In Unitarian Universalism, a primary source of wisdom is “direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.” Does this mean that, in effect, we “write” our own sacred scripture? What is the seat of “authority” when it comes to religious insight? How might we all discover a personal “Good Book” that leads to wisdom?
The complete sermon can be read below:
Meditation Reading: “Last Days” (Mary Oliver)
Things are changing.
Things are starting to spin, snap, fly off
Into the blue sleeve of the long afternoon.
Oh and ooh come whistling out of
The perished mouth of the grass
As things turn soft, boil back
Into substance and hue.
forgetting its own enchantment, whispers:
I too love oblivion why not
It is full of second chances.
Now, hiss the bright curls of the leaves.
Now! Booms the muscle of the wind.
Message of Inspiration: “Every Day I Write the (Good) Book”
“Now, hiss the bright curls of the leaves.”
What an effective way to bring our attention to the present moment, in a season when we may be tempted to linger on the past.
This is the poet’s gift, it seems to me.
To notice a moment in her own unique experience…
To frame it, through words and stanzas, and then release it into the world, in a form that can be told and retold.
That is…a form that can be used by human beings.
People like us, who thirst for sources of beauty and meaning… especially in times of loss.
When we hear poetry we love…or encounter any art that speaks to us, we experience a feeling of recognition.
It’s as if the artist has, in the course of reflecting on her life, lifted up a mirror to our own lives.
We may have had exactly the same feelings, made precisely the same observations…
But had not put it into words.
And so, when the poet does, we appreciate the service she has done in bringing our often chaotic and un-articulated ideas into form.
Once they have taken form and shape, we “see” those ideas more clearly.
They become more real and useful to us.
They become “meaningful.”
It might even be said that the experiences of our lives become meaning itself through our act of describing them.
All of us, in our own creative ways, take chaos and shape it, to reveal the inherent meaning of life experience.
Through the creative process, the unconscious becomes conscious.
Out of chaos and shadow comes light.
Now, as we’re here in a church setting, this talk of making form from formlessness… of calling light from shadow…
It will likely have a familiar ring to it.
North Americans raised in Christian settings may recognize themes expressed in the Hebrew Bible, also known as the Old Testament.
The first two verses of the book of Genesis reads:
“Now the earth was formless and empty…darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”
Although many people today are under the mistaken impression that the account in the “Good Book” of the Bible is a factual account of the world’s beginnings…
Scholars have now identified creative links between the Genesis creation story and ancient Babylonian mythology.
The priestly writers of Genesis had been influenced by the meaning-stories that had come long before.
In translations of the Bible that take the ancient Hebrew language into account, interesting nuances emerge.
We need not take the stories literally to find meaning in them.
“When Elohim began to create the heaven and the earth—the earth was tohu va bohu and darkness was upon the face of tehom and ruach was pulsing over the face of the waters. Then Elohim said let there be light.”
According to contemporary process theologian Catherine Keller, “the Hebrew word “tohu va bohu” can be translated as “waste and wild,” which has a poetic rhythm to it.
She tells us, “That word “tohu va bohu” is also related to the word we know as “brouhaha”…that is, a chaos taking shape in unpredictable and perhaps even amusing ways.”
“The earth tohuvabohu suggests a rhyme that has not yet found its reason.”
Keller points out that in these clearer translations, the ones closer to the ancient Hebrew than the Greek, “There is no nothingness, but a whole lot of not-quite-somethingness.”1
She goes on to say that in the Hebrew, the word often translated as “moved” or “hovered” over the waters becomes instead a kind of pulsing spirit-rhythm, in tune with the beating wings of a seabird, the oscillation of breath, or the ebb and flow of ocean.
It’s all very poetic, very connected to the natural world…
…and today it reminds me of my great-uncle’s poem, and the poem I shared with you that I wrote when I was eleven.*
Judaism and Christianity aren’t the only religious traditions that provide us with creation stories where order rises out of chaos.
According to one Hindu myth, for example, Lord Vishnu the Sustainer, arose out of nothingness, and then encouraged his servant Brahma to create the world out of the materials Vishnu had provided.2
It makes sense that human creation myths would carry themes such as these, because human beings understand this business of meaning-making.
It’s something we do.
We apply our logic and reason, our discriminating faculties, to our life experience…to make life make sense…and hopefully, to make it make beautiful sense.
We are creative…and that has a theological dimension that is affirmed in our UU tradition.
In Unitarian Universalism, a primary source of wisdom is “direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.”
All of us have that direct experience.
And if you’re like me, you like to talk about it.
Or perhaps you like to write about it or sing about it or paint about it.
I think we do this for many reasons… First, to affirm what we see as beautiful and meaningful, and put it in a form that we can see and enjoy again and again…
And second, to share it with others. To pass along an insight…
A revelation, as it were.
People have done this for a long time.
According to the New York Times, cave paintings in Europe and Indonesia go back about forty thousand years.3
We create our meaning-texts. Our “scripture.” Our “good book.”
We might go even further to say that life itself is a sacred text that we are called to develop the skill to read.
And of course, that does take great skill.
Especially when one’s vision continues to open up to things that seem to defy easy meaning-making…
The mysterious symbol-language of dreams, for example…
The strange occurrence of synchronicities…
And, of course, the often incomprehensible behavior of other people. The tragic events of life that at times seem to “make no sense.”
All of these call us to “read” life—our life—as a sacred text and perhaps then to interpret it, as have others for thousands of years.
Creating a lineage of wisdom, passed down through humanity, generation by generation.
It’s not only Unitarian Universalism that affirms the importance of this.
In many other communities of faith, the direct experience of life…
…and the creative response that goes hand-in-hand with it…
…can be seen as the core of religious insight and the starting-point for world transformation.
Let me offer just a few examples from traditions other than ours:
In the Qu’ran, we find this passage: “Try to make yourself a prime matter for all forms of religious belief.
God is greater and wider than to be confined to one particular creed to the exclusion of others.
For He says, “To whichever direction you turn, there is the face of God.” [2:115]4
Likewise, the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh has written, “Peace is all around us—in the world and in nature and within us—in our bodies and our spirits.
Once we learn to touch that peace, we will be healed and transformed.”5
When we line these examples up with the UU affirmation of “direct experience” we can see that religious authority is seated in a great many places, including our own lives…
…and I would also venture to say, the lives of meaning-makers who came before us.
Their times and places and cultural contexts were different…and they did not have access to the modern scientific understandings that we do today.
But their “direct experience,” too…held validity and meaning.
Their “experience of transcendent mystery and wonder” moved them to a “renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life” just like ours.
In short, they too were moved to creative response by the wonder and mystery of this world…and by its sorrow and pain.
Many people have observed that poetry and art often get to profound insights in a way more direct and memorable than other methods.
The theologian Catherine Keller writes, “Poetry synchs with the primal rhythm so much more effectively than our stilted propositions and theological abstractions.”6
In light of the events of the past few days, consider these words by Warsan Shire, a Somali-British writer, poet and teacher:
“Later that night
I held an atlas in my lap,
Ran my fingers across the whole world
Where does it hurt?
As I share with you those words, chosen specifically for this morning, you can see how direct experience becomes a wisdom text.
We can see that all of our UU Sources of wisdom…
…whether they be the words of prophetic women and men, the insights of humanist thought, the scriptures of Judeo-Christian tradition and the wisdom of other world religions…
They spring, in some way, from that First Source of direct experience of transcending awe and wonder.
We experience life first-hand. We are moved to respond.
And I want to return to Mary Oliver’s poem “Last Days” now.
The poem starts out in a sunny way, with the “blue sleeve of the long afternoon”…but moves then into a time of darkness, of oblivion.
During the fall season, and during any time of loss, we may find ourselves plunged back toward the primordial waters, dark and deep.
Likewise, the description of our First Source may sound rather sunny, and the creation of new meaning very hopeful.
Yet “direct experience” includes mystery that is bewildering in its darkness.
We may at times feel frustrated or anxious that we cannot easily make sense of it all.
I submit to you, that this direct experience, also, holds meaning and power.
And it seems to me we are called to enter into it…in the faith that the mystery we encounter holds the potential for a Greater Meaning than we currently may be able to understand.
From time to time we may glimpse that larger meaning,
Write it down quickly, like a dream about to slip away…
Tell it to each other…
Or create a painting or a song to frame it.
Some of us—no, all of us—will at times take a moment of insight and form it in such a way that others see it as a wisdom text.
I suggest that all of us do this, all the time. We all have the “authority” if you will, to bring wisdom to others in a way that ministers to them.
Children might tell a story or a joke that we retell to others.
And people we know might express important insights that we pass along…in a conversation or on Facebook.
These are the fruits of the “direct experience of transcendent mystery and wonder”… “[moving] us to renewal of the spirit”
These are the “ahah moments”--
Opening us and re-opening us, again and again, to the forces which create and uphold life, so that we may respond with ever-greater love and compassion.
May we always, awake to the forces that move and inspire us,
be part of that good creation.
1 Catherine Keller, On the Mystery: Discerning Divinity in Process (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008), 48-49.
2 BBC Radio 4: A History of Ideas, How Did Everything Begin? Hindu Creation Stories. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02gj232
4 Reza Shah-Kazemi, The Spirit of Tolerance in Islam (London: IB Tauris Publishers, 2012), 101.
5 Thich Nhat Hanh, Living Buddha: Living Christ (New York: Penguin, 1995), 23-24.
6 Catherine Keller, On the Mystery: Discerning Divinity in Process (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008), 49.
7 Though widely quoted in this form, this is an excerpt from a longer poem called “What They Did Yesterday Afternoon.” http://riotpieces-blog.tumblr.com/post/8998897146/what-they-did-yesterday-afternoon-by-warsan-shire
* Additional Readings referred to in the Message:
“The Birds and I”
The birds and I
With winging dream
And whispering feather.
Frank Cheavens, Dandelion and Devil-Horse
(Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 1974).
The spring rose up
As a sweet, green sunrise
Over the sleeping world,
Melting the cold stillness
Into a torrent of sparkling
Movement, which gave way to
The hot noon of summer,
Radiant with colour, but
Lazy under the heavy air.
Autumn broke the spell, scuttling in,
And hustled the world out of
Their [sic] lawn-chair happiness,
And with a final, gold-painted
Sunset, plunged the earth
Into the cold night of winter.
(Lynn Harrison, age 11)
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