Sunday Service: Sweet Survivors

Note: This is a transcription of an old sermon I found. It really speaks to me, despite being given almost thirty years ago. I am sharing it here with permission of the author, Rev. Tom Owen-Towle. What follows is the citation he has asked me to provide: This sermon was originally given by the Rev. Tom Owen-Towle at the UU Professional Religious Leaders Conference in Oceanside, California, on January 17, 1983. You can find his books and information at http://www.tomo-t.com/.

Sweet Survivors

My task is to share some reflections on religious education for an uncertain future with a particular focus on the prophetic component of our UU faith.

Recent interviews have documented that American children and youth live with enormous anxiety about the future. They experience a world which is technologically sophisticated yet impersonal and remote. They see adults, the world power wielders, often leading “lives of quiet desperation”, despoiling the environment, making morally questionable choices, and plunging humanity every closer to the brink of nuclear oblivion.

I am not referring to the normal anxiety that accompanies growing up, even growing up in tumultuous times. Our offspring sense these times not just to be difficult but downright ominous. They are not coping simply with fundamental fears but with pervasive unease.

Some young people don’t even anticipate a future at all, let alone shaping a future. When the future is imagined, it is usually bleak. Therefore, all the futuristic studies and perceptive prognosticators can’t really assuage the visceral angst and interior fright of our children.

Dorothy Soelle, a native of Germany, describes the robust European peace movement by reminding us that her own parents had said they didn’t know anything about the building of the death camps. She then says: “Will we have to tell our children that we didn’t know about the dangers of the nuclear weapons build-up?”

The fact is that our children already know. They see it in the media, they hear it in our voices, they feel it in their insides. They know that they are living in a world where thermonuclear disaster is a real and constant threat.

They are understandably cynical, sad, bitter, and helpless. They feel unprotected. They harbor doubts about planning families or are unable to think ahead in any long-term sense. Not just our youth feel this way. The pre-teenagers do too. I have talked with children, others as well as my own. who are despondent about their tomorrows.

If eschatology is the theological discipline which literally focuses on the study of “last things”, then we are the parents of a generation of precocious eschatologists, children who are not immersed in some science fiction but are paying close heed to global evidence.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not unduly romantic about children. I know too much as a parent and professional. They’re hardly innocent creatures, but, my point is, they don’t run the world yet. They don’t even own their own refrigerators. The future is not yet in their grasp. To a large extent, they still bank on us, their elders, for models, tips, and savvy.

A colleague of ours, Forrester Church, in musing about his very young children, writes:

“My daughter is now one and a half. My son just turned four He told me last month that he did not want to grow up. I finally got out of him that what he was really afraid of was turning four. He didn’t want to be four. He didn’t know anything about being four.”

What scares our older children, you see, is not so much the unknown as what they already know in the marrow of their souls. Interpersonal violence and international strife are not foreign to them. They can’t be weasled into the shallow optimism of an obsolete liberal philosophy which mouths “onward and upward forever”.

Tennessee Williams once penned the somber phrase: “the future is called perhaps . . .” In the minds of our young, that’s no idle description. For them the future is not a certain reality or an assumed probability; it is more like a possibility, a perhaps.

However, I don’t want to attempt any predictions. I really have no idea whether or not we will enter a 21st century, or, if we do, in what economic or moral shape. Do we have a long haul ahead of us, a full lifetime for those in this room, tomorrows for our children’s children? Who knows? Our UU faith only assures us that while the precise number of our days cannot be measured, the quality of our moments can be enhanced.

“Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall,
All the king’s horses,
and all the king’s forces,
couldn’t put Humpty together again.”

Our religious heritage reminds us that power politics and brute strength will not reconcile our humpty-dumpty global village. Neither will noble sentiments, promises and forecasts — only compassion, daily, detailed compassion will heal our brokenness, redeem our time.

Let me share some invitations to all of us, youth children and adults alike, a few specific ways in which we might be prophetic witnesses and moral gadflies in this new year, in our uncertain future. In religious education terms, I am sharing some basic components of a compassion curriculum.

Before I offer some particulars, I must divulge one of my underlying assumptions for religious education. I believe that the acquisition of knowledge is second to its use. Truth is in order to goodness. Whatever learning takes place in our intergenerational faith community is to be employed in the service of compassion.

Therefore, in our UU religious education, we don’t merely affirm, we adhere, we fasten ourselves to the values and vision we study. Our religion is not for the unfettered spirit; it is for the individual whose life is claimed by bonds not bondages, service not servitude. We seek truths, we find some wisdoms, we incarnate our discoveries in our lives.

As teachers and learners, as children youth adults partnering a compassion curriculum, my first invitation is for us to become sweet survivors. As the folksong goes, “Carry on, the sweet survivor . . . carry on, my lonely friend, don’t give up on the dream and don’t you let it end.”

I mean “sweet” not as a cloying or saccharine but as in kindliness and gentle, good humor. I truly believe that we must become sweet people, sweet as in merciful, for only the truly tender can be fully strong. Adrienne Rich writes:

“. . . gentleness is active, gentleness swabs
the crusted stump, invents the more merciful,
instruments to touch the wound beyond the wound. . .”

I call upon us to become “survivors” because I contend that the universe ultimately belongs to the endurers, to those who are willing to persevere, carry on, kick up a spiritual storm and moral fuss all the way home.

Sweet survivors are those who believe that the best we may ever do in our lifetimes is to increase the odds of a lovelier world, and they go forth to do just that, to increase to the odds with all the power they can marshall.

Sweet survivors are those who, along with Albert Camus, contend that “real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present.”

Sweet survivors do not major in archaeological digs into yesteryear or flights of fancy into tomorrowland. They are convinced that the future will be different only if we can make the present different.

Sweet survivors are of durable spiritual stock, courageous over the long haul. They know that prophethood means being called to faithfulness rather than success, faithfulness to a moral vision before and beyond them. For prophethood is not a strategy but a way of being, a way of internal, interpersonal and international existence, day after day after day. Sweet survivors have that vision. They embody that vision.

The torch of living hope and detailed compassion must be passed on by sweet survivors to sweet survivors to sweet survivors.

My second invitation is for us to become star-throwers.

Loren Eiseley tells a story which helps me feel the powerful pertinence of moral witness in the messy midst of life’s contradictions. That great naturalist once spent time in a seaside town called Costabel and, plagued by his lifelong insomnia, spent the early morning hours walking the beach.

Each day at sunrise Eiseley found townspeople combing the sand for starfish which had washed ashore during the night, to kill them for commercial purposes. It was, for Eiseley, a sign, however small, of all the ways the world says no to life.

But one morning Eiseley got up unusually early, and discovered a solitary figure on the beach. This woman, too, was gathering starfish, but each time she found one alive she would pick it up and throw it as far as she could beyond the breaking surf, back to the nurturing ocean from which it came.

As days went by Eiseley found this woman embarked on her mission of mercy each morning, seven days a week, no matter the weather.

Eiseley named this person the “star-thrower”, and in a moving meditation he writes of how this woman and her predawn work countered everything that Eiseley had been taught about evolution and the survival of the fittest.

Here on the beach in Costabel the strong reached down to save, not crush, the weak. I like to think of our UU forebears, many of them, as star-throwers. I like to think of those of our spiritual kin who have stood at the shoreline of history, stood against the surf and the tide, and against all futility have reached down to affirm life, no matter how small and insignificant its form.

Star-throwers, my friends, are neither affectionate people oozing sentimentality nor activists snorting venom. They are loving protestors.

As Robert McAfee-Brown put it: “I love, therefore, I protest . . .” Pro-testari means “to testify on behalf of, in the name of, for the sake of . . .” The connotations are clearly positive, not negative. Gandhi stated it similarly: “Every confrontation should afford both sides an opportunity to rise above their present condition.” I ask us, as shapers of the future, as comrades in pursuing a compassion curriculum, are our spirits secure enough and sizeable enough to support the benefit of even our foes?

I appreciate the way William Sloane Coffin describes the attitude of reconciling compassion:

“In this world, we cannot tolerate the intolerable. Jesus never did, so why should we? But like Jesus, we have to hate the evil more because we do love the good. If we hate the evil more than we love the good, we end up damn good haters and that is not our idea. We want to hate what we think is evil, but we want to do it out of such love for the good that the evil becomes intolerable.”

I believe that to be productive star-throwers we must love more than we hate. Our human proclivity is to be brilliant adversaries of much and caring advocates of so little.

Sweet survivors. Star-throwers. In our compassion curriculum, we are also called to be wounded healers, or rather admit that we already are such.

As carriers of compassion I invite us to confess our complicity in the very evils we abhore. We are impure, imperfect prophets. Yet we often tend to see evil as if it were something that arose outside ourselves. We UUs can be downright self-righteous, doctrinaire and arrogant in our moral assertions and prophetic witness.

It is important for us to realize that we are also bound up with the brokenness, alienation, and yes, violence we protest. We must confess that we are bound together in sin with others before we can grow together in love with others.

Ours is not a guiltless place. We espouse no untainted program. We are not privy to some unreal purity. Friends, we are wounded healers.

Sweet survivors, star-throwers and wounded healers. I now invite us to become agile jugglers, those disciplined in the art of maintaining balane, exhibiting equilibrium in our social compassion.

Extremists are everywhere today, whether they are hedonists overdosing on pleasure or martyrs on agony. I would invite us to balance, to be faithful to both beauty and injustice, contemplation and resistance, seriousness and joy.

First, beauty and injustice. Albert Camus put it poignantly:

There is beauty and there are the humiliated. Whatever difficulties the enterprise may present, I would like never to be unfaithful to the one or the other.”

The concern for beauty is not a moral evasion. It leads us firmly into the midst of all that is going on in our world. Where there is beauty apparent, let us enjoy it; where there is beauty hidden, let us unveil it; where there is beauty defaced, let us restore it; where there is no beauty at all, let us create it. All of which places us, too, in the arenea where oppression occurs, where the oppressed congregate, and where agile jugglers are called to be.

My perception is that without a sensitivity to beauty, our compassion is likely to become driven and drab. Conversely, if we bask only in beauty, we cauterize our moral nerve. Our UU mandate would have us prove faithful to both.

There is another arena in which we need to refine our juggling act. Contemplation and resistance. As the poet Marianne Moore wrote: “There never was a war that was not inward.” Our peace-making must be inward too. In shaping more merciful and just tomorrows, I invite us to honor times of solitariness, spiritual renewal, contemplation . . . fortifying ourselves for the frays. Roman Catholic compassionates like Thomas Merton have been especially agile in maintaining this equilibrium. He once said:

“To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence. More than that, it is cooperating in violence. The frenzy of activists neutralizes their work for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of their own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”

James Luther Adams claims that the distinction between a true and a false prophet is measured by the costliness incurred. I agree, but we need to remember to pay spiritual expenses to both the realms of serenity and service. Compassion requires juggling. It invites us to pound the pavement and visit wellsprings. It calls us to contemplation and resistance in creative flow.

One final rhythm is the prophet’s life. One more juggling angle. I urge us to be serious yet joyous, intense yet cheerful, committed yet light-hearted.

Rabindranath Tagore provides the fitting text for this invitation:

“I slept and dreamt
that life was joy.
I awoke and saw
that life was duty.
I acted and behold
duty was joy.”

There seem to be too many tormented fanatics dragging about in the camp of prophets. They know passion simply as suffering. They seem oblivious to passion as love, passion as laughter, passion as joy. The effort to redeem our world is serious, to be sure, but not grim.

For me, compassion unsung and undanced is indeed a doleful, boring enterprise. Playfulness of spirit is not a frivolous and irresponsible luxury, even given the current state of the union and the universe. What we don’t need is another humorless crusader. We need laughters, singers, dancers in the ranks of the compassionate.

At the end of a brilliant concert Holly Near said sometimes she started feeling very despondent about torture, nuclear power, sexism, and so forth. Her brother smiled at her, gave her a hug and said cheerfully, “Yeah, so what else do you really have to do with your life, Holly?”

And so the final component of our compassion curriculum is the reminder we need our brothers and sisters around to needle and nudge us, challenge and comfort us, We dare not try to go it alone. We will begin to believe the things the world says about prophet. We will become candidates for early burnout. We need to place our consciences alongside those of others in the bosom of our beloved community.

We are members of the same body, a body born of grace and effort, a body with stories and visions, a body with younger and older limbs, a frail yet sturdy body . . . of sweet survivors.

Leave a comment

4 Comments

  1. Marsha NIPPER

     /  November 17, 2012

    Thank you for offering this sermon. Star-throwers, wounded healers, agile jugglers, sweet survivors. And a reminder that this is an enduring effort that needs to be accomplished together. The Pirkei Avot (Wisdom of the Fathers) states that, in regard to healing the world (Tiku Olam): It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it. I needed the reminder – I think you are a healer. – MN

    Reply
    • Marsha — thank you for your encouraging words. Yes, I think you are right — we all must work to heal the world, and we need reminders occasionally of how and why we do the work. That is what I found in this sermon, and I think you did too. We can work together on the healing.

      Reply
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