When my mother was growing up, during in the Great Depression, she and her friends, when they had a nickel, liked to stop at the corner store in their immigrant neighborhood for an ice cream to share. "What flavors do you have?" they would ask the storekeeper. And he would invariably ratttle back what sounded like a list, but in an accent or language none of the girls could understand at all, until he ended, "plus stwabelly, chawklet, and wanilla." So they'd settle for one of those, half-wondering what else might exist, half-suspecting that's all he ever had.
For a long time, it occurs to me, religion in America was like that. I was in Washington, DC, last June, lining up with religious leaders to "Stand for Children" at the Lincoln Memorial. A woman with a clipboard approached me: "Protestant, Catholic, Jewish -- or otherwise?"she asked. "Oh, seat me with the 'otherwise,'" I replied. "They sound like good company!" For I was suddenly struck by how the word seemed both apt and ironic.
"To really understanding religion in a pluralistic world," says my friend Bill Vendley, "requires a high I.Q. Which has nothing to do with your intelligence. That stands for your Irony Quotient." Bill is Secretary General of the World Conference on Religion & Peace. Once I quoted him in a column, then asking if you could guess who wrote these words: "Liberals have been correct throughout history on issues of social justice while we have been neglectful or derelict in applying the principles of our faith to establishing justice in a fallen world." Ralph Reed, until recently of the Christian Coalition.
"What's irony, Daddy?" a daughter once asked. "Irony, sweetheart? Mm, it's when what you expected turns out to be, well, otherwise, with you wiser, too. When people you don't like turn out to have some wisdom after all. When someone you considered 'other' teaches you something -- about yourself. Or when, in public affairs, it takes an adamant anti-Communist like Nixon to be the President who opens up relations with Communist China. That's irony. When left and right, bad and good, weak and strong, turn out to be deeper and more complex than you'd thought they were."
Ironically, for me it took actually going to China, two summers ago, with Bill Vendley, to see how, with all the religious freedom and pluralism you and I enjoy, our mission, yours and mine, may consist in this: in truly being "otherwise" -- in every possible sense.
A generation ago, in the so-called 'Cultural Revolution,' China tried to stamp out religion. And nearly succeeded.. Every shrine, temple, mosque, church, monastery and seminary was closed. Only 15% of China's people now have any religion at all. Every leader we met - Buddhist, Protestant, Catholic, Muslim and Taoist -- was either nearing 80 or barely 30.
Now China is booming. Consumer spending rose 25% that year. So did the crime rate. The only thing that remains of Marxism is its materialism. The gap between rich and poor grows ten times faster than it does here. There's such a moral, spiritual vacuum that the Communist Party has enlisted the religious survivors in pushing their newest Party slogan: "Renounce Scientific Materialism; Embrace Spiritual Civilization!" How's that for irony?
At a banquet in The Great Hall of the People, given for us by China's top official in charge of religion, I presented symbolic gifts: simple pewter cups and a wooden pen-trays, both designed by Thomas Jefferson, author of the world's first statute for religious freedom. We spoke of religion's proper role, in every culture, in preserving the deepest memories and wisdom of humankind. The Communist official replied: "You are quite right; grave misunderstandings of religion took place here. Deep apologies have been needed."
Going on to a meeting of the International Association for Religious Freedom in S. Korea, I kept thinking how easily you and I take for granted our spiritual freedom we enjoy. With the result, ironically, that we don't always know how powerful it could be, if we would invest it more wisely in, well, being 'otherwise' -- truly wise toward others, amid the growing religious and cultural diversity around us.
For in the last generation, America has experienced its own form of 'cultural revolution.' We have become not only the most religiously active, but the most religiously diverse country on earth. There aren't just three or four flavors of American religion any longer. There are nearly as many Muslims in the U.S. now as there are Jews; more Hindus than Congregationalists; more Buddhists in California alone than their UUs across the country. Which fact keeps me humble, even as I am pleased and amazed at our own growth, both in numbers and in diversity.
For a generation ago we came in three dominant flavors as well -- called humanist, theist, and liberal Christian. But today, it's easy to see, our ways of deepening our own and one another's lives draw on wisdom from many sources -- Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu Native American, and ancient forms of natural religion.
Over half a million North Americans, surveys say, now identify as Unitarian Universalists. And if only half that many are official members or friends of our 1,050 congregations, that only proves to me that we need more congregations, and larger ones, able to reach out and truly be 'otherwise' -- reaching broader segments of the population, among whom are millions yearning for something spiritually deeper than conventional conformity and wiser than the fear-mongering that pretends to be faith on the Religious Right.
For our way in religion, with its commitment to democracy and the rights of conscience, has a catalytic power in pluralistic society far beyond our own circles. It witnesses, in interfaith dialogue, to the possibility of putting aside differences in abstract doctrine or speculation in favor of a practical, centered religion with a civic circumference.
For the memory we seek to embody is of forebears wise enough to put aside the creedal question others use, "What do we all believe in common?" for more profound, covenantal questions: "How shall we treat and help one another here? What hopes might we share? What promises shall we make to help deepen one another's lives in the time we have?"
In Jane Kenyon's poem, "Otherwise," wisdom comes in seeing what we take for granted, then remembering, in dealing with one another, that what we also share is our mortality, for "one day. . . it will be otherwise." Kenyon first wrote that poem when her husband, Donald Hall, was diagnosed with cancer. Within a year, ironically, it was she who had died of leukemia. He survived to make it the title poem of her collected works.
Forrest has it right: morally, our lives are mortared together by our shared mortality. I constantly point out, as he does, how the words human and humane come from the same root as humus, the good earth, which bears us all, to which we return, which we are asked to walk together, in the time that is ours, in humility, remembering, as Jefferson put it, that "It is in our lives, and not from our words, that our religion is truly read." Read from how fully, wisely we use the finite freedom that's ours.
Take my mother again. For years now she has not "got out of bed on two strong legs." She has multiple sclerosis. Largely housebound, in a wheelchair, she phones and writes to stay wisely engaged. Doing things like raising money for a young neighbor woman, the religious educator of a UU society, whoone winter was in a car wreck with her children, without insurance. Ironically, that summer Mother was in a car accident herself, with Dad, who just cracked a few ribs, painfully. But Mother lost the very last of her ability to stand. So that, in a nursing home, for months of rehab, with a chronic irreversible illness, she understandably became quite depressed, saying, like Frankl's companions, "I have nothing to expect from life anymore," or as she put it, or "I'm such a useless burden now!"
It was the Jewish Holidays. I'd celebrated them at my brother's home. His wife, Ann, who is Jewish, loves Mother very much, having lost her own parents early in life. Over the holiday meal, we found ourselves talking about Frankl and finite freedom, when I story came to mind. That afternoon, in the nursing home, I was able to tell it to Mother. I told her that she still had work to do: the work of being, to me, to my brothers, to our wives, our children, to Dad, her friends, her neighbors, even to the nurses and others in the home trying to help her, what she has always been: an example of someone who uses finite freedom wisely and well, with all the best that is in her. Responding to the Otherness which Life often seems to be with an ironic wisdom, by being well, 'otherwise.' Which led me to the story heard at Ann's table, with which I'll also close this morning.
A light spring snow was falling on Munich, in Nazi Germany. A young woman was riding a bus home from work when the traffic stopped. Most passengers were just a bit annoyed. But she saw the soldiers in the sidestreet, loading people into trucks, and became terrified. SS men boarded the bus at the front to check papers. She began to tremble in the back, tears running down her cheeks. "What's the matter?" a man next to her whispered, kindly.
"I don't have the papers you have," she answered. "I'm a Jew; they're going to take me."
The man paused a moment, stepped back, looked her in the eye, and then, to her horror, began to scream, cursing at her: "Damn! You stupid bitch! I can't stand to be near you!"
"Hey! What's going on back there?" the soldiers shouted. "Oh, hell!" the man replied, "My wife has forgotten her papers again! She always does this. I'm completely fed up!" The soldiers laughed and moved on. She never saw that man again. She never even knew his name. Or what is was that, in that moment, had prompted him to be -- so "otherwise."
My friends, Frankl was right. At every moment, we are "questioned by life." One day it will be otherwise. We may never grasp the Otherness that poses those questions to us. But that may not matter. What does matter is that while we have breath, we respond well. With the capacity to sustain love. With gratitude for the unmerited beauty of being itself. With other wisdom. Saying 'No' in the face of death and threats of dehumanization, 'Yes' to all that serves and enhances life. So that, at the very end, our final word may be one of thanks. And others may be thankful for how we have lived. So may it be. Amen and amen.
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