Something Ventured

Sarah Richards
March 26, 2017

Something Ventured

About a month ago, I read something somewhere or other that gave me a new perspective about taking risks. It was a brief reference to the idea that traditional European fairy tales, like Hansel and Gretel, teach their hearers about how to cope with the basic human fears of being abandoned and being consumed. There are many versions of this centuries-old story, but here’s the plot in brief: children of a very poor woodcutter and his wife, Hansel and Gretel are left in the woods by their father when there’s not enough food to feed everyone. Wandering and lost, they are captured by a witch who intends to eat them. Through ingenuity they defeat the witch, take her riches, find their way home, and live happily ever after.

Now I am acquainted with Bruno Bettleheim’s psychological analysis of fairy tales. In fact, it was in my junior high youth group at the Unitarian Fellowship in Ames Iowa that I was introduced to Bettleheim’s work. But Hansel and Gretel’s effect on children’s psychological development isn’t where we’re going this morning. Adults long past the oral fixation stage and way too smart to get lost in a forest still get hung up in relationships by fears of abandonment –being left, left out or left behind. We can still be stymied by our fear of being consumed—not literally, by a cannibalistic witch, but by losing our selves, our identities, being overwhelmed in a relationship. Friends, I’m talking about the fears we must overcome in making a commitment—commitment of the body and spirit to another person, to a group, to a cause. Commitment requires more than ingenuity, it requires trust—what is more risky than that?

So what might be the adult versions of Hansel and Gretel, stories that tell us how people overcome those basic fears in order to grow and live committed lives? In popular culture—I’m thinking of romantic songs, comedies and novels—common plotlines feature characters overcoming fears of being trapped or tied down by their significant other, or overcoming fears that their S.O. is going to break up with them, or both. In the “happily ever after” stories, the characters’ growth allows them to mature in a relationship. These kind of stories give us models for our emotional development. Of course, we can also learn from the stories and experiences that don’t end so well, too—heartbreak can be a harsh but effective teacher if we don’t let our fears keep us from trying again. I think of the song, “Free Bird” where the guy sings about how he has to move on and he can’t change. That there is a fine example of arrested development – pretty cool in your twenties, doesn’t work out so great in the long term for most folks.

Yes, there are lots of stories about romantic commitments that we can identify with…but there aren’t so many that can help us conquer the fears that keep us from making religious commitments, building relationships of trust of a different sort. I’m going to return to the collection of essays I spoke about last week, A People So Bold: Theology and Ministry for Unitarian Universalists for a few such stories from historian Dan McKanan. He writes,

Both fleeting and long-standing encounters with other people have fostered lives of commitment….Celia Parker Woolley and Fannie Barrier Williams—one white, one black, both members of All Souls Unitarian in Chicago—together integrated the Chicago Woman’s Club and cofounded one of the first urban settlement houses for African Americans. When Mary White Ovington launched a similar effort in Harlem, she apprenticed herself to a range of black leaders, among them Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, and George Simms, pastor of the black Baptist church nearest her settlement. Simm’s church, she recalled…was a place where “newly arrived Southerners: could “get happy” with sermons that were “madly picturesque and yet full of common sense.” Simms broke down Ovington’s liberal prejudice against the evangelical style by welcoming suffragists to his church and making “the best speech of any.” Such relationships were key to founding the NAACP.[i]

Good thing we don’t have liberal prejudice against the evangelical style any more, huh. No, unfortunately, it’s alive and well among we 21st century UUs, and right here in me. I wonder, might one of the reasons for that prejudice come from fear of losing one’s self, being consumed by emotion or the spirit? Participating in a prayer vigil last weekend led by African-American evangelical Christians, I got some practice talking down my fear and discomfort. It helped that I recognized Reverend Ron Chambers of Bethel AME, host church of the Feed My Sheep soup kitchen. It helped that I talked to the vigil leader, Ginger Rye, and found a common connection in the I Can Read! program. These are the seeds of partnership across difference, these are stories I can tell myself – and share – to show that overcoming fear to enter commitment is possible even for us regular, non-NAACP-founding people.

McKanan’s premise is that because “our Unitarian Universalist faith centers on the religious experience of encounter with other people, … our religious practice must necessarily be one of partnership.” And particularly, partnership with those of faiths and experiences different from ours. Wouldn’t it be great if there were a place that UUs from our region could come together to learn more, and share their experiences about overcoming fears and making commitments to interfaith partnerships? You won’t believe how weird this is – the theme of our upcoming MidAmerica Regional Assembly is “Finding Our Partners: Faith in Action”! It’s April 28-30 in Oak Park IL (early bird registration until April 5). Rev. Dr. Lee Barker’s keynote is titled: “To multi-faith: a verb”—he says “Being more deeply engaged in authentic multifaith partnerships and alliances allows for growth in ways we cannot even imagine. And by growth I don’t mean only the expansion of inclusiveness and justice—as true and important as that is. I mean growth in one’s theological, philosophical and ethical life.[ii]

Growth in one’s theological, philosophical and ethical life—isn’t that a goal we have for ourselves as human beings, and as members of this Fellowship? It is encompassed in our mission goals, particularly the one to “enlighten and challenge one another to grow spiritually, intellectually and socially.” The partnerships our congregation has, past and current—with Bethel AME for Feed My Sheep, with The Church of the Good Shepherd for Rainbow Café, with the Carbondale Muslim Center and the Dayemi (Sufi) community, and others—these partnerships provide us with experiences and stories to help us be a community of risk, making commitments.

And…there is even more growth possible, because there are other kinds of religious commitments that those basic fears of being abandoned and being consumed can obstruct. UU theologian Paul Rasor’s essay in A People So Bold examines why we UUs have a hard time expressing our UU identity in public. He writes,

“Deep engagement with theological difference can feel dangerous, and we often fall back on the safety of polite tolerance, unwittingly adopting a kind of theological “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Our reluctance to make strong religious commitments weakens our prophetic voice.[iii]

In other words, our inability to overcome fears of commitment demonstrates a certain religious immaturity, kind of like the guy in “Free Bird” singing about how he can’t change. And in another example of what I see as a variation on the fear of being consumed, of losing one’s identity, Rasor observes:

…many Unitarian Universalists are reluctant to speak religiously in public contexts—especially outside denominational gatherings—because we do not want to appear “too religious.” Over the past quarter century, the most visible and vocal religious groups in America have been aligned with the religious right. UUs and other religious liberals resist religious language to avoid the conservative associations with being publicly religious today….While understandable, this is unfortunate. It cedes the public religious space to the loudest and most conservative speakers and effectively silences the liberal prophetic voice.[iv]

Getting over these fears of religious commitment is something we need to work on as a religious movement, as a congregation, and as individuals. Or I should say, continue to work on—we’ve got current stories and experiences of religiously committed partnership and public prophecy (which often go together) to build from. Think about the congregations who have proclaimed “Black Lives Matter,” in their communities and in cyberspace. Remember this congregation’s participation in the multifaith Dialogue Dinner at the Wall St. Mosque, and our Hate Has No Home Here yard sign. What are other religious commitments and partnerships we are called by our mission and principles to proclaim? In order to grow theologically and ethically, as a congregation, we need to take some risks, make commitments as to how we publicize who we are and what we do. In order to grow theologically and ethically as individuals, we need to take some risks, make commitments too—what commitments have you made? Maybe walking in this door, maybe becoming a member, agreeing to covenants, contributing time, service and money, being involved in the life of the congregation—these are all basic, and important commitments. What about talking to friends, family, co-workers about your Unitarian Universalist beliefs, principles, and actions? How many of you came to the Fellowship because of a friend’s suggestion or invitation? We’ll all have the chance to overcome our fears of religious commitment as we prepare for Bring a Friend Sunday on June 4. Mark your calendars! At our Regional Assembly at the end of April, and our General Assembly in New Orleans in June, we will have many exciting, and challenging opportunities to hear and share stories of growth through committed partnerships and prophetic practice.

Friends, may we free ourselves from our deepest fears of commitment, learning from stories of real people and real congregations about how to trust enough to take the risks necessary for growth in ways we cannot even imagine. May we learn to trust others who are very different, those who are like ourselves, and just as difficult, may we learn to trust ourselves.

Amen.

 

[i] McKanan, Dan. “The Sacred Fire” in A People So Bold: Theology and Ministry for Unitarian Universalists. John Gibb Millspaugh, Ed. Boston: Skinner House, 2010, pp. 21-2.

[ii] Barker, Lee https://www.midamericauua.org/events/regional-assembly

accessed 3/25/17.

[iii] Rasor, Paul. “Identity, Covenant and Commitment” in A People So Bold: Theology and Ministry for Unitarian Universalists. John Gibb Millspaugh, Ed. Boston: Skinner House, 2010, p. 14.

[iv] Ibid p. 15.