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August 9, 2009: “The Tao Of Church”

A rabbi was walking home from the Temple and saw one of his good friends, a pious and learned man who could usually beat the rabbi in an argument. The rabbi started walking faster so that he could catch up to his friend, when he was horrified to see his friend go into a Chinese restaurant (not a kosher one). Standing at the door, he observed his friend talking to a waiter and gesturing at a menu. A short time later, the waiter reappeared carrying a platter full of spare ribs, shrimp in lobster sauce, crab rangoon, and other treif (non-kosher food) that the rabbi could not bear to think about. As his friend picked up the chopsticks and began to eat this food, the rabbi burst into the restaurant and reproached his friend, for he could take it no longer.

“Morris, what is this you are doing? I saw you come into this restaurant, order this filth and now you are eating it in violation of everything we are taught about the dietary laws, and with an apparent enjoyment that does not befit your pious reputation!” Morris replied, “Rabbi, did you see me enter this restaurant?” The rabbi nods yes. “Did you see me order this meal?” Again he nods yes. “Did you see the waiter bring me this food?” Again he nods yes. “And did you see me eat it?” Nods yes. “Then, rabbi, I don’t see the problem here. The entire thing was done under rabbinical supervision!”

I like to say that we Unitarian Universalists take our religions   seriously enough that we can joke about it, because we don't take it   seriously enough to take it literally! We don't look for ways to get   around the theological  fine print or creedal requirements because we   don't have any! What' Does that mean we can believe anything we want   to' No! If we could believe anything we wanted to, we could make our   families happy by believing the same thing normal people believe!

We come to church because we have religious beliefs, believe that! We might not know exactly what they are, but we often know that we don’t believe in beliefs that are hateful or unloving or even unscientific! We may not even believe in the same kind of God that we hear described by other people, but that may not mean we don’t believe in God! Indeed, it may mean that those other people don’t believe in God! I read somewhere that 57% of atheists pray at least once a day!

The difficulty in Protestantism is, of course, that unlike Roman Catholicism, there is no central authority like the Pope, to tell us who’s right! There is only the different denominations! SO we are actually just one of them, though technically we consider ourselves an Association-the UUA. We are listed as a denomination.- made up of the merger of two older denominations the Unitarians and the Universalists- the Unitarians who started in 1825 denied the Trinity, and the Universalists in 1794 and declared Universal Salvation (no original sin or predestination that God was a loving God who would save ALL-hence universal salvation-)merged in 1961 became predominantly Humanist., but most importantly, NON-creedal-that is, free-not to believe whatever we want, but free to develop our own beliefs- do you see the difference? Most of us believe in the teachings that Jesus taught about love and justice, but maybe not about what the church doctrines taught about church rules and regulations!

One of the founders of American Universalism was John Murray, who sailed just before the American Revolution to this country on a ship aptly called “Hand in Hand.” At Murray Grove,New Jersey, a UU conference center near where my family and I used to live, is a plaque with his wonderful quote on it: “You may possess only a small light, but uncover it. Let it shine, use it in order to bring more light and understanding to the hearts and minds of men and women. Give them not Hell, but Hope and Courage. Do not push them deeper into their theological despair, but preach the kindness and everlasting love of God.”

Eastern Unitarians at around late 19th century found their statement in James Freeman Clarke’s “Five Points of Unitarianism” (in contrast to the 5 points of Calvinism): in masculine language of the time, but translating it for yourself, listen to the concepts of more then 100 years ago-

  1. The Fatherhood of God
  2. The Brotherhood of Man
  3. The Leadership of Jesus
  4. Salvation by Character
  5. The Progress of Mankind onward and upward forever. As late as 1949, Brainerd F. Gibbons, president of the Universalist Church of America, wrote: “A new type of Universalism is proclaimed which shifts the emphasis on universal from salvation to religion and describes Universalism as boundless in scope, as broad as humanity, and as infinite as the universe. Is this Universalism’s answer: a religion, not exclusively Christian or any other named brand, but a synthesis of all religious knowledge which passses the test of human intelligence, a truly universal religion?” When the Unitarian Universalist Association was formed in 1961, the principles to which it was dedicated were these:
    ‘Support the free and disciplined search for truth as the foundation of religious fellowship.
    Cherish and spread the universal truths taught by the great prophets and teachers of humanity in every age and tradition, immemorially summarized in the Judeo-Christian heritage as love to God and love to humankind;
    Affirm, defend, and promote the supreme worth and dignity of every human personality, and the use of the democratic method in human relationships;
    Implement the vision of one world by striving for a world community founded on ideals of brotherhood [sic], justice, and peace.’ (UUA bylaws) A lot of different kinds of beliefs, but more about community and fellowship. Not a lot about creeds and doctrines. While we’re still technically Protestant, most of left traditional Christianity and are increasingly interested in Eastern Spirituality, especially Buddhism and Taoism. There have been many books with the title Tao in it in the last 20 years, including one of my favorite books, ‘The Tao of Pooh’ by Benjamin Hoff, based on the great wisdom of Winnie the Pooh by AA. Milne. It is classified in bookstores as Philosophy/humor, so one may find it in either section. The way Hoff describes it: ‘While Eeyore frets and Piglet hesitates… and Rabbit calculates…and Owl pontificates…Pooh just is. And that’s a clue to the secret wisdom of the Taoists.’

I think we UU’s need to be more like Pooh and less like Owl! The first reading of the Taoist scripture called The Tao Te Ching:

The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name
The unnamable is the eternally real.
Naming is the origin of all particular things.
Free from desire, you realize the mystery.
Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.
Yet mystery and manifestations arise from the same source.
This source is called darkness.
Darkness within darkness.
The gateway to all understanding. – translated by Stephan Mitchell

Taoism is in Chinese religion, an intuitive, playful, almost heretical approach to life, especially in contrast to the orthodox rule-making of Confucianism, or the spiritual rule-making of some forms of Buddhism. It has been said that in China one is a confucian while at work, a Buddhist during ceremonies of birth, death, or marriage, but on the weekends, one is a Taoist! But you certainly can’t take it literally! Indeed, it is more like cosmic poetry, where one has to think about, even let it sink in for a while. But perhaps it’s not unlike the very first commandment really, saying that you can’t make God into a graven image or an idol or even say the holy name of God! Jews cannot pronounce the name of God. In print they often use G – D. Why? Perhaps because- ‘ The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name’

It’s supposed to be a mystery! Beware anyone who says they understand it all! The word ‘tao’ can mean many things, but is usually translated as the ‘way. But NOT THE ONLY WAY! In another wonderful book called The Tao of Psychology’, by Jean Shinoda Bolen, an Asian -American Jungian psychiatrist who is also a feminist and popular writer. she describes Taoism: ‘The eternal Tao…had many names representing the idea that there is an eternal law or principle at work, underlying what appeared as a perpetually changing world in motion. Taoists referred to it by many names, including the Primal Unity and source, the Cosmic Mother, The Infinite and Ineffable Principle of Life, The One. Tao has been referred to as the right, the moral order, the principle, the nature of life forces, the idea of the world, the method, or the way. In modern translations of the NEw Testament into Chinese, logos is translated as Tao: the Gospel of John then opens, ‘In the Beginning was the Tao.?’

What we call the interdependent web is more an Eastern way of thinking about the world, just as the Native American world view is closer to Eastern thinking. However, like us, Taoists require no central belief creed; one does not believe in Taoism so much as one lives Taoism as a way of discovering how to go with the flow.There is a harmony in Chinese thought with Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. In rural China, there was a concept of a village God, called Too-Dee Gung who acts like Policeman and is supposed to protect the village from Ghosts, bandits, and generally bad luck. But, and this is important, this god can be fired if the village suffers undue hardship or is robbed, and another God is found. God is worshipped only as long as he or sometimes she, ‘works’.

Villages are living units and part of their religious requirement is to live in harmony ; the sin is seen as ‘disharmony’, imbalance. The temples are rebuilt every 70 or 80 years — if the local god is doing job in providing the three basic desires-Longevity, prosperity, posterity — live a long time, make money, and have children.

Unitarian Universalism, too, is a liberation from the strict rules-of Western Religion. Ironically, we may Jesus as a taoist sage, because Taoism does not have a creed, nor does it have a specific view of God. One can argue that there is no concept of God in the main Chinese religions of Taoism, Buddhism, or Confucianism, though as I have described earlier there are village Gods just as there as ancient religions, what we might even call superstitions, still practiced, mingled in the three main religions. One does not have to choose only one way of approaching the mysterious process of life.

Jesus said, ‘Search and ye shall find.’ So we take a Taoist approach to Jesus and Christianity in our search for truth and meaning, beauty and relationship. Some of us believe in a supreme being called God, some of us don’t, or aren’t sure hence the search. Some of us considers ourselves Christian, some don’t. The wisdom of Jesus is not clear, however; else churches would all agree and they don’t and never have! The Tao of church says” Keep searching though it is difficult and frustrating and you keep running into people that appear to be fools! Sometimes you are the fool!”

Inspired by Jefferson's Bible, from which our Unitarian ex-president   took out what was added by early Christian writers  for their own   purposes and in which he left the essential teachings of the rabbi   from Nazareth, Stephen Mitchell has written a new version called  The   Gospel According to Jesus, with a Jesus which transcends sectarianism,   doctrine and particular beliefs. Mitchell writes in his introduction;   'Once the sectarian passages are left out, we can recognize that Jesus   speaks in harmony with the supreme teachings of all the great   religions:  The Upanishads, the Tao Te Ching, the Buddhist sutras, the   Zen and Sufi and Hasidic Masters.  I don't mean that all these   teachings say exactly the same thing.  There are many different   resonances, emphases,  skillful means.  But when words arise from the   deepest kind of spiritual experience, from a heart pure of doctrines   and beliefs, they transcend religious boundaries, and can speak to all   people, male and female, bond and free, Greek and Jew.  '

The Tao of church is both the system- the institution, its programs, administration, and staff- and the search-the spiritual dimension through worship, meditation, music, and mystery. Church should be the unifying principle, the wholeness of the way, a universalizing of the unity, and the unity of the universe- Unitarian Universalism in all our theological diversity. The Tao of church is that balance between individualism and community, between the idolatry of a theological sureness and the loneliness of ‘close-minded humanism,’ between putting time, energy, and money into the institution called church and the idea of a religious community covenanting towards living religiously with one another, between navel gazing and working for social justice. The interdependence of system, social justice, and spirituality is crucial to religious growth both personally and institutionally. The smooth running of the system is as important as the Sunday morning worship service, and social justice may be the most important thing for the rest of the world. It is especially important for new members to hear that we are all part of the system and that it takes money, energy, commitment and yea, even committee meetings to make it all work, and that this church community welcomes all who want to work toward the running of the system as well as the religious searching and working for social justice.

I keep coming across this quote from Carlos Castenada from his great book, of some time ago, The Teachings of Don Juan, that sounds very Unitarian Universalist as well as Taoist, talking about how to choose a path:

'Does this path have a heart' If it does, the path is good; if it   doesn't, it is of no use. Both paths lead nowhere; but one has a   heart, the other one doesn't. One makes for a joyful journey; as long   as you follow it, you are one with it. The other will make you curse   your life.'

I believe that religion is both intuitional and learned; I believe the Tao of church is what we make it, just as our life is what we make of it balanced with random occurrences. If we are not always in charge of what happens, we are always in charge of how we react and what meaning we find to help us through what is happening. We are the church, which becomes an empty, crumbling piece if real estate without us. We are the tao of church, interconnected with each other and with the universe, mysterious as it seems. Does it have a heart?

I also believe that religion requires something from us, that it must be more than a passive audience waiting for enlightenment. What our church requires from us is that we find and share our gifts, our skills, our energy, our commitment. There are few requirements because we believe in free will and volunteerism. We are the Tao, the meaning, the way, the interdependent webbing of the world. We can see, then, how this might be relevant to us Unitarian Universalists who tend to believe that religion is the journey, not the destination. Taoism tells us in Reading 27: A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent upon arriving.A good artist lets his intuition leads him wherever it wants. A good scientist has freed herself of concepts and keeps her mind open to what is. (trans.-S. Mitchell)

We believe in a shared ministry in our tradition and especially in   this church, perhaps going back to the Protestant Reformation to what   Martin Luther called, 'the Priesthood of all believers,' and of course   we would include doubters and skeptics as well, as well as what our   own UU Ethicist, and Harvard Professor James Luther Adams who coined   another term 'which has become popular among we UU clergy especially,   where we talk about the Free Church tradition: 'the Prophethood of all   believers.'

He writes: ‘I call that church free which enters into covenant with the ultimate source of existence, that sustaining and transforming power not made with human hands. It binds together families and generations, protecting against the idolatry of any human claim to absolute truth or authority. This covenant is the charter and responsibility and joy of worship in the face of death as well as life. I call that church free which brings individuals into a caring, trusting fellowship, that protects and nourishes their integrity and spiritual freedom; that yearns to belong to the church universal. It is open to insight and conscience from every source; it bursts through rigid tradition, giving rise to new and living language, to new and broader fellowship.

It is a pilgrim church, a servant church, on an adventure of the spirit. The goal is the prophethood and priesthood of all believers, the one for the liberty of prophesying, the other for the ministry of healing. It aims to find unity in diversity under the promptings of the spirit ‘that bloweth where it listeth . . . and maketh all things new.’

The Tao of church is the force that inspires more than 50 years of history called East Shore UU Church. I call that that church a pilgrim church that still searches for meaning, still walks together in pilgrimage for meaning and in love and for justice to transform each other and the world. May we continue to walk together and love one another as well as our selves and the world. May we remember that Love is the answer to all the questions, but it is not an easy one. Let love be our Tao! May the Spirit of life and love guide us and inspire us.

Amen, Peace, Shalom, (Peace in Hebrew), Assalaamu Alaikum (may Peace be upon you in Arabic), Abrazos a todos (Hugs all around) Namaste, (A Hindu greeting the divinity within you) Blessed Be, and let me add one more blessing that I adapdted from the Spanish long before I went in to ministry. ‘Vaya con Dios’ is Spanish for Good-bye, but literally is ‘Go with God,’ So I adapted it to say ‘Vaya Con Su Dios, ‘Go with your interpretation of God.’

Peace, Love, Shalom, Salaam, Blessed Be, Namaste, Abrazo a Todos, Vaya con su Dios