First Congregational Church
(United Church of Christ)
Neil H. Wilson, Pastor

101 State Street
Charlevoix, MI 49720

Stay Bendy, My Friends

~ Guest Sermon ~ Sunday, June 4th, 2017 ~ Hugh Hansen

Oh, to be bendy again!

Well, they say time passes more quickly as we get older, so I must have aged plenty because there were 18 months between my first two talks and seems like only 6 since the last one.

I want to talk about another couple of related traits that seem to change with age. [Walk to center.] This is called “Phoenix Eating Its Ashes.” [Demonstrate] This is called “Single Whip, Down.” [Demonstrate] They’re part of the tai chi exercises I learned from a fellow named Ray Sol. Most of my fellow students were my age or older, none of us were seeking it as a form of self-defense (which is good, because it wouldn’t help much), none of us were particularly devotees of Eastern philosophy. So, what benefits were we seeking? Primarily, flexibility and balance, two qualities that can be difficult to hold onto through the tale of the years.

Little children fall asleep in absurd positions, young people still enjoy Twister,but why do we value balance and flexibility? If we’ve learned certain postures are best for us [demonstrate] why seek out the ability to get into others? Because, we all learn, life will require different positions of us, as unavoidable negatives like a stumble or a fender-bender, or with “an offer we can’t refuse” for its goodness, like playing horsey with a grandchild. And why don’t we all pursue them regularly? Why don’t we all practice activities of flexibility and balance every day? Because we are busy and they are a pain to start! They basically involve hurting ourselves a little bit over and over so we won’t hurt ourselves a lot later on.

Now consider our intellectual, emotional, and spiritual selves. These qualities are just as necessary, just as beneficial, and just as hard to maintain. We have evolved as categorizing machines of uncanny ability, which has been of great value in the survival of the species. This shape or color of fruit is good, that one is poisonous. These clouds mean rain for crops, those mean tornado approaching. We will always want to do that categorizing, AND, we must acknowledge it can limit us, it can leave us rigid and off-balance. Setting aside Spirit for the moment, we know we put ideas and things in categories and stop thinking as hard about them. This may lead to practical problems, like “heavy objects fall faster” or “ulcers are caused by stomach acid” did when those turned out to be, ummm, incomplete statements. It may lead to injustice and a waste of people’s gifts, like “a woman’s place is…” and “children should be…” (didn’t some people sprain their attitude when women entered factories during WWII? Despite the clear need?) The phrase “think outside the box” is an exhortation to be bendy this way, and it could go further. Think inside AND outside the box! There are likely some good things in the box, it must have helped some people sometime!

We find this plurality in the Bible many times. (Now, what we have as “the Bible” is of course the product of thousands of people over thousands of years speaking and writing and translating in scores of languages under known and unknown contemporary pressures, circumstances, and outlooks, so it isn’t easy to know whether all its intentions are coming across. We won’t try to unpack that.)

What does it take to go to Heaven? Matthew has the sheep and the goats, in which the sheep are welcomed to Heaven because when the least of their brethren was hungry they fed him, naked they clothed him, and so on. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians insists we are saved by faith, not works.

John tells us God is love. Paul tells us that love is not jealous. When delivering the Ten Commandments, God tells us the Lord our God is a jealous god.

Jesus is our great Teacher, and we are pulled into plurality of thought as we learn from his life and teachings. He the Prince of Peace, at whose birth the heavenly host bid there be peace on Earth; Jesus specifically blesses the peacemakers in the Sermon on the Mount. He is later quoted as saying he comes not to bring peace but a sword, and blasts a fig tree for not having fruit (out of season). He is human, Son of man; he and God his Father are One. The Law says people (who have all sinned) shall stone adulterers, Jesus says sinners shall not cast the first stone, and also says he has not come to abolish the Law and that not one jot or tittle of it will be erased before the world ends. Last shall be first, who would be master must be servant, we must die to live…in today’s Gospel reading I hear how hard it was for those he taught to let in ambiguity and uncertainty. The whole generation wants a sign, wants “the answers” to be clear and visible. The Twelve fixate on not having enough bread while they cruise around with their friend who just fed thousands. Are there any parents or teachers among us who can’t identify with Jesus’ “sigh deep in his spirit” and his “don’t you get it yet?”

There have been millions of words devoted to rationalizing these and other views, to harmonizing, to assessing one as having priority over another. Those efforts have helped people clarify their choices and purposes in life, AND they have led to intolerance, murder, and war. Was Jesus man-then-God, completely man and completely God, or completely man-and-God? There were at least seven organized “heresies” around this question in the first seven centuries, winners killing losers. (This version of “heresy” reminds me of “treason”—“Treason doth never prosper, what’s the reason? For if it prospers, none dare call it treason.”) Faith vs. works was the first and foremost cause of the split between what’s now Protestantism and Catholicism, which fed centuries of war in Europe, along with hangings and burnings.

Because we of this congregation believe ourselves to be both human AND spiritual beings, working for flexibility and balance is all the more important, in theological matters AND everyday worldly matters. Words, languages, have come about from our humans-as-animals experience; if we are more than human animals, if we are more than we seem, then no set of words, or the thoughts behind them, can hold all of the truth! We are required to hold what seem like contradictory opinions, simultaneously. Tolerating and indeed valuing others’ differing opinions and viewpoints, yes, that is good and necessary, AND I must accept that both “sides” participate in truth. Addiction involves both disease and personal responsibility. Both abortion and unwanted pregnancy hold great sorrow. Even if I think one side has more ‘“truthiness” than the other, as Stephen Colbert would say, when I get all categorical and rigid about some words and ideas being right, good, or true, I am going to end up pulling a mental ligament by deciding other ideas must be wrong, bad, or false.

No talk of mine would be complete without some input from music and the movies. It is no coincidence that a most wonderful example of this practice of holding conflicting ideas simultaneously is Tevye, the Jewish milkman from “Fiddler on the Roof.” (I say “no coincidence” because, as a friend pointed out, a formative practice of rabbinic Judaism after the destruction of the Temple was for rabbis to hold conflicting elements of the Law together in group discussion and contemplation, leading to the creation of the Talmud.) What do we know of Tevye? He is a man of “Tradition!” and a deep, sweet love of his faith. AND he is the loving father of daughters. In the story, life brings these two beautiful qualities into increasing conflict as his daughters find their life paths. Each time Tevye is confronted with a new level of conflict we follow him into reverie, where he uses “on the other hand” to think and pray his way through—in one case, he ends up with five hands. All of those hands are his, all equally deserving of honest consideration. He follows them to what we agree is the most loving choice with his eldest daughter Tzeitel, and then with his second, Hodel. The hardest comes with Chava, who is in love with a Gentile. Tevye says, to himself, us, and God:

How can I accept them? Can I deny everything I believe in? On the other hand, can I deny my own daughter? On the other hand, how can I turn my back on my faith, my people? If I try and bend that far, I’ll break.

In agony, he rejects Chava and her husband. No mere sprain, a compound fracture of his family. AND, because he holds these ideas, these pieces of love, within himself rather than casting them away or denying their reality, even this fracture begins to experience love’s healing power by the end of the story.

So, then, are there tai chi/yoga-like exercises for our minds and spirits? How can we avoid straining our emotional joints, and straining relationships as a result? Let me suggest one practice I think has helped me. Unlike Sir Mix-a-Lot, I don’t like big “buts” (and I admit I can lie). Too often, I use “but” to set things in opposition. “But” denotes conflict, “but” implies falseness or less-ness, and demotes or even denigrates whatever statement preceded it. For instance, what is the effect of “Jesse Owens was a great sprinter, BUT/(AND) Usain Bolt is faster”? How about, “This man committed a horrible crime, BUT he has been a model prisoner,” compared to “This man has been a model prisoner, BUT he committed a horrible crime”? Doesn’t each case mean ‘the first phrase matters less than or even not at all compared to the second?’ When I use “but” I am more prone to putting the other idea away from myself—and in so doing, I risk putting the person or people who hold the other idea away, too, distancing or dismissing them in a way that’s not loving my neighbor. When instead I use AND, as I have tried to do in this talk, I am recognizing more truth and respecting those who think and speak it.

So, with The Most Interesting Man in the World, who parallel parked a train and who speaks fluent French in Russian, I say:
I don’t always have an idea in my head.
When I do, I prefer Dos Ideas.

Stay bendy, my friends.

Enjoy the Audio version of today’s Guest Sermon by clicking on the “Download File” link below:


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