Expecting the Unexpected
One of my favorite definitions: a minister is a person who tells you what you need to hear. What I’m going to say this morning is in some ways an act of self-ministry; it is what I need to hear. But I can do that in my bathroom mirror; I wouldn’t be preaching it if I didn’t think it is also what you need to hear.
What we all need to hear on this Columbus Day weekend 2019 is to expect the unexpected. We are at a tender time in the course of national events and that uncertainty is mirrored in our life in this congregation, when you have a ministerial transition ahead of you and in my own life, when I have a congregational transition looking me in the face.
You hear the phrase “expect the unexpected” so much it becomes a cliche. Bob Dylan has a quote which points out the logical problem with this saying: “Doesn’t expecting the unexpected make the unexpected expected?”
Logically, yes, but the advice to expect the unexpected is not based on logic. It’s based on emotion. We develop expectations about the future, what’s going to happen; we get emotionally invested in that expectation. Then when what we expected doesn’t happen, but rather something else happens, we often experience shock, sadness, perhaps a sense of loss and dislocation. And that’s why conventional wisdom urges us to expect things might happen differently from what we expect.
This is illustrated by the story of Columbus. When I was growing up, we learned in school about how glorious it was that Columbus “discovered” the New World. We might have expected to keep on celebrating this glorious event but now we know too much about the cost of his conquest to the native inhabitants of the Carribean.
I am reminded of my fresh man year at Yale in 1966. You may know that Italians are a major part of population of New Haven – they even claim to have invented the pizza there. A year before I arrived on campus, Yale’s rare book library announced a new acquisition, the Vinland Map, a map of the known world supposedly from before Columbus’ voyage which had a mysterious body of land out west of Greenland identified on the map as Vinland. This lent some support to the idea that the Viking Leif Ericsson, rather than the Italian Christoforo Columbo, had been the first European to reach the New World. New Haven’s Columbus Day parade in 1966 took on an ominous tenseness as it marched through streets by the university; though there were no ugly incidents, there were a few provocative signs in the crowd.
Well, we know an awful lot more about Columbus now than we did then, and if Columbus has been dethroned as a hero, Leif Ericsson had nothing to do with it. The authenticity of the map has been debated among scholars for decades, but the dethroning of Columbus is not related to the map. It is related to scholarship, and it is perhaps fitting that a Yale professor, Edmund Morgan, summarizes what we know about Columbus’s mind-set in the essay from which I just read, which was published in Smithsonian magazine about ten years ago.
Psychologists tell us that what we perceive about the world is greatly influenced by what we expect to see. This is borne out by the experience of Columbus and the other European explorers of the so-called Age of Discovery. Columbus wanted to find a shorter route to the “Indies,” by which he meant India, Japan and China, which had been described in books he had read.
One of the his sources was Marco Polo, and Marco Polo actually had travelled in Asia and had met the Great Khan. He described some of the people of the region, including the warlike cannibals of the island of Nangama and the peaceful residents of the island of Discorsia who were entirely naked.
Columbus thought he could reach the Indies by sailing west from Spain. He was right, but he had no idea of the land mass that he would encounter first, or the distance he would have to sail to really reach the Far East. He compounded his mistake by typecasting the native peoples he encountered to fit his mistaken assumption he was in the Indies. He encountered the Arawak people on the island he named Espanola (which we now call Hispaniola, shared by modern day Haiti and the Domincan Republic) and from their nakedness and their very peaceful ways and gentle demeanor he decided they were the Discorsians that Marco Polo had described. He also believed that they had a vast store of gold, and he set about making them produce it, when in fact they had very little. He also typecast the other native population, the Caribs, as the cannibalistic Nangamans dscribed by Polo. The Caribs were fierce fighters, and kept the Europeans at bay with poisoned arrows, but there is no reliable evidence they were cannibals.
Professor Morgan’s essay details the atrocities visited on both native populations by Columbus and the Spanish colony he founded on Hispaniola. There was a mutiny of the Spaniards against Columbus in 1499 and after that the Arawaks were each assigned to individual settlers.
The goal of the Spaniards was to get gold out of the natives, but in fact the island had little gold, so the natives had no way to meet the demands of the settlers. Over the years, the Arawaks simply died of the stress and quit having children.
Why did this calamity happen ? A Spanish cleric of the time sympathetic to the Arawak calls it greed. But Morgan thinks that is too simple an explanation. Of course we have sympathies with the Arawak, but that’s not the whole story.
“That the Indians were destroyed by Spanish greed is true. But greed is simply one of the uglier names we give to the driving force of modern civilization. We usually prefer less pejorative names for it. Call it the profit motive, or free enterprise, or the work ethic, or the American way, or, as the Spanish did, civility. Before we become too outraged at the behavior of Columbus and his followers, before we identify ourselves too easily with the lovable Arawaks, we have to ask whether we could really get along without greed and everything that goes with it. Yes, a few of us, a few eccentrics, might manage to live for a time like the Arawaks. But the modern world could not have put up with the Arawaks any more than the Spanish could. The story moves us, offends us, but perhaps the more so because we have to recognize ourselves not in the Arawaks but in Columbus and his followers.”
Now you may think we’ve gone far afield from the sermon topic here: expecting the unexpected. But really this story is one of trying to make a non-European population conform to European expectations of who they are. Morgan concludes that the Arawaks died “ not merely from cruelty, torture, murder and disease, but also, in the last analysis, because they could not be persuaded to fit the European conception of what they ought to be.”
Where are we? I said I wanted to talk about expecting the unexpected because we are bombarded in our public life with an ongoing saga which has so many twists and turns that we often don’t know which end is up, but also because we, you and I, here in this congregation, have got to face an event which we know is coming, which we expect, and then face a future which contains significant elements of the unexpected.
All I need to say at this point about the national scene is that unexpectedness has become a tool of public relations. We are all awash in information and, as I will preach on next week, we are all too easily distracted. As we sang in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, “keep your eyes on the prize.” The day’s news may throw us surprise after surprise, but take it in and look for patterns behind the sensationalism. There are plenty of people at work in this country trying to bring about justice. Pay attention to the builders, not the destroyers.
We get our information about the world from the news media. And on any given day, the media have dozens of stories that they might run. The editors try to figure out which ones people will be interested in. And our expectations, our assumptions about the way the world is, will be a factor. The old adage about the news business says, “if a dog bites a mand, that’s not news; if a man bites a dog, that’s news.”
Yesterday I heard an item on NPR that yoga teachers in New York City are trying to form a union. Now if you had asked me when I got up yesterday what sort of stories I was expecting to hear about, unionizing yoga teachers would not have made my top 100 guesses.
The point is that in professional journalism, whether broadcast or in print or online, novelty is often an important factor in deciding which stories get aired or printed. And if we pay attention only to the novel stories, we will develop a sense that nothing is connected, that everything is new and it’s too much for our elderly brains to figure out.
That’s why the good journalistic outlets take care to balance the novelty stories with stories which connect what has just happened to things you already know. The New York Times, Washington Post and NPR are very good about this. They have lots of analysis and opinion pieces they run alongside the hard news, trying to go beneath the surface to connect the headlines to what’s going on deeper down.
What is it to “expect” something, after all?
I’m tempted to say that to have expectations you have to have a sense of time, and particularly a sense of the future. But I don’t think dogs have a sense of time, and it has been awhile since I have owned one, but my experience has been that if a dog owner walks over to where the dog’s leash is hanging or where his tennis balls are stored, the dog will develop a strong sense that you’re about to take him out on an excursion. Granted, the dog is not looking very far into the future, but doesn’t his excitement count as an expectation?
But for us humans, the question of expecting anything is tied up with a future. And the thing that distinguishes the future from the past and present is that we can’t fully know it. We can’t know exactly what the future holds for the UU Meeting House. We know the plans that have been made for my retirement, and that implies that there will be a ministerial transition of some kind. I have lived through ministerial transitions as a minister and as a layperson, and many of you have lived through them as laypeople.
A ministerial transition is a normal part of the life-cycle of a congregation. If we look beneath the surface, we see that a UU congregation is founded on congregational polity. That means, among other things, that the congregation stands on its own. The minister in our tradition does not own the congregation. The congregation holds all the property and calls or dismisses ministers as it wishes.
This congregation is less than fifty years old, but you have been through two major ministerial transitions. The first one occurred with a great deal of dissension, when the congregation had gotten polarized, and it took two interim ministries before this congregation was ready for another settled minister.
This time, there is little dissension; rather, the transition is driven by finances. While individual members have remained loyal and supportive of the congregation, your number has dwindled to the point that you can no longer afford a full-time minister, and unfortunately, the minister you have needs full-time compensation for a few more years.
So back in the beginning of this year, the lay leadership and I worked out a solution by which I would retire at the end of 2019 and free the congregation up to look for a part-time minister.
That is still happening. And some of the steps that would normally be taken have been taken. A survey has been conducted and the results are being tabulated. The first steps have also been taken to form a search committee. However, you may have noticed in this week’s e-blast that the plans for a search committee have been put on hold.
Now this is unexpected, and some people may get anxious, fearing that the future of the Meeting House is in doubt. Actually, what has happened is that the leadership has been focussed on the near term, on filling the pulpit during my sabbatical next spring. And they have reached an agreement with Tracy Johnson to preach once a month and to provide pastoral coverage for the congregation during that period from January to April.
This gives a little breathing room, and I am not surprised that, with the blessing of the UUA, the leadership has decided to put the search on hold for now. I don’t know what the future holds, but this unexpected move may be a good sign for this congregation.
We need to adjust our expectations and not be prisoner to them as Columbus was to his. You can’t live completely in the present without expectations, but the advice to expect the unexpected says keep your eyes wide open, always question your assumptions and be prepared to revise them in light of what you learn.
This has proven true in my own life. More than a quarter-century ago, my first wife and I found ourselves with an unexpected blessing: as our two children were approaching college age, we realized that they had educational funds, endowed by well-to-do relatives, which would carry them through college. We did not both need to continue practicing law. So we evolved a plan whereby I would enter training for the ministry and when I was finished with that, she would retire and devote herself to writing.
And that is what happened, except not in the way either one of us expected. The marriage came apart in the first year of divinity school; the reasons are not relevant here, but the point is that I would not have had the will to go into ministry if I had known the steep price I would have to pay, losing the one relationship I valued above all others.
In retrospect, the hardest thing about our divorce was putting aside the expectation that we would grow old together. Now we are both old, but we are with other people.
You can’t live without expectations, but you’ll be a lot happier in life if you hold your expectations lightly. When the unexpected happens, look to see whether it is a blessing in diguise. I did not grow old with my first wife, but I am growing old with my second, and I realize that my fortune is to have been married to two extraordinary women in one lifetime. I lost something precious and I also gained something precious.
Many of you have expressed to me how much you are going to miss me, and I have been deeply touched by your care. I will miss you all too. But if your expectation is that the next minister of the Meeting House has to be a clone of Edmund Robinson, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. I will say it right here: it is statistically unlikely in the extreme that the next minister of this congregation will play the banjo. Get over it. You can go on YouTube and find many clips of me playing the banjo as well as preaching sermons.
Last week we sang the hymn that says don’t be afraid of some change. Some change is painful, and each of us is going to die sometime anyway. But until our last breath comes, change is what keeps us alive and growing. Let us all learn to manage our expectations, to see the rose among the thorns. Amen.
Reading: “Columbus’ Confusion About the New World” by Edmund S. Morgan
Smithsonian Magazine October 2009
[Balboa, in 1513, had discovered the Pacific Ocean and in the course of his journey had killed a ferocious beast. When they brought it back to Spain, someone asked what beast it was. They said it was a tiger, but there were no tigers in Spain, and no one on the expedition had ever seen a tiger. They answered based on descriptions of tigers by ancient authors who had traveled to India. For, like Columbus, they assumed that the place they had been was the Indies.]
It was a good answer. Men, confronted with things they do not recognize, turn to the writings of those who have had a wider experience. And in 1513 it was still assumed that the ancient writers had had a wider experience than those who came after them.
Columbus himself had made that assumption. His discoveries posed for him, as for others, a problem of identification. It seemed to be a question not so much of giving names to new lands as of finding the proper old names, and the same was true of the things that the new lands contained. Cruising through the Caribbean, enchanted by the beauty and variety of what he saw, Columbus assumed that the strange plants and trees were strange only because he was insufficiently versed in the writings of men who did know them. "I am the saddest man in the world," he wrote, "because I do not recognize them."
We need not deride Columbus' reluctance to give up the world that he knew from books. Only idiots escape entirely from the world that the past bequeaths. The discovery of America opened a new world, full of new things and new possibilities for those with eyes to see them. But the New World did not erase the Old. Rather, the Old World determined what men saw in the New and what they did with it. What America became after 1492 depended both on what men found there and on what they expected to find, both on what America actually was and on what old writers and old experience led men to think it was, or ought to be or could be made to be.
During the decade before 1492, as Columbus nursed a growing urge to sail west to the Indies—as the lands of China, Japan and India were then known in Europe—he was studying the old writers to find out what the world and its people were like. ... Columbus was not a scholarly man. Yet he studied these books, made hundreds of marginal notations in them and came out with ideas about the world that were characteristically simple and strong and sometimes wrong, the kind of ideas that the self-educated person gains from independent reading and clings to in defiance of what anyone else tries to tell him.
The strongest one was a wrong one—namely, that the distance between Europe and the eastern shore of Asia was short, indeed, that Spain was closer to China westward than eastward. Columbus never abandoned this conviction. And before he set out to prove it by sailing west from Spain, he studied his books to find out all he could about the lands that he would be visiting. From Marco Polo he learned that the Indies were rich in gold, silver, pearls, jewels and spices. The Great Khan, whose empire stretched from the Arctic to the Indian Ocean, had displayed to Polo a wealth and majesty that dwarfed the splendors of the courts of Europe.
Polo also had things to say about the ordinary people of the Far East. Those in the province of Mangi, where they grew ginger, were averse to war and so had fallen an easy prey to the khan. On Nangama, an island off the coast, described as having "great plentie of spices," the people were far from averse to war: they were anthropophagi—man-eaters—who devoured their captives. There were, in fact, man-eating people in several of the offshore islands, and in many islands both men and women dressed themselves with only a small scrap of cloth over their genitals. On the island of Discorsia, in spite of the fact that they made fine cotton cloth, the people went entirely naked.