This morning’s reading comes from Philip Simmons’ book Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life. Simmons was an English professor in the Midwest who was diagnosed with ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease, in his late 30s. He moved with his wife and young children to New Hampshire, where he wrote a book of spiritual memoirs on living while facing an incurable illness. This passage comes from his chapter, “Mud Season.”
In March and early April in our town, over seventy miles of dirt roads turn to mud, and most of our driveways, too. Paved roads are too expensive for us; we are simply too far-flung… Mud coats the flanks of our cars, splatters our clothes, cakes our shoes. Children here, of course, are mud connoisseurs. In their school art classes my kids are handed sponges and brown paint and told to do paintings of mud. After school, I meet them where the bus drops them off on the paved state road, and we walk home through the real thing. We stomp and squish, we poke and stir, we sample textures and colors. Sometimes it takes us nearly an hour to walk the quarter mile. Children, so much closer to the source of life, seem in touch with their muddy origins. From dust you came, the priests used to tell me, thumbing my forehead with ashes. Dust, yes, but for there to be life you have to add water, and we know what that makes.
We all, of course, go through personal mud seasons, and these can occur at any time of year. We suffer illness and depression, the loss of loved ones, failed or failing marriages, crises of faith – in ourselves, in others, in our gods. But personal mud seasons need not be brought on by things so great as these. Humans have a peculiar talent for misery, and lacking big reasons for unhappiness, we make ingenious use of small ones, all the bounced-check and runny-nose occasions of woe. […]
I’ve learned, though, that our need for mud goes much deeper than our need to pity ourselves. We need the mud for what grows from it. Every mud season is a kind of death, with resurrection lying on the other side. In the mud painting my daughter did at school, the great brown swath across the bottom two-thirds of the paper is topped with tiny, bright flowers.
I’m fond of saying that a church is both a house of the holy and a home of the human. In two weeks we’ll talk about the “holy” part. This morning I want to talk about the human part.
When I talk about a home of the human, I’m reminded of Scott Alexander’s description of the church he served in Plainfield, New Jersey. “On a typical Sunday in Plainfield, while I was waiting for the sermon to begin, I glanced around that cozy sanctuary and saw a collection of souls whom I knew to be in almost every imaginable human condition. There was Donna, whose face bore the pale violence of the cancer that would soon take her life, and Henry, born-again and beaming from his recently successful by-pass surgery. There was Frank, whose whole body was tight with the fear that he might lose yet another job and more of his dwindling self-esteem, and Allen, visibly delighted about another of his successful business projects. There was Beth, whose makeup did not hide the fact that she was mourning another anniversary of the death of her only baby, and Nancy, whose cheeks were still joyfully flushed from the birth of the baby who quietly fed at her breast. There was adolescent Ann, whose aggressive punk hairdo and excessive jewelry did not distract from her self-loathing and loneliness, and octogenarian Alice, who wore her vivid contentment with life with same brightness as her Scottish plaid. There sat newlyweds aglow in their eager entanglements, and elsewhere the newly divorced sat so obviously alone in loss and fear.”
Indeed, the church is the home of humans in “almost every imaginable human condition.” It is a place where we bring the messiness of our lives into the messiness of human meeting. When I say that the church is the home of the human, I mean that in several senses.
Through the history of liberal theology, and especially in humanist traditions, human nature has been said to be essentially positive and good. Humans are capable and competent; we can solve problems and learn; we can improve ourselves. This is a very hopeful stance. It says that human beings are mighty. This morning, we’re going to make the left side of the congregation the people who hold that positive view of human nature. [Speaking to the left side.] There is no problem you can’t overcome. Human nature is something you can perfect. You’re powerful. Give me a “Yeah.”
This stance can be contrasted with [speaking to the right side] the Calvinist position that says that our very nature is sinful and fallen, that we are incapable and incompetent, that our essence is nasty and brutish. This is a pessimistic stance. It says that human beings are miserable. This is a position that I reject, but it is a position that is held by many in our world. So, this morning, we’re going to make the right side of the congregation the ones who hold a negative view of human nature. You folks believe that it is human nature to screw everything up, that anything we humans try to do is doomed to failure. Give me an “ugghh.”
As Unitarian Universalists, we have tended to side with the optimistic, hopeful, able perspective on human nature. A great story of human improvement and human consciousness-raising comes from the First Unitarian Church in Chicago, which until the late 1940s was segregated. According to that church’s by-laws, only whites were eligible for membership. In 1948, the minister of that church led a campaign for that church to change its by-laws and to end the segregation written into its governing documents. The minister was supported by a member of the board, James Luther Adams, the famous Unitarian theologian. At the board meeting to discuss the desegregation of the church, there was actually considerable resistance from some members of the board. The discussion and debate lasted late into the evening, when James Luther Adams turned to the last holdout and confronted him, asking, “What is the purpose of the church?” The question was asked several times more. The man reflected on this question, finally relented, and said, “I suppose the purpose of the church is to get a hold of people like me and change them.” It was nearing two o’clock in the morning and the board sang “Amazing Grace” before adjourning.
This story from our tradition is a story about the church as the home of the human. It says it is a place of transformation where people can change, can grow, can improve. Even the wretched soul trying to preserve a racist system is capable of redemption and salvation.
When I talk about the church as a home of the human, though, I am not only speaking about the heights that we humans can attain, our feats of compassion, creativity, or skill. There is another meaning of human that does not refer to the triumphant transformation of the individual into a great woman or a great man but also does not cross the line into the self-loathing of Calvinism. There is another understanding of what it means human. It is an understanding that exists between heroic humanism and contemptible Calvinism. It is an understanding that is best summed up in the expression, “Hey, I’m only human.” Alexander Pope said that “to err is human, to forgive, divine.” I would say that to forgive is also human, although, unfortunately, it is much less common than erring.
In between the concept of human as glorious and the concept of human as hopeless, there is a large, expansive middle of human as, well, as human. A church is a home of the human. It is a home of human error, mistakes, and foolishness. It is a home of anxieties and obsessions, quirks, foibles, and shortcomings, hurt feelings and frustrations. How could it not be? It is, after all, a home of the human.
My colleague Mark Stringer is minister of the Unitarian Universalist congregation in Des Moines, Iowa. It is a fine church with about one hundred more members than we have. Whenever Mark performs a new member ceremony at the church he tells those joining the church that they don’t become members by signing the book, by getting involved as a volunteer, or even by giving money. They become a member the first time the church disappoints them and they decide to stay anyway.
I want you to raise your hands. I want you to be honest if you’re comfortable being honest. How many of you here have only had nothing but a positive experience in this church? How many of you would say that everything you’ve experienced in this church is good? And, how many of you have ever felt disappointed or let down, let down by your minister or by a staff member or by a fellow member of the church?
The Unitarian Universalist Association, our larger movement’s umbrella organization, has an independent committee called the Commission on Appraisal. It is a working group of about 12 individuals, elected by the movement as a whole, and tasked with studying an aspect of our common Unitarian Universalist life that they think is of supreme importance and reporting their findings to our larger movement. The title of their current project is, “Who’s In Charge Here – The Complicated Relationship between Ministry and Authority” and their findings, I believe, are due to come out this summer at the General Assembly in Louisville. I think that should tell us something. Of all the issues and of all the challenges facing Unitarian Universalists, this independent group said, “Let’s study issues of authority.”
About a decade ago, the Commission on Appraisal took on the subject of membership. Here is a brief passage from their report. “[Feeling let down] 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. [The reality is that] institutional as well as personal failure is virtually inevitable.” All this is to say that if a church is a home of the human, it will be not only a place of human triumph, but also a place of human messiness.
As your minister one of the curious things that I’ve experienced through the years are phone calls, almost always late in the week, Friday afternoon or even late Saturday night, from total strangers who’ve never attended our church before. The callers would say something like, “I’m not a member of your church. Would I be allowed to attend?” I would explain that our doors are wide-open and we’re welcoming and we love visitors. We’d love to have you join us. At first, when I received these calls, I thought, “Well, that’s odd.” Then, after the third or fourth time I got a call or email like this, I began to get curious. I answered a bit differently. “Of course you can come,” I’d reply, “But may I ask why you ask?” And, then came answers that I was not prepared for. These people would describe some kind of brokenness in their life: family dysfunction, deep-seated shame, guilt over something that they’d done. One person told me that he didn’t think he was a good person and that churches are full of only good people and he didn’t want to expose all these good people to his failings as a human being. Church, he said, was where God was and God, he was sure, would be offended by his presence. How do I dare come into the house of the holy?
Because we’re also a house of the human I answered, a congregation made of people in “every imaginable human condition.” It is a place full of human people with human stuff, human stuff they’re trying to work on and work out and work through, human stuff that, when it comes up, sometimes stings someone or hurts someone or lets someone down. We’ve all got this stuff. We’ve all got this stuff. We’re people with messy lives.
The famous Unitarian minister Forrest Church once wrote, “My favorite etymology speaks eloquently to this very point. Human, humane, humanitarian, humor, humility, humus. Dust to dust, the mortar of mortality binds us fast to one another. [In this way] truly we are one.”
Humus. Etymologically the word doesn’t seem to be connected to the word hummus, that delicious, thick middle eastern spread. But they are both messy. Humus is dark, organic material in soil that comes from the decomposition of plant matter.
The old myths tell us that human beings did not emerge from stone, from wood, from iron ore, from clouds, from lava, or even from thin air. The old myths tell us that we were formed from mud, from clay, from dirt and dust. We have earthy origins, and messy lives.
Philip Simmons writes about “mud season,” as that time of the year when people feel most frustrated and despondent at the messiness of life, at what awakens after winter’s slumber. Simmons actually writes that March in New England is the most common season for suicide. He also says that the mud is necessary, a gateway to the swelling buds and the daffodils poking up through the muck and mire.
As humans, I reject the idea that we are incapable and incompetent. At our best we act heroically and we even reach the sublime. But we are messy too. We are a home of the human. How could it be otherwise?