Thin January sunlight filtered through leafless trees as about a half dozen people gathered a little self-consciously along a sidewalk in the hills of Berkeley, California. Facing them, along the doorway of a small, squat building that is Starr King School for the Ministry, were about 30 others, standing in silence. At some unspoken cue that group began singing the words of the Sufi poet Rumi:
Come, come whoever you are
wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving.
Ours is no caravan of despair.
Come, yet again, come.
At the song’s conclusion, Rebecca Parker, president of the school, began reciting her poem that you heard earlier:
“We are at the threshold; we are here.”
And then other members of the group took turns reading:
“We who have crossed many thresholds already
to arrive at this space and time” and so on:
Coming out – coming across – coming with – coming to – coming again.
Crossing a threshold, poised for possibility.
Then, the new students standing on the sidewalk were invited to enter and be greeted.
This was the scene I witnessed nearly two months ago when our daughter Erica, one of those people gathering on the sidewalk at the start of the ceremony, formally took her place in that student body, beginning the challenging walk of ministry.
It came to my mind as I reflected on this service today where we welcome newcomers into this community. I don’t presume that joining this congregation is anything like entering seminary. That place, after all, is in many ways a rarified setting, removed from much of the daily flow of life so that students have room for a depth of study and reflection that few of us have time for, and the commitment of leadership it demands is far greater than what we seek as being part of a congregation. But the parallel is not as far off as it might appear.
We hold up this moment of joining this community, we take time for it in our Sunday worship because we believe that this is something that matters – to you who are joining us, and to us who welcome you. As I told our newcomers our Connecting Points class, when you join a congregation like this you are making a statement. You are taking a public stand. In the words of UU minister Roy Phillips, you are making a declaration “about who you are and who you intend to become.”
The culture we live in today atomizes us. It breaks us up into the tiniest possible bits, disconnects us from each other, and then spins us around. We either fly off in random directions or bash into each other. In between the work of getting and spending we look up in despair and wonder what on earth we are running so hard to accomplish.
Meanwhile, there is in us a yearning for integrity in our lives: to make some sense of the world, to raise our children as decent people, to live with character and compassion, to lift our dull gaze from feeding our own hungers so that we might make some difference in the world. But all of this is too big to figure out on our own, and besides we quickly run out of time and energy to accomplish much.
Rebecca Parker tells of a time at the start of her ministry when she was a young pastor at a tiny congregation that was on the verge of closing. Still, she saw hope in the caring of those who remained. So, she began a practice of watching for visitors and calling on them in the following week. Though often surprised, she said, most people were hospitable.
She says that she found that no one ever came to church casually, as if they had nothing better to do that Sunday. Instead, Parker said, most of them came for, in her words, “life-and-death reasons.” One woman who had finally given birth after years of infertility and miscarriages was looking for a way to offer gratitude for life and to find a community to help her raise her child. A man came with his partner after he had lost his job because the school district was firing gay teachers. Angry and heart-broken, they were looking for an expression of kindness that might ease their pain and give them hope. One woman had just been diagnosed with cancer and was feeling scared and overwhelmed. Another had spent years working to defend the Earth and was looking for something deeper than anger to keep her going.
Change some of the details of these stories and add a few more and you would describe many of the people who I have welcomed into membership in this congregation. Our congregations are not just convenient places to spend a pleasant Sunday morning. They are places where people bring some of the deepest struggles of their lives, hoping to find a community that will take them seriously, that will confront head on some of the gnarliest knots that living presents us and will stick with them and stay in conversation when the going gets tough, that will support them in their struggles and the twists and turns of life, and that will celebrate often and with great joy the wonders of this good life and how good it is to be together.
And so I begin each newcomer class with a chalice lighting and reading from our hymnal: “We bid you welcome who come with weary spirit seeking rest, who comes with troubles that are too much with you, who come hurt and afraid. We bid you welcome, who come with hope in your heart, who come with anticipation in your step, who come proud and joyous. We bid you welcome, who are seekers of a new faith, who come to probe and explore, who come to learn. We bid you welcome, who enter this hall as a homecoming, who have found here room for your spirit, who find in this people a family.”
So, welcome! Now what? Some weeks ago I introduced you to comedian Tina Fey’s “Rules for Improvisation.” You may recall that one of her principle tenets was that when you enter a scene you should begin by saying, “Yes.” Rather than question what your partner offers, begin from an open-minded place. In Tina Fey’s words, “Start with a YES and see where that takes you.” But she also said that “Yes” alone is not enough. Your partner depends on you to help keep the action going. She or he expects you not only to play along, but also to add something of your own: not just “Yes,” but “Yes, and . . . .”
As she said, “don’t be afraid to contribute. Your initiations are worthwhile.” And so it is here. Having said “yes” to becoming a part of this community, what might you contribute to helping keep the action going?
Because, you see, I believe that this practice of “yes, and” is not just a good idea; it is integral to who we are as a religious community. To make this case, let me bring in Bernard Loomer, who we heard from earlier. Loomer was a theology professor associated with the University of Chicago, who late in life joined a Unitarian Universalist church, as it happens it was in our daughter Erica’s haunting grounds in Berkeley, California.
For a good part of the 20th century he was an important figure in process theology, a movement that sought to bridge the gap between science and religion, arguing that creativity is woven into all things and that the universe is constantly growing in size and complexity.
Loomer reached the conclusion that this growth occurs in the making of relationships. What matters in the end, he said, are the relationships that this process working in the universe makes, and the making of these relationships is what creates us as individuals and a society.
What determines how effective these relationships are, Loomer said, is their size, their ability to grow and expand, and also to accept tensions and contradictions. At the Berkeley church in conversation with other members, he was said to challenge them to reflect, “What is the size of your soul?” Here’s what he said about that: “By size I mean the capacity of a person’s soul, the range and depth of his love, his capacity for relationships. I mean the volume of life you can take into your being and still maintain your integrity and individuality.
“I mean the strength of your spirit to encourage others to become freer in the development of their diversity and uniqueness.”
As Unitarian Universalists we understand that our relatedness to one another and the Earth is not some random fact of our existence. It is essential to our nature; it defines us. And so, returning to Loomer’s remarks, when we look for the source of love in our lives, we see that there is no external principle of love that determines our interdependence.
“Love,” Loomer said, “is an acknowledgement of our interdependence. We love because we are bound to each other, because we live and are fulfilled in, with, and through each other. We love because a failure to love is a denial of the other, a denial of ourselves, a denial of our relatedness.”
By expanding our souls enough to add the “and” to the “yes,” – “Yes, And . . .” – bringing ourselves, our own creative capacity into play in the communities we join, we affirm what we already know in our hearts: that, while we see ourselves as many, in the end we are one.
So, here we stand at the threshold of this evolving community, a community that changes as we change, as the world changes, yet remains routed in the possibility of relationship that links us with each other and all things, that finds the sacred in this world, in this life, within and among us.
It is space where each of us seeks to grow, and so as those of us who have been here a while welcome newcomers, we also welcome each other in our continuing journeys, some of us also still coming out of identifies that didn’t embrace fully who we were, crossing boundaries that once limited our lives; coming with our loves, our partners, our children, our memories, our wisdom; coming to our senses, our awareness of that which holds hope and possibility; coming again to our commitments, to our deep knowing:
Come, come whoever you are;
wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving.
Ours is no caravan of despair. Come, yet again, come.
Come into this space, into this community that we create together, poised with possibility of thresholds yet to come, joined in the commitment to say, “Yes,” and with that affirmation bring our full selves into relationship with all that is and all that might be with our common endeavor.
I was taken a couple of weeks ago as I was standing with about 70 or 80 people in the basement of First Congregational Church downtown after one of the “We Do” actions by the Campaign for Southern Equality at Buncombe County’s Register of Deeds office. Seven same-sex couples, one after another, had just gone to the counter, asked for marriage licenses and been politely denied. It had been a carefully choreographed moment, as each of these has been, framed to bring attention to an injustice written into this state’s laws, their refusal to recognize the sanctity of commitments between people of the same gender, by the very people who seek that right.
For several of the participants, this was a return trip, only the most recent occasion when they had taken part in such an action. As we stood in the church hall, they were each given an opportunity to speak about the experience. What caught my attention was that in their reflections these women focused their remarks not so much on the moment of being turned back in the registrar’s office, but on the cheers that came from the dozens of people who awaited them outside.
No matter how often she does it, one woman told the group, she’s amazed every time by the warmth she feels in that moment. “The emotion doesn’t abate” were her words. It brought me back to what had been going through my own mind only a short time before.
As I loitered on the grass outside that nondescript office building in downtown Asheville, shifting my weight from foot to foot as these couples offered themselves to the unavailing machinery of bureaucracy I found myself reflecting for a moment on whether I was clear why I was doing this?
The action had come in the middle of a busy day and as time dragged on I had begun nervously eyeing my watch, thinking about the rest of the day, the commitments piled on my calendar. It wasn’t until the couples emerged from the building and smiled shyly as the dozens of us there hooted and cheered. It wasn’t until I heard the choke in their voices in their thanks to those gathered that it dawned on me again – oh, yes, that’s right: standing on the side of love.
In this congregation we argue that there are three dimensions in the religious life – within, the interior reflections that we each engage in to clarify for ourselves the source of our spirituality and what it demands of us; among, the ways we gather with each other to learn and grow, to share our lives and support each other; and beyond, the ways that we carry our own learning and reflections into our larger lives and in service to justice.
We tend to get the within piece, the individual search for meaning, pretty quickly. It is, after all, what got us in the door. We needed a religious community where there was room for us, where we weren’t going to get squeezed in a box or guilt-tripped, a place that was safe and accepted us fully so that we could explore our spiritual sides.
And the among piece comes with being a part of a community, finding our niche, people we can connect with, activities that engage us. This part comes easier for some than for others. More socially oriented people usually gather their clan or find their comfort spot pretty quickly, while some shyer folks can feel overwhelmed or marginalized. It’s a place where we as a community stumble at times and people can fall away. So, we work at building systems that help us all connect with each other and stay in touch.
The beyond piece is interesting. It’s not uncommon that people arrive at our congregation with a history of their own engagement with justice work. So, they don’t need to be persuaded that there’s a connection between their inner work and their work in the world.
And yet it has always seemed to me that we are less than clear about the nature of that connection, what creates that bridge. So, today let me be plain: the connection is love.
There. That was easy. Are we done? No, hardly.
Let’s step back a moment. I want to acknowledge that the word love can be and often is thrown around pretty freely. “I only did that/said that because I love you.” “We only hurt the ones we love.” Yadda, Yadda, right?
I’m reminded of the ambivalence I’ve experienced at times over the years among some people in our movement when we get started talking about love.
I remember years ago when I was still in seminary getting push-back from a long-time member at my home congregation after a service that I led. She said she objected to my using the word “love” to describe how we in the congregation sought to regard each other. “I would really describe it more as ‘respect’,” she told me.
And I remember some years ago us gathering in this sanctuary to talk through the key concepts that we wanted included in the mission statement for this congregation. Individual search for meaning, freedom, justice – all these came quickly. Love took a while to emerge.
So, what’s that about? Well, part of it, I think, has to do with what is often rightful skepticism. We’ve heard talk of love in other religious settings, and it can feel pretty squishy and even inauthentic, bound up, as it often is, with a theology we just don’t buy.
You remember the Peanuts cartoon: Lucy is taunting her younger brother, Linus, for his dreams of being a doctor. “You could never be a doctor,” she says. “You know why? Because you don’t love mankind. That’s why.” And Linus replies, “I love mankind. It’s people I can’t stand.”
And that’s the rub, isn’t it? Love, Love, Love. Yeah, great when we’re singing along with the Beatles, but less easy or obvious when we’re confronted with people acting in ugly or disrespectful ways.
In a recent article, the philosopher Stephen Asma writes that as nice as the idea of universalized love may seem, it’s not really how the world works. Empathy, he says, is not something that we can just conjure up by willing it so. Instead, in his words, it’s “a natural biological event – an activity, a process.”
“The feeling of care,” he writes, “is triggered by a perception or internal awareness and soon swells, flooding the brain and body with subjective feelings and behaviors (and oxytocin and opioids). Care is like sprint racing. It takes time – duration, energy, systemic warm-up and cool-down, practice and a strange mixture of pleasure and pain (attraction and repulsion). Like sprinting, it’s not the kind of thing you can do all the time. You will literally break the system in short order, if you ramp-up the care system every time you see someone in need. The nightly news would render you literally exhausted.”
Sure, our heart strings vibrate a bit in response to the suffering of others, but that’s nothing like what he calls “the kinds of active preferential devotions that we marshal for members of our respective tribes,” in others words, family and our circle of closest friends.
Now, there is certainly truth in what he says. We have special bonds to those closest to us that set our hearts racing. And to suggest that we can live in such a way as to raise our feelings about everyone we know – heck, everyone on earth – to that level is pretty foolish. But, really, that’s not what we’re talking about here.
Love, after all, has many dimensions. Yes, it applies to those with whom we are most intimate, but it also applies to other relationships as well in different ways. I think the theologian Paul Tillich puts his finger on it when he remarks that, “love is the moving power of life.” It is what drives everything to everything else. It is the way in which we and all that we care about are realized.
Some years ago, the writer Karen Armstrong, won a prize from the TED talks to come up with an idea for making the world a better place. Being a scholar of religion, she chose to investigate ways that religion, the source of so much divisiveness in the world, might help people live together in mutual respect.
The project she chose was to bring together leaders of a half dozen religious traditions to see if, working together, they could create what she called a Charter for Compassion that, in her words, “would restore compassion to the heart of religious and moral life.”
Her book, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, which T.S. read from earlier, lays out a program, distilled from teachings of the world religions, detailing how anyone might learn to cultivate compassion in their daily lives. Her program leads us through disciplines we might anticipate – cultivating empathy, mindfulness, compassion for ourselves, and so on.
But a key element, she said, is the admission of how little we really know about each other, that there is a mystery at the core of each of us that eludes our grasp. This, she noted, is part of what’s expressed in the Hindu greeting, “Namaste,” where, bowing with joined hands, one honors the sacred mystery of another. Too often, Armstrong says, our interactions with each other lack that reverence. Without thinking, we make blithe assumptions about others, often based on our own needs, fears, ambitions or desires.
But on occasion we are shaken out of our ordinary way of thinking. It may be an unexpected encounter, chancing on some natural beauty or coming on a particularly haunting piece of music.
In some way we experience what Armstrong identifies as a moment of what the Greeks call ekstasis, where for a time we step outside our own perspective and see the world from a different vantage.
This is the image that Jane Hirshfield’s poem suggests to me: a state of mind where we can identify with everything around us – the trees shedding golden leaves, the fish in the pond, the water itself – a place of deep appreciation, where for a moment we are given over to life, where our heart is calm and still, refusing nothing.
It is in such a place, I think, that we recognize love as the moving power of life, the power that carries us from our inner work within to our gathering among to our encounter with a larger world beyond us.
And, of course, this circuit continues, as our work beyond informs our work within that inspires our gathering and round we go again. The more practiced we become, the more easily our heart engages.
This, it seems to me, is much of the work we are doing here – inviting each other to engage our hearts at different stages, in different places. It will require risking at times and loosening our grip on old certainties. But in the end it is no great reach to locate ourselves in such a way so that we are standing on the side of love. It is where we want to be anyway.