In 1975, when I was eight years old, I saw this movie entitled Escape to Witch Mountain, about a boy named Tony and a girl named Tia, brother and sister orphans who both had suppressed memories of their past, but they knew that they must have come from somewhere special because they had remarkable powers. Tony (which happened to be the name I went by back then) could move things with his mind, and Tia could unlock any door by touch and communicate with animals. I sat in that darkened theater, my eyes open wide, taking it all in: their narrow escape from the horrible juvenile detention home; their breathless journey towards the Blue Ridge Mountains, where they believed (but without up-front guarantees!) they would discover their true identity. Their would-be captor, the evil Lucas Deranian (whose only interest in them was to capitalize on their paranormal gifts), was hot on their tail, and every close call they had with the guy made me squirm in my narrow theater seat and bump my brother beside me, or my father; and at times I’ll bet I yelled and groaned out loud and lost control of my popcorn too. (Even today, I continue to be an entertaining movie date.)
I still remember what it was like going to sleep that night. I had seen something and heard something in that movie that made me want to drop whatever I was doing in my life and travel to the Blue Ridge Mountains to find my real family. Didn’t matter that I was sleeping in a bed in Peace River Alberta Canada and had no idea where the Blue Ridge Mountains were. I just wanted to go. I just wanted to leave. I lay there in my bed, and I felt inside myself, as deeply as I knew how. I was looking for the same kind of power in myself that Tony in the movie had. I gathered up my will, I told myself to believe and that if I believed, my body would rise up off the bed like a feather, like a miracle. Finally, I would have hard evidence and reason for why I had always felt like an orphan in my life, why I had always felt like a stranger in my family and world, why I had always felt like I was meant for something else.
When I awoke the next morning, it was with the greatest disappointment. But I still would not let the memory of Tony and Tia go, their escape to Witch Mountain, the feeling I had that they were my true family and not the people in the next rooms over.
This was me at eight years old. Already comprehending the meaning of the spiritual journey and wanting to be on it; already aware of how you can be busy with the things of your world but then something cuts through all that and you hear the call to your true home and you want to drop everything and go there.
Three years later, my fascination would center elsewhere: on a paperback I carried with me pretty much everywhere, entitled Fifty Great Short Stories, edited by Milton Crane (a name I thought hilarious). The book included such gems as Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” Thomas Wolfe’s “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn,” Flannery O’Conner’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” and Ernest Hemingway’s “The Three-Day Blow.” I’m eleven years old. Not sure how much of “The Three-Day Blow” I actually understood, assuming I even read it. I did read the Poe story, though—I do know that. Creepy. But it didn’t really matter how much I did or did not read, how much I did or did not understand. It was about the words. I loved them. Word after word after word, creating scenes in your mind, creating new life. I carried that book of 50 Great Short Stories everywhere I went as a reminder of that power.
Now I hung out a lot at my Dad’s medical office, and on Saturdays, while he’d be in his office doing his charts, I’d be out front in the receptionist’s area, where the electric typewriter was. I was a weird child. I’d turn that thing on, and it was all gnnnnnnnnnnnnnn, I could feel the power surging through it, barely restrained. I’d roll in a new sheet of paper and start typing. Each letter would bang down hard on the page, bang, bang, leave its mark. Letters building words, words building sentences. My book 50 Great Short Stories would be right beside me, and it comforted me, made me believe that perhaps the power of Jackson and Poe and Wolfe and O’Conner and Hemingway with all their words could be my power too. I already knew that I didn’t have Tony’s extraterrestrial power of telekinesis; that had already been proven. But I still felt like an orphan, I still felt like there were Blue Ridge Mountains out there for me to travel to, where I would find my true self. I still needed to get there, somehow. Maybe writing was how. Yet here’s what would happen as I’d sit there at the typewriter growling its electric growl. I’d go blank. I’d have no earthly idea what to say. The feelings that roiled within me: no way to translate them to words. It was always this way.
Isn’t it amazing how, so early in life, we can already see in cameo the central challenges of our days? And how clues about the way forward come in to us from the margins, like the sound of wild swans from our story for today? For me it was so many things: a movie, a book, and it was also people like my Church of Christ pastor in high school, who took me under his wing. We’d go on home visitations together, and we’d be driving in his car, and he had that televangelist hair that was so big and lacquered up with Aqua Net it was kind of its own personality, and we’d be driving down the road and I swear he would wave at every car passing by, and I wanted to be friendly and caring just like him. Not so much the hair part, though….
Clues from the margins. Things that come into your life, and they make you want to drop whatever it is you happen to be doing, and do something else. Even if you don’t know what that something else is yet. You just feel restless. You just feel like you are meant for something more.
When I was 20 years old, I had these two dreams: “I am one of six black birds. We are in a circle, teaching people. And the people encircle us.” The other one goes like this: “My elephant is trapped in a tightly-fitting glass bottle. But I release him and discover that he is just like soap. I rub him all over my body and I am purified. I discover that I can skate like I have always wanted to, as well as my favorite Olympic stars. I can even do the quadruple lutz!” When I had these dreams, I was still in college, almost on my way into graduate school. The dreams teased me with a sense that I was meant for something that would help others and be healing for myself, but what? What was I holding that I should drop, and what new thing should I take up? I had no earthly clue.
Isn’t that the way of it? The way of our lives. Later, much later, we can look back and understand. But not up front, not in the moment. Marilynne Robinson, in her wonderful book entitled Gilead, has her main character, an old preacher, say it like this: “Now that I look back, it seems to me that in all that deep darkness a miracle was preparing. So I am right to remember it as a blessed time, and myself as waiting in confidence, even if I had no idea what I was waiting for.”
“In deep darkness, a miracle was preparing.” Have I ever told you about the first time I stepped into a Unitarian Universalist congregation? Deep darkness. Here’s what I mean. Hated it. Because the preaching was so bad. My former wife and I, with our two year old daughter in tow, went to the small Unitarian fellowship in our town, and while the people were friendly, the worship was terrible, and the preacher took 30 minutes to share his laundry list about what he did over the summer. BORING. I was outraged. I wanted to stand up and shout FRAUD. It was like I was eight years old back in that darkened theater, squirming in my seat. Laura was sitting beside me, embarrassed like crazy.
Later, when I was in seminary studying how to be a preacher in my own right, I came across these words from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Divinity School Address of 1838, delivered to that year’s graduating class of Unitarian ministers. “I once heard a preacher who sorely tempted me to say, I would go to church no more. Men go, thought I, where they are wont to go, else had no soul entered the temple in the afternoon. A snow storm was falling around us. The snow storm was real; the preacher merely spectral; and the eye felt the sad contrast in looking at him, and then out of the window behind him, into the beautiful meteor of the snow. He had lived in vain. He had no one word intimating that he had laughed or wept, was married or in love, had been commended, or cheated, or chagrined. If he had ever lived and acted, we were none the wiser for it. The capital secret of his profession, namely, to convert life into truth, he had not learned.” Who knew that I had been channeling Emerson, seated as I was there in that small Unitarian fellowship, listening to the preacher waste my time?
Sometimes the call to our true home happens not as an experience of delight but as an experience of complete disappointment. That preacher wasting my time…. Somehow I must have known about the better possibilities of preaching—that truly good preaching does not so much waste as fill, enrich, enliven, ennoble, intrigue, inspire, make you laugh, make you cry, bring you back to your senses, make you feel human again. Especially after a week like the one we’ve all just had. Especially after Friday. All through words, which the preaching shapes and sends forth. An electric typewriter bangs them out mechanically, but the preacher whispers them, shouts them, sings them…. The preacher carries you with him, you and the preacher for a time are together inside a story and a meaning that, if good and true, can change your life.
Now remember what it was like for me at eleven years of age: how I’d be sitting in front of the growling typewriter wanting to get started on my own short story but I’d have nothing to say? How I’d feel the power slip through my fingers, slip away? Well, after college and graduate school, and then eight years teaching college philosophy, there was no more problem. One of my first sermons in seminary was 6000 words long. Keep in mind that for me, a 20 minute sermon consists of roughly 2000 words. It was one whole hour of me, holding forth. I think I was talking about the spirituality of imperfection. I had a lot to say, I guess, about that particular topic.
But at least, finally, I could feel the power flowing through me. I couldn’t levitate myself like Tony, and it didn’t look like writing actual short stories was in the cards for me. But preaching was. And preaching is about going home. Preaching is about dropping everything that is inessential in life and going home. Home to those Blue Ridge Mountains.
Now ministry of course involves far more than preaching—believe me that any minister’s job involves far more than just the hour he or she is publicly visible in the pulpit. That hour requires at least 20 hours of behind-the-scenes preparation, and this is on top of 30 to 50 more hours of everything else that goes into the weekly work of caring for a congregation. But I focus on preaching because, in my almost ten-year-long career, it has proven to be the lifeblood, the thing that nourishes and energizes everything else. This is the message of the short story I am writing for you today, banged out not on an electric typewriter but my sleek awesome MacBook. It’s why much of the focus of my sabbatical will be on writing a book that somehow incorporates writings from all my sermons over the years. Emerson once described preaching as “life passed through the fire of thought,” and it has been this way for me. Life tempered and strengthened by the fire, the inessentials burned away by the fire. Life becoming the Life Abundant.
Our task in life is to drop everything that is inessential and go home. As best we can. Preaching is the reminder. I look back over the almost 200 sermons I have given here since 2007, when you welcomed me as your Senior Minister, and over and over again the call is to go home, to find home as best we can. Here’s just one example of a story I once used to underscore this, which some of you may recall:
A man traveling through the mountains suddenly found himself being chased by a huge hungry tiger. He ran and ran until he came to the edge of a cliff. There, with nowhere else to go, he caught hold of a thick vine and swung himself over the edge.
Above him the tiger paced, and growled. Below him he heard a sound, and looked down to see another tiger waiting for him at the bottom of the vine.
Then he heard the faint sounds of something scrambling out from the cliffside, coming close. Mice. Two of them: one white, one black. They positioned themselves just beyond his reach, and started gnawing at the vine. At this, the man started to panic; they were eating through it way too quickly. But then, something else caught his attention: a completely unexpected, fragrant smell. A wild strawberry, a big one, growing out of the cliff near by. Holding on to the vine with one hand, he reached and picked the berry with the other.
How sweet it tasted!
I can only hope that, at least sometimes over the years, in the midst of your hectic days, tigers above and tigers below, my sermons have tasted like strawberries to you. To me, the privilege of preaching has always tasted like his. It has always been an opportunity to feel a real power flowing through me and into the world, and my eight-year-old self feels vindicated finally.
There is so much more I could say, about my gratitude for serving this congregation. The kinds of things I am able to do here. Since my recent divorce, for example, I have become even clearer on the privilege of having the kind of job where I can take even my deepest screw-ups and failures and turn them into some good, some wisdom that can help another—through preaching and otherwise. I am so grateful.
There is so much to say. But this is supposed to be a short story, and here is how it ends. It ends with a man writing a sermon about his love of preaching and his gratitude for the congregation he serves and hopes to serve for many more years. He tells them a story about his childhood, a movie he once saw, characters named Tony and Tia he loved, the Blue Ridge Mountains they wanted to go to, and he wanted to go there with them. The story is almost 40 years old. But it’s only when he’s writing the sermon, does he actually connect the dots. He’s living in Atlanta, Georgia. The great state of Georgia. Blue Ridge Mountains are HERE, in Georgia. With amazement, with joy, he finally understands: he has come home.
“As the nineteenth century drew to a close,” writes Bill Bryson in A Short History of Nearly Everything, “scientists could reflect with satisfaction that they had pinned down most of the mysteries of the physical world: electricity, magnetism, gases, optics, acoustics, kinetics, and statistical mechanics, to name just a few, all had fallen into order before them. They had discovered the X ray, the cathode ray, the electron, and radioactivity, invented the ohm, the watt, the Kelvin, the joule, the amp, and the little erg. If a thing could be oscillated, accelerated, perturbed, distilled, combined, weighed, or made gaseous they had done it, and in the process produced a body of universal laws so weighty and majestic that we still tend to write them out in capitals: the Electromagnetic Field Theory of Light, Richter’s Law of Reciprocal Proportions, Charles’s Law of Gases, the Law of Combining Volumes, the Zeroth Law, the Valence Concept, the Laws of Mass Actions, and others beyond counting. The whole world,” says Bill Bryson,” clanged and chuffed with the machinery and instruments that their ingenuity had produced. Many wise people believed that there was nothing much left for science to do.” Physics department chairmen were literally telling their graduates to go study something else more exciting. All the important discoveries had already been made. All that remained was the need for more and more precise measurements. That’s all.
But the world never ceases to surprise. It’s like a poem by Gary Snyder entitled “The Trail is Not a Trail”:
I drove down the Freeway
And turned off at an exit
And went along a highway
Til it came to a sideroad
Drove up the sideroad
Til it turned to a dirt road
Full of bumps, and stopped.
Walked up a trail
But the trail got rough
And it faded away—
Out in the open,
Everywhere to go.
The story of physics in the nineteenth century and then what happened next is the story of a path that seems like it’s narrowing down to a dead end, but then from nothing comes everything and everywhere to go and it blows your mind. You have a before, and then you have an after. Before, it’s an eminent physicist like Sir William Thompson saying very comfortably and very boringly that “future truths of physical science are to be looked for in the sixth place of decimals.” After, you have a next generation of eminent physicists saying things that are the exact opposite of comfortable and boring:
“Physics is very muddled again at the moment; it is much too hard for me anyway, and I wish I were a movie comedian or something like that and had never heard anything about physics!” (This from Wolfgang Pauli)
From Erwin Schrödinger: “I do not like it [he’s talking about quantum mechanics], and I am sorry I ever had anything to do with it.
For his part, Albert Einstein said, “I can’t accept quantum mechanics because] I like to think the moon is there even if I am not looking at it.”
Acknowledging this is Daniel M. Greenberger: “Einstein said that if quantum mechanics were correct then the world would be crazy. Einstein was right—the world is crazy.”
One more quote, from Michio Kaku: “It is often stated that of all the theories proposed in this century, the silliest is quantum theory. In fact, some say that the only thing that quantum theory has going for it is that it is unquestionably correct.”
These are unsettled voices, perplexed voices, nervous voices, even disgusted voices…. If this isn’t a story of before and after, I don’t know what is. A story of a path that’s become comfortably boring which suddenly—on a dime, in the blink of an eye—turns stranger than you even imagined possible and we are out in the open, unprotected, everywhere to go…
The story of quantum mechanics. This morning, I want to share a little about what quantum mechanics has to say about the world of the very small and then explore how this knowledge might be relevant to our human-sized world of everyday experience. That’s our goal for today—extremely modest, as always
Start with a basic lay of the land observation. You have the classical physics of Newton, which works perfectly well when dealing with objects much larger than atoms. But it soon became clear that classical physics had nothing to say about the atoms themselves and their component particles. “Things on a small scale,” says physicist rock star Richard Feynman, “behave nothing like things on a large scale.” This is not to say that today we have two separate systems of physics. What quantum mechanics does is dethrone the classical physics of Newton and reveal it as limited in scope—and then it steps up to the throne itself. Quantum mechanics, says Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner in their book The Quantum Enigma, “is at the base of every natural science from chemistry to cosmology. We need quantum theory to understand why the sun shines, how TV sets produce pictures, why grass is green, and how the universe developed from the big bang.” In more practical terms, no less than one third of our economy depends on technologies based on quantum mechanics (like lasers and transistors). Newtonian physics used to be king, but now there’s a new king in the house.
Now as you listen to me talk about the sheer weirdness of quantum mechanics, keep reminding yourself about one thing: it is the most successful theory in all of science. It’s been subjected to challenging tests for eight decades and no prediction, however crazy-sounding, has ever been proven wrong. “It is the most battle-tested theory in all of science” (Rosenblum and Kuttner). So here’s what the king says. At least some of it.
First, atoms are made up of all sorts of weird things. You have protons and neutrons making up the atomic core, and then you have electrons which create the charged field around the nucleus. But did you know about quarks? Quarks are the building blocks of protons and neutrons, and they come in six flavors: up, down, charm, strange, top and bottom.
Then there’s the Higgs boson, which is what gives mass to all the particles. Without the Higgs boson, everything is insubstantial, everything is ghostly, there is no creation, there is nothing (which is why one physicist calls this “the god particle.”)
But don’t forget antimatter. All normal particles are thought to have antimatter partner particles with the same mass but opposite charge. When matter and antimatter meet, the two annihilate each other. The antimatter partner particle of the proton, for example, is the antiproton, while the antimatter partner of the electron is called the positron, and the antimatter partner of the particle Obama is called Romney (just kidding about this last part!)
And did you know about sparticles? Sparticles are predicted by supersymmetry theory, which posits that for every particle we know of, there is a sister particle that we have not yet discovered. For example, the superpartner to the electron is the selectron, the partner to the quark is the squark and the partner to the photon is the photino. (I just wish that this prediction worked for dollars in the bank. For every dollar you have, you got a dollarino in Switzerland waiting for you to come claim it…)
Sheer weirdness. But wait! There’s more… Listen to what physicist Werner Heisenberg says about these particles: “[They are] themselves are not real; they form a world of potentialities or possibilities rather than one of things or facts.” It’s only when we make a measurement that the world of possibilities snaps out of it and becomes something definite.” What we have here, in other words, is a straight up denial of the existence of a physical world independent of its observation. To the question, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?,” quantum mechanics replies, “Forget about sound. You should worry more about the tree itself existing!”
It’s crazy, and to make this craziness crystal clear, Erwin Schrödinger told a hypothetical story involving a cat. Schrödinger’s cat. Bill Bryson describes it as follows: “Schrödinger offered a famous thought experiment in which a hypothetical cat was placed in a box with one atom of a radioactive substance attached to a vial of hydrocyanic acid. If the particle degraded within an hour, it would trigger a mechanism that would break the vial and poison the cat. If not, the cat would live. But we could not know which was the case, so there was no choice, scientifically, but to regard the cat as 100 percent alive and 100 percent dead at the same time.” That’s quantum logic for you: both/and. Only when someone actually looks in the box does the “wave function collapse” (that’s the fancy way of putting it) and we have one and only one actuality: the cat alive, or the cat dead. Either/or and not both.
By the way, know where Schrödinger got his idea for the thought experiment? His dog.
Now keep reminding yourself: quantum mechanics is the most successful theory in all of science. Quantum mechanics is the most battle tested theory in all of science. Repeat as necessary.
Because here’s something else you need to know. One word: Entanglement. Einstein hated it, called it “spukhafte Fernwirkung”: spooky action at a distance, like what happens when you put a pin in a voodoo doll that looks like me and I say OUCH! Note how sharply this violates the common sense assumption of separability or locality in nature—that hunks of matter (molecules, people, planets) interact only if they impact each other directly, only if there’s some kind of direct contact. But apparently not. Bill Bryson describes it well: “Perhaps the most arresting of quantum improbabilities is the idea, arising from Wolfgang Pauli’s Exclusion Principle of 1925, that the subatomic particles in certain pairs, even when separated by the most considerable distances, can each instantly ‘know’ what the other is doing. Particles have a quality known as spin and, according to quantum theory, the moment you determine the spin of one particle, its sister particle, no matter how distant away, will immediately begin spinning in the opposite direction and at the same rate. It is as if, in the words of the science writer Lawrence Joseph, you had two identical pool balls, one in Ohio and the other in Fiji, and the instant you sent one spinning the other would immediately spin in a contrary direction at precisely the same speed. Remarkably,” adds Bill Bryson, ”the phenomenon was proved in 1997 when physicists at the University of Geneva sent photons seven miles in opposite directions and demonstrated that interfering with one provoked an instantaneous response in the other.”
“Spukhafte Fernwirkung” indeed. Spooky. Even spookier, when you consider how scientists are detecting entanglement effects (or creating them) in macroscopic objects. In 2009, physicists at the University of California in Santa Barbara directed a pulse of microwaves at an electronic circuit chip holding two different superconducting loops, each with a current flowing within them. The current flow in each of the loops should be completely independent of each other, and why not—they aren’t touching at all. But direct a pulse of microwaves at them, and all of a sudden, the currents flow in exact opposite direction. They are in tune, in other words: in sync, in harmony, entangled. Sounds all esoteric I know, but creating quantum effects like this in the human-sized realm is what’s required in order to create quantum computers, and quantum computers are on their way. It’s gonna happen.
Experiments like this are just making it harder and harder for physicists to avoid dealing with the strangeness of quantum mechanics. The usual thought process is that because the micro realm of the sub-atomic differs by so many orders of magnitude from the macroscopic, human-sized realm, what happens in one need not imply anything about what happens in the other. This is why most physicists today practice a “shut up and calculate” philosophy which focuses on just crunching numbers and producing empirical evidence that may support technological innovation. But as for the larger philosophical and theological questions: best not talked about. Keep the skeleton in the closet. Is the universe more like a great thought than a great machine? Must there be consciousness in order for there to be a world? Is our shared reality something we create together through our thoughts and attitudes? Is Emerson literally right when he says, “What lies behind us and what lies before us are small matters compared to what lies within us”? Questions all easy to avoid, if we insist upon the sharp divide between the micro and macro realms. But now the divide is starting to crumble, and I’m not talking about movies like What the Bleep Do We Know or books like The Secret. I’m talking hardcore laboratory science. It’s happening.
Consider this study published in the prestigious journal Science. Dean Radin summarizes: “That study reported that the EEGs of pairs of separated identical twins (two such pairs out of 15 pairs tested) displayed unexpected correspondences. When one twin was asked to close his or her eyes, which causes the brain’s alpha rhythms to increase, the distant twin’s alpha rhythms were also found to increase. The same effect was not observed in unrelated pairs of people.” Sounds a lot like entanglement, doesn’t it? If it can happen in circuit chips, then why not in brains? And when we start thinking along these lines, how much of what we take for granted in our lives is in truth as weird as anything quantum mechanics throws our way? Feelings of deep connectedness with loved ones. Finishing each other’s sentences. You hear the telephone ring and you know exactly who’s calling. This kind of stuff happens all the time. Love is the nearest and dearest thing to our hearts. Yet it turns out (perhaps!) to be just a different kind of sheer weirdness. Love as a quantum phenomenon. Who knew?
We are a long way from the comfortable and boring pronouncements of the establishment physicists of the nineteenth century. That was before. Now is after. We are immersed in sheer weirdness. The world we only thought we knew is now suddenly strange. Tales from the subatomic realm are wonder tales. Science fact sounds like science fiction. Quarks and antimatter and sparticles and everything else. And isn’t it great? The path which seemed like it was dead-ending has opened up, and where to go is everywhere….
Looking for an opportunity to “press pause” on a busy schedule and enjoy some spiritually-deep time with others? Rev. Anthony David invites you to “Making Meaning in a Crazy World: A Retreat for Spiritual Renewal” on Saturday, Nov. 17, from 9 am-noon. Participants will walk a labyrinth, worship together, and reflect on spiritual living in a world that is often paradoxical, gritty, and unfair. “What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight. Build anyway.” “Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable. Be honest and frank anyway.”
Gathering 9:00-9:30am 209-210
Welcome and Introductions
• Connection with UUCA
• What’s one hope you have for our time together today?
• What’s one gift you bring to help make our hopes come true?
• Question after sharing: having heard what everyone’s said, what do you think? Are you in the right place this morning?
• Quote from storyteller Brian Andreas: “Most people don’t know there are angels whose only job is to make sure you don’t get too comfortable and fall asleep and miss your life.” Sit with this quote for a moment and let its meaning sink in….
• Find someone you didn’t come here with today and talk about how this quote spoke to you. Are there any disquieting angels in your life these days?
• Larger group sharing
Walking the Labyrinth and Silence 9:30-9:50am Chapel
• Why do we take off our shoes when we walk the labyrinth? (More obvious: What is “spiritual” about walking the labyrinth?)
• Pointers: start when you feel ready; allow your body to find its own pace as you walk; it’s common to pass other walkers or to be passed; the single path runs both ways—those entering may meet those on the journey out. Gently make room for others as you pass…
• What about my mental focus? Up to you. If you are experienced with meditation practice, do what feels good. If you’d like to just allow your mind to go limp, do that. If you’d like something concrete to focus on, think about that conversation you just had about angels coming into your life and how they are waking you up to your life…
• When you are done: return to 209-210 and continue in the silence….
• (For people who did NOT bring an object representing something about their spiritual journey—use this time to find one)
Worship 9:50-10:50am 209-210
Blessed is the fire of our longing for love.
Blessed is the fire of our hope.
Blessed is the journey that brings us here and now.
++Building the altar
Each person is invited to bring up the object they brought with them, which represents something important about his/her spiritual journey…
Spirit of Life
Kent Keith: “The Paradoxical Commandments”
People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered.
Love them anyway.
If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives.
Do good anyway.
If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies.
The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow.
Do good anyway.
Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable.
Be honest and frank anyway.
The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds.
Think big anyway.
People favor underdogs but follow only top dogs.
Fight for a few underdogs anyway.
What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight.
People really need help but may attack you if you do help them.
Help people anyway.
Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth.
Give the world the best you have anyway.
Single voice this time…
Additional paradoxical commandments:
No good deed goes unpunished. Do good deeds anyway.
Beautiful moments will wash over you, but you won’t be able to hold on to them. Enjoy beauty anyway.
We pray to bear witness to our heart’s truth
We pray to express feelings of deepest sincerity, sorrow, love, hope….
Even if there is no God to hear the words, the depths within ourselves and others hear them, and we are they are thereby changed….
What is your heart’s truth this morning?
What is your desire for yourself and for others in this room, or elsewhere?
++Silent Extinguishing the Chalice
++Passing the Peace
Silent Break 10:50-11:00am
Going Deeper 11:00-11:30am 209-210
Break out into groups of three to talk more about the “paradoxical commandments.” Mother Teresa thought the Paradoxical Commandments were important enough to put up on the wall of her children’s home in Calcutta….
Brian Andreas: “Anyone can slay a dragon, he told me, but try waking up every morning and loving the world all over again. That’s what takes a real hero.” What releases hero energy in you to face your days? What gives YOU hope and helps you “stay calm and carry on?”
Sharing Our Journeys 11:30-11:50am 209-210
We do not journey alone in this life. Always, there are lovers, friends and companions who support us, and we support them.
Our altar carries objects which represent our separate spiritual journeys. But what would things look like if we were to rearrange our objects in such a way as to reveal how our separate journeys might support those of others?
Make a sculpture to show how our separate journeys come together to form our shared Unitarian Universalist spirituality. (What do we as UUs lead with? What’s central? What’s foundational? And so on….)
Closing 11:50-noon 209-210
One thing you will take with you from this place….
Garrison Keillor, of A Prairie Home Companion fame, has a thing for Unitarian Universalists. Sometimes he’s laughing WITH us, and sometimes he’s laughing AT us. It once led a fellow Unitarian Universalist to ask him directly if he harbored animosity towards us, and Keillor wrote back saying that his “ill-feeling toward UUs is due to their relentless evangelizing among the dead—UUs are ransacking the past for people who might have been thinking along UU lines and claiming them as members in good standing. Next thing you know they’ll be claiming Elvis.”
Hmmm…. Elvis…. Now that’s a GREAT idea! Isn’t there something that sounds like a call to spiritual freedom in, for example, “Blue Suede Shoes”? As in:
But don’t you step on my blue suede shoes.
You can do anything but lay off of my blue suede shoes.
On the other hand, I’m serious about claiming Isaac Newton as one of ours. Isaac Newton: one of the greatest minds the world has ever seen. Inventor of calculus (and therefore ever since, scourge to all the non-mathematicians out there, like me). Discoverer of universal laws of nature like the three laws of motion and the law of gravitation (which you saw in brilliant action during the film clip today, with all the crashing and crunching of things been tossed off a three-story building). “Nearer the gods no mortal may approach” said one of his contemporaries. “Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night: God said, ‘Let Newton be!’ and all was light.” That’s from 18th century poet Alexander Pope.
The guy has it going on. And we are claiming him as one of our Unitarian Universalist ancestors, knowingly risking Garrison Keillor’s wrath, but by the end of our time today, I hope you’ll see how it’s justified. Not just because of his specific beliefs, but also his style of believing and his manner of struggling to discover the truth… Isaac Newton is part of our spiritual family.
One main reason for saying this is his paramount stress on finding out the truth for himself. Not settling for someone else’s conviction—being responsible for generating his own. This is very Unitarian Universalist. Remember Doubting Thomas in the Bible? The resurrected Jesus appears before the Disciples, and all but one are like, Jesus! Yay! Except Thomas, who’s skeptical. He hangs back. This Jesus could be an imposter. This Jesus could be an illusion induced from too much imbibing the night before. He’s got to actually put his fingers in Jesus’ wounds before he believes. He’s got to be able to put his own hands on the truth, and test things for himself.
Any of you Doubting Thomases are out there?
Newton was the same way. He had to see for himself. He did things with ideas: applied them, tested them, evaluated them, of course mathematized them if he could (and it’s this latter aspect of his work that truly distinguished him. For example, it’s not that his predecessors didn’t know about gravity. Copernicus and Kepler before him had already speculated about this force. But Newton’s brilliance lay in his ability to articulate it mathematically and prove that it was a universal force). But back to my main point: Newton had to put his own hands on the truth, and we get that, as UUs….
Newton’s biographer, Peter Ackroyd, says that this tendency is evident early in Newton’s life. Not that he was a standout at school. In his first year he was marked 78th out of a total of eighty students. But when this same student got passionate and curious about something, watch out. “As a child he made a wooden clock, and a wooden mill based upon his observations of a new mill being built [near his home].” “From the beginning he was preoccupied with time and mechanism [and this was] nowhere more evident than in his creation of a sundial by calculating the sun’s progress and by fixing pegs to the walls and roof of the apothecary’s house. It was so exact that ‘anybody knew what o’clock it was by Isaac’s dial, as they ordinarily called it.” These are just some examples of Newton’s practical and empirical streak. The truth, for Newton, was something he had to explore viscerally.
I should qualify things by saying the “truth of nature.” Because as for the “truth of his chores,” he couldn’t have cared less. His job was to take care of the pigs and the sheep and the cattle and to attend to the corn. Whatever. Newton was once actually fined “for suffering his swine to trespass in the corn fields…” That’s how they said it back in the 1600s when he lived. In response, Newton’s horrified mother actually asked a servant to keep an eye out for him, but you know what he did? Delegated all his duties to that servant so he could read. His mind was on fire for natural knowledge but absent for everything else. “On one occasion,” the story goes, “he was leading his horse home when it slipped its bridle; he did not notice the animal’s absence and walked home with the bridle in his hand.” I know what Bill Cosby would say about Newton the boy. BRAIN-DAMAGED. And none of us, of course, have ever been so caught up in what were passionate about that we neglected our duties…. Never! No way, no how!
Two more of Newton’s experiments deserve comment, and then we step back to consider his larger social context. Newton’s passion for the truth was so absolute that he was willing to put his body on the line. Pain? Pah! Whatever! Once, when he was in college at Cambridge, he wanted to test a theory about light being a “pressure” on the eye. So he took a “bodkin” which is a long needle of the sort used for sewing leather and inserted it into his eye socket and rubbed it around “between [he says] my eye and the bone as near to the [backside] of my eye as I could” just to see what would happen. This is painful just to imagine, forget about doing… (Actually I put this in here just to guarantee that this will be a sermon you CAN’T forget…)
Then there was the time he wanted to see what would happen if he stared at the sun for as long as possible. I mean, you gotta keep this guy away from hot stoves, because he’s gonna put his hand on the burner. I don’t care what your warnings might be. He’s got to find out for himself.
And it’s a remarkable ethic for any age. Our Fourth Unitarian Universalist Principle, “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning,” is still incomprehensible (in this day and time!) in so many churches across this land. But in Newton’s day, the “I’m gonna see for myself” ethic was truly mindblowingly radical. Edward Dolnick, in his awesome book The Clockwork History: Isaac Newton, The Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World, describes this clearly: “Today we take for granted that originality is a word of praise. New strikes us as nearly synonymous with improved. But for nearly all of human history, a new idea was a dangerous idea. […] Most people would have agreed with the Spanish ruler Alphonse the Wise, who once decreed that the only desirable things in this world were ‘old wood to burn, old wine to drink, old friends to converse with, and old books to read.’ The best way to learn the truth, it was often observed, was to see what the authorities of the past had decreed. This was the plainest common sense. To ignore such wisdom in favor of exploring on one’s own was to seek disaster, akin to a foolish traveler’s taking it in his head to fling the captain overboard and grab the ship’s wheel himself.” Because of this, Edward Dolnick goes on to say, the experimental approach to finding things out was BAAAD. “[L]ooking for oneself meant second-guessing the value of eyewitness testimony. And for longer than anyone could remember, eyewitness testimony—whether it had to do with blood raining from the sky or the birth of half-human/half-animal monsters—had trumped all other forms of evidence. To accept such testimonials marked a person not as gullible or unsophisticated but as pious and thoughtful. To question such testimonials, on the other hand, […] was the ‘hallmark of the narrow-minded and suspicious peasant, trapped in the bubble of his limited experience.’” That’s Edward Dolnick. And I have to admit, there IS something troubling about an automatic, reactive dismissal to other people’s eyewitness reports. To hold everything guilty until proven innocent is a hard way to live. It IS like being that traveler who flings the captain overboard and tries to set sail all by himself. That’s the sort of skepticism you want to become skeptical towards…. But what Newton stood for, and what we stand for today, is to be first-hand in your living in a way that works. Don’t JUST take things second-hand, but go on to think about them for yourself. What resonates with your reason, your intuition, your experience? Expand the borders of your knowledge through personal reading, research, experiment. Do it, or the ages of your life will be just as stifling and uncreative as the Dark Ages. “Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night,” goes that famous couplet from Alexander Pope. But “God said, ‘Let Newton be!’ and all was light.” We wanna be light like Newton. WWND. What would Newton do?
Let’s in fact turn to that. What Newton did in the area of religion. We already know what he did in the natural science. He was a smartie-pants. But what about religion?
One thing he did might appeal to us as much as sticking a bodkin into our eyesockets. I’m talking the study of biblical prophesy. Fact is, Newton was and was not a creature of his time. Yes, he resisted the surrounding culture’s disdain towards the new and seeing for yourself. But, like the surrounding culture, God’s existence was an absolute given. And this is the God of the Bible, whom everyone believed was about to press play on the End Times. So Newton, like most every other scientist of the time, spent countless hours trying to decode Biblical prophesy to determine when the Battle of Armageddon would take place. As much time—maybe even more—than he spent on the secrets of gravity or light. No joke. The Christian religion he knew was wrapped up in the Bible, so the closest he could come to an experimental approach was through rigorous study of the scriptures. And rigorous it was, worthy of a Newton. He owned some thirty Bibles in various translations, so that his study of the scriptures could be comprehensive and complete. He taught himself Greek, Hebrew, and Chaldean so he could get as close to the original meanings as possible. This is Isaac Newton. This is how he rolled.
What he discovered was that the Battle of Armageddon—when the world ends—will happen in the year [gimme a drumroll] 2060.
(So if it turns out the Mayans are wrong about 2012, at least we have something to look forward to…)
But here’s something else he discovered in the course of his Biblical studies—and this discovery might be more meaningful for us today. Imagine Newton scrutinizing his some thirty odd different Bible translations, and eventually he has a eureka insight that he no doubt experienced as comparable to staring at the sun: that the Trinity is a lie. God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit: a lie. It’s not scriptural. The parts in scripture that seem to suggest it reflect creative editing by people who wanted to foist their belief upon an unsuspecting world. Imagine how troubling a discovery this was. Something you have believed all your life you discover is not only false, but falsely placed in a book that, for you, is the pristine Word of God. Staring at the sun….
In this way, Newton, like another of our famous UU progenitors, Michael Servetus, became, doctrinally, a Unitarian. But Newton, unlike Servetus, did not proclaim his Unitarianism to the world. It was against the law. Newton would lose his teaching post at Cambridge. He would go to prison. So he kept his faith secret. It’s understandable. Only after his death would the larger world know about his Unitarian convictions, as well as his equally radical beliefs about religious tolerance and the separation of church and state: two other beliefs that are distinguishing marks of religious liberalism in the 17th and 18th centuries and beyond.
So take that, Garrison Keiller. Isaac Newton truly IS one of ours…
There’s one more thing I was to say about Newton’s religion. Namely, that he saw himself doing EVERYTHING for its sake. He just wasn’t religious one day of the week and then, every other day, scientific. He didn’t live in pieces like this. His life was a unity. “When I wrote my treatise about our Systeme” he says [referring to his masterwork entitled Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy] I had an eye upon such Principles as might work with considering men for the beliefe of a Deity and nothing can rejoyce me more then to find it usefull for that purpose.” He knew his destiny in life: to glorify God in al that he did. To bring people into the presence of God. That’s what religion meant to him.
And this is decidedly both like and unlike the Unitarian Universalism of today. Decidedly “unlike” with respect to Newton’s narrow meaning of religion (of course!) since we know that you can be religious and not believe in God at all, or you can believe in the sort of God that is very different from the character we read about in the Bible.
But what if we give religion a more inclusive sense? That’s it’s not so much about a specific God doctrine as about a Spirit of Life way of being. That it’s not so much about bringing people into the presence of a specific version of a specific religion’s God as it is about bringing people into the presence of something holy, something beautiful and good, something that can transform you in ways you cannot transform yourself. If we do this, could we remove science from its hermetically sealed-off compartment here and spirituality from its hermetically-sealed-off compartment over there and bring them together, make them serve the same purpose which is Life In Abundance? Could we do that?
Just listen to one of our amazing responsive readings from the back of the hymnal, written by Vincent Silliman. Number 466. Read it with me.
Let religion be to us life and joy.
Let it be a voice of renewing challenge to the best we have and may be; let it be a call to generous action.
Let religion be to us a dissatisfaction with things that are, which bids us serve more eagerly the true and the right.
Let it be the sorrow that opens for us the way of sympathy, understanding, and service to suffering humanity.
Let religion be to us the wonder and lure of that which is only partly known and understood: An eye that glories in nature’s majesty and beauty, and a heart that rejoices in deeds of kindness and of courage.
Let religion be to us security and serenity because of its truth and beauty, and because of the enduring worth and power of the loyalties which it engenders;
Let it be to us hope and purpose, and a discovering of opportunities to express our best through daily tasks:
Religion, uniting us with all that is admirable in human beings everywhere;
Holding before our eyes a prospect of the better life for humankind, which each may help to make actual.
What Isaac Newton does for us is not only give us a profound example of one who refused to live a second-hand life, one who insisted on putting his own hands on the truth and seeing for himself. Not just this—but he also reminds us that all we do can be done to the glory of a single unifying purpose. We don’t have to live in pieces that are hermetically sealed-off from each other. We don’t have to live in fragments. In our science and our spirituality, we can be whole. That’s his gift to us today.
You know, as Unitarian Universalists,
we’re already really good at something.
Know what it is?
I’ll just wait while I listen for the right answer….
Just kidding. Here’s the answer.
That’s the answer.
Families cut off from other families, going at it alone.
People isolated and going at it alone.
We already know how to do this really really well.
Does my saying this come as a surprise to anyone?
Anyone out there saying, Is he talking about me? What?
So for us, the spiritual discipline is coming together as community,
for worship, for work, for play.
Even when it seems like there’s never enough time,
making room for community every week.
Recognizing and honoring its unique power for positivity.
When we hear a call to support it
through our gifts of time and energy and money
answering that call
and doing it generously and cheerfully.
Again and again, as the individualists we are,
we need to reminded
of how we are always holding up the chalice of our lives
to receive from sources far beyond us
and then carrying that goodness for a time
and then giving that goodness back.
And you know, it IS happening.
Coming together as community.
Our Annual Campaign for 2013, for example,
Best one since 2007, my first year as your Senior Minister.
Keep it up!
Keep those dollars coming in!
(or I’ll just keep going on like a public radio fund drive….)
And how about stories
like the one we heard from member Beth Stevenson a moment ago.
More evidence of the power of community.
Did you see how thick her book was,
stuffed with creations by herself and her family
all related to participation in this place?
I’ll bet many of you could produce a similar-sized thing,
or you’re on your way to doing so…
This place changes lives.
Then there’s what happened yesterday.
Our Spirit in Service folks showing the fire of their commitment.
Maybe you saw the pictures on our UUCA Facebook site
Celebration Saturday—a day of service
a day of showing love to this place
which has loved countless people and families
and causes and ideals over the years here in Atlanta–
25 plus people manicuring this place
outside raking pine straw and leaves
weeding the butterfly garden
trimming trees and bushes
on and on
cleaning air conditioning vents
working on the bathrooms
wiping down the pews and hymnal holders
polishing the piano
pulling out pencils stuck in the pencil holes with pliers
(that’s one of the things I did yesterday).
Each and every action may be a drop in the bucket
(it’s like that old saying
creation is heaven
maintenance is hell)
but put them all together and it’s a river, it’s an ocean….
It’s Spirit in Service
it’s about inspiring all of us to find a way to give back
and you know
it felt really good to be here
it felt really good to see people who’ve been here for 40 years
and people who’ve been here for just four months or less
all serving together
taking care of our spiritual home
Just fired me up!
Community is powerful.
Separate drops of water coming together
to become a stream, a river, an ocean
And that’s how dreams are born.
There’s a story that my colleague the Rev. Patrick O’Neill tells
that speaks to this.
Listen to his soaring language
as he shares an experience from a trip to France
visiting the famous Chartes Cathedral…
Nothing I had read or studied prepared me for the sheer beauty of Chartres.
It sits in the midst of an agrarian countryside, fifty miles from Paris,
with no city high-rise buildings around it or anywhere near it.
As we approached it one spring day, driving from the south,
it rose up ten miles away.
We saw it as I imagine pilgrims in the twelfth century saw it,
as they walked from all over Europe to visit Chartres.
It was an aesthetic experience in every way just to be inside that building.
But above all, it was the light,
the softness and texture of the light,
as it filtered through gorgeous glass windows,
stained red and blue and green and gold more than 800 years ago,
all still vibrant with color.
Imagine, eight centuries of sunrises and sunsets.
It was the light that I remember in Chartres,
what those windows did to it,
what they created with it.
They wrapped you in color,
and they turned the cold hardness of granite stone flooring
into a kind of warm liquid carpet.
Those windows were each impossibly beautiful and impossibly intricate,
with hundreds of mosaics leaded together
to illustrate epic stories from scripture,
or stories from the lives of the saints, from the life of Christ,
from the prophets, from the history of Christendom.
Each window of a medieval cathedral is a kind of storybook,
an artistic rendering for worshippers and pilgrims of a far-off, preliterate culture
in the time before printing presses,
when faith was transferred through oral teaching,
through stories and parables, through music and visual art.
Not far inside the cathedral I found myself
standing at the foot of one soaring, magnificent window,
with hundreds of pieces of mosaic glass of all colors.
It seemed to recount the entire Old Testament;
it was so elaborate and exquisite.
At the very bottom of the window there was a small frame that showed a cobbler,
a shoemaker huddled over his worktable.
Our guide saw me studying this image.
“This is the Shoemaker’s Window,” he explained.
“It was installed in 1201, and is considered one of the most beautiful of all.
It was a gift from the shoemakers of every village in France,
who each contributed whatever they could, even the smallest coins,
to commission this work of art for God’s house.”
The royalty and the wealthiest nobles of France,
he continued, gave some of these windows,
but this window was a gift of the shoemakers.
Another window was given by village water-carriers from all over France.
Butchers gave another.
Fishmongers gave one.
Vine-growers and tanners gave windows in the same manner.
As did masons, and furriers, and drapers,
and weavers, coopers, and carpenters and cartwrights.
The blacksmiths gave a window,
and the milliners gave one,
and the apothecaries gave one, too.
“These windows, many of them,” said my guide,
“were given one mosaic at a time, piece by piece, coin by coin,
by people who wanted to contribute something beautiful to last the ages.“
Patrick O’Neill concludes in this way:
How I wish I could transport every one of you
to see those windows in Chartres Cathedral this morning, right now,
to see what those working people from little villages all over France
were able to give to their church,
and hence to all the pilgrims of eight centuries, like me,
who have visited there.
That’s what Patrick O’Neill wishes
and I wish that too—but only in part…
Only if it helps us truly see what we’re been doing here at UUCA
in this very building for the past 46 years.
Only if it helps us see how, with our drop-in-the-bucket coins,
one by one by one,
we’re creating something beautiful to last the ages,
just like the shoemakers and the butchers and the fishmongers
and the vine-growers and the tanners and on and on.
Not stained-glass windows, obviously.
Not a one in sight
in this prize-winning example of modern architecture.
But what do you see?
What does the light shine through here in this place?
In a deeper sense, the answer is US.
The light shines through the stories of OUR living and our dying.
The stories of OUR trials and triumphs.
Stories of OUR search for truth and meaning in life,
OUR seeking after justice and peace in this hurting world.
These are OUR epic stories,
OUR Old Testament and New Testament,
The stained glass windows in Chartes Cathedral
have lasted for 800 years and more.
But how long does the influence of any one of us
last down the ages?
If not through our children, and our children’s children,
then through our actions, our deeds, our influence.
Stained glass is beautiful and amazing,
but what we are building here is people.
Our mission is to affect eternity.
Some people today say that moderns can’t build cathedrals
with all their stained glass glory.
It takes more than opinions to build cathedrals, they say.
But I say that it is no opinion
that the work of our Unitarian Universalist faith
is to affect eternity through building up lives of integrity and justice-seeking.
That is not opinion.
That is fact.
So get fired up like Higgins the drop with a dream.
Get fired up like the Spirit in Service folks from yesterday .
Get fired up like the shoemakers and the butchers and the fishmongers
and the vine-growers and the tanners and on and on from 800 years ago
because today you believe
you live with deep assurance
of the power of this community to change lives
you want the promise to be fulfilled
and you will stop at nothing
for our future to begin.
Can I hear an AMEN?