Friday, November 30, 2007

Gossip Column: Will Thom sing?

If you are in the Kansas City metro-area this Sunday morning (12/2) make sure you join us for worship at the Shawnee Mission UU Church at 10:00 or 11:30. I will be preaching on "The Spiritual Dimensions of Depression" but more than that I will be making my singing debut. Joined by Tom K. on acoustic guitar I will be singing a rendition of "No Depression in Heaven."

"No Depression" was a country song originally performed in 1936 by the Carter Family. The song originally referred to the Great Depression. Over the years it has been covered by numerous artists. (Click here to listen to version of it as sung by Sheryl Crow.)

However, the most famous version of the song was the one done by Uncle Tupelo. This band, based in Belleville, Ill. and fronted Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy, recorded and toured from 1987-1994. Although heavily influenced by punk-rock, Uncle Tupelo played country music in order to find success within the St. Louis music scene. What resulted was a brand new genre of music: alternative country.

When Uncle Tupelo broke up, they spawned two important groups. Jeff Tweedy would go on to front Wilco, an experimental alternative rock band that has since released 6 studio albums as well as collaborations with Billy Bragg and the Minus 5. Their 2002 album "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" would go on to make Rolling Stone's list of the top 500 albums of all-time.

The other half of Uncle Tupelo, Jay Farrar, would go on to front Son Volt, a band that would stay closer to the alternative country formula and record 5 full-length albums including the brilliant 1995 release "Trace", the under-rated 2005 "Okemah and the Melody of Riot", and the brand new album "The Search."

I can't wait to sing on Sunday!

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Sermon: "Is Mother Teresa a Candidate for UU Sainthood?" (Delivered 11-25-07)


The reading comes from a new collection of writings by Mother Teresa entitled, Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the “Saint of Calcutta”. While the words of Mother Teresa below may sound surprising, they are not the product of some muckraker trying to discredit her. The book is edited by Father Brian Kolodiejchuk who is leading the case in the Catholic Church to recognize Mother Teresa as a saint.
Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me, the child of your love? And now I’ve become as the most hated one, the one You have thrown away as unwanted, unloved. I call; I cling; I want: and there is no One to answer, no One on Whom I can cling – no, No One. Alone. The darkness is so dark and I am alone, unwanted, forsaken. The loneliness of the heart that wants love is unbearable. Where is my faith? Even deep down, right in, there is nothing but emptiness and darkness. My God, how painful is this unknown pain? It pains without ceasing. I have no faith. I dare not utter words and thoughts that crowd in my heart and make me suffer untold agony. So many unanswered questions live within me. I am afraid to uncover them because of the blasphemy. If there be God, please forgive me. [I] trust that all will end in Heaven with Jesus. When I try to raise my thoughts to heaven there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my soul. Love – the word – it brings nothing. I am told God loves me, and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul. Before the work started there was so much union, love, faith, trust, prayer, and sacrifice. Did I make a mistake in surrendering blindly to the call…? [p. 186-187, I have taken the liberty to alter the punctuation because Mother Teresa used dashes in her writings in the place of distinct punctuation marks.]


Earlier this Fall, Leslie G. approached me after a worship service (or was it before a worship service?) and told me that she thought the recent media attention that had been paid to Mother Teresa was very interesting, and that she would enjoy hearing a sermon on her. In the frenzy of Sunday morning, where ideas and suggestions are more likely to overwhelm me than inspire me and those offering ideas are most likely to be met with a blank, panicked stare, I believe I responded to Leslie that I would think about it. But good ideas have a way of rising up, of resurrecting themselves days or months or years later.

What Leslie was referring to when she recommended I preach about Mother Teresa was a great volume of her private letters and diaries that have recently surfaced. These letters are surprising. In them, Mother Teresa confesses that she carried out her dutiful work for decades and decades, all the while feeling the absence of God. In her writings she speaks of the proverbial “Dark night of the soul”, only one that lasts not a night, but almost half a century. She writes of God’s absence, which she felt to such a degree that she, at times, went as far as to doubt God’s existence. I will say a lot more about this later, but this, I believe, is what piqued Leslie’s attention.

The sermon this morning will contain three parts. First, I will offer the briefest of overviews of the life of Mother Teresa, a cursory biographical sketch. Next, we will consider many of the ways that people have reacted to and criticized her life and ministry. Finally, we will engage with the mysterious reality that so much of Mother Teresa’s life was spent in utter spiritual desolation and abandonment, that when she searched for God she found emptiness.

Mother Teresa was born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu in Macedonia in 1910. She was raised an Albanian Catholic and grew up with some degree of privilege as part of a political family. The Balkans in that day were as violent and unstable as they were in the 1990’s due to ethnic and religious strife. At age two, she and her family survived a violent massacre that claimed the lives of many around her. Later in life, her father would be poisoned by his political opponents.

During her teen years, Agnes Gonxha decided to become a nun and at 18 she was accepted as a novitiate into the order of the Sisters of Loreto, a Catholic order that specialized in education. She chose Saint Therese de Lisieux as her patron and asked to be sent to serve in India. In 1928, at the age of 18, she set off with the Sisters of Loreto to serve in India where she would serve as a school teacher for the next 18 years of her life. Then, in 1946 on a train ride to Darjeeling, she had a mystical experience in which she heard Jesus speaking to her, telling her to leave the Sisters of Loreto and begin a new order working directly with the poor and the sick of Calcutta.

She spent the next two years working within the Catholic hierarchy to get permission to follow this calling. (In many churches, things tend to move slowly.) The new organization she formed was called the Missionaries of Charity. They lived among the poor and the sick street people of Calcutta, serving them directly. Their ministry was to the sick, the hungry, and the dying believing that all people were children of God and that God loved even and especially the lowliest.

For the next fifty years until her death, Mother Teresa headed up the Missionaries of Charity. Her order spread and became a worldwide movement with sisters in her order serving the world’s poorest and most destitute in dozens of nations. In 1979, Mother Teresa won the Nobel Peace Prize. She became recognized as a living Saint and continued her work until her death in 1996. In 2002 she was beatified by Pope John Paul II. Beatification means to be regarded as “blessed” by the Catholic Church. It clears one’s way for canonization as a Saint and those canonization procedures are still on-going as we speak. (Again, the point about things moving slowly in churches.)

It is intriguing to note the way that various people have responded to Mother Teresa’s life and ministry. She was definitely a figure of selfless humility and mostly did her best to stay out of the spotlight. She constantly worried that praise for her was really praise that was owed to Jesus Christ so she made herself small and referred to herself simply as an instrument of God’s love. She sometimes called herself “God’s little pencil.” Perhaps, in the absence of a larger-than-life personality it has been easy for others to project their own ideas onto her. She was neither a prolific nor an especially talented writer. She hoped her private letters would be destroyed, perhaps out of modesty, and later agreed to write books under the condition that her papers would be burnt. (Those who held on to her private papers didn’t keep their end of the bargain.)

To this day, Mother Teresa remains one of the most frequently misquoted figures of the 20th century. If you go looking on the internet, you will find all sorts of sentimental writings that claim her authorship. Most notable is a poem called “Do it Anyway” which was actually written by a guy named Kent Keith. Which is just as well, because it is a lousy poem.

But more telling are Mother Teresa’s many critics. Let me share three kinds of criticism that are frequently leveled against her. The first criticisms come from fellow Catholics, particularly Catholics who embraced Liberation Theology. Primarily Central- and South American, Liberation Catholics drew their inspiration from reading Jesus as a social radical and were also inspired by socialism and Marxist critiques of wealth and society. This school of Catholicism thought Mother Teresa was too much a part of the establishment. Her ministry, they said, amounted to treating cancer with a band-aid. They were calling for a radical reshaping of the social and economic order and thought that direct care of the poor and hungry without addressing the underlying reasons for poverty and hunger was in error.

Mother Teresa was also criticized by those outside of Catholicism. These criticisms came from extreme secularists as well as from religious liberals, and while these criticisms frequently overlap, they are distinct as well.

Leading the charge of the extreme secularists is Christopher Hitchens. Immediately following Mother Teresa’s death, he released a book that was a harsh screed against Mother Teresa. The book carried the tasteless title, The Missionary Position. But the book actually raised a number of important questions, ranging from the quality of medicine and medical ethics practiced in the hospitals Mother Teresa built, to questions about how Mother Teresa raised and used funds, to larger questions about how Catholic doctrine influenced for the worse her care for poor. A full decade later, Hitchens was still at it. In his most recent book about why religion is evil, the best-seller God is not Great, Hitchens finds three opportunities to take further shots at Mother Teresa.

His two most legitimate points of critique involve her flying to Ireland to speak in support of a law that would outlaw divorce, and her quixotic and harmful attempts to improve public health while simultaneously teaching that contraception is immoral. (Is it really unreasonable to suggest that the victim of domestic violence should be able to leave her spouse, or that condom use should be encouraged to stem the spread of AIDS across the Indian sub-continent?)

Religious liberals have also found opportunity to criticize Mother Teresa. After all, she chose to devote her entire Nobel Prize acceptance speech to condemning abortion. While not all religious liberals can be labeled as “pro-choice”, I am confident that most would be able to imagine situations in which abortion would be the best outcome of an unfortunate situation. And few of us would take seriously her claim that, quote, “Abortion is the greatest destroyer of peace.”

Religious liberals should also take issue with Mother Teresa’s adherence to Catholic doctrine on the issue of contraception. When AIDS is spreading rampantly, it is bad health policy following from bad theology to teach that condoms are evil.

We can debate and deliberate these matters as much as we like. We can weigh her decades upon decades of brave, self-forgetting service in the slums of Calcutta against our concern with aspects of Catholic teaching and criticisms of Mother Teresa’s method. We can do this. But, there is no chance Leslie G. would be asking me to give a sermon on Mother Teresa if not for what came to light months ago in her letters and private writings.

What do we do with a Saint who loses her faith? What do we make out of someone who spent her life surrounded with people with leprosy, tuberculosis, festering wounds… what do we make out of someone who willingly chose poverty and despair at its most extreme levels in order to live according to a faith that so often wasn’t there? And why does this appeal to us as Unitarian Universalists?

I think we often fall into the trap of assuming things about other people’s faith lives and belief systems that aren’t exactly representative of the reality of their faith lives and belief systems. For example, while we are the only Unitarian Universalist church in Johnson County, we are far from the largest Unitarian Universalist church in Johnson County. I would wager that there are more people who are theologically Unitarian Universalist at Adam Hamilton’s Church of the Resurrection in Leawood than there are here. And there are probably more people who are theologically Unitarian Universalist at many of the UCC churches in our area than we claim as members of our church.

But what about religious leaders? I think we tend to assume that religious leaders of such a magnitude as Mother Teresa are either completely convinced of their religious convictions or are charlatans and fakers. Whether we are talking about the Pope or the President of the UUA, the Dalai Lama or Jerry Johnston we tend to believe in this all-or-nothing stance. So, what do we do with Mother Teresa?

As we move towards the conclusion of this sermon, let me say just a few words about her crisis of faith. In the tradition of mystical spirituality, the hidden divine who refuses to be known or comprehended is actually a common occurrence. In religious scholarship this is known as “apophaticism.” A mysticism of God’s inability to be known. The proverbial “dark night of the soul” is also a familiar concept. In our own Building Your Own Theology class we talk not only of peak religious experiences – “I have been to mountaintop” – but also “valley” religious experiences, the development of faith that occurs in the depths of grief and agony.

But, in the case of Mother Teresa, my goodness, that is one deep valley. That is one long stretch to feel the absence of God.

The title I gave this sermon, “Is Mother Teresa a Candidate for UU Sainthood?” is a tongue-in-cheek title. But, perhaps what was so appealing and even inspiring to some of us about Mother Teresa’s secret writings is the fact that someone can express doubt about the divine and still continue to live out their faith in a passionate way.

Maybe that is the lesson for us to take away with us this morning: we are not the only faith that leaves room for doubt, that can truly say, in the words of a popular reading from our hymnal that we should “cherish our doubts, for doubt is the attendant to truth. Doubt is the key to the door of knowledge and it is the servant of discovery.”

Those confidential letters by Mother Teresa humanized her for me. I found myself able to empathize with her in a way I had never been able to before. All of sudden, Mother Teresa was not this angel on earth. She was not some larger than life abstraction. She was someone I could stand in the same room with. She was human. Just like us. Just like us. In Unitarian Universalism, we speak of the “Prophethood of all Believers” by which we mean the potential sainthood of all souls. I am deeply thankful for this reminder of human-ness in a life we might think of as so ethereal. How grand is that mixture of humanity and divinity!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Sermon: "Do we Still Have a Social Covenant?" (Delivered 11-18-07)

Call to Worship

With Thanksgiving coming later this week, let us begin the service this week by thinking back to the Pilgrims. In 1620, the Mayflower anchored off the shore of Cape Cod. Aboard the ship, the passengers agreed upon a set of laws that would govern them and they called this “The Mayflower Compact.” The Compact was written in the tradition of covenant, which, the Puritans believed, existed not only between God and humankind, but also between human beings. Part of the Mayflower Compact read as such:
“[We] solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one of another, Covenant and Combine ourselves together into a Civil Body Politic, for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance… and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and offices… as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the Colony, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.”
It may be appropriate to say that our nation began with an idea of covenant, and, more than that, with an idea that we each have a sacred responsibility to the civil body politic, to the general welfare of all. This morning we will wonder whether this can truly be said of our nation today. Do we have a social covenant anymore? Let us discern and discover together. Let us worship together.

Movie Clip
Before the sermon, I showed a film clip from “Sicko”, Michael Moore’s powerful documentary about the dark side of the American health care system. The clip I chose to show was of a hospital in California that practiced “patient-dumping.” Patient-dumping involves putting patients who are not profitable or unable to pay in a taxi and sending them to be dropped off near a homeless shelter. Following the footage, Moore’s voice breaks in and asks, “Who are we?... It has been said that you can tell the character of a nation by how it treats its most needy.”


Who are we? Who are we?

I have my own “Michael Moore” story. In the summer of 2001 I worked for Parkland Hospital in Dallas, a large county hospital that served the indigent of that city. Think of Truman Hospital here in Kansas City and you’ll get the idea. To this day, I consider the emergency waiting room of Parkland Hospital to be the scariest place I have ever visited on Earth. On account of its air-conditioning and free drinking fountain, it was actually a favored place for many of Dallas’ homeless. Imagine being so bad off that you would choose to spend the day in a hospital emergency waiting room. I have no idea if Parkland practiced “patient-dumping.” In fact, I met many of the head administrators of the hospital and found them honorable and decent human beings. But, anyone who spent any time around Parkland Hospital knew that many patients left walking, or limping on crutches, or sometimes in wheelchairs – and sometimes in hospital gowns – to cross a six-lane street and wander a few blocks down Harry Hines Blvd. to the homeless shelters of Dallas. So, even if you think of Michael Moore as being someone with a flair for the sensational, in this case I have with my own two eyes seen something comparable to what he shows happen on a daily basis.

This sermon is the fifth in a six-sermon series on “Covenant in Liberal Religion.” In July we explored the difference between a creed and a covenant, between creedal religion and covenantal religion. In August we examined the covenant of membership, of what we promise to one another as members of this church. In September, we talked about the covenant of the free pulpit and the free pew as essential elements of free religion and we also explored what covenants we shared to encourage one another to grow spiritually. In October, I preached on the covenant that exists between churches. But this morning, I want to expand our idea about covenant; I want to talk about covenants that are larger than those that we share with the people of this church or this faith.

The ancient Greek word for city is “polis.” “Pi – Omicron – Lambda – Iota – Sigma. From which we derive the word, “politics.” A politician, then, is one who helps to govern the city. The word political means “having to do with the city.”

So, if we were to ask the question, “should a church be political?” we would really be asking, should a church have anything to do with the city? And, let me expand this a little bit. In Ancient Greece, if I remember my humanities classes correctly, there was not really a concept of nation. Greece was a consortium of city-states. The city, the polis, was the largest grouping of human beings. In the Trojan War, Athens goes to war with Troy. That may seem like Atlanta going to war with Tallahassee – but cities were considered to be their own sovereign states.

If we say that the church should not be political, we are saying that it should have nothing to do with the city around it, or the nation around it. Which is an idea I completely, and absolutely, and resoundingly reject. Emphatically reject. Being political has very little to do with endorsing candidates. It has to do with claiming a voice in the city in which we live, the state, and the nation. It has to do with answering the question, “Who are we?” This is a religious question if ever there was one.

The aspect of covenant we are talking about this morning is “social covenant.” A covenant, I remind you, is a set of serious and abiding promises into which we enter with the whole of our beings. These promises are so serious and so demanding that it is accepted that we will never fully live up to those promises – we will fail them – but that when we do we will re-enter into the covenant, do our best to live up to it knowing we can never perfectly live it out.

The idea of social covenant, or contract, or compact, has two roots. One root is the Enlightenment. Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau, to name just a few, articulated ideas about social covenant. For Hobbes, our lives were nasty, brutish, and short and so there was a great need for social covenant to keep us from being our natural nasty and brutish selves. French political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote a book called Social Contract, in which he asserted the idea that a kind of democratic socialism was the best way to protect individual freedom.

But, the other root of social covenant is Biblical. When the Pilgrims aboard the Mayflower composed and signed the Mayflower Compact, they understood themselves as acting within the tradition of Biblical covenant. When they wrote of covenanting to combine themselves into a “general body politic” for their own better ordering and general good, they imagined themselves fulfilling a religious commandment. Of course, it should be noted that it was the 41 men aboard the Mayflower and none of the women who signed their names to the covenant. And, the covenant included only them, and not the Native Americans whose land they were about to set foot upon.

In the Biblical tradition, it is the Hebrew prophets who most passionately speak to an enlarged sense of social covenant. Some of the most well-known prophets call for justice in the community. Amos speaks against the practice of making the measure of wheat great and the shekel small, dealing in dishonest measures. He declares, “You shall not buy the needy for silver and the poor for a pair of sandals.”

Micah famously claims that the Lord is not impressed with ostentatious demonstrations of wealth, or fancy sacrifices, or showy piety. Rather, according to Micah, the Lord commands simply that we act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly.

The prophets did not just speak about how to treat one another within a given community. They also called for justice between nations. Isaiah calls for “swords to be beaten into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, and neither shall they learn war anymore.” And, I cannot recall who said it, but I think to a more contemporary elaboration on Isaiah’s words that after we have beaten our swords into ploughshares, we shall beat our ploughshares into kettles so that if we ever have need of swords we will first have to beat our kettles back into ploughshares before we beat them into swords.

Whether we derive the idea of social covenant and compact from Enlightenment philosophy or Biblical roots, I want to say a few words about what social covenant might exist for us today. Numerous social and political commentators have talked about the decline, even the death of social covenant. Looking at employment, they point to the decline of job security, pensions, health care benefits, benefits like maternity leave or child care, as well as the lack of a general sense of loyalty between employee and employer. In the governmental sector, they point to the weakening of the safety net, the abolishing of state and national programs to help the neediest and most vulnerable in society. In education, they point to the disappearance of music and arts in many schools and the declining investment in teachers. How many of you have had to do private fundraising to keep a music program or club alive?

I am thankful to have grown up in a phenomenal public school system, the result of living in an economically bifurcated town in which half the town had tremendous wealth and the other half was a mix of working class and lower-paid professionals who together had the voting power to keep taxes high. The town had some of the highest taxes in the whole state. But my second grade teacher had a Ph. D in education. My high school English teacher had a Ph.D. in English literature from Stanford. My high school biology teacher had a Ph.D. in biology. My American history teacher had published articles about Native American history in scholarly journals. Six-figure salaries for public school teachers were not unheard of. When I think of social covenant that works, I think of my public school education. Which was not perfect. I remember that we were a school system that was part of the larger Boston area’s bussing program, which brought underprivileged students from the inner city to school systems such as the one I went to. I remember one year they decided to cut the late bus, which meant students from the inner city would not be able to participate in after-school sports, clubs, and other activities. In response to the threat of this cut, a large team of teachers collected pledges and ran the New York City marathon in order to keep the bus available to all students.

This story is inspiring, and at the same time, a bit troubling. Who are we? Are we a society that turns to bake sales to buy textbooks? That turns to garage sales to pay medical bills? That sends the sick away in taxis to be dropped off somewhere else? Who are we?

Last week, my colleague Peter Luton from Bellevue, Washington shared with me a wonderful story that illustrates the idea of social covenant.
The story involves a milk man in a small town who earns his living by going door to door each morning with a large jug of milk. For lunch, he stops in a sunny clearing and sets his jug on a rock while he unpacks his humble lunch of bread and hard cheese.

One day, the goat herder came by as the milk man was having his lunch. The milk man hollered a greeting which spooked one of the goats which sprang upon the rock and knocked the jug over, shattering it and spilling its contents. Not only would the milk man lose the rest of his day’s wages, but it might take up to a month to fashion another jug. How would he live without a month’s income? The milk man demanded the goat herder sell his goats to pay for the milk man’s losses. The goat herder responded that to do so would bankrupt him.

The two men went to the village judge. After hearing both of them plead their cases, the judge declared that is was neither the fault of the goat herder nor the fault of the milk man. To truly find out whose fault it was, he would hold a trial between the goat and rock. The judge sent his bailiffs to bring forward the goat and the rock. The goat came fairly easily. It took twenty bailiffs to carry the rock.

Soon, word of the trial spread throughout the village. The trial was to be held in the town center, and by the next day all of the townspeople had come to witness the spectacle of such a ridiculous trial. The judge ordered his bailiffs to seal all of the gates to the town center, trapping everyone inside. Then the judge spoke. “You have come to see a trial between a rock and a goat, which is a foolish thing. Thus, you have come to see me make a fool out of myself. The only fair judgment is to fine each of you a few coins for ‘improper thoughts.’” The money was given to the milk man who was able to purchase a new jug and continue his work.
We are entering an election cycle. We are a little more than 11 months away from a Presidential election, along with a whole slate of national, state, and local candidates. I would encourage you all, at minimum, to explore your religious convictions. How does the idea of social covenant speak to you? I would encourage you to pay attention to which candidates express a vision of a social covenant. How do they answer the question, “Who are we?” Better yet, I call on you to demand of them an answer to this question: Who are we? and Who ought we to become?

Then, perhaps, may it be said again that, “[We] solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one of another, Covenant and Combine ourselves together into a Civil Body Politic, for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance… and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and offices… as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of all.” Amen.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

The Gossip Column: Why is Thom Going to the South?

I will be spending the next week in two Southern cities. First, I will be traveling to Durham, North Carolina where I will be the guest minister for the weekend at the Eno River Unitarian Unitarian Fellowship. If you don't count the Virginia suburbs of Washington D.C., Eno River is the second largest UU Church in the American South (VA, NC, SC, GA, FL, TN, KY, MS, AL, and AR). I will be holding an organizing meeting with their young adult group on Saturday evening, preaching a version of my Indiana Jones sermon, and then meeting with ERUUF's leadership to do a workshop on how to make religious communities more Young Adult-friendly.

Then it is off to Louisville, Kentucky to attend the Summit on Growth hosted by the UUA Growth Task Force. This Task Force has invited twelve ministers of growing churches to come and share their learnings about church growth. I will be joined by the following amazing colleagues: Marilyn Sewell (Portland, OR), Michael Schuler (Madison, WI), Peter Morales (Golden, CO), Rob Hardies (Washington, D.C.), Christine Robinson (Albuquerque, NM), Victoria Safford (White Bear, MN), Liz Lerner (Silver Springs, MD), Helen Carroll (San Luis Obispo, CA), Kendra Ford (Exeter, NH), John Crestwell (Camp Davies, MD), and Ken Beldon (the newly forming Wellsprings Church in PA.)

Before the Summit on Growth, you know where I'll be making a pilgrimage:

Sermon: "I Need You to Need Me" (Delivered 11-4-07)

This Sunday’s reading was a poem by Robert Bly entitled “The Resemblance Between Your Life and a Dog.” Rather than reprint it here, you may find the poem here, here, and here.

A member of our church gave me permission to tell the following story:

Some years ago a friend of hers was faced with tragic circumstances. Her son had been involved in a horrible car accident and suffered a traumatic and life-altering head injury. As any good friend would do, our church member reached out to her friend and was rebuffed at every turn. The friend acted as if nothing was wrong, as if everything was normal. You could tell that the pieces of her life were falling apart around her, but even so, she shut her friends out from her pain. As a result, the friendship dissolved. The friendship now seemed superficial, almost false. What kind of friend will not share their pain with you? As you can imagine, from then on these two had a failure to connect. One member of the friendship refused to be her true self around the other person. When she was vulnerable, she put up walls and kept the other person out.

I distinctly remember a time in my early twenties when I experienced sudden vulnerability. It was also a car accident and at that time I was the intern minister at a church in suburban Dallas. I found myself stranded with a long commute, no automobile, and no means of acquiring one. I remember feeling a sense of shame and embarrassment with having to ask for a lift, with having to ask my internship supervisor for money from the minister’s discretionary fund so that I could rent a car until I figured out what I was going to do for transportation, and with having to go to my parents for help securing reliable transportation.

My internship supervisor said something insightful to me when I confessed my shame and embarrassment. He said, “This is why human beings live together as families. This is why they come together in communities and in churches.” This is why we form bonds with others, why we create community.

When he said this to me I was taken aback. “Of course, it was so obvious!” That is why we have things like families, like community. It was so obvious – and I kind of had to search myself and ask, “What was it about this moment of pain and need, what was it about this moment of necessity, that caused me to shrink inwards, to cut off, to distance?”

The sermon this morning is really an exploration of this question. It is premised on a couple of statements that I hold to be intellectually true. The first statement is this: When you are having trouble, when you are sinking, when you have need – that is the most important time to reach out for help. The second statement is complementary: Giving somebody permission to help you, to really help you, in your moment of need is one of the greatest gifts you can give to another person. Both of these statements are intellectually true, but harder to live by, at least for me and maybe for you.

And so I want to explore these statements a little bit. I want to explore why our actions are so often the opposite of what we might admit intellectually. I want to speak about the forces that cause us to distance in our moment of need and not to accept the hands that may reach out our way.

When I was thinking of a title for my words this morning I began humming the tune to that old Cheap Trick song. “I want you to want me. I need you to need me.” I could have just as easily thought of the Peter Gabriel song “Love to be loved” where he uses almost the same formula. “I need to be needed… like to be liked… want to be wanted… and love to be loved.” The musical choices are endless. I might have chosen The Beatles singing about getting by with a little a help from their friends, or, more obviously, “Help! I need somebody. Help! Not just anybody. Help! I need someone. Oh, please, please help me, help me.” Or, the good times, the bad times, I’ll be on your side forever more, that’s what friend are for. Or, as we’ll sing later in the service, “Lean on me, when you’re not strong.”

Pop music trivia does not count as advanced theology, but there seems to be something primitive, something innate and primal and natural, about these songs. Which is not to say there aren’t songs extolling the virtues of independence. Simon & Garfunkel’s “I am a rock / I am an island / and a rock feels no pain / and an island never cries” is just one example. But please notice: the Beatles did sing about help and did not sing, “I get by just fine, friends. Thanks for asking. No, really, I’m okay. Please leave me alone.”

So, if “all our lives we are in need of others” as George Odell puts it, and we each have a need to be needed, as Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick puts it, then what exactly gets in the way? How do we explain the turning away? How do we explain refusing to ask for or to accept the helping hands that are offered to us?

I am no psychologist, but I would tender a guess that modern psychology has pathologized neediness to a greater extent that it has pathologized independence. (And, no I have not consulted the DSM-IV in making this claim and no insult is intended to the many here more adept in psychology than I.) But, it occurs that we often talk about dependency issues and even co-dependency – a need for others to need us – as abnormal psychological categories. Dependency is often a term used to indicate addiction. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anybody saying, “That person has an independency issue.”

When we pay taxes, our government gives us tax breaks for the number of dependants living with us. They are such a burden, those dependents. If you tried to get a tax break for the number of independents living with you, you’d surely get audited. There is this mixed message going on. On one hand, we see emotional dependency as a diagnosable condition and economic dependency as a lower state of being. On the other hand, there is this primal sense that says that we all need others and that others need us. Which is it?

Turning to the Bible, we find dependency clearly in its passages. You don’t have to go very far in to find the first needy character in the Bible. It is the first character in the Bible: Adam. Now, I know that this story is problematic for many reasons. Just as Genesis 1 has been used to justify environmental degradation and unsustainable relationships with other living beings, so has Genesis 2 been used to justify every sexist and heterosexist argument known to humankind. But it is telling just how quickly need comes up in this story. In Genesis 2, God makes Adam. God gives Adam everything he needs to survive. It is not enough. Adam turns out to be utterly needful of others.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of sexist ways to read Genesis 2. And I don’t want to dismiss those readings. You can read it, as many have, in a way that suggests that a woman’s reason to exist is to serve and satisfy the needs of men. But that is a reading I want to resist, because I think that the meaning is more general than that, and more profound. The general truth that I believe is evident in these earliest chapters of the Bible is that we all have need for others and that we all have a need to be needed. Alone, the garden is a lonely place.

These truths are obvious to me. They are evident. I hear them and I say, “well, duh.” So what gets in the way of us understanding this? Why do we not accept our vulnerability? I think there may be a couple of reasons for why this is.

The first reason comes from our Unitarian theological tradition that has long upheld individualism. Unitarian Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote about Self-reliance, and told people to “refuse the good models and go alone.” William Ellery Channing wrote about something called “self-culture”, a complex concept that told us that our genius and our strength should come from inside ourselves. Channing said, “There is no moral worth in being swept away by a crowd.” In Unitarian Universalism, you build your own theology. These ways of thinking, I would argue, often lead us to deny that we need others.

Individualism is not the sole province of Unitarian Universalism. While it may have been the Unitarian minister Horatio Alger who coined the phrase, “pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps”, that is far from the only individualistic saying out there: “If you want something done right, do it yourself.” “Where there is a will there is a way.” There’s also my favorite feminist quotation, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” And just go to any bookstore and check out the “self-help” section. I’ve never seen an “other-help” section. These kinds of examples seem to be very prevalent throughout American culture.

And, I think they are particularly prevalent in American suburban culture, which emphasizes privacy, the insulation of discreet family units, and the keeping up of an image no matter what might be happening inside. I dare anyone to drive through an economically disenfranchised neighborhood in Kansas City, Kansas or Kansas City, Missouri. What you find is what I call “the culture of the front porch,” where people sit in rocking chairs or lawn chairs and look out at what is happening to their neighbors and on their streets. Then drive around your average neighborhood in Johnson County. The houses around here don’t have front porches. They have backyards and decks. This makes it hard to make yourself visible, put yourself out there, let others know what is going on in your life. In your daily living, are you more of a “front porch” type, or “back deck” type?

In the poem by Robert Bly that we heard for our reading, Bly suggests metaphorically that we imagine that in our lives we will be like winter sparrows – impervious to the cold, flying free. (Like the words of another pop-song about independence, in which Nelly Furtado sings, “I am like a bird, I’ll only fly away.”) But, though we may aspire to a sparrow-y life, Bly tells us that our life will come to resemble that of a dog. When it comes to that time where we are road-weary, hungry, and cold we will come to the door and beg to be let in, fed, and warmed by someone other than us.

In Admire the Moon, her book of poetic meditations, UU minister Mary Wellemeyer uses a different image. Here is a short sample from the poem “Country Waltz:
Contradancing, in lines
to old timey music,
Lots of laughter
and changing of partners


An invisible window may open sometimes,
With a rush of feeling.
Not so much sexy,
As intimate
and somehow dangerously delicious.
Is this dance an entrance
to a more luscious life?

As we wind down, I want to tell you something. Sometimes I think there are two types of sermons. There are those sermons that the preacher knows so well and lives so seamlessly that the preaching comes effortlessly out of this faith and conviction. And then there are those sermons that a preacher gives because they feel like they need to remind themselves of it. The sermon is being preached to the preacher as much as to anyone in the congregation. That is the type of sermon this one is. Vulnerability is not something I excel at. Revealing my needs is not always easy for me. I aspire to front porch, but I’ve got some back deck in me. I know I’m like the hungry dog, but think I can live like the flighty sparrow.

To get better at this requires practice. And practice begins with acknowledgement.

So, I would like everyone to begin with something easy. First, I invite everyone here to be silent and to think to themselves of something that other people depend on you for. What needs do you serve? [Pause for silent reflection.]

Next, we’re going to get a little bit more difficult. I invite everyone here to be silent and to think to themselves of a need that you have expressed to others and that others have responded to. [Pause for silent reflection.]

Finally, and here we are going deep, I invite you to a quiet place where you think of something you need that you have been too shy, too independent, too ashamed, too proud, too embarrassed, too self-sufficient to admit. [Pause for a final silent reflection.]