as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, October 10, 2021
What do you want to be when you grow up? I suspect that many of you were confronted with this question when you were children. I certainly was.
In some ways, it was a question I dreaded. It implied that once I reached a certain age it would no longer be acceptable to just be myself. I would have to be something else. Growing up the child of a professor and an elementary teacher, the something else often seemed to be implicitly limited to some variation of the list recounted in Malvina Reynold’s well-known song “Little Boxes”:
And there’s doctors and lawyers
And business executives
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same
The subtle suggestion that when I grew up it would no longer be possible to just be myself was not the only reason why I disliked the question. I also disliked it because it appeared to be attached to some version of an argument captured Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians: “When I was a child I spoke like a child, thought like a child, reasoned like a child; but when I grew up, I finished with childish things.”
At the same time, there was an aspect of the question that I appreciated. It was, after all, an invitation to imagine the future. The newsstands were filled with future oriented magazines with semi-exotic names like “Omni,” “Wired,” and “Mondo 2000.” There were the rare dissenting publications–does anyone remember “Processed World?” –but for the most part these periodicals all encouraged the reader to dream of a future that would be simply wonderful. Each of our lives, such magazines seemed to promise us, would be filled with a variety of Jetson inspired gadgets. “[F]lying cars… force fields, tractor beams, teleportation pods… immortality drugs,” as the anthropologist David Graeber recalled it.
The world was going to be a wonderful place, even a magically place for, the science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke once wrote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
When confronted with all these promises, the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” did not seem so bad. Who knows, I thought to myself, maybe whatever it is I am going to be has not been invented yet? Maybe I will invent it? Perhaps, I will live off planet. Or maybe underwater. Or be part of some fantastic project that has something to do with bringing dinosaurs back-to-life.
The contemporary mood is decidedly more pessimistic. I know of no publication that consistently offers a utopian vision for what is to unfold in the years to come. Such August publications as the New York Times are filled with sour warnings. Just this week I came across articles predicting the potential destruction of large parts of the United States’ agriculture, the weakening of the country’s transportation system, hazards related to the energy grid, increased social displacement, decreased societal wealth, the collapse of the European political order, the near-term potential end of representative of democracy, and, to top it all off, “looming disaster for Senate Democrats.”
In short, “[t]he future ain’t what it used to be,” to quote baseball great Yogi Berra. In truth, reading the paper, or watching the news on YouTube, or ingesting the happenings of the hour through just about any medium, it can seem like that what is to come will be nothing short of dystopian. I suspect that this is probably all the more true for those of you who are under the age of forty. We all know that wealth in this society is unequally distributed between the generations. What was generally possible for many Baby Boomers to accomplish–home ownership, a steady income, and a stable career–is increasingly difficult for those in younger generations to achieve. Numerous journalists and social scientists write about how many Millennials and members of Gen Z are not planning on having children because they are filled with a sense of existential disaster.
My sermon is titled “grieving the future.” Making sense of all of this is one of the key tasks before us as a religious community and, indeed, as human beings. Unitarian Universalism is a decidedly this worldly religion. This perspective is reflected in Forrest Church’s claim, “[R]eligion… is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die.”
Religion emerges from our realization that we are alive on this good Earth and that our time on it is limited. To be alive, in this hour, is to live amid extraordinary loss. And it is to live at a time when more loss is coming.
Recently, I had an uncomfortable moment of increased awareness about the loss that we live in and the loss that is coming. NPR ran an interview with the biologist Hanna Mounce. She studies and works to preserve forest life in Hawaii. The occasion for the interview was “an unusual obituary,” the declaration of 22 animal and one plant species as extinct.
Eight of these species were Hawaiian forest birds. “These birds were part of a suite of forest birds that is dwindling down to the last several species. …the forests are getting silent,” Mounce told listeners. What struck me was not her words but the tone with which she said them and with which Lulu Garcia-Navarro, who was interviewing her, responded. It was one of heartbreak, desperation, and resignation.
As Rev. Scott told you last week, this month we are working on reimagining grief. It is not an easy or necessarily a pleasant project. And I suppose it does not help with the reputation I sometimes have of being a “doom and gloom” preacher. However, to be alive is to live amid suffering and loss. It cannot be avoided, especially now with the pandemic, the climate crisis, and all that is before us.
To be alive now is not just to be mourning over what we have lost. It is to be confronted with grief over what will be lost. The most difficult part of Garcia-Navarro’s interview with Mounce was not when they spoke of the species that have already gone extinct–brilliantly colored varieties of honeycreepers with shocks of bright feathers and trilling songs. It was when Mounce spoke of how the “suite of forest birds… is dwindling down to the last several species” and the challenges conservationists faced in preserving those that remained. “Unfortunately, with the forces of climate change… the tools in order to save these species are not readily available,” she admitted.
She was not speaking of what had been lost. She was speaking of what will be lost. The prospect of future loss–the reality of mourning the future–is ever present. Indeed, I anticipate it will weigh ever more heavily upon us in the years to come. “Once upon a time we had… time. … And now we seem to have lost it. Time, our time, the time of human civilization, appears to be running out,” writes Catherine Keller in her theological reflection on the climate crisis.
In his sermon on reimagining grief, Rev. Scott said, “We often imagine grief as a terrible emotion…” but “it might be helpful to reimagine grief as a process–a process of healing.” It can be as much a struggle to heal from anticipated loss, or the loss of things we never had, as it can be to heal from losses of what we have had.
I was acutely aware of this growing up in Michigan in the late eighties and early nineties. It was a time when you could still hear on the radio Albert King’s celebratory song of the Great Migration, “Cadillac Assembly Line.” Do any of you know it? It offers the story of man leaving Mississippi where he’s become “tired of whoopin’ and hollerin’ / Pickin’ that nasty cotton” for the prosperity of “Detroit, Michigan” where he’s “Goin’ to get me a job / On the Cadillac assembly line.”
For over six decades, the prosperity that King sang of had felt like a promise to anyone who lived within driving distance of an automobile plant. If you had asked a good portion of the kids I knew growing up, especially the boys, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” they probably would have responded, with some sort of answer that revolved around the auto industry. But by the time I was a teenager, that promise, that possible future, was gone. The factories were closing down. Parts of Detroit fell into decay–so much so that people started to organize tours of the fabulous ruins of Detroit.
The prevailing atmosphere was often one of bewilderment. For many, it was difficult to accept that the future was no longer what it had once been. One friend of mine was the son, grandson, and great-grandson of line workers. No one in his family had ever gone to college. He had no great love for school. He simply assumed that when he finished with high school, he would do exactly what his father, his grandfather, and his great-grandfather had all done. He would go to the nearest factory and “get me a job / On the Cadillac assembly line” with good union pay. It never happened. Instead, he spent years flitting from one low paying job to another. They never seemed to last long. Sometimes, when we would talk, he would be working at a gas station. Other times, at a movie theater, a liquor store, or an adult bookstore. Finally, he just gave up and left the state. Elsewhere, as an economic migrant, he was able to build a better life for himself.
I knew dozens of people in similar situations. Many of their stories did not end so happily. Instead of culminating in economic migration, they terminated with prison or lengthy struggles with substance abuse. The promise of the future lost, the pain of the present became too much to manage.
The loss of climate change, the loss of economic prosperity, there is a much larger litany of loss that I could add to those two. But taken together they point to simple reality. So many of us are grieving the future. Not just the losses that we have already experienced but the losses we anticipate experiencing.
The commonplace is that it is my preacherly duty to offer a modicum of hope as all of this confronts us. “The traditional response of religious liberalism is to place our hope in the future,” Rebecca Parker observes.
To reimagine grief, to open ourselves to grieving the future, is to move past such a hope. It is instead, to face the world we live in and, Parker’s words, “discover how we can live among the ruins.” It is to admit “the Apocalypse is not ahead of us but… behind us.”
Science fiction has long been asking how we might live among ruins. As I have been thinking about grieving the future, I have not only been thinking about the lost promise of flying cars, force fields, and immortality drugs. I have been thinking the genre of dystopian fiction that I read voraciously as a teenager. Two novels, in particular, have stuck out. Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, which was the basis for the film “Blade Runner” and Ursula Le Guin’s Always Coming Home.
Both are set on post-apocalyptic versions of the Earth. In each case, a largely unspecified partial nuclear war has left the planet deeply scarred. Humanity has been decimated. Animals, water, the soil, all poisoned. In Dick’s novel people live with the “intuition that the future did not exist.” It is a bleak story without any hope. The characters struggle along “the last twilight” with no particular idea that either human civilization or much of life on Earth will continue.
Le Guin’s book is an altogether different matter. It too is set amid a world that has been filled with “sickness.” But instead of offering a tale of wretchedness it contains an archaeology of the future where life has changed. Skyscrapers have fallen, factories have collapsed, but life continues. Humanity continues. To access this future she tells we should, “be practical… You take your child or grandchild in your arms, or borrow a young baby, not a year old yet, and go down into the wild oats in the field below the barn… Stand quietly. Perhaps the baby will see something, or hear a voice, or speak to somebody there, somebody from home.”
“Always Coming Home” is a beautiful imagination of what happens after our present civilization collapses. It is a luminous and illuminating collection of short stories, poems, songs, and, well, I think I should call them prayers, that envision how humans, animals, plants, and all being will reconstitute themselves after unspeakable catastrophe. The world does not end. There is horrible loss. There is grief. But then “something grew up here, something pretty. Another little thing sprouted there. Things began to grow right.”
Grieving the future, life continues… Between Dick and Le Guin’s visions are two possible responses to the catastrophes we face. Let me suggest that they are each religious responses. One views the universe as fundamentally unfriendly. God, if she exists, is cruelness. The faith that is to be had is the faith that humanity can only make things worse and that we are collectively bringing about our doom.
The other offers no easy path. It contains no promise that everything is going to be fine in the end. In Le Guin’s novel we humans still struggle with pettiness and violence and all of the ugly things that we do to each other. But she does have faith in the power of life itself and in the creativity of human beings. Life will continue. Humanity will continue. Love will continue–for many of the passages in the book have to do with love of friends, family, the love between partners and parents and children that endures after calamity. My life will end. Your life will end. Our civilization may well end. But, Le Guin wants us to think, there is enough love in the world, enough power in the force of life, to make sure that no matter what happens eventually “something pretty” will return.
Grieving the future, as we reimagine grief, let me suggest that we are each confronted with a choice. We can choose to see the universe as fundamentally unfriendly. We can give up, as the characters in Dick’s novel do, on the possibility of life continuing after catastrophe. Or we can choose to believe in the power of life to continue–not this life, not that life, but life. And place our faith in the enduring power of love–which to say the force that drives life forward–to preserve some of what has been lost and bring about what Le Guin names “new things.”
Fundamentally unfriendly, love endures, and life continues… Either choice is an act of faith. Here I could share with you stories of final endings. But you have heard enough of those already. Or I could share with stories of life’s ability to overcome–the animals and plants that have begun to flourish in places of disaster like Chernobyl, the incredible power of shaggy ink cap mushrooms to break through concrete and rewild the land, the way life on Earth has continued after previous mass extinctions. But those also must be stories for other days.
Let me instead, conclude with a simple observation and an invitation. We live in a time where there is grief over what is to come. And we have a choice. We can grieve the future with the faith that there is no hope to come. Or we can grieve the future with the faith that life and love have the power to continue.
My invitation is to choose with me, and with the tradition of this congregation and Unitarian Universalism, the faith that life and love will continue. To choose, in the words of Rebecca Parker these things and then begun the process of “reconstructing from the ruins” with the faith that the world can reconstitute itself and being itself will endure.
Amen and Blessed Be