TIME FOR ALL AGES
Once the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh was talking with a group of children, like we are here.
He held up an unlit match.
He asked: “Where is the flame?”
A few children wagered guesses, but most shook their heads. They did not know.
Then he struck the match and it began to burn.
He asked again, “Where is the flame?”
This time there was a chorus of excited answers, all called out at once. It is here. In your hand. At the end of the match.
He nodded and smiled. “Let us look at the flame while it is here. See how beautiful it is.”
For a few seconds the hall fell into silence while the kids and hundreds of others watched the flame of a single match.
Then he blew it out. He asked a third time, “Where is the flame?”
One child pointed toward the wisp of smoke. It was gone.
He explained: “The flame was present only when all the conditions were there. Everything needed to come together in just the right way. The wooden match. The roomful of oxygen. The hand to strike it. The fuel to sustain it. When all of these things were present and acted together in a certain way, then the flame arose. But as the match burned down, forcing me to blow it out before it reached my fingers, the conditions changed and the flame no longer existed.
You are like the flame. Here for a moment, while the conditions allow. And you are very beautiful. Please be mindful of this.”
READING: from “Mystical Humanism” by David Bumbaugh
Many assert that Humanists have been shaped by unresolved anger and hurt resulting from early encounters with traditional religion. Others suggest that Humanists have thought their way to a rejection of traditional religious expression by subordinating their feelings to rationality. Both of these assertions carry an unspoken judgment that Humanism is a brittle, immature stance that healthy people eventually outgrow. That has not been my experience. … I had no time for unresolved anger or for nursing ancient hurts or resuscitating dead gods. I was fascinated by the recognition that in as far as we know, human beings are the meaning-bearing, meaning-creating instruments of a universe that, apart from us, seems to have neither meaning nor purpose. There grew in me a conviction that because we are instruments of meaning in this universe, it matters what kind of meaning we build with our lives. Not knowing why it matters, or to whom or to what, I was certain that in every decision we create the person we will be and subtly change the universe, however minutely, forever. … My ministry was a constant attempt to find the language that would help me speak about my early mystical experience with rich emotional valence – something I would later call a language of reverence. I wrote and rewrote hymns and readings and liturgical resources. I stubbornly refused to use language that suggested a range of beliefs or convictions I could not fully embrace. My mysticism was anchored in a profound appreciation for the natural world, an unshakeable conviction that we are rooted in unbreakable coexistence with all that is, that the distinctions we make between ourselves and others, between human and nonhuman, between living and nonliving are useful fictions but that beneath those distinctions is a bond that unites us with all that is or was or ever shall be. Therefore the choices we make, the work we do, and the lives we construct echo throughout time and space. I preached this conviction for fifty years. If it is true that preachers only ever have one sermon, this was mine. More importantly, this conviction shaped my responses to the moral challenges of the times … when responding to issues of racism, classism, and other social injustices, I was driven by the same question. Who do I become, what meaning am I creating, if I enter into this struggle or choose to stand aside? Almost without exception, I chose to enter the struggle.
SERMON: “Community of Transformation”
It’s often said that religion is about getting in touch with something larger than ourselves. For Buddhists, it’s a larger awareness. For Christians, it’s a larger love. For Humanists, it’s a larger nature in which we participate: the nature of the universe and of ourselves. David Bumbaugh’s “one sermon” illustrates that so beautifully. Another way to imagine that “something larger” is to speak of transformation. Some speak of growing a larger soul. Others speak of seeing oneself, or seeing humanity, through a different lens that reveals a hidden horizon within us and opens us to new possibilities. Still others speak of becoming more fully who we are (or what we are meant to be), or of fulfilling our potential.
What I’ve noticed over the years is that these different ways of naming that “something larger” are not simply differences of cultural expression. We all participate in the same American culture, and yet each of us resonates more with one of these notions – the larger awareness, the larger love, the larger self, the larger human potential – than the others. So it is not just an inheritance, an artifact of tradition, that we come to name that “something larger” in the way that we do. There’s something about us that causes that resonance. When we feel that we’ve found a truer way of talking about that “something larger” that we want to be in touch with, it’s because that way of naming it touches on a truth we feel deep within.
The ancient art theorist in China, Hsieh Ho, spoke of six qualities of a good painting. The sixth one – after composition, color, line, technique, and reference to something in life – was “spirit resonance.” A good painting touches something in the person beholding it, produces movement, a resonance in the soul or spirit. That’s the sort of thing we’re dealing with, when it comes to naming that “something larger” in religion.
What causes that resonance?
In their book, Please Understand Me, David Kiersey and Marilyn Bates try to get at this question by understanding different human temperaments. Using the same material that Isabel Briggs Myers and Katharine Cook Briggs used to develop their well-known personality test, Kiersey and Bates distill their sixteen personality types down to four temperaments.
Many of you know about the four measures used in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator:
- Are you more introverted or extraverted? (That is, when you need to recharge your energy, do you go off by yourself, or do you seek company?)
- Do you understand the world more by intuition (by standing back from it) or by sensing it directly (by getting immersed in it)?
- Do you make decisions more by thinking it through, or more by feeling it through?
- And is it more important to you to reach a judgment – to check things off the meeting agenda – or to thoroughly discuss each item on the agenda in order to reach shared perceptions?
These four questions represent four polarities, four scales of measurement that generate sixteen types. Kiersey and Bates group the sixteen types into four temperaments by first dividing the intuitive types from the sensing types, and then dividing each of those two groups into two. Their categorization is illustrated on the cover of your Order of Worship. Their four temperaments are “intuitive feeling,” “intuitive thinking,” “sensing perceiving,” and “sensing judging.” And for each temperament, they identify something that makes folks of that temperament feel most alive.
People of the “sensing-perceiving” temperament, they say, feel most alive when they have freedom to act according to their own decision or impulse to action. When I think of this temperament, I think of a man I knew who was an artist. He liked to build sculptures – not mold out of clay or cut out of stone, but build, construct out of raw or found materials. There was a lot of doing in his artistic process, not so much standing back to evaluate it as being busy making it. He was like that in meetings, too. He didn’t want to sit there talking, he wanted to go out and do something, try something, test something out. He wanted to do that before the rest of us even understood what we were talking about. For someone like this, the “something larger,” I think, must be participation: some kind of immersion in and acting with the larger action of the world or the soul. Wisdom for such folks consists of participation. Gotta do when the spirit says do!
People of the “sensing-judging” temperament feel most alive when they are acting in service to something larger. A sense of duty can be a strong motivation for some of this temperament. Wisdom for such folks is acting in accord with a system or structure, a practice or right procedure. It’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it! Some say that you can see that Unitarian Universalism is descended from New England Puritanism if you attend one of our social justice committees and experience all the mutual admonition that goes on there. When the Social Justice Team works on, say, getting environmentally friendly practices implemented throughout church life, it’s the feeling that the community is acting in service to that “something larger” that gives the feeling of being really alive.
For the “intuitive-thinking” temperament, wisdom is knowledge and skill. Folks of this temperament feel most alive when they know what to do and how to do it. Quite often they are called to professions as scientists or engineers, doctors or pharmacists, craftsmen or mechanics, professors or consultants – fields where there is expertise to acquire and to practice. The sense of preserving knowledge and skill, or of expanding and advancing them, is a source of that deep feeling of being alive.
The “intuitive-feeling” types feel most alive when they have a sense of becoming: of growing or deepening or discovering more about their own nature and larger self. These are the folks who really resonate with the notion of transformation. When I think of how this works, I think of a conversation I had years ago, and many times, with my actor and artist friend, Greg, who I met in college. You know the kinds of philosophical discussions young men in college have. And you know the intensity of identity formation and self-discovery that goes on for college-age folks. Greg and I used to talk every so often about what we thought of all these sexuality-based identities that folks around us were so passionate about, and so brave to assert: at that time, we knew about gay and lesbian and bisexual people; transgender and queer were not yet on our radar. The question for us was, what did it mean to claim an identity based on something you did?
I think it was in the library stacks somewhere, that I saw a bit of graffiti that gave three quotes. I’m not going to get the attributions right, I don’t remember them – so I’ll make them up. The first was, “To do is to be. – Aristotle.” The second was, “To be is to do. – Plato.” The third was, “Do Be Do Be Do. – Sinatra.” That was one of my contributions to our conversations, to quote that. Greg contributed something a little more profound. He said: “I don’t think people are gay or lesbian or bisexual, I think people are sexual and we do different things about it.” That’s the sort of thing that folks of an “intuitive-feeling” temperament do: they shift the lens to a different focus and reveal something larger. And when they do, they then live into that. And that can be a challenge for those around them who liked the lens the old way. But with the new lens, the “intuitive-feeling” person feels more alive.
Howard Thurman, the great African American theologian who influenced many leaders of the Civil Rights movement, said:
“Don’t ask what the world needs.
Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it.
Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
Is transformation for everybody?
In one way, transformation is for everybody. None of us is the same person we once were, because we keep learning and growing our whole lives through. Yes, a core of us persists, but we gain greater clarity, or perspective, or knowledge, or awareness of deeper meaning, of a deeper commitment to something, and something has changed in how that core is and moves in the world. If faith is a way of moving and being in the world, one could say that we become more true to the core of who we are, or we fulfill the potential that core represents, or we grow a larger soul. In that way, transformation is for everybody.
In another way, transformation is not for everybody. Folks who come alive by “becoming” can go at transformation head-on. But for most folks, transformation is more a by-product of doing what makes us come alive: having freedom to act, devoting ourselves to service, acquiring knowledge, skill and understanding, or something else. Transformation – as a by-product – helps us stay more alive, if it’s a healthy change. For each of Kiersey and Bates’ four temperaments, there is a stumbling block – a temptation that may offer us an idol to divert us from having life more abundantly. For the “sensing-perceiving” temperament, the longing for freedom to act may become enthusiasm for action, a pride in pure activity that disengages from purpose. For the “sensing-judging” temperament, the longing to serve may become enthusiasm for a way of serving, a pride in pure structure and form of practice that likewise disengages from purpose. For the “intuitive-thinking” temperament, the longing for knowledge and skill may become enthusiasm for knowing, a pride in pure knowledge that disengages from the mystery of the cosmos. And for the “intuitive-feeling” temperament, the longing for transformation may become enthusiasm for one particular episode of growth, a pride in accomplishment that likewise disengages from the mystery of the soul.
Purpose and mystery are essential to the transformation that is for everybody. To be adrift without purpose or impervious to mystery is a kind of death in the soul that hinders your efforts to be your truest you, your most alive self. It keeps you from having life and having it abundantly.
May you each know with depth and clarity what makes you feel most alive, and may you go do it: for that is what the world needs. So may it be. Amen.