Robert Fulghum’s Faith
He has a lullaby voice and a great booming laugh.
He carries a French horn case instead of a briefcase.
At motels he sometimes registers as “representing” Mother Earth or the Cutting Edge of Reality.
If a Seventh Day Adventist comes to the door, he whips out his stopwatch and says “O.K., but I get equal time.”
As the minister of Edmonds Unitarian Church, in Seattle, where he served 19 years, from 1966 until 1985, he presided at hundreds of weddings, funerals, hospital rooms and mortuaries—he saw a lot of life and a lot of death. Once, while distributing someone’s remains from 2,000 feet over Bellingham Bay, Wash., in a Cessna, he had the ashes fly back in his face. “How do you brush off those ashes?” he asks. “Do you go like this?” (polite dusting gestures) “Or like this?” (frantic pawing).
These days, as a bestselling author of eight books—16 million copies of them, published in 27 languages in 103 countries—you have to be careful when you ask for his autograph. Once, at lunch in Seattle, several people came up and asked for it. One man said the autograph was for his wife, Susan. ”Hi Susan!” the famous author wrote. ”Met your husband at this porno movie house. Nice man!”
He has written a parody of his most famous book, which was immediately suppressed by his publisher, and he called it ”All I Really Wanted to Know I Learned in the Alley Behind My House.’’
He is like drinking the wine of life.
He has described All I Really Wanted to Know I Learned in Kindergarten as a highly condensed version of a 300-page credo statement, written many years earlier while he was a seminarian—and I have been one of those too. As a seminarian, you enter into the vineyard of Unitarian Universalist tradition and for three or four years basically what you do is pick grapes off the living vine, you gather to yourself the heroes of the faith: Faustus Socinus and Hosea Ballou and John Murray and William Ellery Channing and Margaret Fuller and Theodore Parker and Olympia Brown and Ralph Waldo Emerson and so many more. You gather all these beautiful grapes because you want to make your own wine of faith and so you crush them with your hands and you stomp on them with your feet and you filter out the dross and you bottle the juice and you let the magic happen through your thinking and feeling and living.
That’s how the wine of his faith happened, which we now taste whenever we read his books or hear him speak.
It is so sweet. Wine of Unitarian Universalist faith, Robert Fulghum-style.
Why this is important is suggested by a fascinating fact: how his books bridge traditional publishing categories. They can be found next to I’m O.K., You’re O.K. in the self-help section, or in “inspirational” with Rabbi Harold Kushner (of Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People fame). You can find them in Christian bookstores and in New Age natural-food co-ops.
The message is precious and universal. It can speak volumes to anyone. Therefore, how tragic if we are not ourselves evangelists of this message. How tragic, also, to lose sight of the specific origins of the message which people had to fight and even die for. How tragic, above all, to take in the message superficially and not see the essential radicalism in it that would most assuredly shake people up if only it was spelled out explicitly for them.
So that’s what I’m going to do. Get explicit.
The world is sacred Mystery.
The sources of truth are many.
Spirituality is a life-long journey in which we never stop learning.
These are three distinctively Unitarian Universalist beliefs, and Robert Fulghum’s faith—which is our faith—trusts in their truth.
Start with the world as sacred Mystery.
Millions of people have believed otherwise. They have affirmed a sharp dualism of sacred vs. profane, filled with God vs. empty of God, inherent worth vs. inherent evil or just inherent nothing.
Emerson spoke of this in his “Divinity School Address” from back in 1838, which Fulghum would have thoroughly absorbed in his studies. Jesus, says Emerson, “spoke of miracles; for he felt that man’s life was a miracle, and all that man doth, and he knew that this daily miracle shines, as the character ascends. But the word Miracle, as pronounced by Christian churches, gives a false impression; it is Monster. It is not one with the blowing clover and the falling rain.” Emerson here is sharply critical of the conservative Christian view that sees Jesus as uniquely God and the sacred as something strange that has to break into our world from the outside and jar the natural course of events. He is adamant that Jesus’ true teaching about himself was that he was a man God-inspired, as much as any person could be ”as their character ascends.” He was insistent that nature is already full of miracles and we would know that if we could learn how to see. Keep our eyes closed, and what happens instead is a focus on things like virgin births and the parting of the Red Sea and that’s what’s monstrous.
“That is always best which gives me to myself,” Emerson says. “That which shows God in me, fortifies me. That which shows God out of me, makes me a wart and a wen.” (A “wen” is a painful cyst on one’s face or scalp.)
Emerson says all this—and he paves the way for Robert Fulghum who says, almost 200 years later, “Be aware of wonder.” “Remember the little seed in the plastic cup? The roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why. We are like that.”
“And then remember,” he says, “that book about Dick and Jane and the first word you learned, the biggest word of all: LOOK! Everything you need to know is there somewhere.”
“Most of what I really need to know about how to live, and what to do, and how to be, I learned in kindergarten.”
Do you see the connection? The biggest word of all is LOOK because the world is sacred Mystery with sacred endless depths and therefore there is something to look at and something to find. You can learn all the essentials in kindergarten because all the essentials are there already; it is as sacred a site as the peak of the highest holy mountain.
On the other hand, if someone says that the world is empty of God and needs to be filled up, then why LOOK? What is there to look at? The last place you’d go looking for wisdom is a kindergarten—far better to go to your chosen guru or chosen set of sacred scriptures which you insist contains all the God power that ever was, ever is, and ever will be. Ugh. This line of belief makes of us all warts and wens.
Miracle becomes monster.
Only certain beliefs keep the monster away and support wonder. Only certain beliefs make it sensible to remember the little seed in the plastic cup, and to say of this miraculous thing, “We are like that.”
Here is the next: The sources of truth are many. This is very different from saying, There is one and only one source, which millions of people say.
But not us. Not Fulghum. And not Emerson. Here’s how Emerson lays it out, and again, we are drawing from his “Divinity School Address,” where he describes the “capital secret” of the minister’s profession: “namely, to convert life into truth.” “The true preacher can be known by this,” says Emerson, “that he deals out to the people his life, — life passed through the fire of thought. But of the bad preacher, it could not be told from his sermon, what age of the world he fell in; whether he had a father or a child; whether he was a freeholder or a pauper; whether he was a citizen or a countryman; or any other fact of his biography.”
This is what got pounded into my head in seminary, and the same thing goes for Fulghum; and it is, in fact, something that all of us need to be engaged in, preacher or not. “I’m sorry,” says Fulghum, “but I think we have a lot better, richer lives that we often think we do. It’s just a matter of saying, ‘Did you ever notice this?’ and if you did notice this then you wouldn’t feel your life was so poverty stricken.”
We can be just like bad preachers if we don’t LOOK at the experiences coming into our lives and mine them for the truth and wisdom that’s there. All we need is eyes to see and ears to hear.
The true preacher and the true Unitarian Universalist can be known by this, that they pass the raw materials of their lives through the fire of thought.
That’s why, when we read Fulghum, we see him extracting philosophy from such subjects as the shoe repairman who leaves cookies in the shoes he can’t fix, the homely Indian who becomes beautiful when he dances, in the small deaf boy who wants to rake leaves.
That’s why Fulghum sometimes hops into his car, sets the odometer at 100 miles and drives. When it dwindles to zero, he steps out and talks to anyone he encounters. Because he has faith that whatever happens, God is in it and there are depths of meaning to discern and it’s going to be one of countless sources of truth and meaning in his life.
He’s a good preacher. He shows the way to being a good Unitarian Universalist.
The third and final belief we look at today is, Spirituality is a life-long journey in which we never stop learning. Here again, millions think otherwise. They think God is just waiting for a soul to screw up, so He can throw that soul into Hell. There’s no room for experimentation, there’s no room for trial-and-error, there’s no room for mistakes in a spiritual universe like this, so your salvation is belief in a way of life that has everything figured out ahead of time. Certainty up front.
That’s not us.
We don’t live in that kind of punishing universe.
Listen to Fulghum:
“The first time I went tango dancing I was too intimidated to get out on the floor. I remembered another time I had stayed on the sidelines, when the dancing began after a village wedding on the Greek island of Crete. The fancy footwork confused me. ‘Don’t make a fool of yourself,’ I thought. ‘Just watch.’ Reading my mind, an older woman dropped out of the dance, sat down beside me, and said, ‘If you join the dancing, you will feel foolish. If you do not, you will also feel foolish. So, why not dance?’ And, she said she had a secret for me. She whispered, ‘If you do not dance, we will know you are a fool. But if you dance, we will think well of you for trying.’”
The way to richness in life is risky. Sometimes we must disappoint others in order to come alive ourselves; sometimes we must do the thing that scares us to death. We just don’t want to make fools of ourselves. Yet, life leads us to the sort of tango dance Fulghum talks about again and again. Because life wants abundance for us. Life wants to be felt and known fully. Life wants us to LOOK.
This is the world we live in. Not an evil one, but a complex one, a confusing one, one that can hurt us terribly, one that can feel like the depths of winter—but never forget the invincible summer that lies within our hearts. With what we have, we must do the best we can.
Part of the best we can: to stop trying so hard. “Think,” Fulghum says, “of what a better world it would be if we all, the whole world, had cookies and milk about 3 o’clock every afternoon and then lay down with our blankets for a nap.”
Part of the best we can is also about how we treat each other. “Share everything. Play fair. Don’t hit people. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess. Don’t take things that aren’t yours. Say you are sorry when you hurt somebody. Wash your hands before you eat. Flush.” “No matter how old you are, when you go out in the world, it is best to hold hands and stick together.”
All I Really Wanted to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. I really did. You too.
Do you know the story of how this publishing phenomenon came to be?
Bi-weekly church columns, mostly written between 1960 and 1984. Columns, mimeographed and sent by church members to out-of-town friends and relatives. In 1984, Republican Senator Daniel J. Evans got a hold of a copy and had it read into the Congressional Record. The Kansas City Times printed “Kindergarten” in November 1985. It was picked up by the radio commentator Paul Harvey, the Rev. Robert Schuller, former Representative Barbara Jordan and the singer-activist Pete Seeger. Dear Abby and Reader’s Digest published abridged versions.
Then, one day in 1987, a Connecticut kindergarten teacher tucked “Kindergarten” into the children’s knapsacks to take home. One mother it reached also happened to be a New York literary agent. Patricia Van der Leun tracked down the mysterious minister, who said, “I’ve been writing this stuff for 20 years—how many boxes do you want?”
Van der Leun sold “Kindergarten” to Villard Books for $60,000 and within three weeks it was on The New York Times best-seller list.
But listen to this. “The story of my books is unique,” says Fulghum. “I was sort of shutting down my life. It was like being at a poker game at 11:30 at night and I’m about ready to go home. And all of a sudden I get four aces, and I figure God’s on my side, so I can’t go home. And now it’s about 3:30 in the morning and I’m still at the table, and the cards are still coming up and I’d be a fool not to take this as far as it goes.”
Don’t ever say you have it all figured out. Don’t ever say you’re shutting things down because you’ve seen it all and there’s no more surprises in the world for you.
The world will prove you wrong.
This world is a sacred Mystery.
This world is full of sources of truth.
The spiritual journey goes on and on and never stops.
So LOOK and LOOK and keep on LOOKING.
That’s our sweet UU faith, Robert Fulghum-style, the sweetest-tasting wine.