Friday, March 12, 2010

Sermon: "I Learned by Watching You" (Delivered 3-7-10)

The 3C Theme of this sermon is: Commit - To commit to a distinctly Unitarian Universalist way of life. Click here for more information.

From Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Divinity School Address of 1838:
Once [you] leave your own knowledge of God, your own sentiment, and take secondary knowledge, as St. Paul's, or George Fox's, or Swedenborg's, and you get wide from God with every year this secondary form lasts, and if, as now, for centuries, — the chasm yawns to that breadth, that men can scarcely be convinced there is in them anything divine.

Let me admonish you, first of all, to go alone; to refuse the good models, even those which are sacred in the imagination of men, and dare to love God without mediator or veil. Friends enough you shall find who will hold up to your emulation Wesleys and Oberlins, Saints and Prophets. Thank God for these good men, but say, `I also am a man.' Imitation cannot go above its model. The imitator dooms himself to hopeless mediocrity. The inventor did it, because it was natural to him, and so in him it has a charm. In the imitator, something else is natural, and he bereaves himself of his own beauty, to come short of another man's.

Yourself a newborn bard of the Holy Ghost, — cast behind you all conformity...

Back in the 1980s there was an anti-drug commercial on television. In the commercial a father approached his son after discovering evidence of drug use. “How did you get into this?” the parents ask. The child fires back, “I learned it from watching you.”

As a commentary on the complex issues of juvenile drug use and addiction, the commercial is simplistic, gimmicky, even insulting. However, if we take the slogan from this commercial and apply it to a different context, I believe that it provides us with a glimpse of insight into our lives as religious people and our lives as human beings.

The sermon this morning is about modeling. It is about those in our lives whom we look up to. It is about those people we would emulate or imitate, those who inspire us to alter our behavior in a certain way.

Discussions of athletes or celebrities as role models may be a little bit overdone. Those conversations have grown tired. But, the fact remains that most of us have people who we see as good examples. Some of these people may be world leaders, celebrities, experts, religious figures, or world-renowned humanitarians. But, more than likely, many are people who are not widely known. They have touched our lives more intimately. The orbits of their lives have passed through the orbits of our own lives and for a time they have touched us.

I invite you into a time of reflection. For each type of person I am about to mention, I invite you to take a few seconds to think of someone who you personally consider a model or a hero.
First, think back to your youth. Think of a hero you looked up to.

Next, think back to your time a student. Think of a teacher who you found inspiring.

If you have been married or have had an intimate relationship with another person, did you ever look to another couple as the example of the type of relationship you aspired to?

If you are a parent, did you ever look to someone else as the kind of parent that you hoped to be?

In your work, did you model your attitude, approach, work ethic, or another attribute on someone you hoped to be like?

If you play an instrument, which musicians are your inspirations? If you play a sport, which athletes? If you write or create art, who are your heroes?

In religion, in service to humankind, who have you found worthy of emulation?
So, obviously, part of being human is accepting and receiving influence from others. In our Unitarian Universalist statement of the sources that inform our faith, the first source is said to be our own direct experience of transcending mystery and wonder. But, the next four sources all describe ways in which our own religious understandings are influenced by other people. We draw upon the words and deeds of prophetic women and men. We seek wisdom from the world’s religions and from Jewish and Christian teachings. Humanist teachings counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science.

So, this is all easy right? Well, not exactly. I want to argue that there is a force in our lives and in our faith that leads us to learn from others and accept influence. But, there is another force that leads us to avoid and reject influence. I don’t claim that it is Ralph Waldo Emerson’s fault. However, he expressed this sentiment with tremendous elegance. “Go alone. Refuse the good models… The imitator dooms himself to hopeless mediocrity.”

In Unitarian Universalist churches we are often hesitant or reluctant to learn from other congregations. There is often an attitude of terminal uniqueness, the belief that our situation and our circumstances are so unique that we can’t really learn anything from anyone else. When we hear about a success story at one of our sister churches do we react dismissively? “Oh, that wouldn’t work here.” “Well, they are different.” Do we refuse the good models? Or do we embrace them?

Why are our congregations so hesitant to look to those who are innovative, those who have conquered obstacles and broken through barriers? What if congregations in our movement became more open-minded and less suspicious of one another?

[A few weeks ago I participated in a webinar led by Rev. Mark Stringer, the minister of our congregation in Des Moines, Iowa. In this webinar, he told the story of his congregation. I invite you to listen for yourself and to decide whether he proposes a good model worthy of emulation.]

Obviously, I spend a lot of time thinking about churchy things, probably far more time than most of you do. But, perhaps the sentiments I am describing sound familiar to you because they remind you of another part of your life. “My circumstances are special and that couldn’t possibly work for me.” “That is just not realistic.” I notice it in church life. Is there a place in your world where you notice that the good model is steadfastly refused?

One of the rules that I have for myself in ministry is the rule of zero hypocrisy. Well, at least that is what I aim for. Whether it is embracing a spiritual practice, or volunteering in the community, or tithing to the church, or working on myself in a certain way, I will never, ever ask you to do something that I don’t do. I will never ask you to try something that I am reluctant to try. That is a ministry of modeling. I like to think, on my better days, that it is a pretty good way of approaching ministry. And, to tell you the truth, sometimes I wonder how that model is perceived. Is it possible for you to point to anyone in your life and say, “I learned from watching you”? Is there someone in this community that you have been inspired to imitate or emulate?

Unitarian Universalist Association President Peter Morales was once asked to describe his approach to leadership. He spoke of leading by example, adding that we are all essentially apes and that apes learn from watching other apes. His ideas about leadership are far more nuanced, I assure you, but he points to modeling and learned behavior as a central principle in human behavior. Apes learn from watching other apes. I learned by watching you.

One of the adult religious education programs that our church has offered in the past and plans to offer again next year is called “Parents as Resident Theologians.” Part of the message of that class and other courses like it is that no matter how good the programs of a church are, children will still look to their parents as primary religious educators. We know from regular schools that parents who take an interest and active role in the education of their children tend to have children who have more success in school. By and large, parents who take their own commitments to church seriously and who regard their own spiritual path seriously and with something other than disdain and boredom will tend to have children who are likely to do the same themselves.

One thing that I hear a lot of times from parents, those who do bring their children here and those who do not, is that they what they aspire for their children is the ability to choose their own faith sometime down the line. A great fear is that they might indoctrinate their child into one belief system or another. We don’t want to limit their choices.

However, some public intellectuals have caused me to shift the way I regard this way of thinking. In his most recent book Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, author Chris Hedges offers these provocative words. Hedges, who has never been known to pull a punch, writes,
The cult of self dominates our cultural landscape. This cult has within it the classic traits of psychopaths: superficial charm, grandiosity, and self-importance; a need for constant stimulation, a penchant for lying, deception, and manipulation, and the inability to feel remorse or guilt… It is the misguided belief that personal style and personal advancement, mistaken for individualism, are the same as democratic equality. We [believe that we] have a right, in the cult of the self, to get whatever we desire. We can do anything.
What is Chris Hedges actually talking about here? Hedges argues that concepts such as individualism and democratic equality have been tainted in a grotesque way by the culture in which we live. Do we act like individuals or do we surrender to a “cult of self” that has the power to do great harm to us?

I should probably explain just a little bit about where Chris Hedges is coming from. Hedges argues that when an empire is on its last legs it tends to turn towards spectacle and to lose a sense of perspective causing small things to be made into giant things. It embraces a position of hostility and distrust towards others. Hedges makes global what I am talking about locally. And, the evidence seems to say that Hedges is on to something. After all, there are countries with better public health than the United States. There are countries that do a better job of educating children. There are countries with better social services. There are countries where workers are treated with greater dignity. Do we embrace these models or do we refuse them? Hedges would say that the cult of self that dominates our society prevents us from turning to the good models. He would say that lying, fear, misinformation, and deception prop up this cult of self and create an empire of illusion to the detriment of our society and our very lives.

So, let’s bring it back to us. The truth is we live in a world in which we are both self-directed and influenced by others, a world in which we learn by watching others and a world in which we sometimes have to blaze our own path. We are both the apes that learn by watching other apes and the ape who is watched to see whether we are worthy of emulation.

I am going to refrain from having the last word this morning. I invite you [the congregation] to break up into groups of three or four people. [If you reading this on-line, you might take a moment to journal about these questions or find someone with whom to talk about these questions.] I invite you, in your groups, to each to take a moment to share a time in your life when you attempted to emulate or imitate someone who you believed to be a good model. I invite you, next, to share a time when you made a decision to resist a good model. Let us join together in sharing and reflection.