Don’t be enticed by the promise that things will be okay. If only you simplify, or eat better, or pray more, or work out more, or are kinder, or fairer things will work out like you think they should. Yes, these things are good, but we do not live in an economy of reward, where doing the good and the right things yield to you what you long for. We do the right thing to do it, not because it will make us happy or make things easier, but because it is the right thing. It will always be hard, if you are living well you will be struggling, you will be aching, you will be longing and loving and failing and getting up again. It is messy out there, beautifully and excruciatingly messy. The sirens of simplification, of accumulation, of trying harder, of being more worthy, of being nicer – they call to us, but they are false promises. Life is in the mess, the ache, the joy, and baby steps forward and the big steps backward and it is here that we must find what we long for.
In the Long Wake
Preached June 1, 2014
at First Christian Church, Bowling Green
The text for this sermon is Acts 1:6-14:
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.
We sat there in my Aunt Carol’s kitchen, surrounded by casserole dishes, the unused oxygen tank, prescription medicine bottles, and each other. It felt like some sort of weird dream. Here we were writing thank you notes to people who had given money to the church in Aunt Carol’s name. It seemed bizarre to be marking the day after her funeral sitting awkwardly in her kitchen writing notes to people, but at least it gave us something to do.
Like so many deaths, it seemed like it happened in slow motion but was so fast I couldn’t really remember what parts took place where. There was the questionable x-ray and then more scans and so quickly things moved from a normal life to surgery and radiation and chemotherapy and hospital beds in the living room because she couldn’t walk up the stairs anymore. Many of you have been there.
I was with her the last time she left her house. What strikes me is how mundane it was. She lay there in the middle of the night her hospital bed in the living room and the breathing was so labored. Do we go to the hospital? Don’t we? It was like we just didn’t know at the point what was good and what was bad. Was she trying to recover or was she now just hoping to die peacefully? She didn’t know and we didn’t know.
Within twenty minutes we decided to go to the hospital and that was that. Out the door, leaving pill bottles on the kitchen table, a midnight snack on the cabinet, and we left her home of 30 years and she would not come back.
And so here we sat, after her death, in the kitchen, struck by the banality of her absence. The cars still drove on the roads outside. We had to return to our jobs. The casseroles would stop coming. The notes would be sent out. And life would go on. It felt so momentous to be without her and yet the world went on, and we were left to make sense of things in the wake of this loss.
As we think about our scripture this week, I think of the roller coaster the disciples were on for the weeks surrounding Jesus’s death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. Often, we hear the stories in the Bible and nod with familiarity because we have heard them so many times and know how they turned out.
But imagine Jesus friends and his mother sitting together after the crucifixion. That quiet, odd, calm that comes after a death where you no longer know just what to do with yourself. Arrangements have been made, there has a burial, and now you must figure out how to go on. I imagine how they sat there on that Saturday, felt sick to their stomachs, worried, unsure of what to do as they faced what seemed like both an eerie absence and a chaos that Jesus’s death left. What were they to do in the face of the world that was broken before Jesus’s death and surely seemed even worse now?
We must remember that although the resurrection was joyful, it came after a losing a friend to a violent death just a few days earlier. Imagine what it might be like to lose, not only a friend, but your leader and teacher whom you believed would lead to a different world. Imagine how you would feel if you lost your teacher friend, who was like your family, and three days later that person showed up, wounds gaping?
They had seen miracles, but as they saw the wounds, and struggled to make sense of it, like many of us still struggle to make sense of it – they struggled to integrate it into their lives and to what was happening. They did not yet know that Jesus was the Jesus we know or that the tradition he and they would leave would be Christianity. It would be many years later that the term Christian would even be first be used.* At this moment in the bible they were poor, exhausted followers of a charismatic, poor, Palestinian Jewish teacher in Galilee and Judea.
Thus, even with the resurrection and the ascension, we must remember that the disciples were real people who did not know what was happening, did not know the outcome.
Jesus’s life and death and resurrection and ascension does not shock our ears because we have heard it so much, but these words invite us to consider this in its own context and where this would have been traumatic, scary, and confusing. And overwhelming.
Shelly Rambo is a theologian at Boston University and she has written a book that I have found very helpful in thinking about what Christianity can look like today in the midst of a world not only full of suffering and injustice, where it can often feel overwhelming, but particularly a world where Christians and Christianity are too often part of causing harm. In her book Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining she makes the argument that the power of the resurrection is not Jesus’s resurrection as the triumph of life over death, but the power of the persistence of life in the midst of death. His wounds were still open.
Through hundreds of interviews with trauma survivors, she realized that they were learning how to live with experiences that were difficult to integrate into their existence. Survivors of Katrina, survivors of war, rape, of childhood abuse and neglect. For many of her interviewees, there was never a time when there was victory over the pain, when it was gone, or away, but rather the best that they could hope for was a life in the midst of the reality of this experience that remained with them.
And Rambo argues if Jesus’s resurrection and ascension was the end of the story, there is no more for us. And this is why, in our verses today we hear, “While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven,” two angels say to the disciples, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” And they are called to turn their attention back to the aftermath. To the world that remains.
We hear that they returned to Jerusalem and they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, and they prayed.
They gathered together to turn their attention back to the world. To turn their attention back to the world that was still shot through with trauma, and death, with oppression, and people who long for a better life in the midst of brokenness. I don’t know about you, but I know of longing for a better life in the midst of pain.
Shelly Rambo writes about a theology of remaining – where we do not go to the triumph, to the victory, because in that triumph and victory we leave behind the people who are still living in the midst of pain and wounds and death. And that, my dear friends, is all of us.
Many of us have probably heard and been told that we should be saved. And for too many of us this was about saying a prayer or perhaps going to an altar call and someone telling us that was it. It was about making a decision that had something to do with whether we would go to heaven or hell, whether we would be good or bad, in or out.
And, while we can affirm together this morning the need to open ourselves up to rebirth and to make meaningful commitments to our faith journeys, our verses this morning draw us back down to this world where salvation is not a one-time event, but it is an ongoing process – salvation is slow, my brothers and sisters, it is slow and it is long.
What if we are saved not by just saying a prayer, but by doing as Jesus did – which was to honor tradition while at the same time disrupting that tradition, by loving those people that were said to be unlovable and that includes loving ourselves, by speaking out truth, even when the costs were very high, by forgiving and offering grace even when it is so very hard. That is where salvation is, day in and day out, remaining. Remaining when it is hard and sad and the answers are not clear.
The well-known Christian theologian and African American thinker Cornell West speaks to this when he says that justice is what love looks like in public. He says, “We need the courage to be impatient with evil and patient with people,” we are called, he says, “To live is to wrestle with despair, yet never allow despair to have the last word.” This is life in the midst of death.
We heard this morning that the disciples returned to Jerusalem and they went to the room upstairs. They began, in many ways, their ministry of remaining with the world. Catherine Keller is a theologian at Drew University and says that this theology of remaining that this is a “theology that holds up in the face of personal and collective suffering, for it frees us from the dishonest resolutions, the grim guarantees, the disappointing promises.”
We have all been on both sides of those resolutions and promises – that things will be different, that we will really, now start to do the right things, the things we should, be the person that we want, to be the partner that we want to be to our spouse, the parent we want to our children, the person that we know we can be. Turn on the televangelist and they will tell you that you will be saved and it will be different. That there will be victory over what ails you – drinking, drugs, envy, pain, disordered eating, sexuality that causes you or others harm.
But I want to suggest this morning that we have not been well served by teachings that frame the Christian journey as one of triumph, or absolutes. Shelly Rambo notes that insofar as Jesus’s story is proclaimed as life conquering or life victorious over death, the church cannot speak to the realities of traumatic suffering, where there is never the end of the story, or the victory over the struggle, but there is instead slow hard work to eek out a path where life can be decent or even good in the midst of struggle –there must be a return and a return again and again to each time take a step forward, to heal a little bit, to struggle with the demons, and to inch ahead.
This is a theology of staying with it, on the ground, in the trenches. “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth,” said Jesus as he ascended. You will be my witnesses and the angels said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” and they returned to Jerusalem, and went to the room upstairs where they were staying.
The Christian tradition is a faith born out of violence – of death – of trauma of loss, and confusion. And perhaps it is like this because, at is best, Christianity can be a faith that makes promises that are real. That no matter what you do, you are still welcome. No matter what happens to you, you are fundamentally good. That you can be saved. That you can be loved. That you can love. And that you can love.
But this grace, this salvation, this love – it is not magic. You will be witnesses, he said. It is slow, and it is hard and we are called back again and again to love each other, to remain with each other.
I have spent much of my ten years in graduate school studying the ways that people try to grapple and make sense of their faith and their lives with specific regard to sexuality and relationships. There is a significant movement in the U.S., one that I have studied for many years and I’m finishing my book on it now. Many of you probably know it as True Love Waits, the idea that one of the key things we must do for our children and that good people must do is, “Wait until you are marriage to be sexually active.” Just say no, they say. It is 100% effective.
As I was preparing for this sermon, reading about how theology and the church and Christians can respond to the needs of the world, here and now, rather than looking up to heaven or thinking about things for a later time, I kept coming back to my many years of work and study about relationships and sexuality.
A book a few years ago came out called Sex and the Soul and in this book college student after college student said either 1) they were religious and they considered their relationships and sexuality to be wrong and thus separated it from their religious identity or 2) they were no longer religious because they could not make sense of their relationships and sexuality in light of the teachings of their church. Their faith wasn’t able to answer the experiences and realities that they had on the ground.
And this fractures people. It fractures people from their own bodies, from their faith, from their families, because it is an easy answer to the lived experience that is messy, and complicated, and disordered.
There are not one step answers to making sense of our relationships or our bodies, and this is why Jesus was among the people. Our tradition honors the beauty and messiness of people because God was the people. John 1 says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” But in Greek, here the Word is logos which can be understood as both wisdom and knowledge. It is a creative use of language that draws on both Greek and Hebrew traditions. John is saying here that in the beginning was knowledge and wisdom, and knowledge and wisdom was with God and knowledge and wisdom was God.” And in a later verse we see, John’s gospel tells us, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”
And we are now left. Like the disciples left in the wake of Jesus’ ascension to heaven, we are now left, sitting, in the midst of chaos, in the midst of people who will tell us that there are clear easy answers – just say no – just get saved – just do this or just do that – and we are left in the long wake to do the slow work. The slow work of looking away from heaven and the magic and miracles and being a witness to a life that was lived with the people, in the messy, broken, disaster of a world.
We are sitting around our table, in the wake, and the world is waiting for us to be present and remain. To remain when the answers are not easy, when the work is hard, when we ourselves feel broken, and hurt, and scared and not sure of what to do.
And perhaps it is here that we can all find salvation together, bearing witness to The Word – logos - the wisdom and knowledge – that became flesh. To give an account – to testify – to what life can look like in the midst of death.
May it be so. Amen.
*For more on this, see Judith Lieu, Christian Identity in the Jewish and Graeco-Roman World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), especially pp. 1-26, 240-241, 250-259.
This sermon is copyrighted. Please do not use without permission.
Of course, I am sad for the girls who have been kidnapped in Nigeria. I mourn for their families and their communities. But, the reality is, I am not more sad for them than I am for 3.1 children that die each year because of lack of adequate food, or the millions of women that are raped every year, or the 2,400 people who have been killed by U.S. drones in the last five years.
I have concerns about the social media and traditional news media focus on this incident. I feel similarly about the obsession with the Malaysia flight that was lost, the recent Korean ferry disaster, the Haitian earthquake, and I even remember inklings of this concern in the wake of 9/11. My concern is not particularly aimed at individual people who are posting on facebook or sad, but I am speaking more broadly to the disaster/outrage/forget pattern that we are all familiar with by now.
My concerns are several. First, when we focus our outrage and our energy on disasters or dramatic incidents, we distract ourselves from the slow grind of suffering that is all around us, and all around our world. The kidnapping incident is terrible, yes. But it is but one of hundreds upon thousands of terrible, traumatic, and unjust happenings that are routine around our world. We need to train our hearts and minds to be attentive to the world as it is, not as it is filtered through the most sensational news stories of the day. We cannot know all of the suffering in the world, and we certainly can’t be sad or outraged by it all, lest we collapse from the weight of the pain. But, we can be thoughtful in managing our time, energy, and moral outrage. It is not a series of sprints from one disaster to another, but rather a slow, long, and difficult walk of endurance that demands awareness of, and an ongoing attentiveness to, our complicated world. It also demands that we take the time and effort to reflect on what actions we can take, actions that will likely not be easy or without cost to us.
Second, I am particularly concerned with the U.S. tendency to get so worked up about injustice somewhere far away, particularly if the injustice is taking place in Africa (Kony 2012, anyone?) or by those claiming a connection to Islam. I recognize that the outrage and the concern comes from a sincere place, and that it is rare that intentions are bad. Yet, I think we are all called to dig deeper and to ask ourselves why outrage comes so easily for this, but the injustices that are so close to home are not social media sensations.
Finally, the reality is that social and news media outrage does not have a particularly strong record of mattering. Archon Fung and Jennifer Shkabatur have written an early draft of a study on viral social media engagement. They point out that there is very little empirical research on the impacts of such campaigns, but they speculate that, in a flawed and broken political system, social media campaigns have the potential to enhance democracy. I hope that they turn out to be right and that all of the hashtags have not been for naught. However, I suspect that efforts such as #bringbackourgirls primarily serve to provide people a sense of efficacy and mattering, but are not particularly helpful in actually creating change. I think by and large, change is slow hard work. My fear is that much online activism and Facebook outrage serves a palliative function, letting us imagine we are doing something when we are not. I include myself in this, of course. I am well aware of the irony of blogging about the ineffectiveness of hashtags and facebook posts.
And so, six years later, I return to my own words written in 2008 as I grappled with this. At the very least, it is a good reminder for me, but perhaps it will be helpful to someone else as we stumble together toward the world we long for:
I was about five or six when I realized that every person’s life seems as important to them as my life does to me. I was floooooorrrred. I didn’t know what to do with that. Everyone is equally as important. How could I take that all in? Whom should I care about? How were we supposed to deal with all the people in the world who were all as important as my own life?
In a sense, we can never really take that in. We can’t die inside every time we hear a heart-wrenching story about someone who lost their health insurance, lost their child, got deported, slipped through the cracks. We would be useless messes. So we have to filter. To pick our battles. To decide how much of ourselves to give, how much to hurt for others.
One thing I have noticed over the years is that the work of love and justice is often about mitigating the harm that goes on in our world.
We will not stop rape – we hope to make it less and less.
We will not end global warming – we hope to slow down the destruction.
We will not end poverty – we hope to make it less, less likely, less painful.
People in our world, town, congregations and families will continue to make mistakes, encounter injustice, ache so badly that it feels like they will split in two. No work that we do will stop this pain. We can only hope to maybe lessen its frequency, its intensity, its duration.
It is not that we give up on ideals and dreams, but we do not get frustrated when progress inches along at a snail’s pace. We cannot expect revolution, or we will burn out, give up. I can think of no successful, sustained revolution that changed everything it wanted to change. Justice work is hard, slow, and, compared to the rate we would want it to change things, it crawls along. There isn’t an end point.
That is not exactly inspiring – we can only slow down the statistics of poor, of hungry, of displaced by floods, of exploited and hurt.
Granted, some things get better. Racism is less these days than it was in the past. Heterosexism is less in many ways. Sexism is less bad in many ways. We’ve made progress, yet we do not arrive at what we envision.
This is hard to hear. And hard, for many of us to come to terms with. How much should we do if what we do will not save the world? How much effort should we put in for little gains, for baby steps? I think of all the time and energy and money I have put into mentoring over the years. For three young men. Three great young men, but still huge investments on my part. I think of the hassle of rinsing out every cat food can, of flying less than I want, of paying more for green products, of getting up early on Sundays to give sermons that many will forget. Sometimes knowing how minuscule all this is in the scheme of things makes us do less. I know it does for me.
How do we know how much of our lives to give it we are only a drop in the ocean – if we are only mitigating harm?
I think a lot of times our solution is to do a little, enough, so that we can say we are doing our part. Many others will burn out, throw up their hands and give up. Some will never even give it a start – too much. The pay-off is not great enough.
Yet, I often try to imagine myself as the beneficiary of the little harm that is mitigated. Too many people don’t have clean water, yet many people have it because of the long, slow, hard work to get clean water for more people.
A lot of people are hungry or starving, yet many fewer are hungry and starving because people fight hard to make sure that they are fed.
Even if the hunger is not solved, access to clean water is not achieved everywhere, if I was one of those people who was less harmed by the work for justice and equality – with food and clean water – then I would say it is worth it. Probably because, to everyone, their lives are super-important, even if, to us, they only look like some statistic.
Mitigating harm is not as exciting as winning the revolution and saving the world and eliminating poverty greenhouse gases hunger war. But it seems to me that we should keep pushing ourselves to do more, to be aware of the ways we perpetuate systems of harm and can work to interrupt those systems, keeping in mind that each person’s life is just as important as our own, yet knowing that we can never fully grasp this or embody this. We will not bring about the revolution. But we can make a difference in many lives. For me, I am coming to realize that that is enough. It must be, and the time I waste fretting about not saving the world takes time away from the many lives that need harm-mitigation work.
This sermon was given to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green on July 28th, 2013. A similar version that used the Galatians 2:15-21 was given at First Christian Church of Bowling Green on July 16, 2013.
When I first started getting involved in my youth group in high school, my first major event was to go on a work trip to Appalachia. We got a handout before we went that provided the rules.
1. Work hard – no complaining!
2. Sleep hard – no staying up all night talking – you need your rest – see rule #1
3. Study hard – We were to learn about the culture and the people of Appalachia and also take part in bible studies.
4. Play hard – after the work, rest, and study, there would be fun activities.
So it was work hard, sleep hard, study hard, play hard. Easy to remember, short and sweet.
The hardest one for me was play hard – I was always somewhat serious and never really very good at games, but I was prepared. I was new to the youth group and I wanted to do the right things. In my efforts to do things right, I started practicing playing. To make sure, you know, I had the hang of it. My dad helped me to spruce up on my basketball, softball and volleyball, and I started running a mile a night to be in good shape for playing.
Some might say I missed the point, but I wanted to be good. I wanted to fit in. I didn’t want to be the last person chosen for a team.
Fast forward to working on the house we were building in Appalachia. I was working with Angie Smith. She had been going to the church since she was born and so I wanted to make sure to do a good job at working hard to impress her. She was one of the popular kids and I was new and unsure of myself. As we were hammering boards she said, “God, it is so hot out here. I wish we could just quit already.
My mouth dropped open. DID SHE NOT READ THE RULES?? She was complaining which was a violation of the first rule and she took the Lord’s name in vain. She violated one of the ten commandments and one of the rules of the mission trip in one fell swoop. I was disheartened. What kind of church was this anyway where people didn’t follow the rules?
And, as you can imagine, this was not the last time that I ran into a church person who was not following their own rules or doing the things that seemed right. I’m not going to ask for raising of hands, but I can bet a lot of have experienced that. Folks in church not living up to what they say is the right way to live.
In fact, I bet most of us have experienced that ourselves. We know what we should do. We know the right things to do. And we don’t do them.
So, the question then becomes, how do we respond to this with ourselves and with others? What happens when we don’t live up to what we say is right?
Many of you might have seen a recent story going around facebook this week. It was found to be a hoax, but it was very widely posted, so much so that it is a story that speaks to a lot of people. The story goes like this:
There is a new pastor called to a church. But instead of getting dressed up on his first day at his new congregation, he dresses up like a homeless man. He goes to the big church and very few people speak to him. He is not treated well. Then, when the leaders of the church announce the new pastor, the minister dressed as a homeless man comes to the front of the church and quotes one of part of the Bible: “whatever you did for one of the least of these, you have done for me.”
He criticizes his congregation for not being kind, for not being welcoming. In essence, he criticizes them for not living out their faith. I think it is easy for ministers – and for congregations – to get into that mode. They surely should have been more welcoming to the man who looked homeless in the congregation. So it wasn’t that he was technically wrong to point that out to them, but the question is if this was the best response. And not to mention maybe not a good way to get off on the right foot if it was your first day called to a new church.
The story clearly spoke to a lot of people – either in that they recognized that their church probably would have done the same thing, and, perhaps for many of us, that we may not have been one of the ones to reach out to the visitor who appeared to be without a home.
And even though that was a Christian church and I know some of you are sitting out there thinking, “So it doesn’t really apply to us…” I have been a part of enough Unitarian Universalist churches to know that we also do this well, in our own ways. Our principles and purposes and sources and our history calls us to an overwhelming task of living ethically and responsibly, loving generously, giving of ourselves, giving of our resources in a world that does not make this easy. And many of us – I would venture to say that all of us – fall short on this. And although we try so very hard to be inclusive and welcoming, we also fall short on this too.
If you listen to Unitarian Universalist sermons around the country – or read blogs – or go to UU dinner parties, there is a sense that we should be doing more. Doing better.
And this, for me, is one of the fundamental questions of the life of our faith. How do we make sense of our repeated failures to live up to our best selves? Our congregations continue to draw in mostly middle and upper middle class people and mostly white people, despite the fact that we would like to be more broadly welcoming. Look at per capita income for churches and denominations in the U.S. Unitarian Universalists are at the very top. We don’t want to let ourselves off the hook – but, at the same time, we cannot guilt ourselves or each other into a life that is aligned with our values. What are we to do?
And I want to suggest this morning that it is not even a matter of trying harder. If you think back to my church trip I went to when I was in high school, I was determined to do well enough that I would be good enough. I wanted to do all the right things – follow all the rules, try as hard as I could!
And, even though the rules of my church trip when I was young are different from the those rules that might be implicit in our faith, make no mistake that there are implicit rules in our faith. There are things that we should say and do so that we look on ourselves as good enough – or on others good enough. Try hanging out with a bunch of UUs and saying that you don’t recycle. That you don’t believe in committee work. Try saying that you are conservative or that you don’t like NPR. Or, like a dear friend UU friend of mine in divinity school, that you pray to saints. We, like all traditions, have our way of doing things, have our way of trying to do good and be good. Trying to be good enough. To save the world and/or to save ourselves.
Another possibility for understanding what church is about is that we aren’t about getting it right. That it is not about just the right theology, that we do the right social justice action, that we just get enough money so that we can then really be the church that we want, but that people come to church and want a church because we want to find a place where we are loved no matter what. Where we are cared for and okay no matter how messed up we are. And that our work is to see each other, to provide a sense of care, of safety, and to seek to know ourselves and each other. There is so often the idea that church is about trying to get life right or affirm that we are living well. That we are not like those other people. Who are hypocrites.
But it seems to me that being a hypocrite is simply part of the human condition. I think of my most deeply held values, and I pretty much am horrible at most of them. It is all I can do to summon the energy to be nice to my family and my students, to get my house reasonably clean, to show up at church sometime, to give money to a few causes I care about, and to get my recycling out the door. My clothes are probably from sweatshops. I use disposable cups all the time. I fly too much. I drive too much. If everyone in the earth consumed as much as I did, we would need three and a half planets. I live a house that is way bigger than I need to survive, while I know people are homeless. I eat more than I need, too much of it processed and too much of it shipped in from other countries with underpaid workers who are exposed to pesticides. I walk by homeless people on the street and I do not give them money. The list goes on.
Many of us try and we try and we are still a mess. We guilt ourselves and we guilt each other to try to be better, and we are still too lonely, people are still hungry, our church still isn’t as big as we want it to be, and the world is still broken.
Brene Brown is a researcher at the University Houston has spent year studying vulnerability. She did a really popular TED talk – an online video with over a million views – and has now written a few books about her research on this. She talks about this idea that we feel we are not good enough as we are, we are scared, we are vulnerable, we don’t want to be embarrassed, or rejected, so we toughen up, we hide, we get better clothes, a better car, we volunteer more, we give more money, we look down on others more, we DO MORE OF THE RIGHT THINGS in order to be okay, in order not to be vulnerable, in order for people not to see what we really are.
And what she found as she studied was that there was no way out of this need to be vulnerable in order to be healthy. To be seen by others, as we are. She actually came at this as a very tough researcher type, attempting to get away from the mushy stuff, qualitative stuff, new age stuff that you get in a lot of research. But through years and years of study, she found there was no way to get around it… to toughen up enough… to fix it. That it was part of the human condition. This fear that we are not enough, that we must do more, be better, try harder, that we have to follow more rules, that the only way through this or out of it, is by entering into it
She talked about shame was a key part of this. We are shameful about who we think we really are, so we hide it. We cover it by knowing more. Getting more. Drinking more. Sleeping with more people. By doing more right things at church. We give more money. There are a million things we do to try to be good. To be better. To be enough.
And she talks about this fear disconnection – if they know who we REALLY are – if you know who I really am – you will not love me. We will not connect. They will not want me. I am not really, if they really knew me, lovable.
We know about shame – the less you talk about it, the more you have it. And let’s be real. Church people are good about not talking about stuff, right? We come here and we nod our heads and we are dying inside. We are in a failing marriage. People don’t like us at our school, at work, in our house. There are affairs. Addictions. We are faking it. We are numbing ourselves with food. With TV. And we come to church and we nod our heads and we are DYING inside, because if they really knew us… if they really knew who we were they would not want me here.
Yet, we find and the research finds doing destructive things to numb ourselves and doing the right things to try to earn our way to goodness have not saved us. They have not made it okay. Brown points out that “We are the most in-debt, obese, addicted and medicated adult cohort in U.S. history.”
Years and years of trying to doing all the right things and say the right things, and trying harder have not saved us from the pain or from ourselves or from this broken broken world. (Because I have Baptist roots, this is where I have to say, “Can I get an Amen!?”)
And although Brown’s work doesn’t focus on churches per se, I think it has great implications for our churches and for those of in the church. I suggest that her work doesn’t tell us to stop trying to be better. To stop yearning to live out our highest values or to call others to that. Yet, I think she says that call to be better, that yearning and striving and pushing must be preceded by love. By creating space for vulnerability – a space where we can see and know each other where we can authentically connect. People’s messiness that defies rationality or reasonableness. And this is hard for UUs because of our long tradition of fetishizing rationality. If we can just understand it and map it out, then we can do it, right? Yet, there is more.
The philosopher the 17th century Pascal said, “The heart has reasons that reason cannot know.” And to get at these reasons – the heart reasons – we must begin and return to love. Forgiveness. No matter what. No matter how unkind you are. No matter what a mess you are. No matter how lonely you feel. If you feel ugly. If you are an addict. If you are mean. Or a liar.
And we have to tell ourselves – WE are still good. You are still good.
You are still enough and the church must say that. No once and not in our mission statement and not just on Sundays and not just to each other or in our handouts but every. Single. day. Because we come here on Sundays for sustenance, but the church is us. We are out there in the world day in and day out and we have to say this not only to ourselves, but to the world.
Brown’s research found, only when we can be vulnerable in our imperfection and in our brokenness, can we connect with others. Can we be real. Can we heal and feel and flourish.
And I know that churches in general do not have a great track record for this, but I think the idea of church CAN be that we can come in, that we welcome, NO MATTER WHAT.
Does this mean we give up on trying to do better? No. But the love, the grace, the safe space of acceptance, where there is space for vulnerability, has to come first… that we cannot even come close to becoming who we are called without the room for vulnerability – to be seen and known – coming FIRST. Making the foundation.
We have to know we already have what it takes because it is already there. No amount of doing things, following rules, or numbing things or running from things, will make it work. That our souls and hearts and lives and potentials are enough now.
In order for connection to happen we have to let ourselves to be seen. We have to quit being ashamed of ourselves. That we aren’t thin enough, successful enough. That we are alone. That we do bad things. Brown calls vulnerability uncomfortable and scary BUT also goes on to say that this vulnerability is the “birthplace of joy, creativity, belonging, love.”
What if people thought of churches as the birthplace of joy, creativity, belonging and love? Where people did not feel shame, but welcome. Welcome to their whole selves. Where there is nothing you can do to be good enough, because you are already good enough?
Imagine how much more healed we would be if that is what churches were? Where we looked at the broken souls, the proud souls, each and every one of us who is putting on a show of ourselves and said – you are not your show. You are not your clothes. Or your politics, or your job. None of that. You are enough.
We try and we fail and we try again to get our minds around this kind of love which is the foundation on which we build. We can’t start with the doing. The doing can only grow once we are willing to believe that we are enough. And not only that we are enough – here in this room – but that we – as in all of us, are enough. The folks at the evangelical church or across the world. The folks down the road from us. Who we work with. Who cut us off in traffic. People that you disagree with. We are all the children of God or of the Divine Wonder whose name we cannot know.
Let us see that in each other. Let us know each other. May we see each other. And in that knowing and seeing, the connections that nourish and change and heal will come.
May it be so. Amen.
* This material is copyrighted and should not be used without permission and attribution.
I’ve been in the ICU with my mom since Monday when there was bleeding on her brain. When I arrived, she lay there like a blob, mouth agape in that terrible way that older sicker people look in the hospital. She had lost consciousness not long before I arrived, although as she was fading in and out (mostly out) her eyes met mine and she knew who I was and I saw her in her eyes. And I told myself to hold on to that and I loved it and held it.
Although we are not out of the woods by any means yet, she is now awake and herself, and I do not have to cling to what I thought might be our last shared glance. Save for some confusion and forgetfulness that is common with such trauma, she is here. She has a stint in her skull going into her brain that drains out the spinal fluid that is backed up.
I read the numbers and glowing green graphs like a little crystal ball that might let me see something about how she is. I jump up when the machines beep, answering them like sirens calling for me to come hither. I devour medical journal articles on NASAH (nonaneurysmal subarachnoid hemorrhage, for those of you not in the know) like a fifth grader who just discovered Harry Potter, learning so quickly the lingo and the protocols as if me knowing them will somehow make it more likely that everything will be okay.
This life, it is so precious, we say over and over again like a little mantra to ourselves to remind our hearts and our minds to appreciate the beauty and fragility of it all. We are in an impossible bind where we must plan for a long-term life of financial security and safety and at the same time little quotes tell us to be present and in be in the moment and live as if it was the last day of your life. It is all impossible and broken and yet we must go on and find a balance and a way forward, more subject than we would like to be to our histories and the years of established synaptic patterns.
All the little noises of the ICR – the beeping and the cuffs inflating and deflating and the nurses giggling in the hall and the water flowing for the oxygen machine – they become familiar so very fast.
And, in the end, I think that there is little to be said. Over and over again our hearts break and we lose our breath and we feel the shaking of our hands as we long for a life of stability and love and comfort. And over and over again, it does not come and we try to love and we try to pray and hope and wish and stumble our way to something that makes this all worth it.
And so I just pray. For me and others who might have the same prayer.
God of all,
We come to you tonight, out of ideas.
Out of ways to make it better or easier.
We long for peace and stability.
For a safety that we’ve been chasing for so many years
That never comes.
I do not believe in an interventionist God.
I am afraid you are not up there with some sort of control board,
watching over my mother’s inter-cranial pressure or
Tim Tebow’s football games or the Egyptian referendum.
And so, we are left only to ask
that we are open to your Love
That I am told
Is already there.
Washing over us
Day and night.
In the ICU.
Over my sweet mother.
On our tongues.
In each heart ventricle.
With each beep of those machines
And click of the nurses’ shoes
May we know of the preciousness of this all.
The moments in the ICU
and a thousand other imperfect moments
of pain and hope and joy and tragedy
All we have in this little tiny slice
Of time we get on this spinning planet.
Help us live into the awareness of your Love.
And the Holiness of all of this.
It must be holy, God,
It must be. Right?
God, so many of us have run out of ideas
about how to make this work.
Be with us as we try to let go of the trying
And the fixing
Of the feeling sorry for ourselves
And the mental and verbal reviews of the injustice Of it All.
May we practice presence.
Awareness of the power
of what we can do in those seconds
To love and be kind and speak up
To do things differently
To move closer to Right.
These moments and moments.
For it is, we remember (and then forget), all we have.
Amen and Blessed Be.
Regular readers of this blog know that have mentored a great group of young men since they were in elementary school (going on 17 years now!). One of the young men and his partner of 7 years and they have three boys ages 10, 5 and 3. The oldest is the mother’s son from a previous relationship, but the young man I mentor acts as his father and treats him like a son. Both the young man I mentor and his partner lost their minimum wage jobs this year and became homeless, losing all of their possessions because they had no where to put them. They are both now working – the young man since summer and his partner since October and are trying hard to get back on their feet. They rarely ask of anything of me except moral support, but I told them I wanted to help with Christmas. They have good hearts and are defying many statistics – no drugs, no arrests, no abuse, raising children together – but they still face a lot of struggles. I’m working with them and friends to try to get them into a house where they will pay rent, but the owner is willing to work with them on a rent to own plan the next 20 years which is an amazing thing for them and we are also working on GEDs so that they can try to get better jobs – she would like to be a nurse and he loves to cook and would like to work his way up in a kitchen somewhere. They desperately want to provide a better life for their children. I told them I would take care of Christmas (they protest every year, as they are proud, but I insisted). We’ve covered a lot of it and also tried to get donations from friends here who have boys the same age and have extras to give to them. However, since so much was lost in being homeless (they are currently in a precarious, overcrowded situation with extended family) they have a lot of needs. I made an amazon wish list for them here http://amzn.com/w/1D8EO82EXCGS3. There is no pressure AT ALL, however, if you’d like to help out and buy a little thing for them, they and the boys would be very appreciative. I’ll try to deliver everything to them by December 15 or 17.