First Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany
"Looking for the Big Rocks"
Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore May 19, 2002
I overheard two teenagers talking the other day. One teenager said to the other, "I'm really, really worried. My father and mother are both working long hours and sometimes on weekends putting money away for my college education. They make sure I have the clothes I want and are now offering to give me one of their cars. My mother cooks delicious meals for me, does my laundry and even irons my shirts and pants. When I'm sick, one of them stays home from work to make sure I'm okay."
The other kid said, "So what are you worried about?"
The first one replied, "I'm afraid they might try to escape."
For those of us who have children, our families are the big rocks that shape our lives. At times these rocks overshadow everything else. I know I worry about how Philomena and I will put Andy through college and allow us to consider someday retiring. Running children to sporting events, music lessons, tutoring sessions, to the doctor when their sick, and spending time together as a family can fill up our lives.
For others the big rock is seeking a committed relationship. First there is the challenge of meeting someone who can carry on an intelligent conversation. Then there is the decision process of how intimate to get and how fast to risk vulnerability. All the while the relationship is evaluated and compared with who else might be available. The search for companionship and intimacy can consume a great deal of attention, energy and resources.
Work is of course another big rock for most of us. Many workers today are extremely dependent on their jobs with little cushion in the way of savings. Thankfully, for many of us, work is not just a source of sustenance but also a source of meaning and satisfaction. Certainly, the meaning and the opportunity for service are primary drives for me in my ministry here. I think Unitarian Universalists tend to be people for whom their work life is one of their biggest rocks.
There is of course more than work and relationships. For many the big rocks in their lives are their avocations. All the creative pursuits like writing, painting, pottery, sculpture, and metal work are sources of satisfaction. Some prefer consumable artistry using meat, roots, grains and vegetables creating delicious gourmet meals. Athletic people enjoy pursuits like tennis, running, bicycling, and hiking in the Adirondacks. Unfortunately, some of those people aren't here today because that's what their out doing.
Some of us prefer to appreciate creativity. Our big rock is going to museums, reading great books, attending opera, plays, musical performances and the cinema. Travel is a wonderful way for people to find meaning and express themselves. Much pleasure and satisfaction comes from the enjoyment of the genius of others.
One can fill up one's life with these big rocks of family, work, commitments, and pastimes. Unfortunately, what often gets left out today, or treated as gravel or sand filler is our religious lives. One's religious life can easily become just one more activity rather than the central purpose and direction of life.
There is no confusion about what's important in traditional Biblical religion. The biggest rock in one's life is God. Hear this description of religious devotion in Psalm 18:
The LORD is my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer; …, my strength, in whom I will trust; … the horn of my salvation, and my high tower.
I quote Hebrew scripture this morning to highlight the use of the word 'rock'. The Hebrew word used is tsoor which scholars translate as cliff face, boulder or specific rock and rock of God. This kind of a rock is a foundation, a secure protection. In different places in the Bible, it gets translated as strength, God, beauty, strong and mighty one.
Interestingly, it's root meaning is to bind, besiege, confine, cramp, to show hostility to, be an adversary and to treat as a foe. I think perhaps some of us have returned to the original meaning of the word tsoor, seeing the Biblical origins of our western religious traditions as a means to bind, besiege and confine our lives rather than seeing them as a foundation for growth and transformation.
Unitarian Universalism is founded on the principle of the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Our religious tradition is the opposite of confining. We tend to focus on the word free and not the word responsible. Too often in the 20th Century, that phrase was interpreted as free-from religion. As we enter the 21st Century, I see us moving toward exercising our freedom to be religious. Being Unitarian Universalist we take responsibility to freely choose our religious understanding. And search and choose we must.
So what might it mean to make the big rock in your life your religious life? The first step is to move away from defining a religious life as yet another activity to squeeze in with all the other rocks. A story can help illustrate this:
At the great market in Mexico City, an old native named Pota-lamo had twenty strings of onions hanging for sale.
An American tourist asked him, "How much for a string of onions?"
"Ten cents," said Pota-lamo.
"How much for two strings?"
"How much for all twenty strings?" asked the American.
"I would not sell you my twenty strings," replied Pota-lamo.
"Why not? Aren't you here to sell your onions?"
"No," replied the old merchant. "I am here to live my life. I love this marketplace. I love the crowds and the red serapes. I love the sunlight and the wavering palmettos. I love to have friends come by and say buenos dias and talk about the babies and the crops. That is my life. For that I sit here all day and sell my twenty strings of onions. But if I sell all my onions to one customer, then my day is ended. I have lost the life I love—and that I will not do."
I would venture to say the old merchant is living his life religiously. What a different way to view the marketplace! He is not driven by the profit motive. He is not there to sell onions, accumulating wealth preparing for living life some time in the future. He is not consumed with saving for retirement or his child's education. He is not worried about anything. His priority is living the life he loves … living love.
Just think for a moment about spending a day just sitting in the market place. And then the next. And then the next. My life often is just the opposite. Too often I'm out every night of the week attending and running meetings. Last night I had five different writing projects to finish and I'm off after our annual meeting to a training on Public Ministry in Brooklyn for three days.
I know many here too struggle with juggling the different commitments they've made. Making commitments isn't the problem. Commitments fulfilled and responsibilities discharged are satisfying and meaningful. But having too many of them competing for our attention can cause a breakdown of sorts, a paralysis of personal energy.
Interestingly, animal trainers use this effect. Animal trainers carry a stool when they go into a cage of lions. They have their whips, of course, and their pistols are at their sides. But invariably they also carry a stool. The stool turns out to be the most important tool of the trainers. They hold the stool by the back and thrusts the legs toward the face of the wild animal. Evidently the animal tries to focus on all four legs at once. In the attempt to focus on all four, a kind of paralysis overwhelms the animal, and it becomes tame, weak, and disabled because its attention is fragmented.
When people despair of all the rocks they are trying to cram into the container of their lives, I think they are missing an important life lesson our old merchant intuitively understands.
Theologian Paul Tillich is well known for his insightful analysis of the effects of modern living on our religious lives. The daily flurry of activities and tasks may keep us on the surface of our lives moving from one event to the next, what he calls the horizontal dimension. Too often we don't deeply experience those events. Too often we don't experience life in a way that touches the profound questions of existence and allows those questions to take hold of us. That sense of being seized by life he calls the vertical dimension.
Here is how Tillich describes the horizontal and the vertical in 1958:
"The loss of the dimension of depth is caused by the relation of man to his world and to himself in our period, the period in which nature is being subjected scientifically and technically to the control of man. Life in the dimension of depth is replaced by life in the HORIZONTAL dimension. The driving forces of the industrial society of which we are a part, go ahead HORIZONTALLY and not VERTICALLY…"
"Being religious means asking passionately the question of the meaning of our existence and being willing to receive answers, even if the answers hurt. ….It is the state of being concerned about one's own being and being universally. "
How might we investigate this vertical dimension? This is one of the primary purposes of the world's religious scriptures. Unitarian Universalists approach them not as authoritative books of law that we must obey. We approach them as story and metaphor that can open the vertical dimension of our being. These texts are many faceted gems yielding rich interpretative value. We recognize that we must enter the text to extract personally relevant, and ultimately significant meaning. And when we have the courage to enter the text, the text may then enter us, touch us, change us, heal us and transform us.
Another path to the vertical dimension is through spiritual practices such as prayer, meditation, writing, dance, yoga, martial arts and artistic expression. These practices allow people to step out of the stream of outer activity and focus on the constant stream of inner activity. They allow the practitioner to go beyond the surface, discovering unnoticed emotions, values, and motivations.
One excellent way to open one's awareness to that stream of inner activity is by intentionally leaving spaces in one's life for spontaneity. (This is an example of the minister preaching the sermon he needs to hear) In the present moment, we have access to what is emerging in us. As any Jazz musician understands, every moment is pregnant with creative possibilities.
There are many ways theologically to understand the flow of the present moment. In more traditional language, this is the Holy Spirit making itself known to us and guiding us. I prefer to understand this flow as the Tao guiding me toward itself or as experiencing my Buddha nature. To be in moment-to-moment contact with that inner stream of awareness is wonderfully meaningful, stimulating and satisfying.
The big rock of my religious life is here:
· Being aware of moment to moment experience;
· Being aware of the interconnections between my inner and my outer perception of the world;
· Being aware of emerging responses that relieve suffering and bring healing;
· Consciously choosing to act or not to act and being willing to be aware, feel and learn from the results of my actions or non-actions;
This awareness process is the foundation of the ongoing development of my religious life.
I like how the Dutch Catholic priest and author Henri Nouwen describes bringing awareness to life:
I often think: "A life is like a day; it goes by so fast. If I am so careless with my days, how can I be careful with my life?" I know that somehow I have not fully come to believe that urgent things can wait while I attend to what is truly important. It finally boils down to a question of deep and strong conviction. Once I am truly convinced that preparing the heart is more important than preparing the Christmas tree I will be a lot less frustrated at the end of a day.
A deep and strong conviction to attend to the truly important task of preparing the heart is what our congregation is all about. This is another good working definition for living religiously. And it is something we can do together.
As a part of an assignment for a doctoral thesis, a college student spent a year with a group of Navajo Indians on a reservation in the Southwest. As he did his research he lived with one family, sleeping in their hut, eating their food, working with them and generally living the life of a 20th Century Indian. The old grandmother of the family spoke no English at all, yet a very close friendship formed between the two.
They spent a great deal of time sharing a friendship that was meaningful to each, yet unexplainable to someone else. In spite of the language difference they shared the common language of love and understood each other. Over the months he learned a few phrases of Navajo and she picked up a little of the English language.
When it was time for him to return to the campus and write his thesis, the tribe held a going-away celebration. It was marked by sadness since the young man had become close to the whole village and all would miss him. As he prepared to get up into the pickup truck and leave, the old grandmother came to tell him good-bye. With tears streaming from her eyes, she placed her hands on either side of his face, looked directly into his eyes and said, "I like me best when I'm with you."
Through our loving relationships in this congregation, we can find ways to like ourselves better when we are together. None of us develop our religious lives alone. We do it in relationship. We do it best in religious community. I hope for all of us this congregation is one of our big rocks. It is a rock that has been a beacon to this community for over 160 years and in this location for 75. It helped shape our recently departed 90 year old matriarchs Mildred Guffin and Peg Hout into the wonderful people they were. And if we will join together and work together, it can shape our lives for the better as well.
BENEDICTION (inspired by one by the Rev. Dennis Daniels)
There is within us, great goodness,
Great depths we have never plumbed,
Great insight and intuition,
Great reservoirs of love.
The path to them leads through emptiness & fear.
May we seek and receive the courage and
To walk through the lonely valleys
and cross the treacherous mountains.
May we find the treasure of our own hidden places.
May we discover and remember
the inwardly revealed beauty of existence.
Trusting there is far more to existence
than the fragile flowering of it we embody.
May we pass these gifts of being on
and when the time comes, let them go.
Copyright ©2002 by the Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore. All rights reserved.