The Holy Work of Independence

Originally delivered to Buckman Bridge Unitarian Universalist Church on 7/4/2021 as part of the 4th of July Independence Day HolidayYou can watch the service on the BBUUC YouTube page HERE.

Good morning, siblings in faith! Thank you for welcoming me to celebrate life and love with all of you at Buckman Bridge Unitarian Universalist Church! I pray that your 4th of July weekend is well, with opportunities for joy, community, and commemoration. I was born in the bicentennial year of 1976, when the United States celebrated 200 years of independence. Growing up in the southwest, it was all fireworks and barbeques, live music and the Star Spangled banner. The TV would broadcast specials about how a colonial people rose up against the British Empire to forge their own path in history.  And isn’t this what we do for all celebrations? Gather together, celebrate another rotation around the sun and share memorable stories over and over again?

And yet, the 4th of July was ever really a graduation announcement. It was when the Second Continental Congress ratified the Declaration of Independence. Our revolutionary war started the year before. Our name, as the United States of America, would not be officially adopted by the Continental Congress until September 9th, 1776. The Revolutionary War wouldn’t end until 1783. And all thirteen of the original states would not ratify our Constitution until 1790. Fourteen years from the announcement to the emergence of a unified nation. And yet, the 4th of July is the commemoration of a beginning; a desire for something new. Filled with the premise and the promise of what could be.

I remember when my own son was born. There were so many unknowns. Who would he be? What color of hair or eyes? His personality? Even now, six years later, every day is different. And unexpected. We will see, life and love willing, if our own hopes and dreams become reality (much like in the preamble and opening lines of our Declaration of Independence – wanting life, liberty, and happiness for my child) as he moves closer to his own independence.

It seems to me that human beings have evolved a need, in our capacity for meaning making, to differentiate ourselves from our beginnings. Seeking to find our own uniqueness, and legacy. And if the old adage from Rev. Theodore Parker rings true, this need is part of that arc of history ever bending toward justice. Which is the holy work I want to speak about today.

Originally out Gaelic, into the Old High Germanic hulis and Old English holegn, the words meant “Holly” as in the holly tree, which is considered a sacred plant for European indigenous traditions, particularly Celtic and Roman religions. There is a reason in December that we “deck the halls with boughs of holly!” That is the creating of sacred space.

Eventually the word evolved into the Old English word halig, meaning “health, happiness, and wholeness” and its association with spiritual and religious traditions, became our own word “holy.” In the context of our work of independence, rooted in Unitarian Universalist principles, I want to call back to the roots of the word “holy” to focus on the spiritual and religious emphasis on health, happiness, and wholeness.

In the case of our nation’s Declaration of Independence, we the people have many times fallen far from its premise and promise of the truths that were supposed to have been so very self-evident: that all human beings are created equal, and therefore endowed with rights of life, liberty and happiness. Two-hundred and forty-five years since this declaration, through holding onto that arc of the moral universe, we have wrestled and reckoned with the failure through the movements of citizens unwilling to let go of their self-evident rights. Abolition. Suffrage. Labor Unions. Civil Rights. Pride. Black Lives Matter!

Whenever we have strayed from our declared values, holy people have called us back into covenant; closer to health, happiness, and wholeness. Because the Declaration of Independence is not just a legal document. It is a covenant. At the very end, after intent, beliefs, and grievances have been stated, there are the words: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

This sounds familiar to me. In our Unitarian Universalist Association bylaws. Article II. Section C-2.1. Lines 39-42: “Grateful for the religious pluralism which enriches and ennobles our faith, we are inspired to deepen our understanding and expand our vision. As free congregations we enter into this covenant, promising to one another our mutual trust and support.” These are the words which follow our own declaration of principles and sources. And like our United States’ covenant, there are times in which we as individuals and as a whole do not live into the premise and promise of our faith. We are called back into holiness: health, happiness, wholeness.

So if our principles are viewed through the lens of holy independence, from who or what are we separating from to return to covenant? Perhaps they are the shackles and chains of pain. Hatred. Abuse. Violence. Fear.

Working in hospital systems has taught me something about our condition of being human. Sitting with a veteran who had just completed a final round of chemo leading to an extended hospitalization, they looked at me and said, “I feel bad. I haven’t been the best patient. Hell, I’ve been an asshole. And yet you still care for me. I’m sorry I’ve been so angry.” Reflecting on his confession, I replied: “Thank you. I know that when I’m in pain, it’s really hard to be my best self too. Maybe when your nurses come in, you can tell them what you told me. And then work on not being an asshole. I’ll help with that, if you’re up for it.” I’ve learned this being human isn’t about being perfect. It’s about not giving up.

As a Unitarian Universalist, I believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Not every good person. Or beautiful person. Or rich person. Every. Person. Yet, I know that when I encounter a patient with white supremacist tattoos up their arm, I feel my anger and fear and disgust. And that little piece of my brain at the base of my skull gets activated and in that moment, I can feel those emotional chains around my heart tighten. Binding me. Trying to prevent me from accessing my prefrontal cortex where I may be able, in a moment, to consider if what I am doing is living into my own principles.

It is in this moment that I seek independence; from the tyranny of my reactive behaviour that can prevent me from living my ministry. And siding with love. Which means taking a deep breath. Saying a quiet prayer for strength. And sitting with that Nazi patient who has asked for a chaplain and providing them with spiritual care. Because underneath the pain, hate, ink and scars there is a human being with inherent worth and dignity who is asking for help. And who knows… perhaps even redemption?

Psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl wrote in his work Man’s Search for Meaning: “Everything can be taken from a [person] but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” He found in the camps, as he lost his father, mother, brother and spouse to illness, starvation, and gas chambers, that some prisoners could hold onto their humanity while others would sink into despair. He wondered what was at the core of the ability to retain one’s humanity in the midst of horror. He found that it was freedom—holy independence that his oppressors could not take away.

Which is different from the radical individualism that has emerged from the words: “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” that has somehow forgotten the conclusion about being bound together in life, fortune and honor. Holy independence, or an independence that promotes spiritual health, happiness, and wholeness, does its best to live well in the dynamic tension between the individual and the interconnected. Because I also believe in justice, equity and compassion in human relations.

Which challenges the tyranny of selfishness and narcissism that can well up from psychic and spiritual wounds that whisper: “You are not enough.” “You don’t have enough.” “There isn’t enough!” I seek independence from these chains of scarcity! Because the self-evident truth is that all around me is an abundance of life and love, and if there isn’t an abundance of life and love my religion calls me into action to create health, happiness, and wholeness. Which does not happen in a vacuum. My own holy independence is rooted in yours. And yours in mine.

Which is why I believe in the acceptance of one another and the encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregation. Why I believe in a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Why I believe in the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregation and in society at large. Because as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote,

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”

Holy independence is not my independence from you or from others. It is in my realization that across from “I” there is a “Thou.” Philosopher and existentialist Martin Buber wrote, “Humanity wishes to be confirmed in their being by humanity, and wishes to have a presence in the being of the other… Secretly and bashfully they watch for a YES which allows them TO BE, and which can come to them only from one human person to another.” This is why independence is so important. Not because it allows me to pull up my bootstraps and shake my fist at the universe. It cultivates my capacity to be my best “me” so that I can be the encourager and witness for you being your healthy, happy, whole “you.”

            Out of this comes my belief in the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all, and in respecting the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. Our faith aims to free us from the shackles of in-group and out-group division which has become the cultural norm. Progressives vs Conservatives. Democrats vs Republicans. Liberalism vs Postmodernism. None of these are “good vs evil”, as I have sat with moral and ethical human beings from all of these labels. And I have been on the receiving end of rage and abuse from the Fundamentalist Christian as well as from the Unitarian Universalist. And there have been many moments where I have failed myself and our faith. Yet, the covenant remains. Because I believe holy independence is not about “being right”; it is in “getting it right.”

            Perhaps the best example for me of holy independence can be found in the Christian writings with the story of the “Good Samaritan” found in the book of Luke, chapter 10, verses 25-37:

Behold, a certain lawyer stood up and tested Jesus, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “What is written in the law? How do you read it?”

He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus said to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this, and you will live.”

But he, desiring to justify himself, asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”

Jesus answered, “A certain man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who both stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead. By chance a certain priest was going down that way. When he saw him, he passed by on the other side. In the same way a Levite also, when he came to the place, and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he travelled, came where he was. When he saw him, he was moved with compassion, came to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. He set him on his own animal, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. On the next day, when he departed, he took out two denarii, gave them to the host, and said to him, ‘Take care of him. Whatever you spend beyond that, I will repay you when I return.’ Now which of these three do you think seemed to be a neighbor to him who fell among the robbers?”

They lawyer said, “He who showed mercy on him.”

Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

On the surface this seems like a basic story of helping those in need. However, in the context of first century Judea, an important detail needs be known. For that time and place, Jews and Samaritans deeply hated one another; culturally, religiously. It was common for them to kill one another. And yet, this Jesus of Nazareth places before this lawyer an almost impossible task. To love his enemy. The way I interpret this parable, is that in order to live fully into the premise and promise of being human, I must not only love life with all my heart, strength, soul and mind; I must also love the person I want to hate the most.

            Which is at the core of true holy independence and the mission and vision of our covenanted principles. Siblings in faith, ours is not an easy religion. In many ways, it is the work of a lifetime. It is, also, a faith that encourages us into a life of mutual formation, cultivating our capacity to be deeply human, ever becoming a more beloved community. For us, there is no damnation other than the chains we allow ourselves to carry. And every time we gather together, the keys of freedom are waiting in the space between us.

On this Fourth of July, let us celebrate not only the premise and promise written into our national covenant, let us also celebrate holy independence from the tyranny of bigotry, hate, discrimination and despair. Not a celebration of completion or reward. We celebrate for a renewal of covenant and commitment. A celebration of our holy work. Let us be a holy people; a healthy, happy and whole people, through minds that think, hearts that love, and hands that are ready to serve. Today, let us truly mark, our Independence Day!

            May it be so. Amen.

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