A Sense of Destiny

A Sense of Destiny
Rev. Fred L Hammond
2 October 2011 ©
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa

[This sermon is part one of a two part series on destiny.]

There are age old questions that humanity asks and one of them is ‘do we have a destiny to fulfill?  Is there something written in the stars that determines my fate?’  In every culture there is a methodology for telling the future.  Whether it is astrology, runes, I Ching, tea leaves, palm reading, or tarot cards; humanity in every culture attempted a variety of ways to discover its fate. And even if we do not use such external means to learn what lies ahead for us, we will do other things to help steer the course of this ship we call life.

These other things might be manipulating others, saving money for retirement, developing elaborate plans in the attempt of placing controls and securities on what our future may be. But even all of these strategies sometimes do not bring the success or the life that we desire so we are left with an even more crucial and perhaps more basic question:  ‘Does my life have a purpose that I am to fulfill?’

There is in Christian theology, a train of thought that God is outside of history and time. So all of history past, present, and future is moving towards the culmination of events as described in the Book of Revelation as the end of time where good and evil actions of souls will be judged either for heaven or hell.  So the purpose of humanity according to this theology is to move history towards judgment day.

This is the logic behind those who say we do not need to have environmental protections because to do so would thwart the culmination of God ordained events, the end of history. Or the rationale behind continued unrest in the Middle East because this is the place where the last battle will be fought before the second coming of Christ. It is certainly the logic behind the Dominionists who seek to create an American theocracy.  So one’s destiny, according to this theological discourse is to further the will of God towards the culmination of time. And when I say the will of God, I am referring to groups of people’s belief of what that will of God might be, not that anyone has the franchise on knowing such information.  Although there are many who claim to know.

Even if one does not subscribe to this particular theology, the question remains, is there a destiny, some purpose to my existence, some role that I am to play out that I am to fulfill? Is there a way for me to know what that role is?  Do I have any say at all in determining that role?  Is there a sense of Destiny that each of us have?

Rollo May, existentialist writer of the 20th century, would say yes. But he also ties destiny with freedom and this I believe is a crucial point.  He writes, “The freedom of each of us is in proportion to the degree with which we confront and live in relation to our destiny[i]” So what is destiny?

May defines “destiny as the patterns of limits and talents that constitute the givens in life.” There are four aspects of destiny that we need to consider in these patterns. We have the cosmic level of destiny, birth and death.  These are two events that we have relatively little choice over.  We had no say in our birth and we all will die.  We might be able to have a say as to when we give birth to another or we might be able to postpone death by taking care of our health or even invite death through suicide but it is the destiny of each to die.

In this category are also the so-called acts of god; tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes and the like.  We might choose to flee a hurricane or decide to take our chances in the storm but these events occur with no consideration of us. The positive side of this includes the beauty of a sunset, the rolling waves of the ocean on a silky sand beach, the breeze on a hot summer afternoon, a walk along a wooded path on a fall day.

Genetics play a role in our destiny.  We have physical characteristics that we were given in our formation in the womb even if those characteristics were falsely assigned like being born female but embodying male chromosomes.  What race we are born into, what color eyes were we given are part of this category. And May places our gifts and talents into this category as givens.

Cultural aspects play a role in determining destiny.  What family we are born into; wealthy or poverty stricken. We had no say in choosing our family or what country or in what part of the country we were born. And we did not pick the period of history in which we live.  Our lives would be vastly different if this was Alabama in the early 18th century or mid 19th century or even the mid-20th century.

And the final category that May defines is circumstantial destiny. These are events that happen in the world that we cannot reverse, avoid, ignore, or even ask for a do over.  Events like 9/11, the invasion of Iraq or the collapse of financial institutions are events that have impact on our lives circumstantially and alter our world view. We may have little to no involvement in those events but they have changed the circumstances of our lives. We only have to think about airport security to see an example of how life has changed post 9/11.

May places all of these forms of destiny on a spectrum with the extreme left hand position as being those events that humanity has no control over such as fate, determinism. In the middle he places the unconscious function of the human mind; partly determined, partly influenced by human behavior.  Nearer to the right hand, he places cultural aspects because while we cannot control the culture we were born into there is freedom in how we engage that culture. And in the extreme right position he would place talents and gifts because while these are given to us, we have considerable freedom in pursuing or not pursuing the development of these talents.

This definition of destiny is very different than the theological statement that destiny is somehow an expression towards fulfilling God’s ultimate end point of a judgment day.

It is directly tied into our concept of freedom.  Stephen Hawking is a brilliant man but if all you knew about him was the books that he wrote, you would have no idea that he suffers from Lou Gehrings disease, a debilitating condition that slowly over time removes all ability for movement.  His destiny, perhaps genetic disposition, was this disease but he decided to engage the disability in a manner that enabled him to continue using his mind in extremely creative and liberating ways.  All of our lives are richer for his engaging with the limitations of his body.

May describes the freedom this way: “Freedom is honed in the struggle with destiny.  The freedom that develops in our confronting our destiny produces the richness, the endless variety, the capacity to endure, the ecstasy, the imagination, and other capacities that characterize the world and ourselves as conscious creatures, free but destined, moving in it.  In this sense destiny is personal.”

There is the story of Esther in the Hebrew Scriptures.  Born of lowly birth to a Jewish family, there was not much promise for her status in life.  She did have one thing in her favor, she was beautiful.  The King becomes enamored by her and marries her.  But there is also an advisor to the King who has a grudge against the Jews and plots with the King to have them killed.  Esther feels distressed but also helpless in this situation, since she is not the esteemed first wife of the King.  But her uncle, Mordecai says to her, “Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?[ii]

For such a time as this.  Haunting words but words that were needed for Esther to engage her destiny and find a way to entice the king to give her an audience and perhaps save her people.

I think this question of having come to our royal position for such a time as this comes up to us in a variety of ways.  In what ways are we being called to engage our destiny, our talents, our gifts, our limitations, our pitfalls and rise up to address a pressing need at hand?  It might not be anything on a grand scale.  It might be something seemingly insignificant to us but means the world of difference to another.

There is a story [iii] that has been recycled through the internet several times, perhaps you have read it.  It goes something like this, a young man who became very successful and renowned in his chosen field returns home for his highschool reunion. There he runs into his best friend from high school.  He decides to tell his friend how grateful he was for having him as a friend all those years ago.  The friend is a bit puzzled by this overture of gratitude.  So the first one says to his friend, well do you remember the day we met. His friend laughs and says oh yes.  You were carrying all these books home and some jerks knocked them out of your arms and I helped you pick them up.  And we became instant and best friends.  Well, the first friend says, I never told you why I was carrying all those books.  You assumed I was just a study geek but you see, that day I decided to take my life.  I didn’t want my parents to have to bother with one more thing like empty out my school locker.  Your helping me that day when all was lost in my mind was the very thing that prevented me from choosing death.

The friend looks at him stunned, knowing all the great things his friend has done in his life since that moment.  His friend looked at him and says I was only doing what I would have wanted someone to have done for me if my books were knocked out of my arms. Exactly, and it saved my life, his friend says.

Who knows if you have come to where you are in life for such a time as this.

We do not always know how our lives impact another’s life.  A gentle word may give someone hope. A touch may be a moment of not being so isolated.  Many of these simple moments will be forgotten by you before the day is over but for the person receiving them, a world of difference.

Having a sense of destiny isn’t about some lofty achievement that revolutionizes the world as we know it.  Yes, lofty achievements can be a part of one’s destiny, one’s unfolding life as they grapple with the limitations that life has given them.  But a sense of destiny can be in taking the time to examine the issues of the day against the values you hold dear.  In doing so, you may be preparing yourself to be able to speak up against injustice in the world, whether that world refers to the culture as a whole or the classroom or the job site. A sense of destiny is found in discovering the freedom one has even with the limitations presented.  There are new opportunities that can be found in those limitations especially when we decide to take risks.

I know that I have shared with you some of my story regarding the founding of Interfaith AIDS Ministry but this is a story about my parting Interfaith AIDS Ministry.  I had been with the organization that I co-founded for just over twelve years. I knew it was time for new leadership.  I had taken the organization about as far as I could and I had accomplished my number one goal which was to develop an organization that when I left could continue on without having to revert back to ground zero.  I thought that I wanted to work with another agency that was slightly larger that would bring new challenges.  I began searching and no nibbles.  So I decided that I needed to reexamine what my goals truly were.

What did I want to accomplish in my life?   What sorts of things did I really enjoy?  Well I enjoy writing and I had ideas for some novels but some of these ideas needed different life experiences than I had had to that point in my life. I enjoyed doing the liturgies for the interfaith prayer services we offered at the agency.  I enjoyed the pastoral care aspects of the position.  I enjoyed the opportunities to give sermons.  So I took those aspects that I enjoyed and began pondering what I might need to do in order to find a position that would give me more of those experiences.

This was engaging my destiny.  I was in one place that had limitations for me and I wanted to be in another place that I perceived would open some new experiences for me.  I took my time to listen to the silence between the spaces.  I enjoyed this aspect of my life. Pause.  I enjoyed that aspect of my life. Pause. And in taking the time to listen not only in the midst of performing an activity that I enjoy like writing, but also listening in the midst of not writing, of not doing anything, I began to gain a sense of what I wanted in my life.  And perhaps more importantly, I began to get a sense of what my destiny might be unfolding for me and the willingness to take a risk and go to seminary in a different state far from anything I had ever known before. The classical pianist Artur Schnabel is quoted as saying, “I don’t think I handle the notes much differently from other pianists. But the pauses between the notes—ah, there is where the artistry lies!” It is in the pauses that we get a chance to find the artistry of living life.

May writes, “Pause is the prerequisite for wonder.  When we don’t pause, when we are personally hurrying from one appointment to another, from one ‘planned activity’ to another, we sacrifice the richness of wonder. And we lose communication with our destiny.”  To engage with our destiny we need to take time to pause and simply be in the stillness of that moment, to savor all the richness of that which has gone before and that which is about to be.

What is our individual sense of destiny?  And what is our collective sense of destiny?  These are very different questions and they are worth taking the time to pause, to ponder, to wonder.  Perhaps we are being prepared for just such a time as this. Blessed Be.

[i] Rollo May, Freedom and Destiny, 1981, WW Norton & Company.  All quotes by Rollo May in this sermon are from this text. Personal note:  This is my favorite book, I have read this text  many  times since it was first published in 1981.
[ii] Esther 4: 13,14
[iii] Source of this story is unknown. It is most likely a fictional story used to spread a moral message.

Published in: on October 14, 2011 at 2:55 pm  Comments Off on A Sense of Destiny  
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Ritual and Freedom

I was doing some research for a sermon I am writing and came across the following quote,

It is significant that the new capacity for freedom related to movement is actualized as a form of art. Human beings dance–ballet and folk and jazz and ballroom and T’ai Chi–as an expression of aesthetic possibilities.  Each art form is developed as a ritual to express one’s exhilaration and freedom. ‘To us,’ writes Alan Oken in the Age of Aquarius, ‘rock music represents freedom… the freedom to feel, to be one with a higher collective force, to move together in one cosmic rhythm.’  One ‘dances for joy,’  or to express sexuality or religious feelings, as in the whirling of Muslim Dervishes, or to ‘drum’ up emotion for battle, like the war dances of the Native Americans.  Movement and theexpansion of freedom are symbolic expressions of the individual’s career from birth to death.’   From Rollo May’s Freedom and Destiny

I wondered as I read this passage, if this then is the importance of ritual in worship?  The ability to connect with one’s sense of freedom.  There seems to be a resurgence in the need for ritual in Unitarian Universalist circles and perhaps this is the reason–a desire to tap into this sense of freedom.

Rituals serve many purposes.  There is a body kinesthetic– a comfortable body memory–of walking silently, hands folded prayerfully in front of the chest to receive the eucharist from the priest or to walk up to the altar and kneel with hands open to receive the eucharist.  The body is symbolically reflecting a humble submissive receptive form before the holy.  

Now Unitarians Universalists generally do not perform this specific ritual but some congregations in our movement do celebrate communion.  One such communion ritual is that of breaking bread and passing the cup at Thanksgiving time.  The bread might be corn bread and the cup might be apple cider both representing the harvest of a good year and harkening back to the first Thanksgivings celebrated in this country.  This ritual of breaking bread also connects to May’s statement about freedom.  We freely choose to be in communion / in covenant with one another and the ritual honors and reaffirms that covenant symbolically. 

There is also what we have come to call the Flower Communion.  This ritual developed by Norbert Capek, is celebrated annually in many of our congregations.  The ritual is a simple act of bringing a flower and then exchanging it with another flower.  The flowers represent the diversity of our community and how each of us together form a wondeful bouquet of gifts, talents, and personalities.  It too honors the covenant that we have freely entered into with one another.

The most powerful ritual I have witnessed was performed by Rev. Barbara Pescan, currently serving our Evanston, IL congregation.  At the time she was the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in the Danbury region.  She was also co-founder with me of the Interfaith AIDS Ministry of Greater Danbury.   We held a monthly interfaith prayer service and invited clergy from various traditions to come and offer a homily.  She graciously came and presented a story about a person she knew with HIV/AIDS in the final days of his life.  She told aspects of his life and of his hospitality even as he lay dying.  On the nightstand near his bed was an Angelfood cake that was made for him.  He offered a piece to Barbara and she graciously ate.  It was a profound moment for her.  And then she brought out an Angelfood cake for us to share  with each other.  As the cake was passed from person to person. With tears in our eyes we each broke a piece off and ate.  We felt not only a connection to her friend with HIV/AIDS but also a sense of grace in the presence of death.  That in our dying we can choose to be free to love those in our presence.   

Rituals in whatever form they take can be a powerful expression of the many aspects of the human condition.  They can help us to connect those aspects of ourselves that we are unable to express fully with words but can express those connections through movement or rhythmic sounds.  There is a sense of freedom in the rituals that transcends the imprisonment of this moment. 

Perhaps in our current world of compartmentalized living that erects barriers between home and business, between partners, between parents and children, between neighbors the craving for rituals in our denomination is a cry to break free of those barriers and to reconnect once again to each other and to our most inner selves.  Blessings,

Published in: on March 13, 2009 at 7:28 am  Comments Off on Ritual and Freedom  
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