Love. Revere. Discover. Connect.

May 6, 2007: “You, Me, and the Universe: Religion as Relationship”

I think it was John Lennon who said that life is what happens while we’re busy making plans. Religion is like that, too. So is ministry. Perhaps we could say that life is what happens DESPITE our making plans. Religion is like THAT, too. Ministry is SO like that!

In the running of churches, (and my educated guess is that denomination doesn’t matter), we might say that religion is what happens DESPITE meetings, that way we have of TRYING to make plans. Occasionally, religion happens DURING meetings, and it perhaps those occasions that keep us who are part of the church running team going. Meetings are a must when ministry is shared.

Prayer for Those Who Have Suffered Too Many Meetings

Lord, save me from myself, and save me especially from myself at meetings when ego confronts criticism and raises the thick walls of defensiveness. Give me infinite patience, understanding, tolerance, but especially patience! Give me wisdom and temper my wit, lest I joke insensitively and hurt. And Lord it’s hard to be humble when you’ve been called to be part of the church’s leadership, the but give me humility and faith to share the ministry of the church. Help me to believe in others. Let me be slow to anger and defensiveness, and quick to forgive.

Save me from cynicism. Give me strength to sit for long periods of time. But most of all, remind me why we are here and restore my vision of working lovingly together to build a beloved community, which our souls thirst for, and which can transform us and the world to a fuller, more just and more loving world.’

Robert Fulghum Reading

At the end of a two week seminar the guest speaker turned to the audience and asked…’Are there any questions?’

Quiet quilted the room. These two weeks had generated enough questions for a lifetime, but for now there was only silence.

‘No questions?’ The speaker swept the room with his eyes.

So. I asked.

‘Mr speaker, what is the meaning of life?’

The usual laughter followed and people stirred to go. The speaker held up his hand and stilled the room and looked at me for a long time, asking with his eyes if I was serious – and seeing from my eyes that I was.

‘I will answer your question.’

Taking his wallet out of his hip pocket, he fished into a leather billfold and brought out a very small round mirror, about the size of a quarter.

And what he said went like this:

‘When I was a small child, during the war, we were very poor and lived in a remote village. One day, on the road, I found the broken pieces of a mirror. A German motorcycle had been wrecked in that place.

I tried to find all the pieces and put them together, but it was not possible, so I kept the largest piece. And by scratching it on a stone I made it round. I began to play with it as a toy and became fascinated by the fact that I could reflect light into dark places where the sun would never shine ‘ in deep holes and crevices and dark closets. It became a game for me to get light into the most inaccessible places I could find.”

I kept the little mirror, and as I went about my growing up, I would take it out in idle moments and continue the challenge of the game. As I became a man, I grew to understand that this was not just a child’s game but a metaphor for what I might do with my life. I came to understand that I am not the light – or the source of light. But light ‘ truth, understanding, knowledge ‘ is there, and it will only shine in many dark places if I reflect it.

I am a fragment of a mirror whose whole design and shape I do not know. Nevertheless, with what I have I can reflect light into the dark places of this world’ into the black places in the hearts of men’ and change some things in people. Perhaps others may see and do likewise. This is what I am about. This is the meaning of my life.’

And then he took his small mirror and, holding it carefully, caught the bright rays of daylight streaming through the window and reflected them onto my face and onto my hands folded on the desk. Much of what I experienced in the way of information that summer is gone from memory. But in the wallet of my mind I carry a small round mirror still.

“Are there any questions?” Robert Fulghum (1981)

‘Credo: What I Believe: Religion as Relationship
East Shore Unitarian Universalist Church
Kirtland, Ohio
May 6,2007
Rev. Arthur G. Severance

During the French revolution, things got out of hand and it seems everybody was turning on each other and sending people to the Guillotine. Finally, it was decided that the clergy were royalists and should be executed.

So they brought up a priest and asked him whether he would like to be face up or face down. The priest replied, ‘I want to be facing up so that I may see the arms of my maker reach down and hold me to his bosom in heaven when I die.’

So he was face up. When the rope was pulled, the blade did not move. The crowd was now afraid that God had been working to save the priest and started yelling, ‘It’s a miracle; let the priest go’

So then they brought up a UU and asked Her the same thing. She said that she’d like to be face up so she could see how it worked. Again they pulled the rope and the blade did not move. Again, the crown yelled, ‘Another Miracle let her go!’

But the UU minister pointed up to the blade stuck on the rope and said,’ Wait, I see the problem!’

Never question miracles even if you don’t believe in them. One person’s miracle is another person’s malfunction.

While attending seminary some years ago, I worked in a psychiatric hospital and yes, I could always tell the difference; I received the Employee of the Month Award. I’d like to share part of what it said, not to toot my own horn, but to show the importance of relationship.

‘Art has not only demonstrated his therapeutic skills in the unit, but also has been a mainstay of the Men’s Group and the Training Committee. Art’s training in the ministry has enabled him to synthesize concepts in spirituality and psychotherapy and communicate these to staff and patients.

His intelligence, compassion, sense of humor, and devotion to serving others have made him a most appreciated member of our community.’

It was a small private hospital set up in different houses on grounds, and I got to know most of the staff and patients by name. Walking the grounds I always gave a warm greeting when I saw someone , and the patients appreciated that I not only knew their names, but greeted them just like I did the staff. In other words, the relationship was actually in my greeting greeting both staff and patient by name and with the same warmth. The only way you can tell the difference between some patients and staff is that the staff have the keys!

As part of our training, all staff had to experience being put in and wearing a straitjacket, yes, just like one sees on TV or cartoons. It was used judiciously, only when patients seem to be a danger of hurting themselves or others.

Those long arms are strapped around your back, holding you immobile, unable to hurt yourself or others. Perhaps because the trainer wanted to make a point and I had been kidding him, he kept me in the jacket longer than the others.

What I found, however, was not fear of not getting out, but a comforting feeling warm feeling of being hugged! Yes, I was hugging my self, yet becuse of the jacket, it felt like someone else was hugging me, perhaps even God, him, her, or itself. I wondered if the inventor of the strait jacket had that in mind when he invented it.

I am sure, however, that one reason why it is still effective for violent patients is perhaps so they, too, will feel comforted, hugged, until they calm down.

In the 12 step recovery program of Alcoholics Anonymous, one of the most effective spiritual transformation programs, there is a step where one has to admit that one can’t do this 2alone, but needs help. In the old days that help was just called God, but now they have changed that to ‘Higher Power’ or God. I might suggest that they might also add, ‘inner power.’

One of my close friends in recovery said that as a UU, that was the hardest step, because he was a humanist and didn’t believe in either God or higher power. Finally, though he came to the realization that what was really holding him up was pride and what I might call Humanist Hubris, that is thinking that we are so great we don’t need help from anyone, not even a higher power. I would call it inner power connected to the power of other, the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. We can’t do it by ourselves; let us find the help we need! We are sometimes more guilty of ‘Hubris-ism’ than Humanism.

Let me share a Buddhist story: One day Mara, the Buddhist god of ignorance and evil, was traveling through the villages of India with his attendants. He saw a man doing walking meditation whose face was lit up in wonder. The man has just discovered something on the ground in front of him. Mara’s attendants asked what that was and Mara replied, ‘A piece of truth.’

‘Doesn’t this bother you when someone finds a piece of the truth, O evil One?’ his attendants asked.

‘No,’ Mara replied. ‘Right after this they usually make a belief out of it.’

In Buddhism, there is a sense of religious or spiritual progress, and holding on to a belief makes it an idol, a barrier rather than a gate through. That’s why the full title of the sermon is is;’ Credo: What I Believe at this particular time in my place and history, subject to change without notice.’ Belief can become fossilized and stagnant. I use the word CREDO, because it not only means a religious belief, but it implies a way of life as well. It means, ‘what I give my heart to.’ One lives through one’s beliefs, and of course the time disclaimer is because I think our beliefs evolve with our aging and experiencing as well as finding new data or inspiration.

Talking about a religious common denominator gets to an almost algebraic spirituality. Certainly we could understand ‘X’ being the unknown and our job is to come up with the right equation that will give us the answer and solve the theological riddle of existence. Is God the unknown? Or are we? Is it religion we are trying to solve, or our lives meaning? But it’s not even that easy, is it? All religions are not alike, and therefore not all of them,, I would imagine, would come up with the same unknown for X.

Here’s one way I put it early in my ministry and like the song I would eventually write with the same title,: “You, Me, and the Universe.” It’s important to know that I did my internship at the Princeton Unitarian Church, and you’ll see why.

I believe that developing caring relationships with people (you), self (me), and the mysterious and mystical process of Life (the universe), is what life and religion and ministry is all about. If I were to postulate a simple mathematical formula of religious relativity, it would go like this: the relationship of you, plus me, plus the universe, equals God or love or the Good, the interdependent web of all existence. (God may be seen as the x in the equation, the unknown which we can find by using the other factors. Y+M+U= X)

The purpose of this religious relationship is to create a special kind of community, indeed, even world, to learn how to seek, and yes, even find the religious meaning of life, to learn how to live life to its and our fullest potential, and to learn how to live in peace and harmony with all the world.

Any theology will become meaningless if humanity ends up destroying itself through nuclear, environmental, military, or economic .mismanagement or war. Therefore the responsibility of a religion, a theology, is to create the opportunity for the salvation, not of the individual’s soul, but of the world — and not for a nebulous next life, but in this life. I believe that there is a survival instinct within us that makes life sacred, holy. I believe that a theology of caring relationship with you, me, and the universe, not only satisfies, but religiously promotes that sacred survival instinct, while also providing the possibility and the hope of saving humanity from self-destruction. No longer can we afford the luxury of a humanity divided into religiously or economically warring factions, for there is no us versus them anymore, there is only US– You, me and the universe. Religion as relationship within a beloved community.

Simply then: I believe in and try to live by the transforming power of love which is often called by many divine names, in all my relationships. I believe that religion is about right relationships with what I call, ‘You, Me and the Universe,’ and what I have come to call, the ‘religious dimension.’

The Jewish Talmud is made up of learned Rabbis commentary on the Jewish Bible, talking about the Torah, or the law which sometimes seems to require vast memorization and orthodox formulas, simply put: ‘The beginning and end of Torah is performing acts of loving kindness.’

Religion must be a choice not a commandment! Indeed, even the Koran says so: Chapter 2, verse 256: ‘Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from Error: whoever rejects evil and believes in Allah hath grasped the most trustworthy hand-hold, that never breaks. And Allah heareth and knoweth all things.’

Our UUA president , Bill Sinkford, has been urging Unitarian Universalists to develop their ‘Elevator Speech’ – how we would explain our faith between the first and 13th floors of an elevator trip with a stranger who asked about our religion. His version: ‘The Unitarian side of our family tree tells us that there is only one God, one Spirit of Life, one Power of Love. The Universalist side tells us that God is a loving God, condemning none of us, and valuing the spark of divinity that is in every human being. So Unitarian Universalism stands for: one God, no one left behind.’

Even the use of the word, ‘God,’ may be a stumbling point, because we need to know further what Bill means who God is, and of course who or what God is not. I prefer not to use the term, God, in my elevator speech whether I describe my personal belief or what I think we could say about UUism in thirty words or less. Other than maybe saying when we die we go to a discussion about heaven or whether God exists.

Here’s mine: ‘UUism is a free and responsible search for religious meaning and a religious dimension in beloved community. Most of have come out of other traditions where we have been turned off by traditional religion, creeds, and religious language because they no longer feed our souls. As a movement we have spiritually evolved out of liberal Protestantism into a more universal unity., but still religiously liberal. Some of us still refer to ourselves as Christians, others atheist, humanist pagan, theist, pantheist, or what I like to call religious explorer. What unites us is religious freedom, tolerance, reason, love, and a universal sense of morality embodied in the Golden Rule. ‘

I am still a mystical humanist on the cusp of naturalistic theism, but I’m comfortable with not having to have everyone believe the same way I do. I simply believe that we all interpret religious language, creeds, rituals, into our own way of understanding. Indeed, one could argue that there is not one God, but 6 billion! One for everyone on the planet, give or take a few million here and there. What else can we think when Shiite and Sunni Moslem kill each other and destroy each others holy places. What else can we think when Moslems and Hindus clash? Or in Northern Ireland where Christianity is perverted into Protestantism and Catholicism bigotry and murder? These are political perversions of religion, not the fault, of Jesus, Mohammed Krishna, or God.

The mystical part is a comfort with the living in what I would call ‘religious mystery.’ The mystical part is a comfort with the living in mystery rather than trying to make concrete that which is spiritual, again, like the mystery of love in all of love’s dimensions from parental, to fraternal, to romantic to divine, to self. I do not understand when someone says that God loves me, but will send me to eternal hellfire if I don’t believe in a certain way of how I should love while also fearing God. I believe in a sense of the Holy, that religious dimension which may be the most universal of religious desire. The mystic also sees that we are all connected to the great one-ness, not mono-theism, or one God, but what the Hindus call Monism, one is all. Change the ‘atonement’ to the at-one-ment and it makes sense to me.

Unitarian Universalist poet Pesha Gertler, puts it this way :

‘The Healing Time.’
Finally on my way to yes I bump into all the places
where I said no to my life
all the untended wounds ‘
the red and purple scars
those hieroglyphs of pain carved into my skin, my bones,
those coded messages that send me down
the wrong street again and again
where I find them – the old wounds – the old misdirections
and I lift them one by one close to my heart and I say
‘Holy Holy.”

I like to think of us as representing the child who was not fooled by the invisible clothes of a beguiled emperor and not only pointed out that the ‘Emperor has no clothes on!’ but then went on to say, ‘and he’s also not divine!’ Or to put it in still another way, back in seminary I began to think about the term ‘we are all children of God.’ It means, of course, then that God is the parent, the adult and we are children and must take orders, etc. I came to the conclusion that UUs are the ‘adults of God.’

Unitarian minister A. Powell Davies, one of the most well known and respected ministers in the country when he was minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington, DC, in the 1950’s in a sermon series ‘The Religion of Tomorrow,’ wrote:

“Why do we trouble with theological arguments when there are the poets? The religion of tomorrow will be the religion of the poets. The God of tomorrow will be the God of the poets! The God whose symbols are light and air: whose warmth is love: who is the kindling of the soul’s ardor: the Voice of whom our conscience is the echo: the Divinity which out soars our humanity and leads us on . . . God within us: God around and about us: God beyond us. As for me, if I denied this [sacredness] I would thereby deny all that keeps life true and beautiful: I find [it] simply because I cannot lose [it]. . . The Creative Spirit. I have given you the arguments: Do what you will with them . . . I am not preaching a religion I have argued myself into . . .: my religion lies deeper than thinking: it is a song in my heart.”

When we come into religious community, we may be transformed and then may work on the transformation of the world into perhaps what could be called ‘the kingdom or queendom of God or Goddess.’ In this way, we might answer honestly that’ yes, We do believe in God, if by that one means the mysterious urge to unite into beloved community, to realize the one-ness, the unity of the universe, the interdependent web of which we are a part, if by God, we mean the loving process of cocreation, recreation, and procreation. There seems to be an instinct to propagate the species that is so complex that we are not always even aware we are part of that process.

One of the ways to say ‘goodbye’ in Spanish is ‘Vaya con Dios,’ literally, ‘Go with God.’ I can remember in college, before I knew I was a Unitarian Universalist, I changed it to reflect more of my belief, or should we say, lack of belief. I said ‘Vaya conSu Dios in Su Corazon,’ which means ‘Go with your idea of God in your heart.’ In Mexico I said my version to a shopkeeper and he corrected me, by insisting I should just say ‘Vaya con Dios.’

I believe in a balance between heart and head, between love and the intellect, like the merger of the Universalist heart and the Unitarian head. Not either – or, but both-and !

For me, the teachings of Jesus of social justice, compassion, and religious relationship are profound and transformative, especially if they were ever followed! I see Jesus as human, but deeply and powerfully divinely inspired as a rare mystic prophet to change, or to evolve his religion of the time- priestly, Temple Judaism. What Jesus was responding to was as an overly legalistically institutionalized religion which had lost its mystery and the spirit of love which was within it. It might be argued that Buddha did similar to the ritualistic Hinduism. Indeed, what the Protestant Reformation did, and what we are still reforming! Unitarian Universalism has become my heritage as well, though I was not born into it as a baby, I was ‘born again’ when I discovered it as a universal religious search for meaning and social justice.

I believe in the primacy of worship in religious community where relationships with the the religious dimension, with each other, with the minister, the music, the message, our own inner spirit, and finally the hugs after church either with the minister or old friends are fashioned. For some of us, it may be the only physical touch we get all week! I believe in the power of hugs and handshaking. I believe that something holy, mysterious, often (no, not always) happens here on Sunday morning.

I feel a theological kind of gravity which beckons me toward it, which encourages all of us to find IT. God to me is neither male nor female but IT, in the words of the children’s game of Tag, a simple game really. Someone is chosen or volunteers to be IT, and when they touch us then we are IT. And I swear at times, I cannot help myself but see God in human form in the beauty and innocence of children at play, and God reaches down, behind me so I cannot see his/her/it’s face, and says playfully and lovingly, “Tag, you are IT.” And so in my turn I run to tag as many friends as I can, and even look for God, so I can in return, say, “Tag; you and I are IT.” “Tag,” I say to you the congregation and all the universe which must by definition include God, “we are IT.”

Not only does it matter what we believe, it matters how we behave! We are the question; Love is the answer! Oh, let us love one another, our selves, and the world, too.

The Hebrew word fore Peace and Brother/sisterhood is Shalom, the Arabic Assalaamu Alaikum means may Peace be upon you, Blessed Be, Amen, and finally Vaya con su Dios in su Corazon! (Co with Your God in your heart)

Closing Words

May we go from here recharged, inspired with love of ourselves, of each other, and the world to continue the journey of the every day life,but also to find a way to help make the world a better, more loving and just place for our having lived here.
May we laugh often, put more fun in our lives and cry as we need to.
May we pray, not to avoid problems , but for the strength, inner wisdom and friends to solve them.
May we live our lives the best that we can..
May we love the best we can
May we we gather strength from holding hands.
May we be generous givers as well as receivers.
May we meet one new person every Sunday.
May we go now in the peace which passes all understanding,
and in the love that makes it all worthwhile. A. Severance
Amen, Shalom, Salaam, Namaste, Blessed Be