“Welcome to the 7th grade—that hellish, shaky bridge you all must cross before you become members of the enviable high school elite.” That’s how Mr. Simonet greets his students, first day, first thing, in the movie, Pay It Forward.
Was 7th grade like that for you, with all its adolescence and awkwardness?
“7th grade” can also be seen as a metaphor for life in general—the hellish, shaky bridge that so often it can be. On Mr. Simonet’s face we see extensive scarring, and later in the movie we learn how it happened. He had been defending his mother, whom his father repeatedly beat up. Finally got the courage to do this, when he was a teenager, but the father, in response, clobbered him, knocked him out, dragged him around to the back, poured gasoline on him, lit him up. This is where Mr. Simonet is coming from, when he says to all those fresh-faced 7th graders, years later, “Yes, there’s a world out there, and even if you decide you don’t want to meet it, it’s going to hit you right smack in the face.”
And the 7th graders in his classroom already know it. They know it. Doesn’t matter that they are innocent-looking. Take Trevor, played by Haley Joel Osment.
He’s trying to cross the hellish, shaky bridge of his mom’s alcoholism, her on-again off-again efforts at recovery, her habit of repeatedly taking back her abusive alcoholic husband. Then there’s school, where there are friends, and there are bullies. Metal detectors are at the school doors, but in the scene right before the one we saw, Trevor sees one of the bullies sneak a knife through the detectors. School is a place where you can get really hurt, or killed. “What if the world is just a big disappointment?” says Mr. Simonet, and Trevor, that sweet-faced boy, knows it. We wish it were otherwise. We want all children everywhere to be laughing and enjoying life. Too often, it is not so.
So the temptation is to get across the 7th grade bridge fast. Says Mr. Simonet, “You want to hold your breath, close your eyes, not think about anything until it’s over.” But then he says, “Well, I’m here to tell you that’s not an option in this class.” And I want to say that too. Mr. Simonet and I speak with one voice. It’s just so tempting, to rush through, to avoid feeling and thinking. To sleepwalk. But not in this congregation. Not here. Here is a classroom of heart and mind and soul. Here is where we know that the only way out of anything is through. Here is where we lift up a vision of the vital religious life as one that engages us in spiritual practices like (1) regular participation in worship, (2) finding a place of service within our beyond these walls, (3) engaging in meditation or prayer or some other practice of attuning with the Larger Life, (4) studying religion and ethics and other important issues of truth and meaning, and (5) being good stewards of our gifts of time and energy and money. Practice these disciplines, and what happens is that certain habits start to develop and deepen in us: habits of compassion and gratitude, habits of forgiveness and listening, habits of joy and peace and wisdom and generosity. All these habits we need, because they are the foundation of the kinds of action and doing we talk about in our Unitarian Universalist Seven Principles. Practice the disciplines, and we become able to run the spiritual marathon that our Seven Principles represent.
That’s what our congregation is strengthening us to be able to do. That’s what this classroom is teaching. How to come into possession of our freedom. Developing it. Freedom is not automatic. It is not free.
So as you cross the bridge, don’t hold your breath, don’t close your eyes. Open them. Breathe in deep. Let’s be conscious of what we’re doing. That’s the first step to developing our freedom. And then, second of all, there must be respect. It’s the student in the film clip coming to the first class of the year, late. But having a bad hair day does not cut it as an excuse. “I’m going to be here every day for you,” says Mr. Simonet to his class, “and so I expect you to be here for me.” If each of us can respect what we are doing as a congregation like this, be here every day for each other, with our energy and our time and our money, then 7th grade is going to be all right. We’re going to make it just fine.
It’s about developing and deepening our freedom. Be conscious of crossing the bridge. Show up every day to each other, out of respect. And then this, third of all: remember that the goal is not perfection, but wholeness.
This is so important, since we can feel disqualified from going the distance because we are not perfect. Mr. Simonet, with his scars, with his horrific father, could have felt absolutely disqualified from being a teacher. Trevor, so insecure, could have felt absolutely disqualified from raising his hand and saying a word in class. Too often, there is this broken record running in our heads, telling us that to make a difference in the world, imperfection of some kind or other must be absent from our lives. The circumstances must already be ideal. We’ve already got our personal act together. The thing we’re planning on doing must have an up-front guarantee that it’s gonna work exactly as intended. We’ve got all the time and energy in the world. Already, our kids are grown, the job is secure, we have more than enough money, our relationships are fantastic, and we’ve figured out all the important spiritual questions: God, soul, immortality, meaning of life, existence of extraterrestrial life, are the Falcons going to the Super Bowl this year, and on and on. Insisting that, to be eligible to make a difference, we’ve already got to be the peace we want to create, we’ve already got to be the love we want to see, we’ve already got to embody the generosity we want to generate.
Fat chance. Perfectionism like this prevents the Mr. Simonets among us from ever showing our faces. True wholeness is never an absence of imperfection. Instead, it’s about the presence of larger vision, the presence of larger meaning. Being lit up by this whatever condition we find ourselves in. It’s getting exciting about the possibility that, in the face of every disappointment, we can still take the things we don’t like and flip them upside down, and we can start that today. We don’t let anything disqualify us from this.
Going the distance is about developing our freedom. Being conscious of crossing the bridge. Showing up every day to each other, out of respect. And remembering that the goal is not perfection, but wholeness. We go the distance, towards the finish line, and that finish line is all about changing lives. “This is your assignment,” says the chalkboard in our movie clip for today: “Think of an idea to change our world—and put it into ACTION!”
We’re seeing it every day here at UUCA. Our wonderful Coming of Age students, serving in New Orleans this past summer. The amazing Atlanta Progressive Preschool, featured by the panels hanging in our lobby. Yesterday’s Phoenix 5K Run, which was just so well organized and so joyful. Our dedicated Long Range Planning Committee, ready to do incredibly important work with us in shaping our vision for the next five years. All our stewardship testifiers of the past four weeks—their powerful stories, all the ways they are keeping this place strong. None of the people involved in these initiatives or any other are perfect. Every one feels the time crunch, every one feels the money crunch, the crunch of not knowing enough, of not having it all figured out. Every one has a story, every one has scars of some kind. Yet they have a larger vision of changing lives. They’re crossing the bridge with eyes open and with respect. They are showing up. Best of all, THEY are WE. We’re doing this. We’re giving till it feels good. Just like James Brown: “I feel good.” Say that with me….
What we’re doing is so important. It all brings to mind something paleontologist Stephen J. Gould once said, right after 9/11. “The patterns of human history,” he says, “mix decency and depravity in equal measure. We often assume, therefore, that such a fine balance of results must emerge from societies made of decent and depraved people in equal numbers. But we need to expose … the fallacy of this conclusion so that, in this moment of crisis, we may reaffirm an essential truth too easily forgotten, and regain some crucial comfort too readily forgone. Good and kind people outnumber all others by thousands to one. The tragedy of human history lies in the enormous potential for destruction in rare acts of evil, not in the high frequency of evil people. Complex systems can only be built step by step, whereas destruction requires but an instant.
[Stephen J. Gould continues:] Thus, in what I like to call the Great Asymmetry, every spectacular incident of evil will be balanced by 10,000 acts of kindness, too often unnoted and invisible as the ”ordinary” efforts of a vast majority.” And then he says, “We have a duty, almost a holy responsibility, to record and honor the victorious weight of these innumerable little kindnesses, when an unprecedented act of evil so threatens to distort our perception of ordinary human behavior.” That’s Stephen J. Gould. And he’s talking about us and so many others. Our collective contribution of innumerable little kindnesses, in building up this world. We’ve got to recognize and honor this—and then keep on keeping on. Keep on giving till it feels good.
Which brings us to this:
Here is your assignment. As you are leaving the sanctuary today, you are going to be given a dollar bill. Your assignment is to “pay it forward.” That’s Trevor’s wonderful world-changing idea in the movie. Pay it forward. Life has given you so much—how can you share a blessing with others, no strings attached?
There’s only one requirement: that you do NOT give this dollar back to UUCA. It’s got to be used in such a way that it blesses another person’s life beyond these walls. So the challenge here is being creative. For example: Go to lunch today with friends, and at the restaurant, combine your dollars to pay for a stranger’s meal. Who knows what chain of events you’ll be setting up by this…. Or: Add a couple of your own dollars to the dollar you get, and make a donation to some worthy cause. Or: Talk to other people about combining your dollars to make a $25 microloan to someone across the world through an online agency known as Kiva. Says its website, “Kiva empowers individuals to lend to an entrepreneur across the globe. By connecting people we can create relationships beyond financial transactions, and build a global community expressing support and encouragement of one another.” Fantastic!
So many possibilities for using your dollar! It’s about taking your proper place in the Great Asymmetry that we heard Stephen J. Gould talk about a moment ago. My hope is that each of you really gets into this, and that the more energy you give it, the more open you’ll become to the river of generosity that already flows in you, even if you might not feel it. Even if your normal state these days, in the shadow of the Great Recession, is a sense of discomfort, if not scarcity and fear. Fact is, the river always flows in us, with fierce joy—it is the Spirit of Life within, a Divine Spark, the God of our understanding—and at one time, our drawing on it was an easy habit. Yet the habit got broken by life. Harsh circumstances trained us to stop trusting these deeper parts of ourselves. We find ourselves cut off. So the challenge is to do what I mentioned earlier: engage in spiritual practices which reestablish and strengthen these habits of soul. Invest ourselves in acting generously until the habit returns and takes hold, or becomes stronger than it already is.
So when you leave today, after the benediction, you’ll receive a dollar bill from one of our ushers. You’ll also receive a handout which repeats my instructions. One additional thing I want to add is this: tell me your story. What did you end up doing with your dollar? What happened? What did it feel like? Tell me the story. Send it to me by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I just keep going back to Mr. Simonet and Trevor. Mr. Simonet’s undiminished sense of hope and possibility, despite the brutal story that his scars tell. And then Trevor: This 11 year old—feeling absolutely uncertain in his world. Shaken by his mother’s struggles with alcoholism and an abusive relationship. Shaken by the rampant bullying in his school. In no way is he already the peace or love or generosity he wants create in the world, in no way is he already there. Yet his eyes are open as he crosses the bridge of life, he shows up to class every day with respect, and he gives what he can. He pays it forward, and because of that, what changes is everything. THIS is going the distance.