Apr 03 2013

Wrestling with Salvation: The Human Hunger for Wholeness

Published by at 2:29 am under Minister's Musings

“And then I learned to read.” During a recent talk at the California Theater, Anne Lamott – the quirky author of Help Thanks Wow, Traveling Mercies, and Operating Instructions – names the big turning point in her life. Like many of us in the theater that night, Anne grew up in a middle-class 1950s household where the Manhattans and martinis flowed like fountains and the family’s dysfunction hid behind glassy smiles and rigorous social “correctness.”
“Then I learned to read,” Anne Lamott says, “and reading saved me.”
Up in the balcony of the California Theater, I fumble as quietly as I can through my cavernous purse, searching in the dark for the small notebook I carry with me. Not there. Desperate, I grab a pen and write on my palm: “Reading = salvation.” As Annie goes on, my notes crawl up the inside of my forearm: “Help each other feel better 1950s style [not equal to] salvation.” “We’re going to find a space for you, too.”
Salvation – our theme at First Unitarian this month – is not an easy topic. I feel the same resistance, if not outright rejection, that many of you express (see “In Our Own Voices” in this issue). Picture this: Many years ago, a friend calls from across the country for help with a Stewardship Testimonial that his church has asked him to give. “What’s a Stewardship Testimonial?” I ask, pre-divinity school. My friend’s essay includes a line about “being saved.” Even over the phone he can hear my face scrunch. “What does that mean?” I ask crankily. “Saved from what? Saved for what, to what? Who gets to be ‘saved’?”
Some of us grew up with a religious interpretation of salvation that hurt. One Christian version claims that Jesus died to atone for the sins of humankind, thus granting his followers “eternal life.” But what does this interpretation say about the value of suffering?
This idea that Jesus’ death is Christians’ saving moment only came into favor during the Crusades, more than a thousand years after Jesus is killed. In Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us, Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker point out that in the 1100s, it became politically expedient for popes to persuade soldiers that acts of violence could be “sacred” and that death might bring its own reward. A few centuries later, John Calvin’s “doctrine of election” says that some folks are predestined to be “saved” while others are not. Oops, sorry, your name’s not on the list! And how do we know? Well, maybe by the way in which you live now—or maybe not. Don’t ask: it’s a Mystery. But you over there—you’re different, so surely not you.
Our Unitarian and Universalist religious ancestors just don’t buy these interpretations, because they don’t make sense, and they’re not fair. As Thomas Starr King famously quips (I’m paraphrasing), “The Universalists think God is too good to damn them forever, and the Unitarians think they are too good to be damned.”
What does this all mean?
So what does all this theological history, combined with Anne Lamott’s Baby Boomer story, mean for us today?
It means that we humans are always asking to understand why we suffer, why bad things happen to good people, and how we can live with more peace, joy, and authenticity.
It means that we 21st-century UUs are called to question and reframe how we find our way to wholeness. It means we’re not going to plaster over the hard stuff or deny the damage done by emotional and physical violence. Instead, we’re going to find the people, the stories, and the interpretations that ring true, that show us how we are “already all right,” just as we are, and at the same time help us to grow.
Most of all it means: “We’re going to find a space for you too.”
Welcome to a month of discovery and new connections!
With love for the journey and for each of you,
Rev. Nancy

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