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Despair to Transformation, or What do we do when cops despair?
September 11, 2005, Unitarian Universalist Church of Jackson, MS
September 18, Our Home Universalist Unitarian Church, Ellisville, MS

What do we do when cops despair? was the title of Leonard Pitts' opinion piece in the Clarion Ledger, September 7, 2005.

Mr. Pitts' words in the middle of the article: "It is a sobering thing, a thing to stop you in your tracks and force you to appreciate anew the immensity of what has happened here. When the world turns upside down, when that which was dependable becomes undependable, and that which was certain turns uncertain..." Pitts says, "We instinctively look for help in making sense of it all."

What do any of us do when we despair? Pitts' point is we turn to authority, but.... I'm not so sure. There is much to despair at this time and a need to think about how to deal with it ....I am willing to make the sad bet that everyone in this room is dealing with some degree of despair this morning. It's the elephant in the room, and where better than in a church to look it in the eye?

This week in the hurricane shelter in the Jackson Coliseum, I wrote in my journal, making my way across the area walking around bedding, I speak to a woman sitting on a large air mattress, and feel compelled to linger. She proudly told me that this whole area is her family. I comment that they are all together, and she nodded.

"When I saw the news Sunday morning, the Spirit told me, to get my family and go. I called them, and told them we are going; pack up quickly. And they did what I said ...they're good kids."

She had her three year old grand daughter reciting for me, and then she said quietly, "My daughter died Tuesday."

"Your daughter," I repeat confused, "died?"

"Yes, we were in the Trade Mart, and she was hurting so bad!"

Horror is washing over me as I stumble, "You couldn't get medical attention for her?"

She tells me her daughter, had Lupus since she was sixteen, and hemophilia since birth. She almost made twenty-eight. She wouldn't let her Mother call for help.

"She just wanted me to rub her neck, and her stomach. She said, 'Oh, Momma, that feels so good.' Finally, I did call for the ambulance, but they wouldn't let me ride with her. When I got to the emergency room, they were calling a Code Blue. I prayed, 'Oh, Lord, don't let that be my baby!' but it was. They told me she was a very sick girl. They did all they could do, and they were very sorry. She was a beautiful girl. The nurses all said she was beautiful. Her hair was soft as cotton! It wasn't like that before..."

I am sitting on the floor looking up at this proud mother and grandmother thinking how does one suffer all this dislocation and loss, loose a daughter you've cared for all your life, and sit here in dignity talking to a perfect stranger?

"You know what I think? She said. "I think God knew she just couldn't do this. She liked things, know? I think she just couldn't take all this, and God knew it. God knows what's best for us."

I don't know what I did, did I take her hand, or what? We sat there in the moment, until we stiffly tried to get up. Laughing at our stiffness; she offered me her hand. [1]

"When the world turns upside down, when that which was dependable becomes undependable, and that which was certain turns uncertain..." Pitts wrote , "We instinctively look for help in making sense of it all." And so this mother and grandmother did.

We, too are trying to make sense of such massive destruction and suffering. Our sense of it more than likely is that there was a class 5 hurricane which ripped by New Orleans, into Slidell, west Louisiana, and into all of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. UU's more than likely do not believe the hurricane's path was determined by the immorality of some people in New Orleans, or to curb gambling on the Gulf Coast as many have been saying to me in the Coliseum.

Universalists and Unitarians try to make sense of disaster in our own way, because if we understand it, if we have made sense of it, the world turns upright again, for awhile. We've heard some of the making sense that others are doing, things like the aforementioned, or those going on endlessly, throwing out theories, analyzing, sensationalizing and sentimentalizing—I could not listen to them, and go to the shelter this week- there is something that feels so wrong about intellectualizing when others are hurting so much, and yet what are we to do?

Righteous anger is the way most of us are making sense of the scenes we see, and there are justifiable reasons for such anger. There is great energy in anger and it can stave off the pain for a while, some are more frantic, because it can be terrifying when our reality is challenged, this cannot happen in this country, not to us, not to our neighbors...not to New Orleans!

I sometimes tell myself that those who are so certain about their beliefs have more difficulty when things turn upside down, but I know from my earlier chaplaincy work that is not always so. Some only become more certain, as the grieving Mama I talked too, as the Pentecostal families facing the death of loved ones with whom I have been as hospital chaplain. They were at peace: God was in his heavens and all the world was right!

I've often wished an unquestioned faith could work for me, but it doesn't, and it doesn't for many of us. That's why we are here in a church that says its good to study, to question and contemplate using our reason and our life experiences in defining our faith, but here is what I want to venture. Science offers many answers, but science is not much comfort when we face despair. I find it difficult to offer comforting science, unless of course I am countering some hateful theology such as the belief that humans are born depraved.

Those of us that are free thinkers must continually re-think and adapt, it is not my advise that we reject the beliefs of our childhood and not replace them with more mature beliefs in an ongoing process. What we DON'T believe is rather useless at such times... what we DO believe determines us at such difficult times as these.

In the parlance of a minister, one is facing a spiritual transformation when there is a sudden, full-blown change in a person's identity, in the core beliefs of their own understanding, and world view. [2] There are also though, smaller more gradual transformative experiences; the defining thing is that there is a change of identity, core beliefs, and world view. Certainly we go through transformations within our human life cycle as we change in our identity from child to adolescent to adult, spiritually and physically ...marriage is certainly transformative, as well as death.

Karl Peters, PhD is quoted in Science and Theology, as saying, if a "disease, like cancer, changes someone from a healthy, viable person into a cancer patient undergoing chemotherapy, that's a definite identity change. So, if spiritual transformation is identified with identity change, then I think that disease brings about a negative spiritual transformation. The person in a sense has died, the old self has died, and a person can undergo further change in the creation of a new self..."

He's saying we can loose all that has defined who we are, or were, in a hurricane, or with sudden disability, or in life threatening disease, and you and I might ... and I'm quoting Doctor Peters words again:

...Never be physically as we were, but in terms of our relationships, our spirit, it is possible to develop a new identity that has more positive aspects. Somehow, while some people go into depression, totally fall apart,....others somehow come through that. It seems to me that religion at its best should facilitate that process...(a process) where a kind of healing takes place that's not simply a physical cure, but a healing of the self, of a person's core being, so that even if they never can get well or defeat the disease itself, (or I'll add have what they used to have) they still can, in a sense be whole and healthy.

This is what I want you to hear this morning if nothing else: There is a kind of healing that can take place that is not simply a physical cure, but a healing of the self, of a person's core being, a spiritual transformation, that is our hope even if we cannot defeat the disease itself, or restore our lives to what they used to be, we can, in a sense be whole and healthy. I have seen this to be true.

I have counseled with many facing the loss of a limb. One man paralyzed from the neck down agonized with me about having to decide to have his foot amputated because of diabetes. I admit it seemed a simple decision to me, he was paralyzed, but he told me he was that foot, and he would not cut it off! I was stunned; I never considered I was my foot, but he kept his foot and appeared to heal. Another, a lady's man known for his dancing told me as he signed the paperwork for surgery that when they cut off his legs they were taking his manhood. He grieved as we can imagine, and he did tell me later that he had come to understand that he was more than his legs! Many have come to understand they are more than their ability to bear children, they are more than a cancerous body, they are more than their aging bodies! We are more than what we have, and we are more than what we don't have.

Love and supportive environments help people transcend negative transformations says Peters, and I quote, "something that one doesn't necessarily capture in scientific studies.... the 'mysterium tremendum,'" [3] or the conditions that allow people to better access "that mysterious, creative and transformative power many call God."

God may not be the name you choose for healing transformative power, but my friends when the world turns upside down, when that which was dependable becomes undependable, and that which was certain turns uncertain, well, at times like these friends, may you and may I experience mysterium tremendum. May we experience that tremendous mystery, that eternal mystery of life that is creative, healing and transformative. I pray for those I have spoken with since Katrina, and I pray for all suffering catastrophe that they have the healing benefit of love and of a supportive environment, but most of all I pray that they, that you may experience "mysterium tremendum, that mysterious, creative and transformative power many call God."

May it be so. Amen.


  1. From my letter to the Mid South District's webpage, September 6, 2005

  2. Matt Donnely interview of Karl Peters. Science &Theology, September 8, 2005
  3. Ibid

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