Monday, February 27, 2012

Sermon - Disordered Love

Disordered Love
As we finish our month of talking about love, today we are going to talk a bit about the direction of our love, or the orientation of our love. One way to think of it might be the difference between love and lust, one being good and the other being destructive. But rather than think of two different types of attraction, I think the question is more one of orientation. What are we drawn to, and how to we respond to that attraction.
Obviously there are sexual and romantic overtones to this discussion of love or lust. But our love guides our lives far beyond the bedroom. Our love, our desire is what rests at the root of nearly every decision we make. You see what we love is what we value. Put another way, our love shapes our values and the way we live our lives in the world. For that reason it’s important to be aware of our loves. As our responsive reading said earlier, what we are worship, we are becoming. And I argue, what we are loving, we are encouraging in our world.
“Disordered Love” is an odd name for a Unitarian Universalist sermon. It sounds more like the name of a rock band, but disordered love is actually the formal name of a very specific piece of Christian theology. No one on the street would use that name for it today, but it is a pervasive belief in Christianity, and subsequently throughout our country. In fact there is a whole line of Christian bumper stickers and clothing that rest on this theological principle. You have likely seen cars with a bit NOW on them. Or young people wearing clothing.Well that NOW stands for not of this world. It’s an assertion that this world is not important. What is truly important is a focus on the next life and relationship with God.
Now before I get too far into this description of disordered love and what it means to Christians, please know that I’m talking about it only as a point of comparison for Unitarian Universalists. In fact it is pretty much diametrically opposed to the sort of orientation that we celebrate.
So disordered love… what is it? Well it comes from a very, very important Christian thinker named Augustine of Hippo. He is responsible for the Christian idea of original sin as being passed down from the sin of Adam in the Garden of Eden, and a bunch of other pieces that are central to Christianity. Obviously we’re not going to dive into all of his ideas today. But this disordered love idea is important for us to understand.
For Augustine, original sin is the result of disordered love. He thought that we as humans are fundamentally mixed up in our orientation. Instead of loving God, as we all should, we love earthly things around us. We can’t help this state. We are stuck with this disordered love by the sheer fact of being human. Our disorientation is part and parcel of original sin. We are stuck focusing on this world instead of on God above.
Living in the 4th and 5th Century, Augustine was in a very black and white world. For him there was this world, the material world that is inherently sinful and removed from God. This world exists below a more pure world, and perfect realm of the divine. For Augustine and the Christians that would follow him, this dualism of the profane material world and the sacred spiritual world shaped everything. Our love was disordered. We humans were too focused on this world, when we should be focusing our love on the only worthy object of our love, namely God.
Now do those “Not of this World” bumper stickers make more sense? It is a founding principle of Christian theology. It is anchoring oneself in a promised land beyond, rather than opening your eyes to see and love the promised land that we inhabit here and now.
What we are talking about today is a matter of orientation. Christians have argued that God and the other world are the only thing to set our compass by. For us as Unitarian Universalists, we also orient our lives toward the sacred, whether that is God or our highest ideals, but we orient with a focus on this world and this life.

We Unitarian Universalists take a radically different approach. Rather than thinking our world is somehow below the realm of heaven or less than holy, we start from a shared belief that this world that we share is profoundly good. The miracle of nature, the power of human compassion, the life that abounds on our planet, all of this stuff is good and it is worthy of our love. We have in our midst the possibility of fulfillment, salvation in this life. If we have the audacity to open our eyes, and open our hearts we can find the promised land not in some celestial heaven, but here in our every day.
This is the point of one of the most significant pieces of writing in my theology and ethics. It is an essay by bell hooks called “Beauty Laid Bare: Aesthetics in the Ordinary.” In this essay, she calls us to become aware of the beauty that surrounds us every day. She believes, as do I, that if we fill our lives with beauty that is life-affirming, beauty that comes from nature and gives back to nature, then our constant yearning for more material stuff will be curbed. Or in theological terms, this life offers us an opportunity to orient our love in the right direction, and create the promised-land here in our midst on earth.
She writes, “Beauty can be and is present in our lives irrespective of our class status. Learning to see and appreciate the presence of beauty is an act of resistance in a culture of domination that recognizes the production of pervasive feelings of lack, both materially and spiritually, is a useful colonizing strategy.”
So hooks argues, and I would agree, that rather than rejecting all material goods and all appreciation for the beautiful, we should recalibrate what we understand to be beautiful. We should make sure our love is oriented correctly. In the essay hooks describes her heroic grandmother as a style radical. She writes, “As a quilt maker she was constantly creating new worlds, discovering new patterns, different shapes. To her it was the uniqueness of the individual body, look, and soul that mattered.” What we are talking about is loving things that are good for our whole person and good for the world around us. Loving those things that are worthy of our love.
For me, appreciating the simple beauty, good beauty comes mostly through enjoying good food, real food. There are a couple of reasons for that. The first is probably because good food, food that is good for the environment and enjoyable, is something that I can afford. Food is something that we have to buy. It is not a luxury item. But falling in love with a great heirloom tomatoes or seasonal produce, appreciating the texture of freshly baked bread or even better, occasionally spending the time to bake it myself, those are luxuries, expressions of beauty that I can revel in. They are objects of love that help bring about Beloved community rather than destruction and exclusion.
As bell hooks tells us about opening our senses to life-affirming beauty around us, I hope to encourage us to open our hearts to loving those things that are worthy of our love. Our lives are filled with beauty if we open our eyes to it, so too are our lives filled with the holy when we open our hearts.
Loving this life and this world is anything but disordered. Loving this world and this life is the way to saving it. Saving our lives from the abyss of meaninglessness, and saving our world from destruction. Loving is serious business. How we orient ourselves to love is serious business.
Two weeks ago I spoke about the sacredness of our bodies and sensual selves. It was a fun sermon and a fun topic to talk about. But as Unitarian Universalists we do our best not just talk about our beliefs. We try to make them manifest in the world.
In the case of loving our bodies and taking time to orient our love, one way that we practice what we preach is through offering our children, youth, and adults comprehensive sexuality education through the cutting edge religious education curriculum called “Our Whole Lives.” It hasn’t been taught here in several years. But Orange Coast, up in Costa Mesa is about to start up a class for elementary students and high-school students. The curriculum in each age group is twelve one and a half hour sessions that builds from basic information to decision making a mutual respect. I wanted to tell you about this not to toot our Unitarian Universalist horn. But because I think it is a shining example of the way we engage our world and how we orient our love with intention. Rather than seeing this world, this life, this body as somehow inherently inadequate, we see them as a gift to be celebrated and understood with great care. We want our children, youth, and adults to have information to make good decisions. We want them to have healthy, respectful and meaningful relationship with their own body and with their partners’.
What I’m trying to say is that we invest a good deal of energy into orienting our love of this world. Celebrating this life and this world is not disordered. It’s a path to fulfillment and a path toward healing. But we have to be honest, that it takes some focus and thought.

We are not inherently sinful; we do not have disordered love. But, there is a whole array of attractions in our world that pull us from what is most important in our lives. We should be honest about that.
We know the difference between the things that feed our whole person and the things that will make us feel better for the moment. It’s like junk food for the soul. We know that some of the things that attract us are actually quite bad for us, and bad for our world. It is important to remember that when it comes down to it, we are animals. We are designed through a tremendous process of evolution to want to collect, to feed ourselves and our families and to seek comfort and security. We are hard wired to consume and collect.
Some people hear that and assume that is tantamount to being hedonistic and self-centered. But that is only half the story. We are animals, but we are social animals. We are hard wired to share with the people in our family, the people we care about, our tribe. We have evolved not to live as isolated beings, but to live in cooperative communities. We are inclined to collect and consume, but we are also inclined to be aware of resources that we consume and how to protect them. As our world gets smaller, as our awareness of interrelated community expands, so can our capacity to care for the well-being of our brothers and sisters. As our shared resources become more scarce and fragile, we can learn, we can adapt to use them more wisely.
At its core, the effort to squelch our innate love for this world is misguided. We are animals. We are consuming and collecting beings with bodies that drive us. But we are also social beings, with a capacity to expand our circle of concern. Rather than rejecting this amazing world for another one, we can pay attention to where we orient our desires. Wanting things that are good for our whole selves, things that are good for the wider world.
But it’s not easy. Part of living in a capitalist society is living with companies that depend on selling us stuff, widgets and trinkets big and small, that we probably don’t need. These corporations do not have some evil plot to disorder our love or to create waste. They are trying to make a buck. And that’s okay. But we are trying to live our lives with integrity, trying to love with integrity, and sometimes those corporate voices can get in the way.

So in the end, the whole question of orienting our love boils down to one little question. “Why.” Why am I drawn toward this thing or this person? When you feel a yearning, when you’re got to have something, ask “why?” Is it because it will feed your whole self and the world around you? If that is the case, then embrace it, love it. Because loving this world and the fruit of this world is a path to salvation in this life.
Or is that yearning in your heart, that love, the product of a less productive voice? Or is it because someone else wants you to want it? Is it spiritual junk food? Is it because a commercial has convinced you are inadequate without this thing?
I want to close our month of talking about love in a very simple way. It’s an invitation to pause when we feel our heart being pulled. Pause for a simple question to orient your love. Pause and ask “Why?” Will the object of my desire feed my whole person and bring life to the world around me, or is it spiritual junk food? A simple pause to ask why can why, can harness the power of love to transform our lives and our world.


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