“Good for Nothing” by Mark W. Harris
February 24, 2013 – First Parish of Watertown
Call to Worship – from Emily Dickinson
I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us! Don’t tell!
They’d banish us – you know!
How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell your name – the livelong day –
To an admiring Bog!
Reading from Paul Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations
Do we know what it means to be struck by grace? It does not mean that we suddenly believe that God exists, . . . or that the Bible contains the truth. To believe that something is, is almost contrary to the meaning of grace. Furthermore, grace does not mean simply that we are making progress in our moral self-control, in our fight against special faults, and in our relationships to men and to society. Moral progress may be a fruit of grace; but it is not grace itself, and it can even prevent us from receiving grace. For there is too often a graceless acceptance of . . . doctrines [ or beliefs] and a graceless battle against the structures of evil in our personalities. Such a graceless relation to God may lead us by necessity either to arrogance or to despair. It would be better to refuse God. . . and the Bible than to accept them without grace. For if we accept without grace, we do so in the state of separation, and can only succeed in deepening the separation. We cannot transform our lives, unless we allow them to be transformed by that stroke of grace. It happens; or it does not happen. And certainly it does not happen if we try to force it upon ourselves, just as it shall not happen so long as we think, in our self-complacency, that we have no need of it. Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life that we loved, or from which we were estranged. It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure has become intolerable to us. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: “You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!” If that happens to us, we experience grace. After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed. In that moment . . . reconciliation bridges the gulf of estrangement. And nothing is demanded of this experience, no religious or moral or intellectual presupposition, nothing but acceptance.
2nd Reading – Story about Hosea Ballou
Every religion has its own system of salvation. While that word may be one that makes some Unitarian Universalists uncomfortable, it is probably true that even YOU, as non-believing as you may think you are, have a scheme of salvation. Of course I don’t mean salvation in the traditional sense. This is not the Jesus died for your sins kind of salvation, and that if you believe in him, you will go to heaven and live with him forevermore. In the conservative Protestant church I grew up in, salvation meant that I would not die, but would go live in some domestic bliss with all the people I shared my life with, a kind of suburban Shangri-la of endless reunion parties. But when did reunions ever resemble peaceful bliss? My son Joel recently attended his high school party and said few people were present in a raucous bar, then a fight broke out and the police came, and the people he was closest to were not even there. While some Muslim men dream about the 99 virgins awaiting them in heaven, most UUs are pretty skeptical of any particular sexual, material, or even domestic rewards in the hereafter. Yet even if we don’t expect an afterlife, we still dream of a certain kind of salvation. Our notion of salvation as religious liberals focuses on what we can achieve in this life.
But then you have to ask, what does that mean? In his book No Man is An Island, Thomas Merton says that salvation is what every person looks for in life, and that salvation is the full discovery of who we really are. This is achieved through the fulfillment of our God-given powers, in the love of others, and of God. The problem is that sometimes the discovery of who we are seems to conflict with what society or family or friends seem to think is the right path to salvation for us. In the 19th century, the Unitarian idea of salvation was a radical break from Calvinism because it posited that salvation was achieved through a blending of both God’s grace and good works. Slowly God’s role in salvation was eclipsed until by the end of that century salvation was found, according to Unitarian leader James Freeman Clarke, through the development of one’s own character.
Inevitably what one achieved in life was linked with the certainty of salvation. To be successful, people were taught they needed an education, had to work hard, and be moral exemplars. While Calvinism had once restricted salvation to a select group of Saints whom God had chosen, now religion and capitalism both reflected that hard working responsible citizens would be rewarded with salvation in this life and the next. The American dream was that even the poorest person could, through dogged self-determination, achieve financial success or the good life. You could climb the ladder of success to the top through your own efforts. This was remarkably different from the Indian tradition embodied in the game “Chutes and Ladders,” In this ancient children’s game you could try to achieve, but fate might determine that you would fall down the chute. Rather than a way one ride to the top, this was a constant up and down adventure embodying good and bad karma. While it was not karma, my grandfather went down the chute, and was destroyed financially, while my own father went up the economic ladder to success.
In the best selling book Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Katherine Boo transports us to a makeshift settlement, Annawadi, on the outskirts of the Mumbai airport in India where the residents hope that their karma has changed from bad to good. Here we meet incredibly poor people who sleep on their trash bags of valuable collectibles so that no one will steal their dream of economic success. They have hope because India has begun to prosper. Abdul, the central figure in the book, sees a potential fortune in the recyclable garbage the rich throw away. For the first time, he dreams, along with other Indians, that they can achieve the good life, what they call the “full enjoy.” Yet Abdul is accused of murder after a woman sets herself on fire and fingers him as the perpetrator, all founded on a jealousy of his family’s meager profits. The enemy is not the rich oppressor, but their own neighbors. It is also Hindu vs. Muslim. Yet even in the midst of this battle for scant rewards and family tragedy where everything seems corrupt, and it is exceedingly hard to be good, many people are good or at least try to be, like Abdul who works unceasingly so that none of his eight siblings have to work. Abdul felt like his mother had raised him in this world of ruthless competition to understand that he had to rise. But once tragedy occurred, “He felt his mother hadn’t prepared him for what it felt like, falling alone.” Some people never see this shack city where they lived, as they drive by a concrete wall covered with advertisements for Italian floor tiles that promise prospective customers – Beautiful Forever, Beautiful Forever. Can all the hope of personal salvation or success bring any of us a beautiful forever?
None of us expects we can enjoy a beautiful forever if we are labeled good for nothing. In Hindi the word would be “bekaar.” which literally means “useless.” If you have a good for nothing, lazy spouse who sits around all day, you might say bekaar. I have sometimes heard people say good for nothing about DPW workers who may be labeled as people who take slacking off to the extreme. Teachers may hear, “those who can’t do, teach.” Or ministers work for only one hour per week. We may recall our parents giving us that title of good for nothing if we were watching TV, and did not weed the garden or take out the trash or shovel the walk as quickly as they might wish. When we failed to do our homework or finish a paper, or live up to our responsibilities we might have heard useless bum from our teachers. We may have felt bad about it and immediately jumped to the task at hand because we wanted to be thought of as hard working. Or perhaps we internalized the label of no good, making it less likely we would try the next time. I recently conducted a wedding for a bride and groom who come from China and Russia respectively. During my premarital counseling sessions with them, they talked about working hard, learning more and more, and becoming successful, in order to achieve that American dream. It was harder for immigrants they said, and this made them work all the harder. Personal salvation seemed to be a happy marriage, children, owning a home and keeping good jobs. We could admire their optimism and hope and willingness to achieve, but what if they can’t give enough time to their marriage, and it fails? Or what if there is a change of management at a job and someone gets fired for no apparent good reason? What if they simply can’t master a new work challenge? Or what if one gets sick, or worse? There is a presumption sometimes in the march to personal salvation that we can overcome all deficiencies and obstacles and achieve success. And conversely if we don’t go to the right college, get the right job, and keep climbing the ladder that we are somehow good for nothing.
I feel like this is the gospel of success that I learned to live by. Therefore, I have always felt like my sermons are exhorting people to do more, be more, get better and better because what you do and what you have achieved, and by implication who you are is simply not good enough. Of course I am preaching to myself. Perfectionism is our salvation, but we never ask if it will make us happy, only that it is suppose to be the path to happiness. We expect that all this hard work will bring some kind of reward, or our version of salvation or heaven. I will get the big church, or more money or recognition. The problem is that no amount of material success is going to change who we are. If we cannot be vulnerable to another, or trust another, or share our deepest selves with another than we will never rectify any deficiencies we think we have.
The message many of us absorbed was that we have to make ourselves into something better or different because we are not good enough. This applied to both salvation in this life and the next. Unitarians preached that individuals should be constantly improving themselves. Even after you died, there was a belief that people could continue to perfect themselves even more, a kind of graduate school in the sky. In this mix with the gospel of perfectionism, a Universalist message was inserted.
Its chief spokesperson was a tall country boy named Hosea Ballou. He spun yarns of personal experience, such as you heard in the reading, where he met a woman in her kitchen who was yielding her mop. He said you are going to be saved just as you are. By implication God accepts you as worthy of salvation no matter what your station or achievement in life. You are already good enough. You have but to realize God’s love. I remember when my parents first bought a dishwasher; my mother would fill the sink with soapy water, and wash her dishes before she washed her dishes. The new dishwasher became a rinsing agent. For many other Protestants this idea of being saved as you are invited immorality, as even prostitutes or lazy people might achieve eternal life. They said if there was no threat of hell as an incentive to be good, then everyone would be bad.
Determinism is not something humans seem to deal with very well. While Calvinists believed in a pre-determined salvation for some and damnation for most, Universalists, even with their gospel of God’s universal love posited a kind of determinism; you would be saved whether you liked it or not. Yet most people seemed to prefer a self-determined opportunity to become individually better than the next guy. After Ballou’s death most Universalists adopted this kind of thinking, when they embraced what was known as Restorationism. In that scheme sinful people needed to undergo a period of purification after death, while good people would achieve instant salvation. The good for nothing’s would have to work their way to heaven. This was unfortunate because a unique gospel was lost.
The unique things about Ballou’s gospel were two fold. You do not have to do anything to yourself to be worthy of God’s love. You are worthy just as you are. Second, in conventional salvation schemes the person was entirely self-sufficient. You are alone responsible for your own salvation. You must overcome any obstacles and achieve. Just do it. While this kind of belief may encourage self-sufficiency, it also promotes a myth that you can do any and everything on your own, whereas we all know that we are subject to a variety of determining factors in the road to achieving success – intelligence, opportunity and luck among them. In addition, sometimes the people we love do not love us, or not in the way we hope. Life is filled with false turns, betrayals, disloyalty and losses. Sometimes we do not achieve the great reward we hoped we would, but when we continue to blame the lack of rewards in life on our own deficiencies, or even on others, we are never going to get anywhere. We have to accept ourselves for who we are, and we have to let go of all those things that continue to plague us. As Andy Warhol once wrote, “Sometimes people let the same problem make them miserable for years when they could just say, So what. That’s one of my favorite things to say. So what.”
I remember as a child that my parents always hated to hear that phrase “So what” because to them it connoted a kind of “I don’t care” attitude. But Warhol is implying much more than that. He is saying we have to realize that we will not always be the person the other wants us to be, and we will never fulfill the dreams we may project for ourselves. We have to let go and recognize ourselves as the imperfect, but perfect person we were meant to be. Andrea sometimes kids me that I have a large but fragile ego. The implication might be that too many of us need to be built up so that we can tear ourselves down. Thomas Merton, the celebrated monk, would have said that the power of self-love, that could recognize how much we need others to see ourselves, ends up being turned into self-hatred because in striving and falling short of our vision of success we always see ourselves as not good enough or good for nothing. Merton writes, “ As long as we secretly adore ourselves, our own deficiencies will remain to torture us with an apparent defilement. But if we live for others, we will gradually discover that no one expects us to be gods.” We are humans with limitations, but these limitations play an important part in our lives. Because of them we need others and others need us. My success is not “I did it, and if you don’t give me credit now I am going to hate myself.” It is we did it together. I don’t find myself in my perfection at your expense. Ballou was right. We find salvation in who we are right now, in acceptance, in love, regardless of what we have achieved. So there is, as Tillich said, a grace in the acceptance of ourselves, which we will never discover when we have a moral tally sheet of self-loathing. We can stop hating certain parts of our history or ourselves. Instead we accept ourselves right now and try to better understand an aspect we find undesirable or even frightening. We often say love yourself, but if you love blindly only to seek your own self-aggrandizement, then there is no love because it cares nothing for the other, or for finding the truth.
Long ago I had an image of what a life in ministry would be, and how it would make me happy. Yet for many years I judged myself by what I had not achieved, and sometimes cursed that large but fragile ego. Long ago my father wanted to send me to an exclusive private school so that I could get into Harvard. Maybe he envisioned the perfect son with the perfect education, but it was not a vision that I felt would make me happy. I often wonder what parents desire for their children and why. Is the exclusive school going to make them a better person or make them happier, or is it merely a matter of prestige, a sign of success? As we get older we realize that the meaning of life is not in a sum total of achievements, but in how much you have grown as a person. What have you learned, and what have you given to others is what makes you more whole. It is a blending of achievements and failures, joys and sorrows. What’s important is our understanding of ourselves as many things, not one. Even Christopher Reeve, who was paralyzed from the neck down, was not overcome by depression after the accident. He was not merely the handsome, physical specimen. He said we must look to our assets, and he realized he still had the full use of his brain.
The word grace comes from the Latin gratia meaning favor or charm. We sometimes see certain people as going through life as if they are charmed – happy, healthy, successful and then say to ourselves I don’t measure up. Comparing ourselves to others means we are still chained to a self-love that will never know grace or acceptance. When we look to the people who care for us, the talents we possess, and what we have to give to the world may we always understand in the deepest recess of our hearts that I am good enough as I am. What if we stopped saying I should be more, or my life should be better, filled with more excitement or more achievements? I am a bad worker, mother, and child. I am really good for nothing. What if we suddenly realized. I am accepted or saved just as I am. I am fulfilling my potential by reaching out, by caring, by giving. What if we said, I love my life. I am so lucky to have this life filled with these joys and these funny wonderful people, these books, these walks, this sky, this moon. What if I said, I am a good enough parent, child, worker because I bring my whole self to all these parts of my life, and I can only do what I can, imperfectly perfect, just like everybody else. This is our life. Let’s embrace it for what it is, and who we are; beautiful forever.
Closing Words – from Thomas Merton, No Man is An Island
“It is . . . of supreme importance that we consent to live not for ourselves but for others. When we do this we will be able first of all to face and accept our own limitations. As long as we secretly adore ourselves, our own deficiencies will remain to torture us with an apparent defilement. But if we live for others, we will gradually discover that no one expects us to be “as gods”. We will see that we are human, like everyone else, that we all have weaknesses and deficiencies, and that these limitations of ours play a most important part in all our lives. It is because of them that we need others and others need us. We are not all weak in the same spots, and so we supplement and complete one another, each one making up in himself for the lack in another.”