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Thanks for Asking – October 10, 2010

We’re going to start things off with an informal poll, this morning. How many of ya’all have a set of jumper-cables in your car? Put your hand up if you would. And keep your hand up, if and only if, you know how to use them. Alright so you’re the people I’m going to call the next time I can’t start my car. You see, Robert Fulghum, the author and Unitarian Universalist minister tells a story about jumper-cables.[i] Jumper cables, and a straight couple he met from Idaho. The couple had left their lights on and run their battery down, and now they were all alone in a big, strange city. The husband asked Robert if he had a set of jumper cables; unfortunately, unlike in our earlier show of hands, he did not ask if he knew what to do with them.

There they were: two men drying to deal with a dead battery and each of them assuming that the other knew what to do. Each of them feeling, in fact, like they ought to know what to do, living in a society that has a certain expectation of men, when it comes to cars and other heavy machinery. So they opened the hood and took a look, and Robert thought that maybe he had gotten a small reprieve, and these folks actually had a car issue that he could diagnose with confidence. “There’s your problem,” he said, “someone’s stolen your battery.” “Dang,” said the man from Idaho. “The battery is under the back seat,” said his wife.

The two men reconvened at the other end of the car, found the battery and began to puzzle out what to do with it. They were each trying to follow the other’s lead. Eventually, they got the cables onto the battery, and then hooked them up to the other car. And Robert got inside and turned it over; and blew out the other car’s transmission, fused the cables to both batteries and knocked the baseball cap off his new friend’s head. It was a pretty amazing accomplishment. That sat down together, on the rear bumper of the first car, to consider what they had done, and the slightly singed man’s wife, who had been reading the manual this time, went off to find some folks who might actually know what they were doing.

Now its certainly not always the case, but I’m sure that each of us in this room can think of a moment in our lives when our pride has gotten in the way of our asking for help. For myself, I know that one of my points of pride is my facility with computers: my father is a scientist, and my best friend is a programmer. Perhaps because of that, and despite the fact that my degrees are in political science and religion, I have a stubborn habit of thinking of myself as some sort of expert on technology. Several years ago, the computer I had then had a problem that I couldn’t diagnose – it was running very, very slowly. But because I couldn’t explain the problem, I refused to acknowledge it. Eventually, my partner Sara had to take matters into her own hands and call in an expert, who discovered that the machine was so full of dust that he was surprised it still worked at all.

Jen Flynn, whom many of you know is a member of this congregation, shared a story with me a few weeks ago about asking for help, and she also gave me permission to share it with you this morning. Last month, Jen came to church walking with the assistance of a crutch, because she had twisted her ankle. It was a minor, temporary injury and didn’t pose too much of an inconvenience, all things considered. Jen wasn’t really thinking about it when she came that Sunday. But it seemed like everyone noticed. Folks came up and asked her how she was doing, expressed their concerns and condolences, and offered their help. There wasn’t much of anything that she needed, but it was certainly nice to know that people cared.  Reflecting on this experience later, Jen wrote, “It seems like many of the times I need help, people cannot see it…I need to start having a crutch to show everyone I am in need. The trouble is when we are in need it is so hard to ask for help…I probably wouldn’t have the courage to use it when I truly needed it.”

Asking another person for help is always something of a gamble. There is always a risk, no matter how close the connection or how small the effort, that the other person will be either unable or unwilling to help. Taking that risk – to ask – can be terribly, terribly hard. And as though that weren’t enough, it comes bound up with fear and shame: the fear of appearing weak, and the shame of admitting that there is something we can’t do on our own. On the other side of the equation, the needs of others can be frightening, at times, because they seem so great; we can feel overwhelmed, and powerless to respond. But in the moments of our deepest need, just having someone reach out at all can mean so much. Pat King’s poem describes such an experience:

Your voice was like shattered crystal on terrazzo

And I was barefoot and walking across bleeding

Reaching for you with my voice.

And we talked of cabbages and kings

of why men’s blood is boiling hot

and whether broken dreams have wings

and of the lives of galaxies and turning tears to ink.

I could not speak then of healing but I thought—

deeper than words I thought – Be well.

And slowly your voice gathered itself together

as if invisible hands touched rim to bowl to stem

and bid them hold.[ii]

But of course we don’t all always reach out like that. There are needs that we see, as individuals and as a society, but which go on ignored, or nearly so. Along with many of you, my heart has been broken and my anger stoked by the recent stories of gay youth bullied to the point of suicide. A statistical fluke – so many cases happening so close together, has drawn some national attention, yet this is no new phenomenon. And each one of these lives lost represents years of cries for help, that now can never be fully answered. As I was reading about these poor lost young people and what should be done to prevent further deaths, I happened across these words by the blogger Femmephane:

“It has been my experience that people are ashamed to help the folks they see as destitute. They are willing to let someone crash on their sofa for a night if they know that they have a back-up bed, somewhere else. They are happy to provide dinner, so long as they know you would be eating even without their generosity. It seems that if you’ve never been homeless or lost or hungry, if you don’t know what that feels like, is too embarrassing to give things to people who might die without them– it is humiliating to hand someone the only food they’ve had all week.”[iii]

Those words strike painfully true, in a society which treats its tired, its poor, its huddled masses yearning to breathe free as ours does. While I cannot deny that that is a part of the human story, I also cannot concede that it is the whole story. Any of you who have been involved with our Tuesday night supper program know particular experience of giving food to someone who might not have eaten all day. For the truly hungry, all food is a sacrament, and to have the chance to offer it, is a blessing. It is the role of religion, indeed, to summon forth precisely the opposite reaction in human beings: to match the deepest empathy to the most dire need, and then to act from it. For the better angels of our nature do exist, and here I am speaking less theologically than scientifically. In his book “The Empathic Civilization,” economist and activist Jeremy Rifkin highlights a number of studies that show that in the basic wiring of the human brain we are set up not for the Hobbesian life – nasty, brutish, and short – but for empathy, and a direct interest in the wellbeing of others.[iv]

Seeing you, sing a song, get bad news, or eat a cupcake, my brain has a response that mirrors the response in your head, or at least the one that I assume is there. Seeing the crutch, I feel the injury, the discomfort, the need that I assume it signals. Rifkin argues that this new understanding of our own cognition should call us to a major reconsideration of the way we have structured our world – to begin living truly together with, rather than against one another. However, to live out of our empathic natures requires two things: we must uproot and confront the impulses and narratives that make us push down and switch off our natural empathy. But before even doing that, we first have to pay attention to the world around us, to recognize the need even when it is unspoken, or silenced, or hidden.

And the good news, friends, is that the reward for helping others is great. When we say together each morning that ‘Love is the spirit of this church and service is its law,’ that is not a law of self-sacrifice. It is a practice that benefits everyone – both those who serve, and those who do the serving. And of course, we are all of us liable to be in both groups, at one time or another.

She told me that they were taking the church youth group on a retreat that weekend, but they didn’t have any male chaperones. She was a classmate of mine in seminary. I knew her a bit, we’d worked on a few projects before. I didn’t particularly owe her any favors though, and I had plenty of work and other things that I both wanted and needed to do with my Saturday. I had plenty of reasons to say ‘no’. But I remembered how much my own youth group had meant to me, when I was a teenager, the friends I had made, and the support I had been given during uncertain and difficult times.

And so I agreed to spend my weekend as one of three adults in a geodesic dome full of teenagers. I ended up spending two years as an advisor to that group of youth. I got to be a part of their lives as they came of age as Unitarian Universalists, asking deep questions, toying with sometimes poignant and sometimes frivolous answers, and just generally growing. No matter what age we are, we are at our best, friends, when we are growing. Two of my closest friends from seminary, I owe to having said ‘yes’ to that overnight. The one who asked me for help currently serves in Michigan, and the third member of our advisor group just began work with a congregation in Florida.

In Robert Fulgham’s story about the jumper cables, a long time after that nice couple from Idaho have had their car repaired, and started it again, and driven back home, the wood-be good Samaritan received a package in the mail. It was from that wise woman who had pointed out where the battery was located, who had had the presence of mind to read the manual, and who had gone off to find helpful help after Robert and her husband had reached the limit on the damage they could do. The box contained a new set of jumper cables, complete with a detailed instruction book and a special mechanism to warn you that they’ve been hooked up wrong when you’ve hooked them up wrong. One of the lesson’s Robert offers from his experience of trying to help when asked is this: progress is possible.

Progress is possible, friends, and it is most possible when we help one another to achieve it. Therefore let us not be afraid to ask for what we need, and let us also be ready to give what we can. Amen.

[i] From his book, “All I Really Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten”


[ii] As printed in the Skinner House meditation anthology, “How We Are Called”

[iii] From the blog tempcontretemps:

[iv] You can see a brief lecture by Rifkin on this same subject here:


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