The Arc of the Universe

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Click here to listen to this sermon at fpcboonville.org

They say growing up is hard to do.  And I think they’re right.  Because growing up involves change and kids generally like to have a regular, predictable routine.  I remember one time when life interrupted my routine and I had to adjust to a new way of doing things.  It happened at the beginning of fifth grade.  I was having a hard time adjusting to my new classroom, my new teacher, and more challenging homework assignments.

When I finally had all I thought I could handle, I made an appointment to see the school guidance counselor, Mr. Arnold.  I walked into his office with my mind made up.  I had a plan.  I thought I already knew the solution to my problem, so I told him: “Mr. Arnold, this fifth grade stuff is too hard.  I don’t like my teacher, I can’t keep up with the material, and I’m just not happy here.  I’m obviously not ready for this.  I think I just need to back to fourth grade.”

Well, you can imagine what Mr. Arnold’s response was.  When he finally stopped laughing, he told me in no uncertain terms that returning to the fourth grade was not an option.  Then he introduced me to a new word, one that I’ve carried with me ever since.  To be honest, I think he made it up, but it describes so well what I was doing by asking to go back to fourth grade.  Mr. Arnold’s word was awfulizing.  He said, “You’re awfulizing this situation, and no, you can’t go back to the fourth grade.”  And then he explained what he meant by that:  my ten-year-old self was choosing to see only the negative parts of fifth grade and blowing them out of all rational proportion until I convinced myself that the only solution was to go backwards and stay in my old comfort zone.  By awfulizing the situation, I was basically just giving in to despair and giving up on life.  I was refusing to trust that life had given me enough resilience and adaptability to rise up and meet this new challenge.

Despair can be a powerful sedative.  Awfulizing, while cathartic, is an addictive anesthetic that keeps us from feeling our growing pains.  The upside is that it numbs our pain, but the downside is that it stunts our growth.  Evolution only happens through struggle.  Life has to be pushed past its previously known limits in order to adapt to new environments.

This is never easy.  When it happens in the biosphere, there is always struggle and the imminent risk of failure and death.  When it happens in the struggle for social justice, people stand up against powerful and entrenched institutions, like oppressive regimes, unjust laws, multinational corporations, and long-held beliefs, prejudices, and assumptions.  Change only happens slowly and with great effort.  Activist movements often struggle for generations before they reap a harvest from their labors.  They endure persecution, ostracism, imprisonment, and death.  Many lose hope and give up the fight along the way, but those who persevere become the catalysts for our social and spiritual evolution.  For example, who could have guessed on the night of the Stonewall riots that, within a generation, several countries, the president of the United States, multiple states, and even a few religious institutions would recognize the right to marriage equality?

Change happens slowly, but it does indeed happen.  Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said, “The arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  Not many know this, but Dr. King was actually adapting the words of the famous 19th century Unitarian minister Theodore Parker.  Parker said, “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways… But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

These words have been a source of comfort and hope to many in the struggle for justice.  But the question arises, How do we know?  How can one be so sure that this universe is arranged in such a way that we can be sure that right will win out in the end?  Well, the short answer is that we don’t.  Philosophers are quick to point out the naturalistic fallacy, a rule (if you will) of critical thinking which states that one cannot derive an Ought from an Is.  In other words, you cannot logically draw a definitive conclusion about the way things should be based on the way things are.  Take, for example, the following popular label on food and drug products: Contains All Natural Ingredients.  We consumers are supposed to look at that and think that, because the ingredients are all natural, they must therefore be good for you.  But we know that’s not true.  You want to know what else is natural?  Arsenic, Plutonium, and Hydrochloric Acid.  These things contain all natural ingredients as well, but I wouldn’t want to put any of them inside my body!  Just because something is natural doesn’t necessarily make it good.

So, how then can Rev. Parker and Dr. King say that the arc of the universe “bends toward justice”?

Well, I think we can start by looking at the facts.  There are certain things we know about the universe that we would almost certainly label as good.  How about the fact that we are here?  We exist.  Most would accept that fact as both true and good.  How then did this favorable state of affairs come about?

Let me tell you a story: it takes place on a planet where a race of life forms has learned how to extract a vital resource from its environment.  The downside is that the extraction process gives off a toxic gas that poisons the atmosphere.  These life forms, with wanton disregard for anything other than their own immediate needs, willingly pollute the atmosphere of their planet for generation after generation until the air is saturated with poison.  Yet, even then they continued their pollution.  They kept going until the vast majority of life on their planet had been eradicated.

This sounds like a sad beginning to a dystopian science fiction story, doesn’t it?  But it’s not.  There’s a lot more science than fiction in this story because it happened right here on our planet about 2.4 billion years ago in what scientists call the Great Oxygenation Event (GOE).  In the GOE, anaerobic cyanobacteria figured out how to extract hydrogen from water molecules.  The poisonous air pollution that resulted from this process was a toxic gas known as oxygen.  We don’t think of oxygen as pollution nowadays because we need it to live and breathe, but there was a time when it caused our planet’s first pollution crisis.  The fact that we are here now, breathing oxygen, is a testament to life’s amazing capacity to endure and adapt.

They say, “One person’s trash is another person’s treasure.”  You could say that’s certainly true in our case, where we now depend on oxygen for our very survival.  We could say that one era’s pollution is another era’s air!

Life is amazing, isn’t it?  The universe has taken almost 14 billion years to produce the people sitting in this room right now.  You and I are sitting here as the end-result of billions of years of evolutionary success.  Of course, we can’t say that it was all good, but I think most of us would agree that something must have gone right along the way!  We’ve gone from single-celled organisms to fish, to dinosaurs, to mammals, to primates, to humans.  We are the heirs of a vast evolutionary inheritance passed down from generations of ancestors leading all the way back to the stars themselves, in whose furnaces the atoms of our bodies were forged.

We’ve come so far, across eons and light years, to sit together in this room today.  That’s quite a pilgrimage!  We’ve overcome so much strain and adversity.  The odds were (exponentially) against us ever getting here in the first place, but we beat the odds.  We are here.  We have overcome.  In the words of Dr. King, we have hewn “out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope,” a precious jewel set into the ring of our being.  Our very existence on this planet is a testimony to hope.

Other ancestors have testified to this hope as well.  I’m thinking primarily of our predecessors in the liberal religious tradition: the Universalists.  They were the great prophets of hope.  They were the first to jettison doctrines of hellfire and damnation from their religion.  They refused to give up on anyone because they believed there is hope for all.  They taught that there is a place for everyone in this world and that all things will eventually come together for good.  Rev. John Murray, one of the founders of Universalism in America, once said, “You may possess only a small light, but uncover it, let it shine, use it in order to bring more light and understanding to the hearts and minds of men [and women]. Give them not Hell, but hope and courage.”

Liberal Universalist faith was founded on hope.  We are gathered here this morning as heirs of both the evolutionary and the Universalist legacies of hope.  We have more reason than most to draw strength and courage from this faith.

Sure, we can’t guarantee that any particular struggle for liberty or justice will immediately end in our favor.  No one can promise that.  But it seems, based on our scientific and religious history, that life itself can be trusted.  Life endures.  Life adapts.  Life overcomes.  This tendency seems to be woven into the fabric of the evolutionary process itself.  To put it in human terms, using symbolic language:

When we stand on the side of love, the universe stands with us.

“The arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

This assertion, far from being a justification for fatalism and inaction, has the capacity to fill us with hope, strength, and courage.  When Desmond Tutu’s church in South Africa was once invaded and surrounded by a SWAT team during Sunday services, he stopped his sermon, calmly looked around, smiled, and said, “Since you have already lost, I would like to invite you to come and join the winning side.”  At this, the congregation erupted with joy and began dancing… right out into the street where more soldiers were waiting, weapons at the ready.  Not knowing what else to do, they stepped aside and let the dancers pass by unharmed.

Desmond Tutu’s faith that equality and justice would win out over evil in the end was the source of his amazing strength to keep going when the cause itself seemed hopeless.  His faith proved stronger and more enduring than the powers of Apartheid.  The strength of life itself flowed up and out through his heart, mind, and body as he committed his whole self to the evolution of the human spirit and society.

My hope this morning is that you and I might choose to trust life and embrace the faith of Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King, and Theodore Parker.  May we come to know and feel the long, gentle arc of the universe, bending inexorably toward justice.  May we draw strength from this hope and rise again to meet the challenges of injustice, trusting that, no matter what happens, life will overcome.

May it be so.

Be blessed and be a blessing.

Stillness: Hearing God’s Voice

Psalm 131

Excerpt from God Has A Dream:

God is available to all of us.  God says, “Be still and know that I am God.”  Each one of us wants and needs to give ourselves space for quiet.  We can hear God’s voice most clearly when we are quiet, uncluttered, undistracted—when we are still.  Be still, be quiet, and then you begin to see with the eyes of the heart.

One image that I have of the spiritual life is of sitting in front of a fire on a cold day.  We don’t have to do anything.  We just have to sit in front of the fire and then gradually the qualities of the fire are transferred to us.  We begin to feel the warmth.  We become the attributes of the fire.  It’s like that with us and God.  As we take time to be still and to be in God’s presence, the qualities of God are transferred to us.

Far too frequently we see ourselves as doers.  As we’ve seen, we feel we must endlessly work and achieve.  We have not always learned just to be receptive, to be in the presence of God, quiet, available, and letting God be God, who wants us to be God.  We are shocked, actually, when we hear that what God wants is for us to be godlike, for us to become more and more like God.  Not by doing anything, but by letting God be God in and through us.

As many of you already know, we’ve been making our way through this summer with Desmond Tutu’s book, God Has A Dream.  Last week, we read the chapter entitled “Seeing With the Eyes of the Heart” and we talked about the way in which you and I are called to look past our present life-circumstances and deep into this present moment in which we find ourselves.  It is here, in the very essence of this moment, that we find the loving presence of God: creating and sustaining us moment-by-moment.  We took a look at the lives of those remarkable individuals who, through their own “seeing with the eyes of the heart”, were able to bear witness to God’s ongoing redemption of the world.  We talked about Joseph from the book of Genesis, who was sold into slavery by his brothers, falsely imprisoned for a crime that he did not commit, and eventually elevated to a high office in the land of Egypt.  He looked with the eyes of his heart and saw God at work in his life, drawing light out of darkness, order out of chaos, and life out of death.  When his brothers came back, groveling and begging, he seized the opportunity for reconciliation instead of revenge.  He said to them, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.”

We also talked about Nelson Mandela, who went to jail as an angry young man in the 1960s and emerged to become the first black president of South Africa and a moral leader of the free world.  Finally, we also talked about Jesus, who suffered an ignoble death by torture and execution as a failed nonviolent revolutionary under the thumb of corrupt political and religious leaders, but whose life continues to shine as a beacon of hope for over two billion Christians in the world today, two millennia after his birth.

This week, we’re going to talk about how it is that we too can learn to see “with the eyes of the heart” and become the kind of people who see past surface appearances and into the very essence of reality.  The key element in this process, according to Archbishop Tutu, is the practice of stillness.

We North Americans, on the whole, tend to be suspicious of stillness.  Personally, I have a three year old at home, so I usually equate the sound of silence with trouble.  There have been many times when I’ve emerged from an extended period of pleasant silence only to discover the bathroom sink decorated with lipstick or a dining room chair entirely slathered with diaper cream.  Silence is not golden.  Silence is suspicious.  Tell me, parents and grandparents, am I right?

But, even without the presence of our tiny little bundles of destruction, we North Americans still tend to be suspicious of stillness.  We prefer to keep the radio or TV going at all times in order to keep the stillness at bay because the bottom line is that, at heart, we’re afraid of stillness.

Why?  What is it about stillness that scares us so much?

Based on what I’ve seen in myself and others, I think it’s two things.  First of all, we’re afraid that if we surrender to stillness and allow ourselves to just sit in silence for a while, we’ll be overwhelmed by that haunting sense of loneliness and isolation we carry inside us.  This is true for all of us, without exception.  Deep down, we are all afraid of being alone.  So we try to keep moving with the herd and keep up with the pack of our fellow homo sapiens.

The second thing that scares us about stillness is the way that our own thoughts tend to creep up on us when we’re not constantly overloading ourselves with information.  Specifically, I’m talking about that inner voice of criticism and self-hatred that follows us around.  You know the one I’m talking about: it’s the voice that says things like, “You’re not good enough.  You’re not smart enough.  You’re not pretty enough.  You’re not successful enough.  You don’t work hard enough.  You don’t make enough money.  Your house isn’t clean enough.  You don’t spend enough time with your family.  You don’t spend enough time at the office.  You don’t pray enough.  You don’t go to church enough.”  It could be any or all of those voices that you hear inside your head.  It could even be something else that pertains specifically to you, but you get what I’m saying.  We feel guilty because there’s always something more that we could or should be doing.  It’s really too much for any one human being to manage, so we just try to stave off the guilt by drowning out that inner voice with noise… any noise will do, so long as we don’t have to be left alone with our thoughts.

Aloneness and self-criticism, those are the two things that scare us most about stillness.  Together, they form the reason why we fill our lives with endless amounts of what Shakespeare called “sound and fury”.  Our fear keeps us running from our true selves and, ironically, the source of our power to overcome our fear, change our own lives, and maybe even the world around us.

Most of my heroes in this world points to their respective practices of prayer and/or meditation as their primary source of energy and inspiration for the extraordinary work they do.  I’m thinking of my usual list: people like the Dalai Lama, Dorothy Day, Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Oscar Romero, Martin Luther King, and yes, Desmond Tutu.

Archbishop Tutu says:

The Spirit of God sends us into the fray, as it sent Jesus, but we must observe the sequence in his life and we will see that disengagement, waiting on God, always precedes engagement.  He waited to be anointed with God’s Spirit, which made him preach the Good News to the poor and the setting free of captives.  He went into retreat in the wilderness.  He had experience of the transfiguration and then went into the valley of crass misunderstanding and insistent demand.  If it was so vital for the Son of God, it can’t be otherwise for us.  Our level of spiritual and moral growth is really all we can give the world.

So you see, not only is the practice of stillness essential for Desmond Tutu in his work, but it was even essential for Jesus himself.  There is something about the stillness itself that empowers us to overcome the fear that keeps us from stillness.

There are several scenes in the gospels where Jesus deliberately takes time away by himself or with only a few close friends to pray and commune with God.  I like to imagine that it was in these moments of quiet contemplation, as he observed the world around him with the eyes of his heart, that he received the inspiration for most of his parables and teaching.  Maybe there was a day when he was struggling with how to explain the Kingdom of God to his students.  Then, looking around on the lonely hill where he had gone to meditate, he spotted a mustard bush with a bird’s nest in it.  And that’s when it hit him: “Aha!” he says, “That’s it!  The Kingdom of God is like this mustard bush.  It starts as a tiny seed, but then grows into a great, big bush where birds can come and build their nests.”  Maybe the same kind of thing happened for those times when he compared the Kingdom of God to crops growing in a field, a woman kneading bread dough, or farm workers calling it a day.  I can easily imagine that it was through his practice of meditation that he came to realize the truth of God’s abundant providence as it was revealed in the natural world.  With the eyes of his heart opened through prayer and meditation, he was able to look around and see God’s love in the birds of the air and the flowers of the field.  Birds and flowers don’t drive themselves crazy running rat race or keeping up with the Joneses, yet God feeds and clothes them so well that we hold them up as our highest standard of beauty.  Think about it: what do people do at weddings and proms when we want to look our best?  We decorate our clothes, our dinner tables, and our churches with flowers.  It’s like all our finest fashion designers and interior decorators just give up because nothing they make can compete with the beauty of what God has already made.  Kind of ironic, isn’t it?

Jesus’ practice of prayer and meditation gave him the eyes to see that.  And I think the same can be true for us as well.

The great prophets, mystics, and sages of the world’s religions drew spiritual power from their cultivation of stillness in the practice of prayer and meditation.  Like each and every one of us, each and every one of them probably wrestled with the same fears and insecurities.  They too probably had times when they were afraid to be alone or were haunted by the inner voices of criticism and self-hatred, but they bravely faced the darkness, the silence, and the stillness rather than running away or trying to fill every moment with some kind of noise or activity.  And the amazing thing is this: they found what Jesus found in the stillness.  The eyes of their hearts were opened and they began to see another, deeper reality.  They began to hear another voice in the silence.

Instead of that haunting voice of criticism and condemnation, they began to hear the voice of love and acceptance.  You are loved.  You matter.  Paul Tillich, the great twentieth century theologian, described that voice like this:

Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged. It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: “You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!”

Likewise, instead of the loneliness of which we are so afraid, the great mystics, in their stillness, experience a deep sense of belonging and interdependence.  I am not alone.  My life is connected to and dependent on yours.  We belong to the trees, the animals, the earth, and they belong to us.  We share this one planet in common.  All life has its origin in the heart and mind of God.  Therefore, all life is significant, important, and worth preserving.  Everything and everyone belongs in this web of existence.  We can never truly say “I don’t need you” to anyone and no one can truly it to us.  We affect each other.  We are a part of each other.

My favorite illustration of this truth comes from science itself: Did you know that most of the atoms in your body could only have been formed during the superhot explosion of a supernova?  Do you know what that means?  It means that, at the most basic level, the very substance of our bodies is made of the remnants of old, exploded stars.  You and I are literally made of stardust.  Isn’t that amazing?  And, since matter cannot ultimately be destroyed, it makes me wonder what the atoms of my body will be part of in another four billion years.  Who knows?  Maybe these very oxygen atoms coming out of my lungs right now will one day be breathed in and out by another preacher in another kind of church on another world where she is telling her congregation about this same reality of interconnected existence.

I’m sorry if this is starting to sound a little too much like science fiction for you, but I get really excited about it because it’s just so amazing.  We are never alone.  We are all connected.  We are part of an interdependent web of existence.  Within and around us all is that great, eternal mystery that we Christians call God.

This mystery is the ultimate reality that the great spiritual geniuses of the world have discovered in their practice of stillness.  Instead of the voice of criticism, they discovered the voice of love.  Instead of being alone, they discovered that they belong to the great community of life.  That dual sense of acceptance and belonging is what gives them the power to stand up, speak out, and overcome all kinds of wrong and injustice in the world.  Archbishop Tutu, Dr. King, Mahatma Gandhi, and the Dalai Lama were all able to face the darkness because they knew from their practice of stillness that injustice was doomed to fail because it goes against the grain of nature.  Exclusion and inequality based on something as ridiculous as ethnicity or skin color is not only offensive, it is ridiculous.  There’s no way it can succeed because that’s just not how the universe was designed.  Martin Luther King, quoting the Unitarian minister named Theodore Parker, once said, “The arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

When we are troubled by the evil we see in this world, we can laugh in its face.  We can know that it’s ultimately doomed to fail and disintegrate.  Just as sure as the law of gravity, the wrong in this world will one day fall to the ground.  This promise woven into the very fabric of space and time.  When we cultivate the practice of stillness through our own exercises of prayer and meditation, we can learn to hear that voice and trust that promise as well.  We, like our prophetic heroes, can be empowered to become world-changers.

All that is required of us is nothing.  We must simply be.  As someone once told me, we have to remember that we are human beings and not human doings.

If you have never taken the time to cultivate a practice of stillness, I would like to encourage you to do so.  Take fifteen or twenty minutes out of your day and just sit in the quiet.  Just be.  Many of us have heard the urgent phrase, “Don’t just sit there, do something!”  Right now, I want to encourage you to do the opposite: “Don’t do something, just sit there!”

With your eyes closed and your back straight, focus your attention on rhythm of your breathing.  Whenever you notice your mind beginning to wander, just gently bring your attention back to the unconscious rhythm of your breath.  If your mind wanders a thousand times, just gently bring it back a thousand times.  It’s simple, but it’s not easy.  Try this for twenty minutes a day and see what a difference it makes in your life.  If you can’t find twenty minutes, then do it for fifteen, or ten, or five.  Any practice is better than no practice at all.  Believe me, I have two jobs and two kids, so I know how hard it can be to find twenty quiet minutes to yourself in a day.  But if I can do it, anyone can.

Stillness is frightening, but it is also your friend.  Within its bosom, we find the power of acceptance and belonging that can set us free from what we fear most.  In silence, we can hear the voice of God reminding us that we are loved and inspiring us to love the world as God does.