Saturday, August 29, 2009

U or U Christian

Over my past 3 years as an official UU (I was a "friend" for several years before that), I've heard that Christians in our denomination come from the Universalism side of the UUA. There is truth to that if we consider religious approach. At the time of the formation of the UUA, Universalism was the less affluent, less educated group, full of heart, a mystic bent, and a belief in universal acceptance. Unitarians brought more affluence, education and a decidedly intellectual way of viewing religious topics.

The origins of both denominations were in Christianity. Unitarians were so called because they did not believe in the theology of the Trinity, but in one indivisible God. Universalists believed that when Jesus died on the cross, he brought salvation to ALL humankind, not just to Christians. I've read that as Universalism tried to compete with a growing rationalism during the scientific revolution, they reworked the salvation idea to include appreciation and acceptance of all paths that illuminate the light of God. This is my very brief summary, and I'm sure some of you can add details for the rest of us.

Personally, I'm a Unitarian and a Universalist who is closer to our origins. I believe in one God and do not ascribe to a theology of the Trinity and I believe that everyone is saved and all spiritual paths are valid. But in my experience so far, it's how UU Christians approach their faith that sets them with the Universalists. Mystic, expressive, leading with the heart, UU Christians may read and cogitate about the Great Spirit and how nature manifests it, but what energizes them is when they experience the Spirit at the soul level. They seek out opportunities for that experience; they need that experience on a regular basis to feel whole.

And I believe that we, as a denomination, need both approaches. We as humans become our best, do our best when our hearts and minds are engaged at the same time. UU Christians are in a good position to model this reality.

For more perspectives on Universalism, check out The Universalist Herald. My most recent article "The Universalist in Me" appears in the July/August 2009 issue, pg. 14.

What's your experience? Do you think you're more a U Christian or a U Christian? Are you a living example of the merger of Unitarianism and Universalism? Is there any reason to be more evangelical about our Universalist side?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Eating Jesus

This past Sunday, my Christian Fellowship read a passage from John, chapter 6, and talked about verse 57 for some time. Jesus says:
Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. NRSV
There was a small, collective shudder in the room at the starkness of the literal words and the agreement that these words are some of the most difficult of the Gospel. I've had less trouble with this passage since a priest examined the miracle of eating. Once you've chewed any food, gotten a good taste, and swallowed, that food becomes part of you down to the level of your cells. You can't do another thing--not breathe nor walk nor think nor act--without that food being a part of you. Eating Jesus comes down to the same thing. You have so ingested and digested his words and example that they become part of you, down to the cellular level and none of your actions can be separated from what has merged with your spirit and soul. This means that you no longer have to consciously think about the Great Commandments and how to act in accordance with them; your being KNOWS what to do.

In the Old Testament, the metaphor for this was to "write the law on their hearts" as in Jeremiah 31:33. Again, the goal is to become so connected to God's Word and the Way of Jesus that they are integral to your person.

I haven't gotten there yet, but I'm working on it.

I also find it easy to read from John 6:22 to the end of that chapter metaphorically because Jesus makes that switch for us with a bit of irony. Chapter 6 starts with the feeding of the 5,000 and these well-fed people decide that Jesus should be a king. Jesus takes off alone. The next day, these same 5,000 go looking for Jesus. They get into some boats and find Jesus at the other side of the Sea of Galilee. Somebody asks, "Rabbi, when did you come here?" I can see Jesus giving the speaker a little smile as he replies,
Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.
Ha! Jesus immediately urges them to switch their thinking to another type of bread. " that endures for eternal life..." Jesus always sees right through to our truth and pushes us to tweak our perception just enough to see another truth.

I hope that you will not be like the disciples in verse 66 who decide that this whole discussion of bread coming down from heaven and eating flesh and food of eternal life is way too hard. They abandon the effort and Jesus. Be more like Peter. When Jesus asks, "Are you leaving, too?", shrug your shoulders and say, "Where would I go? You've got what I need."

This is a great chapter and inspired one of my favorite hymns "I am the Bread of Life." Read it alone, with friends, in silence and aloud. Chew on it, roll it on your tongue, get a good taste, then swallow it. Let the lessons become a part of you.

What do you find to eat in John, Chapter 6?

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Not To Us, O Lord

In Shakespeare's play, The Life of Henry the Fifth, Act 4, Scene 8, the British have just won an unexpected victory over the French at Agincourt. They have had relatively few casualties and his men would love to pat themselves on the back. King Harry says, "Come, go we in procession to the village, And be it death proclaimed through our host To boast of this, or take that praise from God which is his only." He then commands, "Do we all holy rites: Let there be sung Non nobis and Te Deum, The dead with charity enclosed in clay;..."

The movie version of the play (Henry V, 1989, directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh) portrays that command. While the tired, mud-soaked and bloody men slowly walk the field, a young soldier begins singing these words to a haunting melody:
Non nobis, Domine, sed nomine tua gloria.
Other voices join his, then an orchestra, so that the last notes ring over the battlefield and in our minds for long moments afterward.

My own knowledge of Catholic Church history and Shakespeare's words reminded me that King Harry's command would not have been unusual. "Te Deum" refers to an ancient prayer (To you, God) and "Non nobis" is shorthand for Psalm 115. Before English became an accepted sacred language, the Bible was read widely in Latin. Most people couldn't read, so prayers and Psalms were memorized. The first line of each Psalm, in Latin, became a title for that Psalm and a memory jog so people would know which psalm to pray--or to sing as in this depiction in Henry V. "Non nobis, Domine" becomes in English:
Not to us, O Lord, not to us,
but to your Name give glory;
because of your love and because of your faithfulness.
To me, Psalm 115 is a prayer of mindfulness, of awareness that we have been blessed with powerful senses, and we don't use them. We can become like stone and metal idols that just sit on a shelf, uninvolved, uncommunicative. The last two verses of this psalm really stick with me:
The dead do not praise the Lord,
nor all those who go down into silence;
But we [emphasis mine] will bless the Lord, from this time forth for evermore.
If anyone is going to look around this earth and give thanks and praise for all that we've been given, it's not going to be the dead. This is a job for the living.

When you arise in the morning, give thanks for the morning light, for your life and strength. Give thanks for your food, and the joy of living. If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies with yourself.--Chief Tecumseh

I'm with the Chief, King Harry and Psalm 115. How about you?

Saturday, August 15, 2009

God Is Holding a Cup

Yesterday, I opened the Bible to Psalm 75 and knew I was in trouble. There's a nice little thanksgiving, and then seven verses of "God's going to get you." I recognized that some of the symbolism is ancient, and I read four translations with notes before the images became clear. "Horns" are a symbol of power, so the psalmist warns those who carry power not to display it in an obnoxious manner.

What stopped me cold was Verse 8. There is this cup and the Lord is going to pour it out and the wicked will drink it to the dregs. So what? The cup has wine. The wicked drink it and...? So far, the psalm has been adamant in its description of God as a Universal Judge, so I'm clearly missing something. Back to the translations.

What's in the cup? The translations provide great images.
...foaming wine, well mixed; (New Revised Standard Version)
...a heady blend of wine; (The Jerusalem Bible)
...the wine foams in it, hot with spice (New English Bible) that is mixed with fire! (The Psalms by Gary Chamberlain)
...the wine is red, it is full of mixture (King James Version)

In the footnotes, the New English Bible refers to the cup of "judgment" (ah, that's better), and gives three other Bible references. The most helpful is Jeremiah 25:15-18. Here we learn that "fiery wine" meant that a captured city would be burned. The nations who drink of the wine will vomit and go mad. The wine is potent stuff. The cup holds God's wrath and God's judgment. Now read the verse again.
The Lord holds a cup in his hand, and the wine foams in it, hot with spice; he offers it to every man for drink and all the wicked on earth must drain it to the dregs. The New English Bible
Finally, The New English Bible suggests looking at Luke 22:42.
"Father, if it be thy will, take this cup away from me. Yet not my will but thine be done."
The Gospel of Luke was written after Jesus' death, so most likely Jesus did not personally recount his anguished prayer. Jesus prayed alone we are told, so no one heard the prayer. The writer effectively uses a technique known as "dramatic non-fiction", and makes a logical assumption. Jesus knew scriptures; Jesus knew the symbolism. "...take this cup away..." Simple. Four words conveying rich meaning that hit the reader with bone-deep clarity.

When we turn from the teachings of Jesus, from the Way, it's like drinking a cup of poisoned wine, all of it, to the dregs. When put like that, staying on the path becomes a no-brainer.

Let's stay away from that cup, shall we?

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Face of the Earth Is Renewed

Hello, Readers!
I've just returned from several days at the Outer Banks of North Carolina where the ocean shores provide an exquisite backdrop for reflection and perspective. It was with this experience just behind me that I opened the Book of Psalms to Psalm 104.

Psalm 104 is the poetic version of the 7th UU Principle: "Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part."

According to the psalm, all the physical features of the earth were created to give just the right environment for each living creature. Animals hunt at night; people work during the day. Food grows for both people and animals. The system feeds and nurtures us all.

"Yonder is the sea, great and wide, creeping things innumerable are there, living things both small and great. There go the ships, and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it." (Verses 25-26) I saw this as I sat on the beach. Tiny bugs, wiggly jellyfish, pelicans flying overhead, ships passing off shore, children building sand castles beside curious sea gulls, the moon rising bright as a new silver dollar. Humankind part of the web of nature, in harmony.

The psalm declares that God set this all up, and the rhythms of give-and-take are God's rhythms, rhythms of the Spirit. "...when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust. When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the earth." (Verse 29-30)

If you can't get to your favorite nature spot this week, I suggest that you open Psalm 104 and read it slowly, letting the images rise in your mind. As I read it, I see with my inner eye different places that I've visited, both near and far, and I am reminded once again of the awesome power and beauty of the Spirit of Life. I remember that my role is one of steward and protector as well as participant.

"I will sing to the Lord as long as I live;" (Verse 33)

Blessed Be. Amen.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

For the Good Use Of Leisure

There's a prayer in the American Episcopal Book of Common Prayer that was written especially for me:
O God, in the course of this busy life, give us times of refreshment and peace; and grant that we may so use our leisure to rebuild our bodies and renew our minds, that our spirits may by opened to the goodness of your creation.
I'm on vacation this week with this prayer in my heart. See you next Wednesday, the 12th.

May it be so. Amen.