Opening Words: From the door of the Unitarian Church in Dublin, Ireland
‘We bid you welcome to this house. It is a place we love and which we tend with care. We do not ask what you believe, or expect you to think the way we do, but only that you try to live a kindly, helpful life, with the dignity proper to a human being.
Preachers here have the task of presenting religion fearlessly, freely, and faithfully.
Hearers have the responsibility of testing what they hear, not only with the critical mind, but also in the living of every day life.
The members of this congregation welcome the support of all who believe that religion is wider than any sect and deeper than any set of opinions, and all might find in their friendships strength and encouragement for daily living.’
May this time together help each of us to find the strength and encouragement we need for our day-to-day lives; may we listen with a good ear to ‘draw supplies to virtue’ from the spoken words, the silences and the sounds of music and the inner voice of memory that nurtures the spirit.
Now, may we have renewed faith in life—faith in our ability to form meaningful, caring relationships, encouraging one another to spiritual growth and moral development, so that we can respond to those who are in need: to show kindness…to do justice…to love mercy and to walk humbly, together the days and years ahead
Sermon: Rugged Individualism and Gentle Connecting
We’re here today to continue our work together – to work on ourselves, internally, and to work together to change the world.
As Sir James Barrie put it, “The life of every man (sic) is a diary in which he means to write one story, and writes another; and his humblest hour is when he compares the volume as it is with what he vowed to make it.”
Today is our annual meeting, which is why I chose this particular sermon topic: ‘rugged individualism and gentle connecting.’
We’re reminded, today, that this is ‘a place we tend with care.’
In this place we affirm our individuality – we make no creedal statements – there are no belief systems which define us. As the words at the door of the Unitarian Church in Dublin, Ireland put it, ‘we do not ask what you believe, but only that you try to live a kindly, helpful life, with the dignity proper to a human being.’
The individualism which is central to our approach to religion is also at the heart of the American ideal.
We approach our ‘rugged individualism’ with humility – we know that the story of our life doesn’t always reach up to the standard of what we vowed to make it, or hope to make it, but we are here to help one another in that process.
There’s always a danger that individualism will be misunderstood and become a kind of narcissism with every person asking, “What’s in it for me?”
There’s a fine line between a healthy self-reliance and a base kind of selfishness. The founders of our nation very wisely built a wall between politics and religion. Robert Frost’s famous poem, Mending Wall, says:
“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall…that wants it down.”
Those same founders crafted a Constitution based in freedom, but it is balanced by responsibility. The preamble to the Constitution says:
“We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
Our Supreme Court is charged with upholding the Constitution; which means interpreting its intent in light of changing times while preserving the essential freedom it guarantees, balanced by a sense of civic duty or responsibility.
Our newest Supreme Court Justice, Sonia Sotomayor, suggested that having empathy ‘matters.’
Empathy is the capacity to put oneself in the shoes of others – to see through their eyes…to understand those who are suffering in some way – those who are oppressed, as women have been, as blacks have been, as Latinos have been, as gays and lesbians have been.
Empathy is the capacity to care, to actually feel what others feel, thus to understand. When I went through a divorce some years ago several people said, “Now you know…now you can understand me…”
So there’s a connection between heart and mind; feeling and understanding…empathy is the link between emotion and the intellect…
Empathy is essential to what it means to be human, including our capacity to be rational…it cuts across the religious divide.
President Obama, in his book, The Audacity of Hope, wrote about empathy, “It is at the heart of my moral code and it is how I understand the Golden Rule — not simply as a call to sympathy or charity, but as something more demanding, a call to stand in somebody else’s shoes and see through their eyes.”
Sotomayor was criticized for it; Walter Cronkite was praised for it – he was called ‘the most trusted man in America,’ in part because he went beyond the narrow confines and shared his feelings, from time to time; not just his opinions, but the depth of his emotions.
Empathy is the driving force behind the health care debate. It’s about ‘individualism,’ on the one hand, and care, concern and justice on the other. It’s an age-old debate; an important one. And there’s not a clear good-guy, bad-guy divide, except for the hate-talk radio personalities who added fuel to the anxieties of many people who feel threatened by changes to the health care system.
It’s an emotionally charged issue, precisely because it gets to the heart of the matter, including the issue of ‘freedom of choice.’
The same is true for us as a religious institution, founded in individual freedom, balanced by responsibility.
It’s appropriate that on the day of our annual meeting we think together about the responsibility inherent in membership in this precious and beloved place.
We’re here, in part, because we value our independence, the freedom to think for ourselves, and to be authentic. At the same time, however, we value our ability to transcend our separateness and to see through one another’s eyes. It’s an important and delicate balance.
Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay Self-reliance, is a kind of declaration of religious independence where he summarizes the essential ingredients of our rugged individualism. He uses the masculine pronoun as was the customary way of expressing universal human attributes:
“Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string
“Whoso would be a man (sic) must be a non-conformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.
“What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think (I should do.)
“Man is timid and apologetic; he is no longer upright; he dare not say ‘I think,’ ‘I am,’ but quotes some saint or sage. He is ashamed before the blade of grass or the blowing rose.
“Check this lying hospitality and lying affection. Live no longer to the expectation of these deceived and deceiving people with whom we converse. Say to them, O father, O mother, O wife, (O husband) O brother, O friend, I have lived with you after appearances hitherto. Henceforward I am the truth’s. Be it known unto you that henceforward I obey no law less than the eternal law…I must be myself. I cannot break myself any longer for you, or you. If you can love me for what I am, we shall be the happier. If you cannot, I will still seek to deserve that you should. I must be myself. I will not hide my tastes or aversions. If you are noble, I will love you; if you are not, I will not hurt you and myself by hypocritical attentions. If you are true, but not in the same truth with me, cleave to your companions; I will seek my own. I do this not selfishly but humbly and truly. It is alike your interest, and mine, and all men’s, however long we have dwelt in lies, to live in truth. Does this sound harsh today? You will soon love what is dictated by your nature as well as mine, and if we follow the truth it will bring us out safe at last.
“Insist on yourself; never imitate.
“Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.”
Emerson’s brand of rugged individualism focused mainly on the life of the mind – he wrote, at first, as a Unitarian minister, then he left the ministry in order to gain more freedom – he wrote as a philosopher and poet.
His rugged individualism is but half the picture, however; taken by itself it is a cup half empty. It’s even a dead end. He is often criticized by Unitarian clergy who came after him, as if his brand of individualism was somehow a threat to our need for an institutional aspect, a commitment to the life of the spirit to balance the life of the mind.
This is one reason we often make a distinction between religion and spirituality.
Religion – and all the religions in which it is pre-packaged – is concerned with faith systems, belief systems to which members can give their assent…certain teachings or creedal statements organized into ritual practices. All the religions of the world have been invented by, or created by us…for a variety of reasons.
Spirituality is not concerned with belief systems, creeds or rituals. It is not concerned with the institutional aspects but with the human spirit, things that are not so much connected to the life of the mind as things connected with the life of the spirit or soul; things like love and compassion, inner peace and human dignity, integrity and the ability to be in authentic relationship.
With Emerson we can say ‘nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind,’ but we must balance that affirmation by acknowledging that there is something in life beyond our ability to hold in our mind – that which ‘is sacred’ requires heart, it requires the life of the soul, if you will — a sense of spirituality. Nothing is more sacred than the soul, which assumes the integrity Emerson named, but something more, something that lives in the depths of the human spirit.
It involves the mind, the intellect, as well as the heart. It’s all about balance. Rabbi Hillel expressed it nicely when he said: “If I’m not for myself, who will be? If I’m only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”
The heart of our Unitarian Universalist faith – if there is any such thing as a Unitarian Universalist faith — and I’m confident that there is — is found in this duality of rugged individualism on the one hand, and a commitment to the welfare of others, on the other; it’s about a single, separate self that connects with other selves in a way that enhances both: a gentle connecting.
That’s the idea summarized by Unitarian minister George Odell:
We need one another when we would be comforted.
We need one another when we are in trouble and afraid.
We need one another when we are in despair, in temptation, and need to be recalled to our best selves again.
We need one another when we would accomplish some great purpose, and cannot do it alone.
We need one another in the hour of success, when we look for someone to share our triumphs.
We need one another in the hour of defeat, when with encouragement we might endure, and stand again.
We need one another when we come to die, and would have gentle hands prepare us for the journey.
All our lives we are in need, and others are in need of us.
Sure, we’re all ‘rugged individualists,’ but we’re here to do some gentle connecting, including the opportunity to reach out to someone…to say hello, and welcome; to listen carefully and hear what’s not being spoken…
Some of us will do some gentle connecting by working with the re-formed care network…to visit or provide a meal to someone recovering from an illness or bereavement; to offer a ride to church or to an appointment; to make a phone call or send a card.
There’s nothing new about this effort, but the care network needs some re-building. This work touches the heart of the basic, most essential reason we’re here.
If you are in need, please let us know. You can call the church office, explain the situation, and, hopefully, you’ll get a response.
Soon we’ll organize a Care Summit; for now, I encourage you to sign up…to be involved in whatever ways work for you: committee work of organizing, or the specifics – make a meal, make a visit, offer a ride, write a note/
It’s all about making those gentle connections. We’ll close with a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke:
Silent friend of many distances, feel
how your breath enlarges all of space.
Let your presence ring out like a bell
into the night. What feeds upon your face
grows mighty from the nourishment thus offered.
Move through transformation, out and in.
What is the deepest loss that you have suffered?
If drinking is bitter, change yourself to wine.
In this immeasurable darkness, be the power
that rounds your senses in their magic ring,
the sense of their mysterious encounter.
And if the earthly no longer knows your name,
whisper to the silent earth: I’m flowing.
To the flashing water say: I am.