My observation of the world and how it works has taught me that there are cultures of life; and there are cultures of death. That there are ways of living that are really only dying; and there are ways of living that give life.
I believe that spiritual practice is about being aware of this difference and acting upon it—to give life.
The title of my sermon for this Easter is “Warfing and Woofing.”
This is a Southernism I grew up with—“He cain’t warf for woofin’.” As a kid, I couldn’t figure out what that saying was about. I didn’t know what a “warf” or a “woof” were. Eventually I discovered that “woof” was a dialectical variant of “weft,” the cross-threads on a loom, and “warf” is “warp,” the base threads. “He cain’t warf for woofin” means that someone is so caught up in the foundation of the fabric that he or she never gets around to weaving the fabric itself. In fact, in this case, there never IS any fabric, only the threads. The fabric never comes together.
This situation, I think, is a good image for life—we work so intently at certain threads, that we never realize—we never see—the fabric. We never realize the interdependence of the threads and our importance and connection among them.
That’s why religions and spiritual practices have developed through the ages—so that human beings can see the fabric. And choose life.
The more I see, the more I am convinced that the Seventh Unitarian Universalist Principle is the most important of all, because it enfolds them all—
Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
Consider this story from the Holy Qur’an (18:65-82):
Moses met Khidr, whom God had taught knowledge in God’s own Presence. Moses said to Khidr, “May I follow you so that I may learn something of the Higher Truth that you have been taught?”
Khidr said, “You will not be able to have patience with me! How can anyone have patience concerning things they do not understand?”
Moses said: “If God so wills it, you will find me patient and I will not disobey you.”
Khidr said, “If you wish to follow me, ask me no questions about anything until I speak concerning that thing.”
So off they went.
First, they took sail in a boat. While they were underway, Khidr beat a hole in the bottom of the boat.
Moses shouted, “Have you done this to drown everyone on the boat? This is strange!”
Khidr answered, “Didn’t I tell you that you would have no patience with me?”
Moses answered, “Rebuke me not for forgetting, nor grieve me by raising difficulties.”
So off they went.
Next, they met a young man. Khidr killed him.
Moses said, “Have you slain an innocent person who has killed no one? This is a truly terrible thing to do!”
Khidr said, “Didn’t I tell you that you would have no patience with me?”
Moses said, “If ever I ask you about anything after this, keep me not in your company. No more excuses.”
And so off they went.
Next, they came into a town and asked the people there for some food. The people of the town refused them hospitality.
The two walked by a wall that was about to fall down. Khidr set it straight.
Moses said, “Is this how to repay the people of this town?”
Khidr answered, “This is the parting between me and you. And so I tell you why I did the things I did and for which you could not keep your patience. As to the boat, it belonged to certain men in desperate need. Their king was about to seize the boat, so I rendered it unserviceable to the king. As for the youth, his parents were people of Faith, and we feared that he would grieve them by obstinate rebellion and ingratitude to both God and humanity. Thus, we ended his life and will replace him with a son who will not be so rebellious. As for the wall, it belonged to two youths, orphans, in the town. Beneath the wall is a buried treasure to which they are entitled. They will now be at their full age and strength when the treasure is found, and so will be able to defend it. This is a mercy to them, granted by God. I did none of these things of my own choosing. This is why I did the things I did for which you would not hold your patience.”
Trust. Trust that the warp and weft, the fabric of all reality, is just fine. That’s a tough place to get to.
Spiritual writer Andrew Cohen has this to say:
The awakening of the spiritual impulse in the human heart and mind is the universe becoming conscious of itself through its own emerging creative process. When you, an awakening human being, experience that urge, the intensity of your creative inspiration is coming from the First Cause itself. The interior of the cosmos is awakening to itself within you, and responding to its own highest aspiration, which is to become more conscious.
You may have seen the Newsweek with the cover article, “Forget the Church and Follow Jesus” by Andrew Sullivan.
For Unitarian Universalists this sort of article—reclaiming the moral teachings of Jesus from the moralizing of dogmatic creeds—can be irritating. After all, we have been doing this for a long time. And so few people seem to notice. Sullivan does, however, mention one of our Unitarian precursors, Thomas Jefferson and his Bible. I hope you’ve seen pictures of Jefferson’s work, as he painstakingly cut out verses with a razor, constructing what he saw as the teaching of Jesus, moral and ethical exemplar.
But, seriously—doesn’t every dogma, creed, denomination, and religion construct itself by chopping up its scriptures? And doesn’t each person construct his or her own religion, really? Isn’t Jefferson merely being honest about what we all do?
The contemporary British philosopher Simon Critchley argues that philosophy begins in disappointment: religious disappointment leads us to question meaning, argues Critchley; and political disappointment leads us to question justice. The problem is—as the Newsweek article and Jefferson’s razor make clear—that meaning gets lost in religious tradition, and must be found again.
Take, for example, the Hebrew festival of Passover, which celebrates the escape of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt. It is also the harvest season for barley—an important grain in the Middle East. And barley played an important part in the temple worship of Ancient Israel.
Then there is Passover itself. The Seder as it is celebrated currently is not the Seder that Jesus would have celebrated in his time at what Christians call the Last Supper. The Passover meal in the time of Jesus centered on the sacrifice of a lamb. The lamb had to be kept for four days, to be sure it wasn’t sick. Then, it was slaughtered for the feast. You can imagine that people got attached to the lamb.
I have raised sheep. I can say they are very intelligent animals. A lamb is a lot like a puppy—playful and inquisitive. I can also say that this ancient feeling of loss when an animal must be killed was very much part of my life. And the training that the kindest way to kill is with detached efficiency, not shaky emotion.
But this loss of innocence—this waste of vitality—was, I suspect, the central image of “the lamb of God” to the earliest Jewish Christians.
Thomas Jefferson knew; many Christians know; Unitarian Universalist know—that religious, spiritual, moral, and ethical convictions must be based in visceral, heartfelt understanding.
That’s why advice is so seldom taken: we must realize, we must know for ourselves.
In order to live comfortably in this world, we must find a place to be other than fear.
Let’s call it “trust.”
We must know for ourselves.
Perhaps you can’t muster the belief that the universe is benevolent. But how about not jumping to the other conclusion? How about just considering neutral?
We have to find a way—some way—to stop being humans doing
We have to be able to warf AND woof;
And I believe the answer lies in the vulnerability inherent in the realization that we are all part of the interdependent web of all existence.
As Martin Luther King put it, “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment.”
But let’s turn that around and look at it from the side of love and trust:
“We are embraced in an unfailing network of mutuality, woven into a single garment.”