The Wall in the Head

November 22, 2009

Clay Nelson

The following sermon was preached at the Auckland Unitarian Church.


Earlier this month the world celebrated the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall—the end of the Iron Curtain. That was a momentous day for many of us who remember it, but walls don’t always go away so easily.


Deep in the thickly wooded mountains along what once was the fortified border between West Germany and Czechoslovakia, a red deer called Ahornia still refuses to cross the wall.


At the height of the Cold War, a high electric fence, barbed wire and machine-gun-carrying guards cut off Eastern Europe from the Western world. The barriers severed the herds of deer on the two sides as well.


The fence is long gone, and the no-man's land where it stood now is part of Europe's biggest nature preserve. The once-deadly border area is alive with songbirds nesting in crumbling watchtowers, foxes hiding in weedy fortifications and animals not seen here for years, such as elk and lynx. But one species is boycotting the reunified animal kingdom: red deer. Herds of them roam both sides of the old NATO-Warsaw Pact border here but mysteriously turn around when they approach it even though the deer alive today have no memory of the ominous fence. Ahornia, a doe with a grayish-brown winter coat and a light patch around her tail, was born 18 years after the fence came down. Wildlife biologists who track her and other deer via electronic collars know that she has never ventured beyond the strip where the fence once stood.


The fence has been replaced with a narrow footpath in the woods, marking the border between Germany and the Czech Republic. On a misty October afternoon, the sound of a distant woodpecker was all that disturbed the mountaintop silence. A small white sign in German said "State Border." Ahornia grazes on the Western side but stops when she nears the border, her world ending where the Free World once did.


The wall in the head is still there.[i]


Ahornia and I have a lot in common. I never thought about having walls in my head before, but they are surely there.


We build physical and virtual walls for a variety of reasons. We use them like a dog to mark our territory. We use them on computers to keep out spam and viruses. They keep nosy neighbours at bay. They give us the illusion that we are safe from the incursion of others as on the US-Mexican border or on Israel’s West Bank. Lastly, they spare us the inconvenience of new ideas. 


We are clearly drawn to building them to wall out the dangerous and distasteful, real and imagined, but we don’t always realize until finished that they also wall us in.


Unitarians have a long tradition of breaking down walls. At its birth it breached the wall between orthodoxy and heresy. It has gone on to challenge the walls of racism, gender and sexual orientation. It questions the walls of conformity and challenges the walls of hate constructed by fundamentalists and extremists. So it may be hard to hear that we might be guilty of constructing some walls of our own because of our uneasiness at the boundaries between the divine and the human, the holy and the humane. 


It has been 13 years since I joined the Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara. In that time I administered two UU churches, taught classes on Unitarian history and theology and joined the Ministerial Fellowship. In those years the most frequent question I heard is how can you be a Christian and a UU? I hate the question because I never call myself a Christian in spite of being ordained as an Anglican priest for 27 years next week. Too many Christians embarrass me for me to be comfortable with the label, but all the same Jesus’ story is part of my story. I resent the question because it reminds me that the church I represent and rail against and consider to be teetering on the cliff of irrelevancy (if it hasn’t already toppled) has shaped me for good and for ill. 


I also hate the question because of the antipathy and suspicion that lies behind it. In spite of roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition too many Unitarians and Universalists, when they merged, saw free thinking and Christianity as antithetical to each other. So while being perfectly comfortable with other hyphenated UUs: Buddhist-UUs, Jewish-UUs, Wiccan-UUs, Humanist-UUs, Pagan-UUs—Christian-UUs are often viewed skeptically. Considering that many UU’s suffered at the hands of toxic Christianity, I understand. Yet still I hope that UU’s will not throw Jesus out with the church.


Sometimes when I reflect on my frustrations with this question I feel like that Hasidic Jew who every day for twenty years went to the Western Wall in Jerusalem to pray for peace. A local TV news station heard about his faithfulness and sent a reporter to interview him. She asked if he felt God heard his prayers for peace? He responded, “Hell no! I feel like I’ve been talking to a damn wall.”


But every once in awhile I have experienced some hope.


Once I was asked by a very close friend to officiate at his wife’s funeral. He was a life-long, hard-boiled humanist-UU, as was his wife. I carefully constructed a service that reflected their beliefs. After the service, the matriarch of the congregation, who had concerns that a Christian-UU was conducting the service, showered me with praise. She proclaimed it the most UU funeral she had ever attended and was particularly pleased I had not talked about Jesus once. Shortly afterwards, other friends of the deceased, who were from a conservative Christian background, came up to me to express their surprise and delight at how “Christian” the UU service was.


Over time I’ve come to understand that they were both right because today Jesus might choose to be a UU. He’d be as embarrassed as I to be a Christian. Beside the obvious problem of being culturally Jewish, he would be as appalled as I am by the Christian arrogance reflected in its dogma and exclusive claims to salvation. Never mind that he never suggested he was anything other or more than a human being and would be flummoxed by the Nicene Creed. He would consider the institutional church no improvement on the Temple culture of his own day in its love of power and control.


As an opponent of the Purity Laws of the day, I think he would find the welcoming inclusivity of the UU culture appealing. He would applaud the democratic and non-hierarchical governance. He would read the Seven Principles and think, “Thank God, someone heard me.” Lastly, he didn’t like walls either. 


However, if he did join he might be a source of some discomfort for those members who are uncomfortable with a consciousness that goes beyond the rational and observable. But I would like to make a case this morning for welcoming Jesus as a UU.


I think it is pretty easy to make the case that Jesus wasn’t religious. He didn’t foresee his ministry as being used to create a religion. If he did, he might have gone back to carpentry. Jesus’ was interested in our spirituality and how we live it out. Now I don’t mean by “spirituality” lighting candles or a chalice, praying, meditating, singing hymns, sharing joys and sorrows--those are behaviours. Put all in one place at one time, that’s church--not spirituality. Spirituality is the yearning and groping that may lead to those behaviours. It might be a motive for being here on Sunday, but it is much more. It is a primal, vague, diffuse and incomplete need, often indefinable at first.


Our spiritual needs get expressed often like the young man who came to my office this week and began, “I’m not sure why I’m here. My life seems to be going pretty well. My job’s OK. I just got a promotion. My marriage is cool and I love being a father. I just feel like there’s something I’m missing.” He may not have been sure why he was there, but I was pretty sure we would be talking about spirituality. His very vagueness at the outset betrayed the seriousness of the enterprise at hand.


I welcome such conversations, because it isn’t one-sided. We will both be trying to bring shape, and form to the yearning deep within us, ever mindful that longing and desire does not per se bring fulfillment; the hunger does not automatically lead to fullness. The longing, the desire, and the hunger must be focused and answered with some form if they are to grow and achieve lives that match our yearnings.


It’s like music. Almost everyone can enjoy music and create music, but there is no generic “music.” To enjoy and create one must focus on a form—folk or jazz, punk rock or showtunes. The need for music must be answered through specific forms. And so does spirituality. To go deeper, we must focus.


This is where Jesus can be an invaluable member of the community. He was a master at focus and he did it as a wisdom teacher.


I would like to commend to you a book that has transformed my understanding of Jesus and his importance to us, The Wisdom Jesus by Cynthia Bourgeault. 

Her premise is that Jesus was a wisdom teacher. 


With our 20/20 hindsight we have trouble seeing this. Not just because he did not live his life very wisely by our standards. He didn’t keep good company. He was something of a party animal. He was shiftless and unemployed, moving from town to town. He was extravagant and a chartered accountant’s worst nightmare telling his followers not to store up treasures for tomorrow. He defied authority and recklessly crossed boundaries. Eventually he even gambled his life, choosing not to cling to it but rather to squander it. As a result we fail to see his wisdom, but rather his love and compassion. The western church chose to see him as a saviour. He did it all and we need do nothing but receive his gift. 


Bourgeault points out that this understanding of him has been shaped by only one of four streams of Christianity. Roman law, order and hierarchy shaped Christian thought in the west, but there are three other streams that see Jesus, as I think he saw himself, not as a saviour but as a guide or mentor. They are all Eastern in flavour and they all focus on Jesus’ wisdom. For them Jesus was a master teacher seeking to raise our consciousness that our spiritual selves might have more form and focus.


Cynthia explains this in a way that even this geek priest can understand it. She argues that every human being is born at about the same level of consciousness. She equates that level to a computer’s operating system. It is probably not Microsoft’s. It works. It was not installed broken. However, it operates like all computers. It is dualistic in nature.


Have you ever wondered what a byte is? It is either a 1 or a 0. Those are the only two choices. A program has millions of such bytes. It is that dualism that is similar to our human operating system. The level of consciousness we came installed with sees the world dualistically. Everything in our reality represents either a 1 or a 0. We operate by either/or. It is up or down, black or white, before or after, good or bad, right or wrong; cold or hot.


This operating system’s purpose is to make sense of what we see. It is how we know a chair from a table and cat from a dog. Very early on it helps us to determine our identity. I am not you; I am I. Each of us using this operating system knows how we are distinct and different from others. For example, everyone here knows they are distinct and different from everyone else in the room, because everyone knows no two UUs are alike. We identify ourselves to make us unique and special, but this operating system also separates us from one another. Like in Ahornia, the red deer, it builds a wall in our heads. Behind my side of the wall I can pretend I am the centre of the known universe. My reference point is fixed within me. I understand the world from that experience and believe that is the only way to truly understand the world. This operating system seems to function well when the world makes sense to our experience, but what happens to our sense of self when it doesn’t?


When we see white light refracted through a prism for the first time we discover, contrary to what we see, white is not white but the spectrum of the rainbow. It can be disconcerting to discover that what we know to be reality is a mirage.


That our perceived reality is an illusion created by our operating system is a teaching found in all the great wisdom traditions. The reality the mirage blinds us to is that there is no self. There is no inside and outside. Nothing is separated from everything else. That we think otherwise is an illusion created by our operating system’s tearing everything to bits and pieces so we can perceive it. 


Jesus calls us, like all wisdom teachers, to upgrade our operating system. He calls us to tear down that wall. Today he might say upgrade and reboot. He is challenging us to a higher level of consciousness. The upgrade is to a non-dual or unitive system. The good news is we don’t even have to purchase or download it. It lies latent within us waiting to be booted up. 


This upgrade does not operate by differentiation. It doesn’t divide by inside and outside or subject and object. It harmonizes instead. It hears chords instead of single notes. It sees the world in its relatedness not its differences. It doesn’t conclude, “I think therefore I am,” it begins with I am therefore I think, feel, intuit, reflect, and connect. I am one with the cosmos. There is no separation between me and all that is, knowable and unknowable; between me and my neighbour; between me and the planet.


This raised consciousness is the beginning of wisdom. Jesus devoted and gave his life to this cause. He needles and wheedles his disciples and us to move beyond the wall. It is an illusion. It not only isn’t there, it never was. Don’t listen to those who use the illusion of walls to restrict our freedom. The example of his actions, sayings, and parables all point to this truth.


To the degree we are able to tear down the wall of dualism our spirituality begins to become more focused. We begin to understand losing self to oneness is the key. It is how we come to know we will never know an abundant life without living it generously and freely and the joy of love without squandering it wastefully. For in the reality Jesus calls us to nothing is lost except the illusion.


It is not an easy thing to do. And it won’t get any easier as long as we let Christians define Jesus as they want him to be rather than how he wanted us to be. We need to welcome him warmly into the UU fold so he can constantly remind us to stop talking to that damn wall in our heads. It may be slow to happen, but if the red deer can begin to do it, there is hope for us.


In the seven years since wildlife biologists began tracking the deer, only two, a German stag named Florian and a Czech stag called Izabel, have crossed the border to stay. Lately, some young males have begun to explore the pastures on the other side, but they always come back. Females don't set foot in the once-forbidden area.


Yet there are signs that cross-border traffic may pick up. The former border was in the minds of the animals. But some of the young animals are searching for new territory. They are more and more deleting the border behavior that was there before.



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