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Presented November 6, 2005, by Bill Holden
If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.
"It was when I was happiest that I longed most...The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing...to find the place where all the beauty came from."
What a long strange trip it's been. This line from a Greatful Dead song has been used to describe many things, and hearing it may conjure up some trips from your own past. I suspect however, it's not often used in describing spiritual trips - certainly not the conventional sort anyways. When I asked my dear friend Dan if I could talk about his spiritual journey, he replied, "Using me as an example of spirituality is like using Madonna as an example of chastity I'm game."
I knew if I was going to speak about spiritual journeys, that I would want to use a thorough and somewhat unconventional example.
My friend and mentor Dan is considered by most to be an unconventional individual, and as one might expect, embarked on a most unconventional and unstructured spiritual journey - one that I'm both very intrigued by, and somewhat envious of.
Our Unitarian Universalist principles instruct us to form our own theology by combining elements from several of the world's major religions. In that sense, Dan's journey provides an interesting, and appropriate example. Over time he has explored several different religions including Quakerism, Druidism, Eastern Mysticism, a couple flavors of Protestant Christianity, Gnosticism, and, of course, The Church of the SubGenius.
Dan's background and influences are broad and varied. He is a complex individual, and to describe him is a somewhat daunting challenge, to understand him nearly impossible for some. For those who don't, or simply won't try to understand him, it's easy to dismiss him as eccentric, genius, crazy, or just plain weird. He is all of those things and many more. I'm going to do my best to paint for you a descriptive picture of my friend Dan.
Dan provides this bio: "I was born in Lexington Kentucky in order to be close to my mother at the time. We moved to Swainsboro Georgia at age five after my mother's divorce." Like many of us, Dan was raised in a traditional Christian home. He states, "Growing up in the South Georgia Bible Belt was a spiritual influence that permeated everyday life. Prayers at mealtimes, attending Sunday school and church, listening to the adults' converse about God were parts of a seamless flow. The influence was as natural as breathing."
"My grandmother was the matriarch of the extended family. There were nine children including my mother. My mother, my brother and I lived with my grandmother from my age of five. Her religious nature was founded in "Hard Shell" Primitive Baptist dogma. My first formal exposure to a church environment was at Old Canoochee Baptist Church. At the age of seven I started attending the Methodist church in Swainsboro where my Aunt Caroline and Uncle Dan were members. Sunday school and vacation bible school were attended on a regular basis until I was about thirteen years old. I joined the Methodist church the last year of my attendance. My joining was not an act of faith but more an act of early testosterone rumblings. Two girls, my age, were part of the baptismal group. I was going through the motions of belief not the reality of belief."
Years later with the aid of a good "shrink", Dan realized his early faith/belief had been altered at age eleven. His grandmother was dying of congestive heart failure. The family had gathered with the anticipation she would die during the night. Quoting, "I remember an earnest prayer to God to let her live. She died that night. The psyche of my child could not accept God's deafness to my prayer. The seeds of atheism were sown." Dan became a vocal advocate of atheism and remained so for many years.
Dan went on to attend Emory University for three years and one quarter majoring in Psychology. The closer he got to a degree, the less enamored he became with psychology as a life profession. Says Dan, "Somehow charging people to hear their innermost hurts and fears seemed wrong. A Church of the SubGenius slogan (the Rev. J.R. Bob Dobb is a frequent source of quotations for Dan) describes the foundation of modern psychiatry: "You will pay to know what you really think". After college, Dan tried photography for about a year, got into various sales jobs and eventually landed in manufacturing.
I recall clearly the first time I truly encountered Dan. It was in Atlanta, Georgia in 1987. I was a serious, earnest, eager 27-year-old Production Control Supervisor and had recently moved from the production floor into the office area. In fact I had just landed my first private office. It had a door and everything! And I could smoke in there! I reported to the newly hired Vice President of Manufacturing, a wise old man of 35. He wore the IBM uniform of blue suit, starched white shirt, and red power tie, and strongly suggested that I do the same, so of course I did. I had started with this company a year out of high school, had worked a lot of long hours, was attending school at night, and trying my best to do all the right things to propel my ascent up the corporate ladder.
Dan had been hired by the VP to run the Purchasing organization. He and Marshall, the VP, had worked together previously, and were obviously pretty tight. So tight that Marshall referred to Dan as "Banana Man". I suspected that Dan would be assuming some additional responsibilities and that this "Banana Man" could in fact end up being my boss. Troubling thought. I tried my best to ignore him hoping maybe he'd go away, and at the least would leave me alone.
So you can imagine how appalled I was to see this disheveled character with a cigarette in one hand, and a cup of black coffee in the other, come strolling into my office and to spurt - in a most obscene manner - a stream of coffee from his mouth all over the inventory reports I was studying! Obviously he was not going to allow me to ignore him. I soon ended up reporting to this "Banana Man" character, and gradually learned to embrace his eccentricities.
Our company was sold to a Canadian conglomerate a couple of years later, and it was announced by a tall, loud, tough talking French Canadian named Phil Bradley - that our manufacturing operations in Atlanta would be shut down and moved to Vancouver, Canada. I was asked to be part of a small transition team tasked with moving a product line to the Vancouver operation. In order to make a good impression on our first day working in the Vancouver facility, Dan dressed in his best bib overall's and his fish tie. I'm fairly certain that nearly all of the 600 employees that worked in that facility knew his name by the end of that day.
Mr. Bradley, like countless others, was alternately confused, intrigued, and outraged by this crazy character. But mostly he was just fascinated. Bradley was a real command and control type, an old style manager schooled at IBM in the 50's. Transition team meetings routinely included one of us being the recipients of Bradley's wrath. It wasn't always justified, but it was mostly just for effect anyway. Dan hadn't had his turn, partly because he was highly competent, and partly because Phil had developed quite an affection for Dan. Finally Dan's turn came. He sat and calmly took it. I could tell that Bradley's conscience was getting the best of him even before he had finished chewing Dan out. Having barely finished his tirade, he immediately apologized by saying "Aw Dan, once you get to know me you'll love me". With hardly a pause, Dan replied "With all due respect sir, I had my last homosexual experience when I was eleven". Mr. Bradley was speechless as we all slid low in our chairs, holding our stomachs from laughing so hard, afraid of what might happen, but unable to control ourselves. Phil said something about counting to 10 and left the meeting completely befuddled. Anyone else would have likely been fired.
Shortly after that exchange, I became their translator. Whenever Phil needed to talk to Dan, he would be sure I was there. My ability to be an effective intermediary coupled with Dan's lobbying led to Mr. Bradley offering me a job, and Dan a promotion, both of us receiving substantial raises. The fact that Dan was able to survive, and often thrive in corporate America is both a testament to his talent and abilities along with some executives not knowing what to do with him.
The Vancouver assignment proved to be a great experience, and provided Dan and me with the opportunity to spend countless hours together. The tremendous venue, corporate apartments, ocean views, wonderful restaurants and expense accounts were the perfect catalysts for hours of stimulating conversations. As I was raised a Presbyterian in a very traditional church, these conversations were often my first introduction to any alternate forms of religious perspective.
If you haven't been there, Vancouver is a city of amazing natural beauty. It is situated on the Pacific Ocean just north of Seattle, and surrounded by snow-capped mountains that literally rise from the ocean. Dan and I would drive to the top of one of these mountains on early Sunday mornings, pull off to the side of the road, and gaze in wonder at the beauty of God's creation. We would go long periods of time without speaking. It wasn't necessary. We both agreed that these were some of the best church services either of us had ever attended.
After our work in Vancouver was done, our relationship continued to grow and flourish. Dan was now my boss and mentor. We spent countless hours talking. Our discussions often ended up centered around spiritual matters. I would ask questions and absorb everything I could to the point of exhaustion, trying my best to make sense out of it all. It wasn't an easy by design, nor is it Dan's nature for he would often provide more questions instead of answers.
Dan proudly relates to this quote about Johnny Cash from Kris Kristofferson's The Pilgrim, Chapter 33: "He's a poet. He's a prophet. He's a pilgrim and a preacher and a problem when he's stoned. He's a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction, taking every wrong direction on his lonely way back home."
Dan is one of the most well read people I know, and regularly reads a book a week. By the age of eighteen he had read most of Freud's work, most of Betrand Russell's atheistic slanted work, as well as the work of various philosophers. A conversation with Dan is often filled with quotes. He moves easily from quoting C. S. Lewis to Tom Robbins, from Karl Jung to Ken Kesey, from Adam Smith to Alvin Toffler, from Joseph Campbell to Leonard Cohen. Ask him a serious question and he's apt to provide a parable in response.
Dan cites "the yearning for clarity of my existence" as provoking him to begin what he describes as a nonstructured spiritual journey. He credits a Quaker meeting at age 27 with exposing him to God's Grace. Says Dan, "The certainty of God's existence provided a spiritual foundation for my continuing exploration/journey. In the summer of my 27th year, I began attending a Sunday morning small gathering of Quakers. Beatrice Stroup, a practicing Quaker, had convinced me that the hour of silence would be beneficial. I found sitting in silence for an hour had a calming effect on my, as yet, unrecognized soul. The fifth meeting I attended proved to be an epiphany in my life. I experienced a "Gathered Meeting". The awareness of God's presence was experienced in silence and shared by all the members. All my neatly structured tenants of atheism were reduced to a rubbish pile of gibberish. The experience was overwhelming." So overwhelming in fact that a six-day stay at Georgia Regional Mental Hospital followed. After that Dan went on a nine month sabbatical.
During this sabbatical, he read extensively. C.S. Lewis, Carl Jung and the Bible were some of the more influential writings. As a result of his emotional distress and religious questioning, Dan was led to the theologian named Theron Neese. Theron taught theology at Columbia Seminary (Presbyterian) and was also was a practicing shrink. Dan intended to enroll in the seminary, but Theron assured him he would not do well in that formal structure. However, he agreed to help privately. This process continued for almost three years. Logotherapy (as practiced by Victor Frankel) and spiritual training were applied as needed. In reflection, Dan credits Theron as a Godsend.
During his time with Theron Neese, Dan studied the Greek scriptures in an attempt to fully understand them as they were intended. Their translations often were in conflict with traditional interpretations such as that of King James's.
Two such examples that Dan shared struck me as quite profound. The first was the well-known verse from the book of Matthew about turning the other cheek. Dan shared an alternate translation, which is to turn the other face. This obviously has a much different meaning.
The second example is from John 14:2. "In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you." The actual translation as it turns out was stepping stones, implying levels of existence, and not mansions. The mansion translation seems much more attractive obviously and was apparently thought to be more effective in attracting new recruits at a time when it was a struggle to do so.
Today, Dan describes himself as "a Reformed Druid, Gnostic Christian with Quaker leanings". Dan also states, "I believe I am in an eternity and wonder about the next stepping stone after this phase of existence."
I asked Dan to provide his current spiritual role models. Dan suggested that if true spirituality comes from giving to others unselfishly, Lee and Mary Noel would fit the role model description. Lee is a 70-year-old successful businessman and investor. Mary and Lee are practicing Catholics. They give much of their time, resources and energy to helping others.
He also told me a story about his all time spiritual role model, a man known as "Coon" Wallace. His mother told him about "Coon" Wallace when he asked her as a teenager, why she had never joined a Church. She said, "Let me tell you abut Coon Wallace. Coon Wallace was a speech impeded and mentally challenged member of the Swainsboro community. Now as a young girl, I used to attend Old Canoochee Baptist Church with my mother and one Sunday, Preacher Raleigh Riner was into one his old testament rants when Coon began to weep loudly. Preacher Raleigh stopped his preaching and approached Coon sitting in the front row.
Preacher Raleigh said, "What's wrong Coon? Can I pray for you?" and Coon replied, "HELL NO. Coon pray for his own damned self."
The importance of this story did not register until much later in Dan's life. But he credits it for his Gnostic Christian leanings.
Although Dan has reached a destination in a sense, his journey continues. When I think of my own spiritual journey, I feel like I'm only getting started and the road ahead stretches out a long way in front of me. As is probably obvious to you all, Dan has had, and continues to have a significant influence in my thinking. His example of consuming knowledge from many different realms, from several different philosophies is an inspiration to me. I hope that in some way it will also inspire you to continue on, or expand your own spiritual journey.
When I was contemplating ideas for this talk, I knew I wanted to speak about spiritual journeys, but I had some reservations. On a weekly basis, we repeat our own non-comformist's oath - love is the spirit of this church, and service is it's law. While we easily combine love and spirit in the same sentence, I think for most of us, it's easier to speak of the love side of the equation, than it is to speak of the spirit side. For most of us in the West, particularly in a highly materialistic culture like America, our concept of love doesn't really include the spiritual.
Rob mentioned in a recent talk that in a lot of ways, our collective theology as a congregation most closely resembled Hinduism. The closing words are from Deepak Chopra who draws many of his beliefs from the Hindus. He writes, "Love and spirit are the same force. At the core of every being there is only love, because the core of every being is only spirit. The two are the same force--an abstract, unifying force in nature, not just in the human experience, but in nature. It's all pervasive. And we experience it in our lives in the flavors of human relationship--with attraction, infatuation, communion and courtship, intimacy and sexuality, surrender and non-attachment, and passion and ecstasy. These are the different flavors of love in human relationships. Each of these is actually a window into the experience of the spirit as a real force".
The Quincy Unitarian Church Home
The list of Selected Sermons.