There is really nothing quite like a cliffhanger. Movies, books, television shows…they all use of this device. It activates something in our mind, something that desires resolution, something that desires closure. It’s probably good for us, but it can be unsettling.
Anyone who saw the new Marvel Comics movie knows that. I won’t spoil anything here for you, but for those of you who have seen it, I hope we can agree that making a movie that actually ends like that would be unkind, at the very least.
And so it is that we might recall, or if you weren’t here last week, we might catch you up, that nine years ago, this body you see before you was in some distress on an operating table. It was cruising, perhaps, into a quiet, final rest on that table unless something came in to save that day. Well, have no fear. Like so many of the wonderful marvels we have with us today, like microphones, monitors, and microchips, electricity was just what the doctor ordered for me…literally.
Prone as I was, I looked up at the nurse blotting my brow throughout the procedure. The worry I could see peeking over the surgical mask and down at me was set to the tune of someone applying the adhesive pads to by chest where “the paddles” would be applied. And as my final thought passed through my mind, my thought of gratitude for forgiving those who had hurt me, I felt an anesthetic pulse and warm in my veins, and all went dark.
The words of Barbara Pescan,
I am praying again
and how does one pray
when unsure if anything hears?
In the world I know as reliable and finite
when time and matter cycle back and forth
and I understand the answers to so many puzzles
there are moments when knowing is nothing
this accumulation of systems, histories
repetitions falls from me—
how does one who is sure there is nothing
dark gathered around my eyes
sit in this room cluttered with my certainties
my one unanswered question
holding myself perfectly still to listen
fixing my gaze
These words might have been the words in my mind when it passed from consciousness to unconsciousness before coming back again. I might have had “my one unanswered question” resting, waiting, in my mind like Barbara Pescan suggests. I might have asked whether what I believed in, what was relevant to me before—money, power, “having a good time,” things others might see as the pleasures of this world—were really worth my time anymore. I might have asked, “What about joy in my life?” I might have asked, “What about compassion for those with whom I share my life?” I wish I could remember whether in that moment I had one unanswered question.
But I can’t. Because everything after being shocked back into my normal state of life, everything after waking up with skin singed from the electricity sent through my body, is a little bit of a blur.
What I do remember. I remember returning to work…too soon. The head of my office had to come in personally and send me home because of how I looked. I will never forget the look on his face, almost confused or possibly disgusted that I returned to work only days after this experience, face ashen, eyes vacant, moving slowly.
I remember taking a months-long break from attending the Lutheran church I’d been attending and serving as a member of the Board and Finance Committee. I remember the minister emailing me to ask how I was doing after a few months, and asking gently whether they should continue to pray for my health: him not knowing for certain how my procedure went and me not knowing exactly how to respond.
Risking my health to serve my employer. Ignoring the place seeking to be of service to me in prayer. And something, something, asking, my one unanswered question.
It didn’t happen fast. It didn’t arrive on the scene and announce its presence. It came in chance encounters and moments that seemed like they’d been waiting to happen all along, but something started to change. The way I often describe it is this: if you are sailing and you make one small, tiny, imperceptible course change, over the course of the next few minutes, you will not notice a thing—over the course of the next few hours, you probably won’t either—but with enough time, over a long enough distance, if you’re not careful, you could end up in an entirely different part of the world from where you intended to go.
As each new file came across my desk, as each client whined about not being rich enough, as each deadline mocked me from my docket, I asked my one unanswered question.
As each prayer in church claimed allegiance to something I didn’t understand, as each sacrament or ceremony in church held some tiny, almost innocent inference that the sacrament or ceremony is needed to save my soul, as each new conflict between what I felt inside and what I heard aloud came to rest in my mind, like birds on a wire, they lined up right next to, my one unanswered question.
And it was about this time when I was walking up Lexington Avenue from the subway. The part of Manhattan where I lived was very residential. After a few years there I’d gotten to know a lot of the people in the neighborhood. One of my favorite people, Susan, was walking toward the train when I saw her. We said our “Hi’s” and “How are you’s” and she asked what I was up to. It was a Saturday afternoon, and I wasn’t up to much. She said, “Why don’t you go to this concert? It’s just a few blocks up. I wanted to go, but I have to take care of something.” I said, “Okay.”
So I strolled up Lexington Avenue two blocks to a church I’d seen more than a thousand times. And I’m not exaggerating, more than a thousand times. And I went inside. The perfect white, high-gloss paint on the pillars, the fluffy velvet-cushioned pews, spoke to some part of me—maybe the part of me at that time that kind of liked nice things, if I’m being honest. Oh yes, this was All Souls Unitarian Church and the concert that afternoon was by its professional choir in residence, Musica Viva. All Souls likes nice things, too.
I took my seat and waited for the concert to begin. I saw a hymnal a lot like this one while I was waiting, so I started thumbing through it. And in it I found “hymns” with lyrics by e. e. cummings in some places and then I found “Amazing Grace,” the song I sang as my Grandfather’s funeral, in others. I saw readings by Marcus Aurelius, printed alongside the poetry of Rumi, the blazing genius of Alice Walker, and the prayer of St. Francis. I held the hymnal open and I looked around, almost like I was asking, “Is anybody else seeing this?” But they were all too busy watching the choir take the stage.
I am confident that the choir sang many, many wonderful, technically demanding, and otherwise beautiful pieces, but I don’t really remember. Because all I remember was when they began to sing an arrangement of the song Shenandoah.
Oh, Shenandoah, I long to see you,
And hear your rolling river.
This was a song I had sung before.
Oh, Shannandoh I long to see you,
Way, we’re bound away, across the wide Missouri.
Yes, I had sung this song before.
I had sung this song before I’d ever tried to make a living out of singing.
I had sung this song before I’d ever left home.
I had sung this song when I didn’t know who to love or how.
I had sung this song when all I knew of my life was possibility, was potential.
I long to see your smiling valley
And hear your rolling river
I long to see your smiling valley
Way, we’re bound away, across the wide Missouri.
The song went on, lilting, churning like the river it travels. And through those passing melodies, as I gazed in memory and wonder at the choir before me, I saw the man right in front of me turn to the man sitting next to him. They said nothing to each other. The one who turned first only smiled at his companion. And the smile lifted just so under his eyes to show the stream of the tear that was working down his face.
Tis seven long years, since last I’ve seen you
And hear your rolling river
Tis seven long years since last I’ve seen you
Way, we’re bound away, across the wide Missouri
And then the answers started to come:
Because loving people matters more than making them rich.
Because anything that sounds like a threat isn’t loving.
Because some people can’t speak up for themselves sometimes.
Because it’s hard out there and we need friends.
All answers to my one unanswered question I had been asking, the question that snuck into my consciousness when I was unconscious, the question snapping at the heels of my satisfaction with a life that I wondered might be ending, but didn’t.
My one unanswered question: “Why me?”
And almost as quickly, like electricity through a circuit, that question yielded to all these answers. And a new unanswered question arose: “Why not me?”
I have been receiving some of the most beautiful emails this week. People have been sharing some of the ways that coming to Unitarian Universalist churches matters to them and their family. Some people have been sharing ways that the blended beliefs of their chosen family led them here. All of these histories, these stories that we share with one another, are so, so beautiful. They are the first part of the story we tell together: the past. And I know that what I would love to do, what would feel so, so comfortable, would be to take the first part of my story, the first part of all the stories you’ve shared with me this week, and pivot, and look together into the future! Right?
We want to shape the future. We want to see the future. We want to take part in the future. But when we do this—pivot always toward what may be—we miss what is right here.
I know what you’re thinking. “Really, T. J., a two-part sermon about being in the present? A near death experience, musical accompaniment, all to be told that we need to stay in the moment? C’mon!” Well, let’s see how the story ends.
I left All Souls that day and began to read. I read, and I read, and I read. I read sermons, I read histories, I read anything I could get my hands on about Unitarian Universalism. It was like I was discovering something that was right under my nose the whole time, like a hymnal sitting right there in a pew. And day, by day, along the course plotted across the seas of my life, every decision I made seemed somehow to be different. Try as I might, every time I was considering what decision I should make, I couldn’t help hearing that question, “Why not me?”
And something happened when I was doing all that reading. I started to read the words and know the deeds of the prophetic people through time, people whose entire lives and deeds, not just their words, Unitarian Universalists held up as inspiration. I began to see the beauty, not the bully, in the treasury of the world’s sacred texts where Unitarian Universalists also go for inspiration. And over time the question that arose, “Why not me?” ceased it’s asking. But this question did not quiet down because there was an answer. This question stopped because there wasn’t an answer. I searched, I scoured, I tried, and I failed. I could not answer the question.
“Why shouldn’t I devote my life to something hard to do, but something rewarding beyond measure?”
“Why shouldn’t I stop being party to and complicit in so many of the world’s challenges and do something that helps?”
“Why shouldn’t I hold on the hope that we have only yet begun to love one another with the best of our still-beating hearts?”
“Why not me?”
And that is the question that brought me here, before you, where I stand, at this very moment, now.
A few minutes ago, when I looked at the past and spun to the future, what was it that I was missing? What was it? That’s right, it was you, Sitting right here in plain sight. We’re sitting here, in this place, right now, together.
It looks a little like the churches of my childhood, but oh, how I longed to see you as a child who felt excluded and unwanted in places like this. And here you are to beckon all children of our human family who long to be seen! Why not you?
Tis nine long years since I passed from consciousness grateful for the chance I had to forgive and be forgiven. And here you are practicing and deepening so much of the wisdom what the entire world, that all cultures and faiths, have to teach its children about loving one another as we love ourselves! Why not you?
I longed to see your smiling faces in a world where I knew all too much of pain. And here you are, here we are, hoping together, not in a future we can’t see, not in a past we can’t change, but sitting together, in a place we share with one another, in a faith we offer to the world together, in a time, in this time, and ask the world and ask the future: “Why not you?”
And my friends, that is the very question I was asking myself when I learned that the national campaign that begins tomorrow, The Poor People’s Campaign, which was started by Martin Luther King fifty years ago, the campaign that many believe led to King’s assassination, did not have a state-wide organizing group in Hawaii. And today the movement that began as “Moral Mondays” led by Rev. William Barber has been growing for the past few years, where statehouses are taken over by a range of people who come together, finding and holding on to what unites us, not what divides us, to arrive at a new moral fusion around those systems that affect so gravely those who are the most vulnerable in our shared human family.
So I hope it’s okay, that when I learned that this important national movement begun by Dr. King and carried now by Rev. Barber did not have a home on these islands, I thought, “Why not you?”
And that is why this week, this church was appointed by the national organizing body of this movement as the state-wide organizer for Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign. Why not you?
Oh, I longed to see the smiling valley friends. When I closed my eyes and peered into the valley of the shadow of death, I could not ever have known we would be together today. When I saw the words of the prophetic people set forth together, bound in moral fusion, in a new vision for loving one another better, I could not ever have known we would be together today. And as we look together upon this day, as we hold our past, what brought us here today, and as we glimpse the future, where we may go, may we all stop asking, “Why not me?” May we cease from wondering, “Why not you?” And my we answer the only question that matters, “Why not us?” And that is the story we must tell.
And may it ever be so.