Monday, September 20, 2010

Expect Miracles

Expect Miracles

One of the favorite adult religion education classes that we offer in Unitarian Universalist churches is called Building Your Own Theology. It’s a pretty intense class that encourages participants to get in touch with just what it is that they believe. One of the exercises is talking about spiritual moments, because those moments are a bit of a key to where and how you understand the sacred in the world.

Because some people are uncomfortable with even calling them spiritual experiences, the class I think talks about them a wow moments, times when you are really moved. Well I had one of those just a couple of weeks ago, a wow moment. Some of you have seen my post about it on facebook.

Just a few weeks ago, I was walking at main beach here in Laguna. I was taking my dog so it must have been around 7:30 in the mornings. And I noticed in the distance a whole pod of dolphins swimming. They were not far off the beach at all. I almost wanted to swim out there with them. Although they were probably there precisely because it was early and there weren’t a bunch of people in the water.

They looked so beautiful and graceful. I sat on one of the benches and was moved to tears... And then a possibly even more interesting thing happened. At least three other people walked by completely oblivious to the beautiful scene happening just 100 yards away. One guy was on his cel phone, no surprise he missed it. But one person, I even tried to talk to as he walked by.
“Hey did you see the dolphins?” I said.
His only response was to walk faster. I was shocked.
Maybe my private moment with nature was heightened when I realized how unaware most of us are most of the time, or maybe I was just deeply tuned into the moment, but it was a very striking experience. I left the beach thinking all I have to do is open my eyes a little bit more often to see the amazing world going on around me.

That’s certainly the way one of the most prominent Unitarian thinkers described his spirituality. For Ralph Waldo Emerson, the core of religion was feeling a fundamental connection with the wider world, and all you have to do to experience that is open your eyes. That’s what he talks about in the essay that some of us will be reading in the book group in Novemenber. I’m sorry for the gendered language. Emerson writes.

“To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing. The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and heart of the child. The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood. His intercourse with heaven and earth, becomes part of his daily food.

Later in that essay he writes “I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.”

That’s a pretty amazing description of a wow-moment.

Emerson’s prescription for 19th Century religion is exactly what we are talking about today. If you open your eyes to the amazing potential of the world around you, it is astonishing, and you can’t help but have some hope. Amazing things, miraculous things are happening around us in nature all the time, why shouldn’t we expect those same things to happen in our own lives.

The word “miracle” means different things to different people. Most importantly, it means something that happens outside of the natural order of things, something unexpected or even unprecedented. A miracle is a new answer in a world of challenges.

I love Emerson’s understanding of miracles always being around us, and the idea that nature can connect us with the divine and to each other in the deepest way. I totally agree with him, but I want to take his understanding of nature one step farther. Because the magic of nature is not just that it is what it is. The magic of nature, the magic of us as human beings is that we have become what we are. Out of a few cells in the sea we have become physically powerful, emotionally complex and intellectually stunning creatures. We have become self-aware. We have become, through nature, mindboggling complex creatures.

The miracle isn’t just about what we are and what surrounds us. The miracle is about how we got here. Step after step, over billions of years.

And who taught us best about that process? Our good friend, and who some believe was a Unitarian, Charles Darwin. I still don’t know about the Unitarian claim, but he certainly would be welcome in our ranks. In his 1859 book On the Origin of Species Darwin argued that all species of life have descended over time from common ancestors, and proposed the scientific theory that evolution occurred through natural selection.

We all know about Darwin and his amazing contribution to modern thought. The discovery, what some still insist on calling a theory, of evolution has fundamentally shaped our understanding of biology and of ourselves. He demonstrated that the interdependent web of all existence, isn’t just a nice theological concept. It’s science. It’s what’s in our DNA.

And of course any significant development of thought comes with a share of controversy. People don’t take to new ideas very easily, they never have. Darwin was at the crux of a huge theological shift occurring in the 19th century.

The controversy over evolution was actually a little different his time than it is today. This is an important difference. We know about the debates that go on around evolution today. A certain brand of Christianity has its heart set on interpreting the Bible literally, which means that the world was created in just seven thousand years and that all life sprung up from God’s plan. They see evolution as an affront to their literal interpretation of the Bible.

Well, the controversy that Darwin faced in his time was a little more complicated, and much more interesting. Folks weren’t upset that Darwin was arguing with what the Bible said. Already by the 19th Century there was a variety of belief about whether the Bible was a history, or story. In fact it was right around this time that the Unitarians at Harvard were arguing just that point, while Darwin was in England offering a revolution in scientific thought. The theological conundrum that Darwin introduced was much more threatening than the controversy as we understand it today.

Darwin’s natural selection brought into question not only the Bible. It also brought into question God’s providence. If evolution happened by natural selection, essentially by chance, then God’s role in the whole process came into question.

According to natural selection and evolution, our lives as humans are based largely on chance. That’s right, its like a giant craps shoot. Some where sometime, a particularly gifted critter did better than the others, and was able to reproduce, and have little baby gifted critters. It’s a biological craps shoot, billions and billions and billions of times. And thus, here we are today.

Needless to say, some people were uncomfortable with that. Some people are still uncomfortable with that. What Darwin introduced wasn’t just the idea that the world may not have come out of the Garden of Eden. What he introduced was that rather than God’s divine plan, much of what occurred then, and occurs now is left up to chance.

I have made that sound a little less than romantic, with the critters and baby critters, fighting for survival. It makes most of us a little uneasy about just who we are and how we came to be that way. And it made a bunch of people who believe in an omnipotent God quite angry. In fact they flipped their lid.

This giant game of chance is a little unsettling. But, I think there’s also a tremendous flip side of the coin. Just look at what it has achieved. Maybe it took billions of tries, but look at the phenomenal diversity and richness of life that covers the globe. From a few cells to countless species adapted to live in virtually every location on earth, from the deepest ocean, to rocky mountain peaks, the hottest deserts. Nearly everywhere on Earth, some creature has evolved to live there.

So, my thinking goes, if that’s nature, the same amazing stuff that surrounds us every day, the same force that has come up with ingenious solutions to every challenge the globe can present, why should we expect that force to stop with us? Why shouldn’t we expect the miracles to keep coming in our lives? Because that’s what evolution is after all. It’s moment after moment of little chances, little miracles. Something came into the world that hadn’t existed before, something out of nothing. A whole string of tiny miracles created us and the world as we know it. Why on earth would we expect that they stop occurring?

I want to add a short disclaimer to this emphasis on miracles and evolution. The atheists out there may not like this, but that’s okay. According to Darwin, and according to myself, there is still plenty of room for the divine to be active in this process. You may have noticed that when I start prayers, they tend to be addressed to “Sprirt of Life, Spirit of Creation.” That’s because what I find most compelling, and what we can share in as a religious experience is a sense of awe and gratitude from the tremendous power of life and creation that surrounds us. For some, that’s God, for some it’s science. Who or what God is in this picture is up to you to decide. And it’s also up to you to be grateful. Darwin never intended to pose an atheistic alternative to understanding of the world. Some people have taken evolution to that step, some have not. But we are all grateful to be a part of it…

Earlier, during our intergenerational time we heard the Parable of the mustard seed. The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a person took and planted in the field. Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches.

And there is the parable about the leaven. “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that gets mixed into a big bowl of flour to make bread. The yeast makes all the dough (bread) rise."

I love these parables, mostly because they use language and examples that were in the experience of everyday people. It would be like talking about pumping gas in your car, or using the ATM today. They are based on everyday life. Because they are in the Bible, a “religious” book, we fall into thinking that Jesus is talking about grand theological concepts, like it’s a textbook from seminary or something.

And certainly, you can take a literal interpretation and assume that Jesus is making a statement about some far off divine realm. But I don’t think he’s talking about a giant tree house in the sky, perched atop a mustard tree. That’s not what the parable of the mustard seed is about. Remember this is also the guy that said the kingdom is among you. I don’t want to dive into Biblical interpretation too deeply, but just be clear, Jesus taught in allegory and parable. They are metaphors, not lectures on metaphysics.

So what of this mustard seed? For Jesus, and I think for us, the tiniest thing imaginable, the smallest moment of nature can hold within it all the hope of the world. And that hope is infectious. It can grow into the largest of things; it can provide shelter for others. Whether it is keeping your eye out for dolphins or reveling in the complexity and miracle of human experience, or just planting a seed in the garden, we can find hope in the most basic pieces of nature. Because they are miracles, not just for what they are, but for how they got there. Billions and billions of chances at evolution turned out something new, and the world came up with a new solution to problems. It has happened for a very, very long time. Why on earth should we expect the magic to end in our lives. Why shouldn’t we expect some small miracles to occur?


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