All Souls Kansas City

December 29: “Golden Oldie” with Rev. Kendyl Gibbons

Click here to start at the sermon.

So, the premise is simple enough. Jim Mitchell challenged us to acknowledge that this community, of which he himself is a part, may be less diverse and less accepting than we would like to be – than we usually tell ourselves that we are. It is a proposition worth exploring, not only because Jim made the winning bid five years ago at the service auction back in 2014, but also because the foundation of all spiritual growth and maturity is self-knowledge, and self-awareness. At the same time, as Joseph Campbell and others have shown us, myths can be powerful forces; indeed, they may be a necessary component of human spiritual life, and our myths, here at All Souls, are no exception.

This morning, I would invite us to consider three myths about All Souls – and these are in fact myths about Unitarian Universalism generally; we are not unique – to which I think Jim is calling our attention. This is my interpretation of his challenge; you can ask him later if I got it right. They are the myths of acceptance, of diversity, and of community. In my view, they interlock with each other, and are mutually sustaining, so that much that may be said about one will be true for the other two as well.
The first, which is perhaps the closest to our conscious awareness, the one that may be easiest to see, is the myth of acceptance. It shows up in the second item of the UUA principles and purposes; “acceptance of one another, and encouragement to spiritual growth within our congregations.” I think it is no accident that these two concepts, acceptance of one another and spiritual growth, are presented together. The best way to learn to be compassionate and understanding toward others, is to become aware of our own limitations, and how much growing we need to do ourselves. Nobody is perfect, and we are all in this together. And the people who are the most encouraging cheerleaders of our growth are not those who say, “Here’s how good I am; be like me;” but rather those who say, “This is what I struggle with; what can I learn from you?” The way to become a community is to confront the deepest challenges we all face as human beings together, which is what religious institutions are for.

But the truth about Unitarian Universalism – to which this congregation is no exception – is that its historical tendency has been to protect ourselves against the challenges of genuine mutual encounter and growth on a spiritual level by retreating into an intellectual argument about the logic of atheism, and turning it into a litmus test for who belongs in our special little circle. This allows both the no personal god humanists and the I haven’t ruled out the possibility that there is something bigger than me theists to walk around feeling like endangered minorities and persecuted victims, which is the exact opposite of either growth or acceptance. Part of this conundrum turns on the expectation of feeling ‘safe,’ and what constitutes ‘safety.’ It’s easy for me to say, on the one hand, because I was born into this tradition, and raised in it and by it, and I am totally confident that nothing anyone can say about me, or anything I think, can make me not belong here. Yet at the same time, this also makes me a minority in Unitarian Universalism, where some 85 percent of our members come from a different faith, and were not raised in this community, so that the escape from orthodoxy is the paradigm religious journey, which I do not share. Wherefore, if I care to do so, I can appropriate the same logic as embattled theists and the embattled humanists, and maintain, not without some painful personal anecdotal evidence, that my story doesn’t count, that no one is listening to me and those like me, that this community is not a safe place to ask the kind of questions that are urgent for my inner life. What this claim accomplishes is to let me off the hook of actually exploring those urgent questions with others, who might challenge my thinking, or call my bluff, or confront me with new ideas. Or more alarmingly, they might tell me about their own pain, and touch my heart, or see my vulnerability, and love me anyway.

The truth is, that none of us is actually safe; life is a risky proposition, and the world is a chancy place; our culture deals in threats to our self-esteem in order to motivate us to buy stuff; we all lose the people and things we cherish, and we are all getting old, and eventually will die. Who should feel safe? The answer is to grow up, and give up; give up on feeling safe, because you are not, and never will be, and neither is anyone else, and give up on feeling special, because you already are – just like everybody else. Our genuine spiritual journey – the one that actually gets somewhere, as opposed going round and round in a little, ego-centered circle – begins when we accept our own mortality, finitude, and imperfection, recognizing that this is the condition we share with every other human being on the planet, regardless of our theology or their theology. Yes, your wounds are real wounds, and your suffering deserves the compassion of others. So are their wounds real, and deserving of your compassion. Let’s also be clear that your privilege, and my privilege, is real, too, and often invisible to us and harmful to others. None of us gets to be innocent, and none of us gets to be safe – regardless of humanist, or theist, or any other category you care to name.

So, if we wanted to make acceptance more of a reality and less of a myth here at All Souls, the people who don’t identify as atheists would need to speak up, and make the effort to describe what their experience leads them to believe, and not retreat into a sullen silence in which they can blame the aggressive humanists, and not have to do any work. And the humanists would have to give up on having Unitarian Universalism as their private clubhouse, where they congratulate each other on how clever they are, while anyone who doesn’t perform the secret atheist handshake can be condescended to and told that they don’t belong. If we really mean what we say every week about dwelling together in peace, it starts here; dwelling in peace and acceptance and mutual curiosity and shared compassion with people who differ from you theologically; not just tolerating them from across the room, but genuinely accepting them; embracing them, learning from them, caring for them, being vulnerable with them. If we can’t do that much here, what business do we have to call for global peace?
And speaking of differences, that brings us to our second myth at All Souls: diversity. In reality, we are, like many other UU congregations, an ethnic church. We may not want to be, but we are. We have a very identifiable socio-economic, educational, cultural and increasingly generational profile, concisely summarized by Rosemary Bray McNatt in the reading a moment ago. If you want to learn more about the specifics of this culture, read David Brooks’ 2001 portrait of Bobos In Paradise, and find the culture of Unitarian Universalism described on every page. Bourgeois Bohemians, he calls us, abbreviated as Bobos; we aspire to bohemian values, but live quietly bourgeois lifestyles; we identify politically with the oppressed, and resent government intrusion into our individual moral decisions, but we operate from a position of economic and intellectual privilege that we resist acknowledging. We tend to think of privilege as something possessed by Donald Sterling, Donald Trump, and the Bush and Kardashian families, whereas we, with our student debts, our mortgages, and our kids’ orthodontia, are barely getting by. Former UUA president Peter Morales calls this “Yankee culture,” and he probably sees it better than many of us, since he doesn’t come from it. It is based on thrift, industry, intellect, individual rights, and personal reticence; one does not make a display of one’s achievements, one’s wealth, or one’s feelings. To the extent that you are part of it; you don’t see it – it is invisible to you, and its expectations are simply the way that decent, right-thinking people behave. Every culture is like this, of course; it assumes that its own ways of sorting out the human condition are by definition the superior ways, and for Yankee Bobo UUs, this means dealing with religion as a phenomenon appropriately experienced from the neck up only. We are easily alarmed by the messiness of bodies, passions, needs, ecstacies, money, sex, suffering. And yet a religion devoid of these powerful energies may appear strangely lifeless; may actually fail to meet many people from outside that Puritan heritage at a place where they can connect to its offer of meaning and hope.
And as Anthony Makar experienced in his experiment with a different form of worship at Pathways congregation, traditional Unitarian Universalist culture has a rather restricted liturgical vocabulary. It’s not that UUs don’t enjoy religious tourism; we like to go hear up-beat, percussion driven music in other churches, and witness exotic Hindu ceremonies or Sufi dancing and appreciate Buddhist chanting, but don’t ask us to come home and pay for a five piece band every week at our church, or move our bodies in worship, or learn how to deepen into a chant of our own.
I submit that this is the diversity we need to worry about; race and age and class and all the other categories that we fret so much over, would fall into place, I suspect, if we could learn to hear our own cultural idiom the way it sounds to those who do not share it. What makes this increasingly urgent is that our traditional culture, like any immigrant heritage, is dying out – our own children for the most part do not share it. Which means that our real task to is figure out what constitutes our religion other than 19th century New England intellectualism filtered through mid-20th century Bobo lifestyle preferences, so that we can get some help translating that into a 21st century vocabulary and cadence. Be assured – be absolutely certain – that many of you, and I, will be disconcerted, and perhaps even dismayed, by that translation. Rejoice and be glad! That means that this precious faith has a life that transcends our personalities and the peculiarities of our historical era. In order to make the myth of diversity into reality, we must teach ourselves to see beyond our own cultural comfort, for we cannot welcome people who are different without opening up to unfamiliar habits, ideas, and forms of expression. If we can learn to recognize cultural discomfort when we feel it, and greet it every time it arises as an ally in the effort to give our church a future, not only will we make that future more possible, but we will also genuinely practice the value of diversity, and we will each grow toward a greater spiritual maturity ourselves.
The final myth, and the most difficult, is the myth of community. As I said before, all three of these – acceptance, diversity, and community – are interrelated. Authentic community requires that we connect with one another on more than an intellectual level; because we know that human beings are social animals, with open limbic systems, who regulate each other’s physiological and emotional well-being in relationship. Neither our bodies nor our minds are designed to thrive in isolation; community is more than an aesthetic pleasure; it is a nutritional necessity, as much as vitamins or protein. But the kind of community that keeps us healthy is not created by people amusing themselves together, or at least not only that; rather, it arises when people engage with each other in struggles that matter – in working together toward a goal that none of them could achieve alone; in overcoming a difficult obstacle or managing a crisis or creating something of value. The process of building a home and raising children and sustaining a family is one of the paradigms of this experience. It is certainly reasonable to hope that in the course of that endeavor, there will be many moments of deep joy, and many others of simple enjoyment. Yet I think we all understand that such a profound and significant task as family never unfolds without also bringing conflict and disappointments and struggles, and needing enormous amounts of patience and forgiveness, as the years pass. And that is why, if the participants can endure and stay engaged with each other, it becomes a source of such great satisfaction; if it were easy, there would not be nearly as much to be gained. So the myth is that if we can get together and have a good time, we are building community, but I don’t think so. Only when we let each other get close enough that we breathe together, so that if one of us falters, the others keep the rhythm going; only if, as the proverbial blessing puts it, we have such understanding that when one of us weeps, the others taste salt, is it really the community that a religious covenant is meant to build.
So we have these myths about ourselves, and then we have the realities that Jim Mitchell and I want us all to pay attention to. But listen carefully now – myths are not lies. Myths are humanity’s oldest form of suspended disbelief; they summon up the same ability that you access whenever you sit down at the theater, or in the movies; whenever you turn on the TV or curl up with a murder mystery or a romance novel. For that moment, for those few hours, you set aside what you know to be reality, and willingly enter into the world of fiction – and even though you know, in some part of your brain, that Norman Bates doesn’t really stab Janet Leigh in the shower, doesn’t that scene still make your heart pound? Suspended disbelief is one form of limbic connection, which is why the intensity of a horror movie often makes for a more romantic date than a mushy chick flick.
Myths are a form of suspended disbelief that help us to learn and teach and understand what the world is about, and what we are trying to create together. There is nothing wrong with having myths; you just have to know what they are for. So we come here every week, and for a couple of hours we suspend our disbelief about acceptance, and diversity, and community, because those are the deepest and dearest wishes of our hearts; because it nourishes the human spirit to imagine what the world would be like if they were so, and so that is what human beings do. It’s the pretend play of adulthood, which is just as significant and essential now as it was when we were toddlers. And I believe, to the very core of my being, that myths like ours are the only thing that can challenge the other, dangerous, seductive myths of dominance, and greed, and exclusive privilege, with their potential to destroy us all. Bad religion, with its superstition and credulity, its bullying loyalty and blind obedience and self-righteous cruelty, bad religion drives out no religion; people who think they have no religion are the first to succumb to the lure of the newly self-proclaimed prophet and their aggrandizing revelations. The only preventative is good religion; the kind that asks us to confront mortality and human finitude honestly, and to take up the myths of acceptance, diversity, and community, not because we have fully realized them, or ever could, but because that is the kind of world we want to live in, and the kind of people we are striving to become.