Thursday, February 21, 2019


This is the text of the reflections I offered to the congregation I serve in Charlottesville, Virginia on Sunday, February 17, 2019.

The choir just sang what is easily one of the most recognizable hymns ever composed.  (And the arrangement was by our own Scott DeVeaux.)  “Amazing Grace” was written in the mid-1700s by a preacher named John Newton.  As a young man Newton served as a mate on a slave ship where he, “gained notoriety for being one of the most profane men the captain had ever met. In a culture where sailors commonly used oaths and swore, Newton was admonished several times for not only using the worst words the captain had ever heard, but creating new ones to exceed the limits of verbal debauchery.”  (Wikipedia)

One day the ship was caught in a storm so violent, that everyone was certain the ship would be capsized.  Newton and another mate actually lashed themselves to the ship’s pump so that they could keep working – which they did for hours – without fear of being washed overboard while doing so.  This was a realistic concern.  Newton had watched a fellow crew member swept off the ship from the spot where he, himself, had been standing just a few moments earlier.  When Newton told the captain his plan to tie himself to the pump, he reportedly said, "If this will not do, then Lord have mercy upon us!"  He later said that it was during that storm that he began his turning from the life he’d been living, to the one which saw him ordained a priest in the Church of England and author of “Amazing Grace.”

The turn was a long, slow one, though.  He continued to serve on slaving ships, eventually becoming a captain, and never saw nothing wrong with this abominable, abhorrent trafficking in human beings.  “He admitted that he was a ruthless businessman and [an] unfeeling observer of the Africans he traded.  Slave revolts on board ship were frequent.  Newton mounted guns and muskets on this deck aimed at the slave quarters.”  [Excerpted from the essay about Newton on the website The Abolition Project.]

Many years later, though, after he had left the slave trade and had become a committed Christian, he also became an ardent abolitionist fighting against the he had, himself, both participated in and profited from.  The lyrics of the first verse offer something of a personal testimony to the salvific power of grace.

Now, “grace” is one of those words to which some UUs have an almost allergic reaction.  Perhaps that’s because it’s so intimately connected to two other, for some, problematic words – “sin,” and “God.”  I’m going to set “God” aside for a today, but I do want us to consider the word, “sin.”  And I want to talk about “sin” because I think that the Christian concept of “Grace” can’t really be understood without understanding the concept of “Sin.” 


If there’s one thing that many UUs have as much problem with as we do the idea of “God,” it’s “Sin.”  That’s because we know what “Sin” means; we know what being called a “Sinner” means.  It means that we’re a “loathsome insect … ten thousand times as abominable … as the most hateful, venomous serpent.” 

Those phrases come from a sermon delivered by the ever-cheery Johnathan Edwards titled, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”  Here is perhaps the most famous passage:

“The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked. His wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else but to be cast into the fire. He is of purer eyes than to bear you in his sight; you are ten thousand times as abominable in his eyes as the most hateful, venomous serpent is in ours.”

I told you he was cheery.  I’ve really got to read a little more:

“You have offended him [and that’s God, again] infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince, and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else that you did not got to hell the last night; that you were suffered to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep. And there is no other reason to be given why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God's hand has held you up. There is no other reason to be given why you have not gone to hell since you have sat here in the house of God provoking his pure eye by your sinful, wicked manner of attending his solemn worship. Yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you do not this very moment drop down into hell.”

Hearing this kind of rhetoric from a Unitarian Universalist pulpit, it is possible, of course, that some of you think you have done so.  See, we don’t talk about “sin” because we “know” what it means:  It means that God – the ultimate Pater Prosecutorial – is constantly watching for us to make the slightest slip so that he – always “he” –  can come crashing down on us with all the authority of … well … of God Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth and all Things Visible and Invisible.  It means that we are not only “sinners in the hands of an angry God,” but that we’re, “worthless in the eyes of a judgmental God.”
And we “know” that “sin” is not just an existential state, it is also a laundry list of things – both general and very specific – that we shouldn’t do.  (Because it would make us even more loathsome and abhorrent, I guess.) 

I came across a blog post this week with the title, “A List of Sins from the Bible.” 

“Idolatry, greed, covetousness, love of money, gluttony, complaining, not loving God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, tempting God, high-mindedness, disobedience, witchcraft, lover of self, putting family, friends, job, or anything else above God including food, money, sports, inter [sic], TV, Internet pornography, movies, cars, attachment to riches or material goods and dozens of other things.
The author, Jack Wellman, an Evangelical Pastor, was just getting started.  He goes on to list a a great many more things that God is on the look-out for, more than a few of which I am sure we here this morning, “sinners” that we are, are now or have been engaged and entangled with.  It’s worth mentioning, that there are several things on Pastor Wellman’s list which we, good UUs that we are, would consider virtues, things to be proud of.  Yet for most of us even those that we’d aren’t good aren’t things we think should condemn someone to the eternal fires of hell – if we believed in “hell,” of course.

I want to be really clear here – I’m not for a moment suggesting that this is how all Christians understand the concept of “sin.”  Yet there’s no question it is precisely the way that word is often used.  But whenever I hear that word being used that way I want to say, “Hello.  My name is Inigo Montoya.  You killed my fa …”  No.  Wait.  It’s that other great line.  I want to say, “You keep using that word.  I do not think it means what you think it means.”

There are actually seven different words used in the original Greek of the Christian scriptures which are translated into the single word, “Sin.”   Each has a different meaning, nearly all of which have gotten lost in that unfortunate simplification and which, together, paint an entirely different picture than we have been led to believe.

One is a term from archery that means, “to miss the mark.”  Sinning can be understood, then, simply as missing the mark.  Nothing “abominable” about it at all.  We all do it.  We try.  We try our best.  And sometimes we just don’t quite hit what we were aiming for.  We don’t keep our cool as much as we’d hoped we would have; we forget that we’d meant to give someone the benefit of the doubt; we join in when others are speaking snarkily about someone even though we’d promised ourselves we’d stop doing that.  We miss the mark.  We “sin.”

Some of the other Greek words mean, “diminishing what should have been given full measure,” (or, maybe, not giving it our all).  Then there’s “ignorance when one should have known;” “refusing to hear and heed God's word,” (or, let’s say, ignoring that still, small voice of inner wisdom even when it’s more like shouting at us).  My favorite of them all is, “lying down when one should have stood.” 

Is there anybody in here this morning who has never behaved in ways that could be described in at least one of these ways?  Oh man, I surely have.  I’ve missed the mark; I’ve held back and not given everything I had; I’ve done things that I should have known not to do; and oh how many times I’ve lay down when I should have – and could have – been up and doing something. 

You see … the concept of “sin,” when properly understood at its spiritual core, is not all that much about judgement.  It’s really an observation.  I have two eyes, one nose, and one mouth.  I have a tattoo on my right arm.  I breathe air and can’t breathe under water.  I often miss the mark.  I sometimes do things when I really should have known better.  I don’t always give everything I can.  I sometimes drop down, out of sight, when I really should be present and counted for.  And except for the the tattoo, I’d wager that’s true for just about all of us, true for just about anyone we might ever meet.  That’s really what it means to say that we’re all “sinners.”

Well … what about “grace?”  “Sin” and “Grace” really go hand in hand.  They should, at least, because each is needed to make sense of the other.

I don’t know about you, but I know that I struggle with “Imposterism.”  That’s the psychological condition, sometimes called “Imposter Syndrome,” in which I look at myself and all of my accomplishments and am afraid that I’m really just a fraud one slip from being found out.  A few years back, we brought in a facilitator to lead a weekend retreat as the kick-off to a multi-session program called “Beloved Conversations” that was designed to help groups deepen their ability to talk about how racism plays out in the world, and in our own lives.  At the end of the first night of the retreat all of the participants sat in here – which is actually a really powerful thing to do at night.  We sat in here and went through a process that led us to our deepest, core, most fundamental fear.  There were some really impressive people here that night – if I were to read off a list of them, those who’ve been around a while would recognize a veritable who’s who of the best and brightest.  The room was full of really highly successful people, and just about every one of us said pretty much the same thing when we were asked to share – some version of, “I’m afraid that if people really knew me, knew the real me, that they wouldn’t love or respect me anymore and that I’d be abandoned.”  Just about every … single … person.

I’m not good enough.  I’m just not good enough; I don’t deserve this good fortune.  I’m not good enough; I don’t deserve this success.  I’m not good enough; I don’t deserve to see my dreams come true.  I’m not good enough; I don’t deserve to be happy.


The deepest spiritual understanding of the concept of “sin” says, essentially, “Okay.  So what?  Nobody’s good enough!  Everybody is fallible!  Everybody’s flawed!  Everybody fails!  What makes you so special that you think you’re the only one who secretly isn’t a good enough friend, or lover, or parent, or racial justice warrior, or whatever.  Get over yourself!  We’re all in that same boat.” 

The concept of “sin,” no matter how twisted it has become through the years, is simply telling us that we’re right, that we’re not perfect, and that no one else is either.  This means we can stop wasting energy comparing ourselves to somebody else who we’re convinced is somehow better than us.  We can let ourselves off the hook, because nobody’s got it all together.

That’s the lesson of “sin.” 

The lesson of “grace” is that none of that matters, because we live in a world of beauty even with our flaws.  People love us even with our imperfections.  In the theistic context from which these terms come, “grace” means that God loves us not because we’re good enough to deserve it, but because God is good enough to casually and extravagantly exude love like the sun just shines.

“Grace” tells us that we don’t need to earn our place in the Universe.  As the well-known poem “Desiderata” put it, “You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.”

Sin and Grace.  We aren’t perfect, but we don’t need to be perfect to be happy.  We miss the mark, but we don’t need to hit the bullseye every time to be “worthy” (whatever that means).  We don’t always give it our all, don’t always show up, don’t always listen to our own inner wisdom, but we don’t need to do any of that to be loved.  We are sinners, among sinners, but that’s not a judgement, just an observation.  And it’s okay, because grace doesn’t require us to be anything other than what we are. 

Now … isn’t that amazing?

Pax tecum,


Monday, February 11, 2019

Rice Balls, Noodles, Fireworks, and Dragons

This is the text of the Reflections I offered on Sunday, February 10, 2019 to the congregation I serve in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Whether we call it “Chinese New Year,” the “Spring Festival,” or the “Lunar Festival,” this major Chinese celebration (which began this past Tuesday and will continue on through a week from this coming Wednesday) is a really, really big deal.  It’s celebrated by more than 20% of all the people in the world – that’s something like 1 ½ billion people!  And you know how Lorie said that setting off firecrackers is a part of the celebrations?  More fireworks are set off all over the world that last night than at any other time of the year … anywhere.  And do you remember how much Yuan Xiao wanted to go home to be with her family?  Well … so many people travel home during this time that in 2015, they were selling 1,000 train tickets … every second.  Like I said, it’s a really, really big deal.
There is usually more than one great legend tied to any particular event, and this is true about the origin of the lantern festival.  Lorie told you one, and I’m going to tell you another.  The one I’m going to tell you is different than the one Lorie told you in two big ways – first, it doesn’t focus on Yuan Xiao and Dongfang Shuo, and the second is … the monster is real.  Which one is true?  Probably both.  (Oh, and the one I’m going to tell is a variation of the story Rob Craighurst has told here so marvelously.)

In this version of the story, as I said, the monster is real.  Its name is Nian.  Most of the time it lived out in the depths of the sea, but each year, as the end of the lunar year drew near, it would come out of the water and onto land, where it would proceed to kill people’s livestock – goats, pigs, chickens, cows … you know – it would hunt the people of the village, and would generally cause a mess.  It was scary.  Since this happened every year, the people of the village knew that when the lunar year was coming to an end, it was time to grab their things and run for the hills.  (And unlike here, when an evacuation order is given, nobody would stay behind and “ride it out.”)

Well … one year an old woman came into town just as the mad preparations for the exodus was taking place.  She had piercing eyes, long white hair, was dressed in rags, walked with a cane.  She stood in the center of the town, and she looked tired.  A kindly grandfather saw here there and brought her some food … and a warning.  “The sea monster Nian is coming here tonight and we’re all getting out of here to hide in the hills, you should too.”

The old woman just smiled, tiredly.  “I’m not afraid of any monster,” she said.  “I’ll tell you what.  If you let me stay the night in your house so that I can get a good night’s sleep in your bed, I will take care of old Nian for you in return.”

The grandfather looked at her thinking that she must not know what she was getting into, but he didn’t have any more time to talk with her.  He had to finish getting ready.  “I really suggest you come with us to hide,” he said.  “But if you’re really intent on staying, you are certainly most welcome to spend the night in my humble home.  But whatever you do, I implore you – keep the house dark, and don’t make any noise, and maybe Nian won’t know that you’re there.”   And with that, he left to join the rest of the villagers.

That night, when Nian came into the village, the monster noticed something different about the town.  Usually the houses were all dark and empty.  Everything was quiet.  This time, though, there was one house that was all lit up.  Nian went closer to the house to check it out, and found that all of the windows had been covered with red paper, and every window had a candle burning it in.  This made the monster angry; whoever lived in the house wasn’t giving it the proper respect.  Nian decided to get to the bottom of this.

But as it descended on the house, there was suddenly a lot of crackling and popping in the courtyard.  This made Nian a little nervous.  And just then the front door burst open.  The old woman was there, wearing all red and laughing raucously.  Nian was now kind of scared, that someone would stand there completely unafraid.  Maybe the monster had underestimated these villagers!  So it quickly beat feet and headed back to the safety of the sea.

The next morning the villagers came back to see that everything was just as they’d left it.  The grandfather realized that the old woman had been as good as her word.  He told everyone about it, and they all went to his house to thank the good woman.  When they got there, though, the woman was gone.  But they saw the windows all covered in red, the burnt candles in the windows, and the exploded firecrackers in the yard, and they understood what she had done.

So the next year, even though they were a little nervous about it, everyone stayed in the village the night Nian was due to come.  They all covered their windows in red paper; they all lit lights in their windows; and when the monster did show up, they all set off firecrackers in their yards.  And they all saw the monster turn tail and run, just like they used to.

Everyone came out of their houses, and they were so happy that they started celebrating.  People made sweet rice balls, delicious dishes of noodles (which you would eat in one long slurp without cutting or biting it, to signify a long and uninterrupted life), and all sorts of other special foods.  And every day they would celebrate like this, and the monster never came back.

Now … there are three lessons that I learn from these stories.

First, sometimes monsters are real, and sometimes they are not.  I don’t believe that there are monsters under our beds or in our closets, but sometimes there are monsters like bullies at school, at work, in our neighborhoods, even at the highest levels of government.  There are monsters like poverty, racial injustices, violence toward women and people in LGBTQ communities, and the decimation of our planet.  Sometimes the monsters aren’t real, though – they’re just things we’re expecting to see, assumptions we make, projections of our own prejudices, and fears about “what might happen if …?” with a worst-case scenario as our answer.  It is so important to be able to tell the difference.

The second thing I hear in this story is that running away and hiding isn’t the best solution.  Last week the reflections I offered were called, “Fear Never Fixed Anything,” and that’s absolutely true.  We can’t always be brave all the time, and sometimes we do have step back a little, to look away, to go to our “happy place” and pretend that there isn’t anything wrong.  We just can’t stay like that forever.

And that brings me to the third thing, and maybe most important thing.  I don’t think the real hero of the story is the old woman.  As important as she is.  The ones who really saved the village … are all the villagers themselves.  If they have said to one another, “That cool, smart, brave old woman scared the monster away and we never have to worry about it again,” that next year would have turned out very differently, and probably a lot worse.  The fact that they all faced down Nian that second year is what changed things.  It was them banding together, working together, being brave together, supporting each other, that made the difference.  Alone, there are things we just can’t handle.  There are problems that are too big, too scary, too dangerous.  Together, though, there’s nothing we can’t handle.

One more thing.  About that old woman.  The story doesn’t say so, but I think that she was a dragon in disguise.  These reflections are called, “Rice Balls, Noodles, Lanterns, and Dragons,” and I’ve only talked about the first three.  So .. about dragons.

In every Chinese legend I have ever heard, when there’s an old person, a stranger, with piercing eyes, long white hair, dressed in rags, and walking with a cane, it’s a dragon.  One of my favorite books is Everyone KnowsWhat a Dragon Looks Like.  In that story, it’s an old man who comes to a village to help the people there face The Scary Thing that’s threatening them. 

That’s the old man.

And in one of my parts of the story, the old man:

“sprang up into the air and his form changed.  He grew taller than the tallest tree, taller than the tallest tower.  He was the color of sunset shining through the rain.  Scales covered him, scattering light.  His claws and teeth glittered like diamonds.  His eyes were noble like those of a proud horse.  He was more beautiful and more frightening than [anyone] had ever seen.”

In the west, dragons are something to be feared.  In the east, not only do they look really different, but they’re considered symbols of power and wisdom.  In fact, it’s not uncommon to hear someone say to a parent, “May your child grow up to be a dragon.”

Each of us can “grow up to be a dragon.”  And there’s nothing we dragons can’t do … together.

Pax tecum,


Monday, February 04, 2019

Fear Never Fixed Anything

This is the text of the reflection I offered on February 3, 2019, to the congregation I serve  in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Sam Keen is, as I said during the Story time, a fairly well-known author within a certain niche of readers.  He’s written books like, Your Mythic Journey, Fire in the Belly, Inward Bound (exploring the geography of your emotions), To a Dancing God, and The Passionate Life.  He’s particularly well known to people interested in what’s been called the mytho-poetic movement.  He’s written that we are, “bio-mythic animals.  The true double helix that makes us human is an intertwining of biological mechanisms (IDNA) and cultural mechanisms (or myths).  We are fabric woven of chemistry and narrative, biology and stories, flesh and dreams.”

It’s not too unexpected, then, that he would not only be intrigued by the physical elements of learning the flying trapeze, but it’s mythology-poetic ones as well.  The subtitle of the book Learning to Fly, is “trapeze — reflections on fear, trust, and the joys of letting go.”

It’s a commonly accepted fact among preachers that a lot of adults pay more attention to, and report getting more out of, the story for the children than they do from the more “adult” sermon that is ostensibly written for them.   With that in mind, it’s my intention to give now essentially the same reflection as I did then (with a lot more quotations and, hopefully, a bit more depth).

Keen had, as I said earlier, a lifetime dream of being a trapeze flyer.  But, like most people, as he got older the dream faded into the more quotidian realities of daily life.  [That’s one of the differences – I didn’t so “quotidian” to the kids.]  By pretty much every measure, he had a very successful life.  And yet, there was a point in his life, his career, his marriage, that he found himself troubled.  He asked, “Why was my spirit so heavy?  Why was I so frequently depressed?  So earthbound?  So grave?”  Whether he was conscious of it at the time, he was asking himself questions that made use of the metaphor of the flyer.

“[W]e all yearn to fly.  We are creatures of longing.  We do not need to climb the long ladder to the pedestal or grasp the fly bar to be airborne.  What I call the aerial instinct — the drive to transcend our present condition — is the defining characteristic of a human being.  We are restless animals, eternal travelers who are forever in the process of becoming.  Consciousness itself is a flight from the here and now and to the beyond.”

We are creatures of longing, and Keen still longed to fly.

So, as I also said during the children’s reflections time of this service, one day, when he was near his 63rd birthday, he saw an ad on television announcing the opening of a new school in San Francisco to teach ordinary everyday people the skill and art of the trapeze.  He went to watch, and found what he described as “an alternating current of fear and fascination.” Interest turned into engagement, turned into a passion.

As with most people who develop a new passion – whether a new intellectual interest, a new spiritual perspective, a new lover, a new hobby, a new passion of any kind, really – he talked about flying all the time.  His friends felt it more than a little odd that this man so known for his insightful intellect would become so passionate about something so physical and so dangerous.  Especially because he was nearly 63 years old.  But about passions Keen has written:

“[A]ll passions are strange passions to those who do not share them.  The passions that animate individuals thrive in the most unexpected nooks and crannies.  There are people who are ecstatic about collecting stamps, old motorcycles, vintage Levis.  Or painting pictures of barns.  I know otherwise normal people who are wildly enthusiastic about riding around on manicured lawns in electric carts and hitting little white balls into holds in the ground.  [I have to digress here for a moment.  I recently read somewhere that golf is the only sport in which the goal is to play less of it.]  I have met numerous cabdrivers who can’t keep their checkbooks balanced but can give you the batting average of everyone who ever played in the World Series.  And many a [person] has kept the smell of the salt sea in [their] nostrils while building a sailboat in a backyard in Iowa.”

He acknowledges that, “Passion is seldom rational and usually blind.”  He says that he has learned, though, that, “it is hazardous to ignore passing fantasies and emerging passions.”  He writes, “[I]n the degree I cease to pursue my deepest passions, I will gradually be controlled by my deepest fears.  When passion no longer waters and nurtures the psyche, fears spring up like weeds on the depleted soil of abandoned fields.”  Hear that again:  “in the degree I cease to pursue my deepest passions, I will gradually be controlled by my deepest fears.”

Many of us would no doubt feel more than a little fear if we were climbing up a ladder to a platform – the pedestal – that’s only six feet long and 18 inches wide, even though it’s 25 feet off the ground.  And that’s a lot of what Keen learned – both literally and figuratively.  He learned about fear.  In fact, as he titled one of his chapters, he became, “a Connoisseur of Fear.”

He’d always been something of a risk taker.  He tells the story of spending an afternoon with the French philosopher Gabriel Marcel.  (Keen had done his doctoral dissertation on Marcel’s work.). At one point they were going through Harvard Square, and Keen was “dodging through the traffic.”  His wife said to Marcel, “Sam likes to take risks,” to which Marcel replied (and Keen remembers there being a twinkle in his eye as he said this), “Only take interesting risks.”

Interesting risks.

Facing our fears, living into our fears, is something that most of us try our best to avoid.  He notes, “It is reasonable to play it safe, not to leap — but it is not always reasonable to be reasonable.”  His begins that chapter about, “Becoming a Connoisseur of Fear,” with an epigraph by Aldo Leopoldo — “It is a poor life in which there is no fear.”  Keen writes,

“As nearly as I can figure, the rock-bottom truth is that life is both wonderful and terrifying.  The German philosopher Rudolf Otto said that our confrontation with that ultimate reality within which we live and move and have our being (which, for lack of a better name, we call the Holy) is always a mystery that evokes both fascination and fear. […]

[T]o ask, ‘Why face danger?’ Is the wrong question.  The right question is ‘What happens if I try to build a life dedicated to avoiding all danger and all unnecessary risk?’ If ‘security’ and ‘safety’ become watchwords by which I live, gradually the circle of my experience grows small and claustrophobic.”

What happens if I try to build a life dedicated to avoiding all danger and all unnecessary risk?

“Death says, ‘Play it safe.’ Life says, ‘Risk it.’  At the vital edge something dangerous calls my name.  What will I risk to stay alive?”

Keen says that there are three basic, instinctual fears which all humans share.  Only three:  “the fear of falling, the fear of being imprisoned in a tight space, and the fear of loud noises.”  He adds, though,

“I have noticed that once the fear of literal dangers has been mastered, a more complex fear of symbolic danger emerges.  I am afraid of failure.  I am afraid of what others will think of me.  I am afraid I will embarrass myself.  I am afraid I will lose control.  I am afraid I can’t trust you.  I am afraid I will be abandoned if I do not measure up to your expectations.”

Do any of you know anything about any of that that?  I do.  Oh how I do.  And I know, too, that what Keen says about the limiting nature of a life ruled by fear is true.  And I know, I know, that if I let my life be ruled by my fears I will not really be alive.  And I know that that’s true for each of us.

It’s true of institutions, too.  Groups, communities, organizations, (churches), can become ruled by fear, afraid to make that leap of faith from what we know, from what is safe, into the void of the unknown, because “it is reasonable to play it safe – not to leap.”  We risk – again, our institutions, and us as individuals – we risk so very much when we let go, not entirely sure that we will be caught. And yet, as Keen asks, so should we:  What happens if I, if we, if all of us try to build a life dedicated to avoiding all danger and all unnecessary risk?  (Even the “interesting” ones.)

It is a poor life in which there is no fear. 

This doesn’t by any means mean that we should be foolhardy and leap at every opportunity.  One of the things learning the trapeze taught Keen is that you should only take risks that you’re ready for.  Every time he went too far beyond his ability, trying to do something that really was beyond his grasp, he hurt himself.  Every time.  And, really, only at those times.

Part of that preparation, as I said to our kids (and to those of you who were listening), is to practice falling.  Notice how similar the words fall and fail are?  Before trying a new trick he learned to practice missing the trick, to practice failing, to practice falling, because the ability to fall correctly is essential.  Fall wrong, and you can hurt yourself seriously.  It’s imperative, then, to recognize our propensity for failing, for falling, to embrace the fact of its inevitability, and to prepare oneself for it.  There is, “a fundamental principle — learn the fall before the trick; prepare for failure.  From the moment when a fledgling accomplishes the first free fall, progress in flying and falling go hand in hand. […] the great flyers have always been great fallers.”

It stands to reason, then, that if you should you prepare for the falls that are unavoidable, you shouldn’t try to avoid them.  Keen writes, “If you aren’t failing frequently it is because you are too timid or too stuck in your rut to try anything new and risky.”  I have heard it said that clergy and congregations need to get better at doing memorial services for ideas, things tried that didn’t work or that have simply run their course.  We too, individuals and institutions, can become stuck in our own ruts.  Too intent on playing it safe.  Too focused on staying safe.  We can make a priority of making sure that we protect what we have and our sense of who we are.  It is, after all, reasonable to play it safe.  It is only sensible to not take that leap. And yet, it is not always “reasonable to be reasonable.”  We can limit our ability to grow, to change, to evolve.  These things always involve a fairly sizable amount of risk.  It’s dangerous.

Keen writes, “If I get stuck in who I am now, I will never blossom into who I might yet become.  Today’s identity is tomorrow’s prison.”  If we get stuck in who we are now, who we have been, we will never blossom into who we might yet become.  This reminds me of something the Catholic priest and Trappist monk Fr. Thomas Merton wrote, “If the you of five years ago does not consider the you of today a heretic, you are not growing spiritually.”  How many of us here this morning think our self of five years ago would be shocked at who we are today?  Would find it heretical?  Scandalous?  Couldn’t imagine in a million years that we are where we are?  Or would that us-from-the-past be unsurprised, comforted to know that we’re still safe and sound, that nothing much has changed?  (What would the church of five-years ago think of who we are and where we’re going today?)

“No footbridge leads from reason to faith, from doubt to trust.  Prior to the leap, fear seems more justified than trust, isolation more fundamental than communion, and the flight of the spirit an impossibility.

The short leap from the trapeze to the catcher is a flight from primal fear to basic trust, from I to thou, from autonomy to communion, that can be made only by a total commitment of the self.  Flying, like faith, hope, and love, is an existential act that cannot be accomplished by a spectator.”

This is what it means – part of what it means, at least – to be fully and truly alive: not to be mere spectators of our lives.  We are called to live them.  And all living things must change and grow lest they stagnate and die.  This is as true for you and me as for a pond, a butterfly, or a seed.

As Sam Keen learned the skills and art of the aerialist, he learned about more than the need to let go, prepared for falling while simultaneously willing to fly into the unknown.  He also learned about the net.

“Initially, I thought of the net as nothing more than a safety device that would protect me if I could manage to fall correctly on my back, seat, or stomach. As I gained skill in twisting, turning, and landing, however, I realized it was more than a concession to human fallibility; it was also a platform to launch new flight. A modern nylon net is essentially a large trampoline that invites a flyer to convert a fall into a rebound trick — a somersault, a suicide dive, a high balletic leap. Professional trapeze troupes always end their acts with dramatic dives or somersaults into the net. In fact, the trick, that seems to delight audiences more than any other is one introduced by Tito Gaona [of the Flying Gaonos] in which he plummets to the nets, bounces very high, somersaults, and lands seated on the catcher’s trapeze.

Gradually, I am learning to enjoy the creative possibilities of the rebound. I suppose there are exceptional men and women whose lives are an unbroken series of successes, but for most of us the ascending path is punctuated by times of descent, downfall, and depression. My failures have taught me there is always a second chance. What I have managed to create after falling has often turned out to be better than the trick I planned. Failing gives fallible human beings the chance to start over. This is why every man, woman, and society needs a safety net.”

My friends, we can be that net for one another.  We can catch each other when we fall, and help to propel us to new, and perhaps as yet unimagined (and even unimaginable), possibilities.  We can, when we do this “community” thing right, trust one another so that we can more easily let go of the known in order to take the leap into the unknown because we know there is this net before us.  I know that we can do this, and be this, because we have been.  Because we are, now.  (Yes, even now.) 

As we move into this still-new calendar year, and round the corner on the second half of our church year, let us be brave, be bold, in looking for the “interesting risks,” that abound around us.  Let us not live from a place of fear, knowing that fear never fixed anything.  Let us, instead, live within the fundamental and omnipresent realities of faith, hope, and love.  Let us live with courage, boldly, so that we might blossom into who we might yet become.  So that we might fly.

I used the following passage as the Closing Words for the service:

“Paradoxically, when we invite our fears into the hearth of our awareness, they cease to be an undifferentiated mass of terrifying demons and become tolerable guests.  Each day befriend a single fear and the miscellaneous terrors of beading human will never join together to form such a morass of vague anxiety that it rules your life from the shadows of the unconscious.  We learn to fly not by becoming fearless, but by the daily practice of courage.”

I used the following words to introduce the morning's Closing Hymn -- #1019 in Singing the Journey – “Building a New Way”:

“[W]e have become captives, driven by the demands of our corporations, the market economy, and the pressures of globalization, which exist side-by-side with the escalating violence caused by tribalism, nationalism, and anarchy.  It is a hot and heavy world.  Not much joy in high places. […]

We are in the grip of the spirit of seriousness, which Nietzche equated with the devil. ‘When I saw my devil I found him serious, thorough, profound, and solemn; it was the spirit of gravity — through him all things fall.’”

Pax tecum,


An illustration for Learning to Fly