Emptiness as a Spiritual Practice

Rev. David Herndon
First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh
December 13, 2015

Advent Sunday

Here is the first story for Advent. This was written by the radio news personality Paul Harvey. About one hundred years ago, the founder and executive general of the Salvation Army wanted to send out a Christmas greeting to Salvation Army staff members, who were stationed in many different places far from headquarters and far from one another. The Salvation Army had come through some hard times, and the founder and executive general was feeling a need to send a message that would remind them of the profound significance of their mission, and a message that would remind them of their core competencies. Eventually he settled on a one-word message. He sent out this one-word message by cablegram so that it would reach all staff members in a timely way, no matter where they were stationed. As it happened, this founder and executive general of the Salvation Army died the following year, and thus this one-word message was his last Christmas greeting. So straightforward and comprehensive was this single word that it could equally well have served as a summary of his life and his legacy. What was this message that the Salvation Army staff members heard from their leader that Christmas? As they unfolded their cablegrams, the staff members were greeted and challenged by this simple and memorable word: “Others.”

How might this story be connected with Advent? Advent is traditionally regarded as a season of preparation, a season of anticipation, a season of waiting. Advent might also be regarded as a time of emptiness, when we make room in our lives to welcome something that makes us whole. This morning, in the spirit of Advent, I would like to explore with you the challenges and rewards of making room for others in our lives.

Here is the second story for Advent. This was written by the African-American feminist theologian Katie Cannon. Many years ago, a world-renowned organist had come to a large city to present a concert in a great hall with a magnificent pipe organ. He entered the hall with a great air of self-importance, and the audience rose to its feet with enthusiastic applause. He sat down at the organ bench to play, and every ear was ready. After each piece, the organist bowed again and again while the audience showered him with applause. At intermission, the organist went into a back room to relax. Sitting in the room with him was an old African-American man who was responsible for pumping air up through the bellows while the organist played. The African-American man said, “I guess we did a pretty good job, didn’t we?” At once the organist stood up and looked down with disdain upon the African-American man. “How dare you say ‘we’? I have studied at the best European music schools; I have received honorary degrees from the best universities in America; I represent the greatest height of Western culture; people have come here tonight to hear me, and only me, and not you!” And with that, the organist swept out of the room and back into the great hall. As he took his place at the organ bench, the audience burst into applause once again. Then the hall grew silent as the great organist made ready to play. He pressed the keys. Nothing happened. With a nod to the audience, he tried again. Again, nothing happened. He stretched out his arms and pressed the keys once more. But once again, nothing happened. The world-renowned organist just sat for a moment. Members of the audience started whispering. With a stricken face, the organist indicated to the audience that he would return in just a moment. Striding into the back room, the organist found the African-American man still sitting where he had been when the organist had left moments before. The two men stared at one another. Then the organist said, “Please come with me.” The African-American man stood up and together they walked out into the great hall. The audience was uncertain what was happening, but the organist said in a clear voice, “I have a confession to make this evening. For a long time, I have had the mistaken opinion that I work independently. But I have been wrong. I would like to introduce to you a man without whom this concert could not take place, a man who works the bellows and supplies the air for the organ.” At first only a few members of the audience clapped, but then more and more people joined in. The second half of the concert took place as planned, and at the end of the concert the organist and the bellows-worker stood together in solidarity to receive the enthusiastic appreciation of the audience.

How might this story be connected with Advent? In this story, the organist had the greatness of heart to understand, contrary to his ingrained sense of white privilege, contrary to his ingrained sense of class superiority, and contrary to his ingrained sense of cultural superiority, that he needed to become sufficiently empty to make room in his life for others.

Here is the third story for Advent. Very early in the morning on Thanksgiving Day here in Pittsburgh, a taxi driver picked up a customer at the Rivers Casino and drove that customer to his home in Hazelwood. Along the way, the customer asked about the religion and ethnic identity of the taxi driver. Upon being told that the taxi driver was Muslim and that he was originally from Morocco, the customer became a little agitated and asked the taxi driver if he had allegiance to the Islamic State. The taxi driver replied that he was opposed to ISIS. When they arrived at the customer’s home, the customer said that he needed to retrieve his wallet inside his home so that he could pay the fare. The taxi driver waited outside. After a few moments, the taxi driver looked up and saw the customer coming back to the taxi – but the customer was carrying a rifle. The taxi driver immediately drove away as fast as he could. But the customer took aim at the fleeing taxi and fired his rifle. Unfortunately, a bullet from the rifle hit the taxi driver in his upper back or neck and the bullet lodged near his spinal cord. The taxi driver was able to continue driving and soon received medical assistance. The story was reported in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Sunday, November 29.

This story became personal for me on Monday, November 30, when I received a request from one of the spiritual leaders of PIIN, the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network. He asked if I could participate in a meeting taking place the next day at the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, which is a member congregation of PIIN. It turns out that the taxi driver is a member of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, and the Islamic community there, especially the Moroccan community, was troubled by their perception that the Pittsburgh Police had not offered a timely or thorough response to the shooting.

On the evening of Tuesday, December 1, I joined three other spiritual leaders from PIIN for a meeting with Wasi Muhammad, the Executive Director of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh. We listened as Wasi explained the situation from his perspective. We concluded that it would be very helpful to arrange a meeting between Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay and Wasi Muhammad. Happily, the meeting was scheduled for late afternoon on the very next day, which was Wednesday, December 2. Chief McLay brought along Zone 4 Commander Daniel Herrman and Executive Officer Commander Eric Holmes. Kevin Acklin, who serves as Chief of Staff for Mayor Bill Peduto, also joined our meeting. Along with Wasi Muhammad, three PIIN spiritual leaders were also present. The conversation was very productive, and the outcome was a press conference scheduled for 5:30 PM on Saturday, December 5. Speakers for this press conference included Wasi Muhammad, another leader of the Islamic Center, Rev. Vincent Kolb representing PIIN, and Police Chief Cameron McLay. This press conference was covered extensively by local TV and local newspapers. Chief McLay offered a generous list of initiatives to send a message that (1) he wanted to maintain ongoing communication with the Islamic community, that (2) the Islamic community deserves the same respect and protection that any other community deserves in our city, that (3) he would be looking for an opportunity to provide intercultural sensitivity training for the police force, and that (4) in this time of increased hostility toward Muslims in America, all crimes against Muslims in Pittsburgh would be investigated with awareness that the offense might be a hate crime.

I should add that on Friday, December 4, the day before the press conference, members of PIIN congregations were invited to join the Muslim community for their afternoon prayers as a show of solidarity and support.

Thus, I visited the Islamic Community of Pittsburgh on December 1, December 2, December 4, and December 5 – four times in five days – and I was proud to be part of PIIN as we helped to create of path of dialogue and cooperation, thereby avoiding what could have been a very antagonistic confrontation.

Wasi Muhammad came to the PIIN Congregational Leaders Assembly this past Thursday, December 10, and he delivered a heartfelt message of appreciation on behalf of the Islamic Center for the spirit of solidarity and support and community and inclusiveness that PIIN had demonstrated.

How might this story be connected with Advent? In the aftermath of the violence in Paris and in San Bernardino, Islamophobia has surged here in America. Perhaps the most incendiary expression of Islamophobia came recently from Donald Trump, whose lead in the Republican Presidential primary race has actually increased because of his racist remarks. In this national context of hate and intolerance, I was proud to do my part as the Senior Minister of First Unitarian Church, to stand up for our Unitarian Universalist values of respect for the inherent worth and dignity of every person as a potentially antagonistic situation here in Pittsburgh was turned instead into a network of relationships marked by respect and solidarity. This was my way of celebrating Advent, my way of adopting emptiness as a spiritual practice, my way of experiencing the challenges and rewards of making room for others in the life of our larger community.

Here is the fourth story for Advent. Once upon a time there was a church of courage that lived in a city. Many different kinds of people lived in the city. Because the church of courage regarded diversity as a strength, the church of courage decided to take a significant step toward bringing different kinds of people together into a shared sense of community with one another. Their plan was very simple yet very challenging. The church of courage already had a white minister. The plan was to call a second minister who would be a person of color. And that is exactly what the church of courage did.

At first, the plan worked, and everyone was happy. But then some problems emerged. For example, the church of courage discovered that it did not have an adequate process for dealing with identity-based expressions of disrespect directed toward the new minister. There were other problems as well. The full story has many details, and we do not have time this morning to cover all those details. The short version of the story is that after two years, the new minister was gone.

The church of courage was disappointed. The story had not worked out as they had hoped. Even though the departure of the new minister was probably the best path forward, the church of courage was still disappointed.

The church of courage experienced some challenges in the next few years. Like many other churches, the church of courage struggled with membership and with finances. Church leaders tried to figure out how their membership struggles and financial struggles reflected the larger cultural context and how their membership and finances reflected their own particular story.

Eventually, the church of courage became the church of courage once again. Two things contributed to this transformation.

First, the church of courage wrestled with what it meant to be successful. Some church of courage members had an attitude toward success that was expressed in these well-known words by the African-American revolutionary activist Assata Shakur:

It is our duty to fight for our freedom.
It is our duty to win.
We must love each other and support each other.
We have nothing to lose but our chains.

The church of courage members who had this attitude toward success believed with Assata Shakur that it was indeed their duty to win, to succeed, to have their plans work out. When the church of courage did not win, they believed the church of courage had failed.

In contrast to this attitude, another group of church of courage members had a different attitude. Their attitude was expressed in these words by the African-American Unitarian Universalist minister Mark Morrison-Reed:

It is not possible, nor necessary, to know the outcome of our actions; therefore we act in faith. Faith asks not that we succeed, but that we try. We try because we yearn to live out our values. Conscience urges us on, for we have dreamed of a better, more just tomorrow. We care; therefore, we act. In acting, we risk having our hearts broken a thousand times; therefore, we are sustained by hope. That is the price those who cleared the way for us accepted. It is what living fully, deeply, and with integrity demands.

This second group of church of courage members believed with Mark Morrison-Reed that their faith tradition did not demand success. Rather, their duty was to try. Their duty was to try even if that brought the risk of having their hearts broken a thousand times.

Eventually, everyone in the church of courage came around to the attitude of the second group of church of courage members. The attitude throughout the church of courage was that their duty was to try, accepting the risk that their hearts might be broken. The members of the church of courage no longer thought of their story as a failure. The members of the church of courage became proud that they had the courage to try. They became proud that they had taken the risk that their hearts might be broken. They became proud that they had dared to do something that very few other churches had dared to do. They became proud that they had answered the call of their faith, the call that demanded only that they try. The members of the church of courage stopped looking for someone to blame. Instead, they said to one another, “What can we learn from our story? And how can we move forward in a courageous way?”

Coming to a common understanding about the importance of trying was one thing that made the church of courage become the church of courage once again. The other thing that contributed to that transformation is suggested by the next story.

Here is the fifth and final story for Advent. This was written by Anne Bowman, a Universalist lay person. Two travelers on their way to Japan were standing at the rail of the ship looking out upon the vast open sea. After but a few moments, one of the men turned about and walked away, disappointment written on his countenance. Throughout the day, the man returned to the deck rail [and] turned his back upon the scene, each time appearing more disconsolate than before. Finally the second traveler, who had remained at the rail, felt compelled to ask his fellow traveler what it was which made him so downcast on what was evidently a pleasure trip. The man replied that he had been told that at this point of the voyage he would be able to see Mt. Fuji rising in the distance. However, the haze over the water was apparently not going to lift, depriving him of a sight which he had so long anticipated. Taking him by the arm, his shipmate led the man back to the rail of the ship and said quietly, “Look higher.” The traveler, raising his eyes above the haze, saw in all its beauty and majesty the great mountain peak. [1]

How might this story be connected with Advent? And how might this story be connected with the church of courage? Perhaps the connection is that Advent does not last forever. Yes, there is a season of darkness, a season of preparation, a season of inward reflection, a season of waiting, a season of emptiness. But eventually the season of preparation gives way to the season of fulfillment. For the church of courage, becoming proud of their courage to try was one part of their transformation to become the church of courage once again. But the other part of their transformation was looking higher: coming to understand that a sense of inspiration could be found simply by looking higher; coming to understand that a sense of purpose could be found simply by looking higher; coming to understand that the call of their faith tradition could be found simply by looking higher; coming to understand that they would remain disappointed until they had the wisdom to look higher.

The church of courage is of course fictional, and any resemblance to an actual church is purely coincidental. But here at the First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh, as we discern our own path forward, we would do well to keep in mind the story of the church of courage, today at our congregational budget presentation, and on into the coming year.

More generally, and more personally, may we all find life lessons in this season of preparation, this season of waiting, this season of anticipation. May we find it rewarding to adopt emptiness as a spiritual practice, emptiness that calls us to make room for others in our lives, others who may be unfamiliar to us, others whose presence invites us to find new ways to affirm that diversity may be regarded not only a fact of life, but also as an intentional achievement.

We are not called to be successful. We are called to be faithful. We are called to try.



[1] Anne S. Bowman, "Look Higher," To Meet the Asking Years, edited by Gordon B. McKeeman (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 1984), pp. 34-35.

Come to be moved and held in mutual embrace. Come and be made whole.
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