Expectations of this Faith – Where have we been?
Onward and upward forever. These are the words of UU forefather James Freeman Clark penned in 1885. They are words of hope and optimism. They are part of the foundation of this faith. Baked in. They imply: things will get better. We can make them better. Even as we get better. Because that’s part of it. That we improve. Something another forefather, William Ellery Channing dubbed “Salvation by Character.” Namely we can improve ourselves and we will improve ourselves and we are part of the progress of mankind, onward and upward forever.
I’m oversimplifying our theological history a little bit here, but these ideas were big in the mid to 1800’s. Unlike our Christian siblings who were told they were dependent on some supernatural being to save them, early Unitarians were preaching self-empowerment. Unlike their Calvinist neighbors who were given the message that it was up to a supreme power to make things better in and around them, early Unitarians were all about pulling ourselves up, with the promise of an appealing upward spiral as a result.
Salvation by character. Onward and upward forever. The deep, optimistic, empowering roots of Unitarian Universalism, which powered this faith for generations.
And, I think, are part of our expectation for it still, and for ourselves. Upward progress, powered by us.
Which is a good message. The idea of waiting for a supernatural being to save you can create a sort of learned helplessness, a disinterest in doing what needs to be done. But salvation by character makes it clear you need to act.
And the idea that things will get better, well, isn’t that the carrot at the end of the stick? It’s motivating, keeps us going. Helps us create success.
Which may be why, although these messages were counter-cultural in their day, they caught on. Whether that’s because of our forebearers, or because our forebearers bolstered a wave of change that was already getting underway, I don’t know, but whichever it is, these ideas took off and are now deeply embedded in our wider culture – set high expectations for yourself, or your kids, and there’s no limit to what you can achieve. Keep your eyes on the prize and you can make it. You could even say our whole economic model is based on the idea of the individual striving for improvement, with all boats lifting as the economy grows.
At least, that’s the idea. That’s been the idea. All boats lifting with growth. You hear on the news all the time: we want growth. We expect growth. We need growth for the economy and the nation to prosper.
In fact, as I discovered when listening to a Ted talk by Kate Raworth, the message actually has been one, economically of growing, upward…. forever.
Turns out, in the 1930’s governments began to see the power of economic expansion as the solution to many kinds of problems. And in the 1960’s, Kennedy ran for president on a promise of 5% growth. The job of policy makers in his cabinet, then, was to keep that plane flying upward. But not to ask if, or how, it could ever be allowed to land.
Onward and upward, forever??
It sounded good…?
For a long time. This model created prosperity never seen before in this country. And is, frankly, still the standard-bearer. Even as we are coming face to face with the fact that the earth is not a limitless resource. Even though we know we cannot expand indefinitely. Growth is still put forward as a desirable thing.
But that plane cannot keep going up. As climate activist Naomi Klein so eloquently put it: “What the climate needs to avoid collapse is a contraction in humanity’s use of resources; what our economic model demands to avoid collapse is unfettered [continuous] expansion. Only one of these sets of rules can be changed, and it’s not the laws of nature.”
So, it no longer sounds so good, this onward and upward forever.
And while it would be massively unfair to place the weight of this 20/20 hindsight on our Unitarian forebearers, the fact is that some of our own theology, some of our own way of thinking is a strand in one of the biggest problems to ever face humanity.
A problem that requires collaboration on a scale we have never seen before.
A problem that is intertwined with some of the biggest issues of our day: mass migration, a resurgence of xenophobia and racism and the odd yet pervasive polarization we see happening across the globe.
But it’s up to me and it’s up to you. We need to do – something… right?
I don’t think I’m the only one who wonders. How???
Expectations of this Faith – Where are we now?
We have never seen something of this scale done before. It’s big.
And we have to fix it, right?
We’ve got to do something.
Soon. Very very soon.
Only, we’re not doing it. It’s not even that we don’t know how to do it because we do know some things. But so many of us, are not doing them. Young climate change activist Greta Thunburg, who has been leading international climate strikes, says we should be panicking. The IPCC report and its 11 year horizon would indicate that we should be panicking. John Oliver, late night comedian who riffs on current events – implies we should be panicking. I suspect there are many more who say the same. But many of us are not panicking. I’m not panicking.
I saw a quote from a colleague:
It can be hard to wake up someone who is asleep, but it’s impossible to wake up someone who is pretending to be asleep.
Although, as she noted, the author of that quote was likely referring to some political leaders, it struck me too.
Because while I’ve preached on climate change before, and I’ve preached on climate denial before, I’m still in it. I think I may even be in denial about being in denial. Because, although I do believe it’s happening, I still project things into the future like there’s no threat on the horizon. I get preoccupied with my day to day and get so busy doing things that I forget, for long periods, that climate change is even a thing.
And denial is a wily foe, taking many forms. As Rev. Karen Johnston writes, we may say to ourselves, climate change is happening but it maybe it won’t be so bad. We can adapt, move north, learn to live with warmer temperatures. Or we’ll find a technical solution – reverse the damage, capture extra carbon, seed clouds, something. Or maybe you believe some of the worst case scenarios but don’t talk about it because you believe it’s irresponsible to talk about it because it causes despair.
Or maybe, for you, you do feel it. You feel it all too much. Maybe it keeps you up at night. Maybe it’s distracting you, worrying you, weighing on you, driving you. You’re trying to figure out what to do, but what could be enough?
I wonder if part of the reason I’m in denial is because it just feels too big. I can’t do it. You can’t do it. Our individual efforts appear to make so little difference. I get overwhelmed. Nothing I do feels like enough. So I get busy with other things. I pretend to be asleep.
But the ultimate effect of denial, whatever form it takes, is that it leaves us immobile. Either because we think there’s nothing we need to do, or because we think there’s nothing we can do. Either way, we’re not *doing* anything. And for those who are acting, too often we’re too alone in what we do – which makes it hard to sustain, hard to be effective, hard to find joy in the work, hard to wake up the rest of us.
However it is for you, here we are.
The same roots of onward and upward and more that caused this crisis keep most of us too distracted to see what’s happening around us. I mean, to Really face it.
And those same roots of independence can leave us feeling, even if we’re facing it, like we’re alone, carrying the weight of this on our own weary shoulders, while so many others are living as though the threat just isn’t real.
And the crisis continues to grow.
The other day I was stressing out over something. I don’t remember what. It was probably more than one thing. It was probably many things.
As I was expressing some of this to a friend, as I was sharing some of the heaviness of it she said – wait, hold on. I want to offer you something. Not a physical gift. But she sang me a song. That a friend of hers taught her.
I took to it immediately. Last time I woke up in the middle of the night fretting over this or that I found it came back to me.
And today, for all of us feeling the weight of expectations, in your own life, or the weight of our world pressing down, I’d like to share it with you too.
I’ll tell you the words and then I’ll sing it once, and then you can sing it with me if you want. Or, as always, you can simply relax and just take it in.
Loosen loosen baby, you don’t have to carry the weight of the world in your muscles and bones, let go let go let go.
Song: “Loosen Loosen”
Sermon Part III – Where are we going? Let’s go!
That same friend who sang me that song also shared a quote with me: We must make the revolution organic, sustainable, life-giving and irresistible. Not pressured.
Most of us don’t have lots of experience coming up with compelling, engaging, unpressured solutions to the kinds of problems that panic people. Or throw them into denial.
But here we are. We’re in it. We are “living the questions,” as the poet Rilke once put it.
Questions that may appear to be about solar panels and wind energy, that may appear to be about government and international politics, but that are just as much questions about expectations, of ourselves and, of our faith.
If our UU forebearers were alive today I expect they would be just as counter-cultural as they were back in their day. In fact I think I may have preached on this once before! Where in their day they wanted to bolster our independent spirit and encourage us to grow, in our day I think they would want to help us connect with something larger than we are and let go a little, or a lot, of the incessant drive to improve. I think they would encourage us to connect with each other across the many differences that divide us, and with the natural world to which we belong. I think they would encourage us to release our hold on our culture’s ever-growing push for more. To practice, letting go.
Because, when we let go some of our attachment to the things we’ve been conditioned to want, when we let go of some of those layers of expectation, when we stop allowing ourselves to be driven by the incessant noise in our world, something else can begin to move. Something more fundamental. A wiser way of being.
How can we be saved (in the face of all that confronts us)?
Not by a supernatural force but perhaps by a natural one.
Nature, afterall, is in us. The still small voice that can guide us. A voice we cannot lose. But have to listen for. Relax into. Trust.
I love this snip of a poem by Phillip Booth. He writes:
me, when you tire on the long thrash
to your island,…
remember… what I told you:
lie gently and wide to the light-year
stars, lie back, and the sea will hold you.
When we stop running, stop distracting we will know what to do.
But, for our earth, where the denial is a thing. And panic is a thing, we may have to jumpstart ourselves.
By taking action, any kind of action moves us in the right direction. That might be big things. Activism, poltiocal organizing, strikes, resistance. We need people to do big things right now. And it might be smaller thing. Carpooling, learning about option, yes, even using metal straws.
Sometimes the smallest actions have the biggest repercussions because they open a door. Because they coax us out of denial, into caring, and in doing so, can begin to rearrange us from the inside out.
It doesn’t happen all at once. But we are building momentum. Of something irriestable. Movements grow this way.
In honor of the climate strike next week I created for us a spiritual exercise with some small things and some bigger things, you can do. They are spiritual exercises for the theme of this month, and they are jumpstarters for a new relationship with our planet, and actions that can, bit by bit, change us, and the circumstances around us.
Then I invite you to come and share at our connection pop up groups happening in two weeks. Connection groups, which you heard about from Amy/Kevin, are one place to make room for that still small wisdom voice to speak. And one place to be reminded, [no matter what it feels like it much of the time], you are not alone.
So much to do.
So much to heal
in us and the world.
So much to acquire:
proof we have and are enough
You are part of the plan for this world’s salvation,
of that I have no doubt.
The world needs its oceans of people striving to be good
to carry us to the shores of hope and wash fear from the beach heads,
to cleanse the wounds so they can heal.
Rest, if you must, then, like the swimmer lying on her back who floats,
Allow yourself to feel in your bones,
in your weary heart,
the aching, healing sense that
this is enough—
You are enough.
That we are enough.