Saturday, October 18, 2014

The First Source of Unitarian Universalism

Rev. Kit Ketcham, Oct. 19, 2014

         From the meditation manual published by the UUA and edited by the Rev. Kathleen Rolenz: 
         “Moses encountered a Burning Bush and took off his shoes to honor the sacred ground he stood upon.  (The) Buddha saw the morning star and attained enlightenment.  Muhammad rose from his sleep and recorded what he heard Allah telling him to write.  Jesus fasted in the desert for forty days and then returned, full of the spirit, to preach about the kingdom of God…  Our first Source describes how we also point to our personal experiences of awe (and wonder), trying not to mistake the pointing finger for the moon.”

        Please turn in your grey hymnals to the page toward the front which lists the 7 principles and 6 sources of Unitarian Universalism.  It’s right after the Preface page.  Let’s read the first source together, starting with the introductory phrase:

         “The Living Tradition we share draws from many sources:  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.”

         Many of us Unitarian Universalists came into this faith having realized that our early religious training seemed to mistake the pointing finger for the moon, that we had been taught that the pointing finger, in other words, the rules, the supernatural events, the ancient creeds, should be the object of our adoration, of our reverence, of our commitment.

         This morning I start a series of reflections on the six Sources of Unitarian Universalism.  I find them fascinating and inspiring and want to share them with you. 

         Most religions base their theology, their doctrines and their rituals upon one or two sacred texts and the words and deeds of one prophet.

         Christianity, for example, rests almost exclusively upon the texts found in the Bible, which have been translated and retranslated hundreds of times, striving for correct language and, to a great extent, maintaining traditional doctrine.

         The Bible is a collection of books edited and included in that anthology by multiple authors and editors, plus the  words of the teacher and prophet Jesus written down many years after his death, words and deeds which have also been edited and modified by others, according to their interpretations of his stories. 

         The writings of those later teachers, like Paul, Luke, and others of those who followed Jesus and wrote about his words and deeds did so many years after Jesus’ death, and they are also part of Christian doctrine.

         Judaism and Islam, two sister religions to Christianity, grew at different times out of the ancient cultures of the western reaches of Asia.  They also rely on certain sacred texts and stories for their doctrines and rituals, plus the words and deeds of such ancient prophets as Moses, David, Micah, and others prominently featured in the Hebrew scriptures and the words and deeds of the prophet Muhammed who transcribed the text of the Koran, from dreams he had which he felt came from Allah.

         Our Unitarian Universalism reveres much wisdom from all three of these sources, but we turn first of all to our own personal experiences of awe and wonder.

          There may have been a time for us when we felt guided by so-called miracles and commandments and rituals which promised salvation, but for many, if not most, of us, there was another time, a time when we looked at the sky and marveled at the vastness of the universe or watched the birth of a child and stood in wonder at the everyday miracle of human creation.  

         Or perhaps a fierce storm or other natural disaster caused us to marvel at the power that human beings cannot control.  As we experience the drama of weather and geologic upheavals, we stand in wonder and awe at the natural events that we puny humans can only witness and respond to, but not control.

         Repeated experiences of these types, connecting us to the universe, to other living beings, and to the cycles of nature, may have set us questioning:   just what is truth?  What are the real rules?  Why are some of the human rules so illogical?  What about the indefinable emotions of love and hate, the paradoxical desire to repel enemies and draw others closer?  What about the ethics of human interaction? 

         Philosophers, sages, and artists have always tried to capture their own awakened sense of wonder in their work, whether that be with words, images, music, or drama.  Scientists marvel at the sight of worlds within worlds as they explore the depths of matter, from a blade of grass to the capacity of the human brain, to the workings of the vast universe. 

         Would whoever has quote #1, please stand up and read it aloud to us?
         “Nothing any theologian ever wrote about God has helped me very much, but everything that the poets have written about flowers, and birds, and skies, and seas, and the saviors of the race…has at one time or another reached my soul.”  John Haynes Holmes.

         As Cameron and I talked about this service and our own personal experiences, he told me that his moments like this tend to come when he sees something brand new to him, or when he learns something new about something familiar.  His experiences in nature and with people often bring him that sense of wonder, as do art and music.

         John Haynes Holmes’ words “nothing that any theologian ever wrote about God has helped me very much…”these words remind me of my own early preference for hymns and religious songs that left out mention of doctrine or traditional images of God or Jesus.  My favorites focused on human life and beauty and the natural world.  “For the beauty of the earth” had much more significance for me, for example, than did “The Old Rugged Cross”.

         Would whoever has quote #2 stand up and read it, please.
         “I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life,…to cut a broad swath…, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it.”
Henry David Thoreau.

         A week or so ago, I learned that the grandson of a former parishioner on Whidbey had committed suicide.  He’d been beset by mental health challenges for several years; his parents had done all they could and, though therapy and love and medications were provided, the young man had eventually submitted to his pain and had ended his life. 

         My parishioner was an elderly woman who also had mental health challenges and she worried about her grandson, deeply.  We talked a lot about her concerns for him and she had done what she could to encourage and love him, from her bed at an assisted living facility. 

         When she died a few years ago, this grandson was distraught and expressed his sense of connection with his grandmother.  There was clearly a deeper tie between them than I had known before.

         I felt myself caught up at that time of the grandmother’s death in the family’s web of grief and other, more mixed feelings, their relationships bared in this time of sorrow, with the sense of relief paired with regret that life and death bring to most grieving families, as we always wish we could have done more.

         And yet it was a profoundly moving time for me, to be part of creating a loving farewell that honored both the woman who had died and the family who had tried so hard to keep her safe and to appreciate her individuality while dealing with her eccentricities. 

         So when Thoreau says  he wants “to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world”, well, when he says that, I know what he means.

         Life isn’t always pretty sunsets and funny animals on the internet; it isn’t all cures for disease and loving families.  It has its meannesses as well as its sublimities.  All of life has the capacity to amaze, to frighten, to empower, to overcome us with both its beauty and with its horror.  And we always struggle with our understandings of how things come to be.
         Would whoever has quote #3 please stand and read it aloud?
         The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion.  It should transcend definitions of God, and avoid dogmas and theology.  Covering both the natural and the spiritual, it should be based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things as meaningful unity.” 
Albert Einstein

         When I was a kid, living with my Baptist family, I saw our religion as the right way to live.  I was a little skeptical         about friends who went to other churches, especially those who were Catholic.  I couldn’t imagine that any of them were bad enough to go to hell, even though some of them drank beer and smoked and danced.  But I’d been baptized in the “right” way---dunked in the church baptistry one summer night----and I was pretty sure I was okay. 

         When I went to college, I quit going to church very often.  It was such a pleasure not to have to get up early and leave my friends having coffee in the dining room, walk all the way to downtown McMinnville and sit through a service that seemed like a rehash of everything I’d heard in my dad’s church.  I did like my required religion classes, however, and figured they’d be an acceptable substitute, even though they were pretty liberal!  They brought up questions I didn’t even know I had.

         And whenever there was something particularly interesting going on in the college youth group, like learning to speak in tongues, I’d visit to see what it looked like.  I was not interested in speaking in tongues; it just seemed weird to me.  But the refreshments were usually pretty good and on Sunday evenings, the dining room at the college didn’t serve dinner.
         The summer after graduation, I went to Green Lake, Wisconsin, to serve on the young adult staff at the American Baptist Assembly grounds, where I willingly went to hear some of the bigtime preachers from New York City’s Baptist churches, just to say I’d heard guys like Harvey Cox and Howard Moody, but they were very different from my Dad and I wasn’t sure about that.

        But while there, I discovered a little book entitled “Heavenly Discourse”, by Charles Erskine Scott Wood, whose imaginary conversations between God and any number of historical figures---Mark Twain, Voltaire, Robert Ingersoll, Charles Darwin, on the one hand, and Billy Sunday, St. Peter, St. Paul, and even Satan, on the other.

        These conversations debunked a good deal of the rules and dogmas of traditional religion.  I was spellbound.  These short conversations illuminated some of the doubts I’d begun to have.  It was my first real opportunity to question my childhood faith and to integrate some of the interesting new knowledge I’d acquired in my college education.  Linfield, though Baptist, was way ahead of rural Baptist congregations!

        During my young adult and midlife years in welfare casework, community center work and public education,  I witnessed firsthand the poverty and hardship of the Native Americans who formed my welfare caseload, the racism and injustice experienced by Black and Latino inner city residents of Denver, the domestic violence and addiction issues of the upper middle class students I taught and counseled for 25 years.

        These experiences were coupled with the eye-opening visits I made with my then-husband to Unitarian Universalist congregations around the Denver area and resulted in a sea change in my religious and spiritual life.

         And then came 6 weeks on an Outward Bound course in the Colorado Rockies, where we lived in makeshift shelters, hiked 20-25 miles a day through magnificent passes and valleys  where I felt intimately connected to the wildlife, forests, and streams.  A 72 hour solo experience without food or anything but a journal, a pocketknife, and a cup for scooping water out of a pristine creek and I was changed forever.

        A few weeks ago, when the August SuperMoon was getting a lot of PR, a couple of friends and I decided to go check out the sunset AND the moon as it rose over the Coast Range.  We’d been walking south on the Gearhart beach, looking over our shoulders at the brilliant sunset, all red and orange from the wildfires up north.  We kept peeking east to see if there was any sign of the moon, and finally we saw its orangey dome starting to rise above the hills.

        We turned around to walk back the way we’d come, able to see the moon and the sunset just by turning our heads slightly.  We walked to the top of the first dune to one of the benches available, climbed up to stand on it and watched the moon coming up over the eastern hills.

        We’d been standing on the bench for several minutes when my friend Pat gasped quietly and pointed:  “Look,” she said.  We looked and as we squinted in the twilight, we could dimly see dark shapes among the clumps of beachgrass.  They looked like ordinary shrubs at first and then they began to move. 

        Slowly, slowly, out of the shadows cast by the rising moon, we watched shape after shape grow legs and ears and muzzles and antlers and begin to move silently toward the south end of the dunes. 

         As the moon’s light intensified, we could see a huge bull elk with antlers to match overseeing the movement of his large herd of cows, calves, and young bulls from their resting place in the dunes to the grove of trees a quarter mile away.  We could only watch the procession, our hearts thumping, our eyes wide, our voices silent, thunderstruck by what we saw.

         It was a holy moment, a moment like no other, and it came to me that there is NOTHING more important to me or to any other living being than the orderly processes of natural law.  Others can argue the existence of God or the importance of religious faith, but nothing has exceeded my own personal experiences as a source of my spiritual life.  NOTHING.

         “Religion should be based on a sense arising from the experience of all things as meaningful unity,” says Albert Einstein, and I agree.  The natural world, with us a part of it, is a meaningful unity and requires nothing else from us than our respect and care.  We need not mistake the pointing finger for the moon.

         Do you realize what it means that our First Source is "direct human spiritual experience"? We do not require those who join us to build their spiritual life around a doctrine, a deity, or a prophet. We believe that human beings can find and experience spiritual growth without these things, important as those might be for others. We know that each person's life offers meaning and insight into the human spirit and its relationship with other living beings and with the mystery of the universe. And we believe that this experience is so important that we acknowledge it as a Source of our faith. The First Source, as a matter of fact.

         Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.  (If there’s extra time, ask for responses)
BENEDICTION: Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, remembering that many moments of our lives have the potential to be spiritual experiences. May we savor those moments and bring them with us into our lives together here in this beloved community. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

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