The Pretense of Accident

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Writer Sharon Salzberg tells the story of when she was 18 and had the idea to go to India to study Buddhism.  Her childhood had been a swirl of grief, with both of her parents dying tragically before she was 11.  When she discovered Buddhism, she was hopeful at the promise of a path beyond suffering.

It was just a few days before her trip, but she still hadn’t really figured out a plan for what she would do in India.  She was getting a little anxious.  So, she found a talk by a well-respected Buddhist teacher in a nearby town, and decided to go see if he might be able to offer some advice.

At the end of his talk, he invited questions from the audience.   She wrote her question out, and submitted it for consideration.  And wonderfully, he selected it first from the pile:  “In a few days, I am leaving for India to study Buddhism.  Do you have any recommendations as to where I should go?”

After some silence, eventually the teacher responded: “In this matter, you had perhaps best follow the pretense of accident.”  That, she says, was it.  “No names, no addresses, no maps or directions.” Just follow the “pretense of accident.”

I’ve been wrestling for some time with the ideas of accident, and fate; chance and destiny – what theologians call, “providence.”

Our theology of providence is the ideas we have for God’s participation in the unfolding of life.  When people say “it’s meant to be,” they are making an assertion of providence – imagining that somehow there’s a right teleos – or end – that we are moving towards, both individually and as an interdependent whole.

The word itself is rooted in the promise of being provided for, that God  – or Life, or Nature, or…whatever construct you might give credit to – will care for the whole of creation, that life will go precisely as it is meant to go, or perhaps most importantly, that there is a “right” path for life, a “right” path for each individual life, and for life as a whole, and that somehow we can discern and follow this designed path.

I’ve been wrestling with these ideas because truthfully, my instinct, my impulse, is to say, they are – ridiculous.  My instinct is – life is simply a series of events that sometime unfolds in ways we find beautiful, and sometimes tragic; but none of this is attributable to some kind of concept of destiny.  We see patterns where there are no patterns, see what we want to see.  Rather than the pretense being accident, I’d say that the pretense is “plan.” There’s no plan.  There’s no right path, no provision by some transcendent force, however conceived – it’s all just chance, and randomness, and luck, and coincidence.

But I’ve been wrestling, because life keeps giving me evidence to the contrary.

Just as one example.  Last June, I was at the airport, leaving General Assembly in Louisville, headed home after a week away.  The group of us from Foothills had attended many workshops, shared in conversation over many meals, celebrated together in many wonderful worship services.

One of those workshops was titled something like, “so your minister is going to retire…”  And since about half of us at GA were privy to Marc’s then-mostly-secret-plans, we were all first in line to attend.  There were a bunch of panelists, but one stood out to all of us.  He identified himself as an interim who often follows retired ministers, and we all appreciated his insights into the complicated feelings present in a congregation through such a transition.

After that workshop, our group whispered to each other, who was that? maybe he will be our interim, let’s find out about him.  It was such early speculation with a huge long process to go, none of us exactly took it seriously.

But then, I was in the airport, on my way home, and I sat down in the food court, and who just happened to be at the table next to me, but that same guy from the workshop.  I introduced myself.  I told him about Foothills, my recent arrival, and our upcoming transition.  He told me about the congregation he was serving in Virginia.  He told me about his grandchildren in New Mexico, and his home base on the west coast.

After a bit, it was time to go to the plane – we were to take the same one it turned out.  We said goodbye, and he said, maybe our paths will meet again someday.

Fast forward nearly a year, to this last May, and our own interim search process.  In my inbox, an email, it was from the minister on the panel, the same who I had met at the airport.  He began, I remember our conversation at the airport, and I had hoped then we would meet again, and then he went on about how impressed he was with the Foothills application. Reading his email, I had an overwhelming sense of joy, gratitude, and blessing.

A couple days later on the phone, he told me, I don’t know if it’s going too far to say this, but I feel I may have a callingto be there.

A few weeks later, the interim search team called me to say that after considering 9 different applicants, that same minister from the workshop, and from the airport, and from the email – David Keyes, would be our interim.

The whole thing all unfolded as if according to some mysterious plan.

When these kinds of things happen – when all kinds of variables that could’ve gone a different way – seem to work together with a mysterious unity – it is hard not to feel like there’s some sort of plan, and we’re just here to receive life’s incredible gifts, and to stand in wonder, and gratitude.

And yet, how we choose to interpret these events has some pretty serious consequences.  Because – if these things are all somehow unfolding according to some kind of plan, then are all things a part of that plan? Which is to say – if God is the provider when things are going well, is God also the withholder when children are starving, when families are homeless, when illness strikes, when relationships are irrevocably broken? And then somehow these too are a part of some kind of larger divine order?

One more story, from my own life.  Many of you are aware that my children are adopted through foster care.  But maybe, not as many realize what that phrase means.  My kids’ birth mom did not choose to place her children for adoption.  She wanted to parent.  So much.  But ultimately she wasn’t able to – due to a variety of reasons.  She had been raised in foster care herself, 11 different homes.  She never learned the tools, never experienced what it meant to be held in love.

And from this terrible generational tragedy, arrived my life’s two greatest blessings – first Gracie in 2005, when she was 2 days old, and then again, when we got another call out of the blue, that Gracie had a biological brother 3 days old, would we want to come pick him up? Josef came home when he was 5 days old, tiny and beautiful.

Sometimes I wonder to myself, that their birth mom’s worst day, was my best day. Twice.  Was this somehow part of a plan? Does somehow the life we can give them now, redeem that tragedy of their birth family’s past?

No. I don’t know. Maybe. I don’t know.

I had a friend in seminary whose grandparents were survivors of the holocaust.  When these kinds of questions were raised, she would say that her entire test of whether or not a theological claim was true or valid came down to whether or not it could stand up in the presence of burning children.  And from that perspective, calling anything “meant to be” feels absurd, and cruel.

And yet, this also calls to mind a story from physicist Leonard Mlodinow, whose parents were also holocaust survivors.  One day in the camp, his father stole a chunk of bread from the bakery.  And when it was discovered, the guards lined up all who had access and could’ve stolen it, and said, if the person who did this doesn’t come forward, we will just start shooting everyone.

So his father stepped forward and confessed.  He made that choice to step forward.  And then, the guard, rather than doing the expected, dismissed everyone, and ended up hiring Mlodinow’s father to work in the bakery.  Which in one way or another, protected his father and allowed him to survive the concentration camp; his father’s first wife and children were not so lucky.  It also meant his father would go on to meet his mother.  And then he was born.  And his children were born.

He says, he’s spent a lot of time struggling with what it means for his life to be the result of such randomness in the midst of such an incredible tragedy.

The Taoist tradition tells a story about a farmer, who had only one horse, and one day, the horse ran away.  The neighbors came to console him over his terrible loss.  The farmer just said, “we’ll see.”

A month later, the horse came home – this time bringing with her two beautiful wild horses.  The neighbors became excited at the farmer’s good fortune.  Such lovely strong horses! The farmer said – “we’ll see.”

The farmer’s son was thrown from one of the wild horses, and broke his leg.  All the neighbors were very distressed.  Such bad luck! The farmer said, “we’ll see.”

And then, shortly thereafter, a war came, and every able-bodied young man was sent into battle.  Only the farmer’s son, because he had a broken leg, remained.  The neighbors congratulated the farmer – and once again he said, “we’ll see.”

In the moment, each of those things that happened to the farmer were good, and bad, and good, and bad – but in the fullness of time, they were the opposite.  It does not mean that any of us would’ve wished that his horse would run off, but only that we can’t predict the ways all the various causes and effects will turn out.  We can’t know how one day’s tragedy will be another day’s blessing.

As our reading says, “as long as you are alive the story of your life is still being told, and the meaning is still open.  And as long as there is life in the world, the story of the world is still being told.”

And so, if you, today, are in a moment that feels- impossible- and final- in the worst possible way, with this in mind I can offer this good news: it’s not final. There’s more story. So much more story to come.

Which is to say, that perhaps in the fullness of time, imagining there is some greater goodness we are destined for, as I told you last week, those words from Theodore Parker, picked up by King and Obama, imagining that there is some greater moral arc that bends towards justice – that perhaps in the fullness of time such an idea need not be dangerous naiveté.

Perhaps in the fullness of time, it is true, as the theologian Julian Hartt puts it, “The moral flow of the world may suffer momentary checks, but it is irresistible.”

Actually, Obama did not simply repeat Theodore Parker’s phrase. He used the construct, but then he went on to say, “but here is the thing: it does not bend on its own. It bends because each of us in our own ways put our hand on that arc and we bend it in the direction of justice.”

Which brings me back to physicist Leonard Mlodinow.

Mlodinow studies randomness and chance, along side the possibility of choice, and destiny and uses the concept of Brownian Motion to help unpack how all these things work.  Anyone know it?

It’s new to me – I’m definitely not a physicist.  But basically the way I understand it is that particles appear to move randomly, for no apparent reason.  And originally, people concluded that the movement was the “life force,” the energy force, you know, God.

But, eventually, Einstein realized that this particle movement is happening because molecules are pushing the particles this and that way. It isn’t exactly random, there is a reason.  And this, Mlodinow says, parallels our lives.  Because it might feel, when you look at your life, like so many things are random – but in the midst of what appears random, we are given choices about how we’ll react.  And it is our reaction that determines what life presents next.

We are the molecules, pushing the universe this way, and that.

Old and orthodox ideas of God that imagined God as entirely “other” and entirely far far away – ensured that traditional concepts of providence forced a false choice – God vs. human; supernatural vs. natural.  But we have many other constructs of God today, and such profoundly better understandings of the universe – limited though they still remain – that we need not imagine God as a distant or distinct force from the natural world in order to embrace a theology of providence.

Process theology, just as one example, imagines that God fully participates in life, co-creates with life, and that in fact God is the luring of life into a greater goodness, a greater love.  God is the pull of love.  Or, as feminist theologians have urged, God isn’t love the noun, but love, the verb.  Luring us all to what the Jewish tradition might call, God’s shalom – which is often translated as peace but is better understood as harmony.  Great, interdependent, harmony. Shalom.

In this concept of providence – we’re all partners.  All of life, across time, and space. All of us little molecules pushing up against one another.

We lure each other, pull one another along – to a greater sense of justice, and love.  And sometimes, we all line up.

Sometimes, as poet Seamus Heaney put it, “hope and history rhyme.”

But nothing’s a given. “Nothing is settled, and everything, everything matters.” So let us choose well.  And follow the plan.

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About Rev. Gretchen Haley

Gretchen Haley serves as the Senior Minister of the Foothills Unitarian Church in Fort Collins, CO. She's relentlessly curious about most things, especially the big stuff of theology, the beauty of creation and poetry, the magic of collaboration, and the great joy and often-great-depth of popular (and less popular) television and music. She and her partner of 17 years, Carri, have 2 children, Gracie (10) and Josef (8).
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