Posts Tagged Reinhold Niebhur
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 sermon was first preached at First UU in Brooklyn on March 27th, 2011. It’s a radical message of universal salvation and hope for the realization that grace is found in this day, while still living.
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 our 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. Getting into that college program; securing that job; hearing better news about the medical results. Those are some really serious concerns. If you’re like me, I imagine in the everyday you can catch yourself putting the same value on smaller events though. Catching that traffic light before it goes from yellow to red; or missing those closing doors on the subway, or waiting for that email or that text message to arrive; or the anticipation you feel waiting for the next episode of Glee…
What’s happening in between? That moment between otherwise being happy about how things are and the next where we convince ourselves that things will only be good, or OK, if the thing we’re waiting for actually happens. Let’s start with the little things first. Try to remember what it feels like in your body when I mention these. That traffic light. Getting caught behind a slow moving pedestrian on a narrower block in Manhattan. The iconic subway rider that won’t move out of the way of the closing doors. I’m going to hazard a guess that at least one of these can drive you absolutely nuts.
What are we letting go of when we let this occur? We might have someone in our lives we love; we may have home and health; we may be enjoying a warm beautiful day on this side of paradise; but the traffic light, or slow moving pedestrian, can take it all away in the blink of an eye. We may be thinking about picking up our kids from their RE class, or prepping for the next congregational committee meeting, or just steeling ourselves for the rush of coffee hour instead of fully resting into this hour of reflection, refreshment and community connection. It’s so easy to fall into this habit. We’ve all been there, and we’ll likely all experience this sense of “momentary want” again – probably even today. The little things are just as easy to laugh at ourselves about – as they are to forget not to cling to them again and again. They’re not big, and yet they can all snatch from us the awareness of the awe in the living world around us.
…And the bigger things are much less easy to sweep away. Concerns for one’s home, or job, or prospects or health aren’t frivolous or insignificant. The death of a loved one, or feelings of concern for our friends who are grieving, are major turning points in our lives. For good or for ill, their effects will travel with us – possibly – for the rest of our lives. And yet, the simple truth is that the awe and wonder of this living, breathing world continues unabated in every moment. What happens to us, doesn’t change this truth; even if the awe and wonder becomes hard to see for a time… even if we can’t feel it for a while. A connection to our source, this life, remains. And yet those times of forgetfulness – those times of feeling disconnected from our source, will come. It’s the reality of a world full of promise and pain.
Our Universalist predecessors believed in universal salvation. They believed that when we died, all souls would be saved to heaven in glory. The reasoning went such that an all-loving, all-powerful God could not condemn anyone to eternal pain or misery. Personally, I’ve come to feel that salvation is accessible in our current lives, for all people, while we’re still living and breathing. I’ve come to see salvation not tied to death, or notions of original sin, but a salvation tied to life. A salvation responding to the hells of our daily making; a salvation responding to the hells of our communal making. It starts with being able to connect and reconnect with this awe-inspiring living breathing world. It’s a salvation that’s grounded in healthy community; a salvation that responds to our religious humanist forebears who found in religious community a saving grace from the false idolatry of the individual ego. It’s a salvation that liberates us from our ties to the mythic worlds of “what if,” the traps of “if only” and the fears of “no, not that.” It’s not a false sentimentality. It’s not wishful thinking. It’s not a brazen disregard for the horrors, and pains and tragedies of our world. It’s a salvation that reminds us of the honest connections we are ever blessed with. It’s the kind that puts into context all the complexity and nuance of our often frenetic yet ever poignant world.
Our reading this morning by Pema Chodron offers a Buddhist take on this contemporary Universalist message. “Moving away from our experience, moving away from the present moment with all our habits and strategies, always adds up to restlessness, dissatisfaction, unhappiness. The comfort that we associate with concretizing and making things solid is so transitory, so short lived.” (2) Alright, let’s take a little mini-poll here. By a show of hands, who here has ever wanted anything? Ok, keep your hands up if that thing you wanted you got. Ok, now here’s the tricky part. Please keep your hand up if after getting that thing you wanted, you at some point stopped wanting or enjoying it. And finally – keep your hand up if that thing you wanted that you got, you came to wish you never got it? Alright, I thought that was a pretty common occurrence. I’m glad it’s not just me… phew!
That, my friends, is what concretizing can lead to. We sort of chase our own tails for dreaming. Call the grass on the other side always greener, or just admit that sometimes we don’t really know what we want. The draw to make things appear more solid in our lives is very alluring, but it’s ultimately a fruitless desire. I don’t mean to suggest we ought to give up on development, or goals, or hopes; but rather I hope to inspire us to offer a more realistic appreciation for the moment we dwell in. Our world is more full of joy if in our daily strivings we remain rooted, as best we can, in a thorough appreciation for what is before us. It’s from this place of fullness that we realize salvation. And it’s available to us in every moment; including this one.
There’s another message that comes out of the words for all ages we heard this morning about our practically perfect farm. Did you notice how the rooster went to every animal in the farm before even trying to figure out how to crow on his own? It made more sense to him that the pig, or cat, or sheep, or duck might know better how to make a rooster crow than he himself did. The part about that story that I love even more, is that the pig, cat, sheep and duck also thought that they knew how to make that noise better than the rooster. If they knew so well, I wonder why they didn’t take on the role of morning wake-up call till then; and yet they remained certain they could. How often do we take on one of those roles in our lives? When are we the know-it-all expert? …When are we the rooster that’s given up all our power?
I’m sure there’s a few sermons in the question of being a know-it-all, but I’ll save that for another day. The second question though, really fits our worship this morning. I’ve reflected a bit about how we give away our connectedness with the moment, with our connectedness to this side of paradise, by ever wishing for the next great thing. How do we do that when we give up our own answers? How do we disconnect ourselves when we solely rely on others to save us from our unknowing, or our quandaries, or our sense of loss? In religious community, I applaud the rooster’s desire to learn from his peers and elders. I applaud his willingness to engage with his neighbor. But I’m concerned that it never occurred to him to even try to rely on his personal experience. Our UU sources talk about this. One of our sources is our own human experience, and our story’s hero takes a while to get back to the beginning.
What’s going on there? I’m going to guess that we’re all a little guilty of this in our lives. Think about a time when you’ve had a big decision to make and the first thing you do is call every close friend and ask them to tell you what you’d do. A certain amount of that is good for the process of reflection. But so often we go to the absurd extreme with it. We give up our connectedness with the moment in our repetitive mental musings – with the proverbial spinning of our wheels while going no where. Maybe we need the advice, but maybe we already know our answer. Maybe we already know how to speak our voice and do what needs to be done if only we were to try. A friend of mine says that, “We can’t rely on others to show us the beauty of a moment. Another person can’t give us the eyes to see that; we’re born with them and we have to learn to use them.”(3)
In the Christian tradition, there’s a verse attributed to Reinhold Niebhur, that goes, “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.” This great prayer of discernment sums up the quandaries associated with fearing what will come and fearing who we are right now. If we can figure out how to live out the words from the Serenity Prayer, as it’s commonly called, we come closer to an appreciation for the moment. We come closer to loving this amazing world as best we can just as it is. It holds an honest balance between loving ourselves (and the world) as we are, and loving the world and ourselves as we might be — without making ourselves or the world out to be wrong in the meantime. It calls us to give ourselves a chance, without struggling against the impossible; while lifting up a sense of ownership with our feelings and experiences.
In all of this, if we were to name it for what it is, we might say that there’s a hole in our hearts for what we sense to be missing in our lives. In some traditions, we’d call it a “God-shaped hole.” In others, we’d call it “living in a state of suffering.” In psychological terms we might label it “insecurity” or “co-dependence” depending on its manifestations and triggers. I believe each one of these has their merits. As a minister though, and not a psychologist (except for maybe in the pop sense of the word) I’ll stick with the first two names. “Living in a state of suffering” and “A God-shaped hole in our heart.”
Our reading this morning by Pema Chodron clearly is in the school of thought that engages our sense of suffering. It’s a philosophy that calls for deepening our sense of comfort with the groundlessness of life – that ‘not knowing what will be;’ that ‘acceptance of the present moment.’ “This moving away from comfort and security (she writes,) this stepping out into what is unknown, uncharted and shaky – that’s called liberation.” (4) I used the Universalist language of salvation before to reflect on this same sort of thing. As our religious tradition transforms, changes and grows we’re going to learn and develop more and more ways to express the complexity of life and matters of spirit in our own religious language. But I believe the core truths, the essential questions and challenges remain the same for us – we’re just learning better ways to translate them for our own hearts, minds and ears.
The “God-shaped hole” language may really work for you. Or maybe it’s a kind of language that’s really hard for you to relate to. As Unitarian Universalists, I’ll challenge us to be the best translators we can be. And I’ve given us a few ways to translate today. For the theists among us, when we give up our sense of faith in our own capacity; when we give up our sense of appreciation for Creation as it is; when we disconnect ourselves from a real communion with this side of paradise; we realize a God-shaped hole in our lives. We confuse ourselves into thinking that we’re alone; or empty; or unloved. We confuse ourselves into thinking we’re powerless; or incapable; or that the world is devoid of meaning.
None of these things are true. We are not alone. We are loved. Life is full of promise. Our potential and capacity for love and for life is an amazing gift – an amazing blessing that we only need to open ourselves up-to to know its full wonder. As Zora Neale Hurston audaciously proclaims, “Love makes your soul crawl out from its hiding place.” That’s the core message in living into this side of paradise, regardless of our personal theologies, or beliefs. Loving the moment, loving the world in all its nuance and beauty, loving ourselves and the beloved communities we build together, loving this life through all its uncertainty, is the process of crawling out of our places of pain and fear and hiding. Friends, this world is too full to forever find answers outside ourselves, and it is too full to forever think we hold all the answers for our neighbors. This living, breathing world is too full to hide from it, each other, and ourselves.
1- “A Lamp in Every Corner” by Janee K. Groshmeyer p. 88
2- “Comfortable with Uncertainty,” by Pema Chodron, p.43. 2003 Boston and London.
3- Brian Brewer
4- “Comfortable with Uncertainty,” by Pema Chodron, p.44. 2003 Boston and London.