Monday, December 13, 2010

Sermon: "Disillusionment" (Delivered 12-5-10)

I was planning to preach a sermon about disillusionment, but then I thought, “Why bother?”

When I first became the minister of this church and my first autumn with you turned into the first winter, I began to ask around about whether we as a congregation had any expectations as to how the Holiday season was supposed to be celebrated. Were there any traditions I should know about? Were there things we always did? Were there traditions that if we did not follow would cause people to feel deprived of the fullness of the season? Were there things we always did that people loath? Were there traditions that nobody understood how we started or why we still bothered with them? And, the answer that I got back was essentially, “No, we don’t have anything we are attached to, good or bad, in terms of celebrating the Holiday season. Thom, you should just do whatever you want to do.”

This answer was at once both liberating and intimidating. You see, I grew up in a Unitarian Universalist church in which, every single Christmas Eve, the minister delivered the same sermon ─ a sermon that had been originally delivered by the congregation’s minister in perhaps the 1870s. Now that’s tradition. But, thank goodness it was a good sermon. And, what’s more, I grew up in the Unitarian Universalist church in which, in the mid-1800s, that congregation’s minister had penned the words to the Christmas hymn “It Came upon a Midnight Clear.” So, we sang it. A lot. Prompting the minister to comment one December that he thanks his lucky stars that he serves a church in which a good carol had been written. There could be some church out there that is stuck singing “Jingle Bell Rock.”

This is a long and roundabout way of letting you know about a tradition you may not know about. At the October worship committee meeting, one of the committee members asked me, “So, have you chosen a negative emotion to preach about during advent?” There it was: Tradition.

Six years ago I decided that each year I would preach a sermon on the first Sunday of December about a negative emotion or a spiritual affliction. The first sermon was about loneliness. The second year I preached on anger and the year after that I preached on depression. The fourth year I preached about envy, but it was a very indirect sermon, and I felt like the tradition had run its course. And, then, last year the first Sunday in Advent was also the Sunday that I returned from my sabbatical. And, I decided to break from tradition. “Join us on December 6, 2009 for our minister’s first Sunday back in the pulpit after his sabbatical. His sermon topic will be ‘despair.’”

So, the worship committee had asked me to bring back this tradition, as new as it is. I originally had the idea about preaching annually about a negative emotion or a spiritual affliction because I realized that while for some people the Holiday season is a cinnamon-scented manic rush of joy and good cheer, for other people this season is a time that just plain sucks. It is painful and they don’t particularly want to ho-ho-ho or fa-la-la.

This morning I want to talk about disillusionment. I want to talk about various ways that disillusionment can manifest itself and about what it means and about whether we should try to overcome it and how we might overcome it. And, I’ve chosen to talk about disillusionment today because, just like loneliness and anger, and just like depression and envy, there is a greater risk of becoming disillusioned amidst all of the trimmings and trappings of our December secular religious cultural zeitgeist.

Disillusionment is something we can experience any time: by looking at the course of our lives, at our work, at our culture at our politics, at the religious or philosophical beliefs that we hold, or at our churches as a primary locus, as a sacred vessel, embodying those religious and philosophical and social aspirations.

Disillusionment is not the same thing as other words that are often used as a synonym for it, but disillusionment is a frequent dancing partner of despair, despondency, and disappointment. Disillusionment hangs out on the same street corner as cynicism, pessimism, and resignation.

A colleague of mine shared with me this story about disillusionment. The story comes from his time as a divinity s student at the University of Chicago. And the story involves a classmate of his who had come to seminary steeped in a deep love for the traditional Christian environment in which he was raised. At any decent divinity school, and I saw this with many of my Christian classmates at Harvard, the process of becoming theologically educated involves disillusionment. In school you learn that Moses didn’t write the Pentateuch, that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John didn’t write the Gospels, and that Paul didn’t write all of Paul’s letters. You learn that the book of Isaiah is not about Jesus. You learn that certain core theological ideas you possess are based on faulty translations or messy socio-political maneuverings.

Well, anyways, my colleague told me this story in which one of his classmates one day exclaimed with exasperation to his professor, “All this stuff you are teach us… You’re making us disillusioned!” To which the professor responded, “And would you prefer that I illusion you?”

Disillusionment, I want to argue, is simply this. Disillusionment is the experience of having something that we thought was dependable, solid, and trustworthy turn out to be an illusion.

Athletes are always role models. Politicians are always principled and worthy of our trust. My employer will be loyal to me. The Bible is the infallible word of God. The minister will always have profound insights into my struggles. At my church, everyone’s actions will exemplify the religious values we claim.

Disillusionment comes when something that we had expected from the universe does not come to pass. Moreover, disillusionment comes when something we had expected to be fair, or right, or just does not come to pass.

That exchange between the divinity school student and the professor captures something that we might realize about disillusionment. “Are you trying to disillusion us?” “Would you rather that I illusion you?” Disillusionment involves the denial of something that we had believed was certain and dependable and trustworthy. What could be counted on is now an illusion.

In the realm of religious understanding and theology there is a term known as “idolatry.” The commandment against making idols is the second of the Ten Commandments. We don’t find much talk of idolatry in Unitarian Universalist circles. We rarely use this word. Perhaps we avoid the word because we find it dripping in judgment, and we assume that the word has to do with correcting someone else’s religious beliefs, which we properly regard as distasteful. But, the word idolatry has a different meaning, a meaning that speaks to the concept of disillusionment.

What idolatry actually means is worshipping the partial instead of the whole. Idolatry mistakes the partial for the whole. The religion stuff may be tripping us up. Let me explain what I am getting at here by using a few examples.

The first example is one that is easy to think about because it is one that I don’t think is a hang up for that many of us. Consider the issue of athletes as role models. Every single day we encounter stories of athletes using performance enhancing drugs, getting into legal trouble, displaying poor sportsmanship, or demonstrating behavior that is immature, obnoxious, or downright antisocial. But, if we look back to the days of yore, we find that we were illusioned by athletes. Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams, and Babe Ruth all had feet of clay. We understand that worship of athletes was a form of idolatry. However, the disillusioned view can also be a form of idolatry. That also entails focusing on a partial understanding of something larger.

Politics is another area when we see widespread disillusionment. Do you agree or disagree with me on this point? To simplify matters greatly, in politics, in voting, there is an illusion that we tend to hold that if we elect the right person, as opposed to the wrong person, the right person is going to make all these right and courageous and correct decisions. And then, when the person we’ve elected makes decisions that we do not consider correct or courageous, we grow disillusioned. And the disillusioned view of politics says things like, “It doesn’t matter who we vote for. They are all the same. Why bother?”

Illusion: If she wins, the politician for whom I voted will always make decisions that I agree with.

Disillusion: It doesn’t matter for whom we vote, or even that we vote. They are all the same.

Clearly, the illusion is just that, an illusion. But, the disillusion is also an illusion. It also speaks to a partial instead of to the whole. Consider this: the midterm elections of one month ago had one of the highest voter turnouts of any midterm election in recent years with a full 41.5% of eligible voters choosing to cast a vote. Or, in other words, a candidate could claim a landslide victory with the support of less than 25% of eligible voters. Turnout in the most recent mid-term elections was especially low for those between the ages of 18 and 29 with just one in five of those eligible to vote actually casting a ballot.

Disillusionment can entail buying into a different illusion: the illusion that the divinity school professor was trying to destroy the faith of the orthodox student; the illusion that sixty percent of Americans eligible to vote are politically captive.

Next month Psychotherapist Guy Winch will release a new book entitled, The Squeaky Wheel. Winch’s field of interest is the psychology of complaining. Winch has coined an awkward term which he refers to as “complaining learned helplessness.” “Complaining learned helplessness,” he claims, “refers to our tendency to complain ineffectively in situations in which we experience ourselves as having no control over the outcome.” He adds,

Complaining learned helplessness is by no means limited to our voting behavior. Rather it reflects a shift in our general perception of complaining, its functions and purposes. Our complaints used to be expressions of dissatisfaction we used to attain resolutions to our problems. Today, complaining and venting are perceived by many to be interchangeable activities. In other words, the distinction between passively whining about something and actively doing something about it has become confused in our national psyches.

If I can extrapolate just a little bit, I would add that disillusionment need not mean the same thing as apathy, as resignation. In our Unitarian Universalist congregation in Des Moines, Iowa, their minister Mark Stringer says something very profound whenever they have a new member ceremony. He tells those members who sign the book this: You don’t become a member when you sign the book. You don’t become a member when you make a pledge. You don’t become a member when you join a committee or take on a significant leadership role. You become a member the first time the church disappoints you… and you decide to stay anyway. [This understanding is amplified by a passage from a UUA publication about membership that I have appended to this sermon.] What Mark Stringer is talking about, I believe, is moving beyond illusions. Before you are disappointed you only understand your community at the level of illusion, of projection. You love a thing for how you see it, not for how it is. I would add that Mark’s words are not only about church membership. The same formulation can be applied to any type of relationship. And, this is just me pondering, but is one really married until one is disappointed by one’s spouse? Is one a citizen before one is disappointed by one’s country? Are you a true fan before you are heartbroken by your team? That is not to say that you need to stick with what is deeply hurtful, no matter what. It is to say that illusions are unsustainable and deceptive.

I don’t think I could write a book about complaining. I don’t think I’d want to. But, here are my suggestions for moving beyond disillusionment.

First, if you are feeling disillusioned, the first thing you should do is to reflect and ask yourself, “OK, I’m feeling disillusioned. What illusions did I have?”

Next, ask yourself if you have not, in fact, replaced your previous illusions with a new set of illusions. The feelings of disillusionment may be real, but are they only partially true?

Finally, taking our cue from Guy Winch, we might ask, “Now what? Have we arrived at a place where there are some actions we might take? Or, have we arrived at a place that calls us to practice passivity?” If your answer is “passivity,” there is, perhaps, something you might wish to rethink.

From “Belonging: The Meaning of Membership”
[Disillusionment] is almost inevitable in the course of one’s relationship to a congregation. […] The church is a human institution and it can become all-too human. When such difficulties arise some walk away, others step back. But fortunately there are also those whose remain steadfast through these times of disillusionment, whose loyalty grows beyond it. They are not better or worse than the others, just different. Out of their disillusionment grows a loyalty less to the institution and more to the values and ideals that the institution seeks to serve and embody. It recognizes that the institutional as well as personal failure is virtually inevitable. This is loyalty of a high order. It requires extraordinary patience, tolerance, and the capacity to forgive. These are spiritual gifts, learned in real community.

Those who have gained theses capacities, these gifts, are in the deepest sense members: people who are committed for the long haul, those who have loyalty not just to what the church is but what it could be, what it can become through their persistence and with their assistance. They are committed in other words, not so much to the institution as to the values and ideals it exists to promote and uphold — even in its periods of failure to do so. They are patient with brash young ministers and tolerant of plodding older ones. They are cheerleaders in the good times and steady supporters through the bad. They keep perspective, they take a longer view.