BEGINNING AGAIN, AGAIN A Meditation on the Why & How of Liberal Religion

A Meditation on the Why & How of Liberal Religion

15 September 2013

James Ishmael Ford
Senior Minister
First Unitarian Church
Providence, Rhode Island


We have seen Yitzhak Perlman
Who walks the stage with braces on both legs,
On two crutches.
He takes his seat, unhinges the clasps of his legs,
Tucking one leg back, extending the other,
Laying down his crutches, placing the violin under his chin.
On one occasion one of his violin strings broke.
The audience grew silent but the violinist didn’t leave the stage.
He signaled the maestro, and the orchestra began its part.
The violinist played with power and intensity on only three strings.
With three strings, he modulated, changed, and
recomposed the piece in his head.
He retuned the strings to get different sounds,
turned them upward and downward.
The audience screamed delight,
applauded their appreciation.
Asked later how he had accomplished this feat,
the violinist answered
It is my task to make music with what remains.
A legacy mightier than a concert.
Make music with what remains.
Complete the song left for us to sing,
transcend the loss,
play it out with heart, soul, and might
with all remaining strength within us.

Harold Schulwies

As you may have heard, we Unitarian Universalists are notoriously difficult to define, both for outsiders and even by ourselves. As an example there’s that famous joke about the three children standing together in a playground talking about their religions. One child says she’s Catholic, the second he’s a Jew, while the third pauses before saying, “I’m not sure, but I think we’re League of Women Voters.” Of course, that’s the UU. I can add from my own life an overheard conversation at another congregation from a few years back. Two sisters were walking down the hall, as I recall they were around eight and ten, the elder saying to the younger, “No, no. We’re Una-tarians, we can eat meat.”

The problem for many is that this tradition of liberal religion is not based so much in any particular belief, but rather is a covenant of presence. Rather than having a check-list of beliefs we sign off on, we embrace a style of living, a way of life. Our way is that covenant of presence, bringing attention, consciousness to reality, and within that living our lives.

In that spirit I want to address two things, which may at first seem a bit disparate. I want to talk about Yom Kippur, the great Jewish holiday that was observed this past Friday. And I want to discuss that nineteenth century Unitarian assertion about “salvation by character” that I find so important as a spiritual pointer. I suggest in fact these two things wind together into a thread we can follow through all sorts of situations and conditions, right through to a whole and even holy life.

First let me lay the ground. If you walk into a Unitarian Universalist congregation as a stranger it is immediately obvious we’re culturally Protestants. Our Meeting House is a grand example of New England congregationalism, the robed ministers, so many of our musical choices, and even the weekly Order of Service found in most UU congregations betray our Protestant heritage. Indeed if one came to most UU Sunday worship services pretty much anywhere across the country and didn’t pay close attention to what’s said one might think we were Congregationalists or maybe Presbyterians.

But, then there is that what is said. As most here know, somewhere along the line, I’d say before or at the latest shortly after the Second World War, following a long evolution we in fact shifted from being a liberal Christian church to being a liberal church with Christians. While we owe much to our Christian heritage, and indeed continue to be a viable home for many liberal Christians, as a living spiritual community and despite our appearance as a protestant church, we have become something different, a resting place for the birds of heaven. We now include among us, as us Christians and Jews, Hindus and Buddhists, humanists and pagans, theists and atheists.

Ours is a way of life. This way is marked by reason, freedom and tolerance. I repeat: reason, freedom and tolerance. This marks a way of life that is predicated not upon the revelation of scripture, but through the evidence of our human senses rendered through the furnace-like fires of engaged hearts and minds. Through that process we discern that mysterious reality where the individual is precious and unique, but whom, we also see, exists only within the undulating currents of the natural world. Looking large, looking clear, we discover how we, each of us, rise and fall within each other’s arms, and within the embrace of the world itself. Our way teaches how we, and all of nature, are one. Outsiders who consider us closely would say we are humanists, or, perhaps even more accurately, naturalists. Personally, I think our greatest spiritual exemplar could be Henry David Thoreau.

We live fully in this world, not as passers through, but as part and parcel, and with that we find our spirituality here, and within presence. Of course this doesn’t mean we can’t continue to learn from the traditions that gave us birth and which are still so precious to so many of us. Christianity and Judaism contain much that is valuable. We can look to aspects of Christianity, particularly the moral teachings of Jesus and such scriptural texts as the Epistle of James, or within the vital and compelling Jewish Wisdom tradition enshrined within such texts as Ecclesiastes, Proverbs and most notably Job; and find the sources of our way. Also within such engagement we find challenges and, if we really pay attention, the possibility of corrections. If we engage them both critically, and with humility we can find the traditions of Judaism and Christianity pushing us toward our own destiny.

As a really solid example I want to speak briefly to one of the greatest of the Jewish holidays, Rosh Hashanah and specifically of Yom Kippur. As I said, Yom Kippur has just passed. I think it should be easy to see how this ancient holiday season casts light on our Unitarian Universalist way. In part this can be inspiration, and in part a correction, showing some of our own shadows in high relief. And don’t doubt it, we have shadows; they come with being human. But if we pay attention we can see how an open hearted engagement helps us to clarify our work and our goals; pointing to our own true destiny, our deepest call and purpose.

Probably it would be wise for me to give the quickest review of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: As the majority of us know it is a week long observance of the New Year in the Jewish calendar, and as I said, has just concluded. What is most important for our purposes is how it is a time of reflection and renewal. As my friend and colleague Joel Miller succinctly puts it “Traditionally, this week is a process of self-evaluation, acknowledgement of guilt, then of repentance, and finally a plea for forgiveness.” Here we are at the formal beginning of our own church year. And I suggest it is not a bad time for some of that clear-eyed assessment, owning up to things, and starting anew.

We need to notice our hurt, our wounds, our shadows. To deny them is foolish. In fact to not notice and deal with these things is dangerous, leading us to impulsive behaviors that can leave much hurt in the wake of their expression. But, even more importantly, we can’t change if we don’t allow ourselves to see who and how we are. And here’s where I want to bring in that old Unitarian chestnut “salvation by character” to our reflection.

As I’ve raised these words “salvation by character” at various times over the years I’ve found people have expressed, how shall I put it, strong reactions. Some years ago someone did a Unitarian Universalist values survey. In this survey a sample population was asked to order rank such terms as peace, love, beauty, truth, wisdom and salvation. As UU minister Richard Fewkes commented on this survey “salvation was ranked the lowest of all the values and some even wrote it in the margins at the bottom of the page upside down and said it was a negative value…”

While the dictionary meaning of salvation has to do with healing, there is little doubt in many of our minds that the word really stands for going to a hypothetical heaven that some significant majority of us simply don’t believe in. And associated with that all sorts of control over people hoping for that heaven by hierarchs and other emotional terrorists. I get that. But, also, I think the term has real value. We are hurt, and we do need healing, and I think we make a serious mistake if we drop that term salvation from our spiritual enterprise. There is a hell, and it is here in this world. As is heaven: right here. And our salvation will not take us somewhere else, but more deeply into this place.

I suggest also at least some of our resistance to the term salvation is found in a pride that blinds us to this possibility of avoiding the hells often of our own creation, and finding the heaven of lives dedicated to intimacy, to knowing the connections, and living from that place. This is, ultimately, a spiritual enterprise, and the language of spirit, for all its faults, is, I believe, the right language.

I suggest we find this quest of salvation, of healing, as an uncovering, a re-discovery of our essential at-one-ment – that magnificent pun we find in the English word atonement, atonement, which is the essential aspect of Yom Kippur. This really is simply calling us back to our own true selves, to our essential nature, intimate beyond words, with everyone and everything in the world, and actually with that entire universe that lives within our own hearts and minds.

When we surrender our pride and allow ourselves to be full within our own hurt and woundedness; the work of healing truly begins. And so to return to that line salvation by character: We must work on our own character, looking honestly at our shortcomings, foolishnesses and even how we are complicit in various evils. Gloriously, our attention to how we act in the world, how we step up to the plate, how we give ourselves to the matter at hand is the secret hope of the world, and its healing.

We need to engage at a number of levels. I need to assess how I’ve failed myself, and my friends. How have I failed as a minister as a husband as a human being? What do I need to do to repair various hurts? Each of us needs such personal assessments every now and again, and this week is a particularly good time to do something like this. But this evaluation also needs to extend beyond our private lives. We are woven out of each other and the world itself. We are inextricably connected with everything that is going on, in our community, our city, our state, our nation, on this planet.

This deep self-examination and full engagement with the world is a central part of a way of life that says healing, indeed salvation, is found within how we live our lives. Reflection is critical, and then it must lead to action. We look, we repent, we act.

Then do it again.

I think I can describe what happens if we do this. Well, not me. It’s contained within a poem by Rabbi Harold Schulwies collected in Miriyam Glazer’s book Dancing on the Edge of the World.

“We have seen Yitzhak Perlman/Who walks the stage with braces on both legs,/On two crutches./He takes his seat, unhinges the clasps of his legs,/Tucking one leg back, extending the other,/Laying down his crutches, placing the violin under his chin./On one occasion one of his violin strings broke./the audience grew silent but the violinist didn’t leave the stage./He signaled the maestro, and the orchestra began its part./The violinist played with power and intensity on only three strings./With three strings, he modulated, changed, and/Recomposed the piece in his head./He retuned the strings to get different sounds,/Turned them upward and downward./The audience screamed delight,/Applauded their appreciation./Asked later how he had accomplished this feat,/The violinist answered/It is my task to make music with what remains./A legacy mightier than a concert./Make music with what remains./Complete the song left for us to sing,/Transcend the loss,/Play it out with heart, soul, and might/With all remaining strength within us.”

This, my friends, is our work within this place.

Our way.

And there is no better time to begin, than now.


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