Shifting Gears

(A sermon delivered at Throop Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, California on 27 September 2015. Copyright 2015 by Everett Howe.)

(A general note on the sermons I post: I wrote them with the intention of speaking them, and therefore the punctuation is more appropriate for spoken language than written language. Grammar, too, is different in practice for spoken language than for written language. If something looks funny to you when you see it written here, try reading it out loud.)

Five years ago I was president of the Board of Trustees of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego; I had already served a year as vice-president, and the following year I would be past-president. I was happy with my family life and with my job doing mathematical research; and I was discovering that I was better at lay leadership than I had expected to be. And yet something was off; I was not feeling satisfied. I wanted to be able to contribute more to the life of the church — serving on the board did not seem like enough — and in any case eternal committee membership did not seem like it would be personally satisfying. I struggled with this feeling of dissatisfaction for some time, but it continued to grow, and it became more and more upsetting to me. Finally, I asked for a meeting with our associate minister, the Reverend Kathleen Owens, and with our intern minister, Sue Magidson. I made the appoinment with Sue as well as Kathleen because I knew her and trusted her, and because she had a Ph.D. in math education; I thought she would understand where I was coming from.

Kathleen and Sue listened to me for some time, as I explained as best I could my unfocussed dissatisfaction, and my desire to do something more for the church.  After I had gone on for some time, Reverend Kathleen stopped me, and asked:

“Everett, are you saying that you have a call to ministry?”

Last month when I led worship here at Throop, I mentioned that an intern minister’s first sermon at their teaching congregation is usually a personal introduction of some kind, telling the congregation something about who the intern is — their history, their path to ministry, their theology…

Last month I was not quite yet your intern minister, but this month I am your intern minister — and I will be for two years, until the end of May 2017 — learning from Reverend Tera, learning from all the staff members, and most importantly, learning from you, the members and friends of Throop. We will have many chances to get to know one another, but to give you a head start, today I will tell something about how I got to be here.  And any story of how I got to be here has to pass through Reverend Kathleen’s office five years ago, with me sitting there, and Kathleen asking whether I was saying that I had a call to ministry.

Ministry?  Let me tell you how far-fetched that sounded in the larger context of my life.

I grew up in Sacramento, the youngest of seven children.  My father worked for the State Department of Education; my mother was a homemaker, and later a writer of young-adult fiction.  My siblings and I were raised completely unchurched; the only times I can remember even being inside a church when I was growing up was for piano recitals.  My family did celebrate Christmas and Easter, but in a very secular way — kind of the same way that we celebrated New Years and Halloween — as holidays where there are certain traditional things you do. For us, at Christmas and Easter those traditional things involved Christmas trees, presents, stockings filled with chocolate and an orange, Easter baskets — also full of chocolate — and big family get-togethers with grandparents and aunts and uncles.  Religion was really not a part of it.

Growing up, I knew that some of my friends went to church or to synagogue; my best friend in high school was Catholic, and our next door neighbors — a state senator and his family, who, coincidentally, represented a district in West LA not that far from here  — were Jewish. But because we never went to church, a lot of what I absorbed about religion while I was growing up came from… televangelists: Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Pat Robertson, Jimmy Swaggart… We would see them while flipping channels and sometimes watch a little; my mother was particularly fascinated by them, and in her first book she included a scene of a tent-show revivalist raising false hope for the seriously ill while raising cash for himself.

My parents were humanists, though they did not start using that word until perhaps the time I was in high school.  As a child and youth I was interested in science and math; and from reading and thinking about things, by the time I was in high school I knew that I was an atheist, and philosophically skeptical.

Perhaps I should have tried to find a humanist group to meet with in person, but that thought did not occur to me, and I’m not even sure that there were many such groups around.  Instead, I read some humanist magazines: My parents subscribed to Free Inquiry, published by the Council for Secular Humanism, and I personally subscribed to the Skeptical Inquirer, a magazine I had read about in one of Martin Gardner’s columns in Scientific American, which was dedicated to scientifically investigating claims of the paranormal. But after a while I began to be disturbed by the tone of some of the articles in these magazines. In some articles there was — well, for lack of a better word, an “arrogant dismissal” of the religious. Not “I disagree with you about this, and here’s why I think I am right”, but rather “I disagree with you about this, and — how could you be so stupid?”

It was my first experience of finding myself agreeing with someone on some intellectual point, but not wanting to be associated with them. (I did not stop to think that there could be theists who felt the same way about Pat Robertson.)

So for many years I felt that I would have to live philosophically on my own. I tried to be kind, and to do good, and if anyone asked, I would tell them that I was an atheist — and I would secretly hope that they would be surprised. “You’re an atheist? But you’re so considerate!”

Fast forward: through college, graduate school, a job teaching at the University of Michigan, getting married to Bella (who you will get a chance to meet today), moving to San Diego, having kids… Fast forward to 2005. Around this time, Bella began to be interested in finding a church community, somewhere where we could go to meet other people; to talk about important aspects of life; to have a supportive community.  I didn’t think there could be a church that I could participate in as a humanist.  So Bella visited a few congregations without me — liberal Episcopalian, United Church of Christ — but then one evening we remembered those rumors we had heard about the Unitarian Universalists. We looked online and we found the seven principles that you can find near the front of the hardcover hymnal…  Let me remind you:

  1. The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  2. Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
  3. Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
  4. A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
  5. The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
  6. The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all; and
  7. Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

Bella and I read these… and looked at one another… and asked, “What’s the catch?”  We… we agreed with these principles! And, looking further, we saw that humanism and science are mentioned among the sources of Unitarian Universalism! So that is how we wound up, the following Sunday, at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego; and that’s how, five years later, I found myself sitting in Reverend Kathleen’s office.

“Everett,” she asked, “are you saying that you have a call to ministry?”

A call.  What is a call?

For Christians, a call means a call from God.  God lets you know somehow that you are meant to do something in the grand scheme of things.

What does the idea of a “call” even mean to a humanist?

The Quaker author Parker Palmer writes about calling in a humanist-friendly way in his book Let Your Life Speak. He writes about finding those things that are compelling to the deepest part of you, your soul, if you’re willing to use that language… and he writes about the difficulty of hearing what that deepest part of you has to say.  He illustrates this with a nice image:

The soul [he writes] is like a wild animal — tough, resilient, savvy, self-sufficient, and yet exceedingly shy.  If we want to see a wild animal, the last thing we should do is to go crashing through the woods, shouting for the creature to come out.  But if we are willing to walk quietly into the woods and sit silently for an hour or two at the base of a tree, the creature we are waiting for may well emerge, and out of the corner of an eye we will catch a glimpse of the precious wildness we seek. (pp. 7–8)

By quiet, open, honest reflection, says Palmer, we can sometimes access the deeper truths about ourselves.  And, he says, being ourselves is the point.   He relates a Hasidic tale about this idea:

Rabbi Zusya, when he was an old man, said, “In the coming world, they will not ask me: ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me, ‘Why were you not Zusya?’” (p. 11)

As Palmer expresses it, you are fulfilling a call if you are doing something that expresses who you really are.

As it happens, I knew what it meant to have a calling, because I already had one: a calling to do mathematics. I know that that sounds strange to many people; it’s kind of like someone saying that they have a calling to undergo oral surgery. But it’s true.  When I was eight years old, I wanted to be a mathematician. Which is a little odd, because I had no idea at that age what a mathematician really does. You see, the arithmetic you do in elementary school is analogous to learning how to spell; the math you do in high school is kind of like learning grammar.  Most people stop there and never even get to the mathematical equivalent of reading a story.  But I found as I got older that my talent for the spelling and grammar of mathematics came along with a talent for reading and writing mathematics.  I could read the wonderful, eternally true stories of math — and I could write my own; it’s a way of touching the infinite.

This calling took me to Caltech, where I got my bachelor’s degree in math; to Berkeley, where I got a Ph.D.; to the University of Michigan, where I taught for three years; and to my current job at a think tank in San Diego.  I was set; I had a calling; I had a job doing what I was called to do.

And yet there I was in Reverend Kathleen’s office.

“Everett,” she asked, “are you saying that you have a call to ministry?”

I have to warn you about one of the dangers of speaking with your minister.  When they ask you a question?  You might feel a responsibility to answer honestly.

It had never occurred to me to think of what I had been feeling as a call. But I recognized immediately that that would explain a lot. And I knew what the only honest answer was.

I said “yes” — even though I didn’t quite know what that meant.

I should make it clear that I did not then drop everything, quit my job, and enroll full-time in seminary. As I said, I am very skeptical, even of my own gut feelings. It took three years of discussions with Bella, of self-reflection; three years of deeper involvement in lay ministry at my home congregation, and test runs taking one class at each of the two UU seminaries — it took a very long time before I decided, with Bella’s support, to enroll in seminary… and then it was as a part-time distance-learning student. Even with this internship at Throop, I am still working 60% time at my math job.

What will the end of all this be?  Parish ministry?  Chaplaincy? Part-time? Full-time? How will ministry fit in with mathematics?  I don’t know yet. Those are some of the things that I will be working out, here, with you.

Thank you for letting me be part of your religious life.

Blessed be.  Amen.

3 thoughts on “Shifting Gears”

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