Spiritually Challenged

Ancient Testimony - 1 Corinthians 13:4-13

November 14, 2010

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

I love it when the seasons change.  You end up out of fashion so easily this time of year, with open-toed shoes on your feet as the first winter wind blows through Washington Square Park, and there you are, joining the perpetually homeless in the experience of a real chill.  That sweater you know you have is still in storage.  When you finally find your winter coat, you find the iPod you were sure you had lost in its pocket.  The same thing happens in the spring, when you sweat the A train all the way to West Fourth, wondering why you not only forgot to set your clock back but also forgot to get out a short-sleeve shirt.  These reminders of seasonal change bring with them great spiritual meaning: seasons change and sometimes we remind ourselves to change with them.  If you have not switched out your clothes, today would be a good day to do so.  Winter is on its way, even though there is a fake-out happening outside, right this minute.  We have still had no hard frost, but it is indeed November 14.  We are fast heading toward the darkest day of the year, even though many of us have made plans to be outside after 5:00 today in a darkness that will come as a big surprise, starting around 4:30.  I love it when the seasons change because I am never ready for their reality.  Grace Goodman—and those of us who mourn with her this afternoon at the abrupt and unseasonable loss of her partner—could be our guide here.  Many of us are seasonally challenged, but more deeply, we are spiritually challenged.

Spiritual challenge is when we are not ready for what comes next, even though we know what comes next; whatever it is, is coming.  I marvel at our lack of preparation for life, not to mention our lack of preparation for death.  In my current world as pastor at Judson, I have contradictory experiences all day long.  Those of you who are younger have a favorite subject.  In one shape or another, the conversation goes like this:  I wonder what will happen to me when I grow up.  Where will I settle down and with whom?  When will I settle down and with whom?  Must I settle it down?  Is settling down and being at home in a self, as a person, as a something or other, as boring as it looks?  I always tell people that it is truly impossible to settle down, that even those of us with cats and dogs and mortgages and grandchildren and positions are barely settled.  We represent the other side of the conversation.  Those of us who are older also have a favorite subject, which is when will we be startled again?  Who or what will yank us out of our routines?  The settled want to be shaken up and the shaken want to be settled.  Of course there are those of us who are wiser than the shakeup-leaning settled and the settled-leaning shaken up.  Some of us, when children, spoke like children, and when adults, spoke like adults—but for the most part we are each and all spiritually challenged by clumsiness at seasonal living.  In fall, we want spring.  In spring, we want fall.  The root of our shared spiritual challenge is seasonal allergy.  We sneeze our ways through the seasons rather than breathing through them.  My blessed 26-year-old daughter is with me for five minutes and launches into a familiar conversation about her future: Where, Mom, she will ask me (as if I knew), will I end up?  The challenge, spiritually, is not to end up anywhere.  The second you get comfortable in spring, summer will come.  The second you get comfortable in summer, fall will come.  And winter has a definite inevitability.

When I talk about spiritual challenge, I first want to name the flow of the seasons, and not just the flow but also their cyclicality.  They go in a circle.  Never keep your sweater or your bathing suit too far away.  Paul Ricœur has challenged St. Paul’s letter to the people at Corinth for a long time, with his notion of the Second Naïveté.  Second Naïveté is an adult capacity for the wonder of the child.  What spiritually capable people understand is cyclicality.  We understand that the adult longs for the child with the same vigor that the child longs for the adult.  Thus, whenever anyone tells you to grow up, please refuse.  Whenever anyone tells you to lighten up, refuse.  Spiritual maturity is an ability to follow the orders of the seasons, not the society.  The seasons advise flow.  The society advises stasis.

We don’t need French philosophers like Ricœur or apostles like St. Paul to underline this point.  String theory can also help.  Brian Greene, the author of The Elegant Universe, tells us that physics is desperate for a unifying theory of physics, which theory will help us unite the theories we have about the big stuff and the microbial stuff.  So far, such a theory does not exist.  Mercifully, we have failed so far to unify the theory of the physical world.  We have also, equally mercifully, failed to unify the theory of the spiritual world.  Both remain as achingly open-ended as the minute hand on my digital watch.  One way to really understand Americans is to note that we all wear a timepiece on our body.  People of yore used to meet up in either the morning or the afternoon, now we have a ten o’clock and a three o’clock, as if the earth was not moving, microbially as well as elegantly.  Physics has at least gotten this far.  A given factor warps the space around it.  The earth’s center moves through a warped curve in a spatial environment in a space-time continuum.  Even two small particles indent their environment in some way.  What happens in the ten o’clock impacts both you and the three o’clock.  Whether you brought your sweater matters, but it matters differently at different times.  And I’m not just talking about how much coffee you did or did not have.  The universe is incomplete because it has to be; because it is wildly undulating at all times, differently so in Indonesia than in Brooklyn.  Once we understand both space and time as alive, the laws of physics guarantee a definite uncertainty.  And I’m not just talking about Mr. Heisenberg and his fabulous principle of uncertainty.  Spiritual people also cherish fabulous uncertainty.  We think it is real.  We understand that there almost have to be multiple universes, some by the great splat, some by the big bang, some by the bounce of the strings against each other.  Some by the fire and some by the rain; some by the splat and some by the bang.

If even two microbial particles can indent their universe and rearrange it, so can we and so do we, no matter our age or our season or our state.

There are Pauline implications to this open-ended seasonality for the spiritually challenged—who, by the way, are always going to be spiritually challenged, and if they are not, they need to go listen to Bob Dylan’s great song.  Does anybody really know what time it is?  Does anybody really care?  Since we cannot know what time it is, even in our own time zone, the second question is what matters.  How do we indent the universe with something like caring?  How do we hear St. Paul tell us about love, whether we speak as a child or as an adult or as a person granted the joy of a second naïveté?  By the way, you don’t have to be old to need a second naïveté.  I have known teenagers who could use a big dose of the same.

Caring, or what Paul calls love, is a positive indentation of the universe.  Loving makes the strings vibrate with more fun and less violence, more life and less death.  I could start with the Iraqis killing Christians.  That is a definite indentation in the universe.  None dares call it good.  I know Christians have also killed Iraqis.  Those who are spiritually challenged will get rigid about revenge.  Those who are spiritually seasonal will try to stop the big chill.  I could talk about Aung San Suu Kyi’s freedom as of yesterday.  Spiritually naïve people, those who are fresh with the wonder of it all, will wonder if she is really free.  They will also wonder if she was ever really bound.  Many people who have never been imprisoned for anything are in their own jail.  Many people give house arrest new meaning, even though the doors to their condo are wide open, when they are not locked and paying $24.99 for their own electronic security systems.  I could also name not just the Iraqis or the Burmese but our president, who went to one of his homes this past week.  There he said in one of many Indonesian dialects the motto of the UCC, that we are all one.  His dialect says it like this: from many isolations, one unity.  Ah, isolated unity.  Unified isolation.  These are matters of the second naïveté, the mixture of child and adult, that we all covet.  There is nothing like either the brutal honesty of a child or the phoniness of an adult who can afford the truth.  There is also nothing like the United States being told that it is one of many economies, many cultures, and that its childish wish to win the game is absurd.  Thank you, President Obama, for refusing imperialism of language and behavior abroad this week.

Closer to home, wherever that is, let me apply the indentation of caring or love to our life together, here, today, as we float through our Stewardship season.  Many of you have already filled out a pledge card.  Thank you.  Those of you who have not—and who may want to be a grown up with childlike tendencies—might consider this theory of charitable giving.  Many people give lots of money away, whether to the musicians in the park or the college of your past or to family members or friends who are in trouble.  This episodic giving has a fine-tuned resemblance to string theory in its chaotic and multiple vibrations.  It is alive to the bumpy nature of the universe.  More sophisticated givers choose their charity as a long-term commitment, more akin to marriage than to dating.  We pick out one or two charities and sustain them for a lifetime.  Forgive the pun, but that way we get more bang for our buck.  Intelligent giving supports one or two institutions and uses them to make an impact on the world, not just an indentation.  I hope you will consider impact and not just indent in your giving.  Enough said.

Please note that I am not saying that marriage is better than partnership or singleness or even bounciness.  I am saying that spiritually challenged people are allowed focus instead of fragmentation, if they want it.  We are allowed to choose the focus of caring, what Paul calls love—a thing that tries to stick in our hearts over time.  Some of us choose one person and call that settled.  Others choose several and call that sane.  As we each move through the life strings of settled and startled, young and old, we will want to avoid being strung along.  We will want to string.  There is a difference.  Strung along is a passive response to wave and particle theory.  Stringing along is an active one.

I want to take one more look at that now old cliché, which we still hear way too much.  It is this one: “I am spiritual but not religious.”  Harvey Cox preached a great sermon on the subject earlier this year, when he likened that cliché to wanting to have sex without having the wet spot.  Many people want spiritual joy without the wet spot or the indentation on the bed.  Most religions have attacked sex outside of marriage with a kind of moralistic judgment that is an embarrassment to genuine adulthood.  Not to mention that it doesn’t involve love or caring, just self-protection and self-loathing.  One way you can tell how spiritually challenged a person is involves the amount of judgment they have in their loathing hearts toward others.  Genuine childishness is the blaming of others for what hurts in you or confuses you.  Having said that, there is another form of immaturity here.  It involves us in the refusal to indent or to care or to stick or to string.  Religious people build strings of meaning and budget and meetings and memorial services and sacraments in such a way as to uphold each other.  We “marry.”  We plop ourselves in the soup pot and get a good flavor out of our bones.  We become dense.  We become rich.  We choose to love each other and to care for each other.  We lean toward love.  We pay attention to what strings us together and every now and then belt out a good “Blessed Be the Ties that Bind.”  We teach hymns to our children.

Spiritual people pay attention to their fishing lines and maintain their boats.  They tie good knots and hang good hooks. Then they go fishing.  Sam Kestenbaum, a lobsterman in Maine, wrote of observing “Yom Kippur at Sea” in the New York Times, September 14, 2010:  “It wasn’t boat work but it was work—a kind of repair, a checking of the knots and wiring, refueling for another year.”

We are all spiritually challenged.  There is no cliché to that.  We are all spiritually challenged, and the more we learn to love and maintain our lines, the more challenged we know we are.  We understand that there are seasons in which we need to hold tight and seasons when we need to let go.  There are seasons to be grown up (which is almost always said with a pointed finger) and there are seasons in which we can lighten up and look for the nearest park with the nearest swing.  When I was a child, I spoke like a child and acted like a child, but when I became an adult I put away childish things… so that I could indent the universe with something like love—and every now and then pick up childish things again so I could be an adult again, and be a child again and be an adult again.  Second Naïveté?  Not enough for people as challenged as we.  We need multiple naïvetés. We need one after another, as spring becomes summer and fall becomes winter and winter becomes spring. 

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