Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Sermon: "Confessions of an Author" (Delivered 2-7-10)

The 3C Theme of this sermon is: Connect - To connect on a common spiritual journey. Click here for more information.

[The reading comes from one author’s description of Ignatian spiritual practice.]
One of the spiritual disciplines I practice is the Daily Examen, developed by Saint Ignatius Loyola in the 16th century and described in his book, The Spiritual Exercises. The idea is to look for the movements of God throughout your day. Ignatius expected that God would speak through our deepest feelings and yearnings, what he called "consolation" and "desolation." For us, consolation is whatever helps us connect with ourselves, others, God, and creation. Desolation is whatever disconnects us.

The Examen is a very short form of journaling, and it helps me to see patterns in my day. There are three useful questions to help you get at what your day's consolation is: What draws me close to God? For what am I grateful? What gives me life?

The experience of consolation: directs our focus outside and beyond ourselves; lifts our hearts so that we can see the joys and sorrows of other people; bonds us more closely with our human community; generates new inspiration and ideas; restores balance and refreshes our inner vision; shows us where the holy is active in our lives and where we are being led; and, finally, consolation releases new energy in us.

There are, likewise, three useful questions to help you get at what your day's desolation is: What pulls me away from God? For what am I least grateful? What drains life from me?

The experience of desolation: turns us in on ourselves; drives us down the spiral ever deeper into our own negative feelings; cuts us off from community; makes us want to give up on things that used to be important to us; takes over our whole consciousness and crowds out our life vision; covers up places where the holy is active; and, finally, consolation drains us of energy.

When I listed the title for this sermon in our newsletter and on our website I said that the title was going to be, “Hey! I Published a Book.” Needless to say, my title gives me a good bit of latitude as to what I will speak about. My sermon this morning is going to be very little about my having published a book. But, that is where I want to start.

I want to start by sharing with you my emotional response when I opened the package that came in the mail and held a copy of my book, hot off the press. To be completely and absolutely honest, I experienced in that moment a feeling that was different than the absolute euphoria and beaming pride I expected to feel. Needless to say, this is not what I am going to say about the book when I have an occasion to sell it. And, it is not like I’m not genuinely proud of the book. I am. And I am especially proud to be able to put my name alongside the names so many of my colleagues that I respect so deeply. So, what were the complicated feelings all about, anyways?

I asked myself a series of questions in order to try to figure out why I felt the way I felt about the book:

Is the book true? Yes, everything in the book is true to the very best of my understanding of the truth. I believe that all of my colleagues wrote the truth as they know it.

Is the book complete? No, it is not complete. (Is any book?) There are some things that are not in the book that I wish I had thought to include in the book.

Is the book authentic? Yes. Everything in the book contains my authentic convictions and my best thoughts. But, what if that is not enough? What if I am a fraud? I don’t mean a fraud in terms of telling deliberate lies. I mean a fraud in terms of writing on a subject on which I may not be a credible expert. (Fortunately, the other 8 contributing authors are all credible experts.) But what if history shows that I don’t know the first thing about church growth and vitality? What if we found out that the guy who wrote about Zen and motorcycle maintenance didn’t actually know how to maintain motorcycles, or that the guy who wrote the book about cheese getting moved didn’t know that much about the movements of cheese?

Allow me to make the observation that lots of people dream of writing a book or a poem or a short story and having it published. Some people dream of writing the great American novel. Others want to write a memoir or a family history. Still others dream of producing an impeccably researched work of scholarship. These desires are quite common.

Over the past few weeks I have talked with a number of experienced writers. A friend of mine here in Kansas City tells me that when he published his first book he was euphoric. Now he regards it with a sense of embarrassment. He comments that the most painful part of it is how crystallized it is. The parts of it that should be altered are preserved for all eternity, or at least until all of the copies of the book that are in existence have been lost.

A guitar teacher publishes one of the most successful guides for learning to play. It becomes an industry best-seller. The author is not satisfied and believes he could have improved upon it. He thoroughly revises it and publishes it and the new and improved version is a flop. The old version continues to sell well, which is bittersweet.

A colleague of mine is asked to review a draft of a book by a leading author of books about ministry. My colleague writes the author a comprehensive review with dozens of insightful and helpful comments about places where the manuscript could be improved. The author calls him up and says, “Yeah, you’re right. But, I’ve gone as far with this project as I can go. The book is just going to have to go to press more or less as it is. But, I plan to use a lot of your observations in my next book.”

[In fact, between the two services a member pulled me aside and confided in me that she felt a feeling of embarrassment and anxiety when she first held a copy of a book she had published.]

So, what is missing in my book? What does my book lack that I wish I had thought to include? By far, the biggest thing I wished that I had included in my book was a chapter on how to lead through challenging stretches. What do you do when you hit a rough patch? What do you do with disappointments and setbacks?

It occurs to me that these questions do not only apply to churches that are trying to grow towards greater vitality. These questions speak to so much of what it means to live in our world right now. Economically our nation is experiencing a recession. Psychologically, I would argue that our nation is experiencing a collective depression. This collective depression is the result of not only unemployment, foreclosures, stock market crashes, and layoffs, although those things play a big part. It is the result of living in a state of anxiety, fear, and worries that, when prolonged, may morph into despair and resignation.

Political liberals, a term that describes some of us but not all of us, contend with symptoms of fatigue and depression these days. Political liberals could use a chapter on how to contend with disappointment, a chapter on how to successfully navigate rough patches.

I recently spoke with a beloved colleague whose advice I find extremely helpful. I asked him to discuss with me the question: How does one minister amidst fatigue and weariness, amidst a melancholy spirit? He answered metaphorically, by talking about how he responded to his college-aged daughter when she became sullen and despondent and threw herself on her bed and refused to move.

He talked about how intellectually he could come up with 101 great ideas that he could propose to help her overcome her gloom. She should call a friend. She should throw on some tennis shoes and go for a walk or a run. She should call that person about that internship she was interested in applying for. At least open up the shades and let some sunlight in. But he knew that any idea he suggested, no matter how insightful and how wise, would be met with resistance if he did not allow her to feel her own misery. She needed to decide that she didn’t want to feel that way.

In Ignatian spiritual practice there is the idea of being fully present and attentive to the movements of consolation and desolation that happen in one’s life, indeed that happen to us each day. Consolation involves a feeling of euphoria and enchantment, the feeling of joy unsurpassed. Consolation is a feeling on connection with what is holy. Desolation involves a feeling of lowness and misery, the absence of joy. Desolation is a feeling of disconnect with what is holy.

St. Ignatius was not alone in this spiritual insight. In the Building Your Own Theology adult religious education class, a mainstay in Unitarian Universalist churches for decades, there is an exercise that asks participants to name “peak” spiritual experiences and “valley” spiritual experiences. The peaks involve exhilaration and celebration. The valleys involve devastation and loss.

If you are distrustful of Ignatian spirituality, or if the metaphors of peaks and valleys don’t really speak to you, I offer you some words from the Unitarian Universalist humanist tradition that describe this same condition. The words were written by The Reverend Kendyl Gibbons. Listen to the movements of consolation and desolation in her language,
I grew up in this Unitarian Universalist tradition, bred into the confident expectation of the ultimate triumph of the enlightenment. That there were both superstition and arrogance to be overcome, I never doubted, but neither did I ever seriously contemplate a universe whose arc did not bend toward liberation, reason, justice, democracy, and an advancing tide of education, freedom and human well-being. As I understood it, part of my task as a minister was to hasten the coming of that day, and to minimize the tragedy and waste of human suffering in the meantime – but the happy end, however long delayed, was thought to be within sight. Lately, I'm not so sure any more. I'm still enough of a product of my upbringing to believe that ignorance and suffering are bad, and that individual freedom and systemic wellbeing are good, but I'm no longer confident that they are inevitable. Indeed, my work may not be so much to herald the advance of the triumph of reason and good will, as it is a rearguard action to delay as long as possible the rising flood of renewed violence, superstition, oppression, and ruthless power. It's a far less blithe assignment, I assure you.
So, what is it that we ought to do when we experience the valleys, when we experience desolation? Some of the teachings related to Ignatian spiritual practice are helpful, I believe. From one resource on the experiences of desolation and consolation, here are a few suggestions of what to do and what not to do when you have that experience:
When you experience desolation there is a tendency to pull away from other people. That is not helpful. Times of desolation are times to seek out companionship. In times of desolation there is a temptation to break commitments. Instead, commitments should be made during times of consolation and kept through the movement of desolation and reevaluated again during a cycle of consolation. In desolation it is important to turn to your idea of your true self and to stay true to an inner map.

In contrast, during times of consolation it is important to fortify, to expand your notion of your true self and to expand your inner map. Consolation is a time when energy may be used to further one’s deepest desires and it is also a time when excess energy may be spent to take care of things that you would rather not take care of.
You know, I think this is what I would have written if I had thought to add another chapter to the book. I would have addressed the movement of desolation. And I am thankful for all the consolation and hope: The consolation and hope in the chapter on transformation. The consolation and hope offered in the chapter on energy. The consolation and hope offered in the chapter on innovation. The consolation and the hope offered in the chapter on the spirit of welcoming.

The hymn “O Come, You Longing Thirsty Souls” (#209) is about the movement from desolation to consolation. But both desolation and consolation are natural movements of our spirit. Sometimes we are the longing, thirsty souls and sometimes we are the sated ones. Sometimes we are the weary, famished folk and sometimes we are filled to the point of bliss. Sometimes all we see around us are thorns and nettles; other times we feel we are in the presence of bay tree and pine. Both are a part of us. Give thanks for those moments of consolation and be consoled by the knowledge that desolation is not forever.