Something, Something, Something

Something. Something. Something                             

Three little words Something. Something. Something. It may appear that when I came to write this sermon I couldn’t remember my title. But “Something” has emerged as one of the most fundamental and vital terms to have made its way into my personal spiritual journey. After this sermon, the term “Something” may catch your attention often—as it has mine for in our language it stands in place when other words fail us or seem inadequate. The dictionary’s simple definition of the word is  “A description that is not exact or that you are not certain.”   Think of Robert Frost’s poem “Something there is that does not love a wall, that would have it down.”

In a recent interview, the biographer Walter Isaacson recalled his family’s long friendship with the novelist Walker Percy. Isaacson said he was not really clear about what it was that “Uncle Percy” did—not until Percy’s marvelous novel “The Moviegoer” was published. Then Isaacson had a heart-to-heart talk with him about what he should do with his life. Percy was clear with his advice: he could be a storyteller—or a preacher.

“O God, thought Isaacson,  “let me a storyteller. There are too many preachers in the world already.”  I actually became part of the surplus some years before I began my fifty years of Unitarian Universalist pontificating. I had a License to Preach in the Methodist Church and delivered my first sermon at the age of eighteen.

By the time I graduated from a Baptist college  I was, if not a fundamentalist, at least a conservative, Bible-believing Christian. I was raised by parents indifferent to church and religion.  My religious education was left to my grandmother, who was a Jehovah’s Witness.

When it came time to decide on a path, it seemed my calling was either to come from Lord Lawrence Olivier and the theater or the Methodist Bishop of New England.  I had no one the like of uncle Walker Percy, but there were a few to help me narrow down the choices. The bishop got me and appointed me to attend Bangor Seminary and to serve a cluster of three small churches in northern Maine.

As I say, up to that point I was by no means a fundamentalist.  But I was at home in the faith—which is to say that I gave no more thought to the credibility of dogma or doctrine than the average Christian.  So my family and I packed up the Studebaker Station Wagon and the U-Haul trailer and headed for the federally-designated economic disaster area of Washington County, Maine. After a long, stressful trip with two toddlers near total breakdown we pulled into the driveway of the parsonage.  We left the car and trailer full of our worldly possessions where it sat, had a quick meal and a house tour by two ladies of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and collapsed into the thoughtfully made up beds. Methodist parsonages—at least in those days—came furnished with what we ministers called “Other people’s attic.”

It seemed as if I had no sooner closed my eyes than I was jolted out of sleep by a banging on the kitchen door. Managing to find the kitchen door by the insistent knocking I met with a earnest and unapologetic man.

“You the preacher?” “Yes, Sir.” “Preacher from down to Banger school ain’t comin. Sick. We need you to come over a give a Service.”

There was no way I could begin this country ministry by telling this man he had to be kidding. I threw on my Methodist charcoal-black suit and tie, rushed out to the driveway (noticing what I had missed the night before—that there was a small church across the street). Opening the back of the trailer I saw thankfully that my box of sermon manuscripts was right by the doors. I tore open the box, flipped through the folders and spotted one marked, “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel.”

That would do.

Sermon in hand I crossed the street and entered the church. Down front was a raised platform featuring a piano, an antique pump organ and a pulpit. The platform had an arch above it. The arch was decorated in mosaic from one side to the other. The brightly colored tiles of the mosaic declared the words,

“For I Am Not Ashamed of the Gospel.”

Now,  you can calculate the odds of that if you like. For me, it was the first non-rational encounter of my life. The odds of that synchronicity simply beyond reason. At that time of my religious life there could be no explanation other than that the union of that congregation and me had been predestined and ordained by the divine. No serious Christian would have thought otherwise.  I had no reason—and no means—to think otherwise—and I still haven’t. With my calling so affirmed and sealed I dove into the routines and rituals of a Christian minister. I went to school on weekdays down in “Banger” and on Sundays made the rounds of my three congregations, leading them in reciting the Apostles Creed, following the Methodist ritual for Holy Communion, preaching the Easter Gospel of the immaculately-born, and at Easter the saving sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

My seminary was built on a hill in Bangor in 1812.  And it was a slippery slope. I have thought ever since that there is nothing like a good liberal seminary to destroy a person’s faith. What biblical and gospel convictions I held came apart piece by piece, course by course. The “Word of God” was transformed into an interesting but largely irrelevant collection of myths, mistakes and fabulous inventions.  Since the dogma, doctrines and declarations of Judeo-Christian faith are grounded in that collection of ancient documents the ground of it all gradually shifted and slid away.

Like most of my classmates at seminary I clung to it all for as long as possible. But I had morphed from a true believer to a place somewhere between skeptic and out and out atheist. That’s a sticky place for a ministry student to occupy.

We  students justified ourselves by adopting wholeheartedly that liberal academic position that all that doctrine, dogma, scripture and creed were allegory, metaphor and poetry. Perhaps needless to say, we kept those academic pretensions to ourselves and did not confuse our congregations with them.

Many of us could not maintain the play indefinitely. Before my last year of seminary I began to look around for a way out of a place in the vocation I could no longer justify. At seminary, a young visiting professor from Columbia welcomed students to his room for chats, illegal substances, and cheap wine that came in pretentiously straw baskets. I brought the agony of my indecision to his den of blessed iniquity. After awhile I was sufficiently loosened up to risk the declaration—“Frank, I’m about to graduate from seminary and I don’t believe in God!” He chuckled and said, “Congratulations. Now you can become a theologian.” I don’t know about “theologian,” but at least my now-admitted atheism freed me from Methodism.

When Charles Darwin decided to marry Emma Wedgwood his father lightly cautioned his son saying, “You know, Charles.  Emma and the Wedgwoods are Unitarians.” He told Charles that the Unitarians provided a mattress for the Baptists to land on when they fell. I left the Methodists and fell on the Unitarians leaving behind bishop, bible, creeds, virgin births and resurrections and hitched my wagon to the church which seemed devoid of any blatantly theological commitment and welcomed unbelievers with open arms.

But what of my “Gospel sermon” and the miracle of the mosaic? I could no longer accept it as God’s blessing on my calling (if I really ever did but neither could I dispose of it in any rational way. Eventually, the event stood as a Given—as Something that happened in my life for which there was and is no accounting. In our western, Judeo-Christian culture—we dwell in a sea of common and largely unquestioned belief. If they experience them  Most people will ascribe awesome, mysterious, even horrible events to  some understanding of a supernatural power—even if that power grants no explanation for the event.

It’s estimated in several surveys of religious belief that about 75% of Americans believe that Jesus was resurrected from the dead. A recent Gallup poll indicates that 42% of American Christians believe that human beings were created by God, in our present form, ten thousand years ago.

How many people believe God caused the holocaust or the drowning of hundreds of children in a sinking ferry or the death by illness or accident of a loved one? For most people, God is The Explanation for the disasters and derailments of daily life.

It’s called “God’s Will.”

“The Silence of God” is the perennial problem addressed in a thousand sermons—most of which seem to declare in effect      “It’s none of your business.” Some will accept that God need not explain. They can be convinced that God took little Susie because He wanted her for an angel – or any number of blows from an angry and selfish god. Even Jesus is said to have cried to the Silence from the cross “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?”

Still, all of that is grist for the mill to those who will have no part of the Silence, will take no comfort in the incomprehensible divine, no trembling in the Awesome Splendor of The Destroyer. They are the atheists.  Richard Dawson and the late Christopher Hitchens have perhaps popularized atheism for our time, but they are by no means newcomers bearing the message that God is not Great and simply that God is not.  In the 19th century there was the famous orator but now largely forgotten Robert Ingersoll. In the 1960s there was Madalyn O’Hair. And just a few decades in Atlanta, two Emory theologians proclaimed the death of God.

But it does often seem that the contemporary atheists are more passionate in their unbelief, more ardent and fervid in their pronouncements – atheist evangelists as eager to convert believers as the believers are to convert the faithless.

One contemporary atheist, more on the side of caution, is the prolific     author and polymath, Barbara Ehrenreich. Her most recent book  is titled, “To A Wild God.” Ehrenreich was the child prodigy of brilliant if dissolute atheists. She nurtured her inherited atheism and skepticism and her incredulity about everything but pure empiricism until, in her adolescence, on a trip with friends, she had a remarkable experience that turned the course of her life.

Wandering apart from her friends, she suddenly experienced herself the center of a powerful force rooting her to the spot while everything around her was engulfed but not consumed in flame.  In a few moments, the experience was over. She returned to her friends, shaken and trembling, but silent about the happening. She writes, “So what do you do with something like this? An experience so disconnected from normal life that you can’t even figure out how to talk about it? If you tried to explain such an experience”, she says, “you might get the same response you would if you confided you had been the victim of an alien abduction.”

But she writes, in the definitive sentence of her book, “I had seen what I had seen—whatever it is that flies under the named world—and I was not going to deny it’s existence.” That statement capsulizes where I have found myself in what I think of as my spiritual journey (it may be presumptuous to call it my spiritual evolution, as if I have moved from error to truth) from atheism to life lived in the presence of and occasionally in confrontation with—not God—but Something More that is to be embraced as part of the reality of world and self, simply denied out of hand—or referred to the rationalism of science and psychiatry.  I came to the realization, through my own “extraordinary experiences,” that what it means to be religious does not have to do with whether or not one believes in God, the gods, or the creeds of religions.

The common non-religious assumption is that any awesome, extraordinary event we may experience is a confrontation with something within ourselves—perhaps some neurological  aberration to be “cured” by pill or practitioner. But, as Hamlet says to Horatio, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

It can be said that to be religious is to be open to the extraordinary, the wondrous, the captivating—open to the shaking of the foundations of our assumptions, awake and accepting of that Something the full reality of our world and existence. My young mentor in seminary was right. When I declared myself an atheist I began to become religious.

Black Elk said of his vision:

“And while I stood there
I saw more than I can tell
and I understood more than I saw;
for I was seeing in a sacred manner
the shapes of all things in the spirit,
and the shapes of all things
as they must live together like one being.

And, by the way, the Plains Indian term for God—for the God beyond all gods is “Wakan Tanka” which translates as “The Great Something.”

Under the guidance of a Medicine Man in Arizona who blessed me and “Ordained Me” as Eagle, I heard the affirming and confirming voice in a mountain desert of a circling eagle.[1] Walking a winter-empty beach i Cornwall, England I encountered a small boy building a castle in the sand against Norman or Hun invading from the sea. We stared at each other, past and future in time present, as Eliot wrote.  Something foretold and Something remembered. One night, just as I climbed into bed and picked up my book, a clear, unfamiliar male voice to my right said, “There are five human wounds. The first of which is birth.”

Say what you will of these. No. There has been no alien abduction.

No neurological  “aberration.” No recurrent psychotic incident.  But I saw what I saw.  I heard what I heard.

It was Something.     

How do we live in a world of Encounters with the inexplicable, of Happenings without Explanation? The amazing Peter Matthiessen died in April at the age of 86. He had written “The Snow Leopard,”  “At Play in the Fields of the Lord,” and shelves of other fiction and non-fiction. His last book, a novel published shortly before he died, is called “In Paradise.”

The story is set in Auschwitz with a cast of characters at a retreat at post-war death camp.

The retreat participants sat in silent meditation all day on the train platforms where people had been sorted out and selected for death.  One night, in the midst of quiet discussion of the day, the group suddenly got to their feet and began dancing on the platform—an event deeply moving for some, Matthiessen writes. Outrageous for others. In an interview about this remarkable book, Matthiessen refers to a poem by Anna Akhmatova which is the epigraph to his novel. The poem visits the dancing on the platform of nightmare and asks,

How could it happen—to dance
when we are surrounded by so much death?”
Why, then, do we not despair?

Unable to name That which brought those people to their feet in Auschwitz to dance in celebration of Life, Matthiessen answers the poem’s essential question, “how do we not despair without God?” striking his leg in time he said,

“Something.  Something. Something.

[1] My mentor during a sabbatical in Tucson was Vine Deloria, Jr. He was a Ph.d professor of sociology at the University of Arizona, an attorney who argued broken treaties before the U.S. Supreme Court—and a full-fledged Medicine Man.