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My Spiritual Journey

November 26, 2006


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Ted Pack stirring 30 pounds of string beans for the homeless dinner Good morning, and thank you for coming to church this morning. This the third time in four years I've given the sermon on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. It was nice of you all to brave the fog to see what I had to say this time.

I threw two underwear jokes into my first talk, about being your web master. In my second talk I made one underwear joke, with a general reference to that long list of taboos in Leviticus and a specific reference to the one about wearing garments woven from two kinds of thread. My subject this morning is "My Spiritual Journey", and I couldn't come up with a fitting joke. I considered using the title "My Spiritual Journey, Without Underwear", but I desisted. So, you won't get any jokes about underwear. I will mention, however, that since it will be a busy weekend and a little of me goes a long way, I will try to be . . . brief.

"My Spiritual Journey" is a time-honored tradition here. Bernadette Burns, Calvin Yost and John Swearingen have all spoken on that topic, John most recently. He drew 120 people, mostly because he's eloquent, but partly the result of inviting people he knew from his dental practice to hear him. He was a member of the Sermon Seminar; Rev. Grace, who leads the sermon seminar, told us he re-wrote his talk many times, and it got better each time. I fear my talk isn't as polished as John's, nor, as you can see, will it be as well- attended. I don't have his . . . patients.

Like many of you, I was a Unitarian Universalist all my life, but I didn't know there was a church for people like us when I was growing up. I discovered you in 1973, when I was 25. It turns out I'm not the first one in our family to become a UU. When I was 40 I found out that my second great grandfather, Peter Milton Morgan, had been a member of the Fresno Unitarian Church in the early 1900's. He was born in Ohio in 1844, marched with Sherman to the sea as a private in the 118th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, then came west, settled in Clovis and grew grapes. He drove into Fresno for services; we were thin on the ground back then, too. If he could have convinced his wife to bring the children up in the church, I might have been a fifth-generation UU.

As it was, we were raised what I call "Passive Protestants". My mother thought it was hypocritical to go to church on just Christmas and Easter, so we didn't go at all. Once in a while we'd talk about the Bible stories. I can remember my mother explaining the story of the loaves and fishes as a man convincing a crowd to share what they had, much like the story of stone soup, not someone pulling fish out of a basket like a magician pulling rabbits out of a hat.

She and my father were both firm believers in reason; when my brothers or I did something wrong, it was wrong by logic, not because God said so. If we had any sense, we'd have known it was wrong before we decided to jump off the edge of the roof onto the pile of cushions from the patio furniture, take something that didn't belong to us or lie about breaking the vase.

Looking back, I think my first Unitarian Universalist moment came in the fall of 1960, when I was in the seventh grade. Senator Kennedy - soon to be President Kennedy - had proposed a program that became the Peace Corps. That proposal struck a spark in the hearts of many young people. Our social studies teacher used it as a discussion topic. She had us all come to the front of the class, one at a time, to tell the class what we would do to help the less fortunate countries. About half of the student who spoke before me said they would bring the word of Jesus to the poor benighted heathen. When it was my turn I said that, knowing full well people in other countries already had a religion, one that worked as well for them as well as ours worked for us, I would be an engineer and build bridges, so they could cross rivers without being eaten by crocodiles.

Up until lunch that day, when a number of my classmates told me that Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and Jews were all wrong and all going to hell because Christianity was the One True Religion, I had thought everyone knew that all different religions were just different paths up the same mountain; rules of conduct for living together, hammered out by reason over the ages. Growing up in central California, I also thought snow was something they used to have a long time ago, like wars between the cowboys and Indians, but in the 20th century it only fell in the mountains.

We learn about the world as we grow. My wife still chuckles about a question I asked her when we were 31, visiting her parents in upstate New York for the first time. How, I asked, did people who lived in brick houses drive nails into their walls to hang pictures? It was an honest mistake. I had never known a person who lived in a brick house; I'd never even been inside one. Until that day in the seventh grade, I hadn't realized how adamant some people were about their religion. Like the snow, I thought the concept that Christians are right and the others are wrong was something they'd had in the bad old days before they knew any better, along with wagon trains, the Black Death and outhouses.

High school came and went. I found the word "agnostic" in a dictionary and decided I was one.

My high school was bland. It had 2,500 predominately white, Christian students. We had one Negro, one Jew and two hundred Japanese-Americans, who were mostly Presbyterians. I went from there to UC Berkeley, which had eleven times as many people and a richer mix of beliefs.

I lived in a 150-man co-op with atheists, agnostics, Jews, Chinese, at least one Muslim, and all manner of Christians; Greek orthodox, Catholic, lapsed and born again. I knew devout Jews and devout Catholics. Their faith seemed to me to be a brick - a major one - in the foundation of their personalities; who they were, what they did, how they lived. I admired them; I wished I had faith in something, It didn't happen. Many of the Christians I talked with told me that faith transcended reason; you had to believe without proof. That made as much sense to me as being able to fly by flapping my arms, if I wished hard enough.

Salvation by grace didn't make a lot of sense to me either. Imagine this, I used to say. Take two men born on the same day, long ago. One grows up to be Red Beard, the pirate; his occupation is pillage and arson, his hobbies are murder and rape. The British Navy finally catches up to him. The evening before his hanging three young, vigorous priests go into his cell to see if he will repent. He will. Twelve hours later three bent, grey-haired priests come out, having heard a long, complete and sincere confession. The sun rises, the trap drops and our pirate goes to heaven, having accepted Jesus Christ as his personal savior. "Here you are, Mr. Beard", says St. Peter, "one set of wings and a harp. Next!"

Our second man grows up in Tibet as a Buddhist. He raises vegetables in the summer and helps travelers across the snowy passes in the winter. Several travelers tell him about Jesus; he is happy being a Buddhist, so he thanks them, guides them into the next valley and goes back to his snug little hut, where he contemplates a koan or two and goes to bed. One night an avalanche lets loose and our Buddhist also goes to see St. Peter. He had a chance to accept Jesus as his personal savior, and declined, so St. Peter shows him the "Down" elevator.

After college I spent two years in Malaysia as a Peace Corps Volunteer. That is another time-honored tradition here; eight of our members, out of a total of 140, are former volunteers. That is one out of every 17 adults, which is 65 times the national average. I was in Sarawak, a state on the north coast of Borneo. The major religions there were Muslim, Animist, Chinese, and Christian, with a sprinkle of Hindu and Sikh. "Chinese", in turn, meant a combination of Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism. Since all three draw more on the teachings of wise men rather than revelations by a prophet, you can follow all three at once, if you like, and most Chinese in Sarawak do. You could also call those three religions . . . non-prophet.

The hospital admission forms in Sarawak reflected the diversity. If you were Christian you had a choice of Catholic or Protestant. The other choices were Muslim, Chinese and Pagan, although I can tell you from personal experience the admitting nurses would not let you check "Pagan" if you were of European heritage.

Muslims, Chinese and Pagans all invited me to their festivals. One of the advantages of living in a multi-cultural society is that you get to go to four times as many religious festivals as you did in the USA. I attended without believing, something I found easy enough to do; I'd gone to Christmas Eve services with friends the same way, in California.

Although I was a Peace Corps Volunteer, something I'd wanted to do since the seventh grade, I didn't build bridges. I majored in English at Berkeley, so I taught English and Literature. As I suspected in the seventh grade, most of the people in Sarawak had a religion that worked just fine for them. The younger Animists had problems; most of what they learned in secondary school science classes conflicted with the explanation of the world their parents believed in. Many of them became Christians, or, like me, decided they had no religion. People in Sarawak assumed anyone of European extraction was Christian, an assumption which was right 99% of the time. I found it easier to avoid any serious discussion of religion than to try to explain my agnosticism. I'd comment, once in a while, when I saw a parallel between one religion and another.

When I came home I had some very serious discussions about religion. My college girlfriend, who had waited for me for the two years I had been in Sarawak, joined the Unification Church. You may know them as the "Moonies". They follow Rev. Sun Myong Moon, who started out as a fundamentalist Christian, then founded his own branch of Christianity. His followers believed he was the second incarnation of Jesus himself. Rev. Moon taught many things, among them that the fact the Korean peninsula was shaped like a male organ and the Japanese islands like a female one had cosmic significance.

"They are crazy as hoot owls", I said, more than once.

"If you don't believe them, what DO you believe?" my college girlfriend asked.

After some long discussions, most of which could be summarized by my comment about owls and her question about my beliefs, we parted ways. I decided it was time to find a church that I could believe in. Someone in college had told me the Unitarian church was the one for smart people, so I figured I'd fit right in. I looked you up in the phone book and bicycled out here sometime in 1973, thirty-three years ago. Bill Petersen was the minister. That first Sunday was the annual meeting, by chance. It took the place of the Sunday Service back then. Bill led us in singing "Morning Has Broken", told us we were going to discuss the budget, and if he attended he would be selling indulgences to Heaven, so he would leave. He did. I thought it was a remarkably honest meeting. I had never seen a congregation discuss money so openly. I can remember Larry Moncrief asking to double the amount allocated to the children; back then it was still in the hundreds, but after Larry's motion passed, in the high hundreds.

I returned for regular services. I joined the Circle Dinners. Paul and Mari Martelli, Dick and Judy LeGrande, Larry and Kathy Moncreif and Marge Fletcher, to name a few, all welcomed me into their homes and came to my apartment in turn. At the time I thought they were fascinated by my Peace Corps stories. Looking back I realize they were just living our principles, especially the belief in the worth and dignity of every person, even if he is a 25-year old with minimal social skills and a highly inflated opinion of his anecdotes.

We had, as we have always had, a need for more RE teachers. We also had a stock of "The Church Across the Street", a book about other denominations. The fact our Sunday School taught about other religions fit into my own beliefs remarkably well. I volunteered to teach it to the teenagers. We met every other week, which fit into their opinion of how often someone should go to church and let me attend the regular services half the time. We went to a Catholic church, out to see the Dunkards during the almond blossom season and to a fundamentalist meeting.

Rev. Petersen gave a four-part course on the history of our denomination. The more I learned, the better I liked Unitarian Universalism. I realized I had found a spiritual home. I've been coming here ever since, with a seven- year gap when I lived in the Bay Area. I'm still an agnostic. I still believe there are truths in every religion, even the odd ones. I still haven't found all of the answers. I don't think I ever will. I have enjoyed asking questions with you all.

[Delivered November 26, 2006. I have plain but regular features and a rapier wit. In the picture at the top, I'm stirring 30 pounds of string beans for a homeless dinner.]

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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