Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Lessons From (and for ) the Circus of Life

This is the text of the reflection I offered on Sunday, March 19th, 2017, at the congregation I serve, Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church Unitarian Universalist.  This is the version from the 11:15 service, which was slightly edited from the one given at 9:15.

As I said earlier, this month we’re looking at “risk,” which is something we have to deal with every day, whether we’re conscious of it or not.  There are the big risks of course – telling someone you love them, or that you no longer do.  Leaving the security of the job you have, to find a job that you’ll love.  Going deep with someone, revealing who you really are.  Committing to changing who you are because it’s not who you want to be.  Giving up an advantage because you know it isn’t right. Showing up in solidarity with people who are marginalized, oppressed, vulnerable, even though that might put you at risk for the same. 
Yet even if we aren’t doing any of these kinds of things, we’re dealing with risk all the time.  If I walk down a set of stairs there’s the risk I could fall.  If I drive down the street there’s the risk of being in an accident.  If I decide to eat some pizza that was left out overnight, or drink some milk that’s a little past its “Use By” date …
Those who are newer to TJMC may not know that before I entered the ordained ministry I was a performer – a juggler, magician, clown, escape artist, fire eater …  None of these is without a certain amount of risk; some of them are flat-out Risky with a capital “R.”  And over the years – I started performing when I was about 11 – I’ve learned a lot more than just the skills I was practicing.  I have come to see that the circus arts offer metaphors for ways we can live our lives more richly and fully.  I believe that the things you can learn as a juggler-magician-clown-escape artist-fire eater are lessons that can apply to our lives.
How often have you felt as though you’re balancing on a tightrope, where a wrong step this way or a wrong step that way could spell disaster? 
You might think that the logical thing to do, the safe thing to do, would be look down at your feet to make sure that you put each one in just the right place … but you’d be wrong.  In fact, doing that actually makes it virtually impossible to maintain your balance.  Instead, the tightrope walker lifts their gaze and focuses on the end of the rope.  And perhaps counter intuitively, it’s that forward gaze that makes all the difference.
Now … I’m not a tightrope walker, but I am a juggler, and Cypress just read a great piece about some of the lessons you can learn from that art.  I’ll add one more.   A lot of us feel at times that we’ve got “too many balls in the air.”  I can’t tell you how many check-ins, in how many committee meetings, at least one person has said something like this, or in how many personal conversations it comes up.  But one of the things you learn when you’re juggling is that although it seems like there’s too much going on, the truth is that there’s always only one thing happening at a time.  You’re catching a ball, or you’re throwing a ball.  Catching a ball or throwing a ball.  That’s it, and that’s true if you’re juggling three balls, or the world record of 11.  
But I’ve been building up to something here.  Of all of the odd skills I’ve picked up in my pursuit of sacred play, nothing is more risky than fire eating.  First … well … there’s the fire.  And then there’s the beard.  And then there’s the fire again.
My teacher was a woman named Margie Brown – Rev. Margie Brown, actually, because she was an ordained United Methodist minister.  She learned to eat fire from a man named Ken FeitFather Ken Feit, to be precise, because he was a Catholic priest.  Now … you might not think that fire eating is the kind of thing that clergy folk would do, but according to Maggie, Ken once made the insightful observation that every religious tradition we know anything about has used fire as a symbol of the sacred.  And every religious tradition we know anything about has some form of communal experience of eating.  So, Ken said, it’s only natural to bring the two together in religious fire eating.  [He also said that the way to learn to eat fire is to sit for an hour in a darkened room, staring into the flame of a candle.  Then ... eat a habanero pepper, and you’re all set.]

Margie was a nationally known storyteller.  But when a conference or other big event wanted to hire her for that, she had condition – they had to give her a place where she could teach fire eating.  I can’t imagine how many people she taught over the years and, through her teaching and her presence, influenced.  But talking about fire eating is like talking about a recipe.  It’s good as far as it goes, but the thing itself is better.  So …

Why was Margie so committed to teaching fire eating?  Why do I love to do it so much?  Well … for one thing … you gotta admit that it’s pretty cool.  But there’s a lesson in it, too.  A pretty important one.
At the end of her workshops Margie would tell her students that she didn’t really care if they ever ate fire again.  What she wanted us to take away from the experience was the memory, the experience of having come face-to-face with something scary, something dangerous, and that rather than running from it we moved in closer.  We didn’t push it away, we pulled it towards us.  There was a risk in doing so, of course, but when we did – with full conviction and commitment – we saw that scary, dangerous thing transformed into something beautiful and awe inspiring.
I haven’t always had the courage to do it, to take that risk.  But I’ve never forgotten the lesson, nor the ones I’ve learned from magicians, jugglers, tightrope walkers, elephant wranglers, ring masters, escape artists, clowns, and fire eaters.

Pax tecum,


Monday, March 06, 2017

The Best Place to Hide From God

This is the text of the reflection I offered on Sunday, March 5, 2017, to the congregation I serve -- Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church Unitarian Universalist.  As always, you can listen to it if you prefer.
It was during the first few years of my first settled call that I first started working with a spiritual director, and this guy was the real deal -- spiritual director, Episcopal priest, and Jungian analyst.  A seeker’s trifecta.  I remember one day when we were talking about the wrestling I was doing in my spiritual life – wrestling with the powerful pull of that "sacred something," combined with a concomitant dread bordering on terror.  I remember at some point saying, "It's not supposed to be this hard, is it?  I'm a minister, for God's sake!"  "Hadn't you heard?" he replied.  "They say that the best way to run away from God is to join the ministry."  I’ve heard this now, a number of times in the years since.  I've said it more than once myself.  I've also heard it put another way:  the best place to hide from God is in church.
Before I go on let's assume that I'm as Unitarian Universalist as you are, so it's not likely that I'm talking about that "God."  And I do understand that some of us "God" is not only something we don't believe in, even more, it's a word with literally no meaning.  For some of us, talking about "God" is like talking about "unicorns with Ph.D.s in astrophysics" -- it's not a question of "belief" or "unbelief."  It's an issue of nonsensicalness. 
So don't call it "God," then.  That's language that makes sense to me, that's meaningful to me, but if it's not for you, by all means, don't use it.  We sing "Spirit of Life" here most weeks.  Perhaps you can substitute that whenever I say, "God."  The UUA's Statement of Sources uses the fairly long phrase, "that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life."  For that matter, call it "The Force" -- "an energy field created by all living things [which] surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together."  In a book that collected children's descriptions of "God" there's one I love:  "the really real."
Whatever you call it, we're mostly likely talking about pretty much the same thing -- the beating heart at the heart of life; the Mystery; the aliveness, the isness of things; That Which Cannot Be Named Nor Known; the really real; ruach elohim; Life; Love; God.
So why would anyone want to run away from this?  Why would anyone try to hide from it?  Why would anyway feel "dread bordering on terror" at the thought of facing -- Life?  Love?  The heart of the heart of things?
In her wonderful book Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard gives voice to at least one of the reasons in her description of the modern Christian church -- because it's dangerous.
"On the whole," she wrote, "I do not find Christians, outside the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of the conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches,” she says, “are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return."
"Children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. ... Ushers should issue life preserves and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews."  Sounds kind of frightening when you put it that way.  “[T]he sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”  Have you ever noticed that just about the first thing angels say in every encounter they have in the Biblical accounts is, "Be. Not. Afraid."  That's the kind of thing you say to somebody who's scared silly. 
Why do people so often try to run away from, try to hide from, this experience I'm calling, "God?"  Because deep down we know -- we know -- that in such encounters we should be wearing crash helmets and life preservers.
"Absorption" is one of the things my Spiritual Director said people often fear -- the feeling that if we ever truly had a deep encounter with that "sacred something" we would find themselves ... absorbed.  A perhaps absurd, though not necessarily unhelpful analogy -- in the Star Trek universe there is a species known as the Borg, and everyone who encounters it is "assimilated," forcibly brought into The Collective that is the Borg. All individuality is erased, the life you've known is obliterated and, of course, "resistance is futile."  A somewhat less odd example comes from Buddhism.  It is said that when Siddhartha had his enlightenment experience he was tempted to remain in that bliss, rather than return to the world to teach.
Deep down we know – we know – that there’s the risk of being drawn out “to where we can never return.”  That, or changed.  Drastically, irrevocably changed.  In the Hebrew Scriptures Abram’s God changed his name to Abraham, more than a mere symbolic transformation; and in the Christian Scriptures, Saul’s God transforms him into Paul, transforms him into one who now championed what he’d only recently condemned.
There’s a Jesuit priest whose writings have always spoken to me.  His name was Anthony De Mello, and he was born and raised in India, so he brought something of his early Hinduism to his Catholicism.  I purchased his book Awareness with great eagerness to glean more of his wisdom.  Imagine my surprise to read this:
The first thing I want you to understand, if you really want to wake up, is that you don’t want to wake up.  The first step to waking up is to be honest enough to admit to yourself that you don’t like it.  You don’t want to be happy. […] I [am] saying that we don’t want to be happy.  We want other things.  Or let’s put it more accurately:  we don’t want to be unconditionally happy.  I’m ready to be happy provided I have this and that and the other thing. […]  We cannot imagine being happy without those conditions.
When I was doing my Spiritual Direction training with the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation, I had the opportunity to study with the great Gerald May.  He told the story of being in prayer, fervently committing himself to following God’s will.  He said that he “heard a voice,” and it asked him (and I’m paraphrasing here), “Would you follow my will if it meant giving up your wife?”  “Yes, Lord.”  “Would you follow my will if it meant giving up your career?”  “Yes, Lord.”  “What if you had to give up fishing?”  He said he never prayed that prayer again.
We run from deep, true encounters with the Holy and the Sacred because deep down we know – we know – that we might be called on to change, and we don’t want to change.  Not really.  Or, as Fr. De Mello noted, we want to change as long as we can keep doing this or that.  We say we want to change, transform, grow, evolve, yet whether we say it or not what’s really true is that we want to change, transform, grow, evolve on our schedule, under our conditions.  And we know – or, at least, we really, really fear – that that’s just not the way it works.
Earlier Leia told us the story of the boy with holes.  And let’s be honest, all of us have holes, don’t we?  All of us have spaces in our lives – in our hearts, in our souls – that feel empty.  Incomplete.  And because of these “missing” parts, the boy acted out in ways that were not, shall we say, in alignment with his “better angels.”  We know about that, too, don’t we?  Maybe we don’t try to sabotage other people’s fun, maybe we don’t try to interfere with other people’s lives … or maybe we do, but not consciously, or in such conspicuous ways.  But who here can say that they always act from the best parts of themselves?  Who here cannot say that it isn’t sometimes our holes, our wounds, our brokenness that direct our behavior?
So the boy in the story sets out to find completeness.  Wholeness.  (And there’s that lovely wordplay in the story that is etymologically accurate – hole, whole, and holy all share the same root; they’re a … whole … lot more connected than we probably often think.)  And the journey on which he embarks is not an easy one:
Wind whistled through his holes and blew him about.  Branches snagged him and stopped him short.  Vines grabbed him.  Animal sounds frightened him.  The river roared right at him; its spray splashed and soaked him.
Sounds a lot like a description of the spiritual journey, the journey of our own quest for deep completeness.  Wholeness.  Holiness even, maybe.  No wonder we try to run away from the call to embark; no wonder we try to hide from the summons.  Who would want to intentionally deal with all of that.  Life may not be perfect as it is, but it’s a darn sight better than that.  I may not feel entirely complete, but at least I’m somewhat comfortable.
But here’s the thing.  Despite the wind, and the branches, and the vines, and the threat of animals, and the roar and spray of the river, the boy journeyed on.  He persisted.
And he eventually came to that other village, where there was that other boy, that other boy who had his own holes but who was a complement to our hero.  The whole story is an allegory, of course, but that other boy isn’t really another boy.  If we take on this quest we’re not going to find another “us” out there, another person who will complete us.  (That kind of romanticism is best left on the silver screen.)
Yet even if there isn’t another “you,” or “me,” the promise of the spiritual journey is that there is that which will make us whole.  Make us holy.  I don’t believe that there’s anything that will fill all of our holes, yet that doesn’t mean they will always be nothing but empty space.  (How that works should be the subject of another sermon someday.)
For now, here, this morning, I just want to point out a problem I had with the story.  After the two boys merge into one, they say goodbye to the people in that second village.  That second hole boy leaves his home, and journeys back, now one with the first boy, to the first boy’s village. 
That doesn’t seem fair, does it?  Why didn’t the newly whole boy stay in the second boy’s village?  Why did he have to give up his life?  Why did the first boy get to return – transformed, yes, but able to resume his life more or less as it was?
I don’t believe he did.  I believe that there’s an untold epilog to the story.  I believe that, after returning home, and thanking that woman for her faith in him, this newly whole boy said his goodbyes as well.  He had to.  Having taken the journey, having found the completeness, the wholeness for which he searched, his adventure was really just beginning, and, so, he had to set off again, in search of new lands for he was, in truth, a new person.
And maybe, in the end, that’s what we fear.  Maybe that’s what we run from, what we hide from.  Because we don’t want to be new, at least not so new that we have to give up the old.  But that story is an allegory, and it may not mean exactly what it seems to mean. And the angels say, “Be not afraid,” and maybe they know something we don’t.
I’ll give Fr. De Mello the last words:
Spirituality means waking up.  Most people, even though they don’t know it, are asleep.  They’re born asleep, they live asleep, they marry in their sleep, they breed children in their sleep, they die in their sleep without ever waking up.  [This sounds a lot like our own Henry David Thoreau’s observation that “most live lives of quiet desperation,” and live lives that are not life.  De Mello continues:]  They never understand the loveliness and the beauty of this thing we call human existence.  […]  [T]ragically, most people never get to see that all is well because they are asleep.
In this season introspection Christians call Lent, in this month when we, here, are exploring the idea of “risk,” let us take that risk of truly looking within, truly venturing in, of not running from but running toward.  Let us take the risk of the journey, of waking up, of seeing the beauty of “this thing we call human existence,” of discovering the holy wholeness of our hole-y lives.

Closing Words:
Our closing words are a poem from Mary Oliver.  It’s one you may be familiar with – “The Journey.”

Pax tecum,