First Parish of Watertown Unitarian Universalist

Sunday, January 19, 2014

“At the Intersection of Channing and Dillard”

By Tracy Johnson


Reading -by Judith Walker-Riggs

Long long ago, it seemed so simple.  The universe was a three-storied apartment house, with heaven on the top floor, full of gods and stars; earth in the middle, full of people and animals and plants, and hell in the basement, full of terrible and scary things.  God had nothing else to do but sit up there watching us.  We were the center of attention.  We were his people.

Then came Copernicus.  He said that the sun did not move around the earth at all, but was a fixed star.  He said it was earth and us on it that did the moving, and worse, that the earth was just one of the planets that so moved, one among many, and not at the center of anything at all . . .


In the last few decades we have been entering a new vision of the universe as radical and revolutionary as the Copernican changeover, and we still have not worked out what it all means, either in theology or in our view of what humanity is and what we ought to do with our lives.


There I was, caught red-handed in the waiting room of the dentist’s office, hunched over a magazine I held open on the chair, scribbling in my pocket notebook, when I was interrupted by the receptionist.  “Can I – help you – with something?” she asked, her head tilted in that puzzled sort of way.  “Oh,” I replied sheepishly, wondering what she will make of my story, “I was in here a couple of months ago waiting for my husband and I read a quote in one of your magazines that I really liked and couldn’t remember exactly, so I thought I’d stop by while I was in the area and look it up.”  Having shared this I smiled a quirky little smile and, to my surprise, she laughed and said, “I would have done the same thing!”

When I first read the quote it interested me, but it wasn’t until a while later that I noticed the magnet on our refrigerator with another quote that I like as a reminder, that I made a connection and, of course, then I had to have the one from the magazine!  You see, I love it when things like this happen – when divergent parts of my life sync up with one another momentarily and give me some insight; heighten my awareness; teachable moments where I feel like I have grown spiritually or emotionally as a result of their coming together.

And as it turns out, this whole story is really an example for me personally of what the quotes themselves profess, a fact I only just discovered while thinking about writing this sermon! Amazing how the mind works!  By now you must be wondering what these quotes are that set me off on such an adventure!  The truth is that these journeys are quite normal for me.  They are a part of who I am at the core of my being.  I am a seeker by nature and now that I have some years behind me to look back on I realize that it is my curiosity and zest for the answer to the simple question, “Why?” that have driven me since childhood.  I like to credit my father for instilling this in me.  You see, he would always tell me the most outlandish stories – exaggerations really – of some current event, playing on my naiveté, until eventually as I grew older and a bit wiser I began to question rather than to trust everything I was told.

But, back to the quotes.  It was our Unitarian forebear William Ellery Channing who said that, “Our affections are our lives.  We live by them, they supply our warmth.”  Practically speaking, and Channing, I have read, was practical among other characteristics, this only follows.  We become the things we love.  At first I thought of this as a philosophical ‘You are what you eat’ kind of statement until I took a closer look.  It is not so much what we take in that forms us, but rather what do and express.  It is about output as a means of formation.  And being an action oriented type of person, this intrigued me all the more.

Channing’s task was to fill us with a reverence for human nature found in ourselves and others which, then, would manifest itself in a reformation of our modes of life.  Ultimately he believed in our goodness and our ability to grow more and more like God; that there is an emptiness apart from this that we are always seeking to fill.  And when filled we are supplied with a warmth that is like no other.  He posits Jesus’ life as the clearest example of a life so lived and this is something I can get onboard with to a certain extent.  Jesus’ affections were his life.  He lived by them and in turn that void in him was pretty close to full most of the time.  Full enough to keep him going, even when his radicalism got him in trouble.  He really couldn’t be anything other given his affection for his God.

This quote begs the question for each of us, too.  Where are our affections?  We need only look at our lives to find the answer, if Channing is right.  One of the places my affections are directed is toward that seeking, that knowing, and often times, interpreting that which I have found in the light of my present life circumstances.  Hence the adventure back to the dentist’s office; the journey to seminary to explore spirituality; the eventual understanding of a call to ministry that echoes Channing’s idea of a reverent way of being which fosters personal growth and change, and has the potential to be transformative in our world.

When do you feel that warmth that surpasses all else?  We know what it is like to be full!  Perhaps too much so as the holidays have just passed – at least this is the case for my family where food figures prominently in our coming together.  So let’s back off a bit from that overfilled sensation to a point where we are satisfied – that’s the feeling I am going for.  What in your life can you credit with supplying that ultimate sufficiency?  Think about it for a moment.  Go ahead, I’ll wait.  My guess is that it is the things our hearts are set on, right?  Maybe family or a connection to nature or an act of caring – it will be different for each of us – the places where our affections are directed which tell the true stories of our lives and fill us with gratification.

Annie Dillard is often quoted as saying that, “How we spend our days is how we spend our lives.”  These are the words on my refrigerator magnet – remember the magnet?  I said I like these words as a reminder to self – an admonition to consider what I am about on any given day in the context of its impact on the whole of my living.  Because I know I can spend my day in frivolous ways and one day of that might be okay – probably healthy! – but days of unceasing frivolity will render my life as frivolous and I don’t want that to happen.  In the end I would feel empty and dissatisfied, having not set my sights on my true affections.  I would be out of alignment – in need of a spiritual chiropractic adjustment!

Annie was once described by a New York Times critic as having a writing ability that revealed a sense of wonder that was fearless and unbridled; an intensity of experience which gave the impression that she lived only in order to declare.  In Dillard we find the kind of oneness with affections that makes it possible to achieve our highest and greatest good in life.  She doesn’t write in order to make a living – she lives in order to write; to capture the essence of her day to day interactions with the world around her and to declare that boldly to the rest of us so that, perhaps, we may be inclined to do the same.  Not necessarily to live with such gusto, forever proclaiming it, but to find that which suits us so perfectly, as she has, and live it into being.

The Chinese-born French academician, writer and translator Francois Cheng said that, “Only a man in perfect accord with himself, in perfect sincerity, can go to the limits of his own nature.”  For him it was his adoption of the French in law, mind and heart, especially having taken on the language itself, which became the soul of his writing and creative work.  It was so intimately bound up with his way of living that it became the emblem of his destiny.  So there is a piece of this that has to do with sincerity; with authenticity that is key to our reaching full potential.   This is the case no matter what we undertake.

I spent a good number of years working in the prison and parole systems before turning my life to ministry and this may seem a little out of character for me -small, quiet, graying 😉 . . .  These were state jobs though, that carried with them a level of security that was important to me as the once single mother I began them as.  Still, I am not sure if I ever really fit the mold.  In order to stick it out for the twenty years necessary for the retirement I had to do it my way; with authenticity, in order to excel in the role.  I had turned a job into a vocation, whether I initially recognized it or not.  And as it turns out, supervision with respect for persons regardless of their state or station in life, that affords them a level of dignity in a system that does more to oppress than uplift, goes a long way towards fostering transformation.  Even colleagues that couldn’t do it that way recognized that I was on to something.  I am of the belief that we are possessed of a sacredness at the molecular level; it resides deep inside every human being and I try to look for that – even if I have to dig to find it – which I did – even if I have buried it in myself so that it is hard to find – which I often had.  It is in relating from that place in each of us that the ultimate in respect is shared.  For me this is the only authentic way to live and when I do it – tend to these affections – spend my days attending to them – they become my life and I am filled with a warmth and joy that transcends all else and I am enabled to extend myself closer to the limits of my potential.

It is this authenticity that enabled me to make the shift toward ministry once I came upon our Unitarian Universalist faith.  I had felt that nudge before in my journey through other traditions, but always came to a place where, if I were to fully call it my own and make it my life’s work, it would be inauthentic.  So I would eventually move on, seeking.  Until I found our tradition with these principles we covenant to affirm and promote; this wide array of sacred story from which to draw meaning.  This is what I had been doing all along and here was a religion that encouraged me to keep going instead of trying to put me in a box with a lid and a tightly tied ribbon to hold it on.  I was reminded by Ann Patchett in my datebook a couple of weeks ago not to be so focused on what I am looking for that I overlook the thing I actually find.  Apparently I had been doing that for quite some time in my spiritual journey.  There it was, right in front of me, but I was afraid to trust it; trust myself; trust my affections as a proper container of belief.

Last summer I read Stephen Cope’s “The Great Work of Your Life.”  It is about the journey toward your true calling and it follows the lives of eleven well known people – from Jane Goodall to Thoreau, from Susan B. Anthony to John Keats to Harriet Tubman.  It is about finding your dharma, which is best described as that essential nature of a being, the sum of that nature’s particular qualities and characteristics and then based on the virtue of these tendencies and dispositions, to determine the manner in which one will conduct themselves, generally or in relation to a given circumstance. That’s a mouthful, but I see it as a guiding force unique to each of us, based in our true selves, that allows us to act in ways that are more vocationally rooted.

The Bhagavad Gita is a wonderfully sacred story, a conversation really, between the young warrior Arjuna and his god Krishna.  It takes place in a chariot on a battlefield where Arjuna is nothing short of immobilized by indecision about what his duty is.  I see him curled up in a more or less fetal position on the floor, so distraught he is unable to move.  Surely we can all relate!  It is in these moments of simply not knowing what our best next move is; where our ‘true north’ lies; that we cry out for help.  Not all of us has a Krishna seated next to us in our chariots, but I would venture a guess that we all cry out to something, somewhere, some of the time.  But Krishna urges Arjuna, and the rest of us, to first look within and not to tremble before what we see.  Figure it out, give it a name and then embrace it.  And once you have done so, do this thing with every fiber of your being.  It is a commitment to authentically living a passionate life, according to Cope, that can be transformative.  The people he writes about were mostly doing this in some area of their living, but in most cases, they did not recognize it initially.  The thing that came most naturally and offered the most fulfillment might not have been the job they had ended up in.  The idea of pursuing vocation had only snuck up behind them later in life.  This was certainly the case for me and so the journey wound around for many years while I pursued work that supplied security, while only dabbling in the idea of ministry from a lay person’s perspective.  It was not until I was in my late 40’s that vocation tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Hey, what about me?  You know I bring you the most fulfillment.”

Others had the good fortune to be encouraged in that path from their childhoods – how amazing to have such support from a parent even when the vocation turned out to be so unusual as that of primatologist Jane Goodall.  When Jane was still a toddler she recalls wandering into the henhouse to discover where eggs come from.  She was gone for several hours and the family was in a panic looking for her, but when she emerged with the egg she wasn’t punished for her disappearance.  Instead, her mother “noticed her shining eyes” as she recounted the story.  Jane’s gift – her love for science and animals – was both seen and reflected by her mother and thus she was always encouraged to seek after her true affections; a beautiful lesson for any of us who parent or mentor these days.  Look for their shining eyes!

Martin Luther King, Jr., whose life we celebrate this week was the 1966 Ware Lecturer at our Unitarian Universalist General Assembly.  He called his lecture, “Don’t Sleep Through the Revolution” and in it he calls us to action in the civil rights struggles of the day.   As I reread this lecture I was reminded that all this talk about our affections and their pursuit is really a luxury for most of us.  We can’t all just drop what we are doing and run off after our dreams; there is not yet an equality of means that allows for that.  This was certainly the case for me.  I did the work did not just because seeking financial security is the norm in our capitalist society; it was a reality.  Before I worked for the state I was a waitress, working usually two and sometimes three jobs to make ends meet and support my daughter and myself.  We received food stamps, housing assistance and energy assistance, and still it was tight.  I was never so grateful as when I finally got a job that also supplied medical insurance – a luxury we had never had before – even if the pay itself was not much more than minimum wage.  Dreams and visions would have to wait.  I had responsibilities to tend to.

Dr. King suggests that, “I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.”  He said that, “Skin may differ, but affection dwells in black and white the same.”  He spoke of our interconnectedness which he said was a concept we, as Unitarian Universalists, could easily grasp, but he called us to act upon our knowing, to continue to fight until equality in the ability to pursue our affections was the norm.  Clearly, we are not done yet.

Dr. King cited William Cullen Bryant who said that, “Truth crushed will rise again.”  Bryant was speaking about winning freedom for all humanity, but it applies to us as individuals as well; to our personal truths; our true affections.  We may not recognize them, we may bury them, we may stray from them, we may not have the luxury of being able to acknowledge them, but they do not go away.  They rise up when least expected, in all different areas of our living, reminding us of who we are at center.

So, here I stand at the intersection of Channing and Dillard, with a few other side streets joining in – like downtown Watertown I guess – there goes that mind again!  Here I stand, having stumbled upon two quotes that led me on an adventure in thinking and being, an exploration of my journey that makes me more aware of how and why I am able to be with you now at this time in my life.

“Our affections are our lives.  We live by them, they supply our warmth.”

“How we spend our days is how spend our lives.”

May it be so.

Closing Words – by Linda Hogan

There are ways in, journeys to the center of life, through time; through air, matter, dream and thought.  The ways are not always mapped or charted, but sometimes being lost, if there is such a thing, is the sweetest place to be.  And always, in this search, a person might find that she is already there, at the center of the world.