…and what to do when you’re not enough…
a reflection by the Reverend Paul Oakley
11:00 AM, Sunday, November 4, 2018
Unitarian Universalism is an optimistic faith. We have counterparts with a lot of theological sharing in various places around the world: Unitarians in Romania, Hungary, and Norway; Unitarian and Free Christians in the United Kingdom; Non-Subscribing Presbyterians in Northern Ireland; Universalists in the Philippines and Japan… Despite the ideas about what is utmost and the nature and challenges of being human that are shared across this array of related traditions, each is a product and reflection, as well as reaction, to the society in which it exists. Each one has its national flavor, if you will.
The American Unitarian Association was formed in 1825 as the culmination of its founders’ slow divorce from the Congregational Christian Churches of New England. These grandchildren of Puritans found Calvinism’s view of humanity unlivable in this new republic. Their Puritan grandparents believed in Original Sin, Predestination, and the Total Depravity of Humanity. Unitarians rejected those notions and trusted that the individual human was NOT born with the taint of sin, was free to shape their own destiny, and was perfectible. In his book Self Culture, written in 1898, the Rev. James Freeman Clarke summarized the viewpoint of our Unitarian ancestors:
The fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, the leadership of Jesus, salvation by character, and the continuity of human development in all worlds, or the progress of mankind onward and upward forever.
You don’t get more optimistic than that. These descendants of the Puritans were shaped in the inherent optimism of the American Experiment. If the individual is saved by character, they are enough. You and I and our neighbors are enough. We can change ourselves and the world.
The Universalist Church in America was formed in 1793 by people who had converged from a variety of Christian traditions. They also reacted against the aspects of Calvinism they found offensive to God and to their souls. Their Puritan neighbors believed that the defining ideas in Calvinism – Original Sin and Total Depravity – meant that most of humanity would end up in hell rather than heaven after death. To the Universalists those ideas were a blasphemous misrepresentation of God. They knew God’s defining feature as Love. It would be against the nature of such a God defined to damn humans to an eternity of misery.
So the Universalist take on American optimism was the idea that, yes, there was predestination, but that it went in the opposite direction of Calvinist Predestination. For Universalists, God predestined everyone who ever has or ever will live to to heaven. Eternal misery was done away with. For our Universalist ancestors, salvation was still the work of God. They didn’t believe that salvation was by character. No, but they believed the salvation of all freed humanity to be good and make the world better. A people who believed they did not have the ultimate reality pulling them down into the pit, was free to live according to the goodness for which they were created. God had already done the work of God, so being human was enough.
As Unitarian Universalists, American optimism is in our bones. So much of the time we trust that things are going to be okay in the end and if things aren’t okay, it isn’t the end yet. We trust, with an inborn trust, that we are enough. The seven principles that the congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association promise to affirm and promote begins with “the inherent worth and dignity of every person,” the human enoughness of each of us.
Yes, sometimes our commitment to our individually being enough puts us in danger. We place ourselves and our individual sensibilities on a pedestal above everything and everyone else. But we come to the human project, the American Experiment, with an enormous trust in our sufficiency. We don’t have to depend on supernatural agency to fix things. We are free to do the work of humanity. We often trust we don’t have to work hard to get there: it is the mere expression of our humanity.
And yet we experience moments or hours or days, months, years of insufficiency. As much as we know our own sufficiency, we find plenty of reason to doubt it. Many times in our doubt of our enoughness, we overcompensate. An acquaintance of mine recently asked me what my favorite Bible story was. I turned it around and asked my acquaintance what his favorite Bible story was. He didn’t have to think about it. For him, it was the story of Gideon.
It was a story of a time of conquest and struggle, of blood and guts, a story of a time when society believed and structured itself differently from now, a time we don’t intuitively understand. It is complicated for 21st-Century people to hear stories in which God or an angel tells someone what to do. But that’s how this story starts. An angel comes to Gideon to tell him what to do, to lead his people, to defeat their enemies in this time of war and conquest, this time of warring neighbors. And Gideon says, I don’t trust you are who you say you are. I don’t trust that this message won’t cause me and my people a whole heap of trouble. Prove it. Prove that this is my charge not just some late-night fantasy. So the first part of the story is the proof. Things that were accepted by that character at that time but maybe you and I would not be satisfied with today. Signs and miracles were the air the society of Gideon’s time breathes, so fire shooting out of a rock and the way the dew wetted the ground but not the fleece of a sheep and the reverse of that pattern were convincing to Gideon. He now knew what his task was for the betterment of his people. But he still didn’t think it was going to go well. He didn’t think he was enough.
Gideon is told to gather a strike force to go against the enemy. And because he feels the insufficiency in his situation, he calls up everybody to serve. And so this voice that Gideon understands to be God tells Gideon that there are too many of them, to send home everyone who is afraid. So those who are willing to admit they are fearful depart. And the strike force lost two thirds of its number because not everyone was mentally prepared for the military endeavor. And that small voice that Gideon experiences as God returns and says, send the whole force down to the river for a drink of water, and watch them. Anybody who lowers their face to the water to drink, send them home. Just keep the people who stay aware of their surroundings by lifting the water to their face. And only one percent of the original force was left. Yet, with good strategy, the smaller force was able to prevail for the protection of the whole people.
Now the story was told with an explicit interpretation added: that God’s strength was shown through the smaller number of the force. And if that is the interpretation that is meaningful to you, it can help you overcome the odds when the situation is stacked against you. But you might also interpret this as a story about strategy and sufficiency and what is right for one situation not being right for every situation. Today we take as a given that some military actions require a great army and others just need a small team of Navy Seals. We can interpret this story as a tale of sufficiency. The right people with the right preparation and the right plan can overtake the odds.
So what am I trying to say? We know that it is part of the human condition that even those of us in the most optimistic of societies in human history, members of perhaps the most optimistic religious tradition within the West at the very least – even we face situations and circumstances where we do not feel like we have what it takes, times when we do not see ourselves as being enough. When we are not enough, we may try to gather a great force around us, to overpower what would pull us down. But maybe it is more important to select the few, the prepared to help pull us through the times when we are not enough.
We come together as a caring community, open to each other’s joys that express the sufficiency of our lives, but also open to each other’s sorrows, the expressions of ways we do not feel like we are enough, and we trust that in this band of people who come together in courage, prepared to serve, that our insufficiency is supplemented by the enoughness of others who care, the sufficiency of community. You are enough! The seventh principle of our movement is interdependence, connectedness, knowing that we are part of something greater, not lone wolves responsible for fixing everything ourselves.
We Unitarian Universalists trust this great wisdom. When you are not enough, we trust this caring community to come through and carry us through to safety. A small strike force. Navy Seals of our spiritual lives. When you are not enough, WE are enough together.
Amen and Blessed Be.
© Copyright 2018 by Rev. Paul Oakley