As a minister there are around a half-dozen questions that I’m frequently asked. One of those questions has to do with preaching. The question goes something like this, “How do you come up with something to talk about every week?” Or, “So, what do you do if can’t think of anything to say?” Or, “What do you do when it just won’t come?”
I always answer this question a bit differently. Sometimes I tell people that it isn’t really an option; it has to come. It just has to. Otherwise, it is going to be an awkward twenty minutes we spend together when I am supposed to deliver a sermon to you. Other times I am a little boastful, declaring that I’ve never suffered from a shortage of ideas. This is true, but whether they’ve always been good ideas is another matter entirely. But I’m blabbering on. The question is still valid. “What would I do if it just won’t come?”
Switching gears—taking the focus off of me and putting it on you, I pose the question to you. What do you do in your own life when it just won’t come? Not a sermon, but your work, your relationships, your hopes or dreams or ambitions… your life.
This morning we are going to delve into these sorts of experiences: disappointment and frustration, stress and burnout, setbacks and failures. In this sermon I am going to begin by exploring these sorts of experiences and offering us a framework for understanding them. For a time, we will address these experiences from a secular perspective. Then, later on, we will add a religious layer to the conversation, and ask if our religion, faith, and Unitarian Universalist theology can speak to these experiences.
When we talk about frustration or disappointment or burnout or failure, we often just lump all of them together, thinking they are all the same. But this is just not the case. They happen in different ways. Let me count just a few of the ways.
First, I want to go back to the juggling example I gave you earlier in the service. [The juggling example was meant to illustrate burnout. I started with one ball, which required no attention at all. I then added to the juggling, one ball at a time. When I reached 5 balls, the juggling was taking all my concentration and energy. When I added a sixth ball, it all fell apart.] That was allegory. It was an illustration. But, even if you don’t juggle, you might do something like that in your life. You care deeply. You want everything to run smoothly. You don’t want any balls to drop. And you are competent, and talented. And, all around you, you see all these balls getting dropped, all these things that might be breaking down in front of your eyes. So, not only do you carry your own load, but you also do a little bit extra to help. This is easy to do, putting a little something extra on your plate. And, then you do a little more than that and that’s okay too. But then you make yourself a savior and pick up even more. At this point it all becomes unsustainable, so you cut corners here and there. You fake others out about how it is really going. And then it all falls apart. Burnout has a story to it, a narrative. There is a past and present and future to it. There is a beginning when everything was under control. Then there is an escalation. Things speed up. You hit a breaking point. There is a dénouement and it all breaks down. That is the textbook case of burnout. It is life unsustainable: life out of control.
As a minister, when others ask me about whether a sermon idea ever just doesn’t come, they aren’t really asking me about burnout or overwork necessarily. These things can be related. If I’m juggling five balls and someone asks me to balance an umbrella on my nose, something is going to have to give. You can be too focused, too preoccupied, and too overextended. Sometimes this does have an impact on the other things you are supposed to do.
But, when we suffer a barrier, such as in the case of writer’s block, it does not necessarily mean that we are overextended. When we have a barrier that we keep hitting, a responsibility that we avoid, or when we find that we keep getting stuck, it is a good thing to stop running into the wall. We need to pause and analyze. Maybe our heart is just not in it. Maybe we can enlist others in helping us to break through that barrier. But first, we need to pause. When the barrier is another person, we may ask them, “I’ve been running at you and smashing into you over and over again, how does that feel? What could make this different?” Feeling stuck, whether it is your own self, another person, or a community, is an invitation to creativity, cooperation, and collaboration. But first you need to pause and take stock.
There was this band called They Might Be Giants that I used to listen to in high school. A lot of their lyrics were silly and their lyrics featured a lot of wordplay. I remember one of their songs, a real “woe is me” number where the singer plaintively croons, “If it weren’t for disappointments, I wouldn’t have any appointments.”
It is important to remember that sometimes, even when we are not on the path to burnout and even when we are not stuck, that we can get slammed with a major disappointment. Don’t get me wrong: there are plenty of ways that we can set ourselves up for disappointment with unrealistic goals or heightened expectations—and there is a danger in heightened expectations—but failure and disappointment can still come our way, no matter how hard we try to avoid it. Disappointment teaches us the humbling lesson that we can never be fully in control of our own lives and our circumstances. We can get slammed whether we deserve it or not.
What’s more, failure and breakdowns can happen without any warning. There are times when it just won’t come. Sometimes we know disappointment is creeping up on us. Other times, it catches us completely out of the blue.
Let me share with you the story of Chuck Knoblauch. Chuck Knoblauch was a second baseman who began his baseball career with the Minnesota Twins. He broke into the major leagues in 1991 and helped to lead the Twins to a World Series championship that year while taking home Rookie of the Year honors. Through the 1990s he was one of the top two or three second basemen in all of baseball. He played in four All Star games and even, in 1997, won a Gold Glove award for his exemplary fielding. Following that season the New York Yankees offered him an outrageous sum of money and he joined the Bronx Bombers where he played on teams that won the World Series the next three seasons and came close to winning it all for a fourth straight time in 2001.
Yet, life was not easy for Knoblauch in New York. In 1999 he began to lose the ability to make throws from second base to first. His throws sailed all over the place. How wild was he? Well, a throw from second base can be about 40 feet. On one occasion, Knoblauch threw a ball that traveled over 100 feet instead, sailing into the stands, and hitting the wife of Keith Olbermann in the face. Almost overnight a world class athlete lost the ability to throw a baseball with any semblance of accuracy.
I’m going to guess that what I’ve said so far resonates with just about everyone here. You may have never had to write a sermon. I’m guessing you did not play second base for the New York Yankees. But, I will bet you that there has been a time in your life when it felt like you had too many balls up in the air. Or, a time when you had this barrier that you just couldn’t get beyond and kept smashing into. Or maybe you’ve experienced a time when what had been routine turns out now to be impossible. There may have been a time in your life when it just wouldn’t come, whatever it is.
And, I’m going to name it because it is in this room with us today. I’m going to bet that walking out of last Sunday’s Annual Meeting many of you felt something resembling the types of things I’ve been describing this morning. Some of our most passionate volunteers feel like they have too many balls up in the air. Some of you see balls getting dropped. Some of you feel like there is a barrier we keep slamming into, something that is limiting us that we feel we should be able to break through even though we haven’t figured out how quite yet. I will tell you; I have felt all these things. So, if you have felt them too, you are not alone. And, frankly, it is not fun. And, frankly, it is part of life. And, now is not the time for me to hammer on about it. Instead, I want to approach the topic from a religious angle.
In 1854, Henry David Thoreau published his book Walden, which many people have since read and found tedious. Or, if they like it, they like it for a couple of quotations found in the second chapter, quotations that have become almost trite: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately…” “Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life?” “Simplify. Simplify.”
We often forget how radical the thoughts of that great Unitarian thinker were! And we are familiar with a few of the concepts: Thoreau’s willingness to question things that members of society took for granted; Thoreau’s passionate repudiation of materialism and wealth.
I almost want to ask each and every person here to go home and read the entirety of the second chapter of Walden this week. Read it then keep a spiritual journal about it. Dare to let it speak to your life and really listen to what it says. This is our sacred writing. This is one of our holy texts. I’m not asking you to read Deuteronomy.
Let me share with you a few things I found striking within. Listen to this passage from the second chapter of Walden,
“If I should only give a few pulls at the parish bell-rope, as for a fire, that is, without setting the bell, there is hardly a man on his farm in the outskirts of Concord, notwithstanding that press of engagements which was his excuse so many times this morning, nor a boy, nor a woman, I might almost say, but would forsake all and follow that sound, not mainly to save property from the flames, but, if we will confess the truth, much more to see it burn, since burn it must, and we, be it known, did not set it on fire — or to see it put out, and have a hand in it, if that is done as handsomely; yes, even if it were the parish church itself.”Let me make the language more transparent. Thoreau writes that we tend to go around making excuses about the “presses of engagements” in our lives. In other words, we boast about how busy we are. However, Thoreau says that if given an excuse to put aside our work, we would use that excuse in a second. I don’t know if you had fire drills when you were in school, but I did. When the fire alarm rang, all the students would all cheer. And then, standing out in the parking lot some of the students—you know it is true—would hope that it was an actual fire because then, you know, school might be closed for a longer period of time. In that passage, Thoreau writes that the worker spends the day complaining about how much work he has to do, but when the church bell rings, the worker will gladly drop the work and head into town hoping for a blaze that will allow the worker to stay away from work even longer. Thoreau says that they would be fine with the church going up in a blaze if it meant a longer escape from the usual burdens of daily life.
Elsewhere in Walden, Thoreau writes,
“Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen. Our life is like a German Confederacy, made up of petty states, with its boundary forever fluctuating, so that even a German cannot tell you how it is bounded at any moment. The nation itself, with all its so-called internal improvements… is just such an unwieldy and overgrown establishment, cluttered with furniture and tripped up by its own traps, ruined by luxury and heedless expense… and the only cure for it is a… simplicity of life and elevation of purpose.”Or, to give you more Thoreau,
“The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred millions to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive. We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep…To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.”So, what exactly is Thoreau speaking about here? Thoreau is saying that there are all types of forces and values external to us that serve to make our lives far more complicated than they need to be. Thoreau is saying that we can develop the ability to affect the quality of the day, not just to live the day that has been given to us. Thoreau is saying that what we take as givens need not necessarily be so.
Of course, if we decided to live by Thoreau’s example, to become disciples of his teachings, we would still not be completely insulated from disappointment or frustration or failure. Those sometimes just happen, as in the example of Chuck Knoblauch. But Thoreau is our voice that questions whether the world, as it is given to us, really needs to be as it is. I question this as well. I question this as well. I hope you do too.