“Something Bigger than Ourselves”
Rev. Peg Morgan
West Seattle Unitarian Universalist Fellowship
September 16th, 2007
As a boy Albert Camus, the award wining writer, grew up in Algiers. As a teenager he would wander through the nearby seaside area of Tipasa. In his essay Return to Tipassa, he paints a vivid picture of walking amidst the ancient ruins, breathing the scent of absinthe, warming himself on the stones made hot by the sun, and admiring the short lived roses that bravely bloomed in the spring. He tells us how he slept beneath the star filled sky, and how he felt amazed, alive and free, and innocent.
After World War II, Camus and Tipasa were changed. There was barbed wire surrounding the ruins, and Camus’ heart was now shackled with a knowing that he could not shake.
Though he experienced the atrocities of war, the worst of humanity, he felt that he shouldn’t fixate on war and injustice, for he said “when we do…nothing amazes us anymore, everything is known…” I am fascinated by that statement. Narrowing our view, fixating, means closing out other knowing, disallowing room for amazement. He’s saying that when we fixate exclusively on the burdens and tragedies in our lives, we are out of balance, and easily slip into despair. And that “… is a time of exile, dry lives, dead souls. To come back to life, we need to bring back somehow our young experience of amazement at life.
So twenty years later he returned again to Tipasa, because for a long time he had “a vague feeling of missing something. Once you have had the chance to love intensely” he writes, “your life is spent in search of the same light.” In returning, he sought there a harbor from all the ugliness that had transpired in his life, and an experience like he had when he was young laying out under the star filled sky. Lying there once again, in the depths of his winter, he learned that within him there lay an invincible summer. And the returning sustained him to meet both joy and sorrow with equanimity.
So do WE each seek a harbor from ups and downs of our lives. So do WE need a place to recharge, not to abandon our work in the world, not to forget our sorrows and the injustices that plague the world, but to keep a balance, to feed our souls, to recall a bit of our young amazement. So do we need to reconnect in a place where we feel we have come home. So many people tell me when they first experience Unitarian Universalism that they feel they “have come home.” For you do have not have to check any part of you at the door. Not your discerning mind, not you analytical mind, not your sexuality or your gender questions, not your past.
When I first attended a Unitarian congregation I literally, at the end of that first sermon breathed a deep sigh of relief. I never knew this kind of faith existed. When Rev. Peter Raible said his common closing words: “In all our days, may we turn more to act than to word to declare our religion” I knew that I had found a religion that cared more about how I lived my life than what machinations of theology brought me to my knees.
This week we heard the Pope declare that the crisis of Europe is that people are not believing in absolute truth, absolute truth as defined by the patriarchy of his church. Absolute truth has been the means of many religions to control vast members of our human population for centuries. Absolute truth is used as the basis of power over, with teachings of a punishing god, a fiery hell. But the TRUTH is that reality, and our perceptions of the powers of the universe continue to evolve. So our metaphors and our conceptions of God—the mystery of existence and the workings of the universe, also are evolving. There is no fixed absolute truth.
Here in this congregation we share a whole different way of being faithful. Faithful not to dogma but to principles which seem to withstand the centuries, principles that wise prophets continue to proclaim in every era—and their names are love, justice and humility, and respect for our mother earth.
I would agree wholeheartedly with poet John Sqaudra1 who said:
If someone says, “To be enlightened you must
Fast and pray all night”
Have dinner and go to bed.
If you see a sign, “This way to salvation,”
Run the other way.
If someone says, “This book is the truth,
You can buy it from me.”
Take your money and buy grapes and roses.
If someone says, “He’s talking tonight,
Thousands will be saved.”
Go for a walk…listen to the birds
And watch the clouds, and leave
Your backpack, your Bible and your Buddha
Under a tree and hope
They will be gone when you return.
Where we are going you can’t carry anything,
Not even your name.
But if you feel something in your chest
As beautiful as the grass beneath your feet,
Be grateful…open your arms
And forget everything
You ever thought you knew.
So we come here for a free faith, a changing evolving faith, informed by our hearts and honed by our reason. We come here to worship in a whole different way, doing just what the word worship means in its old English: to hold up or shape what is of worth in our lives—to embrace what we value—to worship need not and is not here …the bowing down before a deity… but a rising up of values that affirm life.
In doing worship together we experience that the truth is bigger than ourselves alone. We listen and learn pieces of truth from each other. Which reminds me of a story
A Greek philosopher and teacher ended a lecture asking, "Are there any
questions?" That was when Robert Fulghum, the Unitarian minister and author of Everything I need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten asked, "Dr. Papaderos, what is the meaning of life?" Fulghum says "The usual laughter followed, and people started to go. Papaderos held up his hand and stilled the room and looked at me for a long time, asking with his eyes if I was serious. and seeing from my eyes that I was. 'I will answer your question,' he said.
Then taking his wallet out of his hip pocket, he fished into it and brought out a very small, round mirror, about the size of a quarter.
Then he said, 'When I was a small child, during the war, we were very poor and we lived in a remote village. One day, on the road, I found several broken pieces of a mirror from a wrecked German motorcycle. I tried to find all the pieces and put them together, but it was not possible, so I kept only the largest piece. This one. And by scratching it on a stone, I made it round. I began to play with it as a toy and became fascinated by the fact that I could reflect light into dark places where the sun would not shine - in deep holes and crevices and dark closets.
It became a game for me to get light into the most inaccessible places I could find. 'I kept the little mirror, and as I went about my growing up, I would take it out in idle moments and continue the challenge of the game.
As I became a man, I grew to understand that this was not just a child's game but a metaphor for what I might do with my life. I came to understand that I am not the light or the source of the light. But light - truth, understanding, knowledge - is there, and it will only shine in many dark places if I reflect it.' 'I am a fragment of a mirror whose whole design and shape I do not know.
Nevertheless, with what I have, I can reflect light into the dark
places of this world - into the black places in the hearts of men - and
change some things in some people. Perhaps others may see and do
likewise. This is what I am about. This is the meaning of my life.'
"And then he took his small mirror and, holding it carefully, caught the
bright rays of daylight streaming through the window and reflected
them onto my face and onto my hands folded on the desk."
In this community we reflect light from, to and between us, as we allow ourselves to be known, and to know the other. The resulting light is bigger than any one of could shine alone.
And we come here to know and be reminded of what is of value to us, not always to learn something new, though that often happens; but as humans easily distracted and overwhelmed in our lives, we give ourselves a gift to set aside this time each week to be reminded of our highest aspirations.
Albert Schweitzer was convinced that inside us lies far more idealistic aspirations than are ever evident. He said “Just as the rivers we see are much less numerous than the underground streams, so the idealism of people that is visible is minor compared to what we carry in our hearts, unreleased. We are waiting, he said and longing for those who can untie what is knotted inside us, and bring the underground waters to the surface.” (adapted) We come here to be refreshed with these living waters of our own spirit. Waters larger than ourselves alone.
And we come here for a sense of connection, for a place where we can be known and loved for who we are. There is a story about the friendship between the great Rabbi Abraham Heschel and Rev. William Sloan Coffin, a chaplain at Yale. One night after a board meeting for the Clergy Concerned about Vietnam, Heschel noticed Coffin was feeling down. Coffin had been under great stress, having been arrested for draft resistance and facing an impending divorce. Heschel told him “I understand, my friend, that you have been through much suffering.” Coffin replied, “It’s been hell. It still is.” Heschel then said, “You should have called me” To which Coffin replied: “Well I didn’t want to bother you. …Besides, you were in LA, and I don’t like talking about such things over the phone.” “But I could have helped you.” “How?” “I would have told you about my father, the great Hasidic rabbi, blessed be his memory, who too was divorced. You see, you Protestants are so vexed by your perfectionism, it is always your undoing.” Coffin had tears running down his face. A Jew was reminding a Christian that his salvation lay not in being perfect, but in warm acceptance by another. “Now” Heschel said, “Now we shall continue to my apartment, I have just been given some excellent cognac.”
Such love and warm acceptance of our common humanity happens here all the time between members and newcomers of this congregation, whenever we take an interest in others and let ourselves be known in return.
When Camus went back to Tipasa, he looked through the village and remembers that “the morning stood still, as if the sun had stopped for an immeasurable moment…” He said “I felt that I had at last come back to harbor...” … “I gazed at the sea, gently rising and falling…and quenched two thirsts that can not be long neglected if all one’s being is not to dry up, the thirst to love and the thirst to admire. For there is ONLY misfortune in not being loved; there is Misery in not loving.”
This congregation is our Tipasa, a safe place to be refreshed—a safe place, an opportune place to love others. A place where we have the privilege of being authentic with one another. And as Camus suggests, when we experience our Tipasa we experience a will to live without refusing anything life offers…
Folks, these are very very hard times we live in. The war and the injustices inflicted by our government are demoralizing. We need our Tipasa to keep in touch with our youthful engagement with our surroundings and in touch with an inner peace and confidence. Without this refreshment, we dry up. But with it, were are able to hold both the worst and the best of life. And thus we can as Camus ends, never be unfaithful to one or the other. “Yes,” he says, “there is beauty and there are the humiliated victims of war and injustice]. Whatever difficulties are present, I would like never to be unfaithful either to the beauty or the humiliated.” (adapted)
Our faith suggests that we turn more to act than to word to declare our religion. But in order to sustain our energy and our hope, in order to answer the call of the great prophet Micah to do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly…we need our community to feed us, and love us for who we are, and to remind us of our highest aspiration, yes to help us discover the inner springs of aspiration that are still bubbling unknown inside us.
May it be so. Amen