First Unitarian Church of Providence
worship & spiritual practice
about sunday services


A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, September 23, 2012


Hui Tzu said to Chuang, “I have a big tree, the kind they call a “stinktree.” The trunk is so distorted, so full of knots, no one can get a straight plank out of it. The branches are so crooked you cannot cut them up in any way that makes sense.”

“There it stands beside the road. No carpenter will even look at it. Such is your teaching — big and useless.”

Chuang Tzu replied, “Have you ever watched the wildcat crouching, watching his prey. The prey leaps this way, and that way, high and low, and at last lands in the trap. And have you seen the Yak? Great as a thundercloud, he stands in his might. Big? Sure, but he can’t catch mice!”

“So for your big tree, no use? Then plant it in the wasteland, in emptiness. Walk idly around it, rest under its shadow. No axe or bill prepares its end. No one will ever cut it down.”

“Useless? You should worry!”

The Way of Chuang Tzu, Thomas Merton 

I hear there’s ice cream and hot dogs and good old-fashioned rock n roll music on the lawn in front of the Meeting House right after worship. I admit, I look forward to this every year. And I’m just overjoyed if the rains hold off and we can just hang and eat a little and listen to some good music. Thinking about this puts me to mind of the joys of idleness, something I don’t see enough of, I don’t experience enough. And I suspect for most of us here, something too few of us really have explored as possibly one of the more important things we can do, or, maybe its not do.

Yes, last week I spoke with great passion and complete sincerity about how what we do matters. More, even, that who we are can genuinely be said to be the sum of what we do. I spoke from the depths of my heart of getting out and doing something that is useful. Today, with equal passion and complete sincerity I am going to cajole you toward idleness, toward doing nothing, well, if doing something, its eating hot dogs and ice cream, and idling while listening to Joe’s Backyard Band.

People hold a difference between relaxation and idleness. Relaxation is something we earn, a pause to renew and refresh. Whereas idleness is dismissed as something unworthy, idle hands, as you may recall, being the express property of Old Nick. I suggest refresh is good. And if that’s the best you can do, okay, rest, relax, refresh a little with that ice cream. But, today, I’m interested in idleness, and I suggest it bring with it ice cream of a completely different variety.

For most of us, I suspect, idleness is laziness or sloth, one of those medieval deadly sins. Actually in the original lists in Christian antiquity there was something called acedia, which was a state of listlessness that frankly looks a lot like depression to me. By the Middle Ages it shifted and we get instead, sloth, that sense of lack of industry as the sin that drives what Max Weber investigated in his magisterial The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Industry we understand. Idleness simply evokes revulsion.

Occasionally people stand against this sense of what it means to be idle. Almost a century ago Bertrand Russell wrote a little essay, “In Praise of Idleness.” I looked at it again for the first time in, oh, I don’t know, forty plus years. He was critical of our romance with industry. He was celebrating the creative spirit that he saw only comes with leisure. In his essay he was advocating a society where everyone has access to what had for generations been strictly limited to the rich and powerful. And while I think there’s truth in Russell’s rumination, just to be clear, it’s pure, unadulterated, to no purpose, idleness that I want to celebrate today.

Okay, I can already hear mutterings here and there, “What does James know about idleness? He seems one of the more driven people in our community.” I can even sense indignation, “This is pure hypocrisy! James claims to love idleness, but I’ve seen him at work with my own eyes. Over the past four days didn’t he do a memorial service, attend to family affairs and taking auntie to her radiation treatment and at the same time write this very sermon we’re sitting with? And besides, isn’t that his fifth book they’re hawking in the church’s bookstore?” I can see the energy building, and finally an explosive, “Expert on laziness? Hah!”

And there is truth here, as well. I recall once telling my Zen spiritual director how I just wasn’t mastering the disciplines and embarrassedly admitting to being too lazy to pursue it all the way down. He snorted and replied that’s not laziness, that’s aversion. “True laziness,” I could see his eyes slide heavenward, “True laziness, that is the way.” It’s that laziness as a way toward the wise heart, pure surrender of all striving that I want to hold up today. It is the way of non-action. It is like water or clouds, flowing naturally and taking whatever shape is necessary. It is what Jesus spoke of when he called us to “consider the lilies how they grow, they toil not, they spin not; and yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.”

Like most things in life, I have a touch of the true idle in me, but, and I freely acknowledge it is mixed up with bunches of other things, aversion, grasping, ambition; lots of things, like for most of us, actually with our own unique mix like for all of us. But I suggest idleness, mixed up, sure, but at heart pure idleness, is a treasure at the center of all things. Being idle is something wonderful, maybe one of the most important and delightful things of our lives. And, sadly, something we’re schooled to miss, to ignore, to tamp down, to avoid like it were the plague. So, from me, from this grand ancient pulpit, a little extolling: we should take a little time to consider being idle and what it might mean for us. And more than consider, to be idle. Particularly as we advance toward hot dogs, ice cream and straight ahead rock n roll.

Being of that turn of mind, I decided to look the word up. Merriam-Webster Online defines idleness as “an inclination not to do work or engage in activities” and secondarily, “lack of action or activity.” Wikipedia says, “Idle means the act of nothing or no work… (and) a person who spends his days doing nothing…” Dissatisfied with these I turned to my trusty, well-worn Merriam-Webster’s International Dictionary in the 2nd edition, the only edition worth owning. I found it gives a much more satisfying list of five definitions, starting with “having no contents, empty,” which use it says is obsolete, “without worth or basis,” “lightheaded; foolish,” “not occupied or employed,” and “given to rest and ease; averse to labor or employment.”

I’m suggesting a bit of each of these definitions, but I most like having “no content, empty,” and that that definition is obsolete is somehow delicious. Like ice cream, wonderful worthless ice cream.

I’ve mentioned how I think of our contemporary Unitarian Universalism to be, through the weirdness of an independent evolution less like any other Western religion and more like something roughly midway between the two great indigenous religions of China, Taoism and Confucianism. Confucianist-like in our devotion to ethics and relationships, with, I would add, a hint of the self-righteous about it all. But running an equally strong current, Taoist-like in our love of nature and individualism even on occasion right up to and over the top crazy individualism. Think Ralph Waldo Emerson, or notch it up a bit, and think Henry David Thoreau. Let me tell you, few people understood the secret of idleness as well as Thoreau.

But the Chinese have language for this. Particularly, the Taoists have a term I think can help us to understand and even to claim idleness in the face of other traditions, indeed all our upbringing, condemning it. They call it wei wu wei, which is sometimes translated as the way of non-action. It is the watercourse way, following the natural current right down to the great sea itself.

No doubt this action of non-action has practical applications. Writing for “Psychology Today,” Mark White tells us, “To me, wei wu wei is about knowing when effort is appropriate and when it's wasted. Obviously, it doesn't apply to tasks that you must exert effort to finish: reports don't write themselves, garages don't clean themselves, and babies don't burp themselves. But there are some valuable things in life which cannot be achieved by simply trying harder; what's more, efforts to achieve them can often be self-defeating, like planning to be spontaneous or not thinking of a green elephant.”

Dr White uses examples of how we can push too hard in the quest for happiness and love, and in that pushing fail in our goal. True words. But I have to admit putting “idle” and “practical application” together strikes me as a little too much like that distinction of relaxation over idleness. There is truth to it, but starting there, I suggest, we will not come to really understand the heart of the idle. We need, for a bit, at least, to give up practical. We need to surrender application.

To get to the heart of this matter, we need to look in other directions. I’m think along the lines of Henry Thoreau, who in Walden tells us, “My days were not days of the week, bearing the stamp of any heathen deity, nor were they minced into hours and fretted by the ticking of a clock; for I lived like the Puri Indians, of whom it is said that ‘for yesterday, today, and tomorrow they have only one word, and they express the variety of meaning by pointing backward for yesterday forward for tomorrow, and overhead for the passing day.’ This was sheer idleness to my fellow-townsmen, no doubt; but if the birds and flowers had tried me by their standard, I should not have been found wanting.”

Knowing this idleness, I suggest, opens us in strange and mysterious ways, and when the time comes to act, informed deeply by it, well, I think we might act in much healthier ways than we would if we did not understand the heart of the idle. So, if so, what would this look like? How do we find it?

Well, it’s not very hard. Our dear Thoreau is very much our teacher on this way. In his important tract on his own personal spiritual discipline, “Walking,” tells us, “I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks, who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering; which word is beautifully derived "from idle people who roved about the country, in the middle ages, and asked charity, under pretense of going à la sainte terre" — to the holy land, till the children exclaimed, "There goes a sainte-terrer", a saunterer — a holy-lander.

And embracing the way of the idle we’re about nothing less than a journey to the Holy Land.

So, how? How? Well, it’s not rocket science. The time is upon us. Grab an ice cream cone. If you want, a hot dog. We have vegie and the other kind waiting. Find a dry spot and sit down, or just lean against something. And listen to Joe’s Back Yard Band.

Don’t worry about what you’ll have to do in a bit.

Just enjoy.

And the Holy Land itself will be evident.

I promise.