Posts Tagged Parker Palmer

A Theology of Doubt

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 3/4/18 reflecting on the balance of doubt in faith.

“There once was a farm in a valley that was practically perfect in every way, except that it had no rooster to crow at the crack of dawn, and so everyone was always late getting out of bed.”[1] If only all our problems seemed so simple! But I imagine it didn’t seem like such a small deal to the folks on the farm. From missing newspapers to late-milked cows, to plain cranky attitudes, life in this otherwise perfect valley was marred by its one lack, a missing rooster.

What’s your missing farmyard animal? What’s the one thing in your life, that if only it were present, would make everything seem to work out all right? Go with the first thing that comes to you, it’ll do. Or if you’re like me on a bad day, start making lists. What does it give you that you don’t already have? How would it make things turn out just fine? What need does it fill?
I love stories like this. They really can draw out the essence of our daily challenges and struggles and they use humor to do so. It’s probably true that each one of us in this room could think of something pretty quickly that would help them to feel more whole, or more at ease, or at least full of gratitude.

I love this story. I try to tell it annually at one of our services. It’s an excellent lesson on our third principle – where we covenant to affirm and promote acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth. For the rooster in the story, the one thing missing, was their confidence in themselves. Doubt was the story they had to overcome. And for all the well-intentioned helpers in the story (the pig and duck and cats), the one thing missing for them, was a healthy dose of doubt. They had to overcome their own stories of expertise and confidence, to leave room for the rooster to find their own voice. Doubt is not always helpful, and over-confidence in all things, can lead down the road of mainsplaining – or in this story’s case – pigsplaining and ducksplaining and catsplaining. (For some of us in the room, that’s just funny, and for others it’s funny because it hits so close to home.)

All this month we are asking ourselves, what would it be like to be a people of balance. Doubt and confidence – in the case of our rooster, and doubt balanced with faith, as a religious community. For most of us, our knee-jerk reaction to these questions is to go straight to our heads. In the everyday push and pull of the world, for the small daily acts of what next, we can paralyze ourselves before the great “what if?”

I wonder if the problem isn’t just that though; if it isn’t just about cautiousness and due-diligence gone wild. I wonder if it’s more about the problem resting solely in our minds and not also our hearts. I wonder if we sometimes have a tendency to overly value our intellectual rigors over our emotional awareness. Do we ask more of the practical questions; more of the detail-orientated concerns, than we seek to be comfortable with the choice in our center, the choice in our spirit?

I feel like this has been a central challenge for our religious faith over the past 58 years; since the merger between Unitarianism and Universalism around 1960. We as a religious people wrestled with the mind and the heart. We combined the cool rigors of our Unitarian forbears with the passion and verve of our Universalist predecessors. For sure, both traditions had members with more of the traits of the other as well, but the religions had a tendency toward one or the other. Painting a broad swath, one could say they both had a style to them; mind and heart.

Over 400 years ago Unitarianism came about in Eastern Europe where it first gained a foothold (while also developing in parts of Western Europe where it wouldn’t solidify, however, for a while). Impassioned preachers these Unitarians certainly were, but their arguments and concerns were rooted in the rise of scientific honesty and intellectual cohesion at the expense of valuing adherence to doctrine. Simply put, they made sense, and they got most worked up when things didn’t make sense. Not that they weren’t very heart-felt in their convictions, (and there was certainly mainsplaining going on between theologians back then as well) but their ultimate concerns theologically, wrestled with the realm of the consistent mind. It first had to be right up here (pointing to head.)

Universalism on the other hand was a truly American creation at around 1800. It was an emotional reaction to the fire and brimstone preaching of the times. Their great critique was rooted in the heart even if it also made intellectual sense. “How can an all-loving God condemn anyone to ever-lasting pain and suffering?” Their answer was – “God wouldn’t.” For sure, theologians coached their arguments in logic and scripture. But at their root, their concerns were less about doctrinal consistencies and more about how our theologies reflect the God we know in our lives. It’s as if they were saying, “The God I know loves us. How could you say anything to the contrary?!” Their theologies were about the heart.

So starting about 58 years ago, we began our great struggle of sorting through these conflicting theological impulses. The two denominations had their own conversations prior to that as well, particularly among the respective youth groups, but up till that point it was always discussions between denominations – not within the same. (And the youth conferences merged first, bringing the rest of us along a year later.)

The big questions: Are we going to focus more on making sure we can all agree? Or is that beside the point now that we’re in a truly non-creedal tradition? Or are we going to focus more on where our hearts and spirits meet? How can we make our deeds match our thoughts while living true to our hearts? What do we do when each of us have differing concerns we put to the forefront? Our histories and backgrounds are often very far apart, yet we struggle to find a common language.

Our minds and hearts are in conflict with one another theologically and it sometimes causes us unease and pain from the disconnect. (Remember that when I use the word “theological”, I simply mean “how we find or make meaning in the world.”) We get frustrated for the lack of a common language or we lament the loss of the ease of creedal certitudes even while never wanting to return to them; we came here or we stayed here in part for this reason. But wouldn’t it just be so much easier if we could simply state how we wrap up the complexity of the universe in one neat little “elevator speech” for our friends, family and co-workers! (An “elevator speech” is what we can spew out, in between the time it takes to get from one floor to our destination. I get asked with frequency what Unitarian Universalism is as one of our ministers. My elevator speech goes something like: “We’re a covenantal faith which means we place a greater concern on our shared commitments with the people and world around us – our shared relations – than we do on the beliefs we hold at any given moment. Ideally, our pews reflect the diversity of experience and views in our community. In other words, we seek to reflect living experience. We will never all agree on everything, and our spirituality needs to match this reality. When folks ask how can we have a religion when we don’t all agree, I remind people that we have a planet where this is the case. We don’t all agree, and yet we need to learn to live together through the difference. This challenge and this vocation is my faith.”) OK – maybe we can describe what we’re about… but even so, it’s going to take a few sentences. It’s not simple and it’s not quite rote.

Depending on where we came from, the word doubt will be heard differently – at least religiously speaking. If you were raised UU, it’s probably an honest word, that reflects the uncertainty of faith. If you were unchurched growing up, and are coming to a service for the first time, you might have a curious approach to the word. And if you’re a convert from a creedal tradition, it might be shocking to hear from the pulpit that doubt isn’t a four-letter word for us (so to speak.) Striving to be a people of balance, doubt is part of that balance – so long as we allow it to inform, and not to limit.

It may turn out to be the case that Unitarian Universalists are called to bear the burden of not having an easy answer. We keep the space in human conversations around meaning – for incertitude, for complexity, for nuance and for doubt. On our better days, we also keep the space for relations, networks, justice-building and integrity. We could likely come up with neat definitions for all these latter virtues, but no definition in the world would ever truly explain what we meant. We can’t define justice – we can simply live it or we risk speaking a hollow echo. We can’t define relations – they are only realized in action, in living them. The mind can take us pretty far, but the mind can’t live the reality, it can only describe it. That’s where the heart comes in. That’s also where the pain comes in.

One frequent theological challenge is the idea of God. We have many books we draw wisdom from, but we have no source that tells us what to think, what to feel exactly about this concept or experience. I say concept or experience because some of us in this room view God as an idea and some of us view God as an experience. And this is likely true whether or not we believe in God. There will be atheists who encounter God through heart-felt experience, and there will be theists who only see God as a concept in their minds. …

We heard earlier in our service an excerpt from an essay by Parker Palmer. “To live in this world, we must learn how to stand in the tragic gap with faith and hope. By “the tragic gap” I mean the gap between what is and what could and should be, the gap between the reality of a given situation and an alternative reality we know to be possible because we have experienced it.” Palmer is helping us to realize that seeing new ways, being open to new perspectives, can both paralyze us into inaction through corrosive cynicism as he calls it, or make us useless through ineffectual idealism. But we need to still have the room to find new ways, if we are ever to build the beloved community. Ultimately, even “Heartbreak can become a source of compassion.”

Palmer’s tragic gap is largely built upon the balancing act of heart and mind; of doubt and faith. Unitarian Universalism offers a saving message here. Whatever our well-informed opinion helps us to understand about whatever facet of the world we currently are considering with our minds or hearts, Unitarian Universalism calls us to tread upon that facet lightly. We ought to engage, or wrestle, or dream, but we ought not to come to understand our opinions as facts. We ought not to confuse perception with universal truth. We ought not to demand those around us obey – our take – on a given issue or concern. Whether this be about the nature of the Holy, or which political parties offer the best solution to a given problem, or the best way to run this congregation, or which exact track we must take to liberate this world from injustice. Unitarian Universalism challenges us to break apart the idols we craft our opinions into; whether those opinions are about thoughts or feelings. And some of us craft our idols very diligently – yes even us. (Maybe especially us.)

Our faith may not offer us easy answers, but it does try to save us from the hard, unwavering rules we so often create for ourselves. It does free us to question and to wonder; never fully knowing. It does free us to be nimble with life. Faith is a religious word describing how we orient ourselves toward living. I feel that Unitarian Universalism calls us to orient our living with a certain amount of wanderlust, a certain amount of being comfortable with uncertainty, and a deep sense of caring for the life around us. In short, the questions matter. The answers are never better than just good enough for now though. May we ever seek to have our minds a little bit untidy and our hearts left as wide open as we can dare to this moment.

And that may be the only healthy way to build community. Community is hard to form when our minds or our hearts are rigid, closed and set. When we fixate on our sense of how things are, or must be, to the exclusion of another’s sense of things – our world becomes more about our own ego than about the needs, hopes and dreams of those around us. I think our faith teaches us to grow past that. We may need to face the anger or strident sounds with compassion, but we must not long tarry in the pain. A healthy reverence for doubt allows us to live into community. It keeps us from becoming our rigid selves. Life is sometimes less full in the face of such certitude.

[1] “A Lamp in Every Corner” by Janeen K. Groshmeyer p. 88

 

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Remaining Engaged

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 3/13/16. In the work of the spirit, and in the quest for a world free from oppression, how do we stay engaged without becoming burnt out by the struggles we face?

During our prayers every Sunday, I repeat some of the same words at the close, following the congregation’s recitation of names we wish to hold in all our hearts: “for those names spoken, and those written silently on the tablets of our hearts…”. It’s a phrase that comes to us, over and over again, from the Torah, although there’s one mention of it in third Corinthians as well. It’s usually in reference to holy words, or holy teachings being written on the tablets of our hearts; but it sometimes also speaks of love and faithfulness being placed there. One of my seminary professors would end prayer with this verse, and it always struck me as meaningful.

Parker Palmer talks about this in his book “Hidden Wholeness.”  He writes, “There is an old Hasidic tale that tells us how such things happen. The pupil comes to the rebbe and asks, “Why does Torah tell us to ‘place these words upon your hearts’? Why does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts?” The rebbe answers, “It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts. So we place them on top of our hearts. And there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks, and the words fall in.”

As we imagine this month, what it would mean to be a people of liberation, part of that wondering relies on our hearts breaking. In our weekly prayers, those names we pray for, too often are names for whom our hearts break and their sacredness falls into our lives and through our pain. We are changed for it, and our hearts are open. In the struggle for a more just world though, sometimes we come from a place of stridency. The words we say, and the actions we take, may be correct, but they don’t yet break through into our hearts. We can sometimes be correct, but closed down – shut down inside. Building the world we dream about, is the work of generations, not individuals alone. When we try to do that building with closed hearts, our words and actions can weigh us down more. It’s hard to remain doing the work of generations while so weighed down.

But it’s also hard doing the work of generations, thinking we need to always be perfect, or always at our best, or always in a state of calm, or indifference, or even joy. The Hasidic tale tells us that we probably won’t truly succeed in healing the world without first going through our own state of brokenness. It’s not to ennoble suffering; rather it’s to not demonize ourselves for our own suffering. Times of brokenness are natural to the human condition, and we need not make those low times worse with judgement about them for ourselves or for our neighbor. We also don’t need to pretend we’re the only ones that ever go through that. Maybe we can let ourselves off the hook – at least spiritually speaking – for those times we feel at our weakest.

Without glorifying our times of brokenness, can we find a middle path where we honor those times for what they are? Our wisdom story this morning, the excerpt about the Skin Horse from the Velveteen Rabbit teaches this moral lesson: “…It doesn’t happen all at once…you become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.” Can we love ourselves, our friends, our neighbor, our world – in a way that honors those times in our lives that have spiritually or emotionally rubbed our hair off, and loosened our joints and seemingly left us shabby in the corners of our heart where we never thought would ever become shabby? Can we do so knowing that we can’t ever really be ugly, except to people who don’t understand? I love our nursery stories – they hold so many deep spiritual secrets we forget when we leave childhood; but come back around when we tell and retell those truths as adults to the next generation. “…It doesn’t happen all at once…you become. It takes a long time.”

As we imagine ourselves as a people of liberation, how do we hold these lessons of our own times of brokenness, in the light of those places and times of other people’s brokenness – especially when we might be coming to them at a time when we are whole, or full or prosperous in one way or the other? The great Jewish Theologian, Abraham Heschel answers this with the idea of “Holy Embarrassment.” In his compilation entitled, “Essential Writings” he takes a theological look at our world too full of disparity and poverty. He writes,

I am afraid of people who are never embarrassed at their own pettiness, prejudices, envy, and conceit, never embarrassed at the profanation of life. A world full of grandeur has been converted into a carnival. There are slums, disease, and salvation all over the world, and we are building more luxurious hotels in Las Vegas. Social dynamics is no substitute for responsibility.

I shudder at the thought of a society ruled by people who are absolutely certain of their wisdom, by people to whom the everything in the world is crystal-clear, whose minds know no mystery, no uncertainty. What the world needs is a sense of embarrassment. Modern man has the power and the wealth to overcome poverty and disease, but he has no wisdom to overcome suspicion. We are guilty of misunderstanding the meaning of existence; we are guilty of distorting our goals and misrepresenting our souls. We are better than our assertions, more intricate, more profound than our theories maintain. Our thinking is behind the times.

What is the truth of being human? The lack of pretension, the acknowledgment of opaqueness, shortsightedness, inadequacy. But truth also demands rising, striving, for the goal is both within and beyond us. The truth of being human is gratitude; its secret is appreciation.

When we look at the disparities in the world, we often are raised to respond to whatever comparative privilege we have in one of three ways: indifference, guilt or shame. Indifference teaches us to just ignore it. …Some have, some don’t, and whether it’s right or not, it’s not for us to change it. Maybe we don’t know how, so we ignore it. As others have said from time to time, for some of us living a life of comparative privilege for so long makes us experience actual equality as a form of oppression – why are people taking away what was once normal for me?

For others, we were raised to care, but we associated feelings of guilt or shame that could just as easily paralyze us with inaction. I care about their suffering, and I feel bad about it, but I’m so focused on my internalized sense of wrongness about it that I can’t adequately respond. I think Heschel may have the answer in holy embarrassment. Not guilt, not shame, not indifference, but a sense that we didn’t mean for things to be this way and we ought to make them better because we are embarrassed, or maybe sometimes mortified, in the face of the absurdity of a world of such abundance that allows for such disparity of treatment and resources. And for those of us who were raised in religious communities that carried extra baggage around notions of guilt or shame – finding new language and new ways of honoring and helping to resolve others’ places of brokenness during our times of success – can make all the difference in our ability to be a people of liberation. Can we mature into news ways of action?

Sometimes guilt or shame are the proper response to our actions – but if guilt or shame freeze us into uselessness in the face of others’ pains, if guilt or shame block us from remaining engaged, then maybe we can follow Heschel’s advice and seek to be embarrassed, if it will enable us to do more for our neighbor. As Heschel reminds us, “… truth also demands rising, striving, for the goal is both within and beyond us.”

Guilt or shame from a place of comparative privilege is one thing. We’re not actively complicit in the world’s wrongs, although there may be things we ought to do to make the world come closer to realized justice. What about those of us who go beyond that? What about all the hate, all the active malice, we see alive and well in the news every day? Maliciousness goes beyond a holy embarrassment – at least for the perpetrators. Maybe there, guilt or shame, is a necessary step on the road to justice. Not every sin can be so easily washed away. Hatred, when it roots deeply enough, seeps into too much of our world, and much work needs to be done to heal its damage. We don’t do well by anyone, by pretending otherwise.

Why hate? Why is there so much hate? As we strive to remain engaged in the work of building the world we dream about, over the long haul, we often come to a place where we need to face the rampant hate that infects too much of the world. But why is it so? James Baldwin has one answer that although may not answer all the questions of hate in the world, I feel offers a better answer than I can come up with. He writes, “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”

Baldwin is right. Beneath hate, lies unacknowledged pain. It doesn’t excuse away the horrors that come from the hatreds that are allowed to live into the world, but it does frame them for what they are. Remaining engaged sometimes means helping people, who we don’t find easy common cause with, to come to turns with the pain hidden beneath the surface of their skins. To help them accept their places of brokenness, so that the holy words that once were written on the tablets of their hearts, are allowed to finally fall silently into their inner core and change them, to change us, for the better. Sometimes brokenness weakens us; sometimes brokenness makes us more human. Hatred can be the infantile railing against the pain of our brokenness, but it never succeeds in making us whole once more; it only ever succeeds in spreading our brokenness everywhere we go. When you find hatred within, take note and pause long enough not to spread it any further. It may be the hardest thing we do, but it’s sacred work; remaining engaged, through it all.

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