The Car You Drive ()Rev. Ana Levy-Lyons, April 14, 2012
Part of the Candidating Sermons series, preached at a Sunday Morning service
Back when I was just starting out as minister and I still thought that I had to say yes to anything anyone asked of me, I was sitting at my desk one morning when the phone rang. I was the summer minister at a Unitarian Universalist church in Rockford, Illinois. The caller was from the Rockford Speedway. Turns out, the Rockford Speedway is a car racetrack as well as one of the biggest venues in town for partying and drinking. He was calling to invite me to participate in an annual race called The Faster Pastor – a car race where all of the local clergy compete against each other.
“So let me get this straight,” I said, “You want me to race a car in a car race.”
Yes, that was the idea.
“We provide the cars,” he said, “All you have to do is show up. And you can sell tickets in advance and your congregation gets to keep half the money from the tickets you sell.”
I said yes.
My congregation was deliriously happy about this. For reasons that I couldn’t fathom at the time, no minister of theirs had ever agreed to do this before. When the big day came I showed up at the Rockford Speedway and was introduced to my fellow contestants who were all sitting together eating Big Macs at a picnic table. They were large, white, male ministers of large, suburban, evangelical churches. They didn’t try to hide their amusement when they looked at me, this young woman who had obviously never even watched a car race much less competed in one. When they asked me what church I was from and I told them, they said that they had never heard of that one before but they were sure it’s a very nice little church.
Until that moment, it hadn’t occurred to me to actually try to win this race. But suddenly, in the presence of theses smirking guys exchanging looks with one another, I had to win. I was going to win. I would show the world what a young woman Unitarian Universalist minister could do.
One of the staff pointed to where the cars were parked and explained the rules. “These are stock cars,” he said, “meaning they are ordinary factory-made cars that have been souped up to make them faster. Some of them are, shall we say, a little faster than others.” He explained that the audience determines who gets their pick of cars. “When we invite you all onto the track we’ll introduce each of you to the crowd and you’ll get to pick your cars in the order of how loud they yell for you.”
Now I was getting nervous. I could tell by the gathering crowds that my fans were vastly outnumbered. The other congregations had turned out by the hundreds with printed banners and t-shirts and noisemakers. From my “nice little church” about ten valiant congregants had shown up with polite, hand-made signs with obscure messages like “Go you UU!”
Sure enough, when we were called to the racetrack to begin, they announced each of us in turn; the other congregations were deafening, my congregation was barely audible in the huge grandstands. I got my last choice of car – a small sedan that looked in worse shape than my own beater in the parking lot. It was automatic transmission. I was given a helmet and they strapped me into the driver’s seat. My heart was pounding and I started to wonder why I had agreed to this. The starting gun went off and I hit the gas.
A story like this one can go many different ways with various endings, ranging from tragic to victorious to pathetic. I guess which ending seems most likely to you depends on your worldview. Like so many of the narratives of our lives, this narrative opens up onto the big philosophical questions. What is the role of will versus fate? How much control do we have and how much is out of our hands? Does God intervene in our world to insure that the good guys win? Or is it all up to us? If you think of the car you drive as a metaphor for the circumstances into which you’re born – your physical health, the financial resources of your family and community, the amount of love you experienced as a child – and you draw a bad car in the lottery, are you doomed? Or can you somehow transcend those things?
We know where Hollywood tends to fall on these questions. Had this been a Hollywood movie, I would have gone on to win the race. The crowd would have gone wild. This is how it happens in the movies. And this is how it happens in stories that are told to us from childhood about the greatness of the United States of America; the place in the world where the underdog comes from behind and wins. It’s the American Dream. Most of us who grew up in this country were raised on this notion. In this kind of classic Enlightenment thinking, the self is envisioned as a free-floating entity, rationally choosing between various options for whom to be at every moment. By this thinking it shouldn’t matter much what car you drive. With enough hard work, persistence, and courage, you can overcome any disadvantages you may start out with; you can somehow lift yourself out of your own history.
But one of the primary insights of postmodernism is that this is actually not true – you can’t lift yourself out of your history. Instead of seeing the self as fundamentally independent, contemporary thinkers often see the self as fundamentally relational. We are formed in relationship, in community, and as part of a history. We exist as un-extractable fibers of our context. Even if you reject your history, you are still subtly entwined in it through your rejection. By this way of thinking, the car you drive matters a great deal. The contemporary philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre puts it beautifully: “I can only answer the question, ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question, ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’” In other words, prior to claiming anything else about myself, I need to describe the car I drive. As a child of the postmodern era myself, this makes sense to me as a way of understanding the world. For you to know me or for me to know you we have to know the stories of which we each find ourselves a part.
I find myself a part of multiple stories, some dissonant and some consonant with each other. I find myself a part of the story of 19th-century Russian and Polish immigration to the U.S. – Jews who fled Europe, some for freedom of religion, others for freedom from religion. I’ve heard it said that if you could go scuba diving around the base of the Statue of Liberty you’d find piles of turn-of-the-century yarmulkes, wigs, and tefillin rotting on the ocean floor, having been thrown overboard by Jewish immigrants, giddy with freedom as their boats drew near. Some of my ancestors might well have contributed to this pile. Others, including grandparents on one side, remained very religious their whole lives. But by the time my generation came around, Judaism had been abandoned entirely. We celebrated Christmas and Easter as many secular Americans do and I was raised “nothing.”
I experienced the lack of religion in my childhood as a void and a loss, even at the time, and I felt a longing fascination with religion of all kinds. As a young teenager, I visited churches in my hometown, dabbled in Wiccan spirituality, and read the Bible. For a time I thought that when I grew up I wanted to be either a nun or a truck driver so that I could just sit and think all day. Gradually those feelings morphed into a pull toward being a religious leader of some kind – preaching, building community, walking with people in the most tender and transformative moments of their lives. In a sense, I felt my call to ministry at an early age.
I find myself a part of the story of wealthy white suburban American kids, growing up in the 70’s and 80’s with no idea of the privileges and abundance that had been heaped upon us. Unlike my grandparents’ generation, where money was so tight that you would jump at an opportunity to become a lawyer or businessperson, I had the luxury of scoffing at practicality. I moved to the west coast and did a lot of rock climbing. I made sculptures, I wrote songs. I designed web pages, riding the wave of the web boom in the 90’s.
I find myself a part of the story of Unitarian Universalism – a religion that I came to in my young adulthood as many of you probably did. It is a story of a people many of whom, like my great-grandparents, cast the artifacts of their birth religion into the sea but who, like me, noticed that life with no religion at all felt empty. It is a story of a people creating meaning out of the fabric of their own lives, finding God in new places, and forging an amalgam of reason and faith. It is the ongoing story of a young religion creating itself right now as we speak in a thousand congregations across this country.
I find myself a part of so many more stories too– from the ancient story of marriage and motherhood to the contemporary story of the dawning of the information age. And of course, if all goes well with my confirmation hearings this week, I will find myself a part of the story of this congregation.
It’s an amazing thing to stand here and look ahead at the blank pages of the unwritten story and imagine the possibilities. The possibilities will be defined, not by any individual heroics on my part or on anybody’s part, but by the ways our collective stories interweave to allow us to write the next chapter together. For this reason, if you call me as your Senior Minister, the first thing I will want to do is sit down with each of you and hear your stories one by one. I will want to get to know you and your histories and your contexts and the car you drive.
In the great car race of life, we are told that it’s dog-eat-dog out there. You have to go it alone and you’ll win if you have the will and motivation. You’re told that you are ultimately an island unto yourself, self-determining, and floating free from your histories and circumstances. If this were true, I certainly would have won the Faster Pastor car race that summer evening in Rockford, IL. As it was, when the starting gun went off my car lurched, accelerated a little, and bumbled along at probably 30 mph, if that, even though I had the gas pedal floored. Within seconds I was lapped by all of the other cars and I finished last.
The bad news is that sometimes we simply can’t transcend our circumstances: they could have put anybody in the world in the car I was given and I’m pretty sure that the same thing would have happened. Our very selves are embedded in our histories and the conditions of our lives. But the good news is exactly the same thing: we are inextricably entwined with all that has come before us and all that will come after us. We are not alone and when we can open ourselves to this truth and let in the richness of all the stories of which we are a part, some amazing things start to happen. Compassion grows as we realize that everyone is just bumbling along, like us, trying their best to drive the car they were given. Personal achievement gets backgrounded. Responsibility to community gets foregrounded. And more and more, we lead lives of joy and meaning.
This is the great promise of Unitarian Universalism: that we will succeed, not by the exclusive genius of the individual, but by the inclusive pluralism of the collective. Our faith rests on ancient traditions but it carries a message that singularly fits the needs of today -- that by raising the big tent, inviting everyone inside with their whole selves, their full histories, their deepest stories, we can create a world of meaning and spiritual depth that past generations could never have imagined.
And so, we can only answer the question, ‘What are we to do?’ if we can answer the prior question, ‘Of what story or stories do we find ourselves a part?’ I invite you to ask yourself, “Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?” Give the question time to percolate in your consciousness. Enjoy the process of discovery. Be gentle and allow the answers you find to fill you with compassion. And I will very much look forward to hearing your stories in the days and months ahead.
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