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Sunday, May 18, 2014

Where the Theology Meets the Road

Presented by Guest Preacher Rev. Michael Eselun, with Dayna Edwards, Director of Religious Exploration, Bettie Young, Worship Associate, and the Choir

“Where the Theology Meets the Road”

A sermon by Michael Eselun (www.michaeleselun.com)


When I first had the idea for this talk and ran it by my partner Scott, he cocked his head a little like the RCA Victor dog and looked a little puzzled.  I tried to explain it again, and he said, “Seems a little heady, but I’m sure you’ll bring it all down into human terms, and it’ll be great.”  So with that vote of confidence, I find myself here—keeping an eye out for the puzzled head cocked sideways.

The thing is, as I see it, this is as basic as it gets:  what do we believe; what do we hold to be true; what’s the lens through which we view the big questions of life and death? What’s it all about Alfie?  As Unitarian Universalists  we tend to keep these questions at the forefront of our individual and collective exploration, each encouraged to find his own answers.  Other traditions tend to provide the answers, and require in varying degrees, adherence to that viewpoint.

As an oncology chaplain, what I have found though is that even when we think we know what we believe and hold to be true, when it comes right down to it-- where the theology meets the road-- a real crisis, like serious illness or death, often all bets are off.  I’ve met dozens of devout Christians or Catholics, who when faced with imminent death—will admit to me, “You know I don’t really know what I believe about what comes next.  I’d like to believe in heaven, but I just don’t know.”  And likewise there have been secular folks who when it comes right down to it, cannot accept or believe that this is the end of the story… some have shared mystical experiences they’ve had and never had shared before because perhaps it didn’t toe the secular party line or because they had no context in which to hold such an experience.  Maybe the personal theology or belief system remains solid, constant, unchanging, or maybe it’s shaken to the ground, or maybe it’s just cracked open a bit, letting in an often disquieting visitor—doubt.

That’s the intersection I wanted to explore today.  As patients have to struggle with, “NOW what do I REALLY believe?” the thing is, so do I have to struggle with the same questions walking in a parallel journey with each patient.  My hope is that perhaps some of these reflections, will resonate and reverberate within you, even though crisis may be at bay for now.

There are consistent theological themes that come up again and again with patients, whether they be fundamentalist, secular humanist, or anything in between.  And as I explore these, I do see the irony that I am even attempting to refine, to distill hundreds of personal journeys and come up with something even vaguely universal when, if anything, I deplore the idea of any singular, unshakable truth.  But there you are.  I’m looking for something perhaps universally human here, but something that has room for doubt and contradiction.  John Patrick Shanley, the playwright of the Pulitzer Prize winning play called, “Doubt”, has said that the opposite of faith isn’t doubt; it’s certainty.

And certainty is certainly one of the themes that does come up.  “I KNOW this is true.”  “I KNOW God loves me, answers prayer and will give me the strength to see me through this.”  “I KNOW God doesn’t give us any more than we can handle.”  “I KNOW that God helps those who help themselves… (often attributed to the Bible, but that’s Benjamin Franklin.)”  “ I KNOW that my thought creates my reality.”  “I KNOW that things happen for a reason, there are no accidents.”  “I KNOW that there is no reality beyond science.”  “I KNOW there is no god or higher power beyond nature.”  “I KNOW that there is no life beyond this one.  This is it.” 

The FACT is, that I could offer illustrations from patients’ lives and experience and make a case for the truth-- or falsehood-- of each of those proclamations of certainty.  Prove them, if you will.  But to what end?  It’s not a court case.  Reverend Judith Meyer, who retired from our pulpit in Santa Monica a few years ago, used to remind us each Sunday that we are here “to practice what it means to be human.”  And to me, there is a fundamental aspect of the human journey in which we crave and pursue and take comfort in our certainty, only to at times perhaps miss the magic of its collapse.

I walked into Stan’s room for the first time to find him alone in the bed beneath an oxygen mask.  I introduced myself, and he waived me away as he pulled the oxygen mask up long enough to spit out as quickly and as precisely as possible in a single breath and in a near monotone, “I know the Lord Jesus Christ is walking along with me every step of the way and that by his stripes my healing is assured.  I am fine. Thank you very much.”  (Mask back on.)  Something I’ve come to call a shrink-wrap theology—he is the perfect illustration.  I’ve seen dozens like him.  And not just religious folks!  Secular too. He is wrapped in the theology so tightly and remains as impenetrable as a new CD.  One might say that his faith will carry him through.  He’s all set.  Perhaps so.  Mechanically speaking anyway.  And if all goes well.  But still it seems that the full dimension of the experience does not get through, it is lost on him.  Kept separate from the experience, numbed to it, anesthetized.  No room for mystery.  For growth.  For expansion.  For awakening.  And what’s more, there seemed to be as much despair beneath those words, clinging to them, as there is despair in his body to breathe more oxygen.  As if the theology is a kind of mask too.

Javier was in his mid 30’s, leukemia—the kind who once introduced to me as the chaplain, wanted to kind of show-off for me to prove how spiritually solid he is… showing me his books and tapes, talking about his involvement in the church, showing me that he is fine.  Javier had been raised in a Latino Catholic family but found deeper meaning and faith in a more fundamentalist Evangelical Christian church.  He talked a lot about being the “head of the house,” and “walking with Jesus,” and being careful to surround himself with the “right kind of people.”  “As much as I love my brother, he’s just not right with the Lord no matter how much I try to make him see, so I can’t be around him.” His faith was in his certainty.

Still I could feel the un-ease beneath the surface of platitudes.  I asked him to tell me more about what he meant by the “right kind of people” and asked him to consider if he thought Jesus would make such distinctions.  Well this opened up the conversation to really look at all the judgement he had of others, and more importantly, it became easier to make the connection to his judgement of himself.  And 45 minutes later, the truth could finally slip out in the tears beneath his mask of certainty:  “To tell you the God’s truth Michael... I don’t think I’m going to make it.  And I don’t deserve this.”  It was like an enormous exhale after holding his breath for as long as he possibly could.  And then there was room to inhale another kind of air… which I might call grace—to be who he is, how he is: a scared human being with more questions than answers.

Deserving.  Such a loaded word.  But it also speaks to and seems elementally linked to several other themes or beliefs that reveal themselves again and again. One is simply that “I’m special,” and therefore entitled to healing, or all things good.  Another theme linked to deserving but in contrast to entitlement has to do with earning;  “Healing, Grace, Love , Happiness, Heaven, all things good—these are things that have to be earned.  Given out once you prove yourself worthy.”  (And while this may seem to be shot through the lens of a Protestant work ethic, there are similar notions in New Age thought, and in Eastern religions, but also in our American humanist tradition of reverence for self-made men and women—after all, they earned it.)  And that notion about earning is closely related to yet another theme that would suggest that “I have some control and power in my life, in the universe—“if I have the correct attitude, do, be, say, pray-- or eat the right things, then I can control the outcome—I will be healed. And I will be safe.”  And all of these themes are huddled under the same umbrella of belief that would say there even is such a thing as a just universe, and a loving force for good.

Now I’m not suggesting that these beliefs or values are correct and to be encouraged or that they are misplaced and should be avoided, or that I don’t hold them myself (given the day you ask me)—I’m only sharing that I observe them to be common across so many faith systems, religious and secular alike, and at times of crisis they reveal themselves, and sometimes, as in Javier’s case, despite the declarations of something quite different.  “I don’t deserve this,” he said.  I also mean to caution that we can indeed get tripped up by them—or more precisely, by how tightly we hold on to them.

Phyllis completely embodied the notion of “I’m special, and therefore entitled.”  It was nearing the end of the day, I was pooped, but there was one more newly admitted patient to see, I thought I’d just pop in and introduce myself.  “Oh please come in and sit down!  God has truly answered my prayers in sending you to me today!” (How much theology is reflected in that sentence alone!)  Her spiritual crisis was not about her diagnosis or prognosis; it was about her vocabulary!   And it was a significant crisis.  You see she and her husband had sat down on January 1 of that year, and made a list of expectations they had of God—health, money, success, all that.  “At first I was uneasy with that word, ‘expectations,’” she said, “but my husband assured me that God has expectations of us and so it’s OK for us to have expectations of him.  But see now I wonder if I offended God and that’s why I have leukemia, because I used that word?  You see my cancer is 100% curable, so I think God might just want to get my attention, get me in line; if it weren’t curable, I’d think it was a punishment. What do you think?”  (“I wanna go home!” is what I think.)

She went on to tell me about how God had given her cuts in line at the supermarket or found her a parking place in an impossibly crowded Costco parking lot.  Michael, I pray this prayer every morning, “God, grant me your favor today!  (I hate wishy washy prayers!)”  “And why should God grant you his favor,” I asked.  “Because I’m his precious child.”  “What about the last person in that line at the market in which you got cuts… is he a child of God?”  “Well yes, perhaps… but God has his favorites.  Jesus had his favorites.  And I want to be God’s favorite. There is a hierarchy in heaven.  Bible says so-- and I want to be at the top.”  There it is.

Now this may seem a cartoon, I know, but Phyllis’ suffering was real.  And how many of us feel special?  I know I do.  Don’t you?  Entitled to health, to love, to success... because we’re good people, we’re kind, loving, and compassionate.  We’re smart, we went to a good school, we volunteer, we donate to charity, we eat right, we exercise, we meditate?  What if we’re not special at all?  Or what if we all are?

That theme of earning—grace, salvation, heaven, health, love—it’s also a theme that suggests that it’s never here, now, in this moment.  It’s out there—life, healing, success, happiness, heaven—it’s a fixed place and I have to get there, and when I do, I won’t leave, I’ll be home free.  “I’ll be happy when… things will be OK when… if we could just get through this chemo, then…”  So many belief systems, again religious or secular,  are built upon this idea that it’s out there, it’s not here and I have to earn it.

Ruth was a wonderfully wise, soulful and reflective older woman with deep roots in her Eastern European Jewish ancestry.  She watched the love of her life, her husband of 60+ years slowly slip away after several months in the hospital.  “Michael, I thought we did everything the right way.  We raised three beautiful, successful, well-educated children with good professions and wonderful families of their own.  Always looking forward to our “golden years.”  And now look!   The truth is, I’m 82 years old and I’m still waiting for the party to begin.”

Myra was a middle aged woman from New York, with a not-so-wonderful absent husband, a colorful past and a sparkle in her eye and a very thick Long Island accent.  After we got acquainted a while, I asked her if faith or spirituality were part of the equation for her.  “Oh God,” she whined as if to say “Oh brother, here we go!”  “Well I was raised a Catholic but… I don’t know.  Church?  Well it just wasn’t my thing, y’know?  I mean I guess I believe in God ‘n’all but church?  And then I got sick!  And I thought I ought to pray or something.  But it seemed kind of hypocritical, after all these years, I never went to God.  To go to him now?  Y’know?  And then one day I’m in the clinic across the street getting chemo, and there’s this Latino man with the rosary, and the beads, and the pictures of the saints and the thing, and he’s praying up a storm, and I think, ‘Well I can’t compete with that!’” As if it’s a contest.  As if there’s only so much grace to go around, so much help or healing available.  As if she is NOT entitled to a deeper spiritual connection or even hope because she hasn’t done it the right way, hasn’t earned it.

Alex was 28, very tough, very smart in a native, street-smarts kind-of-way, difficult background, Latino, Central Valley, gangs, brother in prison.  He’d also been a semi-pro bare-fisted boxer.  When I first met him, the only personal artifact he had in his room was a tattered picture of himself bloodied and defeated in the boxing ring taped to the wall.  I didn’t recognize him at first, “What’s that a picture of?” I asked.  “It’s a picture of the only time I ever lost a fight.”  “Why would you have that up on the wall?”  “I want to be sure it never happens again!  Particularly now.”

I talked with Alex a long time.  I was so struck by the depth of his theological questions, his ability to hold paradox and the unanswerable questions-- by his self reflection.  “If I pray to God to heal me, why should he?  Why am I entitled and not the guy down the hall?  And isn’t it even kind of judging God to pray and tell him things should be different than they are?  Maybe I’m supposed to learn to accept.”  But then the champion in the ring let his voice be heard; “I want to be THE best patient possible.  I want to do this THE right way, so I can be sure to be healed.  You’ve watched people go through this, Michael.  What’s the best way to do this?”  There it is, that other consistent theme: the belief that I have control , power over this, over this disease, over life.  Of course I’m not suggesting that we have no control to effect change or our perception or our experience of life… but in such cases of life and death, sickness, and health, more often than not, it’s just out of our hands.  Alex didn’t accept that.

He was in the hospital nearly continuously for a year or better.  A month or so after he arrived, his mother arrived and became his rock and his coach and his warrior.  She was also a fundamentalist Christian, and saw to it that her boy got back in line with the Lord and a black-and white view of all the questions he’d posed to me when we first met; that was the Devil talking, she would say.  This was a very uncomfortable challenge for me, because while I so harshly judge that black-and-white thinking, it did seem to simplify the picture for him in such a way that brought him comfort.  But then I wonder, is that kind of comfort the ultimate goal?  At what cost to the experience?  To growth?  Sadly one thing was clear, black-and white in fact: no correct point-of-view or nothing anyone of us could do could stop the disease that took his life at 28.  Powerless.

Oh well.  “Everything always works out for the best, right?”  “Maybe it’s a blessing in disguise.”  “I believe in a loving God, a power for good in the world.”  “I believe in positive, creative energy, the power of love over fear and darkness.”  “They’ll get theirs-- what goes around comes around, you know.”  I know we’ve all heard these statements (of theology really) or said such statements or something like them.  Maybe even hold onto such statements as truth.  I do at times.  Even though I, like many of us, but no one more than Alex, could make a fairly airtight case for just how untrue such notions are.  But the common human journey does seem to me to yearn for and expect justice and goodness, however unattainable, however we may define it.

When I was working as a chaplain for a local hospice I met Loretta who was the caregiver for her dying uncle.  Loretta had a definitive opinion about EVERYTHING and wasn’t a bit shy about sharing it.  “Michael, I pray the same prayer everyday.  You know what I pray?  I say, ‘God, I know we are all your children, brothers and sisters , but some of your children God?  They need a spanking!’  They do!  Don’t they?  Wouldn’t you like to see God just reach down from heaven and pick up George W. Bush by the britches and go PAM, PAM, PAM like that on their booty and say, ‘You go sit over there and think about what you done!’  I would!  I think it should be on TV!”

I am not making this up and I’m not exaggerating.  And yes, Loretta made me laugh. And yes there is a hint of vindictiveness and retribution in her prayer.  But beneath it all is a struggle to claim a promise of fairness and justice in the world.  It’s one of our UU foundational principles.  Are we so different?

Carlos was 30 years old.  A beautiful young man… going through living hell, enduring a pretty treacherous allogenic bone marrow transplant…  given odds of success at 20%.  Toward the end and without a trace of self-pity he said,  “If it’s my time, it’s my time, I guess.  It’s one way I look at it.”  “What’s the other way?” I asked.  “Well to have faith.”  “In what?”  “That I will be cured.”  We looked at how those might not be either/or points-of-view.  How might, “If it’s my time, it’s my time,” be a statement of deep faith?  Does walking in faith always mean that faith is attached to a specific outcome?  To me, a much deeper faith is evidenced by the walk into the unknown, without the attachment—to the outcome, or even to our notions of justice and fairness.

In the end, maybe I am special . I am entitled to grace.  Or perhaps even I’ve earned it (God knows!)  Maybe I can affect change in my world through my thought, prayer, or meditation.  Perhaps there is a reason or plan… no coincidences.  Maybe what goes around does come around.  And maybe it is a just universe after all, and there is a great power for love.  And maybe not.

I didn’t set out to define the perfect, most correct or complete theology.  In a way, I don’t think it is so much about our theology so much as our relationship to it.

Can I find a deeper sense of grace, a peace of mind and heart through a fascination with the mystery… that is greater than my yearning or insistence for solid truth?   Even if all I have believed when it comes right down to it… where the theology meets the road… proves not to be true.  Or even if it does.  Can I remain open and willing for my certainty to collapse at any time, for that collapse to shape and transform me?   Can I even fall in love with the process?  We’ll just have to see I guess.

When I’d told my mom, a lung cancer survivor herself, about Ruth, the 82-year-old who’s waiting for the party to begin, she knowingly replied, “Oh Honey, the party is always right now.”

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