Posts Tagged Terry Pratchett

The Art of Purpose

This sermon looks at the twists and turns of life that give and challenge our purpose.

Rich began our service talking about finding purpose in unexpected places. We never really know where we’ll end up from every turn we take. I’m going to frame that quickly in my own way, and we’ll move forward from there in a new way. I was 19 when I found Unitarian Universalism. In some ways, I share the usual story for converts to our faith. In my case, I was a devout Catholic who had come to accept that there was no Hell, that God was loving, and that homosexuality was not a sin – but an expression of love. In other ways, my story was unusual. I found a UU Fellowship in northern NJ through a job. For a host of reasons, I had dropped out of college in my first year studying environmental science. After getting laid off from a part-time job at a chain bookstore right after Christmas, I got word that a church was looking for a custodian. Over the next three years, that job expanded into their events coordinator (think weddings and art shows.) I was still pushing the mop, I was coordinating weddings, and I was back in college – this time studying religion and anthropology. For those of you going through a tough time with school or work, try to remember that you never know how things will turn out. Some of the worst times of our lives, still find a way to end eventually, and there can be something new in store for any of us.

That course correct was 24 years ago this month. It sometimes amazes me that I’ve been working on staff, or as a lay leader, or a minister in our congregations for 24 years – over half my life. But before that change, I was miserable. The Autumn of my first semester in college was the worst 3 months of my life. Significant health issues – I was almost hospitalized. The super high pressure we put on our teens to excel in High School and pick their direction in life before their brains are done growing, all felt moot when the new hand was dealt. It was a time that felt like there simply were no options, no path, no possibility – and what was worse, was the sense that all the hard effort I had put into my plan, was simply wasted.

Losing purpose. When we feel like we’ve lost our purpose, we experience deep pain, depression – that malaise of the spirit that gnaws and lingers well beyond sense or control. Spiritual malaise is an impossible cycle that reinforces itself. Nothing worked, so nothing will work. How I defined my life, was wrong, so I have no life to define. This is painful and hard, so life will continue to be painful and hard. I don’t understand how this all fits together, so nothing fits together.

 It’s a real life experience, that seems to me, to make sense of why we tell stories of demons and devils. It teaches us to forget who we are. We conflate worldly events with personal worth – our personal value as people. We confuse our ego with our spirit. We become possessed – if we were to speak poetically about the pain that is very real. And stories of devils and demons, circle around the power of names and naming. We trade our name with that deep despair, and forget ourselves. Suffering is real. I don’t try to diminish that truth. And it need not define us, even if it’s drawing circles around our lives.

My big life course correct taught me something about depression, purpose and especially meaning. Sometimes we find meaning, sometimes we make it. (Now I’m about to utter another UU heresy, so please hold onto your seats.) There’s a silly Western philosophical conceit around existential purpose that I’ve come to loath. Somewhere along the way, with all our glorious scientific progress, we’ve conflated intellectual rigor and facts, with ontological meaning. Ontological is a big word meaning – the study of the nature of being. Even if we wouldn’t say it out loud, internally we sometimes conflate the idea that putting life under a microscope is a viable way to perceive, dissect, or reveal the atoms of our meaning and purpose. I think it’s bad religion – and a bit dangerous – when we try to answer the questions of How that science is a well-proven tool. And it’s bad science, when it tries to clarify the big question of why.

Terry Pratchett, a beloved British author and satirist, wrote in “A Hat Full of Sky,” “There’s always a story. It’s all stories, really. The sun coming up every day is a story. Everything’s got a story in it. Change the story, change the world.” Malaise sets in when we dissect every wrong turn through the microscopes of our egos. Suffering – rather than remaining a well known fact of life – becomes evidence for purposeless. It’s a story; a story we tell ourselves. We could always choose to tell another story. After all, we’re choosing to tell the painful stories – sometimes dwelling is more a choice than we like to admit.

We need not look far to find another story. The whole of Buddhist practice centers on that other story. All life is suffering…. And we dedicate ourselves to reducing the suffering of others. It’s another way of looking at the same thing. Why do we choose one way or the other to look at the places where pain pushes against purpose? One view exacerbates the harm, one way leads to newness. Now I know, this isn’t always a switch we can just flip to find our way past malaise; the brain and the heart aren’t gears and cogs we can turn and twist on demand. But as someone who, like most of us, have found ourselves in those impossible places of the spirit, I need to point out that it doesn’t need to stay that way. Keep on.

Story is a form of art. In many ways, it’s my line of work now. We story our lives, to craft something that brings beauty and meaning into our communities; that heals lives, that focuses our intentions, that leaves lasting good. Stella Adler (an actress and teacher) once said, “Life beats down and crushes the soul …and art reminds you that you have one.” Story can be the art of purpose. The sun coming up every day is a story… change the story, change the world.”

         Earlier we heard a piano version of Stevie Nicks’ Landslide. I’m not sure I can think of another song more emblematic for me of the poignancy, and pain, of the big twists and turns in life. “Stevie Nicks once explained that the real meaning of “Landslide” goes back to 1974, before Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham joined Fleetwood Mac, the now-legendary singer says, she was at the end of her rope. Money was tight, doubts about making a successful record lingered, and, as a result, the couple’s relationship was strained.” It’s hard to imagine such an iconic talent being at the end of her professional rope. And yet, most of us have been, or will be at some point in our lives. Suffering is real, and it is a part of life. How we tell it’s story though, can be different. Do we stay in 1974 with the musician’s pain, or do we move ahead to see a life of art and influence?

        “And I saw my reflection in the snow covered hills. ‘Til the landslide brought it down…. Can the child within my heart rise above? Can I sail through the changin’ ocean tides? Can I handle the seasons of my life? Well, I’ve been afraid of changin’ ‘Cause I’ve built my life around you. But time makes you bolder. Even children get older And I’m getting older, too. Oh, I’m getting older, too.
         …Cause I’ve built my life around you… what have you built your life around? If that changed in a blink, where would you find your grounding? Landslides of the spirit come sudden and unbidden for all of us. The matters we’ve built our lives around lend us purpose, but they are not necessarily our sole purpose, and they certainly aren’t inherent to our self worth. Our first principles reminds us of our inherent worth. Our worth is not tied up in our doing, though our doings do matter. Our worth comes first, and from that worth, we choose how to live into the world.

I’ll close with words from Arthur Graham: “Each of us is an artist whose task it is to shape life into some semblance of the pattern we dream about. The molding is not of self alone, but of shared tomorrows and times we shall never see. So let us be about our task. The materials are very precious and perishable.”

 

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The Art of Worship (2)

This updated sermon was preached at the UU Fellowship of Huntington on 1/12/14. It wrestles with the meaning of worship in a pluralistic world.

When I was in seminary, I made a 4 month commitment to get up at 6am four days a week and travel from my off-campus apartment to the university to join another 25 or so students. We walked into the chapel in silence. We kneeled or sat on moderately comfortable pillows designed for the purpose. Occasionally we would walk as a line in circles through the Quad in silence. We were joined by a Korean Zen Buddhist Nun once a week, and the other three mornings were led by one of our faculty Buddhist scholars and another student monk to lead us. Occasionally we would hear a five minute Dharma talk about the meaning and purpose of Buddhism. By the end of the four months I could chant the Heart Sutra from memory – although now eight years later I couldn’t possibly do it still. On Thursdays the Buddhist Nun would make us do 108 full body prostrations as part of a meditation on relinquishing the ego.  (And by “make us do it” I mean – you weren’t going to say no to this elder!) (It had a side benefit of tightening the thighs as well. She was in remarkable shape.) But the vast majority of the time – we simply just sat in silence as a group.

…I’m… not a morning person. (I used to have a votive candle dedicated to Our Lady of Perpetual Java. … If you ever see one again, please pick it up…) … So for me to commit to getting up at 6am to do anything, it has to be really remarkable. I would set the alarm for an hour of a day that I never believed actually existed, got dressed for the cold, and traveled to sit in a dark room with a bunch of other people and … that was just about it. Why?! I could do the same thing at another more reasonable hour of the day in my PJ’s at home all warm and comfortable! I know some of you have said the same thing about dragging yourself to services at the ungodly hour of 10:30am on a Sunday. (Who gets up that early … on a Sunday!)

The twenty-five of us had committed to this practice in a group – because there was a difference. Sitting in meditation alone is good. But sitting in a group is different. After a time, you become attuned to the qualities of the silence. There’s a different kind of depth to the quiet when you come to it in community – a depth that can’t be expressed in words, merely experienced. There’s also the gym-buddy factor. “Sam” knows when you missed and is going to give you some grief for making their work-out all the harder without your presence. Dedication to a spiritual practice can be a solo endeavor, but the art of worship is often a communal project.

Consider our own setting. We have a larger scale corporate worship each week – with some Sundays close to 200 adults, children and youth. We commit to coming together, sharing our spiritual journeys, laughing and learning from a wisdom tale, and praying or meditating as a group before our children head to their classes and we settle in for a sermon. In between all these pieces, we encounter music. I say “encounter” because we’re not really here listening to a performance on a stage. Traditionally, the choral and instrumental pieces were seen as dedications, prayers or offerings to God. Many of us here still do see them as such. (I know I do.) But not all of us believe in God. From our own congregational survey we conducted a year or so ago in preparation for our search for this new Minister, our community was split 53/47 on the question of God.

With that in mind – the goal of our music isn’t to allow half of us to encounter it as an offering to God, and half of us to just have a low-cost, high-quality mini-concert each week – (however awesome that would be!) There is a space in between – there is a common story to be shared through our differences of belief. … Something else is going on.

Take our opening hymn this morning. It was sung in three parts. The first part sings: “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” The second part just sings half of that “Where do we come from?” more slowly. And the third part sings a completely different lyric: “Mystery, Mystery. Life is a riddle and a mystery.” Each part has a different melody, and is best designed for folks with differing singing ranges. When they come together they create a whole that is remarkable from the sum of its parts. We’re each doing our own thing – based on what feels most natural for our range. Some of you probably even remained silent – … but that silence contributed to the experience too.

Hymns like that one, tend to also be very popular at youth con’s (weekend youth retreats). You might not have 60 spare hymnals when you’re out camping, and it’s hard to read the words on the page if it’s night time and you’re leading an evening youth worship on the floor of a Fellowship Hall. Plus the message often fits where we are. It gives space for the breadth of meaning that represents who we are and all the places where we come from.

Our belief of the specificities of meaning of the music is not what’s key. Our music is an offering to that which is beyond ourselves – and an invitation to be centered on that focus. It’s not merely for our consumption, bought and sold, but an inspiration to draw us out of our head, to remind us that there is more to life than our to-do lists, more than our small convictions, more than our ego. As I was working on this sermon this week, one congregant  shared a quote on my Facebook wall that read, “Your beliefs don’t make you a better person, your behavior does.” I think most of us intuitively fall into this line of faith. It’s not our beliefs, it’s our works. This is one of our many major departures from modern Christianity. When we talk about religion or faith, we privilege works over belief. But I think that sometimes, internally, we still hold onto the “belief script.” If we really had let go of connecting belief with our faith, we wouldn’t always get so worked up if someone we love sees the world differently but lives the same good life.

A good coffee hour exercise this week might be to watch when you’re feathers get ruffled. Was it over a difference of opinion? Or was it over a difference of values that are being applied to the world we live in? (Maybe you might be starting that exercise right now – during this sermon – because of the crazy things I’m saying. I wouldn’t know… so it’s ok.)

The Unitarian Universalist theologian, Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker writes that, “The Bible opens with the declaration that earth is a sacred creation, pronounced “Good!” from the beginning. Genesis tells the story of Jacob, sleeping in the wilderness with a stone for a pillow. He dreams that he sees a ladder connecting heaven and earth, with an endless circle of angels ascending and descending. When he wakes up he exclaims, “Surely this is none other than the house of the Eternal, and this is the doorway to heaven.”[1] Jacob surely means there is a living God, and that every moment is filled with God’s presence. But the core of that message is also that every moment is already full. Our music can also mean that. It calls to us to stop – to just stop all the rest – and listen.

We can often get caught up in belief. Sometimes it’s because we’re too caught up in our heads. (We can weaken our encounter with our music as we read ahead to make sure we fully agree with every word in the hymn.) Sometimes though, we trip up because we’re too caught up in our hearts.  We can miss the power of the message of a wonderful anthem if it invokes a theology different than our own – or reminds us of a form of religion that brought us pain in our lives. We go back to that place of pain, and we shut out the moment the music is pointing toward. It can hold us back from the art in worship. In both ways, we fear being too credulous.One of my favorite fantasy authors, Terry Pratchett, (any fellow readers out there?) defines the word credulous as “having views about the world, the universe and humanity’s place in it that are shared only by very unsophisticated people (…) and the most intelligent and advanced mathematicians and physicists.”[2] … He uses humor to get at the point that whatever we call it, most of us are pointing toward the same thing, the same sense. Music, with or without words, is seeking to do this same thing. It offers itself up to this purpose. We take these moments to bear witness to the depth at the center of life. We can get caught up arguing and discussing the intricacies, dimensions and scope of what we’re trying to describe… or… we can take part – we can appreciate that core. We can’t do both at the same time. It’s the classic trinity that I’ll invoke in many of my sermons. Openness, Mindfulness and Reverence. Openness to difference enables us to be mindful of the world around us so that we become able to revere the gift that is before us once more.

Later in the same novel where we learn what the humorous definition of credulous is – called “the Hogfather” – Pratchett sets up a great dialogue between Susan, a woman who just wants to be “normal” with her very unusual grandfather – Death (aka the Grim Reaper.) (And you may think your family is tough!) One small part of it reads, “All right,” said Susan. “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need… fantasies to make life bearable.” To which Death responds “REALLY AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.”[3] Pratchett typically relies mostly on pastiche, and a smart turn of phrase, to get his point across. This time he points back toward Jacob and the ladder descending from heaven. Whatever we believe, whatever we make up, whether we are right or wrong – is sometimes necessary. It makes us human. I personally feel that some of the things we “make up” actually point to what’s true and right. Art for example – art is an illusion. But it’s no less true for its fabrication. In reality, we come to know truth through the fabrication.

“Surely this is none other than the house of the Eternal, and this is the doorway to heaven.” We are the rising ape that can finally recognize the descending angel – even if we may call that angel by a different name than the person sitting next to us in our chairs this morning – whatever you call it, that angel is still there.

Now, I know that we call what we’re doing here every week – “Sunday Programs” or sometimes “Services.” We’ll still be calling it that. SPC – otherwise more helpfully known as Sunday Programs Committee, will still be leading Sunday programs. But when you hear me off and on referring to this as worship – keep this sermon in mind.

All of this in worship – all of this together – is grounded in an active purpose. We come here to be changed. … We come here to be reminded. … We come here … to go back out. Rebecca Parker writes, “we understand that being attentive to the holiness right in front of us is a prerequisite for ethical living. If we fail to see life’s goodness, we will fail to take action to protect it from harm – we will walk by suffering without seeing, and busy ourselves with unimportant tasks while glory surrounds us.”[4] Our music, our prayers, our worship — all the intangible art that goes into crafting our Sunday morning encounter — is designed to point toward this truth. Life is precious. … Life is worth noticing. … Our creative imagination is actually referring to what is true at our core – even if the details are fuzzy along the edges. And sometimes giving our joy as a gift – musical or otherwise – is the only right and true way to even have it.

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