Intimacy, Ultimacy, and Efficacy
“Intimacy, Ultimacy, and Efficacy”
Rev. Douglas Taylor
According to an article dated March 11, 2010 in Forbes magazine, “We all have three basic human needs.” This article in the leadership section of the premier business periodical goes on to tell us, “We need to be connected to other people, we need to know that our work matters, and we need leaders who respond to those first two needs when times are tough.”
“Intimacy and ultimacy” the article tells us, “are the two universal human quests. Our deepest desire is to have close personal relationships while we’re on this planet and to make a contribution that will last when we’re not.” Theologians generally agree with this business magazine on the basic needs of human beings: Intimacy and Ultimacy. The article, written for business leaders, adds a third basic need: business leaders who can tell employees how to get those first two needs met.
Leaders who actively reinforce and nurture these core desires engage people on a level that transcends money and market conditions. People are eager to be part of something bigger than themselves. In fact, when deprived of the chance to do so, they grow desperate for it. Leaders who connect on an emotional level and provide their people with meaningful context can ignite a passion that transcends [financial] uncertainty. (Forbes magazine, 3-11-10, “How To Keep Your Employees Focused And Functioning, Even Now” by Lisa Earle McLeod)
A couple of generations back, a great Unitarian Theologian named James Luther Adams said that people come to churches for “ultimacy and intimacy.” (Robert L. Hill, The Complete Guide to Small Group Ministry: Saving the World Ten At A Time, p. 3.) Colleague Rev. John Morgan writes about a time he heard Adams speak in which the theologian explained that “they come to wrestle with life’s ultimate questions. Who am I? In what or in whom do I trust? In what community do I belong? And they came for a sense of intimacy, a safe place in which they could be accepted while making connections with others.” (John Morgan’s The Devotional Heart)
Occasionally, in prayers I write for worship, I will include the phrase “Deeper meaning and richer connection.” Intimacy is finding richer connection, and ultimacy is finding deeper meaning in our lives.
Do you remember when you first came to Unitarian Universalism? Or the first time you came to this particular congregation? What were you looking for? What were you hoping to find? A lot of times people will be seeking after exactly what James Luther Adams was talking about: “ultimacy and intimacy.” We may not say it such grand words, but pared down to the phrase “deeper meaning and richer connections,” the assertion seems to carry for the majority of situations. People come seeking ultimacy and intimacy.
When I think about all this, however, I wonder if there might be a third component needed to round out the message, a third element to really cover what is drawing people and keeping people in faith communities such as ours. And I don’t think the third “basic human need” is leaders to remind people of their connections and their meaningfulness – despite the arguments presented in the Forbes magazine article. Rather, I suggest the third basic human need is efficacy or maybe the word would be agency, I’m not settled on how to name it so as to make it fit both accurately and poetically with ultimacy and intimacy.
The current PR slogan offered by the Unitarian Universalist Association is “Nurture your spirit, help heal our world.” There is an element of activism in the central workings of Unitarian Universalism and it is in response to a basic human need to make a difference in the world, a need perhaps to serve life is some way. For Unitarian Universalists, it is to live our faith out loud in the world, to put our faith in action.
Perhaps the search for deeper meaning, for ultimacy, covers the call to make the world a better place. And maybe the yearning for richer connections, for intimacy, already encompasses the feeling we get when we reach out to people in need. I think an argument could be made that the terms “ultimacy and intimacy” are sufficient, that a third element is not needed. Yet when I look around this congregation and see what draws our attention, I am convinced the yearning to fulfill a third basic need is at work among us.
Colleague Peter Bowden talked about this in his blog (uugrowth.com/2009/10/30) last fall: Intimacy, ultimacy, and efficacy. He called it connection, meaning and inspired action. “Inspired action” may be a better phrase. Efficacy feels a little too much like a business model word. Were our goals actualized to their maximum potentials? How effective were our programs? What is the efficacy of our mission objectives? Maybe it’s just me, but efficacy doesn’t quite sound right.
One of the responses to Peter Bowden’s blog also took issue with the word efficacy. He wrote that a person could log on to a Charity Navigator website to find a highly efficient charity and send them pile of money. That would be highly effective. Such action, however, will probably not “feed the spiritual hunger for service.”
What I’m trying to convey is the sense that in this congregation we work to have integrity between our beliefs and our actions, for our faith is lived out in our behavior, that our search for meaning lead us to inspired actions in the world. I suppose with some translation, efficacy can mean all that. If you think about it, the word intimacy does not usually convey a religious sense of connection so much as a romantic and private feeling of closeness with one person. These three words – intimacy, ultimacy, and efficacy – would need basic translation and clarification for use even in a religious setting.
If you went outside and someone asked you – Hey, you just came out of the building, what is that place all about?’ and you answered saying “intimacy, ultimacy and efficacy,” that person would probably run the other way. But if you were to say “richer connections, deeper meaning, and inspired action” – well, now you’re having a conversation.
In a way, I think these three basic human needs are as close as Unitarian Universalists come to offering a salvation message. This is our salvation story: that you can come into a community like this one for connection, meaning, and a call to service.
Congregational consultant, Loren Mead of the Alban Institute writes, a congregation is called to “… assist more and more people to identify what needs of the world cry out from them; and nurture and support each person and send each one forth to respond to these needs with his or her unique gifts.” (Loren Mead, Transforming Congregations for the Future) Such a sentiment reminds me of that quote from Howard Thurman: “Ask not what the world most needs. Ask instead what makes you come alive, and then go do it. For what the world most needs are people who have come alive.” (Paraphrased from memory)
Our faith must be embodied. As Unitarian Universalists, this is an important piece of how we do religion. Historically, Unitarians are characterized as fiercely free thinkers. The great documents of our Unitarian history highlight rational arguments about such doctrine of the Unity of God, the Humanity of Christ, and the Freedom of Conscience of human beings. The Unitarian side of our lineage is a litany of careful thinkers. At least, that is one fair representation of the Unitarian side of our heritage. Of course, there is more to it, but it is not inaccurate to say that as Unitarians we are a rather heady, intellectual bunch.
The Universalist side of our family, on the other hand, is commonly contrasted as the heart of our merged faith. The Universalists say the God’s love is the biggest part of life and all else follows. In the same way that the characterization of Unitarians as all “head” is generally fair though certainly inaccurate, so, too, can we say that the Universalists were all heart.” I am blurring some nuances and distinctions, but I will say our heritage brings us the quest for deeper meaning and ultimacy from our Unitarian side and the search for richer connections and intimacy from our Universalist side.
There are, however, several striking examples in our tradition of individuals who combined head and heart, who merged the call for deeper meaning and richer connections together. Witness these lines from a prayer by Unitarian preacher and activist Theodore Parker,
O God, may we join the human race in daring to live in the prophetic spirit: seeking inspiration like the seers and sages of this and other lands, judging the past as they, acting on the present like them, envisioning a new and nobler era of the spirit.
May we have communities for the whole person: truth for the mind, good works for the hands, love for the heart; and for the soul that aspiring after perfection, that unfaltering faith in life, which like lightning in the clouds, shines brightest when elsewhere it is most dark.
His prayer calls for “communities for the whole person: truth for the mind, good works for the hands, love for the heart.” It’s not exact, but pretty close. Parker could be tugging on the same themes I am this morning of ultimacy and truth for the mind, good works and efficacy for the hands, love and intimacy for the heart.
There is a conservative Fox news pundit celebrity named Glen Beck who talks about conspiracy theories and odd ideas. A week or so ago he urged his listeners to check their church websites to see if they had “social justice” programs or anything of that sort that advocated for justice. And if they found such programs in their churches, Beck said they should leave those churches immediately.
But he was trying to be a centrist when he said if your church leans left (I’m guessing he means politically?) and talks about social justice, then you are worshiping among Communists, and if your church leans right (politically?) and talks about social justice, then you are worshipping among Nazis. He lists issues such as “economic justice, rights of the workers, redistribution of wealth, and (the promotion of) democracy” as typical social justice issues.
Normally, I wouldn’t bother mentioning such mindless, fear-mongering but this bubbled up just as I was preparing this service and I thought: this talking head wants to block people of faith from working for justice. He wants people of faith to be docile and uninvolved. Well, if I have conveyed Mr. Beck’s position with any accuracy, I must admit I am wholly flummoxed as to how he reaches such conclusions. To each their own, I suppose, and those who follow such a man do so surely for reasons other than logic and clarity of thought.
For me and mine, I say social justice, inspired action, efficacy, working to heal the world – however you call it – is as core a reason for this congregation’s continued existence as intimacy and ultimacy. It is part of our work to build a better world, to co-create the beloved community.
To truly seek intimacy and ultimacy, one would do well to be thoughtfully engaged, to be involved in actions that live out the commitments one has found through intimacy and ultimacy. To abstain entirely from justice work, from striving to heal the world and make it a better place, to say you are not going to muck around in that “justice-stuff” is a disservice to the faithful pursuit of a spiritual life. “Faith without works is dead.”
For if we are not the ones who will change the world and bring a better day, who will? As I close, let me give a nod to the business world. I began the sermon with a tweak at Forbes magazine’s presumption, but in truth, I am impressed by the way some in the business world see clearly to the heart of life. Hear these words from a commercial for “Apple,” but also as a call for each of us this morning to be more radically human and alive than otherwise.
Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The trouble-makers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules, and they have no respect for the status-quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify, or vilify them. But the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.
In a world without end,
May it be so.
God Is Not Fair
“God Is Not Fair”
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Cain and Abel, that familiar pair of brothers from the story in Genesis, are where I begin today. It is a frustrating story in some parts. It begins with a problem that strikes me as a problem of fairness, or perhaps as a question of how to deal with disappointment in the face of unfairness. Cain, the eldest, tills the land like his father before him. Abel, the youngest, raises sheep. They both bring something of their work as an offering and God favors one brother’s offering over the other. There is no overt explanation given in the text, though over the generations explanations have arisen to justify God’s regard for one and not the other. But in the text alone, there is no indication. Instead of God offering any reason for accepting Abel’s offering and not accepting Cain’s, God chooses to issue Cain a warning. “Sin is lurking at your door.”
I’ve never liked this part of the story; it’s hard to work with. Later, Cain kills his brother. Cain rises up in anger and kills his brother and when God asks him where his brother Abel is, Cain asks, “Am I my brother’s Keeper?” I can work with that part of the story. Yes, we are each other’s keepers. Yes, anger leading to violence is a core piece of what is wrong with the world today. Yes, forgetting that we are all brothers and sisters and that we have work to do to care for one another, that we are each other’s keepers … Yes, this is powerful stuff, great story, it’ll preach!
But the earlier part, the set up for Cain’s anger, that part of the story I have trouble with. I have a colleague who rewrote passages like this, like a modern UU psychoanalytic midrash. My colleague has Cain challenge God and God basically says, “Yeah, you’re right Cain. I’m sorry I’ll try to be a better parent.” Ed Freidman wrote a fun case study piece about the first dysfunctional family featuring Cain and Abel as well as Adam and Eve. It’s really unsatisfactory to me to reduce the story of Cain and Abel to a question of sibling rivalry and parenting technique. prefer the interpretations that see Cain and Abel as aspects of our human nature or of the evolution of society.
But I actually want to set all that aside for today and look at the character of God in this story, rather than Cain or Abel. Because in this passage, God seems quite unfair. This is the beginning of the “Why do bad things happen to good people?” It’s the beginning of the questions of “Why does anything happen to any person?”
Life is unfair, that’s not news. Everyone has noticed that. “Every night and every morn some to misery are born. Every morn and every night, some are born to sweet delight.” (William Blake) These earliest stories in the Bible are records of the questions people asked thousands of years ago. So I work in the fields raising sheep and my neighbor works in the fields raising fruits and vegetables. Or maybe I catch fish in the bay and my neighbor hunts gazelle on the plain, it doesn’t really matter – but in this story one is a shepherd and the other a farmer. And life is unfair. One of us prospers at the work and the other does not. I and my family remain in good health while my neighbor grows ill, while disaster strikes, while trouble compounds. “Every night and every morn some to misery are born. Every morn and every night, some are born to sweet delight.” Why?
I subscribe to a daily poem and one morning my poem was actually a brief story accompanied by a photo and its explanation. The photo was by Rashid Un Nbi from the MILK collection, MILK stands for Moments of Intimacy, Laughter, and Kindness. The MILK collection is quite remarkable. The photo I opened this particular morning was of a man carrying another man along a busy street. The explanation reads “These twin brothers were caught on film as they made their way down Elephant Road in Dhaka, Bangladesh. One brother, crippled since birth, is carried by his twin.”
The story posing as a poem to accompany my photo is this: There is an old Sufi story about three men who found a bag of 17 gold pieces in a field they could not decide how to share the gold so they went to Mullah Nasrudin and asked him to decide. He asked them, “Would you have me divide it as I see fit or as God would do it?” “As God would do it.” They all said at once. “Here, then,” said the Mullah, “ten for you, five for you, and two for you.”
Anthropologically, in pre-scientific times, God has been a place holder for any unexplainable aspect of life. If it doesn’t make sense, it is the work of the gods. If we don’t understand life, God is the clarifier. As our understanding of life and biology and psychology has grown over the ages, so our understanding of God’s place in it all also shifts. So much of what we had pinned on God we now understand to be the products of natural laws, physics, biology, sociology and psychology. And yet the question seems to linger: Why do I prosper when my neighbor does not? Maybe my neighbor did something displeasing to God.
In the story of Cain and Abel, there is no indication that God did not accept Cain’s offering because God was displeased with Cain – God is displeased with Cain later when he murders his brother. But the reason why God did not accept Cain’s offering is asking a different question. Neither Cain nor Abel did anything in particular to warrant God’s favor or disfavor. God’s actions at the beginning of this story come off as truly capricious! It’s not tied to what Cain or Abel offered or how they behaved.
The question is not “Why do bad things happen to good people?” in this story. The question is more like “Why do bad things and good things happen to people unevenly?” “Why is life unfair?” And the answer to that mystery in this story is that God is unfair. And why is God unfair? It’s a mystery. And isn’t that bit of circular logic frustrating and unsatisfactory. When you are faced with disaster and suffering and loss, and someone says, “God moves in mysterious ways,” it is bordering on cruelty. “Sorry for your loss, it is awful what you are going through.” That is helpful to say, comforting. “It’s all part of God’s plan, God moves in mysterious ways.” That’s akin to saying, “God is not on your side anymore. God has deserted you. And I’m going to be over here with God.” God had no regard for Cain’s offering and God appears to have no regard for your pain, your loss, your offering.
Surely it would have been better to say Life is unfair and leave God out of it. But then in a thorough monotheism, God cannot be left out of any of it. That is the problem. One brother can walk, the other is born cripple. What has God to do with it?
There is a classic conundrum in Christian theology called the theodicy issue. God is all powerful, and God is good and loving, and yet evil and suffering exist. Why? Many people have wrestled with this intellectual puzzle over the years. One of my favorite examples is from the movie Shadowlands, a portrayal of the life of C. S. Lewis, the children’s author and Christian apologist. In the movie, Lewis is regularly giving lectures explaining how suffering is God’s way of helping us grow up. When he finally experiences his own deep suffering, when someone he loves is dealing with a great amount of physical pain, he changes his statements to questions. He says, “even I want to take her pain away, why doesn’t God?” (paraphrasing) It all comes down to a question of either God’s capacity for compassion or God’s breadth of power. Either God can’t or God doesn’t care to.
There is a Bette Midler song from 1990 called “From a Distance” that I think offers a perspective on this. God’s view is the big picture, the whole universe. Our individual lives and worries are miniscule in that big picture. Harmony and beauty shine though from the big picture. It offers comfort in the sense that God is watching and ultimately all is well. The lyrics of the song, however, show what some see as the hidden negative inside an otherwise very elegant theology.
From a distance we all have enough,
and no one is in need.
And there are no guns, no bombs, and no disease,
no hungry mouths to feed.
It sounds like God doesn’t see the hungry mouths, the disease and war, what with being so far away from us and focused on the beautiful harmony of all life. I read somewhere that the artist who wrote the song (Julie Gold) interprets her song to be about an imminent and beneficent god. But when I hear the song it sounds to me like a very transcendent and uncaring god.
In exploring this issue among Unitarian Universalists, I have discovered many of us, if we do hold to a monotheistic sense of divinity, hold truer to the God of Universalism, the God of Love. And most Unitarian Universalists are ready to see limits in the scope of God’s power. We solve the classic Christian Theodicy issue by saying God is not all powerful. God cares, God’s love is true, but limited by our human capacity to bring fairness and justice into our lives – and thus allow God’s power to be manifest. God’s power is in our response.
In the story, God is used to show that life is unfair – on brother’s offering is accepted while the other brother’s offering is not. But a Universalist reading of this would say life is unfair and God’s role in the cause of that unfairness is irrelevant. Either God created the world this way or it evolved randomly this way, or God created the world so as to evolve randomly or chaotically or whatever. The greater point is that this is what we have. Life is unfair. God is in the response. God is love and love’s power is nothing in isolation, but when an opening is made, love can pour in.
In the story, God plays a second role. God warns Cain about how he can respond. “Sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” When you most feel the bitter disappointment that life is unfair and seems to be unfairly tilted away from you, when disasters strike, when hurricanes destroy all you love, when tragedy tears your life to pieces, when one single simple loss hangs on your heart forever, be careful.
Be careful for in the midst of the suffering, there is something else also at your door waiting. In that story from thousands of years ago the author called it “sin.” I name it despair. And its desire is for you, but you must master it. God’s power is in our response. Despair turns us inward and tempts us to believe that no response is possible, the suffering is too great. Cain, the story says, grew angry. Some people turn their anger inward, others turn it outward. Cain turned his outward.
Our world is filled with anger over the injustice and unfairness of life. Fairness is a human concept. There is no fairness in nature. The cry for things to be fair comes early in our development. Children understand the concept of fair, perhaps better than adults. Justice is a human concept. Love transcends humanity. Dogs and deer and elephants show signs of love. The natural world is replete with indications that something like what we call love is well known and understand by all manner of life.
God is that spark of love within each of us; and more, God is that call of love to make the world a better place. Life is not spread evenly for all people, but by reaching out to others we can even it out more. Life is not fair, but by watching out for and supporting one another we can make it more fair. Blessing and suffering are not parsed out in an orderly fashion. There is always a little more here, less there, just barely enough for this and near overflowing for that. But that is not the end of the story, because how we respond greatly effects the outcome. It is not even or fair or just. That is our work: to bring more fairness and justice and love into life. And through this, God is fair. Through our work to make the world more fair, God is fair. God is in our response to suffering and disaster and pain and in this way, God is fair.
In a world without end,
May it be so.
Love and Justice
“Love and Justice”
Rev. Douglas Taylor
There is a story that begins in a simple New England white-clapboard church. The minister was mid-way through the reading of the text when people in the back noticed a disheveled man walking up the aisle. He was not someone who had been there before. He had the look of a homeless person, unwashed and unpleasant. The people in the pews could smell him before they saw him. And people would lean a little, or move their bags up onto the pew making it clear to the man as he looked around the seats on his way up the aisle: “don’t sit here,” “there’s no room for you in this pew.” The homeless man made it all the way up to the front pew without finding a space to sit. With a shrug, he walked a few steps in front of the first pew and settled himself down on the floor in front of the pulpit.
The minister had noticed him by now, having reached the conclusion of the reading and looking up to see everyone’s attention was fixed on the homeless man as he sat on the floor in the front. The minister noticed the head usher making his way down the aisle and knowing the situation would soon be in hand, he launched into the pastoral prayer. Other people also notice the respected elder of the church who served as head usher coming down the aisle. He moved slowly and with great purpose, leaning heavily on his cane as he walked. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief as they saw the old pillar of the community coming forward. He would deal with the homeless man; he would kindly but firmly escort the man out.
When the elder arrived at the front of the church, he promptly dropped his cane onto the floor and to everyone’s great surprise and chagrin, they watched as he slowly lowered his stiff old form down onto the floor to sit with the other man. The minister had stopped his prayer mid-sentence. An awed silence filled the room.
After a moment, the minister spoke with wisdom and humility saying, “All of you here will quite likely not remember a word of the prepared remarks I am about to offer. But every one of you will remember for the rest of your lives the example of compassion and hospitality we have just witnessed.”
Today, we gather to re-imagine Valentine’s Day as something more than a day for candy and hallmark cards. We gather to talk about a love bound to justice rather than romance. Romantic love has its place, to be sure; and our re-imagining is not an effort to do away with romance. Instead, we’re talking about love that is bigger than romance. We’re talking about a love that orders our lives and our society so all may be included.
The Unitarian Universalist Association is sponsoring a new campaign called “Standing on the Side of Love.” In presenting this campaign, the materials say that “every major religion has compassion and love at its center.” And as Unitarian Universalists, we embrace not only the “wisdom from the world’s religions which inspire us in our ethical and spiritual lives,” but more specifically, “staying true to our religious values means standing on the side of love.” At least, that is what it says in all that is the literature. But who would be against “Standing on the Side of Love?” What are we not doing by standing on the side of love? From what I’ve seen, the answer to that is we are not letting fear take charge, we are not letting oppression and exclusion rule the day. “This campaign seeks to harness the power of love to stop oppression, exclusion, and violence.”
This summer, I was at General Assembly in Salt Lake City, UT where they unveiled this campaign. The convention planners had a huge banner, something over a hundred feet tall, hung outside the convention center where we were meeting. It made the news: Unitarians are meeting, big orange banner, standing on the side of love, banner ripped to pieces by fierce thunder storm with high winds. Yeah, the fact that the huge banner ripped down the center during a fierce thunder storm is what made the news. I can imagine what the Christian fundamentalists who still think God sends natural disasters as punishment were thinking about that.
At the end of the convention, the planners were handing out pieces of the banner for people to take home. Spread the love, they were saying. Don’t let the story end here; carry a piece of this work home with you, literally. (Hold up section of orange banner). So here is my piece of the love to share with you. I feel a little like that Shel Silverstein poem:
Ricky was “L,” but he’s home with the flu,
Lizzie, our “O,” had some homework to do,
Mitchell, “E” prob’ly got lost on the way,
So I’m all of (the love banner) that could make it today.
But we have our own banner, not just a piece of one. I left for sabbatical without telling you about the Standing on the Side of Love campaign and return to find a big orange banner hanging in the Fireside Room. I’m told it was in the Social Hall first. We keep moving it around. You know, the first thing I said when I saw the banner was “Why is it hanging inside the building, it should be hanging outside! It’s supposed to be a message for the world around out there.”
So I got an earful about the plan our congregation made through the Program Council. The Program Council was looking for a project the whole congregation could connect with. When they decided to adopt the Standing on the Side of Love campaign, they wanted to keep the banner inside the building for a while until we felt we knew what it really understood the message. The council wanted to internalize the message so it could really mean something before we displayed it outside the building as a message describing what is going on within. They wanted it to be real first.
The Standing on the Side of Love campaign is about inclusion. And we are asked to re-imagine Valentine’s Day. It imagines a concept of justice that is more focused on relationship than rules, it is a justice born of compassion for others. Standing on the Side of Love is about loving all people, especially those despised and marginalized in our society. In the Hebrew Scriptures, God is constantly telling the Hebrew people to care for the widow, the orphan, the alien. The scriptures tell us to care for those excluded from access to power in the system, people who are on the margins and too easily forgotten. This Standing on the Side of Love campaign carries in modern language the same sentiment of that old Hebrew scripture injunction to care for the stranger in our midst.
Around the nation, UU congregations are re-imagining Valentine’s Day with worship services, rallies, and educational programs using the Standing on the Side of Love concept. As one organizer put it (Potsdam Rally Co-Organizer Austin Kenyon), “This weekend is a symbol, it’s done purposefully, to re-imagine Valentine’s Day as a holiday. To re-imagine it not as just a holiday of candy and Hallmark cards. But as a day of love and acceptance for everyone.”
UUA President Peter Morales wrote this in a public note yesterday, “Today, two groups especially bear the brunt of rejection: sexual minorities and undocumented immigrants. ‘Standing on the side of love’ means standing at their side. Just look at the ugly battle over legalization of the marriage of gays and lesbians and our inability to reform hopelessly outdated and dysfunctional immigration laws.”
So what exactly are we to do with this? What would it look like for it to be real? The Social Justice Council has organized a set of workshops focused not on immigration reform and marriage equality as one might expect. Indeed, we’ve had workshops on those topics in the past and will have more of them in the future as the need persists. Instead of that sort of workshop, the Justice council has organized workshops this afternoon on topics like forgiveness and non-violent communication, topics that bridge the internal and external work implied in this campaign. And the Justice council also added these paper hearts.
The paper hearts are part of re-imagining Valentine’s Day. You could consider them a challenge. What is one thing you can pledge to do for this Standing on the Side of Love version of Valentine’s Day? The hearts will be taped up on a paper banner in the Fireside Room after the service. It’s easy to come up with something for the normal version of Valentine’s Day, give the person you love a card, flowers, dinner, a massage, maybe jewelry. The ads out there offer a steady supply of what you can do for Valentine’s Day. But here we are talking about a different kind of day and the gift you can give is on a different order.
Do we stand on the side of love? What would it mean for you in your life to stand on the side of love? Something out of the ordinary, I think. Something that would put me out a little, is what we’re talking about. Not necessarily about immigration reform or marriage equality, of course. Those are the two main national efforts tied to the campaign, but that is not intended to limit the possibilities. And if we as a congregation are focused on figuring this out and developing a sense that we understand ourselves to be standing on the side of love before we hang the banner outside, then what you and I can write on the paper hearts should be something we can do as individuals rather than what we can do as a community.
Donate your hair to Locks of Love. Volunteer at an animal shelter. Help make and serve the salad for free community meal with others from the congregation. Visit someone in prison. Pay for the meal of someone you don’t know at a restaurant. Shovel your neighbor’s driveway. But this “Standing on the Side of Love” is more than being kind to someone, more than being a nice person. It is also that kindness being directed toward those left on the margins of our society. Can you imagine yourself doing things like that? I can imagine myself doing things like that. And I’m sure you can too. But too often, something gets in the way of making and keeping the kinds of promises that we can write on these paper hearts this morning.
One verse in the anthem this morning (Standing on the Side of Love by Jason Shelton #1014 in Singing the Journey) says: “Sometimes we build a barrier to keep love tightly bound, corrupted by fear, unwilling to hear, denying the beauty we’ve found.” We hold back in fear. And the excuses come rolling off the tongue: “I’m too busy, I don’t have the time.” “I wouldn’t know where to begin.” “It wouldn’t make a difference anyway.” At least these are the reasons I list in my head when I start thinking about doing something that is a bit of a sacrifice, something that is out of the way for me to do, these are some of the barriers I find that keep love tightly bound.
I suspect I am not alone. I often hear “I’m too busy, I don’t have the time,” not only from my own lips but from the lips of many of us. Being busy is the perfect shield today. Being busy is a sign of success, a sign that I’m important. I would volunteer at the crisis hotline, but I’m too busy. Have you ever felt a desire to do something that would make a difference in the world and then not done it because you just didn’t have the time? It may well be that you do not have the time. It may well be that you already have many things you are doing and these things make a difference. It may be that you really are busy, but it is worth double checking. Are you busy with the work you really long to do, or have you abdicated the authority of your life to your calendar? That may be a barrier for you. I think it is one for me.
“I wouldn’t know where to begin.” This one comes quickly and can be dissipated as quickly. There are thousands of things one can do to make the world a better place. It’s rather overwhelming. And if this “Standing on the Side of Love” campaign is about immigration reform and marriage equality, then what single action can I take as an individual to make a difference? Well, the Standing on the Side of Love campaign is not only about those two national initiatives. It is about standing in relationship with people in need. The best advice I’ve ever heard about how to figure out where to begin is from Howard Thurman who said, “Don’t ask what the world needs, ask instead what makes you come alive and then go do it. Because what the world most needs are people who are alive.” Find your passion. If you like food, maybe you can help feed people. If you like animals, maybe you can help out at a shelter. If you like the earth, maybe you can gift house plants to people. Find what makes you come alive. Follow that passion to a gift you can give to others.
Of course, there remains the most insidious voice in my head, the one that tempts me to give up despite it all: the voice that says, “It wouldn’t make a difference anyway.” But I know I don’t have to save the world, I only need to do my small part. You have heard, I trust, that story of the person walking along the beach at low tide throwing sand dollars back into the ocean. Another person comes along and sees the beach just filled with the sand dollars caught out of the water after the tide went out and shouted to the first person, “You can’t save them all. Give up; what you’re doing won’t make a difference.” The first person holds up a sand dollar and says “It makes a difference to this one.”
Mother Theresa said, “there are no great deeds; only small deeds done with great love.” What promise will you put on your paper heart? What will you do this week or next to stand on the side of love? Is there something you’ve always wanted to do? Serve at a soup kitchen, help someone file out their taxes, meet with a senator about marriage equality, build a wheelchair ramp for someone’s home? Stretch yourself a little. This is meant as a challenge. Let’s re-imagine Valentine’s Day as a day to make a difference for the disempowered and marginalized in our world. Let love step in to welcome the stranger among us. Let grace spill out and heal the world through even your small deeds.
In a world without end,
May it be so.