March 1, 2020: What Price Wisdom?


Anansi and the Pot of Wisdom, an Ashanti story retold by Jessica York


an excerpt from “Our Traditions Are Gems Covered in Centuries of Junk” by Omid Safi

Omid Safi is director of Duke University’s Islamic Studies Center. He specializes in the study of Islamic mysticism, and he frequently writes on liberationist traditions and on the link between love and justice.

There are jewels of wisdom in each one of our religious traditions. These jewels are there both in our foundational sources and lived out by so many in our contemporary lives.

For Muslims, there are teachings that the whole of creation is the outpouring of Divine mercy, teachings that command us to love and justice.

For Jews, there are teachings that remind us to treat the stranger with kindness, for we ourselves were once strangers, as well as the teachings of tikkun olam (to heal the world).

For Christians, there are teachings that remind us that to love God we have to love the “least” of God’s children.

And in each one of our traditions there is also… [filth] [Safi uses a stronger word here, a word that is not appropriate for church.]

The jewels of our traditions, all of our traditions, are covered in filth. There is the filth of racism, of sexism, of misogyny, of tribalism, and more recently of white supremacy, ethnic supremacy, and nationalism.

And each of us has to deal with the cruelty committed and justified in the name of our traditions — like transatlantic slavery and al-Qaeda and ISIS and Israeli occupation and Hindu nationalist groups and on and on. None of us is spared. None of our traditions is pure, none unsullied.

This notion of jewels also operates at the personal level.

Muslims believe in a concept called fitrah, that the knowledge of God — that intimate, tasted knowledge of God — has been there, with us since before there was a time, or a “there” there.

In our hearts, we already know God intimately. This fitrah is something like the Buddha nature. There is no need to “acquire” this knowledge, only the dropping of the illusion, the forgetfulness, the veils that have hidden from us that awareness of who God is and who we are.

These illusions are like the filth that covers up our own jeweled nature. There is no need to “acquire,” There’s only the need to let it go: let go of the egoism, the sexism, the nationalism, the tribalism. Then the inner jewel of our hearts will shine.

“Yes, yes!”

Let us recover these jewels in our hearts and in our traditions.

Let us wash these jewels,
you and I.

Let us rinse these jewels,
you and I.

Let us polish these jewels,
you and I.

Let us be in awe of our own inner light,
you and I.


In our children’s story this morning, Anansi the spider from Africa spills the jar of wisdom everywhere, and that’s why today you can find pieces of it just almost anywhere you look.

Maybe even in news stories on the internet. Maybe. Sometimes.

The other day, when I was contemplating the world history of wisdom — and checking out Facebook, simultaneously  — I noticed a friend had shared a cute story. Since this friend works at the UUA and the story concerned fundraising, I thought it might contain something useful for our congregation, especially as we move into our annual Pledge Drive season.

So I opened it. And I’ll let you be the judge.

The headline reads:

Humane Society Promises to Make a Bad Original Drawing of Your Pet for $15 and Here’s the Results

So here’s the story. The Wisconsin Humane Society helps 40,000 animals each year, and donations make all of that work possible. Just a few days ago, on Feb 25th, the organization launched this new fundraiser campaign.

They wrote on Facebook “We have a pool of staff and volunteers standing by, eager to turn your animal into a timeless work of art (or at least make you laugh). You might get one of our extremely talented artists, but we’ll be honest… you’ll probably get someone who can’t draw their way out of a paper bag.”

Now I have to ask: Who thinks this ploy worked? Raise your hand if you think this campaign was a hit.

After one day, the flood of requests got so big, the organization couldn’t keep up with them anymore. They posted — “You all are truly incredible and surpassed our wildest expectations,” “Our artists are working tirelessly to get the masterpieces back to you as soon as possible, though it may take a few days at this point. Thank you all so much!”

Why? Why did it go viral?

Let’s look at some portraits and find out. (Show 6 slides, of pet portraits. See the whole story here.)

Why? Why viral? It’s the fun, yes. I especially l love wonderful anti-perfectionism of it. Here’s a drawing, it is what it is.

From Bored Panda.

I bet other people enjoyed the risk factor. — like a little Vegas high, you might get something great, or crap, but hey it’s only $15. And it’s a good cause, so why not?

But then it came to me. There’s something else here too, something bigger. It’s the love. The love is what makes it fun.

People who volunteer at the humane society love animals, and of course most people who have pets love their pets — and everyone LOVES to get a portrait of someone they love. Even if it’s goofy or even terrible. It’s still delightful.

Because a portrait, especially a hand-drawn portrait — even a bad one —says something important.

It says I see you. I see you the one-eyed cat, I see you the ultra-long-necked dogs.

And I see inside you too. I see the devoted golden retriever personality shining forth, the Superman spirit in the little dog flying over buildings.. I see who you are and why your human loves you so.

I see what makes you special.

That’s why people love this fundraiser. At least in my opinion.

So then I was wondering — how would this idea translate to church? Can I somehow steal for this month’s Stewardship Pledge Drive, starting today?

I’ll admit, for a second,I had a vision of putting paper and pencils in all the pews and asking you all to draw one another. And I knew you’d hate that. So I didn’t. But maybe someday. . . .

But really, I love the metaphor. It applies to us.  Because drawing portraits IS kind of what we do here, when we’re at our best. We SEE each other.

In a world that grows lonelier and more isolating all the time, where maybe we don’t know our neighbors and we don’t see our family so much, we gather here to see one another, to connect as human beings, to build relationships over time, to make mistakes and make amends and try again. To draw bad portraits. And then draw them again. And all of that matters. A lot.

Our Community Matters

It matters that some of you here today have known one another 10 or 20 or even 30 years, have worked together on committees, baked and cooked alongside each other, have put away chairs a hundred times, have witnessed so many candles of Joy and Sorrow, have seen each other through cancer, divorce, parenting troubles, the deaths of loved ones, and on and on.

And it matters that some of you are newer here, more recent arrivals like me, and you come with new energy and purpose. And you come because you also want that connection, you want to form a chosen family of friends, and you’re making that happen here every Sunday. That matters, and I honor your intention and your commitment.

This drawing-your-portraits, “I see you” connection is, I think, the number one reason many of you come here to church. Because the connection matters so much to you. So I try to hold it up here, honor it, as often as I can.

Wisdom, This Month’s Theme

The number two reason I think we come — and I’m just going up to three today, if you’re counting—-the number two reason we come coincides nicely with our new worship theme for the month, Wisdom. Many of us converts were first drawn to this faith by our thirst for learning and therefore by the diverse — perhaps even shockingly so — Unitarian Universalist approach to wisdom.

In fact, in our UU literature we revere 6 official sources of our faith, and the 3rd one is this:

“Wisdom from the world’s religions, which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life.”

In practice, our approach is very much like the one that Omid Safi wrote about in our reading today. We know there are gems spread everywhere, and we gather to dive for them, to pull them up and wash, wash, wash them off.

For example, one jewel I found recently is about Wisdom itself. Did you know that in many parts of both the Jewish and Christian bible Wisdom is personified as female? At several points in the book of Proverbs, for example, she stands at the gates of the city calling out to the people, preaching the word of God.  If you opened Thursday’s Midweek Updates you saw that I shared an image of Lady Wisdom there, holding the whole earth in her lap.

Though Eastern orthodox Christians have revered and worshipped Lady Wisdom — or as she is known in Greek, Sophia — for millenia, she was buried in the West by church fathers who called her heretical. But now Christian feminist are rediscovering this jewel of faith, and UUs, especially those raised Christian, can find healing and comfort in an ancient incarnation of the female divine.

Building a New Way

So . . .  we’ve seen how church is about community, about addressing our needs for connection in the present. And it’s also about wisdom, about connecting to deep insights from the past, so what is this third thing we are building toward?

Could it have to do with the future? Why, Yes, yes, it could. 

I believe the third major reason for coming to church, and giving to church for that matter, is our dreams for the future, it’s about how we want so much to build a better world.

How do we do that here at MUUC? In so many ways.

We feed the hungry through Bread of Life and Food First. We help to settle asylum-seeking families through our Immigration Team. We raise awareness and act for justice through our Anti-Racism Team.

And through our new UUtheVote Team, we are helping to register voters and thereby uphold the democratic process across the country.

And then there’s our RE program — just think about how that work is changing the world, by raising generations of kids who understand and value world religions, who treat one another with love and dignity, who are working to become solid moral decision-makers.

So . .. .  So far I’ve said that I think you all come to church for three main reasons:

  1. Connect to community in the present
  2. Rediscover wisdom from the past
  3. Change the future. Build the dream of a better tomorrow

Is this true for you? Do you find yourself connected to people here? Do you find yourself fed by wisdom and challenged to act in the world?

What Price for All This?

If so, then this place is changing your life. It’s helping you grow and find meaning and purpose outside yourself. Which is amazing. What’s that worth to you?

Can you put a price tag on that?

It seems crude, maybe. But it does take money to run this place, and most of that comes from our members, so once a year we set aside time to think about it, to reflect on it and act from conscience and give until it makes a difference, until it feels good.

Today is Giving Sunday, the first day of this month-long Pledge Drive effort. Today you will go into Coffee Hour and pick up an envelope full of stuff with your name on it, made just for you. There’s a letter in there with some info about your personal pledging history, then there’s some info about the church budget — how we plan and we spend — and some guidelines about giving. It’s all very thoughtfully done by your Pledge and Finance team, who’ve put in many hours getting it just right. thank you to them.

This year, instead of a lot of complicated math in our guidelines, we’re trying something new, a little simpler. You’ll see a sheet with five colored hearts, each one a suggested pledging level.

For instance the top one, red, describe a pledging unit with  two good incomes and enough discretionary income to do things like take a vacation abroad once a year. If you’re in this category, then an appropriate pledge for the church might be $5,000. 

The next tier down, the magenta heart, is for families who have two good incomes but perhaps some big expenses like college tuition or a parent in long-term care. Then we suggest you might give less. 

There are three more categories on the sheet, to fit people on all levels of income, including fixed. We understand there is a whole range of giving capacities among us, and we know that you’ll make the best decision for you and for the church, and we trust that. And we appreciate all your support, at whatever level you can give.  

The most important thing is to give until it feels good. Not until it hurts, no. But until you can feel it, until your contribution to church makes a dent in your spending, until church makes an impact in your wallet to match its impact in your heart.

And that’s up to you to decide.

I’ll tell what I do. My husband James and I fit that top category, we have two good incomes and sometimes we can afford to give at the top tier. This year, however, we are paying college tuition and that’s huge. So we will stick to what we gave last year, which is $3,000. I’m happy to name that number, in case it helps you figure out where you should be.

And to help you further, this year we’re having a canvass. What’s that, you may ask, especially if you’ve joined us any time in the last ten years. A canvass is when we arrange to have one-on-one conversations with folks, to sit down  in their homes or in a coffee shop and talk turkey about money and the church.

It’s a big thing to organize, which is why we haven’t done it here since 2010, but it is an effective way to help people find the right level for them. So this year, we’re doing a one-third canvass. The Pledge Team has chosen one-third of our people for these conversations — and it’s a cross-section of givers, people at every level. And we’ll do a different third next year and then again the year after.

If you’re in this year’s one-third, count yourself lucky. Not only will you get to go a nice party next weekend at a member’s home, but then, in the two weeks after that, you’ll get to sit down with our lovely pledge team members and have a heart-to-heart about church. Lucky you!

And now in this next month, it’s time for all of us to reflect, to consider what this church means to you, how it feeds your needs

  • for community,
  • for wisdom,
  • for changing the world.

And what do you give back? How well does your giving reflect your commitment, your affection, your hope for tomorrow?

This month, as we consider our pledges, may our giving and our receiving be blessed with gratitude for the shining jewels we have found together, dug deep from our own hearts

and from the long past, washed clean by acts of kindness and good will, now shining brightly

and reflected back in the faces of those we have come to love.