What If and Why Not?

Rev. David Herndon
First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh
February 19, 2017

Anyone remember the Macarena?  It was written and recorded by Los del Rio, who came from southern Spain.Released in 1994, this song became a worldwide sensation in 1995 and 1996.  A couple of years later, I was driving in central Ohio heading home toward Pittsburgh.It was late at night and I was listening to music I don’t usually listen to.  And suddenly I heard it:a bluegrass version of Macarena.

What struck me most about this music was the sheer creative audacity of successfully transporting this song from one musical style to a completely different musical style.  It was as if the banjo player had said, What if? and the fiddle player replied, Why not? and they just went ahead and created their vision.

I’d like to share with you one more instance of a fiercely creative idea.  This idea comes from the past, and the sheer creative audacity of this idea is that it is so different from what people believe nowadays.  This idea is voluntary obedience to laws of nature on the part of physical objects.  This idea goes back at least to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, who lived from about 535 to about 475 BCE.  In his book The Grand Design, Stephen Hawking describes this idea in a little more detail:  “[The Stoics] often described physical processes in legal terms and believed them to be in need of enforcement, even though the objects required to ‘obey’ the laws were inanimate.”  Hawking also makes this surprising observation:  “Even as late as the sixteenth century, the great German astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571 – 1630) believed that planets had sense perception and consciously followed laws of movement that were grasped by their ‘mind.’”  So it would appear that for at least two thousand years, people believed that obedience to the laws of nature was voluntary, conscious, and intentional.  How audaciously creative of our ancestors to believe something so different from what we believe nowadays!

Our worship service this morning is a celebration of imagining, dreaming, creating, envisioning, experimenting, innovating, exploring, and discovering.  Here on the chancel, as I mentioned earlier, we have four people engaged in the magic of creative artistic or spiritual expression right before your very eyes:  Stephanie Pawlowski, our Commissioned Lay Minister candidate; Sheila Squillante, a poet and essayist who serves as Director of the Master of Fine Arts program at Chatham University; Julie Stunden, who has served on the fine arts faculty of the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University and now teaches at the Waldorf School; and Mary Weidner, Professor of Art Emerita, College of Fine Art, Carnegie Mellon University.  We also have our Seasonal Singers choir, who are singing two anthems representing two very different stylistic traditions.  And at the end of our worship service today will be improvising the postlude.

To me, our emphasis on creative artistic or spiritual expression beautifully illustrates one of the basic characteristics of liberal theology:flow, with its connotations of growth and evolution.

In his book Faith Without Certainty, Unitarian Universalist theologian Paul Rasor offers this description of liberal theology:  “At the basic level, we can say that liberal theology is based on the premise that human religiousness should be understood and interpreted from the perspective of modern knowledge and modern life experience.  It has been said that liberal theology tries to articulate a framework within which one can be deeply religious and fully modern at the same time.From this orientation, liberal theology is characterized by commitments to free and open intellectual inquiry, to the autonomous authority of individual experience and reason, to the ethical dimensions of religion, and to making religion intellectually credible and socially relevant.”

Rasor notes that the German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768 – 1834) is widely regarded as the founder of the tradition of liberal theology.  In his book On Religion:Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers (1799), Schleiermacher set forth his view that one can indeed be fully modern and deeply religious at the same time.

Rasor goes on to identify a total of our basic characteristics of liberal theology:

Mediation.  Integration of theology and philosophy; church and university; Enlightenment and Romantic periods; religion and contemporary culture.

Flow.  Everything changes.  Everything is interdependent.  Future is open.  Divine can be found in nature.  Humanity is part of nature.  Evolution.  Avoid dualism.  Growth.  Nothing is complete or finished or settled or final.

Autonomy.  Self-authenticity.  Reason and experience.  Suspicion of external authority, including Scripture and tradition.  Human nature is mostly positive.

Ethics.  Emphasis on ethics in contrast to emphasis on doctrine.  God is loving and benevolent – and so are people.  Likeness to God.  Self-culture or self-improvement.  Critique of social injustice.

This morning, I would like to focus on flow, and to do this I would like to share a story.

Once upon a time, there was a church.  It was called the Church of the Eternal Unchanging Perfection.  It was a progressive church, or at least it liked to think of itself as a progressive church.

Unfortunately, the Church of the Eternal Unchanging Perfection, like so many other churches, had fallen on hard times.  Membership had dropped.  Money was scarce.  Morale was uncertain.

One night the west wind blew very strongly through the small city where the Church of the Eternal Unchanging Perfection was located.  Practically everyone was asleep, so they did not feel with west wind, nor did they notice what it left behind at the Church of the Eternal Unchanging Perfection.  Imps, some would call them.  Elves.  Rascals.  Change agents.  Troublemakers.

Started small:  Church always had two white candles on the altar.  One Sunday morning, the parishioners arrived to find that the two white candles had been replaced by one hundred candles of one hundred different colors.

The troublemakers left behind a note that said:

 

Do just what you’ve done and you’ll get what you’ve got!

And that’s why we’re asking:  What if and why not?

Then a little larger:  One Sunday, the parishioners arrived to find that the hymnbooks all had greeting cards in them, and each greeting card had a thoughtful personal message written in the most beautiful handwriting.

Once again, the troublemakers left behind a note that said:

 

Do just what you’ve done and you’ll get what you’ve got!

And that’s why we’re asking:  What if and why not?

Then a little larger:One Sunday, just as the opening hymn began, bright-colored confetti began to fall down from some unseen source high in the vaulted ceiling of the church.

Once again, the troublemakers left behind a note that said:

 

Do just what you’ve done and you’ll get what you’ve got!

And that’s why we’re asking:  What if and why not?

But then larger:  One Sunday morning, the parishioners arrived to find all the pews facing the rear of the Sanctuary, securely bolted in place.

Once again, the troublemakers left behind a note that said:

 

Do just what you’ve done and you’ll get what you’ve got!

And that’s why we’re asking:  What if and why not?

And then larger:  One Sunday morning, when the organist had a day off, a bluegrass band showed up and announced that they had been booked to play the music for the church service.  It turned out that the only song they knew how to play was the Macarena, so instead of singing the hymns, everyone danced the hymns that morning.

Once again, the troublemakers left behind a note that said:

 

Do just what you’ve done and you’ll get what you’ve got!

And that’s why we’re asking:  What if and why not?

Well, word got around in the village.  People started showing up at church once again, primarily to see what sort of unexpected ruckus the church would be experiencing on any particular Sunday morning.  One Sunday the microphone repeated every sentence backward.  Another Sunday the front yard was filled with giant lollipops with little notes that said, “For our guests.”  Yet another Sunday the bell in the bell tower rang unceasingly throughout the entire hour of worship.  No one knew just what to expect at the Church of the Eternal Unchanging Perfection!

But then it occurred to one of the church leaders that maybe there was a message in all the unexpected ruckus.

The church leader to whom this thought occurred was decidedly not the main minister.  Like so many other main ministers, he was, shall we say, a hopeless case.But there was one remarkable young person in the church.  She had no formal leadership role or title, but she felt drawn to the pulpit and the altar and she had simply decided to show up and help out however she could.  It was this young woman who first discovered the notes that the troublemakers had left behind.  You see, the troublemakers had left those notes behind each and every Sunday since they had begun their work, but no one in the church had ever actually found them, even though they had been left in plain sight.  But then one bright spring morning, the young woman was wandering around the church, looking at this, looking at that, and in one quiet corner of the Sanctuary she came across dozens and dozens of notes that had been left behind by the troublemakers, each one bearing the date of a particular Sunday, and each one inscribed with the same message:

Do just what you’ve done and you’ll get what you’ve got!

And that’s why we’re asking:  What if and why not?

Instantly the young woman understood what had happened.  Whoever, or whatever, had been causing the weekly ruckus had also been leaving behind a weekly note!

As it happened, a Church Council meeting was scheduled for the very next day.

The discussion went back and forth about what had been happening in the church and how the congregation might best respond.  Finally, the oldest person in the church stood up.  He had been carried into the church as a baby, and some privately observed that neither the church nor him had changed much since then.  He said, “I just want to say that this church is more like it is now that it used to be.”  And he turned and stomped out through the back door.

Everyone began to speak at once!  Moderator banged gavel.Silence.

Young woman says, if you please, I have something that might interest you.

Note that read:

Do just what you’ve done and you’ll get what you’ve got!

And that’s why we’re asking:  What if and why not?

And there are dozens and dozens of them in the Sanctuary!  I think someone, or something, has been sending us a message.

At that moment, the door bust open and the oldest person stood there with one squirming creature in each hand.  Look what I found listening at the door!  Behind the oldest person and the two squirming creatures was the bright sunlight from outdoors, and no one could really tell exactly what the two squirming creatures were.  Later, some said they were teenagers.  Some said they were schoolchildren.  Some said they were adults going through midlife crises.

In any case, they both finally gave a great squirm and jumped free from the hand of the oldest person, and in unison they said:

Do just what you’ve done and you’ll get what you’ve got!

And that’s why we’re asking:  What if and why not?

And with that they ran off into the bright sunshine, never to reappear at the Church of the Eternal Unchanging Perfection.

Somehow the congregation managed to get through the remainder of the Church Council meeting, but after that they began to do some deep theological reflection.  They came to understand that seeking excellence was very different from seeking perfection.  For even if they could somehow create perfection, it would not remain perfect:  what might be perfect today could not be perfect tomorrow, for the world changes, the world evolves, and the future is open.  So the congregation began to focus not on inching closer and closer to some ideal state where they could set down their tools and stop listening to the spirit.  Instead, they began to focus on doing the best they could in the present moment, knowing they would always have the opportunity to try again tomorrow, or next Sunday, or next year.  And because of this new embrace of liberal theology, this new appreciation of their own identity, this new willingness to trust an open and creative future, the Church of the Eternal Unchanging Perfection began to thrive once again.  They said, What if?  They said, Why not?

Changed its name:  The Flow Church

And they all lived happily, from that time forward.

© 2017 by David Herndon

 

Come to be moved and held in mutual embrace. Come and be made whole.
First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh
605 Morewood Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15213
(412) 621-8008     Map and directions
Worship Services
10:30 AM
Sunday
Office Hours
9:30 AM to 4:30 PM
Tuesday - Friday
Stay Connected
Sign up for our Weekly News Email
Read The Chalice, our monthly newsletter