Tag Archives: Zen

Everything Is Holy Now

(A sermon delivered at Throop Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, California on 2 April 2017. Copyright 2017 by Everett Howe.)

Earlier in the service, we heard live performances of Peter Mayer’s song Holy Now and Susan Werner’s song May I Suggest. Here are YouTube videos of those songs:

Holy Now, performed by Peter Mayer:

May I Suggest, performed by Red Molly:

Endless trouble.

Endless trouble is what certain words can cause, especially in religious communities. The most famous example for modern-day Unitarian Universalists is the word God, but there are other contenders too, like prayer, and the holy.

Coincidentally, the worship theme at Throop Church for the month of April is “The Holy.” Let’s see how much trouble we can get into!

Part of the problem with all of these words is that they mean different things to different people. For example, some people might think of God as a God with whom one can have a personal relationship, a God who answers prayers, a God who forgives sins. Others might think of God more abstractly; they might think, for example, that God is the “absolute infinite.” Some might think of gods in the plural, with a lower-case g. And some might prefer Paul Tillich’s idea of God as the “ground of being.”

So it’s no wonder that it’s hard to have a conversation about God; people are literally using the same word to talk about different things.

There are similar problems with the word holy, and one of the reasons why I like Peter Mayer’s song Holy Now, which we heard earlier, is that it is about how his understanding of the word holy has changed over the course of his life.

One definition is that something is holy if it comes from God, or is approved by God, or has some divine quality. Of course, that leads us right back to the problem of agreeing on what God is! But there’s a second definition that I personally find much easier to handle:

Something is holy if we respond to it with veneration and reverence.

With this understanding of the word, it’s easy to tell if someone believes something to be holy: Do they treat it with respect, and with reverence?

And the beauty of thinking about holiness in this way is that more and more of your life can be holy; things become holy if you treat them with reverence. And this is Mayer’s song. When he was a boy, holiness was something that came from God, that came from the church: holy water to dip his fingers in, a morsel of consecrated bread, a sip of consecrated wine. But now, he sings, everything is holy: a child’s face, the new morning, a red-winged bird. He says that he walks through the world with a reverent air because everything is holy now, but I wonder… has he reversed cause and effect? Maybe everything is holy now, because he walks through the world with a reverent air.

This conception of holiness suggests a spiritual practice. Throughout the day, remind yourself to pause; to perceive where you are, and what is around you; and treat it with reverence.

For instance, right now — let’s pause.

See the light coming through our windows.

Listen. Sense the vast space of air above you. Can you hear how it affects sounds?

Feel the presence of all that is around you, the life in this room.

Remain present here and now, but at the same time, feel a sense of all the paths that have led people here today… how all of our lives have converged here, now… threads of consciousness, brought together at this moment, and this place…

Feel how this moment is holy.

This sense of holiness, these holy moments are what Susan Werner’s song May I Suggest is about.

There is a world
That’s been addressed to you
Addressed to you, intended only for your eyes
A secret world
Like a treasure chest to you
Of private scenes and brilliant dreams that mesmerise
A lover’s trusting smile
A tiny baby’s hands
The million stars that fill the turning sky at night

All of the things that you have seen, all of the things that you have heard, all of the things that you have felt, all of the things that you have thought — they make up your own secret treasure chest of holy experiences, known only to you because you are the only one to have experienced them. By pausing and observing, by being present, you can add more to that treasure chest.

A few years ago, as part of a project for a world religions class, I attended Saturday services at the Zen Center of San Diego. I arrived at the Center much earlier than I had planned, because the Saturday morning traffic was much better than I had allowed for. The Zen Center is a large house in a residential neighborhood, and when I arrived, I walked around to the main entrance in the back yard. There was only one person there at that hour, and he was busy sweeping the back patio and the adjoining paths. I offered to help, and he handed me a broom.

As you may know, sweeping is an established form of Zen practice. So I thought to myself, “Huh! Here I am, at the Zen Center, with a broom. I guess I had better be mindful.” And so I was. As I swept, I paid attention to the walkway, to the leaves on the walkway, to the plants that brushed past me, to the trail of ants that I avoided sweeping up, to the whsshh! whsssh! of the broom as it brushed against the brick path. My mind did wander from time to time, but I returned my focus to my task and to all that was around me on that cool morning, all that was around me on the brick path through the garden.

And you know what? The time that I spent sweeping the walkway turned out to be the part of my visit that I remember best. I can still envision the walkway, the broom, the leaves, the grass. Because of the attention I paid, an ordinary task became part of the secret world of private scenes that Susan Werner sings of in her song.

It is not just Buddhism that encourages us to focus on the present. Other faiths have traditions of meditation as well, and researchers on human behavior have tried to make connections between paying attention and being happy.

In the sermon I delivered here in January, I mentioned how researchers at Harvard developed what must be the most annoying iPhone app ever. Their app interrupts you at random moments throughout your day and asks you a series of questions. The questions include:

How are you feeling right now?
What are you doing right now?
Are you thinking about something other than what you are currently doing?

The researchers found that people’s minds wander a lot — nearly half the time, in fact. They also found that people are less happy if they are not focussing on what they are doing. Even if you are doing something unpleasant, and your mind is wandering to something nice — even then, you’ll be less happy, on average, than if you were paying attention to what you are doing.

So, does a wandering mind cause unhappiness? Or maybe it’s that when you are unhappy, your mind is more likely to wander. The researchers considered this question, and by comparing each person’s responses throughout the course of the day, they found strong statistical evidence that in fact it is the wandering mind that creates the unhappiness, and not the other way around.

If you pay attention to what you are doing, you will likely be more happy, and you may find more holiness around you than you expect.

The two songs we heard today — Peter Mayer’s Holy Now and Susan Werner’s May I Suggest — both bring out this idea of a holiness that is everywhere we look. It turns out there’s a connection between that conception of holiness and the ideas about God that were expressed by one of our Unitarian ancestors, William Ellery Channing.

In 1828, Channing delivered a sermon in which he discussed his conception of God. Channing argued that we humans discover the nature of God by looking within, by observing our own souls. Channing wrote that “the idea of God, sublime and awful as it is, is the idea of our own spiritual nature, purified and enlarged to infinity.”

Channing knew that people might object to this; he knew that people might argue that we get our ideas of God not just from our own souls, but also from seeing God’s influence throughout everything we see and experience. Channing wrote:

The universe, I know, is full of God. […] [T]he effects and signs of [God’s] power, wisdom, and goodness, are apparent through the whole creation. But apparent to what? Not to the outward eye, […] but to a kindred mind, which interprets the universe by itself. […] We see God around us, because he dwells within us. It is by a kindred wisdom, that we discern his wisdom in his works.

So Channing acknowledges that there is evidence of God throughout all of creation, in the same way that Peter Mayer says that everything is holy; but Channing also says that we only comprehend this holiness because of God’s image within ourselves. This private comprehension of holiness connects with Susan Werner’s “secret world” addressed to us; just as we make things holy by treating them with reverence, Channing says that we only see the evidence of God around us because of the presence of the Divine within us.

When we are facing pain or oppression, or when we confront evil in the world, the belief that “everything is holy,” or that “everything can be made holy,” can seem hopelessly naïve. How can we reconcile this theology with the existence of pain, and oppression, and evil? Let’s think about this by looking at a situation where holiness seemed very far away.

In the late spring or early summer of 1945, just as World War II was ending in Europe, the British Broadcasting Corporation’s European Service broadcast some interviews with German soldiers who had been captured by the Allied forces.1 One of these German prisoners of war talked about his Christian faith and his unhappiness with what the National Socialists had done. He ends by telling a story which has since been repeated, and retold, and embellished over the years. The story, as he told it, is this:

In a shelter in Cologne, where young Catholics were keeping some Jews in hiding because their lives were threatened, American soldiers found the following inscription:

I believe in the sun — even when it is not shining.
I believe in God — even when He is silent.
I believe in love — even when it is not apparent.

How do these words, and the story told about them… how do they fit into the idea of holiness everywhere?

For some theists, the answer might be that underneath everything, God is still present. God may be silent, and human evil may have temporarily obscured the Divine, but God is still there. The words in the shelter are words of faith that God is never entirely gone, and that the Divine will reappear eventually.

I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining.
I believe in God, even when [God] is silent.
I believe in love, even when it is not apparent.

There are other ways of finding holiness in these words and the story behind them. In 1946, a Lithuanian-born Jew named Zvi Kolitz published a short story in a Yiddish newspaper in Buenos Aires.2 The story uses the “I believe in the sun” quotation as its epigraph; but it complicates and transforms the image. Kolitz’s story is in the form of an imaginary note, hidden in a bottle and found in the rubble of the Warsaw ghetto. Kolitz’s imagined note is written by a Jew who fought fiercely with his comrades against the Nazis who were destroying the ghetto. Kolitz’s narrator tells of his friends and his family dying; he tells of the Germans he has killed; he tells of how he himself will soon be killed. And he does tell of his belief in God; but, more, he tells of his argument with God, of his complaint to a God who would permit such destruction.

In Kolitz’s story, belief in God is not the point. For Kolitz’s narrator, the holy lies in his identity as a Jew, in the traditions and history of his faith. “I love God,” he says, “but I love God’s Torah more.” So here we find another version of the holy: Being true to one’s self, being true to one’s community, being true to a tradition.

I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining.
I believe in God, even when [God] is silent.
I believe in love, even when it is not apparent.

As a humanist, I see another way of finding the holy in these stories. The German POW tells of words inscribed in a shelter. Zvi Kolitz’s narrator leaves his testament of faith in a bottle, for others to find. Both of these stories have this common thread: a message left for the future.

For a humanist faced with bleakness and oppression and the likelihood of death, the answer might be that while there is no holiness right now, I can have faith that one day I will see it again; and if I do not survive, then one day someone else will come who will see hope, and who will create holiness — and who will recognize that I had been here; someone in the future will empathize with the present me, will honor my struggle, and will create holiness in that way.

In this view, the holy lies in reaching out, in finding common humanity. This is the holiness that we all can feel, even when we are suffering, when a friend is there to be with us.

I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining.
I believe in God, even when [God] is silent.
I believe in love, even when it is not apparent.

Whether you are a humanist, or a theist, or both, or neither…

Whether you believe the holy comes from God, or from reverent attention…

Whether you meditate, or pray, or find peace some other way…

I invite you to notice the holy around you — the holy amidst us all. Alone, or with others — The reverence with which you treat the world will enrich your life and may give hope where there had been none before.

Today, tomorrow, this week, this month… Remind yourself to pause.

Be present; find the holiness around you; and consider, that this moment, and this moment, can be the best part of your life.

Blessed be. Amen.

Cover image:
Public domain image from Pixabay.com, uploaded by user Patrick Neufelder. Original here.

  1. A partial transcript of the broadcast was published in the Quaker magazine The Friend in London. You can read about this here
  2. You can read more about the history of Kolitz’s story here

Being Right

(A sermon delivered at Throop Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, California on 16 October 2016. Copyright 2016 by Everett Howe.)

The title of my sermon today is “Being Right,” and it is a sermon about… humility.

Indeed, the worship theme at Throop Church for the month of October is humility, but this may not have been so apparent yet. Two weeks ago the theme was pre-empted by our annual blessing of the animals, and last week Rev. Tera focussed on atonement, because of Yom Kippur. But today I will look at humility, and, as I have done with other topics, I will try to see how it can be interpreted from a Unitarian Universalist perspective.

Now, there are different types of humility. There is intellectual humility, where we acknowledge that we do not know everything, that there may be things we cannot know, and — the most difficult, I think — where we acknowledge that some of the things that we think are true may not be true when looked at from another perspective.

And there is what we might call physical humility, represented for example in one of the stained glass windows to your left, in which Jesus is shown washing the feet of Simon Peter before the Last Supper. This is the humility shown by people who care for the bodies of others: nurses and medical aides who tend to the needs of the sick, parents who care for babies, children who help their aging parents.

And there is spiritual humility, which is related to what Rev. Tera spoke of last week — atonement, asking people forgiveness for wrongs we have done them.

My goal today is to find a common thread that connects these different types of humility, and, along the way, to point out some ways that the concept of humility has been misused, and to think of ways that we might reclaim the word.

I have to admit that when I first started to think about what to say about humility, my mind went straight to the idea of intellectual humility — and that is why I chose the ironic title “Being Right” for the sermon. I jumped immediately to the idea of acknowledging that we do not know everything; that we might be mistaken about some things; and that even if we are right about something according to our own interpretation, others may see things differently.

Perhaps this is because of my profession as a mathematician. In mathematics, we deal in statements that can be proven to be true, beyond even a shadow of a doubt. Nothing in real life is like that, even the most well-established scientific truths. This is one reason why — anecdotally, at least — lawyers do not want to have mathematicians in the jury.

Let me give you an example of a situation in which I had to learn some intellectual humility. It’s a story — a long-standing story — from the 25 years that my wife Bella and I have lived together, and I tell it with her permission.

There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who take dishes out of the dish drainer once they are dry, and those who don’t.

(You know who you are.)

Before Bella and I started dating, we exchanged many letters. We had met in the summer of 1989, just before Bella returned to central China to finish two years of teaching English there, so for a year we corresponded in the old-fashioned way, with letters written on that thin, translucent air-mail paper that seems so quaint now in the days of transcontinental instant messaging. In one of those letters, Bella mentioned that she did not like taking dishes out of the dish drainer. After she returned to the United States, she lived in Irvine and I lived in Berkeley, and when we could, one of us would visit with the other for a week or two. I remember distinctly that on my first visit to see her in Irvine, she reminded me again that she didn’t like removing dishes from the drainer.

So I was fairly and justly warned.

Now, this means that over the course of the past 25 years, I have spent a fair amount of time removing dishes from the drainer — or, even worse, drying all the dishes with a towel, because someone stacked wet dishes in the drainer on top of dry ones that hadn’t been put away!

You will be relieved to know that I put this time to good use. Over the course of 25 years of putting dishes away I developed an entire moral and ethical theory of the dish drainer. I can prove, philosophically and beyond doubt, that putting wet dishes on top of dry dishes is unethical, immoral, and a threat to the very fabric of civilized society.

Yet I refrain from sharing this theory with Bella.


Because there are many things that need doing in our household, many more things than the two of us have time to do. It’s true that Bella sometimes puts wet dishes on top of dry ones, but that’s because her attention is focussed on other things… she might use those extra minutes to hang out the laundry to dry, or put the recycling in the bin. The fact is, her housekeeping priorities and mine are different. That’s actually a good thing, because we each do complementary things.

Plus, if I complained too much about the dish drainer, then Bella might justifiably complain about the little stacks of books and papers that I seem to leave in various places about the house, without thinking. I imagine she has an entire moral and ethical theory about that.

So there’s one example of how two different people can have different conceptions about what is right. Perhaps it was a little lighthearted. Here’s a more serious story on the same theme.

Ayn Rand was a 20th-century American writer and philosopher, the creator of the philosophy known as “objectivism” and the iconoclastic leader of the objectivist movement for more than two decades. She is perhaps best known for her book Atlas Shrugged, a thousand-page brick of a novel that tells of a fictional future in which America’s leading industrialists and inventors, tired of being dragged down by freeloaders, take their marbles and leave. The mysterious John Galt, their leader, has created a hidden community in the mountains of Colorado where they can live out their dream society. The rest of the world, lacking their bold capitalistic leadership, falls into chaos. Riots, starvation, and the deaths of millions ensue — it all goes to show how the world just couldn’t continue unless we allow wealthy industrialists unfettered freedom from such hindrances as taxes and environmental regulations and a unionized workforce.

I have to confess, I have not read Atlas Shrugged, because life is short. However, I’ve done something nearly as good and much more fun: I’ve followed the blog of a writer who did read Atlas Shrugged, and who, each week, blogged about the portion that he read. From March 22, 2013 until July 8, 2016 — 179 posts — Adam Lee summarized plot developments and provided critical commentary about the politics of the book. I’ll give a link to his blog when I post this sermon online.

Adam Lee has an interesting comment to make about this hidden utopian community of individualists. In the book, each member of this community has to pledge to be guided only by their own self-interest. And yet, somehow these strong-minded, non-altruistic individualists never argue amongst themselves. Every time two of them may come into conflict, one of the two recognizes the superior skill and ability of the other and politely gives way — you know, just how it happens in real life.

The reason there is no conflict is because every single person in this community thinks just like Ayn Rand. She was not able to conceive that different people, with different assumptions and honorable motivations, might possibly disagree with the self-evident truth of her positions. And so she imagines an entire village of strong-minded individualists all thinking in exactly the same way. This same problem — the failure to recognize that there will be differences of opinion even among people trying to reach the same goals — this same problem was the downfall of many actual utopian communities in the real world.

And a final story about intellectual humility, from a collection of Zen Buddhist koans published in 1919:1 The story goes that a university professor came to visit Nan-in, a 19th-century Japanese Zen master, in order to learn about Zen.

Nan-in served his visitor tea. He poured until the cup was full, and then kept on pouring.

The professor watched the tea overflow from the cup, overflow from the saucer, spill on the table, and spill on the floor. “Stop!” he said. “It is too full! No more will go in!”

“Like this cup,” said Nan-in, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

The Zen master tells the professor that he needs more intellectual humility. It is always very satisfying to tell someone else that they need more humility.

The point behind all of these stories is that intellectual humility asks that we value other people’s ideas and perspectives, that we make room for them, even when we are sure that we are right. This is a reflection of the Unitarian Universalist First Principle: The inherent worth and dignity of every person.

Let’s turn to physical humility — this is where someone does something usually considered “lowly,” like unpleasant cleaning chores, or tending to someone else’s body. In the Christian scriptures, the classic example is from John chapter 13, where Jesus washes the feet of the disciples before the Last Supper. This tradition continues today during Easter Week: On Maundy Thursday, religious leaders wash the feet of people considered lowly — this year, the Pope washed and kissed the feet of a dozen people at a refugee center.

This is a once-a-year event for the Pope, but a daily event for many other people. In the hospital, the doctor swoops in and makes a diagnosis. The surgeon operates. But afterwards, the nurses and nursing assistants care for the patient’s body. They wipe the brow, tend the wound, check the catheter, change the bedpan. They recognize and acknowledge the fragile body that each of us lives in, and they care for us by caring for our bodies.

Those of us who have cared for infants know this same humility. Those of us who have cared for the elderly know too.

Physical humility lies in seeing the personhood of others; in seeing that their bodies are sacred, in all their humanity; in seeing that their needs are as important as our own. Again, the First Principle: The inherent worth and dignity of every person.

Traditionally, though, this recognition of others is sometimes perverted. From “the needs of others are as important as my own,” we move to “the needs of others are more important than my own,” to “my own needs are worthless.” I reject this form of humility; we can recognize the worth of others without denying our own.

Is it a coincidence that nursing, and child care, and the education of young children — is it a coincidence that these are all traditionally viewed as jobs for women? Is it a coincidence that women are expected to be drawn to careers that are seen as physically humble? Is it a coincidence that the perversion of humility that asks us to deny our own needs plays out in feminine spaces?

The third type of humility is spiritual humility: atonement, and the asking of forgiveness. This can be very difficult. I know, because I have hurt people in my life, and I have asked for forgiveness.

And the first drafts of my requests for forgiveness always start: “I know that I hurt you by doing what I did. I am sorry. But what I really meant was…”

And then the second draft is “I know that I hurt you by doing what I did. I am sorry. But when I was arguing with you all I was trying to do was…”

And the third draft is: “I know that I hurt you by doing what I did. I am sorry. But I really thought that what I was doing was right, because…”

It takes so many drafts to finally find the courage just to say: “I know that I hurt you by doing what I did. I am sorry. I should have known better, and I will try harder in the future.”

Spiritual humility is the practice of asking for forgiveness for a mistake without justifying why you made it.

These three types of humility — intellectual, physical, spiritual — all do have one thing in common.

In order to live them out, we have to acknowledge the Unitarian Universalist first principle, the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and we have to listen.

We have to listen, to understand how we may be wrong in our ideas. We have to listen, to learn what physical help someone else needs. We have to listen, to hear how we may have hurt someone, so that we can apologize for doing so.

The first step towards humility is listening.

The word humility comes from the Latin word humus, which means the ground, or the earth. Over the millenia the word humility has developed a meaning of being low; a humble person is sometimes viewed as someone who the powerful might trample in the dust, or grind beneath their feet.

But there is another view of the ground, of the earth, of the soil; a view supported by the earth-centered traditions that are among the sources of Unitarian Universalism, a view that we here at Throop see every day in our garden: the earth as a source of life, the earth as a source of strength.

Humility does not mean denying one’s own self, sacrificing oneself on the altar of everyone else’s needs.

Humility means seeing oneself as part of the web of all existence, not at the center, but part of the whole. It means seeing oneself not as being first, but neither as being last.

And most importantly: Drawing its strength from the earth, humility is not weakness — it is the strength to see yourself as being equal to others, and others as equal to you; the strength to balance your needs with those of your friend, or with those of a stranger; the strength to know that your viewpoint is one among many; the strength to know when it is your turn to give help, and when it is your turn to receive it; the strength to know when you have wronged someone, and the strength to ask for forgiveness.

Humility comes from strength; and the person who cannot be humble is the weakest of all.

Let us take strength from the earth, and see one another.

Let us take strength from the earth, and see ourselves.

Let us take strength from the earth, and use that power to support one another, with grace and with humility.

Go in peace.

Image credit: Kitchenscape, by Flickr user FraserElliot. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic

  1. I’ve modified the wording from the version I found online.