Centering Thought: “Only by moving in the direction you least trust can you be saved.”
Reading (Rev Denis)
From Kayak Morning, by Roger Rosenblatt
Opposites attract me. In kayaking, taking the opposite way can save your life. When you feel you are about to capsize, you instinctively clutch the gunwales of the boat. You think that the kayak offers stability on an unstable surface. But you are part of the boat when it rolls, and grabbing the sides merely adds mass to the problem. You must use your paddle and support the boat, extending it into the water and holding it face down,
because in this instance the water is more stable than the boat. And, to do this maneuver correctly, you have to lean into the paddle, which will put you off balance, so much so that you are certain you will topple over – you bring the paddle down hard on the water’s surface, the way ducks bat their wings. You will feel your kayak right itself.
Only by moving in the direction you least trust can you be saved.
Sermon “Moving In the Direction You Least Trust” Rev Denis Letourneau Paul
When I first met my friend Mike, he bored me. If I’m honest with you and myself, I thought he was a nice enough guy, but I judged him to be a little preoccupied with appearances and not very deep.
That was my perception.
Really, he was just quiet at this dinner party where he didn’t know anybody except the host.
I didn’t really know anybody except the host either, but I was talking away. I had just made a decision to quit my job in 18 months and go to seminary. I was in the midst of a profound life-changing spiritual awakening and I wanted everyone to know about it. I was happy! So I told everyone.
As an aside, you should know that when I told my mother how happy I was about my decision, she said, “if you were really happy, you wouldn’t have to tell anyone.”
Because that’s what mothers do. And she was right. But I’ll get to that.
At that dinner party, I was talking away and Mike was quiet. His input to the conversation was agreeable, but he didn’t really add much insight. We didn’t seek each other out after that, but we kept getting thrown together by this mutual friend, whose name happens to be Krishna.
His parents named him Krishna.
As in the blue-skinned Hindu god, the eighth avatar of Vishnu, the butter thief, the perpetual child-god. The prankster.
Over time, years in fact, I got to know Mike and learned how committed he is to the things that matter to him: living simply, nourishing the people he loves with good food, protecting the environment in his everyday actions, and being charitable. How kind he is.
Not just nice.
I now have more faith in Mike than just about anyone, and I am a person who tries to live his life by putting faith in humanity, and faith in individuals. Even when there is evidence to suggest that I should not.
To have faith in something, anything, is to have confidence in it, confidence that it will reveal something to you that you didn’t know. To have faith is to expect, and look for, answers to questions you didn’t know you had.
You could have faith in god as Yahweh, Jesus or Allah. Faith in the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations or the Hindu pantheon of gods and avatars. You could have faith Democracy or capitalism or Marxism. You could have faith in your parents, friends and neighbors. The power of community.
Having confidence in anything outside of yourself is risky, because when you put confidence in something,
there’s a possibility that you will be let down as you come face to face with its imperfections, its seedy underbelly.
You could trust in God to protect you and your loved ones, only to have them suffer or die. You could trust your church to support you in times of need, or to be the calm in the middle of the storminess of your life, only to learn that it’s populated by people who are navigating through their own storms….and sometimes they bring that storminess into the sanctuary with them.
You could put your faith in the systems we’ve built our country on, only to have them corrupted by the very ones the system is supposed to protect you from.
And yet, somehow, it’s the challenges that end up strengthening your trust. When you know what it is you trust, and see it for what it really is, warts and all, your faith is somehow… brighter. It’s a paradox.
Like kayaking. When faced with a scary situation, the possibility of flipping your boat and ending up underneath it in the water, your first instinct is to grab onto the sides and become one with the boat, in mass and energy. But the best thing you can do it not to trust the boat, but to trust the water, by using your paddle to find the water’s stability. To move toward the direction you least trust, the thing that caused the problem in the first place, is the thing that will save your life.
To kayak, you have to have faith in yourself, your boat, your paddle, AND faith in the water itself.
The thing that you least trust is the thing that will save your life.
Faith is full of paradoxes like that.
In the Christian Bible, the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 14, Jesus tells his followers, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters–yes, even their own life–such a person cannot be my disciple.” It makes no sense. He’s telling his followers to turn their backs on all those who have loved and supported them.
It’s not an unusual tactic in the Bible, which is full of stories of Jesus saying outrageous things to get attention, then telling a story to explain the paradox of what he’s just said. In this case, he offers two scenarios as metaphors. Building a tower without properly estimating the cost of labor and materials, and a king sending troops into battle without considering how many he needs.
Without understanding of the real need, resources can run low.
In the first case there’s a foundation with no tower ever built upon it; and in the second case, the king must surrender to the enemy, or sacrifice the lives of the men sent into battle.
What Jesus is saying is that before becoming a disciple, dropping everything and following him, they have to beware that they could lose everything, including the people they love, and be okay with that.
Jesus’ shocking statements, his paradoxical parables, are not unlike Buddhist Koans.
Koans explore riddles that defy logic, that must be understood, unpacked or even solved through understanding that is instinctive even if it can’t be articulated.
Rev. Zesho Susan O’Connell, a Zen priest and the President of the San Francisco Zen Center, shares this koan from the Book of Serenity: One Hundred Zen Dialogs
Dizang asked Xiushan, “Where do you come from?”
Xiushan said, “From the South.”
Dizang said, “How is Buddhism in the South these days?”
Xiushan said, “There is extensive discussion””
Dizang said, “How can that compare to me here planting the fields and making rice to eat?”
Xiushan said, “What can you do about the world?”
Dizang said, “What do you call the world?”
Rev Zesho writes “Time and again during question and answer sessions after a Zen lecture, someone will ask: ‘What is the use of just sitting in silent meditation when there is so much suffering in the world?’
“This question is usually meant as a challenge to what seems a kind of passiveness. It is true that the world is full of suffering beings; humans, animals, plants, even the planet itself is deeply suffering.
“Shouldn’t we be having extensive discussions, protesting, implementing solutions?
“This koan does for me what I think is the intention of all koans – it stops my mind in mid stride. It brings my awareness to the importance of asking questions before acting.
“Questions like: What is the nature of suffering and what is its ultimate cause? How can I help a world that I see as separate from myself?
“Wouldn’t it be more beneficial for me to deeply understand how the world is not something ‘out there’ that needs saving?
“If I consider the way we are all constantly, every moment, making the world then each simple, ordinary action I am able to take right here is ‘doing something about the world.’ And when it is time for other kinds of action, less simple or potentially more widely impactful,
it is my intention that these actions will be grounded in not knowing what the world is, or what helping is.” (1)
Rev Zesho seeks to ground her action in not-knowing. Instead of moving into situations where people are suffering, expecting to have an impact by her actions and good intentions, she wants to move into a situation open to possibilities. She wants to trust the water and not the boat.
I just gave you two examples of paradoxes from ancient wisdom traditions, and they are polar opposites. One suggests you have to plan, and know exactly what is going to happen. The other says you must not plan and accept not-knowing.
But here’s the thing. We never really know what is going to happen. Ever. We can plan all we want, pull out a crystal ball, have our palms read, consult every expert in the field, map out every possible scenario, and still.
Something is likely to happen that you never in your wildest imagination could have foreseen.
Your kayak can capsize from a sudden swell. The person who seemed too loving and too indestructible to ever die passes suddenly and unexpectedly. Or a city can be deluged with a whole year’s worth of rain in a matter of hours. And everything is lost.
All we can do is be aware that if the worst possible outcome were to materialize, we’d be okay.
That whatever it is we have faith in – Jesus, the practice of sitting, family, the democratic process – will reveal some truth or provide a way of dealing with the outcome.
Remember my mother? I said I’d get back to her. She wants to see me happy. She is genuinely grateful for the home I’ve found in Unitarian Universalism and the ministry I’m pursuing, but she had to point out that if I were happy, I wouldn’t have to tell anyone. It would just be.
She was right.
The truth is, once I made the decision to squirrel away money, leave a cush corporate job, sell my house and move to cheaper area, then spend three years reading and writing, and two years in internships and chaplaincies, I really didn’t have a clue what I was getting into.
I was afraid of what could happen, but didn’t want to face the possibilities.
There was a worry in the back of my mind, which I ignored, that my life could be irreversibly disrupted.
I didn’t know the cost of the ministry. I didn’t know that I would serve congregations and love them and their members so much that I would ache in the wake of their deaths. I didn’t know how often I’d have to move. I didn’t know that many of the people I had considered my friends would be so freaked out by the idea of me being MINISTER that they’d just stop returning my phone calls.
When I was telling my mother how happy I was, she knew I was clinging to the sides of the boat, instead of using my paddle to save myself from capsizing.
My friend Mike, though. He’s one who has stuck with me, no matter what. It was a friendship that took time to develop. I learned that he’s not shallow, only says what needs to be said. He asks the tough questions. He’s developed the capacity to ask questions that make him vulnerable, in order to point the conversation toward larger truths. How can you help a world that feels separate from yourself? What impact will your actions have on the whole system? What are you willing to sacrifice for the larger good?
And, he’s willing to sit with those same kinds of questions when they are directed at him. He also has faith in our friendship. Faith in the human capacity to learn and change. He has that kind of generosity and compassion.
So I have faith in that friendship, faith that is as great as the faith I have in Unitarian Universalism. And you all.
We are at the beginning of a new church year.
The Unitarian Universalist Association has a new president. Here at East Shore, we have a new board that will be meeting in a retreat this month to create a new covenant with each other and you. New religious education classes are forming for children and youth and adults.
New small groups – covenant groups – are forming. The Worship Arts team has created new themes with a new commitment to adhere to them in worship. We’re working with a new budget. Even the mortgage on our building is new.
We spent the last month of Sundays sharing, opening up to one another in small groups conversing about topics that can be difficult or controversial: the ways in which we are not separate from each other and the planet; our similarities with Islam; the responsibilities we have to ourselves and each other; even the books that we read.
Next week is homecoming, a spiritual return from our summer, which we’ll mark with the traditional water communion. As we pour our water into one vessel, the question we are asked will be “who do you want to reach out to?” Someone you’ve been in conflict with? Someone that perhaps you’ve underestimated? Someone you want to get to know better? Someone you think would make a good teammate?
In the coming year, as we find ourselves navigating uncharted waters, as we do every year, and the water gets choppy with conflict or division, will you hold onto the sides of our boat? Or will you put your paddle into the water, and trust?
I know you can trust.
May it be so.
(1) Carol Kuruvila. Huffington Post 10/31/2015.https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/zen-buddhism-koan_us_563251dce4b0631799115f3c