Expect Nothing, and Everything

We know how the story of Hanukkah goes. The Jewish people had finally returned to the temple after many years of occupation, humiliation, and near despair.  They were celebrating, purifying, remembering and re-claiming – for the Assyrian army had been defeated, and they were free.

During the time of hiding in caves and fending off arrest, they had missed their great festival of Sukkot, which must be celebrated in the temple, and so now that they had returned they began the ritual of the harvest as their covenant with God required.

As they began, however, they realized that the Assyrians had destroyed all but one night’s worth of oil for the lamp. They needed 8 days worth – anything less would not signify a true re-dedication or commitment to begin again as a religious community and as a people. After all they had been through, it mattered that they do it right, and completely.

Often when I have heard the story, after this set up, it turns immediately to what the Rabbis later called “the miracle.” The miracle being that rather than one day as they had expected, the menorah stayed lit for eight days.

But for today’s telling, for today – I want to point to something else, something that happened before that more famous miracle.

I want to look to the choice that was made, the choice to light that first candle –
even though it did not have enough oil. And I want to affirm that choice in and of itself, also a “miracle.”

In lighting the candle, the Jews held together an important paradox, a paradox that all of us are called to hold as Unitarian Universalists, and as people of spiritual maturity,
that is, the paradox – on the one hand of accepting the reality of the oil as it was – not enough, disappointing, a symbol of all that had been taken from them; and yet on the other, in their choice to light the candle, they also held the expectation that something more was yet possible. Something beyond their current sight or understanding, a greater hope for the world as it was meant to be.

As the story has come to us, it is important, that the Jewish people did not hold just one awareness or the other in that moment – it was both, a total letting go of expectations, acceptance of life as it was, and also an expectations of life in its most possible sense.
Long before I knew what the past few weeks would hold, I knew I would be preaching on expectation today. It is the theme for the month of December, and a fitting one for this holiday season.

Most of us expect a little – or a lot – of things to be true or to happen this time of year.
Many expect this season to be especially fun, or joyful – or maybe the opposite.
Many expect the spirit of the holidays to take over our “usual lives,” and for this time to feel special, or different. Some of us even imagine that for a moment, the world will become itself in ideal – conflicts both national and familial will be resolved, peace and kindness and love will rule.

In the most day-to-day sense, we often expect that somehow we’ll be able to do four times as much as usual, but with much less stress or irritation; we expect our children, grandchildren, our friends and our spouses to look just like they do on Facebook and in Holiday cards – so calm and cheery – all the time, especially since we’ll be spending so much time with them; and we definitely expect not to get sick, or to lose our job, or for the car to break down, or for any of regular life to interfere with this special time…..

I started to think about this month’s theme over the summer when I heard the new podcast from NPR, called Invisibilia, which is about the impact of invisible things.
One of their episodes is about expectations, and how other people’s expectations are acting on us, all the time.

It tells the story of a man named Daniel who became blind as a toddler, and whose mother never expected him to live any differently than a sighted person, and as a result, Daniel never expected his life to be limited in any meaningful way by his blindness. From an early age, Daniel developed a version of echolocation – he learned how to click in order to locate himself in time and space.

This adaptation has freed him to live his life with confidence and without restrictions –
just as his mother had expected.

Daniel’s story is offered in contrast to one of his friends, Adam, who was also blind, and who Daniel met in 5th grade. Unlike Daniel, Adam had been given assistance to get around in any way – his whole life. The people around Adam expected him to need help and to be limited by his blindness. And the more people offered him assistance, the more he came to expect it, the more his capacity aligned with all those expectations.

This story is not an anomaly. As research psychologist Melanie Pinola reports, “if you want to change your experiences, change your expectations. What you think will happen may affect you physically. [For example,] in one study, golfers who were told they had a ‘lucky’ ball made more putts than they did using an ‘ordinary’ ball.” Similarly, a teacher’s expectations have been shown to raise or lower a student’s IQ score, the expectations of a military trainer can raise or lower the running speed of a recruit, and parental expectations can significantly impact the behavior of a child.

This is the “placebo effect” played out in the social and cultural sphere. We don’t totally understand why it works, but we have sufficient evidence now to say that it does.

Of course, there are limitations to the impact of expectations, and those limitations are where we often connect with what I think of as the more common spiritual wisdom about expectations. That is, that they are a set up for disappointment and suffering, and so are to be avoided.

As the Buddha has said, “Serenity comes when you trade expectations for acceptance.” In her great work, When Things Fall Apart,” Buddhist nun Pema Chodron describes this fundamental truth as a matter of staying in the present, of letting go of either worrying for the past or the future, and instead receiving the moment just as it is. As she says, the “spirit of true awakening is about letting go of everything.”

My professor used to say that the Buddhist way of thinking about ultimate truth is like an onion. You peel back all the layers and at the center, there is nothing. The idea is that because everything is interdependent – there are too many moving parts interacting and impacting and changing each other to say that there is ever any independent thing – which means that the reality of everything, is no-thing. This paradoxical concept is what leads to the spiritual wisdom of letting go of expectations, and accepting life as it is, and making room for all that we do not and cannot know. For ultimately, there is nothing there.

Expecting nothing frees us into the present moment, and allows us to experience the here and now as what Chodron calls, “the perfect teacher,” even when – especially when – it is something we would not have happily anticipated.

She says, “The most precious opportunity presents itself when we come to the place where we think we can’t handle whatever is happening. Most of us [however] do not take these situations as teachings. We automatically hate them.” We guard off our heart, become defensive, closed – in one way or another – angry, despairing, avoidant, addicted, or apathetic.

The spiritual task however, invites the opposite. Not to close off, but to stay awake to the pain, to let it in – and to make more, rather than resist connections in the midst of this awareness. To find gratitude and joy even when – most especially when things fall apart – allows us to hold life as it is – unpredictable, impermanent, and yet still wondrous, profoundly beautiful, and filled with love.

I ran into Rabbi Shoshana from Congregation Har Shalom by chance at a coffee shop on Thursday, both of us hurried, and rushing. When she saw me, she didn’t even say hello. Just, “we aren’t doing enough.” I said, “I know.” I said I’d call her to talk about Hanukkah, to prepare for this Sunday. She said, no, let’s sit down. Let’s study together. She was to teach on Friday night, so needed the study too.

So on Friday, we read and re-read the Rabbinic texts, the historic accounts, the commentaries, and the kids versions of Hanukkah. A friend of hers stopped by to offer insight. Along the way, we lamented San Bernardino, Colorado Springs, and the 353 other such mass shootings that have happened in this country in this calendar year. And the year isn’t over yet.

“We need a peace march,” she said. “Can we sing?” I said. “It’s not enough,” we both said.

Perhaps you know that the story of Hanukkah – the parts about the lamp – is not the historical account. The historical account is instead one of a relatively extremist sect of Judaism called the Maccabees taking to violent protest in order to overthrow an emperor who was nicknamed “madman.”

Not everyone resisted it turns out – some of the Jews instead assimilated, found ways to simply “go along.”

The “miracle” in the historical account was about a small community of people who refused to to go along, and refused to accept the world as it was.

The lamp story, on the other hand, was added later, and emphasized as the ritual for the holy days of Hanukkah by the Rabbis because they felt that the critical moral lesson from this period should not be about a violent uprising.

They felt it should instead be about God’s intervention, the importance of faith, and a reclaiming of Jewish values and practices.

As Rabbi Arthur Waskow observes, the Maccabeean historical tradition affirms “human courage and doggedness, the human ability to make history bend and change: the need to organize, to act, to fight, to build might and use power.”

And on the other hand, the Rabbinic tradition of Hanukkah “celebrated….’not might and not power,’ but a kind of inwardness and contemplation that was contradictory to insurgent politics.”

Waskow wonders, is there a way for those of us celebrating Hanukkah today to hold both of these perspectives – the Rabbi and the Maccabee, the deep awareness and contemplation of what is, and the call for change – to reconcile these supposed opposites as instead two parts of a greater truth?

Many of my friends and colleagues are getting into their pulpits this morning to express outrage, which I think is valid, and one true way to respond to the world as it is.

However, I am not sure – as one of you wrote on as a comment on my blog this week – that the world needs more outrage. Instead, we might consider what witness of hope and life we might offer in the midst of this ever-present pain.

And how we might, in following Pema Chodron’s wisdom, remain awake to this suffering, present to the fear and chaos – to not close ourselves off in any way – whether through outrage, denial, or resignation, by calling names or assigning blame, but rather to take in the world, and this moment, just as it is, and to expect nothing else. And then, in this full acceptance, to bear witness to the resilience of love, joy, kindness, compassion, laughter and silliness, and to hold space for all that we do not yet know.

On the other hand, however, as Unitarian Universalists, our faith compels us to tend to the story of hope, “the story” – as Victoria Safford puts it – “of those who lived their lives and gave their lives for love, for a difficult and truly patriotic idea – liberty and justice for all.” This Unitarian Universalist faith asks us to orient our lives according to this hopeful story, and to live out of the possibility and expectation that we are meant for something more, something more possible and hopeful and good – to affirm that there is more love somewhere, more compassion, more peace – still and always possible. And as the studies show – it is by expecting such a world that such a world becomes more likely.

Which means, our faith asks us to expect something more. To expect we can change, to expect a world that places a greater value on human life – in all of its complexity and imperfection, a greater value in human life – than we do on access to weapons designed specifically to end human lives quickly, and efficiently.

For too long and too often we have been the assimilated Jews denying the war that has broken out in our own country, failing to join the resistance. For too long and too often we have failed to kindle the flame that is ours because we couldn’t imagine it would be enough, that we or our efforts would be enough to do what needs to be done. But it’s enough. This is enough. We cannot turn away any longer. We need to light our small flame, wherever it may be, and see what new thing emerges, and refuse to get too caught up in our expectations of efficacy. As Vaclev Havel says, “hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns out.”

In terms of policies – I don’t know – I am not a policy maker, I’m a clergy person. But like many of you, I have read a thousand articles in the past few weeks, and most of them indicate that even a few small changes could reduce the likelihood of gun violence, mass and otherwise. Let’s at least advocate that we can have the conversations, that we can do the studies, that we won’t be so stuck in a fundamentalism that says unrestricted access to all weaponry is our only option that we throw up our hands and say this is the best we can do.

This holding of paradox – of both expecting nothing, and yet everything – of being fully present to life as it is and yet making space for something more – this is a life practice – a life orientation that allows us to remain awake and engaged to life as it is, without giving in to despair. It’s helpful for this moment, but it’s also necessary for all the ways that life is both heart-wrenching and still possible, painful, and yet still sweet and silly, and filled with so much good.

As we move through the holiday season, and throughout our walk together, may we keep waking up, and keep making space for all that is yet to be.

Let us be the makers of miracles, refusing to believe that this beauty we have within and among us is not yet enough to change the whole world. It could be. Let’s see.

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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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