May 26, 2019: “Living The Questions”

Reading: “The Tree of Knowledge” (by LeeAnne McIlroy Langton)

I noticed that most of my students
Were gazing longingly out the window
On an unusually beautiful
Southern California morning
I paused in my lecture to discover
That they were collectively noticing the unusual fruit
Exploding on the tree just outside our window
“What kind of fruit is that?”
They wondered with more curiosity than
They had ever shown for Plato or Rousseau
And so I told them about the pomegranate
How according to the Q’uran, it filled the gardens of paradise
How its image had once adorned the temples of Solomon
How it doomed Persephone to Hades
How it symbolizes prosperity and fertility in Hinduism
How it came here to us:
From the Iranian Plateaus to Turkey
Across the Mediterranean and transported across the oceans
By the Spanish conquistadors
How the city of Kandahar – now bombed and ravaged –
Was once reputed to have the finest pomegranates in the world
I told them that this was my favorite tree
And then we all went outside for a moment –
To marvel at this tree
Just staring for a moment
While the wind blew
Across our faces, a tender caress across the ages
And then the moment was gone –
The next day I walked into class
And someone, anonymously, had placed a single pomegranate
On my desk at the front of the class,
An altar before thirty students,
All newly baptized –
The red stain of pomegranate seeds outlining
Their smiles

SERMON Living The Questions Rev. Dr. Susanne Intriligator (copyright)

Not until this month had I ever thought about Curiosity as a religious concept, as fundamental to our Unitarian Universalist faith. But I see it now, clear as day.

Because of course we are the ones who aren’t satisfied with someone else’s theology, with a creed handed down to us through the generations. No. We UUs insist that every individual undertake their own religious journey. In fact we enshrined it in the fourth of our seven principles:

Our congregations affirm and promote . . . .A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.

That means You are here to find your own way. And to help others find theirs. (that other bit is actually ensconced formally principle number three: Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations)

So finding your way and accepting and helping others on theirs. Can’t do that without curiosity.

Curiosity is in our religious DNA. It’s your religious duty to be curious, to keep questioning, to find out for yourself.

How are you doing that this week?

Often at this time of year, when they are tired and looking forward to a vacation, ministers will do what’s called a Question Box sermon. Have you heard of these? It’s a church service in which attendees submit questions, usually written down on slips of paper, and instead of a sermon, the minister “answers” them in real time – or more likely, talks around them for a time.

Has that been done here? I didn’t think so.

A couple weeks ago, I was mulling over whether to do that this year, to go with our theme of Curiosity, when Katie explained her idea for last week about prayer stations. Instead of our usual prayer sequence in worship, for RE Sunday she wanted to offer 4 alternative activities for folks, one of which involved posting up your unanswered questions.

Hmmm . . . I thought, what if I used those questions? I wondered.

And I waited to see what you all asked. (Bring out poster)

How can I be a kinder person?
How can one person affect/change the trajectory of this culture/ world for the better?
What if there were no limits?
Wow! Interesting. Deep.

Now of course I realize that these were meant to be unanswered questions. To remain that way. You didn’t post them with the intention of getting answers. You didn’t post them to have me answer them.

Thankfully, most of these questions will remain unanswered. Because they are unanswerable.

But there are a few that I was intrigued by and wanted to take a stab at, not because I feel especially confident about solving them – no, absolutely not. But more just for the trying, just to celebrate the act of questioning itself.

So Without further ado . . .

You asked . . .

Question Number One: Do we need a Sorting Hat for religions?

Pretty sure this is a “Harry Potter” reference. As you’ll recall, in the books and the movies, there was an enchanted hat at Hogwart’s. A professor holds it over the head of an incoming student and the hat could actually read the child’s true character. Then, based on its mysterious psychological diagnosis, the hat declares which of the 4 houses is the best fit.

Would this be a good a approach for religion? What if there was a person who could point you in the right direction, toward the religion that fits you best?

Well, yes, I suppose that might save you some time in exploring, but then you would miss all the lessons along the way. For example, If you spend 5 years learning to meditate but you don’t actually become a Buddhist, you still retain that important skill and all that knowledge, which will serve you well in the long run.

If you’d been “sorted” away from that journey, you’d have missed all that richness.

To me, religious exploration is its own reward. All those pieces, even if they don’t resolve into perfect answers or clear identities, still become a part of who you are, of what you bring to the world.

Living the Questions makes you a better, more whole, person, in my opinion. So I say “no” to the sorting hat.

In “Letters to a Young Poet”, Austrian novelist Rainier Maria Rilke wrote:

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves,
like locked rooms
and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue.
Do not now seek the answers,
which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them.
And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

Question 2: Where is the closest sentient extra-terrestrial life?

An easy one, right.

The nearest extra-terrestrial life could be as close as 12 light years away.

According to a 2013 story in the New York Times, there could be as many as 40 billion habitable Earth-size planets in our galaxy, each with the potential to have liquid water, and therefore life. The nearest of these is about 12 light years away.

So we humans are still pretty far from being able to travel that distance. But other life forms may be more advanced and may reach us sooner.

For 50 years scientists such as Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking, as well as well-regarded thinkers like Winston Churchill, have argued that once you comprehend just how vast the universe is, it would be improbable for life not to exist somewhere other than Earth. It’s just a matter of finding it.

Speaking of planets, Question 3: How will our planet adapt and survive?

Well, if you’re talking about Climate Change and our immediate crisis, it’s going to take several steps, such as –

  1. upgrading our infrastructure
    2. switching to clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources
    3. working with farmers to remove pollution from agriculture
    4. overhauling transportation
    5. cleaning up hazardous waste

Thankfully, all these steps and many others are incorporated in a piece of legislation called the Green New Deal, which is currently before congress, co-sponsored by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and our own Mass Sen. Ed Markey.

And thankfully again, you can learn all about it in a special program our church is presenting for the whole community this coming Tuesday evening, starting at 7:15. We’ll have music, refreshments and guest speakers from 350.org and the Sunrise Movement here to help us understand the Green New Deal and how we can move the planet forward.

Question 4:

What is it like to be some other person?

Another of the great mysteries of human existence. We can only really know ourselves, and even that is sketchy sometimes.

This is why, I think, we humans love to create and consume art and literature, because they give us windows into other people’s experience. Really valuable.

But it’s not just art and literature that can do that. We can do it in our everyday lives, just through the power of curiosity.

One of my colleagues, Rev. Sandra Fees, tells this story:

“At the art workshop I took this summer, I met someone who didn’t vote in the last presidential election. We stumbled onto the topic. I was stunned because this was a creative person, and I just couldn’t imagine an artist or poet not realizing how important voting is. I wanted to convince her of the importance of voting. But I stopped myself. Believe me, that was a true exercise in self-control.

Instead, I asked myself: Am I going to lose it every time someone tells me they didn’t vote or voted for the other candidate? How else might I respond? Does my negative judgment build the common good and foster understanding? Does it build connection? Where is my growing edge? I held my judgment at bay. I had other conversations with her over a five-day period, conversations that were very personal. They had nothing to do with politics. If I had pushed my agenda about voting, I have no doubt the other conversations would never have happened. I focused instead on human connection. I was curious about her life, who she is and what motivates her. We ended up sharing common experiences as women. This story does not end with me convincing her to vote. It ends – or maybe really begins – with me choosing curiosity over judgment…”

Maybe this answer is a two-fer, maybe it also applies to Question 5: What will it take to begin repairing our fractured world?

Curiosity. Maybe it all starts with curiosity – kindness, acceptance, love. Begins when we can release judgment and open up to curiosity.

Question 6 . Where does LOVE come from?

Another easy one. I did some research.

The hypothalmus, love comes from the hypothalamus.

Well, that’s if you’re talking about romantic love. In that case, when you first meet someone interesting, the hypothalamus, the region of the brain that regulates basic impulses like hunger and thirst, releases a chemical called phenylethylamine, which leads to the release of other hormones, which eventually make your heart race, your breathing accelerate, and your palms sweat. Classic signs that you’re into someone.

But maybe that’s not what you were asking?

Maybe you meant the other kinds of love – compassion, understanding, patience. Where do they come from? Where do we get these capacities and how do we build them? I think, if you ask yourself that question prayerfully, you might get the same answer I got. That love comes from love. Our ability to love is rooted in our experience of love. We are able to love because someone else loved us first – our parents, grandparents, teachers, siblings, friends.

And in addition, I think, because we have learned to love ourselves. Yes, I think even in the worst cases, if we can learn to love ourselves, it will help us to be more loving of others.

How? It all begins with acceptance. Acceptance of our own human frailty, brokenness, failing. The degree to which we can forgive ourselves . . . that’s how much we can forgive others. They are linked.

If you pray for self-compassion, or meditate on the request to forgive yourself, it will be given. And you will find compassion flowing through you. You will be be able to love others more genuinely, more freely.

That has been my experience.

Question 7.

What is it that we are worshiping?

I love this question. We should be discussing it more, and more often.

I mean, we call this a worship service, but doesn’t that need to have an object, a recipient in mind, doesn’t it? Well, Yes. And no. Is my answer.

So, we descended from Christianity. We are in fact a sect of protestantism. So our worship evolved from Christian worship, from the worship of a Christian God.

Some of us here are comfortable with that and can use that term, God, authentically.

Others of us have come away from more restrictive Christian faiths; we’ve had traumatic experiences related to worshiping a mainstream Christian God and so we may reject that concept and avoid that terminology. Still others reject it from a purely logical perspective.

But other folks here have processed their God concepts, expanded them to include multiple gods or goddesses, or deconstructed and then reconstructed them into healing visions – Gods of mercy, compassion and ultimate love. So they use God not to mean a specific person or an omnipotent being, but to mean an ultimate source of love.

So the word God means many different things in this place. Some of us can worship it and some cannot.

Yet we can all gather here, in a spirit of awe. Awe before the great mystery of life. How did we get here and what does it mean?

We can all gather here, in a spirit of wonder. Wonder at the gift of being, our shared being.

We can all gather here, in a spirit of compassion. Compassion for our fellow travelers and for ourselves.

Awe, wonder, compassion, love. To me these are all facets of the greater Good, an inner orientation we all share, a direction we long to point in, to walk toward.

To me, this Good is also called God, and this is what we worship.

God or Good, we are worshiping something greater than ourselves, something which calls us on to become better, truer and more whole.

We are the church of questions, not of answers. Thank goodness. Because I’m a lot better at asking than at answering. And maybe you are too. And maybe that’s as it should be.

The poet Rumi writes:

This being human is a guest house
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness
Some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
Because each has been sent
As a guide from beyond.

Rilke writes:

Do not now seek the answers,
which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them.
And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually,
without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”