© Dr. Chris Schriner 2008
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
July 20, 2008

If I ever write a book about my personal philosophy, I think I'll call it Traveling Light. I want to live by just a few basic beliefs and not carry more intellectual baggage than I need for my journey.

There is a religious dimension to traveling light, because most religions have accumulated a lot of theological baggage. If it works for you personally to have many strong religious convictions, that's certainly a valid approach to spirituality. But my approach is to try to keep it simple.

One way to simplify theology is to realize that religions are often much more similar than they seem. I admit that there are contradictions between religions and within religions. But there is so much commonality in the central teachings of the world's great faiths. In fact, I can even see a close kinship between theism and atheism, and I want to elaborate on this idea since it probably sounds strange.

How could there could be common ground between atheists and people who believe in a personal god who loves us, cares for us, and communicates with us? Well, remember that when religion describes God as a person, this description is usually meant symbolically or poetically rather than literally. Even very traditional Christianity says the nature of God is far beyond our understanding. But most theologians do not seem to notice the tension between saying that God is unfathomable and saying God is a lot like us (except perfect). A theologian may say, "God is entirely beyond human comprehension - and God is the perfect, infinite, eternal, all-knowing, all-powerful, creator of the universe who thinks, feels, acts, makes decisions, and communicates."

In my sermon, "Theism and Atheism: Brothers in Disguise?" (March 11, 2007) I also said: "Obviously in at least some respects, thinking of deity as a person is a poetic way of speaking. A typical person has a certain sort of body, but a being that created the universe probably would not possess toes or a pancreas. And what does it mean that God thinks? For us thinking involves our brains, and our thought processes are shaped by the way our brains work. If God has no brain, how does this being process information? Listen to Isaiah 55:8-9 (RSV): ' thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.' So how can we even understand what it means that God thinks? Similarly, how does God 'care?' Does God care in specific ways about specific people, or more like the Earth 'loves' the creatures that live on it, by being a generally supportive environment for living things? This is a deep and difficult question."

Even if we sense that certain realities are far beyond us, we still want to grasp those realities. We may want so much to relate to the Great Mystery that we forget it is a Mystery. I think standard descriptions of god as perfect, eternal, and so on are just elaborate ways of saying: "God - Wow!" Beneath the surface appearances that we see lies the Great Beyond, which we may choose to call god. And as I mentioned last week, those who do not use god-language may also feel deep awe at this astounding cosmos with its black holes, dark matter and dark energy, and multiple dimensions that humans cannot sense.

Both theists and atheists can experience wonder at what one hymn calls the "joyful darkness far beyond our seeing." [from Hymn 23, Service of the Living Tradition] This fertile darkness has somehow given birth to you and me along with the astonishing gift of human consciousness. Our opinions about Ultimate Reality are spiritual wagers, "leaps of faith" into belief or "leaps of doubt" into unbelief. A mystery-affirming theism and a mystery-affirming atheism are brothers and sisters in disguise.

This close kinship between theism and atheism is marvelously exemplified in the marriage of Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow, and in their concept of cre/atheism, a single word with multiple pronunciations. Dowd is a theist, so he pronounces it cre-a-THEISM. Connie is an atheist, so she pronounces it cre-A-theism.

I also appreciate this unifying statement by the Rev. Nick Cardell: "Whether I am an accident of nature or the design of a god, it is I who must give dignity to my life if I am to be worthy of the design or build upon the accident."

Both believers and non-believers can also affirm the simple principle that powerful sources of healing and transformation are abundantly available to all of us. Transformation is available on the personal level, the relational level, and the societal level. The sources of healing and renewal are not rare or exotic. They are available to virtually everyone. This I believe, based on my own life-experience, and this belief is validated daily by life's gifts of grace.

Traveling light means focusing on basic principles rather than getting lost in details. And we can also "add lightness" to everyday concerns - work, relationships, and other practical matters. This leads me to one of my favorite themes, which is "letting go."

In 2004, in a sermon on letting go, I suggested that most unhappiness results from tensely pushing to make things turn out "right." I think this attitude is the number one cause of stressful emotions, at least among people who are healthy and well-fed and not currently wrestling with a rhinoceros. To let go is simply to refrain from straining to make life turn out right.

The moment of letting go is a moment of living-without-fighting. We are awake, alert, and free from conflict. There is no struggle to change anything around us, no struggle to change anything inside of us. We may actually be changing something around us or changing something within us. We may be extremely pro-active and effective. But there is no struggle. There is only awareness and action, followed by more awareness and further action. Even in coping with complicated challenges there is a deep serenity, because we are no longer fighting with life. Letting go doesn't mean lowering our standards or giving up our dreams, but we need not feel tense and rigid while pursuing our goals. We need not make ourselves miserable in the pursuit of happiness!

I've written a book about ways of letting go, so I won't say much this morning about specific techniques. There are some helpful tricks, such as letting go of only 1% of the tension we feel or letting go just for this moment. But the basic idea is to soften our attachments to how situations "have" to turn out.

So far I've been talking about traveling light theologically and psychologically. We don't need to understand ultimate reality to say, "Wow, what a wondrous mystery has given birth to this world!" - or to know that healing and transformation are available almost every moment. And we can best open up to these possibilities if we let go of tensely pushing to make things come out "right."

Traveling light makes it easier to focus on very simple life principles. So what principles do you want to follow? We're going to pause for a time of prayer and meditation about this, and afterward I'll ask for some comments before resuming the sermon. So let's close our eyes and enter into a time of quiet reflection. What are the simple but crucial principles we should keep in mind every day? I'm thinking of things like, "listen to each other," "think before you speak," and "take care of your health." What else comes to mind? (Silence.) Now continue to focus within, while Jo Ann [Schriner] plays some music for reflection. (Music.) Amen.

Let's hear a few brief sharings about what you experienced. (Discussion)

Thank you. I want to turn now to just one of these kindergarten-simple principles. Aldous Huxley expressed this idea well as he was nearing death, saying, "It's a bit embarrassing to have been concerned with the human problem all one's life and find at the end that one has no more to offer than: Try to be a little kinder." [Tom Owen-Towle, Spiritual Fitness, p. 343.]

Practicing kindness is at the core of spiritual growth. And the reward is usually immediate. How do you feel after you do something thoughtful for someone? 90% of the time I find myself uplifted. "This feels right; this is the way I was meant to be."

Kindness happens person to person, but there is a larger sort of kindness which is also important. As Michael Dyson put it, "Justice is what love sounds like when it speaks in public." But today this country is suffering from "kindness deficit disorder." Look at how society treats people who have less power, less money, and serious mental and physical challenges. When the government budget gets tight, we cut programs for the poor. And how unkind to treat health insurance as a privilege for those who can pay for it, when other rich nations treat it as a basic right. In 2006 there were "47 million people in this country with no health coverage" [Jim Hightower and Phillip Frazer, The Hightower Lowdown, November 2007, p. 2.] and now that the economy's going bad, it's getting even worse. And what does it say about our society that we now have 2.3 million human beings locked behind bars? If we cared enough to spend money on early intervention for troubled children and youth, we would not have one of the highest imprisonment rates in world history. I am so glad that many of you perform political acts of kindness, and that the Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism focus so much on being good citizens.

Here's a story that I've shared with you before which illustrates some key points about kindness. It's what one person wrote about his own experience:

I was living in Chicago and going through...a particularly cold winter both in my personal life and the outside temperature. One evening I was walking home from a bar where I had been drinking alone, feeling sorry for myself, when I saw a homeless man standing over an exhaust grate in front of a department store...I was too immersed in my own troubles to deal with him so I crossed the street. As I went by, I looked over and saw a businessman come out of the store and pull a ski parka out of a bag and hand it to the homeless man...then the [homeless] man looked across the street at me. He shook his head slowly and I knew he was crying. It was the last time I have ever been able to disappear into my own sorrow. [Random Acts of Kindness, Conari Press, p. 64.]

People who are obsessed with their own lives may not notice those who need a kind word or an act of generosity. So cultivating mindful awareness is the first step in learning to be kind. Then once we notice someone in need, we must pause and change course to respond. As Mary Webb put it, "If you stop to be kind, you must swerve often from your path." [Random Acts of Kindness, Conari Press, p. 110.] Or as Morrie Turner put it in his January 16, 2008 comic strip, Wee Pals, "Don't be afraid to go the extra mile. It's never crowded."

Traveling light. Carrying what we need. And we need to remember to be kind. But there is another meaning to the term, "traveling light." Jesus of Nazareth said, "You are the light of the world." You are a light, and you are on a journey, so you are a traveling light.

You may remember the Rev. Tony Larsen's suggestion that we can see two things in everyone we meet - a bright light and a wound. We do have our wounds, but each of us also has a brightness, a goodness, a glow. And you, personally, you have your own special brightness. You are a traveling light. So I will close with a farewell I learned from the Rev. Karen Stoyanoff. Go shining, my friends, go shining.

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