This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 3/13/16. In the work of the spirit, and in the quest for a world free from oppression, how do we stay engaged without becoming burnt out by the struggles we face?
During our prayers every Sunday, I repeat some of the same words at the close, following the congregation’s recitation of names we wish to hold in all our hearts: “for those names spoken, and those written silently on the tablets of our hearts…”. It’s a phrase that comes to us, over and over again, from the Torah, although there’s one mention of it in third Corinthians as well. It’s usually in reference to holy words, or holy teachings being written on the tablets of our hearts; but it sometimes also speaks of love and faithfulness being placed there. One of my seminary professors would end prayer with this verse, and it always struck me as meaningful.
Parker Palmer talks about this in his book “Hidden Wholeness.” He writes, “There is an old Hasidic tale that tells us how such things happen. The pupil comes to the rebbe and asks, “Why does Torah tell us to ‘place these words upon your hearts’? Why does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts?” The rebbe answers, “It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts. So we place them on top of our hearts. And there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks, and the words fall in.”
As we imagine this month, what it would mean to be a people of liberation, part of that wondering relies on our hearts breaking. In our weekly prayers, those names we pray for, too often are names for whom our hearts break and their sacredness falls into our lives and through our pain. We are changed for it, and our hearts are open. In the struggle for a more just world though, sometimes we come from a place of stridency. The words we say, and the actions we take, may be correct, but they don’t yet break through into our hearts. We can sometimes be correct, but closed down – shut down inside. Building the world we dream about, is the work of generations, not individuals alone. When we try to do that building with closed hearts, our words and actions can weigh us down more. It’s hard to remain doing the work of generations while so weighed down.
But it’s also hard doing the work of generations, thinking we need to always be perfect, or always at our best, or always in a state of calm, or indifference, or even joy. The Hasidic tale tells us that we probably won’t truly succeed in healing the world without first going through our own state of brokenness. It’s not to ennoble suffering; rather it’s to not demonize ourselves for our own suffering. Times of brokenness are natural to the human condition, and we need not make those low times worse with judgement about them for ourselves or for our neighbor. We also don’t need to pretend we’re the only ones that ever go through that. Maybe we can let ourselves off the hook – at least spiritually speaking – for those times we feel at our weakest.
Without glorifying our times of brokenness, can we find a middle path where we honor those times for what they are? Our wisdom story this morning, the excerpt about the Skin Horse from the Velveteen Rabbit teaches this moral lesson: “…It doesn’t happen all at once…you become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.” Can we love ourselves, our friends, our neighbor, our world – in a way that honors those times in our lives that have spiritually or emotionally rubbed our hair off, and loosened our joints and seemingly left us shabby in the corners of our heart where we never thought would ever become shabby? Can we do so knowing that we can’t ever really be ugly, except to people who don’t understand? I love our nursery stories – they hold so many deep spiritual secrets we forget when we leave childhood; but come back around when we tell and retell those truths as adults to the next generation. “…It doesn’t happen all at once…you become. It takes a long time.”
As we imagine ourselves as a people of liberation, how do we hold these lessons of our own times of brokenness, in the light of those places and times of other people’s brokenness – especially when we might be coming to them at a time when we are whole, or full or prosperous in one way or the other? The great Jewish Theologian, Abraham Heschel answers this with the idea of “Holy Embarrassment.” In his compilation entitled, “Essential Writings” he takes a theological look at our world too full of disparity and poverty. He writes,
I am afraid of people who are never embarrassed at their own pettiness, prejudices, envy, and conceit, never embarrassed at the profanation of life. A world full of grandeur has been converted into a carnival. There are slums, disease, and salvation all over the world, and we are building more luxurious hotels in Las Vegas. Social dynamics is no substitute for responsibility.
I shudder at the thought of a society ruled by people who are absolutely certain of their wisdom, by people to whom the everything in the world is crystal-clear, whose minds know no mystery, no uncertainty. What the world needs is a sense of embarrassment. Modern man has the power and the wealth to overcome poverty and disease, but he has no wisdom to overcome suspicion. We are guilty of misunderstanding the meaning of existence; we are guilty of distorting our goals and misrepresenting our souls. We are better than our assertions, more intricate, more profound than our theories maintain. Our thinking is behind the times.
What is the truth of being human? The lack of pretension, the acknowledgment of opaqueness, shortsightedness, inadequacy. But truth also demands rising, striving, for the goal is both within and beyond us. The truth of being human is gratitude; its secret is appreciation.
When we look at the disparities in the world, we often are raised to respond to whatever comparative privilege we have in one of three ways: indifference, guilt or shame. Indifference teaches us to just ignore it. …Some have, some don’t, and whether it’s right or not, it’s not for us to change it. Maybe we don’t know how, so we ignore it. As others have said from time to time, for some of us living a life of comparative privilege for so long makes us experience actual equality as a form of oppression – why are people taking away what was once normal for me?
For others, we were raised to care, but we associated feelings of guilt or shame that could just as easily paralyze us with inaction. I care about their suffering, and I feel bad about it, but I’m so focused on my internalized sense of wrongness about it that I can’t adequately respond. I think Heschel may have the answer in holy embarrassment. Not guilt, not shame, not indifference, but a sense that we didn’t mean for things to be this way and we ought to make them better because we are embarrassed, or maybe sometimes mortified, in the face of the absurdity of a world of such abundance that allows for such disparity of treatment and resources. And for those of us who were raised in religious communities that carried extra baggage around notions of guilt or shame – finding new language and new ways of honoring and helping to resolve others’ places of brokenness during our times of success – can make all the difference in our ability to be a people of liberation. Can we mature into news ways of action?
Sometimes guilt or shame are the proper response to our actions – but if guilt or shame freeze us into uselessness in the face of others’ pains, if guilt or shame block us from remaining engaged, then maybe we can follow Heschel’s advice and seek to be embarrassed, if it will enable us to do more for our neighbor. As Heschel reminds us, “… truth also demands rising, striving, for the goal is both within and beyond us.”
Guilt or shame from a place of comparative privilege is one thing. We’re not actively complicit in the world’s wrongs, although there may be things we ought to do to make the world come closer to realized justice. What about those of us who go beyond that? What about all the hate, all the active malice, we see alive and well in the news every day? Maliciousness goes beyond a holy embarrassment – at least for the perpetrators. Maybe there, guilt or shame, is a necessary step on the road to justice. Not every sin can be so easily washed away. Hatred, when it roots deeply enough, seeps into too much of our world, and much work needs to be done to heal its damage. We don’t do well by anyone, by pretending otherwise.
Why hate? Why is there so much hate? As we strive to remain engaged in the work of building the world we dream about, over the long haul, we often come to a place where we need to face the rampant hate that infects too much of the world. But why is it so? James Baldwin has one answer that although may not answer all the questions of hate in the world, I feel offers a better answer than I can come up with. He writes, “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”
Baldwin is right. Beneath hate, lies unacknowledged pain. It doesn’t excuse away the horrors that come from the hatreds that are allowed to live into the world, but it does frame them for what they are. Remaining engaged sometimes means helping people, who we don’t find easy common cause with, to come to turns with the pain hidden beneath the surface of their skins. To help them accept their places of brokenness, so that the holy words that once were written on the tablets of their hearts, are allowed to finally fall silently into their inner core and change them, to change us, for the better. Sometimes brokenness weakens us; sometimes brokenness makes us more human. Hatred can be the infantile railing against the pain of our brokenness, but it never succeeds in making us whole once more; it only ever succeeds in spreading our brokenness everywhere we go. When you find hatred within, take note and pause long enough not to spread it any further. It may be the hardest thing we do, but it’s sacred work; remaining engaged, through it all.