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Counting Our Blessings

General Assembly 1999 Event 201

Planning Committee Worship

By Rev. Thandeka, Associate Professor of Theology and Culture, Meadvill/Lombard Theological School with a reading by Rev. David Bumbaugh, Minister Emeritus of the Unitarian Church in Summit, NJ, and Associate Professor of Ministry at Meadville/Lombard Theological School

Lighting of the Chalice

From countless places we have come
into this one place
By countless communities have we been sent forth
to create this community
Here we light our chalice
reminder of the communities of which we are a part,
reminder of the blessed community to which we aspire.

Reading by Rev. David Bumbaugh

Many years ago, I found myself walking alone along the beach in Delaware. It was early Autumn. We had come to this place for a Board of Trustees retreat. The meeting had grown heated and stressful. I had decided to take a few moment to recover some sense of equanimity. Depressed and tired, I wandered down the beach, thinking about the meeting, and how I could respond to the surprising rancor which had emerged.

I don't know how far I walked. The tide was coming in; the surf was sounding louder and louder off to my left. After a while I stopped and looked up. There was no moon, but the stars were bliliant ina black sky. Every cliche I had ever heard about diamonds on a velvet cloth came flooding into my mind. I stood there for a moment, and then turned back in the direction from which I had come.

As I walked I glanced down at the sandy beach. There I saw something which stopped me in my tracks. As I stepped on the wet beach, my footprint was outlined by a myriad of star-like lights. For the briefest second, they danced and twinkled and then went out. I didn't really believe what I had seen, so I tested it. I took another step and another and another, unable to decide what make of this strange event.

When I told them about it, back at the Board Meeting, our resident physicist assured me that it was just phosphorescence, a natural phenomenon created by small one-celled creatures. Nothing remarkable about it. And I was sure he was right. Except that I could not shake the feeling that there was more to this than a scientific explanation, however accurate, would satisfy.

As soon as I was able, I went back out to the beach. There, in the dark autumn night, I stood looking at the sky with its myriad stars stretching acrossthe heavens, so far away that the light reaching my eyes had begun its journey aeons and aeons ago. Indeed, some of those stars might no longer exist. Looking into that night sky, I was looking into the past.

And then I looked down at my feet, where I stood amid stars, a myriad stars whose life-span was less than a minute. And I was overwhelmed by the certainty that the stars overhead and the stars underfoot were expressions of the same vast force, and middling creatures that we are, we too are expressions of that same force, caught and held between the infinitely old and the immeasurably new, between the aeons and the instant, between the stars above and the stars beneath, held for a brief time, and then, just as the stars of the heavens blink out and the stars of the sand blink out, we too return to the source from which all emerges.

On that Delaware beach I was reminded that caught as we are between the finite and the infinite, between time and eternity, we dance between a community of worlds simultaneously, that we are reflections of the great community of being and have no existence apart from that community. In it all the uniqueness and individuality of existence is rooted, and contained within that community of being is all we know or ever shallknow of meaning and purpose.

Responsive Reading

By Beverly Bumbaugh

Life is a round game, a dance of celestial orbs.
Life is a circling, cycling of microcosmic life-specks.
Life is a mating dance in the downward spiral toward entropy
or in the upward spiral toward cosmic consciousness and the fullness of time.

All of life dances:

The rhythms of the cosmos are echoed in pulse beat and mood swing,
inthe ebb and tide of ocean and breathe, in the synapses of the brain, and in the varying amplitude of waves of sunlight.
Repitition and alteration, forward and back, up and down, round and round the cosmic dance continues.

All of life dances:

We join the great game at birth;
We surrender our position in the line of dancing motes when death beckons.

But the dance goes on.

Sermon: "Counting Our Blessings," by Thandeka

Good morning. A few years ago, I met a Cathholic priest who had spent several months in Ethiopia doing famine relief work with people from a local village. The priest was a tall middle aged American man whose body weight and size seemed more suited for the heavy gear of a football lineman that the willowy garments worn by a man of the cloth. I was still a television producer at NBC in Los Angeles and had arranged an interview with him as bacckground work for a program I wanted to produce on religious missions.

During the course of the interview, the priest described a personal experience in Ethiopia that had changed his life. He had participated in a dance in which members of the devestated community spent countless hours rhythmically moving in a circle to the beat of a drum. Without food to forage or land to cultivate, the members of the village could do nothing except wait for their next shipment of food to be flown in. But instead of simply waiting, they danced a slow step that consisted of something that by the count of the priest seemed to have a "one two three jump" sequence. The villagers did this for hours on end.

Waiting to be accepted as a full member of the group, the priest joined in, which immediately brought him face to face with a seemingly insurmountable problem: he was dance impaired. He could never jump at the right time. He jumped too soon or too late, or sometimes he simply forgot to jump at all. Needless to say, these missteps provided the rest of the members of the group with countless hours of laughter. The children, quite frequently, were so amused that they would fall out of the circle onto the ground in fits of giggling delight. All of the humor, however, was good-natured. The priest said it was neither intended nor experienced as ridicule. Instead, it felt more like the bemused jesting that comes and goes within a community when someone marches to the beat of a different drummer.

Hour after hour the priest labored to learn to count and then jump in just the right way. How many times did he move into and then out of step with the group's rhythm? Too many to count, he confessed, but as time wore on, something happened that took him completely by surprise.

Tears now welled up in the priest's eyes and he was silent for a long moment. When he finally spoke, his voice seemed no louder than a whisper and I had to move closer to hear his words. You know, he said, until that experience I thought that I had known God all of my life. But only as I danced with the other members of the group did I actually feel God's presence in my life. He felt the unconditional love of the members of this group who accepted him with open arms even though his style was so very different from their own.

As Unitarian Universalists, we know something about this feeling of being accepted by a beloved community even when we are out of step with it. We, in fact, know more about this feeling that we think. We have only to remind ourselves of the other side of a major symbol of individualism in our religious tradition: Henry David Thoreau. We tend to remember him as the recalcitrant soloist: the radical individualist, evermore proclaiming himself a "majority of one" in his protests against unfair social policies. And so we picture him in our mind's eye as forever celebrating his isolated Walden Pond soul.

But we must remember that this Yankee individualist also ate his dinner with Ralph Waldo Emerson and his family and washed his clothes at their home while he lived at Walden Pond. We must also remember that Thoreau spent almost a year in Emerson's home while Emerson was in Europe. As social historian Robert D. Richardson Jr. reminds us: Thoreau not only took Emerson's place in the household while Emerson was in Europe, but Thoreau was also adored by Emerson's children and was "emotionally attached to Lydian," Emerson's wife.

Thoreau, Richardson notes, "had written [Lydian] lofty, ardent letters [when he was in] New York a few years earlier and his journals have passages that have led a number of people to believe that in some complicated and never quite fully acknowledged was he was in love with her. 'Others are of my kindred by blood or of my acquaintance but you are mine,' Thoreau wrote in his journal for 1848-1849. 'You are of me and I of you. I can not tell where I leave off and you begin— there is such harmony when your sphere meets mine.'" To be sure, such feelings for Lydian, her children, and his lifelong but tumultuous friendship with Emerson do not negate that other lifelong tendency in Thoreau to get lost in a "well of isolation." But my point is this: although Thoreau celebrated this isolation, he also knew what it meant to count one, two, three, jump and land in the center of a human community and feel loved.

Counting our blessings as Unitarian Universalists means counting on the movements of other persons inside our own heart such that their life pulse and our own life force create a rhythmic harmony of feelings ebbing and flowing in intimate dance, creating anew the supportive feelings of life itself. And what do we mean when we say the words "life itself"?

We know, for example, that there is a long tradition of Christian theologians ranging from Augustine to Paul Tillich who describe God as "life itself." And we are aware of the Judaic tradition expressed by Martin Buber who describes life itself as the experience of relating to others and by so doing, being in relationship to an eternal Thou. "All real living is meeting," Buber reminds us. Surely this is why he describes sicknesses of the soul as sicknesses of relationship.

As Unitarian Universalists, we tend to speak of "life itself" as the source of our humanity. "Life itself" refers to our ability to relate to others in ways that affirm their inherent dignity and worth, as well as our own. Henry Nelson Wieman called such encounters "creative interchange" because he know that the religious person, as he said, "must not only be intellectually persuaded but emotionally stirred."

Today, we have gathered 3,200 strong, because we know what it means to count our blessings. It means counting one two three and then jumping into the hearts of our associational life as members of this religious movement and representatives of its congregations. It means arguing, disagreeing, becoming exasperated, and then embracing each other once again. And so as our 1999 General Assembly gets underway, I offer this prayer:

Let us remember not only to silently count or blessings while we are here, but also to actually count them aloud and then jump when a session becomes particularly difficult. Let us hop, skip, and take other leaps of faith hoping that other persons who might also feel threatened and afraid, lost and ignored, or alienated and out of synch with the group will see in our own inimitable step a heartfelt sign that life is present ever-new, ever-renewing.

Let the congregation say Amen.

Reported by Kok Heong McNaughton