Preface: On this day fifty years ago our Unitarian and Universalist forebears formed a merger, creating the UUA.
This merger was not an easy task. While they had a lot in common, there were some serious differences. Thomas Starr King, Unitarian minister in San Francisco during the Civil War, once quipped: “The Universalists believe that God is too good to damn them, and the Unitarians believe they are too good to be damned!”
The Unitarians were known for emphasis on a rational approach to religion and their resistance to anything that fell into the category we’ve come to call spirituality. To assert opposition to the doctrine of the Trinity they liked to carve ‘God is One’ on their pulpits, which might have been followed by and exclamation point!
The Universalists were known for their simplicity and openness – suggesting that the religious or spiritual life need not be complicated – pointing to the true religion of Jesus with an emphasis on compassion as a sign of God’s presence in the human heart. They liked to carve ‘God is Love’ on their pulpits, which might have been followed by a little yellow smiley face – aka emoticon.
The merger provided a balance for both. Reason and compassion need to be married in each of us.
The 50th anniversary got me thinking how this marriage is expressed in the architecture of our sanctuary with the two sides of the roof sweeping up high, joined by the skylight.
It’s like the two sides of the brain – loosely, the left hemisphere is characterized by the rational aspect of human life, our Unitarian side; and the right hemisphere is characterized by the poetic-spiritual, our Universalist side.
The two sides of the brain are connected in the middle by the corpus callosum, whose function is to get the two sides of the brain to communicate with one another, playing the part of therapist, helping them to appreciate and respect one another, and, as in any good marriage, or in any workable relationship, not to try to dominate the other. The smaller denomination, Universalists, were afraid of being dominated by the Unitarians.
Brain scientists tell us that the corpus callosum ‘facilitates inter-hemispheric communication.’
Like a good therapist the corpus callosum helps them to ‘see the light,’ which, in our sanctuary, is represented by the skylight: it connects the two sides and lets light in!
On May 15, 1961, while the Unitarians and the Universalists we congratulating themselves on their merger, this sanctuary was under construction.
So it is that fifty years later, as we celebrate the golden anniversary of our UUA, we’re still ‘under construction,’ working on building a faith system – each of us personally, and all of us collectively – a faith system that merges head and heart, the rational and the spiritual…the intellectual and the emotional.
Marion Ham said it nicely in her hymn: uniting ‘our kindred hearts and minds, to build a faith that shall be free; free from the bonds that bind the mind to narrow thought and lifeless creed, free from a social code that fails to serve the cause of human need.’
We must include ‘a freedom that reveres the past, but trusts the dawning future more.’
Certainly, ‘the future waits a liberating ministry (to) go forward in the power of love and proclaim the truth that makes us free.’
Just as we need to find words to express ourselves, our thoughts and feelings, we also need to balance that need with a healthy respect for the limits of language and an acknowledgement of the need for a humble silence.
We tend to over-use the words – the incessant use of language – and fail to trust the silences that fill the spaces between the words.
This 50th anniversary preface leads me to Mother Teresa’s comment which provided the sermon title:
“God cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature – trees, flowers, grass – grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence.”
After her death (1997) we were interested to learn something about her inner life – a part of her life about which she kept silent.
We learned from her letters to her spiritual advisors and her personal journal, that she struggled with serious doubts – she wrestled with those doubts in a painful crisis of faith, a dark night of the soul.
She worked with spiritual counselors to try to resolve her dilemma, which reportedly she was never able to do completely…nor am I, and nor, I suspect are you.
Look again at her statement: “God cannot be found in noise and restlessness.” Now use what I refer to as ‘the roaming period,’ and insert it into the middle of that statement, and it reads, “God cannot be found.”
We search. We pry the lid off of our old ideas and beliefs and rub the bottle hoping for the Jinni to come out and grant our wish to know for certain, perhaps to arrange a personal introduction to the King of Kings.
(The Quran says that the angels come from the sky, but the Jinn are like us, from the earth, but while we are made from the soil the jinn are made from fire — the angels were created from light.)
But rub as we may, the Jinni stays in the theological bottle. Part of our human destiny involves living with God question which is never answered ‘once and for all.’
Thus the sermon title from Mother Teresa’s cautionary warning: ‘God cannot be found in words,’ followed by her reassuring or hopeful assertion that God can be found in the silence, or God may be hinted at in the silence.
The spiritual life requires humility – with humility we’re able to acknowledge our human limits; with humility we’re able to experience the sense of awe that begins where language ends – then the silence becomes sacred.
My respect and appreciation for this remarkable woman multiplied when I read about that aspect of her life, kept private until after her death. I’m aware of the criticisms of her lack of proper managing of and accounting of the money that poured in from all quarter, including some questionable quarter, and charges that she baptized or gave last rites to Hindus on their death beds.
That doesn’t take away the fact that she worked with the so-called ‘poorest of the poor.’ We’re reminded of the well-worn lines from the book of Matthew where he has Jesus say to his friends, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.”
And they say, “When did we see you hungry, or thirsty, or naked or sick or in prison?”
Matthew has him respond with a statement that summarizes the best in the Christian religion – or the best in any religion: “As you have done it unto one of the least of these, my friends, you have done it unto me.”
God, or faith (if you prefer) cannot be found in the noise and restlessness of language – cannot be included in an entry in The Book of Knowledge. But God, in this sense, can be found or felt in the silence…the silence of loving; the silence of the listener; the silence of compassion.
‘God is the friend of silence.’ It’s a metaphor, a line of poetry, meaning that God cannot be captured with words – the words of creeds and dogma – but the refusal to accept religion’s creeds and dogmatic assertions need not be synonymous with atheism.
Indeed, the refusal to accept the old anthropomorphic idea of God may be the beginning of authentic religion, a genuine sense of spirituality.
I find it interesting that Mother Teresa and Ralph Waldo Emerson, and all of the poets, suggest that God can be found when you look upon the natural world – Nature – with an open eye, and an open mind, and an open heart.
Mother Teresa says ‘look at the trees, flowers, grass, planets and moon, sun and stars…and be still.
Her statement about finding God in the silence, gazing at the natural world and it’s wonder, brings to mind the opening passage from Emerson’s Divinity School Address at Harvard on a sultry July night in 1838:
“In this refulgent summer, it has been a luxury to draw the breath of life. The grass grows, the buds burst, the meadow is spotted with fire and gold in the tint of flowers. The air is full of birds, and sweet with the breath of the pine, the balm-of-Gilead, and the new hay. Night brings no gloom to the heart with its welcome shade. Through the transparent darkness the stars pour their almost spiritual rays. Man under them seems a young child, and his huge globe a toy. The cool night bathes the world as with a river, and prepares his eyes again for the crimson dawn. The mystery of nature was never displayed more happily…and the never-broken silence with which the old bounty goes forward, has not yielded yet one word of explanation.”
“…and the never-broken silence with which the old bounty goes forward, has not yielded yet one word of explanation.”
God can be found in the silence…words of explanation are not necessary – indeed, words about God just get in the way, like voices of people behind you talking during a movie. “Please be quiet,” you hope someone else will say.
The Psalm 46 says, “Be still and know that I am God.”
The Hebrew word rapha (be still) means to let go, to release, which might be translated as, ‘cause yourself to let go.’
Ordinarily we try to ‘grasp the meaning’ of something, and to ‘grasp the meaning’ we search for the right words. Grasping the meaning of God is impossible – words fail.
I would say, poetically, that God runs for his life with the onslaught of words – God is assaulted and smothered by words, including words of praise and thanks.
Mother Teresa wrote: “Where I try to raise my thoughts to heaven, there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and cut into my very soul.”
In one of those confidential letters to a spiritual advisor she wrote, “I am told God lives in me — and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.”
Generally I prefer to avoid talking about God in those anthropomorphic terms, as if I knew something, which I freely and honestly admit that I do not.
But I’ve experienced something beyond my capacity to explain, and beyond a need to explain.
You have your own experience in that deep place, the realm of silence.
We need to become friends with that silence. We live in such a noisy world – we are so bombarded with words – words on the television, words on the radio, words in the newspaper, words on voice mail (with numbers spoken too rapidly to understand), and the tsunami of words crashing on to the computer screen with email and their attachments, and the texting and twittering. Enough already!
To trust the silence requires a kind of humility.
Faith is built on the silences in our life – refraining from trying to understand it all, explain it all, say it all.
Relationships require respectful silences.
Silence is essential to our health – just as the body requires nourishment so does the spiritual life require silence.
Sometimes silence allows us to avoid an unnecessary, fruitless confrontation with someone who has offended or insulted us.
At our Thursday morning staff meeting this week Lili read a Zen story called The Gift of Insults:
A great Samurai warrior, now old, had decided to teach Zen Buddhism to young people. Despite his age, the legend was that he could defeat any adversary.
One afternoon, a young warrior – known for his complete lack of scruples – arrived there. He was famous for using techniques of provocation: he waited until his adversary made the first move and then swiftly counterattacked, skillfully taking advantage of any slightest mistake his adversary made. He had never lost a fight. Hearing of the Samurai’s reputation, he had come to defeat him, to increase his fame. All the students were against the idea, but the old master accepted the challenge.
All gathered on the town square, and the young man started insulting the old master. He threw a few rocks in his direction, spat in his face, shouted every insult under the sun – he even insulted his ancestors. For hours, he did everything to provoke him, but the old man kept smiling and remained impassive. At the end of the afternoon, by now feeling exhausted and humiliated, the young warrior left.
Disappointed that the master had received so many insults and provocations, the students asked: “How could you bear such indignity? Why didn’t you use your sword, even if you might lose the fight, instead of displaying such cowardice in front of us all?”
“If someone comes to you with a gift, and you do not accept it, to whom does the gift belong?” asked the Samurai. “To the one who tried to deliver it,” replied one of his disciples. “The same goes for envy, anger and insults,” said the master. “When they are not accepted, they continue to belong to the one who brought them.”
We’ll close with lines from the Bible’s poetry collection, from Psalm 4:
“Stand in awe…and commune with your own heart, go into your private chamber, and be still. (Silence is the highest praise.)”