From sermon on 8-7-16
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kloVSqaGtkU Mosaic Man (A video we watched beforehand)
You might find it surprising to learn that leading memorial services is actually one of my favorite tasks of ministry. In fact, leading a memorial service was one of the first glimpses I had into ministry, years ago when my friend Ann asked me to help her plan and lead a memorial service for her mom, MaryJo, who had died of lung cancer. This was a couple of years before I decided to go to seminary. Here’s what I love about memorial services: you almost always get to learn about how a person made the best of their life and what brought them happiness, as well as how they shared themselves and brought happiness to others. When our loved ones die, we don’t talk about all the stuff they owned or what TV shows they watched (unless it was KU basketball or Dr. Who, maybe?); we talk about what they were passionate about and how they made a difference in our lives. Now, I can think of one exception, one single memorial service I led for a family of a woman who made all of the members of her family miserable, and about whom no one had a good memory or warm thought. Her daughter, herself now a grandmother, wanted to do a service as a way of exorcising the pain and and suffering her mother both experienced and created. She hoped her mother was finally at peace. So, even though that service didn’t celebrate a life well lived, it did celebrate the daughter’s commitment to create a different life for her kids and grandkids–one of family connection and love, one of warmth and consistent presence. Twelve people gathered to say goodbye to a woman whose life had been bereft of these. I learned from that family that we always have a choice of how we will respond to the cards life has dealt us. They chose to feel sympathy and to wish for final peace rather than bring bitterness and a desire for retribution and suffering.
Essentially I am interested in learning about what others have said “yes” to in their lives and how that “yes” brought them into deeper engagement with the people and places of their lives. What did they give their time, attention, and passion to? How did that change them and how did it change the world–people and places–they interacted with?
The passions of people I have memorialized are many and varied: singing broadway musicals, sponsoring new members of an AA group, teaching children, caring for family, hiking and camping, canoeing, advocating for women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, voting rights; running for office, history, hospitality, travel, friendship, church, the metaphysical, animals, watching basketball and other sports, painting, dancing, …the list is endless. The list is unimportant, except that each of us has a list and the list represents those activities that allow us to experience what some psychologists call “flow.” Some of us spend our lives engaged in activities that bring us joy and happiness but many human lives are obscured in situations that prevent them from experiencing what it means to “thrive” instead of simply surviving. Some of these are situations of our own choosing but many are situations beyond our control. One researcher describes flow as happening when we optimize challenge and skill–we are doing things that are challenging but for which we also have skill; on the other side of flow we find that with diminished skills and challenge we experience apathy or anxiety, boredom or worry, control or arousal. When flow is happening, we are able to simultaneously deepen our challenges and develop our skills–we are growing, and it feels effortless but also feels expansive. If you are bored, you probably have more skills and less challenge and if you are anxious, you are probably experiencing challenges for which your skills are currently inadequate.
As a parent I’ve definitely had both experiences of flow and experiences of worry and anxiety. I don’t think I’ve ever been bored. Usually, the challenge has exceeded my skills. Occasionally I find that sweet spot. I never get there alone. My other experience of flow is that I discover that place where everything is working and I am growing because I have support from others who have been similarly challenged and whose skills served as an example of what I might try or whose mistakes gave me a sense of hope that I could make mistakes and keep growing. As a teacher and a minister I have also had moments of flow and moments where I was challenged beyond my current skills or where I noticed I needed to increase the challenges to push myself to deepen and grow.
All of the moments in my life where I have experienced growth and flow came from both a personal passion and a community of support and shared engagement–friends I could talk to, people I could look up to, new learners I could share with and guide, and a body of knowledge or skills that others mastered before me that I could access and contribute to.
There are plenty of things I will never experience flow with, that will always be either too challenging or not challenging enough, and some of them are things that I simply have to do or things I have tried until I knew they weren’t activities I would ever get better at or enjoy. I have found flow when I am writing, playing music, reading, running, helping others, singing, parenting. I have struggled to find flow in each of these but also in some I have never experienced flow in. I struggle to find flow when I cook, garden, organize spaces, doing math or reading science, doing home repairs and bowling. This is the short list.
Also: flow is about who we are being and what we are doing, and not what we have. Our enjoyment of life has been proven to be separate from our material goods–that although lack of material goods can cause suffering, having stuff is not the source of our happiness or ability to access flow. Over a lifetime, we will seek many new ways to engage life and will have many moments of trying something new and finding out we need to develop better skills in order to move from anxiety to flow. I can remember the first two weeks of being home with Ally as a baby and trying to nurse her. I have never been so far from flow, literally. And then…my skills grew, and I relaxed, and soon it was so easy it was boring and I needed a book to read while she nursed. When it’s your kid, they keep growing and changing so the challenges change, usually just as you’ve discovered flow things shift and you are back to frustration and anxiety for a time. But if it’s something like meditation or a sport or a skill like writing, you may need to shift something yourself to increase your challenge level as your skills grow–how or where you engage the activity, with whom or for how long, or what you are expecting from it.
So as we begin a new program year here at the Fellowship, I invite you to consider how you will engage more deeply your passions and interests to find flow and experience thriving. It might be something you do on your own, like painting or quilting or reading but you may find that the way to increase the challenge and avoid being stuck in boredom, apathy, or “being in control” is to find some others who share your passion. From book groups to meditation to yoga or chalice circles, from committees and classes, to gardening or caring for others, there are many ways to engage with each other and experience building your own capacity to live a life worth living. There are opportunities in our community and opportunities in your house and even in the very body your occupy to try new skills, hone skills you already have, and challenge yourself in ways that are life giving.
John (my partner) has been deepening his passion for being outdoors via bike riding and his passion for right relationship through restorative justice. He tends to find a new passion and read everything he can about it while he grows his skills and meets the new challenges. Luckily, we share these interests and know other people who do, too! I even have a new bike on layaway and Aine just learned to ride, too. (Hopefully Ally will have a new bike soon too). We hope to blend our family time with outdoor time on bikes, camping, or walking. I have been deepening my passion for justice and advocacy through involvement with Kansas Interfaith Action and other opportunities to learn and act with others. I also have a passion for writing and reading poetry, singing, and connecting with nature. This year I plan to seek more flow in my life through daily walks, writing more and sharing my writing with other poets, finding a group to sing with, and spending more time exploring the natural environments of Kansas. I also hope to build enough skills as a new homeowner to do some work on my house and yard. These represent areas of anxiety right now!
What will you say yes to this year? Where will you seek deeper engagement and a community of support? What will you try that is new and challenging, and what will get you past the anxiety of not being very good at it until you get closer to experiencing a bit of “flow?” As human beings, we are meant to keep growing in every way–mentally, physically, emotionally, socially, spiritually. Like Bubba and Trixie in Vicki’s story, I hope that you will find that right here in this room are people who may share your passions and your interests, who may be able to walk with you, teach you or learn from you, or perhaps simply listen and celebrate with you when you experience those moments of flow and commiserate when you experience challenges or struggle with boredom and apathy. May we be each other’s catalyst for change and reflection, hope and opportunity. Underneath it all, we sometimes need a bit of courage to keep on working our way to flow and to that sweet spot of being human–to those moments where we think, “I was made for this! This is who I am” (I’m not just a caterpillar! I can fly now!) from the moments where we are thinking “this is so damn hard and I will never be good at this or find fulfillment in this.”
I remember watching Aine learn to ride her bike at the beginning of the summer. It was excruciating. She would get on and it would be smooth sailing for 30 seconds and then…crash. Actually, she never really crashed but she would gracefully slip off as the bike fell, unscathed but also no longer on the bike! Over and over. Her frustration was palpable. She would get mad. She would kick the bike. She would yell at me. And then, moments later she’d get back on. She saw a little boy one day happily riding around the block and then she dug in a little deeper–she wanted to ride like that! I quit watching her, and then one day she ran in and said “I am doing it! I am doing it! I rode my bike!” I went out to watch, and sure enough, she could ride. Now, at the end of the summer, she has ridden as much as 8 miles with us on a ride and really loves the wind in her face. She found flow, for now. Eventually she will get a little bored and she’ll want a bike with gears, or a longer ride, or more hills, or a new activity. But now that she knows that feeling–that feeling of moving from challenge to flow–she will be able to follow that energy again and again. May you also remember that feeling and re-create it in your life, over and over again.
Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience By Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Learn more about the concept of “flow” at:
2. http://www.ted.com/talks/mihaly_csikszentmihalyi _on_flow.html