What Are Your Three Things?
presented on Zoom February 21st, 2021 Rev. Ben Robins
There’s a lot going on in our lives, and it’s so meaningful to me that we hold each other and support each other. For some of us, there are too many pulls on our attention, too many uncertainties, it’s overwhelming. On the other hand, for some of us, social distancing isn’t allowing us to get all of our spiritual needs met. It’s underwhelming.
As humans, we are wired to deal with being overwhelmed or underwhelmed. When we’re overwhelmed, we can go into fight or flight mode, an adrenaline rush to get our full attention. When we’re underwhelmed, we can go into hibernation mode, winter mode, our minds and bodies shut down and even depressed.
Over the course of thousands of years, humans have come up with ways of dealing with these extreme reactions to challenging circumstances. And after thousands of years, we have come up with a solution that works every time: the listicle. A listicle is an article that’s really a list, for example, 8 Ways to Play With Your Cat, or 7 Ways to See Your True Beauty. Listicles offer the punchiness of bullet points, with just enough extra info to take it deeper.
There is a power in having 7 or 8 things that hold your attention, hold the full capacity of your mind. You wake up in the morning, look at your page-a-day calendar for a new listicle, and it shapes who you are, and how you are in the world, for the whole day.
What distinguishes religious living from other types of living is that we are more particular about our listicles. We don’t need novelty in every listicle; we can stick with the tried and true. We hold dearly to the deepest, most meaningful listicle we know, and allow it to shape who we are.
As Unitarians, our listicle might be the 7 principles, which we meditate on every morning at dawn. In some branches of Buddhism, it might be the 8-fold path. In indigenous traditions, it might be the 4 directions.
Religious traditions around the world have discovered the power of having just a few things that you come back to, again and again and again. Just a few things that, in their simplicity, can hold our attention and direct our focus, make our day manageable; and in their complexity can add incalculable depth, meaning and richness to our lives. The inspired listicle is also handy when making elevator pitches.
Here at UCM, we have a list of 3 things. This list is in our DNA. The list is deepen, nurture, act. When we are overwhelmed, or underwhelmed, this list grounds us. We simply need to deepen, nurture (and be nurtured), and act. And because we do spiritual calisthenics every week, we learn how to do that.
We’re all grounded in something. Paul Tillich says that everyone has their god. For many people, money is their god. They focus on money, and money never let’s them down. Until it does. And then hopefully they seek for something else. Alcohol perhaps, until it lets them down and hopefully they seek for something else. Then they try 3 things, and perhaps you’ve seen the t-shirt: Eat, drink, sports. This is a particularly pernicious focus for your life, because it’s not so bad that you need to change, it just puts you into a rut. And -you- know better than anyone what puts you in -your- ruts.
Our brains organize, find patterns, look at the world through particular lenses, so we need to be careful what those patterns and lenses are. We need to be careful what 3 things we ground ourself in.
My intellectual side appreciates listing my 3 things, but my mystical side says, hold on, not everything can be delineated. Life is not legible. This universe is too complicated to box into 3 things. Christianity got around this by making one of their 3 things the holy spirit. Very sneaky. Anything that can’t be boxed in and understood is filed under the holy spirit.
Because not everything can be boxed in neatly, our list of 3 things changes and grows as circumstances change or we learn more. When the Unitarian association started, it only had 1 principle: Love to god and love to all people. When the Unitarians merged with the Universalists, this expanded to 6 principles. A 7th principle was added when we learned to value the natural world. We can expect this list to continue to grow and change.
Sometimes I look at our 7 principles and I think, everyone I know believes this stuff now. Do we really need to highlight it? Do we really need to say that we believe in truth? And then I read another whopper online and I’m reminded that yes, we need to keep saying that we believe in truth. And with changing circumstances, and new learnings, we need to keep coming back to our list of things and ask if it is doing the job.
And so I ask you, what are your things that feel most alive and relevant for you? Let’s actually enter into a time of meditation, where we will go inwards. Ask yourself, what are my things? And then listen for the answer. What are you longing for? What are you grounded in? What gives your life meaning? I invite you to close your eyes if that feels comfortable, feel your feet on the ground, listen to your breath. Go past the tired, go past the hurt, go past the winter blahs. Listen deeper. What are you longing for? What are you grounded in? What gives your life meaning?
meditation in silence and then with music
I’m so curious what came to you during the meditation.
Unitarianism started when people took a look at Christianity’s 3 things, the holy trinity, and said, we don’t all have to believe this. We can each make a fresh start about what we believe. Over the next decades, our Unitarian forebears cut out a lot: doctrines, symbols, rituals, myths. Much new growth has happened in recent times, with our own rituals and symbols, but I still fear that something was lost, like we’re still trying to be whole.
The loss doesn’t start with our separation as Unitarians. The loss goes back to the corruption that grew over centuries, when people and institutions that held the Christian things behaved badly. If we think of religious tradition as a river, then sediment grew in the river, and stagnant pools, and there was erosion, until the river became unrecognizable to people along it’s earlier banks. Some of us have been hurt by this river so much that we need the Unitarian river not just to branch off from the Christian river; we need to start fresh elsewhere. Other rivers, other world religions, might have their own baggage, but they can be more accessible because it’s not our baggage. And so we can seek out 3 things in other religions.
In the 1970s, Unitarian children’s programs didn’t even mention Unitarian beliefs. The focus was on teaching our kids about other religions, so that they would make up their own minds about their beliefs. We didn’t tell our kids our things! Perhaps we didn’t believe that we had things worth passing on.
To help us to practice rediscovering our things, I’d like to tell a story of how I imagine early humans coming up with their things.
Picture the river that is our religious story, and let’s go way way up river, thousands of years in the past. I picture a band of humans sitting around a campfire on the bank of the river. They’ve built a campfire and are sitting around the fire. Some are talking about the day’s hunt, and how to tend to an ill child. They’re trying to stay on top of things and keep it together. Then one pauses for a moment. Let’s call this person Grog. Grog pauses for a moment, and takes in the whole sight, and their attention goes to the big questions. Grog says, there are 4 things: earth, air, fire and water. And this band develops a schema of the universe: everything is made up of those 4 things, earth, air, fire and water. Their minds feel clear; they have a system for making sense of the world. They feel philosophically rooted. And then someone says, what about wood? And they look at the wood on the fire, and debate whether wood is it’s own thing. And then someone discovers copper, and says what about metal? Now there are 6 things: earth, air, fire, water, wood and metal. Grog says, you know what, let’s just say that there is one thing: matter. Everything is made of matter. But where does matter come from? Grog is amazed that there is something that exists, rather than nothing, and so every day Grog expresses wonder and awe at whatever mechanism birthed the universe.
And then Grog’s friend Smog says, what about life? Where the heck does life come from? Let’s celebrate whatever physics equation led to life.
And then, across the campfire, Brog says, what about love? How the heck do you start with earth, air, fire and water, and end up with love? So Grog, Smog and Brog gaze into the campfire and honour the 3 things that fill them with wonder: existence, life and love.
Then a member of UCM shows up (yes, thousands of years in the past) and says, deepening into wonder is wonderful, but it isn’t enough. We also need to act.
Grog says that existence must have a rulebook, and asks around for guidelines on how to behave. Smog feels their life force, and dives into a new creative project. Brog feels love for everyone around the fire, and everyone around campfires everywhere, and reaches out to connect. Their 3 ways of acting are: behaviour guidelines, the creative force, and relating to others with love. That’s their trinity.
Speaking as an atheist, that’s actually my interpretation of the holy trinity. A few years ago, I went to a pancake dinner at a local church. They had a booklet, and every page showcased a member of the church and their interpretation of the trinity. Most of them seemed to be atheists dressing up their 3 things in fancy language, and it got me thinking about my 3 things. I found myself believing that I need behaviour guidelines, I need a creative force, and I need to relate to all beings with love. Clarity, freedom and relationship.
Each of my 3 things contains a lot to work out, explore, try, fail, and try again. You could easily expand my 3 things into a listicle.
I wish for you that you have 3 things, or 5 things, that provide a framework for your life and help you to find wholeness on this long and winding river, this wild and challenging ride that we’re on. I wish for you 3 bullet points that are clear enough to be grounding, and flexible enough that your listicle can change with the seasons and the years, so that it is always there for you how and when you need it.
As we continue down the river, I’m so glad to share this journey with you.
Many people then shared their 3 things in chat.