Reverend Leslie Kee
Many years ago while I was living in the Black Hills spending most of my free time in the company of lots of young, and older, Native Americans, an occasion arose where several non-Indian white folks were grousing around about all the hard work they were putting into a big project we all were working on and that they, in particular, didn’t seem appreciated. It seemed they expected a thank you just about every time they did something.
When I talked to one of my Lakota girlfriends about this, she told me some things in life don’t need a thank you – like when babies are born, there are certain things adults just do for them; like providing food, shelter, safety, and unconditional love. Adults doing fundamental things like this is a given so, ideally, children grow up ensconced in, what I call, a primal trust – a state of complete trust where the most important things in their life are, in actuality, the essential ingredients which nourish the flourishing of a young life – a state of well=being where no child owes their caregivers a thank you.
Because the project we were working on had to do with the health and well-being of the earth, our shared home, it was considered sacred work; which in my mind, was actually an honor to be doing. To live and work from a place where no thank you is necessary, is soul-deep work where you do the right thing just because it’s the right thing to do, not because you’re getting a pat on the back or gratuitous thanks.
My friend’s traditional wisdom was one of the most profound gifts I’ve ever received, and it changed my understanding of the world of human relationships for the better. Looking back I came to understand my Lakota friend’s explanation was like a bridge between a deeper, more natural and authentic wisdom and, what I perceived to be, the more proscribed counter-intuitive white culture in which I had been raised. How many of us grew up hearing that saying, ‘children are to be seen not heard?’ Well I heard it many times and so, for example, unlike Native American children who grow up calling the older women in their life Auntie (or Grammother); I was taught to call all adults Mr. or Mrs. So and So.
I also grew up learning that when a whole bunch of our family and friends got together, the adults would only look out for their own children because to ‘parent’ someone else’s child would be insulting to those parents or primary caregivers. But when I attended my first family and friends’ powwow at the Heart of the Earth Survival School in Minneapolis, I was blown away as I watched high school boys and middle-age warrior-society men intervening, playing, dancing, and loving on all of the children. In the Native American way, everyone who is older looks out for the children, and the children’s responses seem natural and free. It just makes sense that all of us who are not children are responsible for loving and caring for those who are still children – even if they’re not our own. When this belief is actually lived out, children grow up playing and dancing and exploring their world in a state of complete acceptance and trust in a way that, to me, seems less ranked and proscribed.
By the time I’d moved to the Black Hills in the 1970’s, America’s cultural revolution, which had erupted the decade before, was coming to a peak; which is why I think, as a young adult, several cultural changes really hit home for me – especially the ones which impacted women and by extension children.
How many of us remember the Diana Ross song, Love Child? This was a hit song about a woman who is asking her boyfriend not to pressure her into sleeping with him for fear they would conceive a ‘love child.’ Ross was a ‘love child’ who did not have a father living at home and according to the diva herself, she had to endure wearing rags to school and growing up in a “old, cold, run-down tenement slum.” When the song Love Child was released in September of 1968, it immediately rose to number one on the Billboard Hot 100 and became the Supremes third biggest selling single.
For those of us older folks who lived through this most recent cultural revolution, to reframe the hows and whys of a ‘love child’ was a really big deal because throughout the history of western civilization, to have a child out of wedlock was a huge, let me repeat, a huge no-no. Stories, some of mythological proportion, have been written about ‘bastards’ – those children born out of wedlock, no matter the reason. The phrase ‘had to endure’ is probably the most telling description of what life was like for too many children born outside the proscriptions of a society in which only children born between a husband and a wife were considered ‘legitimate.’
America’s dominate cultural narrative actually begins with Jesus of Nazareth whose biological father was not Joseph. But because Joseph went ahead and married Mary, even though she was already pregnant, her baby was not stigmatized by being born of an unwed mother. As we trace the evolution of this specific cultural value, we find its culmination in America’s puritan roots and Nathaniel Hawthorn’s book, The Scarlett Letter.
Published in 1850 and set in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the story takes place between 1642-1649 and is about a woman, Hester Prynne, who believed she had been widowed by her sea-faring husband. After giving birth to her lover’s daughter, Hester struggles to create a new life of repentance and dignity, but because of her sin, she had been sentenced to stand on a scaffold for three hours, be exposed to public humiliation, and to wear the scarlet “A” for the rest of her life. At the end of the story, her ‘love child,’ Pearl, eventually finds some redemption when her biological father dies and leaves her an inheritance, thereby giving her financial independence – a plot twist which I personally find very intriguing and worthy of a sequel — partly because Nathaniel Hawthorn was married to one of the Peabody sisters, all of whom were well-educated, socially engaged New England Unitarians whose friends included the likes of Margaret Fuller, Bronson Alcott, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. But I digress…..
The Scarlet Letter was one of the first mass-produced books in America and when first published, it became instantly popular and has since been reprinted as recently as 2019 – kind of like how the public quickly took to Diana Ross’s musical version of this theme pushing it to the top of the charts.
If we fast forward to today, we can look at this theme through the lens of the Harry Potter series and the character of a young boy named Tom Riddle. We can infer that, for whatever reason, he was most likely an unwanted baby. Tom was brilliant, but his spirit had been broken by his mother’s abandonment and the subsequent brutality of the life that had been forced upon him. His good looks were deceiving because they diverted attention away from his brokenness and the meanness that came to exist within his brokenness. Like other broken and damaged souls, Tom grew up trusting the world wasn’t a safe place and it always did hurt him, and so the only one he could trust was himself.
Because the inclination to trust is hard-wired into our human nature, for me, the character of Tom Riddle symbolizes the antithesis of what I call primal trust – that healthy life-serving trust every child deserves. Because Tom is the child whose spirit and sense of self was not kept safe and spiritually nourished by a community of caring, unconditionally loving adults, he grows into the arch-villain of the story, Voldemort, whose quest is to regain wholeness and eternal life by stealing the life-force and a twisted fear-based ‘love’ out of others.
For those of you who haven’t read the series, I highly recommend it because, from a literary point of view, it is a beautifully written, highly creative telling of an age-old story: the bitter, shamed, broken child grown into a mean, hurtful, untrustworthy villain vs the conflicted hero, Harry, who is struggling to choose between right and wrong; and the community of peers and adults who intervene, challenge, play, dance, and love (or dislike) him unconditionally.
And in the end, like all the classic stories we have told ourselves and our children throughout history, the plot and theme remain meaningful because one of the most important features woven into them informs that universal question: what does it means to be human and naturally inclined to trust?
Liberal religion can be defined as the study of human nature, which includes our hard-wired inclination to trust first, but if the nature of the Our-Father-in-Heaven God has changed, then what is left to place our faith and ultimate trust in? For those who understand themselves to be theists, then the answer is still God. And for those who understand themselves to be non-theists, the answer can still be God, but the word God within quotes. For those who are still undecided, God can be a both/and — real and not real, depending on how you describe God or No-God whichever the case may be.
Because America’s dominate cultural narrative comes directly from the Judeo Christian tradition, many generations have grown up placing all of their ultimate trust in a deity. But just like the permission that has been given by western society to accept and publicly love a child born out of wedlock, placing your faith in something other than an Almighty Father in Heaven also has become ok.
One of the challenges Unitarian Universalists have faced in recent times, is the use of traditional religious language, especially the word God. And so each of us must struggle with and find an ethical solution to this semantic challenge because, and let’s make sure the record is clear — Unitarian Universalism is not organized around a required belief in the vengeful, demanding, judgmental God of the Old Testament. Instead, UU theology has grown and evolved by recontextualizing and reprioritizing humans’ innate abilities and inclinations, such as our primal impulse to love and trust first; along with trusting more in logic and reason than blind faith.
But if faith is the practical application of a physiological predisposition to trust, then having faith, or putting our trust in God, has been a defining feature of religion since the beginning. But again I ask, if our ideas about the nature of “God” have changed, then what is left? There is a saying UU ministers share once in awhile that poses the question, “If someone is on their deathbed and afraid of what happens next, traditionally they would pray to God for comfort and to help them cross over. But if you’re a UU and God isn’t in human form sitting on a throne behind pearly gates, then who or what do you pray to, a set of principles and affirmations?”
For me, the answer is, first, I don’t offer petitionary prayers – ones that are asking a deity to do something for me. So the prayer I have offered when I have been in these exact situations does invoke our set of UU aspirations – Spirit of Life, God of Many Names; we are gathered here our hearts full of love and gratitude for the life we have shared and the love which has sustained us. We are here to bear a sacred witness to the life of our beloved one…… We are confident that what has passed, was true, and good and enough….
Because I have placed my ultimate trust in the goodness humans are capable of, my faith in the efficacy of our principles and purposes is very strong. Because I trust that each human is born to love first, without the stain of any sin, I can always find something good in every human I meet. Because I trust humans are capable of creating great beauty, of acts of great compassion and fairness, I can always find inspiration. Because I trust humans are spiritual beings, I never tire of sharing stories, traveling together, and learning in our shared quest for truth and meaning. Because I believe we are all responsible for helping children learn to use and depend upon their internal moral compass, I will always intervene, play, dance, and love on every single child. And because Mother Nature, and the earthly home we all share, provides the material and spiritual nourishment all life needs in order to flourish and thrive, I will always do the sacred work of caring for and honoring its primal elements: earth, air, fire, and water, and all the living forms which manifest them.
Yes, life should be a both/and experience. It is time to let go of outdated ideas and beliefs because life always changes, and to place your trust in that fact is to live into the primal trust that is the fundamental nature of human relationships. This ultimate trust is defined by love and as such, living into this trust is a divine calling, a sacred ministry – an ideal worth committing your life to. Trust your UU values, trust each other, and most importantly trust yourself.