Monday, July 17, 2006

07/16/06, Sermon

What do you do when you discover that the way you had been told it is isn’t the way it is? Ah, that’s the question, now, isn’t it? That’s quite the question. What do you do? Well, you either grow up or you go under. Going under is about denial, despair, or death. Growing up is about coming to terms with the discrepancy between how we have been led to expect things will be and how things actually are. Growing up is about making the necessary shifts in perspective to take into account the difference between what we think the deal is and what the deal is.

This place is about not going under. When you turn a corner and life delivers the piano from the sky on your head, you need a place like this between you and the edge. When we lose our bearings, and nothing makes sense, or is what it is “supposed to be,” we need a place like this in which to reorient ourselves, regain our balance, and find our way. Without a place like this, we are in a tight spot; up against it. And need the right kind of help to make it.

In a place like this, you will find people who are capable of sitting with you without having to say anything. That’s amazing in itself. And, when they get around to saying something, it is highly doubtful that they will tell you God dropped the piano on your head in order to give you something really wonderful in the end. After the eighteen wheeler and the five-mile wide meteor bearing down on you faster than the speed of sound. We won’t say things like that to you. We are doing our best to bury the “all things happen for a reason” doctrine and replace it with “Nothing can happen to you that you can’t transform over time with the right kind of help.” And, we are working to be the right kind of help.

So, when these people talk to you about the piano, they will say things like, “What happened?” And, “What did you do then?” And, “How does the piano square with the theory of life that you were handed and told to embrace?” And, “In what ways will your life be different after the piano than before the piano?” And, “In light of the piano, what will you tell yourself, and your children, and other people, about life and what to expect from life?”

The last question is crucial. How we put things back together in the aftermath of the piano (and the eighteen wheeler and the meteor) is a big factor determining the quality, character, and the direction of the rest of our lives. Everything rides on the perspective we form in the aftermath of our loss of faith in the trustworthiness of life. What will we tell ourselves now about the nature of life? How will we live from this point on?

The questions are at the heart of spirituality. How will we live in light of the worst life can do? The question resides at the core of healthy maturity. We cannot grow up well without answering it well. Here it comes. Don’t duck. It’s the best I can do. Spirituality and maturity are the same thing.

We cannot be deeply spiritual and immature. We cannot be mature without being deeply spiritual. The process is the same process. The way is the same way. The things that bring out our maturity bring out our spirituality, and vice versa. As we grow up, we become spiritual; as we become spiritual, we grow up. At stake in both spirituality and maturity is the matter of perspective, which shapes and forms our motive for living.

Why do we do what we do? When we are immature, we live to get what we want and have our way. We live for the carrot, for all that glitters and shines. We think, “It’s about the economy, stupid!” We think it’s about money. The promise of prosperity now and heaven when we die fills the pews of the churches of the land and propels us through the world. Listen to the descriptions of the afterlife from young suicide boomers and elderly evangelical Christians. They all sound remarkably juvenile. In heaven, it is said, you can eat all the ice cream and pizza you want, and not gain weight. Virgins and Big Rock Candy Mountains. Sensual pleasure with no price. That’s heaven as a twelve year old might imagine it. That’s what bad religion does for you. It freezes you in place. Suspended animation. Spiritual hibernation. Soul death. You never get beyond being twelve years old in the church of bad religion.

The motive for living well from the standpoint of bad religion is that you will go to heaven when you die and have everything you have always wanted. Heaven is where your dreams come true. Which is incomprehensibly brainless, because the bedrock charge of bad religion is sin, which is to say we want the wrong things. But, when we get to heaven, we can have all we want and more. It’s a twelve year old construct all the way. Some five year olds are more mature. More spiritual. The heart of our spirituality and our maturity is the matter of perspective which shapes our motive. What keeps us going in a world where pianos fall out of the sky?

Joseph Campbell says, “Either you can take it, or you can’t.” What do we tell ourselves to increase our chances of being able to “take it”? What do we tell ourselves, sitting there, on our duff in the dust, with the remnants of life as we have known it blowing away in the wind—what do we tell ourselves when how we have heard that it is is clearly not how it is—what do we tell ourselves, then, to get up and keep going? I don’t think stories about 10,000 virgins and big rock candy mountains are going to do it.

What’s going to do it is a shift in perspective. Spiritual growth and maturity are nothing more than shifts in perspective. We change our minds about the way things are, about the focus and direction of our lives, about what’s important. And, everything changes as a result. Falling pianos call for a shift in perspective. Shifts in perspective are amazing grace.

When life delivers the piano, we cannot make it work like we have been told that it works. If we are going to have what it takes to deal with life as it comes to us, we have to let go of how we think it is supposed to be. We cannot force the map to fit the landscape. We cannot make sense of the world of our experience based on the assurances and constructs of our childhood. We cannot live in this world with the orientation of a twelve-year-old. Our perspective has to shift.

What can we count on in a world where pianos fall out of the sky? What do we need to live well in a world like this world? How do we stabilize our lives when the rug can be yanked out from under us without warning at any moment? Where can we find an immovable center around which our lives can coalesce—an unshakeable foundation upon which we can be firmly grounded—regardless of the cataclysmic, tumultuous, catastrophic nature of life in this place?

Here’s the deal: Emotional stability is a function of perspective. Here’s the other deal: Reactivity wrecks perspective. We cannot hope to be emotionally stable if we are emotionally reactive. To regain perspective, we have to have working room. We have to step back emotionally from the events and circumstances of our lives. We cannot live well trying to wrestle our lives into submission. Trying constantly to force this into being, and prevent that from being, and protest that for being (or, for not being), we exhaust ourselves, deplete ourselves, and have no fun.

So, sitting on our duff in the dust, with the fragments of our life as it used to be blowing away in the wind, the thing to do is take up the task of spiritual development, to do the work of maturation, to grow up. Two aspects of the work of maturity are adjustment and reorientation. Adjustment begins with just sitting there, breathing. If we are ever going to take our time with anything, we have to take our time with the alteration of our perspective. We have to adjust ourselves to what just happened and to what that means for us, to what the implications are for us.

The process of adjustment is rather straightforward, but it takes a long time to do the work. We have to find the word, or words, for the emotional impact. This is critical. No one tells us about it, about finding the right word for what we are experiencing. About saying what we are feeling. We have to do that, and we have to experience the reality of the impact of the experience. Then, when we are able, we have to step back from it—we have to establish the proper amount of emotional distance between ourselves and the experience. Then, when we are ready, we step forward with it into the rest of our lives. The process has its own time frame, and it cannot be hurried. And, it makes all the difference if we have the right kind of company throughout.

The right kind of company is crucial to spiritual development and growing up. We need a community of the right kind of people to have a chance, and so, it is critical that we do the work of becoming good company and know how to offer the right kind of help. We have to know how to be with one another in helpful ways. Circles of trust, Quaker-style clearness committees, and the book “The Fifteen Minute Hour” are ways we have explored for training ourselves to be helpful, and we will offer other opportunities in the future as we work to “be what we need” in helping one another adjust to the fact of pianos falling from the sky.

In addition to adjustment, spiritual development and growing up require us to reorient ourselves by cultivating and practicing the difficult emotional responses to the events, and circumstances, and people that make up our lives. The easy emotions are things like anger, and fear, and hatred, and resentment, and desire, and jealousy, and revenge, and vengeance. Anybody can experience these emotions without thinking about it. The difficult emotions are things like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, generosity, grace, compassion, and justice. We have to work at loving our enemies, for instance. Hating our enemies is easy. Loving our enemies is hard. We have to do the work of reorienting ourselves in the direction of the difficult emotions by cultivating them and practicing them steadily, over time. And, over time, we grow up, and exude the kind of spiritual presence that transforms the world.

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