The bible proclaims that the “truth will set us free”. I have always asked “really?” If it does, the question is which truth will actually do the freeing? The truth that proclaims that Jesus died for your sins and that the only way unto the father is through him, or the truth that in my father’s house there are many mansions, implying there is room for all to be loved by God. These two and many more are all part of this great spiritual truth of humanity; that our perception of truth and reality is far more important than the so called facts of life. Reality as an expression of our senses in the world, is often over rated in my opinion. I have seen far more liberation and solace come from such odd truths as the resurrection than from those who view the world as it really is; a place full of hurt and anger.
Many years ago I attended a funeral for a young father and his two school age children who had died in a freak car accident. His wife and mother to her dead children seemed inconsolable at the front of this larger Missionary Baptist Church. There were over a thousand mourners attending, in the sanctuary and video casting to rooms throughout the building. Since I was clergy and a good friend of the senior minister, I sat behind the pulpit and could see the wife and mother in the front row. As the service progressed the parishioners were wailing such sorrow as I have never heard before. But when the preacher began talking about how that little family had been saved in Jesus and how they were going home to God, the mood shifted so dramatically you would have thought someone turned on the lights in a dark room. The woman’s face brightened her shoulders straightened and within ten minutes, the service went from hell to heaven. A sense of liberation had come over the people, one truth, the truth many of us here question, set this woman and an entire congregation free. Don’t tell me that Christianity is nonsense. It might not make sense to some of us, but it can and does free souls from sorrow, anxiety and pain.
And it can just as easily imprison us as well. We have had people come to our church deeply wounded from a fundamentalism so severe that they thought they were bound for hell. At the very least they were bound up in their fears they were going to hell. In one case, a woman, who had left her husband and the cult church they were part of was shunned by the entire congregation, her only connection to the outside world was our church. She worked desperately to free herself here among us. To find a religion that welcomes seekers of truth, not prisoners of truth.
With Grace and Grit, John
I have to admit that the fourth of July is not my favorite holiday. I have never enjoyed loud noises, and now that we live in the heart of a harbor town, the fireworks are all around us. I must also admit to being ambivalent to the marshal message of our independence day, not the deep and abiding enlightenment principles our country was founded upon – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – but rather the bombs bursting through air, and the march of imperial armies through the oil fields of the Middle East. We never seem to move beyond “God Bless America” to “Bless the Whole World”.
And yet there is something also magical about our country. On the fourth of July night, we went down to the harbor to watch the fireworks. One little boy, of Asian Indian descent, was just beside himself with joy. I don’t know if he had ever seen fireworks before but he was just bursting. “Wow, look at that, it’s a smiley face” “Look at the one, it’s a planet, no, two planets” “This is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.” “America is great! Look at this!” “America is the biggest country in the world” he yelled. His mother must have corrected him “Ok, America is richest country in the world” Corrected again. “Ok America is a fine country.” America is a fine country.
At its best America embodies ideals not often found in any of us, much less an entire nation. Ideals such as fairness, equality, liberty and hope. As Jacob Needleman, the philosopher wrote in his work Soul of the Nation “America was once the hope of the world. But what kind of hope? More than the hope of material prosperity, although that was part of it; and more than the promise of equality and liberty, although that, too, was an important part of it. And more than safety and security, precious as these things are. The deeper hope of America was its vision of what humanity is and can become — individually and in community. . . . America was once a great idea, and it is such ideas that move the world, that open the possibility of meaning in human life….It is this goal of bringing people together under the guidance of conscience that lies at the heart of the idea of democracy in its uniquely American form."
Our collective soul- and by soul I mean that inner sense of self that has and discerns meaning in the world – is built on the ideal that we can fashion a future for ourselves; that we are, at least in part, the creators of our own destiny. This is what lies at the heart of our best selves: the ability to imagine and then act on a better, more fair, more liberal future. It lies also at the heart of our heritage as fierce individualist who decide what they believe is best, courting so dangerously with prudent values that are critical of any attempt to forestall that freedom. Here I think conservatives miss the point of individual freedom: it’s not the freedom to do whatever we want, own a gun, ride without a helmet or buy monster sized sugary soft drinks. Rather it’s the freedom to become what you are: a musician, a business owner, gay, straight, a theist or atheist. It’s our ideal of freedom, liberation and self-determination that drives us collectively, just as it drove our ancestors.
From whence comes this soul, this interior freedom and service to others? Our founders, whether Christian or Unitarian, believed in a moral order based on the natural order of life. That natural form of life included for our founders the inalienable right to freedom; a freedom of expression and a freedom to act within the confines of civic safety. Jefferson’s line in the preamble to the declaration of independence, that these rights include life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, reflects the moral order of our nation: A right to life, the right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness (a modification on John Locke’s pursuit of property), and in that order. And although our economy is severely straining this order, it is still there in principle, if not always in practice. Needleman makes a salient point about pursuing happiness: We always assume it’s our happiness, but it could just as well be the happiness of others.
My mother, bless her soul, used to tell me I could be whatever I want to be (except a lawyer, a republican or an Episcopalian), not that I have any issues with those good people, as long as I was happy. Only later would I realize my happiness was wrapped up in yours. I want all of us to imagine for a moment what this freedom has meant to you. When were you faced with a life changing moment and had the freedom to change your life’s course? Was it just your choice or were others involved?
We so often don’t appreciate that our nation’s soul includes the responsibility to give back to our collective good. We have lost much of that understanding at the national level. I believe it is still alive and well in the communities but it is harder to find. Our little dog ran away twice last week. The first time, she was found by a couple of contractors working on a house down the street. They had tied her up and, even though she had a collar with our phone number on it, they were intending to take her with them. Finders keepers. It was only when Frances kept calling and she kept barking that she tracked her down. Even then these men were reluctant to give her back until Frances paid them a little “reward”. The next day the dog got out again, this time some neighbors found her and called us. In the meantime, other neighbors came out and got in their cars and were looking for her. When we got her back, I tried to offer a reward to our neighbors who had found her but they would have none of it. “This is what America is about” he told me. Indeed it is.
With Grace and Grit, John