“A Place for Mystery”
I have a new bike! It is a Christmas present, albeit delivered early. The frame is sized to match my four-foot ten-inch and shrinking frame! And it has a new shifting system, new to me at least, different from my previous bicycle. The old bike had three sprockets and twenty-one gears, seven each. And I could shift from four to five to six on the middle sprocket or when my legs wouldn’t cooperate, from four to three to two on the smaller sprocket. And I could see the numbers on the shifting devices attached to my handlebars, so I always knew exactly where I was and how many options I had left before I needed to make a change enabling consistent pedaling power. The new bike has two sprockets, and I honestly don’t know how many gears are on each. The shifter is attached to my braking mechanism, and I can click the small lever to increase resistance and the brake lever to decrease resistance. And apparently there is a similar mechanism on the left side, which is for big hills, but the bike shop didn’t even want me to go there yet since I am still learning! But here’s the thing: I have no idea what gear I am in or how many I have left in either direction! It is a mystery to me! And I have to say that this was very disconcerting when I discovered it. How would I know when and how to shift? Turns out that my legs tell me when it is time! I am getting more comfortable with the whole idea, but this not knowing; this uncertainty; this trusting the system design without having so much control over it has struck me with some amount of unease. And the fact of that, honestly, has left me with even greater unease! It is an exercise in getting out of my head and into my body that I wasn’t expecting. And the thought that I have been preaching this message for four years and now realize that I am just as stuck as the next person is humbling.
Playwright, author and feminist activist, Eve Ensler, wrote about our need for security above all else as a nation and as a people, saying that total security is quite elusive and impossible to guarantee. When we make security the goal we will always be disappointed by the changeability of life itself. And we tend to isolate ourselves from differences or things that might challenge us for fear that we will be drawn off course. We cling to an identity that we are secure in and gravitate toward ‘us versus them’ thinking. “Real security,” she says, “is the ability to tolerate mystery, complexity, ambiguity.” There is security in being willing to admit when we don’t know something, in the fact that we can’t possibly know everything.i
In our story this morning read so beautifully by Gail, the little girl, Eva, realizes a few things: First and foremost is that it is perfectly okay to not know and that there is no shame in admitting that out loud. She also finds that not knowing is actually a doorway into wonder; that mystery is a good thing because it takes us from a place of certainty to a place of exploration, a constant spiraling of growth and learning as we open ourselves to the experience of it. And finally, she seems to suggest that not knowing can actually be fun because of the journey it presents us with.
Every time I get on my bike now, I am engaging my mystery muscle. I am forcing myself to rely less on my surety about shifting mechanics and to move with the natural flow of listening to my body and responding with curiosity – what will happen if I click twice or three times even? How will the resistance change? At what point will my legs tell me I need to turn back and let up the pressure? Exploring the range available to me – being okay with the mystery of numberless gears – I grow to trust uncertainty and I am finding that this mystery is truly fun, like Eva did.
As Unitarian Universalists we say two things – One, which is a part of our Article II Bylaw language, is that “As Unitarian Universalists, we proclaim that direct experiences of transcending mystery and wonder are a primary source of inspiration. These experiences open our hearts, renew our spirits, and transform our lives…” And two, that we are a faith of reason where we needn’t check science at the door. So, on the one hand we are all about this idea of Eva’s that mystery is a good thing which can inspire us to greater understanding and lead us on a path of experiential sensing where our hearts and spirits and lives can be enhanced. And on the other, there is this long line of belief dating back to the Enlightenment that creates in us an expectation of learned clergy and lots of head knowledge that explains the how and what and why of our lives. Some of you, no doubt, show up here on Sunday morning expecting me to lecture you on a topic that I have put countless hours of research into. And instead, you get me up here talking about the mystery of gear shifting that I have experienced! It is truly a paradox of our faith. We can get to the truth and meaning that we seek by following either path and our overemphasis on head knowledge can make us appear aloof or as if we think ourselves as holders of greater truths by virtue of how they were arrived at. We present as the “enlightened ones.” It sets us apart from more experiential traditions and while we make take solace in that, I am not convinced that it is always a good thing.
UCC minister Molly Baskette wrote that a friend told her they think the mainline church is suffering from an ecstasy deficit. Critics of a spontaneous extended gathering of Gen Z-ers sharing their faith suggested that the joy in their meeting was not to be trusted - emotion is not to be trusted! Church needs to be boring and seated in our pews with stern expressions trying to think our way into a sense of spirituality. Ecstasy – emotions – joy leave us vulnerable; better to stay “sober and thoughtful,” she says, “in control of all our faculties.”ii Does any of this sound familiar or hit home? We are a part of the frozen chosen, after all. What if we sang out with gusto, even if we didn’t know all the words or have time to think about whether we agreed with them or not? Wouldn’t Frank be so very pleased to hear you all, with all your imperfect pitch and slightly out of time cadence, singing to the rafters with joy in just being able to gather and sing together?!
Theoretical physicist Richard Feynman who explored quantum mechanics and the like suggests that it is much more interesting to live with not knowing than it is to have “THE ANSWERS” which could be wrong or are at least always in the process of change and flux. He seems to be saying that the journey rather than the destination is where it’s at. It can be scary though, to not know. Scary because we have prized knowing over not knowing in our culture for so long. There is a danger in this setting apart of the learned from the not and we see it played out time and again. Time was when we ensured this lack of knowledge was true for enslaved persons who were not permitted to learn how to read or afforded an education on par with the white population in our country. Our white supremacist forbears held this over those people of color, dictating that their not knowing would be destined thus ensuring their power over them. Knowledge has been equated with power in our culture for centuries now – head knowledge, not heart knowledge born of experience and an attunement with the body and the senses and the seasons and the rest of the living world like we talked about a couple of weeks ago.
Franciscan priest and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in New Mexico says that we seem to have an aversion to the idea of being awestruck. We limit ourselves with our resistance to the new, the amazing.iii We need to take our place as students and learners in life and especially in relationships. When we approach others with that level of appreciation for their difference, willing to be moved by their experience of life we can’t help but build connections that are healing. Each of us is a mystery contained in human form. Eva would have us enter into meaningful relationships through that door of mystery, wonder and awe for the incredible beings that we encounter along the way. Imagine if our ancestors here on the Cape had approached the Indigenous people already here through that lens. How might our circumstances have been different? Where might we be now?
The real question for us is “Where might we be now – if we let go of all our knowing and certainty about what was and what is and what needs to be and engaged some of the mystery just beyond the doorstep – the mystery of what might be if we stripped away all the pomp and circumstance and looked upon our future with awe and wonder. What if we let go of the fear associated with not knowing; let go of the power inherent in our culture of having all the answers tied up with a nice, neat bow; let go of our concern over what others might think if we suddenly moved outside the box? What if we took it as a challenge and an adventure, like Eva, and let the joy of discovery bubble up in our midst – things we never before imagined – unfolding before our eyes?
It is a mystery to me how when it seems like I have said all I want to say about a subject – have known all there is to know about it – some unseen force steps in take me a little further on the path. So came my sister-in-law as I was readying to break for lunch with two clean containers that I had sent Thanksgiving leftovers home with her in . . . and a book! It had been gifted to her and she thought I might like to look at it. Morning Altars by Day Schildkretiv is a beautifully illustrated chronicling of the process of creating altars – mandalas really – from nothing other than what we find along the way. A spiritual practice with a message for us!
We begin by wandering and wondering, turning the ordinary right before our eyes into something magical. He says we need to set an intention for the work, dedicating it to someone or something that holds ultimate meaning for us. We ground ourselves in a place and clean it off – a blank slate or canvas that we feel drawn to. The opening allows for new creative inspiration to flow in. And then we create – using the many different patterns and pieces that present themselves, whatever each one brings to the task. Once completed we share – get the word out about what we have created and what it meant to us to do so. Finally we let go – be willing to walk away with a capacity for unattachment, grace and change from what we have come to know in this moment as the next and the next and the next reveal themselves to us.
Today I invite you into mystery. I invite you into not knowing and its inspirational ability to move you as persons and as a people into the boundless realms that await you. I invite you to do the sometimes-scary work of leading from your heart for a while, see how it feels, see what it reveals. I invite you into a place of gratitude for the opportunity – the sacred potential – that exists in our midst.
Yesterday I took the bike out again and found my odometer not to be working. Oh no! How fast am I going? How far have I ridden? And then I laughed to myself – more not knowing! May it be so for you, too!
Rev. Tracy Johnson
UUMH Chatham, December 10, 2023
ii From “Glow 2023 Advent Devotional” produced by the God is Still Speaking Writer’s Group, The Pilgrim Press, Ohio, 2023: p 11.
iii Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation from the Center for Action and Contemplation; December 3, 2023
iv Morning Altars: A 7-Step Practice to Nourish Your Spirit through Nature, Art, and Ritual by Day Schildkret, The Countryman Press, A Division of W. W. Norton & Company, 2018.