Explorations and Findings

Presenter: 
Rev. Henry Simoni-Wastila
Sermon Date: 
Sun, 11/08/2015

 

I feel so honored and happy to be here with you this morning. I offer my gratitude for the search committee for meeting with me, visiting me at another UU church as a “neutral pulpit.” I thank the committee also for asking those difficult and probing questions in the interview. I remember late in the interview one person asked, “What aspects don’t you like about the ministry, Rev. Henry?” I was so tired, and we were at the end of the second hour of the interview, and I really couldn’t think of a good answer about what I didn’t like, without  revealing too much, so I just went with, “Long meetings like this one…” Thankfully they understood all too well!

At the end of the interview, one person asked, “Well, the next step, Henry, is for us to check you references. Is that OK?” And I paused trying to think of something witty to say, but my mind was working slowly and I just paused, and their faces began to look shocked, and they repeated again, “Is that OK?” And I actually said, “Well, I just made them up.” There was an awkward pause. And someone on the committee said in a very UU way, “That’s OK, we think it’s great to have imaginary friends.”

This is a great opportunity for me to share some of what I have learned in life, but it’s also an opportunity for me to learn from your experience. As I have gotten older, I’ve learned more and more that education really is a lifelong adventure.

I’m 54 now – I know, I know, I look more like 52. But I have found I keep learning. I keep discovering things about religion, history, myself. I keep exploring. And I think exploration is a good metaphor for the spiritual life: religious exploration, if you will. In the RE council last week, we talked about how UU’s are changing what RE stands for. These days, RE is being called “religious exploration” instead of religious education. I think religious exploration has a more exciting ring to it, but I also like the term education. A good education is a path to a new future. But exploration captures that sense of wonder. Exploration means discovery, adventure and seeing the world in a different light. I think those are lifelong tasks.

I think many of us have lived lives of religious exploration. To end up in a UU church, you probably did some exploring. I did. I started out Roman Catholic, spent a couple years as an Episcopalian and then became UU. As one person said, “That’s quite a fall from grace!” And yes it really was a journey from a religion that had all the answers to a religion that had all the questions! And UU’ism is a great place to ask questions. It’s a great place to be on the pathway, to be searching, to be learning, to be exploring.

And yet. Are we left with Rev. Lovejoy’s empty bowl? Is the Unitarian flavor of ice cream empty? We could put this in the form of a question: We explore, but do we ever discover? We seek, but do we ever find? Are we left with the bumper sticker, “To question is the answer.” And nothing more than questioning?

Well, I don’t know if there is one answer right now, but there are many partial answers.

We can find many stones across the brook, in other words. We find community. We find support and love. We find a certain joy in life in this community –a joie de vivre.

We can find a sense of being present in meditation: a calmness in the storm of life. A pleasant, abiding, open, emotion of being fully here. Meditation teaches insight and being at peace, like a village encased in snow and asleep. We can find our own gratitude for this world – to appreciate its beauty and meaning. We can find, some of us, a theology, a seeing of God as Creator of this world, even if we only see this as part of a mystery. We can find forgiveness for our past, hope for our future.

So all these are stepping stones.

 

It’s a Challenge too 

Another thing I have learned. I find it a challenge to love the people in my life as much as I could. Even my children, I sometimes get so caught up in diapers, tantrums, scraped knees, and “teenage drama,” that I forget my highest self. We can be so immersed in the “It,” that we no longer find the “Why” or the “Thou.” By Thou, I mean treating others as Thou’s. We can be searching so much, we do not glow, shine, just be real, transcend the “It”, create, really live, really love in a heartfelt manner. We have to find our love, in other words.

And the wonder of this life is that we can. Yes. There is greatness here. There is that challenge-accepting feeling in the morning. “Yes, I can make something of this day. I can find something so precious. I can make something precious.” If not for myself, I can make one other person breathe more easy.

There’s a simple man who says, “Have a good day, but don’t just have a good day, make it a great day!” How do we find? We find by trying to make our days, great days. Appreciate what you’ve been given and appreciate it how good it feels to give to others. This too is part of the life-long learning of religious exploration.

I think religion can teach us to shine, to love more fully, and these are not creedal or intellectual goals. They are more experience and emotional.

 

Non-Creedal Religion

And while we, as UU’s can find, we don’t have a single theology for all. One size fits all maybe works for socks and scarfs, but it’s not the UU process way. We want to do more than define the endpoint, we want to open the pathway, or pathways.

So, in other words, we are a non-creedal religion. We do not have a creed. A creed is a belief system, to which one is required to assent to each statement. I have trouble with any creed as it limits our experience of mystery.

 

Me, myself and I

I started out in creedal religion. I started out a member of St. Mary’s parish, Mansfield, Mass. I was the oldest of five kids, and our mother took us to church most Sundays. Mass and then donuts! I struggled as a teenager, and then embarked upon studies of the Bible in Greek and Hebrew at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. I soon began to see the process of how modern scholarship suggests the Bible was formed. I began to study philosophy and Buddhism. I became involved with Catholic student groups and Protestant groups. The Catholic church’s views on women’s roles and on miracles became more and more difficult for me to believe. I thought of a career in computers –that’s what one of my brother’s choose. Another chose accounting. My sisters went into the helping profession of counseling.

I was fascinated by trying to develop my own theology, my own view of what is ultimately true of the religions. That was my career choice. I went to Harvard Divinity School as an Anglican. …And left as a Unitarian.

I then spent the next few years visiting a lot of UU churches in Massachusetts while writing a dissertation on the idea of creation. I served churches in Massachusetts and taught courses in Eastern Religion. I published several essays in leading journals of religion and philosophy. I moved to Maryland where my wife had a possible lead for a position in pharmacy at the University of Maryland. I served a church in Maryland and also started teaching again. We raised our two children, Will and Lea. Will is a junior in high school. Lea is in eighth grade. Will plays guitar. Lea plays cello. They are teenagers. –I know nothing scarier in the English language.

I also love to walk, to run and to garden. I play some classical and blues piano, and a little guitar. We have a cat. I garden with a passion. In fact, too much passion and not enough weeding! I’ve reached the point where I have to consistently remove perennials, shrubs and even trees. I have to cut back on garden space. And that’s a lesson for life. There are costs. To attain the beauty of the garden, there’s the finger-cutting, back-aching, time-stealing work of weeding and watering and worrying. But the garden connects me to the Earth, to realities our modern life is sometimes too far from. I suppose we could say the cost of a garden or any project is too high. Too much weeding, too many diseases of the plants, too many pests –it’s just not worth it. The garden should just grow on its own. But to see the cost, and then plunge right –that is to accept the challenge. And likewise I ask you to see the cost of maintaining this small but VIBRANT church and accept the challenge! And for yourselves, accept the challenge of doing what you need to do in your life out of love and compassion

I have spent a lot of time trying to figure out theology. I find something in all the world’s religions. I like the Judeo-Christian tradition. And Buddhism. And Hinduism. I was told my last name, Simoni, actually comes from Simon, a Jewish name, from Jews who settled in northern Italy after be forced out of Spain during the time of the inquisition. So I have a connection with a marginalized people.

The Buddhist tradition speaks to me. I like Zen Buddhism and its focus on being truly present to what is real in experience. Things emerge out of impermanence. We emerge out of emptiness, sunyata. How Precious! How Beautiful!

 

Ministry

The ministry for me, having served 17 years, is a calling to present the best religious ideas for people to consider. I like our openness and acceptance of those marginalized by gender, race or identity. We accept the new. In our non-creedal religion, the focus is not a shared final decision, but the attempt to support one another in the process of understanding very massive traditions.

Theologically, I tend to believe the world was created by some force, some energy, some spirt, some Being expressing something wonderful. I don’t think the world is the result of pure chance or the instability of nothingness as some physicists seem to say. I think it was created. And yet, so many religious texts, including the Bible, are plainly misguided in so many ways.  And so many religions and ideologies are contradictory, including Christianity. Because of these weaknesses and contradictions in religion, I would say I have no “super-true” belief system, but rather I have a way of looking at the world. I would say I have faith, but not faith in “The absolute, unchanging, fully-articulated Truth,” but faith that there is something so remarkable about life, so powerfully meaningful in the human soul, that I can’t just say it’s pure chance. And so I call that Creation. I call that an experience of meaning that transcends or goes beyond the everyday. We can experience a sense of transcendence. There’s something more than physics and chemistry to the human soul. We can experience life as sublime beauty.

But besides all this, there is an energy, in our shared ministry, that we get being part of a community. We see more than our own individual lives. We are taken out of our ruts and patterns. We are called to care. We witness a great meaning to life. We are part of a community. We are energized and humanized and “compassion-ized.”

 

Sugarloaf

I’ve learned something about you as well. You voted to sell the property, then a few months later you decided “Well, maybe we shouldn’t.” That shows flexibility! Instead of building a church, you built a yurt. That shows both ingenuity and cross-cultural sensitivity. Past ministers have had good things to say about you (more or less). And you’ve had some serious struggles, but you’ve come through. Congratulations!

I think there are many reasons people are here. I think that one thing shared by everyone at Sugarloaf UU is that we want to support every person in their search for an authentic experience of life. We don’t have an expectation that everyone is going to end up with the same point of view. We know many of us are struggling, are vulnerable and yet also have great gifts to share.

 

Conclusion

You can explore, explore and explore and learn and learn and learn. You can learn more facts about religion, about spirituality and about psychology. You can read about the theories, practice all the meditation techniques. You can explore and not really find anything.

You can explore, yes, but you can also discover. We can find. We can learn more than facts. We can grow in real maturity, patience and gratitude. We can have insights into our deepest selves. We can learn how to love, how to care, how to experience this water-washed and sunshine-blessed world in tremendous ways. We can find. We can experience a sense of wholeness and health, a sense of joy and bliss and caring and compassion. We can find a way. We can create meaning. Don’t just have a good day, make it a great day.