Baccalaureate Sermon 2002

"Learning to Fall"

The Rev. Catherine Quehl-Engel
Cornell College

You're looking mighty fine this morning, you know that? It's just like last year's class: All robed in black, row after row, you're like a plowed Iowan field. After four years on the hilltop, you're well fertilized. Now you're just waiting for seed and some heat. We'll try to give you some of that this morning. But first (camera). Great. Now I can finish the roll.

Craig and I have a six-year-old daughter named Rachel. She recently got a scooter and a bike, and there are a few shots on here of her posing confidently with these apparatuses of freedom In one shot, she has on her protective gear, looking very cool in her heart covered crash helmet and pads. Still, she's nervous. She knows that, at some point, I have to actually let go of her bike handles. That as a parent, I'm going to have to let her fall if she's ever going to ride.

Our daughter's training wheels just came off, and so have yours'. Like Rachel, you're ready to ride. You have on your graduation gear. You pose confidently for the camera. It's all like the shot of my daughter JUST BEFORE actually getting on the bike. When the robe comes off, the cameras are put away, and the commencement really begins, then perhaps, like my daughter, your thrill over freedom will mingle with a whiff of sheer terror. Perhaps you'll wish that your Cornell diploma came with Rachel's crash helmet-just in case you ever lose momentum, or hit one of life's potholes, and fall. If I could, I'd tell you that the divine manufacturer rewards faith and hard work with a lifetime warranty for a pain-free future. Yet I believe the words from Psalm 23 which Cammy & Jason sung state, not IF, but WHEN I walk through the dark valley. Besides, Jesus was a hard working, nice guy, and a faithful Jew, and look what happened to him. Indeed, by the look of things in the last century and on the evening news, it appears that even God lets go of our bike handles. Like a mom teaching her kid to ride in the middle school parking lot, God gives a running push and then, despite our fear, releases her grip, yet promises to stay present as we try out our freedom. Over and over, she helps us back up, steadying us again as we ride and fall, fail and soar.

Today I'm talking with you about falling and intimacy with fear. I know. This sounds as much fun as being back in junior high, and waking up for school picture day with a huge zit on the end of your nose. It makes you feel uncomfortable and exposed. The only thing worse than failing, falling, and fear is having others know you do it. Heaven forbid anyone know that beneath these distinguished academic and clerical robes are moments of self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy; fear that you won't amount to much; fear that you don't have what it takes, or even know which way home will be; fear that there's much in our lives over which we have no control.

Our culture is obsessed with power and success. How often does our culture
--which glorifies perfection, might, and striving to be number one--ever speak intimately with us about vulnerability, defeat or fear? About stumbling in the dark? About when your plan or dream falls apart? I know my words on your big day seem as appropriate as preaching about Mary's contractions on Christmas Eve. Generally, we understand discomfort in any form as bad. We run like crazy. Rather than seeing the Holy potently dwelling with us in the fear, we usually seek ways to escape or deaden the full impact of the pain. Yes, growing up and getting older is scary. Bill Heywood recently told me that aging isn't for sissies. I think he's right. Let me put it the way Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron, does in her book When Things Fall Apart. She says, "Usually we think that brave people have no fear. The truth is…they are intimate with fear. "

In seventh grade, my step-dad instructed me on what we thought was competitive cross-country ski racing but have since learned were spiritual instructions for the journey. Deep in the Wisconsin woods, we'd come to steep down hills with sharp, hairpin turns and tightly groomed tracks. Dave had me practice two things. First, he wanted me to know that wipeouts are inevitable. So Dave instructed me on how to fall-that when the crash was certain, to not resist; to accept the spill with my body because fighting it could cause more injury. Over and over, we'd practice falling, and of course watching a parent wipe out made me feel better about my own abilities. Next, Dave told me that I needed to practice leaning into the sharp turn. In other words, to lean into my fear. I'd have to go against my instincts, tucking my body and face down even closer to the hard crusty snow; to relax and ease back on my heels, to trust and surrender, loosening my grip on needing to control; to not forget to breathe; to let the grooves on the trail do the leading as they took me around life's curves into destinations unknown.

From the time you first learned to walk, you've been intimate with fear and falling. Perhaps it happened when
" your best friend ditched you or your sweetheart dumped you.
" There was the time you fell on your face;
" or when you fell for someone who didn't fall for you;
" when you were picked on, or when you weren't picked for the team.
" when, as a second grader, you couldn't hold it anymore, and wet your pants during the student assembly;
" when the grade point fell or the grad school denied you;
" when the family was falling apart;
" when a loved one, friend, or God forbid, your parent or child died;
" when you fell from virtue; when you failed, flunked or were fired;
" when prayers evaporated on your tongue, and the spiritual life seemed pointless because you felt no longer good at it.
" When amid falling planes and towers, our nation fell, leaving Eden to join the rest of humanity who, throughout all of history, have known invasion, plagues and pain. When we gathered in this chapel to pray and tremble together, haunted by images of ash falling upon heads like an avalanche of Ash Wednesdays. Having tasted the tree of good and evil, we felt intensely lost outside the garden, and anxiously needed to know where loved ones were.
" When, as parents or mentors, we messed up and failed you;
" when your own wonder woman cape got thread bare and you fell from your self-made pedestal of perfection.
" When you wanted to be beautiful for the high school prom, but tripped on your dress and fell just as the MC introduced your name (me).
" When you sit on your future in-laws deck for the first time, want to make a good impression, and suddenly you feel something wet fall into your hair. Then, to your horror, you look up and see a bird in the tree above (me).
" When after seventeen hours of child labor, you just can't take the pain anymore, demand an epidural, and the young medical student numbs you from the thighs down (me). Believe me, I had friends tell me how spiritual giving birth would be, but all I could equate the pain to was crucifixion. Of course, they were correct. At the time, I just hadn't realized that spirituality is not a synonym for tranquility and bliss.

Phillip Simmons was a young professor teaching literature and creative writing at Lake Forest College. He said that writers are like bears; they feed on most anything. And that's precisely what Phillip did when he became disabled by Lou Gehrig's disease. He used his disease to write about falling and the blessings of an imperfect life. His is not a story of triumph over adversity. Lou Gehrig's disease can't be that. While he values the story Christian theology tells about falling so that we can rise again later, for the time being he wanted to telling another story: One of finding victory in the falling itself, in learning "how to live fully [and] consciously in the presence of mystery." To learn to fall so that we can accept the vulnerability that is our human endowment, the cost of walking upright on the earth." He asks,

When we fall, what is it that we fall away from? We fall from ego; we fall from our carefully constructed identities…. We fall from grasping… And what do we fall into? We fall into humility, into compassion…into oneness with forces larger than ourselves, into oneness with others whom we realize are likewise falling. We fall, at last, into the presence of the sacred, into godliness, into mystery, into our better, diviner [selves].

I recall my grandmother telling me how much she prefers the Old Testament, or Hebrew Scriptures. Its cast of characters seem more recognizable. The biblical family is delightfully screwy and inadequate, yet God chooses them anyway for holy purposes, which should give us hope for our own families and lives. There are sibling rivalries. Marriage problems. A national leader caught in a scandalous affair. Murder, war, rape and the thirst for revenge, forgiveness and hope, solidarity with the oppressed, doubt and joy, passionate loving making and longing. In short, this holy and human stuff isn't rated PG. If you doubt me, try reading Song of Songs to your mother and see if you blush. Ultimately, to read these scriptures is to recognize ourselves. For as Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, if it were just about lambs tails and rainbows, it wouldn't be our book.
Among this ragtag biblical bunch is a seemingly irrelevant, insignificant character named Hagar. If you've never heard her name before, then you got my point. Hagar hasn't lived in the spotlight-she's like the student who sits in the back row hoping to blend in. She's a voice from the margins. And like you, she's just became homeless, cast out to find her way in the wilderness.

Hagar is the quintessential antithesis to our cultural obsession with power, prestige and success. She is a slave, a concubine, and an Egyptian and thus a foreigner and religious outsider. Moreover, when we meet her in the Genesis text, she has just become a single parent cast into the wilderness with only a day's worth of water and a loaf of bread no bigger than her child. Yet its necessary to note that this flawed, powerless woman and religious outsider is the only character in the Bible who gets the honor of naming God. As one biblical commentary points out, usually it's God who does the naming. Who else would come up with names like "I Am Who I Am," or "I Will Be Who I will be"? Instead of biblical celebrities like Abraham and Moses getting the privilege, it's this seemingly irrelevant, lost woman who, upon finding hope in the wilderness, declares "You are El-roi", meaning "you are the God of vision." And she names her orphaned son, Ishmael, because it means 'God hears' (Gen 16: 13.)"

Hagar and Ishmael are voices from the margins. Yet living in the margins as minor characters does not mean their lives have minor meaning. I'd like to think that it's precisely because they are powerless and not great Jewish or Christian celebrities that their story of faith and hope were placed in Jewish and Christian holy texts. That not only do we recognize ourselves in their story, the telling of God's love for them gives witness to our moral obligation to care for and empathize with outsiders, the marginalized and oppressed.

Too often religion has been about power, plunder and domination. I think we're all sick of it. Tired of the arrogance, lack of humility and awe. Yet over and over, Jewish and Christian scripture tell stories which prophetically witness to leadership within these traditions on how God gives favor to the outsider and underdog, to the weak, less fit, valuable or strong. To quote Friedrich Nietzsche, one of Christianity and socialism's harshest critics, Christianity arose among the lowest classes. It rose among the underbelly of the ancient world, and it was precisely the rebels, the disinherited, the whole scum and refuse of humanity who were won over to it. Nietzche was right. Even Jesus was deemed a Jewish criminal by the Roman Empire. That's a far cry from the supercessionist and triumphalist Christ we sometimes hear preached and pushed. One reason so many people were drawn to both Judaism and the Jewish sect called the Jesus movement in the first century CE was because the majority of folks living in that part of the Roman occupied ancient world were oppressed and/or were slaves, and these religious communities spoke of all souls being created equal before God and made in God's image. To the ears of Caesar and the Roman Empire, that's threatening. Nietzche called this notion of an equality of souls before God explosive, a revolutionary concept which threatens the set social order. As German theologian Dorothee Soelle puts it, Nietzche's presentation was correct. Contrary to all principles of natural selection and worship of the healthy and strong in society, from a Christian point of view, life is loved more deeply and fully where even the weak and the maimed share, both as givers and receivers, in this love for life.

On the Sunday after September 11th, a tiny United Methodist congregation in the Congo of Africa collected an offering to send to New York. Here's the poorest of the world's poor, folk who've known starvation and the death of two million of its own citizens in the past two years, sending what little money they had to the world's super power. It's quite a humbling and holy thing when the powerful bend, recognizing themselves in-and receiving from--the weak and the maimed. Philip Simmons is right. There is victory in the vulnerability. When our nation fell to its knees last fall, we fell into humility, into recognition of our own need for compassion; into the mystery of pain and its place in a hedonistic society…into oneness with forces larger than ourselves, into oneness with others who are likewise falling. We fell into the presence of the sacred, into our better, diviner selves. "Blessed are the poor in spirit," states Jesus. Not merely the financially poor, but the poor in spirit. Why? Perhaps because those full of themselves, be it materially or egotistically, experience no need, and thus, aren't open to receiving. As Sister Barbara Fiand puts it,

When we deny our inherent poverty, danger lurks in getting too affluently involved with ourselves. Either we begin to make demands for things we think we deserve…or we blithely take for granted everything that comes our way. The poor [of spirit] experience genuine gratitude and appreciate the slightest gift….The more we realize that everything is gift [the more] the tenor of life becomes one of humble, joyful thanksgiving.

I'll end with a story. Back in 1916, there was a little girl named Millie, who might as well of been named Ishmael. Like Hagar's baby, Ishmael, she didn't have a home. Her parent's marriage fell apart when she was one and a half. She was bounced around from relative to relative. Yet through this extended family of farmers, Millie knew she was loved. In time, her dad wanted her living closer to him, but he didn't have a place for her to stay. She didn't know it at the time, but he had remarried and for some reason she'll never know, chose not to tell her. He rented her a room in a boarding house, and pointed her in the direction of her new school. She lived on her own. She was seven years old. Eventually Millie's mother wanted her. She needed help raising two babies. Millie loved those girls. She says it was the first time she had anyone to really love. In time, she would have to drop out of school to become a maid in order to help make ends meet. Obviously this child needed additional strength, so at fourteen, she found herself a church, and there, in fellowship hall, Rev. Schuh gave her a scripture verse which sustained her ever since. He said if there ever was a child who needed it, it was her. It's the very last lines from the Gospel of Matthew: "Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the earth."

Eventually Millie married, raised two kids, made her children clothes out of men's old coats, fetched water to bring into the house, she even spent two years as house mother caring for fourteen boys at Lake Bluff Orphanage. "Lo, I am with you always, even onto the ends of the earth." Later, she went on to complete her high school and college degrees while holding down two part-time jobs, loving her kids, single parenting, and finding time to show up at the PTA. Sister Agnes recognized a good thing when she saw it, so she hired this Protestant to help run the Catholic hospital. There wasn't a job, but she'd make one. In time, Millie became one of only two women in executive management positions in her community, working for thirty years as a business woman in an era when powerful men with big egos didn't always appreciated her kind. "Lo, I am with you always, even onto the ends of the earth." She served on numerous board of directors, and toward the end of her career, was asked by the Governor to serve on the White House Council on Aging to address our national crisis over long-term care for the elderly.
It's impressive that this Ishmael girl made it all the way to the White House. But when she tells me her life stories, it's not the White House I want to hear about. I'll say "Mimi, tell me again about the time, after the war, when you were a house mother at Lake Bluff Orphanage, raising and loving those fourteen boys side by side with my own mother." Tell me what you prayed when you tucked them into bed, or the times you'd sit with that little boy whose parents promised to visit. How together you'd wait and wait and the tears would role down his face when they didn't come. Or when little Tony was first brought to the orphanage and announced "I have people on the outside who will get me out of this place," and refused to unpack his suitcase. How you woke up that night hearing uncontrollable sobs, and you put the boy into your arms, saying "You know, Tony, you don't have to accept this as your home, but accept it until you have a home. That's what I do." And the next morning, his suitcase was under his bed and clothes were in his closet." How often had you known his feeling? How many times had you been left with an uncle you barley knew, and he couldn't keep you? How many Ishmael's have you touched, but didn't know? "Lo, I am with you always, even unto the ends of the earth." This woman is my grandmother, and like many of your own remarkable grandparents, she is sitting with us this morning. And I love her fiercely.

I confess that I've fantasized how one day I'd tell this story, and one of your grandfathers would say "I was that boy." Over the years I've asked her whether Tony or any of the other orphans ever wrote to thank her. But of course, that is the wrong question. It's not about recognition or greatness. Instead, I'm reminded of the prophet Muhammad, whose Muslim people descend from the biblical Ishmael and Hagar. He asks the right question: "Did not God find you an orphan and give you shelter?" Therefore go, care for the orphaned and oppressed. Must this service you and I are called to be huge and dramatic? No. As one nameless woman put it to William James:
I am done with great things...big things...and big success. I am for those tiny, invisible, molecular moral forces that work from individual to individual, through the crannies of the world, like so many rootlets, or like capillaries oozing of water yet which, if you give them time, will rend the hardest moment of man's pride.

Class of 2002, go out in hope. Care. In doing so, you will experience the kingdom of God. You will receive, and know the blessings of an imperfect life.