Archive for July, 2014

Dance, then

Sunday, July 6th, 2014

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Click here for the sermon only.

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free

‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,

And when we find ourselves in the place just right,

‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gained,

To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed,

To turn, turn will be our delight,

Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.

-Elder Joseph Brackett

Turning

Wisdom: to live is to turn.  This is the wisdom cultivated by the Shakers, from whom we receive the song “Simple Gifts:” to live is to turn.  Life is not lived in its fullness by rejecting the body for the spirit, but rather in turning, turning body and spirit to God.

To turn is such a simple thing.  In fact, it begins in simplicity.  It begins in clearing away our own strivings and yearnings and longings.  Only then can we attend to and appreciate the goodness in the world around us that shows us, in turn, how to be good.  To be sure, the chaff grows with the wheat, but the goodness is there, if we slow down and pause long enough to see it, if we turn toward it, and turn ourselves in response.

And yet, the gift of simplicity is so far from our late modern condition.  Rather than clearing away our strivings, our yearnings, our longings to see what good might be found, we insist that our strivings, our yearnings, our longings are the good.  Ideology rules the day.  Awe, wonder, history, and mystery are pushed aside.

Life becomes like the vacation from hell.  Piled all into the car, the family sets out, bound for swimming and hiking and canoeing and bicycling and golf.  Of course, in order to make the drive all in one day, there is no time to stop.  There is no time to pull off and see the view over and down through the valley, to marvel that someone born and raised in such a small cabin could rise to the presidency of the United States, or to ponder the significance of the world’s largest ball of string.  In fact, the only stopping is to pump gas and take a quick bathroom break.  Lunch is packed in a cooler and will be eaten in the car.  The itinerary for the week is set and it is a tight squeeze.  Monday will be spent swimming and lying on the beach.  Tuesday is mountain climbing.  Wednesday is a canoe expedition.  Thursday is a bike hike.  Friday is golf.  And if it should rain?  Well, it mustn’t.  Then back in the car for a day’s drive home where the family passes out from exhaustion, needing a vacation from their vacation.

For the present generation of emerging adults, simplicity is not even pretended as a virtue, yea, does not even register.  Having been raised on a steady diet of soccer practice, band rehearsal, dance lessons, community service hours, and scouting, on top of school work and chores when they were younger and a part time job as soon as they grew old enough for such not to be illegal, since they were five years old, or really four years old for a large majority, and three years old for more than a few whose parents have a particular competitiveness, the linear life has been the norm for all that they have known of it; life, that is.  It is not even that soccer, band, dance, community service, scouting, school, chores, and work are understood to be goods in their own right, or even goods for the sake of developing a well-rounded person.  No, the ethic is that we must be so overcommitted, overworked, overbooked, and overwhelmed in order to get into college, get a job, get married, build a home, have children, and start the whole process over again.  Most recently, it is not even the case that many parents aspire for their children to get into a top-tier college and then get a high-powered job.  That might be nice, but really getting into any college at all would be an accomplishment and getting a job that pays more than minimum wage would be enough of an achievement.  Our imaginations, our hopes, our dreams about what life can be, should be, might be are reduced to the aspiration to subsist, and we are paranoid that even in the wake of all of that striving, we might not.

What would it look like to turn?  What would it look like to abandon the linear narrative, embrace simplicity, appreciate the world around us, apprehend the good inherent there, align our lives with the grain of the universe?  What good news might there be for emerging adults to abandon this mindset, and what good news might there be from emerging adults for both subsequent generations, and perhaps even their elders?

Emergence

To begin with, we will need to grapple with the fact that emerging adults are doing just that.  They are emerging.  Most frequently the concept of “emerging adulthood” is simply a category to describe 18-25 year olds who are no longer adolescents but whom we are not quite sure we really want to consider full-fledged adults just yet.  It may do us some good, however, to worry this concept just a bit, to introduce some nuance, some complexity, and to do so by meandering across Commonwealth Avenue and taking a stroll down Cummington Mall to pay a visit to our neighbors in the natural sciences.

Emergence in the scientific community is a technical term for describing the process by which smaller, simpler things, when put together in the right relationships and under the right conditions, become bigger, more complex things, except that the bigger, more complex thing has properties that none of the smaller, simpler things had.  This is to say that the full reality of the higher order thing could not have been predicted from an analysis of the lower order things that make it up.   For example, the full reality of a human person with awareness, language, reason, complex emotional states, purpose, and many more qualities cannot be predicted from the cells, organs, and systems that make up human physiology.  Furthermore, it is not merely that the higher order thing, such as a human person, cannot be predicted simply due to a lack of fully understanding human physiology.  Rather, the unpredictability is there in principle.  Emergence denies the viability of a strict determinism.  Emergence is a messy process.  Putting things together in the same pattern in the same environment sometimes does not generate the emergent property.  And sometimes it generates a different emerging property than the last time those things were put together in that pattern in that environment.

This is good news for emerging adults!  The life that you are emerging from does not determine your life as a whole.  Soccer plus band plus dance plus community service plus scouting plus school plus chores plus work does not equal your life.  There is freedom to become more than the sum of your parts.  You are not destined to become a doctor or a lawyer or a concert pianist simply because your parents put you on what they thought was the track to becoming such.  Just ask Cordaro Rodriguez.  He graduated from the Boston University School of Law, passed the bar, and gave up on the challenging legal market to pursue his passion for music with three other BU alumni in Sons of Serendip, which is competing this season on America’s Got Talent.  Emergence is a turning from the limits of what must be to the power and potential of what can yet become.

Development

Just as emerging adults are emerging, so too are they developing.  “In [Christ Jesus] the whole structure [of the household of God] is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord.”  Emerging adults are growing, are changing, are developing.

What John Henry Newman said about the development of ideas may just as well apply to the development of persons:

“But whatever be the risk of corruption from intercourse with the world around, such a risk must be encountered if a great idea [or person] is duly to be understood, and much more if it is to be fully exhibited. It is elicited and expanded by trial, and battles into perfection and supremacy. Nor does it escape the collision of opinion even in its earlier years, nor does it remain truer to itself, and with a better claim to be considered one and the same, though externally protected from vicissitude and change. It is indeed sometimes said that the stream is clearest near the spring. Whatever use may fairly be made of this image, it does not apply to the history of a philosophy or belief [or person], which on the contrary is more equable, and purer, and stronger, when its bed has become deep, and broad, and full. It necessarily rises out of an existing state of things, and for a time savours of the soil. Its vital element needs disengaging from what is foreign and temporary, and is employed in efforts after freedom which become more vigorous and hopeful as its years increase. Its beginnings are no measure of its capabilities, nor of its scope. At first no one knows what it is, or what it is worth. It remains perhaps for a time quiescent; it tries, as it were, its limbs, and proves the ground under it, and feels its way. From time to time it makes essays which fail, and are in consequence abandoned. It seems in suspense which way to go; it wavers, and at length strikes out in one definite direction. In time it enters upon strange territory; points of controversy alter their bearing; parties rise and fall around it; dangers and hopes appear in new relations; and old principles reappear under new forms. It changes with them in order to remain the same. In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”

What, you missed that last line?  I’ll repeat it.  “To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”

Engaged, as they are, then, in such a process of development, should we be surprised that emerging adults buck and bite at the chafing of the linear narrative of life?

In his New York Times op-ed last week entitled “Why Teenagers are Crazy,” Richard Friedman of Weill Cornell Medical College notes that both the reward center of the brain and the region that processes fear are overdeveloped in adolescents and emerging adults.  The result is simultaneously a tendency toward “risk taking, emotional drama and all forms of outlandish behavior,” and a surge in “anxiety and fearfulness.”  The linear narrative of life provokes the former, and reinforces the latter.  To turn is to take a few risks and to simplify is to ameliorate fear and anxiety.

When true simplicity is gained,

To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed,

To turn, turn will be our delight,

Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.

Elder Joseph Brackett may have known something about emerging adulthood.

Doubt

Christian Smith claims to know something about emerging adulthood.  He and his colleagues who wrote Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood are deeply concerned by the moral relativism, acceptance of the socio-economic status quo, routine intoxication, ambiguity about sexual relationships, and political apathy they find among emerging adults.

It is notable that the standard against which Smith and his colleagues are measuring emerging adults is precisely the linear narrative of life.  Given that emerging adulthood is actually a time of emergence and development, however, it seems that a substantial proportion of the beliefs and behaviors they find so concerning should be expected in people who have overdeveloped reward and fear processing centers resulting in anxiety, fearfulness, risk taking, emotional drama, and all forms of outlandish behavior, all of which are provoked and reinforced by the linear narrative Smith and friends are measuring them against.

Maybe rather than bemoaning the reality of emerging adulthood, we should place some hope in what emerging adults have to teach us.  After all, anxiety, fearfulness, risk taking, and emotional drama, under the right conditions, can emerge into something quite fruitful, that being doubt.  The first thing that emerging adults are likely to doubt is themselves.  Of course, many measure themselves against the linear narrative that no one could possibly actually achieve anyway and that is wildly inappropriate to begin with, so how could they do anything but doubt themselves?  Many emerging adults doubt the value, efficacy, and viability of political and civic institutions.  But then, don’t we all?  Congress has an approval rating of 7%, for goodness sake!  Religious leaders are no better, all too often continuing to exclude women, demean people of color, and excoriate lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons.  Emerging adults may not yet have a coherent moral framework, but they sure do know what they consider immoral!  Small wonder, then, that so many emerging adults look out on the socio-political landscape and despair, resigning themselves to what little happiness they can find in their little corner.

‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe,’ said Thomas.  Thomas was clearly an emerging adult.  He had every reason to doubt.  Jesus had been crucified, died, and was buried.  After touching Jesus’ hands and his side, Thomas said, ‘My Lord and my God!’ He experienced what was possible.  It may yet be that emerged adults will manage to show emerging adults what is possible today, but I find myself siding with the emerging adults and doubting any such expectation.  Rather, emerging adults are left in the position of those who would come after Thomas, of those who would come after Jesus ascended.  ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet still dream and enact new realities.

Dance

To doubt.  To develop.  To emerge.  To turn.  There is good news regarding emerging adulthood here if we are willing to listen for it.  Measured against the standard of a linear narrative of life, doubt, development, emergence, and turning will never measure up.  The unit of measure is inappropriate.  The appropriate unit of measure is not a line but a dance.  Step, roll, clap, turn.

Dance, then, wherever you may be;

I am the Lord of the Dance, said he.

And I’ll lead you all wherever you may be,

and I’ll lead you all in the dance, said he.

Both the hymn that opened our service and the hymn we are about to sing depict the meaning and significance of Jesus’ life as a dance.  Jesus was born and laid in a manger.  He developed and was baptized by the Holy Spirit and the voice of God.  Jesus was tempted, doubted, and overcame to return to the dance.  He emerged as a prophet, a healer, a savior, beyond any and all ability to predict.   Jesus turned to hell and returned to heaven.

Jesus was an emerging adult.  In Jesus is the hope of resurrection.  Jesus leads us in the dance of life and into the general dance of eternity.

And I’ll lead you all wherever you may be,

and I’ll lead you all in the dance, said he.

Amen.

~Br. Lawrence A. Whitney, LC+

University Chaplain for Community Life