Clinging to Religion?
Has it really been only seven days since we joyfully gathered to celebrate the beginning of a new church year and to join together the waters of our lives? As Rabbi Kushner said in our reading this morning, we are people who share something important with each other. Today we need to say yes to life, truth and love — perhaps more than we ever have. We have prayed both in words and in silence this morning and throughout the week, Spirit of Life draw near. Has there ever been a time when we needed each other more? Has there ever been a time when we need something, someone, to cling to, a life preserver in the wild rapids of terror and fear that we are living in? If there has been such a time it came before I was born. My heart is filled with gladness, if I may use the word gladness in the face or our sorrow, that you have found your way here this morning.
Where were you when it happened, the day the towers were toppled, lives were crushed and hearts were broken? How many times have you answered that question this week? The date — September 11, 2001 will now be chiseled forever more in the concrete tablets of our memories.
9 - 1 - 1. No longer is it simply a number we program on our speed dialers or a number we teach our children to remember in the case of danger. The number now represents a memorial for thousands of lives that were lost, a tribute to people who risk their lives to save others, and a date that has changed each one of the world, and us we live in, for the rest of our days.
This morning the most important thing we can do is to be together. All over our nation, and the world, people are coming together in communities of faith to cry, to pray, to be angry and to
search for something to cling to, to hold on to in the face of uncertainty, sadness and fear. Our solidarity as a people this morning gives me comfort, not only for those of us gathered in the woods of Northwest Atlanta, but for the possibility that we can learn again, how to cling to that which holds us together and not to that which tears us apart.
It has been over 120 hours since the planes crashed, the buildings burned and the hearts stopped beating. Some people are starting to say it's time to get back to normal, to show the terrorists that we aren't beaten — that we are strong, ready to defend our way of life and that life should begin again anew. While those sentiments have validity — we do need to get on with life — "normal" will never be quite the same again, or should it be.
How can life be normal when we listen to the stories of the people's lives that have ended? The numbers are too staggering to comprehend, but the stories of those who have perished — and who are left behind — are both painful and heartbreaking to hear. They remind us that each number is a life, the life of an innocent human being that ended too soon. The father of a three-month old who called his wife to say he loved her before leading a group in overthrowing hijackers and saving many lives. The mother of a 2-day old baby whose daddy died before he even got to see her. The 91-year old man who let younger people go down the stairs because he had lived long enough and wanted others to have the same chance. The woman, who sent an email saying simply, "thanks for being such a great friend" — it was the last email she ever sent. The chaplain who was killed while giving last rites to a fireman.
9 -1 - 1. 9-1-1 indeed. Help!! How can we live with the sadness, the horror, and the anger of what we have seen this week? Where can we turn for answers, or at least comfort? Where is God, Spirit of Life, Love, Reason or safety in this madness? What do we do with our rage and our compassion? When can we, will we ever be able - to feel whole - alive - again? What do we cling to?
I suggest religion.
(But first a personal note. You know this isn't how I planned it. We really don't know each other very well yet. Sure I've cried with some of you, visited a few of you in the hospital and been in your committee meetings but if you think about it we committed to each other after only two dates and a one-week courtship. I had hoped to introduce words like God, prayer, faith, and religion with lots of discussion about what they mean to me and to us slowly. These are words that trigger many emotions and I wanted us to get to know each other before I started throwing them around. But this week has forced us to get to know each other fast and for me to use words that strike at the core of our being. I have held you in my arms and in my heart this week and for better or worse we have each other. I want you to know I love you and I am glad we have found each other.)
Back to religion. I cannot remember a week when religion has been so wonderful and so horrible. Some of you might be asking how can we cling to religion — religion is what has gotten us into this mess! The fanatics, who hijacked those planes, aimed them at the Pentagon and World Trade Center, and killed, it appears, because of religion. They were serving their God and were doing it with the certainty that they would be rewarded for their actions. As someone who became a Unitarian Universalist in part because we honor all faith traditions, and who has found comfort and inspiration in words from the Muslim faith, I am sickened that religion could be used as a reason for such hate.
But I am not surprised. For many years of my life I wanted nothing to do with religion. I am sure many people view the events of this week as the main problem with religion — people with different Gods killing each other in the name of that God. Religion, some would say, is for zealots who force their values on others and then have the gall to be hypocrites and not really live from those values. Religion can be scary because people hold their beliefs so deeply that they often want to cram them down your throats. While I have found most of the religious services to be uplifting and uniting this week, I have worried over the common invocation of God in almost all of them. For those of us who don't have a God, who don't find value in the term, or who believe, as I do, in a God that is very different from the man in the clouds that is usually portrayed, we get concerned that God will be used as wedge to separate us from each other; as it often has.
So why cling to religion? Well for one reason because religion isn't about God. That's right I said religion isn't about God.
Religion is, in the words of the Rev. Ray Baughn, "our hunger for life, the need for meaning in our lives, for ultimacy, for intimacy and for community." That's why we are here today folks — we have a need, a thirst, to find meaning and intimacy in life, in our universe and with each other. Can God help with that search? Of course, especially when we define God the way Forest Church, minister of All Souls Unitarian in the heart of New York City, has. "God is not God's name but our name for that which is greater than all and yet present in each." God is not God's name but our name for that which is greater than all and yet present in each.
I have seen that God this week. The God that has sat in this sanctuary as we have cried and held each other tight. The God that has been inspiring the police men and women, the fire men and women, the hospital and ambulance workers to work day and night in the stench and horror of dead and broken bodies, hoping beyond hope that one more person might be saved. The God that sat in the National Cathedral on Friday afternoon, as people gathered with different beliefs and perspectives, who may have disliked each other intensely and defined God in different or non-existent ways, yet cried and worshipped as one. The God that inspired a handful of normal people, like you and me, who knew they were about to die, to band together and force a plane down before it killed more people.
We cling to religion, not because of God, but because religion binds us together. In fact the original Latin meaning of the word was to re-bind. Our religion, and I will argue with anyone who jokes or claims — especially this week — that ours is not a religion, binds us together in a search for meaning, a search for sharing with each other the questions and struggles in life and a search for doing, and living, right. This morning we re-bind to each other and to the principles and values that we hold dear. We cling to each other and we cling to the promise, the hope that religion - our Unitarian Universalist religion — offers.
Rabbi Kushner, who wrote the classic book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, after watching his son die, speaks to why we must cling to religion in times like these. "Only the voice of religion, when it frees itself from the need to defend and justify God for all that happens, can say to the afflicted person, "You are a good person and you deserve better. Let me come and sit with you so that you will know that you are not alone."
We are not alone. This is the message that religion reminds us of every time we allow it to. When we come here on Sunday. When we watch buildings fall, people die, children cry and life, as we know it, change.
Maybe the biggest reason religion is the lifeline we cling to during times like these is because it challenges us to be better people. The challenge to be stronger than we are alone. The challenge to not only live, but affirm and promote principles, when in the midst of sorrow and rage our hearts and minds don't believe them. How many of us have struggled with affirming the worth and dignity of the people who hijacked those planes and caused so much death and destruction? How many have wondered how we will promote the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all when people must be punished for murdering our brothers and sisters?
These are tough questions and I hope you are reflecting on them. We need to struggle with them together. Religion — any religion, and especially ours — demands us to do so. If we want to re-bind our hearts and minds we must not shy away from these questions of meaning and being. Sometimes we can avoid these messy questions with the distractions and necessities of life, this week we cannot escape them - from our children, our ministers or our consciences.
These are the questions that cry out in our souls and wake us up at night. In these times the words of Thomas Jefferson ring so true: "It is in our lives and not our words that our religion must be read."
Our challenge is not to speak religiously but to live religiously. We take pride as Unitarian Universalists that we live our religion; we practice what we preach. Not all of this pride is the arrogance that most religious people are prone to. We have done, and always will do, good work - of course we are not alone, in this.
This week I invite us, I challenge us, to live our religion in two specific ways. They won't be easy but nobody said religion, or life, was easy.
My first wish for all of us is to allow ourselves the chance to grieve. I'm asking that each one of us take the time in the midst of our suffering to be human. This is not easy for those of us who are primed to act. I've watched how we have reacted to the events of last Tuesday. How quick we are to jump to conclusions or look for something or someone to blame. I wish I could tell you that I have cried all the tears that need to be cried, felt all the anger and rage at death and the hijackers, and avoided the denial and isolation that comes with loss, but I can't. I know that I am not alone. Some of us need to stop running from the pain and feel it - really feel it. Some of us need to shed tears and feel sadness and grief at a deeper level than perhaps we ever have before. Some of us need to give ourselves permission to feel the heat of rage and anger at the injustice and evil that we have witnessed. And yet we still need to cook dinner and go to work.
We have so much to grieve. The loss of human life, the loss of our children's innocence, the loss of security when we board a plane or go to work, and soon the destruction that comes with war. Don't run from it. Use your religion; use your community to help you feel it. I know it's scary. We may lose control. With each other we can make it through. Come to the grief circle on Monday night. Ask someone you love to coffee. Talk about it. Call me. Find professional help if you need it. Grieve and be human. Religion demands it of you.
The second invitation I offer to us is that we practice hope. Somewhere at the core of every religion we will find hope. Sometimes that hope comes in promises of eternal life. The people who hijacked those planes clung to that hope, ironically I suspect many of the passengers who knew they were going to die probably did too.
Our religion does not promise the hope of an afterlife in paradise — or at least this minister does not. But we do promise hope.
The hope that comes with believing every person has worth and dignity. The hope that justice, equity and compassion will roll down like waters and peace like an ever-flowing stream. The hope that all people — no matter their color, gender, sexual orientation, religious perspective or physical capability — can live how they wish and have the same opportunities as everyone else. The hope that by searching together we will find better answers to the questions life asks us, than we would ever find alone.
Finding hope in life, in our principles and purposes, maybe even in our interactions with each other, may be difficult in the weeks to come. Our religion, our covenant with each other, calls us, implores us to find hope in life. For those who have seen hope in the coming together of the country, in the shared candles of love and pain, in the faces of people straining to help each other this week, share that hope with another. We need it, our children need it, and our world needs it.
I close with two stories of hope.
Tomorrow night millions of people around the world will celebrate Rosh Hashanah and the year 5762 on the Jewish calendar. The Days of Awe that begin tomorrow night are full of the hope and promise of new beginnings. We can be better next year. I find hope knowing that in those past 5,761 years there have been days as dark as the ones we are living in - and we have survived.
Yesterday I called five hospitals in the metro Atlanta area. I asked nurses in each maternity department how many babies had been born since Tuesday. When I explained I was a minister and was preaching a sermon this morning, the nurse's resistance to answering my unusual question melted away. I discovered that 360 babies have been delivered in those hospitals since Tuesday morning. 360 precious souls that don't know the anguish and pain we feel today. 360 examples of what love can do. 360 reasons that we must fight fear and hatred with wisdom and compassion. 360 signs that the Spirit of Life has not given up on us yet. I plan on clinging to that this week, I hope you will too.
May it be so.
Sermon delivered at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta on September 16, 2001.