Giving it Up to God
This spring I had the honor of serving as congregation-member SpecK's “chaplain” as she jumped one of the hoops toward becoming a Unitarian Universalist minister.
SpecK picked me up at 5am to go to Boston. We arrived at the appointed place at the appointed time and entered and waited. And waited, and waited and waited. In nearly an hour no one came to say, “Welcome,” or “We are running late,” or even, “Why are you here?”
SpecK’s confidence ebbed as the minutes ticked away. She looked through her handbag, but nothing confirmed that we were in the right place at the right time. “This is a test,” she whispered, looking for the webcam. “They’re watching how I handle this.” She fretted, and tried not to fret, and smiled gamely, and finally put her head on the table.
“I don’t know what’s going on,” she said. “I don’t know what to do.”
I thought about whether or not to say what I really thought. I thought about how beloved SpecK is in this place. I thought how any number of you would have would have gotten up at 4am to accompany her. I thought how one of you might have made her breakfast, how many of you could have made her laugh.
I’m the church lady she picked.
I figured she knew what she was getting.
So I said, “It’s true that you don’t know what’s going on. But really, that’s one of millions of things that you don’t know. It’s just the only one that’s got your attention right now.”
I was lucky. It made her smile.
I hesitated to say this to my friend, in this terrible moment of waiting and wondering, because I suspected that she might share my inclination—so many of our inclinations—to expect only the worst from what we don’t know. I feared that by invoking uncertainty I might remind her that many more terrible things could happen than those she was already considering.
I could have used the words of Mary Oliver in place of my own abrasive truth- telling. “"Keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable,” she wrote. “There are many ways to perish, or to flourish."
But what I meant to say—what I wanted in my heart to say—was this:
“Honey. You’ve got to give it up to God.”
If you are fortunate to have friends of many faiths, as I am, then you might be aquainted with a different kind of church lady than the ones who frequent this Society.
I mean the type of church lady who might say, in a circumstance of uncertainty, when the outcome is out of one’s control and impossible to predict,
“You’ve got to give it up to God.”
I love that kind of church lady. I wish I had more like her in my life.
And I love that saying. It pushes open the door of my hard, unbelieving heart, just a crack.
I am not, at this point in my faith development, looking for God. I am at ease with my belief that the Universe is greater than I can possibly imagine and not at all personally interested in me.
But I am incredibly envious of those for whom an experience of great and terrible uncertainty could be a reminder of faith.
I am not looking for God. But I am looking to grow my faith.
The Christian writer Anne Lamott says her favorite prayers are “help me help me help me” and “thank you thank you thank you.”
I’m beginning to think that these are actually the same prayer.
I’m beginning to notice—in my own life—the places where a circumstance’s outcome was completely unimaginable to me before it came to pass.
I’m beginning to notice the places where I get stuck believing that— because I can’t imagine a solution — there must not be one.
And I’m trying to make a connection between these two experiences:
The blessings that I could not have imagined before they happened.
The unsolved dark corners where I fear I’ll be stuck forever.
I am trying to wire these two opposing contacts together so they will throw a spark of light; so that they might illuminate a space of possibility for me to step into: with trepedation but also with hope.
The Unitarian Universalist minister Kate Braestrup has written an entire book on prayer, but she also concludes that all prayer comes down to these: Yes. Wow. Thank You.
I want to stick with “wow.” Wow. The Universe is so much bigger than me.
I am a little embarrased to admit that it has only recently dawned upon me that my inability to imagine a solution to a problem—pretty much any problem that stumps me—might not be a reflection of the Universe’s capacity to supply a solution.
My inability to imagine a solution might instead reflect the limitations of my puny human brain. It might express the terminal extent of my wisdom and experience. It might reveal the fears that blight my creativity.
But my inability to imagine a solution is not an accurate predictor of the possibility of a solution. It is not a reflection of the luck, or grace, or change that enters and scrambles all our lives, all the time. It is not a reflection of the divine.
And therefore clinging to the belief that there is no solution if I can’t think of one is a failure of faith. It is a failure to acknowledge the holy, which the Unitarian Universalist minister Kendyl Gibbons defines as,
“…nothing more than the ordinary, held up to the light and profoundly seen. It is the awareness of a creativity and a connection that we do not control, in a universe that is always larger, more intricate, and more astonishing than we imagine.”
When I hold the ordinary up to the light and profoundly see it, what do I see?
My life is littered with solutions I could not have predicted. It is rife with blessings I could not have imagined.
As is yours, I expect.
Who could know the child I grew in my body would become this child, my precious daughter?
Who among us could know which stranger would become a beloved other—whether spouse and partner or peerless friend?
Is it not true that things work out, all the time, in ways we did not anticipate or purposefully manifest?
By way of example:
Right now, in my life, there are two people acting as tremendous helpers and teachers to me. Both of these people were familiar strangers – faces I recognized in public, but walked past without acknowledgment—for years.
Now, in profoundly different ways, they are each helping me with some of the biggest challenges in my life. They are offering me kindness and generosity and skill and healing. They are helping me solve extremely different problems with one critical thing in common: I couldn’t solve them by myself.
Remember: I walked by these each of these people several times every week, with no connection, for years. Before I even knew I was going to have these problems, the people who were going to help me fix them were right next to me, going about their business.
It is easy to dismiss this as an ordinary coincidence of a small community. But when I hold it up to the light, it humbles me. It certainly makes a trip to the gym or the supermarket more awesome.
Because if I live in the wow, I have to wonder what blessings might come from any other stranger who crosses my path. I have to acknowledge that the answer to my next desperate plea – help me help me help me – could come from the place I least expect it.
Rumsfeld was right. Those unknown unknowns. They get you every time.
I am a practical person. And a bit of an overachiever. If I identify in myself a failure of faith, I will ask: How can I correct this deficit?
My Auntie Ollie, for whom my daughter Small is named, would have said, “A prayer never hurt.”
The prayers that work best for me are the twin sacraments of asking for help and practicing gratitude. I think Anne Lamott’s got it right. Help me help me help me. Thank you thank you thank you.
When I humble myself to ask for help I honor the grace of the world. I say “yes” to possibility. I live in the wow: there are more solutions than I can imagine. What are the chances that I will find one that knocks me flat with surprise?
When I say “thank you,” I take note that I was right to have had faith. Love, or God, or the Universe, or grace, or chance, or luck, or the goodwill of my fellow humans came through for me. Something good happened that I didn’t have to make happen. I was not alone with my problem and my puny human brain.
In my work as a personal trainer, I talk to my clients about creating a habit, cutting a groove in their minds, for exercise and self care. For most of them is the hardest part of the work: changing habits of mind.
Asking for help—and noticing when I receive it—cuts a groove in my mind where I begin to believe that help will be forthcoming.
It grows my faith.
Some moments are easier to live in the wow than others.
Like when you’ve just hiked a summit, and the vista is spread out all below you, and the sky is vaulted above you, and your strong heart is beating in your chest, and you’re thinking of a Mary Oliver poem.
I remember reading over twenty years ago about a study that found that humans experience physiological changes when we gaze out over an unbroken vista—whether looking out to sea or off the roof of an urban tenement. I don’t recall which stress markers changed—whether respiration or blood pressure or brain activity—but the takeaway stayed with me all these years: we are hard-wired for awe.
It’s harder to get that long view in the supermarket. Just like it’s harder to hold to mystery and possibility when you are really down in the soup of a problem: frightened, heartsick, bewildered.
In those moments, when I am filled with inchoate longing and overwhelming confusion, the suggestion that I stay open to more unknowns seems—well the word I usually come up with is, “Stupid.”
Those are the moments when, like Greg Brown, my cynicism does battle with my faith: “Oh Lord, I have made you a place in my heart. But I hope that you leave it alone.”
This is why, for me, it’s essential that I have a faith practice. That I prime the pump of “yes” and “wow” when I’m not in despair. That I carve that groove into my mind.
This is why I come to Services here as often as I can. Once, I described this Great Hall to a lapsed church lady of the Southern Baptist tradition and she said, “Well, that’s God’s house!” And I thought, “Hmmm--not exactly.”
But pretty darned close.
It’s not that God, or the divine, or the brotherhood and sisterhood of humankind, or grace, or love, live any more in this room than anywhere else.
It is that here, I am reminded to look for them: In the fellowship of this congregation. In the inherent worth and dignity of every person. In the beauty of this space. In the words and deeds of prophetic men and women. In the wisdom of the world’s religions. In the interdependent web of all existence.
For this one hour each week I make a place in my heart for the holy.
When my fitness clients are trying to make real and lasting change in their wellness it takes more than one or two hours a week at the gym. It takes a radical reorientation toward self care and the body.
The same is true of faith. This is why it is not enough for me to come here on Sunday. This is why I also need to pray. To run and weep and sweat and sleep and eat my prayers. To ask for help and practice gratitude. To say “yes” and “wow” and “help me” and “thank you” over and over, until I can remember them in times of great and terrible uncertainty.
Like this week, when I heard about the shootings in Portland, Texas of a teen lesbian couple: Molly Olgin, 19, Mary Kristene Chapa, 18. Molly died of her wounds and Kristene remains in the hospital. The assailant has not been caught and the police have been careful not to ascribe a motive in the absence of information.
Small and I have been talking about what you need to handle hard times. Like when you’re an exhausted little girl in a bad mood who has to go to Field Day and a softball championship in the same day. Or when you’re a grown up whose heart is broken to see two vibrant, loving young women brutalized. Perhaps because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Perhaps because of who they were and how they loved.
Small and I concluded that hard times call for Faith. And Hope. And Action.
It’s hard to take action when you’re down in the soup, hurting and in despair. It’s hard to get out of bed and lace up your cleats if you don’t have faith that it could be a good day. It’s hard to feel hopeful in a world where someone would want to end the possibility and promise of two beautiful young lives.
Kate Braestrup writes,
“…what prayer, at its best and at our best, has always done, is to help us to live consciously, honorably, and compassionately. Because I am not stronger, more self-sufficient, smarter, braver, or any less mortal than my forbears or my neighbors, I need this help. As long as prayer helps me to be more loving, then I need prayer. As long as prayer serves as a potent means of sharing my love with others, I need prayer.”
As long as prayer reminds me that that life is not limitted to that which makes me suffer, I need prayer. As long as prayer reminds me that the “the universe is always larger, more intricate and more astonishing than we imagine,” I need prayer. As long as prayer reminds me that the lives of two assault victims are not defined by their worst moment, by what was done to them, I need prayer.
I invite you to share a prayer with me for Molly Olgin and Kristene Chapa. It is adapted from the words of Kate Braestrup because I am still learning how to pray, and I need help.
In Love, let us offer the prayers of our hearts.
Let us give thanks for the gift of Molly Olgin.
Let us yield in confidence to grief, knowing that pain will pass and sorrow ends, but love does not die and will not end.
May she find her place in memory. May all who mourn her be comforted. May the morning come when they may arise with joy.
May love and courage be in the heart of Kristene Chapa.
May love move in the skilled hands of those who would heal her. May love be in their learning and in their care.
May love enfold those who wait at her bedside and worry over her. In their suffering, may they know that they are not alone.
Love abides in us, around us, and beyond us, forever and ever.
Some months back, both Small and I were having trouble sleeping. There came a night when, moments after I turned out the light, she padded into my room. It was fully two hours after her bedtime. Two hours in which she had lain awake, trying to sleep. I pulled my girl into bed next to me and she pushed her body into mine and buried her face in the pillow.
“I hate being awake when everyone else is asleep. It makes me feel so hopeless,” she said. I wrapped myself around her tired trusting body. Our breathing fell into rhythm, and in a few minutes she was asleep.
In the end, this is what it means to me to grow my faith: I don’t want to be someone who lies in the dark feeling hopeless.
I want to be someone who assumes that problems can be fixed. I want to believe an aching heart will be soothed, a time of trouble will come to an end, a request for help will be met with abundant generosity. I want to believe—in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. interpretting Theodore Parker—that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice"
I want to dwell in a kind of hopeful creativity rather than white knuckle endurance.
I don’t see my beliefs changing such that I come to expect an unconditional parental presence will wrap its conscious self around me in the dark night. But at my most painful, confused, lonely moments, I want to remember that life trends towards joy. I want to remember that I am not alone. I want to remember that I am not in control, which means the possibilities for healing and transformation are always greater than I can imagine in my tiny hurting human head.
I want to grow my faith.
I want to give it up to God.