A sermon by Erik Resly for the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI, August 30, 2009
I begin this morning with an observation that may get our Emersonian self-reliance types a bit hot under their upturned stiff-buttoned collar. I want to suggest that situations choose us more often than we choose them. What do I mean by this platitude? I certainly do not intend to take responsibility for your occasional shopping binges or inebriated beer goggles [mating selections] – no, accountability for excessive spending and poor late-night decisions falls exclusively under your purview.
Rather, I want us to consider a different type of situation. A more existentially challenging, gut-wrenching, type. I want us to consider the experience of profound misfortune – the kind that threatens to disturb, perhaps even overturn, our perspective on life itself. The kind that tests the limits of our approach to suffering. The kind that calls life, that calls existence, that calls God into question. Such ill fortune surfaces in countless ways: a terminal diagnosis, an irreconcilable divorce, a financial collapse, a fierce flood, a lost friend, job or family member. You may wish to add your own to the list.
I suspect that, not unlike Jacob, many of us in this sanctuary have wrestled with the unforeseen angel of adversity. In the biblical story, of course, the mysterious character rewards Jacob at daybreak for his steadfastness by assigning him the name Israel, meaning one who has struggled with God. Yet aside from its etiological significance, this narrative falls short of testifying to, what Cornel West calls, the “raw funky stanky stuff” of life. If only we could walk away from a life-threatening automobile accident with a flashy new nickname. More importantly, the episode does not do justice to the human condition. It valorizes a will that lies beyond the reach of human fragility. It praises Jacob for an impossible feat – for staving off the inevitability of death. It promotes a will-ful approach to the cracks of uncertainty that riddle our life journeys. Will-ful, as in saturated with wishes, wants, commands. Will-ful, as in belligerently asserting our own point of view at the expense of reason or reality. Will-ful, as in stubbornly seeking to overdetermine and direct situations over which we simply have no control. Remember: situations choose us more often than we choose them.
Jacob’s will-fulness does not warrant outright rejection, however, for its opposite proves even more dangerous. Too often, when disaster strikes, our mind wanders to imagined cosmic catastrophe. In light of the anticipated wreckage, as the minor chords grow louder in our hearts, we flirt with will-lessness. Lacking desires, unpossessed of aspiration, we abdicate responsibility and self-concern. Paralyzed, we throw our hands up in defeat as we impotently renounce concern for our emotional and spiritual wellbeing. Under this logic, Jacob would have easily succumbed to the daunting threat of annihilation.
Instead, we must learn to ease control. We must neither guard it too close to our chests, nor lose track of it altogether. When the unpredictable strikes, we must avoid falling victim to our will-ful or will-less inclinations. So as to comfort those I’ve already managed to unsettle this morning, I shall confess that Emerson speaks to this condition poignantly. He writes: “As the traveler who has lost his way, throws his reins on his horse's neck and trusts to the instinct of the animal to find his road, so must we do with the divine animal who carries us through this world.” After all, life can be a perilous and uncertain ‘storm of many elements.’
Travel with me, if you will, from nineteenth century New England to the world of camel riders in sixteenth century Punjab. Unpredictability defined their adventures as well. Nestled up in the northwestern plains straddling the modern-day border between India and Pakistan, these sojourners encountered countless unknowns: extreme temperatures, varied terrain and the occasional ruthless bandit. As a compilation of sacred poetry, the Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji – the Holy text of the Sikh faith – contains an entire section devoted to a type of folk music the camel riders would sing while en route. Let me share an excerpt:
“O my wandering mind, you are like a camel - how will you meet the Lord, your Mother?
O camel-like mind, you were once very pure; the filth of egotism has now attached itself to you. O my beloved camel-like mind, day and night, lovingly attune yourself to God. O my beloved camel-like mind, search for the Lord within your own heart.” (1)
In these hymns, the camel-like mind wanders restlessly, stubbornly. Etymologically, the term used for camel, kar-halaa, derives from the juxtaposition of kar and halaa, meaning to make an attack, or alternatively: to move a plough. The camel-like mind, thus, advances will-fully, trudging forward with a heightened sense of self-importance. It engrosses itself in self-centeredness. Its egotism bars it from the ultimate. The poet’s injunction is clear: surrender to the God within your own heart.
Worlds apart, the infamous German philosopher Martin Heidegger arrived at a similar conclusion. So much of life, he insisted, rests on Geworfenheit, or Thrownness. At every step along our journey from womb to tomb, we find ourselves thrown into or delivered over to circumstances beyond our control. From infancy onwards, we are thrown into a world without prior knowledge or, for that matter, option – a world that was there before our birth and will remain long after we are gone.
Heidegger’s fascination with life’s most profound existential misfortune, namely death itself, infused his philosophy with a raw honesty, even if it made him somewhat of a downer at the neighborhood cocktail party. For Heidegger, death makes manifest that all forms of physical being – all ways of relating to or approaching the world – will fail us in the end. Thus, he advocated for a ‘Vorlaufen in den Tod’ – a running forward into death. For when we see our relations to people and things in light of death, we learn to live generously, accepting ourselves for who we are, and embracing others in their eclectic peculiarities.
In the shadow of life’s greatest unpredictability – in the presence of life’s greatest angel of adversity – we learn to live, when we learn to love. Perhaps Rev. Forrest Church says it best: “the one thing that can never be taken from us, even in death, is the love we give away before we die.”
Being the profound and provocative prophet that he is, Rev. Church deliberately leaves certain dots unconnected. For one: How do we cultivate the bountiful love of which he so emphatically speaks? In an 1858 volume of the ‘Unitarian Pulpit,’ Rev. Henry Crosskey offers a suggestion. “Love implies the surrender of the self,” he writes. And he’s absolutely right. Love implies the movement from self-reliance to self-surrender. No longer shackled by self-obsession or self-assertiveness, we surrender our camel-like mind to the God within our own heart. We surrender ourselves to that crazy little thing called love.
When we surrender ourselves to love, we move:
From me to you,
From I to Thou,
From arrogance to altruism,
From conceit to concern,
From pride to prudence,
From contempt to care,
From egotism to empathy,
From selfishness to sympathy,
From megalomania to mutuality,
From narcissism to being neighborly,
From possessiveness to generosity,
From self-consideration and self-indulgence and self-importance to sociability and sensuality and solidarity.
Amen! When we love, we open ourselves to a power that transforms ego-centricity into other-centricity, into ego-tangentiality, into ego-extrinsicality, into ego-exteriority.
That is not to say, that love is easy – on the contrary, it’s usually very hard work, unpredictable, the “raw funky stanky stuff” of life. But when we love, when we surrender ourselves to love, we cultivate a will-ing approach to life: We “let go, let come, let be, let God; [We] get up, get going, get to it.” (2)
When we live will-ingly, we voluntarily develop a ready and agreeable will. We meet hardship with steadfast endurance. We meet great fortune with appreciation and humility. We let situations pass through us, cataloguing their influence but refusing to allow them to define our being.
I know the challenge and blessing of will-ing love quite well. In my final year of high school, I was diagnosed with cancer. I remember quite vividly, in the fifth round of chemotherapy, languishing for eternal hours in my dimly-lit second-story bedroom. The ceiling was slanted, and I would crouch in that narrow space, praying for recovery. My body was fighting a war, and my physical strength was suffering the consequences. I would lie on top of the disheveled bed-sheets, twisting and turning, contorting my body to find a temporary release from excruciating pain. My lungs would gasp for air. This was my life. I vegetated impotently, unguarded, unfortified, uncertain. A bad situation chose me. You know you’ve kissed death, when you can see the panic in your mother’s tearing eyes.
What saved me was love. Kahlil Gibran advises: “think not that you can direct the course of love, for love, if it finds you worthy, directs your course.” And what a course it was! I was blessed with the greatest gift of all: an abundance of selfless love.
One afternoon – it had been an especially difficult day – I found myself drifting in and out of a glossed daze, fighting to stay awake – fighting to stay alive. All of a sudden, without proper warning or notification, my dog sprang up on my bed and trampled my covers and pillow. He bounced around my mattress, leaping over body parts, occasionally stomping my you-know-what, having a wonderful time messing everything up. He just wanted to be near me. He was completely unaffected by the appearance of my bald head or the uncanny thinness of my limbs. None of that mattered to him. And in that moment of ecstatic joy and relentless pain, I encountered the Holy. God was in that selfless love itself.
In turn, I began to approach my cancer with a will-ing attitude. I surrendered myself to God, to love; I put my health in love’s care; I put my spirit in God’s hands. I began to “melt and be like a running brook that sings its melody to the night.”
In the Janamsakhis – literally ‘birth stories’ – of Guru Nanak, the first Guru or teacher of Sikhism, we read of the prophet’s unusual death wish. With both Hindu and Muslim followers, Guru Nanak had to decide whether he would follow the Hindu ritual of cremation or opt for the Muslim practice of burial. Sensing the imminent arrival of his departure from this world, Guru Nanak instructed both parties to plant flowers on either side of his body. “Those whose flowers remain fresh tomorrow will have their way,” he announced. He then asked them to share one last prayer with him, and cover his body with a white sheet. The following morning, the Hindu and Muslim disciples were amazed to discover that both flowerbeds were equally fresh. When they removed the sheet covering Guru Nanak, they found not a body but a sea of bright flowers, gently dancing in the wind.
Situations choose us, more often than we choose them. When profound misfortune strikes, when we stare the unforeseen angel of adversity directly in the eyes, we must will-ingly search for the Lord within our own hearts. After all, the one thing that can never be taken from us, even in death, are the gifts of beauty, the tokens of tenderness, the flowers of love that we give away before we die.
Will you pray with me:
O Eternal Giver, Gracious God, Boundless Beloved.
It is in love that we live, move and have our being.
For every gift of beauty, we know, there must be a God somewhere.
For every token of tenderness, we know, there must be a God somewhere.
For every flower of love, we know, there must be a God somewhere.
For every child dreaming big, there must be a God somewhere.
For every sacrificing parent, there must be a God somewhere.
For every willing volunteer, there must be a God somewhere.
For every healthy relationship, there must be a God somewhere.
For every life-affirming faith-community, there must be a God somewhere.
For every glimmer of grace received, there must be a God somewhere.
For each and every person here, there must be a God somewhere.
(1) Sri Guru Granth Sahib, 234 (not in order)
(2) David Augsburger, Dissident Discipleship. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006.