There is usually at least a bit of truth in humour – and I think that’s especially true about religious humour. And so I will to begin with a particular classic form of humour: the venerable and time-honoured ‘light bulb joke.’
How many Unitarians does it take to change a lightbulb?
Along with all of the other light bulb jokes, there is at least one for just about every religion on the planet.
For example, it takes two Catholics: one to do it and a priest to hear him confess and give the old bulb last rites.
Or Trinitarian Christians? It takes three, but they're really one.
For Quakers, it takes 10 to sit around in a circle until one feels the inner light.
For Zen Buddhists? Two, one to screw it in and one not to screw it in.
OK. What is the answer for Unitarians?
“We choose not to make a statement either in favor of or against the need for a light bulb. However, if in your own journey you have found that light bulbs work for you, that is fine. You are invited to write a poem or compose a modern dance about your personal relationship with your light bulb, and present it next month at our annual Light Bulb Sunday Service, in which we will explore a number of light bulb traditions, including incandescent, fluorescent, three-way, long-life and tinted, all of which are equally valid paths to luminescence.”
There is some truth in this answer. And, at once, it speaks of what is wonderful about us and what can be downright infuriating.
At our best, the Unitarian tendency is to lean towards openness and inclusion. It is a view that seeks to expand our perspectives – to ensure that we see things from every possible angle – to explore situations and challenges before jumping to a biased conclusion or misguided action. At our best, we want to delve into issues and understand them deeply before acting.
At our worst, we talk and never get around to action. We not only sit in the dark, but while we’re sitting there, we complain about how dark it is – and form a committee to sit in that same dark and commiserate some more. It is always safer to put it off for the next meeting. It is always safer to do nothing.
But as Ghandi said many years ago now, “The difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing would suffice to solve most of the world's problems.”
I know. I know. The problems of the world are harder than mere light bulb changing. Much, much harder.
How many killings have we seen splashed across the news in the past few weeks? Nearly 100 Ahmadi Muslims gunned down at prayer in Pakistan because they have different beliefs from the Sunni majority. Twelve people murdered in a Cumbria rampage because of the unknown and unknowable suffering of a deranged gunman. Eight killed by Israeli commandos while attempting to break the Gaza naval blockade in the seemingly endless battle between Arabs and Jews where neither side seems able to comprehend the perspective of the other.
These are the ones we’ve seen. What we don’t see often are the millions of others suffering away from the view of the media in places where openness is not tolerated or where no one cares enough to look.
Every day, about 50,000 people around the world die from starvation and preventable disease – there are prisoners rotting away in fetid jail cells for their politics, their sexuality their addictions, or their illnesses.
It is not a cheery picture by any means, and there is no magic wand that anyone can wave to fix it.
In the face of such massive suffering and wrong, we would be forgiven for focusing on the few more newsworthy problems. It would be understandable for us to return to our ipods and televisions rather than engage in what is apparently a losing battle.
The Unitarian approach is a good one. Every one of the world’s daunting situations can benefit from the well-caricatured Unitarian tendency to talk about things. Dialog broadens perspective and brings understanding. Understanding promotes compassion. Compassion might actually be enough to make a change.
But simply talking about the world’s woes is not enough. More is required, but it can all seem so terribly overwhelming. Where does one begin?
The Talmud, a record of Jewish Rabbinical discussion and debate took on this question centuries ago:
“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”
To put it simply, it says to get started somewhere, doing the things that are right and good – knowing that you will not complete – or even see the completion of the work – but the fact that you will not complete it does not mean you should not start.
A Chinese story tells how one day, an elephant happened to see a hummingbird lying on its back with its tiny feet up in the air. "What are you doing?" asked the elephant.
The hummingbird replied, "I heard that the sky might fall today, and so I am ready to help hold it up, should it fall."
The elephant laughed cruelly. "Do you really think," he said, "that those tiny feet could help hold up the sky?"
The hummingbird kept his feet up in the air, intent on his purpose, as he replied, "Not alone. But each must do what he can. And this is what I can do."
The hummingbird is a depiction of faith. It doesn’t matter that it can not make a difference alone – the faith is not about believing that something will magically happen if we hope for it. The faith is in knowing and believing that, as Howard Zinn puts it “Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.”
Faith is in the willingness to start somewhere – to start anywhere – to start right here.
One morning, when passing a stream, an old man saw a scorpion floating helplessly in the water. As the scorpion was washed closer to the tree, the old man quickly stretched himself out on one of the long roots that branched out into the river and reached out to rescue the drowning creature. As soon as he touched it, the scorpion stung him. Instinctively the man withdrew his hand.
A minute later, after he had regained his balance, he stretched himself out again on the roots to save the scorpion. This time the scorpion stung him so badly with its poisonous tail that his hand became swollen and bloody and his face contorted with pain.
At that moment, a passerby saw the old man stretched out on the roots struggling with the scorpion and shouted: "Hey, what's wrong with you? Only a fool would risk his life for the sake of an ugly, evil creature. Don't you know you could kill yourself trying to save that ungrateful scorpion?"
Without taking his eyes from the scorpion the old man replied, "My friend, just because it is the scorpion's nature to sting, that does not change my nature to save."
The world may not thank us for our actions. We may receive pain in return. If we allow ourselves to be discouraged by the immediate response, we might as well stop before we begin.
The question we must ask ourselves is what kind of people do we choose to be? Will it be our nature to look the other way or will it be our nature to serve, to sustain, to soothe, and to save?
We close with the words of 19th century Unitarian minister Edward Everett Hale?
I am only one,
But still I am one.
I cannot do everything,
But still I can do something;
And because I cannot do everything
I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.
Spoken and silent meditation
Let’s take a moment now to reflect.
Relax and become comfortable where you are. Let go of any tension you may be holding. Let go of judgement and intellectual effort if you can, and just be still with the wisdom within you.
In the silence to come, consider yourself as you move through life. You may be young and you may be old. You may have many resources or few.
What role can you play in the advancement of our world toward greater happiness and satisfaction, toward less suffering and injustice? What is one thing you might do in the coming week to do your own hummingbird-sized part of holding up the sky?
Time of silence
May we find the strength, the inspiration, and the commitment to move from denial, to engagement, to understanding, and thence to action.