Monday, October 26, 2015

What Do We Have to Let Go of When We Want to Hold Hands?

I will admit that I don’t know if this story is true, and I’ll confess that I didn’t try to find out because it’s such a good story. So let me just say that this is what I’ve heard.  There was an experiment done in which some fish were put into a small tank that was then put within a larger tank.  The fish could see the larger space around them, yet were confined to a much more limited existence.  They were left this way for a while and, as far as we can know what fish are thinking, they grew used to it.  And then the scientists removed the smaller tank so that the fish now had unlimited access to the entirety of their environment.  And yet – again, so I’ve heard – the fish never did swim beyond what had been the boundaries of their smaller tank.  They had, apparently, internalized the limitations that they had learned and simply were not able to move beyond them.

We just recognized and honored the choice of several members of our community to formalize their membership.  I, personally, struggle with the right words here, because I believe that a person can absolutely be a member of this community as soon as they walk through those doors and decide to come back again.  From this perspective, being a member (lower case “m”) has to do with involvement, engagement, connection.  From this perspective there are lots of folks who are members of TJMC even though they’ve never signed the membership book. 

At the same time, though, there is something important in taking the step to formalize that membership.  That’s the reason I generally discourage people from doing so right away.  I think it should be the response to our involvement and not the doorway to it.  And I think it’s a decision not to be made lightly, because afterward things will be different in some perhaps imperceptible yet really important ways. 

I remember my mother telling my older brother on his wedding day that there would be something different after the wedding – maybe even only subtly different – even though he’d already lived with his bride-to-be for several years.  Pat pooh poohed it, of course, but during the reception he came up to her and told her that she’d been right.  He couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but something was different now that they’d formalized their relationship in this way.

I remember, too, the phone call I got – years ago now – from a woman who’d just signed the membership book that morning.  She called because she wanted to tell me right away about something strange that she’d noticed.  This was a woman who’d been a part of that congregation for a while and who was almost evangelical in her sharing of the wonderful community she’d found.  She’d tell her friends, “at the church I go to we’re doing this …,” or, “at the church I go to we’re doing that …”  She was always telling someone something our congregation was up to.  She called me that day to say that she’d been talking with someone about the church and realized that she had said, “at my church …”.  Something subtle had shifted in her when she took the step of formalizing her membership.  It was no longer simply “the church I go to;” it had become, for her, “my church.”

So, to those we recognize today for taking this step I want to say the two things I’ve always said when people make this choice.  First, congratulations – you’re joining yourself to a really wonderful community.  And second, thank you – because your presence here makes it more wonderful still.

And that’s really what I want to reflect on this morning:  the way new members – formal or more informal – change this community.  In one of our newcomer orientation sessions someone said that at the last congregation she’d attended the ordained minister would say that as soon as someone made the choice to become a regular attendee and participant it was as if they were handed a metaphoric paintbrush so that they, too, could add their colors and shapes to the mural that was constantly being created and recreated.  That’s a lovely image, isn’t it?  Yet there’s a dimension to it that most of us most likely would rather not think about.

I don’t know how many of you have ever worked with others on a free-form mural.  I know that when I’ve done this there are times when someone comes along after I’ve created some wonderful thing and they dare to change it.  My tree becomes their rocket; my sun becomes their flower.  Or I’ve got in my mind how to use a blank space over here, and someone else comes along and does their own thing in it.  And depending on my mood – especially depending on how seriously I’m taking it all – this can be really annoying.  Upsetting, even.  And, in keeping with this month’s theme, I’d have to say that it can be hard to … let go … of the plans I’d had when someone comes along with plans of their own.

This happens when we invite new members to grab a paintbrush and add their own artistic vision to our ongoing mural.  At least, it should.  It should change things if we who are already here are serious about really inviting new people to bring themselves, and be themselves, and offer themselves to this beloved community.  We who are already here are already doing the things, and doing them in the ways, that we’re already doing them.  One of the gifts, we say, of expanding our circle – as the choir so movingly sang last week – is that our common life becomes infused with the inspiration of “the new.”

And this will be especially true when we who are already here welcome in a greater diversity of people, which we say that we want to do.  Diversity speaks to difference, so the more diverse we become the more different we become.  At least, of course, if we really do mean it when we invite people to bring themselves, and be themselves, and share themselves.  Welcoming “diversity” means welcoming people who are in some way or other different than the majority of the people who are already here or, at least, the people who set the tone and establish the norms of how we behave toward one another.  And these different people will have – do have – different ways of seeing things, and doing things, and envisioning what ought to be done.

Speaking in generalities for a moment, the Eurocentric culture – which informs most of the world around us and, let’s face it, the world in here, too – tends to focus on the individual and our own personal growth.  Consciously or unconsciously, explicitly or implicitly, the question most commonly asked is, “What do I get out of this?  How will this assist me in reaching my own full potential?”  Bluntly said, “What’s in it for me?”

Communities of color – again, speaking in generalities – are more often focused on the community and the health and wellbeing of the whole.  “What do we need?  How can this build us up?  What’s in it for us?”  I’ve heard this described succinctly as the difference between an I culture and a we culture.

So as long as our community here is built around largely homogeneous Eurocentric norms, we’ll tend to focus on doing things, defining “success” by how well our own particular needs are being met, and essentially maintaining the status quo so that we, ourselves, can remain comfortable and feel “at home among like-minded people” (as is so often said). 

To the extent we’re serious about becoming a more multicultural place, to the extent we mean it when we say we’d like to see TJMC become more diverse, to the extent our talk about a wide and welcoming invitation to all people is genuine, there will be challenges to that comfort.  If this vision of a more diverse, more multicultural congregation begins to take hold, the “we” of this place will be increasingly comprised of people who come from cultures that are more interested in the being in relationship than the doing of things, who define success by how the whole community is being supported and strengthened rather than the individual, and who will want to see us being flexible and fluid so that we can readily change as the “we” of this place continues to  change.

Let’s look at another example of the potential clash of different cultures, this one more generational than racial.  We who are already here – we who have been here for a while, and know how things work because we’ve been the ones doing the work to keep things working –  we know that there is a natural progression which folks are expected to follow:   you come for a while and then get involved on one or another of our committees; you volunteer your time to a fundraiser or, as we sometimes call them, a funraiser; you eventually become a chair of a committee (or two), gradually increasing the level of your responsibility until you find yourself on the Leadership Development Committee, the Committee on the Ministry, or the Board – levels of leadership and service that have traditionally been reserved for those who have “put in their time” and have gained the respect, or are at least fairly well known by, the congregation as a whole.  And, of course, along with this is the expectation that we will support the church financially – through the weekly offering and our annual pledge – and that we will increase that support the longer we’re here and the more we get involved.

That’s the way things work.  Or at least, that’s the way things are supposed to work, and it’s darned frustrating that it doesn’t seem to be working that way anymore.  Frustrating and a little scary, because that’s the way things work and if things aren’t working that way any longer it won’t be too long until our whole church isn’t working any longer.

Yet more and more often there are people joining this community who don’t have these expectations, and not simply because they “haven’t learned how to do church yet,” as is sometimes said.  They don’t have these expectations because that isn’t the way they see the world.  I know I’m speaking in generalities again but folks who make up what’s called Generation X and the Millennial Generation usually have no interest in climbing the committee ladder like us Baby Boomers and Traditionalists. 

In fact, they have no interest in sitting on a committee in the first place.  They want to be up and moving and making a difference.  Committees?  Not so much.  Active task forces focusing on doing something real?  Much better.  Especially if their work can be done largely asynchronously so it can fit into an already tremendously full life.  Maybe even most shocking, they’re not all that interested in making sure that they’re doing things in accordance with the way things have been done before.  They’d rather do things in the ways that work best for the task at hand and the people who are doing it.  In fact, they tend not to be all that devoted to “the church,” per se – the church as a concept – and are really more motivated by the real relationships they form than they are by some abstraction like a mission statement or sense of “church identity.”

A truly multicultural community – the kind we who are already here keep saying that we want – is full of all kinds of diversity.  Generational diversity.  Racial and cultural diversity.  Economic diversity and diversity of educational background.  Diversity in mental health status, and physical ability.  Gender identity and expression.  Political and theological diversity.  Each of these, and so many others we could think of, require of all of us a letting go of our own expectations of who we are and how we are so that we can listen across and through the differences to see the world – and our part in it – in new ways.

It was so easy – if you’ll forgive my anthropomorphizing – for those fish to remain content to swim within the comfortable confines of what they’d always known.  And it is easy for we who are already here to want to be comfortable in what we’ve known – the in-jokes, the shared history that goes unspoken (except through glances and knowing smiles), the assumptions we make about the new person we meet (because we expect that they’ll be more or less like we are in terms of educational background and the experiences a certain economic status provide).  It is easy – and natural –  to want to be surrounded by “like-minded” people who reinforce our own world-view and who validate our experiences as normative.

It’s easy, but our Unitarian Universalist faith calls us to be people of letting go, and that means letting go of all these things, too.  As a monocultural institution – which, let’s be honest, this is – becomes a multicultural one, people with different world-views and different experiences become part of the mix and no single one can think of itself as normative anymore.  Yet letting go of these things doesn’t mean throwing them away, but simply letting go of our death grip on them so that, as we said earlier, our hands might be truly open to receiving, our minds truly open to learning, and our hearts truly open to loving. 

I will tell you this, when I reach out my hand to welcome a newcomer, I don’t want to be holding on to anything that will get in the way of my completely clasping theirs.  And in that spirit, and with that conviction, I want to welcome again those we honored earlier for their decision to formalize their membership here and say once more:  congratulations – you’re joining yourself to a really wonderful community, and thank you – because your presence here will make it more wonderful still.  I don’t know quite how yet; I can’t know quite how yet; but I can’t tell you how excited I am to find out.  So me it be of for us all.

Pax tecum,


This is the sermon delivered in worship with the people of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist on Sunday, October 25th.  You can also listen to it, if you prefer.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Am I Right?

Not so long ago it was ... like ... all people could ... like .... talk about how ... like ... everybody was ... like ... sprinkling the word "like" ... like ... into all their sentences.  Like, you know, remember that?

And then the pet peeve de jour changed?  People began commenting on how it seemed that everyone was making their voices rise at the end of their sentences?  So that everything they said sounded like a question?  Even declarative sentences?  It was called "uptalk"?

More recently there's been discussions about "vocal fry," that kind of scratchy thing pop singers have been doing for years but that's become one more example of the different responses women and men often get even when they're doing the same thing.

Well ... I've got a linguistic pet peeve.  You must have noticed the number of people who put an interogative at the end of a sentence, right?

I know that it can be a way of checking in: "Are you following me?  This is making sense, right?"

It also can be an honest inquiry:  "What do you think of this?  Do you think I'm, well, right?"

Yet I've often heard it used in what I can only describe as a "bullying" way:  "What I'm saying is undeniably self-evident.  I dare you to disagree with me.  Right?"

It's this later use that bothers me most.  That, and the fact that it can be so darned hard to tell the difference among them, right?

According to the Global Language Monitor (Who knew there was such a thing?  And how could there not be such a thing?), as of January 1, 2014 the English language contained some 1,025,109.8 words.  One million words.  Distinct words.  Beautiful words.  That's a lot to choose from, right?

I have a friend from Japan who I met while he was studying here in the U.S.  One of the things I noticed about him was the precision of his English.  He didn't say "upset" when he meant "angry." He wasn't "surprised" when he really was "astonished."  (There's a cool website,, that's dedicted to describing "the difference between similar terms and objects.)  It seemed to me that he had learned Enlish whereas I, and most other English speakers I know, have largely absorbed it.

One can, of course, go too far with an instance on so-called "proper" speech.  (Even the concept of "proper speech" opens us to the question of just who it is who's declaring one form of speech as "proper" and another not.)  Yet it is also all too easy to go not far enough.  

Language can be used as a blessing or a bludgeon; to open eyes or to render things further opaque; to deepen connections or to draw distinctions that divide.  At its core, though, language is a tool, much as a car is a tool that can help us to get from one place to another and a paintbrush is a tool to help us express what might otherwise be inexpressible.  As with all tools, it behooves us to be careful how we use it.  After all, a tool is only as effective as the person wielding it is skilled in its use.


Pax tecum,


Monday, October 19, 2015

Letting Go and Moving On

So far this month we’ve been looking at what it means to be a person of letting go, what it means to practice letting go in our daily lives.  So far we’ve been looking at what I’d call the “easy” side of letting go.  Yes, both Alex and I have been clear that letting go is never really easy, but as we’ve largely been talking about letting go of things we know we need to let go of, we’ve been relatively easy on you all.  Today I’m going to dig us in a bit deeper.  What about when it’s things we don’t think we should let go of that we’re talking about?

I don’t need to give a list of illustrations here because I know that most of us can think all too readily of something that has happened to us that is – or, at least, if it were to happen to us would be – entirely impossible to let go of.  Harms done; pain inflicted; abuse perpetrated; wrongs that just can’t be righted.  Sometimes these things have had devastating effects on us – life-changing effects.  To this day we’re still wounded, still bruised, still aching.  How in the world could we ever be expected to let go?

Because let’s face it – we all know that in sermons like this “letting go” is a code-word for “forgiveness.”  And that’s where a lot of us get hung up, because when we hear talk of “forgiveness” we hear the phrase “forgive and forget” even when it’s not what’s actually said.  Most of us are conditioned to think that “forgiving” someone for something that they’ve done requires our “forgetting” the thing that was done or, at least, “forgetting” the effect it had on us.  The sometimes devastating, sometimes life-changing, effect it had on us.

In 2014 Archbishop Desmond Tutu (who was, among other things, head of South Africa’s “Truth and Reconciliation Commission”) wrote a book titled, The Book of Forgiving: The FourfoldPath for Healing Ourselves and Our World.  I’m going to quote from it a lot this morning.  Here’s something he had to say about forgiving and forgetting:

“Forgiveness does not relieve someone of responsibility for what they have done. Forgiveness does not erase accountability. It is not about turning a blind eye or even turning the other cheek. It is not about letting someone off the hook or saying it is okay to do something monstrous. Forgiveness is simply about understanding that every one of us is both inherently good and inherently flawed. Within every hopeless situation and every seemingly hopeless person lies the possibility of transformation.”

That shouldn’t be unfamiliar to us Unitarian Universalists.  The First Principle that holds our movement together is the affirmation of, “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.”  As I noted last month, “inherent” means that this “worth and dignity” is an integrated and integral part of our character as human beings.  It is unchanging and unchangeable.  Even when we do something “monstrous” there remains, however crusted over, the fundamental reality of our inherent worth.  No matter what another person does to us, we and they are part of one human family.  I’ll come back to Bishop Tutu again as he addresses head-on a question we may find ourselves asking:

“What about evil, you may ask? Aren’t some people just evil, just monsters, and aren’t such people just unforgivable? I do believe there are monstrous and evil acts, but I do not believe those who commit such acts are monsters or evil. To relegate someone to the level of monster is to deny that person’s ability to change and to take away that person’s accountability for his or her actions and behavior.”

This is, of course, another way of saying that nothing we can do can take away that fundamental, inherent worth we have as members of the human family.  But it’s his last point that I think is so fascinating!  When we call somebody a monster, or say that they are just plain evil, we really do declare them unaccountable for what they’ve done – a monster, after all, does monstrous things.  How then, really, can we blame them we they do so?  A person, on the other hand, who acts monstrously can fairly be called to account for their actions.  That’s as challenging an idea as it is a powerful one, because it’s so easy to think of people who do bad things – to us or to others – as “bad people.”  It is so hard to think of them as just people. 

Let me share with you three quotes from three people who each endured unimaginable abuse at the hands of others, who had every right to hold on to anger, bitterness, and hatred toward those others, yet who each found a way to let go of their pain and who refused to lose sight of the basic humanity of their tormentors:

Nelson Mandela said, “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy.  Then he becomes your partner.” 
Mohandas Gandhi said, “Whenever you are confronted with an enemy, conquer him with love.”  
And Tenzin Gyatso, the current Dalai Lama, whose homeland is still subjugated under Chinese occupation, said, “I defeat my enemy when I make him my friend.” 

Of course, these are extraordinary men, aren’t they?  To be sure, of course, it’s not just men who’ve exemplify this perspective.  I just as easily could have quoted Chinese journalist Gao Yu, Iranian student activist Bahareh Hedayat, the Ukrainian politician Nadiya Savchenko, or any of the many powerful women who have similarly paid dearly for their courage.  (Earlier this fall the examples of 20 female political prisoners from 13 countries were highlighted in a social media campaign called "Free the 20."  I’ll have a link to it when the sermon’s published online.)  These women and men, and countless others, have endured suffering which we here this morning could never fully imagine – suffering abuse, imprisonment, and torture at the hands of repressive regimes for the crime, essentially, of standing up for what is right.  Yet the vast majority of these people have refused to be embittered by their experiences.  But, again, these are extraordinary people, aren’t they?  I mean, no one could expect us – you and me – to be like them.

Well … remember our focus for the month.  We’re asking ourselves the question of what it means to be a person of letting go.  Maybe even more specifically, what it means that our Unitarian Universalist faith call on us to be people of letting go.  At least part of the answer is that we don’t get to give ourselves that easy out.  Our faith demands of us that we recognize that the only difference between us and the Mandelas, and the Dalai Lamas, and the Aung San Suu Kyis of the world is that they are better at it, that they’re more practiced at it.  Yet true as that is, it’s no excuse for us not to try.  But how are we supposed to go about even trying?  

Nelson Mandela may have given us a clue when he said, “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn't leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I'd still be in prison.”  I knew if I didn't leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I'd still be in prison.

I’ll understand if you’re thinking that that’s still an “easier for you to say” kind of thing, but he really has given us a clue.  He’s telling us that he didn’t let go of his bitterness and hatred only out of respect for the “inherent worth and dignity” of his captors.  He didn’t do it just out some kind of empathy, recognizing them as part of an unjust system that was bigger than they were.  He’s telling us that he also did it for himself.  He’s telling us that he did it so that he wouldn’t have to remain in prison while his captors roamed free.  “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn't leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I'd still be in prison.”

When you come down with the flu, you want to get better, don’t you?  And when you break a bone you want it to heal.  But what about when our sense of self or our dignity is broken?  What about when our heart is broken, or our faith in humanity is infected by whatever it was that happened to us?  What about when it isn’t our immune system that’s been compromised but our sense of simple safety in the world?  It’s harder then, isn’t it?

Part of why it’s harder is, again, our innate understanding of coded language.  When our well-meaning friends and families encourage us to “let it go,” “get over it,” “move on with our lives” we intuit, or at some level suspect, that part of what they’re really saying is that they want us to pretend it never happened.  No doubt that’s often, if unconsciously, true.  My pain is uncomfortable for you to be around, and you would like to be able to pretend that this thing – whatever it was – never happened so that you can get back to life as you’ve known it.  Of course, consciously what you mean when you tell me to “let it go and move on” is that you worry that I’m going to remain imprisoned.  It’s been said that when we refuses to forgive someone it’s as though we’ve drunk poison in the expectation that the other person will die.  Those who encourage us to “let go” don’t want to see us keep drinking poison.

And, of course, they’re right to be worried.  To quote Bishop Tutu again,

“When we ignore the pain, [which could be another way of saying “when we hold on to it” or “when we refuse to let it go”] it grows bigger and bigger, and like an abscess that is never drained, eventually it will rupture. When that happens, it can reach into every area of our lives—our health, our families, our jobs, our friendships, our faith, and our very ability to feel joy may be diminished by the fallout from resentments, anger, and hurts that are never named.”

But despite our friends’ – and even our own – best intentions this isn’t so easy to do because … well … for a lot of reasons, but a big one is that we’re afraid.  We’re afraid that if we forgive this person we’d somehow be saying that what they did wasn’t that wrong, wasn’t that bad, that it was, now that we’re looking back at it, in some sense “okay.”   We’re afraid that if we let go of our pain and our anger that in that letting go we’ll be giving our tacit approval and that we’ll allow the person who committed the act to forget what they did.

As you can imagine, Bishop Tutu has something to say about this, too.  He wrote:

“Forgiveness doesn’t mean pretending things aren’t as they really are. Forgiveness is a recognition that there is a ghastliness that has happened. Forgiveness doesn’t mean trying to paper over the cracks. Forgiveness means that both the wronged and the culprits of those wrongs acknowledge that something happened.”

That was the goal of South Africa’s “Truthand Reconciliation Commission,” and all the ones formed in other countries that have followed in its footsteps.  And the Commission was really well-named because the name really says it.  The purpose was to bring to light the truth of what happened – the unvarnished, honest, no-holds-barred, at times horrific truth.  Naming it, recognizing it as being as bad as it was, owning its effects on me … that’s the first step. 

Then there’s the reconciliation part.  Victims and victimizers were brought together so that one could say to the other the truth of what happened.  In fact, both were given a chance to speak their truths.  And then the question was asked, “what would it take to reconcile?”  Not, “how can we wipe the past away?”  Not, “how can we make it all somehow ‘okay’?”  Not, “how can we pretend nothing all that bad really happened?”  Not, in other words, “how can we let the person who did this off the hook?”  None of those would be at all good – for either person!  Instead, the question is about how we can return to a state in which everyone can recognize each other’s common humanity; how we can get to a place where everyone can again see one another as members of the same human family,

And that’s where the work of it all comes in.  It’s not easy – no matter what self-help slogans and internet memes might encourage you to believe.  The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Forgiveness is not a one-time act.  It is a permanent attitude.”  And the development over time – in “step by excruciatingly incremental step,” as I said a few weeks back – is part of what it means to be a person of letting go.  Even – and perhaps, really, most especially –  when what needs to be let go of is as difficult, and as painful, as this.

Maybe not surprisingly, I’m going to give Bishop Tutu the final word:

“Forgiving [and I think we could also say “letting go”] is not forgetting; it’s actually remembering--remembering and not using your right to hit back. It’s a second chance for a new beginning.”  He said, “We are not responsible for what breaks us, but we can be responsible for what puts us back together again.”

Pax tecum,


Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Aung San Suu Kyi looking from their internal freedom through the bars of their external captivity.

This is the text of a sermon delievered at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist in Charlottesville, Virginia on Sunday, Ocrtober 18, 2015.  If you prefer, you can listen to the sermon.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Why I Probably Will Walk Away From THE WALK

counter clockwise from top left: Jean-Louis Blondeau, Annie Allix, Jean-Fran├žois Heckel,
Jean-Pierre Dousseau, Jim Moore, Barry Greenhouse, and Phillipe Petit

I am someone who is always annoyed when people comment on movies they haven't seen, books they haven't read, music they haven't listened to, yet I'm about to become one of them.  On October 9th, 2015, TriStar Productions released the movie The Walk, staring Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  It is based on the incredible event of August 7th, 1974, when the French wire-walker Phillipe Petit danced back and forth, for nearly 45-minutes, between the Twin Towers in New York City.  I was just about 12 years old when this happened, and I can remember the sheer wonder and awe of it.  Something so impossible to even contemplate, and yet Petit didn't simply contemplate it, he accomplished it.  He made the impossible, possible, and it is not too much of an overstatement to say that my world changed on that day.  And with the relase of the 2008 documentary Man on Wire, I began to celebrate annually "International Phillipe Petit Danced Between the Towers Day."  (You can look back through my blog history and find a number of posts about all of this.)

You'd think that I'd be one of the first ones in line to see the new film, and I am tempted.  I might even see it at some point, but not right away.  And maybe not at all.  The reason for my hesitation is that from all accounts it tells only one part of the story of that day, and the story it tells is a misdirection from the true story -- a much more powerful story than that of a lone man overcoming impossible odds. 

In Man on Wire and, again from what I've heard, The Walk, it is noted that Petit had accomplices.  And this is how they are usually depicted -- accomplices who help Petit realize his vision, his dream.  Several years ago I wanted to use a particular picture I'd come across of Petit street juggling and discovered that this beautiful photograph had been taken by none other than Jean-Louis Blondeau.  I wrote to him in France and asked his permission to use the photograph.  We have corresponded back and forth several times now, and from him I have come to see the "fairy tale" (as he calls it) of the genius wire walker as the mere surface of the story, and a misleading one at that.

The truth as I understand it is that le coup -- as the walk was known among those who participated -- was very much a collaborative venture of a community of people.  In fact, the walk on that August morning was as much an achievement of Jean-Louis, Annie Allix, Jean-Fran├žois Heckel, Jean-Pierre Dousseau, Jim Moore, and Barry Greenhouse as it was a feat of Petit's.  Without them it simply would have been impossible and, not to at all detract from the sheer courage, commitment, and skill shown by Petit as he stepped out onto that wire, it was in many ways that team of "accomplises" who really overcame those "impossible odds."  It may be an overstatement to say that the walk itself was the easiest part of the whole thing, but it is my distinct impression that it was not the most difficult, either.

In last year's post I noted that I will no longer celebrate "International Phillipe Petit Danced Between the Towers Day" in favor, now, of more accurately marking the anniversary of "The Dance Between The Towers."  This is not the story of one man overcoming great odds; it is the story of a group of friends working together to do the impossible and to inspire the world.  That is the movie I want to see.

Pax tecum,


Monday, October 05, 2015

What's So Great About Letting Go?

creative commons license
This is the text of the sermon I delivered to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist on October 4th, 2015.  

Given the theme of the morning, and the fact that it was the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi,  the reading consisted of an excerpt from Richard Rohr's daily meditation from June 7, 2015.  (It was the 2nd paragraph, but the whole thing's great.)

So this month, as it is every month this year, our theme is a question:  What does it mean to be a person of <blank>?   Each month we’ll be filling in that blank with another characteristic of the kind of person our Unitarian Universalist faith calls on us to be.  It's often said that Unitarian Universalism is a low-demand religion, but I think that does us a disservice.  I know that it’s one of the things that particularly appeals to a lot of us, yet I don’t think that a religious, or spiritual, faith that doesn’t make some demands on us is ultimately worth all that much.  (Kind of like an exercise regimen that lets you just sit on the couch eating potato chips and doesn’t push you at all.)  So every month this year we’ll be looking at different aspects of the kind of person our faith calls us to be.  This month we’re asking what it means to be a person of “letting go.”

You hear it all the time, don’t you?  12 Step folks say. “Let go and let God.”  “Hand it over.”  From all sorts of traditions we hear about the importance of not being “attached” to things, and how the key to eternal happiness and contentment is to be found in “detachment” (which is, of course, another way of saying “letting go”).  We've heard it and hear it so often that we may no longer ask ourselves why we’re hearing it.  Why is it a good think to learn how to “let go?”

After all, this "letting go" goes against what seems like human nature, doesn’t it?  We want to hold on to things; we don’t want to let them go.  When my kids were little they’d even want to hold on to the boxes their favorite toys had come in.  And today, when we talk about giving away the wooden play kitchen they had so much fun with as toddlers, my now teenagers say that they’d rather keep it around, thanks.  All through our lives we’re asked to – forced to – let go of so many things, and in virtually every case it’s been really hard to do so because when you get right down to it we didn’t really want to.  Even people with an addiction can find it hard to let go of, no matter how much they know how bad it is for them.

When Arthur and I were brainstorming for this service he told me about an Empowerment Workshop he’s offered.  It begins, he says, with a deceptively simple question:  “If you can have your life exactly the way you want, what would it look like?”  If you could have your life exactly the way you want, what would it look like?  If your life could be the life you can now only imagine, what would it be like?

Some of us undoubtedly had some trouble coming up with an answer; others no doubt had no trouble at all.  Yet for either one I’d wager that the attempt at coming up with an answer also raised all sorts of reasons why you can’t have your life exactly as you want it to be.  We do that.  We dream dreams of what we could be doing with our lives and then almost simultaneously begin to tell ourselves all of the reasons why they’re just dreams and can never be anything but dreams.

Of course, if my answer to Arthur’s question is that my life "exactly the way I want it" is the life of a rock star, astronaut, superspy … well … that’s a dream that’ll probably always remain a dream.  (Of course, stranger things have happened.  Actually, no they haven't.)  You may have – or, at least have had –  dreams like that, too.  Dreams that really are unattainable.  Yet if I really sit with Arthur's question, live with it a bit, chew on it and digest it over time, I’ll probably find that rock star/astronaut/superspy isn’t really the life I want to live.  A life with some adventure in it, maybe.  A life that takes some courage to live.  A life that has some mystery in it … something intriguing about it.  Rock star/astronaut/superspy is just the metaphor that comes to mind to describe the kind of life I want to live; it's not really the description itself.   See?  If we sit with that question, and really open ourselves up to its invitation, we will come to an answer that's not just a fantasy/dream answer, but an answer that is real.

And that, Arthur says in his workshop, is a seed – that “something real.”  And the vision we have of the plant in full bloom gives us a goal, something to strive for, lets us know where we want to go and where we have to go if we want to live the life we most truly want to be living.  Yet before we can do anything else, we need to prepare the soil for planting that seed, we have to create a space for whatever it is that we're planting to grow.  This will certainly include pulling out some weeds and picking out what will no doubt be more than a few rocks that we’ll have to toss to the side.  We may even have to clear out some of the surrounding plants to make sure that we get the right amount of sun for our new plant's needs.  And all of this, of course, is ... letting go.  In order to plant the seed of the life we most deeply want to live, the life that will be for us most fully alive, we have to get rid of, let go of, those things that will make attaining our goal that much harder – the hurts we’re holding on to; the limiting labels we’ve been given or have taken on for ourselves; the pain that paralyzes; that voice that whispers in our ear about how “not enough” we are.  These things must be cleared from the soil before we can plant.  We have to let them go.

One of the things I love about juggling as a practice and a metaphor is that it directly, viscerally, addresses the question of how to let go.  After all, juggling is about nothing if not “letting go.”  As I said when demonstrating it earlier in the service, what you need to learn when you’re learning to juggle is how to throw the ball … how to release it … how to let it go.  Catching isn’t something we need to learn.  No matter how clumsy we’ve convinced ourselves we are, catching is a natural thing.  Because catching is just a form of “holding on,” and we humans are already awfully good at that.

What we need to learn, then, as juggling padawans, is how to throw, how to get rid of the ball in our hands, how to let things go.  And the way to do that, the learning of juggling teaches us, is step by excruciatingly incremental step.  Here's how I've been taught to teach it:  One ball ... dominant hand ... up and down.  One ball ... non-dominant hand ... up and down.  One ball … hand to hand.  Step by excruciatingly incremental step.  Each new step gives us practice in letting go.  Each step gives us another opportunity to experience in our bodies this letting go. Each new step making the next one possible -- not easy, necessarily, but possible.  And things generally go along smoothly until we get to that step I was talking with the kids about, that step where we’ve got two balls in the air and one that’s stuck – absolutely and completely stuck – in our hand.

I didn’t tell the kids this, but it took me a year to learn to juggle.  Because of my time on the program staff of a summer camp I think that over the years I’ve taught at least a couple thousand people and I can say with near certainty that if you give me one hour of your attention, and commit to practicing for even five minutes a day for a week, at the end of that time you will be able to juggle.  And it took me a year.

It took me a year because – as a teenager who was already a magician and already had the persona of a circus-y guy – I was stuck on the idea that I should be able to juggle, that I should be able to juggle already, and that if after all I did need to learn that it should come easy.  It took me a year because I wasn’t able to let go of my sense of self, my preconceived image of who I was and who I thought others thought me to be.  I guess it was my ego that I wasn’t able to let go of.  And I was stuck.  
Where are you stuck in your life?  Your job?  A relationship with someone that you want to start, or need to end?  An addiction you’re wrestling with?  A decision you have to, but just can't seem to, make?  Getting your finances in order?  Not being able to give yourself permission to do whatever-the-thing-is-that-you-most-want-to-do-but-can’t-seem-to-do? 

Most often, I think, the glue that holds us tight is fear.  When I was learning (or, I guess, not learning) to juggle I was afraid that people would think less of me and that my rep as a "seasoned pro" would suffer, if I couldn't get it "just right" right away.  Others have been afraid that people will laugh at them if they fumble, or that here, on the brink of actually "getting it," they'll prove to themselves that they really don't -- and never did -- have a chance; that they were destined for failure from the start.  Whatever the reason, we all found ourselves with that ball glued into our hands with thick and sticky fear.

So what's the fear, or fears, that's got you glued in place?  A fear of failure?  Of being alone?  People laughing at you?  Or walking away?  Letting yourself or someone else down?  Fear that the new unknown might not actually end up being any better than the old and known?  Fr. Richard Rohr, in that reading we heard a moment ago, gave all these fears an unambiguous name:  "our fear of loss and death."   And those "three primary energy centers" that he refers to -- our need for power and control, our need for safety and security, and our need for affection and esteem -- seem to be where all the action is.  When those things are threatened, which at least one of them is every single time we try to let go of one thing to make room for something new, the glue is thick and fast-setting.

One of the reasons it can be so difficult to face those fears and let go of the things that are holding us here when we really want to be going there is that we get it in our minds that if we only could get past this thing it'll be smooth sailing to our goal, downhill, on a greased track all the way.  Yet we know that that's not how things work.  So even though we may more or less consciously tell ourselves that this is where we're stuck, we're afraid that there's just more stuck-ness on the other side of it.  From the vantage point of this place and this mindset we are completely convinced that the goal is utterly unattainable.   So even if we do manage to find a way to let go of what's holding us here ...  What's the point?

And that's exactly why at this point in juggling training you don’t even try to throw it into a pattern … you just throw it!  Throw it hard; throw it wild.  Without worrying about doing it "right," you do whatever it takes to get the ball out of your hand.  To break through the stuck-ness.  To let it go.  And that, it turns out, just about everybody is able to do.  And when you get rid of that ball you open up a space -- see how this all hangs together? -- in which to catch the ball that's in the air.  And once you can do that, the three-ball cascade, as it's called, is just some practice away.

Arthur also used to tell participants in his workshop that the seed doesn’t just become the fruit.  It takes time.  Preparing the soil is one step.  Planting the seed is one step.  Watering is a step.  Making sure that the growing plant gets enough sun, but not too much; feeding, and mulching, and weeding – these are all steps.  Excruciatingly incremental steps.  Yet each one is absolutely essential.  The seed doesn’t just become the fruit.

And just because I’ve managed to hurl that ball out of my hand doesn’t mean I’m a juggler.  I then have to work it into the pattern.  And then, in the way I teach it anyway, I throw the three balls once each and try to catch them.  I do this several times.  I do this over and over again, starting with the two balls in my dominant hand.  And then I do it – again, over and over – starting with the two balls in my non-dominant hand.  Then I try four throws.  Five.  Six.  The teacher of my teacher’s teacher wrote a book in which he describes the penultimate exercise in this method of teaching and learning.  You throw three throws three times.  Without dropping.  Do that, and you throw four throws four times.  You then move on to five throws five times, six throws six times, all the way up to ten throws ten times.  Without dropping.  If you drop you go back to three throws three times and start all over again.  But when you manage to complete this exercise – which I worked on for a couple of months – you’re ready for the final step in becoming a juggler:  continuing to practice for the rest of your life.

And that's why we need to be people of letting go.  That's what it means to be a person of letting go, because this stuck-ness won't just happen to us once.  All through our lives we'll be asked to – forced to – let go of so many things, and if we don’t we’ll be, and will remain, stuck.  And folks, we weren’t meant to live lives of stuck-ness.   Stuck-ness is what one of our religious predecessors, Henry David Thoreau, was thinking of when he wrote, “The mass of [humanity] lead lives of quiet desperation.  What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. … But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.”  It is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.  We are not meant to live our lives stuck.

“If you can have your life exactly the way you want, what would it look like?”  Sit with that question during the Offertory.  Talk about it with someone, maybe, in the Social Hall after the service.  Ask it of yourself this afternoon, this evening, throughout the week:  “If you can have your life exactly the way you want, what would it look like?”  Then look for the place where you're most intransigently stuck, and I invite you to take a step.  It may not be pretty.  You may not do it "right."  But do it.  Whatever it is -- whatever that step is -- do it.  The steps that follow may be excruciatingly incremental, yet each new step we take gives us practice in letting go.  Each step gives us another opportunity to experience in our lives this letting go. And before we know it, even without our knowing it, we'll find that this letting go becomes second nature ... and then the fun begins!

Pax tecum,


Update:  I received a question on FaceBook about the book "my teacher's teacher's teacher wrote."  It's The Juggling Book by Carlo which I'm happy to say seems once again to be available.  I've put a link into the body of this post, too.