This morning’s announcement from about the upcoming church canoe trip led me to recall a true story from having led a Coming of Age program many years ago. The first time I led a Coming of Age program was for a church in Boston and one of the activities we did that year was to take a canoe trip on the Concord River. The Concord River is probably the calmest, most peaceful river ever. It flows sleepily through the small town suburbs of Boston. Its banks lead to the backyards of expensive homes. We launched the canoes, the youth in one canoe, the adult advisors in the other. This wasn’t the best idea. Within five minutes the youth had managed to capsize their vessel. The Concord River may be tranquil and peaceful, but in April it is very cold. We stood on the banks, the adults dry, the youth dripping wet as their teeth chattered and their lips turned blue. The youth decided on a course of action.
They walked across a well-manicured lawn and rang the doorbell of an expensive home. When the owner opened the door, the youth spoke: “We fell into the river. We’re wet. We’re cold. We’re Unitarian Universalists. Please help us.” For the next hour the youth stood in the man’s driveway, wrapped in towels, while their wet clothes spun in the dryer.
The way a Coming of Age homily works is that I pretend like I am speaking to just the Coming of Age students, when, in reality, I’m speaking to everyone in the room. What I’d like to tell you this morning is that the process of Coming of Age, the process of growth, will introduce you to three temptations, will put before you three tests. However, your journey of growth will stagnate if you give in to any of the three temptations.
The first temptation is independence. If you give in to the temptation of independence you will find yourself in a state of isolation. The second temptation is narcissism. If you give into the temptation of narcissism you will find yourself in a state of disconnection. And, finally, there is the temptation of cynicism, which leads to a state of alienation.
Independence, first. Like the rite of Confirmation in Catholicism, like the Bar and Bat Mitzvah in Judaism, like adolescent rites of passage in native cultures all around the world, Coming of Age is in some ways a passage into religious adulthood. It occurs at the same time in life as you begin to enjoy increased freedom in life, although the youth may look at me and say, “Thom, that increased freedom can’t come fast enough.” It is tempting, though, to believe that you are more independent than you actually are. The truth is found in the story of the Coming of Age canoe trip. When they fell in the river, they had a choice: freeze and suffer by themselves, independently, or admit their own radical dependence and ask for help. It can be hard to ask for help. It can be hard to admit that you need help. The idea of radical independence can be tempting, can be seductive, but the truth is that we need one another.
Another temptation you’ll face is the temptation of narcissism, the temptation to become focused on, fascinated with yourself. We live in a narcissistic age, an age of endless self-fascination. We live in the age of the selfie. You know what a selfie is, right? Taking a picture of yourself with your phone. In an editorial written recently by Galen Guengerich, it is claimed that the first time the world “selfie” was used was about a decade ago when a young, intoxicated Australian managed to fall down a flight of stairs. He busted his lip on one of the steps so hard that one of his teeth managed to pierce through his lower lip. The young man decided he should share this with his friends, took out his phone, snapped a picture of himself, and sent the photo to his friends, writing, “Sorry about the focus. It was a selfie.” Early research that has been done on the selfie phenomena has shown that increased sharing of selfies leads to decreased feelings of connection and closeness.
We live in the age of the cell phone camera selfie, but also in the age of the spiritual selfie where there is a desire to shamelessly share our spiritual ideas in a narcissistic way. Every so often, I receive in the mail a bubble wrapped copy of a self-published book by some stranger who has written his own grand theory of religion or his own spiritual manifesto. (It is always men who do this, interestingly enough.) The author assumes that I’m interested in what they have to say. Inevitably, the folks who write these manifestos always seem profoundly disconnected and distant.
We are called to something greater than being religiously fascinated with ourselves, than being spiritually narcissistic. We’re called to name what we long for most deeply, what we love more than love, what we hold to be most precious, what keeps us up at night.
Finally, a third temptation that comes to us is the temptation of cynicism, criticism, and cooler-than-thou detachment. You’ve come of age in a religious tradition that prides itself on asking questions and challenging conventional wisdom. There is a shadow side to this.
There is an old UU joke that goes like this. There is a priest walking down the street who sees the church is on fire. He runs in, grabs the communion set, and runs out. The church burns down, but he gives thanks that the communion set could be spared. There is a rabbi walking down the street who sees the synagogue is on fire. He runs in, grabs the Sefer Torah, the scrolls on which are written the five books of Moses. The synagogue burns down but the rabbi gives thanks that Torah was spared from the fire. A Unitarian Universalist minister is walking down the street and sees that the UU church is on fire. She runs in and grabs the coffee maker.
I think this joke is about being cooler-than-thou, about believing that nothing is sacred. Religious cynicism isn’t new. In the 1700s Friedrich Schleiermacher published his speeches to the cultured despisers of religion, challenging those who dismissed religion and regarded it with a distant critical stance.
We live in a culture of criticism, of tearing down people who take risks, of finding fault, pointing out flaws, taking a superior, crossed-arm, posture. Criticism, as it turns out, creates nothing, achieves nothing, accomplishes nothing. It is a posturing. We need to find ways to encourage risk-taking, encourage leadership, encourage experimentation. We need to appreciate and trust. Criticism isolates ourselves from others.
You will be tempted to think of yourselves as independent, when the truth is that you will always, always depend on others.
You will be tempted to be self-focused, narcissistic, when spirituality asks us to focus on what we love and care about and long for most deeply.
You will be tempted to be detached and coolly critical, when spirituality calls us into a place of deep appreciation.
The challenge has just begun.
I wish you way more than luck.*
* This is how David Foster Wallace ended his famous commencement speech at Kenyon College. I decided to use his phrase because his literary projects were concerned with irony and narcissism.