Monday, July 01, 2019

It's Almost Enough

This is the text of the Reflections I offered on Sunday, June 30, 2019 to the congregation I have served for the past 8 years.  It is the last Reflection I will offer as their Lead Minister.  It is also quite possibly the last sermon I will offer for quite some time, because I do not expect to seek out another pastorate.  Beginning in September I will become a student again as a Chaplain Resident at the University of Virginia hospital.  I will say that it's been quite a ride.

I’m going to tell you a couple of stories this morning.  Not the kind of stories we Unitarian Universalists usually tell one another; not the kind of stories to which we usually even give much credence when we hear others tell them.  Oh, to be sure, this isn’t true of all of us, yet as a generalization, and as we’re most often seen by people in the wider world, our elevation of and commitment to “The Rational” leads us to see such decidedly irrational stories as I’m going to be telling to be ... problematic at best.  Historically, at least, Unitarianian Universalism has encouraged a healthy skepticism; we’ve been largely agnostic at heart.  The English author W. Somerset Maugham once observed,

“A Unitarian very earnestly disbelieves in almost everything that anybody else believes, and they have a very lively sustaining faith in they don’t quite know what.”

The first story happened a whole bunch of years ago, back when a primary tool for mass communication was “the list-serve.”  A colleague posted asking for help about a conundrum in which she’d found herself caught.  A member of the congregation she served had died recently.  A short time after the memorial service the deceased woman’s husband came to talk with her.  “Don’t tell my son any of this,” he said.  “We’ve always been extremely rational in our family – we believe that if you can’t see, touch, taste, hear, or feel it, it’s not real.  We don’t go in for any of that spiritual ‘woo-woo;’ we’re scientific rationalists all the way.  So, if my son knew about this he’d think I was losing it.” 

The “this” he wanted to talk to my colleague about, and which he wanted to keep from his son, was that since his wife’s death he’d continued to feel her presence.  Literally.  He knew, he knew, that it wasn’t a memory, or wishful thinking, or a delusion, or a psychotic break.  He still didn’t believe in any kind of “spiritual woo-woo” – ghosts, life-after-death, spirits.  He was still committed to logical rationalism and the proof of the senses.  Yet he also knew, knew, that he had been experiencing the undeniable presence of his wife even though she had died.  As you can imagine, this was throwing him for a bit of a loop.

But that wasn’t the problem my colleague was writing about.  She’d been able to talk with this man about his experiences, trying to help him make sense of them.  The problem came when the woman’s son came to talk with her.  He also requested that she not tell his dad about what he was about to say, because he knew his dad would think he was losing it.  But since his mom had died he’d been experiencing her almost physical presence.  It didn’t make any sense to him, it didn’t fit with anything he believed.  Still, he was rock-solid sure that these experiences were real, nonetheless.
So, that was her conundrum.  It was obvious that these two men needed to talk with each other about their experiences, yet she felt beholden to respect each of their requests not to tell the other.  So … what was she supposed to do?

Her question was pretty quickly and easily answered.  A whole bunch of us agreed that without breaking her promise she could say to either one – or both – something along the lines of:  “I’ve been thinking about what we talked about, and I know that you think your son (or father) would think you’re losing it, yet I’d seriously encourage you to take the risk of talking with them about it.  I think you owe it to your relationship with each other and with your wife (or mother); I also think you might be surprised by the response you’d receive.” 

As I said, her question was quickly taken care of, yet the thread that grew out of it went on for several months, as I remember.  And that’s because, slowly at first, person after person posted something that began like, “I’ve hardly ever told anyone about this, but …”  They’d then go on to tell the story of something rather “unbelievable,” something that didn’t align with our profession’s much touted rationality, yet which the person knew with every fiber of their being was true.  Some confessed that they’d actually never told anybody about this thing; one even noted, “I’ve never even told my wife about this.”  Yet on and on the litany went – post after post, day after day, story after story – experiences that didn’t make sense yet which the person who’d experienced it knew in their core were real.

We may be inclined to disbelieve this kind of thing, yet I’d remind you of the words Shakespeare had Hamlet say to his friend: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”  More recently it’s been observed, “The universe is not only more strange than you imagine, it is more strange than you can imagine.”  I’d always believed that it was the scientist and science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke who coined that phrase.  This week, though, I’ve learned that it actually goes back to a passage in the 1927 essay “Possible Worlds” by the British-Indian physiologist, geneticist, evolutionary biologist, and mathematician, J. B. S. Haldane:

“Now, my own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose. I have read and heard many attempts at a systematic account of it, from materialism and theosophy to the Christian system or that of Kant, and I have always felt that they were much too simple. I suspect that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of, or can be dreamed of, in any philosophy.”

The title of this sermon is, “It’s Almost Enough …,” and it comes from one of my own experiences.  (One of my own stories.)  In 2001 I was enrolled in the Spiritual Guidance program of the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation.  (That’s the same program Wendy Steeves, the Office Assistant here, recently completed.)  The program is largely done at-a-distance, but all of the participants come together for a 9-day retreat once in each of the two years.  There was a lot of instruction, a lot of prayer, a lot of silence, a lot of time for contemplation -- and a whole lot of “spiritual woo-woo,” that irrational stuff that’s eschewed by so many UUs. 

On one of the first days of the retreat we were given a prayer exercise.  It’s Shalem’s perspective that prayer isn’t something we do.  Rather, God is always praying in us, and what we do in what we call prayer is to quiet ourselves enough to hear God’s prayer in us for us.  I’ll note that Shalem is decidedly ecumenical in orientation, even with their deep openness to other faith traditions and spiritual perspectives.  Still, a theistic perspective is core to their understanding of life (the universe, and everything), so the concept of “God” is foundational to them – albeit not with its most common understanding.  Anyway …

In this exercise we were asked to try to find an “inner place of peace … a mood of meditation,” and to allow the thought (or feeling) of a person we knew well to rise into our consciousness.  In other words, to listen for who God might be praying for in and through us.  When we felt that we knew the who, we were then to again try to quiet ourselves and listen for the what, to listen for what God’s prayer might be for that person.  After a little while we were then invited to do the same thing for someone we didn’t know all that well, and, then, finally, for someone we were having some kind of difficulties with.

When I was focusing on someone we didn’t know that well, one of the other participants kept coming up. I saw her in my mind’s eye, standing with Jesus.  He knelt in front of her and she put her hands on his head.  She then sunk to her knees, and the two embraced as they both began to cry.  (Weird, right?)

I honestly don’t think I’d even said more than a couple of words to this woman by this point in the retreat, so you can imagine it was with a little trepidation that I approached her during a break to tell her about this “vision” (if you will) and ask if it meant anything to her.  She looked really shocked.  She said that some years ago she’d had a hands-on healing ministry but had gotten scared by something and had stopped.  We’d been told to come to the retreat with a question to ponder – her’s was whether she should start again.  She felt that the vision I’d had during prayer was at least a pointer toward her answer.

A few days later someone came up to me and said that in her prayer that morning I kept coming to mind, along with the hymn, “Here I Am, Lord.”  The hymn draws on a story from the Hebrew Scriptures in which the character of God keeps calling out to a young Samuel by name.  Each time Samuel answers, “Here I am, Lord.”  This was also the hymn we sang a lot at the Methodist church camp the year I first felt my call to ordained ministry.  My question for discernment was whether I should remain in the ordained ministry.  This person’s prayer, though she could have had no way of knowing it, was a pointer for me toward my answer.  (And here I am I, 18 years later.)
Stuff like that happened a lot that week – prayers being answered, needed messages given and received, we even had a couple physical healings.  A whole lot of “spiritual woo-woo.”  At the time I considered myself a Zen/Taoist/neo-Pagan/historically Christian/currently atheistic Unitarian Universalist, so all of this didn’t fit with any of my “philosophies.”

The cohort with whom I went through the program consisted of Catholic nuns and priests, pastors from various Protestant traditions, lay people, a staunchly rational atheist humanist psychiatrist, and a Zen/Taoist/neo-Pagan/historically Christian/currently atheistic Unitarian Universalist.  Early on I became good friends with two of the other participants – a Baptist clergyman and a Presbyterian laywoman.  (I’m glad to say that we’re still friends all these years later.)  I don’t remember any longer which of us coined the phrase, but whoever said it, it stuck.  Whenever we’d hear one of these stories about something “queerer than we can imagine,” we’d reply, “You know … it’s almost enough …”  Actually, the full phrase was, “You know … it’s almost enough to make you believe in God.”
Physical healings; seeing/hearing answers to questions we didn’t know were being asked by people we’d never met before; miracles, for want of a better word, both big and small … and we’d say, somewhat ironically, that these were almost enough to make one believe in God.

I know, I do know, that “God” is one of those words many UUs don’t want to hear in their sanctuaries during Sunday services.  It’s meaningless.  It’s harmful.  The fourteen times we uttered it during the Opening Hymn, and the eight or so times Adam said it, were more than enough for some of us to last a year or two.  The Sunday after Virginia legalized same sex marriage I put on the altar two placards that had been created for a protest planned that were no longer needed.  One said, “All Love Is Equal;” the other said, “God is Love.”  So strong is the allergy to traditional “God language” among some of us that I know at least one member of this congregation came in that morning, saw the sign on the altar with the word “God” on it, and then turned around and left in disgust.

I do understand that what has been and still is so often referred to by that word, “God,” is utterly meaningless and has been used to inflict great harm.  Yet I also know the philosophical definition of the word:  “God” is, “that than which no greater can be conceived.” This means that whatever “God” is, it’s the greatest, the best, the most awesome, the most life-affirming, the most expansive … it’s that for which no greater attribute can be conceived.  The way the word “God” has been and is still so often being used is incredibly limited and limiting.  The way the word “God” is all too often (mis)understood simply can’t be what that words is really pointing to because it’s so easy to imagine something greater.  And this means that those understandings of “God” simply can’t be what “God” is.  The word “God,” when properly understood, is so unlimited that no less an authority than Saint Augustine said, “if you can understand it, if you can comprehend it, it’s not God.”  (Si comprehendis non es Deus.)

When I did my chaplaincy training all those years ago my supervisor told us what she’d say when a patient told her they didn’t need a chaplain’s visit because they didn’t believe in God.  “Tell me about this God you don’t believe in,” she’d say.  “I probably don’t believe in that God, either.”  That “God” isn’t what “God” is.  And if that “God” isn’t God, then God might after all have meaning even for us skeptical, agnostic, rational UUs who “[disbelieve] almost everything that anybody else believes, and [who] have a very lively sustaining faith in [we] don’t quite know what”

In his address to the graduating class of Harvard Divinity School in 1838 Ralph Waldo Emerson asked those freshly-minted ministers,

“In how many churches, by how many prophets, tell me, [are people] made sensible that [they are] an infinite Soul, that the heavens are passing into [their] mind; that [they are] drinking forever the soul of God?”

Not given dogma or stern warnings, but told that they are, themselves, intimately a part of what God is; that they are inseparably part of something truly larger than themselves.  The answer is “not in too many” Unitarian Universalist churches today, I’m afraid.

And in his essay Nature St. Ralph described an experience he had when he was,

“Standing on the bare ground – my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space – all mean egotism vanishes.  I become a transparent eyeball [I love that phrase!]; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.”

In how many churches, by how many prophets, are we told that we are “part or parcel” of God?

I believe it was the first sermon I preached during candidating week for the first congregation I served which some encouraged not to give.  It was called “A Feather on the Breath of God,” a phrase used by the Catholic saint Hildegarde of Bingen to describe herself.  “Don’t talk about ‘God’ right out of the gate,” some people advised.  “It doesn’t go over well.”  (Yet here I stand, 25 years later.) 
Since I started out talking explicitly about God it seems right to talk explicitly about God in this last sermon, too.  Truth be told, I’ve done so in many, many sermons over the years since – maybe even in most of them, honestly.  I didn’t always use that word; you may not have even noticed.  But I did.  That’s because when we talk about “God,” we’re really talking about the Ultimate Reality in which, through which, and by which we live.  What a child once called “the Really Real,” in which, as the Apostle Paul put it, we “live, and move, and have our being.”  When we talk about “God” we’re talking about that which “surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together” (to quote the esteemed theologian Obi Wan Kenobi).  We’re talking about, really, the only thing that’s really worth talking about – because that toward which the word “God” points is not some angry and judgmental anthropomorphic cosmic cop on the lookout for any infraction.  No.  When we talk about God we’re talking justice, we’re talking about truth, we’re talking about life, we’re talking about love.  What else should we be talking about?

Look around you.  Really open your eyes and look around you.  Look at your own life.  What do you see when you do?  A child’s open smile.  The warm touch of the person you love, and who loves you, most in all the world.  Leaves rustling on the wind when a stultifyingly hot day shifts with an incoming storm.  The pastel pinks and blues of sunrise; the vibrant crimson and azure of sunset.  The realization that you’ve found an answer for which you were seeking.  The courage to act on it.  Comfort in times of your own brokenness; strength when others need it from you.  Beauty, even in the presence of brutality.  The healing of body, mind, and spirit … even when there is no “cure.”  People who challenge our complacency; people who help point the way when we feel lost; people, plain and simple, other people.  Animals, plants, rivers, rocks, stars.  Moments of clarity about what really matters most.  Every breath we take.  (Every move we make.)  The sound of music.  The sound of silence.  The sound of life lived well, of life lived poorly, of life lived the best we can.  The sound of life lived in love, and love lived in our lives. 

All of that is real.  Really real.  All of it shows us, grounds us in the truth that, as I’ve been saying for years, “we are one human family, on one fragile planet, in one miraculous universe, bound by love.  All of it revealing the truth that we are not alone; the truth that in the end justice will prevail.  All of it reminders of the twin truths that life is stronger than death and that love is stronger than anything.  All of it God.

Look around you; really look around you, my friends, and really see.  And you know what?  It’s almost enough …

Pax tecum,