Service: “Something Better Than Comfort” with Rev. Kendyl Gibbons
Click here to start at the sermon.
Has anyone ever told you, “You’re imagining things!”? In a disapproving, dismissive tone of voice that says, “Stop doing that; it isn’t real, it doesn’t matter. You’re wasting all our time here.” Or maybe they said, “You’re making it up; it’s all in your head.” If so, I want to take this opportunity to apologize to the creative spirit in you. I think many of us have probably gotten that message at one time or another – perhaps especially when we were children, or at other times when we were trying to think in a really big way about the possibilities of our lives – the message that imagination is frivolous, that it is a distraction from the work we ought to be doing. In truth, it’s not. Imagination is one of the most important resources we have for making decisions and solving problems. Imagination gives us access to possibilities beyond the options we already consciously know that we have to hand; it brings novelty into the equation.
Even the most implausible forms of pretending can have a liberating effect on how we see the world. This is why superheroes, in one form or another, are always popular. Whether in ancient myths or modern movies, when you identify with a character who has abilities greater than your own, you expand the horizons of your thinking. The modern practice called “Cosplay,” a contraction of ‘costume’ and ‘play’, has its origin with two fans who dressed up for the first World Science Fiction Convention, held in New York in 1939, in costumes intended to represent the clothing of the future. The idea struck a powerful chord, and by the following year there were both formal and informal costume events at the convention, and fans who dressed to represent identifiable characters from popular science fiction stories. The practice spread quickly, particularly to Japan and the United Kingdom, and cosplay, while still an important feature of sci-fi conventions and similar ‘comic-cons’, has also taken on a life and culture of its own, sort of like year-round Halloween for grown-ups.
“Cosplay is a form of empowerment for all children and adults,” says Stanford Carpenter, founder and president of the Institute for Comics Studies, who says that he used to be dismissive of cosplay. But after attending dozens of ComicCons, Carpenter, who is black, changed his mind. “It’s about empowerment. It’s about the possibility of what you can be or what you can do. And when you see people in underrepresented groups, it takes on the empowerment fantasy of not just, say, being Superman, but also the dimension of stepping out of the much more narrow roles that we are assigned. But this idea of this Superhero has an added dimension because it inherently pushes against many of the stereotypes that are thrust upon us. It is this opportunity to push the boundaries of what you can be, and in so doing you’re imagining a whole new world and possibilities for yourself that can extend beyond the cosplay experience,” says Carpenter. “It’s like stepping to the top of the mountaintop where everything looks small. It’s not that you stay on the top of the mountaintop forever, but when you come down you’re not the same. You have a new perspective. A choice that you don’t know, is a choice that you don’t have. The imagination is the greatest resource that humans have. Cosplay builds on that. Cosplay puts imagination and desire into action in a way that allows people to look at things differently.”
This kind of imagination is the antidote to the paralysis experienced by Ytasha Womack’s student, who could not conceive of a story about people of color having a happy ending at any point in the history of the past. The larger question before all of us, it seems to me, is this: Can we conceive of a story about any people, given the human condition, with a happy ending that does not depend upon coming out on the dominant side of an oppressive culture? I invite you to sit with that question for a little while, before you answer too quickly.
Seems to me this is where it becomes a religious question, John Lennon’s invitation to picture a world with ‘no religion too’ notwithstanding. For it is precisely our collective imagination that must inform whatever faith we have; that must offer a potential happy ending, or endings, for the human journey, both individually and communally. One conventional version of this, of course, is that no matter what happens in this life, we go to heaven and experience eternal bliss after we die; that’s a sort of happy ending, though objectively unverifiable. But it has the advantage shared by all forms of fantasy, which is that we can use imagination to shape exactly what we would like for it to be. Is it an endless harp concert in god’s honor? Everflowing rivers in the desert, attended by 72 virgins? Your own planet, complete with people to worship you? The total absence of all desire? Unless you want to accept Voltaire’s tongue-in-cheek suggestion that our current reality is actually the best of all possible worlds, you have to put your imagination to work picturing what heaven, if it existed, would be like.
Most folks obey the impulse to begin this process by imagining heaven as a place that doesn’t have all the things that they don’t like about the way things are right now. “No more death, or mourning or crying or pain,” says the book of Revelation. No loss, no frustration, nothing to make anybody uncomfortable. No change, because if everything is perfect, to change would be for something to become worse, and then it wouldn’t be heaven any more. Unchanging comfort – that’s what you get to when you try to eliminate all that is disturbing and painful about our experience here and now; no effort or courage required; no problems to solve, no stress or failure, no anxiety or suspense. I don’t know about you, but at this point in the imaginative process, I start to get twitchy, and my alarm bells go off. Not just because I don’t believe it, — which I don’t – but more because even if I thought it was possible, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t want it. Endless comfort, unchallenged and unchanging, doesn’t actually sound that appealing, the more I think about it. I don’t want it after I die, and I don’t want it here and now, either. Some level of comfort yes, certainly; some relief from stress, some assurance of being cared for and to some extent safe, and that my endeavors and hopes have some measureable odds of success – without these, life is a misery to be sure. And in the world as we know it, too many people live too much of their lives in exactly that kind of misery, too overwhelmed to even imagine what a happy ending for their story might be. While others wrap themselves in ever more opulent cocoons of power and consumption and entitlement, seeking that changeless, impervious comfort that they imagine can be achieved by insulating themselves from the winds of change, the mighty rivers of justice, and the icy hand of death.
I take this moment of crisis in our culture – this hashtag metoo, corrupt privilege, rising fascism moment – to witness that it doesn’t work. Endless, changeless comfort is not just unattractive; it’s a dangerous vision. In fact, it’s the opposite of what our humanity is designed for; we are the product of struggle and change as evolution has unfolded, and those forces have shaped us to meet struggle and change effectively. I think it is where we are at our best, where our big brains and our capacity for creativity and perseverance, and cooperation, are called upon. It is when we are confronted with a challenge that no one individual can overcome alone, and we have to work together to achieve the good we can imagine – that’s when we really shine as a species. And I suspect, too, that it is there that we are really happiest. The happy ending is really no ending; it’s a going on to the next challenge that might be overcome, if we have the resolve, if we take it on together. The happy ending is not to die lapped in luxury, with more toys and gold plated faucets than everyone else; it is to die looking back over the journey, and seeing how far we’ve come; remembering the companions that saved our butts sometimes, and the ones we saved; laughing at how ridiculous we were sometimes; seeing that those who come after will have resources that we created for them, and being glad that they see farther than we did, and envision greater possibilities.
So here’s the thing. The covenant community of memory and promise, the church, lives and dies by its vision, its imagination. If the only work we are doing together is about making each other comfortable, then our sense of purpose becomes smaller and smaller and smaller, until ultimately it fits neatly into the thimble of utter self-concern, and is of no significance to the rest of the world. At that point, there is no need for changes, because no challenge is able to disturb the perfect balance of shared comfort. That is not a happy ending for the church, or for those in it. Like Rev. Eaton’s startlingly honest parishioner, if we prioritize comfort, and reassurance, and changelessness in our congregational life, we will walk away from the very efforts and opportunities that might actually save our souls, and perhaps help change the world.
It might be helpful to think for a moment about the connotations of ‘comfort’ and ‘comfortable’; while they clearly are connected, they also have slightly different valences. It is entirely reasonable to seek comfort, when we are in distress; it is part of the nature of religious community to be a source of comfort, in the sense of solace, and care. In this sense, comfort is about alleviating affliction, or responding to trauma, in a particular, temporary moment. To be comfortable, on the other hand, seems like an aspiration to a state of not being bothered in an on-going way; to be protected from the effects of adversity in the first place, rather than being nurtured in the face of it. Church may exist to comfort us as we confront the follies of humanity and the finitude of life, but its purpose, when properly understood, is not to make us comfortable – it has to be something better than that.
What is it, then, that we can imagine church is supposed to do? What is it that would be more satisfying than being made comfortable? I can think of three things, all of them relevant to the cultural moment in which we find ourselves. The first thing that is more satisfying than comfort is justice. It is worth going out of our way to see that people are treated more fairly, and with greater human dignity; standing up to abusive power, even if that stand is not immediately victorious, fills a deeper craving than just being able to relax and take it easy. Until you have felt it, it’s hard to describe, but once you know what it feels like, it calls you again and again. You can discover it standing up to a bully on the playground, or marching for racial justice, or marriage equality, or women’s rights. Some people find it in a jail cell, or registering voters, or writing letters to the editor, or speaking up at city council meetings. Helping someone to leave an abusive relationship, or bringing food and supplies to the water protectors at Standing Rock – anything that helps to tip the scales toward equity and away from privilege holds a satisfaction that transcends inconvenience. Something deep within us celebrates that re-balancing of power, almost as if the calibration of justice was part of our assignment to begin with. Bringing about fairness is more satisfying than being comfortable.
The second thing is creativity. I mean this not just in terms of art or literature, but also science and practical technical invention. I mean all the forms of human endeavor that constantly invite us to explore and imagine, whether that is teaching or cooking or gardening or building a boat in the basement. Bringing into the world something that never existed before, whether that is a painting or a song, or an equation or a gadget or a quilt, can require great amounts of time and effort and frustration. But even if the attempt at creation does not turn out just as it was originally envisioned, those hours of labor in the service of a creative vision will still have more meaning and satisfaction than any amount of effortless leisure.
Of course, both of these enterprises – justice and creativity – are even more satisfying when we undertake them together with others. So the third thing that is more satisfying than comfort is community. Many of us going looking for community in quest of its comforts, but I suggest that that is misguided. The connections that truly satisfy are the ones we grow into, that challenge us to keep growing and changing, because that is how we together are going to become the kind of people we want to be. The French author Antoine de Saint Exupery wrote that “Life has taught us that love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.” It is by joining together in a project that each of us is indispensable for that we learn to see and know each other, and weave the connections that truly hold us and give real comfort in times of hardship. Creating a little island of comfortableness for each other is one of the least helpful projects to work on together; it is too small to call forth our true humanity, and the full power of our capacity for cooperation and ingenuity.
Only imagination has the power to do this; to offer a vision of who we might be to each other so powerful that we stop asking for comfort, and reach for connection and creativity and justice together instead. Only imagination can paint a picture of what is possible, that carries us on to the other side of change instead of clinging reactively to the past. Mia Coleman, a die-hard science fiction fan who travels the country to attend sci-fi conventions, says that this form of imagination is the perfect place for people who find it hard to fit in. “I love science fiction; it can save people’s lives,” she says. “If you feel weird, there’s a big place that will embrace you. Instead of feeling weird and isolated, it brings people together.”
It brings people together.
There is comfort found in that coming together, I am sure, but happens in the service of exploring the power of imagination to expand and change lives.
I believe that the church can be like that; a place where together we learn to imagine how the world might be if justice prevailed more fully, if we brought the true impact of our creativity to bear on the challenges we face, if being connected was more important than being comfortable. It would be a place where we confront discomfort, and don’t let ourselves off the hook; where we are always asking, What’s next? as we follow the vision of equity and compassion for all people. It would be a big place, that embraces those who feel weird and isolated, bringing us together in the service of imagination, to expand and change lives. We would comfort one another in the crisis moments, and the desperate times, because that is what people who are deeply connected do. And, we would rise together into the winds of change, supporting one another and holding ourselves accountable to the vision we share. We would be occupied not in gazing at each other, but in looking outward in the same directions. It would break our hearts, sometimes, I suppose. It would call forth our larger humanity. It would make us uncomfortable, and determined; it would fill us, not with ease, but with more abundant life. Imagine that.
One of the traditional expectations of religious community is that it should be a place that offers us comfort when our lives are full of struggle, and that is a great gift. Yet “all comfort all the time” is a recipe for a lop-sided community that will never change the world, or transform its members. How can we build a covenant that goes deeper than trying to feel good, and instead helps us to create change and grow in the service of our ideals? Creating change = discomfort Intensity of community love is better, makes us want to put up with discomfort. Justice is better than comfort, of course; so is authentic belonging. Give up, be hysterical, or make it sustainable, by using the opportunity to build, or at least imagine, community that is more intensely connected than comfort.