Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Last Rose of Summer

'Tis the last rose of summer left blooming alone
All her lovely companions are faded and gone
No flower of her kindred, no rosebud is nigh
To reflect back her blushes and give sigh for sigh

I'll not leave thee, thou lone one, to pine on the stem
Since the lovely are sleeping, go sleep thou with them
Thus kindly I scatter thy leaves o'er the bed
Where thy mates of the garden lie scentless and dead.

These are some of the words of our musical offering this morning The Last Rose of Summer. The words tell us of the last rose in bloom for the summer, a season of warmth and growth. All the other roses have shared their beauty and fragrance and are now gone and there will not be another bud. So the flower is plucked and enjoyed as it is the last one after all, and who would want to walk in this world alone?

We are pilgrims in this season of summer. Travelers on a journey to a holy place. There are interesting points within the words of the last rose of summer. This is the last rose of the season so why not take notice and enjoy it as it is the last.

This begs the question. Have we noticed all the others that have come before? In order to identify this flower as the last of the season we would need to be paying close attention. We would have had to take notice of all others as they appeared and disappeared. You would have needed to celebrate each bud, each flower, each passing. This is the work of a pilgrim. To be present for the journey. Too often we go about our business in the world without taking notice or being fully present to witness the beauty, creation that is ever changing around  us. Poet Mary Oliver writes:

“Instructions for living a life. Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”

Wisdom from a Unitarian Universalist saint if ever there was one. I offer this quote to our small group ministry groups to reflect on this month.

Instructions for living a life. That is, accepting practices that allow us to live peacefully, meaningfully, spiritually and in a way that calls us to the present as a witness to creation. Witness to how it inspires us, transcends our being to a life of presence, awe, fulfillment, and mystery.

As Unitarian Universalists we have the luxury, perhaps the privilege, to access nature, the beauty of the earth, as in our hymn this morning, and allow ourselves to seek the divine and mystery within. This allows us to embrace a natural religion.

Religions are increasingly criticized, but should we reject a natural religion? Criticism of religions implies that there are better options. A natural religion, rather than focusing on criticizing conventional religions, takes a positive and forward-looking approach by adding a choice rather than replacing religion. The point is that if we as Unitarian Universalists reject all religion we are removing the choice of natural religion from ourselves.  Choosing to pay attention, to be astonished, to tell about it is evangelizing a natural religion which is a belief in the mystery and power of transformation in the natural world around us. 
Not using any supernatural beliefs, natural religion is so named because it only uses knowledge from the natural world, not beliefs about supernatural concepts.  Author Frederick Turner tells us “Natural religion takes a new approach towards religious and philosophical thought as it suggests a fact religion, as opposed to a traditional faith religion. It promotes reasoning to answer the great questions and issues that religions traditionally address. A reasoning that is informed by the huge wealth of knowledge that we now possess, but which did not yet exist when the established religions first emerged.”

One of the main motivations behind natural religion is concern about the welfare of current and future generations. For the last decades, worldwide, food is needed for an additional 65 to 90 million people each year; we need to alleviate poverty and protect human rights; resources such as freshwater and fertility of farmland need to be used sustainably. The aim of natural religion is to help improve and maintain quality of life, both on a personal and a community level, and strives to promote realistic and practical idealism. So as those concerned about justice for the earth we need not only think about how to save the earth but how the earth, as natural religion, will save us. 

Natural theology is a branch of theology based on reason and ordinary experience. Thus it is distinguished from revealed theology (or revealed religion) which is based on scripture and religious experiences of various kinds; and also from transcendental theology, theology working from something that is already known or self- evident to arrive at a conclusion (Wikipedia).

First Century Roman scholar Marcus Terentius Varro in his (lost) Antiquitates rerum humanarum et divinarum established a distinction of three kinds of theology: civil (political), natural (physical), and mythical. The theologians of civil theology are "the people", asking how the gods relate to daily life and the state. The theologians of natural theology are the philosophers, asking for the nature of the gods. And the theologians of mythical theology are the poets, crafting mythology. His writings promoted his experience as a landowner and farmer who documents all that he has experienced from the natural world. 
Natural theology is that part of the philosophy of religion dealing with describing the nature of the gods, or, in monotheism, arguing for or against attributes or non-attributes of God, without recourse to any special or supposedly supernatural revelation, a theology that is well documented since the first century.  During the early to mid-nineteenth century the Unitarian denomination experienced a counter-reformation, which started with the Transcendentalists.

The Transcendentalists were a constituency within the Unitarian church that desired to reform the church. They wanted to rid the church of its rationalism and infuse a naturalistic religion. The movement away from a rational religious understanding to a naturalistic one would include transforming the Unitarian view of God. The Transcendentalists were writers and thinkers like Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Theodore Parker, Louisa May Alcott, George Ripley, and most importantly, Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Many of the Transcendentalists were brought up in the Unitarian church. They preached the idea of finding God through nature and natural experience. The Transcendentalists’, especially Emerson’s, ideals of individuality and self-reliance moved Unitarianism from corporate experience and traditional worship to an emphasis on individual worship.

So when we as Unitarian Universalists are called tree huggers, those who choose to honor the earth instead of dogma, be proud, stand up and say if it was good enough for Markus Terentius Varro and Ralph Waldo Emerson  then it’s good enough for me! Tell about it. Tell that a philosophical, theological, and intellectual discourse can include natural religion.

Allowing ourselves to be astonished surely calls on our spiritual practices of patience, of paying attention, of the revelation of how creation transports  our spirit and the spirit of others.

Rabbi Balfour Brickner tells of a lesson he learned from his peonies. He says “I have learned something from peony culture that all gardeners come to know: patience. You must be patient if you want to enjoy the enormous beauty that the peony has to offer.  In time they will put out their heart for you, but it does take time.” He goes on by writing “I am amazed  about how we ignore the obvious lesson of the need for patience in our everyday lives.  We seem to be possessed by the need to have the newest now.  It is not only our acquisitive habits that reflect this tendency.  It is our need for instant gratification.  Patience as a practice requires discipline, a willingness to commit to change, and an openness to be transformed.”

I was the chaplain in a forensic unit at a state hospital in Massachusetts.  The patients I offered pastoral care were being held to be evaluated to decide whether they could stand trial and answer for the violent crimes they allegedly committed. People were being held for murder, arson and other violent crimes. It sounds like a horrible place to minister within. But I asked, if these people don’t need a minister who does? 

I met several interesting patients but one frequently visits my thoughts.  She was a new patient and had been transferred to this unit because months earlier she had set herself and her home on fire. She felt she couldn’t live any longer. She was born a woman, but knew in her bones she was man. She had been rejected by her family, friends, and her faith. I knew there was a reason our paths crossed. We sat together daily.

Unitarian Universalism brought her acceptance, comfort, and the understanding that what she believed was God would be supported and nurtured. Sure she had some issues. But deeper, she had a love of trees, flowers, the wind, and rain. Things she could only observe through her secured window for the next year. Eventually I was able to convince her doctor and staff to let me take her outside. You see, her days were spent in her bed in tears or crouching in the corner afraid of the world and her confinement. I was able to take her outside three times a week with two other staff. I was forever changed by what I observed.

Her first trip she simply stood still, raised her arms in the wind, and wept.  Several months later she contributed six of her sketches to an art show,  sketches that she worked on during our outings three times each week. We both paid attention. All were astonished, and today I tell about it. The same hands and the same mind that disfigured her body were transformed by her religion. Natural religion. I need no convincing of the power of appreciation of creation, paying attention to it, and its potential to heal us.

Instructions for living a life. Pay attention. Be Astonished. Tell about it. 
There is a great mystery at work all around us. Be patient. Be attentive.  Let it unfold before you and inspire the practice of an ancient religion.  Natural religion. Let us transcend our criticism of religion. Let us embrace practices that move us closer to witnessing the great mystery that dances before us. Let  us consider the wisdom of the ancients that naturalism is healing, is transformative, and worthy of our notice and care.  The Rev. Max Kapp offers these words, which incidentally are Hymn #4 and are on our Facebook page:

I brought my spirit to the sea. I stood upon the shore. I gazed upon infinity. I heard the water roar. And then there came a sense of peace.  Some whisper calmed my soul. Some ancient ministry of stars had made
my spirit whole.

May it be so.

The Last Rose of Summer, a sermon delivered by the Rev. CJ McGregor at 1stUUPB on August 4, 2013.

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