The Art of Possibility
All this month we’ll be exploring what it means to be a people of possibility. When I preach on our themes, I usually slip that question- phrasing into the sermon somewhere – sometimes obvious like now, and other times, it’s subtler. I could ask what it means to be a person of possibility, beginning with the individual. We change the world most profoundly when we begin with ourselves. In fact, most religions, at their core, are helping seekers to make the personal changes first – affecting the broader societal changes later down the road.
And for certain, we’ll wonder what possibility as a spiritual virtue means for us individually as well. But I like to begin with “people” – begin by searching for what it means to follow a spiritual path in community, because we’ve chosen to do this together. Unitarian Universalism, for all of its strong streak of individualism, it is profoundly a communal faith.
Our 7 principles even show this tension in the way they are written. Even the newest among us, probably knows the first principle by heart. (What do we covenant to affirm and promote)? The inherent worth and dignity of every person. Even when we talk about the most individualistic of principles, we’re doing so by talking about our shared promises to one another – we covenant to affirm and promote. But what’s less obvious is that our 7 principles move into wider and wider circles as we approach the seventh principle. Worth of individuals moves toward equity and compassion in relations, to acceptance of one another, and through learning moves into democratic practices, world community, and ultimately recognizing how all of life is interdependently woven. Our 7 principles teach us to move from our own experience into deeper and more meaningful connection with the world around us, all our neighbors. The end goal is building the beloved community on earth, ever knowing that we may never see it in our own lifetime, but our purpose keeps us focused on the possibility. So, what does it mean to be a people of possibility.
Our second reading today reminded me of the old folk tale about a traveler who comes to a new town and sees several people hard at work. They’re all alternating between mining stone, or moving the mined stone, or chiseling the stone. Curious, the traveler comes up to the first worker and asks, “What are you doing?” The first worker, exhausted says, “I’m stuck mining stone all day to make ends meet. I hate it, but I need to put food on the table.” Thrown off, the traveler goes up to the second worker asking the same question “What are you doing?” That second worker responded, “Oh, sometimes I’m moving stones from one spot to another, other times I help mine. It’s ok work, and my family is grateful for the house we have because of it.” Feeling a little better with this response, the traveler goes up to a third person asking them, “What are you doing?” This third worker, with a smile on their face, and a little bit of awe in their eyes, answers, “I’m building a cathedral!”
The virtue of possibility is sometimes a bit about perspective. How we engage with what’s before us certainly impacts our attitude, and our sense of satisfaction. But it also can set the scope for what we imagine is possible. Cathedrals are not dreamt up, or dreamt of, through drudgery, though they do take a lot of work to build. Vision casting – imagining what we might achieve together – is sort of the art of possibility; it’s making room for newness, giving it shape, and using possibility as the road map for a better future. Will it always work out the way we hope – highly unlikely. Do we want to keep an eye out for the worst – yes; but we don’t want to be ruled by the worst that might be.
As New Yorkers, we’re good at that last part, right? We can be our own worst critics. Finding what’s not ideal, and poking at it until it becomes all we can see. I’m sure most of us have that challenge in the office, or our teachers dealing with a rather difficult culture in our educational system these days, or the last time we had a family dinner… We do it here too. Especially in times of challenge, this gets rougher, and anxiety rises. Money is tight, the broader norms in our country seem upended these days, we’ve lost friends or family to illness. None of that is easy to emotionally handle, and we can turn toward focusing on all that’s hard and forgetting to look toward what is possible.
As a spiritual leader here, part of my responsibility is to help us not get lost staring at what isn’t working. Acknowledge it, address it, tweak what we can, and keep moving forward. I look to the radical changes on our grounds these past 6 months as a mini-parable in change-management. We’ve had a few cancelled attempts over the past 35 years to repair our grounds, so that it’s safe and accessible for all – whether we’re walking or wheeling into our sanctuary. From the stories I’ve been told, the history is one where, each attempt, we got far along, but there were always reasons why the plan wasn’t perfect for everyone, so we didn’t move forward in doing the needed work. (Who here is perfect? So no plan will ever be perfect, but we still need plans.) I totally see how we’d want to make sure everyone was happy – but in the interim it became harder and harder for folks to park as our grounds got worse and worse. I remember the last winter before we really got the repairs moving, I fell on the ice 4 times. Something had to be done. This time around, we kept our focus on the vision for what we wanted, and did our best to accommodate all our wants without demanding perfection. And in the coming months we’ll celebrate our success and re-dedicate our grounds. (And I’m happy to report that so far this Summer, I haven’t fallen on any ice, even once.)
But possibility isn’t only about casting a vision, or setting goals. Sometimes, it helps us gain a new perspective. Our second reading, by Robert Fulghum, is looking at how possibility does this very thing. Of all the inane, weird things for college students to do for a philosophy class, eating a wooden chair probably ranks up somewhere (at least near) the top. But I love the new perspective it gave them to look at things in a different light. How do you take the small monotonous things we do in our daily lives and turn them into something new and wondrous. They took their 15 miles a week of running in circles around a lake, and imagined what that look like if they went in a straight line in our minds at other places in the world. They started to do a virtual tour of Europe – all from beginning with eating a chair for a philosophy class. As Fulghum ended his story, “For all the goofiness of the project, these young men are learning patience and perseverance. Some things cannot be had except on a little-at-a-time, keep-the- long-goal-in-mind, stay-focused basis. Love and friendship are like that. Marriage and parenthood, too. And peace and justice and social change.”
I mentioned on Facebook yesterday, for those who follow me there, that I was remembering one of my undergraduate Religious Studies professors who forced us to write a 5 page paper every week for many of his upper-level classes. I recall being blown away at how tiring that was after 3 years of doing it. It’s funny how as I begin my 10th year in the ministry, and 5th year of writing weekly sermons that are twice as long as those old weekly assignments, how nostalgic I get for the days of upper-level religion classes. But like the philosophy students eating a chair, leading them to take virtual geography tours, in increments that match their weekly jogs, this memory got me thinking as well. Over the Summer, I started taking a serious look at how much I’ve written. Even conservatively, I’ve written over 200,000 words since I came to our Fellowship in sermons alone – not counting the blogs, or the prayers, or the other liturgical writings I craft from time to time. We’ll see what comes of it in time, but I’m beginning to sort through some other writing projects to see if I can work toward longer pieces for publication. Maybe that will bear fruit in a year, or maybe in 5 years, or maybe never; but it’s got me thinking in new ways – and that means more creativity.
I say this in part aloud as a little kick-start for myself; but more as a wondering for each of us. What is your 15 miles around a lake every week? What is the routine thing you do all the time that might be looked at in a new way? What may come from stretching the possibility into something new? This week, I encourage you all to look for that routine thing you do all the time, and imagine applying it in new directions. Maybe see it as a mid-year tune-up. Or those of us who are on the school cycle, this is the real new year’s time anyway so make your resolution. But don’t get too hung up on making it hard – aim for new or different – and see if it creates new space in your life – where there was mostly routine.
I’ll close by returning to our first reading from today, the poem by Rumi. It’s talking about the quintessential question of faith – the nature of life, longing and God. “So! I’ve heard you calling out, but have you ever
gotten any response?” The not-knowing, the uncertainty that descends upon the man that once prayed nightly, is a painful loss for him in the poem. Possibility reflects this existential crisis for all of us in our daily lives. When we’re reticent to try new things, or to break out of a rut – in a way, we’re responding to the uncertainty of the future – maybe informed from our own past. Our inner New Yorker film critic resurfaces, “Things didn’t work out before – or – there’s a lot of mitigating factors on what we’re trying to accomplish- or – I fail so often.” Maybe some or all of that might even be true – but it’s not helpful if change is what we seek. The inner criticisms, even if valuable for course correction heard in reasonable doses, turn into the cynic from the Rumi poem when they become callous to our potential.
“This longing you express is the return message.” The grief you cry out from draws you toward union.” When we’re stuck, or dry, or uninspired, hear these words. Use your longing for a new way, as the evidence of the return message.
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