You Are the Explanation of Your Life:
The Question Box Sermon 2011
by the Rev. Peter Connolly
Presented at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green on February 20, 2011
1. Do you believe in God? If so, why?
This question has 20 answers, and I won’t be able to give them all today. My first answer is that such questions are usually other questions in disguise. The question that is usually meant by this question is “Should I believe in God? If so, why?” In the Unitarian Universalist tradition, we are all the authors of our own theology. We are encouraged to ask questions and to engage in dialogue and to discover and formulate our own answers.
2. Are we becoming “too Christian”?
In both 2009 and 2010, we celebrated Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. In 2010, we celebrated Easter, though, if you remember the sermon that day, “Easter Among the Unitarians,” we did more deconstructing of the holy day than celebrating it. And at both of the Christmas services we tried to achieve a healthy balance between deconstructing or “unpacking” the meaning of the holy days and celebrating what I take and what those of you present for the service took to be the essential spirit of the season.
We also celebrated Winter Solstice both years and Hanukkah in 2009. We have celebrated Thanksgiving in ways that have centered on the views of the English Pilgrims as well as deconstructing those views and looking for alternative ways of recognizing the need to take time to formally acknowledge and express our gratitude for the good things that we value in life.
We also celebrated Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Valentine’s Day, the coming of the new calendar year, and even July 4, American Independence Day. In January, Scott Girdner gave a talk on Islam. Our adult religious education program is now focused on exploring the various religions of the world. I presented a sermon on Taoism in October. The Youth Group presented a program on the glories of winter on the last Sunday in January.
As far as my own presentations are concerned, I rely heavily on the Buddhist tradition in my readings and, as you probably know, as I’ve stated it often, my most fundamental spiritual concern is with care for the Earth which is often referred to as “Earth-centered spirituality.”
We do not celebrate the seasons of Advent or Lent, Ash Wednesday or Good Friday, essential elements of the Christian calendar. We do not use the lectionary text as the basis of our liturgical year. So, no, I don’t think that we are becoming “too Christian.” I think that we are striking just the right balance in fulfilling our mission to encourage spiritual growth among our members through relying on a variety of faith traditions, some religious, some secular.
3. Well, I think the person or persons expressing this concern, might have meant “Are we becoming too spiritual?”
Well, this raises two concerns. One: “Christian” and “spiritual” are very different terms with very different meanings. If we are mixing them up, it’s because we are not paying close enough attention to terminology, piety (the way we express our beliefs) and our own spiritual development.
The other concern is more problematic. The fact that the question is posed so awkwardly or imprecisely is due in part to the fact that it is coming to me from a third party representing someone whose concerns are not being brought directly to the minister or the Committee on Ministry. It is certain that we are still undergoing growing pains as we move from being a lay-led church with a long tradition of successful leadership to the model of partnership between ordained, professional ministry and lay leadership.
There are bound to be some who feel that the church is not what it used to be and feel dissatisfied in a vague way that can’t be precisely articulated or in a way that challenges awkwardly. The best way to express those concerns is directly to the minister because I need to be involved in the conversation to provide not just my understandings but also pastoral care to anyone who is troubled by aspects of church life. This indirect method of expressing concern is called “triangulation.” It tends to divide and polarize and those are not healthy patterns of behavior that foster healthy growth.
If you perceive that the culture of the church is changing in ways that trouble you, please share those concerns directly with me. If you wish to have a hand in forming the culture of the church, you can do so by joining the Sunday Services Committee which is responsible for designing the services and the flow of our church calendar. Or you can suggest ideas for services and arrange for speakers. If you are not satisfied, the Committee on Ministry will be glad to hear your concerns and address them on behalf of the church.
We are a very open and flexible church. Please feel free to express your concerns directly so that we can address them directly. Let’s continue to build a healthy church community through direct communication. Let’s swear off behavior that might lead to divisiveness.
4. Do you believe in God? If so, why?
There are twenty answers to this question. We won’t have time to get to them all today. One, at least, is from the Zen tradition. [Bow with folded hands]
5. Do animals have souls? Native American tradition says that if the hunter does not thank the animal that is killed, the spirit will haunt the hunter.
This could be the topic of a complete sermon in itself. As a child in Catholic Sunday school class , I was taught by way of the Baltimore Catechism, that we do, indeed, have a soul, but that it has no substantial nature. By the same teaching, animals do not have souls as they do not have the capacity to reason. The sisters did not go so far as to say that the term as applied to human beings is “poetic” in nature, but that is how I understand it.
Western civilization has a pronounced tendency towards dualism as I’ve been reminded in my recent readings on Buddhism and in Jan Garrett’s philosophy class “The Committed Life.” We tend to divide the world up into the rational and non-rational, the material and the spiritual—or the material and the otherwise non-existent. I think the nature of reality has more subtlety to it. The “soul” is a way of understanding that the whole is greater that the accumulation of the parts. Frankenstein’s monster was an accumulation of parts that somehow took on the human dimensions of emotions and attachments, desires and needs, but did he have a soul, something that coalesced to make him uniquely human or a unique living being?
When I look into the eyes of Griffin, Michele Newcomb’s dog, I am aware of his soul. But do cats have souls? Cockatoos? They have personalities, though they are not persons. What about the chickens and cattle we use as food animals? Do they have souls? Do you ingest something of their soul nature when you eat their bodies? What about mosquitoes and gnats and protozoa? Well, the question becomes diffuse pretty quickly.
Another way to ask the question is “Should we have a reverence for life? If so, how should we honor it?” Yes, we should have a reverence for all living things. It helps us to find our place in the community of life, the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part. By taking the time to acknowledge that the continuation of our lives is dependent upon taking the lives of others, plant and animal, we approach the whole enterprise of life with a hallowedness that is appropriate for honoring its sacred nature, its irreplaceability.
It’s why I don’t approve of competitive eating as a sport or extruding minced chicken flesh in a mixture of food additives and animal byproducts, deep frying it and calling it “food.” Or turning those so-called “nuggets” into playful shapes that appeal to the imaginations of children. It’s also why I say “grace” before meals. It reminds me of the interconnectedness of the so-called food chain and the necessity for proper acknowledgment and gratitude for the living bodies that nourish my body– and soul.
6. Do you believe in God? If so, why?
This question has twenty answers and we won’t be able to get to them all today. I have answered this question by way of my own philosophy and through the Zen tradition. A third answer is pedagogical. In the fall, Linda Pickle and Jerry Gibbs teamed up to lead a class in “Building Your Own Theology.” I took that course under the leadership of Ken Kuehn in the fall of 2009 and led a session of “Building Your Own Theology II” in the spring of 2010.
I am sure that we will offer it again, but for now, I commend the book written by Richard S. Gilbert to you. It is available in the library and walks you through some of the main theological questions that you will need to answer in order to come up with a coherent theology or anti-theology. Richard Gilbert is speaking at GA this year, by the way. He will be offering a talk on behalf of those ministers celebrating their 50th year of ministry.
7. Substance abuse or codependency issues. UUs and the “higher power.”
As many of you know, 12-Step programs have a special place in my heart. Not only was Al-Anon a big help for me as I struggled to understand the issues that contributed to family dynamics in the house in which I and my brother and sisters grew up, finding the local church that hosted Al-Anon meetings in 1989 meant, also, finding my first Unitarian Universalist church home.
There is a formulaic “confession” used by 12-Step programs in which folks usually say that their lives have become unmanageable because of the alcoholism or drug dependency of themselves or of a family member and that we have turned to a “higher power” for help. During the course of my participation, I found that I more often referred to that as a “deeper power,” something operating within me that was greater and more fundamental than my “skin-encapsulated ego.”
The terms of the question are unclear, but I will say “yes, there is such a thing as substance abuse” and there is such a thing as “codependency,” a fairly new term in the psychological lexicon which means that by relying on a family member who, in turn, relies on alcohol or drugs as a way to make it through the day, one is codependent on those drugs as, out of love for the person or a less healthy emotion, one tends to enable the continued use of the substance by the family member or “significant other.” As to whether there is such a thing as a “higher power” which people call “God,” I refer you to my responses to questions one, four and six.
If you are worried about your own use or abuse of alcohol or other substances or such use by someone you care about, this kind of 12-Step program may be useful to you. There is an AA meeting for women that meets in this church on Thursdays at noon and an OA (Overeaters Anonymous) group that meets on Mondays at 11:30 AM. If you want more information about either, please speak to me after the service.
And if you are a rationalist who would not find the 12-step philosophy helpful, you might find SMART Recovery helpful. This is a program that used to be referred to as “rational recovery.” It is an acronym for self-management and recovery therapy. The national office is in Ohio. It describes itself this way: “SMART Recovery has a scientific foundation, not a spiritual one.” According to its website, it “teaches increasing self-reliance rather than powerlessness.” It also relies on the power of people working together, sharing stories in a community which fosters trust through familiarity. It discourages the use of labels such as “alcoholic” or “addict.”
Twelve-step programs have helped improve the lives of millions of people. Unitarian Universalism does not promote either program or philosophy explicitly. Whatever works for you is what you should choose. That’s my personal opinion.
8. Do you believe in God? If so, why?
It is an elusive question that has twenty answers, so we can’t cover them all today. First of all, you have to define your terms. Is God “the supernatural being conceived as the perfect and omnipotent and omniscient originator and ruler of the universe”? Is God “the being perfect in power, wisdom and goodness”? Is God “the incorporeal divine Principle ruling over all as eternal Spirit”? Is God “the supreme or ultimate reality?” Is God “infinite Mind”? Is God another name for the universe, all that is and all that will be? Is God the moral force that animates all things, the moral order of the universe? Is God beyond definition? These are questions that we all must grapple with for ourselves to come to our spiritual maturity.
9. Okay, now that I’m a member, what do I do to support the church? Who do I talk to?
This is a question I’ve been asked three or four times over the past few weeks by our new members, but it’s a question that’s important to us all who are church members. It’s a question about church stewardship. Church members support the church through their time. Those who change the roadside sign each week; those who sign up to make sure that coffee hour flows smoothly by setting up and cleaning up; those who help with recycling; those who work on the Sunday Services Committee or Facilities Committee or Finance Committee or any of the other committees, the Caring Committee and the Children’s Religious Education programs are all providing the stewardship needed to keep the church going.
It takes the talents of many church members and friends to present a spiritually significant church service each Sunday. Think of our youth group members a few weeks ago or of any of our guest speakers, our wonderful musicians and singers, our program coordinators and the moderators of our church services. The offering of your talents is an offering of stewardship.
Time, talent and treasure is the traditional formulation of what constitutes stewardship. The Finance Committee each year formulates a budget for the church, based on requests from the various committees, the loan obligations we have to pay for our new building, the costs associated with utilities, with our social justice initiatives and for paid staff including a minister ordained in fellowship. And because the costs of a minister’s package are so directly tied in to the pledge campaign, we are advised against being too actively involved in it as it might look like we are coming to you, bowl in hand, to beg for our salaries.
Last year, I was intimately involved in the stewardship campaign, attending a number of “cottage meetings” where I got to sit with many of you and break bread and have good conversations as we got to know one another a little better. This year, it’s been determined that I should be less involved. But, I’ve been pledging to help support the work of Unitarian Universalist churches for 22 years. And here is my certificate to prove it. [Read text of certificate presented by the JP church]
My experience of pledging is this: it’s like taking money from your front pocket and putting it in your side pocket. It’s money that continues to be used for a community you belong to and believe in even after it leaves your pocket or your bank account. Two weeks ago, I presented a sermon on relationship, on the “I and Thou” model formulated by Martin Buber. Buber contends that we are all persons in relationship, that there is no such thing as an “I” alone. “I” is always either “experiencing” the things of the world or in relationship with the persons in the world.
We do not exist as solitary beings. We exist as persons in relationship and in church that is in a chosen relationship with others of like mind and heart. We are not solitary selves, but selves in community, a community we cherish and rely on for preserving our values and putting them to work in the world. It will take about 30 of us to talk to all our members — in either a small group meeting or in a one-to-one conversation — over the next couple of months in order to organize a pledge campaign that is personal, friendly and productive. When you are asked if you can help in this way, I hope you’ll think of what I’ve said today and say “yes.”
10. Do you believe in God? If so, why?
There are twenty answers to this question and we won’t be able to get to them all today. One answer is the one that I gave as the benediction on the day of my installation here as your minister in May. You might remember it. One of our youth members paid me the great honor of creating of it a work of art with her own hands as a Christmas present. It is a quotation from St. Theresa of Avila: “Whose hands are God’s hands but our hands.” You will notice that it is not presented as a question, but as a statement. That says a lot about what I believe.