Refulgent – Still! (text & audio)

It was on an April morning 10 years ago that this congregation gathered to get its first look at this middle-aged seminary graduate who your search committee was proposing be called as your next settled minister. As I had prepared for that service, I learned from the chair of your search committee, Linda Bair, that there was much amusement in the congregation at the rather hifalutin word that I had tossed into the title of my sermon, “This Refulgent Moment.” Oh, boy! What does this guy have in mind?

On reflection, it may not have been the best tack. Here I was waltzing out of seminary seeming to flaunt an arcane vocabulary: not a great way to win friends and supporters. But you were kind. You listened with forbearance and decided in the end that I just might work out. And you gave me a vote of confidence for which I have never ceased to be grateful.

Ten years later, though, I want to return to that fancy word. For, in truth, as you might imagine, I had a greater purpose in introducing it to you than simply hoping to impress you. Indeed, to me that word represents a thread that has wound through my ministry with you these 10 years and that guides me still. Even more, I think it points to a center of energy that holds hope for our future as a congregation and for the future of our movement.

So, why refulgent? I think initially I wanted to signal to you some of what most strongly influenced me in my development as a minister. Long before I entered ministry I was drawn to Emerson’s Divinity School Address. I’m not sure I could have told you why in those early days, other than the wonderful lyricism of Emerson’s prose here – the way that he evokes the soul-stirring beauty of the natural world – and how it echoes my own experience.

Like many of you – I have since learned – my first spiritual awakenings took place in the natural world and I am still renewed there continually. It’s certainly part of what drew me to Asheville. How could anyone living here help but be inspired by the glorious world around us?

But it’s worth remembering, as Emerson’s biographer Robert Richardson puts it, the opening sentence of Emerson’s address, “In this refulgent summer, it has been a luxury to draw the breath of life” is not, in Richardson’s words, “a casual allusion to the weather or a clearing of the throat. It is the central theological point of the talk.”

Hear him for a minute: These words, Richardson says, are “a description of the religious impulse in human beings. Emerson says that the ‘religious sentiment,’ the religious feeling, is universal and that it derives from or is awakened by the ‘moral sentiment,’ which is the even more fundamental perception that the world has an essential balance and wholeness. The feeling of veneration or reverence that arises from this perception is the basic building block of all religion.”

There is a reason why Emerson’s address was received as scandalous by so many of the Harvard faculty who heard it that day. In many ways, he was contradicting key teachings that they had offered the tender seminarians in the audience who they were sending out into the world.

Recall that Unitarianism emerged in response to the Puritan doctrine that we are each born depraved, stained with sin, and that our only hope in appeasing an angry God is to give ourselves over to what the church declared that Christ taught in the hope that he would enter our lives and save us. Unitarians insisted that God was not so angry and that rather than left to fate, we each have a role in our own salvation in how we lives our lives, and that we can use the minds we were given to sort out our duties in life.

Behind this “reasonable” approach to religion, though, remained some essential doubts about humankind. Yes, we can be clever and kind, but we can also be deceptive and deceived. Jesus’ ministry, they insisted, offered the only sure path to right living, and it was the duty of the ministry to deliver it.

Here is Emerson, though, saying that the source of religion is to be found, not in church, but our individual experience. Here is Emerson, saying, “Go alone, refuse the good models, even those which are sacred in the imagination.”

As I said, it’s no wonder that he created a furor among his contemporaries. But what interests me more is that, what I think he and others with similar views at the time were doing was opening the door to a new understanding of what religion is and does that is central to us today.

Religion begins, Emerson suggests and I want to claim, in an experience of the fullness of the world around us, the refulgent – that is, shining, brilliant, resplendent – world that breaks in on us every moment of our lives. And that experience awakens our sense of the wholeness of all things. We today articulate this as the awareness of an interdependent web of existence of which we are a part.

It also evokes in us a sense of gratitude, wonder and awe that feed and affirm an elemental capacity within us that blossoms into love: Love that we are each born with and that, if nurtured, can deepen and grow and fill us to overflowing.

We require no meditator, no influence outside of ourselves to experience this. It is what living gives us, and it is available to us all.

But what am I to do with all of this? What consequences does it have for my life, how does it help me to live with meaning and integrity? These are the questions of religion, the questions that tie us back to that original experience of fullness, of wonder, of joy.

This is that to which we bring our agile minds to bear, where we posit such notions as God, the goddess, the Tao, the unnamed source of eternal mystery, or simply that great moral center within. It is where Jesus found the Kingdom of God, where Siddhartha Gautama located the Buddha nature, where Elijah heard the still, small voice. And there is so much more beyond. The heritage of humankind is to be found in how people have struggled to come to terms with their experience.

But all that history and all those big thoughts are only the prompts for our own explorations. How shall we speak of this? Bring in the poets, the artists, the dancers, the musicians; the theologians, the astronomers, the naturalists, the psychologists! What shall we leave out, or shoe-horn in?

This, it seems to me, is the project of liberal religion: Not to debate the terms of salvation at our deaths, but to learn the disciplines that make for a meaningful life before death: real-living, not going through the motions, never losing sight of that refulgent truth that awakened that spark of awareness of our own worth and that of our fellows and all things.

REFULGENT – STILL!  PART 2

Several times a year here our Associate Minister Lisa Bovee-Kemper and I lead a series of classes that we call Beginning Point and Connecting Points for people who are considering joining this community. We walk them through the history of this congregation and Unitarian Universalism, and we talk about some of what goes on here – our classes and small group ministry, our social activities and justice work. But to my mind one of the most important things we do is ask them to take part in facilitated small groups where we invite them to share some of their stories and some of their hopes.

It is a privilege to sit in on some of those conversations, and I have to tell you that if you ever doubt the need for this congregation and this religious movement, you should listen in sometime. For those who come to us from other UU congregations, it is a bit of a homecoming. You should know that these new arrivals are often quite complimentary of the congregation that you’ve created, the way they feel welcomed, and all that you’ve done to make a strong home for liberal religion in the mountains. That’s not to say we don’t stumble sometimes or don’t need to make improvements, but as a rule UUs arriving here are happy to find their tribe among you.

The majority of people who attend our newcomer classes, though, are new to Unitarian Universalism. They may have just moved to the area or may have lived here for years, but something in their lives got them out the door and over to a UU congregation – sometimes the first time they’ve darkened a church door in decades.

By the time they’ve made it to our classes, of course, they’ve done more than just scout us out. They’ve seen enough to be ready to throw their lot in with us. Each person has her or his own story, but among them I find a remarkable consistency. Essentially, they want their lives to be about something. They want to make a difference. Many are quite accomplished, but they want to make deeper connections in their lives, and they’re hoping that we might be a part of that happening.

My colleague Tom Schade, who you heard from earlier, writes a blog that often tweaks us UUs for our foibles and confusions. I was taken with this essay, though, as it seemed to land particularly close to home. In polls here we’ve found consistently that when asked what the most important work of this congregation is, the answer tends to settle, as Tom suggests, on “building religious community.”

Is that bad? Heavens, no! In fact, it’s wonderful. The support that members of this community give to each other is inspiring and makes such a difference in so many of our lives. There are many occasions here where, as Tom puts it, what we do “blossoms into the experience of beloved community.”

But, is that enough? Let me take this occasion of celebrating my 10 years with you as your lead minister to offer you a challenge: What if we answered, “No,” and what might that reply require of us?

I suggest that the place we would begin is by recognizing that, as Tom puts it, naming “religious community” as our main focus is to place our focus on ourselves. The work of caring for each other, of listening, of sharing, of creating a village to help raise our children is crucial work. But as a community, it is crucial mostly for how it prepares us for carrying the hope, the deep grounding we find here forward into the work of creating a better world.

In a sense, our newcomers give us our charge. They tell us what they see in this community, that this is a place where they can make a difference and make deeper connections in their lives. I think that hope resonates with all of us. As individuals we affirm it, and some of us take the time to dive into the task. But as a community we still struggle with making it real.

It’s easy to pack our busy lives so full that we take little time for the slow work that feeds us here, the time we spend with others to create space to listen and open to each other. This listening and sharing is the groundwork for everything else we hope to achieve. So, I want to invite you to find space for this good, slow work, and I will commit to working to create opportunities that work for you and open the conversations that help you grow.

Once in conversation, we can begin asking deeper questions. What do we know about this community where we live? How we might even widen our understanding of who is part of that community? Who are our neighbors, what are the challenges that they and we face, and how might we be agents of change for the better?

Our justice work gives us an entrée into this, but we would be more effective if we were more deeply engaged. One way I am proposing to do that is that we expand how we contribute to the work of justice. Beginning in July we will expand our practice of sharing our offering, as we are this Sunday with The Mountain Learning and Retreat Center, from once a month to every Sunday. All cash and any designated checks that we receive will be dedicated to outreach to the larger community.

Of course, just devoting more money to this work is not enough. If we are to shepherd these resources wisely, we will need to spend more energy getting to know the needs of this community and building relationships with other change agents across our community. Where would you like to connect? What opportunities await us? Help us find out.

We are blessed with a strong congregation here in Asheville, but we know that there are many people who identify with us in this region who live too far away to participate regularly, and many others who would but don’t even know that we exist. There are about a half dozen UU congregations around the country who have responded to this concern with a creative solution that I think could work for us – starting satellite congregations.

These are groups that gather in distant locations that stay connected to a home congregation. Key portions of Sunday worship are sent via the Internet or satellite to create a common experience, and the home congregation provides worship leaders and small group coordinators, as well as administrative assistance, to help the new group get started. It is a system well suited to the mountains, where travel across long distances is challenging.

We’ll be busy enough in the coming year with the capital campaign that I hope you will approve at our annual meeting today. But afterward I invite you to join me in exploring this exciting option for growing liberal religion in the mountains.

Meanwhile, the Internet and social media offer opportunities for us to be in religious community in ways we’ve never considered before. We already know that most people make their first connection with us through our Web site. How might an increased presence in cyberspace deepen and grow our work as a congregation? Let’s think, let’s explore, let’s dream!

REFULGENT, STILL!                PART 3

I joined a half dozen of our members on Wednesday at our weekly silent meditation time. We gather here from 8 to 9 a.m., light our chalice and simply sit in silence. People come and go; anyone is welcome.

It took a while for the buzzing in my head to settle down – all the busyness of this congregation and the many plans for this very full life that I’m living right now. In time, though, I found some quiet, and in that quiet I became reconnected to some delicious quality in that time and space. I guess the only way to describe it is to go back to our opening word – a refulgence that filled me and reminded me of the peace we can find in this place.

I stumbled on the Rumi poem that Sharon read earlier some months ago, and immediately I knew I would turn to it to help me close this sermon. Because, you see, I have struggled over how to explain what 10 years of ministry with you has done for me, and Rumi’s poem sums it up.

I’ve never understood this image that some have of religious leaders as people who sit around all the time in some sort of wise, imperturbable Zen state. What are they, crazy? Yeah, sure there are those moments such as I experienced on Wednesday where your feel the currents of the universe flow through your being.

And then there are those moments when you’re itching to get out the door to a meeting on the budget drive, which is coming up short, but you’re on the phone with someone explaining why they were unhappy with your sermon on Sunday, while you’re plotting in your head how to find time to meet with a family to talk about an upcoming memorial service.

It’s not that I didn’t anticipate this kind of juggling act when I came here 10 years ago. It’s just that I didn’t know how it would feel to be in the middle of it. The difference, as Rumi puts it, is between admiring wines and wandering inside the red world.

You can’t know ahead of time how it will fill you when someone you’ve counseled rises out of despair and how it will break your heart when people you serve, people you love and admire, die, and you must be present to gather their loved ones and tell their stories. It is not infrequent that I feel like nothing more than a burnt kabob on such occasions, and yet I am grateful to be with you.

I have learned in so many ways that this work – my work, our work – is not about me, about ourselves as individuals. It is about letting go of ego, letting go of expectation and being present. That presence opens us as nothing else can, opens us to the astonishing fullness of life every moment, to the wonders of our companions on this journey.

What a gift our presence can be to one another! What a rare occasion of meeting, and when we find it, oh, what a blessing! These are the moments of meeting that comprise perhaps the greatest refulgence of all, the brightest, most brilliant events of our lives and the sources of hope that keep us going.

My friends, this time with you has been most refulgent for me, and I pray will continue to be for some time. Let me close by telling you something that I don’t tell you often enough but is always present to me: I love you and am grateful and proud to be your minister.