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Holding Fast – 5/15/2011

The world is a slippery sort of thing. It can be hard, very hard, to hold on to all the many pieces of life. In our days on this earth, we may try new ideas, new plans, new relationships, careers or places to live. No matter how many or how few sorts of things we devote our living to, we can be assured that not all of them will last. There is plenty of trial and error to life; what was familiar and sustaining will sometimes pass away, and what is exciting and new and untested does not always transform into a well-established part of our deeper selves.

Sometimes, despite our best efforts and finest intentions, some piece of the world proves too slippery for us to hold onto. In his unpublished essay Why I Gave Up Zen[i], contemporary science journalist John Horgan tells the story of his ill-fated attempt to take a course in Zen Buddhist meditation. Coming with hopes of developing a spiritual practice that would contribute to his over-all wellbeing, he found himself constantly distracted by frustrations that his internal critic could neither ignore nor forgive. Chief among these frustrations, he admits, were some of his classmates, and the worst of these was someone he dubbed, Cell-phone Man. Cell-phone Man carried a cell-phone, as many of us do, and John knew this because the fellow forgot to turn it off at the start of the class, and it just kept beeping and beeping and beeping. Cell-phone man had other annoying habits as well – he would yawn and sigh and otherwise make noise all through the supposedly silent meditation. John found himself becoming constantly agitated and impatient with this classmate in a way that left him feeling terribly un-Zen.

Eventually, John Horgan took his frustrations and mental conflict about the class out into the snow with him, attempting to practice mindfulness while cross-country skiing. But even the cold simplicity of fresh snow and white sky could not save him from his wandering mind, and all the sights and thoughts that intruded on him as he tried desperately to “be here now”. After berating himself repeatedly for stray thoughts as varied as his daughter’s cold, his wife’s social activism and his curiosity about the animal tracks crossing his path through the woods, Horgan finally gave up on the spiritual practice he was cultivating.
It can be a very hard thing to acknowledge, to others and to ourselves, that some goal, some challenge, some want of ours is beyond our grasp. Even when the job just wasn’t right for us, or the marriage just wasn’t good for either of us, or that dream that we were following took us down a path we could not follow – even if we know in our minds that letting go is the right thing to do, it can be so hard, and so painful to let go with our hearts. Yet our lives are shaped not only by what we carry with us, but also by what we have left behind.

Unitarian Universalism, the religion to which I was born, deeply values search, ongoing growth and the discovery of new ideas, thoughts and perspectives. Often, we find that our free and responsible search for truth and meaning requires us to leave behind what is familiar, inherited, or traditional. A. Powell Davies, a leading figure in twentieth-century Unitarianism described his faith with these words:

“The religion that says freedom!–freedom from ignorance and false belief; freedom from spurious claims and bitter prejudices; freedom to seek the

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truth, both old and new, and freedom to follow it, freedom from the hates and greeds that divide humankind and spill the blood of every generation; freedom for honest thought, freedom for equal justice, freedom to seek the true, the good and the beautiful with minds unimpaired by cramping dogmas and spirits uncrippled by abject dependence.”[ii]

Freedom, then, is our watchword, with its implications of escaping and leaving behind what is confining and restrictive and limiting in life. We are called to the brave work of going out, of finding what is new and unfamiliar and of questing for the truth, wherever it may lead. There are times when leaving where we are, and letting go of what has been is necessary for growth, or for justice, or for peace, or for survival. Many of us, I know, have come to be Unitarian Universalists by coming out of some other religious tradition, and perhaps leaving it behind. Our faith urges us to seek so far and so wide for meaning that we reach beyond the bounds of what is known and familiar to us. This is the calling that founds new nations and religions, one cherished by Unitarian Universalists and our theological ancestors. But just as there is reason to celebrate letting go, there is also reason to honor holding fast: living with a persistent commitment to something larger than ourselves.

Unitarian Universalism is today a faith of joiners. If it were not for the more than half of us who have come in by choice made later in life, rather than entering by birth or upbringing, we could not be what we are. But it is not only the bravery to join that sustains this or any other religion: it is also the courage to stay. In our congregations, and amongst ourselves, it is somewhat common to exchange tales of the faith that we left behind in order to become Unitarian Universalists. For some of us, this is an opportunity to reveal, and perhaps to heal wounds from our previous religious lives. What I wish for, and would one day hope to see, are spaces made for those Unitarian Universalists, both “joiners” and “lifers” who have had their hearts broken by this faith and who, despite those wounds, are still here.

What things, in life, require this persistence? The practice of religion, the exercise of citizenship, the construction

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and maintenance of an institution, such as a partnership, a family or congregation; all these things, and many more, need lasting and abiding effort in order to endure. The institutions and identities by which we define ourselves are only so strong and so permanent as the human commitments out of which they are made.

To accomplish almost any great thing requires tenacity. I should not have to give a lecture on the virtues of patiently and persistently working towards a goal, even against long odds, to a room in which Red Sox fans predominate. But I’ll give you another example, nonetheless. There is a traditional tattoo among sailors in the US Navy. It is two words, eight letters, inked across the fingers of both hands to read the instruction: HOLD FAST. The safe journey of a ship often depends upon the strength and dedication of its crew in holding down or hauling in this line or that. The message is a reminder that the common good of the boat relies on the embodied

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commitment of all those aboard.

I received poignant instruction in what it means to hold fast to something beloved while on a trip a few years ago to New Orleans. Fifteen of us UUs went down and spent a week in the Crescent City, slinging paint and joint compound, hauling dirt, planting garden beds and bearing witness. Nearly two years later, the body of New Orleans still retained the terrible wounds of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. I did not have the opportunity to visit New Orleans before the storm; seeing the city when I did, as I did was full of mixed emotion and images of both beauty and anger to carry back to my home.

One late afternoon, our group took a solemn tour of the lower 9th Ward, a section of the city that was ignored by the national imagination until the storms, their aftermath, and the American media turned that neighborhood into a spectacle of desolation. The 9th Ward has been the heart of the working class black population of New Orleans for generations. Hit by the very worst of the catastrophic flooding that New Orleans experienced in the late summer of 2005, the lower 9th was almost uniformly flattened. Staring out at what used to be several acres of well-loved homes, I saw whole blocks of houses reduced to vacant lots, their contents spilled out on rubble and grass with little sets of concrete steps leading up to front doorways that were no longer there.

It is the sort of view that makes the soul grow coarse, to survey the consequences of a broken canal, wrought by human hands, ordered by human minds uncaring of the risk it posed to the human lives beside its walls. Seeing all those broken houses stirred in me feelings of both anger and grief: carrying those feelings with me still, is one of the costs, and one of the gifts, of that journey south. But here is the lesson I offer from it today: amidst the ruin and the rot, there stood a dirty-white trailer. It was the sort furnished by FEMA or rented from a private company and used by pre-Katrina residents who have returned to the Gulf Coast to rebuild their broken homes. In a neighborhood that was all but completely empty, largely devoid of standing houses let alone of people to live in them, this trailer made a bold statement. “I am here,” it seemed to say. “I will hold to this place, my home. I will not be moved.”

But sometimes remaining loyal to what matters most to us does not keep us in one place – rather, it requires us to move. Many of you know that I’m a great fan of super hero comic books. Every so often something happens in one of the more famous comics that becomes a national news item. Last month had one of these events: it was announced that Superman, that strange visitor from another planet who has devoted his amazing alien powers to “truth, justice and the American way” for roughly 60 years – possibly the most famous super hero character in the world has renounced his US citizenship. Of course this has sent certain media and political figures into a state of apoplexy. The actions of this fictional character have been decried as unpatriotic and anti-American. But if you actually read the comic book, and consider the story that its writer and artist are trying to tell, Superman is actually making this change because of his patriotism. He explains very directly that his values, his commitment to justice and to the right all people to be free, requires him to do whatever he can to prevent tyranny and oppression. That will sometimes mean foiling the schemes of dictators and despots rather than cartoonish supervillains, and he does not want the county that gave him a home when he had no other to be held accountable for his private actions.

To be the best person that his American parents taught him to be, and to do so responsibly, Superman has to stop calling himself an American, and becomes something larger and more global than that. It is an ancient and recurring story, rendered in colored ink on a page, and one that has been at the heart of Unitarian Universalism for generations. To best be the faith that our ideals demand we be, our movement must perpetually reexamine its assumptions, and let go of anything that stands in the way of, no matter how long-held, or precious.

In his speech to the divinity students of Manchester College, Oxford in the fall of 1896, Claude Montefiore spoke of the commonalities he observed between his own Liberal Judaism and the faith of the Unitarian audience he was addressing. He affirmed that the seeking, searching spirit need not be viewed as incompatible with persistence and loyalty; that, in fact, each requires the other if either is to have meaning or purpose at all. As he put it:

“We are not less fervent believers in the reality of truth because we are more conscious of its infinite complexity…a love which realizes imperfection in the beloved object may be more fruitful than a blind affection which, because it sees no weakness or blemish, can strive for no improvement and attempt no purification.”[iii]

It is not a question as to whether we will, in our lives, leave things which are familiar and well-known to us behind. That much is a sure consequence of living. Likewise, we need to trust in things outside ourselves in order to sustain our being. A tree needs roots; it also needs branches. These, then, are the questions before us: How much courage will we show, in our holding on and in our letting go? How much wisdom will we find to guide us in choosing between the one and the other? And how much space will we make for both demands, in ourselves and in others? Will there be honors for the immigrant, the convert, the refugee, as well as for the loyal holdout, the born member and the internal agitator? What are you holding on to, that you need to let go of? What have you let go of, that you need desperately to pick up again?


[i] Unpublished, but still available on his website, here: http://www.johnhorgan.org/work22.htm

[ii] From Without Apology: Collected Meditations on Liberal Religion, by A. Powell Davies, edited by Forrester Church.

[iii] C.G. Montefiore, “Unitarianism and Judaism In Their Relations To Each Other”, address to the students of Manchester College, Oxford on October 20th, 1896

 

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