The Reverend Kathleen Damewood Korb

Unitarian Universalist Congregation of GreaterNaples


I have never been fond of April Fool’s Day. I have never heard of a practical joke I liked. Their purpose is, obviously, to make someone else look like a fool, and I not only don’t like being embarrassed myself, I dislike seeing it happen to others. It took me a long time to realize what made certain sitcoms — some of the most popular, even — distasteful to me. It was the relief I felt when watchingTaxione evening when they had every opportunity to make a laughingstock of one of the characters and instead had him coming out a hero that made me understand that the shows that I did not find even mildly amusing were the ones that depended on making a character look like a fool for their humor.

On “getting to know you” occasions people are sometimes asked to relate their most embarrassing moment. I don’t believe for a minute that anyone really does that unless they are pathological exhibitionists. Those are the things we keep locked away even from our nearest and dearest, and the thoughts that awaken us squirming at 3:00 a. m. are far more likely to be our humiliations than our sins.

St. Paul, however, calls for a foolishness that confounds the wise, and the fool in literature often does exactly that. Surely King Lear’s fool had more common sense, not only than his master, but than most of the other characters, and the fool, Wanda, inIvanhoe,not only is better educated and quicker witted than anyone else in the book but also rivals the best of them in courage and loyalty. It is probably even historically true that the king’s jesters were much brighter than most other people at the court, partly because true humor does not arise in a dull mind, but also because otherwise they might have lost their heads since I am sure the license they were allowed had some pretty strict limitations.

Long ago when I was Religious Education Director at theSharon,MA, church, I taught a curriculum for the Junior High Level that was published by the UU Psi Symposium. It was at the height of the Age of Aquarius fads and it tested such things as clairvoyance, telekinesis, and mind-reading, looked at the evidence for transmigration of the soul and examined the various fortune-telling tools, astrology, palmistry and reading the Tarot. Although the authors had a soft spot for most of those things, it was a quite even-handed and responsible curriculum. I found the Tarot fascinating. I had no belief in its occult powers, but its history and the beauty of the cards — particularly the Ryder deck — were compelling, so I learned to read the eleven-card Celtic spread. It could really be very useful in getting people to think and talk about whatever was bothering them in a new way or from a different angle, although I never offered to read the cards, and I always assured those who asked me to that I not only had no psychic powers at all, but I didn’t believe that the Tarot deck did either. I quit doing it when I did three readings for someone and every one came out exactly the same, that he would suffer a downfall as a consequence of the advice of untrustworthy friends, and a week later he was convicted of grand theft to which he had been led by — you guessed it — untrustworthy friends. I still think it has to have been mere extraordinary coincidence, but it made me so nervous I quit.

However, I never gave up my love for the cards themselves, and my favorite is the Fool, the first card of the Major Arcana, the fifth and longest suit. The Ryder deck depicts him as a handsome young man carrying a knapsack over his shoulder, looking straight ahead with an expression of joy on his face as he steps off the edge of a cliff. In a reading this card means a free spirit, a dreamer of dreams, a visionary, a willingness to risk, a love of adventure, perhaps, too, something of a lack of elementary caution and foresight. Reversed, however, the cards are either diminished or depict their complete opposite, and the Fool, reversed is a dull sort of being, strictly conventional, never daring to color outside the lines, timid, even disapproving, of anything outside of the familiar and the usual. Given those extremes, I’ll take him straight up. Better to dream dreams and see visions and risk falling on your face than to stagnate forever in your familiar easy chair.

When I was in college — a Baptist college — one of the stated goals of the university was to establish an environment in which the students could have a religious experience. I don’t think that’s one of their goals any more although I will admit to not reading their quarterly prospectuses very carefully. I didn’t know what in the world they were talking about, but some time later I realized that that could well describe my reaction to learning about non-Euclidean geometry in high school. It seemed to remove invisible bars and put the whole universe up for grabs. It was an incredible adventure of the spirit.

That’s what I believe our free faith should be. It is often what it seems when we encounter it for the first time after being told that it was necessary for salvation to believe what cannot be believed, not on the basis of evidence but of authority. The Bible, the Koran, the Upanishads tell me so and therefore it must be true, and if I can’t believe it the fault is in me, not in them. Then you come to a Unitarian Universalist Church and are told that you must believe what your mind, your conscience and the evidence tell you is true whatever ancient authorities or even the preacher may say. The invisible bars are lifted and the universe is up for grabs, and the Fool picks himself up and starts out again in the same joy of adventure, of challenge, of risk. Then, though, sometimes it becomes so comfortable. We’re with a bunch of lovely like-minded people who no longer challenge our assumptions and about whom we care very deeply. We begin sometimes to believe that the congregation is there to serve its members, to make us comfortable and to comfort us when we are not. Even social justice work is one step removed, charity from the privileged to those who do not have our comforts and toward whom we feel pity rather than a sense of our human oneness. Then it becomes what we call a country club church, one that may do great good as the Naples Wine Festival does great good, but that is essentially about itself and its own wishes and needs, including its need to be generous. This is an ever-present danger. Even those congregations that began by courageously facing disapproval, poverty, all the dangers that can threaten a faith, can find a place of ease and become ingrown.

Whenever you hear someone say that the congregation is getting too big, that they hardly know anyone any more, that we’re losing our sense of family, you know that we are in danger. The gift of free religion is far more important than any level of comfort, any desire for cozy fellowship. We are obligated to make it available to anyone who may need it. Too often, without precisely locking our doors, we make it clear that we are a closed group, willing to be gracious, even generous, as long as it does not challenge us to an adventure of the spirit that may risk the safety of our beloved community. It is better to reverse the Fool, to take no risks, to keep things under control. It is better to sit in our easy chair of like-mindedness, of mutual nurture, than to step off the cliff of free religion.

People in our faith often complain that they still don’t know what they believe. I have bad news for you. You never will. Not for sure, not if you are truly committed to the freedom of our faith. We can only come to tentative conclusions, and that’s not comfortable either. I have often said that ours is the hardest religion there is, and that’s why. Not only are there no absolute guideposts from some authority, ancient or modern, your own certainties are only certain until you learn more.

Many of you remember dear Lucy Lakin. I think she was 97 years old when she went into the hospital for the first time in her life with something wrong with her gall bladder. When I went to see her I reminded her of the first time we had met when she had greeted me very assertively with the statement that she was the oldest member of the congregation and she was an atheist. My response was “Um, okay…” She agreed that it was a good story but then said, “But, after listening to you for three years, I think perhaps I’m an agnostic.” I was totally blown away. That at her age she would even care absolutely amazed me! And increased my respect for her. Not that it made any difference to me in regard to whether or not she was atheist or agnostic. That, after all, was her own decision. What mattered was that she wasn’t content to give up the journey, stay safely back from the cliff edge. She was still searching, still learning, still on the adventure of the spirit, still a fool for this faith.

Many years ago one of our ministers, a Universalist, Clinton Lee Scott, wrote a little book calledParish Parables. In it he had short education stories of what he called the Great Congregation. In my favorite he writes of a man who has left his congregation discontented because the preacher never seemed to be able to tell him what to believe, perhaps wasn’t even sure himself, leaving him adrift on a sea of uncertainty. When this was reported to him the preacher said, “Tell him that in the Great Congregation we don’t issue water wings. We teach people how to swim.” There are those who will always look for water wings with lists of things commonly believed among us, or citing passages from the Unitarian Universalist bylaws as defining our religion, or saying that what really defines us is the way that we are together, but in the very act they are reversing the fool, getting into a comfort zone, refusing the adventure. They are rejecting the freedom of free religion.

St. Pauladjured his followers to take on the mantle of the Fool, and there are those today who speak of being fools for Christ, willing to appear foolish in their commitment to their faith. Would any of us do that? Would any of us be willing not only to claim but to proclaim our faith? To be fools for free religion? We may say, and say truly that we don’t believe in proselytizing, in trying to convert people to Unitarian Universalism. We don’t. Part of the core of our religion is that people are responsible for their own beliefs, thought and conscience, and we have no right to try to persuade them to change those things. However, there’s no rule against spreading the good news, and it’s really easier than you might think. One General Assembly inPortland,OR, a waiter at the restaurant where I was breakfasting asked me what all of us wearing those badges belonged to. He was, I learned, an immigrant fromSouth Korea. When I told him we were Unitarian Universalists and we had established that that was the name of a religion, he asked what we believed. Two sentences later he said, “But that’s free religion. That’s what we need!” I then, of course, suggested he find the nearest church. I’ve often wondered precisely what I said that made it so clear to him, but I think it must have been something like, “We serve the highest in freedom of thought, belief and conscience. Each of us believes what the evidence of our experience, refined and tested, convinces us is true.” Easy enough and something to be proud of, to proclaim, and even perhaps worth being a fool for.

Whether it is or not, the Fool is surely our symbol. Our religion is the faith of the journey — always a little farther on, a little farther in. We have beliefs, but those beliefs are subject always to further examination, and the cliff’s edge may not end the quest. Though I might suggest that we check out a way to go forward that will not dash us on the rocks beneath, we must not be so concerned for our safety and comfort that we cease to struggle when the way seems hard. We may not find it, but we must never abandon the search for truth and for the service that crowns our life with meaning.