We are More than the Sum of Our Parts

August 21, 2016 — Nancy Bancroft


Last January, at my first service as your interim pastor I used a children’s book entitled, It will be Okay by Lysa TerKeurst.  In that service and through the sermon I hoped to reassure you, that no matter how good Jan had been as a pastor, and no matter what mistakes I made or inadequacies I had, all would be well, because we together are Union Church.  And if any of you still had doubts or misgivings, hopefully last Sunday’s service and afternoon animal blessing, with the trustees’ and deacons’ preparation of our worship space, Anita Coup’s moving and profound call to worship, Carol Sherman’s delightful and eloquent sermon, the beautiful music from Michelle, Stella, Andrea, Luke and Rob, Katie Kole’s part in the litany of the animals, Cris Hudson’s humorous and touching poem and blessing, Gail Quiney’s work with the children, Team Five’s beautiful flowers and delicious  treats, the long meeting in the children’s corner after the service with a number of people invested in providing meaningful ministry to our few but cherished younger members, the generosity of Eve and Peter once again welcoming us to their property, Ken Murray organizing  and leading the animal blessing and the many people who worked with him to provide a spiritual experience appreciated by our members as well as by the wider community; hopefully all of this experienced on just one day will comfort and assure all of you, that Union Church is well, is vibrant and all will be well. And I stress that this is because we are the church.

This past Father’s Day, I based my sermon in part on the work of two psychologists, Peterson and Seligman, who had done significant research about human virtues and strengths. Their list was quite long and so I selected those qualities that I thought fit well for the occasion and filed others for future use. When I looked at the one I had filed for today I asked myself, “What were you thinking?  Transcendence?”   “Really!”  And though I was tempted to throw it out it occurred to me that what we’ve been experiencing lately, last Sunday and this past Thursday, what we’ve found moving, energizing, is in fact transcendence.

What is transcendence?  Literally the word means “to climb” “beyond,”. Transcendence is usually understood as exceeding usual limits; extending past the boundaries of ordinary experience. When we achieve transcendence, we have gone further than ordinary confines.  The word is often used to describe a spiritual or religious state, or a condition of moving beyond physical needs and realities.

Peterson and Seligman explain transcendence as an assemblage of strengths that forge connections to the larger universe and provide meaning. Transcendence moves us beyond our every-day physicality, our biological, mental and emotional selves to the spirit of who we are, interconnected with the rest of reality. In this light, transcendence can be understood as spirituality; not religion, but the expansion of our core, the spirit of who we are. Certainly religious experience can move us to transcend our every-dayness selves.  But so can the appreciation of beauty and excellence, gratitude, hope or optimism, even humor or playfulness, and purpose.

As I thought about this, it occurred to me that this transcendence aptly applies Union Church.  I had been seeing us as a diverse faith community, but now it seems to me that though our members are people of faith, it is not belief that cements us, but rather spirituality.  Perhaps being a spiritual hub describes us more accurately. And though we each have our own individual spirituality; our experience of the sacred and our response to it, it’s our appreciation of diversity, our respect for each person’s unique life journey, our attention to supporting each other that I think leads to transcendence. We move beyond our separate ego selves into an interconnected wholeness. This feeling of connection and unity involves experiencing oneness while at the same time appreciating variety and differentiation.  Together we express our individual best selves and as a group become more than the sum of our parts.  Martha E. Rogers, in her book, Science of Unitary Human Beings defined self-transcendence “as the expansion of one’s conceptual boundaries inwardly, outwardly, and through time.  As I thought about this in relation to being a member of Union Church it rang true.  For most of us, I think this community positively impacts us inwardly as well as our outward behavior, and I think that at least for some of us, saying that we are a member of Union Church is more than stating where we go on Sunday.  It’s become part of our self-identity.

Okay, so what is this picture up on the wall?  It is The Musée des Confluences, and I was privileged to visit it last October.   The Musée des Confluences is a science center and anthropology museum which opened in 2014 in Lyon, France, at the confluence of the Rhône and the Saône rivers. The architectural design made of stainless steel and glass is said to resemble a floating crystal cloud. The museum includes collections of natural science, anthropology, and earth sciences. Entering this huge and very modern structure I had no idea that I would have a spiritual experience that surpassed any that I had ever had in a church. It was truly an occasion of transcendence.

The three major exhibitions deal with the questions “Where do we come from?” “Who are we?” and “What do we do?” The first question, “Where do we come from?” is about the origins and purposes of both the Big Bang theory and history of the universe.  It also takes on “Where are we going by offering the different representations of death in the cultures of world. The second question, “Who are we?” presents humans within the biodiversity of creation. It explains through films and exhibits the mechanisms of evolution and the place of humans among the other animal species. The third question, “What do we do?” addresses the functioning of societies: cooperation, competition, and creative processes.

Many things struck me as I toured the museum.  The most dramatic was a demonstration of the big bang theory. Through photography of outer space accompanied with new-age music I viewed a beautiful film of how creation began. This display was in one corner of an enormous room, filled with people involved in numerous interactive displays.  Yet, in this section of the floor, all was quiet.  No one spoke. All were in awe.  Everyone seemed to be moved by the sacredness of what we were seeing. It was a transcendence of time.  It was like watching a beautiful birth, but this one almost 14 billion years back.

The other moving experience I had at this museum developed as I walked along and took in beautiful presentations  about how various cultures around the world understood creation and viewed divinity, and how these beliefs impacted their worship and culture.  Though we looked very different and had various understandings, we were clearly more alike than not. The designers of the exhibitions somehow managed to have us recognize the dramatic differences among us and at the same time experience a profound connection. Transcendence!

If we look at our church as one body, it seems that the concept of transcendence is useful to validate what has worked for us to be the valued assemblage that we are, and can also help us be intentional as we continue through this period of transition.

Like the various cultures exhibited at the Musée des Confluences, we here each have our own religious beliefs and unique spiritualties, and yet we can recognize a transcendence that is Union Church. We recognize the inherent dignity of every person.  We are welcoming and accepting of one another and we affirm the unique spiritual journey of each person here.  Further, the sense of belonging is not only here among each other. Through our interactions with one another, we recognize and appreciate that we belong to all the animals, to the plants, to all of creation. And we acknowledge that we are responsible for them and to them. We all belong together in this great cosmic unity. We are a compassionate community who contributes financially and through volunteerism to make the world a better place. We have a deep respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

Knowing the wonderful community that we are part of certainly elicits a deep sense of gratitude in each of us. We recognize it as a precious gift and we want to protect it. This loving community is not something that we can take for granted.  Groups of people, like individuals are organic and as such they either grow or deteriorate.  So we each need to take responsibility for the inner life of our church and our connection with the wider community. As we progress as a spiritual community, the attitudes and behaviors that help us deepen our individual spiritual lives are applicable to us as a group. This includes openness to the sacred and willingness to recognize discrepancies between who we are and who we are called to be.

Are there those among us who need to feel more welcomed; more part of the group?

Are there people in our church who have needs that we can help address?

And lest we become too insular, are there ways that we are called to connect with and/or contribute to those beyond our recognized boundaries?

Our words, our behaviors, even our attitudes, like a pebble dropped in the water, has an ever-widening, rippling effect on others in our community and beyond.  Our worship, our social events, our learning experiences, and our connections with others can all help us develop, transcend those aspects of ourselves that hold us back from being all who we can be as individuals and as a spiritual enclave.

Iroquois Chief, Oren Lyons, is an author and tenured professor of American studies at the State University of New York. He explains how the Iroquois make decisions, always keeping in mind the Seventh Generation yet to come. They feel it is their responsibility to ensure that their progeny, the yet unborn generations, will have a world no worse than this, and hopefully better. In this time of transition in our church, this is perhaps a good perspective for us to have. And this will not depend on the settled pastor. It is on us.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin writes, “There is almost a sensual longing for communion with others who have a large vision. The immense fulfillment of the friendship between those engaged in furthering the evolution of consciousness has a quality impossible to describe.” Let’s think big as we attend to the details of being a spiritual support for each other.

How will we know that we are on the right track, again, de Chardin has guidance for us.  He says, “Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God.”  Let’s commit to one another to do what we can so that we may all live in joy, and hope, that like a pebble tossed in a pond, our joy will spread out  to a world so in need of it.