My Precious – a sermon on liberation and will

Here is the audio of this sermon. 

Reading: Paul’s Letter to the Romans, Chapter 7, verses 15-24

It was a recent blog post from Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project that made me think of Gollum for today’s service. Rubin’s work focuses on ways to live happier lives – and specifically what people say gets in the way of happiness: the inability to make or break a particular habit or habits.

Rubin sees Gollum as just one more example of this perpetual puzzle which is – “‘when and why can people successfully change a habit, or not?'”Rubin summarizes that for Gollum, he has this thing – the ring – that is precious to him, that has also caused him great pain.

Of course, it’s not just Gollum that has this issue. As she observes, “many people have a habit that makes them unhappy – one that they know drains them, isn’t good for them, causes them grief. And yet, at the thought of giving it up, they protest ‘No, It’s my precioussssssssss!'”

She gives a few examples, but honestly, I didn’t need any of them. I know exactly what she means.

January 1st wasn’t that long ago – yet how many of us have stuck to those resolutions we set so intently, knowing that if we kept them, we would be better off. Sometimes I’ve wondered about the timing of the season of lent – which we are currently in the middle of – given that the spiritual discipline of lent is often about giving up certain indulgences –
I’ve wondered if it’s a response to the fact that by now, the large majority have abandoned their January promises of healthier eating, less drinking, more rest, or other very good and idealized intentions.

Gollum is an extreme example – one that calls to mind profoundly destructive addictions – to drugs, alcohol, spending, gambling, sex – or really anything that you pursue to the point that you trade in your life. As the character Isildur says about the ring, “It’s precious to me, though I buy it with great pain.”

Still, our addictions need not be life-threatening in order of us to feel enslaved to something that we know probably isn’t bringing us the sort of joy and satisfaction we would hope for in in our lives.

In her post, Rubin speaks about simply giving up these habits in order to live happier lives.

She says, after we realize that something isn’t actually bringing us happiness, and instead is an obstacle to happiness, then the solution as she says, is to let this thing go. Stop doing it. Or, start doing something else.

Stop going to bed so late, or watching so much television. Start eating better, or going to the gym more. Stop working so much, or drinking so much. Start volunteering more, or reading more. Stop playing so much candy crush, or stop reading so much political news.

Just do it. Be – as Smeagol says – freeeee!

This self-improvement mantra is the basic premise of one of our faith’s most well-known and influential pieces of writing – William Ellery Channing’s Self-Culture – which he delivered in Boston in 1838.Channing kicked off the official beginning of American Unitarianism two decades before with his sermon, Unitarian Christianity – so by the time we get to Self-Culture, his ideas were considered representative and formative for our movement. And really, they still are.

The particular ideas of self-culture are based in a relatively simple idea that he manages to make sound incredibly complex – he says it like this, “I have chosen for the subject of this lecture Self-culture, or the care which every man owes to himself, to the unfolding and perfecting of his nature.”

Today, we would just say – I want to talk about how we can make ourselves better people – morally, and ethically. How we can have better lives.

Returning to the 19th century version, Channing goes on to say, “Self-culture is something possible. It is not a dream. We have the power not only of tracing our powers,
but of guiding and impelling them;  not only of watching our passions, but of controlling them; not only of seeing our faculties grow, but of applying to them means and influences to aid their growth. We can stay or change the current of thought. We can fix our eyes on perfection, and make almost everything speed towards it.”

Just do it – be freeeee!

In our contemporary world overrun by self-help books, self-improvement podcasts and the Oprah network, Channing’s ideas may not strike us as particularly radical.Of course, we can grow, we can make ourselves better.

At the time, however, it was a different story – which is why Channing spends so much time affirming that it IS possible. But actually his audience was likely skeptical –
steeped as they were in the orthodox notions of Calvinism, and pre-destination.

These are the ideas that say your destiny is already set before you are born – set by God. And, that no human effort or choice can make your lot other than it is. And by lot I mean –
not just your after-life, but also your lot in this life- the two were inextricably linked – the one being an indicator of the other.

One of my friends – a conservative Lutheran pastor – has explained this Calvinist idea to me this way:  while it might feel like you have free will – you actually don’t. God’s grace determines your salvation – or lack thereof- at every possible level.

In affirming the capacity of the human will to participate in the determination of one’s moral character, to assert that humans can “grow” their own souls and can choose to do good, as Channing says “fix our eyes on perfection and speed towards it” – in saying all this, the Unitarians were asserting an old heresy, one known as Pelagianism – after its most vocal proponent, Pelagius, in the 5th century.

They and he were speaking directly against the church’s teaching, specifically as it had interpreted Paul’s letters:

“For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…”

Although Eve’s apple gets all the press, these verses I read earlier, and the chapters surrounding these verses – are the real textual basis for the concept of original sin.

Here in this letter to this little community in Rome, a personal acknowledgement –
a confession from the letter writer – that no matter what he does, or what he may want at his core, he does not have the power to make himself do the thing he knows he should do.
This powerlessness is what Augustine and other church fathers pointed to as sin, the sin we’re all born into – original sin.

And here’s is where I want to bring us back to the Lord of the Rings (of course).

Let’s go back to the story of Gollum, and our “precious” that we buy with great pain.  Whatever these “precious” might be for each of us – whatever they have been, still are.

Rubin and many others have made a small fortune selling advice and tips to be made free of these precious.

However, if it was really so easy as just deciding to stop or start a habit that we both love and hate, doesn’t it seem there wouldn’t be so many people in this “self-help” business.

And after all, if you know the end of the story – you know that Smeagol was not actually all that “free” as he feels in the clip.  Quite the opposite.

Which is to say, at least on this front – Paul captures something really true about what it means to be human. Don’t tell Channing.

In truth, this is something that Unitarians haven’t owned up to enough – which makes sense. Our movement was born of a time when religion, philosophy and the predominant culture weren’t offering any sense of free will – and so it makes sense that the liberating message we would offer would be to say how terribly untrue that was – that we CAN choose to do good.

Because we know that sometimes do do the thing we want to do.

Sometimes we are Gollum, but also sometimes, we are Sam. Sam, who managed to travel with his friend Frodo – in the presence of the ring – all across Middle Earth, all the way to Mordor. Sam, unlike all others before him, who ensured that the ring was ultimately destroyed.

This was the vision that Channing had in mind in his sermon, Likeness to God – where he spoke about the human potential to emulate divinity.

In Channing’s time, as today, I’m sure it was profoundly good news to remind people that despite examples of human cruelty, there was also a good deal of human kindness, compassion, and love – people choosing to be generous, and fair.

What’s more, I’m sure then, as now, it was important to remind people that no one should be defined by their worst day or their worst act – and that we all always hold the potential to be and do better- that we can freely choose to do and be better.

That we have continued to lift up our human capacity for growth and goodness,
makes sense as well. We all want to see ourselves as “ordered,” as being in control of our decisions and choices. Channing’s view of humanity says we can take and stay in control of ourselves.

However, two hundred years later, it seems about time to acknowledge – that none of us have everything under control all the time. Right?

All of us have a battle of some sort we’re waging within our own lives, our own hearts -often minor, just as often anything but.

All of us are at times and to various degrees, Gollum. All of us, at any given time, can be rendered powerless in the face of our “precious.” We can be powerless to do the thing we know we should do, or to stop doing the thing we know we should not do.

I am not talking about those things that we only realize later we should’ve done differently, and I’m not talking about accidents. I’m talking about those things that we know aren’t a good idea, we do the anyway. Things that have small, or devastating consequences in our own, or others’ lives – all the time.

Does this feel like Unitarian heresy? A little. Because we don’t talk about our powerlessness, or our struggles to do the right thing, our need for help from outside ourselves.

We affirm that we are enough, worthy of love, just as we are – this is what draws so many of us here – this life-affirming message.

And yet the fact that we don’t also talk about this other truth only perpetuates the shame around these totally normal struggles, the regular part of being human that is “missing the mark.”

Rather than seeking support and help from our fellow travelers in this journey of life as we promise in our covenant, we cover up those challenges, or make light, beat ourselves up in secret – assuming we’re the only ones who can’t keep it all together, all on track.

Our liberal theology was created because we wanted to avoid this sort of judgment, but after all this time, the judgment is still there – it just went underground, and inside –
the voice of the internal critic can be so terribly loud.

We would be better off with a theological middle ground – the middle ground where we acknowledge that we have within us both a likeness to God, and a powerlessness to do the thing we know we should do.

We are capable both of doing good, choosing the good, growing towards greater good –
AND incapable of any of this.

And our capacity for one or the other is driven both by forces beyond ourselves AND something deeply within and a part of ourselves.

Which means our task is to both – do whatever we can to grow, learn, and become “better,” (this is the stuff that we’re pretty well practiced at and (the harder and less-acknowledged part) to surrender to – or if you prefer – partner with, the forces of life and love – defined theistically or atheistically/humanistically – moving through this universe
which have not all that much to do with our own will or our individual lives.

Because that second part is harder and stranger for us, I want to conclude my sermon by offering a couple of tips on what that might even look like.

First, this spiritual partnership or surrender starts with an honest assessment and acknowledgement of the habits, thinking, or actions that we’d call our “precious” but that we buy with great pain. Maybe acknowledge them just to ourselves, or maybe with our trusted friends. Don’t try to change these things, just see them.

Once we’ve surfaced one or two, then we ask ourselves: what is “right” about holding on to our “precious”? There’s something that works about continuing to pursue our precious, something that works at a really core level. What is that? What’s right about it?

I’ll give you one of my examples. One of my precious’s is not taking my day off. Over and over I say I’m going to take off Tuesday entirely – that I need to, that it’s important for my health and sanity, but then inevitably, I find a reason why that can’t happen. So the question is – what’s right about not taking Tuesday off? What makes it precious?

This sort of question helps break out of the shame cycle. I wonder sometimes if this was the original impulse behind the practice of confession – not guilt or shame, as it has come to be experienced, but just about surfacing, acknowledging, liberating ourselves from these struggles.

Beyond becoming aware, and asking this question about “what’s right” – my last tip in this task of spiritual surrender – or partnership- is to do nothing. Do nothing, and pay attention to everything that’s happening without you. If this sounds wild and impossible, then start small, spontaneous, and fold these “do nothing” moments into your day. Practice setting everything down, breathing, and watching the world at work without you.
This awareness of all that goes on without your willful effort is the seed of any spiritual practice – and it’s what reminds us that when we can’t find the power to change within ourselves, not all is lost, as a greater truth and life itself continues to unfold.

Humanity isn’t always pretty, it turns out. We are not always striving to do good, or progressing towards greater nobility or greater goodness. Still, even at our worst, even in the midst of our basest choices and darkest nights, perhaps then most of all,
we are still ourselves precious, and worthy of love -nothing can undo this – and the greater spirit of love and life isn’t done with us yet. And this, for today, is the best news of all.

Amen, and blessed be.

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About Rev. Gretchen Haley

Gretchen Haley serves as the Senior Minister of the Foothills Unitarian Church in Fort Collins, CO. She's relentlessly curious about most things, especially the big stuff of theology, the beauty of creation and poetry, the magic of collaboration, and the great joy and often-great-depth of popular (and less popular) television and music. She and her partner of 17 years, Carri, have 2 children, Gracie (10) and Josef (8).
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