“Fumbling for a Light in the Fog”
Delivered to First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco, June 13, 2010
I want to begin today by saying “Thank you.” I began my first sermon back in September by saying that, not knowing what I was getting into, but confident that this congregation would have some very important things to teach me, if I paid attention. I’ve certainly been witness to some changes. You’ve shown me a capital campaign for the Beyond Sunday position. I’ve seen difficult staff transitions, and a variety of responses. You’ve shown me a way of being together politically, sometimes obstinately, while edging closer to determining the purpose of this society. I’ve met with many people individually and heard a desire to find ways of setting aside the spirit of confrontational debate, and to feel the strength of unity. From my one-on-one conversations, I know this obstinacy comes not from within people, but rather seems a learned way of being. It feels like a transpersonal force at work, teaching expectations of difficulty to each generation of members as they arrive. I imagine that spirit has been active here for quite a few decades. And I realize that with our fifth principle (the one about the democratic process and the right of conscience), that spirit may just be part of the Unitarian Universalist way, yet that spirit has played havoc with our ability to readily determine our purpose and identity. With so much riding on how we are in the world, and what we do, I think it’s most critical that we have our bearings correct on who we are and our reason for being.
Before relaying my story of the San Francisco fog, I want to complexify a common notion. People often think of the big battles in life as good vs. evil, as light fighting to shine in the darkness, and that’s partially true. But also, in this age of information, I think the case is frequently about discovering the source of the light amid the fog reflecting and diffusing it with conflicting information and confusion. Now my story: A few years ago, I was driving to meet up with Stephanie at the UCSF nursing school on Parnassus. When I got to the city, it was really foggy. I remember turning off of Market onto Duboce. Inexplicably, the car was devoid of maps. With no map, compass, or GPS, I figured if I just proceed west, I’d hit Stanyan or Divisadero or Masonic or some big street, which would lead me back to Fell or Parnassus and from there, I can get to UCSF. I went west and the easy-to-navigate grid ended when I ran into Buena Vista park. I went a little ways around and my best guess is that I took a left onto Upper Terrace, which turns into an odd curlycue cul-de-sac. After getting turned around and around at least twice, and then being spat back out, I had completely lost my bearings.
I looked to the sky to see the position of the sun that morning, or perhaps which direction the shadows of the trees were falling? No such luck, because of the thick blanket of fog. I kept repeating my patterns of lostness, ending up twice on the curvy section of Market, and twice on 17th Street, but not quite sure which direction to get to UCSF. I was completely baffled in that fog and must’ve wasted upwards of half an hour. In this case, my confusion was of relatively little consequence, as it just meant Stephanie just had to wait a little bit longer to get picked up, and was a little amused.
But in the other kind of fog—that metaphorical fog—the effects of getting waylaid may be much less inconsequential. People’s lives may be on the line based on what we do or do not do. When we’re disoriented and not arriving in a timely manner, if people depend on us, there will be trouble.
That said, I think as UUs, we have a tendency to underestimate our importance in the world, AND strangely enough, to overestimate it at the same time. We underestimate ourselves when we forget that our rich discourse of theology and worldviews can lead to amazing transformations in individual lives and in cultures that we touch. Yet we overestimate our importance when we forget that that discourse provides only a rich bedrock foundation for determining one or more courses of action, and then following them. Without significant and meaningful action, our theology lacks teeth and meaning, standing inert in the world.
Along with the seven UU principles, our theology of a loving, all-saving God and of humans living up to their potential, shines a light to help inform our identity. As individuals in US culture, the point has been hammered home that we are consumers and workers. But that way of thinking tries to confuse the fact that you and I may want to choose our greater purpose to be that of sharer, problem-solver, advocate, or witness. Given conflicting messages, psychologically speaking, we become ambivalent, so we have a tough time deciding between courses of action, and then we may likely just fall back into our old habits.
In this congregation, our default purpose may seem to be that of staying financially solvent, or growing in membership, but those don’t tend to tug at people as strongly as might a haven of spirit and culture for personal growth, or the purpose of fomenting social changes in immigration laws, advocating housing rights for the homeless, or even a purpose as straightforward as training new ministers. (I did mention my gratitude, right? This congregation’s history of taking on ministerial interns has helped nurture many new UU ministers into our association. And in turn, every UU minister you’ve seen in this pulpit--including not only Greg and Fred, but also Kay, Denis, Alyson, and Jeremiah—every minister here has been trained as interns somewhere at a UU congregation.)
Just as with the individual level, if a congregation has conflict revolving around identity or purpose, it can lead to ambivalence and inaction, which presents as a tendency to shy away from changes and reversion to the basics of church survival. With the changes afoot this year, I am seeing the congregation pursuing the greater purposes. With the introduction of Rev. Jeremiah and the Beyond Sunday ministry and with Jeff’s passion for an empowering system of finance, I see this congregation moving into a place of discerning, fostering and fulfilling purposes that touch our neighboring communities deeply.
On the world scale, humanity’s purpose seems ill-defined and as foggy as ever. It seemed for a time that our purpose has been “progress” but to those paying attention, the technological progress has been matched with an equal or greater amount of regress in our ecology and our social interactions. Other purposes that we tend to fall back on are that of consuming the Earth’s resources to manufacture more products, or that of simply “not dying out.” I say the true purpose of humanity is simply, TO BE. To support life’s purpose, to synch up with nature, so that this planet Gaia can thrive again. The ambivalence sets in when we hear conflicting information. Despite a preponderance of clear scientific evidence indicating that global climate change is a real and looming danger, our system of media tends to give equal time to those who choose to deny that global warming is real. With such wide-reaching ramifications, ambivalence and inaction may prove to be globally perilous.
On many levels, it’s obvious that NOW IS THE TIME! That’s not just a handy phrase for the UUA fundraising campaign. In each of our lives, every day is a gift, and an opportunity to make the world better. Perhaps there is some longstanding unfinished conversation in your life that you’d like to have, that has been emotionally blocking you from moving forward. Perhaps there is something you’ve always wanted to try, but never have. Perhaps there’s something in your life you want to give up. Today is always the only day in which we can make changes. You can never do it yesterday or tomorrow. I recall musician Warren Zevon, living the last few months of his life with cancer, responding to David Letterman’s request for wisdom on life and death. He said simply, “Enjoy every sandwich.” That, to me, translates as, “Don’t waste a single heartbeat.” Uneventful days could become a habit, but we are called to make every day count, in some large or small way.
Now has always been the time for this congregation to recreate its place in the city. Under the guidance of Thomas Starr King, this congregation was once the flagship for Universalist Unitarian belief and action on the west coast. I offer a challenge, to resurrect that flagship, and to determine a course. I see the coming couple of years as a time when this congregation will unearth members’ passions and engage that passion with life-changing purposes. That may mean being a voice for homeless advocacy, so that when we read the phrase “take care of the homeless” in the SF Chronicle, people understand it to mean providence and assistance, not harassment and subsistence. Your passion may lead you to begin negotiating the long but rewarding path toward becoming a multi-generational, multi-cultural, anti-racist congregation. But those are just my thoughts, and I’m leaving soon. The purpose of this congregation will be of your own collective volition. One thing I do know is that this city NEEDS this congregation to shine like a beacon. To declare a moral compass and to boldly lead. I hope you are ready to take that challenge, to be a bold voice like Beacon Press, often presenting the unpopular before it becomes popular, if it ever does. This congregation has power deep down, to make its voice heard, all week long and citywide. A couple months back, Greg mentioned the WWJD--What Would Jesus Do wristbands. Imagine your friends saying, “WWUUD--What Would a Unitarian Universalist Do?” If you hear that happen, be sure to bring them by for a service, because they want to be here. They are lost in the fog with information that doesn’t come together quite right. The light of our beacon can bring clarity.
Now is the time for this world to determine its purpose. Not to waste another heartbeat, another day, another year. I’m not sure what the world enjoying a sandwich would look like, but applying the Warren ZEvon quote from earlier would at least imply “Enjoy.” I daresay much of this world right now is not enjoying the experience. The birds in the Gulf of Mexico, the people being exploited for their labor in developing countries (and this country), the trees being clearcut in Brazil, and the ocean life in the pacific all are not enjoying their sandwiches. So what would UU do?
We need to be unafraid of the tremendous impact our religion can make on the world, and share it. Now is the time for us to have maximum impact. There is an angel at work here. A very large, deep, compassionate angel that spans the ages. As it arrives, the world is taking notice. The arrival of this messenger is an eschatological age-ending event, a game-changer, causing a paradigm-shift. As if it’s the rapture, but in theological terms to which we can relate, with no people magically disappearing. The ongoing media coverage of the leak in the Gulf of Mexico is waking up more and more people to some new realities. With the end of easy petroleum resources upon us, humanity struggles to get enough oil to energize the world we’ve made.
The book of Revelation, chapter 8 refers to 7 angels sounding their trumpets, and 1/3 of the Earth being despoiled and 1/3 of the sea being despoiled. I sense we are getting pretty close to that. Knowing UUs as I do, I realize many of you may be skeptical of the sacred texts of revealed religion—and perhaps rightly so—after all, we could deconstruct the text, equating angels with messengers, and the trumpets with the clarion call of what the Earth is trying to tell us. However, in our nation, there are many who live their lives based on a concrete understanding of the Bible, and they will be called on by somebody to act. By whom? Us. We can call on them! Today, for the online listening audience and Christians in the crowd, I’ll put my voice out there. We are at that time, one-third of the Earth, one-third of the water. The Gulf of Mexico is just one of many oil spills, and raw sewage makes its way into our streams and oceans. Don’t forget the giant growing collection of plastic in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. We are in a time of much needed change. We can either have the change happen to us, or we can shine our light and work in concert to make the necessary changes in a controlled fashion.
So what is the light we hold? Our theology of a loving God is one of real saving grace that can help people get past the guilt, shame, sin and anger, and onto serving the world as love and justice-bearers. We have a growing religious inclusivity that is learning to make way for the many theologies and worldviews people bring upon first entering our doors. We each carry our own copy of truth and meaning, and know to value each other’s spirituality. And we know that community and action are every bit as important as having right beliefs, if not moreso.
In fact, in religious terms, it’s safe to say that the light we share when our words and deeds are at their best is nothing less than an expression of the divine working from within us. I believe that light is critical in our interfaith and ecumenical dialogs, because the light of our reason helps to orient and focus the lights of others like a Fresnel lens (the really bright amplifying one you find spinning in lighthouses). If we hold back our light (or are unable to deliver) when it’s expected or needed, it may indeed be the case that an inactive lighthouse is more dangerous than a reef.
Our nation, and some of its religious bodies, tend to think in terms of war. There are the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Our government has declared a war on terror, a war on drugs (which is also a war on people of color), there was a war on poverty (and now it seems there is a war on the poor). Some Christians have labeled the penchant of merchants to say “happy holidays” as a war on Christmas, Fox News has been labeled a war on journalism, and the band Wilco has even declared a war on war. It’s rare for the US government or people to declare peace on something.
The peaceable people of this country have tried to declare peace many times, but it seems their overtures have been outright rejected. Faithful Fools Bible Study meets at Fools’ Court on Thursdays at 10 a.m. Each of you are invited. David, a regular at the Bible Study, introduced to me the concept of declaring LOVE on someone. When you declare love on somebody and mean it, they can’t fight you as they may be wont to do. It is love that comes from the heart level. Intellectual arguments and our search for truth have their place, but the way the light we carry is going to reach people is going to be when we complement it with a declaration of love. Perhaps that’s our purpose.
To the glory of light! Blessed be.
agape to all,