My husband is a health care reporter, and he learned from a nurse contact of his in a Cleveland hospital that the call center staff there has been quite angry and impatient the past couple of weeks with the number of people who are wanting to talk with a nurse.
For second opinions about chronic conditions. Ordinary illnesses. Minor scrapes and bruises. Why are they so concerned about all these small things?
Given what’s going on in the world.
The women in the homeless ministry I work with have been calling as well, one of them complaining that she saw a couple of cockroaches — those big outdoor-living ones — scurrying across the kitchen floor, and she swears she saw some babies in the oven.
Another phoned in to say she couldn’t turn on her heater because the furnace filter is dirty and when would someone be out to change it.
I stopped myself from hanging up without first saying: How can you even be concerned about such small, small things?
Given what’s going on the world.
My daughter called the day before yesterday in tears because she flew to Las Vegas (safely) and discovered that there are no jobs right now, the town has been emptied out of tourists, the casinos even are laying people off, and it’s a brown, ugly place with gated condo complexes and strip malls. The college she wants to enroll in won’t give her a good enough financial aid package and besides, they will only accept 40 transfer units.
I told her in response, before I could even take a breath, that these were small complaints for sure.
Given what’s going on in the world.
Perhaps some of you are still grounded and uncomplaining in the face of the reality that we are still alive and unharmed after the suicide air crashes that killed so many innocent people, but I find myself fretting over squeaks in my car and misplaced black sweaters and undercooked rice in Chinese restraints, and ungrateful house guests… very small and highly unspiritual concerns to be sure.
God knows, given what’s going on in the world.
And, after all, I am supposed to know and do better.
Some psychologists are saying that many Americans are now reacting to the attacks of terror of September 11th — and the state of war we seem to be in — by regressing, that is, going back to earlier stages of development or less mature coping skills. We’re whining more, not less. We’re demanding more, not less. We’re worried more, not less. We are focused more, not less, on our own basic needs and wants, on the most ordinary matters of existence.
Because what’s going on in the world is more frightening and/or uncontrollable than we can bear, we will seek to fix the scary things and unpleasant conditions we might be able to control.
Because after several weeks of being glued to the television, radio, newspapers, and chat lines, we are now overwhelmed with the constant flow of opinions and information — much of it deeply disturbing and terrifying, about the nature of the terrorism and the potential for it in months and years to come.
Unable to take in any more of the horror or the uncertainty, and certainly unable to make any sense of, or find any meaning in, it at all.
I read in the Dahlonega Nugget this week that I was scheduled to speak this morning about “wherever the spirit leads.” I was partly amused and then dismayed — at myself — for not checking in with the good and faithful person who lets the local papers know what our service themes are from week to week. I have, as you will read in the church newsletter, negotiated with the Sunday Services committee to use that title “wherever the spirit leads” as a place holder those months when I haven’t the foggiest idea what I will feel moved to talk about, especially four to six weeks out. A friend of mine gave me the idea to just use that title, an ironic choice since we Unitarian Universalists, as a rule, don’t believe in the notion that there is a spirit that leads us to do much of anything at all. Let alone calls us to preach.
Or do we?
So, my original idea for this talk was to look, on the contrary, at how spirit language seems to me to be predominant in our religious observance: in the most familiar and popular hymns we sing, in the words we speak, in our rituals.
Are we really more pentecostal (small P) than we think?
I first heard Pentecostalism, a form of Christianity which applies to those groups that emphasize the workings of the Holy Spirit — linked with Unitarian Universalism at the Mid-South UU annual meeting last spring, which focused on music. One of the guest musicians and speakers urged us to be more so, more Pentecostal, more spirited and spirit-full, especially when it comes to singing.
And our own music director came back from the UU Musicians Network conference this summer saying that her professional colleagues are much more likely than most UUs to raise their hands and sway when the power of music moves them.
The hymns we selected this morning were the ones I was thinking of when I was toying with the idea of talking today about how UUs use the word “spirit” a lot. Our sung chalice lighting: “Gathered here in the struggle and the power… spirit draw near.”
Our opening hymn and my personal favorite most of the time, Gather the Spirit.
The hymn after our meditation this morning, which includes the line “in the spirit, by the spirit, with the spirit giving power, I will find true harmony.”
And the offertory hymn, a sung prayer, by one of our most popular and prolific Unitarian Universalist songwriters, Shelly Jackson Denham, Blessed Spirit of My Life.
Sarah Dan and I selected a few this morning, but there are others, many others, in our hymnal, some of them written by 20th century Unitarian Universalists, some translations of much older Transylvanian Unitarian hymns, some traditional African-American gospel songs.
But all of them conveying a remarkably similar theology or faith in some transcendent spirit outside our own everyday consciousness that is available to us for support and inspiration in our daily lives: “blessed spirit of my life, give me strength through stress and strife.”
Look at our most traditional UU worship practices — how we start by lighting a chalice, an ancient way of invoking friendly spirit or spirits, how we light candles of community, again a way of inviting healing spirit or spirits into our circle of concern.
And the water communion or ingathering service we held just last month, where we blend our separate waters, doing so with some sense that there will be in the mingling process a common spirit of community.
A lot of spirit language, a lot of spirit practice.
I wanted to look at the roots of our “spirit” theology and tradition, because, while we do have at least several different ways of looking at God among us — or that which provides some sense of greatest meaning — it is this “spirit” thing that is often most resonant for our newer, especially our younger, members. And it is this emphasis on “spirit” that has been worrying some of our more long-term members across the denomination, those who say that they fled their former religious homes because there had been too much emphasis on things like “faith” and “spirit.”
So this is something that has intrigued me and something I planned on developing a message about. This week, perhaps.
And then the World Trade Center crumbled, and the Pentagon was hit, and another plane went down in Pennsylvania, and more than 6,000 people were killed, and we are living with these recent horrors and the threat of more to come.
And then suddenly this topic — indeed other seemingly ordinary sermon topics — the ones I came up with during my summer study break — suddenly seemed so beside the point, so not on the mark.
Given what’s going on in the world.
I know I am not alone among my colleagues in the faith community in feeling quite inadequate to this task we call spiritual leadership at a time like this, not knowing what to do or say at a time like this. What’s unimportant or distracting, what might possibly be meaningful.
As some of you remember, the night after the attacks of terrorism, all I knew to do was to gather together in this familiar and holy space to sing some hymns, to sit in silence, to read a psalm, and to share our feelings about what had just happened. Because that was where I was in my response to the tragedies, not in a place of well-articulated theological reflection, for sure. Let alone, any clue of what we might or should do next as a country.
I asked those gathered not to rush to solutions — as we are all apt to do — to determining the tangible, factual why of what had just happened or the what to do next, but rather to use the time together to comfort each other, to fill each other’s hearts with love and the resolve that would be so necessary in the days to come. Because we would need that strength to find our own beacons, our own will — our own spirit to go on and to reach out to others as we did.
That’s all I could say, and that was really all our own Unitarian Universalist Association president Rev. Bill Sinkford could say when he issued his first statement, which ended, not surprisingly, with a question. After asking us to hold in our hearts and prayers the families of those killed and wounded on that morning in September, he admitted that this tragedy tests our faith. Where is God in this? he asked. Where is the Spirit of Life?
So, that may be the question, or at least a question that is worth asking at this moment in our collective history. What, and, therefore, where, is the spirit of life when we most need it?
So, while I may have gone on longer about the history of this “spirit” thing in our UU faith tradition if this were a different time, a more ordinary time, nonetheless, it is at least worth recapping where it came from, because it tells us how deep its roots are. And what this might teach us that would provide solace and wisdom today…
We are, to begin with, as a denomination, at least, originally rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition. In early Judaism, “spirit” was often described as wind or fire, because in the ancient world, as theologian John Macquarrie observes, these were two of the most subtle and elusive elements: free, spontaneous, unpredictable, yet powerful and universal in their effects. He notes that this Holy Spirit in both Judaism and Christianity most clearly introduced a feminist element into the mostly masculine understanding of God: brooding on the waters, traveling in creation, building unity and wholeness…. Drawing out the potentialities of creation at all levels.
This free and unifying Spirit that made a surprise appearance among the crowd at Pentecost 40 days after the death of Jesus. For those who were gathered and who were still mourning his loss, a spirit is said to have come forth with a sound “like the rush of a mighty wind” and the feel of “tongues of fire.”
Transforming their sorrow into the joy of his continued spiritual presence among them and hope for carrying on the reconciling lessons of his life and teachings.
Carrying on the spirit of his life.
Indwelling, building his followers up in the face of evil, in the face of continued trials.
For the earliest Christians, especially those in the East, the critical work of the Holy Spirit was to bring inner change and growth, in which they were expected to actively participate. Turning them away from what they called the ways of the flesh or “passions:” jealousy, envy, selfishness, anger, and strife, in favor of the spiritual qualities of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and faithfulness. It was believed to be a kind of generic, boundless spirit that existed before Jesus and available to all those who repented their shortcomings and were willing to change.
It wasn’t until the fourth century after Jesus that this “spirit” was locked into the triune Godhead, imprisoned in the Trinity, the exclusive property of the Christian religion.
It was this same freedom-loving Holy Spirit that attracted the attention of those Christians who formed what has been called the left wing of the Reformation, those who wanted to rescue Christianity from what they saw as the spirit-less dogma and structures and corruption of the Catholic Church.
This anti-authoritarian, individualist brand of Christianity set aside traditional and legal authority in favor of the spirit-filled wisdom and power of the laity: the apostles, the prophets, and teachers. Which was the rationale for what many of us know well as the priesthood and prophethood of all believers. The liberal Christian tradition that marked the beginnings of both our Unitarian and Universalist faiths.
A Christianity which recognized the validity and primacy of our own experiences, including that of an “inner light.” The sense that there is something binding us together in automatic harmony, something immanent, inside all of us, if we are only awakened to it through the wind and fire of spirit.
As our living UU faith opened to different sources, or “winds,” of experience and tradition, we were enriched by the 19th century New England Transcendentalists with their interest in the Romantic Movement in Europe and its ideas about a world soul, an overarching structuring spirit. And their fascination with the concept of the Over-Soul, based in Hindu tradition, a transcendent spirit that is available to all of us through our own meditations and experience of nature.
Unitarian Universalism has opened itself gradually, sometimes reluctantly, to other forms of natural religion or pantheism, a God spirit available in us and all around us in the natural world.
It has opened to what is loosely described as feminist theology and its sense of non-hierarchical, unifying spirit, and to a humanism that relies on faith in human existence. A conviction that we are endowed with something — a kind of spirit — divine or otherwise, that allows us to create ourselves and to be responsible for our own growth.
We are a religious tradition, then, drenched in Spirit from our very beginnings to where we are today.
Whether we find our spirit of life in Jewish and Christian roots, in our Transcendentalist heritage, in Eastern philosophy, in feminist or Earth-centered spirituality, or simply our sense of what it is like to be a human being, the challenge now, it seems to me, is to remain convicted that this transforming and healing spirit is available to us, to all people.
Despite hard evidence to the contrary. Despite what has come from twisting or misusing “spirit,” used by some, not to affirm and enhance life, but to conquer nations, convict heretics, or murder in the name of personal revelation.
That is why spirit always needs the balance of reason. That’s why spirit needs to be checked by self-critique and the feedback of a healthy religious community.
That’s why Unitarian Universalists insist on both a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.
Diana Hayes, a professor of theology at Georgetown University and an instructor in Black Catholic Studies, has written that it is time to recognize how what she calls the Holy Spirit has participated in human history, providing hope for the future even in the face of a harsh past and present. The Holy Spirit, she says, does not close doors but opens them. It enables us to speak in every tongue to those with whom we share a common humanity, if not a common faith.
It is present in all human beings, different though they may be in their expressions of it, shining forth in the eyes of a Muslim, a Jew, a Christian, or in the follower of an indigenous religion.
It is that Spirit which Buddhists, and which the Seneca tribe calls the Orenda.
It is, as one feminist theologian has pointed out, neither immanent or transcendent, neither inside or outside us in this nonlinear universe where we continue to always circle that which we call God.
This holy spirit, this Spirit of Life, calls us forth to seek greater love, greater unity.
Especially given what is going on in the world.
In the spirit, by the spirit, may it be so.