Monday, September 6, 2010

SHALOM: Towards a Theology of Wholeness

Sermon delivered at Arlington Street Church, Boston MA on September 5, 2010

CHALICE LIGHTING – Ralph Waldo Emerson

"Within us is the soul of the whole; the wise silence, the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related, the eternal One. When it breaks through our intellect, it is genius; when it breathes through our will, it is virtue, when it flows through our affections, it is love" – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Many sermons have been preached from this pulpit based upon a single story, or a single sentence. This one is based upon a single word – but a word with more complex meaning than you may have realized.

SHALOM has often been translated into English as “Peace.” Thus, when we hear of the word being used in the same way as “Hello” and “Good-bye,” we think in terms of bidding one another peace.

But, what kind of peace? Is it the same as the Latin Pax, meaning an agreement between two or more persons or groups? Is it like the ancient Greek Eirene, meaning rest or quiet?

No, SHALOM stems from a different root, one that conveys wholeness, integrity, and well-being. From that root also comes the verb l’shalem, “to pay,” and thus the implication that peace, wholeness and all that come with it must be bought with a price. Biblical scholar James Strong additionally included as possible definitions: to make amends, to make good, to restore, and prosperity.

With all that in mind, think now of the multitude of meanings one could garner when one person greets another with the word SHALOM:
“May you know wholeness.”
“May all things be good with you.”
“May all that is broken be restored.”
“May all you deserve be received.”

I think it no accident that the ancient Hebrews found so much meaning in such a small word. The very structure of the language allows for multiple understandings based on a common imagery. In this day and culture, what imagery can we invoke to better understand the wholeness of SHALOM?

Let me propose the image of a puzzle. Imagine that you are given a box, and inside are a number of intricately shaped pieces. As you look them over, you realize that some fit together in an obvious way. And as you sort and play about with them, you find other, less obvious ways to put those pieces together.

But, it’s a big puzzle, and it takes time and effort. So other folks come over, see what you’re doing, and suggest putting this piece in here, or sliding that piece over there. Once in a while, someone will suggest that you discard a particular piece, while another may insist that the box you were given is missing a piece. Eventually, with enough effort and insight, the pieces come together and a form takes shape – the puzzle is restored to wholeness.

Our lives – both individually and in community – can be seen as very much a puzzle, a collection of different pieces which are meant to fit together. Many times, we seek the insights of others to help us find what fits where. The difference, of course, is that we’re not given all of the pieces all at once. Many come to us over time, in the form of education and experience. Still, we need to find a way to fit them together, to bring the final form to shape.

Now, for those who come from a conservative religious background, this analogy may be pushing buttons for you. The Old Testamant prophet Jeremiah used a similar image, of a potter turning clay into a vessel. To many conservative theologians, the analogy is clear – God is the potter, and we are the clay, to be shaped according to his will. Likewise, one can see a conservative interpretation of the puzzle analogy, with God as the puzzle master, working through us and those around us to put the broken pieces back together.

As a Unitarian Universalist, I have a more positive and complex understanding of both images. I can see the Divine not as the potter, but as the source of the clay and water used to make the pot. We are the potter, kneading the clay, turning it on the wheel, artfully shaping it with our hands, while others do the same and offer help and advice. Likewise, we receive the pieces of our puzzle, and as each piece comes in due course, find its proper place in the whole, with help from those around us.

As useful as this image may be, like all metaphors it is merely a tool, and even the most useful of tools has its limits. For one thing, our industrialized culture has influenced us to think of things like puzzles as uniform objects, like mass-produced jigsaws, or the Rubik’s Cube. But neither the human soul nor the beloved community are mass-produced artifacts; our perceptions and experiences are rarely, if ever, one size fits all. We may share insights, as we share a common humanity, but the myriad details of individual experience call for us to adapt them to the unique realities of our lives.

This, I believe, is the answer to a frequent critique of the pluralistic approach of Unitarian Universalism. How can a movement which eschews doctrine and creed call itself a common faith, much less offer clear answers to the problems of life? It is because of the complexities of life that we need a faith which looks beyond ready-made formulas which often wind up dividing and separating us, even splitting the psyche from within.

Many spiritual traditions, for example, call upon people to overcome anger, fear, hatred and pain. In the quest to find spiritual well-being and peace, too often we read this as a call to discard or extinguish these parts of ourselves. Yet we do so at our peril. The quest for wholeness calls for us not to disown or shove aside unpleasant aspects of our psyche, but to put them in their proper place, to find a way to own them without letting them own us. We can be angry, for example, and it can even empower us to seek justice or avoid further harm. It is when we let it fester into a consuming rage that we risk becoming that which has injured us.

Likewise, in the life of a community, there is often the temptation to downplay the more unsavory elements of our history. A movement may pursue justice, yet adapt tactics which are themselves oppressive. Another community may extol the power of love, yet turn that love inward to the comfortable familiar, and in the process exclude those on the outside who starve for compassion and understanding.

An example can be seen in the tumult surrounding the Stonewall riot of 1969. After so many years of continued repression and violence at the hands of police, a relative handful of drag queens, street kids and other queers decided all at once that enough was enough, and rose in revolt. What is often forgotten is how the events of those summer nights were followed by bitter debates and division within the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community. The Mattachine Society decried the violence and distanced themselves from those involved – and those who became involved in the burgeoning Gay Liberation movement responded that such distancing was no mean feat, as the relatively more affluent and assimilated homophile group had constantly kept many in the community at arm’s length.

They further questioned just how effective Mattachine’s more cautious approach had been, and even whether it had unintentionally aided anti-gay oppression in its striving to craft a more respectable image for itself. That debate went on for decades, and continues to this day, just as many gay men, lesbian women, bisexual and transgender folks and other sexual minorities struggle within and amongst each other to find a balance between being true to ourselves and fitting in with a culture which is not yet fully accepting of our truths.

It is that striving for reconciliation, for restoring integrity and wellness within our souls and our communities, that can seem frustrating to us. We may solve that fiendish Rubik’s Cube, and put it down with a sigh of relief – until someone comes along and messes it up again. But unlike the plastic pieces of a machine-made puzzle, the heart is a living thing, and like all living things it grows and changes with time. So even if, by miracle and effort, each of us finds that wholeness and peace of mind we seek, we are still called to grow in that wholeness. And just as every living thing is interconnected one to another, so our fate is bound with others, and so we are called to help others as best we can to find SHALOM together.

Amen and blessed be


May you know wholeness.
May all things be good with you.
May all that is broken be restored.
May all you deserve be received.
And as this brings you peace,
May you strive to share and create
The peace and goodness so needed
In this world of which we are a part.

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