"The Way Home”

The Rev. Burton D. Carley

The Berry Street Essay,2005


Delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly

Fort Worth, Texas

June 23, 2005


The desire may begin without understanding what it is exactly that you are longing for.  One thing is for sure.  The urge is wrapped with a hollow feeling that has all the weight of missing something.  You cast about for what it might be that haunts you.  A fleeting shadow comes and goes at the corner of the eye.  Quickly you turn to capture it without success.  After a while you try to dismiss it, rationalize it, ignore it, but the yearning persists.


            A story seeps up from the internal depths, breaking the surface between sleep and waking.  It is Moses and God in conversation.  I never know whether to envy Moses or be among those who were wisely thankful that there was someone either foolish enough or courageous enough to risk being in the presence of such sacred power.  In that narrative from the ancient past God warns Moses that no one can look directly upon the divine face and live. Then it occurs to me as if by some revelation that this deep down desire may have a source other than my own making, and that the way there does not take me to a strange, awkward, foreign, and forbidding place.  It occurs to me that the way there is the way home, a path out of the hollow up to the hallowed. A sense of place becomes clear and Meister Eckhart whispers in my ear: "God is at home.  We are in the far country.”


            It is also occurs to me that we as a people of faith need a bridging ceremony to get us from here to there, from the places of our wandering in the wilderness, from the various journeys we are on, to arrive at a place called home together.   I speak about gathering up the fragments of our scattered being where the hollow places dwell and creating out of the dust of them something whole and come alive with the quickening power of the Spirit that imparts the divine image.  I speak about the way of the Spirit that engenders life, and how life is transformation.  I speak about the way home and the bridge that takes us there over the valley of the shadows where our hyphenated and separated selves seek a way out, a bridge connecting our past to the future.  I want to go home but not to that distant place backward as it used to be.  I speak about a new creation that is our salvation, a new creation that brings forward the useable past and secures a future, a place called home.  I speak from that hollow place that desires to be filled with something more than me, that only can be fulfilled with we and that connected to a larger reality that is not our own.  It is a desire for the belonging that is home.  The way home is what I hunger and thirst after.  The way home, has anyone seen it?


            I think of that passage in the eleventh chapter of Hebrews that is a long roll call of the heroes and heroines of faith.  Abraham is mentioned, and Isaac and Jacob who sojourned in foreign lands living in tents.  Sarah is mentioned, she who by faith received the power to conceive.  Oh, if our movement could be called Sarah.  Then these words follow that strike at my heart:


                        These all died in faith, not having received what was

            promised, but having seen it and greeted it from afar, and

            having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles

            on earth.  For people who speak thus make it clear that

            they are seeking a homeland.  If they had been thinking

            of that land from which they had gone out, they would

            have had opportunity to return.  But as it is, they desire a

            better country….


            I want to be counted among these people, strangers in a strange land, seeking the way to a home not yet built, faithful to a vision of a better dwelling place, faithful to the power that comes from we know not where that gives us dreams to guide us home, faithful to the power that stirs our imagination to reveal the way home.  Clearly such a journey, a journey that does not guarantee one’s arrival, is strengthened if one can see the promise of home and greet it from afar.  That is our need, to acknowledge that we are exiles and even strangers among ourselves and to take heart, to see the promise of home, to give out our lives to find the way there, to give in to the power that calls us there, and to give up the habits of distraction, abstraction, and preoccupation that keep us from being on our way.


            The way home is not easy.  We must first give account to how we have become lost along the way.  So I go back in time to a parable and a work of art inspired by it.   In the Hermitage, that amazing museum of collected art in St. Petersburg, I saw Rembrandt’s The Returnof theProdigalSon.  The son is on his knees, his head against the father’s chest.  The father is bent toward his son, his hands embracing and flat on his son’s back and right shoulder.  It is interesting to note that the hands do not quite match.  The one on the right is more rugged and masculine in appearance and the one on the left more slender and feminine.  There is scholarly opinion that the discrepancy was intentional, that the artist wanted to suggest both the mother and the father accepting the son back home.


            The son is dressed in a ragged under garment, the father is adorned in a rich red cape.  The left shoe has fallen off the son’s foot, and the right shoe is tattered with the flesh of the heel exposed.  The son’s demeanor is one of remorse, and the father’s expression is one of solemn grace and relief.


            When I reflect on that homecoming I think of what it meant for that young man to be on his knees, a position not natural to us.  I think of how he had to let go of all he wanted most to hold on to—his pride, his independence, and his willfulness.  I ponder what it took to bring the prodigal home, and how difficult, almost impossible, it is to be vulnerable to a love beyond earning, deserving and rewarding. In Rembrandt’s painting it is the place of light in the dark surroundings.


One symptom of losing our way is that we no longer feel that we are a people in need of grace.  W. H. Auden put it perfectly when he wrote:


                        We would rather be ruined than changed

                        We would rather die in our dread

                        Than climb the cross of the moment

                        And see our illusions die.


            We suffer under the illusion of our own self-sufficiency, that our souls can go it alone.  We suffer under the illusion that to know us is to love us, and that we are not even God’s gift to the world but our own gift to the world.


            The way home requires a renewed sense of our dependence, of the shadow side of our inflated goodness, of the "given-ness” of all things we enjoy, the grace of things.  This is a hard cross to climb because we are nothing else if not achievers.  This is why I begin each worship service with the declaration:  "This is the day we are given.  We did not create it or earn it or deserve it.”  It irritates any number of the people in the congregation.  They have told me so.


            It is true for most of us, the attitude that we earn what we have, deserve what we have and some things we don’t.  That’s the problem with achieving a life:  it is never quite good enough.  Even if we owned everything our hearts desired chances are our hearts would desire something else.  I wonder how our congregations might be different if they were places where people came to receive a spiritual life rather than to achieve a spiritual life.  I wonder if there is any truth to my thought that stewards understand the grace of things and thus receive a life while consumers calculate earnings and thus achieve a life.


            It is important to desire rightly and that is a matter of knowing ourselves, a kind of honesty about intentions.  We need to be like the nun who asked:  had hers been an authentic relationship with God, or was it, rather, solely with her own longing to be holy?  Some of us would ask the question differently but our response would determine the same thing:  whether we are looking out of a window or looking into a mirror.  We need windows to see the way home.  We need to recover the true meaning of our one doctrine that revelation is not sealed.  Its purpose is not to reject out of hand what lies behind us, nor to labor under the dictatorship of relativism.    A wise person once told me that the problem with a mind stuck open is the same as the problem with a window stuck open.  The use of the window is lost when it can no longer be opened or closed as is appropriate.  The spiritual use of our one doctrine is that it calls us to practice humility.  The corruption of our faith is clinging to any standard or ideological position which nurtures self-righteousness, a condition that always results in not being in right relationship with others.

            The light shines upon the kneeling person who relinquishes the illusion of control and recognizes the need to be in right relationship with others, and how the abundant life is not a solitary and selfish life but is made abundant by the appreciative awareness of the gifts and resources not of one’s own making that are a grace and a blessing.  The way home is a journey toward that light which is a different light than this little light of mine.


            Here is another way we get lost, how we tend to misconstrue or oversimplify the metaphor of the journey.   There are all kinds of journeys.  There is a journey that is a seeking and there is a journey that is a fleeing.  There is a kind of journey that pilgrims go on and a kind of journey that tourists go on.  There is a journey that is a homeless meandering and a journey that is a going toward and an arriving.  The journey may be for the growing of a soul or for the collecting of new experiences like souvenirs.  There is the journey that we are called upon and the journey that is the pleasure of our leisure.  There is a journey that is for transformation and a journey for entertainment.  There is a journey that causes us to bear witness to what is true and a journey that is an escape from the truth.


            The truth is that there is a little bit of the prodigal in each of us that chafes against the boundaries, slights and genuine oppressions of the various homes ninety percent of us left behind.  I remember a line from the classic American film The Wild Ones.  That unforgettable black leathered character played by a young Marlin Brando is asked, "What are you rebelling against?”  He responds: "What have you got?”  There is something of that rebel in us sensitive to any kind of real or imagined boundary.  We are the motorcycle gang that swears to keep the spirit free.  Our whole history is a history of leaving home, sometimes being kicked out, and moving on to leave some other place again.    We have been on a perpetual journey and enjoy calling ourselves a movement.


            Dare I say it?  Yes, I will.  The journey is not all.  The purpose of the journey is to arrive somewhere.  Casting the religious life as constant journey is as debilitating to spiritual maturity as is an agoraphobia or fear of leaving home.  The fugitive life is an exhausting one.  Though it celebrates freedom, it is not truly free.   The dynamic of spiritual formation is one that moves between home and journey.  Some people need to leave home and take up the journey.  Our need as lovers of leaving is to find the way home, to re-imagine what home might be.


            I think it is only natural that we can be conflicted about home because that is the result of cutting ourselves off from the religions of our origin.  It contributes to our constant wrestling with the theme of our identity, the search for our center, the discussions and struggles in each generation to find a theological consensus that necessarily involves limits.  It confounds the strength of the bonds of belonging.  When the journey is not to a particular place to be formed by it there is the tendency for the journey to take on the process of wandering.  What happens on this wandering is the creation of an individualized faith system that freely borrows symbols and ideas form multiple faith traditions.


            The recently elected junior U.S. senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, wrote a memoir in 1995 titled Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance.  In it he talks about his grandfather Stanley whose "only skirmish into organized religion” was when he took the family to the local Unitarian Universalist congregation.  The grandfather was attracted by the idea that any scriptures from the great religions might be called upon.  Stanley would say, "It’s like you get five religions in one.”  In the end Obama’s grandfather gave up his new found religion giving in to his wife’s protest:  "For Christ’s sake, Stanley, religion’s not supposed to be like buying breakfast cereal!”


            I sat next to a man at lunch during the monthly clergy gathering.  He was a local radio talk show host.  He confessed during our conversation that he had once been a Unitarian.  When I asked him why he left he said, "It was like Chinese food.  It tasted great but two hours later I was hungry.”


            Of course there are some of us who have gone deep into other traditions not just as an intellectual excursion but as a disciple who lives daily out of the spiritual insights and discipline of that tradition.  But there is another type of journey that is a kind of walk down a cafeteria line sampling this and that.  It leads to choosing the juicer and sweeter items that are appealing and leaving behind the more challenging aspects of living a particular kind of spiritual life.  Such a journey that is not a pilgrimage is a relatively weak source of identity and religious confidence.  It is the health of the restless soul to turn toward something that relieves the drive to cast itself upon everything.


            Another difficulty it presents is that the clergy may end up being the host or hostess of the salad bar, the server behind the cafeteria counter.  In the end it is demoralizing to be continuously taking orders for lunch, serving customers, rather than living out our call to the ministry.  We can catch that terrible and fatal disease:  teleological dislocation.  Its major symptom is the incapacity to move others beyond self-involvement.  It’s what happens when we end up being people’s spiritual butlers, serving them without calling them to serve.  As Melville said, "We become sad in the first place because we have nothing stirring to do.”


            Do you remember your call to the ministry?  I speak not about having a ministry, but being called to the ministry.  That call comes in many versions but I remember the night I felt the Spirit.  I still live on it.  Have you ever felt the Spirit?  Felt it tingle your toes, run up your spine, water your eyes, race your heart, pull you down to your knees, take your breath away?  Is it not Holy, this appreciative awareness of quality, this connection to what matters, the sparking of transcendence?


            Central to biblical spirituality and our faith is religious experience.  One area of religious experience is the encounter with the Holy.  That experience manifests in times of awe, in times of encountering the Mystery that challenges the human ego boundaries.  It breaks forth in visions of covenant and grace, and the urge to be in right relationship.  It is discovered in expressions of hope, compassion and justice that draw us to stand with others in the struggle for human dignity.


            Now this is the question:  why don’t we want to stay in the presence of the Holy Spirit?  Why don’t we cry agony when it is absent?  Why aren’t we doing everything in our power to catch it and keep it, to live in its glory, to be captured by it and to, yes, surrender to it?  It is as if we have silenced the voice of the whirlwind and doused the flame of the burning bush, and we no longer can find that compelling voice that requires of us great things, that stirs us beyond ourselves.  When we lose the capacity to speak in the metaphoric language of ultimate agency we exhibit a poverty of spirit.


            I confess that the Holy Spirit is a-rumbling in me to make an altar call.  I wonder who would come, who would have the strength to kneel, who would have the courage to give up their hubris, who would be transformed so that they might begin again and work for a new creation?   If we only function by Robert’s Rules of Order instead of a religious vision that calls us out from our ordered ways into the life of the Spirit the way home is lost.   Some principles that we can agree on and that pleases us will not get us home.  Remaining a dues paying service delivery Association will definitely not get us anywhere near home.  Being cultured despisers of religion will lead us to hell not home.  Indeed, our congregations should be alternatives to the celebrity worshiping and commodity oriented secular culture.  The way home cannot be found if we pretend to be religious but actually don’t think and act religiously.


            So here is another way we get lost.  Let me tell you the Parable of the Patient List.  When you go into the pastoral care office at Methodist Central Hospital in Memphis you will discover along the wall the file folders identified by denomination.  Now religion is big business in my home town and to this day I confess that I get a little rush of pride seeing Unitarian Universalist in bold black letters along with the Catholic and Baptist and Methodist and other major religious groups.  In the file folders are computer print outs of the chaplain’s patient list by religion.  Now the strange thing is that the print out for the UU file consistently contains several names of patients who are not associated with our congregations.  Ah, I thought, UU’s who didn’t know they are UU’s until they felt compelled to say something in admissions when asked for their religious preference.


            Well, once in a state of evangelical frenzy, I decided to call on some of these folks while I was at the hospital.  Perhaps, since they identified themselves as members of our faith community, I could actually interest them in coming to church.  The visits were very unsatisfying.  The patients seemed shocked that I called on them, perplexed by the very mention of any words that began with the letter u and uninterested to hostile regarding the prospect of visiting the church.  The conversations were so strange and unproductive that I decided I would have better luck calling folks to the flaming chalice at a tent revival.


            Later I discovered the real source of the confusion.  I brought home the patient list in the UU folder to study the information in more detail.  It was then that I found that under the church heading there were a number of interesting designations on the print out.  Along with Unitarian for our members there were these entries:  churchunknown or none or no preference or unavailable orundefined.  For some reason, the chaplain put on the UU patient list all the people who claimed no religion or whose religion was in some way in doubt!


            Now I know the real reason why there is a UU folder on the wall in the pastoral care office.  It’s where all the names of the patients with no religion go.


            To go home we must come to terms with who we are as a people.  We have demystified Christianity and yet there is a need to be able to talk about the Mystery in which we live and move and have our being.  We have deconstructed the miracles out of the biblical narratives and yet the human heart still seeks a sense of the miraculous, a sense of eternal possibility that offers hope beyond human cunning.   We have shorn superstition away from the body of spiritual wisdom and yet we are in need of linguistic tools for interpreting the deep yearnings and discoveries of our inner lives.  Science cannot do this.  Psychology cannot do this.  Surveys cannot do this.  Committees cannot do this.  We need symbols and narratives and the ferment of the poetic imagination to talk about the edges of human experience, to speak about the intersection between the temporal and the eternal, to express what is true beyond facts and to point to the Reality beyond the real.


            The demystification of religion, the deconstruction of the supernatural, the sheering of the superstitious was a means and not an end.  It is like we did an autopsy on a living, breathing thing, and in the process we learned at lot but the result is that something that was alive is now dead.   Reductionism kills the spirit.  It is like being next to the one you love and your heart going all a-flutter and thinking it is only a function of the brain.  It reduces life to a sterile, one dimensional plane, and something worse.  It turns people from subjects into objects.  The purpose of stripping away the dross, the obsolete, the misconceptions, is not to destroy religion but to recover it, to reform it, to make it useful again for living whole lives.


            The function of spiritual language is that it calls us out from ourselves.  It invites us to deeper and wider connections.  It takes sustaining narratives to inspire us beyond self-involvement.   The way home needs the presence of a story or stories that describe and illustrate who we are.  What is required of us is to give expression poetically, metaphorically, theologically, to what it means for us to be a gathered church.  Diversity may be an honored quality we seek to possess in our congregations, but it is not sufficient for calling people into covenant with us.  The real question is about belonging, about how we belong to each other.


            Without a common language that goes beyond our various silos, the tendency is for our diverse constituencies to focus narrowly on their own interests.  The prompting of the Holy Spirit is toward individuation, but the purpose of that individuation is so that we may move more deeply and authentically to be in relationship with each other.


One of our greatest needs in order go home is to be able to articulate our religious story and thus give definition to the theology that holds and blesses our pluralism.  We already have stories about leaving home, and finding and choosing this faith.  But it seems to me that these stories are only the beginning, the baptism so to speak.  Where we are weakest is in telling the rest of the story, the stories about keeping our faith and deepening it.


The home I want to go to that we have yet to build is constructed broadly with a shared sense of mission, vision and ministry that allows us to live our faith together in ways we cannot do alone.   This is the essential conversation for us and the people of our congregations, and at all levels of our Association.  Beyond our particular and peculiar self-identifying niches, what mission or purpose calls us together as a people of faith?  What vision does our mission inspire?  What ministry can we do together than we cannot do alone that embodies our mission in the world?


My concern has been how to attract a more broadly and deeply rooted cooperation among us through all three levels of our governance system, and to build morale that overcomes the ways we tend to separate ourselves into us vs. them for the purpose of concentrating on our collective mission, vision and ministry, and being effective in practicing what they require of us.  My conclusion is that these goals will be the outcome of people and organization being in right relationship. 


At the heart of being in right relationship is the concept of covenant.  It was a form of treaty making in the Near East and the Hebrew people took the concept and used it to define the divine / human relationship thus imparting to it deep religious and moral significance.  In our own tradition in New England, covenant defined the meaning of congregations and gave us our polity or the ways we are related to one another.  In this regard the Cambridge Platform of 1648 is essential reading.


A covenant creates right relationship through partnership without dominance or submission.  It is rooted in one of the most human capacities:  our talent for making promises to one another.  To freely enter into a covenant creates a bond of trust.  Defining and strengthening that bond of trust is the grounding work upon which all other work is built.  The basis of that trust is the acknowledgment of the integrity and sovereignty of the other, and a mutual pledge to achieve together what neither can achieve alone.


The work of strengthening that trust cannot be a top down affair because the primary covenant is in our individual congregations among members.  An individual does not join the UUA but a congregation and the congregation has a relationship with other congregations through our Association.  It is a society of equals and its basic premise is that the parts make up the whole and not the whole the parts.  So all the ways congregations are not responsible in selecting and paying for their delegates to attend General Assembly, all the ways the GA does not draw elected leaders from our congregations, all the ways the business of the GA is not engaged in substantial conversations about mission, vision and ministry, weakens our bonds of trust.


I want to stress that a covenant is not based on the idea of two individuals, otherwise unconnected, pursuing personal advantage.  Covenants are about the "we” that creates identity for the "I.”  Our faith has a focus on the "I.”  To be in right relationship we must honor the "I” but not at the exclusion of the "we.”  We are especially not in right relationship when we use third person discourse.  The Association is the community of congregations.  There is no "them.”  The only way to move to a genuine regard for the second person—whether that be a member in a congregation, or another congregation, or a district, or the larger Association, or a colleague—is through a recovery of the integrity of the first person in mutual relationship.   I have heard it stated this way:  first person responsibility leaves third-person complacency for the sake of second-person community.


I want to also lift up that the spiritual dimension of covenant honors and values "we” so much that when right relationship is broken, the nature of sin, the emphasis is not on the penalties and punishment normal to a contract, but upon healing and repairing the relationship, restoring its integrity through confession, reparation, and forgiveness.


In addition I contend that the "we” is not just a mutually satisfying relationship, but asks of each party to care for the spiritual health and growth of the other even to the point of inconvenience and sacrifice.  Another name for this might be love.


Here are some central features of covenant that order our right relationships.  It affirms the dignity of difference and recognizes our dependence.  Members of a congregation and the association of congregations cannot alone sustain themselves, let alone establish a framework of collaborative action and collective grace.  Covenants exist because we are different and seek to preserve that difference, even as we come together to bring our several gifts to the common good.


Covenants are inherently pluralistic.  In our commune there are a number of covenants:  members with one another in a congregation (the cornerstone relationship), members to minister, minister to colleagues, and congregations to each other in association.  One relationship does not exclude the other, and there are inherent tensions in this pluralism.


Finally, covenants are intergenerational in that they connect past, present and future.  It is a partnership between those who have come before us in our tradition, those who now guard, nurture, expand and pass on that tradition, and those who will inherit that tradition by choice or birth.


So let me count the generic ways of not being in right relationship.  When we don’t recognize and value difference right relationship is broken.  When there is no "we” we break right relationship.  When we deny our dependence right relationship is broken.  When we are unable to bring our unique gifts for the common good we are not in right relationship.  When we are living exclusively in one relationship, out of one covenant to the exclusion of others, we are in wrong relationship.  And when we are not mindful of being stewards of the past and the present for the sake of the future, we are not in right relationship.


The way home may be found only through ordering our relationships rightly.  Then we will be able to fully express our purpose and power in the world.  Only then can we define from the bottom up our collective mission or purpose as a religious people bound together freely in our covenants.  Only then can we form our vision of what our mission requires of us.  Only then can we practice our ministry, those actions that implement our vision and bears witness to the mission of our faith.


The challenge for us, the way home, is to develop a religious narrative that communicates our deepest convictions on matters of faith, the story that holds our diversity together, and to be more boldly creative in imagining new ways of walking and working together in the life of our Association.


Our task is to be, as Emerson once said to our colleagues so long ago, new-born bards of the Holy Ghost, vehicles for the Holy Spirit that will lead us to the home we have yet to build.


I don’t have ninety-five theses—only one.  The evidence of a changed life for us is finding the way home.  I am heading there.  I have seen it and greeted it from afar.  It is not the home of my past but the home we have yet to build for I desire a better dwelling place, and place to finally rest after my long journey as an exile and a stranger.  I may not make it there but I’m going nonetheless.      


I’m going home and I hope I am not alone.  And this is my prayer:  "God, I pray that I am not alone.”