Finally yesterday I was back where I belong, and glad of it! I was on my own, because my co-minister hubby (the mastermind of our cranky sound system) was preaching at the same neighboring church. But I was so not on my own! It was a wonderful team effort which went absolutely seamlessly and left even me with my mouth hanging open.
I was preaching about Philip Pullman’s trilogy His Dark Materials, from which the movie “The Golden Compass” was made. I thought that if the fundamentalists were making such a fuss about it, then I’d like to know more. I saw the movie and read the entire trilogy, which I loved! I found most of his values very compatible with my own and with Unitarian Universalism in general.
Part of my team yesterday was the lay Worship Associate, who signed on with me because she thought it was cool to go see a movie as sermon prep. She loaned me a DVD containing an interview with Philip Pullman and a thoughtful analysis of the book which I found extremely helpful. I love it when Worship Associates take the initiative to do some real work behind the scenes.
Another important part of the team was our new Music Director, who just started on January 1 and is taking the congregation by storm! He’s a fabulous pianist, has a terrific singing voice, knows a lot about choral conducting, and arranges music at the drop of a hat. He had written an arrangement of “Bring Many Names” which was very beautiful. It involved a soprano solo, a tenor solo, and a lovely part for a child (the 11-year old daughter of the soprano, who has a very sweet voice) as well as the whole choir. They brought down the house!
One of the many ways he is whipping our choir into shape is getting them to look presentable when they sing. Yesterday they all were wearing black pants and either black, white or gray tops (or some combination thereof). Imagine my surprise to see them when I walked in wearing a black suit and a black-and-white striped blouse, and the Worship Associate had on a black suit as well. Serendipity, but it looked very put together.
Here are the last few paragraphs of the sermon:
So as Unitarian Universalists, what are we to make of these thrilling stories with their myriad levels of metaphor and myth? How are we to reconcile the various interpretations of Pullman’s work with his own statements of belief?
There is an observation that the definition of a liberal is one who can hold two conflicting and contradictory beliefs at the same time. In my experience this is true, and although it’s a characteristic that gives the absolutists a reason to criticize us liberals, I believe that the complexities of modern life require us to have some familiarity with and take some comfort in ambiguity. There is plenty of gray, and shades of gray, between those absolutes of black and white which many people believe are the only options for understanding how the world works.
So I think that we, as religious liberals, can take away meaning and significance from these stories whether we believe in God or not, whether we experience God as parent, creator, forgiver and lover, or whether we don’t need God in order to celebrate life. Although fundamentalists have seized upon the books’ attacks on the institution of the church and the way it has attempted to organize society, I’m not convinced that that is the most important aspect of the story.
Personally, I find myself much more drawn to his truthfulness about the positive message of the story of the apple (or the marzipan) in the Garden of Eden. Pullman believes that the Biblical story of Adam and Eve is a tremendous source of spiritual oppression, because it blames human beings for their natural tendency toward pleasure and curiosity, making them feel guilty instead of joyful about their awakening into authentic awareness
I have always thought that Eve should be acknowledged as one of the great heroes of humanity, for her bite into that apple marked the beginning of true human consciousness, the onset of intellectual curiosity, the opening of our eyes to both the beauty and wonder of life and to its capacity for evil and suffering. This is what it means to be a grownup.
Our focus as Unitarian Universalists is on the way we live our lives in this world, here and now, with all the clarity and clear-sightedness that we can muster. What happens before birth is a mystery; what happens after death is also a mystery, despite some people’s assertions that they know. Our focus is on life after birth, not life after death. And a brief interlude it is. As my colleague Kendyl Gibbons has said, “We have such a little moment, out of the vastness of time, for all our wondering and loving. Therefore, let there be no half-heartedness; rather, let the soul be ardent — in its pain, in its yearning, in its praise.”
This life may be the only moment that we have. But what a gift it is, this life that encompasses work and love, pain and failure, brokenness and wholeness. May we be worthy of this life and all that it holds for us.
And then, of course, we sang "For All That Is Our Life."