Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship of Dubuque
M. Kent Mayfield
August 26, 2018
There is a brokenness
out of which comes the unbroken,
a shatteredness out of which blooms the unshatterable.
There is a sorrow
beyond all grief which leads to joy
and a fragility out of whose depths emerges strength.
There is a hollow space too vast for words
through which we pass with each loss,
out of whose darkness we are sanctioned into being.
There is a cry deeper than all sound
whose serrated edges cut the heart
as we break open
to the place inside that is unbreakable and whole
while learning to sing.
Long Point’s apparitional
this warm spring morning,
the strand a blur of sandy light,
and the square white
of the lighthouse-separated from us
by the bay’s ultramarine
as if it were nowhere
we could ever go-gleams
like a tower’s ghost, hazing
into the rinsed blue of March,
our last outpost in the huge
indetermination of sea.
It seems cheerful enough,
in the strengthening sunlight,
fixed point accompanying our walk
along the shore. Sometimes I think
it’s the where-we-will be,
only not yet, like some visible outcropping
of the afterlife. In the dark
its deeper invitations emerge:
green witness at night’s end,
flickering margin of horizon,
marker of safety and limit.
but limitless, the way it calls us,
and where it seems to want us
to come, And so I invite it
into the poem, to speak,
and the lighthouse says:
Here is the world you asked for,
gorgeous and opportune,
here is nine o’clock, harbor-wide,
and a glinting code: promise and warning.
The morning’s the size of heaven.
What will you do with it?
Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.
Let us not underestimate how hard it is to be compassionate. Compassion is hard because it requires the inner disposition to go with others to place where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely, and broken. But this is not our spontaneous response to suffering. What we desire most is to do away with suffering by fleeing from it or finding a quick cure for it.
― Henri J.M. Nouwen (selected)
By late in July, it was clear that summer was becoming a challenge for me…well, really a doggone drag and chore to be honest. Jack had sent me packing. Not literally, but he made going to the lakefront a very attractive option. I was “edgy,” “on edge,” I said. He said then find another edge to look over. So by 1:30 in the afternoon, I stood on a jetty into Lake Michigan below my apartment, looking at the lake, the midday sun gaining ground in the sky, its beams reflecting off the shimmering water. The serenity and beauty of the scene and the passing summer scene – zinc-tipped noses, sandals and flip-flops, easy conversations tossed over the shoulder, striped sun umbrellas and towels, all grotesquely contrasted with the feeling of impending doom taking up residence in my gut.
Maybe it was because at a gathering of Unitarian Universalist ministers early in the summer, Olav Nieuwejarr had spoken in honor of those ministers who have served our movement for 50 years and recalled what was happening in the world when he was ordained in 1968, reflecting back on the first year of his ministry:
• helping women find safe access to reproductive care;
• realizing the long and painful war of the time was based on a lie;
• responding to racism and public assassinations of black leaders; and
• living with a president who lied to the American public and had possibly committed treason.
The refrain from his sweeping moral call to liberal faith-in-action today was: “That was 50 years ago, and here we are, 50 years later…”.
Yes, here we are. Not since Kennedy stared down Khrushchev over missiles in Cuba has our nation seemed so absorbed with international intrigue, deceit and the force of war to give us meaning and all-American appetite for violence.
History doesn’t repeat, but it often rhymes: Miss Flanagan tacked that quote up in our 4th Grade classroom. It was true, and not only in the ways my life echoes that of my father and mother but something not quite graspable in the symmetries of our national policy and practice where each day is a thriller of sorts, with secrets upon secrets, conflicting agendas and the truth quivering just below every conversation.
It is unnerving.
What do I expect these days? Old fashioned loyal patriotism? A sense propriety, decorum, manners? A bit of trust? Dream on, I say. There’s nothing like that. In the current environment, there’s no gain in it. All the incentives push people in the opposite directions. So we go into our tribal hollows, twitching at each tweet.
Participation in our collective life seems driven by the instant gratification worlds of Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook and the 24hr news cycle: Modern technology for primitive human relations. The media know what sells—conflict, insult and division, quick and easy anger better than answers, resentment better than reason; emotion trumps evidence. A sanctimonious, sneering one-liner, no matter how bogus, is seen as truth-telling, straight-talk, while a calm, well-argued response is seen as canned and phony. There’s a fine line between fact and fiction, between truth and not quite, always a bit blurred, but it gets murkier every day.
Surrounded by pundits, newscasters and White House staffers who lie with astonishing temerity and abandon, ginning up the worst fears and prejudices of young and old, and “truth is not truth.” Increasingly virulent attacks on any group that can be seen as threatening or useful as a scapegoat – make people, even good people, well-intentioned people begin to assume that all knowledge is relative and there is no point of voting or protest, hobbling public discourse
Never a “cockeyed optimist,” of course, I’m as well-schooled as you in the grammar of confusion and despair syntax of cynicism. Why do you take such an instant dislike to some people, you ask? It saves a lot of time.
Of course, another joke comes to mind, too: Why does the triangle refuse to be friends with the circle? Because the circle is pointless.
Now, I know that touchiness and intemperate language is no model for approaching people and their problems. I know I am edgey. But really, I say “who can be gracefully serene?” We have a duly elected president who attacks the free press, uses the power of his office to bully and harass people, describes immigrants as “animals” “rapists,” murderers and thieves” preys on women, laments the “death and destruction caused by people who shouldn’t be here,” rips children from their parents’ arms with little hope of being reunited. Who isn’t teetering on the brink of magnetic madness?
Is it possible that even in the midst of ominous, urgent, gestures, at the edge of perilous conflict, in high sinister grass at the swamp’s bank, we can lean toward love and the promise of ordinary people, not just in Dubuque or Iowa but across the country and around the world.
I cannot claim to know.
On a recent road trip through the fields of northern Illinois, a fellow interrupted my sullen consideration of the world’s distress as I peevishly pumped gas at an ugly, anonymous gas station and asked if he could pass on the Serenity Prayer to me. He handed over a small card that read:
“God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.”
“What does he mean handing this card to me”?, I thought. He probably pushes it off any old geezer he meets with his hand on the pump. But in the moment, I was strangely moved that he caught me and confronted me in a moment of apparently edgy distress, which before then I thought I was successfully bottling up within myself.
Sometimes connection is as simple as the kindness of noticing someone else’s reality.
[this well-known prayer is widely attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr, a theologian whose work has breathed much life into progressive protestant Christianity and liberal politics.
As I drove on, I remembered reading a few lines from The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela (Sahm Venter) published this summer – displaying unedited his raw emotions, heart breaking and inspiring from the period of his imprisonment.
“I detest white supremacy and will fight it with every weapon in my hands. But even when the clash between you and me has taken the most extreme form, I should like us to fight over principles and ideas without personal hatred, so that at the end of the battle, whatever the results might be, I can proudly shake hands with you because I feel I have fought an upright and worthy opponent who has observed the whole code of honor and decency.” (1976)
Mandela said that he lived in hope and expectation that “one day we may have on or side the genuine and firm support of an upright and straightforward man, holding high office, who will consider it improper to shirk his duty of protecting the rights and privileges of even his bitter opponents in the battle of ideas that is being fought in our country today.” (1970 – letter to his wife, Winnie)
A moving meditation on the transformative power of a venture onto the edge of the unknowable, perhaps the edge of reason, more likely the edge of violence, perhaps even the edge of outright destruction.
On August 5, The New York Times published a special edition of its weekly Sunday magazine, entitled “Losing Earth: The decade we almost stopped climate change – A tragedy in two acts.” (authored by Nathaniel Rich) Rich quoted Rafe Pomerance as saying ‘Thirty years ago we could have saved the planet. Instead we moved ahead to destroy the conditions necessary for its own survival.”
Since 1981, Arctic sea ice has decreased by an average of 1.3 % per year. Be 2030, the number of people worldwide affected by floods is expected to triple. In the 20 years thereafter, climate change is expected to cause the death of roughly 250, 000 people each year. By 2050, the Arctic Ocean is expected to be ice free in the summer, a million species will face extinction and global sea levels will have risen to levels that will turn hundreds of millions of people into refugees.
The edge of environmental destruction.
Spike Lee’s truth-is-crazier- than-fiction film of a black police officer infiltrating the KKK in Colorado in the 70’s opened country-wide on August 10. Talking about the film, Lee was quick to move from the film’s generic kumbaya conclusion to say:
“We’re living [today] in pure undiluted insanity….terrorism…homegrown, apple pie, red white and blue terrorism.” (NYT, August5, 2018)
The edge of violence.
In Dopesick: Dealers Doctors and the Drug Company that Addicted America ( another of my cheery summer-reads) Beth Macy writes:
“In the worst drug crisis in American’s history since 2000 sparked by OxyContin and broadening into heroin and fentanyl has claimed 45,000 people in the 12mo span ending last September, making it almost as lethal as the AIDS crisis at its peak.” She was wrong, unfortunately, the number, according to the CDC is closer to 72,000, a number that reflects a rise of about 10%, and a figure higher than the peak yearly death totals from HIV, car crashes or gun deaths
I mentioned this to my next door neighbor, who asked: “How does my great-grandson, a high school football hero and burly construction worker end as a heroin overdose statistic at 19, slumped on the bathroom floor?”
How indeed? And, can the question drive us forward with plain-spoken moral force to an edge of growth?
Early this summer, celebrity chef and television host Anthony Bourdain killed himself in a 5-star French hotel. Millions reacted with shock and sorrow. Bourdain’s suicide was unthinkable. His shows and his books celebrated his great talent for joy – his delight in everything from Thai street food to jujitsu. Then days, “pervaded by the gray drizzle of unrelenting horror” (William Styron) that snakes its way in and out of the homes of old and young across the country.
The edge between life affirmation and an urge for extinction.
Ann Tyler has new book Clock Dance. Tyler’s preoccupation with how people weather both the cruelty and the comforts of passing years has been a hallmark of her work. I’m not fond of much that she has written but as I was tick-tocking through a summer afternoon, I heard her tell an NPR host that with the death of her husband, grief engulfed her, “It seemed I’d been presented with a snap shot that showed me how the world worked, how the years flowed by and people altered and nothing could every stay the same…I would go on. Yes, I would survive but I would never be the same again.”
The edge of survival.
Jack and I met in the summer of 1976, during the initial outbreak of what we eventually knew to be the AIDS epidemic. I cannot convey the edginess of those years, when as we cast off eons-old shame and liberated the libido, we found ourselves exposed to an implacable, hitherto unknown virus – no medication – every diagnosis -a death-sentence. Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers (Viking, 2018) juxtaposes, as we did then, senseless loss and efforts to survive. Love’s power. Love’s limits. I read the book as a July marathon.
It was right to be reminded that a disease can kill our loves as it kills our bodies and that its ravages extend beyond those who were infected, a scourge that has cut down 35 million people and isn’t finished yet. I’m not making it 2018’s summer reading obligation but it is an antidote to the lazy/hazy, easy-living summer urge to forget what it was like to live during another time of crisis and a reminder that we did survive the now- almost-unfathomable death-a-day devastation those days — that nearly exhausted capacity for love – a horror story from the past that we did survive.
I worked as a volunteer at the Howard Brown Clinic at Illinois Masonic Hospital. One day, the parents of an AIDS patient came down from some small town in Wisconsin. I was asked to take them to see him. He was near death. Blind, his face –chin, cheeks, ears eaten away, skin purpled with lesions, linked to tubes and sighing machines. I stopped at his bed – nodded to them – red-eyed, silent – gestured toward the bed. The man said: I think I know why you’ve brought us here…but…could we now see our son?
Yes, we survived but not as we were: cheery and polite, confident and genteel men who lived on Lake Shore Drive and wore expensive clothes and strolled the Champs Elysee on Christmas Eve. We survived – bolder, messier persons than the ones we’d been – friends and lovers living on, living even now –truth be told – on the lingering edge of morbid apprehension.
My sister, who lives in Phoenix, is married to a fine man, son of early Mexican – pre-statehood – settlers. Father of four, he is unrelenting in his opposition to immigration. My sister says “we don’t talk that.” A month back, however, she contacted a local Hispanic support group and volunteered to work 4 days a week at the detention center for immigrants down on the border near Yuma. Last week she told me about a case where late one night she was awakened by border control personnel who came into the space where she sat with a Guatemalan mother being detained with her two children, one scarcely more than an infant, both of whom were then taken away. Ilah said : “ When the children went to sleep they were in their mothers arms. When they awakened. Mother was gone, deported to who-knows-where without a trace. Children were with strangers…in a place they have now been for the last two months. They will survive, I suppose,” she said. “I will survive…but I’ll not be the same and I’ll tell this story over and over. I will talk about it.”
The edge of something brave and new.
Boundaries and borders and precipices have always had a fascination for me. Where the land meets the sea, on the edge of the canyon, on high moors with standing stones and crosses or at the edge of a desert of moving sand, moving from city to country, one country to another, pulling out passport, a visa.
And I’ve chosen to live often—as have many of you– in border-line situations, on the fringes of society, sometimes with the despised and those of doubtful virtue…ourselves marginalized by society , edged out of conventional church life, perhaps, almost always on the edge of uncertainty, where the challenge is to look beyond where I am today, where you are just now, beyond what is right in front of us and into the unknown…(part of which now makes growing old so exhilarating for me…at least some days.)
But if you live on the edge, on borderlands, as we all do these days, you must be alert…awake. There is always something going on at the edges, the otherness of life where the strange is always waiting to break in…more to see, more to experience
We need to recognize the boundary places in our lives and our ability to enter new worlds of experience. Many boundaries are fabrications saying “This far and no further,” when in reality we can go on. We need to be awake to the reality that the world is far larger than our narrow vision. Camille Paglia, a leading feminist, once said, “Most creatures are born blind and after a few days or weeks are able to see. Most men, however, remain blind all their lives.” Sadly so. Many of us, gender cis-male or otherwise notwithstanding, are insistently blinkered. We don’t want to be stretched or to commit to anything that would take us out on the edge beyond the here-and-now.
I know from experience, it is not so much the lack of money or physical limitation or political meanspiritedness but the lack of vision that limits my action; I do not step out because I believe that I’ve have come to the edge of my capacities. Too often we give up when we are actually on the edge of a breakthrough. We choose a lackluster and ineffective brand of comfort rather than take a risk on brilliance.
We must learn to walk the edges of our experience if we are to journey into fullness. As living and moving beings we can stand still just so long: we will either reach forward and grow or stultify and lose what we have had. It is true of people. It is true of communities, of countries …well…even fellowships of the faithful.
Reaching out for the other, the new, the strange, the different can open us to the Great Other, that comes to us each moment of our lives. But, if we are afraid of the other, afraid to venture, if we seek security, safety, the status quo or a return to a nostalgic past, we are in grave danger.
What parades across the screen of daily life may look like a mix of a New Orleans jazz funeral and an apocalyptic-medieval danse macabre – degenerate priests and ministers preying on the helpless; homeless, parched refugees confronting pitiless if not unscrupulous politicos on a 21st Century landscape, but it must be for us a exploration, a celebration of resilience and life.
Our free, untrammeled faith can help us cross borders and walk into the unknown. It can give us courage to enter new territories, to discover that all of life is a journey… an adventure.
The French poet Apollinaire wrote:
Come to the edge
He said. They said
We are afraid
Come to the edge
He said. They came
He pushed them, and
Like it or not, some days…we are called to walk the edges, to adventure, to risk discovering a deep and more profound world than the stale, small, artificial place we find comfortable. Only those who walk on the edge can know more than the already known.
Every time we fail to reach out beyond the solid and comfortable, holding fast to what seems sure and certain, we kill some of the life that yet might be…
Each time we open our eyes not only to beauty, to wonder and mystery but to loss and danger and profound sadness…in sound and in fury, our lives can be renewed
to passion and presence and the promise of a day unborn.
May it be so!
We have only to go a little beyond the frontier of sensible appearances to see the divine welling up and showing through…by means of all created things, without exception, the divine assails us, penetrates us and molds us.
We imagine it as distant and inaccessible. In fact we live steeped in its burning layers.
If we have become unable to see beyond the obvious, the sheer misery and hatefulness of the life….we have become poor indeed. The danger is that we ourselves become what we see.
Perhaps the True is there under our gaze, invading the universe, penetrating it as a ray of light does a crystal, waiting for us in all things
Fullness does not lie in separation from but in a deeper penetration into life. Plunge into it where it is deepest and most violent, struggle in its currents and drink of its waters.
Pull away from the trivial. Live on the edge of danger.
Have the loneliness and the courage to take in not only joy but dismay and fear and pain without bolting for comfort or obscuring them with mindless prattle.
We are called to reawaken, to retune our senses and by the groping of our lives walk the edge of life with a deepening vision of the ever-present.
Adapted from Teilhard de Chardin (Le Milieu Divin, 1964)
ALL: Without turning away from all the dying and grieving — which, rightly held, can redouble our commitment to life — we must learn to ‘Look well to the growing edge!’