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November 11, 2007: “What Counts?”

Albert Einstein’s famous quote came to a member’s mind who saw the title listed earlier.; ‘Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted’

And I like quoting Einstein, arguably one of the most brilliant and unorthodox minds of the 20th century and few us even understand what he really did! He sometimes sounded more mystic rather than physicist, for instance, when he said:: “Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge in the field of truth and knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods.”

He taught at Princeton University, and I did my internship at the Princeton Unitarian Church, but it was long after he died, and no, nothing rubbed off! He liked to play violin in a string quartet (that’s 4 players of stringed instruments). He really enjoyed these sessions, but the other musicians weren’t as happy about his playing because, as one of them confided, ‘The problem is that Einstein can’t count!’

When we ask ‘what counts?’, we may be speaking of the meaning of life, or rules of the game, the religion, the doctrine. In children’s games, especially in boy’s games, there is often the question about rules and how to win a particular game question- “What counts?” It is not a philosophical question, but a practical one. In games, the question is asked, especially by boys, because the purpose of a game is often not so much to have fun, but to win. To win we must know -What is “out of bounds? “What counts? What doesn’t? How do I win? What kind of score do I need to be the best? Because boy’s games tend to be competitive, winning and racking up a score is crucial; indeed many men continue that way of thinking in business as well as relationships. Girls’ games are often different, and the person is more important than any silly rule. Girls’ games often are more cooperative, more community or relationship building, so often what counts for women is different than what counts for men.

The question is often asked in religion as well. What counts? Is it still might be divided by gender? How do I get to heaven? Which sins count more? Which good deed counts more? I think, I believe, that what religion should be about is not only helping us find meaning, find what counts, what we should give our life toward, but also how to be in the world, how to help heal the world; if not, I’m not interested in a jealous God or a requirement to believe something that nobody in their right mind in this day and age could believe in. The word, ‘God,’ holds no religious or spiritual interest for me, nor does the word, heaven. if they are simply belief requirements. No, I am interested in religion, in spirituality, in social justice, in interdependence if they actually make a difference in my life, and I am here to testify that they have!

What counts? David Brinkley, on “NBC Nightly News” one night some years ago talked about Charles Schultz and his influence on the culture of the 1960’s especially. ‘There’s a cartoon strip with a picture of a little girl who sets up a psychiatric booth which says ‘Psychotherapy – 5 cents,’ and we know exactly who he’s talking about. Then said he said that he had heard that a chaplain at a college in Los Angeles had set up a similar kind of booth which says “Spiritual Counseling – 5 cents,” and he claims that one of the most frequent questions is, ‘What is the meaning of life?'” The answer to that,” said Brinkley,” ought to be worth at least 5 cents.”–

“When the Meaning of Life comes up as a subject,” says Lucy in another strip, “try to be the one who asks the questions.” Or we might rephrase -be the one who asks what counts?

What counts is up to us, isn’t it? Life is not a game to be won or lost by scoring. Maybe we could even say that keeping score, or at least making the score more important than people is a sin. Not that competition is bad, but that we must be careful how and why we compete. Sports can be character building or it can build strange characters. It can enhance life or it can be life-denying. We can enjoy sports, but we can also become obsessed; we can use sports as avoidance if we’re not careful.

What counts? Some years ago there was a great movie,” The Preacher’s Wife”, starring Denzel Washington as an unusual angel and Whitney Houston as the preacher’s wife. It is truly inspiring. Rent it if you get a chance. Almost everyone in the cast is black, yet it is surely a universal message about what counts. It was also one of the first movies in a long time which treats not only church life in a positive light, but also treats the preacher with respect, dignity, and love.

It is the story of a minister who is losing his faith, not in God, or perhaps not just in God, but in life, especially in his life. He can never seem to measure up to his wife’s father who had been a giant of a minister and had built up this church almost by himself and his charisma. The preacher is so busy that he becomes spiritually drained. His marriage is suffering because he doesn’t have time for his wife. He is going about the business and the busyness of the church which is always a temptation, but there is an emptiness about him, a feeling of being not just unappreciated, but just not being able to measure up to who he thinks he is always being compared to. For some reason the minister is trying to do everything by himself. No one in the church seems to be a part of the ministry of the church, except the choir.

What counts in the church in this movie? Not the details, not the busyness, not even Sunday morning and the worship service, not the weak uninspiring sermon, nor the incredibly gifted choir music with Whitney Houston as soloist. It is not clear what counts in this movie church. Is it in ours?

What the angel helps the preacher to see finally, is the crucial importance of what he is doing, of how he and a church ministry changes and saves lives-not souls from damnation, but humans from hopelessness, meaninglessness. Being prophetic in social justice. The Preacher overcomes the temptation to sell the church to a developer for a great profit, and move out of the city into a beautiful new sanctuary. Perhaps this was a similar story that this church went through almost ten years ago!

The story ends with the preacher making an important difference to his neighborhood, saving a young man from prison, saving his marriage, saving the old church building and himself. He preaches a wonderful sermon from his heart of hope and love, and of the importance of the church in finding and spreading that lesson. That’s what counts for him.

Many of us find what counts here in this church and congregation in our beloved community, our religious community, even our spiritual community. Yet many of us, and many of those Unitarians without knowing it were reluctant to return to church, to religion, even to spirituality because we thought one had certain belief requirements which we could no longer fulfill. There’s a Doonesbury comic strip deals with gong to church as a family, like the way I was raised in the Laconia, New Hampshire Congregational church. The Doonesburys are telling their son Alex that they have decided to start attending church as a family. An exchange follows in which Mike Doonesbury acknowledges that as a child he found church boring, but ‘you have to come by that feeling honestly. You have to put in pew time, like Mom and I did.’ Alex pauses and then asks, ‘What if I like it?’ His parents respond with, ‘Like it? What do you mean? We’ll cross that bridge when we get there, honey.’

What counts? What is the meaning of life? I sometimes am given to think in almost Zen-like terms, seeming paradoxes which sound like they just might make sense. Like saying that the meaning of life may not be the discovery of the meaning of life, but that the question and the search for meaning may be the meaning. The search for the holy grail, the quest after righteousness, the journey back to the Goddess, the deep questioning of the existence of God. The journey as the destination. Maybe that counts. Maybe that’s part of the meaning of life.

My colleague, Mark Morrison-Reed, one of our African American ministers, co-ministers with his wife Donna at The Unitarian Church of Toronto, Canada. He is a wonderful preacher, and his sermon at the Service of the Living Tradition at General Assembly a couple years ago was one of the best I’ve heard, and not just because he quoted me in his sermon before three thousand delegates, but because he spoke of a universal spirituality which is above particularity, and must be inclusive. He also wrote an article for the book, The Transient and the Permanent in LIberal Religion. His article was entitled, “LET ME DIE LAUGHING:”

‘We are all dying, our lives always moving toward completion.
We need to learn to live with death, and to understand that death is not the worst of all events.
We need to fear not death, but life—
empty lives,
loveless lives,
lives that do not build upon the gifts that each of us
has been given,
lives that are like living death,
lives which we never take the time to savor and appreciate,
lives in which we never pause to breathe deeply.

What we need to fear is not death, but squandering the lives we have been miraculously given.

So let me die laughing, savoring one of life’s crazy moments. Let me die holding the hand of one I love, and recalling that I tried to love and was loved in return. Let me die remembering that life has been good, and that I did what I could. But today, just remind me that I am dying so that I can live, savor, and love with all my heart.’

Every memorial service is death’s reminder that none of us will make it out alive. Someone once said that we only have one chance to go around in life, but if we do it right, once is enough! I wrote short poem some years ago for a memorial service that I still use now and then:

Grieve not for the one
who has passed beyond
and now sleeps forever in peace
all cares finally at rest,
but grieve for those
who never seem to live at all.

                    -A. Severance

What’s the alternative? Living without hope or joy, or even death. Perhaps why in 2 of the 3 western religions, Christianity and Islam, eternal life, heave, divine reward or punishment is so important. But really, can any of us really understand the concept of ‘eternal life?’ Wouldn’t the population in eternal life land get a bit crowded after a few millennia? No one really knows, of course, what happens to us after death, but I am convinced that this life matters, that we seek meaning and justice in this world. Oh, part of me is made up genetically from all the relatives of my family tree, a kind of reincarnation perhaps. Family systems theory says that we are profoundly influenced by our present family, if we have one, and by our relatives of origin. Religion should be about helping us become better people, about developing a universal morality, about loving and helping one another, about co-creating a better world, staring in the corner where we are.

Living is part of the meaning, getting though the countless barriers life seems to throw in front of us. Not giving up and closing our minds or our souls or our hearts. One of the most important book on the subject, now published by Beacon Press is Viktor Frankel book written while he was a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp, Man’s Search for Meaning. He even created a new school of meaning psychology called logotherapy, or “meaning therapy, but perhaps “logotheology” or “logosearch.”

“There is also purpose in life, he writes, which is almost barren of both creation and enjoyment and which admits of but one possibility of high moral behavior: namely, in man’s attitude to his existence, an existence restricted by external forces.” p.106 “What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost, but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.” p.166

He not only survived the concentration camp but wrote a best selling book which continues to be a strong seller. ‘Deep down,” writes one of my favorite mystical novelist, Tom Robbins, “all of us are probably aware that some kind of mystical evolution is our true task. Our purpose is to consciously, deliberately evolve toward a wiser, more liberated and luminous state of being.’ That’s what counts. For us to evolve, be changed, grow, search, yea, even transformed. Oh, sometimes, just being inspired may be enough for one day.

What counts in religion? It’s like the story of the two old men who met every day in front of a particular hotel. They would sit side-by-side and say very little for hours at a time.

Finally, one of them said to the other: “Life is like a fountain.”
After a long pause, the other said, “So, why is life like a fountain?”
After an even longer pause, the first one said, “Well, maybe you’re right, maybe life isn’t like a fountain after all!”

Sophia Lyons Fahs, often called the ‘Mother of Unitarian Universalist Religious Education’, once said: ‘…the religious way is the way that sees what physical eyes alone fail to see, the intangibles at the heart of every phenomenon…The religious way is the way that touches universal relationships that goes high, wide, and deep, that expands the feeling of kinship…’

Going to church, and that might be any church, synagogue, mosque might be the most important thing we do, for ourselves, our family, and yes, maybe the world, if that church/religion church helps us to be better people and to help heal the world! Most of us became UU’s because we still wanted religious meaning, inspiration responsibility for the world, as if ‘We had the whole world in our hands!’

Whether it is teaching Sunday school, attending adult worship, or even coffee hour, if the worship service brings meaning and inspiration to us, if the music soothes our souls, or if the laughter lightens our load, or if we hear a message that we seemed to need to hear, perhaps even despite what I think the sermon said. Sometimes it may be a combination if coming together in religious community helps lift us up, and encourages us to help lift others as well. Finding our gift and finding our ministry to do in the church on committee or board, or usher or choir or a number of other parts, may give us even more meaning. Religion always needs to be connected to social justice, always reminding us that we are not alone, but interwoven like a Navaho blanket with the world of past and present. How we co-create the future, both ours and our world, is a part of what counts, part of the meaning of life. How we work, how we love, how we treat people, how we relate even to nature, how we use our time here upon earth, never knowing just how long we have, or what lessons we need to learn all part of what counts. Finding the joy in life is often difficult when we are going through a hard time, perhaps even grieving.

Poet Sheila Cassidy was jailed as a prisoner of conscience in Chile, and seems to to believe that the pain and suffering in the universe has a purpose, though not always understandable in what she calls, ‘the Divine Economy,’ from her book, Sharing the Darkness: ‘I believe,/no pain is lost./No tear unmarked,/no cry of anguish/ dies unheard./lost in the hail of gunfire/ or blanked out by the padded cell./I believe that pain/ and prayer/ are somehow saved,/ processed./stored,/ used in the divine economy./ The blood shed in Salvadore/ will irrigate the heart/ of some financier. a million miles away./The terror,/ pain./despair,/swamped/ by lava, flood or earthquake/ will be caught up like mist and fall again,/ a gentle rain/ on arid hearts/ or souls despairing/ to the back streets/ of Brooklyn.’

Then there comes a transformation for me, a renewal of the religious spirit, as I start crafting a memorial service,for instance, as I take the awesome responsibility of summing up a life in 20 minutes, even if the life has lived close to a century. Where do I draw my strength to celebrate a life now over? Sometimes I am called on to lead a memorial service for someone I never even knew. What counts then? Sometimes, the family is comforted, sometimes the people there thank me for putting into meaningful words the summing up of their loved one; they have a religious experience and so do I. There comes a feeling then that what I do and what I say, and even what I represent, has made a difference in someone’s life. I find strength which I didn’t know I had, and see that happening to others as well. That sure counts.

I draw strength from love, from family, from this congregation, from beloved friends here and beloved ministerial colleagues and all sorts of writers, poets, even in long-dead ministers- all writing messages that I find, am moved and strengthened by, and must pass them on to share inspiration. To share what counts, perhaps to teach what counts, perhaps, as is so often the case, to be taught what counts. A congregation gathered in worship generates the warmth of meaning.

“Expect, watch for and embrace uncertainty.
Dance with the madness of the cosmos and not against it.
Leave your door open and your heart ready for anything.”
(Vanessa Rush Southern, “This Piece of Eden”, UUA 2003)

What counts to us, to life, to love, to religion whatever our particular belief, is what we do with it all, how we live and how we die. Not just finding meaning in the ancient, but in the new, in the right now. What counts too is the running of the church, the nuts and bolts and light bulbs and toilets, so the worship, the social justice, the transforming can take place. If the church counts, and I have committed my life to the belief that the church does count, then perhaps we can find our gift in helping to run the church.

Scott Peck says in his book, In Search of Stones: “I don’t know who originally coined the term, but a few of us theologians are increasingly exalting ‘the Holy Conjunction’. The Holy Conjunction is the word ‘and’. Instead of an either/or style of mention, we are pushing for both/and thinking. We are not trying to get rid of reason but promote ‘Reason plus’. Reason AND mystery. Reason AND emotion. Reason AND intuition. Reason AND revelation. Reason AND wisdom. Reason AND love. In one of my lectures I define salvation as ‘an ongoing process of becoming increasingly conscious.’

It is often in the celebration of milestones, births, child dedications, coming of age, weddings or sacred unions, and yes the celebration of a life at a memorial service. What counts is the sharing of religious relationship in this community we call a church, or a congregation. The church has a ministry that we all are a part of; we all have the sacred opportunity to be part of the ministry and the growing of this church, this free and responsible search for truth, meaning, comfort, strength, and outreach.

What counts is how we decide to live, love, play, and work, how we help the part of the world which needs us, how we can share, and how we choose our world, how we shape our world. Let us find the ways to make our lives, all lives, count.

Amen, Shalom, Assalaamu Alaikum, Abrazos a todos, Namaste. Blessed Be,’Vaya Con Su Dios, Peace on Earth, Good Will to All….