Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Other Side of the Fence-Is the Grass Greener?

This sermon was presented on 25 January, 2015 by the Reverend Dr. Ruth Gnagey.
An emu hatches

Reading 1:
Written by Ruth Mackenszie, a UU minister.
For a baby chick, hatching is not graceful.  In the moments before birth, the small hatchling has eaten all its food, and its growing body presses against every contour and curve of the shell.  There is no more room.  There is no more food.  The chick hatches because its body is painfully cramped inside the world of the egg, and it is starving.

I think most of us can name a time when where we were, what we were doing, how we were being, was so uncomfortable, so constraining, that there was nothing to be done but peck a way into whatever was on the other side of the egg we had relied on, whatever was on the other side of safety.  Whether we like it or not, discomfort –feeling cramped, feeling soul-hungry – is the seed of transformation.

It is discomfort that drives the chick to risk everything, to go beyond its worldview.  This is transformation.

Reading 2:
The Emu
by Dr. Bill Gnagey

About a mile outside Rockport, Texas where we went birding every day last winter, a strange sight appeared.  There, in a field with a few cows stood an emu, a middle-sized member of the ostrich family.  Like the ostrich, emus are flightless.

As we passed him day after day we noticed that he was never in the middle of the field grazing like the cattle, but always right along the fence.  He would travel back and forth, back and forth near that same fence.  It appeared that he was constantly looking for a way to get on the other side.

One day, he was gone.  We looked for him for several days as we passed by but he never reappeared.  The house where his owners lived was empty.  We wondered if they had finally taken him to a greener field.

Sermon: The Other Side of the Fence--Is the Grass Greener?
by Rev. Dr. Ruth Gnagey

I feel that there should be a law against death by platitudes.   These are the times when a discussion is actually fruitful and headed in a problem solving direction and someone tosses a platitude into the mix like a tear gas bomb to squelch any protest.  If someone doesn’t rise up and take the platituder on, it could be the end to what might have been an interesting exchange.  One of the platitudes that really raises my hackles is, “Well, the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.”  In other words, quit complaining, coveting or showing your dissatisfaction with your life, your job, your husband, etc.  Suck it up.  Good people persevere, or to layer platitude on platitude, “you made your bed, now lie in it.”

   Bill and I were talking about the concept of grass being greener after our daily experience with the emu.  Not surprisingly, our thoughts turned to this concept as it is expressed in theological terms.  Hoping to have an opportunity to preach here, I began working on the sermon.  When I googled the idea, I found it was an actual syndrome in therapy.  Three thousand eighty two hits just on the GIGS – so popular as a counseling tool that I could spend days reading relationship advice before I found some spiritual nuggets.  Isn’t it interesting that often when you think you have a unique idea, you find the field flooded with the blogs of others who got there before you?

Most of the blogs were single nuggets or personal experiences, but there was also a moralistic tone, a thread of judgment that ran through those I reviewed.    This thread reminded me of voices from my childhood when my parents wanted me to be content with what I had, appreciative of the meals set in front of me and obedient to the 10th commandment not to covet.

Like the emu in Bill’s story, I was warned that wishing for what I couldn’t have would poison my appreciation for my own circumstance.  I was reminded of the dog in the manger and the fox and the grapes and again, more platitudes than I can count.    Shame and guilt were rather effective tools to quiet my yearning for greener pastures.  I remember that my mother was quite sure that the grass wasn’t really greener, it only seemed so because it was unobtainable.  I believe she was protecting herself from wishing beyond her hopes and wanting to save me the same sorrow.

Imagine if there were such a voice to keep the chick inside the safe shell – to die!  Extreme example, perhaps, but easy to imagine.

Beyond being used as a tool to keep children in their place in the past century, this particular platitude suggests that one’s decisions should be like steel traps, securing one to a chosen pasture.  As a veteran of a failed marriage, I am grateful beyond measure that I did not have to forever live with my mistake like the warning over the entrance to hell in Dante’s Inferno: “All hope abandon ye who enter here.”  That message is surely a big stop sign!!

The greener grass is just that: Hope.  Without wishing for a different job, house, career, hair color, or automobile, how can we brighten our lives, stay alive emotionally and progress?  Without entertaining novel notions, our spiritual lives cannot grow and change and we find ourselves living a repetition reminding us of the Ground Hog’s Day movie where each day repeated the last.  As we garner new experiences, insights and, yes, wisdom, our spiritual lives should reflect that new color and interest.  Greener pastures?  I should hope so!  The opportunity to find out if that is so or not? Definitely!

Marriage being forever is not necessarily the best pasture to stay in, either.  Abuse and cruelty are real, and the dictum to stay with such a relationship is a logical outcome of this restrictive philosophy.  The grass is sometimes greener.

So I believe the grass is greener platitude is an echo from the past, trying to encourage gratitude and stability and contentment….however fine these traits may be, in place of growth and curiosity and hope.   

In spiritual terms, the GIG syndrome might suggest that we were led to the truth when we walked into whatever church we found comfortable.  I’m here to tell you that comfort is highly over rated as a spiritual goal.  That kind of stagnation is too much like a stop sign.  Stop thinking.  Stop questioning.  Stop trying out a new philosophy.

Over sixty years ago, I heard a sermon that I shall never forget.   It was at a summer church camp where our church leaders hoped we teenagers would commit our lives and careers to our evangelical doctrine.  A quadruple amputee was the speaker, and he forcefully built a challenge into a sermon he called No Stop Signs. He envisioned himself on life’s journey and realized the temptation to stop and rest, or to stop and let someone else travel his journey.  No stop signs for him, he said.  While he could not avoid the fact of his disability, he claimed that his attitude of service would keep him alive and active.   He energetically shared a philosophy of life that encouraged us believe in ourselves.   For me, the effect was the opposite of the goal of our pastors.  In that theology, we were supposed to hold fast to the notion that without God we were useless, cut adrift from the strength and direction we needed to lead a good Christian life.  This fellow was encouraging personal courage and determination.  I can’t speak for other young people at this youth conference, but I found a kernel of energy to branch out and not accept a dependent religion for myself.  It took many years, but by the time I was thirty, I found out that the grass really was greener on the other side of the fence.  The fence was a dogmatic and unchanging belief in the literal promises in the New Testament of a heaven for those who put their complete and total trust in Jesus as Son of God.  

Let’s take a careful look at the fence.  I believe that the fence in my parents’ warning was the limits of their own abilities to provide for us, not a guide for our life’s journey.  The implication that the fence was permanent, too high to climb and probably for my own good is from another age.  In today’s world, in our healthy land, it is only sensible to analyze the fence that separates us from a greener pasture.  In spiritual terms, the threat of hell and damnation has kept a fence sturdy and higher than we could surmount.  What a blessing to be free of that!  Living in such a free thinking society, it is hard for me to remember that there are folks whose spiritual lives are so circumscribed as to be cast in stone.  In fact, many folks feel that to question, to be skeptical about religious notions is sinful.  Without a skeptical attitude, where would we find ourselves?  Alone in this church, I think!

We as Unitarian Universalists might not recognize the constraints that dogmatic fences put on people’s souls, but if you are willing to listen to evangelical rants on the radio for just a short time, you might become enlightened.  Fear of eternal damnation still does restrain many people from even considering the greener pastures.  Is this the green pasture from the 23rd Psalm?

I understand that a life of envy and dissatisfaction with one’s own lot does not generally lead to a productive life.  How foolish one is to not appreciate the fruits of their labor or their parents’ efforts to give them a start in a positive direction.   But in your heart of hearts, in that private and oh, so personal life of the spirit, satisfaction and comfort are lethal.   Our spirits only live when they are restless.  Show me a spirit that does not question and seek and discard and continue seeking and I will show you a stagnant spirit.

Perhaps you know someone who is not satisfied with their situation, but – for whatever reason – decides to do nothing about it except pine for the greener grass across the fence.  I can remember having to bide my time and stay in the safety zone, while wishing for the freedom of jumping the fence.  In one instance, I had used my mother’s disappointment as the reason not to make a change in my spiritual direction.  Looking back, I realize that I really was using her supposed disappointment, as an excuse to put off taking the risk myself.  It was a risk.  I had grown up with the assurance of eternal life and being with my loved ones in heaven, and that was a big deal to give up by declaring the reality of my own doubts.  Once accomplished, I found a freedom and joy in adventure that had never been a part of my spiritual life.  The grass really was greener, and it sustained me as I followed my skeptical self to the UU church in Toledo, Ohio in 1967.

So, how is it with your spirit?  Comfortable?   Someone’s exhortation to take your mind out and dance on it comes to my mind.  Try it.  It’s risky, but a responsible skepticism is often the gateway to a very rewarding journey of the spirit.   Only you know if your spirit is stagnant and in need of a good dance, and only you know if you are up to the challenge.   But do not  dance alone.  Here is your living, breathing church community, ready to dance and travel with you.  In fact, if I were writing the description of this spiritual dance, I would demand a dancing partner or a beloved community to dance with.  So, let’s mix some metaphors.  Is it a dance we do?  May I have this dance with you?

May it ever be so!