Living With Radical Awe-nesty
December 15, 2019, Unitarian Universalist Church of Belfast, Maine
If you’ll permit me to get all millennial for a moment: I cannot even with sarcasm.
When I say this, I’ll admit that I’m exaggerating just a smidge. I’m not trying to claim that I don’t enjoy a good joke doused in sarcasm or irony; because that would be false. I love humor, even when it gets sardonic. The comedy show Parks and Recreation is easily one of my all time favorite TV shows, even though it ended in 2015. Actress Amy Poehler, formerly from Saturday Night Live, plays the main character Leslie Knope. Leslie is a bubbly, fiery, and stubborn deputy director of the local parks department in a small fictional Indiana town, and she has big dreams of improving the town through public service and brings out the best of everyone around her. But one of my favorite characters in the ensemble cast is one of Leslie’s junior employees, a young woman named April Ludgate with a perpetually deadpan expression. April is misanthropic and apathetic, a polar opposite to Leslie’s optimistic drive and sincere commitment to her town. Her sense of humor is macabre and off-color, and she frequently talks about how she “kind of hates most things.” In short, she’s not exactly the sort of character who would likely appeal to someone like me who often has trouble translating sarcasm.
When it comes to just having conversations with people, I’ve been told, much in the slightly patronizing way that a young child would be told they were “cute as a button,” that I’m “just so earnest. You can tell that you really mean everything you say.”
Well, of course. I’m a preacher, I’d think to myself. Why would I not mean the things I say?
And I suppose I'm giving myself away here. So naïve. A hopeless idealist, even. Far more a Leslie Knope than an April Ludgate. I admit it. My family was unchurched, so I had the good fortune not to grow up with pastors who would confuse me by preaching the inclusive love of God one week, and the next week, telling me precisely who wasn’t included in that love. And when I grew up and learned, through a Unitarian Universalist congregation, that most faith leaders in our tradition actually do mean the things we say week after week, I wondered where this job had been all my life. It’s not every career that folks get praise for saying precisely what they mean, meaning what they say, and refusing to be sarcastic or ironic about it. This was the Leslie Knope job I was after! If anything, attending services as a congregant every week was what convinced me that it was even possible to live with that kind of sincerity.
Here’s the thing, though. It’s not just meaning what I say that’s my job, even though that’s a big part of it. Maintaining faith is my job. That means different things to different people, and shows up in any number of ways—and none of them are entirely wrong. You can have faith sadly or resignedly. You can have angry faith that demands attention and action. And you can have grumpy or cranky faith, stubbornly insisting that that one person really does have worth and dignity, no matter how annoying it might be to admit sometimes.
One thing that you can’t have, though, if your goal is to live faith in earnest, is sarcastic faith. It’s one area of life where you can’t take the April Ludgate route and expect to come out unscathed.
Feminist writer and essayist Lindy West, in her most recent book The Witches Are Coming, discusses the rise of sarcastic, cynical, and mean-spirited online troll culture and how it connects to our current political moment. This “troll culture” isn’t only limited to social media or online discourse, though. The goal of baiting others into getting angry, to “get a rise out of them” by being disingenuous, dishonest, and mean, and laughing off the results by saying that the target was “overly sensitive” and “can’t take a joke,” has infected every level of discourse, public and private, large and small. When Rev. Erika Hewitt talks about “holding [her] small, harmless pleasures close,” this is the “culture of knee-jerk critique” she’s talking about. And it hurts us, individually and collectively. It hurts our ability to find wonder in the delicate folding of chocolate into cake batter on The Great British Baking Show, and awe in the beautifully decorated cakes that come from it. It holds us back from nuzzling our faces on plush toys and being warmed by the feel of the fabric, or from dancing to a favorite pop song on the radio in public. It bars us from, in Rev. Hewitt’s words, “be[ing] comforted, dazzled, and delighted by harmless pleasures and small joys.” This ability to be delighted, to be dazzled and find fun, joy, and pleasure in the everyday, is one of many ways that awe can break through the miasma of a culture that wants to tell us our awe is foolish and misplaced.
In this climate where the most powerful man in the industrialized world can repeatedly cyberbully a teenage girl and stir up racist hatred from the White House, earnestness, sincerity, and perhaps even honesty could seem like quaint, old-fashioned values, like taking off one’s hat indoors or addressing elders as “Sir” and “Ma’am.” And as West points out, even those who don’t agree with the current administration’s brand of political cruelty—those who would be activists—are still discouraged from revealing that they care “too much.” She writes that “in the 1990s, activism…was stigmatized as tedious, silly, self-important to the point of narcissism, and, most damningly, ineffectual[.]” Although I’m a few years younger than Lindy West, I remember growing up white and middle class in the 1990s. She rightly points out that kids of marginalized identities wouldn’t have shared this particular experience with her, but I certainly did. She says, “if you were very, very cool in the early to midnineties, you could pull off a Beastie Boys ‘Free Tibet’ bumper sticker or quote Rage Against the Machine in your social studies paper, but…if you were both uncool and had no backbone, [the safest path] was to say all the right things about freedom and equality while rolling your eyes at the try-hards.”
But what’s important for us to remember, when we talk about the try-hards and the “snowflakes,” when we have the idea in our heads that it’s somehow more virtuous to roll our eyes and tell earnest activists to “save it for something that really matters,” we’re discouraging sincerity in others. Even if she’s not on our same page theologically, Evangelical Lutheran minister Nadia Bolz-Weber has a point when she says, “Jesus goes on and on about how we really actually like darkness more than light because, let’s face it, the darkness hides our [BS].” We are quashing the radical honesty of spirit that others are gifting to us, because it may not be easy for us to hear. Admitting that we care about something is admitting vulnerability. It may be true for some of us that we couldn’t expect the rest of the world to care for us. But when we do this to others, we’re teaching them that not only should they not expect to be held in care, but that they’re foolish for even imagining such a reality. This is the same kind of “performative boredom looking for an audience” that Rev. Hewitt talks about while wisely advising us to stop spitting in one another’s warming hearth fires. This kind of awe, this kind of honesty, is what helps us get things done. The ability to be moved by awe is one of the key factors that inspires us to strive for what is good and true in our lives, and in our faith.
Living faith, at bottom, is about having trust and confidence that you can place in something. Even if you don’t resonate with the idea of having faith in God to carry you through the proverbial storm, maybe you have faith in your community to do the right thing, or the good hearts of those you gather around you. Maybe you have faith in humanity’s ability to persevere in the direst of conditions. Maybe you have faith in nature’s ingenious and ongoing changes. Maybe your faith is placed in something else entirely. But we’re all here, in a church today, because we chose to have faith—trust and confidence—in something, or someone. Even if it was our own curiosity to try something new by coming to a Sunday service, or even our friendship with someone who brought us with them. We’re all here on this ride together. As Rev. Wendy Bartel wrote about worship, “Content Warning: This is a Unitarian Universalist congregation. As such, we will explore what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist. Get your big-kid-britches on. This ride is not for the feint or faint of heart.”
Even though they’re pronounced the same, Rev. Bartel is using two different words here: faint of heart is, of course, an expression most of us know to mean timid, or full of fear and trepidation. But feint is a much more specialized word. In fencing or other combat sports like boxing, a feint is like a fake-out: tricking an opponent into thinking an attack is coming from one direction, only to attack from another direction instead. Although Rev. Bartel hadn’t made this comment in a public setting, I asked them specifically whether they’d allow me to quote them, because this was some clever wordplay! Not only can our congregations feel a little scary to those who are threatened by uncertainty, but the spirit of our tradition demands openness and honesty of heart. If you allow yourself to be held in care by communities like ours, your heart can’t feint and dodge and block us out for too long.
Over the course of seven seasons of Parks & Recreation, April the perpetually deadpan intern gradually matures into someone whose hard shell can break open. She can admit feeling touched by other characters’ gestures of kindness and love for her. A culminating scene for her comes when she and her husband decide to take a spontaneous road trip to the Grand Canyon. The two of them stand on a ledge, overlooking that vast and striated expanse of earth and horizon beyond. April’s verdict: “I keep trying to find a way to be annoyed by it, but I’m coming up empty.” At long last, April the eternal world-weary misanthrope is moved to awe. And I’ve seen this happen in our communities, too.
To reside in communities of faith like the ones we grow here and elsewhere, our hearts must neither feint nor be faint. They must be resilient and willing; they must have the capacity to break apart and break open. And in turn, our hands must have the capacity to hold the pieces until they come back together. By being willing to move back when others are experiencing awe, by refusing to “yuck their yum” and making space for that transformative moment to happen, by listening to what they have to say of the experience of joy and wonder, we neither dodge nor quail from truth: we do the brave thing and embrace it.
And finally, when we ourselves are confronted with the vastness of life’s Mystery, with the enormity and sublimity of indifferent nature, with the bottomless love of an infant, or even with the delight of small pleasures, if we feel the urge to find a way to be annoyed by them, we just might find a way to come up empty.
Lindy West, The Witches Are Coming, 2019
Rev. Erika A. Hewitt, “Love What You Love,” Braver/Wiser, November 2019 https://www.uua.org/braverwiser/love-what-you-love
Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastrix: the Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint, 2013
Rev. Wendy Bartel, reply to a private Facebook post from December 2019
Parks & Recreation, season 4, episode 6 “The End of the World,” aired November 2011