Dreams. Not the ones we have while sleeping. But the dreams we have while awake, about the positive things we hope come true for ourselves and for the people we care about.
We have a lot of those dreams, don’t we? Of course. This is how we move forward in life. Unitarian Universalist spiritual ancestor Henry David Thoreau once said it like this: “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”
But everyone knows that not all dreams come true. We can work tirelessly to put the foundation under our “castle in the air,” but sometimes the foundation just won’t go in. Either the foundation is simply not possible, or maybe for some reason things just get screwed up. Either way, the castle is exposed as a fantasy not meant for the real world, and that is just so disappointing. Failure can make you feel wretched. You try as hard as you know how, or maybe you don’t; and you fail, and failure leads to shame, to guilt, to burnout, to despair, to depression, or worse.
That’s what happens.
But listen to what Quaker educator and activist Parker Palmer, in his book entitled Let Your Life Speak, says about failure. He says that our lives speak as much through our failures as they do our successes—maybe even more so. From stories of early childhood—from native strengths and talents—we can certainly learn important things about our core nature that is our true, authentic self. We talked about that last week. But this week, the focus is on how, through experiences of personal limitation and inability, we can learn even more about who we truly are.
Some dreams are ours to make real, and some are not—and in this we find the meaning of our lives.
Now, there are so many kinds of dreams, and therefore so many kinds of failure. Earlier we heard Elizabeth share a story about a dream of following God’s rules—a dream of marital happiness—and how that dream died, and then what happened next. All the learning, all the growth.
I thank her for her courage and vulnerability in telling it.
There is powerful authenticity there.
This morning, I want to explore a particular category of dreams: dreams of limitlessness. Dreams of limitless possibilities in a limitless world. Dreams that are, in truth and in fact, impossible, because the human world is a finite world full of limitations and things beyond our power to control. Yet we still dream them. We dream them anyhow.
That is why we need to talk about this.
Perhaps one reason why we dream dreams of limitless possibility is that we are born into this habit. Just think of the newly born infant—the limitlessness of their need and the utter rage of their screams when the needs are not fulfilled. Just think of the psychological scars we all bear because even the best of caregivers can only be “good enough.”
We are all born into dreaming this dream.
But then socialization reinforces it. The dream of limitlessness is as American as “rugged individualism.” It is part and parcel of the middle-class ethos that says If you work hard and play by the rules of decency, the sky is the limit for you. There’s nothing out there that is beyond your ability to bypass, if you just work hard enough.Then there’s our contemporary consumer culture which cultivates endless wants in individual consumers. And then we have the contemporary myth of endless technological innovation and expansion.
To dream this impossible dream is … so very normal.
So how very shocking, when a person comes to realize first-hand that the limitlessness voice whispering so intimately in their ears is a false voice. The realization makes you feel wretched.
For myself, the first time this realization personally hit home was in college. I emerged from high school as Student Council President, in the academic top ten of my class, and founding nerd of a group called the “I. Q. Booster Club.”
I was also a doctor’s son. It was the only career path I had known all my life, and it was simply unimaginable to me that I could follow any other—even though, in another compartment of my brain, I wondered about what it would like to be a minister. But this is what we do—we compartmentalize; we experience a balkanization of the brain; the different parts don’t talk to each other. So, I entered college with the purpose of going to medical school. And why not? The sky was the limit! Blithely and without any concern in the world, deep in my unconscious privilege, I signed up for the harder science classes—honors chemistry and honors calculus—to start things off with a bang.
But there was no bang. It was all bust. It ate my lunch. All my overachieving got me nowhere. My head couldn’t follow the professors; my head couldn’t follow the numbers or the experimental protocols. Other students seemed to be understanding just fine, but I wasn’t understanding a thing, and this is where my perfectionism made my life a living hell. The one comfort in this time was my discovery of the used book store in town (Half-Price Books, Records, and Tapes) to which I would go frequently just to keep moving even as I felt myself slipping into a sense of deepest shame and worthlessness, even as I felt my sense of identity and world falling apart.
Guess which book sections I’d go to, every time? Philosophy. Psychology. Religion. The Occult. Art. Poetry. The evidence of my true calling was right before my eyes, in the shape and form of these books, but all that was in my heart was pain. One day I called my dad, crying. I couldn’t do it anymore. I needed to give up the medical school dream. He heard me and was kind, although from that day on our relationship changed. From that day on. Not only had I failed in fulfilling what I thought was my dream, I had failed in fulfilling his dream for me.
I was a double failure.
Now I found myself on a long and winding road, where I changed majors about five or six times, ending up (finally) with philosophy. It was like a slow slog through the ocean to the shore; but once ashore, I earned straight A’s. I had found my place. I finished my undergrad, went on to graduate school in philosophy, then ended up as a college professor.
Things got better, really better—but the shame never went away. Being socialized as a middle-class white person made me incapable of dealing with failure maturely. Being socialized as a male middle-class white person only doubled my incapacity, because to be socialized as male is to know to the bottom of your toes the absolute rule that you must never appear weak. Failure to keep up appearances of strength meant a punishment of shame upon shame.
Shame is like a wild dog ripping your soul apart.
Shame is like a tornado that shatters and flattens everything.
I had bought into the fiction of limitlessness completely and totally—the fiction that the world is mine on my own terms if I just work hard; and if I don’t get the world, then I didn’t work hard enough, I didn’t do something enough, I was weak, and so: the shame.
The wild dog. The tornado.
And that’s my story.
What’s yours? Do you have one? There are so many ways people can buy into the limitlessness dream, whatever the causes leading them to buy into it. The working wife and mother who aspires to “supermom” status. The justice-loving person who feels compelled to tackle every existing evil all at once and take no rests, stay relentless, even at the expense of health and home. Or this: The nation which uses nonrenewable earth resources unsustainably, like there’s no tomorrow. Each represents a case of buying into the false dream of limitlessness. Each represents a castle in the air that can have no firm foundation, no matter how hard people try to build it.
And then there is this—how congregations can buy into the false dream of limitlessness. It can happen in so many ways, but the one way I want to explore here is when congregations try to live beyond their means and do everything all at once.
This version of buying into the dream of limitlessness is, first of all, based on the hard reality of the needs of this world, which are endless. The needs of newcomers and oldtimers; the needs of various age and lifestage identities like infants, children, youth, young adults, young parents, parents of children and teens, empty-nesters, divorcees, career transitioners, widows, the elderly, and the dying; and then the needs of people whose spirituality is tightly focused on ethics and social justice and that’s basically all they want to talk about, vs. the needs of people whose spirituality includes ethics and social justice but also more: they want to talk about the world’s great religions too, they want to talk about prayer and spiritual practices too, they want to talk about God or Goddess or Great Spirit too. All these needs, and so many others–and don’t tell me that the specific needs of one aren’t as important as those of another. Don’t tell me that the specific needs of the elderly aren’t as important as those of teens. Don’t tell me that the specific needs of antiracism activists aren’t as important as those of feminists, or environmentalists, or disability activists. Don’t tell me that the specific needs of Unitarian Universalist theists aren’t as important as those of Unitarian Universalist atheists. Don’t tell me that! How could you tell me that? The needs are all equally deep and equally important.
So how do we decide between them? How can we serve one without serving all?
When this is the paradigm we are stuck in—the paradigm of the “live-beyond-your-means, be-all-things-to-all-people” congregation—it seems there is only one real direction we can take: to try to make ourselves available to every call for action, even as resources are limited. To go in all directions at once. To resist all efforts to focus, or prioritize, because such efforts feel unjust or unkind. Just can’t say NO. Just can’t say LATER. There must be a response to every need, and it’s got to happen NOW.
Every need, feeling entitled to an instant response.
And in the end, here is where we are if as a congregation we have bought into this version of the false dream of limitlessness. Our congregational reality will ironically be one of scarcity. You would think otherwise, but no. It’s because we may accomplish wonderful things, spectacular things, but that won’t matter, because we can always point to a need that has not yet been met, and so there is always an excuse to chastise ourselves and to play the game of “gotcha.”
Scarcity and disappointment will characterize our congregational reality, and so will this: internal strife. Different congregational groups all demanding resources on their own terms and timetable, without loyalty to the best interests of the congregation as a whole. Different congregational groups in isolated silos, like different compartments of the brain not talking to each other, oblivious to our Unitarian Universalist Seventh Principle of the interdependent web, which applies as much to institutions as to anything else.
To this internal strife, add one more consequence of buying into the false dream: all these pressures I’ve been talking about, piled up on the congregation’s ministers, professional staff, and key lay leaders. People expecting this group to be available to all needs in an unlimited way. Staffers in particular presumed to be not doing much if an unmet need is spotted—even though all week long they’ve been climbing mountains and putting out forest fires. But it doesn’t matter. The awareness of something not done colors our perspective of staffers and key lay leaders, and so, as a response, we might feel an itch to give them something to do. In reality, they may have been doing 10 impossible things all week long, but from our perspective, they are not busy enough, and we want to keep them busy. So we hand them our bright ideas and say, GO!
That’s what we might do.
Speaking very frankly, this last thing in particular keeps me up at night, for currently I am the sole minister in a large congregation that has had two ministers for many years and may still expect the work of two ministers. But I am only one.
It just hurts. It hurts when individuals and institutions buy into the false dream of limitlessness. I can still touch the shame and depression I felt when I slammed against a personal limitation and realized that I would not go to medical school, I would not fulfill the expectation I’d had for myself for as long as I remember and that my Dad had for me. And I have seen how serious trouble descends over congregations that live beyond their means and try to be all things for all people. I have seen the infighting between groups and the emergence of suspicions and conspiracy-theorizing (liberals can indulge in this as much as anyone else). I have seen the despair and burnout of staff and key leaders who work in such a context.
I’ve seen it, and perhaps so have you.
Some dreams are ours to make real, and some are not. Some are just not possible.
But you know what? This world is a world of amazing grace. We exist in the gracious arms of Life. From everything, we can learn. Revelation is ongoing and dispersed every day, in every moment. Everything can be a guide and a teacher, even and especially the times when dreams die, and we feel exposed, shattered, undone. “Problems come looking for us,” it is said, “exactly because we need their gifts.”
Gifts of discernment, gifts of direction, gifts of wisdom.
What, then, can we learn from the experience of failure? Listen to what Parker Palmer has to say about this. He says, “The spiritual journey is full of paradoxes. One of them is that the humiliation that brings us down—down to the ground on which it is safe to stand and to fall—eventually takes us to a firmer and fuller sense of self.” Parker Palmer then says this: “When people ask me how it felt to emerge from depression, I can only give one answer: I felt at home in my own skin, and at home on the face of the earth, for the first time.”
That’s what Parker Palmer says, and it suggests three different kinds of specific learnings, the first of which has to do with the nature of the spiritual journey: that it is full of paradoxes. Authenticity becomes ours only until we know what it is like to put on other people’s faces. Strength becomes ours only until we have known weakness. Intimacy becomes ours when I share with you my mistakes, and you share with me yours. Wisdom becomes ours only after making plenty of mistakes.
Ministerial wisdom, too. I’ve actually tried doing the work of two ministers before. I’ve already been there and done that. What it got me was a divorce and physical illness.
I’m a wiser minister, now.
The spiritual growth process is paradoxical. It just is. So: if you are finding yourself in a place of brokenness today, hang in there. You are on the path towards healing. You truly are. So don’t give up.
Keep on going.
This is one thing we can learn from falling prey to the dream of limitlessness, with the inevitable result of failure; and here is another: we become more solid as human beings, more comfortable in our skin. The journey to this is yet another example of paradox. For we learn again that we are human when we fail in our attempt to be like God. It’s what I went through when I was back in college and acted on the presumption that I was a limitless self in a limitless world. But only God can be like that. So I failed.
Congregations go through it too when they try to be a “live-beyond-your-means, be-all-things-to-all-people” kind of place. Congregations and individuals both try to be like God—and we can do this even if we don’t believe in God. Intellectually, we might not believe, yet this intellectual disbelief is powerless in the face of the emotional and anxious urgency to act just like the God we don’t believe in.
But then, ultimately, when all our efforts to be God-like fail—and after we are finished beating ourselves up and finished beating each other up because (shame on us!) we fall short of omnipotence and omniscience—after we are finished with all that, we can then find ourselves grounded in the earth of our humanity in a way we’d never experienced before.
We discover a more honest and compassionate way to live, finally.
There is a reason why the word human shares the same root as humus and humble. To feel perfectly horrible about your inability to fulfill a dream—to feel that your failure is simply inexcusable and totally unforgivable, whatever that failure is, and I mean that sincerely, whatever that failure is–is to assume that your dream was 100% within your total power to make true or to control, and that you were 100% aware of all the related issues and consequences. That double assumption, my friends, is the height of pride.
No one is that powerful or knowledgeable. Ever. Ever.
We must be more humble, when we dream dreams.
We must be more human.
There are so many things learned from buying into false dreams. We learn about the paradoxical nature of spirituality. We are grounded in our humanity. And finally, we discover a different orientation to life. We stop trying to be all things to all people, as individuals and congregations, and what we do instead is root ourselves in the earth and energy of our real life and grow organically out of that. We go where the energy that’s already ours leads us. No longer do we allow ourselves to be tossed and turned by moralistic expectations and the game of gotcha. We just don’t allow ourselves to get into the scarcity position of having to run faster in order to stand still. What we do allow for is sustainable living that flows out of present abundance, and we grow and grow out of that.
It’s what yet another of our spiritual ancestors said, who happened to be a dear friend of Henry David Thoreau’s. He is Ralph Waldo Emerson, and he’s speaking to us today all the way from 1841, so he uses exclusively masculine pronouns, but he means everyone. He says, “There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till.”
This is radical paradigm change. Let this be the time to realize it. Let this be the time, personally and institutionally. We still dream big dreams—we can’t stop doing this—but we do it in a way that grows out of present strengths. When I was headed to college, if only I had been more aware of the abundance that was already mine, in the form of my love of language and love of wisdom and love of helping others.
As for our congregation, moving forward, can we get clearer now than ever before about our abundant social justice strengths, and the path from where we are now to where we want to be in five to ten years? This will be the work of our Justice Visioning Task Force, and you’ll be hearing more about this in the upcoming months.
Another “if” for us is to get clearer in our appreciation of the abundance of our entire community as one that will be celebrating its 75th anniversary. The celebration begins this fall, and we are already working towards a plan for lifting up great memories of 75 years in Rocky River, 75 years of accomplishments, 75 years of children being loved and growing up, 75 years of supporting people of all ages through all the milestones of living and dying, 75 years of lives changed for the better.
Let this be the time to realize the abundance that is already ours, and to build out of the rich soil of this.
It means that we are systematic and intentional about spending only the energy and talents we already have in our service to the world, never allowing the creation or maintenance of programs that exceed existing people and energy and resources. We just don’t get the cart before the horse.
First things first. Sustainability.
And yes, this does mean that some needs might not get met right this minute. If a great idea lacks a team of several people to champion it, then we have to press “pause” on it. We can’t have leaderless initiatives. And when leaders do show up—when we are talking about folks who want to champion a really great idea—we will have to take a deep breath and trust the process. Resist the temptation to be like God and try to do it all NOW. We have to trust in the abundance of this universe, even as we trust abundance in our own congregation. We flow in the direction of our existing strengths, and strength will take us to strength if we allow it, if we trust the process.
Some dreams are ours to make real, and others are not, and still others are not NOW but maybe LATER. What’s for sure is that no one can make the dream of limitlessness come true, personally or institutionally. But as for the dream of the authentic spiritual journey–that dream CAN come true. So can the dream of becoming fully and deeply human. And so can the dream of the abundance that is always already ours, here and now, which is the only foundation ever that is possible for us, to build underneath the only kind of castle in the air that ever has a shot at becoming real.
Start by looking to the soil of your life. Our collective life together too. The rich, seed-filled, nutritional soil.
We must take ourselves for better, for worse, with the same resolve with which we might say those words in a vow of marriage to another.
Forgive yourself for your failures, and I will forgive myself of mine.
Authenticity becomes ours only until we know what it is like to put on other people’s faces.
Strength becomes ours only until we have known weakness.
Intimacy becomes ours when I share with you my mistakes, and you share with me yours.
Wisdom becomes ours only after making plenty of mistakes.
This is the way of amazing grace.
The way of amazing grace is this.