Monday, June 17, 2013

Language of Reverence: Conversion (June 16, 2013)

John Newton had, by any standard, a rough start in life. His mother died when he was only seven, and his father left him with a step-mother he hardly knew while away at sea, and then shipped him off to a boarding school where he was tormented. At age 11 he went to sea with his father, who was an English shipmaster in the Mediterranean. At age 18 Newton was taken pressed into service in the Royal Navy as a midshipman. When he tried to dessert he was whipped 8 dozen times in front of the crew, and demoted to common seaman. This experience was so mortifying and painful for him that he considered suicide. Then, while his ship was sailing to India Newton transferred to a new ship, the Pegasus, a ship that imported goods West Africa then took slaves on the return voyage. Apparently even on this new ship Newton was just not a team player, and so he was left with the slave dealer who “gave him” to an African duchess. Finally in 1748, when he was 23, his father asked a sea captain to search for him, and Newton was rescued.

It was on his trip back to England on a ship called the Greyhound that he had the conversion experience described in the song “Amazing Grace.” The ship came upon a storm so severe, that the ship began to fill with water. Newton “called out to God” to save them. A piece of Cargo drifted into a position which stopped up the hole and the ship was saved. On the rest of the trip Newton began to read the bible and other Christian tracts, and when he reached England he formally converted to evangelical Christianity. He gave up gambling and drinking, and eventually became a preacher.[i]

This is the quintessential conversion story, is it not? In a moment of despair a frightened soul reaches out for God, and his life is changed forever. And Newton had his conversion to an evangelical Christianity, like so many we hear about on the Family Life network, or from our friends and neighbors. But I would like to propose that it is possible to have a UU Conversion. The word “Conversion” comes from the Latin root Vertere- to turn.[ii] As a people who believe in spiritual growth, we know that being able to turn is important. We know that it is possible to grow up with one set of ideas, and then to realize in adulthood that those dearly held beliefs (the fancy word for this is “Theological Circle”) no longer fits your experience of life. Sometimes this happens because we are reading new books, or stretching ourselves to consider new ideas. Sometimes this happens when tragedy strikes and our old ideas cannot sustain us through these difficult times. Whether it comes to us through our own searching or through tragedy, almost always turning is painful. A turning of mind and heart is not easy but as the author Anais Nin wrote “the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” Sometimes blossoming means rupturing that theological circle, so that a new circle can evolve, a larger circle that holds our next experiences, our new wisdom.

Change hardly ever happens all at once, though. So perhaps I should not have been surprised to find that even after this amazing conversion Newton did not give up working in the slave trade. Newton took a job on a slave ship called Brownlow in 1748 and on the first part of the voyage he came down with a horrible fever, which lead him to a second conversion experience where he “asked God to take control of his destiny.” It was at this time he said he “felt totally at peace with God.”

We like to think once we’ve had that conversion experience, once we’ve turned, we are finally set once and for all. But in point of fact no circle will be big enough to hold us all our lives. As we grow we need our wisdom to grow with us.

When I was installed at the Palo Alto church, I asked my mentor Geoff Rimositis to offer the “Charge to the minister” and with the charge he delivered that day he gave me a compass. Geoff was a backpacker, and one of the best things about the youth program at his church was that each summer he and the other minister would take all their Jr. high kids out on a week-long backpacking trip to start the new year together. So Geoff knew something about the importance of a compass and as an MRE of over 20 years he knew and still knows something about finding your way as a minster. He pointed out that there are two kinds of north on the compass, magnetic north and true north. And he advised that sometimes in our lives we lose track of true north. That really resonated for me- the truth that throughout our lives we are constantly turning and re-turning to find our way back to true north.

Another minister I look up to, Brian Jessup, said his mission in both life and ministry was the “Constant conversion of my heart to love and to justice” . This also has stuck with me now for over a decade because it reminds me that conversion is not a one-time deal, but something that is available to us every moment in which we choose true north. Every moment we can turn from whatever path we are on, toward love, toward Justice.

Well, even after Newton’s second, true conversion, did he give up working in the slave trade? No. He made three more voyages, now as captain of slaving ships until 1754. And even after having a stroke that caused him to leave seafaring, he still invested in slave ships. Finally in 1757 he applied to become a minister, and it turned out to be something he was good at. He became known for his pastoral care, and as a compelling evangelical preacher. In 1779 he wrote the words to the famous song “Amazing Grace.”

It wasn’t until 1788, 24 years after leaving the slave trade, that Newton published a book called “Thoughts upon the slave trade” which described the horrible conditions of the Middle passage. He offered "a confession, which ... comes too late ... It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders." He became a lobbyist for abolishing the slave trade, living to see the “Slave Trade Act of 1807” passed in parliament just before he died that very year.
American Buddhist Teacher Jack Kornfield puts this in a way that makes a lot of sense to me – he says “After The Ecstasy, The Laundry” After these moments of clarity and insight, there we are with our ordinary mundane lives. Laundry needs to be done, bills have to be paid. Just because your heart has been turned, doesn’t mean your partner has, or your friends, or your boss. The way forward can be confusing after a turn of heart. I had always heard the story of Amazing Grace told as if in one moment, during that storm at sea Newton had reached out in prayer, and in one moment -- “The hour I first believed” -- had been both converted in faith and turned to renounce the slave trade. In fact that turning took a lifetime. Says Wendell berry:
“whatever is foreseen in joy
Must be lived out from day to day.
Vision held open in the dark
By our ten thousand days of work.”[iii]
That work Newton did in the pulpit, in parliament, in writing about his experiences of the slave trade. It took him some 40 years to fully live out that turning. Berry goes on to say:
“And yet no leaf or grain is filled
By work of ours; the field is tilled
And left to grace. That we may reap
Great work is done while we’re asleep”
 Grace. Oh My. Now we’ve come to another one of those sticky words--Grace. In traditional Christianity Grace is a divine gift, given not because we have earned it or deserve it, but in an outpouring of generosity. There’s nothing in the story of Newton’s early life that show us he deserved special favor. He was a gambler, a drinker, a slave trader, and apparently kind of a jerk; he was so hard to deal with he was abandoned in Africa. And Yet…And yet when he cried out from the depth of his fear and pain, something happened for him. Something turned. This is especially important for us Universalists, the idea that salvation is available to anyone, that any one of us can convert our hearts to love and to justice, no matter what unprincipled jerks we’ve been in the past.

AND- and here is the hard part- this idea of Grace suggests that help is available. This idea is found not just in Christianity, but in all the faith traditions I have studied- that when you have even had the thought “Could I turn?” that with the first thought “I WANT to turn” that is the divine calling to us, helping us find our way. The great Universalist preacher Hosea Ballou believed that people would turn toward God because God called to us, wooed us, because divine goodness shines out to us. Berry helps us understand that Grace is there for atheists as well. “No leaf or grain is filled by work of ours” he writes. And anyone who has planted a garden knows this. It is hard work. We till the soil, we sow the seeds, we water, and then we wait. We hope. We leave it to grace, and so often those tiny seeds grow into a tomato plant, into a rambling zucchini vine that gives and gives, that feeds us and our families. That’s what my garden looks like right now- a bed of soil interrupted periodically by little seedlings waiting for grace.

Conversion is deciding to plant the seed. Those who tend their garden day by day, water those seeds, weed, are more likely to see this new life grow into something that will nourish them in time to come. That same grace, the grace that turned an unprincipled jerk into a reformer who worked to end the slave trade, the same grace that turns a tiny seed into a zucchini plant that rambles and gives and gives, that same grace is there for each of us each time we look deep into ourselves and ask “am I headed true north? Is there more that I can be?”

Life is confusing. It is easy to get lost among the many voices in the world calling to us to follow them—lost among the many voices in our own mind and heart pointing in different directions. Conversion, at its best, is finding true north and turning towards it; “I once was lost but now am found, Was blind, but now I see.” And anyone who has sailed a ship or hiked an unmarked trail knows that it is not just one turning, but a turning again and again back to true north, a constant conversion of the heart to love and to justice. I want you to know this morning, that conversion is not just something that happens to our evangelical neighbors, it is there for us as well. That turning of the heart back toward true north is always available to us whenever we are lost.

[i] Most of this retelling comes from
[iii] A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems, 1979-1997 By Wendell Berry

Monday, June 3, 2013

Language of Reverence: Prayer (June 2, 2013)

Earlier this year our worship team did a service about “Sticky words”- those theological words that make us uncomfortable. It turns out our most sticky words are “Hell” and “Sin” and right after that comes “prayer.”  Why is that word “prayer” so troublesome for us? The most obvious answer would seem to be our diverse theology. Does prayer exclude atheists? What about agnostics- does it feel ingenuine to pray if you are not sure whether God exists?  Moreover,  prayer seems to imply a transcendent God, right? A God of some heavenly realm far removed from us. Or maybe, maybe it’s the idea of a God whose hand we see on cartoon shows reaching down from heaven to move us around like pawn pieces.  Such an image of the divine goes against our own sense of free will and moral agency, it contradicts what we have observed of the natural laws of science lived out in our world.

But I think one of the main reasons that prayer is a sticky word for us is that it doesn’t seem to work. Even the most fervent prayers that a loved one will be spared the ravages of cancer, do not keep them from being torn from our lives. A lottery winner says her prayers were answered, and it makes us wonder, what about the other million people who prayed to win that jackpot?  Maybe prayer is a sticky word for us because we have prayed for something we needed desperately and felt betrayed when our prayers went unanswered.

The story of that little broken bird offers us a new way of looking at prayer—a new way of answering the question “does prayer work?”  Let’s approach this question the way we have approached all  our sticky words this year; with an open mind.  Asking “it is possible  that at as a growing changing person with a growing changing theology, there a new meaning here for me? Asking “as a living tradition is there something in the word “prayer”  that we Unitarian Universalists  can reclaim? As a community that “encourages spiritual growth” I would like for us to consider reclaiming this word “prayer” by stretching it bigger and opening it to be more inclusive.

First let’s widen the purposes of prayer. Those of you who grew up in the Catholic Tradition are probably already familiar with their division of prayer into 4 basic kinds, but for me, growing up UU, this was new and useful information when I first came upon it. The kind of prayer we are most familiar with is the “Prayer of Petition (asking for what we need, including forgiveness)”  What right, we might ask, do we have to ask the universe to heal us when so many others are sick, to ask that we get the new job we need so much when others go without work. So I want to bring a little bit of neo-pagan wisdom to help open this up for us. In the Neo-pagan tradition the process of clarifying intention is very important. It’s so easy to go along with the group, to go along with “how things are” and never take the time to say “What I would really like is to have a closer relationship with my partner, a job that is meaningful, healthy blood vessels.” Just taking time to clarify this intention could mean that next time you are alone with your spouse, you remember that intention, and reach out. So for Atheists, a petitioning prayer could have the utility of clarifying intention. For theists, and even agnostics, there is always the possibility that we could be aided and abetted by the universe in creating the reality our hearts yearn for. Perhaps opening our hearts in prayer could help us open our eyes to help when it does come, instead of  being trapped in that desperate feeling that we have to do it all ourselves. As Wendell berry says “Let tomorrow come tomorrow. Not by your will is the house carried through the night.[i]” Whether we believe in God or not, we are all part of something larger than ourselves.

I imagine that most of us are  also familiar with “Prayer of Intercession (asking for what others need)”  We in this beloved community practice this through our time of Joys and Concerns, and through the silent reflection that follows. Spending time considering and empathizing with the needs of others  is important because it helps us reach out beyond our own joys and concerns out to all those beings with whom we share this world. Whether or not our prayers or thoughts for our sisters and brothers have any impact on outcome, perhaps those prayers of intercession help enlarge our own hearts, help us cultivate compassion for others, maybe even help us be part of that help for which our brothers and sisters cry out.

The third form of prayer is Prayer of Thanksgiving (for what God has given and done) [ii] Here is one form of prayer that science has proven in multiple studies to be effective. Psychologists, Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, Davis, and Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami, have done research linking gratitude practices with both physical and psychological well being[iii]. Another study links gratitude to reduced stress hormones in the blood, which is linked to heart health. [iv] A third study linked  practicing gratitude to  health of relationships[v]

Have you tried this for yourself?  Sometimes,  I am having a particularly rough day, when I am filled with grumbles about my lot in life, I  start naming things I am grateful for.  The grumpier I am, the more challenging this is, so I look for the most basic things, things as simple as breathing in and out, as simple as food to eat. And as soon as I can think of anything at all to be grateful for, something inside me turns and I remember a better self.

The final kind of prayer is Blessing and Adoration (praising God). This one gave me pause. Do we Unitarian Universalists do that? Can an atheist make a prayer or adoration? The Archdiocese of Boston says such prayers are offered “for the wonder and beauty of our world, and for all the many blessings we enjoy. We open ourselves up to praise God for all the wonders of creation.”  And this started to make sense to me. Wonder and awe I understand. Excommunicated Priest Mathew Fox, who has been a theological pioneer in creation spirituality, says that wonder and awe are critically important. He writes that “awe is the appropriate response to the unfathomable wonder that is creation from the magnificence of galaxies, to the complex and brilliant process of cell-differentiation, and the miracle of the human hand (product of 14 billion years of evolution). Imagine how much richer learning will be for all ages when we intentionally cultivate a sense of appreciation and wonder.” I think this is what the choir’s anthem today was getting at, and the poem by ee Cummings. Wonder is a balm for our jaded hearts. Wonder helps us see our world with new eyes.

The Boston Archdiocese goes on to say that “This form of prayer encourages bodily expression, such as standing with arms raised or dancing.” Wow. That sure opens up what prayer can be, right? Dancing can be prayer. Think about that classic shaker tune
“When true simplicity is gain'd,
To bow and to bend we shan't be asham'd,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come 'round right.[vi]
This song comes from a tradition in which dance and movement were a regular part of their worship.

James Forbes, the Pentecostal preacher who became a professor at Union Theological Seminary and who lead the Preaching seminar I attended this past February writes “Although there is a tendency in every tradition to make strong suggestions regarding prescribed patterns of spiritual formation, there is little to suggest that there is only one approach to spirit growth” he says we must “affirm the uniqueness… [of] the relationship of any one of us with the God whom we call Mother or Father”[vii]  If you have had the experience of going to pray in a new religious community, where everyone joins in unison with words they all seem to know by heart, perhaps you wonder, as I do, if maybe I am going to do it “wrong.” At the same conference where I heard James Forbes speak, I also attended an evening worship with Jai Utal. He is famous for leading a kind of devotional singing called “kirtan” which comes from the Hindu tradition.  As he prepared this group of a few hundred ministers, many of whom had never experienced kirtan before,  to enter with him into a time of chanting he said (and I have to paraphrase here, because I didn’t have a pen with me at the time) “you can dance, if you do that, or sing, or not sing. It can be kind of tiresome trying to draw spirit in, so just be where you are, see what is there, and I find spirit usually enters in.” 

Our relationship with that mother or father God is as unique as each one of us. Each of you has the right to reach out with open mind and heart.  Even when we don’t know how to pray. Even in anger. Forbes told us this story:
 “I remember once when I couldn’t find the words to appropriately address the God of my life. I knelt at my bed, stretched forth my arms and moved my shoulders in writing jerks of anguish. All I could utter were sighs and groans. But afterwards, I felt so much better that I said “Perhaps I can pray now.” But it seemed the spirit said to me” You don’t need to pray any more now. Heaven is equipped to receive choreographed prayer. Also, your sighs and groans have already been decoded and help is on the way.” [viii]
Here, perhaps, is the sticky part. What is this help that Forbes understood to be on the way? The great 20th century Jewish ­­­­­­­­­­theologian and rabbi writes Abraham Joshua Heschel might have an answer for us. He says: "Prayer invites God to be present in our spirits and in our lives.  Prayer cannot bring water to parched fields, or mend a broken bridge, or rebuild a ruined city; but prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart and rebuild a weakened will.” I believe this was the point of this morning’s story- that when that little bird sang out “from her broken wing and broken heart came notes of pleading, notes of sadness, notes of incredible beauty” Gradually her heart, if not her wing, was mended. Through her singing, her prayer, she found a new purpose in life and a new name.

This points, for me, to a 5th form of prayer --listening. After we have poured out our hearts, we just listen. In any conversation, in any attempt to build relationship, after we talk, we listen. Whether we are listening for the Holy Spirit as Forbes suggests, or for our own wisest self that sometimes lays hidden from us, we listen for that “still small voice.”  Maybe words will spring to mind, or  maybe  just a feeling of being heard, a feeling of calm, a feeling of being emptied,  or an experience of the mind as a still pond (which the Buddhists seek). Maybe in that listening we notice a feeling of being called to act, called to change.

Lately I am finding that one of the ways that prayer, or quiet reflection, “works” most reliably for me, is that it helps me remember what is truly important. Says yoga teacher Kate Holcomb “Taking time to differentiate between what’s just stuff out there and what’s me, and listening to the voice of my true Self, makes it a lot easier to make conscious, meaningful choices about how I spend my time and energy.”[ix]  Holcombe uses the word self with a capitol “S” which helps us acknowledge the theological idea found in Hinduism and other religious traditions that I am not separate from anything that is; there is a fundamental unity undergirding all things. Prayer can help us connect to that deeper unity, to a higher, deeper, wider Self. Listening to the voice of my true Self reminds me who I really am.

What I would hope we could each take away from today’s service is two-fold. First, I would like for us, when we are at a public event or with friends and they say “let’s pray together” I want for Unitarian Universalists to experience that as an inclusive rather than an exclusive act. We UUs do have a relationship to prayer.  It doesn’t matter whether your theology of prayer is different than that of your neighbors, we can reclaim that word so that it is authentic for us.

Second, I would like for each of us to have a practice, a path to that deep knowing, a practice building relationship to the web of life, that higher Self of which we are a part. Whether or not the word “prayer” ever stops being sticky, I wish for each person a practice building a relationship to the love that will never let us go… some practice to bring us comfort when we need it most-- to water an arid soul, mend a broken heart and rebuild a weakened will

[i] –from Wendell Berry’s What Are People For?



[iv] The original study can be found by looking up: R. McCraty, B. Barrios-Choplin, D. Rozman, M Atkinson & A. D. Watkins (1998) The impact of a new emotional self-management program on stress, emotions, heart rate variability, DHEA and cortisol. Integrative Physiological & Behavioral Science. 32 (2) 151-70.

Grant AM, et al. "A Little Thanks Goes a Long Way: Explaining Why Gratitude Expressions Motivate Prosocial Behavior," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (June 2010): Vol. 98, No. 6, pp. 946–55.
Lambert NM, et al. "Expressing Gratitude to a Partner Leads to More Relationship Maintenance Behavior," Emotion (Feb. 2011): Vol. 11, No. 1, pp. 52–60.
 [vi] Shaker song written and composed in 1848 by Elder Joseph Brackett. Also appears in our UU Hymnal Sing the Living Tradition]
 [vii] James Forbes “The Holy Spirit and Preaching” p. 72

[viii] Later I found this same story in his book- James Forbes “The Holy Spirit and Preaching” p. 73

[ix] Yoga Journal March 2013 “In the Clearing” by Valerie Reiss p. 88