Unitarian Universalist Meeting House
October 14, 2018
In the rush of news the last two weeks you may have missed an item that may prove to be more far-reaching than any of the ones we have been concerned about. The United Nations Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change, the international body charged with summarizing the global scientific evidence on that subject, issued its report for 2018, which concludes with this warning,
“There is alarming evidence that important tipping points, leading to irreversible changes in major ecosystems and the planetary climate system, may already have been reached or passed. Ecosystems as diverse as the Amazon rainforest and the Arctic tundra, may be approaching thresholds of dramatic change through warming and drying. Mountain glaciers are in alarming retreat and the downstream effects of reduced water supply in the driest months will have repercussions that transcend generations.”
The most alarming thing about this report, however, was not the warning that it contained but the fact that the US Government had no reaction. No reaction. We live on a sandbar stuck out in the ocean and the best science says that there is irreversible sea level rise in our future and our national government says nothing.
We have seen the devastation on the news of Mexico City, Florida, where all that Hurricane Michael left of many buildings is a concrete slab. I saw those slabs where houses had once been in the wake of Hurricane Hugo in 1989. It’s not nice to mess around with Mother Nature. We exist here on this planet at her sufferance.
So if you feel discouraged, fearful, outraged, triggered, crushed by other events in the news last week, remember that those are only part of the picture, and there are things outside that frame of reference that are scarier still.
Where do we go with these feelings? We have choices. We can spiral down into ourselves, pull the covers up over our heads or lose ourselves in binge-watching Netflix series. We can wear a perpetual bad temper and lash out at the ones we love. Or we can reach out to thoe loved ones and other friends and try to find strength and perspective.
Only in the last few years have psychologists focused on what makes people happy. But what they have come up with is that your happiness depends less than you think upon what happens to you. What is crucial is how you view what happens to you. How it plays in your head.
This also accords with a Buddhist point of view. A colleague of mine who has a strong Buddhist bent posted a cute picture yesterday on Facebook of a toddler dressed in the saffron robes of a Buddhist Monk, flashing a million-dollar smile, and the caption is “Be happy, not because everything is good, but because you see good in everything.”
Emily Dickinson wrote
“‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers ‑
That perches in the soul ‑
And sings the tune without the words ‑
And never stops ‑ at all ‑“
If that thing with feathers has perched in your soul, let it sing. The feathers are not armor against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. They are not there to guarantee that nothing bad will ever befall you. Feathers don’t repel bullets, don’t keep out hate or disappointment, don’t build bridges. But feathers are what you need to soar, to lift your spirit above the muck and muddle of today’s life.
There is a crucial distinction between optimism and hope. Optimism is the belief that things are getting better, that tomorrow will be a better day than today. There’s nothing wrong with optimism, provided you haven’t totally taken leave of your connection to reality in trying to see a brighter tomorrow.
But hope is a totally different thing. Hope is the will to do what we can to bring about a better future. And hope is tied to faith, as we’ll get to in a moment.
Now it is normal at this time of year to feel a little depressed. We live by sunshine, and this is the quarter of the year in which sunshine is in short supply. Maine songwriter Gordon Bok wrote an evocative song about the failing of the light and the coming of the cold called “Turning Towards the Morning” with its insistent refrain, “the world is always turning towards the morning.” The darkest, longest, scariest, loneliest night is sure, guaranteed, to be followed by the sunrise. Now maybe this is a statement of optimism more than that of hope, because it’s clearly rooted in what our actual situation is. But sometimes you need to look into the daily natural realities of our world to find a basis for hope.
I don’t deal in the supernatural. I have gone to funerals in some churches and heard preachers proclaim that the promise of Jesus is that we would live eternal lives. That is not the kind of hope I can offer.
And really as a UU minister I can’t offer you any hope at all, because the hope I find is the hope that rings true to me. All I can do here is suggest that you look for the hope which rings true to you.
In his Divinity School Address in 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke glowingly of religious inspiration, but then he cautioned that it must be received first hand. He called such inspiration “an intuition” something that you realize without actually seeing or hearing it, something you have a sixth sense about.
“the temple ,,, is guarded by one stern condition; this, namely; it is an intuition. It cannot be received at second hand. Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul. What he announces, I must find true in me, or wholly reject; and on his word, or as his second, be he who he may, I can accept nothing.”
Finding hope is a spiritual exercise, and it can be a daily one, even an hourly one. As the factors in our lives build up against hope, like dark cloudbanks moving in from the sea, we have to reach deeper into our personal reservoirs, our own resources, to keep from lapsing into despair.
St. Paul’s great essay on love in First Corinthians ends with the sentence “Now abide faith, hope and love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” 1 Corinthians 13:13. We might call these three a spiritual trinity, and all three are needed for a full spiritual life. I spend a lot of time talking about love as it is so fundamental to how I want to live my life and what kind of world I want to live in.
But the other two are also crucial. I have talked here about the difficulties of finding hope; each of us knows those difficulties in exquisite and painful details. The details are different for each of us because we are endowed with unique individual circumstances and unique setups in our souls to meet them.
If hope, that thing with feathers, is always in your soul singing its heart out, you are blessed. For me and I suspect for most of us, there come times when you can’t hear that thing with feathers tweeting away – you might hear something else twittering, but it ain’t hope. When hope can’t be found, that’s when I think you turn to faith. Faith is the well from which you draw strength to find hope.
There are some aspects of faith which can be expressed in words. The Nicene Creed or the Sh’ma Yisroel, the Lord’s Prayer or the UU Principles and Purposes. But if you are a seeker after truth, your mind is always engaged in a dialogue with the words of faith. Into my mid-teenage years, I could say the Apostles Creed sincerely, but then my study of literature, science and philosophy led me to part company with it. What had seemed true to my younger self no longer seemed true to my older.
There are some aspects of faith which are beyond words. Faith in yourself, particularly. Faith that you can stand up to a challenge, faith that the essential you will pull through whatever transformation you may be facing.
The Hopi elders’ statement which Alice Walker quotes deals with how one navigates dangerous and challenging times.
“There is a river flowing now very fast
It is so great and swift that there are those who will be afraid.
They will try to hold on to the shore.
“They will feel that they are being torn apart and they will suffer greatly.
“Know the river has its destination.
“The Elders say we must let go of the shore, and
push off and into the river, keep our eyes open,
and our head above the water.”
The river is time. The conditions of the river are such that we cannot stay still. We must push off, knowing that we will be changed.
The only faith we can take on such a journey is what will fit in our canoe, if we have one. The grand piano, the grand certainties, the plan for our lives, all that we have tried to build – may have to be left behind on the bank.
As hope should not be confused with optimism, faith should not be confused with belief. When I board an airliner, the act of boarding contains a faith that the ground crews have checked out the equipment and the flight crews are trained and competent to do everything necessary to get me safely to my destination.
We often use faith as a shorthand for religious belief, as when we say the differing faiths that make up our country or our world. But in practice, faith is more akin to trust.
We have to have faith in something. We can’t go inspecting every airliner that we’re about to board to make sure every screw is tightened before we will fly in it. Kierkegaard famously talked about a leap of faith. You eyes will tell you that some things are true, your ears and nose and taste and touch will tell you more, but for some of the most important things in life, the unseen things, you have to take it on faith. Or as Emerson would say, intuition. Or as the Declaration of Independence puts it, some truths are self-evident.
The reason we think that faith is equivalent to belief is because in orthodox Christianity, which influences so much of Western thought, it is. The essence of the religion is expressed in John 3:16: God gave his son Jesus as a love-gift to humanity so that whoever believes in him will have eternal life. Modern New Testament scholarship, aided by the discovery of other ancient texts, suggest that this belief requirement was a later addition to the teachings of Jesus; it is found much more forcefully in the Gospel fo John than in the earlier gospels.
What about out UU principles and purposes? Are they articles of faith? Faith yes, belief no. The way we state the first principle, we are covenanting, that is agreeing, to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person. We are not saying we believe that every person has inherent worth and dignity. We are saying that we agree to act as if they did. We are saying that our default assumption in dealing with people is to treat everyone as if they had inherent worth and dignity.
That may sound entirely too abstract and disengaged to some of you. You want to know, “but is it true, do you really believe everyone has inherent worth and dignity?” Everyone will have different answers to this crucial question. My own is that we make these statements true by how we act towards others, how we live our lives.
Back in my college days, I was part of a general student movement called, simply, the Movement, seeking and end to war and racial injustice and the power of money and large corporations. When we left one another back then, instead of saying good-bye, we’d say “keep the faith, baby.” Keep your dedication to making the world a better place.
Which brings me to this book I have been reading: These Truths by Jill LePore. Jill Lepore is an historian at Harvard and also a journalist writing for the New Yorker. She has set out here to write a one-volume history of the United States focusing on the three values designated as “self-evident” truths in the American Declaration of Independence: the equality of all people, the God-given freedoms of the people, and the idea that sovereignty resides in the people. It is an excellent read, and each page gives me a new perspective on this history I thought I knew well.
What I have read so far starts at Columbus’s landing and extends up to the end of the Revolutionary War. She traces very skillfully during this time period the relations between the English settlers and three other groups of people: the English government, the Native Americans and the African slaves the settlers imported.
Even before the eighteenth century but especially in the decades leading to the Revolutionary War, the colonists walked a political tightrope by insisting that they had liberties as Englishmen which the Crown and Parliament were obliged to respect, but they were allowed to hold Africans in hopeless eternal bondage and to treat Indians as dispensable.
I think we all know this paradox in a general way, but Jill LePore brings it vividly to life in a few vignettes of actors who seem to be ahead of their time. There was a Quaker named Benjamin Lay in the Philadelphia area around the middle of the eighteenth who had been eyewitness to the cruelties of slavery and devised a clever way to convince others. He hollowed out a Bible and placed inside it a pig’s bladder filled with pokeberry juice, scarlet red. He entered a Quaker meeting in New Jersey with the Bible and denounced slavery and swore that slaveholders should see justice. Then he took out a sword and stabbed the bible, causing it apparently to bleed all over the assembled Quakers. He said, “Thus shall God shed the blood of those who enslave their fellow creatures.” Caused quite a stir.
By 1758, the Philadelphia Quaker meeting formally denounced slave trading. When Lay heard this news, he said “Now I can die in peace.”
Most of the actors in the drama of the American revolution were hypocrites who cited the values of freedom and equality when it suited their purposes and ignored them when it didn’t. But there were a few like Benjamin Lay. And there were a few like Benjamin Franklin who had a keen appreciation for the paradox of their positions.
Dr. LePore’s book also gives a passing mention to another Philadelphia Benjamin around that time too: Benjamin Rush, a physician, signer of the Declaration of Independence, social activist and a major figure in the birth of Universalism, though he never joined a church. On slavery, Dr, Lepore quotes Benjamin Rush’s acid question around the time the Second Continental Congress had voted independence: “What is the difference between the British Senator who attempts to enslave his fellow subjects in America by imposing taxes on them contrary to law and justice, and the American Patriot who reduces his African Brethren to slavery, contrary to Justice and Humanity?”
Here’s my point. We can have faith in the value of equality of all people or as we say it, inherent worth and dignity, while realizing that in any particular period those values are going to be realized imperfectly. That is not a cause for despair, it is a cause for pushing forward to get the values realized better. Forward-thinking people like Benjamin Lay and Benjamin Rush can remind us that the pendulum of history cuts a mighty swath.
Quillen Shinn, the great Universalist evangelist of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries said “Every exertion you put forth to make this world better is so much done to make our doctrine true.” This is an active sense of truth akin to the idea fo faith I have tried to sketch out here. Propositions like the equality of all people are true as we make them true.
Where do we find hope? In the fact that this age like all the ages before it, gives opportunities to realize the values of advancement of the public goods and the truths the forefathers articulated but failed to embody. Each of us in our own way has a part to play in bringing about the better world we can envisage. We are the people we’ve been waiting for.
Reading– From We Are the Ones We Hvae Been Waiting For by Alice Walker (New York: The New Press 2006)
From Introduction, p. 1
It is the worst of times, it is the best of times. Try as I might, I cannot find a more approriate opening for this volume: it helps tremendously that these words have been spokne before, and, thanks to Charles Dickens, written at the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities. Perhaps they have been spoken, written, thought, an endless number of times throughout human history. It is the worst of times because it feels as though the very Earth is being stolen from us by us: the land and air poisoned, the water polluted, the anmals disappeared, humans degarded and misguided. War is everywhere. It is the best of times because we have entered a period, if we can bring ourselves to pay attention, of great clarity as to cause and effect. A blessing when we consider how much suffering humans beings have endured, in previous milennia, without a clue to its cause.
From Chapter 4 “The River Has Its Destination”
There is a message from the Elders of the Hopi Nation of Oraibi, Arizona that speaks to this time very well. It has been circling the globe by internet for several years and many have taken comfort from it. I read it to audiences quite often. We listen to the Hopi because they are people who have lived with Nature long enough to understand their purpose. They believe they must live simply, in a particular part of the world, and maintain specific ceremonies and prayers so that the Earth can continue to flourish. Their history contains information from times before our own when the world was destroyed. Several times. I think that because they are among the few modern peoples who seem to know and understand who they are and why they are, they are awesome teachers.
We have been telling the people that this is the Eleventh Hour
Now we must go back and tell people this is the Hour.
And there are things to be considered:
Why are you living?
What are you doing?
Are you in right relation?
Where is your water?
Know your garden.
It is time to speak your truth.
Create your comunity.
Be good to each other.
And do not look outside yourself for the leader.
This could be a good time!
There is a river flowing now very fast
It is so great and swift that there are those who will be afraid.
They will try to hold on to the shore.
They will feel that they are beeing torn apart and they
will suffer greatly.
Know the river has its destination.
The Elders say we must let go of the shore, and
push off and into the river, keep our eyes open,
and our head above the water.
See who is in there with you and Celebrate.
At this time in history, we are to take nothing personally,
least of all ourselves.
For the moment that we do, our spiritual growth
and journey comes to a halt.
The time of the lone wolf is over.
Banish the word “struggle” from your attitude
and your vocabulary.
All that you do now must be done in a sacred manner
and in celebration.
“We are the ones we have been waiting for...”
R.W. Emerson “An Address Delivered before the Senior Class in Divinity College, Cambridge, Sunday Evening, July 15, 1838"
New York: Norton 2018
Id. p. 74.
Id p. 92