Guide My Feet

Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Emerald Coast
“Guide My Feet”
Rev. Rod Debs
May 8, 2005

Diane Bogus wrote this to her mother: “I learned your walk, talk, gestures and nurturing laughter. At that time, Mama, had you swung from bars, I would, to this day, be hopelessly, imitatively, hung up.” The poet Audre Lorde wrote: “I am a reflection of my mother’s secret poetry as well as of her hidden angers.” I know this is true of me. I am a reflection of my mother’s secret poetry and of her hidden angers. 

This morning I invite you to reflect on what and who guides your feet. The spiritual #348 in our hymnal sings: “Guide my feet while I run this race. Hold my hand while I run this race. Stand by me while I run this race. . . . For I don’t want to run this race in vain.”

“Guide My Feet” is also the title taken for this little Beacon Press book by Marion Wright Edelman, grandmother, lawyer, founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund. She addresses “the huge moral and guidance vacuum,” the absence of “a sense of the sacred or internal moral moorings,” our children’s lack of “a sense of core values like honesty, discipline, work, responsibility, perseverance, community, and service” (Guide My Feet, 2000, p.xxv,xxvii). She had intended to write a book of policies for a nation that might actually nurture its children, but her work became instead a book of prayers, opening with the song “Guide My Feet.”

A sociologist might say that prayers to God are actually prayers to the abstract universal of the human collective, society writ large. Perhaps that is why it is important to publish prayers for the human audience, one grandmother’s book of prayers for all our children, prayers that some greater power should “guide our feet” as humans whose children reflect our walk and our talk, our secret poetry as well as our hidden angers.”

Who and what guides our feet? Our mothers? God? Society? Maybe we don’t need guidance.

There is another song in our hymnal (184): “Be ye lamps unto yourselves; be your own confidence; hold to the truth within yourselves as to the only lamp.”

The American spirit of individual freedom is built into our United States Constitution, our faith and trust in each individual’s right of conscience, the individual’s creative intuition, inspiration, what the Quakers called “that of God in every person.” Americans believe that we are our own guides with an inner light greater than any external authority. 

Unitarian Universalists celebrate our Unitarian American forbears, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John and Abigail Adams, John Quincy Adams, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Susan B. Anthony and many others who shaped our nation’s identity guaranteeing the right of conscience in both religion and politics. This freedom of conscience is a precious heritage under attack by those without faith in that divine nature, that Holy Spirit working in every individual.

Years ago when I was a young man, I was burdened by a Christian fundamentalism that judged my every action as falling short of the glory of God. Then I came across the Biblical concept of God working in the lives of individuals, the concept of the Holy Spirit. The ancient Greeks spoke of such “inspiration” as an individual’s “genius.” In Philippians we read: “You must work out your own salvation in fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you, inspiring both the will and the deed, for (God’s) own chosen purpose” (Philippians 2:12-13, NEB). Perhaps modern day humanists more than any others respect the individual conscience as authoritative, though they would not speak of it as divine or inspired.

It is to this internal light of God to which Marion Wright Edelman appeals when she prays “Guide my feet.” Then she calls us to also go back and “draw on the values and legacies of our families, ancestors, and communities” as well (Edelman, p.xiv).

In an agrarian era, the values and wisdom of culture was passed within the tribe or extended family. To be without a people would mean that you had to discover everything by trial and error, deadly error. It was a matter of life and death to learn about the world from your people, your family.

With the printed word, we have access to the wisdom and experience of people we have never met, both living and dead, those in far away lands and those from distant ages. Modern education largely focuses on engaging the best peer-reviewed written expertise in human history as a jumping-off point. No longer does the private family hold the keys to survival. 

By graduate school exposure to ancient philosophy as well as modern, I grew away from the Evangelical Christian community consciousness of my childhood. That was all I knew before, as it remains all that my parents know today. They remain in that Evangelical Christian subculture and do not engage wider worldviews to the degree that they are willing to be changed by them. You may have a similar culture gap with your parents.

With the electronic information age, our children are accessing interactive worlds beyond those of our book-learning. At the 1999 UU General Assembly in Salt Lake City, psychotherapist Mary Pipher shared her startling view that our children no longer need us to receive the keys of learning about the world. In “The Shelter of Each Other” (1996) she wrote:

“Since my childhood, the world has changed dramatically. When I was a child, my world was about Sunday dinners, relatives, card parties, church, school and farming. Now it’s a world about talk shows, cable television, e-mail, nanoseconds, microwave meals, celebrities and other people far away getting rich. Our children are growing up in a consumption-oriented, electronic community that is teaching them very different values from those we say we value. . . .

“The media forms our new community. The electronic village is our hometown. . . . Parents and children are more likely to recognize Bill Cosby or Jerry Seinfeld than they are their next-door neighbors. All of us know O.J., Michael, Newt and Madonna. The gossip is about celebrities. . . . 

“Relationships with celebrities feel personal. We are sad when our favorites—Jackie, John Lennon, Roy Orbison or Jessica Tandy—die. We’re happy when Christie Brinkley marries on a mountaintop or when Oprah loses weight. We follow the news of the stars’ addictions, health problems, business deals and relationships. We know their dogs’ and children’s names. These relationships feel personal. But they aren’t.

“We `know’ celebrities but they don’t know us. The new community is not a reciprocal neighborhood like earlier ones. David Letterman won’t be helping out if our car battery dies on a winter morning. Donald Trump won’t bring groceries over if Dad loses his job. Jane Fonda won’t baby-sit in a pinch. Dan Rather won’t coach a local basketball team. Tom Hanks won’t scoop the snow off your driveway when you have the flu.

“We are just beginning to grasp the implications for families of our electronic village. Parents have no real community to back up the values that they try to teach their children. Family members may be in the same house, but they are no longer truly interacting. They may be in the same room, but instead of making their own story, they are watching another family’s story unfold. Or even more likely, family members are separated, having private experiences with different electronic equipment.

“As Bill Moyers put it, `Our children are being raised by appliances.’” (Pipher, p.9-15)

The values that guide my feet come from many sources, what I learned about Jesus in my childhood, but much more that I learned in graduate studies of philosophy and theology. There I engaged life-changing insights of women and men of wisdom and learning. Our children are growing up in a different world than I did. We live in different subcultures and speak different languages. Someone else guides their feet. Is it Brittney Spears and Snoop Doggy Dog?

I remember when Katrina was about fifteen years old, struggling with us to spend more time at out-of-town parties. For all the freedom we had given her to explore the world, she was outraged when we deemed certain activities unsafe. I remember asking her, “Are you done with us? Do you no longer need your parents?” For that moment, at least, she paused to realize that she still needed her parents in her life. She did not have the keys to survival on her own, keys that we were not actually giving her, but which we were facilitating her obtaining. And some of those keys were values, wisdom learned from the world’s legacy, wisdom learned in responsible relationships.

As a Unitarian Universalist Minister, I do not transmit creed and doctrine to uneducated masses. Unitarian Universalist congregations always have a great diversity of people with profound experience and wide-ranging expertise as well as academic scholarship. There are few topics which I could address that some of you don’t already understand better than I do. Yet, I have been called, among other things, to transmit global wisdom traditions, engaging and reflecting on such wisdom with my life and with you. However valuable, this is not the greatest function of our Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. Mary Pipher writes:

“Let me share a Sioux word, tiospaye, which means the people with whom one lives. The tiospaye is probably closer to a kibbutz than to any other Western institution. The tiospaye gives children multiple parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents. It offers children a corrective factor for problems in their nuclear families. If parents are difficult, there are other adults around to soften and diffuse the situation. Until the 1930’s, when the (Sioux) tiospaye began to fall apart with sale of land, migration and alcoholism, there was not much mental illness among the Sioux. When all adults were responsible for all children, people grew up healthy.

“What tiospaye offers and what biological family offers is a place that all members can belong to regardless of merit. Everyone is included regardless of health, likability or prestige. . . . People are in even if they’ve committed a crime, been a difficult person, become physically or mentally disabled or are unemployed and broke. . . . what Robert Frost valued when he wrote that home `was something you somehow hadn’t to deserve.’ (Pipher, p.23)

Unitarian Universalist Fellowship is of this quality. We are not a club that excludes, though we do have Principles of behavior that are necessary for this to be a safe place for the diversity of personal integrity. Expressing our diversity cannot exist unless there is the safety of respect and mutual trust and support. So I believe that our primary function as Unitarian Universalists is tiospaye fellowship. In so far as we engage one another respectfully on the matters of our lives, our UU community becomes the tiospaye that guides us. UU pluralism of intimate personal interactions offering diverse perspectives enrich our understandings beyond our private views. And the Minister throws in something of the world’s wisdom traditions for stimulation!

Mary Pipher criticizes the field of psychotherapy that it blames the family for failing our children, when it is society that is at war with the family. Henry James wrote: “Make society do its duty to the individual and the individual will be sure and do his duties to society.” 

Pipher shared this story: “On public radio a Native American from Alaska discussed the problems of his Arctic Circle village—child abuse, alcoholism, gambling, malnutrition, insanity and violence. He said, `They took away the people one by one for treatment, but really the disease was in the village. We could only understand what was happening by looking at the community.`” (p.15)

Unitarian Universalist theologian Dr. Sharon Welch writes that societies cannot see their own flaws because the system of values only looks for what it values and includes self-affirming arguments that deflect all criticism. Dr. Welch writes: “We cannot be moral alone.” “We can see foundational flaws in systems of ethics only from the outside, from the perspective of another system of defining and implementing that which is valued. . . . Pluralism is required, not for its own sake, but for the sake of enlarging our moral vision.” (“A Feminist Ethic of Risk” 1990, p.126-7)

We Unitarian Universalists have learned independent individualism really well. We grew up singing with Simon and Garfunkel, “I am a rock, I am an island.” And we wish—in fact, most of our lives are taken up by striving to become like Richard Cory, a successful man who ended his life because he lacked fellowship. We are good at individualism, but we need to take some time and invest ourselves in community. We need the caring fellowship of diverse perspectives to guide our feet.

From some of the world’s greatest wisdom, I offer these words by Kahlil Gibran,.

“I love you, my brothers and sisters, whoever you are.
You and I are all children of one faith, for the diverse paths of religion are fingers of the loving hand of one Supreme Being, a hand extended to all, offering completeness of spirit to all, eager to receive all. ((sounds like a universalist and pluralist to me!))

“You are here as my companions along the path of light, and my aid in understanding the meaning of hidden Truth.
I love you for your Truth, derived from your knowledge. I respect it as a divine thing, for it is the deed of the spirit.
Your Truth shall meet my Truth and blend together like the fragrance of flowers and become one whole and eternal Truth, perpetuating and living in the eternity of Love and Beauty.
Humanity which you and I together share, is a brilliant river singing its way,
And carrying with it the mountain’s secrets into the heart of the sea.” 
(“A Treasury of Kahlil Gibran” 1951)

“Guide my feet while I run this race. . . . 
Hold my hand while I run this race. . . . 
Stand by me while I run this race. . . . 
For I don’t want to run this race in vain.”