Humility”

Worship Script 2


 Worship Script (2 of 5)

“The Humility of Being Wrong”

 

OPENING WORDS

By Orlanda Brugnola, “We Do Not Forget Our innocence”

As we move through life

finding ourselves,

 

always newly wise and newly foolish,

 

we ask that our mistakes be small and not hurtful.

 

We ask that as we gain experience

 

we do not forget our innocence,

for they are both part of the whole.

 

 

HYMN #1013  Open My Heart

 

FIRST READING

By Jean Jacque Rousseau, from “Émile: Or, Treatise on Education”. This is where he describes what happens when he teaches his son, and his son doesn’t know something,

 “Neither of us is in a fret to know the truth of things, but only not to fall into error. We should be much more unwilling to accept a reasons which is not good that not to find it at all. I do not know is a phrase which becomes us both so well, and which we repeat so often, that is no longer costs either of us anything. But, whether some thoughtlessness escape him, or whether he shun it by our handy I do not know, my reply is the same: Let us see; let us examine.”

  

SECOND READING

“Personal Spiritual Trainers” excerpted from Nathan C. Walker (2014) Exorcising Preaching: Crafting Intellectually Honest Worship. St. Louis: Chalice Press.

 

When you come to me,

come not with the expectation

to have some passive clergyperson

coddle you into complacency.

 

No. Come to me as your PST––

your personal spiritual trainer.

 

I’m serious. I want to see you move.

I want to see you root yourself in a community

Built on moral complexity and

to hold one another to the

ethic of intellectual honesty.

 

I want to see you move beyond the

religious hang-ups of your broken past and

use your regenerative spirit to seize the day.

 

I want to see you flex your moral muscles.

I want to see you exercise spiritual practices to the point of

training your mind and body and spirit to collaborate

as a single, integrated, and dynamic entity.

 

I want to hear you articulate your beliefs.

I want to hear you articulate your faith

to the point of having some moral relevance.

 

I want to know that you are

engaged in the moral issues of our time.

I want to know what makes you afraid.

 

I want to know if you are cultivating

your doubts and your questions

so that when you do take a stand,

we can all trust your authenticity.

 

I want to know the intricacies of

how you are treating other people.

Have you learned new ways

to better your relationships?

If so, share them.

 

I want to know if you have learned to like yourself.

Have you learned to love yourself?

 

I want to know if you feel alive.

I want to know if you feel like you belong,

like you feel like you matter,

because to me, you do.

 

You do. Because you are my

personal spiritual trainers.

 

HYMN #123 Spirit of Life

 

STORY FOR ALL AGES
“The Wise Salimai, a Muslim Tale from China” by Sarah Conover , Freda Crane from Tapstery of Faith Stories

 

Make three copies of this story and highlight the appropriate parts for each of the actors. Although there is gender differentiation in the characters, the character's gender does not need to match the actor's gender.

 

Parts: 

Old John Murray (the Narrator)

 Young John Murray

 Young Lady

 Two or three Christian brethren (optional)

 

The scene opens with the Old John Murray standing behind a small table set for tea with two chairs.

 

Old John Murray:

Many people call me the founder of Universalism here in the United States. That is a mighty thing to say about a simple preacher like myself so I will let other people say it. What I can say about myself is that I was not always such a true believer in universal salvation which is the corner stone of our faith. Once upon a time I was a firm and devout Methodist believing that salvation only could come through my profession that Christ Jesus was my savior. Let me tell you a story about a time when I was still a young man in England and a young woman caused me to start to doubt my Methodist beliefs.

 

A young lady of irreproachable life, remarkable for piety, and highly respected by the tabernacle, congregation and church, of which I was a devout member, had been ensnared. To my great astonishment, she was become a believer, a firm and unwavering believer of universal redemption! Horrible! Most horrible! So high an opinion was entertained of my talents, having myself been a teacher among the Methodists, and such was my standing in the church, that I was deemed adequate to reclaiming this wanderer, and I was strongly urged to the pursuit. The poor deluded young woman was abundantly worthy our most arduous efforts. — He that converteth the sinner from the errors of his way, shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins. Thus I thought, thus I said, and, swelled with a high idea of my own importance, I went, accompanied by two or three of my Christian brethren, to see, to converse with, and if need were, to admonish this simple, weak, but as we heretofore believed meritorious female; fully persuaded, that I could easily convince her of her errors, I entertained no doubt respecting the result of my undertaking.

 Old John Murray moves to the front of the table leaving room for the other actors to enter.

 

Young John Murray (with his Christian brethren) enters on one side and the Young Lady enters from the other. The Young John Murray watches the Young Lady with a cautious look. The Young Lady looks kind and welcoming as she pours tea and then sits motioning for Young John Murray to sit. Young John Murray sits and his Christian brethren stand behind him.

 

Old John Murray (cont.):

 The young lady received us with much condescension and kindness, while, as I glanced my eye upon her fine countenance, beaming with intelligence, mingling pity and contempt grew in my bosom. After the first ceremonies, we sat for some time silent; at length I drew up a heavy sigh, (Young John Murray sighs loudly and starts pretend to talk adamantly) and uttered a pathetic sentiment relative to the deplorable condition of those who live and die in unbelief, and concluded a violent declamation, by pronouncing with great earnestness,

 

Young John Murray:

 He that believeth not shall be damned!

 

Old John Murray exits.

 

Young Lady (with great sweetness):

 And pray, Sir, what is the unbeliever damned for not believing?

 

Young John Murray:

 What is he damned for not believing? Why he is damned for not believing.

 

Young Lady:

 But, my dear Sir, I asked what was that, which he did not believe, for which he was damned?

 

Young John Murray:

 Why, for not believing in Jesus Christ to be sure.

 

Young Lady:

 Do you mean to say, that unbelievers are damned for not believing there was such a person as Jesus Christ?

 

Young John Murray:

 No, I do not; a man may believe there was such a person, and yet be damned.

 

Young Lady:

 What then, Sir, must he believe, in order to avoid damnation?

 

Young John Murray:

 Why, he must believe, that Jesus Christ is a complete Saviour.

 

Young Lady:

 Well, suppose we were to believe, that Jesus Christ was the complete Saviour of others, would this belief save him?

 

Young John Murray:

 No, he must believe that Christ Jesus is his complete Saviour, every individual must believe for himself, that Jesus Christ is his complete Saviour.

 

Young Lady:

 Why, Sir, is Jesus Christ the Saviour of any unbeliever?

 

Young John Murray:

 No, Madam.

 

Young Lady:

 Why then should any unbeliever believe, that Christ Jesus is his Saviour, if he is not his Saviour.

 

Young John Murray:

 I say he is not the Saviour of any one, until he believes.

 

Young Lady (sips some tea and then speaks):

 Then if Jesus be not the Saviour of the unbeliever, until he believes, the unbeliever is called upon to believe a lie. It appears to me, Sir, that Jesus is the complete Saviour of unbelievers, and that unbelievers are called upon to believe the truth, and that by believing, they are saved in their own apprehension, saved from all those dreadful fears, which are consequent upon unbelief, upon a state of conscious condemnation.

 

Young John Murray:

 No, Madam, you are dreadfully, I trust not fatally, misled. Jesus never was, nor never will be the Saviour of any unbeliever.

 

Young Lady:

 Do you think he is your Saviour, Sir?

 

Young John Murray:

 I hope he is.

 

Young Lady:

 Were you always a believer, Sir?

 

John Murray:

 No, Madam.

 

Young Lady:

 Then you were once an unbeliever, that is, you once believed that Jesus Christ was not your Saviour. Now as you say, he never was nor never will be the Saviour of any unbeliever, as you were once an unbeliever, he never can be your Saviour.

 

John Murray:

He never was my Saviour till I believed.

 

Young Lady:

 Did he never die for you till you believed, Sir?

 

Old John Murray re-enters and stands at the front of the table.

 

Old John Murray:

 Here I was extremely embarrassed, and most devoutly wished myself out of her habitation. I sighed bitterly, (Young John Murray sighs bitterly and pretends to talk in a dejected manner) expressed deep commiseration for those deluded souls, who had nothing but head knowledge; drew out my watch, discovered it was late, and recollecting an engagement, observed it was time to take leave.

 

Young John Murray and the Young Lady stand up. Young John Murray continues to look dejected. The Young Lady graciously shakes everyone's hands and thanks them for coming (silently).

 

Old John Murray (while the above described action goes on):

 I was extremely mortified, the young lady observed my confusion, but was too generous to pursue her triumph. I arose to depart, the company arose, she urged us to tarry, addressing each of us in the language of kindness, her countenance seemed to wear a resemblance to the heaven, which she contemplated, it was stamped by benignity, and when we bid her adieu, she enriched us by her good wishes. 

After saying good bye to the Young Lady Young John Murray departs with his Christian brethren. The Young Lady then departs as well, leaving Old John Murray on the stage alone.

 

Old John Murray (cont.):

 I suspected that my religious brethren saw she had the advantage of me, and I felt that her remarks were indeed unanswerable; my pride hurt, and I determined to ascertain the exact sentiments of my associates respecting this interview. I saw, and it was with extreme chagrin, that the event of this visit had depreciated me in the opinion of my companions; but I could do no more than censure and condemn, solemnly observing, it was better to avoid conversing with any of those apostates, and it would be judicious never to associate with them upon any occasion. From this period I, myself, carefully avoided every Universalist, and most cordially did I hate them.

 

But of course that was not the end of the story. That young lady had sewn the seeds of doubt. Over the following months I could not get this conversation out of my mind. I talked it over endlessly with my wife and even picked up and read a pamphlet written by one of those heretical Universalist preachers. This got me to questioning my own minister and the tenets of my own faith. I began to see all the contradictions that were hidden from me before that conversation with the young lady. So finally I went to hear one of those Universalist preachers and that an experience! I remember writing to a friend shortly afterwards that "I was humbled, I was confounded, I saw clearly, that I had been all my life expecting good fruit from corrupt trees, grapes on thorns, and figs on thistles, I suspected myself, I had lost my standing, I was unsettled, perturbed and wretched." That started a long and fateful journey that included embracing and preaching the gospel of universal salvation, losing a wife, loss of faith, debtors prison, a decision to start over again in America and getting ship wrecked off the coast of New Jersey - only to get called back to preaching the good news of a loving god by a farmer. But those are all stories for another time. 

 

MEDITATION
“All Is Not Right” by Beth Merrill Neel

 Holy God, we admit to you that all is not right — in our hearts and in our world,

We look to the darkness and not to the light.

We look for what is broken, and not at what is being mended.

We look to criticize and not to praise.

We look at ourselves and not to you.

Turn us around so that we look at the possibility, at hope, at promise,

at grace, at healing, at love.

  

CANDLES OF JOY AND CONCERN

Those who are so moved are now invited to come forward to light a candle, expressing a joy or concern in their lives.  As you do, you may briefly share what it is.  We ask that people coming forward speak for no more than a sentence or two, and speak from the heart about issues in their lives, rather than political issues, which we can take up at coffee hour or in the parking lot.

 

SERMON

You Might Be Wrong, by Rev. Nancy McDonald Ladd

So, one of the reasons we preachers need to take sabbaticals is because we get sick of our own schtick - because we need some fresh ideas – and since I’ve been doing my schtick here for six years now, some of you know the key elements of my own spiritual biography… so I won’t bore you by elaborating too much.

 The short version is this - I grew up Catholic, even pondered being a nun, and studied theology with awesomely radical social justice Jesuits before following the theological thread of my life right into Unitarian Universalist seminary. I started seminary when I was barely old enough to drink. 

 But the wide-open theological embrace of Unitarian Universalism was and is the home for my spirit.  It was where I belonged.  It still is.  I knew when I found this faith that there was room in it – both theologically and personally – for change and growth.  I felt assured that if I followed my path to a different belief structure than the one I carried with me through these doors, there would still be room for me in our tradition.  I wouldn’t be shut out.  And I wouldn’t have to shut anybody else out for the precise structure of their belief system either.

 I have always been at home among this tradition that we share - all except for one thing – one little sneaky issue that I noticed from the earliest days of seminary – one thing that has itched and ached for me all along in my identity as a Unitarian Universalist and that I still have not adequately resolved within myself. 

 Namely: what has always bothered me about we righteous do-gooders with open minds and warm hearts and helping hands is this - we can be so utterly and damnably sure of ourselves.

 As I walked the halls of our Unitarian Universalist seminary - I kept encountering people who were just so certain that they were right about stuff.  Lots of stuff.  About theology, sure. The existence or non-existence of God was a favorite topic of highly-assured debate.  But it wasn’t just that. 

 People also seemed curiously certain about a whole lot of other stuff too - like geopolitics and wine and meditation and how nobody should ever ever eat at McDonald’s.  Sometimes I felt that my fellow Unitarian Universalists moved in the world as if everyone else was just about to break through and come around to their perspective on all of these important things – especially that bit about McDonald’s. 

Given time, the good liberal church people seemed to think, everybody else would get on board and we’d all get busy together bringing down those waters of justice and making sure peace rained down on the whole dang world like an ever-flowing stream.  Perhaps we would start this endless process through a grand gesture of solidarity with all peoples – like planting a Peace Pole.  Surely that would bring on the kingdom of righteousness sooner rather than later, don’t you think?  

BTW – we have a Peace Pole here at River Road.  I quite like our Peace Pole – it’s right outside of my office and it says the wordpeace in many different languages.  It is perfectly lovely and has not, as of yet, succeeded in bringing about the much-anticipated advent of world peace.

  And that’s the real kicker off it – you see most of the time – then and now - I didn’t really disagree with many of the perspectives of my self-assured fellow progressives.  Much of what my colleagues and co-religionists asserted about the social, political and theological world around us seemed true enough to my limited understanding, and I have never been one for lukewarm opinions myself.

 After all, as inveterate Texan Jim Hightower likes to put it – “there’s nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos.”  I do believe we need need to stake our claims to truth somewhere, and I don’t begrudge us that.  

 What was challenging to me among my liberal religious compatriots was not the analysis of any given situation. Rather, it was the utter certitude with which everyone seemed to hold those ideas.  We had found our places on one side or the other of every single idea, and not only avoided the middle of the road, but failed to see that there were drivers headed somewhere worthwhile on that other side to begin with.

  What bothered me back then and what bothers me still, even about myself is how very little room I sometimes perceive in the liberal church for acknowledgement of either one’s own limitations or the tragic dimensions of our days that confound even the very best laid plans of mice and men and ministers. 

 We live in these tragic dimensions – the edges of our own capacity – the frayed borders of what we know and what we can control.  I meet you in those places as your pastor every single day.  Mutually, we arrive through honest conversation at the place in which there are no clear answers.  And then we get up from our tear-filled reveries and walk around in the world as if we know what we’re doing, as if we are all OK, even though we know full well that we are merely, and blessedly, stumbling through it all together.

 Though I could not have stated it then, I knew that this confidant projection of bright ideals - counter-imposed on the actual, sometimes deeply uncertain experience of our lives – was something I would eventually have to come to terms with in liberal religion. That’s why I’m heading out on this sabbatical – in part – to finish a book about the death of pure and unvarnished idealism in the liberal church. 

 My book is about what happens when the liberal church doesn’t have all the answers and we realize that our peace poles did not in fact bring peace. It’s about limitations and the pain of meeting them and curious and transformative power therein. It’s about the fact that not even the smartest of us has it all figured out.  It’s about how far we’ve come and how far we have to go. 

 It’s about tragedy – and the fact that not even the best do-gooders on earth – not even all of us gathered here in this room – can always prevent it – but instead must meet it – faithfully, with humility and with kindness.  It’s about the fact that we do not always know what we are doing, and we most certainly do not always have the answer.  And so the book I’m writing, which I’ll tell you more about when I get back - is born out of my own grappling with these questions, and my own stumbling effort to cultivate a spiritual life where I strive to be kind more often than I am right.

 To that end, for the last decade or so, I have written every single one of my sermons underneath a Peanuts cartoon I have pasted on each of my office walls.  Here it is – the tonic for our surety -  

 In it, Charlie Brown approaches Snoopy, who is perched atop his doghouse clacking away at his latest composition. 

“I hear you’re writing a book about Theology,” Charlie Brown says, “I hope you have a good title.”  “I have a perfect title,” comments Snoopy in his perennial thought bubble - “Has It Ever Occurred to You That You Might Be Wrong?” 

 And that – that simple statement, “Has it ever occurred to you that you might be wrong,” might just be the most powerful thing we Unitarian Universalists have had going for us all this time – over a thousand years of progressive religious history.  Even though we are self-assured and sometimes a little bit puffed up.  Even though the idealism and sense of confident assurance present in so many liberal religious settings has something to do with privilege and with class and with education and yes even with whiteness – even so – underneath it all there is a fundamental humility in our theology that we can return to.

 Our tradition teaches that there is deep and abiding truth in many paths  - and that it is possible not only that we may individually be wrong on a number of issues great small, but that our way is not the right way or the only way for any number of partners and companions we will meet along the journey. We actually believe in diversity of perspectives.  We actually believe in theological difference.  At our best, we don’t profess lukewarm “toleration” while secretly believing everybody ought to be just like us.  That’s not Universalism.  That’s particularism, and it’s not who we are. 

 And I’m not saying we shouldn’t be proud of who we are and invite people to join us.  We absolutely should.  Because we’ve got a good thing going here. 

 What I’m saying is that, uniquely among faith traditions, we don’t have to operate under the illusion that we’ve got a corner on the market of truth – not even a little.  In fact, it is in center of that humility where all of our deepest work and most profound growth is possible.  That’s what our covenant calls us to – the way we choose to be together invites us first of all to listen to understand rather than to judge or prove a point, to assume good intentions, to meet each other with the respect of taking

 The great philosopher Rousseau once said that “I don’t know is a phrase that becomes us.”  It is a starting point for ongoing growth.  It is an acknowledgement that wherever it is we are going – we have not arrived there yet – and that there will always be spaces in between our blessed assurances. 

 This space – that starts with I don’t know – and leads to continued conversation – this is the whole basis of congregational life. The open space that is left by all we do not know is origin point of the next step on the journey, and it is an essential component of even the most rational of questions.

 Without leaving some open space for all you do not know the whole world could change around you and you would remain fundamentally unmoved.

 

Has it ever occurred to you that you might be wrong? 

 

It is the question that makes community possible.

It is the question that makes spiritual and personal growth possible.

It is the question that makes science possible.

 

This is a question that haunted the civic life of empires before us, and it is the same question that currently haunts our civic life in the United States of America, where the performance of blustered self-assurance is placed before us every day as if it is a normative form of discourse.  

The stakes could not be higher. We are forgetting how to speak to each other, how to deliberate, how to remember that we might be wrong.  

As Leah Hager Cohen wrote, “Our civic life is heavily marked—indeed, pocked—by debates in which each side is so certain of its position that any movement is effectively impossible. For that matter, debate—in its original sense of “to consider something, to deliberate”—is impossible. We wind up with so much sound and fury and nothing gained.”  

And we spin and we spin and we exhaust ourselves in our continual drawing of lines in the sand, and we are so busy being reactionary that we can’t remember how to empathize across the categories we have placed each other in.

 This placing of other humans into categories of easier dismissal – it’s the raw ideological material of empires and even nation-states, of wars and rumors of wars.  It undergirds the life, the loss, the suffering and the service of those who stand for their countries and fight for their lives in the armed forces.

 There are times – few and terrible - when you can only survive if you are sure, and if you are clear, and if you are uncompromising in the split-second decisions that are asked of you in crisis. Sometimes, empathy is subsumed beneath obligation and you keep breathing, keep fighting, keep sacrificing and serving because you have learned to let your uncertainty rest beneath the mantle of your higher obligation. 

 Such is the journey of many who serve in the armed forces that undergird American power around the world.  This is what we ask of them of those who serve in this way –  to be certain, even when they are not certain.  To be clear, even when they are not clear.  To be decisive, even when there are few cut-and-dry decisions to be found.

 This is what we ask of them – to place their own uncertainty on the higher altar of their service - and what we must offer them in exchange, when they return from those regions of the heart where empathy spells danger – what we must offer them are communities where their hearts can heal and their service can be honored and their empathy, yes even their uncertainty, can be uncovered for the gift it has always been.

 This week, I talked with Bob Heiderer about all of this, and not for the first time.  Bob’s been here at River Road since the 60’s – a veteran of three wars who flew a navy fighter off an aircraft carrier to take on Russian-made MIGs in the dead of night.  He followed his mission faithfully and served his country with distinction in WWII, Korea and Vietnam before coming home to his back porch right here in Bethesda and his seat by the window in the congregation right here at River Road.

 Bob fought in some of the darkest places of a generation of America’s wars, and when he came home, he says that he had to re-learn how to empathize again, re-learn how to see the fundamental humanity in every soul, always, no matter what - and thus make space in his heart for people again – and their differences.

 Empathy, he says, is the heart of what he looks for here – in life, and in faith.  It’s not certainty he’s after, theologically or otherwise, but practices that build his empathy and gift it back to him.  Empathy is a gift that fills the space where once there was only deadly certitude and the survival of another day.

 He sits on the bench in the garden here – where he can see the trees, where the word empathy is carved like an epitaph, and he thinks on a world where all the young dead sailors and soldiers don’t have to pretend that they know what they’re doing anymore.

 We are all more fragile than all of the certainties we might perform for one another.  We are, none of us, in possession of all the wisdom we will need to survive.  We are, all of us, so desperately in need of each other’s empathy and compassion that the absence of it could be our undoing.

 And the gift of not being so sure – of coming home to a theology of humility which says you do not have to have it all figured out – which invites you to lean over the edge of all you do not know – is right here – every day, and not just in the walls of our sanctuary.

Sure – I know – we good liberal religious people have every reason to project confidence in ourselves and in the human capacity to overcome great obstacles.  Our fundamental optimism is one of our gifts to the world.  We can build a world where we bind up what is broken.  We can plant peace poles that at least point the way toward distant peace – but we can only do it together – with others who fill in the gaps of all we do not know – with a kindness that is deeper than our need to be right – with an empathy that turns all of our bluster, and our certitude, and our self-assurance into a starting-point for all that yet will be.

 

HYMN #1064  Blue Boat Home

 

BENEDICTION
By Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Stephen Mitchell, adapted, #241 in Lifting Our Voices

 

Have patience with everything

Unresolved in your heart

And try to love the questions themselves

 

As if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language.

 

Don’t search for answers,

Which could not be given to you now,

Because you would not be able to live them.

 

And the point is to live everything.

 

Live the questions now.

 

Perhaps, then, someday far in the future,

 

You will gradually, without even noticing it,

Live your way into the answer.