Opening Words: Florida Scott-Maxwell, in her wonderful book, The Measure of My Days, writes:
“A man once said to me, ‘I don’t mind your telling me my faults, they’re stale, but don’t tell me my virtues. When you tell me what I could be it terrifies me.’ I was surprised then, I understand now, because I believe we may be faced by the need of living our strengths.”
On the transitional day, the old year just ended and the new one just begun, with one hand we let go of the old, with the other we reach for the new.
Some of us are thinking about New Year’s resolutions – those we successfully fulfilled last year, or didn’t fulfill, and something to aim for in the coming year.
May these words and the sentiments behind them help us to heal the wounds from years past and to renew a sense of hope for the years to come.
Sermon: Running Into a New Year
Lucille Clifton writes:
i am running into a new year
and the old years blow back
like a wind
that i catch in my hair
like strong fingers like
all my old promises and
it will be hard to let go
of what i said to myself
when i was sixteen and
twenty-six and thirty-six
even thirty-six but
i am running into a new year
and i beg what i love and
i leave to forgive me
Today is the first day of a new year – the first page on the new calendar. It’s a time to take an inventory: how are things going, so far?
It’s hard to let go. It’s hard to let go of things – harder for some than for others – some are hoarders. Why is that?
It’s hard to let go of old ideas and opinions.
It’s hard to let go of anger; it’s hard to let go of old resentments and disappointments – even though you know full well that you would be much better off without having to carry them around; the anger, the resentments, the disappointments are heavy.
It’s hard to let go of old beliefs – especially those old religious beliefs or beliefs that seem so tenacious: ‘like strong fingers,’ as the poet says.
Old religious beliefs that are planted early in life are tenacious. I remember visiting a man who had been a member of the congregation for twenty years. He was in the hospital, recovering from open-heart surgery. He said to me, “I have a confession to make: I asked for a priest to come in to give me last rites…just in case.”
We laughed a little, but the phrase ‘just in case’ referred to that old belief he was taught from very early childhood—the things you have to do to get into heaven, and the things that will bar the door. He didn’t believe them, he said. But he also said, “You never know.”
It’s hard to let go of the early seeds that were planted in the mind. It’s one thing to talk about losing a few pounds, which we all know gets harder to do with the years; it’s quite another thing to let go of those beliefs, and it’s hard to let go of those heavy things we carry — the negative things that weigh us down.
But we’re running into a new year, and we’re reminded that we’d be so much better off if we could lighten the load. That’s what Emerson had in mind when he wrote in a poem:
Henceforth, please God, forever I forego
The yoke of men’s opinions. I will be
Lighthearted as a bird & live with God.
I find him in the bottom of my heart
I hear continually his Voice therein
And books, & priests, & worlds, I less esteem
Who says the heart’s a blind guide? It is not.
My heart did never counsel me to sin
I wonder where it got its wisdom…
The little needle always knows the north
The little bird remembereth his note
And this wise Seer never errs
I never taught it what it teaches me
I only follow when I act aright.
Whence then did this Omniscient Spirit come?
From God it came. It is the Deity.
A certain degree of concern about other people’s opinion of us is natural, and healthy. Too much concern, however, is not healthy. It’s a burden, a ‘yoke,’ Emerson called it, at a time when oxen were yoked, an emblem of their subjugation, a symbol of bondage.
Perhaps the hardest thing to let go is the story you tell yourself about yourself.
Each of us has a story we tell ourselves about ourselves; it’s our personal myth. It comes from our life experience – it comes from parents and our involvement with those who raised us — from family, friends and school; it comes from the adventures we’ve had, the success and failure we’ve known so far.
Like all myths, the story we tell ourselves about ourselves is a Truth story, made up of a combination of little truths mixed with fantasies and fears.
That, I think, is what Lucille Clifton is talking about in her new year’s poem — from what we’ve told ourselves about ourselves when we were sixteen, and twenty-six and even thirty-six.
In 1838 Emerson told the graduating class at Harvard Divinity School that ‘the office of the true preacher is to deal out your life to the people – life passed through the fire of thought.’
This, I think, is what Lucille Clifton is saying in her new year’s poem – she’s talking about passing her life ‘through the fire of thought,’ and realizing that she has to let go of things she said to herself about herself over the years.
If the story you tell yourself about yourself is no longer working for you, it’s necessary to change it; you can’t change the history of your life, but you can change the way you look at it, the way you talk to yourself about it.
We change, and we are changed by experiences – usually profound experiences, but the little, day-to-day experiences change us, too. Some changes result in things like divorce, or a change of career, which might precipitate other changes in your life.
As I was thinking about change at the end of one year and the beginning of another, I was very interested to read this week about the Catholic Church’s change about the concept of limbo.
Limbo is the place where babies who die unbaptized go; it’s neither heaven nor hell. Before he was elevated to Pope Benedict XVI, when he was Cardinal Ratzinger, he said about limbo: “Personally I would let it drop, since it has always been only a theological hypothesis.”
I smiled when I read, “…it has always been only a theological hypothesis,” as if all theology is not a hypothesis. (Hypothesis: ‘something taken to be true; an assumption; uncertain.’)
About 400 A. D. St. Augustine came up with the church’s doctrine of original sin. He said that unbaptized babies would go to hell, but, he said, “…it would entail the mildest of conditions.”
In the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas lightened it up a bit, coming up with the idea of limbo, which he described as a ‘place of natural happiness’ but without the presence of God.
In 1905, exactly one hundred years ago, Pope Pius X sided with Augustine, saying from his position of infallibility, speaking ex-cathedra, that unbaptized babies would go to hell. He stated, flatly, “No baptism, no heaven.”
Last week Catholic theologian James O’Donnell, provost at Georgetown University said, “Let’s progress back to ignorance rather than remain mired in assertion that brings with it perhaps more complication and more trouble than it is worth.”
It’s an interesting idea: ‘to progress back to ignorance…’ A synonym for his use of the word ignorance in this sentence might be innocence. “Unless you become as a child you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.” To become like a child is to regain a certain sense of innocence.
To paraphrase Clifton: “It will be hard for the church to let go of what it said when it was sixteen centuries old, and twenty centuries old.”
The church seems to be saying, “Let’s face it, we simply don’t know the answer to the question ‘where do unbaptized babies go?’”
The doctrine of the Pope’s infallibility was promulgated at the First Vatican Council in its nineteenth century, in 1870. Pope Pius X made the assertion, speaking ex-cathedra, as they say, which literally means ‘from the chair,’ the seat of authority.
Change happens slowly, like human evolution. We change, but it’s a very gradual process. Ideas in the church began to change with the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960’s. The church held that everyone, baptized Christians or not, could be eligible for salvation through the mystery of Jesus’s redemptive power. (Catholic Encyclopedia)
The idea that everyone would eventually be saved goes back to the earliest church, when it was still a form of Judaism, and some folks said that you could not have a good, omnipotent, omniscient God and have people destined for eternal punishment in hell. These folks were called ‘universalists.’
A universalist, small ‘u,’ believes that all souls are eventually saved; that’s why some of our Unitarian Universalist churches have the name ‘All Souls.’
The doctrine of original sin says that every child, at the moment of conception, inherits the sin of Adam – which was disobedience; he ate fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It’s a clever mythological explanation for these forces in us…good and evil; creativity and destructiveness.
To believe the story in a literal way creates the problem that theologians refer to as ‘theodicy.’ How could a good, all-knowing, all-powerful God not know that the man and woman he created would eat from that tree? And, if they didn’t ingest the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they would never realize that good and evil are located within themselves.
Just as certain beliefs are age-appropriate for children – beliefs they will grow out of – so are certain beliefs age-appropriate for our evolving human race.
Just as the individual ‘grows up,’ so, presumably, do we as humans ‘grow up.’
Emerson provides a mature way of stating what the early theologians were digging into with doctrines of original sin, immaculate conception, God, and so forth. He said:
“The intuition of the moral sentiment is an insight of the perfection of the laws of the soul. These laws execute themselves. They are out of time, out of space, and not subject to circumstance. Thus; in the (human) soul…there is a justice whose retributions are instant and entire. …who does a good deed, is instantly ennobled. … who does a mean deed, is by the action itself contracted.
If a (person) is at heart just, then in so far is (that person) God; the safety of God, the immortality of God, the majesty of God do enter that (person) with justice. If a (person) dissemble, deceive, he deceives himself, and goes out of acquaintance with his own being.” Emerson, The Divinity School Address
Many of us came to the Unitarian faith as a result of outgrowing the faith of our childhood. We have a tendency to define ourselves, or our Unitarian Universalist faith, by what we do not belief. We say, “We don’t believe that Jesus is God; we don’t believe in hell; we don’t believe the bible is the literal word of God; we don’t believe that God chooses favorites or that one religion has a monopoly on truth.” And so forth.
We need to find ways to put our beliefs and our Unitarian Universalist faith in the positive, to make affirmations about things we do believe. That’s why we recite our Statement of Affirmation together: “Love is the spirit of this church and service its law. This is our great covenant: to dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love, and to help one another.”
We believe that each person must have the freedom to grow in his or her belief system; we believe in the possibility of human progress, away from the violent, war-like past and into a more peaceful world.
We believe that the religions grew out of a deep place within the humans who created them; that the mythological stories contain truths about what it means to be a person in this world – to evolve as a person and to face mortality.
Just as it’s a mistake to state our beliefs in the negative, it’s also a mistake to turn our backs on our own religious past, the early religious training we experienced.
A woman came up to me following a Sunday service in which I read a poem about angels and said, “I don’t want to hear about angels, I left that nonsense back in the Catholic Church years ago.”
I said, “It doesn’t sound like you left it back there; it sounds like you’re still carrying it!”
Part of the task of growing up is to look back at old beliefs and see them in a new or different way – to turn things into poems, to see the wisdom in them – not literal sense, of course, but in a metaphoric sense.
For example, the idea of the Pope’s infallibility bothers us. We know that the Pope is human, and when he speaks ex cathedra he may be wrong.
But wait a minute. Don’t we say that each of us should be able to have our own beliefs about religious ideas? Why can’t we grant infallibility to the Pope? Practicing Catholics have to deal with his beliefs, we don’t. We grant one another a kind of infallibility, when it comes to religious beliefs, since all religious beliefs are ultimately personal, all theology is ‘hypothetical.’
When fresh meanings emerge the old angers disappear. That’s an essential aspect of what we call ‘liberation.’
Personal liberation is the essential part of our task, individually and collectively. That’s why we need to look at the old stories again and again and discover things we never suspected were there.
This ‘looking again’ is what forgiveness is about. It’s the key element in liberation – to be freed up from old anger and resentment, to move beyond the disappointments, to get beyond the guilt. It is possible. It’s possible to feel more at home with oneself, more at home in the time and place we live, more at home in the universe. It is possible, and it’s our task to make it happen.