In a little known part of Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus is home from his wanderings and living the life of a king with his wife Penelope. Restless and bored, Odysseus decides to head back to the sea, to the life he knew so well. Along the way he is stopped by the blind soothsayer Tireias who tells Odysseus that his time as a seafarer is finished. He tells him that he is returning to the sea for all the wrong reasons, for comfort, respect and familiarity. Tireias commands the great Odysseus to turn away from what he knows and take his oar inland to plant it far from the sea in a garden filled with new possibilities. (Adapted from Mark Nepo’s The Endless Practice).
How many of us have faced this choice before? I know I have. At the time I was in search to find you, my people. I was considering one other congregation. A congregation not too unlike my last church in California. In fact, this other church was also by the sea, the green gray great Pacific Ocean. I could see myself there, doing what I knew how to do so well. Pastoring to a few hundred people, preaching my poetry, enjoying the sun soaked days along the coast, dappled in early morning gray mists. Like Odysseus, the familiar was calling me. Throughout that mild California winter of 2015 Francis and I would wake up and talk of this choice. The one would be so easy, just up the 101, we could stay in touch with all of our California friends. So familiar was this land I had no trouble finding my way to it.
And then, like Tireias, I called my old friend John Buehrens. John was then serving as the Senior Minister in San Francisco and was a former president of the UUA. He was my mentor. I asked him what he thought of this pull to the familiar. He told me that I would do very well there. And that they would be lucky to have Francis and me. But he knew that Westport had just come into view and without missing a beat he said “you will go to Westport”. I was brought up short. “How do you know that?” I asked him. He chuckled and said something like “Because you are made to experience the new, and in transforming them you will transform yourself.” He was right of course. The power of this possibility was so strong that ultimately the resistance of the comfortable and familiar was never enough. The day before your search committee and I were to decide whether we were a fit for one another, a bouquet of flower arrived at our door from all of you. It was a sign. It was a yes. It was what made our togetherness possible.
But most choices are not so obvious are they?
In the words of May Sarton
Now I am myself. It’s taken
Time, many years and places;
I have been dissolved and shaken,
worn other people’s faces,
Run madly, as if Time were there,
Terribly old, crying a warning,
‘Hurry, you will be dead before [long].”
We spend so much time worrying about the future that we don’t often see the possibilities before us. As my colleague Anthony Makar says “This is our ultimate context: hurry. Death is coming. But hearing the call of one’s true life—fulfilling it—is a journey that takes as long as it takes. You are dissolved and shaken…. You’ve worn other people’s faces. But what about your own? What does YOUR face look like? What are you afraid of?…Ultimately says Makar: “It’s love over fear. You can’t (realize) anyone’s potentials, or your own, without this sort of love. Love that sees through the apparent poverty of the present to the reality which is another thing entirely. Love that overcomes our fear.” (“How to Curate Human Potential” preached by Anthony Makar, UU Congregation Of Atlanta, June 2016)
What are we afraid of? What stops us from creating a new possibility? My fears have done plenty to hold me back. I wonder what would have happened if I became the doctor I once dreamed I would be. Or at one particularly painful part of my life, when I pondered leaving the ministry and becoming a prosecuting attorney. As possibilities go, this vocation was a good choice, but fear holds us back more often than not. The fear to change careers, leave a painful relationship, heal an old wound between you and someone you love, a wound made by fear itself. While fear is a bully of a partner, love is so much harder. Can you hear me?
In their book The Art of Possibility, Rosa and Ben Zanders provide a helpful frame in which to discover the possibilities before us. We must begin by understanding our frame of reference. We look at the world not as it is but as our past presents itself to us. A shoe sale representative goes to Zaire to see about selling shoes to the people and writes back to his boss “Situation hopeless here, no one wears shoes.” Another shoe sales representative goes to Zaire and writes back, “Great opportunity here, no one has shoes”. As the Zanders put it: “It’s all invented. Everything in life is an invention. The way we see things. The way we measure things. The way we compete. The way we judge ourselves. If it’s all invented, then you might as well invent a new way of viewing life that benefits you. You might as well invent a frame of possibility. (see The Art of Possibility 2000)
What is your frame of possibility? Let’s begin with how you view money. Why money? Because money so often defines our frame. If you believe that there is never enough money to go around, your frame of the possible narrows to that which you can either do for less or that job that earns you the most. In the movie Crazy Rich Asians, a young professor of Economics is dating a fabulously wealthy heir to a real estate empire in Singapore. At one point she discovers just how rich he is. When she confronts him with that reality, he says “we are comfortable” to which she replies, “that is just what a rich person would say.” “We are comfortable” with hundreds of millions at your disposal? Really? No, come on friends, comfortable is a pair of worn out jeans and bunny slippers, not enough money to buy a small island. In fact, I would contend that the very wealthy are decidedly uncomfortable with their wealth, with how it makes them suspicious of others and the guilt of what they could or should be doing with that potential. And there is no shortage of this kind of wealth here in Westport; a stone’s throw from the largest hedge fund in the world. My point is this: How we look at money tends to frame our reality. Not the amount of money per se, although if you are barely surviving that is a factor, but your view of money itself. I know of what I preach here friends. I have had a lot of money, most of which I gave away and I have been on food stamps. I can tell you when you take the money question out of the frame and see it as the fuel for your possibilities everything changes. That is why giving to this congregation is a spiritual practice in possibility. Because your money creates change for others, and, by extension for yourself. Our yearend Holiday appeal raised over $20,000 almost double what we projected it would. And what will we do with that money? Help more people than ever before. Create possibilities in faith formation; new classes in spiritual practice, support groups for parents, pastoral care for the lonely among us. We invent the frame of reference by how we measure our lives. Health begets wealth and wealth begets wisdom. Yes, there are real limits on our ambitions. But there is more to you than you think. This is the power of possibility.
After shifting our frame of reference, the next most important consideration is what the business blogger Seth Godin calls “escaping the dead end”. As he puts it: “Winners quit fast, quit often, and quit without guilt.” (see The Dip 2007) Let me repeat that “winners quit fast, quit often and quit without guilt”. If we are to realize our potential we may need to move away from what we are doing now. Of course, if you feel like you are really making a difference, stay at it. But don’t stay at it just because you are comfortable with it. Any of us is good at something, but that something may not be our everything. Where are you called to plant your oar?
I once counseled a very successful business man who wanted more than anything to start a theatre company for children. We talked about this endlessly it seemed. What was he most afraid of? Disappointing his family. His father had struggled to provide for his family and he did all he could to never be like his father again. (How many of us do what we do because we want to be someone different than our parents? Can you hear me on this?). Naturally, being the responsible minister that I was I asked him if he had discussed this with his wife. “Yes” he said “and she isn’t crazy about it.” “Isn’t crazy or can’t stand the thought of it kind of crazy?” I asked. He didn’t answer me. “Look” I said, “here’s the deal: Your heart has been calling you to do this for a long time, you have the money to try it, and if it doesn’t work you are still young enough with a full head of hair, you can go back into the business world. As Joseph Campbell said “follow your bliss”. And so he did. His wife was furious at me for a long time. And what happened? Well, I would like to tell you his little theatre company is still in business but alas no, it was fabulously popular and changed kids lives but it was underfunded. It closed after two years. It was about then that we moved to California. Years later I ran into my former parishioner now selling real estate. I asked him if he had any regrets. “Regrets? Oh, hell no! That was the best experience of my life. I learned more about myself, and the power of the possible than I would have ever had I stayed at my old job. That little theatre company changed lives, especially mine.”
I have known many entrepreneurs, especially restaurateurs, who have said the same thing. It is better to have tried and lost than to never have tried at all. How Shakespearean is that?
The Power of Possiblity becomes an everyday spiritual practice when we try our hand at leading others to something new. This is what the Zanders call “being a contribution”. One of the best reasons to be part of this congregation is actually to become the contribution you want to see in the world. This year our congregation enters its 70th year of existence; a year of service. Look around you. This space, these people, this music, our kids, our outreach into the community, the Memorial Garden in front of us are a living testament to the power of possibility. All the thousands who have preceded us became contributions. Every year we recognize someone who has spent a lifetime being a contribution in the Very Fine Award named after two great leaders, Ruth and Roy Fine. Every month, our Leadership Development Team names an outstanding leader among us who is being a contribution. You will find out more about what is possible by giving of yourself here, especially in a way you have not tried before. That is what I mean by leading as a spiritual practice: To try to give our yourself in a new and even scary way. If you have never read to kids, be a reader at the Beardsley School, if you have never tried building things, join our Westbridge Coalition which renovates homes for those in need. If you have always been afraid of feelings, consider become a pastoral care chaplain. You will find what you need here to open your possibilities in ways you can’t even imagine. Your road is open before you, right here.
For the last several years, I along with our Leadership Development Team, have been inviting people into leadership. Those who have been leaders in the past and those who are brand new to leadership. I lead a class we call “Harvest the Power” which begins by looking at leadership as a spiritual practice and help us connect our faith to our ability to help one another. The class starts again today in fact, after the second service. This is the power of possibility; that by taking a chance on leading, you grow not only into leadership, but into the fullness of yourself as well. Being a leader, especially if you have never been one before, is exactly what growing spiritually is all about. Stretching yourself towards new possibilities. Here. In your congregation. Among friends. We would never be here today if it weren’t for those who have stretched before us.
As Emily Dickenson penned:
I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –
Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –
Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –
Never lose faith. Take courage. Keep open the door to your soul. As I stand before you today, I can now answer the question so many of you asked during me my candidating week “why would I leave sunny California for this?” My answer at the time is that life is more than the weather. But my answer now is deeper: Because this, and all of you, was the possibility my soul had been waiting for. I just had to find the key that opened me to you and that has made all the difference. Happy New Year. May this be the year of possibility. Amen.