Thursday, July 26, 2012

Freedom and Submission

These are the sermonic explorations from July 22nd 2012 at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist in Charlottesville, VA.

If you'd like to hear the podcast, click here.

Mike Ludwick’s Explorations:  Chains of Submission-- Chains of Freedom

I don't know much about Ramadan.  So if you came to hear something about Ramadan you are going to be severely disappointed, by me anyway. Perhaps our ordained clergy person will have something profound to say about it.  We’ll see.

Nevertheless I have been thinking a lot about the ideas of freedom and submission.  I would think that for those of us who identify with the principles of Unitarian-Universalism, one of the values we hold most dear is freedom, particularly freedom of thought and belief.  Just recently I noticed that Jefferson’s Statue of Religious Freedom for Virginia is posted here in the sanctuary. I suspect this statute is one of the things we like most about Jefferson.  We know he was pretty psyched about it himself because he wanted it mentioned on tombstone, which it is. 

In fact, I think it would be great if the name of our religion could be changed to include something about freedom. I’m afraid the name “Unitarian-Universalism” is confusing to people because there is the Unitarian part which sounds like we are about ONE thing, and the universalism part which sounds like we are about EVERYTHING. I think to non-UUs we just sound kind of kooky which is a shame.  Perhaps our religion could simply be called “The Free Church” and we could all practice “Freeism” and be “Freeists”.  People would say, “Look a Freeist in a Prius!”  Although after what Erik had to say last week, I guess instead of just being “The Free Church” it should be “The Free and Responsible Church”…… Nah, the marketing folks will never go for that.

For those of you born into this Freeist way of thinking, you don’t have the baggage of other religions as do converts, like me, but you likely feel the same way. We don’t want to submit to creeds, dogmas, doctrines and teachings.  Many converts are here because we wanted to get away from them and the rest of you want to stay away from them.

We don’t like submitting to things, do we? We all want to be free, right? But what does it mean to be free?

 At a minimum being free is not being enslaved or oppressed to the point where you must almost completely submit to others or be punished, imprisoned or killed.  The song we sang “Sick and Tired” was inspired by a quotation of Fannie Lou Hamer, the voting rights and civil rights activist, who at the age of 44 tried to register to vote in 1962 in Mississippi and was shot at, jailed and beaten.  She went on to help found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and challenged the Democratic Party to seat its delegation at the 1964 convention.  The song talks about getting up and breaking the chains of oppression. There is little redemptive value in submission to this sort of oppression, but many did submit simply to survive.  Fortunately others risked their lives and did not submit which helped to increase the freedom of others.  

Yet even while we value freedom so highly, can submission enrich our lives, even though we would be less free, less able to do whatever we want?   Just by living in America we submit ourselves to the Constitution, the laws of Congress, executive orders, judicial decisions, and fortunately we have a Bill of Rights intended to protect our freedoms. By living in Virginia we submit to its Constitution and laws and there are local ordinances we have to abide by also. We submit to these limitations because we the people have imposed these strictures on ourselves in this experiment in self-government.  The idea is that through our governments, we limit what we are permitted to do, but overall our freedoms are protected and we live in a more secure and orderly place.  Of course, if there are laws we don’t agree with, we can act to have them changed, work to change the elected officials, or we can even move away, if we have the means that is.

Places without the rule of law or effective governments may have lots of “freedom” but they end up being governed by the whims of tribal leaders, warlords, or gangs and people live in fear of punishment or death.  Freedom like that, anarchy really, may not mean real freedom for people who aren’t able to just live their lives in peace.

In families we submit to one another.  We have to think about the needs of others and compromise, often putting their needs and wants ahead of ours.  Bruce Springsteen sang a song about a person with a hungry heart who said “I got a wife and kids in Baltimore, Jack, I went out for a ride and I never went back.”  Technically, I am free to walk out the door of my house at any time and never come back. But every day I choose to submit myself to my family which limits my freedom.  Not that I always like it. But being a family has greatly enriched my life.  We laugh, sing, play, talk, read, watch TV and just enjoy each other’s company.  There have been difficult times, to be sure, but somehow we made it through together. 

Hopefully our children frequently submit to our loving authority as parents.  In their submission, though, is a measure of freedom.  If they normally do as we ask, behave responsibly, treat others with respect, have good manners, we will be more likely to take them fun places like the zoo, movies or concerts, and we will be more likely to allow them to have the freedom to go places with others, trusting (and praying) they will make good choices.

As we’ll sing at offertory, we are all links in a chain connected to each other in our families, through generations, a chain that is connected to our friends and neighbors, and ultimately to all human beings.

In this church we submit to one another, helping to meet each other’s needs, accepting each other, encouraging each other’s spiritual growth, bringing meals to one another, being a listening ear and a caring heart.  The church helps provides roots to hold us close, as well as wings to set us free, so we may more fully experience the Spirit of Life.  Perhaps when we submit to others, have connections, and are rooted, we are better able to fly, that is better able to be our best selves.

What binds us together are not only these personal connections, but also the fact that we believe in the seven principles of Freeism and agree to submit ourselves to these principles.  Erik reminded me that the word “religion” itself comes from the Latin word “religare” meaning “to bind together”.  Which reminded me that the Latin word for “believe” (credere) is derived from the Latin word for heart, cor.  So etymologically speaking, in religion we are bound together by what we hold deep inside, in our hearts.  No doubt we may act contrary to these principles just because we are human--created perfectly imperfect as Erik likes to say.  Practicing what we preach isn’t always easy.  But our submission to these principles does have implications even if we don’t always measure up.

As a trustee of the church’s Abrahamse endowment fund for music, I have started to attend endowment committee meetings. The committee is working on an investment policy and thinking about how that policy should reflect our values.  There is a concept called “socially responsible investing” that can help us avoid investing in companies that don’t reflect our values, perhaps ones that discriminate based on sexual orientation or ones that have demonstrated patterns of violating human rights and workers’ rights.  If this approach is taken, we would limit our freedom to invest in whatever we want, but these limits may serve a greater purpose, helping to, in a small way, create more freedom for others.  Since many of us have IRAs or 401(k)s, this concept may be one we could be thinking about as individuals also, if we haven’t already.

So, where do you see freedom and submission in your life? What chains to you need to break? What might holding you back from being the best you can be in your free and responsible search for truth and meaning? What links that connected you to others have you broken, or have others broken with you, and do they need to be mended? What could you submit to, that might limit your freedom, but might enrich your life and the lives of others?  For those of you who ascribe to the values of this religion, enjoy who is here and what happens here, maybe it’s time to bind yourself even more closely with the church by becoming a member, if you aren’t already. Just sayin’.

May we all find a balance between freedom and submission that works for each one of us in each phase of our lives.

Erik Wikstrom’s Exploration:  Freedom and Submission

Freedom and Submission – I was thinking about titling this sermon “Fifty Shades of Freedom,” but we are talking about “submission”—not that kind—for two reasons.  The first is that this past Friday was the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the holiest of Islam’s four holy months and, in fact, its observance is one of the so-called “Five Pillars of Islam.”  (The others are faith in God, five-times daily prayer, almsgiving to the poor—and it might be worth noting that this is the annual giving not of a tithe, ten percent of your income, but the annual giving of a fortieth of one’s entire net worth!  The last “pillar” upon which the practice of Islam is built is a pilgrimage to Mecca for everyone capable of making one.)

During the month of Ramadan every person who can safely do so is to fast between sunrise and sunset—technically, from the moment when one can first distinguish between a dark hair and a light one until the moment when one no longer can.  This fasting is, of course, abstaining from food—and alcohol, cigarettes, and sex—but it’s also supposed to be a fast from gossip, slander, angry words, evil thoughts, and all forms of bad behavior.  And in the space that this fasting opens up one is to put good deeds, spiritual thoughts, and the daily reading of a thirtieth of the Qur’an so that by the end of Ramadan each year every Muslim has read their holy book cover to cover. 

I have to say that I find that pretty inspiring.  I’ve known a lot Christians, for instance, who’ve never read the Bible from cover-to-cover even once, but it is one of the practices expected of all Muslims to read the entire Qur’an each and every year.  I think that’s amazing.  (And I’ve done this several times with members of UU congregations during several Ramadans, and it’s been really eye opening.  Maybe next year.)

Now, what takes me from the beginning of Ramadan to a sermon on “submission” is that the heart of Islam, the meaning of the name itself, is “submission”—submission to Allah, submission to the Ultimate Reality in which we find ourselves.

So that’s the reason we’re preaching about submission today.  The reason we’re preaching about submission at all, besides the reasons Mike just gave, is that it is an element found in the teachings of just about every one of the world’s great religions.  Just about everywhere we human beings have attempted to preserve our experiments with Life—the answers we’ve found to the Big Questions—the idea of the importance of submission comes up.  That, it seems to me, makes it worthy of our consideration.  Especially so because so many of us are so ready to dismiss it; that alone makes me think there might be something worth looking at.

I want to share with you something that was written by a teenage member of the Unitarian Church of Ithaca, NY, after their youth group visited the Benedictine Monastery of Mount Savior for vespers.  It was originally published in the church newsletter.  But I came across it reprinted in an essay in the fabulous book on Worship written and compiled by the members of the Congregation of Abraxas.  (Including our own Wayne Clark.)  Here’s what she – and let’s just assume that the anonymous author was a she – had to say:

“In the chapel there were only a few people watching the service, and I sat in front of them.  I wanted the sensation of being alone there.  I wanted to be open to the beauty of the chapel and the circle of monks and to the chanting.  And I see now that I wanted more than that.  I wanted thru some sort of magic to enter into the service, not simply because its forms were beautiful, but because they seemed at once mysterious and full of meaning. . . .  The monks knelt and rose and bowed; bowing, their bodies bent forward from the waist, torsos almost horizontal.  But I could not move. . . .  I was brought up I this [Unitarian] church where no one kneels and no one bows.  Physically I’m very inhibited, so that I don’t move easily.  And when has it ever been suggested that I might kneel, even figuratively kneel, before or to something?  I wanted to kneel, that’s the important thing.  But I could not. . . .  To kneel and to mean it would be frightening because there is a darkness in the kneeling and a darkness in us which we cannot reason about.  You [Unitarians] teach the fear of form without meaning, and that is right; but having avoided forms, you have sometimes avoided the darkness, and it is from the darkness that the real questions arise.”
“I wanted to kneel, that’s the important thing.  But I could not. . . .  To kneel and to mean it would be frightening.” 
There was a woman in one of the churches I served who used to come into the sanctuary sometimes as much as half an hour before the start of the Sunday service.  She wanted to kneel in that sacred space and prepare herself to really be present in worship.  She wanted to go within and look at, and let go of, the past week.  She wanted to quiet the ever racing voices inside her head, the running commentary that accompanied her everywhere.  She wanted to kneel and pray.
She didn’t do it for very long, though, before other people’s discomfort made her too uncomfortable.  She told me that she didn’t think she’d have gotten such looks if she’d sat in the pews, lit a cigarette, and cracked a beer.  And all she wanted to do was kneel.  She ended up going across the street to the Congregationalists.
“[W]hen has it ever been suggested that [we] might kneel, even figuratively kneel, before or to something?”  I’d go even further and say that it’s been my experience that we UUs often go out of our way to make it clear that we should not kneel—even figuratively—before or to anything.  We say that we’ve left all that religious claptrap behind us, that we’re now more liberated, more free, yet there was a UU who wanted to kneel and found herself unable to move.  What kind of freedom is that?  Where was our fabled tolerance when one of our own wanted to kneel in her own sanctuary? 
Now I know . . . one of the problems with this idea is that we think that to kneel requires that there be someone or something before or to which we’re kneeling.  People through up their defenses because they think we’re gonna start talkin’ ‘bout “God” or something.
Well, let me tell you the most important thing I know about the subject of “God.”  It’s summed up in a sentence that comes from the book Everyday Spiritual Practice, a collection edited by Scott Alexander—of The Welcoming Congregation fame—which brings together about forty Unitarian Universalist clergy and lay-people each describing her or his own spiritual practice. 
It’s a great book and this, I think, is its best sentence.  The Rev. Barbara Merritt, in her chapter on dealing with adversity as a spiritual practice, writes this, “Whether or not we believe in God, we need to recognize that we ourselves are not God.”   Listen to that again:  “Whether or not we believe in God, we need to recognize that we ourselves are not God.”
I hope this isn’t news to anyone here—but neither you nor I are God.  We may be applying for the position but we haven’t got it yet.  No one of us bears the universe on our shoulders.  Not even all of us together.  As the poet Wendell Berry reminds us, “Not by your will is the house carried through the night.”  Whether or not we believe in God, we need to recognize that we ourselves are not God.
And at its heart I think that this is what the religious meaning of submission is—realizing that we don’t run the show.  It’s not about having to follow a whole lot of externally imposed rules; it’s not about subjugation or humiliation.  It’s about recognizing that the worst thing I can do when I find yourself in fast moving water is to fight the current, trying to impose my will on it.  The wise thing to do is to float on you back—feet together, arms crossed, pointing downstream—and let the river take you where it was going to take you anyway.  This is not an indication of failure or defeat or weakness but a recognition of reality.  Since I do not rule the river, it is only sensible to follow the river’s lead.
Now to be sure, in the cultural, personal/political realm the idea of submission is quite arguably a negative.  All one needs is the phrase, “to beat you into submission,” to get the point.  This use of the word is all about forcing you to give up what is yours—your power, your consent, your will.  That’s the way the word has been used when white, heterosexual men are talking to GLBT folk, or women, or people of color, or anyone who’s not one of Them.  And it’s the way so many of us have experienced the word being said by religious folk – submit to the priest, submit to the Pope, submit to the teachings of the church, submit to God.
But although this is the same word it is in no way the same thing we’re talking about.  The spiritual concept of submission is not at all about taking an individual’s power from them but about the individual recognizing that she or he isn’t the Grand High Poobah of the Universe.  It’s not about us giving over power that is rightfully ours but about us realizing that there are things—big things, most things—over which we have no power and our ceasing to act as though we do.  It’s about us letting go of our illusion that we’re in the drivers’ seat and learning how to really enjoy the ride.  (I love the bumper sticker that says, “If God is your co-pilot, change seats!”)
Now, when we accept the need to take ourselves off the throne of the cosmos, when we recognize the wisdom and, in fact, the strength of this kind of spiritual submission, we come back to that question—to whom or what am I suggesting we submit?  Certainly not the Old White Guy With The Long White Beard Sitting In The Clouds Slinging Lighting Bolts And Judgment.  Not the Cosmic Cop Who’s Monitoring Our Every Mistake or the Phantom Puppeteer Who’s Pulling All The Strings.  Such figures, even if they existed, would hardly be worth our attention.
But Life—with a capital “L”— the “Isness” of Existence that fuels evolution and the birthing of the stars; the Spirit of Life that powers the pumping of our hearts and the pulsing of a neutrino and pushes the blade of grass through the asphalt:  Isn’t that something we can agree is greater than ourselves?  And, so, might that not be a place to start?
When we really take in the astonishing scope of life—from the universe that is at least 28 billion light years in diameter to the quark that is one hundred millionth the size of an atom; when we grasp the miracle that strangers can become lovers and enemies can become friends; when we realize that pain and brokenness can be healed, others’ and our own; when we are reminded that hope is often well placed; when we witness acts of courage, when we experience justice, when we discover that our best selves are as much a part of us as our worst—doesn’t that make you want to kneel, even if only figuratively?
“To kneel and to mean it would be frightening because there is a darkness in the kneeling and a darkness in us which we cannot reason about.  [We Unitarians] teach the fear of form without meaning, and that is right; but having avoided forms, [we] have sometimes avoided the darkness, and it is from the darkness that the real questions arise.”
And, I’d add, it is only there in the midst of those real questions that we have any hope of ever find any real answers.
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1 comment:

Bill Baar said...

I don't think UUs encourage submission. I believe we covenant. That's a very different concept.