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June 7, 2015: “Make Every Moment an Opportunity”

Time for All Ages, Rev Denis Letourneau Paul

The summer of 1976 was kind of magical.

It was remarkably quiet. The Vietnam war, which had been festering for twenty years finally ended the year before. Somehow, the cold war felt less scary. The only war we talked about at that point, was the Revolutionary War, as we celebrated the bicentennial, the 200th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Flags hung everywhere, and everything was red white and blue that summer. Everything.

That summer, the 1950’s were everywhere. “Grease,” was at its peak on Broadway. “Happy Days,” and “Laverne and Shirley,” got everyone dressing in jeans and poodle skirts and going to sock hops. It all felt so innocent and sweet, especially to me and my friends. I was nine that summer.

One of the coolest things that happened though, was the summer Olympics in Montreal. There was one guy who captured the attention of the world by winning the decathalon, an event so hard that you had to win at not just one but TEN different track and field events. An American named Bruce Jenner won that event, and came to be known as the “World’s Greatest Athlete.” Today, he’s still considered the world’s most famous athlete. Ever.

Now back in 1976, kids pretty much only ate breakfast cereal with names like Sugar Corn Pops and Super Sugar Crisps. But when a picture of Bruce Jenner winning the gold medal was on the front of box of Wheaties, we all started eating them, even though they tasted like the box they came in.

Earlier this week, Bruce Jenner – who is now a 65 year old grandparent – shocked a lot of people by appearing on a magazine cover with long hair and make up and a pretty outfit saying “Call Me Caitlyn.” The world’s Greatest Athlete, almost 40 years later, is now a woman. In one day, by one photograph, everything changed.

She has said to the world that even when she was little, 5 or 6 years old, she looked like a boy and everybody treated her like a boy, but she didn’t feel like a boy. She felt like a girl.

Now doing something that is completely different from what the world expects of you is pretty scary. And when you’re famous – super famous – it’s even harder, because people’s understanding of the world is tied up in their memories of who they thought you were.

Even if you felt completely different.

The cool thing is that we didn’t lose Bruce Jenner. I still started running, and came to love it, because of The World’s Greatest Athlete. And now, I have a new hero…a hero named Caitlyn Jenner who has the courage to be herself.

Reading, Barbara Opie

This morning’s reading is from The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion:

I see that spending that first night alone was more complicated than it seemed, a primitive instinct. Of course I knew John was dead. Of course I had already delivered the definitive news to has brother and to my brother… . The New york Times knew. The Los Angelese Times knew. Yet I was myself in no way prepared to accept this news as final: there was a level on which I believed that what had happened remained reversible. That was why I needed to be alone.

After that first night I would not be alone for weeks … but I needed that first night to be alone.

I needed to be alone so that John could come back.

This was the beginning of my year of magical thinking.

Personal Reflection by John Opie, read by Tim Ray

My old friend Jim Nelson phoned me one night . He had a very personal question to ask on a delicate subject. We had become close friends during our graduate school days at the University of Chicago way back in the early 1960’s. But then we had gone our separate ways and were in contact only once every five years or so.

Yet each time we saw each other we picked up our conversation as if it were yesterday.

This particular phone call actually took place about ten years ago but it is still memorable to me. Jim’s wife Betty had died of a stroke a few months before. Since then he had reconnected with a long-term acquaintence-a lady who was now a widow-and they hit it off famously. They talked, did things together, and laughed a lot. Jim’s question to me was obvious: was it appropriate for them too get married such a short time after Betty’s death? He trusted my candid opinion. Since Jim was already in his 70s, I said, “Go for it! You don’t have all that many years left and the lady’s the right one.”

They continued to date and got married about a month after the phone call. They were having precious times together. After a few months they took a trip together to Europe, where, sadly, Jim died of a stroke. But. If he hadn’t felt free to pose the question of a marriage to me, they might not have enjoyed even less than a year of happiness together.

During our graduate school days, we found we could talk over very personal subjects, even about our innermost feelings, about our wives and children, and about struggles with school and career decisions. This never diminished over the years when we rarely saw each other or talked over the phone and it was with well before e-mail. My good feelings about Jim continued even after his death, a real loss to me as well.

This close relationship with Jim Nelson was, I believe, unusual for the day. It was an era when men did not share their deepest feelings, their hopes and failures, with others, even with their spouses, much less with other men. This might be seen as a personal weakness or might be used against me.

I realized how special our connection was when I taught in the early 60’s as an adjunct professor on soft money at the University of Illinois in Urbana. Since I was teaching religious studies my board was made up of several campus clergy. I was struggling with this first teaching job , and since they were clergy, I felt I could open up about my struggles. They looked at me strangely as if I had said something inappropriate, and it was, since I had said something personal. They brushed it off, slightly embarrassed, and we went on to mundane business. This was not something men could talk about except at high risk and vulnerability. I left for a teaching job in Pittsburgh a little over a year later; my days in Urbana were over.

I had learned how special my relationship with Jim was and how rare it was in those days for men. I was lucky enough over the years to find two other close buddies, Frank and Werner, and feel fortunate to have three such people in my life in a day that was close-mouthed otherwise.

One of the real attractions of this East Shore UU church is its small groups; in our men’s group each month we have a “check in” time to share with each other. We would talk about our successes and failures, about some moment or person who really touched us, and our innermost feelings about them. This is still more unusual today than it is true.

Sermon “Make Every Moment an Opportunity,” Rev. Denis Letourneau Paul

Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

Those were the first words Joan Didion wrote after her husband died, four or five days after greatest loss of her 69 years. Four or five days is a long time not to write for someone whose only paid work has ever been writing. The same was true of her husband, John Dunne.

John died suddenly, unexpectedly of a massive heart attack a few days after Christmas, as the couple was readying to sit down to dinner at the end of a long day at Presbyterian Hospital in New York City. Their daughter Quintana had been in an induced coma for a couple weeks at that point, after going into septic shock. They were afraid they were going to lose their only child.

It was a horrible year for Didion. Quintana pulled through, but then a few months later was hospitalized again for brain surgery in Los Angeles after suffering a massive hematoma.

It was more than most people could handle, but Didion did what she always did. She researched grief extensively, and learned, among other things, that it is a kind of temporary mental illness, a kind of temporary manic depression that is so common to the human experience, so understood by so many of us, that we don’t see it that way. We accept grief not as insanity, but as a process consisting of depression along with anger, denial and bargaining on the road to acceptance.

What she noticed though, from that very first night when she needed to be alone, was that she’d begin thinking like a child. From the moment she knew for sure that her beloved had passed away, it was “as if [her] thoughts or wishes had the power to reverse the narrative, change the outcome.”

For a whole year, as she relived the anniversaries of million little “lasts” (the last new year, the last dinner party, the last birthday) she really believed that if she did the right things at the right time, all the horror of those few months, the radical transformation to her life, would be erased, and everything would go back to the way it was. Even if she couldn’t admit that fantasy to herself or anyone else, it was there, a truth she couldn’t run from.

Caitlyn Jenner tried to run from the truth.

Over the last couple months, she has talked about being a child and knowing that even though everyone saw a boy, she knew she was a girl, as if some cosmic mistake had been made. She has talkeda bout being able to live through this journey only because of the sacrifices other transfolk have made before her.

I tried to read the Vanity Fair article that came out on Monday, but decided they should call that issue “Vanity Rare.” Since the story nearly broke the internet and shattered records on Google and Facebook, it’s been impossible to find in print. And I’m not willing to subscribe to Vanity Fair for a year to read it online.

The thing that I find interesting about the story is how long it was in the making. According to Cynthia Littleton of Variety, the trade journal for the entertainment industry, Jenner hired public relations consultant Alan Nierob to strategize and manage her public transformation. Littleton reports that their professional relationship began back in the early 80’s when “a reporter for the New York Times was pursuing a story that Jenner was a cross-dresser.” Last fall, before the tabloids started blathering about how different Bruce was looking and speculating about the transformation, Nierob was working with ESPN for the Arthur Ashe Award, Diane Sawyer for the last interview as Bruce, and Vanity Fair and Annie Liebovitz for the coming out piece on Monday.

Don’t underestimate the power of that magazine cover. Mel Robbins of CNN compared the image to two others by Annie Liebowitz. Her 1991 portait of Demi Moore pregnant and nude, and her 1980 portrait of a completely naked John Lennon embracing Yoko Ono, so radically challenged societal norms of the time that those issues were sold in brown wrappers. Now, it’s not unusual for regular folks to share tasteful, artful nudes of themselves. Even pregnant.

Robbins writes, “what’s so powerful about iconic portraits is that they shift accepted norms and ignite something in you – immediately. There’s no doubt we’ll look back at this photo of Caitlyn Jenner and cite it as the tipping point in the movement for acceptance and rights of transgender people.”

One life – and millions of people’s understanding of gender expression – were radically changed in one day – one photograph – that took months to orchestrate, and 65 years to lead up to. 65 years of childhood fear, adolescent awakening, and adult hiding.

Both Joan Didion and Caitlyn Jenner experienced transformation in their lives that came in one moment, a moment that affected themselves and the public.

Except both transformations took more than a moment.

Alfred North Whitehead saw moments as being perhaps the most important entities of all existence. I’ve spoken before about process theology and Whitehead before, so I won’t go into too much detail. Plus Dan Bond will be speaking in more depth on July 12 about Process Theology.

Whitehead rejected the old Cartesian idea that reality is made up of matter. He believed that all matter – though it can’t be destroyed – is transitory. After all, molecules can be rearranged through fision or fusion to make something new. Instead, Whitehead, like Unitarian theologian Theodore Parker, believed that the physical world – the tangible stuff we come in contact with everyday – is transient, prone to deterioration over days or millennia.

ven after a human life is long gone, and the civilization that nurtured it, the ideas are still there, immutable. For Parker, the one thing that never changed was pretty abstract: the immediacy of experience.

For Whitehead, the one thing that never changed was simultaneously vast and miniscule: a moment. He described a moment as being so small that its birth and death are the same, yet so concrete that it’s just about the only thing that’s real. A moment can be unimpressive and forgettable like a rock continuing to be a rock. Or it can change the universe like the big bang.

The thing is that for a moment to be really impactful, it has to have what Whitehead called width. You see, a moment reaches its full potential based on what is brought into it. The more energy it can bring in from the past, the more it can project into the future.

If a rock has been a rock surrounded for millennia by more rocks with a similar experience, never even changing location through a seismic shift or the bucket of a bulldozer, then it is less likely to change much. But if an animated organism can absorb and be changed by the experiences of more of its surroundings, the greater the potential for change. A human organism, can live a life of isolation, stagnant, blind to the rest of the world, and change very little. Or, a human organism, with the power if its mind and spirit, can learn from its past, the past of its family and friends, its ancestors, the entirety of its species and the whole darned universe, and change greatly. That’s width. Absorbing a lot from the past, and projecting a lot into the future, so that a moment is as great as the sum of time, past and future.

The ancient Greek understanding of time seems to me to articulate the difference in width in a way that’s more understandable.

Chronos is regular ordinary time that can be measured by the movement of the sun, the passing of days, or the slipping of sand. Kairos seems more, … magical.

t’s the kind of time that transcends the movement of a clock, the kind of time where hours seem like minutes, or decades of slip away as if they never existed.

While the dictionary defines kairos as a propitious moment for decision or action, Phillip Sipiora says that “with all of its various meanings [it] is ultimately about the right time to do something. [Kairos is] about opportunity.”

For Joan Didion, the magic of kairos wasn’t that her husband came back to life. He didn’t. The magic was that by engaging in each day of that first year, hard as it was, and researching the phenomenon of grieving through human history while reliving her own, she survived. Even when she thought she never would.

For Caitlyn Jenner, the magic of kairos is a life compressed into one image, a snapshot of a moment orchestrated intentionally by many people. An image that was possible only because of the struggles of transfolk of the past, that will change the experiences in the transfolk of the future.

They survived the unspeakable pain and made something good.

Joe Biden, who had his own life changing moment last weekend when his son Beau died of cancer, has said “Don’t tell me what you value, show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.”

Today after worship at our annual meeting, we vote on a budget and officers for the for the next fiscal year. We lay bare to ourselves and the world what exactly it is that we value.

We can take this moment as just a moment, or we can embrace it as a moment of Whiteheadean import. It can be a moment of kairos, where we take all of our past and turn it into great opportunities. We can take into account all of the struggles of the past, and learn from them. We can see all that went into making this budget, all the preparation by a couple dozen people in leadership, and just consume it like last week’s Vanity Fair and be limited to what is committed to ink, or we can be moved by the opportunities it presents. We can be changed by it, use it to cast a wide net from the past so we can project a wider, more inclusive, more expansive and exciting future, with more people at our paper plate and baked bean welcome table.

The past here at East Shore hasn’t always been easy.

You’ve jointly experienced huge events that impacted your ability to be together harmoniously. You’ve watched this institution change with the times, even when you weren’t through with what it had been. You’ve lost beloved ministers and members who’ve died or moved on. And you’ve struggled through the turmoil of controversial ministries that ended in rancor that caused some people to leave. Some have come back. Some have remained with their wounds.

And you’ve had your share of magical thinking in the process.

On this, my last Sunday preaching in the first church year of our work together, I’ve focused on building the community here, meeting as many of you as possible, and trying to learn from the past. Three main themes have risen that have struck a chord:

You’ve built the church, and throngs of new members have not arrived, stuffing the seats and the coffers. We know for that to happen, we have to take the next steps: figuring out how we can ease the pain of a broken world and going the distance to make it happen.

We know we have to live out the promise of the beacon we gather under: living in the light of a generous universe and shining our own light back into the world.

And we know that for us to really take this journey together, we have to know what it is that we agree on, and more importantly, what we don’t agree on, so that we can respect one another’s opinions, especially the ones that will never change.

Today, there may well be disappointment with the budget, and conflicting feelings about what to do with the funds we have. Those conflicts may never be resolved. But I know we can function in the larger group the way that we do in the small groups that make this place what it is: we can check in with each other, and listen, really listen to each other without trying to change anyone. We can have the kinds of conversations that were rare when John was a young teacher in Pittsburgh, the kinds of conversations that are still rare out in the world, but common here as we walk together.

A few weeks ago in my sermon, I asked you all to keep track of ways you walk together, the ways in which you accompany one another through moments of grace or turmoil. I suggested you keep track of them on cards, in a notebook or on your smart phone, any way you can keep track of them and use them later.

At the end of the summer, after I’ve returned from General Assembly, Studying, and a little vacation, as we embark on our second year here, we’re going to be doing some work together on naming our mission and vision, our pronouncement of our values for healing the world the plan for how we’ll do that. Those notes about walking together are going to come in handy, so please, take that assignment seriously. They are be the moments that will become the opportunities for making a big difference in the world, and here among each other.

1 Joan Didion. The Year of Magical Thinking. Alfred A. Knopf. New York NY, 2005. p. 32-33.

2 Didion. P. 3.

3 Didion, P. 35

4 Cynthia Littleton. Variety.

5 Mel Robbins. CNN.

6 Theodore Parker. “A Discourse on the Transient and the Permanent in Christianity.” 1941. Published by the American Unitarian Association. Boston, MA. 1941.

7 Phillip Sipiora, ed. Rhetoric and Kairos: Essays in History, Theory and Praxis. SUNY University Press. New York NY 2002. P. 1.