A Universalist Meditation for Pentecost
James Ishmael Ford
4 June 2017
Unitarian Universalist Church
Long Beach, California
One of the lovelier things that can happen for a writer is when something they’ve composed takes on a life of it’s own. In my Unitarian Universalist life this has in fact happened twice. Maybe twenty years ago I wrote a little piece called “An Invitation to Western Buddhists.” It was basically a suggestion that convert Buddhists who were mostly practicing meditation at centers, which were organized more like spiritual-gyms than spiritual communities to consider joining Unitarian Universalist churches. I provided a couple of reasons, of which I felt the most important was how UU churches are Buddhist-friendly places to raise children. It has been reprinted here and there over the years, and actually I was informed not long ago it is going to be included in a forthcoming Skinner House (our UU book publisher) anthology on UU source materials.
The other piece I wrote that has been reprinted here and there, was an appreciation of the formal adoption of our current Unitarian Universalist Principles and Purposes. It was originally part of a sermon, but like that Invitation has taken on its own life. I’ve run across it in any number of locations, almost always credited to me. I believe I’ve shared it at least once, here.
Today is Pentecost in the Christian tradition, the marker of the descent of the holy spirit on the disciples, a moment some count as the founding of the Christian church. And as that piece I’d written was my mild tip of the hat to that older Christian celebration, I find myself thinking of it once again. I hope you’ll indulge me repeating it here. We can think of it as the text for today’s reflection.
On June 25, 1984, Unitarian Universalists from across the United States and Canada gathered at the Ohio State University campus in Columbus for the eleventh General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. The great focus of this GA was a vote on a new statement of principles.
When the document was pretty close to being finished, it was, frankly, mostly “mom and apple pie.” There was hardly a word in it that anyone, of almost any spiritual tradition, could argue with. It was what I would call the perfect product of a committee. Its most distinctive feature was the First Principle, a declaration of the “inherent worth and dignity of every person,” carrying forward a libertarian focus on the individual that had marked out English-speaking Unitarianism for its entire history.
Then the Rev. Paul L’Herrou made his way to the microphones. People who remember the scene say he was lanky and bearded and that he stood at the microphone with the ease of an experienced pulpit minister. He looked around, briefly stroked his beard, and then addressed the proposed Seventh Principle, which was a call to “respect for the Earth and the interdependence of its living systems.” In my mind’s eye, as Paul stood there, the hall fell to a hushed silence. I imagine that the world outside grew quiet, as well. Perhaps one or two stars broke through the Ohio daylight, shooting beams in the general direction of Columbus. Out of the silence Paul pointed out how that wording fell far short of what it could be.
Paul proposed new wording for the Seventh Principle: a call to respect “the interdependent web of existence of which we are all a part.” I’m pretty sure, although I have to admit there’s no hard record of it, that with those words the roof blew off the convention center and a host of angels, devas, and other celestial beings from all the world’s religions—past, present, and future—descended from the heavens, some playing instruments of astonishing beauty, while others sang a Gloria that reached out to the farthest corners of the universe. Even the stars danced in joy at the revelation of this great secret of the universe to a gathering of Unitarian Universalists in Columbus, Ohio, in the United States, on the North American continent of a tiny planet circling a middling star at the edge of one of a hundred thousand million galaxies.
The call: to know that interdependent web of existence, of which we are all a part.
And then it was over. The roof resealed and the beings were gone, only a hint of their song remaining in the hearts of the assembled—who then voted. They accepted the proposed change, and with that decision our little band found itself marked with an astonishing charism, a particular channel of divine blessing aimed at healing this poor, broken world. I suggest in that hour our future was articulated with as much authority as if it were from the tongue of an ancient prophet.
That’s it. Presented with some artistic license, and I hope respectfully, as I said with a tip of the hat to the Christian Pentecost. But, today, on the actual festival of Pentecost, I want to consider a little more that idea of spirit. And particularly I’d like to consider what spirit and spiritual might mean for us, religious liberals, the larger majority of whom are pretty naturalistic in our sensibilities.
Me, I have a favorite trope that I cite from time to time. It goes “the spirit lists (or rests) where it will.” As a Zen Buddhist I’ve always felt it captures something of the, if you will, spirit of Zen’s awakening. As a Unitarian Universalist I tend to think of it as referring any moment that enlivens us. Spirit after all means breath. I also like that it is something just a bit outside of our control. In some ways it’s a corrective to the excesses of our libertarian impulse.
However, while I know the line is biblical, I have to admit I’d forgotten the actual citation. So, I googled it, using quotes around the phrase. And just to be sure I did it twice, once with “lists” and the other with “rests.” In both cases, it was mildly distressing to discover the first two listings each time were links to something I’d written. And no scriptural citation popped up.
I was led to some references to spirit in the Hebrew Scriptures, particularly a lengthy passage in the Book of Numbers, where the spirit almost seems more like a contagion or even some kind of contact high. I found myself thinking of that old line “the madness of crowds.” Which has it’s own lessons, and perhaps warnings. But, it certainly was not that full-throated assertion of how the spirit, the breath of life, wisdom, the great heart, God if you will, comes to us without condition.
Now, while there are consequences to this, ethical, political, social, psychological, all of which deserve exploring, at the first instance, at the beginning, it is important to note it comes freely. This opening to our deep joy is never earned. For me this is the heart of my Zen Buddhism. And, I would add, it is at the heart of my Unitarian Universalism, or more specifically my Universalism. We see traces of this insight in the writings of nearly all the world’s religions. And, as the google machine can attest, I’ve been pleased to cite this rather explicit version from the Bible about the spirit resting where it will, a lot.
So, it was mildly disappointing that my memory had failed and the quote isn’t in fact there in the Jewish or Christian scriptures. Still, I sure thought it was. And, I’m pretty familiar with the Bible. At the same time clearly I had the quote wrong. But the question became, how? The fact that the quote as it bubbles up in my mind uses that archaic term “lists,” for rest, made me feel it was there somewhere. I was just a little off. So, I went to a King James Bible search site. Oh, I do love our new computer age. Although, working through various combinations of words, I still couldn’t find it. I was beginning to think oh dear, I have imagined this, when Jan suggested I add in the word “whither.” Another of those archaic terms, and one that felt right.
I googled. And there it was. The Gospel According to John, the third chapter, the eighth verse. The actual text in the always lovely King James Version goes, “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.”
Now one reflection on that text I found points out how the same Hebrew word is translated first as “wind,” and then as “spirit.” Breath and wind are probably the most ancient metaphors for that transformative force in our lives. That movement of air as the primary metaphor for the spirit occurs in languages as diverse as Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. And the list continues. We also find it in Sanskrit and Chinese. Actually I’ve been informed it is a near universal metaphor.
That same article cites a couple of other scriptural verses I found intriguing. One is Ecclesiastes 3:6,”the wind goes around and the wind returns to its going around” and from the Psalms, 78:39, “a breath, going and never returning…” Now, I admit those lines takes a rumination on wind as spirit in a number of directions I hadn’t given a lot of thought to. But it is valuable. People have been thinking about this not quite controllable aspect of our lives for a very long time.
And what might my take away be from the collective wisdom of our ancestors? Well, for one, that wind, that spirit, would be in constant motion. Of course. And it definitely comes from and takes us home. That’s always the subtext. And its not just wind, it is breath. It is that which gives us life. Here the verb of our reality is revealed.
How we engage spirit and spirituality does indeed matter. There are so many lessons, so many pointers for us. In the Ecclesiastes example, we cannot grasp it intellectually. Rather, we can only experience it. But when we experience it, we find our true home is within the wind. Another lesson is that warning about taking something living and crushing the life out of it. The spirit gives life, but the letter kills. Not bad Zen lessons, not bad Unitarian Universalist lessons uncovered in the ancient texts of the Hebrew tradition.
For me it is a call to humility, an invitation into the dance of our world spiritualities. But as to that full throated call to that particular magical quality, that we don’t have to do anything, we don’t even have to be good, and the great realization can settle on us, anyway, it is there, if buried a bit. And I like that. Not esoteric, not hidden, but mostly noticed out of the corner of the eye.
And there’s a truth. We find that pointing to the spirit resting where it will in what I find a complicated and not entirely attractive text, the Gospel According to John. Okay, I have to like that. It shows the point. The spirit rests where it will. That is the great secret of our hearts. Like the spirit descending on a crowd of Unitarian Universalists in a hot convention center in Columbus, Ohio, in 1984.
This life giving moment, this transformative instance where our lives are revealed is there for anyone willing to open up and let it rest on us. Well, on occasion it comes even to those who do all they can to resist. I think of the story of Saul and his fateful encounter on that road to Damascus. For me this is the real universalism. Not the old Christian idea that all dead people go to heaven. Rather that the spirit cannot be contained, and genuine wisdom is available to all of us. And, that wisdom comes like a thief in the night.
After which we have to figure out what to do with it. Then we hear the night whispers of justice. With that descent of the spirit, with our knowing our connections so deeply true, we also know the calls of a hurt world are calls from our hearts to our heart. We are connected. We are the wind. We are the breath.
The secret message of Pentecost.
What will we do with it?
Amen. And, amen.