“It was all done in about the time it takes to make a sandwich,” says science writer Bill Bryson. “From nothing, our universe begins. […] In the first lively second [of the Big Bang]… is produced gravity and the other forces that govern physics. In less than a minute the universe is a million billion miles across and growing fast. There is a lot of heat now, ten billion degrees of it, enough to begin the nuclear reactions that create the lighter elements–principally hydrogen and helium, with a dash … of lithium. In three minutes, 98 percent of all the matter there is or will ever be has been produced. We have a universe.”
And it all begins, say scientists, from what’s called a singularity. Every atom, every particle that dances in our universe today came from that singularity, which itself was so compact that it had no dimensions at all. “It is natural but wrong,” says Bill Bryson, “to visualize the singularity as a kind of pregnant dot hanging in a dark, boundless void. But there is no space, no darkness. The singularity has no “around” around it. There is no space for it to occupy, no place for it to be. We can’t even ask how long it has been there–whether it has just lately popped into being, like a good idea, or whether it has been there forever, quietly awaiting the right moment. Time doesn’t exist. There is no past for it to emerge from.”
This is what we are exploring today, in the first installment of our year-long Science and Spirit sermon series: the singularity that went Bang in a Big Way, and voilà: we have a universe. What else do we know about this? And where does it take us in our spiritual search for truth and meaning?
Now, let me ask if you happen do you know that ancient and wonderful story of the blind men and the elephant? How a mysterious thing called an elephant one day came round to where a group of blind men were hanging out, and each of those blind men had an opportunity to feel the elephant for himself, and each got a clear but only partial picture, and then they started to talk about what they experienced … and it goes on from there. Know the story? That’s the plot for the sermon today, except our elephant is the singularity that goes Bang. And our blind men … well, you’ll see.
Our first blind man: He’s a character from a TV show called (wait for it) Big Bang Theory. Do you know this screamingly funny show? Imagine two physicists, an astrophysicist, an aerospace engineer, and a waitress and aspiring actress all together. Guess who has social skills, and who doesn’t. Guess what the level of geekdom in the room is, when the physicists and the astrophysicist and the aerospace engineer come together. One of my best friends, who happens to be a NASA scientist, swears up and down that that show accurately portrays what he sees daily at work.
Our first blind man is Sheldon from Big Bang Theory. Sheldon is one of the physicists, and he is simply brilliant. “You are not Isaac Newton,” another of the characters in the show tells him, and Sheldon replies, “No, no, that’s true. Gravity would have been apparent to me without the apple.”
So Sheldon (as one of our blind men) reaches out to get a feel for our mysterious singularity elephant, and here’s what he says, in classic homage to Spock from Star Trek: Fascinating (with elevated eyebrow). And he’s right, because, logically speaking, in a universe in which the range of possibilities is infinite, any specific, finite kind of order has almost zero probability of occurring. When anything’s possible, specific somethings are truly amazing. Especially the specific somethings of our universe. The general orderliness, to begin with: there are endless ways in which the universe could have been chaotic, without any laws at all, or with crazy laws, for example, laws that dictate that everything changes from moment to moment—why not? Logically speaking, it’s possible, it could have happened.
And the evidences for fine-tuning just keep on adding up. There’s the fact that the laws of nature dovetail together in a mutually supportive way which gives nature a wonderful stability and harmony. Beyond this, the laws of nature apply as much here as they do in different galaxies, millions of light years away—there’s spatial uniformity to the universe.
And then, what about the mathematical simplicity of the laws? (Sheldon is reeeally starting to geek out by now.) Once again, it could have been otherwise; the laws of physics might have required incredibly clumsy and convoluted mathematics to be described. But they don’t require this. Elegance, instead, turns out to be a mark of mathematical truth. And furthermore, such laws, simple as they are, do not lead to a boringly simple universe but permit the existence and development of extremely complex forms—like stars or ecosystems or families or you and me.
But again and again, it could have been otherwise. “If the universe had formed just a tiny bit differently–if gravity were fractionally stronger or weaker, if the expansion had proceeded just a little more slowly or swiftly–then there might never have been stable elements to make you and me and the ground we stand on. Had gravity been a trifle stronger, the universe itself might have collapsed like a badly erected tent, without precisely the right values to give it the right dimensions and density and component parts. Had it been weaker, however, nothing would have coalesced. The universe would have remained forever a dull, scattered void” (Bill Bryson).
Sheldon, by this point, is so worked up, he starts to spout poetry. He can’t help himself. It’s definitely one way in which science and spirituality go hand in hand. Science reveals a world so amazingly wondrous that you can’t help feel reverence and awe towards it all. “Out of the stars in their flight,” says Sheldon the physicist,
out of the dust of eternity,
here have we come,
Stardust and sunlight,
mingling through time and through space.
Out of the stars have we come,
up from time.
Out of the stars have we come. (Robert Terry Weston)
Can you blame Sheldon for going all misty-eyed? But suddenly he becomes self-conscious. Coughs in some embarrassment. Quoting poetry? Not so good for his hard-core science geek image…Nevertheless, it IS hard to remain emotionally neutral about all this stuff. Science invokes spirit. Facts cry out for interpretation. What does it all mean?
And now we turn to our next blind man, whom I personally wish was a fictional character on some TV sitcom, but he is not. He is very real. He sits on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, in Washington D.C. He is Georgia Representative Paul Broun. He reaches out to get a feel for our mysterious singularity elephant and then, just as soon as he’s touched something, he jerks his hand back like he’s touched fire, he slaps the feeling of it away from his hands, he says (and I quote) that Big Bang theory (and other scientific theories) are “lies straight from the pit of hell” meant to convince people they do not need a savior. I am not kidding.
Yesterday’s newspaper tells me that this Republican lawmaker “made those comments during a speech Sept. 27 at a sportsman’s banquet at Liberty Baptist Church in Hartwell. Broun, a medical doctor, is running for re-election in November unopposed by Democrats.”
“God’s word is true,” Broun said, according to a video posted on the church’s website. “I’ve come to understand that. All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell. And it’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who are taught that from understanding that they need a savior.”
Now what do you think about that? Definitely this is one way in which science and spirituality do NOT go hand in hand, and unfortunately this is the version that gets a lot of press. Unitarian Universalists and other liberal religious communities have affirmed the basic compatibility of science and spirituality ever since Darwin, for almost 150 years now. But the media love to highlight the car crash version of spirituality that is fundamentalist and highly allergic. I mean, most religious fundamentalists will not turn down the latest medical technologies that science produces. But whenever a theory appears to touch on questions of ultimate reality—“lies straight from the pit of hell!”
But DO such theories as evolution and Big Bang theory actually disprove the existence of a God?
Our third blind man says yes, they do.
He is Jacques Monod, Nobel Prize-winning biologist. He turns to our mysterious singularity elephant to feel it. He stays perfectly still for a moment, as if he’s meditating, and when he withdraws his hand, this is what he says to Sheldon (our first blind man, you may remember): “Sheldon, what you were saying earlier—it was indeed fascinating, and I have thought long and hard about the cosmic order that you took such great pains to describe. But here is what I honestly think: my philosophy, my theology—and I know my friend Rep. Paul Broun will claim it as straight from the pit of hell, but frankly, I am too humble to claim that any theory of mine was authored by Lucifer the greatest of all evil spirits. It is just from imperfect human me, my experience, my reason, my best knowing: We are all alone. We are all alone in the unfeeling immensity of this universe. We have emerged out of it only by chance.
“I say this, first of all, as a biologist. Darwin demonstrated decisively that complex organisms efficiently adapted to their environments could arise as a result of purely random mutation and natural selection—‘survival of the fittest.’ But if this is where you and I came from why not the entire cosmic order? None of it requires a designer God. Just the operation of ordinary natural processes. God does not exist.
“And yes, Sheldon, I heard you when you suggested about how the universe is fine-tuned for life, how it’s biocentric to the core. That is correct. Yet it proves nothing. We are just very, very lucky that it turned out this way—and if it had not been like that, well, we would not be here to argue the matter.
“In fact, these days I am wondering just how lucky. My physicist friends tell me that
one important interpretation of quantum mechanics suggests that there is not just one universe in existence but every time there’s a choice between two possible alternative states of anything, no matter how small the choice, even if it’s between an electron’s spin being up or down, both possibilities become actual in different universes. What this means is that there are stupendously many versions of ourselves in existence. Stupendously many versions of everything all in different universes. Sounds bizarre, I know, but a lot of physicists endorse the theory. My point being, if reality is like this, then it’s more likely for universes like ours to happen. Perhaps we are not so lucky after all.
“In the end, I stand with my physicist friend Stephen Weinberg, who once said ‘The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.’ Where it’s all going … is nowhere. That’s my theology. That’s my philosophy.”
And with that, Monod goes silent. For a moment, everyone is silent, all the blind men … but then Sheldon can’t help himself. He cracks a joke he’s heard before from another wise guy—Woody Allen—says, “Well I’m just astounded by people who want to know the universe when it’s hard enough to find your way around Chinatown!”
And this takes us to our fourth blind man. Paul Davies. Davies is a theoretical physicist and cosmologist who in 1995 won the prestigious Templeton Prize for his work on science and religion. He reaches out to feel the mysterious singularity elephant, and just like Jacques Monod before him, he pauses for a moment, is still, then takes back his arm, and says to Monod, “It strikes me that your science is at odds with your philosophy and theology. I mean, your science is animated by the purpose of proving that you and the rest of the universe are fundamentally purposeless. Your purpose is to prove purposelessness. That is strange. What keeps you going?
“My experience and reason and best knowing lead me to a different conclusion about the order that you spoke of a moment ago. I have come to believe that the physical universe was put together with an ingenuity so astonishing that I cannot accept it merely as brute fact. There must be a deeper level of explanation. Whether one wishes to call this ‘God’ is a matter of personal taste and definition, but there is no doubt in my mind: something deeper is going on (See Davies’ Mind of God).
“You speak of Darwin, and yes, his theory explains the emergence of biological creatures, but it does this by making a very important presupposition. It presupposes that when a random mutation happens it happens to one organism in a larger group, and this is how the one gains advantage over the others and survives them all to pass on its genes. But when it comes to the laws of physics, there is no group of competitors. Our universe starts out with one and only one set of laws. That’s it. That’s all. Darwinianism explains biological order, but it doesn’t help us understand cosmic order.
“Furthermore, Monod, you talk about luck, about chance. Sometimes I wonder if your theory of chance is patently unscientific. I mean, for a theory to be truly scientific, it must be falsifiable. There must be a way to at least imagine what evidence to the contrary might look like. But what if the world were littered with pieces of granite stamped Made By God, after the fashion of the watchmaker’s mark…. Surely this would prove something! Yet how would you respond? I suspect you might shrug it off and say, ‘Well, with the reality of multiple universes, of course it could have happened just by chance! In short, you could shrug off anything that appeared to be evidence for God, and that makes your theory of chance at least in my opinion never open to being wrong and thus patently unscientific.”
At this point, Rep. Paul Broun sniggers, but Paul Davies tells him point blank to shut up. Davies, a God-believer, is committed to science through and through. Science and spirit for him are inextricably interwoven in his search for truth.
But now Davies has one more thing to say: “Jacques Monod, I do appreciate how you brought up the theory of multiple universes. I know that a lot of physicists endorse it. I know a lot of those physicists personally. Yet I respectfully point out that every ‘multiple universe’ theory I know of presupposes that every universe will have the same set of natural laws. You don’t get universes with different natural laws. They may look different, but the same basic laws are always in play. So where do these laws come from? The multiple-universe theory still doesn’t answer the basic question of where the initial order came from!” And with that, Davies grows silent. Our fourth blind man.
Now there are plenty more blind men we could hear from, but the science and spirit conversation has already been complicated and thick enough. By now Rep. Paul Broun has lost all focus and he is chatting up Paul Davies in the hopes that he’ll get his vote in the upcoming election. Jacques Monod has turned all moody. And Sheldon—Sheldon is looking for someone to play Rock-Paper-Scissors with him, Sheldon-style. As in: “Scissors cuts paper, paper covers rock, rock crushes lizard, lizard poisons Spock, Spock smashes scissors, scissors decapitates lizard, lizard eats paper, paper disproves Spock, Spock vaporizes rock, and as it always has, rock crushes scissors.”
Our blind men are ready to move on, and perhaps so are we.
But I will leave you with this thought. Whatever the source of the singularity—whatever the cause of the Big Bang and all the fine-tuning that Sheldon talked about—what’s absolutely true is that here we are…. And what are we? Biologist Julian Huxley says it like this, “We are the universe becoming conscious of itself.” Jacques Monod may see the universe as pointless, but I disagree. The universe in each of us finds a point. It is a wondrous thing. We look up a telescope, and we are the universe looking at itself. We look down a microscope, and we are the universe looking at itself. Isn’t that amazing?
Ponder this thing in your heart,
life up from sea:
Eyes to behold, throats to sing,
mates to love.
Life from the sea, warmed by sun,
washed by rain,
life from within, giving birth,
rose to love.
This is the wonder of time;
this is the marvel of space;
out of the stars swung the earth;
life upon earth rose to love.
This is the marvel of life,
rising to see and to know;
Out of your heart, cry wonder:
sing that we live. (Robert Terry Weston)
“Like most Jewish kids,” says Huffington Post writer Annette Powers, “Yom Kippur was the one holiday I dreaded. Growing up, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar promised nothing but endless hours spent in a gloomy sanctuary. All the adults, cranky and with bad breath from fasting, stood around muttering droning prayers in a language I didn’t understand.” She goes on to say, “After my Bat Mitzvah, I felt obligated to fast also, and then Yom Kippur took on a new kind of pain. By mid-afternoon, I was dizzy with hunger and the thought of four more hours in synagogue seemed unbearable. I understood that the point of the holiday was to atone, but thoughts of repentance were overshadowed by thoughts of the bagels and blintzes I would devour at the end of the service.”
Does this speak to your experience, if you grew up observing Yom Kippur? The work of atonement is intense. “Ye shall have holy convocation and ye shall afflict your soul” says the Jewish scriptures, and it’s only when Annette Powers is older and has gone through a divorce and experienced similar kinds of challenging “classes” in the School of Hard Knocks does she start to truly appreciate the power of Yom Kippur. You get older, your innocence gets shaken up by something you do or something done to you, and suddenly you understand what’s trying to happen in the gloomy sanctuary, what the fasting is all about, what the droning prayers are for … and thoughts of bagels and blintzes simply bounce off the bubble of your focus.
Brings to mind a passage from a book I read recently by Alice Hoffman, entitled Here on Earth. The main character is returning to the town she grew up in. On the way to her old house which she hasn’t seen for twenty years, she drives by a stone wall, and a memory comes back to her: of how she used to “balance, arms out, ready for anything.” How she “truly believed that she carried her own fate in the palm of her hand, as if destiny was nothing more than a green marble or a robin’s egg, a trinket any silly girl could scoop up and keep.” How she “believed that all you wanted, you would eventually receive, and that fate was a force which worked with, not against you.” Not any more, though. Now she’s weary with disappointment. She’s hurting. Needing to be forgiven, and to forgive. Needing exactly the kind of renewal that Yom Kippur promises if we give ourselves to it.
Forgiveness. An excellent definition of this blessed capacity comes from the psychology department of Stanford University, one of its recent experiments. “Forgiveness,” goes the definition, “consists primarily of taking less personal offense, reducing anger and the blaming of the offender, and developing an increased understanding of situations that lead to hurt and anger.” But I want to tweak this definition somewhat, since the specific angle I want to take this evening is on SELF-forgiveness. So let’s talk about how we might take less personal offense at ourselves for the wrongs we have done, how we might reduce anger and blame towards ourselves, how we can develop an increased understanding of who we are and what we are reaching for.
The need to talk about this is suggested by something from the Yom Kippur liturgy we will all say together tonight: “I’m sorry for being so hard on myself; I deny myself so many joys of life.” Yes, it’s true that the Bible says, “Ye shall afflict your soul”—it’s true that this is a part of atonement—but the problem is that we go overboard. We don’t just fast—we become positively athletic about it, we become morally anorexic. We give that constant critical inner voice free reign to terrorize ourselves. We replay scenes of ourselves at our ugliest over and over again, in our minds. We do this until we are simply numb with self-disgust, afraid to make a move lest we screw up again…..
Maybe it’s this way because we are suspicious towards forgiving ourselves. Because we think that self-forgiveness is really only a matter of allowing ourselves to get away with murder. It’s just rationalizing our hurtful deed away. It’s just irresponsibility. To any person of conscience, this is simply unacceptable. So why not indulge in self-bludgeoning? Why not trust the voice of shame within us? There’s more virtue in that than moral apathy, for sure. We’ll take moral masochism over moral apathy any day.
But here’s what I hope you get from my talk tonight. That this kind of thinking not only betrays a complete misunderstanding of genuine self-forgiveness, it also prevents us from doing the honest and hard work that our mistakes call us to: the work of atonement, of making amends. Self-punishment and moral masochism and whatever else you want to call it (helicopter parenting of the self?) block us from doing justice to all concerned—to the others affected and to ourselves. Justice requires us to stay fluid in and responsive to our world, but instead we find ourselves frozen and brittle and cut off. We feel rotten to the core, worthless. Disqualified from the kind of mercy and compassion that we so easily show others and that we know God shows to everybody else, no matter what. Everybody else but ourselves.
Catholic priest Greg Boyle knows this all too well in his work with inner city gangs. “There is a palpable sense of disgrace strapped like an oxygen tank to the back of every homie I know, “ he writes. “[The] principal suffering of the poor is shame and disgrace. It is a toxic shame—a global sense of failure of the whole self. This shame can seep so deep down. I asked a homie once, after Mass at a probation camp, if he had any brothers and sisters. ‘Yeah,’ he says, ‘I have one brother and one sister,’ and then he’s quick to add, with emphasis, ‘but THEY’RE GOOD.’ ‘Oh,’ I tell him, ‘and that would make YOU…’ ‘Here,’ he says, ‘locked up.’ ‘And THAT would make you…?’ I try again. ‘Bad,’ he says. What Greg Boyle knows is that unless that homie finds a way to believe again in himself—that he is fundamentally good and that that fundamental goodness will give him the power to stop doing the bad things that got him locked up—if he can’t believe in that, then he’s dead in the water. We are too, if we feel shame like him.
Yom Kippur calls us to something better in our lives. Not death, but renewal. And self-forgiveness is the way.
So how do we take less personal offense at ourselves for the wrongs we have done and reduce anger and blame towards ourselves? How do we develop an increased understanding of who we are and what we are reaching for?
Three things to do: release shame—that’s number 1, number 2 is allow good guilt to move you into making appropriate amends, and number 3 is resolve to learn all you can from your mistake and grow from it.
Start by releasing shame, which means, among other things, restoring trust in one’s own self. “May no trial,” says our Yom Kippur liturgy, “however severe, embitter our souls and destroy our trust.” And so, when you come across a memory in which you think you should have acted differently, remember what is always true about everyone: we do the best we can given what we know at the time and what we are dealing with. It’s just so easy to look back at our mistake and say, How stupid I was! What was I thinking? Such self-disparagement betrays a forgetfulness of how complex that moment was when we did what we did…. So tell yourself, when that painful memory of something hurtful comes up yet again, “What I did fell short—but it was the best I could do at the time, all things considered.” The great philosopher Plato once said, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” So in your meeting with the self you once were, be kind. Try to walk a mile in the shoes of that person you were 30 years ago or 10 years ago or even a year ago, when you did what you did that so mortifies you now. Try to do that. It helps restore self-trust.
Another part of releasing shame is unclenching and softening. Truly opening to the idea that to be human is to be imperfect—and that we are beautiful and loveable and acceptable anyway. We are good enough. Sometimes this realization happens in very unexpected ways. Here’s how it happened to therapist Brad Waters. He made a big mistake. He dropped his key ring outside of his condo building—a key ring that held the entire set of his building’s entry keys. The security of his entire building compromised! Anyone and everyone in it—suddenly vulnerable! He was utterly miserable. Later that afternoon, after searching for hours, he found that some passerby had kindly placed the lost keys on the condo’s fence. But,” says Brad Waters, “it was too late for my overactive imagination. I had already assumed that the other residents would be angry with me, that I would have to pay a lot of money to change the locks, and that they would never ever ever ever again trust me. I doomed myself to guilt, despair and social ostracism. I might just as well have worn a hairshirt and never again left the confines of my condo. Or something like that.” But then, here’s what actually happened: he called the condo association president, told him what happened, and what he essentially said was, “No big deal, I don’t like carrying around all those keys either.” Then I emailed the other building residents and they replied, in a nutshell, “Eh, these things happen. Forget about it.” But now listen to how Brad took this surprising kindness: “Wait a minute, I thought. Where’s the lashing? I practically invited thievery and vandalism into our building and this is how you treat me? With forgiving kindness? How dare you!” Fact is, when you are in touch with your humanity, you can’t help but respond to another who confesses his or her sin, “These things happen.” This is not a matter of condoning what happened. It’s a matter of acknowledging that the best of us, given the right circumstances, are capable of doing the worst things. Welcome to the human race. And you are loved anyway.
That’s step one: release shame. Now comes step two: make appropriate amends. Guilt is very different from shame, in that guilt is feeling bad about something concrete you did, whereas shame is feeling bad about who you are at your core. One motivates action and positive change, the other paralyzes you and makes you feel that positive change is impossible. So feel your guilt, and let that guilt push you into action.
But now what might that look like? A good start is saying “I’m sorry,” and we say that a lot during Yom Kippur. But there’s more. How about a willingness to listen to another person’s hurt nondefensively? An important caveat is that if your disclosure would harm the other person or others (as in “I’m sorry I slept with your husband. Oh, you didn’t know??”) then one must find another way to make amends indirectly. Pray for that person. For the sake of that person, help others. Do what you can.
“Pay your dues,” says Juliana Breines, PhD. “Just as you probably wouldn’t forgive someone else until they make it up to you in some way, forgiving yourself may be most beneficial when you feel like you’ve actually earned it. So,” she asks, “how do you know when you’ve adequately paid your dues? In some cases, it’s obvious what needs to be done (e.g., if you borrow your friend’s favorite sweater and lose it, you would probably want to find a way to replace it, at minimum), but in other cases the criteria for making amends may be less clear. Receiving forgiveness from others can help facilitate self-forgiveness, but it’s ultimately up to you to decide when you’ve done enough to right a wrong.” Dr. Breines goes on to say, “Even certain forms of self-punishment may be useful when motivated by a desire for self-improvement rather than anger at the self, though researchers recommend that such punishment be mild and time-limited, and never physically or psychologically harmful. For example, a teenager who engages in shoplifting and feels remorse might decide to refrain from shopping for three months and instead focus on her schoolwork.” Definitely the time-bound character of self-discipline needs to be emphasized here. If it feels like there’s nothing you can do to pay your dues—that specific concrete actions will never be enough—then watch out! Shame has infected your guilt. Keep your guilt pure. True guilt goes away over time. Fake guilt is just shame in disguise, and it never ends, and it kills the soul….
Finally, there’s step three. Step one is release shame, step two is pay your dues, and step three is resolve to learn all you can from what you did. Carpe diem: seize the day. If you fumbled the ball in the big game, pick it up again and keep running. Don’t give up on your life, on what you are trying to become. Remember, the goal of self-forgiveness is to do justice to all people involved—the others affected and yourself. You are an essential part of the equation too. So what does your mistake say about who you are and what you are trying to become? What if, in fact, we saw our mistakes as wake-up calls, as symptoms of trying (however fumblingly) to become something better?
It’s the learning journey that we also talk about on Yom Kippur. “From innocence to awareness, from ignorance to knowing, from foolishness to discretion, and then perhaps to wisdom.” There is no greater teacher than the consequences of our actions. If living well is the best revenge, then learning well is the best amends. In your improved living and learning, manifest your atonement.
Just yesterday I was delighted to discover a book entitled Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margins of Error, by Kathryn Schulz. “If we relish being right and regard it as our natural state,” she says, “you can imagine how we feel about being wrong. For one thing, we tend to view it as rare and bizarre — an inexplicable aberration in the normal order of things. For another, it leaves us feeling idiotic and ashamed. Like the term paper returned to us covered in red ink, being wrong makes us cringe and slouch down in our seat; it makes our heart sink and our dander rise. At best we regard it as a nuisance, at worst a nightmare, but in either case — and quite unlike the gleeful little rush of being right — we experience our errors as deflating and embarrassing.”
But then Kathryn Schulz says, “Of all the things we are wrong about, this idea of error might well top the list. It is our meta-mistake: we are wrong about what it means to be wrong. [F]ar from being a mark of indifference or intolerance, wrongness is a vital part of how we learn and change. Thanks to error, we can revise our understanding of ourselves and amend our ideas about the world. … [H]owever disorienting, difficult, or humbling our mistakes might be, it is ultimately wrongness, not rightness, that can teach us who we are.”
Everyone has a memory of a time of innocence when, walking upon a fence, walking through life, we used to “balance, arms out, ready for anything.” And then we fell. We found ourselves doing things that we never thought we might do. But Yom Kippur, in its emphasis on self-forgiveness, says, You don’t have to give up on yourself. You can get back up on that fence, get back to balancing. Do it even better than before. You can keep moving forward. You can.
Want to start out this morning with the story about a preacher talking about money with his congregation. Now I know that is shocking. Preachers talking about money!
This preacher was going at it. “Brothers and sisters, there’s work to be done. Great good to be got. But first we got to take that first little step. And then the second. Then we got to walk together, and not grow weary.”
Now how do you think the congregation responded to that? AMEN!
The preacher said, “We got to run together, and not grow faint.”
He said, “We got to spread our wings like eagles and fly!”
“But,” he said, “we all know today it takes money to fly!” Now at this there were a few scattered Amens, but mostly it was silence. And then a voice from the back of the congregation: “Then let’s walk, preacher!”
Oh, preachers. Talking about money. Talking about generosity. Talking about what can give us wings…. Won’t they ever learn?
But they can’t help it. It’s in their blood, in their DNA. The Preacher of all preachers, Jesus of Nazareth, did it too. Thousands of years ago, he sees the crowd of people, his heart breaks for them because he senses how they merely walk upon this earth when they could be flying, and so he gathers them to himself and begins speaking, and history knows this as “The Sermon on the Mount”:
“Blessed [he says] are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”
“You are the light of the world. A city built upon a hill cannot be hid.”
“You have heard it said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’”
“Pray in this way:
Our father in heaven, hallowed be your name
Your kingdom come, your will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread…”
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and thieves break in and steal, but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven….. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
And from here Jesus goes on just a little bit more, and then he’s done, and he steps down from the mount he stands on, and is still. The Preacher of preachers.
So preachers today can’t help themselves. They can’t stay away from the topic of money, or treasures on earth. They just can’t. It’s as important as “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” It is as important as “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” It is as important as “Give us this day our daily bread.” What we do with our treasure—how we think about it—has everything to do with our spiritual wellbeing and health. An abundance mentality liberates. A scarcity mentality imprisons.
Brings to mind this story from a colleague (another preacher!) about a friend and his embarrassment in childhood when forms were passed out in elementary school for government subsidized lunches for children who came from poor families. My colleague’s friend requested one of the forms. After all, his father complained constantly that there was not enough money. The family was broke; there wasn’t enough to pay the bills; there wasn’t enough to pay the taxes on the house, the two cars, the boat, the vacation home. When he got home, his mother was mortified when she saw the free food form, and had to explain to her young son that his father was a prominent physician, one of the wealthiest men in town.
God, I so relate to this story. This was my story growing up. My Dad, a physician too, was just like that.
There is a reason why the preachers preach. Jesus says, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?”
The question is—and always has been—what can give us wings? Liberate us from the fears that drag us down and make us so small. Free us up, lighten us up, make us like the birds of the air?
Science asks that question too. (And preachers love science, by the way, especially the Unitarian Universalist variety!) Check out this recent article in The New York Times by social scientists Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton, entitled “Don’t Indulge. Be Happy.” It asks, “How much money do you need to be happy? Think about it. What’s your number?”
Jesus would want to read this article!
One of the things it says is that [and I quote] “our ideas about the relationship between money and happiness are misguided. In research [conducted] with a national sample of Americans, people thought that their life satisfaction would double if they made $55,000 instead of $25,000: more than twice as much money, twice as much happiness. But our data showed that people who earned $55,000 were just 9 percent more satisfied than those making $25,000. Nine percent beats zero percent, but it’s still kind of a letdown when you were expecting a 100 percent return.”
How many of you are surprised that more money does not necessarily mean more happiness?
What the data show, according to the article, is that the beneficial effects of money taper off completely when family income reaches $75,000 per year. That’s in America, by the way. Would be different in a different country. “Why, then,” asks the article, “do so many of us bother to work so hard long after we have reached an income level sufficient to make most of us happy?” (Within this question, can’t you just hear the echo of Jesus’ own question: “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?”)
But now the article says something even more profound. “Interestingly, and usefully, it turns out that what we do with our money plays a far more important role than how much money we make.”
“Imagine walking down the street to work and being approached by our student Lara Aknin, who hands you an envelope. You open the envelope and find $20 and a slip of paper, which tells you to spend the cash on something for yourself by the end of the day. Sounds like a pretty sweet deal. Now imagine instead that the slip of paper told you to spend the cash on someone else. Being generous is nice, sure, but would using the money to benefit someone else actually make you happier than buying yourself the belt, DVD or apps you’ve been dying to get?
“Yes, and it’s not even close. When we follow up with people who receive cash from us, those whom we told to spend on others report greater happiness than those told to spend on themselves. And in countries from Canada to India to South Africa, we find that people are happier when they spend money on others rather than on themselves.
“But what about individuals who are notorious for their struggles with sharing? Surely the emotional benefits of giving couldn’t possibly apply to very young children, who cling to their possessions as though their lives depended on it. To find out, we teamed up with the developmental psychologist Kiley Hamlin and gave toddlers the baby-equivalent of gold: goldfish crackers. Judging from their beaming faces, they were pretty happy about this windfall. But something made them even happier. They were happiest of all when giving some of their treats away to their new friend, a puppet named Monkey.”
And that’s the article that Jesus would want to read: a scientifically-validated way of increasing happiness: giving money away. There’s a puppet named Monkey out there for you—and giving your goldfish crackers to it is gonna make you feel gooooood…..
So what does your Monkey the puppet look like? (Once again, AnOTHer question you probably weren’t expecting to hear in church this morning…. )
Think back to our responsive reading from earlier. In fact, let’s read it together again. Number 444 in the back of the hymnal. A reading by Kenneth Patton (yet another preacher!)
This house is for the ingathering of nature and human nature.
It is a house for friendships, a haven in trouble, an open room for the encouragement of our struggle.
It is a house of freedom, guarding the dignity and worth of every person.
It offers a platform for the free voice, for declaring, both in times of security and danger, the full and undivided conflict of opinion.
It is a house of truth-seeking, where scientists can encourage devotion to their quest where mystics can abide in a community of searchers.
It is a house of art, adorning its celebrations with melodies and handiworks.
It is a house of prophecy, outrunning times past and times present in visions of growth and progress.
This house is a cradle for our dreams, the workshop of our common endeavor.
People, just listen to that! Giving to this house, giving generously, is gonna to make you feel goooood. [Say it with me GOOOOOOOD.] Officially UUCA is a non-profit organization, but lemme tell you, there’s other kinds of profit to care about—SOCIAL profit and SOUL profit—and UUCA creates it like crazy. Invest your money in it, and of course you yourself will get a big bang out of your buck, but what also happens is that your money is multiplied to create good things for the hundreds of people here and the thousands beyond who are impacted by what we do. When you pledge to UUCA, you are most definitely spending your money on others. It is the opposite of selfishness, the opposite of scarcity, the opposite of fear. You are building up the house. You are firing up the Spirit.
This morning, this preacher wants to encourage you to make UUCA your primary recipient for charitable giving. Lots of others groups to give to, but none are like UUCA.
Here’s how I decided on my pledge. I already knew that, at the very least, my annual pledge would be more than the average pledge of $1,200, because I know that I can afford at least $25 a week. That’s the cost of a nice meal at a restaurant, or two lunches out, and if I have to sacrifice that to support my spiritual home, I will.
I want to emphasize this because, as I look at the giving data of our congregation, I see that we have 97 pledge units who give less than $250. We have around 350 people who give less than $1,200. Our stewardship consultant tells us that for congregations to really thrive, we need to have the largest segment of our congregation giving at least at the $1,200 level—and we don’t have that …. yet.
Brothers and sisters, there’s work to be done.
Great good to be got.
But first we got to take that first little step.
And then the second.
Then we got to walk together, and not grow weary.
We got to run together, and not grow faint.
We got to spread our wings like eagles and fly!
And it takes money to fly!
Now I know I am being challenging here. I know that there are some people for whom even a pledge of $50 might represent 5% of their adjusted annual income (and to give at 5% IS generous!) But if this is not your story, and you are one of the 350 who give less than $1,200, I want to challenge you to reconsider your giving.
We got to spread our wings like eagles and fly!
And it takes money to fly!
Here’s how I decided on my pledge. I looked at the fair share giving guide at the bottom of my pledge form; I calculated my adjusted annual income (net income, minus any nonnegotiable fixed expenses that reduce available income, like the cost of paying for a parent’s stay in a retirement community, etc.); and then I determined what my monthly payment at 5% would look like. Could I give that? You bet.
It takes money to fly.
To fly as a congregation.
To fly as individuals.
“The feeling of wealth,” says yet another preacher, Robert Thurman, “is enhanced when you give, since subliminally giving means you have enough to share, while taking means you may not be getting enough. Giving is a relief. Taking is a burden.”
Do you know the joke about the 100 dollar bill, the 20 dollar bill, and the one dollar bill? How they met up at the shredder at the end of their lives? The 100 dollar bill says, “I’ve seen the whole world during my lifetime. Why, I’ve been on cruises in the Caribbean, safaris in Africa, and vacations in Europe.” The 20 dollar bill says, “Well, I’ve not done quite as well, but I have been to Atlantic City, Disneyland, and Starbucks.” They both turn to the one dollar bill and ask, “How about you?” The one dollar bill, not wanting to be outdone, says, “I’ve seen the whole country as well. I’ve been from church to church to church to church…”
It’s that person in the back of the congregation, what he says when he hears the preacher talk about money….
“Then let’s walk, preacher!”
People, that’s not the way to relief.
Walking is unworthy of us.
Walking is not the way to happiness.
Science proves it.
Preachers like Jesus have been saying it for thousands of years.
Walking is unworthy of us.
It takes money to fly.
Do you want to fly?
“And here’s something else, another problem you might have,” says comedian George Carlin: “Suppose your prayers aren’t answered. What do you say? ‘Well, it’s God’s will.’ ‘Thy Will Be Done.’ Fine, but if it’s God’s will, and He’s going to do what He wants to anyway, why the [heck] [he actually doesn’t say ‘heck’ here] bother praying in the first place? Seems like a big waste of time to me! Couldn’t you just skip the praying part and go right to His Will? It’s all very confusing.”
Where are you when it comes to prayer? Is it all very confusing? What’s it for?
Now listen to another voice on the matter, very different. A poem by Mary Oliver, entitled “The Summer Day”:
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean— the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
A very different voice than George Carlin’s, right? But here, too, we find confusion about prayer. We hear the poet say, “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.” Which is interesting to me, since I think this poem is brilliant in the way it articulates the genuine heart of prayer. Yet what it says diverges radically from popular conceptions, according to which prayer is supposed to be about people asking God to intervene in the natural world (cure a disease, stop a flood, win a football game, win a war) and if God doesn’t deliver than you either step up into full-on cajoling or whining, or you experience perplexity a la George Carlin, or you feel angry and betrayed and tell God to go to H E double hockey sticks. The poem is light years away from this, and also from common experiences of prayer which too often amount to nothing more than slow jam versions of grown-ups talking in animated Peanuts specials on TV. Wroh wroh wroh wroh wroh wroh wroh….
The poet uses that word, “prayer,” and she knows it is saturated with theologies and ideologies that aren’t in line with the new life she’s breathing into it. So she says, “I don’t exactly know what a prayer is.” But what she does know is that prayer can be something very different than the popular mind makes it out to be—and this includes the popular Unitarian Universalist mind as well. She is saying (or, rather suggesting—I’ll be the one saying it) that God doesn’t have to exist for prayer to have power and to change lives. Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said it like this: “The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.”
We are breathing new life into an old word this morning: “prayer.” That, by the way, is what makes us religious liberals. Religious liberalism is a middle path and middle way between instant rejectionism and unthinking adherence. Religious liberalism receives the riches of the past, reconciles them to what we best know in the present, so as to make it all useable in our future. This is our spiritual way! If this were a political ad on TV, I’d proudly say, “I approve this message.” I hope you would too.
Let’s start. One of the main things we want to know about prayer—real prayer—is this: it’s tied to our spiritual and emotional depths. Either it expresses these depths as we experience them spontaneously moving within us; or the depths within don’t seem to be moving at all, and we use prayer words and rituals to jumpstart things and warm us up…
Take the first part of the either/or. Brings to mind an experience I’ve shared with you before. It has to do with my years growing up in Peace River, in far north Alberta—nights when I would lift up my eyes and see the Northern Lights in all their electric colors, shifting and shimmering, green and orange and purple curtains over the sky. All so beautiful and mysterious, and to this my very heart would answer back with a sense of wonder and amazement, my very heart would open up and sing. No one taught me how to do this. Somehow there was within me an innate capacity for reverence, a predisposition to be in awe of something larger than myself, and I knew then that I was not the center of the universe and that there are deeper and higher and bigger things in existence, and even more, that in these depths and heights and hugeness was my true home. This is how prayer found me. A prayer of wow, prayer of awe, prayer of thank you. I was not so much praying as being prayed through.
It’s like Mary Oliver in her poem, looking upon a summer’s day, and the depth dimension of her life is spontaneously stirred, her sense of wonder and awe is stirred, and it all goes straight to her lips, she finds herself asking some of the biggest questions imaginable:
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
The heart overflows, and prayer is the expression, the completion, the fruition. We find ourselves singing before we even know it….
On the other hand, there are times when we are feeling distractable, unfocused, and disconnected from our depths, and here, prayer can help get us grounded, get us focused, get us connected. Here, prayer is at the beginning of the process, not at the end (similar to how many of us might need that cup of coffee—or that diet Coke, or whatever—to get us going in the morning)….
One example of this comes from the Rev. Jim Eller. His main concern is the question of whether religious humanists can pray with integrity (he himself is one) and his answer is a very definite YES. But we can also see his prayer as a way to trigger a feeling of thankfulness when we are not feeling very thankful at all.
We give thanks for being.
We give thanks for being here.
We give thanks for being here together.
That’s it. That’s the prayer. And to pray it, you don’t already have to feel thankful. Prayer becomes the discipline by which you increase your capacity to be thankful. Prayer directs attention and intention and from this, invariably, flows character.
Another example of prayer getting things unstuck and getting them started up comes from my preaching professor in seminary, the Rev. David Bumbaugh. He writes, “Prayer was … a ritual part of mealtime in our household as I was growing up. Somewhere, in some corner of my mind, I can still hear my Uncle Jim’s voice as, every evening, he tucked his head and quickly muttered over the food:
Dear Lord, Bless this food to our bodies
And thus to your service.
In your name we pray. Amen.
The prayer was uttered with such speed and with so little inflection that it required some years and some growing sophistication before I was able to decipher the meaning of the words which constituted the suppertime incantation.” More of that wroh wroh wroh wroh wroh wroh wroh I talked about earlier, right? Except faster…. But now listen to how Bumbaugh shines a light on an extremely underappreciated but vital aspect of public prayer. “But here, … the words were not the source of power. That prayer was effective because it was a ritual act which signified the reconstitution of the family. We did not offer grace at other people’s houses. We did not offer grace at breakfast or lunch or when any of us ate alone. We did not offer grace at picnics or on those rare occasions when we ate at a restaurant. Grace was a thing we did together, at supper, at home when all the family was gathered. The message, independent of the words spoken, was always the same: ‘No matter where the day has taken us, no matter where responsibility might lead us, the center of life is here, around this table, with the family.’”
That’s the story from the Rev. David Bumbaugh. It affirms how a mealtime prayer can help members of a family feel reconnected after a day of being scattered to the four winds. But it also underscores the fact that prayer is not just about words interspersed with silence; it is something we do with our attention and with our bodies.
Now as I say this, I am thinking about our Embracing Meditation time in worship every Sunday. The public prayer that we do, when I ask you to settle in a little more comfortably, close your eyes if you wish, allow the tensions in your body to soften, breathe out all anxiety, breath in peace…Hopefully it won’t ever sound like a prayer from Uncle Jim, but even if so, we are still gathered around a shared worship table, all of us. The message, independent of the words spoken, is always the same: “No matter where the previous week has taken us, no matter where responsibility might lead us, the center of spiritual life is here, around this table, with our spiritual family.” That’s the message. The prayer itself, in other words, is the answer. It works whether or not God hears the words. WE hear the words, the words move us and that is enough. And I say this as a theist, as one who believes in a God. God may be listening in, but that’s not why I pray.
David Bumbaugh’s story also brings to mind something else: a prayer ritual that I’ve been engaged with for almost ten years now. Once a week for an hour, over the phone, a beloved colleague and I pray together. Half of the time, we share what’s going on in our lives; and the other half, we pray for each other. And what that sounds like, at times, is very well echoed by these words from Catholic mystic and writer Thomas Merton:
MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore I will trust you always
though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
That’s the prayer. I know … very different from Mary Oliver’s mystical, even nontheistic, poem. Very different from how she spends so much time in prayerful description of the grasshopper, how she says she knows
how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Some days are diamonds, yes, and call for prayers of gratitude and praise; but other days are stone. Prayer has its different moods, and the Merton prayer picks up when a person is crying out help me …. when a person feels lonely and lost, and confused. What that prayer does, then, is carry them to a better place: place of surrender, and courage, and trust.
How about this prayer? (I’ll bet you are more familiar with this one):
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
Then there’s this prayer, which I myself wrote:
I forgive all the ways in which my life appears to fall short.
I trust that whatever I truly need will find its way into my life.
I am grateful for what I have.
I call this my “holy trinity” prayer: forgiveness, trust, gratitude….
All three prayers echo something that writer Marcel Proust once said: “We do not succeed in changing things according to our desire, but gradually our desire changes. The situation that we had hoped to change because it was unacceptable becomes unimportant. We have not managed to surmount the obstacle, as we were totally determined to do, but life has taken us around it, led us beyond it.” The discipline of prayer tests our desire, it transforms our desire.
For ten years, it’s the discipline my prayer partner and I have been doing. For ten years, ultimately we’ve been asking each other Mary Oliver’s question:
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
Our hour together starts out cold and slow, like creaky middle-aged bodies getting out of bed in the morning and needing a shot of caffeine to wake up. One of us starts talking about what’s been going on, then it’s the other’s turn … and then we go into prayer. It’s like walking through a door. On one side, our speech feels very ordinary, like a report or a newspaper article; but on the other, it’s charged with significance. It’s electric. How could it not be, when you hear your prayer partner reflecting back to you your own life nonjudgmentally, the way God would, with all its joys and sorrows, all its imperfections and fears and wonderings and anxieties… With every word of encouragement and hopefulness, you find yourself calming down and softening, you find your perspective on things shifting, you find yourself catching a glimpse of something you’d lost track of, at least momentarily: who you want to be, your best self, your heart’s desire.
Have you ever prayed with someone before, one-on-one? Have you ever felt held and known, like this? Have you ever felt intimacy, like this?
Prayer is its own reward. It’s not about asking God to be Santa Claus for us, and 99% of the time feeling disappointed. Either we find our hearts already overflowing, and words of prayer are on our lips before we know it; or we use prayer when we are feeling on the surface of life or anxious and frayed at the edges, and we want to reconnect with the depths, we want to feel encouraged and strengthened to face our challenges, we want to become more of what we potentially can be. That’s what real prayer does for us. And it works.
Listen to this poem, by Thomas R. Smith, entitled “Trust”:
It’s like so many other things in life
to which you must say no or yes.
So you take your car to the new mechanic.
Sometimes the best thing to do is trust.
The package left with the disreputable-looking
clerk, the check gulped by the night deposit,
the envelope passed by dozens of strangers—
all show up at their intended destinations.
The theft that could have happened doesn’t.
Wind finally gets where it was going
through the snowy trees, and the river, even
when frozen, arrives at the right place.
And sometimes you sense how faithfully your life
is delivered, even though you can’t read the address.
That’s the poem. So many “things in life to which you must say no or yes,” and with each one, there is a possibility of theft. Something precious taken. In the case of the poem, it’s things. A car, a package, money. You put them out there, you hand them over, and bad things might happen.
Same thing goes for the less materialistic and even more important things we put out there. Our time, our energy, our sense of self-esteem and meaning. We put them out there, and, given the risks of living, we can always wonder if they will be conserved and valued…. It makes us impatient.
Think of being stuck in traffic for what feels like an eternity. (It always feels like an eternity stuck in traffic, right?) It’s deeply threatening—it triggers a core fear—because otherwise how to explain the overreaction of frustration? The irritation? The eruption of rage? A voice inside us bellows, “Who dares interrupt my schedule?? I’ve got places to go, things to do, people to see, and my time is far too valuable to be wasted like this!!” It’s impatience—and it stems from a perception of precious time being stolen from us while we watch helplessly.
Imagine this situation (some of you won’t need to—you live it everyday). You are a parent of a four-year-old. He’s helping you fold laundry. Here’s how he does that. He takes a shirt, balls it up in his fist, and then places it carefully in the laundry basket. He takes a pair of shorts, balls it up in his fist, then places it carefully beside the shirt he’s just “folded.” He goes on to the next item, and the next. He wants to help! He’s your young and eager assistant! And it takes you three times longer to fold the laundry than if you just did it yourself. How patient could you be in this situation? You have a couple other kids who will be home from school in a few hours, you have a list of chores yet to do, and you are bone-tired. Imagine yourself in this situation… How patient could you be? Not at all, such that you might slap his hands away in irritation and order him elsewhere? Or somewhat patient, but of the unsteady I’m-holding-on-for-dear-life variety, as when you smile through gritted teeth and speak in tones of exaggerated enthusiasm? Or fully and truly patient, as when you feel genuine wonder and delight and gentle amusement at your son’s determined (though clumsy) efforts to be of use?
Patience. We’re talking about patience today. We know it’s important. “Just about every mistake I have ever made and every unkind word I have ever spoken might have been avoided if I had been more patient,” says Allan Lokos in his excellent book, Patience: The Art of Peaceful Living. “If there is to be peace in the world,” says the Taoist sage Lao-Tse, “there must be peace in the nations, peace in the cities, peace between neighbors, peace in the home, and peace in the heart.” Peace comes from patience. Patience is important.
People, this is yet another one of those sermons that I desperately need to hear myself. Just like all of you, just like everyone alive, I have traffic jams inside my heart, and I can feel stuck, I can feel something precious being stolen away, and I get impatient with myself. I’m forty-five but there are situations where I feel like I’m that four-year-old trying to fold laundry and the only way I know how to do it is by balling it up in my fist.
Let me tell you, when you are planning to write a sermon on patience, in the days preceding it, you naturally find yourself paying especially close attention to your moments of impatience. I won’t bore you with my endless list … but I will say that recently I took up tennis and I love it—I love the rhythm and grace and speed of it, I love the friendships you can build through it, I am looking for more people to play with HINT HINT—but I can get impatient with myself as I’m learning. As when I hit a couple forehand shots and they are beautiful and then, randomly, I hit one and it’s like a baseball home run. Wrong sport! And don’t get me started on my serve. Sometimes it’s great. Sometimes it’s all over the place. Argh!! Can you relate? You have a vision for yourself, a timetable for when you ought to be doing things a certain way, but your body has its own timetable and its own vision? LIFE has its own timetable and vision?
Brings to mind a poem by Methodist minister Ted Loder:
I am not a patient person.
I have only so much time to strive,
to accomplish what I have to do,
to right some wrongs, to make amends,
to create some beauty, help the poor,
welcome the outcast gays,
clear the ghettos, repair the city,
only so much time — I’m not God, you know.
Maybe that’s the dis-ease
for which impatience is the symptom,
I’m not God and I forget it
act compulsively as though I know
what needs doing and when,
as though I am you.
a faithless confusion, I realize.
But, damn it, God, I don’t have eternity.
That’s Ted Loder. “I’m not God and I forget it.” To what degree does our impatience stem from that? Doesn’t matter whether you believe an actual God exists or not. Doesn’t matter if you are the most hard-core atheist around. You can still find yourself boiling with impatience because, at some level, you think you are in control, you think YOU are God, but life shatters that illusion every time. With every tennis ball that soars high and beyond the fence. With every serve that goes astray.
Now don’t get me wrong. In criticizing impatience, I am not wanting to suggest that we take up passivity or inertia or paralysis or terminal postponement. I am not suggesting we stop caring. I am not saying to the parent of the four-year-old that you have to drop everything to cater to your kid. There are just some things that are important enough to feel urgent about. Righting wrongs, making amends, creating some beauty, helping the poor, welcoming the outcast gays, clearing the ghettos, repairing the city—absolutely! When in the past several weeks we have had shootings at a movie theater in Colorado, a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin, and on a college campus in Texas (the very same college I went to, by the way), you better believe we need some urgency around gun control in this country….
I am not encouraging passivity. I am encouraging balance. Sanity. Effectiveness, as we ride the rollercoaster of life. Marianne Williamson, in her amazing book A Return to Love, speaks to this when she says, “We don’t have to be struggling all the time. […] In fact, ambitious tension actually limits our ability to succeed because it keeps us in a state of contraction, emotionally and physically. It seems to give us energy but doesn’t really, like the white sugar of mental health; there’s a short high, followed by a crash.” Then she says this: “The cultivation of mental rest … is like eating healthy food. It doesn’t give us an immediate rush, but over time it provides a lot more energy.”
That’s the point. What’s going to give us energy over the long haul—of making the world a better place, making this congregation the best it can be, parenting children, braving the wilds of Atlanta traffic, even learning how to play a decent game of tennis. Not white sugar, but something better, healthier. Patience. Said the great Irish orator Edmund Burke, “Our patience will achieve more than our force.”
“It’s like so many other things in life / to which you must say no or yes.” So how do we say yes to patience?
Well, lemme tell you, listening to this sermon (for which I thank you!) can only be a start. Says nineteenth century clergyman Henry Ward Beecher, “There is no such thing as preaching patience into people, unless the sermon is so long that they have to practice it while they hear. [OK, get ready for three more hours of sermonating J]” Henry Ward Beecher goes on to say: “No man can learn patience except by going out into the hurly-burly world, and talking life just as it blows.” In other words: we say yes to patience by being in the hurly-burly world and PRACTICING patience. Practice practice practice. And every time we practice—every time we succeed in our patience when it could have been otherwise, no matter how small the success seems—our patience muscle gets stronger and stronger.
Here’s what that practice looks like. Three steps. This comes from spiritual teacher Joan Borysenko.
Step number one: recognize impatience. Recognize when irritation floods your system because you feel like the hurly-burly world is wasting your time or things are not happening fast enough or they are unfair or they are screwing with your best laid plans or you don’t have enough information and it’s bugging the crap out of you … recognize that crap as it emerges. Just acknowledge it. See it as emotional weather. Rain doesn’t have to justify itself, and neither should your impatience have to justify itself to you. It just is. You are not the God of your emotional weather system. So just name it nonjudgmentally. “OK, there’s impatience. There it is.”
Step number two: Pause, and find the gap between the experience of your impatience and your response to your impatience. Patience is born right there—in that gap. Physically, one of the best ways to do this is to breathe deeply. Deep breathing helps the energy shift and not stay stuck in intensity. Now, if you happen to be in the middle of a stunningly irritating conversation with someone, going straight into deep breathing might make you look like you are hyperventilating… Might be better to say words like this: “Can we take a break now? Let’s start again in five (or ten, or fifteen) minutes.” Use that time to find the gap. Use that time to shift the energy. Do something like this especially if, when disciplining your child, you find yourself wanting to spank them. Get away. Wait several hours to make sure that the spanking is indeed in the child’s best interest, and that it is about the child’s behavior and not YOUR anger.
Step number three: Move into a place of curiosity about what is actually happening in the moment. “I have no special talents,” said Albert Einstein. “I am only passionately curious.” What if we were to turn on this kind of Einstein genius in our emotional lives? What then? Is there an analogue to E=MC2 waiting to be discovered, even in the middle of dreaded Atlanta traffic? At the very least, aren’t there interesting things to look at in the cars next door? The guy to your right, singing like a wanna be rockstar? The lady to your left, primping while she’s talking on the cell phone?
When we take a curiosity stance, we are invincibly patient. Everything life throws at us, we can absorb, digest, use. But (and this is the last thing I’ll say today) getting to curiosity in a full sense requires nothing less than faith—faith that there is more going on than meets the eye. Faith that there is more going on behind the scenes. Otherwise, why keep looking? Why stay attentive? Curiosity requires trust that there is a deep design to my life—either existing or potential—that is far more beautiful and inspiring than the one my ego could ever manufacture. My life and yours. My ego and yours. Curiosity insists that even when appearances suggest waste of time and lack of value, reality is otherwise. It’s the poem again:
Wind finally gets where it was going
through the snowy trees, and the river, even
when frozen, arrives at the right place.
And sometimes you sense how faithfully your life
is delivered, even though you can’t read the address.
Are we any less important than the wind, or the frozen river? They are delivered, and so are we. Patience….
“The unexamined life is not worth living.” That’s what the ancient wise man Socrates once said, and it’s a cornerstone belief for me and perhaps for you. Unexamined, our thinking easily becomes biased, or distorted, or partial, or uninformed, or downright prejudiced. Unexamined, our lives become like this as well. As we think, so we are. We’re unfree, if our thinking is unfree.
So this morning we are talking about examining our lives. Opening up the eye of the mind, so our lives can open up to something greater and freer. In particular, we’re going examine those time-honored routes to truth which we call science and religion. Their roles in our lives, their relations with each other. We don’t want to be unfree in our thinking about them. So much is at stake…
But answers here are not necessarily simple. Here’s why I’m saying this: creationism, or intelligent design. Intelligent design includes such teachings as the insufficiency of evolutionary theory to explain the development of life and kinds of life; the separate ancestry of humans and apes; and a world that is just thousands of years old, not millions.
Some of you may recall the decision, back in 2002, of the Cobb County Board of Education (second largest in Georgia!) to teach intelligent design alongside evolution, calling it a “necessary element of providing a balanced education.” A couple of years later, in 2004, the New York Times quoted Georgia Schools Superintendant Kathy Cox as describing “evolution” as “a buzz word that causes a lot of negative reaction.” She added that people often associate it with “that monkeys-to-man sort of thing.” Of course, what was happening in our schools did not go unnoticed or unchallenged. Atlanta Journal-Constitution writer Cynthia Tucker had this to say: “No matter how much proponents of ‘intelligent design’ try to clothe their views in the apparel of science, it is what it is: religion. Whose intelligence? Whose design?” And then there’s an acerbic comment by scientist Michael Shermer: “Notice that [creationists] have no interest in replacing evolution with native American creation myths or including the Code of Hammarabi alongside the posting of the Ten Commandments in public schools.” Whose intelligence and whose design? The God of the fundamentalist Christian, of course…
That “monkeys-to-man sort of thing” controversy persists, against all reason and despite Federal and Supreme Court rulings. It persists, even though, to most scientists with relevant expertise and credentials (like biologists!), the theory is far more than a buzzword: it rests on substantial evidence, offers a valid scientific explanation that unifies facts and findings in their field, and satisfies the tests applied to all scientific theories. The controversy persists … all over our nation. Dover, Pennsylvania from a couple years back comes to mind. The school district there wanted to do the same thing the Cobb Country school district here tried to do. But a federal judge ruled that all such teachings making up creation science are a violation of the constitutional separation of church and state, that creation science is not true science—and how many of you following this case or other cases just slap your forehead and say “Duh!” But there it is. And it’s not the last time we’re going to hear about cases like this. They keep on popping up, and you might be wondering about this. What in the world is going on between science and religion?
For this sermon, I am drawing heavily on a book by eminent theologian Langdon Gilkey, called Creationism On Trial: Evolution and God at Little Rock. The book records his first-hand experiences and his subsequent reflections as a witness for the American Civil Liberties Union at the creationist trial in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1981. Back then, they were fighting against Arkansas Act 590 which required science classes discussing evolution science to give equal time to a discussion of creation “science.” The more things change, the more they stay the same! And what Gilkey experienced during that trial totally opened his eyes regarding science and religion, and it’s opened mine.
Take, for example, the assumption that what we have here is a clear instance of the longtime war between essentially incompatible forces: religion vs. science, science vs. religion. This assumption has been alive in Western culture for a long time now, and it’s an assumption communicated unhesitatingly by the media. For example, an ABC news article I dialed up on the web, regarding the Pennsylvania case: its opening line: “In one of the biggest courtroom clashes between faith and evolution since the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial…” Or the article in Time covering the same case, saying that “…it strikes horror into the hearts of scientists and science teachers across the U.S., not to mention plenty of civil libertarians.” Both messages ultimately reinforce the old story of incompatibility and warfare. Scientists and science teachers and civil libertarians are horrified, yes, but what about people of faith? Can you be a person of faith and affirm evolution? Can you, exactly BECAUSE you are a person of faith, take the side of science?
Media messages like the ones from ABC and Time, which we hear over and over again, make it easy for people to think NO. Makes it easy to assume that science and religion, faith and evolution, are hermetically sealed off from eachother, that they are opposites, that they are absolutely and always at each other’s throats….
Which is why, when Gilkey looked across that Arkansas courtroom at his opponents arguing in support of creation science, he was so shocked. He likened it to “a flash of lightning in the darkness.” This is what he saw: Twenty four Ph D’s in the natural or theoretical sciences, including physics, astronomy, chemistry, biology, physiology, botany, and zoology. Scientists whose doctorates came from institutions like UCLA, Berkeley, Harvard, Columbia, Stanford, USC, University of Illinois, Penn State, and Michigan. Tenured faculty at places like Iowa State, Purdue, and Michigan State. That’s what he saw. Just opened his eyes!
And as for what he saw when he looked at the people on his own side, arguing against the creationism law: twelve of the seventeen people on his side were liberal clergy who wanted to save faith “from a fatal identification with intolerant literalism on the one hand and an anti-scientific attitude on the other.” As for the associations represented on his side: four of the six were religious. Only one scientific group and one secular educational group were present. Think about it: the primary opponents of the creationism law … were people and institutions of faith!
Just pause and let this fact from the Arkansas trial sink in. In light of it, how could the media have persisted in describing the trial as a simple case of science vs. religion?
One word: sleepwalking. They never really examined the old assumption and questioned it. Never saw beyond it to the unexpected reality unfolding before them, far more complicated and far more hopeful than they assumed. Not at all science vs, religion, but liberal religion and good science on one side, debating absolutist religion and deviant science on the other.
THAT was the reality. And unless people see this, a great opportunity is missed, a magnificent one.
I’m talking freedom to choose beyond either anti-religious secularism or Biblical fundamentalism. Secularism says that all faith is irrelevant and bankrupt; Biblical fundamentalism says that faith must be literalistic. But the choice beyond these two is a life journey that treats the language of spirituality differently, that complements the findings of science and knows that religious words and stories don’t have to be literally true to say true things about the human condition and the human spirit. To take the Biblical book of Genesis seriously doesn’t mean you have to take it as indicative of physical fact. Creation didn’t literally happen in six days, yes, but what we want to take seriously is that there is order this evolving world, and it is good.
There is freedom to choose beyond secularism or fundamentalism, and I am really wanting to emphasize this because whereas you and I know it, whereas you and I know that Unitarian Universalism embodies it, many other people do not. It’s “the best kept secret in our modern life,” says Gilkey; most people assume that any challenge to the literal interpretation of Genesis is a challenge to authentic religion, period. That’s been Gilkey’s experience, as well as mine. Does it ring a bell with you, too?
But there is a choice. UUCA people, if we are going to make a difference in Atlanta, we need to pull together, we need to live our mission, we need to communicate far and wide how to talk about things like God and Jesus and the Bible (and the rest of our Six Sources) in ways that exemplify the choice beyond secularism and beyond fundamentalism. There is a choice, and that is our Good News. Listen to something the great Carl Sagan once said: “A religion old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science, might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later such a religion will emerge.” Carl, I love you, but such a religion has already emerged. It’s here. It’s Unitarian Universalism. We need to spread our Good News…
Alright. We are opening the eye of the mind as it looks upon the relationship between science and religion, and we’ve just seen how the assumption of warfare between them is simplistic and false. (You know what happens when we assume, right?)
Let’s take a look at one more common assumption, which is this: the idea that science is self-sufficient and doesn’t need religion (and the definition of “religion” I am using here comes from something that theologian Ian Barbour says: “The goal of science is understanding lawful relations among natural phenomena. Religion is a way of life within a larger framework of meaning”). Maybe science and religion aren’t at each other’s throats, goes this assumption, but they sure don’t need each other. Science can go it alone. Let’s take a look.
Historically, the idea that science is self-sufficient is a relatively recent one. As late as the 1920s and 1930s, you could still picture scientists and supporters of science as scrappy freethinkers, fighting against the 1000 pound cultural gorilla which was religion. Up to that time, religious institutions still possessed an aura of largely unquestioned legitimacy, and it was science that needed to justify its existence, to struggle to get into the cultural game.
But not any more. Not in 1981, not in 2002, not now. A vast reversal has taken place—just think of the string of scientific and technological wins of the past 60 years. And so, who are today’s new high priests? Scientists. It’s scientists who carry an aura of unquestioned legitimacy currently, and a phenomenon like creation science only proves the point. For how else to explain why anti-scientific doctrines like creation science must take on the form of science if they are to have a hope of seeming valid? “Such forms of popular science,” says Gilkey, “strange as they are, could appear only in an advanced scientific culture that has become scientific from top to bottom, and yet that remains at certain levels religiously literalistic and dogmatic.”
Science is now the 1000 pound cultural gorilla, and many of its proponents have imagined that human culture would be better off if it just stuck with science. The argument here is that science establishes an essentially humanistic culture that steadily progresses from ignorance to enlightenment. It is the supreme form of knowing and the key to effective action that will make this earth into a heaven. This is exactly the thinking that would guide 34 Unitarian ministers and academics to write, in the Humanist Manifesto of 1933, “We are convinced that the time has passed for theism… religious institutions, their ritualistic forms, ecclesiastical methods and communal activities must be reconstituted as rapidly as experience allows in order to function effectively in the modern world.” This is what they said. Let science lead us into the modern world, let us allow it to reconstitute all that we have been, let us hear its call to cast off all the superstitions of a pre-scientific age—let us do all this, and we shall come into a new golden age of human happiness and civilization. How many of you have encountered this line of thought? This assumption of the self-sufficiency of science that can at times express itself as a sneer towards religious faith of any kind, including belief in God… Belief in God, in an age of science!? You gotta be kidding me!
Yet I would have you see the many ways in which science in the 20th century has unwittingly revived religion. The assumption says that science can go it alone, but the reality proves otherwise.
For one thing, science and technology have, in our time, been a primary source of cultural stress and upheaval. Before the atom bomb, the idea of the earth’s total destruction at the hands of human beings was unimaginable; but ever since, we have been living in this shadow and trying to cope as best as we can. Life before the Bomb, life before the Internet, life before genetic engineering. Who can imagine what life was like before all that? But now, even as we enjoy the benefits of modern science and technology, we also find ourselves challenged as never before, anxious as never before, and we are trying to cope and make sense of our world. And here, the scientific method just doesn’t tell us how. But religion does. Religion—a search for a larger framework of meaning—unwittingly revived by scientific progress!
Consider yet another form this takes. In harsh contrast to the idea that science is an essentially humanistic enterprise, which will lead people from superstition into enlightenment, consider the record of Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia (or many other countries, including our own!). They used science and scientists to do evil things; and clearly there were no core ethical values in the scientific method itself to resist this. No core human-positive values to prevent this ill-usage. It’s the same with today’s terrorists, who, through the use of space-age technology like the Internet, flourish. What we are seeing is described very well by Gilkey: “Science adds force and not restraint to fanaticism.” This would not be the case if there was an essential humanistic, ethical core to science–if science and the scientific method were all the guidance that people needed to live the good life and bring heaven on earth. But clearly, science and the scientific method are not enough.
“Science adds force and not restraint to fanaticism.” Thus, in the case of the Little Rock trial in 1981, or the more recent cases in Philadelphia and here in Georgia, you have the incredible sight of natural science Ph.D’s, trained by some of the best programs in the land, arguing for something unscientific like creationism.
Fact is, science is not essentially ethical or humanistic. It is not essentially anything. It is but a tool, a method, and how it is used depends upon the values and character of the people who use it. And so, once again, we come back round to religion. The desperate need today to draw on different kinds of wisdom to complement science and keep it constructive. The world needs every one of our Six Sources of Unitarian Universalist faith. Science just can’t go it alone.
And not just for the purpose of making sure that the power of science is harnessed to worthy ends. Not just for the sake of morality. But also for the sake of truth. The whole truth and nothing but the truth. Reflecting on the creationism trial he participated in and witnessed, Gilkey wondered about “how the established scientific community was … itself responsible for the controversy and was in fact ‘breeding creation science’ because of the way it talked about, taught, and promoted science…” He asks, “How is it that this community, while intending merely to do science, was accused [by creationists]—with some reason—of really promoting religion?” Now isn’t that a fascinating and surprising question! But think about it: when people say that science is not just an extremely powerful method for discovering truths about the natural world, but that it is THE method of discovery for ALL truths; when they say that whatever is not scientifically established is nonsense and superstition; when they go beyond describing the mechanics of nature to claims about ultimate origins, that nothing but matter exists, that God is an illusion—well, these people have become just as unscientific as creationists. They are advancing claims that are not open to any possible verification through recognized and respected experimental protocols. It means they are promoting their own kind of absolutist religion, and it’s called SCIENTISM. Got to name it so we can claim it. Scientism. This is an invisible but very real aspect of the so-called war between science and religion, which is really warfare between two different kinds of bad science: creationism vs. scientism. Both bad science, both trying to pass themselves off as good.
When science says that it offers complete knowledge, it oversteps its own bounds and takes on a religious dimension. This is an abuse of its cultural power and prestige, and what I’m saying is that, in this regard, the creationists are like the proverbial canary in the coal mine. Extra sensitive to stealthy invasions into their territory. And while we may thoroughly and completely disagree with the their claim that creationism is good science, we can affirm how they are taking a stand against the easy and often superior dismissal of religious views as unscientific and hence automatically false. What I’m saying is this: I’m saying that you can be an enlightened, scientifically literate person in the 21st century and believe that there’s more to life than meets the physical or mathematical eye. In this day and age, you can believe in a Higher Power, you can believe in a spirit indwelling nature, you can believe in a God of many names and Mystery beyond all naming. You can.
I like what Einstein once said. He said, “I think that science without religion is lame and, conversely, religion without science is blind.” To me, it means that religion can empower science to do its work in an inspired and ethical way, for the good of humanity. It also means that science can help religionists better see and accurately appreciate the wonders of the natural world and so have cause to rejoice, and to praise. We need both, and we need them working together.