Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

The Difficult Art of Doing Nothing — Sermon by the Rev. David Pyle

Last preached on August 19th 2012


It was in the second actual week of my vacation,

when my mother-in-law inspired this sermon.

You see, Mitu and her husband Maurice

were visiting Sandy and I for a little over a week,

from their home in San Diego.

As usual when they are visiting,

Mitu and I woke up before everyone else,

and were talking over our morning coffee.

She asked me “So, since you are on vacation,

what are you going to do today?”


Half jokingly, I said “I’m going to try my best

to do nothing all day long”.


Mitu, who always takes me seriously,

said, in her wonderful French accent,

“Well, that will be very difficult for you, no?”


Have you ever noticed how

even a casual comment by a mother or a mother-in-law

can follow you around, can haunt you over a long period of time?


I think it is a power Mothers develop over many years,

so that it is ready for when their children become adults.

For the next six weeks of my two month vacation,

those words from Mitu would come back to me

at some point each and every day…

and it led to my taking a very different kind of vacation

than what I had planned when I left here in June.


Each time that I would begin to think of something I could do…

something that would be productive,

something that would let me feel

like I had accomplished something,

I would hear my mother-in-laws French accented voice

calling me to remember that my goal was to “do nothing”…


Indeed she was right,

doing nothing was amazingly hard for me.

I’m sure it is possible that for some of us,

the Art of Doing Nothing is not as difficult

as Mitu knew it would be for me,

but having gotten to know many of you over this last year,

I know that the majority of you are with me.


Let me just make an observation…

many of us Unitarian Universalists of Ventura

are indeed people geared toward accomplishing things,

toward doing things, toward making progress and seeing results.


Now, I do not want anything in this sermon

to take away from or malign the idea of making progress,

or the useful nature of accomplishing things,

the need for us to “do” things together as a church.

The last thing in the world I need

is for one of our committee chairs to report back to Rev. Jan,

when she comes back from her vacation,

that Rev. David said that we all

needed to stop making progress

and accomplishing anything to be spiritually whole.


I thought for awhile about how I could express

what I hope to accomplish with this sermon…

see, accomplishing is good!

Some of you may remember doing a little exercise

when you were in grade school,

although for safety reasons they probably do not do it anymore.

It was a day about middle of the school year,

when we’d been in the same room,

looking at the same people in the same desks

surrounded by the same posters every day for months on end.

The teacher had us all get up from our chairs,

and stand on our desks,

and then look around to see how different this room

we thought we knew so well

looked when we shifted our perspective.


I think of these kinds of sermons

as “standing on the desk” sermons…

where what I feel called to preach to you about

is what the world looks like when we shift our perspective,

and what lessons we can bring back

to help balance the realities we live in every day.

So, I’m not maligning progress and doing, and accomplishing,

just as the teacher did not have us stand on our desks

throughout the rest of class.


As I was reflecting on our worship theme for this summer,

Oh, the Places We Will Go,

I realized that I did not “go” much of anywhere

during my vacation, or at least not physically.

Among the “doing” that I could not escape

during what became my “staycation”

was a series of gel injections into my right knee,

designed to replace some of the cartilage and lubricating fluid

that has worn out from years of running and military training.

Each injection meant several days of pain and limited mobility,

so some days the “places I would go”

was limited to my living room and my outdoor patio,

and that with some difficulty.

To alleviate any concerns,

the injection series seems to have worked wonders,

and though running is no longer in the cards for me,

I am now far more mobile with far less pain,

and that is a blessing.


So, between the haunting words of my mother-in-law,

and the limited mobility of my knee,

many of the “great ideas” I had for my vacation were not to be.

There was no hiking and camping

in the Channel Islands National Park.

There was no trip up the coast to San Francisco.

I even told the Army “no”

about several things they wanted me to do.


I mostly sat at home, reading science fiction,

watching the Olympics, and just allowed myself to “be”.

In other words, the “place I would go” this summer

was a change in my perspective.


Let me give you a little context on why I needed this change.

This was the first vacation I have taken in over 7 years.

Over the last 7 years, every moment

that was not taken up by civilian ministry

or the preparations for ministry,

became dedicated to my work

as an Army Reserve Chaplain.

While ministry is challenging and time consuming as it is,

these recent wars our nation has chosen to fight

has left enough emotional and family trauma

to keep every military chaplain busy

through the rest of their lifetimes.


And so, trying to meet the challenging process

of becoming a UU Minister,

serving as a minister in churches of our living tradition

that love progress and accomplishment,

and seeking to meet some small part

of the needs created by these wars,

I had gotten stuck in the perspective

of “doing” and “accomplishing”.

What I needed as much as some physical rest and recovery time

was a chance to change my perspective…

to remember that beyond doing and accomplishing

lies the deeper work of being and becoming.

And I am grateful that we are a congregation

that understands how important it is for our ministers

to have the time for such realizations.

Thank you.


One of the many amazing members of this congregation,

on the day that I came back from vacation,

asked me a question,

and I think that without the change in perspective

of realizing how much more difficult it is for me to do nothing

than it is for me to do something, anything…

without this change in perspective I do not know

if I would have been ready for the shift

in my theological and sociological thought

that has happened in this past week in response to this question.


The question, and this is only the kind of question

that a well versed Unitarian Universalist

would ask of their minister, the question that was asked was,

“So, Rev. David, what happened to Calvinism? Where did it go?”


I mean, does it get better than that, really?

Of all the congregations I have served,

it is in this one I’m most likely to get questions

about the remains of Calvinism,

or how Nietzsche might be instructive in a business decision,

or for some assistance with interpreting a dissertation

by a loved one that was focused on Process Theology.

I mean it… you all amaze me…

you might not always have the right language,

but when it comes a desire to engage theology

you all are unmatched in my experience.


Now, I promise that I am not going

to take you through a theological tour-de-force

of Calvinism this morning, although I was sorely tempted.

I mean, you have been free of Rev. David sermons

since the end of May, so you are about due, right?


And… in order to share with you

the realization that hit me this week,

I do need to talk about two aspects

of the theology of John Calvin for just a moment.


He was one of the major theological forces

of the Protestant Reformation,

founded a protestant faith based initially in Geneva,

and was a contemporary of Martin Luther.

We Unitarian Universalists sometimes remember him

as the man who executed the Unitarian theologian

and rabble rouser Miguel Servetus for heresy.

His theology is most known for the Doctrine of Pre-destination,

the primary result of which was that certain people, the elect,

were destined from the dawn of time to be saved,

and going to heaven,

and other people were going to go to hell.

If God was eternal and knew all there was to know,

Calvin argued, then pre-destination

was the only logical possibility.


In many ways, classical Universalism,

or the belief that all are saved because a Loving God

would not send any of his children to hell,

arose as a reaction to the Calvinist doctrine of pre-destination.

Unitarian Universalist Historian Conrad Wright and others

have drawn a correlation between rise

of the Calvinist doctrine of pre-destination

in mainline Protestantism

and the origin of the Universalist doctrine of Universal Salvation.

And, one way to define the split in the Congregationalist church

that gave birth to American Unitarianism

was that the conservatives were Calvinist

and the liberals who became known as Unitarians were not.


Yet, the change in perspective that came to me this week

from the question of where Calvinism went

is around another aspect of the Doctrine of Pre-destination,

and that was the idea that

you would be able to tell who was one of the “Elect”,

who was one of those pre-destined for heaven,

because they would be virtuous, successful, driven,

industrious, moral, upstanding citizens.

In other words, how you behaved and what you did

was not what got you into heaven…

that was decided at the beginning of time.

Now, how you behaved and what you did and accomplished

was how you showed everyone else that you were “saved”,

that you were one of the “elect”.


The world’s first sociologist, Max Weber,

makes the case in his book

 The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

that this Calvinist idea of showing your membership

in the saved Elect by your behavior

and success in this earthly life…

Weber makes the case that this Calvinist idea

became wedded to the early conceptions of modern capitalism.


Often now referred to as “The Protestant Work Ethic”,

Weber claims that Calvinism has led to a societal norm

of seeking the meaning of our identities in what we do,

what we accomplish, how successful we are,

and how much money we have.


I grew up with the Protestant work ethic,

as I bet did many of us.

I grew up thinking it was normal when,

at a party, the second question someone asks me

after “What is your name?” is almost always “What do you do?”

In pastoral care, I have thought it normal

to help people through the crisis of identity

that often comes with retirement or losing a job.

I have defined my own practice of ministry

by how much I did, and how successful I was at it.

There is actually a form I fill out for the UUA every year

that asks me how many weddings I performed,

how many funerals I officiated,

how many babies I dedicated…


The realization that has come this week

is that both the Universalist Church of America

and the American Unitarian Association,

the religious traditions that later became Unitarian Universalism,

both of these formed in part in opposition

to the Calvinist theology that became this Protestant Work ethic.


For the Universalists, being successful in business

simply meant being successful in business,

because we are all saved… we are all worthy…

we all have inherent worth and dignity,

separate from whatever we might have accomplished.

What matters is not what have done, are doing, or will do…

what matters is that we be what we are called to be…

a fully realized human being.

What matters is who we love, not what we have,

within the limits of having enough to meet

our basic human needs of food, clothing, and shelter.

What matters is what dreams we have,

not what dreams we have fulfilled.

What matters is who we are, not what we do.


Let me use an example that might make this real,

a pastoral example that I have seen countless times

as a minister of our liberal faith.

When I was living in Texas, and was a student-minister

at the UU Fellowship of Galveston County, TX,

I became involved in the effort to oppose

putting an amendment in the State Constitution

banning Same-Sex Marriage.

We worked our rear-ends off.

We held rallies, printed flyers, posted signs,

got in newspaper articles, debated the issue on the radio,

knocked on doors…

it was about 4 months where I spent most of my free-time

working on this campaign in one form or another.

Because I was a seminary student

and in a heterosexual relationship,

I ended up quoted in the paper a lot,

always opposite some anti-marriage equality person

who supported the amendment.


When we lost, and of course we lost, it was Texas.

When we lost, I was heartbroken.

I remember wondering if all that effort was wasted time.


As far as the results went, we accomplished absolutely nothing.

At the beginning of the campaign the polls

had us losing by 20 points,

and when the votes were counted up,

we still lost by about 20 points.

I was so disheartened, it would be years

before I would become so involved

in a social justice campaign again.


Why was I heartbroken?

Because for all that effort,

there seemed to be so little to show for it.

If we changed any minds and hearts,

it looked like it has been the other way.

Overall, Texas seemed to be shifting away

from the values that I hold dear, not closer to them.


What Universalism teaches is that our self identity

need not be tied to such things as what we accomplish,

or what we do, or how successful we are.

When those things happen, they are byproducts…

and when they do not happen,

when we are not as successful as we might like,

we are no less of a human being.

It does not change our inherent worth and dignity.


And more importantly, I came to realize that,

for me personally, the effort to prevent

that hate-filled constitutional amendment in Texas

was both and expression of who I was and what I valued,

and it was a time of transformation in who I am today.

It was an expression of both my being,

and my becoming as a Unitarian Universalist,

as a minister, and as a human being.


Just as my staycation, my practical experience in

the Difficult Art of Doing Nothing has been this summer.

A time of Being and Becoming.


And even with that… it is good to be back at work!


So may it be, blessed be, and amen!

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