A sermon by Rev. Liz Lerner Maclay, delivered at the
First Unitarian Church, Providence RI, April 23, 2017
And now it’s my turn to add my welcome to everyone here in this church that has already been so very welcoming to me. Thank you for welcoming me. Thank you for being here. I am so glad to stand before you, members, friends, visitors, and especially to welcome you as one newcomer to perhaps others in this beautiful, soaring space this morning. Finally, welcome to this time that we set apart for our hearts and minds and souls, this time that we set apart for communion with each other and with the sacred. We are here this morning for peace, for solace, for connection, for inspiration, to lighten our load or to ground ourselves or share our strength. Howsoever we have come, may we make the very most of this day we begin now, together.
So here we are, together at the corner of Benefit and Benevolent, perhaps the greatest address ever in the history of churches, gathered in this place and at this time, to learn how we are and how we wish to be in our shared ministry. I have great hope and joy for our prospects together. I am excited to get to know you, to learn who each of you are, to hearing your hopes for this church, and what matters to you for the faith and action of this congregation. We have a week now to begin this conversation, hopefully the beginning of many good and strong years together. And this service is a chance to share with you some aspects of my thinking and faith that are uppermost for me right now.
Now, with the words of our opening hymn hopefully still echoing in our awareness, “once to every soul and nation comes the moment to decide, in the strife of truth with falsehood for the good or evil side….’ What language! Those are really stirring, throw-down, words. “Once to every soul and nation comes the moment to decide, in the strife of truth with falsehood for the good or evil side! But… wait a minute. That’s not true at all is it? It doesn’t come once. The moment to decide – we wish it came once. It comes again and again. No wonder we’re tired. It’s come again and again just in my lifetime. And yes, we’re in it once more.
What does it mean to us as a Unitarian Universalists in community, as souls in community, to be moving through times like these? Before I start, let me acknowledge a couple of things. One is that I am an agnostic-humanist. That’s not at all the point of what I want to talk about today, but perhaps it helps to know where I”m coming from. Sometimes I have felt something like a great, divine energy operating in the world, something that seems to me sacred, something that feels like it could be what a theist might call God. But also I have felt theutter absence of that energy, which gives me serious doubts. I have a whole sermon on this – but again, not for today. So I am a skeptical agnostic and a faithful humanist and from that location I am very aware that “soul’ is a complicated word for many of us. It’s not my wish to establish one definition of soul we all share. But I offer my own for this morning: we each have a soul; it is the unique sum of who we are; it is inherently beautiful and animated by our consciousness and our living and so it is necessarily shaped and changed by our experiences. It can be stretched or stressed, tainted or healed, warped or stained or grown or refreshed by those experiences. AndI would add that I think when we talk about our first principle of Unitarian Universalism, the inherent worth and dignity of every person, maybe there what we’re often really talking about the soul of every person.
To me, the challenges and anxiety and pain, the wrongs and evils that are clearly apparent in our regions and nation and world – and in ourselves – are make me feel that we are on something like a path of the dark night of the soul. We wait for the next anti-Muslim executive order, the next racially-charged shooting, the next sobering revelation about a massive bomb dropped or military mistake targeting a school or hospital, the next ICE raid on a homeless shelter, the next devastating update about our planet’s crashing ecology – and we contend with all these and our own responsibility for them – along with all the challenges and pain of our own particular lives. We try to hold it all; we find the ways we can respond. This church is even now figuring out what First U’s response to safeguard and support undocumented immigrants needs to be. You have voted to become a sanctuary congregation and now the discernment begins around what that will be, and what that will mean, for this community. It reminds us that the challenges before us are also opportunities, and we know that. And still, these days are soul-painful sometimes, soul-hard.
In his memoir The Crack-Up, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote: “In a real dark night of the soul it is always 3 o’clock in the morning.” His wry words align with our usual understanding of a dark night of the soul as a time of trial and suffering from which we are eventually freed, if we are lucky. But that’s not how it was originally conceived at all. The dark night of the soul was first articulated by John of the Cross, a 16th century Spanish Carmelite Catholic monk and poet, in his powerful, pastoral writing La Noche Oscura del Alma.
His take was that the dark night of the soul was actually the experience of the soul approaching God – that this progress of the soul towards the divine was not an easy or beautiful or comfortable journey bathed in light and peace, but rather the opposite – a struggle, a spiritual crisis, moving uncertainly through the dark night, stumbling, injured, bewildered, hurting, a journey towards the ultimate that took enormous courage and faith. We moderns talk a lot about spiritual experiences and deepening, but too often perhaps our language at least and maybe even our understanding, ignore or overlook the possibility that spiritual development and deepening could be uncomfortable,scary, even painful. But John of the Cross thought this might be exactly what it took to truly approach what we hold sacred.He wrote out of real, pastoral, concern for the individual on a journey that not only could be, but, he compassionately believed, would be, stressful and raw. I look at our communities trying to be multicultural and multiracial in new and deeper ways, at our country trying to comprehend our many divisions and our changing world, at people contending with the reality of climate change, at our increasing anxiety at the aggressive and erratic military posturing and engagements in recent weeks, at the charged nature these days of identity as immigrant or Muslim or transgender or Republican or Democrat and I think his perception of the serious and even painful struggle it is to draw close to what we hold sacred holds great value for us, regardless of our creed. We are on a journey and at times it is wrenching.
So I’m grateful to John of the Cross, because his idea reflects, in part, what a lot of us feel these days, stressed and raw. US Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera published a book a couple of years ago, Notes on the Assemblage. It is filled with powerful poems about the brokenness and prejudices we are struggling with in our nation. His poetry is political and personal, leaning deeply into the human experiences of brokenness in our nation, the violence and tragedy that underlie it all, and the beautiful humanity that also underlies everything, that calls us onward. He writes about Eric Garner and undocumented immigrants abandoned in the desert or in detention and the Charleston South Carolina church shooting and the meaning we might – or might not – see in art, and in our own responses to nature and our drive to rescue – to save everything.
Even the title of his brilliant volume is food for thought: Notes on the Assemblage. An assemblage is a gathering, a mass, of items or people. It can serve any purpose – or none. An assemblage is too often what our country feels like lately. It almost seems like we’re beginning to think of ourselves as an assemblage. We need to be more than an assemblage, and we need to be more than an assemblage especially here. The difference between a mere assemblage and a congregation is, I believe, whether we can share our selfhood, our souls, with each other. We need to be more than an assemblage because we are all of us, inescapably, on a journey we did not all actively choose, a journey we cannot retreat from without damning ourselves and each other to hell on this earth, a journey that takes us towards a beautiful and blessed place if we can keep moving forward together. You know this. Your engagement in the sanctuary church initiative is a reflection of this. Our ability to share faithfully with each other is also the difference between moving forward, together, on this perilous, sacred, imperative journey – or not. Another aspect of this, let’s just name it now, is the closeness involved in such an endeavor. Closeness with each other and closeness with ourselves. Nowadays people say, and sometimes do, just about anything in public, or recorded for posterity, or on camera. It seems there’s almost nothing that’s private or personal … intimate, any more.
Comedian Aziz Ansari has come out with a book – a book that he co-authored with social psychologist Eric Klinenberg – about modern romance. He makes this point about contemporary relationship: Who do we look at and check in on all day long? Who’s always with us at a restaurant these days? Who do we bring with us everywhere we go? Who do we feel lost, or even panic, without? Who keeps a record of many of our conversations, and, even sometimes, our secrets? Who do we look at last thing at night and first thing in the morning? Who do we turn to when we’re bored, or stressed, or anxiously awaiting news, or needing a distraction, or lonely, or frightened, or feeling flirty? According to him, it’s not really who – it’s what – it’s… our cell phone. Surely the cell phone shouldn’t be the answer to as many of these questions as it is. Aziz Ansari is being funny but he’s also being serious, and when I cite that cell phone premise of his, it may sound extreme but it’s not so extreme that you actually don’t understand what I’m talking about. You know what I’m talking about. And of course, the answered are layered, a cell phone is a medium for connecting, not ultimately what we are connecting to… I hope. But we do also turn to our cell phones when we wish to turn away from something, or someone, else. For all that technology is supposed to make us more connected, in some ways technology also offers us escape from connection, if that’s what we want. This is relevant because a dark night of the soul journey is so uncomfortable that maybe escape is what we want sometimes. Sometimes it’s too much, it’s overwhelming and we need to step back, look away, take a break. This is true not only for a dark night of the soul; it’s also true, sometimes, about intimacy. It’s counter-intuitive, when so much of the time we are lonely, longing for relationship, love, communion, deep trust, sharing. But there’s something in our souls that hold back as well as yearns, that protects rather than opens, that rejects rather than accepts, some instinct that believes – wrongly I think – that when we are that wide open, that vulnerable, that we willsurely be hurt, maybe not just hurt but damaged, maybe not just damaged but maimed – that survival requires layers of defense rather than layers of connection.
So there is a surprising amount that can lie between us, lie between each one of us, between you and me. Look at all the distance between the pews and the pulpit. This is a big and beautiful space and there are great sightlines from this pulpit. I can already tell you it works very well in fostering some kinds of connection. For other kinds of connection, we have to find other means, especially the connections that come with closeness. Closeness can be complicated. Getting close is not always comfortable. Closeness is about selves, about souls, connecting. Closeness is about being very close, and in a congregations of hundreds some of us don’t know each other yet, andI don’t just mean me, your candidating minister, and you. Some of you have told me you wouldn’t recognize each other outside of this church – even maybe inside it. But the difference between an assemblage and a congregation is that part of what people share is their selves, even their souls. That’s a lot to suggest. Maybe a lot to ask. Can we really do that? Share our souls?
The renowned preacher Rev. Dr. James Forbes, minister emeritus of Riverside Church in Manhattan, did this to me a few years ago. With the help of John Simmons, I am going to take a risk with you now. I’ve done this kind of thing in the Silver Spring congregation, but that’s down in Maryland, in the deep South where they’re a little more touchy-feely. Nevertheless, here we go. Rev. Dr. Forbes came up to me when I was his liturgist for a worship service and he sat right down beside me on the dais, in the middle of his sermon, while it was all being recorded and projected on a big screen and there were about 500 Unitarian Universalist ministers attending the worship service. I was Rev. Dr. Forbes’ teaching assistant in a 3-day preaching class he was leading, and I was his support crew for the worship service we were both in right then. By which I mean that he hardly knew me and I hardly knew him. He asked me with his eyes in the gentlest and most seeking way if this was alright and he got closer and closer, until he sat right next to me, gently lined his body up right alongside mine. He looked right at me, right into my eyes, from bare inches away. (Only my husband Tim really comes that close to my face and looks into my eyes from that close up and generally he’s not lining up to preach to me when he does it. That’s how close Rev. Dr. Forbes was.) And he said maybe sometimes, this could be what God is like, not speaking, not awesome in a burning bush, not even whispering, just a presence, just a sensation or a gentle pressure or a gentle support right next to us, right alongside us, and what might it mean if we worldly, sometimes even perhaps skeptical, Unitarian Universalists, if we opened ourselves up to that, like that? What might we feel? What might we perceive? What might it encourage us towards?
This brings me back to my agnosticism, sometimes feeling the presence of the divine, sometimes its absence. In the absence, the hands I commend myself to, and the sacredness I believe in, are the hands that reach out and take hold of mine, the human hands that reach out, especially in a dark night of the soul. Those human hands and souls that take hold and walk together through pain and challenge are, I absolutely believe, blessed and sacred. In which case, maybe the presence, the gentle pressure or support, the sensation we feel could be called God. Or maybe it is simply us, you, me, lining up alongside each other, as we move through these days of challenge and blessing in our own lives, challenge and blessing in the life of this city, this region and our nation. It could be both. In some ways it matters and in some ways it doesn’t matter at all, to me. If God is here, then I am very grateful. And if it is just you and me here, I am still very grateful.
The kind of soul-sharing, soul-supporting, soul-learning and communion I’m talking about doesn’t require that we all know each other insideout. But it does require that we can be close at times, especially now when I think we’re moving through a collective dark night of the soul. We are none of us alone in this and so we have to do this together, we have to stay in touch with each other. When things are hard or intimidating, we need to look carefully and gently at each other, we need to open up rather than protect ourselves – from each other! – and feel the presence, the gentle support – or gentle pressure – that is offered to us, that we offer each other, on this journey. Especially now when our very identity as a nation is in question. Especially now when so much policy and power are being driven by mistrust and protectionism, policy and power that are not abstractions but intimately real, exiling immigrants, menacing Muslims, jeopardizing health care for those who depend upon it, returning to industries and standards that jeopardize our planet. These make the strength and connections of this congregation all the more precious, all the more essential.
I know we can do this, because it is in the very nature of Unitarian Universalism. Our faith always calls us on, teaches us, asks us for more, offers us more. Revelation is ongoing for us. And we have always believed in really living our faith. We don’t come out of guilt or to conform to social pressure. We show up because its right for us, this faith fits us. So when we realize we need to do something, we start working on it, even when the work is within ourselves, even sometimes when the work feels beyond our abilities. We are feeling stretched by our times, but you know what is the perfect match for stretching? The expansiveness of a free faith. What lies before us isn’t about how much we know, it’s about how we are, together. We do not yet understand everything we need to understand, but we are learning, and willing to learn. We recognize we are not all the same, and still we are one. We know the world needs us and we are willing to serve. We know we need each other and we are here, together. We can do this, and we will come out the other side, closer to each other,closer to our neighbors, closer to ourselves, closer to the sacred.
Let us remember the wisdom of John of the Cross. Let us also remember, in everything we do, the wisdom of his teacher Teresa of Avila who taught this: Pray as you can, for praying doesn’t consist of thinking a great deal, but of loving a great deal.