15After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’ 2But Abram said, ‘O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?’* 3And Abram said, ‘You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.’ 4But the word of the Lord came to him, ‘This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.’ 5He brought him outside and said, ‘Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’ 6And he believed the Lord; and the Lord * reckoned it to him as righteousness.
7 Then he said to him, ‘I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.’ 8But he said, ‘O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?’ 9He said to him, ‘Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtle-dove, and a young pigeon.’ 10He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. 11And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.
12 As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him. 13Then the Lord * said to Abram, ‘Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years; 14but I will bring judgement on the nation that they serve, and afterwards they shall come out with great possessions. 15As for yourself, you shall go to your ancestors in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. 16And they shall come back here in the fourth generation; for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.’
17 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire-pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. 18On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, 19the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, 20the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, 21the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.’
I’m not here to say what you are worried about. I might know and I might not. But I can know that there are worries to keep you up at night and worries to make you sick in the gut. I can see it in your eyes and I know we’ve all been there. And for the most part, we have all been there alone, despite any friends, family or mates we may have.
Now our hippie friends may say that we just need to “trust the universe,” but for a lot of people, especially people who have less power and privilege, life in our global economy is not really trustworthy. Hard work and a positive attitude are not enough. And it is awful had and lonely when your whole life or even an entire socioeconomic system seems arrayed against you.
Now Abram (you know Abram, he becomes Abraham, the father of the Jews, Christians and Muslims later) isn’t even alone. He believes in G-d and G-d even talks to him directly. Even in the personal company of G-d Abram still has to ask what do you mean? How is this going to work? I’m still worried. And even after G-d shows Abram, “Look I’m G-d its no problem for me and I can make it work and it will be fine” Abram still has to ask “How do I know your promise is true?” Abram has doubts twice even with G-d there to talk to him and show him and make a deal with him.
So how are we supposed to feel in our times of need and doubt? You are not alone and your sense of despair is perfectly natural. But you need hope to survive..
When we lose hope we begin to shut down. We become increasingly isolated and withdraw from the social bonds that sustain us. Wealthier people may retreat to their high profile SUVs and gate garded communities while the most despondent of all social classes may ultimately retreat to the numb comfort of drugs and alcohol or even suicide.
Socially when we lose hope we become less and less involved in our world. We develop so-called compassion fatigue and a “let the devil take the hindmost” mentality. In our own suffering we succumb to the most reactionary kinds of thinking about the sufferings of our neighbors and others near and far. We lose trust in the ability of people to work together and solve problems collectively and retreat to rugged individualism.
Religiously, we lose the ability to make sense of our world and wonder how we will make it. We lose connection to our sense of the divine and the holy connections between us. When we suffer we no longer feel the blossoming promise of life, and forget that while we all must suffer sometimes, some are made to suffer more than their natural share through a variety of bigotry and injustices.
Sometimes as modern religious liberals we try to look down on people with traditional beliefs. We say they just want easy answers. But look at Abram, even from the mouth of G-d direct to his ear the answer is not easy. It may take 4 generations and it may not work out exactly the way you expect. And like Job later even if you do everything right it may not be easy. And you will doubt and despair. And the writers of the ancient Hebrew holy scrolls knew this. Doubt was not invented by Nietzche or 20th century liberals. And hopelessness is not some new postmodern condition.
Too often as religious liberals we strut around with a great deal of pride in our doubts. And we intentionally ignore that we live in a system designed to break us down into the smallest possible units until we are reduced to passive individual consumers, defined by hierarchy and what we buy.
The most explicit instance of how this works in our society is in prison. A friend who spent several years in state prison used to explain that the worst thing you could do in prison is look like you were bonding with someone. Immediately you would find yourself separated, whether it was a songbird in the trees or an incarcerated sister that looked to you as an elder. Even when prisoners are not literally in solitary confinement, their lives were structured to create an emotional solitary confinement. And it is this solitary confinement in our prisons and in our torture chambers in Guantanamo and the Middle East that is the best metaphor for examining how our society can function to make our suffering worse.
In many societies, past and present, a much stronger sense of kinship and extended families exists. In the village I served in Transylvania, every elder is an auntie or uncle. When people are sick, a neighbor brings food, chops wood or tends animals. And most houses had at least two or three generations living together. Now in our society, those of us with a little more live in big empty houses, while poor people can not be seen in groups larger than two without being called a gang. Everyone must have their own house and own possessions. And everyone struggles to keep up with appearances, until they fall through the frayed strands of our safety net and end up on the street, that same street that so many of us are only one paychecks and a dead or pissed off relative away from.
A recent study in American Sociological Review based on interviews with nearly 1500 people by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago states that 25% of Americans feel that there is no one close with whom they confide in about things that are important to them. Eighty percent of respondents confided solely in family. This study has been continuing since 1985, when the average person reported 3 people to confide in (compared to 2 in 2004) and only 57% of people relied solely on family members to confide in.
In a society that is designed to tear us apart in good times and bad, our most radical act is to strengthen the bonds between us across all our social divisions. We must actively resist any attempts to force us or our neighbors to suffer alone or to fear invisibility. Abram with all his men and war bounty still could not be reassured about his legacy. His men below him and all his wealth were no solace to him.
One of the most striking visible features of my home, is the giant redwood trees that tower hundreds of feet into the foggy North Coast sky. The redwood is the tallest living thing on earth, but what few people understand is that they compared to other trees they have shallow roots. Now how can it be that trees that are almost 400 feet tall can stay standing with shallow roots? The secret is that they spread their roots widely and intertwine with those of other trees. The entire redwood ecosystem lives and dies together. The simplest ground cover, ferns, oxalis and trillium all depend on the shade and moisture of the trees. And the trees need the ground cover to prevent erosion and compression on their roots.
How might we become more like the mighty redwoods?
As individuals we must strive to stay connected, to our family, to our friends and to our community. We must acknowledge the social forces that keep us from bonding with people who might seem different from us and take concerted action to break down artificial barriers created between us all. We must let no one suffer in silent isolation, and rescue all from their literal and metaphorical solitary confinement. We must be like the roots of the redwoods, or the tubes that bring us food, and air and circulate our blood when we are on life support. Like the sponsor one has in 12 step, or the neighborhood elder who reassures anxious new parents. We all have a friend that we haven’t heard from in a while or someone down the street that we have not met yet. And all of us have had a time when an unexpected call or visit would have made a world of difference. Each of us must be for each of our friends, neighbors and others a support. This will take great courage but it is courage that we can muster.
As a community we must work together to include all our neighbors as their full authentic selves in our society. We must call on our creativity to build opportunities throughout society for meaningful participation and for everyone to find support in each of lives challenges. We must support the institutions and events that break down social divides in our communities. Where I live, the only institutions that unite people across race and class are public schools and youth soccer. This can be as simple as sharing a meal with others each week, or volunteering in our community. Or even keeping events accessible by transit or offering childcare. One young friend leads a much appreciated book discussion group at a local senior center. We must have a very deliberate compassion and a thirst for justice to ensure that the less privileged among us can participate fully and equally in the blessings of life and our moral commonwealth.
As religious people gathered in beloved community, we must spiritually and materially build a generosity of spirit and a surplus of caring and compassion that washes over our community and out into the world that so badly needs our love and our benevolent rage. We must reclaim our Universalist heritage and leave no souls behind. UU Minister Peter Morales from Golden, CO makes the case that we have a moral obligation to find and welcome the spiritually homeless people with no one to confide in, and that it is morally equivalent to not feeding the hungry or housing the homeless to turn away, by insularity or the inertia of our comfort zone, these desperate seekers of solace.
When Martin Luther King said that the arc of the moral universe is vast but it curves towards justice, he was inspired by the white abolitionist Unitarian Theodore Parker. And even if it indeed curves towards justice, and all things shall pass, and things will work out in the end, sometimes it needs a little hand from us, individually and collectively. Just like sometimes we all need a little hand.
Whatever God you do or don’t believe in, we are the divine hands to bind up the broken and set the captives free. It is only our ears that can be the thousand ears of Kuan Yin Bodhisattva who hears the world’s cries and our hands the thousand hands that rescue and heal.
There will never be a utopia where all our problems are solved. But let us covenant together to be that life support, those life giving roots and trunks that keep all of us and all our hopes alive. Let us solemnly swear to be constant reminders and steadfast support to all our friends and neighbors to feel, as Jesse Jackson put it so eloquently many years ago:
“Wherever you are tonight, you can make it. Hold your head high; stick your chest out. You can make it. It gets dark sometimes, but the morning comes. Don't you surrender! Keep Hope Alive!”
Let a bond bind us to all creation, and truly leave no soul behind. And though we will split no animals in half and walk between them, and won’t receive any great vision of the stars , let us pray for the strength to reassure one another, and each soul that struggles, that as numerous as the stars, we are here, loving and caring to see one another through the long cold night.
And just maybe, then, we will be able to sleep through the night, or know right away whose shoulder we can cry on. Or how to talk to our AA sponsor when the battery in our phone is dead. Or who can help when the landlord needs the rent and the baby needs medicine. Or even what to do when things are going all right but you can’t figure out why you feel so alone.
And if our commitment to justice and to one another is to be more than hollow words, than we have some work to do. Hard work, scary work even, but rich generative work, like getting are hands dirty tilling soil to make the spiritual vacant lots of American life into gardens of flowers for beauty and food for sustenance.
Kedves testvéreim, my dear sweet siblings, Amen.