Building FAITH in Community, Part 4:
Transcendence

A sermon by Jaco B. ten Hove
March 26, 2000

[Follows Hymns #318 "We Would Be One" and #305 "De Colores" and "What You Do With
What You've Got," a song composed by Si Kahn, from which the early quotes below are drawn.]

 

"It's not just what you're given, but what you do with what you've got."

Communities are strong and fulfilling when people in them do a lot with what they've got; when they reach inward to find the best of themselves with which they then reach outward. "It's not how large your share is, but how much you can share."

Communities are rich when people in them transcend their individual imperfections and limitations to find the ways they are connected with others. "It's not just what you're born with; it's what you choose to bear."

When you hear about or experience a group that "rose to the occasion," this is usually an example of an inspirational moment when people transcended their individual imperfections and limitations and came together to do something that really mattered.

I wonder if the phrase "rising to the occasion" might have come from the traditional activity called "barn-raising," where folks nearby drop whatever they're doing to come help a neighbor build a barn. Working together, it goes up quickly. They rise to the occasion and raise a new building. In the process, they also build faith in their community.

I believe that a community will be strong and fulfilling and rich only to the extent that its people act out of their connections more than their separations. A community will thrive when its people transcend their separateness and act out of their connectedness.

The Latin derivation of the word transcend (transcendere) tells us that it means, "to climb over," as an obstacle. Whenever we climb over-transcend the obstacle that is our sense of isolation and separateness, we build faith in community and deepen our individual journeys.

We can use our strength and muscles not to push and shove, but to build bridges. We can transcend what separates us and build faith in our community.

In the pre-sermon discussion earlier this week, a very local example of a community rising to the occasion was offered. It's one some of you will no doubt remember well. On a Saturday afternoon early last May during our Ministerial Candidating Week, 50 or so of you Paint Branchers came together to seriously consider the call of a co-ministry team (i.e., me and Barbara) whose potential arrival was in some jeopardy at that moment. Together, you built more faith in this community, and it showed.

As Barbara and I talked with folks after that meeting, it made a difference to us to see in this community a deeper understanding of the good of the whole and to feel a willingness to move beyond individual expectations-including our own. Bridges were built that day and we continue to grow more connected.

This Spring morning, I will explore some of the dynamics involved in balancing our individual sense of self with our desire for a greater sense of community, and I'll eventually suggest two particular approaches that both involve a challenging mode of transcendence. But first a bit about the context that brings us to this fourth piece of our five-part sermon series.

As an organizing method, Barbara and I have been moving through the letters of the word F-A-I-T-H, first exploring the Foundations of community, such as Freedom, Families and Friction. Then she portrayed our liberal religious heritage as "A Church for All Souls," and how Interdependent we are. So that's F-A-I, and now I'm into to the letter T. Then on April 16 we'll close with H, for Hope.

We hope these have been helpful explorations. But for now, let me Try with Tenacity to Tender more Tenets about Today's Theme, brought to you by the letter T.

But you'll notice that I'm not giving any time to the more traditional religious interpretations of this word, transcendence, as it might relate to theology, say. I think there are already far too many shelves of books that discuss whether god is transcendent, as in far away from us, or immanent, as in here among us. That version of transcendence interests me less than the more immediate issue of our journey as a community of individuals attempting to climb over the river of separation we perceive between us.

When we "build faith in community," we do acknowledge all the important, worthy and necessary ways that we live our own separate lives, strive mightily to meet our own personal needs, and have our own opinions, but we don't stop there. We build faith in community when we also transcend our isolated existence to participate together in something even more important, worthy and necessary-so that "we would be one," as stated by our opening hymn this morning.

This was the message taken up by Unitarian and Universalist youth of the 1950s, who foresaw the vision of liberal religion to come and made this hymn their theme song. "We would be one in living for each other, to show to all a new community." The essence of community is found wherever we human beings aspire to merge our visions and pursue something that is greater than the sum of the parts, wherever we "climb over"-transcend what would divide us and instead pursue a sense of unity.

By doing this, we help build our faith in Comm-unity, which is, almost by definition, greater than the sum of its parts. But ours is a challenging non-dogmatic faith to build. Unitarian Universalism is a demanding path to walk in relationship with all these other free thinkers. It is not easy to even articulate our faith, let alone construct the pathways that will guide us toward our vision of unity within diversity.

When viewed close up, this vision is a fierce and apparently unresolvable paradox. I can hear a voice ask, "How can there be unity within diversity? Come on, they are mutually exclusive! Don't bother me with this new age drivel."

But from a bigger view, a larger perspective, unity within diversity is not only possible, it is, in fact, the true order of things, as described by that famous new age Unitarian, Charles Darwin. As Barbara mentioned last week in her sermon about interdependence, Darwin closed his treatise on "The Origin of Species," with an evocative natural image of the "tangled bank" of biological diversity. These days we have fractals and Chaos Theory showing us how there is a larger unity in what appears to be fractured and diverse.

Another way to express it might be in song: "All the colors abound for the whole world around and for everyone under the sun."

If we settle for the close-up view, the individual, solitary experience, a single color of crayon (say, what used to be called "flesh"), we can lose sight of the larger truth and beauty that diversity brings. At times, we are called to transcend what is immediately in front of our noses and step back, for a glimpse of the bigger picture, all the colors.

At our pre-sermon discussion, I was reminded of the power of one the most important big pictures-literally-of our time: the image of the earth from space. (Show poster.) What a profound difference it has made to many of us to have this icon which brings instant awareness of our huge and inclusive planetary community.

A more local example of deepening our experience by moving from the close-up view to a larger perspective is in worship here on most Sunday mornings, when we witness the sharing of important aspects of our personal lives. This is a good example of how we acknowledge the close-up realities that really matter to us-but it doesn't stop there.

The full picture, the full effect of this sharing over months and years actually transcends any particular life or story. There is a cumulative power in the flow of this ritual that doesn't depend on any particular people to share. This is one way that you here have built a strong community with faith in the process of sharing, which is bigger than any one of us.

Another local example may seem like so many nuts and bolts to some of you, but I see it as a real and present manifestation of transcendence in community. I'm referring to the advent of an innovation called the Budget Leadership Team, which you may hear referred to as the BLT. This is a group of veteran, board-appointed Paint Branchers who have just announced a round of budget hearings to be held in the first week of April. These hearings are designed to give the BLT (Budget Leadership Team) a good sense of what various church constituencies feel about funding priorities and possibilities for our next fiscal year.

But ultimately, after carefully considering all the input they gather, the Budget Leadership Team will need to represent the congregation's best interests-the big picture-in preparing a final proposed budget to go to the board and the Annual Meeting for validation. They know that their job is to transcend their own particular interests or agendas and view the budget as a method for helping the church as a whole step lively into the future. They will draw us a picture of our own Paint Branch tangled bank, one with both close-up diversity and a unified perspective.

Yet other local example that came up in our pre-sermon discussion is also important to mention: the challenge to transcend narrow age associations and peer groups to build faith in a "pan-generational" community, reaching across all the generations. Yes, we might each prefer to be around those with whom we share affinities, such as people our own age, and this is an important aspect to include.

But a vital church community will intentionally and creatively mingle all the generations in inspirational ways, avoiding the common tendency in congregations, as in the wider culture, to segregate by ages, with only rare moments of crossing generational boundaries. We need bridges that remind us of this big-picture vision of a thriving community that connects people of all ages.

Actually, however, almost any journey toward the good of the whole, almost any truly ambitious effort to build community can be fraught with peril. In order to "climb over" the mundane molehills of our lives, in order to reach out beyond ourselves, beyond our own concerns and limitations-beyond the inertia that frequently dominates our lifestyle-to join in a movement that casts a larger circle, we often must transcend and have faith in things and people that we can't control.

Ah, control. Transcending what we can't control. This may be the crux of the matter. Can we have faith in what we can't control? Maybe if you remember only one thing from this sermon, keep asking yourself that question: Can I have faith in what I can't control? It is an abiding issue for me, I know that. And it quite possible holds the key to the development of an ever-stronger and more effective community, not just here in our church but at almost any level. Can I have faith in what I can't control?

Once you merge your vision with someone else, even one someone else, you no longer have the control you had (or thought you had) when it was just you running your universe. This can be hard on some of us. "Community," as Parker Palmer reminds us, "is the place where the person you least want to live with always lives."

But the drive to connect and to be in meaningful association with others is strong in us. It seems to be part of our genetic make-up, this urge toward community of one sort or another. We've been at it since the very first tribes. You'd think we might have learned how to do community successfully by now. But alas, things keep getting in the way; we get frustrated, bored, discouraged, angered, and we often bolt, perhaps because we can't control the situation to make it what we know would be better.

We depart from community into solitude perhaps, but more likely into some other setting where we are drawn again into a greater vision that has hope for us… Until we again bump up against something we can't control and it infuriates us or maybe just bores us and we wander away.

This is an oversimplification, of course. There are many good reasons for moving in and out of communities, searching for where we feel we belong. And it can be hard to know, moment to moment, what feels right; hard to know when it's appropriate to bolt and when to resist that recurring urge; hard to know if we really do belong in this or any particular community.

These are spiritual decisions, my friends, and they are best made from a deep place of centered reflection. In sorting out what and when and where to transcend, we call upon our best inner resources, and hope they are up to the task.

Which brings me to my two suggestions for further developing your own deep place of centered reflection. These are techniques which I am still a long way from mastering myself, to be sure, but I keep coming back to them as guideposts to the future, tools of transcendence that will improve the odds for personally embodying our noble vision of honoring unity within diversity.

One suggestion looks inward, the other outward. Walt Whitman modeled the first, inner transcendence for us in his short but powerful line: "I am large, I contain multitudes." How much room do you have inside you to "contain multitudes," to engage with what is different, strange, foreign to you? My quest is to build within me what I call "Spiritual Spaciousness," to transcend the tightness that often urges me to consider only my own needs, my own close-up view.

Spiritual spaciousness is an increasing capacity to hold in my heart other perspectives, paradoxes, and people I can't control-without necessarily bolting from them because they create anxiety. They don't create anxiety; I have to take credit for that. I figure my own inner being is where anxiety arises, so it can also be addressed there. This I can control, because it is within me, and one way I can address inner anxiety is to build, intentionally, greater room in my heart to let diversity bang around in there without pushing me off balance.

Among the Paint Branchers I spoke with this week about the notion of transcendence, one fellow described how important sacred space is in helping him "climb over" the pettiness of existence and helping him wrestle with larger concerns of his life. He told me that being in a rich worship environment is one way he finds his deep place of centered reflection from which he can hear the universe's messages better.

Houses of worship are often called "sanctuaries" for that very reason. Other sanctuaries are in the natural world, and I'm sure many of you have had meaningful experiences resting in settings that inspired you to touch your deep place of centered reflection.

I'd suggest that these moments-in here or out there-are opportunities to expand your heart, to increase your spiritual spaciousness. I predict that if you do this consciously-in your own ways, of course-you will find an openness growing within you, and you will be able to encounter diversity with less anxiety. You will build faith in what you can't control, and be more able to "contain multitudes."

For your inner life is the platform from which you encounter the world. Find ways to make it a large one so you're not anxious about falling off because it's so narrow and you're always near a scary edge.

In another direction, outward, my second suggestion challenges me to learn lessons from the Deep Ecology movement, which is at the forefront of the interdependence issue, exploring just how it is that we are all interconnected.

One of the emphases of Deep Ecology is on and exercise called "extension of identity," a fancy term for actually understanding ourselves as inherently interconnected with other parts of the planet. So I try to extend, expand my conception of "self" beyond my skinline to include others, and I share this challenge with you. Imagine yourself so connected to other life, that the boundaries fade and you can actually identify with something else-as part of your self.

This would be transcending-climbing over-your sense of being only an individual, atomized self to expand into your larger self, which is literally interconnected with the web of life. Already we breathe the same air. Are we not one, large, multi-faceted organism?

We pay a lot of lip service to our 7th UU Principle-"respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part"-but how can we live as if it were truly our worldview? One way is to intentionally identify with other parts of the planet, to expand our sense of self to include more than our own bodies.

Stay with me here. I know this can be a push for us rational types. But try this short and simple exercise with me.

Close your eyes, take a deep breath or two, and listen, but not with your ears. Listen with your mind's eye for the approach into your awareness of some non-human part of the world-animal, mineral, vegetable, whatever. Don't judge or respond, just notice it. Take the first one that shows up. And when that first non-human entity appears in your mind's eye, name it and then put that name after two words. Say to yourself, "I am _____." Repeat that inner expression of expanded identity a few times.…

I honor the path you might walk beyond your body into awareness of your connectedness with other life. For me, when I do this exercise or other meditations like it, the entity that often turns up is Frog. So I have tried to be Frog. And while I'm not exactly hopping from lily pad to lily pad yet, I do find that I am pretty affected by the worldwide decline of the frog population. I am now connected to that issue in a way I wasn't before I expanded my identity, even a little.

And so I at least renew our membership in the Nature Conservancy, an organization that is relatively effective at preserving wildlife habitats. This is one small way Barbara and I move beyond ourselves to identify with and care for the larger planet.

But the more immediately relevant part of this extension of the self, this expanding transcendence of my solitary individuality, is how it grows my faith in community. When I can truly identify with others-human or non-human-my compassion increases and I am less triggered by diversity and have less need to control the exterior world. I realize that, in fact, I am diversity.

And when I combine this outward expansion of self with an increasing spiritual spaciousness within, I am more able to merge my visions with a community of others in deeply fulfilling ways, with less and less anxiety about what I can't control. This is The Plan, anyway.

In my life, I've been given a lot, and I believe it matters what I do with it. We have been given a lot, by and large, and it matters how we approach our connections. If "we would be one," if we would honor "all the colors" that make our diverse planet so rich, if we would build faith in our community, we can start with our selves, our spacious, expansive selves.

We can balance self-centeredness with service. We can balance our real experience of brokenness with the reality of our fundamental wholeness. We can balance our inner life with our outer behavior, our personal needs with the good of the whole. This, then, is the call of community.

Each step we each take toward a vision beyond mere self-gratification is movement that ennobles the community, furthers its shared goals, and deepens our individual journeys. Ultimately, regardless how separate we appear to be from each other, we are in this together. One final, true story epitomizes this for me.

It was a moment at the Seattle Special Olympics a few years back, described thusly by my colleague Elea Kempler:

Nine young contestants, all physically or mentally disabled, assembled at the starting line for the 100 yard dash. At the gun they all started out, not exactly in a dash, but with a relish to run the race and cross the finish line. All, that is, except one boy, who, early on, stumbled on the asphalt, tumbled over a couple times, and began to cry.

The other eight kids heard the boy cry. They slowed down and paused. They they all turned around and went back. Every one of them went back to the boy who had fallen down. One little girl crouched down next to him and kissed him and said, "This will make it better." Another, bigger boy pulled the smaller one back to his feet. Then all nine linked arms and walked together to the finish line while everyone in the stadium stood and cheered.

Can Paint Branch be like this-helping each other across the finish line with love and caring? YES, and in many ways it already is. But it can also grow stronger and richer if we cultivate the spiritual spaciousness in our hearts and continue to recognize and celebrate the deep interconnections we share with each other.

Sometimes it seems so clear and simple, yet it can also be so demanding. To open our hearts and deeply understand how we are interwoven with other life, to transcend our vaunted individuality and merge with a larger vision of community-this demanding faith may well be the cornerstone of "building for tomorrow a nobler world than we have known today."

And there may be no verse that speaks this vision louder than the first one in our next hymn #303:
"We Are the Earth Upright and Proud; in us the earth is knowing.
Its winds are music in our mouths, in us its rivers flowing.
The sun is our hearthfire; warm with the earth's desire,
And with its purpose strong, we sing earth's pilgrim song;
In us the earth is growing.

Closing Words

In us the Earth is growing, as we link arms and rise to the occasion of…the future-our future! Every other Sunday, during first service, our young people are with us for what we call "Together Time," which begins with this Affirmation: "We are Unitarian Universalists-the church of the open mind, the loving heart and the helping hand."

This is the message we give our children, our youngest UUs. May it resonate in us as well, as we embody our growing faith in community, using mind, heart and hand to be unity in diversity. May your steps from this place lead you to fulfillment, with roots to hold you close and wings to set you free. But first, let us sing about it again, for music is our fond companion on the journey! [Spirit of Life.]

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