It is the nature of cities to “break”, buildings and bridges to tumble and fall, glass to shatter. It is the nature of social, political and economic systems to splinter in the wake of such or other events (whether natural or man-made). It is the nature of human beings to find themselves, as a result, tending broken hearts and damaged dreams – as they cling to fragments/shards of hope.
These are the realities that came to mind most immediately, as I thought about this month’s congregational theme of “brokenness” (ironically, while vacationing in New Zealand: a country, whose mountain ranges grow each year as the force of shifting tectonic plates breaks through the earth above; a country still reeling from the earthquake that took the lives of 185 people last year, breaking the hearts of thousands still struggling to put together the broken pieces of their lives).
Walking along the perimeter of the broken inner-city zone (where temporary shops are now set up in cargo containers), I couldn’t help but notice that human history is also marked by tremendous resiliency, creativity, an urge to heal, to lift up and strive for wholeness/for unshakeable “perfection”!
We do have a tendency to pick ourselves up when we fall, don’t we? …dust ourselves off, “loose the cords” of whatever binds us, and try to get back on track! Try to “put the pieces back together – even better this time!”
It is this aspirational aspect of the human animal that most sets us apart from the other creatures with whom we share this planet. It is this aspect of ours that gave and gives rise to culture and civilization, art and science, generation upon generation. It is our ability to imagine, to envision wholeness, to envision “perfection”, that spurs us on, isn’t it?!
Often, yes! And that’s what Unitarian Universalism focuses on: that which is best within us and among us, whether realized or as a potential reality. But the other part of the human story has to do with how hard it is for us, as individuals and as societies, despite best intentions, despite resolutions, despite laws, commandments, parables, covenants, promises and even threats, to live up to those “ideals of perfection”.
At some point or other, if we’re going to be honest with ourselves, we find ourselves “falling short”, “breaking” from the ideal. Not living up to the fullness of who we are, or can be. We find ourselves giving in to what Plato called “our universal human frailty”/our evil, rebellious “titanic” nature (which always seems to bump up against, to temp, the “Dionysian spark”/the Divinity/the goodness within).
This dualistic perspective on human nature is not shared by all religious traditions, but it is a huge part of the religious traditions from which Unitarian Universalism sprang. It’s also a big part of our shared cultural heritage as Americans tuned into Tom & Jerry cartoons: watching the struggle between the little angel and the little devil sitting on Tom’s shoulders; noticing how often the little devil convinces him to do the “wrong thing”. To Sin.
We know what “wrong” is when we see it or do it: whether that wrong is defined by a break from God’s will, from societal contracts, or from our own highest visions for what is possible. We have a pretty good sense of what NOT to do. Even as children. Even as we yearn for “something better”: for the sweet rewards of a life well lived, that ongoing whacks at life’s “many pointed piñata” is expected to rain upon us!
So why talk about that here, on Sunday morning? Why bring up the loaded topic of “sin”? The thing is, as much as Unitarian Universalists don’t talk about sin, we often treat the topic itself, as if it were a sin – especially when it comes to focusing on the personal: the ways in which we, as individuals, might be going astray. (My observation is that we’d much rather talk about the sins of corporations, of media, of past presidents and distant countries!)
And I think that’s a shame for a whole bunch of reasons. First of all, because no topic should be off-limits here, if it can shed light on human experience and responsibility.
Secondly, because recognition of humanity’s “brokenness”: of our tendency to forget who we are (whether in relation to God, or the “unfolding of the cosmos”, have been at the heart of philosophical and religious inquiry for as far back as we can tell.
Our ancestors knew that it is in the nature of all things, bound within time, to “break”. It is the nature of mountains to rise up through the sea, breaking apart the blue expanse that was! And for those same mountains, over millennia, to break apart, to crumble into sand.
It is the nature of human beings also to “break”: not only physically, as life, as time and gravity take their toll. But spiritually, as well, every step of the way. Ethically and morally. And it makes sense to me, to just “own that”. To acknowledge that to one another now and then.
Why? Because if we don’t, we’re likely to feel like we’re the only ones who don’t always get it right! And, because we’re likely to be looking in the wrong places for answers to why our families, our schools, our governments and eco-systems are breaking apart, crumbling at the rate and to the extent that they are…