What started as a silly exclamation after drinking at the pub one night turned into two major projects that I undertook at seminary.

The exclamation – interjected as a group of us at Union Theological Seminary discovered a mutual love of musical theater – was “we should do a Broadway Revue!” A few months later, we were making that silly notion a reality, and we created and produced “In the Beginning: A Broadway Revue Inspired by Genesis.” A year later, we created and produced “The Other Side” which was inspired by Exodus – complete with a three-credit course led by one of the world’s top Biblical scholars.

It was really a silly idea. We had heavy work loads, field education, other interests. Yet it sparked a creativity that would not be relegated to ‘silly idea.’

TheGoldenGirls_GroupFast forward to now: a colleague’s son is in the hospital with a sudden illness; to cheer her up, another colleague suggested we post funny/made up memories of her on Facebook. The entries were funny, sweet, and sometimes fantastical. But one of them – suggesting that they were doing a service that was replaced by a Golden Girls script – was the silliest of them all. And sparked an incredible conversation that is now leading us to create a “Thank You For Being a Friend” Sunday – coordinated worship services across the country, focused on the wonderful lessons of friendship, generosity, acceptance, worth, family, storytelling, cheesecake, and shoulder pads.

A silly idea. A REALLY silly idea. But now we’re plotting and planning and, as I experienced in the Broadway revues, feeding and being fed off others’ creativity, spirit, and yes-and attitude.

Just yesterday, I was remarking to my internship supervisor that I felt a bit exiled – not just the geographic exile of being at the end of an archipelago where the Atlantic meets the Gulf of Mexico, but also exiled from my support systems, from connections, and most of all, from my own – and others’ – creativity. Somehow being physically separated from the people who stir my creativity led me to being separated from my own.

But a silly idea has brought me back from the brink.

A silly, creative, meaningful idea that can be accomplished and activates all that I love about the creative process – collaboration, expansive thinking, inspiration – has brought me back from the brink.

Saying YES-AND to this silly idea has reminded me to say YES-AND to myself, to that which I call God, to the universe, to others, and most of all, to my call.

But it’s not just personal; as career coach Bob Proctor points out, it’s the silly ideas that are “the most stunning, spectacular concept you could possibly imagine. Something there’s an enormous market for. Something that millions of people are absolutely crying for someone to provide them with.”

Imagine what happens when we use the power of silly in our spiritual settings… we might get a raised eyebrow or two, and hear the seven deadly words “but we’ve never done it this way.” But we may often have found the most spectacular concept we could possibly imagine, something millions are absolutely crying for someone to provide them with – healing, comfort, joy, awakening, enlightenment. It happened for me, and it keeps happening.

I’m in.

Bring on the silly.

Over at Quest for Meaning, David Breeden made the case for Unitarian Universalism being a Do It Yourself religion. He writes:

We do well to draw a sharp line between the subjectivity of religious experience and the objectivity of a congregational, corporate life together. Where I get my personal religious jolt is up to me—Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism, paganism, pantheism, atheism, all of the above . . . Up to me. DIY. Where I find my meaning is up to me.

Where I go for my religious, corporate, home is up to us.

For those who will be following Moore’s advice on DIY religion, one of the best homes is a Unitarian Universalist congregation . . . If . . . we can awaken to how big the tent must be.

This is the wisdom of the idea of covenant embedded so deeply in Unitarian tradition. “We need not think alike to live alike,” is the sentiment, even if no one famous ever actually said it.

Breeden makes a good case for widening the tent, recognizing that as the more narrowly-defined mainline churches are declining, we have an opportunity (using his metaphor) to be the craft brewery in a sea of Budweiser. We should be, can be, must be the big tent of belief. Our third and fourth principles (acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations, and a free and responsible search for truth and meaning) demand it. And we have an opportunity as a non-creedal religion to make that tent as large as the world. And he even is clear that we’re not talking about congregational life, but rather individual spiritual growth.

But there is a danger.

As I read his post, Breeden seems to have forgotten the lessons we learned from Tim Taylor.

Tim-Al-home-improvement-tv-show-33059707-392-500The television show Home Improvement featured actor/comedian Tim Allen as the host of a DIY show called “Tool Time” – an expert on DIY, except an incompetent one. The running gag throughout the series was that Tim was constantly at the ER for various accidents, was always messing up a DIY project at his home, and relied heavily on the calmer expertise of his sidekick Norm. Without Norm, all hell would indeed break loose (and often did, to great comic result).

But amid the laughter, we saw Tim waste precious time and resources on ill-advised projects taken up without good support, guidance, or the right tools.

And that is the danger I see in the DIY model of religion. I should know. I was a DIYer for a long time.

Throughout my 20s and most of my 30s, I did it myself. I read books, I tried my hand at spiritual practices, I attempted to find communities of likeminded people to conduct rituals with, but my actual religious life was a mess. Even in those early years of attending a UU congregation, I was there mostly for the LGBTQ activism and the music. I was a DIYer, and I knew my path.

Except I didn’t. Contradictions abounded in my beliefs, in my practices. I felt constantly adrift, always looking for the next cool thing to feed my spirituality.

And then I began attending a UU congregation whose minister actually cared about our spiritual growth as well as our personal growth. Her gentle and calm expertise helped me, and others in our congregation, find and explore our spiritual paths responsibly and with great care. As a result, I stopped drifting and seeking aimlessly, and I began to not only understand my beliefs (which, as it turns out, is Universalism on a bed of Process Theology, seasoned with Paganism and a bit of Christianity on the side), but finally stop long enough to hear the call to ministry.

Breeden is right in that we have – or at least should have – a tent big enough for the wideness of spiritual understanding. But we should not be a place where folks wander aimlessly through the aisles hoping the right screw or angle brace jumps out at us. We should not be a place where a towering wall of microbrews beg for our attention with catchy names and striking labels. Let us instead be a place where each person is calmly and gently welcomed and guided by those who have been on the path before us and know the way. Just as home improvement stores hold classes and have experts on hand, so should we – courses like  Building Your Own Theology and Wellspring Spiritual Deepening, along with good spiritual direction, make all the difference.

That is why we are a religion and not a collection of people who like some of the same things. Not because we believe the same things, but because we travel together with knowledge and the same kind of seeking hearts. Our tent is big, but our tent should contain experts and signs and guides and companions so that we don’t have to just do it all ourselves.

 

 

I recently studied American Theological Liberalism with Gary Dorrien, and was quite taken by a chapter (from Dorrien’s The Making of American Liberal Theology, Volume 1) on the social gospelers. As I read the chapter, I found myself saying “amen” to Walter Rauschenbusch’s understanding of Christianity, that Jesus’s message was that the personal and the political cannot be separated if we are to see the kingdom manifest ‘on earth as it is in heaven.’ I was impressed that Walter could find his way out from under the abusive thumb of his father and find the joy and hope preached earlier by Bushnell – the very hope that seems truly absent in the orthodoxy of the elder Rauschenbusch.

And I found myself thinking this is remarkably familiar territory – I have never read Rauschenbusch or other social gospelers before, yet I had read these ideas, with a different spin. The light dawned when I arrived on the pages discussing the Federal Council of Churches. I knew from other study that Unitarian John Holmes and Universalist Clarence Skinner also wrote on the social gospel… yet they were absent. Mild curiosity turned to earnest consideration as I learned that the Unitarians and the Universalists were omitted from the Federal Council of Churches, all the while being frontrunners on the social gospel.[1] So I wondered: why might that be?

As it turns out, both Holmes and Skinner were critics of Rauschenbusch and the social gospel promoted within the Federal Council. So I turned to the more familiar of the writings, Skinner’s Social Implications of Universalism, for answers.

Written in 1914 while serving as Professor of Applied Christianity at the Crane Theological School of Tufts College, Social Implications begins with a flat indictment:

The fact is that the traditional Protestant Church is dying, dying hard with colors flying and battling heroically, but nevertheless dying. The theology upon which it is built is dying; the individualism which called it into being is dying; the social order which it expressed is dying. Why should it not also die? (pg 1)

Indeed, Skinner is going after orthodoxy; he spills pages of ink arguing against the “religions of authority…who render stupid obedience to the established social order” (pg 9). He notes with derision that the traditional churches have been “so feeble” in social action because of “inertia inherited from the medieval ages when humanity lacked social dynamic” (pg 42). He argues that given the new age, “only those theologies which frankly and persistently align themselves with the world, and openly champion its potential goodness, can logically enter the great reformation of the twentieth century” (pg 48).

Skinner-DrClarenceRussellAnd it is there where Skinner shifts his attention from only skewering the orthodoxy to also calling out the liberal church. Any theology that sees salvation as coming “by escaping from a world which is inherently unsavable” – even in part, as Rauschenbusch promotes – is “individualistic, anti-social, medieval faith” (pg 49). He suggests that because of the emphasis on the death of Jesus, the church has inherited vicarious atonement which “has no social dynamic in it” (pg 55) – and that it is the social dynamic that is the actual ministry and religion of Jesus. “No dogmatic theologies about Jesus ever saved any one in society or out of society” he writes (pg 57), wondering why personal salvation should be necessary if the core of Jesus’s teachings are about social salvation. Instead of salvation being found in a statement of belief, a rite or sacrament, salvation, and Christianity itself, is “life lived in the open in the midst of the push and pull of social forces, and thus implies and demands a social context” (pg 59).

Skinner continues his arguments against the liberal church (particularly the hopeful theology of Bushnell that many social gospelers found attractive) in his section on “Hell and Salvation;” on the plus side, “liberal theology has successfully driven these nightmares [of a wrathful God and a brimstone hell] from the minds of enlightened men” (pg 63). Yet he thinks they have whitewashed the story, doing away with “moral accountability”; rather, the ideas of heaven and hell essential elements of religion. He makes this clear: “Universalism has not abolished the idea of hell. It has humanized and socialized it” (pg 63, emphasis his).

It is because of the hell on earth, then, that salvation is purely a social act as well; Skinner argues that “there is no royal road to salvation…it is as much subject to the natural law of cause and effect as is punishment” (65). Old ideas of heaven and hell are anti-social; thus, the need for personal salvation is anathema to the real salvation: saving ourselves in the here and now.

Skinner’s book is of course, largely an argument for Universalism, suggesting that its long history of social consciousness, open arms, and trust in a loving God will one day be at the center of a unified church. He believes that others will come around when they realize the truth of Universalism and let the medieval faith fall away completely. And obviously, that has yet to occur, if ever.

But the Universalists wanted to be at the table with the other social gospelers; that they and the Unitarians were sidelined left these two humanity-centered denominations to flounder and eventually find themselves. As Unitarian Universalists, we work alongside modern social gospelers, gently reminding them that we’ve been here for a long time – and welcome to the party.

 

A few weeks ago,  I attended a Women at Union dinner in the home of Dean Mary Boys; during the evening, 15 smart, capable, and energetic women shared stories and raised questions about bringing the lessons we learn at Union about creating community, asking hard questions, and general ideas about liberal theology back into the world – a world that for some is conservative in thought and dubious of women in religious authority. Now I am an unabashed feminist and have been since learning about “women’s lib” and the ERA as a young teen in the mid-1970s. I think it is vital that women’s voices are not just acknowledged, but heard as contributing to the whole conversation, not just the feminine aspect of it. Sadly, there are still times even at Union where the fact that women have anything to say at all on a topic is treated as surprising, and more often are treated as “from the feminist perspective” – thus safely contained on the sidelines so that the serious men didn’t have to let it soil their serious theological discussion.

Yet when I raised this concern, some women in the room seemed worried that I wasn’t preferencing women’s voices, or not making it notable enough that a woman’s voice was even in the room. There was, from some, a sense that women’s voices in religion was still so new it had to be pointed out and treated as precious. Now I recognize my own privilege here, raised up by the sisters of second-wave feminism and enmeshed in a denomination whose women’s voices have been (by and large) honored as vital additions to the whole of our faith (with noticeable emphasis in the last 30 years). I also recognize that even in that privileged space, there is work to be done as regards women; for instance, I have growing concerns that the increase in female ministers means a diminishment of ministerial authority and reduced salaries, that “minister” joins “teacher” and “nurse” in the realm of “women’s work” and thus gets sidelined. I also worry that as the number of women in theological scholarship grows, the more anxious other theologians – even those considered liberal or progressive – will get about new directions of thought and will seek to contain them in the box marked “feminist.”

harknessThese thoughts bring me to Georgia Harkness, an early 20th century theologian who fought exactly these attitudes. I encountered her in a class on American Theological Liberalism, taught by Gary Dorrien. To Dorrien’s credit, Harkness is not treated as special because she is a woman. She is not an afterthought; rather, in a lecture and chapter on those who brought 20th century liberal Christianity to the people,  her voice is as important as the voices of Harry Emerson Fosdick and Rufus Jones. And in fact, Harkness did add to this important part of the conversation, namely: how do we make these theological advances real to the faithful? Her book Conflict of Religious Thought was intended to popularize the more esoteric ideas of Brightman and Hocking. And, at least among her colleagues (Brightman, as well as Niebuhr, Tillich, and Mays, among others), she was seen as one theologian among many.

And yet, it was clear she was a woman in a man’s world. Harkness noted in the early 1920s that “Practically every avenue of leadership today is open to women save for the Church.” Her life’s story is an all too familiar one – from being excluded from certain educational programs, to her not being fully ordained as a minister, to the not-so-subtle put downs about her appearance and manner – all indignities suffered solely because of her gender. That Harkness was able to meet fellow male theologians on intellectual grounds at all must have been a relief to her.

Yet, like many who came before and have come after, being a member of a marginalized group and having the opportunity to be heard compelled Harkness to speak up on the role of women. Enduring decades of both implicit and explicit sexism in the field of religion likely kept her ire up enough to speak out rather than stay silent. Her writings in the Christian Century and her speech at the Oxford Conference in the 1920s may have fallen on deaf ears at the time, but they were certainly notable for their explicitness about the subjugation of women in the field of theology and religion. It was indeed a vital move for the advancement of women that she take on this part of the establishment; I wonder how much of her work for the cause of women eclipsed her more intellectual and philosophical work.

And so, back to the first part of this reflection, my question is this: is Georgia Harkness a notable personalist theologian of the 20th s a woman, despite her being a woman, or along with being a woman? And, perhaps more importantly, why is she not as notable as other members of her cohort? Why are her books no longer in print? Why is it that I only just learned about her?[1]

And so it goes; for all the progress we have made in feminism – the goal of which is equality of genders – we still have far to go.

 

 


[1] If nothing else, I wish I had known about her book The Dark Night of the Soul when I went through my own a decade ago.

After the service Sunday, we had a small group conversation – what some congregations call a talkback but which Saratoga calls “church chat.” It was a lively discussion about the series of sermons I just wrapped up on God – over three weeks, I talked about the transcendent, the immanent, and the creating-creator aspects of the Divine as we see them in our principles and our hymns.

During the conversation, one member asked me “did you put process theology at the end on purpose?” The question was probably meant to tease out my own beliefs, which I addressed – yes, process theology clicks for me, and it feels like a broader idea of God that encompasses the transcendent and the immanent.

But I think there’s more to it than that. And I have been thinking about it a lot. There are many reasons I put this  relational, creative, dynamic God at the end of the series – and what I keep coming down to is that this image of God – this ever-expanding, ever-changing Divine energy/spirit/infinite all – doesn’t coerce us but rather entices us toward beauty and goodness. This creating-creator God embraces us in the family of humanity and shows us infinite possibility in every choice we make. This way of being in the world, with each other, as artists of time and space, as painters of beauty and truth, as sculptors of dignity and justice, is what we are each called to be at each moment.

This calling vibrates through the hallowed halls of our theological house. Our Unitarian, Universalist, and Unitarian-Universalist roots call us to choose, at each moment, a path toward goodness and healing, to create a community of well-being, to reach out.

This creator, creating, relational, dynamic God IS the God of Unitarian Universalism. This is the faith that calls us to action. This theology is how we make our way in the world. And we must make the choice, at every moment, to act. How will we act?

And more to the point, how will I act? What choices do I make? How am I an artist of creation, painting and weaving and sculpting my corner of the universe to make it more compassionate, beautiful, healing, just?

I put the God of process theology at the end of the series because we cannot just sit and sing and think about God. We have to do. We HAVE to take an active role. Life is not a spectator sport; we must all act in this participatory universe.

 Listen here.

In my first semester of seminary, I took a course in systematic theology from Dr. James Cone, known as the father of black liberation theology. Dr. Cone is a force of nature – a slight black man from the backwoods of Arkansas, with incredible passion and intellect, and who at age 73 can literally run circles around even the fittest 20-somethings I know. His class lectures were a tour de force – right off the bat, he encouraged us to build our own theologies; he said that his job was to show us how theology worked and then we were to build a theology that worked for us.

The first time I heard this introduction, I was enraptured. The second time – the very next week, I thought “okay, he really wants us to get this point.” By the third week, it was clear that Dr. Cone would pretty much say the same thing for the first 20 minutes of class each week, and we all became a little less anxious to get to the lecture hall on time.

I tell you this story because I feel a little like that – for those of you who have been here for the first two parts of this sermon series, my introduction will seem a bit familiar. On the plus side, this is the last week of this series, so unlike me and Systematic Theology, you escape another 10 weeks of the same introduction.

For those of you here for the first time, the good news is that it won’t take long to get up to speed. Our working metaphor is the universal translator from Star Trek that allowed the crew of the Enterprise to understand the languages of everyone they encountered without struggling with Google Translate. The problem – not just for the Enterprise crew but for us, without universal translators – is that even when we understand the words, we don’t always understand their context; much like strangers to western culture wouldn’t understand the image produced when we say “Juliet on her balcony”, we aren’t well equipped to understand the narrative imagery other cultures use to communicate. Thus, we have to build our own universal translators – especially when it comes to talking about God.

What we know is that we struggle when we talk about religious ideas with others, because our ideas vary greatly, even when we use the same word. Now of course as Unitarian Universalists, we try to mitigate that problem with many words to substitute for “God” – spirit of life, creator, infinite all, the divine – we have such a litany of names to whom we pray it’s a wonder we ever get to the prayer itself.  But the word “God” – as laden as it is, is a kind of shorthand that lets us get into the real questions, about the nature of the Divine.

It’s this nature that we’ve been exploring – not just in general, but in how we Unitarian Universalists understand it – in our principles, in our theology, in our songs.

Two weeks ago, we looked at the transcendent God – the God that is above and separate from us, and who – for us anyway – is loving, forgiving, and comforting, the God we sing of in hymns like “immortal, invisible, God only wise.” Last week, we looked at the immanent God – the God that is in everything: the trees, the rocks, the animals, the air, the fire, and the people; this is the God we sing of in hymns like “for the beauty of the earth, for the glory of the skies.”

But of course, being a pluralistic faith, there are other ideas of God in our faith tradition, imbedded in our hymnals – this week, we’ll examine an idea of God that seems somewhat new but is in fact much older: this is the god of process theology.

Now one of the struggles in talking about this particular aspect of God is that it is a fairly new way of thinking about God, and the language is still morphing. We have narrative imagery, but not a concrete word or phrase to describe that imagery. When I sent the descriptions for this sermon series, I called this god the creating-creator God. But I could have just as easily called this god the relational God, the dynamic God, the responsive God, the big picture God, the persuasive God, the changing God.

Why such difficulty? Perhaps it will help to look at what we mean by process theology and where it comes from. Now the scientists and engineers among us are going to like this next bit – because process thought starts with Einstein.

More specifically, it begins with a mathematician named Alfred North Whitehead, who was fascinated with Einstein’s work, in particular, quantum physics, where we see that everything is in motion; everything – from the biggest bodies of mass to the tiniest quark, is in motion; it turns out that everything we thought was fixed, stable, and solid, is actually vibrating, changing, and shifting. Whitehead realized that this didn’t just apply to the physical world, but to the metaphysical world as well, and he developed a philosophy that proposed that events are the discrete base of reality, not matter. Essentially, the core of Whitehead’s philosophy is “if it seems static, don’t trust it.”

Soon, process philosophy found a home in theological circles; Charles Hartshorne and John Cobb realized that if everything was an ever-changing event – then surely God and all of creation was equally ever-changing. Instead of a transcendent God – above us, creating the rules of nature but not in nature; or an immanent God – present in the material world; this God is as mutable as the quark – at once a vibration and a particle. This God – like us – is always being created, is always creating, is always happening; this God – like us – is eternally becoming.

Now in Unitarian Universalist thought, our ideas of God – or the divine, the collective unconscious, the universe, the infinite – is one of benevolence. God is good and wants what’s best for us. Thus, when we apply process theology, we find a God who isn’t controlling us but is inviting us to imagine, to grow, to dream, to create – enticing us toward goodness and wholeness. This God invites us to be architects, as we see in hymn number 288, All Are Architects; please join me in singing verses 1 and 2.

I used a word a few minutes ago that I’d like to reflect on – “becoming.” What does it mean to be always becoming rather than being? This is a bit contrary to what we think of in the Eastern traditions, where nirvana is a state of being. Yet I think we can find, even in Buddhism, the idea that we are ever-changing, always striving for that nirvana.

My own understanding of becoming comes from thinking about concepts of time. There is the idea that time is linear, with a rather causal past, present, and future. But there’s also an idea that time is not linear; rather, we have all that is known, the eternal now, and then all that is unknown. At every moment of the eternal now, we have a choice; we create reality in relation to all that is known and all the possibilities of the unknown. In that eternal now, we are constantly becoming.

In process thought, time is not linear; instead, it is unfolding in many directions all at once, each new moment ripe with possibility. Each new moment carrying the known, offering an opportunity for creativity, always becoming, always in that eternal now. We are always making choices, small and large. When applied to our faith’s call to action, we know that our choices lead us to fight for economic justice, reproductive rights, immigration reform. Our choices lead us to follow this call from Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew:

I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.

Another aspect of this God of process thinking is that God is relational – perhaps the most relational reality of all. Human choices to hurt others hurt God. And maybe that is evil – when we make choices that hurt others. Process theologian Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki suggests that “In positive choices, we blend our own interests with the interests of the wider communities within the world. In negative choices, we secure our own interests against all others. Process thinking affirms that God calls us beyond violence toward communities of well-being.”

Like the immanent God we spoke of last week, the creating-creator God calls us to action, to “come build a land where we’ll bind up the broken” and “I’ll bring you hope, when hope is hard to find…” and “ ‘til there is peace for us and everyone, we’ll take one more step…” We also hear the call in hymn number 6, Just as Long as I Have Breath. Let’s sing verse 1.

So when we embrace the idea that we are not just experiencing God in all living things, and not just experiencing God as a big eternal separate idea – but are experiencing God as co-creative force calling us into communities of well-being, we see a God that is a Living Whole of which you and I and others in the “cosmic conversation” are active parts and partners. In a “participatory universe” where all have a role in the construction of reality, God participates in all life and every act of creation. And we in turn must participate too. Einstein put it this way:

A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.

And we see our place in the whole of the universe reflected in hymn number 22, Dear Weaver of our Lives’ Design. Let’s sing verses 1 and 2.

 

When I first read about process theology in our Wellspring spiritual deepening course a few years ago, I felt as though the Universe opened up to me with a resounding Yes. If I’d been reading in the tub, I would have been like Archimedes jumping out naked and running through the streets shouting Eureka! For the first time, I discovered there was a theology that matched what I believe: process thought jives with my Unitarian belief in human potential and reason as our way toward truth and meaning; it jives with my Universalist belief in universal goodness and love, which propels me to serve my human family. And apparently, I am not alone. UUs all over are realizing that we understand this idea of God intimately. As Jeanne Harrison Nieuwejaar points out in her book Fluent in Faith, process thinking affirms many of the threads in our theological heritage:

We are a part of an interconnected web of life in which each affects all. There is a sacred spark, a spiritual energy and power, in each of us. It matters what we do with our lives. The great, ultimately unnamable mystery of life is a call to goodness and love. As we choose love, decide for love, stand on the side of love, we are part of the growing God in the universe. This is process theology made real.

This creating-creator God affirms our long-held belief in the goodness and progress of humanity; we find this in James Freeman Clarke’s affirmation of the “the progress of humankind onward and upward forever.” In the early 20th century, John Dietrich, considered the father of religious humanism, spoke of a ‘cosmic theism, which “interprets God as the indwelling power in the universe rather than an individual, separate power.”

No wonder this God – this creating-creator, relational, dynamic, responsive, big picture, changing, becoming God – is so familiar. And our hymnal shows it; the Center for Process Studies did an extensive review of a variety of hymnals – ours, along with hymnals from the United Methodist Church, the United Church of Christ, and the Disciples of Christ – and named 349 out of 414 hymns as representing this creating-creator God – that’s 85%. And that’s not even the teal hymnal, which further reflects this god of process thought.

This God…who is an artist and reminds us, as Arthur Graham puts it, that “Each of us is an artist whose task it is to shape life into some semblance of the pattern we dream about. The molding is not of self alone, but of shared tomorrows and times we shall never see.”

Yes, this is most assuredly a god I believe in – to me, this God encompasses the transcendent and the immanent and brings us in deep relation to the wide universe. This is the God who reminds me that everything evolves – not just life forms but thought and ethics and understanding and relationships. This is the God who reminds me that truth and revelation are not static but are forever unfolding. This is the God who reminds me to be open to the eternal now, to be open to becoming. This is the God who persuades me gently with love and compassion and the promise of a new day. This is the God who accompanies me, as God accompanies all of creation, on this journey. This is the God that is at the heart of our universal translators; this is the Unitarian Universalist narrative image for God.

This is the God I pray to when I sing “our world is one world – what touches one affects us all” and when I sing “we are blessed with love and amazing grace, when our heart is in a holy place” and when I sing “when we live in deep assurance of the flame that burns within, then our promise finds fulfillment and our future can begin…” and when I sing “woyaya…woyaya…”

 

We live in a participatory universe. We do not leave things up to a remote God….we act with the divine energy…we too create out of mystery….we share in the opportunity and responsibility of creating reality. We are all artists…creators of what is, and what is becoming.

 Listen here.

Last week, we started cobbling together our own universal translators. Unlike the Star Trek universe that Gene Roddenberry created, we aren’t equipped to automatically understand the many different languages of many cultures, and even if we were, we wouldn’t always know what people really meant. What we know is that real communication relies not just on vocabulary and syntax, but also on the metaphors and idioms we use. We rely more heavily on narrative imagery than we realize – the example I used last week was that of Juliet on her balcony; to those of us immersed in western culture, we understand this phrase to indicate young romantic (and maybe doomed) love. And every culture – whether a local culture or a corporate culture or a religious culture – uses different and sometimes confusing narrative imagery to communicate. Thus, we have to build our own universal translators – especially when it comes to talking about God.

What we know is that we struggle when we talk about religious ideas with others, because our ideas vary greatly, even when we use the same word. Now of course as Unitarian Universalists, we try to mitigate that problem, with many words to substitute for “God” – spirit of life, creator, infinite all, the divine – we have such a litany of names to whom we pray it’s a wonder we ever get to the prayer itself. But the word “God” – as laden as it is, is a kind of shorthand that lets us get into the real questions, about the nature of the Divine.

It’s this nature that we’ve been exploring, not just in general, but in how we Unitarian Universalists understand it; last week, we looked at the transcendent God – the God that is above and separate from us, and who – for UUs anyway – is loving, forgiving, and comforting. I am sure it amazed some people that this God even exists in our hymnal, but we found many songs and readings expressing this very idea of God.

But of course, being a pluralistic faith, this isn’t the ONLY idea of God we find in our hymnal – so this week, let’s look at a different idea, one that may seem a bit more familiar to many of you – particularly those who are big fans of Emerson. This is the immanent God.

The immanent god is the divine presence seen in the material world – the god that permeates the mundane. It is also the God that inhabits the material in visceral ways. It is the god we saw in the verses we sang this week in Down the Ages – “the present God-head own where creation’s laws are known.” It is the God that sometimes makes the choice to come to church difficult, as nature beckons for its own communion.

The spiritual practices of the Hindus perhaps most explicitly explain this narrative image of God; they begin with the concept of sacred perception, where the devotee enters into a state where they can truly receive the image of the deity as given by the deity.

It is a visceral, real, tangible experience. For Hindus, the deity isn’t just represented in the statue or image; the deity is in the statue or image. The Divine is immanent, present, touchable, seeable, knowable. And this isn’t a one-way experience; the deity is present with, knows, communicates, and touches the devotee as well. The devotee begins by bathing, dressing, adoring, and anointing the statue; once properly clothed and honored, the deity is fully present, and allowed to be seen by others. And… they understand the deity to be fully present and fully whole everywhere at once.

The Hindu understanding of the immanent God was especially attractive to the early Transcendentalists; encountering Hindu texts meant that for the first time, Americans were exposed to a view of the divine that wasn’t transcendent; that is, separate and above us. Henry David Thoreau was one of the earliest American readers of the Bhagavad Gita, and the ideas of the immanent Divine spoke deeply to Thoreau, as well as other transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Theodore Parker. They began to see the same fully present and fully whole divine presence in nature. The idea that God might be in the trees and rocks and the very water they sat by was remarkable and expansive in a time when Unitarian theologians sought to limit God to being, as William Ellery Channing described, the creator of nature, not within it.

We don’t see much of the immanent God in the Abrahamic traditions; occasionally, the immanent God appears in the rocks, or in the air, or in a burning bush. We do, however, see it in the words of the mystics. Let us look at responsive reading 607, by the Islamic mystic Hafiz.

By and large, the immanent God is not represented in Judaism, Islam, or Christianity. Thus, it was quite a remarkable shift for Unitarians in the 19th century to embrace the immanent God in nature; to us in the 21st century, it feels, well, natural. We resonate with the words William Wordsworth uses to describe God in his poem “Tintern Abbey”:

A sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.

And we find this immanent God in nature quite vibrantly in hymns such as number 25, God of Earth. Let’s turn to this and sing verses 1 and 2.

I have encountered this god several times – perhaps the most memorable was during a trip to England about a decade ago. A friend and I went to Avebury, the less commercial and more interactive version of Stonehenge. We began at a collection of stones at the center of the village, the center of the concentric circles of monoliths placed there by a long-ago people. And we touched the stones; they were warm, and they gave off an almost imperceptible vibration. We went to the next stone…and the next…and touched every stone in the inner circle. Something clicked for us, that we needed to commune as our ancestors might have. Soon, we were going over streams, through corn fields, and over rocky cowpaths to touch every stone in Avebury… because for reasons we could not explain, we had to connect. We knew we weren’t just connecting to the stones themselves – although we imagined the many stories they could tell of the many events through the many millennia they’d born witness to. We were connecting to the people who first set the monoliths into these wide circles… and to both the earth that they rested on and the earthiness of each stone itself. At the end, I felt as one with the world as I have ever felt.

It was a remarkable day; it is a now part of my universal translator that helps me better understand those who would rather hike to the top of a mountain than read in an air conditioned coffee shop. And it helps when we are confronted with less-than-hospitable attitudes toward the earth. We need to add to our universal translators the note that some believe we are simply visitors on this planet, and stewardship of the earth isn’t part of our call. But as eco-theologian Sallie MacFague points out, we are earthlings; we belong to the earth. Because Unitarian Universalists understand the idea of an immanent God who inhabits the very earth itself, we see ourselves as part of – not separate from – the interconnected web. And we sing about it quite emphatically in hymn 317, We Are Not Our Own. Let’s sing the first verse.

We find this connection to the earth and this immanent God in some of our favorite hymns: “for the earth forever turning” and “the wide universe is the ocean I travel, and the earth is my blue boat home.” Even more, we find that the immanent God leads us to broader connections. In her new book Fluent in Faith, UU minister Jeanne Harrison Nieuwejaar suggests that the immanence of God in nature actually directs us to “move beyond material realities to the meaning of life and love, to the truth that there is more beauty and care in this world than we can comprehend or capture in our scientific explorations.”

Thoreau got it when he realized that ice cut from Walden Pond was sent to India and thus likely mingled into the Ganges, which is a holy river for Hindus. As he wrote in Walden,

Thus it appears that the sweltering inhabitants of Charleston and New Orleans, of Madras and Bombay and Calcutta, drink at my well … In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagvat-Geeta [sic]… I lay down the book and go to my well for water, and lo! there I meet the servant of the Bramin, priest of Brahma and Vishnu and Indra, who still sits in his temple on the Ganges reading the Vedas, or dwells at the root of a tree with his crust and water jug. I meet his servant come to draw water for his master, and our buckets as it were grate together in the same well. The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges.

It is this connection that we see in Emerson’s words: “that Unity, that Over-soul, within which every man’s particular being is contained and made one with all other; that common heart.” Emerson’s essay “The Over-Soul” is beautifully interpreted in Jim Scott’s song “The Oneness of Everything” – number 1052 in the teal hymnal. If you can, sing along with me on the first verse.

But the call of the immanent God is not just one of appreciation. The call of the immanent God is one of action. Yes, we can commune with nature and we can connect with one another, but, as UU minister Kathy Huff notes, “being part of a conscious universe means that each moment profoundly matters; everything I do, say, think, or feel relates to everything else and may have consequence and meaning beyond my comprehension.” The immanent God calls us to protect our mountaintops from strip mining, to protect wildlife endangered by climate change, to stand for any person whose inherent worth and dignity is compromised. The immanent God expands on Frederick Buechner’s comment that “there can be no peace for me unless there is peace for you also;” this expands beyond humanity, to all who inhabit the earth and the very earth itself.

As I said last week, I find myself at times thinking many different things about God, sometimes all at the same time. And yes, the immanent God is one in whom I believe. I turn to the immanent God when I am too much in my head and need grounding. I turn to the immanent God when I lose faith in humanity’s goodness. It is the immanent God who compels me to a life of compassionate service. This is the God to whom I pray “we would be one, as now we join in singing” and to whom I pray “for the beauty of the earth, for the glory of the skies” and to whom I pray “listen more often to things than to beings…tis the ancestor’s breath, when the fire’s voice is heard…tis the ancestor’s breath in the voice of the waters…. aaahh.”

The immanent God is present – here, now, among us and in us and with us. It is the divine in you, connecting to the divine in me, which we honor in this simple gesture: Namaste.

 Listen here.

Many things would be a lot easier if we lived in the Star Trek universe.

You see, in the Star Trek universe, it is important to be able to communicate with sentient beings from other planets and galaxies – in English, of course – and thus, Gene Roddenberry created a universe where everyone is implanted with a Universal Translator. Rarely does anyone – not Kirk, Picard, or Janeway – encounter another culture without being able to speak their language.

But even so, in the Star Trek universe, there are communication problems – not with the words themselves, but with how those words are used. In my favorite episode, “Darmok,” the Enterprise encounters the Tamarians, whose words are intelligible but whose meaning is baffling. Sentences like “Darmok and Jilad, across the ocean” and “Mirab, his sails unfurled” make up the entirety of their discourse. As you can imagine, the crew is baffled; and Captain Picard is even more so when he is stranded on a planet with their leader. But eventually, they come to realize that the Tamarians speak exclusively in narrative imagery. Their meaning is deeply enmeshed in their narrative; as the crew of the Enterprise discover, it is analogous to our saying something like “Juliet on her balcony” – it portrays an image of youthful romance, but if you don’t know the Shakespearean play or its use in our Western culture, you would not understand.

We run into the same problems when we talk about religion – particularly about God. How handy it would be to have a universal translator, so we could move from church to church, from theologian to theologian, from congregant to congregant, from song to song – and know exactly what the narrative imagery behind the word “God” really is for them.

Well, sadly, despite many great strides in science and technology that are bringing us closer each day to that Star Trek Universe, we don’t have universal translators yet, so we have to rely on more primitive means of understanding for some of these big ideas – like this sermon series, which I feel blessed to be able to share with you.

Now some of you may already be antsy; you may feel, like Murray Penney did at the end of a service we did many years ago about the Ten Commandments, that there was just too much God talk. Yes. I will be using the word “God” a lot over the next three weeks. But here’s the first piece for your universal translator: when people like me talk about God in Unitarian Universalist circles, we are using the word as shorthand for a particular aspect of belief; you may want to translate that word into your own language: creator, spirit of life, the divine, holy one, infinite, the collective unconscious… whatever makes sense to you. But I will use the word “God’ as we look at some of the aspects – the narrative imagery, if you will – of the Divine.

And it’s important, what we’re about to do. Having this universal translator doesn’t just connect us to other religious cultures – like Muslims, pagans, Hindus, and Methodists; it connects us to the people sitting next to us, with their own beliefs about the Divine; it connects us to our own sometimes contradictory ideas about God; and it connects us to our Unitarian Universalist tradition. It allows us, as Rebecca Parker says, “to enter a theological house that has already been built – a theology of a heritage, of a tradition, of a community.” And because that house contains a plurality of beliefs, we can’t necessarily know even from one hymn to the next exactly what image of God we’re singing about.

But over the next three weeks, we’ll be figuring out exactly that – what the songs and readings in our hymnals say about the ideas Unitarian Universalists have about God.

You’ll note that we’ve put a hymnal on every chair – we’ll be flipping around, looking at readings and singing some verses of songs. This is one instance where looking at the hymnal during the sermon will not be frowned upon.

So let’s begin. We’ve already sung a few verses of Down the Ages We Have Trod – and learned that some think God is “a being throned above, ruling over us in love.” This is what we would call transcendent – the aspect of God’s nature and power which is wholly independent of (and removed from) the material universe. This is an all-powerful, all-knowing, always-present God, whom some turn to for something greater than themselves. We see the transcendent God in Islam – a single and absolute truth that transcends the world; a unique and indivisible being who is independent of the entire creation. We see the transcendent God in Hinduism: “Brahman is supreme; he is self-luminous, he is beyond all thought.” We see the transcendent God in Judaism and Christianity – a parent figure who exists outside the realm of natural occurrence. And it is this aspect that Unitarians and Universalists inherited from our Protestant forbearers, including Martin Luther himself.

We find Luther’s most famous hymn in our hymnal – number 200, A Mighty Fortress. Let’s look at the first verse – please sing along with me, or just listen.

 

“On earth is not an equal.” We won’t find the transcendent God in the trees and the rocks – this is most assuredly a God above. It is an image of God that is steadfast, unchanging – an image that says no matter what happens here on earth, there’s always a safe haven in this God that is watching over us, protecting us, mightier than us.

Now it might seem that modern Unitarian Universalists wouldn’t be very into that God – yet, given the frequency of references to the transcendent God in our hymnal, we clearly still value this idea within our faith tradition. It is certainly in our history; notable 19th century Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing believed that God was first and foremost beyond humanity and beyond nature. As he said in his famous “Baltimore Sermon”:

We believe, that in no being is the sense of right so strong, so omnipotent, as in God. We believe that his almighty power is entirely submitted to his perceptions of rectitude; and this is the ground of our piety. It is not because he is our Creator merely, but because he created us for good and holy purposes; it is not because his will is irresistible, but because his will is the perfection of virtue, that we pay him allegiance.

Channing also forwarded the popular notion that God is not the natural laws that permeate the natural world. God created the universe and nature, and the laws of nature are subordinate to God. In Channing’s thinking, it is perfectly natural to say that God can suspend the laws of nature without being contradictory. Indeed, for early Unitarians, miracles definitely happened.

Now for some UUs today, this is still true; it is certainly true in other Christian denominations, so it’s important for our universal translators to remember that miracles are, for many, their proof that God exists, and must assuredly be separate from us. Now to them, this is a given – much like Juliet on her balcony means young romantic love. It is their narrative imagery – a God who is beyond humanity and nature – thus, much of the conflict raised by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Theodore Parker, Unitarians who talked about an immanent God, which we’ll discuss next week. This transcendent God isn’t one with us but is simply One, above us. This is the God we see reflected in Immortal Invisible. Flip to 273 and sing verses 1 and 2 with me.

 

Now you may notice at the bottom of the page that this hymn is based on a biblical verse – 1 Timothy 1:17. That’s not surprising; first, our Unitarian and Universalist roots are Christian, so we can’t long avoid Biblical references when looking at our faith’s heritage. But beyond that, there is a lot of transcendence in the Bible; you will find this transcendent God throughout the Abrahamic religions – no more poetically than in the Psalms. Let’s join Beth in responsive reading 535, which is based on Psalm 42.

 

We see in this reading – and in perhaps the most famous biblical passage of all, Psalm 23, which begins “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” – a transcendent God who is a comforter. It is this aspect of God – the comforter, the parent figure who takes care of us and makes things better – who is the God many people turn to in times of pain and sorrow. We see the comfort the transcendent God brings in hymns like “Nearer My God to Thee, nearer to thee” and “There Is a Balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole” – these and more, found in our hymnals.

The transcendent God we find here is loving; and this is a hallmark of Unitarian and Universalist thought. We have waged a battle against the Calvinists about this for centuries: a key theme of Channing’s Baltimore sermon makes this point:

We cannot bow before a being, however great and powerful, who governs tyrannically. We respect nothing but excellence, whether on earth or in heaven. We venerate not the loftiness of God’s throne, but the equity and goodness in which it is established.

We believe that God is infinitely good, kind, benevolent, in the proper sense of these words; good in disposition, as well as in act; good, not to a few, but to all; good to every individual, as well as to the general system.

Yes, there are many who believe that this transcendent God is a vengeful God – and if you read the bulk of the Old Testament, you might think that’s all this transcendent God is; after all, what kind of God gets itchy and floods everyone out but some guy and his pets? What kind of God sends a faithful man out to sacrifice his kid? What kind of God takes everything away from a guy just to prove his faithfulness? This is a mean, spiteful, angry, vengeful God – NOT the God of any aspect of Unitarian Universalism, but … one that exists in the world. Again, if I might add a bit to your universal translator, it’s helpful to remember that when some speak to you of God, they are actually afraid of what God will do if they behave badly. But because we see the transcendent God as a loving figure, we have an opportunity to offer a different view of God above, one that may offer comfort, forgiveness, and healing. This is the God of Hymn 10, Immortal Love. Let’s sing verses 1 and 2.

 

Now I realize I’ve been pretty cagey with my language, talking in generalities about Unitarian Universalist perspectives on transcendence while keeping my personal perspective out of it. But of course, I have a perspective. The truth is there are times when this transcendent God is the God in whom I believe. This is the God I turn to when I need comfort. This is the God who broke the silence when I refused to reach out. This is the God to whom I pray this song: “Open mine eyes that I may see / Glimpses of truth thou has for me / Open mine eyes, illumine me / Spirit Divine.” And when I pray this song: “Spirit of life / come unto me / Sing in my heart / all the stirrings of compassion.”

I believe this is the God who shines down when “we are marching in the light of God.” I believe this is the God who commands us to “do when the spirit says do.” Yes, I believe many different things about God – sometimes all at the same time. But this transcendent God, who is above us, who loves us unconditionally, who welcomes us into harmony, who, like the universe itself, is greater and bigger than we can possibly imagine – this particular narrative image of God – is part of my universal translator, offering me hope and comfort – and allowing me to offer others the greatest gift of all: Universal, unconditional love.

 

I am pretty sure I was not the only person headed for a pulpit this morning who let out an extra moan after hearing the verdict in the Zimmerman trial.

In the midst of weeping for the Martin family, for our young black men, and the failed justice system…and after a while weeping also for women, for immigrants, for students, for the poor, for the marginalized… somewhere in the midst of my uncontrollable weeping, I let out a moan, knowing I had a sermon that felt like half a loaf compared to the shock, anger, sorrow, and fear we were all facing. How could I stand up and talk about a loving, father-mother god, when God was not in heaven and all was wrong with the world? How could I present this hopeful, encouraging service when we were faced with such pain?

That is when Pat Humphrey’s song came to mind (song begins at 1:53)…

I began to sing to myself and slowly began to stop crying. I knew I could not let this travesty of justice go unmentioned, but I also knew I could not write an entirely new sermon at midnight on Saturday.

But I could do something: I wrote a new call to worship for this morning – one that acknowledges our pain, our frustration, and our need to come together for comfort, for peace, for space, for nourishment. I invited us all to not get stuck, but to keep on moving forward. And we sang. And then we moved on to the rest of the service, talking about the loving, transcendent God that is found in Unitarian Universalism.

Of the many lessons I have learned since entering seminary, the one that’s been most remarkable and meaningful is the lesson about being present to the present moment of a congregation. You can have everything perfectly planned, but if they are hurting, or if there is strife, or if something tragic has happened, you have to be present to that pain and address it in a way that comforts and encourages. People want space for their pain to be acknowledged – and they want something to both nourish and distract them for a bit. We can’t let our inner preacher silence our inner pastor.

Nor can we let our own pains get in the way. Last month, in the midst of a bizarre crisis that hit my village and my family, I was slated to preach on the virtues of theism and humanism; the week, however, was difficult, and in my pain, all I wanted to say was “God’s dead and people suck.” Of course, I didn’t… I found a path through my pain to provide a message that was both authentic to the situation I found myself in and was nourishing to the congregation I spoke to. I had to keep on moving forward.

And that’s the lesson. We can pause and honor our pain. We can weep out of anger, fear, frustration. We can feel paralyzed by injustice. And we can pause with others who feel as we do. But then we have to take that next step. We cannot, CANNOT let injustice and hate win. We have to keep on moving forward.