Sunday, August 5, 2012

#2 Down the Ages We Have Trod

Down the ages we have trod
Many paths in search of God,
Seeking ever to define
the Eternal and Divine.

Some have seen eternal good
pictured best in Parenthood,
and a Being throned above
ruling over us in love.

There are others who proclaim
God and Nature are the same,
and the present Godhead own
where Creation's laws are known.

There are eyes which best can see
God within humanity,
and God's countenance there trace
written in the human face.

Where compassion is most found
is for some the hallowed ground,
and these paths they upward plod
teaching us that love is God.

Though the true we can't perceive
this at least we must believe,
what we take most earnestly
is our living Deity.

Our true God we there shall find
in what claims our heart and mind,
and our hidden thoughts enshrine
that which for us is Divine.

~words: John Andrew Storey, 1935-1997
~music: Thomas Benjamin, 1940-, © 1992 Unitarian Universalist Association

Well, this is it isn't it? The BIG QUESTION... What is God?

I have been called to the religious for a VERY long time. I was baptized at the age of 7 at Central United Methodist Church in Lansing, MI. To this day I am not sure what prompted my mother to have me baptized. She didn't feel the need when I was born, but, within about a year of our family attending CUMC, mostly so that my brother Sean could play basketball in a regular league, there I was, kneeling before a baptismal font, having holy water dripped upon my head and wondering, even then what the point was.

I don't think I have ever thought of God as a kindly (or vengeful) old man sitting on his throne in the clouds watching over us, as I imagine is referred to in the second verse of this hymn. God was never that personal for me even at seven. I don't know that I ever had a picture in my head of "God" but I had my first experiences with spirituality in that church. I sang in the choir and I can vividly remember sitting in the choir loft listening with rapt attention to the voice of our minister Dr. Limon. He was funny and poignant, a masterful lecturer who kept my attention even as a child, through him I heard the voice of spirit. I was sad when he retired.

I spoke in my last post about having had what many would term a spiritual experience out in nature. So I understand the second verse. I have many friends and family members who find God in the arms of nature. I guess I see wonder there and beauty as well, but I am not sure I find the "divine" anywhere, even in the most beautiful spots I have been to.

The third verse of this hymn speak directly to my spirituality. I see "God" in the face(s) of humanity. I see it in the smile of a small child, I hear it in the singing of songs, I feel it in a crowd of like minded folks united for the same cause, I see God in all of us, in the collected "we". And, truthfully, I see both a merciful, loving God and a wrathful God of punishment. That may be what saddens me most, that we are our own salvation and yet we, the species, insist, still, on creating a world where 80% of the world's population lives on less than $10 a day and where the richest 20% of the population accounts for more than 2/3 of the worlds wealth. I am horrified that 1/6 of the world's population does not have access to clean drinking water. These are issue we can fix and yet we spend more than $70,000,000,000,000 (70 TRILLION) per year on "defense" spending and just over $15,000,000,000 (15 billion) on humanitarian aid. Humanity, it seems, is a cruel God.

As with those referenced in the fourth verse of the hymn, I also found spirit (again I'm not sure I would call it the "Divine") manifest on "hallowed ground". The worship space at the church I grew up in is a grand sanctuary. Designed by Elijah E Meyers, who also designed the state capitol building of Michigan (as well as the Texas state capitol, and the capitol building of Colorado) the sanctuary of CUMC sports majestic oak rafters holding up the 40 foot vaulted ceilings. Red carpeted runners lead from the back stairway entrance to the chancel, at the back of which sits the marble altar. Framing each side of the chancel are honeycombed grills through which the sound of the church's German-born pipe organ, updated in the early 80's while I was still attending, give out their glorious music. Stained glass windows rise from about four feet off the floor to the height of the ceiling - they must be 30 feet or more in height. CUMC is everything you would expect a church to look like and, indeed, it inspires. The candlelight services on Christmas Eve are still some of the most beautiful memories I have. Even without a congregation there the empty sanctuary cries out a call to God.

But "hallowed" ground has also meant places like the Vietnam War Memorial Wall in Washington, DC. One of the most profound encounters I have ever had with Grace and Peace happened here. I had gone to DC on a work trip, only a few days in length. Knowing that this might be the only time I ever got the chance to visit our capitol, I decided to get out at least one day and see some of the monuments. I walked from my hotel to the national mall and saw the Washington Monument. From there I walked along the park past the reflecting pool to the Lincoln Memorial. While both are impressive, it wasn't until I walked back along the reflecting pool and took the turn out to walk along Constitution Ave that I really understood what a memorial could do.

Coming in along Constitution, you see the Wall immediately, but coming the way that I did, it sneaks up on you. All of a sudden you're presented with the massive edifice of the two gabbro slabs. Gradually it strikes you that there is something etched into the smooth greenish-black stone. At first you can't quite make it out. But, little by little, as though it takes your mind a moment to grasp the gravity of what you're viewing, you begin to notice the names, fifty-eight thousand names of the men and women lost to that tragic war.

And yet, once I had dealt with the momentousness of the sense of epic impotence I felt at seeing these names, I felt a profound sense of peace come over me. There loss can never be minimized, should never be forgotten, but they are given their moment in history, they are eulogized with moment and respect by that wall. It was one of the most moving things I have ever seen.

It is, I think, the last two verses of this hymn that I find most thought provoking. "This at least we must believe, what we take most earnestly is our living Deity. Our true God we there shall find in what claims our heart and mind..."

What is it we take most earnestly? Money? Power? Education? Television? Our Western, first-world, lives are filled with things that call us away from what philosophers have called our "spark of Divinity". This too then, is or should become a central focus of my spiritual practice: to focus on where it is that I find the "divine" (for lack of a better word), humanity. I think I need, I think we ALL need, to focus on that which binds us, one to another, to focus on reaching out to others to build bridges of love.

The Associate Minister of Music at VUU, Kellie Walker, introduced me to a wonderful, easy to sing, anthem of humanity. The words are:

I'm gonna lift my sister (brother, mother, father, etc.) up
She is not heavy
I'm gonna lift my sister up
She is not heavy
I'm gonna lift my sister up
She is not heavy

If I don't lift her up
If I don't lift her up
If I don't lift her up
I will fall down...

There, there is the crux of my religion in a single phrase...

Friday, August 3, 2012

#1 May Nothing Evil Cross This Door

May nothing evil cross this door,
and may ill fortune never pry
about these windows, may the roar
and rain go by.

By faith made strong, the rafters will
withstand the battling of the storm.
This hearth, though all the world grow chill,
will keep you warm

Peace shall walk softly through these rooms,
touching our lips with holy wine,
till every casual corner blooms
into a shrine.

With laughter drown the raucous shout,
and, though these sheltering walls are thin,
may they be strong to keep hate out
and hold love in.
~words: Louis Untermeyer, ©1923, 1951

This lovely tune is the first hymn in the UUA hymnal, Singing the Living Tradition (StLT). I think it is very fitting from a spiritual, or rather, a ritualism perspective that this is the first hymn. It invokes the circle if you will, asking the universe for guidance and protection for what is to come. It builds from that invocation to statements of intent describing the purpose of the gathering and the hoped for outcomes. A fine invocation and a fitting beginning to my journey through the Living Tradition. 

The first statement of intent is in the second verse: "by faith made strong, the rafters will..." Religion, at its best, calls us to live a life of deepening faith. We are called to strengthen faith's foundation so that through all the storms of life, though they may batter and shake our walls, the fire of our commitment will remain a living ember within our hearts that should "all the world grow chill" we remain warmed and can share that warmth with others through our love and our actions.

But, I have trouble with that word: "faith". As I have mentioned before, I consider myself a Humanist. I don't believe in a God per se, at least not a personal God. I believe that if there is a manifest God we are her. Whatever good that may happen in the world, or, for that matter, whatever evil, that others might ascribe to God happens at the hand of mankind. Thou are God - grok it. 

The idea of faith seems to me to be an invitation to turn off one's intellect and accept, without proof. That seems not only dangerous but perhaps even negligent. Accepting things on blind faith leads to things like the Salem witch trials, the ravages of the church in "frontier" nations, the Jamestown massacre and suicide bombings to name just a few.

So, although I do feel called to live a life of deepening faith, my faith is not in a higher power but instead rests on what I perceive to be an inherent "goodness" in humankind (perhaps I will tackle what I mean by "goodness" in a future post). I have faith that, when given the opportunity and barring hardships such as poverty and ignorance, the "goodness" will win out over the "evil" in our natures and in society at large. I find that the faith I need to depend upon is a faith in humanity, both individually and as a whole. I need faith that each day we recognize more and more our undeniable interconnectedness, and that some day, hopefully very soon, we will come to recognize as a species that we are all one and that "inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me."

I have not yet reached a place of faith in humanity so strong it can withstand the battering storms of life. I see lines of hate reaching around the block to a Chik-fil-A and I lose faith. I read stories of Olympic athletes tweeting racist messages and I lose faith. I hear stories of damaged individuals expressing their pain and illness in mass shootings and I lose faith. Daily, I lose faith. 

That is why I think it is so important for me, for everyone really, to build a spiritual practice. It is like building muscle memory. I hope that through this exercise I can grow a spiritual armor of sorts, to guard myself when I am confronted by bigotry, hatred and "evil" (again, perhaps I will tackle my ideas of "evil" in another post), so that, through practice, I am girded to withstand the battering.

The second statement of intent, in the third verse, speaks to what the Rev. Dr. Earl K Holt III, interim minister of my spiritual home Valley Unitarian Universalist Congregation, spoke of in the blessing with which he ended each of his services. The blessing included the phrase from Philippians: "the peace that passeth all understanding"... 

I have felt that peace only a few times in my life, a sense that all is right with the world and with me, a feeling of wholeness and simplicity so strong that I cannot mistake it. These are the times I've come closest to what others would call a spiritual experience. One example in particular comes to mind.

When I was young I was heavily involved in a Methodist church in my home town. During the summer of my 15th year, an older couple, leaders in the church, asked me if I would like to come with them on their annual camping trip to Michigan's Upper Peninsula. It was my first experience with real camping and is still one of my most treasured memories. During that trip we made the 10 mile hike along the Pictured Rocks National Lake Shore, a breath taking trail along cliffs above Lake Superior. 

At one point we came to the heights above Grand Portal Point and found it shrouded in a fog so thick that, to my adolescent and city-bred mind, it seemed as though we were walking through a cloud. We stopped there to eat our lunch before resuming the hike back to our camp ground. While we were eating, encased in white, the sounds of the surf below us and the raucous calls of gulls from a nearby rookery on the cliffs came to us, muted by the fog. For just a brief moment, I felt as though that was exactly where I was supposed to be. It seemed like all my life had been leading to that moment, there on those rocks, so that I could experience the beauty of nature in a way I was sure no one else ever had.

Perhaps that is another goal of maintaining a spiritual practice: finding the "peace that passeth all understanding". It may be that through that peace we can find the faith called out in the second verse.

The last verse seems to be a call to action of a sort. "With laughter drown the raucous shout". With laughter, with joy, we keep the wolves at bay. With laughter we can even "fake it 'til we make it". It often seems to me that we find joy not by looking for it but by being joyful, as strange as that sounds. 

I once gave a sermon about happiness called the Happiness Habit. In it I related a story about going in each day to a job I hated with a false smile plastered on my face and that, strangely, by the time I got to work that false smile had become real. I found through that silly, simple action of faking myself out a small measure of the happiness I was seeking found me. It may be that by greeting life with joy, joy finds us.

Perhaps I will never find a faith like that which others, usually Christians, claim to have. It may be that I will never find the "peace that passeth all understanding". But, as a dear friend who collects oddball quotes is fond of saying: "you should always reach for the stars, at least you won't end up with a handful of mud."

How do you get to Carnegie Hall?

How do you get to "heaven"?
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Of Hymns and Humanism

English: Happy human Humanist logo, white and ...
When forced to define them, I most often describe my religious beliefs as a Humanist.  In fact, my beliefs are somewhat more complicated that that simple label.  I am still in the process of finding my own truth, which is why I am so glad to have found Unitarian Universalism.  My faith tradition calls me to an active participation in the development of my ethics.

The third and fourth principles of our Unitarian Universalist covenant between congregations call respectively to affirm and promote "acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations" and "a free and responsible search for truth and meaning". Unitarian Universalism isn't a faith where you can believe anything you want to as some people would have you think. Rather, it is a faith that requires you to constantly question what it is that you believe, to hold your truth up to the bright light of discernment and actively look for it's flaws. Unitarian Universalism is a faith that requires practice, spiritual practice. 

That is hard for someone who identifies as a non-theist. I don't meditate or pray. I don't write daily or even weekly but only as the mood strikes me. I would find it hard to identify any activity in my life that I would call a spiritual "practice". And yet, I find that I want one.

Since I found UUism I have felt called to deepen my exploration of my Humanist values in a spiritual context. To gain a greater understanding of how the inherent goodness I see in humankind can inform my worldview and help me to live a more fulfilling and connected life.

Music has always been a friend to me and I have felt most connected to what I would call the divine when I am singing, listening or playing music. So, I thought that might be a good place to start in developing a regular practice of thought, examination and introspection on how Humanist values inform my spiritual path.
Singing the Living Tradition (StLT) is the official hymnal of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. Although there is no defining doctrine or creed that binds us, these songs, many derived from our Unitarian and Universalist Christian roots may come closest to being such a common prayer book. So, that is where I am going to start. 

I am committing to a minimum of a weekly post looking at the hymns within StLT. I hope that this will spur even more writing than a weekly post, but I will hold myself to at least a post a week. I hope that those reading this will enjoy the journey with me and will hold me accountable to my spiritual growth. 

Please feel free to comment, challenge, and in all other ways prod me to better articulate and define what it is that I hold to be true. I hope you can find some truth along the way yourself.

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