The Next Right Thing

Reading – from Glennon Doyle – “A list of 5 things I know” 
1. What you don’t know, you’re not supposed to know yet.
2. More will be revealed.
3. Crisis means to sift. Let it all fall away and you’ll be left with what matters.
4.What matters most cannot be taken away.
5. Just do the next right thing one thing at a time. That’ll take you all the way home.

Sermon “The Next Right Thing” 
I was in my first year of seminary when the call came – not the call to ministry, of course. That one was in full swing by this time – having recently conceded that I wasn’t just in seminary as a fun intellectual exercise. The call I mean was a literal call.

It was Tuesday of spring break and I had been napping with my daughter who was then nearly two and a half. Or maybe, I was napping, and she was watching TV. Hard to say.

I heard the phone ring in, but I let it go to voice mail. Twenty or thirty minutes later, I wasn’t done sleeping, but Gracie disagreed, so we started moving around and I went to look at the caller ID.

I thought I might recognize it, but couldn’t say for sure.

Nine years later, I can still remember the woman’s voice on the recording, every pause and intonation. She said, hello, I’m calling from the Denver Department of Human Services. We show that just over two years ago you adopted the baby girl of (and she said her name). She’s had another baby. A boy. We don’t know what will happen, but we’re wondering if you would be interested in maybe a foster, or adoptive placement. He’ll be ready to come home from the hospital by Friday or Saturday. If you’d give us a call back, we’d appreciate it.

I didn’t want to say it to the kids when they were here before, but as I was planning what I would say to them today, I realized that they don’t know yet.  They don’t know that the dread/excitement butterflies don’t go away when you’re done with school – they just become less predictable. When you’re a grown up, the sleepless nights and the deep breaths of terror and awe don’t just come once a year in late summer/early fall.

They come anytime – all the time.

And what’s worse, there’s no teacher around to help you know what to do, how to be,
and even if your parents are still around, you’ve long realized that instead of having some magical tool box of answers, they are right there with you wondering that great spiritual question that seems to sum up life today – W.T.F?!

Which we all know means, well that’s fascinating….?

So, going back to the call. It’s not that we hadn’t thought about having another child. It’s just that literally, the day before, my partner had told me she was going to get laid off, likely by Friday, because the grant that funded her program had come to an end, and remember I was in seminary, so my income was negative, and any savings we had was quickly being depleted through the childcare for our toddler. Our not-great sleeping toddler, which meant we were also exhausted, and our extended families lived far far away, and we were already feeling like we were barely hanging on.

Which means, clearly, it would be a very stupid idea to say yes to this call. At the least we should give it some serious contemplation, think carefully about how it would all work, and if it really was a good idea given – everything. We should be realistic.

So I called the woman back, and I got all the information I could. He’s 2 days old. He’s 4 pounds. He’s tiny, but eating well, learning to breathe. He was 2 months early.  They wanted to know if we would take him – they gave priority to us because we had his bio-sister – but if we weren’t up for it, they’d start calling others pretty quickly. So, could I call her back in the next few hours?

Butterflies of terror and awe felt like they were bursting from every part of my body, I said, cooly, sure. I just need to call Carri, I mean, we should talk it over. I’ll call you back.

So we hung up, and I called Carri, and told her, and she burst into tears.

We can’t, how can we, how will we ever manage it, I’m going to lose my job, we’ll lose the house, we don’t even know what we’re doing with our one kid, how in the world?!

I didn’t have answers. I didn’t know how it “all” would work. I didn’t know hardly anything at all – except one thing. I knew who we were.  In the big sense – I knew the kind of people and family we wanted to be.

So in response to her appropriate panic, I told Carri:  We have to go get him. He’s ours. We’ll figure it all out. He’s Gracie’s brother. And he’s our son. We will be ok. We just have to get him.

I’m pretty sure we kept talking until Carri stopped crying. I do know that by the end of the call, my clarity became our clarity, and so I hung up and immediately told Gracie, thinking it would be the biggest mind-boggling thing she could ever hear:

Grace, your baby brother is here.

Without missing a beat, she said, I know, he’s flying up above.

Mostly, I think this was toddler nonsense. But sometimes, I let myself believe, instead of it simply being toddler nonsense, that in some mysterious and magical way, she already knew, this was the exact right next thing that should happen.

The instruction to do the next right thing is something that Glennon Doyle says often – in her writing, and her blog posts. She’s a recovering addict, but found the talk of taking one day at a time too big a bite of the unknown.

Life isn’t made up of days, or weeks, or years. Life is a matter of choices, often small and fast and hidden, between friends, in families, over dinner and in the midst of a phone call on a Tuesday afternoon.

The choices we make become the way we make our lives.
And so her mantra is to stay focused on that next right choice, the next right thing, one thing at a time.

The particular version of this instruction to do the next right thing that Sean read,
came to be one night, after her three children were in bed, and she was alone, sitting on the bathroom floor.

Just a few hours earlier she’d been in another small room, and her husband was there, as was his therapist. There in that room, on a regular day in the middle of her life, her husband confessed to her, that for years, actually since the beginning of their marriage, he’d been cheating on her.

She immediately left the therapist’s office, and then proceeded to go through the motions of her day – she picked up her kids, fed them dinner, put them to bed. Until finally she found herself in her bathroom, sitting on the floor. She was pretty sure her marriage was ending.

Their whole life, everything she knew and cared about her was dissolving all around her.
All of the what-ifs, and the what do-I-do’s were hitting her because the kids were in bed,
which meant it was quiet and night time, and she was alone with just her thoughts and especially this one big thought:

The world, her world, was cracking open, pulling apart, and she couldn’t see how she would survive. What was she going to do to make things right? Will things ever be right again?

Many of us have been asking ourselves similar questions lately. What can we do to make things right? Will things ever be right again?

Unlike Glennon’s story, however, we can’t point to a single revelation that brought us here, it’s more like – many new pieces of information, a combination of many new things going on or maybe a constant stream of things that would be on their own earth-shattering shifts to absorb – but taken on the whole engender a degree of overwhelm and uncertainty so pervasive that it’s hard to even know what to be mad about, or where to move forward.

Will things ever be right again?

Just in the past few days we had the pardon of Joe Arpaio, and then the ban on trans folks in the military, all in the middle of the impending hurricane and an overarching realization that these extreme weather events are just going to get worse because climate change, oh, and it looks North Korea has all the missiles. And again, this is just the past three days.

It’s way much. Too much uncertainty, and confusion, and fear – it’s no wonder we find ourselves metaphorically, ok, maybe literally on the bathroom floor.

This new reality came into view sometime around January, for many of us, but actually it is much older than that. While the pace of change has sped up in the last decade with social media and other technological innovations, I’d trace this new reality of uncertainty and change back a few decades, maybe 40 or 50 years even. The current administration didn’t invent these changes – they’re just especially good at leveraging them to further their agenda.

Which also means that the end of this administration won’t be the end of uncertainty,
or multi-faceted quick moving change.  The world just doesn’t unfold in a single, linear way anymore – or rather, we can no longer imagine that the world unfolds in a single, linear way, and it never really did.

One of the thinkers and activists inspiring me right now is the writer and healer
adrienne maree brown, whose book “Emergent Strategy” I’d like to swallow up and swim in, it’s so good.  It is handbook for how to deal with this reality of uncertainty.
But before you go thinking it’s a step-by-step strategic plan for resistance, let me clarify that she directs just the opposite. Instead of working against uncertainty, she advises we lean into it, feel all that’s going on in all the places that are changing, and learn from the patterns and new creations emerging.

Uncertainty, she reminds us can be our friend as we learn how to “shift from a culture of strategic planning to strategic intentions.” She says that although we can no longer count the salvation of a master plan, we can still allow ourselves to be guided by our master values.

Sitting on the floor in terror and overwhelm, Glennon Doyle understood all of this exactly – that there could be no map, no big picture path that she could follow to guarantee success. Too much was shifting, too much was unknown. Which she came to realize was actually the best news – because that means she really didn’t know what was going to happen. And, as long as she could remember the sort of person she wanted to be, and use that to do out the next right thing, one thing at a time, she’d find her way home.

Since getting the call a few weeks ago from Jennifer Piper from the American Friends Service Committee– which in this case the call was an email – about a woman who was seeking sanctuary with us – I’ve been having flashbacks to the calls we received when we were waiting for our children. The call for Josef, because of the suddenness and the not-readiness, but also the calls before that, even before the call about Gracie.

Because we had to think carefully not about whether or not the child needed a home,
and definitely not about whether or not it was morally right to offer them a home.
Instead, we had to consider more specifically if the home they needed was our home.
If the journey they were on was one that would become our journey.

And of course doing this was all terrible speculation, because there is finally, no way to know, rationally, reasonably.  It’s not about facts, it’s about something else – some other sense. Something to do with the people we were hoped to be, but also related with my daughter’s non-chalant understanding of her brother’s obvious and already true presence among us.

As we’ve gotten closer to the vote about sanctuary, and as the reality of providing sanctuary to someone who would otherwise be separated from her children – has sunk in, and as the power and the privilege of being in this position has really hit me –
it has been often completely overwhelming.  I may have said a few curse words. Or at least it has been overwhelming whenever I start to think about the whole thing,
as in try to anticipate all that may come up, or ensure we have a procedure at least in outline if not full sentence form for – everything.

I guess – using Sean’s terms from last week, this is me “Howing myself to death.” Which is maybe even worse than having someone else do it….

But when instead I go back to that big why, that question of what kind of people we hope to be, what our faith calls us to be – and I don’t try to figure out the how for everything – but just the how of the stuff we already know – then it’s not that hard.

Because then I start to realize that even if we don’t know all the answers right now, we’re good at figuring stuff out. And since we are blessed with an uncertain world, stuff we know right now will be different before too long, so we’ll know other stuff instead,
and that will give us new challenges but also new opportunities. And because in this uncertain and confusing world, knowledge and power is so easy to share, we have so many more partners to help us, and those partners can do really big and important parts of the work – like give money, or volunteer, or send us notes of support and appreciation
like I’ve been getting from clergy and community leaders, and fellow citizens of Fort Collins this past week.

I can’t answer for you if this is the next right thing, and by this – I mean sanctuary, or any other next right thing we land on. I can only promise that if it is – we’ll figure it out.

And I know this because my son – that little 4 pound shockwave – started fourth grade last week. Not everything has been easy, or without heartache – but what in life worth doing is?

You may know that the name Josef, the name we chose for him because I was finishing my bible sequence and I imagined he was like the brother at the end of Genesis whose story started in tragedy but turned into generosity – this name means “God will provide.”

Before Josef, and before his sister, I’m not sure this saying would’ve made sense to me.
But my kids, and also my ministry with all of you have helped me with the translation.
Because I’ve seen – I’ve experienced – that sometimes, a lot of the time to be the person you are called to be you have to take a leap of faith, where you don’t have all the information, and the risk is high for getting your heart broken, but you do it because you know who you are, and you know the sort of world you want to help create, and then, in ways you can’t predict or totally understand, sometimes a lot of the time, life responds in kind.

We don’t have to figure everything out, we don’t have to make everything all better.
We just have to do the next right thing, one thing at a time. That’ll take us all the way home.

About Rev. Gretchen Haley

Gretchen Haley is relentlessly curious about most things, especially the big stuff of theology, the beauty of creation, the magic of collaboration, and the great joy of pop culture (reflected in this blog by random posts on Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Scandal, Orphan Black, or the latest Marvel movie). She has an audacious ambition for the liberal church, believing in its capacity to transform lives and our world by way of hyper-local relationships and partnerships that inspire the unleashing of courageous love. She's all in on adrienne maree brown's emergent strategy, and finds solace in the trails in and around Fort Collins Colorado where she serves with the brilliant Rev. Sean Neil-Barron as one of the ministers of the Foothills Unitarian Church. She and her amazing partner of over 20 years, Carri, have 2 children, Gracie (14) and Josef (12) who both relish and resent being PKs, and who keep her grounded, frustrated, inspired, and humbled, everyday. She is basically obsessed with her puppy, a large sized mutt, Charlie.
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