I’ve never actually panned for gold, but I like the metaphor. There are gold nuggets in the river and those who are panning for gold kneel at the edge of the stream and scoop up a pan full of rocks and sand. Then they swish it around, dumping out the rocks and sand, hoping to find a nugget at the bottom of the pan.
The gold stays in the pan because it is heavier than the rocks and sand.
In 1869, in Victoria, Australia, a gold nugget weighing 156 pounds was turned up accidentally by a wagon wheel; it was just below the surface. That nugget was named Welcome Stranger.
What’s most precious to you? Some responses would certainly include: children, grandchildren, step-children; spouse, family, friends… career…
What’s the nugget- what is at the heart or the very essence of your life? Does the word soul have any meaning?
Sandburg said, “Life is like an onion: you peel off one layer at a time, and sometimes you cry.”
The words spirit and soul are, of course, poetic expressions. They are word-symbols pointing to that which is sacred. In our time it is not uncommon to ask, “Is anything sacred?” Does the word sacred have meaning to you?
I recently bought a reference book called the Descriptionary: “The book for when you know what it is, but not what it’s called.”
There’s a section on words related to religion, and an entry on Unitarianism which says: “The church noted for its philosophy that all faiths lead to the same truth and for its readings from the sacred texts of various religions, including Christianity, at services.”
If you look in the back of our hymnal you will see readings from the major world religions.
We read. We set out a smorgasbord-with a wide variety; a buffet where you serve yourself…eat what you want, what appeals to you.
We say that we hope to find the best in all the religions of the world–and wash out the rest.
In our skeptical age we who are religious liberals are more likely to look for the worst in all the religions of the world, including the one that was forced on us when we were growing up.
Hopefully we pass through a necessary cynicism and inevitable doubt in order to get to the nuggets of gold at the bottom on our pan.
What’s in that pan? All the experiences of our lives that have accumulated so far. The religious or spiritual task is to filter out the sand and rocks, careful not to throw out the gold.
I was raised in a liberal Christian tradition; Jesus was a model of how we should live; the Psalms were the poems and the prayers that gave some substance to otherwise ethereal ideas.
I could identify with a shepherd walking out in an open meadow with a staff, watching his sheep, leading them to green valleys to eat, leading them beside still waters to drink; I could understand what it means to walk through the valley of the shadow of death and trying not to be afraid.
“My cup runneth over” is a perfect way of saying, “Boy am I fortunate to have enough to eat, and a family who loves me.”
That’s a nugget most of us have kept in our pan.
Just as we can identify with a shepherd, we can identify with the animals, thinking of ourselves as part of God’s Creation. So the 23rd Psalm is effective:
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside still waters, he restores my soul. He leads me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake, and yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil. For Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies, Thou anointest my head with oil. My cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
If we pay attention to this well-worn Psalm, we see an important but subtle transition take place. The Psalmist starts out talking about God: “The Lord is my shepherd… He makes me to lie down in green valleys…” Then, midway through the Psalm, he begins to talk directly to God: “For Thou art with me, Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me…”
This transition suggests an important process- it’s an inevitable process if one is to mature in faith; each person needs to experience the difference between talking about (or arguing about) God, to the direct experience of talking to God, as Job did. It’s not as though there’s a god out there that can hear us, in an anthropomorphic sense, but rather the acknowledgement that there’s something sacred, something deep within ourselves, that we have to get to, like the core of that onion whose layers we peel off with the years.
So I carry nuggets from my earliest years, and I’ve had to wash the rocks and sand out to get at them.
I could understand and identify with a Jesus who was angry at the temple being turned into a den of thieves…a Jesus who tipped over tables of money changers; a Jesus pictured with little children; a Jesus who made friends with the people every mother tells their kids to stay away from- the outcasts of society and the so-called sinners.
Jesus taught people that if they do something good for anyone, ‘the least of these,’ it is as if you did it for God.
Jesus taught that ‘if two or three are gathered together in the name of love, support, and friendship,’ then God is present ‘in the midst of them.’ This is a far cry from a god that’s like a person, or king on a throne. It brings God into the midst of our lives, where any God worth keeping must be.
We all know what has all-too-often happened to the Jesus who taught these simple things! The theologians turned him into an idol, a god, or the exclusive son of a god who is called father. Through the ages, these theologians said they will kill you if you disagree…or said they will excommunicate you, or consign you to hell fires and brimstone. These are terrible ideas that undermine religion for any thoughtful person.
I’ve found lots of nuggets in my Jewish and Christian roots, with the help of people like Martin Buber, the great Jewish theologian who makes God accessible by suggesting that God comes alive in the I-Thou relationship, as opposed to the I-It relationship where we treat one another as objects for profit or fame.
I’ve often acknowledged the nuggets I’ve discovered in Buddhism. The basic Buddhist idea, as I understand it, is that life is characterized by suffering, or struggle, and that each of us has deal with it for ourselves, but we can’t do that by ourselves.
A basic Buddhist idea has to do with the tragedy of becoming attached to things, especially material things; that we learn to let go of those attachments in order to nurture what we think of as the spiritual aspect of life.
I like the Buddhist saying about the four things we have to do in life:
Tell the truth.
Do what we do with enthusiasm.
Don’t get attached to outcomes.
Now that’s a nugget worth keeping and contemplating.
I’ve found wonderful nuggets in Taoism, attributed to the teaching of Lao-Tzu who said, “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao, the name which can be named is not the eternal name.”
“Those who know, don’t say. Those who say, don’t know.”
“He who knows others is clever;
He who knows himself has discernment.”
Emerson has dropped buckets full of nuggets. In his address to the graduating class of Harvard Divinity School in 1838 he said, in part:
Jesus Christ belonged to the true race of prophets. He saw with an open eye the mystery of the soul. Drawn by its severe harmony, ravished with its beauty, he lived in it, and had his being there. … He saw that God incarnates himself in man, and evermore goes forth anew to take possession of his world. He said, in this jubilee of sublime emotion, ‘I am divine. Through me, God acts; through me, speaks. Would you see God, see me; or, see thee when thou also thinkest as I now think.’ But what a distortion did his doctrine and memory suffer in the same, in the next, and the following ages! … He spoke of miracles; for he felt that man’s life was a miracle…he knew that this daily miracle shines, as the character ascends…that which shows God in me, fortifies me. That which shows God out of me, makes me a wart or a wen. There is no longer a necessary reason for my being.
In the poets I have found numerous nuggets, and I’m always dipping my pan in that stream.
I have recorded two hours of nuggets from Frost, Sandburg, Cummings and Whitman, with a little salt and pepper from a dozen others who have touched my soul and provided necessary nutriment to my spirit.
I have said that the soul is not more than the body,
And I have said that the body is not more than the soul,
And nothing, not God, is greater to one
than one’s self is,
And whoever walks a furlong without sympathy walks
to his funeral drest in his shroud,
And 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,
Nor do I understand who there can be more wonderful than myself.
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 dropt 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 for ever and ever.
There is that in me–I do not know what it is–
but I know it is in me.
I do not know it–it is without name–it is a word unsaid,
It is not in any dictionary, utterance, symbol.
Do you see O my brothers and sisters?
It is not chaos or death–it is form, union, plan–it is eternal life–it is Happiness.
I swear I see what is better than to tell the best,
It is always to leave the best untold.
When I undertake to tell the best I find I cannot,
My tongue is ineffectual on its pivots,
My breath will not be obedient to its organs,
I become a dumb man.
The best of the earth cannot be told anyhow, all or any is best,
It is not what you anticipated, it is cheaper, easier, nearer.
Things are not dismiss’d from the places they held before,
The earth is just as positive and direct as it was before,
Facts, religions, improvements, politics, trades, are as real as before,
But the soul is also real, it too is positive and direct,
No reasoning, no proof has establish’d it,
Undeniable growth has establish’d it.
I swear I will never henceforth have to do with the faith that tells the best,
I will have to do only with that faith that leaves the best untold.
Yes, the Descriptionary is right: here at the Unitarian church we read from the sacred texts of all religions. We see them as poetry- or, as the Buddhist would say, each is like a finger pointing to the moon. One must not confuse the finger which points to the moon with the moon; one must not confuse the sign on the highway which points to some distant place with the place itself.
To talk about Moses, or Jesus, or the Buddha as if he held some exclusive rights to the Truth is like the traveler sitting on the sign pointing to a distant place and thinking you have arrived!
Life is an ongoing journey. All the literature that speaks to us leads to the same truth…all the religions of the world contain seeds or elements of the larger Truth. When we read or hear something that speaks that deep truth, it becomes part of our personal sacred literature, and we can’t help share it. Notice the number of things that are passed around on the internet these days. I used to get a lot of jokes in my email messages, now I get very few, but I get more and more readings that have touched someone and they want to share it. That’s sacred literature!
The truths that Moses and the prophets taught, the truths that Jesus taught, the truths that Lao-Tze and the Buddha taught, the truths found in the poets, the musicians and artists, and so forth, are parts of the larger Truth.
All the religions of the world contain nuggets of that larger truth, and, if we’re wise, we welcome insights and truths from any source as the wagon driver who found that huge gold nugget welcomed it! If we’re wise, we separate the gold nuggets from the sand and rocks and call each new insight a welcome stranger.
Where was that wagon headed? It was on the road, as each of us ison the journey. The soul, or the inner self, or the essence of each individual person, is the welcome stranger we keep discovering at the bottom of the pan.
I hope you’ll find some more precious nuggets in the days and years ahead as you wash away the accumulated silt that stops the flow, clean out the gravel, sand and rocks that ought to be let go of…the negativity, anger and resentment that fills the pan and hides the gold.
When you let go of old angers, resentments, and fears, you may just realize that life itself is the gold nugget for which you’ve been panning.
In his wonderful poem, Birches, Robert Frost talks about a boy climbing birch trees and swinging on them to the ground, then, toward the end, he says:
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.
I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’ the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.