At the board orientation meeting in April our new treasurer, Frank Kolhatkar said a very provocative thing. He pointed to our mission statement that says that the purpose of our practice of free religion is to help to create a world of beauty, justice, peace and love. He also pointed to the new slogan of the Unitarian Universalist Association that says, "Nurture your spirit, help heal our world." Then he said that he would give us an A grade on the first part of that but only a D on the second. It's all very well to send people home from the Sunday service happy, but what does that mean for the wellbeing of the world? There wasn't time to thrash out the question on that occasion, and it also seemed to me that it was possible - even likely - that his opinion might be shared by others. I decided to do what ministers do on such occasions. I decided to preach a sermon about it.
First I need to say that if all we're doing on Sunday morning is sending you home happy because of your pleasure in the music or the poetry of the words or the interest of the ideas, I need to apologize for my abject failure as your minister - as a minister. I think happiness is a good thing as well as is taking pleasure in an aesthetic experience, and they are, in fact, some small portion of food for the spirit, but they are the vehicle rather than the deep meaning of what we are trying to do. I think, though, that his grades were based on too narrow a definition of spirit or what constitutes healing the world.
Not everyone would agree with the grades, either. There was the morning that the service was examining whether the democratic process was really a religious value, and a young man came up to me after the service and started his discourse by reminding me that I had said that people should take responsibility for their own lives and be willing to stand by and act upon their own conclusions, and to fulfill that admonition he felt obligated to tell me that this was the second time he had attended one of our services and he had received absolutely nothing of a spiritual nature either time. He was obviously deeply concerned that he would be hurting my feelings by telling me that, but what I had said almost made it necessary. He didn't have to worry about my feelings. I know that people react very differently to the same thing, and actually, I felt that he was giving clear evidence that, unhappy about it as he was, I had, in fact, fed his spirit. I had, at least for the moment, fed his courage and his sense of personal responsibility, both important aspects of the human spirit. He was looking, of course, for an aesthetic experience which would evoke certain feelings in him, and since people react differently to different things, he didn't find it even in our music. I thanked him for his feedback letting me know that I had achieved what I was trying to do that morning and suggested a place or two that he might find more satisfying. He wouldn't have given us an A that day for nurturing the spirit, but I did.
Nurturing the spirit means a great deal more than making people feel good or giving them an aesthetic high. Sometimes it doesn't make them feel good at all. Sometimes it even brings them to a dark night of the soul. I have more than once been told that a listener had felt that I was preaching directly to them. It has never been something that made them feel particularly good about themselves. I am sure - at least I strongly hope - that they are aware that if my strictures are directed at anyone in particular it is myself. No one is more in need of that nurture of the spirit than I, but most of us are as much so. Nurturing the spirit means attending to the health and wellbeing of that aspect of the human being that is called to serve something beyond our material needs and desires. That gives us a wide range of topics and feelings, but it doesn't necessarily have to make us feel happy or joyous or translated out of our daily lives. It does have to make us deeper, better people. That we should get an A for our ability to do that I would not claim, but if we should, then we get an A for helping to heal the world as well because it is the same thing. If any single individual becomes spiritually better through any means then that in itself helps to heal the world.
We tend to see helping to heal the world in incredibly grandiose terms - not, perhaps, in the actual size of such actions, but at least in their consumption of our whole souls and the energy and activity of our dedication. For some people that is the consequence of a spiritual transformation, and I honor them. I honor those who dedicate their whole lives to rescuing orphans, agitating against nuclear weapons, stopping the pollution of our air and water, ending oppression in its various forms, and all the other ways in which people strive to heal the world. However, it's a good thing that not everyone responds in that way. Who then would do the work of the world that produces the necessities of life - grows the food, manufactures the clothing, builds the houses - and even its graces and pleasures. Those, too, are good and lovely and to my mind no small part of the healing of the world. As much as I honor those who commit their lives to righting injustice, to challenging oppression, to relieving the poor, do I honor those who live their ordinary lives with integrity and grace. We need farmers, bankers, doctors, waiters, artists, musi-cians, industrial and agricultural workers, scientists, teachers, garbage men, firefighters, police, all of those who keep our society afloat. What if every one of them were so transformed some Sunday morning that they gave up all that they had to work for some great cause. It would not be long before all our lives would be in serious jeopardy. The world cannot afford such healing as that.
If we don't really want to turn every one of our members into a 'round-the-clock certified world-healer, are we doing anything to heal the world? There's an old story that James Luther Adams used to tell. I have forgotten, I think, every one of the circumstances surrounding it, but I remember the punch line, and I can tell it sufficiently to make the point clear. It was a church in Chicago in the early 1960s. The board had received an application for membership from a black man, the first one they had ever received. One of the members of the board was adamantly opposed, and his arguments were based clearly on racial prejudice. The question was asked, but not answered, what is the purpose of the church? The argument raged, but the man was accepted. At the end of the meeting the man who had been so deeply opposed asked for the floor. He said, "I want to answer that question, 'What is the purpose of the church?' It's to change people like me." One less racist in the world. One small healing.
You probably remember the story I've told of the man in my New London church who was seriously underemployed. Well, he was a history major with only an undergraduate degree. He was supporting a wife and two small children. He was also on the Historic Landmark Commission with the power to say what was or was not to be saved or torn down. One day he came in to see me. "I hope you're satisfied," he said, "You lost me a lot of money." He told me that he had been offered a huge bribe not to put a building on the register, and he had turned it down. "My religion wouldn't let me do it," he said. That kind of integrity helps heal the world.
In New Orleans I got a phone call one day from a young man who had been to church for the first time on the previous Sunday. He was moving to another town and he wanted to know if there was a Unitarian Universalist church there because my sermon had saved his life. He had been caught in the crossfire of some bullets and remembering what I had said he was able to keep cool enough to make the right decisions to save himself. I didn't remember what I had said, or if I'd even said what he remembered me as saying, but however it was it had given him the peace and strength of mind to save himself. A good life saved surely will help heal the world.
Just the other day we got an email from someone whose sister was dangerously ill who had come across one of my sermons and had found in it the message she needed to bolster her courage to face the possibility of so great a loss. It is a tiny drop in the huge bucket of this hurting world, but surely the easing of the pain of loss is healing in itself.
And, of course, we do the usual things. We give a little money to worthwhile causes, we witness for gay rights and march in the Martin Luther King, Jr. parade, we sponsor a relay team for the relay for life and persuade the city of Naples to reduce it's carbon footprint, and encourage individual members to follow their own passions for social justice. All of those are important, but none of them is more important than prejudice lessened, a life saved, integrity and courage increased.
We say in our mission statement that our goal is to help create a world of beauty, justice, peace and love. The Unitarian Universalist slogan says that we will help heal the world. We are a church of two hundred seventy-some people and the whole national organization is only a trifle over 150, 000 adult. What are we thinking! We are in a war that nearly everyone knows to be unjust with no just way to end it; we are in Afghanistan with a limited and simple goal of ending the terrorism that it supports, but the complexities of which make it the morass that that mountainous divided country has always been both to outsiders and its own citizens; though economists tell us that the signs for the future are more hopeful, people are still losing jobs and homes; we have been told that what is good for General Motors is good for America, and General Motors is barely tottering, propped up by taxes; AIDS is still pandemic in Africa; the Middle East is still a horror waiting to happen; and climate change is threatening the whole future of humanity. We elected an articulate, inspirational president to do a job that looks to us impossible. How can we even make a dent, much less create the world we desire, much less even try to heal it? It doesn't really help much to remember that it is nothing new for us to feel that the world is on the brink of disaster. It is nothing new to feel that we are helpless in the face of forces beyond our control. It is nothing new to refuse to despair. We can do very little, yet we must do what we can.
One thing we can do is remember how we are to go about it as a religious institution. We are not a charitable foundation or a social justice non-profit. The purpose of a religious institution, in the words of one of my colleagues is to grow souls. Simply that. Simply to nurture the spirit. Simply to practice religion. Because care for those less fortunate than we is a moral expectation we give as generously as we can. It is one way of nurturing the spirit. Because seeking social justice is a moral obligation, we work for social justice. It is one of the ways we grow our souls. It is the growth of the soul that is our first job, and it is success in that that however slightly will help heal the world, will even help create a world of justice, beauty, peace and love. We can't get different grades for nurturing the spirit and helping to heal the world. If the spirit is nurtured, if the soul is grown, the world is by that much a better place.
If one person leaves here today strengthened in spirit by the lovely music, more able to face the fears and complexities of the week ahead, by so much have we helped to heal the world. If one person leaves with a higher resolve to choose the path of integrity and honor, by so much is the wounded world healed. If one person leaves with a new inspiration for a work of art, by so much can we say we have helped the world's healing. We are here to nurture the spirit. We are here to help heal the world. It's the same thing.