Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Books of Wisdom

This morning we journey into the heart of some of the most remarkable books in the Hebrew Bible: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job. Books of wisdom, books in which the focus is, as Joseph Campbell so eloquently puts it, the “monstrous nature of the earthly human realm as well as its glory”—how to live practically in the midst of this realm as well as to understand the Big Picture meaning of it all.

Let’s jump right in, and I want to do this with a story that actually comes from outside the Bible, from the tradition of Zen Buddhism…

A Zen Master, goes the story, lived the simplest kind of life in a little hut at the foot of a mountain. One evening, while he was away, a thief sneaked into the hut only to find there was nothing in it to steal. The Zen Master returned and found him. “You have come a long way to visit me,” he told the prowler, “and you should not return empty handed. Please take my clothes as a gift.” The thief was bewildered, but he took the clothes and ran away. The Master sat naked, watching the moon. “Poor fellow,” he mused, ” I wish I could give him this beautiful moon.”

That’s the story, and I begin with it for two reasons. One is simply to emphasize the fact that to truly understand wisdom in the Bible, you have to go outside the Bible, you have to see that wisdom is and has always been the endeavor of all nations and all ages. In cultures that, geographically speaking, were too far away from Israel to influence it (like that of China and India) … and also in cultures nearby, like Egypt and Mesopotamia and Asia Minor. These nearby cultures—what their wisdom traditions said and how they said it—have amazing echoes in the Bible books we read today. Wisdom outside the Bible influenced the wisdom we find within it.

For example, consider these proverbs from Sumer, from around 2000BCE:

Whoever has walked with truth generates life

Wealth is hard to come by, but poverty is always at hand

The poor are the silent ones of the land

Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes describes proverbs like these as “short sentences founded on long experience”—and that’s exactly what they are. Some of them are just observations about the way life is, but others are of a more “how-to” nature: how to live well. Like these—and as you listen to them, keep two things in mind: these proverbs are more than 3000 years old, and today is Superbowl Sunday–:

He who drinks too much beer must drink water

He who eats too much will not be able to sleep

(and my favorite)

Since my wife is at the outdoor shrine, and furthermore since my mother is at the river, I shall die of hunger

Proverbs outside the Bible influenced proverbs in the Bible. A particularly fascinating example of this comes from comparing an Egyptian wisdom text entitled The Instruction of Amenemope, which parallels sections of the book of Proverbs like you would not believe. Image for image, word for word. Israel’s wisdom did not emerge in a vacuum. It echoes the themes and preoccupations of the nations that went before it and surrounded it.

This is also true of the wisdom books of Job and Ecclesiastes. Scholars tell us that Job was written around 500 BCE, and Ecclesiastes was written several hundred years later, around 300 BCE. Both of them are quite different from the book of Proverbs. Whereas Proverbs compiles short wisdom statement after short wisdom statement, Job tells a remarkable story about one man’s suffering and eventual meeting with God, and Ecclesiastes is the record of one man’s dialogue with himself about the nature of life and how to be happy. In ways very different from Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes face down the monstrous nature of the earthly human realm as well as its glory—each of them gives voice to despair as well as to making peace with life—but hidden in their voices are older voices from other lands and other times…. One of these voices comes from around 1700BCE, from an early king of Sumer, Zugagib:

I advanced in life, I attained to the allotted span
Wherever I turned there was evil, evil—
Oppression is increased, uprightness I see not.
I cried unto god, but he showed not his face.

What in one’s heart is contemptible, to one’s god is good!
Who can understand the thoughts of the gods in heaven?
The counsel of god is full of destruction; who can understand?
Where may human beings learn the ways of God?
He who lives at evening is dead in the morning.

My limbs are destroyed, loathing covers me;
on my couch I welter like an ox
I am covered, like a sheep, with my excrement.
My sickness baffles the conjurers
And the seer left dark my omens.

It’s raw, isn’t it? His pain and confusion and despair. 3700 years ago, Zugagib gave voice to it; and you can find his voice deep within the voice of Job, written 2500 years ago; you can find his voice deep within the voice of Ecclesiastes, written 2300 years ago. And what about us today? If we are feeling pain and confusion and despair today, for whatever reason—and the reasons can be so many—what’s hidden deep within our voice?

The thirst for wisdom—the discontent and dis-ease that motivates it—transcends time.

I want to return to the story I began this sermon with. The one about the Zen Master and the thief. We’ve already seen the first reason why I began with it, and now here’s the other. Just this: to help us connect our lives with the wisdom in Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job. Help us bring it all together…

So we remember that, in the story, we meet the Zen Master there in his little hut at the foot of a mountain. He’s living the simplest kind of life, a happy and healthy kind of life. It’s a great symbol of what the book of Proverbs wants for its readers. Life is a way, life is a path, and we can walk smoothly or we can stumble, we can run or we can fall. Proverbs seeks to prevent stumbling and falling by presenting us with the accumulated wisdom of generations. Follow the advice, and our way will be well:

Righteousness delivers from death.

The perverse get what their ways deserve, and the good, what their deeds deserve.

No harm happens to the righteous, but the wicked are filled with trouble.

The faithful will abound with blessings.

As you hear these words from Proverbs, keep in mind an important piece of historical information. At the time these words were written, there was absolutely no idea of an afterlife in which souls might experience connection with God, or justice, or continued learning and growth. The belief at the time was in Sheol, a place of darkness where the dead go, where they persist as entities without personality or strength, cut off from God. So, when the book of Proverbs says, “The faithful will abound with blessings,” it’s talking about THIS-world blessings. If there’s gonna be any justice, it’s THIS-world justice.

That’s the worldview that the book of Proverbs puts out there. Reality is ordered in such a way that the human sense of justice and fairness is fully satisfied. The perverse get what their ways deserve, and the good, what their deeds deserve. Which also implies that if something bad happens to you, well, you must have done something wrong to deserve it. You got trouble? What did you do!?

Call this worldview conventional wisdom. And conventional wisdom might make sense in the abstract. It might…. Until some kind of thief breaks into your hut, like he breaks into the Zen Master’s hut there at the foot of the mountain. What possibly could the Zen Master have done to merit that? Living as he is the simplest kind of life, an embodiment of blessing, bothering absolutely no one… and yet the thief comes. Conventional wisdom says that you always get what you deserve, but .. really?

That’s the question Ecclesiastes and Job ask, over and over again. Really? On this point, they are absolutely opposed to Proverbs. In other words, you got a crazy wrestling match right in the middle of the Holy Bible! People who say that the Bible speaks with one voice don’t know what they are talking about! For Proverbs, the world is straight; for Ecclesiastes and Job, the world is crooked.

“In my vain life,” says the writer of Ecclesiastes, “I have seen everything: there are righteous people who perish in their righteousness, and there are wicked people who prolong their life in their evildoing. There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people who are treated according to the conduct of the wicked, and there are wicked people who are treated according to the conduct of the righteous. Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all.”

That’s the writer of Ecclesiastes, and he’s just telling it like he sees it. That’s what we find in THIS world. Reality is NOT ordered in a way that satisfies the human sense of justice and fairness. Not at all. Death comes to all, he says. Death comes randomly, and we die just as the animals die. Live righteously all your life, but, still, the manner of your aging and death may be excruciatingly painful for yourself and for all concerned. THIS world is a crooked, crooked world…

Job is the poster boy for this. His flocks stolen or destroyed, most of his servants murdered, his children killed as a house collapses on them. His body broken, with loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. Reduced to sitting among the ashes, scraping his sores with a broken piece of pottery. Why me? he asks… But we know: God allowed Satan to make Job suffer as part of a test of character. Does Job fear God for nothing? But what does this have to do with conventional wisdom, the idea that suffering can only be punishment for evil deeds? Job is the good guy, and the only reason why he attracted the attention of God and Satan to begin with was because .. he was good!

It’s a crooked world…. And in both Ecclesiastes and Job, we discover a response to this reality that sounds like this:

Let the day perish in which I was born, and the night that said, “A man-child is conceived.”
Let that day be darkness!
That night—let thick darkness seize it!
Let it not rejoice among the days of the year….
Yes, let that night be barren: let no joyful cry be heard in it….
Why did I not die at birth, come forth from the womb and expire?
Why was I not buried like a stillborn child?
For my sighing comes like my bread, and my groanings are poured out like water.

I am blameless: I do not know myself.
I loathe my life.

This is Job speaking. Note how this language is exactly opposite what you read in the book of Genesis, where God creates the universe, where God says “Let there be light!” and it is all good…. In his despair, Job would go the exact opposite direction. “Let there be darkness.” Not creation, but destruction. “I loathe my life.”

We find the same sentiment in Ecclesiastes:

I said to myself, “What happens to the fool will happen also to me. Why then have I been so very wise?” And I said to myself that this is also vanity. For there is no enduring remembrance of the wise or of fools, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How can the wise die just like fools? So I hated life….”

People, this is the Bible talking. We are witnessing some of the most honest wrestling with the Big Picture meaning of life there can be. The Bible has many moods to it, and existential despair is certainly one of them….

And the Bible wants us to take it seriously. You see, Job isn’t any old shmoe. He was one who was, says the Bible, “blameless and upright, who feared God and turned away from evil.” As for the writer of Ecclesiastes: the Bible says he was one who had everything that conventional wisdom says is good. He knew what it is like to win a Superbowl. He knew what it is like to get the fantasy girl. He knew what is like to win the lottery. He had it all—wealth, health, intelligence, power, wisdom, everything—and yet he still found himself hating life. The Bible won’t allow us to rationalize this away, to say, Oh, they’re just being immature, or Oh, all would be well if they just took some Prozac. No. Life is crooked. The human realm is as much monstrous as glorious, and the monstrous aspects can at times feel so monstrous that it swallows everything up, you find you can no longer feel the glorious parts of the world, you can no longer receive any of that into your heart. Just darkness just darkness just darkness….

But is this where the story ends?

Well, we know in the story of the Zen master and the thief, that the Zen master responds in a way that is simply breathtaking: “You have come a long way to visit me,” he told the prowler, “and you should not return empty handed. Please take my clothes as a gift.” The thief was bewildered, but he took the clothes and ran away. Later, the Master sat naked, watching the moon. “Poor fellow,” he mused, ” I wish I could give him this beautiful moon.”

That’s how the story ends, and in a perfectly beautiful way it suggests where Ecclesiastes and Job end up. It’s true: they each go through a phase of hating life. But then they move beyond it. Here’s how.

For the writer of Ecclesiastes, the key realization is tied up with a peculiar word: “vanity.” “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity,” he says, over and over again, but he’s not talking about excessive pride in one’s looks…. The original word that gets interpreted as “vanity,” “havel,” really means “mist” or “vapor” or “breath.” “Havel havaleem, ha-kol havel”: “breath of breath, everything is breath.” The implications of this are powerful. If everything in life is like breath—if it’s impermanent like this, changing like this, hard to grab a hold of, hard to get a clear picture of—then, unless we unconditionally acknowledge and accept this fact about life, we will find ourselves miserable. Life is a series of breaths, and the only sane response to this reality is to breathe and breathe and keep on breathing. Don’t ask Why me? Ask What’s next? Stay in flow of life, stay in the moment, move with it and trust that there, in the moment, is everything we will ever need to be happy. It’s the Zen master in the story, whose safety in his little hut in the foot of the mountain is vanity, is breath. The thief comes, and instantly, safety has become danger, but the Zen master, because he does not continue trying to grasp for safety, is capable of poise, is able to stay in the moment, is able to convey the compassion and hospitality that is the essence of his inherent worth and dignity as a person. “You have come a long way to visit me,” he tells the astounded thief, “and you should not return empty handed. Please take my clothes as a gift.” “Poor fellow,” he mused later on, ” I wish I could give him this beautiful moon.”

The Zen master’s only safety and ours is in this present moment.

The writer of Ecclesiastes puts it this way:

Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart for God has long ago approved of what do. Let your garments always be white; do not let oil be lacking on your head. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might.

Carpe diem, in other words. This side of Sheol, don’t hesitate: seize the day. Get in the zone of each moment given to you, and that will save you from hating life. Don’t grab at the breath that life is; instead, breathe and breathe and breathe…. “Havel havaleem, ha-kol havel”: “breath of breath, everything is breath.”

As for Job. His way of going beyond hatred towards life… It’s very different. Hugely ironic, given a popular stereotype about Job, that he was patient, as in “the patience of Job.” Whoever came up with that one must never have read the Bible either. Because when you read the book of Job, what you see is a man who is impatient like crazy. Obnoxious in all his complaining about the injustice and unfairness of life. He just goes on and on and doesn’t give up. Broken record.

You know I am not guilty (he says to God)
and there is no one to deliver me out of your hand.
Your hands fashioned and made me
and now you turn and destroy me.

On and on and on. Job also takes an oath affirming his integrity and righteousness, invoking God to curse him if his oath is false. Biblical scholars tells us that all of this is laid out in such a way that lawyers would recognize as a formal lawsuit. Yes, Job is actually challenging God to appear in court, and if God doesn’t, then Job’s oath of innocence stands. He is cleared of all charges. Talk about chutzpah!

So no wonder God appears, and he’s not happy. Out of the whirlwind, God appears:


Nothing that God goes on to say or show Job speaks to his particular predicament. God at no time confesses, says, OK, I’m sorry, it was a stupid little bet, Satan was getting too big for his britches once again and I couldn’t resist taking him down a notch… No. All God does is overwhelm Job with an abundance vision of the grandeur and majesty of creation. The foundations of the earth, the sea, the dwelling place of light, the storehouses of snow and hail, the constellations, clouds and rain and lightning, and on and on….

God doesn’t give an answer like the writer of Ecclesiastes does. Ecclesiastes gives words, but God goes beyond words, gives experience. And it is more than enough. Job comes away transformed. The book ends with his restoration, with his wealth and health and family restored—and every Bible scholar I’ve ever read sees this as a cheap ending, completely unsatisfying, a shame. But I see it as a culmination of the entire book. For think about it. Job knows first hand how breath-like life is—how pleasure can turn to suffering on a dime. When that happens, you don’t want any more pleasure. You don’t want to invest yourself in something that is so unreliable. You don’t want any more riches, you don’t want any more children, you don’t want any more health. More children, more wealth, more health are just invitations to more pain. Yet Job comes away from his encounter with God able to invest in life anew. He can begin again. He is able to receive the joy of restoration even though he knows all too well that life is crooked and he serves a God who is crooked who might test him again at any moment, take away all that he has yet again. But he accepts his new life unconditionally. He can live in the moment like a Zen Master.

The path there is chutzpah, to begin with. If you are feeling the injustice and unfairness of life so deeply that you hate your world, good. But don’t stop there. Flow with the intensity of your feeling until it corners you into an encounter with the glory of the Sacred, the glory of the abundant Spirit of Life. Ride your discontent all the way to God. God will come to you. Because the God of the Bible understands. The God of the Bible knows what it is like to hate life. This is the same God, remember, who destroyed the entire world with a flood, and ever since has been tempted again and again to destroy. But the God of the Bible grows over time. The God of the Bible changes over time. And perhaps this God will share with you what He shared with Job. That despite all, despite its crookedness, a crookedess the runs through God’s own heart, life is still worth loving, still worth caring for. The majesty of creation. The crooked God. The precious fragile lives that are yours and mine.

In sacred mystery, all are lifted up.


Story before the reading:

The Story of Job

Job and his wife Lived in Uz. 
Job had seven sons and 3 daughter all grown with families of their own. 
Job had much land and livestock and men to help him work. 
Job loved God and worshipped God everyday.

One day, the devil said to God, “You have blessed Job and given him everything is the only reason Job worships you. If you would take away your blessings, Job would no longer praise you.” 
God said to the devil, ” Do what you want to all that Job has but do not touch him.” 
The devil left God and began his evil work.

Suddenly a messenger came to Job saying, “All your oxen and donkeys are gone. All of the men that helped you are gone.” 
While the messenger was still speaking, a second messenger came and said, ” A huge fire has killed all the sheep.” 
And still a third messenger arrived saying, “Some thieves came and stole all your camels.” 
And still a fourth messenger arrived saying, “All of your sons and daughter were eating together when suddenly there came a huge wind and the house fell on them.”

Job was so sad. 
In a single day, he had lost everything. 
He lost his land, 
He lost his livestock. He lost his sons and daughters. 
Job fell to his knees and began worshipping God saying, “..the LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away, blessed be the name of the LORD.” 
After all those bad things happened to Job, He still praised God.

The devil was upset because Job was still praising God. 
So he went to God and said, “If Job were hurting in his body, he would not praise you. 
God answered the devil saying, “Do what you want but do not kill him.” 

The devil delighted in giving Job very painful sores all over his body from the soles of his feet to the top of his head. 
Job had nothing 
He lost his land, 
He lost his livestock. 
He lost his sons and daughters. 
Now he was in more pain with the sores all over his body. 

Job suffered greatly. 
Job’s wife said to him, “Let it go. Curse God and die” 
Job answered her, “You talk like a foolish woman. Do we only take the good and not the bad?” 
Still he praised God.

Jobs friends had heard about what had happened to Job. 
They decided they would go and be with him. 
His friends sat with Job for one week. 
His friends told Job that he had sinned and that is why all these horrible things had happened. Job insisted that he loved God and he never sinned against him. 
They would not believe him. 
All of them told Job he had sinned and he must confess his sin to make things right. 
Job still insisted that he had not sinned against God. 
Finally his friends were quiet. They had nothing to say to him because they felt that Job was wrong. They thought Job felt was better than everyone else. They knew Job had sinned and wouldn’t admit it. 

When Job and his friends had finished arguing, God came to Job in a whirlwind. “What will you learn from your friends? “Come, stand up like a man, for now I shall question you, and you shall answer,” said the Lord.

“Where were you when I created the earth, when the morning stars sang together, and all God’s children shouted with joy?

“Have you shut the sea in with doors, and said, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped’?

“Do you know where the light gathers, and where the darkness makes its home?

“Do you teach the lion to hunt its prey, and does the hawk fly by your wisdom?

“Have you an arm like God, and can you thunder with a voice like mine?

“Will you find fault with the Almighty? First answer my questions, if you would have me answer yours.”

Then Job bowed his head, and was ashamed. “Lord,” he said, “I am nothing. How can I answer you? I have spoken about things I do not understand. I will put my hand on my mouth, and say nothing more.”

God then said to Job’s friends, “You have not spoken the truth of me as Job has. Take seven bulls and seven rams and go to Job and offer them up for yourselves. Job will pray for you and I will accept his prayer for you. ” 
Fearing the wrath of God, the men did as God had told them. 
God accepted Job’s prayer and was very pleased with Job.

As Job prayed for his friends, God returned his fortune that had been taken away by the devil. 
God gave Job twice as much as he had in the beginning. 
God gave him twice as many sheep. 
God gave him twice as many donkeys. 
God gave him twice as many camels. 
God gave him twice as many yoke of oxen. 
God gave him 7 sons and 3 daughters. 
His daughters were the most beautiful in the land. After all of this, Job lived 140 years and he loved God and praised him every day.

Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: The Books of Moses

“A wandering Aramean was my ancestor,” writes the author of the Biblical book of Deuteronomy. “He went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us by imposing hard labor upon us we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors. The LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and the LORD brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”

This is one of the greatest stories every told.

Now, I didn’t grow up in church, so the first time this story dawned on my consciousness was not in a pew and not in a Sunday school class. It was in the basement of my Baba’s house, close to Christmastime, back when I was something like eight years old. I was in my jammies, and Baba had put on her pink polyester nightgown, and I sat down in her lap, and her face was shiny with Oil of Olay, and I could smell that sweet smell as I nestled into her softness. Lawrence Welk was just finishing up in an explosion of tiny bubbles, and at that point Dido got up to go to bed—he was an early to sleep, early to rise kind of guy—but we stayed put in the TV room because Baba wanted to watch something called The Ten Commandments. Something about Charlton Heston (and whenever she talked about Charlton Heston there was a strange sound in her voice my eight year old mind could never decode, but I got it now, she loooved Charlton Heston…) OK, so The Ten Commandments is on, it’s unfolding before me scene by scene—the baby Moses found in a basket on the Nile river by Pharoah’s daughter; the adult Moses as a Prince of Egypt; the time he kills a guard abusing one of the Israelite slaves; when he discovers who he really is; when he’s brought before his Pharoah father in chains; when he’s banished to the wilderness by Rameses (played by the awesome Yul Brynner); when he encounters God in the burning bush and is called to liberate his people … on and on and on … all these scenes unfolding before the eyes of this eight year old … and let’s not forget the soundtrack: duh duh duh duh, duh DAH DAH DAH DAH!! Heady stuff! And then that scene, after the ten plagues, after the flight from Egypt, when the Israelites find themselves at the shore of the Red Sea, jammed right up against the edge, and the Egyptian army is hot on their heels, and they are between a rock and a hard place, but Moses holds out his arms and lifts up his staff (duh duh duh duh, duh DAH DAH DAH DAH!!) and the waters part and the Hebrews surge forward and the day is saved and I thought to myself O MY GOD what IS this? This is COOL! THIS is a story.

One of the greatest stories ever told.

And not just in my eight-year-old self’s opinion, or that of Judaism and Jews worldwide. It’s religion writer Bruce Feiler’s argument too in his book America’s Prophet: How the Story of Moses Shaped America. A fascinating read, tracing the history of the impact of the biblical narrative of the Israelites on twenty generations of Americans and their leaders. The Pilgrims who left England in 1620 bound for the freedom of America, describing themselves as the chosen people fleeing their pharaoh, King James. “On the Atlantic, they proclaimed their journey to be as vital as ‘Moses and the Israelites when they went out of Egypt.’ And when they got to Cape Cod, they thanked God for letting them pass through their fiery Red Sea” (Bruce Feiler). The Biblical narrative gave the Pilgrims not only language for what they were doing, but logic, justification. “The only reason they could have done that,” says historian Tim Safford—one of many of Bruce Feiler’s interviewees—“The only reason they could have done that is because they had a narrative larger than their own lives. A narrative of God delivers me through the Red Sea. A narrative that if you’re lost in exile, you can still remain holy. A narrative of life is stronger than death, love is more powerful than hate. If you do not have a narrative larger than the world gives you, you’re just going to get sucked up by the world.” That’s Tim Safford. The Pilgrims were just not going to allow themselves to get sucked up by the world. The Founding Fathers of this nation weren’t going to allow that either. Or Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. Or leaders of the civil rights movement like Martin Luther King Jr. They had a narrative larger than their own lives, given to them by the Bible, and though the story was thousands of years old, about people long dead and gone, it was nevertheless absolutely new, exactly what they were going through in their own day, it spoke straight to their lives. Oppression in Egypt; liberation from all that through Exodus; the newly freed slaves, despite all the murmuring and complaining, becoming a united people and a new nation at the foot of Mt. Sinai; the new nation entering into the Promised Land. All of it—America’s story too.

“The universe,” says poet Murial Rukeyser, “is made of stories, not atoms.” The universe, nations, and people like you and me. Made of stories.

In our remaining time together, I want to go deeper into this greatest story ever told. Apply the three Bible reading principles that scholar Marcus Borg talks about in his Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, the companion book to this year-long sermon series.

Principle #1: It’s never “God says”; it’s always “humans say.” You just can’t open your Bible and go, “Let’s see what God says about that.” No. The Bible is a record of humans in quest for meaning and truth in life, humans striving for love and justice yet always creatures of their day, always limited by this. We take what the Bible says very seriously but not slavishly—don’t want to make it yet another Pharaoh in our lives!

Second principle: Look to the past. As Bible readers we will miss so much of the meaning if we are not aware of historical context. As Marcus Borg likes to say: “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” Gotta know the history to truly understand.

Finally the third principle: Don’t allow the Bible to stay stuck in the past. And don’t dismiss a passage if scholarship or science tells you that it can’t be literally true. Don’t cut it out. Instead, go deeper. Read it as poetry, read it as metaphor, read it as myth that conveys psychological and spiritual truth. The voice of the Bible can comfort you, can challenge you, can speak to your spirit right here and right now. It will read you more than you read it, if you let it.

These are the principles: and now let’s get to work.

We begin with what history and scholarship and science have to say. Frankly it’s not pretty.

Something happened in the thirteenth century BCE. The book of Exodus tells us that six hundred thousand Israelite men plus women and children left Egypt—presumably a total of two to three million people. That’s not a small thing. Leaves a HUGE footprint. Yet to this date, no archaeological evidence has ever been found. No contemporaneous writings from the ancient Near East—nothing outside the Bible—makes even a passing mention of it. Definitely nothing from Egypt, which is really strange. As Jonathan Kirsch in his book Moses: A Life puts it, quite ironically, “The ancient Egyptians, who were compulsive chroniclers of their own rich history, somehow failed to notice the presence or the absence of a couple of million Israelite slaves, the afflictions of the Ten Plagues, the plague that took the life of every firstborn child on a single night, of the miraculous events of the Red Sea.” That is just strange. It is no wonder that even the most pious scholar who chooses to honestly grapple with this fact can come away with a most unpleasant feeling of uncertainty. What really happened three thousand plus years ago?

And then there are the miracles. Did those really happen? Just think of the list of plagues Moses unleashed upon Egypt: the Nile water turns to blood, frogs fill the land, gnat attack, fly attack, all Egyptian livestock die, everyone gets boils, the mother of all hail storms wreaks havoc, locust attack, thick darkness covers the land for three days, and then all the firstborn die. Now I know and we know that there are earnest people who have a scientific explanation for every one of these things. The Nile water, for example, did not really turn to blood; it was just a profusion of some microorganism that made the water intensely red. But this misses the point. So much of the Israelite story is premised on God acting in a way that upsets the natural order of things. God’s mighty hand acting supernaturally. And here is where the problem lies. Not just in terms of science, but also in terms of theology. The problem is one of consistency. Lack of consistency says something bad about God and bad about the Exodus story as a whole. Take God first. If God used to act in the world like the Bible tells us, but no longer, despite situations of intense suffering in the centuries ever since (including the Holocaust), then God clearly plays favorites, God is abusive in God’s absence, God is a jerk. As for the story itself: if the liberation of the Israelites was possible only because of genuine bend-the-laws-of-nature miracles, then how can this possibly speak to us today, when we don’t have the luxury of some Moses wielding God-power as he strides through the halls of Congress and demands that the nonsense end, that our rich-getting-richer and poor-getting-poorer system cease. Back then, it was all duh duh duh duh, duh DAH DAH DAH DAH!! But it’s not like that anymore. All of this is good reason for doubting that the miracles ever happened. Again, not just because science doesn’t like supernatural stuff. But also because the theological conclusions about God we end up with are truly ugly. And this greatest story ever told—Egypt, Exodus, Sinai, Promised Land—falls flat.

So we’re not dealing with a story that is to be taken as literally true. Two to three million Israelites were not a part of the picture; Egypt was not devastated as part of the Israelite withdrawal; there were no miracles. This is the judgment of history and science and scholarship. It’s just not “God says,” it’s “people say.”

So why did the people say it? Why did the ancient Israelites tell the story as they did?

Maybe we can’t take the story literally in all its details, but you know, something must really have happened three thousand plus years ago to those Israelites. “Why,” asks religion writer Jonathan Kirsch, “would the chroniclers of ancient Israel make up something as ignoble as four hundred years of servitude in a foreign land unless it was a fact of their history?” And not just the fact of four hundred years of servitude. Also all the murmuring of the Israelites, there in the desert. Time and again, they are saved from death, and still they complain. They KVETCH. Or they create a Golden Calf that spits in the eye of the one saving them. These are not moments to be proud of. Yet they make their way into the narrative, and that says something. A classic rule of Biblical interpretation puts it this way: where there’s honest disclosure of something embarrassing, you’re probably in touch with the truth.

Something must have happened. Surely, when you consider the spiritual and political vision of the ancient Israelites. The moment God hears his people moaning under slavery, the entire moral focus of the story becomes protesting exploitation of any and all kinds and building a society that nurtures everyone. Thirty-six times, in the Exodus narrative, the Israelites are urged to befriend the stranger, for they were themselves strangers in Egypt. The vision of social justice is paramount. The laws that Moses is purported to hand down from on high: some of them represent the most radical socioeconomic legislation of all time. For example: every forty-nine years, during what is called the Jubilee year, “all debts are to be forgiven, all debtors freed, all workers are to return to their ancestral lands, and all families split by economic hardship reunited. The messages is that the land belongs to God, not humans, and nobody should benefit too greatly or suffer too greatly for their work with God’s bounty.” (Bruce Feiler) Can you imagine a law like that here in America? What would happen if we observed it here and now? No need for the Occupy movement for sure….

Something must have happened—something transformative—to those ancient Israelites. If not duh duh duh duh, duh DAH DAH DAH DAH!! of the supernatural kind, then of a kind more natural but still amazing. Still life-changing.

And that’s what we’re looking for—the potentials for life-change—as we practice the Bible-reading principle that says, Don’t allow the Bible to stay stuck in the past. And don’t dismiss a passage if scholarship or science tells you that it can’t be literally true. Don’t cut it out. Go deeper instead. Read it as poetry, read it as metaphor, read it as myth that conveys psychological and spiritual truth. Let the Bible speak straight to your heart. like it did to that eight-year-old boy curled up in his Baba’s lap, smelling her smell of Oil of Olay, watching the scenes of The Ten Commandments unfold and getting it, getting the amazing message that belongs to no one time in history and to no one nation—the message that whatever form of slavery we are oppressed by, it can still be otherwise, there can still be change, there can still be a Promised Land.

Let the Bible speak. There will always be times we find ourselves at the shore of some Red Sea in life. Know what I mean? You were a slave, and somehow you fought your way out. You got away. But the Egyptian army is hot on your heels—your escape is not gonna be automatic or easy. So you are standing at the shoreline, and you are in a desperate, impossible place, and it’s just like poet Audre Lorde says: you are

seeking a now that can breed

like bread in our children’s mouths…

That’s what you are seeking in the face of fear and pain and chaos

a now that can breed

like bread in our children’s mouths.

So what are you going to do NOW?

Maybe there is no Charlton Heston Moses spreading his handsome arms out wide….
No supernatural guarantees to what you are doing
You don’t know what the end of this story is gonna look like

You know how the story of the Pilgrims ended,
or that of our Founding Fathers
or of the Civil War
or of the Civil Rights movement

You know those stories
all those desperate impossible times
when there were people who, against all odds,
stepped right into the Red Sea,
went right in up to their chests
up to their noses
up to their eyeballs
and THAT’S when the waters parted…

You know how their stories ended
just not your own…

What you DO know is you have to do this
you have to find a new life
you have to find your Promised Land

So step in
live a story in your life
larger than the one the world gives you.
Don’t allow yourself to be sucked up by the world….

Step in

The Twelve Steps as Spiritual Practice

Story before the sermon

Our reading this morning comes from authors Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham. Their book is entitled The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning.

Once upon a time, but not very long ago, in a kingdom both near and far away, there lived a canny scientist who longed for the love of a beautiful woman. Because his first love was not even science but his own knowledge, wise women were wary of the man, and so he lived a very lonely life.

One day, the man decided to use his science to win love, and he set about to concoct a chemical that would cause the object of his affection to fall madly in love with him. Soon his research succeeded, he produced the chemical, and as luck would have it, at just that time he met a beautiful, talented and good woman—the ultimate woman of his dreams.

The scientist arranged for friends to introduce them, and at their first meeting, he poured his potion into her beverage. Lo and behold, his fantasy came true! The exquisite creature fell instantly and completely in love with him, and they soon married.

But was our hero happy? Alas, no. In a short time, he became gaunt from not eating, his work fell by the wayside, and eventually he could not even bring himself to touch his beloved, as he spent every waking moment torturing himself, trying to devise some kind of test to answer his agonized question: “Would she love me if it were not for the chemical?”

For our scientist did crave love, but love cannot be commanded.


In their book The Spirituality of Imperfection, Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham share a story about a time when a group of addiction experts from Russia visited the United States and attended several Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, “hoping to find in those smoky rooms something that could be used to fight the serious alcohol problem in their homeland”:

They listened to the stories, they talked to the A.A. members, and they decided that, yes, there was something here that could help. But what was it, exactly? They couldn’t quite figure it out.

At the end of one meeting they approached their hosts, several of whom were recovering alcoholics. “We want to make alcoholics like that,” they said. “Teach us how.”

The hosts smiled in gentle understanding. “Well, that’s what we’ve been doing this evening,” came the answer. “You see, you learn how to be like THAT only by BEING like that.”

“But,” the Russians sputtered, “surely there must be something you could share with us, a technique, a certain kind of approach, some kind of trick that would make this all a little easier?”

“No,” came the reply. “What you see in this smoky room, what you want to take home with you, is spirituality; and if there is one thing that all alcoholics discover, it is that there are no shortcuts to spirituality, no techniques that can command it, and especially no ‘tricks.’ That’s what we tried to find in the bottle, in booze, in alcohol. It didn’t work. What we have learned is that the only ‘technique’ is what we call ‘a four-letter word’: it is spelled ‘T-I-M-E.’”


This morning, I want you to imagine that this space has become one of those smoky A.A. meeting rooms—although in all fairness, there’s lots of meetings these days which are non-smoking… But THIS room is smoky. And you’ve got a Styrofoam coffee cup in your hand. You’re sitting in a fold-up chair. Here we are. Now, you might be wondering why you are here, since you might not have an addiction to alcohol—or to another way of self-medicating like overeating, or gambling, or sex, or enabling someone who HAS an addiction—but maybe by the T-I-M-E our meeting is done you’ll see that there’s wisdom here for you too, whoever you are, in this room where people are working the Twelve Steps in their lives and sharing that with each other.

How many of you are familiar with the Twelve Steps? It’s a set of guiding principles first published in 1939, in the Big Book, more formally known as Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How More Than One Hundred Men Have Recovered from Alcoholism.

Since then, the guiding principles have been adapted to become the foundation for all sorts of recovery programs: Adult Children of Alcoholics, Codependents Anonymous, Crystal Meth Anonymous, Workaholics Anonymous, Online Gamers Anonymous, and on and on. The American Medical Association summarizes the Twelve Steps as follows: admitting that one cannot control one’s addiction or compulsion; recognizing a higher power that can give strength; examining past errors with the help of a sponsor (experienced member); making amends for these errors; learning to live a new life with a new code of behavior; helping others who suffer from the same addictions or compulsions.

There is a powerful form of spirituality here—that’s what gathers us together in this smoky room, in the T-I-M-E of this morning. That and lots of humor, lots of sayings and slogans. As in:

“How come if alcohol kills millions of brain cells, it never killed the ones that made me want to drink?”

“I’m an egomaniac with an inferiority complex.”

“The good news is you get your emotions back. The bad news is you get your emotions back”

“I would rather go through life sober, believing I am an alcoholic, than go through life drunk, trying to convince myself that I am not”

“Alcohol gave me wings and then slowly took away my sky”

“Resentments are like stray cats: if you don’t feed them, they’ll go away”

“I can’t do God’s will my way”

“The power behind me is greater than the problem in front of me.”

“I used to be a hopeless dope fiend, now I’m a dopeless hope fiend.”

“The shortest sentence in the Big Book is, “It works.”


One of the main things that happens in the smoky room of a Twelve Step meeting is storytelling. Rabbi Rami Shapiro speaks to this in his book, Recovery, where he says, “I am not drawn to Twelve Step meetings to listen to people who are perfect; I am drawn to listen to people who are broken and who have found the wisdom in that brokenness that allows them to live in a place of love. […] We don’t ignore the trauma of the past, and our story is still rooted in it, but it is no longer controlled by it. We don’t end up where we began. […] By learning to tell our story over and over, we learn to free ourselves from the emotions attached to it. We begin to tell the story in a detached manner. We own the story; the story no longer owns us.”

Here we are, in this smoky room, Styrofoam coffee cup in hand. And I’m gonna tell my story now, at least a part of it. TRUE story.

Hi, my name is Anthony. [Hi, Anthony]

I remember my Mom drugging as I was growing up—Dad ended up drugging too, but only after I left home for college, as far as I know. Before that, Dad was just Mom’s supplier—and since he was a medical doctor, the supply was endless.

I remember my Mom as either crazy high and rushing around the house, obsessively vacuuming the rugs, compulsively polishing windows and dusting and straightening; either this, or she’d be crashed on the couch, catatonic, dead to everything.

Either way, she was not available to me, and I felt the lack of connection in my body as an insecurity that ate into my child’s heart and made it hard to look into the eyes of my teachers; I felt it as an irritability that would not go away, a restlessness that made it hard to receive things like friendship and fun and peace and just spoiled everything and could only be soothed by busy-ness, activity, movement.

Also by snooping. I was an incurable snoop. What’s in this drawer? What’s in that desk? I marveled at how perfectly everything would be stacked and sorted. It got to be a game, although I learned, only too late, and much to my surprise, that Mom was playing the game too. One afternoon I snuck into the piano room. The rug had been carefully vacuumed in such a way that the tracings of the vacuum left cross-hatching marks. Didn’t pay much attention to that. Passed by the piano (yet another thing I was not allowed to touch) and longingly caressed the polished keys with a finger. Went straight to the cabinet and opened it, looked inside at my Dad’s classical LPs. One at a time, slipped out Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, the Red Army Choir. Looked at the albums, wondered about the music… Knew it was my heritage, since my family had come from that part of the world…. Didn’t linger too long, because my Spidey sense started to tingle… Mom was busy downstairs, but not for long… I slipped the LPs back, slunk out of the room, smiled to myself at my cleverness.

Until later, when Dad came home from work. “Bob, would you PLEASE tell your son not to go into the piano room? I work like a slave all day and I don’t need him going in there messing things up!” Mom found out because my small footprints had ruined the perfect symmetry of the rug’s crosshatching. I hadn’t thought of that.

Mom couldn’t bear my energy. I needed to sit down and shut up. I needed to be still. Being active in the house meant making a mess, and Mom hated messes. She was at war with messes. Mom couldn’t stand a house that wasn’t as sorted and clean as a museum. If I didn’t calm down, she’d put me outside and lock the door, that’s what she’d do. I’d be out there for hours. If I had to pee, it would be in a beer bottle.

One day, I tried a different strategy. Mom was drugging, so why not me? From previous times when I’d been sick with a cold, I’d noticed that the cough medicine Dad gave me made me feel REALLY good. Took me to a place where my body didn’t need to soothe itself through restlessness or snooping. Body felt groovy. Had no problem sitting down and shutting up then. In fact, all felt perfectly right with my world. This stuff was a straight shot to sweetness. I’d think of Mom, I’d think of Dad, and I’d tear up with the gooey feelings of love that I felt. Shortcut to love. The anger—the rage—was pushed aside, and it was a relief. Raging against the people who were your sole source of protection did not feel safe.

So my strategy was sneaking into the laundry room (where the medicines were stored) and stealing a few nips of that cough medicine. Did this early in the afternoon, so I’d have a couple hours to enjoy the kaleidoscope of the day.

Made me into a different kid. One way is this. I used to have this coin bank that looked like a barrel with a bunch of monkeys coming out of it. Smiling monkeys—and on the barrel, these words: “Quit monkeyin’ around and save money.” And I did. Ruthlessly. I was a greedy kid with my money. Didn’t like to spend it; wanted to keep it all because the fuller the bank was, the more I liked the sound when I shook it. Especially in my brother Rob’s presence, making him green with envy. Yeah! Rob was always wanting to borrow money, and I was always pitiless. Never gonna go there.

Until I started drugging. That’s what turned this 1% into a 99%er. Rob, you want some money? Sure! Want some more? Charge you interest? Are you kidding? What’s the matter with me? Nothing! I feel fiiiiine.

Dad eventually found out. Maybe Rob got seriously weirded out at my about-face generosity and complained to Dad. I don’t know. All I know is that when Dad found out, he bent me over his knee, spanked me good. Ordered me never to drink the stuff again. I limped away from the scene wondering why he never drew the line with Mom….

And I never did drink the stuff again. Ironically, I would end up developing a deadly allergy to the codeine that was the active substance in that cough syrup. And while my path since the days of my childhood has not led me into a problem with alcohol, it has taken me into being a super high-achiever, a workaholic, a caretaker … Not that wanting to excel is intrinsically bad, or working hard, or wanting to be a caring person. But since drugs as a way of playing God in my life were out of the question, I took to codependency instead. That’s what worked in my family; that’s what worked to ease the restlessness and irritability and lack of peace that I never stopped feeling. My way of playing God, my way of lying to myself that through carefully honed technique I can command the love that I so craved and still crave. My technique. My insanity.

And that’s my story.


If this were a real a real Twelve Step meeting, this would be the time for me to sit down. As another Twelve Step slogan says, to people who are sharing their story, “Be interesting, be brief, be seated.” But seeing that I’m the preacher today, let me tell you another story:

Comes from the tradition of Buddhism. One day, a woman approached the Buddha in tears. She presented him with her dead child and said, “Lord Buddha, I have heard that you can bring the dead back to life. This is my beloved son who died only this morning. I beg you, Lord Buddha, restore him to me.”

The Buddha agreed, provided that the woman bring him a single mustard seed from a home in the village that had not experienced death. The woman ran to the village and went door to door to find even one household that had not been touched by death. But every single one had been touched by death. There would be no mustard seed to bring back to the Buddha. Finally, when she returned to him, her grief was no less but her attitude towards it had changed. She knew the inevitability of suffering and the futility of seeking to make things other than they are. She could now mourn her child and move on.

I share this story because it gets to the heart of the matter. Everybody hurts. Life can hurt us terribly, if not disappoint us deeply. If it’s not a dysfunctional family with a drugging Mom and dealing Dad, it’s something else. Your child dies. Or a shy brown puppy comes into your life (that’s for those of you who were here last Sunday). Whatever it is—it’s always something.

And this so very easily takes us to the reflex response that is at the bottom of every kind of addiction: to refuse to move on, to refuse accepting reality—and this refusal energy morphs into paranoia that reality is out to get you! The essence of every kind of addiction is making war on reality, so that one can live in a world that is perfectly ordered to one’s design, as my Mom wanted to order her house. Seeking out the Buddha so he can bring your child back to life. Trying to be the Buddha yourself, to work a miracle. Playing God. God miracle of codeine-laced cough syrup—shortcut to love. God miracle of perfectionism and workaholism and every other kind of –ism you can think of, in order to force into being states of heart and mind like self-confidence, contentment, peace. “We sought,” says Rabbi Rami Shapiro, “to create for ourselves a world of light alone, and when that failed, we sought to shield ourselves from the dark through acts of self-medication.”

But Twelve Step spirituality says that there’s hope. There’s T-I-M-E. “I used to be a hopeless dope fiend, now I’m a dopeless hope fiend.” “The power behind me is greater than the problem in front of me.”

One of the ways I practice Twelve Step spirituality is through a prayer of my own. I created it in the context of yet another circumstance in which I felt the itch to play God in my life. Being judge, jury, and executioner all rolled up into one. It was years ago. I was sitting on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, watching the fascinating world go by with all its exotic and exciting sights and scenes, but feeling like I was on the outside, looking in. Not able to take it all in, not able to be in the moment and feel joy. Feeling wretched and alone, “other,” left out, ill-prepared for life because I’d grown up in a screwed up family….

Out of this turmoil came the words of a prayer that I continue to pray to this very day, some days more than others…. Something like this:

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.

My holy trinity: forgiveness, trust, gratitude.

My way of doing what the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous says: “ceasing from fighting anything and everyone.” Stopping the war and letting go, letting go of all my pride that says I am entitled to whatever I want. Letting go of pride, letting go of greed for MORE, letting go of the itch to order my world as my Mom tried to order her house … and relaxing. Relaxing into the sea of my life. THIS is the only power I really do have … not hard power to command the world to be as I want it to be, not hard power to command love, but soft power to let go and relax, soft power to let the sea hold and carry me along its currents. Let go and let God.

Forgiveness, trust, gratitude. Trusting that if I take one step at a time, with every step life is going to meet me with what I need. The daily bread will come. “Alcoholism is a disease of faith,” says the writers of The Spirituality of Imperfection. “Alcoholics often develop a cynical attitude toward life, not seeing anything to believe in. When you persistently feel the need to change your consciousness through drugs or booze, you are expressing a lack of trust in yourself, in your ability to tolerate life undiluted, to find value in your own, unadulterated experience.” That’s what I saw Mom and Dad doing all the time. I did it too. I knew and know this kind of self-mistrust intimately. But there is another way. It’s like my man Emerson says, in one of my all-time favorite quotes: “There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till.”

Forgiveness, trust, gratitude. The power behind me which is greater than the problem in front of me. The Higher Power I have to turn my will and life over to again and again, lest resentment be the poison I keep on drinking in the insane hope that it’s gonna kill anything and everyone that’s hurt me. Praying that prayer again and again, to open up my heart. It’s just like washing the dishes. Never happens just once. It’s just part of the human condition to slip into the mania of wanting to play God. But as Bill Wilson, creator of the Twelve Step program, says, “First of all, we had to quit playing God.” “I can’t do God’s will my way” “Let go and let God.”

The shortest sentence in the Big Book is, “It works.”

Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Getting Started

Reading the Bible again for the first time. Isn’t that an interesting idea? Suggests some kind of initial acquaintance, and then a return, a seeing-again with new eyes.

It’s certainly my story. I grew up singing songs like this

The B-I-B-L-E
Yes, that’s the book for me
I stand alone on the Word of God
The B-I-B-L-E

You all know that song?

But then I got a little older, and I started to struggle with how my teachers were interpreting the B-I-B-L-E, as well as with the kinds of hurtful things people were doing in the Bible’s name. I had to let the B-I-B-L-E go for a long time actually, until Unitarian Universalism helped me read it again for the first time.

Another story of this comes from writer A. J. Jacobs in his both hilarious and insightful book, The Year of Living Biblically:

“I grew up in an extremely secular home in New York City. I am officially Jewish, but I’m Jewish in the same way the Olive Garden is an Italian restaurant. Which is to say: Not very. […] It’s not that my parents badmouthed religion. It’s just that religion wasn’t for us. We lived in the 20th century, for crying out loud. In our house, spirituality was almost a taboo subject, much like my father’s salary or my sister’s clove cigarette habit.

“My only brushes with the Bible were brief and superficial. […] I attended a handful of bar mitzvahs where I zoned out during services and spent the time trying to guess who had bald spots under their yarmulkes. […] And as far as childhood religion, that was about it.

“College didn’t help my spiritual development. I went to a secular university where you were more likely to study the semiotics of Wicca rituals than the Judeo-Christian tradition. And when we did read the Bible, it was as literature, as a fusty ancient book with the same truth quotient as The Faerie Queene.

“For a long time, I thought that religion, for all the good it does, seemed too risky for our modern world. The potential for abuse too high. I figured it would slowly fade away like other archaic things.” But then A. J. Jacobs goes on to say, “I was spectacularly mistaken. The influence of the Bible — and religion as a whole – remains a mighty force, perhaps even stronger than it was when I was a kid. So in the last few years, religion has become my fixation. Is half of the world suffering from a massive delusion? Or is my blindness to spirituality a huge defect in my personality? What if I’m missing out on part of being human, like a guy who goes through life without ever hearing Beethoven or falling in love? And most important, I now have a young son – if my lack of religion is a flaw, I don’t want to pass it onto him. So I knew I wanted to explore religion. I just needed to figure out how.” Thus began A. J. Jacobs’ year-long adventure in trying to live the Bible in complete literal fashion. The book is a scream. Gotta read it!

Point is, people are reading the Bible again for the first time, and there’s lots of reasons why. I did it simply because I’m a Unitarian Universalist, and Judaism and Christianity are one of our six main sources of truth and wisdom; but I also did it because the Bible reflects a significant part of my history, struggles and all, and I don’t want to have to shut that out of my life, I don’t want to let unresolved issues about the Bible limit my spiritual growth or my relationships.

As for A. J. Jacobs, he might have grown up with only fragmentary impressions of the Bible; he might have read it in college and been bored to tears; but now that he’s older, and sees the permanent and all-pervasive nature of its influence, he wants to go deeper. It’s about being fully alive. “What if I’m missing out on part of being human,” he asks, “like a guy who goes through life without ever hearing Beethoven or falling in love?” He doesn’t want to miss out on being fully alive—and doesn’t want his son to miss out on that, either.

Reading the Bible again for the first time. So many reasons for why we might do this. Yet another is to improve our cultural intelligence. From classics like Shakespeare and Leonardo da Vinci and Bach, all the way to contemporary movies like Dead Man Walking, Pulp Fiction, the Matrix, and Hannibal: Bible themes are everywhere. Know your Bible, you can grasp better what’s going on. Don’t know your Bible, you’re missing out, you’re in the dark.

There’s one more reason to consider, before we move on. The political reason. I’m talking culture wars over homosexuality and same-sex marriage, culture wars over the teaching of evolution in public schools, culture wars over women’s reproductive rights. The Bible is at the heart of things here too. Specifically: the issue of how to see it and read it—this issue that our wisdom story today addressed so well. Interpretation. The fundamentalist-conservative side sees the Bible as a flawless transcription of words coming straight from God’s mouth, to be applied literally everywhere and at all times. But strongly opposed to this is the other side: people convinced that this approach is wrong, that the Bible is not to be taken literally. But then how is it to be taken? People on the other side (and I’m talking about US) often do not offer a compelling vision for how to read the Bible in a better way. So ultimately, in the end, what happens is that the Religious Right steals the Bible and transforms it into a set of conservative talking points. Because we no longer read the thing ourselves with any degree of sophistication, we take their interpretations to represent what the Bible actually says, and we miss out on all the ways the Bible stands for something better. As religion writer Bruce Feiler points out, “on a wide range of topics, including respecting the value of other faiths, shielding religion from politics, serving the poor and protecting the environment, the Bible offers powerful arguments in support of moderate and liberal causes.” This is a wonderful thing, and it’s time that this best kept secret about the Bible be spread far and wide. People need to know. Just can’t let the Religious Right steal the power of the Bible to be used for ends that are unloving and unjust!

So here we are: reading the Bible again for the first time. This is actually the title of a book written by religion scholar Marcus Borg, and we’re going to be using it as our primary source text for our year-long sermon series. Today, we’re looking at ideas covered in the first three chapters; next month, it’s chapter 4: “Reading the Creation Stories Again.” Very very cool stuff.

You’ll also need a Bible. Perhaps that goes without saying—or does it go without saying? Gotta have a Bible—read it side by side with Borg—and my recommendation is that you use the New Revised Standard Version, because it has one of the best reputations for the use of correct original texts and accuracy of translation. Other good possibilities include the Revised Standard Version, The Revised English Bible, and the New International Version. I do suggest that you look away from that old warhorse, the King James Version, despite the archaic beauty of its language—because the language IS archaic and hard to relate to, and also because it incorporates lots of errors and mistranslations. I’d also avoid Bible paraphrases like The Living Bible and The Good News Bible, because they gloss over difficulties, they leave things out, and they do all this in order to convey a decidedly conservative religious viewpoint.

OK, so by now we know why we’re reading the Bible again for the first time, and we’ve got some of the housekeeping, some of the logistics taken care of. Now—it’s time to jump in. And let’s do this by looking at three basic principles for reading the Bible in a way that enables us to take it, not literally, but seriously and profoundly. Not slavish adherence to the surface, but faithfulness to the deeper spirit.

Here’s the first principle: to very carefully distinguish mystical experiences of the Sacred from interpretations of the experiences. On the one hand you have true Wonder and Mystery, and on the other you have people trying to make sense of what they felt and saw and heard. The two—God and humanity—simply cannot be confused, because when that happens, you have people opening up their Bibles saying, “Let’s see what God says about that.” You have people taking absolutist moral positions on the basis of 3000 year-old laws which they see as God’s laws. You have people saying all that, totally ignoring how the Bible writers said what they said in great part on the basis of the culture they lived in, the specific concerns of their communities, their personal hopes and fears.

Which means we CAN talk about the sins of scripture without dismissing the Bible altogether. The Bible writers produced so much that is usable and inspiring, but they, like all humans, bear the scars and the biases of their time. The Bible writers were not immune to the injustices of their world, and we see this in atrocious passages—toxic passages—that literalists invoke to harm women, homosexuals, children, Jews, and all of us.

But if we no longer see scripture as “God says” but “people say,” then we are free to use our ethical and spiritual judgment to separate the good from the bad, the noble from the base. “The Bible says so” must never be used to silence doubts, to put a stop to honest conversation, or to justify hurtful actions. Ultimately nothing and no one can take away the personal responsibility each of us has to do the right thing in life. People try to hand it off to one kind of religious authority or another all the time; they just want to be given orders to carry out with a clean conscience. Bob Jones, of Bob Jones University, likes to say, “The Bible itself is intolerant, and true followers of God should be as well.” THAT IS NOT GOING TO CUT IT. TAKE RESPONSIBILITY. It’s NEVER “God says.” ALWAYS, it’s “people say.” We always have a choice.

This first principle—distinguishing the Sacred from interpretations of the Sacred—also helps us to understand something else: the clear fact that different books of the Bible talk about different kinds of God, so in the beginning you face a bloodthirsty Yahweh who creates the world but ends up destroying it through a flood, and then later on He urges the Israelites to slaughter their enemies; but in other places you have the God of the prophets who longs for a time when there shall be no more war, and the lion shall lie down with the lamb; and then you have the God of Jesus, whom he called Abba, which means “daddy,”—Jesus, who at times even characterized God in feminine terms as an all-embracing womb. To all this we can say: Of course. It’s because Bible stories convey the voices and visions of people changing over time, moving from perspectives that are firmly tribal to those that are more open and universal. The Bible writers are people grappling in the deepest ways with the challenges and possibilities of life. I pray to God that we might be people like this too. This is what it means to be fully, humanly alive. This is what we’re missing out on, as A. J. Jacobs suggested earlier, if we don’t read the Bible.

The first principle of Bible reading: It’s never “God says”; it’s always “humans say” –humans in quest for meaning and truth in life, humans striving for love and justice yet always creatures of their day, always limited by this. That’s the first principle of Bible reading.

Which leads immediately to the second: to stress a historical, contextual understanding of the Scriptures. Marcus Borg likes to say that “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” And this cannot ever be underestimated. It is undeniable that the Bible stories continue to inspire and inform people because they are just fine literature, powerful narratives. But as readers we will miss so much of the meaning if we are not aware of the ancient world from which these stories came.

For example, consider a parable that appears in Matthew, Mark, and Luke in the Christian scriptures. Jesus is comparing what he calls the Kingdom of Heaven to a mustard seed. From small beginnings, it grows into something big: that’s pretty much what we get from the parable—kind of ho-hum, honestly, and you can get far richer wisdom from the self-help section of your local bookstore—unless we go deeper, unless we understand more of Jesus’ historical context. Fact is, in Jesus’ day, his parable would have made the jaws of his hearers drop. His hearers, first of all, were oppressed peasants, and they wanted Jesus to compare the kingdom to something more bold, something more triumphant, something that would represent the destruction of the Romans and the advent of their long-awaited social and political freedom. But Jesus doesn’t give them that. He gives them a mustard plant, low-lying, scrubby, weedy. Jaws dropped when he said it, also because Jewish religious law dictated that the mustard plant was unclean. Jewish gardens of the time followed the religious injunction that different kinds of plants should never mix and needed to stay separate from each other. But you know what would happen if a mustard plant got in there? It would grow and spread like a wild weed, mixing things up like crazy, uniting things that were supposed to stay separate and apart. But this is how the Kingdom of Heaven works, said Jesus. It’s a love which overcomes all differences, a love which reconciles all who are separated, a love which is always already here and now among us, a power just waiting to be recognized in this very moment! If that’s what unclean looks like, then the Kingdom of Heaven is unclean.

Know your Bible history—know the context out of which the speakers speak—and what emerges is a book that is radical and profound and utterly unique among all the world’s religious literature.

And now the third and last Bible-reading principle. It says, don’t allow the Bible to stay stuck in the past. And don’t dismiss a passage if science tells you that it can’t be literally true. Don’t cut it out. Instead, go deeper. Read it as poetry, read it as metaphor, read it as myth that conveys psychological and spiritual truth. The voice of the Bible can comfort you, can challenge you, can speak to your spirit right here and right now. It will read you more than you read it, if you let it.

Just allow that Bible parable from a moment ago sink in. The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed. It starts out small, grows and spreads like a wild weed, and mixes things up, connects things are separate and apart. To allow the Bible to read you in this instance is to ask, What are the rigid polarities or dichotomies of my life? Woman vs. man? Gay vs. straight? Rich vs. poor? Head vs. heart? Work vs. play? Safe and bored vs. risky and energized? Think about it. Are there places where you WANT things to remain all polarized like this? All ordered like this?

But then comes a tiny seed, from somewhere… It comes, and what does it look like? Is it an idea? A person? Something that, in its apparent smallness, seems insignificant, but you let it go, and BAM, it grows like crazy, it mixes things up like crazy. What does this look like, for you? Is it happening in your life right now? Does it scare you, make you anxious?

Does it even make sense to think that the Kingdom of Heaven might be a place or a state that creates fear and anxiety? Isn’t heaven supposed to be angels sitting on downy clouds strumming lutes? What is Heaven, truly? What does it mean to be abundantly alive?

And THAT’S reading the Bible! That’s the Bible reading you! That’s how the Bible truly becomes sacred scripture, when it opens your heart up, gets the deepest possible questions and conversations going, puts you in a place where you can feel the Spirit of Life speaking, you can hear it speaking, and guess what? It’s speaking right to you.

Spirituality of Atheism

William Zellner is a sociology professor at East Central University in Oklahoma, and his story began in the fall of 1991, when a local newspaper asked students, “Who is the worst professor on campus?” One girl, a member of a fundamentalist Christian church, answered, “Dr. Zellner. I don’t take his classes because he’s an atheist.” Now when Dr. Zellner found out, he merely thought, Okay, don’t take my classes. Nothing to worry about. I’ve never had a problem filling classrooms. But then horrible things started to happen. He started receiving anonymous notes from students under his door, damning him to hell. A fellow professor sent him a seven page letter, accusing him of being in league with Satan. Threatening phone calls were made to his home, insisting that he and his family get out of town. One church made up campaign-style buttons which read “I am praying for Dr. Zellner,” and they sold for a dollar each. His car was vandalized to the tune of $543. Worst of all, his daughter, six years old at the time, lost playmates. And his nine-year-old son was physically attacked during a little-league baseball game, all because his Dad was an atheist.

That’s Dr. Zellner’s story. Story of shameful prejudice and bigotry. How many of you have friends to which this sort thing has actually happened? Or it’s happened to you?

What we have in America is a knee-jerk dislike of atheists. We Unitarian Universalists know this much to our dismay and regret. A recent Washington Post article spells out the details: “Those who don’t believe in God are widely considered to be immoral, wicked, and angry. They can’t join the Boy Scouts. Atheist soldiers are rated potentially deficient when they do not score as sufficiently ‘spiritual’ in military psychological evaluations. Surveys find that most Americans refuse or are reluctant to marry or vote for nontheists.” And on and on.

No wonder there are some atheists who are angry, who fight back in “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” fashion—“end of faith” atheists like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens who espouse rigid, rampant intolerance against anything that’s NOT atheism, whose “one way, one truth, one life” mentality is just as narrow and fundamentalist as the bigots who attacked Dr. Zellner, except they’re going in the exact opposite direction. And many fellow atheists vehemently oppose this, including the great Carl Sagan. He writes, “The chief deficiency I see in the skeptical movement,” he says, “is its polarization: Us vs. Them—the sense that we have a monopoly on the truth; that those other people who believe in all these stupid doctrines are morons; that if you’re sensible, you’ll listen to us; and if not, to hell with you. This,” says Carl Sagan, “is nonconstructive.”

Definitely it’s nonconstructive for us in this congregation; in fact it blatantly contradicts our purpose as Unitarian Universalists, which is to create beloved community in which people don’t have to be alike or think alike to come alive. That’s a new way in this world full of polarizations of one kind or another—“one way, one truth, one life” ideologies constantly clashing, giving each other hell. But not here. We’re building a new way. “Give them not hell, but hope and courage!”

The world needs more of it. Especially our atheist brothers and sisters. For in this world, at least in the American world, there are as many as 60 million people who are nonbelievers. That’s the finding from one recent survey. A fifth of the population! And they, like everyone else, are just trying to get an honest handle on life, trying to come alive in a way that has integrity for them. Which is so hard to do in the face of widespread bigotry and prejudice, or when your profoundest sense of life—that there is no God who’s gonna take care of us, so we need to take care of each other—is co-opted and made into a rationale for yet more religious warfare.

What I want to accomplish today is to push aside the prejudice and push aside the reverse fundamentalism and get to a place that is far more quiet, far more profound—the heart and spirituality of atheism (or “humanism,” but I stick with the word atheism because that’s the word best understood outside these walls). And to go even one step further—to show that the atheist form of spirituality is one we can all learn from, no matter where we happen to stand on God and the supernatural.

Are you ready?

Here we go!

First thing to look at is language. “Spirituality.” Gotta come clean right off the bat about how that’s a word many atheists might struggle with. Say the word, and what springs instantly to mind are beings and forces from other mysterious realms: gods, spirits, angels, cherubs, angry father gods, suffocating mother gods, ascended masters, and on and on, perhaps even a flying spaghetti monster or two…. So when I say, “spirituality of atheism,” some of you out there might be sitting back going, “Yes, Rev. David, do tell….” “Really want to hear THIS.”

But listen to what atheist philosopher Robert Solomon, in his wonderful book Spirituality for the Skeptic: The Thoughtful Love of Life, does with that word. Clear away all the supernaturalistic connotations, and look at what’s left. “Team spirit” or “spirit of the times,” for one thing, suggesting that spirituality is inherently social, the undeniable yearning in us for a sense of connection with others and with the larger world. Then there’s “spirits,” as in high-alcoholic beverages—the image here is drinking in life to the full, reveling in it, being set free from whatever inhibitions prevent us from joining in. Spirituality is about feeling connected to something larger than one’s ego—feeling opened up, rooted in richness, being set free, enjoying life to the full. We feel this—we yearn for this—whether or not we’ve ever had a sense that there’s a Higher Power, a directing uber-force to the universe, or invisible presences that companion us.

Even if God goes, this does not mean that spirituality goes.

Perhaps that’s why, historically, we encounter full-blown religions that espouse versions of atheism. Therevada Buddhism is one of them. Here’s a story from that tradition to consider: “One day a man named Malunkyaputta questioned the Buddha about the need to have certain answers to the big religious questions of life. Shouldn’t ultimate happiness depend upon having certain answers to important questions like, Does God exist? Or, Do we survive bodily death? In response, all the Buddha said was this: “It is as if … a man had been wounded by an arrow thickly smeared with poison, and his friends and companions, his relatives and kinsfolk, were to procure for him a physician … and the sick man were to say, `I will not have this arrow taken out until I have learned the name of the man who wounded me.’ Or again if he were to say, `I will not have this arrow taken out of me until I have learned whether the man who wounded me was tall, or short, or of middle height.’” That’s what the Buddha said. Life is urgent, and the spiritual quest for healing and wholeness doesn’t have to be held hostage to beliefs. For 2500 years, Therevadan Buddhism has produced communities of spiritual seekers coming alive to love and compassion, and belief in God has never played a part in that.

This, I think, is the first gift to all of us out of the spirituality of atheism: a broader definition of spirituality that can create common ground between what appear to be insurmountable differences. Theists, on the one hand, and atheists and agnostics and humanists on the other, can all be growing into a deeper sense of meaning and purpose, and in that sense, they are equally spiritual, despite the different ways they might go about it. What divides them, in fact, is far less than what divides the person who seeks more love and justice in life from the person who is apathetic, who is self-centered, who just doesn’t care. Seen from this perspective, theists and atheists are on the same side, they are on the same team. But it’s atheism that helps us to this insight.

Atheism has things to teach everyone. It is a spiritual way of coming alive.

But now let’s get deeper into this “way.” Beyond a rejection of God and the supernatural, beyond a broader definition of spirituality, what does atheism affirm in a positive sense?

For one thing: the free-mind principle. Reason. It’s about counteracting ignorance and superstition keeping people in bondage in one form or fashion. From the free-mind principle so much follows: the separation of church and state; the advance of science; the support and preservation of a free marketplace of ideas; the nurture of a quality educational system that teaches people of all ages how to think critically and well—to tell the difference between truth and “truthiness.”

That’s one thing atheism positively affirms, and here’s another: reverence. Philosopher Paul Woodruff describes reverence as a basic human capacity (found in all cultures and all times) to appreciate and be in awe of things larger than oneself, like one’s family and community, or ideals like justice and mutual respect. Which means that reverence is also a capacity for feeling shame, when arrogance and pride have caused us to think that we are the center of the universe, or that other people are accountable to ideals like justice and mutual respect, but not me! And when someone else comes across all high and mighty, all puffed-up? Reverence can express itself in the form of irony and humor. It can lead us to mock pretentiousness, like Voltaire did, or like Stephen Colbert does in our day (thank God!) ;-)

Atheism affirms reverence. It invites awe at the greatness of the world in which we live. It’s our responsive reading from earlier:

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.

What a mystery we live within! And how awe-inspiring to think that, through hundreds of millions of years, the world went on unheard, unseen, silently eating, giving birth, dying, until human consciousness was born, and now, we are the ones, we are the ones who give voice to all this, we are the precious eyes and ears, we are the witnesses!

Don’t tell me that “this world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through!” Don’t tell me that! (I say this even though I’m a theist, I believe in reincarnation, I believe all that stuff! But atheism teaches me a better attitude towards the here and now.) Just don’t tell me “this world is not my home.” The thought lacks reverence!

And now the third of atheism’s affirmations: ethics. “My fate and your fate,” says Unitarian Universalist atheist Mark Hertzog, “are to a great extent bound together. It may be enlightened self-interest after all—the next person in trouble could be me—but I think it is more than that. As an atheist who believes there is no god who is going to take care of us, I am far more conscious of our need to take care of each other and this fragile environment in which we make our home—and far more conscious that, if I don’t do something that something is not going to be done.” I mean, you listen to a voice like this, and set it side by side with the widespread stereotype that atheists are somehow immoral, and it makes your head explode. Fact is, atheists tend to be more ethical than their God-professing counterparts. If you want to find the states with the highest murder rates, for example, just look at church attendance. The higher they are, the more murders.

(ok waitaminute… Now I’m suddenly realizing that what I just said might take us down a rabbit hole…. I’m not saying stop coming to church, OK?)

But you get my point. Ethics—making the world a better place—is a burning passion for atheism. Consider all our human potentials for love, for reason, for compassion and ethics, for creativity and the appreciation of beauty, for self-transcendence and service: but how are they going to become real if a person has no home to sleep in, no food to eat, no family situation that is secure? How is it going to happen when poverty and racism cripple people’s freedom—when consumerism and affluenza wither the soul? How’s it going to happen?

That’s why an atheist’s true prayer is this-worldly service. Why, for example, the atheist might be driven crazy by the remarkable indifference of so-called right-to-lifers to family services, educational facilities, and child welfare laws—to all that would ensure the health and well-being of children in THIS world. They do everything to prevent abortions from taking place, but when the new life is born, that’s it. Hands off. “This world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through!” But that’s not reverential, to the atheist. It’s not ethical.

There’s a fourth thing that atheism affirms—we can’t finish without acknowledging it: community. Theologian Anthony Pinn puts it this way, “There is nothing behind the symbol God. In its place, I affirm the idea of community. It is in community that we are encouraged to develop our full human potential and overcome oppression.” I am because WE are. You and I get to be here, atheists and theists and all sorts of whats-its in-between, because WE are. Community. It’s where we feel the music of life most intensely, and we dance. We are carried out of ourselves, connected to something larger. If the Spirit of Life is truly anywhere, it is in our relationships, in our friendships, in our loves.

This world IS our home, says atheism. We aren’t just passin’ through. This is IT! So carpe diem-—seize the day! Open ourselves to every moment with reverence, because we trust that every stage of life has its unique inherent worth and dignity, and we can expect something meaningful to come our way even if it’s full of pain and sorrow, even if it spells our end. Life is like wine, so drink it in deeply. Life is like a dance, so let the music move you, let it harmonize you to the movements of another, get lost in the revel.

[T]he dancers go round (says a poem by William Carlos Williams)
they go round and
around, the squeal and the blare and the

tweedle of bagpipes, a bugle and fiddles

tipping their bellies (round as the thick-

sided glasses whose wash they impound)

their hips and their bellies off balance

to turn them. Kicking and rolling

about the Fair Grounds, swinging their butts, those

shanks must be sound to bear up under such

rollicking measures, prance as they dance…

That’s what atheism can teach all of us: rollicking passion for THIS world (whether or not there’s another), unstinting intensity for THIS world, love of THIS world, courage for THIS world, THIS precious life.

Introducing Unitarian Universalism

If ever there was a story that captures the religious predicament of humankind throughout time, it’s that of the blind men and the elephant. There is a great mystery called an “elephant” six people have heard a lot about, but because of the human condition (which the story symbolizes as blindness), they are incapable of ever seeing it completely and as a whole. One day this great mystery elephant comes near where they are, and each has the opportunity to put their hands directly upon it. They do that, and each comes away with a piece of the truth which is more like poetry than anything else. Metaphor. The great mystery elephant is like a wall or a spear or a snake or a tree or a fan or a rope. All true—but none capturing the whole truth.

At this point the story shifts to the issue of human relationships—what people do with their separate pieces of the truth. And here the story is less optimistic. Humans are simply built for community, but we also know that pieces of truth have a nasty tendency to make people quarrel. For my piece to be true, yours must be false. Six blind men who have somehow forgotten they are blind, and there is no indication in the story that the quarreling ever stops.

Not a happy ending. But if there is anything that Unitarian Universalism has faith in, it is that the story need not end like this. “We are here dedicated,” says the Rev. David Bumbaugh, “to the proposition that beneath all our differences, behind all our diversity, there is a unity that makes us one and binds us forever together, in spite of time and death and the space between the stars.” That’s what I want to talk about today: this unity which binds Unitarian Universalists together. A unity of understanding about the nature of sacred reality; and a unity of spiritual practice. Unity, in spite of all.

Start with the unity of understanding about the nature of sacred reality. Three main things to say here.

The first is this: our Unitarian Universalist conviction that the spiritual meaning of the universe is open. Part of this is due to the sheer BIGNESS of God. We put our hands upon God, in our blindness, and come away with images of walls or spears or snakes or trees or fans or ropes. More to the point, some people address a cosmic conscious personality in prayer and feel responded to; others meditate and experience nothing personal but rather a simple sheer unity of all things; still others experience a world in which there are many, not one, sacred forces with conscious intent. And on and on. Different people experience all sorts of different things—and this may very well owe to the fact that the great mystery elephant has lots of different places where we can grab ahold of it. A side, a tusk, a trunk, a leg, an ear, a tail. Where sacred reality is concerned, it’s both/and, not either/or. We must not underestimate its subtlety, its complexity, its paradoxicality.

Sacred reality is not one way—it’s open, ambiguous. And contributing to this is of course our own human diversity. We don’t all observe the world from the same place, or with identlcal understandings. Some of us can be up on the balcony; others of us can be on the floor. Unitarian Universalist author Kurt Vonnegut makes this plain in his book Breakfast of Champions, when he says of the main character, Kilgore Trout: “Kilgore Trout once wrote a short story which was a dialogue between two pieces of yeast. They were discussing the possible purposes of life as they ate sugar and suffocated in their own excrement. Because of their limited intelligence, they never came close to guessing that they were making champagne.” Now I have a feeling that the conversation between the pieces of yeast was fairly grim. But does this grimness lose its validity in the face of the ultimate champagne result? I say no—it faithfully reflects where the pieces of yeast were. Have to honor that. But the champagne result is important too, and lifts up the significance of it all, gives it a direction. On difficult days when we are feeling too much like the pieces of yeast, it’s healing and hope-inspiring to remember that there’s some kind of champagne in the making, though we may have no idea at the time what it might be!

We’re talking openness of spiritual meaning in the world, because of the sheer SIZE of God, together with the diversity of human perspective. And Unitarian Universalists celebrate this. People who are theistic, people who are atheistic, people who are agnostic—all kinds of people—are welcome in our congregations. This fact about us is nothing less then scandalous to some, to others confusing and perplexing, but for us, it flows out of our integrity. What is sacred is too big to be captured by any one creed or way. And one-size-fits-all religion makes for some mighty uncomfortable spiritual clothing for everybody.

This leads very naturally to the second Unitarian Universalist conviction about the nature of sacred reality. That sources of truth are many. We believe it. Even though no single religion or way captures the whole truth about sacred reality, still, each one has a piece of it. It’s just like a jigsaw puzzle. The more pieces we have, the more of the whole we can experience. “We receive,” says the Rev. Sara York, “fragments of holiness, glimpses of eternity, brief moments of insight. Let us gather them up for the precious gifts they are and, renewed by their grace, move boldly into the unknown.”

As Unitarian Universalists, we formally acknowledge the manyness of truth sources with our statement called, very simply, “The Six Sources.” Goes like this: “The living tradition which we share draws from many sources: (1) Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life; (2) Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion and the transforming power of love; (3) Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life; (4) Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves; (5) Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit; and (6) Spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.” I love it! We absolutely stand within a tradition of abundance. Ours is a spirituality of adventure!

And what’s especially cool about this listing of sources is how in it we can read our growth over time as a religion. It all starts with the fourth source, Judaism and Christianity. Originally Unitarianism and Universalism were beliefs that some of the earliest Jesus followers had and held dear. Unitarianism said that God is one; Jesus is not God but rather a man who lived a truly God-inspired life; Jesus saves not by virtue of his death but by the example of his life, if we live as he lived. Universalism, on the other hand, said that God is like the father of the Prodigal Son in the scriptures, and it does not matter what our sins are—God in the end will never turn a soul away. There is no such thing as eternal hell.

2000 years ago, this is what our religion was: two precious beliefs held by people who were in the end declared heretics. It was only with the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century and beyond that these beliefs started to take institutional form, and people called themselves Unitarians or Universalists. In America, the first Universalist church was founded in 1780, and soon after that, in 1794, was the founding of the first Unitarian church.

For these religious communities and the ones that followed, the overarching mandate was connecting with God’s truth which, for most of our history, took the form of applying reason towards the interpretation of the Scriptures. That’s where spiritual wisdom resided. Yet our communities were also connected to the larger world and to developments in scholarship, social conditions, and international relations. All these would eventually lead a Unitarian pastor named Ralph Waldo Emerson in the mid-1800s to go way beyond the sensibilities of most people in his time and say, “Live after the infinite Law that is in you, and in company with the infinite Beauty which heaven and earth reflect to you in all lovely forms.” Essentially, Emerson was saying that revelation can’t possibly be contained just within the Hebrew or Christian Bible. The wellspring is fundamentally within each of our souls; revelation bubbles up out of the spark of the Divine in our depths. Add to this the revelation of nature, as well as the revelation embodied by the Bibles of many times and lands, such as Hinduism’s Bhagavad Gita. This is what Emerson said, as well as his circle of friends and colleagues whom history calls the Transcendentalists. Transcendentalism would come to infuse many of our congregations in the later 1800s, such that it became regular practice for Unitarians and Universalists to aspire to direct experience of the Mystery, to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature, and to read the Hebrew and Christian scriptures side by side with the Bibles of many lands and times.

Beyond all this, add Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species: publication of this in 1859 hit our congregations like a meteor; and subsequent progress in science and technology taught us that we could not in all good conscience say we were a truth-seeking people unless we added science as one of our formal sources of knowledge and wisdom.

Finally, the early 20th century saw the rise of humanism, which envisioned the healthy and responsible spiritual life as one without conceptions of God or an afterlife or anything smacking of the supernatural—one that relied upon humanity and human efforts and our usual five senses alone.

All our Six Sources are evident in this whirlwind tour of our history of growth over time; and whereas from the 1950s to the mid-1980s humanism was our central and main source, today we are a fully pluralistic people and aspire to draw from all sources in robust ways. Individual Unitarian Universalists will have their favorite Sources, for sure (you know who you are!); but as a community, our proper and right commitment is to welcome them all.

Now let’s pause for a moment and see how far we’ve come. What started us off was that lovely quote from the Rev. David Bumbaugh: “behind all our diversity, there is a unity that makes us one and binds us forever together, in spite of time and death and the space between the stars.” So far we’ve been exploring part of what makes up this unity—a unity of understanding about sacred reality. The spiritual meaning of the universe is open. The sources of truth about the sacred are many. Now we turn to a third conviction, that the test of an idea’s truth is how it changes lives. Also very much a shared Unitarian Universalist conviction. We’ll look at this, and then finish up by exploring some of the ways we Unitarian Universalists put all this into personal and communal practice. Are we blind men fated to never get to champagne? Fated to get stuck in that miserable phase that comes right before? Let’s see!

But first: the test of an idea’s truth: how it changes lives. Doesn’t matter who says it, where it comes from, how respected or rarified the pedigree. Not origin, but consequence. Not roots, but fruits. Sometimes we are talking theoretical consequences, as in, does the idea or practice extend existing knowledge? Does it help us connect the dots more simply, or more comprehensively? But all the time, we are talking practical consequences, lifestyle consequences. Truth allows life to flourish and brings people and planet together in harmony; whereas falsehood denigrates life, violates our relationships, destroys our world. “In the end,” says the Rev. John Morgan, “it won’t matter how much we have, but how generously we have given. It won’t matter how much we know, but rather how well we live. And it won’t matter how much we believe, but how deeply we love.” That’s it! Truth takes us into the Spirit of Life, which is a Spirit of richness and creativity and love and forgiveness and compassion and activism. That’s where we want to go!

And this is the context within which another major statement of our faith tradition needs to be understood: our “Seven Principles.” We use the Seven Principles as a yardstick with which to measure the degree of truth in us. Here’s what it sounds like:

Unitarian Universalist congregations seek to affirm and promote (1) the inherent worth and dignity of every person; (2) justice, equity and compassion in human relations; (3) acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations; (4) a free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
(5) the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
(6) the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
and (7) respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

To the extent that we do this, and empower individuals to do this wherever they happen to go, our faith has power and validity and TRUTH. This is what we believe. Individual Unitarian Universalists will disagree on the question of whether an actual afterlife exists, or an actual, literal heaven. But as for whether we want to bring heaven to earth, and make this world a better place now—we believe!

But how exactly does that happen? What does a Unitarian Universalist’s personal practice look like? And how do we come together as community, pull together and not apart?

Unitarian Universalism envisions the spiritual life as a lifelong journey in which people never stop learning. We have permission to make mistakes. We have permission to believe things that later turn out to be false. This too is progress. There is never a point where we can say, “I’ve arrived!” June Bell, a Unitarian Universalist activist in Scotland puts it like this: “I believe not just what I like, nor what I am told is true, but what I can. That truth I see is not necessarily the same today as yesterday, nor tomorrow, but part of my spiritual journey through life.” I love this quote, especially because it illuminates how Unitarian Universalists come to their personal beliefs. Our religion itself holds back from dictating specific theological conclusions (about God’s existence and the like) because it knows that all such specific beliefs are way too important to be answered for us by someone else or something else. We must come to our own detailed answers, in our own good time, for them to be truly meaningful. And the genuine answers we come to, which are truly ours: hard won. It’s a true spiritual discipline, not for the faint hearted. For some people who are not Unitarian Universalist, the hard part about religion is believing stuff you know ain’t true. For us, in our religion, the hard part is listening to our lives and getting unstuck from hardened attitudes and prejudices; the hard part is dwelling in ambiguity without being overwhelmed or paralyzed by it; the hard part is maintaining deep commitments which are also open-ended. Not for the faint-hearted! But we believe that this makes for a healthier spiritual life for people who are ready for it. It’s the journey. It’s the process, says the Rev. Timothy Haley, “of becoming more whole—of living more fully, of giving and forgiving more freely, of understanding more completely the meaning of our lives here on this earth.”

And we journey together. That’s something else to take special note of. We journey together, but in a way that we believe is best for supporting the individual’s growth in community. That way is called covenantalism, in contrast to creedalism. Now creedalism basically says that the best way to organize as a group is everyone believing in the same things, down to the details. To this way of thinking, you can’t really have a religious identity otherwise. Identity means uniformity. Covenentalism, on the other hand, is when a group organizes itself around shared values and purposes and practices, and leaves the details of particular beliefs to individuals themselves. Through covenentalism, we learn that we need not think alike to love alike. Through covenentalism, the six blind men can find a way to talk about their separate pieces of the truth and to do it in a way that leads not to quarreling but further learning and growth. Building more and more of the cosmic puzzle. Champagne! “The religious community is essential,” says the Rev. Mark Morrison Reed, “for alone our vision is to narrow to see all that must be seen, and our strength is too limited to do all that must be done. Together, our vision widens, and our strength is renewed.”

One aspect of our Unitarian Universalist covenantal way is called “freedom of the pulpit/freedom of the pew,” and a key quote on this comes from a remarkable man known as King John Sigismund of Transylvania, the first and only Unitarian king in history. In 1568 he said, “In every place the preachers shall preach and explain the Gospel, each according to his understanding of it, and if the congregation like it, well. If not, no one shall compel them for their souls would not be satisfied….” It means that if you saw my statement in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution this week decrying House Bill 87, which was co-signed by practically every Unitarian Universalist pastor in the entire state of Georgia; which pulls no punches and describes the bill (which Governor Deal is probably going to sign) as racist, neither workable nor fair, as bad for business, as reflecting Georgia politicians acting far beyond the bounds of their proper jurisdiction, as potentially costing millions of dollars in litigation fees, as reflecting fundamental spiritual blight—is you saw all this—how I am calling that bill straight out a WALL—and you said to yourself, Nuh-uh, I don’t agree—guess what? You get to. To be in this place, you don’t have to agree with the preacher. You are on a spiritual journey, and so am I, and as I speak out of the integrity of my experience and understanding, I can only hope that there will be many points of meeting. But sometimes we won’t meet. And that’s OK. I’m still your pastor, and we are united by a larger spirit of love. I say wall, and you say spear, and Rev. Keller here says snake, and Don over there says tree, and on and on. But our covenantal way makes it all work. We can go straight to champagne.

There is just so much beauty in this world. There is so much pain and sorrow. Unitarian Universalism wants to create a Love and Justice people, a Spirit of Life people, who can witness it all faithfully, and live courageously and creatively. So we say, The spiritual meaning of the universe is open. We say, There are many sources of truth. We say, Truth is known by how it changes lives. We say, The spiritual life is a journey. We say, The best way to support a person’s growth over time in community is through covenant, not creed. We say all these things. This unites us, in spite of all. In spite of time and death and the space between the stars. It gathers us every Sunday, and all through the week, and we love it. We want it. It energizes us. Fires us up. “Be ours a religion which, like sunshine, goes everywhere.” This is what we say, with the Rev. Theodore Parker. “Be ours a religion which … goes everywhere; its temple, all space; its shrine, the good heart; its creed, all truth; its ritual, works of love; its profession of faith, divine living.” We are a Spirit of Life people!

The UU Top Ten: Number 6!

What are ten things that all Unitarian Universalists need to know about their faith community? Ten things that are distinctive and unique? Each month we’re counting down, from Number 10 all the way down to Number 1, as a way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Unitarian Universalist Association, in May 2011.

This month, we’re looking at item number 6, which is the title of not only one of the best loved pieces of liturgy in Unitarian Universalist congregations around the world, but also is a popular name among Unitarian Universalists for the Sacred. Number 6 is “Spirit of Life.”

Listen to what Kimberly French, writing in the UU World, has to say about “Spirit of Life” the hymn: “No other song, no other prayer, no other piece of liturgy is so well known and loved in Unitarian Universalism…. It is our Doxology, or perhaps our ‘Amazing Grace.’ Many congregations sing it every Sunday, or at least enough to know the words by heart. Sermons have been devoted to this one song. A new adult religious education curriculum being field-tested this fall is based on the song. It is sung at weddings and memorial services, around campfires and at demonstrations, at cradles and hospital bedsides. In six short lines “Spirit of Life” touches so much that is central to our faith—compassion, justice, community, freedom, reverence for nature, and the mystery of life.”

Spirit of Life, come unto me.
Sing in my heart all the stirrings of compassion.
Blow in the wind, rise in the sea;
Move in the hand, giving life the shape of justice.
Roots hold me close; wings set me free;
Spirit of Life, come to me, come to me.

Kimberly French is right. For me, there is something about this song that sends shivers up and down my spine. The kind of Unitarian Universalism that matters is the kind that does exactly this sort of thing—gets under your skin, becomes a part of you. “Spirit of Life” does this for us.

In her UU World article, Kimberly French also said this: “[‘Spirit of Life’] finds the common ground held by humanists and theists, pagans and Christians, Buddhists and Jews, gay and straight among us.” I think she’s right about this as well—not just about the song, but also the language in itself. “Spirit of Life” is language that is rich enough to speak to people whatever their personal theology happens to be. It’s theological common ground. For most everyone, if not all, “Spirit of Life” can name those things that bring hope and renewal to us, as well things that inspire wonder, awe, and reverence.

It certainly worked out that way for the writer of the hymn, Carolyn McDade. Kimberly French tells the story of how the song was originally written. “Late one night in the early 1980s, [Carolyn McDade] was driving her close friend Pat Simon home from … a meeting for Central American solidarity, probably at a college. What she remembers most clearly was the feeling she had. ‘When I got to Pat’s house, I told her, ‘I feel like a piece of dried cardboard that has lain in the attic for years. Just open wide the door, and I’ll be dust.’ I was tired, not with my community but with the world. She just sat with me, and I loved her for sitting with me.’ McDade then drove to her own home in Newtonville. ‘I walked through my house in the dark, found my piano, and that was my prayer: May I not drop out. It was not written, but prayed. I knew more than anything that I wanted to continue in faith with the movement.”

For Unitarian Universalists, “Spirit of Life” has become our name for whatever brings hope and renewal to us, whatever inspires wonder, awe, and reverence. Whatever keeps us from dropping out. Whatever keeps us keeping on.

That’s number 6 in our Unitarian Universalist Top Ten countdown!



Rev. Anthony David