Wandering and Wondering

As we begin our month-long spiritual theme of "Curiosity," Rev. Peter, Director of Religious Education Chrissy Bushyager and Worship Associate Sharon Fichthorn reflect Unitarian Universalism's call for us to "live into the questions" that our lives present. 

Sermon: "Wandering and Wondering"; Rev. Peter Friedrichs

Do you have one of these things at home? It’s an Echo Dot, made by Amazon. You might know it as “Alexa,” and there are a bunch of different models, but they all basically do the same thing.

  • Echo, how many ounces are in a pint?
  • Echo, how far away is the sun?
  • Echo, who won the Super Bowl this year?

So, this device is great at giving us information. It can tell us what the weather is like in Anchorage and it can even solve math problems for us.

  • Echo, what’s the square root of 67?
  • Echo, what’s the formula for the volume of a cylinder?
  • It also can answer more challenging questions, like:
  • Echo, why is the sky blue? and
  • Echo, why is ocean water salty?

Our grandchildren were visiting last week, and at one point we were watching a nature show together on TV.  Watching a gigantic blue whale cruise the Pacific Ocean, I said to the boys: “I wonder how much a blue whale weighs.” Without skipping a beat, James, our 5 year-old, immediately called out:

  • Echo, how much does a blue whale weigh?

It was at that moment I realized that my primary function as a dad and grand dad had been replaced by a machine. I won’t even tell you about the function Alexa has where she will read your kids a bedtime story without you.

These gizmos, and our cell phones, put all the knowledge we’ve developed in human history, all the information in the world, literally in the palm of our hands. Anyone with a cell phone, from a physics professor at MIT to a goat herder in Morocco, has access to the same information now. To say nothing of their capacity to keep us connected. These devices are great democratizers. They’ve leveled the playing field of access to information. It’s a beautiful thing, really. Because, as we know, knowledge is power. Entire revolutions can now be organized, launched and coordinated in a matter of hours using a cell phone. Remember “Arab Spring” and how it erupted almost overnight across the countries of northern Africa? That would never have been possible without cell phones.

And this is a good thing. It’s an advancement for sure. Many of us remember encyclopedias, and how we had to schlep to the library to look something up that we wanted to know. Now, I am not some antediluvian luddite who wants to toss these things out and go back to the good old days of land lines and broadcast TV. Easy access to answers is good for a whole host of reasons. Answers are comforting. Having the answers right at our fingertips adds an element of certainty to our lives. Answers help us to plan and to organize ourselves. Will our train be on time? Is the store open yet? What’s the weather going to be? It’s certainly good to know whether storms are in the forecast so that we can pack an umbrella or jacket when we head out to work in the morning.

And yet, I can’t help thinking that, with all this easy access to information, we’ve lost something in the process. That all these easy answers come at a price. Because when we know that we need to take an umbrella to work in the morning, we’re insuring that we’ll miss out on the joy of huddling together in a doorway with other unsuspecting victims caught in a sudden downpour, all of us laughing at our shared plight. We’ll miss out on the chance to choose to dance our way through the summer shower, feeling the drops warm and wet on our skin. Certainty has its place, but there’s also value to not knowing. Certainty, easy answers, having all our questions answered instantaneously robs us of something. It robs us of the space we need to wonder and, perhaps, to do a bit of wandering as we wonder.

Let’s go back to the story of James and the blue whale, where Alexa gave us the answer to our question instantaneously. I posed a question. Alexa gave us the answer. And that was that. What was missing for me was what happens, or what can happen, in the space between the asking of the question and the finding of the answer. First, there’s the speculation: “Do you think it weighs more than a bus?” “Does it weigh more than our house, or that oak tree out in the yard?” Maybe there’s some silliness, some playfulness that emerges: “And how would you weigh a whale, anyway? Do you think it would stand on a scale?” All this might have led to some speculation about being a marine biologist: “James, wouldn’t it be cool to be someone who tries to weigh a whale? You know, that’s actually a job you could have when you grow up.

And then there’s the actual searching for the answer. I imagine James and I walking to the Swarthmore Public Library, and all the things we’d encounter along the way, and the conversation we’d have. “Did you see how blue the sky is today?” “What shape does that cloud look like to you?” “Listen to that woodpecker. Can you find him in the tree? I wonder how he can do that and not get a headache.” And, of course, we missed out on the ice cream cone we would have gotten after the library, and introducing James to my friend Robert who happened by as we sat at a table on the patio of the Co-op. And, after all of that, maybe someday long after I’m gone, James would realize that how much a blue whale weighs was totally beside the point, forgotten with the passage of time. And what he will remember is what we did together between the asking and the answering. Yes, easy answers come at a price.

Easy answers and the certainty they bring come in a variety of forms and from a variety of sources. Alexa can tell us who the twenty-third President of the United States was.

  • Echo, who was the twenty-third President of the United States?

But she has a tougher time with more complex questions.

  • Echo, does heaven exist?
  • Echo, what’s the meaning of life?
  • Echo, why am I here?

While our devices may not have the answer to these and other important questions, there are those who think they do. Traditional religious institutions, especially but not exclusively the Christian faiths, provide answers that seek to offer certainty and the comfort that that certainty brings. “God is all-seeing, all knowing.” “Heaven and hell are real places you go after you die.” “There is life everlasting if you just believe.” “Everything happens for a reason.” Many of us grew up with the easy answers that were offered to us. We believed what we were told until something happened that shook our faith, or maybe we simply sought to become explorers on our own terms, seeking answers that suit us. That journey, one way or another, led you to our doors.

We Unitarian Universalists are spiritual wanderers and wonderers. And as my wife Irene has said, playing off the words of J.R.R. Tolkien, “All who wonder are not lost.” We don’t offer easy answers here. We admit what we do not or cannot know. Our task as UU’s, in fact, is less to answer the questions than it is to question the answers. To seek out sources that speak to us and to build from the ground up a sense of meaning and purpose that will both challenge and sustain us. Who or what is God to you? Or, if that language doesn’t work for you, what, if anything, do you consider sacred or holy? Is life just a competition, with limited resources to be grabbed for our own good, or does the world offer its abundance to everyone? Is human nature inherently good or inherently evil, or inherently ambivalent? Are we spiritual beings having a human experience, or the other way around? What happens to our energy, our life-force after we die? Where was it before we were conceived? What does it mean to be “saved?” What does “grace” look like and what is its source? All of these are “angels” that Unitarian Universalism encourages us to wrestle with (and for those of you who don’t know your Old Testament, that was a biblical reference).

Unitarian Universalism calls us to be curious. We’re not an “Alexa” kind of faith, with answers that show up at the push of a button. Our spiritual journeys are more like that dreamed-of exploration about a whale’s weight with my grandson, where the journey, and what happens along the way, are at least as important as the destination itself. Our faith is forged by the fire of our experience. By the sky above us and the earth below us and the world around us that we encounter as we make our way through life. Ours is not a static, once-and-for-all faith, but a dynamic one that shifts over time, based on our engagement with all of life. Our curiosity pulls us forward fearlessly, calling us to encounter the unknown. And to take from each experience its meaning, and, step by step, brick by brick, build a “house of hope,” as my colleague John Buehrens would say. Build an understanding of the world and our place in it.

I don’t know much about metal working, but there is a metallurgical process called “annealing,” where you heat up the metal and then let it cool slowly. When done right, the metal’s internal atomic composition and structure is altered so that it becomes more malleable, more flexible. Once the annealing process has finished, you can work with the metal more easily and create beautiful jewelry or works of art. You can do more with it than you could before. This is what we are called to do with our selves and, if you wish, our souls, over and over again throughout our lifetime. We anneal them with the experiences of our lives – the births, the deaths, the gains, the losses, the loves, the loneliness’s, the hopes, the despairs – everything that goes into our living. With each experience, we hope, we become more useful, more malleable, more flexible. We become less despairing that we don’t have an umbrella and more willing to dance in the rain storms that catch us unawares.

There is one thing of which I’m certain, and I don’t need Alexa to tell me that it is so. It’s the reason, the very core of why we must always wander, and we must always wonder. It’s why we must focus on the journey and not on the destination. Because there are questions – and they are some of life’s biggest questions – there are questions to which we will simply never find the answer. Things that we will never know for sure. This is why we must learn to embrace the questions as much as we do the answers. In the closing hymn we’re about to sing, the last words proclaim that “even to question, truly is an answer.” Because there are things we’ll never know for certain, I believe our greatest spiritual challenge is to embrace the questions themselves, and to embrace the uncertainty, the “not-knowing” of our lives. To face each day with hope and courage. To venture forth with curiosity and wonder, certain only in the knowledge that anything can and might happen.

That alone is not a comforting thought, I know. Because we naturally want to know whether we’re going to need to take that umbrella to work. We want to be prepared for every eventuality. We want to be like good Boy Scouts, always prepared. We want to know how much a blue whale weighs. But in the end, all we can know is that, like a blue whale, the meaning of our lives is elusive, and it spends much of its time hidden deep below the surface. And that, like that whale, we catch fleeting glimpses of it now and then, and when we do, we realize that it’s breathtakingly beautiful. And that it’s immense beyond our imagining.

This day, and every day, I wish you peace. Amen.

The Story For All Ages

The Story For All Ages dealt with how the chicken egg is shaped in an amazing way. Tap it hard enough on one spot and it will break, but the weight of a chicken will not break it. The test: Can Rev. Peter Friedrichs walk across a series of eggs without breaking them?  See the here!

Closing Words

Our closing words today come from the poet and philosopher Rainer Maria Rilke. He writes:

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”