Monday, May 6, 2013
“Seeking the Truth in Love”
If you hadn’t noticed, I pulled today’s sermon title from the unison affirmation that we say each Sunday morning. Love is the spirit of this church and service is its law. This is our great covenant: to dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love, and to help one another. Our worship theme for the month of May is truth. It seemed appropriate to use something that we say every week, as a way to start exploring this topic.
When you get beyond the age of about 12, the word truth comes with some serious baggage, especially when you are talking about truth in a religious community. Unitarian Universalists in particular tend to buck at the word. That isn’t because we are difficult people. It’s because truth has a complicated place in our faith tradition.
For some of us, the word “truth” invokes an appreciation for science and reason. As Unitarian Universalists, we have embraced science and reason throughout the history of our faith. That is what makes us a liberal religious tradition. You may have heard me use that phrase. Unitarian Universalism is a liberal religious tradition. We are not liberal in the political sense, but liberal in the philosophical sense, Liberal in the sense of believing that we have the right and responsibility to use all the information available. Through science, history and philosophy, we are called to do our best to understand the world around us. We UUs believe that humans are thoughtful beings, blessed with the gift o intellect. We can and should use all the tools we have to discern what is right and true. So we integrate scientific understanding within our religious faith. In that way, we are a liberal religious tradition.
Science does an amazing job of describing our physical world in detail. But it sometimes lacks the ability to describe our emotional life or spiritual experiences. And this is where the rub is; this is where the picture gets tricky. For some people a scientific understanding of the world is adequate, but for many of us it just doesn’t have the capacity to answer the deeper questions of our heart, questions about meaning, connection, life and death. And we turn to our faith for a different way of digging into the truth.
But that religious truth is varied, because it illuminates each of our hearts in a slightly different hue. And we embrace that brilliant rainbow and the light of life that shines through each person. Unitarian Universalism does have some core theological beliefs. I spent last summer exploring them in great detail. There is a general trajectory of our theological history and the ideas shared among us today. But the bedrock of our faith is an openness for each person, a responsibility for each person, to explore and decide the truth for him or herself.
That is because the first source of truth that we embrace isn’t a book, or the authority of an individual person or tradition. The first source that informs Unitarian Universalism is, and this is a direct quote, “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.” That comes from the document that binds our congregations together in wider faith traditions. Along with the Seven Principles, we name six sources of our faith. But this one rests at the top of that list. “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.”
So, if we are capable and invited to experience the transcending mystery and wonder for ourselves, if we each have a glimpse into religious truth, then we can only assume that our opinions are going to be varied.
Which makes our mission as a church a little odd. We don’t produce converts to a single truth. What we produce is a community. We create a community where people support one another in our journey, even when the paths lead in different directions. Rather than having a creed, we have a covenant. Our theology as religious liberals, as embracers of the direct experience of wonder, as a diversity of seekers leads us to a covenantal community.
This little commitment that we make every Sunday speaks so clearly to the mission of our faith, seeking the truth in love. But love is a squishy word, and we use it a lot. Whenever we invoke love as a foundation of our faith, it’s not a sugary hallmark sentiment. It’s not just being nice to one another. Of course that’s a good place to start, but love is more complicated than that, especially in a community where we find a variety of truths.
Love doesn’t mean putting someone else’s opinions or needs above our own. Nor does it mean insisting that we know better. Love is a steadfast stance of mutuality. Rev. Tom Owen-Towle writes, “Love is facing another human being rather than fighting or fleeing, even when it is difficult and painful. It is diving into the depths when we would prefer to wade in the shallows.”
This is a wonderful description of the challenge of love. Sometimes love is easy, but sometimes it require us to overcome our most powerful instincts. It requires that we sit face to face in the presence of discomfort, and share ourselves. Love asks not that we silence ourselves, but that we share deeply of ourselves.
I find myself unpacking this word love, over and over again because it gets quickly misunderstood in so many of our churches. Love is not a dance that avoids offending other people. It is not covering our own light or silencing our own truth, because it is uncomfortable or inconvenient.
As Unitarian Universalists, too often our embrace of spiritual diversity becomes a misguided settling for the lowest common denominator. That’s right, in many UU churches, and in this one on occasion, we so fear offending one another with our understanding of the holy, that we keep it hidden and silent. Because we know it won’t sound like what the person sitting three rows ahead of us has thought and felt. So we don’t speak our spiritual truth, we hold it in, and we settle only for those very few things that we can all agree upon.
This tiptoeing dance is not seeking the truth in love. It is in fact quite the opposite. It is being afraid of one another and in that fear, settling for the lowest common denominator.
Respecting the journey of others does not mean silencing our own. It means understanding that we each have a slightly different song resonating in our heart. The song that another hears may not make sense to us. It may even irritate us a bit. But in this loving community, we celebrate with one another the music that sings in each heart. That is seeking the truth in love.
I’m belaboring this definition of “love” here because the loving part is just as important as the truth that we seek. The process is as important as the product. One of the best teachers of this was Mahatma Gandhi. He knew that not only was the outcome important, but the way in which we achieve the outcome is equally important. I came across a couple of stories about him that tell how he lived this out. I can’t vouch for the historical accuracy of these stories. But they certainly jive with everything I’ve ever heard or read about Gandhi.
Gandhi’s legal and activism career began in South Africa. There he set up an ashram, a Hindu religious community, where he started a school for children. But Gandhi had his own ideas about how children should be taught. He disliked the strict examination system that was used in the wake of European colonialism. In Gandhi’s school he wanted to teach the boys true knowledge—knowledge that would improve both their minds and their hearts.
He had his own way of judging students. All the students in the class were asked the same question. But often Gandhi praised the boy with low grades and scolded the one who had high grades.
Not surprisingly, this puzzled the children. When questioned on this unusual practice, Gandhi explained, "I am not trying just to teach the facts. So I don't give marks on that basis. I want to see how far each student has progressed, how much he is pushing himself. If an especially smart student competes with one who takes longer to learn, he is likely to grow dull. Sure of his own cleverness, he'll stop working. I’m focused on the student who does his best and works hard. He will always do well and so that is the one I praise."
Another story tells about the tough love that he showed for his own son. We often think of him as a gentle grandfatherly figure, but he was actually a very, very tough teacher and head of his household.
This story came about when Gandhi was practicing law in Johannesburg. His office was three miles from his house. One day a colleague of his, Mr. Polak, asked Gandhi's thirteen-year old son, Manilal to fetch a book from the office. But, as children sometimes do, Manilal completely forgot about it until much later in the evening.
Gandhiji heard about it and sent for his son. He said, "Son, I know the night is dark and the way is long and lonely. But you will have to walk the six miles. You gave your word to Mr. Polak. You promised to fetch his book. Go and fetch it now."
The whole family got upset when they heard of Gandhi's decision. The punishment seemed far too severe. Manilal was only thirteen, the night was dark and the way lonely. He had only forgotten a book after all. It could be brought the next day.
Eventually another boy, and older brother plucked up some courage. "I'll fetch the book," he offered. Gandhi was gentle but firm, "But the promise was made by Manilal."
"Very well, Manilal will go but let me go with him," the older brother pleaded. Gandhiji agreed to this and the two brothers set of into the night to fetch the book.
In Gandhi’s world, the point of school isn’t to memorize facts. A good teacher knows that. And making a commitment to do something isn’t just about the end result. It is about living up to our word. It’s not the book that was important, but maintaining one’s character and commitment. For Gandhi, the process was always just as important as the product that it created.
Whether it was teaching children to read and write or teaching the world to lay down its guns, Gandhi knew that the method must reflect the goal. It is far from pragmatic or efficient, but it is a way of embodying the truth. Along with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and a handful of other radicals, he taught us the way we get to our goal is as important as the goal itself. Peace is not only our goal, it is the only effective means by which that goal can be achieved.
Gandhi’s methods of non-violence are a bit of a departure from our weekly unison affirmation to seek the truth in love. But I wanted to bring them up for a reason. Seeking the truth in love, is much more expansive than a few words that we say to one another here on Sundays. Yes I do sincerely hope that we can use that as a guiding principle of the way we build our community together here.
But church is about more than what occurs between these walls. Church is really mostly about how we are compelled to live our lives when we leave this place. I think this is what Glenn Pascall spoke to so well last week, in his journey to seek the truth in love. He has been a committed environmentalist for years, particularly opposing nuclear energy. But he still takes the time to fairly consider the arguments of all sides. And perhaps more importantly, he refuses to dismiss his adversaries. He respects that just like himself, they are offering what they understand to be the truth, even when it is different.
Seeking the truth in love means that we pay as much attention to the process as we do to the product. That comes to light perhaps best, in the challenge of parenting. The process is the product. We teach them with our method of parenting just as much as we pour information into their heads. Robert Fulghum, a retired minister writes “Don’t worry that your children haven’t heard what you have told them. Worry that they have seen how you live you life.”
The methods that we embrace are just as powerful as the product that we achieve. Whether it is in this community, in our home, or in the wider world, let us continue to aim for that high goal of seeking the truth in love.
In a moment we will sing our closing hymn “As Tranquil Streams.” It’s a beautiful hymn but many people don’t know its origin. This song was commissioned to celebrate the merger of the Unitarians with the Universalists back in 1961. As we sing this song, I hope you will remember with me the story of the merger that I shared with our children earlier. And remember that the faith tradition that we inherit is the fruit of centuries careful work to seek the truth in love, and build this covenanted community.