Sermon, “True Things” – part 1 of 3 part series “Real Life”
Today’s my mom’s birthday, and so I’m going to start by sharing a classic my-mom story.
She’d just come back from the doctor, and was sharing with me and my sisters. It wasn’t a huge deal, but it was kind of embarrassing, at least to her.
As she went on, she grimaced with dread.
What, mom? We asked.
She said, Well, I just hate that I have to tell Jane.
Jane was her best friend since they were both in kindergarten. Over fifty years later they still talked every day. You know mom, I offered, gently, if you don’t want to tell Jane, you don’t have to.
And then less gently, my sisters and I burst into laughter.
But my mom didn’t really get the joke. Even if it was embarrassing, how could she not tell Jane? It was a true thing that was going on in her life.
My mom, I’ve learned over the course of my life, has a high willingness-verging-on-compulsion – to share things that others would decide to keep tucked away. The upside of this is you never wonder what’s going on with my mom, how she feels about you, or about anything. She is literally who she says she is – as she says most everything.
The downside, on the other hand, is that…well… the things that are true about her, when you’re her daughter, often have a lot to do with you…and it turns out I’m not quite so willing or eager to share everything.
Over the years, I’ve come to realize that most people are not like my mom, and are actually more like me. Most of us have things about ourselves that we keep hidden, sometimes very hidden, even from ourselves. This is what psychologists call “denial,” which is a coping technique that can be helpful in surviving immediate crises, but dangerous and even deadly if clung to for too long.
Today we kick off a new sermon series, what we’re calling “Real Life.” We thought of it because we realized we have spent a number of Sundays in the recent weeks talking about courageous love and its call for justice, and the good news of our Universalist faith that proclaims we are all in this together….but we hadn’t really dealt with how all this plays out in real life in the here and now. We wondered if we were enabling a kind of denial ourselves – one that wasn’t picking up the issues we face in the every day, the moments of living that make up our lives.
It’s such a Unitarian Universalist temptation, after all, to talk about faith in the generic sense, or about courageous love as it applies to a theoretical whole. But how does courageous love apply to how much credit card debt we’re carrying, or how often we’re visiting the liquor store – or here in Colorado, the pot store – or to the fights we have with our kids, or our partners, what does it have to do with the judging voice in our heads, or the grief everyone thinks we’re already over,
or the hurts we caused, maybe even on purpose?
How does our faith apply to the loneliness and longing we feel when things are quiet,
or even how much we try to fill that emptiness with food, or sex, or gambling….or how much we try to punish it out of ourselves through exercise, or not-eating, or overwork….?
When I think back to the UU services that I’ve been a part of, I’m kind of amazed to realize that not too many of them tackle these real life sort of questions. It is as if our own kind of denial – like, nope, not here. Here we’re fine, we’re good. We’ve got everything totally under control. Right?
It’s fascinating – but not that uncommon – in Unitarian Universalism, and in life, more generally. You may have heard about the new podcast with Nora McInerny called “Terrible, Thanks for Asking.” McInerny has had some pretty awful things happen to her, and was frustrated by the ways that still when people asked how she was, she’d say “I’m fine.” And she realized that was what everyone did. Denial, it turns out, is carefully taught!
And yet this deception – of ourselves, of others –keeps us isolated and disconnected in ways that prevent us from healing the exact struggles we’re trying to keep hidden.
Human nature is not always the smartest, I think.
But we do have our reasons.
In the case of our faith community, most of our these I am prepared to blame on William Ellery Channing. Channing is considered the founder of American Unitarianism by way of his sermon in 1820, Unitarian Christianity. His concept of “Salvation by Character” became the rallying cry for Unitarianism throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. On the one hand, his ideas were empowering – especially in light of the prevailing Calvinism of the time – it was so hopeful to imagine that salvation could lie in our hands, that we could strive towards perfection, and be well on our way – through our own choice, our own intent, our own will.
But on the other, these same ideas left little room to talk about our struggles, doubts, and even failures – let alone our incompetence, helplessness, or surrender. Which has meant over the years, that we have created our own version of “keeping up appearances,” which mostly I find, takes the form of not being able to ask for help.
If to be a Unitarian Universalist is to be “striving towards perfection,” and well on our way, then if we are struggling, or hurting, or caught in a life we didn’t intend – then we must be the only ones, right? We worry that if we share what’s really going on in our lives, we’d be a total bummer on the UU happy party, or worse, the juicy gossip in the otherwise perfectly perfect show. We don’t want to be judged, or remembered always for the thing that’s going on right now. Better just to play along, to keep these more vulnerable parts of ourselves hidden, and hopefully, forgotten.
This subtle messaging of our faith came to me most clearly one evening, it was before I went to seminary, and our good friends were struggling with a likely upcoming divorce, and with some real challenges with their sometimes violent and grief-stricken 8th grader. Their family was so fragile, and vulnerable.
They were members of their local UU church, and they invited us one night to come to an event that was about creating community around their 8th grader and recognizing them as they come of age. I remember so vividly the moment when it hit me how much this church and the program they were running – a UU-standard program – assumed an intact family that had mostly stable parent-child relationships and a stability and health in the adults themselves.
Given that none of this was the case, my beloved friends, and their beloved child tried so hard to answer the questions, but they literally made no sense. After words, each of the other tables got up to share their answers, so perfectly conveyed. My friends gave their answers, but I knew, it was mostly make-believe.
I was so angry at that church, and at our faith that night. Because that kid, he needed that support – they needed that support – and they were promised they’d get it – a circle of community around his time of coming of age. It’s just that his coming of age didn’t look like a straight line, it had some real struggle in it. And probably he wasn’t the only one, they weren’t the only family. But that program told anyone who might be struggling – don’t tell your church – we don’t have people like you here.
What’s especially ironic to me about all of this, however, is that if you know or Channing’s biography, you know he struggled immensely with his public vs. private self, and the question of which parts of himself were acceptable, worthy, and enough. Channing was obsessive in his work, and self-punishing in his sleeping and eating habits, mostly because he was trying to overcome “what he described as his effeminacy and his unwanted sexual fantasies.” For all the talk of human capacity and will,
from what I can tell, our Unitarian theological inheritance is also shaped by denial, and shame.
Which brings me to today’s good news. Denial, and shame, as researcher Brene Brown teaches us, can be overcome, by coming clean. It’s counter-intuitive of course, but the way to stop feeling like we have to hide, is to stop hiding.
Taking the risk of stepping out and sharing those things we are afraid make us unlovable – this movement towards the light allows us to create a container for a new truth to emerge – in our own lives, and in our faith.
For only in sharing the broken parts of our lives are we able to engage more fully the beauty, the sacred, the real. As long as we are siphoning off parts, there remains something make-believe in all of life, a depth we can’t quite touch, a possibility left unknown.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that we must all become my mom.
But more, it invites us to unburden ourselves from the shaping and the shielding, the secret-keeping and the story-telling, these things that withhold the real healing power of our community, and our faith – this promise that there is a love, holding us, right here, as we are.
To imagine that we can take it, even if it’s hard, that the truth can make us stronger, more courageous, and more capable of being the church and the people we long to be.
“Most of the time we are eager, and longing for the possibility of telling” the truth. “These possibilities may seem frightening, but they are not destructive.”
To seek the truth in love – as the words of our covenant promise – could bring us into more life, rather than less.
With this in mind, I invite you to call to mind now whatever may be going on in your life, or in your heart, that you mostly keep shielded – whatever the reason.
Maybe it’s a question you are wondering about….Maybe it’s something you love about yourself, but you worry others won’t.
What are those true things that feel you can’t speak?
For all of these that are on your hearts now, I offer this prayer and blessing:
For all of these true things, we give thanks.
May we believe that every part of us is worthy of love.
May we remember that change is always possible, that life is still doing its work upon us, and through us.
Into this wide world of brokenness and beauty, we offer ourselves, as we are, knowing that the healing and truth we seek in the world starts in our own hearts.
May we be released us from shame and liberated into real life. For us all.
Amen, and blessed be.