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Our Common Heart – 4/7/2013

Relatively early in my process of becoming a minister, I visited a drab, beige building in an office park in Oakland, CA to undergo a career assessment. This is a required step in the pathway to ministry for our movement and for many others in the US. The process took a few days; there were psychological tests and personal inventories, some essays to write, and some time spent with other prospective religious leaders getting to know each other and explain our personal stories to one another.

The intent of the process is to give possible ministers a reality check: are they suited at all for the job? To give you some professional-grade insight into your own personality and psychology. It also screens for some traits that are incredibly bad in ministers: among all the many bubble sheets I filled out were questions testing for dangerously poor personal boundaries, risk of sexual misconduct, and just making sure that I wasn’t a sociopath. Basically, you must be this sane to ride the ride, and when I underwent my assessment I got the happy news that I had cleared that bar.

One of the last parts of the process was a short interview with a psychologist about my personal theology and call to religious leadership. It wasn’t really testing for anything in particular, more of an opportunity to get feedback on how I expressed myself to another person. So of course the very first question that she asked me was the only time in those two days when I felt totally lost. “Tell me about your relationship with Spirit,” was her opener. I did manage to put aside my first impulse, which was to respond with the question, “What do you mean, like, ghosts?” But my actual answer wasn’t a whole lot better, and so this morning I would like to try to improve upon it.

This is the third installment in a four-part series on important words in our religious dictionary as Unitarian Universalists, and today’s word is spirit. We use that word quite a lot here, repeating together each Sunday, “Love is the spirit of this church…” and singing together, “Spirit of Life, come to me, come to me.” That hymn is widely held to be the most popular within our movement; we are not the only congregation who sings it almost every Sunday, and most others use it in worship with some regularity. The song was composed by Carolyn McDade, a lifelong social activist, as a prayer for strength and the will to continue in the face of her own frustrations and disappointments “not with my community,” she said, “but with the world.” At a time when she felt, “like a piece of dried cardboard that has lain in the attic for years,” Spirit of Life was her expression of determination not to drop out of the work she was doing.[i]

Carolyn McDade’s words and her melody have become a touchstone not just in our congregations but in many of our personal lives. It is sung sometimes at the bedside, by loved ones, just before or just after death. Every year at the General Assembly of Unitarian Universalists, members of hundreds of our churches line up to carry banners representing their congregations into the opening ceremony. Eleven years ago, as the line waited in a crowded hall, one of the banner carriers suffered a heart attack. While a nurse who was a bystander, and eventually the EMTs worked to save his life, the rest of the crowd watched and waited, hoping and praying. When he was taken away to the hospital, where he did ultimately pull through, someone began singing the familiar song, and the rest of the crowd joined in.[ii] Just this past week, I was in Boston serving as a chaplain for candidates meeting with our Ministerial Fellowship Committee. Trying to pass the anxious time in waiting for the final approval to become a minister, one of the candidates took out a harmonica and played us a song. I can tell you now that Spirit of Life sounds beautiful on the harmonica; haunting in the best sort of way.

My point is that we speak the word often, it clearly matters to us, but what do we mean by it? Certainly some of what spirit means to us is shaped by the idea of the Holy Spirit which comes to us from the Christian origins of our movement, and that, in turn, has origins that reach deeper back, into the Hebrew Bible. The Hebrew word ruach, which means literally breath or wind, is used throughout the Hebrew Bible to describe the animating force of God. For instance, the opening of Genesis: “All was formless and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water.”[iii] That wind is ruach. There’s also a separate concept of the presence of God – the shekinah – which resides in the temple in Jerusalem and appears at other particularly important times and places. The Christian idea of the Holy Spirit blurs these two different concepts into one. Of course, in orthodox theology it is the third piece of the trinity, the three-part nature of God, but it is the only facet without a personality – it comes across more as a force than as a being.

This made the Holy Spirit a particularly attractive idea to some of our ancestors who came to be disenchanted with the idea of a God with decidedly human characteristics: intelligence, plans, prejudices and all the rest. Ralph Waldo Emerson, who just might be the 19th century Unitarian with the greatest influence over our theology in the 21st century, addressed the senior class of Harvard’s Divinity School in 1838 as “newborn bard[s] of the Holy Ghost.” He advised them, “cast behind you all conformity, and acquaint [people] at first hand with Deity. Look to it first and only, that fashion, custom, authority, pleasure, and money, are nothing to you, — are not bandages over your eyes, that you cannot see, — but live with the privilege of the immeasurable mind…By trusting your own heart, you shall gain more confidence in other[s].”

Emerson believed that each person was a being capable of greatness, worthy of confidence or the chance to earn it. And the Holy Spirit or Holy Ghost had a fundamental role in this. Another Unitarian minister of the same era who used to be quite famous and is now much less so challenged Emerson on this point. That minister was named Henry Whitney Bellows (19th century Unitarians had a thing about having three names, it seems – but these days all the really hip ministers have four). He was sort of the Bizarro Emerson; after Bizarro Superman, the odd version of the famous comic book character who comes from a world where everything is backwards and reversed. Where Emerson preached the primacy of the individual, and was, by all accounts, not really cut out to be a congregational minister, Bellows was a fierce institutionalist – he is directly responsible for the fact that we have a national organization today. Bellows believed, as he put it, that “the Holy Spirit communicates with Humanity,” but, “not with private persons,”[iv] For him, the potential greatness and wisdom of human beings was breathed into groups, networks and traditions – not sole persons following only their private understanding of the will of the spirit. But notice, these two, at the opposite ends of the individual-collective spectrum, still agree that the spirit is the crucial force at play.

Another of Emerson’s most important concepts is that of the Over-Soul; the uniting spirit that all people share in common. This idea draws from Emerson’s own reading of the Vedas, the oldest segment of the Hindu scriptures. He puts it this way, “that great nature in which we rest, as the earth lies in the soft arms of the atmosphere; that Unity, that Over-soul, within which every [person]’s particular being is contained and made one with all other; that common heart, of which all sincere conversation is the worship, to which all right action is submission; that overpowering reality which confutes our tricks and talents, and constrains every one to pass for what [they are], and to speak from [their] character, and not from [their] tongue, and which evermore tends to pass into our thought and hand, and become wisdom, and virtue, and power, and beauty…genius is religious. It is a larger imbibing of the common heart.”[v] This Over-Soul, this common heart, is the root of the conscience and the creative spirit – the truest, highest, finest version of the self.

A hundred years later, Sophia Lyon Fahs, to whom we Unitarian Universalists owe so much of our philosophy of education and developing the spiritual lives of children, told the story of two young people, a brother and a sister, who were talking about the garden while their mother was nearby. One child asked the other how it is that a tiny little bean knows how to grow into a whole big bean plant. They talked about it for a little while: the children knew what the bean needs to grow: sun and rain and soil. But how did it know how to do what it does? Their questions about this drew in their mother, and the conversation got a little larger. One of the children moved from beans to babies – how do they know how to grow? With the follow-up, things got really existential as the first child asked, “How did I get to be me?

The mother offered this answer, “The same way a seed gets to be a plant I guess. It is wonderful, isn’t it?”

And then the second child made a sudden connection and burst back into the conversation: “That’s what God is! God is what knows how to grow.” The definition of spirit that I would offer you draws from this, and from Emerson’s idea of a common heart shared by humankind, and the Holy Spirit and ruach before that. Spirit is the meaning and purpose that suffuses the world – the unity that binds us together and makes us one, as we say to each other each Sunday. It can be seen as an aspect or extension of a personal God, a theological idea that some of us hold dear. But it can just as well be understood as a metaphor and a powerful human invention, as others of us consider all religion to be. And some of us can happily nod and say ‘yes,’ or at least ‘maybe,’ to all of this, following the attitude of the scholar Marcus Bord who wrote, “Metaphors can be profoundly true, even though they are not literally true. Metaphor is poetry plus, not factuality minus. That is, metaphor is not less than fact, but more.”[vi]

Now, the Jewish, the Christian, and even the Hindu traditions speak about their respective versions of this grand idea as shifting and changeable: sometimes active and sometimes absent, sometimes stronger and sometimes weaker, sometimes here and sometimes there. This poses two possible issues for us as Unitarian Universalists: this suggests that there is some intelligence or grand plan directing the activity of the spirit, and the atheists, at least, won’t cotton to that. But the greater issue is with our deep understanding of the universal holiness of the world itself. Our tradition follows the essence of a quotation attributed to Desiderius Erasmus: “Bidden or unbidden, God is there.” If the sacredness of creation is part of the platform, how can we talk about calling on the spirit? How can there be times when we’re feeling it, and times when we’re not?

In the science of sight, there is a concept called anamorphosis: this is an image or object somehow divided or distorted so that it can only be seen properly from a particular angle. Its used regularly in modern film and studio art. One sculpture by the artist Jonty Hurwitz, for instance, is made up of several different fragments elevated on poles and laid out on a table several feet long. Walking around the outside, you see something like slices of a bust of a human head – some are solid and some are hollow. But when you reach just the right position, the pieces line up, and you can see the face of the original model quite clearly.[vii] This is how it is with the meaning and purpose of being alive – with spirit – it is always present, but it is not always possible for us to experience it from our vantage.

All of our petitions and requests then, are not about moving the subject. They’re about getting us to move, adjusting our perspective so that what was hidden and distorted can become clear. “Blow in the wind, rise in the sea, move in the hand, giving life the shape of justice,” Carolyn McDade’s words are a prayer, but like all the most effective prayers its intention is to make a change in the person doing the praying. “Not to drop out,” as Carolyn said. Because whether the spirit is made manifest in each person individually, or in groups working together, or in both, our responsibility is profound: to work to change our vantage point, as often as necessary, to keep a present awareness of holiness around and throughout us and to move in the world in such a way as to help everyone else see it too.



[i] http://www.uuworld.org/life/articles/35893.shtml

[ii] You can read a first-person account from Rev. Dr. Morris Hudgins, who was in that crowd, here: http://www.uunhf.org/sunday/sermons/text/20020630/

[iii] Genesis 1:2

[iv] Henry Whitney Bellows, The Suspense of Faith, 1859

[v] Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Over-Soul, 1841

[vi] Marcus Borg, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, 2001

[vii]http://helablog.com/2013/01/the-amazing-distored-perspective-sculptures-and-illusions-of-jonty-hurwitz/

Relatively early in my process of becoming a minister, I visited a drab, beige building in an office park in Oakland, CA to undergo a career assessment. This is a required step in the pathway to ministry for our movement and for many others in the US. The process took a few days; there were psychological tests and personal inventories, some essays to write, and some time spent with other prospective religious leaders getting to know each other and explain our personal stories to one another.

The intent of the process is to give possible ministers a reality check: are they suited at all for the job? To give you some professional-grade insight into your own personality and psychology. It also screens for some traits that are incredibly bad in ministers: among all the many bubble sheets I filled out were questions testing for dangerously poor personal boundaries, risk of sexual misconduct, and just making sure that I wasn’t a sociopath. Basically, you must be this sane to ride the ride, and when I underwent my assessment I got the happy news that I had cleared that bar.

One of the last parts of the process was a short interview with a psychologist about my personal theology and call to religious leadership. It wasn’t really testing for anything in particular, more of an opportunity to get feedback on how I expressed myself to another person. So of course the very first question that she asked me was the only time in those two days when I felt totally lost. “Tell me about your relationship with Spirit,” was her opener. I did manage to put aside my first impulse, which was to respond with the question, “What do you mean, like, ghosts?” But my actual answer wasn’t a whole lot better, and so this morning I would like to try to improve upon it.

This is the third installment in a four-part series on important words in our religious dictionary as Unitarian Universalists, and today’s word is spirit. We use that word quite a lot here, repeating together each Sunday, “Love is the spirit of this church…” and singing together, “Spirit of Life, come to me, come to me.” That hymn is widely held to be the most popular within our movement; we are not the only congregation who sings it almost every Sunday, and most others use it in worship with some regularity. The song was composed by Carolyn McDade, a lifelong social activist, as a prayer for strength and the will to continue in the face of her own frustrations and disappointments “not with my community,” she said, “but with the world.” At a time when she felt, “like a piece of dried cardboard that has lain in the attic for years,” Spirit of Life was her expression of determination not to drop out of the work she was doing.[i]

Carolyn McDade’s words and her melody have become a touchstone not just in our congregations but in many of our personal lives. It is sung sometimes at the bedside, by loved ones, just before or just after death. Every year at the General Assembly of Unitarian Universalists, members of hundreds of our churches line up to carry banners representing their congregations into the opening ceremony. Eleven years ago, as the line waited in a crowded hall, one of the banner carriers suffered a heart attack. While a nurse who was a bystander, and eventually the EMTs worked to save his life, the rest of the crowd watched and waited, hoping and praying. When he was taken away to the hospital, where he did ultimately pull through, someone began singing the familiar song, and the rest of the crowd joined in.[ii] Just this past week, I was in Boston serving as a chaplain for candidates meeting with our Ministerial Fellowship Committee. Trying to pass the anxious time in waiting for the final approval to become a minister, one of the candidates took out a harmonica and played us a song. I can tell you now that Spirit of Life sounds beautiful on the harmonica; haunting in the best sort of way.

My point is that we speak the word often, it clearly matters to us, but what do we mean by it? Certainly some of what spirit means to us is shaped by the idea of the Holy Spirit which comes to us from the Christian origins of our movement, and that, in turn, has origins that reach deeper back, into the Hebrew Bible. The Hebrew word ruach, which means literally breath or wind, is used throughout the Hebrew Bible to describe the animating force of God. For instance, the opening of Genesis: “All was formless and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water.”[iii] That wind is ruach. There’s also a separate concept of the presence of God – the shekinah – which resides in the temple in Jerusalem and appears at other particularly important times and places. The Christian idea of the Holy Spirit blurs these two different concepts into one. Of course, in orthodox theology it is the third piece of the trinity, the three-part nature of God, but it is the only facet without a personality – it comes across more as a force than as a being.

This made the Holy Spirit a particularly attractive idea to some of our ancestors who came to be disenchanted with the idea of a God with decidedly human characteristics: intelligence, plans, prejudices and all the rest. Ralph Waldo Emerson, who just might be the 19th century Unitarian with the greatest influence over our theology in the 21st century, addressed the senior class of Harvard’s Divinity School in 1838 as “newborn bard[s] of the Holy Ghost.” He advised them, “cast behind you all conformity, and acquaint [people] at first hand with Deity. Look to it first and only, that fashion, custom, authority, pleasure, and money, are nothing to you, — are not bandages over your eyes, that you cannot see, — but live with the privilege of the immeasurable mind…By trusting your own heart, you shall gain more confidence in other[s].”

Emerson believed that each person was a being capable of greatness, worthy of confidence or the chance to earn it. And the Holy Spirit or Holy Ghost had a fundamental role in this. Another Unitarian minister of the same era who used to be quite famous and is now much less so challenged Emerson on this point. That minister was named Henry Whitney Bellows (19th century Unitarians had a thing about having three names, it seems – but these days all the really hip ministers have four). He was sort of the Bizarro Emerson; after Bizarro Superman, the odd version of the famous comic book character who comes from a world where everything is backwards and reversed. Where Emerson preached the primacy of the individual, and was, by all accounts, not really cut out to be a congregational minister, Bellows was a fierce institutionalist – he is directly responsible for the fact that we have a national organization today. Bellows believed, as he put it, that “the Holy Spirit communicates with Humanity,” but, “not with private persons,”[iv] For him, the potential greatness and wisdom of human beings was breathed into groups, networks and traditions – not sole persons following only their private understanding of the will of the spirit. But notice, these two, at the opposite ends of the individual-collective spectrum, still agree that the spirit is the crucial force at play.

Another of Emerson’s most important concepts is that of the Over-Soul; the uniting spirit that all people share in common. This idea draws from Emerson’s own reading of the Vedas, the oldest segment of the Hindu scriptures. He puts it this way, “that great nature in which we rest, as the earth lies in the soft arms of the atmosphere; that Unity, that Over-soul, within which every [person]’s particular being is contained and made one with all other; that common heart, of which all sincere conversation is the worship, to which all right action is submission; that overpowering reality which confutes our tricks and talents, and constrains every one to pass for what [they are], and to speak from [their] character, and not from [their] tongue, and which evermore tends to pass into our thought and hand, and become wisdom, and virtue, and power, and beauty…genius is religious. It is a larger imbibing of the common heart.”[v] This Over-Soul, this common heart, is the root of the conscience and the creative spirit – the truest, highest, finest version of the self.

A hundred years later, Sophia Lyon Fahs, to whom we Unitarian Universalists owe so much of our philosophy of education and developing the spiritual lives of children, told the story of two young people, a brother and a sister, who were talking about the garden while their mother was nearby. One child asked the other how it is that a tiny little bean knows how to grow into a whole big bean plant. They talked about it for a little while: the children knew what the bean needs to grow: sun and rain and soil. But how did it know how to do what it does? Their questions about this drew in their mother, and the conversation got a little larger. One of the children moved from beans to babies – how do they know how to grow? With the follow-up, things got really existential as the first child asked, “How did I get to be me?

The mother offered this answer, “The same way a seed gets to be a plant I guess. It is wonderful, isn’t it?”

And then the second child made a sudden connection and burst back into the conversation: “That’s what God is! God is what knows how to grow.” The definition of spirit that I would offer you draws from this, and from Emerson’s idea of a common heart shared by humankind, and the Holy Spirit and ruach before that. Spirit is the meaning and purpose that suffuses the world – the unity that binds us together and makes us one, as we say to each other each Sunday. It can be seen as an aspect or extension of a personal God, a theological idea that some of us hold dear. But it can just as well be understood as a metaphor and a powerful human invention, as others of us consider all religion to be. And some of us can happily nod and say ‘yes,’ or at least ‘maybe,’ to all of this, following the attitude of the scholar Marcus Bord who wrote, “Metaphors can be profoundly true, even though they are not literally true. Metaphor is poetry plus, not

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factuality minus. That is, metaphor is not less than fact, but more.”[vi]

Now, the Jewish, the Christian, and even the Hindu traditions speak about their respective versions of this grand idea as shifting and changeable: sometimes active and sometimes absent, sometimes stronger and sometimes weaker, sometimes here and sometimes there. This poses two possible issues for us as Unitarian Universalists: this suggests that there is some intelligence or grand plan directing the activity of the spirit, and the atheists, at least, won’t cotton to that. But the greater issue is with our deep understanding of the universal holiness of the world itself. Our tradition follows the essence of a quotation attributed to Desiderius Erasmus: “Bidden or unbidden, God is there.” If the sacredness of creation is part of the platform, how can we talk about calling on the spirit? How can there be times when we’re feeling it, and times when we’re not?

In the science of sight, there is a concept called anamorphosis: this is

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an image or object somehow divided or distorted so that it can only be seen properly from a particular angle. Its used regularly in modern film and studio art. One sculpture by the artist Jonty Hurwitz, for instance, is made up of several different fragments elevated on poles and laid out on a table several feet long. Walking around the outside, you see something like slices of a bust of a human head – some are solid and some are hollow. But when you reach just the right position, the pieces line up, and you can see the face of the original model quite clearly.[vii] This is how it is with the meaning and purpose of being alive – with spirit – it is always present, but it is not always possible for us to experience it from our vantage.

All of our petitions and requests then, are not about moving the subject. They’re about getting us to move, adjusting our perspective so that what was hidden and distorted can become clear. “Blow in the wind, rise in the sea, move in the hand, giving life the shape of justice,” Carolyn McDade’s words are a prayer, but like all the most effective prayers its intention is to make a change in the person doing the praying. “Not to drop out,” as Carolyn said. Because whether the spirit is made manifest in each person individually, or in groups working together, or in both, our responsibility is profound: to work to change our vantage point, as often as necessary, to keep a present awareness of holiness around and throughout us and to move in the world in such a way as to help everyone else see it too.



[i] http://www.uuworld.org/life/articles/35893.shtml

[ii] You can read a first-person account from Rev. Dr. Morris Hudgins, who was in that crowd, here: http://www.uunhf.org/sunday/sermons/text/20020630/

[iii] Genesis 1:2

[iv] Henry Whitney Bellows, The Suspense of Faith, 1859

[v] Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Over-Soul, 1841

[vi] Marcus Borg, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, 2001

[vii] http://helablog.com/2013/01/the-amazing-distored-perspective-sculptures-and-illusions-of-jonty-hurwitz/

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