Hi, thanks for stopping by my blog. I so appreciated the positive feedback on today's service and the sermon. I want to make sure folks understand my statements about the past-perfect and future-perfect ideas really imply no judgement or blame on my part--not about Matthew or Roger's ministry or about the financial choices the congregation or board made about our current home. They are there as illustrations of the fuzzy nature of looking back or forward. High Plains is an amazing congregation that, from my perspective, has made consistently good choices over the years that, like any choices, sometimes turn out the way we hoped and sometimes not. The point is to see where we are now and respond thoughtfully and faithfully--as I know we will. --N
Past Perfect, Future Perfect...Present Tense
a sermon for High Plains Church UU, May 20, 1012
a sermon for High Plains Church UU, May 20, 1012
So does anyone actually pay attention to the title of the sermon? Does it create expectations for you? So I titled this sermon “Past perfect, future perfect...present tense” which, a couple of months ago when I came up with it, I thought was pretty clever. I, of course, then have to write a sermon to go with that title which isn't always easy. It's like trying to place the cherry on top of a sundae when nothing much else is in the little parfait cup. And, I'll tell you, I rewrote 80% of this sermon at 4:00 this morning when I realized I wanted to say something different.
So who are the real grammar geeks in the audience? Come on, don't be shy, in as over-educated a group as this there's bound to be some. So who wants to define the past-perfect and future-perfect in terms of tense? See, you call yourselves geeks but really, you can't quite figure out if it's affect or effect, who versus whom—and here I am asking you to define the “past-perfect” or pluperfect.
Now, I would be lying to you all, if I don't admit I had to look it up. This stuff is confusing—hell, there's a reason they call it “tense.” The past-perfect refers to an action that happened before another past action. “Things had been fine, until I gave the sermon title to the worship team.” And that gap between the one action and the other—both now done, not to be undone—both in the irretrievable past is the past-perfect tense. Now mind that gap, we'll talk about it more in a few minutes—that gap between past perspectives is important. What are some other examples we might come up with-- “this place had been fine, until Matthew left” or “the congregation had been on track, until Roger came” or, for that matter, “I had been really enjoying church, until Roger was forced to leave.” Do those sentences so familiar to anyone? Have you written that history for yourself or this church?
Future perfect isn't that different—an action that takes place before a time in the future. Example from ten days ago: “it's ok to write the sermon next week, because nothing will have happened that might make that difficult.” “Will have” is the key here. “It's OK to take on this mortgage because the church will have grown or the golf course will have made enough money by the time we need to start paying it back.” The future-perfect is all about assumptions. And here's that gap again—between what we planned, past and future, and what is. Mind the gap.
Well, now that I've caused disturbing flashbacks to college writing 101 in two-thirds of the audience, and made somewhat vague references to the London subway system, we can move on to the real subject. Whatever we tell ourselves about the past or the future, what we actually have to work with is the present---and that can be pretty tense too.
That pesky gap, the one that opens up between where we thought we would be today and where we actually are—and between where we are with what we plan for the future—that frustrating, painful, exciting, confounding gap often goes by another name as well. Change. And I don't know about you, but I feel like I could happily be spared a fair amount of change these days.
Change. How many times do we hear that change is the only constant. It's such a trite saying—but it's also certainly true---the only things that don't seem to change are the inanimate and the dead—and I say “seem” for even both the never-alive and the once-alive are acted upon by the universe and do transform over time, coming from the stars and eventually returning to them as well. So all changes, everything is in flux, and yet for something so absolutely pervasive, so completely inevitable, it can be so hard for us. Harder for us, we assume, than for the rock because we have the twin curse and blessing of awareness. We are such paradoxical creatures—so resistant to change and yet, on some level we are absolutely hardwired for change and challenge—indeed every single being in this room is changing at a frantic rate—we are aging, digesting, growing, repairing, learning, dying. I don't say much with certainty, but this I can make as an absolute pronouncement—not a single person here, man, woman, or child will leave this place exactly as they were when they entered. It is a physical, temporal, and hopefully spiritual and intellectual impossibility. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said it 2500 years ago—you cannot step in the same river twice---the river is different and, more importantly, of course, so are you. At his death, the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, said that all things were vayadhammā saṅkhārā ---a wonderful Sanskrit phrase that both implies that all things are subject to decay, to change, and that all experiences are, in some sense, unsatisfactory because of this ceaseless entropy.
As many of you know, the theology that motivates my thinking most deeply is Buddhism, and I think basic Buddhist psychology is correct in it's diagnosis about why we struggle so much with something so inevitable and essential to our nature. Change is difficult for us because of the gap that almost always opens up between the course we've set for ourselves and the actual road we find ourselves on. And the degree of symptoms we feel—the anxiety, the anger, the sadness, the frustration---are often directly proportional to the distance between what we think should be and what actually is. And so we resist change because we know we may wind up someplace we don't want to be—and the loss of that future perfect state, which was never actually real, is too hard and we fear we won't be able to adapt to a new reality.
I think we experience this in ways both large and small all the time. I experience it when writing sermons frequently---it is, after all, a somewhat odd thing to sit down and try to be insightful—and where a sermon winds up isn't always where I thought I would be—and that can be, to be honest, stressful. I can see in the, sometimes quite great, distance where I thought my sermon would end up, and yet, here I am, someplace quite different. And the more I struggle and try to get back to where I had projected myself into the future as my goal, the more stressed I feel, the more tense I get---and the recipe for trauma, both large and small, is undergoing unpleasant experiences in a state of tension.
This applies to relationships as well—and to groups also, not just individuals. Where we thought we would be as a congregation, the hopes we had, that future perfect, or at least future-pretty-good state, we had anticipated and where we find ourselves are likely two different places emotionally, spiritually, financially—and the more we struggle, the more suffering we experience. And loss recapitulates other losses—so the past-perfect intrudes—how good things were then before something else happened. And yet again we find ourselves in the present...tense.
Now please be clear, I'm not saying that just ignoring one's sadness at past disappointments or dismissing the genuine pain that arises when our hopes are dashed is the way to happiness. Those emotions are real and important, and need to be honored and, in some sense, metabolized. I am not in anyway saying that those hurt by past actions of the minister or congregation should be told to “get over it.” Nor am I saying we shouldn't mourn the loss of those hopes and goals that have now changed. What I am saying is that awareness of these gaps, indeed acknowledging them fully is needed before we can realign ourselves with what is and reduce some of the tension we may feel.
This is a time of transitions. The person we called to be our minister has left, our director of faith formation, Laura, just resigned, we are struggling with growth, both generally and with the move from a pastoral to program-sized church, and just yesterday we had what I believe was the first memorial service in this space for Ulf Fagerquist, now of blessed memory. Change is endless for us as individuals, families, communities, and countries. And there is a catchy name for those individuals and groups who don’t master change, anyone know what it is…those who don't learn how to deal with change are sometimes call “extinct.”
So given the ubiquity of change, the inevitability of change, the question then must be—how do we deal with it—as individuals and as a congregation of people bound not by theology or dogma but by shared ideals and hopes. And this sermon, indeed this church, is useless unless we take the events in the life of this church as opportunities to reflect on our lives more broadly—I think there are few people here because they feel the fate of their immortal souls depends on their time in these seats. We are here by choice, because of what this community brings to our individual lives—and, of course, the converse is also true—you are here because of what your individual life with all its gifts and foibles can bring to the life of this church and this free faith.
For me coping with change comes down to a few beliefs. First, that we need to really acknowledge where we are broken and not try to hide or deny it. Joe played Peter Mayer's song, Japanese Bowl which talks about a technique of pottery repair practiced in Japan for many years call Kinstugi. Instead of discarding a cracked pot, they used gold solder to repair it—the resulting pot has these lovely lines of gold. There's no effort to hide the repair—the piece if often considered more beautiful and more valuable for the evidence of having endured brokenness and having returned to a new wholeness—never the same, but not simply shattered either.
I recently went through some specialized training to become certified in some treatments and interventions for secondary traumatic stress and compassion fatigue. The instructor began the day by handing out 3x5 cards and asked each of us write three things that we have suffered with as a result of the work we do---the room was full of nurses, chaplains, social workers, and others who are repeatedly exposed to the victims of traumatic events—like many of my peers I've lost track of the number of tragedies I've witnessed—cancer and car accidents, suicides and child abuse, shootings and overdoses, I don't know how many deaths. I took my card and jotted down my top three negative effects from my work—it didn't take long. He then asked us to stand, and walk around the room holding the card at chest level, allowing people to read it and to read theirs in return. You could feel the room tense up. We thought we were just engaging in a little self-reflection. I certainly didn't anticipate sharing what I'd written.
I stood and started wandering the room of 50 or so professionals. I saw what I was intended to see—that I wasn't alone in my struggles and that my experience was ordinary not exceptional. We tend to think that our sufferings are unique, our particular brand of brokenness is ours alone. I can tell you right now, that the moment I openly acknowledged how hard some of my work as a chaplain has been, I found more healing than I expected. Confession, as our Catholic brothers and sisters know can be a powerful source of healing. Some here may, knowingly or not, have a sense that somehow we're unique in having an unsuccessful ministry. We aren't of course, ministries end for many reasons, but the pain and concerns are what we'll have to address in the next few years as we move forward. And more generally speaking, the pains we honor and hold up to the light are the ones that lose their power over us. It's the wounds that we keep sealed up—pushed down that keep intruding on the present. Pain is in some ways like food, the only way to derive any nourishment from it at all is to digest it. Pain and food that just lie in our bellies never going anywhere make us sick. And, my experience of seeing some of the worst things that can happen to people has also shown me that there is nothing that cannot eventually be a catalyst for growth and even strength. Viktor Frankl survived the death of his spouse and horrible tortures of a Nazi concentration camp and yet found ways to find beauty in life and went on to found a school of psychology that teaches that we cannot control many of the events in our life, but we can control how we respond to those events—and our response is really what shapes our reality far more than the naked facts of our experience.
Since we cannot escape change, the question again then becomes how do we go with the tide, rather than getting swept away by it. Despite the enormous complexity of our bodies and minds, we are, at some level, incredibly simple creatures. We have two primary autonomic or involuntary nervous system sides: sympathetic and parasympathetic. Our response to anything that scares us is pretty much the same one our ancestors experienced when seeing a saber-tooth tiger---fight or flight—that is to say that the sympathetic nervous systems shifts into high gear. We release adrenaline and a bunch of other hormones which then go to work on us---getting us as ready as we can be to face the challenge, pulse jumps, breathing quickens, muscles tighten, gut shuts down. The problem is that our problems are rarely lions or tigers or bears anymore. Now the fear is primarily generated by overfull email inboxes, confrontations with difficult bosses, traffic jams, and the constant buzz of cellphones—and for some of us, the far more pressing problems of serious illness, financial struggles, and the like. Now, I am not trying to minimize anyone's fears and worries. The feelings are important and real and I'm not suggesting you repress them, but spending huge amounts of time sympathetically dominant is incredibly bad for you—and tends to lead the very things we fear most—illness, depression, and failure. It is possible though to feel the emotions without all the associated stress reactions.
I want to share with you two quick ways to shift from sympathetic to parasympathetic dominance. First, as you are willing and able, let your eyes defocus and try to expand your peripheral vision—really bring that awareness to the sides, let that visual field open up. Sympathetic vision is tight and narrow and when we force ourselves to shift to a broader visual field we also shift ourselves toward the parasympathetic.
Second, again as you are willing and able, I'd like you all to sit up straight and sit on your hands—now kind of feel around to find your ischial tuberosities or the the sit bones. Without getting in a lot of trouble with the UUA I can't help you find them personally. Just kind of feel around.
See now, this is a beautiful thing, this is trust, you're all, in church, feeling your bottoms, just cause I asked you to—I love y'all.
OK, found them, now bring your hands up, really, stop grabbing your bottoms, and feel the tops of your hip bones—the iliac crests. OK, now visualize those four points—the sit bones and the top of the hip bones. Draw an imaginary rectangle connecting them. See that rectangle in your mind—now expand that shape, open it up, make it larger. Relaxing all those muscles in that lower core area. If you're doing it right, you should feel yourself relax some. This works for most folks and works because what your declenching, especially when you're feeling stress, are the muscles that then compress the lower portion of the vagus nerve which also controls a lot of our stress response.
And by the way, if you've ever practiced meditation, at least part of the effect comes from this shift the stress-oriented tightness of the sympathetic nervous system to the open, ready, and relaxed states of the parasympathetic.
I don't know who the next settled minister of this congregation will be—male or female, gay or straight, theist or atheist, young or old, black or white, Hispanic or Asian. The one thing I can tell you is that they will staggeringly, frustratingly, joyously human—flawed and broken, gifted and brilliant in his or her own way. Those of us who have felt called to ministry, made our way to ordination, and had some experience learn that we are blank screens to some extent upon which a fair amount of projections are made. You see us through the filters of your memories and hopes, fears and needs. And likewise, we react through filters of our own history---and both sides of that equation need to react to the current reality and less out of past negative experiences and expectations.
Still, one of the strengths of our tradition is that we have no strong hierarchical priest-hood. Yes, ministers have special training, experience, and hopefully bring a certain perspective to congregational life, but ultimately we are lenses through which the energy of the congregation is focused. And this is the real work we need to do—reconnecting with our own sense of commitment to this community. I want to say that again, the work we need to do is reconnecting with our own sense of commitment to this community.
Overall, I guess what I'm saying is twofold. First, the more we can reduce the gap between where we are and where we think we should be—either by adjusting expectation or action—the less we tend to suffer. The more we can let go of the past-perfect stories and the future-perfect fantasies, the less we will experience the present as tense. Second, what I just told you is pretty tough and so we will inevitably experience fractures in our sense of wholeness---fractures from both broken dreams and past pains. And since we all have been and will be broken in this way, we should try to cultivate a gentleness for our companions and for ourselves. We should find rituals of healing and understanding that allow us to show each other these broken places so that together we might fill them with gold—and find new meaning and perhaps even beauty in the very places we felt most torn apart. And, when we feel stress, feel the tension building in us, find ways of releasing it—meditation, exercise, or just feeling your bottom. I am serious, if you can release that physical tension and shift more toward the parasympathetic system, you will experience less as traumatic and more as experience.
The past is never perfect, and I'll spare you the suspense, the future won't be either. The question before us is the one each of us faces every day. How do we live in the present moment, fully aware of our limitations and brokenness, while still having the courage to act? And I think the question itself is the answer—courage, awareness, and action. In a few minutes we'll hear Joe's rendition of Leonard Cohen's brilliant song, Anthem. The chorus, as some of you know and I've quoted before, is wonderful. “Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in.” So we've collectively, and some more than others, sustained a few cracks. But those cracks are the opportunities for growth, let us fill them with gold and let them shine. We must live, as we always have in the only place accessible to us, the present, tense as it may be.
I want to take a moment to point out just some of the resources available during this time without a minister. The caring team has done and continues to do an amazing job of supporting the basic needs of congregation members in need. They can also use help, so I'd like you to consider what we're calling micro-volunteering, just agreeing to do a single task—cook one meal for example.
I'd also like to call attention to the pastoral care team. These folks have special training and experience and have done a great job of supporting a number of our members who are dealing with some kind of acute or on-going challenges. I met with them recently to discuss our various roles. We will be working together to meet the pastoral needs of the church before the interim arrives. I will be available for any, for lack of better term, high-intensity pastoral needs—deaths, serious illness, and so. Any of the pastoral care team can call me if they think someone needs another level of care. I'll either provide that care myself or make a referral to another resource.