A Place for Seeking the Holy

A Place for Seeking the Holy

Rev. Anthony Makar

Sept. 28, 2014

 

We begin with science this morning and a famous experiment by Stanford psychology professor Walter Mischel. When does the capacity to delay gratification develop in children? That was the question. What does that look like?

 

Children aged four to six were led into a room empty of distractions, just like in today’s video, and they were given a delectable delicious scrumptious mouth-watering treat: a marshmallow. They could eat it right then and there, the researcher would say, but if they waited just 15 minutes, they could double the delectable deliciousness and have TWO scrumptious mouth-watering marshmallows. But they have to stay in the chair and wait.

 

And here would begin the dance of delayed gratification. Four-to-six year old kids stuck in the chair, trying…. Actually, of the 600 who took part in the original experiment, a few—a minority—didn’t even try, they just went ahead and ate the marshmallow as soon as it hit the plate. But for the rest, it was an awkward delaying gratification dance. One lifts it up to his nose and gives it a deep smell that a wine expert would envy, then he puts it back down, holds his head in hand, and looks sorrowful. Another has his head turned away, but his hand “accidentally” grabs hold of it and gives it a hopeful squeeze. In many of them, we see self-soothing tactics: head bobbing, body swaying, or even this: a click-clack sound with the tongue while the head goes back and forth like a clapper. And on and on…

 

It’s misery!

 

But eventually the researcher returns, and for the kids who were able to delay gratification, oh happy day! Gratification galore! Like the boy in the video: double marshmallows, right in the mouth.

 

Delectable! Delicious! Scrumptious! Mouth-watering!

 

Heaven!

 

In the over 600 kids who took part in the experiment, one-third deferred gratification long enough to get the second marshmallow. Age was the major determinant. The older the kid, the more control they had.

 

What’s truly fascinating about this experiment was what follow-up studies showed. Children who were able to wait for the second marshmallow tended to have better SAT scores and healthier lifestyles. They generally grew up to be better adjusted, more popular, adventurous, and confident. Not so with the children who gave in to temptation, who were more likely to be lonely and easily frustrated…

 

Now, as interesting as all this is, what, you may be asking, does it have to do with the published sermon topic? Which was (and I quote this from the September newsletter): “In his book Growing a Beloved Community, the Rev. Tom Owen-Towle says that “A church is not a social club, a hospital wing, a political action center, or even a spiritual refuge, although all these disparate components are part of what a church is. Rather, healthy congregations are primarily sites for seeking and spreading the holy, however variously referenced by Unitarian Universalist[s]….”

 

(At this point I can’t help but share a side note… Back in seminary, I remember my complete shock upon learning that my preaching professor in seminary—one of the very best that ever was—would sometimes unapologetically weasel out of speaking on the very topic he’d decided on. What? Why? Because he trusted the lure of his creative spirit. Topics are submitted to the newsletter a month in advance, but sometimes when he’d actually get down to writing on it, the week of (better yet, the early morning hours of), sometimes the creative spirit would nudge him down a completely different path, and he’d have to go. Other times, in fact, he’d just submit sermon topics like this: “Basic Generic September Sermon.” “Basic Generic October Sermon.” Just as a pure placeholder for what was coming but he didn’t know yet but folks should come anyhow because it’s going to be amazing….)

 

But let’s get back to the question. What on earth could a science experiment on delayed gratification have to do with becoming a Beloved Community which is Beloved primarily because we are finding ways, in radically diverse community, to seek out and spread the holy?

 

Well, I see it as presenting us with a unique angle of vision on (how shall I say this) “how the sausage is made” when we, with all of our diversity, gather in this place and attempt to do what folks do in congregations. The challenges and complexities in that.

 

Now I will admit right at the start that of course the social club aspect of this place may loom large for you, together with all the others. And that’s perfectly ok. But that part about finding and seeking the holy (or the sacred, the spiritual, the meaningful): It’s at the center. It’s the fundamental mission. When people show up at our door, they are looking for the one thing that social clubs and political action centers and educational institutions and on and on can’t give them: a place to explore what happens when they start to go deeper and get more honest with their lives. A place that wakes them up in a big existential way, a place that teaches them how to care and how to serve and how to stand up for spiritual freedom.

 

Congregations are places that put people on a holy path, a sacred path.

 

Congregations are places where we get … marshmallows.

 

Let me tell you about a marshmallow I got yesterday, here in this place, at the ordination service of UUCA member Duncan Teague—now the Rev. Duncan Teague (thank you very much). Lots of marshmallows, to be honest. But here’s just one: the words of a poem by Wendell Berry:

 

So, friends, every day do something

that won’t compute. Love the Lord.

Love the world. Work for nothing.

Take all that you have and be poor.

Love someone who does not deserve it.

Denounce the government and embrace

the flag. Hope to live in that free

republic for which it stands.

Give your approval to all you cannot

understand. Praise ignorance, for what man

has not encountered he has not destroyed.

 

Ask the questions that have no answers.

Expect the end of the world. Laugh.

Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful

though you have considered all the facts.

[…]

 

Go with your love to the fields.

Lie down in the shade. Rest your head

in her lap. Swear allegiance

to what is nighest your thoughts.

As soon as the generals and the politicos

can predict the motions of your mind,

lose it. Leave it as a sign

to mark the false trail, the way

you didn’t go. Be like the fox

who makes more tracks than necessary,

some in the wrong direction.

Practice resurrection.

 

I heard this in this space yesterday, this poem from Wendell Berry entitled “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” and it was like a taste of what our First Unitarian Universalist Source talks about: “Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.” I got a little direct experience there. The “mad farmer” of the poem is raving—the logical gaps between each of the thoughts is egregious—but it’s those gaps that make the separate ideas stand out like shining stars in the darkness, and then comes the last line: “Practice resurrection.”

 

Shivers down the spine.

 

Mmmm mm. It was a sweet tasting marshmallow.

 

Marshmallow not of physical substance but of spiritual import. As in an experience of being alive. An experience of facing the truth. An experiences of connection with others and with this amazing interdependent web of all existence. An experience of freedom and love and courage.

 

What my old preaching professor in seminary would experience, leading him to weasel out of the stated sermon topic: creative overflow, creative joy. Creativity put a marshmallow in his path, and he’d have to go.

 

In this community: when does it happen for you? Shivers down the spine and you realize you are facing the truth? You experience being gripped by something larger than yourself and, for the sake of your integrity, you must sing? What words, what music, what conversations, what activities?

 

When does the spiritual marshmallow happen for you?

 

But now comes a question that’s even more to the point: What’s analogous to having a single delectable delicious scrumptious soul-inspiring marshmallow sitting right there in front of you but you are challenged to delay gratification, because if you do, everyone gets TWO? Everyone wins because of you?

 

As I see it, the analogous moments all have to do with needing to hold ourselves open for the needs of our diversity. There is no such thing as a congregation of one, after all. You practice delayed gratification so that there’s not only more for you but for everyone.

 

What do those moments of holding ourselves open look like?

 

One has to do with likeminded community. We value likeminded community, a place where people share basic religious and social values. A place where we don’t have to worry that we’re going to get flamed, like we might at work, or at home, or elsewhere.

 

Know what I mean?

 

And to a great extent it’s true. Just how many hybrid and electric cars are out there in the parking lot this morning? What was playing on NPR when you came driving on in? Tell me what you think about the abortion protesters out there right now, picketing the Feminist Women’s Health Center, who basically reject the science around fetus development and want to ban a woman’s basic reproductive right?

 

I figured as much.

 

But—it only goes so far. Yes, there’s a lot of basic likemindedness in this room. Has to be, otherwise this space would feel fundamentally uncomfortable and you’d remove yourself as fast as your legs would carry you. But beyond that, if we don’t hold ourselves open to witnessing the equally basic differences that are in this room (as suggested by the art installment up on the walls), we’re going to miss out on exactly the kind of thing that makes the Unitarian Universalist spiritual way so powerful and unique: how our diversities of culture and experience and belief meet and mingle to create wonderful new things….

 

Hold open for that, and it’s more marshmallows for everyone! Even if it feels awkward, agitating, and it’s like you’re one of those four year olds from the experiment, and you have to self-soothe with head bobbing and click clacking and whatever else it is you do to keep calm. Still, it’s worth it…

 

Something else to hold open for is related to moments in which we are tempted to pull the trump card of our faith tradition: heresy moments. “Heresy” as in “heretic,” as in “on the basis of individual reason and conscience, which I uphold as sacred, I choose differently than you.” “Here I stand,” said the great Martin Luther to the Roman Catholic Church which wanted him to stick with the program. “Here I stand,” he said, “and I can do no other.”

 

That’s a heresy moment, and when we find ourselves in a moment like that, we can really feel our Unitarian Universalism. After all, it seems like most of the great stories of our tradition feature folks standing up for themselves, like Michael Servetus, burned at the stake with his book strapped to his thigh, the book in which he declared that the Christian trinity is unbiblical and a lie. He was a heretic.

 

Every time we stand up for what we believe, and we perceive the environment to be hostile, we stand right there with Servetus in the fire.

 

The only thing is, we can do this when, in fact, the environment is anything but hostile. Classic instance: it’s the social hall, you are standing in a circle of folks, someone starts to talk about this book they are reading about (I don’t know) the power of prayer. Before you even know it, here are the scornful words coming out of your mouth: “Prayer? I thought Unitarian Universalists were beyond that sort of thing!”

 

You have just indulged in a heresy moment. You perceived that person to represent a hostile environment, and you just went and stood in the fire with Servetus and declared your truth.

 

You get to, of course. But wouldn’t it have been better to press pause and find out more about what prayer actually meant to that person? Prayer to a supernaturalistic, interventionist male God in the sky is absolutely not the only kind out there. And even if that was the kind of prayer the person in your circle in the social hall was talking about, still, consider how your indulgence in a heresy moment is making our congregation a “don’t ask, don’t tell” zone for the spirit and therefore threatening to do away with all marshmallows altogether. Listen to my colleague the Rev. Christine Robinson’s impassioned words about this: “Our faith, our thinking about our faith, and our conversations with others about faith don’t do well around belligerent language, close questioning, and scorn. Very few people are willing to talk about their spiritual lives if they think they will be ridiculed or misunderstood. Imagine what may be going through a fellow church member’s mind: If I think you are going to laugh at me, ridicule me, or try to prove me wrong, I’m not going to say that when the congregation really gets to singing and clapping with the musicians, that’s when I feel the spirit move through the room. I’m certainly not going to tell you about that one precious time, when I was scraping the bottom of my barrel, I felt, for an infinitely sweet half hour, held in the palm of God’s hand, and that sometimes my longing for a repeat of that amazing few moments is so strong that I could just weep. I just can’t bring myself to say that aloud. I’ll just shut up and wait, if I don’t wander away, for someone to imagineer a place where it’s safe to speak about my tender, precious spiritual life.” That’s the Rev. Christine Robinson. People, we need to be that place where it’s safe to speak, to share.

 

We can do it if we resist the temptation to indulge in a heresy moment. There is a time and a place for everything. When you are in the midst of Beloved Community where diversity of vision and view is the norm, don’t go standing with Servetus in the fire. You don’t have to.

 

Now don’t get me wrong. Disagreement will happen in this space. There’s an old joke that illustrates this so well. A Jewish congregation was arguing over whether one should stand or sit during the Shema Yisroel. Half of the congregation said people should sit, the other half insisted people should stand. Every time the Shema was recited they shouted at each other, “Sit down!” and “Stand up!” The fighting became so bad that the congregation was split in two, each half contending that they knew the tradition in that synagogue. Finally, the rabbi decided to visit a one hundred year old member of the synagogue who was living in a nursing home. He took with him a delegation from each of the arguing sides to see him. “Now, tell us,” said the rabbi, “what is our tradition?” “Should we stand during the Shema?” “No,” said the old man. “That is not our tradition.” “Well, then,” said the rabbi, “should we sit during the Shema?” “No,” said the old man, “that is not our tradition.” “But we need to know what to do,” said the rabbi, “because our congregation members are fighting among each other.” “That,” said the oldest member of the congregation, “that is our tradition.”

 

Yes it is. Sometimes the marshmallow that tastes so sweet is nothing but a good debate.

 

But let us not become unbalanced. There are many more times when we need to resist indulging in heresy moments and do something very different instead: protecting the vulnerability of a fellow congregant who is doing the work, who is learning and growing and processing and questioning and trying things on and taking then off and, in general, seeking out the holy in a way that has meaning for them. Delaying gratification in the face of that is good work. If we can do that, then just like the children in the original study, we’ll end up more popular and more adventurous, less lonely and less easily frustrated….

 

The word today is: more marshmallows for everybody!