I know the master plan of the universe. Really, I do! I did not figure it out all by myself. I had help from a long-ago TV show, in which one of the main characters returns from the dead after being shot in the dramatic conclusion of the previous season. He had been a lawyer for the hospital before being killed, and he reappears in a hallucination to a hospital administrator who is having his own dramatic health crisis.
The episode focuses on the conversation between the two. The lawyer explains how the universe works in simple terms, but he keeps qualifying himself by saying, “It’s more complicated than that.”
Toward the end of the episode, as viewers are shifting back and forth between an emergency room drama for the hospital administrator and his hallucinatory conversation, the lawyer decides to share the master plan of the universe with the administrator. He writes it on a piece of paper, which is hidden from the camera. The administrator looks at it, shares a puzzled expression, and asks, “That’s it?” The dead lawyer responds, “Yes, it’s that simple—and it’s more complicated than that.”
Of course, the administrator then takes a turn for the worse, and viewers go to a break. With commercials blaring, the master plan of the universe sits on a piece of paper, hidden from viewers, offering answers to humanity’s long-sought deepest questions. For upwards of 10,000 years we’ve been looking up at the sky,
wondering what it’s all about, to no avail. For most of us, silence has been the loudest response.
Eventually, the hospital administrator is saved, the lawyer returns to heaven (actually it’s more complicated than that) and the master plan of the universe is revealed. The slip of paper contains these words: Giving and Receiving.
It’s that simple, and it’s more complicated than that. Giving and Receiving! There were no trumpets, no clouds finally parting with clarity, coming down in gold letters from the heavens. No loud voices or angels in chariots.
The master plan of the universe is Giving and Receiving. Simple in so many ways, and more complicated because we humans make it more complicated.
Giving and receiving go together. We give because we want to believe service is a form of prayer. And we receive with gratitude—mostly (if we’re having a good day and remember to be open to love and generosity). Religious leaders have been saying this for centuries. They’ve been offering metaphors, images, art, poetry and songs in thousands of languages. The message has always been about giving and receiving.
Yet, pathetic as it is, I didn’t get it, really get it, until I heard it in plain, simple language on a dramatic TV show. It was not the medium, it was the mode. The message was simple, it was clear, it was gentle, and I let it sink in. “Giving and Receiving.” I like saying it. I like hearing it. I like letting it rest on my lips,
those three simple words.
We make those three words so complicated with ego, pride, shame and guilt. We are so fearful of appearing weak, incompetent, ignorant; fearful of insulting or offending people.
At the heart of our complications is a fear of the other. We make it complicated because we’re scared of each other. My personal favorite is our absurd attachment to individualism, which, at its worst, looks too much like isolationism and nationalism. Individualism often undermines our religious community.
The value we place on community requires us to walk with one another, to be with one another in an eternal Giving and Receiving of love, compassion, solace, and celebration. It requires bearing witness to solidarity, to advocacy and to reclamation of human dignity where oppression has forced its way into the world.
If Giving and Receiving is the master plan, we have to do it despite the pain and anger, and in spite of our pain and anger. Not out of protest, but rather for our very survival. When we are deeply hurt we are called to open ourselves to love and compassion in order to heal. When we are angry we open ourselves to letting it transform into action on our own behalf and for the sake of others. For where there is anger, there are the roots of change.
In Genesis, Abraham lives in the desert where hospitality rules because survival is on the line. When three strangers appear before Abraham, who has no clue his life is about to radically change in an act of deity-size generosity, he respectfully bows before the strangers. An exchange of greetings is offered—peace, shalom, salaam—and the strangers’ feet are washed. They are invited to rest under a tree, and a feast is prepared. Life and death are on the line in the hot and arid desert. Giving and receiving is the rule of the land.
Sometimes it feels like we are living in a desert. We are searching for hope in a world often filled with an empty landscape. Yet it is in our DNA to both reach out to one another for hands to help when we are lost in the wilderness, and to respond with an outstretched hand, ready to grasp, pull in and offer refuge.
Ecclesiastes 5:17 states: All their days they eat in darkness, with great frustration, affliction and anger.
It would be easy in our fear to sit in darkness, feeling frustrated, angry at the universe when things don’t go our way. It is easy to make the master plan of the universe more complicated than simply Giving and Receiving. But the text of Ecclesiastes continues:
This is what I have observed to be good: that it is appropriate for a person to eat, to drink and to find satisfaction in their toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given them—for this is their lot. Moreover, when God gives someone wealth and possessions, and the ability to enjoy them, to accept their lot and be happy in their toil—this is a gift of God.
Ecclesiastes is the book most known for “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” It is a book of questions, of doubt, that often asks more of us than we ask of ourselves. It invites us to offer thanks even when we’re lost in the wilderness. It invites us to recognize that in the end we can’t know God’s or any othermaster plan…even if the answer is in a well-written dialogue, said by a character in a TV show.
I may not know for sure, but I’m going with Giving and Receiving as my master plan. It’s easy, with two gerunds—nouns that are really active verbs. It is a plan offering something to practice, not items on a list of right and wrong.
The plan calls for reaching out from the depths of our heart and soul. It invites letting go of fears, ego, pride, and sacred individualism. It pushes us to reach beyond our comfort zone, into the unknown, trusting that all will not be lost.
Our lives are full of chaotic energy and mayhem on most days. As we wake each day, we are called to give and receive. You might name it as the gracious cycle of life. From the day we’re born to the day we’re going to die, we are called to give and receive. We are offered moments in time of holy exchange, one soul to another soul, two hearts meeting in true reciprocity.
Giving and Receiving is not about a brokered deal, or an exchange of material gifts or Hallmark cards. It’s about seeing the holiness in the other, being present to that holiness, accepting that holiness, and celebrating the divine relationship between us and the presence of love.
The master plan of the universe begins with one holy gift: You and me. We’re all gifts from, and parts of, the universe. We are both from and part of the God of many names and faces, the God of love, of compassion of justice.
I believe we’re here to be present to one another, to be present to and faithful to the holy. I believe we’re here to give and receive in the holy exchange of living. Let’s not make it more complicated than that.
Her experience with the Unitarian Universalist Association includes being a Regional Transitions Coach for search committees, and serving as the Scribe of the Ministerial Conference at Berry Street, in addition to a list of other things that no one wants to read.