Tuesday, January 13, 2009


"You are good."

These words of the guest speaker at our church last Sunday were met with an enthralled silence. The turnout, I noticed, had been unusually large, and there were at least fifteen visitors. I couldn't help wondering: Did it have to do with the title of her homily... "Innately Good," or was it a coincidence that some folks who almost never attend services any more showed up?

Perhaps, I mused, they came whenever they thought I was not speaking! After ten years in this congregation, and fifteen in parish ministry, I have reached two plateaus: I have an intuitive awareness of how people are responding to the message, the music, the whole Sunday event. Two, I don't take any of the slings and arrows, insults and gossip as seriously as I once did. So, it was fine with me that folks found our guest's message more appealing than mine.

She was stroking them.

Long ago, I learned that the best ministers are those who "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." If one is lucky, a perfect balance of these two necessary injections to the human spirit will occur at the same time, in the same Sunday service. People leave feeling both loved and challenged.

But, as our guest pointed out, some people have been afflicted so severely, usually since childhood, that they can't bear to have any more of what they perceive as "guilt" heaped on them... they want to be stroked. Part of me understands this well, and feels deep connection with it. There was a time for me, emerging from a childhood ruled by an authoritative father and a marriage with an emotionally abusive man, that I could not bear criticism. It was if I was so wounded that I had to keep a protective bubble around myself or I would die. Still, I know that staying in that vulnerable place is not spiritual progress.

Gradually, we can learn ways to be centered enough and at home enough in our own selves that what others say and do does not define us. We become, not perfect, but authentic humans, who can laugh at ourselves, acknowledge our flaws, and still feel loved and whole. We can accept the criticism that is rightly ours, and let the rest slough away. This is freedom.

Here is what one member of the congregation wrote to me after the service:

....there seemed to be something lacking about the whole thing. There was no methodology offered by which one could hope to actually put into effect what she was talking about. It is good that we all be reminded that our limitless sources of life-long acculturation have effectively buried who we really are, but she offered no way for us to peel away those layers of acculturation to discover our true identities.

I thought that was a little thin when she was talking about how love means having no fear. Good grief. As loving as she might think she is, I wonder how free of fear she would be if her husband got laid off and their only source of income was the royalties she receives on her paperback books. She would feel fear right down to the marrow of her bones.

This is kind of a pet peeve of mine too: Some people say, "God is Love," or, "We are love," and variations. What the hell does that mean? Even if you believe in a personal god, and someone walks up to you and says, "God is love," what on earth does that do? What if someone said, "God is mashed potatoes?" Just what is supposed to happen when you say that to someone? Here's another one: "God loves you." That one is usually reserved for when someone just gets told they have cancer or their wife has just walked out on him, or something like that. How does being told that change anything? What do people think they are accomplishing when they say that to someone? That stuff just drives me straight up the wall sometimes.

I don't know yet how others feel about what she said. But I did hear that most of her books, which emphasize the same theme, were sold! So I assume that her message, "You are good!" resonated with many people.

The first principle of Unitarian Universalism is: "We covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person." I love it! Inherent worth is different than saying "innately good." Inherent dignity can be restored, even after many missteps. Perhaps the problem is the word "good." It plays right into the same duality that created all of this self-hatred in the first place.

I'll go on poking people, but I did have a big lesson about how much stroking they need, too. It's something to consider.