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Beginning the World Over Again – 1/1/2012

So today is a new day and a new year. The poet e. e. cummings wrote for days like today, “this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birthday of life and of love and wings: and of the gay great happening illimitably earth.” Days like today are supposed to fill us with a sense of promise and possibility – the newspaper is full of previews and forecasts for the coming year, and small talk inevitably drifts to the subject of New Year’s Resolutions.

But today or on any other day of the year it is not always easy to seize that sort of momentum. There are days when I feel – and perhaps you can relate to this – a little bit like Winnie the Pooh. I’m thinking of the time when that silly old bear dropped by the burrow belonging to his friend Rabbit and had a bit too much to eat while there. As he was leaving, he climbed halfway through the hole in the ground that was Rabbit’s front door, and became stuck there.

          “Oh help!” said Pooh. “I’d better go back.”

          “Oh bother!” said Pooh. “I shall have to go on.”

          “I can’t do either!” said Pooh. “Oh help and bother.”[i]

There are times in life when, like Pooh, we find ourselves in a predicament from which we want to retreat, but cannot, while going forward seems just as impossible. That feeling of ‘stuckness’ can be an overwhelming force, as we find ourselves developing a long and frustrating list of all the things that cannot be fixed or changed or helped. In my household we have theatrical scene that we point to describe this feeling. It comes from the Producers – the musical, rather than the original movie. The two main characters Max and Leo have devised a scheme to make money by producing a Broadway failure. But their plot unravels when their sure-fire bomb turns out to be a hit. Max reads the glowing reviews with shock and dismay, and at the end of each line a despondent Leo moans, “No way out.”

The argument against that feeling of ‘no way out’ issues from many corners, so I will begin by pointing to one I believe puts it very well. Thomas Paine, who never professed to be either a Unitarian or a Universalist, though we might find some common ground with him theologically, wrote these words as an exhortation to challenge one of the dominant sorts of stuckness in his time and place:

We have it in our power to begin the world over again. A situation,                     similar to the present, hath not happened since the days of Noah until now.     The birthday of a new world is at hand…and in this point of view, how   trifling, how          ridiculous, do…little, paltry cavilings [that is, objections]    …appear, when weighed against the business of a world.[ii]

Paine said this as he was calling for independence from Great Britain for the American colonies in 1776, and for the formation of a representative system of government. He was speaking to a moment in time that he considered to be exceptional – a situation not seen “since the days of Noah.” But that sense of promise and possibility is not something limited to the great crises and turning points of history. Each day that we awake to is new, and there is no limit to the number of opportunities that life gives us to begin again.

Of course, sometimes we wake up and things really are more different than usual. In the movie Sleeper, Woody Allen wakes up 200 years in the future to a world run with an iron fist by a frightening and terrible leader. But on the plus side, deep fat and hot fudge had by then been proven to have powerful life-preserving properties. Or think about this: in the country of Samoa in the Pacific ocean this week, the people there went to bed on Thursday night and woke up on Saturday morning. They skipped Friday in order to hop from one side of the international date line to the other, giving up being two hours behind California to be three hours ahead of Australia instead. A day is an unusual cost to pay for a new beginning, but it is hardly the most severe.

Thomas Paine invoked the story of Noah in his vision of a new world. In the book of Genesis, only a few chapters after having created the world and the human beings that populate it, the Creator becomes dissatisfied with the creation. “God saw how great was humankind’s wickedness on earth, and how every plan devised by human minds was nothing but evil all the time. And God regretted making human beings on earth, and God’s heart was saddened.”[iii]

God decides to give the world a new start, but the cost of this new beginning will be terribly high: a flood will cover the earth, and only a very few humans – Noah and his family – and a scant sampling of non-human animals will survive. This story is one of the first and most influential examples of the idea that in order to make a new start, to begin in a new way to be the people we want to be or to build the world we dream about, we have to destroy or discard much of what went before.

In the television show Mad Men, the advertising executive Don Draper visits one of his star employees in the hospital. She has been through a painful ordeal that she is deeply ashamed of. Physically she is well enough to leave but she is being held for mental reasons. Worn out and powerfully stuck, she is unable to face the outside world, the people she knows, or even the prospect of getting out of bed.

Don, her boss and something approaching her friend, has already remade his life, already cut away the parts of himself that were inconvenient, that didn’t fit with the person he’d decided to be. Seeing his story reflected in the woman in the bed in front of him he stares her down and tells her to do anything and everything it takes to get up and never look back on this moment. Say whatever, do whatever the doctors need to be satisfied, he tells her. “Get out of here. Move forward. This never happened. It will shock you how much this never happened.”

When we feel trapped by the present moment, the lure of blowing up or abandoning the past becomes very attractive. But the past is always a part of us – what has gone before shaped who we are, what we are, and where we are in this moment. History – from a painful relationship, to a family secret, to a civil war – cannot simply be forgotten. To pretend otherwise only robs us of a part of our selves, and leaves us unprepared for the inevitable moment when the events of our past will somehow echo into the present.

We need to change, just like our world and everyone else in it. We all need to turn in our hearts away from selfishness, indifference and despair and towards the forces that sustain and uphold life. Not just once, but again and again. When we are angry, when we are lonely, when we are tired or stressed or in pain – we need to begin again. We need that sort of transformation as individuals, and as a society. Accomplishing it requires us to know and acknowledge our past rather than denying it, to set goals that are clear, and to be ready to work hard in pursuit of them.

Friday marked the 75th anniversary of the start of the Flint sit-down strike. Just before the end of 1936, workers at General Motors plants in Flint, Michigan occupied the facilities and refused to work, leave, or let management remove the equipment to a different factory. They did so with the demand that their employer recognize their union – the United Auto Workers, which was then just getting off the ground. For a month and a half in the Michigan winter, the striking workers lived and slept in those factories, holding off the police and agents of the factory owners. When they finally won recognition, it was a watershed moment for American labor: it showed other workers in other factories, and in other professions what could be accomplished through organization and collective bargaining. The victory in Flint was the beginning of a new and different world; one in which labor unions in the United States, and many other parts of the world, had to be taken seriously, even by large and powerful corporations. It was a transformative moment.

As Unitarian Universalists, we share a theological legacy that resists the idea of rare and special moments in time in which to start anew. Each moment is a fresh start; in every second, there is an opportunity to turn towards wholeness, and begin again in love. So we cannot be satisfied to wait for the right moment, or the right visionary leader to come along. Leymah Gbowee is a Liberian peace activist who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize this past year for her work organizing women in her country to demand an end to its 14 year civil war. Women are often portrayed as vulnerable victims, particularly in Africa, and particularly in time of war. Ms. Gbowee spent years as a refugee, keeping herself and her children alive with no power, no money, and no place of safety or security. Eventually, she began sharing her story with other women and daring to make a collective effort with the 51% of the population normally completely cut-off from the peace process. She challenges me, and she challenges each of us, to make change where we know that it is needed, saying

“If you have a situation that seems endless and is a negative situation –     don’t wait for a Gandhi, don’t wait for a King, don’t wait for a Mandella.      You are your own Mandella. You are your own Gandhi. You are your own    King.           You know your issues, you know your concerns, and you know the     solution. Rise up and do something to change your situation around.”[iv]

There is a Zen Buddhist saying: “Before enlightenment: chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment: chop wood, carry water.” So too with the New Year, and a labor strike, or just about any other activity that needs to be done, and takes no notice of the coming and going of a holiday. Our faith affirms that the needs of the world are real: mundane tasks like chopping wood and carrying water aren’t separate from the meaning of spiritual life, they are a part of it. Any work that is necessary to sustain life is holy. So at the start of this year I wish you a renewed joy and appreciation for the work you are already doing. May the new year bring you new wood to chop and offer new water to carry.

Now I am going to give you a bit of spiritual homework: Consider the new world that you need to live your life towards. It will come from a sense not only of the future you hope for, but also of the past you have experienced. You may find it is attractive to use responsibilities – all the things you feel we have to do – to explain all the ways in which you cannot change. So start instead with the question of who and what you are ultimately accountable to. Answer that clearly, and it will become apparent that your responsibilities – the ones that really matter, the ones you won’t give up – are a source of strength and determination. The commitments that define us can be the catalysts for our own transformation, rather than a barrier to it. Focus on where your heart is, and you will find where your spirit leads. Following it is your work for this day, this year, this life. It is a work, that I can tell you, is best done in community, where you can find people to share your goals, to support your struggle, and to challenge you when you have lost sight of your own ideals.

Our great Unitarian ancestor William Ellery Channing exhorted us not to be anymore satisfied to remain stuck in the burrow hole of life than Winnie-the-Pooh was. He said, “I call that mind free, which resists the bondage of habit, which does not mechanically repeat itself and copy the past, which does not live on old virtue, which does not enslave itself to precise rules, but forgets what is behind, listens for new and higher monitions of conscience, and rejoices to pour in fresh and higher exertions.”[v] In the year now begun, may we pour ourselves forth in the work of beginning the world over again. Amen.


[i] A. A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

[ii] Thomas Paine, Common Sense

[iii] Genesis 6:5-6

[v] From his 1830 sermon, “Spiritual Freedom”


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