Lost and Found – Sermon Sept 17 2017

Lost and Found.pngReading, from A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit

Sermon, Lost and Found  

It was early 1996, and Kate Braestrup and her husband Drew had a good life, and a plan in the works for an even better one.  See, Drew was going to retire from the Maine State Police force in the next fifteen years, and then start a second career as a Unitarian Universalist minister, while Kate would continue her work as a writer.  The kids would be grown by then.  As she says, “it would have been a fine life.”

That life, however, was not meant to be. One afternoon in April that year, Drew was killed in a car accident, and Kate found herself a widow raising four children.

Many of us have heard, and I’ve even taught about the so-called “stages of grief,” which sound orderly, and civilized.  There’s some comfort in this idea – that there could be orderly steps, and if you just go through them, one by one then at the end of them, you’ll be done – although mostly I think it’s comforting for people who are watching others grieve.   Those who are grieving already know that grief is anything but orderly.

I’ve decided grief is more like having a bully hang out with you, all the time, just waiting there, threatening to take over and cloud whatever else might be going on, demanding your attention, reminding you by its obnoxious presence of what is starkly absent.

The writer William Bridges writes about the experience of transitions – which is another way of talking about grief and loss – as a transition.  He says that there are five aspects of any ending – again, “aspects” sounds too tidy, but stay with me, I find this a little more on point than the “stages” idea.

Bridges’ five aspects are dis-engagement, dis-mantling, dis-identification, dis-enchantment, and dis-orientation.  I appreciate that all of these start with “dis” because it reminds us that endings are about taking-away.  They are about what isn’t, about lack.  Dis-engagement, Dis-mantling, Dis-identification, Dis-enchantment, and Dis-orientation. Especially dis-orientation, especially about the future, as it had been imagined, and will no longer be.

This is how Kate Braestrup was feeling when her husband and father of her four children was just suddenly – gone.  Dis-oriented, confused, lost – in the vast landscape of grief, and heartbreak. The imagined future, dissolved.And in its place….nothing, yet.

All of us will come to this moment, at one point, likely many points in our lives.  To be alive is to be at risk for heart break, if it’s not already a done deal – it’s in the works.   The question is not if our hearts will break – but more, how they will break, and how we will live in the midst of that brokenness. Will our hearts break, as Parker Palmer says “into a thousand shards that become an unresolved wound that we carry with us for a long time, or, will they be ‘broken open’ into a greater capacity for empathy and tending  to the suffering of others.”

We can stay lost in all sorts of ways – or the experience of being lost can lead us to discovering in a new way what it means to be found.  Discovering – even more of who we are, and what our life is calling us to be, and do.

A year after her husband died, her husband who had, remember, hoped to retire from policing to be a minister – a year later, Kate Braestrup enrolled in a nearby seminary with the intent of becoming herself a Unitarian Universalist minister.  She’d tell people when they’d ask about why she’d enrolled: I’m here because Drew isn’t.

As she describes it, “Mine is a sweet little story, one that has what my journalist-father used to call a ‘great hook.’  When local newspapers run human-interest pieces about me, they inevitably tell the tale of a plucky widow taking up her husband’s standard and bravely soldering on.”

It was a sweet story, but it was not entirely true.  More than just picking up Drew’s calling, she was following her own.  Drew’s death stirred up something in her, a sort of brokenness and disorientation that created in her a new longing.  When she said she was “there because Drew isn’t,” it wasn’t actually just a note about his absence – not just dis-orientation any more, instead, it was cause and effect.  Because Drew had died, a new calling had been born in her.  Because she had been so lost, she was also newly found.

A few weeks ago, I mentioned how my son Josef is named for the youngest brother in a story in Genesis where Joseph becomes the ruler in Egypt – you might know this story, even if you aren’t familiar with the stories in Genesis. It’s kind of like that, except a few less songs.

So, Joseph becomes a ruler, after his brothers try to kill him and sell him into slavery.  If they hadn’t attempted At the end of the story, his brothers come to see him, and Joseph forgives them, and he tells them, “what you meant for evil, God used for good.”  Which, let me translate if these words don’t work for you – he’s saying even if something starts out as terrible, or with a very bad intent,  it can actually end up being a great gift, something you are grateful for.

Which, I need us to promise, we will never, ever say to anyone when they are in the middle of feeling lost.  We’re going to promise together, right here, that we are never, ever going to say to each other, or to our friends, or even to people we don’t like that much,when they are in the depths of despair: “maybe you’ll be grateful for this someday.” Promise?

Because – like William Bridges says, “disorientation is meaningful, but it’s not enjoyable. It is a time of confusion and emptiness, when things that used to be important don’t seem to matter.  We feel stuck, dead, lost in some great dark non-world.”  In the midst of this lost feeling, it’s never helpful to say anything resembling “I’m sure this all has a purpose,” or, “It’ll all turn out to be for the good.”  It might have a purpose, it might turn out for the good.  But also, it might not.  And all we do when we try to push for it to be already and inevitably good is discount the lost-ness, which is all there can be, until there’s something else.

And also, let’s agree, that just because pain and loss can be redeemed into goodness, does not mean that pain and loss are in and of themselves good.  I call that bad theology – which in my book, by the way, bad theology, is not a matter of truth, it’s just a matter of what kind of life does it allow us to live.

So, the fact that pain and loss can be redeemed into good does not make them good – it only means that humans are amazing, resilient alchemists – capable of taking bitterness, and destruction – and creating something beautiful, and unexpected, and life-giving.  Or at least, we are a lot of the time, when grace shows up, and some mysterious magic meets us there in the midst of it all, and when courageous love does its work on our bruised and embattled hearts– then that “something else” can begin to take shape. Then, we can start to learn the street names and the mountain ranges that will orient us and give us a new sense of direction in this new land.

Which is also to say, sometimes the mess doesn’t transform, sometimes the magic doesn’t happen – and I wish I could tell you there was a formula to make sure it works.  But, the stages aren’t a formula, remember, and the aspects aren’t either, and there is a piece of being found, and then lost, and then found again that is out of our hands. Anyone who has ever loved, or been, an alcoholic or an addict who keeps returning and returning and returning to their addiction knows what I’m talking about. And as theologian and addictions specialist Gerald May says, we are all in our own ways, addicted.

Rebecca Solnit’s was obsessed with a question from the ancient greek philosopher, Meno, or at least attributed to him: “How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?”

Her obsession with this question with this question that led her to write her book, A Field Guide for Getting Lost. She realized that if we are to become what we are not yet (which is what she believes that question is trying to get at – and a quest which she describes as the heart of life) we need to travel to places where we have never been, places that we may not even yet know exist.  There is no map that we can follow for the most important journeys of life because if we knew how to get there, we wouldn’t need to go.  “How will you go about finding that thing, the nature of which is totally unknown to you?”

With cell phones and GPS today, it’s harder than it used to be to get lost, but at least it’s easier now to concede when it happens.  For better or worse, my children will likely never know how it feels to sit in the back of the car, with your parents arguing in the front about whether or not they are lost, and whether or not it’s time to pull into the nearest gas station and ask for help.

I’ll let you guess which parent in my family wouldn’t pull over (ok it was my dad).  But I’ll confess my sisters and I did not always help the situation – we’d yell out from the back – YES, We’re lost! We’ve been driving in circles.  We’re totally lost! 

We were a family that spent a lot of time being lost, or at least arguing about being maybe-lost.

I used to think that my parents didn’t have a great sense of direction, but I’ve come to realize that this was likely because they didn’t have a lot of practice.

My dad spent most of his growing up years in the small town where he met my mom when they both attended the local junior college.  My mom was raised in the even smaller town an hour away, which, at least in that direction, was the next nearest town.
After a couple of years at the University across the state, they returned to that small town where they met, and lived for the next 25 years.

Having a “good sense of direction” requires the opposite of my parent’s proclivity for the familiar. It requires becoming comfortable with the mysterious, and learning how to make new markers when the old ones have disappeared.

Solnit points out that even though “getting lost” describes where you are in space, it is fundamentally related to time – because when you’re on a tight schedule – what might otherwise feel like you’re “figuring it out,” instead can become a crisis of dis-orientation. She says that, for example, being off course for a few days or a week wasn’t a disaster to the travelers of the nineteenth century – even though they did not have maps, let alone cell phones.  But the pace of their life imagined this as regular and expected. In order to find your way, you knew you would at one point or another lose your way.  Being lost was part of being found.

This is a good reminder for anyone experiencing being lost, literally or emotionally – that finding your way in space requires taking more time, slowing down so that we can really see the new scenery, feel the new possibilities, allow this new world we’ve discovered to become a part of us, and us a part of it.

Although it’s true what I said earlier – that it’s often a mystery how anyone moves from a state of dis-orientation into clarity, and creativity – there are a few things that can make the way-finding more likely – a few ways that the heart might more likely break open instead shattering. Things like I said – taking time, and slowing down, doing things that might stir up joy, or, faking it til you make (that’s a real thing).

But all of these start with the most important thing…which is to be a lot more like my sisters and I in the back of the car screaming “we’re lost!” than the parent in the front confident that we are JUST FINE.

Rebecca Solnit says that even though we worry most about children becoming lost, they actually better at it than most adults, because they accept earlier that they are lost, and so “they don’t stray far, they curl up in some sheltered place at night, [and] they know they need help.”

My dad is not dumb, for the record, and he’s not even the most stubborn person I know. But he does believe that he is the sort of person that figures stuff out – he’s an architect afterall – and he believes he’s good at directions, and like most of us, he doesn’t like being wrong, or having his self-image challenged.  And so acknowledging that he doesn’t in fact have it all under control, that he might indeed, be lost, especially in front of his wife, and his children was not an easy thing.

Only once things got really, really bad – sometimes to the point of having driven an hour or more in the wrong direction (sorry Dad) would he finally give in.  As Gerald May says “surrender does not come easily.  It has long been treated as a noxious concept in our society.  We are taught to never give up, never to allow ourselves to be determined by anyone or anything other than our own self-will.”  We are taught that when things are going wrong, we should try harder, do more – even if you’re going in the wrong direction, at least you’re going.

But what we knew on those family drives, and what is true in life today – is that just because you refuse to BELIEVE you are lost does not alter the fact that you ARE LOST.  It just delays your capacity to receive the universe’s grace in the form of a magical gas station attendant or some other form, which also means delaying the getting back on your way, onto that journey that is already new because you are making it, the calling that is already being created even in the midst of everything you knew falling away.

Which brings me to the state of the world.  I’d never tell you that the chaos and dis-orientation we are experiencing is all for the good, that we should be grateful.  Because, we promised.  But I do believe that somewhere in the rubble, there are already the seeds of who we are called to become.   And if we can acknowledge with clear eyes and full hearts, that so much of the time, we feel dis-engaged, dis-mantled, dis-identified, dis-enchanted and dis-oriented.

If we can accept together that we are lost, instead of numbing or burying these feelings, we can move as Parker Palmer says, “directly into the heart of it,” then we might able to “learn what [this moment] has to teach us, and come out the other side.” Only then might we discover the new calling that is already emerging, the new life that is uniquely possible only because of what has been lost, and only then might we and our world be found, already changed and made glorious by the journey.


These are either in the sermon, or were influential:

Here if You Need Me by Kate Braestrup

The Broken Open Heart by Parker Palmer 

A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit 

Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes by William Bridges 

Will and Spirit by Gerald May

Addictions and Grace by Gerald May

When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron 

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Queering Gender

I was only seven, and already I got that it made no sense. I was only seven, and already I got that it made no sense.
More than anything that year, I wanted to carry the cross up the center aisle, or at least a candle – I wanted to go in front of the priest, and behind the lay leader,I just wanted to be there, walking in that processional that opened Sunday mass. I wanted to wear the white robe, and the rope around my waist, and I wanted to sit beside the priest, up there in the special seat. I wanted to help swing the silver container back and forth, you know that one that makes everything smell holy, like Jesus after the Magi visited.  It didn’t have to be Sunday. I would’ve settled for a weekday mass.

But it didn’t matter, there was no day of the week when girls could be altar boys.  Boys – those stinky, greasy, goof-offs, none of whom could recite the rosary by heart.  Boys got to sit in the special seat.  Boys got to open the book of prayers, and see up close the flat stale wafer turning magically into Jesus’ body.  Boys could be altar boys, not girls….

No matter how many books I read, or extra classes I took or how well I demonstrated my serious devotion and heart of service – there was nothing I could do about it.  Because I was a girl.

Being the proto-feminist and proto-Unitarian Universalist that I was, I decided to write a letter to the person I figured was in charge of such decisions, my Archbishop. I explained in rational, reasonable terms just how ridiculous these rules were, and how capable I was. I left out the part about the boys being stinky.

I guess I didn’t really think he’d write back – which, he didn’t.  And I didn’t really think he’d change the rules (I was a senior in high school when that happened).  I wrote to him because I wanted him to know that someone was paying attention. Someone saw the truth.  Even if it was a seven year old in a small town in rural Washington, I wanted him to know that someone realized, these rules made no sense.   We could do so much better.

We learn gender early, and then throughout our lives.  We learn the rules – religious and relational, professional and proper.  We learn how gender goes along with sex – sex parts, I mean, though the other, too.  Gender is not the same as anatomy, but we learn it “should” be, it “normally” is.

Boys have a penis; girls have a vagina – and boys and girls each have roles, and behaviors, and outfits to go along with these parts.

I was probably 12 or 13 when I realized, I was too big for a girl, and I don’t just mean my body. I took up too much space, talked too loudly, wanted to win too badly, enjoyed it too much when I did.  Like the mom from our reading describes – up to a certain point, a girl who has some “boy” qualities is acceptable, appreciated even, but there’s a line.  No one told me that I’d crossed it, but I knew.

For most of us, and for much of our lives, these sorts of gender-learning moments remain subconscious.  We learn gender mostly by osmosis, it seeps in, without us even realizing, like race, and class, and all sorts of other cultural norms. We don’t realize how much we’re learning and teaching and reinforcing and performing, until we’re all experts in a language that doesn’t yet have words, hardly even knowing what we know.

If you came of age sometime after 1990, we’ve come to the point in the sermon you’ve likely been anticipating ever since you heard I’d be preaching on gender.  The part where I talk about Judith Butler.

The rest of you, depending on just how engaged you are in gender theory or feminist philosophy, may not have realized just how inevitable it was that at some point I’d say the name, Judith Butler.

She is the author of the book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, which was published in 1990, and almost immediately altered the whole conversation around gender and gender identity – so much so that it would be downright negligent to preach a sermon called “queering gender” that didn’t at least mention her and her work.
Gender Trouble is an incredibly dense and gorgeous piece of academic writing that I’m going to try to sum up in three short bullets: 1) Gender isn’t a fixed binary set at birth, it’s a continuum, and may or may not correspond to your biological sex;2) Gender isn’t something you are, it’s something you do – gender is “performative”; and finally3) The habitual way we perform gender in turn creates expectations and sets and re-sets norms around gender.  To put it another way, gender is culturally/socially constructed.
Judith Butler was on my mind when I first started watching the TV Series Mad Men, which tells the story of ad executives in New York in the 1960s.  And by ad executives, I mean ad men, thus the wordplay in the title.  The whole first season, I was sure that it had to be exaggerated – overly performed. Gender roles couldn’t ever have been that prescribed and pronounced…could they?

I asked this question out loud to my mother in law one day, because I knew she had watched it, and she was a young adult in the 60s, she was like, oh yeah. It was just like that.
My mouth dropped.
That’s for real? Men said that stuff to women, and it was ok?
She said, we didn’t really even think about it.

From my perspective, you know, someone who was 7 in 1983 and appalled that girls couldn’t be altar boys….there is no way that being a girl or a woman in the way Mad Men prescribes could happen “without even thinking about it.”   It would take a LOT of performance, like, Oscar-level.

But incredibly, for many of those growing up in the 50s and 60s, they didn’t really think about it.

And that’s one of the amazing tricks about gender – it’s so culturally prescribed, and profoundly variable based on the where and the when – and yet somehow it gets conveyed to us as if it is eternal and biologically pre-destined.  Like the air we breathe.
This is what Butler means by gender being “performative,”not that we consciously “perform” gender. But more, that we are trained, and re-trained, consciously and subconsciously, what it means to be a boy, or a girl – so much that we don’t even totally realize it’s happening.  Or at least, many of us don’t.
The late great peace activist, Dr. Vincent Harding, one of my professors in seminary, used to look over a room of predominantly white students and invite them to think about race.  Not someone else’s race, but their own.  He’d ask them to think about those moments when they first learned “race.”   The rules around race – who hangs out with whom, and why, and assumptions about behaviors, and roles.
For the people of color in the room, the stories were easy, and life-long.  For the white folks, it took a while. To push through what had been a “given” for most of their lives – the privilege of not having to think about race.

But soon enough, it happened.  Stories started to spill out.  Stories of little children realizing they couldn’t, shouldn’t be friends with that child.  Sneers both obvious and subtle from grandparents, neighbors, the tv news.  People were able to trace their lives by these stories – even white people: eager, open-hearted children becoming rule-bound, race-bound, rigid, fixed; and then as adults, attempting to unlearn, relearn, break open once again.

Our stories of learning gender aren’t exactly the same as race – but there’s a parallel.  Because for some of us, like my mother in law, we hardly think about it – there’s enough synergy in our genuine sense of self and what is culturally prescribed to keep these “lessons” subconscious.

But then for others of us, the rules of gender are a daily awareness of being at best, as Sean said last week – a gender spy.  Of course some spies pass more easily as natives than others, Some of us must learn to live in bodies that are not so easily disguised and therefore, dangerous.

Between these two ends of the spectrum, there’s all sorts of in between, and also variations across all of our lifetimes.  Most of us will have at least one experience when gender is barely a consideration, and at least another where gender and gender norms hit us and our spirit like a brick wall, stopping us in our tracks – Too often, we don’t do what I did as a 7 year old and think that the rule itself makes no sense, but rather more like what I did at 12– we think we must be the problem.

It isn’t until we are offered a whole new story – a new paradigm of possibility for gender expression, for life liberation – if by then our hearts aren’t too closed up in closets of shame, then we start to imagine it isn’t something in us that’s broken or bent, but that as Butler said, gender is much more complicated, that is to say, beautiful, and need not be restricted by labels, or boxes, pronouns or prior performance.  I was 18 when I first saw her, I said something embarrassing, something she’d tease me about endlessly for the next 23 years, and probably longer, we’ll see.  I didn’t know what to make of her, with her androgynous features, her intensity, and her girlfriend.  It was 1993, but I hadn’t read Judith Butler yet, I was just trying to wake up, trying to become, trying to tell the truth.

Except I didn’t even know what the truth was, which is not to say, it already existed, and I just had to do my best Christopher Columbus impression, and “discover” it.  That’s not how self-hood works, at least not in my observation, or experience.   The journey of self-discovery is not just a journey to understand, but also one that creates, so that when you go looking for your true self, it’s already changed, simply by your beginning.

The woman I met my freshman year in college – I didn’t even know that women could look or act like she did, not on purpose….it was like my brain exploded, and I was both terrified, and thrilled. My mom, bless her heart, used to ask me if my friend wanted to be a man, or to look like a man – “was she the man?” I used to get so irritated at her. But really, it is confusing – once gender gets “troubled,” once the lines are blurred – and in the past few decades, gender has been incredibly troubled, or queered, if you will.
I think about Mad Men, or watch the early 20th century women’s fashion scene in Wonder Woman (go see it, it’s fabulous), and then compare it to our world today…it’s amazing how much has changed.

You may have seen the Time Magazine cover story in March that explored how children and youth in the US today are claiming a great variety of labels to describe their gender – beyond male, or female, or even “trans”.  There’s also agender, gender fluid, gender queer, two-spirit, non-binary…. Just this past week, the state of Oregon officially added a third gender option for drivers’ licenses so that you can register as male, female, or non-binary – which is nothing compared to the gender options on Facebook – 50, last I checked.

The article in Time arrived a couple months after an even more in-depth consideration of gender printed in National Geographic and titled, “Gender Revolution.”  The cover shows a girl-presenting kid, maybe 9 or 10, whose story mirrors the story Marlo Mack tells about in her podcast How to Be a Girl.  A kid who feels not like a boy who likes “girl” things, but says insistently, I am a girl.

In our own congregation, we have had at least three of our youth come out as trans, and you’ll see the gender queer display in the foyer features one of our members, Kindra.
As National Geographic editor Susan Goldberg says, “everywhere we look, in the US and around the globe, individuals and organizations are fighting to redefine traditional gender roles, [and many people are] reject[ing] binary boy-girl labels [to] find their true identity elsewhere on a gender spectrum.”

While I certainly agree with her, what I appreciate most about Goldberg’s description is the word “fighting.”  Much has changed.  Gender has become in many ways less prescriptive and restrictive, but gender justice remains an active question, an ongoing struggle – a fight.

As a personal example, while I’m grateful to be serving in a denomination where women can process up the aisle…maybe not with a cross…we are in fact the only denomination in the US with majority female ministers.  It is not a simple thing to be a female-identified clergy person.  I am always aware that most of the world, even in our progressive community – holds an explicit or implicit understanding that ministers are male.  Not that many people say it of course – only a few have been so bold to remind me that although I’m a fine minister, and they like me, they just really prefer a man.

You may have noticed that on most days, I don’t try to fool you – as I told one member who asked me my first year why I always wear dresses – I like to push on the boundaries of what a minister looks like, and to be clear that not only can a minister be female, but also femme.

Last week Sean said that his goal was like Harvey Milk – to recruit you – and I’m no less evangelical in my aim.  Because it is a fight.  In fact, with the rise of Donald Trump, the forces of sexism, and misogyny, and gender policing have received a boost of renewed legitimacy. Which sounds like it’s a problem for women, but seriously, doesn’t it seem like the box for “acceptable male behaviors” just keeps getting smaller and smaller? It’s a problem for all of us.  And Time magazine covers not withstanding, check the statistics and stories about the violence, harassment and likelihood of suicide for gender non-conforming people and you’ll quickly realize that for many of our neighbors, it’s not simply a fun Sunday morning exercise to play with gender, it’s dangerous, and even life-threatening.

Which is why it’s time that we who affirm the inherent worth of all people, the inherent beauty of all gender expressions, and the free and ongoing search for our truest selves – it’s time for us to rise up, and like I try to do with ministerial expectations…. push back.  It’s time for us to remember, and share our stories where we learned gender, policed gender, struggled or rejoiced with gender; it’s time to come out about the ways we long to break gender norms in big or small ways; and it’s time to listen to all the kids out there writing letters and living lives trying to say once and for all: these rules make no sense.   Let us be the people that make space for us all to be free.

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Re-Creation and Reconciliation – Easter Sermon 2017

Re-creation & Reconciliation (2)Reading – from Louise Erdrich’s The Painted Desert  

Sermon – Re-Creation and Reconciliation – Easter Sunday 2017

Perhaps it is predictable that my favorite part of the Jesus story is the moment that many orthodox preachers would call his “moment of temptation.”

It’s near the end of his life, when Jesus begins to realize that things are not going to end well.
He’s in the garden of Gethsemane, with his friends all around him, though they are sleeping. He is angry, and afraid, so he starts praying – a prayer of Help. He prays that something else – anything else – could happen instead of what he realized was going to happen. He prays that he won’t have to die, that there could be a different ending.
After all, he had plans, and he loved his friends, and he still had more to do to make the world right, to make right the human heart. It was too soon – please, he prayed, let my story be different.

Anyone who is attached to Jesus as God, and God as all-knowing and all-powerful would find this moment problematic, to say the least….that Jesus is praying and pleading, and
and yet is unable to effect his requested change – that’s a problem, theologically….But for those of us who focus on Jesus as a human being – then this moment simply feels right – and familiar.

After all, most of us know all too well this experience where the story we thought we were living in, or the family, or career we thought we were building, or the nation we thought we were a part of – when our sense of any of these, or of life on the whole -reveals itself as faulty, or fragile – as if our whole world has been built on a house of cards, about to come tumbling down – we all know the instinct to fall to our knees begging that everything can just BE.OK.

This is what Jesus was doing in the garden. Realizing that it wasn’t – that it wouldn’t ever BE OK. He wouldn’t survive to experience the glory he’d been fighting for, the overturning of the powers of injustice. In his helplessness, he cried out in shock and despair, and gave voice to a broken-heartedness that we all can we relate to –
expressing grief for what was, and for what never would be.  And he cried out as a plea –
that somehow his brain, and his heart could catch up to this new dawning reality he was facing, before he missed the few moments he had left.

For most of us, this reconciling and re-creating work of letting go of one way we thought life was headed, and then accepting a new reality – is slow, difficult, and often painful work. It requires the help of friends and therapists – a determined attention, and a great discipline of time and effort, and ideally a routine spiritual practice that can connect in with a greater sense of Truth (capital T) even as our personal truth (small t) has been shaken.

This process takes this kind of time, and effort, because actual brain-re-wiring must happen – new synapses and nodes must be built in order for the brain to truly make sense of this “new world.”

I find it a relentlessly reassuring to know that this neuro-biological process can take up to three years. Three years after a big loss, or other major life change – even when it’s something we think of as positive – like the addition of a new baby or a new marriage –
it can take three years for the brain to reconcile life as it previously thought it was,
with how it actually is, and will be.

By which I mean to say, be patient with yourself. You’re not just being stubborn. It’s biological. It’s ok not to have it all figured out yet. It’s ok to still feel turned upside down, inside out, still having moments where you forget that everything has changed – even though you know….It’s ok. Three years.

Of course, try telling that to the 24 Hour News Cycle, or your social media feed, I know.
In our world today it can feel like a new reality is placed in front of us to try to integrate and make sense of multiple times every day. Stuff that more readily requires multiple years to come to terms with, instead we are given multiple….hours. This is one of the reasons back in January, and as a part of our practice circles ever since, we have talked about taking up the practice of Sabbath – because in the midst of all these new stories and changed worlds, we need time to just let things process, to try to come to terms with it all, to sort everything, and ourselves out – without the constant additional input.

This Sabbath practice was exactly what Jesus’ closest friends were attempting the day after his death.  After he died, there was a long night, and then a long day,
and then another night – I imagine them all in their homes, trying to take in what had just happened – trying to reconcile their experience of the past – their teacher, his promises, their dreams – with the future that was now in front of them – all while still trying to come fully into the present.

After the Sabbath, Mary Magdalene goes first to the tomb – some accounts say she went by herself, others make her one of a few. While it was still dark she, or they, came bearing spices, that they might perform the ritual tasks – these motions of tender care
that we say are for the dead, but actually do their work on the living, helping us to accept, to create this new reality, to build these new connectors in our brains.

Mary Magdalene had loved him, her life had been changed by him; he was gone.

He was different, he could fix things, fix people, overthrow the forces of injustice, instill the ways of peace; he was gone.

They had all of these plans, to do all of this together; he was gone.

I’ve been trying to imagine, when and how Mary Magdalene first realized what Jesus knew in the garden – that he was to die. Who told her, and how did she respond? Did she bargain, or deny, or did she – see it coming? Was she strangely serene, and accepting – after all, she knew about life not going according to plan.

The others, the men, they could go back to their fishing, their lives as they were before, but what would happen to her? For her, there could be no going back. There was no starting over. She was already a new person, no matter what.

And so, she came with her spices, to tend to her friend, to try to make sense of it all….but by the time she arrived, the tomb was empty.  She thought his body had been stolen, another indignity.   So she calls the male disciples to come and see, and they do come,
but they just run away after they confirm the tomb is empty.

Mary stays – still weeping, wondering what was going on – what reality her brain should start creating connections for….and then….Jesus himself appears.

“Mary,” he says.  She goes to embrace him, but he pulls away.

Her brain must’ve been a wild mess- twisting and turning – and her heart…Filled with confusion, and joy, and disbelief, shock, fear….

Or at least, this is the way it goes in the gospel of John.  According to another version,
the Gospel of Mark, when they arrive at the empty tomb, Mary Magdalene and two other women meet a young man who tells them Jesus is no longer there, he’s been raised.  He tells them to go tell Peter and the other disciples.  Mary and the others freak out,
run away, and say nothing to anyone.  And that’s the end of the gospel of Mark.

Mark was the first gospel to be written, and even then it was about 70 years after Jesus had died. By then, lots of synapses had been formed, whole generations of them, so much so that the story has taken on a life of its own. And yet still it takes until the gospel of John, written 30 years later, to see an attempt at saying what all this might’ve meant….

I’ve heard people use the gospels’ late authorship – to dismiss these stories – saying that so much time means they must be fictional. But this suspicion misunderstands these stories and their intent.

The bible is not journalism, afterall, attempting to recall a literal truth. It’s better understood as what religious scholars call kerygma – or, proclamation.  These stories, and their authors, hope to proclaim a core truth that was passed on, across generations.
So many years later, they, and we, don’t know for sure the literal facts of what happened,
but we can listen to these stories as they are being offered, knowing there is something within them that intends to proclaim a nugget of wisdom, this good news that survived through it all – this gem of truth passed age to age, now over 2000 years later.

Which brings me back to the moment in the garden, with his friends sleeping around him, and Jesus yearning for his life to somehow be different. Because, by the time we get to John, this moment doesn’t happen.  100 years out, those few days before he is going to die, Jesus doesn’t pray for a different story – instead he wonders if he should ask for something else, but then answers himself – no. This is the reason I have come.
I have come to love, to feel, it is the reason I am on this earth. To love, to taste all I can, to offer myself extravagantly.

In the middle of our mixed-up world today, where so often we don’t know which reality to believe, or to try to integrate, where too often we long for a different ending – the story of Easter offers us this dual affirmation.

That yes, life will break you – break us. For all the many ways this story gets retold,
no one ever tries to erase this. In all the versions, Good Friday comes every year,
asking us to live out this acknowledgment, this painful truth that everything can and will fall to pieces – not even Jesus could stop it – because this is what it means to be alive.  And sometimes, for a while – we don’t know how long – three days, three hours, three years, three centuries – this is all we have.

And yet Easter doesn’t leave it there. Because what Easter also invites, is this possibility that this risk of living, this betrayal, need not take away life’s tender sweetness – that even after the worst has happened, the story can keep going, that although sometimes it’s too soon to make sense of all that has happened, to find reconciliation- it’s never too late. That even now, thousands of years and cultures away from that empty tomb there could be all of these still-struggling humans, still trying to put the pieces together, still trying to get to the Truth of it all, still longing to be a part of life’s re-creation, and even, resurrection.

So that even as we fall to our knees, wishing that we might be relieved of life’s pain, we will answer ourselves: no. I have come for this. To love, to feel, to risk my heart, to taste all the sweetness, to let none of it go to waste.LouiseErdrichQuote

Amen, Blessed Be, and Happy Easter.

 

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True Things – Sermon March 12 2017

TRUETHINGS.pngReading, from Adrienne Rich’s “Lies, Secrets, and Silence” 

Sermon, “True Things” – part 1 of 3 part series “Real Life” 

Today’s my mom’s birthday, and so I’m going to start by sharing a classic my-mom story.

She’d just come back from the doctor, and was sharing with me and my sisters. It wasn’t a huge deal, but it was kind of embarrassing, at least to her.

As she went on, she grimaced with dread.

What, mom? We asked.

She said, Well, I just hate that I have to tell Jane.

Jane was her best friend since they were both in kindergarten. Over fifty years later they still talked every day.  You know mom, I offered, gently, if you don’t want to tell Jane, you don’t have to.

And then less gently, my sisters and I burst into laughter.

But my mom didn’t really get the joke. Even if it was embarrassing, how could she not tell Jane? It was a true thing that was going on in her life.

My mom, I’ve learned over the course of my life, has a high willingness-verging-on-compulsion – to share things that others would decide to keep tucked away.  The upside of this is you never wonder what’s going on with my mom, how she feels about you, or about anything.  She is literally who she says she is – as she says most everything.

The downside, on the other hand, is that…well… the things that are true about her, when you’re her daughter, often have a lot to do with you…and it turns out I’m not quite so willing or eager to share everything.

Over the years, I’ve come to realize that most people are not like my mom, and are actually more like me.  Most of us have things about ourselves that we keep hidden, sometimes very hidden, even from ourselves.  This is what psychologists call “denial,” which is a coping technique that can be helpful in surviving immediate crises, but dangerous and even deadly if clung to for too long.

Today we kick off a new sermon series, what we’re calling “Real Life.” We thought of it because we realized we have spent a number of Sundays in the recent weeks talking about courageous love and its call for justice, and the good news of our Universalist faith that proclaims we are all in this together….but we hadn’t really dealt with how all this plays out in real life in the here and now.  We wondered if we were enabling a kind of denial ourselves – one that wasn’t picking up the issues we face in the every day, the moments of living that make up our lives.

It’s such a Unitarian Universalist temptation, after all, to talk about faith in the generic sense, or about courageous love as it applies to a theoretical whole. But how does courageous love apply to how much credit card debt we’re carrying, or how often we’re visiting the liquor store – or here in Colorado, the pot store – or to the fights we have with our kids, or our partners, what does it have to do with the judging voice in our heads, or the grief everyone thinks we’re already over,
or the hurts we caused, maybe even on purpose?

How does our faith apply to the loneliness and longing we feel when things are quiet,
or even how much we try to fill that emptiness with food, or sex, or gambling….or how much we try to punish it out of ourselves through exercise, or not-eating, or overwork….?

When I think back to the UU services that I’ve been a part of, I’m kind of amazed to realize that not too many of them tackle these real life sort of questions. It is as if our own kind of denial – like, nope, not here. Here we’re fine, we’re good. We’ve got everything totally under control. Right?

It’s fascinating – but not that uncommon – in Unitarian Universalism, and in life, more generally. You may have heard about the new podcast with Nora McInerny called “Terrible, Thanks for Asking.”  McInerny has had some pretty awful things happen to her, and was frustrated by the ways that still when people asked how she was, she’d say “I’m fine.” And she realized that was what everyone did.  Denial, it turns out, is carefully taught!

And yet this deception – of ourselves, of others –keeps us isolated and disconnected in ways that prevent us from healing the exact struggles we’re trying to keep hidden.
Human nature is not always the smartest, I think.

But we do have our reasons.

In the case of our faith community, most of our these I am prepared to blame on William Ellery Channing.  Channing is considered the founder of American Unitarianism by way of his sermon in 1820, Unitarian Christianity.  His concept of “Salvation by Character” became the rallying cry for Unitarianism throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.  On the one hand, his ideas were empowering – especially in light of the prevailing Calvinism of the time – it was so hopeful to imagine that salvation could lie in our hands, that we could strive towards perfection, and be well on our way – through our own choice, our own intent, our own will.

But on the other, these same ideas left little room to talk about our struggles, doubts, and even failures – let alone our incompetence, helplessness, or surrender. Which has meant over the years, that we have created our own version of “keeping up appearances,” which mostly I find, takes the form of not being able to ask for help.

If to be a Unitarian Universalist is to be “striving towards perfection,” and well on our way, then if we are struggling, or hurting, or caught in a life we didn’t intend – then we must be the only ones, right?  We worry that if we share what’s really going on in our lives, we’d be a total bummer on the UU happy party, or worse, the juicy gossip in the otherwise perfectly perfect show.  We don’t want to be judged, or remembered always for the thing that’s going on right now.  Better just to play along, to keep these more vulnerable parts of ourselves hidden, and hopefully, forgotten.

This subtle messaging of our faith came to me most clearly one evening, it was before I went to seminary, and our good friends were struggling with a likely upcoming divorce, and with some real challenges with their sometimes violent and grief-stricken 8th grader.  Their family was so fragile, and vulnerable.

They were members of their local UU church, and they invited us one night to come to an event that was about creating community around their 8th grader and recognizing them as they come of age. I remember so vividly the moment when it hit me how much this church and the program they were running –  a UU-standard program – assumed an intact family that had mostly stable parent-child relationships and a stability and health in the adults themselves.

Given that none of this was the case, my beloved friends, and their beloved child tried so hard to answer the questions, but they literally made no sense. After words, each of the other tables got up to share their answers, so perfectly conveyed. My friends gave their answers, but I knew, it was mostly make-believe.

I was so angry at that church, and at our faith that night. Because that kid, he needed that support – they needed that support – and they were promised they’d get it – a circle of community around his time of coming of age. It’s just that his coming of age didn’t look like a straight line, it had some real struggle in it. And probably he wasn’t the only one, they weren’t the only family. But that program told anyone who might be struggling – don’t tell your church – we don’t have people like you here.

What’s especially ironic to me about all of this, however, is that if you know or Channing’s biography, you know he struggled immensely with his public vs. private self, and the question of which parts of himself were acceptable, worthy, and enough.  Channing was obsessive in his work, and self-punishing in his sleeping and eating habits, mostly because he was trying to overcome “what he described as his effeminacy and his unwanted sexual fantasies.” For all the talk of human capacity and will,
from what I can tell, our Unitarian theological inheritance is also shaped by denial, and shame.

Which brings me to today’s good news. Denial, and shame, as researcher Brene Brown teaches us, can be overcome, by coming clean.  It’s counter-intuitive of course, but the way to stop feeling like we have to hide, is to stop hiding.

Taking the risk of stepping out and sharing those things we are afraid make us unlovable – this movement towards the light allows us to create a container for a new truth to emerge – in our own lives, and in our faith.

For only in sharing the broken parts of our lives are we able to engage more fully the beauty, the sacred, the real. As long as we are siphoning off parts, there remains something make-believe in all of life, a depth we can’t quite touch, a possibility left unknown.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that we must all become my mom.

But more, it invites us to unburden ourselves from the shaping and the shielding, the secret-keeping and the story-telling, these things that withhold the real healing power of our community, and our faith – this promise that there is a love, holding us, right here, as we are.

To imagine that we can take it, even if it’s hard, that the truth can make us stronger, more courageous, and more capable of being the church and the people we long to be.
“Most of the time we are eager, and longing for the possibility of telling” the truth. “These possibilities may seem frightening, but they are not destructive.”

To seek the truth in love – as the words of our covenant promise – could bring us into more life, rather than less.

With this in mind, I invite you to call to mind now whatever may be going on in your life, or in your heart, that you mostly keep shielded – whatever the reason.

Maybe it’s a question you are wondering about….Maybe it’s something you love about yourself, but you worry others won’t.

What are those true things that feel you can’t speak?

For all of these that are on your hearts now, I offer this prayer and blessing:

 

For all of these true things, we give thanks.
May we believe that every part of us is worthy of love.
May we remember that change is always possible, that life is still doing its work upon us, and through us.
Into this wide world of brokenness and beauty, we offer ourselves, as we are, knowing that the healing and truth we seek in the world starts in our own hearts.
May we be released us from shame and liberated into real life. For us all.
Amen, and blessed be.

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Charge to the Minister – for the ordination of Sean Neil-Barron April 2, 2017

First, Thank you. It is my joy and privilege to charge you in your new ministry – I think doing the charge is like every older sister’s dream.  But – really, it is my honor, so, thank you.

To begin, I need to tell a little story, from the Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron. She tells about a time when she was invited to co-teach with one of Buddhism’s greatest teachers.
It was a big honor, but also, it left her kind of confused – as no one really told her who she was in relation to this great teacher – was she great, too? She says, “Sometimes I was treated like a big deal who should come through a special door, and have a special seat.
And so then she’d think – OK I’m a big deal.”

And she’d start to act in big deal ways…..But then she’d get the message – no no no no –
just sit on the floor, mix with everyone else, be a part of the crowd – be ordinary.

But then, just as she’d get used to being “ordinary,” she’d be asked to do something that only big deals did. She says this was an incredibly uncomfortable, even painful experience – because she was constantly feeling humiliated based almost entirely on her own expectations – whenever she thought she knew what to expect–  she’d get the message that it should be the opposite.  So she’d switch, and then again, the opposite.

Finally, she went to her co-teacher with some exasperation – “who am I supposed to be here? Am I big deal, or not?”

And her co-teacher responded, as if it was completely obvious – well, what you need to learn is how to be big and small at the same time.

And this – Sean –is what I charge you with, in your ministry. To be big, and small, at the same time.

Be big, because, you are a big deal. And you need to know that. You are smart, and deep, and hilarious, and dorky in all the best ways. And we – all of us – need to learn from you.
You’ve so often been the youngest one in the room – don’t worry, that will eventually change – but I’m sure that makes it hard to fully step into your role as teacher, and leader – but our people, and our faith need you to claim that space, and grow expansive, deep roots. We need you to be loud, and sometimes even obnoxious. It’s ok. Because only in boldness might you discover – as Rilke says – the limits of your longing.

The world needs you to go all out – in imagination, in relationship, in pulling from the depth of our tradition, and the depth of your connection to the holy.

The rest of us will need help to grow into this vision of course, so I also charge you with being big in patience, big in adaptive skills, and big in your compassion. Because we know – being a big deal in ministry really means making everyone else in the room feel like THEY are the big deal, needing the special seat, and entering in the special entrance.

Which is why I charge you not just with being big, but also, small, and ordinary, and regular.  I don’t mean be invisible, or insignificant, but more – be a learner, and a beginner, and relentlessly curious – even about the thing that you’ve encountered 8 million times and you’re pretty sure there’s nothing new to learn there – still, be curious.

You have a long ministry ahead – which means that you’re going to have a number of years where you start to feel like you’ve already seen most everything, met most every type of person – been there/done that. But being small in your ministry means remembering that everyone, and everything, is almost always a mystery – and no one, and nothing, is ever one thing.  So remember to be enchanted, confused, surprised. Stay loose with your conclusions, and your analysis, and stay in touch with all you don’t know or don’t have under control, and let that be a visible part of your ministry too.

Because PS we know you don’t have your act together all the time.  Even though you’re a big deal, you’re also just regular, and ordinary, and struggling like the rest of us. And we love you not in spite of this, but because of it – because we like our ministers human…And so, we hope you remember, that although in many ways, your colleagues and your congregation need you – you also need us.

In all that your ministry may bring you, I charge you to manage this dance and sometimes-pain of being both big and small, at the same time. To recognize and navigate your own expectations, to keep a sense of humor, and most of all, to surrender to the mystery.

Because, to be honest this job mostly makes no sense – you’ll be thanked for stuff you think is crap, and overlooked for what you think of as your best work, you’ll be asked to be both invisible, as well as out in front, and you’ll hear the craziest stories, know things you wish you didn’t.  And yet somehow – through all of this – you will find yourself grateful, that you might faithfully be both small and big with these small and big people –
for your whole life. Or at least, we pray that you will.

We are so lucky to call you one of ours, and to say we had a part in making it so, and to keep traveling together in big and small ways. Many blessings on your ministry.

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Invisible Partners

img_0131We had been hiking straight up hill for nearly two hours.  Unlike the day before, it was sunny, not raining – but the remnants of the rain were everywhere – mud, and deep crevices along the trail, trees fallen along the path.  It was hard climbing, sometimes dangerous, and glorious.  I was hiking with a few of my colleagues – we were together for a retreat for senior ministers in large UU congregations – new friends whose words and work I had long cherished and now we were climbing a mountain together.
There was content in our week together – learning and reflecting and an official agenda. Yet, as always in these sorts of gatherings, it is the in-between times, the breath, the unplanned conversations, and the long walks to an unknown places that stay with me long after our time together.
So often in our congregations, and in our lives, we can start to feel isolated.  Like we’re facing all the struggles and challenges all on our own, and that there’s no one that quite understands, or shares the same longings or is working towards the same goals.  But then…you find yourself debating faith, and evil, and the popular misinterpretation of Universalism by way of overly-optimistic theological anthropology, all while navigating a rocky cliff and a rushing river…and you think, we’re all in this together! 
OK, I know, that’s not likely your specific example of discovering common ground.  But – we all have these stories.  Where we realize that where we thought we were going it alone, there’s actually a bunch of others out there, working alongside us – not always totally visible to us, but there nonetheless.
In these days where the work of repairing the world can feel insurmountable, let us remember the many partners who are out there who we cannot see, yet are with us nonetheless.  And let us give thanks for each of them, and for the visible ones too, and let us be faithful to our partnership, and the good work that calls all of us on.
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The Courage of Faith, and Doubt

belief-and-doubt-1Reading – from “Faith and Doubt” in Paul Tillich’s Dynamics of Faith
An act of faith is an act of a finite being who is grasped by and turned to the infinite. It is a finite act with all the limitations of a finite act, and it is an act in which the infinite participates beyond the limitations of a finite act. Faith is certain in so far as it is an experience of the holy.

But faith is uncertain in so far as the infinite to which it is related is received by a finite being. This element of uncertainty in faith cannot be removed, it must be accepted. And the element in faith which accepts this is courage.

Faith includes an element of immediate awareness which gives certainty and an element of uncertainty. To accept this is courage. In the courageous standing of uncertainty, faith shows most visibly its dynamic character.

Sermon – The Courage of Faith, and Doubt 

The first time I met the man that many had told me could fund a full time minister in the church I was then serving – if he liked the minister enough, he hadn’t even asked my name, or told me his, when he leaned in to ask: Are you a believer?

It was a trick question, I knew – or rather, it wasn’t – and that was the trick.

He was looking for a specific answer, obviously an acceptable orthodoxy you might say, and then I’d pass the test, I suppose. I knew what he wanted me to say, knew he wanted me to put myself in one category or another, affirm my fitness for the congregation in doing so– maybe for UU ministry entirely…

Are you a believer?

I paused for a small moment, contemplating how much easier it would be,
if I just gave him that simple no that he was clearly looking for.

But….it turns out I’m not often lured in by something being easy….so, I instead responded….What do you mean?

Believer. He said – Are you a believer?

I’m not sure I know what you mean. I do believe in many things.

He became obviously impatient with me at this point: I mean, are you a deist?

Showing some restraint, I did not ask if he meant that I was a time traveler from the 18th century who believed in a cold and distant supreme being.

Instead I shrugged. Hm. I’m not sure why that matters.

And I walked away.

Obviously, I did not pass his test, and they did not end up with a full time ministry position funded that year.  And thus ends the story of what brought me to Foothills…just kidding. Mostly.

Asking about belief is not, regardless of what this man, and many others might think –
the same as asking about one’s faith.

Belief indicates a sense of certainty – like he was asking me to say, for sure, where I came down – did I believe?

Lately, I have been longing for this sort of certainty, something to hang on to would be solid, clear, concrete.  To have a list of answers, and know what’s right, what’s wrong–
to have clear black and white definitives for what to do, what part to play, how to react, and why.

And as long as we’re at it, I wouldn’t mind a feeling of confidence that God – still not the deist version mind you, but one that would be watching over us, and would never give us more than we can handle, and is also is totally taking care of climate change in ways we don’t yet see or understand.

Heck, these days I’d even take being in the 77% of adults who believe in angels – or as the studies put it, believe that “ethereal beings are real.” Because, clearly, we can use all the help we can get.

But, to answer the question that man asked me a number of years ago in the direct way he was looking for, No – I am not so good at belief like that. More often, I’m not a believer.
I’m a doubter, constantly navigating waves of uncertainty, confusion, and complexity.
Like Fox Mulder, I may want to believe. But, more often than not, I’m much more like Scully, skeptically squinting, “I’m not convinced.”

Luckily, I find myself in good company. We Unitarian Universalists are not – historically – known for our belief. Many of us have – as the Rev. Christine Robinson calls it, a “wintry faith,” where we live much more in the realm of doubt than in clarity. This is somewhat ironic given that our denominational designation – that 10-syllable sometimes-source of confusion to newcomers and media alike – Unitarian. Universalist –indicates a belief statement.

As in: Unitarian – an affirmation of the oneness of God, originally specifically, anti-Trinitarian. Universalist. Describing our theological conviction that ultimately, all people are saved, or healed, and loved, no exceptions.

Despite our name, however, our tradition has had a pretty complicated relationship with belief – I’d say for two main reasons -first, because both of our founding theological claims were in reaction to the orthodoxy of the time, which meant that the seeds of our religion were sown in the context of stating what we didn’t believe, rather than what we did – so that here we are hundreds of years later, and still sometimes we struggle to articulate a positive affirmation and construction of our individual beliefs, let alone those things “commonly believed among us.”

But secondly, and more importantly, our relationship with the idea of belief is clouded by the fact that all along, even in times when our churches have had creeds – which sometimes they did –there was always a clause in the church by-laws that said that ultimately all members were encouraged to follow their conscience, that “we need not think alike to love alike,” and that there was no helpful way to require someone to believe what their heart could not believe.

And therefore, membership in one of our churches could not be predicated on assent to a list of beliefs. This clause was what was known as the “liberty clause.”

In our covenantal tradition, belief has never been understood as our critically binding element. Instead, religious practice has been oriented towards faith as something much riskier, less controllable, and more dynamic than belief and its static, fixed, certainty –
something grounded in our actual experiences of being human, and what we discover as we come together in relationship with others.

Writer Sharon Salzberg – who was raised Jewish and is now a Buddhist – captures our idea of faith so well when she says – “Faith – in contrast to belief, is not a definition of reality, not a received answer, but an active, open state, that makes us willing to explore. While beliefs come to us from outside – from another person or tradition or heritage – faith comes from within, from our alive participation in the process of discovery.”

As the 19th century German theologian Friederich Schleiermacher would have it –faith is a feeling we each have, an experience of absolute dependence – an experience of life, of be-ing, an awareness of – everything – and the way we fit into all of thisand a surrender into this experience.

This feeling of absolute dependence is what Tillich means by the certainty of faith- (rereading the text)

This feeling is, however, pre-lingual; which is to say, words to describe it come later –
as are any attempts to attach meaning or ascribe beliefs to these experiences – and all of these are inevitably inadequate approximations attempting to capture what is unexplainable. And here is where we come to an uncertainty (read it).

My colleague the Rev. Jan Christian – who serves as staff for our Unitarian Universalist Pacific Western Region – tells a story about when she was about 10 years old. She was out on Lake Mead with her family, when her dad stopped their boat and asked Jan if she’d like to swim. She looked out at the water, unsure.

“How deep is it here?”, she asked.

“Oh, about 500 feet, I think.” her father responded.

She was alarmed. “I can’t swim in water than deep!”

“You swim in the deep end of the pool. Your feet don’t touch there and they don’t touch here.”

Her dad responded, quite reasonably.

“But, here I can’t see the bottom.”

Faith is the leap into the deep waters, where we cannot see the bottom – the willingness to trust, to relax, and to swim in the same ways we would have if we could see, if we did know exactly what is there, and to live with the unknowing.

Unlike belief, faith does not try to resolve the unresolvable tensions of existence, or attempt to make solid what is always dynamic and mysterious, changing and sometimes scary, or terrible.

Instead, it incorporates into itself our inevitable doubt, acknowledging all that we cannot see, all that we don’t know – all the ways we could be wrong, and how little control we have over how most anything will turn out. It takes all of this in and says, ok. Yep. That’s how it is. Let’s get on with the living anyway.

This understanding helps differentiate faith from hope, as hope is not so detached as this – hope is often oriented towards specific outcomes. In the quote on the front of the order of service, Vaclav Havel offers a definition of hope, but it seems to me, that instead this definition gives us a vision for what it means to release hope, to move into a steadfastness of living and loving, a loyalty to values and vision, regardless of how it will turn out. I’d call this not hope, but faith. And as Tillich asserts, its practice requires courage, particularly as the waters and the waves around us grow more active.

I’ve never been to Lake Mead. But I’ve been to other lakes that seem similar. And in most cases, the water is relatively calm. Even if it’s especially windy, or if the lake is particularly crowded – there’s no undertow, and even if the waves are especially big, if you have a life jacket on, and you know how to swim, you should be fine. You can trust that the water will hold you.

But this is not when faith is most needed, or tested. Faith is not only about leaping into the calm waters where you can’t see the bottom, but just as often, it is the practice of as diving into the open sea – where surrender to the waves might just take you under – take us all under. What does faith mean, in times such as this – which is to say, times like these.

The temptation in these moments of life’s greatest uncertainty, as I shared earlier about my own longings, is to lean into our own versions of faith as belief –to strengthen these beliefs into certainty, squelching all doubt within, or around us, hoping our sense of the truth might offer us a source of stability in the turmoil.

So that we are drawn to assert – not the existence of angels, necessarily – but to harden into whatever our own beliefs really are – even if they are unbeliefs. To lock into a story about what is happening – to us, around us, in our world – and who’s to blame. To harden the categories between those of us who believe as we do, and those who do not. To turn to our neighbors and ask, Are you a believer? And to use the answer as an indicator if they are the sort of person we can know, or that we can love.

Sharon Salzberg acknowledges that “Beliefs can provide a thread of continuity and perspective as we undergo the tumultuous changes and storms of everyday life. It’s not the existence of beliefs that’s the problem, but” – she says, “what happens to us when we hold them rigidly, when we presume the absolute centrality of our views and those who don’t share our views remain the ‘other,’ and we don’t really need to listen to them. Our story becomes the story.”

Even we who – at least in theory – appreciate a diversity of views – and who honor the many and sometimes-contradictory pieces of truth we all hold as valid – can be drawn into what philosopher Richard Bernstein called “Cartesian anxiety,” wherein – ever since Descartes – humans have been longing to claim a degree of ontological certainty – a singular and unchanging narrative that explains our lives, and life itself – mostly through the use of science, but also, through scripture, or even politics, or maybe today, political parties, and their rhetoric.

Unfortunately, or fortunately – ontological certainty, would be what some might call an alternative fact, or more simply, a lie. Because there is no way to know for certain – what it all means, what’s going to happen, how to make things better, as there is no way to reconcile our finite understanding with an infinite reality.

So instead of growing our orientation to belief, times like these invite us to take that courageous leap into faith – a faith that as Paul Tillich says – understands doubt not as its opposite, but as its elemental partner.

Last week I spoke about the practice of courage in our courageous love as taking action out of a sense of duty, regardless of fear – duty specifically connected to the value and vision of agape love. Tillich defines courage as “the daring self-affirmation of one’s own being in spite of the powers of ‘nonbeing’ which are the heritage of everything finite.” To translate a bit – he’s saying courage is the act of continuing to live, as if your life matters, as if it has a purpose – in a truly ultimate sense – even in the face of fear, and risk, and the realities of this ocean and its mad waves – even in the presence of doubt. Courage, he says, is an essential aspect of faith, because it is always a risk to live with such a willing awareness of all that we can’t know, to take doubt into one’s self, and yet persist in love, nonetheless.

Faith is the capacity to remain unresolved – to love the questions – as Rilke would have it – yet still remain confident – to acknowledge the mystery, the confusion, the pain at the center of life– and to love courageously anyway.

Margaret Wheatley reminds us, both Moses and Abraham were charged with great tasks, yet “had to abandon hope that they would complete these tasks in their lifetime.” Still, they persisted….Leading not from certainty, or even optimism, but from faith, and “from a relationship to” a vision “beyond their full comprehension.”

Courageous love calls to us with this vision, though so much remains out of our view –
beyond our knowing –  and calls us to have the faith that we might allow it to lead us on.

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