First Parish of Watertown


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“The Call of Ministry” – June 6, 2004Mark W. Harris

“The Call of Ministry” – June 6, 2004
Mark W. Harris

OPENING WORDS (Responsive) from R. Tagore

The same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day runs through the world and dances in rhythmic measures.

It is the same life that shoots in joy through the dust of the earth in numberless blades of grass and breaks into tumultuous waves of leaves and flowers.

It is the same life that is rocked in the ocean – cradle of birth and death, in ebb and flow.

I feel my limbs are made glorious by the touch of this world of life. And my pride is from the life throb of ages dancing in my blood this moment.

Sermon – “The Call of Ministry”

What is a call to ministry? I am sure many of us think of the idea in traditional terms. Perhaps it is a bellowing voice from on high shouting I want you, sort of a Uncle Sam poster in the sky demanding your service in the Lord¹s army. In the famous examples of God¹s revelation it is abundantly clear that some higher power is making a claim on you body and soul. Mohammed receives a call from God to carry out a special mission, but he never conceives of himself as more than an ordinary human being. Unlike Jesus he is never thought of as a miracle worker, but only as one person who is charged with an unrelenting devotion to serve the revealed truth. What is also obvious from many of these stories about receiving a call is that there is a clear human reluctance to accept it. You may remember the famous story of Jonah. How do you think you got swallowed by that whale in the first place? He gets the call to warn Nineveh to repent, but then he runs away. Or even Moses who feels he is not worthy enough to receive this call because he is slow of speech and tongue. His brother Aaron, who is a good speaker, then ends up with the job, and the creation of the priesthood occurs in the Hebrew scriptures.

The stories of human reluctance probably seem most relevant to those who call ourselves Unitarian Universalists. More often than not stories about being called by God are tales that set one person apart as being more special in the eyes of the divine. Catholic tradition seems to connote this with its priesthood that individual persons are not capable of understanding divine truth but rather need some kind of intermediate person who speaks to God for them. These go-betweens tell them what the truth is, and they are expected to conform. I remember being surprised when I visited York Cathedral in England in the 1970¹s. There were the pews on either side of the nave, and then a massive choir screen blocking the people from viewing the altar. This was a sign that the rabble stayed on one side of the screen, and those who God had called forth to have a special relationship with him would work God¹s communion magic on the other side.

In Protestant tradition much of this changed with the advent of Martin Luther who encouraged everyone to read the Bible in their native language, and also, more importantly, also preached that each person could understand the meaning of holy scriptures for themselves. As soon as Luther theorized that the people represent a priesthood of all believers, he opened the door to a potential for reform that led all the way to Emerson, and the much quoted passages you frequently hear from me about each of us having the ability to acquaint ourselves with divinity at first hand. This position may also be theological extension of our own Puritan heritage, where each member of an independent congregation had a right to speak and vote. While it was hardly democracy, because it was restricted to male landowners at first, the congregational impulse was to remove the hierarchies of creating categories of people who were either closer or further away from God. The Puritans emphasized that their clergy were people who were called out from among the people – just one of the gang – who had certain roles and duties of pastoring and teaching to fulfill, but were not any more ingratiated to God than the next guy. Like Aaron, maybe he was simply a good speaker.

That reminds me of some of the first words spoken to me when I was a student minister in Davis , California in 1975. Two things happened in the very first service I conducted there that bear a relationship to the experience of the 25 years in the ministry that I celebrate this year. The first took place in the wake of my first sermon, which included the story I told a few weeks ago about the 18th century minister from my hometown who rode out of town, only to ride cross country to sneak back through a church back door so that his Trinitarian parishioners could hear the liberal offerings they usually avoided by only coming to church on days he exchanged pulpits. After that address, I was wandering around the coffee hour shaking hands and feeling the warmth of parishioners who seemed to like what I had to say, only to be stunned silent by one elderly man who remarked, I have no idea what you said, but it sure sounded good. One should never have an over inflated sense of one¹s own wisdom and power to entrance the people. Someone is going to say, you make no sense. Always remember your weaknesses. I remember the organist of one church remarking about his minister. He is not as smart as he thinks he is. I have always remembered that. And so when one of my predecessors in Milton said never move tables, let the people do that (or better yet, hire someone), I completely ignored his advice, and have ever since moved my share of tables and chairs, and now pulpits, even when they have your name on it. The first lesson I learned was to remember my humble origins among the congregation.

Second in that same first service that I conducted in Davis, I was interrupted by the shouts of the estranged husband of a parishioner. He stood in the back, just before I ever spoke a word of that good sounding but meaningless sermon and shouted that this didn¹t seem like a church to him. What kind of church is this? To a greenhorn having someone alter my script was tantamount to a ticket to disaster. I calmly answered that we would respond to his concerns after the service, but we would appreciate it if he would sit down for now, and remain quiet during the service. And it worked! The second lesson I learned in the ministry was that anything can happen. This is not just in a worship service where microphones fail and babies cry, but in all of life. This 20 something fledgling minister needed to learn that he would witness in his ministry that anything and everything does happen. Babies give off terrible smells, and you still have to dedicate them; grooms fail to show at the altar, and you have to deal with hysterical brides, and car accidents end the most wonderful lives long before their time. Terrible tragedies of immense and seemingly senseless pain. And was it my job to explain what it all meant? No, it was my job simply to be present. The answer was not on page 22 of the book of truth, but was in my heart¹s ability to witness to life. In magical ways, too – in the wonder of birth, in the joy of celebrating a lasting love, in surviving a difficult time. These were my first lessons in ministry – Be humble. Be ready.

What was true of that first worship service in Davis was that the heart of what I did as a professional minister was the life of the community on Sunday morning – their humor, their pain, their relationships. In today¹s reading from Channing our spiritual founder, he says it is not the louder voices or tricks of oratory, it is the conviction that religion is a great concern, and all must feel its claims. The truths we struggle with as a community on Sunday morning must come from our common life – our struggles, our sorrows, our triumphs. Emerson said the task of the sermon, or the service is to convert life into truth. Truth comes through the living of our lives, and this is what the preacher tries to hold up before the congregation Sunday after Sunday, sometimes more successfully than others. And lives are built upon relationships. Where is the truth in our lives? Honesty, integrity, compassion. How are we with one another?

Today we commonly say that ministry is the work of all the members of a congregation. As I said in the newsletter this is part of the reason for changing the name of the church committee that relates directly to me as minister. Rather than the ministerial relations committee which monitors how I am getting along with you, as a professional outsider, the committee on ministry asks how we are doing in our common ministry. Clergy have professional training to be religious leaders of our churches, but ministry, as former UUA Director of Ministry, David Pohl writes, ” is a path of service calling all of us into ways of relating to a larger reality that can transform us as persons and as a society. That path of service calls us to a life of relationship rather than isolation, of compassion rather than mean spiritedness, of striving for justice for all rather than looking out only for ourselves.” Relationship, compassion, and justice for all are three bench marks I would see as vital to any ministry, that are not my task alone, but ours together.

Martin Luther, when he was elucidating his ideas of a priesthood of all also said some things about calling. Luther believed that each and every one of us has a calling. Now he might have believed that God determines what our particular role and place in the world will be, but the larger point is that each of us has some work, some love, that is right for us. We might say that is the perfect job for her. She is so good with children. Someone was joking the other day about a smart child with no social skills, and said they were the ideal candidate for early admission to MIT. On Memorial Day we saw my son Joel smoothly and warmly glad handing every other person on the streets of Portsmouth and we said what a perfect business man. He is good at it, and he seemingly loves it. I have used the word call about my understanding of being a minister, even in my journey from Christian to humanist. I have never said that God ordained me to do this work, or did any special shoulder tapping. It is work I love. It feels right and good for me. It is how I want to be in the world. I feel called.

Perhaps that sense of calling is what the ministry of the church challenges each of us with by our presence here. While I use the word calling to affirm my sense of the professional ministry, I also believe in calling as something that life demands of each of us to find our own center, our source of personal integrity to live as honestly and openly as we can in the world. When I was ordained 25 years ago in Palmer, Massachusetts, the preacher Charles Slap said, “to ordain a man to the ministry is an awesome responsibility. Through the agency of this congregation, a claim has been made upon Mark, and he has dared to accept. He has accepted divine service. Henceforth his ultimate loyalty cannot be to you, who have called him, or even to his family, who has nurtured him. For he is pledged, you have pledged him, to serve the source of life itself. He now bears the burden of distinguishing true religion from false religion, of living and preaching the true, and exposing the false. ” His words make it sound as if it were an individual burden to discern the true from the false, but I believe it is through our common struggle as a congregation, as a people of faith that we determine these truths together.

In the reading from Jane Rzepka , “To Life Ordained,” she speaks not of the separate power she received form being ordained, but of the fragility and mortality she felt from being away from her baby. The burdens of her own life were as parent – caring for those she loved, responsibility and separation. Becoming a humanist has taught me that the truth of religion is not in something beyond my life, but has its foundation in the very life I live. I, too am ordained to life, and the ordination is to live this life of the spirit, this life of building compassionate loving community to the fullest extent and with complete devotion from what I discover to be truth in my experiences and my relationships. If I have a separate call from yours it is to lead us to accept more fully the call that is before all of us to live a life ordained. And so when we ordained Jim Sherblom a few weeks ago, and I recalled how Charles Slap had suggested that my ultimate loyalty must be to the source of life itself, it was not that a congregation or family were unimportant, but that the deepest loyalty must be to truth and love and the life source that upholds us all. And my ministry, his ministry, our ministry together is to bring us all to a fuller realization of that compassionate loving community. While serving that greater love may have been the call issued for my ministry, it also points to the call of the entire ministry of the church.

David Pohl reminded us that the church calls us to a life of greater relationship, a life of caring more deeply for others, and a vision of achieving justice for all. While I might teach, or preach or envision ways we might discover that life of faith in our midst, the larger truth is that life of faith will unfold only in the midst of all our lives. As a congregation we model these deeper truths of life for and with each other so that we might take that vision, that lived experience into the world. Long ago I learned that one needs more than a slick voice in ministry – one needs humility to learn from others, and reverence for all that is greater than me – one also needs to understand that anything can happen in life, and we must be prepared at all times to give our hearts and hands to each other. Recently we have begun to talk about growth, but growth in ministry has nothing to do with numbers. We are not talking about how many people sit in these chairs, but rather we are talking about how many people who are part of this congregation are willing to answer the call in their own lives to be transformed by a larger reality; how many are willing to grow beyond self and feel they can make a difference in the life of someone or in the life of the world; that personal, selfishishness will end for enough people, so that the majority can get on with the serious business of religion. So it is hope that our ministry ultimately gives to the world – in times where people torture and kill, humiliate and shame, where 49 states deny our loving friends their just and equal claim to a life of committed love, where too many people are poor and hungry, we are all called to stand up and offer our lives as living examples of hope – that people can do better, can be better, that all can live in more loving relationship, with more compassion, and with justice for all

Closing Words – from Theodore Parker, from “Experience as a Minister”

May you be faithful to your own souls; train up your sons and daughters to lofty character, most fit for humble duty; and to far cathedral heights of excellence, build up that being that you are with feelings, thoughts, and actions, that become a “glorious human creature,” by greatly doing the common work of life.

“The Challenge of Pluralism” – May 23, 2004Mark W. Harris

“The Challenge of Pluralism” – May 23, 2004
Mark W. Harris

Opening words – from Gary Snyder

The Zen Buddhist teacher told this story. One day the master asked his three fourteen year old students, “How old is the Buddha?” The first responded, “The Buddha was born 2,500 years ago in India.” The second responded, “The Buddha is eternal.” And the third responded, “The Buddha is fourteen.” All in a sense were right. but the one who said “The Buddha is fourteen” hit the mark straight on. We are all Buddhas by nature, whatever our age, from the small child we dedicate today, to the eldest among us. You are what you are seeking. You are the Buddha. You are it. Why don¹t we know it? What would it take to know it? To awaken and to recognize who and what we are.

Sermon – “The Challenge of Pluralism”

In her book, A New Religious America , Diana Eck of Harvard tells us that understanding America¹s emerging religious landscape is the most important challenge facing us today. When most of us were youngsters this landscape was defined as Protestant, Catholic and Jew. We could say Judeo-Christian heritage, and it meant our whole religious universe. Islam and Hinduism and Buddhism were exotic expressions of faith that conjured up images of Arabian Nights, sacred cows and Saffron robed monks with shaved heads, but they were anywhere but here. Today there are 300 Buddhist temples in greater Los Angeles, and more American Muslims than there are Jews or Episcopalians, let alone Unitarian Universalists. What does this mean to us religious liberals who in some respects mirror a diverse religious landscape by espousing a pluralistic faith of our own?

On the one hand, you might think this is just what we need. America is playing into our hand. They need us to show the way. Perfect. We can finally fulfill Thomas Jefferson¹s dream that every person now living will one day become a Unitarian Universalist. It is true that we have long said be tolerant and understanding of others. In Transylvania more than 425 years ago, the Unitarians implemented the first edict of religious toleration in history. Here in America when a liberal theological perspective developed within the established Congregational churches, such as ours, those same liberals argued against sectarianism. They wanted to define Christianity as broadly as possible without restraints of dogmas or creeds. Theirs was an ethical faith based on how one behaved as a Christian, how much love you lived with your life, rather than specifics of doctrines, such as believing that Jesus was the Christ who had come to save those who believed in the one true faith.

Since the dawn of Christianity, people had been trying to define that one path to truth, and it has proved extremely difficult to do so. In an essay from 1851 called “Ecclesiastical Christendom,” the great Unitarian leader Frederic Henry Hedge wrote, “No form of Christianity is absolutely and only true. Each successive one was right in its place, and good in its season; each put forward the face, and embodied the truth which the time required. . . Protestantism means movement. And when we say this we pronounce its justification . . . For what but movement is the destination of humanity in this moving world? Creation moves from everlasting to everlasting. This universe of things, whose sum no thought can grasp, is not a fixture, but a movement, and the quality of movement is the measure of vitality. The power who moves all things has not willed that any spirit should stand still, and the Church, the communion of saints, must move or die.” This also points to the fundamental message of Transcendentalism as reflected in Emerson¹s words in Nature that we must enjoy an original relationship with the universe. Religious must be revealed to us, and not simply be the history of theirs. Emerson and Thoreau were among the first people in the world to understand not only this desire for each generation to perceive the truths of religion anew, but also to see that God or the over-soul is not revealed through any one particular tradition. They took their belief in Unitarianism, or one God literally. The spirit that infused the world with love and justice was experienced differently in different cultures and traditions, but no one of those was superior to any other. When Emerson read the pages of the Bhagavad-Gita in his study, or Thoreau contemplated the wisdom of the Koran by the shores of Walden Pond, they realized this truth, and said the most important question must be, how does God or the spirit speak to me, or as Gary Snyder might reflect from our opening words, how do I find my Buddha?

Where is your Buddha? I think sometimes we misunderstand our Unitarian Universalist faith. We look at this rich tradition that rejected dogmas and creeds and longed for universal truths, and personally find it liberating to realize that religion does not need to be based on static truth or certain objects of devotion. Up until recently the ethos of the denomination was often based on the rejection of a Biblical childhood faith that for many of us felt like what Stephen Dunn recalled in the reading, the great book certain people use to make you feel bad. So we came in, rejected the past, and understood that all paths to the truth are equally valid. This, as we have said, was terribly tolerant and understanding, but not especially useful in seriously engaging with any new, positive faith based directions. While it was healing for many, it did not provide any meaningful new direction. It is an even less relevant course to pursue today as more people enter our ranks who have no religious baggage to let go of. It is also not helpful for those raised in the faith.

A few years ago I recall Andrea¹s sister-in-law sent her children to Vacation Bible School. It was similar to the experience Stephen Dunn had with his kids. They wanted the children to go have fun for a week, and get them out of the house, but they came home singing and dancing about Jesus. While Jesus was a nice man who lived a long time ago, he was no one you should get so excited about that you should perform his story. What to do? Too often we have failed to either tell the stories, or else make them so literal and wordy, as in Dunn¹s example of evolution that the kids long for anything with a little passion. The reading does remind us of the power of stories to engage with heart and mind. How do we begin to engage with religious stories again? I think there are three steps for Unitarian Universalists to respond to the challenge of pluralism.
The first step is illustrated in a Zen story called the Empty Cup. One day the Zen master Nan-in had a visit from a foreign scholar of Eastern religions who came to inquire about Zen. But the scholar did not listen to the master at all. He simply went on talking and talking about all his knowledge of eastern religion. He was the expert. After a time of talking, Nan-in suggested they have tea. He poured the tea into the visitors cup until it was full, but then he kept right on pouring. The tea cascaded over the sides of the cup onto the saucer. Soon the saucer was full, and it spilled over onto the table washed down on the man¹s pants, ouch, and onto the floor. The visitor screamed, “hey, didn¹t you see that the cup was full? You can¹t get any more in!.” Nan-in finally stopped pouring and said, “Just so. And like this cup you are filled with your own ideas. How can you expect me to give you Zen unless you offer me an empty cup?” The scholar had all of the knowledge, but none of the experience. He had to empty himself of his hubris that he knew it all, and couldn¹t be taught a thing.
The second step has to do with the religious smorgasbord, the pluralism we find in the world and especially what we espouse as our denominational approach to religion. Unitarian Universalists advocate that we should all sit at the religious banquet table and place all the tasty dishes before us, saying they are equally valid ways to find nourishment. The problem with the scholar in the story is that he had learned everything there was to know about eastern religions from the books, but he had never experienced them. He needed to empty himself of all his knowledge and taste. Learning about the foods makes us knowledgeable in history and traditions, but we never find a revelation for us, as Emerson suggested we need, we only know about theirs.

This also relates back to engaging with the stories. Perhaps at Easter it is difficult to engage with the story of Jesus because some of us have theological baggage with the Christian tradition, but what happens when we see the mythic story lived out for our day and time by a nobody Unitarian Universalist minister who sacrificed his life because he believed in racial justice and was in Selma, Alabama with Martin Luther King. The James Reeb story I retold at Easter is ours just as the one we will tell in three weeks on Flower Communion Sunday about Norbert Capek, the Czech minister who longed for a ritual to speak of our connection with one another, but not one that conjured up hurtful images of his Christian past. Later he was martyred by the Nazis. So we empty ourselves of all the knowledge and sureness we have about truth or the rejection of others¹ truths, and begin to engage the stories.

In the novel The Death of Vishnu, Mr. Jalal feels he is superior to those people who have what he calls faith. He wonders if his intellect has made him close minded to religious experience. He decides to switch off his intellect and invite religion to come and seek him out. “So far,” the author Manil Suri, writes, “his interest in religion had always been clinical – never possessing the spirit.” But he decides it is going to be an experiment, just to see if there is anything there. He is not actually going to empty himself as the Zen master suggested in the story. So he goes to the wilderness to wander in a park, and then sits and closes his eyes. Suddenly a light surges onto his face, and then a flash, and then his mind raced to the books he had read about the Buddha. Did a light flash before him when he reached enlightenment? What did it mean? Then the light returned, followed by a laugh, and his eyes flickered open to see a gang of school children who had gathered around him. One of them flashed the mirror for the final time, and then they kicked dirt on him and ran away. You would think he might have concluded that the world had become too overpopulated to recreate the conditions for Buddha¹s renunciation of the world. But even though he had been tricked, there was something more – he remembered the exhilaration, the mindlessness, feeling weightless as a balloon as he closed his eyes. His quest was true and real, not an experiment. His skepticism lessened. He now had a longing to feel a blaze of energy through every cell and fiber of his being.

We let go of all that knowledge, all that skepticism, and in a sense engage with the stories of those lives around us. Mr Jalal goes to be with the dying Vishnu. We experience religion; we do not simply learn about it. This brings us to the third step of the path of the challenge of religious pluralism. Some choose to sit and meditate. Some go on pilgrimages. Some want deeper emotional connections. But there is so much to choose from. Remember we are still at this banquet table where there are so many dishes. There is the Indian biryani, and the Passover horseradish, and the middle eastern cous cous. There are not alien to us anymore as they were in 1950. When we returned from England last June we simply longed to have good food again. Even though I am partly English by heritage there was something about those greasy chips, that lard filled pork pie, and the ever present use of black currant in every juice and jam they create. When we sit at the banquet table we like different things. Some foods appeal to us for color and presentation. Some appeal to us for vegetables or meat. Some are spicy and some are bland. We have preferences. Some are better for us.

This is a religious lesson that Unitarian Universalists need to speak to in the challenge of pluralism. While all religions are theoretically equal searches for truth or God, we cannot as individual people equally embrace all. We need to learn in our own individual searches to say what our truth is. One of the liberal dilemmas is we often say that everyone has a right to strong convictions, but then we deny that same right to ourselves. As Harvard professor Bill Hutchison says, we must be pluralists who also believe in something, who have strong convictions. Often when we try to explain Unitarian Universalism to newcomers it comes across as we believe in everything all at once, and it is all equally valid. I have to be honest with you and tell you that while Catholicism may have a certain hold over millions of believers around the world, I personally have found my tolerance for espousing its validity, even for others, waning. My convictions test my tolerance. We are each drawn to religious truths that speak to us. I suspect each one of us is here because we want the freedom to discover religious truths. We want the search, the religious quest more than the defined answers. As part of that search, it is behooves us to empty ourselves of some of our religious skepticism, and begin to experience faith as a living vital entity, and not an intellectual exercise.

That religious experience may be going down to the river more, and meditating on what is eternal or other such times of quiet and solitude, or even reflection with others about life, any of which can help each one of us discover our Buddha. Unitarian Universalism does not say all faith experiences are right for you, but it does say that you are free to experiment and discover together that faith which is right for you. You do not have to be everything, but it is uplifting to discover that something – that Jesus or Buddha spirit, or that humanist story that empowers you to work for justice and peace in the world. Pluralism is not about finding everything in you, but it is about finding the true you, and the faith that helps that unfold.

Pluralism has always been a great challenge for our culture even right from our earliest days. For some reason in the past few months I have become fascinated by the Lewis and Clark expedition. We saw an Omni Max film, an exhibit at Harvard, and the news about the bear claw necklace they discovered that was a gift from one of the native American tribes was exciting. Now I am reading Stephen Ambrose¹s old bestseller Undaunted Courage. I think it also represents a dream of peaceful pluralism that I learned as a child – the white American explorers, and the Shoshone squaw Sacagawea learning from one another without becoming one another. On May 22, 1804, 200 years ago yesterday, Lewis and Clark embarked from St. Louis on an arduous journey. Along the way they found cross cultural understanding with Hidatsas, Mandans, Sioux and others. They were often ignorant in their approach to find way ways to relate to these tribes. Yet somehow their gifts of diplomacy and exchange resulted in a peaceful expedition. They provide lessons to us across the divide of history. Sometimes Unitarian Universalism seems like the old melting pot theory of assimilation when we try to be everything to everybody, and invite people in as long as they become like us. We have a long standing commitment to religious freedom, and as a result of that we do embrace religious diversity. But it must be more than inattention to these traditions with a blase expression of, “they are all good.” We must engage more with the religions of our neighbors. We must engage more with religious experience ourselves. We also must each use our freedom to find our truths, not just to express our freedom. In the coming years we have an opportunity to understand a new religious world. In the old assimilationist world, somebody was in control and the others were absorbed. This is why devout Muslims fear us liberals. They think we want to dilute everything so deep convictions are lost. Lewis and Clark may have learned from the natives and vice versa, but the natives never got to fulfill their destiny. That is the challenge of today. How can each tradition fulfill its destiny, find its Buddhahood, and share control? We must learn the art of stopping, and emptying our overfull tea cups. We must learn the art of experiencing, of not only filling our heads, but our eyes and hearts and souls with religious experience. We must learn the art of speaking truth, so that we don¹t espouse the melting pot theory of religion, but facilitate the meeting place of religions, so that we do not trivialize the truths that others find, even as we as Unitarian Universalists seek the common oneness of faith and universality of justice. Diane Eck suggests that we must seek harmony in diversity rather than unity. She says our dream for society, and perhaps for our church as well should be like the symphony orchestra, each playing our own instrument, but creating beautiful music together in a harmonious whole – the symphony of religions.

Closing Words – from Nature by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Who looks upon a river in a meditative hour, and is not reminded of the flux of all things? Throw a stone into the stream, and the circles that propagate themselves are the beautiful type of all influence. We are conscious of a universal soul within or behind our individual lives, wherein, as in a firmament, the natures of Justice, Truth, Love, Freedom, arise and shine. This universal soul, is not mine or thine, but we are its; we are its property and people.

“Chaotic Balance” – April 25, 2004Jim Sherblom

“Chaotic Balance” – April 25, 2004
Jim Sherblom


Our lives seem to periodically swirl out of our control!
We lose our jobs, experience accidents, are victimized by others.
Our children suffer unfair and life threatening diseases or setbacks.
Our parents physically decline or die, leaving us to suffer alone.
We suffer unfair and life threatening diseases and adversities!
Our loved ones hurt us or leave us and we are left utterly bereft.
How can such a world be considered just or good or even fair?
How can we maintain stability, rationality, and a sense of peace
In the midst of all of this chaos that appears to be our lot in life?

One of the defining scientific discoveries of the late 20th Century was the emerging understanding of the interplay between chaos and complexity in the very nature and structure of the universe.
The bad news is we can’t escape chaos no matter how we try,
it is in the very fabric of reality, what separates life from non-life.
The good news is we can maintain our balance within this chaos.
For those of us who weren’t following the scientific developments, the book Jurassic Park introduced Chaos theory to us dramatically.
Foolish attempts to be the creator of order lead inevitably to chaos!

The Santa Fe Institute was at the core of this work, beginning in the 1980’s by trying to accurately predict the weather and creating theories of chaos and complexity that illuminate our life and death.
Chaos emerges wherever we try to artificially interject order. Yet the universe doesn’t totally break down (as we fear it will).
New complexity emerges spontaneously out of the chaos, and we must be open to perceiving and welcoming this new complexity.
We are not in control of our lives, too much order equals boredom and death; too much chaos means disruption, disintegration, death. We live in the interplay between order and chaos. We live our lives on the chaotic edge, where growth and freedom emerge.

Many of you know that I spent the 1980’s as a young executive, desperately trying to create order from the chaotic growth of young companies. We built great biotechnology companies, but only by letting go of even the illusion of control over their success.
So I offer five lessons this morning on maintaining chaotic balance lessons learned the hard way in the crucible of success and failure.
The first lesson is to accept chaos as intrinsic to our life, it is reality, accepting this reality frees us to truly live into our lives.
Our houses need repair, yards need tending, old cars break down. Marriages need renewal, children need tending, old relationships break down. We all experience deaths and renewal in our lives. Rejecting death from our life is like trying to grasp the whirlwind.
However if we let go, we can live happily in the eye of the storm.

The theologian Catherine Keller spoke last year at GA about her “theology of becoming” which she names the Face of the Deep.
She reminds us that even a child knows how to comfort himself by singing softly in the dark, finding a calm center in the heart of chaos. She writes: “Perhaps the child skips as he sings, hastens or slows his pace. But the song itself is already a skip: it jumps from chaos to the beginning of order to chaos.” We live in this flux.
We are not the proper center of our lives, grounding lies elsewhere.
So the second lesson is that we must find our grounding center, order in the midst of chaos. This is why all twelve step programs begin by placing ultimate control and meaning outside ourselves.
Creative serendipity allows new order to emerge when we let go.
We are not in control but must learn the rhythm of this dance.

Who knows this chaos better than a 13 year old coming of age?
My daughter Sarah, as she entered her teenage years, introduced me to certain Coming of Age movies that speak to this challenge.
Deep heartfelt movies like Dirty Dancing or Save the Last Dance.
In each of these deeply theological movies the protagonist, always a young woman emerging into her life, learns to dance to fully live.
The life provided by her parents becomes restrictive and boring. Or in Save the Last Dance her mother dies tragically in an accident. Life loses its meaning and importance until a dangerous young male antagonist teaches her how to let go and dance into her life.
In Dirty Dancing, Jennifer Grey embodies this human longing for growth and freedom, for learning to engage the chaos and live life.
She wants to come into the fullness and joy her life can embody.
Patrick Swayze here is an incarnation of the divine, a little scary, and yet exciting, luring her into the dance in the midst of chaos.
There is something wild and dangerous at the heart of reality, and we must learn to trust the wildness in order to dance through life. Patrick Swayze as your incarnation of the divine, somewhat dangerous, but luring you into greater joy and your emerging self.
In a sense we all are this young woman, emerging into the fullness of our lives; and we all are this young man, true incarnations of the divine in each others lives, so we teach each other how to dance.
Yet a key aspect of learning to dance is that she doesn’t get to lead,
we must learn to trust and to follow our partner’s lead in the dance.
And this is truly the nature of our lives, we do not get to lead, but if we learn to respond and match the rhythms, we can indeed dance!

Which brings us to poor Job; God’s whipping boy of biblical fame.
When God, through his agent Satan, robs Job of his wealth, his family, his health and his reputation, Job curses his own life, and ultimately challenges the very nature of God and all of creation.
The book of Job is a poem of moral outrage at this chaotic life.
This God that Job confronts is a particularly cranky incarnation, yet God cannot resist responding to Job out of the whirlwind.
“Where were you when I planned the earth?… Unleash your savage justice. Cut down the rich and the mighty. Make the proud man grovel. Pluck the wicked from their perch. Push them into the grave. Throw them, screaming, to hell. Then I will admit that your own strength can save you.” But of course our own strength cannot do any of these things, we are at the mercy of life’s chaos.
We don’t get to choose our life experiences, to lead the dance, but can only learn how to follow the lead of our antagonists with flair.
When we have the courage to define our relationships, we define our lives, and this is the third lesson for dealing with the chaos.
Catherine Keller calls this “the courage of our connections”.
By being in community we collectively respond to the trials of life.
We can learn together how to follow the dance in our unique way.
Job experiences great pain: material, physical and spiritual.
Few of us will suffer the trials of Job, thank God, yet each of us will know pain: some of it material, some physical, some spiritual.
Job is ultimately vulnerable because he has lost his family and friends, yet he finds the courage within to challenge life’s injustice.
Our families and friends represent our best defense against despair.
For most of us, it is our family and community connections
that provide us with a context to deal successfully with the chaos.
These connections are often our calm center in the heart of chaos.

The fourth lesson is learning how to let go and trust the process.
Richard Gilbert captures this in his story about going over the falls.
He writes: “there is something to be said for letting go, for risking the uncertain, for putting oneself in strong life currents with a mixture of faith and fear. Unknown pools sustain us, buoy us;
Forgotten instincts stretch our spirits to the surface
where the air is clear and the water cold and refreshing.”
I too have lived this mixture of faith and fear, and lived to tell of it.
When my sister Pat married, it was to a young man who lived up on the coast of Maine. He taught us how to harvest fresh mussels from the ocean tide pools, and how to leap from the cliffs along the shore. His favorite diving spot was from a cliff that seemed ten stories above the sea and plunged into the deep dark ocean depths.
He encouraged us to try it and showed us how with a death defying plunge hurling himself out from the rocks into the deep sea below.

As a risk taker of course I had to try it along with my siblings.
I remember my heart racing as I climbed the ascent, my stomach churning as I looked into the abyss, and that combination of joy and fear as I threw myself out into the air and plunged to the sea.
Upon struggling back to the surface, I swam to shore and climbed back up to plunge once again. With repeated experience it became clear that the exhilaration came from letting go and simply falling.
Life is like that, to enjoy the chaos we must learn how to let go,
to plunge into each experience with every fiber of our being.
Though I must confess, as much as I enjoyed the experience of those dives into the sea, I shredded the underside of my toes from an instinctive effort to claw onto the rock just as I leaped into the void. At some level, I continued to fear falling and the rocks below, yet letting go is necessary to experiencing this life’s dance.

In February, Loretta and I went to Tahiti to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary. One night on Moorea, our hotel offered a pool side demonstration of Tahitian song and dance and I snared us front row seats. About two thirds of the way through their performance, the lead dancer approached us and invited me to join her on the dance floor. Now this may not be a big thing for you, but for this middle aged white guy this was a plunge into the unknown. I never guessed I would dance the Tahitian hula before the assembled hotel guests but she guided me through it. Loretta later pointed out that as a young executive 25 years ago, I would have died before you would have convinced me to risk the dance floor in such a public fashion. Yet there is a certain joy and exhilaration that comes from letting go and following your partner in the dance. We do not get to be the lead but we can dance.

So this is the fifth and final lesson: when our lives swirl beyond control, we lose even the illusion of control, when we don’t get to lead but only to follow as well as we can the gentle or tumultuous dance that represents our very lives; then let it be a joyous dance. Let us engage fully with life and enjoy where the chaos takes us! Like the flaming chalice, symbol of our faith, we flame anew.
We can face the God of the whirlwind and come away laughing. Trust the process. Creative serendipity, which some call divine, will somehow emerge and guide our steps so we can truly dance.
Chaos engaged leads inevitably to new complexity and new life, new opportunities for joy, for growth, for relationships in our life.
It will not always be easy, nor pleasant, or even free of pain, but let it be a dance, not necessarily the Tahitian hula, but what it will be for each of us to enjoy and fully engage with our lives. Amen.

“Sources of Faith” – March 28, 2004Mark W. Harris

“Sources of Faith” – March 28, 2004
Mark W. Harris

Opening Words – from Rumi

My heart has become capable of every form.
It is a pasture for gazelles and a convent for Christian monks;
And a temple for idols, and the pilgrim’s Ka’ba;
And the tables of the Torah and the book of the Koran.
I follow the religion of Love,
Whichever way his camels take.


I was surprised not too long ago when I heard that a young boy in Dana’s class at school had his first confession. I realized Catholics had first communion, but it had not occurred to me children had to think up all the sins they had committed as well, and then receive absolution before communion. This shows I am not particularly savvy when it comes to the procedures of the Catholic church. In fact there is a relationship here with turning seven years of age, which the Catholic church considers the age of reason, and becoming responsible for your sins. While the church is suppose to both nurture you and keep you in line, the seven year old is thought to be able to make his/her own decisions when it comes to upright moral behavior. I think it is important that children should gain a sense of right and wrong, and also know there can be forgiveness for mistakes. As a Protestant child, I also learned that I was likely to sin, but moral codes as imparted by my parents, the church, and the school seemed to be primarily formulated to keep me in line; to prevent sin rather than promote goodness. As Protestants we emphasized the Bible as the seat for moral foundations, especially as elucidated in the Ten Commandments.

The occasion for today’s sermon was a comment that was made to me on the day I preached about same-sex marriage. I said I affirmed same-sex marriage as a moral good. It was not just an issue of individual rights and justice, but that a broader understanding of covenant and fidelity would actually help build a better society. In response a person made the assumption that we Unitarian Universalists had moved beyond Biblical foundations for morality, and she asked me, what are the moral foundations of our faith? While the Protestants have the Bible and the Catholics have their rote traditions and dogmas, we may seem to have nothing more than 200,000 UU opinions. There is an old joke that builds upon the assumption that liberals do not accept any moral commandments that assert authority over us or attempt to keep us in line. We like to come to our own moral opinions and conclusions. And so it was said that for us, the ten commandments ought to be called the ten suggestions.

Today I am going to suggest that despite the long moral evolution of our own faith from a liberal Christian to a pluralistic faith that draws upon many traditions, from a God and Bible centered to a humanistic, person centered faith, from a world where people were assured of moral absolutes to a post modern society where nothing is sure or known, that the basic premise of the Ten Commandments still governs the moral foundation of Unitarian Universalism. In fact, as my wife Andrea has suggested, our greatest spiritual inspiration, Ralph Waldo Emerson, wrote his seminal work, Nature, based on a reworking of the Ten Commandments. While we may recall the authoritarian childhood don’ts of swearing, disrespecting parents, lying, cheating and killing, Emerson reminds us that it goes much deeper than keeping us in line with rules. Our moral code is found in freedom, agreement and community.

As Jews prepare to celebrate the Passover, and Christians recall that same event at the time of Jesus’ death, we think of the context in which the Israelites found themselves. In other traditional societies, the source of authority was a monarch, one who held and acted on behalf of God. But how could the Israelites agree to this normal pattern of authority when all they reaped from it in Egypt was slavery and oppression. Because they had broken from this bondage, and found freedom, they felt the need to derive the meaning of their existence not from authority, but from agreement. For them, and later our own founders the Puritans, the covenant or agreement with God is what produces community. So this is not about slavish obedience, which to them symbolized horror, but the freedom to agree to something.

The Israelites understood that agreement is fundamental to all true relationship. To begin to find this truth, we can do what Christians have traditionally done with the Ten Commandments, divide them into two sections. First are the ones about a personal relationship to God. When Jesus summarized the law and prophets, he said first, “love God.” When the Commandments say you shall have no other Gods, it is a question of idolatry. Who is the source of your ultimate concern? For them it might have been other Gods, but for us it may well be money, property or possessions. You must agree to give your ultimate loyalty to something beyond the lesser Gods we worship. Directly related to this is the idea of no graven images.We cannot know God, and it is foolish to think we can image that which is beyond our ways of knowing. We cannot find spiritual wholeness by submitting to visible symbols. For us it may mean the other images we worship: the female body, the automobile or whatever else is sold to us as the product of spiritual fulfillment. This is important in our congregational tradition. You may remember that our Puritan ancestors were appalled at the idea of knowing God through any kind of imagery, for them it had to be a direct spiritual experience, and any symbols merely distorted true faith. Thus they created purified places of worship by not having any crosses, stained glass, stations of the cross or, elaborate vestments or other such paraphernalia. Know inwardly in the heart, not outwardly, to some object.

The Ten Commandments are quite unique in the literatures of the world. They are not offered in a legal framework. There is no justification for the code because it is God’s code. While we might argue about their source of origin, the relevance of the message, properly understood and embraced in modern language, is timeless. The third and fourth commandments continue the concern for understanding our relationship with the divine. With taking the name of God in vain, many of us flash back to those swear words we said to entice our parents to anger. But actually the reference is to using the name of God as a kind of magic formula for either personal, satisfactory results, or to invoke the belief that the true God is our God only. In the last half century this has been increasingly popular with politicians, especially the current resident of the White House and his favorite philosopher Jesus. It is being debated now in the Pledge of Allegiance case. This premise of the pledge with the God language results in a false God who takes care of us because we are on the right side, and he will see that we prevail.

The final commandment in this section has to do with keeping the sabbath. No ancient society before the Jews had a day of rest. God bids human beings to restore themselves, that is to take care of ourselves and recreate. One could interpret this as an opportunity to restore and take care of the earth. It also represents our freedom to improve ourselves, be creative, or educate ourselves so that we are always learning and exploring spiritually. In all the first four commandments God is seen as a liberator; these are the things you need to do for spiritual wholeness. Emerson has them correspond with four things we apply to life from nature: commodity, beauty, language and discipline. If we enter into an agreement with God, or if we experience nature, we will know personal freedom. If you have false gods you are chained to them, and they control you. Curiously enough you may have noticed that there is no commandment to actually love God or have faith, but rather it is what you need to do in order to love God. There is no true life in worshiping things or bowing before images, or in invoking magic words, or in forgetting the sabbath – you exhaust yourself- you distract yourself- you delude yourself, and you don’t find true life. Keep what is holy before you is the simple distillation of these commandments.

The Commandments also suggest to us that we do not live in a vacuum. You can’t just have a personal relationship with nature, or the divine or celebrate your freedom. We live with other people, and thus Jesus said, love your neighbor as yourself. Loving neighbor has to do with the creation of community. There is a transitional commandment which leads us from relationship to God to relationships with community, and that transition is the family, and thus the fifth commandment is honor your parents. I saw a children’s version of the commandments once where honor became humor your parents. While parenting requires both humor and honor the idea is the parents guide the whole child into the world in a myriad number of ways. The family is the basic unit of the society. Parents not only give us life, but introduce us to life in the world, the freedom we will use to build a new community.

The commandments that are numbers six through ten are, as I have suggested the community commandments. They are the things we need to do to build an orderly, beautiful society together. We list them as no killing, no adultery, no stealing, no false witness and no coveting of other people’s things. There are virtuous acts in and of themselves. We live our lives out in the context of others. Faith assumes concrete form in our understanding of our relations with others and the values contained in those relations. All five of these are still of enormous relevance. We still say do not commit murder, that it violates life to take another life. This is argument enough against capital punishment. We also know that people are made to feel devalued or killed in other ways – the poor, the children, victims of abuse. What can we do as a community, this asks, so that so that everyone is heard and valued?. We may think of self-esteem, purpose, hope in the future. What can we agree upon that will create a whole community?

The additional community commandments reinforce this need. While the sixth commandment against adultery has been severely tested, and even questioned by some, including many of us, it points toward the social need for strong stable enduring family relationships built upon covenant and fidelity. We considered the moral good of same sex marriage in this context. If we want a society that values deep, committed, long lasting relationships with stable homes for children, then it is a given that we want more monogamous marriage. Whether it is the personal or the community relationships, the commandments remind us that we must engage in, and build right relationships, not based on obeying conventional authority, but on the deeper path of spiritual wholeness. In the preface to Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte wrote : Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion. To attack the first is not to assail the last. To pluck the mask from the face of the Pharisee is not to lift an impious hand to the Crown of Thorns.

The eighth, ninth and tenth commandments reinforce the need to create meaningful community together. The code says do not steal, but the higher suggestion is also how we create ways to share the wealth with each other. The code says do not bear false witness, but it goes beyond lying, to how to tell the truth with our lives, how we are true to a vision of what we are and can be. My wife always tells me I am a bad liar; every time I even attempt to bend the truth it shows in my face, my eyes. Beware the person who can lie with no compunction. Finally we come to do not covet. One children’s version of this is: Be content with what you have. Earn it honestly. Greed and envy were once described as among the seven deadly sins. Our material desires can destroy the fabric of what we create together by pitting us against each other in pursuit of gain and competition. Our inclination to covet brings us back full circle to the first commandment. We cannot live in harmony with each other and the creation until we have no other gods but God.

The commandments ask how can we create the community of peace and harmony. They have always done this. Emerson reflected on what will reproduce the right character in us, and the peaceful society when he wrote his first book, Nature. Nature has been called our primal book, the fountainhead for our greatest, our one indispensable tradition.” It is no accident that Emerson sees the fulfillment of the Ten Commandments in our coming to harmony with nature, and he used the structure of the original ten for his model as well.

When Nature was first published in 1836, Emerson had a new career as lecturer and author. He had resigned as an active minister in 1832, but transformed what he had learned about life, and written of in sermons and first fully expressed it in Nature. Emerson’s understanding of the path to human fulfillment is similar to what I have outlined as the two main currents of the Ten Commandments – the personal and the communal, what Jesus called God and neighbor. In a later essay he outlined these as “Solitude and Society.” This helps those of us who might reject the traditional language of the commandments. In Nature, he writes, “All things are moral; and in their boundless changes have an unceasing reference to spiritual nature.” Everything we observe, “shall hint or thunder the laws of right and wrong, and echo the Ten Commandments.” This from the man who we often say rejected the Bible and traditions. He recognized that there was a universal essence of a religious conscience or timeless moral sense captured in the commandments that could not be dismissed.

Emerson understood that there is a great harmony behind the words of the Ten Commandments. Part of the harmony is what he called the design of nature, which must be fulfilled in the eye of the beholder – the universe is composed of Nature and the Soul. As early as his days at Boston Latin School, Emerson had written a theme on astronomy, and he reechoed this in Nature, when he spoke of crossing Boston Common, then an open expanse. He felt the currents of universal being circulating through him and wrote, “I am part or particle of God . . .I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty.” Beauty in his view, was seeing beyond the illusions. Seeing God in the commandments is getting beyond the illusions of images and idols, to the heart of God, which for Emerson was knowing divinity first hand.

Seeing beauty in the society would be getting beyond the illusions of desires and roles, and bringing ourselves into harmony with nature. “Beauty,” Emerson wrote, “is the mark God sets on virtue . . ” He insisted that every heroic act is also decent. In effect, Emerson summarizes the meaning of the Ten Commandments for us. These are not authoritarian rules to be followed in blind obedience, but rather a marvelous understanding of what it takes to make a whole person and a whole society. All we have to do is agree to use our freedom to follow the path. Their value, it seems to me, is matchless, not because they are old or traditionally religious, but because they point to the heart of what it will take for each of us and our society to get beyond what Emerson might call trifles, to the heart of right relationship with nature or God, and with each other. Emerson’s book Nature closes with a chapter on prospects. He wrote: “every spirit builds itself a house; and beyond its house, a world; and beyond its world a heaven.” We do that building of self and world, but can we reach the heaven? It seems to me that the spirit of the Ten Commandments, the moral basis of our faith, shows the way, and we have only to walk in that spirit.

Closing words – from Stopford Brooke

The first thing to be said is that whatever religious faith, feelings and hopes we have, we are bound to shape them into form in life, not only at home, but in the work we do in the world. Whatever we feel justly we ought to shape; whatever we think, to give it clear form; whatever we have inside of us, our duty is to mold it outside of ourselves into clear speech or act, which, if it be loving, will be luminous.

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