Friday, November 30, 2012

Sermon: "Simplicity: Finding Soul in a Season of Stuff" (Delivered 11-25-12)

Call to Worship
If you give people an opportunity to say what it is that they want most during the holidays, what they’re most thankful for and what’s most important to them, they would probably say that they want quality time to enjoy togetherness with family as well as dear and close friends.  They would say they want to feel a sense of connection to their community and to have the ability to give something back.  They would say that they want to enjoy traditions that are meaningful and fun and convey a sense of identity.  They would say that they do not want to feel rushed or stressed or harried, but that they want the chance to slow down and savor some peaceful moments and be able to give thanks for this precious day and for the time we share.  Does that sound about right to you?

A comparison with reality, however, might bring to mind that line by Saint Paul that goes, “I do not understand what I do.  For what I want to do I do not do, but instead I do the thing I do not want.”  We come together this morning to remind ourselves to pay attention to those things that are most important to us.  We come together to be reminded of our values and what we wish for most.  We come together to examine and explore how we want to live.  It is good to be together.

The reading this morning comes from the book Making the Good Life Last: Four Keys to Sustainable Living by UU minister Michael Schuler.

Buddhist teachings describe perpetually dissatisfied, grasping, overanxious people as “hungry ghosts.”  As much as they long for happiness and the experience of true contentment, these sad individuals are unenlightened about how an abiding sense of well-being might be secured…  The “hungry ghost” subsists, therefore, on the deceptively thin fare its culture provides – easily appropriated pleasures that dull the cravings but do not satisfy them.  The habit of happiness, beauty is more than skin-deep, and trustworthy relationships all lie beyond the ghost’s reach.

In the Chinese language, the two words pin and tan look very similar on the printed page.  The first means “greed” and the other stands for “poverty.”  This, in a nutshell, is the dilemma of the hungry ghost:  greedy for experiences and possessions to fill its emptiness; yet for all the effort the ghost expends, it still feels impoverished.  The hungry ghost may compensate for its emptiness through the compulsive quest for pleasure and prestige, but it is unlikely to find in such pursuits any antidote for its chronic discontent.  This Buddhist metaphor is compelling; it graphically describes a condition that afflicts many Americans.

The promising road maps offered by our hard-won consumerist culture have too often led us down blind alleys and into cul-de-sacs.  Novelty, excitement, sensory stimulation, and satiation are supplied in abundance, but in terms of what human beings truly want and need, the systems we have devised have proved less than salutary…

Too many of us have lost our connection to a sustainable life path that leads to treasures of perennial value: a beautiful and healthy earth home, human communities where all are well served and feel secure, work that makes a genuine contribution to the common good, play that restores one’s body and lifts one’s spirits, to mention only a few estimable goals.  “To live lightly on the earth with simple, joyful elegance” is how one writer characterized the overarching purpose of sustainability.

When I hold my two month old baby it is impossible not to notice that she is much more fascinated by my face than by any brightly-colored stuffed animal or jingling, rattling, sparkling toy that I might try to wave in front of her face.  When my niece was toddler, when the family would gather for Christmas, she used to be much more interested in playing with empty boxes than in playing with whatever toys those boxes once held.  And, I don’t mean to offend anybody with the comparison, but it also occurs to me that my parents’ cat seems to think an empty paper bag and some loose pieces of wrapping paper and ribbon constitute a splendid Christmas, as far as cats go.  I’m not sure I’d classify the baby, the toddler, or the kitty as world-class religious thinkers.  As a congregation you should expect me to cite more recognized and esteemed theologians.  All I’m saying is that in terms of realizing that people come before stuff, that a playful imagination can go a long way, and that it is best to be thankful for what you have, these creatures seem to have at least a little wisdom to impart.

This morning I’m going to talk about finding soul in a season of stuff, and as I thought about what I wanted to say, I realized that a lot of what I had to say was things that many of us already know.

We know that the societal focus this weekend and this month on purchasing, shopping, and consuming is a symptom of unhealthy aspects of our society.

We know that bargains are not the same thing as values, and that there is often a high cost to low price. 

We know that many of the people working the checkout lines and stocking the shelves at the box stores earn poverty wages.

We know that many of the goods we purchase are manufactured in sweatshops or in factories with exploitative and inhumane working conditions.

We know that credit card debt is rampant in our society, that financial health is a challenge for so many people, and that many people struggle with compulsive and addictive behavior at this time of the year.

We know that our society lives and consumes in ways that are not sustainable.

We know that we are not alone in our criticisms of consumerism, and that good critiques come to us from secular organizations such as Adbusters and the organizers of Buy Nothing Day and from religious sources such as the Advent Conspiracy movement within evangelical Christianity whose core message asks people to worship fully, spend less, give more, and love all. There are even secular sources pretending to be religious sources such as performance artist Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping.  During Friday’s Celebrate What You Have Day festivities, I showed a video of Reverend Billy protesting at the Disney Store in Times Square.

However, we also know that despite the criticisms of consumerism that we encounter, that mainstream coverage of holiday shopping will fail to challenge the larger cultural values and assumptions at work.  The media will certainly sensationalize the predictable annual stories about a shooting, a trampling, or a felony assault connected with Black Friday shopping, but the deeper questions that might be posed will likely remain unasked and unexplored.

These are the sorts of things most of us probably know.  But, I want to go beyond that to say a few words about simplicity and finding soul in a season of stuff.  What I mean by connecting these two ideas is a bit like what Thoreau meant when he declared, “Simplify! Simplify!” and wrote, “The nation itself, with all its so-called internal improvements, which, by the way are all external and superficial, is just such an unwieldy and overgrown establishment, cluttered with furniture and tripped up by its own traps, ruined by luxury and heedless expense, by want of calculation and a worthy aim, as the million households in the land; and the only cure for it… [is] simplicity of life and elevation of purpose.”  “Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life?” Thoreau asks.  “I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear.”

When I talk about finding soul, what I suppose I’m really speaking about is the ability to connect with those forces and practices and habits of happiness that increase and sustain our human sense of being alive, and rejecting those practices and habits that hollow or diminish life.  I think it is the same thing that Massachusetts Senator-elect Elizabeth Warren meant in the speech when she spoke about what it means to be human, “People have hearts. They have kids. They get jobs. They get sick. They thrive. They dance. They live. They love. And they die. And that matters.”

For me, moving towards life means moving towards those ways of living that recognize my own living complexity, and away from those forces that would try to diminish my own humanity.  The culture of consumerism tells me that my worth is tied up in what I am able purchase, or even that I am what I buy.  But, I know that I am not a PC and that I am not a MAC.  I’m not a Sony or a Yamaha, a Nike or an Adidas.  My identity is so many things before it is a brand.  I am not a commodity and I resent being commodified.  However, we live in a culture that ascribes worth to people, ascribes value to people, based on their habits of consumption.  We are given the identity of a consumer.

Culture surrounds us.  Culture consists of the attitudes, understandings, worldviews, habits, desires, practices, rules, and behaviors of the people we live with and among.  Culture is usually unspoken, taken for granted, assumed, and often invisible to those inside of the culture.  There are times, however, when we decide and when we may come to understand that our culture – the transmitted pattern of meanings and attitudes towards life – is not promoting our own welfare.  The system seems broken to us.  The attitudes towards life seem like the wrong attitudes to have.  Living with the tide of the culture, we feel, is not leading us in a direction that we want to go.  When we feel this way, it is time to make a decision.

One decision is to become culturally-separatist.  The cultural separatists included the people in the sixties who dropped out of society, went to go live on communes, or went to go live in the woods.  More commonly, cultural separatists are religious minorities such as the Amish and monastic communities of Catholics and Buddhists.  Cultural separatism may take the form of asceticism.

The hymn we sang before the sermon was originally written and sung by a group of cultural separatists known as the Shakers.  The Shakers practiced communal living in villages and rejected various practices within the larger culture that they considered sinful.  “Tis a gift to be simple, tis a gift to be free.”  The gift of simplicity in the song is the gift of removing yourself from a complex culture.  The gift of freedom is the gift of being free from the oppressions of a culture that was thought to be corrupt.  By the way, the bowing, bending, and delightful turning mentioned in the song are references to Shaker worship practices that included forms of ecstatic movement, being involuntarily bended and twisted by spirit.

At the other end of the spectrum from cultural-separatism is cultural conformity.  Cultural conformity is the unquestioning acceptance of the way things are.  However, since cultures are never completely static, never completely unchanging, and never monolithic, the person who has conformed to culture will be required to adapt to changes and choose between competing practices.  Cultural conformists who are less adaptive will grow uncomfortable and try to blame changes on “others” or “outsiders” who are trying to change the way things are.

Between these two poles of cultural separatism on one end and cultural conformity on the other, there are a host of options for trying to live meaningfully.  Christians often speak of being “in the world, but not of the world.”  Paul said “Do not be conformed to this world.”  We might not all share the same analysis of what’s broken in the world, but there are plenty of things in our culture that we would not wish to be conformed to.  What I’m describing here are ways of living in tension with the culture in which we live.  We might adopt habits that are counter-cultural, that transgress against the culture in which we live.  We might practice cultural criticism, a thoughtful challenging of the culture that surrounds us.  Another path is cultural creativity, which involves creating new ways of being and relating, actively choosing to create those habits of happiness, that beauty with depth, and those trustworthy relationships to which our reading alluded.

Challenging and changing culture is hard.  And, I’m not just talking about American culture or Midwestern culture or Johnson County culture.  Schools, businesses, companies, organizations, institutions, and – yes – even churches have their own cultures even as they exist within the larger culture.  I am reminded of two Unitarian Universalist churches that had difficulty with attendance in their church school on Sunday mornings because of the encroachment of youth soccer programs.  One church practiced cultural-conformity; it changed its Sunday schedule and worship times to better accommodate the soccer schedule.  Another church operated at the other end of the spectrum and tried to start a movement to abolish youth soccer on Sunday mornings.  They urged parents to resist a culture that competed with family and church time.

So, how do we find soul within a season of stuff?  How do we choose a path that makes us feel human and alive rather than like a hollow, hungry ghost?  None of us are likely to recreate Thoreau’s cabin experiment of radically simplifying life and reducing it to its lowest terms, but there are other paths available to us.

One of my college professors posted a message about gift-giving on Facebook on Friday.  He wrote, “We have had a rule o' thumb for over a decade that the gifts we give in celebration of Christmas should be things we have made or grown ourselves or things purchased from actual makers/growers whom we've looked in the face and talked to. The Advent season's become much less frenzied, and we've met some terrific people through the years.”

Now, what my former professor said was very specific, and I’m not telling you that is how you need to do it, but what he did was respond to a culture that didn’t feel healthy to him, that felt frenzied and disconnected from his values, and simplified it.  By simplifying it, he was able to better live out his values – making sure that he spent his money ethically and being able to be connected in his shopping by being able to humanize, in this radical and immediate way, those with whom he was connected.  He was able to be mindful and responsible and relational.  Simplicity, in the sense that Thoreau understood, allows us to refocus on our choices and behaviors and choose a path that affirms the life we say we want.

In this season may you find ways to challenge what makes you feel hollow or disconnected, distant or harried.  May you find ways to move against the grain of culture, to move against the tide of culture, to use our own creativity to move in the direction of the forces that sustain and uphold life.  May it be so.