Improvising a Life

It was my great privilege to be a guest speaker at the Unitarian Universalist Community Church of Southwest Michigan this morning. I am so thankful to be able to celebrate with this lovely faith community and make lots of new friends!

The meditation on which the sermon is based is the following video by Abigail and Sean Bengson.
I highly recommend watching it before listening to or reading the sermon.
It will lift your spirits and provide context for my message.

Here is a video recording of the message.
I apologize for the scruffy sound of the microphone on my shirt.
I didn’t realize that was happening during the talk.
If you would rather read than listen, the typed manuscript is posted below.

As I begin, I would like to express my sincere thanks to several people for the opportunity to join you in celebration on this beautiful Sunday morning. I would like to thank your minister, the Rev. Gy Ludvig-McCartney, for inviting me to join you and share my thoughts with you today. Our thoughts are with Gy and their spouse Patti this morning. I would also like to thank your Director of Religious Education, Miriam Epskamp, for her kind and helpful guidance in helping me navigate the technical challenges of online church during a global pandemic. Finally, I would like to thank all of you, the lovely people of the Unitarian Universalist Community Church of Southwest Michigan, for your warm welcome into this sacred space and time on this first Sunday of the year 2021. It is a great honor to participate in your worship service and I hope to make an inspiring and informative contribution this morning.

I love the video of the ‘Keep Going On Song’ for several reasons. First of all, it sends a message of hope and compassion in a year when we sorely need it. It comes from fellow travelers who were struggling through 2020 just like the rest of us. They used their powers of creativity to bring a little more light and goodness to a world that was (and still is) feeling like a very dark and lonely place.

But more than that: I love this video as a musician. The way that the singer improvises around the chord progression and returns to the chorus is magnificent. There is an orderliness in the structure of the song, and there is also chaos in the improvisation. This song could never be sung the same way twice.

I would like to talk with you today about this unfolding interaction. When order and chaos come together, they form something that is neither one nor the other. Nor do they reach a compromise between the two extremes. What they form is something new that includes and transcends both order and chaos in their fullness. The word I would like to use for this new thing is creativity. And creativity is what I would like to talk about with you today.

Creativity, understood as an emergent property of the interaction between order and chaos, is fully present in the natural world. I can see it happening particularly in the process of biological evolution, which has been happening on this planet for the last 4.5 billion years, and is still continuing today.

As many of you grownups will remember from your high school biology classes, there are two main components to the engine of evolution. The first component is genetic mutation. This the chaotic part. A mutation is a copy error that occurs in our DNA during the process of cellular division (mitosis). Something in the code unexpectedly changes, which alters the way the new cell functions when the code is read. Often, these errors are harmful to the new cell, but every now and then, a mutation happens that is actually helpful.

Now, the question arises: How do our cells decide which mutations are helpful and which ones are harmful? Well, that’s where the second component of the evolutionary engine comes in.

Genetic mutations cause changes that give either an advantage or a disadvantage to an organism’s chances for survival in its environment. A mutation, for example, that allows a cell to digest a certain kind of food in an environment where that food source is abundant will have a survival advantage. In other words, the new cell that can digest the food is more likely to survive than the cells that cannot digest that food. When this new cell later divides into daughter cells, it passes on its mutation to the next generation. The other cells, meanwhile, are more likely to die before they can reproduce. The name that biologists have given to this process is natural selection.

Natural selection is the orderly component of the evolutionary engine. It takes the errors provided by genetic mutation and determines which ones will provide a survival advantage for the organism. The process itself may be blind, but it is certainly not random.

Critics of evolutionary theory have sometimes used an imaginary example to explain why they think a blind process could not produce the immense diversity and complexity of life that we have on this planet today.

“Imagine,” they say, “a monkey in front of a computer, randomly pushing keys on the keyboard. What are the odds that this monkey could accidentally produce a Shakespearean sonnet? The odds are infinitesimally small.”

The purpose of this thought experiment is usually to demonstrate the idea that something as beautiful and complex as a Shakespearean sonnet can only be produced by a conscious entity with the intelligence of William Shakespeare. “So,” they say, “there must be some kind of intelligent designer at work, consciously directing the process of evolution in ways that are not random or chaotic.” Most proponents of this intelligent design hypothesis use this thought experiment as an argument in favor of the existence of God.

But there is a key piece that intelligent design proponents leave out, and that key piece is natural selection. If we were to adapt the monkey/computer thought experiment to account for natural selection, we would have to add something like the following:

Imagine that there was some kind of system in place that rewarded the monkey with a banana each time it pressed the correct key in the correct order. Over time, the monkey would be able to realize and remember that pressing certain keys in a certain way gave that monkey an advantage. And now, imagine that there was some way to keep each correct letter on the computer screen while erasing the incorrect letters. Finally, imagine further that there were millions of monkeys working on this project at the same time, and each time a monkey anywhere pressed the correct key, the letter on the screen would be kept. Suddenly, it is not at all inconceivable that the monkeys might be able to produce a Shakespearean sonnet in a very short amount of time! And all this would happen without any of the monkeys being aware of the literary masterpiece they were creating. (See Endnote 1)

This is how the creative process of evolution works. It uses the interaction between chaos and order to improvise increasingly diverse and complex forms of life, up to and including you wonderful homo sapiens who have gathered together online to reflect on the meaning of life this Sunday morning.

Music and evolution are not the only places in the universe where chaos and order come together to improvise bonds of creativity. We humans, individually and collectively, have an opportunity to make our own unique contribution to the ongoing creativity of the universe.

You and I experience the interaction of chaos and order in our lives on a daily basis. The chaos has been particularly evident over the course of the year 2020. We are currently living through a global pandemic that has claimed nearly 2 million lives, so far. We have endured quarantine, lockdowns, and violent reactions against those lockdowns. Frontline medical workers, such as myself, have put our lives on the line to care for those who have contracted and sometimes died from COVID-19. We have all witnessed (and some of us have participated in) protests against acts of police brutality that disproportionately impact people of color in the United States. Many of our fellow citizens (including my wife) have been tear-gassed, beaten, and shot by the very officers we commission to keep us safe from unlawful acts of violence. We Americans have endured the spectacle of a particularly contentious presidential election and watched in horror as the legitimacy of that electoral process was called into question by those who have sworn to uphold it. The collective chaos in 2020 has indeed been particularly evident.

In the midst of chaos such as this, it is not uncommon for humans to grasp at straws for meaning. We say things like, “Everything happens for a reason.” The more religiously inclined among us might say, “God has a plan.” In the midst of chaos, many of us might ask, “Why is this happening,” or, “What is the meaning of life, anyway?”

I think we humans tend to ask these questions because we are afraid that the alternative to an orderly plan is a universe that is entirely chaotic and meaningless. We have already observed, however, that life is not entirely chaotic or orderly, but the product of a process that includes and transcends both chaos and order: the universe is a creative process. (See Endnote 2)

I would like to propose a new question this morning: What if the meaning of life is not something we find, but something we make?

The making of meaning is how we humans participate in the process of creativity. Things happen to us that seem chaotic: The lost job, the failed relationship, the missed opportunity, the unforeseen disaster, or the chance encounter. What is ultimately important about these events is not the events themselves, but the story we tell ourselves about them.

When a relationship ends, we can say to ourselves, “That’s just proof that I will never be loved in the way that I want to be,” or we can say, “I have made many mistakes in this relationship, but I will work on myself, learn from my mistakes, and act differently the next time I am in another relationship.” When a baby unexpectedly dies, we can say, “This is evidence that I am just not ready to be a parent,” or we can say, “I will join a support group to help other parents, who are enduring this inestimable loss, and make a way through the darkness of grief.” We cannot control what happens to us in life, but we can decide how we will respond to our chaotic circumstances.

When the unexpected happens, will I choose respond with faith or fear? Will that which does not kill me make me more cynical or more sensitive? Will I use my experience of pain to hurt or to help? The choice is up to us.

May the powers of creativity, compassion, and courage, which are already within you, be your guide, your strength, and your hope as you go out into the world. May each of you become meaning-makers in the midst of chaos, today and every day.

So say we all.

Endnotes

1. I adapted the extended metaphor of the monkeys at the computer from Breaking the Spell: Religion as Natural Phenomenon by Daniel C. Dennett.

2. I am indebted to Karl E. Peters for the conception of creative process as an interplay between chaos and order, especially in regards to genetic mutation and natural selection. See especially his book, Dancing with the Sacred: Evolution, Ecology, and God.

Apocalypsis

(For Kamala, Susanna)

Who is this,
arrayed in white,
washed in blood
unseen
of the unheard?

“I’m speaking.”

And we,
daughter,
are listening:
eyes upturned
in this moment.

Crystal veil
rent overhead:
jagged shards
falling past,
a third of all stars,

held tight
by gravity’s arms
to the bosom
of the center
of the Earth.

How could you know?

You were never told
any different.
You never knew
impossible.

Never mind
the glass.

You can’t tell
it’s there,
or maybe
I can’t tell
it isn’t.

What Can Love Do?

Holy Eucharist for Sunday, Proper 25, Year A
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Kalamazoo, MI

Matthew 22:34-46

The culture of Jesus’ time and place, much like our own, was no stranger to the perils of partisan conflict. Today’s gospel opens in the middle of an argument between two established schools of Jewish thought: the Pharisees and the Sadducees.

These two communities offer alternative interpretations of Judaism, in much the same way that different denominations offer alternative interpretations of Christianity today. Additionally, because there was no “separation of church and state” in the ancient world, the Pharisees and Sadducees also functioned as something like political parties in Judea. Imagine, if you will, a messy situation where The Episcopal Church functions as the primary meeting of the Democrats, while the Southern Baptists set the platform for the Republicans.

The Sadducees were a smaller group of wealthy elites who centered their worship on the sacrificial rituals of the Jerusalem Temple. Theologically, they accepted only the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures, as divinely inspired and authoritative. They did not believe in destiny, angels, or an afterlife. Politically, they sought friendly and peaceful relations with the occupying Roman government.

The Pharisees, on the other hand, were a somewhat larger group of the lower classes. Their worship emphasized the study of the Torah in synagogues under the tutelage of learned rabbis. In addition to the five books of the Pentateuch, Pharisees also accepted the oracles of the prophets, collections of wisdom literature, and the oral interpretations of rabbinical scholars. They believed that moral purity would reform their national life and convince God to send the Messiah, an anointed king who would liberate their people from foreign occupation and influence. The Pharisees went on to form the foundation of Judaism, as it is practiced today.

Together, the Pharisees and Sadducees were both thoroughly Jewish movements. As joint religious denominations and political parties, they advocated competing agendas for “God and country” in Judea during the time of Jesus.

Our gospel reading for today begins as Jesus is ending a debate with one member of the Sadducee party. A nearby Pharisee, a legal scholar, listens with great interest to this argument. “If Jesus is obviously opposed to the Sadducees,” he thinks, “then maybe he is a member of our party?” With this question in mind, he decides to put Jesus to a little theological test about the Jewish Scriptures.

“Rabbi,” he says, “which mitzvah (commandment) in the Torah is the greatest?”

Jesus responds by ushering his interlocutor into the heart of their shared tradition by referencing the Shema.

The Shema, in Judaism, is the foundational faith statement of monotheism:

“Shema Yisrael:” (Listen, O Israel:)

“Adonai Eloheinu,” (The Lord is our God,)

“Adonai Echad.” (The Lord is ONE.)

This declaration of oneness represents not only the heart of Jewish tradition, but the heart of reality itself, as Jesus and his fellow Jews understand it: That, beneath the unfathomable diversity of beings and events in the universe, is Sacred Oneness.

Mystics, from many different religious traditions, affirm this Oneness in ways that are remarkably similar to one another. Lao-Tzu, the Buddha, Rumi, and Meister Eckhart all describe a state of Non-Duality that includes and transcends all separations: self and other, left and right, light and dark, spiritual and secular. Spirituality, it seems, is the art of unifying opposites in transcendent wonder.

Neurologists have identified those parts of the human brain that allow us to lump together separate objects as parts of a unified whole. Their studies of dedicated monks and nuns have demonstrated that those parts of the brain are particularly active during periods of intense meditation, thus explaining those experiences of peace and unity that mystics have tried to express for millennia.

Physicists, in their study of the beginning of time, have likewise affirmed that the universe seems to have had its beginning in a Singularity of time, space, matter, and energy that exploded some 13.8 billion years ago in a cataclysmic event to which we now refer as the Big Bang.

Jesus’ response to the Pharisee in today’s gospel makes reference to this same Sacred Oneness at the heart of reality itself. The only appropriate response to Sacred Oneness, Jesus declares in the words of the Torah, is Love.

The greatest commandment in the Torah, according to Jesus, is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” These words, adapted from Deuteronomy 6:5, appear in the Torah immediately after the verse which lays out the Shema for the first time. “The Lord is one,” Jesus says in effect, “and the only appropriate response to Sacred Oneness is love.”

But Jesus doesn’t stop there. For Jesus, love is not just the sappy feeling sensationalized in pop songs and rom-coms. For Jesus, love is not something you feel, but something you do. Love is action. Love is a verb.

This creates a problem: How does one show love to Love Itself? What could mere mortals possibly offer to a God who, by definition, already has and holds everything in the tender embrace of the Divine Self? The answer, according to Jesus, is simple: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

This commandment comes from the Torah as well, from Leviticus 19:18. It comes on the heels of Moses’ teaching about vengeance: “You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin… You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

This commandment to love one’s neighbor speaks directly to the problem of partisan conflict, which was as active in Jesus’ day as it is in our own. Mahatma Gandhi famously said, “An eye for an eye and eventually the whole world goes blind.” Desmond Tutu, the Anglican Archbishop of South Africa (who has worshiped in this very church), said similarly, “There is no future without forgiveness.”

The commandment to love receives its most explicit and biting explication later in the New Testament, in the first epistle of St. John, chapter 4:

“God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them… Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”

Brothers and sisters, I put it to you today that the commandment to love God and to love one’s neighbor are not separate, but a single commandment from our Lord Jesus Christ himself. The Way of Love moves at heart of everything Jesus said and did in his life on Earth. In the venerable words of Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, “If it ain’t about love, it ain’t about God.”

Notice that neither Jesus nor John, neither Mahatma Gandhi nor Archbishop Tutu, neither the Torah nor the Presiding Bishop puts any provisos or exceptions on their joint commandment to love.

I am as aware as each and every one of you that we have the misfortune of living in a moment when love seems more powerless and the people of this country seem more divided than ever.

What can love do when our elderly and most vulnerable neighbors are being stalked by an invisible predator that steals the air from their lungs while their families watch in horror from the other side of a reinforced glass window?

What can love do when the beautiful bodies of our black brothers and sisters are left bleeding in their beds and on the streets, full of bullet holes?

What can love do when temperatures rise and songs of praise to the Author of Life are silenced at the rate of a species every single day? What can love do?

Brothers and sisters, this is the very question that I put before this morning: What can love do?

The answer we give to this burning question is the only response that God is interested in hearing from us. It is the only offering we can make that is worthy of the name Worship.

Love, in all its living and active forms, is the embodied reality that has the power to overcome all the partisan divisions of Jesus’ day and our own. Love is the only appropriate response to the Sacred Oneness that gave birth to the universe.

Let us return to the biblical exhortations of St. John the Beloved, in chapter 3, verse 18 of his first epistle: “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

As we go out into the world this week, let us honor that Sacred Oneness. In the words of St. John, “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

As we catch ourselves in the mirror while shaving or brushing our teeth, “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

As we relate to family and friends, “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

As we interact with coworkers and classmates, “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

As we converse with neighbors and enemies alike, “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

As we read the news headlines and prepare to head to the polls next week, “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

I close, once again, with these memorable words from Presiding Bishop Curry, which he borrowed from Jesus, who borrowed them from the Torah of his ancestors: “Brothers and sisters: love God, love your neighbor, and while you’re at it… love yourself!”

A Trunk of Old Letters

Reading the Bible is complicated.

Imagine finding a trunk in an attic that’s full of letters between multiple generations of great grandparents:

It will take years to get through them all and fully understand them. You will have to study history to appreciate why the letters written during the Civil War are different from the letters written during the Great Depression.

Over time, you will get to know the people writing the letters, what they cared about, and what their issues were. You might be disturbed with them on some issues (e.g. “OMG, our great great grandparents owned SLAVES?!”).

But you will still treasure them because they tell the story of your family and how you got to where you are today, hence they give you insight into who you are. The Bible is no different.

Christians love and treasure the Bible. It can inform, inspire, and guide us, even though we don’t necessarily agree with our ancestors in all things.

The Bible is not simple black and white. It has multiple views on abortion, marriage, slavery, the afterlife, God, Satan, etc, because the Bible is not a book, but a trunk of letters.

Processional

Meditation on Matthew 21:1-11.

In scattered fragments, lying close at hand,
May I be open to what life requires:
To rearrange the patterns of the past
And make anew what I will need today.

While blessing all these days that come to pass,
May I hold lightly all that I create,
And listen to the deeper question asked
That all my answers cannot satisfy.

To Err is Divine

Matthew 9:9-17

Karl E. Peters writes: “To err is divine.”

This phrase feels uncomfortable to most religious practitioners in the Judeo-Christian tradition. We have been conditioned to think of the Divine as an all-powerful being who has established unchanging standards of truth and righteousness in the world. Peters, on the other hand, identifies “God” as “the creative process working in our midst.”

Biological evolution happens by mistake. Mutations are copy errors in an organism’s genetic code. Most genetic mutations have a neutral or adverse effect on an organism’s chances for survival, but some of them turn out to be beneficial. When a mutation gives an organism a survival advantage, that error gets incorporated into the genetic code and is more likely to shape future generations.

Cultural evolution happens in much the same way. When Jesus invited outcasts into his grassroots movement and challenged established moral and theological standards of his culture, the leaders of his culture regarded his actions as mistakes. The appointed guardians of tradition branded Jesus as a dangerous heretic because he did not practice his spirituality in the “right” way or with the “right” people.

The early followers of Jesus incorporated his tendencies toward inclusion and innovation into the cultural DNA of their movement. These cultural mutations gave that community the independence it needed to survive and thrive after the Roman Empire razed the second Jewish temple in 70CE. Other religious movements survived because they centered their faith and practice in the study of the Torah, rather than the rituals of the temple. These two movements evolved into the religious traditions we now recognize as Judaism and Christianity.

The following questions arise: What creative mistakes are we making in our lives today? How might today’s heretics become tomorrow’s leaders? How might “the creative process working in our midst” be adapting our communities to include new voices and invent new ways of doing things?

Peters asks:

“Are these mistakes mutations in religious thought that ought to be destroyed or might they be something else, a new and helpful way of portraying the sacred? That will be determined not by what I am saying. It will be determined only by how you and others respond, by whether these ideas help you make sense of your own experience in living.”

Karl E. Peters. Dancing with the sacred: evolution, ecology, and God (Trinity Press International: 2002).

Now
is the space between
what is known and
what is new.

It is a constant
coming into existence.

No respecter
of who belongs
or how it’s done.

Some mistakes
turn out to be correct
and vice versa.

Some heretics
turn out to be prophets
and vice versa.

Stardust: A Meditation on Grief

One of the many remarkable truths about nature is that death is often a gateway to new forms of life. My favorite illustration of this process is the most powerful incident of death in the known universe: a supernova.

A supernova is how a star dies. Stars are born as hydrogen atoms are drawn to each other in the cold depths of outer space. These atoms huddle together in the dark until their bodies fuse into one. This fusion gives off a burst of energy that can be felt as heat and light. The end product is a new atom called helium. As more and more hydrogen atoms join the group, they start a chain reaction that results in a giant ball of gas that we call a star. Stars burn for billions of years, constantly making new kinds of atoms. You can look out the window on a clear day and see this process happening right before your eyes.

Eventually, these atoms become too big and heavy for this process to continue. When this happens, the inward pressure of gravity overwhelms the outward pressure caused by fusion and the star implodes. Because every action in physics causes an equal and opposite reaction, the star’s implosion results in a dramatic explosion. In that brief moment of tremendous destruction, the light of a single star outshines the entire galaxy.

I imagine that for you, the loved ones of those who have recently died, the pain of grief feels overwhelming in the same way. The felt absence of the one who died seems to outshine every other concern in life. This feeling is very normal and natural. You might wonder: Can my universe ever be the same again? Can any good possibly come from a loss so great? These questions are also very normal and natural.

Here’s how nature answers those questions:

Can the universe ever be the same again? No. A great star has been lost, just as the unique light of your loved one’s presence has faded from this world. We grieve this incalculable loss with you.

Can any good possibly come from a loss so great? Yes! The new atoms forged in the heart of that star get launched into space, where gravity draws them back together over billions of years. They form new bodies like other stars, comets, and planets. On our planet Earth, these atoms came together in just the right way to allow life to form and grow. Today, in the ground beneath your feet, in the air you breathe, and even in the atoms of your own body, you carry the remnants of these deceased stars. Quite literally, you are made of stardust!

The spiritual traditions of the world have observed this process and expressed it in various ways. Some believe in reincarnation while others believe in resurrection. Some believe that our physical life ends while our spirits live on in some mysterious way. What all of these beliefs have in common is the hunch that death is not just an end, but also a gateway to new life, just like a supernova.

I know that your world will never be the same again after the loss of this precious loved one. I invite you, in this time of overwhelming grief, to be patient and caring with yourselves and each other. May the gravitational forces of love draw you closer together and help you pick up the scattered pieces. May the blinding light of loss plant seeds of new life as it fades. And may you remember always the unchanging truth that fires your life with dignity: You are stardust!