Sunday, July 22, 2007


a sermon by the Rev. Dr. Tim W. Jensen
at the First Parish Church in Portland, Maine
Sunday July 22nd, 2007

READING: from It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It by Robert Fulghum

“I kept the little mirror, and as I went about my growing up, I would take it out in idle moments and continue the challenge of the game. As I became a man, I grew to understand that this was not just a child’s game but a metaphor for what I might do with my life. I came to understand that I am not the light or the source of the light. But light -- truth, understanding, knowledge -- is there, and it will only shine in many dark places if I reflect it.

"I am a fragment of a mirror whose whole design and shape I do not know. Nevertheless, with what I have I can reflect light into the dark places of this world -- into the black places in the hearts of [human beings] -- and change some things in some people. Perhaps others may see and do likewise. This is what I am about. This is the meaning of my life....” -- Alexander Papaderos


[extemporaneous introduction]

All my life, for as long as I can remember, I have been a compulsive reader. Books, magazines, newspapers, road signs, the backs of cereal doesn't matter -- I read them all, and have ever since I was a little boy. Even before I was capable of reading for myself, I used to climb up on my mother's lap and ask her to do the reading for me, while I looked at the pictures, and followed along in my imagination.

Indeed, in many ways, you might even say that reading is my Vocation, my "calling," my mission in life: as a writer and a scholar, as a retail bookseller, and particularly as an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister. I read; I try to understand the meaning of what I'm reading; I try to communicate that understanding to other people, in such a way that they too might find it meaningful in their lives. This is essentially what I do to make a living, although it's not quite so simple and straightforward as I've probably made it sound.

Of course, one of the great ironies of having a vocation such as mine is that now that I supposedly read for a living, I discover that I have a lot less time to actually read than I did when I was younger and read solely for the pleasure of satisfying my own curiosity. Because you see, there is also a responsibility that comes with reading for a living. Once you begin to realize that you are actually starting to understand even just a little about what it all really means, you also realize that you have an obligation to try to do something about it, to somehow translate that understanding into meaningful action.

This is the difference between being a scholar, an academic, a pure intellectual; and being a parish minister, or a person of faith. Because scholars always have the option of retreating into their Ivy Towers if they wish, of dedicating their lives solely to the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. But parish ministers live out in the real world, sharing the joys and the sorrows, the pain, the struggles, the challenges and the aspirations of a congregation of individuals, who literally “congregate” together in places like this in the hope of finding some meaning for their own lives in what the person standing up here has to say.

In any event, I’ve been thinking an awful lot lately about just how much my reading habits have changed now that I am a “professional reader,” rather than someone who still reads solely for pleasure, like I did when I was a youngster. For example, in twelve years of public education, four years of college and my first five years of graduate school, I don't think I read a single title that might even remotely be classified as a "business" book. But once I actually had to feed a family, manage a small business, and make a payroll, I found myself reading two or three a month.

I’ve always read a lot of history, and as much fiction as I can find time for; but I also used to read a lot more popular psychology when I was younger than I would ever dream of reading now, and (for a time at least), I was fascinated by subjects which today would probably be be shelved somewhere in the “Spirituality “ or “New Age” sections, but back then were known simply as “The Occult” -- the Tarot, the I Ching, and especially Astrology, which no lesser luminary than Ralph Waldo Emerson himself is said to have once described as "Astronomy brought down to earth, and applied to the affairs of human beings."

There was a time in my life when I actually knew a great deal about astrology. I knew how to calculate sidereal time; I knew how to read an ephemeris (and how to pronounce it) -- I could plot the aspects of the planets, place them in their houses....there's really a lot more to it than you read in the newspaper.

For example, there's a popular misconception that astrology has something to do with the stars. Astrology has nothing to do with the stars; the stars are merely a convenient background against which astrologers chart the position of the planets. A horoscope is literally a map of the relative positions of the planets as they appeared in the sky at the precise moment of your birth, the theory being that where you are, in relationship to the rest of the universe, has some sort of significance with regard to how you turn out.

At the time in my youth when I was most interested in astrology, I couldn't really claim to understand the physical mechanics of how it all worked, but the theory that the planets (and particularly the Sun and the Moon) might have some sort of influence on human personality did not seem at all unreasonable to me. I didn’t really understand the physical mechanics of gravitational attraction either, but that didn’t stop me from believing in gravity; and, after all, astrologers were working with thousands of years worth of observational data in making their interpretations.

Begin a reasonably Rational soul, I even thought it might be interesting to conduct some sort of scientific experiment. Suppose someone were to take a sample of perhaps one hundred people, calculate their birthcharts, and then cross-test them with some sort of personality assessment instrument like the MMPI or the Myers-Briggs. Send the data off anonymously to the appropriate experts for interpretation, (naturally maintaining appropriate "double-blind" controls), and then see what kinds of correlations might be traced.

The psychologist Carl Jung was very interesting in research of precisely this sort; and in time I discovered (through my reading) that similar experiments to the one I imagined had actually been done. The results of these experiments were fascinating to me. Essentially, no significant correlation was found between the results of the horoscopes and the results of the psychological testing (I'll leave it up to you to decide what that says about these respective disciplines.)

What was discovered, however, was that the more familiar a subject was with the content of his or her horoscope, the more likely their personalities were to resemble it.

And this was probably the most important insight I gained from my study of astrology. Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it. Choose your enemies wisely, for you will grow to resemble them. Be selective about what you choose to read, for in time you will come to believe that it is true.

If you spend you days reading nothing but supermarket tabloids and watching Reality TV, in time your world will grow to resemble that world. If you read nothing but the Bible, listen to Rush Limbaugh during drive time and only watch Fox news and the 700 Club, both your religion and your politics will eventually begin to reflect that worldview.

And I suppose in all fairness, if your principal news sources are National Public Radio and “The Daily Show,” (as mine tend to be these days) that will no doubt influence your view of the world as well.

Now I'm not trying to suggest by this that truth is merely what we make it; that there are no absolutes, only relativism, sophistry, and propaganda. Rather, I would simply like to observe that "the Truth" ( in quotes and with a capital "T") is much larger than any one of us can ever know, and that we should be very selective in what we chose to embrace as Absolutely True.

And as for astrology?

Well, I'm keeping an open mind. But we Libras are like that, always weighing the alternatives and trying to find the balance. It used to drive the rest of my family (who are all Fire Signs and would rather make a bad decision than no decision at all) simply crazy....

This notion, however, that what we choose is what we are, is essential to an understanding of contemporary Unitarian Universalist faith. As the sociologist of religion Peter Berger has pointed out, religious life has grown much more complicated in the past one hundred years. Not only have the issues with which we must learn to deal on a religious basis grown infinitely more complicated, but the range of alternative religious beliefs from which to choose has become nearly incomprehensible.

There was a time, (indeed, for most of human history) when the question of what one believed was pretty much an accident of geography -- the result of where one happened to be born. If you were born in Italy you were a Catholic; if you were born in Denmark, you were a Lutheran; in India you'd be a Hindu, in China a Buddhist, in Arabia a Moslem.

But nowadays our culture has become so global that we have a smorgasbord of options from which to select. Not only are there millions of White Anglo-Saxon Buddhists, and Mormon Temples in Japan, but we are also free to pick and choose from a variety of different Religious traditions all at once. Berger calls this phenomenon "the Heretical Imperative" -- for not only are we free to choose as we please, we are also compelled to choose, in one fashion or another, and the choices we make (or fail to make) will determine the pattern of how we live our lives.

This is the purpose of a church like this one: to assist individuals in their efforts to make wise choices, and to support them in their attempts to translate those choices into meaningful actions in their live-a-day lives. It's a big responsibility, which is one of the reasons why, as a minister, I try to read so much. But it is also a responsibility which we all share with one another.

In my own spiritual journey, I have discovered that there are three fundamental criteria which have proven extremely useful in my personal search for a standard of religious truth by which to live my life. These are not particularly complicated or esoteric criteria, and, interestingly enough, they all begin with the letter "C" which I hope will make them easier to remember.

The first of these is How deeply does this belief truly embrace an ethic of Compassion?

In the modern world we often embrace a very superficial ethic of compassion. We associate it with sentimental feelings of sympathy and concern; we forget that the real root of compassion means "to suffer together" -- to feel another's pain as we would feel our own. We may deal with that pain in a variety of different ways: we may feel angry, we may feel grief; we may feel helpless or bewildered or overwhelmed. Or we may discover our own inner strength in the presence of another's suffering, and through our compassion, use that strength to help them discover their own, and thus begin the long pilgrimage to wholeness which will alleviate their pain.

It is at this point where we become real healers, and not merely morbid, thrill-seeking voyeuristic spectators. A deep sense of compassion lies at the center of all authentic religious faith -- "Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and love thy neighbor as thyself; Do unto others as you would have others do unto you." William Faulkner once described the human soul as "a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance." Without that spirit, there can be no religious truth -- merely the faith of the bystanders, who watch the world remotely from what they hope is a safe distance, and whose greatest prayer is that they won’t be the next to suffer.

My second criterion is How strongly does this belief truly embody the value of Community?

Community is a very difficult value to practice, mostly, I think, because folks don't really understand what it's actually all about. We think of communities as loving, nurturing places; and we overlook how they got to be that way.

True community is based not so much on love as it is on covenant: on a relationship of mutual and reciprocal obligations and responsibilities to which individuals are held accountable, and out of which authentic love and nurture can eventually grow. Obviously, individuals are loved and nurtured in community, but to the community itself the individual is always secondary -- it is the network of relationship and accountability which is ultimately important.

The real test of authentic community is not how deeply can an individual be loved, but rather how broadly is that love extended, how many people can the network include? How responsible are we willing to be for the lives of other people, and how much authority are we willing to give them over ours? Perhaps more importantly, how will we be held accountable for our behaviors, and by what standards and values will we define what is good, and true?

There are a lot of different possible answers to these questions, but it is the questions which define the parameters of the covenant, and thus define the principles upon which true community can be based.

My third criterion is How closely does this belief conform to the Wisdom of Common Sense?

The problem with common sense, of course, is that it really isn't very common at all, particularly when it comes to the subject of religion. Few other areas of human experience show such capacity to twist the facts to fit the theory, or to throw out the need for a coherent theory altogether, in exchange for an unshakable faith in a few selectively-chosen "facts."

Common sense is merely the rejection of both these two extremes. In religion, as in all of life, the explanation should conform to the reality of the experience, and somehow make sense of it all without contradicting itself or established truth. This is not to say that the explanations need be simple; theology, by its very nature, is an extremely abstract and subtle discipline, speculating, as it does, about the ultimate meaning of things. Common sense merely dictates that while your head may soar as far into the clouds as it likes, your feet had better both be firmly on the ground, walking one step after another humbly with thy God.

This is what it means to be a seeker, to be a pilgrim. Or to put it another way, the "Ground of Being" (such as it is) was here long before you or I came along to chew the fat about what in the world it may all mean, and will continue to be here long after all our words have passed away, and we ourselves have turned to dust. It will quickly prove us out as fools if we stray too far from the path of common sense.

So, Compassion, Community, and Common Sense...

I firmly believe that the truth plainly spoken, like light reflected from the shard of a broken mirror, has the power to drive out falsehood from the shadows of our lives, and lead us safely forward along the road to a more meaningful way of living. Through the depth of our Compassion, through the strength of our Community, and through the Wisdom of our Common Sense, we work together to cultivate a faith which can guide us on our way.

This is the journey which we have undertaken; the path which I first chose when I decided to become a minister, the path which we all share when we meet together to worship in a free church such as this. It's a steep and narrow path at times I know, with many obstacles and pitfalls along the way. But the view from the mountain-top is magnificent (or so I've read), and the valley cool and fertile on the other side.

We all have a long way to go, and really not much time in which to get there.

Choose your baggage wisely; my advice is travel light.

Don't be afraid to meet new people, taste new foods, try new things.

Wear sturdy, comfortable, sensible shoes.

Observe the local customs as best you can, be generous in your gratitude and patient when things don't go quite the way you'd planned, and you will discover that the traveling can be just as pleasant as the destination.

This, as I understand it, is the Meaning of Life.

Are there any questions?