Savoring and Saving the World: Essentials of Unitarian Universalism, Part 6

Today’s message represents the completion of our year-long sermon series on Unitarian Universalist essentials. We are already busy with our religion—we are worshipping, studying, serving, giving, meditating, celebrating, changing lives in here and in the larger world, all this and more—but this does not necessarily mean our minds are fully connecting with our faith. This does not necessarily mean we are clear on why we are who we are.

Now I know that some days it’s just like herding cats; I know that when people use the phrase “organized religion” we feel tempted to laugh at the oxymoronic phrase and the equally oxymoronic speaker. But despite this, there really are certain beliefs we all hold in common. There really is a core to our Unitarian Universalism. Here it is:

  1. The Sacred Heart of Reality is fundamentally a Mystery and always bigger than any beliefs about it;
  2. The sources of truth about the Sacred are many (at least Six), and drawing from diverse sources makes for an exciting and rewarding path;
  3. Spirituality is best seen as a lifelong journey in which we never stop learning. Mistakes are allowed. We can know we’ve encountered truth when it changes our lives in line with our Seven Principles;
  4. A powerful way of supporting people’s growth over time in community is through the practice of covenant, not creed;
  5. There is a pure sweet gospel that comes to us from our Unitarian and Universalist ancestors, and it is just as relevant now as it was hundreds of years ago: Love is where we all come from, and Love is where all we’re going.

But today, as I’ve said, comes the completion of the list of core convictions. I would even describe it as the capstone, the culmination. I say this because it characterizes the HOW of our being religious, as well as defines what spiritual growth means to us.

In essence, this: we want to save the world, but we also want to savor it.

The eagle in us wants to soar, but the hippopotamus who is also in us just wants to wallow in the sweet slippery sticky sensational mud…

It DOES make it hard to plan the day—as writer E. B. White said.

But why are we Unitarian Universalists torn between the two? What anchors us in the middle of this tension of seeming opposites?

Human nature, for one thing! But our distinctive religious history has an important role to play also.

From our Unitarian side comes “salvation by character,” the beautiful idea that people are full of God-like potentials, and it is a main purpose of life to realize those potentials. At the same time, the world is full of broken places; and it puts those broken places within us. So our job is to heal the world and make it a place where as many people as possible can be themselves fully, can actualize the God-given potentials within. That is salvation, and salvation is something you work at. You work at developing all the public institutions that affirm human dignity; you work at developing all the personal traits that evidence good character. THIS is what saves. If you don’t, well, people won’t get to Love. Love won’t happen. That’s what the Unitarians said.

Which invited a backlash from the Universalists. They saw “salvation by character” as a case of inflated self-importance, and they countered it with a slogan of their own: “salvation irrespective of character.” See how cheeky they were, to echo the phrasing from the Unitarians even as they were subverting it? “Salvation irrespective of character” means that no one is going to be left out of Love. Everyone is going to get to Love no matter what. Yes, people need to work to make the world a better place. Of course. But don’t think it’s all on you. Martin Luther King Jr. was channeling the Universalists when he spoke of “a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us,” he says, “realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

And that’s it. Save the world, and savor it—both are in our spiritual DNA. Work to actualize your potentials, absolutely. Don’t dare think that there’s no work to do. God doesn’t have hands; we do. That’s what we are for. But even so, to think that EVERYTHING depends on us is equally wrong. The world is larger than our egos can possibly comprehend. The world is fundamentally Mystery. So: don’t push the river. Don’t thrash and drown. Lie easy, and let the river hold you.

Trust God but tie your camel
Trust God but lock your car
Trust God but row for shore
Trust God but make an annual pledge

I could go on and on. You get my point. Save the world, savor the world. Eagle, hippopotamus. Our Unitarian Universalist heritage puts us right in the middle of that tension. So it’s our task to learn how. To make the tension creative.

And it’s a struggle. We heard a little about that earlier, in today’s reading from the Rev. Dick Gilbert, which is a contemporary classic:

To savor the world or save it?
God of justice, if such there be,
Take from me the burden of my question.
Let me praise my plenitude without limit;
Let me cast from my eyes all troubled folk!
In other words, I just want to be a hippopotamus and wallow in muddy goodness! But:

No, you will not let me be.
You will not stop my ears
To the cries of the hurt and the hungry;
You will not close my eyes
To the sight of the afflicted.
No, you will not!
What is that you say?
To savor one must serve?
To savor one must save?
The one will not stand without the other?
Forgive me–
In my preoccupation with self,
In my concern for my own life
I had forgotten.

Ultimately, Dick Gilbert’s poem envisions the save/savor tension as a conflict between public issues that call for our intervention and private satisfactions that can stop up our ears to the cries of the hurt and hungry. It’s so easy, he suggests, to get caught up in being private hippos in our private mud pits. But don’t forget what the eagle is calling us to. Get up out of that mud, and fly! Live so that your corner of the universe is better than when you first found it.

It’s all true. How can anyone not say amen to this?

And yet there’s a wrinkle to consider. When I read Dick Gilbert’s piece, I am led to think of people who hear the call of the eagle and respond to that and they give their lives to work and community and public service—but they do this in big part because they are trying to escape their private lives. They don’t know what to do with the hippo waiting for them at home. It’s the weekend and they can’t relax, they can’t take off the suit. In explicit social justice terms, they go to protest after protest at city hall because, well, they don’t know how to resolve the conflict with their partner at home.

As I say all this, I think of my father. He was such an eagle, of the medical variety! Medical school taught him how to do incredible things that saved thousands of lives. But it never taught him how to wallow very well. And I needed that from him. What an amazing joy it is for children to see their parents just being silly. Enjoying themselves in healthy ways. Oh, I wanted to see him savor his life more! I needed it! His friends needed it! He needed it!

This is the wrinkle to consider. Dick Gilbert says, don’t get so caught up in the private that you forget the public. Absolutely—but don’t serve the public because you are trying to escape the private. There must be a balance. It’s a sad thing if, at your memorial service, all the world cries except your own children, who never knew you.

Both eagle and hippopotamus ask certain things of us, and we must do justice to both.

Makes it not easy to plan the day…

But now let’s go even deeper into the tension between saving and savoring. Consider a different way of framing it: as happiness vs. meaning. “Over the past few weeks,” says New York Times writer David Brooks, “I’ve found myself in a bunch of conversations in which the unspoken assumption was that the main goal of life is to maximize happiness. That’s normal. When people plan for the future, they often talk about all the good times and good experiences they hope to have. We live in a culture awash in talk about happiness. In one three-month period last year, more than 1,000 books were released on Amazon on that subject.” “But,” David Brooks goes on to say, “notice this phenomenon. When people remember the past, they don’t only talk about happiness. It is often the ordeals that seem most significant. People shoot for happiness but feel formed through suffering.”

I was pleased to see this article, because I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. If laughter is “carbonated holiness,” as writer Anne Lamott puts it, then happiness is holy. Laughter that’s easy and free. Living that’s in the moment, silly and sweet, full of friends and fun. Maybe exactly the sort of thing that comes to mind when we think of that hippopotamus wallowing in his mud…

But as for meaning…. Meaning is the eagle who is not so much living in the present but reflecting on the past with all its pains and losses. Also thinking about the future with all its potential threats. Meaning is the eagle working through disappointment and grief so as to understand the big picture, so as to learn the lessons, so as to bring greater compassion and wisdom to life.

People shoot for happiness but feel formed through suffering.

We have all been lost, at least in the geographic sense. It is so unsettling. You feel so vulnerable. You don’t know where you are, you don’t know what might happen. Take this and crank up the intensity 100 fold, 1000 fold, we’re talking emotional lostness and spiritual lostness. You lose your job. You lose your health. You lose your love. You don’t want this, but it happens anyhow.

It’s terrible. No one wants this. Who can accept this?

Hippo, come close. Eagle, stay the hell away.


But listen to more of what David Brooks has to say: “[S]uffering drags you deeper into yourself. The theologian Paul Tillich wrote that people who endure suffering are taken beneath the routines of life and find they are not who they believed themselves to be. The agony … smashes through what they thought was the bottom floor of their personality, revealing an area below, and then it smashes through that floor revealing another area.”

David Brooks also says that people in the midst of suffering also eventually learn that “They are not masters of the situation, but neither are they helpless. They can’t determine the course of their pain, but they can participate in responding to it.  […] It means seeing life as a moral drama, placing the hard experiences in a moral context and trying to redeem something bad by turning it into something sacred. […] Recovering from suffering is not like recovering from a disease. Many people don’t come out healed; they come out different.”

Oh, we want our happiness. And why not? It is a worthy aim of life. Don’t tell me that carbonated holiness is not a worthy thing! Process theology teaches us that through our own pleasure we can feel the very pleasure of God. It is part of what makes life worth living.

But—as Christianity explicitly teaches through the figure of Jesus—the only way to Easter Sunday resurrection is Good Friday crucifixion. Go through a Good Friday episode in your life, and by Easter Sunday time, believe me, you are … different.

What Unitarian Universalism calls us to is an ability to hold it all together. To appreciate tears as much as carbonated holiness. To allow room for the inevitable moments of lostness as much as to moments when we know exactly where we are. To dance when it is time to dance. To mourn when it is time to mourn. To be large enough for all of it. To reject none.

That in fact is the true measure of spiritual growth for Unitarian Universalists, and I close with this insight. It comes from process theologian and Unitarian Universalist Bernard Loomer. He was a member of the First Unitarian Church of Berkeley, and as the frequent leader of adult religious education courses, he would often ask his group, “What is the size of your soul?” “I mean,” he’d say, “the volume of life you can take into your being and still maintain your integrity and individuality, the intensity and variety of outlook you can entertain in the unity of your being without feeling defensive or insecure. I mean the strength of your spirit to encourage others to become freer in the development of their diversity and uniqueness. I mean the power to sustain more complex and enriching tensions.”

Exactly like the tension between eagle and hippo.

What is the size of your soul today?

Can you both savor and save?

Can you live within that tension well?

I promise you, planning the day gets easier, the bigger your soul is.