Surviving the Roller Coaster

Riding the Rollercoaster

Rev. Anthony David

August 19, 2012

Listen to this poem, by Thomas R. Smith, entitled “Trust”:

It’s like so many other things in life

to which you must say no or yes.

So you take your car to the new mechanic.

Sometimes the best thing to do is trust.

The package left with the disreputable-looking

clerk, the check gulped by the night deposit,

the envelope passed by dozens of strangers—

all show up at their intended destinations.

The theft that could have happened doesn’t.

Wind finally gets where it was going

through the snowy trees, and the river, even

when frozen, arrives at the right place.

And sometimes you sense how faithfully your life

is delivered, even though you can’t read the address.

That’s the poem. So many “things in life to which you must say no or yes,” and with each one, there is a possibility of theft. Something precious taken. In the case of the poem, it’s things. A car, a package, money. You put them out there, you hand them over, and bad things might happen.

Same thing goes for the less materialistic and even more important things we put out there. Our time, our energy, our sense of self-esteem and meaning. We put them out there, and, given the risks of living, we can always wonder if they will be conserved and valued…. It makes us impatient.

Think of being stuck in traffic for what feels like an eternity. (It always feels like an eternity stuck in traffic, right?) It’s deeply threatening—it triggers a core fear—because otherwise how to explain the overreaction of frustration? The irritation? The eruption of rage? A voice inside us that bellows, “Who dares interrupt my schedule?? I’ve got places to go, things to do, people to see, and my time is far too valuable to be wasted like this!!” It’s impatience—and it stems from a perception of precious time being stolen from us while we watch helplessly.

Imagine this situation (some of you won’t need to—you live it everyday). You are a parent of a four-year-old. He’s helping you fold laundry. Here’s how he does that. He takes a shirt, balls it up in his fist, and then places it carefully in the laundry basket. He takes a pair of shorts, balls it up in his fist, then places it carefully beside the shirt he’s just “folded.” He goes on to the next item, and the next. He wants to help! He’s your young and eager assistant! And it takes you three times longer to fold the laundry than if you just did it yourself. How patient could you be in this situation? You have a couple other kids who will be home from school in a few hours, you have a list of chores yet to do, and you are bone-tired. Imagine yourself in this situation… How patient could you be? Not at all, such that you might slap his hands away in irritation and order him elsewhere? Or somewhat patient, but of the unsteady I’m-holding-on-for-dear-life variety, as when you smile through gritted teeth and speak in tones of exaggerated kindness? Or fully and truly patient, as when you feel genuine wonder and delight and gentle amusement at your son’s determined (though clumsy) efforts to be of use?

Patience. We’re talking about patience today. We know it’s important. “Just about every mistake I have ever made and every unkind word I have ever spoken might have been avoided if I had been more patient,” says Allan Lokos in his excellent book, Patience: The Art of Peaceful Living. “If there is to be peace in the world,” says the Taoist sage Lao-Tse, “there must be peace in the nations, peace in the cities, peace between neighbors, peace in the home, and peace in the heart.” Peace comes from patience. Patience is important.

People, this is yet another one of those sermons that I desperately need to hear myself. Just like all of you, just like everyone alive, I have traffic jams inside my heart, and I can feel stuck, I can feel something precious being stolen away, and I get impatient with myself. I’m forty-five but there are situations where I feel like I’m that four-year-old trying to fold laundry and the only way I know how to do it is by balling it up in my fist.

Let me tell you, when you are planning to write a sermon on patience, in the days preceding it, you naturally find yourself paying especially close attention to your moments of impatience. I won’t bore you with my endless list … but I will say that recently I took up tennis and I love it—I love the rhythm and grace and speed of it, I love the friendships you can build through it, I am looking for more people to play with HINT HINT—but I can get impatient with myself as I’m learning. As when I hit a couple forehand shots and they are beautiful and then, randomly, I hit one and it’s like a baseball home run. What the….?? Wrong sport. And don’t get me started on my serve. Sometimes it’s great. Sometimes it’s all over the place. Argh!! Can you relate? You have a vision for yourself, a timetable for when you ought to be doing things a certain way, but your body has its own timetable and its own vision? LIFE has its own timetable and vision?

Brings to mind a poem by Methodist minister Ted Loder:

I am not a patient person.

I have only so much time to strive,

to accomplish what I have to do,

to right some wrongs, to make amends,

to create some beauty, help the poor,

welcome the outcast gays,

clear the ghettos, repair the city,

only so much time — I’m not God, you know.

Maybe that’s the dis-ease

for which impatience is the symptom,

I’m not God and I forget it

act compulsively as though I know

what needs doing and when,

as though I am you.

a faithless confusion, I realize.

But, damn it, God, I don’t have eternity.

That’s Ted Loder. “I’m not God and I forget it.” To what degree does our impatience stem from that? Doesn’t matter whether you believe an actual God exists or not. Doesn’t matter if you are the most hard-core atheist around. You can still find yourself boiling with impatience because, at some level, you think you are in control, you think YOU are God, but life shatters that illusion every time. With every tennis ball that soars high and beyond the fence. With every serve that goes astray.

Now don’t get me wrong. In criticizing impatience, I am not wanting to suggest that we take up passivity or inertia or paralysis or terminal postponement. I am not suggesting we stop caring. I am not saying to the parent of the four-year-old that you have to drop everything to cater to your kid. There are just some things that are important enough to feel urgent about. Righting wrongs, making amends, creating some beauty, helping the poor, welcoming the outcast gays, clearing the ghettos, repairing the city—absolutely! When in the past several weeks we have had shootings at a movie theater in Colorado, a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin, and on a college campus in Texas (the very same college I went to, by the way), you better believe we need some urgency around gun control in this country….

I am not encouraging passivity. I am encouraging balance. Sanity. Effectiveness, as we ride the rollercoaster of life. Marianne Williamson, in her amazing book A Return to Love, speaks to this when she says, “We don’t have to be struggling all the time. […] In fact, ambitious tension actually limits our ability to succeed because it keeps us in a state of contraction, emotionally and physically. It seems to give us energy but doesn’t really, like the white sugar of mental health; there’s a short high, followed by a crash.” Then she says this: “The cultivation of mental rest … is like eating healthy food. It doesn’t give us an immediate rush, but over time it provides a lot more energy.”

That’s the point. What’s going to give us energy over the long haul—of making the world a better place, making this congregation the best it can be, braving the wilds of Atlanta traffic, braving the wilds of parenting, even learning how to play a decent game of tennis. Not white sugar, but something better, healthier. Patience. [Remember today’s video? It’s the difference between making the knot even worse, and untying it]. Said the great Irish orator Edmund Burke, “Our patience will achieve more than our force.”

“It’s like so many other things in life / to which you must say no or yes.” So how do we say yes to patience?

Well, lemme tell you, listening to this sermon (for which I thank you!) can only be a start. Says nineteenth century clergyman Henry Ward Beecher, “There is no such thing as preaching patience into people, unless the sermon is so long that they have to practice it while they hear. [OK, get ready for three more hours of sermonating J]” Henry Ward Beecher goes on to say: “No man can learn patience except by going out into the hurly-burly world, and talking life just as it blows.” In other words: we say yes to patience by being in the hurly-burly world and practicing patience. Practice practice practice. And every time we practice—every time we succeed in our patience when it could have been otherwise, no matter how small the success seems—our patience muscle gets stronger and stronger.

Here’s what that practice looks like. Three steps. This comes from spiritual teacher Joan Borysenko.

Step number one: recognize impatience. Recognize when irritation floods your system because you feel like the hurly-burly world is wasting your time or things are not happening fast enough or they are unfair or they are screwing with your best laid plans or you don’t have enough information and it’s bugging the crap out of you … recognize that crap as it emerges. Just acknowledge it. See it as emotional weather. Rain doesn’t have to justify itself, and neither should your impatience have to justify itself to you. It just is. You are not the God of your emotional weather system. So just name it nonjudgmentally. “OK, there’s impatience. There it is.”

Step number two: Pause, and find the gap between the experience of your impatience and your response to your impatience. Patience is born right there—in that gap. Physically, one of the best ways to do this is to breathe deeply. Deep breathing helps the energy shift and not stay stuck in intensity. Now, if you happen to be in the middle of a stunningly irritating conversation with someone, going straight into deep breathing might make you look like you are hyperventilating… Might be better to say words like this: “Can we take a break now? Let’s start again in five (or ten, or fifteen) minutes.” Use that time to find the gap. Use that time to shift the energy. Do something like this especially if, when disciplining your child, you find yourself wanting to spank them. Get away. Wait several hours to make sure that the spanking is indeed in the child’s best interest, and that it is about the child’s behavior and not your anger.

Step number three: Move into a place of curiosity about what is actually happening in the moment. “I have no special talents,” said Albert Einstein. “I am only passionately curious.” What if we were to turn on this kind of Einstein genius in our emotional lives? What then? Is there an analogue to E=MC2 waiting to be discovered, even in the middle of dreaded Atlanta traffic? At the very least, aren’t there interesting things to look at in the cars next door? The guy to your right, singing like a wanna be rockstar? The lady to your left, primping while she’s talking on the cell phone?

When we take a curiosity stance, we are invincibly patient. Everything life throws at us, we can absorb, digest, use. We are immune to theft of time and energy and meaning. We are immune! But (and this is the last thing I’ll say today) getting to curiosity in a full sense requires nothing less than faith—faith that there is more going on than meets the eye. Faith that there is more going on behind the scenes. Otherwise, why keep looking? Why stay attentive? Curiosity requires trust that there is a deep design to my life—either existing or potential—that is far more beautiful and inspiring than the one my ego could ever manufacture. My life and yours. My ego and yours. Curiosity insists that even when appearances suggest waste of time and lack of value, reality is otherwise. It’s the poem again:

Wind finally gets where it was going

through the snowy trees, and the river, even

when frozen, arrives at the right place.

And sometimes you sense how faithfully your life

is delivered, even though you can’t read the address.

Are we any less important than the wind, or the frozen river? They are delivered, and so are we. Patience….