Saturday, January 17, 2015

Thoughts from a Wayside Pulpit

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, September 12, 2004

Perhaps you have driven by a Unitarian Universalist church in some nearby (or not so nearby) community, and have seen the “Wayside Pulpit” that graces the front lawn or the church green. “Wayside Pulpits” are those street-side signs (oftentimes printed on big sheets of newsprint), on which pertinent and pithy (and sometimes downright weird; occasionally very inspiring) thoughts and comments are offered on display for the edification of all who pass by.
The idea was first devised in our churches decades ago—in the 1960s, I think. Since that time, of course, there have been hundreds of pithy and inspiring (and weird) thoughts of this sort displayed for all to see. Now, through the wonders of internet technology, there are, of course, whole web pages that list and catalogue some of these sayings. Some of our churches even insert an “online wayside pulpit” on their websites—with a new quote each week for people who happen to stray by and pause long enough along the information superhighway to read it. The Unitarian Society of Germantown (Pennsylvania) has such a collection, as does the Unitarian Universalist Society of Sacramento (in California). On the former this week I read the words of the great Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams: “Church is a place where you get to practice what it means to be human.” On the later, I read the words of Albert Camus: “I should like to be able to love my country and still love justice,” as well as these words from the Koran: “Do not allow your hatred to turn you away from justice.”
In another place, the Wayside Pulpit re-posts the question first asked by Gila Jones: “What if I stopped asking hypothetical questions?” (which is, in and of itself a hypothetical question, I suppose).
The most extensive collection of “Wayside Pulpit” quotations I found was on the website of the UU Fellowship in Bismarck, North Dakota (a real hotbed of Unitarian Universalism, I suppose): pages and pages of them, all catalogued by topic (everything from “ability” to “worry”), as well as by author (from Abigail Adams to William Butler Yeats). So, on one page we read the well-known lines from Keats: “Beauty is truth, and truth beauty”, and just down the column the words of (the ever-popular and prolific) “Anonymous”: “What a strange illusion it is to suppose that beauty is goodness.” (With all apparent contradictions reconciled, I suppose, by Emerson’s admonition [also listed] that “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.
Among my favorites from the list put together by those good people in North Dakota was this one about children: “A baby is God’s opinion that the world should go on.” I also liked this one, about work, “Work to become, not to acquire.
There’s a lot of wisdom here; something for everyone. It indicates something of the expansive nature of our free and liberating faith—this faith which has, in the words of the great Universalist Olympia Brown, the first woman ordained by a denominational body in America—“comforted us in sorrow, strengthened us for noble duty, and made the world beautiful.” I also like the way that Wayside Pulpits are offered out in the open, in the public square, quietly and gently, but sometimes almost with an “in your face” kind of attitude.
From my own experience, I know of several people who came to Unitarian Universalist churches in the first place because of the Wayside Pulpit on the front lawn. One couple I knew in Vermont joined their original UU church because of a Wayside Pulpit that said “Not that all should think alike, but that all alike should think.” They decided on the spot that that was the kind of church for them! Others have been drawn by the words of Francis David: “Not that all should think alike, but that all should love alike.” Or by the words of Gandhi: “An eye for an eye ends up making the whole world blind.” Or those attributed to Chief Seattle: “We did not weave the web of life, we are merely a strand in it.
The power of the Wayside Pulpit reminds us that we Unitarian Universalists, too, have a message to preach; we have good news to offer to a world which needs so badly the lessons of our faith: our bold proclamation of the oneness of everything: the inherent worth and dignity of everyone; the interdependent web of all life; that every experience of life has a lesson to teach us; that every person has a story to tell and something to share; that spirituality isn’t just found in church or in creeds or in dogma, but in every single aspect of our lives, day after day, year after year, (maybe even) life after life.
The Wayside Pulpit reminds us that the truth we hold need not be spoken with anger or bitterness or rancor; but that if we do not speak our truth—if we do not speak of our hopes and aspirations—the hopes and desires of others might, by default, become the only dreams in town—and that their visions may not coincide with ours, and may even do them violence and harm.
The Wayside Pulpit reminds us that a truth that is not spoken—a truth that is not lived—shrivels ups, like the dreams in Langston Hughes poem, “Of a Dream Deferred”:

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
and then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load
Or does it just explode?

Likewise, a church that does not articulate its faith—and live out its faith—and foster the faith of its members and friends—will wither and die. Or it will just fade away, or fade into insignificance. Or, it will just sag and weigh us down, like a heavy load: just one more joyless set of responsibilities.
When our faith becomes alive—when we ponder it deeply, and weigh it in our hearts, and take it seriously, and make it a priority in our lives (and in the lives of our families), and dare to ask questions about it, and dare to support as well as we are able, and dare to articulate it openly, and welcome others into its fold—then we become alive to the ministrations and the ministry of faith within us. And that changes us, and transforms our world, and maybe even turns it on its head, and opens us to ever-new and endless possibilities for personal and spiritual growth. And that changes the world, one moment at a time, and opens up the way to Reign of Love and Justice which we seek.
There is no reason at all why we should go on being the best-kept secret in town. There is too much truth and goodness here to allow that to keep on happening… We need to realize, deep inside ourselves, all of us, that there is some greater import to our being here, Sunday after Sunday, week after week, year after year, than all of the practical, particular reasons we all have for happening to enjoy it here. It can’t just be tradition; it can’t just be socializing; it can’t just be habit; it can’t just be duty, or guilt. It has to be something deeper than any of these.
One day, a street corner preacher was spreading fire and brimstone all over the place. He stopped a man who was passing by, and asked him: “My friend—Do you know what path leads to the denial of God and salvation, straight into the arms of heathenism and heresy?”
“Oh, sure,” the man responded, “the Unitarian Universalist church is just two blocks down the street that way.”
Well, maybe that’s not exactly the way we want to be known. But people should know where we are—and what we stand for—and that we exist as a viable, vital religious alternative for the people of our communities.
Making that happen is the work of all of us—not just the Minister, not just the DRE, not just the Board, or the Membership Committee, or a small and committed group of volunteers. It is the work of all of us, and it is the work to which it is my privilege, and my pleasure, to call you all for this, the 261st year of this church’s life.
We all need to find ways to make our faith come alive by living our faith—by sharing our faith—by spreading our faith.—by becoming, each one of us, living “Wayside Pulpits” of this great and glorious living tradition. 

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