Curiouser and Curiouser

October 2, 2011
Rev. Dr. Victoria Weinstein

From Psalm 139 

O LORD, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.

Alright, so how does that grab you?
Beautiful, or scary?
Mystical union with the creative force of the energy, or sense of having your privacy constantly violated by a cosmic spy?

I was raised with the notion of the all-seeing, all-knowing God once-removed, as it came not from my parents, but from my grandmother. I think she meant the idea to be comforting but I found it creepy and confusing. God the Father loves you... but He's also watching you at all times and waiting for you to screw up. What a notion of love and intimacy. I no longer wonder about God watching me like some celestial peeping Tom: I don't believe in that sort of God. I also don't worry about ghosts watching me any more; something that concerned me a bit in my childhood and adolescence. If the spirits are watching, I just hope they're getting a good show. What I do wonder, for your life and for mine, is not about being seen or observed, but being known. Deeply known. Are we known? We think we know each other, we think we know our "besties," but we barely know ourselves. Life is an endless process of fulfilling the ancient Greek recipe for wisdom, "KNOW THYSELF."

Last week, in Louisville Kentucky, a UU congregation was surprised by their minister coming out from the pulpit. This is not the kind of coming out you are probably thinking of, like when the Rev. Peter Gomes, the chaplain of Harvard University, publicly came out as gay on the steps of Widener Library on campus. What the Rev. Dawn Cooley came out to her congregation about was that she is a roller derby queen. Once a week she straps on protective gear, dons fishnet stockings and a helmet and assumes her alter ego as "Liv Fearless." The worship service that day concluded with Dawn's teammates skating into the sanctuary to the applause and wide-eyed amazement of her congregation. The next week, after the story received national media attention the pews were filled, ending "the separation of church and skate," as CNN quipped. I spoke to Dawn this week and she talked about the energy is takes to release that kind of private information, to share it, to stand in the face of either acceptance or judgment, and just to be aware that people are thinking about her, talking about her, and seeing her as a role model (both a good one and a bad one - neither of which she can control). In being better known by others, she is having an opportunity to know herself as well.

Curiouser and curiouser. One of the reasons I think Lewis Carroll's classic "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" has remained so popular through the decades is that we all relate to Alice, falling down that rabbit hole and emerging in a world of strange characters who may seem vaguely familiar but who make no sense -- who are truly a "wonder" to us. Part of coming to maturity as individuals and as communities is to get to know ourselves well enough so that we can greet each new character not with fear or revulsion, but with curiosity: Who, and what, is this new creature, or this person I thought I knew? What truth does this being have to reveal to me, to all of us? The other option is to run and hide, or to condemn the surprising, weird character, regard it with disgust or revulsion, or dominate, domesticate and repress it so that it begins to resemble a creature who feels safe and familiar to us. This is soul violence, a soul violence that is committed against original and eccentric people every day.

I am convinced that each one of us undergoes a measure of this soul violence as we are raised up and prepared to fit into the worlds our parents expect and hope us to take our rightful place in. We don't even have to be that original or eccentric: just challenge the norms a bit, color outside the lines proscribed by society, or dare to have a desire, idea, relationship or form of self-expression that has not been given the stamp of approval by the majority around us.

One of the most cherished fantasies of almost all people is that after a relationship of many years, we really know each other. When I meet couples whom I am going to join in holy matrimony, I tell them that one of the greatest dangers in married life is to think you know each other so well that there is no mystery left. This is particularly true of couples who believe that true intimacy is based on keeping absolutely no secrets and baring their souls to each other about every thought, feeling and action they each have. In the wedding homily, I invite each partner to consider the other a gift that it will take a lifetime to unwrap. This is not an encouragement to keep secrets from each other, which can be devastating to the building up and maintaining of trust, but to remember and respect the ultimate mystery that each of us is to the other, and to ourselves. The day we stop discovering new things about ourselves, we will have in large part died. This is one of the beauties of aging, which our culture tends to treat as an accumulation of ailments and new vulnerabilities as the body breaks down over time -- yes, it is that, but it is something else: with the years comes the recognition that we can surprise ourselves at any age. Curiouser and curiouser. Within each of us is a cast of characters waiting to have their turn on the stage. Jung, one of the fathers of modern psychology, said that the core of the personality was comprised of many selves. One of the tasks of our lifetime is to bring those selves to light, to "un-repress" them, as it were, so that we do not act out our multiplicities of being in ways that harm others.

We want, in our personal relationships and in our communities, to have the security of feeling that we really know each other. And yet because we are all protean, all shape-shifters in our interior landscape (and sometimes exterior, and I am thinking here particularly of people with fluid gender identity), we cannot ever nail down who we are, or who another is. You see on the news, the person talking to the reporter in the aftermath of some bizarre crime and saying, "Oh, he couldn't have done that. We've been neighbors for years." It is terrifying to have the veil of illusion ripped from our eyes when someone that we thought we knew well is revealed to be a monster, or even just a different person than we thought we knew. However, if we pay close attention we will notice that we are always becoming a different person than the one we thought we knew; why shouldn't others do the same? When this "someone new" appears in a wonderful way we say, "Who knew he had it in him? Who knew she had that in her?"

"Who knew I had that in me?"

We have a lot in us. I am really looking forward to seeing the movie, "We Have To Talk About Kevin," about the relationship between a mother and her son who commits a terrible, Columbine-type killing spree. I am drawn to stories like this that examine human nature in its complexity and leave it unresolved, just like in real life. This may be part of ongoing ministry training, I suppose, which is always presenting opportunities to be shocked by human nature. However, because being shocked does not help anyone make meaning, move on with life, repair relationships, or reconcile with society, I (and all of us) are obligated to find a more constructive way to respond to the characters we meet down the rabbit hole. The ancient Roman playwright Terrence wrote one of my favorite mottos for both ministry and for life, "I am a man, and nothing human is alien to me."

A sense of appreciation, rather than fear, for the ultimate privacy and mystery of each individual is like a muscle that we must exercise and strengthen in order to live honestly in community. I have recently said to our church leaders, and I will share with you, that it concerns me that if we were to create a profile for those visitors to our church who come, stay awhile, and then go away, it is those people who are in crisis, who are vulnerable, who have a hard time with social chit-chat, who are a bit socially awkward, and who are not in stable partnerships. This sermon this morning is for them, in their honor, and with my own sadness and humility for not more openly addressing their needs and their reality in our programming beyond the worship service. They are the people I had in mind when I decided to start a mid-week service (which will begin as a monthly gathering and hopefully become a weekly one).

They are the ones who enter the doors of the church seeking something to put their trust and faith in, whose faith and trust have been shattered by human relationships. They are those who have fallen down the rabbit hole -- or who were pushed down there-- and who are struggling for a sense of solid ground. They are not looking for a family (a word that may be charged with a sense of danger for them) and they are not necessarily even looking for friendship -- not at first. They are fighting a private battle against their own or others' demons, and they need a safe place to explore the mystery of human nature and of ultimate reality with other around them who are doing the same. We all spend time down the rabbit hole, which does not necessarily mean that we are lost, but that we are living in a deep place. Much of life happens in that deep place, and much wisdom is gained, but not easily and often not pleasantly.

"'Curiouser and curiouser!' Cried Alice (she was so much surprised, that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English). 'Now I'm opening out like the largest telescope that ever was! Good-bye, feet!' (for when she looked down at her feet they seemed to be almost out of sight, they were getting so far off)."

"Goodbye, feet!" Scary, exhilarating, mysterious transformation. It is always happening. Where is our home ground, where can we be deeply known even within the mystery of our strange and surprising depths? Here are more of the words of Psalm 139,

For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother's womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.

Someone must know us. Something must know us --and love every hair on our head, as another psalm suggests-- we ardently hope and desire this. Someone must know and accept and hear us, be able to hold all that we are, in our aloneness that need not be loneliness, and in our mystery, that must not be domesticated, controlled or repressed but protected and respected. "For now we see in a mirror dimly," wrote St. Paul, "but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known."

We can never fully know each other, and that's not to be feared. What we can know is that each person craves to be fully known to the life's own holy spirit, to know their place in the scheme of things, know it to be a meaningful place, unique, irreplaceable, and infinitely precious. I bow to the mystery in each of you.

In that mystery is the God in each of you.