On Letting Go

The following is a sermon I delivered at my church, Douglass Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Louisville, Kentucky, on Sunday, September 26, 2010. All Biblical quotations are taken from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible (1989, National Council of the Churches of Christ).

On Letting Go

(Jeremiah 8:18-9:1)

Before we come back to Jeremiah, I want us to think for a moment about an unlikely subject: mushrooms. We are familiar with mushrooms; those of us who eat them take them for granted, and those of us who don’t, well, we probably know where to find them in the grocery store. Humans have, over the centuries, succeeded in domesticating mushrooms– at least certain varieties of them– yet still of all nature’s denizens mushrooms are perhaps the poorest understood. Mushrooms are not plants. We get plants. Plants and humans are familiar to one another and share a clear common life. Plants seek light and warmth; they need it in order to live and feed themselves. In doing so, they share the light with us, shooting up beyond the ground and seeking a common space in the sun-lit world in which humans also dwell. Humans cultivate them, and for millennia, we have shared a common existence, they sustaining us, we sustaining them. Mushrooms, by contrast, are fungi. Mushrooms neither need nor particularly like light in order to grow and thrive. They inhabit the low, dark places of the world: soil, shade, the roots of trees. Certain kinds of mushrooms are just the visible crowns of a vast subterranean network of filaments which in some cases stretch under the earth for miles: underfoot, virtually impossible to see or touch or examine but nevertheless still there. Mushrooms occupy a netherworldly position in nature, at least nature as seen from a human vantage point five or six feet off the ground. Many of them resist cultivation, and the ones that grow wild gain little by making themselves visible to us. Mushrooms do not deliberately do anything, at least that we know of, but they just happen to hide from that portion of nature we humans inhabit. Seeing them takes a special, reoriented sense of sight.

In his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma[1], journalist and food author Michael Pollan devotes a lengthy chapter to his induction into the world of mushroom hunting. (You see, one hunts wild mushrooms; with the exception of the grocery-store varieties, one neither cultivates nor harvests them.) The mushroom hunters Pollan meets in his native Bay-area California are very much like the mushrooms themselves: sullen, secretive, difficult to know. With the help of mushroom-hunting friends Jean-Pierre and Anthony, however, Pollan learns the art of hunting morel mushrooms, a particularly random, secretive variety. In a particularly memorable passage, Pollan and company go hunting in a pine forest ravaged by a forest fire the previous spring. Jean-Pierre and Anthony, equipped with the experience and the lore of the mushroom hunter, promises Pollan that the year after a forest fire is propitious for the discovery of “fire morels” that seem to crop up, who knows why, in the detritus of burned forests. Pollan and company trek to the area, which is still a charred wasteland. The fire burned so hot and so fast, Pollan relates, that the trees burnt all the way down to their root systems, leaving behind tree-root-shaped hollows in the scorched earth. And yet, even in that blasted landscape, the collective mushroom hunting lore does not fail: They take home a crop of fine fire morels, thriving even in the absence of other more light-friendly life.

Jeremiah, in today’s sermon scripture, laments over Israel, which is about to become barren and desolate at the hands of Babylon. As the passage just above today’s sermon text puts it, “the snorting of their horses is heard from Dan; at the sound of the neighing of their stallions the whole land quakes” (Jer 8:16). It is not as if God has denied Israel opportunities to redeem itself, Jeremiah relates. In the previous chapter, the Lord says to Jeremiah, “If you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly with one another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place” (Jer 7:5-7a). How simple that sounds—certainly simpler than keeping track of which foods you can and can’t eat, and how far outside the tent of meeting you have to travel in order to use the bathroom. Yet as Jeremiah reminds us, he is in a long line of prophets that had been telling Israel the same thing for generations with little discernible effect. The Lord even tells Jeremiah: “You shall speak these words to them, but they will not listen to you. You shall call to them, but they will not answer you” (Jer 7:27). Yet Jeremiah shall still speak the words and call to the people, even as their land, the promise of their covenant with Abraham, is laid waste from without. “Both the birds of the air and the animals have fled and are gone. I will make Jerusalem a heap of ruins, a lair of jackals; and I will make the towns of Judah a desolation, without inhabitant” (Jer 9:10b-11). All that is left to Jeremiah, over and above the word the Lord has given to him, is his lamentation.

There is no particular reason, it seems to me, why Israel should have had to undergo conquest and desolation in order to learn to hear the prophetic message of equity, justice and concern for the most vulnerable members of its community. Yet the lessons which are ours to learn typically can only be learned when we are ready to learn them, and often we are not ready to learn them until what we think was the case fails us utterly. The prophetic vision of justice was, apparently, Israel’s lesson to learn (and to teach), and this was the way in which it had to learn it. It would have been facile, it seems to me, for someone as godly as Jeremiah to sit back smugly and, with an air of self-righteousness, say to Israel, “We told you so”—cold comfort, perhaps, for someone who, as we saw last week, had bound his own fate together inexorably with the rest of his people by buying a farm in a war zone, but in a disaster cold comfort is sometimes the only comfort there is. Yet to his credit, Jeremiah does not appear to take the slightest comfort in the fact that the Lord has given him special insight into the disaster to come. On the contrary, understanding what is happening, and why, is an occasion for Jeremiah for lamentation and weeping, not for self-righteousness or even self-protection. It shouldn’t have had to have been this way, but it is, and Jeremiah is, with God’s help, able to look the situation squarely in the face and take in the true dimensions of its sorrow.

We live in a world that is historically far removed from that of Jeremiah. Just over two weeks ago was the ninth anniversary of 9/11, a tragedy affecting a world of advanced technology, nation-states, and a global economy Jeremiah would never have recognized. I do not claim to have received a word from the Lord regarding that disaster. Far from it. It still seems, though, as if there is some lesson we are supposed to have learned from it that we still haven’t.  The ability of one feckless minister in Florida—I won’t say his name— to hijack the nation’s discussion as 9/11 approached is evidence enough of this. Jeremiah’s response to the desolation befalling Israel does, I think, offer us clues as to what our lesson might be.

Here is, from where I stand today, how our world looks. Our historically peculiar modern existence is premised fundamentally upon acquisition as a fundamental right. Some historians and philosophers actually point to this belief in unlimited acquisition and the “self-assertion” behind it as the hallmark of modern, as opposed to pre-modern, existence. Our greatest joy is in embracing, having, possessing. We acquire as a means of insulating ourselves against the predations of others, who from this point of view are always actual or potential antagonists. Our acquisitions are an extension of ourselves; anything that threatens what I have acquired by extension threatens me. Think how, when you are driving in your car and someone else almost hits you, you say, “He almost hit me,” not “He almost hit my car,” which would be more to the point.  Now, none of this is absolutely unique to us modern people. Acquisitiveness is a universal human trait. What is unique about us is the extent to which we have allowed acquisitiveness to become the governing metaphor of so much of our personal and social lives. We have developed for ourselves elaborate technologies of acquiring , and not only of the obvious items like money and property. We devote vast energy and resources to remembering and archiving: the Internet, Google, computer memories, memorials, museums, buildings.  Into these we pour ourselves and our personal and communal lives, as a bulwark against their becoming forgotten and lost. Of course, with our reliance on such technologies of remembering, we ourselves do a poor job of actual remembering; in fact, we forget quite a lot. But it doesn’t matter, because in due course we manage to be reminded of plenty. The compost pile of our public and shared memory has a strange way of turning itself over. There seems to be no celebrity too minor, no one-hit wonder too inane, not to bubble its way back up to the surface of the Internet or the Sirius XM radio playlist eventually and occasion waves of remembrance. But what resurfaces in this way is never quite the same as it was before it was forgotten. More often than not we recall it with that half-confabulated sort of memory we call nostalgia: A tiny kernel of truth insulated from evaluation by a thick, fluffy pillow of sentiment. Such nostalgia not only explains half of the programming on cable television, but it is also the motor that drives innumerable political and religious ideologies.[2] These ideologies thrive on a nostalgia for a pure past that either never was, or wasn’t quite what we remember it to have been. They are problematic just to the extent that, like all that we acquire and seek to hold close, we imbue them with our very selves, as a bulwark against the experience of loss.

Loss creates in us a void that we are under great pressure to fill. Modern times have taught us that, while nature might not abhor a vacuum, culture and society certainly do. Loss for us is not so much a reality to be experienced, borne and undergone, but rather an emptiness that clamors for filling, no matter the costs and violence associated with doing so. Like Scotty, Jimmy Stewart’s character in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, we all participate in a common tendency to force something or someone else to stand in for and duplicate those things the world and the actions of others take away from us. When we experience catastrophic disaster and loss, we reach out for anything and everything that will allow us to recover and reconstitute what events have taken away. 9/11 is just the most immense and public instance of this phenomenon. Despite of (or perhaps because of) the sheer magnitude of the trauma it caused, it almost instantly succumbed to ideological nostalgia that, to this day, has prevented us from seeing our way through to just how awful it really was. And ever since, we in America have exhausted ourselves in attempts to use military force to recover whatever it is we lost that day and to reincorporate that day back into an unbroken narrative of national triumph. Such an effort is futile, not—let me be absolutely clear on this point— because of whatever real-world obstacles might lie between the U.S. and its stated military and political objectives in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, but because no amount of violence or force can make any of those stated goals, if achieved, stand in for what 9/11 took away. Underneath the nostalgia, the bumper stickers and memorials, the kernel of truth is still there and remains to be definitively acknowledged.

The lesson we have to learn, and apparently to learn the hard way, is this: Our lives are not meant to be seamless and full in every space. I’m not just talking about our public, communal lives here. Anyone who lives long enough will experience what I am talking about: the senseless loss of loved ones, the dashing of hopes and ambitions, the discovery that others, or even ourselves, are not quite who we think they are. Some losses, some traumas, are not to be mastered and overcome, but are instead to be understood and then lived around. That understanding requires two things. The first is remembering. I’m not talking about the confabulated, dysfunctional memory of nostalgia; I’m talking about the true remembering, that remembering that allows the event to stand in its own concreteness. Along with that remembering is the ability to let go. Not to let go of the events of our lives that traumatize us—we are remembering them, after all; rather, to let go of our overwhelming sense of ourselves and who we think we are (or were) that determine how we have responded to the events and from whose perspective the events are traumatic in the first place. This sense of self hinders us from letting traumatic losses be what they are and pressures us to fill the gaps with rationalizations and ersatz substitutes for what the events took from us. In all of these things, Jeremiah shows us the way. Jeremiah does not succumb to nostalgia for what was, or engage in that peculiar sort of rationalization of what is happening to Israel that would smugly write it off as “just God’s will.” Even if it is God’s will, it isn’t an occasion for Jeremiah for smugness. Both God and Jeremiah see the senselessness of what is about to happen, and Jeremiah does not look away from the senselessness of it all. He and the prophetic tradition instead remember, and in that remembering, are able to let go of their narrow understanding of what their covenant with their Lord involved and achieve understanding.

This twin act of remembering and letting ago runs against the grain of virtually everything our culture teaches and values. If you don’t find what I am saying unseemly and a little strange, you may not be paying close enough attention. It doesn’t insulate us from risk and chance; rather, it shows that despite all of our modern contrivances, we are as exposed to risk and chance as Jeremiah and Israel were—as anyone is. They also put the lie to our modern preoccupation with being self-made and self-sufficient. They do this in two ways. Not only do remembering and letting go ask us to acknowledge that not everything in our lives is within our control; they also more subtly teach us that we are not in the end the exclusive and sole authoritative interpreters of what our lives mean. The events which, in their concreteness, shape our lives are not –and never are—ours alone, but they are instead interpretable solely from the perspective of a community. It is in letting go of the claim that only I have any authority over what my life means that I am able to acknowledge others—to love others— and let their experiences stand over against mine as something like my own, yet all the same not mine and different. As such, letting go stands at the root of compassion.

Those who have never darkened the door of a church may find it odd that anyone should want to spend one morning a week being reminded of their own frailty, finitude, loss, and pain. Don’t we all get enough reminders of that without having to put on uncomfortable clothes and sit in hard-backed pews for an hour? Yet what we get, or should get, from being here is the sense that our finitude and frailty are not ours to conquer in quixotic isolation, but instead ours to understand together. We are like Michael Pollan’s mushroom hunters, but what we seek, what drives us, is not mere mushrooms, but God, the source of life and hope. Like the mushroom hunters, we share together both the search for God and its many dangers and rewards. Like the mushroom hunters, we see first-hand that, even in the most desolate, dark, inhospitable places, there is life just underfoot—there is life all around—that is not only able to survive, but flourish. All that is necessary to join in the search for it is the courage to put aside, to let go, the person you think you are and to learn to see yourself and others with a new set of eyes.

In a world that tells us that we are to acquire everything and retain it—that we are to “have it all”—God through Jesus the Christ shows us another way. It is the way of letting go. It is not, as its many critics contend, a way of saying “no” to life, a recipe for giving things up just for the sake of making oneself miserable and easier for the powerful to control. Quite the contrary, actually: It is only in the letting go that we are able at last to affirm, and to change, the lives and communities we have rather than to force us to have the lives and communities we wish we had. It renounces power as the world conceives of it, but exchanges it for a positive relationship to God, the source of all power and life, and reconciles us to one another in understanding and compassion.

Letting go runs against the grain of what we are all told to do and to think. It seems counterintuitive to proclaim, as does Jesus, that those who seek to save their lives will lose them, and those who lose their lives will save them. Yet it is so nonetheless. It is only in that giving over, that letting go, of all that one is that one is able even to be all one is and, which is more important, to move beyond oneself. It is this that the death and resurrection of Jesus, which we are called together to remember whenever we gather together, shows us, so long as we have eyes to see. May it be so. Amen.

[1] Pollan, Michael. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. New York: Penguin, 2006.

[2] A SIDE NOTE, not read or referenced in delivering the sermon: My touchstone for the dangers of nostalgia is the work of Johannes Fritsche on Heidegger and Nazism. See, in particular, “On Brinks and Bridges in Heidegger” (Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal 18:1 (1995) 111-186.

3 thoughts on “On Letting Go

  1. Ryan Kemp-Pappan

    I love this sermon. It speaks to the heart of my quest for a life worth living.

    I love, “All that is necessary to join in the search for it is the courage to put aside, to let go, the person you think you are and to learn to see yourself and others with a new set of eyes.” This reminds me of Paul Tillich’s “Courage to Be” as well as Levinas’ call to extinguish ones distance from the Other and to awaken to our responsibility for the Other in face of our desire for self preservation. What we really do not know is that to truly live one must relinquish the self and embrace the Other, for there God is.

    1. bcubbage Post author

      Thanks Ryan! It means a lot to me for you to say that.

      I was thinking of Tillich when I wrote the line you quote, actually. (You caught me!) I’ve read quite a bit of Levinas, but I’m embarrassed to say that I still don’t quite feel like I have understood him on this point. He seems to be very particular regarding the relation to the other; there are numerous ways of relating to the other that on their face sound similar to what he is talking about but which he strenuously rejects. I’m honestly not sure how well what I am saying fits in with him.

  2. Pingback: Twelve Years Ago | Thought Required; Pants Optional.

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