Grateful: Mystery and Mistakes



Grateful:  Mystery and Mistakes
preached for the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greater Lansing
by the Rev. Kathryn A. Bert
November 9, 2014





Life is a mystery, a set of repeating patterns, and full of mistakes.  I am grateful for all of it.  If some of you think you’ve heard the readings from this morning a few times before, you’re right.  I learn from them each time I hear them, and so I hope the same is true for you.  I chose the Sharon Welch reading because I knew that the jazz combo was playing this morning, and I’m grateful for the way she uses the example of American jazz music to complicate our understandings of cause and effect, repeating patterns, tolerance for ambiguity and social justice work.  In the wake of the recent election, we may wish to reconsider our repeating patterns and tolerance for ambiguity and turn to jazz as a possible metaphor for what comes next.

Now, I am going to be speaking this morning not about the election but, once again, about where this church is in its story.  As always, I hope there will be points of connection for those of you less interested in the longstanding-but-quick-moving building discussion.  Life is not only a series of repeating patterns, but it is also an interconnected mesh of ideas and experiences and coincidences.

So whereas my example this morning will be about a church’s search for identity, meaning, and a welcoming and accessible home, the point applies to all kinds of spiritual journeys of which we do not know the ending…

In real life, we rarely get to choose the timing of the events that affect us.  We try to control the factors we can, but we’re usually ineffective.  We make mistakes, in part, because life presents a mystery.  Life is one big adaptive challenge.

Adaptive challenges refer to those problems we face which we’ve not encountered before, to which there is no obvious solution.  That’s the mystery.

Adaptive challenges are those problems in life that we have to change in order to address.  We have to adapt in order to effect change.  Global warming is the best and most extreme example of an adaptive challenge we face.  There are some technical solutions to help stop global climate change, to be sure – some things we can manipulate around us that would help slow the process.  Alternative fuels, for example.  However, mostly it is a problem that requires us to change our way of life, our economy, our habits, in order to impact.  Since we’ve not done that before, we will have to change in order to survive.

Changing the prison industrial complex is another adaptive challenge people in this congregation work toward.  Ending gun violence is another.  Demanding reproductive justice.  All of these problems are seemingly intractable.  Except they aren’t.  Because we created them, and we can dismantle them.  But as we haven’t succeeded yet, we will have to change in order to accomplish these great tasks.  Marriage equality, though suffered a setback this week, I believe will eventually become law.

So, now this congregation’s challenge with its building may seem inconsequential when presented alongside global warming, racism and prisons, or personal and global violence.  But one reason I’ve always been an institutionalist, is that I believe in the power of community, and the power of religious community.  This is the microcosm of the great, vast and complicated world out there we seek to change.  If we can learn to do it here, we can take that learning out into the world and make progress there.

Only, as this is adaptive work, it’s not that clean and simple.  We don’t get to try it here first and then take it out there.  We are always working on a world set in motion.  The world is spinning, and we are simultaneously trying to catch up, understand it, and change directions.   It’s messy work, this adaptive work.  It’s not neat and orderly, no matter how hard we try to make it so.  It’s kind of like jazz where the patterns surprise us, and it can be, at times, messy.  (no offense to the jazz combo)  Life throws us surprises, and it is our resiliency and response to those surprises which determine the outcome.

Because, try as we might, we are not in control – because there are incidents set in motion before we were born and a mystery beyond which we cannot understand – we will make mistakes. 

“There are mistakes that come from a failure of imagination, lack of skill, a failure to listen carefully to others, mistakes that come not from the energy of transgression, but from the energy of pushing the limit.”  Jazz, said jazz pianist, Benny Green, operates at the ‘knife-edge of failure.’    But it is because it operates at this level that it is so exciting.  What another jazz pianist, Bill Evans claimed that ‘in jazz, a mistake can be – in fact, must be – justified by what follows it.’ 

I maintain that the same is true for life.  It is most exciting when we take risks that could lead to colossal failure, and even when they do, we can justify the mistake by what follows.

One of the keys to making progress on adaptive challenges is to run experiments – try things out.  Let your experiments “fail fast,” if they’re not going to work.  To tell the truth, I think that’s what I expected at first with this consideration of the South Penn property.  I thought at first it was going to be another experiment that would fail fast.  But I was wrong, I’m quite happy to say.

I was slow to warm up to the property.  After having supported several other properties that were considered but rejected by the congregation, I didn’t have a sense of what location would be acceptable for the supermajority that is required for us to move.  

You should have no doubt that I support a move.  The search committee told me 12 years ago when I arrived that this building was inadequate – but that the congregation loved the location. 

And indeed, I have experienced this building to be inadequate – well-loved, but clearly inadequate – from the windows I struggle to open in the summer which have to be covered in the winter, to the piles of miscellaneous items which decorate the Assembly Hall because we have no storage.  Most problematic for me, however, are the stairs which prevent full participation by some, and a limited escape route for the high school students should this building ever burn.  I remember that following my very first Christmas eve service here, the Board received a letter from a member of the church who rightly complained that we were not welcoming to visitors because we sent anyone in a wheelchair outside to get to the reception we held in the Social Hall downstairs.  In the winter.  Anyone who doesn’t do stairs, had to go outside, move around the building – hoping the sidewalks were clear of ice – and enter again downstairs.  Since that first Christmas eve, we’ve held the reception between services upstairs in the Fireplace Room and just have to ask our guests to help us take down and put up chairs in a mad rush to accommodate all who join us.

Again, a minor inconvenience when you compare it to global warming or gun violence.  Or is it? 

Is it a minor inconvenience or is it a strong message to people in wheelchairs that they are not really welcome in this church?

One of the primary reasons I support this move to South Pennsylvania, is that the building that is there is already completely accessible for those in wheelchairs.  But that’s not all of it.   It’s got the physical beauty of the land around it as the church we considered in Okemos did, and a link to the trail system.  Was it a mistake looking into Cornerstone as we did?  We learned something about who we are and who we are to be.

 It’s got the visibility on a main thoroughfare like the Holy Cross church we considered.   Was it a mistake looking into Holy Cross?  We learned something about who we are and who we are to be.

It’s got the parking and accessibility of the church on Broadbent we rejected.  Was it a mistake looking into the church on Broadbent?  We learned something about who we are and who we are to be.

And its affordable.  We can pay for it.  In fact, it is more affordable than all of the buildings I just mentioned.  And all of the options of buying an existing building are more affordable and more environmentally responsible than buying land and building from scratch.  The location, inconvenient for some and more convenient for others, means we would help revitalize South Lansing and not contribute to urban sprawl.

Am I trying to tell you that this is an easy choice?  I am not.  I do think it’s the best choice.  But it is a choice. 
There are unknowns.  There is mystery.  “Worlds known and unknown, galaxies beyond galaxies.”

The timing, certainly, has not been of our choosing.   The sellers were on the verge of tearing down the structure to sell the land.  We had to make an offer to keep the option even on the table.  So then, we had to launch a Capital Campaign BEFORE the congregation even voted to buy the property.  Talk about playing ahead of ourselves! 

In August of 2010, when we thought a capital campaign was on the horizon, we allowed for six months of planning before a congregational vote to proceed with the campaign, and then another 3 months of planning before launching it, and then running the campaign for a month. 

Contrast that 10 month timeline with the 10 short weeks between learning about this property and today.  We had about 3 weeks to plan a Capital Campaign – which we had to launch 2 weeks into the annual pledge drive – which experts would agree – is the worst possible timing imaginable. 

But just as Rachel Naomi Remen chose to ignore the expert architects she consulted with… we knew we could do it, despite the knowledge that it could be considered a mistake.

Bill Evans would say that a mistake must be justified by what follows… and what has followed is an incredible financial commitment.  As of this morning, we have already been promised more than $660,000 of the 1.2 million dollars we expect to raise.  You’ll notice promise cards on your chairs this morning – that’s just for those of you who haven’t had a chance to make a promise yet, but would like to see the purchase go forward.  You may put them in the offering basket or stop by the table in the Fireplace Room.

Now, some of you will want all that money promised before we get to the congregational vote next Sunday… and guess what?  it won’t be that neat.  People need time to adjust to the new information, the new situation.  We can’t change the timeline we’ve been given.  We go into the vote next Sunday with lots of unknowns still.  Some of you, I know, want decisions about the old part of the structure, or the plans for remodel – and none of that will be known by next Sunday.  And despite all the unknowns, you members will be asked to make a decision, based on the best information we have at the time.

We have questions we do not have the answers to.  We will have to vote before we have the answers to our questions.  We have to make a decision, one way or the other, before we can know for sure that it is the right choice.  Philosopher Ruth Chang tells us that “What makes a choice hard is the way the alternatives relate. In any easy choice, one alternative is better than the other. In a hard choice, one alternative is better in some ways, the other alternative is better in other ways, and neither is better than the other overall.” 

Because these hard choices have no obvious answer, she says that we should quit trying to figure out which one is right, but rather, choose based on who we want to become.  “So when we face hard choices,” says Ruth Chang,
we shouldn't beat our head against a wall trying to figure out which alternative is better. There is no best alternative. Instead of looking for reasons out there, we should be looking for reasons in here: Who am I to be?”

Who are we to be?

Are we courageous risk takers who choose the harder route because we will reach more people and live better aligned with our values of accessibility and hospitality?  Are we as courageous as our elders who, with an average Sunday attendance of only80, took the leap to buy an old frat house in East Lansing?  Still in that old fraternity house – with expansion and improvements – we have an average attendance of 200 more than 80.

I had brunch recently with past Board Presidents of this congregation –there were at least 11 of them present.  All 11 were in agreement that moving to South Penn is a good choice, the right one at the right time.  Marion Walsh, who was Board president when we purchased this property back in 1971, commented about how much better situated we are now for this move, then when that much smaller group of congregants brought us here 40 years ago.  How we are more prepared financially for this move, than we were for that one.

The great trumpeter and jazz composer Miles Davis talked about getting musicians to go beyond themselves.  That is exactly what this move is about.  We are going beyond ourselves.  We are going beyond the boundaries of East Lansing, beyond what is familiar for many of us.  We are stretching financially – playing ahead of ourselves perhaps. and we are going beyond ourselves by really making room for others – not just saying that you are welcome here, but making room for you to really feel welcome here.

As I left the planning meeting this last week when the Lansing Planning Board recommended approval of a special land use permit for us to use the school as a church, a woman handed me an envelope, after the room full of Lansing residents said to us we were leaving “welcome to the neighborhood!”   Inside the envelope was an invitation to a meeting of those who are trying to revitalize South Lansing.  It gave me a vision of our future there. Part of a larger community effort to make the world a better place.  What different impact would the Educando program – the education project that we are supporting this month, for Third Sunday fundraiser to be held closer where immigrants from Guatemala live in the Lansing area – would they attend the Fiesta Pequeña 2014 next Sunday and join us to watch the film  Abrazos – the story of U.S.-born children of undocumented parents being taken to Guatemala to meet their grandparents and other family members there.  I don’t know.  I don’t know if it would be better, have a greater impact.  I know it would be different, and that we could build on that difference and create something new together in our next chapter.  For that I am grateful.

Gratitude is our theme this month, and gratitude is the ideal spiritual attitude to practice in the face of uncertainty and ambiguity, as we play ahead of ourselves, and turn our mistakes into music.  Life is a journey to which we do not know the ending.  It is a mystery, at core.  and I am grateful that we live in the grandeur of that mystery.  We have two invitations for you this month, to engage in the spiritual practice of gratitude, while we do the hard work of deciding our future. One is hanging above my head  - prayers of gratitude.  For centuries, fishing ships have strung flags up their masts for the Blessing of the Fleet, grateful for the past season and hopeful for the next.  You are invited to write a thank you note, using materials in the Fireplace room, to be hung high this month as we practice gratitude. 

The second invitation is to join the 21 day gratitude challenge which begins today!  You’ll hear lots more about it next Sunday, and you can find information on our church Facebook page and website.

Gratitude is a helpful spiritual practice at all times, but especially in times of change and uncertainty:  Expressing gratitude for the mystery and our mistakes.  With deep gratitude and assurance that however it turns out will be our future.

We pray that we may live not by our fears but by our hopes, not by our words but by our deeds.  Amen.