Posts Tagged Childhood
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 10/16/16. It explores our endemic culture of misogyny, and how our theology can help us through to a new creation.
When I was a child, one of the worst insults another kid could make toward a boy was to say they acted like a girl; or threw like a girl, or ran or walked like a girl. “Man up”, meant toughen up. Being a guy meant being strong, and loud, and taking up space. And the barbs would come from boys for sure – but those barbs would also come from girls. It would be engrained by implicit actions by adult men, and by adult women. As kids we would voice aloud the stuff that we would quietly live by as adults.
It’s sick. It’s a sickness in our culture that strives to denigrate half our population in order to apparently lift up the other half. But it only does so in appearance. When boys and men are raised to think masculinity has only one form, we box in our boys’ potential as we diminish the worth of our girls. No one wins; everyone loses. The pain is merely felt differently for each of us; but the pain is real. And although we’re all diminished, girls’ and women’s safety is put up as the gamble.
And it continues well on into adulthood. The worst excesses get normalized as harmless ‘locker room talk’, when what is actually being bantered about amounts to sexual assault. But we don’t have to go to that extreme to see it in our daily lives. At work, or at our Fellowship, note who takes up room in discussions. Note how we are trained and raised to speak or not to speak. Who gets to repeat the same tired point over and over until folks are beaten into submission, and who struggles to whisper their view even once? Misogyny is a sickness, and we’re swimming in it – we’re swimming in in so some of us normalize it, some never notice it, and some are being killed by it.
We’re living in a culture where several women can accuse a public or political figure of sexual assault, and a mainstream media pundit/newscaster (Lou Dobbs) will punish them by tweeting out the women’s home address and phone number. If we wonder why women do not speak aloud in a timely manner after being assaulted, we only have to look to that to know one of the reasons. How is that even legal?! We give the whole public direct access to the potential victim of sexual assault. How traumatic that is for the victim. But there’s also a way in which that punishment for speaking out gets felt by all women, by all victims of sexual assault (not just women.) They’re put in their place – once again. Misogyny is a sickness that demoralizes, victimizes, and sometimes kills.
Theologically, misogyny is another form of Original Sin. We don’t need to have done anything to be infected by it. Men, women, all people raised in our culture must deal with its imprint on our psyches and on our souls. We’re born into, infected by it, and live lives that replicate the systems of abuse – knowingly or unwittingly – even if we’re also victims of it; because we’re all victims of it. But even if we’ve done nothing to deserve the sin of misogyny, in order for healing, we need to address it. For some of us we’re victims and a whole range of support systems may need to be relied on for healing, for safety, or for justice. If that’s true for you, and you need help, please reach out, and our Fellowship will help in every way we possibly can.
Some of us have internalized it so much, that we contribute without knowing the damage we do – in some ways large, and in some ways small. If I go back to my childhood – being a guy meant being strong, and loud, and taking up space. The flip side meant that being a girl meant being weaker and being a door-mouse. When we find ourselves living by either of those false truths, we need to seek to push ourselves to break free from that bind. Binding lies, break our spirits, harm our world, and risk our lives.
And for the men in the room, we need to do better. We need to be a little more believing of women who say they are in danger. We need to be a little more gracious with the space we dominate. We need to be less permissive of supposed “locker room talk” when we hear it. Women become less safe, and men become less human, when we pretend that language that perpetuates sexual assault is harmless in our personal fantasies. It’s not harmless; it doesn’t further the peace; it doesn’t make space for women to be themselves without fear of harm. We have to do better.
A month ago, I spoke at length about the theology of James Luther Adams and his concept of the five stones. He was one of our Unitarian theologians who was physically active in trying to stave off the rise of Nazism in Germany before he moved back to the States. After many requests, I promised I would work through each of the stones in successive weeks. In short regarding the piece about the five stones, he was looking at the story of David and Goliath and reflecting on what the 5 stones David used would be in modern language to combat oppression. After today we have one more to cover, but today, I want to focus on the 4th stone in Adams’ theology. That precept paraphrased is: “Each child that’s born is another redeemer — we are all potential sources of good in the world and each have a role to play. Goodness happens in relationships with one another.
Each child that’s born is another redeemer. Theologically, what does that mean for our culture? If every child that’s born is another redeemer, then misogyny is a lie. We’re not better than any other soul because of the happenstance of our birth. Any ethic that lifts one group over another is a spiritual lie that erodes our conscience and diminishes our humanity. Each girl that’s born is another redeemer, and we ought to treat one another appropriately with care and support. Our common humanity is wrapped up in the common redemption of all people. Each of us has the potential to redeem the broken corners of our world.
We just came through the Jewish High Holy Days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. On Tuesday evening, we celebrated the Kol Nidre service where we sought to admit our failings, and atone for the harm we’ve brought into this world – through our actions or due to our inactions. There was a quote in the service that comes from an 18th century Chasidic proverb. “Keep two truths in your pocket, and take them out according to the need of the moment. Let one be, “For my sake was the world created.” And the other, “I am dust and ashes.”
This wisdom speaks to us based on where our ego and where our sense of self lie. When we’re allowing the world to step on us, and destroy our sense of worth, we need to remember that for our sake was the world created. When we’re doing the soul-crushing of another we need to find more humility and remember that we’re dust and ashes. Misogyny confuses the world into thinking those two proverbs apply distinctly based on gender; as if the world were created only for men, and women were but dust and ashes. If that feels extreme, take a closer look at how men and women are spoken of in the general public, on the schoolyard, and in your work meetings. I don’t think it’s that far off how culture functions at its worst. And it functions at its worst far too much.
But if each child that’s born is another redeemer; if we each have worth and we each having a saving agency to bring to Creation, then that potential for goodness is inherent. That potential for goodness also obligates us in the face of a world full of struggle. If we have agency, goodness obligates us to use that agency for the betterment of one another. To do otherwise is to turn our heads from another’s needs; to become complicit in systems of oppression and indifference that churn through the lives of our children and adults, and through our own lives. The demand this fourth stone places upon us is the perennial question: Do I live into this holy work? At times of hardship, it may be enough to simply try to survive, or to heal. But when we have the capacity to ease the suffering of those around, goodness obligates us to live into this holy work. At those times of strength, living into this holy work means taking seriously when another speaks up about violence or coercion done to them. And to be sure, when we’re going through those times of hardship, living our authentic self is the first step to living into this holy work.
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 9/7/14.
I grew up watching a lot of TV. Cartoons after school, the best ones were on Saturday morning. But when I was very young, before I went to grade school, I got to watch some of the old black and white shows my parents grew up watching. They were on during the day. Remarkably, many of the shows from the 1940s and 1950s were still on Nickelodeon until 1999. One of them was called Lassie. It was about a really smart dog on a farm. This collie would help out everyone on the farm, and although she couldn’t talk, always seemed to be able to communicate if someone was in trouble or need. “What, Lassie, the cows are out of the pen?” “ What, Lassie, a kid is lost?” Possibly the most famous or most well retold was, “What, Lassie, Timmy fell down a well?” I was never sure how the family always seemed to know what Lassie was saying, but I still liked the show. I imagine some of us here have really fond memories of it as a kid, or maybe even as an adult watching it with our kids.
But I’ve recently learned through the wonders of social media, that the line most of us may attribute to the kid’s show “Lassie,” was never said. “What, Lassie, Timmy fell down a well?” Timmy never fell down any well. The only person to ever get trapped in a well on that show was the collie, Lassie, herself. The helper needed help. But in the retelling, people time and time again, assume the caregiver is always the caregiver. The one who saves, always saves. It’s like we can’t ever be broken, or cracked.
Remember the story of the Waterbearer from earlier in the service? Sometimes we can get really focused on the cracks in our vases or buckets, that we don’t see where they can be of value – or how they may help us or the people around us – or how they play into the bigger world around us. By a show of hands, who here often feels like they have to be perfect – to have to cracks – to never let any water spill. Ok, look around (that’s a lot of hands.) Ok, put your hands down. Who here expects the people around them to be perfect all the time, to never show their cracks, to never let any water spill? We all know some people who seem harder on others than themselves, but that seems to be less common, plus we never know what’s really going on inside their heads, maybe they’re really quietly rough on themselves.
Why are we normally so much harder on ourselves than we are on others? We can beat ourselves up real well. Why? Some of it is about our ego. We hold up our sense of self-worth so high, that any mistake we make that makes that picture of greatness less than perfect, is something we focus on again and again until we can erase it so our ego looks shiny again. I doubt many of us think or feel this way on purpose, it just happens. That’s kind of a faith in our ego, or our false sense of perfection. And that’s something that our principles teach us against.
What does our first principle say? (Inherent worth and dignity of every person, and some may say every being. In our classrooms we often just say, “everyone is important.”) Do we all agree with our first principle (can I get some nods, hands, amen’s, or even hear-hears!) Well, I’m going to ask us all to have a little faith in that first principle. Sometimes, that’s what religion is about – trusting in a teaching or a value even when you might be having a hard time seeing it or feeling it. Just because you’ve lost faith in your worth despite our imperfections, doesn’t mean it’s true. Just because the kid at the next table during lunch hour is being mean to you, doesn’t mean they’re right. When people are mean to you for little reason, it’s normally much more about them than it is about you. And this religion teaches us that we have value, we have worth, despite our little cracks, or our mistakes, and especially regardless of what the mean bully (of any age) may tell us. People are always going to share their opinions, but they’re not always going to be right.
So sometimes Lassie is in the well, sometimes the caregiver needs help. Sometimes, we’re not perfect (usually in fact), and sometimes our cracks help something else grow like in the case of the water bearer. When we feel rough, or bruised, or tired – where are those places that feed our inner wells? Where’s the water come from that the water bearer is carrying? Many of us brought water forward earlier symbolizing the places in our lives that nourish us. How do we build those wells in our lives? How do we make sure they’re close to home?
Think about those places in your lives that feed you. What is it about them? Is it the community or friends? Is it the scenery? Is it a sense of peace, or ease, or just a place where you have no responsibilities? Maybe it’s the sense of history? Some of us may have brought water from our local summer camp, Fahs. If it’s anything like another camp I’ve gone to for years, Star Island (cue the slide change) (six miles off the coast of New Hampshire) I bet it’s a place where people are acting their best selves; it feels safe; there’s chances for fun, for challenging yourself, for growing up, a chance to rest, – it’s probably a beautiful spot too.
All these things nourish ourselves. Rest, good people acting well, safety, fun, challenge, growth and beauty. Getting away, traveling to places like this, are definitely important and worth doing. Sometimes we just need to get out of the routine of the every day to get back to ourselves; to see the world anew. But the truth is, those wells that nourish our spirits, are in our backyards too. The garden house that feeds our vegetables, and encourages our puppy “Lola” to play, leap and get muddy, is a well too. And not just for her. Sometimes allowing the silly into our lives may not be efficient, or clean, but it can remind us to have fun. That it’s not all about being serious, or diligent, or working hard. The muddy dog, wet from the garden hose foolery, is the very image of turning that-which-is-a chore into something rejuvenating – something nourishing – even if it means that maybe the puppy can’t come inside anytime soon. I can hear my fiancé say, “Lola is not allowed on the couch!”
The trick, or the challenge is to allow those places like Star Island or Fahs Summer Camp to be allowed into our lives the rest of the year in small ways. To look at the routine in new ways and turn it into something different. I recall as a kid hating Sundays in the Winter. All that was on TV was golf (ugh) and it was too cold to play outside, and we didn’t have computers when I was young (gasp), and I was an only child. The very image of boredom! Now a-days, with job, school, and volunteer efforts taking us in so many directions, I wish for boring days at home! It’s how you look at it. Boring isn’t always such a bad thing, and sometimes it’s good for us to learn how to be a little bored and comfortable with it.
There’s often the drive to pretend all those places of nourishment are far away, or only available at another time. In the Winter we hate the cold and in the Summer we hate the heat and humidity. We wait all year for a great vacation (if we can afford the travel) pining for the warm beach, and finally when it comes, by the end of the week or two we’re sometimes pining for home. They’re all normal reactions, but they’re all a little crazy too, right? Building those wells that nourish us, wherever or whenever we are, is the religious practice. Universalism teaches us that wherever else Heaven may be, Heaven is also on Earth, here and now. We only need to be open to seeing or feeling it. To not saying that Heaven is some place else that I have to wait to get to. Fahs Camp and Star Island are awesome places, with a community we love to spend time with. And that community, in large part, is literally here too – all year long. For the lovers of Fahs (we have something like 60-80 from our community there every year), (and I look forward to finally getting there next Summer for at least a few days), for the Fahs lovers, I challenge you to bring Fahs here as much as you can. To be your best self in this community, as this community has been its best self at Fahs. To make this Home a bit of the places of paradise you’ve found elsewhere. It’s already here; even if we can’t always see it.
And one last reminder, especially for those that aren’t yet convinced that it’s ok to be silly from time to time, or playful with our garden hoses. Eventually, we’ll all dry off. Even the muddy puppy, will be clean again. And let back in on the couch.
This sermon was first preached for our 7pm Christmas Eve service in 2013.
When I was a child around Christmas time, I remember getting into my pajamas at night and laying down on the carpet of our den and listening to the 24 hours of Christmas. It was a radio station in my area that was taken over by the holiday – probably the same in many areas – that would play Christmas music straight through with no commercials. It was so important to me that I would ask my parents to record it on cassette tapes – a relic now from another time. Each year, I wanted to somehow capture the feeling of Christmas, and the little kid in me was sure recording the sounds of the holiday would help me to hold onto the spirit of the holiday a little bit longer.
There’s a classic Calvin and Hobbes cartoon from my childhood that is just a single panel long. The picture of the boy and his tiger shows them curled up asleep in front of the fire. The words read, “Christmas Eve — On window panes, the icy frost – leaves feathered patterns, crissed and crossed, but in our house the Christmas Tree is decorated festively, with tiny dots of colored light that cozy up this winter night. Christmas songs, familiar, slow, play softly on the radio. Pops and hisses from the fire whistle with the bells and choir. My tiger is now fast asleep on his back and dreaming deep. When the fire makes him hot, he turns to warm whatever’s not. Propped against him on the rug, I give my friend a gentle hug. Tomorrow’s what I’m waiting for, but I can wait a little more.” That closing line sums up the childhood feeling for me. I’m waiting for tomorrow to happen, but I’m also happy being here now – waiting.
In some ways I was already experiencing nostalgia alongside the childhood joy. But mostly I just didn’t want it to end before it began. I was excited about the toys, but I was also looking forward to the religious services. Midnight Mass was a powerful thing for me as a child. I felt like it was opening up sacred doors to view a glimpse again of something I was not here for – the first time around. Maybe you could call it the opposite of nostalgia – hoping to witness what had already happened. Pining for a time or an event we had never seen for ourselves.
As an adult though, I wonder if each of us doesn’t witness the scene at the manger after all. Maybe we touch the spirit of it, in between the silly and the serious, as our children reenact it at our pageants. Maybe we glimpse the Star of Bethlehem in our own way, as we light our candles to Silent Night. The rituals and our traditions bring us back to a time we didn’t get to see ourselves.
Sometimes though, we relive this moment in unexpected ways. I feel like some of us witnessed the Christmas miracle again just this past weekend. From Monday’s New York Times, “Like Black Friday shoppers, Ms. Campolucci and dozens of others began lining up on Sunday night, bundled up with sleeping bags, hand warmers and down jackets to fight the snow and wind. They huddled together with hot tea and coffee, ducking into running cars to warm up before reclaiming their spot in line.
“We’re just waiting with bated breath,” said Amy Wilson, who is seven months pregnant and spent much of the night outside the offices of the Salt Lake County clerk. “We’re not missing this — it’s not happening.”
Ms. Wilson said a marriage license would mean that she and her partner of seven years, Emily Eresuma, would both be recognized as the legal parents of their daughter, with each of their names listed on the birth certificate. In case they could not get a license, they had been exploring out-of-state adoptions and other costly measures to ensure that they would both be the girl’s legal guardians.
After a cold night, Ms. Wilson and Ms. Eresuma married at 8:20 a.m. It was a quick ceremony in a stairwell, with Ms. Eresuma’s brother performing the rites.” For this modern family, a miracle occurred in the most mundane of places, a stairwell. The most fitting Christmas present I could imagine.
Those are the stories that give me that warm Christmas glow now as an adult. In essence, it’s the messages of hope and perseverance we encounter in the most unexpected places – and for the most unexpected people. Christmas is not about the risen Christ – that comes later in the Christian story. It’s not about power or privilege – unless we’re talking about how power is overcome or or privilege is let go of. It’s not about the heroes or the rulers. Unless by hero you’re looking to a mother, a son, and an adoptive father who are travelers, are homeless, and weary from the road. It is in exhaustion and insecurity that Mary and Joseph show the world a different path to follow.
That’s the part of the story that resonates the most for me as an adult. Maybe it’s the opposite side of the coin that we get in the Calvin and Hobbes touching cartoon, but they’re both true. Sometimes we approach Bethlehem from the story of compassion, and sometimes we come to the manger from a place of loss – of hoping for hope. Both are there – both are worthy.
Our earlier reading, “The Shepherd Who Stayed” is yet another way to enter this story. “Thieves in the wood and wolves on the hill, My duty was to stay. Strange though it be, I had no thought to hold my mates, no will to bid them wait and keep the watch with me. I had not heard that summons they obeyed;
I only know I stayed. Perchance they will return upon the dawn, with word of Bethlehem and why they went. I only know that watching here alone, I know a strange content. I have not failed that trust upon me laid; I ask no more — I stayed.” Sometimes we’re not called to goto the manger. Maybe we’re born of another faith, or no religious tradition at all. Maybe we see Jesus as a great teacher, a holy man, or a prophet, but not the son of God – or at least not any more a child of God than the rest of us. I don’t believe that keeps us outside the heart of the Christmas story. The story is not about believing any one thing. It’s not necessarily about being ready to travel across the world with our gifts of gold or myrrh. Sometimes it’s just about seeing, as the poem says, “The hillside seem(ing) on fire”, it’s about feeling “the sweep of wings above (our) head(s).” It’s leaving space in our lives for wonder, for awe. It’s about living our lives as we feel we need, with integrity, but making room to witness the moments of sacredness between all the moments of busy and fuss. And in those moments of sacred wonder, allowing the message to infuse our being. Allowing the message to teach us that salvation, or peace, does not come from power, or privilege. We find it when we value what the manger scene shows us – A mother, a son, and an adoptive father who are travelers, are homeless, and weary from the road.
In the year to come, remember this night; remember that star over Bethlehem. When you are exhausted from the long road to wherever you are going, remember you are not alone on that road. If you’re trying to piece together a family of your own making, remember you are not alone on that road. If you’re struggling to make ends meet; to find that next job; to keep a roof over your head – remember you are not alone on that road. All these stories, all our stories, are in tonight’s story. And when you go back into the fuss and busyness of the frantic year – when you hear people say the poor deserve what they have – remember this story and know that message is false. When you hear people say, we shouldn’t be concerned about affordable places to live for others – remember this story and know that message is false. When you hear people say that a family should always look a certain way – remember this story and know that message is false. The kings and wise men of the world will come later to the creche, but the animals, the shepherds – the lowest among us – are the first to witness this night.
This sermon was first preached at the UU Fellowship in Huntington on Sunday, October 6th. It explores the theme of Helplessness through the lens of trust. There’s a strong focus on advancements in medicine and the spiritual implications of cancer.
On Monday night I enjoyed attending an awards dinner hosted by the Cancer Research Institute. They recognize patients who have beaten the disease, and they award the scientists and philanthropists who make it all possible. This Institute focuses on Immunotherapy. It’s research helps the body combat the disease on its own. It’s also the organization where my fiance is the Marketing and Communications director.
My table had one scientist and two families who had members who survived cancer. One was a mom who went on to birth two children who are now 2 and 5 years old. The other family were the Whiteheads, whose daughter Emma, “a six-year-old girl from Pennsylvania with end-stage leukemia whose life was saved by an experimental treatment, an immunotherapy that turned her own immune system into a cancer-fighting army.” “She was near death; she had relapsed twice from chemotherapy,and doctors had run out of options. Desperate to save her, (the NY Times writes) her parents sought an experimental treatment at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, one that had never before been tried in a child, or in anyone with the type of leukemia Emma had. The experiment, in April (2012), used a disabled form of the virus that causes AIDS to reprogram Emma’s immune system genetically to kill cancer cells. The treatment very nearly killed her. But she emerged from it cancer-free, and about seven months later is still in complete remission. She is the first child and one of the first humans ever in whom new techniques have achieved a long-sought goal — giving a patient’s own immune system the lasting ability to fight cancer…” and just this week, she went for her 18 month check-up.
I can’t imagine what that family must have gone through. Cancer is never easy on anyone – it’s never easy on any family. Some of us are dealing with cancer in our congregation today. We lost a long-time member, Laura Costello Sorge, a little over a week ago to one form of cancer who was only 62 years old. But it is particularly hard trying to imagine the sense of helplessness and confusion that a 6 year old child would be challenged with. She’s had a lifetime (in fact in her whole life up to that point) being cared for by a loving family. Holding on to as much cheer as she can, and gifted with an abundance of energy the rest of us would envy. But she’s been cared for up until this time entirely by her family. At six, she has no agency. She has no ability to make life-decisions on her own. She’s learning about the risk of death in the most intimate way possible. And she’s not at the steering wheel of her own life. She can keep up a great attitude, but her wellness is completely dependent upon others making the best choices they know how to make. Fortunately, in this case, she has one amazing set of parents – and some great doctors.
Emma aside, the same goes for every baby that comes into this world. They aren’t able to control, choose, or understand much of anything. I know, some of you parents out there are saying I’m wrong – that at 2am that baby has complete control over your life (and at 4am, and 6am and… and…). But the infant may be able to influence adults, but the child has no agency themselves. If we walk away, they are helpless. Emma wasn’t going to get well on her own. Spiritually, what can we learn from that deep place of helplessness?
We can learn that helplessness isn’t inherently a trauma. We are each born into it, and someday each will return to it, but it’s a natural state of living and being alive. Do we approach helplessness as the infant? Having moments of wiggles, having moments of fear, having moments of confusion – but always knowing and trusting the source of life that brought us here? Or do we forget the lesson of the infant? That we’re alone; that there’s no one to help; that helplessness means tragedy? Tragedies of abuse aside, we learn to trust others through our helplessness.
Trust – one of our most crucial virtues- means nothing if we always have control and power; if we’re never reliant upon another. Trust also teaches us how to be human. Because helplessness is the normal state of affairs in life. We don’t make ourselves breathe. We don’t bring ourselves into this world. We don’t control the factors of chance or luck that make us thrive or wallow. We are helpless before the love of others, or the lack of love of others. We can’t control our parents’ failings as parents or their successes. We can make the most of our talents, but we didn’t put those talents there, nor did we earn the fortune or poverty of our upbringing. Infancy taught us to trust in the face of helplessness as if our life depended upon it – and it did. And it continues to depend upon that trust this very day.
If we can’t let go; if we can’t occasionally be powerless; if we can’t lean into trust with another human being – we’re living as less than human. We’re a cog in a wheel that must always turn just the right way. Always produce; always succeed; always win. But never be alive. Be grateful for our moments of helplessness, as best we can, for they open up opportunities to rest in the arms of another loving force that’s all the harder to see when we pretend we’re perfect.
Emma’s story has another side to it that was deeply and personally very moving for me. “To perform the treatment, doctors remove millions of the patient’s T-cells — a type of white blood cell — and insert new genes that enable the T-cells to kill cancer cells. (According to the NY Times) [t]he technique employs a disabled form of H.I.V. because it is very good at carrying genetic material into T-cells. The new genes program the T-cells to attack B-cells, a normal part of the immune system that turn malignant in leukemia. … A sign that the treatment is working is that the patient becomes terribly ill, with raging fevers and chills – a reaction that oncologists call “shake and bake….”. I’ve lost a teacher, a mentor, friends and even two former boyfriends to that ugly disease, HIV. Knowing that virus … might actually be able to be used… to give some 6 year old girl her life back… is immensely healing for me. That science can turn around something so harmful to bring about life, is amazing.
The science also brings a metaphor about helplessness to light. Our child patient will not get healthier without appearing to get worse for a time. The oncologists’ termed “shake and bake” is horrifying to witness as a parent. Your child is on a ventilator and unconscious. She is as helpless as the parent feels. It’s in this state of helplessness that the body heals. It’s in the weakening of the body, that the body learns to kill what is killing it. The helpless child learns to beat one of history’s nastiest killers (Cancer), after being taught how by another one of our nastiest killers (HIV.) There is no amount of usefulness, or productivity, or power that will help all the Emma’s in the world learn how to heal themselves; it’s in the place of weakness that they learn strength.
Of course, helplessness does not mean victimhood. It doesn’t mean to learn to seek out places of weakness, or abuse, or violation and stay in them. When there’s an abuse of power in the relationship, helplessness becomes victimhood – and there is no virtue there we need to nurture or seek out. Learning to trust what is worthy of your trust is the spiritual virtue.Learning to deserve another’s trust is also a spiritual virtue. It’s in the exchange of trust and earning trust that we are more fully human. It’s in this exchange that we bring our talents and gifts fully to bear in this world.
Sometimes we feel like we’re helpless when all that’s changed is how easy things feel, or how much influence we have in the world, or we no longer wield the same power we once did. That’s not helplessness. That’s change, or letting go, or making room for another to have the same chance you did. When we have more power than the people around us for a very long time, it’s a form of privilege. In letting go of privilege we are not weaker for it, or discarded, or less relevant. We’re being more fully human. In our interdependent world, we are more spiritually alive when we allow others to fill the shoes we once did – and to do so with grace. Newcomers (regardless of age) will need good mentors who have made room for them (regardless of the mentors’ age.) The infant who has grown into adulthood isn’t making the parent irrelevant – they’re simply living their life as they were meant to. Roles change with time. Youth and beginnings fade away. Helplessness and inexperience give way and transmute into something else over time. Life does not tarry in yesterday, nor do all roles remain eternal.
Helplessness can teach us much. It can also keep us stuck in life. If we’re the type of person who loves to be relentlessly useful (a phrase I routinely borrow from our District Executive, Andrea Learner), we’ll love to enter situations where others are relentlessly helpless, or who simply would rather be cared for in all things. It’s a quality that challenges me personally. I am too often relentlessly useful. As a spiritual community we are called to challenge that when it becomes complacency; or when it deters us from following the responsible search for truth and meaning. Being helpless and being stuck are not the same thing. We should strive to learn from the first, and grow through the latter.
If you approach your congregation, or your family, or your job perpetually as the person who’s always got the answer, the only one that could do something right, or you just know in your bones that no one else will step up if you step back – you might be guilty of being relentlessly useful too. It doesn’t mean drop all of your responsibilities, or walk away in disgust that someone does something slightly differently than you would have. It simply means taking a step back, over time, and learning to be a resource. It’s an opportunity to experience new things; to learn new skills; or maybe that other lesson that we learn from childhood that we often forget as adults – to play some more in life.
This sermon was first preached on May 10th, 2009 for Mothers’ Day. It’s not your typical Hallmark card.
Happy Mothers’ Day! … I make this brave assertion with some trepidation though. I never know what to presume from days fraught with such weighty expectations. We’ve navigated the complex family systems annual gauntlet of Thanksgiving, Christmas, Passover and Easter and can see the light at the end of the tunnel that is Memorial Day weekend. And then wham! May has yet another potentially awkward-sit-down-for-a-big-meal holiday too! And this one I somehow have responsibility for.
I long for the simple days where my relationship with mom shifted between wonderful and fitful, based solely on how tired or hungry either one of us were. Depending on what lens I use, that ended somewhere between five years old and twenty eight. Although, I’m suspicious that these patterns still undergird all of our conversations.
I’ve never been truly satisfied with Hallmark’s extensive series of suggestions on how to adequately express one’s gratitude for being brought into this world; in my case raised well with more opportunities than either of my parents have seen, while honestly lifting up the tensions, challenges, and short-comings along the way. I’m more inclined toward humorous cards like the Snoopy one that reads, “You’re the glue that keeps this family together, That’s a nice way of saying you’re stuck with us! …” because it’s at least accurate. But it doesn’t capture the entirety. The curve of my smirk holds appreciation for a mom who staved off the costs of childcare by going to work nights after dad came home so I would never be alone, yet who was absent at my ordination this year. I imagine that we have as many equally varied stories this morning as we have people here today. I know some of these stories are memories of our mothers who since have died, or the joy of being a new mother.
Our reading this morning is another such story, from the mindset of a mother of five, who was contemplating divorce and navigating rehabilitation from cancer. It’s an intense story of cascading difficulties that far exceeds the everyday. Yet, many of us will know people facing similar and sudden challenges. Some of those people will be us. Everyday. …
I know many of us have Tim Barger, fellow congregant and UU seminarian, in our prayers as he recovers and rehabilitates from sudden spinal surgery in Magee Rehabilitation Hospital, in Philadelphia. I am not myself in conversation with Tim, but the frequent Facebook updates, comments and discussions are looking up. Some of us may be thinking of Marge Odessky, who’s memorial was last Sunday. I could see from the many who shared their stories of Marge, that she showed us how one could be a mother to many in this congregation who are not her children.
I can barely imagine what it would be like to be faced with the prospect this anonymous mother was challenged by. Challenged is probably not even the right word; what she was threatened with. Able to deal well enough with the daily stories of relationships, children, work and community service, this mother reflects, in the extreme, the tentative nature of our security.
She gives us a vision of a street corner where we all reflect on our lives to this point. At times still feeling like children, but with far many more responsibilities to bear. Working with children as I do, I often see the hearts of kids in the faces of grown adults. It makes me wonder how different we actually are, despite what we like to convince ourselves. I sometimes think that’s what makes it harder for some adults to relate to children – we’re not willing to admit how similar we still are.
I believe this mother offers a path of hope in the face of the absurd. I see how she teaches us both to be a little more insecure in our security, and to be more secure in our insecurity. The suddenness of her situation is the classic reminder of how precious health is, and how easy we go about forgetting just how delicate, and how little controllable, it is. How she rises to cope and prosper is remarkable. It’s also very ordinary.
She recalls, “Finally, I said to myself, ‘Well, here you are and there’s no place to go. It’s time you brought a little help into your life.’”
In twenty small words, this mom summed up the entirety of religion, of what it is to be human, the very heart of all the ministry we will ever do. Whatever our individual situation is, we too are standing with her on that street corner. For some of us, unlike our story’s narrator, our loved ones will in fact come down to meet us. Whether we stand alone or in the midst of dozens, the task of religion is to help us all to be willing to let others in.
In many ways, living in New York City sends out the opposite message. In the midst of millions, we try to stave off the stranger because it’s simply just too much to take all in at once. The irony of the City dweller is that many of us choose to live here because we seek the density, or the diversity, or the intensity of human connections and opportunities; and still we so often push against the depth of our human connectedness. Insecurity, shame, or a particular sense of propriety all serve to buttress our isolating walls. As Unitarian Universalists, this communal and covenantal faith seeks to help rebuild those ties that remind us of our human relatedness and our very human need.
Her little prayer, “that the Lord will send me someone to help me along the way on my subway journey every day… and that He’ll send someone that I can share my faith and my strength with too. Both things…”
is far from little. How healing a prayer this is! It acknowledges that we are in need of one another. It is full of hope. And it is within this need, that we recognize that we too have faith and strength to share. Some of us will struggle will the outward reach for help. Others will prefer to help as many as they can, so long as no one notices their own hidden needs. And there are those who can not see that they have anything to give. This prayer is medicinal for all of us who find any of these statements too close to home; whether you pray to God, or you change the words to reaffirm your relationship with the living world.
There’s another thread in her story that I feel we rarely lift up. So often we speak as though blindness equated with ignorance. Her parable of the birthday cake, and the blind boy who stopped being attracted to a girl when he was told she was unattractive is quite telling. “…When you begin to see with that inner eye, that inner eye everyone has, it all changes. Everyone is human, everyone is God’s child. Everyone is helpless, one way or another, and everyone is helpful too. We’re all here for each other….”
The bodies we are born into, or the circumstances that change them, are both limiting and instructive. This woman who lost her sight for a time learned to see people differently – and I would contend that from her writing she learned to see them more clearly. She has known the difference. These lessons are not limited to disabilities. Anyone who was less than popular in childhood or youth, was given a firm yet difficulty opportunity to extend the kindness to others that they did not receive. They have known the difference. Anyone who has experienced the injustice of oppression, whether it be because of gender, race, sexuality or gender expression, have a different lens in which to view the injustices perpetuated on others. They have known the difference. The list could be exhausting – class, wealth, weight, health, or education to name even more. “Everyone is helpless, one way or another, and everyone is helpful too…”. We remain helpless and unneeded only so long as we choose to pull back our hands. We are not alone.
There’s a poem by Jill-Beth Sweeney Schultheis that I find to be a powerful reminder of this message called “Fragility/Divinity.” It reads: “We are fragile. We are not broken. We are imperfect. We are not flawed. We are curious. We are not confused. We are vulnerable. We are not weak. We are of this earth, and yet the divine lives in us. When I feel as if I’m going to break, I am the most human. When I embrace my fragility, I let you into my imperfect world.” This is the liberal religious tradition of which we are a part. This is my faith. Fragility, imperfection, curiosity, and brokenness are what make us human. We are not weak because of these qualities – we are alive because of them.
Coming to terms with our insecurities deepens our security. Security, in the spiritual sense of the word, is not the ability to control our circumstances. It’s not what makes us safe; it’s what makes us whole. Security is achieved when we hold in tension the lessons of our first and seventh principles. The first principle is where we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person – and I should clarify that every person here does in fact include ourselves, but it is not limited to just ourselves. The seventh is where we appreciate how we stand in relation to the living world. We are all connected and interdependent. Held in tension with each other, these principles point toward a living web that can catch us when we are falling, and strengthen us as we build up community. As our anonymous mother tells us, “There are ups and downs, of course. You start blind and you reach out. Sometimes there’s nothing to hold onto, but you still reach. Then you learn to hold onto whatever you get. Then you find someone’s hand and you take it. Then you see you can reach and hold onto someone else.”
The mother in this story started out seeing herself as independent and she ended up seeing herself as interdependent. I struggle to see myself like she does.
The words from the African lullaby prayer we heard for our offertory are beautiful. “Oh God of the sunrise, as I have given of myself to my babe, wilt Thou watch over and protect him through the night. If he awaken when the sun greets the earth, he will grow to be a man and will take upon himself the responsibilities of a man in the world.” I pray that every day we awaken to this earth and this sun, may we each grow to be human. May we take upon ourselves the responsibilities of a people in this world. May we know that this stewardship entails a reaching outward and a letting in. That we hold ourselves up as we hold and lift one another. May we know that we are living into our responsibilities when we choose to live more fully with our neighbor; when we choose to open our hearts and lives to another. I pray that we can accept a sense of security that focuses less on control and more on relation. In so doing, may we all be surprised by a newfound joy, that can not be found on our own.
This sermon was first preached at First UU in Brooklyn for Mothers’ Day on May 9th, 2010.
“I had never seen anyone use a lanyard or wear one, if that’s what you did with them, but that did not keep me from crossing strand over strand again and again until I had made a boxy red and white lanyard for my mother…” the poet Billy Collins reflects in the poem we heard earlier this morning. I’m not sure if I knew what a lanyard was as a kid, and to be quite honest, I’m still a little unclear. But I get the creeping sense it wouldn’t be in my mom’s top 10 things she could use. The ever practical child I was, (and continue to be guilty of to this day,) I would only craft something for my mother that she would rely on and … that I could easily explain what it was. One early notion of “rely on” happened at a local neighborhood summer day camp when I was about 8 years old. Armed with ice cream sticks, glue, and blue and white paint – I crafted the most necessary napkin holder – one that no mother could possibly be without – and gave it to my mother.
The sky blue lightweight but efficient piece of art was accented with an overabundance of puffy white clouds. I don’t recall the exact rationale for the clouds, but I do believe it being sunny out had something to do with it. It was kind of steepled with a vertical rise (going up and down) where one could place unused napkins – as appropriate to the intent of my creative genius. I was really, really proud of my work. My mom kept that holder out for years. From time to time it would disappear, particularly around major holidays – my mother had a knack for decorating – and the blue and white would otherwise clash with the red and green or the purple and yellow or the orange and black of certain months that happen like clockwork in the Geiger household to this day.
I was shocked though, one year when I came home from college and saw my sky-blue-with-clouds-napkin-holder sitting right out in the open on the kitchen table. Not only did it survive for at least a dozen years, but it also strategically migrated to the kitchen when it knew I might be around for a visit. I was torn between being really touched at my mother’s thoughtfulness and having a dawning realization that the napkin holder’s habits might be remarkably similar to the migratory practices of that beige tie my mom gave me a decade ago – that tie that goes with nothing. It might have been moments like those that I realized I was now an adult.
Our story this morning spoke about the toys we love that endure beyond breaking. Somehow that napkin-holder I made defies logic with its ability to survive the decades kept together with just glue and paint; … and I fear that beige tie will last even longer. But the Skin Horse in our story is ugly and worn from love. Its tail’s been pulled out to string beads, its hair and fur is in patches leaving smooth bald spots behind. Long lived, a bit tired for wear, and possibly one of the most precious and treasured things in our memory; the Skin Horse is a little like all of us.
“When a child loves you for a long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real” said the Skin Horse. I wonder if that’s how a lot of us feel. Those of us with children get to see first hand sporadic moments of love mixed in with a whole bunch of moments best described simply as “wearing.” They both come with the territory of family. We often rub the wrong way the things in our lives that we care so much about. Proximity, closeness causes friction – it causes conflict even as it brings out love. Some of us are fortunate to have more fond memories than rough ones and some of us are not.
Some of us without children might feel a sense of loss with this story. It speaks of the cultural draw toward parenthood. The classic tale reminds us that there’s something awesome about having children (and there usually is,) and that in some way we might feel like it makes parents into something more Real than those of us who never get to parent – even while pointing out how exhausting a job parenting can be. Being halfway through my 30’s with no easy path to parenthood in sight, I can relate to this drive. For me, I’ve decided to find my way into the role of our story’s Skin Horse through other forms of parenting. I find myself “mothering” or fathering in my case to our whole congregational religious education school. For me, it’s a really simple metaphor since I get the joy of supporting and collaborating with eighty or so children and youth every year (not to forget about 40 teachers); but it’s a connection that I feel fits really well. My instinct for parenting toward the future just gets to look a little different than most of yours.
As a Unitarian Universalist – I know that diversity has a real value to it. I know that difference adds to this world. Not having children of my own may not match with our traditional cultural values, but my religious values remind me that there’s a world to be learned from it. How we embrace our human need to parent, to nurture is important – but it doesn’t need to look the same for all of us.
For our mothers-yet-to-be who might be struggling with a sense of loss (and clearly this goes the same for our fathers,) struggling with a sense of lacking, or a sense of frustration at not fitting the norm of parenting – know that I’m not really sure there is any norm to parenting. Our families here at First UU come in so many varieties from single parent, to dual home, to mother/father, to mother/mother, to adopted, to multi-racial, to single home, to multi-generational to husband/husband. For some of us, the families are solely the ones we carefully weave together as adults. While others only know the joy of being a big brother or big sister. The norm here is that we barely have a norm. I think many of us know this in our heads, but the truth of it in the middle of the night may be hard to reach our hearts. Sometimes I believe our faith teaches us to embrace difference in others; sometimes I feel it’s more about embracing our own. It seeks to meet us where we are and help us figure out how to hold each other up when we need holding.
I’ve been amazed at the Skin Horse’s wisdom. When asked how does becoming real happen, he answers, “…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.” As some of you may know, I have been marrying quite a few couples of late. Occasionally, one couple will choose this story to be one of their readings at their wedding. When friends hear this, there’s usually a little exclamation of surprise. It’s this quote that I lift up to explain why. It’s not only a road map for how toys, parents and children get loved – but it’s solid advice for marriage. Love needs to wear away sharp edges. The snazzy, fine and sharp toys may look great, but they tend to be kinda hard to hug — and that’s sometimes true for people too.
It’s true for congregational life as well – not just blood relations – but this broader family we call First UU. Take a moment and consider how easily you might break as the story goes? Do you find yourself needing to be carefully kept ever? Because maybe your holding on to how things once were? That might be a way of protecting some really vital things – or it might be a way of trying to stay shiny and new when our kids are calling for something well worn and recklessly loved.
In New York City, so much of the world around us, so much of our work world, so much of our struggle to get the right grade or into the right school or the best Pre-K program out there depicts a world of seeming and hoped for perfections that are so frustrating even when they’re achieved. I wonder if many of us came here today to carve out a little home where we can store our toys, our treasures, our hopes and dreams by the nursery fender knowing that someday Nana will come by to pick us back up and return us to our resting place for the night – well worn and recklessly loved. To stop, to feel the joy of the everyday, to be Real for ourselves and with each other. For me, that’s the essence of religion and the hope of my faith. To be grateful for those who have helped us get here today, and to give ourselves the time to be a mother of our own to the love before us.
This time last year we had already been enjoying about two weeks of snow, blizzards and a general sense of the classic wintry wonderland. This year I think it was December 5th before I realized that October was over. On my way to my parents for Thanksgiving, I was dodging a late waking bee for about two blocks with my bags swinging foolishly in the air. Somehow I managed not to get stung; but the bee had a tenacity that matched the spirit of early autumn’s lingering warmth. The seasons seemed a bit mixed up, and neither I nor that bee had a good sense of what time of year it was supposed to be.
The long-lasting warmth has made for a really odd season for me. Beach worthy weekends in late September; trees that stayed green in my neighborhood well into November; and the last of the yellow leaves falling outside my studio only two weeks ago. All having the cumulative effect of letting the winter holidays (and this blizzard today) sneak up on me unprepared. Although Duane Reade had Christmas decorations for sale two weeks prior to Halloween, somehow I didn’t hear a Christmas tune until Glee’s holiday special.
…When did we stop being kids…? It wasn’t when we turned 18, I’m sure of that. How old were you when you first realized you let slip something that your inner child never would or could have? … What were you doing when trembling anticipation first became sedate? … Was it when your first kid left the house? Or when a sibling passed away? Or was it when you realized you were still single well past the ages your parents had you? Or maybe you’ve figured the secret to eternal youth for your inner kid. (If so, bottle that and hand it out at coffee hour weekly please.) …Are we OK with the change in timbre in our quaking soul, or do we try not to look at it aside from the corners of our vision?
To a certain degree, we grow older, and we need to mature. Life’s experiences grant us insight, wisdom into the borders of things; borders like the dual edge of anticipation and obsession. We need the more sober view of the passing of years in order to measure out and balance all the difficulties, joys and complexities of life as adults.
But I wonder what else comes with putting our inner kid to bed. Does a certain part of us go to sleep as well? Do we lose our sense of wonder? Do we close ourselves a bit too much to everyday magic and awe? Do our views and perceptions become too jaded, … too practical, … too starchily useful? I think it’s the fastest way to let bone weary exhaustion set in. Exhaustion in the existential sense – tiredness with the passing of the seasons and cycles; rather than rejuvenation from the rebirth of times and holidays.
In traditional earth-based spirituality we just crossed through Yule, the winter solstice. It’s a holiday that directly faces this perennial existential challenge. It’s a time of reflection, of new beginnings. Matching the symbolic birth of the Sun as our daylight hours only become longer and longer with each passing day following Yule, it’s a holiday that asks us to consider what we hope to rebirth in our lives. It asks us to rebirth our spirit in the face of the cold long night. I’d like to share with you a poem a friend of mine has written for Yule. I find it to speak really well to the challenge this season poses for so many in the face of all the merry and cheer. It’s entitled, “The Bare Bones of Winter” and it’s written by Elisabeth Ladwig:
“Out in the darkest night, the longest dark, appear the whitest stars against a black sky, joining the Moon in seasonal ritual of shadowcasting on the untouched snow. Magickally they manifest: Silhouettes of skeletons that shiver with the wind’s chill. To the maple I want to offer my warm coat, and to the sycamore, the linden, the oak. Come, follow me! My door opens to the bare bones of Winter… But unforeseen enters the evergreen, clothed in angelic light, greeting reverence with a promise… Of rebirth.”
Those trees that held onto their leaves this year tenaciously, are finally once more just bare bones outside my studio, outside our windows and along our walks. If we could but give them our coats to keep warm against the chill. Which among us this year relate more to the bare trees than the charitable traveler with arms full of generosity? Have we held on long enough to our last vestiges of yellow and orange, or is the silhouette an all-too familiar feeling come late December?
This poem gives me a new sense of the evergreen, of the Christmas tree. To be fair, it’s less new than a better pointing back to a very ancient meaning. It reminds us there’s another spirit we can clothe ourselves with. There’s a way to feel full beneath the wheeling of the seasons. A lit path to rediscover awe and reverence. It shines hidden behind the packages, the obligations, the commercials, the packed Home Depots and Targets and Barnes and Nobles on Christmas Eve. We make a practice of bedecking the greens and the halls with festive, and color, and light to make certain we remember to find a place for awe and wonder in our everyday spaces. To craft rooms where we can once more Fa-La-La lest we forever Ho-Hum. We do this in community because every year some of us will be able to sing the Fa-La-La, while some otherwise would only be able to mutter softly the Ho-Hum.
It’s an increasing challenge for me each year. Several years back my parents and I agreed to stop the crush of present giving this time of year. There were a bunch of reasons why we did so, but the most obvious was one year when we finally hit the point of spending Way-To-Much. The gift-giving truce has been an awesome thing for me. I don’t spend December fretting over the craze of consumerism; and for my family it’s finally simply about being together; something the holiday never really meant growing up – at least not that I ever saw or maybe realized.
Lighting our trees, warming our hearth fires, decking our halls could be a sign that gift-giving is coming. It can also be the gift itself. The lit pathway to the secret of a spirit reborn. A metaphor that maybe our leaves can remain green this winter; and what a glorious gala celebration that could be for our inner kids who might have been long at slumber.
Our hymn following this homily is a classic Christian reinterpretation of the Yule-time spiritual message. “In the Bleak Midwinter” the earth is as hard as iron and water is like a stone. Even though the version we’ll sing was re-crafted probably in the 1990?s, the lyrics still evoke a sense of barrenness. The bleak world outside reflects the inner world of our spirit; where the Christian Saviour is but a homeless stranger bringing the hope of the world in the most everyday of places – the setting of wood slats and strewn hay. Can we take a moment in our minds to deck those bare walls with garlands gay and singing? Can we take that message and that image with us in the year to come? Can we be-speckle the corners of every dry spirit we come into contact with, especially if it’s our own? Can we let our neighbor help us? Can we offer ourselves that wondrous gift before the trembling bare bones of winter?
I believe our community choir this evening is a really remarkable example of this religious expression. The community choir can also be one more answer to all these questions I just laid before us. As many of us who feel the draw; coming together in a shared spirit; singing for feeling, for joy, for camaraderie. We’ll sound just as wonderful as we let our hearts be large for one another. As this vespers service is a bit different from our traditional Sunday morning ritual; allow yourselves now to be present through the cadence of song, meditation and prayer following this shorter homily. Will you please join with me now, rising in body or spirit, and sing hymn #241, “In the Bleak Midwinter.”