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On Extravagance and Direct Religious Experience
by Thomas J. S. Mikelson
We Unitarian Universalists do not sing or move like the people in evangelical churches. Our preaching is less emotional and charismatic. We reach out to the reasoning mind. And we question strong feeling as a basis for commitment, enthusiasm as an ingredient in change, and any change that appears suddenly in people's consciousness and behavior.
We have been too timid about these, in my judgment, and thus we have been labeled, rightly, as spiritually cool; not socially cool but spiritually cool, hesitant to sing from the bottom of our hearts, to move in worship, to weep openly, to shout when the spirit says shout. I agree with our forebears about the value of well-considered spirituality, about thoughtful growth, about decisions that come after a long incubation, about the role of time in seasoning character. But I part company with them when it comes to their ambivalence about enthusiasm.
Emotion is a central ingredient in personal change and transformation. Enthusiastic expression is a form of regeneration. Consciousness can focus and change quickly. Things can fall suddenly into place. Issues that have been cloudy can suddenly become clear. Why should we resist? When someone comes up and says, "I have been deeply moved by this service, and I want to join this church," why should we respond, "That's wonderful. We receive people into membership two or three times each year. You might wish to attend our four orientation sessions before you join. In the meantime, you might work up a statement about your spiritual development. Send that to the church's standing committee, who will vote on your membership application."
In some traditions, by contrast, worship regularly ends with an opportunity for commitment. In those traditions, it is often said, as the closing hymn is announced, "The doors of the church are opened." This means, as everyone present knows, that someone in the room may have been moved to make a new commitmentto God or to the congregation. In some traditions, those people walk down the aisle as a gesture of intention; in others, they go to a prayer rail; in still others, they simply hold up their hands. They have felt touched. They need to express the experience they are having and have it recognized by the congregation.
Most Unitarian Universalist worship doesn't offer such opportunities for public commitment, for people to declare how they have been moved or to respond to changes taking place in their lives. It doesn't offer any way to say, "I'm ready to join this congregation here and now. I've been a Unitarian Universalist without knowing it. Now I know it, and I want others to know it. These are my people. I am ready."
We don't know what to do with that, so we do our best not to have to deal with it. We simply don't open the doors of the church. We don't create special ways for people to express their enthusiasm, to make their awakening, their commitment, known to the congregation. People are often deeply moved by our worship. We know that. But we rarely give them ways to express, or direct, that experience. Instead, we leave them to carry their experience away with them unnoticed.
We inherited from our forebears a suspicion of religious enthusiasm, and that suspicion separates us from having to recognize what William James called direct religious experience. More than anything else, it's this suspicion that keeps Unitarian Universalism from becoming one of the continent's fastest growing religious movements. Granted, the dangers of unmonitored extravagance are all too visible, but that is no reason to wall ourselves off from the central source of power in religiondirect religious experience, or what our Principles and Sources call "direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life."
The secret of spiritual life is balance, but for Unitarian Universalists, the rational, less emotional end of the teetertotter is always down. The best teetertotter rides, as anyone knows, go up and down, fast and slow, and they contain a few surprises. A little extravagance would do us good.
The Rev. Thomas J. S. Mikelson is minister of First Parish in Cambridge, MA, and teaches preaching at Harvard Divinity School. This is excerpted from his sermon of June 18, 2000.
e s s a y
The Grain in Things, Seen and Unseen
by Scott Russell Sanders
From where I sit in the living room of this old American Foursquare house that my wife and I have slowly fixed up, room by room, over 20 years, I can see half a dozen kinds of wood. There is the pale maple of a rocking chair, the black walnut of a sideboard, the poplar of baseboards and window trim, the yellow pine of wainscoting spangled with knots, the luster of a cherry bowl, and beneath it all the bold lines of a red oak floor. By walking through our small house, upstairs and down, I could find another handful of speciesfragrant cedar, flamboyant sycamore and hickory, subtle white pine, elegant beech. In every case, we have sanded and stained and finished the wood so as to bring out the grain.
We preserve the grain for its beauty, for its grace, and also for a reminder of the living trees. Most of the wood in our house, in fact, comes from species that grow in the forests near us here in southern Indiana. When sunlight draws my gaze across the gleaming floor, I think of oaks lifting their leaves toward the sky. When the maple rocker creaks beneath my weight, I remember gathering buckets of sap in the sugarbush. The lustrous cherry bowl recalls a mob of cedar waxwings stripping the fruit from a wild cherry tree. The smell of cedar in a closet reminds me of listening beside a grove of snow-covered cedars while a screech owl whinnied from dark tufted branches. Because I am surrounded by wood, even here indoors I never forget the great outsidethe web of dirt and rain and sun and air on which all life depends.
When my wife and I bought our house, all the poplar trim was painted white. The paint did not stick well, for it had been applied over an original coating of shellac. On winter nights, as the boards contracted from the cold, white chips would flake off with a barely audible pop. We couldn't have our infant daughter crawling around and nibbling those flakes, so for our first remodeling job we scraped away that paint and refinished the poplar, bringing out its honeyed tone and its dark veins the color of butterscotch. Before, the trim had seemed cold and dead; after, it seemed alive and warm. Visitors to our house often run their hands along the doorjambs or windowsills, as if stroking the flanks of a patient animal. Painting wood on the outside of a house may be necessary to protect it from weather, but painting wood inside a house seems like a betrayal of its wild past.
Trees breathe, my father taught me. They draw in what we cast off, carbon dioxide, and they give out what we crave, oxygen, and so our breath cycles in and out of their pores. Only the outer husk of a tree is alive, the tender inch or two of sapwood just beneath the bark, which carries vital juices between dirt and leaves. The inner core of the tree, the heartwood, is no longer living. It's not really dead but merely still, finished, like a snapshot. Sliced open, the heartwood reveals a tree's history. So the grain exposed on our walls and floors and furnishings tells of fat years and thin, weather hard and mild, soils deep and shallow. The texture of each board is like the photograph of a face bearing the marks from a lifetime of blessings and blows.
Each plank in our floor is unique, and yet when the planks are laid side by side, they resemble one another like brothers and sisters, faithful to the design of oaks. If the universe itself has a design, some deep and steadfast grain that reveals the kinship among all its parts, then what could be more important for a life's work than trying to discern that pattern? All of science is based on the faith that there is such a grain in things, at least in everything that can be measured. But what of those immeasurable thingsfeelings and thoughts, memory and longing, actions and words. Is there a grain to them as well? Is there a pattern in our striving, a moral to be drawn from this history of breath?
Finding a logic in life is harder than finding order in the blinking of quasars or the dance of quarks. Nontheless, I believe in such a logic. I believe there is a moral and well as a physical grain in things, and that our chief business is to discover what we can of that pattern and to align ourselves with it. Nature proves nothing about morality. And yet I cannot help feeling, as I gaze around at the quirky, lovely grain of wood in [my] old house, that to search for an underlying order, even in the mess of human affairs, is less foolish than to accept chaos as the only truth.
The root of the word grain means "kernel" or "seed," and that root in turn derives from an Indo-European word meaning "to become ripe." The grain in the field, such as wheat or corn, and the grain in the wood are akin, for they both reveal the earth's fertility. One sort of grain fills our bellies; the other shelters our bodies and links our minds to this great planetary home. We can see in the patterns of wood the swirls of cloud, the ripples in a creek, the tumult of a waterfall, the strata in rock, the tracings of creatures along a mud bank; we can see the branchings of our own veins; we can see the taut or tattered muscle of a heart. Wood grain speaks to us of wildness, the push of sap from roots into the tips of branches, the stress of wind, the struggle for a place in the sun. The same current of wildness flows through us, as we are reminded by surrounding ourselves with beautiful and patient wood.
Scott Russell Sanders teaches at the University of Indiana in Bloomington. A winner of the Lamman Literary Award, he is the author of more than 20 books. This essay is excerpted from The Force of Spirit (Beacon, 2000; available from the UUA Bookstore at (800) 215-9076).
m e d i t a t i o n
The ethical life of Humanism . . . is based on the actual situation of human nature. We are not disembodied souls living in a world of pure spirit, nor do we in fact seek to be. We have appetites and passions, hungers and thirsts, desires and aspirations. We have aches and pains, as well as joys and excitements. We must eat and keep warm, as well as think and aspire. And all these are of the very texture of the moral situation. The Humanist ethic is not life in accord with an absolute standard that never knew reality on land or sea, but life in the fullness of the inherent and the unique needs of individual [humanity] in [the] social setting.
Rev. Curtis W. Reese
From Humanist Religion, (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1931), out of print.
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