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November 27, 2005


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Opening Words

Good morning. I'm going to talk about relationships this morning; my relationship with the Lord and our relationship with each other. Our opening words are from Micah, Chapter 6, verses 7 and 8:

Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?

Children's Parable:

[The Sufi story about six blind men and the elephant.]


What indeed doth the Lord require of us? Different things at different times and in different places, depending on who you ask. Micah thought all you had to do was do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with thy God. Leviticus was more specific:

If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.
Ye shall keep my statutes. Thou shalt not let thy cattle gender with a diverse kind: thou shalt not sow thy field with mingled seed: neither shall a garment mingled of linen and woollen come upon thee.

Ted Pack in Hawaiian shirt My wife keeps horses in four acres seeded with what they call "Mixed Pasture"; it has about ten kinds of plants on purpose and another two or three by accident. I'm standing before you in cotton underwear with a Lycra waistband, and in a shirt made of 50% cotton, 50% polyester.

So, our gay and lesbian friends have nothing on us when it comes to eternal damnation for violating the strictures laid down 3,000 years ago.

I promised you an underwear joke in the Newsletter blurb and on the web site. Now you've had it, and I'd like to turn to the nature of our relations with the Lord.

One April morning, several years ago, we had a speaker here with a Ph.D. in psychology. He didn't talk about psychology, however. He described himself as a "liberal fundamentalist" and talked for half an hour about his relationship with Jesus Christ. It made me think about relations and communications.

My relation with L.L. Bean is simple and clear, with feedback on both sides. I call and say I'd like to order a sweater, catalog number W-01234. This is putting the message in a form the lady at the other end of the telephone can easily deal with. She looks it up and says, "That's a men's brown wool sweater, 42 chest, extra long?" This is the best possible form of feedback - it tells me she received the message and she re-states it in terms I can easily deal with. I say "Yes", and she says it will be delivered in 5 days and cost $39.00, plus tax. After we exchange messages, we both know where we stand; I've sent a message, they have confirmed they received it correctly, and I know what to do next.

A second form of communication happens in the retail trade; if I go into a place looking for something, and the shop doesn't stock it, the clerk usually tell me what other store at the mall may have it.

My relationship with the Lord is less clear; I pray once in a while, but don't get any answers, nor do I really expect them. If, for example, I prayed for fish hooks, as Huck Finn did, I wouldn't expect to get any, and I'd be really surprised if the Lord told me "I just deal in spiritual gifts - try a hardware store for those fish hooks." My brother Bruce prays for things as trivial as parking spaces. I'd be tempted to make fun of him but he got one in front of Macy's in downtown San Francisco one Saturday afternoon.

Let me pause on the relationship for a moment, and I'll give you an anecdote on communication. I started computer programming 30 years ago, before the Internet was a gleam in anyone's eye. We could communicate with distant computers, however. Several corporations had what they called time-sharing services, which meant they rented time on their computers to the public. You accessed their computers with terminals that looked like electric typewriters. You would type commands, and the computer would type your results back to you.

On my first job, I sat next to one of these public terminals. There were five of them in a 16-story office building that held 1,000 people. Back in 1974, a modem was a large box with two soft rubber cups. You had to call the computer on a regular telephone, wait for it to answer with a high-pitched whine, then put the handset into the cups to make the connection. Each computer had a slightly different communications protocol. You would adjust small switches on the side of the modem to cope with them beforehand. We called connecting successfully to the distant computer "getting in".

One grey-haired secretary would try to "get in" to a time sharing service about once a week. She'd bustle up to the desk, spread out her work, and take up her list of step-by-step instructions. It was one of those sheets of paper with 14 generations of Xerox pimples that used to be common in offices, before everyone had a PC. She'd punch in the telephone number, put the handset into the modem, push some other buttons, and get nothing. I tried to help her a couple of times, to no avail. She used to tell me about the man who set up the program, a consultant named Jim. "Oh, I wish Jim was here", she would sigh; "he could 'get in' just like that!"

It was clear to me that something in her system had changed - the password, the terminal settings, or maybe the baud rate, which is how fast the two machines squirt data back and forth. The mysterious Jim never came back, and I could never convince her to call the computer company and ask for a new set of instructions. She believed connecting to the computer was a magic process, one she'd never accomplish.

As I listened to our speaker that April it seemed to me that he had been able to connect with the Almighty, and that his relation with Jesus was as clear and uncomplicated as my relation with L. L. Bean. It was also clear to me that no one in our fellowship had been able to connect to the Lord the way the speaker had; if we had, we'd be down at First Baptist with 1,200 of our closest friends and a 5,000-pipe organ, instead of here, worrying about the roof holding up for another winter.

My next thought - is "connecting" just a certain number of steps, properly executed? Or is it magic, the way that secretary thought it was? I often wonder if people 3,000 years from now will regard our religious practices with the same mixture of amusement and pity we regard the medical practices of people who lived 3,000 years ago.

Some disciplines have come to a single truth; Euclidean geometry, for instance, still works and they still teach it the way they taught it 2,000 years ago, with allowances for advances in pencils and paper. They teach it all over the world; geometry is the same in China as it is in Norway and Argentina. The germ theory of disease, to name a more recent development in human knowledge, is gaining worldwide acceptance.

Theology doesn't seem to be coming to one truth yet, although some fundamentalist Christians think so; if they could only get enough missionaries out there, preaching the Good News, the Truth will spread to every corner of the globe.

Going back to the medicine versus theology metaphor, the number of internists keeps going up in places like Malaysia and Kenya, while the number of faith healers goes down. I don't see a similar increase in Baptists and decrease in Hindus, Buddhists, Jews or Moslems, however. The story of the six blind men and the elephant still seems to me to be the best explanation of why there are different religions.

Like that Indian king, I believe we humans have as much of a chance of comprehending the nature of God as those blind men did of comprehending the nature of elephant.

Sermons need a light note here and there, so I'll mention that dyslexics, of course, struggle to comprehend the nature of Dog.

I've been an agnostic for many years for that very reason; the nature of God - or her very existence - seemed like too big a problem for me to solve. So many wise people have come up with so many good answers over the years - all of them different - that I knew I was not going to get the answer myself. I studied to be a Catholic, briefly, figuring if I was going to be a Christian I'd go with the market leader. When the time came to commit, and the priest started to pray, I realized it was like a telephone call, and I didn't really believe there was anyone there at the other end.

Howard TenBrink used to tell me that an agnostic was just an atheist without the strength of his convictions. I've always thought of Atheists as supreme egotists; they think they and they alone have found the answer to a question that has bedeviled humankind since we climbed out of the trees and looked up at the stars, and that answer is a simple "No". Of course some Baptists think they have the right answer too, only it is "Yes, and if you do what He says you'll prove it by being baptized - fully immersed, in freely flowing fresh water, although it can be flowing in a man-made channel . . ." I've found a spiritual home here, with a lot of other people who, if they don't all think like me, at least agree with me that we don't have all of the answers.

I've been coming to our little church here for 30 years. I like the attitude, and I like the people. That doesn't mean I think I have ended in the west branch of Eden.

I'd like to turn now from the cosmic to the specific, from the nature of God and my relation to God, to the nature of our church and our relations with each other. I'm sorry to report they are not perfect.

For seven years, back when my daughters were Girl Scouts, I was too; my position was Assistant Troop Leader. Due to the tragedy of my birth - I was born male - ATL was the highest post I could hold in that wonderful organization. During the winter, when I let my beard grow, I was the only Girl Scout in the Muir Trail Council who had both a tattoo and a beard. The experience taught me a great deal. I was able to teach the troops a bit in return. We used to make up trail mix in a big stainless steel bowl before each backpacking trip, for instance. Everyone brought something to the mix, and everyone took something away. One of the rules of backpacking etiquette is that it isn't fair to pick just the pieces you like out of the trail mix; you have to eat everything in your handful, even if you love cashews and hate raisins. In any given handful of trail mix there will always be some pieces you like, and some you don't.

I've listened to a lot of members, over the years. I've listened to more during my term on the Board of Trustees and as liaison to the Aesthetics committee. I've come to the conclusion that our church is like a handful of trail mix. Note that I didn't say any of our members are nuts; I mean that we all like some parts of our church and our services better than other parts, but it isn't fair to pick out the favorites and ignore the rest.

Take announcements; I've heard people say they spoil the whole service, dragging us back to the mundane world while our souls are still soaring with the last notes of Marilyn's postlude or Rev. Grace's closing words. I've heard other people say they enjoy the announcements; they bring us back to the real world gently, and you get to hear what interests other members.

Some people think our sanctuary is over-decorated, some think it is not.

Some people think the Children's time is a total waste of time. Some think it is a fine example of being gracious to a minority, and thus one of the few times in our service we actually do something noble, instead of just talking about doing something noble.

Some people wish "Joys and Sorrows" was limited to major events - birth, death or marriage - and had a 10-word limit as well. Some people wish it was longer, because it gives us our best chance at true community. This faction would be willing to have a shorter sermon or one less hymn to make room for a longer Joys and Sorrows.

For any aspect of the worship service, for any piece of art hanging on our walls, for any piece of furniture in our sanctuary, you can bet at least one person in the congregation hates it, and another wouldn't come if we didn't have it.

We are a unique church. Our members have a variety of beliefs. Most of us would not fit in any other church in Stanislaus County. I live in Hughson, for instance, which means I have to drive 30 minutes each way each Sunday, instead of going to the Methodist church right down the road. The Methodists wouldn't have me because I'm an agnostic. They don't take Pagans, either, so six or eight of my friends here couldn't go. On the whole, I'd rather drive the 60 minutes.

Most of us are still questioning the nature of the Lord. Most of us try to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly, with or without our God or Goddess. I would suggest that part of that humbleness should be accepting each other's quirks; and that if we can worship together with Agnostics, Atheists, Buddhists, Christians, Jews and Pagans, we can certainly worship together with people who don't share our opinions on the order of service or interior decorating.

[Delivered 27 November 2005. I have been a Peace Corps Volunteer, a Girl Scout Assistant Troop Leader, and a COBOL programmer.]

This is one of a series of homilies I wrote for the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Stanislaus County, in Modesto, California, from 2003 - 2014.

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