Please visit our YouTube channel to watch Ali Peters’s video recording of this reflection.
Before our sermon, I’d like to share a short reading from the American poet, philosopher, and writer Mark Nepo, called “Surprised by Care.” He says this:
Try as we do, the things that matter, the things that enliven us and shape us can’t be prepared for, only met. Ultimately, preparation is more about being centered and present than anticipating every possible outcome. How does a bird prepare to fly? It lets go of the rim of its nest. How does a fish prepare for the waterfall? It swims headlong over the edge. How does a heart receive and send blood? It keeps pumping. For us, meeting each moment means letting go and swimming over the edge while our heart keeps pumping. And when we can stop anticipating life and simply meet life, we’re surprised by care.
Often, we get lost in over-preparation. If not careful, our endless anticipation can hood us from the moment at hand. We can become so mired in our plans and their alternatives that there’s very little left in us to meet what actually comes our way.
…In actuality, trusting ourselves and our work is the culmination of our preparation. No one ever told me that the mastery of preparation is to put down all the planning and enter with trust the moment prepared for. No one ever taught me how to do this. But clearly—whether entering a moment of surgery or love, or being washed over with a wave of creativity or winded by the sudden death of a loved one—the truth that helps us live waits like a clear pool for us to dive in, a baptism born by entering the moment at hand.
Hear these words.
At this time I invite us into a breath together.
You know, before pursuing a career in the ministry, I was a middle school math teacher. And if there are any teachers or former teachers who are with us today, I probably don’t even need to say this, but for those of you who may not know… the first year of teaching is BRUTAL. It just is—for so many reasons. And mine was no different. I taught at a startup charter school in a city in New Jersey and if I’m honest, every day felt like a new chaos that I couldn’t have predicted.
Some of my most vivid memories were actually the mornings before school. I always made it a point to get to the building way before the start of the school day. I knew once students started arriving for breakfast, the day would just feel like an avalanche—an avalanche of student needs and administrative needs and unexpected problems and new challenges and heartaches and struggles. I got there early to prepare. To brace myself for the avalanche. To batten down the hatches in my classroom, if you will. It was always me and our beloved custodian, Felix, who would enter in the darkness of the early morning and turn on the first lights in the building together.
It sounds silly, but what I remember mostly doing during those early mornings was sharpening pencils. You see, if I had sharpened pencils on hand, I would be ready for when a student said they forgot their pencil. I would be ready to intercept the student who wanted to use a trip to the pencil sharpener as a chance to chat with his friend across the room instead of working on the lesson. I would be ready for when a student wanted to see what would happen if you stuff drinking straws into an electric pencil sharpener hard enough. Spoiler alert—the sharpener breaks. I loved my students, but middle school is a tough and confusing age for kids and I struggled to manage my classroom and teach a successful lesson. Sharpening pencils was at least one thing I could do to avoid problems. So I sharpened pencils, as if they were little swords to ward off whatever crises were to come. I battened down the hatches for the avalanche.
Every morning Felix would come and interrupt my pencil sharpening to let me know that the sun was rising. He insisted that I come to the big floor-to-ceiling windows with him, saying, “Peters, this is the most beautiful sunrise.” He said that about all the sunrises. And I would come to the windows, mostly to appease him. But as he gazed with wonder out at the sky, I would stand there impatiently, thinking about everything I should be doing in my classroom. All those pencils that needed to be sharpened.
American psychologist, author, and Buddhist practitioner Tara Brach explains that when we are in times of stress and trying to anticipate what’s around the corner, it is very easy for many of us to slip into what she calls over-controller mode; the impulse in us that is preoccupied with human doing rather than human being. The over-controller is preoccupied with the pencils that should be sharpened and it keeps her from experiencing the sunrise.
My obsession with trying to do things to prepare did not make me a good teacher. It didn’t help me handle anything. It fed my stress, it exhausted me, and the kicker is that no matter how many pencils I sharpened, the avalanche still came and I still didn’t feel able to handle it. The unexpected stuff still felt unexpected. The hard stuff was still hard. The scary stuff was still scary.
Elaborating about the over-controller, Tara Brach points out that “the result of regular overdoing is chronic fatigue, even exhaustion. There is no room to breathe, no rest. We lose access to our own creativity and natural intelligence. We can’t feel our own loneliness or sadness or yearning because the Over-Controller is not living in the present moment.”
Now—I’ll add, it’s not so easy to just let go of this over-controller impulse. So many of our responses to stress are so ingrained in us from our past and perhaps from trauma. It’s important that we show ourselves compassion when it comes to this stuff. And sometimes jumping right into doing might be the thing that gets us through the day.
But I’ve been thinking a lot about the over-controllers in us lately. This past year has been its own series of avalanches, hasn’t it? It’s easy for us to look for some sort of solid ground. Something to brace ourselves. Some pencils to sharpen. Some way to batten down the hatches in anticipation for whatever might be around the corner.
But resilience does not actually rely on preparation. Resilience is often in spite of events we could not have seen coming. And in our reading this morning, Mark Nepo points out that too much focus on preparation for what’s to come can ironically stand in the way of our ability to take on whatever it is that does come—whether bad or good!
Rather than steadying us on solid ground, our desire to be ready for the future will always work against us if it keeps us from being able to meet the present moment. If it keeps us from taking care of our hearts and our spirit right now. If it serves as a placeholder for feeling the tough feelings that arise in us. Feelings that need to be experienced and felt and metabolized in us in order for us to move forward with clarity and purpose.
A few weeks ago our country survived an attempted coup; a terrorist attack on our Capitol at the hands of a large group white American citizens. It’s natural to worry about what that means for us or what’s ahead. That pit in our stomachs reminding us that this wasn’t an isolated incident. The panicked search for some solid ground. What comes next? What should we all expect? What can we do?
I invite us to pause. To breathe. And to honor the feelings that have been coming up in us. Because what happened at the Capitol that day was scary. I can’t speak for you, but I know that I’ve been feeling confusion and anger and fear, among a whole tangle of other feelings. And with the recent inauguration of a new administration, I did find myself feeling relief and hope, but I know that those other tough feelings are still there too.
Seeing the word “terrorist” so much after the attacks on the capital actually has me thinking quite a bit back to 9/11. You know, after the World Trade Center attacks that day, our country’s leaders responded by going to war. We weren’t given a chance to pause and truly grieve together as a nation. To process our devastation and our fears in community. To breathe and regroup so that we could move forward with clarity and purpose. Instead the doer came out—the over-controller, and so our country sharpened its pencils. Battened down its hatches. Prepared a show of force toward an entire part of the world, entire races of people. A clumsy response that distracted our nation from all the grief and fear and devastation. In her book See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love, Sikh activist and civil rights lawyer Valarie Kaur draws a clear thread from that moment after 9/11 to the poisonous displays of white nationalism we’ve seen blooming in very recent years. The same white nationalism we saw assaulting our capital just a few weeks ago.
Trauma that goes ignored… pain and anxiety that does not get honored and felt and metabolized can linger and fester and grow and spill out in devastating ways.
So then how DO we prepare ourselves to meet whatever unexpected things may come in the future? We breathe. We sit with feelings that come up in us, we tend to them—the bad and the good. The grief and the joy. The fear and the hope. We take care of our hearts and our spirits and the hearts and spirits of our communities. We hold each other. We make our way forward together with clarity and purpose. And we learn to trust our own resilience. Come what may.
May it be so, and amen.