“Follow Your Arrow”
A Sermon by Rev. Megan Lynes
Delivered on Sunday, September 14, 2014
At The First Parish in Bedford
Thoughts to Ponder at the Beginning:
“If you want to identify me, ask me not where I live, or what I like to eat, or how I comb my hair, but ask me what I am living for, in detail, ask me what I think is keeping me from living fully for the thing I want to live for.” ― Thomas Merton
“Cat: Where are you going?
Alice: Which way should I go?
Cat: That depends on where you are going.
Alice: I don’t know.
Cat: Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”
― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
by Linda Pastan
My son is practicing the piano.
He is a man now, not the boy
whose lessons I once sat through,
whose reluctant practicing
I demanded—part of the obligation
I felt to the growth
and composition of a child.
Upstairs my grandchildren are sleeping,
though they complained earlier of the music
which rises like smoke up through the floorboards,
coloring the fabric of their dreams.
On the porch my husband watches the garden fade
into summer twilight, flower by flower;
it must be a little like listening to the fading
diminuendo notes of Mozart.
But here where the dining room table
has been pushed aside to make room
for this second or third-hand upright,
my son is playing the kind of music
it took him all these years,
and sons of his own, to want to make.
Sermon is here.
“Follow your Arrow”
Rev. Megan Lynes
This sermon followed a song called “Follow Your Arrow” by Kacey Musgraves. You can view it here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kQ8xqyoZXCc
The parade of multi-colored floats inched by. The men dancing on top of the closest one hitched up their skirts, flipped their feather boas, and in 8-inch heels, began to dance. Their faces glowed with rouge and lipstick. Their wigs bounced in the breeze. They looked gorgeous, they looked proud, they looked somehow innocent and daring and raucous and oh so vulnerable with those long black lashes and sad eyes, but they also looked free. Boston’s Gay Pride Parade was the first experience I had as a teenager of seeing men hold hands. There in the public sphere, gay men and lesbians, bi, queer and transfolk embraced their right to love how they love. This community spirit was an environment that allowed each individual to be truly themselves, as they wanted to declare it, share it, or live it – even if only momentarily. But Gay Pride was not only a collection of individuals following their own arrows. It was a large group, perhaps a thousand people strong, all of whom considered themselves to be part of a great liberation effort.
To be a person who follows one’s arrow, as the Kacey Musgraves’ song lifts up, is daring and empowering. It can set you free, it can release you from the bonds of societal expectations. Following one’s arrow can lead the way for others to reach for their own goals and self understanding. And of course, it’s useful and necessary to spend time identifying for ourselves what our purpose in life really is. We’ll talk about that some this morning. I also really like country music, and I had to apologize to the folks in the apartment next door a couple days ago when I was blasting the song a little too loud one night, so you should know that I kinda like this song. But there is also a way that the message of the song falls short. Contrary to much of our current American ethos, following your arrow is not only about actualizing your own person, getting ahead, or making yourself happy.
Being who you are, as an autonomous and unique self, is undeniably important. You have heard me talk about how my own life was shaped by my first minister, Mr. Rogers. “I like you just the way you are,” he told me. It seemed I couldn’t hear this enough times. As a little girl, I needed to hear that I was likable, worthy and the word feels trite now, but special. We tell our children these messages each week, and they are true. But they are not enough as the sole backdrop for living a life of character and accountability. Douglas Steere, A Quaker teacher, says that the ancient question, “Who am I?” inevitably leads to a deeper one, “Whose am I?” – because there is no identity outside of relationship. You can’t be a person by yourself. To ask “Whose am I?” is to extend the question far beyond the little self-absorbed self, and wonder, Who needs you? Who loves you? To whom are you accountable? To whom do you answer? Whose life is altered by your choices? With whose life, and whose lives, is our own all bound up, inextricably, in obvious or invisible ways?
These questions are central to our particular religious tradition. We UU’s, come from a history of heretics, martyrs and other religious leaders and common people who stood by their conscience to make a point for freedom of belief and practice. Many of them did this individually with no support from others. Some of our First Parish pilgrims to Transylvania have stood in the very cell where Unitarian martyr Francis David died alone, after refusing to recount his belief that a person should be allowed to evolve their own understanding of religious truth, rather than stick with the belief of the political ruler of the time. His martyrdom was important, but mostly because it paved the way for groups of likeminded people to find one another, and form religious community based on religious tolerance and freedom of belief.
Here’s the premise of my sermon this morning: so much more is possible when a group sets its arrow upon a mark and works together to achieve something great. We are failing as a society or as a church, if we do not instill in our children and reignite in ourselves, the desire to function as part of a group, working together for the common good.
I have a distinct memory of the day I saw with a jolt the way Americans sometimes act as individuals rather than as a group. When I was in my early twenties I traveled with a group of American UU’s to Japan for a conference led by the International Association for Religious Freedom. We met up with a large group of Japanese young adults from a Buddhist community called Risho Kossei Kai. We spent about two weeks together visiting religious sites and seeing some of the Japanese countryside and significant cultural landmarks. We had a good time together, but over the course of our days, there began to be a tension in the air that no one could name. We Americans could tell we had offended our hosts, but we simply couldn’t see what was causing the problem. We tried to guess, but it wasn’t easy to inquire what was wrong, because that might imply we were feeling our Japanese friends were being cold to us. And culturally, it would be considered rude for a Japanese person to directly confront us about our behavior, so the tension only increased.
At last one daring Japanese woman found a way to bring up their concern, because they could tell we wanted to understand and change ourselves, but we were simply too oblivious to understand how our culture was clashing with theirs. They began by inviting us to all sit in a circle, then in the kindest way told us, “it’s not that your way is not the right way, it’s simply different… but it’s not quite working here.”
It turned out that what was happening over and over was that when the entire group was asked to show up at a certain time, to board a bus or enter a park or something of the sort, all the Japanese folks would show up five minutes early, or exactly on time. Without fail, the Americans tended to wander in on time or a couple minutes late. In the American was of thinking, a little lateness was not a good habit to get into, but since the group was large, we thought it would just carry on, and the late person would sneak in, hopefully unnoticed. The Japanese way of thinking was that the whole group couldn’t begin until everyone was present. To be late was to be thinking only of oneself and not of the whole group. Japanese culture highly values having a group identity, seeing one’s self as one among many, and the importance rests in being a group together, not on standing out as an individual. In fact, being seen as different or separate is often seen as disruptive or undesirable. American culture on the other hand often places a high value on the importance of freedom and independence and individuality. Thankfully, once the Americans in our group realized the way our behavior was affected everyone involved, we could change our thinking and then change our behavior. Once we had had the awkward discussion it was clear we ultimately shared common goals and wanted to collaborate. The rest of our trip went along swimmingly, with lots of goof ups, but also lots of laughter about our now shared endeavor. The most egregious offender of lateness was an American guy who at last figured out if he made friends with the early bird Japanese young women he would start to be on time. A good set of friendships and some kind hearted teasing got started that way.
Here’s another story about what can happen when one thinks as part of a group, rather than as an individual. Maybe you too heard the NPR program this week about the history of bussing in Boston. School segregation in Boston was and in many ways still is a by-product of segregated neighborhoods. The initiative began in 1974, a decade after the desegregation of southern schools. Predominantly African American schools lacked permanent teachers, basic furniture and supplies, even books. The NAACP helped black parents bring their complaints to the Boston School Committee and later to the federal district court, where it was decided that students would be bused city-wide to integrate the schools. Less than a mile apart, the black community of Roxbury and the white community of South Boston were slated to integrate their schools. In September, buses carrying black students were met by white crowds in South Boston, yelling slurs and threatening violence. White parents staged a boycott, pulling their children from the schools. Perhaps you have an image like I do – that of an angry pack of white kids screaming at a single black child walking step by courageous step towards the front doors of a new school. I wasn’t there of course, but when I saw that photo as a kid I felt on fire with rage. “I like you just the way you are,” I wanted to tell that black child. I think about the black parents who stood at the bus stop waving goodbye to their children, knowing they were headed to an environment where they were certain to face disrespect, hatred or even violence. Each parent believed individually in a course towards justice, but perhaps what gave them strength to send their kid towards danger was the sense that they were participating in a great and correct initiative, many people strong. In the United States, the collective voice of leadership was trying to reset the compass of morality in the right direction. The power of a group cannot be underestimated.
I think about Tim DeChristopher, a young man who disrupted a controversial BLM Oil and Gas leasing auction in 2008. He posed as a bidder (#70) and bid $1.7 million to win 22,000 acres of land he had no intention of paying for (or drilling on). Tim was federally indicted, convicted and sentenced to two years in prison for his courageous act of civil disobedience. He was admitted to Harvard Divinity School last fall, and has since made a movie called Bidder 70 about his story, which has won all sorts of awards at independent film festivals. It is both his own personal story surrounded by a wider context of citizen action, and also presents a history of peaceful civil disobedience, and grass roots movements demanding government and industry accountability. Tim DeChristopher followed his own arrow out of a sense of accountability to others, and a deep commitment to building a sustainable world for all. Tim is a member of the UU church in Salt Lake City. Members of that church and another group called Peaceful Uprising, which he cofounded, are his communities.
These days, when we think about living with purpose, reaching for justice, or acting in service of our vision, it can feel like a very personal question about individual success, how we’ll meet some particular life goals. I’ll get to the gym. I’ll call my family. I’ll show up on time. Sometimes we aren’t even sure what our goals are. They can feel like they are there simply to keep us from doing bad things or going off course. I think we need both personal individualistic goals, and goals that link us to the broader community. If you’re seeking the personal exploration, there’s an internet tool that I enjoyed recently. It is a mission statement builder, created by an organization called Franklin Covey. It asks a series of questions and ultimately compiles your responses and sends you a personal statement of purpose. If you’re interested in finding or re-attuning to your own sense of vision or mission, one that comes from a place of joy and meaning rather than reactivism, I recommend it. You can put Franklin Covey mission statement builder in a search engine.
When I tried the questionnaire myself, I realized that I am decently close to living what I think is my purpose as a pastor, counselor, artist, parent and friend… except I’ve been really neglecting two things. The parent part I am trying to solve for the future, but the art part… I’ve really let that one go. One of the questions on the survey asks what you hope people will be saying about you at your 80th birthday party. I guess if you’ve had that birthday you have some data to use, and can look to the next big bash!
Personally, I like to make art that makes us want to give back to the world, and I’ve really been falling short on doing that. I realized that if no one at that future birthday party knows how much I love art and love to make art, then I will have spent a good many years, avoiding my call. The last real art piece I made was the rice installation about the Holocaust we had here on the chancel. That was three years ago now I think. I mention it only because I want to be honest with you about a place in my life that I want to do better. I think you’re with me. You know how it can be with living your purpose, you get busy and forget that it matters that you speak your truth, or you feel like what you have to offer isn’t good enough. And of course, in my case, I left art school more than a decade ago, and without a group to practice and get excited with, it’s harder to keep on creating. But if something is a real calling, and part of your purpose, and if something is good for others as well as yourself, then doing it matters.
If there’s a pencil in your pew or purse or you want to take a mental note, what pops into mind with the question – what is my purpose? The Buddha said “your purpose in life is to find your purpose and give your whole heart and soul to it.” I read a distopic novel this summer called The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood. I highlighted the line “What I am living for and what I am dying for are the same questions.” Our Thoughts to Ponder this week, and Nancy Daugherty’s cover drawing invite similar reflection. What arrow should I follow? With whose life, and whose lives, is our own all bound up, inextricably, in obvious or invisible ways?
It seems clear that each of us must ask ourselves “in what community or group can I actualize or revitalize my potential for good?” James Luther Adams was the theologian responsible for the concept of “Voluntary association.” You may have heard the catch phrase “by their groups you shall know them.” This concept, at its peak perhaps mid 20th century, was not always a predominant way of thinking. You just heard me compare the fairly recent version of American individualistic thinking with the Japanese culture of thinking of the group as primary.
How did it happen then, in the history of Western thought that individualism came to be valued so highly? What was it exactly that my Japanese friends recognized as a viable “other way” but in truth also viewed as a major impediment to the quality of the collective experience? Paul Rasor, a current UU theologian, and professor at Harvard Divinity School, says that individualism lies at the core not only of American culture, but of liberal religion itself. Our society lifts up the sacredness of the individual conscience, and the individual person. This cultural reality creates the idea that individuals are real, and society is secondary. This perspective unavoidably colors our attitudes toward liberal religious community as well.” Let’s look a little deeper at his thinking.
The Enlightenment era in Western philosophy during the 18th century, was a time when intellectual, scientific and cultural life centered upon reason as the primary source for legitimacy and authority. Descartes argued, “I think therefor I am.” It wasn’t until the 19th century that the autonomous being at center stage was challenged by modern philosophy. As liberalism in the 19th century was becoming the dominant modern theology, several philosophers began to challenge the notion the self’s elevated place in the scheme of things. The new way of thinking didn’t replace independence with interdependence, but it did challenge the individual’s claim to autonomy.
Paul Rasor explains that German philosopher Hegel saw all individual entities, including human beings, as particular manifestations of a larger, all encompassing Absolute. This Absolute revealed itself through an ongoing historical process. The self’s place within this process was seen as a small part of a greater evolving whole.
Karl Marx also believed that humans are part of a historical process at work, but he argued that we belong in the earthly material realm, rather than in a transcendental ideal. He also considered the human being to be embedded in the material world of human ideology and social class. This of course challenged both the autonomy and privileged status of the individual. It also made the point that our ideas are linked to the social contexts of which we are a part.
Later, Sigmund Freud examined the nature of the self by showing how the rational conscious mind is largely dominated by the hidden messages and urgings of the subconscious mind. His point was that the rational mind is not completely in charge. These kinds of influences served as warnings against an uncritical faith in objective rationality, and overconfidence in the powers of the autonomous self.
Paul Rasor goes on to say that in the early decades of the 20th century American pragmatists like educator John Dewey argued that the human self is an inherently social being. Habits, opinions and motivations are as much a social phenomenon as an individual trait. For Dewey, the central inquiry of social psychology was to discover the ways in which the ingrained patterns of group interaction affect the individuals who are caught up in them, as well as the ways in which individuals continuously remake and redirect them. In the poem Laura read this morning, called “Practice” a father goes back to playing piano, a skill untouched since childhood, because he has unearthed in himself the desire to play again. Motivated by the influence his family of origin had on him, and rekindled by the values or aptitude he is instilling in his own children, his agency and identity as a participant in a family of musicians is unavoidable.
Many of us share the desire for stronger communities, religious and otherwise, and would argue that autonomous individualism is a poor foundation on which to build. However, we are not going to be able to adequately satisfy our longing for community until we learn to embrace a different view of the self. We don’t need to simply shift the balance between the individual and the community; we need to come to a different notion of what it means to be an individual. Rasor argues that “our liberal modern understanding of ourselves as autonomous individuals is an illusion. The truth is that we don’t first exist as individuals who then form social groups. The group always comes first. As individuals, our identities are always formed in relation to a particular social context. We are social beings through and through.”
And what else is the religious purpose of community if not to draw us out of our own loneliness, and into relationship? What I loved about watching the dancers atop the Gay Pride float long ago, is just the same thing I love about watching our youth sing in the choir here. Many individual voices make up a strong union. We are shaped and changed just as we shape and change the entity that is “us.” The sign of religious community functioning as a healthy collective, is its ability to set its arrow upon a mark and work together to achieve something great.
I will close with a story that is not about church, but it might have been. It is about the web of connection we live in that is greater than we can ever know. This is a true story, about an ultimate truth, from Rebecca Parker’s book Proverbs of Ashes. Rebecca is the former president of the Star King School for the Ministry.
“Following my decision to abort a wanted pregnancy, I found myself in a period of deep trouble. I’d lost my marriage. I’d had an abortion as an act of sacrifice that led to nothing but sorrow. I isolated myself, and didn’t call on friends or family to help me with the confusion and grief I felt. I could not break the spiral of anguish and self-directed anger. I turned and turned on myself. For nearly two years, night after night I had been pacing the parsonage halls, caught in a relentless rage and grief.
One night, I came to the end of my will to live. I just wanted the anguish to stop. It was spring. A cold, clear night. I lived at the top of the hill above Lake Union, and sometime after midnight I left my house and started walking down the hill. The water would be cold enough. I could walk into it, then swim, then let go, sink down into the darkness and go home to God. The thought was comforting. I had no second thoughts. I was set on my course.
At the bottom of the hill, I had only the small grassy rise at the edge of Kite Hill to cross before I came to the water’s edge. I crested the familiar rise and began the descent to the welcoming water when I was caught short by a barrier that hadn’t been there before. It looked like a long line of oddly shaped saw horses, laid out to the left and to the right, the width of the grassy field. In the dark I couldn’t see a way to get around either end, but it looked like I could climb over the middle. I quickened my pace, impelled by the grief that wouldn’t let go of me. As I got closer, the dark forms before my eyes seemed to be moving. I squinted to understand what I was seeing.
The odd bunchy shapes were a line of human beings bundled up in parkas and hats. The stick shapes weren’t sawhorses. They were telescopes. It was the Seattle Astronomy Club.
Before I could make my way through the line, one of them looked up from his eyeglass, and presuming me to be an astronomer, said with enthusiasm, “I’ve got it focused perfectly on Jupiter. Come, take a look.” I didn’t want to be rude or give away my reason for being there, so I bent down and looked through the telescope. There was Jupiter, banded red and glowing! “Isn’t it great?” he said.
It was great. Jupiter was beautiful through the telescope. The amateur astronomer focusing the lens didn’t know me. He didn’t know why I was there. He assumed I was there because the night sky was a wonder to behold. Across the sheen of dark water, the lights of the city shimmered. Over head, the sky was wild with pinpoints of fire.
I couldn’t kill myself in the presence of these people who had gotten up in the middle of a cold spring night, with their home-built Radio Shack telescopes, to look at the planets and the stars. (…)
In a moment of terrible despair, human kindness reached me. Human beings, present to life’s mysterious beauty stopped me and helped me turn again toward the goodness of our world and toward myself as part of that world. (…)
The ordinary inclination of human beings to share what pleases them, the delight of being awake to the beauty of the night sky, the cool air, the grass beneath my feet—these returned life to my senses. The commonplace translated itself into a deeper knowing. There is a web of connection we live in that is greater than sense can tell.
I was saved (that night) by a restoration of presence, a presence that I had lost and that was returned to me, by life. I pray it will be so for all who face such moments.”
Welcome back to our community of love and justice. This group is better because you are here. We need you, and your vision. I hope that in the year to come, First Parish will be a deep rooted home for you, a community to which you entrust your longings and aspirations. So much more is possible when a group sets its arrow upon a mark and works together to achieve something great. Come, let us set the course together.
Reunion by Barbara Pescan
One of the old ones stood up
into the morning light
and spoke to those who had come
back to the river.
Now we have come again to this place.
My life apart from you
is not as strong.
I have danced and
I have told the stories
at my own fire and
I have sung well, to all eight directions.
But when I am with you,
I know better
who it is in me