it breathes in the air, it shines in the light, it streams from the hills, it descends to the plain and sweetly distills in the dew and the rain.”

        My understanding of the truth of the Easter season changed at that moment, from a concentration on the death and resurrection of Jesus to the ever-present, all-embracing sense of wonder at the infinite divine which I saw at that instant portrayed in the natural world before me.  It was bigger than Jesus, bigger than I was, bigger than all the doctrine I’d ever heard.  With its boundary-less, inclusive power, the Living Universe subsumed the Christian message.  And I would never again be satisfied by a doctrine or a creed as my source of authority.

        Today I find the truth of the Easter season even more embracing as I understand the true source of its meaning and power, the Living Universe that enfolds and connects us all.

        Our celebrations in the spring of the year, of the Vernal Equinox, of Passover, of Easter, all come to us out of the same source of universal truth:  LIFE, the life which infuses us with strength and inspiration and is revealed most fully in nature as we explore its mystery and power.

        Because we are human, we have developed specific ceremonies to celebrate our sense of mystery, of gratitude, of awe at the gift of life.  We celebrate the renewal of the earth in spring, we celebrate deliverance from evil, we celebrate the rebirth of love.

        But all our celebrations, all our joy and passion flow from a common source---our recognition that life is sacred, in all its pain and all its triumph, that living things all die and yet continue to live, whether in the fertile soil, within our hearts, within works of creativity which outlive us, and in our families and culture.

         Yes, we do use our reason to determine truth; yes, we do rely on human tradition for continuity and connection.  We trust our intuition, we respect our artists’ work, we use our common sense and our knowledge of wise words from many texts, and we pay attention to the prophets we hear, to discern what truth they may offer us, even when we disagree.  And we trust most of the laws of our land.

         But I believe that for virtually all of us, LIFE is our final authority.  If it is life-giving, we can trust it.  Even when it hurts, if it enhances life in its greatest form, we can believe in it.  We sometimes get sidetracked by the needs of daily living---money, possessions, luxuries, are these not life?  No.  They are only what we accumulate in our day to day living.  They are not life itself.

         Life itself is in the threads that connect us, in the relationships we have: with one another, with ourselves, and with the Living Universe, or God as we may understand God.  Life is indestructible, and it can be nurtured into a greater profusion of joy and passion by our careful attention.

         Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.

BENEDICTION:  Our worship service has ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place.  Let us go in peace, considering our own sense of life and its gifts.  May we rededicate ourselves in love to Life, for ourselves, for each other, and for the Living Universe of which we are a part.  Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.


Richard Gilmore said...

Nicely stated.

Lilylou said...

Thanks, Dick, that means a lot.