Intelligent Design?

September 4, 2008

I was getting somewhat exasperated. It seemed so obvious to me that I couldn’t understand why he held his position. “Look,” I said, “here’s the deal: carbon dating puts Earth at 4 billion years old. That gives us a long time to change, you can just look at certain mammals and see how they got to be that way. How can you say, with a straight face, that God just plopped the whole shebang down in one fell swoop; seven days.” “Six days” he smiled, which made me even crazier, “because that is what The Book says He did”.. “For crying out loud Rick,” my voice raised, “what about the fossils? How did they get there?” “God planted them there to test our faith — if we believed in the Bible over the fossils then we were worthy.” Oy!

Admittedly this was the worst kind of conversation to have with someone of faith. My science was not even in his frame of reference so no one was convincing the other of anything. Intelligent design is actually a complicated and varied field of study. It’s really not so simple as science on one side and biblical creationist (such as Rick believed on the other). Actually creationism, the belief that God created the whole world in 6 days 4,000 years ago is at the far end of a spectrum of possibilities and the one that most of us who believe in evolution think of when we think of Intelligent Design. I really am not going to talk about that extreme position today but the more intriguing middle ground that even some scientists grapple with: Is it possible that there is some intelligence to the progress of evolution or is our place here the result, as Darwin contended, of random selection? I hope my answer will surprise at least of few of you and give you something to think about this summer.

What is evolution? As my colleague Stephen Nodvin writes: “Evolution, or as Darwin called it “descent with modification” is a change in the characteristics of living organisms over generations, including the emergence of new species. The modern theory of evolution includes two critical parts: first, natural genetic variation in offspring and, second, natural selection. Evolution is not magical but rather the outcome of natural processes. Its workings are as logical as gravity.” (Stephen Nodvin, Sermon preached at UU Church of Nassau, NJ, Jan. 2006)

Evolution is technically a theory, but it is a very well supported theory. The part that gets us into trouble is that the universe appears to be so well fine tuned as to suggest a design. Life on planet Earth is even more remarkable given the very limited tolerances we breathing creatures have for temperature and air. While we now know of hundreds of existing planets, it is something short of miracle that ours is the one that supports life. This belief in the uniqueness of earthly life, especially human life, is known as the anthropic principle: the earth and its current conditions were designed for our survival. The only problem with this principle is that it rests on two huge assumptions. The first is that there are only a few hundred planets in our galaxy. There are only a few hundred known planets, the odds of other planets some of them life bearing rise almost daily. And the second assumption is that life can only exist in the narrow carbon form we know. Life at the bottom of the ocean in hot sea vents is proof that even that is too parochial. The anthropic principle is the center part of the theory of Intelligent Design, more broadly, as Stephen Nodvin writes:

“Intelligent design, according to its main proponents, is the concept that “certain features of the universe and of living things exhibit the characteristics of a product resulting from an intelligent cause or agent, as opposed to an unguided process such as natural selection.” These proponents say that intelligent design is a scientific theory that stands on equal footing with, or is superior to, current scientific theories regarding the origin of life.

“Let me give you an example of the thinking of this concept. If I showed you a watch you would almost certainly agree that it did not come into being by chance. Upon inspection, you would see that the parts and pieces of the watch were clearly designed so that when they were put together the hands would move pointing the hours, minutes, and seconds of the day. You would surely agree that the watch, whose parts have such obvious purpose, was designed by someone. That someone, the creator of the watch, would be human. As William Paley said in 1802:

“the inference we think is inevitable, that the watch must have had a maker – that there must have existed, at some time and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer, who comprehended its construction and designed its use.”

“The quote is at the heart of the Intelligent Design debate. It is the image of the watchmaker, the metaphor being that the watch is so complicated that it is difficult for us to imagine its existence without an “artificer” or “designer.” For creationists like Paley the same argument applied to the human eye, a heart, or a complete organism. Like a watch or telescope, these living things are very complex. So complex that it was hard to imagine their existence without the presence of a “designer.”

“While Intelligent Design proponents insist that their “findings” are new, in fact the argument that the complexity of nature indicates the existence of a purposeful natural or supernatural designer has been debated by philosophers for millennia. The first recorded arguments come from Greek philosophy around 500 years B.C. This teleological argument for the existence of God or a Designer was subsequently dealt with by the likes of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Thomas Aquinas.” (ibid, Nodvin)

The greatest problem with this debate is that both sides rest on tremendous assumptions. While Intelligent Design assumes creation must have a creator, there is much we assume about the evolutionary record as well, such as why so much of what we call life took place in the mere 500,000 years of the Cambrian Explosion. The problem with assuming a specified complexity is that it rests on our need to have a creator because we are ourselves are creative beings. The sheer genius of Darwin’s theory is that changes to life forms can be explained without a first cause, that is without a designer in mind. Evolution, life itself, just happens, it unfolds through environment and random mutations naturally selecting for survival. No designer need apply. That, at least is the official party line. But as Stephan Nodvin writes:

“Darwin’s theory of evolution provides detail on how biological diversity and new species are generated. But it does not tell us the why? Why is it that the physical laws of the universe are such that this wondrous thing called life emerged? Why is it that this amazing process called evolution worked so well to have produced the complex structures, organisms, and diversity that we see on Earth today? What we are talking about is a the mystery of creation that is not testable and therefore does not lie within the realm of science but rather within the realm of faith and philosophy.” (ibid, Nodvin)

As Darwin himself wrote: “The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic.”

Like Darwin, I am an agnostic about such things. I can clearly reject a grand designer in the universe but can I reject a design?

Not so quickly. I have long believed that we are part of some grander scheme of life. It is not a verifiable belief, but rather an informed intuition. I know that I am here at PUC for a purpose not of my own design, even if I can’t tell you yet what that is. One of you asked me why I was the minister here. My answer, only slightly in jest, “I am on a mission from God.” I just don’t know what the mission is yet, or who the God is that sent me.

Lack of material proof of a designer does not deny the possibility of a design. Is it intelligent? I can’t say. But we are moving, it seems in a direction of greater consciousness; slowly, but we are moving. We know more and appreciate the commonality of being human now more than we did a thousand years ago. We know now that we really are all inter-connected in life with all other living creatures; reclaiming that wonderful wisdom from Native peoples before us.

So while I reject Intelligent Design, I believe that there is a design embedded in our evolution that is becoming intelligent to us. I reject intelligent design as a certainty, but likewise remain skeptical of a random, rudderless evolution as manifest destiny. There are far too many coincidences leading to life and its balance to dismiss out of hand an innate design to the universe. Not necessarily “directed” but encouraged to move forward in a way that is still mysterious to us. This is why, while I believe in evolution, I also believe evolution is taking us somewhere for the betterment of all life and knowledge.

Enchanted randomness perhaps, much like an enchanted agnosticism, begins with the radical premise, I am radical agnostic, I don’t know and you don’t either; but it expands to the possibility, the potential, that we are here to grow into something other than we are. Theology has shifted from a devolution from God to an evolution to God.

There is a name for this theology, process theology. The belief that God, the Holy, the Great Mother, is co-creating with us the universe we dream of. In this sense, I am both a believer in evolution and intelligent design. Evolution as the means to that mysterious potential. It’s theology, not science, that takes the theory of evolution to its intelligent end. Kenneth Miller, a respected and renowned cell biologist at Brown University, and a believer in God put it this way:

“It is often said that a Darwinian universe is one in which the random collisions of particles govern all events and therefore the world is without meaning. I disagree. A world without meaning would be one in which a Deity pulled the string of every human puppet and every material particle as well….All things would move towards the Creator’s clear, distinct and established goals….The common view that religion must tiptoe around the findings of evolutionary biology is simply and plainly wrong”. (Kenneth Miller Finding Darwin’s God, 1999).

Evolution does not exclude meaning or even a design, if we look for those meanings and that sense of design as unfolding in the evolving world around us. As Darwin himself concluded in the Origin of Species: “There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most wonderful and most beautiful have been and are being evolved.”

Something to think about.

Advertisement

Let Peace Begin

September 4, 2008

Like so many of you, this has been a difficult week. I returned to town last weekend to hear of the terrible shooting at our church in Knoxville, TN. For those of you don’t know, Jim Adkisson, a unemployed truck driver, walked into the church sanctuary, took out a semi-automatic shot gun, and, while a children’s performance of Annie, Jr. was in progress, opened fire. Greg McKendry, a longtime member of the church, threw himself into the path of the shot and deflected two other shots before other members of the church wrestled the shooter to the ground and held him there until the police arrived. Beside Mr. McKendry, Linda Kraeger of the nearby Westshore UU Church also died later; 7 other adults were injured. No children were physically harmed but the psychological trauma of watching death and terror before their eyes will be long lasting. Two church communities have been torn open by this attack. The reasons for the shooting are murky at best. Mr. Adkinsson was a confused and angry man. He was a fan of the “hate media” and blamed the liberals for his problems with employment and food stamps. Ironically, as many have observed, our church in Knoxville was were he could have come for help, as we would have been for any other person marginalized by our society; but instead he chose to blame us instead. As he himself said, he couldn’t get to the liberal leaders who denied him his rights (curious in and of itself), so he would take aim at the liberals who put them there.

I really don’t think there is a ready answer to the why of this. As so many of you shared at our midweek service of prayer and healing, hatred continues to haunt humanity. Mr. Adkisson was both the perpetrator of a heinous crime and a victim of a society, buffeted by the winds of vitriolic rhetoric and readymade cultural wars. Most of all he was a man at war with himself. Perhaps there is no better sermon to preach in the aftermath of this tragedy than a sermon on the beginnings of peace.

Let peace begin. Let peace begin with us. Let us not feel the necessity of placing blame, but, rather, let us reaffirm our commitment to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. And in the midst of all of this, our personal and collective lives did go on. Someone has died, people came to be married, babies need love and our children need our assurance. Someone asked me this week whether we would turn the chairs around in our sanctuary, or post guards, or at least be more suspicious. My answer was no to all that. The opposite of love is not hate as much as fear. The opposite of war is peace born out of love. If we were to become institutionally suspicious of the strangers in our midst what would that say about our values of radical inclusiveness? How could we be only caring but not sharing, and certainly not daring?

Universally, this week our brothers and sisters from around the world have responded to this tragedy not with anger (although there is some of that at right wing fundamentalism) but with a renewed call for peace, mostly and importantly, among ourselves first. Reclaiming our sanctuaries as places of welcome and justice. A place where the Jim Adkissons of the world are understood as marginalized by a society grown indifferent and affluent, to the determent of caring for its people. This week the community, faith leaders and government came into the Knoxville church and, at public and private expense, cleaned the church for re-dedication even as I speak. That is the power of love.

And it is that power that I commend to us as our beginning. Let peace begin with each of us. Thicht Naht Hahn, the Vietnamese Buddhist Monk so influential in my own spiritual work and that of our Peacemaking team, writes, “Every day we do things, we are things that have to do with peace. If we are aware of our life… our way of looking at things, we will know how to make peace right in the moment, we are alive.” Thich Nhat Hanh

We are “things” that have to do with peace. I have found myself this week, in the midst of my worries and fears, trying to smile and be more courteous almost as if I were a thing, “an instrument of thy peace,” as St. Francis Assisi once wrote. Holding doors longer for anyone, letting some one in a rush go around. Let Peace Begin With Me, as our closing hymn says. A thousand cranes on the water.

After the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, people folded cranes as we are doing today and put them on the troubled waters of those bombed out cities. In peace, simple witnesses for peace. You would be surprised how powerful this can be. If not for others, then most of all for yourself. Calm the anger and the fear of Knoxville, which is really only a symbol of our own daily vulnerability to life. Let peace begin.

Let peace begin with this Church. I commend to you the work of our peacemaking team, founded first to study the resolution for peacemaking before our Association next June. But their work, started first by reading Thich Nhat Hanh, is expanding to discuss how we can be a peaceful sanctuary, much like the green sanctuary we are becoming. How can we better deal with disagreements among ourselves? How can we teach peace skills to our children? These and many more issues will be before a panel discussion on August 24th after church. We so often think of peace as something needed out there, but it is more often needed in here.

Let peace begin with our religion. I have not always agreed with our UUA president, but on peace and justice we are of the same mind. There is so much more we can do together than apart, as Bill Sinkford says. I was pleased to see that our denominational response to the violence in Knoxville was not to lash out at the hate media (although this is an issue we hope to address), but to convey love and even forgiveness with courage. And that peace spread to other religions; the outpouring of support from the Knoxville community has been incredible. Members of the community have been inside the church all week long cleaning and repainting it in preparation for a service today. The whole community! My sisters and brothers in faith here in the South Bay have sent me letters and emails expressing their heartfelt prayers for us as we, even here so far away in California, deal with this loss. We are not alone. There is always a possibility for any religious community to atone for its wrongs. Indeed that word, atonement, means to be made whole again with the Holy, at-one-ment. Sadly, as Rebecca Parker, the President of Starr King (our UU seminary in Berkeley), has observed in her work Blessing the World: What Can Save Us Now, “War became a force that gave life meaning and strength… the “peace” among Christians at the expense of those who would be required to fulfill the role of the enemy: Jew, Muslims and heretics.” Fortunately, we are making progress at bringing peace to some of faith, but not to all. Jim Adkisson was not motivated by a religious group, but by the culture of hate in our society. Our own interfaith group, the South Coast Interfaith Council, on whose Board I serve, is working to dismantle this subtle division that leads to war between people, communities and nations. I am pleased to announce that Mileea Islam-Majeed, an American born, Bangladeshi Muslim woman, has been appointed at the new Executive Director of the Council, replacing the wonderful Rev. Ginny Wagener. I served on her search committee and we purposely sought a non-Christian who was bright and committed to inter-faith understanding. You will meet her soon.

Let peace begin with our communities. On August 17th from 2-5 pm we will co-host, along with the Hindus, an interfaith café here at PUC. A wonderful opportunity to meet people of all faiths. But even beyond that, we partner now with Neighbors for Peace and Justice in San Pedro and Random Lengths News to bring Social Justice Films. We are hoping to build out from here. In fact it was none other than Dwight Eisenhower, a general, a Republican president who once said:

I like to believe that people in the long run are going to do more to promote peace than our governments. Indeed, I think that people want peace so much that one of these days governments had better get out of the way and let them have it.

Let peace begin in our nation. Call me naïve but I feel a new day coming in this election. We are weary of war and cultural divisions. We sense almost a new holiness, the resurgence of something greater than ourselves. Not universally, but I do believe it is here. Get involved in this time my friends. Days like this will not be long with us. We will end this ugly war; we will close Guantanamo; we will begin to know peace in our time.

Let peace begin in the World. From ourselves to the Church, to our communities, to our nation, to the world. My meditation faces squarely in the psalmist’s words the reality of death and sorrow. But surrendering ourselves to hope we can build again a new world. Death will be with us always, violence, I suppose, as well; but so will love and peace — and peace is not an end but a going, a being, something new. After the Service today I urge you pick up a copy of the proposed “peace pledge” we as a church are asked to sign. It asks us to covenant – that deep and abiding promise so much a part of our heritage – with each other and other groups to work for peace from the inside out: To create a Center for Peacemaking. I urge you to read it and come to the forum before next Sunday’s service where we will talk about this. Many years ago we became a nuclear free zone and planted peace poles in our sacred land here. Nuclear weapons are still a very great threat but perhaps older now we also recognize that people with warring hearts are also a threat.

The answer does not lie in hiding under a desk and hoping it will get better. The answer lies in making the pledge and the promise to work for peace, for change, for action, in courage, even in the face of great danger.

Let me close with one of the many moving stories to come out of the horror of Knoxville last Sunday. One of the men in the church, Jamie Parkey, initially heard some one shout “he has a gun, get down”. As he pushed his mother and daughter under the pew he thought to himself, “Get down? What good is that going to do? He will just keep shooting!” So he stood up and ran for the shooter joining others who tackled him to ground. Stand up! We do face danger everyday. But stand up! Let peace begin with you. Don’t dive under the pew and hope they stop hating. Stand up and with compassion and say, “I am here. It cannot be otherwise. Peace begins with me and spreads outward like an even unsteady ray of light.” And we will change the world. We will.

Amen.

These are the words of Robert Kennedy on the night Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed:

“My favorite poet was Aeschylus (who wrote) ‘in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God’ What we need in these United States is not division; what we need in these United States is not hatred; what we need in these United States is not violence; but love and wisdom and compassion towards one another…We can do well in this country. We will have difficult time; we’ve had difficult times in the past, we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence, it is not the end of lawlessness, it is not the end of disorder. But the vast majority of people in this country want to live together, want to improve their lives, and want justice for all human beings…Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago ‘to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world’. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our people.”

Enter the Greening Temple

September 4, 2008

By Rev. John Morehouse

I don’t know if any of you saw the New York Times this morning but there on page was a full-page ad by the UUA proclaiming our door and our hearts are still open. After the tragic events of two weeks ago in Knoxville, TN, where two people were shot to death and six others wounded during a Sunday morning Service, our collective response has not been one of fear and reprisal but one of compassion and recommitment to our values of inclusion and justice. Our doors and our hearts are still open and will remain so for all those seeking comfort and help.

So it is no less fitting today that we speak of the necessity to see our Church, indeed our planet, as a temple whose doors are still open. Because we stand for life and love. We stand ready, still, in spite of it all, to promote the fair use of our resources – be they material or human. We have work to do, but it is good work. And there is a connection between the care of the planet – our greening temple – and creating a world that helps all the marginalized find peace.

First, I want to speak to the theological reasons of why it is so important for us to take a stand on the environment. I want to invite us into the dream of what a greening temple our Earth could become again. Our conquest and subjugation of this land and its peoples was fueled not only by our European greed but by a mis-reading of the Bible. We were influenced by the duality of how we look at the world, going all the way back to ancient Greeks; there is an essential difference between us as thinking beings and the material world we act on. Even our bodies are something we own to abuse or fix. Our white immigrant ancestors laid plunder to the land based on the line in Genesis 1:28 “fill the Earth and subdue it” that one word “subdue” implies a freedom to do as we will, but other translations imply a different injunction: many Catholic versions order humanity to “work the Earth,” “steward the Earth,” “bring creation to the Earth.” Running rough shod over the Earth was not the idea. No, we are asked to steward the Earth and in order to do so I ask you to consider the following: In 1979 a chemist by the name of James Lovelock and a microbiologist by the name of Lynn Marulis came up with something they called the ‘Gaia Hypothesis’ which claims that all the Earth taken together, ‘her atmosphere, her soil, plants, animals and people form one complex and interconnected life system.’ Sound familiar? It should, it’s our 7th principle as a Unitarian Universalists: “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”

If the Gaia hypothesis is correct, then we haven’t been treating ourselves very well at all. In fact, humanity is like a cancer on the body of the Earth. And like cancer cells in our own body we will either fight back or be destroyed. What I am suggesting is that, like our 7th principle, we actually may be living in the body of a divine organism in which we are only one part. In a daily sense we are conditioned to believe that the Earth is something apart from us, but ponder how small minded that might be. Looking out over the ocean the world looks flat until you see a ship coming over the horizon and realize we are on a very large blue globe.

Centuries of patriarchy – believing our role was to subdue the Earth and own it – has led to not only the demonization of the Earth (ever wonder why Hell is down there) but has led to more destructive trends such as the demonization of women, who like the Earth, bear life. Mother Earth, up until the last 4,000 years was the goddess of life and worship. The sky god of Genesis subdued her and her chaos, and made the male ascendant in theology and culture. In the book of Genesis, Eve is portrayed as temptation, sin, the fallen siren of evil who takes the fruit of the Earth from that most Earthly of creatures, the snake, and forever dooms humanity. Even for us, as religious liberals, the Earth is really not holy. Think of land ownership. Here in Southern California we think about it a lot. That little piece of Earth you “own” is part of a substantial worth to our heirs. This church property which we believe we “own” is worth, what, $8 million? But what do we own? Perhaps we really don’t own anything in life. At least nothing you take with you. Eminent domain, earthquakes, mudslides, nuclear bombs; what of the Earth do you really own?

And isn’t that the point? We were, even in the biblical account, appointed stewards of the land, not owners. We were asked to take care of it for the future of life. And when we stop sentimentalizing nature and realize that we are the ones who are owned by the Earth, we can truly enter the greening temple. Nature takes life as well much as she gives it to us, she has no pretense of consciousness, no attachment to any of us, and yet we are partners. This temple not only shelters us but inspire us to change. What Yeats called, “the sublime movement of all that we see”.

And it is change that is calling to us. That is what global warming is waking us up to. It is up to us, as thinking and creating beings on Mother Earth, to change. As Aristotle observed, “reason is creative” (not just if “a” then “b,” but if “a” then create “c”).

Until recently I used to think that the environmental movement was somehow disconnected with the larger issues of justice. That the environmental movement was a culture of exclusion that wanted to protect the planet at the cost of others using it, or perhaps even, as in the logging states, at the cost of jobs. Now I see that line of argument as brain washing by those who seek to divide and conquer us. We need to throw open the doors of our greening temple for all. Taking care of the planet is what is going to help bring justice, living wages and real security to those who need. As Van Jones, an activist in Oakland who spoke to our General Assembly in June said, “one good thing about green collar jobs is they can’t be outsourced. If you want to weatherize your building, you can’t ship it to India, if you want to build wind farms, it’s wind blowing in the U.S. that is harvested.” (Quoted in The Sun, interview with Van Jones, March 2008) So working for justice requires making our energy more sustainable, perhaps in ways that we wouldn’t think of. Van Jones challenges the mostly white environmental movement: “A lot of wealthy educated people wanted to take action after Al Gore’s movie (An Inconvenient Truth), but most low income people of color I know had no interest in seeing (the movie) in the first place. They already have enough problems. They don’t need a new crisis to worry about….poor people need to hear about opportunities (ibid, Jones).

They need to hear about opportunities. Talking about saving the planet is not going to save the planet. Becoming white allies of people of color and creating opportunities in green ways will necessarily connect the two and open our green doors to everyone. Our Board president, Ed Slizewski, and I have been talking about a fascinating idea from General Assembly. What if PUC were to become a micro lender, for business projects that gave green jobs to poor people? What if we used our significant investments to invest right here in the businesses focused on Green outcomes in the South Bay? Small loans would necessarily be geared to people in need. What if?

How are we to live up to the promise of that ad in the New York Times? Our doors and our hearts are still open. The doors and hearts to our greening temple of change.

We are working towards becoming a Green Sanctuary church and we are going to the trouble of fitting our values to our actions. We can enter and live within this greening temple, starting right here at PUC. We can remember, as Chief Seattle once said, ‘that the Earth does not belong to us we belong to the Earth”. And once we recognize that even an inner city garden plot is part of this greening temple, our minds will be open to seeing the connection between honoring the Earth and honoring those of us who live within its embrace. The anthropologist Peggy Reeves studied 186 cultures that exist in warm and beautiful climates and found that, with the exception of Southern California, all of them have matriarchal values of nurturance and acceptance. The harsher the climate the more competitive the culture. The lower the latitude the better the attitude. We would do well to see the connection between the Earth and our culture. Are we only standing on the roof of this greening temple trying to get inside? The door actually may be our humility; the belief that we are only, as the 7th principle reminds us, a part of the web. Humility, humbling, humus. It’s more than recycling. Recycling won’t save the planet. But an ethic of care to what we do with our waste and how we treat other people, humility that we are only visitors here might actually save the world.

Truly becoming a green sanctuary means extending our resources out into the world to bring about a change in the society towards green. Entering a greening temple is more than just recycling and changing our light bulbs (of course we do both), its about creating green jobs directly or indirectly in our communities and the world. A kind deed, a voice in the wilderness, the light we shed is never wasted. We have the power not only in our humility but in our creative ability to change the world. No truth in this vast swirling universe is sealed. It’s always open to the power of creation. It is the reason why we are here and why we teach our children to imagine a better world. It’s the theology of the Earth and our creative abilities to honor and grow with this Earth that makes us truly human. Human, humus. As God spoke to Moses “Remove thy sandals from thy feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground.” Enter this holy ground with us, enter the greening temple, and change the world, ourselves, and our neighbors.

Blessed be!

Being Born All Over Again

April 4, 2008

By Rev. John Morehouse

Yogi Berra, one of my favorite commentators on the duplicity of the English language, once said upon his Yankees winning yet another World Series. “Wow, its Déjà vu all over again!” In many ways what I do each Easter is Déjà vu all over again, and again, which in many ways is just what this holiday is all about. Being born over and over, again.

Being born again, is as good a declarative UU response as any to the evangelical idea that we can be born again with new ideas and new hopes. Reinvigorating with a broader spirit such words as “born again”, and “grace” and “hope” and “salvation” are part of my larger project of re-capturing the language of reverence from the fundamentalists.

So like Yogi Berra, we are here being born all over again. Not in just in celebration of the power of spring and the older meaning that Easter represents but in truly, each of us and together, being born yet again and all over.

Easter is, of course, the holiday celebrated in Christianity for its defining story. Jesus is buried in the tomb after his gruesome death on the cross and his rising up into eternal life on the third day. You have all heard me tell, each year now the story of the UU girl who in kindergarten garnered her very own meaning to Easter. When asked by the teacher what the meaning of Easter was, her students responded with fireworks, turkeys, Candy and even Chocolate hearts. Only the UU girl came close: “Easter is when Jesus died and was buried in the tomb and then on the third day the stone was rolled away and he walked out and if he saw his shadow there would be three more weeks of winter.”

Or as one of my colleagues asked me the other day, “if we found the body could we call off Easter?”

But you know, as irreverent as that is, it may not be as far from the older meaning of Easter as we think. Because her interpretation truly does speak to the possibility of resurrection in all of us. Indeed, when we see our shadow, our darkness, when we understand what holds us prisoner in the tomb of our fears and troubles, then and only then can we see the light at the end of the tunnel. Only when we face our fears are our fears relieved, only when we acknowledge our pain can healing, that spring of the soul, be seen in three days, three weeks, three months, three years.

Ultimately this day is a reminder, that like the seasons, all of us can be reborn. All of us have the power, deep in the human impulse, to overcome our winter and enter a new spring, a new life. And all these so called silly symbols of the season are just reminders of that human power to overcome and be reborn. The eggs represent new life, the bright clothes the promise of spring, the bunnies, well we all know what bunnies do.

The dance between life and death is a complicated one. There are times when faced with serious illness we think all is lost and we prepare to die only to recover. And there are times when faced with the vibrancy of life we are overtaken by death suddenly, leaving our survivors to wonder where to go next. As long as life pulses through us though there is the opportunity to still live life with as much fullness as we can muster. Or perhaps even a little more.

Perhaps even in death there is new life; either as souls reborn or in the immortal memories of those we leave behind. Occasionally it happens that we have to choose between staying on life support and letting go. Sadly this very private decision becomes public as it did for Teri Shivo several years ago. Then, as now, there are many who would argue that only God can end life. When I have debated this ethically with those opposed to ending a painful life, I ask first of all, how do we know God isn’t providing us the means to make that choice and secondly what the Christian Right to Life people were so afraid of. Indeed, isn’t that the point of Easter: Eternal life. Why fear death? Any time we are focused on this difficult moment we have a choice to let go and let life be as it will be or hold on. In either case, being reborn whether physically or not is always a matter of faith. When I have debate this publically with people of other faiths we all had to admit that death was not an end but a beginning, all the more a beginning on a day like Easter which is all about beginnings. After the debate one of my colleagues asked me what we Unitarian Universalists “do” with Easter. I laughed and told him that we trot out all the great pagan symbols – the eggs akin to cats who had many lives, the lamb always sacrificial and the bright colors and I talk about rebirth like some old druid priest. He laughed uncomfortably until he realized I wasn’t kidding.

Those symbols we take for granted are very old. The eggs for instance recall the myth of Hathor and Astrate who laid the Golden Egg of the sun and Germans used to tell of a hare who would lay eggs on Easter Eve. Eggs were always the symbol of rebirth and were usually colored red. Russians used to lay red eggs on graves to serve as resurrection charms. (from Women’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, Barbara Walker)

Easter is about the symbolism of rebirth all over, again and again. Easter is about being born all over ourselves as well; for when we accept our failings, we turn over all of ourselves, warts, struggles and all, to the truth that we are flawed and in that realization we are reborn. Reborn both as individuals and together.

Being born all over again might be what this day and this church holds for you. You come here with your dreams and hopes of becoming something more than you are. You come here looking to be fed and we feed you. But being part of a church community has never been about just you, but you in communion with each other. It about being fed as much as it is about feeding others. You know the Hasidic tale of the man who is shown hell and heaven: in hell he sees people who, despite a table laden with food cannot feed themselves because their arms do not bend, and then heaven, same table of food, same arms that will not bend but there they feed one another.

Its about what we can birth together that is new and exciting. And its not about me, it’s about you. As King Arthur proclaimed on his death, “Camelot lives. Camelot lives in each of you. Don’t surrender its dream.” This lighthouse that will be the birthing center for justice and hope and solace and laughter and creation.

Like death, whether it is Jesus on the cross, the loss of who we love or even our bodies, life comes again. Life always comes again. That is the Holy Promise. That is the end of the shadow. Many of you can’t see this now but it is coming. Life always comes again. I sense your strength returning. Keep growing, grow from this, it can only go forward – give of your time, volunteer to be on a committee or the Board, make that pledge!

Being born all over again means just that. Being born is an active verb, you are still and will always be “becoming”. Being born all over means that every part of this church is part of this promise, from our charter members to our visitors today. Being born all over again, means that you can always make this happen. The good never dies.

We believe our lives are all about growing hearts that love, minds that seek, and hands that serve.
Hey, ain’t that good news!
Being born all over again, now ain’t that good news, believing that as each of us grows so do we together become something more than we were, all over again. Ain’t that good news!

Hallelujah, my people, here we are born again. Halleluiah!

Opening Reading:

Rev. John Corrado, has written an explanation of the gospel (“good news”) of our faith in the form or a responsive reading.

We believe there is a place at God’s table for each and every child of earth.
Hey, ain’t that good news!
We believe the giver of life has been given many names and loves the givers of all of them.
Hey, ain’t that good news!
We are more interested in getting heaven into people now than getting people into heaven later.
Hey, ain’t that good news!
We believe that religious scriptures are open doors rather than sealed vaults.
Hey, ain’t that good news!
We believe there is still some holy writ yet to be written.
Hey, ain’t that good news!
We believe true evangelism is more preaching practiced than practiced preaching.
Hey, ain’t that good news!
We believe peace and justice are not just words we form with our lips, but realities we shape with our lives.
Hey, ain’t that good news!
We believe in one race – the human race.
Hey, ain’t that good news!
We believe we are one with the stars and trees and tigers and rivers and all the stuff of life.
Hey, ain’t that good news!
We believe our lives are all about growing hearts that love, minds that seek, and hands that serve.
Hey, ain’t that good news!
Amen.

A Divine Push

March 5, 2008


by Rev. John Morehouse

First in a Series on the “Five Smooth Stones of Liberalism”

 

I begin with a story. Ellie walked cautiously into the neo-intensive unit. The machines were beeping and blipping. Ellie held on tightly to the nurse’s hand. All around her in little plastic tents were babies some smaller than her hand. She was led reluctantly to the last tent on the left. “Here is your baby Ellie” said the nurse. Ellie looked blankly down at the little child. Ellie was a 16 year old girl, a drug addict and scared. She really had no idea how pregnant she was until labor began in a crack house on Chicago’s South side. The baby had been born prematurely and although not addicted would soon die without her mother.

The nurse knew how important this moment was. If Ellie rejected the baby, the little tiny girl would die. If she accepted her the chances were quite good she would live. “Here, just reach your hand in here. It’s all right, she is small but she is still yours and she is alive Ellie, feel her.” The nurse held her breath. Ellie did not move for almost a minute. Finally, she reached her hand into the incubator and touched her little girl’s hand. Almost instantly the baby wrapped her little fingers around her mother’s finger and a smile broke out on Ellie’s face. The child would live. (I do not know the source of this story, though I remember reading it).

This story has a happy ending, although many don’t. Ellie took care of her child, found her way into detox and moved back in with her mother who helps her take care of little Elissa. Ellie recounts the power of that moment. It was the moment when she found, in her words, “God”, God in the touch of a little child. She says it was then that she found her faith.

James Luther Adams was a tweedy man. Born into a Baptist family at the turn of the 20th century, his parents called him Luther and raised him on the fear of hell fire and damnation. But Adams was always a free thinker. Troubled by the closed faith of his childhood he posed the following query to his parents when they pressured him as a boy to be “saved again”, worried as they were that he would be cast into eternal fire while they all went to heaven. “Didn’t you say that to be in heaven is perfect bliss?” he asked his parents. Yes, they agreed. “Well, if I am in everlasting damnation, burning in the fires of hell, how can you be in perfect bliss up in heaven?” It was that same sharp whit and mind that would make him into one of our foremost theologians teaching at Harvard until his death in the late 1980s. Adams was quite in demeanor but anything but in action. This was a man who after studying in Germany right before the Nazis came to power, helped to rescue hundreds of Jews. This was a man who sat before Senator Joseph McCarthy and called him ‘the most dangerous man in America and a liar’. Here was a man who defined for a movement what it means to openly faithful and humanly religious. Wedding the ideals of humanism with the faith that can hold us through the long dark night. In his classic work On Being Human Religiously, he outlines what he calls the “Five Smooth of Liberalism”, Adams outlines the basic foundations of our faith as religious liberals. Over the next five Sundays I will be exploring each of these stones as a way to deepen our own understanding and faith. The first of these stones is what Adams called “open revelation”, in his words ‘revelation is continuous, Meaning has not been finally captured. Nothing is complete.’ Especially in terms of faith. Faith, as one young person put it to me is the belief we live and die with. It dawns upon us like a revelation. Like Ellie’s revelation that she was a mother. The point for us as religious liberals is that this is far from the end of the story. Other revelations are possible, new meaning dawns. Ellie will not always believe in God just because of this one experience.

Open revelation is a faith finding its expansion. All of us have some kind of faith. For some of us that faith is supernatural or vaguely agnostic, for others it resides in the goodwill of others, for others it is science and reason, others still money and power. What makes our faith different is that we don’t rest it in one story or one dogma. We rest instead to the continuing revelations that life puts before us. Revelations like Ellie had. And because those revelations are not sealed our faith can expand and contract with our experience. Faith is rarely taught. Remembering my seminary days I can see I wasn’t there to learn faith. Early church history and systematic theology are not what I am talking about; rather that deep feeling of meaning that comes from a revelatory experience bolstered over time. This is why I think, for instance, the debate on abortion is largely a waste of time. The positions are too deeply rooted to reach meaningful compromise.

The reason we are able to be expansionists of faith is that we, as liberals, believe in the here and now. As Adams puts it time is part of revelation. We measure what we believe with our experience and reason. Adams called this putting “faith in a creative reality that is re-created”. (Ibid, Adams) Truth is never final, it is always subject to new realities over time. A century ago we didn’t think women could even be trusted to vote, now we have a woman running for President and a black man as well!

Let me illustrate this smooth stone of expanding faith with a personal story. A story that had a lot to do with my entering the ministry. One of my greatest faith expansive moments came during one of my daughter’s birth. This is when Frances and I were building contractors. We weren’t particularly good contractors, we kept given low income people low prices but we tried. I was thirty feet in the air on a very hot August day working on a roof that was entirely too steep. Frances had gone into labor that morning but we knew her labors were long and rain was coming and I needed to get this done. She insisted I finish the job so there I was. We had decided to have this baby at home, not for philosophical reasons but because we didn’t have insurance. We had a great mid-wife and a good backup plan and Frances was an experienced mother. About mid-afternoon the man of the house told me my wife had called and it was time for me to get home. I was down off that roof and on my way in a flash.

Lois, our mid-wife was one of the most serene and faithful people I have ever known. She was a Seventh Adventist and was a mid-wife out of a sense of calling and vocation. She would not take any money from us, although we did build her a deck later on. (Besides at that time, having a baby at home was illegal in New York State). Lois had learned her craft in Mexico tending to some of the poorest mothers on the planet. She wasn’t there to proselytize her faith, she just did it. At since Adventists are so health conscious she was very careful and certain. Still Frances labor was very long and very hard. By early morning she was losing strength and we thought we might have to transport her to the hospital, it was actually very serious. Lois let her rest between contractions and asked me if I would pray with her. “Pray?” I asked. “Yes. Pray.” Now, I was a hard core atheist at this time of my life so this seemed like a dangerous idea but we prayed. It was so beautiful. None of this “God change this or God change that”, rather “God grant us strength and life.” The contractions began again. Frances was exhausted. Lois reached in and manipulated the baby’s head and then, from somewhere, my wife found energy that amazed me, and push she did and out into the warm light of early dawn came my daughter. Tears streamed down my face. God was here. A power of spirit rushed over me so intensely I almost collapsed. I did fall to my knees to hold my daughter, and pass her to her mother.

As baby and mother rested quietly, Lois turned to me and said, “We call that a divine push”. Well, yes, I thought, a divine push from Frances saved her life. “More than Frances” Lois said as if reading my mind. “You, John, you have been pushed. You are being called. I don’t think being a contractor is your life’s work.” She quietly put away her things and left.

I struggled with that push for a long time. It’s not as if I found Jesus, but it was a revelation that there is more to life and death than we can see. I have been searching for that “more” ever since. I don’t believe in a personal God despite this experience because, as a Unitarian Universalist, I temper my revelation with other realities. Science is part of that revelation. I know that we have the capacity to know so much more through reason and experience. But my daughter’s birth also taught me another truth, more enduring, more faith-full; that we will never know all there is to know, that at the heart of our living and being is a mystery. I temper my revelation with new revelations, about the power of emotional intelligence, common sense and yes, the power of surrendering myself to forces greater than I can be. Forces like compassion, love, forgiveness and grace. The heart and the head.

Today I rest my expanded faith on this smooth stone; God, if I dare use such a loaded word, is a power greater than myself, and is essentially a mystery, which is why I rarely use the word to describe my faith. I guess I am more of an enchanted agnostic these days – still searching but knowing that people are basically good and we need one another to survive the vagaries of reality, fortunate, painful or indifferent.

Kim Beach, a colleague and Adams biographer once wrote that “faith is fidelity to transcendent purposes and values” (From the introduction, James Luther Adams: The Prophet hood of All Believers edited by George Kim Beach, 1986). We are prepared to be open to the possibilities that there just might be more out there than we first believed. In Adams’ words “revelation is continuous”. Amen.

Race, Politics and the Spirit

February 19, 2008

By John Morehouse

I came to Chicago just after Harold Washington won his second term as the first African American Mayor of Chicago. I can remember the powerful feeling of this victory, all the sweeter since no one thought he would win the first time, defying as he did the powerful political machine of the Daley family. The University of Chicago is located in the heart of Chicago’s south side, except for the neighborhood of Hyde Park where the University and its many schools sits like an oasis in the black sea of poverty, the South Side is home to some of America’s gutsiest politicians, including Harold Washington. Washington came to office defying the machine by telling it like it is. They didn’t want to hear from a black man, telling them they were corrupt and broken. He won his first term by a margin, his second by a landslide. Harold Washington had defied a political machine to raise the hopes for a city, half of whom were African American. Four days after his second inauguration, Harold Washington died of a heart attack at his desk. Chicago returned to a white mayor. (Climbing a Great Mountain: Selected Speeches of Mayor Harold Washington edited by Alton Miller)

We have come a long way since then. Now there are many more African American mayors than before, now we have black congressman, now we are considering a black candidate for President of the United States. If Harold Washington or even Martin Luther King were still alive though, I know they would be worried. Because we are still a racist nation. For a while there it looked like Obama could dodge the race card but then came NH and a vote that defied what people in the polls claimed. The race issue is still alive, as much as the female issue I might add, and we still have spiritual work to do if we are to overcome it. I am not endorsing any candidate here. In fact, this is really above the politics… I am asking instead what do we have to do to make race a non-issue, or gender or religion? As Timothy Eagan wrote in the New York Times:

“For a while, it looked like Obama could be the rare African-American leader whose race was nearly invisible – and he may still be. He’s post-Civil Rights, Oprah-branded, with that classically American blend of a mother from the heartland and a father from a distant shore. And after that Iowa victory speech, people felt something had passed into our collective rear-view mirror, without actually saying what that something was.

Now it looks like every mention of race – from the overblown dust-up with Senator Hillary Clinton this week to the calculated comments comparing him to Sidney Poitier – is bad for Obama. A victory in South Carolina, with its heavy black vote, will be seen as one-dimensional.

He needs people to look at him and see John Kennedy, or The Beatles, or Tiger Woods in his first Master’s tournament. He needs people to see youth, a break with the past, style under pressure.

When they see black this or black that — even a positive black first — it’s trouble.” (NYT 1/17/08)

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. whose birthday we celebrate tomorrow once penned that “The racial issue we confront today is not a sectional problem but a national problem. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” (Delivered at the Conference of the National Urban League, 1960 as quoted in I Have a Dream: Writings and Selection that Changed the Word MLK Writings).

And justice is our moral concern. In fact, I would argue that in the Free Church, justice is the expression of our faith.

What will it take to overcome “the racial issue” now these many decades since MLK has passed on?

It will take us renewing our call to, as Harold Washington would say “climb that great mountain of hope”. We are not going to see it simply dawn upon us, we will have to take this to our neighbors and friends, and say for instance “I see no reason why race has anything to do with Obama’s candidacy.” To challenge the racism of those we know who say he can’t be elected, and in fairness to say the same thing of a woman, Hillary Clinton, or a Mormon, Mitt Romney. If we believe as we do in the inherent worth of a person, than their race, gender and religion, while they inform their actions, are not grounds to reject their abilities.

What will it take to hold up what Dr. King called the “network of mutuality”?

Standing down fear comes to mind.

We have the power, each of us in this room, as we prepare to cast our vote and we are talking with those we know to echo these words, regardless of who we see as the ideal candidate, “judge them by their character”. It is our spiritual imperative to challenge this racism today. If not you, then who? If not now, then when?

But there is one other dimension to overcome racism or any other ism in politics today. We must remember that our civil liberties are deeply ingrained in our civil religion.

We need to challenge any infraction of civil liberty as the backdrop to overcoming prejudice in our social and political lives. Any of the candidates we will be choosing in November need to be measured against their stand on civil liberties. This is our moral concern. And it goes so far beyond the identity of the candidate her or himself.

I would be asking any candidate black or white, male or female, Mormon, Jew, Christian or Unitarian, “what are you going to do to protect our freedoms?” What I don’t want is for the race issue to become a smokescreen for the real issues facing our great nation; security of food and shelter, the rights of all to dissent.

We are morally responsible for questioning what is happening here. Not as a right but as a responsibility. And if you think well, that is all well and good but my personal life is mess, try protesting and see how it helps you cope with your own life. We are all of the same cloth. It just depends on where you look at the pattern. You can look at the individual threads and see they are frayed or you can look at a piece and see that it is bright and worth fighting for.

This is the right of conscience and the true use of democracy in our congregations: to work towards the freedom of all people to be whom they are, to express their truth and to have their consent. It is not so much whether we follow our by-laws and procedure but rather whether our moral laws call us to freedom.

Martin Luther King, Jr. like Harold Washington strived to overcome racism by the character of his actions: providing for the poor and protecting the civil liberties of any of us to speak out, this was their platform beyond race. It is our spirit as well. It is required of any of us.

I recently took a cab ride and the driver, a Latino, started talking about the presidential race. “You know, imagine that, a woman and a black man running for president. But really what difference should it make, you know. What not Bill Richardson, a Latino? When do you stop looking at their bodies and start changing this mess? You know.” Wise words from someone making $15 an hour.

When indeed. Shelby Steele, a conservative African American and author of The Content of our Character: A New Vision of Race in America was on Bill Moyers last week and talking about Obama and the race card in politics. He had some interesting things to say about how Obama, like Oprah Winfrey, accommodates to our white culture. That was enough to worry me. Then he said this: “(there was a) survival mechanism (depending) on slavery and segregation. And we are still using it. We will get tired of that. Our children…will get even more tired of it. And will understand I think that the challenge of the collective is to produce individuals. “(Bill Moyers Journal, 1/11/08).

I may not agree with Mr. Steele’s politics but I share his dream: that we will get beyond race and judge people by their characters. I just think it will take a long time, it’s a tall mountain. But it starts with us as Unitarian Universalists. Are we prepared to stand against racism, to discount it as a measure of character in this political year? Are we prepared to demand instead candidates who uphold the needs of the marginalized and the right of all to dissent? Are we prepared to engage our neighbors and friends in a conversation that goes beyond race, perhaps beyond politics to the Spirit of human worth that is so intrinsic to our faith? I want to believe we are.

In one of Dr. King’s last speeches to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1967, he united his call for desegregation with the need to battle poverty for all and an end to the Vietnam war which he saw as a machine keeping the status quo in place. He talked about “divine dissatisfaction”; its not enough to be satisfied with the way things are, being part of a faith means working towards the satisfaction of God, to make the crooked straight and the high places low, to make the wrong of any “ism” right by our efforts. He knew this was a task far greater than one lifetime, a task we are all still engaged in as people of faith. (ibid MLK).

The day before he died Dr. King spoke in a Mason Temple in Memphis, TN where he pronounced: “..I’ve been to the mountaintop…..I would like to live a long life…..I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know….that as a people we will get (there). (ibid, MLK)

We are still climbing. It’s a tall mountain. While I share Dr. King’s vision, I am tempered by the more down to earth words of Harold Washington “We are climbing a great mountain and we’ve taken the first firm steps. We may not reach the summit in our lifetimes, but men and women of good will a century from today will look back on …this movement and say: ‘I wish I had been a part of them. They had the courage to fight. The will to win. The sought goodness and they did good.” (ibid, Miller)

I pray that it can be said of us, that we to had that courage, sought goodness and did good.

Is Someone Calling?

February 10, 2008


By Rev. John Morehouse

Between our house, the office and our cell phones, we probably deal with somewhere near 140 phone calls a week. Occasionally, these calls are of a mysterious nature. Several weeks ago for instance, I received what was obviously a collect phone call on a fully automated system. I couldn’t understand who the caller was on my voice mail. I replayed the message over and over again, still no way to figure out who called. I followed the instructions to retrieve the message from AT&T but still could not retrieve the message. Generally, collect phone calls are fairly important to a minister; they usually indicate an emergency or just some lost soul with no place left to go. Calls from jail are always collect. I pursued the mystery, calling up the company and asking how I might retrieve the message. “I’m sorry sir” came the reply, there is no way to tell who called once it goes into the automated system. And while we have caller i.d. it only said “unavailable.” How fitting!This was really beginning to bother me. I don’t know why, usually I just have to move on. Who was calling? Avon, girl scout cookies, God? Who then? Who knows maybe aliens?All of this mystery got me to thinking about how often we might be missing the cues not only from people in need but from the larger cosmos around us. How many of you have stopped on a walk outside and listened to the sounds around you? How many of those sounds can you identify?

I flew to Maryland to celebrate my youngest grandson’s birthday. Snow on the ground, grey, bare trees, I remembered why I live in California. Back East I rose early and went outside. Winter has a different sound there than here in LA. I listened intently to the sounds around me, the cars, the birds, the planes and I mused how it might have been for some human progenitor 20,000 years ago. What was she listening to? To be certain, a quieter world. And for those sounds that she couldn’t identify did the earliest homo sapiens imagine an invisible force? Archeology seems to think so; our earliest religions are now thought to have been burial rites connecting the known of life with the unknown of death. As religion developed it brought meaning to where we go after we die and then moved on to where we came from, and why we are here. In the last thousand years or so we have demarcated that search to the known within the realm of science and the unknown mysteries of religion. It has been an uneasy alliance. Science demanding proof and religion relying on imagination and faith. And while science has been blazing forward in our quest to know and hear more of our universe, religion has been playing catch up. Trying to make historically bound doctrines such as the resurrection fit a modern world.

Michael Murphy, the founder of the Eslan Institute in California has assembled a team of serious scientists to study the connection with our fragile place in the cosmos and our spiritual drive. Murphy suggests that the overwhelming evidence of evolution is suggesting that we are part of a great arc towards a consciousness that will not only unite humankind, a thousand years from now but possibly connected us with a larger cosmic community.The story of evolution suggests that we are moving, destined perhaps, towards a great spiritual end. Perhaps nirvana, heaven, atonement, or communion with other life. Now before you think I have gone off my rocker hear me out. First the case for evolution, fundamentalist understandings aside, our universe is about 14 billion years old, at the current rate of expansion we will either expand to nothingness or begin to relapse in about another 14 billion years. Our lonely planet is 4.6 billion years old. The first 3 billion years were taken up in planet formation; cooling, oxidizing and reforming. In the last 900 million years life began. First as single cell beings, then jumping to multicelled organisms, then to breathing multi organ beings, finally to fish, reptiles, mammals and us. It has really only been in the last 50,000 years that we have achieved any semblance of intelligence and only in the last 20,000 years that we have been what I would call aware; capable of meaning making.

What is it that pulls us forward as a species? Does the universe have a “telos” Greek for message it is sending to us not as individuals but as a species? I believe it does. Not because I have heard the voice of God, though I have certainly felt the power of her presence urging me onward. Not because any great prophet has said so, Jesus, the Buddha or Mohammed. No, not because of any proclamation but because of the insatiable need humanity has to discover. I believe that we are being called, pulled forward by a force of cosmological proportions, not measured by what you and I see in our short lives or through our senses, but in the march of generations to connect with a larger and larger universe.

When we knew nothing of any worlds beyond our own we were arrogant enough to assume that this is all there is. And human history is about one group conquering another only to loose what they thought they had gained. Here, the Buddha was correct. We are bound to suffering and life by thinking that meaning is found in what we have. Death levels that illusion for us all. For my money, the really important thinking and work to be done in finding meaning in our lives; resides in loving one another and looking for a connection to the larger universe. The really cutting edge spiritual growth will be in hearing the call of the cosmos and making sense of it in our own life.What am I talking about? While I am not talking about a phone call from God. Someone shared with me an experience they had as a child walking past a Pentecostal church in Florida during a funeral. There was a great deal of singing going on and he went up to the open door to see what was happening. The deceased laid for viewing before the altar. One of the ushers seeing the young boy invited him in and walked him down to the casket. There was the man all dressed with a telephone in his hand. The usher exclaimed in all seriousness, “God called and he answered”! True story. In fact, telephones in caskets were quite popular back in the 1930s. Only trouble was the line was dead!

No, this is not what I mean, although faith in the afterlife is one way of answering the call. But there is another way to heed what I believe is the call to our ultimate destiny as human beings and that is ETI. Extra terrestrial intelligence. Now before you put on your Nikes here, let me explain. I have been a serious student of ET for sometime. Not the UFO stuff but the serious scientific inquiry into the possibility of life elsewhere. A real connection to something larger than we are. Let me start by saying that to date there is no evidence of ET. Period. Not because we haven’t tried. NASA before the Reagan cuts, and now several university and private institutes (see SETI) are engaged in a serious and systematic scan of the known galaxy for radio waves. There have been hundreds of unexplainable signals after a serious culling for other reasons but none of them has repeated itself – a requisite for the scientific method – still we are looking. There is a lot to listen to. Of the roughly 400 billion stars in our galaxy, (just one in billions) researchers believe that only 3% or 12 million are sun like stars, and only a fraction of those will have the distance to create the conditions for life, somewhere around 100,000 solar systems. Let me say that we do now have evidence that other planets exist. Our most recent catalog is about 57 planets in nearby stars. Let me also say that probability of life on the other planets is high. Carbon and water, the two most necessary elements for life exist in abundance. Mars is believed to have oceans worth of water in its crust and Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons is all water. Primitive one celled organism fossils have been found on asteroids. Life most definitely exists out there and some of it by the sheer probability of the numbers of stars, is intelligent probably more intelligent than we are. If our planet is 4.6 billion years old and the universe is 14 billion years old there was more than enough time for another planet to spawn and evolve another species of intelligence. And it would even take that long. Look how far we have come in the last 1000 years, the last 100 years, the last 10 years. Computer capability doubles every 18 months. Assuming we are in a mediocre system around a mediocre star, it follows statistically that there are other civilizations beyond us. And more than likely these civilizations will have outgrown war.It is towards that discovery and the knowledge that we will gain from that contact that I believe we are, as a species drawn, by some unseen hand. Before I attempt to suggest to you what that hand might be let me lay to rest your fears that all of this is determined and we are just pawns in some great cosmic chess game. The Jewish Kabala, the great mystical arm of Judaism has a wonderful saying: All is determined, but free will is given. The age old debate between those who say all life is predetermined, eat drink and be merry and those who are, like us, fierce individualists that believe only we can determine our course is missing the point. The march of evolution, the almost certainty that there is a larger intelligence beyond us (dare I say “Intelligent Design”?), the attempt of myth and poetry and religion to give context to this larger reality says to me, yes, we are part of a much bigger scheme of things than we can ever see. The earth is curved, if you travel west you eventually become east, returning from where you started. But you can’t see that. So it is, I believe with us, we can’t see how we fit into this larger destiny but that doesn’t mean we aren’t a part of it.

In our daily life, the life that earns money, deals with kids, money and sex, the part that has fears and joys and knows suffering we are like a single being on this planet. Sure the planet curves but that doesn’t affect our lives at this moment. At this micro-existence we call life, our choices do make a difference. And we do have the power to decide. We are free. Just as Adam and Eve were free to disobey God and eat of the tree of good and evil, so too are we free. And those decisions make a difference, good or bad, in the physical world. Perhaps even beyond this world, like the Hindu law of karma, each action, good or bad has a reaction, like ripples in a pond.But Adam and Eve were thrown out of the garden of Eden for that freedom. And something in them, in all of us, is drawing us back. Not to what was, but to what could be. A garden of new knowledge, new wisdom, new hope. This is why I believe we are connected together in a much, much larger scheme. We are destined to find that garden, or perhaps to see the garden all around us. Someone or something deep within us, generation upon generation is calling us home.So is the Goddess ET? Intriguing thought. If so that we must have a bad connection. Of the roughly four billion channels we would need to listen to hear a signal, our current technology can only listen to a mere 2 million at once. This will change. But perhaps it won’t be radio waves, it might be light, in fact infrared light might be flashing at us right now even if we can’t see it. What would they think of us? Our earliest T.V. signals are from I love Lucy, now reaching 30 light years away, roughly 50 million miles, only to about the nearest dozen stars in our neighborhood.It’s hard to imagine God as ET broadcasting live from Alpha Centurai, a mere four light years away. Rather I find that God’s place is more subtle than even the stars. The Sufi mystic Rumi put it better: Divine, within, without, all in all. The drive to connection (which is after all what religion means) is for me, God. Not a place or person but a condition. We are drawn by a destiny of what the ancients called atonement. To be one with what is.

What does this mean for you and me? Not much. We will go on with our lives, making difficult choices to real life problems. Seeking love and acceptance and courage. But it is my hope, than for just the occasional moment you might ponder your inevitable connection to a universe where you, far from being too small to count, do count by the very fact that you wonder what is out there. We are not alone, said the little boy dying, we are definitely not alone. The Spanish mystic Jose Ortega Y Gasset said it best: It is not primarily in the present or in the past that we live. Our life is the activity directed to what is to come.I believe someone is calling. And we are, in some small way, answering the call by simply being and living on this earth.

The Pretense of Accidents

February 5, 2008

Rev. John Morehouse

It was inevitable. If you drive on LA Freeways long enough you will be tempted to find a metaphor on all that concrete. It all started with an accident. Not a very serious accident – and I know that there are very serious and deadly accidents on the road – but just an accident between a man and woman. I only drove by it slowly, like so many others rubber necking and slowing us all down. A real fender bender, but for the brief 30 seconds I saw them, they were laughing. Not cursing, not shouting, not glowering, not hunched over their insurance cards, but laughing. Who knows maybe they were high school sweet hearts or old friends? But maybe, just maybe, something happened between them in this accident that changed the way their world looked. A pretense to something new.

It got me thinking, how many times has a so-called mishap, even some very serious accident or misfortune led us to a new place in life. I lost a business and found a new life and love. Someone losses their job through no fault of their own and finds a new career. Love stumbles, we fall, and someone new is on the ground with us.

What is it about the occasional misfortune that turns the world around? Deepak Chopra, not my favorite author but sometimes insightful enough claims “there are no accidents. There is only cause and effect, the cause may be far away but the effect comes around” (From The Way of the Wizard). This is also known as the law of karma. The great Hindu idea that nothing happens by chance, and every event that happens to us, good or bad, is the result of some past action on our part good or bad in some long gone previous life. But lest we excuse every accident as some unwritten law of the universe let me begin with a disclaimer. I am not completely convinced that karma is always at work. Not all accidents, especially the very serious ones, seem to have a redemptive power. I only ask us today to be open to the possibility that something new may come from the unexpected. How you see the result of those accidents is up to you. At best, some call positive unexpected coincidences serendipity; a word that means unexpected good fortune. Others, such as Chopra, call them synchronicity, the universe conspiring to bring events into play towards a certain outcome. However you explain the lessons of accidents doesn’t really matter so much. What matters is that you see the lessons in the accidents, the unexpected mishaps themselves.

Meg Barnhouse, my colleague and one of the funniest people in America tells another accident story: She was driving by a car wreck being tended to. “Emergency service people were putting a woman on a stretcher. They were tender, attentive, capable. She was being taken care of. Traffic was being directed competently around the wreck. It would be cleaned up, hauled away. Taken care of. A fire truck was parked beside the ambulance, its chunky lights flashing. Standing by, just in case a fire happened. So they could take care of it. This was one well taken care of situation. I wanted to be on that stretcher. I wanted capable people to take care of everything. It looked restful. I was tired. I was the kind of tired you get at the end of a month long project…I was the kind of tired you get when you have ten different people feeling in their heart that you should have done it differently. Their way. The kind of tired you get when your house is messy, your grass is too long, your car is cluttered and your gas tank is empty, along with your bank account. A tiny piece of me thought it would be restful to lie down on clean sheets, be fussed over in a clean hospital room, have people bring jell-o, chicken broth and straws that bend…..Usually I think it’s a good day when I don’t have to take a ride in an ambulance and I get back to that state of mind pretty fast. I talked to a friend of mine who used to work in an emergency room and she said what happens when you come in is that fast moving people with big scissors cut off all your clothes. That didn’t sound restful at all. She suggested that I pay for a day at the spa where helpful, calm people would fuss over me all day long. I’d rest but no one would have to cut off my clothes with scissors. I would be cheaper than a hospital stay and I could come home afterward.” (From Did I Say that Out Loud).

Really. How about it? Are we accidents waiting to happen? Sometimes the accident can be a real wake up call. I had some health issues last fall. I took a stress test and was off the chart. Drive me down to the ER. It was not quite an accident but pretty close. I have started to get it together. Finally. Losing weight. Eating better. Three months ago I was diabetic, now I am no longer. I had BP of 145/90 with medication, now its 124/78. Meditation is a daily practice. I make mistakes but I don’t try to do as much as I used to. I am finally learning what my teacher Bo Lozoff meant when he said we have to learn to move “out of the fast land and into vast lane.” (From It’s a Meaningful Life: It Just takes Practice) A pretense to an accident.

But even if it does, that accident can sometimes save our life. When has the struggle redeemed you? Even now if you are in that struggle, can you imagine being redeemed? Thomas Moore called these moments of redemption “treasured tragedies.” Simple failures are not a sign of unworthiness but a sign of our humanness. “If realizations most often come from accidents perhaps we need to be a bit more accident prone”. (From The Soul’s Religion).

Can you think back to when you were a child? How did you learn? Accidentally! What makes us think we are any different? We are a Breakthrough Congregation now nationally recognized for being truly extraordinary. At the minister’s retreat this week someone asked me “How did you think we do that?” I had to think about it for a moment. We didn’t plan to be extraordinary. Sure we had a plan, but thank the stars we weren’t conceited enough to make the end of it all some glory! We just wanted to make our vision real. I have to say, it was all almost by accident. Yes, in many ways we are how we are by accident, by trial and error. And how did I become your leader? Let me tell you, many mistakes. Ten years ago I was rather arrogant and unwilling to listen. Yes, in my last ministry we built a multimillion dollar building but I and others struggled along the way. I made many mistakes. When the fates and vagaries of the universe brought me here, I learned from the accidents. Now, I try to listen more, try less to bend reality, and, most of all believe in you, my people. How often has the first half of our life, full of mistakes, been a pretext for the second? How can you imagine your life still coming together, as accident prone as we all are?

Even a near miss can teach us so much; about the fragility of life, the randomness of fate, and the fact that only we, people caring for one another, can really respond to the tragedies of life.

Have a little faith in yourselves and in each other! We do learn from even the worst situation. Not always but often enough. To make mistakes and learn from them. Even at the end of life.

I close with this very important story. My colleagues, John and Sarah Gibb Millspaugh share what happened: At the end of October we went to Anza Borrego Desert State Park to camp and celebrate our one-year anniversary. The park was practically deserted, as most other campers cancelled their reservations due to the nearby wildfires. But we checked and learned that the smoke was blowing in the opposite direction of the park, so we went.

On our third day of camping, our actual anniversary, breakfast at our campsite was interrupted by a noise from the highway a couple hundred yards away. I thought it sounded an awful lot like a crashing car, so I ran towards the road to see if I could see anything.

In a dry creek bed by the road, something large and metallic glimmered in the sun. John and I arrived on the scene to find a car ripped open, and no driver or passenger in sight. We eventually found the sole passenger of the car, the driver, lying unconscious and covered by brush. John uncovered his broken body and gently held him. Amazingly, he was breathing.

While John tended to him, I sought help. Cell phones didn’t work, and no one else was in the campground. I flagged down drivers: some stayed to help and others drove on to call 911.

After about 10 minutes, the man stopped breathing. John knew CPR the best out of the four of us who had gathered by that time, so he administered it. Finally, 20 minutes later, medical help arrived in the form of fire department paramedics. Sadly, they confirmed what we already suspected: the driver was dead. We later learned that the man’s severe head injuries would have killed him even if paramedics had arrived instantaneously.

Fortunately, our training as ministers helped us stay reasonably calm and present to the situation, doing what needed to be done; still, we were shaken by the experience of running from a celebratory anniversary breakfast to being the primary caretakers of a stranger in the middle of a desert, holding him as life passed from him. Thankfully, we knew about Critical Incident Stress Debriefing—a process that can help process trauma and reduce the severity of any post traumatic stress. If you are ever in a traumatic situation, please seek out this kind of professional debriefing—fire departments, law enforcement officials, and emergency personnel should always be able to refer you to a trained person who can offer it. The debriefing helped us tremendously. (From “Reflections on the Side of the Road” preached by the Revs John and Sarah Gibb Millspaugh, Tapestry UU Church, Mission Viejo, CA)

The trauma group that John and Sarah worked with stepped in, met with the two of them and then arranged for John and Sarah to meet with the dead man’s family. He left behind a wife and three kids, he was trying to make a sales meeting. The whole family was there when they arrived. With the TIPS person by their side, they gave the details of the end of his life. Even in such a tragedy, it meant so much to know that he didn’t die alone. When they found out they were ministers, the room exploded in emotion and relief. His final minutes had been in the presence of care and love and the holiness of love. It was immensely powerful.

Even the most terrible accidents have the possibility of redemption. The point is to be open that possibility. Rumi put it this way: “What if a king had sent you into a country to do one task but you did one hundred other tasks, trying hard to remember the one you missed?” (From “One Hundred Tasks”) How are we supposed to know that one task if not by accident? Or are mishaps, as Chopra suggests, “an echo of a life yet to live?” Seekers are offered clues all the time. Ordinary people call them coincidences. I am asking you to be extra-ordinary, to look beyond the misfortune. To try to find the meaning beyond the meaningless, a pretense to something truly beautiful even if living in the moment of greatest messiness we call life. May our blessings endure and our struggles lessen. And may we find love and strength to carry on.

Letting the Mystery Be

January 28, 2008

There is an Old Persian fable in which a man, after many months away returns home to find his home in great disarray. His man servant meets him at the door “Master, while you were away, your wife received a large box, big enough to hold a man. She had it delivered to her chambers. I have asked her to let me see what is in the box and she refuses.”

The man dismisses his servant and goes directly to his wife in her room. The large box is sitting in the middle of the floor. After they embrace, he asks his wife about the box. “Will you permit me to see what is inside?” asks the husband. “No” replies his wife. “Then will you tell me what is in the box?” asks the husband.

Again his wife replies “no”. The man thinks for a moment.

“What then, my beloved, are we to do with this box which has come between us when we vowed to hold no secrets?”

His wife thinks for a moment and the replies simply “bury the box”. “Bury the box?” asks the man, “are you sure?”

“Yes” she says “bury the box”. Immediately, the man calls for servants to take the box into the garden, dig a deep hole and bury the box.

There are times when a mystery is better left alone, a secret better left untold.

I am sure that some of you would have radically different responses to this fable. Some would say it was never the husband’s business to know what was in the box.

Others would say the box should have been opened right away, if they vowed to have no secrets between them.

Still others would gasp “what if there was someone in the box?” But the mystery was left alone.

For me the story poses a still deeper question: Must we expose everything that is hidden? Must we understand the solution to every mystery of the universe?

It is said that we are only as sick as our secrets, but is also said that mystery is not a problem to be solved but a condition to live through. As a people committee to the unending search for truth and meaning, we are troubled by the possibility that there are some things we should not know. We are a radically bottom line society; the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I propose however that sometimes it is better to accept a mystery than to anxiously wonder what it all means.

I can’t tell you why you have cancer or why God remains silent to starving children. But I do know that while the reasons may be mysterious, the solutions are not. Simple human companionship is still the best tonic for suffering. Acts of justice still make a difference in the world. In fact, I have come to believe that knowing why there is suffering is almost beside the point. It doesn’t really matter that children are born deformed; their condition is only a call to service. What are we going to do about it? Perhaps at some level this is why God is silent, it’s not about a God, and it’s about us as the hands of God. Sometimes we are so eager to end the tension of the mystery that we lose the opportunity to feel the mysteries power.

The Catholic Mass used to be said in Latin and many felt a deeper connection to the awe of the Divine than any sermon they could understand. Think about good opera, you don’t understand a word yet you can feel the sublime. There are times in my own ministry when I am so overwhelmed by the needs of my church and family that I can’t imagine going on. And then I walk outside on starry night and gaze up at those billions of stars, separated by unimaginable forces and distances and I realize that perhaps it’s not my worry to figure it out.

Like Isaiah standing at the wilderness altar there are moments when we just cry out “Here I am Lord, take me.” Except God doesn’t take us anywhere, she sends us back into life again. To struggle with what is before us, the impenetrable holy moment of the here and now. So for my money, I will let it be for now until something better comes along.

With grace and grit, John

Even For Our Needs

January 16, 2008

John Morehouse

There was a time in our past when we received food stamps. I will never forget the experience of standing in a long line with people long resigned to the bureaucracy. Nor will I forget the intense questioning I was subjected to nor the stares I received using them in the store. It was a very difficult and humbling experience which has informed much of ministry since then.

 

What I realized out of this time was that we each have a time to give and to receive. For many finding our way of religion for the first time find themselves in need of receiving, only later are we able to give. Both are necessary to living. We often think of the holiday season as a time of giving, which it is. But the season is also about receiving.

 

What I have learned from having to receive in a time of need, is that receiving is also a spiritual discipline. Learning to give and receive helps us live up to our principle of accepting one another and encouraging spiritual growth. When we learn to accept help we are affirming our inter-dependence on one another. And for the giver we learn that life is fragile and “but for the grace of the Spirit go I”.

 

As we prepare for the Christmas holiday, I hope that we will remember the deeper meaning that the give and take of gift giving symbolizes. Each gift given is an act of love, each gift received is an act of thanks. As we say each week in our prayer of gratitude: “May we be grateful even for our needs so that we may learn from the generosity of others”.

 

With Grace and Grit, Rev. John