New address: 24 Farnsworth Street, Boston, MA 02210-1409.
I want to tell you about something that happened a few years ago on a Sunday after services. The congregation I was serving then was gathered for a congregational meeting. I was sitting somewhere near the front and someone came and whispered to me that there was a strange man who wanted to see the minister. I knew what that meant: He wanted money, of course, and what better time to be sure to catch the minister at church than on a Sunday morning.
I could smell the alcohol on the stranger's breath immediately. He said, "I want to pray and to turn my life over to Jesus." Obviously, he didn't know what kind of church he was in. I explained that, although Jesus was quite welcome in our church, we probably would not be able to meet his needs, and I directed him to another church down the street. "No," he said. "That doesn't matter. I just need to be able to pray right now. I have really messed up my life with drugs and alcohol and I want to make a new start. All I need is a place to pray."
"Well, I said, still expecting to be asked for money, "as you can see, we have a meeting in the church. There really isn't an appropriate place..."
"That doesn't matter," said the man. "I just need to pray, now. This is my moment of truth. Now. It has to be now."
"I suppose we could go into my office," I said, still feeling like the man had come to the wrong place.
As we entered my office, the man immediately fell to his knees and amidst sobs he began praying. About that time, I caught on. He really did come to church to pray. As he prayed, I placed my hands on his shoulders, and when he was finished, I asked him his name and offered a prayer, too, saying his name and asking God to forgive him and to give him the strength to make amends to his family and to change. Then I talked with the man for a few minutes about support groups and drug programs and he left and I went back to the meeting.
His moment of truth? Maybe so. But it was my moment of truth, too. Here was this strange man wanting to turn his life over to Jesus. Here was a man who came to a group of UUs wanting to pray, of all things. Well, no wonder I was at a loss. How often do you suppose that happens? Anyone who comes to a Unitarian Universalist (UU) gathering wanting to turn his or her life over to Jesus is likely to get directed to a group of Baptists or Methodists, where we suspect they meant to go in the first place.
That was my moment of truth, because in those few moments when that man was on his knees, I let go of my fears, I let go of my distrust, I let go of my judgments, I let go of my awareness of the tremendous gap there was between what he believed and what I believed. It was, indeed, a moment of truth. It was a moment of presence, a moment of grace, a moment when there was a power at work that brought this man and myself into a common territory—a territory where human souls connect with one another and with the transcendent. I might easily have said to him, "I'm sorry, but your god really doesn't live in this church, and my god is an all-encompassing principle that has neither gender nor ears." And the irony is that my expansive cosmic force would turn out to be smaller than his father in heaven. In the moment of truth that was a moment of presence, it didn't matter. It just did not matter. His god, my god, our god, no god. It did not matter.
What does matter? That is what the moment of truth was about. What matters is that our religion offers us an opportunity for connection—with ourselves, with others, with a holy presence.
Last week, I got a phone call from a colleague. "Do you have a few minutes?" he asked. "A couple," I replied. "I'm supposed to be in a staff meeting in two minutes." "I'm conducting a little survey," he said, "and I would like to know your definition of spirituality." It reminded me of my interview last spring with the search committee for this congregation: "In two minutes, describe your theology."
"The main thing I have to say about spirituality," I replied, "is that we spend too much time talking about it and trying to define it." Then I said, "Spirituality is the experience of holy presence in our lives." Then he said, "What do you think UUs want when they say they would like more spirituality?"
"Sorry—time for my meeting." I was glad to have an excuse to hang up, for I surely could not have answered that one.
Now, as I think about the moment of truth as a moment of spiritual connection, I believe it has to do with both absence and presence. Spirituality is the miracle of birth and the mystery of death; it is the solace of solitude and the despair of loneliness. It is stirred in us by the beauty of ocean swells a few miles away and the ugliness of an unjust war in a distant land. That holy presence speaks to us in the blended instruments of a symphony and in the haunting cry of a hungry child. It is giving and receiving and giving. Spirituality is the flower and the compost heap.
It is probably in our nature as religious liberals to seek the spirit and resist it at the same time. I think of the moment of truth as a moment when we are brought to our knees—figuratively, if not literally. That is not a position you will see many of us in. At the beginning of the first Gulf War in 1990, I participated in an interfaith service. We met in an Episcopal church, and at one point we were asked to kneel for a prayer. It felt awkward at first. I do not remember the words of the prayer, but I remember that there was a sense of unity and power in that room, and it offered strength to people from many faiths. At the end of the service, I told a couple of people from my congregation that I thought we should install kneeling benches in our church. They laughed—we all knew the notion was absurd—but they also shared my appreciation for the opportunity to kneel together at a time of crisis, grief, and uncertainty.
The moment of truth is a moment of connection. It happens when we who value mastery of knowledge take a posture that invites mystery. It happens when we who rely chiefly upon the power of our own willfulness open ourselves to a posture of willingness. It does not happen when we are so full of our own thoughts or opinions that we cannot listen to or acknowledge those of another. It does not happen when we are determined to be in control of everything and everyone that affects our lives.
The moment of truth takes place when we are secure enough in our rational religion to invite the non-rational (Notice I said "non-rational," not "irrational"). And it takes place when we are secure enough in our sense of self to invite the power of community.
Those who seek the spirit without a grounding in reason get carried away with shallow, emotional religion; those who seek a sense of community without a grounding in their own sense of individual self-respect are vulnerable to the abuses of cults. What we seek, then, is the kind of spiritual experience that builds upon science rather than opposing it. What we create in our coming together is the kind of power that calls us to combine our gifts and talents and visions in a way that will make a difference in our lives and in our world.
We do not have to check our minds at the door in order to come to a Sunday morning gathering in this place where we feel the power of community. Even for heady individuals like us, our religion offers an opportunity to connect with each other and with a holy presence—a mysterious and powerful presence among us. It is among us when we sing, it is among us when we pray; it is among us when we are silent. It is among us as we meet this morning for worship, and as we gather together over coffee or to plan an activity.
This moment, this day, and this week, may we be open to the holy and mysterious presence that connects us with our own truth, with one another, with the people of the world and with the rhythms of the earth. Let us be open to its power to free us from our fears and unite us in our hope.
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Last updated on Tuesday, February 26, 2013.
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