What Comes Next

Reading – from Alain de Botton’s 2016 essay, “Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person”  

It’s one of the things we are most afraid might happen to us. We go to great lengths to avoid it. And yet we do it all the same: We marry the wrong person.

Partly, it’s because we have a bewildering array of problems that emerge when we try to get close to others.  We seem normal only to those who don’t know us very well.

In a wiser, more self-aware society than our own, a standard question on any early dinner date would be: “And how are you crazy?”

The problem is that before marriage, we rarely delve into our complexities.  Whenever casual relationships threaten to reveal our flaws, we blame our partners and call it a day.  As for our friends, they don’t care enough to do the hard work of enlightening us.  One of the privileges of being on our own is therefore the sincere impression that we are really quite easy to live with.

Our partners are no more self-aware. Naturally, we make a stab at trying to understand them. We visit their families. We look at their photos, we meet their college friends. All this contributes to a sense that we’ve done our homework. We haven’t.

Marriage ends up as a hopeful, generous, infinitely kind gamble taken by two people who don’t know yet who they are or who the other might be, binding themselves to a future they cannot conceive of and have carefully avoided investigating.

The good news is that it doesn’t matter if we marry the wrong person. We mustn’t abandon him or her, but only the idea…that a perfect being exists who can meet all our needs and satisfy our every yearning. We need to swap this view for a tragic (and at points comedic) awareness that every human will frustrate, anger, annoy, madden and disappoint us — and we will (without any malice) do the same to them.  But none of this is unusual or grounds for divorce.

Choosing whom to commit ourselves to is merely a case of identifying which particular variety of suffering we would most like to sacrifice ourselves for.  The person who is best suited to us is not the person who shares our every taste, but the person who can negotiate differences intelligently — the person who is good at disagreement.

It is the capacity to tolerate differences with generosity that is the true marker of the “not overly wrong” person.  Compatibility is an achievement of love; it must not be its precondition.

Sermon – What Comes Next

There was a moment last Sunday, when Sean came out for the announcement of the results of the vote, this vote that represents the unique right of congregations in our tradition to call their own ministers – the congregation rose to cheer, the whole place was filled with joy, elation, and also relief.  Relief for many reasons, but especially because it indicated something important.  Something represented by a word we use to talk about ministers once we are called – we say we are settled ministers.

As in, we aren’t going anywhere.  

Now, in my rational mind I haven’t been worried at all – about Sean going anywhere, but the less rational parts in that moment felt the relief too. The relief that we could be – set.  For a time.  Settled. We can breathe a little, maybe rest, go on sabbatical…

It took so long to get here, we had weathered so much over the last five years to feel this stability.  But then – in that same moment,

I felt this visceral memory of my own call.

I’ve actually had two moments like we had last Sunday, two votes, and two calls. First, my call as associate, five years ago almost exactly.  Marc Salkin would be retiring a few months later, after more than two decades as the settled senior minister. After the vote people told me with a similar joy and relief, how much they appreciated that I’d keep things stable, and settled at least to a degree through Marc’s retirement.  Some of you know, however, that the interim period that came next was many things, but stable or settled? Not so much.  

Which is why, in the fall of 2015 when the congregation voted for my senior ministry call, the relief and the joy was even more profound.  I had people tell me that they were so glad I would be here to do their memorial. Which isn’t that unusual for someone to say when they feel a connection to a minister, but, I mean….people in their early 50s.  

We had worked so hard to get to that point, it was a relief.  To be able to count on a little predictability, to say that we’d made it, that we could breathe…. Little did we know what 2016 would bring, and 2017, and 2018…in our country and our culture, and in our congregation…We have not yet experienced a time that I would call – settled.  

In his book, The Course of Love, Alain de Botton reflects on the moments in relationships where we officially decide we’re in, that we’re committed – moments like a vote to call a minister.  

He’s talking about romantic relationships, but I think it applies in relationships of all sorts, and the way that we think about love in our culture.  Which is that we confuse these early moments, these starts – as the high point of love itself.

The stories we tell, and internalize – are all about the work it takes to get to these moments – this yes –  so that once there is commitment, everything else is well….happily ever after.  

As he says, “in so many love stories, there is simply nothing else for the narrator to do with a couple after they have triumphed over a range of initial obstacles other than to consign them to an ill-defined future – or kill them off…..we seem to know far too much about how love starts, and recklessly little about how it might continue.”

The real work of love, after all, is not in the falling, but in the continuing – the real work of love is in what comes next.   

It was late 2014, when I got an email from church members. 

Late 2014 means about 8 months after that first glorious moment of relief and settling of my first call.  And 6 months after Marc’s retirement aka his unsettling.  Pretty much everything in this community, this network of relationships, in that moment, felt hard, and at risk.  

Those of us in leadership had not too long before received this other email from one of our members, the subject line said literally: “the church used to be such a joyful place.”  

When this email came to me, I knew I had to go see them, as soon as possible.  They were ready to leave, they felt alienated, and angry – for some specific reasons and also from a really generic sense of disorientation.  

I called and asked if I could come over. 

They said yes and before long we were at their kitchen table talking about our church.

Where we had been, what they were feeling now, what would come next.  They wondered if they should just take a break for a while, at least during the interim time. Before the next new settled minister. 

I looked at them, as they said this.  They were people who I knew had made this church, this community – all of this human goodness possible – for years.  

My heart was filled with gratitude, and anticipatory grief at the idea of their leaving.  

I said, you can do that.  If you must. There is no coercion in covenant, so it is always a choice that you have. But what I hope you’ll do instead, what we need you to do instead, is not to leave, but to lean in closer.  

Come more often, not less.  Show up even more – with your commitment, your care, your passion, and your pain.  This community needs you now more than ever.

And you know what is amazing? They said ok.  

Every Sunday from then on – pretty much the whole of the interim time, they came.  And with their help, and the help of many others, including many of you, we worked out a way forward through that time of transition, and change – which is to say, a time of grief,

And also re-birth.  Think of all we have become in these past few years….The vibrant community gathered here. The care we have sustained sisterhood groups. Food bank and one village one family and sanctuary and new emerging immigration work  

The real work of love is not actually in the settling, but in the what comes next.  

Two Sundays ago, Kristen shared a quote from writer Glennon Doyle:

when you look closely at people, you end up loving them.” I appreciate this quote so much because what I think what she’s saying is that there’s always a story behind any given behavior.  There’s always a need, a value, an upbringing, an injury, a hope.

It’s nearly impossible to disregard someone, or to imagine they are unworthy of love once you know their story.  So that it is in the leaning in closer – often right as we most want to flee – that allows us to learn – as Glennon Doyle also says – it’s in these moments that we realize there’s another option than fight or flight.  

A third option, which is to heal.    

Any of us who have been in close relationships of any sort for a sustained amount of time, know there are endless opportunities to consider – all three options.

Because while it is true that as you look at people closely, you love them, it is also true that as de Botton says, in this closeness “we have a bewildering array of problems that emerge.”  In any given relationship, there are thousands of ways to misunderstand each other, disappoint each other, break our promises…New and regular opportunities for us to know betrayal, or loss, to find our beloved annoying, or simply boring, and sometimes, downright mean – and to wonder if it is perhaps no longer true, that the gift is in the staying, and leaning in, but instead, that the gift would be in the leaving, and the letting go.  

Another thing about writer Glennon Doyle – she of the “when you look closely at people you end up loving them” she wrote a book called Love Warrior.   It was about a major what-comes-next moment.  

Her husband had confessed to her, after many years of marriage, that he had been serially unfaithful since their wedding.  The book is about what comes after his confession. And ultimately, the book is about the way they repaired their relationship, and committed themselves to each other and to loving for the long-haul.

Which is why it was especially surprising when – right as the book was released to the public – exactly one month before it dropped – Doyle announced that she and her husband were separating.  

Her publishers were– let’s say – not thrilled….announcing your divorce while trying to sell a book about the power of marriage? Not exactly a recipe for success. In her announcement, she describes how she learned with her husband, after all they’d been through – that you can be shattered, and still put yourself back together, piece by piece.  

She discovered that third way – instead of fight or flight – what it means to stay, and heal.

But she also discovered that sometimes, in the healing, and the putting your pieces back together, you realize you have become a whole new person.  A person that no longer fits in the relationship as it was.  She decided that she was not called to be successful, only faithful.  And in this case, she decided that leaving was faithful.

One of the realities of long term community life is that there will be transitions.  People will leave, for all sorts of reasons, and often for reasons we can’t totally name or understand.  While these are often tinged with grief, it matters most of all, how we we tend to these transitions-  both as the ones who are leaving, and the ones who stay – how we acknowledge, how we refuse to blame, or coerce, how we stay open even in the parting to this call of healing that is still available –  to keep leaning in to the ongoing work of love.  

It is never easy to know in those moments when the impulse arises – whether leaving or staying is the faithful choice.  The choice that represents the work of love. There are, however, often clues that can help us discern. We can listen for what is behind our impulse to stay put, or to leave.  Whether we are seeking to control, or to surrender. If we are seeing more clearly, or less. If we are driven by fear, or by hope. We can listen for where healing needs to happen –  where growth is possible. That is, in the relationship, or out of it; knowing that the only thing that really grows us is love, and pain. Often all mixed up together.

It is an intensely spiritual choice, to learn how lean in like this. To turn towards rather than run away from what feels like our limits.  To learn to endure in the presence of the real – the real of the other, the real of ourselves. To let ourselves feel this much, to feel this much in the company of others. To let our lives matter this much.  It is an intensely spiritual choice.

“Reaching our limit,” Pema Chodron says, despite what we have been taught, can be “like finding a doorway to the unconditional goodness of humanity, rather than meeting an obstacle, or a punishment.”

What happened last Sunday, in Sean’s call – is just like what happens each time someone joins this congregation – and like what happens in marriage ceremonies, and in the arrival of new children…..all of these are not insignificant milestones. They often represent a culmination of so much work and care. But also, even as they are completion of one thing, they are also just the start.

They are the promise of love, but the real work of love is in what comes next.

Which brings me to the envelopes you received on your way in. I hope you’ll read through all the materials, slowly. Some of the print is small so if you need a large print version, just stop by the office on your way out.  Most of all, I want to draw your attention to the orange sheet where you will find our new vision. This vision is the path we set for ourselves last fall.

It is the promise of love that we intend to make real over the next five or more years. The path that we will make real through our willingness to show up fully in this next moment – with our open hearts, our curious minds, and with our resources.

We ask everyone to get on a path to 5% giving – and get us all on a path to our future. And we invite everyone who participates at Foothills to participate – to find your place on this path.

120 years after our founders first imagined it, we are still called to be the church of humanity.  To do the work of love long past the first promising – to meet every bewildering and beguiling moment with resilience, and a constant faith, discerning together the path of healing, of hope – of justice, and of joy.

The power of this community, as with all relationships, has always been in this decision that we make to offer ourselves, as we are – to keep showing up even in struggle, and in our doubt – in service of this bold vision, that is ours, that we might keep growing together, held and called by a courageous, steadfast love.

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 19 years, Carri, have 2 children, Gracie (13) and Josef (11) 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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