Rev. David Herndon
First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh
September 17, 2017
WELCOME THE HEART, WELCOME THE HEAD, WELCOME THE SPIRIT!
AND WECOME THE HANDS!
By David Herndon
17 September 2017
First Unitarian Church
In the story of the most beautiful heart, we hear of a young person whose heart has not been touched by relationship with others or by the troubles and disappointments of the world. The young man is proud of his heart. But then an elder shows up. The heart of the elder is tattered. The heart of the elder includes parts and pieces of the hearts of other people. The heart of the elder includes places where the patchwork does not quite line up, and there are even some holes in the elder’s heart. Eventually the young man gets the message and exchanges a piece of his heart for a piece of the older man’s heart.
For me, the message of this story is that the most beautiful heart is one that has experienced emotion, one that has opened itself to love, one that has experienced pain and grief and loss, one that has become linked with others.
This story reminds me of the well-known children’s story called the Velveteen Rabbit. In this story, a pleasing outward appearance is contrasted with interior authenticity. Here is one of the most illuminating parts of the story:
"What is REAL?" asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room." Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?"
"Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real."
"Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit.
"Sometimes," said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. "When you are Real you don't mind being hurt."
"Does it happen all at once, like being wound up," he asked, "or bit by bit?"
"It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become.It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."
For me, the message here is that becoming a more loving person, a more person-centered person, a more heart-centered person may lead to changes which the more impersonal world does not admire but which make one more authentic and genuine and real nevertheless.
For many Unitarian Universalists, welcoming the heart may be our path of spiritual growth. For many of us, our education has trained us to analyze and optimize and calculate and articulate. For many of us, our careers reward us for figuring things out, for applying the appropriate policies and procedures to particular situations, for knowing things. But we may wonder if something is missing when we appreciate only this part of ourselves.
Our Unitarian Universalist tradition has also emphasized thinking and knowing. As many of you know, the Unitarian tradition in the United States began in the early 1800s in Boston and the surrounding vicinity in eastern Massachusetts. In 1819, William Ellery Channing, the foremost spokesperson for Unitarianism, preached a sermon in which he laid out the distinctive principles of this new denomination. Among other things, Channing said: “We are particularly accused of making an unwarrantable use of reason in the interpretation of Scripture. We are said to exalt reason above revelation, to prefer our own wisdom to God's.Loose and undefined charges of this kind are circulated so freely, that we think it due to ourselves, and to the cause of truth, to express our views with some particularity. . . . We profess not to know a book, which demands a more frequent exercise of reason than the Bible. . . . We indeed grant, that the use of reason in religion is accompanied with danger. But we ask any honest [person] to look back on the history of the church, and say, whether the renunciation of it be not still more dangerous. . . . Say what we may, God has given us a rational nature, and will call us to account for it. We may let it sleep, but we do so at our peril. Revelation is addressed to us as rational beings.”
But even before the emergence of Unitarianism after 1800, there were so-called proto-Unitarians, that is, ministers who gradually laid the foundations for a more liberal approach to religion. One of these was Charles Chauncy, who served as minister with the First Church in Boston from 1727 to 1787, a total of sixty years. Chauncy was a strong opponent of the Great Awakening of the 1740s, a time when revivalist preachers were roaming the countryside and expounding the terrors of hell with great enthusiasm before large crowds. Chauncy was quite critical of what he called “remarkable appearances, -- such as crying out, -- falling down, -- twitchings and convulsive motions, -- foamings and frothings, -- trances and visions and revelations” and he defended a more deliberate, rational way in religion, affirming that “There is such a thing as real religion . . . and ‘tis in its nature a sober, calm, and reasonable thing.” Chauncy’s eighteenth-century colleague Jonathan Mayhew spoke in a similar way, saying that “It is by our reason that we are exalted above the beasts of the field. It is by this that we are allied to angels, and all the glorious intelligences of the heavenly world:yes, by this we resemble God himself.”
That admiration of reason, so deeply embedded in the DNA of our liberal religious tradition, has continued into our own time. In the most recent issue of our denominational magazine, the Unitarian Universalist World, Mark Morrison-Reed points out that in response to a 1989 survey on worship preferences, 74.5 percent of us named “intellectual stimulation” as the most important part of worship.
We can be proud of the intellectual achievements of our Unitarian tradition. But any strength overdone may also become a weakness. When we overemphasize thinking and knowing, we miss out on the other parts of our humanity.
The Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung spoke about wholeness of personality, when one can explore and bring to consciousness and gather up all of our cognitive functions, even those that may not feel entirely natural or comfortable. According to Jung, there are four basic modes of cognitive functioning – thinking, feeling, intuition, and sensation. Here is one way to characterize these four different modes of cognitive functioning:
Thinking is impersonal assessment.
Feeling is person-centered assessment.
Intuition is abstract perception of the environment.
Sensing is concrete perception of the environment.
According to Jung, most of us are quite familiar and comfortable with one or two of these modes of cognitive function, and less familiar and comfortable with the other two. For example, someone might have Thinking as their basic way of encountering the world, with Sensing as a secondary way. Spiritual growth in this context means embracing the less-familiar cognitive functions. For the person in this example, spiritual growth would mean exploring and embracing the Feeling and Intuitive sides of their personality, even though that may mean moving out of their comfort zone.
The basic message here is that our personality remains diminished or immature when we exalt some aspects of our personality and neglect other aspects of our personality.
In his first letter to the church in Corinth, St Paul uses the metaphor of the body to state a similar message. “Indeed,” he says, “the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I am not part of the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? . . . As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ . . . If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”
Another metaphor that points toward wholeness of personality is the crew of Star Trek. You might say that Star Trek is a metaphor for personal cognitive functioning that embraces all these different modes of cognitive function into a harmonious and mature and effective whole.
Here is an example of what can happen when a strength is overemphasized. Both the Unitarian and Universalist side of our faith tradition started out as liberal Protestant denominations around the year 1800. Both trace their roots back to the Protestant Reformation, but both were deeply influenced by the Enlightenment of the 1700s, the Age of Reason. In fact, the Unitarian Universalist tradition has perhaps been more deeply influenced by the Enlightenment than any other faith tradition. We can feel proud to claim that heritage. However, you can look through the writings of towering Enlightenment thinkers such as David Hume and Immanuel Kant and find starkly racist comments. I will not repeat them here. These comments need not invalidate their immense contributions to Western thought in general or to Unitarian Universalism in particular. But as Unitarian Universalists, as people of conscience, they ought to make us skeptical of relying exclusively on just one mode of cognitive functioning, even if that mode of cognitive functioning is reason. If the thinking of these brilliant philosophers had been tempered with a little more feeling, if they had balanced their personalities with a little more compassion, if they had been a little more person-centered, if they had achieved a greater wholeness of personality, if they had understood that even pure reason can become infected with the disease of oppression, perhaps they might have avoided those racist sentiments.
Otis Moss III serves as the senior pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, the church Barack Obama attended before beginning his campaign for President of the United States. Widely acclaimed as an exceptional preacher in the black church tradition, Otis Moss III describes what he does as “Blue Note Preaching.” Here is his definition:“Blue Note preaching, or preaching with Blues sensibilities, is prophetic preaching – preaching about tragedy, but refusing to fall into despair.”
Remember back a few moments ago when I mentioned that statistic cited by Mark Morrison-Reed that in 1989, 74.5 percent of Unitarian Universalists said that ‘intellectual stimulation’ was the most important aspect of worship?
To me, Blue Note preaching is the opposite of intellectual stimulation.
Indeed, in the article that appeared in the most recent issue of the Unitarian Universalist World magazine, Mark Morrison-Reed continued with this observation: “What was most important for African American [Unitarian Universalists] who responded to the survey? ‘Celebrating common values’ (chosen by 69 percent), then ‘hope,’ ‘vision,’ and ‘music’ – all before ‘intellectual stimulation.’”
Now remember back a few moments ago to the story about the most beautiful heart. The most beautiful heart is not one that has been kept isolated from the pain of caring. The most beautiful heart is not one that has exalted thinking as a way of remaining emotionally distant from and uninvolved with the systemic suffering of others. Rather, the most beautiful heart is one that mingles itself with other hearts so that it can understand the joy and the sorrow of other hearts. The most beautiful heart is a Blue Note heart.
Perhaps we Unitarian Universalists can adapt Blue Note spirituality for our own context. In fact, we were invited to do so many years ago by great twentieth-century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. In 1940, Reinhold Niebuhr delivered the Ware Lecture at the General Assembly of the American Unitarian Association. His lecture was entitled “Optimism, Pessimism, and Religious Faith.” At one point in his lecture, Niebuhr said that “an adequate faith is always an ultimate optimism that has considered all the facts which lead to pessimism.”
In other words, an adequate faith is a Blue Note faith – a faith that knows tragedy, but refuses to fall into despair.
Otis Moss III tells this story: “I remember one night I was half asleep and heard some noise in the house. My wife, Monica, punched me and said, ‘You go check that out!’ So I did.Just like a good preacher, I grabbed my rod and staff to comfort me.I went walking through the house with my rod and staff that was made in Louisville with the name ‘Slugger’ on it.
“I looked downstairs, and then I heard the noise again, and I made my way back upstairs and peeked in my daughter’s room. There was a six-year-old girl dancing in the darkness . . . just spinning around, saying, ‘Look at me, Daddy.’
“I said, ‘Makayla, you need to go to bed.It is 3:00 a.m. You need to go to bed.’
“But she said, ‘No, look at me, Daddy. Look at me.’
“And she was spinning:barrettes going back and forth, pigtails going back and forth.
“I was getting huffy and puffy wanting her to go to bed, but then God spoke to me at that moment and said, ‘Look at your daughter! She’s dancing in the dark. The darkness is around her but not in her. . . . she’s dancing in the dark.’”
How will we Unitarian Universalists ever understand and speak about the dark night that some have experienced if we keep the light of reason switched on all the time? Perhaps the antidote to the despair of the dark night is not always turning on the light of reason. Sometimes, perhaps, the antidote to the despair of the dark night is dancing – dancing in the dark. Maybe we Unitarian Universalists can learn that. Maybe we Unitarian Universalists can come to a deeper appreciation of Blue Note preaching, and Blue Note worship, and Blue Note spirituality, and Blue Note music, that is to say, preaching and worship and spirituality and music that is acquainted with tragedy -- preaching and worship and spirituality and music that acknowledges oppression -- preaching and worship and spirituality and music that helps us understand that even if we have not experienced oppression directly, we nevertheless experience brokenness because we participate in oppressive social systems -- preaching and worship and spirituality and music that lifts up all this, and yet refuses to fall into despair -- Blue Note preaching and Blue Note worship and Blue Note spirituality and Blue Note music that understands how to dance in the dark and how to make a beautiful heart. Maybe we Unitarian Universalists can learn that. May it come to be so, someday soon, someday very soon.
© 2017 by David Herndon