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A Testament for Our Times — Robert Kinslow

Gazing back at the year that was and looking forward to the one just now unfolding, we might say we live in troubled times, what with the atrocities of ISIS and other practitioners of terror, the absurdities of a Trumped political process, and the alarming and mounting evidence that racism in our country is deeply and perhaps even invisibly ingrained. What is a good Unitarian Universalist to do? Where is the hope? Biblical scholars often refer to the Old  and New Testaments as the First and Second Testaments to remove any subjectivity that the former is old and outdated and the latter testament new and more relevant. In this service, guest preacher Rob Kinslow will propose that all of our modern-day struggles are writing yet another testament—a Third Testament—one that is about our own relationship with eternity, just as the previous testaments were written by ancient peoples trying to articulate the very same thing. “The thing is,” says Rob, “this testament could and should be filled with hope.” We’ll talk about why this might be so, why we all have the right to authorship, and what are some helpful things to think about as we wonder what our own “Book of [Your Name]” might say about us to future generations.

A Testament for Our Times

Battle Hymn of the Self Republic

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the universe in a single flower
For that would be the Buddhist in me.
I have seen all truth as one and have submitted to its righteousness
For that would be the Muslim in me.
I have seen all in one and one in all
For that would be the Hindu in me.
I see love as the spirit running through all the seen and unseen
For that would be the Christian in me.
I have seen freedom in captivity and a temple in my soul
For that would be the Jew in me.

Mine eyes have seen that I need to look through others’ eyes
To know that which is before my own.
And I need to humble myself before your god
To know the greatness of the one I invented.
Because I love my god. I love my God.
For that would be the God-self in me.
And I love you most. I love you most.
For that would be the you

in me.

©2015 Rob Kinslow

A Testament for Our Times

A sermon by Rob Kinslow (January 10, 2016)

By thinking of ourselves as holy people treading holy ground in a holy time, we might better withstand and respond to the many pressures of our world today.

It’s been about 20 years since I crossed the river from Roman Catholicism into Unitarian Universalism. And perhaps because I was raised Catholic, in which Sunday attendance was mandatory, I haven’t missed too many Sundays in all that time. And in all that time in UU congregations, there are three words I have hardly ever heard. Those words are God, Jesus, and Bible.

You’re about to hear those words mentioned several times, so I want to tell you before we roll onto the highway here, that when I use those words, please know that they are merely “pointers”—synonyms or concepts for whatever is beyond us. That’s all. And anyway, that’s how those words and what they stand for first came to be—they were ancient peoples’ labels for the infinite, their dance steps, if you will, with a dance partner known as eternity. And it is our relationship with the infinite, with eternity, yours and mine, and how we witness to that, that is today’s topic. It’s my belief that this is something we don’t pay enough attention to and that we might benefit if we did.

Let’s start with the word Bible. Let’s first understand that the Bible, the old and new testaments, are not one book or even two. The “good book” is actually 60 books or collections, and those collections range from history and biography to folk tales with folk heroes such as Moses or Samson or Ruth, to sayings and songs and prayers and letters—ancient emails.

The Hebrew Bible is often referred to as the Old Testament and the Christian Bible the New Testament. But that has come to be regarded by Biblical scholars (and those who read their books) as judgmental. Politically correct language in liberal religious circles, such as the academy where I’m studying, refers to the Hebrew Bible as the First Testament and the New Testament as the Second Testament.

Theologians also say that the First Testament was about God and the Second Testament about Jesus. I believe we are living in Third Testament times, and our relationship now is not with a God who strolls into the Garden of Eden and punishes humanity for all time because someone ate some fruit; that our relationship is not now with a prophet from Galilee who predicted an imminent apocalypse that just didn’t happen. Ours is a relationship with a spirit running through all the events of our times who beckons us to follow. We tend to see this spirit outside of ourselves.

And the most thoughtful among us ask this spirit, who are you, and where are you taking me? Should I follow? In fact this spirit dwells not just outside of us but in us. It is no less mysterious than that, and the call in Third Testament times is to be okay with that.

You may say, but I don’t think of a holy spirit, or even a spirit. That’s not my theology. Fair enough. As I said earlier, when you hear the words God or Jesus or Bible—or spirit—think of them as substitute labels for that which you wonder about. Because I suspect you didn’t come here this morning just for the coffee, or for community or companionship, although all those things are important. I have to believe you’re here because you came for something more.

So: just what is this “something more?”

My Hebrew Bible professor, Greg Mobely, who grew up as a Baptist in Bible-belt Kentucky, likes to say that underneath the river of time flows another river, the river of conversation between humankind and that “something more.” It is a river, he says, of “human storytelling, meaning-making and pattern-tracing.” This other river, he teaches, has been captured in the Bible, warts and all.

As the river of time flows on, and the river of conversation beneath it, we float ever further from the notion of a supernatural “other” who is like us, like the cranky God of the First Testament, further from a human form of this supernatural other in the Second Testament in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, and further toward something we cannot explain or even name, something wholly unlike us—and yet something that is our very essence. Living in this demilitarized zone where there is no arguing or dogma or judgment—learning to live there, that is the work of our liberal religious faith. Respecting all the searching that has gone before, with all its imperfections, while understanding that it is our job to continue the task.

When the Jews saw their temple destroyed in 586 BCE, then rebuilt and then destroyed again—for good, this time—in the year 70 CE, they began a wandering that would see them become exiled all over the world. They learned to keep the temple, and their God, in their souls. When Jesus Christ, the messiah who was supposed to conquer the Jews’ tormentors, suffered the humiliating death of a common criminal and disappeared, just like the temples, the early Christians learned to keep Jesus in their hearts, something they called the Sacred Heart.

These were some of the ways—not all, but those captured in the First and Second Testaments—that ancient peoples coped with their reality, and how they might relate that reality to eternity, that “something more.”

So how do we relate to that something more in these times in which so many horrible things have happened, are happening, and threaten to continue? The Holocaust? The Islamic State? The Syrian-European migrant crisis of 2015 (which, I might add, is certainly still going on even if it doesn’t make the headlines in our 24/7 news cycle)? The American immigration debate? Whites killing blacks? The gun lobby?

It’s too easy to say it was ever thus and will always be … that the poor we shall always have with us, that there will always be wars and famine; that there will always be Donald Trumps and NRAs. Deal with it. But I think it is fair to say that despite the fact that our generation does not own troubled times, that what is happening today is unique to our times. And there is something we can do: we can own it. These are, after all, our times, and our times only. I think of something my mother once said to one of my sisters, when my sister was complaining about one of her daughters. Jane, my sister, started to say those immortal words uttered by every parent, “Why, when I was her age …” and my mother cut her off. She said to Jane, “But you were never her age.”

~

And that’s how it is for us, or so I believe. We are our own age. It is unlike anything that has gone before. The global, environmental and societal conditions under which we live are very different from that of our forebears. And, crazy as it might sound, our descendants too will experience a world wholly unlike anything we can know or even imagine now.

When pondering our age, our times, people take in the daily news and ask, why is there so much violence and hate in the world now? You might also ask, why is there also so much peace and love? Because there is. It just doesn’t make the headlines.

It never did. That’s why we have prophets. That’s why we have what Malcolm Muggeridge, a famed British author, journalist and TV commentator referred to as “God’s spies” in his 1970s documentary series which happened to be called The Third Testament. I discovered Muggeridge’s work after coming to the conclusion myself that we are living in Third Testament times, and I think hearing just a little about how he defined “God’s spies” back in the 1970s—40 years ago—can help us understand how we, too can be prophetic voices who are writing a Third Testament, a testament that can be filled with hope.

In his series, which later became a book by the same name, The Third Testament, Muggeridge discussed the lives of seven people he believed to be especially influential in how we think about life and God and other big questions. They were:

• The North African bishop, Augustine of Hippo, also known as Saint Augustine
• Blaise Pascal, French scientist who warned people against thinking they could live without God.
• William Blake, American artist and poet.
• Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard
• The Russian writers Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy
• German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose writings—and involvement in a plot to kill Hitler—cost him his life.

Muggeridge proposed that the combined lives and works of these seven had in effect created a “Third Testament.” You may notice that he didn’t include any women, which is surprising given that one thing he was famous for was having introduced Mother Teresa to the West and despite the existence of many other female prophetic voices, such as Sister Angela Merici of Italy, founder of the Ursuline nuns; Theresa of Avila, Spain; or, closer to home and denomination, Margaret Fuller or the prolific Universalist writer Judith Sargent Murray.

These and many more voices in our times could be considered what Muggeridge called “God’s spies,” which he defined as people posted behind enemy lines to do, in essence, holy work. They were people who in important ways helped relate their times to eternity—in short, what it all might have meant. In Muggeridge’s mind, it was as if God had sent them to do this work.

Let me translate for us in the here and now. In Unitarian Universalist language, think of God’s spies as those of us who have our ear to the ground. Listening for that something more. That spirit that beckons us. That spirit within us and without us who calls us to speak for the marginalized, work for peace, and stand up to wrongdoing. We are spirit spies. If the word “spirit” is not your cup of herbal, locally sourced tea, think of being a “universal” spy. Think of universal love as your mission.

When you do these things, when you respond to the voice you hear, that is when you are relating these Third Testament times, our troubled times, to eternity, to paraphrase Muggeridge. That is when you are writing your book, the book that will join the thousands to be entered in the Great Third Testament when it is published on Amazon dot com some future day hundreds of years from now.

Now, you may never write down a single word in your Testament book. That’s okay—most of the people written about in the First and Second Testaments never wrote anything down, either—someone else did. Even among the 13 letters attributed to St. Paul, only seven are believed to have been written by him. The rest, we just don’t know. In fact, we don’t know who actually wrote most of the Bible. So don’t worry about the writing. Your living is your authorship. You own your story.

There is much more I would like to say about this topic, but for today, let me offer three steps to living in Third Testament times that might help us all cope with the tumult and the freneticism and the busy-ness of our lives.

The first step is to understand that we, all of us, are a holy people. We tend to think that all the saints and sages and prophets lived long ago, that the age of miracles belonged to ancient times. But we were never their age, and they were never ours. I say that we are the prophets and saints and sages of our times, and that this, too, is the age of miracles. As long as there is love and wonder, miracles abound. And no one, and no creed, owns holiness. Your life is holy. Who you love and how you love … is holy. Your work is holy. So is your play.

The second step is to appreciate that we are constantly treading on holy ground. I have said it here before, that Holy ground, after all, is simply your welcome mat to whatever is beyond you.

The third step is to realize that we live in a holy time. If you could picture yourself as you walk through your day, that there is an imaginary welcome mat of holy ground constantly laid before you, perhaps by angels—you might understand how rich with possibility every moment is. You might come to believe that that imaginary welcome mat may be the only thing that is real. You might understand that this time is holy—holy meaning, according to yours truly, that you are lovingly and inextricably connected to the infinite. To eternity. That is something the Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, Christian and Jew could all agree with.

I’m not saying that it’s good that we live in troubled times, that times have to be troubled to be holy. I do think, though, that if ever there were a time when something is shouting to us to pay attention to what our times are trying to tell us, I think that something is shouting fairly loudly these days. I believe that for we Unitarian Universalists, that can only be opportunity. We UUs kind of like being spies, don’t you think?

~

So. What book are you writing? What is your testament? How might future generations experience your conversation with mystery, with the infinite in finite times? Recalling Malcolm Muggeridge, how would you relate these times to eternity? What you think matters. But how you live matters, too. Your life is no less important than any other life that has ever been lived. By thinking of ourselves as holy people treading holy ground in a holy time, we might better withstand and respond to the many pressures of our world today. What does love say? What does love look like? And how can you bring love out from behind enemy lines? That is something worth thinking about.

Or so I believe. You are free to believe it or not. Ah, but even that is something worth thinking about. And on it goes.

May it be so, blessed be, and may the light of your holy spirit shine ever so brightly upon you.

Closing words: Spring by Mary Oliver, in Keillor, Good Poems for Hard Times.


 

A resident of Arlington, Rob Kinslow is pursuing a master’s in divinity at Andover Newton Theological School in Newton and is a candidate for UU ministry. By day he is vice president for life sciences strategy at KHJ Brand Activation of Boston.