Unitarian Universalist Pillars, Part 1:

Where the Awesome Meets the Familiar

A sermon by the Rev. Barbara Wells
Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church
November 3, 2002

Not long ago I was sitting in quiet room with some good friends talking about God. This group of people was very diverse, racially, culturally, and in lots of other ways. But there was one thing we had in common —we were all active and committed Unitarian Universalists.

Our views of God varied to some degree, including a few folks who were not comfortable with using that old fashioned and wounded word. Yet, all of us had something to add to the conversation. Something that sprang from a deep place inside us. All of us, it seems, knew something about mystery, about holiness, about faith.

One friend in particular spoke very eloquently. While I cannot quote him exactly, I do remember with clarity the essence of his words. Religion and spirituality spring from the place, he told us, where the awesome meets the familiar.

Where the awesome meets the familiar. Wow. That really hooked me, so much so that I decided to title this sermon after his words.

I have been thinking a lot about what lies at the heart of our faith. So, I decided to preach a two part series on the pillars of Unitarian Universalism, to look at what may be the essence of what it means to be religious, liberally. Next week, I will explore four principles that I think form the heart of our religion. Today, I want to look at two attitudes or ways of approaching faith, that also have much to teach us. Those attitudes are awe, and humility.

I got intrigued by these two important concepts, when I heard my colleague Forrest Church, senior minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in NYC and popular author, speak about, awe and humility at a conference I attended last spring. He set me to thinking. Are awe and humility essential to true faith development? And if they are, how can we seek to understand them in ways that make sense to Unitarian Universalists?

As a group, Unitarian Universalists are skeptical by nature. Yet, I would posit that most of us here in this room have, at some point in our lives, been overwhelmed by awe. I have heard many stories throughout my years in the ministry of awe in the face of birth and death, stars and sea, love and even loss. I have had my own experiences of awe, too. I remember a hike I once took with a Camp Fire Girl troop, which led us to a mountaintop. As I gazed at the beautiful scene it became more than just a nice view. I saw it through the eyes of awe. It was more alive, more beautiful, more perfect than any mountain could ever be. For what seemed an eternity I watched and knew that I was not alone, that the earth was alive, and that I belonged. I have never forgotten that image and it still returns to me when I need to feel connected to what really matters. It was, in every real way, awesome. And it awoke in my child’s heart a longing and a sense of belonging that led me to deepen my belief in God.

My experience on that mountaintop is far from unique. Perhaps you have a story of awe, when you felt overtaken by the terrible joy that is the mystery and wonder of life. But awe, it seems, does not come easily or readily to everyone. Perhaps this is because for many, the idea of awe is caught up with fear. The origin of the word awe stems from a Greek word for pain. Awe has too often been used as a weapon. Human made structures that we look on today as great examples of engineering or architecture, like the pyramids in Egypt or even the cathedrals in Europe, were built to make ordinary humans feel small and God or the King or the Priest very great. It is not surprising that the word "awful" has come to mean something terrible.

But there are of course, very powerful and positive ways to experience awe. When I hear people in our congregations talk about awe, it is usually the natural world of which they speak. While some of us do feel awe in something humanly generated, (such as music, poetry, or art) most of us seem to meet the mystery in the natural world. As David Eaton so nicely put it in our reading, awe comes when we recognize "this unity we share with the sun, earth, our brothers and sisters, strangers, flowers of the field, snowflakes, volcanoes and moonbeams." To David Eaton, awe comes when we face the mystery of our connectedness to all of life. I felt that kind of awe on my mountaintop. But it can (and does) happen in many places. In essence, I believe that the kind of awe at the heart of our faith emerges when we feel deep in the well of our being that we belong, that our life matters, that we and the earth and all its creatures are one. This concept is Unitarian for our heritage and faith remind us that by whatever name we call the holy, it is, at its essence, one. When we feel that oneness, we can experience the kind of awe that opens us to a deeper understanding of what our life means particularly in relation to the rest of life on our planet.

It also can open us to humility. Humility is a far less comfortable topic for UUs even than awe. As a group, we are not the most humble of people (and I include myself in this in case you think I am pointing fingers in any other direction!) Religiously, humility is even more loaded with baggage than awe. For many of us, humility in the face of God conjures up people prostrate in front of altars, flagellating themselves, or feeling pressured to confess to imagined sins for the sake of absolution. And women have endured centuries of being told to humble themselves not just before God but before their husbands and fathers as well.

But like awe, humility has a strong part to play in our faith. From the time I can remember, my father (not, on the surface, the most humble of men) taught me to understand that humility had a profoundly simple definition. To be humble, he told me, was to remain teachable. Whenever we think we know it all, real humility reminds us to stay open and willing to learn.

Forrest Church believes that accepting our mortality forces us to stay humble. All of us are finite, and we are not God. As Forrest puts it in his book, Bringing God Home, "life requires .. a measure of humility.… just a little lower than the angels, we too can lift up our sights by lowering our pretensions." (BGH, p.140). Humility is one way to stay grounded. Humility invites us to always remain open to what the world has to teach us, and not be afraid to say we don’t know.

In her book, Kitchen Table Wisdom, author Rachel Naomi Remen echoes this sentiment. "As a physician, I was trained to deal with uncertainty as aggressively as I dealt with the disease itself. The unknown was the enemy….After years of trading mystery for mastery, it was hard and even frightening to stop offering myself reasonable explanations for some of the things I observed and that others told me and simply take them as they are. ‘I don’t know’ had long been my statement of shame, of personal and professional failing."

Yet, in dealing with death and healing, Remen began to open herself to the awesome mystery inherent in life and death. Rather than trying to explain away the strange, wonderful, and powerful feelings of awe that death and healing evoked, she began to just let it be. "I no longer feel that life is ordinary," she writes, "Every day is filled with mystery."

She concludes with these words. "In some fairy tales there is a magic word which has the power to undo the spell that has imprisoned someone and free them…usually the words were some kind of nonsense like ‘shazam!’ My magic words have turned out to be, "I don’t know!" (KTW pp. 293-294)

The magic words, "I don’t know," are at the essence of both awe and humility. They are also at the heart of our faith. How? You might ask. When we approach the universe with awe, while our first response can and will likely be "Wow!" perhaps our second response should be, "I don’t know!" Not knowing does not mean not appreciating. It simply allows us to acknowledge the mystery of life without apology. When we say, "we don’t know!" with awe, we are accepting that life and creation are mysterious and wonder-filled, and that we cannot know everything about them. Thus, we have a faith that affirms that creation is too grand and complex to be defined by narrow creeds.

And when we say with humility, "I don’t know" we acknowledge that there is still more to learn, that we do not know it all, that revelation is not sealed. Thus, we have a faith that affirms that spiritual growth is a continuing process of learning and growing.

Saying, "I don’t know" is a hard thing to do. We live in a world where knowledge is power, and to admit our ignorance about something may seem weak, even stupid. Yet, doesn’t it make more sense to tell the truth, as we know it? As we may not know it?!

I don’t know! These three little magic words may be at the heart of real faith, real spirituality, and even real religion. They challenge us to meet mystery with an open heart even as we ask hard questions that deepen our understanding and broaden our knowledge. I believe that a willingness to be unsure is critical for our spiritual well being. But it can at times feel paralyzing, for to not know can be scary. On this matter, Forrest Church has some insights to offer us.

Forrest believes that the world is made up of three different kinds of people. First are the absolutists. They are the ones who are 100% sure that they are right, whether it is about religion or science or raising kids.

The second group is what he calls the 40%ers. These are folks who have few firm beliefs and who are so afraid to take a stand they do nothing. Forrest describes them as the kind of people who are so fearful of spilling their water that they will let it evaporate from the cup.

The third group Forrest names the 60%ers. These folks have a 60% belief in the truth as they find it. They are not paralyzed like the 40%ers, nor do they grandstand like the 100%ers. These are the people who act knowing that they may be wrong. These are the people who accept that they don’t know it all. And because they are willing to doubt, they are more likely to consider the impact of their actions on others. They are willing to act, but are fully aware that there are consequences to their actions. As Forrest puts it, "intrinsically we recognize that we are all good and bad. Yet, we have to discriminate and make hard choices, knowing as we do that we might be wrong. But we take the risk nonetheless."

60%ers are the people who can say with conviction, "I don’t know" even as they do the best they can with what they do know. (From a talk given at the Public Ministry Conference in NYC, May 2002)

The religious implications of this are important to acknowledge. Most religions throughout the centuries have been the 100% kind. You are either in or out. Our faith is different. We at least try to acknowledge that there are things we don’t know, and to accept that others may experience the world differently than we do. Yet, there are times, even within our liberal faith, that we fall into the trap of the 100%ers. When we are absolutely positively sure we are right. That’s where awe and humility come into play. Whenever I am tempted to want to say that my way is right and you are wrong, I try to remember to take a deep breath and say, "I don’t know." I try to face the mystery of life with a sense of awe and my own place in it with an attitude of humility. I try to remain teachable and to stay open to the amazing and wonderful world in which we live.

It is here that my friend’s view of faith as the place where the awesome meets the familiar comes very true for me. For Unitarian Universalists, the world is not a bad place, fallen from the Lord’s good graces. To us, the world and everything in it can be approached with awe. For we have learned that the holy dwells not just in the realm of the supernatural but in the natural, in the here and now, in this place, this moment, among us. It can be hard to feel this for much of life seems mundane, routine, and far from holy. Yet, by cultivating a sense of awe we have the opportunity to look at the world with new eyes. Rachel Naomi Remen tells the story of the Christian mystic Theresa of Avila. Theresa "had difficulty…in reconciling the vastness of the life of the spirit with the mundane tasks of her …convent: the washing of pots, the sweeping of floors, the folding of laundry. At some point of grace the mundane became for her a sort of prayer, a way she could experience her ever-present connection to the divine pattern which is the source of life. She began then to see the face of God in the folded sheets." (KTW, p. 282)

We may not see God in the sheets but perhaps we can find something of the holy in a child’s smile, in the falling leaves, in the aching beauty of the winter sky.

And we are, I believe, more likely to encounter the mystery and wonder of life if we approach the world in humble ways. There is much about life and the living of it that we just don’t know. All the tools at our disposal, the scientific method, higher criticism, business plans, etc., can’t explain why our heart aches when we see a loved one in pain, or why our world shakes when we hear our newborn baby cry. Facing the enormous mystery of life and death with "I don’t know" humbly on our lips is a religious posture that works. We can, as one of my favorite poets says, "live the questions" with humility, wonder and joy.

To live in the place where the awesome meets the familiar is to go against much of what our modern world expects of us. Arrogance is far more popular than humility and awe is too often reserved for celebrity sightings. Yet, I would argue that the religious path offers us a better way to navigate through the shoals of modern life. Cultivating a spirit of awe does not require a traditional belief in God or the afterlife. Cultivating a spirit of humility does not mean debasing oneself in fear. The spirit only requires of us a willingness to remain open to all that life has to teach us. And to accept that the mystery of life is not something to be afraid of, indeed, it is something to be revered.

There is so much I don’t know. What I do know is that our faith, Unitarian Universalism, can be a religion where awe and humility are cultivated and supported. We do not always live up to our promise, I know. But I have hope. For our liberal faith has much to offer to us and to our world. Next week I’ll share my thoughts on four particular ways our religion challenges us to live a faithful life. Today I will leave you with this. Look around you. See the beauty and wonder of this place and its people. Can we approach this day with awe? Can we approach each other with humility?

These two pillars of the faithful life can serve us well. Particularly if we remain willing to say with awe and humility those awesome and humble magic words, "We don’t know!"

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