Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Sermon: "Things I Shouldn't Have Learned By Now" (Delivered 8-12-07)

[A couple things to know about this sermon. First, I delivered it while wearing a Faux-Hawk. Second, the reading before the sermon came from p. 190-192 of Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird. On these pages she tells the story of friends of hers whose child suffers an extreme brain injury during delivery. Expected to only “live” for a few days, the family brings the baby home to be around family and friends. Anne and her five-year old son Sam visit frequently and read Dr. Seuss books to the baby. When the baby dies, Lamott describes her son’s reaction to seeing his first dead person.]

Sermon – Part 1
I want to follow up on the very emotional reading sharing another reading by Anne Lamott, this one coming from her book Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith. This reading deals with a sad reality of life at its other end. Just as I know (and it is a sad but sacred privilege to know) that some of you can relate to the things described in the first reading, I know (in the same sacred and privileged and sad way) that many, many of you will relate to what Lamott describes in the second reading. She writes:
What are you supposed to do, when what is happening can’t be, and the old rules no longer apply? I remember this feeling when my mother was in the last stages of Alzheimer’s, when my brothers and I needed so much more information to go on than we had – explanations, plans, a tour guide, and hope that it really wasn’t going to be that bad. But then it was that bad, and then some, and all we could do was talk, and stick together. We managed to laugh at ourselves and at her, and at the utter hopelessness of it all, and we sought wise counsel – medical, financial, spiritual. I prayed for my mother to die in her sleep. I prayed that I would never have to take the cat out of her arms and put her in a home. A nurse summoned from the Alzheimer’s Association entered into the mess with us. We said, “We don’t know if we should put her in a home, and if so, when. We don’t know what’s true anymore. We don’t know what we’re doing.” The nurse asked gently. “How could you know?”
How could you know? How could you know? When I read this Lamott piece for the first time I was halted, moved. What a brilliant response from the Alzheimer’s Association nurse; how could you know? I found those words extremely comforting. Comforting to the Lamott family, but also comforting to me, who regularly operates under the delusion that I am expected to know, well, everything.

Each mid-August, as I return from vacation and study and denominational travel I like to preach a sermon that is both an anniversary sermon and a birthday sermon. This coming week is my birthday. It is also the anniversary of my first Sunday in the pulpit as your called minister. I try to make it reflective without being self-absorbed, contemplative without being self-centered.

This year, mid-August represents both the beginning of my fifth year as your minister and my turning 30 this Wednesday. I originally planned to preach about what I had learned in these past four years, and several weeks ago I sat down and actually composed a list of everything I thought I had learned in the past four years. I composed the list in a column on the left hand side of several sheets of loose-leaf paper. But then, on the right side of the paper I began a different list, a list of all the things I didn’t manage to learn in the last four years. This exercise was sobering so I decided to preach instead on this odd grammatical construction that I’ve titled my sermon – “Things I shouldn’t have learned by now.” A grammatical construction that doesn’t really convey what it is supposed to convey, because I messed up the title and it came out wrong. The title of the sermon sounds smug in its present form. It seems to indicate that I am going to talk about things I do know even though I’m not really expected to know them yet. Look at me, all preternaturally precocious. But, it is not meant that way, it just turned out like that - conveying the impression that I will talk of things I know that I shouldn’t be expected to know. And that just sounds plain arrogant.

But that is not what I intended. The awkward grammatical expression – “Things I shouldn’t know by now” – is meant to refer to something entirely different. It is meant to encompass those things of which Anne Lamott speaks when she quotes the Alzheimer’s Association Nurse, “How could you know?” What do you say to your five year-old son after you’ve taken him to visit a dead baby? When do you take the cat out of your mother’s arms and put her in a home? You do what you do, without really knowing for sure. Because how could you know?

Part 2
Go back about ten years in my life. I either just turned twenty or am about to. It was my junior year in college and I realized that over Spring Break in April I would be visiting seminaries as a prospective student. This was serious stuff. So I decided I needed to do something to mark this transition. I dyed my hair a brilliant shade of turquoise-blue and cut it into a Mohawk. It felt sacramental. [Random fact: What do you use to get a Mohawk to stand up? Actually, you use a paste composed of fifty percent Elmers glue and fifty percent raw egg whites.] And then I got rid of the Mohawk, grew out my hair all decent looking, did prospective visits to seminaries, and the rest was history: admission to Harvard, four years of classes, internships, chaplaincies, student ministries, and more.

And then, four years ago, you courageously invited a quite presentable, nicely-coiffed, 25 year-old young man to be your minister. Of the several choices I had of churches at which to serve, you Shawnee Mission stood above the others head and shoulders for the way you described your dreams for a future minister. You said, and here I literally quote what you said, “Our church is poised to grow significantly in the coming years – in spiritual depth, in commitment to the community, and in membership… the worst mistake that our new minister could make would be to not show enthusiasm and energy. We are eager for energy and enthusiasm.”

Here I am! Sign me up! We seemed to be a good fit for one another. So, four years ago you turned over the spiritual leadership of this church to a young man with a very presentable hair-do, not yet twenty-six, but with enthusiasm and energy. And you knew I would make lots of mistakes, and I did. But you agreed to forgive and forebear as long as the mistakes were not the worst mistake I could make: to fail to show enthusiasm and energy.

So, my faux-hawk this morning? It is not the melodrama of existential angst and despair at turning thirty. OK… maybe a little. It is sacramental too, I think. It commemorates the decade sinced I got rid of the bright turquoise Mohawk at age 20, a full decade of serious dedication – a decade that coincided exactly with my twenties. Thanks for letting me celebrate this in your presence.

Part 3
More than enough about me, though. Because this morning is not about what I have learned or what I have not yet learned. It is about some other kind of third thing. Not exactly things I shouldn’t know by now, but the things that more or less transcend our pure knowing. What were the words of that Alzheimer’s Association nurse? “How could you know?” This wasn’t a condescending “How could YOU know?” It was a hands-up-in-the-air surrender to the reality that there will be some things we just can’t know the answer to for sure. What is the right thing to do after you’ve taken your five year-old to visit a deceased baby? How could you know?

For some of us, these non-answers can be challenging. As Unitarian Universalists we may be very comfortable believing that there is not one single, orthodox, right, correct answer to the question of whether God exists. As Unitarian Universalists we may be very comfortable believing that there is not one single, orthodox, right, correct answer to the question of what happens to us after we die. As Unitarian Universalists we may be very comfortable believing that there are not certain, final answers to some religious questions.

But, what about when the questions aren’t metaphysical? What about when the question is right there in your face and hits you personally, when it comes to medical treatment for an aging parent, or what to say to grieving parents? Or, even what about when it is choosing a major in college or deciding to leave that position and go a different direction that carries a lot of risk? What about those times when there are wrong answers, to be certain, but there may not be one exact right one?

God’s eternal truth is that sometimes we can’t know for sure. Earlier we sang, “Light of ages and of nations, every race and every time has received thine inspirations, glimpses of the truth sublime.” But, the sublime truth is that sometimes we just can’t know.

Too often we think of life this way: Imagine a young girl 5 or 6 years old who is running around the pool. The child trips and skins her knee raw. The first time this happens, we might say something like, “Now you’ve learned why it is dangerous to run around the pool.” It is the lesson of experience, right? “Now you know.” “Well, this is a learning experience.” “Life has just taught you a lesson.” This is kind of childhood development type stuff. We turn even the painful into a learning experience.

But, the next time the young girl slips running around the pool, we might say something less educative. “Haven’t you learned this by now?” “Didn’t you learn your lesson the first time?” “Didn’t last time teach you anything?” “You should know by now…”

And we can break it all down into these two categories, this dualistic epistemology, where everything can be neatly divided into something you don’t already know and will someday learn or something you should know by now.

To use a different, funny example, that came to me, we either tell the child: “Well, I guess you learned a lesson that it is not nice to pull the cat’s tail,” or “you should know better than to pull the cat’s tail. Remember what happened last time you did that?”

This is not only for children, though. We can tend to chalk up our own failures and disappointments, our own gains and losses as either learning experiences or as a failure to have learned that lesson the first time, or the second, or the third, or…

But, if we are true and honest to ourselves, we might also imagine things we shouldn’t have learned by now. How could you know? How COULD you know?

When faced with religious questions, when faced with spiritual questions, we are not expected to respond with correct answers, with the right answers, but with honest and authentic answers.
Similarly, when faced with life’s hardest questions, when faced with life and death itself, we are not expected to respond correctly, only honestly, and authentically.

These thoughts I’ve shared with you this morning come, if anything, not out of any celebratory angst I am feeling about a certain birthday. If anything, it is coming out of the reality that the past two weeks have been a bit remarkable for the pastoral care demands at this particular time, including, among other pastoral care needs, visiting with families who have lost loved ones.

All of which, all of which has caused me to pause, to grow introspective, to search my own heart for the answers to this life, and to respond this way:

Not to proudly and precociously and triumphantly boast of what I do know.

Not to chastise myself for that which I have not yet learned.

But to return, in peace, to a place where I am able to admit what I should not know. Because how could you know? How could you know?

Go forth not with abundant pride for all the things you know.
But, also, do not go forth beating yourself up over the things you have not yet learned.
Go forth honestly and authentically, with the knowledge that sharing your honest and true self with others will be enough and more than enough.

My Faux-Hawk, in honor of turning 30!