Coming Out of the Great Stagnation

Ancient Testimony - Isaiah40:1-5

November 28, 2010

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

Stagnation is the place where you stag.  A whole nation can stag, yielding stagnation.  A whole person can stag, causing stag-person.  Stag is often considered something toxic, unholy, lacking moxie or merit.  I am not so sure.  Staying in one place is not so bad, especially if you don’t know where you are going or where you are coming from.  Motion without destination is just motion.  Motion without origin is just motion.  Until you know where you are coming from or where you are going, motion is just motion.  Yvonne Rainer knew how to say no to that kind of motion,1 which has neither destination nor diagnosis.  Maybe we can learn, too.  Please Hug Me – I’ve Been Delayed is the title of a new book.  Maybe it would be good for this sermon, too.

Many of us have a home we want to get over.  I am not talking psychologically or geographically so much as spiritually.  The home used to be called original sin.  I prefer the newer language of original unworthiness, a sense that we owe somebody something and if we could just pay off the debt then we could be at home.  We imagine we have to earn home. We imagine that we are in serious debt to Almighty God, when the truth is precisely the opposite.  We are not in debt to Almighty God, nor to each other, nor to the banks, nor to the credit card companies; not even to the subtle advertisers who assure us that the right kind of Water Pik would get the dentist off our backs.  We are here, in the great new sound bite of Christine Quinn, to love love and hate hate.  And that’s it.

Social psychologist Brené Brown argues that one diagnosis crosses all classes and races of Americans.  The diagnosis is unworthiness.  We really don’t think we deserve the tender peace of being in a circle, surrounded by a little light.  We have a sense of foreboding when it comes to joy.  What happens if it arrives?  What will we do to deserve it?  Can we kiss it as it flies?  Might it not come back?  Thank you, Bill Stabile, for putting us in this tender circle.  I hope you have noticed that you are inside an Advent wreath.  You are not looking at it; you are in it.  Thank you, also, John La Farge for going to Tahiti in order to give light to color.  Thanks also for not being as famous as Tiffany and for refusing to make stained-glass lamps.  Thank you for surrounding us with your sense of purple.  Right now we are inside an Advent wreath and inside La Farge’s version of purple.  We deserve to be here.  This is one of our spiritual homes.  I am sure some of you are only worthy of less light and color… because you have been bad or stuck or stagging.  Today I only want you to embrace your stagnation and notice just how lovely it is to be here, doing very little, actively, with each other.  You come from this home.  You may also go to it.  Right now you are in it.  This meeting room, which some call a sanctuary, and others know as just a place of strong connection, is yours.  You deserve to be here.  You are not stagnating here.  You are not in motion here.  You are at rest, at home.  Think Alpha and Omega and you will know what I mean.  You can’t stagnate if you are already home.  And you can’t stagnate if you are where you were trying to get.  Origin: connection.  Destination: connection.  Origin: connection, of which you are worthy.  Destination: connection, of which you are worthy.  Worthy connection.

Many of us will spend the day doing something to make us worthy of the connection we already have.  We think we can only be accepted and loved if we are perfect.  So we keep trying to get better, which of course only worships the shame.   Shame, says Brené Brown, is the full-body experience that we might not be worthy of connection.  Since most of us fundamentally want connection, the fear that we are not worthy of it is paralyzing.  So we look busy.  Or we appear motivated.  And we stagnate.

We might enjoy a different verb for our life.  We might enjoy the verb “to prepare” instead of the verb “to arrive.”  We can enjoy that verb once we accept the truth that we are worthy.  Worthy of this wreath, this attempt to color glass with light; worthy of each other, worthy of being here, now.  We can imagine our debt is paid, our term complete.  We no longer owe anyone anything.  We are not stagnating when we are not moving.  We are here, now, already, and not later.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, cry to her that her warfare is over.  Her penalty is paid.  What is the alternative to stagnation?  It is not motion.  It is preparation for a great time.  It is being in the now as you prepare; not in the anxious then, but in the peaceful now.  It is knowing that God’s time is already here.

When it comes to Thanksgiving, I like the preparations more than the feast.  I like clipping the recipes and imaging just how good the pumpkin pie crust will be with ground ginger added to it—and wondering who will notice the difference first.  When it comes to religion, I like Advent much better than Christmas.  It is soft and purple, gradual and glowing, whereas Christmas is often an overstated plop of pleasing others and hoping you will be pleased.  There are two other things I like that most other people don’t.  One is taxes.  I love paying taxes and know that most people don’t.  I’ll save the tax affection for Christmas, when all the world goes to be taxed and usually in more ways than one.  The second thing I love that most people don’t is administration.  I love getting ready for things, building the scaffold, amending the soil, deciding what I really want out of the meeting or the garden or the campaign.  I like preparation and I like clean up.  They make a whole out of parts.

I also like vulnerability.  It seems like the right place from which to start.  I do administer for strength, pay taxes for strength, hope for leaders with strength.  I like the memory of union organizer Clara Lemlich, who finally said she had no more patience for talk and organized a significant resistance.  Not a complete or totally successful resistance but a significant resistance. I like the strength of Yvonne Rainer’s no, as read in the text today, but I also think it sounds an awful lot like Protestantism’s no, the one that says, “We don’t know who we are really but we know we are not you.”  That vulnerability is usually a good place to start.  From there you can rise and shine.  You can remember that your debts are paid, that you are caught up with life.  From that great place of grace—the place beyond the shame that all your demonstrations didn’t achieve full justice for all—you can get into some serious preparation.  You can make a highway in the desert for your God.  You can level the playing field and see the small people lifted up and the big people brought down.

Right now, there is a kind of paralysis that extends to our own personal welcome of vulnerability.  We sense that we live in a great stagnation—and it bothers us.  We don’t really want each other to know just how vulnerable we feel.  Many of us are much more concerned about our public parts being groped than our private parts being groped.  We don’t have a cogent point of view on the debt or the deficit or the cholera in Haiti or the nuclear capacity approaching Korea.  We both wish for stronger leadership but aren’t sure we want it to go too far.

We sit here today in the middle of an Advent wreath.  Bill made it to enclose us and to let us be a part of it.  As the decorations in the stores start to look pale and peaked, we have just begun to light.  We are people of the middle way, the steps, the gradual emergence of the light.  While we love preparation, we also know that we are already here, right where we need to be.  We know that our penalty has been paid, that tenderness prevails for us and for all.  We are part of the Jerusalem that only looks like it is getting ready for peace.  Peace is already here. 

We are also surrounded by the light John La Farge saw when he went to Tahiti at age 55: 

[I]nspired by the novels of Herman Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson and accounts of explorers like Captain James Cook and Louis Antoine de Bougainville, Mr. La Farge set off on a yearlong journey to the islands of the South Pacific with his friend Henry Brooks Adams, historian and descendant of two American presidents.  

The works he made during that year serve as the basis of “John La Farge’s Second Paradise: Voyages in the South Seas, 1890-1891” at the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven . . . Mountains in the volcanic islands are painted in layered pinks and purples, the sea in blue, green and lavender . . . The atmosphere of the tropics had a powerful impact on Mr. La Farge, whose preferred métier, stained glass, relies on illuminating color with light . . . Mr. La Farge wrote to his son from the South Pacific, “Nothing is ever pale, there is color everywhere.” . . . Mr. Adams backed up Mr. La Farge’s observations in his own letter home: “The only trouble is that no painter that ever lived could begin to catch the lights and colors,” he wrote. “But La Farge makes wonderful purple attempts to do it, though he knows how absurd it is.”2

By the way, La Farge went to Tahiti because he “wished to go very far.  Japan is too near. They have the telegraph there.”  Many American heroes—like Rainer and La Farge and Lemlich—felt they had to do something to make the world more just, more beautiful, more free.  We are so very glad for their gifts to us, in justice, in light, in movement.  While I may be arguing here for stagnation, and I am, I am also grateful for those who create bridges for us in the middle of the middle of our connection with each other.  I am grateful for effort as well as for grace.  But finally, I like it here, with you, with me here with you.  It feels tender and purple.  It feels like the warfare might actually be ended.  Amen.




1Yvonne Rainer, “No Manifesto,” 1965. Can be read at

2 Martha Schwendener, “The Pinks and Purples of an Exotic Eden,” The New York Times, 12 November 2010

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