Well, you got trouble, my friend, right here in River City. Trouble—or at least a lot of people want you to think so.
I was miserably sick with Swine Flu last month, as I lay about feeling wretched, I experimented with watching “TV” on my computer. This was a big change for me. I usually get most of my news from rather sober sources—The New York Times, The BBC, NPR's Wait Wait Don't Tell Me. I watched Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh with a horror I normally associate with particularly gory traffic accidents, and I was struck over and over by the intensity of the media. The right, out of power for the moment, seem the loudest now, but the left has its share as well. Keith Olbermann didn't always strike me as “fair and balanced.” Regardless of which side you listen to, the tone is pretty shrill and, speaking frankly, kind of scary. It doesn't take long kneeling at feet of these impoverishing prophets to be pretty sure the world is going to end sometime soon. Fear and intensity seem to be such dominant forces in our public conversation. I started wondering about what this does to us: physically, psychologically, and spiritually.
I know this stuff isn't new, this seductive shouting of fear and doom. When Thomas Jefferson ran for president a lot of people were deeply alarmed and didn't hesitate to warn us of the consequences of his election. A Connecticut paper claimed that electing Jefferson assured us a future in which “murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will all be openly taught and practiced; the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed; the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes.”
Humans have always used fear to define good and evil, insider from outsider, saved from damned. It seems to me though that the yellow journalism, mudslinging, and schadenfreude of yesteryear was maybe the equivalent of beer and whiskey, while the current crop is far closer to crack and crystal meth. I think instinct, added to the incredibly pervasive and calculated nature of modern media, has created a far more fraught environment.
What we're struggling with here is our own animal nature. Not some deep bestial aggressiveness and certainly not some sense of Original Sin calling us defiled for the mythical action of some long ago fig-leafed couple, but just simple, adaptive biology—in a word, evolution. Our species has grown and changed and adapted over a vast reach of time.
We evolved in a state of privation, never having enough. Our bodies, like those of other animals, often went through periods where food was scarce. When nourishment was available, you gorged yourself because it wasn't clear when the next opportunity would come. We may have culturally and materially developed to the point where that kind of deprivation is only the province of the truly poor, but our bodies don't know the difference. Our brains reward us for eating certain types of food because biologically speaking they ensure survival—primarily fat and sugar. And, have no doubt, the massive corporations who design our food know exactly the mix that is most likely to result in that nice flood of dopamine and endorphins. Actions that are conducive to survival produce this wash of chemicals that we perceive as pleasurable—and so we want to do it again and again. Food and sex are among the strongest of these reactions—both very pleasurable, both completely central to the survival of our DNA, and both exploited every single moment of every single day.
But those aren't the only two signals important for survival or easy to exploit—fear is profoundly important as well. Imagine a creature that paid little attention to the sensation of fear—they hear the growl of the predator, pause for a moment, but then go back to feeding peacefully. There is a scientific name for this kind of creature—lunch.
Our nervous systems naturally key in on unique or intense environmental cues—they might indicate a threat. So the media, food and advertising industries have to constantly look for what is new, startling, shocking if they are to capture our attention. There is a ratcheting-up process that leads us from horror movies starring Bela Lugosi to the the Friday the 13th movies to the latest crop of what are known as torture porn movies which push boundaries ever further. We go from a quarter pounder with cheese being indulgent to the latest Carl Jr's inventions with a pound of meat, bacon, cheese, and guacamole with enough calories to meet the needs of the average Ethiopian family for a week. Everything has to be bigger, louder, sharper.
High intensity stimulates our brains. When Glen Beck openly weeps on camera, when Keith Olberman raises his deep, resonant voice to sternly and aggressively correct the Republican leadership--we are stirred. Strong emotion elicits strong reactions in us. To our brains, we are still tribal creatures—dependent on social signals for our place in the group and for our survival. If someone in the tribe was deeply upset we needed to respond—they were likely upset by something that was a threat to us. We didn't have time to determine if the threat was real—we had to react. Doubt any of this, go to a horror movie, see if you get worked up even though you know that every moment of it is absolutely fake. Our primal brain doesn't take account of special effects—there are just effects.
There is an old adage about dysfunctional and addictive relationships—intensity is not intimacy. Many of us confuse the two. The internet and television with their 24-hour all-you-can-eat buffet of noise, body parts, violence, hatred, and pain feeds us plenty of intensity. Remember the old news saying, “if it bleeds, it leads.”
And the screaming heads on radio and television invite us to the worst interpretation of those we disagree with—and I can think of few things more harmful to the long-term health of our democracy or our individual souls than the routine demonization of those who think differently. We wind up with an almost Newtonian response—the more fear I feel the more likely I am to move further away from the center. Moderates become un-electable and so we push our national discussion from conversation to chaos—locked in a perpetual war of polar opposites led by idealogues.
Numerous books and studies have pointed out the increasing isolation so many of us feel. Isolation and loneliness we live with despite being connected every hour of the day by satellite TV, cellphones, and wireless internet. I think we, as a culture, are living out this addictions theory axiom—we have plenty of intensity and increasingly little intimacy.
When we are encouraged to feel afraid—afraid of our government, afraid of other countries, afraid of those who look, love, believe, think differently then we push ourselves into a constant feeling of danger, a perpetual fight or flight state which leaves us compromised intellectually, emotionally, physically, and spiritually. Instead of ready and engaged, informed and hopeful, we find ourselves panting on the floor, door barred, wide-eyed and ready to repel the next assault. This is no way to live.
Where do we go to find silence and solace, rationality and reprieve, perhaps even recovery from the crystal meth-level high of irresistible media and unstoppable corporations? Well, right here, of course. We are the antidote to fear, this is the place to recalibrate your senses and your soul.
I don't think UU congregations always get why we come together on Sundays. We don't as Unitarian Universalists take the concept of sabbath seriously enough. If you cannot find a couple of hours each week where you will not answer your phone, will not check the latest headlines or stock prices, will simply let a little time pass in worship than we, actually you, have a problem. Be here, breathe, settle into a quiet sense of worship.
Whenever I use the word worship I can feel a little shudder go through a number of congregants—worship, such a word to be afraid of. Worship—as if we came together to engage in anything like what most other churches do. When we speak of worship, when we worship together, we are tapping into the word's deepest roots. We bring together “worth”—that which we find valuable—with the suffix “-ship” meaning to shape or create. We all come together to engage in a profound act of creation—we, together, minister and layperson, women and men, rich and poor, republican and democrat, gay and straight, theist and atheist—we come together to shape, to create and share what is of worth to us. Nothing less brings us together every weekend—nothing less should. I want, today, for all of us to let go of our nervousness about calling what we do worship. And yes, I am certainly using the word differently than most Baptists, Methodists, or Evangelicals would—but we can take their sense of it back as well. We do worship—we worship what is Holy and Divine like they do, but we locate it differently. We find God in the free mind and soul, we find it in the ideas of Mahatma Gandhi and the dreams of Dr. King. We find it in small acts of personal courage and grand gestures toward justice. We find it in our history of tolerance and rationality in the face of superstition and fossilized tradition. We find it in the open hand and the open heart. We find it in every spiritual path an honest, loving person ever walked. We find it in the words of Jesus and Buddha, the music of Bach and the Beatles.
We Unitarian Universalists are different from those faith traditions that lace their message of love with fear and offer salvation with one hand while holding a stick in the other. Brave men and women over centuries have purged our tradition of fear and superstition. And, to be frank, it is surely one of the main reasons our religion has such low growth and loses so many of our youth. You will never hear in a church like ours—believe as we do or you are damned for eternity. You will never hear, love who we say is acceptable or you will be punished with a horrible disease. You will never hear, everyone who is not Unitarian Universalist is wrong and influenced by the devil. Coming to our church is like going to a Nascar race and never, ever seeing a crash. In fact going to a race and not only not seeing a crash, but being asked genuinely to hope one never happens anywhere.
This is not just modern UU, this is us going back. Does anyone know who John Murray is? He preached his first Universalist sermon in the states in 1770. He famously said, “You may possess only a small light, but uncover it, let it shine, use it in order to bring more light and understanding to the hearts and minds of men and women. Give them not Hell, but hope and courage. Do not push them deeper into their theological despair, but preach the kindness and everlasting love of God.”
A deep, pervasive, bitter fear is not part of our history and has no place in our future. We offer hope and community. And we steadfastly refuse any claims to truth that hold distrust, fear, prejudice, or discrimination at their core.
This afternoon you will ordain me. You should not do this just because I'm a good guy or because I can preach, but because you recognize in me a life's calling as a minister of the Unitarian Universalist tradition. And I am that, I stand here at this pulpit with 500 years of our history at my back, holding me up, informing and teaching me, leading and inspiring me. I am a Unitarian—I believe that this holy, sacred, intoxicating, frustrating, comedic divine reality is ultimately non-dualistic, One with a capital “O” and that is what, if anything, I call God. I am a Universalist, I believe that salvation—a profoundly deep health and healing is available to all who seek it, not just those who hold to one set of beliefs, but all those that seek the truth in love shall find it and that truth creates freedom. I've heard dozens of UU ministers preach—here and New Jersey and San Francisco and Boston and Maine and Seattle and other places—Buddhists and Pagans, Christians and agnostics, Humanists and Jews. We use different language, different images but we speak with a surprisingly steady unified voice. We call you to freedom, peace, justice, balance, self-awareness and love---in short we try to call you to what is best in the human spirit, what is truly sacred in religion. You call us and then we call you.
Fear is easy; our way is hard. Fear removes the ability to think and traps us in a state of raw instinct, closes our eyes and hearts, and seduces us with false promises of safety and crystal clear identity. Overcoming this addiction will be, as with most addictions, very hard—made even harder because there's a peddler of fear and intensity on every street corner and the seductive call echoes from every radio, television, rooftop and, unfortunately, too many pulpits.
But that is, I think, increasingly the purpose of this free religion of ours, to be a strong gentle counterpoint to the rest of it all. I challenge you, today and in the days to come, to practice rejecting fear. Hear excess in the media and laugh softly to yourself. Read alarm in the paper, smile, and put the paper down. Consciously remember this community when you need to be re-grounded in what is of value. This is your genuine heritage; Unitarian Universalists have been doing this for 500 years. If your spiritual identity is primarily that of what you left behind, what you don't want, you are cheating yourself and this tradition. Reject intensity, refute fear, welcome intimacy, and practice--as John Murray advised—uncovering your light, give yourself and those around you hope and courage, not hell. Live our values, speak our gospel of justice, love, and unity in diversity. It is the task of this generation of Unitarian Universalists to reclaim the spirituality of our faith—steadfastly holding to the motive force of humanism, the methodical fearlessness of science, while not being afraid of the profound mystery of life. We have chosen a path that allows us tremendous freedom but requires of us a deep, steady strength. Ours is a path that has for many generations rejected the seductions of fear, let us strive to be worthy.
Amen, blessed be, namaste.