Saturday, June 21, 2008

Trekking Toward the Truth (In the Light of Day)

Sermon Delivered at the Unitarian-Universalist Congregation of Gwinnett

Summer Solstice

June 22, 2008

Honoring earth centered paths is one of our six sources that flow into the rich fountain that is Unitarian-Universalism. It may also be one of the least understood. Some of our other UU language may contribute to this misunderstanding. CUUPS stands for the Covenant of UU Pagans, and yet in our CUUPS group very few of us are terribly comfortable with the word “pagan” and most of us don’t use it to describe ourselves.

But “CUUPS” sounds nice. After all, a cup is just a little chalice, and UU’s are fond of chalices. But, if you called us the Covenant of UU of the Earth Centered Path, you’d get CUUECPS, and that sounds awfully too much like “cooks” and “hiccups”.

And from what I hear in some UU congregations, CUUPS is largely a gathering of cooks whose contribution to the congregation is not much more than a series of hiccups! I thinks thus far, our CUUPS has a little better record.

The Earth-centered path is many things, and for me one of those most central things is celebrating that if one walks outside and looks around, every single aspect of the the natural world offers us something to appreciate, enjoy, be in awe of, and reflect on. The history of humankind’s reflecting on and learning from the metaphors of nature are as old as writing itself, and then painting on cave walls before that. And for just a few minutes, I want to share with you how this day, the Summer Solstice, is that reflection for me, is that metaphor in the natural world for something that is a life long trek for me.

On the day of the summer solstice, the sun is at it’s highest and longest arc in our sky. We have more bright, warm sunlight for a longer period on the Summer Solstice than any other day of the year. Since December 21, the darkest and shortest day of the year, our earth has been gradually tilting back its northern pole toward the sun so that every day has become incrementally longer.

The journey to all of this light has taken a while. It has come in increments. The journey has on any given day not been noticeable, but when you stand back and compare this day with December 21, the journey is pretty significant, from lots of darkness to lots of light.

And, for me, that’s the metaphor—the long, incremental, often tedious, trek of my life in search for light. In search for something to call true and sure.

Not very long ago, a Latin teacher whom I have only met through the internet, emailed me privately about some comments I made on the teachers’ list about working with students. I had probably mentioned that I was something of a liberal in my outlook.

He very thoughtfully, and very genuinely, wrote me this:

Dear Bob,

If you have a moment some time, can you help me to understand how a person coming from your perspective determines right from wrong? I can see how you can have values and live by them, but I'm unclear as to what criteria you would use to establish that one thing is absolutely wrong and another right. But maybe I'm forcing terms on you that you'd consider misleading or invalid. If so, please do call me on it.

I teach at a Christian school, and I have students who are wrestling with issues such as these. It would be really helpful to understand your position better.

He and I continue to have a very interesting and respectful correspondence that this email of his started. We are coming from very different places. His question sent me back considering my long trek, my own search for how to answer this sort of question. What is the truth? What is the guide for right and wrong? What is real light, and where do I find it.

I can show you my own trek more easily than I can tell it to you.

(I then pulled out a set of 7 boxes that nest within each other, of different colors. At first it just looks like the one, black box).

God—black box

I was taught very early in my life about God by almost every other human being around me. I was the first child and the first grandchild on both sides of the family. I had a lot of adult company, and they all taught me that there was this God out there, bigger than all things, more powerful than all things, the creator of all things, better than all things, my heavenly Father who was able to send me to a place called hell when I died, or let me into his heaven if I did what I was told, and this included believing utterly in him. And, he was invisible.

Oh yes, and he loved me. I believed as I was told for a very long time, but in my own search for truth, what I came to see was that believing in that sort of God, who practiced that sort of “love” meant that the primary motive in my life was fear—fear that I would somehow displease this God who would send me to hell. The day it occurred to me that I was, in all my own limitations, a better father than that, I found that my search for truth was not in the box called God.

Doctrine—gold box

Within and clearly connected to the box called God was a much more, for a while, appealing box. I’ll call it Doctrine. A clearly defined set of rules about right and wrong, God and humanity and the earth, this life and the afterlife. It’s a much prettier box because, at least on the outside, a clearly defined set of rules just feels good. No thought required. Nothing to worry about. But, I began to notice that other people had boxes just like this, but their list of rules were sometimes different from mine. Sometimes REALLY different. This box stopped working for me the day a very close friend told me that according to her box of rules, I was going to hell because my rules were different from hers. There’s that word, again. Hell. So, if you ask me if I found truth in this box called doctrine, I’d have to say “hell no”.

Authorities—brown box

This next box is not so pretty as the rules box, but it’s a solid color, sort of the color of some rocks. This box is where I look for truth, still sometimes. It’s called “Authorities”. You know, very important, established, intelligent, leader type people who clearly know the way—to wherever it is I think I might be going. I have encountered a variety of people looking for truth in this “authorities” box. Quite a few of them want you to follow them or else, they say, you’ll go to hell. I met some who are the most wonderful people, and I learn a great deal from them. I find glimmers of truth in them. But, mostly what I find is that they do not know very much more about the truth than I do—certainly not all truth, and finally, turning myself over to them is not good for me, not good for them, and not the truth.

Books—purple box

Oh, I have to tell you, this is one of my favorite boxes to look for truth in. It’s the box of BOOKS! I love books. I love to read. I usually am reading several at the same time with little piles of books all over my house. You can tell where I pause to sit in the house because there are little piles of books: in the bedroom, in the kitchen, in the living room, in the sun room in the study, in the bathroom. I’ve learned a lot from books. Books also glimmer with sparkles of truth. And some are a complete waste of my time. Of course, I often don’t know that until I’ve wasted my time to find that out. What I find problematic about this box is that, finally, even after all the reading I’ve done, rather than go out and apply any truth I might have found, rather than finding a new and better and more fulfilling way to live, I simply want to read more books. It’s like eating carbs. Makes me hungry for more carbs. If there is truth in this box, it’s hard to get out of the container.

Communities—cool blue/aqua box

This one’s a nice color, too, isn’t? I’ve done my share of looking in this box for the truth. This is the box of “communities”. You know: the right neighborhood, the right church, the right job, the right contacts, the right professional organization, the right small groups, the right affiliations. And I belong to all of those kinds of communities right now! Most of them are pretty decent. I get a little or a lot out of all of them, and I give quite a bit, too. And it feels so good to belong to a group, you know, until you run into that bothersome person or 3, you know the type. Or, until the community begins to ask you for things—money, commitments, work, time. That can be a pain. So, it really gets to be a bad set up when I came looking for truth, and what I get is a guilt trip for why I ought to stay even though I may not be finding what I came searching for. This box is not what it would seem if you are looking for truth.

Relationships—red box

This is a hot little box. And I mean that in so many ways. It’s the box of relationships. It has some kinship with the communities box in that it feels really nice to be in relationships. Well, some relationships. Sometimes. It feels nice to have friends. It feels nice to have people to laugh and cry with. If feels nice when I’m afraid, to be comforted. Sometimes people call this search for truth in relationships “true love”. Sounds so hot. So sweet. So nice. So warm. But these same people can also make you mad (there’s another use for the shade of red), and embarrass you (still red), and worry you, and keep you awake at nights, and want your car, and your money. Sometimes people that you thought loved you can be mean and bad, and you’re left wondering what in the world you were thinking. And what you get from this hot little box can be almost exactly the opposite of what you thought was in there. And it’s not truth.

My Own Life—multi-colored box

This box is my own life, my mind, my body, my feelings, my perceptions, my experiences, and my intuition. And, look, there’s something inside. Oh, it’s what I wrote back to my Latin teacher friend in response to his question:

To your question: right and wrong choices depend entirely on how they affect the interdependent web of all being. That’s a fancy way of saying that as a human being, I can, if I reflect on it, determine whether a thing I am about to do will be of help to me and others. I’ve learned that I can trust myself, and the deepest wound any human being can know is that he/she does not trust him/herself. I do not accept that human beings are essentially evil. I came to reject the doctrine of original sin as a real evil in itself. We are essentially human. We are connected on multiple levels to all of life around us, and we know, if we allow ourselves to listen, how life around us will be affected when we take certain actions.

There is no power out there that is not also in here.

Without even knowing you, I know that honoring you and your experiences and your life history is the right thing to do. The more complicated thing, in any given moment, is figuring out how to do that.

So, I maintain that if any person listens to their deepest parts and uses good reasoning, they know what is right and wrong. They do that by making good connections, drawing lines that connect the dots in their life and in their world. I also maintain that knowing how to act on that is not so easy, and is often complicated, and often we make mistakes. Good news: we can learn from our mistakes. In fact, I find that we often learn more from our mistakes than from “the rules”. Rules stand outside of us. Mistakes are core to our experience.

There is an ancient Druid Triad that is the core of my teaching and living philosophy: Three foundations of success: bold design, frequent practice, and frequent mistakes.

Okay. That’s way more than you probably bargained on. Thoughts?


You know, I’m going to keep the boxes. There are things about each of these boxes that I value. I’m just not putting my entire stake on the truth in any one of them. My relationships are THE most important thing in my life, even with the headaches. The communities I belong to, finally, are the ones I CHOOSE to invest in. I still love books. They can be helpful, but they can also be deceiving. I respect certain authorities in my life for various reasons, mostly for their humanity and the leadership they provide. Their feet, though, are still made of clay, like mine, and they still put those pants on like I do, one foot at a time. Doctrines, teachings, philosophies—fascinating framework. I’m more interested in the pictures they are trying to frame, these days. And God? I’m pretty confident that if there is one, that infinite being would agree with me that trusting myself, living my own life with some attempt at integrity is why my own life is at the core of all of these others.

In the light of day, we get to see this. My life. Your life. The one you are living right now, is our best connection to what is true, what is vital, what is worthwhile. If we can see that, in the bright light of this day (or some other day), then cherish that. For all of us, darker days will come, and we will need to remember this. Go look in the mirror. That’s the box you will find the truth in.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Watching the Water

Where water comes from is an important question. A couple of months ago, I went down into the lower part of my house, a finished basement, and smelled something not quite right. I went out into the unfinished part of the basement where all of our plumbing is, and there was water seeping in through the foundation of the house. A visit from the plumber determined that the water was, in fact, seeping in from a broken sewage line (hence the creepy smell), and a day later, that was all repaired.

A few weeks ago, I made the same trip downstairs. I smelled water. Not the creepy kind. Just the wet, watery kind. I went and looked at the pipes. Water seeping in again. A visit from the plumber, who dug up his work of a couple of months before found that it was NOT the sewage pipes (yea!) but was ground water seeping in from poorly designed yard flow (yuk!). A day later, that was remedied.

So what? So, today, I am seeing that observing where the water is flowing from goes a long way toward understanding our lives, our response to the world around us, and to taking actions that help and support life. Water has long been a metaphor for emotion, feelings, relationships and wisdom. Most of us walking around, unless we have worked very hard at walling ourselves off from all emotion, feeling, relationships and have decided there is no wisdom to be had, experience these things every day.

We have feelings and emotions. We are in relationships. We encounter wisdom, acknowledged or not, sought after or not, authentic or inauthentic. And frequently, speaking for myself (and suspecting that this may apply to others) there are times when I don't know what to do.

Hence the question: which way is the water flowing? What is its source? Is it coming from within me? Am I generating this? Does it belong to me? Or, am I being hit with this from outside of me? What is the pattern of the "water"? Is it a trickle? Is it a flood? Is it a river, or a pool? Is it helping me? Can I step out of it or into it at will? Does it sustain me or overwhelm me?

I am finding as I work with this question that what is best for me to do next becomes clearer simply by observing the flow of the "water". If the "water" is coming at me from another source, I can step aside and let it flow past, or head for cover if it's a deluge! If the flow of "water" is coming from within me, then I can observe further. What is it's source in me? How long has it been there? Even though it is flowing from within me, is it ultimately mine?

An example of this last type: When I sense someone's disapproval, the "water" begins to churn in my chest and stomach. When I observe that, it's churning from within me. When I observe that further, I begin to "see" old memories of childhood dynamics where my "task" was to please the adults in my world. At that point, I realize that these "waters" are not mine. They are the feelings and emotions of the adults in my childhood world that were flooded onto and into the way I learned to be in the world. When I see that, I can let the flood go. These waters don't belong to me.

Sometimes, such old floodwaters that don't belong to us don't flow away so quickly. I find that each time I experience them, and acknowledge that they do not belong to me, more of the dam cracks, that dam that has been holding those waters in, and more of the water seeps, then flows out. It's a process.

Like so many other things, dealing with the water in our lives is a process.