"Our Friend, Ambiguity"
When I titled this sermon, “Our Friend, Ambiguity” I did so a little tongue in cheek. Generally speaking, ambiguity is not our friend. As human beings we are not fond of the ambiguous, the uncertain, the unknown. We like to be in control of things, our ego’s insisting that we must know and control where we are headed and further that we can get there on our own – the “pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps” mentality.
Just this week our Trans Allyship Workbook study group finished the book and our discussions turned to what is next. We have gathered and shared and discussed and read and reread and learned. We have a fresh understanding, and we are ready to put our newfound knowledge to work! But the problem arises for us that we don’t have very many transgender persons in our lives who may desire an ally! And if we are not careful, we will end up fabricating situations for the simple reason that we want to be about the business of applying what we now know. We have let go of old beliefs and misinformation, and there are transgender persons who need our support, parents of transgender persons who need our encouragement and companionship on the horizon. But right now, we are in between these two places – the letting go and the subsequent action.
Karen Hering, in her book “Trusting Change” calls this second phase of the change process “the pause.” It involves a bit of stillness, navigation of the space we call unknown, preparing ourselves for what is “not yet,” which is the third phase, and claiming companions for the journey. I like to think of it as a pregnant pause – a phrase that means something a little different but has its origins in the idea that there is this extended period of time where we simply cannot know exactly what will be next, but we wait with great expectation for something we believe will be wonderful to come. So much is happening in the womb and thanks to modern science we can see a lot more of it than ever before, but still, we are out here waiting and growth and development at a cellular level is ongoing and there is very little of it we can control. We can prepare from where we sit, but we are limited to a degree and have to settle into the pause. Like the trapeze artist, we let go of one bar in order to be able to grasp the one coming our way. There is a time in between where we must trust because we are no longer supported by one or the other.
This is March, the month in which I plant my peas. There will likely not be a spring that I am with you where we don’t hear about my peas! I gaze out my kitchen window at the raised beds, waiting for the soil to soften enough to be turned. And somewhere between St. Patrick’s Day and the 31 st I venture out and stir up the ground and make neat rows and drop the pea seeds that have been soaking overnight into place, covering them up with a warm blanket of earth, patting it gently and adding just enough water. There will not be peas for at least a couple of months. And so, I wait, a little impatiently for germination to occur, my lack of patience belying a subtle need to control. I water when the skies don’t. I aerate the space alongside the rows. I watch with wonder as this miracle of life plays out before my eyes. There is a pause between sowing and reaping where we are at the mercy of the elements and while we can guide the journey, it is pretty much a waiting game for us.
We have been in a place of waiting, of in between, for almost as long as I have known you – this pandemic time full of real unknowns about how long it will be and what will happen to us and what will come next. And one of two things has likely come of this for us. Either we have gotten comfortable with the pause in between and incorporated it into our ways of being or we are so fed up with waiting that we are chomping at the bit to move on. I bring this up again because it has so colored our lives that we would be fooling ourselves if we said it had no effect and we could leave all of it behind as if we had not been changed, both individually and collectively. We have been changed, just as others in previous generations are markedly changed by major world events. It has some bearing on our journey forward.
O’Donohue suggests that our threshold is actually much wider than we think. A threshold is that step between indoors and out, no wider than the door jamb, right? But he says it is a vast frontier spread out before us in between what we once knew and where we are headed. Much more than a quick jump from one place to the next, it is a place unto itself. Hering says we can approach the pause, first of all with stillness which is actually alive with transformation about to begin. Our ability to linger here a while, to perch in the unknown for long enough that whole new possibilities emerge is part of the process. “A lifted foot in the march of time,” she says, “that might come down in an entirely new direction . . . stillness preparing to spring into action . . . not powerless but a gift of temporary suspension.” We know that change is underway here at the Meeting House. Structures, identities, and givens are shifting. When we pause in the midst of this, we may feel like we are going nowhere, but the truth is that our future is being created. We are making room for creative movement and completion that might honestly be hampered by moving too quickly. Our brains crave order, and more of it with every new unknown we encounter! We can succumb to the chaos we might be sensing, or we can suspend judgement and notice what happens in our hearts in the instant before attachment and aversion begin their struggle within us. Slow down. Make room, we said in our meditation.
Once we acknowledge a place of unknown-ness, rather than attacking it or repelling it, we have an opportunity to become better acquainted with it, develop a relationship with it and allow it to change us instead of trying to change it. This is a very vulnerable time in our life as a faith community. Wendell Berry writes that,
“It may be that when we no longer know what to do we have come to our real work, and that when we no longer know which way to go we have come to our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.”
We are challenged to enter into this uncharted territory, naming all the regions – doubt – fear – change - hope – surprise – belief – you will have your own to add and there is power in naming – but cultivating a sense of curiosity. We are on a journey, not engaging in a battle. Pausing gives us space to develop our skills of seeking, finding, and receiving available guidance, helping us to notice where we are in the moment and offering new options for moving on.
Our Board has been reaching out to other local congregations to see what they are doing in this time of change that we can learn from or join with in the future, checking in with our regional UUA staff about this journey, how our path upon it is similar and different to that of others emerging from the experiences of recent years. Committees are busily crafting ways that their particular area of church life can answer the call to sustainability. They are curious and being honest about what they find. They are moving into preparations for the journey, checking our inner supplies of things like flexibility and balance. Hering here advises that we think about what and how much we want to bring along from our previous iteration. Do we risk overpacking, thinking that we won’t be able to get along without all of what we were as we make our way into what we are becoming? Or do we choose to travel light, reducing baggage – both literally and figuratively – making space for what we come across that we now see might be of use. We like to have all the answers – everything wrapped up neatly with a nice bow on it, but then how do we add that amazing, unexpected piece we discover? It’s scary to loosen the ribbon we have tied so tightly around who we are and to take a few items out of the box in order to fit in what comes our way.
It is okay, more than okay, really, to let down our guard in this safe space we have cultivated for ourselves. It requires trust which is a necessary tool for our futures together. Perhaps a part of this pause we are in is some work on building trust, some faithful risking that counts on the Love we call our ground of being here to hold us steady as we face the unknowns. Hering says we are not made to go this journey alone. In the stress that comes with changing circumstances, relationships and capabilities, companionship with fellow travelers is a
significant source of strength. In Taoism the principle of “mutual arising” notes that all beings and being itself exist only in relation to everyone and everything else. Nothing arises in a vacuum according to this principle. Who we are and what we are is due to everything else around us. Hering uses the metaphor of the caterpillar to butterfly journey through out her book and writes that the imaginal clusters formed in the goo of the chrysalis must link to one another and are dependent upon the rest for the tasks they need but are not suited to undertake. It is only together that they can grow into the new organism that will carry them to winged existence and flight.
We have our companions here among us and also those who came before us here in this place and in our faith tradition. Not only do we call upon the wisdom in our midst, but we can also call upon our ancestors for nourishment and hope. Quaker Elise Boulding talks about the ‘200-year present’ that we live in. We look back to our oldest known relative and think about when the first lives they ever touched existed. And then we look ahead, aware of the youngest person we know in our midst and thinking about what decade or century for that matter they might live into. The span is usually about 200 years of influence. What an awesome way to position ourselves as we pause and reflect on how far we have come and on where we will be in generations unfolding before us.
Thresholds are replete with waiting, maybe more of that than anything else. They are vulnerable times with lots of unknowns and opportunities for discovery. Here at UUMH we are on a threshold. We are in the pause between what was and what will be. We are doing what we can to nurture the process along, but we would do well to pause between each supposed next step, to check in with one another and with our inner guides as we make our way to that sense of belonging that feels like home, that feels right and good for us as a people. It will be then that we know we are ready to step into the next phase of our process. I want to encourage us, in the midst of our anxiousness, our cures and fixes that we so love to employ, to slow our pace, to be still, to begin to love the unknowns, to prepare wisely and most importantly, to companion one another on this journey.
So may it be and Amen.
Rev. Tracy Johnson
UUMH Chatham, March 5, 2023