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A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford for the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI, given on October 14, 2008

Reflections on the Spiritual Life Within a Liberal Faith

So the hymn comes to a close with an unsteady amen, and the organist gestures the choir to sit down. Fresh from breakfast with his wife and children and a quick run through of the Sunday papers, the preacher climbs the steps to the pulpit with his sermon in hand. He hikes his black robe at the knee so he will not trip over it on the way up. His mouth is a little dry. He has cut himself shaving. He feels as if he has swallowed an anchor. If it weren't for the honor of the thing, he would just as soon be somewhere else.

In the front pews the old ladies turn up their hearing aids, and a young lady slips her six-year old a Lifesaver and a Magic Marker. A college sophomore home from vacation, who is there because he was dragged there, slumps forward with his chin in his hand. The vice- president of a bank who twice this week has seriously contemplated suicide places his hymnal in the rack. A pregnant girl feels the life stir inside her. A high-school math teacher, who for twenty years has managed to keep his homosexuality a secret for the most part, even from himself, creases his order of service with his thumbnail and tucks it under his knee.

The preacher pulls a little chord that turns the lectern light and deals out his note cards like a riverboat gambler. The stakes have never been higher. Two minutes from now he may have lost his listeners completely to their own thoughts, but at this minute he has them in the palm of his hand. The silence in the shabby church is deafening because everybody is listening to it. Everybody is listening including even himself. Everybody knows the kind of things he has told them before and not told them, but who knows what this time, out of the silence he will tell them?

Frederick Buechner

Let me tell you a story. It’s an old story about two monks who lived together as religious brothers in a distant mountain retreat. The brothers were remarkable for several reasons. One was that each had a single eye in his head; one of the monks lost his in past years when he was a soldier, the other while a sailor. Vastly more important, over the years one of the two had cultivated a profound wisdom and had about him a sense of serenity that impressed all those he encountered. Let’s call him Fred. His companion was, frankly, less successful on the spiritual journey, was given to bursts of rage, and was additionally burdened with some jealousy for his friend’s interior accomplishment. Let’s call him Joe. Whatever else might be true, both Fred and Joe cared deeply for each other, and both were committed to the way of authentic wisdom.

Now in their religious community there was a tradition of spiritual debate. If a visitor came to their door she or he would have to engage one of the two monks in a conversation about the deep matters of life and only if they showed their own spark of wisdom would they be invited to stay over night. Fred, as the wiser of the two brothers would usually do the debating. The upshot was they rarely had overnight guests.

One day they saw down in the valley that a visitor was climbing the mountain to their retreat. From the distance they decided the visitor was probably a nun. They spoke briefly and Joe asked, as humbly as he could, if this time he could do the debating? Fred thought it meant preparing a meal for a guest, but that seemed a small price to indulge his friend and so he agreed. However, he suggested as Joe easily became tongue-tied that the debate be conducted in silence. Joe thought this sounded reasonable and he, too, agreed. As the visitor appeared, and indeed she was a nun, made her way to the gate, Fred retired to the garden to gather some strawberries, allowing his companion to meet the visitor and engage in their spiritual debate.

Scant minutes passed before he saw the visitor walking back down the trail. Frankly surprised he chased after her and asked what had happened. She was a nun with an unusually bright complexion, as if her face was surrounded by a halo. She smiled somewhat regretfully, and described how his companion and she agreed to a silent debate, and she began by holding up a single finger, she explained, to point to the one truth. His companion she said immediately responded holding up two fingers, showing the play of the interior and of action and how we need to attend to both. She responded with three fingers to demonstrate how the two sides of reflection and action were resolved within the one. Then she sighed and described how the other monk violently shook his fist in her face, demonstrating how she had allowed herself to become tangled in ideas of reality, rather than simple reflection and simple action as each thing presented, each in its moment. Her three was simply too much, missing the heart of the matter in ideas rather than full and engaged presence.

Fred was impressed and allowed the nun to go, she had a pretty long walk ahead of her. As he went back toward the hermitage with his basket of strawberries he ran into his companion, whose face was red as a beet. What’s wrong, Fred asked. Joe sputtered and choked and finally said, I’ve never had a worse encounter with a so-called spiritual person. We agreed to the silent debate and the very first thing she did was hold up one finger pointing out how I had a single eye. Trying to be polite, I held up two fingers to show I appreciated that she had two eyes. And immediately she added insult to injury, holding up three fingers to show how between us we only had three eyes. I’m afraid I lost my temper and shook my fist at her. I’m ashamed, I can’t get over my anger, but I’m sure glad she left.

Fred would think about this encounter for a long time. As have I.

I want to unpack some of what I’ve found in reflecting on this story. It might prove useful for us. Now I’ve often found the most important lessons sometimes present obliquely rather than head on. It’s like noticing the important action is actually happening over to the side and we catch it with peripheral vision. That’s proven to be particularly true for me in this story; of two people thinking they’re talking about the same thing, but are not. That’s no doubt an important point. How do we ever know what’s in another’s heart, what another is thinking? An important question and a gateway, I find, to a certain humility. I’ll return to humility before I’m finished with this reflection.

But there are other things here to address. For instance there is the content of the dialogue, the question of the one and the two, of our inner life and how we chose to encounter others. What I am sure of is that for a healthy life as individuals and for the cultivation of vital communities, we need to attend to both our interior lives and to how we act in the world. In my years on this planet, this is what I’ve come to know, bones and marrow know. The interior life without some form of action is to give our lives over to a dream. And any action that is not informed by some sort of interiority gives our lives over to a monster. I suggest, strongly, that our shared spiritual lives, the purpose of our gathering together here is all about the attention we give these two things, how we look within, and how we act in the world.

Because my own bias lies with the interior life, I begin these reflections with a consideration of interiority, what it might mean, and how our gathering into this spiritual community furthers that project. And next week I’ll address that other half of this equation, how we chose to act, and how our spiritual community furthers that project.

Now here’s where I need to return to what might be missed in the story. Over the years I’ve thought about this and it is that third person, the witness who holds in his heart the questions, the deeper not knowing that infuses this story with hope. Most creatures on this planet are condemned to repeat their actions over and over again. Our gift is our ability to change. That is the nature of hope.

So, I think a lot about what gives us hope. Which is why I picked for today’s text, what we heard as our reading, that vignette from the novelist and theologian Frederick Buechner. He describes a minister going into the pulpit and the congregation sitting, waiting. They’ve heard it all before. But. But. “Who knows what this time, out of the silence he will tell them?”

It speaks to hope. And it speaks to the enormity of the task in this enterprise we are sharing. Who knows what this time, out of the silence he will tell them? There’s something really important there. It is that silence, it is allowing ourselves to the witnesses that give us the perspective to shift out of our comfort, away from the same old, same old; and into the world as it is and from there to what it might become. It is from there every possibility of joy and engagement is born.

An example. Friday I was assisting at a memorial service for a life-long Unitarian Universalist. The young Methodist minister who conducted the service told how she had been warned when being asked to visit with him. He was clearly on his deathbed, and had been asked if he wanted to talk to a minister. He’d replied if she or he (I did say he was a UU, right?) wants to pray to God with me, well, no. But, if she or he wants to argue about God, you bet.

We can be a cantankerous crowd, as often as not defining ourselves by what we don’t believe as by what we do. And I’m sure you know how such is at times problematic. But, I also know, deeply, truly, that we who gather together in our meeting houses and churches are on a shared journey. And this journey we share is profoundly spiritual, even if its expression is more or less unique to us.

We come into or stay within this tradition for a variety of reasons. Some of us wander into Unitarian Universalist congregations seeking partners in the work of justice, following some deep intuition that somehow we really are our brother’s keeper; we really are our sister’s keeper. Perhaps more commonly we have children asking awkward questions and we realize we need help. Perhaps we’ve had a brush with illness or witnessed it in a loved one. And it raised questions. Perhaps we’ve noticed how quickly we age, how quickly life slips between our fingers. And again those questions begin to nag somewhere within. Perhaps we find ourselves reading the obituaries in the newspaper and think, well maybe its time to give these questions serious attention.

Simple curiosity is a powerful thing. It can change lives. As is that ancient need for congenial companions as we encounter life’s vicissitudes. So we seek company and we find ourselves here.

And what do we find as we come here? Well, first, I genuinely hope we find how we are welcomed as we are. That’s an important start. Also, a little differently than for attending other churches we learn we must have or quickly cultivate a high tolerance for ambiguity. We find how we need to be willing to be challenged about what it is we think. We can think it, whatever that might be; there are no thought police here. But someone will somewhere along the way ask us to clarify our position. Or, should, if we’re following the implicit covenant of our way.

In that request for clarification, in that gentle challenge to our assumptions, yours and mine, I believe we find the spiritual genius in that anecdote of wanting to argue about God. Actually the conversation continued in some very interesting directions. When the minister arrived right off our UU let her know he called himself an agnostic, only because, he added, to say he was an atheist seemed to him to smack of hubris. There’s a challenge for all us, perhaps. Where is the humility in our encounters with each other? It is a difficult and necessary thing, humility. Without it we aren’t really following the path of authentic engagement.

And this is important. Maybe it is the most important thing. I believe if we truly open our hearts, if we really are willing to argue with a seeker’s heart about the nature of God and even God’s existence, even on our deathbed, then all will be well. If we engage that question and all those that crowd up with it, about the nature of human suffering, of illness and old age and death, full heartedly; if we don’t turn from anything, but engage it all with open hearts, with curious minds; well, then, we have found our spiritual way.

Today I want to invite you, cajole you, remind you of our way. I want to remind you of that Unitarian Universalist, who on his deathbed questions with all his heart, pushing his companions yes, but more importantly, himself.

Toward some deeper knowing.

That is our way. That questioning heart is, I genuinely believe, the great way.

And, I believe, the secret to healing individual hearts and this poor, broken, beautiful world.