When have you taken the risk of making a commitment? What possibilities opened for you through commitment? At this service with Rev. Sue Browning we’ll look at the rituals of promise and the hope made possible in such acts. The choir will sing.
The Reading and Sermon from the Service
Excerpt, letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, November 27 1775
Tis a fortnight to Night since I wrote you a line during which, I have been confined with the jaundice, Rhumatism and a most violent cold; … comments on health, weather, mail service, John’s travel and his delay]
I wish I knew what mighty things were fabricating. If a form of Goverment is to be established here what one will be assumed? Will it be left to our assemblies to chuse one? and will not many men have many minds? and shall we not run into Dissentions among ourselves?
I am more and more convinced that Man is a dangerous creature, and that power whether vested in many or a few is ever grasping, and like the grave cries give, give. The great fish swallow up the small, and he who is most strenuous for the Rights of the people, when vested with power, is as eager after the perogatives of Goverment. You tell me of degrees of perfection to which Humane Nature is capable of arriving, and I believe it, but at the same time lament that our admiration should arise from the scarcity of the instances.
The Building up a Great Empire, which was only hinted at by my correspondent may now I suppose be realized even by the unbelievers. Yet will not ten thousand Difficulties arise in the formation of it? The Reigns of Goverment have been so long slakned, that I fear the people will not quietly submit to those restraints which are necessary for the peace, and security, of the community; if we seperate from Brittain, what Code of Laws will be established. How shall we be governd so as to retain our Liberties? Can any goverment be free which is not adminstred by general stated Laws? Who shall frame these Laws? Who will give them force and energy? Tis true your [Resolutions] as a Body have heithertoo had the force of Laws. But will they continue to have?
…, I feel anxious for the fate of our Monarchy or Democracy or what ever is to take place. …, may justice and righteousness be the Stability of our times, and order arise out of confusion. Great difficulties may be surmounted, by patience and perseverance.
I believe I have tired you with politicks. As to news we have not any at all. [Abigail then shares family news]
“Promise and Possibility”
Last week on Saturday Night Live there was a skit that made me roar. It was called Millennial Millions. The setting was a game show and Baby Boomers were put against the Millennials. It showcased the breaks the Boomers have had – growing up in prosperous times, long careers with organizations that had retirement plans and health benefits, social security coffers still full enough to make payments, and even a history with college loans that, if any, were manageable.
The skit poked at the Millennials expectations for immediacy and their reputation of fragile natures.
The point: Sure Boomers, and those slightly before boomers, the Silent Generation (roughly 1928-1945), could take credit for their hard work and success, but they also needed to own that their comfort also reflects having been in the ‘right place/right time.’ The skit’s characters were middle class white men and women, and for many outside that demographic right place/right time isn’t accurate. Yet, my sense was the skit crossed many experiences.
Things have changed. While on the surface the generations may lead similar lives, the underpinnings have shifted. Of course, things always change with time, but we are challenged to ask, what is the nature of this specific shift over the last 30 years?
For one thing, trust in core institutions of our society has changed. Younger generations have less trust in the systems underlying our society. Their wariness is not only lack of confidence in government and its moving parts and the democratic process, but also of the institutions – banks and financial apparatus, the media, education, the military and religion – the organizations upon which our lives rest.
This shift in trust of institutions rises to the center as a sermon topic because I sense we are stressed at fresh levels. Generations before have faced wars, and the Depression, and scandal. We are by no means the first. Yet, as we open 2019, along with the forecasts of snow and wind, there is a collective anxiety which feels unique and sustained.
Is something fundamentally broken, or is this just a rough patch?
These last weeks, our elected leaders decided we would all ride a roller coaster together. Unlike a roller coaster, which is a voluntary endeavor and fun for some, this was not voluntary; we were all required to ride. Unlike a roller coaster which has a clear end of the ride, it wasn’t until this past Friday that we learned when the ride would, at least temporarily, return to the gate.
Yet, we have been pulled up and down, and around sharp corners. Like a roller coaster, each rider was affected differently. Some experienced the government shutdown as a blip in their month. Maybe longer lines at airports, or a wondering about tax refunds. Yet, others were terrified, their stomachs churning at the unpredictability. Some literally were in fear for their lives – their necessities, their health; their credit ratings as risk.
When would the ride end? Had the safety brake been serviced recently? Were the employees trained?
How have these last weeks felt to you? What are we learning? Whether Boomer, Millennial or other named generations (Gen Z is now the newest) do you expect the fabric of our society is going to be strong enough to weather the year? Are our institutions hearty enough?
Where are we the most vulnerable? Who is the most vulnerable? What will to shore up our hope?
For some perspective we can look to our founding fathers and mothers, John and Abigail Adams, Unitarians among the founders. Both were ardent supporters of breaking ties with England and as we hear in Abigail’s letter, neither envisioned democracy would be easy, or even ideal. They distrusted consolidated power. That was what kings had. As they imagined what might be sturdy enough, they wanted to be prepared for roller coaster rides. They pressed for clear separation of powers, with watchdogs checking abuse built into the rules.
Their care around concentrated power was consistent with concerns about power in their faith communities. John and Abigail were born Congregationalists and in time identified as Unitarian, even before ‘Unitarian’ was quite an official thing. Abigail’s father was a Congregational minister. They were people of privilege – white and born of landowners.
Congregationalists were decedents of the Puritans, who had arrived in Massachusetts the 1600s in retreat from the hierarchy of the Anglican system. Puritans advocated each congregation was to stand independently. Through covenant they promised to rely on one another, to behave with respect, and to address differences fairly. The Adamses believed in institutions which were grounded in commitments to work together, and with clear roles in the systems.
This is the system we still follow in local UU congregations. In the promise of signing the membership, we see the possibility of working for good together. We are an organization – an institution – where accountability to one another in the spirit of Love is what we depend upon to make groups sturdy enough. We promise to keep commitments.
On commitment, Ellen [staff member] reminded me that at one point Abigail Adams asks, “Have you forgotten what you used to say to me John?”…”I have not.” … “Commitment, Abby, commitment! There are only two creatures of value on the face of the earth – those with a commitment and those who require a commitment of others.”
We talk in UU principles of the interdependent web of all existence. We proclaim on MLK Day that there is a network of mutuality – where our destinies are tied. These are big conceptual frameworks. At a practical level we live into these aspirational/theoretical statements through social systems. We are asked – implicitly and explicitly – to support key institutions as a part of living in shared society. We are asked to meet commitments.
It’s easy to list the flaws of institutions; to name the messy points. It’s tempting to have our ‘be done with it’ moments.
There are infuriating insurance rules, where ‘acts of God’ make rates go up, and appeals aren’t heard. And yet, we’re benefitted by a system of shared risk – for cars, and homes, and for our bodies. It’s an expensive buy-in to systems which are imperfect, and where context matters.
There are points of weakness in our education systems– struggles of unprepared students, unprepared teachers, class size and funding, and we also know that the imperfect systems, both public and private, serve close to 60M students.
In these times of messiness, are we willing to commit to a larger whole? It’s a scary promise to make – to decide where to put our allegiances. The SNL skit points to the hopelessness felt with the ongoing loss of confidence in basic systems.
It’s tempting to divert our energies; to run; to want to ‘go it alone’ and retreat is a natural reaction. I hope it’s one we avoid. We need the skills to share a planet – a country – a community.
These are confusing times. We feel on a roller coaster. We are looking for clarity and direction. Our perspectives are impacted by our generation, by our personal financial security, and by our identities
We are not isolated human beings. If we pull back from the larger whole, we need to remember we are impacting the other. Our call as UUs is to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of all. Our call is to consider those at the margins and to see the institutions from that vantage. We are called to see the tough compromises and collaborative opportunities that strengthen institutions. Institutions are not evil by nature, but while they can do good, they can do harm. They are necessary.
What does it take to make institutions work? Which are too big? Led without a soul? Or in need of limitations and boundaries? Which are skewed by patterns favoring some – by white supremacy, by patriarchy? What helps us keep institutions sources of possibility and opportunity?
While it is easy to say that through promise and commitment to improvement comes possibility, it’s not that easy.
When we make a promise, we take a risk. We look to a future of swirling unknowns. The unpredictable will touch us all. You could hear in Abigail’s voice a dilemma. She is ready to see the colonies to commit – to choose a form of government and get started with independence. And too, as Abigail noted, “I am more and more convinced that Man is a dangerous creature, and that power whether vested in many or a few is ever grasping…”
Whether a promise is to another individual, or to a group, or to an organization, we are saying in promise we’ll face risks together. It can be challenging. At times promise will mean putting self-needs aside; at times it will mean voicing needs of others, or better helping others find their voice (and power); at other times it will mean partnering, a trade off in independence.
And in promises their needs to be reflection. Not all promises can be sustained, and at times the partnering will need to change.
Yet, through the risk of promise, even to government and the many institutions of society, even in the current messiness, comes hope.
Through promise we have the chance to ride out life, including the storms, on bigger live boats, with more resources, and more stability.
Through promise we look to see that as our own needs are met, others are met as well.
Through promise we commit to our neighbors broadly and in time we will truly feel our destinies are linked; our society will be stronger.
It is scary to commit to institutions which are stubborn to change.
Yet we are not the first to face these risks.
John Adams reflected it this way….
In 1815, Adams wrote of the previous 65 years of his life: “For this whole period I have searched after truth by every means and by every opportunity in my power, and with a sincerity and impartiality, for which I can appeal to God, my adored Maker. My religion is founded on the love of God and my neighbor; on the hope of pardon for my offences, upon contrition; upon the duty as well as the necessity of supporting with patience the inevitable evils of life; in the duty of doing no wrong, but all the good I can, to the creation, of which I am but an infinitesimal part.” (Letter from John Adams to F. A. Van Der Kemp, July 13, 1815; https://lehrmaninstitute.org/history/the-founders-faith.html)
As UUs we’re asked to make promises, and to do so with care. And once commitments are made, we need to stay awake. We need to understand the fabric binding the whole, to see possibilities for change.
And yes, there will be roller coaster rides. Through it all, may we have seat mates who make us brave, and wise.
May It Be So