Welcome And Announcements
Good Morning. Welcome to the Unitarian Fellowship of Fredericton.
I want to begin this morning with a traditional greeting among the Shona people of Zimbabwe. It goes like this, when two people meet each other:
Did you sleep?
I slept well if you slept well.
I slept well.
How are you?
I am well if you are here.
I am here.
My Name is Al Sharp and I will be the service leader this morning.
You will find the Order of Service and a number of announcements in the Bulletin that was handed out.
Please join us after the service for coffee and conversation. If you are a visitor, we would be pleased if you would sign our guest book. If you would like learn more about Unitarianism, please help yourself to the brochures near the entrance or ask anyone wearing one of these plastic name tags.
Are there any announcements?
The prelude was Nkosi Sikelel’i Afrika sung by the congregation of St Paul’s Church in Soweto on the day the church was reopened after it was fire bombed in the first days of the Soweto Uprising in June 1986. It was spontaneously sung and secretly recorded by a member of the congregation.
We light the chalice this morning with the words of Indra’s Net from the Hindu scriptures, the Reg Veda.
There is an endless net of threads throughout the Universe.
At every crossing of the threads there is an individual.
And every individual is a crystal bead.
And every crystal bead reflects not only the light from every other crystal in the net,
But also every other reflection throughout the whole Universe.
The opening words are by Margaret Wheatley, who speaks, writes, and consults around the world about new forms of leadership where people are valued as the blessing, not the problem, and where we learn to organize ourselves from the master teachings of nature surrounding us.
She speaks to the power of caring and sharing among people.
Turning to One Another (Margaret Wheatley)
There is no power greater than a community discovering what it cares about
Ask "What's possible?" not "What's wrong?"
Notice what you care about.
Assume that many others share your dreams.
Be brave enough to start a conversation what matters.
Talk to people you know.
Talk to people you don't know.
Talk to people you never talk to.
Be intrigued by the differences you hear.
Expect to be surprised.
Treasure curiosity more than certainty.
Invite in everybody who cares to work on what's possible.
Acknowledge that everyone is an expert about something.
Know that creative solutions come from new connections.
Remember, you don't fear people whose story you know.
Real listening always brings people closer together.
Trust that meaningful conversations can change your world.
Rely on human goodness.
Hymn #134: Our World Is One World
Story For All Ages
Tecolotl and Quetzaltotol
A Story of the Aztec People
This is a story about an Owl called Tecolotl and a tiny fragile little bird called Quetzaltotol. Here are their pictures.
It is a story which has been told for many, many years among the Aztec people of Mexico. It’s a story about how you don’t have to be big and strong and smart to make a real difference for yourself and your friends. The story goes like this.
It is said by our Grandparents that a long time ago there was a great fire in the forests that covered the earth. The people and animals were very scared and started to run away to try to escape from the fire.
Our brother Owl, named Tecolotl, was flying as fast as he could away from the fire, when he noticed something very strange. There was our brother Quetzaltotol, a tiny bright little bird with a very long tail, hurrying back and forth between the nearest river and the fire. Tecolotl was so surprised that Quetzaltotol was not flying away, that he stopped to watch what Quetzaltotol was doing.
There was Quetzaltotol flying to the river, picking up small drops of water in his tiny beak, and hurrying back to drop that tiny bit of water on the fire.
Now Owl was very alarmed at the risk that Quetzaltotol was taking and spoke up: “What are you doing brother? You’re going to get burned if you don’t fly away. You can’’t achieve anything like this. You have to fly for your life.”
Quetzaltotol stopped just for a moment and said to Owl “It’s quite simple Brother. I’m just doing the best I can with what I have.”
It is said by our Grandparents that a long time ago the forests that cover our earth were saved from a great fire. And it all happened because a tiny bird, and an owl, and many other animals and people got together to put out the flames, each doing the best they could with what they had.
Intro: Joys and Sorrows
In all our diversity, we share the experience of being human, with all its joys and sorrows.
We each have longings and feelings.
We each feel fear, lonliness, grief, satisfactions and joys.
We each want to be happy and lead a meaningful life.
We discover this shared human experience when we listen to someone’s unique story.
The details and differences are important to hear.
But as we listen quietly to their story, as we allow another’s life to be different from our own, suddenly we find ourselves on common ground.
Are there joys and sorrows to share?
Music: The Fiddle and the Drum (Joni Mitchell)
And so once again,
My dear Johnny, my dear friend,
And so once again
You are fighting us all.
And when I ask you why
You raise your sticks and cry, and I fall.
Oh, my friend
How did you come
To trade the fiddle for the drum.
You say I have turned
Like the enemies you’ve earned.
But I can remember
All the good things you are.
And so I ask you please
Can I help you find the peace and the star?
Oh, my friend
What time is this
To trade the handshake for the fist.
And so once again,
America my friend,
And so once again
You are fighting us all.
And when we ask you why
You raise your sticks and cry and we fall.
Oh, my friend
How did you come
To trade the fiddle for the drum.
You say we have turned
Like the enemies you’ve earned.
But we can remember
All the good things you are.
And so we ask you please
Can we help you find the peace and the star?
Oh, my friend,
We have all come
To fear the beating of your drum.
Unitarians and the World:
Religion Out of the Box
That song is for George Bush this morning. It calls out for him to sooth his Iraqnaphobia. But it is not just a political statement, although it is that too.
To me it has an abiding spiritual quality to it. It speaks of extremely important matters, matters literally of life and death. It moves us and teaches us, firmly and gently. It builds community by speaking openly of our fears, our joys and sorrows, our hopes and dreams.
It inspires us to believe that there can be a better way, the way of the handshake instead of the fist, the way of the festival fiddle and dancing, instead of the war drum and marching.
The handshake is one of the great (nearly) universal symbols. It says “Here am I, unarmed. I am reaching out for you. I want you to reach out for me. I want to touch you and know you, and be touched and be known in return. I want to hear your story and I want to share mine with you.”
How different from the fist, also nearly universal. Whether like this .... or like this ..... it says “Here am I, angry, threatening. Keep your distance or I will clobber you.”
To me this song is also peculiarly Canadian in nature, and not just because it was written and sung by a Canadian. It is about our respect and admiration for our powerful neighbour, and our fear that such power could overwhelm us and lead us into places we don’t want to be. It says we don’t want your fire, your friendly fire or any other kind. And here I am tempted to say we don’t want your Burning Bush either. It is a song about the respectful criticism offered by a real friend.
To me, it brings to mind the contrasting symbols of the American Cavalry in the Wild West and the Canadian RCMP in Kelso’s Sea of Flowers. In a very real way the RCMP were our first peace keepers. They didn’t go to our west as an instrument of war, but as builders of a lasting peace. They went to assist and protect all people, to form a protective shield between them, to bring them food and water and medicine and shelter when they were in need, to encourage dialogue and understanding, to allow the people themselves to take the risks of getting to know each other and building trust.
Militarily they were pitifully weak. They couldn’t have helped the cavalry much, just as today, the Canadian Armed Forces couldn’t add much to American fire power. But the ways of peace are so much more powerful that they accomplished the job that the cavalry couldn’t do. Isn’t there a lesson there for us today, on the eve of this potential war with Iraq?
The other song I chose this morning is one of my favourites. When this song was recorded, it was a cry for freedom for the oppressed black people of South Africa. Everyone knew it then as the anthem of the African National Congress, and it was a symbol of defiance to sing it. It is now the national anthem of South Africa.
Whenever I feel in need of a dose of hope in a confusing world with the threat of violence hanging over us, I turn to this song above all others. South Africans accomplished some amazing things by, at long last, sitting down to talk to each other. This song is a symbol of that accomplishment, of the power of the human spirit to prevail over hardship, of the ability of even the oppressors to hear the genuine pain of the oppressed, of the wisdom of leaders stepping back from violence, and of the reconciling power of speaking, and listening to, the truth.
Today we need to talk about turning away from war, and turning to each other, about speaking and listening to each other and banishing fear and misunderstanding through sharing our common humanity. The words of the song say it clearly, even to a Humanist like me. A rough translation is:
God bless Africa.
Let the voice of the people be heard.
God bless our people.
Rise up Spirit, Rise up Spirit of the people.
God bless our nation.
End the war and the misery.
Bless our nation of Africa.
Let it be so, forever and ever.
In many ways, religion was what the South African blacks had to work with. At a time when they needed comfort and hope, religion was there. When they needed eloquent ways to communicate their story to the seemingly oblivious whites, it was religious leaders like Desmond Tutu who responded. The church was the only place it was legal for them to gather in large numbers and speak openly to each other.
Religion was a unifying force for the black peole themselves, but it also provided a bridge for dialogue with the whites. We need more of that in the world.
And that is how we get to Unitarians and the World, and getting religion out of the box that has been built for it.
There are two main points that I want to make this morning.
The first is that war is rooted in fear and misunderstanding, although admittedly often with a dash of greed masquerading as “national interests” thrown in.
The second is that religion, and more generally the way of the spirit, can be a powerful tool to reduce fear and build understanding if we take the time to talk to each other about the really essential questions of the spirit.
That is where we Canadian Unitarians come in. We can hear the beauty of all the world’s religions, and draw strength from them. We can extract the common elements of the human spirit which lie at the core of religious practices. And we can build respect and understanding in the process.
There aren’t many of us Canadian Unitarians. But like Quetzatotol we can do the best we can with what we have and we can lead others to do so too and help to put out the raging fires of intolerance and war. Perhaps we can even deal with the Burning Bush.
Unfortunately, too often, that is not the way it is in the world today. Religion is often used to build and solidify a community, but it is too often at the expense of excluding others, of setting up “Us” and “Them” along religious lines.
Christ’s gospel of peace and good will has been spread by sword and gun and crucifix, and yes, residential schools, to heathens in need of Glorious Salvation and therefore somehow less human. Mohammed’s gospel of peace and prosperity and one people has been spread by conquering armies subjegating the Unbelievers. And so it goes, religion by religion, with very few exceptions.
The Masters of War stir us with assurances that God is on our side, while demonizing the others as The Forces of Darkness, The Black Empire, The Axis of Evil, The Great Satan. And lest we get too self congratulatory as Canadians, we have done our share of this. Just as one example, the “Axis of Evil” phrase came from the pen of Canadian David Frum via the moth of George W. Bush.
In my view, this is because religion has come to focus too much on the particular differences and all their underlying social and cultural traditions rather than on the unity of the human spirit. By going the other way, Unitarians ... and in particular Canadian Unitarians ... can do the world a great service.
Let me illustrate both the problem and the hope with a reading from a recent Canadian novel.
Life of Pi, by Yann Martel, is a great example of the new Canadian literature. Canada has provided a home and haven (perhaps even a heaven!) for artists and writers from all over the world, to let their talents flower. It is world literature in the sense that it is about all sorts of places, usually with a rather tenuous connection to Canada, and it expresses some very universal sense of what it means to be human.
This particular book is about a young Tamil boy named Pi, son of a zookeeper. It is a book about which highly improbable story you would prefer to accept to explain human survival against high odds. It seems to me, the author intends it to be a commentary on the improbable stories told by different world religions to explain the basic facts of human existence.
Pi wasn’t very interested in the specifics of the particular stories and practices. He was searching for the commonality, “trying to know God” as he put it. He therefore chose to practice all three of the religions available to him in his part of India. But it got complicated, as this extract shows, when he and his family met by chance the Christian priest, the Muslim Imam and the Hindu Pandit while out for a walk one day.
Here is the story: (See Insert).
Extract from Life Of Pi
by Yann Martel
After the "Hellos" and the "Good days", there was an awkward silence. The priest broke it when he said, with pride in his voice, "Pi is a good Christian boy. 1 hope to see him join our choir soon."
My parents, the pandit and the imam looked surprised.
"You must be mistaken. He's a good Muslim boy. He comes without fail to Friday prayer, and his knowledge of the Holy Qur'an is coming along nicely." So said the imam.
My parents, the priest and the pandit looked incredulous.
The pandit spoke. "You're both wrong. He's a good Hindu boy. 1 see him all the time at the temple coming for darshan and performing puja."
My parents, the imam and the priest looked astounded.
"There is no mistake," said the priest. "I know this boy. He is Pi Molitor Patel and he's a Christian."
"1 know him too, and 1 tell you he's a Muslim," asserted the imam. "Nonsense!" cried the pandit. "Pi was born a Hindu, lives a
Hindu and will die a Hindu!"
The three wise men stared at each other, breathless and dis- believing.
Lord, avert their eyes from me, 1 whispered in my soul.
All eyes fell upon me.
"Pi, can this be true?" asked the imam earnestly. "Hindus and Christians are idolaters. They have many gods."
"And Muslims have many wives," responded the pandit.
The priest looked askance at both of them. "Pi" he nearly whispered, "there is salvation only in Jesus."
"Balderdash! Christians know nothing about religion," said the pandit.
"They strayed long ago from God's path," said the imam.
"Where's God in your religion?" snapped the priest. "You don't have a single miracle to show for it. What kind of religion is that, without miracles?"
"It isn't a circus with dead people jumping out of tombs all the time, that's what! We Muslims stick to the essential miracle of existence. Birds flying, rain falling, crops growing these are miracles enough for us."
"Feathers and rain are all very nice, but we like to know that God is truly with us."
"Is that so? Well, a whole lot of good it did God to be with you - you tried to kill him! You banged him to a cross with great big nails. Is that a civilized way to treat a prophet? The Prophet Muhammad - peace be upon him - brought us the word of God without any undignified nonsense and died at a ripe old age."
"The word of God? To that illiterate merchant of yours in the middle of the desert? Those were drooling epileptic fits brought on by the swaying of his camel, not divine revelation. That, or the sun frying his brains!"
"If the Prophet - p.b.u.h. - were alive, he would have choice words for you," replied the imam, with narrowed eyes.
"Well, he's not! Christ is alive, while your old 'p.b.u.h.' is dead, dead, dead!"
The pandit interrupted them quiedy. In Tamil he said, "The real question is, why is Pi dallying with these foreign religions?"
The eyes of the priest and the imam properly popped out of their heads. They were both native Tamils.
"God is universal," spluttered the priest.
The imam nodded strong approval. "There is only one God."
"And with their one god Muslims are always causing troubles and provoking riots. The proof of how bad Islam is, is how uncivivilized Muslims are," pronounced the pandit.
"Says the slave-driver of the caste system," huffed the imam. "Hindus enslave people and worship dressed-up dolls."
"They are golden calf lovers. They kneel before cows," the priest chimed in.
"While Christians kneel before a white man! They are the flunkies of a foreign god. They are the nightmare of all non-white people."
"And they eat pigs and are cannibals," added the imam for good measure.
"What it comes down to," the priest put out with cool rage, "is whether Pi wants real religion - or myths from a cartoon strip."
"God - or idols," intoned the imam gravely.
"Our gods - or colonial gods," hissed the pandit.
It was hard to tell whose face was more inflamed. It looked as if they might come to blows.
Father raised his hands. "Gendemen, gendemen, please!" he interjected. "I would like to remind you there is freedom of practice in this country."
Three apoplectic faces turned to him.
"Yes! Practice - singular!" the wise men screamed in unison. Three index fmgers, like punctuation marks, jumped to attention in the air to emphasize their point. They were not pleased at the unintended choral effect or the spontaneous unity of their gestures. Their fingers came down quickly, and they sighed and groaned each on his own.
Father and Mother stared on, at a loss for words.
The pandit spoke first. "Mr. Patel, Pi's piety is admirable. In these troubled times it's good to see a boy so keen on God. We all agree on that."
The imam and the priest nodded.
"But he can't be a Hindu, a Christian and a Muslim. It's impossible. He must choose."
"I don't think it's a crime, but I suppose you're right," Father replied.
The three murmured agreement and looked heavenward, as did Father, whence they felt the decision must come. Mother looked at me. A silence fell heavily on my shoulders.
"Hmmm, Pi?" Mother nudged me. "How do you feel about the question?"
"Bapu Gandhi said, 'All religions are true.' 1 just want to love God," I blurted out, and looked down, red in the face.
My embarrassment was contagious. No one said anything. It happened that we were not far from the statue of Gandhi on the esplanade. Stick in hand, an impish smile on his lips, a twinkle in his eyes, the Mahatma walked. I fancy that he heard our conversation, but that he paid even greater attention to my heart.
End of Extract.
So this is where Canadian Unitarians can be helpful. Our principles draw on the underlying core of human spirituality, with a practical bent thrown in. As Canadians, and as Unitarians, we share in and respect the great world traditions and the wisdom what comes from them. We are open to many points of view, and we have the opportunity, perhaps unique in the world to talk peacefully and meaningfully to each other and to know each other as brothers and sisters in this great vehicle we call the earth, engaged in this great journey of human existence.
And to anyone who has ever taken brothers and sisters on a long journey in confined spaces, you will know that we need to deal with inevitable quarrels and territorial demands and immediate human needs for relief and sustenance. But the journey can build great strength and meaning in the family by sharing experience and above all by giving us a chance to be together and to talk, to pause, to reflect.
Margaret Wheatley, in her book “Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future” identifies some simple statements that will help us along the way. Here they are:
Converstaion is the natural way we humans think together.
We can’t be creative if we refuse to be confused.
It is not differences that divide us. It’s our judgements about each other that do.
There is no power for change greater than a community discovering what it cares about.
Am I becoming someone I respect.
Reality doesn’t change itself. We need to act.
She then suggests some conversation starters to help us along the way.
Do I feel a vocation to be fully human?
What is my faith in the future?
What do I believe about others?
What am I willing to notice in my world?
When have I experienced good listening?
Am I willing to reclaim time to think?
What is the relationship I want with the earth?
What is my unique contribution to the whole?
When have I experienced working for the common good?
When do I experience Sacred?
As Canadian Unitarians we have a unique opportunity to start some of those conversations. I hope we can find ways to use it to reach out to the world, and to get religion ... and ourselves ... out of the box we, and others, have put it in.
Hymn #160 Far Too Long By Fear Divided
Ben Okri, Nigeria
What will we choose?
Will we allow ourselves to descend
Into universal chaos and darkness?
A world without hope, without wholeness
Without moorings, without light
Without possibility for mental fight,
A world breeding mass murderers
Energy vampires, serial killers
With minds pining in anomie and amorality
With murder, rape, genocide as normality?
Or will we allow ourselves merely to drift
Into an era of more of the same
An era drained of significance, without shame,
Without wonder or excitement,
Just the same low-grade entertainment,
An era boring and predictable
'Flat, stale, weary and unprofitable'
In which we drift.
In which we drift along
Too bored and too pass1ve to care
About what strange realities rear
Their heads in our days and nights,
Till we awake too late to the death of our rights
Too late to do anything
Too late for thinking
About what we have allowed
To take over our lives
While we cruised along in casual flight
Mildly indifferent to storm or sunlight?
Or might we choose to make
This time a waking-up event
A moment of world empowerment?
To pledge, in private, to be more aware
More playful, more tolerant, and more fair
More responsible, more wild, more loving
Awake to our unsuspected powers, more amazing.
We rise or fall by the choice we make
It all depends on the road we take
And the choice and the road each depend
On the light that we have, the light we bend,
On the light we use
On the lies we live by
And from which we die.
Canadian Buddhist Writer
“We don’t set out to save the world. We set out to wonder how other people are doing and to reflect on how our actions affect other people’s hearts.”
Go forth in caring, in sharing, as listener and witness.
Go forth to do the best you can with what you have.
Go in peace.