Opening Reading: Morning Poem, by Mary Oliver
the world is created.
Under the orange
sticks of the sun
ashes of the night
turn into leaves again
and fasten themselves to the high branches
–and the ponds appear
like black cloth
on which are painted islands
of summer lilies.
If it is your nature
to be happy
you will swim away along the soft trails
for hours, your imagination
And if your spirit
carries within it
that is heavier than lead
if it’s all you can do
to keep on trudging
there is still
somewhere deep within you
a beast shouting that the earth
is exactly what it wanted
each pond with its blazing lilies
is a prayer heard and answered
lavishly, every morning,
whether or not
you have ever dared to be happy, whether or not
you have ever dared to pray.
Reading: From Walt Whitman’s “A Song for Occupations“
A song for occupations!
In the labor of engines and trades and the labor of fields
I find the developments,
And find the eternal meanings.
Workmen and Workwomen!
Is it you that thought the President greater than you?
Or the rich better off than you? Or the educated wiser than you?
or that you are no scholar
and never saw your name in print?
I bring what you much need yet always have.
There is something that comes to one now and perpetually,
It is not what is printed, preach’d, discussed, it eludes
discussion and print,
It is not to be put in a book, it is not in this book,
It is for you whoever you are, it is no farther from you than
your hearing and sight are from you,
It is hinted by nearest, commonest, readiest, it is ever
provoked by them.
We consider bibles and religions divine-I do not say
they are not divine,
I say they have all grown out of you, and may grow out of you still,
It is not they who give the life, it is you who give the life.
The sum of all known reverence I add up in you whoever you are,
The President is there in the White House for you, it is not you who
are here for him,
The Secretaries act in their bureaus for you, not you here for them.
All architecture is what you do to it when you look upon it.
All music is what awakes from you when you are reminded
by the instruments,
It is not the violins and the cornets, it is not the oboe nor the beating
drums, nor the score of the baritone singer
Singing his sweet romanza, nor that of the men’s chorus,
Nor that of the women’s chorus,
It is nearer and farther than they.
Will you seek afar off? you surely come back at last,
In things best known to you finding the best, or as good as the best,
In folks nearest to you finding the sweetest, strongest, lovingest,
Happiness, knowledge, not in another place but this place,
not for another hour but this hour.
The Sum of All Known Reverence – July 27, 2003
Whitman put it perfectly:
“We consider bibles and religions divine–I do not say they are not divine, I say they have all grown out of you, and may grow out of you still. It is not they who give the life, it is you who give the life. The sum of all known reverence I add up in you whoever you are.”
If you were to name one thing that distinguishes Unitarian Universalists from the other religions, what would it be?
For me it’s the notion expressed by Whitman in the passage we’ve read: “We consider bibles and religions divine–I do not say they are not divine, I say they have all grown out of you, and may grow out of you still. It is not they who give the life, it is you who give the life.”
Theodore Parker, one of our most important 19th century Unitarian forebears said, “As a master the Bible is a tyrant. As a servant I do not have time in one life to find its many uses.”
The book of Proverbs serves me today. It says, “Pride goeth before destruction and an haughty spirit before a fall.”
The opposite of arrogant pride can be summed up in the term reverence.
A book by Paul Woodruff titled, “Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue,” has gotten a lot of attention. He raises basic questions: What is reverence? Do you recognize it when you see it? How is it developed? Who has it? How do you know? How do you know when it is absent?
A recent tempest in a teapot was flared up by a New York Times story that quoted Bill Sinkford, our UUA Presdent, who said in a sermon, “We need a vocabulary of reverence.”
He talked about our need to included words like God, sin and salvation, and so forth. Of course we need “a vocabulary of reverence,” but that vocabulary has to be broad, it has to included Unitarian Universalists in our pews who occupy a wide variety of theological positions˜the atheist as well as the theist and the agnostic; the Jew, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist as well as the Christian.” I think if Bill had ever served one of our congregations he would realize that “a vocabulary of reverence,” as he put it, has less to do with language or specific words than it has to do with an attitude.
We can tell when a person has an attitude of reverence, and when it is lacking. We know.
Reverence has something to do with a sense of the holy. Emerson called it an intuition; it‚s an inner sense of what is sacred. It is a feeling of profound awe. That’s the word Paul Woodruff uses a lot: awe. It has to do with respect, but it’s different from respect.
Witnessing war the way we do in our time has the potential to destroy the sense of the sacred; it has the potential to destroy our ability to feel compassion for every single person harmed by it, and the destruction of the pets-the dogs and cats and other creatures that are loved by someone.
Witnessing war’s destruction forces us to ask, “Is anything sacred?”
The bombs dropped in so-called religious wars have the potential to destroy our respect for religion in general.
We Unitarian Universalists assert that all the religions have come from the depths of the human experience-what it means to be human, to live a human life: to be born, to develop a sense of the self, to increase one’s consciousness, to reproduce, to age, and to be aware that you will one day die.
Let me offer a taste of the delicious meal Paul Woodruff lays out in his book, “Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue.” He says:
“Reverence is an ancient virtue that survives among us in half forgotten patterns of civility, in moments of inarticulate awe, and in nostalgia for the lost ways of traditional cultures. We have the word “reverence” in our language but we scarcely know how to use it.”
“Reverence begins in a deep understanding of human limitations; from this grows the capacity to be in awe of whatever we believe lies outside our control–God, truth, justice, nature, even death. The capacity for awe, as it grows, brings with it the capacity for respecting fellow human beings, flaws and all. This in turn fosters the ability to be ashamed when we show moral flaws exceeding the normal human allotment. The Greeks before Plato saw reverence as one of the bulwarks of society, and the immediate followers of Confucius in China thought much the same. Both groups wanted to see reverence in their leaders, because reverence is the virtue that keeps leaders from trying to take tight control of other people’s lives. Simply put, reverence is the virtue that keeps human beings from trying to act like gods.”
“Hubris (is) the crime of tyrants. An irreverent soul is arrogant and shameless, unable to feel awe in the face of things higher than itself. As a result, an irreverent soul is unable to feel respect for people it sees as lower than itself–ordinary people, prisoners, children. The two failures go together, in both Greek and Chinese traditions. If an emperor has a sense of awe, this will remind him that Heaven is superior–that he is, as they said in ancient China, the son of Heaven.”
“Reverence has more to do with politics than religion. We can easily imagine religion without reverence; we see it, for example, wherever religion leads people into aggressive war or violence. But power without reverence–that is a catastrophe for all concerned. Power without reverence is aflame with arrogance.”
“It is a natural mistake to think that reverence belongs to religion. It belongs, rather, to community. Reverence lies behind civility and all the graces that make life in society bearable and pleasant.”
“Another easy mistake to make about reverence is to confuse it with respect. Respect is sometimes good and sometimes, bad, sometimes wise and sometimes silly. It is silly to respect the pratings of a pompous fool; it is wise to respect the intelligence of any student. Reverence calls for respect only when respect is really the right attitude. To pay respect to a tyrant would not be reverent; it would be weak and cowardly.”
“Most modern philosophers have forgotten about reverence. But poets are aware of it, as they have always been.”
“Poets often understand virtues better than philosophers, so that the wisdom of poets over time is essential to the subject.”
“Without reverence, we cannot explain why we should treat the natural world with respect. Without reverence, a house is not a home, a boss is not a leader, an instructor is not a teacher. Without reverence we would not even know how to learn reverence. To teach reverence, you must find the seeds of reverence in each person and help them grow.”
“Religious wars are endemic in our time, which is a time with little care for reverence. Perhaps these wars are cooling down in some places, but they are heating up in others, even as I write this book. If a religious group thinks it speaks and acts as God commands in all things, this is a failure of reverence. A group like that may turn violent and feel they are doing so in good faith. Nothing is more dangerous than that feeling.”
“The voices that call in the name of God for aggressive war have lost sight of human limitations. They have lost reverence, even when they serve a religious vision”
We long to see signs of reverence in our national leaders. Lincoln had it. Martin Luther King, Jr. had it. Jimmy Carter has it.
Many of us have been appalled at the arrogance we see in our leaders–the hubris that led to the unilateral preemptive war in Iraq, a beleaguered nation ruled by a tyrant who taunted our President into it.
Some years ago I read an anecdote written by a journalist in New York City–I think it was Sydney Harris–who was visited by a colleague for a week. Each day they went through the same routine, taking the subway to the office of the, stopping at the newsstand at the subway exit to buy morning papers and so forth.
On the third morning the friend said, “Boy that guy is really grumpy,” referring to the news vendor. “Yea,” was all he answered. “But every day you are pleasant to him, and he’s just as grumpy in return.” “Yea, that’s right.”
“Well, if he’s always so grumpy why are you so pleasant to him?”
“Because I don’t want him to determine how I’m going to be!”
Reverence is, perhaps, the virtue that urges us to treat one another, and the natural world, with respect, and, with Whitman, to look at the other and say, “The sum of all known reverence I add up in you, whoever you are.”
Martin Buber, the great Jewish theologian of modern times, said, “From moment to moment, from day to day, we search the eyes of others for that certain Yes.” What Buber called ”that certain Yes” is an affirmation of reverence. It‚s what connects us as compassionate, caring persons who are sharing this life together, with reverence.
Closing reading: White Heron, by John Ciardi
What lifts the heron leaning on the air
I praise without a name. A crouch, a flare,
a long stroke through the cumulus of trees,
a shaped thought at the sky-then gone. O rare!
Saint Francis, being happiest on his knees,
would have cried Father! Cry anything you please, But praise. By any name or none. But praise the white original burst that lights
the heron on his two soft kissing kites.
When saints praise heaven lit by doves and rays,
I sit by pond scums till the air recites
It’s heron back. And doubt all else. But praise.
Closing Words: Now say to thyself “If there’s any good thing I can do, or any kindness I can show to any person, let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it, for I may not pass this way again.”