All Souls Kansas City

Service: “Aliveness Coming to Get You!” with Rev. Jill Jarvis

Click here to start at the sermon.

Even after you’ve hung out for a while in that terrifying dark void of in-betweenness – and you’ve finally reached out and grabbed that empty bar coming at you with your name on it – don’t be deluded into thinking that you’re finally safe.

Oh no.

Growth and transformation are processes – not a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon. The opportunities keep presenting themselves, one after another. Each time one shows up, you can keep clinging to your present security bar, or fling yourself into the void and get ready to grab the next one. Either way, yet another bar will be there at some point – more aliveness coming to get you. Sometimes when you least expect it. Often, when you least want it.

But let’s leave the melodrama of the trapeze metaphor and instead, think about “calling” – a more spiritual term for this bar with your name on it, this aliveness. Calling is about those times in our lives when we become aware that there’s a possibility …. an opportunity… to do or to be something greater. To connect with our truer, higher self in a way that might benefit not only ourselves but also others, maybe even the world…or at least one little slice of it. It’s when we can see the opportunity not to spend any more time in the same incarnation, but to reimagine and reinvent ourselves. Theologian Frederich Buechner described it as “the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

When those calls show up — no surprise, so does Resistance. And I have to return to the trapeze imagery again
because to imagine yourself high in the air clinging to this bar that’s allowing you to defy gravity as long as you keep holding on — and knowing you could or should or must grab this next bar coming toward you, but in order to do that you first have to let go of what’s holding you up, keeping you safe, and fling yourself into the void where you will fly through the nothingness with the hope, the intention, of grabbing on to that next bar, but…

It’s not a certainty, right?

Every time I see that film clip, imagining the sensation of being suspended in mid-air with no support feels terrifying. Of course, that risk, that danger possibly lurking in the unknown, is exactly why that in-between time is so rich with possibilities. It’s the place where significant change happens, because of the internal struggle between the familiarly of what was, and the vision of what could be.

There’s a fascinating book written by Steven Pressfield, who’s a bestselling novelist and screen writer.
It’s called “The War of Art,” and it’s directed primarily at artists, but it speaks to any creative effort we might undertake. I feel the truth of his claim that the power of creativity is always matched by an equally powerful Resistance, that’s strong enough to effectively bury any call to create something that’s new and better.

He has a list of what he calls “Resistance’s Greatest Hits.” These are the sorts of endeavors that most commonly elicit Resistance. I think these greatest hits are also a pretty good list of what might be callings in the spiritual sense – or, if you will, possibilities for aliveness coming to get you.

So I invite you to listen to this list and see if anything reminds you of a time when your heart recognized
its next call….and Resistance showed up:

• The pursuit of any calling in the arts, however marginal or unconventional
• The launching of any entrepreneurial enterprise
• Any program of spiritual advancement
• Any course or program designed to overcome an unwholesome habit or addiction
• Education of every kind

(Listen to this next one and consider what we as UUs have been confronting in the last couple of years)

• Any act of political, moral, or ethical courage — including the decision to change for the better some unworthy pattern of thought or conduct in ourselves –
• The undertaking of any endeavor whose aim it is to help others
• Any act that entails commitment of the heart — marriage, bearing or adopting a child, weathering a difficult (but not destructive) relationship
• Taking any principled stand in the face of adversity

There’s actually one more that Pressfield listed, and I think it’s tongue-in-cheek but on the other hand for me it definitely passes the Resistance test: Any activity whose aim is tighter abs.

And Pressfield writes that the important thing about Resistance, is that it usually shows up only when the action we’re contemplating derives from our higher nature instead of our lower. Our higher nature — which is non-defensive, self-aware, compassionate, cooperative, self-differentiated. And not our lower nature — which is fear-based, tribalistic.

I think the Resistance probably comes from that fear-based lower nature. In fact Pressfield says when it shows up, that’s how you can tell you’re on the right track. As an example, he says that if you’re in Calcutta working long hours for the Mother Teresa Foundation, and you find yourself having dreams of leaving to start a telemarketing company – Resistance may not show up in full force.

Surely a primary purpose of any religious community is to help people recognize their call — their calls – and to summon the courage to respond. In Unitarian Universalism, that’s our Third Principle – encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations. I know a lot of you have heard your calls here at All Souls. Calls to leadership. Calls to bring your gifts of music, to deepen and enrich the worship experience. Calls to enhance your understanding of our religious heritage in order to make it real in the lives of children and youth. Calls to speak up and speak out to name privilege and systemic racism and misogyny and classism and dare to risk finding them within yourself and in the institutions you support.

Institutions themselves are also offered opportunities to recognize their calls. They’re also offered the choice to summon the courage and accept the risks of responding. Unitarian Universalism has chosen to fling itself right into the void in the past couple of years, finding the courage, accepting the risks which are many. And right now, we’re living in the messy, ambiguous, painful, often terrifying time of re-examining how or even whether we’ve been practicing what we’ve long preached — about justice, and equity, and compassion.

We can’t see where this is going. We’re forced to linger for a while, probably a long while — who knows how long? – in that in-between space that some find hopeful and others find excruciating… that place where transformation happens. Shall we let go of ways that so many of us are comfortable and familiar with? Shall we recognize the harm our long-established systems perpetuate? Shall we choose to transform ourselves in order to look outward, past our own personal preferences and prejudices?

We can choose to answer “no.” It wouldn’t be the first time either for the UUA as a whole, or for many of our congregations. But here’s yet another chance, dear UUs, to hurtle through that terrifying void and maybe…maybe, to learn how to fly.

I’ve recognized several important calls in my life. Some, in fact maybe most, went unanswered because that Resistance showed up in full force. But I’ve been able to take that leap of faith into the void a few times, one of the most important being my call to ministry. And the Resistance. wow. It showed up, and I overcame it,
and back it came. It was like a Resistance whack-a-mole.

Here’s how it showed up the first time: I had a career as an international marketing executive. I mostly liked it, though sometimes not so much…in fact increasingly not so much. And when I’d been here at All Souls staying very deliberately under the radar for about 8 years, one of my favorite members, Joe Bader of blessed memory, tried to recruit me to be a moderator.

“Listen,” I told him…”and listen carefully. I am never, ever, EVER going to get up behind that lectern and speak in front of 200 people. Or 50. Or 20. I’m an introvert. Ask me to do something else, because that won’t be happening.”

Joe said, “OK. I’ll ask again later.”

Then Carolyn MacDonald asked me to speak for four minutes during a lay worship service about the work I’d been doing with the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. This felt….important. Sort of noble.

I said, no. Several times.

But you know, I eventually caved. I wrote out my four minutes and rewrote and practiced and practiced and finally felt I had it down. Then when we rehearsed Carolyn said, “Oh, I also wanted you to talk about how you worked at the Pro-Choice booth at the State Fair. So you can have FIVE minutes. “

I rewrote and practiced some more. I remember vividly almost shaking with anxiety when I entered the pulpit that day. But I did it. And I kind of liked it, actually. So then I tried moderating, and I liked that too. After several months Joe Bader told me, “I knew it. Once you get a taste for it, you can’t stop. You’re a ham at heart.”

Who knew?

Did you know that embracing new ways of being may actually be genetically more difficult for some people?

National Public Radio had a story a few months ago about a family — a couple with two grown daughters, Kathy and Maddie. The youngest daughter, Kathy, is an activist who works for equal rights for gender non-conforming and trans people. Her older sister Maddie is a lesbian. Their 60-year-old dad is a composer who has been living as gender non-conforming for the last seven years. Both daughters totally get it, and support their dad intellectually and ideologically. Kathy is completely comfortable with her dad’s gender ambiguity,
but Maddie has spent years feeling destabilized by it. On the one hand she’s instinctively afraid of it,
and on the other hand she hates feeling that way. So Maddie keeps trying, even though the harder she tries
the more profoundly uncomfortable she feels.

This story was presented to illustrate recent research by two Harvard psychologists, Jerome Kagan and Nancy Snidman. When they confronted 4-month-old babies with unfamiliar objects, like masks making strange sounds – some of the babies were just worse at handling what they’ve never experienced before. They kick and cry and try to look away. After tracking those babies for decades, the researchers found that as adults they worry a lot over events that will probably never happen.

But the really big finding is that they have greater activity in the amygdala, that region of the brain that’s involved in experiencing fear of the unexpected. Kagan and Snidman call that “the long shadow of temperament.” They say it’s a pretty good indicator not of what a person will become, but of what they won’t become – which is, a person who easily accepts the new and unfamiliar.

They use the metaphor of condensed water vapor, which depending on conditions, can form a billowy white cloud, or a mackerel sky, or a dense ground fog – but condensed water vapor will never become an asteroid.
For some people, that resistance to change never truly goes away no matter how open-minded and progressive and adventurous they might want to see themselves.

I guess that means that if you hate change, the good news is that you probably won’t — change, that is.
Not easily, anyway. It helps to know that, especially when you’re faced with the possibility of answering one of your life’s calls – because the only way past that resistance is straight through it. The only way through is by faith and courage and maybe most importantly, by knowing you’re not alone.

For most of us, major transitions don’t come without a sense of loss — and that includes transitions that we hope for and expect. Even when there’s relief, and hope, there’s still loss. It helps to know we don’t have to forget the past, or to denigrate it so that the loss doesn’t feel so heavy. It’s possible — in fact, it’s necessary — to honor the past before we let it go to make room for new possibilities.

As some of you know, I’ve just left my ministry at the UU Congregation of Lawrence after 12 years. I made the decision last October and announced it to them in November, and it’s been hard for all of us to deal with that sense of loss that’s inevitable with every ministry. But they have just hired a wonderful young interim minister who will begin in a few months. And I’ll be rejoining All Souls, my home congregation, where I first felt my call to ministry. With my husband Chris who’s just retired from Delta Airlines, I’ll be spending part of every year in France,
where I hope to do some ministry among the European UUs, and then see what develops with some new transitional ministry opportunities while we’re back in Kansas City.

I haven’t actually left Lawrence completely behind, though, with Rebecca being here too as your intern – she’s been one of our most active lay leaders for years, and our lead worship associate – just one month ago we were leading worship together as she said her farewell to the congregation. I feel a little creepy about actually not letting her move on completely — I’m sure it will feel weird when she’s preaching and sees her former minister still right there in front of her listening – it must feel like I’m stalking her. We were lucky to have her energy and grace and talent – and you will be too.

For both Chris and me, this planned-for transition seems a little scarier than we’d anticipated – we’re launching ourselves into the void right at a time when life in this country is so destabilitized, very little seems certain or predictable or familiar. it would feel safer if our personal lives weren’t also being disrupted. That we’ve even felt secure up to this point is surely indicative of both privilege and self-delusion. So many people have never felt safe here, and the reality is that for all living things, whatever safety might be achieved is always temporary.

In ways that so many of us, especially the privileged among us, never anticipated in our wildest dreams, as Unitarian Universalists… as Americans…we’ve all of us been flung into the void, called to confront our own dysfunction, struggling to find the wisdom and courage just to understand, being challenged by our own resistance….trying to remember to reach out to each other and hold hands as we brace for an impact of unknown magnitude.

The stakes are high. We could all use a bit of comfort in times as tough as these. Let’s remember to make the effort to offer that to each other and especially to those who are most at risk.

But not only comfort. And not only a sense of stability, however relative. When Resistance shows up, let’s remember that as faith communities we’re also here to move people toward adventure, creativity, ingenuity, and radical love – in other words, towards transformation. Those are the qualities it takes to turn the world around.