“What About Binitarians and Other Questions of the Spirit” by Jolie Olivetti –
February 19, 2017
The Last Rites of the Bokononist Faith (excerpt) by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
God made mud.
God got lonesome.
So God said to some of the mud, “Sit up!”
“See all I’ve made,” said God, “the hills, the sea, the sky, the stars.”
And I was some of the mud that got to sit up and look around.
Lucky me, lucky mud.
I, mud, sat up and saw what a nice job God had done.
Nice going, God.
Nobody but you could have done it, God! I certainly couldn’t have.
I feel very unimportant compared to You.
The only way I can feel the least bit important is to think of all the mud
that didn’t even get to sit up and look around.
I got so much, and most mud got so little.
Thank you for the honor!
Now mud lies down again and goes to sleep.
What memories for mud to have!
What interesting other kinds of sitting-up mud I met!
I loved everything I saw!
“Holy Ghost” by June Robertson Beisch
The congregation sang off key.
The priest was rambling.
The paint was peeling in the Sacristy.
A wayward pigeon, trapped in the church,
flew wildly around for a while and then
flew toward a stained glass window,
but it didn’t look like reality.
The ushers yawned, the dollar bills
drifted lazily out of the collection baskets
and a child in the front row began to cry.
Suddenly, the pigeon flew down low,
swooping over the heads of the faithful
like the Holy ghost descending at Pentecost
Everyone took it to be a sign,
Everyone wants so badly to believe.
You can survive anything if you know
that someone is looking out for you,
but the sky outside the stained glass window,
doesn’t it look like home ?
From House of Hope by John Buehrens and Rebecca Parker
“The people of Le Chambon, a small village in France, harbored hundreds of Jewish children during World War II. Years later, when they were visited by one of the children – now a grown man – who had been sheltered there, he found himself asking why that village had sheltered Jewish children when so many others had not. He found his answer in observing their simple worship practices. Le Chambon was a Huegenot, Protestant village. A religious minority, accustomed to struggling to survive, they regularly gathered to sing hymns, to recall the faith of ancestors who had held fast to the spirit of love even in times of trial, to offer thanksgiving, and to pray for one another. When he asked them to explain, they said that they could not imagine responding in any other way. It was simple the shape that heir souls had. Their ways of worship had formed them for courage and resistance.”
SERMON “A Question of the Spirit” by Jolie Olivetti
I remembered something about singing yesterday. Talking with my sister about my sermon topic for today, she mentioned a skill we both learned as kids in the church choir – how to hold a really long note. In order to do this, we have to take turns breathing. This is what we are tasked with from time to time, and especially right now. We have to spell each other so everyone gets a turn to take a breath.
Over the last few months, I have read and agonized and talked about, I have marched and protested about, I have written and preached about the alarming political situation we are in. I know you all have done some of the things on that list as well. Maybe you’re like me and you’ve come up against total despair more than once. I feel short-tempered and irritable all the time, and I’m not sure whether to blame it on pregnancy or the rise of fascism around the globe. I feel fearful for our future and I don’t have the answers.
A friend who works in public health at the state level told me about the immediate impact of a draft executive order that was leaked a few weeks ago, on the use of public benefits by documented immigrants – people who are here with papers. No actions have actually been taken, just the threat of action, and still, in large numbers, new mothers are suddenly afraid to sign up to receive the benefits they need, because they are afraid this will make them subject to deportation. This is about food for pregnant women and nursing mothers, food for young children.
There is so much to resist. Travel bans on refugees and others coming from Muslim nations, the specter of dismantling the EPA, threats of mass deportations… I will not list it all right now. There is so much to resist, it’s overwhelming. It’s hard to know what to do. But this is not a sermon about taking specific actions, not today.
This is a sermon about taking turns breathing, about getting our breath back when the wind has been knocked out of us. How can we continue to come together to learn what is needed of us and what to do? How can we sustain the long note of resistance? For starters, we have to remember to breathe. In the Hebrew Bible, the word for breath is the same as the word for Spirit. So if this is a sermon about remembering to breathe, this is also a sermon about remembering the Spirit.
That word for breath and spirit is ruah. The ruah is the instrument of creation and also the fuel of prophecy. When the Lord breathes into the nostrils of the man he has formed from the “dust of the ground,” Adam comes to life. When Moses shares just the tiniest sigh of his own portion of the Spirit with seventy elders, they fall into a prophetic fit all around Moses’ tent. Just a little huff of the ruah from the Lord turns the ancients into prophets and kings, and raises the dry bones from the dead in Ezekiel’s valley.
We find the Spirit in the New Testament as well; in Greek, the word for wind and spirit is the same. In the book of Acts, the Spirit descends upon the followers of Jesus on the day of Pentecost: they begin to talk in tongues and they receive the divine commission to spread the faith as the early Christian church.
These are ancient accounts of Spirit, compiled before a doctrine of the Christian Trinity was set in stone. What are the three parts of the Trinity? The Father, or perhaps in less patriarchal terms, the Creator; The Son – that’s Jesus; and the Holy Ghost or the Holy Spirit. I don’t totally understand why, when historical Unitarians questioned Trinitarian Christian doctrine by proclaiming that Jesus is not divine, they collapsed the Spirit and Creator into a single Unity. The Trinity went right from 3 to 1. What happened to 2? Who cares?
The problem is that many of us UU’s skip over the concept of the Holy Spirit. The image of a kingly, all-powerful bearded guy with a robe still dominates our mental models of what God might be like, even for those of us who are more humanist or atheistic. When we say we don’t believe in God, we may be thinking that we don’t believe in an omnipotent sovereign who created all of this and who remains aloof from it.
This idea of a great king or judge in the sky overshadows the idea of Spirit, a holy force that moves through our world and shares its power with humankind.
This is not a matter of mere abstract theological pondering. Even for a humanist like me, to understand, to feel, to know something of Spirit is vital to my sense of myself, my place in the human family, my place in the cosmos. As a UU humanist, I interpret Holy Spirit to include the human spirit. Spirit distinguishes me as “sitting-up mud,” as the tracts of Vonnegut’s Bokononists put it. It’s how I know I am alive, how I feel part of something greater than myself, it’s what compels me to care and fuels me to keep going even when things are tough.
I met an oncologist in the bone marrow transplant unit where I was a chaplain last summer. He had two little figurines clipped to his stethoscope: a toy mouse and an angel. He explained that he wore the mouse to honor all the mice that had given their lives for cancer research, and he wore an angel because he has come to believe that it takes “something more” for his patients to get through serious illness. When he told me this, we were standing next to a woman lying in her hospital bed. She had been there for weeks, in the relative isolation that the treatment for this type of cancer requires. She teared up and nodded emphatically, “that’s the truth.” “Something more.” What is that?
Going around the hospital and knocking on doors, I would say to patients, “most people are here to check on your body, I’m here to check on your spirits.” That usually cracked a smile, and was a way of gently suggesting that, regardless of anyone’s faith tradition or observance, a chat with the chaplain could be useful. I wanted people to know that I believe all of us have spiritual needs: questions about how our lives knit into the whole and what it all means, including our fears about illness. We all have something ineffable in us, something “more” worth paying attention to, something that helps us know we are not just regular mud.
I had to attend to my own spirit with unwavering discipline while I was an intern chaplain. Otherwise I would be utterly empty, I would have nothing to offer patients and families if I neglected the things that replenished my spirits. I would pause in the hospital chapel between visits to breathe, write, or cry. After a shift, I would sit on my back porch and watched the sparrows scold the squirrels in the crisscrossing branches behind my house. I would sing a lot, too. The Hamilton soundtrack mostly, mostly in my kitchen at the top of my lungs. But also UU hymns, especially How Can I Keep from Singing? I would also often sing “Spirit of Life,” a hymn we hear here every week right after Joys & Sorrows, but rarely sing together. Last summer, I found that I really needed to invoke the Spirit of Life. I needed to, as the hymn goes, “Sing in my heart, all the stirrings of compassion.” What’s different now? Why not nourish my spirits now?
Perhaps it seems disconnected from reality to attend to our spirits given the urgency of the moment, given the attacks on our communities and eviscerations of our flawed but persistent attempts at democracy. But the story of Le Chambon from our reading this morning suggests that spiritual practice was precisely what equipped these villagers to do what was right during World War II. This town of barely 5,000 Protestants in France provided shelter and food for more than 5,000 Jews under Nazi occupation.
The man that Rebecca Parker & John Buehrens refer to in their retelling, the Jewish man who was born there and who went back to ask the people of Le Chambon why they had helped so many of his people, was named Pierre Sauvage. He made a documentary of his visit in the late 1980s called The Weapons of the Spirit. Bill Moyers interviewed Pierre Sauvage about the film shortly after its release. In the interview, Moyers is concerned about the film’s title, saying, If the spirit can be used as a weapon, it was insufficient to prevent the darkness, the ruin, the devastation, the horror and the evil that fell upon Europe in what you say is, or was, a “Christian” culture.
Moyers asks, “Isn’t there a danger in suggesting that the spirit can withstand the onslaught of human nature?”
I think on balance there’s a greater danger in not believing it, in believing that somehow the spirit does not have the power to transcend everything. You know, even when it comes specifically to the experience of Jews during the Holocaust… there was that concern that paying attention to the rescuers might somehow take the edge off the experience… I think that is simply not the case. I think that we need to know that it was possible for people to care. If we pass along a legacy that does not include the righteous, does not include the rescuers, then we’re giving humanity an alibi. One doesn’t even have to aspire to do better, because it isn’t possible.
Parker and Buehrens write about the spiritual practices that Sauvage also identified as the reason the people of Le Chambon acted so bravely, yet at the same time so simply human in harboring Jews under Nazi occupation. What made it possible for them to care? Here, again, is how Parker and Buehrens put it,
A religious minority, accustomed to struggling to survive, they regularly gathered to sing hymns, to recall the faith of ancestors who had held fast to the spirit of love even in times of trial, to offer thanksgiving, and to pray for one another. When he asked them to explain, they said that they could not imagine responding in any other way. It was simply the shape that their souls had. Their ways of worship had formed them for courage and resistance.
When our spiritual practices are strong, our capacity to channel the goodness and the power of Spirit is strong. Whether we’re facing cancer or fascism or both, authentic spiritual practices are not frivolous, a mere luxury. They help us prepare our souls for courage and resistance.
In the poem we heard this morning, the worship service is stifling and meaningless until a pigeon flies low overhead, “like the Holy ghost descending at Pentecost.” The sanctuary is then infused with holy power. And the poem reads, “You can survive anything if you know / that someone is looking out for you.” We need spiritual practices, we need worship services that help us feel the Spirit swooping right over our heads, touching us with the possibility of goodness, assuring us that we are not alone, that someone is looking out for us, saving us from despair.
Who do we feel is looking out for us? In our worship service here, it could be that we are looking out for each other. It could be that God, the Spirit, is looking out for us, moving through us. It could be that all of us are looking out for our neighbors beyond these church walls. When our spirits are full, we’ll have the power to do right by one another.
It’s going to take “something more” to get through all this. Here in church, we can greet one another with all the love in our hearts. We can light candles, meditate, and pray,
We can laugh or cry with one another, we can sing like we really mean it. Whether here in church, or out marching in the streets, weathering sickness or injustice, we must remember to breathe, to take turns breathing, because life’s song is long, and there are some difficult parts. We must attend to the practices that truly lift our spirits, the practices that infuse us with the spirit of life, so that, one breath at a time, we are strengthened to do this simple and human thing of looking out for one another.
“Unison Benediction” by May Sarton
Return to the most human,
nothing less will nourish the torn spirit,
the bewildered heart,
the angry mind:
and from the ultimate duress,
pierced with the breath of anguish,
speak of love.
Return, return to the deep sources,
nothing less will teach the stiff hands a new way to serve,
to carve into our lives the forms of tenderness
and still that ancient necessary pain preserve.
Return to the most human,
nothing less will teach the angry spirit,
the bewildered heart;
the torn mind,
to accept the whole of its duress,
and pierced with anguish…
at last, act for love.