1 “Felt Intimacy” A Sermon by Carlos R. Martinez Delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the South Jersey Shore May 15, 2011 John James Audubon described his passion for birds as a “felt intimacy” saying it was “bordering on frenzy [which] must accompany my steps through life.” So often the great undertakings of our life are motivated and drawn from a deep wellspring of passion. In Audubon’s case the inexplicable passion he felt was for birds. He is described to have had a deep abiding fascination with them such that he would travel for days to the remotest parts of the country to find new specimens. He would make journeys to gather up supplies for the trading business he ran. His journeys, much to his business partner’s dismay, would invariably include long side trips to find birds. As it happens there is no better place in the country than here in Southern New Jersey to be taken by such a passion. From April through May there is no finer place to see migratory birds. Over one hundred million birds representing over 300 species will pass through this area. In fact people travel from all parts to come to witness the various birds to be found here. An outing might include seeing beach nesters at Stone Harbor Point such as the piper plovers; marsh birds such as the herons or egrets; perhaps a wild turkey crossing the road, a broad winged hawk sitting on a telephone wire or a bald eagle soaring overhead. If you, like Audubon, similarly hold a passion for birds you are in good company. According to Scott Weidensaul author of Of a Feather: A brief History of American Birding there are over 80 million bird curious Americans. Those enraptured with birds have been variously called bird watchers, bird lovers and presently the name “birders” seems to stick best. Birders, like birds, come in different varieties. There is the casual birder who while walking along the nature trail keeps an eye out for the occasional bird. There is the lister, the bird enthusiast who is in the sport of meticulously checking off the ones they have spotted. Then there is the elite birder, the birding expert, who is so proficient at identifying birds it only takes a wayward glance to identify not only the species but the sub-species. This latter birder is venerated among birders much as a Zen Master might be. If you haven’t caught on yet, birders are deeply passionate about birds. Once struck with this passion they go to all lengths to satisfy it. They organize “bird sits” in which they sit quietly in one place to see as many birds as they can in that one spot. They organize “bird years” where they travel as far and widely as ingenuity and their pocket book will allow to see as many of the 9,000 bird species as they possibly can see.
2 To do so they have been known to sell everything, divorce their spouses, quit their jobs, take odd jobs, and travel to all corners of creation in their single purposed pursuit of the object of their passions—birds. For instance, sixteen year old Kenn Kaufman, dropped out of high school, hitched rides across North America, ate cat food, and lived on a dollar a day so he could beat the record of 626 species seen in a year. Phoebe Snitsinger, in 1995, became the first person to see more than 8,000 species, suffered shipwrecks, earthquakes and assaults on her person. The British ornithologist David Hunt was killed by a tiger in 1985 while leading a bird tour in India and his posthumously published photos show that he snapped photos up to the very end.1 The passions in our lives, such as birding, come to us unexpectedly. But once the passion has taken hold of us the grip is intense. Passions fill us with driving feelings evidenced by strong likings or a desire for or devotion to some activity, object or concept. It becomes our deep seated interest, even an object of desire. Much like in our story for Messages for All Ages, when passions come they can come to us like a music that only we hear: “You can’t hear it of course,” our protagonist said, “It’s all in my head.” But, “You have it too.” Yes, you have it too. Yes, we Unitarian Universalists have a passion. We have a passion for our religion, for our faith, for the freedom to gather together in beloved community to share our truths. However when asked about what draws us to our passion we give a birders’ response, as one birder stated, “It is usually difficult for birders to articulate why birds are significant in their lives. For some it is a way to heighten awareness of seasons and geography, a way to connect to nature… Many simply find it relaxing. Everyone has a reason. ‘How do you explain what brings meaning to your life?’” How do we explain what brings meaning to our lives? As UU’s we are ever on the look out for meaning in our lives. We flock together in a covenantal relationship. We come together to uphold a promise to each other that we will stay in relationship with each other as we migrate through the various stations of our lives and search for meaning, truth, and justice. We strive to stay in relationship with one another as we seek, if ever fleeting, the truths which we apprehend much as the birder might search for the rare Petrel which the storm inadvertently has brought to land or the more common Rose breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus). Like our birding brethren in search of their elusive prey, we too are a community of seekers. We seek truth which comes through direct experience. The truth directly observed. It is the truth which nourishes us from the guide books of the world’s great religious traditions. Our truths are dependent upon evidence. We need to see if but for one life altering instant. We then gather in community to share our truths. Our sense of faith depends upon our passion, the passion to give ourselves over to what we believe. To commingle together in community and strengthen our sense of purpose by knowing we are stronger when we support each other and affirm our religious journeys. Religion is 1
“The Birdman of Texas”, Texas Monthly, May 2011.
3 about connection. It is about connectedness. Spirituality is what we harken forth to feel the breath of God, the divine, the ever fleeting sense and awe of the unseen infinite. We bring together our truths to give comfort to each other that we can grasp what is here before us but express our reverence for all that eludes and evades our ability and knowing. Our passion is what we believe in and what we give ourselves over to. It is about faith. Faith is a word that we should embrace. What is faith? Faith comes from the Latin word fides which is derived from the Greek pisti (πίστη) it means “belief, trust”, “that which produces belief [or] evidence,” “to bide.” Today there are a variety of expressions of faith within Unitarian Universalism, and, remarkably, we are very much like our Puritans ancestors, all of us, in that we, like them, insist on having a direct relationship with “that which we sense but can not name,” call it the Divine, the Spirit of Life, or God of many names. This explains too why we as Unitarian Universalists are seekers and why there are no creeds or doctrines. To go forward along our individual journeys we must do the active and hard work of drawing forth from our own sense of knowing, from our life, from our experience, and from the great sources that provide wisdom as we understand it – and our faith has to reflect those experiences and insights. William Ellery Channing said in an 1837 sermon, our goal is “to stir the up the mind.” “to inspire a fervent love of truth,” “to permit the young to see inquiringly and steadily with their own eyes,” “to awaken conscience, moral discernment, to discern and approve … what is good and right.” What is good and right has been described as God. I use the word “God” as a placeholder to describe the mystery, awe and poetry of life that lies beyond the limits of what experience and science can explain. God is the word that is a metaphor for all that lies beyond our understanding. It is very much akin to gazing wonderingly at the stars humbled and in awe of all that we have yet to understand about those big questions of life. “From whence did we come?” “Why are we here?” “Where are we going?” Ken Pergament, author of many studies on psychology and religion, says that spirituality is “a search for the sacred” and religion is “the larger social and institutional context in which the search for the sacred takes place.” We all bring to this place the search for the sacred and the questioning of faith. It is here, present with us now and with us when we leave. Our challenge as a community of faith is to draw ourselves together around a shared faith. Our challenge is to make our faith the ebb and flow of truths that rises and falls like the tide and puts water under our raft. We are a faith community that is constantly remaking itself as new voices join the circle. We are a religion which believes that today’s heresy becomes tomorrow’s truth.
4 We are open to re-centering the luminous center of our gathered life together. Sometimes we find it unsettling. The richness of our shared lives depends upon each of us taking responsibility to bring something to the communal table. The more I invest myself in the development of my faith, the more I bring to this community of faith. The faith we bring touches the lives of those that count upon us: our partner, our neighbor, the person sitting next to you, the newcomer you will greet in coffee hour. If you invest and deepen your understanding of the truths that have presented themselves to you it strengthens the fabric of our shared community. Take a moment and consider what is your passion? How is passion incarnate in your faith? What is it that you believe? Where do you put your trust? What do you bide? Trust that faith, like our passion, takes on different forms. It is often found in the daily rituals of our lives or the most sublime moments of thought. It could be our commitment to something greater than ourselves, our commitment to family, our church, or a cause. It takes on a multiplicity of meanings in anchoring us, it is perhaps the reason for the jobs we’ve chosen or the company we have given our lives to, at least for now. Perhaps it is the reason behind the communities to which we chose to belong. Faith is a powerful and strong motivator. It helps us to get out of bed, go to work, ensure that our children get to school, dedicate ourselves to those whom we love, commit us to that which we believe, it brings us here and sustains us in gathered community. And it is the music we hear and can entreat others to hear as well. As Ralph Waldo Emerson stated in his Divinity School Address of 1838: “Where now sounds the persuasion, that by its very melody imparadises my heart, and so affirms its own origin in heaven? Where shall I hear words such as in elder ages drew men to leave all and follow, -- father and mother, house and land, wife and child? Where shall I hear these august laws of moral being so pronounced, as to fill my ear, and I feel ennobled by the offer of my uttermost action and passion? The test of the true faith, certainly, should be its power to charm and command the soul, as the laws of nature control the activity of the hands, -- so commanding that we find pleasure and honor in obeying. The faith should blend with the light of rising and of setting suns, with the flying cloud, the singing bird, and the breath of flowers.” Let us, dearly beloved community, my fellow Unitarian Universalist’s give voice to the faith that commands our souls. Speak it, proclaim it, let it be the music that emanates from within you and let it awaken you and animate your soul. As you go forth in these days, whether you find yourself at Cape May Point, Belle Plain or Forsythe; as you prepare to journey in search of the Red Not or the Blackburnian Warbler; as you quietly step through the forest, as you approach listening intently, your heart palpitating at the world of possibility that stands there before you—the beauty
5 which appears fleetingly passing before your eyes which may never to be apprehended againâ€”be witness to all that is around you. Know that you, like all that surrounds you, are part and particular of nature and part and particle of God. Let this be the intimacy felt which can be found once we allow ourselves to be in the embrace of all that is. Amen. So Be it. Let it be so.