Reverend Kent Hemmen Saleska
UU Church of Minnetonka
December 11, 2016
Our Unitarian Universalist religion is a faith based in optimism. This optimism particularly arises from the Universalist side of our heritage. One of the more famous stories comes from over 200 years ago from the Universalist minister John Murray who reported a conversation with a deacon who approached Murray, saying he heard that Murray preached Universal salvation. A conversation ensues where Murray describes his Universalist faith based on scriptures that that tell how God sent his son [Jesus] not to condemn the world, but that through Jesus the world might be saved – while the deacon refutes that theology.
Then Murray pulls out the passage from 1 Corinthians 15, that “As in Adam all die, so in Christ are all made alive.”
The deacon wants to hold on to the notion that yes, because of Adam and Eve, all people are born in sin, so that’s why people need to believe in Jesus, so that they can have eternal life.
And John Murray said it doesn’t work that way. He said if you’re going to follow the words and the lessons of scripture, it’s either gotta be that only believers are born in sin and only believers who can be saved by Jesus, or it’s gotta be that everyone is born in sin, and that everyone was saved by the arrival of Jesus. And since the scriptures say, “As in Adam all die, so in Christ are all made alive,” that pretty well determines it’s the second meaning, that everyone is saved. Or as the old joke goes, the Universalists believe that God is too good to damn anyone, and the Unitarians believe they are too good to be damned.
The resulting theology and the resulting belief behind all this is in the basic goodness of humanity. Where other more traditional religions believe in the inherent evil of humanity – that everyone was born in sin – the Unitarians and Universalists generally have held a more positive view of humanity, that of inherent goodness. Down through the ages and generations this positive view evolved first into the original and slightly naïve Humanist slogan of “Humankind: Onward and Upward Forever,” and then into our modern and current phrase found in the wording of the first of our seven principles: that we covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of each individual.
Because of this foundational theology, in the most positive spin some have called us a religion or a faith of hope. Now I don’t struggle so much with the notion of the inherent worth and dignity of each person as much as I do with the notion that we are a faith of hope. The “inherent worth” piece is a little easier for me because in humanity, I see inherent worth as different from a person’s actions. We may readily call someone to account for their words or their actions, but our faith calls us to honor their inherent worth.
I struggle, though, with the notion that we are a faith of hope for a number of reasons. First of all, in all the most famous and foundational writings upon which we base our beliefs, including scripture from the Hebrew and Christian bibles, we don’t talk much about hope. Even now, in our seven principles and six sources from which our living tradition draws, you will find mentioned justice, equity, compassion, truth, peace, liberty, love and reason…but no mention of hope!
Secondly, and more deeply and more to the point, I struggle with the notion that we are a faith of hope because I simply struggle with the notion of “hope” itself. Now it may be that others use the word “hope” but mean it in a different way than the way I generally understand it – so it may be that I’m just wallowing in semantics, and that when I don’t want to use the word and others do, that even so we both still really mean the same thing. But a primary reason I try to avoid using the word “hope” is that it gives the connotation – if not a very real request – of a desired outcome. And because rarely in life do we get what we want the way we want it, in my experience hope generally really only brings heartache.
I don’t claim to know a lot about Buddhism, but some of what I do know revolves around the first three teachings of the Four Noble Truths, that (1) life is suffering; that (2) suffering is caused by attachment to desires; and (3) that suffering ceases when attachment to desire ceases. As I understand it, attachment isn’t simply about attachment to desire. We can also have an attachment to outcomes. When we hope for something, we desire a specific outcome of an event or happening. When we play a game, we hope we win. When we go on a trip, we hope we come home safely. When someone gets diagnosed with an illness, we hope they get better. In all of these, we are attached to an outcome in the way that we want it to be an outcome. The problem arises when either the outcome isn’t what we wanted it to be, or doesn’t occur at all. Once again, hope brings heartache.
Another reason why I struggle with the notion of hope has to do with our theme for this month, “presence.” Presence is a state or fact of existing, of being present in a place or thing. Presence is about awareness, attention, and existing in this very moment. Hope, on the other hand, pulls us out of the present moment and toward a desired outcome that is not in this present time. We may even get addicted to hope: hope that doubt and mystery will go away, and accompanied by fear that it won’t, robbing us of the present moment. Our December theme of “presence,” then, invites us and calls us into this very moment, not just when beauty abounds, but when pain and sorrow are in the room as well.
A year before I began my ministry here with this congregation I worked as a chaplain resident for a year at Park Nicollet Methodist Hospital in St. Louis Park. Many times that year I entered a room or sat with a patient or their family when they were in pain from a surprising diagnosis of cancer, or were sitting in shock and uncertainty after an accident that involved a daughter or husband, or were aching and empty after the death of a partner or parent. Some found their way through slowly, allowing the feelings to wash over them, and taking each bit of news in each moment as it came and then letting it sink in before they made a decision. But others would want a prayer for their loved one would be healed, or would use some form of the cruel trite sayings like, “when God closes the door, he opens a window,” or worse, “everything happens for a reason.”
In times like those it is important for people to stay in the moment, to process what’s happening, because if they don’t, they often live with regrets and truncated emotional responses for much of their life. But I then discovered two things: the first was that even my desire for them to stay in the painful moment and not wash it away with a trite saying was my own hope, my own desire, my own attachment to an outcome that had little or nothing to do with what the patient or family wanted. Secondly, because my own agenda would begin to loom so large, I discovered in those moments that it was a challenge for me to remain present with them. So I had to learn how to enter a room, and remain in a room, with no agenda other than to learn – learn where the patient or family was emotionally and spiritually, and then learn what they felt would help them most in those moments.
It was not my role in those moments of pain to change their minds or argue with their theology – but if it seemed necessary for processing or healing, or even to avoid a promise I was not able to keep, I could, in some ways, challenge their theology even as I remained present with them. It could be a simple question that brought them back into the moment, like, “what scares you the most about this new diagnosis?” Or if they asked me to pray that their loved one would be healed, I would pray instead for the doctors and nurses to use all their knowledge and care to do what was in their power to bring healing.
In my own life, I was disabused of more traditional notions of hope early on. Just a couple weeks before Christmas in December 34 years ago, when I was in 11th grade, I came home from high school one day to discover that my dad had been admitted to the hospital because of some unusual signs. It took a few months for the doctors to determine what was going on, but eventually they learned that it was a rare illness called sclerosing cholangitis, a disease of the bile ducts, which carry the digestive liquid bile from your liver to your small intestine. In sclerosing cholangitis, inflammation causes scars within the bile ducts, and the scars make the ducts hard and narrow. The disease progresses slowly and can lead to repeated infections and liver failure. The only known cure, even today, is a liver transplant.
Two problems exist, though. First, the body has to accept a new transplanted organ, and the doctors gave my dad only a 50% chance that his body would even accept a new liver; second, the body’s whole system is what makes the liver fail, so even if the body accepted a new liver, they gave that a 50% chance that the new liver would acquire the same disease. And in the meantime, after attempting to recover from those major surgeries in his weakened condition, his quality of life would be next to nothing. Since he had a better chance of living, and living longer, without the transplant, my dad opted not to have a transplant surgery. So at age 16, I got the news that my dad was going to die, and that he had no more than 10 years to live. He endured with his disease for eight years, dying in February, the year after I graduated from college.
A big challenge in dealing with a terminal illness, especially as a relatively inexperienced 16-year-old, is finding anything that passes for hope, when the only real thing to hope for is less pain or fewer maintenance procedures to unblock a bile duct, but never a longer life with more time with my dad. People would even say dumb things like how my dad’s illness and death would make me more compassionate and understanding toward others, and my reply was always that if I had a choice, I’d rather be a less compassionate person and still have my dad.
With that experience so early in life, hope was something I mostly learned to live without. Sometimes that made life pretty hard, but it also created two other realities in my life. The first was living more in the moment. I had a tendency to do that anyway, but my father’s long illness caused me to take fewer things for granted and learn to experience things more fully as they happened. The second was learning to take chances when they arose – so one thing I did as an 18-year-old high school graduate was take a bicycle trip across the country, from coast to coast.
In some ways I’m still not very good at it, but when I’m able to do it well, living without hope is a gift. I can take out my worst fear and look right at it, and then begin to look around to see what options, support and resources I have. Hopelessness is a gift. It helps us look around in the present moment, and rather than looking for something we want, we look around for what needs to be done.
It’s important to understand that living without hope is not the same shutting down or retreating. In fact, it’s the very opposite. I’m not at all saying “don’t work for justice” or “don’t work for outcomes.” It’s more about not being consumed by the outcome. As I experience it, the life work around this topic is to not be “tricked” by hope – that is, getting lulled into the false notion that if we just work hard enough and are diligent enough and faithful enough that we’ll get what we want: a job we applied for, a better marriage, a longer life, a healed child. Because in this life there’s not much we control and sometimes life just doesn’t give us what we want no matter how honest and faithful and genuine and diligent we are.
But just because we learn how to not be attached to hope and how not to be attached to outcomes doesn’t mean we don’t work for outcomes. Living without hope is not to be confused with working toward something we value. So yes, be diligent, be courageous, show up, be faithful, work hard, pull in allies, read and learn and grow and evolve and transform. In this new political and social climate of more brazen hatred and fear, do all you can to work to create more love and justice in the world…I’m just saying that all that work doesn’t guarantee the outcome you or we want. It’s like being back in the hospital and not praying for healing, but praying for the doctors and nurses to use all their knowledge and care to do what was in their power to bring healing. It’s a little like when teams pray before a football game. It’s pretty dumb to think that God chooses one football team over another, so it’s a pretty empty prayer to say, “Please God, make us win this game.” But it’s a more powerful and more faithful prayer to say, “Give me the strength to play my best today.”
Being present in the moment to what is happening, to what we feel and what we know is a basic way to begin learning how to move through the world in authentic and meaningful ways. The poet Mary says, “This is the first, the wildest and wisest thing I know: that the soul exists and is built entirely out of our attentiveness.” And the writer Henry Miller says, “The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.”
We rarely get to learn the consequences of our actions, and most of the good work we do in the world emerges after we’re gone. As my colleague the Reverend Jill Jarvis says, “Deeds and words and choices which seem from our perspective to have no impact all, may prove to be the small change that moves history in a new and unexpected direction.”
We Unitarian Universalists balk at the notion of definite hard and fast answers to the deepest religious values. We say we value complexity and nuance and ambiguity. So here’s our chance to take the bull by the horns and live in ambiguity. I know it is hard to imagine how we can work toward a future without feeling our actions will make a difference. But in the long run, rarely is history written in four-year increments. It may be that feeling insecure, even groundless, like the teachings of non-attachment in Buddhism, will increase our ability to be present, with ourselves and each other, and stay in the work.
* * * *
I want to close with a few readings on finding strength and presence without hope:
[SARA] Thomas Merton: Do not depend on the hope of results…you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself…you gradually struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people…In the end, it is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything.
[KENT] Women working against a violent dictatorship in Zimbabwe in the early 2000s:
- How we’re going is important, not where. I want to go together and with faith.
- I feel like we’re holding hands as we walk into a deep, dark woods.
- In my grief I saw myself being held, us all holding one another in this incredible web of loving kindness. Grief and love in the same place. I felt as if my heart would burst with holding it all.
[SARA] Rudolf Bahro: When the forms of an old culture are dying, the new culture is created by a few people who are not afraid to be insecure.
[KENT] Vaclev Havel: Hope is a dimension of the soul…an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart. It transcends the world that is immediately experienced and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons…It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns out.
[SARA] Gail Brenner: In a nursing home I spoke to a charming 92-year-old woman faced with possibly never returning to her home. When I asked how she felt, she responded, “I’m not attached.” She proceeded to tell me that as a young girl, following the death of her mother, she learned that being attached brought her suffering and being open to the comings and goings of life brought a sense of ease. This understanding enabled her to live life to the fullest – she had many wonderful adventures – as she was no longer afraid of what she could lose or gain.
[KENT] T.S. Eliot: in the Four Quartets:
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
for hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.