as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, October 6, 2019
I am a Yankee. Living in Houston has made this aspect of my identity abundantly clear. I move through the world in distinctively non-Texan ways. I do not wear cowboy boots. I cannot two-step. I do not own a car. I root for neither the Houston Texans nor the Dallas Cowboys–though we have been here long enough that Asa is a fan of the Astros and the Rockets. And probably most disconcerting for many of the Texans I have met; I do not eat meat. Barbecue is not part of my regular routine.
Part of my recognition of my own Yankee nature has come from what I might describe as my general sense of disorientation as I wander through the Houston landscape. I grew up in Michigan. I studied in Illinois, Massachusetts, and Ohio. I am used to different trees, different flowers, and different rivers. But most importantly, I am used to different mushrooms.
You might not know that one of my great passions is foraging for mushrooms. Stick me in a Northeastern forest for a few hours sometime between the beginning of May and the end of October and I am liable to walk out with several pounds of edible mushrooms. Morels–black, yellow, and grey–, chanterelles–flaming red or colored like egg yolk–, oysters, dryad’s saddles, gem studded and giant puffballs, chicken of the woods, hen of the woods, reishi, I know them all.
In Texas, I find myself uncertain in my identification of local mushroom species. There are mushrooms here that look deceptively similar to some that I eat confidently up North. They grow throughout the Museum District and in Herman Park. They have red caps and yellow stalks. They are plump, firm to the touch, solid all the way through and have pores rather than gills on the underside. They look and smell exactly like bicolor boletes–a highly prized delicacy quite similar in taste to porcinis.
Imagine my delight when, shortly after I moved here, I found dozens of these mushrooms growing around our building. Of course, I picked a number and brought them back to my office, with the intention of cooking them up that evening.
Unfortunately, the mushrooms were not bicolor boletes. Now, this not a tale of mushroom poisoning. There’s a saying among foragers: “There are old mushroom hunters. And there are bold mushroom hunters. But there are no old bold mushroom hunters.” I practice an abundance of caution when it comes to mushrooms. And so, when I got back to my office I started fiddling with the mushrooms. They began to stain blue. That is a bad sign. Bicolor boletes do not stain blue. I could not positively identify them. One guidebook indicated that they might be lurid boletes. Those are edible but only grow in Europe. Another suggested that they might be boletus speciosus. Those are not found in the South. In a third they appeared to be a variety of devil’s boletes. But those smell unpleasant and these had a pleasant odor.
In the end, I decided that since I couldn’t completely figure out what they were I better not eat them. It was a disheartening experience. It made me feel disconnected, or even alienated, from the land. Normally, my knowledge of mushrooms helps me to feel connected to it.
The experience is one that I have been ruminating on over the last few weeks as we have been exploring the theme of disruption and three of the great crises of the hour. You might recall, that in worship this year we are exploring how we might develop some of the religious resources and spiritual practices to help us in the work of confronting the climate crisis, the resurgence of white supremacy, and the assault on democracy.
The roots of all three of these crises lie in disconnection or alienation. Many people in this country are alienated from the Earth and alienated from each other. The climate crisis has been created because many of us no longer understand that we are people of the Earth. As the planet goes, so goes the human species. The poet Joy Harjo offers us wise counsel when she enjoins us to:
Remember the earth whose skin you are:
red earth, black earth, yellow earth, white earth
brown earth, we are earth.
I had a taste of that alienation when I found myself unable to properly identify one of the local mushrooms. One of the principal reasons I love mushroom foraging is it helps me to feel connected to, and a part of, the earth whose skin I am.
Sometimes my experiences in the North are a bit like this: I walk the woods and ramble the riverbanks looking for signs of mushrooms. It is midsummer. There has been rain. Not yesterday, the day before. It is supposed to be chanterelle season. Slow growing, densely fleshed, chanterelles have symbiotic relationships with oak trees. They entwine themselves with the roots and share nutrients creating a network of enmeshed fungi and living wood that can stretch for acres.
My eyes are scouring the leaf litter for signs of wrinkled yellow or red caps. Nothing. I walk for another hour, drifting towards that stand of ancient oak or trying my luck nearer the edge of a shallow stream. Nothing. And then, at the edge of my vision, I see a hint of yellow. I investigate. I look down and there’s a mushroom. I look up and suddenly I see hundreds of beautiful fruiting bodies. They range from tiny buttons to unfolding fractal caps the size of my fist. It is as if I have been invited to be a part of the network of mycelium and root mass that runs through the forest. In moments like that I feel part of the Earth, creation, the unnamable all of existence which we might choose to call God or name the sacred and the divine.
Remember the plants, trees, animal life who all have their
tribes, their families, their histories, too. Talk to them,
listen to them. They are alive poems.
In the liberal theological tradition, of which Unitarian Universalism is one of the boldest expressions, God is understood to be the experience of connection to something greater than ourselves. The nineteenth century German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher described this experience as “the feeling of absolute dependence.” This feeling of connection is at the root of what it means to be religious. The feeling of connection comes first. The words we use to describe it come later. The feeling is universal. It comes from being embodied creatures, traversing a world on which we are dependent. The words we use to describe this feeling are bound by the particularities of culture and tradition.
Contemporary Schleiermacher scholar and Unitarian Universalist theologian Thandeka describes the dynamic this way: “The first word that comes to mind to refer to this feeling of absolute dependence–for Christians… is God… For Buddhists, the first word might be Sunyata; for Pagans, Gaia; for Humanists, the infinite, uncreated Universe.”
The feeling is universal. The words are particular. And our society’s alienation from this unnamable mystery is at the root of the climate crisis. We use words to describe the universal. Words can separate us from each other and our experience of connection. Human and Earth… We can describe ourselves as something other than creatures of the planet. We can pretend it is possible to escape the consequences of our habits of burning fossil fuels, filling the ocean with plastic, and despoiling lands. We use words and begin to imagine this experience of connection to be an experience of disconnection, disembodiment.
We use words and we get caught up in doctrinal differences. Theist versus humanist. Unitarian Christian versus pagan. Jew, Muslim, Mormon, Hindu, Buddhist… We use words and create cleavages between religious communities. The techno musician “Mad” Mike Banks once described the dynamic this way: “categories and definitions separate and with separation comes exploitation.”
In what remains the sermon, I want to suggest a few strategies you might use to cultivate your sense of connection, move beyond words, and overcome alienation. Think of these as spiritual practices that might aid you in fostering a sense of connection during these times of dislocation and crisis.
I offer them with insights from the German Jewish theologian Martin Buber. Buber was one of the twentieth-century’s preeminent scholars of mysticism. He came to understand that humans develop our senses of identity in relation to the other. “I require a You to become; becoming I, I say You,” are some his most famous words.
It is only through a connection with someone or something else that we come to know ourselves. Buber called this experience I-Thou. I-Thou is an experience of pure being. I-Thou occurs when we cease to treat something or someone as an ends to a means. We view them not for their utility or use. Instead, we feel enveloped in the other, dependent, joined with, linked to them. Buber wrote, “He is no longer He or She [or They], limited by other Hes and Shes [and Theys], a dot in the world grid of space and time, nor a condition that can be experienced and described, a loose bundle of named qualities.” In some moments, we experience other beings as “seamless” and discover that “everything else lives in [their] light.” Buber’s language is difficult, poetic, dense, and hard to decipher. This is because language fails such experiences. They are experiences and not ideas. Experiences and not words. Yet, sometimes, we can find hints of such experiences in scriptures and sermon, poetry and luminous prose. One is evoked in denise levertov’s masterful poem “The Cat as Cat:”
flex and reflex of claws
gently pricking through sweater to skin
gently sustains their own tune,
not mine. I-Thou, cat, I-Thou.
“I-Thou, cat, I-Thou,” the words only conjure. But yet, I ask you, have you ever had such moments of connection with another being? A pet? A family member? A lover? A friend? A complete stranger? For me they open up when my cat lies on my lap and sings his cat song, when I get enthusiastic hugs from my children, when I sit beneath the foggy city stars and grasp for words to fill a conversation with a friend, when I dance and lose myself in the breaker’s circle or connect soul-to-soul with a tango partner, and when I lie at the salt water’s edge and hear the backwash drag across sand.
Such moments of connection provide, in Buber’s understanding, linkage to God, the grand mystery of the universe. Now, I recognize that God is a word that makes many Unitarian Universalists uncomfortable. Many of us like to label ourselves atheists, agnostics, and humanists and reject God. It is all words and words divide and fail to describe the indescribable, the unnamable, that I experience, and I suspect you do as well, when I feel connected to something greater than myself.
Sometimes, in my work as a minister, I will have people come to me expressing hesitation about joining a Unitarian Universalist congregation. They do not believe in God, they will tell me, and therefore, they think, they cannot be part of a liberal religious community. I draw upon advice from the late Unitarian Universalist theologian Forrest Church and ask them, “Tell me about this God you do not believe in. Chances are, I do not believe in that God either.”
We Unitarian Universalists often get too caught up in what theologians call the via negativa. We love to talk about what God is not and express disbelief. God is not an old white man with a beard in the sky. God is not a vengeful deity angrily coming to smite those who have strayed from rigid doctrine. God is not a being that hates anyone who fails to fit into the all too tidy box of heteronormativity. God is none of these things.
What I am suggesting this morning is that one of the religious practices that we can go back, root ourselves in, in times of crisis is to pursue the via postiva. Here Forrest Church offered us advice, “God is not God’s name,” he told us. “God is our name for the mystery that looms within and looms beyond the limits of our being. Life force, spirit, ground of being, these too are names for the unnamable.” God is present when we feel connected to, and not separated from, the blue green ball of a planet and the great family of all souls of which we are each but a part.
Martin Buber suggested that there were three ways we might encounter this experience of pure being, which he was unafraid to call God. We can find it, first, through nature. Second, through other beings–people and animals. And third, through art.
I offered my experience as a mushroom hunter as an example of finding the sense of connection in nature. Such episodes are important. They remind us that we are dependent upon, not separate from, this planet which is in ecological crisis. You might find them walking through the woods, strolling along a bayou, or rooting in the soil while you work your garden. Maybe you might even find it simply by gazing at a tree, as Buber himself once did. Reflecting on what he felt while communing with a tree he wrote, “Whatever belongs to the tree is included: its form and its mechanics, its colors and its chemistry, its conversation with the elements and its conversation with the stars.”
We can also find the experience of connection with other beings, human and animal. And here I could offer many examples–some rooted in wordless intimacies and others in ecstatic conversations. Holding a newborn baby, grasping the hand of a dying loved one, singing in community, sharing a well-crafted meal, silently coordinating together as we work to refurbish a house, the litany could continue endlessly, could continue as long as we could find new permutations of relation. Buber, denise levertov, and I all apparently find the experience in our cats. Buber wrote, “I sometimes look into the eyes of a house cat” in the midst of an eloquent passage on his theology of relation.
And finally, there is what Buber called “spiritual beings.” Here he meant not angels or demons but rather art and knowledge. These are things created by human beings that draw other human beings into the realm of I-Thou. To truly gain knowledge, and to understand another’s knowledge, we need be present entirely to what we are attempting to learn. We have to connect to it and let its patterns unfold before us. As an undergraduate I earned a degree in physics. I remember a sense of awe and wonder that would come as I puzzled through line after line of confusing equations. Suddenly, sometimes, the solution would appear–five, six, seven lines in–an expression that represented the classical mechanics of pulleys or the way light bent as it traversed through a series of lenses. It was like a flash that illuminated our relation to the ground of being–which there I might have called the laws of science.
I have long since forsaken my scientific studies. These days I am much more likely to experience connection through art. Have you ever had the experience of being completed subsumed by a piece of art? Where the work opened up a depth of emotion for you that blotted out everything around you? Some afternoon following service I invite you to go down the block and visit the Museum of Fine Arts. Pick a piece, preferably in a quiet side gallery where you are not likely to be interrupted. I might suggest František Kupka’s “The Yellow Scale.” It is found on the second floor of the Audrey Jones Beck Building, in the European painting section.
Commit to spending three minutes looking at the piece. One minute from far away, one minute a bit closer, and the final minute as close you can get. Three minutes can be a long time to look at a piece of art and in that time in might start to open itself up to you. Kupka’s “The Yellow Scale” appears to be a self-portrait. The artist reclines upon a wicker chair, one hand resting upon a book, the other grasping a cigarette. He gazes straight out at you. He is awash in a sea of yellow. Only his flesh, hair, cigarette, and chair are other than yellow. The background is textured golden, the oil of the paint forming thin clots that give the painting depth. Kupka’s robe is a brighter yellow, the fabric folding, reflecting, capturing light. Even his book and pillow are yellow. Each minute I move closer to the painting, I find myself more absorbed by its details. Soon there is only the painting and I, I and the painting, a moment of pure being, pure connection, the experience of being part of something larger than myself.
Mushrooms, a tree, cat and human, knowledge and art, Buber claimed “All actual life is encounter.” As we seek the religious tools to help us deal with the great disruptions of the hour, I suggest that we open ourselves up to these experiences of encounter. They can help us understand that we are neither separate from each other nor separate from the Earth. We are not alienated from our planet or the family of all souls. We are all intricately bound together and by opening ourselves to the I-Thou, the experience of mystery, we find strength and reorientation for the struggles ahead.
We can find that sense of connection within the walls of this sanctuary as well. I suspect that it is one reason why so many of us gather together, Sunday after Sunday. Here when we lift our voices together in song, sit together in the wooden pews, or join together in meditation we can encounter the feeling of connection to a community, the feeling of connection to something greater than ourselves, the great mystery of life.
And in the last months, I have found that I can have the experience of connection even in the city of Houston. As I have walked through the streets of Montrose I have seen it there–purslane–a plant I know how to pick, eat and prepare. Small, succulent weed, thick juicy leaves, red creeping stalk, medicinal, edible, a gentle reminder to me that even when I feel alienated, disconnected, from the sweet Earth there is always the possibility of reconnection, of rerooting, of opening myself to the beauty and mystery of the all that surrounds us.
So that such moments of connection, such gentle overcomings of alienation, might be available to all of us, I invite the congregation to say Amen.