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The Six Impossible Things We Believe – 11/13/2011

In Lewis Carroll’s novel Through the Looking Glass, his most famous character, the precocious and imaginative young woman named Alice, finds herself in another fantastical world, after her previous adventure in Wonderland. In order to return home, she tries to make her way across a bizarre landscape laid out like a giant chess board, and populated by characters based on pieces from the game. In her travels, she meets the White Queen, who explains that she is “one hundred and one, five months and a day.” In a story full of irrational characters and nonsensical statements, Alice must be used to this sort of thing by now, but still she says that she can’t believe the queen could be that old.

The queen offers this solution to her inability to believe: “Try again: take a long breath and shut your eyes.” That, of course, just makes Alice laugh, and she reminds the queen that “there’s no use trying to believe impossible things.” “I dare say you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age I did it for half-an-hour a day. Why sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”[i]

As Unitarian Universalists, we share a tradition that cherishes reason, trusts in the lessons of science and sometimes chuckles at the willingness of others to believe in impossible things. Thomas Jefferson, who was never exactly a member of one of our congregations but who spent a lot of time talking theology with his Unitarian friends and expressed sympathy with them, went so far as to edit his own version of the Christian Gospels. He took the four accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings and edited them together into a single story, taking out as he went all of the fantastical, supernatural elements – what he called “nonsense.”[ii]

It is true, that our religion finds its roots among people who could only scratch their heads at the peculiar math of the doctrine of the Trinity. Three gods is really one God? It just never seemed to make sense. And because we have been willing to ask hard questions about dogma and scripture and what the purpose of religion ought to be, we have many times been outside the general grouping of religious people. As outsiders often do we have come to wear that rejection as a badge of honor. And so sometimes we grow a bit too proud and snicker at those who believe in stories about the sun standing still for a day, or the dead being restored to life.

But I am here to tell you: we believe in impossible things, too. We may not teach the literal truth of stories that break the laws of thermodynamics, but in our tradition, again and again, a number of themes arise that cannot be proven by the scientific method. Our faith holds to a set of broad ideas that cannot be gained or held by reason alone. Wisdom from the world’s religions, the words and deeds of prophetic people, the wonders of the natural world and our own personal experiences may give us reason to affirm these values, but ultimately, they remain matters of faith. In honor of the new members who have joined our congregation today I want to articulate some of these points. Following Lewis Carroll I have chosen what I consider to be the six most important ones, and continuing on that theme I will ground each of them in stories normally meant for young children.

The first story from a picture book from the 1960s called Amelia Bedelia. Amelia has her first day as a maid in the home of a wealthy family, and she does her best to follow all of their instructions to the letter. When her employers return home to check on her work, they find she’s been far, far too literal. Told to ‘dust the furniture,’ she actually threw dust onto it. She drew a fine picture of the living room curtains because she was told to ‘draw the drapes.’ And because Amelia was told to ‘dress the chicken’ they were planning to have for supper, her family came home to find the bird wearing a darling set of miniature clothes. Amelia’s are so angry about the state that their house is in that they are ready to fire her. But then they taste something else that Amelia managed to accomplish that day, while getting everything else wrong: a pie. A pie so delicious and heavenly, that its worth forgiving everything else.[iii]

There are lots of people in this world who make me angry, and sad, and disappointed. Sometimes they are people I love, sometimes they are complete strangers, and sometimes, ‘they’ are ‘me.’ But no matter what, our Unitarian Universalist tradition counsels me even when my head forgets: all are worthy. There is value in every human life, even when we have nothing but evidence to the contrary. This is an in-born quality. It is inescapable, and it is not because of what they can do for us – what sort of delicious pies they can bake, for instance – but occasionally we are reminded of the potential in every person by the beautiful things that they, or we, accomplish.

The second story I want to talk about is the most famous tale of the One Thousand and One Nights, a collection of folk stories put together in Arabic almost 1000 years ago. You might be familiar with the story of Aladdin from an animated movie that featured a blue genie doing bizarre impressions unsuited to a children’s film. The original is similar in many ways: Aladdin is still street kid trying to find a way out of poverty, he still falls in love with a princess and gets tricked by an evil sorcerer. But there are also key differences. The story has two jinn (powerful magical spirits) and it takes place in two locations, in Western China and in Northern Africa, on nearly the opposite side of the Earth. Aladdin is one of the first global stories.

I mention the story because it points towards the second impossible thing we believe, which we actually affirmed together a little more than a half an hour ago. After we lit our chalice we read together as we do every week that, “beyond all our differences, and beneath all our diversity, there is a unity which makes us one, and which binds us together.” No matter where you go on Earth, people still love, and struggle and hope to make their lives better. Even light years away from this place, where no life lives or ever has, the stars still burn with the same constancy as our own. None of these things is proof of that mysterious underlying unity – and yet it seems to point in that direction, to we who share the faith that we are all connected.

A frightened lion, a scarecrow with a level of intelligence only slightly above that of normal scarecrows, and a man who has had every part of his body replaced with metal in a series of increasingly unlikely woodcutting accidents. This is the motley crew assembled to help a young woman and her dog find their way home in L. Frank Baum’s Wonderful Wizard of Oz. They are strangers and laughingstocks, at the mercy of magical and political forces far greater than them, making their way through an unpredictable and often hostile land. And yet, by the end of the story, each of them has gained what they set out in search of, and young Dorothy is back home on her farm in Kansas.

Life is full of challenges, particularly for those of us willing to struggle for a world more just and fair than it currently is. Faced with tall barriers to our goals and hopes, we can lose heart all too easily. But despite this, despite all the demoralizing evidence of history and the present time, our ancestors have passed onto us the lesson that the world is enough. We have what we need, here and now, to live the lives we are called to lead. We have it in ourselves to practice what our souls preach to us; we simply have to work, and work together. We are sufficient to the challenges before us, and even our apparent failure cannot disprove that we, humanity, have the means before us to make the Earth into a paradise.

In the story of Winnie-the-Pooh, Pooh and Rabbit and Piglet and Christopher Robin have silly adventures and practice being good friends to one another in the imaginary world of the Hundred Acre Wood. And all of these tales are told by a parent as bedtime stories to the young Christopher Robin, with his own stuffed animals as the main characters. Even though they are imaginary imaginings, they have a realness to Christopher, and he talks about trying to remember them even as they are being told to him for the first time.

Our tradition as Unitarian Universalists teaches us that revelation is not sealed. Fresh meaning is always pouring into the world, and the power of prophecy, of saying the truth most needed in any given moment, can be found in all people. Any book can reveal the secret your heart needs most to hear; even a book about a silly stuffed bear with a head full of fluff. Made-up stories can still be spiritually true: things that have never happened and are always happening. And when we hear stories like that for the first time, it feels almost like we are remembering something we had known once, but forgotten.

There’s a German folktale called Die Bremer Stadtmusikanten: the Bremen Town Musicians. In it, a donkey, a dog, a cat and a rooster team up to travel to Bremen and make a new life for themselves as musicians. On the way there, by a strange turn of events they find themselves spending the night in a warm, comfortable house. A thief sneaks in that night and accidently wakes the four animals up, who do their best to defend themselves in the darkness. Running from the house, the frightened and confused thief warns his accomplices that the house is occupied by a witch with long claws – the cat – an ogre with a knife – the dog – a giant with a club – the donkey – and a judge screaming about the mans crime – the rooster. With the thieves all afraid and word spreading that the house was haunted by monsters, the animals were able to live there together in comfort and peace.

Our Unitarian and Universalist ancestors did not all believe the same things; their diversity of opinion and belief is one of the great gifts they have handed on to us. But as they gathered into communities in different places and times they kept coming to a similar understanding over and over again, and that is another of their great gifts to us. Like them, we hold that the path comes from walking together. This is the foundation of our tolerance, acceptance and celebration of the differences between us, whether spiritual, political, physical or otherwise. And it is also the root of our reverence for democracy; making our decisions together isn’t a chore, it is a spiritual discipline.

The final story I want to mention is another picture book from the 20th century. In The Runaway Bunny, a young rabbit plays a game with its mother, imagining all they ways it might run away from her by changing into a fish or a bird or a sailboat. Each time, the mother bunny has an answer for her child, “If you become a rock on the mountain high above me, I will be a mountain climber, and I will climb to where you are…If you go flying on a flying trapeze, I will be a tightrope walker, and I will walk across the air to you.” No matter where that bunny goes or what it changes into, its mother will always find a way to be there too.

The sixth impossible thing our tradition teaches us is that love is greater. What is it greater than?: What do you got? It is greater than hate, it is greater than fear, it is greater than despair, and it is greater than death. Love is fundamentally, cosmically, mysteriously greater than any other thing that there is. It is love that ought to guide the decisions we make and the lives that we lead, and it is the practice of love that we are ultimately alive for.

All are worthy. We are all connected. The world is enough. Revelation is not sealed. The path comes from walking together. Love is greater. These may not be the only impossible things you believe, before or after breakfast. But they are at the heart of Unitarian Universalism, and though they are not the sorts of things that can be proved by reason alone, they are worth believing in, for the changes they make in the lives of the people who believe them.

[i] Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass: and What Alice Found There, p. 102-103

[ii] Letter to John Adams, 13 October, 1813

[iii] Peggy Parish, Amelia Bedelia, 1963


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