There’s a phrase I’ve heard a lot in the past few months: we are living in an unprecedented time.
And in a lot ways – it’s true. No one in our congregation was alive in 1918 for the Spanish Flu…so none of us have experienced a pandemic like this. Something requiring massive and prolonged isolation. Let alone a pandemic in a time where truth is so hard to pin down, and there isn’t a sense of trust in public leaders, or in each other…and yet with this equally unprecedented capacity to remain connected through technology – all across the globe – so we can really see just how unprecedented this is – for all of us.
And, at the same time, over the past few weeks, I have started to remember a history that is not the story of my own life, but of our collective lives. And it is a remembering. In my bones, and in my breath, I’ve started to remember that this is not all entirely new. We have been here before.
We have lived and struggled through what Margaret Wheatley has described as “enormous upheaval, dislocation, famines, and fears. We’ve had to counteract aggression, protect our loved ones, and face the end of life as we’ve known it.” We have lived and survived so many times where life itself felt at risk.
Which means that in our collective memory there resides – maybe not that tangible clarity so many of us crave – but still the wisdom and the strength, that is the resilience we need to meet this moment, to survive and to thrive.
Like many of you, I grew up Catholic. So the idea of connecting with spiritual ancestors and their help is not new. Growing up we called them “saints.”
But still, as an adult – while the lives and lessons of the women and queer folx, and the courageous actions of our Unitarian and Universalist ancestors – while all of these have been inspiring, and bolstering – for a long time, these stories have felt distinctly past tense. Disconnected in any real way from me and us, in the present, here and now.
But then the last few years…well, you know the past few years. So much change, and grief – nationally, globally, and, for many of us, personally.
Pema Chodron talks about the Tibetan word “ye tang che.” Ye, as in: “totally, completely.” And the rest: “Exhausted.” She says: “Ye tang che describes an experience of hopelessness. And this is important – as it’s the beginning of the beginning. Without giving up hope, we never relax enough with where we are or who we are…” in order to make the space to become something else.
In the past few years I’ve become pretty familiar with ye tang che. In the past few weeks, I’ve been there – a lot. And what I’ve learned about this place, is how freeing it can be, how things that previously were blocked by my rational, skeptical brain, arrive as gifts.
And one of those gifts is a new relationship with our ancestors. In the past few years I’ve discovered that the people of the past need not remain past tense, but can be present here – connected in the now. It’s like – when all that is tangible and seen fails to make sense, then you start to turn to what is unseen. When things fall apart, we can more readily lean in to mystery, its power and its possibility.
So I was fully in a place of ye tang che the fall of 2018 when I went on retreat to Ghost Ranch in New Mexico. (Some of you have heard me tell this story, but let’s hear it again – it’s so good for right now.)
I had brought with me my grandmother’s rosary and the golden cross that had sat on her bedside before she died, and when the time came, I placed them on our shared altar. As we settled into a meditation meant for connecting with our ancestors, I imagined meeting her there.
She’d been a nurse for returning soldiers from World War 2, which is where she met my grandfather. She gave birth to seven children, was the mother to seven children – and her husband struggled with mental illness. And still she was a powerful leader in her church and her community – she started her town’s food bank.
I figured she knew some things about survival, perseverance and resilience. So as I settled in for the meditation, I listened for her response: Grandma, how do I keep going?
But then as I settled into the silence, instead of my grandma, another voice and presence came to me – the Rev. Anna Jane Norris – circuit-riding minister of the 1880s who preached up and down the wilderness of northern Colorado trying to start a liberal church.
It hit me as her name came to me, how much resistance she must have faced, how much derision, how familiar she must’ve been with ye tang che – and yet somehow she kept going until a church took hold in 1898, what became Unity Church – Unitarian of Fort Collins, which changed its name to the Foothills Unitarian Church in 1968.
And so instead of asking my grandma, I asked Anna Jane: How do I keep going?
And here’s what she said to me – I wrote it down right after so I wouldn’t forget – she said:
Everything you are thinking about,
All the things you’re stuck on – all these questions that are swirling –
none of this is God.
God is bigger than you know. Bigger than what you can dream, or imagine.
I could’ve never imagined you – she said.
I could’ve never imagined this church that you serve today.
It was impossible. And still, somehow I was sure of it,
even when there was nothing.
There are dreams at work beyond your own.
So, keep going. Just keep going.
You don’t have to do everything.
Someone will come next.
What you leave unfinished will be their calling.
Just keep going.
I’ve returned to this encouragement, and her words, and the felt sense of her presence – so many times since then – I’ve felt her resilience like it’s my own.
Over the coming weeks, as we continue to make our way through this unprecedented time my invitation is for us to all lean in to the precedence that we hold within us, as we allow these histories to come alive in us. Because together we can remember a resilience rooted not in our individual lives but in our collective life, in life itself. We can remember we are not alone in this moment – we are a part of a powerful history unseen by our eyes, but still available in our bones and our blood. In our DNA.
In these days, we can allow every weary moment, every moment where we feel totally exhausted to be a place where we can open ourselves even more to the power of this mystery – God that is so much bigger than our worries, or even our dreams. The life that is far beyond what we can see.