May I let my voice be a clarion call. I will use these words for justice. I will use these words for truth. And humour.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011


Sermon: It's a Rorschach Test

"It's a Rorschach Test"
Delivered for UU Fellowship of Los Gatos, July 25, 2010
Introducing the Rose
This is a rose. [hold up rose]
As Gertrude Stein said almost a century ago: “A rose is a rose is a rose.”
Yet it is so much more!
This rose is yellow.
It is visually pleasing.
It is fragrant.
This rose is from my next-door neighbor’s garden.
It is dangerous. So please be careful of the thorns, as you pass it around.
As it makes its way to you, I encourage you to reflect upon any associations that may come to mind.
According to Shakespeare:
That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
Ultimately, this thing exists independently in a pre-verbal existence before we ever had words to name it.
Ultimately, it is just this. [hand off rose]

Metaphor Everywhere: For many people, similes and metaphors are just figures of speech, reserved for poets. But when we consider the translation from pre-verbal existence into words, we’re always defining one thing in terms of another. This is this. In the dictionary, words are always defined in terms of other words. They don’t ever give the direct experience of the word. And almost every sentence has some form of the word “is” in it, which places some form of metaphor between our stories and the underlying world those stories are trying to tell us about.

Henry Learning Names: Our 14-month-old child Henry is getting to the age now where he’s just learning to talk. The only words I can make out reliably are “S’at?” and “S’is?” which I interpret to mean “What’s that? What’s this?” He points at anything and everything, wanting to know its name. Now that he’s communicating, and realizes that things have names, he’s soaks it all in like a sponge.
Sa?” – “A kitty cat.”
Sa?” – “Grapes.”
Sis?” – “A shoe.”
Sis?” – “A Pedometer.”
Sa?” – “A handle.”
Sa?” – “A housing for the handle.”
Sa?” – “A blue star.”
Sis?” – “A toy car.”
Sis?” – “A product of China.”
Sis?” – “A molded piece of plastic large enough that it’s not a choking hazard for you.”
Sa?” – “It’s a Rorschach test.”
Sa? – “A Rorschach test."

Rorschach as a Method of Perspective Recognition

Also known as an Inkblot Test, the Rorschach Test is a tool in which psychologists show subjects several cards with non-descript inkblot pictures. They then ask the subjects to describe what they see, in order to determine a person’s personality characteristics. A person obsessed with one thing or another will tend to interpret the images in terms of their obsession.
The basis of this method of analyzing what people see in an image can be extended and applied to people’s subjective interpretations of experiences and events.
When presented with any object or event, if we step out of the way of standard thinking, of naming things as they come, we realize that in a sense, anything capable of being interpreted or named is a lot like a Rorschach test, giving an opportunity to learn about where our thinking is rooted.
Here’s an example: A few weeks ago, I was attending the Bible Study at Faithful Fools’ Street Ministry program in downtown San Francisco, and the topic of study was Jesus’ “Parable of the Great Feast,” in Luke 14. In this parable, a man prepares a great banquet, and sends out his servant to summon all of his friends to come. Each of his friends comes up with an excuse of why they can’t attend. So he sends his servant back out to invite all the ailing strangers in off the street, and there turns out to be plenty of food and entertainment to go around. One member of the Bible study, who had been having a rough go of it lately, said, ‘I think a better name for that story is “The Parable of the Rude Friends!”’ He saw that story from an entirely different perspective.

Another example: On the day of the protests regarding the trial outcome over the killing of Oscar Grant, as I was walking into Whole Foods Market in Oakland, I overheard one woman talking to another. She said, “I’m going to avoid the idiocy happening downtown.” I wondered what her perspective was that she would use words describing 1000+ justly angry people assembling to convey that anger as “idiocy?”

One final example: Proposition 19 is going before the voters of California in November, regarding the legalization and taxation of cannabis (marijuana). Those in favor say that by treating cannabis more like alcohol, our cities will be safer, our state will save and earn money, and non-violent people (especially young males of color) will be much more free from police harassment and unnecessary incarceration. Those against the proposition say legalization will cause a big upsurge in use, it will cost the state money, and it stands against current federal law.

Parable of the Great Feast,” or “Parable of the Rude Friends?”
Idiocy?” or “An expression of anger?”
Liberation?” or “Status Quo?”
Perhaps in these cases, both views have merit.
Maybe neither is all that accurate.
Whether it’s a rose, a parable, a protest, or a proposition, there is the thing in and of itself, and then there are the words that describe the thing. The words naturally reflect the perspective of the speaker, and rarely do full justice to the actual thing. A person experiencing only descriptions will necessarily experience something different than the actual thing.

The Mirrors of Conventional Reality

How is this spiritual?
Where does this fit into worship?

The words we use on ourselves, on others, and on our world, help to shape and form the spirit. Likewise, the words that others assign to us can shape our spirits as well, sometimes for the better, but often for worse.
In Mahayana Buddhism, there is an understanding of the world existing in two primary realms. First, there is ultimate reality, which is the underlying nature of all the events and matter in the world. Ultimate reality is the actual events that occur, and the matter that does exist, prior to anybody speaking a word about it, or even thinking upon it.
In contrast, there is conventional reality, which is composed of the stories that we tell. Conventional reality is the books and magazines we write, and the media we produce and consume. Conventional reality has a tendency to feel “consensual” and shared within cultures. Yet each of us has our own conventional reality stored within the frameworks composed in our own minds. The story we each think about the world is not accurate. Often, it’s inconsistent, and it’s impossible for our worldview to be comprehensive.
The two relate like this: Conventional reality is the mirror that we use to try to obtain a view of ultimate reality. When a story is blown out of proportion, that mirror may be curved like a clown mirror, making our midsection look 4 feet long. Or our conventional reality may be a make-up mirror, allowing a close-up view so we can focus really deeply on some aspect of life. The mirror may be really choppy like a wavy lake reflecting the sky on a windy day, so it’s difficult to make sense. And sometimes the mirror is mostly dark, or there is no mirror at all, because there are parts of reality that receive little to no attention.
Ultimate reality is the whole truth. Conventional reality is the story we use to make meaning out of some portion of that truth. Our fourth Unitarian Universalist principle speaks to this: “We, the member congregations of the UUA, affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” A lot of this world we live in centers around meaning. We see the stories in the news and then a pundit explains what it means. Events happen in the world, or in some sacred text, be it the Bible or a Kurt Vonnegut novel, and we want it to mean something, to make sense.

Breaking our Bodies Free: We live in bodies abundant with stories. When you look in the mirror in the morning, whether you think it’s a bad hair day, or it seems you’re looking extra snappy, that story has a tendency to stick with you all day. Now imagine that the mirror tells you a categorical story about the quality of your sexuality compared to others, the quality of your skin color compared to others, of your gender, of your physical ability, and the quality of your economic location. There are also stories told onto your lifestyle, your culture, and your nationality.

I think most of those stories have about as much meaning as eye color and shoe size. Our first UU principle—the inherent worth and dignity of every person—tells me this. As part of this beautiful creation, we are a part of ultimate reality. Our bodies and our lives exist prior to the words. Whatever these things “body” and “life” are, they exist even before and beyond these words we sum up as “body” and “life.”
Now where does that leave us??? It leaves us with our feet on the ground (another metaphor), and with a lot of power. When we intentionally determine which stories we will allow upon our selves, and which stories we will tell upon others and the world, we gain a great deal of control. We can decide to step out of the story and analyze the story to find out more about the storyteller. We can ask questions about why they’re telling that story, and how close it is to our understanding of ultimate reality. We can ask how well it correlates to our own actual experiences. Then we can confirm, edit, or dispel the stories as they’re told.
During an interview with the UK Guardian in 2002, Richard Gere shared this wisdom: “I know who I am. No one else knows who I am. If I was a giraffe, and someone said I was a snake, I'd think, no, actually I'm a giraffe.”
Who are we then? Who am I? Who are you? On our spiritual course, we may identify ourselves as one thing or another, or we may find ourselves telling a story such as, “Oh, that’s not me. I just couldn’t do that.” Who is this me? If we are part of a larger community, there is a responsibility to remove our self-imposed limitations and go beyond our self. After all, in addition to all the ways we might describe ourselves, we are also possibility. And we are the breath of our ancestors. And we are dust. We are great visions. We are lovers of life and builders of nations. We are nothing less than beautiful, and we are whole, and perfect in our imperfections.
Please take a moment to pick up your hymnals. Actually, the hymnal you’re holding is not yours. It is a hymnal, technically owned by this community. Yet, even ownership is just another part of the stories we tell. The receipts and titles we hold that say we rightfully own something are part of a story told onto ultimate reality. As with much in this world, we are only stewards of these hymnals during our shared time here on this planet.
I believe it’s critical that as Unitarian Universalists, we tell our stories into that conventional reality, because it provides a dynamic mirror for people that they may not get elsewhere. Tell them about our search for truth and meaning. Tell them about inherent worth and dignity. Each of the principles we promote has a story to tell about the condition of the world, and about our vision for how things ought to be.

Is vs. Ought: This brings me to a very important spiritual point. In addition to telling accurate stories about the way things are, and have been, we also must share our vision of the way they ought to be. By sharing the stories of possibilities, of how this world can and ought to be in community together according to a democratic process, and by including the totality of the Earth’s interconnected web in our decision-making, we affirm a direction, with an energy both positive and inviting. That same energy may even draw people into this fellowship.

This Community: So, when Alice’s caterpillar comes to this congregation, wanting to know more, and asks that tough question, “Who are you?” What can you say to draw them in? Would “We are the UU Fellowship of Los Gatos” suffice? What if we tell them we’re inclusive and welcoming? Does that give them a mirror reflecting our deep meaning? We might tell them that we are transforming ourselves into a band of love and justice bearers, so that we might prophetically influence the direction of the community-at-large. Any of those may bring meaning. Perhaps the deepest thing we can share with them is the inadequacy of words to describe the passion we have for justice based on love and compassion, followed by sharing that deeper part of ourselves that comes before all other words. [long pause].


pax hominibus,
agape to all,

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