as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, February 27, 2022
My sermon this morning is inspired by the person who won the right to “Name the Sermon” in last year’s auction. When I asked them what they would like me to preach about their answer was both simple and capacious: self-help. I responded with a desire for a bit more specificity. What about self-help? The assignment came back, “I read a lot of self-help books. I enjoy the genre. I would like you to go pick a few self-help books on anything you like and preach a sermon on the topic of self-help.”
Self-help… I have not read a great number of books that fall under the guise of self-help. The closest I come on anything approaching a regular basis is my encounters with “how-to” books. Last year, the staff and I read Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be an Anti-Racist. And I have a small pile of books on the subjects of how to preach a sermon or how to serve a congregation. But, in general, I do not spend a lot of time on the genre of self-help.
Self-help… the first thing I did when considering the preaching assignment was visit a local bookshop with a large self-help section to get a better sense of breadth of the genre. The store I picked has recast self-help as personal growth. I spent about two hours looking through the several hundred titles on offer.
It was an overwhelming experience. There were plenty of classics that I had heard of. They had titles like Chicken Soup for the Soul, How to Make Friends and Influence People, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. There was even a larger number of books on subjects that I have never thought about or heard about before. Apparently, there’s entire subgenre devoted to something called forest bathing. This appears to be a Japanese practice of immersing in nature in a mindful way in an effort to overcome the hectic pace of contemporary life.
Self-help… One of the conceits of the genre is that the author claims that they are going to teach how to do something you want to learn. Their teaching is going to either lead you to a higher level of functionality–read this book and you will be able to master your personal finances–or a deeper understanding of yourself and greater sense of personal fulfillment or happiness.
In line with the genre’s form, I want to share with you a little bit of my own sermon writing practices. Compared with preaching in the Christian or Jewish traditions, Unitarian Universalist ministers have a great deal of latitude in selecting our sermon topics. In many other traditions, preachers have to organize their have to respond to a particular set of scriptural texts. If we were Episcopalians today I would have to offer you a sermon that in some way related to the day’s passage from the Hebrew Bible, Psalter, Christian New Testament, or Gospel. If our congregation followed Jewish practice then I would have to respond to one of two Torah portions or a selection from the haftorah.
Most book on homiletics–which is the art of religious rhetoric–revolve around the assumption that the preacher will organize their teaching in such a way. The process they recommend for sermon composition is usually the same. Narrow in on a passage from the selection of texts available to you. Ask a question like: What did this text mean for the people who wrote it? Do some research into its background. Ask another question such as: What does this text mean for us today? The assumption is always that a text written two thousand years ago for a community of people whose lived experiences were radically different than ours has a meaning for us. Sit. Meditate. Contemplate the text. Let the spirit move you. Brainstorm a little. And then go preach your sermon. The advice varies a great deal and depends a lot on the preacher whose providing it. But, I hope, you get the gist. The books advise you to begin with the text and then go from there.
Unitarian Universalists have to take a somewhat different tact. My own method is always to pick the topic–and how I do that is a lengthy subject in its own right–and then try to find some boundaries with which to orient myself. The selection of the boundaries is important. Without them I am prone to wander without a map and find myself beyond the edge where, as the medievalists had it, there be dragons.
Self-help… Looking at that great swath of books I realized that I needed to construct some boundaries for myself if I was going to have any hope of narrowing in on enough of a message to offer something useful to you. Today is the last Sunday of Black History month. My two previous sermons for the month revolved around Black male religious leaders–Howard Thurman and Malcolm X. So, I figured I should pick some books that centered Black woman.
Equipped with the single criteria that the books I selected had to be written by Black woman, I began to make my way through the bookshelves. It was a rather dispiriting experience. According to their headshots, the average writer of a self-help or personal growth text appears to have quite a different profile. Their photographs reveal them to be fit, middle-aged, White, and successful–a description that, I suppose, could apply to me.
One of the joys of literature is that it offers us the opportunity to experience the world from someone else’s perspective. The writer Donald Murray once argued that “all writing is autobiographical.” There is a sense that any text is an effort, on the part of its author, to share something that is important. Otherwise, writers would not take the time to write.
There have been studies that show reading improves our ability to be empathetic. Readers are invited by writers to imagine the world from their perspective. When I read a book, I might be transported back in time, across the planet, or invited to experience the place I live from a different viewpoint.
The self-help genre appears to take this approach when it comes to the ordinary problems that so many of us face. Struggles with money, relationships, love, parenting, the search for happiness, fulfillment… In self-help the writer seems to be stating, here’s this thing that I have struggled with. I have figured out some things about it. I would like to share what I have learned.
Kaira Jewel Lingo says as much in the introduction to her We Were Made for These Times. A former Buddhist nun and a student of Thich Nhat Han, she promises, early in her text, “In this book, we’ll learn ways of finding freedom and stability in the midst of all of this.” The two other self-help books I picked from the bookshop–the comedian Loni Love’s I Tried to Change So You Don’t Have To: True Life Lessons and adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds–each contained similar passages.
Self-help… The name of the genre implies a sort of radical individualism. The focus is on improving the self–not society. And the responsibility for making this improvement is yours. Works of fiction tend to be written in the first or third person. Scholarly tomes and newspaper articles often attempt an impersonal, seemingly objective tone. “Good prose is like a window pane,” claimed George Orwell, a master journalist, in one of his many essays that might be likened to a self-help text. A successful work of reportage, he reasoned, needed to include the effacement “of one’s own personality.”
No so with self-help. In that genre, the writer is always sharing their own experience and addressing you directly. “[T]he message of my story is simple. If you’re struggling to change because you think it might bring you love, success, and happiness… it’s time you start thinking another way,” advises Loni Love before concluding, “instead of trying to change, you’d be better off focusing… on loving yourself… believe me, after years of struggling I’ve come to see the truth: sometimes we don’t need to fix our ‘flaws’ to get ahead or get happy.”
I’ve come to see the truth… It is a phrase that encapsulates much of the genre’s spirit. Here’s something I have learned. I want to share it with you. It has been useful to me. I imagine it will be useful to you.
The implication in all of this is that we–you and I–are largely the makers of our own destinies. Loni Love’s self-help manual revolves around her story of economic transcendence. She was born to a single mother who lived in public housing in Detroit. Her family was poor. Their neighborhood was dangerous–one of her closest friends in high school was killed in a drive-by shooting–and she had few opportunities as a child. Yet, she managed to rise above all of that by discovering, “The key to success is knowing what you want, then figuring out to get it without having to change who you are.”
It is a powerful message coming a Black woman who built a successful career in the overwhelming White world of Hollywood. By embracing herself, her talents, by not trying to become someone else, she was able to become authentically herself. Her experience, and her self-help book, are a testament to what happens when people are able to celebrate their own inherent worth and dignity.
And that, at its core, seems to be the gift of the genre. In their offerings, many self-help authors appear to share a message like, “this is how I learned to embrace my own inherent worth and dignity. Let me share a bit of my wisdom with you.”
And yet, there is something about the radical individualism of the genre that bothers me. It might be because I am a preacher by vocation rather than a self-help author. There is some tension between the two occupations. The philosopher Charles Taylor has argued that one of the features of our so-called secular age is that the therapeutic has replaced the religious. Rather than understanding our imperfections as manifestations of some larger cosmic evil we, he argues, have come to understand feelings of “impotence, division, anguish, spleen, melancholy, emptiness, incapacity, paralyzing gloom” as symptoms of treatable illnesses.
Self-help books are frequently oriented towards empowering the individual to engage in the work of healing themselves from whatever sickness or imagined inadequacy they suffer. The manuals on finances I glanced at mostly seemed to focus on the personal work of drawing up household budgets and making wise investment choices. Rarely did they suggest a focus on public policy as a strategy for eliminating poverty. Frequently, they seem to be absent any sort of social critique.
Here there is a confluence between some of the most popular contemporary preaching and the self-help genre. Superstar preachers like Rick Warren and Joel Osteen generally offer messages of self-improvement in their sermons. Trust in God’s plan for you, they tell us, and you will find the prosperity, love, and joy you seek.
My own message, and the message of Unitarian Universalism, is somewhat different. It is not about you. It is not about me. It is about us. We come together in community to help each other. We recognize that the search for truth is not a solitary project. It is something best engaged in together. We believe that the project is building the beloved community is not my work or your work alone. It is our work. Liberation is not a solitary endeavor, the overcoming of an individual illness, it is our great collective project.
That does not mean that there is no room for self-improvement or personal growth at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston. The pursuit of personal growth–the celebration of your inherent worth and dignity, the uncovering of the truth, spiritual and otherwise–is one of the primary reasons why we come together. But we are here, you and I, because we suspect that such work is best done within the context of a community.
Nineteenth-century Unitarians believed this as well. In his lengthy essay on the subject of self-culture–a sort of antebellum version of self-help–William Ellery Channing claimed, “Self-culture is social.” The work of “seeing our faculties grow,” he believed, consists of “raising… above what is narrow, particular, individual, selfish, to the universal and unconfined.” It was evident when we nurture “the affections which spring up instinctively in the human breast” and discover ourselves bound together as romantic partners, “parent and child,” siblings, “friends and neighbors,” and citizens. It comes when we realize, in those famous words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.”
I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. Self-help… The two other books I brought home from the personal growth section offered something approximating this message. adrienne maree brown is a Detroit based community organizer and healer–she specializes in women’s health as a doula–who sees the work of collective liberation and personal growth, or individual spiritual development, as inextricably interconnected. Looking at the devastation that surrounds us she observes, “The crisis everywhere is massive, massive, massive. We are small.” And yet she finds hope in the ways in which we can cultivate within ourselves and in our communities new patterns of being. She writes, that hope is to be found in “the way small actions and connections create complex systems.” Drawing inspiration from her ecological studies, she observes, individual deeds can become “patterns… become ecosystems and societies.” Her message is that our strategy for building the beloved community is found “in the ways that [we] grow our capacity to embody the just and liberated worlds we long for.” That growth takes place within the context of community. It manifests itself as individual work. But it is not an individual effort.
Self-help… Kaira Jewel Lingo’s insights are similar. In these times, she believes that the project of growing into our best selves is most present in the struggle to confront the climate crisis, overcome white supremacy, tackle economic inequality, and rejuvenate democracy. Her work is to link Buddhist practice with the collective project of liberation. We can only get free together. Looking at soberly at the challenges that beset us, she creates meditations centered on the simple premise, “You were made for these times, to meet this moment as it is, whatever it brings.” And then she invites us into a practice of self-discovery where we recognize that the individual challenges we face are “also collective ones.”
The individual challenges we face are also collective ones. It seems necessary to close this sermon on self-help with a comment on the crisis of the hour, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In the international sphere, it might even be cast as a crisis of self-help. Russia has been able to invade Ukraine because the Ukrainian government is not party to NATO or the European Union. Absent formal military treaties, the United States government and the members countries of NATO have been unwilling to send military troops to bolster the Ukrainian borders.
This is, of course, a gross oversimplification of the situation. But the broad outlines of conflict are nonetheless instructive. An authoritarian despot has organized the military his country to invade a country governed by a President who has been democratically elected. The issue animating the conflict seems to be whether or not Ukraine will have self-determination. Will its citizens be able to join the European Union–as the majority of them want to? Or will they be consigned to the thrall of a present day totalitarian dictator? The question will likely be resolved not only upon the actions of the Ukrainian peoples–on their ability to help themselves–but through the actions of larger international powers such as Germany and the United States.
I do not pretend to know precisely what policy lines the government of this country or the governments of the European Union should be following. But, what I do know is this, the violent takeover of one country by another is an assault on the larger democratic project. And that it reveals the truth that our destinies, our abilities to grow as individuals, are profoundly interconnected.
“Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.” May we remember these words, and, in helping ourselves, recognize that our liberations are bound up together.
May it be so and Amen.