Odyssey, part 1: 1959

To see the world in a grain of sand
And heaven in a wildflower
To hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.

- William Blake

“You will face unforeseen dangers, but also help will come unlooked for.”
- Misquote from J.R.R. Tolkien, Lord of the Rings (Though my memory recalls it as a line Gandalf speaks to Frodo, it is not in the book)

Context Is All

The habits of thought and figures of speech -- the tropes, assumptions, and sensibility -- the "mobile army of metaphors" (Nietzsche) I deploy to meet the reality that comes at me -- indeed, everything about this personality by which I am known to the world is shaped into what it is by my times. If you would know me, then know my time. People born in the same country, but in different times, are truly born into different worlds. What sort of world was I born into?

I was born in 1959, a cusp year. As turning-point years go, 1959 is up there with 1929, 1945, 1968, and 1980, among the most significant transitional years of the 20th century. The playwright Caroline Jackson Smith writes:
1959. As a decade changes, the markers of seismic cultural shifts [appear]. . . As a young man named Cassius Clay wins the Golden Gloves, the boxing game is poised to change forever. The daring, complex innovations of the beat poets and be-bop jazz artists signal a wave of avant-garde resistance to post-war lyricism and patriotism. Castro’s assumption of power in Cuba marks a high point of revolution against imperialism, becoming a beacon of hope for other oppressed peoples. Racial integration pushes the historic boundaries of segregation in the wake of 1954’s Brown v Board of Education decision as the Mexican American population of California begins to rally around the notion of Chicano identity while the long battle for the rights of farm workers begins. As the media creeps more deeply into American lives with the advent of television, John F. Kennedy campaigns for President and the popular music of America is forever changed as early rhythm and blues gives way to soul music while the mambo sweeps the country. 1959. Our American identity broadens and deepens and we begin to be a country of many languages, musics, sexual identities and gendered choices. But as a country steeped in violence we are always struggling to find the love in the fight; to put the blade to the heat.
My time, the world into which I was born, the strange and distant realm from which I come and cannot return – was the United States of 1959. Every year, of course, is the transition between all previous and all subsequent, yet cultural change does not move at uniform speed. 1959 was a year of radical and wide-ranging reformation – though the revelers raising their toast to the new year 1960 had little inkling how significant the events of the year just ended would turn out to be.

While Eisenhower’s Presidency was coasting through the seventh of its eight years, new hopes were being conceived. Some would prove misbegotten, others would emerge very changed by the long labor to birth them.

The industrial age was becoming the information age. Symbolic in that transition was a misstep in our proud auto industry: Ford’s Edsel was discontinued in 1959. Much more than symbolic was that the microchip was introduced to the world in 1959.

Meanwhile, our government was misstepping into a conflict that would re-define our relationship with our government, for 1959 was the year the first US soldiers were killed in Vietnam.


The late 1950s were a time of a working-class subculture of which middle-class whites generally disapproved but would, within a dozen years, be nostalgically romanticizing. The Broadway and movie musical, Grease, was set in 1959.

The price of a bottle of Coca-Cola had stayed at 5 cents for over 70 years -- since 1886. The last year that stores sold nickel Coke: 1959.

A sexual revolution was gearing up. Pantyhose were introduced in 1959 and were quickly popular. The pharmaceutical company Searle sought FDA approval for the birth control pill. “The pill,” as we know, changed everything.

In 1959 Grove Press published an uncensored version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover for the first time in the U.S. The D.H. Lawrence novel, which had been completed more than 30 years before, quickly became a number one bestseller, largely due to the publicity generated by US Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield's ban of the book from US mails.

In film, two Jewish characters captured the tensions of the zeitgeist. Ben Hur and The Diary of Anne Frank both received Academy Award nominations for Best Picture of 1959. Ben Hur affirmed identification with a heroic individual man struggling to overcome slavery and oppression. The film won eleven academy awards that year, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Charlton Heston. The Diary of Anne Frank, while also celebrating heroic spirit, reflected a dawning realization that oppression was not simply a matter of unlucky betrayed individuals, and that oppression of class, race, gender, faith tradition, or ethnicity called for broad movements rather that mere individual effort, however stirring and courageous. During World War II, our military and political leaders had been complicit in German extermination of Jews. Nevertheless, in the years following, a growing sense of having ended the Holocaust became a point of American pride. Our nation saw itself as having used the enormous collective social action of fighting World War II not just for our own interests and protection, as wars have always been fought, but to stop the Holocaust and free an oppressed group. The Diary of Anne Frank thus affirmed a role for collective social action in addressing injustice. That role would bear new kinds of fruits in the social revolutions of the 1960s.


It was the year U.S. national boundaries stopped expanding: there have been no new states since 1959 when Alaska and Hawaii were both added. At the same time, our frontier expanded into space. Russia’s Lunik II landed on the moon in 1959, and the US sent a couple monkeys into space and brought them back alive. New frontiers of music were also opening that year, as, for instance Ornette Coleman’s pioneering of free improvisation. When I feel like a monkey in space making it up as I go along, I remember these last two tidbits. It’s just the time I was born into!

Miles Davis released Kind of Blue. It was a very different kind of jazz, and it became the best-selling jazz album of all time and one of the most influential albums ever in any genre. In literature that year, equally revolutionary was William Burroughs’ novel, Naked Lunch.

In architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright died in 1959 April, and his masterwork, the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, opened a few months later. The Guggenheim’s design was a fundamental and powerful break with past conventions.

In Liverpool, England, John Lennon’s band, the Quarrymen, had been joined by Paul McCartney in 1957, and by just-turned-15-year-old George Harrison in early 1958. The three spent most of 1959 as disbanded former Quarrymen, performing little. The lads were taking in the vibe of transformation from which the Beatles would be born.

Revolutions Political and Spiritual

In 1959, Fidel Castro took over Cuba, ousting Fulgencio Batista. The US had supported Batista’s regime: neither the first nor the last case of my country’s shameful support for dictators. Yet sometimes a stirring tide of revolutionary hope flows only into stifling and stagnant pools – for a couple generations.

The same year, on the other side of the globe, the Dalai Lama left home. As Cuba gained a widely reviled lifelong leader, Tibet lost a widely beloved leader of lives. As Castro took his country into isolation, the Dalai Lama, in exile, did much to bring his country out of isolation into international awareness. Castro's span in Cuba and the Dalai Lama's span outside of Tibet are both co-extensive with the span of my life so far.

Time cover, 1959 April 20
On the day I was born, 1959 March 16, the 23-year-old Dalai Lama received word that the Chinese army would begin shelling his residential complex, which was surrounded by thousands of Tibetans there to protect their revered leader. Hoping that the people would disperse if he weren’t there, and that thousands of lives would thereby be saved, that very day the Dalai Lama resolved to flee his country. The next day, dressed as an ordinary Tibetan, he slipped past the Chinese under cover of a dust storm. After two weeks of harrowing travel through the Himalayas, the Dalai Lama and his small party reached India.

The Dalai Lama continues to embody a universal wisdom born and thoroughly grounded in Eastern tradition yet made accessible to the Western mind in ways the West had not encountered before. Those events in Tibet at the time of my birth ended up as a huge factor in the emergence of American Buddhism.

The Dalai Lama’s attraction of Westerners to Tibetan Buddhism also fertilized the seedlings of other Buddhist traditions that were beginning to sprout on American soil. 1959 was also the year Shunryu Suzuki, age 55, arrived in San Francisco from Japan. Beatniks and others turned on to Zen through the writings of Alan Watts began to flock to the authentic Zen master, and Suzuki’s San Francisco Zen Center grew into a prominent and thriving institution where thousands have practiced at its three main centers (City Center, Green Gulch, and Tassahara) and a growing number of affiliated centers across the US.

Shunryu Suzuki
I have been a serious Zen practitioner and student since 2001. At the time of my birth, the life to which my Zen training, practices , and vows are integral was not possible, was not even conceivable, to the vast majority of Americans.

I was born on a Monday, so there is an issue of Time magazine dated on the very day of my birth. OK, this is a little spooky, since I turned out to be a minister: Paul Tillich is on the cover. The cover-story, “A Theology for Protestants,” reports:
Faith, according to Tillich. is not belief in God but "ultimate concern." Hence an atheist is a believer, too, unless he is wholly indifferent to the ultimate questions. Doubt is an inevitable part of faith. Sin is not some thing one commits, but a state of "estrangement" from one's true self. "The importance of being a Christian is that we can stand the insight that it is of no importance." says Tillich; the religious man can "fearlessly look at the vanity of religion." . . .
The victim of existential anxiety may try to sidestep it by frenetic activity, or by worshiping secular concepts, such as success or nationalism. Or he may try to bury his anxieties in a "heteronomous" religion that offers him readymade certitudes for his uncertainties. In either case, says Tillich, the individual commits idolatry. Against such idolatry, Tillich asserts the Protestant Principle, which considers it presumptuous of any "conditional" institution, such as church or state, to pose as spokesman for the "unconditional," i.e., God. . . .
The Protestant Principle "does not accept any truth of faith as ultimate, except the one that no man possesses it." . . .
Says one of his graduate students: "He doesn't click with those who have no questions. He thinks people who affirm or deny are missing the boat, because it's necessary to find new meaning." . . .
[Says Tillich:] "The one thing needed is to be concerned ultimately, unconditionally, infinitely. If, in the power and passion of such an ultimate concern, we look at our finite concerns, everything seems the same and yet everything is changed. The anxiety is gone! It still exists and tries to return. But its power is broken."
Time cover, 1959 March 16
My time is this Time, and I have spent my life living into a theology limned in a magazine article dated the day I was born.

(There was also an issue of Life magazine dated 1959 March 16. It has a Brazilian jaguar on the cover. I have no idea what to make of this.)

Where Home Is

1959 March 16 is the day that John B. Salling died at the age of 112. He was the last surviving Civil War veteran. I came into the world in Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the confederacy, on the day that the last veteran, a Confederate soldier, left it. Though no one in my world had direct experience of that national cataclysm, the land east of the Mississippi River and south of the Ohio River and the Mason-Dixon line continues in many ways to be a distinct reality. I grew up in that reality: in Virginia, North Carolina, Alabama, and Georgia. When people learn this about me, they have sometimes been surprised and say, “But you have no accent.” (Of course, I do have an accent -- there being no such thing as accentless speech; but it's true, my accent is more Mid-Atlantic than Southern.) My sister, four years younger, has the Southern drawl, but I, the first born, identified more with our Yankee parents than with our peers. I grew up in Dixie, but refused to be of Dixie. Yet I am no Northerner, either: born and raised where I was, how could I be? I am a man without a homeland more specific than America in general. And American I am, so thoroughly that even my criticisms of my country, of which I have many, are based on American values and continue the American style and tradition of critique.

Finally, the month of my arrival in the world, March 1959, was the month Mattel introduced the Barbie doll. Barbie is my twin sister. Can’t you see the family resemblance? At least our heights match. No, really. Mattel’s Barbie playscale is 1/6, meaning that Barbie’s 11.5-inch height represents five-foot-nine, which is my height. Of Barbie, more later (in part 6).

* * *
My colleague Unitarian Universalist ministers of Florida asked me to present my "Odyssey" at our spring meeting, 2011 April. These eight "Odyssey" blog posts are revised and considerably expanded from that presentation.

"Odyssey, part 2: Falling Apples"
"Odyssey, part 3: Mr. Bear's Lover of Leaving"
"Odyssey, part 4: Paragon of Loquacious Discourse"
"Odyssey, part 5: The Commune Attraction"
"Odyssey, part 6: Anti-Barbie"
"Odyssey, part 7: The Knowledge Road to Nowhere"
"Odyssey, part 8: Walls and Fridges"


Saturdao 6

Dao De Jing, verse 3b
16 translations

1. James Legge (1891):
Therefore the sage, in the exercise of his government, empties
their minds, fills their bellies, weakens their wills, and strengthens
their bones.
He constantly (tries to) keep them without knowledge and without
desire, and where there are those who have knowledge, to keep them
from presuming to act (on it). When there is this abstinence from
action, good order is universal.
2. Archie Bahm (1958):
Since this is so, the wise administrator does not lead people to set their hearts upon what they cannot have, but satisfies their inner needs.
He does not promote ambition to improve their status, but supports their self-sufficiency.
He does not complicate their lives with knowledge of multifarious details or with an urge to attend to this, that and the other.
By keeping people contented, he prevents those who mistakenly believe that ambition is better than contentment from leading the contented astray.
By being calm and contented himself, he sets an example for his people.
3. Frank MacHoven (1962):
The truly wise lead by instilling humility and open-mindedness, by providing for fair livelihoods, by discouraging personal ambition, and by strengthening the bone-structure of the people.
The wise avoid evil and radical reform; thus the foolish do not obstruct them. They work serenely, with inner quiet.
4. D.C. Lau (1963)
Therefore in governing the people, the sage empties their minds but fills their bellies, weakens their wills but strengthens their bones.
He always keeps them innocent of knowledge and free from desire, and ensures that the clever never dare to act.
Do that which consists in taking no action, and order will prevail.
5. Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English (1972):
The wise therefore rule by emptying hearts and stuffing bellies, by weakening ambitions and strengthening bones.
If people lack knowledge and desire, then intellectuals will not try to interfere.
If nothing is done, then all will be well.
6. Stan Rosenthal (1984):
It is for reasons such as these,
that an administration which is concerned with the welfare of those it serves
does not encourage status and titles to be sought,
nor encourage rivalry.
Ensuring a sufficiency for all, helps in reducing discontent.
Administrators who are wise do not seek honors for themselves,
nor act with guile towards the ones they serve.
7. Jacob Trapp (1987):
The people should be taught rather
To satisfy their real and simpler needs:
Thus to have inner resources,
Strength in reserve,
Values well ordered and genuinely their own.
Then the false lures of the ambitious
Will not lead them astray.
Thus without strain or constraint,
By clearer thinking and simpler living,
By action without contention,
Men will be better governed
And live more serenely.
8. Stephen Mitchell (1988):
The Master leads
by emptying people's minds
and filling their cores,
by weakening their ambition
and toughening their resolve.
He helps people lose everything
they know, everything they desire,
and creates confusion
in those who think that they know.
Practice not-doing,
and everything will fall into place.
9. Victor Mair (1990):
For these reasons,
The sage, in ruling,
hollows their hearts,
stuffs their stomachs,
weakens their wills,
builds up their bones,
Always causing the people to be without knowledge and desire.
He ensures that the knowledgeable dare not be hostile, and that is all.
Thus, His rule is universal.
10. Michael LaFargue (1992):
And so, the government of the Wise Person:
Empty their minds, fill their bellies
weaken their ambitions, strengthen their bones.
Always bring it about that the people are without knowledge and without desires.
Bring it about that the clever ones do not presume to set about doing.

Do Not Doing
and nothing will be left un-governed.
11. Peter Merel (1995):
In this manner the sage governs people:
Emptying their minds,
Filling their bellies,
Weakening their ambitions,
And strengthening their bones.
If people lack knowledge and desire
Then they can not act;
If no action is taken
Harmony remains.
12. Ursula LeGuin (1997):
So the wise soul governing people
would empty their minds,
fill their bellies,
weaken their wishes,
strengthen their bones,
keep people unknowing,
keep the ones who do know
from doing anything.
When you do not-doing,
nothing's out of order.
13. Ron Hogan (2002):
The Master leads
by clearing the crap
out of people's heads
and opening their hearts.
He lowers their aspirations
and makes them suck in their guts.
He shows you how to forget
what you know and what you want,
so nobody can push you around.
If you think you've got the answers,
he'll mess with your head.
Stop doing stuff all the time,
and watch what happens.
14. Roger T. Ames and David L. Hall (2003):
It is for this reason that in the proper governing by the sages:
They empty the hearts-and-minds of the people and fill their stomachs,
They weaken their aspirations and strengthen their bones,
Ever teaching the common people to be unprincipled in their knowing (wuzhi)
And objectless in their desires (wuyu),
They keep the hawkers of knowledge at bay.
It is simply in doing things noncoercively (wuwei)
That everything is governed properly.
15. Yasuhiko Genku Kimura (2004)
Therefore, the sage governs the people by
Restoring balance in value and worth, through
Emptying people’s minds, and filling their essence,
Weakening their ambition and strengthening their character,
Freeing them from knowledge and wants, and
Keeping the learned from over-exercising their authority.
Act in accordance with the principle of non-actioin – of eternal balance,
Then order will arise of itself.
16. Stephen Adddiss and Stanley Lombardo (2007)
The Sage rules
By emptying hearts and filling bellies,
By weakening ambitions and strengthening bones;
Leads people
Away from knowing and wanting:
Deters those who know too much
From going too far:
Practices non-action
And the natural order is not disrupted.

"Filling bellies"

We may never be the governors or administrators of a nation or a city. We may be leaders of civic clubs or congregations -- or maybe not even that. Yet we all are charged with governing ourselves. Self-rule, as much as nation-rule, involves filling the belly. Direct attention there, says the Dao De Jing.

There is much hunger in the world, and there is even hunger in the US, yet most of us reading this blog have no problem getting all the food we need. Indeed, our problem is more likely to be that we have filled (and even "stuffed" -- as in Feng-English and Mair) our bellies too much. To rule by filling bellies, though, means to devote attention to our belly filling. Empty your mind, empty your heart ("mind" and "heart" are the same word -- empty your heart-mind) of ambitious designs, and bring attention instead to how your food is provided for.

For many of us, food is so easily provided that it is easy to pay it little attention. The Dao's injunction is attention: where does your food come from? Is it really the food that you want to be eating? Don't be thoughtless about this. This ancient wisdom in today's context tells us to commit our attention to providing food for ourselves in a way that does not hurt the earth, that is sustainable, that reduces environmental harm from fertilizers, that reduces damage from pesticides, that is grown and transported with less use of fossil fuels, that involves less exploitation and oppression of impoverished laborers, that does not reward people who subject sentient beings to lives of pain and misery, that promotes our health.

Mindfulness about eating, about where our food comes from, also has the salutary effect of directing our attention away from our ambitions, achievements, grandiose schemes. Just pay attention to the simplest tasks of maintaining our lives. When we don't get caught up in theories and plans, a deeper intuitive and in-the-moment wisdom can arise, as well as a joy in the beauty that surrounds us.

Gardening is such a helpful spiritual practice -- in part because in the activity of gardening we find our heart-mind emptying out, and our "bones strengthen" with the exercise. We develop a toughness and resilience of body and of heart-mind as we connect with the processes of growing food, as we direct ourselves to providing for our bellies. We thus move closer to a natural and flowing way of life -- closer to the joy of simplicity.

* * *
Next: Saturdao 7.
Previous: Saturdao 5.
Beginning: Saturdao 1.


Faith of Our Fathers

It Began Like This

In America in the 1740s, a religious revival movement called the “Great Awakening” swept through the colonies. Highly emotional revival services led by evangelical protestant ministers were all the rage, and attracted thousands. The preaching emphasized the total depravity of humanity, and our utter dependency on completely unearned and unearnable grace from God to save us.

Some New England congregational ministers, however, were repulsed by the irrational emotionalism of the Great Awakening, and by its emphasis on the human sinfulness. They sought to counter it by an increased emphasis on reason. They urged a view of human nature as balanced between good and evil, rather than as thoroughly depraved, and as capable agents of their own improvement and salvation rather than as solely dependent on God’s unearnable grace. Following the call for a religious life based on careful reason, they began to analyze scripture in new ways. One of their conclusions was that the Bible did not support trinitarianism – the doctrine that God was three persons – Father, Son, and Holy Ghost – which shared one essence. Thus, their opponents called these advocates of reason, “Unitarians.”

The split in the congregational church between the liberals who urged the discovery of truth through reason and who had a higher opinion of the goodness of human nature, and the conservatives who claimed an emotion-based revelation, gradually intensified through the late 1700s. The name “Unitarian” stuck – even though Unitarianism rather than trinitarianism was merely one conclusion of reason that many of the liberals shared. “Unitarian” is our name, but rejection of the trinity is an incidental – almost accidental – by-product of what this religious movement was, and remains, really all about: freedom, reason, and tolerance, and faith in our capacity to develop goodness. This is the faith of our fathers.

Happy Father’s Day

It used to be that Father’s day in this country was the day that more collect calls were made than any other day. Phone systems are different, and collect calls are unusual these days. Still that tells you something. We call Mom on mother’s day and call Dad on father’s day – but we’re more likely to let dad foot the bill.

When you got your learner’s permit, was it your Dad who took you out for the driving lessons?And did he hop in the back seat, saying, “ah, now it’s my turn to kick the back of the seat while you’re trying to drive”?

We are believers is equality, and we don’t want to pander to stereotypes of male incompetence. We know there are a lot of new fathers who are as adept at changing a diaper as any mother. We also know the reality that some new fathers know a lot more about baseball than about diapers. For them, here’s how you do it:
Spread the diaper in the position of the diamond with you at bat. Then, fold second base down to home and set the baby on the pitcher's mound. Put first base and third together, bring up home plate and pin the three together. Of course, in case of rain, you gotta call the game and start all over again.
In our culture, the father is a figure regarded with some ambivalence and tension.
There is often something unresolved there – something still in need of working out.
Fathers so often somehow go wrong, and, speaking as one, we do so many different ways.
Dick Laurie’s poem, quoted in the movie “Smoke Signals” asks:
How do we forgive our fathers?
Maybe in a dream.
Do we forgive our fathers for leaving us too often, or forever, when we were little?
Maybe for scaring us with unexpected rage, or making us nervous because there never seemed to be any rage there at all?
Do we forgive our fathers for marrying, or not marrying, our mothers?
Or divorcing, or not divorcing, our mothers?
And shall we forgive them for their excesses of warmth or coldness?
Shall we forgive them for pushing, or leaning?
For shutting doors or speaking through walls?
For never speaking, or never being silent?
Do we forgive our fathers in our age, or in theirs?
Or in their deaths, saying it to them or not saying it.
If we forgive our fathers, what is left?”
Frederick Faber
Connecting with our Fathers is, for many of us, a deep longing. So when the Catholic hymn writer Frederick Faber, composed “Faith of our Fathers” in 1849, he was bringing together the urge to connect with the divine with the desire to connect with and uphold and be true to the values and vision our father’s represented. Faber’s conception of the faith of his fathers is somewhat different from the faith of our fathers. Our Unitarian and Universalist faith flows from many mothers and many fathers. The mothers of our faith are equally important, though their names are less often repeated.

Today, on this Fathers day, my focus is on the Unitarian father figures: William Ellery Channing, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Theodore Parker. Channing, Emerson, and Parker may be singled out for laying the foundation for the work Unitarianism has continued to build upon.

William Ellery Channing

William Ellery Channing was 25 years old in 1805 when the Unitarian controversy that had been simmering for decades exploded into much higher levels of passion and anxiety. What happened in 1805 was that Harvard appointed Henry Ware as the Hollis Professor of Theology. It’s hard to imagine today that much of Gainesville would care who the University of Florida appointed to an endowed professorship – of theology or any other subject. But in 1805, people took theology – and the theological preparation of their ministers -- very seriously.

Henry Ware was a Unitarian, and for him to occupy the chair of theology was threatening indeed to the conservatives. For the next 14 years, William Ellery Channing worked hard at patching things up among all Congregationalists. Finally, in 1819, he gave that up – and joined with those had been arguing that the Unitarians should go their own way. The fledgling denomination needed a manifesto, and Channing provided it. Leaving Boston, a group of the religious liberals traveled down to Baltimore with the plan to use Channing’s sermon at the ordination of Jared Sparks as the platform for launching a Unitarian manifesto.

Channing’s sermon, called “Unitarian Christianity” was printed as a pamphlet and circulated widely in Baltimore, and, more significantly, back in Boston, where it galvanized people on both sides. Channing in 1819 was concerned to argue for the use of reason in matters of faith. All Christians use reason to some extent, and well they should. We should use reason all the way, rather than stop at some aribitrary point. Said Channing:
“We indeed grant that the use of reason in religion is accompanied with danger. . . . We ask any honest person to look back on the history of the church, and say whether the renunciation of it be not still more dangerous?”
Channing proceeded to apply his reason to the doctrine of the trinity, and argued that it was inconsistent, polytheistic, without scriptural basis, and unfavorable to devotion.

Under trinitarianism, Jesus is God, in one of God’s three persons, so a Unitarian position must describe a different status for Jesus. For Channing, Jesus was not God, but was sent by God as a special mediator and instructor. To fulfill this role, Jesus was invested with special powers that included raising the dead and judging the world.

In contrast to theologies of a stern and vindictive Father figure, Channing’s God was good, kind, merciful, and benevolent. The Bible, argued Channing, was not God’s word in a direct and literal sense, but was a book written by people, in the language of people, and its meaning is to be sought in the same manner as that of other books – that is, through the application of rational interpretive tools.

Channing stressed acceptance of diversity of viewpoints, thus clearly establishing the link between our theology of reason and our celebration of diversity. And Channing also emphasized that religion be lived. He turned to the ordainee, Jared Sparks, and said:
“May your life preach more loudly than your lips.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Channing’s “Unitarian Christianity” sermon was the first of three significant foundational documents in our early history. The second came 19 years later. It was Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Divinity School Address of 1838.

Emerson had been a Unitarian minister. He was one for three and a half years when, in 1832, at the age of 29, Emerson left the ministry, writing in his journal that:
“I have sometimes thought that, in order to be a good minister, it was necessary to leave the ministry. The profession is antiquated. In an altered age, we worship in the dead forms of our forefathers.”
So Emerson did indeed become a powerful Unitarian voice by leaving Unitarian ministry. Six years later, at the invitation of the divinity school’s graduating class, Emerson returned to his Harvard, his Alma Mater and the center of Unitarian thought, to deliver the Divinity School Address. Emerson’s address spoke to the failures of historical Christianity – yet he was surprised by the storm of negative reaction.

According to Emerson’s Transcendentalist approach, moral intuition was a better guide than religious doctrine, and, anticipating the themes of his “Self-Reliance” essay, Emerson said true moral sentiment – indeed, divinity – resides in each individual. Spiritual experience must connect with the natural world around us, and it must be personally felt rather than cognitively explained. And, for Emerson, neither moral intuition nor spiritual experience required belief in the historical miracles Jesus supposedly performed. Channing had not doubted that miracle working was a part of the special mediator role Jesus had been sent to fulfill. Emerson was going much farther: saying that Jesus had no special divinity in himself – the same divinity that was in Jesus is in all of us. Jesus simply had a capacity to be “true to” his divinity to a greater extent than anyone else.

The Unitarian establishment of New England and of the Harvard Divinity School was appalled and rejected Emerson’s teachings outright. Yet some students were secretly attracted to Emerson’s views – and over the next years gradually began to come out of the closet and say so.

Theodore Parker

While Emerson left Unitarianism for Transcendentalism, Theodore Parker brought Transcendentalism explicitly within Unitarianism. Despite some efforts to encourage his resignation, Theodore Parker spent his adult life and career as a Unitarian minister.

Theodore Parker's 1841 sermon, “The Transient and the Permanent in Christianity,” said explicitly what Emerson had left implicit. While Emerson had said belief in Jesus’ miracles was unnecessary, Parker outright disbelieved in them. Rather, he said, each moment on this earth is itself as miraculous as it is possible for anything to be. The truths of religion and morality are founded on immediate intuition of the divine, and each person bears an innate faculty for direct apprehension of absolute truth.

For Parker, the permanent in Christianity was the pure religion that Jesus taught, and which any great teacher might have discerned. Nonessential, according to Parker, were beliefs in the divine origin and authority of the Bible, and in the nature and particular authority of Christ.

What Is Required

The faith of our fathers then requires of us no particular doctrine, but does require that you use your reason and your experience and the dictates of your conscience to decide upon your own theology. More, it asks that you actually live by that theology. You are asked to take your chosen faith very seriously. We are the religious and spiritual daughters and sons of Channing, Emerson, and Parker – as well as of luminaries on the Universalist side of our family tree. A few of us are their descendents by birth; most of us here are Channing-Emerson-Parker’s adopted children: you were adopted by them when you signed our membership book.

We are Christians, humanists, Jews, Buddhists, pagans – which is to say that our belief, or our primary source of inspiration, or our spiritual practice is or derives from the Christian, humanist, Jewish, Buddhist or pagan traditions. Whatever our diverse theologies and practices may be, the faith of our fathers lives in our commitment to inclusivity. The original Unitarian insight that God is One remains with us long after setting aside sectarian and silly quarrels over the trinity.

If God Is One

If God is One, then the God of the Jews and the God of the Muslims and the God of the Christians is One.If God is One then the Cosmos of Carl Sagan, and the earth ecology of Aldo Leopold, and the oneness and emptiness of Siddhartha Gotama, and the flowing way of Lao Tzu are one.

Rev. Marilyn Sewell
My colleague, Rev. Marilyn Sewell, one evening was called to the hospital to be with the mother of a two-year-old child who had tragically died from choking on a piece of chewing gum.

The mother, a Unitarian Universalist, was estranged from the child's father, who was of another faith. The mother’s Unitarian Universalist minister, on the way out of the hospital, found herself in the elevator with the father’s minister. Rev. Sewell, the UU minister, said, "Well, we can do the memorial service together."

The other minister said, "No, we can't. We don't worship the same God."

If God is one, then there are not different ones for us to worship. We may disagree about its attributes: does it want and know? Does it, upon occasion, willfully interrupt its own causal nexus? Whether it has those attributes or not:

The source of mystery and meaning is one.

The origin from which we, and all that is, come is one.

The final basis for values and commitment the contemplation of which cultivates well-being, humility, peace, and an ethical vision is one.


That Unitarian faith of our fathers lives in our fidelity to inclusivity: Whatever your beliefs, whatever your spiritual discipline, whatever texts you most often turn to for spiritual insight and uplift, we can walk together, we can befriend and teach and learn from each other, as we each seek to live from a wider love, a deeper wisdom, and a fuller joy.

I’m not saying that the Catholic Transubstantiation Principle and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle are the same, but we can recognize that both are deeply mysterious and that either can awaken wonder and awe – and we can be together in community in which we are enriched by sympathetic understanding of our different understandings and encourage each other to the latent wisdom in each. In other words: I don’t have to believe in transubstantiation myself in order to engage with someone who does and to sympathetically explore with them what way of life follows from understanding that wafer to be the literal body of Christ. For we all walk in a reality we but dimly apprehend, whether we call that mystery God’s will or quantum indeterminacy, or wormholes or string theory.

Here we do not demand of each other that we share a common doctrine or a common spiritual practice or common texts. We do demand that you take seriously the job of deepening, that you bring your reason and your intuition to the task, that you participate in helping the others with whom you are joined in this community to also deepen in their path. Our commitment to freedom, reason, and diversity also means that, for us, revelation is not sealed, never static, always unfolding. Our views are always tentative, our claims always provisional. No assertion can ever be permanently exempt from revision. Religious understanding, like empirical knowledge, is a self-adjusting enterprise that can put any claim in jeopardy (though not all at once). We do not stand upon a foundation of certainty, but swim within a rising tide of growing knowledge. So the truth that I embrace today may not be the truth I embrace tomorrow.

Our part is simply to be open, and thirsty, thirsty for the truth that would be ours -- but just for the time being.

Such a stance keeps us humble -- and awake.

Channing and Emerson and Parker – our Unitarian fathers, spoke at a time when men’s voices were much more readily accepted and taken seriously than women’s voices. And we know that each of these men was heavily influenced and encouraged by the women in their lives. That said, there is a certain male energy in their call for reason, and for the authority of the individual. It needs the balance of a more female energy or relationship – the energy of conversation as opposed to the energy of public speaking – an ethic of care to balance the ethic of justice. For that very reason, the faith of our fathers may be a little more difficult to connect to. Yet it, too, has shaped us.

Beyond Our Fathers' Ken

Not all of us, certainly, but many of us will recognize these phases: (1) As teenagers, many of us, became convinced that our father’s didn’t understand us at all – and we were angry about that. (2) Then we came to see that they understood more than we had given them credit for. (3) Then as we grew into our 30s, we developed and deepened into lives and understandings so distinct from our fathers – and they really didn’t understand us. There was much about our lives that was inexplicable to our fathers, though instead of anger, we may have had an acceptance of that.

There is much about Unitarian Universalism today that Channing, Emerson, and Parker could never have imagined. The prominence of women in congregational leadership – and our open acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender members and leaders – would have struck them as surpassing strange.

They would be gratified that we ended slavery and integrated our schools – and would be mystified at the ongoing difficulties we’re having of recognizing kinship across racial lines while also respecting difference. Our talk of multiculturalism they would not have understood – just as, for some us, our actual Dads don’t understand it.

Emerson, at least, would have been glad to see our growing interest in spiritual connection to nature. Our frequent references to sustainability, however, would be a strange twist to him, because, for Emerson, part of the strength of the spiritual connection to nature was a sense of its boundless and infinite provision.

In sometimes startling ways our fathers do, or did, see right through us, really had us pegged, saw things about us that we didn’t like to admit about ourselves. In other ways, we became beyond their ken – just as our children are or will be beyond ours. We are living out the development of the tradition they gave us – living it out in ways they could not have foreseen and would not have entirely approved.

We are selective in what we take from them as worthy of continuing, yet even our largest differences from them are possible only because they prepared the way.

We find our forgiveness in our capacity to forgive them, and our capacity for gratitude.

Thank you, fathers.

* * *

Preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship on 2011 Jun 19.

For listing of all my blog posts derived from sermons see:
Sermon Index


Render Unto

Wherever you are, whoever you are, if you are Unitarian Universalist, or are in sympathy with the liberal religious project, then for your sake, and for all our sakes, please support your local congregation. Render of yourself unto the cause of a free faith.

"Render Unto." In the King James Version, Jesus says:
Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's.
What do you render? Unto whom? And for what?

When I preached on this topic last April at my home congregation, the sign out in front of the Fellowship announced the sermon title. Under the title was the name of the speaker. So what the sign said was: “Render Unto Rev. Garmon.” Oops. If, then, you render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and render unto God the things that are God’s, what would it be that you render unto me? Nothing at all but your kind attention for a spell, thank you.

The inadvertent communication reminds me of some of the items I’ve seen on those lists of church bulletin bloopers:
“Potluck supper: prayer and medication to follow.”

“The concert in Fellowship Hall was a great success. Special thanks are due to the minister's daughter, who labored the whole evening at the piano, which as usual fell upon her.”
Or this notice in a church bulletin to let the congregation know that their minister had recovered from an illness. It said:
“God is good. Rev. Michaelson is better.”
Ah, things go often awry. Words come out, and their meaning catches us by surprise. We think we’ve said something, done something, rendered of ourselves or given something, and it turns out we said, did, or rendered something else. Our gifts don’t always do what we’d wish. There is a satirical publication called The Onion. A couple months ago they ran a humorous “news” item suggesting that the “rendering unto God” bit doesn’t always come off right.
Report: Majority of Money Donated at Church Doesn’t Make it to God.

‘Washington. A shocking report released Monday by the Internal Revenue Service revealed that more than 65 percent of the money donated at churches across the world never reaches God.

"Unfortunately, almost half of all collections go toward administrative expenses such as management, utilities, and clerical costs," said Virginia Raeburn, a spokesperson for the Lord Almighty, adding that another 25 percent of heavenly funding is needed just to cover payroll for the angelic hierarchy. "People always assume God is filthy rich, but they'd be surprised to learn His net worth is only around $8 million—and most of that is tied up in real estate." According to Raeburn, God currently has enough money saved to live comfortably throughout all eternity, but He may be forced to shutter a number of under-performing religions’
Behind the humor is a good point: sometimes what we think we’re rendering unto doesn’t get there. For example, humans are not so good at rendering of themselves in ways likely to make them happier, more joyful, better. Consider this: average number of leisure hours per U.S. resident per week increased between 1965 and 2003.
“The added leisure was swallowed up by a jump of 7.4 hours per week watching television. At the same time, the number of hours per week devoted to reading dropped by 3.1 [hours per week], and the hours spent socializing with friends fell by 3.9.” (Derek Bok, The Politics of Happiness. 2010. p. 76. Citing findings in Mark Aguiar and Erik Hurst, “Measuring Trends in Leisure: The Allocation of Time over Five Decades,” 122 Quarterly Journal of Economics (2007), p. 987.)
Yet research confirms what I think you intuitively realize: watching an hour of TV, with few exceptions, does nothing for your overall well-being. On the other hand research does show that an hour reading or an hour hanging out with friends does provide real satisfaction.

Left to our own devices we cannot trust ourselves to automatically and thoughtlessly gravitate toward activities that we will later be glad of -- that we will, one day later, judge to have been time well spent. So we have to make ourselves think about it. We have to exert some "executive function" to make ourselves be deliberate and intentional about doing what will be best for our own well-being.

Psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky reviewed 51 studies that tested attempts to increase happiness on purpose. As reported in "Live Science," 2010 February 22, five things work:

One, be grateful. I’ve talked before about intentionally practicing gratitude (see “Gratitude and Faith”). One study, for instance, asked participants to write letters of gratitude to people who at helped them in some way. It made the letter-writers feel better over weeks and even months.

Two, which is really the same as one, count your blessings. People who write down three good things that happened to them every week show a boost in their happiness.

Three, be optimistic.

Four, use your strengths. Study participants asked to identify their strengths and then think of a new way to use that strength found that doing so really felt good.

Five, help others. People who donate time or money to charity or who assist people in need feel great.

Numbers 4 and 5 together are the components of generosity. Generosity is name of a way of living unfettered by felt needs for self-protection – a way of living in which we render of ourselves onto our world. Use your strengths and help others.What have you got, and where is it needed? Every word, every action, every gesture is you rendering the gift of who you are to the world. The unique and divine light shines from each of us, like the sun on a spring day.

St. Francis supposedly said
Could be anybody. Except St. Francis.
“Preach the gospel always; use words when necessary.”
Actually, St. Francis never said that. Lots of people have said it, and who said it first doesn’t appear to be known. Whoever actually should get the credit, the fact is that our lives constantly preach something to the world. What kind of gospel do you want your life to preach always, using words when necessary? And: how shall you render what you are, and what you have – always -- using money when necessary?

Jesus, it turns out, says a lot of things about money. And for the most part they reflect a rather negative view of the world. Jesus was all about the kingdom, which was right around the corner. He had relentless harsh words for people who put any hope in this world. This is a recurring theme in many religions. Of the major world religions only the two great indigenous religions of China – Confucianism and Taoism – refrain, more or less, from dismissing worldly concern. Confucianism, Taoism -- and Unitarian Universalism. My colleague Reverend James Ford characterizes our shared Unitarian Universalism as a sort of “Western Taoism, with a dash of Western Confucianism to give it a little spice.”
Rev. James Ford

While Hinduism and Buddhism and Judaism and Islam all have their share of messages about turning away from the things of this world, it is Jesus who has the greatest urgency about it. The Buddha’s ministry, his teaching career, lasted 35 years, and in that span we see his attitude shifting from a disdain with matters of the world to eventually accepting a gift of property where he and his monks could go each year to spend the rainy season. Had Jesus’ ministry and teaching career lasted as long, he, too, might have mellowed out.

What we render of ourselves to the world doesn’t always come out like we planned. What we might think we were rendering unto God, or to goodness, sometimes doesn’t get there. It’s wise not to be attached to results. It’s also wise to discern thoughtfully about rendering of who you are and what you have.

Unitarian Universalism is a faith worthy of you. The members you will find at your local Unitarian Unviersalist congregation have made it so. Our centuries of free and thoughtful people coming together to make covenantal beloved community have made it so.

We’re a gathering of people who have a sense of urgency. We know our kids need attention right now. We know justice calls right now. We come together for all kinds of reasons. Our faith is dynamic and questing. We come together with different beliefs, spiritualities based in nature, in humanity, in the traditions of Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, or Paganism. We are an Open Source Religion. The deal you cut when we enter into covenant with your UU congregation is to remain present to each other, to learn from each other, to grow deep together. It is a dynamic manifestation of love, for each other, for ourselves, for this world.

Why are we here? What is it worth? I think of how this faith, in the form of our Atlanta, Georgia congregation, when I was a kid from an hour away in Carrollton, engaged my mind and connected me with thoughts and people and possibilities exciting and beautiful and unlike anything back in Carrollton.

I think of how this faith, in the form of our Waco, Texas congregation, when I was a young adult, gave my then-pre-school children a rich and warm extended family when their struggling graduate student Dad and schoolteacher Mom were far away from any other family. I’m so grateful that Fellowship was there for my kids.

I think of how this faith, in the form of our Charlottesville, Virginia congregation put me on its board when I was barely 30 and asked me to figure out, with their guidance, what it means to be leader of beloved community. They asked – bless them! – and because they asked, I could say ‘yes,’ and discover to my astonishment that I am worthy to be entrusted with the great work of saving lives by growing a vibrant community of love and acceptance, that I am strong enough to give without counting the cost.

I think of how this faith, in the form of our Nashville, Tennessee congregation held me together when I and career and first marriage were all falling apart. And of how that same congregation brought people together so that I could find there friends and guides and, eventually, a Vanderbilt divinity student with the funny name, “LoraKim.”

I think of how this faith, in the form of my present Gainesville congregation has connected me with the beautiful and complicated souls striving to walk the path of liberal religion -- how I’ve been allowed to join with a number of them to do some real work for justice, to march together in Pride Parade, to march together in Martin Luther King Parade, to go together to Tallahassee for UU Legislative Day, to stand together to defeat a city charter amendment a couple years ago that would have allowed discrimination against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender people – and defeat it we did.

I think of how a well placed question or challenge, and sometimes a word of encouragement has allowed me to go another step forward on my own spiritual journey, words that almost certainly would never have been spoken in any other place than in a Unitarian Universalist congregation. I hope you’ve had similar experiences. I know if you put yourself in the right places, you will. I so love this faith and its people.

The faith shapes the people and the people shape the faith, and the whole thing is just what Olympia Brown, 91 years ago, said it was: nothing in all the world so important as to be loyal to,
“for it has placed before us the loftiest ideals, comforted us in sorrow, strengthened us for noble duty, and made the world beautiful. Rejoice that you are worthy to be entrusted with this great message, and that you are strong enough to work for a great true principle.”
The programming that goes on at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Gainesville – as at many UU congregations -- is strong. It’s a place where one can grow deep. This world is tragic because it is beautiful, and beautiful because it is tragic. Every person walking in the door of any of our congregations arrives wounded, yet capable of healing – right there, in our very midst.

Ours is not the way of dismissal or disdain for the world. Our way of the open mind and full heart and helping hands affirms this world and this life – and its possibilities for justice, equity, compassion, and peace. And we, each in our own way, each as best we can, give of ourselves to make it happen, render unto one another what we are and have.

Our congregations run on time, energy, talent from committed human beings. Our congregations can only exist because there are people who care and are willing to take on the various tasks that make us who we are.

This is the point where a preacher may be expected to add,
“And let’s not be shy about it, our congregations need money.”
I do not say that. I ask that you not think about what your faith community needs. This isn’t about your congregation’s needs. It’s about your congregation’s possibilities.

Take, for example, my Gainesville congregation. Even if Unitarian Universalism in Gainesville had to let me and all the staff go, shut down the building, and meet in small groups in one another’s houses, there is a chalice flame in human hearts that will not go out. Come what may, people warmed by the fire of liberal religion will find one another, and support and guide and teach and challenge one another, and draw upon the writings, ideas, music, prayers, and practices of our long history. Maybe not very well. But one way or another the chalice flame will burn in Gainesville, and I'm confident it will burn in your neck of the woods, too. So I do not speak in terms of your congregation's need. Relax. The flame will not be snuffed. It’s just that it might not shine very brightly.

If your congregation right now is a brightly shining 100-watt bulb – no, wait . . . if your congregation is a brightly shining compact fluorescent emitting 2,000 lumens, it could shine only 1,000 lumens. Or only 200 lumens. Or less. There might be much less in children’s and youth programming and music programming and in a nice building and in worship and in outreach and in being a voice for social justice.

On the other hand, while your congregation may be shining pretty brightly now, it could also shine a lot more brightly. It could shine with twice its present light, 4,000 lumens – or ten times or a hundred times its present light. It could expand its staff, and the programs they offer. It could keep the building in shinier condition. It could shine across your region for 100 miles in all directions like an enormous blazing beacon of justice and love, and life-saving community of covenant, not creed – an ever more bustling community of learning and spiritual aspiration and growth, a place whose members manifest deepening peace and joy, compassion and wisdom.

There’s no limit to how much brighter the light of your congregation could shine. At the center of it is you: engaged and curious and outraged and committed and loving and spiritually awakened and alive and perfect you.

All the money in the world won’t shine very brightly if the people don’t have what most of our congregations do have. Perfect, yet could use some improvement. How can you and I be perfect just as we are, and need some improvement at the same time? Because perfection is not a static state of affairs. It’s a dynamic developing process. Your own movement forward is an essential part of your perfection now.

So I speak not of your congregation’s needs, but of its possibilities. And of needs, I speak not of your congregation’s, but of yours. Mine. Ours. Our need is to grow ever more deeply human, ever more loving and compassionate, ever more self-aware, ever more wisely discerning, and humble and grateful and generous.

When we discern our giving to our congregation, we are enacting our own spiritual development, for a practice of generosity is a crucial part of any intentional commitment to nurture our spirits. It’s a double-whammy: the money lets your congregation shine brighter, and the giving of it makes its members a shining people.

Y’know, if Bill Gates and Warren Buffett were to move to your town and become tithing Unitarians, there are a lot more things your congregation could do. John Travolta has a home just down the road from Gainesville. He seems pretty into Scientology right now, but you never know. That could change. A lot more funding would open a lot of possibilities for shining our light. Yet none of that would be worth it if the rest of the congregation stopped being a generous people committed to the development of greater generosity. If suddenly my congregation had new members giving a million dollars a year, or two million, or ten million -- and my congregation's budget went from a modest $327,000 to something phenomenally larger -- the generosity of every other member would be as important as ever. Why is that so? Two reasons.

First, cultivating the love and generosity and gratitude that makes life fulfilling and meaningful requires, as we have seen, being intentional and deliberate about it. What percentage of your income is the right amount for you? I’m at 10 percent, and that feels really good: LoraKim and I will be maintaining that level. If you have been at 2 percent for the last several years, please consider what 4 percent would feel like. If last year you gave 5 percent, what would 6 percent feel like? It’s an intentional practice that hits on all five of what research confirms helps us be joyful. It’s an act of counting the blessings of our congregational community life together, an act of gratitude. It’s a way that the resources at your disposal can be put to good use, and to help others. It’s an act of optimism in the possibilities of our future.

Second, every dollar does one dollar’s worth of good for our ability to advance our mission in the world. If we have a three-thousand-dollar budget, the three-thousand-and-first dollar does one extra dollar’s worth of good. If we have a twenty-million-dollar budget, the twenty-millionth-and-first dollar does the exact same one dollar’s worth of good for our ability to offer programming, make it known, change lives, and impact our community for the better. There is no “point of diminishing return.” There is no point above which it would be fair to say, “OK, now we’ve met our ‘needs’ so anything beyond that is less important.” There is also no point below which it would be fair to say, “We haven’t met our ‘needs’ so some more money is particularly important.”

I do understand that congregations that have been around awhile will have settled into certain expectations. My Gainesville congregation has been around for 59 years, and it’s been at about its present size for something like 10 or 15 years. There are certain expectations about what will continue. There’s an expectation of a full-time minister, and a staff of at least three others -- an office administrator, and directors of our religious education and music programs – each at somewhere in the half-time to three-quarter-time range. There’s an expectation that the building we meet in and so enjoy will be maintained and be around for many, many more years, and that we’ll continue to pay the electricity and water bills to keep it warmed, cooled, and otherwise functional. We have expectations that our congregation will continue to pay its fair share in denominational dues to support the wider Unitarian Universalist movement. None of those things are needs -- for the way of liberal religion would shine on, albeit more dimly, without any of them -- though they are things my congregation has come to expect. In the end, it's not expectations that matter. Let me explain why not.

Budgeting is relatively easy when our income is about the same year after year: continue meeting the expectations. If there’s a significant drop or a significant gain, then we face challenging discernment questions about the best use of the new level of resources: in the one case, what can we most afford to cut? Or in the other case, what would the most fruitful areas for expansion be? We would need to appoint a Task Force and hold a number of Town Hall Meetings and develop together a congregational discernment. Coasting along at about the same level as previous years avoids that bother.

The bother, though, is a good thing. It’s healthy for us to be energized around discerning together our values, and how to balance them. Change – in either direction – forces upon us conversations that build relationship and strengthen community. Left to our own devices we humans do not automatically gravitate toward the best decisions. It’s good to put in the energy to be intentional.

If your congregation or mine were to have twice the income it had last year, or if it were to have half the income it had last year, either way, there would be a shock to the system. Obviously, given your druthers, you'd choose the “twice” shock over the “half” shock, but shock there would be either way, and special processes would be called for to deal with it. Deal with it you would. The shock would pass. The ways you would develop to cope with the shock would be good for the congregation, and you'd recover. In a couple years, if the new income levels hold steady, you'll settle into new expectations.

Ultimately, then, it’s not about expectations, however much our emotions are stirred by a sudden mismatch between expectation and reality. While arousing our passions may help a congregation engage more deeply in crucial discernment about strategies for advancing and supporting its mission, eventually that collective discernment gets made. I believe that we can trust it. We can trust each other to decide on the allocations of our resources that will best nurture spirits, that will best help heal the world, that will best transform lives, within and without the church building’s walls. Each of us, individually, has blinders, biases, hang-ups, baggage -- limitations of various kinds -- yet in an open and engaged process, these will balance out. The greater collective wisdom emerges. Time and time again in congregational life, I have seen how all of us is smarter than any of us. All of us is even smarter than me!

A few weeks ago, on May 22, my Gainesville congregation, voted down the budget the Board proposed. The congregation is now engaged in a more involved and involving process of drafting a new budget. I trust this process. In the end, we will put our diminished resources to the best use – just as, in the end, we would have put increased resources to best use. That’s why I say it’s not about expectations. Whether income goes up, down, or stays the same -- whether expectations are matched, not met, or exceeded – I believe we can trust our processes to self-correct as necessary and, in the end, make the best allocations.

That trust takes us back to: “no point of diminishing return.” If we set aside expectations, there is only the question: how brightly shall your congregation shine? Every dollar, whether extending beyond “expectation” or contributing to an amount that falls short of “expectation,” will allow your congregation to do exactly one dollar’s worth more of building an institution to nurture spirits and help heal our world. Never mind that you’ve had the dimmer switch set on 2,000 lumens for over a decade. How brightly shall your faith community shine now? Ever brighter would be good. Temporarily dimmer will be survivable. And status quo is . . . status quo. It’s up to you.

Our congregations exist to nurture spirits. Cultivating generosity is crucial for that. Our congregations are here to help heal our world. It takes joyful people to do that work. We belong together. Love is what we need -- to love and to be loved. These times are hard. What we do is more important than ever. Please stand by this faith. Please give to your local congregation your heart. Please give it your time. Pease bring to it the embrace of your gratitude, the fierceness of your hope, the courage of your love, and the joy of your highest and deepest and widest generosity.

Thank you.


* * *

An earlier, shorter version of this was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship on 2011 April 4. I am indebted to James Ford's canvass sermon of 2011 March 6.

For listing of all my blog posts derived from sermons see:
Sermon Index


Bracketing My A**

Koan of the Week
Gateless Gate #21
Yunmen’s Kanshiketsu

Featuring Yunmen Wenyan (Ummon Bun’en, 864-949), 13th Generation.
Line: Shitou (8th Gen.) to Tianhuang to Longtan to Deshan to Xuefeng to Yunmen.
Also studied under Muzhou (Bokushu, b. 780) of the Mazu-Baizhang-Huangbo-Muzhou line.

A monk asked Yunmen in all earnestness, "What is Buddha?"
Yunmen said, "Kanshiketsu" [a dried shit-stick].

It should be said of Yunmen that he was too poor to prepare even the plainest food and too busy to write a draft. Suddenly he took up the shit-stick to support the gate of Buddhism. You can see how the Dharma has decayed.

Lightning flashing,
Sparks shooting from a flint;
A moment’s blinking –
It’s already missed.

* * *

The true self speaks a foreign language
In which the words have no meaning.
There's something in the brackets that looks like a meaning.
Avert your eyes.

Edmund Husserl returned from the outhouse and said,
"Bracket off interpretations and meanings.
Get to the bare and intimate experience."
Bare, intimate, meaningless.
Now you speak the true self's tongue.

* * *

Maybe Better Go Naked
Don't Beat the Dog
Staff Issues
The Old In and Out
What Is the Sound of an Arrow Hitting Oatmeal?

Pangs of the Layman:
The Increase of Mystery
To Recognize, Look
Hard (Or Easy) To Swallow
Prayers That Reach the Gods. Or Not.
"Shut up," he explained.


Trying to Be Good

You are one body, brain and organs, separated by a layer of skin from the not-you all around you. Also, you are the whole universe, and there is no not-you. Kabir, the mystic poet of India in the 1400s, calls these two versions of you "the great one" and "the little one." He writes of the love between the you that is all things and the you that is one small skinbag:
Why should we two ever want to part?
Just as the leaf of the water rhubarb lives
floating on the water, we live as the great one and the little one.
As the owl opens his eyes all night to the moon,
we live as the great one and the little one.
This love between us goes back to the first humans:
it cannot be annihilated.
Here is Kabir's idea :
as the river gives itself into the ocean,
what is inside me moves inside you.
The Apostle Paul had a different conception of the two yous. He described not the love affair, but the conflict between the self that wants to do good and the self that ends up doing bad.
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate...I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do....So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand....Wretched man that I am! (Romans 7: 15-24)
Why do we have a hard time being the person that we want to be? I came across this story – I don’t know if it’s true; I cannot vouch for the source. It might be true.
Roger was one of these people who would always go into the refrigerator late at night and get out the ice cream. Three large scoops. And the chocolate syrup. Chopped nuts. Whipped cream. In the quiet of the night, when his wife was not around to nag, when his children were not around to see, when the dog was curled up and fast asleep on the rug in the family room, Roger would be in the kitchen, rummaging as quietly as he could for the little jar of marachino cherries – because presentation is important. Roger’s body was slowly broadening. Roger wanted to get control of his habit. He knew that he was addicted to ice cream, sugar, chocolate and nuts. Roger actually did what maybe some of us have threatened to do. He went and bought a chain and padlock.
Yes, he actually chained the refrigerator shut, padlocked it, and gave the key to his wife. The first night he was restless, but he got through it. The second night, in the darkness his wife heard the chain rattling out there on the refrigerator, but she gradually fell asleep again. The next morning as she was unlocking the refrigerator for breakfast, she noticed what seemed to be claw marks on the refrigerator door.
Been there? OK, maybe not exactly there, but you have probably not always been the person that you wanted to be. According to another unreliable -- yet, I find, plausible -- source, the median date on which New Year’s resolutions are abandoned is January 2.

Traditionally we in the West have sought to account for this by invoking a distinction between the spirit and the flesh. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak, we say.

I understand, by the way, that one of the first attempts years ago at a translation machine between English and Russian, was tested with that saying: "The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak." The machine translated that into Russian. And then the Russian was fed back into the machine to translate it back to English. What came back was: "The vodka is good, but the meat is so-so." So, now, sometimes, if someone is bewailing human frailties, and the mood seems right for it, I might shrug, and I say, "Well, you know, the vodka is good, but the meat is so-so."

What are we to make of this meat of ours? There is wisdom in the Christian teaching of confession – acknowledge that the impulse is there, it is a part of who you are – and in acknowledging that something other than your own internal controller is needed.

You know what I mean by "internal controller"? It’s the voice, or persona, in you that is seeking to control. The controller wants to make things just right for you. Its job is to think up strategies so that your life will be exactly what you want it to be. The controller in you has a useful job to do – we wouldn’t want to get rid of it. At the same time, it operates under a very basic delusion. The controller operates on the assumption that you are a separate, independent, self-contained entity -- and that this entity, you, is on the verge of finding happiness. All you need is just a few more things lined up, straightened out, fixed.

The controller, however, keeps losing battles. Despite its best efforts, we find ourselves in the night reaching into the refrigerator of indulgence. Is there some other approach we could have to the demons that beset us – the impulses which we later regret?

Just recognizing that we ourselves are not in control is helpful. The Christian tradition speaks of turning over control to divine authority. That language might be helpful for helping us remember that we aren’t in control, for helping us encourage our inner controller to relax a bit.

It does seem to be the case that when we most think we are in control – when we think we’ve really licked some fault that we see besetting others around us – that’s when we’re most vulnerable ourselves to an attack of exactly that fault. Unitarian Universalist Minister, Rev. Meg Barnhouse, says that such confidence in our control over failings is liable to wake up the Karma Fairy. She writes:
Meg Barnhouse
The Karma Fairy is one of God’s teachers. She is ruthless in her desire for you to pay attention to your judgments about other people and about yourself. For example, if you were to look at that man from your church who fell in love with the trapeze artist from the circus, and if you were to say something unwise like "I can’t understand how he could do something like that to himself and his family," the very next year you would find yourself in a mad affair with the mulch guy.
You see unruly children in McDonald’s and you sniff to your young self, "My children will never be allowed to act like that." Ten years later as you wipe barbecue sauce off your shirt and get your screaming child off the floor where she has thrown herself in a tantrum, you remember, and cringe. That’s the work of the Karma Fairy.
Here’s how I attracted her attention. A tenth-grader was interviewing me on the phone for a school assignment. One of the questions she asked was, "Have you ever had writer’s block?"
Listen. Can you hear it? Can you hear the dissonant chord of warning from the string section of the orchestra that plays background music to my life?
"No, I haven’t had writer’s block," I laughed carelessly. "I have three part-time jobs and two children. I don’t have time for writer’s block." After hanging up, I didn’t give another thought. Until four days later when it came to me that I hadn’t written anything since that interview and that for the last four days I had been in school with the Karma Fairy.
Thank you, Karma Fairy. You love me, you tough old hag. You want me to be wise and kind, compassionate, and careful. And you teach me over and over again this lesson I hate and cannot hold in my mind, that I am not an exception to any of the rules.
The Karma Fairy is here to show us that we are not safe in our righteousness, our intelligence, our careful nutrition, our common sense, our hip and groovy walk in the Dao. She is here to give us deep, full hearts. She is here to show us that we have it in us to make as big a mess as the next person. If we are ever going to find a cure for self-righteousness, the root of all separation, of all cruelty, we need her touch. (Waking Up the Karma Fairy)
Thank you, Meg. I do know the Karma Fairy. How hard could it be to straighten up a cluttered office? To eat healthy? To exercise enough? To maintain a definite schedule? Here's something else I know: "You, too, have met the Karma Fairy" (Barnhouse).

Your inner controller attempts to order all things in your life just so. It tries to do this because its deepest need is to protect the illusion that it is in control. So when an unwanted impulse – an "out of control" movement arises in your life, your controller knows how to deal with such a miscreant. In fact, it has a vast array of weapons at its command. OK, it has two: Repression and Denial. Whatever isn’t pretty – whatever your controller, judgmental persona that it is, deems unlovely – the controller’s first move is to deny that you have it.

Take the seven capital vices – called that because they are the origins of so much behavior that is bad for us and bad for others. Anger, envy, lust, sloth, pride, gluttony, greed. We are all susceptible to each of these. The meat, indeed, is so-so. Your controller, however, prefers to deny this. So you might find yourself sputtering with clenched fists and teeth, "I’m not angry. I don’t get angry." Or saying, "I’m not envious, but don’t talented people just make you sick?" And so on.

If outright denial doesn’t hold up, the controller shifts into its other strategy: repression. I’m just going to push away this part of me that I don’t want to be there because it doesn’t fit with my plan for who I am. Sigmund Freud coined the phrase, return of the repressed. Whatever you push away, will come back. Sooner or later, repression fails, and having no other way to engage the impulse, we are left with indulgence. Indulge the sweet tooth with another midnight chocolate Sundae; indulge the anger with bout of rage.

There is a middle path: neither repressing nor indulging. Whatever urge or impulse it is, it’s a part of you, and just like you, it wants to be seen for what it is, it wants to be known, acknowledged. Hal Hobson’s hymn, which we will sing, gets its first two verses straight from first Corinthians, and then Hobson added on a third verse of his own, writing, "our spirits long to be made whole." To be made whole. Your inner controller’s compulsive drive to sever, deny, and repress the parts of you that it doesn’t like divides you, splits you up. Angel parts over here, devil parts over here. But our spirits long to be made whole – to bring all of who you are together. Acknowledge all of who you are. Embrace it.

It isn’t just charity that begins at home. Or peace. Diversity begins at home: by accepting and embracing all the diverse, often conflicting, impulses that make up who you are. As Unitarian Universalist write Philip Simmons put it:
There’s nothing our demons enjoy more than a good fight. Nothing that confuses them more than our embrace.
Our embrace, we might say, confuses the devil out of them. For, with our embrace, the impulse ceases to be demonic. It becomes just a sometimes-eccentric member of the household of you -- a member who, along with all the other internal voices and personae that constitute you, has a welcome place at your table.

As a replacement for control, there is creative engagement. Let’s just suppose that you’re not here to make yourself or your world fit some model of how you think you and it should be. Let’s suppose that you are here to engage with whatever presents, and to do so creatively and unpredictably. If so, attentive observation is the first key. The foundation for creativity, as artists and poets know, is keen observation. Notice what is there. Look carefully at what’s there outside you and what’s there inside you. When you bring nonjudgmental open curiosity to every moment, you'll notice things that you overlook when you already think you know, or when all you're interested in is what you want to control.

Most of us are so quick to put things in a category, neatly packaged with a convenient label that makes any further investigation unnecessary: a rude driver, a hard worker, an earth-mother type, an aging hippie, a clean-cut conservative, a new-ager. In my high school, we had three pure types: the jocks, the brains, and the freaks. And then there were the hybrids: the cross between the jocks and the brains was the student council and homecoming court. The cross between the jocks and the freaks was: the soccer team. The cross between the brains and the freaks was: the debate team. I was on the debate team.

We love categories. But any category with more than one member distorts all its members. Only from an open and accepting awareness of whatever is there will emerge creative possibilities of response. The artist can then explore ways to represent it in colors and shapes; the poet can play around with ways to represent it words and rhythm. Your inner controller has a definite predetermined outcome it wants, but creative engagement doesn’t know what the outcome might turn out to be.

Don’t control it; work with it. That means letting it in and letting it work on you. Trying to be good has too much trying to it – too much control. Trying to be good also has too much preconception about what "good" is. A large part of creativitiy is getting yourself out of the way and letting the finished (or provisional) product emerge in the way it seems to want to: whether it is a sculpture or a conversation, whether it is a symphony or a walk in the woods, whether it is the preparation of a meal or the sitting down with family and having the meal. All of those are opportunities to creatively engage, to participate in a partnership with your internal and external reality. It is that partnership, rather than the "you" of ego alone, that can bring forth something fresh, new, and unpredictable -- something that control alone can never make happen.

Trust who you are. It is a gift to the universe. It really is a blessing you were born. Give that gift – "as the river gives itself into the ocean," as Kabir says.

Step one, then: cultivate observation -- neutral, nonjudgmental noticing of what is within and what is without. After all, "Why?" is not a spiritual question. "Why?" is the controller’s question, wanting to know about causes so they can be manipulated. The spiritual question is: "What?" What is this? What is this?

The Zen lore is full of tales of traveling Zen monks who stop in at the monasteries and visit the master there. Huineng was such a master in China in the 600s. Huaijang was such a traveling monk, stopping in for visit. The master begins, as these stories so often do, asking where did you come from? It seems like simple polite conversation, yet in the master’s hands such a question is a deep probing into the visitor’s nature and level of awareness.
"Mount Sung," answers Huaijang.
"But what is this thing?" says Huineng. "How did it get here?"
Huaijang was speechless. What is this thing? Huaijang remained practicing with Huineng for eight years, holding always that question: What is this thing?

The trick, when cultivating observation, is to hold the question. For each answer that comes to you, accept it, then return to the question to see what further answers may come.

Step two, while still observing, noticing what it is and how it changes, engage creatively. For Roger and his ice cream habit, this would mean paying minute attention to what he experiences. When you look steadily and closely at a craving, what is it, really? Small cravings will vanish entirely under the gaze of attention. For the stronger cravings, as you examine them and deepen your familiarity with them, you enter into dialog with them and explore what they're really after. The craving sneaks in when we aren't watching it, and it takes over behavior without us ever stopping and really closely examining the craving itself. If Roger could notice the craving, personify it, talk to it -- "Hello, there craving. I see you there" -- then the craving would have something to teach him, and he would begin to see options. "Hello, craving. What is it you want? Do you want ice cream? What is it about ice cream that has such appeal?" If there is an actual legitimate hunger, then perhaps that need can be met in more healthy ways. Or is a chocolate sundae a kind of comfort food for Roger? OK, what are some other ways to meet the need for comfort? What stresses are going on in Roger's life that make the need for that sort of comfort so strong? The right questions naturally arise when we take the step of truly paying attention.

Master Basho
Step three, engage creatively for others. Service to others helps break down the idea that there is a distinction between you and others, and this helps further loosen the grip of the controller who wants to protect the illusory separate and distinct thing it thinks of as "you."

In Tim Myer's story, Basho and the River Stones, both Basho and the Fox help show us how. The Fox gives Basho three gold coins in exchange for rights to the cherries from Basho's cherry tree. But the apparent gold coins were an illusion, and the next morning Basho's coins were nothing but river stones. Basho was actually more pleased to have river stones. He wrote a poem:
How many years have
These stones loved the river, not
Knowing they were poor?
The fox is so impressed with Basho's freedom and wisdom, that he wants to repay Basho for the beautiful lesson. Basho refuses. Ultimately, the fox must trick Basho into gold coins just as she had previously tricked Basho out of gold coins.

Thus there's one morning when Basho wakes up to find that what he thought were gold coins are actually river stones. He awakes another morning to find that what he thought were river stones are actually gold coins. In both cases, he so quickly adapts, so quickly releases frustration at the uncontrollable changeableness of his world. He comes back to what is, and to its possibilities of delight. He notices his own reactivity, lets it go, and moves, as smoothly as the stones, into creative engagement. He becomes, thus, a teacher for the wily fox, who began the story as a representation of our inner controller – seeking stratagems to secure cherries for itself. In the course of the story, her cleverness is transformed into a force for assisting others rather than gaining for herself. As a final gift, the fox leaves a poem for Basho:
I’ve eaten cherries
Alone but they’re much sweeter
When shared with a friend.
Oh, my friends, the vodka is good – in moderation. The meat is disappointing only if we were expecting something else, and only if we are trying to avoid sharing it with others.

The meat, like Basho’s cherries, is sweetest when shared. Then we will have stopped trying to be good – and will have become...at ease with who we are...and changed, too, in some surprising ways we never saw coming.

* * *

An earlier version of this was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Gainesville, 2011 Jun 12.

Suggested also read on self-acceptance/self-improvement:
What the World Needs
Gratitude and Faith
Then We Will Know How to Live

For all sermons posted, see Sermon Index.