What did you notice?
The dew snail;
the low-flying sparrow;
the bat, on the wind, in the dark;
big-chested geese, in the V of sleekest performance;
the soft toad, patient in the hot sand;
the sweet-hungry ants;
the uproar of mice in the empty house;
the tin music of the cricket’s body;
the blouse of the goldenrod.
What did you hear?
The thrush greeting the morning;
the little bluebirds in their hot box;
the salty talk of the wren,
then the deep cup of the hour of silence.
What did you admire?
The oaks, letting down their dark and hairy fruit;
the carrot, rising in its elongated waist;
the onion, sheet after sheet, curved inward to the
pale green wand;
at the end of summer the brassy dust, the almost liquid
beauty of the flowers;
then the ferns, scrawned black by the frost.
What astonished you?
The swallows making their dip and turn over the water.
What would you like to see again?
My dog: her energy and exuberance, her willingness,
her language beyond all nimbleness of tongue, her
recklessness, her loyalty, her sweetness, her
sturdy legs, her curled black lip, her snap.
What was most tender?
Queen Anne’s lace, with its parsnip root;
the everlasting in its bonnets of wool;
the kinks and turns of the tupelo’s body;
the tall, blank banks of sand;
the clam, clamped down.
What was most wonderful?
The sea, and its wide shoulders;
the sea and its triangles;
the sea lying back on its long athlete’s spine.
What did you think was happening?
The green breast of the hummingbird;
the eye of the pond;
the wet face of the lily;
the bright, puckered knee of the broken oak;
the red tulip of the fox’s mouth;
the up-swing, the down-pour, the frayed sleeve
of the first snow—
so the gods shake us from our sleep.
~ Mary Oliver ~
There are times, my friends, when there is nothing I would rather do than minister to a vital Unitarian congregation like you. I wake up most mornings excited and inspired and enthusiastic to put on the mantle of the role that I have chosen and that you have given me the privilege to wear.
But - and you knew there was a “but” coming didn’t you? The “but” comes when I think about different styles of worship. In particular, I have attended worship services where the role of the congregation is not to be quietly attentive, to look interested, and to do their best to stay awake but to shout out their encouragement, approval, and their faith. “Amen!” they yell to something they agree with. “Preach it” they shout when the speaker is on a roll. And when they recognize something for which they can be deeply grateful, shouts of “praise God” or “hallelujah” are heard.
It is distinctly not the Unitarian tradition – it certainly doesn’t seem at all British either – although if you feel moved to shout something affirming and positive during this sermon, by all means go ahead!
Aside from a difference in style, the enthusiastic congregations I am talking about have a particular theological perspective that underlies their attitude in worship. This perspective - and how it relates to our own - is what I want to explore today. Perhaps it will be only me talking and perhaps you will catch a bit of that enthusiastic fervor and chime in a bit yourselves…
One of the most complex questions we can ask is “why do we have religion?” What is it that brought it into existence in the first place? What is it that persuades billions of people to make religion part of their lives? [wait]
These are difficult questions because there are so many plausible answers – ranging from the benevolent and supernatural to the all too human desire to control and manipulate others. And certainly, there are many very valid explanations that contribute to creating and sustaining the institution of religion.
One of the most important of these is and has always been that religion helps us to make sense of and to cope with a complex world that often presents us with misfortune and hardship. Why did the holocaust happen? Why did my kindly grandfather have to lose his memory to dementia and die at an early age? Why is there AIDS? Malaria? Cancer? How are we to live our lives amid suffering and uncertainty? [What are your questions?]
Religion provides a variety of approaches to understanding and coping with life’s challenges. Buddhism teaches a practical way to overcome suffering. Hinduism tells us that, through hardship, we are paying for what we have done in a past existence but that if we are good, it will go better for us the next time around.
The monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – explain life in the context of an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good God who is behind the existence and occurrences of the world as we know it. This God can be influenced by prayer. God rewards us for living according to God’s rules. God can not be completely understood by human beings. We must trust in God’s power and goodness, because God loves us and will care for us.
It is a reassuring vision. There is an almighty force for good behind the confusing, troubling happenings of the world. It is to this God that we owe our gratitude, our devotion, and our praise. And here it is – the reason for that exuberant worship I mentioned a few minutes ago. Praise the almighty God to whom we owe everything. Trust the God who provides everything we have. Give yourself over to the great God who gives us life and places us on this fair Earth. Hallelujah!
Let me tell you – that kind of theology can make for some really exciting worship. I would be overjoyed if an all powerful loving God appeared. I would be Mr. Hallelujah from that day forward!
Many of us, however, take a rather different view of life and its perplexing mix of suffering and joy. We can not bring ourselves to believe that there is an almighty good God behind all suffering. For us, it is most apparent that life brings a mix of good and bad and that the bad is really bad - just simply bad. While there may be a transcendent reality to existence, we are simply unable to accept that good is good and that bad is also good. We do not find sense in the notion of an all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing God that lets so much suffering go on.
Those of us in this position seek from our religion something a bit more subtle – something a bit more nuanced – something a bit more in keeping with the evidence before our eyes. Our religion must suggest to us how to cope with a world of intermingled suffering and joy without turning to the notion that it’s all part of God’s great but incomprehensible plan.
I have two questions: what approaches can religion offer that can meet this need and such an approach be something we can get excited about?
The kernel of such an approach is contained in the short story I shared earlier this morning.
"The pain of life is pure salt; no more, no less. The amount of pain in life remains the same, exactly the same. But the amount of bitterness we taste depends on the container we put the pain in. So when you are in pain, the only thing you can do is to enlarge your sense of things. . . . Stop being a glass. Become a lake."
The world in which we live is not purely good. There is bitterness aplenty in the suffering of this world. But there is also a richness of joy and beauty to be tasted as well.
Mary Oliver’s poem, Gratitude, gives us a flavor of what it is to engage fully with the world’s beauty. She ends with “so the gods shake us from our sleep” and so, indeed is the wondrous, awesome, goodness and beauty that is often called God to be found in the beauty of the ordinary miracles of life:
Georgia O’Keefe explained her enormously magnified flower paintings this way: “I said to myself -- I'll paint what I see -- what the flower is to me but I'll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it -- I will make even busy New Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers.”
What O’Keefe saw of flowers was the wonder and splendor that is sprinkled throughout creation. Whether we do or do not believe in an omnipotent God, there is enough beauty and goodness in the world to deserve our fulsome praise.
This is a religious path that is open to all.
“Do not waste yourself in rejection, nor bark against the bad” said Ralph Waldo Emerson, “but chant the beauty of the good.”
It seems simple enough, but we know it is not. The wonder is there, but we fail to notice its sweet melodious strains amid life’s strident terrors and sorrows.
Yes, there are those blessed moments when I notice the extravagant beauty of a simple flower or melt at the sweetness and innocence of a baby’s tiny, delicate, fingers. At such times, a leaf, a tree, a vibrant colour, the magic of electricity, a smile, a kindness between strangers… all of these connect me to the wonder and glory that is the world.
As many of you have, I have struggled at times with depression. In that despairing condition, none of life’s beauty is visible to me – only its ugliness. Depression is like colour blindness. The good and inspiring fades away into shadow leaving a tableau of monochromatic misery.
I offer no cure for depression. Like colour-blindness, it certainly has a physiological basis. But a sure sign of the return from those depths is the renewed ability to glimpse beauty once again.
For all of us, whether depressed or not, the wonders of the world are there to be seen, heard, touched, smelled and tasted.
Can we get excited about it? We do not rejoice enough. We do not praise enough. We do not dance with joy enough.
Hallelujah comes from the Hebrew. Hallel – praise, jah – God. It is the word associated with gratitude and praise for all we have been given – for all the beauty that surrounds us. And Hallelujah does not signify a sedate kind of praise. Hallel in Hebrew is a joyous praise can also mean to act madly or foolishly. Hallel - praise with ecstatic joy.
We can be sad and weep with passion
We can be angry with great enthusiasm.
What about praise and gratitude? What will it take for us to be joyous with as much feeling as our other emotions? What will it take for a hallelujah to emerge from our lips, whether our gratitude is to God or simply an appreciation of the uncreated eternal beauty around us?
The Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh says this:
“People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don't even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child -- our own two eyes. All is a miracle.”
We are surrounded by wonder and miracle!
The fact that each of us is alive and here together today is a miracle
Our ability to hear, see, smell, taste, touch - these are miracles
Every time we give or receive love - we know this is a miracle
How will you respond to the everyday wonders and miracles around you?
I would invite you to speak now, in a word or two, one of the millions of everyday wonders of life. As you hear something called out, please feel free to respond in some way that shows your gratitude.
May we be ever aware of the beauty and wonder of this glorious world. When any one of us loses sight of these blessings, let this be a place where they may regain their vision.
So may it be with you.