Sunday, February 27, 2011

Happy birthday HWL...

Happy Birthday to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow born on this day in 1807. Knowing of my love for Longfellow, a wonderful parishioner,well into her 90's, gave me, a couple of years ago, the Longfellow stamp which she had received on a letter but which had escaped any postmark. She thought that was providential and I cherish it.

Have a blessed Sabbath

Friday, February 25, 2011

girding the loins...

Class is the big discussion right now in Unitarian Universalism...This from William Gannett's splendid biography of his father, Ezra Stiles Gannett. The elder Gannett is now a "Father in the Church" and part of a very dwindling "old fashioned Unitarian" contingent. In talking about the post Civil War years, the younger Gannett writes...

"Never since the early days had the opportunity seemed so good for promoting a liberal form of Christianity. It was just at the close of the war. The sympathies wakened by the four years of struggle had crossed sect-lines as well as State-lines. Dogmas had paled before stern tests of life and death, and differencing creeds grew small by the side of the helpfulness in which all joined heart and hand. To earnest Unitarians, the opportunity spoke like God's command to strip off the traditions of culture and aristocracy that had so long stifled influence, and to press among the people with their gospel. In April, 1865, they met in National Conference at New York, to carry out their purpose. The whole body seemed to be vitalized. The churches were soon organized into Local Conferences, reporting to a General Conference every year or two. New missionary effort, both in East and West, was resolved on, and far larger contributions than were ever asked before were easily obtained. Citytheatres were engaged for free Sunday services, and the great audiences seemed to show that the people had been reached. Here and there "Unions" sprang up for benevolent work and social fellowship. A popular monthly — a magazine less of ideas than of stories embodying ideals, and of records to stimulate practical progress — took the place of the scholarly " Examiner," that had crept the round of the ministers' studies for so many years. Before long a new Theological School, with a lowered standard of education, was established, in the hope of inducing more young men to enter the Liberal ministry. And the doctrinal basis of the denomination was widened as far as the National Conference could widen it while remaining distinctly "Christian:" "Other Christian Churches" had been invited to join the Conference; and presently, to meet the objections of certain friends disturbed by a creedlike phrase in the Constitution referring to the "Lordship " of Jesus Christ, an article was expressly added to declare that all such expressions represented only the belief of the majority, and bound none who did not freely give assent. — Possibly this uprising and girding of the loins for a mission among the people may by and by be recognized as the beginning of a new era in Unitarian history."


Thursday, February 24, 2011

a pious reception...

The "old school" Unitarian, Ezra Stiles Gannett has, the past couple of days, talked about the mystery of God. As a fairly conservative Christian, Gannett was no friend of "Transcendentalism" and yet, as the following from Ralph Waldo Emerson shows, they agreed that its all about reception. As a lover of books and study, I must admit that this has been a life-long barrier for me. Can someone tell me why simple "reception" is so difficult?

"Our spontaneous action is always the best. You cannot with your best deliberation and heed come so close to any question as your spontaneous glance shall bring you, whilst you rise from your bed, or walk abroad in the morning after meditating the matter before sleep on the previous night. Our thinking is a pious reception. Our truth of thought is therefore vitiated as much by too violent direction given by our will, as by too great negligence. We do not determine what we will think. We only open our senses, clear away as we can all obstruction from the fact, and suffer the intellect to see. We have little control over our thoughts. We are the prisoners of ideas...

In every man's mind, some images, words and facts remain, without effort on his part to imprint them, which others forget, and afterwards these illustrate to him important laws. All our progress is an unfolding, like the vegetable bud. You have first an instinct, then an opinion, then a knowledge, as the plant has root, bud and fruit. Trust the instinct to the end, though you can render no reason. It is vain to hurry it. By trusting it to the end, it shall ripen into truth and you shall know why you believe."


Wednesday, February 23, 2011

the best knowledge...

What to do when faced with the reality of "The Mystery of God?" This continuation of Ezra Stiles Gannett's sermon begun yesterday gives an answer...

"Are we, then, left to an ignorance the more painful because we are continually reminded of it by facts that bring the Divine action under our notice? No: let us with the utmost emphasis deny that we are placed in so cruel a condition. Knowledge is of two kinds, speculative and experimental, — in the head and in the heart: knowledge about which we may argue and dispute, and have our doubts, and involve ourselves in hopeless perplexity; and knowledge which is not a subject of discussion, but an element of the spiritual consciousness. If we try to enlarge the former kind of knowledge in respect to Divine things, we are liable to disappointment, we cannot indeed escape disappointment. We cannot "by Searching find out God." Searching is not the way to arrive at an acquaintance with Him. That is mental effort in a direction in which such effort will lie wasted. We must receive the truth, not hunt after it; look up to the heavens and wait, instead of digging into the earth with vain toil; open our hearts, instead of racking our brains. The best knowledge always comes in this way."


Tuesday, February 22, 2011

in a frail skiff...

This from Ezra Stiles Gannett's sermon "The Mystery of God"

... the intercourse of the soul with God is the most precious and vital fact of our being, involving all that is dearest in our present history, and justifying the purest and loftiest hope which we can cherish. It is a fact, however, enveloped in mystery. The soul is abashed and overwhelmed at the thought of God's nearness to its most private exercises. I am never in such multitudinous companionship as when I am alone with God; never so little alone as when conscious that He is with me whom " no eye hath seen nor can see." Let me extend my thought beyond myself and try to seize upon the truth, that He is as near to every other human being, — at the same moment cognizant of all wants and all occurrences throughout the universe of which our largest discoveries have taken in but a little part, — and I find myself like one who in a frail skiff has put off on an ocean of unknown magnitude, without sail or instrument. In my closet, I am taught by my own meditation that it is not my prayer alone which is heard. The praises and the supplications of myriads of hearts reach their common object, without being lost in confusion by the way, or failing of distinct notice by Him to whom they are all addressed. I believe it is so; I know it must be so: yet it is as impossible for me to conceive of such a personal relation of one Being to all other beings as it would be to grasp the sceptre of Almighty power and assert my right of sovereignty."

(painting by Renoir)

Monday, February 21, 2011

every manifestation of vital living...

I am re-reading Henry Seidel Canby's biography, "Walt Whitman: An American" (1943) and just came accross this bit which I liked. Canby has just written of Whitman the New York editor and "Democratic Idealist" of the 1840's and explains why he never entirely lost his optimism in democracy.

"Writers of depth and scope" writes Canby, "can be roughly classified as those who have essentially loved life and those who have essentially hated it...Now Whitman , the democratic idealist, had some reason to emerge as a hater of life...It did not go that way with him. Any careful reader of Whitman knows that often he did hate life in some of its respects, but instead of breaking down into a general hate, he lifted into a general love of mankind. There were reasons of temperament undoubtedly, but to them must be added these responsible and enthusiastic years when he was a 'son of Manhattan' happily wandering its streets, lay moralist and commentator for the town of Brooklyn, and friend to every manifestation of vital living."


Wednesday, February 16, 2011

thro' a glass darkly...

Brooke Herford has been my comanion the past few mornings and though I was set to move on, this sermon, "The Veiled Life in Man" struck me today. The beginning...

"Paul's famous saying "Now we see thro' a glass darkly but then, face to face; now I know in part, but then shall I know even as also I am known" is commonly quoted as a saying about religious things, — of how we see such great realities as God and eternity only as through a glass darkly. And it is deeply true that way, but that was not what Paul was speaking of. He was speaking of Man and how Man is only darkly seen — and of the hidden good in man. The whole chapter is about "charity." "Love" the revised version renders it; and love is the commonest translation of Paul's word, and yet I like "charity" better here for it is that large impersonal kind of love, which Paul is speaking of — and " charity " seems to express that better — that which " hopeth all things " and "believeth all things" — not just of those we love. And this is his closing thought about such "charity " — that if we will have faith for it here, if we will keep on loving our fellow-creatures even when we cannot see much in them worth loving — our faith shall there be justified; for here we only see each other through a glass darkly, but there face to face — and there — looking "face to face," "knowing even as we are known" we shall find not less good than we thought, but more good than earthly charity ever hoped.
What a searching thought of the Hereafter — that seeing " face to face " — and yet he seems to have felt it a large hopeful thought too. And Paul was no easy-going optimist. He saw with terrible clearness the sinful side of human nature...and yet even Paul with his clear sight of it, is not dismayed. Over it all, he sees the Love of God, and through it all he sees something better in man, and so he puts it that there, where all is known, there where we shall judge not with these poor childlike judgments of earth — there will be more to love than to hate."

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

how goes the battle...

The "Transcendentalists" were offen derided as being airy headed idealists who didn't work and promoted lazy morals. The opposite was most often the case. The way of Thoreau, for instance, was not an easy one. This from "Thoreau's Ecstatic Witness" by Alan Hodder, the best book on the religious life and thought of Thoreau.

"Thoreau conceived of the warrior's life essentially in moral and religious terms, and the religious life, conversely, in heroic and military terms. Moral virtue was something to be aspired to, fought for. "Virtue is the deed of the bravest," he wrote in 1842. "It is the art which demands the greatest confidence and fearlessness. Only some hardy soul ventures upon it-it deals in what it has no experience in. The virtuous soul possess a fortitude and hardihood which not the grenadier nor the pioneer can match." Courage and strenghth were as much the virtues of the religious ascetic as the military conqueror.


Sunday, February 13, 2011

we know what living is...

The conclusion of Brook Herford's sermon "The Small End of Great Problems.". Have a blessed Sabbath everyone.

"The practical wisdom of all this is we are finite beings, surrounded by infinity and every line of action, observation, thought, along which we try to work or look, soon edges off to heights and depths which our working cannot attain, nor our thinking fathom. Yet close about us it is light. A little circle is within our reach. Here is this mighty earth, and for the life of us we cannot tell what it really is, or what a grain of it is, but we know how to use it. Here is our own life and we do not know what life is — but we know what living is, and how we may live just here to-day so as to find good and blessing. Here are all our fellow creatures, and they suggest a hundred problems of being and destiny in which any one may — in about ten minutes — lose himself in endless doubt; — but — these fellow creatures are real enough — their powers, their characters, sorrows, joys, and varied interests as they weave in with our living, there is no indistinctness about these. — Well, here is our dominion. Within this little circle close to us let us live the best and most we can — and from this centre feel out our way towards the larger relations and the infinite life. Begin at the small end — it is the true way both in practical things and in theoretical. Even in all the solemn infinite mystery of life, do not turn away from it, do not try to ignore it as hopelessly out of reach. Only, in looking that way and thinking that way, keep a firm foot on the solid earth and a close grip of your brother's hand. Reverence the near close facts of things as they appear to your natural eye and your common sense. That is the way to the highest thought and truth. Those highest things — Being, God and Destiny — are not out of our ken if we will feel our way towards them with this clue of believing that the near and human things are parts of the Divine, and indications of the Divine. Then will our very recognition of all that is best in man oblige us to believe in God, and the present life will lead us by its deepest qualities and possibilities to faith in a still greater future. So comes that living, confident faith which the world is longing for to-day — a faith not suspended as it were from some dim authority of ancient texts but a faith rooted in the common need and longing of mankind; a faith climbing upwards through plant and star, and through the little child and the grown man, and through the long growth of the Bible, and the perfect outcome of Christ — through all this, climbing upward to the Infinite Fatherhood and the eternal life of Heaven. So faith grows out of fact, and in the growing ever verifies itself, and throws back on the fact an ever nobler meaning; and thought widens and life grows larger, and the world of man moves onwards — not yet into any clear knowledge, indeed, — but surely towards it; towards it, enough to make us sure that our faith is not a baseless dream, but a true light that lightens towards the Infinite and the Divine."


Thursday, February 10, 2011

the very spirit of Christ...

Brooke Herford continues his sermon "The Small End of Great Problems"

"In morals too — questions of right and duty — the modern world is becoming familiar with this principle of taking hold of problems by their small near end. I think that this is largely due to Christianity. For, if you look into it, you will see that this is the very spirit of Christ, both in regard to the simplest matters of doing right and the most complicated problems of Christian thought. Christ did not indeed speak of "problems" or of taking hold of them at this nearer end. But he was always doing it, and teaching men to do it. The beginning of the Kingdom of God, he shews is as small as a mustard seed. The place to grapple with sin, is not at the circumference of action, but at the centre of thought. It had been said by them of old time "Thou shalt not kill." Christ puts it — " You must take hold of that matter at a smaller end than that — you must not even be angry." The angry feeling he puts as the smaller end of the murderous deed. So with all moral questions. Christ brought the right and wrong of things down from the clouds to the earth, from the traditions of the Rabbis to the common sense of the common people. They were working out their Sabbath law by abstract theorising from some supposed Divine Will in the beginning of Creation, —" The Sabbath was made for man," said Jesus, and brought the question down to what is good for you and me to-day. So, that golden summing up of duty — "Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them " — that was not a maxim of mutual axe-grinding, but the bringing of the great problem of righteousness to its smallest end, just where it touches me and my neighbour. And so of deeper questions. Some one asked him "Lord, are there few that be saved?" Why, that was just one of those problems which at the larger end cover the whole vista of Eternity. But Christ would not even touch it at that larger end. Simply — "Strive thou to enter in at the strait gate " — just the small personal end of that great problem. And what a helpful saying that is for those who are perplexing themselves over large abstract religious questions — "If a man will do God's will, he shall know of the doctrine." Do the best you can — just do that; begin with the small near thing where you can see it, and the way will clear, the larger principle or doctrine will open out to you.

There is the marvellous thing in Christ — his mighty opening of man's thought to the Divine surroundings and infinities of life — while yet constantly bringing men down to the common things close about them as the way to that Divine. Often men would like to stay up in the cloudlands of Divine mystery — but Christianity won't let them. It keeps bringing them back to the work and the neighbour and the little child. Christianity is doing this to-day. It is just this which is making society impatient of mere abstruse creeds, which is making the churches crave less of the Apocalypse and more of the Sermon on the Mount; and which so is making them less divided in their interpretations of the Heavenly Mysteries and more united in trying at this nearer end of things to make this common world a more wholesome, honest, and happier place."


Tuesday, February 8, 2011

take hold at the small end...

Brooke Herford has graced these pages before. He is, to me, a sturdy preacher. this from his sermon, "The Small End of Great Problems."

"My thought is one for the simplifying of the problems and perplexities of life. You know what these are: — problems of duty; problems of religion; problems of Nature and of life — of what Life is, and what it is for, and of what is going to be the end of it; problems of man and of God — of time and of eternity. Gradually, this idea has shaped itself out to me — of how much the problems and perplexities of life would be simplified if people would only take hold of them at the small end...

Man is constantly wanting to begin at the big end of things and of thoughts. In the beginning of knowledge, man's mind is confident and wants to spread itself. The child thinks it could manage the household very well. The raw recruit would willingly undertake to be General. If you have any literary gift, you are apt to feel as if you could write a book that should at once be a success. When I first started to preach, I had a profound conviction that if I could only get a fair hearing I could convert the human race. At twenty-one, one would undertake to run the Universe. We want to spread ourselves on the large circumference of things. So in Art. Simplicity is not the first grace of Art, but the last and finest perfection of it...(more tomorrow)


Monday, February 7, 2011

happiness is a very demure lady...

The Young William Ellery Channing was decidedly...earnest (not that he ever changed.) This from Charles Brook's memoir of WEC.

"His (Channing's) own Idea of Happiness. — And indeed, in one of his letters of this first decade of his ministry, he gives an admirably discriminating definition of happiness. He describes true happiness as "the uniform serenity of a well-governed mind, of disciplined affections, of a heart steadily devoted to objects which reason and religion recommend. According to my tame imagination, Happiness is a very demure lady, almost as prim as the wives of the Pilgrims of New England. She smiles indeed, most benignantly, but very seldom laughs; she may sigh, but very seldom sobs; the tear may start in her eye, the tear of gratitude and of sympathy, but it seldom streams down the cheek. Her step is sometimes quickened, but she does not waste her spirits and strength in violent and unnatural efforts. She cultivates judgment more than fancy. She employs imagination, not to dress up airy fictions, not to throw a false, short-lived lustre over the surrounding scenery, but to array in splendor distant objects, which reason assures her are most glorious and excellent, but which, from their distance, are apt to fade away before the eye, and to lose their power over the heart."


Saturday, February 5, 2011

Nearer the shores of spring...

This from Henry David Thoreau's Journal (Feb.3, 1854.)

"Already we begin to anticipate spring, and this is an important difference between this time and a month ago. We begin to say that the day is springlike.

Is not January the hardest month to get through? When you have weathered that, you get into the gulfstream of winter, nearer the shores of spring."

(photo by daughter Molly)

Friday, February 4, 2011

These inner workmen...

The Rev. William Gaskell was an English Unitarian minister, social reformer, writer, and husband of Elizabeth Gaskell. This from "The Regulation of Thought," a sermon on my favorite passage of scripture.

Philippians iv. 8
" Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are venerable, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report, if there be any virtue and if there be any praise, Think on these things."

There is one class of trees which are termed " endogenous for they grow from within. The same is it, to a greater degree than we often realize, with our own true selves. The trains of thought—the unexpressed, yet constantly rising ideas— which keep ever passing to and fro through the mind, are the builders up of the soul's dwelling, whether that be a calm palace of joy, or a dark prison-house of restless, angry, chafing passions. These inner workmen are at all times ceaselessly pursuing their unseen and silent labour, which will hereafter stand forth in glory, or remain a monument of shame.

Confidential and friendly as man may be with man, there is yet by far the larger portion of self that is completely hidden from human view.

"Each has his world of thought alone,
To one dread Watcher only known."

"We are all conscious of ideas and feelings which are too complex for repetition; of such as are often too frivolous and vain, occasionally too vicious, sometimes too sacred, to be revealed to another, even were there time enough for the communication, or sympathy enough to listen to it. Yet these inward movements are the sources of outward manifestation of character. A man who indulges habitually in low and earthly ideas, cannot perform high and heavenly actions. He whose thoughts all centre on the pivot of self, can no more cast away his precious treasures in the service of others, than a crawling reptile can take to itself wings and soar in freedom through the blue skies above.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

You've got a friend...

Part one of Rufus Ellis' wonderful sermon "The Religion of Jesus a Divine Friendship"

"Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you. — John XV:15.

AND so we see that the religion of these disciples was a Divine Friendship, with all its blessed privileges and possibilities. What these are it is easy to tell. It would be a waste of time and words to speak of the preciousness of friendship, — that it is the noblest and purest form of love, and that our friend is to us as our own soul. It is plain enough, moreover, that in this great Christian instance we have to do with a friendship of mysterious and exceeding measures which we can only call Divine, the friendship of One who, as those men came gradually to know and feel, and as Christian people have always and everywhere gladly confessed, was the Image of the Invisible God, the First-born of a new creation. Every friend is a gift of God to us. He alone creates sympathies and harmonies, and
fashions this and the other heart alike. And of human friendship it must be confessed that we may seek it in vain, all the more vainly because it only cometh as it listeth. But this best gift, this great love of God in Jesus, being the Fountain-head of all affections, was the free gift of God to all, and only first of all to those whom the Saviour called to be His friends. And as much as may be it depends upon the Divine giving, and as little as may be it depends upon man's receiving; and because it comes to us a fulness of the Divine Life, all the common advantages of friendship become high religious privileges and opportunities, limited and qualified only by the limitations of those who live in that Divine Light and hang upon that Divine Word. Think what it is to have a friend! think what it is to have in that friend a Divine Friend!"


Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The faith of faiths...

This from Rufus Ellis (who yesterday was saved from death by pepper cruet) on "The Divine Friend"

"Again, with the Church Universal we say, We believe in the Holy Spirit. Blessed are the eyes which shall see and the ears which shall hear the things that are still hidden with God in Christ. If only we could pause a moment from our continual proving of Christianity, and discussing what at best are only its accidents, and understand what a blessed truth it is, only supposing it is truth; if only we would give ourselves up to the Wise Love, seeking for us, bending down to us, interpreting our Christian Bible for us, as Jesus opened the Hebrew Scriptures to His disciples, — we could have a religion as new and helpful for us in our day as theirs was to them in their day. It is the faith of faiths, the creed of creeds, to believe in the Divine Friend; and to claim the privileges of that friendship is to be religious. That will give us more than a sad agnosticism. The Divine Friend has something to tell us which is new and appropriate to our new estate."


Tuesday, February 1, 2011

timely and necessary aid...

George Edward Ellis, brother of Rufus Ellis (one of my "favorite" Boston Unitarians) relates that if not for Dr. Jacob Bigelow, Rufus may have not made it past infancy...

"The face and form of Dr. Bigelow, as a near neighbor of my home in the same street in Boston, had been most familiar to me from my earliest years. An incident in my childhood had associated him in mind with a sentiment of profound wonder and awe, which, though relieved of all solemnity as I met him in later years, always invested him with reverence for his benignity and skill. A brother, now the minister of the First Church in Boston, then an infant of one year, was choked by a plaything deep in his throat, and at the most critical moment his life was saved by the intervention of Dr. Bigelow, called in as he happened to be passing along the street. I saw the scene then, and it came back to me as I looked upon the reposing form of the venerated physician."

The plaything which is referred to was the silver top of a pepper-cruet, through which the breath of life entered the little body until the timely and necessary aid of the good doctor could be invoked."