Posts Tagged guilt
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.
This sermon was preached on 9/6/15 at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington. It struggles with the gospel of productivity and consumption while reflecting on the holiday of Labor Day.
The end of Summer always seems to remind me of my early childhood. I was just turning five when my family finally moved out of our apartment and bought a home and moved to the suburbs. I’d start kindergarten in a few weeks, and I was just meeting the neighborhoods kids. This was back in the days when parents would let you roam around the neighborhood as long as you were with a group of kids, and there were some older teens that took responsibility. What was normal then, would probably get today’s parents a visit from social services. Times do change.
We lived across from a church and a middle school so there were a lot of public parks and sports fields in eyesight of our yard. For a five year old, it seemed like it was as big as the world. I was with older kids, and away from my parents (a few hundred feet) for the first time in my life (5 years and counting), and the day lasted forever. Everything was so new. Newness can stretch time out for what seems like eternity. I remember that late Summer day feeling like it lasted all season. I had nowhere to be, nothing I was responsible for – and that might have been the last time in my life when those two statements were still true – nowhere to be and utterly no responsibilities – and time stretches out.
When was the last time you did something for the first time? My inner five year old saw that first time of nominal freedom to be the most awesome thing in the world. A month later, I don’t recall liking the idea of my first day of school too much. What was the thing you last did for the first time? For me, it was during our recent honeymoon this Summer. Brian, after much cajoling, managed to get me to agree to go snorkeling with him. I knew it would be beautiful – but I’m not a good swimmer. (And by not a good swimmer, I mean, at our recent UU Fahs Summer Camp, I failed the swimming test that most of our 8 years there could pass. Imagine the line of 8 year olds asking how you did swimming, and when you told them you failed, they all said – “How, Rev. Jude, what happened?! You couldn’t have failed! We all passed?!” …So sweet.)
But beyond the logic, snorkeling in the ocean just terrifies me. I never had done it before, and there’s a real reason why for most of us, it’s probably been a long time since we last did something for the first time. It’s scary. But I finally did it. It was gorgeous. I didn’t get eaten by any sharks. I didn’t drown. I only suffered a few kicks to my face by kids swimming nearby – who of course were not only not terrified, but they were having the time of their life. “Yay we’re in the ocean!” Kick-in-face. ….But, when you turn away from the reefs and the coastline, and you look behind you, you see what seems like infinity. Ocean going further than one can fathom…. and then you turn back to the cute sea turtles and you still know, deep down, that infinity is right behind you…. There was a way in which time stretched out forever there too. Intimations of the fullness of life; realizing how reliant we are on this world and the people around us. Helplessness and newness can trigger those moments of lucidity. …Until the nearby kid kicks you in the face again, … and you know it’s time to go back to the boat.
None of this lasts forever. My five year old self – after that day that seemed to stretch to eternity – ended with Mom calling me back home. “It’s time for dinner. Did you have a good day? Are the neighborhood kids nice?”
These memories stand out. But I think they’re so vivid, and so rare, because we live in and we’ve developed a culture where work, production, busy-ness and responsibility are central to our lives. There’s stuff that needs to get done, we need to eat, and have a roof over our heads, and care for one another. That’s all good and necessary. I don’t mean that. I mean that voice inside you that tells you that you’re bad, or wrong or lazy, when you don’t fill ever waking minute with some new responsibility; or that boredom is a bad thing (oh! to ever be bored again!) We might have to do all that. We might have to hold down three jobs, or we’re raising several kids and loving and nurturing them is a very full time job. I mean the voice that nags at us that our worth is tied to our productivity. That’s the wrong voice to follow. Most of us have that voice, I certainly do, and we too often forgot not to listen to it. And maybe some of us don’t have that voice inside us, but we have it coming from a loved one, or maybe just our boss.
The Union Labor movement that won us basic things like weekends, and a 40 hour work week, and the holiday we’re celebrating this weekend, was a social force that sought to correct that disparaging inner voice. And these days, with the changing economy, the weakening of wages for low and middle income workers, and the skyrocketing cost of higher education – many of us probably do work more than 5 days a week and more than 40 hours a week. The last I heard, the average American is working 47 hours a week. That is not likely to change soon. Though we may need to do what we simply need to do, we don’t have to accept current affairs as also speaking for our moral compass. The often quieter still inner voice – that silence that points toward eternity – tells us that our worth is grounded in something entirely different; in our relationships, in our connections to the immense world around us, in our times when we stop doing, in making more space for trying to do something new for the first time again. At the end of a long Summer day, mom (or dad, or maybe Spirit) is still going to call us home to eat and make sure we’re cleaned up, the basic necessities will ever and still need to happen – but the worth of the time in between is counted by another measure than cogs, widgets and to-do lists. We often know that in our heads, but we don’t always allow that to sink down into our hearts. We need to let it sink into our hearts.
At the start of a new school year, and the time when most of us won’t see any vacation for seasons, there’s a strong drive to fill our calendars and our day planners with work, and chores, and errands, and sports, and obligations, obligations, obligations. Some of that will always happen – little way to stop it. But how different would those schedules be if we first sorted out what our spiritual priorities were before pulling out our pen? Does family time come before or after the things of the world – career and obligation? Does dinner at home together come first or last? Is our Sunday School – pretty much the only place in our lives anymore where our kids get to reflect on ethics, morals, values and virtues in a structured intentional way- does it come first or last in any week? How do you give back to the world – to those who are marginalized or treated unjustly? Is that the first thing we find time for, or the first thing we drop when the crush of productivity makes its demands?
A culture of productivity over spirituality, or one that raises busy-ness over relationships, not only impacts our home life, our neighborhood’s character, and our capacity to be open to that deeper Presence – that spirit of peace that rests in all things and between all moments. It also changes world events in tremendous ways. I look back at our world of production and accumulation that fueled the Industrial Revolution and Western Imperialism. It taught us to use and abuse our world’s resources to get ahead – for profit or for convenience. There’s a way in which this connects or contributes to more than just the environment. I’m thinking of the seemingly countless number of Syrian refugees fleeing a war torn country – as hundreds of thousands of lives are lost or harmed. I’ll share now some brief words from a colleague of mine, Rev. Jake Morrill. Jake is a Unitarian Universalist minister and one of our military chaplains.
He writes, “Carbon-based energy use brought climate change. Climate change, plus agricultural mismanagement by the dictator Assad, brought drought to rural Syria. Drought sent rural Syrians cramming into the cities. A surging urban population brought political instability. Political instability opened the door for the nightmare of ongoing war, including the evil of ISIS. That nightmare, leaving hundreds of thousands dead, brought Syrian parents to the decision that it was worth it to put their babies in overcrowded small boats on the ocean, because a high-stakes gamble that their children would live is still better than no chance at all. Those decisions have brought the world’s largest refugee crisis since World War II. To those who wonder, “Why don’t they go back?” One response is, “Back to what?” Another is, “This is the consequence of climate change, coming full circle. It turns out our gas wasn’t so cheap, after all.””
I think we’re past the point of pretending the culture that tells us forever onward, and upward in a world of limitless resources is a sane ethic. I think we’re past the point of pretending environmentalism is only about trees, and fish, and birds. For me, if that’s all they were about it would still be one of our most pressing moral concerns. But environmentalism, and global climate change, is increasingly showing itself to be a matter of international security as terrorist cells grow and develop faster in areas where climate change has radically changed economies and subsistence practices. Or the humanitarian crises we see over and over again – as we remember 10 years later the tragedies Hurricane Katrina brought to New Orleans. All of life is connected; we are all connected; and our challenges and traumas are increasingly connected.
I was raised learning that Labor Day is a national and secular holiday. I’m not sure I think it’s that any longer. I think it’s becoming one of our most vital spiritual holidays when we internalize the message that consumption, work and perpetual advancement at any cost – are spiritual maladies on our souls, our nation and our world. Stop. Take a step back. Raise our kids to respect one another, the plants and the small critters. Model for one another taking time to be, rather than forever do and do and do. Learn to honor silence, and learn from boredom without seeking to fill it with noise or action. Religion teaches us, or tries to teach us, that times of pause and quiet – of prayer and meditation – are key to finding our centers. Making time for dinner with the family might do this too. These practices can change culture. And from the stories of trauma and tragedy in the world around us, we deeply need to change culture.
This month, we as a community will imagine what it means to be a people of invitation. Where can you imagine leaving room to invite quiet and stillness into your lives? Where can you imagine leaving room to welcome family, and community and spirit into your schedules first rather than last? It is my fervent hope that the world finds ways to help welcome the many refugees and immigrants fleeing nightmares into our safe neighborhoods. What does Long Island need to do to become a people of invitation? What changes can we make in our everyday lives that could make space for a need so great?