On Becoming “Real Religious”

UUA Chapel Service

February 4, 2004


Chalice Lighting

At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.


from Always Coming Home by Ursula LeGuin

“An Exhortation from the Second and Third Houses of the Earth”

Listen, you people of the Adobes, you people of the Obsidian!
Listen, you gardeners and farmers, orcharders and vintners, shepherds and drovers!
Your arts are admirable and generous, arts of plenty and increase, and they are dangerous.
Among the tasselled corn the man says, this is my plowing and sowing, this is my land.
Among the grazing sheep the woman says, these are my breeding and caring, these are my sheep.
In the furrow the seed sprouts hunger.
In the fenced pasture the cow calves fear.
The granary is heaped full with poverty.
The foal of the bridled mare is anger.
The fruit of the olive is war.
Take care, you Adobe people, you Obsidian people, and come over onto the wild side,
don’t stay all the time on the farming side; it’s dangerous to live there.
Come among the unsown grasses bearing richly, the oaks heavy with acorns, the sweet roots in unplowed earth.
Come among the deer on the hill, the fish in the river, the quail in the meadows.
You can take them, you can eat them,
like you they are food.
They are with you, not for you.
Who are their owners?
This is the puma’s range,
this hill is the vixen’s,
this is the owl’s tree,
this is the mouse’s run,
this is the minnow’s pool:
it is all one place.
Come take your place.
No fences here, but sanctions.
No war here, but dying; there is dying here.
Come hunt, it is yourself you hunt.
Come gather yourself from the grass, the branch, the earth.
Walk here, sleep well, on the ground that is not yours, but is yourself.

Hymn #159 This Is My Song

Sharing of Joys and Concerns

Introduction of Speaker

Kenneth Sutton is the manuscript editor for UU World. He came to work at the UUA about a year and a half ago. He appreciates working at a compatible but non-Quaker religious nonprofit. He enjoys being able to devote Sundays to worship and leaving work behind.

Kenneth decided to speak from a prepared text in order to conform to the time limits of chapel. Ordinarily he speaks with a rough outline, but there was that time he was leading a workshop and preached for close to an hour. . . .

In 1763, John Woolman, a Quaker minister from Mount Holly, New Jersey, made a religious visit to the Leni Lenape in Wyalusing, Pennsylvania. After praying aloud without an interpreter, one of his listeners, Papunehang, said to an interpreter, “I love to feel where words come from.” Kenneth invites you to listen to the message behind his specific words.


On Becoming “Real Religious”

On Sunday morning, as I was waiting for the T, I found myself standing in the sun, glorying in the warmth and gentleness of the air, filled with gratitude and praise for God. Such times are among the clearest experiences I have of God’s presence in my life.

The natural world has always played a major role in my spiritual formation. I was born and raised in an agricultural area created from and surrounded by desert: a town named Brawley, in Imperial County, California, about a hundred miles east of San Diego and thirty miles north of Mexico.

From that place, I learned that the world is a beautiful and harsh place. I learned the beauty of spareness and silence. I learned that there are realities of the world that must be accommodated, or there will be repercussions, up to and including death. I learned that human existence is created and made possible by hard work, cooperation, and large-scale manipulation of the natural world.

Since moving to Philadelphia in 1985, I get reminders that the desert still lives in me as an aesthetic: Oh, those nasty, quaint country lanes in spring, overhung by that dense, brilliant green! You can’t see the bones of anything; you can’t see the contours of the landscape; you can’t see the sky!

And the desert shapes my spiritual life: the desert, which is beautiful and loved as my native home, is utterly indifferent, indeed hostile, to human life. Is it any wonder that I don’t have any deep struggle to accept metaphors of the divine that are violent to human life or capricious? I certainly do not believe in a malicious God, but I know that the beautiful reality of nature is indifferent to human notions of right and wrong, good and bad.

My childhood was vigorously nonreligious. We celebrated Christmas and had extended family dinners on Easter, but we didn’t go to church. For quite a long time I thought maybe we were secular humanists, but I eventually realized that I don’t think my parents are humanists, at least in the sense of having a high opinion of human nature and potential. After moving to the East Coast and meeting nonreligious Jews, I’ve decided that we were “cultural Christians.”

And my parents, whom I love, don’t give anything religious the time of day. So I struggle with being embarrassed by my religiosity. I sometimes doubt the reality of my own spiritual experience. But from college on, I’ve become clearer and clearer that I do believe in God—or at least, in something numinous beyond the physical.

In January 1978 I was a freshman at college, facing a decision that seemed major at the time. Fretting over my choice, I went out walking one night. I looked up into the clear night sky and had a profound sense that the universe has order and meaning and that everything is fine. It was (and is) comforting and sustaining, it made me feel connected as an individual, and yet it was thoroughly impersonal. The memory of this experience is a lodestone to which I turn again and again. It was an emotional experience, not a rational one. My faith, first breaking forth on that night, is of the heart, not of the head.

Those college years comprise a litany of experimentation and change: Mass with my best friend; reading about Hinduism and Buddhism; becoming involved with neo-paganism; coming out. By the time I left college and moved to San Francisco, my world had been turned upside-down: I got rid of my car; I lived in a series of communal houses; I was totally out, except to my father; and I became heavily involved in the faerie movement, a gay men’s neo-pagan, earth-based, feminist spirituality.

It must have been while I lived in San Francisco that I read advice from Gandhi to remain within one’s own religious tradition. I’ve found one citation that puts it this way: “All religions are branches of the same mighty tree, but I must not change over from one branch to another for the sake of expediency.” (T‑7–283 from website mkgandhi.org) I remember what I read as being more positive, about searching for Truth and working to better the world from within one’s own tradition.

By the time I moved to Philadelphia, I was primed for the liberal branch of the Religious Society of Friends. I admired their advocacy of nonviolence, their method of group decision-making, and their tolerance of theological diversity. They were also right smack dab in the center of my own cultural heritage. (In all fairness, the same could be said of Unitarian Universalism, the Congregational Church, and Anglicanism.) But Quakers were, if not exotic, well, then, certainly not mainstream. When I attended Quaker worship, I felt at home in the corporate silence.

I suppose this is a good point to explain the title of my sermon: “On Becoming ‘Real Religious’.” At Thanksgiving, I visited my family in California. My mother and sister both referred to two of my cousins as having “gotten real religious.” I made a cautious attempt to fish something more specific out of my sister. I wanted to know, of course, if “real religious” meant simply that they go to church or rather that they think “God hates fags.” The whole time I was thinking, “But I’m ‘real religious!’ ”

And I am. Most of my professional life over the last eighteen years has been within Quaker or other religious nonprofits. I serve on two Quaker boards, teach and lead workshops nationally, and am a leader in my local congregation.

Not only am I “real religious,” I’m actually pious. I give vocal ministry in meeting. I occasionally give vocal prayer (always spontaneous). I sometimes travel with my Bible. I believe in the daily possibility and power of prayer and discernment.

Upon becoming a Friend, I began intentionally to be formed by a specific religious tradition. This has satisfied the rational me. I believe that, as a Quaker, I need to take the history and traditions of Quakerism, and thus of Christianity, seriously. I began to read even more about Quakerism and to read in the Bible. I paid attention to the lives of exemplary Quakers. I continue to value, honor, and wrestle with the received wisdom of my adopted religion.

One of the foundations of Quakerism is a belief in immediate (that is, unmediated) revelation. Quakers may disagree whether this inspiration is from Jesus Christ, God, the Spirit, or the Light, but they agree it is there for our instruction, correction, and empowerment. For the last eighteen years I have tried to increase my sensitivity to this spirit, to relate it to my mystical nature experiences, and to improve my obedience to what it shows me. This has taken me in some surprising directions, given my secular and rationalist upbringing.

In July 1987, early in my journey as a Quaker, a Friend (and friend) was giving an address to a large Quaker gathering. Jan asked me to sit behind her on the stage with another person as she spoke. We three met before the plenary and talked about how Jan was approaching the speech and what she needed from us. The notable thing about my experience was the feeling of being a conduit for Jan’s message. Yes, Jan was given the message and was delivering it. But I, too, felt I was part of the passage of the message from the Infinite to the particular. After the talk, I couldn’t remember a lot of what Jan said. I realized I hadn’t been listening; I was literally and metaphorically sitting in a place behind the spoken words.

Another important image for me of what I do in meeting for worship or while praying for a speaker is: it feels like being a rock. My role is like being a large, smooth stone, just emerging from the ground, soaking up the sunlight and radiating heat, big enough to lie on, level enough to stand on comfortably, passive but not unseen.

In 1990, I heard Elizabeth Watson, a Quaker author and leader, give a series of “Bible Half-Hours,” midrashes, basically, of stories of women in the New Testament. One morning the woman was “the mother of the sons of Zebedee.” I remember the point being that she wasn’t sure exactly who Jesus was, but she had enough life experience to know that he would not come to a good end, and that her sons would be in danger. In spite of, or because of, this, she went along with Jesus and the disciples to care for them.

In the open worship following the talk, a woman stood and sang what to me was a new song, although now ‘m familiar with it as a hymn: “Softly and tenderly, Jesus is calling, calling for you and for me; see on the portals he’s waiting and watching, watching for you and for me. Come home, come home, ye who are weary come home. Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling, calling O sinner, come home!” She probably sang, “Calling, beloved, come home.”

And then I had another profound experience of infinite presence. I felt a question: “Will you allow yourself to be called a Christian?” I knew the question was from God. I knew I had absolute freedom of choice. I was terrified, and I knew I didn’t want to answer“No” to God. So I said “Yes,” thinking with horror that I would be judged and found wanting, or that hard, if not impossible, changes would be asked of me. Was I somehow supposed to be a different person?

None of my fears have come to pass. Except, of course, that any degree of faithfulness to divine inspiration will call for hard, if not impossible, changes.

I continue to struggle with this experience. I still don’t know what it means for me to be a Christian. I still don’t understand much about Jesus’ role in my relationship with God. But ever since that night in college, I have found God, Spirit, Christ, the Seed, the Light, the Comforter, the Inward Teacher, the Divine Harmony to be an ever-present, never-failing comfort and guide.

Hymn #20 Be Thou My Vision

Closing Words

From the Advices and Queries in Quaker Faith and Practice of Britain Yearly Meeting

1. Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts. Trust them as the leadings of God whose Light shows us our darkness and brings us to new life.

2. Bring the whole of your life under the ordering of the spirit of Christ. Are you open to the healing power of God’s love? Cherish that of God within you, so that this love may grow in you and guide you. Let your worship and your daily life enrich each other. Treasure your experience of God, however it comes to you. Remember that Christianity is not a notion but a way.