Over the last couple of months about 20 of us here have been making our way through the gospels of the New Testament with the Rev. John Buehrens, former president of the Unitarian Universalist Association and a biblical scholar, as our guide. His book, Understanding the Bible, is premised on the notion that too often we liberal religious folk abandon the Bible to conservative voices who insist on reading it with a narrow, literalist bent. In recent decades, he notes, there has been fine scholarship by progressive voices who offer a more nuanced reading of the Bible, taking into account cultural and historical context, that has opened that text as a source of meaning for people of many theological perspectives.
So, his invitation to us is that we open the Bible with curious and critical minds, letting go of baggage that we may carry from our childhoods, turning aside from pinched or oppressive readings that others may offer, and engage it for what it is – rich, complex and sometimes contradictory testimony of how we humans might understand the source of meaning in our lives and our duties to one another.
Since our focus in this class was the New Testament, our conversation inevitably centered on the figure of Jesus. As the cover of your order of service suggests, the images of Jesus these days run the gamut: The shepherd, the avenging hunk, the Jedi warrior, the Semitic trickster and wisdom figure, and more. In some respects, each person reading the Bible creates her or his own image of who Jesus was and what his life and teachings mean to them.
As we read and reflect, listen and share, dig into the latest scholarship and get in touch with where our own hearts are leaning those images evolve. The roots of Unitarian Universalism lie in the Christian tradition, but we no longer insist that Jesus is central to our faith, and we have no received understanding of who Jesus was. Still, he remains a challenging, provocative, and for many inspirational figure.
So, as we were working through this material I invited members of our class to reflect on the shifting image of Jesus over time and consider for themselves how they might reimagine the figure of Jesus for themselves. Who was or is he for them? Here are some of their thoughts.
My intent from the study group was to learn biblical history about Jesus’ time in the world– and that I have done. The vision of him specifically is still growing in me
My image of Jesus is:
in part, the gentle Jesus of my childhood who walked by the Sea of Gallilee and loved little children
then, a teacher I vaguely dismissed to the ranks of many religious seers
now evolving into an historical and inspirational picture of an activist and teacher protesting pomp and injustice, preaching goodwill to all people—and who did not intend to start a cult!
I was raised in a Lutheran church in Connecticut. I don’t remember anything particularly significant from Sunday School; I went because my parents drove me, dropped me off and then picked me up again an hour or so later. Beyond the required church attendance, I don’t recall having a lot of deep theological thoughts while growing up or even in early adulthood. Honestly, I never really put all that much thought into my belief system until I moved to the south and realized my children would be going to school with a lot of evangelical Christians and I wanted to have a response to questions that might come up.
So what began as an exercise to ward off the Pentecostal church members down the road from our house has become a quest of sorts to try to understand what the idea of Jesus means to me and how I’d like to present him to my children.
I hesitate to identify myself as a Christian because I don’t want to be associated with the typical or stereotypical Christian we often think of when we hear that word. But, I’m also not willing to let those quote unquote Christians be the ones who define Jesus because I think their interpretation is often wrong. So when asked I do identify myself as a Christian and if a conversation follows I expand on my beliefs. Some of my beliefs, as I stand here today, are as follows:
I believe in God, as defined by the major monotheistic religions. I believe that a man named Jesus lived about 2000 years ago and I believe he had a good and powerful message to share. From the class we just had, I discovered that the writings spoken words attributable to Jesus were written decades after he died but that the words apparently have multiple independent sources. That doesn’t necessarily convince me Jesus was the Son of God or that he rose from the dead but it does convince me that people who knew him when he lived believed that he was special enough to continue to preach his gospel long after he died. And while I think powerful men used and still use his teachings to control people, for me this doesn’t take away from the power of his message or mean that he should be blamed or dismissed for the mis-use of his words.
The Jesus of my understanding was a teacher of peace, a protector of the lesser (the poor, women, the sick) who, if he were alive today would not be happy with some of the things said and done in his name. I don’t believe that Jesus is the Jesus of the Westboro Baptist Church or Jerry Falwell or any number of other, less known quote unquote Christians who quietly preach hate and intolerance. I also don’t believe that Jesus is a war-mongering bigot who only loves Americans.
I don’t believe that Jesus is egotistical and that the only way to a salvation of any sort is through a belief in him. I believe that Jesus was a Universalist in that everyone will be saved and no will be eternally condemned by God.
As I did some research in preparing this, I came across the words of a 19th century Unitarian, Rev. William Channing. He said that the words of Jesus are good and true. But that these words are not good and true because Jesus said them but instead, that Jesus said them because they are good and true. He also preached about one loving God who made humans in his own image of goodness and how the man Jesus, in his wisdom and compassion, was the best example to us of how a person should live.
That strikes me as a pretty good summary of my take on him. Thank you.
I grew up a social gospel United Methodist. God was love. God was acceptance. And Jesus, being the human representative, did the walkin’ and talkin’ of that message. It was the 70s and both my minister and my Sunday School teacher favored guitars and autoharps as their preaching media. So my introduction to Jesus was through music:
Jesus loves me this I know…
What a friend we have in Jesus…
And he walks with me and he talks with me and he tells me I am his own…
Sweet. Comforting. Somewhat Innocuous. Though the love part was definitely a good message, the “Invisible Man Friend” seemed a bit of a contradiction to the “don’t talk to strangers” warning.
Jesus Christ, Superstar, who are you, what have you sacrificed?
When wilt thou save the people, O god of mercy, when?
In high School, the first play I ever directed was Godspell. Its music, and that of Jesus Christ Superstar, both helped me see Jesus in a different way. His message was still about love, but it wasn’t a sweet, Mr. Rogers kind of love. It was a powerful, radical love that questioned authority and literally turned the tables on the status quo. Of course, the teenager in me loved this Jesus.
When I was a teen, we made mixtapes. You’d pick a bunch of different songs and shape them into an arc that got across a message or juxtaposed one song against another. Of course it would take you a gazillion hours to record a mixtape. Now, with iTunes and ipods the process has been greatly simplified. Of course the challenge is all gone, too. Perhaps that’s why the “mashup” has become the craze. From real DJs sampling tunes live …to anyone with garageband overlaying, cutting and pasting tunes on the computer. Now you can blend songs literally one on top of the other. Really mashups aren’t anything new. It’s just the newest way to describe how humans like to retell, recycle and recreate with the existing thoughts and inspirations around us. Which brings me back to Jesus.
In seminary I learned a lot more about Jesus. Or really more about his followers, about politics, about who Jesus was not, about Christology (that’s theology about Jesus) including Black, Feminist, Eco, and Liberation christologies. And I learned some new songs.
We’re gonna sit at the Welcome Table…
We are a gentle angry people…
And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on, (2x)
While in seminary, I found myself writing plays about Jesus. Retelling the crucifixion story in light of 9-11 and Guantanamo Bay and finally the growing anti-gay practices of the United Methodist church I had been planning to serve as a minister. This faith that taught of Jesus as Emmanuel/God With Us. Except if you’re gay. The had taken over my social gospel church. That’s when I walked away from Jesus. I saw my friends and congregants and fellow seminarians—all being abused, rejected, and judged by this so-called Christian faith which seemed to have completely forgotten all that Jesus preached about.
When at last all those who suffer find their comfort, [hymn: “Cuando el Pobre/ when they hope though even hope seems hopelessness, When the Poor Ones”] when we love though hate at times seems all around us, Then we know that God still goes that road with us, Then we know that God still goes that road with us.
So what’s a former United Methodist, now Unitarian Universalist, believe about Jesus? I could just outright reject Jesus; erase him from my memory. But his story is a big part of my story; he’s part of my life soundtrack. If I never heard his story and wrestled with its meaning, I’m not sure I would be the person I am today. Does that mean I think everyone needs to tango with Jesus? No, definitely not. There are other teachers of love and tolerance out there; there are other stories of redemption…. but there is something pretty provocative about Jesus. And I think it’s because he’s the ultimate mashup.
He’s this real, imperfect, human visionary who lived thousands of years ago; who challenged assumptions, gathered followers, hung out with slaves and prostitutes, preached in riddles, confused a lot of people, but also empowered a lot of people – a guy who questioned his religion and its dependence on rules instead of love.
Then he was executed by the state. He was a troublemaker. That’s when the true resurrection happened: not a man rising from the dead, but people taking the story of the execution of this powerless Jewish guy who lived under Roman occupation and spreading this story, tweaking it, enhancing it —as we humans are wont to do with stories… And this rabbi who spoke of peace in the midst of Roman authority and how the poor would inherit the earth in the midst of huge wealth disparity (all sounding a bit familiar?)…. well, this guy becomes a bit of a savior – a symbol to anyone on the bottom. Of course, like Moses before him, and every other cultural superhero before and hence, his story becomes so amplified and mutated, it’s hard to find the true message under all the layers of crap. And yes, I say crap, because so much was heaped upon this guy — far more than the weight of a wooden crossbeam. Salvation of the world. Deliverer of the masses. Judge of the living and the dead.
This is the traditional Christian mashup: Jesus the teacher, Christ the Savior. Through the years these two themes—Jesus Christ—have sometimes brought comfort and liberation to the oppressed, and sometimes, too many times, have brought persecution, terror, and abuse.
O for a world where goods are shared [tune: O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing] And misery relieved, [lyrics by Miriam Therese Winter] Where truth is spoken, children spared, Equality achieved.
I felt my Lord’s Atoning Blood, [tune: O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing] Close to my soul applied; [lyrics by Charles Wesley] Me, me He loved, the Son of God, For me, for me He died!…..
What a horrible remix this is! Far too many layers. The bass is overpowering. The harmonic message lost in the cacophony. What can we salvage from the remnant mashup that remains from this man’s life? from this faith which has repeatedly liberated while simultaneously enslaving?
In our bible class, the question was asked, “Why are we studying about Jesus in this way, if this is not the Jesus that the religion is based on?” Well it is the Jesus; the guy lost under the religious rhetorical rubble. But we don’t really know who he was. We don’t know what he would think of Christianity, the faith formed out of his story. All we can do is follow our 4th principle: search for truth and meaning. Meaning is still to be found in Jesus’ teachings–about love, justice, compassion—these still resonate today; these still challenge us to be our best selves. And these teachings resound in our UU principles. Jesus is one of our Sources.
And as UUs, we possess a great privilege: we get to be the Deejays. We get to do what a really successful mashup does—take the best parts and fit them together in a way that improves each and sets them in conversation with each other. Teaching this class reminded me that I can, if I want, still include Jesus in my spiritual journey and in my beliefs. But I will have to become a new storyteller and I’ll definitely have to create a seriously improved mashup.
INVITATION – Mark Ward
Early in our Bible class we had an exercise where we invited members to tell of their history with the Bible and to name any baggage they might be carrying about Jesus. Like Elizabeth, many had childhood experience in a Christian church and some were carrying heavy stuff – disappointments from childhood churches, arguments with ministers, difficult interactions with family members.
For me, though, there wasn’t much to tell. I grew up in a Unitarian Universalist church where I remember learning vivid creation stories from the Bushmen and acting out Greek myths, but I don’t remember much about Jesus. I’m sure I had contact with Bible stories at some point, but they didn’t much of an impression.
As an adult my spirituality has long been centered in a kind of Emersonian wonder in nature and a humanistic ethics. There was much to fill my reflections, and I didn’t see what the Bible would add to it.
So, it wasn’t until my first year of seminary that I dove into it in any serious way. Scholarly study of the Bible was really quite fascinating. I especially enjoyed learning about the historical context of Jesus’ life and the early church, how the different gospels emerged from different factions within the church, the apocryphal gospels that didn’t make the cut and the tumultuous times in which Jesus’ life played out.
The journalist in me was and remains fascinated with efforts to nail down, as it were, the historical figure of Jesus, clearing away the accretions of church teachings and the projections of preachers across the ages and cobbling together as realistic picture as we can of who this figure was and what he truly said and did.
What I found I had no taste for was high Christology that argues that Jesus died to save me from sin, or that he sits on the right hand of God where he mediates my salvation. Still, I definitely came away with renewed respect for the rabble-rousing, wisdom-speaking, boundary-crossing teacher in more ways than I never had before.
Unlike my friend and colleague Michael Carter, who you heard from a couple of months ago, I did not come away from my study of the Bible a follower of Jesus. I respect those within our Unitarian Universalist orbit who have, and I know that includes some of you here. Indeed, it is my hope that one outcome emerging from this class will be the creation of a study and reflection group to examine what it means to identify as Christian in a UU context. If this interests you, please let us know.
In a congregation as diverse as ours it’s important that we provide opportunities for each of us to explore paths that deepen our faith. Similar groups have met or are currently organizing around the notion of what it means to be a UU contemplative or a UU humanist.
But whatever our spiritual center, as Elizabeth said, we are joined by our 4th principle, which calls us to a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. The way forward for many of us is often a process much like Elizabeth describes of mash-ups, where we sort through widely varying material to find a thread of meaning that rings true.
Of course people have been doing this with the Bible for many years. Our spiritual ancestor, Thomas Jefferson, gave us one example when he took a scissors to his Bible. And after all, when you study the Bible with its diversity of sources from conflicting communities, you find that in many ways it’s one of the biggest mash-ups of all.
But to return to Jesus: to say that I don’t consider myself a follower of Jesus is not to say that he doesn’t intrigue and challenge me. The image of Jesus that works on me is the visionary preacher seeking to bring into being what he calls “the Kingdom of God.” It is a phrase scattered across all four gospels and is generally regarded by scholars as one of the most authentic teachings attributed to him.
Over the years, many have read these passages to refer to heaven, some place distant from the here and now, but I think they mistake his meaning. Look closely and the phrase is often couched in a context such as: the Kingdom of God is at hand, or the Kingdom of God is within you.
The image it seems to me he is conjuring using a powerful metaphor of his time is not of a place in this world or any other, but a way of seeing the world around us that regards it as precious and beloved.
It is an image that lies at the heart of our own first principle, affirming the inherent worth and dignity of all, and arguably our seventh principle as well, respect for the interdependent Web of existence of which we are all a part. It is a reminder that the source of our own and all worth lies not outside, but within us and all things. It is inherent to them. The trick is learning to see it.
Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est: where love and charity abide, there is the center of our hope, the greatest thing. Whatever path we take, we are led, in the end, to love.
It is a radical notion, and it poses a question that resonates deep within me. How would it be to live in such a way that I would see truly no separation between myself and every other person, between myself and every other being? I puzzle and wonder over that. It is something of Jesus that enters my mash-up, where it joins bits and scraps from other sources that make up my own evolving faith.
All this is part of the reimagining of our religious lives that helps us integrate what touches us with what we know. It is the kind of work we exist as a congregation to support each other in doing. And Jesus is part of the mix, as is every other avatar across human history urging us to waken to deeper living, to see a larger duty in our brief lives beyond ourselves, to join in building communities of healing and hope.
I have spoken in the past about the ways we are called to challenge one another to spiritual growth, and this is one marker of our status as a religious community. So, too, it is our work to support one another in times of tribulation and to celebrate with one another in times of joy. This kind of support is particularly useful in a religious context—It makes a difference when we receive support from our faith community.
For example, in the Dancing on the Edge of the Abyss class, we have been able to talk about ways that Unitarian Universalists faced with death might find comfort and meaning that are different from the more traditional religious perspectives. Secular support groups are deeply meaningful and essential for processing grief and finding connection, but they do not provide the opportunity for this kind of faith-focused support and reflection.
It is our work to support one another. A lovely sentiment, surely, but what does it mean in practice? A few weeks ago at a Pastoral Visitor training session, I overheard a snippet of conversation from one of the role-play groups:
The person playing a sad, upset congregant had been approached by the Pastoral Visitor, and said, “but why did you come up to talk to me?” and the PV said, “because that is what we do here, we care about each other.” Again, I was struck by the simplicity of the sentiment.
Because that is what we do.
This is a great example of the way what we do can become who we are. We’ve all heard the old adage, “actions speak louder than words,” but I tend to prefer the more ancient words of Lao-tze, because they are more nuanced, “Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your actions; they become habit. Watch your habits; they become character. Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.”
It is much easier to care for one another on a regular run-of-the-mill Sunday morning than it is in a crisis or long-term difficulty. I know that many times we don’t say anything at all to a person we know and love, because we are just not sure what would be the “right thing.” I know I have been guilty of this more than once, and I’m a professional!
I spent the day yesterday at a conference called the Sacred Journey of Dementia, which brought together caregivers, professionals and people with memory-related diagnoses. One of the most poignant sharings I heard was part of the Early Memory Loss Collective’s panel discussion. The person said the most difficult thing is when you see someone quickly turn and cross the street to avoid talking to you. It’s not because they don’t care, it’s because they are afraid to say the wrong thing.
The LA Times recently published a wonderful article called “How Not to Say the Wrong Thing.” It outlines a simple and practical way to think about how we respond to a crisis in our community. They call it “the Ring Theory” and I think of it like the rings on a tree stump – a model of caring based on concentric circles. Imagine that the person with the crisis – whether it is emotional, financial, medical or legal – is in the center, the smallest ring. In the next ring is the person’s spouse, then children, closest friends, and so on, counting as many rings as you need to include everyone affected by the crisis.
After you’ve imagined this diagram, the rule is simple: dump out, comfort in. If you are speaking to anyone who is in a ring smaller than yours, your simple task is to offer support and comfort. If you need to express frustration, anger, sadness, fear or anything other than empathy and support, choose someone who is in a ring larger than yours. Dump out, comfort in. It is easy to get confused and worried, and this model gives us a simple reminder.
When something terrible happens to someone I care about, I feel sad, I feel upset, and I experience grief. But my grief is my own, and it isn’t the responsibility of the person in crisis to manage or alleviate my grief. That’s why I need to take it to some one in a larger circle than mine.
So, that is “how.” But we still haven’t talked about what is the “right” thing to say. I have been at hundreds of bedsides, sat with hundreds of individuals and families in medical crisis or experiencing trauma, and I’m here to tell you that this is one of those good news/bad news situations.
The bad news is that there is NOT a right thing to say when someone you love is in crisis.
But here’s the good news: There is NOT a right thing to say when someone you love is in crisis.
We want to be a comfort. We want to fix it. Ultimately, it is our greatest wish to end the suffering of a person we love. We want to stop the pain, cure the disease or fix the situation that is causing stress and pain. But since this is not possible, we try to say something calming or comforting – usually to make ourselves feel better. And remember, if I am trying to make myself feel better, I need to turn to an outer circle, not an inner one.
In the darkest moments, when people we know face the death of a child or loved one, the end of a relationship or any substantive loss, there is simply not a right thing to say.
When people tell you that your presence is enough, they are not lying or trying to make you feel better. They are telling you the truth. It is the only thing we have to offer. We apply our love to suffering.
Metta, or the application of love to suffering, is the sentiment expressed in the lovingkindness meditation that we sang earlier in the service. It is one of my most favorite things to sing – in fact, it was the closing meditation at the conference yesterday, because it is so simple and beautiful and effective. The words are not complicated, and the tune is easy to pick up. But the real power is in the slight difference between the three verses—we begin with “I,” then sing “you,” and finally “we.” This is a beautiful model to use in our everyday lives, as we internalize the practice of self-love, then love of those to whom we are close, and finally love to all beings.
Metta recognizes that all sentient beings are capable of feeling good or feeling bad, and given the opportunity will choose good. It can be described as caring for others, without judgment, and with no expectation of receiving anything in return. It is similar to the Greek word agape, meaning unconditional, self-sacrificing love.
For me, though, the closest comparison is empathy. Empathy is the ability to recognize emotions in another being—to share an emotional experience. When we practice metta, we are intentionally participating in active love – for self, for other, and for the unknown.
Each time I sing the meditation in a group, I am deeply touched by its simplicity and power – the universality of the language and practice. Beginning with yourself has almost become counter-intuitive in our culture, as we fight against the super-individualist social model that pits the good of the one against the good of many. But metta turns this model on its head and asks us to begin with “me” with the express intention of ending with “all.” I begin the meditation with myself not because I am selfish, but because I am responsible for my own well-being. Then my well-being is able to focus outward and impact the whole. It isn’t me for the sake of me, but me for the sake of us. “We shape our self to fit this world and by the world are shaped again.”
(step out of pulpit onto floor)
Blessing of Prayer Shawls
As strands of yarn, we come together from all directions to bless these shawls & lap robes, to expand our circle of caring beyond these walls.
From the East, the quiet breath of habit, sense memory and love
From the South the fire of inspiration, energy and passion
From the West, tears shed together in joy and in sorrow, tea grown cold as fingers flying warm
From the North, Earth nurturing, giving space together and a reason for wooly socks.
Wrap around us the tapestry of this, our beloved community, the variegated strands, the complicated patterns and the carefully knotted fringe… a garment woven, we rest in the circle created by our own hands, nurtured by each other and warming us all… the caring of men and women who know the beauty of the handmade gift, the heartfelt prayer and the gathered circle… as the loops of knit and purl are nothing without each other, two sides of a soft and fuzzy coin, so too, we gather
In this circle we gather.
In this circle we sing.
In this circle we care for one another.
And our caring extends outward to encircle those who cannot be with us in person, the warmth of this community wrapped around shoulders, warming knees grown cold with age or trouble.
We offer our blessings upon these symbols of our circle of caring.
This congregation is a “whole” – a community of memory and hope, pledged to care for and support one another – and we, in turn, impact the world around us. Beginning with the one, the individual who walks through the door, we form radiating circles of love that expand outward.
When we begin with compassion for ourselves, we allow ourselves to be human, which means that we acknowledge that we may not know the “right thing” to say, and that we know that our presence is sufficient. This community, I hope, is a place where we work to trust one another and share on a deeper level, which allows us to stick together when the going gets tough.
This is who we are:
We are a community that cares for one another.
We are a community that throws the door wide to welcome each other – and the stranger.
So, it’s a spider we’ve come to talk about today, right? Well, yes, and a bit more. It is now a little more than 60 years since Charlotte’s Web was published, but instead of looking ahead to retirement E.B. White’s magnum opus seems to be finding new life with each generation that encounters it.
The book that novelist Eudora Welty described as “just about perfect” finds fans at every age. Indeed I admit to having infected my three daughters with it, having read it to each of them. And Anna has continued the pattern, having read it to Eliza.
There are books we read to children with a sense of obligation: they really ought to be exposed to this, we think. And then there are books like Charlotte’s Web where the treat is ours as much as theirs, where the experience of it is almost a rite of passage, an introduction to a way of seeing the world that fires our imagination and opens our hearts. It’s a case where a work sometimes dismissed as “just a children’s story” can touch us at our core and leave us changed.
While it’s true that Charlotte, a humble grey barn spider, is the central focus of this story, White elects to wait a while before introducing her. Instead, we begin with a dramatic morality tale: “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” The questioner is Fern, a pre-teen farm girl, who sees her father headed out to the barn to dispatch the runt of a litter of piglets born in the night. She cannot believe that the world, no less her father, could be so cruel as to snuff out a young life.
“If I had been very small at birth would you have killed me?” she cries, hanging on to his ax, adding that it was “the most terrible case of injustice I ever heard of.”
Good John Arable gets a funny look on his face, starting to tear up a little himself. All right, he says, you go back to the house. I’ll bring the runt and you can start it on a bottle. You’ll see what trouble a pig can be. Garth Williams’ illustrations give us this beatific pose of Fern nursing that young pig, propped in her cross-legged lap, lovingly naming him Wilbur.
E.B. White later acknowledged in interviews that this scenario reflected his own misgivings. Though he loved farm work and lived on a farm in Maine while writing this book – and once owned a pig named Wilbur – he was haunted by what seemed to him the moral dilemma of feeding and raising livestock with the intention of slaughtering them.
Several years before writing Charlotte’s Web, he told of an episode on his farm when a hog got sick and died. “The loss we felt was not the loss of ham, but the loss of a pig,” he said. “He evidently became precious to me, not that he represented a distant nourishment in a hungry time, but that he had suffered in a suffering world.”
So, Fern’s plea succeeds, and the pig is saved, but John Arable doesn’t intend to raise any more pigs, so he must be moved. Fern’s uncle, Homer Zuckerman, is willing to take him in, and so Wilbur finds a home in the manure pile of his barn. The humble barn with its manure, straw, and farm tools, inhabited by creatures of all sorts, domesticated and not, gets an Eden-like sheen from E.B. White’s prose: warm in winter, cool in summer, its mixture of earthy smells expressive of an all-pervasive goodness. It echoes White’s comment elsewhere that, in his words, “all that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say is that I love the world.”
But all is not well in the barn. Poor Wilbur is bored and lonely, and none of the other animals are interested in him. Bemoaning his outcast state, he is surprised to hear a small voice in the darkness: “Do you want a friend? I’ll be your friend, Wilbur. I like you.” Morning brings a cheery greeting of “Salutations” from a gray spider about the size of a gumdrop perched on a web stretched across the barn door. She introduces herself as Charlotte A. Cavatica, a presence who he learns is clever and kind but also fierce, brutal, and scheming. It gives Wilbur a fright: What a gamble friendship is!
This was not the first time that E.B. White had employed insect-like creatures to advance a children’s story. Years before he made Archie the cockroach the subject of several of his stories. But for Charlotte he was determined to get the details right. He had exhaustively researched spidery biology from their markings and colors to behavior and life cycle.
He learned, for example, that spiders stun, rather than kill their prey, then drink their blood – no wonder Wilbur felt squeamish. He discovered that Aranea cavatica – Charlotte A. Cavatica – was the species most likely to inhabit a barn in Maine, that their lifespan was about a year and that their nests had an average of 500 eggs. He even mapped diagrams of how webs were made.
But his research extended beyond books. He kept track of a spider in his barn in Maine. He watched how it trapped and killed flies. Then one day he noticed a gray ball on the web that clearly was not a fly or some prey. He concluded that it must be some sort of egg sac. He got out a ladder and light and examined it. It was a fuzzy pink color, the consistency of cotton candy.
One day he saw the spider spread itself on the top of the sac, presumably laying eggs. The next day it was gone. Curious about what would happen with this egg sac White cut the threads holding it on and carried it inside. He put the sac in an empty candy box and, when he had to leave for New York, carried it to his apartment in Manhattan and put it on his bureau.
Several weeks later he noticed movement around the box. He looked and saw tiny spiderlings crawling out of air holes that he had punched into the box. He let them cavort there for a week or two, inhabiting his hair brush, nail scissors, mirror and comb. He removed the spiders after his maid refused to work around a spider encampment.
Where Charlotte’s Web takes its most inspired turn, though, is with a detail of spider life that White never documented. Happy with his life on the farm and his new friend, Wilbur is distraught to learn of Zuckerman’s plans for him. A sheep breaks it to him: they’re going to kill you and eat you.
Death, again, is looming in Wilbur’s path. Charlotte, though, proves herself to be a creative friend: You shall not die, she says. I will save you. It takes a couple of days, but then it comes to her while watching flies buzz into her web. The way to save Wilbur is to play a trick on Zuckerman. People, she says, are so gullible.
The web she weaves to catch a person takes advantage of a conceit of ours about which White was an expert: our way with words. So, the next morning when the Zuckermans’ hired hand hauls out Wilbur’s slops he chances to look at Charlotte’s web glistening with dew and see something that stops him short: woven into the web are the words “SOME PIG.”
And thus begins a merry romp as one human after another gets caught in Charlotte’s clever subterfuge. For a quarry so wily, though, Charlotte must pay out more line. So in time she adds more words: terrific, radiant, humble.
People travel from miles around to view “the miracle.” Zuckerman is so distracted he drops any plans for butchery and instead carts Wilbur off to the county fair in a cart emblazoned with “Zuckerman’s Famous Pig.” Charlotte’s subterfuge has worked, Wilbur is saved. But White remembered his spider biology. Fall is when they make their egg cases and perish.
Wilbur is impressed with Charlotte’s egg case, but he is inconsolable when he learns he will lose his friend. Great sobs rack his body: “Charlotte! My true friend!” But this time Charlotte will have none of it. “Come now, let’s not make a scene,” she says. She can feel her energy waning. She knows the end is near.
But then Wilbur has his first truly selfless thought. If he can’t bring Charlotte back to the barn, he will bring the egg case. He has to make a deal with the rat, Templeton, to give him first dibs on Wilbur’s slops if he gets the egg case, but Wilbur doesn’t hesitate. Wilbur is carted back home with the egg case, and Charlotte is left at the deserted fairgrounds.
The story ends with the tiny spiderlings hatching and crawling about, like they did on White’s bureau. But then comes another disappointment for Wilbur. He despairs as they weave tiny balloons and float away on the breeze. Three, though, decide to stay, assuring a lineage that will be with Wilbur the rest of his life.
Zuckerman, White tells us, “took fine care of Wilbur all the rest of his days, and the pig was often visited by friends and admirers, for nobody ever forgot the year of his triumph and the miracle of the web.”
The story has such a satisfying arc that it’s easy to miss some of the sly and bittersweet wisdom that White imparts. He fools us with his dramatic opening, for the travails of Wilbur are really only a plot device to advance a deeper story, and it’s centered in Charlotte. The caginess and compassion of the spider is the through line that holds the story together, through Wilbur’s endearing enthusiasms and despairs, through the miracle hokum of the words on the web that satisfied White’s moral qualms over animal husbandry.
In the book’s penultimate chapter when it is clear that Wilbur will be saved, the pig finally asks the question that has been knocking around ever since Charlotte appeared. “Why did you do all this for me?” he asked the spider. “I don’t deserve it. I’ve never done anything for you.”
Charlotte replies simply, “You have been my friend. That in itself is a tremendous thing. I wove my webs for you because I liked you. After all, what’s a life, anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die. A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.”
And so in her final speech Charlotte reveals herself as something of a student of Zen. We cling so tightly to this world so much of which ends up bringing us such heartache. I think of a book by a Buddhist teacher that I received recently entitled“Who ordered this truckload of dung?”
We are each confronted with the messes of our own lives. Charlotte’s was trapping and sucking the blood of flies. Yet, we are also presented with the opportunity to, in Charlotte’s words, “lift our lives a trifle.” We are given the opportunity to do things we would have thought impossible to raise others up, to put our shoulders to the wheel of compassion.
We’re born, we live a little while, we die. As Wislawa Symborska put it: performance without rehearsal. We know nothing of our roles, only that they are ours. We improvise, though we hate improvising, and we trip over our own ignorance, our character like a raincoat we button on the run.
We stand on the set and see how strong it is, the props surprisingly precise, and the machine rotating the stage has been around forever. And we stand at the premiere, knowing that whatever we do will become forever what we’ve done.
It want to tell you about a moment I had when I was reading Charlotte’s Web again for this service. It had been a while since I picked the book up so I gathered myself in a chair and plowed through it. It was late at night, and I was getting near the end, when suddenly without really even knowing it at first I found I was crying.
Part of it, I suppose, was thinking back to sitting on my daughters’ beds reading White’s magnificent prose and remembering those moments we shared. But a part of it, too, I think, was sitting in the circle of light from my lamp amid the enveloping darkness around me and reflecting in awe on this “set” before me, the wonder of my life, this world and those in it, and reflecting, with E.B. White, on how much I love it.
E.B. White, who closed his book giving a compliment to Charlotte that his wife once gave him, that she was a true friend and a good writer, finishes his story with a paean to the world. And it’s not a bad model for us either.
“Life in the barn was very good, night and day, winter and summer, spring and fall, dull days and bright days. “It was the best place to be, thought Wilbur, this warm delicious cellar, with the garrulous geese, the changing seasons, the heat of the sun, the passage of swallows, the nearness of rats, the sameness of sheep, the love of spiders, the smell of manure, and the glory of everything.”
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Spring seems to be getting off to a slow start this year. Here we are scraping the bottom of the barrel of March, and we’re still seeing snowflakes flying in the air. It feels as if winter won’t give up its grip and spring is not especially anxious to get up out of bed. If Easter is awakening, a glorious rolling away of the stone of the cold clutches of winter both in the world and in our hearts, then it seems to me it sure is taking its time in coming.
It’s not just the cold. So much in the world seems unsettled and uncertain. We have nuclear saber-rattling in the Koreas and a bubbling pot of conflict in Syria ready to boil over and enflame the Middle East. The stock market’s hitting new heights, but most of us still feel poor, and the high unemployment rate is hardly budging.
Even a horrific massacre of elementary school children doesn’t seem to be enough to get our lawmakers off the dime to adopt sensible gun control laws. And while hundreds of thousands across the country rallied last week to end discrimination against same sex couples who seek to have their commitments to each other recognized by law, the justices of the Supreme Court sounded a bit skittish about whether they might actually do something about it.
As I said: wherever you look, spring seems to be slow in coming. Sure, the daffodils and forsythia are providing their annual show, but in the morning as I head out early for the newspaper I’m surprised to see the thermometer in the 20s. Frigid temperatures are slowing the green wave that erupts each year across these mountains. Of course, I remember that the natural world has surprises of all sorts to spring on us, often in the most unlikely ways.
Beekeeper Sue Hubbell recounts her experience with one such surprise. In her book A Country Year, she tells of one spring evening in the Ozarks she was sitting in a brown leather chair in her living room when, in her words, “I became aware that I was no longer alone.”
She looked up and saw that the three floor-to-ceiling glass windows at one end of her living room were covered with frogs. There were hundreds, she says: “inch-long frogs with delicate webbed feet whose fingerlike toes ended in round pads that enabled them to cling to the smooth surface of the glass.”
From their size and toe structure, she supposed them to be spring peepers, those early choristers of life. She went outside to get a closer look and, sure enough, that’s what they were – the species hyla crucifer, pinkish-brownish frogs named for the dark criss-cross pattern on their backs.
“I had to be careful where I put my feet,” she writes, “for the grass in front of the windows was thick with frogs, waiting in patient ranks to move up to the lighted surface of the glass.”
Hubbell says she put down her newspaper and spent the evening watching them. “They did not move much beyond the top of the windows,” she says, “but clung to the glass or the moldings, seemingly unable to decide what to do next.”
The next morning they were gone, never to reappear, that spring or any other. What may have been most extraordinary about this visitation of sorts, Hubbell says, is that the frogs were totally silent. Being so tiny, they’re usually hard to find. We become aware of their presence from their sound – resonant mating calls from male frogs that come from vocal sacs that they fill with air, making a high pitched whistle that when they’re gathered in large groups can sound almost like the tinkling of tiny bells. At some ponds on spring evenings their collective symphony can be almost deafening.
Of all that life offers at this time of year, peepers are the true heralds of spring. For many years at the church I attended in Wisconsin, an artist friend who lived on forty-acres of woods with a pond next to her house would arrive at church some Sunday early in spring with a light in her eyes to tell us, “the peepers are back.” Ever since, each spring I, too, go listening for them, once again remembering our friend’s delight and the renewal that this awakening life brings to me.
Henry David Thoreau observed that, “There is an incessant influx of novelty into the world, and yet we tolerate incredible dullness. I need only suggest what kinds of sermons are still listened to in the most enlightened countries. There are such words as joy and sorrow, but they are only the burden of a psalm, sung with a nasal twang, while we believe in the ordinary and the mean. The life in us is like the water in the river. It may rise this year higher than man has ever known it, and flood the parched uplands; even this may be the eventful year, which will drown out all our muskrats.”
Some of you may know that currently UUCA member Elizabeth Schell and I are leading a class here on reading the Bible, specifically the New Testament. Our guide on this journey is the Rev. John Buehrens, former president of the Unitarian Universalist Association and a biblical scholar. His book is entitled “Understanding the Bible: An Introduction for Skeptics, Seekers and Religious Liberals,” and his project, he says, is to help progressive people like us claim our own power to understand and to interpret the Bible.
For, he knows that many people come to our tradition after having had a bad experience with the Bible at some time in their lives. And all of us have seen Biblical texts used to oppress and discriminate. Yet, he argues, and I agree, that there is much more to be found in that text than those skewed and narrow readings would have you believe. The Bible is worth reading, not because we privilege it as a unique revelation, but because it is one of the great scriptures of the world that forces us to confront some of the most difficult quandaries that life presents us, and because it offers a rich and complex testimony of human experience that has extraordinary influence in our history and present culture.
As it happens, our reading in that class has just now taken us to the Easter story – it’s our focus this coming week. We’ve just been through the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry to Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, or colt, depending on which gospel you’re reading – the story commemorated in the Palm Sunday celebrations at Christian churches last week. Was this intended by Jesus merely as a gesture of humility, or was he getting a dig in at Roman authorities? And we looked at his cleansing the temple, upsetting the tables of money-lenders and those selling animals for ritual sacrifice. Was he really so outraged with this practice, or was this just another example of his turning ritual Jewish practice on its head, along with his meals with prostitutes, or was it guerilla theater, like something out of the Occupy movement?
Now we move into what may be the most fraught part of this story. Without anticipating too much where our class will go next week, let me observe that scholars consider much of the passion story of Jesus’ final days to be more a creation of his followers than a historical record. Among other things, it’s a little too tidy how closely those events echo well-known passages in the prophets and the psalms of the Hebrew scriptures. Yet, scholars also say that of all the stories about Jesus, the one that is most firmly documented is that of his crucifixion on the cross as a punishment for sedition against the Roman state.
And then? The early Christian church was explicit. As Paul put it in his first letter to the Corinthians: “If Christ was has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.” Whichever gospel story you read, the Bible insists that Jesus was raised from the dead, and such remains the center of Christian churches today. And it is a central point that separates us from them. While we have our roots in the Christian tradition and regard Jesus as a great teacher and prophetic figure, we hold that he was a man like other men and that he died as all men will.
That, of course, then begs the question: what are we doing celebrating Easter? What, indeed! Here is a response from one of our ministers, the Rev. Earl Holt: “Jesus died. His death meant exactly what every death means: the end of life’s promise, the end of his hopes, the end of his dream, and also the hopes and dreams which others had of him and for him.
But “something happened in the minds and hearts of Jesus’ disciples, for whom everything had been lost. A transformation occurred, a radical shift from absolute despair to renewed hope, from a sense of the utter absence of Jesus to a feeling that in some way he was still with them. His death was not the end; it was the beginning. What had died became again lively in the world.”
What I believe makes the Easter story inspiring is not that it is a magical tale of bodily resurrection, but what it says about the power of Jesus’ radically egalitarian message and how it worked on and transformed those he left behind.
John Dominic Crossan, one of the most prominent scholars on the life of Jesus today, argues that the Easter narrative in the gospels, rather than being an account of three days in the life of Jesus’ followers after his death, is likely instead a distillation of what took place in that community over several years, how those following Jesus evolved, grew as a community and found a way forward.
It’s a complicated story and not every development was a positive one, but it speaks to something that can inspire our own lives – that the hope we live by might survive us. As Crossan puts it, “Easter is not about the start of a new faith but about the continuation of an old one. That is the only miracle and the only mystery, and it is more than enough of both.”
And so as we watch the regreening of our world, the emergence of frogs and the reappearance of songbirds, we reflect that love and hope can endure winters of sorrow, pain, or discontent and reappear in the most astonishing ways. And that can be cause enough for celebration, for dressing up, gathering flowers and decorating eggs – the seeds of new life – and for singing alleluias.
I think Jacob Trapp had it right in our reading earlier when he said of the Easter miracle that it is about celebrating the ecstasy of gratitude I feel for this, my life, and the freshness of awareness that might teach me to be present to it every day. I know that all living things will die, as I will die, and yet those deaths will bring about ongoing renewal of this miraculous world. Those who follow us will be the ones to make the possible, actual.
I love his phrase, “Nothing grows, flowers and bears fruit, save by giving. All that we try to save in ourselves wastes and perishes. Things ripen for the giving’s sake, and in the giving are consummated.”
It is the oldest and hardest story on Earth. In Trapp’s words, “The ploughshare of sorrow, breaking the heart, opens up new sources of life.” Sorrow and loss are woven into the wonder of life on Earth, our life on Earth, but it is only a small part of the story. The greater part is rebirth, the enduring possibility that the goodness of our lives and what we give our lives to will outlive us. We see it all around us in the renewal of life, in the children we welcome and to whose care we dedicate ourselves, in the blessings we bestow on them that make the way easier by surrounding them with love.
So, I guess I may have let my grumpiness get the better of me earlier. For in truth, after writing my complaints about how spring just wouldn’t come, I woke yesterday to find the temperature near 40 and a soft, life-giving rain falling. As I said, you never know how the natural world will surprise you.
Heading out once again to pick up the newspapers, I decided to pause a moment and watch the sky in the east begin to lighten. And while standing there I decided to focus my attention briefly on a little copse across the street where water tends to gather just to see if I might hear anything.
I wasn’t sure at first, but then there it was, like a soft tinkling of bells. It’s true, my friends, the peepers are back.