Okay. Full disclosure: I can’t dance. At least not the way they were dancing during the prelude. Give me a driving rock & roll drum beat and I’m all over the place. But I love this other music; this music that begs for a partner. My feet start tapping and I want to dance, but my body just doesn’t know how to move like Lauren & Able. Why is that?
When I was a teenager and living in southern California, I was part of an awesome United Methodist youth group. Throughout the year, each church in our district would put on a dance and all the youth (and our friends) would flock to them. It was the 80s and dancing was something anyone could do. You didn’t have to know any special steps or how to be coordinated with a partner. You just got in a circle or a clump and moved to the music. If you were like our friend Mike, you’d just stand in one place and bob your head, or if the music got thrashy, just jump up and down. Safety Dance! Or like our friends Rob or Tami, you’d flow your arms and head like this. Or, if you were me, you’d travel around and avoid all eye contact.
It was great! Moving with the music, being with people, but then not really being with them because
I was wrapped up in my own space. I remember one dance when Billy Idol was playing and I was out there “dancing with myself oh oh oh oh” and this poor boy had the gall to come up to me and… ask me to dance! “I don’t like to dance,” I said— as I kept on dancing. I could have said, “I’m already dancing, dope! Why don’t you dance!?” or something nicer….But I was embarrassed and then the poor kid was embarrassed.
But most of the time you could avoid that kind of thing which was great as a teenager and young adult because you didn’t have to have a partner or know any special steps or be especially coordinated. Until, of course, there was a slow song….bleh! Time for everyone to leave the dance floor…. except the couples who basically just entwined themselves in a full body hug while swaying a little to the music.
But luckily the slow songs were few and far between so we mostly “rocked the house!” And no matter what group you were in —geeks or freaks or mods or the popular crowd —everyone was equal on the dance floor. Even in Pretty in Pink, outsider Ducky owned the dance floor.
What’s so great about dancing? In some ways, I suppose it’s like any kind of physical movement. My dad always use to talk about the euphoria he got when he hit that point in his running or biking when he pushed past the point when he didn’t think he could go any farther and there was this release of endorphins. That’s definitely part of it. The physicality. But dancing is different. In large part because it’s combined with music. With that beat that beckons us to get to our feet. It’s ironic that many world religions involve movement or dance as a spiritual practice while many others see dance as evil. The real irony is that I think it’s for the same reason. Dance makes sense as a spiritual practice because you can lose yourself in it—in the music and the movement—such that you forget about your conscious thought and go to a different place. That losing of conscious thought, of letting go, can seem scary. In some ways it’s a lot like sexual desire, giving over to the feelings of your body. Again, probably why the various fundamentalists aren’t so up on the dancing thing.
I’m not sure all the reasons why, but for me and the people I grew up with, and danced with, there was something suspect about traditional partner dancing—in whatever form it came in. We associated it with conformity and patriarchy, with putting the woman in a subservient position, draped on her partner like a supermodel on a sports car.
Though in schools there was still the formalism of the prom and all the crazy trappings that came with it, you could still go “stag” or with a group of friends. But my friends just wanted to get together and dance and wear whatever we wanted, not have to have a partner, but just hang out with each other while grooving to the music we really liked.
I remember my parents talking about the dances they went to when they were young—of the elaborate clothes they had to wear, the anxiety over getting a date, or being a wallflower waiting for someone to ask you to dance. Because you couldn’t dance if you didn’t have a partner. And I think that’s what we refused to accept. And so we had to push everything away that hinted at that kind of structure.
But is it really so freaky to dance with others? It’s good to be independent and to dance to your own drummer, but we have to find a way for it to not cost us our connectedness to others, our ties to community. We say we’re more connected than ever via the world wide web… Email, Facebook, Twitter—but aren’t we really just finding more ways to disconnect from others? to be less aware of our bodies and of others? to retreat into ourselves? I think today we’re still struggling with how to balance that.
But you don’t “dance with yourself” by yourself, right? I mean, I can turn on some great music and feel like jumping around to it, but it’s really not the same as if I was in a big group. Just like meditating by myself can be a good spiritual practice, but it can be easy to neglect if I’m doing it alone. We all want to be connected to the larger body. We can’t help but want to go to the dance. We need that pulse that connects our heartbeat to the larger beat. That helps us feel connected.
Why dancing with ourselves is really best done … with others.
Anthem: “For a Dancer” by Jackson Browne; David Ray, vocal and guitar
REFLECTION 2: “Two Left Feet”
Early on in our marriage, Rik and I went to a dance at our church in Brooklyn. We had not read the flyer very well, but just heard “dance” & our 80s brains said “whoohoo! Rock Lobster, let’s go.” We got there and found out they were doing some kind of swing dancing thing; there was a caller and one person had to lead and the other follow…we tried but….. It was… horrible. We ended up grousing at each other and getting in a fight. We stomped upstairs to the sanctuary and sat down and talked about it and ended up laughing. We realized we both had two left feet so we guessed that meant we had 4 between us which was just far too many. We vowed never to try dancing like that again.
Rik and I may suck at dancing, but we’re pretty fabulous partners. It hasn’t been easy. No long-term relationship is. It takes patience and honesty and willingness to make mistakes and forgive them. We both suffer from personal tendencies toward depression … And different things set off our tempers but usually they’re related to each of our sense of inadequacy about something in ourselves. Sound familiar? But most of the time, we can dance the relationship dance— when one of us is down, the other one compensates and takes up the slack; when one of us is agitated, the other one works to diffuse. When one of us is sulky or closed off, the other one works to pull the other one out of their shell.
Of course there are times when our rhythm is off. When family or work stress is high and we falter; when we’re both too tired to pay attention to the cues of the other. This is of course when a blow up occurs. We bump into each other; step on each other’s feet. There were more of these earlier on in our marriage than now, but they still occur from time to time. Mostly we’ve become aware of what triggers the other and keep ourselves from pushing each other’s buttons. We may not be able to figure out whose hands or feet go where when it comes to dancing on a dance floor, but when it comes to the relationship dance, we can waltz like the best of them.
What if we thought of all of our relationships as a dance? From our family members to our longtime partners to the stranger we run into in the hallway or street and every time we each take a step we get in the way of each other… We can get frustrated and just push past them. Or, we can laugh it off and weave back and forth before dancing on our way. It can be so easy to fall into our default setting of forward thrust, of ticking off our list, and going about our business. But if we remember that in the dance, we step forward while the other steps back, and then they step forward and we have to step back. Sometimes we lead and they follow. Sometimes we have to let go and be the follower.
Back and forth, around and around. Listening to each other’s cues. Remembering we’re in this together; we’ve all got our own form of left feetedness…
When we choose to let our interactions with others be a dance, instead of a duel, something changes.
And it’s a whole new dance floor full of possibilities.
REFLECTION 3: “Dance this dance with me.”
With busy lives, it can seem hard to just “let it be a dance.” Just finding time to dance can be impossible. Inspite of our two left feet, Rik and I still yearn to dance. Not with each other, we’ve got our own private moves for that. But to dance in community. Why?
I think it’s because as geeky introverts, we secretly desire more meaningful ways to connect with others. Ever since we moved to Asheville, and even before, back in Brooklyn, we kept hearing about Contra dancing. From old people to teens and everyone in between. This seemed like something really different. But could we do it?
Finally we decided to break our old pact and check it out. We went to the YMCA downtown that had a Family Friendly contra dance, taking our 10 year old son with us. It really was a lot of fun, until they got into some more complicated dances where it was really important that there be a “leader” and a “follower.” It was fine as long as we were all dancing with other people who knew what the heck they were doing, but trying to dance with each other we had the same problem—we couldn’t keep track of who was trying to lead and where our hands and feet were supposed to go. All those crazy left feet!
Still, we went back several times since most of the dancing was pretty simple and involved lots of people who didn’t know what the heck they were doing either, including lots of rowdy kids. So we didn’t stand out like sore thumbs, or 6 left feet.
I think one reason Rik and I struggle with traditional partner or group dancing like Contra is the use of gendered language. So when we hear “men on the left” and “women on the right,” we start getting twitchy, which doesn’t help us pay attention to all our left feet very well. This is the one flaw of the Contra Dance movement. I know the dances go back to the 1700s, but this is the 21st century! The dances are great mixers and people of any gender are welcome to take either dance part, so just lose the gender binary language already and just line us up as “leaders” and “followers” and let each individual decide.
But we so want to find a way to join this dancing community. We know enough now to understand the draw— You can’t do it by yourself. You can’t do it virtually. You need other people… in the same place…. together. You have to touch each other. And you have to have live music. And a caller. So it’s okay if you don’t know what you’re supposed to do; someone will tell you; and if you don’t get it right, you’ll have another chance because all the moves get repeated multiple times.
And if you and your partner both have left feet, that doesn’t matter either because you switch partners throughout the dance. It’s really a completely different thing than the dancing I grew up with. There’s a social contract involved. You can’t just focus on your own enjoyment. You have to get people where they’re going—across the circle or down the line; you have to pay attention to each other; be aware of your surroundings.
Some people have described contra dancing as a “kaleidoscope, a weaving, a quilting with humans.” I like that.
And guess what? The people look at each other…. while they’re dancing. They make eye contact. For me, that’s the hardest…and yet, the most wonderful. Because isn’t that what we all want the most? Someone to see us so we can truly see?
Let it be a Dance.
This is the last song sung at final worship service of SUUSI. SUUSI is the Southeastern Unitarian Universalist Summer Institute, a yearly UU summer camp our family goes to. And no matter what the theme or the particular experiences of that year—Ric Masten’s “Let it Be a Dance” is always the right song to be sung. Because it exactly expresses why we come. Why we gather together year after year—and perhaps why we come here—to this place—to gather around this chalice fire, for the first time, and then again and again—week after week—to dance this dance; to feel the rhythm, feel the need, fill the need.
We need to be, to know and be reminded, like repetitive dance steps, that we can teach each other—that no matter who we are or where we come from, whom we love or how we dance, we are welcome around this flame; we are welcome to dance this dance; to let it be a dance; with ourselves, with our partners….with a circle of others, but always embodied—our full selves—mind, body, and spirit—always in community; this seeking of hands, of rhythm, of need and heartbeat. So that we know—we do not dance alone.
We never have to dance alone.
So come, sing a song with me and dance this dance with me.
“There is nothing in heaven above, nor in the earth beneath, that can do away with sin, but love; and we have reason to be eternally thankful, that love is stronger than death, that many waters cannot quench it, nor the floods drown it; that it hath power to remove the moral maladies of humankind . . . . O love, thou great physician of souls, what work hast thou undertaken!”
My colleague the Rev. Jake Morrill, minister of the UU church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, recalls that the other day he was stopped at a traffic light when he noticed that the car he was facing going the other direction had a front license plate with a cartoon of a Confederate soldier holding a rebel flag.
Beside the cartoon he read the words “Forget Hell!” At that, Jake says, his Universalist heart swelled, and he thought to himself, “That’s right. Even you, Johnny Reb, who fought to sustain the fathomless misery of countless enslaved people, even you see that you can’t escape the all-conquering power of love. Forget hell is right!”
It was then, he says, that he saw the comma. Forget, Hell!
You don’t hear an awful lot about hell these days, but that’s not to say that it’s been forgotten about. Gallup polls show that about three-quarters of Americans believe there is a heaven, and slightly less, about 70%, think there is a hell. What’s interesting, though not especially surprising, is that most people figure that when they die they’re going to the first place, and not the second: 64% feel they’re going to heaven, while ½ of 1% think there’s any chance they’re going to hell.
I must say that it’s an interesting commentary that one is willing to posit ever-lasting torment for some other guy, but, heavens, not for me!
We’ll get back to that, but first I want to tell you a little bit about some folks in North Carolina who sowed the seeds for a Universalist faith that forgot hell and whose lives stitched together a community and even helped make possible an unexpected gift to this congregation.
American Universalism arose in New England in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It was founded fundamentally on a simple premise: a loving God would not consign those he created to eternal torment. Sure, he may get mad at them now and then, but it would be not through punishment, but through the force of his loving nature that he would draw us back to the good. If God truly is love, they argued, there cannot be any such thing as hell.
In the face of the prevailing faith, a grim Calvinism that preached that each person was born depraved and likely destined for the fires, this Universalism found a ready audience and spread quickly, if haphazardly: Most of the early preachers who set out on the road had little education, but great enthusiasm, and congregations gathered fitfully. By the 1830s enough churches had been formed in North Carolina to start a state convention, and around that time Universalism seems to have moved into these mountains.
It’s hard to be precise about these things because there were strains of Universalist belief among many of the early immigrants who were making their homes here. One especially strong influence was a tradition of German Baptists who had popularly become known as Dunkers.
What we know is that the first Universalist presence in these mountains seems to have begun next door to us in Haywood County, begun by a man by the name of Jonathan Plott. Plott had come here to serve as the first teacher at Bethel Community School. He was of German heritage and may have grown up a Dunker, but he claims to have been converted to Universalism by one of those saddle-bag preachers.
Plott was a community leader of sorts and drew people to him. One of those people was a young man by the name of James Anderson Inman, who at 17 moved in with Plott as a hired man of sorts. While there, Inman met and fell in love with Plott’s adopted daughter, Mary, and the two were married.
James and Mary also were drawn to the Universalism that Plott had adopted. It wasn’t an easy choice in a community where fire-and-brimstone preaching was the norm. For preachers who saw the threat of hell as the only check against sinful living, Universalism was a path to perdition.
There’s a story that Hosea Ballou, who we heard from earlier, was out riding one day with a Baptist preacher, and the two were arguing theology. At one point the Baptist minister said, “Brother Ballou, if I were a Universalist, and feared not the fires of Hell, I’d hit you over the head and steal your horse and saddle.”
Ballou then looked over at him and replied, “My brother, if you were a Universalist, the idea would never occur to you.”
And so Inman believed, too. He was reading deeply in the Bible and found the Universalist message affirmed wherever he looked. The heart of the gospel as far as he was concerned was that love overcomes all. It’s said that the Bible he carried throughout his live opened to one of those passages, these words from Isaiah: “And the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”
A group of people in the area began meeting regularly as a kind of Sunday school, and by 1859 they had recognized Inman as a Universalist preacher at the age of 33. The gathering Civil War, though, disrupted all that, and Inman and his four younger brothers enlisted in the Confederate Army.
By what was probably a happy accident, given the terrible carnage of war that killed three of his brothers, Inman was captured and spent most of the final years of the Civil War in an Illinois prison camp.
Now, here’s where the story of this tiny Universalist church in the mountains intersects with our modern day. If you read the book or saw the film “Cold Mountain,” you may recall the figure of Monroe, the father of the female lead character, Ada. The author, Charles Frazier, describes him as preacher who scandalized the mountain folks by preaching that in the end they could forward to being “immersed in an ocean of love,” and who was shunned for his “failure to believe in a God with severe limitations on His patience and mercy.” Frazier has since acknowledged that the figure of Monroe was modeled on James Inman, who was his great-great grandfather.
Shortly after Inman returned from the war, in 1868, the Universalist Church of Haywood County was organized. The church had no home, though. Inman’s services were held in the homes of members, under a hospitable tree, or occasionally public gathering spots, and his wife, Mary, served as midwife and healer. It took another 30 years for its members to raise the funds and find the land for a church, which was completed in 1901. Inman, though, only lived to serve the church for another decade, before he died in 1913.
The church foundered for a while before the Universalist Women’s Missionary Association adopted it as a project. In 1921 they recruited Hannah Powell, the first woman minister most of those people had seen, to serve the church.
Some leaders of the church, not to mention its neighbors, were skeptical of seeing a woman in the pulpit, even though Powell was 55 years old with a divinity degree and had already served several churches in Maine. But she had grown up in a logging family and knew what those communities were like. As it happened, by the time she arrived, many of the loggers in western North Carolina had already cleared the best stands and were moving out, leaving the people behind impoverished. Powell moved quickly to raise funds from the Missionary Society for construction of a home, built in 1924, next door to what was now know as Inman Chapel. Dubbed “Friendly House,” it served as a kind of community center, with day school for kids and night school for adults, health clinic, emergency shelter, and library created by a gift of 1,000 books donated by the city library of Newark, New Jersey.
All this made for a vibrant community, but it couldn’t have survived without Hannah Powell’s fund-raising appeals. When Powell finally retired in 1943, the contributions began to falter, and, though a couple of other preachers were called there, none worked out, and the community dwindled in the 1950s, around the same time this congregation got going.
In 1957, Friendly House was sold and Inman Chapel was closed by the state Universalist convention. The chapel would have been sold too, but for the fact that Inman himself had deeded it to family trustees. Since then, the family has maintained the building, and a few years ago completed a major renovation. The chapel now holds photos and exhibits from its early days. In a couple of weeks, Elly Wells, a UUCA member with family ties to Inman Chapel, and I will lead a tour of the chapel that was offered as an item in our annual auction.
Several years ago, Phyllis Inman Barnett, a great granddaughter of James Inman who moved back to the Pigeon Valley with her husband in retirement, collected much of the history around these early Universalists in a book called “At the Foot of Cold Mountain.” I used it as a source for this sermon, and you can find it in our library.
She reports that while many of James and Mary Inman’s descendents still live in the area near Inman Chapel, interest in Universalism has pretty much died out. It’s also true that in the final years that Inman Chapel was a Universalist meeting house, folks in the larger movement lost interest in it. By 1961, when the Universalist and Unitarian churches joined, there was little interest in tiny, moldering backwoods churches.
So, all these years later it’s worth asking what we today might claim from the story of Inman Chapel. We should begin by acknowledging that culturally and theologically there is a big distance between us. It’s hard for any of us to fathom that early pioneer life, not to speak of the rough times of the lumber camps. And, though the faith of the Inmans differed radically from that of their neighbors, they all agreed on one central point: religion was strictly centered on the Bible.
We Unitarian Universalists today honor the Bible as one source of religious wisdom among many, but not the one and only guide to a religious life, nor is the notion of a personal God necessarily a part of our own sense of faith. Still, it seems to me that at the heart of that old Universalist faith is the possibility of common ground and perhaps a source of inspiration for us.
And that carries us back to Jake’s license plate. What does it mean to “forget hell”? Well, I think it suggests more than just that we disagree with the proposition that there exists some place of eternal fire that awaits all who commit unredeemed evil. I think it implies a stance that says “forget heaven,” too.
Forget this image of the cosmic court that weighs us one way or the other and the bifurcated path to judgment that it offers up to us, that we ourselves slip into so easily and that makes us such high and mighty judges on behalf of some vision of the Good.
Here, I know, I’m crossing a boundary that I expect our forebears at Inman Chapel could not abide, but it seems to me unavoidable. Hell is merely the fury of our unrequited fear and shame given form, and heaven but the vision of our yearning aspirations.
We are, all of us, lacking any definitive knowledge of what follows our deaths, but those ancient tropes, in truth, do us no good. Trusting in the great by and by or depending on the devil to do our dirty work merely keeps us from the work of living fully while we can.
And this applies to any of us however we may understand our ends when we self-righteously presume to impose judgment, when we dismiss the humanity of another, or demand another’s suffering as recompense for our pain.
Hosea Ballou was right when he said that the greatest hell that any of us need fear is that of our own making, the torment we create by our heedless actions. And the path to redemption, whatever our offense, is always the same. It is centered in love: love that, in Ballou’s quote from the Song of Solomon, will not be quenched, will not be drowned, that has the power to remove the moral maladies of humankind: Love that is stronger than death.
Yes, death stills our beating hearts, but it will not stop what love has started, what love ignites, what love gives energy to. It is the story of life and of all that is good in our lives, the source of hope for each of us: that our lives will not have been in vain because of what we gave out of love.
This is what I take from our Universalist forebears in Haywood County, people who, in Charles Frazier’s words, imagined their hopeful end as being “immersed in an ocean of love.” What we know about our forebears at Inman Chapel settled at the foot of Cold Mountain is that they did their best to help make that happen, as loving, faithful people who served their community and each other.
And here’s how this story touches us. You’ll recall what I said about Hannah Powell, that she was a dynamo who developed strong connections across the community. Apparently, among her acquaintances was Reuben Robertson, owner of Champion Paper and Fibre Co., a major land-owner in the area.
I’m not clear on exactly how it happened – though I can’t help believe that the memory of Hannah’s good works played a role – but in the late 1960s when this congregation was looking for a location after it had outgrown its home in a large West Asheville home, it was Reuben’s son, Logan Robertson, and his wife – who were members of the congregation – who showed the way by offering to give the congregation this property where we are now located.
At the time it consisted of a vacant lot, on the corner, and three homes. Architect Bill Moore, who is still a member of this congregation, designed the building where we sit, and in 1974 it was dedicated. It had been nearly 20 years since Inman Chapel had closed as a Universalist meeting house, but it’s hard not to believe that in some way the good will that those people worked helped make possible our own rebirth.
Perhaps, in the end, it’s true, as the Sufi story I mentioned a couple of weeks ago says, that what water is to fish, love is to humans – that by which we live and breathe. So then, ought we not to give our time, our energy to finding ways to bring it to our awareness and into our actions, that we might find wholeness and peace?
In that case, forget about giving any energy to that terrible gyre of fear, shame and doubt that arises at times in our fragile, fallible selves; forget about the tantalizing tug of prejudice and easy judgment; the tooth-grinding demand for vengeance.
I don’t get tired of you. Don’t grow weary
of being compassionate toward me!
All this thirst equipment
must surely be tired of me,
the water jar, the water carrier.
I have a thirsty fish in me
that can never find enough
of what it’s thirsty for!
Show me the way to the ocean!
Break these half-measures,
these small containers.
All this fantasy
Let my house be drowned in the wave
that rose last night out of the courtyard
hidden in the center of my chest.
I don’t want learning, or dignity,
I want this music and this dawn
and the warmth of your cheek against mine.
The grief-armies assemble,
but I’m not going with them.
It arrived, as it seems such things do these days, as a posting from someone I distantly know on Facebook: a video that was recommended as intriguing. I clicked, and the video began with some jaunty music and a disembodied voice over an image of two goldfish swimming in a bowl:
“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet on older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?”
“And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What’s water?”
Yeah, cute, I thought. I’ve heard the story before: one of those old Sufi teaching tales that I’ve always liked. The speaker goes on, and I realize that he’s talking to an audience – turns out to be a college graduation address from some eight years ago, and the speaker is the one-time literary phenom David Foster Wallace.
What is arresting is what he does with the story, and what the video does with his words. Wallace acknowledges the obvious – using his word – “platitude” that the story offers up: that, as he says, “the most important realities are often the ones that it’s hardest to see and talk about.”
But he cautions that these so-called platitudes can actually be significant. They can even have a life-or-death importance for us, and to demonstrate he invites the graduates into a kind of eerie flash forward to a less than glamorous moment of the lives that await them.
“Let’s say,” he begins, “it’s an average adult day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging, white-collar, college-graduate job, and you work hard for eight or 10 hours, and at the end of the day you’re tired, and you’re stressed out, and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for a couple hours and then hit the bed early, because you have to get up the next day and do it all again.
“But then you remember there’s no food at home – you haven’t had time to shop this week because of your challenging job – and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It’s the end of the workday, and the traffic’s very bad, so getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there, the supermarket is very crowded, because, of course, it’s the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping.
“You have to wander all over the huge, overlit store’s crowded aisles to find the stuff you want, and you have to maneuver your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people. And when you get your stuff it turns out there aren’t enough checkout lanes open, even though it’s the end-of-the day rush, so the checkout line is incredibly long.”
Our response, says Wallace, is to find all this “stupid and infuriating.” But, of course, it does no good to take our fury out on the people in line or the harried checkout lady. So, we pack the flimsy plastic bags of groceries in our cart, with – he adds with a sly touch – the one wheel that pulls maddeningly to the left, through the crowded, pot-holed, littery parking lot, and head home through slow, SUV-intensive, rush-hour traffic.
Something like a modern version of one of Dante’s circles of hell, no? But, in a sense that’s the least of it, Wallace says, when you consider that in our lives this scene will be repeated, day after week after month after year. And of course, it may not be this moment that gets our goat, but another one of the many infuriating, routine tasks that swallow up the precious minutes of our lives.
So, what to do? One option, of course, is to follow what Wallace calls our natural “default settings”: to pop off at the next guy, give the check-out person a hard time, or just bury ourselves in numbness. Another, though, is to entertain the possibility of seeing these moments as an opportunity for choosing.
I came upon Wallace’s talk at about the time I was mulling over what might be themes for worship this coming year. It was also a time of a new crop of commentaries predicting the downfall of religion. You’ve seen some of these, I expect. Churches across the spectrum are emptying, denominational numbers are down, and the numbers of those who affirm no religious affiliation are rising. Some of these people express no interest in religion, although as a percentage of people surveyed this group hasn’t grown particularly in recent years.
What has grown, and significantly, is the number of people who affirm an interest in religion but are unaffiliated with any particular religious tradition, or who identify themselves as spiritual, but not religious. We Unitarian Universalists have tended to look at those trends and crow that these are folks are ripe to join our churches, people like many of us who abandoned the religious homes of our childhoods for this one.
This may be true for some, but we would be wise to note that when these people say “not religious” they tend to have places like us in mind, as well, and this may be problem that we have contributed to creating.
Diana Butler Bass is a long-time observer of religion who has spent a good deal of time looking at this boundary between the religious and non-religious. She notes that in the West, at least, the path to faith across traditions has taken a particular shape with three stages, which she identifies as: believe, behave, belong.
That is to say, the threshold question to be answered when one enters a church usually is, what do you believe? This comes after many centuries of schisms and conflicts over theological doctrine, resulting in religions defining themselves in terms of where they stand on certain religious propositions. This tends to be true even for us, a non-creedal religion. Though we have no uniform doctrine, we tend to raise questions of religious belief early in our orientation process.
In the traditional model, once you orient yourself to a particular belief structure, you reshape your practices in certain ways: attend worship, enroll in religious education, take part in social justice work, and so on. Finally, then, you decide to become a member.
But Bass says that there’s something odd about this arrangement. It isn’t really the way the rest of the world works. For example, she said, if you decide you want to join a knitting group, you don’t spend a lot of time reading up on knitting doctrinal statements or knitting history. You just dive in. You find someone who can teach you the basics, go to the yarn shop, and find a knitting class. In time, if it appeals to you, you get to know the others there, and you find that the group makes you feel better about yourself, gives you a sense of service, and maybe a deeper sense of meaning.
In her words: “relationship leads to craft, which leads to experimental belief.” So, how would it be if churches followed a similar path: Moving not from belief to behaving to belonging, but from belonging to behaving to belief?
Belonging to a community starts with a flash of recognition – “I fit with these people; this feels good.” We make friends and find that being a part of that community makes our hearts lighter and the world more interesting. After hanging around a while, we see how they do things, how they act with each other, what they do in the world, and we find that it resonates with a deep place in ourselves. Then, engaging the questions raised in that community and the wisdom it holds dear, we come to a more settled sense of our place in the world and our responsibilities to it, a faith of sorts that shifts and grows amid the trajectory of our lives.
And here is where I connect again with David Foster Wallace, but with a twist. So, remember? There we are in that slow-moving check-out line, where, say, one person in front of us is talking loudly on a cell phone, another is a frazzled mother with a shrieking child, another has this deadened, cow-like expression and this guy in front of us has a Confederate flag stitched to his jacket.
I can dwell on all the reasons this scene upsets or frustrates me, or, Wallace says, “or I can choose to consider the likelihood that everyone else in this line is just as bored and frustrated as I am. . . .
“If you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice,” he says, “you can choose to look differently at this fat, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid. Maybe she’s not usually like this; maybe she’s been up three straight nights with her husband, who’s dying of bone cancer, or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness.”
It may even be in your power, he says, “to experience this crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars – compassion, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things.”
And how do we put ourselves into a posture where we’re willing to consider such possibilities? Well, Wallace, in this college graduation address, argues that it is a benefit that education gives us: we are taught, in his words, “how to think,” to appreciate what he calls “the capital T truth” that you get to decide for yourself how you will see the world and how you will orient your life toward it.
Now, being a college graduate who gained much from that experience, I wouldn’t deny that much of the wisdom that can turn us in that way is certainly present there. But in truth, I think, whether or not you are a college graduate or have any other kind of fancy education is not enough. We need something more: we need community.
We need a community that will provide a crucible to help us figure out where we fit and how the world works while we struggle to make our way. We need a community that will hold us when things fall apart and those brilliant ideas sound so hollow. We need a community that will celebrate and help make connections for our kids and our partners, that will invite us to consider new ways of opening ourselves and introduce us to amazing people who share our hopes for the world.
That is what we are building here. It’s a community that offers no litmus test of belief but invites you to bring your our own journey of religious discovery and join us in the work of building freedom, justice and love. And central to that, I believe, is the work that Wallace points us to – developing disciplines and looking beyond distractions in order to see the truth and beauty around us. Challenging work, but critical to the peace and spiritual centeredness that I think we all seek.
So, this year in worship I plan to use many of the elements that Wallace introduced in his provocative speech as themes that will help us do that. We’ll touch on these in worship, but I also invite you to join us in one of our Theme groups or Covenant groups that are forming right now to carry the conversation further. Or, bring it into other settings in this community, or just dip into the Worship Theme resources you’ll find on our Web site.
Finally, let’s return to Wallace’s little fish story. Another version of the story imagines one of the fish returning to his mother at the end of the day, confused and frightened about what the older fish had said.
“I don’t understand,” he said. “What is this water? Is it dangerous? Is it going to hurt me?”
“Oh, sweetie,” his mother said. “Don’t worry. Water is everywhere we go. It’s all around us and inside us. It’s what we live in.”
As his mother spoke and stroked his head, the little fish began to calm down, and, as he did, at his mother’s side, he began to feel a little current of water in his gills, and on his scales. He really had never noticed it before.
For the Sufis, the story points to a deeper wisdom. What water is to fish, they say, love is to the human being. It is all around us, inside us, and everywhere we go: available to us if we can allow ourselves to experience it.
In gathering resources for you to reflect on our themes, I invited a number of you to act as curators to provide books, poems, quotes, videos as well as personal reflections. You can find many of them on our Web site. One reflection on our first theme, awareness, came from Sharon Van Dyke. She gave me permission to share it with you.
Sharon wrote that she was 34 when she and her husband, Chris, lost their first pregnancy. “I had been a really tough time,” she wrote. “I spent months trying to hold back a lot of negative feelings about losing the baby, primarily because I wanted to be able to move on, so we could try again. But it was exactly that – the holding back of feelings – that made it harder to move through it.”
Coaching in a meditation practice, she wrote, helped her wake up to her feelings and even embrace them. Things turned out OK in the end. They now have three rambunctious boys. But Sharon still reflects on what a struggle it was to make room for that deep discomfort within her, to see that attention needed to be paid to it.
“To me it’s about the bigness and smallness of life, which coexist at the same time,” she wrote. Of course, those feelings “mean a great deal to you. But while you’re there can you also see the smallness of it? Can you see how you are surrounded by others, 7 billion others, people just like you, in their own moments?”
As Rumi said, we truly are all thirsty fish, struggling to find enough of what we’re thirsty for. All this fantasy and grief around us: Which way to the ocean?
Well, let the armies of those wrapped up in their grief be on their way. I’m not going with them.
No, as David Foster Wallace puts it I want to open myself to what’s present before me, to bring my awareness “to what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over.
“This is water.”
“This is water.”
Resources: This Is Water by David Foster Wallace, Little, Brown & Co., 2009; and Christianity after Religion by Diana Butler Bass, Harper Collins, 2012.
Debbie and I arrived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in the summer of 1984. I had taken a reporting job at The Milwaukee Journal, an afternoon paper, which, in that blue collar town, made it the leading paper in town. It was an unrepentant liberal daily that Time magazine only a year or two before had identified as one of the 10 best papers in the country.
At the time, Milwaukee was still known as the machine shop to the world, a place where vast acres of the city were covered with big-bay manufacturers that heated, pressed, bent and shaped metal into countless shapes for industries of all sorts. It was a place of many tidy neighborhoods of cheerful bungalows or well-built duplexes packed into tight blocks with barely enough room for a driveway to separate them.
Milwaukee at the time had a reputation as a comfortable, middle-class city. For many years, factory jobs were plentiful and pretty much handed down from father to son. There wasn’t a lot of wealth, but most people – as long as you were of European, white heritage – could be assured of getting work, and, at least for a time, minorities did well, too.
Milwaukee, after all, had once been the site of what was called the Bay View massacre. This was an incident where in 1886 seven people died when National Guard troops fired on some 14,000 workers at a steel rolling mill who were marching for an eight-hour day. It took another 50 years until New Deal legislation actually gave workers the right to an 8-hour day, but the shooting sparked a movement in Milwaukee of what became known as the “sewer socialists.”
This Socialist Party was made up not of fire-breathing revolutionaries but of labor-friendly progressives who emphasized honesty in government, public works, and coalitions with others working to build the middle-class. These Socialists held the mayor’s office from 1910 to 1960.
Even the paper where I worked exemplified this spirit. It was employee-owned, and for a couple of generations its privately-held stock enriched not just top management, but all employees. While I was there, many a pressmen retired with a million bucks and bought a retirement cottage on some northern lake.
By 1984, though, the bloom was coming off the rose. Many of Milwaukee’s high-income jobs were being shipped overseas, and the big-bay manufacturers were shutting down, emptying many inner city neighborhoods of those reliable wage earners. The lay-offs hit minorities first, who moved into lower-cost homes abandoned in the inner city, setting off a blizzard of white flight and establishing a pattern of hyper-segregation that continues to this day.
My reporting, first at City Hall, then at the courts, kept this story in front of me. Politicians were sure the city could come back. They recruited developers to turn empty factory buildings into malls and kept streets even in some of the most desperate inner city neighborhoods well paved. But real estate sharks were moving in, buying dozens of once well-tended homes, squeezing out what they could and putting nothing back in.
Like a bicycle tire with a leak, energy slowly drained from the city. The business district and stunning lakefront – one of the chief gifts of the sewer socialists – received attention, but its center was hollowing out. The newspaper, too, suffered with declining circulation and loss of advertising. Eventually, it went public, but the disappointing performance of its stock left most employees with little to show.
Debbie and I left in 2004 to come here, wondering what would become of it all. I got a chance to see recently in a PBS special by Bill Moyers. He followed two Milwaukee families – one white, and one black – over the last 20 years. The picture was familiar: In 1991, when the story began, the husband in the white family and both husband and wife in the black family had recently lost their jobs at Milwaukee manufacturers. Both families were homeowners with several small children.
Each hoped to find other work and managed to secure what they were sure would be “temporary” employment at a fraction of their former wages. But, of course, “temporary” turned into the way it would be, and in the end wasn’t enough to sustain the lives they had created for themselves. They endured visits to a food pantry and days without electricity when they couldn’t pay utility bills. Bouts of illness became big financial setbacks, and worries over money tore at the fabric of relations between husband and wife, parent and child. But eventually both managed to accommodate themselves to a new reality, even if their incomes never approached what they were making 20 years before.
Remembering much of what I saw as a reporter over the years covered by the Moyers program I have to say that in many respects these two families were lucky. As the show ended, both were still intact and the kids were mostly OK, though struggling. For many others during that time, the story was much grimmer.
Whatever your vantage, this one-time prosperous city slowly but surely was being depleted and hollowed out. And Milwaukee was not alone. Other great old manufacturing centers also suffered, and in the days since, their grief has been shared by many in the suburbs, the South, Silicon Valley: all of the supposed hot new centers of economic activity. Wealth was being created, money was being made, but fewer and fewer people benefited from it. Stocks have soared in recent years, but employment has barely moved all.
The result has been a historic shift in this country that has seen the wealth created in our economy, once spread widely, accrue to a tiny fraction of the richest people. Here are a few numbers: From 1947 to 1979 wages of all workers at all salary levels grew roughly the same percentage, but between 1979 and 2007 63% of total income growth went to the top 10% of households. Wealth became even more concentrated, to the point where today the top 1% owns 40% of the nation’s wealth and the bottom 80% owns just 7%.
With wages essentially frozen the only way to make headway economically today is by owning non-cash assets – stocks and bonds, and so on. But, of course, most people own few such assets and have little prospect of acquiring them, and even for those who do, the real money is made in executive suites and corporate board rooms.
The author George Packer describes this period we’re going through as an “unwinding,” a time when cultural moorings are being loosed and long-standing assumptions are turned on their heads. In the past, he says, these periods have brought great disruption but also an uneasy kind of freedom. “Each decline,” he observes, “brought renewal, each implosion released energy, out of each unwinding came a new cohesion.”
If it is an unwinding we are experiencing, one notion that seems to be in play is that there is some fundamental value to human beings and their labor. Human labor is diminished when it is accorded so little value in the marketplace. A good example is Asheville where most new jobs these days are paid at less than a living wage. And human beings themselves are devalued as we watch measures once created to support a decent life – support for housing, medical care, education – stripped away.
We can ask for no better indicator of our low estimation than to see abstract corporate entities given the status of persons. In such a world, human persons are finding themselves at a disadvantage to compete.
And yet, amid all this it’s not unreasonable to seek out the possible seeds for what George Packard calls a “new cohesion,” and to identify a role for ourselves, as Unitarian Universalists, in its creation. History, after all, teaches that the road we are on – one that blocks avenues of social mobility and impoverishes a vast share of the populace – is a recipe for self-destruction and decline. So, what might that “new cohesion” look like?
Walt Whitman wrote the poem you heard Bob read from earlier at a time of tremendous economic expansion, when America’s industrial might was coming into its own. So, it is no surprise to read him celebrating, in his words, house builder, ship joiner, pile driver, coal miner, iron worker, coach maker, leather-dresser, sail-maker, fire stoker – digger.
And in all of these lines of work, he declared, we find “realities for you and me, in them poems for you and me,” in all of it “the eternal meanings” of our lives. This spirit also infused the organized labor movement at the time in places like Milwaukee, a spirit that saw work as a source of meaning in our lives, not a form of servitude, where labor brought us the bread to sustain our lives, andthe roses that make life worthwhile.
Whitman captured the heart of this ethos in his words: “We thought our Union grand, and our Constitution grand . . . We consider bibles and religions divine – I do not say they are not (grand or) divine, I say that they have all grown out of you, and may grow out of you still. It is not they who give the life, it is you who give the life.”
And it is here that I think we enter as Unitarian Universalists. We tend to catch grief in the larger world for the pluralism of our movement. We draw from the Jewish and Christian roots that are our heritage, but also dip deeply into Buddhism, the 20th century humanist movement, and various pagan and mystic traditions, not to speak of science, psychology, and so on.
But in this big tent we are quite clear about a few things, and chief among them is the conviction that each person is inherently worthy and deserving of dignity, respect and love. From a history dating back some five centuries informed by thinkers and scholars, activists and visionaries, wise women and men we have distilled this fundamental truth that we are precious from the moment we enter this world and that we realize our own hopes and best natures when we attend to and act on that underlying unity in a way that connects us with each other and all things.
All that is good and holy is not visited on us from some external source; it rises from within us and the world around us. The wisdom we need to guide us, in Whitman’s words, “has grown out of us, and may grow out of us still.”
This year in worship I am inviting us to reflect in different ways on the wonder and beauty and the many sources of hope that lie before us that we struggle to see. Our themes for worship will offer different tools to help us focus on those things and invite us to wrestle with integrating them into our lives.
We begin this month of September with the discipline of awareness, and our topic today is only too good a place to start. There is hardly a one of us who is not aware of, if not themselves damaged or weighed down by this “unwinding” that we appear to be in the midst of. And the squeeze we feel can shut us down, making us wary, depressed or dismissive. And so we isolate ourselves and retreat into numbness.
Part of why we gather as a community here is to invite each other out of isolation, to cultivate the awareness that we are not alone but deeply connected, and to provide the space for learning, insight, and action that will set us on the road to renewal and wholeness.
If we are to be part of a “new cohesion,” it will be as agents of renewal and advocates of wholeness working in common cause with others to affirm human dignity.
It may be that I am still caught up in the moment, but when I stood with many of you at the Mountain Moral Monday rally at Pack Square just a month ago, I felt something knitting together, some rough skein of hope that I hadn’t sensed before.
I have no millennial predictions to offer around this. It feels as if we’re still in for some rough patches. But it was an opening, and it fed my faith that our generous and hopeful natures will win out. As Dr. William Barber, the NAACP state president, told us that day, “You don’t judge your progress or success by immediacy. You know that if you stand long enough, love and justice eventually win.” And so must we stand. And so must we love, and hold the demands of justice in our field of view.
We need not seek afar off, for the solution to this state of affairs lies with us: In things we know best, where we find the best; in folks nearest to us, where we find the sweetest, strongest, lovingest; happiness, knowledge, not in another place but this place, not for another hour, but this hour; we workwomen and workmen with our own divine and strong life.