Hope Calls Us On by Rev. Anthony Makar
Here we are, and by “here” I mean The Mystery.
That’s what “here” means in the largest of senses.
Mystery calls us forth, to be changed in ways we cannot now predict.
Mystery calls us forth, to bring life and hope to people we serve.
The Mystery that is our congregation is a 136-year-old story with chapters that took place way before any of us came along, and there are future chapters yet to be written, which we can’t know about in the present.
But it is from the present we must proceed. In the present, we must try to understand, to infuse what’s happening right before our eyes with larger imagination and meaning.
For, as Mark Twain says, “You can’t depend on your eyes, when your imagination is out of focus.”
And so we have invoked various images, to help us focus.
We have involved the mythical bird known as the Phoenix which periodically dies in fire but only to be reborn out of that fire into new life.
We have invoked the sacred art of the sand mandala, which teaches us about the impermanence of all material creations, but also this: that, though material symbols can die, the search for truth itself is forever. Compassion itself is forever.
And now we turn to yet another source of illumination as we try to wrap our minds around what’s happening as we live into the Mystery.
It’s not a symbol, it’s not sacred art, it’s an old, old story of liberation and freedom, and then what happens next.
Long long ago, God called the Israelites from out of Egypt. Pharaoh represents powers and structures that keep the Israelites less than what they can be as people with inherent worth and dignity. Moses is the messenger, and with signs and wonders wins their freedom.
Now we are double-tracking things here. On the one hand, there’s the ancient story. On the other hand there’s our story. And I am not going to tell you this morning that the Cliff Valley building was Pharaoh. There were indeed ways that the building was preventing us from more fully expressing our Unitarian Universalist values. We value accessibility but the steepness of the old sanctuary’s stairs was a problem we could never solve. We value our children’s search for truth but the basement, where a lot of the classes used to take place, flooded with every rainfall and the leak was a problem we could never solve (a problem, I understand, that was there from the first). We value service to the larger world but, with the creation of the I-85 overpass, our building lost its capacity to be a witness to our values in the world. It was rendered invisible and increasingly hard to find.
Even so, I say that that’s not analogous to the real Pharaoh we had to escape. The real Pharaoh was our ambivalence. As far I know, since 1981 there have been several serious, congregation authorized investigations into the question of whether and to what degree the Cliff Valley had been working for or against us. Should we renovate? Or should we move? A Task Force was assembled in 1981. Another was assembled in 1987. Still another in 1993. Yet another in 2016. Each was like a runner in a marathon, handing off the baton of the question of what to do with Cliff Valley. I say this and mean no criticism to anyone in particular. I mean only to say that we have been in the grip of ambivalence for a long time, and that is a kind of bondage. It is a trap that prevents us to shine more fully, to live the mission of our faith more powerfully in the world.
And now, Pharaoh is no more. We are on our hopeful way.
And we’ve even had our own signs and wonders. Not plagues, not the parting of a Red Sea, but the initial offer for the Cliff Valley building coming completely out of the blue, and how we were able to negotiate for almost three times the market value, well in excess of what the 2016 Facilities Study Report had predicted.
A seeming miracle!
Then there was the miracle of the vote to sell: 98% of the congregation voting, as I recall.
Then the sign and wonder of the location of the permanent property at 2650 North Druid Hills NE, a location right smack dab in the middle of our catchment area and as easy to get to for current friends and members as Cliff Valley was.
Then there was the discovery that, hidden in all the legal papers was a document from decades ago that exempted us from having to go through the grueling process of meeting with the Atlanta community and getting permission to renovate the existing structure and to build something new in the future.
Signs and wonders!
Then there’s this place. We were having a terrible time finding temporary space that we could lease for six or nine or more months. Churches and synagogues were not available. Schools didn’t want to deal with extended leases of their auditoriums. And even if they did, we’re not just about worship! We have tons of programming that requires its own special kind of space, on Sundays and during the week, and where is that going to happen?
Here! A location that is once again at the near center of our catchment area, which is a space that is all-inclusive. Social hall and classes over there, worship here, offices here. And all this, rented out at half the market value because we’re not the usual heavy Monday through Friday tenant.
Signs and wonders, signs and wonders, which go on and on!
There is a Mystery that is indeed unfolding in our midst. We are truly living into it.
But now we rejoin the Israelites and the part of their story that happens after their liberation. While they are wandering the desert. The vision that they’ve heard Moses preach is about a land of milk and honey, and a nation reborn in strength. But what do you think hunger does to a vision? Or wilderness, after you’ve lived in an urban environment all your life?
Like all people everywhere and at all times, the ancient Israelites were trying to meet legitimate needs for survival and safety and meaning. But when hunger tore at them, or fear, the vision behind what they were doing flew out of their minds and they quickly turned mean. They were reactive to everything right before their eyes. Quick to resentment and rebellion. Telling themselves false stories about how good it used to be back in old Egypt.
Going so far as to ascribe negative intent to Moses, saying, “Why did you call us out? You just want to kill us.”
Today, using contemporary psychological language, we’d describe the ancient Israelites as having succumbed to “Negative Sentiment Override.” That’s when you interpret even the most positive action as a threat. When even the most complimentary statement gets heard as sarcasm, or an intended insult.
The old story is warning us. When radical change happens, is Negative Sentiment Override the kind of attitude are we going to show up with?
I was talking to UUCA member Tony Stringer the other day, and he said something that was right on target. He said, “It’s not just that our new permanent space is getting ready for us, but we’re getting ready for the new permanent space.” Here and now in temporary space is an interim time, an in-the-middle-of time, an in-between time, where we get to identify and unlearn some unhealthy habits and learn some better ones.
We can use this time in the Treehouse to get ready, or we can waste this time and fall apart.
For me, getting ready means several things.
Getting ready for social justice action and accountability like we’ve not seen in many many years.
Getting ready for renewal in our religious education program for all ages.
Getting ready for building relationships in a true neighborhood setting—it’s been at least 52 years since that’s happened.
Getting ready for communicating our messages out to the world in better and more innovative ways.
Getting ready for figuring out parking and transportation at the new permanent space, so no one has to worry about that.
Hope is calling us on, to new life. We are getting ready, because we have a mighty purpose to fulfill in this world. The world wants to know, How do we experience the Sacred moving in our midst? What saves us from despair? What are our stories of this? What are our beliefs? What are our rituals? How do we live into this world of many ways, without getting cynical, or shallow?
And we have answers.
The world wants to know, What does justice demand in this day and time? What gives us our hope for continuing to show up? How do we do the hard work of justice without creating circular firing squads or just firing squads of any type? What are our stories of failure and success that we can learn from and we can teach to our children and to our children’s children, to help put them on the path?
And we have answers.
We dare not fall apart, we must get ready, we must flow, we must move. Because there’s a gridlock of loneliness and suffering in America, and we have water to give and warmth to share, and if we do not share it, well then, that is despicable. We must be better than that. We must do what it takes to be alive and position ourselves for aliveness in our future.
But only if we can be the change we wish to see in the world. Compassion must be at the center of how we are together. Compassion must be the attitude we show up with.
Not ”Negative Sentiment Override,” but “Positive Sentiment Override.”
That language comes from the marriage therapy of John Gottman, Ph.D. I learned something from him recently that totally shocked me. He said that every couple in every relationship is set up for failure. Pretty sobering right? But here’s why: because both partners in a relationship are emotionally available only 9% of the time. Just 9%! It means that the other 91% of the time spent together is ripe for miscommunication.
It means that if we don’t flick the switch and shift our attitudes to Positive Sentiment Override, our goose is cooked. In our private love relationships, and in the congregation as well.
Let’s get ready for Positive Sentiment Override. A part of that involves learning how to soothe yourself when you’re feeling disappointed by someone or something. Disappointment is going to happen, no matter how awesome that person is, because there is a crack in everything God has made. So you self-soothe. You say to yourself, “Ok, maybe she is messy, but she is so kind to me.” “Maybe he has a short-temper, but he will move heaven and earth to take care of us.”
Definitely we need to get ready by practicing a discipline of assuming good intentions. Just think back to the last time you hurt someone. You knew that your intentions were innocent, so it must have felt terrible to hear their suspicion that you consciously wanted to hurt them. Far far better to assume good intentions and also to stick up for yourself and say, “This hurt me. Help me understand why you did what you did.”
And then this: making amends. Or, as Dr. Gottman would say, making repair attempts. Breaks are just going to happen, even in the healthiest relationships and healthiest congregations. Only 9% of the time are partners vulnerable with each other. 91% of the time the situation is ripe for miscommunication.
Breaks are inevitable.
But what spells the difference between relationships that survive and thrive and relationships that fall apart is what happens next. What happens next in the healthiest and happiest couples and congregations is that people say they are sorry, people own up to it, and the people go on from there.
What saves us again and again is compassion.
Be the change we wish to see in the world.
It is a time of getting ready. Thousands of years ago, the Israelites were getting ready for the Promised Land. And we are too, today, in our interim time.
The opportunity is before us.
The Mystery is unfolding.
And it wants us to be more than we ever thought possible.
Hope that we CAN be more is calling us on.