Standing On Our Heads

Betina was exhausted. As a beat cop in a small town, she had spent her day answering a series of difficult calls – domestic disturbances, a bar fight, and a car chase over a broken tail light. All she wanted to do was go home, take a bath, snuggle her kids, and watch American Idol. She had just one stop left – the station house, where she’d drop off the squad car and clock out.

As she headed to the station, a car careened around the corner, and as it banked mere inches from her, the driver screamed out the window, “PIG!!!” Betina was instantly on high alert. She’d had one nerve left and this incredibly rude and reckless driver had just stepped on it. But as she started to turn the car around, she found herself slamming on the breaks to avoid a very large, very pink, very muddy, grunting pig…in the middle of the road.

Yes. Betina had made an assumption. It’s not surprising. We all make assumptions.  Betina certainly didn’t expect the shouted word to be a warning instead of an epithet. But that large sow, lost and standing in the middle of the road, caused her to stop and look at things differently.

Now as Unitarian Universalists, we’re well trained in questioning the status quo; our entire denomination is built on exactly this; on one side, asking ‘where’s the evidence for the Trinity’ and on the other, ‘where’s the evidence that only some souls go to heaven’? We are in the questioning assumptions business. We don’t take a lot for granted. We cherish our doubt. We shy away from the sin of certainty. We sing robustly that to question is the answer.

But we are not immune from the assumption game; in fact, every time we ask the ‘big questions’ we are making assumptions. So let’s look at a few of the questions Unitarian Universalists might ask – and let’s stand on our heads and see what changing our assumptions might mean.

Question One: Why do bad things happen to good people?

It’s a question we all ask, especially when bad things happen to us. We know we’re good people – we drive defensively, we pay our taxes, we’re kind to children and animals. And we watch people we don’t think are good get rewarded. So we complain … sometimes loudly.

Now it’s okay to complain; if you read the Book of Job in the Old Testament, you find that after all the bad stuff happens, Job spends about 35 chapters complaining to God. But even that makes a particular assumption: that of dwelling in negativity.

Now in general, and certainly as it pertains to other people, I’m an optimist. But I confess I’m pretty good at dwelling in negativity when it comes to myself. Without even thinking, I can list off the many bad things that have happened to me: my being bullied in school; my father’s early death; my being fired without cause; my partner’s untimely passing; a bad car accident that had a fatality; some vexing medical issues. If I dwell in those, I sit in a well of negative possibilities – waiting for the other shoe to drop, wondering what bad things will happen next, and wondering if I’m the butt of some cosmic joke.

But what if we turn the question on its head and ask “why do GOOD things happen to good people?” Well then, I’d be compelled to start listing the many good things: growing up in a solid, loving family; getting to travel; being rewarded for my singing and acting talents; hearing the call to ministry and being accepted at the seminary of my dreams; never going hungry or being homeless; finding work; being loved.

Now another way to flip this is to ask “why do good things happen to bad people” – and I would posit that maybe we’re making assumptions about the state of a person’s mind, heart, and soul. Sure, there are folks we consider bad – but by what measure? Are they bad because the break the law? Because they skirt the law? Because they treat people badly? Because they don’t make anything of their lives? Who decides? When we flip the question this way, we need to address our assumptions about good and bad.

So let’s simply ask this question: “why do good things happen to people?” Well then, now we’re opened up to a whole new way of thinking: that goodness begets goodness. Compassion begets compassion. Creativity begets creativity. Love begets love. Now we see possibility. Now we expect grace…

Which leads us to another question: Why aren’t there still miracles?

I know this is a common question, especially for those of us looking to ancient wisdom to understand the modern world. It seems – and rightly so – that things we thought of as miracles are now explained by science.

It certainly is true that much of ancient mythology explains natural phenomena. The ancient Greek story of Icharus explains solar eclipses. The ancient Iroquois story of Adekagagwaa explains the seasons. The old Norse story of Thor explains thunder.

Other ancient stories tell of how nature was “interrupted” by supernatural forces; a miracle foretold by Ichadon in Korea resulted in Buddhism becoming the state religion. The Sufi mystics are said to perform miracles of invisibility and taming animals. In Judaism, Elisha was deemed a miracle worker. And there are multiple miracles ascribed to Jesus – from turning water into wine, to healing the sick and raising the dead, to feeding the multitudes.

But all of these miracles are ancient – of a time gone by. Clearly, miracles no longer happen.

But that assumes that we know what miracles are.

Could it be that miracles are happening all the time, but we don’t recognize them? What if there were mini-miracles? Bite-sized, microwavable, one-minute miracles? Maybe miracles are the little things, like picking the first tomato off the vine, or running into someone you haven’t seen in ages, or finding a long-lost CD, or hearing exactly the right sermon you’ve needed to hear on a Sunday morning.

You could call these mini-miracles synchronicity, or coincidence, or karma, or good fortune. Author David Roche calls them “miracles built of grace.” As we open to grace, we are open to the mini-miracles that touch our lives.

Of course, we aren’t always open to grace, and sometimes we miss the mini-miracle. We get to the garden too late, we run into the one person we DON’T want to see, we have to repurchase the long-lost CD, we miss the message of the sermon we’re listening to because we’re distracted by a worrisome thought. But that’s okay. If we’re open most of the time, we’ll catch most of them.

Now just like making our list of the good things that have happened in our lives, it’s relatively easy to notice the big miracles –the big events of our lives. But the mini-miracles are in the fleeting moments. I will notice the epiphany that comes during a long meditation. But the one that surprises me and makes me a little humble is the big moment of awakening when I just stopped for a second to behold a flower or hear a melody or witness an act of kindness. So I invite you to ask instead “why are there still miracles” and be open to grace.

Which leads in to our next question: Is God listening when I pray?

This one puts me in mind of something I do, although with lessening frequency as voice mail gives way to text messaging. I am someone who needs a conversation – or at least non-verbal signals that you’re hearing me, much like you are giving me now, with nods and smiles and tilted heads. So if I have to leave a voice mail message, I find myself rambling…repeating… and rambling some more. I keep going until I am unceremoniously played off the phone with a loud BEEP.

Now I SHOULD know better. I should be listening to myself, realizing that a simple message would suffice. But I’m not listening. I know the person on the other end isn’t listening, but I’m not either. So when I pray, God may not be listening; but am I hearing myself? What if I turn the question around and ask, “am I listening when I pray?”

There’s a scene in the film The Hunt for Red October, where our
hero, Jack Ryan, is on an American aircraft carrier looking for a renegade Soviet sub; the captain notes that the Russians are “pinging away with their active sonar like they’re looking for something, but nobody’s listening.” When Ryan asks what he means, the captain replies that the Russians are moving really fast. “At that speed,” he says, “they could run right over my daughter’s stereo and not hear it.” Sometimes we’re talking so much we forget to listen, when that’s really the key. As the Talmud says: “The Good Lord gave us each two ears and one mouth, showing we should listen and speak in the same proportion.”

What should we be listening for? Well, if the last question is any indication, miracles. Grace. Insight. I mean, this is what we’re praying for, isn’t it? We’re looking for solace, for answers, for direction. So why aren’t we listening for those things – why are we banging along rambling to whoever or whatever we pray to, not even listening for the answer?

It’s not hard to stop ourselves and listen. After we pray, we should shut up… and pay attention. Because like grace, what we seek most often comes from those surprising places; a snippet of a conversation with a friend, the lyric of a song playing in the grocery store, the glimpse of a flower. When we pay attention, we see the connections between ourselves and the world around us.

Now if you’re anything like me, this thought leads you to bigger, what-does-it-all-mean kind of questions. Like this one: What if we’re alone in the universe?

This is the biggie – the question that haunts anyone who has looked into the night sky, or at that famous image of earth as a big blue marble, or at the stunning photographs from the Hubble telescope. More than once I’ve read the statistical improbability that we even exist – from the precision of our distance to the sun, to the chemical makeup of the atmosphere, to the particulars of the amino acids that sparked life, to the chances that we followed this particular evolutionary path. That there is intelligent life on earth is statistically improbable enough; that it could be happening elsewhere seems outrageously impossible.

But that’s because we are assuming a few things – not the least of which is that our math is right. When we ask if we’re alone in the universe, we’re implying a limited universe that has the capacity for only one planet like ours. Sure, we imagine countless others – the starship Enterprise’s “continuing mission to explore strange new worlds” alone is proof that our imagination expands the confines of the universe to include others.

But this question also assumes some pretty big fears; fears of isolation, of being purposeless. Why do we even exist if we’re all that’s out there? What’s our purpose if we only have this one crazy planet in the whole of existence?

So let’s flip this one – what if we’re not alone in the universe? When we look at the question this way, we can allow our minds to entertain an expansiveness of existence that includes other sentient beings, other planets that can sustain life, other beings that thrive in this giant, infinite universe. It connects us to something shockingly larger than ourselves.

And it connects us more intimately to all of life that exists on this planet. When I consider the idea that we’re not alone in the universe, suddenly I am more conscious of my place as an earthling; not a visitor on this planet but belonging to this planet, as much as the trees and the rocks and the squirrels and the oceans.

When we approach the question from a place of isolation, it becomes a world where everyone is out for themselves. When we approach the question from a place of connectedness, it becomes a world where we can get out of our own way a little, and follow a more universal calling. Jeanne Harrison Nieuwejaar points out in her book Fluent in Faith that

We are a part of an interconnected web of life in which each affects all. There is a sacred spark, a spiritual energy and power, in each of us. It matters what we do with our lives. The great, ultimately unnamable mystery of life is a call to goodness and love. As we choose love, decide for love, stand on the side of love, we are part of the growing God in the universe.

Are you sensing a theme here? Most of our questions tend to be rooted in fear or insecurity, coming from the self in times of frustration and loneliness. Yet when we turn the questions around, we begin to embrace hope, security, and connectedness.

What if we turn some of our other big theological questions over in our heads –

  • “Why me” becomes “why not me?” and opens us up to possibilities and hope.
  • “Why am I unlovable” becomes “why am I so loved?” and opens our hearts to give and receive.
  •  “What happens when we die” becomes “what happens when we live” and encourages us to embrace our place in the family of humanity.

So challenge your assumptions. Ask questions of your questions. Turn them around – ask what happens when you give before you receive. Ask what happens when you budget for charity first. Ask what happens if you assume everyone is innately good. Ask what happens when you reject perfection as a measure of worth. Ask what happens when how we love matters more than what we know. Ask what happens when the infinite is possible. Ask what happens when we get to be part of creating, not just part of creation. For every time we challenge our assumptions, we find ourselves embracing a positive, co-creative, loving, always-unfolding, just, relational way of living in the world.

Stand on your heads and look at your questions in new ways. You still won’t have the answers, and you may not always know exactly where you’re going, but you’ll have some interesting new things to think about, talk about, pray about, and sing about on the journey.

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