Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Emerald Coast
Rev. Rod Debs
December 5, 2010
Picture the hope and joy of these lines of poetry by Robert Browning:
The year’s at the spring,
And day’s at the morn;
Morning’s at seven;
The hill-side’s dew-pearled;
The lark’s on the wing;
The snail’s on the thorn;
God’s in his Heaven -
All’s right with the world!
I get a sense of promise, hope at springtime, in the morning, the freshness of 7:00 a.m., observing dew on the fields. Promise of life unfolding. The sense of hope at a new-born, at landing a new job, buying a car or house or a ticket for overseas travel. It’s the wonderful feeling of getting married with all those collective dreams of happiness unfolding. Hope.
Robert Browning speaks, not only of hope, but of expectations already realized: “The lark’s on the wing; / The snail’s on the thorn; / God’s in his Heaven – / All’s right with the world!” Joy!
Consider experiences of joy: Denny has described the thrill of flying an airplane; Fred and Richard, the joy of sailing; Richard and Gary, the joy of motorcycling. Juanita, the joy of cooking and knitting. Many of you have described the joy of dreams realized, holding grandchildren. The births of your own children represent hope for the future, and of grandchildren bringing joy. They are hope realized. “All’s right with the world!”
Sentiments of hope and joy are often fleeting. Daily life brings bills, job loss, stuff wearing out including yourself, the aches and pains of aging, family conflict, non-cooperation, nasty work relationships, competing interests, dog-eat-dog each-against-all greed every time you turn around, false generosity,… must I go on?
That sense of being alone in the world of broken relationships, alienation… feeling like a feared and hated foreigner in an inhospitable land, no one cares whether you live or suffer or die—rather, everyone around you uses you or ignores you, that is the unhappy extreme on the continuum of brokenness to wholeness, with feelings of alienation rather than of joy. Mitsumi Saotome writes:
“If you were all alone in the universe with no one to talk to, no one with which to share the beauty of the stars, to laugh with, to touch, what would be your purpose in life? It is other life, it is love, which gives your life meaning. This is harmony. We must discover the joy of each other, the joy of challenge, the joy of growth.”
Although I am a minister, I have wondered aloud and in print why anyone would get up on Sunday morning to go to church when you could sit in the sun with a cup of coffee and the Sunday paper. You could go to the park or garden or walk on the beach. You could talk with other pet owners at the dog park. Why would you want to come to a Unitarian Universalist congregation where people admit they believe very differently from one another? Heretics, independent thinkers, outcasts! Why invest your time and money to participate in such stimulating and uncomfortable diversity?
The answer I have come to, whether you join Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Unitarian Universalist or any other religious or secular communities is that the rules, doctrines or covenants of these voluntary communities “bind together” those who gather. The term `religion’ comes from the Latin religio which means “to bind together.”
Religious—and secular communities for that matter—gather themselves together in order to reconnect, to heal isolated and alienated individuals into communities of relational health and wholeness. Some use rules to guide and doctrines to believe that bind them into one conforming whole.
We Unitarian Universalists covenant with one another to be a safe place for each one’s personal integrity. We promise to “affirm and promote… the right of conscience”—our own and that of others even though we may think they hold ridiculous or even dangerous beliefs. Our Principles conclude with these words of covenant: “Grateful for the religious pluralism which enriches and ennobles our faith, we are inspired to deepen our understanding and to expand our vision. As free congregations we enter into this covenant, promising to one another our mutual trust and support”(UUA Bylaws).
We get up on Sunday mornings and participate in so many ways, investing our time and resources, listening and sharing experiences and insights with individuals who may feel safe only here among us in sharing who they are and what motivates their lives. Our religion binds us together celebrating and empowering our diversity rather than by conformity to imposed beliefs and practices.
Religion binds together the broken into community, healing our alienation, turning brokenness into the joy of reconnection. Starhawk writes of joy we offer:
“Community. Somewhere, there are people to whom we can speak with passion without having the words catch in our throats. Somewhere a circle of hands will open to receive us, eyes will light up as we enter, voices will celebrate with us whenever we come into our own power. Community means strength that joins our strength to do the work that needs to be done. Arms to hold us when we falter. A circle of healing. A circle of friends. Someplace where we can be free” (Starhawk, in “Spiritual Literacy: Reading the Sacred in Everyday Life” by Frederic & Mary Ann Brussat, 1996).
My colleague, Mary Katherine Morn writes: “I can’t think of an experience of joy that isn’t an experience of intimate connection…. Like the moment a parent first sees a child’s eyes. Or a moment in the woods, when you grow roots like the tree you are leaning against and you realize that you are the same as the tree. Or a dark night when the stars reach across the whole sky and into your body. Or a moment when you look across the room and catch your (friend’s) quick glance and know that you belong.” This is the experience of being connected. Joyful.
Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” which we sing, is an adaptation of the Eighteenth century German poet, playwright, and philosopher Friedrich Von Schiller’s poem about joy. Here is a different translation: “Joy, beautiful radiance of the gods, daughter of Elysium, we set foot in your heavenly shrine dazzled by your brilliance. Your charms re-unite what common use has harshly divided: all men become brothers under your tender wing.”
Von Schiller writes that “… common use has harshly divided” us, yet “all (of us) become (related) under (joy’s) tender wing.” The way we commonly use and experience one another in human society harshly divides us, each against all. Joy is the experience of treating one another as we would like to be treated: taken seriously, with compassion and loving kindness, in mutual relationships. Walt Whitman had the most joyful sense of human community I have ever heard tell. Whitman wrote:
“I have perceiv’d that to be with those I like is enough,
To stop in company with the rest at evening is enough,
To be surrounded by beautiful, curious, breathing,
laughing flesh is enough,
To pass among them or touch any one, or rest my arm
ever so lightly around his or her neck for a moment,
what is this
I do not ask any more delight, I swim in it as in a sea.”
There is also joy in reconnecting to our own body-selves in nature. Wendell Berry:
“When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.” (Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community: Eight Essays)
Perhaps an understanding of joy as reconnection of our body-selves in human community and as part of the earth can best be heard through the words of American Indians. Chief Luther Standing Bear’s stated:
“The white man does not understand the Indian for the reason that he does not understand America. He is too far removed from its formative processes. The roots of the tree of his life have not yet grasped the rock and soil. The white man is still troubled with primitive fears… the perils of this frontier continent, some of its vastnesses not yet having yielded to his questing footsteps and inquiring eyes…. The man from Europe is still a foreigner and an alien….”
Chief Flying Hawk, a Seoux Indian of the Oglala clan said: “The white man builds big house, cost much money, like big cage, shut out sun, can never move; always sick. Indians and animals know better how to live than white man; nobody can be in good health if he does not have all the time fresh air, sunshine and good water.”
Chief Luther Standing Bear again: “The Lakota was a lover of nature. He loved the earth and all things of the earth, the attachment growing with age. The old people came literally to love the soil and they sat or reclined on the ground with a feeling of being close to a mothering power. It was good for the skin to touch the earth and the old people liked to remove their moccasins and walk with bare feet on the sacred earth…. The soil was soothing, strengthening, cleansing and healing.
“That is why the old Indian still sits upon the earth instead of propping himself up and away from its life-giving forces. For him, to sit or lie upon the ground is to be able to think more deeply and to feel more keenly; he can see more clearly into the mysteries of life and come closer in kinship to other lives about him….
“Kinship with all creatures of the earth, sky and water was a real and active principle. For the animal and bird world, there existed a brotherly feeling that kept the Lakota safe among them and so close did some of the Lakotas come to their feathered and furred friends that in true brotherhood they spoke a common tongue.
“The old Lakota was wise. He knew that man’s heart away from nature becomes hard; he knew that lack of respect for growing, living things soon led to lack of respect for humans too. So he kept his youth close to its softening influence” (Touch the Earth, compiled by T.C. McLuhan, 1971).
What would it mean for you and me to reconnect our bodies with the soil and living things in nature? What would it mean to graciously connect to the human beings in our world?
I suggest that everywhere is a good place to start: I can follow a Golden Rule covenant with my family members. I can follow a Golden Rule covenant in my home and yard, with its flora and fauna. I can follow a Golden Rule covenant with my neighbors, with business acquaintances, with coworkers, with distant relatives, with strangers across the globe. Together we can practice our Unitarian Universalist covenant of “mutual trust and support” here as a religious community. As we reconnect, we will find joy where once we knew only brokenness and alienation.
Leaf Seligman writes in the UU World: “While hope may call us from the brink of despair by inviting us to imagine a different time, a transformed reality, or a better place, joy summons us to inhabit this moment, already ripe…. It does not depend on material possessions or success. It emerges when we risk revealing ourselves. It relies on our capacity to connect with what matters, to feel the pulse of life that ties us to all being. This is why joy is a religious experience” (A Demanding Joy, Nov./Dec. 2002).
May we walk the path of mutual trust and support, the path of joy in covenant with one another.