Friday, November 18, 2016

Post-Election Sermon at Plymouth UCC 11/13/16

I can’t tell you how many times during the week someone asks me for legal advice. In just the last week, I was asked about a church’s potential liability for an injury that happened at church; the tax implications of renting out church property to a for profit organization; a church’s liability for having non-church related youth on a youth retreat; and, for some strange reason, a lot of questions about the separation of church and state. Every response to this question starts off pretty much the same way: “I am not a lawyer so, just to be clear, what I’m giving is not legal advice. If you want legal advice, you really need to talk to a lawyer. What I can share with you is this clergy person’s interpretation of the legal advice I’ve heard…” and then I proceed.

The theme for today’s worship is about grief and I almost feel as though a similar disclaimer is needed. There is a wide territory where spirituality and psychology overlap and this is one of them. I am a pastor who has learned a lot from those in the field of psychology but I am not a psychological professional. There are some of you here who have been working on grief within your own life with with psychological professionals and there is a chance that my words, today, won’t apply to you at all and that’s OK. There is no way, within the time of a sermon, that I can address all the ways to consider grief. This is the work of lifetimes and I’m going to share with you what I’ve learned, up this point, in this one.

Grief starts with trauma and trauma comes when some something our minds and/or souls experienced as a certainty, breaks, and is replaced with a new certainty. A loved one dies or begins the process of dying. We fall out of love or someone falls out of love with us. We fail at something. We’re fired or get laid off. A church we experienced as safe, kind and loving is no longer safe, kind and loving. Another black or brown person is killed through state sanctioned violence. The reality of our environmental decline and the fragility of our existence becomes glaringly clear. This week has been one in which the traumatic event for many was the elections. For many, the election of an autocratic president who built his campaign on white ideals of patriarchy and privilege abruptly changes our perspective of our country, your neighbors, your family. The quickest definition of trauma may simply be anything that makes you want to yell out in pain.

Grief is the process of our souls integrating that trauma; that revised reality. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross is one of the names most frequently connected to the study of grief. As a point of United Church of Christ trivia, Kübler-Ross began her work when four seminary students at Chicago Theological Seminary (a UCC seminary and my alma mater) approached her with the request that she help them study what people go through when they’re dying. She brought together her work in the 1969 book, Death and Dying and it was through that she presented what she described as the 5 stages of death: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Although frequently presented as a progression, Kübler-Ross herself said that it was rarely that straight-forward. These are more elements of grief than a step by step progression through grief. Any of these can come up at anytime, in any order, if at all. She also wrote that it is rare for denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance to only emerge once.  These are elements of grief that come in waves.

I want to point out one stage that isn’t part of what she named. I know that part of the theme of today’s worship is “letting go.” Let me shade that idea just a bit. There is a significant difference between letting go “of” something and letting go “to” something.

Some of you may have heard me say this in other contexts but I used to think I was, more or less, made of teflon and that every difficult thing I experienced in life would just slide right off of me; that I could - very naturally - let go of anything. Somewhere along the way, I started to figure that, actually, I was made of velcro and that, no matter how much I might try to remove it, at least a little bit of everything sticks. Not only that, the bit that sticks is part of me.

Grief is the process of our souls integrating trauma or, using Kübler-Ross’ language, accepting the trauma that’s become a part of our life. It is letting go to that reality. Thinking we can let go of it is closer to denial. Now, I’m not saying denial is all bad. It can be a way our souls give us the time we need to integrate something new and difficult. It is not an unhealthy element of grieving, it just is.

There is, however, some point when denial can also become a form of spiritual addiction; we put an unsustainable and unhealthy amount of energy into doing everything we can to insist and reinforce the worldview we had before a trauma irrevocably changed our perception of the world. Now, let me say that even as I say this it is not as a value judgement about the addict. For many of us, our addictions are rooted in what we thought was the best possible behavior at the time. It’s the point at which that repeated behavior starts to take an unsustainable amount of energy from our own self-care, our relationships, our health, our safety and our communities that we need to ask for help and move in another direction in order to integrate the initial trauma into our lives.

Although healing is a part of dealing with trauma, working out ways to integrate that trauma is the goal. The stages of grief are not a problematic part of that journey. Since the experience of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance are such common ways of grieving that it’s important to move from problematizing these behaviors and, instead, welcome them as gifts from God to us that help us integrate life’s traumas. We are created in God’s image but we are re-created and renewed in God’s image, too. The ongoing process of grieving is part of the ongoing process of the integration of trauma.

I have conversations with a lot of pastors and local church members near the moment in time when their heart breaks around something related to their church. A conflict emerges and anger within the church is transformed into anger with church leadership. A conflict between the pastor and a group or individual takes the outwardly focused energy the church needs to serve God and God’s people and inwardly focuses energy in a way that causes damage to people in the church and the church overall. The way the church portrays themselves has little to do with the church they are. The financial covenant a church made is not one the church is actually able to fulfill. The pastor or a church member discovers that they are not as skilled at one thing or another as they thought they were. Someone fails at something they did not expect to fail at. Someone accidentally or unintentionally causes another person harm. People slide into behavior that is unethical. People discover that the burden of care for the church or their community is more than they can bare. They experience the isolating nature of leadership. They experience the isolation that comes from disagreeing with the majority or a determined minority. For many pastors, the conversation is a vocational one and integrating this new information means they can no longer pastor a particular church. In some cases, integrating this information means that they discover they no longer have a call to ministry, at all. Members realize that they no longer have a call to ministry in that place or have no desire to be part of a church at all. Now, these are frequently the best possible response for the sake of those they are in relationship with, their churches and themselves. These are all appropriate ways to integrate the trauma of brokenheartedness.

But there is still more. For many of us, surviving the broken hearted moments of ministry can also be the moments our ministry deepens and the reality of ministry blooms in us.  The way I’ve said it to many pastors is that you have a better chance to be the minister you’re called to be and the minister your church needs after your heart is broken by the church you serve. I’ve said something similar to members. The decision to leave a church and the decision to stay at a church are both decisions that, at their best, come from a genuine sense of call that is rooted in a steadily deepened understanding of what ministry is. Those heartbreaks in the life of church are when you really get to know who and what your church is and the idealism about what church life is fades away. Its when you have the opportunity to move from the fights with people you know into faithful struggle with people you love. The sense of call that emerges on the other end of this kind of heartbreak is where the most radical things happen; where the most radical things emerge. It is not the moment when grief is let go of and it goes away. It is the moment when trauma and grief are integrated into who we are and become a part of us. It does not go away. It just doesn’t. It becomes part of us. As denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance emerge at the different times they do, instead of digging our heels in and refusing their presence, we can get to a point where we can say, “Hello old friend. What have you come to teach me this time?” Grief is not our enemy.

What I want to say next may not apply to everyone in this sanctuary. I recognize that, for some, this may lean further into the realm of the political than some may be comfortable with but I need to say it. Sometime between Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, many of us experienced what can best be described as trauma. A self-professed advocate for sexual assault; hate crimes; racism; and war was elected as President of the United States. These bags under my eyes come from the stomach tightening fear that has struck in me in the middle of the night as a try and figure out how to best raise and protect my four year old child who will now grow up under a Trump presidency. I know the feeling I have burning a hole in my gut still pales in comparison to the feelings of those of us who are people of color wake with every day. I know know the feeling I have must pale in comparison to what our Muslim siblings - and other folks who are part of the interfaith community - must feel as they face the presidential promise of deportation and internment camps. I know the feelings I have must pale in comparison to what those of us who are Spanish speaking refugees and immigrants have as they wonder how long they’ll be able to remain in the country that’s become their home. I know the feelings I have pale in comparison to those in the queer community who, for the past several years, have been told they are welcome and included but now feel the real danger of having everything we’ve fought for rolled back. For survivors of sexual assault who are trying to figure out how they are going to wake up every morning and see the face or hear the voice of this man as they catch up on the news these days have impacted the integration of the trauma’s within their own lives. The world watches our elections and there are people throughout the world who are trying to figure out how many of our already weak environmental promises will be weakened still further.

We are only at the beginning stages of grief. The trauma is still fresh. I don’t think that any of us are so naive to think that the opinions Trump espoused didn't exist but the fact that there are enough people who agree to elect him as president is soul shaking. In one way, everything in my head knew this was possible but it is my heart and soul that are shocked. Even though my head always knew something like this was possible, my soul and my heart held out hope - more hope than I realized - that it was not. When I am even more deeply honest about it, I realize how the perspectives and worldviews of those who were part of the pro-Trump coalition are ones that I was taught or heard at different points in my life and how that if I’d had some of the life experiences that some of them did, today I might be celebrating instead of grieving. I am deeply thankful for those who loved me onto another path and taught me to work hard, something I do some days better than others, to resist the temptation of another way. I want to resist it so fully. I have to be honest and say that those have rioted in the streets and those that will have expressed with their bodies the howl of rage and grief that I have. As I said before, the quickest definition of trauma may simply be anything that makes you want to yell out in pain and, sometimes, lash out in pain and, sometimes, even want others to meet you at your point of pain so much that you’re tempted to cause others pain. There is some part of us that seems to believe that the only way to work our way through our grief is to cause the same grieving to others or to rage with others. I understand this impulse and recognize that there are some ways in which Trump’s campaign was not a simple electoral process but that it was also the anger and violence of a riot focused through a vote.

I also understand that there is some part of this that is looking not to be alone. This is the place some of the integration happens. Although there are definitely times and ways people want their space and that is key to the integration of grief, what is it in us that also makes us want to come together? Why is it that we come together for funerals? Why is it that, at moments of trauma, people want to reach out? Why is it that, we worship together, protest together and sing together? Why is it that, on the other side of this election, the call for unity has come from so many? This is part of the mystery of life that we take for granted but I find sacred and holy. There is a reason that communion is such a central and unifying part of our faith. This tendency to emphasize recognition of a greater good is not simply good post-election etiquette, it is a sacramental tendency.

If we, as people of faith, believe that there is any need for unity there are some ideas we may have to address and re-emphasize in ways that may, at first, be frightening for some. Shame became so integrated into the theology of sin that we ended up rejecting the simple idea that was at its core; the idea that we all mess up and fall short of God’s hopes for us. We somehow made sin out to be the exceptional failure of faith life instead of a part of the daily reality of being human. We used the idea of sin as a weapon to try enforce social norms instead of a normal part of our lives and our living. The progressive church, in an effort to reject the weaponizing of sin, rejected the theology of sin. Sin is part of our lives and the systems we participate in. When we reject sin, we also end up rejecting redemption and, at its core, this is the idea, this is the hope that many are seeking. As the church has rejected the theology of sin we have also inadvertently rejected the possibility of redemption, of change, and of rebirth for individuals. We have come to suggest that the state of the world is “their” fault instead of ours and reinforced the systems and politics of division that are crushing us all.

Belief in redemption calls for something else. Walter Wink, in his book Engaging the Powers, summed it up this way, “The Powers are good. The Powers are fallen. The Powers need to be redeemed.” He was speaking to those systems that were set up to do good but have fallen far from that purpose. Now, we know it’s more complicated than that and that even some of those systems that were set up to do good were rooted in belief systems that did not regard all people as equally valuable but the message of redemption is still key.

The trauma of this week is still fresh, the grieving is fresh, too. As we integrate this trauma through the process of grieving I am certain of just a few things: integration will come; we are called to do this work together; we will be transformed; and redemption is possible.

We in the church have yet another word that applies to the time yet to come. They didn’t use it on Good Friday when Jesus was executed by the State. They didn’t use it on Saturday when the grieving was real and painful and fresh. But sometimes after that, when they were all together; when they started to build a community of wholeness and mutuality; when they started to recognize that their power was in what they shared; they started to use another word more and more. They started to talk about about resurrection. I believe in resurrection. I believe. I believe. I believe.

We are always called to serve and serve God’s people. That is our call at every moment and for this particular moment. I believe in resurrection. I still believe in hope. I still believe in justice. I still believe in love. I believe. I believe. I believe. May our lives reflect the reality of our belief.