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Before attempting to utter some ‘famous last words,’ I want to return to some of the first foundational words – I’m referring to my first two sermons from this pulpit – my two candidating sermons, which I titled Being Real, Together and The Companionship of Traveling Souls.
The first of those two titles is a reference to Margery Williams’ wonderful parable about the Velveteen Rabbit who wanted to become real, like the Skin Horse.
The Second of the two titles is from Walt Whitman’s poem Song of the Open Road, in which he says:
“Whoever you are, come travel with me…I’ll be honest with you, I do not offer old smooth prizes, but rough, new prizes, these are the days that must happen to you…Allons, after the great companions, and to belong to them. They too are on the road…they are the swift and majestic men, they are the greatest of women.”
Let me also remind you of the famous passage from the Velveteen Rabbit:
“The Skin Horse had lived longer in the nursery than any of the others. He was so old that his brown coat was bald in patches and showed the seams underneath, and most of the hairs in his tail had been pulled out to string bead necklaces. He was wise, for he had seen a long succession of mechanical toys arrive to boast and swagger, and by-and-by break their mainsprings and pass away, and he knew that they were only toys, and would never turn into anything else. For nursery magic is very strange and wonderful, and only those playthings that are old and wise and experienced like the Skin Horse understand all about it.
“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
I used that passage for two reasons: first, because I wanted to make the point that our central purpose as a congregation is to find the courage to be real…to build relationships of trust and caring, and to acknowledge that “…it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept.”
My second reason for using that passage was to provide an example of what Thoreau meant by his famous three-word sentence in Walden: “Simplify, simplify, simplify.”
Just as the preacher is first preaching to himself, so was Thoreau preaching to himself: he was not a simple man; he was a typical Unitarian – he was often swept up in his own contradictions – which is to say, in spite of his advice to ‘simplify,’ he had a tendency to arrogance, elitism and pretentiousness.
We Unitarian Universalists have something important to contribute to the religious conversation of our time, but if we’re not careful we are dismissed by the traditional religious community because of our insistence on questioning all the old beliefs with a tone of arrogance, elitism and puffy pretentiousness.
Question we must, and doubt all the old answers we must, but loyalty to this chosen faith of ours, while it does not require specific theological beliefs, it does require us to avoid the arrogance, elitism and pretentiousness that eliminates us from the religious conversation.
Faith is not about belief; it is not about the sharp edges of certainty…it is about embracing what my colleague Robert Weston poetically: “Out of the stars have we come…life from the sea, warmed by sun, washed by rain, rose to love. This is the wonder of time; this is the marvel of space; out of the stars swung the earth and life upon earth rose to love…out of your heart cry wonder, sing that we live.”
The Velveteen Rabbit cuts to the chase. Like Thoreau, I talk about the need to simplify as a way of acknowledging my own tendency to those three cardinal sins: arrogance, elitism and pretentiousness.
The title of the second of the two foundational sermons was from Whitman, and I used it, in part, as a way of letting you know that poetry is my sacred scripture.
While neither of the two sermons was built on a biblical foundation, both of them touched on the spirit of the best of the bible’s basic message, the first of which is that we are all descendents of Adam and Eve, which is to say, we are one human family and our task is to learn how to live together, to share the fruits of this garden and to treat one another as brothers and sisters, children of one God.
The second of the Bible’s basic messages, as I see it, is that God is a metaphor – the language of religion is poetry…the stories in the Bible are marvelous myths that are meant to help us to see ourselves, to better understand ourselves and one another, to acknowledge our limits.
The poet T. S. Eliot touched on this point in his Four Quartets where, in East Coker he says: “The only wisdom we can hope to acquire/ Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.”
So, in that second sermon I quoted Whitman, who said:
“I say to mankind, be not curious about God,
For I who am curious about each am not curious about God, (No array of terms can say how much I am at peace about God and about death).
I hear and behold God in every object, yet understand God not in the least…
Why should I wish to see God better than this day?
I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four, and each moment then,
In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass,
I find letters from God dropped in the street, and every one is sign’d by God’s name,
And I leave them where they are, for I know that wheresoe’er I go,
Others will punctually come forever and ever.”
Lack of humility leads to religious arrogance, also known as idolatry, which suggests that we can know God, or God’s mind; and furthermore, we go one giant step further and say that God is on our side, that God revealed Himself to us, etc. Dangerous thinking…
That kind of belief – and it is rampant in religion – is often the fatal flaw, especially in the three Western religions. The antidote for idolatry it is humility. With humility we stand before the ultimate majesty of the unfathomable universe in stunned silence. It is what we mean by ‘spirituality.’ Humility is silent but the silence is broken when, as Weston describes when he says, “Out of your heart, cry wonder, sing that we live.”
A good example is John Ciardi’s poem, White Heron:
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.
In that second of the two foundational sermons, in addition to references to Whitman and poetry as the language of religion, I referred to St. Exupery’s story, The Little Prince, pointing to the passage where the Little Prince meets the Fox. At this point in the story, The Little Prince is crestfallen because he has just discovered a field of hundreds of roses – he thought that the rose he had discovered on a distant planet was the only rose in the universe – sort of like ‘the one true religion.’ He was asked by the Fox to ‘tame him’ – by which he meant ‘to befriend him,’ not to break his spirit, but to feed his need for companionship. Here’s the passage:
“It was then that the fox appeared.
“Good morning,” said the fox.
“Good morning,” the little prince responded politely, although when he turned around he saw nothing.
“I am right here,” the voice said, “under the apple tree.”
“Who are you?” asked the little prince, and added, “You are very pretty to look at.”
“I am a fox,” said the fox.
“Come and play with me,” proposed the little prince. “I am so unhappy.”
“I cannot play with you,” the fox said. “I am not tamed.”
“Ah! Please excuse me,” said the little prince.
But, after some thought, he added:
“What does that mean– ‘tame’?”
“You do not live here,” said the fox. “What is it that you are looking for?”
“I am looking for men,” said the little prince. “What does that mean– ‘tame’?”
“Men,” said the fox. “They have guns, and they hunt. It is very disturbing. They also raise chickens. These are their only interests. Are you looking for chickens?”
“No,” said the little prince. “I am looking for friends. What does that mean– ‘tame’?”
“It is an act too often neglected,” said the fox. It means to establish ties.”
“‘To establish ties’?”
“Just that,” said the fox. “To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world…”
“I am beginning to understand,” said the little prince. “There is a flower… I think that she has tamed me…”
“It is possible,” said the fox. “On the Earth one sees all sorts of things.”
“Oh, but this was not on the Earth!” said the little prince.
The fox seemed perplexed, and very curious.
“On another planet?”
“Are there hunters on this planet?”
“Ah, that is interesting! Are there chickens?”
“Nothing is perfect,” sighed the fox.
But he came back to his idea.
“My life is very monotonous,” the fox said. “I hunt chickens; men hunt me. All the chickens are just alike, and all the men are just alike. And, in consequence, I am a little bored. But if you tame me, it will be as if the sun came to shine on my life. I shall know the sound of a step that will be different from all the others. Other steps send me hurrying back underneath the ground. Yours will call me, like music, out of my burrow. And then look: you see the grain-fields down yonder? I do not eat bread. Wheat is of no use to me. The wheat fields have nothing to say to me. And that is sad. But you have hair that is the colour of gold. Think how wonderful that will be when you have tamed me! The grain, which is also golden, will bring me back the thought of you. And I shall love to listen to the wind in the wheat…”
The fox gazed at the little prince, for a long time.
“Please– tame me!” he said.
“I want to, very much,” the little prince replied. “But I have not much time. I have friends to discover, and a great many things to understand.”
“One only understands the things that one tames,” said the fox. “Men have no more time to understand anything. They buy things all ready made at the shops. But there is no shop anywhere where one can buy friendship, and so men have no friends any more. If you want a friend, tame me…”
“What must I do, to tame you?” asked the little prince.
“You must be very patient,” replied the fox. “First you will sit down at a little distance from me– like that– in the grass. I shall look at you out of the corner of my eye, and you will say nothing. Words are the source of misunderstandings. But you will sit a little closer to me, every day…”
The next day the little prince came back.
“It would have been better to come back at the same hour,” said the fox. “If, for example, you come at four o’clock in the afternoon, then at three o’clock I shall begin to be happy. I shall feel happier and happier as the hour advances. At four o’clock, I shall already be worrying and jumping about. I shall show you how happy I am! But if you come at just any time, I shall never know at what hour my heart is to be ready to greet you… One must observe the proper rites…”
“What is a rite?” asked the little prince.
“Those also are actions too often neglected,” said the fox. “They are what make one day different from other days, one hour from other hours. There is a rite, for example, among my hunters. Every Thursday they dance with the village girls. So Thursday is a wonderful day for me! I can take a walk as far as the vineyards. But if the hunters danced at just any time, every day would be like every other day, and I should never have any vacation at all.”
So the little prince tamed the fox. And when the hour of his departure drew near–
“Ah,” said the fox, “I shall cry.”
“It is your own fault,” said the little prince. “I never wished you any sort of harm; but you wanted me to tame you…”
“Yes, that is so,” said the fox.
“But now you are going to cry!” said the little prince.
“Yes, that is so,” said the fox.
“Then it has done you no good at all!”
“It has done me good,” said the fox, “because of the color of the wheat fields.” And then he added:
“Go and look again at the roses. You will understand now that yours is unique in all the world. Then come back to say goodbye to me, and I will make you a present of a secret.”
The little prince went away, to look again at the roses.
“You are not at all like my rose,” he said. “As yet you are nothing. No one has tamed you, and you have tamed no one. You are like my fox when I first knew him. He was only a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But I have made him my friend, and now he is unique in all the world.”
And the roses were very much embarassed.
“You are beautiful, but you are empty,” he went on. “One could not die for you. To be sure, an ordinary passerby would think that my rose looked just like you–the rose that belongs to me. But in herself alone she is more important than all the hundreds of you other roses: because it is she that I have watered; because it is she that I have put under the glass globe; because it is she that I have sheltered behind the screen; because it is for her that I have killed the caterpillars (except the two or three that we saved to become butterflies); because it is she that I have listened to, when she grumbled, or boasted, or even sometimes when she said nothing. Because she is my rose.
And he went back to meet the fox.
“Goodbye,” he said.
“Goodbye,” said the fox. “And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
“What is essential is invisible to the eye,” the little prince repeated, so that he would be sure to remember.
“It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.”
“It is the time I have wasted for my rose–” said the little prince, so that he would be sure to remember.
“Men have forgotten this truth,” said the fox. “But you must not forget it. You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed. You are responsible for your rose…”
“I am responsible for my rose,” the little prince repeated, so that he would be sure to remember.
It feels very strange, and even a bit perplexing, to be at the end of my time of being your minister, not only because of the need for the sweet sorrow of parting, but because I find that I’m asking myself if I did what I set out to do, as summarized in those two sermons 29 years ago. In addition to that rather perplexing question, I ask if I should have done my ministry differently. I realize this is no time for second-guessing, but I confess to some wrestling with those basic questions:
“And Jacob was alone and he wrestled with a man all night long.” Genesis 32:24
It seems natural, then, that these Famous Last Words circle back to the first words. T. S. Eliot said it better than I can say it:
“We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and to know the place for the first time.”
You remember the poem about the duck – the last line says, “I like the little duck, he doesn’t know much, but he’s got religion.” When do we have religion?
We have religion when we have compassion for everyone we meet, realizing that we don’t know what’s going on ‘down there where the spirit meets the bone.’
We have religion when we embrace that sense of wonder we feel when we gaze out at the stars, or walk or stand along the shore, or stop to watch ‘the red and purple sunset or a spectacular sunrise,’ or feel the miracle of a new life in an infant, or watch our children and grandchildren grow.
We have religion when we feel re-connected after feeling separate and alone; when we feel forgiven; when we feel understood, or when we’re alone but not lonely.
We have religion when we see God as a verb, the verb to be…to realize that we are always becoming…to realize that a form of the verb to be is the fact of having been, and to trace trail of the crumbs we left like Hansel and Gretel who dropped crumbs so they could find their way home.
We have religion when we feel at home in ourselves, when we feel Real, and when we feel ‘the companionship of traveling souls,’ the kinship of family and friends.
We have religion when, like the little duck, we ‘ease ourselves into this life just where it touches us.’ *
May this always be a place where you can nurture your spirituality, with music, poetry, architecture and nature; and most especially with one another.
May you find ways to contribute to the ongoing evolution of this religious home.
Take to heart those words from Emerson who reminded the graduates of Harvard Divinity School in 1838: “I am not unmindful that when we preach unworthily it is not always quite in vain; there is a good ear in some listeners that can draw supplies to virtue out of very indifferent nutriment and though foolishly spoken they may be wisely heard.”
May you always have ‘a good ear.’
I’ll close with a slightly edited version of Lucille Clifton’s poem: I Am Running into a New Year:
i am running into a new year
and the old years blow back
like a wind
that i catch in my hair
like strong fingers like
all my old promises and
it will be hard to let go
of what i said to myself
when i was (44) and (54 and 64 — even 64)
but i am running into a new year
and i beg what i love and
i leave to forgive me
Amen, and amen!
The Duck, by Donald Babcock
Now we’re ready to look at something pretty special. It’s a duck, riding the ocean a hundred feet beyond the surf. No it isn’t a gull. A gull always has a raucous touch about him. This is some sort of duck, and he cuddles in the swells.
He isn’t cold, and he is thinking things over. There is a big heaving in the Atlantic, and he is a part of it.
He looks a bit like a mandarin, or the Lord Buddha meditating under the Bo tree.
But he has hardly enough above the eyes to be a philosopher. He has poise, however, which is what philosophers must have.
He can rest while the Atlantic heaves, because he rests in the Atlantic.
Probably he doesn’t know how large the ocean is. And neither do you. But he realizes it.
And what does he do, I ask you? He sits down in it! He reposes in the immediate as if it were infinity — which it is. He has made himself a part of the boundless by easing himself into just where it touches him.
I like the duck. He doesn’t know much, but he’s got religion.