From Fuzzy to Focused: Based in a Buffet of Scriptures on the Words we Use

April 06, 2014

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

This sermon is about the importance of aim. I used to start it – yes preachers repeat ourselves – with the analogy to an airplane pilot knowing where he or she was going when they take off in the air. Now that we have a missing airplane or possibly a found downed aircraft, it is a little harder to make the point. Everybody keeps wondering why we can’t stop talking about Flight 370, the Malaysian airplane. The answer is obvious. Way too many of us have taken off and been hijacked, or made mistakes, nowhere more so than in the act of self-expression and self-direction. We get hijacked by our prejudices, our stale ideas, the ones that follow us around, undigested and unexpressed. But still the importance of aim persists. It is very nice to know where you are going and then to arrive there. You might even call the take off and landing at the intended place happiness. Or focus. In good writing we take off at fuzzy and land at focused. I’m adding a new analogy to this sermon which preaches the virtue of the word “aim” or the word “target” or “destination” with a pitching analogy. A good pitcher aims for home plate. A less able pitcher or writer throws the bull and hits first base. Or third base. A good writer hits a target. A less able writer starts off fuzzy and lands at a fuzzy destination. Some of us self-hijack.

Why do I want to talk about writing as a spiritual practice? Because in the beginning was the word and the word was God. The word came from God and went to God. Or because this is true: when we write it down well we make it plain.

So many of you are writers. So many of you earn a living by words, whether you write songs or brochures, essays or sign checks. Spiritual writing is writing plus spirit, not more and certainly not less. Spiritual writing connects the inward aim of what’s left of the you with the outer aim of what wants to be you. You know what you are trying to say to the world, like God did in creation, and you say it.

Hear some examples. The first is the naming of the faith that we have. It is no accident that we are having an exquisitely interesting time figuring out the words to go on the scaffolding. Yes, Virginia, the scaffolding is going up, probably the day after Easter, which is two weeks from today. Easter comes regularly the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. Because we want to make sure the public knows we are still here when the scaffolding goes up, we want to put words on the scaffolding that says what we are doing. We need to brand this first phase of our reconstruction. Leading contenders for the sign are Judsoning, the verb, which means innovating and fusing art, religion and politics. Or putting our “good past into a glorious future”. Or the standard which you all have seen too much: “a church that is a little bit different, trying to make a big difference.” Or some other contenders: “Vintage Wine, Uncorked, again. “ Or “the little church that could.” Or “Closing down to open up.” Or “a living breathing church precariously percolating along.” “Iconic Titanic refuses to sink.” “Judson the verb, Judson renowned.” “Emerging again.” “Still crazy after all these years.” “Unchurching one soul at a time.” A continuing popular idea is just to do a raparound message with many of the words that say what we do here: worship, theater, magic time, music, politics, art, fusions of all of the above. You get the drift. There are even some better ones hidden deep in the sacred bowels of the Google Drive. It is not too late for you to improve on our aim or our destination for the scaffolding. Just let me or Christine or Ted Dawson know your ideas. New additions for the web version of the sermon: Undergoing resurrection, Mandated renovation. Rejuvenation is never over. I mean your words. We are on a search, as writers, to briefly describe ourselves. We are an airplane taking off and want to tell ourselves and our publics where we are going. We are pitchers taking aim at home plate. The Nation magazine says that “it drives transformative ideas into politics. Time to keep the watch fires burning. It says it is a “Journalistic alert system, warning of dangers too often invisible to even the most alert coastal dweller.” Gore Vidal said this of the Nation. Ben and Jerry say that they are about peace, justice and ice cream. Branding is writing. It is just very hard writing because it is more for the outsider who loves to judge than the insider who loves to speak quietly.

If that branding exercise is too much what you feel like you have to do every day, consider another one. The best literature around here is often Roland’s signs. They are changed frequently. Roland, most of you know, as our beloved custodian for umpty years. He puts up signs to protect the sacred space of Judson. They appear out of nowhere and are written in his hand. “Keep off.” Is his favorite. “Do not touch,” his second favorite. They express a lot of what it is like to live at Judson where we cohabit with dozens of others, many of whom drink our coffee and use our napkins and leave out their pizza boxes, as though they really did want to feed the mice.

Or, if you don’t want to write communally with vigor or protect the sacred space of this place, go straight to the most important personal spiritual practice of all. It is the writing down of your personal mission statement. Are you here to make money or to fulfill your obligations? Or does the planet enjoy the presence of your breathing genome because you have come to earth to improve it? Or enjoy it? Or to improve and enjoy it? Or to leave a mark or give someone your word? I just had a great conversation with my grandson who is five and had been told in school that the most important thing he could do is keep his word. You know what that means, right? Keeping your word is a promise. It may be as small and literary as returning the truck when your turn is up so somebody else can play with it. But it is a promise. Some of us came to earth to make promises to tend and befriend something or someone else, even if it is a toy truck.

In a debate I heard yesterday about whether or not Russia is a marginal power, Peter Hitchens and Robert Blackwell turned a big argument into an interesting one. One debater said that Russia was so important in the making of sugar beets that without it there would be no Borscht. That was a very clever use of words. The other debater said that you must not know the difference between a nuke and a sugar beet. In most of our use of words, the spirit is edged out by the clever. We have a hard time getting to self-definitions or international definitions. Writing, the spiritual and the pre-spiritual kind, is very hard, since so much of life is threatened by the spiritual and is basically self-positioning so the other doesn’t have a chance to take us out.

Real power is the power to make positive impact. Real power is the capacity to disrupt. There is a crucible and a crucialness, to being a power. You know you are a power by whether or not other people take you seriously. You know you are a power by what other people get away with saying about or to you. Whether other people want to copy you or emigrate to you. Or by Click testing: did they read or share?

Spiritual writing and reading is about comprehension as well as positioning. It is whether the truth of what is being said or not being said is sinking in to the soul. Lots of people know good writing – like the scriptures Allen just read – the way they know art. I ‘ll know it when I see it. Or the other cliché, “I know what I like.” People may not remember much of what fuzzy things you said but they will know how they feel when they are around you. They will know whether your words or kind or coy.

The left will be known by what it is for as well as what it is against. We are not that kind of Christian. How many times have we said that? Don’t we need to say something more than save the library or stop the budget or stop fracking? Don’t we need to describe the religion that deeply changes all our clocks or finds the trap door at the bottom of the well? When you are around good writing or good speaking or a genuinely spiritual use of words, you experience some kindness. A window opening. A star darting. You don’t just know what kind of fish you are buying. You connect to your inner fish. You stop being a fish out of water. When you buy an oyster, you get an ecosystem.

If I could tell you how to write down your words to make them plain, I would. But I can’t. It is more like picking a hat to wear, one that you like than it is about any kind of performance. I hope you liked the video!

You have to wear your hat in your way, whether in an email or a letter or on a napkin on the table at your next meal. I only want to urge you to leave the land of the great unexpressed or undigested life and urge you to give your life to something.

John Updike spoke often of “The self-serving corruption of fiction. He also exempted himself from normal intra familial controversy and courtesy and wrote about his loved ones in a way that scared them. David, son of John Updike, said “his writing had to take precedence over his relations with real people…….he was scribbling for his life.” In Updike’s Olinger stories, when Allen leaves behind both his girlfriend and his mother, he does it because he has to. He leaves his relatives behind spiritually. More good writing would come if more of us were less hijacked by our pasts. Or by our audiences. “I really think being interviewed is a great waste of time and energy. It Leaves you feeling embarrassed or at least like you should clean your fingernails.” When Updike said this, he was pointing us to the place beyond audience where a lot of good writing occurs.

Good writing may be long or short. It may or may not have lots of verbs or “show, don’t tell.” It will surely be edited over and over and over. Nobody gets it right the first time. The writing advice surely applies to life and living: for every hour you regurgitate material onto a screen or page, spend an hour editing it. In good writing you can always find the Seed or nugget. You always have a flight plan. You always know what kind of pitch you want to throw to what kind of batter. Aren't we glad we are failing at the sign project?

Now that writing is more about the Internet than the book, we are noticing new ways to write. They are equally spiritual. A pencil is a pencil is a keyboard is a pen. Listen to how Upworthy describes itself: it is trying to be a cross between 60 minutes and the Reader’s Digest and a very responsive socially TV morning show Composition in crystallization in such a way as to have power, so that others read it and see you and themselves in it.

My nephew Chris stopped thinking about his audiences when he said he was tired of people being so “Judgey.” That was a good use of a word. Body Varty has written a book called “The Cathedral of the Wild.” In it he gives the rules for safari. “When we do the stalkie, no talkie.” Again another good use of words. In the Miami Poetry Project, where poetry is taken out of the salon into the streets, more poets have been discovered than anybody thought existed. Crude and naive trust in those wielding economic power. Thus says the pope in which we have hope. Weavers write when they insert the deliberate flaw in the Navajo rug they are making. Eat love pray author Elizabeth Gilbert said, after her second novel failed, “find something you love more than yourself and go there. That is all that is needed.”

Spiritual writing is not about readers or clicks although there is nothing like someone else seeing you for who you are, as you are. It is about writing. Don’t overdo it. Don’t become the prisoner of your flight pattern or your pitching training. Sometimes you get to go where the words take you. You can over function and over plan when it comes to writing. You can also over edit. Susan Lewis, an art historian, said that she had “Target panic.” She studies archery. She went on to say that the secret to personal mastery is to learn to love an “almost hit” or a “near win.” The longer we try to become perfect as writers or people, the longer we will endure target panic and refuse to enjoy what the archer enjoys, which is getting close to where we wanted to be. “Converting success into mastery is learning to appreciate the almost win.” There is no problem in this world that you can’t make worse, including trying hard to have spiritual mastery over words. There is nothing so perfect as imperfectionism.

Also there is nothing like a good existential crisis to help you find your words and keep your word to find your words. One of you has been unemployed a long time. You said you feel like a beggar in a jail, banging your tin cup on the bars. Another said, I am just a ship in a bottle. And I have lasted longer than any LED battery. A third wished for a time when the word sanctuary – after 2 million have been deported – could return to meaning a dusty old place with pews. Many of you will travel the land from psalm to twitter this week. You will find a way to distinguish the read from the unread, the heard from the unheard, and the urgent from the important. You will write another good letter beginning with “To Whom It May Concern,” and hope that there is a whom with concern somewhere. Perhaps you will keep your Lent by spending a day saying nothing that doesn’t need saying at all. Your own spiritual practice of writing may be to stay quiet as a way to clear. What is most important is the clearing. There you hold tight gently to what matters to you. And there is nothing is more beautiful than a blank sheet of paper. Or more scary than a lost airplane. Or absurd as a pitcher pitching to third base. And if all your other words fail, you can always sing “Come MY Way, MY Truth, MY Life. Or “sing them over again to me, wonderful words of life.”


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