James Ishmael Ford
19 January, 2014
First Unitarian Church
Providence, Rhode Island
Hatred paralyzes life; love releases it. Hatred confused life; love harmonizes it. Hatred darkens life; love illuminates it.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
The other day Cathy went off to one of those denominational offerings that she and I attend now and again hoping to keep up with the current wisdom on parish life. When she returned I asked how it went. She said it was good. The speaker was encouraging everyone to attend to the great awakening that’s going on within our association of spiritual liberals. I sighed, she smiled.
Cathy knew from where I’m coming. Actually, I’m afraid she’s heard me expound on this any number of times. I’ve heard many speak about an awakening going on among us, of a new spiritual current racing forth. Now, don’t get me wrong; I believe there is something happening. And, I’m deeply excited. But, what often is said when people speak of this awakening is a lapse into generalities or worse, a confusing of some technique of presentation like getting rid of pews or projecting the words for hymns up on walls as if it were the awakening.
But then Cathy said to me, “You probably would have approved, James.” I hesitated, after all I wasn’t once called by friends the most “critical person” they knew for nothing. Still, as I’ve said Cathy has heard my monologue on the subject before. So, I listened as she explained how the speaker said the new awakening was all about love. I paused for a moment. On the one hand that is kind of vague. On the other hand…
I know I’ve repeated this before. But, in this context I think it deserves telling. When Martin Luther King was assassinated, after the police and FBI arrived, during all the confusion, people running around, and the agents trying to get a handle on what had happened, one them informed his superior on a walkie-talkie how he just heard Corretta Scott King say that Martin’s dream would never die. There was, I gather, a moment of silence. Then the agent’s superior instructed him to as quickly as possible, “Find out what that dream was.”
When Cathy reported hearing of our attending to our own awakening within our liberal spiritual communities, our own spiritual opening as a community, as being all about love, well, you know that is Martin Luther King’s dream. Love is the great dream of the possibility of transformation, for our selves and for this blessed and damaged world.
Of course that word dream can be as vague as love. As we’ve been running up to this Sunday I’ve read several postings on Facebook from colleagues who warn against wallowing in Dr King’s dream language, when we really should be focusing on the past due bill of civil rights. Certainly, there’s a truth there. We can get all lovey dovey, we can speak of dreams and aspirations, without there being any grounding at all, any doing, at all.
As that old Japanese saying goes, vision without action is a dream. Without action any dream of love becomes vaporous, without substance. But, the rest of the saying also warns, action without vision is a nightmare. Ungrounded action, action disconnected from some great and clarifying motivation, a dream of love truly understood, for instance, is at best wasted energy, at worst every horror imaginable. Bottom line we need both vision and action. Otherwise we’re like an eagle with one wing.
Today we celebrate a great visionary of our times, one who had a dream and who worked hard to manifest it, and in so doing, began an astonishing transformation of our country, nowhere near completed, and constantly even yet met with opposition, but, relentlessly on its way. Later, for those who can stay for our congregational meeting with Jim Ryczek of the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless, and of our possible congregational partnership with the coalition, should flow out of this reflection as naturally as an out-breath follows an in-breath. So, today, with certain knowledge love isn’t enough without manifestation, here and now I want to focus on the vision, on the dream, on love. Later, today, upstairs in the parish house we will also talk of putting this all into action.
But, now, love, that dream of love. I would say our shared humanist tradition as Unitarian Universalists can be boiled down to that line attributed to an 1899 speech given by Congressman Willard Duncan Vandiver, “…frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I am from Missouri. You have to show me.” So, what is that dream? What is that love? What does it mean?
When I’m asked what this love that we’re awakening to is, I usually return to those two truths articulated so rightly by the first and seventh principles of our contemporary Unitarian Universalist statement. The individual, you and I, each arise full and precious within this life. And, we exist only within an astonishing web of interdependence. We are born, we are sustained and we die within this web of relationships. I think this is an amazingly accurate description. What it doesn’t quite capture is how we experience these forces coming together. That experience is love. Why when natural forces come together to create us as human beings we experience the deep of it as love is certainly interesting, and worth unpacking, but not the starting point. What we need do, what I’m calling us to today, is to open ourselves to the experience. Everything else follows our experience of love.
Then, as we notice, as we attend, we begin to see the contours of this love informing our lives. I hope we’re all uncomfortably aware of how much weight that word love must carry. The Greeks had a better handle in slicing and dicing the word, separating out the love of family, the love of friend, erotic love, and that something connected to, but at the same time other than the rest, agape, spiritual love, divine love.
When Dr King spoke of love, he meant agape. In his doctoral dissertation he said, “the only adequate symbol for God’s love is agape.” He would speak of it as something uncaused, and spontaneous and transformative. “When we rise to love on the agape level,’’ he wrote elsewhere, ‘‘we love (people) not because we like them, not because their attitudes and ways appeal to us, but we love them because God loves them. Here we rise to the position of loving the person who does the evil deed while hating the deed that the person does.”
Love is something spontaneous. It comes to us unbidden, as natural as a seed breaking up out of the Spring soil. This deep knowing, this experience of love is a gift that comes so unexpectedly, so undeserved, that I find it hard not to speak of it as divine. For me this love is God. Maybe not a god that knows all and can shift history, at least not without our human action, but divine in how it can transform us, and our lives. And in doing that, leading us to transform the world.
It, the dream, love, is an experience of connection that is deeper than any other we can name. And with that experience, we find our sense of responsibility for others as much as for ourselves. It is our hope. It is divine.
And there is among us, within our congregations, an awakening to it. People in our liberal congregations are experiencing it. Who would have thought? But, we are. It is cast like fire across the world. And as it catches in our hearts, it is leading us to live lives of engagement and care. As a people of faith in love we seek work like our stand for marriage equality when it wasn’t popular, like our stand for racial justice, and the immigrant, and now informing our meeting this afternoon with the coalition for the homeless.
It is the dream Dr Martin Luther King, Jr sang into our hearts.
It’s all about love, friends. And, what we do with it.
And this transforming love is dancing a fire across the globe, leaping from heart to heart.
It belongs to us, you and me, given from before the creation of the heavens and the earth; it is our common inheritance as human beings. And seeing that truth as our own, as yours, as mine, and sharing that truth is the awakening, the great awakening of our liberal tradition.
It is the pillar of fire that can guide us to a promised land of possibility.
Love is the dream.
Love is the reality.
All we need do, any of us, is pause, and open our hearts.
Love, sweet, powerful, dangerous, transforming is already burning there, waiting for the breath of our lives to allow it to catch, and to come forth.
Something to transform the world.
Something to heal the world.
Love reaches out.