Sunday, November 08, 2009

What must I do (if anything) to be Saved?

Rev. Kit Ketcham, Nov. 8, 2009

Sitting over at the Lighthouse Café in Freeland the other day, waiting for someone, I noticed on the windowsill a small tract entitled “What is Meant by Salvation?”. I had just pulled out my handy-dandy pocket notebook to jot down ideas for this very sermon, so I opened the tract to see what the author’s definition of “salvation” might be.

Woowee!-----I felt as if I had been teleported back in time to a small church in Goldendale, Washington, where my Dad had invited me to speak one Sunday while I was visiting my parents during the holidays, over 40 years ago.

I was serving as an American Baptist Home Missionary out in Denver at the time, my days filled with working in a food bank, teaching a preschool class, holding after-school activities for elementary students, supervising teens in our weekly Teen Canteen on Saturday nights, and playing the piano for Good Shepherd Baptist Church, which met in the Center on Sunday mornings.

I had been there, at the Denver Christian Center, for several months at that time, getting a whole new look at what religious service might mean and the very glaring needs of people in the inner city during those tumultuous times of the Vietnam war and the Civil Rights Movement.

This was the mid-60’s and states across the country, including Colorado, were experiencing unrest and violence over both war issues and the needs of minority Americans. Our little neighborhood at 29th and Curtis in the heart of the inner city was beginning to simmer with unrest over racial and economic issues as de facto segregation in the schools resulted in mandatory cross-town bussing for students.

In my Denver life, I was reveling in being away from the humdrum of welfare casework in Goldendale, where I had been living with my parents for a year and where I was constrained by the norms of small town life with a preacher’s family! I craved the freedom of a city and new challenges. But my dad had been ill and I wanted to be home for the holidays.

So there I was, in the pulpit at the First Baptist Church of Goldendale, telling them about the many outreach services of the Christian Center, the optometric clinic we sponsored, the used clothing we handed out daily to families, the food pantry, my little preschool class (this pre-dated Head Start by about a year) and all the new songs I’d learned to teach the kids, from age 4 through age 12. The teenagers were teaching ME songs!

But I ran out of material after about 10 minutes and opened it up to questions. There were some good ones: were there a lot of single parent families? Were people working? Were the kids well-behaved? Did the center have enough money to carry on its work or were we struggling to make our budget? How much support did we get from the national denomination?

I answered all of these as well as I could, feeling pleased that I was able to tell these lovely people in my dad’s congregation how much good was being supported by their giving. And then one last hand went up: “How many souls have you saved for Christ?”

I think I’ve always been a Universalist at heart. I have never been able to swallow the notion that a loving God would punish any person who was attempting to live an honest, kind, and useful life. But this question stopped me in my tracks. How was I going to deal with centuries of religious controversy in a few short sentences when I didn’t even have my own thoughts sorted out very well?

So I didn’t even try. I just said that physical needs often had to come before spiritual needs in the inner city, and left it at that. But walking out of the church that morning after the service, I avoided talking to anyone or receiving compliments but I especially avoided discussing my theology of salvation with my questioner.

My dad was sympathetic; I think he got it, that my work as a home missionary did not necessarily include proselytizing, as it would have in a foreign mission field. My task at the Christian Center was different from his as a local pastor; he preached sin and salvation every Sunday but he didn’t have a mandate to fulfill any other needs in the community, though he often gave money and food to the needy.

So I opened this little tract and found that its first words were: “Salvation means to be rescued from sin and its punishment and set free to know, love and serve God….Left to ourselves, there is no rescue and the justice of God requires our eternal damnation in the terrors of hell.”

It’s interesting---the word salvation actually has a very broad meaning but has been circumscribed by religious doctrinaires to evoke only its narrowest definition, that of avoiding hell.

Think of all these familiar words that are related to the word salvation: salute---meaning to wish health for someone; salvage---to save from danger; salve---a healing ointment; salver---the tray used to present safe food to a monarch; salvo---a greeting to a dignitary wishing him or her good health; and salvation’s original meaning was to save from loss at sea. The Latin base word is salvus, which means healthy.

Even the word “soteriology”, which means the study of or knowledge of salvation means, in addition to its doctrinal definition, a discourse on health and deliverance from dis-ease.

You know me well enough to recognize my interest in the etymology, the origins of words, and how meanings can be conscripted, hijacked by people who only want them used in certain ways. I consider it my bounden duty to redeem words that have been imprisoned by dogma and to offer them afresh! Wait till we get to January, when we’ll be talking about (gasp) GOD!

Anyhow, I thought for a minute about the tract’s message of fear and what its intent might be. I’ve been thinking a lot about Fear these days. I see it as a major underlying condition that affects human behavior and human society. There is good, normal, healthy fear and then there’s fear that keeps us from having healthy, normal lives.

We see the results of fear in the newspapers every day. When our nation’s security was damaged on Sept. 11, 2001, we began to get daily reminders of just how endangered we were as a nation. If the orange and red-alerts weren’t enough for us, our media hyped every tremor in our evolving society, arousing additional fears: pandemics, conflicts over social issues like abortion and sexuality, the failure of any number of social institutions like education, health care and government.

Some of this fear was well placed. Some of it was pandering to inner human needs, specifically the drive to survive, which we all have, but arousing fears about each other and our safety and survival if certain conditions or freedoms were allowed.

Salvation became a social issue as well as a religious issue: what would save us from having to adapt to a society in which gay people, women, the less-abled, persons of color had the same freedoms as straight, white, male, able-bodied persons to live and act in their own best interests.

Election Day seems to underscore this desire for civic salvation. Candidates and issue advocates point out the fear factors in each others’ platforms. This candidate says that his opponent will destroy the fabric of the community if elected; heavens, she’s a liberal! (whatever that means these days.) That advocate wails that if domestic partners can be present in a hospital room with a partner, his marriage will be destroyed.

Playing on fear is an effective technique for winning elections; we’re just lucky right now and will have to keep working to overcome the fear. But I am wondering how to address the kind of fear we see when people vote to withhold human rights from their neighbors.

I think some of the problem lies in the traditional definition of “salvation”, as spelled out in the little tract I found. Deeply religious conservative people tend to be very very fearful of death and what is beyond death. They take the laws spelled out in the Bible literally, not in a contextual sense or in a metaphorical sense but in a very literal way, even though they pick and choose the laws they find most important.

So the orthodox view of salvation is salvation from sin, death, and punishment in hell; and one is saved by one’s right belief and practice.

Other more secular views consider salvation to be from pain, a sense of inadequacy, loneliness, poverty, boredom, illness; one is saved by medical or psychological treatment or, Oprah, the stock market and one’s favorite sports channel.

Going back to the basic meaning of salvation as indicated by its roots, let’s think about what makes a person whole, healed, healthy. What do we need to be whole, to be healed as individuals? As a community? As a society? As a world?

Mary Oliver wrote:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles
Through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile, the world goes on.
Meanwhile, the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain are moving across
The landscapes, over the prairies and the deep trees,
The mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile, the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
Are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
The world offers itself to your imagination,
Calls to you like the wild geese,
Harsh and exciting---
Over and over announcing
Your place in the family of things.

Our First Principle of Unitarian Universalism states that we affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person. That means you and me; it means ethnic minorities; it means sexual minorities; it means Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus and those whose religious beliefs are incomprehensible to others; it means criminals and the mentally ill; it means Republicans and Independents. It even means people we hate or people we fear.

We all are born with inherent worth and dignity but along life’s roadway, things happen to damage us, to make us feel less than whole, to make us behave in questionable and hurtful ways toward others, to ruin our health or mobility, to give us impulses to hurt others that are sometimes irresistible. And we develop fear because of the things that happen to us.

As Judy and I were talking about this service, sharing our ideas on the theme, we developed a concept that I’d like to share with you. We thought about the many facets of us human beings and our lives: the community we live in; our personalities and our interface with the world; our self-concept, how we see ourselves, how we relate to ourselves; our family members and friends; and the legacy we leave behind when we die. I’m sure there are other facets you could name, but it became clear to us as we talked that when we feel less than whole, it is our relationships---with ourselves, with others, and with the larger community---that show the strain.

When we are fearful, we tend to respond in a fight or flight way. We may run from the thing we fear and sometimes that is indeed the right response. We may be fleeing, however, fear that is aroused by old events in our lives. It may be that the thing we fear is not really the thing we face---but we flee anyway, which imprisons us anew, in a way. We are damaged and uncomfortable and unable to respond in a healthy way.

When we are fearful, we may respond with anger, anger left over from old events. We may be more angry about that old event than about this new one but the anger spills out anyway, perhaps onto innocent people. An adult, hurt and angered by abuse experienced at an earlier time, reacts to an event in the present by abusing others with his or her anger.

What must we do to be saved? Saved from our inappropriate fear? Saved from our inappropriate anger? Saved from the pain of hurting others out of fear and anger? Saved from our fear about ourselves, saved from our anger at ourselves? Saved from the harmful patterns that our fear and anger have engraved into our lives? Saved from a disregard or impatience with others’ needs?

What do we want our lives to look like? What do we want them to look like when we search our own minds and hearts for reassurance that we have done all we can to live by our values? What do we want our lives to look like in the eyes of our children and the kids we see around the neighborhood?

What do we want our lives to look like from the point of view of our closest friends and our family members? What do we want our lives to look like from the viewpoint of the clerk at the store? What do we want our lives to look like when our community gathers to say goodbye at our memorial service?

I’ll tell you what I think. Perhaps it is similar to what you might think. Perhaps not. Almost 2000 years ago, the philosopher Socrates said at his trial for heresy when he had been accused of leading Athenian youth astray and sentenced to death, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” He was stating, in the face of death, his conviction that he must pursue truth at any cost and share it with those who were willing to receive it.

For me, Salvation is being saved from something different than the doctrinaires would approve. For me too, the unexamined life is not worth living and to me, that means that all the time I want to examine my behavior toward others, toward myself, toward the universe, to critique my life by the standards that I have learned are most important to me. And I have some questions to ask myself in this critique.

Am I authentic? To me, authenticity means to speak my truth clearly and kindly. I need not have the same opinions and preferences as others but I need not apologize for them either. If you and I have a difference of opinion about, for example, the nature of God, authenticity requires that I am true to my truth. Our truths can be different.

Do I have integrity? To me, integrity means consistency between my values and my actions. If I say I value our Seven Principles, integrity requires that I live according to those principles.

How do I respond to my destructive impulses? We all have them---those moments when we want to strike out in anger, say something mean carelessly or deliberately, withhold love in order to punish, greedily accumulate possessions without thought for sharing our bounty with others, thoughtlessly squander the earth’s resources.

Do I take care of my health? Salvation means health, maintaining healthful habits, being strong, taking care of my physical needs so that my body can be at its best even as I age.

What am I doing to serve others? Salvation means saving others from danger, whether that is the danger of injustice or poverty or sorrow. It means wishing health for others and acting on that desire. It means putting healing salve on psychic and physical wounds.

Have I atoned or made amends for the wounds I’ve inflicted on others? If I have hurt someone, have I communicated my regret for my action and have I done something to make up for my mistakes?

How's my humility quotient? Being a public figure like a minister can give me an inflated ego and it's easy to get hooked on praise, which makes criticism extra hard to bear.

And what might be my legacy? At my memorial service, many years from now, I hope, what will others say I have left behind as my legacy? Will there be anger and resentment in their hearts because of my actions? Will there be regret that our relationship ended in discord? Will there be gratitude for my having shared my life openly?

For me, salvation is an ongoing process, not one moment of clarity but many. If salvation is by character, as Ralph Waldo Emerson has said, our character is always in need of a tune-up.

The way I review my own need for a character tune-up is during my nightly prayer practice, the spiritual discipline I use to review my life, pray for strength, pray for healing for myself and others, and express my gratitude for the joy in my life and the opportunity to serve others.

In the past several days, we have seen the tragic results of fear turning into anger: 13 deaths, 31 wounded at Ft. Hood, a police officer killed in the line of duty in Seattle and another wounded, and one person killed and several wounded in a shooting in Orlando. People afraid they won’t survive---whether in Afghanistan, or because of a job loss, or for reasons too complicated to fathom---striking out in anger at the innocent.

I’d like to invite us into a time of silence and I’d like to suggest that during our silence, we consider the anxiety in our own lives. Is it normal healthy fear, the kind that makes us change our smoke detector batteries, or is it fear which constrains us, imprisons us? Does it hamper our relationships? Does it make us want to strike out in anger and vengeance? And is there a way to be healed from that unhealthy fear which encourages unhealthy anger?

Let’s pause for a time of silence and reflection.

BENEDICTION: Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, remembering that as we examine our own lives, we may discover places where we too need healing and peace. May we seek out that healing, making amends to those we’ve hurt, offering forgiveness to those who have hurt us, and in so doing may we find salvation from needless fear and vengeful anger. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.


Christina Martin said...

For what it's worth, a lot of us who aren't Unitarians also agree with you that a loving God doesn't punish people who try to do well. I don't believe for a moment that God "sends" people to hell, but that it's more of a state than a place, a state that people choose because they hate love and goodness and don't want to be where it is. (I also don't believe too many people completely hate love and goodness.)

ms. kitty said...

I like your thoughts about it, Christina, thanks.