In my broadcast today, I mentioned a sermon I gave four years ago called “Actions” where I talked about how I believe God is a verb. I wanted to put it up on the blog for people to get a better reference to what I meant. It’s a full sermon but very worth the read.
In screenwriting circles, after the script is written a lot of thought no has to go into figuring out a number of pitches for the screenplay. Most coaches suggest you have a five minute, a two minute and a 30-second pitch for your script. Each pitch has its use in a different setting. The five minute is for pitch meetings, the two minute is for parties, and the 30-second one is what they call an elevator pitch. The idea is if you are in a situation where you are on an elevator with a director or producer that you are trying to get your script sold to and you have the ride up to their floor to sell your script idea to them. So many writers try to whittle down the essence of their 120 page script into 30-seconds or less of face time. The idea behind this is if you truly know your script you can distill it to its essence and explain it easily.
In Unitarian circles we have taken this elevator pitch concept adapted it to explaining our own faith. Technically it’s not about explaining our own faith quickly, per se, but explaining our own personal theologies to someone else easily. Our faith can be complex. We believe in religious tolerance and freedom and encourage everyone to discover what spirituality means for themselves. To that end ours is a varied faith that encompasses everyone from Christians to Buddhists to Atheists and almost everything in between. To explain what all of it means to someone can be daunting. As a screenwriter, I can tell you that pitches aren’t easy and as a UU I can tell you that explaining our faith quickly isn’t either. I have been a life-long UU and I really had no words to explain what I believed and define my faith up until a few years ago. In my opinion, it is a huge reason to why we as UUs don’t talk about our faith to others. However if we have a message for the modern society, as we often tell each other, we need to be able to tell people other than ourselves about our faith. So learning to craft your own elevator speech is helpful to understanding your faith and explaining it to others.
Sometimes we must lead by example. To that extent, this sermon is basically a reverse engineered elevator speech. While I know this sounds like taking a novel, translating it into Japanese and translating that back into English, it’s less involved than that. This is more like the five minute script pitch that extends into a longer meeting. Like I said it is about understanding your own faith and communicating that to others. Such is how we talk about what we believe. But as I like to say when talking about our faith, the views expressed by me are not necessarily those of the management.
I believe God is a verb. For too long, many religions and religious leaders have debated and argued about what God is. Many adjectives are thrown out to help define God. He is a beneficent God, a just God, a vengeful God, and angry God, an indifferent God, a God of the meek, a God of the powerful, and on and on. All of this assumes God is a noun—a he, she, they, it, something to project our feelings and philosophies onto. We quantify God—God is male, God is female, God is a spirit, God is absent—as if God is a noun. Even in Switzerland, scientists use The Hadron Collider to find evidence of the Higgs boson, a particle that can resolve numerous inconsistencies in theoretical physics—a particle which has been dubbed by the media as “the God particle.” With all the attempts to categorize that which defies categories, why do we even assume God is an object that can be categorized? It might make it easier for us to wrap our brains around the concept, but truly it misidentifies the concept. Thinking in terms of a verb brings us closer to the essence of God and what that encompasses. It is not justice, but being just. It is not forgiveness, it is the act of forgiving. It is not love, but the act of loving others that we find the essence of God.
Within this idea of God as a verb, we also find the common ground for all religions. Religious denominations argue over the object, the noun, so much so they forget the the actions, the verbs, they already take in concert with each other. They seek social justice and equity, teach right actions and morals and to live within those actions and morals, connect people with a spiritual sense of self and the world. They speak truth to power in order in order to prevent abuse of power. They teach us to think and act beyond ourselves, to take into consideration others so that we may live within our own morals. We do this with our own actions, acts of kindness and charity all for the common good. It can be as simple as throwing plastic bottles in a recycling bin instead of the garbage, as noble as volunteering in a soup kitchen or food pantry, or sending money and/or supplies to communities we may never see hit hard in times of devastation. These selfless acts are not a testament to God’s grace, but God’s grace in action.
Notice all the actions I mention are not those of a higher power, but our own. Our actions define and shape the world we live in. We can either do things that harm society and our communities or help them. I was at a UU young adult conference in 2003. After a certain plenary, a young woman walked up to me, said she heard me talking before and asked me “Why is there evil in the world?” To this day I cannot remember what I was talking about earlier that she would think I would know the answer to the question, but I absolutely remember that moment and gave her an answer that has stayed with me to this day. Evil exists in this world because we exist in it. One of our most outstanding human characteristics is that we do not want to be blamed for anything. To that end, we believe evil is an outside force, something—another noun—separate from us. The truth is evil happens in this world through our own actions. It happens when our actions go the opposite way from a moral path. At the time I think I said it was when it goes against God’s moral path, but now I wouldn’t go that far. I don’t feel you need to believe in God to be moral. I know many atheists that are highly moralistic people, and know many devoutly religious people that are corrupt in their thinking. Evil also happens when we as moral people don’t do anything to stop those actions that corrupt the path we tread on; or as Edmund Burke said “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” It is what we do that determines how much good or evil there is in the world. She seemed really pleased with that answer as if I found some sort of missing piece for her.
While making that point to her, I talked about the 9/11 attacks. I said God wasn’t with any one person at that moment, but weeping over the entirety of what happened, much like any parent would weep over the hurtful actions of their children. At the time, I myself was thinking of a God as a noun—something apart of who we are. When bad or even horrific things happen, the question turns to where is God in such times again seeing it as something out there not doing its job to protect us from evil or even just bad things happening. Such thinking lets us forget that any of us are capable of causing severe damage to others. It also ignores the great amount of good done by everyday citizens and heroes that day and in the weeks and months that followed 9/11. While a series of massive actions caused untold hurt to hundreds of thousands in the areas of the attacks, it was hundreds of thousands more—maybe even millions more—acts of good that allowed us to heal. It was in there that God could be found. But one thing of that statement still stays with me as important: the parent image. That was one concept that stayed with me because within the idea of the parent crying over a child’s actions is the example of love as a verb and to me mirrors the relationship of any higher power to us as humans. A parent does what they can for their children as best they can. They raise them with values, educate them as best they can and give them guidance and values for them to live by. But for all of this, they have to do things for themselves even if it means doing the wrong things once in a while. While we cannot do much to stop them when it happens, we hope that our guidance meant something enough to know when to get back on the right path. Even if they don’t, there are tears, but there is always love. It’s that love of a parent for a child that is as active as it is unconditional, and it as closest to the love of God towards humankind as we can possibly get. While this was theoretical for me back at this conversation, it is a reality for me now and has proven to be true. My daughter does things that drive me crazy and test my limits and patience to the Nth degree, but there is never any diminishing of love that I have for her and that will not change for me ever.
Seeing God as a verb is how Unitarian Universalism can encompass both Christians and Humanists, believers and non believers under one roof. We don’t follow a creed—another noun; we covenant with each other. We agree to live with each other in concert with our beliefs and hold each other accountable for our actions. Our church covenant, which we read aloud, expresses how we hope to treat one another in this spiritual community as well as how we hope to interact with other communities at large. As UUs we use the word “covenant” interchangeably as a noun or verb, but it is as a verb that it gains its power. The covenant becomes less a pact amongst people and more a way of living in right relationship with each other. Our seven principles call use to covenant with the rest of the world in the same manner. To treat each other with dignity, to accept one another as we are, to be fair in our governance of society, to respect our human community and the world we all share. When we live outside of this relationship, we risk alienation from others at best or to damage to others at worst.
An interesting question about that is what actions do we take then? It’s not something that can be assumed by a blanket statements or philosophies. Each situation is unique but one would hope that the actions taken would be done in accordance with our beliefs. In the big picture, meta-sense of these situations, we do pretty well. When Massachusetts became the first state to legalize gay marriage, many UU ministers in the state were up early that May 17 in 2004, marrying same-sex couples across the state. A few years later, our then president of the Unitarian Universalist Association got himself arrested protesting the genocidal events happening in Darfur. This past week, our new Association president, Peter Morales, and 22 other UUs, including three friends of mine, were among 83 people in Arizona arrested in protesting that state’s anti-immigration law, which was thankfully placed on hold by an Arizona judge. These seem easy enough to take a stand on, even without needing to be arrested. However when things get more specific and convoluted, right actions are less clear. When I was attending a different UU church, during my time there we had a registered sex offender as one of our congregants for a short period of time. It wasn’t a secret but wasn’t something widely announced, at least not to me. I found out because I noticed he was always escorted around by a different man each week and I asked one of the ministers about it. Knowing about his past, the church leaders set conditions for him to adhere to is he was to attend worship there, including an escort with him at all times and no contact with any minors at the church. While I know there was considerable debate in UU circles about whether to even allow a sex offender into our church doors, I am pleased that I was a part of a congregation that would face the realities of that debate head on. In the film “The American President” Michael Douglass playing President Andrew Sheppard talks about America as such. “America is advanced citizenship. You gotta want it bad, ’cause it’s gonna put up a fight. It’s gonna say ‘You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.’” That is exactly where my previous congregation was.
Such is where I see us Unitarians fit in. One pro-Unitarian joke I like says “Christians have it easy; all they have to do is believe in Christ. We have to live like him.” And that isn’t easy. With the idea of right actions comes a lot of verbs to choose from. Which ones are right for one person to take might not be the right ones for another, yet we have to recognize the limits people are willing to go and step towards, and what they won’t go beyond. However a key component is the intention behind the actions. When I was a part of the tuition strikes in my Alma mater Hunter College, at a school rally I told people you don’t need to get arrested to support the strike. You can easily mail a letter to raise your voice instead of locking yourself in an administration building; the results would be different but intent is the same. The same applies to spirituality. It is not about being spiritual, but doing something with spirit, doing something to connect one to another and each other to a higher intent. We cannot let petty differences stop us from allying ourselves with people that want the same things as we do because they won’t go about it the same exact way. As the phrase goes that is heard in political circles “Do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” Work with good intentions and that intent leads us towards the right actions.
Sometimes even the smallest actions are beneficial. Earlier this year, which was a continuation of the summer before, I was in pretty desperate financial straights. With a part time job that paid well but had too short hours and a near full-time job that didn’t pay enough, I was struggling with paying any bills and being able to eat. Most of the winter I was the loneliest person to walk around the church, if I did that. Usually it was me sitting in a corner worrying about finances. Part of it was my own guilty feelings having been lent money from the church to get by. There is a charitable fund here that has paid my rent at least twice this past year, and if not for Reverend Hank’s generosity in offering, I would be out in the street. Still I felt bad about being a burden and being in the situation as it is, so I was pretty inconsolable. After one the services this past winter, I walked up to a friend of mine who has since moved away to say hi. She asked how I was and at the time my head was still worried about which bills I could pay and which I couldn’t in order to pay for gas I needed to do my Census work. As I was running things down and trying to not to sound too out of it, I felt her slip something into my hand which was in my pocket at the time. It took me a second to realize she did this and even a few more to realize what she put in my hand. It felt little like paper, but in my haze I didn’t register it as some dollar bill until a moment later. She said “it’s a gift” and smiled. I didn’t even look at what kind of bill she gave me, but simply gave her a big hug and cried. Later after she left and I was alone, I looked at what she gave me and found that I could pay for gas and still buy my daughter a small gift she was bugging me for. I cried some more about the amount she gave me. People had lent me money before and they still do to this day, but this was out of the blue and at the exact right moment and it is an act I will never forget. And in that is the grace of God if I ever saw it.
If there’s one more verb I could leave you with today it is the verb to talk. The whole concept of the elevator speech is to be able to convey your theology to another person in a short time. Personal theologies aren’t short and aren’t easy to explain, but to my mind the idea of developing an elevator speech has more to do with spreading the word than anything. Since we don’t evangelize much we have to couch explaining our theology it in terms of what we can say about our faith with the least amount of religious apoplexy. A 30-second summation seems to be about our upper limit so far, but it only works if we open our mouths. I think part of the problem is that we have gotten aggressively evangelized too much that we are unwilling to talk in the slightest about our own faith. We need to be willing to talk about our own theologies to others without it seeming preachy to us. In some ways we need to reclaim the verb “evangelize” in a way that is uniquely ours and does explain who we are with a sense of dignity for our own beliefs AND a respect for another persons beliefs. The elevator speech is a good practice. Is this easier said than done? Yes. Is it impossible? Of course not. But it is an action we need to practice more and more.