Posts Tagged hopelessness
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 10/29/17 as part of our All Souls Day service. It puts Reinhold Niebuhr in conversation with Pema Chodron reflecting on hope, hopelessness and peace.
Maybe the first tenet of preaching, or at least the most important, is to make sure folks come out hearing a message of hope. But today, this service commemorating All Souls, is different. Another year has gone by. A life full of hopes, and dreams – of losses and disappointments. Some the small everyday kind that we carry with us way beyond reason, and some tragic losses that impact us keenly and deeply, whose wounds will not go away for a very long time – if they ever truly leave us. Sometimes hope isn’t a virtue, but a merely wish for what can simply not be. All Souls is a day to honor and remember those we have lost; to remember the truth that death comes inevitably to all of us. We pray that we learn to enjoy the sweetness of life, of friendship, of community – for as long as we are given.
The Serenity Prayer – which the choir sung earlier – is a powerful reminder on days like today. We heard how the prayer begins – the part many of us know by heart. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” Hope is sometimes the opposite of acceptance. It can get us through the day, and sometimes like faith, it changes our trajectory for the better. But before hardships that can not be affected, hope in changing them only brings more pain. There’s a peace in accepting what can not be changed – and moving from that place forward in our lives.
But the prayer attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr, goes on: “Living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time; accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His Will; that I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with Him forever in the next. Amen.” This extended part of the prayer speaks directly to a Neo-Orthodox Christian sense of the world. Niebuhr was a theologian speaking to a post-world War II world. Progressive Christianity was dominant in the States prior to the Second World War – known well as the Social Gospel movement. We’re seeing a way in which that movement is resurgent again through Moral Mondays and Rev. Dr. William Barber. But in the 1950s, progressive Christians couldn’t effectively articulate a theology of hope and grace in response to the horrors of the Holocaust. Theologians like Niebuhr, moved Christianity forward – centering sin as the focal point of human suffering. Skipping past the pain and suffering of the world – directly to hope – wasn’t going to be a lasting theology that gave meaning, understanding and a framework for spiritual living – in the face of such horrors that the 1940s brought.
This prayer’s bedrock though, is a spiritual discipline that transcends doctrine. Living one day at a time; accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; accepting this world as it is, not as I would have it. It didn’t mean that we don’t seek to change the world, where we are complicit in suffering – the prayer starts by telling us to change the things we can. But it does teach that true spiritual growth, the healing of our hearts, begins first with acceptance. Sometimes hope – gets in the way of acceptance.
There’s another, more contemporary, theologian who has been very powerful for me in times of grief. I quote Pema Chodron in sermons from time to time. She’s a Canadian Buddhist Nun, teacher and prolific writer. Her book, “When Things Fall Apart” found its way into my life at a time when I was ending a long-term relationship that I was sure was going to last, I was working a temporary job that I knew was ending in a few months, I was wracking up remarkable amounts of graduate student debt, and someone had just broken into the car I was borrowing (from a congregant) during my student ministry costing me close to a thousand dollars in repairs to windows and the dashboard in their effort to steal a $50 radio. It was far more money than I earned in any given month. Things were falling apart. If you’re in a place like that now, I recommend that book strongly.
But there’s a section in there I rarely talk about with folks. It’s a theology that’s very close to the edge of what would not preach well here. The chapter is called, “Abandon Hope.” Now – first off – don’t abandon hope. There are so many struggles in life that will pass. Everything I mentioned just a moment ago in the scheme of that time in my life where everything was falling apart – are just shadows and dreams now. Hope for the things that we can change – and the wisdom to know the difference – is vital.
But here’s an excerpt from her teachings that may help today. “As long as we’re addicted to hope, we feel that we can tone our experience down or liven it up or change it somehow, and we continue to suffer a lot. In a nontheistic state of mind, abandoning hope is an affirmation, the beginning of the beginning. You could even put “Abandon Hope” on your refrigerator door instead of more conventional aspirations like “Everyday in every way, I’m getting better and better.” We hold onto hope and it robs us of the present moment. If hope and fear are two different sides of the same coin, so are hopelessness and confidence. If we’re willing to give up hope that insecurity and pain can be exterminated, then we can have the courage to relax with the groundlessness of our situation.”
…Insecurity and pain… We all face it. Sometimes we allow it to rule our lives over the small things. And sometimes the heart-crushing losses of our lives put them legitimately at the front and center of our spirit. I normally talk about the small every day hurts from the pulpit; but today on All Souls, we’re tentatively heading toward life’s greatest loss – our loved ones and ultimately – ourselves.
The Western world sometimes looks at Buddhist notions of enlightenment as some super human power to no longer feel insecurity and pain. Some New Age circles will paint enlightenment as the ability to magically be above all that. Pema Chodron is pointing toward a different truth. Insecurity and pain will never leave us – but we can come to relax in that groundlessness and find a deeper peace. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” It’s the point where Neo-Orthodox Christianity meets Buddhism. When I find those points, I try to attend the teaching very carefully – it’s probably speaking to a deep truth in life. Living one day at a time; accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; accepting this world as it is, not as I would have it.
Pema Chodron goes on to say, “Death can be explained as not only the endings in life but all of the things in life that we don’t want. Our marriage isn’t working; our job isn’t coming together. Death and hopelessness provide proper motivation for living an insightful, compassionate life. But most of the time warding off death is our biggest motivation. Warding off any sense of problem, trying to deny that change is a natural occurrence, that sand is slipping through our fingers. Time is passing and its as natural as the seasons changing. But getting old, sick, losing love – we don’t see those events as natural. We want to ward them off, no matter what.”
For some of us here today, grief and death are not close at hand. We may have suffered loss some time ago, but the sting is not as harsh so many years later. But you may be wrestling with saving or ending your marriage. Or work and career are just not panning out. When hopelessness stays turned inward, and it plays havoc with our minds, it’s a damaging thing. But experience of hopelessness, informing our outward actions, can make us more compassionate people. Faith – at its best – teaches us to treat others as we would have wanted to be treated when we too were at our lowest moment. And any one of us today could be at our lowest low – and we might even be moving around with the biggest smile on our face, even though our hearts are breaking. Remember that, when you come through our doors. Remember that, when you just want to rage at the people around you for not being nearly as perfect as you think you are. We want to strive to instill compassion in this often unforgiving world, but we can’t force compassion through ire, or rage, or petty acts that lift our egos above those around us. Change does occur – time is slipping by – we’re all aging everyday. We may hate that, but it’s natural. Warding off change, rarely makes us kinder to be around.
The crux of Pema Chodron’s teaching around the Abandon Hope magnet on our refrigerators is this: “When we talk about hopelessness and death, we’re talking about facing facts. No escapism. Giving up hope is encouragement to stick with yourself, not to run away, to return to the bare bones, no matter whats going on. If we totally experience hopelessness, giving up all hope of alternatives to the present moment, we can have a joyful relationship with our lives, an honest, direct relationship that no longer ignores the reality of impermanence and death.” To our Western understanding, there’s a way in which this may sound callous. If your grief is recent, don’t take this to mean to rush to lose your grief. You may break yourself if try to. But when time has passed – there’s a point where we have to accept the things we can not change, if we’ll ever be able to find joy again.
Part of me wanted to call this week’s service, “Abandon Hope” but the optics would have been horrid, and I kind of wanted a few people to actually show up. So the sermon is entitled Living Past Fear – which is another way of saying the same thing. Giving up all hope of alternatives to the present moment before us – in all it’s hardship, and in all the fear it stirs, deep in our bones – brings us into direct relationship with this precious life we have been given.
This Thanksgiving sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington following the shootings in Colorado Springs, Minneapolis and the protests in Chicago.
Last Sunday, I was in our large church in Dallas, Texas, celebrating the ordination of a colleague into our Unitarian Universalist ministry. We knew each other from our campus ministry days, and from a few years where she was a student minister at my former church in Brooklyn. It was a privilege and a joy to be there.
It was a whirlwind trip, Saturday through Monday, so I didn’t get to see much of Dallas at all. But the church itself isn’t too far from what’s known as the gay neighborhood, which led to a few conversations about recent local news. There’s been a spate of hate crimes targeting gay people in that area. The Dallas UU church is centered between two larger sections that are quite conservative – so it stands out.
I’m finding the news of the world often very demoralizing of late. I imagine I’m not alone. And hearing first hand about some of these local attacks, was dispiriting. But then we celebrated the ordination of a young, married, Lesbian woman to this 1200+ member church in the heart of conservative Dallas, (and me – a gay male minister is offering the pastoral prayer and laying on of hands) and I began to think – we have come such a long way. Maybe it’s not all that hopeless after all.
The Dallas church has a large quilted art piece hanging from its central wall in their sanctuary. It’s a large square that is made up of four sections – each comprised of smaller squares. They take it down from time to time, and I was told, can rearrange it in various ways. Each square on its own, looks just like a few splashes of paint that begin and end with no sense. But put together, to me, they resembled an artistic rendering of fish-like swirls that was quite compelling. It all depends on where you look, and how they put it together that season.
Our video screen presentation this week has an image of a heart made of up many other images in each tiny quilt-like square. It reminds me of that kind of quilted image in the Dallas church. Looking casually, it’s a heart, but looking more closely, we see the pattern through the particulars. It all depends on where you look.
Amidst the sea of pain in the news, I’m trying to look for the stories of hope, the stories of the helpers, the places of change and healing. But not so much that I fail to see the places where I need to be the story of hope; where I need to take on the role of helper. Many of us can swing too far in either direction. We can lose hope or purpose before the crush of the challenge of it all, or sometimes we can hide behind the ease of just finding the stories of good and forget about the hardship. The spiritual challenge is to not lose sight of the bigger picture, while at the same time, striving to gain strength from the patterns etched by those of good faith and good action.
All of this month, we have reflected on what it would mean to be a people of ancestors. What patterns do we find in our history, that informs the pictures we see today? I’m guessing that many of us may have had Thanksgiving meals with family members who interpret a very different pattern than you might. Why do we often see such different images?
The stories that speak to us, the ancestors that we shy away from or that we are drawn toward, impact the quilted patterns we come to understand today. Take our reading from earlier. The poet is trying to convey that what is good in the world, is in some way eternal. Good intents, or actions – prayers of those who act with good faith, and for good purpose, never quite leave us. It’s language that we often draw from for our memorial services. Like a pebble in a pool, our actions have rippling effects, often beyond where we can see in our own lifetimes. We may no longer be here, but our impact is lasting.
The poem references how we are free to absorb that which is good, not the rules but the spirit, of what came before, and transmit that through our world. Our faith, at its best, strives to do that good work. What did our religious forbears strive for on their better days? Can we carry that on, and learn from their mistakes and their low points?
But that question only works, simply at least, if we are coming from a place where we are not too heavily scarred from a religious past. We can all too easily draw to mind historical atrocities, and current atrocities, done in the name of religion. They ripple on through the world as well, often just as strongly. The poem I read earlier, can we heard as a balm in a difficult time for some, and rose-colored at best for others. It depends on where we view it from; how our life, and our heritage, have arranged the quilted piece.
So maybe it’s both. Places of spirit never lose their power, for good or evil, so long as we choose to carry on their torch – for blessing or curse. And we all make that choice – intentionally or otherwise. We carry and multiply the impact of the work of our ancestors into the world today.
But we must be conscious of that history to understand how we knit our world together; imagine it and reimagine it. As we finish our national holiday of Thanksgiving, we exercise our annual complicated retelling of one of the worst times in our nation’s history. And we often forget the really positive aspects of it, while we try to forget the atrocities done to the Native Americans.
We began as a people who were religious refugees from Europe trying to start a new life, free from religious persecution. We brought war and genocide, so we try to tell the story in a new light. That doesn’t go away, no matter how hard we try to tell a white-washed version of it to our children. We can’t change that history, but we can make new decisions based upon the lessons of the past – if we allow ourselves to remember those lessons.
As we learn of the plight of Syrian refugees, we would do well as a people to remember our nation began with refugees. Slave and immigrants would make up most of the rest of us, but religious refugees were the first. It’s a twisted form of xenophobia to demonize religious refugees seeking sanctuary, considering where we came from.
But it depends on how you look at it. Not all who oppose offering our safer shores to families fleeing terrorists are white or Christian, but it’s safe to say a good many people who are responding with fear and xenophobia are – certainly who we are seeing saying so in the news. …Recently, white Christians ceased being the majority in 19 of our states. White Christians have become a minority in states like Texas, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, Lousiana, Florida and Georgia to name the places that might be more surprising to us. I can’t help but wonder what impact this has on our national fears and anxieties? As some of our traditions change, or who we see on the streets change, or how normative our own cultural practices are any longer change – do we become more fearful of difference?
We sensationalize everything into a war of civilizations. We can’t seem to make it through one December without someone crying there is another “war on Christmas.” It’s a tired thing to say. I know folks are responding anxiously to what they imagine is being lost, but frankly, that’s not what war looks like, and we’re not losing Christmas because some silly coffee cup is only red and white, rather than red and white with snowflakes and sleds. We’re not losing Christmas because someone wished you Happy Holidays. It’s not an attack, and it’s probably not about you. And before the Outrage Machine was birthed on Fox News, in my childhood I recall hearing Happy Holidays and no one felt attacked for it. But nowadays, we can make anything into an attack, and make anything into something about us. The casual public outrage even gets rewarded with media attention, viral YouTube posts, or shares and likes via blogs and Facebook. Outrage becomes a sort of false ideal we worship. Maybe outrage is the real war on Christmas – but I’m not going to call it a war, because it’s still not that.
I see it with my own social media usage. You may have noticed that I’ve largely taken a break from blogging for the Huffington Post. I was finding that the more moderate, sensible, middle of the road stances I would take would get close to zero attention. In order to be well read, I would have to make sure to use media buzzwords and current lingo. Bonus points if I could flip some dominant narrative that was pervasive in a sensational way. In some ways, it’s how we’re wired. But I think it has more to do simply with just what sells better. If it’s not provocative enough, why would I bother spending time reading it? Maybe apathy and hyperbole are the real war on Christmas. But I won’t use the word war, because it’s definitely not war.
How we look at it, where we come from, which ancestors most influence our better angels, and who we identify with more, greatly determine how we see that quilt. This past week has been full of so many stories of grief and loss. There were 5 peaceful Black Lives Matters protestors shot in Minneapolis by White Supremacists; one of my colleague’s adult child was standing in between two of the shooting victims when they were shot. It goes from a story on the news, to a story that involves friends and their safety. That affects how I see the pattern on the quilt.
There was a massive Black Friday protest in Chicago by the Black Lives Matters movement in response to a very horrific video that the City was required by a judge to release to the public. And in Colorado Springs, a white domestic terrorist attacked a Planned Parenthood clinic. Three people were killed, including Officer Garrett Swasey who was there protecting civilians. Four more civilians and five more police officers would be injured as well. Even though the gunman was overheard spouting “no more baby parts”, the media would be reticent to say anything more than “his motives were unclear.” (deep sigh.) What stops us from calling a spade a spade when atrocities are committed by white Christian men with guns on our own soil? How does that affect the pattern we see?
Depending on where one comes from, people are describing all these stories in very, very different ways. Are they about social justice? Police brutality? Lone gunman with mental illness? Reproductive freedom? Domestic Terror? Protecting children? Gun rights? Supporting our Police? We as a people need to get better at separating out all the competing political interests. We as a religious community, are called to discernment and action. Ethically, I don’t believe we can wash our hands of it all and pretend it’s happening far away, or that we don’t have a responsibility in changing our nation’s ways and laws. There is a pernicious and deeply disturbing trend where we scrutinize and villianize every action and motive of people who are not white Christians, but we forgive or ignore the most egregious of excesses of those who are white Christians. And when we finally and rarely acknowledge their wrong-doing, they are effectively absolved of being white Christians – as if it didn’t count that time. Why does the white Christian gunman’s life matter more than the lives of their victims?
We all know the story of the Thanksgiving meal with family we haven’t seen since the last Thanksgiving. We see parodies of it on Saturday Night Live almost every year. At the mythic – but real – table is seated every walk of life, every good or bad social position. (For the purposes of this story, you can fill in the good or bad social positions however you like.) Part of our national challenge is recognizing that we all are hearing the same stories; we are looking at the same image, but we are putting the patterns together differently dependent on so many factors. For some, Thanksgiving is bracketed by a fundamental change in cultural practices, a perceived attack on social norms, and a very real loss in power and privilege and dominance.
Thanksgiving for the rest of us, may reflect a growing awareness of how hard we can make life for too many people. Or maybe, we’ve always lived in the reality that things were just not quite equal for us. But like the quilted image of the heart in our service, the image we see is still made up of many, many other snippets of images or stories that craft the whole. When we cover up part of those stories to make sure our impression of the image remains unchanged, we’re just lying to ourselves. When we white wash what happened in Colorado Springs, or we pretend the gunman was a lone actor when he’s Christian, but any single Muslim terrorist is an indictment against a whole people, we are just lying to ourselves. If we need to lie to ourselves over silly coffee cups and a war on Christmas, it’s one thing. But doing it when people are fleeing our enemies and just trying to find a home for themselves, their children or their friends; that goes far beyond lying.
The road our country is walking has been a long one, and many of us are tired; some our comfortable in their lying to themselves; and some are weary from abuse. But our road is not yet over, and we have much more work to do – together. As we close our service this morning, I’ll bring us back to the beginning and the story we heard about the white raven becoming black – their feathers scorched by their sacrifice to save the Sun for all humanity. Beneath the crush of all the world weary stories we hear, we can come to feel hopeless. I recognize that, and I feel that myself from time to time. I’m going to say something unpleasant, but I think true: sometimes feeling hopeless is a luxury we can’t afford.
We have people who need us – and some of those people in need are in fact us. We have refugees in dire need – who factually have zero ties to terrorism beyond the simple truth that they too are victims of terror. Time and time again, we have black civilian youth who have toys in their pockets, and sometimes knives in their pockets, who are gunned down with impunity, while we watch white christian men with guns who shoot civilians and who shoot cops, who are taking into custody to stand trial – sometimes we even protect them with kevlar armor. That clearly is not the same treatment. We have people who need us. We have clinics across this nation – who offer life saving health care to women – literally under fire because demagogues on the right fabricate videos that imagine human baby parts are being collected and sold on some fantastical science-black market. We have people who need us. We may be weary on this long road, but being hopeless is a luxury we can not afford.
On this very difficult Thanksgiving, may we find gratitude for the strength we can draw from one another, and a common purpose in building the world we dream about. Take heart. Be rooted in love, and continue to show this torn world that there is another way. The world needs you to.