“Faith Is Finding Truth” 8/13/2017

Let us unite in the spirit of contemplation.
Following the prayer, we will enter into a time of silence
which you can use for meditation, reflection, or the prayers of your heart.
We’ll close the silence by singing together “Voice Still and Small.”

I lift up those injured, and the woman and police helicopter crew who died, this weekend in Charlottesville. We hold them and their families in love and prayer.

I lift up the many political leaders who made appropriate statements condemning white supremacy, racism and hatred this weekend.

I also lift up with gratitude the names of UUA President the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray and our friend on the UUA Southern Region staff, the Rev. Carlton Elliott Smith, who witnessed prominently in Charlottesville this weekend and thankfully were not harmed in the violence there.

A lot of white supremacists showed up in Charlottesville, and it is significant that most came from out of state: overt white supremacists cannot muster a local crowd that size. Frightful as the scene was, it also contains that note of hope.

And their decline underscores the importance of dismantling the effects of a formerly dominant white supremacy culture on all of our public and private institutions. Working to introduce restorative, instead of merely punitive, justice into our law enforcement and judicial systems, is one piece of the work that we are called to do – because we are directly connected by the assault during our General Assembly to systems that, in our name as citizens and (vainly) in the name of justice, generate revenge instead of healing.

If you are available during the day on August 17th, I would invite you to join us at the Criminal Court at Tulane & Broad where we will respectfully show up for restorative justice.

I invite you now to speak the names of those in our circles of family and friendship who are in special need of our prayers and ministries:


Let us hold these beloveds in our hearts
as we contemplate the Spirit together:

Spirit of Life and Love, Justice and Peace,
A lot is coming at us these days.
Living nightmares for some of us.
For others, just the lid come off a pot long boiling.
Life feels intense more often and in more ways.
We take up work for change and reform
and wonder if the weight of inertia can be shifted.
We reach out to our neighbors
and wonder who we can trust.
We move our cars to – we hope – higher ground
and wonder what we can rely on.
We find ourselves in this state of wonder,
wondering where the strength of resolve
that we felt short months ago
has gone.
This is not the sense of wonder we sing of in our hymns.
Or is it?

Come what may, O Spirit of Life,
May this uncomfortable wonder remind us
of some important facets of the love we seek to be:
active care.
May it inspire the wonder we sing about
when we see these capacities
in ourselves and each other.
May it renew our resolve to be, at least,
reliable, trustworthy, and actively caring
As we take manageable steps to work for the changes,
the reforms,
the renewals of life and love, justice and peace,
Bending the arc, channeling the currents,
reining in the machine, unleashing community,
being the change we want to see,
being as neighbors are supposed to be.
Deep breaths.
Morning walks.
Songs in our hearts.
Made strong again.

In the Spirit, by the Spirit, with the Spirit giving power,
so may it be. Amen.

Let us enter into silence together.

Meditation Hymn ​#391 Voice Still and Small​

READING: “A Million Objects” & commentary by Nyogen Senzaki

[The student] Yangshan asked [his teacher] Kweishan:
“If a million objects come to you, what do you do?”
Kweishan answered:
“A green article is not yellow. A long thing is not short.
Each object manages its own fate.
Why should I interfere with them?”
Yangshan paid homage with a bow.
[And this is the Commentary:]… If gladness and sorrow come at the same time, if pleasure and pain gather around [you], how should [you] manage them? If [you have] to judge loss and gain, liking and disliking at the same moment, what ought [you] really to do? …
If you search for an article in your desk … Each drawer contains something of importance, but if the article is not there, the other things have nothing to do with you at the moment. Would you leave all the drawers open, or empty them all on the floor?

Sermon​ “Faith is Finding Truth” 

I read an engaging confession by a journalist this week. She wrote about what she learned when she won a writing fellowship that sent her to live in Turkey for two years:

“In my first few months in Istanbul,” she says, “I lived a formless kind of existence, days dissolving into the nights. I had no office to go to, no job to keep, and I was 30 years old, an age at which people either choose to grow up or remain stuck in the exploratory, idle phase of late-late youth. Starting all over again in a foreign country – making friends, learning a new language, trying to find your way through a city – meant almost certainly choosing [to remain stuck]. I spent many nights out until the wee hours…”

She reflects that: “The experience of going to a radically new place, as college was to me, upended my sense of the world and its possibilities. The same thing happened when I moved to New York after college, and a few years later when I moved to Istanbul. All change is dramatic for provincial people. But the last move was the hardest. In Turkey, the upheaval was far more unsettling: after a while, I began to feel that the entire foundation of my consciousness was a lie.”

This journalist, Suzy Hansen, describes her formative years – the 1980s – in the community of Wall, New Jersey: “a town located by the Jersey Shore, two hours’ drive from New York. Much of it was a landscape of concrete and parking lots, plastic signs and Dunkin’ Donuts. There was no centre, no Main Street, as there was in most of the pleasant beach towns nearby, no tiny old movie theatre or architecture suggesting some sort of history or memory. Most of my friends’ parents were teachers, nurses, cops or electricians, except for the rare father who worked in ‘the City’, and a handful of Italian families who did less legal things. My parents were descendants of working-class Danish, Italian and Irish immigrants who had little memory of their European origins, and my extended family ran an inexpensive public golf course, where I worked as a hot-dog girl in the summers. The politics I heard about as a kid had to do with taxes and immigrants, and not much else. … We were all patriotic, but I can’t even conceive of what else we could have been, because our entire experience was domestic, interior, American. We went to church on Sundays, until church time was usurped by soccer games. I don’t remember a strong sense of civic engagement. Instead I had the feeling that people could take things from you if you didn’t stay vigilant. Our goals remained local: homecoming queen, state champs, a scholarship to Trenton State, barbecues in the backyard. The lone Asian kid in our class studied hard and went to Berkeley; the Indian went to Yale. Black people never came to Wall. The world was white, Christian; the world was us.

“We did not study world maps, because international geography, as a subject, had been phased out of many state curriculums long before. There was no sense of the US being one country on a planet of many countries. … By the time I got to high school, I knew that communism had gone away, but never learned what communism had actually been (“bad” was enough). Religion, politics, race – they washed over me like troubled things that obviously meant something to someone somewhere, but that had no relationship to me, to Wall, to America. I certainly had no idea that most people in the world felt those connections deeply. History – America’s history, the world’s history – would slip in and out of my consciousness with no resonance whatsoever. … I was lucky that I had a mother who nourished my early-onset book addiction, an older brother with mysteriously acquired progressive politics, and a father who spent his evenings studying obscure golf antiques, lost in the pleasures of the past. In these days of the 1%, I am nostalgic for Wall’s middle-class modesty and its sea-salt Jersey Shore air. But as a teenager, I knew that the only thing that could rescue me from the Wall of fear was a good college.”

The Wall of fear. At those words, I had to take a deep breath. “If a million objects come to you, what do you do?” Breathe.

Suzy Hansen’s experience in some ways paralleled and in some ways was radically different from mine. West St. Louis County in the 1970s was also a landscape of concrete and parking lots, plastic signs and Dunkin’ Donuts, with no center and no Main Street. My folks were both of German heritage, purebred on my Mom’s side and more muttlike on my Dad’s. “Beedle” is an English name, and somewhere about there is a vague Dutch connection that came to the fore when my parents lived in Holland for three years. We did have a dim sense of our European origins, possibly because my parents and grandparents experienced the downside of such consciousness during the World Wars, in which my father and grandfather fought for America. And in high school my German class had an exchange program that brought several German students to St. Louis and forged international relationships between the families involved. Because of that, and a high school choir trip to a competition in Mexico, and my folks’ period living in Holland, I had several opportunities to live for a few weeks at a time in other countries; later I ventured for three weeks on my own to visit a pen pal in Thailand. The experience I had of living abroad any longer than that I got vicariously through my parents and my older sister, who spent a year abroad in Spain in college.

We had a modest, midwestern sense of civic responsibility, loving our country without calling ourselves “patriots.” That word always seemed over the top to me. I didn’t have summer jobs, I had summer music camp and such things. We went to church on Sundays at a time when, where we were, Sunday morning soccer was unthinkable. Civic engagement, for us, was working as a Republican poll judge, which both my parents did. My earliest political memory is Nixon’s televised resignation speech, and I had a certain fondness for Jerry Ford, who reminded me in some ways of my college-football-seasoned Dad. And I can relate to Suzy Hansen’s sense that religion, politics, and race washed over her like troubled things that had no relationship to her or her communities.

She is only about ten years younger than me, and yet her school experience is unimaginable to me. Yes, we studied world maps, and had to memorize the names of the countries and their capitals! No phase-outs in the Midwest! At least not where we were. In the 1970s, communism and the Cold War were facts of life. In the bucolic middle-class suburbs where I grew up, my friends’ parents likely had corporate jobs, though I don’t remember the subject of our parents’ work lives arising much.

Moving from Cleveland, Ohio, to St. Louis the summer before I entered the 8th grade meant escaping the kind of ethnic consciousness and resentments Hansen describes in New Jersey. And there was as yet no worry for us about being vigilant about our possessions. The world was mostly Christian like us, but not only that, and while there were some neighborhoods (yes, notably the black ones) where we didn’t feel it was safe to go, in Cleveland we did go there, Mom and I, to deliver our church’s donations to the Garden Valley Neighborhood House. Had our St. Louis church had a similar ministry, I have no doubt we’d have been going up to Ferguson or Kinloch with gifts of suburban largesse.

I decidedly did not anticipate college as a rescue from a life of fear. But it was similarly eye-opening. For Suzy Hansen, it was about class: students from my economic bracket looking down on her and her hometown friends as “white trash.” She writes: “We were hurt, and surprised; white trash was something we said about other people at the Jersey Shore. My boyfriend from Wall accused me of going to Penn solely to find a boyfriend who drove a Ferrari, and the boys at Penn made fun of the Camaros we drove in high school. Class in America was not something we understood in any structural or intellectual way; class was a constellation of a million little materialistic cultural signifiers, and the insult, loss or acquisition of any of them could transform one’s future entirely.” For me it was about human diversity and expression. I lived in a dorm set aside for students with an interest (and not necessarily a major) in the arts. I came in daily domestic contact with peers of various faiths, ethnicities, races, sexual orientations, and artistic and intellectual interests and disciplines. For me, as for Hansen, it was a first step into a wider world.
In college, I resisted the yuppie go-getter ethos of the 1980s, remaining a child of the 1970s. But Hansen embraced the times in college, and claims: “I was a child of the 90s, the decade when, according to America’s foremost intellectuals,’history’ had ended, the US was triumphant, the cold war won by a landslide.” Had I embraced the 1980s, I doubt I’d be in ministry now. I was tempted to enter the banking world, and did after a fashion: I became a computer operator at a bank following my short and inglorious career in not-for-profit arts management, a 1970s profession if there ever was one. That career took me from the Midwest to New York, a hard experience of culture shock that, all things considered, I still think can compare with her two years in Turkey.


Among the strange things she encountered there was a widespread belief among Turks that the United States bombed itself on September 11th, 2001. She usually replied that if that were so, an American journalist would have found it out. Then came this exchange with a university student:
“I repeated my claim about believing in the integrity of American journalism. She replied, a bit sheepishly,’Well, right, we can’t trust our journalism. We can’t take that for granted.’
The words ‘take that for granted’ gave me pause. Having lived in Turkey for more than a year, witnessing how nationalistic propaganda had inspired people’s views of the world and of themselves, I wondered from where the belief in our objectivity and rigour in journalism came. Why would Americans be objective and everyone else subjective?”

“My learning process abroad was threefold:” she writes. “I was learning about foreign countries; I was learning about America’s role in the world; and I was also slowly understanding my own psychology, temperament and prejudices. … How could I, as an American, understand a foreign people, when unconsciously I did not extend the most basic faith to other people that I extended to myself? This was a limitation that was beyond racism, beyond prejudice and beyond ignorance. This was a kind of nationalism so insidious that I had not known to call it nationalism; this was a self-delusion so complete that I could not see where it began and ended, could not root it out, could not destroy it.”

She muses: “For all their patriotism, Americans rarely think about how their national identities relate to their personal ones. This indifference is particular to the psychology of white Americans and has a history unique to the US. In recent years, however, this national identity has become more difficult to ignore. Americans can no longer travel in foreign countries without noticing the strange weight we carry with us. In these years after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the many wars that followed, it has become more difficult to gallivant across the world absorbing its wisdom and resources for one’s own personal use. Americans abroad now do not have the same swagger, the easy, enormous smiles. You no longer want to speak so loud. There is always the vague risk of breaking something.”

“Some years after I moved to Istanbul,” she says, “I bought a notebook, and … I wrote down … a question: who do we become if we don’t become Americans? If we discover that our identity as we understood it had been a myth? I asked it because my years as an American abroad in the 21st century were not a joyous romp of self-discovery and romance. Mine were more of a shattering and a shame, and even now, I still don’t know myself.”

I think that might be where I would have ended up had I gone into banking. (So 70s of me to put it that way!) In all of this cross-cultural learning – be it of class, section, nation or race, sexuality or gender or whatever else – we encounter social powers and powers of our psyches that are beyond our control. How to respond to powers beyond our own is a core concern of theology. One classic definition of theology is “faith seeking understanding” – this presupposes that faith finds truth that it needs to understand. And if we come to feel, like Suzy Hansen, that our personal or collective identity, or both, is a myth without meaning that leaves us not knowing who we are, then we are surely in a crisis of faith seeking a better, more helpful understanding. If we come to feel that we are infused with a self-delusion so complete that we cannot see where it begins and ends, cannot root it out, cannot destroy it, then we are in need of a kind of healing only faith can supply. And that means we need each other.

Another journalist, David Baron, writes about the experience of powers beyond our own in the cosmos:

“A total eclipse is a primal, transcendent experience. The shutting off of the sun does not bring utter darkness; it is more like falling through a trapdoor into a dimly lit, unrecognizable reality. The sky is not the sky of the earth — neither the star-filled dome of night nor the immersive blue of daylight, but an ashen ceiling of slate. A few bright stars and planets shine familiarly, like memories from a distant childhood, but the most prominent object is thoroughly foreign. You may know, intellectually, that it is both the sun and moon, yet it looks like neither. It is an ebony pupil surrounded by a pearly iris. It is the eye of the cosmos. The sight, for many, is humbling and mystical. … The hypnotic effect appears to extend beyond humans. …. Firm hands tremble, eloquent tongues freeze, sharp minds grow addled. … A total eclipse obstructs not only the sun’s direct light, but its heat, which can cause an abrupt change in atmospheric conditions—sometimes turning a calm day unsettled; at other times, the opposite. … [In] precisely one saros—the eighteen-year period over which these astronomical conjunctions repeat themselves … [t]he cycle [ends] and then, like the seasons, [is] renewed. Eclipses, I find, connect the present with the past like few other natural events. For me, personally, they are life milestones. Each forces me to reflect on who I was the last time I gazed at the corona. For us, collectively — as a society, a nation, a civilization — they can have the same indelible, life-affirming effect. They afford a chance not only to grasp the majesty and power of nature, but to wonder at ourselves—who we are, and who we were when the same shadow long ago touched this finite orb in the boundless void.”

Baron muses: “The accumulation of scientific knowledge does not occur in a simple, linear fashion. Doctrines embraced in one generation are jettisoned the next. Seemingly productive avenues of research abruptly dead-end. Scientific discoveries and events acclaimed in their day fade into obscurity with the passage of time. … for such is the nature of scientific progress: less an organized march than a series of stumbles.”

So it is with faith and theology. How do we respond when a million things come to us? Breathe. And then:
Let’s stand together meeting eye to eye,
different creeds and cultures, praise diversity!
What we have in common we shall keep in mind.
And together we may grow in faith.
So may it be. Amen.


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