This Sunday we continue with our theme of the month; awe and wonder. Two weeks ago we explored some of the surprising benefits of awe. So, if awe and wonder are so great, why do some of us have such a hard time opening ourselves to it? This Sunday we will explore what stops us and, hopefully, in the process of identifying what stops us, move past those stops to the transforming experience of awe and wonder.
Chalice Lighting by Cynthia Landrum
For the wonder and inspiration
We seek from sun and stars
And all the lights of the heavens
We light this chalice.
Hymn #126 Come, Thou Font of Every Blessing
Opening Words by Rev. David Usher
Because we are finite, we lift up our eyes to the infinite sky, and feel wonder and awe.
Because we have stumbled, we take the tender hand which beckons us to rise,
and feel strength and reassurance.
Because we are lonely, we reach out to those around us, and feel warmth and acceptance.
Because we are human, we do all of these things, and in our worship, feel the presence of the divine.
Time for All Ages Dreidel, Dreidel
Reading #1 by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, from Eyes Remade for Wonder
Jewish tradition says that the splitting of the Red Sea was the greatest miracle ever performed. It was so extraordinary that on that day even a common servant beheld more than all the miracles beheld by Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel combined. And yet we have one midrash that mentions two Israelites, Reuven and Shimon, who had a different experience.
Apparently the bottom of the sea, though safe to walk on, was not completely dry but a little muddy, like a beach at low tide. Reuven stepped into it and curled his lip. “What is this muck?”
Shimon scowled, “There’s mud all over the place!”
“This is just like the slime pits of Egypt!” replied Reuven.
“What’s the difference?” Complained Shimon. “Mud here, mud there; it’s all the same.”
And so it went for the two of them, grumbling all the way across the bottom of the sea. And, because they never once looked up, they never understood why on the distant shore, everyone else was singing songs of praise. For Reuven and Shimon the miracle never happened.
Reading #2 by Leadership Training Consultant Susan Beaumont
Wonder trumps anxiety. We cannot be filled with wonder and remain anxious at the same time. Wonder is the ability to feel amazement, admiration and curiosity about something. Wonder invites our best, most creative thinking. Wonder connects us with God. So how do we move from anxiety to wonder? Otto Scharmer, Senior Lecturer at MIT, speaks of three internal voices that stand in the way of wonder; the voice of judgement, the voice of fear, and the voice of cynicism. In anxious times these voices dominate our thinking and reasoning and they keep us from engaging our best, God-centered selves. In times of anxiety we must learn to release these voices.
A very gifted colleague of mine by the name of Mark Belletini wrote this:
It’s been very difficult this week thinking about Hanukkah. Or Christmas. Or the coming New Year. I have found that a lot of my sermon synapses were misfiring, since they were spending so much energy trying to take in the spectacle on the television set.
It’s not every Sunday that caps a week when the American public is treated to the sight of their elected representatives voting on articles of impeachment bound on unseating a…President. I watched the recaps on Friday evening, and found myself just staring at the screen blankly, only able to breathe through my wide-open mouth. It was like watching a terrible traffic accident in slow motion and not being able to turn away.
I found myself strangely glad to have been born after the painter Salvador Dali had perfected his art, and not before. Not just because I felt my heart melting like one of his famous watches, as I looked upon the spectacle, but because I could make comforting use of the term “surrealism” in regard to what I was seeing and hearing.
To think about religious things, when political things are getting more twisted and turgid by the minute, is just not easy.
To think about ancient stories of faithfulness, when faithlessness runs the very nation in which I sit, is just not easy.
To think about spiritual things, when I am feeling dispirited, is just not easy.
Mark wrote that in December of 1998 while serving First Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbus, Ohio. The president being impeached was William Jefferson Clinton.
We are living in interesting times. And it is not easy to think about religious things, spiritual things, or ancient stories of faithfulness when political things are in a state of upheaval, when our spirits are low, when faithlessness seems to undergird the very processes we count on to uphold our republic. As Otto Scharmer noted in our second reading for this morning, in anxious times it is the voices of judgement, fear and cynicism that dominate, making it difficult to connect with wonder.
But, Chanukah begins tonight. Last night we experienced the longest night of the year. And in two days, some of us will celebrate Christmas. It may not be an easy time in which to contemplate religious things, spiritual things, or ancient stories of faithfulness but…here we are, and here it is, and so it is, and that is that!
A couple of weeks ago we talked about how, where the eyes go, so goes the car…and everything else in our lives. We gave some thought as to what it means to be mindful of what we are looking at so the we can be purposeful about where we go. Sitting here today, with mayhem on one side of us, and holidays of wonder and awe on the other, it seems to me to be a good time to be attentional about what we’re looking at so that we can be intentional about what we let into our hearts and minds and souls…our whole selves.
In the interest of transparency, I will confess to you all here and now that I have decided to err on the side of awe and wonder. Not just in a wetting-my-toes kind of way, but really allowing myself to get soaked by them. In short, I’m diving in! And, I’m inviting you to come with me. Think of it as this seasons “alleluia anyhow” moment.
Yes, nearly two out of every five Americans say politics right now is stressing them out, and one in five are sleepless or have had friendships damaged by politics, according to researchers as reported by U.S. News. And yes, a 2017 study by the American Psychological Association reports that two-thirds of Americans say the future of the nation is a very or somewhat source of stress.
But, last night was the winter Solstice, tonight is Chanukah, and Christmas is just two short days away. Each of these celebrations has a foot in the world from which they sprung, and each also calls us to that precious edge of awe and wonder. So, I don’t know about you, but I’m taking one last look at the mayhem for a bit, saying “alleluia anyhow,” and I’m diving in!
I need a break from all this mayhem and difficulty. I need a break from all the anxiety. I need a break…from politics, from bad news, from financial hardship and cancer treatments. I need a break…from senseless violence, from environmental degradation, from humanities indifference, from everything that threatens children anywhere. I need a break…and maybe you do too.
What would it feel like for us to take that leap of faith into the river of awe and wonder? What would it feel like to have our hearts racing and our feet weakening as we walked to the rivers edge – to know there is no turning back once our feet have left the edge? Was there ever a time when you heard only the rivers rush…and a voice telling you to take that leap of faith? Have you ever found yourself simply desiring to be caught in that rush, lost in the flow, wanting nothing more than to be in over your head?
However, even as I contemplate taking that leap of faith, maybe because I choose to take that leap of faith, I am acutely mindful of Scharmer’s observation of the voices of judgement, fear and cynicism. The three voices that can dominate in anxious times and can block our access to wonder and awe. I am acutely aware of them because, if I’m not, my dive may wind up taking me not into the mighty rivers flow, but rather head first into an empty pool…and I am fairly confident that while such an experience can produce experiences of wonder, (as in, “I wonder what I was thinking?”), that’s not exactly the experience I’m seeking right now. So, let’s take a closer look at the unholy triune of voices of anxiety, those three inner voices of resistance which block our entrance to deeper domains.
The first unholy voice, according to Scharmer, is the Voice of Judgement, and this voice blocks the open mind. Which is why every creativity technique begins with the instruction to suspend our voices of judgement. Ha! Easier said than done! Because the Voice of Judgement is a sneaky little agitator. It has been with us for so long most of us don’t even know it is there. It was born the minute we were taught things like right from wrong, good from bad, dangerous from safe. The voice of judgement can keep us safe, yes. But left unchecked or unmonitored or worse, un-noticed, this voice can also stop us from experiencing that mighty rivers flow.
“It’s unsafe to take a blind leap. It’s irresponsible. Childish even. After all, we’re Unitarian Universalists…the living tradition we share draws in part from science and reason. This leaping activity seems frivolous and maybe better reserved for those ecstatic religious types, or Baptists…aren’t they all about swimming in living waters?
So the first unholy voice is the Voice of Judgement and it blocks the creative power of the open mind.
The second unholy voice is the Voice of Cynicism. It is responsible for all acts of emotional distancing. This voice knows all too well that the consequence of an open heart is vulnerability. What the Voice of Cynicism won’t tell you is that vulnerability is the first step towards authenticity…the freedom to be wholly and fully who we are – open to one another and the mysteries of life. If you want to know what it looks like to be unburdened by the voice of cynicism, find some very young children, usually under five years of age, and spend some time with them. If they haven’t been traumatized by this age, you will find them delightfully open and present…pretty much unaware of any physical or psychosocial imperfections they may carry and simply in whatever emotion strikes them in the moment. After age five this begins to change, and by the time you reach our age…well?
So the second unholy voice is the Voice of Cynicism and it blocks the gate to an open heart.
The third unholy voice is the Voice of Fear and this voice blocks the possibility of an open will. At its core, fear seeks to prevent us from letting go of what we have and who we are. We may fear losing things, or relationships, or status, or power, or even death. But when the Voice of Fear is running the show, we are prevented from the kind of letting go that enables us to cross that subtle inner-threshold which would actually allow something new to show up – because we made room for that to happen by letting something go.
O.K. now, say with me because we’re going to take a little bit of a turn here and test drive this theory of Otto Scharmer’s on the unholy triune of voices…which is my name for his theory!
Let’s return to the topic of Chanukah for a moment.
Recalled through the Voice of Judgement, which blocks the power of an open mind, modern day celebrations of Chanukah have it all wrong. In truth, it’s a story of spilled blood – a violent uprising – that was never supposed to be a major holiday.
True enough. But what the Voice of Judgement misses is that the bloody political reality at the heart of the Chanukah story was such an embarrassment to many later rabbis, they did not allow it to become a major holiday. For most of the history of the Jewish religion, Chanukah was treated as only a minor festival, and is hardly even mentioned in the Talmud. What the Voice of Judgement misses is that, while the rabbis all agreed that it was wrong for the Greek King Antiochus to force the Jews to assimilate, and that it was wrong for the Greeks to assume cultural superiority over Jewish culture, and that it was sheer megalomania for Antiochus to force Jews to worship a statue with his face on it – they did not want to encourage violent solutions to their problems, or anyone else’s. So, they focused on the miracle of the Eternal Light burning for eight days and nights and kept the whole thing a small, minor festival.
Recalled through the Voice of Cynicism, which blocks the gate to an open heart, we will keep our distance from the Chanukah miracle by saying something like, “That didn’t really happen. It couldn’t have.” But when we approach stories in scripture, or any sacred texts, by focusing on whether or not something really happened, or didn’t, we miss the deeper meaning which we can only get to by opening ourselves to the authors of those stories by asking ourselves, “What were they trying to say?”
In the case of the Chanukah story, what the Voice of Cynicism misses is that the Temple in which the Chanukah Miracle is said to have taken place was ransacked by the Hellenistic army. And this would have been devastating to the Jewish people who worshipped there, despite their victory over the Greek army. Maybe, more than a story about an actual lamp that burned for eight days and eight nights even though there was no oil for it, the writer was trying to express a feeling that, even in the face of devastation, God’s presence was still felt. Or, maybe there really was a menorah that burned for eight days and eight nights. Either way, an open heart seeks to find connection, not distance.
Finally, recalled through the voice of fear, which blocks an open will, the story of Chanukah might not still be around at all. Both books of Maccabees are not in the Jewish Tanakh, or Torah. They only exist in the Catholic Apocrypha and the Protestant Bible. And remember, the reason the rabbis give for the exclusion of these texts from the Tanakh is that the war between the Macabees and the Syrian army glorified violence. And because the early rabbis believed the ends never justify the means where violence is concerned, they left the story out all together.
But for the will of those who were able to let go of, or forgive, human failing so that the story of God’s presence in the midst of destruction might live on, we wouldn’t have this story at all.
Did it really happen? I don’t know. I wasn’t there. But I have experienced God’s presence in the midst of my own desolation too many times to discard the story in its fullness. Does burning a yule log really encourage the sunlight’s return? Honestly, who cares? But isn’t it awesome that there are those among us who don’t take the suns return for granted, and by so doing, remind us not to either? Was Jesus really born of a virgin in a Stable on a cold, winters night? It’s highly unlikely, but then the historical Jesus was an extraordinary person and his birth narrative reminds us all to look for the extraordinary in the ordinary.
What would it feel like for us to take that leap of faith into the river of awe and wonder? What would it feel like to have our hearts racing and our feet weakening as we walked to the rivers edge – to know there is no turning back once our feet have left the edge? Was there ever a time when you heard only the rivers rush…and a voice telling you to take that leap of faith? Have you ever found yourself simply desiring to be caught in that rush, lost in the flow, wanting nothing more than to be in over your head? Come on, let’s go, I’m diving in!
Special Music [Recorded] Dive by Steven Curtis Chapman
Blessing Candles of Joy & Sorrow by Scott Stabile
Today, I choose not to take my life for granted. I choose not to look upon the fact that I am healthy, have food in my refrigerator and have clean water to drink as givens. They are not givens for so many people in our world. The fact that I am safe and (relatively) sane are not givens. That I was born into a family who loves me and into a country not ravaged by war are not givens. It is impossible to name all of the circumstances in my life I’ve taken for granted. All of the basic needs I’ve had met, all of the friendships and job opportunities and financial blessings and the list, truly, is endless. The fact that I am breathing is a miracle, one I too rarely stop to appreciate.
I’m stopping, right now, to be grateful for everything I am and everything I’ve been given. I’m stopping, right now, to be grateful for every pleasure and every pain that has contributed to the me who sits here and writes these words. This moment is a blessing. Each breath a gift. That I’ve been able to take so much for granted is a gift, too. But it’s not how I want to live—not when gratitude is an option, not when wonder and awe are choices.
Hymn #57 All Beautiful the March of Days
Extinguish the Chalice by Debra Burrell
We have basked in the warmth and beauty
of this flame and this community.
As the chalice flame is extinguished,
let us carry its glow within.
Let us kindle new sparks within these walls and beyond.