You Can’t be a Person by Yourself

We all have our places where we recharge our spiritual batteries, or at least I hope so. I invite you to take a moment, right now, and think about one or two of those places or activities in your life. A local park. Family reunions. The Majestic theater. Doing something creative.  Perhaps it’s as simple as your backyard after the children have gone off to school. Maybe it’s someplace overtly religious, like the sanctuary here at church, a yoga studio, a meditation hall, a prayer practice. Many of us recharge by connecting with nature, by going to the woods. These are all holy spaces, locations where we sense a connection with something outside ourselves, the hint of experiences beyond our experience, a sense of the ultimate.  Ultimacy is that feeling we have when we experience awe and wonder, get a glimpse of the holy or divine, or experience a moment of transcendence.


Each summer for the past three years I’ve gone to a place in the woods called Liberation Park. A friend of mine, a former monk who studied in a Thai forest monastery for many years, and his wife created Liberation Park as a refuge from the bombast of modern life. They invite people to their 80-acres of Wisconsin woods so visitors can reconnect with the essential elements of experience, maybe receive a little wisdom for the encounter, and taste a bit of insight that can be taken back into the world.

Cindy and I stay in a platform tent down by a creek that runs through the property’s central valley. We walk the meadows and  notice the changes one year to the next. Sometimes we walk together. Often we walk alone. We pick invasive plantspecies from the meadows when we see then, and sometimes we help with a building project by swinging a hammer. We do a lot of sitting in silence.

And just like that I am rejuvenated.

Ultimately I go to the woods to connect with a sense of ultimacy — a sense of God not as proper noun or supernatural being, but as a feeling best described by other feelings, like Love, connection, selflessness, emptiness. In the woods I feel Creation’s presence, everywhere, in the trees, water sounds, and nighttime sky filled with unobstructed starscapes.  I go to the wilderness to commune with that feeling. My prayers are of those of listening into silence for the stirring of my heart. My reverence is for a great mystery I know that our human brains will never comprehend but that our bodies, as Mary Oliver’s earlier poem suggests, that our bodies encounter as fully real.

Perhaps most of all I go to the woods, into the wilderness, to experience liberation, to taste freedom, for it is there where the petty oppressions of the world seem to vanish.

Religious stories about the significance of fleeing into the wilderness abound. Jesus goes into the wilderness to be baptized by John and later to confront his demons. The Arabian Amalekites, for violating their sacred territory, are sent by God from their beloved Mecca into the desert. For spiritual renewal it is said that Krishna withdrew from society as an adult to fast in the wilderness. It was under the bodhi tree in a wooded glen that the Buddha received enlightenment.

Perhaps the most well known wilderness tale is the Exodus found in the Hebrew scriptures. The children of Israel, fleeing slavery and oppression in Egypt, were led by Moses into the wilderness for 40 years. Hot on their trail was Pharaoh’s army, and as the story goes it was only through the intervention of their unnamed deity that they were able to escape. Moses was very popular at first for his heroic charge.

But watch out for what you ask for. In the wilderness is hunger. Of course in the Exodus story there was manna, which was said to have fallen from heaven. But what was manna? Theologian Walter Bruggeman jokes that since it was a wonder that God provided nourishment, you could call manna the original “wonder bread.” He also notes that roughly translated the word manna means simply “What is it?” There are several scientific theories, all of them delectable. Manna may have been the crystallized secretions of a scale insect, such as plant lice, which is a good source of carbohydrates. That would have explained the honey taste. Another of the most likely explanations is that Manna was a particular fungus that grows in the desert around Sinai and which looks like morning hoar frost. It would, as the Bible says, have decomposed and become insect ridden quickly if not eaten right away.

More to the point, Bruggeman, in his essay “Journey to the Common Good,” defines wilderness as a place where the usual life support systems don’t exist. In the wilderness one must rely on miracles, even natural ones, for sustenance. But careful of what you ask for when you go to the wilderness, for there you will find both freedom and despair — and questions, many questions. What is it that has led us here? Who is this God that promises so much and gives us insect droppings, or fungus, for food? What is this God’s name? To whom do we belong?

Again, as Mary Oliver suggests, it is in this complexity and paradox that the spirit loves to dress itself up: as love and death, the carnal and eternal, light and burning, comforter and that which will cast us hungering into the desert.

The Children of Israel don’t even know what to call their God when they depart Egyptian captivity, nor do they know the nature of this deity which has promised to deliver them to the promised land of Canaan. I can’t help think of our own faith that argues so much about our many names for God, and certainly we argue about the nature of ultimacy, but we miss the big question: If we are, indeed, free from the bondage and oppression of creedalism and dogma, if we have escaped the corruptions of Pharoah’s grasp, have we yet arrived at our promised land? Or are we still wandering the desert of our own disagreements?

It is time to stop wandering in the desert.

In the Hebrew story it is Moses alone who goes to the mountain to commune with this unnamed deity. Can you imagine the encounter? Seeing the burning bush? Hearing the voice commanding you to remove your shoes, for you stand on holy ground. Receiving God’s commandments on behalf of a nation.

But while God knows Moses’ name, Moses does not know Gods. He asks:

“When I come to the Israelites and … they ask what is His name, what shall I say to them?”

And the voice says: Ehyey-Asher-Ehyeh, meaning “I will be what I will be…. this shall be my name forever.”

Scholar and rabbi Michael Fishbane says that the meaning of Ehyey Asher Ehyeh is that “My nature will become evident by my actions.” That’s some name. For short, Fishbane notes, you might call God “I will be.”

One interpretation is that God does not exist as power except in this covenantal relationship, in action. God, then, is being itself enacted in relationship.

The 10 commandments, the core of this covenant, have gotten a bad wrap as fundamentalists try to post them in places where they don’t belong: schools, government offices, and so forth. But the covenant as it is delivered in Exodus is God’s teaching the people to Love. It is God’s command to go and make the world a better place, through strong trusting relationships built on a foundation of shared covenant.

This is the essence of our covenental church: a commitment to Love. As my friend and mentor Burton Carlye says every chance he can: Covenant is how we love together.

We will be talking more about covenant this fall, but there’s a missing step between where we are and where I want us to go, and this is the step that has kept us UUs wandering the desert not for merely 40, but for 50 years and counting, since 1961 and the very merger of the Unitarians and the Universalists. If we are not accountable to Yaweh, or a single manifestation of the Divine, what is it that holds us in its grip?

What calls us to be religious people, not you as an individual, but us as a people. What is it outside of ourselves to which we are accountable?

You cannot be in covenant alone. There must be the Other.

The Rev. Victoria Stafford reminds us that “To ask ‘Whose am I?’ is to extend the questions far beyond the little self-absorbed self, and to wonder, Who needs you? Who loves you? To whom are you accountable? To whom do you answer? Whose life is altered by your choices? With whose lives is your own all bound up, inextricably, in obvious or invisible ways?”

And Quaker teacher Daniel Steere says that the ancient question, What am I? — the question asked by the ancient Israelites as they accepted a covenant from their God, the ancient question “What am I?” inevitably leads to a deeper one, “Whose am I?” for there is no identity outside of relationships. “You can’t be a person by yourself.”

When we claim to stand together for justice — which is the integral practice which we share — to what relationship or set of relationships are we responding — or not responding? On what holy ground do we stand? Saving the world, healing the world, being in the world — from where does the source of our work flow?

I am no longer interested in opinions about the nature of reality, also known as the humanist-theist debate. It may be interesting, but it’s not important.  Sit with me over coffee and ask me about my understanding of God, but let it not stop us any longer from engaging fully in the real work, and that is nothing less than saving the world from that which we all find abhorrent: injustice, intolerance, fundamentalisms of all sorts that oppress and create inharmony between people — in short, evil. As Unitarian Universalist theologian James Luther Adams claims, the primary failing of liberal religion is that it fails to address and confront the presence of evil in the world.

And for us to confront what we must, we must be asking the right religious questions:

Let us ask:

What is required of us?

And not, what can I find for myself?

Let us ask:

What deepens my connection to you?

And not, why can’t I have it all my way?

I tell you today, that listening to music we always like, personally, with words that we want to hear, with all the proper nouns I prefer, in a beautiful space that we built with people we enjoy is not the work of religion, nor is it the work of this church. Such trappings gather us together and offer inspiration, as is the middle part of our congregation’s mission, and I wouldn’t trade them for riches or wealth — but they are not the end of our mission, which is nothing less than being involved in saving the world from itself, from materialism and corruption of religion, from fundamentalisms, from evil.

For this leap to occur, for this shift to happen, we must have a clear sense of our collective identity.

I want to begin the church year with these questions in our hearts. I want us to begin with the most basic understanding of who or what lays claim to our hearts and lives. What power shapes our shared experience?

What is it that holds me in a grasp of longing, a longing to connect with something larger than myself, a longing to love? What is the origin of that call? What tells me who I am — or what is holy? To whom or what do I belong?

Our promised land is not this four acre campus, it is in the lives we touch,

mending the broken,

catching the fallen,

healing those who need our saving message of

all-redeeming Love.

We each on a personal journey of the spirit, and we’re on a journey together. As we say together each week, we are bound together not by a creed, but in covenant. I want to know more about that relationship, about our relationship of covenant. I want to know how we can become more spiritually mature people who create love and justice in the world. And then, with you, I want for us to do it.

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